Misaki closed the book with a delicate motion. "One's contribution is appreciated," she said.
"My pleasure," Mr. Tannen said. "It was just lying there. I couldn't leave it behind, now, could I? It reminds me a bit of the time I was down by the river, and I felt a sinking feeling in my--"
"One must perform certain tasks," Misaki interjected quickly, before the short man's story could ramp up into full boredom. She had found him to be a quite useful person to employ, but his company was rarely a pleasure.
"Sure. Say, did your brothers get the ritual completed?"
"Their satisfaction was evident."
"Great. If you don't mind I'd like to drop by and chat with one of them--Giuseph, his name was? Giuseph. Good strong name. Had a horse named Joseph once, a little different, but..." Mr. Tannen let the sentence wind down, then coughed. "I'll show myself out."
Misaki enjoyed the silence in his wake. The evening was young; but she had much to do. Giuseph and his brother had indeed completed the ritual, under the cover of the auditions for Collette, and the results were most alarming. Someone--or something--was tainting one of her primary sources of the main ingredient in Brilliance. She'd tracked it down to a warehouse on the edge of town, where the shipments were stored temporarily before being repackaged for distribution. But the warehouse itself was at a nexus of magical energy, of the sort Malifaux's inhabitants were more than a little interested in. Even as minor a practitioner as herself could sense the chi flowing in and around the area; the plants had grown large and carnivorous in response, breaking apart what had once been a solid stone building.
But tonight was the only night before the next shipment; and, worst, most of her other agents were busy with a more important task. She sat cross-legged at the center of a circled square, lost in thought. This one would require a certain amount of muscle, of the sort rarely seen on Earth.
"Shang, I require you," Misaki said. "Shang, I bind you. Shang, I summon you."
A spark--then a flame, then nine tongues of flame. Then, from behind, a burst of hot air, and the small, glowing form of the kitsune erupted from within the circle.
"About time!" Shang said, grinning. "We going somewhere? You're all dressed up."
"We are," Misaki said. "Please make preparations. Our friends and ancestors are required."
Misaki crept quietly along toward the warehouse, Giuseph a step behind. He looked worried; whatever information Mr. Tannen had shared was enough to startle the usually unflappable Ten Thunders Brother. "Mind the vines," Giuseph said quietly, though the warning was rather superfluous--said vines looked strong enough to rip a horse in twain.
Beside Misaki, a tall figure armed with a taller rifle began a silent climb up the remnants of a bell tower. Misaki had pulled some strings to get the sniper's help on short notice; she hoped it worked out. Her crew was quite varied--odds and ends and the returns of favors. Ahead, Lo Xiao-Sheng bowed his head in walking meditation; the stalking horse of their operation, the monk strode forward in quiet calm. Beside him glowed the brillant scales of a majestic beast: the Dawn Serpent, chi made flesh, venemous fangs framed in a mane of flame. Shang had quickly enlisted the Serpent's services, once he had realized Misaki's dilemma.
On the other side, Mr. Tannen bulled doggedly forward. Misaki hadn't asked him to come; but the creepy man had his own reasons for tagging along. His senses, not the ones shared by his human employer, told him that his own kind were haunting this place; and he bore no good will toward his fellow Woes, not after last month's debacle.
There came a murmuring. Misaki's battle-trained heart froze, just a bit. The murmuring became a mournful moan, then a quiet wail. "One is most honored," she said quietly, bowing deeply.
The stench hit her first; a pus-filled smell, of flies and boils. Her eyes watered; but this did not account for the wavering of the figure that rose before her. With a terrible laugh, Ama No Zako rose from within the soil, her wavering features flowing in the moonlight. "Mistress," she said. "It is well you roused me. Evil is afoot; enemies of the clan seek to undermine our hold."
"It is well that you answer," Misaki said quietly.
With a sudden motion the Oni flew forward, trailing bits of gore and gristle from her last meal. She seized upon something, harried it, threw it down. Shang flowed forward toward it as well--it was a tiny, winged creature, baby-faced but angry and full of teeth. "Put me down!" it cried, stamping one foot.
"Run back to mother," Ama No Zako said with a cruel laugh.
"Nooo! Moooom!" the tot cried--and from behind the warehouse, a crowd of figures faded into view.
"Well, that's something you don't see every evening," Mr. Tannen said. He knew the figures well; they were his old 'friends', that blasted Pandora at the lead. Beside her was the dark-eyed figure that some called Kade, and foolish men mistook for a baby; and behind her, Pandora's newest henchman, Candy. Around them flowed the stuff of nightmarish self-doubt: a full complement of Woes, and other figures shambling in the dark woods.
From above Bo, the Katanaka Sniper, let off a shot--but his target, a terror tot skulking behind one of the trees, was able to dodge out of the way. Bo cursed and reloaded his rifle, carefully working the clockwork mechanism until the gun was ready. The tots advanced at a sprint, flowing forward, followed closely by the monstrous form of a swampfiend--Bad Juju, some called it, but Mr. Tannen just called it rude.
"They're here to spike the shipment," Misaki said. "This will not be tolerated. Any and all use of force is considered appropriate."
The Dawn Serpent blew a gout of flame in anticipation; this was going to be fun. But before it could get underway it was met by a translucent apparition, a twisted figure of smoke and shadow. With a gesture, the poltergeist bent the Serpent's mind, forcing him to burn his own flanks with his flame. Roaring, the creatures sprang into fierce combat.
