Grave choices: 3

As good an idea having a backlog is, it also leaves open the temptation of being lazy until it runs out. Hopefully I won't fall into that trap.

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It was still dark when I woke. I was still tired and now more than a little flustered. I still wasn't sure if the sending wasn't some sort of trick to get me to lower my wards long enough for something to get me to invite something in to kill me. Paranoid, I told myself. I'm starting to see things that were too unlikely. Vik said he'd keep his mouth shut, and Will isn't the sort of person to plan cloak and dagger stuff. Granted it was still possible, considering people they told could have decided to take matters into their own hands and they'd picked a target that I'd feel obligated to help.

With this in mind I waited, lighting several candles and fussing with my stove. It was late, or early, and if this turned out to be genuine I had a feeling it would be a long conversation, so no sense in being hungry. While I was making sure my stove would stay lit I heard something hit my window. It couldn't have been much more than a pebble, but the noise was almost regular and after a minute of this going on it was clearly not random stuff being blown about in the night. "Gimme a minute!"

When I got to the window I saw Spark in a backless night gown hovering level with my window sill, but since she wasn't actually touching my home the wards hadn't gone off. I've heard of some reclusive or just plain paranoid magi that make wards that will discharge if anything gets within so far of the house, but between pets let out at night, kids that might take to wandering, or any number of facets of city living I chose to be somewhat conservative on that front. It wouldn't be lethal, ordinarily, but if tripped my defenses would leave most would-be intruders hurting.

Maybe in time I would get good enough to make my defenses so that I could, say, open a hole in one area without dropping everything, but I wasn't so I had to lower everything before opening the window. "You're up late." I tried sounding cheery and I'm not sure if I succeeded or not.

"Oh, you know how it is." She gave a half smile, "I was in the neighborhood. CanI come in?"

Tricky. If I invited her in and she turned out to be something using an illusion, though considering her size I'm not sure what that could be, inviting her inside would allow her to cross into my home unhindered. "I won't invite you in." I sounded weary, "No offense or-"

She drifted inside on gossamer wings, shuddering slightly as she passed through the intangible barrier that separated my home from the outside world. All homes have this so long as people live there. No I'm not sure what causes this effect or what decides what's part of your home and what isn't, but it's very handy information to know, especially if the unquiet dead decide to try mobbing you in the middle of the night. Don't look at me like that. It's more likely than you'd think.

"Groovy." She rubbed her upper arms while drifting over to the stool I had by the stove. "I'm not something hiding under an illusion, or a construct of √¶ther and magic, and if I'd been bludgeoned into taking shots at you I don't really think I’d be able to put up much of a fight." She smiled up at me sweetly. "Happy?"

"Yea... Sorry about that." I'd reset my wards and started making tea. "So you said they're replacing everyone with spirit constructs and selling you off to the highest bidders?" She nodded but said nothing. "I have to talk to Sergeant Thatcher in the morning. I'll see what can be seen after that." She started to scowl but I plowed on. "People have been murdered and I think I might be able to help keep it from happening again. You're welcome to come with me if you can't go back, but that's something I have to take care of first OK?"

"No it isn't." She flitted to my shoulder and stood there as I waited for the kettle to boil. "He's my brother."

Hard to think of someone so tiny as being as smart as we are, but they are and it's still hard to not talk down to them. "String of murders likely caused by necromancy over the past month and no signs of stopping. Plus the way Scruffy's moved in on me suggests the coven's leaders are gearing up for something bigger and he happened to feel I was one of those potential loose ends that might get in the way.” She gave me a blank uncomprehending look. Great. Story time all over again. So I started explaining things, watching her the whole time to see how she'd react. Maybe she didn't seem too off-put by my methods because she had picked me out as 'her' person to work with, or maybe she'd figured I knew what I was doing, or any number of reasons. She didn't flinch or interrupt until I finished giving my brief outline.

Then the questions came. "Why didn't you make something up about finding something in a book about this spell plague?"

"Because they would demand a copy for reference."

She tilted her head first this way then that while that fact sunk in. "Well, hm. How much trouble do you think your friend might be?" She hopped from my shoulder to my table while I poured a glass then after a moment of looking about I found an empty ceramic candle holder I'd cleaned up but hadn't put anything in. A quick rinse in scalding hot water later and Spark had something to drink out of.

