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A Matter Of Betrayal

Chapter Text

Dust motes sparkled in the air of the warehouse, courtesy of a slanting ray of sunlight through its gapped wooden walls.

Mistress Misaki whisked her matcha powder carefully, three times to the left, before adding steaming hot water. The figure in the corner slouched in aggressive annoyance; he knew how to hold his cards, but he sure wasn't happy when he had to.

"Will you join me?" Misaki asked quietly.

Lynch took the bowl with both hands, nodding ever so slightly. Only the broad brim of his hat revealed the motion at all. He slurped noisily at the bowl, and wiped his lips on his sleeve. "Needs some whiskey."

She smiled, a pained smile, visible only in the pinching of her nose; for she wore her ceremonial veil, as she did all the times that Lynch spoke to her in her role as Misaki. The corners of her eyes never moved. "One presumes you have heard of the disturbance near Madame Maker's shop."

"One presumes correctly." Lynch had lost two good fighters in the fire, not to mention half a shipment. Packets from a shipment of Brilliance were scattered all over the town; it was good for business, but problematic in the short term.

"One also presumes that an honest businessman would be concerned about the results of such a disturbance."

"One figures out a way to profit from such occurrences," Lynch said with a sigh. "Any chance I could interest you in getting to the point, Mistress? I'm losing money standing here, and so are you."

Misaki stared out the doorway for a long, calculated time, long enough that the tavern owner began to tap one toe. She turned to him, the same pained smile showing. "It is uncommon for the Torakage to work with outsiders."

"I'm not too keen on getting their help myself, but they do have a way with getting around," Lynch said. "In fact, I--"

A knock at the door disturbed them both; a looming presence, his bald head bowed to fit under the door's sill. "Begging your pardon, masters, but a feller's here to see you both."

"Ah, Mr. Graves," Lynch said. "We were just talking about you."

"You was?" the big man asked, with a hint of curiosity. As usual his true emotions were covered by the mask of imbecility he wore, a mask borne so adroitly that even his insightful employer doubted his true nature.

"Yes," Lynch said. "And bring that...friend of yours, too. It'd be good for him to get out of the Honeypot from time to time."

"Sure, boss, but what do I do with this guy? He's got a sword. It's big."

Misaki made a small motion, and a piece of shadow detached itself from the ceiling, revealing itself as a slight figure in a crimson keikogi. The figure put a hand on the giant's shoulder, casually, the way a mother might touch a sleeping child; at the touch Mr. Graves spun, but yielded his spot.

"Ichiro will show him in," Misaki said quietly. "You may leave us."

The big man nodded and resumed his post out front, idly whittling at a toothpick the size of a steak knife. He knew better than to cross the Mistress of the Ten Thunders.

The new figure was tall, and narrow in the shoulders, with a weary face. He squinted into the darkness with his left hand on his hip, where hung a flat-bladed schlagger. He bowed, a formal bow with hands at his sides, before proceeding.

Misaki wondered idly if the demonstration of respect were not, instead, an opportunity to let his eyes adjust.

"Who's this guy?" Lynch asked, the note of derision in his voice covering a deeper concern: for this was clearly a gentleman of some puissance, and despite his spies Jakob Lynch had no idea who he might be.

"An acquaintance who may be interested in a mutually beneficial arrangement," Misaki said.

"I don't work with strangers," Lynch growled. "It's bad luck."

"I think you'll find this gentleman has already suffered more than his share. Additionally, no request was made."

"Phew. For a minute I thought you were going to tell me I had to bring him along."

Misaki held her smile a long while.

"Aww, hell, that is what you mean, ain't it?" Lynch cursed, but quietly, for despite all appearances, he had a healthy respect for Misaki's ability to make his life unpleasant. "Fine. It's gonna cost you extra, though. I'll need a third shipment this month, and at ten percent off. Now, what d'you want, mister?"

