jl8e: (shadowfist)
[personal profile] jl8e
This was the last piece of the story I wrote back in the day. It and chapter two each picked up a segment while I was working on the second half, but they're mostly old work.

It sort of links to the other main story of the Critical Shift set, which is how the Ascended are dealing with the changes. (Hint: Not well.) That story wasn't really planned to be written, and I am not listening to the little voice in my head that is telling me to write it.

The Harbinger paused as he walked through the midnight streets. He heard the faint splashing of men approaching, moving to surround him.

His hands moved to his swords. It appeared somebody had heard his questions, and he would finally get some answers.

Curtis Boatman sipped his coffee and regarded the man opposite him. He was large and bulky, but it was mostly muscle, not fat. He wore a dark, expensive suit and kept his head shaved bald. Dark glasses obscured his eyes.

Boatman found himself surprised at the man's calm, a calm not shared by his bodyguards, who watched every entrance as if they expected assassins to burst in at any second.

Not that that was at all a paranoid assumption, all things considered.

Boatman steepled his fingers. "I must admit I was surprised when you contacted my people. Your... predecessor would never have countenanced this meeting.

The other man laughed. "No, Doctor, he would not have. But he is gone, his house a shambles. I am the Unspoken Name."

"I must ask before we proceed: do you understand the nature of the tiger you currently have by the tail?"

Again, the Name laughed. "I do indeed; that is why I will prevail. They see me as a nuisance, not a true threat. By the time they realize how blind they've been, they will find themselves tamed... or put down."

The first assault came immediately; six men and women armed with blades emerged from the darkness. They moved with precision; they were not the usual breed of predator that haunted these streets. When he moved toward one side of the circle, they moved in concert to keep him centered.

In one motion, he threw open his coat and drew his swords. The blades hissed and steamed in the steady rain.

Moving as one, his foes closed the remaining distance. He spun and danced, parrying every strike. Their blades would cut through a normal sword, but his were reinforced by his faith in the Fire Righteous.

Enough. He had their measure now. One sword flicked in a lazy arc. One head splashed into a puddle.

Again acting as one, his foes stumbled, if only for a moment. His other sword traced a crescent of flame in the air as the other five crumpled to the ground.

A seventh approached, a dark man with eyes of cold metal and arms to
match. He raised one hand, and his fingers folded out of the way as a white jet of the purest flame sprung from his palm.

The Harbinger laughed.

Boatman smiled thinly. "You certainly do not lack for ambition... but that brings us to the business at hand. What is it you feel we have to offer each other?"

"A great deal, my friend, a great deal."

The Name was clearly in his element here. "You can obtain men in your juncture, but you cannot be sure of their loyalties; I can provide men, men that you cannot trust, but at least you know where their loyalties lie."

"And what do you gain in this?"

"My men are tempered in battle. They gain access to the technology of your juncture. And just by existing, you place pressure on my enemies. They fear you more than they do me."

"Tempting. You hand me the world, and yet you seem to think you're coming out ahead on the deal." Boatman paused to allow the Name's laughter to die down. "Throw in a trifling matter, and I believe we have a deal."

"What is this 'trifling matter'?"

Boatman retrieved some papers from his pocket and slid them across the table. "Once things are going well, I will have no further use for him, but I cannot trust the matter to my own people."

The Name flipped through the file. "Not exactly the trivial matter you make it out to be -- we've had to deal with his kind before. However, it shouldn't be a problem; we've dealt with his kind before."

The two men shook hands.

The Harbinger offered no resistance. He knew his faith was strong, but still he flinched as the jet swept toward his face.

When it passed, leaving him unmarked, he struck outward with the hilt of his sword. His startled opponent's head snapped backwards, and he crumpled to the ground.

It sat in the midst of lights. These computers were a new thing to it, but they were easy enough to understand.

In a way, this was like hunting, but on a grand scale. It would not feel the flesh and blood itself, but the slaughter would be beyond its most pleasurable dreams.

Engrossed in the planning, it occasionally managed to forget the thing in its brain.

A human pushed through the glowing wall of information, maps and numbers sliding over his clothes.

With a gesture, it caused the displays to move away from the disturbance. They slid into the remaining empty spaces, shrinking to fit their new homes.

"General, I have a proposal for you."

The Harbinger's guest stirred, then groaned. He sat up, rubbing his jaw and looking around.

There was little enough for him to see. The room was bare save for the ring of fire that confined him. The Harbinger liked it that way. He had spent considerable time and effort removing all the technological wonders that had been included with the room. The wall displays could not be disabled, but at least they could display images of the wall's surface.

The Harbinger stood. The other's gaze followed him as he walked about the room, but he remained silent.

"What is your name?"

The other paused, then shrugged. "Devendra Chalal. Your tag?"

"I am the Harbinger, Herald of the King of the Fire Pagoda."

Chalal snorted. "And your tag when you're not in the sims?"

The Harbinger said nothing.

"Right. You could've wiped me. You didn't. What do you want?"

"I wish to speak with your master."

"No luck. Don't have one. I'm a sole proprietor. No boss, no stockholders."

The Harbinger's mouth was a thin line. "And the reason you chose to attempt my destruction...?"

"Didn't like you. Still don't. You ask personal questions, and privacy's not cheap."

"I do not think I asked any questions about you. Whose privacy was it that I invaded? I would speak with him."

The other paused for many heartbeats, then shrugged sullenly, "Her."

"Dr. Boatman? There's somebody waiting for you."

Boatman sighed. He handed his coat to an assistant and turned to his secretary. She was a pretty blonde girl, a nice change from the Asians who were so common around here. "I am just back from a long trip. Right now, I want dinner, a bath, and bed. He smiled "Get rid of him, and if you like, you can join me in all three."

She blushed, and stammered slightly, then touched her headset. "Mr. Holz? I'm afraid that --"

"Wait. Him. I want to speak with him now."

The Harbinger shifted nervously under the woman's gaze. In his long service, he had been this discomfited only in the presence of his liege's siblings.

Chalal had made it clear that she did not rule here. She was respected. Her advice was followed. But she did not rule.

The Harbinger did not see the difference.

His gaze flickered over the contents of the room. The decoration seemed vaguely familiar. It was sparer and more elegant, but its aesthetic was reflected everywhere in this society.

There was no doubt. She ruled here.

At last, she broke the silence. "You've put in a lot of work to find me. Why?"

"I am the herald of Li Ting, the King of the Fire Pagoda. He knows you are new to the Secret War, and he offers to make alliance."

She smiled. It was a predator's smile. "And what does he have to offer us? I'm told he's more like a spark than a blaze these days."

The Harbinger stiffened slightly. "It is true that he wields less power than once he did. However, he is yet a mighty power in the Netherworld, and the Netherworld is the crossroads of the Secret War. He has also spent many years opposing those who are now your enemies. However capable your spies, they cannot possess the depths of experience he brings."

The bargaining began.
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