The Final Piece of the Puzzle
Birds sang to each other in the trees as Yasha strode quickly along the street, the early morning chorus audible because the city was still ghostly quiet. The curfew had lifted half an hour earlier but people were slow to leave their houses while the pylons still hummed an ominous warning that all was not well in Djisi. The constabulary checkpoints on all major roads didn’t help matters, snarling up what little traffic there was.
The sky was vivid blue, a few tufts of clouds scudding passed as a sharp breeze, carrying the bite of autumnal chill ruffled Yasha’s hair. He pulled his jacket closer around him and kept up his quick pace. Underneath the jacket he still wore Leo’s donated clothing and the irony of that was not lost on him; he was a vagabond fugitive wearing a dead man’s clothing, and just like Leo he’d knowingly left the safety of the Progasch house to face his enemy without a word.
The aurite filament in Ludo’s disruptor had burned out, meaning he was weaponless. He was also running on less than three hours sleep, having crashed on the Progaschs’ parlour sofa late last night. He and the Progaschs’ had hashed out the contents of Leo’s diary for a few hours, Yasha asking more questions than he answered as his mind broke down the new data. Leo’s diary had provided a windfall of new information, even if the source was suspect.
‘Leo wasn’t mad,’ Esfida had slapped her fist down on the table top when he’d asked how seriously he should take what he’d read. Yasha had exchanged a complicated but oddly complicit look with her father. The elder Progasch had turned away, rising to put the kettle on, leaving Yasha the task of delicately tap-dancing around the elephant in the room.
‘Alright,’ he’d said struggling for patience and a diplomatic way to express his extreme doubts about Leo Progasch’s state of mind when he wrote his diary. ‘He wasn’t delusional, but he was soul sick and that affects the mind in subtle ways.’ And not so subtle ways. Whatever else Leo had been, he’d had a raging death wish by the time of his fateful rendezvous on Rhadic Bridge.
‘The visions were real,’ Esfida had replied curtly, not unaware of all the things he was not saying and judging him with her eyes for thinking them. ‘I’ve had them too,’ she insisted, tilting her chin in nascent challenge. ‘Unless you want to accuse me of being crazy too?’ she’d asked, pointed and provocative.
Yasha had sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Look,’ he’d begun tiredly, already familiar with Esfida’s attempts to rile him. ‘I’m not here to accuse anyone of anything. All I want is some useable intelligence about Matriev. I’m not going to pretend your brother’s diary hasn’t helped. It’s helped a lot. But if I’m going to act on it, I need to know it’s reliable.’
‘I didn’t realise criminals were cowards.’ Esfida had sneered, preening a little when she saw him bristle. ‘I know what you’re doing,’ she’d told him, head up and back straight. ‘You’re trying to weasel out of helping us.’
‘Esa,’ her father had interjected before Yasha could say something he’d probably, at some point, regret. ‘He’s right. A mission’s only as good as the intel it’s built on.’
‘And this mission just got a whole lot more complicated,’ Yasha had agreed. ‘I thought I was going to have to take on a street lord trying to force me into a job; but he has my friends.’ Yasha’s fists had curled over the table. ‘He raised Annika; what I read –that’s not necromancy. It’s not even Pit lord magic; it’s demonic. Demon magic is a whole new level of dangerous.’
The Cloister could preach whatever bigoted nonsense they wanted about the evils of his people, but Pit lords at their worst couldn’t hold a candle to the destructiveness of a higher demon. On the Other Side his people had been fighting territorial battles with demi-demons for centuries. If Matriev had struck a deal with the demons who haunted the liminal space between this realm and the Other Side, then he was sitting on a powder keg that could take the whole city with it when it blew.
‘What do you mean?’ Esfida had asked him, brow crooking in confusion instead of disapproval.
‘Sweetheart wildr are part demon,’ her father had said, surprising Yasha. The older man had turned from the stove with a fresh cup of tea cradled in his big hands. He’d bowed his head either to hide his expression or inhale the aroma of honey and lemon, it had been difficult to tell. ‘The one’s that are born wildr are mostly human. Not their fault they inherited a bit of demon in their soul,’ Progasch had explained, meditatively. ‘But them that get infected and turned? The demon takes over. I saw it on the Front. The Blue Guard used to rip the veil open right on the battleground; I saw friends and enemies get taken.’ He shook his head. ‘We’d try and kill ‘em before the demon got all the way in, but most times it just brought ‘em back again.’
‘You were on the Eastern Front?’ Yasha had asked, respect in his voice. ‘Y’know, we could feel the vibration of some of those battles from the Other Side?’
He’d been training with his father and the Wild Hunt at the time, thirteen and just beginning to grow into his potential, running patrols of the border zone. He hadn’t understood at first why there were so few demons on the border, or why the anima was so restive. His father had told him it was because the demons were being drawn toward the Valk-Chiuan border on the other Other Side. That had been the first time he’d had even an inkling how interconnected his home realm was to Greater Aldlis, the name his people gave to the realm beyond the veil. At thirteen he’d been too young to grasp the implications, but he’d grown to learn that for all his people’s power, it was dwarfed by the magical potential of Greater Aldlis.
He and the Progaschs’ had talked some more. Yasha had admitted abashed that he knew exactly where Matriev was hiding. He’d been there that morning, too stupid to understand what Dotcha had been trying to telegraph to him all along. She was compromised. Either because Matriev was too strong for her to fight, or because he had something over her.
‘But if she was warning you, then she’s on our side right?’ Esfida had argued when he’d explained. ‘She let you go, didn’t she? If she was working with Matriev she’d’ve handed you over to him right then.’
Yasha had shook his head. ‘She couldn’t stop me leaving anymore than she could stop me getting in,’ he’d countered. ‘Dotcha rules the Snacks because she’s clever and subtle,’ he’d explained. ‘She’s a politician not a war lord; she’s got this far knowing when to fold and when to stick. She’s a master at the long game. She might’ve been trying to tip me off so I could take care of Matriev for her, but she never has just one reason for doing anything.’
‘What does that matter?’ Esfida had puffed out her cheeks in frustration. ‘Why are you being so difficult? If you can get in and out whenever you like, then we can break in, right? We can free your friends and Leo.’
‘If he’s still alive, he’s been turned,’ Yasha told her flatly, not willing to continue until he knew she wasn’t avoiding facing the reality of the situation. ‘Freeing the turned is the last thing we should do. Not without knowing if there’s any humanity left in them. I mean it,’ he’d added seeing Esfida’s objection coming. ‘Most hereditary wildr can only pass on the trait to their kids, but fresh turned wildr are different. They’ve got a sentient demon inside them; the demon can procreate through a bite –I’m talking possession by contagion here,’ he’d stressed. He’d gone for the jugular to press home his point, ‘Do you think your brother wants to be patient zero at the centre of a demon epidemic?’
Esfida had flinched, but he was learning that very little kept her down for more than a second. ‘Fine,’ she’d t...