Maxim clenched and unclenched his new hand, trying to get used to the sensation of it. There was still a dull pain in his wrist, which had gone pale and bloodless, but it felt faraway, almost like it belonged to somebody else.
He was alone in the old granary, having sent his remaining guards away. It was suitably dark and soothingly cold. He kept no candles. His eyes were better adjusted to the darkness, these days. The light was only an annoyance.
Losing his hand would have been a major blow to his capabilities, so the Beast had graciously lent him its own. It was larger and stronger than his own, fitted with long, sharp claws instead of nails. A formidable weapon in its own right.
But it wasn’t his. It didn’t react naturally to his commands. Even something as simple as making a fist was an arduous process. At least for now.
It will get easier, Nasaizh promised. Your ambitions will soon bear fruit. Simply… Slowly, and without his command, the fingers of his new left hand curled into a fist. Take it.
The big man entered the room, muttering curses in the abyssal tongue as he nursed his burn-damaged arm. He glared at Maxim with unchecked hatred.
“Your plan failed, Nasaizh,” he growled. “You allowed those pathetic humans to interfere. Now our goals have been disrupted.”
“You address me, Gorod,” Maxim said. He stood up from behind his desk and rounded it, walking slowly towards the big man. “Man, not Beast. Don’t forget that.”
The Beast harrumphed. He lurched forward, towering high over Maxim.
“Does the bird speak to the worm? Does the fire acknowledge the forest? No. Nasaizh, keep a tighter leash on your puppet.”
“You would not understand,” Nasaizh said through Maxim’s mouth. “We are two beings made one through symbiosis. He speaks for me, and I speak for him. My power is his, and his mind is mine.”
Gorod’s pale lips split in a snarl. “This is a farce. How do you plan to wake The One Among the Stars? I am beginning to think she was wrong in leading me to you.”
“I assure you, everything will be handled,” Maxim said. “Now, step back. You will obey my commands.”
“Your assertions mean nothing to me,” Gorod said. “I will not bow before weakness.”
Maxim felt the Beast inside his head sigh.
“Very well, then,” Maxim said. “Do what you must.”
Gorod went in for a grapple with his big, meaty hands. Maxim’s body reacted on instinct, folding itself backward and avoiding the move with ease. His spine bent over backward but didn’t break. He came back up, stepped out of the way of an overhead punch, and got behind the bigger man. He drove his left hand into Gorod’s back, fist closing around his spinal column.
The big man grunted with pain, but couldn’t move.
“Either obey,” Maxim said, “or find yourself a new puppet. I doubt you will recover as fine a specimen as this again.”
Gorod relented, baring his throat in a submissive gesture, though with a rather unpleasant snarl.
Maxim let up his grip and wiped the blood off his hand with a cloth on his desk.
“Know this, puppet,” Gorod said perfectly calmly, no hint of the perpetual rage that drove him. “At the first sign of weakness, the first slip-up, I will overtake you. Mother rewards only the strongest.”
“Indeed,” Maxim said. He took a seat behind the desk once more, enjoying the stillness and the dark. “But I will not fail. I cannot fail.”
For their sake.
The Heroes were assembled around a table in the main hall, nursing half-healed wounds and sipping at tankards of ale. Goldcoin favored wine.
It was dark outside, with night just having set in. The main hall was kept bright and warm with lit braziers and fireplaces, crackling merrily. Most nights, it was cozy. Tonight, however, she could only think about the dark flames used by the Beasts.
Lace tried her best not to move too much. She hadn’t sustained any debilitating injuries during the fight, but Good Doctor had focused on those who had been hurt worse—Torchbearer, Goldcoin, and Bits. She had been left to recover on her own time.
Her voice was still raw from almost getting strangled. Right then, she envied Kiren, who had been right as rain less than an hour after the fight concluded.
“What do we do now?” Goldcoin asked, sloshing the dark wine around his cup. He took a sip and gritted his golden teeth. “The retrieval was an utter failure in every regard. Evangel is top priority, and we let him slip.”
“The parameters changed beyond what we could have predicted,” Torchbearer said. “We should be grateful to have made it out with our lives.”
“Coin’s right on one thing,” Excelerate said, sitting at a corner of the bench, far away from anyone else. A half circle of empty tankards stood on the table in front of him. “We need to find Evangel, and fast. If he can muster that kind of offense in a few weeks, we don’t want to wait and see what he’s planning next.”
“Let’s hope Eagle-Eyes comes back with some good news,” Goldcoin said.
Excelerate nodded. “Regardless, this excursion was not a total waste. We prevented Evangel from completing the trade, and we were able to scout out his abilities, as well as ascertain his identity.”
I can’t believe Maxim came back from the dead. I always knew the Beasts were a threat, but not… like this.
“Evangel’s a Beast,” Torchbearer said with a grimace. “We should go to Wiseman’s Temple. Their battle-priests…”
Excelerate held up a hand. “One step at a time. First, we have to find him. He has another humanoid working with him, which means this job just became that much more dangerous. We need to have our shit in order before we engage him again.”
The doors to the main hall swung open and Eagle-Eyes entered, long cloak trailing behind him. He greeted the Heroes with a brief nod.
Goldcoin perked up, whiskers twitching. “Anything?” he asked.
Eagle-Eyes shook his head, taking a seat next to the others. “Nothing. The townsfolk simply blended back in with the populace. I was unable to find anyone connected with the attack. No sign of Evangel, either. It can be surmised that he has a hideout in the city.”
