by GR "Maya" Cogman
(With thanks to Beth McCoy, who created and wrote Betharan and Tebah, and co-authored this story with me.)
I leaned back in the chair, and changed the channel on the television again: it was another shopping broadcast, flashing faux gems and intricate kitchenwear at me. The blinds were drawn against the morning light, but beyond the window I could hear the grunts and snarls of traffic. A touch of the button changed the channel to news, a sweating man plucking at his tie as he smiled nervously at the camera.
It had been perhaps thirty or forty years since I had been allowed to walk the earth, and it was very sweet to be here again. Of course, what was about to happen would be less sweet.
I turned the television off, and folded my legs under me, grasping my ankles. The posture helped me think, a reminder of other times and other meditations.
In Hell, it had seemed an extremely simple mission. "Take the message across town," I had been told, "from the Tether to the main bank. Pass it over, collect any response, return, and break your trail as many times as you think necessary to avoid pursuit."
I had thrown myself into the job, determined to prove myself again and collect some more corporeal assignments. It wasn't just pride. I could be more _useful_ on the earth, serving my Prince Baal here: of course one couldn't actively say that to a briefing officer, though, as it was unwise to be caught in open disagreement with a superior. Unwise? Painful. Very painful.
The local mall had seemed a good place to lose anybody who might have been trailing me. Pausing for a moment to inspect a shoe-shop window and check for any possible followers, I had seen a face that I knew, and that I should not have seen there. A young man's face, dark hair slicked back in brisk spikes, elegant cheekbones and snub nose and pale brown eyes that verged on amber.
My throat tightened, and I froze, watching the reflection as it pushed between other shoppers. Hepzibah. A Lilim whose name had been on the reports for two months now, with a photo of her current - and only - Vessel, and she or he was walking directly along the mall behind me.
Training took over. I frowned at the glass as though trying to decide between two styles of boots, and shuffled along to get a better angle on him. Summer wear, an acid-stained tshirt and plain worn jeans, a pair of trainers, posture casual. He obviously didn't think that he might be watched.
Perfect. I sighed at the shoes in the window, shrugged, and wandered along the corridor after him.
He came to a halt in the coffee-shop, where there was a larger man waiting for him: red-headed, brutish-looking, busy dismantling a pastry. My instincts said Calabite, and I wondered if this might be another Renegade. Or worse still, an Ofanite and an angel, in which case there was definite trouble: it had been hinted that Hepzibah held some moderately delicate information, and she was wanted badly before she might be able to spill it.
They settled down to coffee and more pastries, muttering in the middle of the swirl of people, and I took a last good look before wandering off. No camera to hand, unfortunately, and it might have panicked them at that. Priority was to alert the people back at the Tether now, and stand by for further instructions.
Which was why I was now sitting and holding my ankles in a hotel room at the top of the mall. Response had been extremely rapid, and the Djinn in charge of the Tether actually looked pleased as he gave me my new briefing. If I was involved in taking Hepzibah in while under his supervision to any extent, it was a bonus on his record. On the other hand, if it was found that she'd been in his city and he hadn't known it, he would have been attempting apologies to an unamused Prince. I was to take a room in the hotel, and wait for personally delivered further instructions: under no circumstances was I to try anything till my briefing or backup arrived.
I had stripped down and reassembled my gun while I waited, checked my various knives, gone through a couple of katas to check that all my muscles were functioning as they should, and eventually resorted to the television as an object of distraction. It had palled. I uncoiled from the chair, wandering over to check my appearance in the bathroom mirror. It looked harmless enough: short dark hair with enough of a curl to it to frame my face, medium height and thin build, pale skin, dark grey eyes in a fragile-boned face. My jeans were worn enough to have the right amount of stretch to them, and the dull green leotard was the sort of top that half the young women in the area might wear. If I added the gun, then I could cover it up conveniently with the leather jacket lying on the bed, or with the wrap-across cardigan that suited the image of some sort of dancer. An image easily classified, and then filed away in the generic "young whatever" file to be forgotten by observers.
I examined the pale skin of my hands and wrists, my unmarked face. I had not seen them like - well, like _this_ for a long time. My eyes seemed strange to me without Baal's tattoos scrawled across cheekbones and forehead, and my hands frail with no scarifications patterned over the lines of sinew and bone.
Vessel, only a Vessel. The truth was within myself and fixed.
There was a knock on the door.
I slipped the gun into its holster at the small of my back, and walked across to peer through the small glass hole. Two people out there, both distorted by the perspective of the glass bead: a slender woman and a bulky man. He had a bored look to him, and she had an eager, unsettling smile that came through even the distortion of the glass.
The man knocked on the door again. His voice was a rough bass. "We're the Game."
I muttered to myself, "Pull the other one. You're smiling." It wasn't meant to be heard: I had got too much into the habit of talking to myself. Still, one didn't expect the Servitors of Asmodeus to wander round with cheerful smiles. Sadistic grins, perhaps - but that was a different matter.
"What, you expect we're going to carry round a Judgement badge?" the woman snarled. Damnation, clearly she had sharp ears. "Open up or I'll open *you*--"
"We're supposed to hunt the Renegade, not the Habbalite," the man grunted at her, with the air of a reminder.
"If she's not cooperating with us..." the woman muttered to him.
I sighed, and said through the door, "If you're angels, that's the best disguise I've ever seen. Okay, I'm opening up. Names and Princes, please."
The woman snapped, "Betharan and Tebah, Game and Game. And whose Habbalite are *you*?"
I opened the door, staying out of reach. "The War. Caliah. To what do I owe this ... honour?"
The woman stalked into the room. "You're going after a Renegade?" She made eye contact with me, giving me the sort of stare which suggested she was a Lilim, and looking for Needs. That would fit her build and attitude, yes. I hoped that she found none. "So are we. Our instructions say to cooperate with the Servitor on the ground. Congratulations, you get to play." She had loose dark hair that fell to her shoulders, curling inwards slightly round her face, cool greenish eyes and flawless skin, set over an elegant face and body that suggested design by Lust. A worn leather jacket was slung over one shoulder, and beneath it she wore casual shirt, jeans, and boots.
The man wandered in after her, air vaguely sulky and apathetic. A Djinn, at a guess. He leaned on the wall, hooded eyes flicking across the room, finally settling on me. He was heavily built, but moved with a casual lightness that would make him dangerous in a fight: pale eyes, pale short-cut hair, worn clothes like the woman, bland and anonymous.
I found a perch on the arm of a chair that allowed me to cover the room. "I hope this cooperation extends to information-sharing." Couldn't let them think they might be intimidating me, after all.
Betharan glanced at the man. "Sharing? I dunno... Teb, what did the file say about sharing?" She was spiking with bloodlust like a slow heartbeat, trapped anger and bitterness.
"Cooperate as necessary." He radiated boredom and mild annoyance, in roughly equal measures.
"Well, I suppose we can share some information." She shrugged. "You first."
I rattled off a description of Hepzibah's Vessel, and how I'd seen her in the mall and followed her to the coffee shop. The two watched me with a stillness like thin ice over deep water, once or twice flicking glances at each other as I spoke, the woman making occasional notes in a small pad. Probably standard Game-tactics to rattle suspects.
I finished, and decided to see if a few demonstrations of warlike nature might get any reaction. There weas a convenient stiletto behind my belt, so I fished it out with an amiable smile and began to pare my nails with it, waiting.
Betharan took a final survey of her notes, then looked at me again. "Okay, so, at the coffee shop, you saw the red-head he was talking to? That's our pet project. They're cooperating, so we have to cooperate. You have any special orders I need to take into account?" Her attitude had returned to one that was all business.
I folded one leg over the other. "Get the job done with minimal disturbance - which means that you tell me about the red-head, before I make a mistake and have to blame somebody for inadequate briefing."
"Mistake?" She affected innocence. "What's to mistake. She's a Heart-shattered Renegade. Line her up for me to drop a noose around her neck, and I'll take care of everything." I kept on watching her, blandly, and she paused. "Oh, all right. She's also a nasty Calabite."
I rested my chin in my hands, wondering if the curling-up body language would give them any incorrect impressions that I felt defensive. Oh, well. "From your knowledge, is there a chance of getting them attacking each other, and then taking them while they're distracted? Or isn't that likely to be feasible?" I couldn't be sure how combat-capable this pair were, but whatever we did had to be fast and final, or we'd lose all advantage of surprise and might never catch up with the pair again. We'd already had our stroke of luck for the decade as it was with me catching sight of Hepzibah. One can't rely on luck.
Betharan considered the notion. "Beats me. Good idea, though. You got any suggestions for playing Factions at them?"
My teeth showed for a moment at that, in what was not quite a smile. "You know the sort of thing we do. It works best if there's some sort of reason to build on, though. Fan the flame. Don't suppose we could convince one of them that the other had betrayed them to the Game?"
She smirked, tapping her fingertips together in front of her face. "For an angel, you've got a devious mind. I like that. Then we can take them while they rant at each other. Sure you can push them without getting backlash?" Mm, at least she was giving me a reasonable amount of credit for ability. Tebah was still watching us both with that bored and uncaring squint.
I swung my leg, like a metronome. "One, probably, depending on if they know I'm there and how strong they are. Two, don't know. The Lilim I spotted is supposed to be fairly strong-willed, but overconfident." Well, anybody who tried running away from the War had to be overconfident. "Anything relevant on your Calabite in that line?"
She chewed her lip. "He's a Calabite, what do you expect? He's not incredibly precise in destroying things, though -- likely enough to miss the first time or two. He wouldn't eat dissonance otherwise." Bloodlust radiated from her in a private little furnace of murder. "Give it a little juice, and he'll probably cave."
"Hnnh." I was still for a moment, thinking. "Sounds easier to trigger him into attacking her if he believes she's betrayed him, then. Could you pull some sort of routine that would make it look as if you'd set things up with her to take him in? The "hello, thanks, don't worry, we'll take it from here" idea?"
