“The girl is looking away,” said Ulfric. “You did it, Nene.”
My body was frozen in place. I couldn’t even blink my eyes. My chest ached because my lungs refused to inhale, but I was using The Tempest so Ben’s character kept me focused even as the gears in my head began to slow.
“Don’t let her go,” said Ulfric, his voice coming from behind me.
“Understood, captain,” said the brown-haired man with his hands stretched in front of him.
He’s the guy who shot those arrows at us, I thought. They must have curved because of someone else’s magic or because of the bow.
Next to the brown-haired man stood a green-eyed woman who stared over my shoulder. In fact, my oxygen-deprived brain realized the brown-haired man was looking behind me too. Ulfric’s footsteps came from the side, instead of behind m, even though I was an easy target.
Which meant I wasn’t the one they were trying to lock down. Sally stood on the edge of my vision, as still as a statue. The lack of explosions to my right signaled Jerome’s incapacitation. Ben would have thrown a pebble at the brown-haired man by now, since he would have deduced the binding magic required the user to be completely still, which meant Ben was out of the equation too.
The only person behind me was Elenor, and although it was safe to say she was frozen too, she was probably thankful her plan to confuse the enemy had worked. They thought Elenor was the one reading them and breaking their magic, which gave me the opportunity to read the guy who had frozen us.
The brown-haired man hadn’t blinked yet. Ulfric ran into my vision, no longer a blur now that Gaben Yao was unconscious. A sword shone under the midday sunlight. Ulfric ran towards me but his eyes stared over my shoulder.
I focused, clearing the fog in my head. I had to read the brown-haired man to break his magic. Why was I hesitating? He wasn’t shaking, he wasn’t blinking, and his eyes were focused as if he was casting magic. Was I doubting my ability to read him, was his confident demeanor shaking my resolve, or was my lightheadedness confusing me?
Or maybe, I was wondering why the man was holding his hands in front of him when he knew he couldn’t move. He was trying too hard to appear like he was the one casting the spell. The green-eyed woman, on the other hand, stared behind me with a relaxed gaze.
I focused on her.
“Nene Banter. Forty-seven. Header of Bendeck. Member of Inline’s Third Column. Burnt Book of Bendeck, Book of Bitany, Book of Inline. Interprets Book of Bitany to bind the wicked.”
I gasped for air as Nene screamed. But her screams were cut short by a pebble that shattered her collarbone and an explosion that threw her several feet into the air. She didn’t make a sound as she hit the ground. A shockwave knocked me down, pushing the air right back out of my lungs.
I coughed as pain racked my shoulder. Dust covered the front of my mask, making it hard to see.
“Sorry,” said Elenor as she helped me up.
I told her it was fine. She’d managed to knock Ulfric back.
Ulfric cursed. “We picked the wrong one.”
“She didn’t fall for the bait either,” said the brown-haired man.
“Surrender,” said Sally, as she walked towards the two with her pickaxe poised to strike. “You can’t win.”
Sweat dripped from Ulfric’s hair while blood dripped down his arm. The brown-haired man’s bow was by his side, but without Gaben’s boost, he wouldn’t be able to shoot it before he was knocked out by Ben’s pebbles or Jerome’s explosions.
“Stand down, Icarus,” said Ulfric.
The brown-haired Icarus looked at him and dropped his bow. “Understood.” He met my gaze.
“Why did you attack us?” I asked, holding Icarus’ gaze. I didn’t know his magic because I hadn’t read him, but he was probably the one making their arrows curve. Still, I was ready to read him if he tried something funny.
“We were going to bring you in for questioning,” said Ulfric. “One of our fellow agents was killed near Devel, and we believe your group was involved.”
“You could have asked without trying to kill us!” Ben remarked.
“We never tried to kill you. We are the Third Column, we specialize in capturing our targets without killing them. We only used preemptive force because you were suspected accomplices in the murder of a fellow agent. We had to ensure our safety.”
“And if you had killed us by accident?” asked Elenor.