The lone figure nodded slowly. "I have only one goal," he said quietly, in a voice faintly tinged with an accent Lynch couldn't identify. One of Ortega's boys? No, the accent didn't sound quite right for that lot.

"Assistance toward your goal may become available, should our own needs be met," Misaki said.

The swordsman seemed unmoved by this, so Lynch spoke up. "That means if you do good we'll see what we can do for you. Got any tricks other than that steel of yours?"

"I do," the man said.

"Great," Lynch barked. "Another one. I'm going to go get drunk. Better than listening to all these half-sentences."

Misaki smiled as he left; a real smile. The fire had been a small price to pay for flushing out the rat in the distribution chain. Now that she had her finger on the source of the trouble, she had no intention of letting the slippery cheat escape intact...

Chapter Text

Misaki grimaced. It wasn't a deep wound, but it was enough to kill if unattended. "Finer stitches, Ichiro," she said sourly.

The torakage looked up from her work, pursing her lips. "Had you the sense of a newborn lemur, you would not have committed yourself to killing that which cannot be killed."

Misaki nodded. It had been a lesson learned at some cost...

The encounter had begun with a rush, a blur of motion. Misaki, her hand-picked agents shadowing her at some distance, had gone to set up a meeting at a new bar near Big Bill's Ammo And Taxidermy; for she had still had some trouble securing the services of the inestimably annoying Mr. Tannen. And so it was that, as she walked along in escort with Mr. Graves, his booming footsteps making the cobblestones shift and clatter. A pace beside lurked Chiyoko; her brother Ichiro had been sent in deep cover, searching for a hint of the trail.

Takoko was perched atop the roof of Big Bill's; she'd crept up there hoping to lure one of the townspeople to a grave end, for an unconnected mission. But the fellow had come ill of a mysterious ailment, and so she found herself in the surprising position, and a bit unsure of how to get down. This accidental vantage did provide, as Misaki later, a rather useful view of a quite confused encounter.

But it did not provide the oiran any clues as to how to achieve her primary objective-for Misaki had tasked Takoko to request an audience with the shambling sorceress who called herself Tara. The latter had been sniffing around with the same independent agents that Misaki pulled from, and the competition was getting frustrating.

In the past week, a simple request for a straightforward delivery had gone awry when Taelor and the man named Sue had rejected Misaki's advances. Finding they had been working for the Rezzer at the time? Most demeaning.

It was high time, Misaki thought, to bring the upstart in line; but such things had to be done correctly. A declaration of war, Misaki had insisted on; one done at the proper time.

If only Ten Thunders had realized she was facing a master of time.

Mr. Tannen, who had not troubled himself to stand up from the counter at The Potted Plant, waved an idle greeting. "Cold night, inn't?"

The Mistress of the Ten Thunders nodded, cloaked and hooded that none might guess her identity. "It is most pleasant. I trust you are well?" Ahead, she gave a careful glance to one of her most faithful servants, Giuseph, a native and in deep cover. He was escorting her newest hire, the mysterious out of towner; both had found reasons to convene at Big Bill's.

"Can't complain, can't complain," the big man said. "You'll be wanting to join us in the bar, then?

"Briefly," Misaki said with poorly contained distaste. The place looked cramped--and was made even moreso by the presence of the sickly Mr. Tannen. Even from here she could sense the wrongness in his aura, a disturbing combination of ennui and pain. His frail form contained more energy than it should; even an unattuned observer such as herself could sense it.

"Do you...feel something?" she asked.

"S'a bit of Malifaux stirring up, indeed, missus," Graves said. He growled under his breath; more than a little. There was a funk and a stench around, and a wreched void in the trees. He tensed his hands around his walking stick.

Slow realization dawned on Misaki. The streets were crowded, especially as dusk settled, but the seemingly random gathering of strangers was as purposeful as that of her own crew. Ahead of her, she saw another of the blue cannisters--then another, and another. At last! Now it was time to set up the new tavern's owner to take the fall. She gave a signal--but too late.