I offered her a cookie broken up so she could handle the pieces. "I want to say he won't be a problem, but I don't really know him outside of our shared interests. On the other hand if he wanted to kill me he had a golden opportunity last night while carrying me home."

"True." Her wings buzzed fitfully as she drank. It seemed somewhat undignified she had to stick her head in and grab sips, but I don't keep pixie sized dishes. "Maybe at that point he wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and now that he has a solid case he'll make friendly faces before putting a knife in you."

Paranoid was the first word that came to mind, but I had to give her credit for coming up with something plausible sounding. "Aren't your kind supposed to be all innocent fluffy and unworldly?"

Her laugh was rich and melodic, "You try reading thousands of different bits of people's lives and keep acting like nothing matters but the trees clan and company are supposed to defend." She took another drink, "Really, some people just don't seem to care that we read their mail. Others I think seem to delight in making heads spin." Right. Exposing tiny fragile unworldly minds to graphic details of human lives, suffering, joy, achievement, and just some of the sheer weirdness we come up with has to be a mind bender. "Don't worry about it Marrik. I like the city, it's interesting."

"Alright. We'll ask around while I'm out, but right now the murders have to take priority." She looked up at me but I motioned for her to wait. "We'll find him, don't worry. Your kind, especially those that can hold two thoughts together before twittering off in a new direction a- Stop looking at me like that. You try getting one of your wild kin to have a conversation sometime. He's too valuable to kill, and if he's loose and hiding there's plenty of places around for him to go unnoticed." I tried stifling a yawn. "Bless. What time is it?"

"About sunrise. Why?"

"Frak." I stretched and paced about. "Not enough time to get a quick nap in." I started to pull my things off and stopped with my shirt halfway over my head. "Uh... could you, y'know, go somewhere for a bit?" Tiny musical laughter was heard floating downstairs and after I was sure she was gone I hurried with a quick wash, change, and grabbed my staff before going downstairs. "Alright. let's go."



***

"Mister Broom!" The same pixie from yesterday, or one so much like him they could have been twins, hovered inches from my face. "I've been told to tell you Sergeant Thatcher will see you as soon as he gets in and- Hey Sparks." He immediately buzzed over to where Sparks had been perched in the hood of my robe, which I'd left down so she'd have a place to ride. After they started talking, or whatever, I wrote both pixies off as ignoring me. No sense in trying to figure out what was going on between the two of them because the chittering was unintelligible and even as focused as these are when compared to their wilder kin they are pixies, so who knows what had their attention.

While they were drifting about the room apparently not giving a care about anything else I started sending whispers of my borrowed power through the room. My reserves were low and I hadn't had a chance to draw either from myself or go on an extermination campaign to recharge, but thankfully what I’d wanted cost next to nothing. Yesterday and the day before had pushed me into deciding preemptive sweeps for nasties, shadow cloaked assassins, or anything that didn't look like it was supposed to be there. While I would have liked to set wards around the places I normally went that represented a few problems. Wards are energy intensive and since my power isn't inexhaustible I try thinking of the best return on what I invest. More importantly even if this place had a threshold to build on, which it didn't, I had no idea really what I could ward against without accidentally hurting the scores of people that came and went on a daily basis.

My probes found something interesting in the now-empty chair on the other side of the front desk. While I wanted to think it was some sort of magical bomb set to go off whenever someone sat down I had to remind myself that the people here worked long hours and it could just as easily be something to give an additional burst of pep, extend the affected person's senses, a magical comm line wiring this person to specific places in the building, or any number of things intended to make any human employee's job either easier or just easier to deal with.

Of course it could still be a trap. Even and especially if it was I had to be careful probing the thing since I couldn't be sure what would act as the trigger. There's a lovely thought, my trying to keep people out of harm's way sets off a disease bomb infecting everyone in the building with horrible magically created sickness. Oh and this comes right after I've outed myself as a practicing necromancer. Poof, whoever's after me not only has a shot at outright killing me either through the attack or the guard's response and in the same stroke also makes me look like the person behind the recent killings while they go about with whatever they're wanting me out of the picture for. Can't have that now can we?

