When they finally let the students back into the walled city, Garth knew that his plan had worked.
It was total chaos.
Police and military had been deployed to search buildings from top to bottom. Richly dressed men and women of standing were crying on the side of the street, make-up running down their faces, while others had turned violent, screaming and shouting, breaking buildings with their bare hands. Those people had to be subdued by their family, since they were too much for the police to handle on their own.
As Garth walked further into the noble district, the worse it got, chuckling to himself as he strolled through the street.
The other toddlers always did throw a hissy fit when my kids went home for the day. Take that little hissy fit and scale it up to rioting and full-on anxiety attacks when an entire city’s emotional Blankey got stripped away.
A man’s cry caught Garth’s attention.
“Is there a wet nurse anywhere? My daughter’s just been born and she needs to eat! She’ll starve without her mother!”
Garth glanced over and saw a haggard nobleman staggering through the streets, one of his sleeves torn off, carrying a swaddled infant.
Not letting babies die, Nuh-uh. Garth was pretty sure that if Beladia had some ground rules, that would be one of them. If not #1.
Garth turned his feet and stalked toward the confused looking man with a thick red mustache and slightly jutting chin.
“Hey. Hey!” Garth shouted before grabbing the man’s ear and forcing him to face him.
The man’s eyes refocused on Garth.
“Stop and think. You’re looking in the wrong place, pal. None of these noble ladies were getting knocked up in the first place. Go down to Joshua street in the trade district, there’s a brothel there. You’re sure to find someone who’ll be willing to help you. Bring some cash.”
The man’s eyes cleared up for a moment.
“Yes, Yes, you’re right. Thank you!” he said before sprinting off into the distance, his odd coattails thrashing behind him.
“And don’t run with a fucking baby!” Garth shouted after him, using Clarion Call, to force the man to consider his words. After a moment, he slowed to a fast walk.
“Jeez…oop, sorry, Bell.” Garth shook his head and wondered if habitually cursing with another deity’s name irritated Beladia.
Doesn’t really seem like the jealous type, anyway.
Garth’s memories of the afterlife were fuzzy and distant, but he was pretty sure there was a lot of sex with a lot of people. And…building a log cabin with a bunch of nudists? Weird.
Garth refocused on the present. That guy couldn’t be the only person in town in need of a wet nurse. By stealing all the Garthspawn in the city, Garth had basically put himself in another bind with a lack of breasts.
Damnit, how do I keep getting in these situations? Garth thought to himself before rolling his eyes. Because you’re an apostle of Beladia, goddess of the icky consequences of creampies.
Garth dismissed the uncharitable thoughts about his patron and headed back to the Bergstrom manor, where the Bergstroms were desperately trying to manage in the wake of The Exodus.
“Wipe your goddamn feet!” a curly haired girl said as Garth walked in the front door, wearing a poorly sized apron and sweeping up dirt in the lobby. Garth glanced around the room and saw Brenda Bergstrom and her brother and Patriarch Aaron Bergstrom, sitting side by side and staring into space, rocking back and forth on a couch, while their younger family members struggled to clean and cook on their own, fingers shaking.
Garth shrugged and tapped his boots off outside then headed to his office, where Cole was waiting for him with an awful oral report.
“So what happened over the weekend, Cole?” Garth asked, putting his feet up on the Patriarch’s desk and taking a deep draw on his cigar.
“Umm, a dozen or so thugs came into the Joshua street brothel and killed three of our bouncers, the whores followed them somewhere else at knifepoint. The adamantium we hadn’t relocated yet has been emptied out of the warehouses. People visited every business under our protection and smashed the places up, and did some damage to their clientele too.”
Garth inhaled too deeply and started coughing.
“A few of our crew members got killed: Tom, Kimshaw, Freeter and Boise. The rest disappeared. I assume they’re working for the other guys now.”
“It’s okay to say Dentons.” Garth said, getting control of his breathing. Maggie Denton had been really busy while Garth was gone.
