December 2017


The waves were crashing on the shore; it was a lovely sight. Italy is now my favorite country; in fact, I plan to spend two more weeks there next year. If I don’t like something, I’ll stay away from it; before this past visit, I hadn’t been to Italy in a decade.

The memories of those waves were just too near.

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“Of course.” the words echoed up the elevator shaft, creaking and sepulchral. “What else but for the building, my building, to be my flesh? The furnace beats as a heart, the elevators pump as blood. But as any body, sustenance is required.”

The doors cracked open invitingly, bleeding light into the hallway–an alluring, otherworldly light.

“Come.”

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“What, exactly, is Rat Schism?” said Taylor, looking at her vandalized MERRY CHRISTMAS letter blocks.

“It commemorates the 1054 split between the brown and black rats,” said Chris, “when the Rat Pope excommunicated the Rat Patriarch and vice versa. Centuries of strife followed, and only now are the first embers of reconciliation stirring.”

“I think it means you’re sleeping on the couch tonight.”

“Fair enough.”

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“Looks like he broke the lock and had been living in here,” the detective said. “Makes sense. The substation’s a lot warmer than outside, and it’s not checked unless there’s a problem.”

“So you think…accidental electrocution?” said the officer/

“I think we were meant to believe it was,” said the detective. “But there’s just one thing that doesn’t add up. The electricity clearly entered his body here, and left here. There’s no conceivable way, based on how he was found that it could have entered his body through the small of his back.”

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“This sacred document has been handed down in my family for a century. Now I come before you to demand that you make it right.”

The CEO of PowerCo squinted at the fine print. “Summon the Battery Council,” he rumbled. “We have our first claim on the 100-year guarantee.”

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Miss Scarlet had a .30-30 cartridge in her hands, and she was focusing every ounce of the Art she could into it, whispering cantrips for speed, accuracy, and above all, discretion into its very fabric. She felt the power leaving her, and prayed that it would enter the cartridge as she had planned and not simply dissipate as magics sometimes did. It wasn’t a simple spell to charm a rich customer, or frighten off a deadbeat.

One of her girls’ lives was at stake.

“A scab, yes, I see,” she said. “Certainly not a festering ulcer, raw and wet, where people from the east and the wild folk are at each others’ throats for everything from misunderstanding to murder. Certainly not giving people like my girls and the wild folk out there the only tools I can to prevent your boots from crushing them like at New Marvel.”

“That’s not how it is!” Jed screamed. “The wild folk are over! Spent! They only haven’t realized it yet! Just like the mages were over and spent! I’m doing what needs to be done, and if you don’t like my methods, you just need to think how many lives it’ll save! Every dead person under my orders is saving a dozen others!”

Scarlet quietly slid the enchanted round into her repeater and slowly worked the well-oiled action, bringing the hammer back and filling the chamber.

Then she twisted the knife. “And how many dozens do you have to save through murder, Mr. Edenburner, before the ghosts of New Marvel will let you sleep?”

With an inarticulate scream, Jed raised his pistol. It was out, away from his body, exposed. Just what Miss Scarlet had been waiting for. She took careful aim, whispered a last few words of magicks, and pulled the trigger.

True to its commands, the bullet was an avenger of accuracy, cutting through the wooden door like soft butter before impacting the hinge that held Edenburner’s break-action revolver together. The impact jolted the weapon from his hand, and as it sprang free the weapon parted in two, its ejector spitting all his bullets onto the floor. Before Jed could bring up his other gun, Miss Scarlet had kicked in the door with an Art-enhanced kick and a weak but well-placed spell of opening.

She swept Jed’s hand aside with a well-placed buttstroke with her repeater, and brought its barrel to rest square on his chest. The next round was a plain old lead slug, but that was all it had to be.

“The next shot will end you, Mr. Jedidiah Edenburner,” Miss Scarlet said. “So think very carefully about what you say next.”

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Miss Scarlet leaned back, took a deep breath. Then, she straightened. “It’s a fine bit of reconnaissance, Mr. Edenburner,” she said. “You’ve certainly lived up to the standard I imagine they expected in Mandrill’s Raiders. You’ve found the enemy, found his weakness, and struck hard and fast.”

This time, it was Jed’s turn to be silent at the mention of the Raiders.

“In fact, I’d say that this is an awful lot like the way Colonel Mandrill planned the Sack of New Marvel, wouldn’t you?” Scarlet continued. “Scout the enemy extensively, seize a strong point, and then let the enemy destroy themselves?”

“You, of all the sapients around here, should appreciate what we did that day,” Jed said. A dark note had crept into his voice, and his earlier warning about being baited crossed Scarlet’s mind. “Those were rebels in the heart of their poisonous countryside, and if they had carried the day, you and all your people, whoever they are, would be thralls or worse.”

“It must have been going through your mind with each thrust of your saber, that,” said Scarlet. “I imagine, once the men broke and fled, that each woman and child you put to the sword, you yelled that out loud. ‘You’re a rebel in the heart of a poisonous countryside, and if you carry the day, people who I’ll one day threaten and bluster will be thralls or worse.'”

Jed was on his feet moving toward the door, and with such feral agility that Scarlet scooted backwards as if he was going to come straight through the door. “You think I don’t feel anything over that?” he snarled. “You think I got off easy? I see their faces every night, Miss Scarlet. Every. Night. And the only thing that keeps me from kissing my revolver and letting every ounce of pain just blow away is the ironclad, unshakable notion that I was doing my job. I was following orders.”

His hand was trembling, the revolver pointed at no one in particular. Scarlet reached down, as quietly as she could, and picked up her repeater.

“And where’s that gotten you, all this following orders?” Scarlet said. “Here in my boudoir, holding hostage the very sort of person, in my Pearl, that you say all the people at New Marvel died to protect. You’ll forgive me, Mr. Edenburner, if I wonder how the same orders can have such opposing effects?”

“You’d dare–dare!–to suggest that I am betraying what I did in the war?” Edenburner howled. “Colonel Mandrill was a good and noble man, and he knew the rebels and their foul magics were a scab that had to be ripped off for the wound to heal! That’s all I’m doing here!”

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