Minutes passed, though to me it felt like eons, and I found out that whatever this spell was it wasn't connected to any other magical doings in the area and at first glance looked like it would give whoever triggered it an unimaginable surge of adrenaline. Probing further showed it was something that would keep the target practically glued to the chair. Long hours with your heart going at a breakneck pace. The heart is a muscle. Muscles get tired if overexerted. A heart that stops beating because it worked itself to death is fatal if something isn't done about it within minutes. This spell is therefore either a trap or something very poorly designed.

Spark fluttered and waved at the edge of my vision. I know I mumbled something to her about keeping people from the hot seat but I wasn't paying attention to her. This spell could end up triggering while I was latched onto it and unraveling even simple spells left in place is like unweaving a rug. This was no simple spell. It was subtle and when the power it contained was released it would do so in a very finely controlled manner leaving little residue outside of the victim's body. Oh don't get me wrong I wouldn't have any problem unmaking the thing. It's just that the added pressure of me being in a busy location and the thing possibly triggering at any moment taking me or some other unfortunate that was too close for a one way marathon off our mortal coil.

"Marrik!" I knew the voice, but couldn't spare any thought to remembering the person's name. Almost.
A wordless shout. Something hitting me in the back of the head.

There!

My eyes went wide as eddies in the escaping energy clipped me. Most of the power dissipated harmlessly, as generally it's a very bad idea to try harnessing a spell's energy if you either don't know the thing inside and out or weren't able to focus every particle of your attention to the task. Both of these were true at that moment given I didn't know who left that little package waiting, and Will was screaming and shaking the life out of me.

Ah, right. I knew I knew that voice. See what a few moments of not handling deadly magic can do for your ability to think? "Hldtmnwstrngthlp." Just because I could think didn't mean I could articulate.
"What?" Confused, somewhat annoyed.

Inhale. Exhale. Deep Breaths man. "I said 'hold it man. I was trying to help.'" Confused look from Will. "You had coffee yet? I think we should get some. Don't you Sparks?" Before either could answer I took Will by the elbow and drug him outside. Once there I whispered, low, "Somebody left a heart attack spell in the receptionists chair." His eyes went wide. "It's diffused, but you might want to start sweeping the building."
"We did, last week." He eyed me appraising. "Why don't you run a sweep? Supervised of course. Can't have a civilian, even a consultant, free run of the place."

"And if someone dies after who do you think is going to get looked at first?" Understanding hit him in the face like a sledgehammer. "I think whoever's after me is either trying to set me up, or hoping what they do will be too subtle to catch." He nodded and frowned. I didn't want to be in his position. Necromancy tends to be hard for even practiced magic-users to find and most times when it is found unless it's obvious they tend to mix it up with some other school. "Do you have anyone you could trust in the force that could help, and wouldn't start screaming about me being some sort of evil chessmaster?"

"Maybe." He looked about and started walking. Because of obvious, or at least obvious to me, reasons I followed close behind. "Ever work with drow before?"

Drow. Skin anywhere from sky blue to Eggplant. Very long lived, but stories seem to conflict on if they’re actually immortal or just live to be centuries old. Generally, because of their elven forebearers they have close ties to magic, mostly druidic practices but there are smatterings of all sorts in there. Generally kept to themselves till the war forced them to either help or watch the rest of the world burn. Since then they've tried to go back to their reclusive ways, but a few here and there seem to like mingling with us 'short timers'. All that could be wildly wrong since most of what I know comes from books.
"Never. Where're we going?"

"You said you wanted coffee." He winked.

While we walked he handed me a big envelope. "You never saw that alright?" I nodded, which seemed to prompt him to continue. "Maybe you can see a pattern, or could tell us who's behind this."
We entered the giant open air bazaar, an area that's been home to everything from ordinary people with a day permit to try selling an attic full of odds and ends to merchants that have had a permanent booth ever since Newport was founded, and started hunting for the food vendors section. Much has been written about the place's ever-changing and seemingly complex layout, but there's always a trick to finding your way through. Pity I can't really put it into words as I'd love to not have so many out-of-towners mob random people for directions. It didn't take too long to find appropriate drinks, and though this guy wasn't cheap the coffee tasted good.

