‘Are you sure going out like that is a good idea? You understand that we’re looking for leads on a demonic cult, not looking to make them think there’s competition, right?’ Stathis gestured at Janaxia’s clothing, only a headpiece, veil and sacrificial dagger away from being a cult priestess herself, all clinging, shiny blacks and crimsons.
Not that you would be aware of such things, but there are certain standards to be maintained, even amongst the more roguish elements of society. Unlike Semari’s friends, these maintain themselves in style. Unless you were planning on harassing some vagabonds in the hope they knew something? Simply let me take care of things. Although I still consider it rude how you treat your sister. She is a famous hero, you owe her respect
‘Her work I appreciate. Her everything else? Not so much. Anyway, shouldn’t you be contacting your family, let them know you’re OK, tell them how the family place is doing?’
It was a cheap shot, but at least it got Janaxia to back off and stop pestering her about Carissia, her face tightening. Whatever her relationship with her family was, it didn’t seem friendly, even compared to Stathis’ own bickering with Carissia.
The area they were walking through seemed largely unscathed by the recent attack, expensive scents drifting into the air, the street pristine, discreet signs marking the presence of fancy restaurants, casinos and other, more exotic entertainments for the wealthy. There were probably some here that didn’t even know the attack had happened, having been too absorbed in their own pleasures to notice or care.
‘So, we, like, going to find some thugs or something?’ Semari was walking along a stone wall, separating the street from the expensive properties surrounding it, almost a metre about Stathis’ head.
‘Something like that. Janaxia apparently knows some people that might help.’ Although had been remarkably hazy about the details, and to quite what degree they were actually ‘people’. Or if they were friends, allies, or simply dilettantes. Still, if they operated in the town itself, they probably weren’t too monstrous. Hopefully.
Janaxia stopped at one of the elaborately anonymous doors, this one bearing a heavy knocker, shaped like a serpent’s head. She raised it, then let it thud against the heavy wood with a dull resonance. Semari hopped down, joining them at ground level. The door was opened by a figure wearing a dark green robe, face hidden beneath a deep hood.
Stathis’ hand flashed to her sword, as the figure stepped forward.
Oh, don’t be so dramatic ‘Lead on.’ Janaxia spoke, calmly commanding.
The doubling up of the mind-speech and actual speech was confusing, as the robed figure turned, gesturing them inside. Stathis let Semari go first, reasoning that her agility would make her the best suited to deal with any ambushes. The decoration inside did little to set her mind at ease, a long, dimly lit stone hallway, niches in the walls filled with intricately carved statues, human figures writhing against each other. Semari looked at them, turning her head to check them from all angles before Stathis pulled her away.
The passageway led them downwards, angled downwards into the rock, lit only by flickering torches, shadows turning the statues into eerie, twisted things. Slots cut into the walls revealed other chambers, dimly-seen furniture hulking in the shadows, unnerving curves and spikes of metal catching the light. Their passage was blocked by a large metal door, embossed details lurid enough that enough Janaxia seemed taken aback.
The doors slid open, smooth and silent, a waft of thick incense drifting into the hallway. Stathis coughed, eyes adjusting to the sudden brightness, one hand on her hilt just in case. The chamber in front of her wouldn’t have been amiss in a palace, every surface shining brightly, huge pillars sheathed with likely the thinnest gold leaf possible, large metal basins popping and crackling with scented woods.
Assorted attendants, all attractive and dressed to show it, lounged on cushions, or gambled with guests, marked out by their clothing. A roulette wheel spun and clattered, crisply dressed attendant announcing the numbers, cards shuffling, dice clacking. Several of the nobles gave them blank faced stares. Several guards were at their ease, leaning on the walls, although all with weapons ready to hand. At one table, surrounded by a gaggle of courtiers, was Lady Kamarni, Semari drifting towards her before Stathis hauled her back in. The lady had visited a few times since Semari had saved her, often showing up unannounced, and bringing food, to Semari’s delight. Her eyes looked blank and lifeless though – must be on a loosing streak at the tables.
Those in charge were easy to spot, stood on a raised balcony overlooking the rest of hall, with a brightly painted snake’s head looming above them, fangs extended. Almost a matched pair, male and female, both wearing sharp, elegant suits trousers and waistcoats, something even Stathis recognised as highly fashionable, although more practical than most fops wore, something that could be fought in. Both looked down at them, grinning in anticipation, raising cups as if in toast. Although seeming human, both had an odd feature; one arm that was red, crimson flesh mottled into more normal colours at the shoulder. The man on his left, the woman on her right, either a very strange tattoo, or result of some magical accident.
