Razor-Claw Singh would never admit it to anyone, but he liked how spells couldn’t dig into him. Oh, it sucked when it came to healing potions and shit like that, but that was only sometimes. The rest of the time, it was like having weightless armor that nobody could see, steal, or strip off him. He had spent years fighting a doomed war against the Universal Dominion; he’d take what breaks he could get.
That got him through the first line of defenses around this Festering Lacewing (second, if you counted all those fucking brain-dead guards that used to be wandering around). It was supposed to only get harder from there, because next would be getting through Lacewing’s lackeys. Three solid mages, Firebrand had told him. Not Archmages, but they’ll kill you if they see you. And if you somehow kill one of them, the other two will know, and come running.
That was funny: Firebrand thought Razor-Claw was going to sneak past, or something. Like he’d leave anybody around to come after him afterward! Being told about the no-killing thing was good, though. He hadn’t planned on murdering any of them, but it never hurt to have a good reason for doing the thing you wanted to do anyway.
This might be important, later. Like, years later.
Razor-Claw knew how to get somebody off of a restraint frame. There was a trick to physically breaking the control spells you could learn, if you had enough time, and bodies to practice on. By now he could do it quick, and safe — safe to him, at least. The other guy? Well, they could usually tough it out. This fucker toughed it out. In fact, he recovered almost before Razor-Claw could slap a hand over his mouth.
Almost. “Shut the fuck up, and listen,” Razor-Claw hissed. “You got one chance to get the Hell out of here. I ain’t got no food, no water, no bandages, and I ain’t gonna help you find any of that shit, neither. I don’t even want to ever see your fucking face again. This is all you’re gonna get from me. You hear?”
The guy nodded. Razor-Claw gave back a tight grin. “Good. I’m gonna take my hand away. You try anything dumb, I’ll kill you.”
He wasn’t entirely sure about that — this fucker looked like he had been a hardcase before the Dominion bagged him — but the guy didn’t do anything dumb.
Razor-Claw’s eyes snapped open. He’d always been a light sleeper, and decades of being a raider, a raider boss, and finally rebel scum had honed that knack until he could cut throats with it. Shrugging off a weak Dominion daze spell that couldn’t bite him properly was nothing. Neither was popping loose the shackles that bound him to a circular frame at wrists, ankles, throat, and middle. Firebrand had told him they’d unlock as soon as he pulled at them, and the motherfucker hadn’t lied about that, at least.
He knew he didn’t have long to work, so he took a quick look around the tent. It was full of frames like his, stacked close together, and every single one of them had a twitching, unconscious captive on it. He recognized about half of them; men and a few women from his own last band of fighters, a couple of rat bastards from the other side, and one guy who just looked different. Too well-fed to be one of his, and he had on the remains of a uniform Razor-Claw didn’t recognize.
I need to get back to the orc and the reporter, soon. These two are horrible.
“Beef ribs it is, then,” Firebrand said, as a servant wheeled in a cart. Seeing Razor-Claw’s eyes linger on her tense form, the mage smirked. “Business and lunch before pleasure, I think. We have a schedule.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Razor-Claw dragged his eyes away from the girl, who promptly left the room. “You gonna start with a name?”
“Better than that.” The Warmage summoned an image ball, showing the image of an graying, bitter-looking woman. “This is Senior Warmage Festering Lacewing of the First Usurpation. My second-in-command, but you knew that already.”
“The Town-burner? Oh, yeah, I know her. She’d burn anybody who looked at her funny. Slowly. So why the Hell do you want her dead? She was a big reason why you kicked our asses.”
“That’s the problem.” Firebrand held out his hand, and a drink drifted into it. “Lacewing’s perfect for clearing land for settlement, but we’re starting a different campaign soon. One where I want to keep too many towns from being burned down.”
“Because squeezing them to death instead is more profitable,” Firebrand grinned. “More fun that way, too.”
I don’t remember if I’ve put anything up about this story already. It’s going to be tricky, because the two main characters are both absolutely horrible human beings. And I don’t mean ‘diamonds in the rough,’ either. Killing either one of these guys wouldn’t be murder; it’d be the penance you’d have to perform to be forgiven for committing murder.
Firebrand raised an eyebrow when Razor-Claw’s guffawing didn’t stop after a few seconds, but he let the mundane get it all out. Extensive experience had let him hear the faintest notes of hysteria in the bandit’s laugh, which was… reasonable enough. His self-control is remarkably good, Firebrand thought. It’s a real shame he doesn’t have any arcane potential. He’d be a perfect recruit, otherwise.
“Aw, this is gonna be good,” Razor-Claw eventually managed to wheeze. “What the Hell would you need me for? Killing somebody?”
Firebrand grinned. “Got it in one! That’s exactly what I need you for. I want it to be as filthy a death as you can manage, too. Legendary, if you can swing it.”
Razor-Claw squinted at him — then scowled. “Wait. Is this political shit?”
“That’s two in a row. Dammit, is there any chance you might have some magic?”