When we made our way to one of the benches scattered liberally around I set my drink aside to look at what Will supposedly wasn't showing me. The same papers from yesterday greeted me as well as a new ream that, at a glance, seemed to document in great detail the plague itself both from a magical as well as mundane perspective. "Your people do impressive work."

I've nothing but respect for the men and women that try keeping the peace here and anywhere else, but I hadn't expected half as much detail in the medical reports as I'd gotten. "Likely incubation times, symptoms..." It's hard to deconstruct a magicked up anything after it's started to break down, which is why I was impressed with the work. "Let's see. Typical 'could be anything' symptoms mixed with kidney and liver failure with a couple burst appendixes thrown in for good measure." I took a long drink from my mug. It really was fascinating, at least I thought the material was. "Whoever did this wanted to be a little more subtle, go for something that didn't directly target the heart, lungs, brain, and went for the body's waste management systems."

We could talk openly about this because, like with Vik and I at the post office nobody was paying us any attention. "Had to have been a fairly painful way to go, but except in the pair where the appendix bursts I don't see how this could have killed so quickly on it's own." Professional doctor I am not, so if any of you reading this are familiar with the medical arts and cringe at my logic keep it to yourselves. "Only way I could think of that he'd manage it is if he used something else that would make enough of something the body normally filters out and couldn't, so got overwhelmed." Might not have been informed logic, but it sounded reasonable enough to fit.

Will took the envelope after I'd put the papers away. "Know anyone that works like that?" Calm level and outwardly not affected by any of this, had to give him credit for keeping a good exterior. Hopefully that was more than a good false front, probably was since I don't think Newport's Finest would crack at little things such as a killer that likes trying to use a string of murders to potentially kill the rest of the city, and possibly set off a global pandemic. I didn't know if that latter was the case, but given that many in my order thought along those lines it seemed likely.

"I like a few people for it, but I'd tried to keep out of everybody else's business so they'd have less reason to snoop in mine." Will's expression soured with my explanation. "Sorry boss."

He sighed softly then shook for a moment. "No help for it. When we get back I want you to give me everything you've got."

We finished our coffee and started a slow circuit around the Bazaar. Will wasn't a patrol officer, but he was in uniform and people seeing him show up might help keep things from getting too out of hand.

Person running through a narrow feeder street shoving their way through the morning crowd. "Stop! Thief! Stop!" Will seemed almost to enjoy running after the thief. Why I can't imagine since he was in layers of heavy protective armoring, but even as I felt my muscles complaining and my lungs struggling to keep up with demand I think I understood. Here was something straightforward that didn't require dealing with iffy advice, concern dark forbidden magic, a potential plague that could kill any number of people, or really anything more than him running somebody down.

Give the man credit for keeping in excellent shape, and having the presence of mind to keep a bola on him for these situations. Bola, pretty much a length of tightly woven rope with weights on each end. I didn't know how hard it was to throw, but it seems like a handy thing to have, especially when people never seem to stop when told to. As I approached I heard him read the thief his rights I noted the apparent lack of struggle. Odd but maybe he figured it was better to cooperate than face a beating 'resisting arrest'. Sure a magistrate might side against Will if he started manhandling someone in custody, but unless it was severe or it was clear the person in custody was cooperating generally the arguments fall on deaf ears.

"You." He pointed to me. "Give me a hand with this," He pushed the now bound man at me.

***

Once we handed Speedy McFailThief off to somebody else for processing Will took me to one of the unused conferencing rooms. Inside was a drow. All non-humans outside of the twisted manimles seem to have a kind of ethereal beauty about them. For example this person had deep blue, almost purple, skin, a lean face, but the eyes caught me. Maybe it was the fact they were part of such an inhuman face or something. I'm not sure. I just know he was human looking enough that I could tell he was bored and unimpressed with what he saw.
"My lord." Will gave a small bow. "This is the... ah ...person I was telling you about."

The drow nodded to Will, "Thank you Sergeant Thatcher." I couldn't see the lines of force but could feel the slight whisper of power used to make the door close, and a second surge of power shortly after which I guessed was to ward the room against eavesdropping. "I'm unsure whether to commend you on your resourcefulness, or write you off as a fool." He looked at me with steady yellow eyes. "You say a local cult has been building up for something? Based on what exactly?"

