“Start diagnostic,” Greyson said.
Magic itched and stroked all around Heather’s torso and neck. Runes on the jacket came to life, some hidden within the lining, and still others doing something inside her very bones. A dull, throbbing headache sprung up, then vanished.
Heather’s mouth continued to move, outside of her control, her voice flat and devoid of inflection as the jacket spoke through her.
“Wearer has suffered multiple concussions and moderate hearing loss. Wearer has calcification along bones indicative of armor usage and horseback riding. Both shoulders have suffered minor calcification indicative of repetitive stress injury. Wearer has suffered liver inflammation and scarring. Wearer has calcification of hands and fingers-“
“Pause,” said Greyson. He gave an apologetic glance to Heather. “Skip all further reports of calcification of bones. I’m sure our knight here has had plenty of wear and tear. Resume.”
“Wearer has unusually reduced hippocampus size. All other internal organs nominal. Warning! Deactivated foreign internal rune detected-“
“Pause!” barked Greyson. He made a gesture.
The world went dark and silent again around Heather as her jacket cut her off from her senses, and she strained against the other that now surrounded her mind. It felt like the emotional equivalent of being trapped in mud. She wanted to thrash in surprise and terror, but succeeded in nothing more than quickening her breathing.
Foreign internal rune?! Heather’s mind raced. Deactivated. What happens when if it gets activated?
Terror coursed through her. Criminals routinely plant bomb-runes in their underlings. Has Greyson done something like that to me? Worse, has someone else? If it was someone else, why would he hide it from me? Oh Saints, what if knowing about it triggers it?
Her jaw was still moving. She could feel her tongue and jaw and throat all working to make words, but she couldn’t hear a word she was saying. The world remained stubbornly black around her.
Come on, let me back in! This is my body! Heather raged. You don’t get to pick what I do and don’t see!
Evidently, she was wrong. When vision and hearing returned to her a few moments later, Greyson looked visibly withdrawn. His eyes were narrowed and downcast, and his hands were clasped together so tightly the knuckles were white.
“End diagnostic mode.”
“Ending diagnostic mode.”
Heather sagged, and almost fell. She leaned against the gurney for support, dazed, her heart racing, gulping for air. “Okay what in all the hells was that, sir?”
“Someone outside the church tagged you with a rune, and it looks like somebody else deactivated it. Do you have any idea where it came from? Tell the truth now, Knight.”
Tell the truth? Why the hell would I ever lie? she thought. And then frowned, because she could think of a dozen good reasons, theoretically, or… no, wait, she couldn’t. Surely they existed.
Icy dread coursed up her spine, and she hesitated. I should be perfectly able to think of good reasons to lie about something. Maybe not great reasons, but valid reasons. I can think of how to lie to someone else. Not that Mama raised a liar, but…
Her jaw betrayed her, her voice once more not her own. “Wearer is triggering informational deviation prevention protocols.”
“Don’t,” said Greyson, leveling a finger at her. “Saints help you, Knight, you don’t lie to me.”
“I wasn’t going to, sir!” she barked back, and her voice was her own once more. “You didn’t tell me this damn thing decides how and what I can think about!”
“It’s there to protect information you hold, Heather. That includes its accuracy, veracity, and ensuring you tell the complete and utter truth to your commanding officers, when prudent. That’s essential. Trying to elide that triggers countermeasures.”
Heather sagged against the gurney, and her legs had had enough; she sank down to the floor, sprawling on her ass, letting the shakes roll through her. She tried to think about… anything. And her thoughts spiraled back in to the foreign rune, somewhere in her body. “I don’t know anything about a foreign rune, sir. Wait, was it the one Captain Ramdas’s coat put on my tongue?”
“No. It definitely came from outside our branch. You’re sure, absolutely sure, you don’t know anything about being tagged by someone else’s rune?”
“Not a thing, sir,” Heather said. “I, uh, the jacket, it said it was deactivated. Can it be activated?”
“Let me check,” said Greyson.
The world went dark and silent around her again, her own senses cut off again. She tamped down her terror.
Just breathe deeply, Heather, she thought. Assuming I have any control over my breathing right now. Or that I’m even breathing, right now.
The world blinked back into view, and her own raspy breathing sounded out in her ears.
Well, that answers that. I can still breathe how I want to when he’s shut my senses off, she thought.
“Well, sir?” Heather asked Greyson.
The old man scowled. “No, it’s been deliberately disabled. It’s not just dormant; it’s been tampered with to be permanently sabotaged, from the looks of it.” Greyson stared down at her. “It’s harmless now, whatever it is. I’ll do some asking around about it later, but you’ve got a job to do right now.”
Heather blinked owlishly up at Greyson. You try mustering up a work ethic between bouts of enforced blind-deafness, and finding out you’ve got someone else’s rune inside you, she thought.