Instead, it was Ichiro's sudden startlement that set the encounter in motion. Thinking back, it seemed to Misaki to unfold in slow motion. Ichiro spotted within a rather out-of-place farm cart the tell-tale blue color of a tin of Brilliance, buried within; as luck would have it, he was himself spotted simultaneously by a daft Necropunk nearby, who was traveling with a wicked Nurse that claimed to work the local infirmary.

The stench of decay surrounding both of them gave Ichiro pause; and so he called out to Misaki, across the square; and things collapsed. Tara, with a quick motion, summoned energies around herself and stored time, in a locket she kept around her neck. From the porch of the tailor's store, a greenish blue light resolved itself into the shimmering form of the once-alive, a horrific sight outlined in witchfire. Misaki grimaced; it was none other than Yan Lo's niece, delving in energies she didn't understand and couldn't control. Misaki hoped there would be an opportunity later to school the young brat.

Meanwhile, Mr. Graves smiled in satisfaction; things were about to get properly messy.

Ichiro sprang into action, leaping forward to secure the Brilliance, but paused to plant the bill of sale his mistress had requested, first. It went under the boxes of bullets clearly headed for the store; close enough. Ahead he saw Giuseph do the same, a damning double dose of evidence that would point at Bill as the source of the illicit drug.

Graves stepped into the thick of things, in an attempt to retrieve the bits of the crucial shipment, only to find himself beset by a monster from beyond the grave. He paused, and in pausing, Tara found the time to whisk herself away. Worse, Misaki saw she'd picked up one of the cannisters--and not just any cannister, but the only one stamped with the seal of quality. It was a damning mark, that tracery, a signature sufficient to connect the Ten Thunders back to the flow of drugs. This was unacceptable.

There came a sound of a wooden door being slammed, repeatedly. Surprised, Misaki whirled to find herself beset by Guild minions. This was most unexpected--though they did seem to follow Tara around. The Death Marshal, lugging her enormous coffin, sidled slowly down the street, intent on putting Mr. Tannen in the cooler. The clever fellow, however, slipped half-out the window, intent on haranging Tara--only to find his target gone.

"Well, there's more than two ways to skin a cat," Mr. Tannen said to himself. "Which reminds me--I know you're into ghosts, and all, but aren't you alive? I've got a lovely story of a hanged man you might find interestng--maybe you can look him up some time, get together, have a few drinks..." But the Chiaki was having none of it, instead devoting her energies to meddling in the melee in the center, and so the creepy old man shifted his focus. The Death Marshal, weighted down by her pine box, grew steadily more and more tired, until the very life force ebbed out from her. Mr. Tannen smiled in horrid fascinating, allowing just a hint of his true nature bleed through as he sucked her dry.

Misaki, beset on all sides, smote the Void Wretch a fatal blow--only to hear cackling laughter from behind her. Two flashbulbs went off simultaneously, a picture from each side--and she was caught. The trap had been sprung, and the rotting nymphomaniac in front of her patted the camera with glee. "That'll be in the evening paper--the Mistress of the Ten Thunders, attacking a Guild minion."

"The truth will out," Misaki said, but under her breath--for it wouldn't do to show her irritation. Instead she cast about, trying to figure out where Tara had gotten to, and finally found her hiding behind the outhouse. "You. You are my target," Misaki said, summoning her energies and focusing at last.

The torakage gave solid chase, but the necropunks were just too agile. Even a brief assist from Takoko was insufficient to slow up the speedy assailants, and Ichiro lost the creature around a building corner. "Mistress!" he cried.

"No matter," Misaki said. "Tara is all that matters."

With that Takoko nodded sagely, carefully putting her right fist in her left palm, and bowed deeply. From within the long sleeves of her robes, a pair of smoke bombs fell, detonating on the roof of Big Bill's--and when the smoke cleared, she was gone.

"Where?" Tara cried--for her own minions were dwindling in number. But the answer became all too clear as the oiran stepped from the shadows beside her.

