Operation Water Wings
Mira was sitting across from Less in the little room made from an old shipping container at the rail yard. This one, rented for storage use by one of Worm's false identities, was strategically positioned over an old utility access point that led to the rail yard drainage tunnels, which in turn connected to the city's drains. Mira had used them to get to this point unseen. Less had entered from outside using his typically formidable guile and stealth. He was sure no one witnessed this meeting.
"The Duke has approved the mission," she told Less, much to his relief. All Less's work would be for naught if the Duke decided to forbid the Sorceress of the Dark Duchy to undertake the proposed mission. Less also did not miss the subtle change in how Mira referred to the Duke. Until now, she had always referred to him as my Duke. Interesting.
"He's also made some suggestions," she continued. "He proposes that rather than a direct and risky defection to the Barony, I might portray instead a spy. For example, I might go to a powerful member of the Barony, say Viscissitude?, and offer to sell them information about the Duchy. This would be real information, but just that which the Duke wants leaked, of course. In time I could build up rapport with the Barony so that I could eventually stage a more believable defection and begin to extract information from the Barony. The Duke doesn't really like the idea of sharing what I learn with you and the Golden Mesa, but for now he accepts it's necessary in exchange for your support in this mission."
Less was convinced that Mira's vampire connections alone would be enough to convince the Barony she was perfect for membership. On top of that, the recent death of her lover was the perfect excuse for a sudden change in loyalty. He did like the idea of initiating contact in the form of selling information, especially information concerning the Desert Duchy. Though, perhaps he should clear some Golden Mesa information she might have gleaned from Less and Rey to sweeten the deal.
"What will you ask for as payment for the information?" asked Less. He knew that money was not much of a concern for Mira but she would need a compelling motivation for going to the Barony with information in order to allay suspicion.
"I was thinking maybe minor favors or simple imbued items or hard to get materials from the Fae Realm. I'd like to seem like I'm doing this more out of spite than greed. I thought I'd try to drop hints that purely out of a desire to snub the Duke, I taught a band of vampires to use certain minor Gates into the Fae Realm. It's especially tasty since it's true that was part of the reason, if not the main reason. And the fact that the Duke made laid a golden collar on me, so to speak, by making me Sorceress. I'm supposed to only answer to him, but it also means I have to answer him. That's a situation I mean to change, which is also the truth. What do you think? Will they buy it?"
Less thought about it. "You should play up the golden collar thing. Spies betray their loyalties for many reasons, but there is usually some form of desperation tied up into it. You will want to show the Barony that you have no other way out. Prove to them that the Duke is preventing you from getting the items from the Fae Realms yourself. Show them that he is forcing you to do things against your will. Show them that the vampires are your only allies in this. Desperation brings out the extreme. Asking for a minor favour might be a good way to show good faith, but I would ask for something big. You're desperate and you need help, or you're so pissed off you want a big haul. Ask big and have them think they are in control by offering you something small. Snap it up, but use it to further the relationship. Give them something they want but promise them something better if they cough up the goods."
Mira grew very still, studying Less. Did he know? But as she watched him, she realized his focus was on deceiving the barony, not her. She nodded. "It won't be a stretch, I think, to have them think that. I'll do as you suggest."
She sat with her hands in her lap and a calm, almost detached expression on her face. Emotionally, she felt remote to Less, but then that was understandable. Drake had died practically in her arms only just recently. "I'll be using a go-between as a courier between you and I, an unaligned fae whose loyalty I've guaranteed. His name is Johnny, a type of satyr I had... liberated and brought to the Hollow. Eventually he wanted out, so I offered to take him back to the mortal realm in exchange for his discretion and loyalty to me. If he breaks his word, he knows his freedom is forfeit and I'll not be his friend, but his master. And he'll be punished harshly for any treachery that may have caused him to break his word. He made the oath. I'll send him around to you so that you can provide him details about the drops and anything else you think he needs to know."
Less nodded his acceptance to this. He had spoken to Johnny several times in the Hollow. It was old news now, but he had confirmed Rey and Mira's presence at the warehouse that featured in the blurry photo he had received from Worm. The photo that pictured a very jaguar-shaped creature.
"What does Johnny's Mask look like?" he asked for his records.
"Really fairly ordinary, really. He's charming, though, when he talks." She gave him a brief physical description. His mortal form wasn't something she'd paid a lot of attention to, but she recalled enough details.
"Less? I have a question for you about our goals," she said after a moment's hesitation. "Do we mean to just hurt the Barony, keep tabs on them? Or do we mean to use what we learn from this to destroy them? Baron Carnifex I mean?"
"Our goal is to protect the Fief of the Golden Mesa. It seems that Carnifex wants to gain control of the Ishtar Gate and destroy us. That means, ultimately, we need to destroy the Barony. But for now, I want information on Dame Nightshade. Who she is, where she works, what she wants and what she's planning. I'd also like to know anything you can find out about Vicissitude's goals, aspirations, and desires. Of course, anything to do with the strength and locations of Brimstone subjects will help."
Mira nodded. "I understand. But long term, you may wish to review your goals very carefully. Right now the Duchy is top-heavy. They are only very few but made of powerful fae led by a true Fae Lord." She wasn't sure if he knew that already. If he hadn't she'd just dropped a bomb on him.
Less nodded for her to continue. He was well aware of the story and Mira had mentioned it before.
"The barony, in contrast, is bottom heavy. Lots and lots of unseelie, but few really powerful fae. If we take down the Baron and his top people, all those fae will join the Duchy." Mira looked at him meaningfully.
The implication was that if the Barony fell, the Duchy, led by very powerful fae, would suddenly have a whole lot of expendable foot soldiers. Something they did not currently have.
