Posted by: lordkyler | August 13, 2017

Radiance II: Part I – Agents of Fate

You can read the introduction to this arc here.

Every week, a train dutifully makes the journey from the city of Isolation to Quill, the crossroads of Fate, carrying goods and approved passengers. Today’s train, however, carried some very particular cargo.

In a private car at the very back of the line, two women and a man played cards, though they have some difficulty agreeing on the rules. Each of the three were very different in appearance and temperament, but all carry themselves with assurance, and wear badges proclaiming them as confederate agents.

The man – a burly Oqidan named Quidetto Yamahara but known to most as Niku – goes over the details of their mission as he shuffles the cards under close scrutiny, Over the past few weeks, this region has suffered numerous attacks from a local cell of Anarchists, an international group of terrorists. Each cell has their own leaders and agenda, but are united by an overarching philosophy, and often share information and resources.

While obviously cause for alarm, skirmishes of this scale would typically be relegated to the local militia, not requiring the attention of specialized and elite agents – agents authorized to use the forbidden arts of magic. In this case, however, local informants have recently discovered a shocking conspiracy: one of the three council members overseeing the city of Quill has turned traitor, and is colluding with the Anarchists.

Unfortunately, they do not know which of the three is responsible. The three agents, under the direction of Agent Yamahara, have been ordered to investigate the matter and authorized to arrest the offending council member.

Distributing dossiers and dealing cards at the same time, Niku briefly outlines each of the three suspects. Violet Brookheart resides in Heritage Manor, and oversees the agricultural quarter, government allocations, and the northern district of the city. Cyrus Martin is headquartered in what the locals call “Mad Martin’s Manor,” and is responsible for the city’s industrial efforts, economic affairs, and central district. The final member of the council, Evangeline Abbot, holds the Citadel, a former fortress now serving as the regional seat. With control over the area’s civil and executive matters, she wields significant power, but in light of the recent attacks, her role as commander of the region’s militia has allowed her to take a leading role in matters.

It also meant she was well aware of the agents’ arrival, and – under normal circumstances – was entitled to a report before they could begin their operations.

“There’s the trouble,” Niku said, playing one of his cards to the center of the table. “Evangeline knows we are arriving, but doesn’t know our mission. It might seem suspicious not to report as normal, but…”

One of the women, Sarah Mason, leaned in, brushing a lock of autumn-red hair behind her ear. Claiming the card Niku had just played, she grinned mischievously at the big man.  “But you want to ask a few questions around town first?”

Niku nodded seriously. “The dossier gives some basic facts about the council, but not much else. I would like to speak with the informant first, but I’m wary of tipping our hand to Evangeline. What do you think, Vera?”

Not bothering to rise from her slouch, the other woman flicked her card lazily onto the table in front of her, somehow making it land almost perfectly in line with the others arranged there. Raven-haired and clad all in black, Agent Ivanson exuded an air of danger and disinterest, in stark contrast to her fiery counterpart. “It never hurts to know your enemy, and it won’t hurt Miss Evangeline if she doesn’t find out. Let’s talk to the spy.”

Agent Yamahara stroked his beard, for a moment, considering the possibilities. Then, cautiously, he placed a card in front of Vera, swapping it for the card she had just placed, and used it to complete a set, winning the match. “Very well,” he said, flashing a grin. “Let’s go pay Detective Edwards a visit, shall we, ladies?”

•••

After riding the train to the end of the line, the agents made quick time to police headquarters, a large and stately building in the center of the city’s upper district, overlooking a large plaza. A large tower dominated the skyline, built in the same semi-historical style as the rest of the district, but the old-fashioned spire shared space with modern radio antennae and zeppelin tethers.

The inside of the police station was a similar blend of classic style and modern amenities: marble floors buffed by electric machines and small chandeliers lit by electric lights. In the center of the lobby, a thin, middle-aged woman sat in the center of a circular desk like a bird in an oversized nest, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, typewriters, and untold other clerical paraphernalia. At the moment, she was diligently hammering away at some report on a typewriter, filling the lobby with the clicks, clacks, and chimes of the machine.

As the agents approached the desk, she glanced up, acknowledging their presence, but held up a finger as she answered a phone that had barely had time to ring. She hung up a second later, giving her full attention to the visitors, though her fingers continued to type away, apparently independent of the rest of her.