"Tara," Takoko said. "I greet you, and give you this." The letter hung in the air between them, a brief hand-printed scroll. Tara read it involuntarily as it whisked to the ground, a declaration of war against her and her crew. She felt its binding force wash over her, and cursed mightily.

"Just for that," Tara said, "you die dishonorably. Bête!"

The horror erupted from beside her; Tara reached out with horrid energies and lassoed the oiran, burying her within dark chambers where her will was sapped.

Misaki, sensing a losing situation, charged in, but it was too late. With savage strokes she sought to fell Tara, but the Rezzer was able to fend off her attacks--barely. It seemed the fate of the encounter fell to a single flip of the cards, with Tara's energy sapped and her neck ripe for severing, but Misaki was unable to land the killing blow.

Instead, as the clock tower struck eight, the crew melted into the evening fog like a bad idea, leaving Misaki to lick her wounds. The swordsman lay in a crumpled heap, a dozen stab wounds in his abdomen from the Belle's poisoned umbrella; one torakage was seriously hurt, while the other was merely winded. Mr. Graves was riddled with wounds, but unbowed; he gathered up Chiyoko in one enormous arm, the torakage barely a burden. Mr. Tannen shuffled along unimpeded as the crew returned nearly empty-handed; for only Giuseph had managed to hang onto his cannister of Brilliance.

Of Takoko there was no sign. Misaki shuddered to think what price would be required to return her spirit from the realms to which Tara had banished it.

Chapter Text

Misaki looked up from behind an enormous stack of papers; she had been poring over reports from the other side of the Breach, where incursions by Guild spies made it challenging to keep supply streams steady.

"Mistress," the voice came; quietly, for it was late at night.

She nodded her head a fraction.

"We have the details you were looking for." The woman stepped fully into the light. Wearing street clothes, Chiyoko seemed almost invisibly plain--other than the scar that had not healed, a reminder of her close encounter with Tara.

"The whereabouts of the traitor?" Misaki spoke the words almost silently, her lips hidden by her face mask. She held out one long-fingered hand. The torakage moved silently beside her, a necklace clenched in her fist. "This--this is my father's," Misaki said slowly.

"He bade me keep it close, until you received it."

The Mistress of the Ten Thunders fingered the necklace thoughtfully. Dangling from it was a tiny book, no larger than a postage stamp. Misaki pulled out a magnifying glass and a pair of thin gloves of coated silk, and selected a pair of long-handled tweezers from a toolbox inside her desk. Carefully, she twisted the latch on the book; it sprang open with some force, jetting black liquid against her magnifying glass.

"From my father, indeed," she said. Her hands were not shaking: but this was due to an effort of will. The Last Blossom knew what the black substance was, and what would have happened should it have contacted her skin.

Inside was a tiny shattered piece of red crystal: vayrynenite, a fragile stone found in the far north. Misaki pulled it out with the tweezers. Then, with a slow motion, she pushed both tweezers and stone into a small vial of acid pulled from another drawer in her desk. There was no sound, but the smell was foul and sharp.

When she was done the stone was shining clear, a dim pink light coming from within.

"What is it?" Chiyoko asked, her eyes wide.

"Our opponent. We face fire, and ice, next. Send notice to Ototo; we will need his strength."

"Of course, mistress. Anything else?"

"Set up a meeting with the steamworker."

Mei Feng rose from beside the split tie. Around her blasts of steam made a cacophonous racket, harsh blasts intermixed with the constant clanging of hammered steel. "Shit. We'll have to pull it. Get this out of the way and hold the track while we can fetch a new block of wood." She patted the enormous contraption of steel and steam that stood beside her.

The massive golem nodded slowly, a motion like a mountain calving boulders, and lifted the steel rail up two inches. Then, with its other manipulator, it yanked the tie clear of its moorings, sliding it as easily as a child might move tiny building blocks. The screetching noise made Feng wince and cover her ears; but then she straightened.

