I froze, my left hand outstretched. I had realized my mistake, moments too late; in the past, I had always favored my right hand. Zedda had actually scolded me in the past for what he called “holding on to mortal habits.” But now that I was exclusively using my left hand, of course he was going to notice.
In retrospect, I don’t know how I expected to hide it from him. He certainly would have noticed that I was wearing Serpent’s Grace on my left arm, which would definitely have made him suspicious; and of course, I hadn’t used my right hand once since we met today — or rather, I couldn’t use it. But I don’t like showing weakness in front of Zedda, just in case. It was probably futile, but … I didn’t like it.
But there was no use in hiding it now. I took a deep breath as I lowered my arm, and began to explain. “Twenty-eight years ago … there was an attack on my bar, like there was today. It was arranged by a radical group of anti-undead extremists. There were also attacks on other high profile undead at the time, like Councillor Rednacht and Tivers Damoren … ah, you probably haven’t heard of Damoren –”
-I have heard of him. Continue.-
“… Of course. Well. The group was an offshoot of the ‘Holy Eagle’ faith. They held that the undead were unnatural abominations, and they attempted to kill as many of us as they could.”
-They were not wrong. But it was not their place to pass judgement. And you are not undead.-
“…You are the only person I’ve ever known to make that distinction, Zedda. Everyone else views the Chosen as a variety of high-level undead.”
-They are mistaken. The difference is extremely significant.-
I sighed. I’ve never really understood why Zedda was so insistent that those chosen by the Reaper Lords were not undead. The statement seemed even less convincing coming from him, who looked perfectly like an undead skeleton, perhaps one raised by a particularly powerful necromancer. But there was no point in arguing with him; he simply ignored differing points of view. “I understand.”
-Good. I judge by your story that your arm became damaged due to the attack of these humans.-
“Yes.” I hesitated slightly, but reached up and removed the shawl covering my right shoulder. “The bullet they shot me with … was probably a predecessor to the ones you were shot with today. It didn’t explode, fortunately, but…”
I stared bitterly at my right shoulder. I had tidied the wound up quite a bit, but it still looked extremely ugly, twenty-eight years later: the bullet had smashed into the joint, breaking bone and tearing muscle. Above all, it hurt, and the pain had only subsided slightly over the years. I envied humans, who would either heal or die; I would be stuck with the damage done to me for the rest of my existence.
Zedda, of course, was not particularly startled or repulsed, but immediately asked, -You couldn’t have it repaired? It doesn’t look disabling.-
I sighed again. “My form is not nearly as robust as yours, Zedda. Had they managed to do as much damage to me as was done to you today, I almost certainly would have faded out. As for repair … by that time, there were no Chosen of Lord Haedromor left. And self-repair was not a gift that Lord Baera ever granted me.”
-It is not an ability Lord Baera could grant, in any case. Very well. Tell me about the girl.-
I fell silent. After a moment, I put my left hand to my screen, and manipulated the settings for a moment. Against the wall, my printer hummed to life, and started spitting out page after page of background information. Everything I had collected on the Bellvaunt family: their members, holdings, history both open and hidden, and everything else I could dig up. Everything I knew about Irene … and Nerissa. Everything I could find about Caiaphas Bellvaunt, Irene’s grandfather, and his hidden ambition.
After a bit, the printer hummed to a stop. I stood up, and gathered up the pages in my one good hand. I moved them back to my desk, and began shuffling them around into an order I felt was more informative. The quiet susurrus of moving paper was the only sound to break the silence that flowed between Zedda and myself. He did not press me; he simply waited, as inevitable as death itself.
I took a nearby binder, and placed the loose pages inside. I pushed the finished report across to Zedda, who picked it up without hesitation. However, he did not immediately open the binder, and I felt his unseen eyes weighing me. I watched him back, with no particular expression on my face.
-This is everything?-
-You seem unusually close to this girl. Is the reason also within these pages?-
I was expecting the question, so I was able to respond without flinching. “Her parents were” friends of mine “patrons of mine, who introduced me to their daughter when she was still young. Their data is in those pages as well.”
Here, Zedda surprised me; he did not pursue the question. He opened the binder, and seemed to peruse the first page for a bit. I had done many similar reports for Zedda in the past, and I knew he prefered me to state my conclusions at the very beginning, before I went into detail. I wasn’t sure why, since in the end only Zedda’s opinion would matter; but it was how he had taught me, and there was no reason to change it now. Having read the front sheet, he nodded and closed the binder again.
-So. There are two.-
I barely managed to keep myself from reminding him, again, that Irene was a failed cultivation. It wouldn’t do any good, now; I could only hope and pray that Zedda wouldn’t decide to kill her, just to be on the safe side. As for Narissa … at this point, there was probably no saving her. I felt deep regret, and self-loathing; but at the end of the day, I was a Chosen. I had to serve loyally.
