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A Failure to Negotiate

Eckhart Hirsch, Burggraf of Arcaniksburg, burst through the doors of his private study with a spring in his step and a song in his heart. His meeting with the Empress' envoy had gone well, it seemed. With a wave of his wrist, the lights flickered to life, save for one in the rear corner of the room. A few sparks sputtered from the broken bulb above the reading nook, but the man paid them no mind. He seemed to be in far too high of spirits to concern himself with faulty lights; it was a time for celebration! It was only when he reached for a glass and the bottle of brandy on his desk, when the faint sound of metal scraping against metal issued from that darkened corner, that the smile on his face faltered.
 
Nul take these hinges! Fiona cursed to herself. The man had been unbearably slow in returning home from his meeting, and she’d allowed her impatience to eat away at her, making her fidgety. The weapon hidden in her right arm was meant to be utterly silent, but it had been some time since she’d had time to maintain it. The bolt-thrower arms in particular were beginning to show their age, and her target, it seemed, was quite keen of hearing.
 
He froze in place, and even from the far side of the room Fiona could see his eyes darting between various spots around where she now sat. Objects and fixtures she had no doubt brushed from their original positions when she had been preparing her hiding place for his arrival. She had tried to leave as little trace as possible, but now that he was onto her, the man seemed to have begun to notice even the subtlest of changes. Steadily, his eyes narrowed, but his smile returned.
 
“You are not the first assassin to come for me, you know,” he said quietly. “Not even the first this week, in fact.”
 
The man resumed his motion, beginning to pour himself a drink. Fiona barely twitched her arm, there was a muffled twang, and a steel bolt hurtled out of the shadows. Hirsch didn’t so much as flinch as the deadly spike obliterated the base of the bottle in his hand, spreading costly liquor all over his desk, his carpet, and his clothes.
 
“Now that was just unnecessary…” he grumbled, turning to face the origin of the warning shot. “Tell me, then. Who sent you? Another disgruntled factory man? My dear cousin Alfons? The shattered remains of the Grosse estate, perhaps?”
 
“I represent the Rattenvölkern,” Fiona replied, snarling.
 
Hirsch laughed. “Those filthy vermin? I’m surprised they could afford the fee of someone like yourself.” He set his empty glass down into the pool of brandy and broken glass that now covered his desk. “Out with it, then. While I doubt you could actually kill me when so many others have failed, the fact that you’ve yet to try suggests you have something else in mind.”
 
“Smug bastard,” she hissed through gritted teeth, before raising her voice again. “We have some… concerns about this ‘Beautification Project’ you were discussing with the Empress’ personnel.”
 
“My my, up to date on my entire itinerary, aren’t you? The rodents must have paid you well.” Hirsch clicked his tongue in faux disapproval, “I wonder which of the grafs they stole your fees from…”
 
Fiona’s fists clenched in rage, the metal of her right hand protesting loudly as it ground against itself. A low growl escaped her throat, but otherwise she said nothing.
 
“Yes, well, if you’re here on their behalf, then I’m sure you’re here to discuss certain elements that were… shall we say, missing from my reports on the sorry state of our fair city’s eyesore of a crater?”
 
Fiona’s growling grew louder. The pompous ass had been fully aware that the Rattenvölkern, the ‘Vermin’, would learn of his latest scheme to dispose of them. Disguised as a goodwill project to turn the gaping hole beneath Arkanicsburg’s floating Upper Districts into a lavish, artificial lake, he intended to flood the vast network of caverns and obsolete sewer systems that ran beneath it. A vast network of caverns and obsolete sewer systems that served as the only home many of her people had ever known.
 
The Empress would never allow something like this to happen, Fiona knew that much. The Burggraf knew it as well, which was why he had ensured that the Empress' people had only ever heard of the Rattenvölkern as ‘a dangerous, monstrous byproduct of unchecked progress taking refuge in our offal’. As far as they knew, the city’s caretaker was merely killing off two birds with one stone.
 