My hands clinched and unclenched while I tried getting my nerves under control. First impression with someone that already knew, sort of, what I was neck deep in and still seemed to want to listen. "The murders by spell-crafted disease is something of a tip-off." The drow looked unimpressed with that simple bit of logic, so I tried building on that case. "There's also the heart-attack spell stuffed in the receptionist's chair. The attempt on my life." Still unimpressed and bored looking. I took a breath, held it, and let go. "I also have a duel to fight with someone in my order because they accused me of treason."

"By acting to preserve lives and undermine their work he seems to have a valid case," the drow remarked dryly.

I let that one slide because why bother with someone likely centuries old? "They're getting nervous about me, or they're getting less tolerant of my having been giving preparedness courses. It's sketchy, but the line of reasoning seems to hold, and I like one big plan better than lots of little unconnected ones."

The drow let out a long pained sigh and when he spoke he had the sort of tone I have always associated with someone explaining the obvious, or going over something for the eight time to a small child. "This cult," I flinched at that word, "wants to spread discord, disharmony, and encourage the spread of disease and ruin. Wouldn't it make far more sense, from their leader's standpoint, to go with several smaller scale plans? That way if one fails there's still a chance at others succeeding, and if each group is segregated from each other capturing one wouldn't mean the ruin of all."

Frak. I hate when someone else out-logics me.

"Well?" His gaze sought mine when I decided to respond. "It would seem my information isn't worth as much as I thought." I couldn't meet his eyes. Too much going on in my head at that moment. "If they're keeping me out of the loop on everything then I have no reason to return after my duel tomorrow."

Will blinked, "If they've locked you out and are keeping you in the dark why bother going back at all? They could just kill you and be done with it. If you're worried about them showing up at your home maybe I could-"
"Do what?" A wave of bitterness hadn't seeped so much as drenched me. "It takes a trained wizard to tell if they're even doing anything, and I've given you pretty much everything I know. Wards can be torn apart and I'd gotten most of them to realize running around the streets in black robes is about the same as holding up a blindingly bring beacon for anyone looking for them." I might have been bitter, but I wouldn't just lay down. "I will handle whatever comes at me, but I'm going to kill at least one of them."

Will just stared at me. The Drow looked thoughtful. "Will this duel likely involve a large gathering of their numbers?"

"Try swarming them when they've all gathered to watch the show?" The drow nodded at Will's idea. "It'd be bloody but it might work."

"No." They both looked at me. "The heads of my order have been around and practicing since the Blighting started, plus it won't be just members there. They'll have prisoners, acolytes that haven't been fully inducted. People that could be saved if given a chance."

"A few dozen lives or a few thousand Marrik? Which would you have us choose?" Will and I both looked at the Drow. A life, any life, was worth saving. Yet to think in those terms, a handful or a city. "It will be supremely difficult getting in, they'll have sentries both living and not scattered throughout, and it'll be close in fighting. I wouldn't try any fire-magic or anything that could make sparks in some of the places down there."
"A few dozen, or thousands." Simple words from a complete stranger, but I felt weight behind them. After a few moments I slumped in resignation. This is something I had hoped to do when I'd started isn't it? If I died now knowing I had wiped them out wouldn't that be enough of a balance?

Will gave me a pen, several sheets of paper, and a chair. "We need as detailed a map as you can give us." It wasn't as crazy as it may seem to not go with the official construction plans and maps of the sewers. Over the decades walls have been built up, torn down, water rerouted, general debris. Sure it might have given me a starting point, but I had to do a fair bit of work anyway and by the time the builder's plans got here it would be tomorrow, and we needed more time to try getting as much muscle and magic as we could. So I started giving first a rough layout of things, then I went into details.

We were in there for hours, and it felt far longer than it had actually been, but we had the beginnings of a plan. The Drow, Tsabyne, said he would do what he could to get outside aid. Will would present the plan to his commanding officers explaining the barest amount needed, but for them to believe me they would need a good bit of detail. I'd tried to warn him off, that I couldn't be sure if the chain of command he was following didn't have traitors in their ranks, but he would hear nothing of it. Me? I knew it was getting late in the day and I had preparations to make for tomorrow.

It was late afternoon by the time I left and I don't remember a krakkin' thing about the rest of the day.
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