“Naw, muttering and waving my hands around never did nothing. Shit, spells don’t bite me as hard as… ohhh. You need somebody who magic can’t fuck up as much.”
Firebrand beamed. “Exactly! Except that I also need somebody who’s good at murder, and you are very good at murdering people.”
Need to think about the title, but it’s in the can.
“That is reasonable, Captain Hwinda,” Miss Mehrotra allowed. “That is also why you brought the tribe of bears out, yes?”
“They’re good sorts,” Jack replied, slightly defensively. “They’ll be a lot happier up in Virginia.” Where everybody’s crazy anyway, he thought. Certainly the Virginians themselves were eager to resettle a tribe of well-behaved bears who turned human when the moon was in the sky. Not to mention turning them into mad Virginians, themselves: the last he saw of Mr. Bear, he was being bemusedly fitted for a doublet and hose.
“Yes, better there than home,” Miss Mehrotra mused. “Although a bearwere or two might liven up dull quarterly meetings — well, no matter.”
The Emancipation was exactly where Amos’s charm told him it was. Unfortunately, the charm didn’t give a damn about anything else that might be with the ship. That pretty much included things like brackish hydras. This one wasn’t big enough to curl itself around the ship, but it had given it a try.
Amos handled it well, all things considered. “Why is it doing that?” he muttered, after getting a good look through the spyglass. “It can’t eat the ship.”
“It’s a Dominion monster,” Jack replied. “The first ones were bred to drag ships down, only they’re just too stupid to be trained at all. We usually kill every single one we see, but… Cursed Jersey.”
“Cursed Jersey.” In Amos’s mouth, the name came out like a curse. Which, to be fair, was how it was sounding in Jack’s mouth, too. “We don’t have these things, up in the States.”
“Yeah, they like warmer waters. Big problem, down in the Gulf.’ Jack sighed. “We can kill it with enough volley fire, but it’ll wreck your ship first. The cargo, too.”
“We had run afoul of a sudden squall,” Amos went on. “The captain, God rest her soul, knew these waters well enough to navigate the channel into the Bay, but we took some damage in the dark, and lost most of the water stores. She sent me and most of the crew to the island to find a spring for refilling our barrels. If only we had just tried to reach Newport, instead! We could have stretched out the water for that long.”
“Cursed Jersey’s no place to sail with sprung barrels,” Jack told him. “I’d have looked for water, myself.”
Amos shuddered. “Well, we found some. It saved our lives, too. Just not how we reckoned it would. While we were filling from a spring on the island, those damned beasts woke up and swarmed the Emancipation! They can hop on the water, you see. Hop on the water, and jump right up the anchor chain…
“We heard the fighting as we returned. When we saw what those things were starting to do to the crew still left aboard, we rowed like the damned, but everybody was dead by the time we came alongside, including the captain.
“Maybe there’s something in the bag?” Mercer snorted. “Which leads to the next question: how do we find out? Before you ask: I can’t use my vampiric powers to dominate bears. …Or any other animal, but I definitely can’t do anything with bears. What about you? Any special elven affinity with nature?”
“Oh God no,” Jack replied. “Nature’s either horrible, vicious, or boring. Why do you think we all go to sea?” He heard a sudden hubbub outside, and grimaced. “Dammit, I knew I shouldn’t have said the b-word.”
The two of them didn’t rush to the deck, though: to Jack’s trained ear, the hubbub was more Well, that’s weird than it was Sell yourselves dearly, ye scurvy tars! Besides, nobody had run to meet them halfway. One thing Rocca Jack had learned by the age of sixteen was that panic was contagious, and everybody would catch a case from the captain. Instead, he got close enough to the knot of sailors on the deck (it was an interested knot, not a tensely alert one, which was also good) to say, “What’s all this about, then?” instead of shouting it.
Nur tossed a small, tangled lump of wires and circuits onto my desk. “Behold!” he said. “The thing that tried to kill you.”
I looked at it — and then I looked away. There was something wrong about the twisted, matted thing, like the wires were spelling out words I didn’t want to read. “Okay, what is it? Where did you find it? And when did it try to kill me?”
“Well, easiest question first. I found it inside the basket you brought along for your picnic, hidden inside a cold-pack.” I realized right then that Nur had the kind of calm you get when you’ve slammed a couple of mood-dampeners in a row. “It was also smeared with a pretty nasty neurotoxin. Good thing I was wearing gloves.”
“Jesus.” That was closer to a prayer than I’d come for a long, long time. I’d been carrying that thing around all day, after all. “Wait, though: this isn’t a bomb, is it?”
“Oh, no, Pam. It’s a sonic transmitter. One that broadcasts at a frequency we can’t hear, but the local lifeforms can. I checked with The Process, and it thinks the signal could have been what got the not-cows rampaging. The only thing is, we’d have to actually check to confirm it. Which is not a good idea…”
“Gotcha. I don’t feel like trying to be cruel to alien animals, either. What if we succeed?” I restrained my first impulse to poke at the transmitter with a stick. I restrained my second one to smash it with a hammer.