"Very interesting point," said Less as the chess pieces moved in his brain. "I will have to consider the way forward very carefully." Was there the potential of winning any of the Barony over to the Golden Mesa? Did he have to keep the Baron in play, batted back and forth between the Countess and the Duke? Could Less pull the Baron's strings and manipulate the Barony to act in his own interests?
Less opened his case and handed Mira one of the two identical books. "This is for you to communicate with me." It was a very specific, and uncommon, translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He liked using translations for his book ciphers because even if enemy agents had the same title, it was unlikely that the words on the page would be the same.
She picked it up and examined it curiously, flipping through a few pages but didn't understand how it should work. Finally, she put it down and looked at Less. "Maybe this is a bit late, but I wonder if I may not be the best choice for this role. I really couldn't investigate my way out of a barn and I worry if this activity might draw me in tighter with the Duke than I really want to be. What about Johnny? The sileni satyr I found? He's unaligned, seems to be loyal enough to me, and already has a past working for Viscissitude. He has an in already. What do you think?"
Less' heart sank. He hated having to change plans almost more than anything, but a spy without conviction to the cause was no spy at all. But after the first shock passed, he felt relieved. He hadn't liked the danger Mira would have been in, nor the forced isolation from Rey and himself. "If you don't feel sure about this, it's probably best we look for someone else."
Mira brightened visibly. "I really think Johnny will do great. And, he's the sort of insider we'll be able to keep in place potentially quite a bit longer than I could be." Her frown reappeared though, at the thought of disappointing Less. "I'm really sorry. I realized just now when I looked at your code book that I might not have been thinking about this realistically. Too many movies and cop shows depict people going under cover and it looks easy, but it really isn't. All it would really take is someone asking me if I was still loyal to the Duke and not the Baron and I'd have to lie, which I'm apparently terrible at, and my cover would be blown. But Johnny is unaligned and really doesn't have loyalty to the Duke. He's done work for the Baron before and who will blame a satyr if he goes off chasing a nymph about from time to time? Plus, this will let me available for your guys. If anything comes up, anything at all, please call me. I have a new cell phone, and I've promised to try to keep track of it better. At least, if it gets destroyed or stolen, it will be replaced right away now." She gave him the number and made sure he repeated it back to her.
"No, I'm very glad we sorted this out now and now when you were in the Baron's hands." He took back the book. "I'll talk with Johnny and see what he thinks about the plan. I don't have access to many nymphs I could use to convince him."
"You have me," she said with a smile.
"Excellent. Shall we head back to the Hollow for some lunch?"
Mira beamed a smile. "Great idea! And I can introduce you to Johnny. He won't be far from the Hollow."
The New Spellslinger On The Block
Imogen had asked Rey to lie down on the floor of her cozy little cabin. The mountain air in October was cold and made Rey shiver when little gusts swept in from the front door. The other side of her body, parallel to the fireplace, was a little too warm. The discomfort might not have been so much if she hadn’t had to be nude and lying directly upon the hardwood floor of the cabin.
All around her were strange, swirling symbols drawn in chalk. Imogen had told her the symbols in themselves carried meaning only to the spirits that would attend the ritual. They were not letters or representations of names as any mortal would know it. Instead, they represented thought forms sacred to spirits and ghosts of things far different than humanity.
Imogen had told her that what they were about to do had never been done before, to her knowledge. That didn’t make it impossible; it made it unique. She said that the spirits had shared with her how this could be done, but required Rey’s faith in the spirits themselves, faith and trust in the teacher-student relationship that would also be forged here, and faith in herself.
Imogen had been calling for hours. Because Rey could not see or hear ghosts and spirits as yet, she had no idea if anything answered Imogen’s song. Nor could she interrupt Imogen, for if the call was silenced, the summoned spirits would leave, never to return. The spirits needed to see the strength of their conviction.
Imogen’s song had reached a crescendo and then abruptly changed six times. Rey didn’t know if that was good or bad, or simply expected. She had the distinct impression that Imogen didn’t know herself what would be coming next. She responded to things Rey couldn’t detect and altered the ritual accordingly, on the fly.
Suddenly the song ended and she heard Imogen whisper. “They come now. Open yourself, throw aside all barriers, or you will never attain what you desire. Clear away doubt and fear. Now!”
Rey released all of her barriers, both those carefully built and those which were simply hers. This was something she never thought she would ever be able to do. She'd lost her connection to the spirits at the hands of the Lord of the Crossroads, and she'd mourned that loss. That part of her hadn't fit with his plan, so he ruthlessly tore it out and discarded it. She wanted it back. She knew she could make this work. She had to.
Something pressed into her, like a howling hurricane of energy. Every orifice was penetrated at once and her body was chilled to the cold of the grave.
Rey gasped and her back arched. She felt like she was too large for her skin and surely it would burst. Her heart raced as the power swirled through her, invading painfully, and settling into spaces she had not known were there. Names flirted along the edges of her mind, whispered then forgotten with a sigh.
Her teeth chattered and her body shivered, her mind reeled as it tried to makes sense of what had happened to her. She sensed seven people, seven spirits, were now a part of her. Their sacrifice, the last vestiges of their power, given to her so that they might live on. Rey felt them fall into a kind of sleep, quietly dreaming of their past lives, until everything within her was still.
Rey lay there, staring at the ceiling. She was cold. God, was she cold, right down to her soul, but she couldn't keep a tired smile from face. It was done. With Imogen's help, she'd gotten back the magic she had lost, and then some. She turned her head to look at Imogen and groaned. That simple movement made her realize how tired she was, and she felt like she'd been run over by a train. Twice.
She struggled to sit up and managed to do so without swearing. Rey shifted closer to the fire and tried to soak in as much of the warmth as quickly as she could. "Thank you, Imogen," she said softly, looking again at the woman who'd done so much for her.