Empire Of Dirt (Part 2)
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The artist called Curix Noan smiled as she watched the slaves shuffled out from their carts through the slush of her courtyard. Fresh bodies from Ab-Leshal’s conquest of the west lined up before her, men and women with heads bowed, arms and legs shackled, thick magecraft collars around their necks. Company mercenaries walked through the formation, barking commands.

“Three hundred slaves, one hundred and fifty male, one hundred and fifty female, as you requested,” the slave broker said. His scarf and long coat fluttered in the icy breeze.

“And your nine hundred marks, Ser Eutmun.” The artist handed the slave-broker the strings of coins.

“My most humble thanks,” He bowed, sweeping the coins into his purse. “But I bring you more than simple supplies this time, mistress.” He motioned to a pack of mercenaries, who brought another man of the west before the artist. “Consider this this one a special gift.”

The man was particularly gaunt, taller than both the artist and the slave-broker, with a scraggly black mane of hair, dirty, leathery skin, and dead eyes. His arms were magecrafted metal, all the way up to the shoulders. The artist raised an eyebrow. Such expense on a slave who looked as if he would topple over in a sharp breeze? Ridiculous.

“It seems you are mocking me, Sir Eutmun.”

“Not at all. This slave is worth more than all the others combined. His spirit is already broken, and so there is no need for a control collar. He obeys orders perfectly. As a servant he will pay for his magecraft swiftly.”

“Who was he?”

“A priest, or what passes for one among the savages,” the slave-broker said, circling the slave. “He was captured at the Battle of the Valley, where the bronze god was broken. He had attempted to strike down the First Sword with a rock. A rock! Ab-Leshal took pity upon him and only tore off his arms.”

“I see. And he lived?”

“By the First Sword’s command.”

Special enough that Ab-Leshal would single him out? That was impressive. The artist did not see it fit to question the First Sword’s reasoning, and she felt no need to. This was indeed a great prize.

The lights were off in the house when Salah pulled into the driveway. That was odd. It wasn’t all that late out.

“I’m home!” He called out as he opened the door. There was no response. The house was empty. He swept through the house, the empty space becoming oppressive with each room he passed through. Living room empty. Bedroom empty. Bathroom empty. Crib empty. No one out back. He checked the kitchen again, to see if he missed a note. Nothing.

Probably just went out to a neighbor’s or something. Or went out on a walk.

Salah dug his cell phone out of his pocket. Ah, silly him: Forgot to turn it back on after the ceremony. He probably just missed the call, that’s all.

One missed call was listed, from Mary-Ann.

“Salah, it’s me. There’s…there’s been some big stuff going down. Foundation’s here, they need me and Naomi to go with them. I’ll call you again soon. We’ll be okay. I love you. Bye.”

What?

Why would the Foundation be involved? And if they were involved, where was the message from the Chapterhouse stating that they were involved?

No. Something was wrong.

He immediately speed-dialed her phone. There was just a dead tone on the other side.

Oh no…

Salah listened to the message again, trying to piece together what was going on. It was vague, she sounded distracted. Worried by something. Had the Foundation told her to say those words? Probably. She would have explained everything if there weren’t circumstances preventing it… but no contact from the Chapterhouse either…all cooperative missions went through there, so…this was something they didn’t want the Initiative knowing about. And if that was the case, then…

Salah felt a chill prickle its way up his neck. His body shifted into automatic defense, jumping into the living room, snatching a lamp from a table. He felt a sharp pain in his side. Wetness. Blood. He glanced up to see a shadow flow through the air. Not a shadow. Liquid, thin and black.

Ink.

The splotch moved, shifting from walls to floor to air to the form of a short, balding man, with his wrists slit, wreathed in ink. Salah swung his lamp. The man blorped on impact, head spraying across the carpet and body splashing to the floor.

Singular thoughts snapped through Salah’s synapses as he sprung back to the kitchen. Inkblood. Not cool yet. Foundation ambush. Needed gun. Safe in the wall. Combination. Grab gun. Turn.

The inkblood was already there, back in human form, wreaths of liquid forming razor edges around his hands. A fist connected with Salah’s face, knocking him off balance. Shards of black sliced across his skin. The gun fell from his hand.

Forget the gun. Frying pan off the wall hook. There was a satisfying ring to accompany the splatter as it connected with the inkblood’s head. He didn’t completely dissolve this time, focusing more on regenerating the head.

Another swing, another ring, another splatter. Less splatter this time. Salah grabbed the inkblood by the collar and began to drag him towards the bathroom, smashing the pan into the inkblood’s head whenever it looked to be repairing.