Zedda waited for a moment, but when I didn’t respond, he stood up, and tucked the binder into his disturbing overcoat. The action drew my attention back to his chest, which was almost completely destroyed from his encounter with Deathslayer bullets. I hesitated, but eventually couldn’t help asking, “Zedda … will you be able to pursue an investigation like that? Doesn’t it … hurt?”
-Lord Jurisanti saw no reason for me to feel pain, so I do not feel pain. However, further structural damage could be inconvenient. Therefore, Metricarisenikai, watch closely.- He pulled something from within his pocket, and I suddenly caught my breath.
Between his gloved fingers, Zedda held a dark, purple gem. Even if I wasn’t a Chosen, I’m certain I would have recognized it instantly: a necrotic core, the essence of death itself, materialized upon the mortal plane. But for it to be so large, and so pure, it must have come from a quite powerful undead; something that Zedda had defeated long ago, in the bad old days, possibly before I had even been born. Zedda took that ancient artifact, that precious gem, and crushed it in his hand.
Immediately the lights flickered and grew dim, as though a massive shadow had fallen over them. Green and purple flames suddenly rose around Zedda, and swirled around him like a vindictive inferno. Serpent’s Grace suddenly flared to life on my left arm, and expanded a shadowy barrier to protect me, only to be pushed back by the powerful force suddenly present in my office. I gritted my teeth, and stubbornly held my ground as whispers began to claw at my mind, suggesting that I let go, and let death take me at last.
I was not prepared to fade so easily.
Underneath Zedda’s coat, his ribcage began filling out again. With a series of cracking, popping, painful-sounding noises, the damage from earlier completely disappeared. As it did, the flames around Zedda flickered, and began to dim. Gradually the pressure on the surroundings faded, and Serpent’s Grace returned to quiescence around my arm. I took an unnecessary breath to steady myself, and said, “I didn’t know you could do that.”
-There was no need for you to know.-
“I thought you had to go to Lord Haedromor’s Chosen for repair…?”
-Lord Jurisanti created me for a purpose. I am largely self-sufficient. Using Lord Haedromor’s apostles was simply a convenience for me.- Before hope even had a chance to build in me, he continued, -Needless to say, this is a grace afforded only to me; I cannot repair you.-
“…Of course,” I responded with a calm, neutral tone, hiding my bitterness inside.
-I will leave now. I have certain errands to run, before I begin to pursue this case.-
“Is it about the assassin earlier? I do plan to look into it for you –”
Once again, he cut me off. -The assassin is irrelevant. Investigate if it pleases you to do so. Just be prepared to seek out anything I may ask of you in the future.-
I firmly nodded my head. “Of course, Zedda.” Inside, I thought to myself, I highly doubt that cyborg was unrelated to this matter. I’ll have to find out who sent him, and why. If he’s connected to the Bellvaunts, Zedda will need to know. Shen should be back soon, if nothing went wrong. I’m certain Zedda didn’t see him, so I still have that card to play, at least.
-There is one more thing.-
“What –” do you need, I was about to ask, but Zedda had already grabbed my right shoulder. A great pain, deeper than I had ever felt before, suddenly assaulted me. My vision went black, and my legs would have collapsed if Zedda hadn’t been holding me up. The pain was so intense, I couldn’t even scream.
Somewhere in that darkness, I heard his voice. -Think very carefully about your actions, Metricarisenikai. I am always watching…-
I recovered not long after. I picked myself up off the ground, and quietly settled back into my chair, adjusting my shawl to cover my wounded shoulder once more. It was a pathetic vanity, perhaps, but somehow it helped. A little bit, it helped.
I stared at nothing for a while, thinking about my life, and the work I was expected to do to keep it. I thought about the daughter of my friends, who might die because of me, and her cousin, who I had almost certainly killed. I hated Zedda for being who he had to be, and I hated myself for the same reason.
Sunk deep into my own misery, it was a long time before I realized that the pain in my shoulder had disappeared.
A/N: 1. It was long. Longer than expected. Yes. I wish I could say that was why it took so long to finish, but I was really having motivation problems. Trying to work on that.
2. On the plus side, we’re done with Metria’s side of the story for now. Back to the actual MC! Time to learn what’s in that binder!
3. …But not next chapter. Something else has to happen first. Can you guess? (Hint: assume that I haven’t introduced any complete idiots so far.)
4. We will be returning to Metria in due time, because of the cyborg assassin. I didn’t expect the cyborg assassin. I wonder if he works for the Spanish Inquisition? (Spoiler: he doesn’t.)
5. Because I considered this chapter to be late, I released it as soon as I had it done. (No, I don’t have a schedule. Yes, I still consider it to be late.) I didn’t see any glaring errors when I looked it over, but if you see anything wonky, please tell me about it in the comments below. That’s what they’re for. 😉
6. Thanks for reading! 😀