Betharan smiled at that, and tapped one fang-like canine with a fingernail. "If I can't pull a Good work, sister!' scam... She had to do it, of course. Geasa, don't you know." She oozed insincere sympathy.
I tilted my head to regard her. "Absolutely. Though I wouldn't know." And how many Geasa are you carrying, lady Lilim, and how many of them are to your Prince and bind you into your hunting? "So I push him towards attacking her, then we move in as is convenient. Are your orders kill or capture?"
"Capture is prefered. We have tools for that. Kill if necessary. And your orders along those lines?" She attempted to look sweetly curious, but the mild bloodlust tang beneath the veneer ruined it utterly. Salt under sugar.
I tapped my heel against the side of the chair, and shifted my posture to clasp my hands round one knee. This pair seemed to provoke an urge for careless motion into me, as though to prove how little they affected me. I would take the matter up with myself later. "Capture if possible. He's got relevant information which the War requires."
"Got the gear to do it, or are we going to have to divide and conquer?" The Lilim smiled again. "I can loan you our equipment, if you...need it." Ah, offers for some deal. I had wondered how long that would be.
I affected to be considering. "Oh, I'm sure we can manage something. After all, we can get them to that nearby tether - you did know about it, didn't you? - the one in the Mall. I'm sure that taking your pet in alive would be to your advantage." Nothing like a good briefing beforehand from someone who actually knows the territory, and the Djinn-Seneschal had been one of the sort who is obsessive about every point of "their" geography. I considered mentioning the Judgement-Triad that he had touched upon, also, but decided against it. Given how often the Game rolled around in bed with Judgement, either they already knew or they'd better not know about it. I had no wish to be hung out to dry while they maneuvered some private little deal.
She raised an eyebrow and looked down her nose at me. "Since he's gone shatter-Heart, yes. We knew the Tether was there, of course." Interesting - her quickly suppressed annoyance suggested that she had not. "But having it friendly, well, that's certainly useful, yes."
I chuckled, the tone arid. "Of course. Are they likely to recognise your Vessels, or can you safely play incognito a while?"
"Me, certainly." She thought for a moment. "They might have noticed Tebah trying to get close enough."
I considered. "Okay. Suppose Tebah lets himself get noticed stalking them, and you get ahead: then when they're about to bolt you step out and pull your act, and I _push_ the Calabite into doing some heavy pounding. Then we jump on the pair of them, subdue them, and haul?"
"It has a certain brash elegance," Betharan admitted, more than a touch grudgingly. "It's certainly likely to cut to the chase. We should try for a location where we can pound them without being noticed too quickly, of course. And pass-signs we should know for the Tether?"
My eyes closed for a moment, shuttering back a twist of disgust. I had no fondness for Lust, or for the pawing Servitors who pursued such a waste of time. Still, they occasionally did prove to be of minor use. "It's the tattoo and fetishwear store: you tell them that Mistress Dominique sent you. We might be able to panic them to the intersection by the ice-cream stands down there, the ones that are half run down."
"Mistress Dominique?" The Lilim's eyes went big for a moment. I wondered if she knew that the other common joke in the Lust-hangouts was "Master Asmodeus". Probably not. "Oh, my. Ahem. Yes, the ice-cream stands. We can do that. I assume you'll be staking the area out, while we spook them?"
"Surely, surely." I frowned slightly. "I'm not sure whether to warn the Seneschal that we'll be coming in, or just bulldoze past him. You know how it is with nervous Seneschals."
"Bulldoze. We bulldoze very well, don't we, Teb?" She grinned at her Djinn. He grunted something and kept propping up the wall. Probably attuned to her, for her safety, as she was clearly the planner of the pair.
"Primary objective is to locate them, again." I slipped the stiletto back into its hiding-place. "Do we stay together to search the mall, or split up and rendezvous later?"
The two of them exchanged looks. Tebah finally shrugged. Betharan nodded at him. "I'll go with you. Teb can find us later, that way."
Tolerable. I smiled amiably. "Want to talk privately before we head off? I promise not to listen."
Betharan raised an eyebrow. "What is there to say? We know our orders, we know the current plan, we know where the Tether is. Ready?"
I swung off the arm of the chair. "Naturally." They watched me still as I strolled to the door, and held it open for them. The Lilim rose and sauntered through, and the Djinn eyed me with clear intent to do the "after you" dance.
Posturing. Power games. How like the corridors of Hell. I smiled faintly, and turned my back on him to walk through.
He followed me out into the corridor, closing the door behind himself, still surprisingly light on his feet for his massive vessel. And silent.
It was a few hours later. Betharan and I had been through most of the mall by now, from the hotel downwards, and had decided by mutual understanding that they might just as easily be about to walk into the coffee shop as anywhere else in the mall. Besides, if we kept on scouring the place more than once, they might spot our behaviour as aberrant.
She was an interesting being, my current accidental partner. A degree of focus that was unusual in Lilim, and a very unusual function for her Master. Few of her Sisterhood would have been so willing to drag people down and into chains, let alone one of their own kind. And that regular twisting barb of bloodlust deep within her, of course. Curious.
I nursed my cup of black coffee. "And the briefing said that she had a cappucino fixation?"
"'Corrupted by the pleasures of the corporeal realm,' or something like that," Betharan said, scanning the crowd casually. She had already finished her donut. "This usually means they prefer coffee to pasta, though once it meant we found him infatuated with a Taco Bell clerk."
My eyes flicked across the room, watching for patterns of movement. "Does he/she tend towards multiple Vessels, or can we be fairly sure that she's stuck with her current one?"
"I haven't heard any vessel-swapping noise recently. And I'll probably spot our little Target anyway. I'm Game. We *know* who the players are, Punisher," she smirked.
I swirled my coffee in the cup. "Just checking, Tempter, just checking. Constant state of readiness and all that. And stop wiggling at me, you really aren't my type." She hadn't been, really, apart from once or twice in the early moments.
The Lilim snorted and sipped her own coffee. "Oh, don't fear, Punisher. My lusts run towards other things than wiggling at your kind. And I'm quite ready for our Target to show up, never fear."
"Constant state of readiness - ah, yes." I didn't look at her as I spoke, my eyes drifting back to the crowd, but my attention was still on her like a hand on the pulse. "Out of curiosity, which of my Choir was it who so annoyed you in the past? It's quite obvious that somebody did." Bloodlust spiked in her, flavored with raw madness, as her mouth curled into a smile. Very interesting reaction. "What's that information worth to you, scarred angel?"
I turned back to regard her fully. "Not that much. Not if it'll jeopardise the mission. Still, you wear your pain the way I wear my tattoos - it is rather obvious."
"Enjoy it while you can," She smiled pleasantly, seething with mingled amusement and rage underneath. "If you're really curious... An hour of your time in the future, perhaps?"
I sipped my coffee without taking my eyes off her, just as I wouldn't have removed my attention from a rabid wolf. "No. In the politest way, you understand. Though it is a very kind offer." Oh, indeed, Lilim offers always did sound kind and thoroughly good bargains.
Betharan shrugged casually. "As you wish. If you ever decide that curiosity is getting the better of you, feel free to ask. Or if you can think of some other bargain."
I was about to say something else, when aggression pulsed at the edge of my range: the sensation of battle, my Prince's attunement. A fight, and could this be purely coincidence? I refuse to believe in coincidence in the middle of assignments unless I'm forced to. My gaze remained on her, but grew slightly vague. "Brawl over past that corner to the right by the jewellery shop, coming our way. There's something offbeat about it. Can you feel anything?"
Betharan turned and squinted. "You mean the Calabite over there? It's changed vessels, but it's got the same dissonance..."
My tone remained conversational, as had been beaten into me in training so many years ago back in the Groves, and I didn't look round. "For pity's sake don't _stare_ at him yet unless you can fake a reason to do it. All right, there's that one. Where's your Sister?" Useful that she could spot that kind of thing, definitely.
"I can look at a starting brawl without looking suspicious," Betharan muttered out the side of her mouth, pouting a shade. "Sis, sis, come to sister... Can't spot her, not unless I *do* start looking like what I am."
I was a touch surprised that I had finished my coffee. "If she were here, and he began to act up, would she be likely to try and stop him? I could prod a little."
"That could work." She gawped innocently at the fight. "At the least, if he gets a little freaky, somebody can sneak up and snare the little Renegade... Oh, right. He's the short, dark guy now."
I regarded my empty cup as though it were some talisman, letting my awareness slide further into anger, self-confidence, the bragging aggression that I began to sift towards the dark man that Betharan had indicated. More, higher, flames rising.
Over to the side, the man began to swagger more, aggression showing in his movements as he stomped towards the mild brawl. Ah, yes, I had him now. That's right, Calabite, give in to your nature and go and start taking things apart.
"Wonder where Teb got himself off to, though," Betharan murmured, sipping at her own coffee. "Ahhhhhh, there's my partner. And from where he's watching. Drat. Sister-mine must be just out of my range here."
My eyes were distracted, with half of my awareness on the flares of rage round the Calabite and the brawl. "Go fetch a cake from the counter, and do some strolling around?"
"Suits." She put down her mug. "Give it a minute, though. She may come into range."
Mall security began to appear, moving between the tables as they headed for the brawl. I considered trying to slow them, but there wasn't any feasible way to do it and keep a decently anonymous cover. Still, perhaps I could persuade the Calabite into pounding them too...
"Just about now..." Betharan got up, eyes following the security folks naturally, and headed for the counter.
I could vaguely feel my brows tighten to a knot, and as I pulsed on their anger, the scuffle exploded with a yell. The security started to barge past the crowd, ignoring politeness and shoving people aside to get through. Anger flickered through the crowd. The Lilim drifted along in their wake, looking like a curious bystander. There was a faint hum of bloodlust from her, resonating like a shadow of the general rage, but darker and flavoured with the urge to rend and tear.
Shifting in my chair, I managed to get a new angle of vision on the brawl. It was plebeian enough: it was what was beyond it that made my mouth curl in recognition. A young man was making a beeline for the brawling Calabite, grabbing at his arm with a practiced swerve. That black hair and those amber-brown eyes - yes, it _was_ Hepzibah, which meant that Betharan's identification of the Calabite had been accurate. Nice to be reassured about the abilities of one's associates.
