9-6

But, while she was still marshalling her thoughts, Kihri spoke again.

“…okay, that was a bit of a… creative mis-truth,” she said slowly. Almost… embarrassed? “I know what to do next, but I need you to-”

“Where?” Zarah hadn’t even realised she was speaking until the word was out, and then she was already on her feet, wrapping the hammer back up in the stained and torn shirt.

Kihri blinked, and for the brief moment before she settled back into her default calm smugness, a flash of a smile flickered across her face. “Why, my young pupil, we are going… to the library!”

“Okay,” Zarah said, flushing the toilet even though she hadn’t used it. “Why?”

“Oh come on- …wait, what did you say?”

“Okay,” she repeated. “Lead me.”

“You’re not going to… protest, or complain, or something?”

She shot her sister a confused glance. “No. Why would I?”

“…no reason.”


As it turned out, there was a very good reason.

Zarah had been distracted, keeping an eye out for the stranger, and so even though she would have ordinarily recognised the route, she hadn’t cottoned on until they rounded the corner and the building itself came into view.

She stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, cutting off Kihri’s idle chatter, and immediately turned and began walking in the opposite direction.

“Oh, come on!” her twin protested, swooping down to intercept her. “I thought you were cool!”

“That was before,” Zarah snapped back, “I knew you were meaning this library.”

“Wait, what? What other library would I be talking about?”

“There are many libraries!”

“That we visit? Like, ever?”

“We… we are doing that sometimes,” Zarah protested weakly.

“Oh yeah? Name one time.”

“…”

“That’s what I thought.” Kihri sighed, folding her arms. “Look, Z, I’m sorry, but you knew we were gonna have to come back here at some point.”

“Not while it is opening!

“We were gonna have to try and do some research eventually, so yes while it’s open. Have your gay crisis another time, suck it up, and let’s go already. I need to use the good computer before Horny Greg gets in at 11.”

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9-5

Zarah dragged a hand down her face. “Can you listen to yourself? You sound like a paranoid.”

“Yeah, and I’d also sound paranoid if I tried to explain literally anything else from the last two days. Who would believe you, if you tried to tell people about your dead sister who talks to you? Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Zarah hated to admit it, but she wasn’t. “…the Kihri Is Always Right Foundation?” she asked instead.

“Established in 1022, for the express purpose of ensuring that the world would always know not to fucking step to me.”

“<March seventh, 1022, Kihri Vyas is born, and the world became just a little bit sadder.>”

“Oh fuck you,” Kihri replied, and Zarah flinched even though she knew it was joking. It had always been like that, even before Kihri had started insisting they speak this stupid, clumsy language, before…

Just before. Kihri had always been… not charming, exactly, the tendency to insult and belittle wasn’t new. But she’d always known how to make it not sting, to make people laugh when she called them names instead of making them angry. Zarah had the reverse talent, she’d supposed – she’d always had a knack for making people angry without saying anything offensive, and then when the tables had turned, the insults and jabs felt like hot needles under her skin that built and built until she couldn’t bear it anymore, and then Kihri would end up using that same talent to prevent it from ending in blows. Or, more often, to smooth things over after it already had.

“Hey, space cadet.” Zarah started, and realised she’d drifted off in thought. Kihri was perched over her, imitating the way she had both her legs off the ground and feet pressed against the door, except Kihri wasn’t sitting on anything, and her feet pressed against empty air. “You okay?

She nodded, not really feeling up to speech.

“Oh, good, I was worried I was gonna spend the rest of my unlife watching you daydream in a public shitter. Unless you have other plans, hint hint please leave the bathroom.”

Where now? Zarah had been avoiding thinking about, mostly because she was worried if she did she’d hit a dead end.

9-4

It was faster than her, to boot, and its constant attacks had nearly allowed the stranger to catch up, until Zarah managed to land a solid kick and send it flying away. And from there, it was no contest. They might have had magic, but no-one knew how to disappear in a city better than a street rat.

After a few extra minutes of ducking through alleys and shopfronts, to make sure they were clear, they’d finally stopped at train station, and, after checking that a particular security camera was still broken, had slipped inside a stall in the bathrooms to recover.

“<In my defense,>” Zarah said hoarsely, “<I was a little busy.>”

“Excuses, excuses. Seriously, though, I’m wondering something. That pissy little hornet presumably had those explosives on them the entire time, right? And they didn’t use them, or even try to?”