“Hello, and welcome to the Quill Constabulary,” she said, smiling wide. “How can I help you today?”

Her words were clipped, but between her cheery tone and unwavering gaze, she had an almost coquettish charm despite her age. A golden nameplate – the same color as her eyeshadow – proudly displayed the name JOSEPHINE GREER.

Agent Yamahara struggled for a moment with how to proceed, but under the secretary’s penetrating stare, decided to take the honest route, displaying his badge. “Agent Quidetto Yamahara. We need to speak with Detective Edwards, please.”

If Josephine was surprised by this, she gave no indication. “I’d be glad to assist you however I can, agents. Unfortunately, I’m afraid Detective Edwards is currently gone – out of town for a few days, I believe.”

The agents shared a significant glance. Hardly a coincidence. Had someone discovered the Detective’s role as an informer? “Do you know where he went?” Sarah asked.

Josephine shook her head. “I’m afraid not. If you’d like, I can direct you to speak with his partner— oh, there he is now! Detective Brown! A word?”

She waved, but Detective Brown was already striding toward them, brow furrowed. He was a tall man, with a face made for frowning and sideburns that could have put a lion to shame. “Can I help you, gentlemen?” he said brusquely,making it very clear he was actually asking something else entirely.

“Do you have any idea where Detective Edwards will be back?” Niku asked. Detective Brown didn’t answer immediately, shooting a glance at Josephine, who had transitioned to taking a telegram and was certainly not eavesdropping.

“Can I see your badges?” he asked. “All of you.” After inspecting each carefully, he spent a moment in consideration, tapping his fingers against his baton. With a final glance at Josephine, he sighed and nodded toward the elevator. “I suppose we’d better discuss this in my office. Follow me, if you don’t mind.”

Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the lift at a brisk pace, tension evident in his posture. The agents followed – Josephine waving goodbye – and the four of them rode the elevator in terse silence, coming to a stop on the top floor.

Brown’s office was spacious, but it didn’t have much room. While the room was clearly one of the better-furnished in the building, it was so packed with shelves and boxes that it was barely better than a cubicle. Every available surface was covered with neat stacks of papers and ledgers, clearly organized by some system to complex for anyone else to understand. The light of late afternoon trickled through the shutters, leaving the room moody, but the detective didn’t bother to turn on the lights.

Shutting the door behind them, Brown settled heavily into his creaking chair and tossed a tin of cookies onto the desk in front of him. “I’d be obliged if you’d take some of these off my hands. My wife thinks I need to gain weight.” When none of the agents took advantage of the offer, he gave a resigned sigh and took one himself, dunking it in a mug of old coffee with a grimace. “What do you want to know about Edwards? I assume you know about his… extracurricular assignment?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Niku affirmed. “What do you know about his investigation?”

The detective shook his head and leaned back, letting the cookie fall into his mug uneaten. “I’m afraid I can’t really help you there. Detective Edwards and I are partners more in name than in practice. We work together on occasion, and I cover for him where needed, but we work alone more often than we work together, and I don’t know much about what he gets up to.”

“What have you been doing?” Sarah asked.

“Lately, I’ve been assigned a series of robberies across the city. Thefts of gold and silver, mostly, though they’ve tried to disguise that fact. Detective Edwards has been helping me with it from time to time. Suspects those bloody Anarchists might be behind it, though I sincerely hope he’s wrong. Those are magical metals, sir, and they’ll be doing no good in the hands of that lot.”

Niku looked at his companions and raised an eyebrow. An interesting and dangerous development. From the back of the room, Vera cocked her head, favoring her better ear. “When did you last see Edwards?” she drawled.

“Yesterday morning,” said Brown. “Boarded a train heading northward, don’t know where. I know he expected to be back by now, but he’s been gone for long stretches before. There’s a deadline of sorts – actions I’m meant to carry out or prevent if he’s gone too long without contact – but he hasn’t hit the threshold yet.”

Glancing at his watch, Niku nodded briskly. The disappearance of Detective Edwards was troubling, but it was getting late, and they still had to report to Evangeline. “Will you inform us when he gets back? Or if you get any proof the Anarchists are behind the robberies?”