Unpeturbedly, Lo-san walked a measured pace forward, the flames barely touching his cloak. His clasp revealed him to be a disciple of the Low River, and so he walked the path of non-interference; but in his hand he carried a large bag, the better to collect the shipment of Brilliance before it could be fouled. The poltergeist screamed at him, but the Monk was unimpressed; instead, he trusted in his friend the Serpent to make short work of the spectre.
Giuseph swallowed hard as he saw Juju rushing forward; he knew his job here was to protect the others, to allow them to complete the mission. He rushed forward, waving his massive hammer and slapping his flanks fiercely. Juju took the bait, shambling forward and laying into the smaller figure with vicious claws. The trap was sprung, then--Misaki sending a downburst of water that shoved Giuseph out of the way, allowing Ama No Zako to substitute herself as target.
"Such a good Bad Juju," she murmured, her words binding the beast's spirit to her. "Surely that tot behind you would be a better snack?" And it was, and the swampfiend's claws made short work of the tiny Nephilim.
"Damn sure glad I'm on your side," Tannen said. He pushed to the middle wanting words with Pandora, but she eluded him; instead, another Tot converged, along with a pack of Woes. Misaki, concerned for his safety, pressed forward herself. A sudden charge and she dispatched Juju with two slashing motions; the body slid to the ground in stunned disbelief.
"What a pretty trick," a squeaky voice shouted from the darkness; Misaki found herself drawn forward, irresistibly, until she was nearly nose-to-nose with the baby-faced figure. "Perhaps you'd like to sit down for a spell?"
Dazed, Misaki danced away, but her movements were sluggish. Woes swarmed in, seeking to pen her in, but Ama No Zako's whispers made them reconsider. Suddenly Baby Kade found himself the target of the Woe's attentions instead, allowing Tannen, at least, to escape.
Meanwhile, on the other side fo the battlefield, trouble lurked. The Dawn Serpent, his scales gleaming in the night air, glided forward on wings of chi; for a juicy target lay ahead. Candy, her pink dress damp in the evening dew, smiled winningly at the great beast--and promptly vanished. Growling in anger, the serpent let loose another blast of flame, but once again found itself aiming at its own tail! Diverted, the beast spun to dispatch the mischevious poltergeist, and this time his claws found purchase on the slippery spectre. A wail and a sigh, and the spirit disbanded into thin air.
The Woes rushed forward, clinging to Giuseph, seeking to get their hands on the shipment. Bo, realizing his high perch was more of a liability given the poor forest sightlines, leapt down to engage the woes and rescue his compatriot. Switching rifle for katana, he soon found himself back to back with Giuseph, seeking to fend off the attackers. A dart and a cut, and one fell, but the others pressed them most severely.
Then came the help--Ama No Zako whispering words of misdirection and luring one Woe to its doom upon her wicked claws; and Mr. Tannen, whose words cut across the clearing with vicious impact. The woes listened, and in their listening lost their will to live. Even the tot near him fled the plane rather than listen any longer. The shipment was clear! Now it was just a matter of collecting it, and surviving.
Kade made things difficult, luring Giuseph forward before viciously head-butting the Brother. He fell to the ground insensate; enraged, Misaki sliced Kade in two, but echoing laughter from Pandora told her this was all part of the plan. She focusd her energies on Pandora, but the mistress of self-doubt eluded Misaki, fleeing across the clearing to engage Lo--for the Monk had snuck, unnoticed, across the field and was scooping Brilliance into his readysack. With a sigh and a glance across the battlefield, Misaki shoved down her urge for revenge, instead helping with the retrieval. Her rucksack bulging, she whistled long and hard--for the job was done.
She expected a fighting retreat, but as she took stock of the battlefield realized the only ones standing were her own allies. With Giuseph in the tender care of the Katanaka sniper, all others were able to leave the field in short order. Across, she saw Pandora and Candy fleeing into the night; and she chanced a smile, to think of the self-doubt they had to be feeling.
"Wha!? Where am I?" Giuseph sat bolt upright, drawing a shuddering breath. He found himself in a well-appointed bedroom; he was lying on a bed that had to be made of goose feathers, it was so soft.
"You're okay," Takoko said. "Or you will be, once you relax."
Giuseph tried--it helped that Takoko's voice was as fair as her features. He ran his fingers over his face, feeling the traceries where Juju's claws had cut him. The rents had been cleaned carefully and restitched; he'd live, though his innards felt rearranged and bruised. "The ritual--the Neverborn--"
"All is well," Takoko said, running a moistening oil across his stitches. "Misaki sends her warm thanks."
"And Mr. Tannen? Did his betrayal--"
"Betrayal?" The interjection came from a voice in the corner of the room. Misaki unfolded herself from where she'd been sitting. "What does one mean?"
"That Neverborn was playing us," Giuseph said. "I figured it out when I saw him laughing it up with Pandora."
"The one of whom you speak proved most instrumental in our success," Misaki said slowly.
"Can't be trusted--must--" Giuseph fell back. He was more tired than he'd thought.
Takoko looked at her mistress with a worried expression. "Think he's right?"
"When temperatures are high, thoughts and skies are cloudy," Misaki said slowly. "Still, a cool stream can hide many mysteries. Set up a meeting with the tavern owner; I would have words with him about his employees."
"It will be done," Takoko said.