"Kang!" she shouted.

The burly fellow strode over with confident steps, a grin on his face. "We slapping a new block in there?"

"Yes, that. Who's the chick?"

Kang blinked, and stared where Feng was pointing. "No clue. Want me to go ask?" Truth be told, he was looking forward to the task, for though the maiden wore an ornate kimono and obscuring veil, what little he could see seemed comely enough.

"No, I'll go. Make sure these rails get trued once the golem resets them."

"Ayup," Kang said, patting her on one bare shoulder. "You go have some...tea...or whatever it is your people do."

"Watch it," Feng said, with a playful swipe at him.

The robed figure did not move as Feng approached; did not move until they were within arm's reach of each other. Mei Feng had brought her five-pound sledge; it seemed appropriate. She leaned on its handle, a full four feet in length, and stared at the newcomer. Finally, she smiled. "You gonna talk, or we gonna stare at each other all day?"

"I would have words," the figure said quietly.

Mei Feng cursed inwardly. "You came yourself? What's up? Let's go in my tent where it's quieter."

"One may well linger. The steam covers conversation from eager ears; and your men may as well see you hiring oiran, as three will be by later."

"You are most generous," Mei Feng said, though she herself did not care for the trade of the oiran. "You don't think someone followed you here?"

"Were someone to, they would have an introduction to a slender blade."

Feng gulped. While she didn't mind cracking a few heads when that was called for, the figure's cold-blooded delivery made her shiver. "So what can I do for you, mistress?"

"Appellations bring danger," Misaki said.

"Right! Uh. Person. Who I totally don't know."

"One might seek information on a wielder of flame."

"I know a couple of those," Feng said with a laugh. "Can you be more specific?"

"It is said there are wings."

"Ah. Her. Yeah." Feng scratched her cheek, leaving a long streak of dark grease. "Not my best friend in the whole world."

"If one were assessing areas of strength, what would one notice?"

"Hmm. She's tough at range. You'll want to get close in. And bring a bucket of sand, or several--or try to fight her near water."

"Anything else?"

"Beware her gunmen; their weapons are unpredictable, but deadly. Do you want a golem for company?"

"It is appreciated. One must, however, maintain appearances."

"Understood. Though I think Snuffly there would be an excellent ally. Hey--careful out there, alright?"

Misaki bowed; Mei Feng felt a tug in her stomach, knowing that she should return the gesture, complete the ritual. Instead, she forced herself to remain standing, against years of childhood training, while her mistress shuffled off and back into the woods.

"What in hell was all that about?" Kang asked.

"I've arranged some company for the men," Feng said. "The three hardest workers on this shift are gonna have a nice reward."

"Damn! Am I eligible?"

"I have other plans for you," she said, putting a possessive hand on his arm.

The burn ointment sizzled where it touched Chiyoko's flesh. "That...does not feel good."

Misaki pursed her lips. "It is necessary. A river may splash about stones cast into it."

"An ocean's wave may reach a thousand miles, if the mountainside falls," Chiyoko countered.

"Even the blind swordsman need not hear his blade," Misaki said.

Chiyoko fell silent, rebuked.

"One who performed a great service is treasured forever," Misaki said.

"A tiny acorn is laid," Chiyoko said, pleased.

The plan had been perfection; the execution, a struggle of ill fate. Misaki had, at her father's insistence, put a tail on Kaeris. The sorceress had been building power in a quite alarming fashion, gathering minions from near and far to her crew. This was itself concerning; but most upsetting were the minions in question.

After her meeting with Mei Feng, Misaki had seen the Firestarter sniffing around the camp. Unwilling to compromise her disguise, she asked Takoko to be among the oiran visiting the camp that evening. This trusted insider was able to ascertin that Kaeris had recruited, among other allies, two able gunsmiths and the control glyphs for a rail golem.

This concerned Misaki greatly. However, there was little to be done about it; Kaeris had been messing about too long with Ten Thunders agents, and it was time to punish the upstart.

