â€œPositively enlightening!â€ the merchant known as Enterprising Endeavor chortled jovially as he stepped out of the Guild compound and back into the expansive docks the lined the riverbank on the eastern half of Great Forks.
Midnight Rose stopped at the opened gates and shot a glance back at the outpost, barely more than a glorified slave market really, before she followed her disguised partner out. Her brow was furrowed and her lips were pressed in a thin line as she ran a hand through her crimson tresses, glad to be out of that depressing place. The novelty of the wharfs had long since worn off however, so it gave her little relief to be away from the Guild-held outpost.
They had spent the better part of the day squeezing information out of the Trade Lord, who had grudgingly revealed what he knew of the caravan. He even sent a runner to pick up a copy of the customs logs that they demanded. All in all, it was a successful operation, but what she did not like was that Endeavor seemed to know much more than he had let on earlier. He knew exactly which hints he had to drop to loosen the officialâ€™s tongue, hints that he could not have possibly known from what they had gathered within the last few days. The thought pulled her gaze away from the slow current of the Yellow River to the back of the scavenger lordâ€™s head as they made their way through the loading docks and warehouses, the jolly man humming one tune or another as they went. The Sun was on the latter leg of its journey towards the horizon, tinting the blue sky with faint shades of orange and purple, and painting the streets with lengthening shadows.
She picked at the handful of cuts in her jacket as they walked and favored the holes with frowns. Souvenirs from her match with the Trade Lordâ€™s Dragon-Blooded retainer. The essence enhanced fabrics will be a pain in the ass to patch up and it did not help that she was never very good with needle work to begin with.
â€œYou know something,â€ Rose said sharply as they turned into an empty strip of alleyway.
â€œI know many things, my dear!â€ Endeavor retorted between verses.
â€œDrop the act,â€ she snapped, â€œHow did you know that slave caravan carried over a dozen god-bloods?â€
Endeavorâ€™s body then turned white as a radiant glow consumed him from inside out. The shell of light then cracked and crumbled like a shattered mirror as Errant Venture stepped out of it in midstride. Broken shards of light fell to the ground around the Chosen of Journeysâ€™ feet and faded into nothingness as he unclasped the cloak that was his Resplendent Destiny from around his neck. The man took care to neatly fold the cloak of gray incandescence into a tight bundle before it disappeared under the folds of his tunic.
â€œThe Bureau had earmarked a handful of them for further scrutiny,â€ her partner admitted with a shrug then buried his hands in his pants pockets. â€œThey were supposed to be a minor influence on the region. What kind of influence, I canâ€™t say, since itâ€™s none of my business. But their threads were unexpected cut. No explanation from the Division of Endings, which usually means Malfean breaches in this part of Creation.â€
â€œWe found no sign of that,â€ she pointed out, and he nodded.
â€œYeah, we found something else,â€ he motioned for them to move on. Once again on their way back to the city proper, they settled into a comfortable pace. When he spoke again it was a friendly and casual tone, one suited for a conversation of little consequence between old friends, â€œWhat we didnâ€™t know was the extra cargo the caravan was hauling.â€
â€œA curiosity he called it,â€ Rose noted with a frown, â€œBut he claimed he didnâ€™t know what it was, just that the slavers caught it somewhere near their base camp over a hundred miles south of Grey Haven.â€
Errant hummed in agreement, â€œTeel Venn has always been a collector of strange items and beasts. The captains in the field probably thought they could curry some favor by bringing him a surprise gift along with the usual shipment.â€
â€œHe was lying. I could tell that he was hiding something.â€
â€œNot quite.â€ An inquisitive arch of her brow bade him to continue, â€œI think he had some suspicions, but was unwilling to share them with us. As though he were almost hoping that they were untrue.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why you mentioned some of our conclusions at the scene, isnâ€™t it?â€
The Journeys nodded but said nothing as they entered busier sections of the docks that led to the city gates. Dock workers scrambled to complete their daily quotas, and street venders and con artists struggled to snatch up last minute deals with the last of the daylight. The streets of the city proper were little better as shops prepared to shut their doors for the evening just as other establishments began to do their best to entice a city full of entertainment hungry people.
They traveled past the neighborhoods of warehouses and greenhouses, into the inner wheel of the City of Festivals where it earned its name. Elegant music from guzhengs and pipas caressed the cool breeze of twilight while shapely figures tried to do the same to those with beauty or coin. Though the streets were bereft of hawkers and vendors, the draw of music, food, drugs, and comely flesh was just as strong through the invitingly warm glows and jealousy inducing choruses of merrymaking coming from behind closed doors and shuttered windows. Parties held on the balconies of the wealthy stirred the hearts of those not fortunate enough to be invited or be let in as the same scene repeated itself block after block while the two of them made their way back towards their accommodations.