“Collateral damage,” said Sally. “I know how they work; if they kill someone, it’s a mistake, if someone kills one of theirs, it’s grounds for execution.”
“Resisting arrest and injuring us is a punishable offence, as well,” said Ulfric.
“Stick a sock in it,” said Sally. “We’re on a guild sanctioned mission to protect our clients, and you attacked us. If you want to take us in, go file a complaint with the guilds.”
“We will,” promised Icarus.
I pursed my lips. I knew we couldn’t kill them because Inline would know we did it and would send more people after us, but letting our attackers leave left a bad taste in my mouth. They could call in reinforcements and come attack us again, and there was nothing we could do about it. Wait, maybe there was something I could try.
“Ask us your questions,” I said, addressing the still bleeding Ulfric.
“You said you wanted to take us in for questioning, that shouldn’t be necessary if we answer your questions right here.”
“I’m afraid that wouldn’t work,” said Ulfric. “The Second Column handles interrogations. We bring our targets back to them, and they make sure everything you say is true and accurate.”
“Can’t they come to us?” asked Elenor.
Ulfric shook his head. “They’re too valuable to risk on a mission like this. However, you can always come with us willingly. We intended to take you to our public outpost in Bass.”
I didn’t trust them enough to allow them to escort us there. “We can’t come with you, but we can come to your outpost and give you our testimonies.”
Ulfric met my gaze and after a brief pause, nodded. “The outpost is in the Header’s district. Tell the guards you were summoned for questioning, and they should let you through the inner gates.”
“We don’t need to do this,” said Sally, facing me. “I’ll be reporting everything to the guilds in Bass, even Inline wouldn’t risk offending the guilds over something this trivial. They’re already pushing their luck with this attack. Moreover, we’ve already fended off the Third Column, and the Second Column is too weak to be a threat. We only need to worry about the First Column, but those guys aren’t very good at capturing people alive, so they won’t be deployed unless Inline wants to provoke the guilds.”
“We didn’t think they’d send people after us this quickly, or we would have informed the guilds in Devel of our interaction with Kara Tanner,” said Jerome. “But Sally is right, we do not need to submit ourselves to questioning in Bass.”
I was about to frown but checked myself, feeling, for the first time, a gnawing suspicion in the back of my head, just behind the shelf above which The Tempest fluttered. I understood their concerns but why were they voicing them in front of Ulfric and Icarus? It would be better to let them think we would go in for questioning, then let the guilds take care of it. I also noted how knowledgeable Sally was regarding Inline’s inner workings, and how flimsy Jerome’s excuse for not informing the guilds was.
I packed away those thoughts, intending to review them later.
“I feel like it’s the most efficient way to resolve this misunderstanding,” I said, facing Ulfric. “I understand your circumstances, so I’ll forgive you for attacking us this time. We’ll even help you bandage your wound and treat your teammates.”
“Val!” exclaimed Ben.
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ve already agreed to submit ourselves to questioning, and they know what’ll happen if they try to attack us again.”
I met Ulfric’s eyes and held his gaze. I slowed my breathing, angled my chin, and took a few steps forward. My actions seemed odd to me, as if they weren’t in character. I couldn’t picture Ben doing something like this, which meant this wasn’t me acting a part, even though I was still using The Tempest. This was me doing something completely off my own accord.
I approached the captain, and stepped so close I could smell the blood on his arm and the rankness of his breath. He didn’t move a muscle, almost as if he was petrified by Nene’s magic. Nobody else spoke a word either.
“Do you have any children, Mr. Jenkins? Or perhaps a wife or a lover?” I said in a hushed voice only he could hear. “You know, I love hearing stories about people’s lives, there’s always something exciting, something dark; a secret to take to one’s grave, a skeleton lurking in the closet.”
I smiled, stepping so close I could see the sweat forming on the middle-aged man’s brow, the panic in his eyes, and the terror evident on his face as he thought about his life, his family, and his deepest, darkest secrets.
“But what I love even more than hearing about those stories,” I whispered into his ear, “is reading them.”