The occasion came soon--too soon. The Lone Swordsman, who had failed Misaki so dramatically in the previous week, was in negotiation with Kaeris for hire. The deal was to be struck on the outskirts of town, near the Hanging Tree. Rather than let Kaeris escort her new ally out of town, Misaki decided she would teach the newcomer a lesson. A deadly lesson.

The morning was misty and overcast; Misaki's crew, hiding in the ruins of the old church, could see Kaeris and her ungodly minions emerging from the damp woods. With a silent signal, they spread out and took defensive positions; but it was too late. Kaeris had seen them, or sensed them. The rail golem, big brute in the midst of the woods, started to heat up alarmingly.

Impatient, Misaki gestured to Takoko, who lured forward a gunsmith. Then Misaki leapt forward, and with quick blows struck down a fire gamin and a gunsmith. Kaeris cackled; for this gamin had once again been sent only to reveal Misaki's murderous nature.

Ashamed, Misaki vowed to stalk and kill Kaeris, but her focus led her directly near the Hanging Tree. Its evil presence made her lose courage, and only a tremendous effort steeled her will ((had to blow the red joker on the WP duel!)).

Meanwhile, the archer and samurai crept forward. This was good; this was the plan. Both were expendable in Misaki's mind; the Samurai, a reckless fellow named Rokuro, moreso. Her father had given her orders to dispose of him, for he knew too much of the Ten Thunders inner workings.

But Kaeris' troops make cagey use of cover, and threw up a tremendous wall of flame between themselves and the enemies. The archer flung a hail of shuriken blind, only to have his aim fail disastrously. Torakage went scattering for cover as the targets laughed ((Black Joker, naturally)).

Ototo, his presence almost unnoticed behind the ruins of the church, took matters into his own hand. Fire be damned he strode forward, his great kanabō stunning a fire gamin before he reached his true target: Kaeris. For a moment they fought, flame against strength, but in the end the fire was too much for the fighter and he fell. Within the flame Misaki swore she could make out a laughing face; as the bonfires flew around the battlefield, seemingly possessing a mind of their own, she was sure.

With the sun rising and time running out, the Torakage sprinted forward. Chiyoko, having used the cover of smoke bombs to relocate behind the Swordsman, threw cunning shuriken to wound the fellow. Misaki tried to follow, but could not perfect the art of escaping into the smoke. Cursing, she blamed the hanging tree, and whisled for her oiran to lure her away from its influence.

Then Rokuro showed the Crew how to do things, striding forcefully through the worst of the fire to land a perfect blast from his gatling gun. The bullets cut deeply into the Swordsman, felling him instantly! ((Red Joker, naturally!))

The rail golem burst out of the flame, seeking to cut down Takoko, but the oiran dodged and juked, evading the massive beast's rush. Misaki switched her focus abruptly, channeling all her attention on the vast metal beast; her onslaught was furious and sudden, but nothing the rusy monstrosity couldn't handle.

The sun arose; both sides could hear the bellowing of Guild agents approaching. Swearing, Kaeris sowed fire in a deep arc around her and took to the air. Chiyoko's garments began to smolder, and the torakage screamed in pain. Kaeries hissed commands; her minions scattered into the night, flames trailing behind them.

"Let them run!" bellowed Rokuro! "Weaklings! We will hunt them down!"

"One would be advised to lower one's voice," Misaki said evenly. The samurai quieted instantly. "This was not a victory." She knelt by the badly-burned Ototo. "You will live, Ototo-san," she said finally.

"Will I?" the massive man asked slowly. "Right now it sure doesn't feel preferable."

Chapter Text

"Katanaka-san!" Takoko called, her eyes agleam as she ran into the room.

Misaki disentangled herself from the training apparatus she hung from, a series of silk ropes suspended from the high ceiling of their clan temple, and carefully put down her bisento. "One's attention is required?"