Betharan's back twitched, and the bloodlust from her spiked. She began to alter her course towards the other Lilim, one hand sliding into a pocket to remove something.
Damnation, she had better not be about to blow the entire mission. I slipped from my seat in a smooth motion and headed for her, waving my purse visibly in one hand, the image of a fellow-shopper who wanted to settle some matter. If she went and scared them off now, I was personally going to report her all the way up to Baal as being the idiot who fouled this up.
She paused and waited for me to catch up. "What took you?" she asked.
I said, through my teeth, "That last cup of coffee." Perhaps she wasn't that incompetent. That bloodlust would be enough to throw off a lot of professionalism. "Is your friend nearby to do his obvious bit?"
"Hope so." She looked at the mass of shoppers, and as I followed her gaze I caught sight of him. "Need to be where I can catch somebody if it blows up. Never trust Calabim to stick to plans."
"Okay." I tucked my purse away in a pocket. "Can you signal him to show himself and stampede them over down towards the intersection that way, or do we need something else?"
"No problem." She glanced in her Djinn's direction, locked eyes with him, and gave the faintest of nods. His eyelids might or might not have flickered in response, but he shoved himself off the wall and wandered in the direction of the pair, in plain "I am stalking you" sight. It wasn't too obvious, but it was obvious enough to frighten any suitably paranoid Renegade.
Hepzibah twitched, getting a better grip on the Calabite's arm, and muttered something rapid. They'd seen Tebah, definitely: their shift into movement towards the exit was a touch too brisk for casualness, a touch too worried for ease.
I jerked my chin towards the left side, my pace more casual. "Out, round, second right then left by the shoeshop, and if we run we should be there in time. Their passage should be more crowded."
"I'm with you." Her bloodlust spiked and ebbed like a heartbeat, disquieting so near to me, but there was only a thin smile to betray it externally. We both strolled towards the exit that I had nodded towards.
As we stepped out of the crowd and turned into the corridor, it was conveniently near-free of human dawdlers. I took the cue to break into a loose, rapid pace, swifter than it looked: my eyes flattened as I did, becoming faintly distracted. It was a familiar pace, the pace of Baal's hound, and oddly comforting. Behind me I could feel the threads of the brawl dissolving as the security moved in.
Betharan, beside me, kept up after breaking into a trot briefly. "Hear them?" she murmured, below human thresholds of softness.
My voice was equally soft in response, breathing steady, "Fight's dying down. I'm assuming that they've left. Don't have any other way of tracking, but if they've any sense they'll be trying for some space to lose your Djinn, and that intersection is the first real possibility."
She nodded, matching my pace. "Reasonable to me. Teb'll find me if there's a problem."
I didn't trouble to make any concessions to Betharan as we ran, setting a punishing pace. She managed to keep up; I even thought I felt the odd touch of amusement from her at our speed. We came to a halt before the turning to the intersection, and I tilted my head to glance round the corner cautiously. Betharan hung back behind me, waiting for my report.
Nothing as yet. I pulled back slightly, shaking my head, and mouthed to the Lilim, "Pick a spot to wait?" as I gestured for her to glance round herself.
She nodded, stooped, and peeked around from about waist-height, muttering something about glasses, then drew back. "Sure. Here good? Or down a little?" she murmured.
I considered, then pointed down to where we stood. "Here's out of sight, and we can move fast enough. We'll probably hear them coming." We should, too: this was away from any close shops, and free of passers-by. Given the traditional attitude of the public towards noisy fights, we should have at least five minutes before being disturbed when things blew up.
Her mouth curved in a smile again. "Lead on, soldier. Should we be hanging together or apart?"
I flicked through the options in my mind, pausing. "You go out first, circle a bit before you address them and see if you can draw their attention off here. Then I hit the Calabite with my resonance, and I have the physical drop on them too. Take care to hold your distance in case the Lilim tries to take you down to prove herself."
"No problem." Betharan shook herself slightly like a great cat, preparing herself to saunter out when she heard them. I felt amused anticipation in her, and that rising bloodlust again.
We both heard them at the same time. Coming down the hall, the sound of footsteps, two pairs: a heavier one dragging slightly, lighter steps faster. Someone muttering, traces of panic to their voice, "Look, nobody can be attuned to us yet, so the faster we get out of here the faster we can lose them and get somewhere _else_..."
Betharan grinned like a shark, glancing over her shoulder to check with me, and then smoothed her features over to perfect mild interest. I flicked my hand to gesture her onwards. Her step was pure cheerful innocent as she wandered around the corner.
The couple, Calabite and Lilim together, were approaching the intersection. Hepzibah glanced at Betharan, then clearly discounted her, tugging the Calabite towards the way out.
"Sister, quick, get out of range so the others can move in!" Carefully dodging in so that the Renegade Lilim was between her and the Calabite, Betharan attempted to drag her sibling away -- slowly. It was an impressive piece of feigning, and almost managed to convince me of genuine concern. "Come on, we've got to get to cover!"
Hepzibah was caught by surprise and off-balance, and staggered in the direction that Betharan tugged her for a few steps before she could catch herself. "Hey, what's the game? What's this? _Sister_?" Those amber-brown eyes had begun to go wide with unexpected shock, and her lips pale with growing panic. The Calabite looked between the two, trying to get some grasp of what was going on, his face dark with suspicion.
"Come on, he's trapped now, don't waste time!" Betharan's voice was that of one who pleaded for common sense, for simple sanity, as she hauled at her sister.
Around the corner, my hands twisted at my sides as I felt the growing tendrils of fury and doubt, and gently encouraged them, fanning the flames. I could see, from my vantage, the Calabite's eyes begin to bulge. "Wait. The Game? You had this arranged? You little *bastard*..."
Betharan dodged behind the Renegade Lilim again, carefully putting her into the full view of the Calabite. "I said come *on*! Oh, curses, where are the others?" For a moment longer she hung on the other's arm, projecting concern, then dived for cover, relaxing her grip.
Hepzibah stood there, with jaw hanging in open incomprehension, and the Calabite hit her like a sledgehammer: he jumped for her throat, roaring, "Treacherous _Shedite-licker_!" The floor beneath them bent and crazed with entropy and impact. I felt a moment of disgust that one who was once sworn to the War should have been so easily trapped, and blew on the flames of rage in the Calabite's mind again. Hepzibah twisted in his grip, howling something that began to take the form of a Song.
Betharan glanced across at me, eyes full of gleeful viciousness, and gave me a thumbs-up.
I stepped around the corner of the corridor, my consciousness still not quite on what my eyes could see, but rather on the roil of emotions that encompassed us. I mouthed at Betharan, "Tebah?" as the centre of the corridor went up in a spray of acid around the struggling couple. Ah, so that was what she was Singing. Good. Keep it up, the more that they damaged each other the better.
The Lilim peered around the fight: her shoulders relaxed slightly, and I guessed that from her vantage she could catch a hint of slouched Djinn in the distance. She rolled her eyes and cleared her throat, the noise of it barely audible to me over the expanding fight. Still, as long as he got the message.
I nodded in satisfaction, shifting position again, and flicked my hand towards the Calabite, then towards Betharan and Tebah, indicating target to them, as I circled rapidly to behind the Lilim.
Betharan moved in on the Calabite very smoothly, a dark blur, and feinted toward him, dragging his attention towards her. I caught his spin of movement in her direction, and then the Djinn's assault, as I snapkicked the other Lilim in the small of the back. She screamed, her body arching, and went down on her knees: I stepped in and got my knee between her shoulderblades, reaching for her arteries and applying a sleeper hold to her neck. Her emotions twisted in panic as she squirmed, breath slowing. Yes. I stroked them down with a blank emptiness, as one might stroke a cat's fur, and her struggles began to slow, till at last she lay still.
I glanced up. "Okay. Now we run for the Tether, and hope no locals have heard all this ruckus?"
Betharan was struggling with Tebah, who had an armlock on her and was dragging her off the unconscious Renegade. "Alive," he muttered. "Want him alive." Betharan was very nearly frothing at the mouth, her emotions spiking like a cardiac arrest with the sheer need to rip apart and maim and maul and shed blood.
"T-tether." She began to regain control of herself, and looked down at her clawed hands. "When'd I do that?" she muttered, voice shading back towards intelligent. "Right, let's get this pair out of here." She moved to help Tebah drape the Calabite over his neck, as he released her from the armlock.
I slid my arm round Hepzibah's waist, hauling him over my shoulder. "You scout, we follow? Once we get to the Tether, remember the safeword." My attitude was professional, as it should have been, and focused on the job. I didn't have time for Betharan's little self-distractions.
Betharan made her claws vanish, watching as they retracted back into her fingers. "Safeword?" she murmured. "Who needs safewords..."
I paused at the head of the last flight of stairs, glancing downwards. The turning corridor that leads to the sex shop seemed clear, but all my instincts were on edge. We'd got far too far without being noticed, given the amount of Symphonic disturbance that pair had made. I was expecting an ambush.
It was a relief when behind us, in the distance, came the whizz-bang of a Song of Motion, from the direction where all the acid got spilt around. They certainly took their time about noticing things, whoever that was, but at least I knew now that they were behind us rather than waiting in front of us. Probably.
"Trouble," Betharan muttered, flashing claws briefly again. She must be an expert with that Song. Why was I not surprised? "Let's go *fast*."
I nodded, and took the steps three at a time, Hepzibah bouncing awkwardly on my shoulder. Reflexes made me duck still lower, as a shot cracked through the air behind us, ricocheting off the side of the stairwell and barely missing Tebah. I peered over my free shoulder as I ran to see a square-shouldered woman yelling, "There! They've got them!"
Tebah, just behind me, ducked in turn and put on a bit more speed, slinging the Calabite squarely across his back as a shield. I heard the Symphony shimmer as Betharan Sang something that I didn't have time or leisure to identify, snarling, "Back off!" in Helltongue at the people coming up behind us. Somehow I doubted that they'd understand or care to listen.