“Certainly, sir. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.” Absent-mindedly, he took a swig of his coffee and seemed surprised to find something in it. “Call if you have any further questions.”

“You’ve been very helpful,” Niku said. “Thank you.”

With that, the three agents filed out of the detective’s office and took the elevator back down.

“You think someone killed him?” Vera asked.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Niku replied. “But I think we need more information about this city before we can begin a proper investigation.”

As they left the elevator and started to cross the lobby, Miss Josephine snapped her fingers and waved them over, finishing up her phone call as they approached. She thrust a handwritten note – in impeccable cursive – toward them and gave a sympathetic grimace.

“Sorry sirs, but it’s part of my job to report on visitors and events here in the Constabulary. My report was passed on, and well…” she gestured at the paper.

Agents Yamahara, Ivanson, and Mason, the note read. Your arrival is acknowledged. Please report to the Quill Citadel immediately, as per your protocol, so that we may review your role and status in events. While it must be exciting to visit our fair city, we urge you to limit your sight-seeing until you have fulfilled your duties. If you have gotten lost, one of our fine officers will escort you to the Citadel forthwith. – Governor Abbot.

Vera read the note aloud for the benefit of her companions. Niku did not miss the underlying hostility. Swearing to himself in Oqidan, he handed the note back to Miss Greer, who promptly shredded it.

“My apologies,” she said. “Governor Abbot can be quite determined. I took the liberty of arranging a ride for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Thank you,” Niku said.

“My pleasure,” Josephine said cheerfully. Moving deftly, she opened a file cabinet with her foot and reached without looking for a blank index card. She filled it out with a few quick strokes, blew the ink dry, and handed it to the agent. “My switchboard number. In case you need any further information.”

Niku was about to thank her more fully, but Vera was already heading for the doors, so he had to settle for a quick farewell. Moments later, with the girls squeezed into a motorcycle sidecar and Niku standing stiffly on the pegs, they were off to the Citadel.

•••

The Citadel sat on a slight rise overlooking Fife Lake, looking like an image from a storybook. Once a small but significant fortress, its defenses had been rendered largely obsolete in the age of airships and artillery. It now served as the district seat, the base for the local militia, and the home of councilwoman Evangeline Abbot.

An assistant met the three agents at the gate and escorted them through the halls, moving at a pace too quick for conversation.  In other countries, the decor would have seemed spartan, but compared to most government buildings, the halls of the Citadel were lavishly furnished with historical artwork and antique furniture, a remnant of the days before Fate’s founding.

After climbing just enough stairs to make it a hassle, the agents finally reached the main hall, an expansive chamber with a surprisingly low arched ceiling, making the space seem smaller than it really was. The far end of the hall was open, leading to a tiled terrace where a solitary figure stood, watching the sunset with pale hands clasped behind her back. She might have seemed a statue, if not for the breeze in her long golden hair and the austere aura she seemed to radiate.

Evangeline Abbot (Original Artist Unknown)

As the three agents approached hesitantly, she raised her chin, signaling for them to stop, but she refrained from turning to look at them. “Agents.” It wasn’t a welcome.

Agent Yamahara took the lead, stepping forward and offering a bow. “My apologies, Councilwoman. We seem to have gotten ahead of ourselves, but I assure you we meant no disrespect.”

“Allow me to make this perfectly clear, Agent Yamahara.” She turned on him, eyes blazing with cold fire. “I do not need your help. I do not want it. In point of fact, your very presence here is an insult to me.”

The agents wisely chose not to respond to this, although it was clear that they didn’t appreciate the sentiment. Evangeline continued, pacing slowly as she elaborated.

“For years, I have protected this region, seen it through years of peace and prosperity. And now, at the first sign of trouble with these accursed Anarchists, the fools on the Confederate Council suddenly assume I am incapable? Well, I am far from powerless here, agents, and I assure you that the matter will be dealt with thoroughly. Such matters simply take time.”

Realizing she’d grown quite emphatic, Evangeline took a breath and recomposed herself, tossing her head in proud defiance. “Now then. As you know, in keeping with protocol, I am required to offer you any available resources at my disposal.”