"I have the most wonderful news," the oiran gushed. "Madame Du Bois is hiring!" She held out a crisply pressed newspaper; on the back page was a large ad. Performers Needed, it said. Exquisite Requirements; Only The Fairest Need Apply. Precision Timing Essential.

Misaki waited quietly. The oiran had had a rough month, including a terrifying encounter with a rail golem in the line of duty, and for this reason Misaki allowed her some lassitude.

After a moment the younger woman bowed. "Very well. I understand. A bundle of reeds is not easily broken; the clan comes first."

"I am considering," Misaki said quietly.

The oiran stood in barely suppressed glee.

"There is another matter that needs attention," Misaki said at length. "Secure an audition for yourself and for Koneko. Two flowers will sit in a vase; the performer will take her own bow."

The auditions, such as they were, were held in a natural depression on the west side of town. At its center stood a small stage; around were various places to perch, rubble left from where lightning strikes had decimated a temple and burial ground. A curious tree had sprung up in the middle of it, one that bore pods that were said to enhance the abilities of those that ate them. Misaki did not believe such nonsense, of course.

"This place is holy ground, ma'am," Giuseph said. "Brother Orai will not tolerate fighting here." Nevertheless, the Ten Thunders Brother had brought his large cudgel with him, and Orai his vicious knives. Both were attired in formal garb for their people, shirts and pants freshly pressed, and ceremonial makeup covering their faces in turqoise lines.

Misaki smiled at the shorter man--a smile visible for once, for the Mistress of the Katanaka clan wore no mask; no disguise at all. She, too, was dressed in finery, a long dress of flowing burgundy fabric. "Even peace can fell a forest. Even a tiger, distracted, can lose its prey."

Giuseph took this as affirmation and smiled; for he and his brother had important work to do tonight, and it was critical that it proceed uninterrupted.

The small party moved forward--to all appearances, a cluster of friends out to support two of their own. But each member bore with them some extra surprises, for Misaki had split up the latest shipment of Brilliance amongst them.

Ichiro, his blades well-hidden under a long formal coat, smiled as he escorted Takoko and Koneko toward the center of the arena. To his left Sakae strolled casually toward a pack of showgirls; one, in a brilliant white shortcoat and top hat was demonstrating tricks with a pair of mannequins, manipulating the contraptions so that they nearly seemed to move on their own.

Off to the right, Misaki saw Chiyoko conspicuously plant a bag by a tree. The bag was full of rocks; but Du Bois didn't know that. Misaki watched for any reaction from her opposite number; but there was none. Meanwhile she herself brought up the rear, in the company of a cranky old man who had invited himself along.
"Fine night for tryouts, isn't it?" Mr. Tannen cackled. "Going to see some fine displays, I hope?"

"One presumes all will be entertained," Misaki said, keeping her own smile firmly in place.

None but Mr. Tannen knew his true reasons for joining Misaki's crew: the ritual that Giuseph and Orai were attending to was of great interest to the Neverborn as well. Forces were aligned to this place, ancient forces that had brought the lightning down upon the outsider temple, and now had brought the Thunders to this spot, and the being called Mr. Tannen intended to see those forces bound and constrained. If it meant leaving it to a pack of teal-faced baboons, then that was the price.

Colette Du Bois scintillated in her ruffled dress, high blue collar and dancing cane at the ready. All around, low tables had been set up with drinks and comestibles on them. The parties came together cautiously, with many sidelong glances; for secrets abounded on both sides. But the entertainment started, and the wine flowed, and the conversation began.

Misaki was rather concerned to see four men she didn't know with Colette. Two were clearly stagehands--but they bore the insignia of the MS&U, and their strong builds marked them as miners. Worryingly, they were moving false scenery and props around seemingly at random. The other pair were even more curious: Oxfordian mages, in full regalia and sparking with magical energy. Were they part of the performance? Were they present to keep the peace? Or was there some other arcane ritual at work, beyond Misaki's ken?