There was the whistling sibilance of angelic tongue in the air, sung high and fast, as a slender young man came hurtling down the stairs - an Ofanite, at a guess - dodging right past Betharan, and targeting on Tebah. I'd managed to hit the first landing by then, and tipped Hepzibah off my back to crumple to the ground, yelling, "Fall back!" as I reached for my gun: it came out fluidly, and I steadied my wrist, taking the half-moment that allows for a perfect aim, and snapped a shot in the direction of our pursuers.
Betharan dodged, rolling in front of the Ofanite, then scurrying on hands and knees to scoop up the Renegade that I had tossed down. In Helltongue, she spat at me, "All yours, Warrior!"
The Ofanite kept on bouncing down the stairs, colliding with Betharan and doing a good impersonation of a slinky, as my bullets took the stocky woman squarely in the chest: the gun pulsed reassuringly in my hand as she was thrown back by the impact, crashing into a wall. From the corridor behind her, a taller man raised his hands, pointing at the ceiling and crying out something in the tongue of angels. Hell and damnation, yet another angel and yet another Song. The Symphony shook as dust begins to rattle from the ceiling, the resonance growing and vibrating around us.
Scrambling up to grab Hepzibah, Betharan muttered something that sounded like, "Oh preserve us from triads!" as she ran for it. Nice to have a colleague who remembered the parameters of the mission - getting the Renegades away.
I decided to muddy the situation as best I could, and screamed, "Rape, help, rape!" at the top of my voice, as I retreated down the stairs, picking off shots at the gesturing man as I headed downstairs backwards at speed. With a rending crash, the ceiling began to collapse, extending down the hall in a long rumble of flakes of paint and chunks of cement, as the Ofanite made a grab for Tebah's legs.
Tebah was on the landing below me by now, and almost managed to avoid the Ofanite's grasp. He went sprawling on his belly, and the unconscious Calabite tumbled ahead of him, groaning as he hit the ground. Tebah kicked at the Ofanite clutching his ankle, trying to dislodge it.
Betharan paused ahead of me for a moment, anguish and indecision radiating from her like flames.
I smiled, feeling my lips peel back, and came down the stairs just ahead of the collapsing ceiling: my pistol was out of bullets, and I shoved it back into the holster with my off hand, reaching for one of the cracked railings and wrenching at it. The railing came loose in my hand, a meter-long piece of peeling iron, and I brought it round like a flaming sword directly at the Ofanite's head.
From above came shouts, screams, and the building of another Song. The Symphony was shuddering around us as though somebody were hammering on violins with medieval maces: it was positively painful. Betharan turned and ran for the door of the pornography shop, visible just down the corridor, with Hepzibah bouncing on her shoulder.
The swing of my rail took the Ofanite squarely in the back of the head, and then Tebah's foot slammed into his chest. Not surprisingly, the Ofanite went down in a moaning pile and lay there twitching. I kicked him in the head to make sure, as a blazing spear of light sizzled through the ceiling wreckage and floating dust. Damn, those angels were still on our heels. "Come on, just round the corner!"
Tebah grabbed the faintly moaning Calabite by one leg and dragged him along as he lumbered to his feet, following after Betharan. His emotions were still as dull and grained as ever, bitter with an attempt not to care. There was an association to Betharan, I could feel that, and a pleasure that she was safe, but little more. Not that it was my business to care, as long as he got the job done.
The churning of a Song of Motion screamed through the Symphony - that I could identify, and wish that it wasn't close enough for me to do it - and in a swirl of light the lean-bodied man appeared about ten yards in front of the sex shop, and almost directly in front of Betharan. With an unduly vicious grin, he reached for her throat.
Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit tends to get a hot poker somewhere painful. The angel got some hundred-thirty pounds of Renegade Lilim flung into his chest, followed by an equal weight of Betharan, grabbing the impromptu missile by the collar and keeping on running. "Cal!" she yelled at the top of her voice, still in Helltongue. "Blessed nuisance here!"
As if I hadn't noticed. I was slightly ahead of Tebah, what with the Calabite slung over his shoulder, and as we both trampled over the downed Ofanim I plucked a knife from my sleeve, sending it tumbling through the air towards the Seraph's face.My other hand was still absently locked around the railing. Never just throw away a weapon, after all.
A young, acne-spotted man peered nervously round the chain-link-screened door of the sex shop at all the commotion. The screams and crashes and flashes must have attracted his attention. I was surprised we weren't getting more gawkers, but perhaps this was a seedy enough area of the mall that they weren't going to look out till it was all well over.
Betharan slung her Renegade neatly over her shoulder again and stopped in front of him, smiling prettily. "Excuse us, we need to enter here. Would you mind stepping aside?" She was projecting pure absent-minded sex appeal, and I could feel hopeless desire rising in him as he gawped at her. My target had staggered back, blood running from where the knife has sliced down his face and trickling into his eyes. The young man didn't even notice, jaw dropping as he stepped aside and muttered to himself.
Behind us, the Ofanite was coming to his feet, one arm at an awkward angle, as Tebah and I caught up with Betharan. I could feel the seconds of disorientation ticking away on a private dial, and set a smile on my face as I followed her through the door.
"Thank you!" She gave the young man another brilliant smile as she sauntered in quickly, adding, "You might want to keep those mugger-types out of here, though. Close the door behind us."
Outside the door, I heard the Ofanite proving that it was possible to swear in the tongue of angels, as he realised where we'd got into. It was positively poetic.
Betharan muttered to me, in an undertone and in Helltongue, "Okay, which way?"
The young man was standing there blinking, but had enough sense to slam the door shut and snap the second inner door of metal bars closed, and hit several bolts. The bloody-faced man - a Seraph, perhaps, I wondered academically - was pounding on the handle as a raw-boned woman stalked out from behind the shop's counter. Her hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, and her body restrained in a black leather corset and gloves and boots: she stared at the scene, mouth hardening into a frown.
I squared my shoulders, pushing to the front, and barked, "Immediate passage required, in the name of Mistress Dominique." My tone was completely self-assured - which was more than I was, considering what one could usually expect of Lust-Servitors. I murmured to the other two over one shoulder, "Get those two Renegades tied while we're arranging a way down?"
The woman let her hand fall to the whip at her hip. She said dryly, in Helltongue, "And who am I allowing to pass?" Her posture was an insolent provocation, as she gestured the acne-ridden teenager out of the room. Behind me I could hear the click of handcuffs, and the dry slither of rope - so presumably Betharan and Tebah were seeing to that - and heavy fists pounding at the door.
I returned her stare and replied, in the same harsh tongue, "Punisher of the War, and two of the Game, and two people you don't want to know any more about."
There was a flicker of slow, malicious recognition in the woman's face as her eyes moved over me, then the two parcelled figures, then the other two, then out towards the furious three beyond the windows. The heavy-set woman had joined the two men now, and they seemed to be consulting urgently. And as I turned, I saw Betharan thumbing her nose at them. I sighed inwardly, turning back to the woman and putting aside that moment of recognition to consider later.
Betharan lowered her hand. "And can we get a move on here? They'll leave when they figure out that they're facing a Seneschal. It's out of their jurisdiction."
The Seneschal dangled a leg on the edge of the counter, over a display of rubberwear. "You've just blown me to Judgement. I'll need some sort of donation towards the Tether's upkeep. Say, how about your spare Essence?" The Symphony tingled with some Song of Healing, though that was a small disturbance compared to the earlier ones, as outside the woman tried to patch up the trampled Ofanite.
Betharan snorted, rising from Hepzibah's cuffed body. "As if they couldn't spot a Tether on their own. And as if they care -- unless you have angels in here often?" Her mouth curved into a smile, and I could taste sudden hope and bloodlust in her, mingled with annoyance at this delay.
The woman chuckled throatily, a strange sound and not overly pleasant. "Ah, I've only ever had one in chains.. but that's a different story. Now, let's make a deal. I know how you Daughters work." She ignored me completely. "You hand over the Essence, and I not only give you free passage, I do it nicely. Come on, sweetheart, even I can see what you need _right_ at the moment."
My breath hissed between my teeth. I took a step to one side to murmur towards Betharan. "No way she can tell how much we've left. Throw her a little to keep the bitch happy and report it later?"
Betharan pursed her lips and flicked a glance to Tebah. He made no sign of noticing it, or of noticing anything else in the store. Including the screaming and pounding outside. I could feel the quick passage of emotions, though, and the agreement in both of them. Finally, she nodded. "All right. Your cooperation in this matter will be noted." She extended a hand delicately. "You pledge that we shall have free passage, _nicely_?"
The woman swayed her hips as she slid off the counter, approaching the Lilim. "Oh, sure. Free passage, nicely." She reached out to clasp Betharan's hand in return, her eyes going fuzzy with anticipation and lips parting slightly as though she were about to be kissed.
"Your pledge is your bond," Betharan murmured. "We have free passage through this Tether -- _nicely_." Her eyes fixed on the woman's, and I suspected that there was a Geas involved. I couldn't tell, though.
I looked outside, instead. No security yet, but it could only be a few minutes before they turned up. The three angels muttered impotently and glared at us.
Tebah cleared his throat. "We've traded. Time to go." His voice was flat, inches away from a wolf's anonymous growl.
"Mmmmmm." The woman's voice was throaty as she released Betharan's hand, her fingers lingering. "Oh, yes. Definitely. Just follow me." The Song of Tongues flickered in the air around us as she stalked, high-heeled, round the counter to the door behind it, holding it open. The air beyond smelled faintly of sweat, rubber, and latex, and the lights were dimmed. A typical hallow of Lust. I couldn't tell yet where she was sending a message to, but I made a private resolution to come back and personally remove her throat if she were betraying us.
I reached down, and absently hoisted the bound Hepzibah over my shoulder again, moving more smoothly to follow. Betharan, her eyes half-lidded, led the way, smouldering with contempt like a slow fire for the Lust-Servitor in front of us, and wary despite her own calm panther tread.