She grinned, a mirthless expression. “But I’m afraid all of my men are currently engaged in other duties. The majority of the militia and policemen are on patrol for Anarchist attacks, and have orders neither to interfere nor assist with your efforts. The remainder are currently searching for the daughter of my police chief, who was recently kidnapped. As you can see, I am extremely busy, and the very thing I need least in all the world is an investigation of my loyalty by agents who can’t even follow protocol.”

“Hold on–” Niku began, but Evangeline turned her back on him once more, sighing.

“Yes, I know about the investigation. I’m not stupid, whatever the Superior Council believes. Do what you must, but do it elsewhere – I have actual problems to attend to. My steward will make the requisite arrangements for your lodging.” And with a flick of her wrist, the agents were summarily dismissed.

•••

Evening had fallen by the time the agents managed to work out the details of their stay and catch a ride back into town. The officer deposited them on the High District docks with an apologetic shrug and soon vanished into the night, leaving them alone. Whether due to the location or the hour, the city was much more lively than it had been when they left – streets crowded with vendors, workers, and individuals of dubious status.

Seeking a place where they could discuss their plans privately, Niku lead his partners to a nearby alley, taking care not to look suspicious. “Well, that was… unexpected,” he said.

“And unpleasant,” Sarah noted. “So how do we handle this?”

“The girl,” Vera said, leaning against the brick. “The kidnapped kid. If we find it, her uptight Highness won’t have an excuse to deny us the manpower.”

“It would likely put us in the chief’s good graces as well,” Niku mused. “But I’m not sure it’s the best use of our time. We’re supposed to be stopping the Anarchists, and I’m not sure getting Evangeline’s assistance is worth the time investment.”

“Having some reinforcements could be very important,” Vera stressed. “We’re good, but we don’t know what sort of assets the Anarchists have. Besides, there’s a good chance they’re behind the kidnapping in the first place.”

“They might be,” Niku admitted. “But our efforts may be better spent elsewhere. We still need to investigate the other two council members, try to find Detective Edwards, and track down this Anarchist cell.”

“True, but I’d still wager the kidnapping is still tied into it all,” Vera said. “I don’t trust Evangeline, and the timing is terribly convenient, no? Worth a look, anyway.”

After a moment of silent consideration, Niku nodded. “Very well. I’ll call the station and get the chief’s address. We’ll check it out first thing in the morning, and if nothing turns up, we’ll move on.”

After a bit of effort, they managed to find a local police box – in poor shape and covered in graffiti, but still functional – and dialed up the number they’d been given.

The phone was picked up in almost the same instant it began to ring, and Agent Niku greeted by the ding of a typewriter and a  familiar chipper voice. “You’ve reached the Constabulary, how may I assist you?”

“Oh, Miss Josephine,” Niku said, a bit surprised to find her still at work. “I’m, uh… the agent you spoke to earlier.”

“Ah, you remembered my name! Thank you, Agent Yamahara. It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone polite, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Uh, certainly.”

“By the way,” she continued, a bit conspiratorial, “if you’d like, you can call me Queen Josephine. It’s not on my birth certificate, of course, but by this point it’s sure to end up on my tombstone. Possibly without quotation marks. In any case, I doubt you called to chat. How can I help you?”

Niku took a moment to remember why he’d called in the first place, shaking his head in bewilderment. “Can you give us the address for the chief of police?”

“Absolutely,” Josephine said. “Just tell me when you’re ready to write.”

While Niku fumbled for pencil and paper, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I do hope you find little Ophelia. Captain Van Weir isn’t easy to manage at the best of times, and for all the trouble between the pair of them, he’s been in high dudgeon trying to get her back. Ready?”

Niku gave the affirmative, and Queen Josephine gave an address in the middle district, followed by a series of directions and a few notes on what to expect. “Feel free to call if you need anything else,” she finished. “And best of luck, Agents.”

Grinning at such warmth after such a cold reception from the Councilwoman, Niku bid Josephine goodbye and hung up the telephone. “Alright, then. Should we turn in for the night?”

Vera stood up from where she’d been leaning and shook her head. “We should check out the underground while we’re here, see if we can catch any leads on the Anarchists.”

“Or at least learn more about this place,” Sarah agreed. “I still feel like we’re working half-blind here.”

“Well, I’ll let you ladies take the lead, then,” Niku said, gesturing for them to proceed. Vera rolled her eyes, but slunk to the front of the line, leading them toward the docks proper.