“You make a rather terrible diplomat, I must say, hiding in the shadows and growling like a mad dog,” Hirsch commented, turning his back to her and walking around his desk. Slowly, agonizingly so, he pulled out his chair and took a seat. Steepling his fingers, he stared pleasantly into the darkness in Fiona’s general direction. “So what now, my mysterious friend? Will you kill me? Because I can assure you that my successor looks no more fondly upon those beasts than I do, and my plans are too far underway to be upset by something as simple as the death of one man.”
 
“But it might slow them down,” Fiona shot back. “Give us time-”
 
“On the contrary!” he interrupted, his tone dripping with condescension. “I think you’d find that my murder, be it at the hands of the Vermin or merely in their name, would accelerate calls for their eradication quite significantly.”
 
“It would be fun, if nothing else…”
 
She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Being one of her darker impulses, she’d have preferred to not even have thought it, but the comment had an effect on Hirsch. Whether it was fear or indignation, she couldn’t be sure, but for the briefest of moments, a crack showed in the man’s charming facade. His smile faltered and the tips of his fingers turned white as he pressed them together a bit too hard.
 
“You’d kill me for the mere thrill of it?” he asked quietly, tersely. “You’re no better than they are.”
 
Fiona could only smirk. “No,” she said quietly, stepping into the light at last, “I suppose I’m not.”
   
And there she stood, in the office of a man who had been lauded as ‘The Grand Exterminator’, a two-meter-tall rat shrouded in black fur and brown leather, blades lashed to both her tail and her arms, the right of which glinted in the artificial glow of the room’s electric lights.
 
Hirsch was on his feet in an instant, eyes wide and teeth clenched in what seemed to be a heady mix of shock and outrage. “What?” he sputtered uselessly. “No… no, you couldn’t possibly…”
 
“Be one of them?” Fiona gasped as if scandalized by the very notion, but she couldn’t hold back the petty sneer that followed for very long. “I’m afraid so, you arrogant son of a paddox.” She could only guess at what Hirsch had expected her to be - a demon, more than likely, though perhaps just a particularly feral human woman - but whatever it was, the thought that his would-be assassin might actually be one of the Vermin he sought to exterminate had apparently never crossed his mind. It made a certain kind of sense, she supposed. If he considered her kind to be so bestial, so inhuman, as to be worth mercilessly slaughtering, then perhaps he had ruled out that possibility as soon as she’d been willing - or even able - to speak with him like this.
 
“This… this changes nothing!” Hirsch eventually managed to say, slamming his fists into the surface of his desk with a splash of alcohol. “Your filth have been a scourge upon our city since you crawled your way out of that eldritch muck, but we’ve endured nonetheless. I will not stand idly by and have all of our hard work and all of our progress ruined by some… some rat!”
 
Under normal circumstances, Fiona would have laughed at the childish tantrum this grown man was throwing, pounding away at his desk like a toddler. In fact, she was beginning to do just that, but her voice caught in her throat as an altogether different one began to whisper in her head.
 
You see it, don’t you?
 
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Color faded from Fiona’s sight, all except for a trail of red within the brandy sailing through the air. It was so faint that it should by all accounts have been invisible, but it was all the poor girl could do to not wince at its mere presence.
 
Hirsch had cut himself on the scattered glass.
 
In his rage, the man had yet to notice the minor wound. It was the sort of nick that could be easily washed, bandaged, and forgotten about. But he was never going to get the chance at this rate. With this tiny cut, sustained in a moment of careless anger, the burggraf had put himself in mortal danger.
 
How long has it been since we last fed? the voice in Fiona’s mind hissed.
 
It had been that morning, hadn’t it? Or… Or had it been the morning before, at the butcher’s? A gnawing hunger began to make its presence known in Fiona’s gut. The insatiable beast that was the reason for her isolation; the reason why she was here in the Upper City, slinking around in the shadows rather than working directly with her kin.
 
This man… this waste of flesh… Would anyone truly miss him? her hunger spoke again. He threatens your kind. The ones you love! One small act, and not only do we feast like kings, but you remove the threat!
 
Fiona winced inwardly. Time was, the nagging voice would simply beg and plead and command to be fed, pointing out any and all living targets as potential meals. It had learned much since she’d first found herself cursed by its presence. It could differentiate friend from foe, and it knew just how to poke and prod at her conscience, not to mention her desires.
 