She knew I was gone. That was freaking obvious: She’d sent three people to watch him. So it wasn’t to woo him over like the kids had been told, it was to distract him while they crippled his businesses. Garth tapped his fingers on the table, studying the mouth-breather standing next to him who essentially represented the extent of Garth’s criminal empire, now.
She wouldn’t have done this if she had any fear of reprisals. Most likely she expected Garth to march into her mansion all fire and fury, then she would club him over the head with her insurance policy: information that he was an illegal magic user, and one or more letters in the hands of a friend, to be mailed in the event of her death.
Or something like that.
Garth would have to work backwards, rather than cap the problem at the source. He would have to isolate and brainwash each and every ally of Maggie Denton’s.
Take away her insurance policy, then nail her to the wall.
Gotta do things in the right order if you want them to turn out right.
Garth got rid of a bit of ash on his cigar then took another draw.
His first step would be to save the whores, then cast Operant Conditioning on all of Maggie’s friends while they were particularly emotionally vulnerable from the loss of their Garthspawn, then force them to experience anxiety mixed with a healthy amount of disgust every time they saw her. Make their dicks go limp and watch their support for her melt away in a matter of weeks.
Business was business, but it was damn difficult to do business with someone who thoroughly repulsed you.
This whole situation would have been so much more manageable if I had someone to keep an eye on things while I was gone. If one person had been smart enough to circle the freaking wagons, or better yet, hunt down and interrupt Maggie’s operations, the damage would have been minimal.
Garth exhaled, glancing at Cole staring at him expectantly.
Well, you work with what you get I suppose.
“Cole, in light of your news, I gave a guy some bad baby advice.” Garth said, leaning over in his desk and pulling out the list of Denton supporters.
“We’re going to have to find him and help get his baby fed, then we’re going to tour the city and visit the…” Garth flipped through papers detailing payoffs Marcus had made to other families. “Hawkins, Peters, Jones, Hernandez and Park Familie-“
The door burst open, and a rather tall man with salt and pepper hair tromped in.
Cole moved to get in the way, but the man picked him up like a ragdoll, smacked him hard enough to give him a concussion and threw him out of the office.
A noble, then.
“Can I help you?” Garth asked, straightening his stack of papers and setting them back in his desk drawer as the man closed and locked the door.
The man was tall with an angular face, and he looked like he had been muscular at one point, but a lot of it had been melted away by the years.
“Where is my wife?” he demanded leaning over the desk with bared teeth.
“Excuse me?” Garth asked with a brow raised.
Who the hell is this guy and why does he think I have anything to do with his wife? Garth really hadn’t had time to sleep around, recently.
“The Garthspawn, where are they? What did you do with them?” he asked, his volume raising as a cold sweat settled on the back of Garth’s neck.
That was fast. The man was speaking with total confidence.
“I don’t have anything to do with that.” Garth said, invoking Pala’s power to obfuscate the truth.
“Don’t bullshit me. A phytomage moves into town from the Green Hell, on multiple occasions is witnessed showing emotional instability in regards to Garthspawn, takes over the Denton’s operations and and a week later all the Garthspawn disappear.” He narrowed his eyes.
“Is that where they are? The Green Hell?”
Damn! Garth thought, eyebrows raising unbidden. This guy’s on the ball.
“I’m Edward Bergstrom,” Garth said slowly, working magic into his speech to reinforce its potency. “I don’t know who you’re confusing me with, but I’m not him.”
“No,” The man with greying hair looked confused a moment before his eyes sharpened again. “No, I just confronted a boy downstairs who looks exactly like you. He started crying in seconds. You aren’t afraid of me at all. You’re the Phytomage I’ve been following, you’re trying to mess with my head, and you’re definitely not Edward Bergstrom.”
“And you should be afraid of me,” he said, leaning forward, until his face was inches away from Garth’s.
“Why’s that?” Garth asked, bemused.
“Because if you don’t tell me where my wife is-”
Like snakes, the man’s hands struck forward, reaching into Garth’s vest pockets and pulling out the enchanted disc along with the Amulet of Endeavor.