The leather-corseted woman led us down a flight of stairs, which merged from plastic-floored tacky garbage to unsavoury-sounding thick stone, and gestured at the red-lit, silk-hung room beyond. How utterly stereotypical. These types never have any imagination. "Walk in, and will yourselves down. You know the routine. I'll tell the police that you made a run for it out the back, and see if I can get that Triad in trouble for you."
Betharan smiled and nodded graciously, then met Tebah's eyes. She tossed him a golden noose of wire from some pocket, then closed her eyes, and her body began to change. The Symphony whispered faintly as she assumed her celestial aspect: needle-sharp horns, green skin, slightly fanged teeth, and eyes befitting an assassin. Geasa sheathed her ankles and wrists in multiple bracelets, and hung around her neck; other scars laced her body, the two most prominent being the ones that ran the length of her shoulderblades. Fascinating. She had once had wings, had once been Bright. I spared a moment to wonder who she had served, and why she had Fallen.
Tebah walked over, all business, and slipped the noose over Hepzibah's head. "Hold the end of this, will yourself celestial." I recognised the item as one that I had seen but never tried to use, a little tool of the Servitors of the Game. Ah well, whatever worked.
As he turned back to do the same to his Calabite, with an identical noose from his own pocket, I called my own celestial form upon me. Clothes fell away, and the familiar tattoos spread to cover my skin, my own personal signs of service. I balanced the Lilim's weight as I kept a firm hold on the noose, turning to see Tebah transformed to a hairy winged wolfling with scars and darkly burning eyes. "Down on the count of three?"
Betharan nodded, though I could feel the bloodhunger in her at the sight of my tattoos. Some angel of my Choir must have hurt her very deeply, in the past. I wondered if I could ever find out who. She was controlled, though, holding back that inner rage and need to tear and shatter. "On three. One, Two, Three."
There was a moment like falling, caught between two thresholds of perception: then the three of us were standing with our burdens slung over our shoulders, on a dais of pale, crimson-veined marble, at the centre of a domed room. Rings were set into the walls at regular intervals, and a few still had shackles dangling from them, the metal lined with creamy leather: cushions dotted the floor, plump and soft and velvet. Two Balseraphs were knotted in a coil, watching our arrival; one was pale as the marble of the floor, with tiny silver rings set along the edge of its wings, and the other was a darker gold, painted in streaks of flame-bright copper. Three Djinn and a couple of Calabites loafed around behind them, clearly waiting for some usual task. The hallway leading out lay beyond them; dim sounds of music and soft movement hung in the warm air like stale perfume.
The copper-patterned Balseraph disengaged from its partner, and murmured, "Just put down the stock, please, then put your hands behind you while we get you shackled up." It had a faintly bored tone, wings flexing gently as its partner stroked its tail.
Betharan raised both her eyebrows. "Sorry, we're not the delivery demons. We're just passing through." Her eyes flicked across the room to the exit, as she absently fell into stance with Tebah at her back.
I let ice bleed into my voice. "And we are expected. I don't know what your Prince does to people who hinder you, Game-Servant, but mine," and I shifted my position for a moment so that my tattoos caught the light, "notices."
Betharan smiled, a trace bleakly. "Oh, yes, definitely. My Master would come looking for me, did I not report in promptly." Her expression was one of ironic humor, but her emotions swelled with despair, rising up to drown even the bloodlust for a moment and strong enough that even the least perceptive might have tasted it.
The Balseraphs glanced at each other, easing position a bit. The silver-ringed one said, rapidly, "Oh, well, if this is an _official_ mission and you're _really_ the people you claim to be, you'll be able to prove it, won't you?" He was the weaker of the two. I reached out my perceptions towards him, letting his nervousness rise.
Betharan reached into the multitude of bangles at her wrist - Geasa, all of them, binding her to her Master's will - and pulled out a chain with a token on it. "Passport. And if you think anyone forges passports from the *Game* and lives to brag about it... Well, they might live to tell. Under interrogation."
The flame-patterned Balseraph inspected it, the cuffs hanging from his belt chiming faintly as he leaned across and his tail lashed. His face darkened, six eyes flickering in rapid consideration.
I decided to chime in in support. My tone was knife-thin as I commented, "Possibly our arrival was misreported. It would be a shame if your Tether above were to fail to be assigned War-support, because of a misunderstanding." Hepzibah squirmed faintly on my shoulder, and I hushed her with a gentle touch on her carotids.
Betharan reclaimed her wrist from the Balseraph's grasp, her manner icy but polite, and adjusted some of the many Geas-bands in a business-like manner. Tebah, who had remained stock-still behind her, set the Calabite down for a minute to make sure the noose was secure around his neck, then hoisted him up again. A Game passport was barely visible in the fur and scales that crusted his chest.
The two Balseraphs eyed each other, then turned back to us. I could sense their resignation to the situation. The silver-ringed one said, flatly, "What a good thing that we are offering you our cooperation, then. I take it you want to go straight out? Or do you want to hire that pair out first to make some quick Essence to take with you?"
"We're on duty," Betharan snapped crisply. I let her speak: better not confuse the poor little Lust-Servitors with the idea of military cooperation. "We can be replenished at the first Game-stop. Now, if you will kindly indicate the exit, we'll let ourselves out, and you can get on with waiting for the delivery demons."
There was a last, longing consideration of we five specimens, eyes stroking over us like a Shedite's tendrils, then the Balseraphs and their minions fell back. The first pointed towards the door. "Out that way, stay in a straight line, about five rooms and you should hit an exit onto the avenue: then third left, first right, and you're on the Strip."
Betharan nodded graciously. "Your cooperation will be noted in my report." She nodded fractionally to Tebah, and headed out the indicated door, the taste of blood spiking in her mouth with every step like the dripping of a tap. I followed them with the captive Lilim, my each step entirely precise, eyes flicking from side to side. We weren't out of danger yet.
Before us stretched a corridor tiled in dark mosaics, lined with doors at either side. Soft murmurs and sounds came from behind the doors, echoing distant passions, and the ceiling motif appeared to be "The Conquests of Andrealphus". Tacky, very tacky. A single door was visible at the far end.
Betharan muttered, "Bordellos. Feh." She paced to the far door, scars gleaming slickly in the soft lighting, and listened a moment, then whispered over her shoulder, "Hst, Cal -- you sense anything beyond here?"
I ignored her continuing mutilation of my name, deciding that it was not worth the trouble to correct her and force an argument, and frowned as I listened for the pulse of strife. There was none. "No outright fighting. Can't tell more than that. Hear anything?"
The Lilim shook her head, and cracked the door open just a little to peer though. I edged past Tebah to get an angle on it over her shoulder. Beyond was a room filled with leather: leather cushions padded the walls, leather restraints dangled from ceiling and floor, leather poufs were distributed in convenient locations, and piles of leather clothing had been discarded in corners. Any Servitor of Jordi would have had conniption fits.
Betharan drummed her fingers on the doorframe fretfully. "I think our instructions were a little... vague. This doesn't look like an exit."
I sidled round the door to scrutinize the room. "Perhaps it's a trapdoor or something, or behind one of those leather sheets."
"They *did* say this door, didn't they? Of course, they *were* Balseraphs. Perhaps we could go and beat the truth out of them." The idea obviously appealed to her emotionally, and her tone of voice grew wistful. Somewhere inside, she was pondering the taste of Balseraphic blood, and the feeling of leathery wings and scales coming apart under her fingers.
Tebah grunted, half slouched into a pile of limbs and wings, the tone faintly admonitory.
"It's either a deathtrap or a hopeless prison, if they're lying. They didn't look stupid." I could feel myself frowning again as my gaze flicked across the room. "Other option is to go back and try some of those doors in the corridor."
Betharan sighed and pulled the door closed, then paused and cracked it open again hopefully. The same scene lay there. "Oh, well, worth a try. Yeah, let's see if any of the other doors are quiet. You sure you can't pick up something through a door?"
"Only a fight." I almost smiled. "I don't think we're going to be getting much of _that_ here."
"Pity." Betharan moved along the other doors, listening at each for sound - or rather, for silence. After a moment, she pointed at two which had evidently met her criteria.
I looked behind us. The other door at the end of the passage, that we had come in through, had disappeared into the wall to leave a dead end. One hears stories about this Bordello, but I would really have preferred not to have to find out that they were true.
"Oh, I *am* going to report their *cooperation*," Betharan muttered darkly in a tone that promised maiming. "Out. I want a door out. I *yearn* for a door out." She knelt to try and peer through the crack under one of the doors, then recoiled sharply.
I approached myself, Hepzibah's head bumping regularly against my back, and knelt down: through the crack seeped a familiar, bitter smell, that of the Corruptors' slime. Betharan was gagging with suppressed nausea, spiking with powerful revulsion, undercut by something suppressed. "Shedim pit."
My mouth tightened. "Hopefully not there."
She moved along to the other silent door, and frowned at the lack of gap or keyhole. Tilting her head back towards me, she asked, "You want to open this one, or shall I?"
Tebah quietly pushed past us both and cracked the door open with an air of utter ennui. A wave of steam washed out: on the other side we could see and smell an aromatic steam-house, with marble benches, braziers of coals, beakers of water, and birch switches. There might have been an exit somewhere, beyond the steam which hid the walls and ceiling. I looked at Betharan, and she at me, and we could quite clearly read in each other's faces that neither had inclination to go exploring.
"That's it," Betharan muttered. "We're lost. Okay, time to figure out which of these doors has little happy noises that *aren't* attached to a powerful Word-bound, or somebody with a title." She paused, considering. "I wonder if we could do a traitor-sweep? 'This is the Game. Where's Chaltizar?'"
My brief twist of lips was the closest that I had yet come to a true smile. I was definitely amused. "Shall we see how many ardent passions we can shatter? I'll mind the Renegades if Tebah wants to pin them against the wall."
"Mmmmm.... I was thinking of leaving Teb to sit on the Renegades and loom in the doorway. You want to pin people against walls, or shall I?"