A half hour of experienced observation was enough for Vera to identify several seedy locations that might bear fruit – a gambling den in an abandoned warehouse, a chicken-hauling barge that moonlighted as an exclusive cock-fighting club, and what had to be a basement speakeasy, offering prohibited alcohol, restricted substances, and illicit arrangements.

Vera settled on the latter as the most promising prospect, and after making sure there were no signs to give away their true identities, the three agents sauntered up to the man guarding the stairs down.

More out of habit than reason, Niku stepped to the front, gave the guard a knowing nod, and tried to head down. All at once, the burly ruffian was in his way, though he didn’t seem to have hurried  himself. “Beg your pardon, sir,” he said with a raspy dockworker’s drawl. “I’m afraid this establishment is invitation only, y’see. Exclusive clientele, ‘n’ such like. Maybe you were mistaken.”

Flustered by this unexpectedly civil facade, Niku struggled to switch mental gears. “I’m, uh, a bit parched. Heard you might have… beverages.”

The bouncer crossed his arms skeptically. “This here’s a social club, sir. Philosophy, art, music. Culture, doncha know. We’re very selective about our patrons, like. If you’re feeling thirsty, you might try the parlor down the street.”

While Niku stared, stammering, Vera slipped in, catching the bouncer’s eye and offering her hand. Winking, the man took it, kissing the back genteelly, and palmed the twenty dollar bribe as he stood aside to let her in. The amount was exorbitant by most standards, but if the bouncer found anything amiss, he didn’t let on. Vera soon vanished within.

“Listen,” Niku tried again. “I’m very cultured, alright? I just need some, uh, refreshments or something. And you’re the only place that has the… books…. that I need.” The guard remained impassive, and Niku sighed. “Look, I’ll pay you if I have to, just… can I come in?”

Rubbing his temples as though the agent’s awkward appeals had pained him, the guard huffed. “Look, pal. I wouldn’t like to see you embarrass yourself, alright? Tell you what, if you’re that desperate, I’ll let you in for a bit. Just… keep to yourself, yeah? Don’t make trouble.”

Niku nodded gratefully, and the guard let him by, sighing a little. Only Sarah was left. The two looked at each other for a few seconds, silent and unmoving.

Then the bouncer stepped aside gallantly, gesturing for her to enter. “Welcome to our establishment, miss. Enjoy your evening.”

Sarah nodded and gave a mock curtsey before descending the stairs. Just before she went inside, the bouncer called down to her. “Hey, miss, after you’re done with your ‘perusal,’ maybe you can come back out and talk awhile, eh?”

Cocking her head, Sarah smiled non-commitally, then opened the deceptively sturdy door and joined her compatriots inside.

The interior of the speakeasy was surprisingly lavish. While the outside of the building was all aged brick, chipped paint, and grimy windows, the inside actually lived up to standards of a social club, intimately lit and furnished with rich drapes, dark wood, and gleaming brass. Maps and paintings were on display, and a phonograph with an appreciable collection of records sat silent in the corner.

There were only a few people in the room, all engaged in their own activities. Two men were seated at one of the round tables in the center, peering over maps and tables, holding a quiet but intense conversation. In the nearest of the nooks against the right wall, an Oqidan woman was quietly studying a large volume, and in the furthest booth, an older man with keen eyes was idly winning a game of chess against an increasingly concerned young man. On the far side of the room, a tall, bearded man with a pair of spectacles was seated behind a bar backed by bookshelves, writing – or perhaps drawing – with an old-fashioned quill pen.

The barkeep glanced at each of the agents as they entered, but gave no welcome or acknowledgment, content to work on his own project until they approached him. An overweight bulldog lay stretched out lazily on the counter beside him, steady snores somehow completing the librarian hush.

Vera, the first to gain entry, was immediately drawn to the chess game, hoping to pick up on any rumors around town and perhaps recoup some of her bribe. The older man grinned as she approached, but the younger one was puzzling over the pieces, and gingerly moved one forward. Without breaking eye contact with Vera, the older man moved one of his pieces. “Checkmate, good game, better luck next time,” he said, snatching up the small stack of bills from the table. Shooing his astounded opponent away from the table, he began resetting the pieces at lightning pace. “Fancy a game, darling?”