â€œYou noticed it too, didnâ€™t you?â€ Errant asked suddenly. He did not look in her direction, but he seemed troubled by the way he fidgeted with the random trinkets and coins in his pockets as he walked.
Rose nodded. â€œHe was afraid.â€
â€œAnd not just of you,â€ the Journeys added with a grin and wink, which made her roll her eyes. â€œSomethingâ€™s got him spooked. And I think what we told him made him even more so.â€
â€œSpeaking of spooked,â€ she murmured thoughtfully as she recalled some passing rumors Errant had related to her that morning. â€œStrange disappearances, random bits of gore being found around the city, and now an entire caravan slaughtered and probably eaten? Yeah, Iâ€™d be spooked too if I thought it came from my city.â€
Whoâ€™s to say it didnâ€™t?â€ Errant added as he glanced around a moment to make sure that no one was within earshot. â€œWhatever is doing this, we know whatâ€™s on the menu, so to speak. But they are being cautious here, picking off one person at a time. This brings us to two possible scenarios. The first, and my personal favorite, is that they are not powerful enough to rouse the full brunt of the Three and their city Enforcers to bear on them, which explains the lengths that they made to hit a caravan that was outside Great Forksâ€™ jurisdiction.â€
â€œSound likely. And the second?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re testing the waters. Seeing what they can and cannot get away with until the time was right for them to strike. A big target perhaps, maybe even one from the top.â€
â€œThere canâ€™t be too many of them running around,â€ the Battles reasoned, â€œGreat Forks keeps a very close tab on the few Fae that choose to live here. Plus, Mr. Shiny-sunlight killed more than a handful of them at the caravan.â€
Her partner nodded, â€œLetâ€™s hope that put a dent in their numbers. The last thing we need is another Firewander in the region.â€
Rose hummed in agreement. The Firewander was a district in Nexus, one of the largest cities in the Scavenger Lands. Centuries ago, a Fae weapon of some kind was unleashed in the heart of the city that tore a rift in reality. Nexus still survives to this day, but the devastated district, now known as the Firewander, is a constant source of danger for the metropolis and a frayed hole in the predictability of Fate within the region. The Bureau heads would froth at the mouth if a similar incident occurs in another major urban area.
Errant gazed up at the sky. It was a warm and clear evening but only the brightest of stars were visible through the concentrated glow of the many thousands of lamps and bonfires that rivaled the night sky itself. â€œAt any rate, we should concentrate on our primary mission,â€ he prompted.
The Chosen of Mars let her jaw drop, â€œWait, wait. We stumble on something big and you want to keep looking for a Solar?â€
â€œPotentially big,â€ the Journeys corrected, â€œIn any case, weâ€™re not equipped to deal with this sort of case. The best we can do is call in a response unit, preferably one with Immaculate or military connections to root out the problem without conspicuous Sidereal involvement. Need I remind you that weâ€™re heavenâ€™s chisel, not its goremaul.â€
â€œBut donâ€™t you have these connections? Youâ€™ve been working this region long enough,â€ Rose probed somewhat petulantly with crossed arms.
A sideways glance, â€œWhat gave you that idea?â€
She shrugged, â€œI just figured. You being so well traveled and all.â€
â€œSweet Mercury,â€ Errant said as sigh of exasperation. â€œYouâ€™re one of those agents arenâ€™t you?â€
Rose glared daggers at the man, who ignored them quite adequately by maintaining his appreciation for the night sky, obscured as it was. â€œWhat the Hell is that supposed to mean?â€
â€œI. Am. Not. A meddler.â€
The Journeys pantomimed his hand resting on the hilt of an imaginary sword on his belt, â€œOi, Dragon-Blood,â€ he said with his best impersonation of Roseâ€™s voice, which was at best quite poor, â€œYou talked big about honor. If you truly believe that, think about where your legs have brought you so far, and maybe youâ€™ll find you way again.â€
Her face grew uncomfortable warm as her hands squeezed into fists, â€œSo I gave a thread or two a nudge, so what?â€ she replied moodily. â€œItâ€™s not like you havenâ€™t done the same.â€
â€œTrue, but I donâ€™t leap at every chance to poke my nose into the Creationâ€™s affairs,â€ he retorted as they split up and circled around a small group of revelers.
