I arrived at the place Ban Chi Tham’s agent had designated ahead of the appointed time. It was my only advantage. The wide street I was walking down was a straight line between the open portcullis of the tower and the city's southern gate. There was no hope of subterfuge, no hope of approaching unnoticed. The bustling marketplaces in the side streets all led to the plaza around the obelisk. Each other cardinal direction had the same broad roadway.
The building which now bore the name Griffin’s Clutch West was the same solid, but ancient construction as the rest of the fortified city of Batorul in what had once been Mongolia. It had been a border town when the settlement it first grew up around the forty-foot tower, and it was one again as The Soviet Machine State and Neo China were at each other’s throats.
Like the monolith, the city walls of polished black and gold granite were reminiscent of the American skyscraper, or perhaps that inspiration went in the other direction? This building had been here first after all. However, they did not have the daring floor to ceiling glass windows of a society which feared no war. Every window, in every building, was merely a tall, thin rectangle just wide enough for someone to cast a spell through. It was a city built to endure the tides of war--and that had led to an escalation of its own. At this point, the gleaming stone walls were probably strong enough to withstand even an atomic warhead. Though faint and worn from years of erosion, the protective sigils kept an invisible watch over the city. I knew the spells were there because of the hum.
Hel, this whole city hummed like no other.
Not even the decadence of Vanaheim was this loud in my head, though I had a feeling I knew why. While that metropolis straddled the border between worlds and was pretty much solid magic to endure the turbulence of the rift, those wards and protections were modern spells, spells crafted by the calculating souls of machines. This city was alive, it had developed around the Clutch like ivy. These protective sigils, their power renewed by generations of Magi, breathed. They had a pulse. There was nowhere in any world I had ever wanted to visit more, but being here, at this very moment, felt wrong. Approaching the ancient building was making made my hackles rise.
The city had been teeming with activity, and the plaza itself was no different. Miniature versions of the tower emerged from the flagstones in a circle around it. From above, they no doubt formed an eight-pointed star. An anachronistic-feeling Sunbucks occupied a double storefront on the side of the plaza to my left and as did another couple modern establishments to the right. People were eating, meeting friends, otherwise living the same life as any citizen of any other city. There was, however, one area of the plaza in which people we not lingering--inside the ring of pillars.
I had a hunch I knew why.
The hum here was so loud it made my teeth itch. When I got closer, I realized the pillars were smothered in runes designed to siphon off just the slightest bit of energy from those nearby and turn those collected energies into the electricity needed for life in the modern era. Self-sustained like this, the city could outlast a siege for weeks. It was a fortress after all. A fortress which bowed to the will of a woman who wielded her magical abilities with the weight and precision of the wakizashi which was her central to her emblem.
Coming here had been a bad idea, but I could not refuse this meeting either.
Fate had a funny sense of humor. Only now, when I was a criminal, was I getting to meet with the chaos witch whom I had spent no small portion of my life trying to capture. I had dismantled Ban Chi’s operations across our world, Otherworld, and even Imper numerous times but had never managed to capture her or one of her lieutenants. Come to think of it, I had never even seen her face to face. No one had. She did everything voice only, the video replaced by the image of a fox-like kabuki mask.
How I managed to curry an audience with the so-called Queen of Thieves was a mystery. It started with this morning when I awoke with a knife at my throat. One of her fox-masked agents was kneeling over me. That was the Mercurial Kitsune for you. I had only crossed into her territory a few hours before that, but Ban Chi knew exactly where I was. It was likely I had torn the wards while booking it from a seemingly wild Razorbear drone.
After the scuffle, I had tried to ask but her agent what she wanted from me, but they only left a bloodstained note as they vanished in a puff of smoke and sparks. Not that I blamed them, I would have teleported away too after getting attacked by a mage wielding a raw magic wrist-blade whose edge was sharp enough to cut through my wards and my shoulder.