She sent quick hand signals to Chiyoko to keep the miners occupied. The torakage approached under the cover of conversation, and was able to plant some of the Brilliance on each of the miners in turn. Misaki rushed toward, nearly running as one of the mages strayed too close. She flashed him a smile and a hint of cleavage; his eyes glazed over, but then he recovered and clinked glasses with her. The other mage was more troubling, for he headed directly toward the center of the clearing, where the odd branches of the fruited tree swayed.

The dance continued. Misaki felt light-headed, suddenly realizing that the mage had somehow poisoned her drink. She withdrew behind a bit of rubble to gather her thoughts, sending signals for the oiran to spread out. This was no simple audition!

Colette Du Bois called for attention, directing her performers the way a chessmaster might arrange his pieces. With a snap and a clap, she produced a dove from nowhere. At her command it flew off--then, with a flash of smoke, appeared in its place. All applauded; but Misaki saw how Colette stole glances in the direction Misaki had come from, as if she coveted the exit.

Subtly, she sent signals to Koneko to intercept. The oiran fell back as Colette appeared in front of her. Beseeching the showgirl for an audition right then and there, Koneko strove to distract Du Bois, but to no avail. Grimacing, she threw down smoke bombs, using the distraction to appear by Koneko.

Meanwhile, the Ten Thunders Brothers worked feverishly on the ritual, disguised as a pas de deux. They bobbed and weaved in and around each other, taking the opportunity to lay their hawthorne branches at the foot of the tree. Each branch burst into brilliant blue flame, then was gone; one after another, until nearly their entire load had burned. The mage, his curiosity piqued, strove to interfere--but Mr. Tannen and Orai worked together to misdirect and harange him until he almost didn't know where he stood.

From behind, Sakae planted the Brilliance with abandon, distracting all with his antics. The showgirls had started to realize the cursed drug was in their possession, and started speaking in a silent language of their own: get rid of it! Miners, mages, and showgirls all started checking their pockets frantically, some finding the devilish substance, others distracted simply with the effort. Misaki smiled; this meant that none were interfering with the ritual.

She turned her attention back to her counterpart. "Du Bois-san," she said. "There are two here who would entertain you." The oiran bowed, one after another, seeking to lure the showgirl out of her comfortable spot; but Colette barked a laugh at their pitiful efforts, instead producing another dove from the depths of her dress. Once again there was a flash; and then Colette was nearly gone, hiding in the corner of the arena with her doves surrounding her.

Misaki's smile became a hard line. She still didn't know what Du Bois was up to--but there was more than one way to halt it. She became a flurry of activity, hands moving in complex patterns as she charged Colette. The showgirl never saw the knife; never felt it as it cut the strings of energy around her. But when Misaki was done, Colette was bereft of any connection she'd had to the mystic energy of Malifaux. Misaki smiled. "Is there an audience for such skills?" she said.

"Get away from me!" Colette exclaimed as she realized her weakness. She stumbled back, but Misaki pressed forward, the smile ever present.

"Are you feeling unwell?"

"That's none of your business." Colette looked up to see Angelika give her the thumbs-up; whatever secret ritual the Arcanist had been pursuing with her magic tricks and shell games was complete. "This audition is over."

Behind her Misaki saw Giuseph also give a thumbs-up, a smile on his wide face. "Very well," Misaki said. "Thank you for the refreshments, and the entertainment. One wishes you and your company the best."

Colette Du Bois barked a short laugh, and clapped her hands. "You're most unwelcome," she said, in a voice dripping with disdain. The doves swooped low at the Thunders crew. Misaki sought refuge in an explosion of smoke and shadows, but the pair of oiran were not as lucky. One dove detonated into a shower of feathers and glass. Koneko shrieked, throwing up a robed arm to protect her face; Takoko ducked behind her sister. When all straightened, the traveling show had moved on.

"What a show!" Tannen said, smiling an oily smile.

Chapter Text

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.