"Take it in turns?" I proposed. Tebah watched us both boredly. "Or I can pin them while you eye them hungrily, if you like."
"Turns sounds good. I'll let you do the pinning first -- they'll be more scared of your resonance. Now, let's see... Which door sounds least like it's got somebody distincted?" Betharan's mood had taken a definite turn for the better, and she rubbed her hands together cheerfully.
I wandered along the corridor, setting ear to door. At one five along, I heard ecstatic giggles and merry gasps of passion. "Sounds far too cheerful on both sides for somebody with a really severe taste for power," I reported.
Betharan put her ear to the door for a moment, presumably just to confirm to herself that there was no Prince there. "Good one. Let's go for it. Hand off the Lil to Teb, and I'll kick the door in."
I offered the noose-end to Tebah, dropping Hepzibah to the ground before him. He grunted, draping her over his other shoulder in a world-weary manner.
Betharan glanced back at me, gave a high-sign, and opened the door a crack. The giggling continued. The crash as she kicked it fully open was extremely dramatic. "All right, this is the Game. Where's the Renegade?!"
The two thrashing Impudites on the bed separated with a cry of shock, one managing to avoid getting tangled in the sheets, the other failing dismally. I was across the room in a single rush of movement, getting a hand around the throat of the free Impudite and slamming him up against the wall, the other hand hovering near his groin. Getting his attention and all that. I murmured, "Are you the Renegade? Renegades don't get to .. enjoy this sort of thing."
Betharan stalked a few paces into the room, tall, arrogant, and scarred. "All right, which of you was working with the Habbalite trying to make the Tether?" she asked crisply, looking around the room as if assessing where a Renegade might be hiding. Tebah loomed behind her in the doorway, paws on the Renegades, and with one shapely Renegade Lilim leg showing through beside him.
The Impudite thrashing among the sheets shrieked, "It wasn't me! He seduced me! I'll go back to the electroshock testing! I'm sorry! I wasn't there!" The other hung in my grip, eyes swivelling down his body then back up again. "Yug. Er. No Habbalite. Just us two. I'm on vacation. Got a pass. Really." His eyes bulged as my grip tightened just a shade, and I smiled at him.
My colleague's mouth quirked into a rather unpleasant smile. "I see. Not either of you, eh? Okay, prettyboy, let's see your 'pass,' shall we?" She took a step nearer to the one pinned against the wall, managing to rattle her cascade of Geas-bands like a dominatrix's outfit.
The pinned one gasped, eyes flicking to a few fragments of torn-off clothing in the corner, "It's over there, madam. It's all signed. Really. I got permission." My grip tightened again. "Ick!"
I murmured delicately in his ear, "No wonder they gave you time off, you're probably the worst excuse for a soldier I ever saw running away from an army." He twitched in profile as terror danced in the back of my mind, and I fanned it, very gently, letting the flames rise to keep him in a state of trembling. I didn't want him thinking rationally about this. Just panicking a little.
Betharan strode over to the clothing and scooped it up, sifting through the shredded rags. "Ah, a Techie, are you? Interesting." She lighted upon his pass, and held it critically up to the light. "Very good forgery, but I think some of the scan chips are a little crispy, even for one of you lot." In a surge of movement, she moved to the bed in a smooth flow, seizing the sheet-tangled Impudite by the wing. "And you, pretty thing?" Her head dipped, the better to stare him in the eyes coldly and do a good imitation of a Djinn in fixation mode. "Entertaining an AWOL Techie?"
The sheet-wrapped one clung to the fabric as though satin could somehow protect him from an enraged Lilim. "He swore it was legal! I'll go back to the rods this minute, I'll say anything you want, just please don't report me!"
I allowed myself to frown. "Perhaps the Renegade's making for the exit. Perhaps this pair helped it."
"That seems likely," Betharan agreed. Tebah hunkered in the doorway, dangerously. "They do seem to protest too much, oh, yes. Perhaps they'd like to *show* us the way their compatriot might have fled? That might earn..." she studied the pass thoughtfully, "...a little lost paperwork. I'm sure he can't have gotten far, even in Shal-Mari."
I leaned away from my captive, giving him a little breathing space. "Did you know that it's possible to eat a pass? I've seen it done. You'd never know it existed."
The Impudites begin to whimper, solo and chorus, an eagerness to help. It was mildly disgusting to see how easily they fractured. Now. Please. Please. Anything.
"Soooo," Betharan cooed, caressing the sheeted one's wing with an expression that suggested she'd sooner be eating it. "You'll be happy to show us the way the Renegade probably left the building?"
The Impudite was a trembling mass of weakness under the sheets. My teeth showed in unconscious reflex as the Taker gurgled, "S-s-sure. Anything to, um, help our noble police. It's out the door and through the leather room at the end and push on the panel two right of the door and go through there and.." He retreated into a mass of directions, hoping against hope in a bittersweet tang that he might not have to personally lead the way.
Betharan toyed with the other one's pass, flicking it between her fingers, but kept a hand on the sheet-tangled one's wing. She remarked in my direction, "The Techie would just slow us down, I think. I have his forged pass, I can pick him up later. Let's take this one and go."
I nodded, plucked my victim off the wall in a businesslike fashion, gave him a shake that made his teeth click together, and dropped him. He whimpered, then shut up hastily. "You want to have the Djinn attune to him, first? So we can track him later if things go .. wrong?"
"Perfect. Drag him over, would you?"
Setting a hand upon the scruff of the Impudite's neck, I dragged him across the floor to Teb, my fingernails breaking the skin and rousing a trickle of blood. There was something of contempt in my mind, both for the whimpering Taker, and perhaps for myself. These creatures were pitiful.
Tebah sighed through his nose, balefully, and laid a paw on the quivering demon. "Done," he grunted. "Let's get after the other one."
Betharan had a good hold on the scalloped leather wing of the "native" Lust-Servitor, and was dragging it from the sheets with grand disregard for its well-being -- though her emotions were more controlled than that, far more controlled, and the bloodlust was carefully sheathed. "All right, let's get on to this 'leather room,' shall we?" she asked as crisply as a tourist.
The Impudite snivelled, clutching a remnant of sheet to itself in some faintly-remembered echo of modesty, and shuffled towards the door, eyes occasionally swivelling to the attached Betharan. I deposited the shivering Vapulan and followed, on my toes and silently, glance flicking up and down the corridor.
Betharan steered her new pet down the corridor, each shove and step spiking the bloodlust a little higher -- though yet under control -- till we came to the door at the end. She let the Impudite pause outside the door, stroking its wing gently. "This the one?"
The Impudite nodded hastily, and Betharan reached around it to shove the door open, keeping a careful grasp on its wing. I looked down the corridor behind us, but all was silent: then back to patient Tebah, then back to the door again.
Inside everything was still, quiet, appealing leather. Nothing moved. The trembling Impudite pointed timidly at one panel. "Er.. that one. Let me go and I'll go prod it for you?"
"Teb?" Betharan asked over her shoulder.
Tebah sighed and shuffled forwards to bap the Impudite lightly. "Done." I stepped into the room to get out of their way, nostrils flaring. The smell of leather was too heavy to be able to pick up anything else, but something was pricking at the back of my mind, something or someone.
Betharan released the wing. "Mind you, those who run are usually guilty of *something*. Resisting arrest, at the least," she purred, throatily. I felt her craving for bloodshed again at the back of my throat, tangling with whatever I tried to sense in the room.
He flinched and retreated, eyes on us. "Sure. Definitely." His finger prodded at the panel, and it swung slightly. "Look. It's just out there, you can go right through..."
Something was definitely wrong. Something was here. My eyes narrowed, and I pivoted, studying the room, my posture shifting to one of readiness.
Betharan flicked a slightly puzzled gaze at me, then moved to open the panel a little further, her posture casual. She took care to position herself so that the Impudite was the one in front of it, though. Tebah, to all appearances uncaring, brooded in the middle of the room, one Renegade slung over his back, and the other being dragged by one Calabite leg. I opened my mouth to speak.
The Shedite bloomed into horrible organic motion, swelling out from the leather veils that it had hidden behind to overshadow Betharan and the poor little Impudite - who took advantage of the moment to dive through the panel - in a pulsing thread of motion, flowing towards the Lilim. My voice was a thin echo in the room, suppressed by the presence that hung above us in a whirl of horror.
Betharan froze upon seeing it, her body locking, and I felt a hopeless, apathetic terror flaring out from her for a moment. The Impudite's wing slipping through her fingers seemed to wake her from her panic, and she fell back a pace, eyes wide and suddenly-clawed hands raised. The Shedite's tentacle took her squarely across the body, sending her tumbling, but as it shifted to strike again the two unconscious Renegades hit it amidships, bouncing it against the wall in an oozy mess. The bodies slipped to lie beneath it in a parody of homage, and Betharan scurried backwards, claws leaving rents in the leather, crouching. Her emotions tasted of the same sick fear still, but slowly being overpowered by bloodlust. Tebah stood at his full bearish height in the middle of the room, wings outstretched, wolfling fangs gaping.
I circled by the walls, letting the other two hold its attention, and my left hand clenched into the leather. It began to come free as my muscles tightened, a long drape of it loosening from the wall in a soft length.
Mouths in the Shedite opened themselves, to hiss and purr, "I'm not going to hurt her, Djinn. She'll enjoy it. Or just throw me the little Punisher, or the other one you've got. I won't take long. I don't want to hurt you." Eyes moved inside the swirling mass, and less identifiable organs, ones that I did not want to see clearly, as it began to surge upwards in the room.
Tebah flicked his dirty-copper eyes to Betharan for a moment. Her face was twisted into a tooth-chattering grimace, a frozen Lilim mask: I did not have to reach out towards her to see how perfectly fear and bloodlust locked her in one place, caught on the edge between emotions.
He grunted, towards the Shedite, "No deal. She's *MY* partner. And those are *MY* Renegades." A contemptuous, bored yawn showed fangs and a forked tongue. "And the Punisher's not mine to give."
