“What?” Stepan wasn’t getting it. “What replacement?”
“I’ve lost one of my guards,” Osipov was still speaking with a metallic note in his voice. There was no trace of the smiling old man anymore. “Who volunteers?”
His words were like a bolt from the blue. At this point, I remembered fat Vadim who voluntarily left to serve as a zombie for the merchants. Voluntarily! The old man personally killed one of his and was now demanding that one of us replaced his zombie. Judging by his predatory smile, nothing accidental had happened since our meeting. He was simply playing with us like a cat with mice. Do we have to fight?
“I don’t want to go!” Lena squeaked.
“I don’t need you,” he said, clearly enjoying the situation. “Women are weak. One of you two,” he pointed in the direction of Stepan and Anton.
“No!” Stepan screamed. “Not me! You won’t! Guys, Cat, kill him!”
They lost their nerve so quickly that it was abnormal. The battle couldn’t be avoided. In the meantime, events accelerated even more. Not wasting time, Cyril summoned two daggers and rushed at the old man, while Sergey took out his crossbow. I tried to cast Arcobaleno, having realized that it wasn’t the right time for saving my trump cards... But I was too late. It felt like the light was turned off in my head, and the whole world was gone. When I came to my senses, I found myself standing behind a column for some reason, covered in dirt, bruises and stone chippings. I could also see the battle with the monsters through a blurry haze. Wait, monsters? Sharp pain shot through my head. We were attacked by the old man with a couple of zombies, weren’t we? More pain. Trying to grasp the elusive thought, I habitually reached for my head and touched a bleeding cut. The already familiar flash of pain completely changed the scene in front of my eyes. Cyril was staggering with a crossbow bolt sticking out from his left shoulder blade as he desperately tried to grab it and pull it out with his right hand. Sergey was pinned to the ground, shifting his gaze from the groaning Cyril to Lena... Lena, who was choking Stepan with a rope. Was this all just an illusion?
“Stop it!” I shouted, gasping. “Stop it!”
The girl loosened her grip and fearfully jumped back from the man, who immediately grabbed his throat and fell on his back. Cyril fell to his knees, hissing in pain. Anton just stood at a distance, not willing to move.
“Well, if someone asks, why not stop?” Osipov said mockingly.
Getting tangling in my own legs, I went back to where I had seemed to be a few seconds ago. Stepan was alive, lying on his back and gasping, trying to catch his breath as Lena had almost strangled him.
“Bastard, you could have killed me!” Cyril yelled at Sergey, wincing in pain.
“I... I…! I’m so sorry!” he fearfully muttered.
“H-hell,” Anton said barely audible and fell heavily to the ground. Lena cried, wiping tears off of her cheeks.
“I suppose that there has been a slight misunderstanding,” the old man calmly said. “I’ll take them both. As a penalty.”
“We didn’t agree on anything in the first place,” I said, risking causing more trouble.
“Vasily,” Osipov calmly said to me, “you are a smart man, I see that. I’m sure you understand that demanding anything from me is a waste of time.”
I kept silent as I knew that he was right.
“I’m taking two your companions,” he continued. “Don’t worry, not forever. I’ll release them as soon as I’ve finished exploring one rather interesting place. A week, two at most. I’ll even increase their stats as a reward... If they,” he smiled oddly, “want to come back, that is.”
The last bit alarmed me; really bothered me, to be precise. If it wasn’t idle chatter, which I didn’t think it was, this zombie work was even more dangerous than I imagined.
“Do you see my geas?” It wasn’t easy, but I finally made a decision. It wasn’t easy though.
The old man obviously thinks that he has me cornered, so why not take advantage of that? I lost two members of my detachment; the least I can do is get some information in return. He obviously won’t answer my questions, but I can try to learn something new from the questions he asks me. It was risky. However, if I just walk past this mystery, it could turn into even greater losses for me in the future. I was also afraid that if I wouldn’t play some silly, naive and safe card, we wouldn’t be left alive for long, despite all of the touching words. What do cynics laugh at? Nobility? Why don’t I play that card then?
“I do,” the old man smiled.
“How about a question then?”
Truth for Truth has been activated.
“Under which circumstances will you let them go?” I took a great risk asking that question. It wasn’t like the “yes or no” ones. There were many options, so the old man could ask me an equally serious question. I had to make him believe that these two were important to me.
“Provided that they will want that,” Osipov smiled again.
Amused, are you? I turned a smile into a disappointed expression with great effort.
“Can you influence their will?” I carefully asked, still playing my role.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Do you want to keep them?” The finishing touches…
He paused, making me grit my teeth.
“No,” he finally said, bursting into laughter. He was speaking the truth. It was my turn now.
I hoped that I would be lucky.
“What are you really doing in the Forbidden City?” Osipov asked ruthlessly.
“I’m looking for my master,” I answered, mentally giving up. Considering how he had started our conversation, the question was pretty easy to predict, so I had planned the answer beforehand. Now it was his turn to get nervous.
The old man’s face suddenly changed. He was surprised. Gotcha.
“Who’s your master?” he quickly asked.
Unequal question, the system came to my rescue. It had never happened before. It seemed that by asking questions that I wasn’t particularly interested in, I was making it harder for my interlocutor to maneuver.
Osipov grimaced but immediately came to his senses.
“Is it Hungers?” he asked.
“No,” I said, smiling. I wondered why he thought about one of the Reapers in first place.
Osipov pretended not to be upset, but his look became heavier than before. He had one last question.
“Is it Hungers’s apprentice?” he solemnly smiled.
“I have no idea,” I said calmly. I really wasn’t in the know and I still wanted to make up for the recent battle.
Truth for Truth has been 100% completed.
I could barely stop shivering. Was it worth it? Perhaps. I discovered new features of my geas, and, at the same time, learned that the old man was probably an apprentice of one of the Reapers. Who else would have thought of them? Also, we were still alive.
“Well,” Osipov said in a cold voice. “We’re even. I will return your men soon, as per our agreement.”
Having paused, he slowly took a long knife with a patterned blade out from the folds of his cloak. Approaching the frozen Stepan and Anton, he plunged it into their necks. Stepan stopped wheezing, and his pale skin turned green. Anton, on the contrary, turned black and got covered with some kind of bluish mold. They both stood up and shuffled after Osipov.
“It’s almost morning,” the old man said, looking over his shoulder. “It’ll be easier for the shadows to move. Have you forgotten about that?”