“…right.”

“So either they forgot about it – which, no – or… they knew it wouldn’t be effective.”

It took a second for the words to sink in. “Are you saying…”

“I mean,” Kihri shrugged, “nothing’s killed you yet? Maybe that’s indicative of something.”

“That is not- That cannot-” She found herself tightening her grip, knuckles white. “That is ridiculous. This thing, it would- we would know about it! Everyone would know about it!”

“Okay,” Kihri acknowledged, “maybe, like, ‘immortal’ is a stretch, but one: literally every part of this is a stretch, and two: there’s apparently a whole bunch of shit that we don’t know about, that nobody knows about, nobody here anyway.” She paused, mouth hanging slightly open as she thought. “Actually, maybe that’s something. The tentacle guy, he had an accent, right?”

“I… think yes?”

“Right, and I’d put good money on the pintsize back there being a Suncoaster of some kind. So out of the three people we know are involved in this freaky woo-woo, two of them aren’t from here, and ‘Metzin’ sounds like a Gaithien name to me. So maybe there’s some kind of… blockade? Censorship or suppression or whatever, keeping knowledge of – actually, you know what, fuck it, I’m just gonna say it – magic, hidden from Ostra.”

9-3

Behind a cordon, the building’s employees clustered in a confused, bored mass, most of them on their phones.

Zarah wasn’t sure why the firefighters or EMTs had been called, but surely soon they’d realise there was no actual fire or any danger, and-

There was a flash of bright light, followed instantly by a deafening boom and the crack of shattering glass. Above the entrance, all of the windows of one floor of the building had been blown outwards by an explosion, a thick cloud of smoke and dust billowing outwards.

“▓▓▓▓▓▓▓!” Zarah glanced over, and realised Kihri was yelling something, gesticulating wildly, but she couldn’t make out the words over the muffled ringing in her ears. She got the basic idea of ‘move backwards’, though, and she stepped back into the fire escape, making a ‘what?’ gesture at her sister.

Her question was answered an instant later, as tiny fragments of glass began to plink down onto the concrete, faster and faster until it almost looked like rain. She could see the emergency workers beginning to panic, ducking for cover as blood began to splatter on the ground.

The shower only lasted a few seconds, but it was more than enough to thoroughly disrupt and distract the authorities, the previously-idle EMTs suddenly having to rush to the aids of the other services, and to more than a few of their own.

As it turned out, that was apparently the point. Because, out of view of the entrance but not to Zarah, a small side door opened, and the stranger stepped out, followed by their hound. Instantly, uncannily, their head snapped around, staring straight at Zarah, and slowly raised their arm, pointing two fingers at her.

They ran.


“A thought occurs,” Kihri said later, as Zarah panted, bent over double on the seat and still recovering. “I mean, I had it ages ago but you weren’t listening then.”

Initially, it had been a close thing. Zarah had immediately taken off, counting on the street full of police to slow them down, but the hound hadn’t been deterred by that in the slightest.

9-2

“Thank you for your patronage of the Kihri Is Always Right Foundation!” a familiar voice crowed. “We hope you enjoyed your reminder of our core purpose.”

Kihri’s head rose out of the ground, bearing a smug grin. “So how long is it oh Saints holy shit, dude! You got fucked up!”

“<Wow,>” Zarah said hoarsely, “<it’s almost like jumping out a window is a bad idea or something.>”

“Spoken like a true square. Besides, why are you complaining? You’ll heal!” She paused and made a face. “Ooh, actually, there we go! Gotta admit, seeing bones slide back into place is a new one, even for me.”

Zarah resisted the impulse to look, but she could still feel it – a powerful, bone-deep itch as muscles and nerves knitted themselves back together, just in time to let her feel the uniquely awful sensation of bones moving underneath them. She caught the bile rising in her throat just in time and squashed it down, then closed her eyes and let her head flop back down.

“Uh, Z-dog? You okay there? Don’t tell me you fainted from that, that’s not even the worst injury you’ve had today.”

“I am waking,” she grumbled. “No point in moving until it all heals, and I do not want to watch it.”

Kihri let out a long, drawn-out groan. “You’re so fucking boring, oh my god. You’re really gonna let a few horrifically, grisly, unbelievably lethal injuries get you down?”