“Target Greyson has a classified number of runes inside his body,” whispered her jacket into her left ear.
Shut up, you, Heather thought.
Greyson gestured with his palm. “Get up, Knight. Now you’re going to have a lot to learn from your jacket, and a short time to learn it in. I want you in Venicia by this time tomorrow. You’re going to rendezvous with Captain Ramdas there. He’s had three church novices and a squire go missing from his church in the last month, so far. All of them vanished during errands or trips outside of the church grounds.”
Heather slowly climbed to her feet, her body still trembling from a mixture of outrage and terror. Even so, her mind detached itself from her emotions. It was easier, with the jacket. All it took was focusing her intent on concentrating, and the jacket did something inside her mind. Her emotions calmed further, her mind floating atop a suddenly placid heart.
Are you helping me do this, jacket? Heather wondered. Enforcing calm on me?
“Yes,” whispered the jacket.
At least you’re good for something. Thank you.
Heather rubbed the back of her head, gathering her thoughts. “Alright. Squires and acolytes vanished, as in they haven’t been found dead yet?”
Greyson nodded. “That’s right. No ransom, no messages, no histories of eloping with lovers. No witnesses have come forward yet, though we haven’t yet made the disappearances public. And while Captain Pramath isn’t a popular figure, being a centaur, this is too discriminate for some citizen with a grudge.”
Heather held up her hand. “My gut says enemy action, sir, and I’m guessing so does yours. But I’m a detective. You don’t retain a detective for their gut.”
“I certainly don’t.”
“You also don’t draw a detective into… whatever this branch is, and then send them off to Venicia just to look into a couple missing people. This has something to do with the crimson cloaks?”
Greyson grunted. “That’s what you’re going to find out. We believe they may have been active in that region of the country before. So go, find our people. Use the resources available to you. You answer to Captain Pramath, he has full need-to-know. Take the sending circle, but charge ordinary fare. Officially, you’re still on holiday. In the right pocket of your jacket, you’ll find the funds for a ticket and reasonable expenses. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. You’re just a church knight on temporary furlough, so far as anyone not briefed on the crimson cloaks needs to know.”
“Maximum discretion, sir.”
“No, Blackthorne, just ordinary discretion. You’re a detective, not a spy.”
Well, that is a relief to hear, she thought.
“Understood, sir. If all this is the cause of enemy action, what’s going to be their response if they catch wind of me there?”
Greyson smiled, and Heather was grateful that kind of smile wasn’t meant for her.
“Then hopefully, they make a mistake,” he replied. “And we exploit it.”
Heather sat with her back to the cathedral district walls, one hand half-sunk into gleaming, perfect marble gone soft as butter as soon as she’d let her unease trickle into it.
She’d meant to pray to Alektos, but the steady murmur of the jacket around her announcing vectors and the presence of magic in a hundred hum-drum places had made concentrating on the words impossible. So she simply trickled her unease into the warm, soft marble that hugged her fingertips, like a friend holding her hand.
Alektos never showed me this kind of attention before, she thought. Jacket?
“Alektos recognizes his own magic,” whispered Jacket. “This unit’s runes are empowered by the spirit directly.”
Heather’s eyebrows shot up. That’s big, big magic then, she thought.
“Yes. The defensive runes Thaumatic rating is-“
Sufficient enough to burn me to ash and glass and do the same for a good little area around me, yes, she thought sourly. Can you stop with all the announcing of people and magic around me? I’m in the city. There’s magic everywhere, and I can feel it already.
“User’s safety is prioritized over comfort,” whispered the jacket.
How about the user’s sanity? Heather thought with a sour grunt.
“User’s sanity is required, and will be enforced.”
That thought gave Heather a sour snort. She stuck a finger in her ear to block out the jacket, and went back to pouring her renewed irritation into the marble under her hand, and the spirit Alektos through it.
Alektos, send my family my love, she prayed. Let them feel me, let them know I’m still trying for them. That I still love them. Show my boy I’m doing a little better. Show my husband I miss him.
She glanced down at her mace on her hip. Show Dad I’m trying to be a good Knight, again, even if Saints know I don’t know what I’ve tumbled into with Greyson’s order.
A distant church bell rang three times, and she drew her hand free of the stone, and hefted her duffel.
Time to go.
The Sending gate welcomed her with a large group of travellers. The ticket price had lightened her pockets, and the boggy heat rising around the city and the marshes beyond was one more reason to be grateful to be going.
She eyed the runes of the Sending Gate warily. I’ve seen one of these split the sky, and slice holes in everything around it. Watched a man fight for his life while Void itself drilled into his skull. Watched him fight for all our lives.
She gave the Merchant Guild attendants a warm nod, but she was one face of a few hundred crowding onto the platform. Magic surged around her, coursing through complex runes, leaving Heather’s skin crawling.