Vera slid past the protesting young man and took a seat, slouching. “How much?”

“Cash or assets, lovely. The more you have of one, the less you need of the other.”

“At the moment, assets are easier to come by.”

“True enough. What are you after?”

“Looking for a missing girl. Van Weir?”

“Hmm.” The man looked thoughtful. “Then let me propose a wager, eh? If you win, we’ll have a little conversation where I answer your questions – anything I know, given freely. If I win, I’ll buy you a drink and we can have a different sort of conversation. Whaddaya say?”

Vera grimaced a little, weighing risk against reward. “A drink and a fiver,” she countered. Grinning, the shark tossed a bill on the table and thrust a pawn forward.

Meanwhile, Niku entered the bar, followed a moment later by Sarah. She decided to study the paintings on display, hoping to create the illusion of distance from her companions and perhaps eavesdrop on the men at the table. Niku took the direct approach, taking a seat at the bar.

“Friend,” he said frankly. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about books and things tonight, but I’m not much of a reader. Can you recommend me a book to… drink?”

The bartender set down his quill and smiled. “Of course. Cultural pursuits are all well and good, but they have their place. New in town?”

Niku nodded gratefully. “Just got here. Trying to figure this place out.”

“Well, seeing how it’s your first time here, I’ll give you a free shot of our signature blend. It’s downright magical, they say.”

“Thank you,” Niku said. “Say, I didn’t get your name.”

“Names aren’t important here,” the man said with a smile, and retrieved a bottle of fine whiskey from its hiding place within a hollowed-out book. He poured a tumbler’s worth, then rummaged beneath the counter for a small black vial. Moving with great care, he used an eyedropper to draw a single drop of liquid from within, shining like star. When added to the alcohol, the light swirled through the beverage until the entire glass was glowing as brightly as a candleflame.

“Liquid sunshine, courtesy of our friend in higher places,” the barkeep proclaimed, lifting his creation as if in a toast. “To Mad Martin.”

A few other fews murmured an echo of his words, and Niku accepted the drink, draining the glass in a single slow pull. It was the most delicious beverage he had ever tasted. When he set the glass down again, he caught a glimpse of his reflection – smiling with luminous teeth. The barkeep laughed. “And there’s the Madman’s Grin, sure and as bright as the sunrise.”

Niku recognized the name of Martin from the map he’d been given. There was an estate named for Mad Martin in the middle district. He asked about it.

“Ah, Good old Martin.” The barkeep paused in the middle of stashing his goods to offer a gesture of respect. “He was a bit twisted, of course, but he served us well. He understood how hard things could get for us little folk, knew what was important and what wasn’t. This place wouldn’t exist if not for him, may he rest in peace.”

“And his son, Cyrus?” Niku asked. “What’s he like?”

“Much the same, so far as I can tell. A bit more… ambitious, perhaps. Don’t know if he takes a hand in his father’s business directly, but he seems content to let things be. Some say he’s touched as well, but it’s hard to say.”

As the two men chatted, Sarah listened in on the two traders, who seemed to be a pair of traders arguing over cost and cargo. When she tried to strike up a conversation, she was promptly shut out, and so decided to wander over and watch the chess game.

It was a close match. Both Vera and the older man played well, but the stranger was gaining the upper hand, moving as though he’d already figured out his next five turns, but was in no hurry to take them, preferring to focus on the conversation.

“…so you look like a woman with unique talents,” he murmured. “Looking for work?”

“Wouldn’t mind a few leads,” she replied, pensive. Moving a knight, she claimed one of the white pieces, making her opponent hesitate and reconsider.

He recovered quickly, taking one of her pieces in exchange. “What’s your knack, then? Willing to get your hands dirty?”

Vera – with her poor hearing – misheard his tone, and failed to comprehend the veiled meaning. “Not as a rule,” she said matter-of-factly. The man scowled slightly, and turned his attention on Sarah, who had just arrived.

“Excuse me, miss,” he snapped. “Adults are speaking here, so why don’t you just toddle off?”

“Excuse me?!” Sarah demanded, glaring. A part of her knew she ought to keep her infamous temper in check, but with an insult so blatant, passion conquered reason.