Kick the door down, throw the inkblood in the tub, stomp on his head, seal off the drain. Salah tossed the pan aside and tore open the supply cabinet. Remove plunger, snap over knee, impale inkblood through gut. Salah’s lips moved in a string of a silent sura. Medicine cabinet, remove toothpaste, draw the circle around the broom, sloppy nonsense symbols around the edge. The symbol itself didn’t matter: it just had to be a symbol for something. The inkblood strained against the makeshift binding, screaming, his ink now thickened into something like tar.

Salah breathed heavily for a moment. The binding was sloppy, but it should hold long enough to get what he needed. He left the bathroom, reviewing his injuries: the bleeding in his side was just from a grazing strike, nothing of great concern there. A few bandages were all it needed. Same with the other cuts. But later. Had to deal with the inkblood first.

The fierce tide of adrenaline had lessened enough for Salah to think straight. There was an inkblood in his bathtub. Tried to ambush him, probably planned on killing him in the first strike. Mary-Ann and Naomi were gone, with the Foundation. It was entirely possible that this was all a misunderstanding, the Foundation had come and gotten Mary-Ann and Naomi out before the inkblood arrived. But if that was the case, why was he waiting here in ambush? Just waiting until they returned? No. And if the Foundation was doing a rescue, they’d spare a few agents to spring a trap. And one inkblood wasn’t that much of a threat to multiple people who expected it. They were connected.

But they weren’t obviously AWCY, Mary-Ann would have sniffed that out easily. The setup wasn’t nearly theatrical enough, anyway. So, inkbloods either posing as or infiltrating the Foundation, from a source that wasn’t AWCY.

He would find out soon enough.

Salah liked to think that he had a great deal of self-control. Most people said that he did. That was a dangerous game, control. Watching the tiger pen. Holding the keys to the cage. It put one in a position of total responsibility if what was under control got out of control.

Mary-Ann and Naomi were in danger. That was more than enough motivation for Salah to accept that responsibility. The cage had been unlocked. It was not a burning fire, nor a boiling maelstrom. No, that was anger. The cage had been unlocked and that young man had applied his rage to an older man’s experience, and it came out as a cold, calm, monolithic hatred, deep and dark as the gap between stars.

He’d have to buy a new set of kitchen knives when all this was done.

Kitchen to hall closet. Drano. Gloves. Back to the bathroom. Hopefully, it would all be unnecessary. Most people would give up after the descriptions of what was to happen. That was what was really effective: the fear of pain, rather than the pain itself. But this man was Foundation, most likely conditioned to resist interrogation, and on top of that, mad enough to deal with whatever black things some of the artists associated with.

There was a line between a good man and a madman, and Salah felt himself crossing it. No sorrow now, no guilt, no regret for what was to happen to the man with ink in his blood. The same apathy towards the other that led to men with bombs strapped to their chests emptied out Salah for the first time in decades. He could feel it now, was aware of it, and didn't care. Not now. Couldn't afford to. Just had to trust that Mary-Ann would forgive him for it.

Salah returned to the bathroom, setting his implements on the floor.

“I’ll give you a chance to talk freely, to avoid the mess.” He put on the gloves. “Where is my wife and daughter?”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m afraid that is out of the question. That binding will only last for fifteen minutes or so, and I plan on getting out of here in five.” Salah rolled up his sleeves. “You know, some time ago I was asked if I thought I was the Spanish Inquisition. I said no, on the grounds that I am not Spanish. As far as inquisitions go, I can’t deny that claim. I was, some time ago, the person people went to when they had dirty jobs to fulfill, because, to quote an old acquaintance of mine,” he held up the bottle of Drano, making sure the inkblood could see it. “I was ‘a heartless motherfucker’.”

The car came to a stop. A chemical plant stood outside Mary-Ann’s window, lit by the lonely glow of security lights. The kind of building that thousands of people would look at and have it pass by without a second thought. That was a place that made chemicals. What else could happen there?

“We’re here,” Redmond said, shutting off the engine. “Entry procedures will take some time, but as it stands we are ahead of schedule.” He paused. “You’re doing the world a greater service than you can imagine, Ms. Lewitt. It will not be forgotten.”

“I wish it would be,” Mary-Ann said. Her hand rested next to Naomi’s cheek, waiting a moment before she moved to unfasten the carrier.

I’m sorry…

“Site thirty-six! Building four! Level three!” the inkblood screamed, foam bubbling out from mouth and eyes.

“And where would that be?”

The inkblood spat out a garbled set of directions. When he was finished, Salah nodded, and then poured the remainder of the Drano over the inkblood’s face. The would-be assassin gave one final spasm and scream before fully dissolving into a puddle of black and empty clothes. There was no further movement. Salah unsealed the drain and began running the water, washing the inkblood’s corpse down the drain. Nothing more than ink now.