It’s like having a hundred curry-combs running over me at once, all different temperatures, different pressures, she thought. It wasn’t a wholly unpleasant sensation, but it was intense.
“Gate-sending protocols undeviated,” whispered her jacket. “Anticipate transmission in three seconds. Recommend holding nose and gently blowing.”
Heather hastily did, the air pressure change coming on as suddenly as the change of the sky did. Magic flashed through her, around her, and her skin abruptly fell still, tingling with the residual magic.
She stepped off the platform, eyes sweeping the new plaza, joining the flow of people streaming away from the Guild platforms and out into the waiting bustle of commerce beyond. The plaza was large, at least a hundred meters in diameter, and filled with hundreds of people coming and going from the three large Sending gates that stood in the middle. The sun overhead was hot, but the air lacked the soggy humidity she’d left behind. Overhead, couriers on large kites went to and fro, Air magics and runes propelling them as they directed, bearing their day’s business.
The air smelled of distant spices, garlic, peppers, and roasting chicken. Five steps off of the Sending platform and Heather counted six different musicians and groups busking around the circle. Her jacket began to whisper an incessant litany of detected magic. Merchant Guild runes, vendor runes, talismans, traveller’s personal belongings, guards and knights armor and weapons… She ignored the whispering, and set out on the cobblestones of the plaza, ambling in no particular direction.
Stephen, you’d have loved this, Heather thought, a prickle of sadness flicking cool motes from her fingertips. I’d be fishing you out of every street vendor and café, with cooking like this. I’d have come home with all the ingredients we could carry.
Her eyes lingered over the frontage of a gallery, and the cool shade and colors the paintings inside offered her. Then, out of habit, she swept her gaze carefully across the plaza, taking in faces, outfits, boots, carried items, straining to take in everything at once and commit it to memory, reaching out to feel the prickle and brush of the runes and magic in the air around her.
Just as her gaze swept up to the veranda of a café overlooking the plaza, the back of her head itched. As she reached up to scratch, her jacket’s incessant whispering suddenly grew in intensity. A black spot appeared in her vision, and persisted.
“Alert! Wearer is being targeted by memory-obfuscation and interference patterns. Source appears to be visual. Countermeasures engaged.”
What in all the Saints and evils… Heather wondered as she turned to face the veranda.
The black spot persisted in her vision, blocking the forehead and cheek of a nondescript young blonde man, wearing a red cloak. Heather’s skin prickled.
He’s staring right at me.
Indeed, the young man, was, while his fork and knife made meticulous work of cutting his roast chicken. Heather suppressed a shudder, and strode towards the veranda, eyes locked onto him.
You stay right there. You’re ten feet up on that veranda, with at least two exits to this café. If you run, chances are good I’ll lose you. Maybe you’re just some crook who likes his face forgettable, and picked an unlucky color for your cloak. Maybe, Heather thought.
Judging by the man’s growing smile as she strode towards him with her best law enforcement stare, she doubted it.
He took a bit of his drumstick, and lightly wiggled the bone between his fingers, beaming at her. “Hello, Detective,” he called down.
Maybe not, Heather thought, settling her forearm on the handle of her mace, and working hard to push down the savage fury knotting in her chest. Pretty sure it’s him. Oh Saints, please help me do my job. I run in there and start laying waste, I’m going to ruin a whole lot more than his face.
Clearing her throat, she shifted her stance, staring up. “Don’t suppose it’s too much to hope you’ll come quietly?”
The man in the crimson cloak took another thoughtful bite of his chicken. Flocks of white birds burst into the sky around the plaza, and further out, filling the air with the sound of their rustling passage. Heather took a step back, eyes opening wide.
They’re paper bombs! Like before, at Frostmoor!
“Now what good would that do you, Detective Blackthorne?” the man in the crimson cloak asked, mildly. “Besides. I think you’re about to be terribly busy, far too much for the likes of me.”
The sound of distant explosions rolled through the air like thunder. Heather’s hand leapt to her mace.
“Ah, ah, ah,” said the man in the crimson cloak. “As satisfying and futile as swinging that mace of yours around might be, I really think you ought to be looking for your little friends, right about now.”
He took another bite of his chicken, and more explosions sounded out, closer. The first distant screams reached Heather’s ears, and the mood of the crowd in the plaza turned from cautious alarm to panic.
“But really,” the man in the crimson cloak continued, “if it will make you feel better, swing away. I’ve got so many more.”
Run, you idiot, Heather thought. He’s baiting you. You’ve got no cover out here, exposed in the plaza. Run to cover.
“Wearer is in danger,” her jacket whispered.
Heather’s mace was in her hand, flame wreathing the silvered steel, as she stared hatefully up at the man. “I’m coming for you, and I’ll swing through every one of you.”
She turned on her heel, and sprinted for cover. The sound of the man’s laughter, and distant explosions and screams, hounded her the whole way.
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