The stranger continued, clearly trying to drive away the interruption, but badly miscalculating Agent Mason’s temperament. “I’m sure you’re excited to be up past your bedtime, but we’re having a private conversation here, so you should leave unless you want to go to bed without supper, eh?”

Sarah drew her electric baton before she could think better of it, leveling the crackling bluestone point against the older man. He rose to his feet in the same moment, arcane lightning dancing around his fingertips. Both paused, remaining at a standstill, waiting for someone to make the first move.

Every eye in the room was drawn to the scene of the conflict, save for the Oqidan woman in the corner, who was pointedly ignoring Niku’s attempts at conversation. The two traders began surreptitiously gathering their papers, and the barkeep placed one hand on the recently-awakened bulldog. Within seconds, the animal swelled to the stature of a Great Dane, the product of morphological magic.

Niku hastened up behind Sarah and laid a hand on her shoulder, but she paid him no mind. The barkeep glared at the pair of them, gesturing angrily for them to leave. Niku winced and pulled firmly pulled his subordinate back. Sarah let him, slowly lowering her weapon as they retreated.

In an effort to break the tension, Vera took her turn, but the stranger responded without even looking. “Checkmate,” he announced coldly, and only sat down when Sarah was finally gone. Niku lingered by the door a moment longer, giving the barkeep an apologetic shrug before leaving himself.

“My apologies,” the man said, retrieving his money and rubbing his eyes. “It seems things weren’t meant to work out. Tell you what, I’ll waive the wager to apologize.”

Vera was still scowling at the chessboard, but was forced to concede that she’d lost. “Maybe another night,” she said.

“It would be my pleasure,” he said. “I rarely face such a challenge these days. If you ever need a job, come find me, and I’ll find something for you.”

“Already busy,” she said. “I don’t suppose you can tell me anything about the Van Weir girl?”

The older man bit his lip, considering. “I suppose I can, seeing how I know so little to begin with. I’ve got no idea who’s done it, and neither does anyone I’ve talked to. Quite frankly, there’s a number of individuals that would very much like to have a frank discussion with the bastards – since the kid went missing, we’ve all been under a great deal of pressure from the constables. Upsets the status quo something dreadful to have coppers poking their nose in every nook and cranny.”

“Hopefully not for long,” Vera said, and excused herself, stepping up to the bar and ordering two Sunshine specials. The barkeep made it without conversation, keeping an eye on his dog as it slowly shrank, skin falling loose around its shrinking frame. The first was free, but the second cost five dollars – expensive, but cheaper than such an illicit beverage would be elsewhere.

Vera took the drinks without comment or thanks, making her way over to the woman in the corner. Once again, the woman pointedly ignored her visitor, focused entirely upon her reading.

Vera proffered the drink in an attempt to strike up a conversation, but to her horror, the glass slipped from her fingers and spilled all over the woman and her book, coating them in both in splatters of luminous liquid.  [Ben here rolled a critical failure.]

Like a cobra rearing to strike, the woman set down her book and rose to her feet, stiff with restrained fury. With a glare that could have put Evangeline to shame, she uttered a single word. “Leave.”

Feeling an unfamiliar sense of shame, Vera obeyed at once, trying to finish her own drink at the same time. Before it could reach her lips, however, the glass sang a single, sharp note, then shattered in her hand, spilling sunlight all over her shirtfront. The Oqidan woman had obviously decided to repay the favor with a telekinetic burst. Vera left at once, storming up the stairs to rejoin the others.

Sarah had been speaking with the bouncer about the hostel Evangeline had arranged for them – apparently only a half-step better than sleeping on the street – but when she saw Vera’s mood, she broke off abruptly. Together, the three agents walked in silence, each pondering the night’s mistakes and the looming challenge that awaited them in the morning.

But today’s troubles weren’t over quite yet. Only a block from their destination, a figure stepped out of a side street. Belatedly, Vera realized that her shirt still bore a faint but undeniable glow, a clear sign of illegal magical substances.

The figure – a policeman – immediately blew a whistle, marching toward them with a determined step. “Hold right there!”

•••

And so the first session comes to a cliffhanger’s end. Compared to the last game, our heroes managed to accomplish quite a bit, even though a good chunk of time was spent crafting their character’s Lego avatars. We’re just getting started at the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so stay tuned for upcoming installments, and thanks for reading!

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