For an instant the man looked brown-haired and fair skinned before he smashed both objects down, snapping the brittle disk of dungeon core off in the wood of the desk.
He watched the slice for a moment, as if expecting it to blow up.
“I can show people what you-“ He glanced up at Garth. “Really…are.” The color faded from the man’s face as he visibly made connections.
“This is awkward.” Garth said, inspecting his natural purple coloration for the first time in days.
The tall man turned and lunged for the door. Garth picked him up with strands of mana and carried him, kicking and screaming back to the desk, where he pulled out a chair for him.
“HE’S GARTH! HE’S GAAARTH!”
Garth covered the man’s mouth and the screaming turned into loud groans.
“Okay, yes, I’m Garth Daniels. Good job. Calm down.”
Garth leaned back in his chair, studying the broken enchantment on his table.
“How’d you know about that?” he asked, pointing at it.
The guy stared at him silently.
“The snoring device. I thought you might wear something like that to keep you looking like Edward Bergstrom.”
“So you found that.” Garth said, leaning back in his chair, contemplating.
“What’s your name?”
“I have a letter addressed to-“
“yes, yes, revealing that I’m a phytomage, and if you don’t receive it yourself I’ll be hunted down. It’s a pretty common tactic. I’m more interested in you, personally.”
Garth leaned forward putting his elbows on the desk as the man watched him like a poisonous cobra.
It was flattering, but mostly irritating.
“What’s your name?”
“What do you do, Paul Tucker?”
“So you know your way around crime?” Garth asked, a jittering excitement worming up inside him. This might be a very useful individual.
He stared at Garth a moment before speaking. “I just want my wife back.”
“Right, right, and I can help with that.” Garth bounced his knees with nervous energy.”…In exchange for some help dealing with the Dentons and maybe managing a criminal empire.”
“No way I’d help the Dark Father of Sin.”
“Okay, look, stop being a dick to your great Grandpa-in-law. I’m sure you’re smart enough for it to occur to you that it’s entirely possible that the anecdotal history about me is somewhat…exaggerated? I’m really not that bad of a guy.”
“You kidnapped my wife!”
“I kidnapped a lot of people, but I never kidnapped any wife of yours.” Garth said, his fingers laced.
Technically true, Garth thought to himself as Paul’s face screwed up in anger moments before Cole started pounding on the door.
“Boss, are you okay in there?” Cole shouted.
“Hold on a second,” Garth said, holding up a finger and weaving an illusion around himself. “I gotta take this.”
In a moment, Garth was pale and freckled again, and he unlocked the door.
“Cole, take this fruit and squeeze it out into a glass bottle,” Garth said, slapping a heavy, warm, soft brown fruit with a nipple into his hand. “Then stuff a clean rag in the top. Once that’s done, find a guy running around with a red mustache and a baby, and give that to him, he should be somewhere near the brothel on Joshua street.”
Cole looked down at the boob-fruit in his hand, his brows furrowed.
“Now, Cole! And be quick about it!”
Cole nodded and sprinted down the hall, tucking the disembodied boob in his elbow like a football player.
“Hah.” Garth chuckled, watching him a bit longer before he turned back to Paul, who was watching him like a madman.
“Okay, where were we? You accused me of kidnapping your wife, and I responded by saying that she wasn’t your wife, that you bought my great granddaughter like an animal at auction, and then forced her to bear your children like some kind of human brood mare.”
Paul’s gaze bored into Garth’s face.
“It isn’t like that.”
“Oh, really?” Garth said, dismissing the illusion and sitting back down at his desk. “Then you’ve got nothing to worry about. The ones that want to come home will start reappearing in the next few days, completely unharmed, albeit a bit foggy on the last couple days.”
“In the meantime,” Garth said, leaning forward. “You help me with a couple things, and I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“If what you say is true, she’ll come back in the next couple days. If it isn’t, why on Earth would I help you?”
