“I’ve brought presents.”
Anders gestured for Vulfang to take the man from Courtney, and accepted the bag with a raised eyebrow.
“Messenger bird,” she explained, looking about the room in the abandoned building they’d found the magic circle in. Jorah was still sitting next to the circle, deep in meditation.
“You didn’t dispel it?” Her superior asked.
“I didn’t want to risk damaging the message in case there was a special code word.” Courtney answered, not sure from his manner if he was pleased or annoyed.
She got her answer when his lips curled a bit on the edge, and he nodded in approval. “You show promise.” He said, thrusting his hand into the bag and pulling out the flapping and struggling black messenger spell. It looked like a shadow that had gained a third dimension.
“Thank you, sir.”
Holding it by the back of the neck, Anders examined it for a moment, and Courtney saw his eyes glow yellow. Then he reached into his coat and produced another long yellow paper talisman, sticking one end in his teeth while he began to twist it with his free hand.
“Any luck with the circle?” Courtney asked Vulfang.
“Jorah says they’ve used it more than once,” said the agent, tapping a sleep talisman onto the unconscious man’s forehead to keep him that way. “He’s still trying to determine how many times, and what orders the victims were given.”
“I see…” Courtney looked at the circle thoughtfully, wondering how the victims felt. Did they know their own minds had been stripped away from them?
“You okay?” Vulfang asked her as he walked over. “You look like hell.”
“Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She lied. “It’s hot out there.”
In point of fact, Courtney had almost passed out on the return trip, and been forced to rest in the shade of a rooftop awning before continuing back. The heat exhaustion had left her pale and a little shaky, but again, she didn’t want to show weakness in front of her new superiors.
Vulfang reached behind his back and produced a thick green plant stem from one of his belt pouches, offering it to her. It looked slightly rotten and smelled it as well.
“Chew on this a while. It’s high desert cactus.”
“I really don’t…” She started to refuse, but saw the serious look in his eye and finally took it from him. “Do I have to?”
“If you want to stay standing.”
“Right,” she stared at the root a moment, and then popped it into her mouth and started to chew. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste so bad at all. In fact, it tasted somewhat like a very juicy licorice.
She looked at Vulfang in surprise, and the large man winked at her. “Not too bad, right? You’ll be right as rain in a few.”
“Good, because she needs to go back out again.”
They both looked at Anders, who was looping the now ropelike talisman around the bird’s neck. He tied it off at the end, and said a few whispered words- the talisman melted into the bird’s shadowy form.
“I’ve put a tracker in it,” he explained. “It’ll leave a trail that can only be seen with mage-sight, and you’ll follow it to its destination.”
“Okay,” Courtney agreed. “Let’s go…” Then a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she had to steady herself. “…In a minute.”
“Take ten,” Anders said, holding up the bird. “I need you both to get there intact.”
Arthos Manning was watering his plants when the bird arrived- fluttering in through his window to land on a nearby chair-back.
Frowning, Manning waddled over to where the bird sat and held out an open hand. Obligingly, the bird leapt onto it, and with a whispered word from Manning the bird was replaced by a rolled-up paper scroll. He wasn’t expecting a message today, he considered as he unrolled the paper- who could this be from?
His first indication was the size and poor penmanship of the words, and then when he read it his eyes went wide with panic. How had they been discovered? This was terrible!
Rushing over to a nearby desk, the plump middle-aged man ripped the desk drawer right out in his haste- its contents cascading down onto the tile floor. Uncaring, he thrust a hand into the hole left by the drawer and produced a leather circle which had been hidden inside.
Ripping free the cover, he gave a code-word and the mirror instantly began to glow.
A moment later, a face appeared on the mirror.
“What is it?” Growled Colonel Haman of the Slate.
But however hard Arthos Manning tried to reply, the words would not come out. It was as if his whole body was frozen- for that was exactly what the paralysis talisman that had been stuck to the back of his head had done.
“Manning?!? Manning!!” The Colonel yelled, but to no avail.
Slipping the cover back on the scrying mirror, Courtney smiled.
“Don’t worry Colonel, you’ll see your friend here soon enough.”
“This isn’t right.”
From the top of the temple steps, Courtney and Anders watched as a line of delegates filed past security and into the Temple of the Golden Host for the peace conference between the Empire and the Rebel Army. Earla Brightblade at the lead, minus her chief of security, walked up the steps to meet the Minister of the Left, who bowed and led her inside.
“You’d best get accustomed to it, this is politics.” Anders told her from where he leaned with his back against one of the towering marble pillars. “This conference is more important than your notions of justice.”
“Is that why you brought me here to see this?” She fixed him with her slate-blue eyes, and he met hers evenly with his brown.
She was the one who turned away, disgusted.
They had captured Colonel Haman quickly enough before he’d escaped, and under interrogation he’d confirmed what they’d learned from the spell circle they’d found next to the bookstore. Two scribes, a cook, a servant and two guards had been put under their control, all of them targeting different people. It was a timed operation, with some acting as a distraction while the others would strike. All very carefully planned to bring an abrupt end to the conference, and all apparently done under his single authority.
“There’s no way she isn’t behind this,” Courtney spat. “With those eyes of hers, she could see them coming as clear as day.”
“You’re saying despite the assassin targeted at her, she was in no danger?”
“And you’d be right.” He agreed. “The target was most likely her co-leader, Sturm Gallan, as she’d have to share anything she gains from the negotiations with him. Perhaps he has something she wants hidden, or knows something… Well, regardless, we have no proof, and without proof, only the Colonel will take responsibility. At least, until she negotiates his freedom as part of the treaty.”
“What?!?” Courtney looked at him, aghast. “We’ll let him go? After what he did?”
“Someone once said that politics is the art of compromise. One life to save thousands, isn’t it worth the cost?”
Courtney looked down, considering.
“I still don’t like it.”
“And you’re not required to,” he shrugged. “Just to follow orders, even when they don’t agree with your ideals. Can you do that?”
With only the briefest moment of hesitation, she nodded.
He studied her for a time, then seemed to come to a conclusion.
“I believe you. Welcome to the team.”
“Thank you,” she said. Suddenly not feeling all that happy about getting what she’d wanted.
“Oh, cheer up.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “It’s not as if he’ll get away completely free.”
She looked up at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Anders gave an evil grin. “As part of our investigation I believe we should test that spell circle before we erase it, with a few modifications, of course. I think the Colonel will make a nice volunteer.” He winked. “She can decide if she wants to keep the Colonel around after that, never knowing what orders we gave him.”
Courtney laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was close enough for today.
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