â€œI donâ€™t leap at every chance,â€ she snapped and gave him a sidelong glare once they resumed walking side by side, â€œHow do you people get anything done around here if you donâ€™t show any damned initiative.â€
â€œIf we need to get involved with something, weâ€™ll get orders to do so. Otherwise, whoâ€™s to say that what you â€˜fixâ€™ today would not cause more problems down the line for everyone else?â€
The Battles grunted dismissively, â€œIf we did things like that back where Iâ€™m from we wouldâ€™ve lost the western side of Creation centuries ago. The Bureauâ€™s not fast enough, or big enough to respond to every problem that crops up. Itâ€™s up to us to handle the situation on the ground.â€
Errant sighed and shook his head as one would while trying to explain a foreign concept to a child, â€œThat might have worked there, but this is the Convention of Wood, not Water. And itâ€™ll be better for the both of us for you to accept that.â€ Rose clicked her tongue in annoyance, but the Journeys ignored it, â€œHonestly, I donâ€™t care what you like or not, but while youâ€™re with me, all I care about is that you follow my lead. If you can do that, in a few weeks I can write you off as suitably competent in Convention policies and weâ€™ll be out of both our hairs. But screw this up, and they probably have you pushing paper back in Yu-Shan, and I know thatâ€™s something you donâ€™t want.â€
A low growl came from the Battlesâ€™ throat after a moment of thought. She was acting like a spoiled brat and she knew it. Maidens damn it, heâ€™s right. This isnâ€™t the West anymore, she repeated in her mind. She envisioned her Sifuâ€™s disapproving frown, an expression sheâ€™s seen all too often over the decades she has known him before she managed quiet, â€œSorry,â€ while looking in a direction opposite to which the apology was directed.
The Journeys tugged off his bandana and ruffled his hair with another sigh, â€œLook, most people dread getting sent over to Righteous Tsunamiâ€™s gig over there in the West, but you seemed to have liked the place. You might not think we make much of a difference here with all our policies and regulations, but give it a chance. The process works, you just have to give it time to pan out. Then youâ€™ll see that we can accomplish just as much here as you could have back with the Monastery of the Deep Stars.â€
â€œYeah, I know,â€ Rose murmured glumly.
They walked in silence for a time, the raucous noises of celebration a stark contrast with the gloom hanging over the pair. â€œWhy donâ€™t you have the rest of the night off,â€ Errant suggested as he donned his bandana after giving it a few quick flicks to air it out. â€œGet some R and R and Iâ€™ll meet you back at the dorms. Iâ€™ll give Mr. Vennâ€™s customs log a once over and see if we can find any leads.â€
â€œSure,â€ was her half-hearted response.
A short time later, they reached a busy intersection near the heart of the Temple district. The eveningâ€™s festivities had spilled into the streets as people from all walks celebrated with abandon. She noted several trios of men in elaborately ornate light-plated armor patrolling the streets. They were the cityâ€™s Enforcers, no doubt there to keep the streets from descending into unmanageable chaos and keeping watch for whatever was causing the disappearances.
Errant recommended a handful of places that she just had to visit before he sauntered off. As he slipped into the crowds she wondered briefly whether he wanted a break from dealing with her, or whether it was simple kindness that prompted him to let her explore on her own. She shrugged the thought away just as quickly however, and made her way through the throng of revelers.
Nobody paid her any mind as she wandered through the streets, all too busy with their own festivities to notice the passing of someone who had a tenuous connection to the world to begin with. The crowds only became thicker and more rambunctious the closer she got towards the city center and the Palace of the Three. People danced in the street as musicians and performers followed their audience out of the buildings and filled the air with sweet perfumes and hip swying songs, but Rose gave them no attention in return.
Just need some time to clear my head, she thought with a sigh and kept walking. She passed one of the locales Errant had suggested, a pleasant looking restaurant with open-air seating. Delectable aromas wafted over the stone and plaster walls of the establishment as she walked by. It was almost enough to make her turn around and partake, but she stubbornly marched on. Some quiet contemplation was what she needed, and she would find none of that there.
In time she arrived at the edge of the House of Learningâ€™s garden plaza. There were celebrations to be had there as well, but the tranquil quality that attracted her to the place yesterday was still present. She shook her head wryly as she gaze out from almost the exact vista she had been in then and took out her pipe. It was a gift from her Sifu, given to her on the day he brought her to see the Loom of Fate for the first time. Gazing out into the infinite threads that bound all of Creation was harrowing sight for anyone unaccustomed to it, and has caused its fair share of apprentices to flee screaming from the cavernous chamber that housed it.