“Damn it all!” Excelerate growled, slamming his fist on the table. The tankards jumped, spilling ale, and the Heroes glanced sideways at him. “Then we have no leads.”
Eagle-Eyes was offered a drink by a passing server but declined. Instead, he took all of Excelerate’s empty tankards, stacking them precariously in his arms before shuffling off.
“What about the book?” Eagle-Eyes asked, nodding towards the leather-bound tome resting in the middle of the table.
“It’s a convincing copy of a rare edition of The Creator’s Will,” Torchbearer said. “Sadly, it is a fake. Wordsmith confirmed it. The man setting up the trade did not intend to make it a straight-up deal. Based on what we have, it’s hard to tell why he would want this book.”
“Then what about the witnesses we took in? The ones we freed from their Beastly influence.”
“Their memories were wiped,” Excelerate said. “We got little of use out of them.”
“The only thing remaining is to question the second party in the exchange,” Torchbearer said. “We have him in custody, but so far he hasn’t said a word. We plan to conduct a thorough interrogation in the morning. At least, if we can find the actual book Evangel is after, we might get closer to finding the man himself.”
“Who will carry out the interrogation?” Eagle-Eyes asked. He took the book and flipped through the pages, scanning them with his slitted, yellow eyes.
“I will,” Excelerate said. “Bloodhound declared me the lead on this job.”
Eagle-Eyes glanced up, raising his feathered shoulders slightly like an offended owl. “Should you really be drinking that much, then?”
“Mind your own business, Bird,” Excelerate grumbled. He finished off another tankard and slammed it on the table.
Eagle-Eyes sighed and stood, tucking the tome under his arm. “I suppose this meeting is adjourned, then. I will have this filed with Wordsmith. Even if it is a fake, it could still provide some value in the future.”
Kadma turned her key in the vault door and put her ear to the intricately crafted metal surface. She listened to every click and groan of the mechanisms working inside as the door slowly swung open, allowing her entrance. She shivered with delight.
Just as good every time.
She was met by the familiar smell that only Records had. Musty tomes and perfumed mothballs and the faint but reassuring scent of the earth itself.
She entered with the false tome under her arm, lighting torches in their sconces along the way. She would have to replace them, soon. She didn’t fancy working in the dark.
Kadma chuckled to herself. She could imagine herself doing just that if she found a book intriguing enough to capture her full interest.
Such a disappointment, this tome. Had it been the real thing, she would very much have liked to read it, and not only for the fact that a powerful Beast desired it for whatever reason—although that was a motivating factor all its own.
This particular copy had been penned by Sage himself, and that was a special thing. Only one such version existed, and it was said that the Grandmaster had added his own notes to it, as an addition to the wisdom collected over the ages and bound into the book that was The Creator’s Last Living Will.
The mere thought of it was enough to make her mind slaver, and she lost her place in the organizational labyrinth that Records represented. She took a second to compose herself, spun around, and found the way she was going.
The false tome had been assigned a letter grade based on its priority status and a number based on the item type.
This one had been assigned as G-3, low priority literary item.
Kadma took it to the correct section, seemingly endless rows of bookshelves stretching out before her, and went down alphabetically, finding the correct spot for the tome. She squeezed it in between a rather dull book about the history of a dead noble family and an interesting little thing detailing the life cycles of different types of Beasts.
Humming to herself, she dusted off her hands and made to leave the vault. Walking along the main corridor, she got the feeling that she was being watched.
“Hello, Khruj,” she said.
She stopped in front of the Staff of Khruj, nailed to one of the stone pillars by the side of the corridor with consecrated iron spikes and held inside a glass case. Superficially, the staff looked to be made of a dark wood, but looking at it closer it was actually made of dry, twisted flesh. The gnarled staff was topped with a large eye which swiveled lazily to regard her. Its pupil was a narrow slit, sclera colored an angry red at the corners. Near the middle, the staff was clutched by a pale, severed hand. Bloodless, it held an iron grip on the implement, even in death.
Kadma regarded the thing closely. It twitched violently, raging against its constraints, yet powerless to break free.
Many centuries ago, the Staff of Khruj had been created by the eponymous Beast—or perhaps the Beast was the staff itself, accounts were unclear—and ever since, it had been used to wreak havoc and spill innocent lives in the hands of clueless mortals. It had changed hands dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, each time convincing its owner that they had control of its immense magical abilities, and each time seeing them to their untimely deaths once their usefulness reached its end.
Eventually, and largely through sheer happenstance, the staff had entered the custody of the Heroes’ Guild. The Hero who had retrieved it had been… forcibly relieved of the burden. His hand still refused to part with it.
No matter how the priests had tried, the Staff of Khruj seemed to be impervious to all physical harm. The best they could do was contain it.
And so they had, along with many other dangerous relics just like it, for centuries untold.
“But I know better,” Kadma said, wagging a long-nailed finger at the staff. “I will make sure you don’t see another ray of sunshine until you wither and die.”
At the edge of her mind, she sensed… something. Like a spider crawling across her skull. A whisper in the dead of night. A nail scraping along the back of her neck.
Kadma turned and walked away, speeding up her step and drawing her robes closer.
The Staff of Khruj had a tendency to make one feel unclean, even after only a short period of exposure.
She couldn’t let it affect her.
She had work to do.
Always more work.