“…you are one to talk.”

Kihri let out an ugly snort. “Fucking okay then! Fair point!”

“…I am sorry, that was inappopriate.”

“Fuck, come on, man! Don’t roll it back when you get a sick burn in! Relish that shit!”

“You know that not everyone enjoys being a dick hole, yes? Just you.”

Kihri was silent for a second. “…urethra,” she said, sulking.

“What?”

“…the dick hole. It’s called the urethra.”

“…”

“…shut up.”


A cacophony of sirens and flashing lights greeted them when they emerged back onto the street, having used the building’s fire stairs to circumvent the occupied areas. Emergency service vehicles were clustered around the entrance to the Aruspex building, officers and firefighters and EMTs (although the latter didn’t seem to have anything to do).

8-6 / 9-1

“…you really think that will be enough? You’re not worried about the Oracle?”

Khoura scoffed, waving a hand. “These days, that imbecile couldn’t predict his own bowel movements. Besides, they gave me an operational command – they don’t get to be mad when I make operational decisions. And, as you just touched on, I’d rather not be part of an organisation that is willing to dispose of its own soldiers so casually.”

“Easy for you to say, when you’re not the one who has to carry them.”

She grinned. “Truly, Myra, I’m disappointed, that you believe I would make moral decisions just to avoid doing work.”

“But you would make them just to have an excuse to get me all sweaty,” Myra grumbled as she bent to pick them up.

“Oh, please,” Khoura winked. “I don’t need an excuse for that.”



Chapter Nine: Earn My Life (in which actions have consequences, some more immediate than others)

(Read the entire chapter at once)

Falling had been as fun as landing wasn’t.

The pull of the wind on her hair, the roar in her ears, the strange floatiness in her stomach – she’d always thought skydiving was insane, but for the first time she started to understand the appeal. Even the ground rushing rapidly towards her was thrilling, somehow – even as she screamed her throat raw.

Then, after what felt like an eternity and an instant simultaneously, she hit the hard concrete of the roof, and mercifully blacked out.

Zarah came to slowly, every part of her body screaming in pain, her vision blurry and out of focus. She was propped awkwardly up against something, her neck twisted in a way that didn’t feel natural or safe, one arm draped awkwardly over her head and the other splayed out in front of her, fingers still clenched tightly around the hammer. At first, she thought that it was glowing through her hand, but the patches of red were actually where the bones had torn through the skin and exposed muscle.


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8-5

“That’s certainly a possibility,” Khoura acknowledged with a tilt of the head. “But, if they’re too aggressive, everybody else starts looking at them and wondering things like ‘now, can we really risk having a faction this volatile around?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be safer if they were removed?’ and all the other eloquent justifications for killing people and taking their stuff that make up the core of world politics. Spiders and spider webs, dear Myra, spiders and spider webs. Every action reverberates outwards.”

Myra frowned, brow creasing in thought. “So he’s… a probe?”

Khoura nodded. “Exactly. They’re testing the waters, if you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors.”

“Always.”

“If they can prove this business with Metzen is true, then the blades will come out, and those will be some dark days for us all. If they can’t, though…” she shrugged a shoulder. “Well, he’s just one novice, and a rather dim one at that. If he sticks his elbows out too far and violates Stonelaw, well, no great loss.”

“…that’s awfully cruel, don’t you think? He’s still a person.”

“If you had seen the evidence I have, Myra, you might be more amenable to there being one less Blackguard in the world.” The younger woman folded her arms, clearly unimpressed, and after a moment, Khoura sighed, her features softening. “But, yes, you’re right. It is cruel, to be so blase about the loss of life. Unfortunately, sometimes that is just the way of the world.”

“…y’know, I hear that a lot, but somehow, the people saying it are never the ones who actually suffer from ‘the way of the world’.”

“I-” Dr. Khoura paused, then chuckled, shaking her head slightly. “You are right, Myra, you are absolutely right, I’m sorry. I knew I kept you around for something.”

Myra relaxed, her posture softening, and a quick smirk crept across her face. “Oh, so you’re not just using me for my body?”

“There can be multiple reasons.” They shared a quick smile, then Khoura dropped her hand and turned back towards the valley below. “Now, let’s get these two back to their post before they wake up, and swear them to secrecy and whatnot.”