In the blink of an eye, before either Fiona or Hirsch knew what was happening, she had the man pinned to the wall, her rune-laden right arm crushing up against his windpipe. A sickly green light shone from the depths of Fiona’s eyes, and though her prey could not possibly have known the true meaning of it, he seemed to get the gist.
 
Hirsch was croaking and wheezing as he scrambled for purchase against his wall, likely pleading for his life or offering her vast riches or possibly even promising to spare her kind. Whatever it might have been, none of the words reached her ears. All she could hear at the moment were the whispers of her hunger and the terrified beating of his heart.
 
This man has caused more pain and suffering than you and I could even dream of! it lied. Surely he deserves this…
 
The sharp edge of Fiona’s prosthetic arm slid against the man’s throat, causing him to choke with pain and drawing the smallest bead of blood. “Maybe…” she muttered, transfixed by the droplet as it meandered slowly through the runes that covered the limb, “maybe just a taste? He does deserve it…”
  ----  
Mortimer arrived to a grisly scene. The back half of the room seemed spotless, save for a smattering of broken glass brushed beneath a bookcase in the darkened rear corner. The front half, however, was an absolute bloodbath. The pulped remains of what once must have been a man lay scattered across the floor behind an ornate desk. Brandy dripped from its polished surface into a thick pool of blood that must have reached a meter and a half in each direction. And from the other side of the desk, there came a muffled weeping.
 
The skeletal Ceph drifted around the carnage and knelt beside the distraught girl. She sat with her knees clutched to her chest, bloodied hands covering her eyes but doing little to stem the flow of tears.
 
“It keeps happening, Mortimer…” she choked between sobs. “I know that it’s there, and I try to stop it, but I- I…”
 
“I should have come sooner,” he replied quietly, “I fear I gave the parasite too little credit.”
 
“Or you g-give me too much,” Fiona whimpered.
 
“Never.” The revenant placed a bony hand on the girl’s shoulder. He had once been good with words of hollow reassurance, but the centuries of solitude and nihilism prior to meeting Fiona had robbed him of that. Instead, the pair simply sat in silence for a time. He allowed her to cry, and to speak her mind.
 
Insecurities plagued her. Fear of what she was and what she might become and what she might have already become through her own negligence. Though his skull could show little in the way of emotion, Mortimer grimaced inwardly. The familiarity of it all never seemed to get any easier to bear. His own ordeal was lifetimes ago, and yet he experienced it again and again with Fiona on nights like tonight, and it was almost as if he were back on that flooded beach…
 
After a time - whether it was hours or minutes Mortimer couldn’t tell - voices could be heard from somewhere else in the manor. Someone sought the late Burggraf.
 
“Gods above, I’m not ready yet,” Fiona croaked, her voice hoarse from her whispered confessions and her eyes red from crying. “What am I going to do? I’ve ruined everything.”
 
“Nothing is ruined, yet, but you must get going,” Mortimer spoke quickly, leaning on his ancient staff to pull the two of them up off the ground. “You go, rest, reflect, and we will meet tomorrow in the usual place. Noon.”
 
She began to nod, but then paused in confusion. “Meet? What are you-?”
 
“A man, outspoken in his hatred of your people and on the cusp of seeing them quietly wiped out is suddenly murdered in a most violent manner within his own house. Who are the public to blame but those who have the most to gain from his death?”
 
“But-”
 
Mortimer raised a finger. “I’m buying you time to flee quickly and quietly, young one. There’s hate enough already for the Reaper, I think I can shoulder the blame for one more man’s untimely demise.”
 
She wanted to argue, that much was clear, but the girl was no fool: time was short. Already, the footfalls from beyond the office door were growing louder. With a terse nod and one of those looks that suggested she would have words for him later, she sprinted to the window he’d entered from and vanished into the night.
 
Words would most certainly be had - and they’d be of the utmost importance if Fiona were going to salvage this situation - but for the time being, there were more pressing matters to attend to. As voices calling for the dearly departed steadily approached the office, Mortimer moved to a gloating position over the remains of Eckhart Hirsch and prepared his most evil-sounding laugh.


Cover image: by Mia Pearce

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