He walked back into the living room and picked up his phone from where he had dropped it on the floor. No, he wouldn’t call the Chapterhouse. With the alliance in place, there would be nothing but red tape everywhere. If the Foundation had been infiltrated, it would easy for those infiltrators to distract the investigation long enough that it would be too late to do anything. There was no time for niceties here, no time for red tape. There was no time to sit by and do nothing. The Voice had died while he sat by and did nothing. He was not going to sit by and do nothing and let Mary-Ann and Naomi die as well.

He dialed. After a few moments, a voice answered.

"This is DeMontfort."

“Henry. It’s Salah.”

“Salah? What-”

“Mary-Ann and Naomi have been kidnapped.”

“What? Salah that’s-“

“The Foundation has been infiltrated by an unknown party, and has kidnapped Mary-Ann and Naomi. I have testimony from one of their agents.”

Oh God… DeMontfort’s heart skipped a beat. Did he?…he did. That tone of voice gave it away, the steel-edged calm. DeMontfort hadn’t heard that in a long while. There was a time when the positions had been switched between the two of them. Salah was the cold, zealous one, and he the milder idealist. Now it seemed like they had switched back to those old places. If Salah had fallen back on his old interrogation techniques that quickly…

“Salah, what did you do to him?”

“I found out where Mary-Ann and Naomi are. I need as many Wolves as you can get me, as fast as possible.”

DeMontfort ran a hand through his hair and sighed. Not today. Anything but this, any time but today.

“I can’t get you anyone, Salah. Project Malleus is suspended until further notice. Straight from the Tribunal. I have no power anymore.”

“You always have a backup plan.”

Yes, he did, and if he used that backup plan now, for this, there went everything he had worked for. Malleus was already lost, and his position was on tentative ground already…

“Look, I know we’ve drifted apart, but I’ve been looking at myself a lot lately…I’ve let Malleus get too far out of hand… this is all my fault, the mess the organization is in right now…”

“Henry, Mary-Ann and Naomi are going to die if you don’t help me.”

That voice again. The voice of a man who was dangerously close to losing everything. He'd crash and burn on this, DeMontfort could tell. If he didn't die during the attempt, of course. Nature's cruelty would most likely see him survive, to become some hollow parody of a man. Worse than he was when he arrived with Initiative, worse than DeMontfort had become. No, position didn't matter here. Lives were at stake, and a man's soul on top of that. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps God's plan here was simply to put DeMontfort's in a place where he could do some good. The allowance of evil so that a greater good might come from it.

Yes, that was it.

“Look, I’ll see what I can do. They haven’t cut all my strings.”

“Right.”

The call ended. DeMontfort sighed again, automatically reaching for the cigarette he didn’t have with him. What a time to give up smoking. He sat down at his desk and removed a pad of paper from the drawer. He tore off the front page and wrote a short message on it.

Saturn Deer-It’s time. Send them to the return address I gave you.

He folded the paper up into an airplane and threw it out the window. It swirled and drifted into the night. Fifteen seconds later, a second airplane flew back through the window, this one made of grubby loose-leaf.

You, coming to me for help? Holy shit, I should start buying lottery tickets.

DeMontfort made another plane. It was an awkward form of conversation, but it would do.

You agreed to this, Deer.

I agreed to look after some shit for Ursula, not you. By the way, how’s that lung cancer treating you?

About the same as your little case of immolation. We have the agreement in writing, Deer. If anything, you are a man of your written word.

That’s speaking contractually, and if we’re speaking contractually, I don’t give fucks for free.

I can’t appeal to your sense of common decency, because you don’t have one. I can’t threaten you, because you tend to get over death easily. So, I will be honest: you will be supplying a raid on a Foundation facility. If the excuse to be connected to some hell-raising won’t sway you, Deer, nothing will.

Raising hell, eh? I like it, but I could use a little bit more. I’ve got integrity to uphold, Henry. Set your bribe a little higher.

Money then? Some power? The loving embrace of a two-dollar whore?

Please. I got all the money I want and all the bitches I can buy. Implying that I pay for them and they aren’t attracted to me by my natural suavity. Because I don’t because I have that. You must not want this stuff very bad.

I can take you off the Active Interests list. No more having to deal with us. That work out for you?

Ha! You couldn’t get me anyway. I just like hearing you eating that humble pie while you suck me off.

You’re an irascible fuckwit, Deer.

I do my best. One order of shit dug outta someone’s closet, coming up.

The artist worked, and the slave called Cairn watched. In time, her work was completed.

She built a machine, a great machine of iron barbs and steel spikes and flowing sulfur, animated by the three hundred screaming fleshy fruits impaled upon its thorns, twisted out of shape. The fruits were paired, male and female, set together, in a bouquet of flesh burning and screaming and fucking and hating and dying and living while blood and semen and bile and sulfur flowed and boiled and bubbled and flesh writhed and the flesh moved and the flesh hated.

All this this was pleasing to Moluch, the Horned King Crowned in Shame.

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