As they moved closer, Janaxia took the lead, moving through the crowd, ignoring the guards as she walked up the stairs to their private balcony. It had a commanding view over the room, allowing them to see their domain, as well as having a private bar and some comfortable seats. No doubt somewhere for the more public side of shady business to be done, so that everyone could see business was being done without knowing the details.
Janaxia hugged them both, her red lash pulsing slightly as their faces brushed past each other, swapping swift, formal kisses onto each other’s cheeks. This close, Stathis could see that the nails on their crimson arms could more accurately be called claws, black, hard and sharp, and decidedly at odds with the rest of their cultured appearance.
‘These are old friends of mine; the Khem siblings, Anef and Asai.’ She gestured at them, first the male, then the female, as they both gave slight bows.
‘So, you must be the demon slayer?’ It was the woman, Asai, that spoke, claws tapping on a table, pushing into the tough wood without any visible effort on her part, gouging it.
Janaxia simpered, sliding onto a long couch and stretching herself out, reclining entirely at her ease. Stathis settled for awkward handshakes, Asai’s arm feeling normal, despite it’s looks. ‘Hi. Yes, it’s about the demons. So, first thing, is this cover for a murder cult? Because it looks a lot like cover for a murder cult.’
She looked back over the hallway, now seeing that the entranceway was shaped into the maw of a snake, any visitors getting disgorged into the chamber. From her elevated viewpoint, she could see over internal walls, into chambers appointed with a variety of (hopefully mock) altars, albeit equipped with more cushions and chains than was usual, at least in Stathis’ experience of temples, and more of the overarching ‘snake’ motif.
Stathis, don’t be rude!
‘Just a bit of theatre, something to draw the punters in.’ Asai smiled, her fangs making it less than soothing. ‘A regular casino and brothel is not worthy of comment, so we made it a little more… intriguing, a touch more exciting. Something for even the more jaded nobility, and, more importantly, their gold. I’m sure we would have something to tempt even one such as you.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Drink?
‘Not right now, thanks. So, demons. You know anything about them?’ An attendant appeared from behind the bar with a tray of drinks, Stathis waving them away, as Semari scooped up a shotglass, downing something green and sticky-looking.
It was Anef’s turn to speak, as he sat down and leant back, shirt half unbuttoned to reveal a smooth, lean chest, edge of a tattoo visible on his chest, a dragon’s eyes staring at her. Out of the corner of her eye, Stathis could see Semari ogling him. ‘Just simple people, doing a simple business. A highly profitable one, but nothing illegal. Well, nothing too illegal.’
Stathis kept an eye on his tattoo, just in case it started moving. ‘Look, I don’t really care about the gambling. But, Demons. They will destroy everything, destroy the world, all that stuff. So, unless you want to be devoured by howling monsters from the endless chaos outside of existence, it would be helpful if you were to tell me anything murder-cult related that you might have seen. Ritual circles, creepy murders, that sort of thing.’
‘And what may we expect in return from you, Stathis of the House of Iristari?’ Asai stepped in close to her, their eyes locking – her pupils were oddly shaped, yellow and slitted, some of her skin looking oddly patchy.
‘OK, I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what I need to know, and I don’t tell Carissia about this place.’ It was her trump card, but Stathis really couldn’t be bothered to negotiate with any subtlety.
‘Oh? Having such a famed adventurer as the Azure Mage attend would be quite the draw.’
‘You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But you think you’ll get out unscathed? You must have heard about Ganaria of the Emerald Coast, captain of the Ebon Knife? He met my sister. He’s now working as a shipping merchant. Or the Whirlwind Reaper, used to work the Pearl Coast – she’s now a governess, somewhere up in the Stormlands. A place like this?’ She gestured around, taking in the general ambience, the gaudy idolatry of it all. ‘She’ll wreck this place, and either kill you, or reform you. She can be very, very persuasive when she wants to be.’ And often made it clear that the choice was do what she asked, or face obliteration.