“I don’t like the way my legacy has been treated, Paul. I don’t like the way they’re used like property when they’re the backbone of your entire society, and I don’t like being called the Dark Father of Sin, so I’m gonna destroy the world as you know it.” Garth said, sitting back in his chair. “I’m gonna crack it open like a rotten egg and expose its smelly, slimy insides.”
Garth didn’t think it was a good idea to tell Paul about his idea for starting his own clan and taking it interplanetary. That was all in the future. Baby steps.
“But first I need money and power, and to get that, I need someone to act on my behalf who has a good head on their shoulders. You have a good head on your shoulders, Paul.”
“Working with you is a death sentence.” Paul said, shaking his head.
“Nonsense.” Garth said. “How many people would believe I was alive, even if you told them to their face? Did you know some people think I never existed at all? That I was a composite legend of stories drawn from several historical figures?”
“I’ve got every single Garthspawn in the city spilling all the dark, dirty secrets of the families they work for into the waiting ears of my people. In a couple days, I’m going to get a little curated book of secrets, with chapters neatly organized by family, exposing every single thing they’ve ever done. Every weakness they have.”
Garth took a deep breath.
“By the time I’m done, by the time people guess my name, every noble family in the city would sacrifice everything to keep me out of the hands of the empire. They’ll have to ask my permission to sneeze.”
“Ooorr…” Garth said. “In order to protect myself, I use your woman and others like her to kill you and every other literate man, woman and child before setting fire to the city and bailing on this continent to set up shop somewhere else and ride out the slaughter.”
Garth gave him a wicked grin.
“Do you think this mass disappearance isn’t going to attract attention from the Empire? Ball’s already in motion, Paul. Do you think they’ll want to purge the Garthspawn, maybe, just to be safe? If I don’t control every word the council says by the time they get here, your family is going to die, Paul. I personally think the safest bet for you and your family is for you to get your hands dirty and help me take the reigns of the city.”
Paul watched Garth, unblinking.
“This is a deal with Garth.”
Garth glanced to the side, then back to Paul. “Yeah, it is.”
I hate being used as a substitute for The Devil.
Paul considered for a long while, as Garth watched him silently.
“All right. As long as I’ve got no other choice, I’ll work with you.”
Paul stood and held out his hand.
Garth reached out and took it.
“It’s good to have someone so quick on the-“
Garth notice a glint of light from the man’s other hand.
Is that a tiny metal crossbow?
Garth’s vision went white.
Paul cradled his broken wrist, where the kickback on the adamantium reinforced hand crossbow had snapped it, sending all that power straight through the kid’s head.
Garth was twitching on the ground, a silvery bolt emerging from the top of his skull.
Never accept a deal from Garth. Or someone who thinks they are. If it had actually been Garth, the crossbow wouldn’t have worked. Didn’t matter one way or the other, he was dead now.
Paul grunted as he began rolling the body up in the office’s carpet. He still needed to take the body to be burnt, or there would still be dire consequences.
Fuck, this is hard to do one-handed.
He only had maybe a half a day to finish up here and reach the Green Hell with every man he could muster to get his wife back, before whatever cult that had taken her could receive news of their leader’s death.
What he’d said had implied he could use Garthspawn to do his work for him, and that was unacceptable. He had to take the boy out of the equation.
Maybe a Garthspawn had, through some miracle been born male, and fancied himself Garth. The idea the man was still alive and in a young body was ludicrous, and after Paul had time to think it through, he’d decided it was most likely an impersonator with special powers.
Killing him had been a last resort, but it seemed to have worked. Nip that shit in the bud.
Now the hard part, Paul thought, heaving the body over his shoulder one-handed.
Garth fell from a height of four feet, dropping down onto his shoulder in the center of the jungle-filled cavern.
“God…DAMN! I want him even more!”
But not in a sexual way.
When his muscles gained strength again, Garth wiped the placenta slime off himself, threw on some clothes that were neatly stacked by his Garth-tree phylactery, and started sprinting toward the dungeon entrance barefoot.
Guess I gotta show this guy that he doesn’t have any other options.
And never ever, ever let him near my phylactery.