Rose chuckled at the memory of her own reaction to the sight then found herself rotating the stem with her thumb. She studied the minute patterns etched into the delicate jade and could not remember the last time she had done so. The Battles gave the thought a few moments of consideration then let it drop, her hand producing her box of tobacco from her jacket pocket. A few breathes and a puff later, the Battles directed her gaze up towards the sky that her partner had admired earlier.
Luna hung high in the sky. Nearly in her full glory, the moon filled the night and shadows with dream-like silver tones. The bright green star of Jupiter, the Maiden of Secrets lay suspended over the moonâ€™s shoulder, piercing through Lunaâ€™s silvery halo and confident in its own radiance.
â€œSomeoneâ€™s looking smug tonight,â€ Rose murmured around her pipe.
The star elected not to respond, but a glint of silver on armor brought the Battlesâ€™ attention down to the plaza below her. A trio of Enforcers was marching towards the campusâ€™ main building. It was too dark and they were too far for her to see their faces but the urgency that drove their strides was unmistakable. A blond woman in rich blues led them, her steps light and graceful, but no less determined. Alessia? But before she could take a harder look the four figures passed under an expansive grove of black cherry trees and disappeared.
Smoke lazily coiled up from the bowl of Roseâ€™s pipe as she stood with her hands on the railing. Youâ€™re one of those agents arenâ€™t you? Errantâ€™s voice rang in her head, which made her frown and chew on the jade stem. Her fingers drummed on the stone railing of the vista as she half hummed, half growled as the seconds ticked by.
Oh Melaâ€™s tits, she decided and vaulted over the side of the overlook.
She landed in the plaza twenty feet later with the grace of an alley cat and started a quick jog towards the grove of trees without missing a beat. She knew that she will have to hurry if she was to catch up with them before their destinies blended into the combined tapestry of the city.
The university plaza was riddled with revelers who have retreated from the main celebrations for more intimate distractions and paid the Sidereal little notice as she hurried passed them; tossing out the used tobacco in her pipe and stuffing it back in her pocket as she did so. She reached the main building several minutes later and quickly spotted Alessia Fenrirâ€™s unforgettable form against the moonlight. She stood outside a small courtyard just off to one side of the building, one of several that incorporated into the design of the building and was probably used during the day for lecture and mediation.
In addition to the Enforcers that arrived with her, she was speaking to another group of the cityâ€™s god-blooded law enforcement, who appeared to be holding two civilians for questioning. The two mortals, party goers from the looks of their dress and state of drunkenness, were both babbling incoherently as Rose approached. The Battles made her entrance as obvious as possible and one of the Enforcers, a man with reptilian facial features quickly noticed her.
â€œHold it right there, maâ€™am,â€ he ordered curtly. â€œThis is Enforcer business so I must ask you to leave this area at once.â€
All eyes fell on her at that point, but before she had a chance to say anything, Alessia stepped forward with a thoughtfully look on her face, â€œYou wereâ€¦one of Mr. Doublegiftâ€™s acquaintances are you not? We spoke briefly yesterday. Missâ€¦Rose, was it?â€
Rose blinked at the sudden recognition. She did not think that she would be remembered after such a short interaction, but nodded, â€œYeah. Iâ€™m surprised you remembered,â€ she admitted but took no more steps towards the courtyard. â€œWhat happened here?â€
Alessia regarded her for a long breath and Rose felt almost naked under the other womanâ€™s soft yet piercing gaze. At last the blond woman forced a small smile then motioned for the Battles to come forward as she turned towards the courtyard. â€œYou knew him so I suppose its best that you know now.â€
Rose quickly made her way over, slipping through the collected squad of Enforcers who began to cordon off the area. One remained to watch over the two drunks and calm them down until they were in a useful state while another joined Alessia in the darkened courtyard. As she rounded the corner, an all too familiar scene greeted her.
The flagstones of the courtyard were slick with blood that had been sprayed in all directions. At the center of the mess was the body of Karreth Doublegift, Great Forkâ€™s Minister of Lore. His handsome face was contorted into a mask of agony frozen at long after his death. Tattered remnants of his clothing still hung on his limbs, but the appendages themselves lay forgotten and splayed out on the cold stone, for most the manâ€™s torso was simply missing.