My legs bunched under me, and as the Shedite lowered to extend slimy ribbons of self towards Betharan, I threw myself into a high leap, pushing Essence through my muscles and trailing the sheet of leather behind me. I just barely cleared the top of the Shedite, feeling the acidic slime brushing my belly and legs, but the leather cascaded after me as I had planned, tumbling across the creature.
Tebah's reflexes were as good as I had hoped: he blurred into motion, slamming one hindfoot on the trailing edge of the leather sheet to snap it down on top of the Shedite. Then he snatched Hepzibah from where she had fallen, tossing her at Betharan in a flail of green limbs and sending both Daughters into a tumble for a moment. "Get *moving*, partner!" he barked at her, gathering up the Calabite under his free arm and rumbling towards the wall panel.
Betharan shook her head, trying to gather her wits, but tucked the other Lilim under her arm as she did so, and bolted out through the exit. Tebah was directly behind her, taking care to step heavily on the covered Shedite on the way out. Little moaning and squishing sounds came from beneath the leather sheet as I threw myself through the panel after them.
I slammed the door behind me as I tumbled into the corridor behind the others, my body streaked down the front with the Corruptor's slime. There was a muffled fumbling behind us, as we all headed directly down the corridor that the Impudite had described. The Impudite himself was long gone, though by the look of it Tebah was triangulating on him, his head low as he snuffled and trampled down the hall.
Betharan seemed to be recovering, the bloodlust and terror in her dying down to aftershocks. As I drew level, she muttered in my direction, "Thanks."
I nodded, not forcing her to say anything else on the subject. It had been part of the mission, and that was all. Behind us came a creaking, as of a door straining at the hinges. We picked up our pace.
Rooms passed in a blur of furnishings. A wood-panelled gymnasium full of athletic equipment, then a stone dungeon, then something high-tech looking and whirring unnervingly, and passers-by looking up from their amusements to gawp at us. Finally Tebah screeched to a halt in front of a large door, and I was about to swear when I saw what lay beyond it: a hotel-like desk with a Djinn minding it, and beyond _that_ the streets of Shal-Mari.
I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and sauntered out casually, calling towards the Djinn who was lounging at the desk and studying some doubtless pornographic novel, "We're checking out, inspection satisfied. You'll be getting the reports later." I swept onwards to the door, using the last nervous tension of the run as strength to project apathetic boredom in the Djinn's direction. We aren't important. Disregard us.
Behind me, Tebah tucked his wings up, partly hiding the unconscious Calabite flung over his shoulder. I caught a glimpse of Betharan slipping an arm around the semi-conscious Hepzibah's waist and strolling with her like her own dearest sister, though I could also see that her free hand still had a firm grip on the golden noose around her sister's throat.
Loitering against the door, I held it open for the other two: as they came through, I draped an arm over the captive Lilim on the other side, smiling faintly as we stepped out into the crowded, noisy, polluted, busy, but _safe_ street of Shal-Mari.
"I never want to see another brothel as long as I live," Betharan muttered, her hand still locked firmly on the noose. "Come on, let's get to a Game-station." We were just approaching an intersection, and she jerked me and our burden towards the left. Tebah had already turned that way, clearly expecting to be followed.
My arm stayed around the Lilim. I'd been expecting something like this, and had had the time to make sure that my tone would stay mild as I pointed out, "War-post is that way, and I'm under direct orders." Iwasn't planning to let go of Hepzibah any time soon. "Your Prince doesn't want to annoy my Prince directly, does he?"
Betharan locked eyes with me, gnawing her lower lip, nearly the stereotypical indecisive Lilim. "Direct orders, eh? Mmmmm... But she's also a Renegade, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Game..."
Tebah sighed, drifting over to the side of the road to wait. He skulked against a wall, pounding the Calabite's head into the convenient wall when it twitched.
After a tense moment, during which I was considering strategies if they flatly refused, Betharan rolled her eyes. "Teb, take yours to the Game-station. I'll go along with this one and collect her after the Prince of the War is finished." Fixing her slightly bloodthirsty gaze on me again, she added, "If that's all right with you? After all, we *do* want to make *both* our Masters happy, no?"
I smiled blandly, and let my relaxation wash towards her. "I'll arrange the passes. I can apply for you to attend the interrogation, too, if you want?" Not that she'd be allowed anywhere remotely near it if it were sensitive, but it would be refused at Baal's level and not mine. I was within my liberties to at least make the application for her to attend.
The crowd streamed round us, ignoring what was a perfectly average street scene to them, on a perfectly average, fervid, hunger-ridden, corporeally seduced Shal-Mari day.
"Yes, I think that would be best, if I could attend." Betharan nodded, indicating that I could lead the way. But she kept a hold of Hepzibah too. I was pleased to see that she kept on bearing out my judgement of her as intelligent.
Tebah slouched off towards the left, with the Calabite balanced on his back, looking big and bored and unquestionable. I doubted anyone would try and stop him before he got the Calabite to the Game-Station. One job down, one to go.
Our Renegade twitched again, and groaned. "Whuuu....?"
I absently put a choke-lock on the Renegade's carotids till she slumped unconscious again, then nodded down to the right. "War-base is about two blocks that way: we can get an escort and some quick transport the rest of the way."
"Sounds interesting. Any protocols?" Betharan kept her grip on Hepzibah, but followed my lead as we walked.
We balanced the Renegade between us, and I considered. "Probably the same sort of thing as an outsider in a Game-base: I identify myself, tell them who you and the Renegade are, they watch us like dungbeetles on a really tasty ball of dung while they check things, then we get trotted off with by a fast squad who'll walk us through the gates to Gehenna and see us through the battlefield to my Prince's Citadel." It's always the same in the army.
"Sounds fine by me. Sure you don't want me to toss our prize over my shoulder?" Betharan radiated a certain dry amusement, possibly at the idea that I would suggest it, or possibly at the thought of herself in such a role.
"Only if you want to come in there looking like my convenient body-toter." My mouth smiled, though I knew that my eyes did not. I owed her that much courtesy. "I'm assuming you'd prefer to come in looking like a colleague. It'll make things a bit easier with the brute squad on the door."
"Point taken. Halvsies." Betharan sauntered along.
The doors of the War-station were forged metal, and there was a plate set in one at eye-level where somebody might murmur through: the building itself was heavy rock, dark speckled granite. I stepped to the door and knocked three times, as was the general signal: the plate slid open to reveal the six-fold eyes of a Balseraph. Falling into routine, I muttered the four words that I'd been given as the latest password, and the door began to creak open.
Betharan shouldered the Renegade again, balancing the loose green limbs, and stood at something resembling attention. I wasn't going to quibble.
I stepped in, my bearing more military than her imitation, and the door slammed shut behind us: inside, the Balseraph began to slide the bolts, green-brown wings flexing, while a Djinn sitting at a desk to the side muttered, "All right. Report, Punisher." I recognised him - Hammath, a reliable worker, seal-flippers wadded below him as his delicate claws sorted piles of paper on the battered desk. Two Impudites, neither of them known to me, were arguing over a chessboard in the corner, both with ammunition belts slung loosely across their chests. The room was sensibly sparse in case of siege, the walls bare and a few uncomfortable chairs and benches stowed in the corners.
I saluted. "Renegade captured, sir, as per the Prince's orders. He requested that she be brought to Gehenna." I turned slightly to nod at the body draped over Betharan's shoulder. "The Tempter is an agent of the Game, one Betharan, assigned by her Prince's orders, to report to Gehenna also and take back any appropriate remains."
Betharan smiled at him, close-mouthed and blank-faced, and nodded in acknowledgement of the statement. Her eyes flickered about like a hungry shark's, checking the room and then back to the Djinn, not lingering anywhere in particular.
Hammath nodded, ignoring Betharan after a glance, and began to flick through papers. "I can give you a few Calabim for runners: that be enough? Sign here, here, and here." A set of papers landed on my side of the desk with a minor thud.
I suppressed a sigh, and moved forward to start signing.
Betharan craned her neck to peek: on her shoulder Hepzibah began to wriggle again, and got the golden noose pulled taut absently till it cut into her throat. "Hey, Caliah," Betharan murmured into my ear. "How intact does Prince Baal *want* this Renegade, anyway?"
I didn't look up as I signed the graphic of my name in Helltongue, "Able to talk, so leave the vocal cords alone, and it'll probably be easier if she can walk rather than having to get the Calabim to carry her. You know what their natural fields are like."
"Oh, right." Betharan loosened the noose, letting it slip away from the red line that it had begun to carve, and started lightly slapping the Renegade across the face. "Wakey, wakey," she crooned to her, little spikes of hatred and self-hate mingling with the constant salt-tasting wish for blood. Was the fact that she was bringing in one of her own Sisters repugnant to her, I wondered? It hardly seemed that way earlier. Perhaps now that Hepzibah truly stood in the shadow of pain it became a different thing. Or perhaps it was Betharan's own memories.
Hepzibah twitched again, and Betharan cuffed her hard across the face: she cried out groggily trying to curl up.
I finished signing, and passed pen and papers back. Hammath leaned over and pressed a bell-push beneath the surface of the desk, then began to sort the papers back into files again. Probably in triplicate.
The Renegade's eyes opened, going wide with horror as she realised the situation. I tasted shock and near-total despair in her mind: her worst nightmare, come true around her.
Betharan smiled nastily, hunger for blood showing in her eyes and in the flexing of her muscles. "Hi," she breathed. "You're going to cooperate, right?"
Hepzibah's eyes flick from side to side, wide and liquid. Her body relaxed, automatically falling into as seductive a pose as she could manage, and she whispered, "Sister, you've got to get me out of this: can we make a deal?"
With a gentleness that was almost sympathetic, Betharan stroked the other Lilim's face with the backs of her fingers. Something like anguish moved in the back of her eyes for a moment, but it faded and was gone. "So sorry, but no, not really. I don't think that my Master would reward me for antagonizing one of his associates unnecessarily. Don't worry -- I've requested that you be left alive for me to retrieve."