The twins glanced between each other, unsure what to make of this as Stathis continued. ‘The Whitesnake Gang? They moved into haulage. Actual, legitimate road haulage, because it was easier than dealing with her again. Well, the survivors, at least. The Lightning Lord is now a shipping clerk, up in Westhaven. Sure, you’ll probably have some fun, but unless you want a very early, very dull retirement, or a shallow grave, I’d recommend that you stay away from her.’
Stathis picked up a shot glass and downed it, the taste bitter, burning down her throat. ‘So, you can either help me track down the murderous cultists that want us all dead, or you can deal with my sister. Which would you rather?’
Asai was still stood too close to her, although seemed to at least be considering the idea. ‘There are certain… considerations we must take into account. I’m sure certain associates of ours will have taken note that a Knight of the Sun paid us a visit, for example.’
‘OK, so we have a big dramatic fight, you make like you threw us out, then you tell us? I’m sure you know we’re at Janaxia’s place, send a letter or something.’
Anef grinned and chuckled. ‘Oh, I like this one. I thought you were going to appeal to our honour or something.’ There was a steely scraping, as he reached behind his chair, pulling out a pair of knives, edges gleaming in the firelight.
Asai reached up to one of the giant snake fangs, pulling down, a savage-looking blade dropping into her hand. She swung at Stathis, a dramatic and easy-to-block strike, as she yelled.
Semari had already leapt from the balcony onto a chandelier, the shadows stretching and warping crazily as it swung, before she launched herself into a cluster of guards, fists and feet flying. Stathis and Asai duelled, swinging for each other’s blades, loud clangs and clashes as the metal clashed. Anef stepped towards Janaxia, still lounged on the couch, seemingly content to watch over the chaos without exerting herself.
Stathis ducked underneath a wide swing, hauling Janaxia to her feet. ‘Come on, at least put some effort in!’
I thought I would make a rather dashing hostage. And it would be pleasant to catch up with them both, it has been some time after all
A guard charged up the stairs, sword in hand, apparently an imminent enough threat to stir Janaxia to action. She gestured, a blast of energy hitting him and sending him flying downwards.
‘Stop! She has a hostage!’ Asai shouted, raising a hand to signal the guards. Stathis paused, one hand still around Janaxia’s wrist. Well, it was probably the easiest way. She yanked Janaxia in close, sword against her throat, feeling the slight resistance of a protective aura. Handy, just in case Stathis slipped with her blade.
‘Stand your men down, or I’ll cut her throat!’
Anef was smirking, barely holding in laughter. Janaxia was broadcasting some very uncharitable thoughts as Stathis slowly backed down the stairs, having never quite appreciated the awkwardness of keeping a sword against someone’s throat before, especially on uneven footing, keeping her eyes on Anef and Asai, just in case they tried something. Keeping one arm around Janaxia bought its own complexities, her outfit lacking anywhere solid to grab that wouldn’t threaten to destroy it. From behind her came crashes and collisions, before the roulette wheel whirled past her, sending a guard flying.
Asai slowly advanced, blade at the ready, face serious. ‘You will regret the day you crossed us. There will be a reckoning, and it won’t be to your favour!’
‘Oh, please help me, I have been captured by this rough brute of a knight!’ Janaxia squirmed slightly, tossing her hair, now choosing to use her actual voice and sounding far too much like she was enjoying it.
‘Stay back, or I slit her throat!’ Stathis tried to inject as much emotion into her voice as she could, mostly now just wanting to get this farce over with. There was a scream as a guard hurtled through the air, crashing through a table. Stathis backed past Semari, now surrounded by a circle of downed guards and wrecked furniture. Stathis hissed at her. ‘Come on, let’s go!’
Semari shrugged and began sauntering towards the exit, whistling, unconcerned by the half-circle of fighters now headed by Anef and Asai that were advancing towards them. As they passed, she waved at Lady Kamarni, who was watching events unfold with a confused expression.
Walking backwards towards the door seemed to take an eternity, a whoosh of cold air as it opened, allowing them into the hallway outside. As it clanged shut, Stathis had a glimpse of Asai, giving her a swift salute. Stathis hoisted Janaxia over her shoulder, her heels not being suitable for running, and there the danger that she might stay behind to be ‘captured’.
Back on the street, she put Janaxia down, pretending not to see her glowering expression, as they ducked away into a side-alley. A few seconds later, the doorway disgorged a pack of thugs, intent on searching for them, as they made their awkward escape.