There was a moment of comprehension, and then Hepzibah screamed, and kept on screaming, trying desperately to drag away from the noose and the Lilim holding it, fighting with the pure strength of insanity. Waves of panic slapped against me , and I could feel the skin stretched over the bones in my own face with her screaming, the sense of tightness and horror. I turned back to the table to mutter to Hammath, "Apologies. Looks like we'll have to carry her tied after all." The two Impudites in the corner came dashing bravely over to help subdue her, their chessboard going flying. Black had been losing, a part of my mind noted.
Betharan was clinging to the leash, being partly dragged along the floor towards the door like a little old lady with a manic terrier. Hepzibah wasn't even trying to fight her, just to escape. "I don't think this is necessarily more useful, Caliah," she called in my direction, teeth bared in a parody of a smile. As the Impudites landed on Hepzibah, pinning arms and legs, she added, "Thank you," grudgingly.
The two bat-winged Impudites efficiently held the Renegade down, while Betharan worked on getting a head-lock on her sister. "Struggling will just get me more annoyed with you," she murmured sweetly, flashing her claws for a moment. She seemed unreasonably fond of that dramatic gesture.
Hepzibah snivelled, "What can they do to me that they aren't already going to?" Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as she went limp, submitting.
"Oh, you *don't* want to know," Betharan whispered, her tone suggestive. "Or, rather, you don't want to know what *I* can do to you. Cooperate, maybe you'll survive. Or did you do too much for that?"
Hammath had tossed some shackles across the desk to me while they had been talking, and I brought them across to the tangle on the floor. "Okay, we carry her, then," I suggested, "or the Calabim do and we fix her up later." I watched the struggling Lilim as though there were a sheet of glass between us. There was, in a way - my personal shields, which I raised because I would not feel any more from her. It brought me too close to despair and bitterness, and worst of all, memory. Though I had gone willingly, had accepted my punishment, had sought it... no, that was another time and another place.
"I'm willing to tote her -- don't want the escort to have their hands full, after all," Betharan said. She added to the Impudite squatting on Hepzibah's back, "Here, shift over a little so she can put the cuffs on."
The Impudite nodded professionally and shifted off onto the floor, helping force the Renegade's wrists together so that I could snap the manacles on. They clicked shut with a note of cold emptiness.
Hepzibah herself was twisting her head, trying to look around her more sensibly. "Where's Ashoth? What happened to him?" She must mean the Calabite, I realised. The Game-pair had never told me his name.
"My partner has him," Betharan commented casually. She kept the noose tight. "Want to say anything about the blessed Triad that showed? Were they looking for you?"
Hepzibah blurted, without even pausing to think about it, "They were chasing us! We were trying to sucker them into believing we were Redeemable, see, it was one of those deep cover jobs..."
I clamped the leg irons on her, and my mouth twisted as I felt her desperate hope that we would believe this garbage. Somehow I was unconvinced: still, it was a matter for Baal's questioners to sort out now. Not my business.
Betharan evidently didn't believe the story any more than I did. "Oh, you're lucky I'm not a Seraph," she grinned. "I'd bap you one. You didn't even know about them, did you?"
"Oh yes we did!" She twisted in desperation, the iron gleaming darkly in wide cuffs against her green skin. "We thought if we let them take down that Lust-Tether, we might be able to convince them we wanted..." Her voice trailed off.
"Oh, keep talking!" Betharan invited her cheerfully. "I'm making little mental notes here. Wanted what?"
Hepzibah firmly shut her mouth.
I shrugged. "They'll get it out of her later. I've heard that the Prince himself might take a personal interest." Something shadowed behind my eyes in memory, an echo of webs of blood and fire. "So you're carrying her while the Calabim run escort?"
"Sure." Betharan smiled, teeth showing. "She can whisper things in my ear. I'll take notes." She stroked her sister's hair as one might gentle a cat. "Really now, if you provide the information, maybe you'll even survive."
Three Calabim hulked their way - in a reasonably military fashion - from the inner door, and Hammath nodded them towards us. I saluted, and they returned it. Behind me, Betharan was hoisting Hepzibah to her shoulders, like a bulky roll of carpet, and murmuring to her again soothingly. Well, it might have been soothing. I couldn't make out the words. Somehow, I doubted it.
Hepzibah returned to hopeless sniffling, as the three Calabim formed up in a rough triangle around us. I gave a final salute to Hammath, who had returned dull attention to his paperwork, then gestured to the Balseraphic doorguard to let us out. Over my shoulder, I commented towards Betharan, "It's the standard route, direct line."
"Never been. I'll keep my eyes on you." She adjusted the Renegade on her shoulders a little. "Stop squirming, or I'll drop you and let a Calabite carry you."
We stood at the gateway to the Fortress of Baal, amid the turmoil of Gehenna. I was busy presenting passwords and signs to the door-guards. Betharan had turned her head to look out over the war-torn wasteland behind us.
"How scenic," she commented blandly to her cargo. "So, this the place you chose to spend your life, allegedly?"
I could hear Hepzibah whimpering something about "Earthside assignments" and "inside duty", but I ignored it. She had known her choice when she swore to my Prince. I could not have any room for pity, for someone who had betrayed their honour in such a way.
The guards eventually gave us reluctant admittance, with their usual air of wishing that they could have us shot at dawn for spying instead. Djinn make very good guards, but they do tend to be bitter about it - as they are about everything. Troubling myself over it was a waste of time. The Calabim were dismissed for reassignment, and I nodded Betharan towards the cell area: she was looking around, her posture one of casual curiosity. Naturally it was intense professional curiosity, but I appreciated her effort not to gawp.
We walked down the immaculately clean passageways - so often washed and scoured free of blood - of stone and metal and tiles, well-lit and open, offering no concealment. The occasional Servitor passed us, moving with extreme and appropriate haste and precision, their bearing alert. I wondered absently if they were taking care only to funnel well-behaved people past Betharan as showpieces, but decided that firstly she wasn't quite important enough for that, and secondly, most Servitors here were well-behaved in any case. Past three sets of sentries, all alert, and finally we were directed up a flight of metal stairs towards the cell block that we wanted, the one where the Renegades are kept.
I had allowed myself to relax somewhat since entering the fortress, now that the mission was nearly complete, though admittedly I cast the occasional half-glance at Betharan to check on her bearing and condition. It would have been awkward if she had done something to publicly embarass me.
Fortunately, she seemed to be enjoying playing the part of Game-Servitor to the hilt. It seemed a habitual thing, the keen glances, the upright back and prowling step. Probably it was. Occasionally she made the odd comment to the Renegade across her shoulders -- "So, been here often? What's it like, hm? Don't suppose you'd like to walk now? Oh, never mind -- carried you this far..."
Hepzibah had closed her eyes, and seemed to be trying for Redemption by sheer force of personal will, to judge by her twisted, striving expression and hopelessly tensed muscles. At the top of the flight of stairs was a selection of cells - all with the very latest cameras and conversation-assisting appliances. Another Djinn, badger-muzzle scarred and toadlike body seamed with old wounds, was hunched by the selection of manacles that dangled on the wall, examining them for stains, clearly the warder here. A few of the cells were already occupied, one with a blood-laced Balseraph, another with a Calabite who was staring blankly at the lock, a third with an Impudite who had somehow managed the nerve to fall asleep in a corner.
The warder turned to us. It grunted, with an air of surprise that we had _finally_ got there, "Good. Punisher, you're back to assignments, there's something to be sorted out. Tempter, we've had the clearance in from the Prince for you to wait on this one's questioning. Need anything? We've got orders to extend equal-rank courtesy."
Betharan's emotions flecked with uncertainty, though she hid it well. "Thank you. Perhaps a transcription device so I can take notes, should my pooooor misguided sib wish to unburden her soul to me." She paused, considering. "And, of course, some way to make a copy, to leave here, if such would be available?"
The Djinn grunted again, letting the manacle he had been checking rattle back against the wall. "Sure. Pencil, paper, you got it, we've got cameras running anyway. No problem." He radiated boredom as a black hole might have radiated gravity.
"That's perfect. Thank you." Betharan smiled slightly, fangs gleaming again as she stalked over to the nearest empty cell, and dropped Hepzibah in it. She rolled her over, and pried the noose neatly loose, leaving it to the Djinn to remove the other shackles.
Hepzibah lay there, stare quite blank as though something had finally snapped inside her and she had left the body behind. She'd be back, I knew that. The interrogators would be entirely thorough about that. She might as well enjoy the stillness while she could, before the noise and pain broke down the walls and dragged her to the present and the moment.
For some reason, I had no wish to watch her any longer. I turned to Betharan. "My thanks for your cooperation. I'll see you when I next get assigned your way, I imagine." My voice was neutral and polite, nothing that she could have objected to.
"Likely enough. Your help will not be forgotten." Betharan matched my blandness, but I could feel shifts of other emotions in her -- puzzlement, a familiar urge to strike that went beyond conscious thought and into pure instinct, and some old pain like a heartbeat, low and deep and bitter. I ignored it: she was strong enough.
My mouth twitched for a moment, as I wondered what she read from me. She would have been watching me as closely as I had her, gauging my capabilities, my weaknesses. "You were extremely professional. My compliments." I gave her the full formal salute, fist to shoulder, before turning to make for the stairs.
Another flicker of confusion behind me, and then a conscious damping and refocusing. As I headed down the stairs, I heard a clatter of metal as one set of shackles came free, and Betharan's gentle murmuring. There was no response from Hepzibah.
The stairs were cool metal under my bare feet, and around me lay the pattern of my making, the pattern of my home, the land of War: and yet I hoped that I might be sent to the Earth again, to serve my Prince there and to do God's will. I had proved that I could perform efficiently there still, and the angels had been worthy opponents.
Such thoughts might be useless: I would obey my orders and resign myself to whatever duties I was given. What I was could not change, could not be other than a Punisher of the War.
Yet I would like to breathe the earthly air again, if duty sent me there, and meet opponents of worth, and perhaps, some day, find a being strong enough that they need not be judged or punished, that I need not execute God's will upon.
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