Still, why had the Queen of Thieves reached out to me, now, of all times? It was not like I had any measure of interplanar clout anymore. I mean, shit, after what happened with Emel Fay and the other Knights of the Round at the UWN, it was safe to assume my name appeared on a list near hers under the dead or alive header.
At this point, I was just another disgraced mage like all the rest of them. A ghost of a bygone age who could not handle the changes happening in the dimensions which echoed our own. Not that Fay had gotten in touch either, though I suppose she did not have to. If I wanted to find her, I could. I could sense the energy of her blasted eye a whole world away. Until then, if I was captured, the Imper would have no way of extracting her location from my mind.
Which is why I was sure the A.I. which had attacked me was no aberrant event. The Imper were trying to goad me into making contact with Fay since it was getting increasingly hard for me to fight them on my own. The machine empire from across the rift was adapting, changing to face us scattered magi. To eradicate what it felt was a threat to its order. The recent iterations of Imper constructs were now able to resist my ability to control energy. I could not pull at the electricity coursing through their copper and fiber veins to disable them. Had I encountered something smaller, a Finback or a Lashraptor, I probably could have fought it. Could have carved through the ceramic and carbon fiber plating with this raw magic blade of mine. Against a massive Razorbear though, which had been created to deal with the increasing number of riot situations and could tear through metal and magical armor alike, my only option was to flee.
Now? Not so much. I could not afford the extra burden of watching for her agents as well as Imper mechanics.
I strode past the busy Sunbucks into the sanctum turned business complex. I had run from a bear, only to end up in a dragon’s lair. I was not positive that was an improvement. After hitting the call button for the elevator, my attention wandered to drown out the hum. The names of the offices in the building were a strange mix of Cyrillic and Han, neither of which was readable to me. The elevator arrived, I stepped in and flipped open the blood-stained note. Hitting the buttons in the correct order, the car began to shake and rattle. Once more, stronger than ever, the hum of magic filled my mind. It felt like my head was going to split open. I reached for the handrail as I stumbled back into the wall.
It was not until I was on the floor, sick to my stomach, that the spell resolved. The doors opened and two masked humanoids pulled me to my feet. I was so happy to be out of the mind-numbing magic field of the teleportation spell, that I did not protest as they half-carried, half-dragged me down a hall lit by flickering flames that hung in mid-air.
The passageway turned left, right, and then left twice more. After a moment, it opened to a massive, cathedral-like room. The curved wall was lined with countless pipes of varying dimensions, but they all vanished up into a ghostly blue mist that illuminated the space like a cloudy day. It seemed I had crossed over to Otherworld at some point.
The vast space was empty aside from a thick rug which ran from the hallway across the floor to a huge throne made of scrap metal that sat before an organ with hundreds of keys. Upon the magnificent chair sat a lithe woman in white and pink silk robes. She was wearing a kitsune mask. The same kitsune mask I had come to know as the face of Ban Chi Tham. A mass of fluffy tails, more than I could count, swayed behind her and coiled around her pale, tattoo-covered arms. The thick, puffy fur was all different colors, and the hues kept shifting as her tails wriggled like a nest of iridescent snakes.
A masked henchman appeared out of thin air to hand her a fan, another knelt and held slippers that she stepped into. Flicking the fan open and getting to her feet, the Mercurial Kitsune stepped off her dais and approached me. I could see her eyes glowing acid green through the arc-shaped slits. Their radiance seemed to stare right into my soul.
I was in way over my head.
“You really are,” she said, replying to my thoughts and clapping the fan closed. The mask was gone now, revealing the face of an older woman. One who had endured more than her share of trials. At the same time, the awe-striking beauty of an Otherworld being washed over me. Enveloped me in the same way that falling into a lake would. I was drowning in her glamour and the world seemed to bleach out around us until we were standing in a field of endless white.
“I am surprised that you even came at all," she quipped, walking past me. "I had thought someone as disruptive as you have been would be much more adept, but it seems that my estimation was wrong. Perhaps you were just lucky all along.”
There was only the briefest warning before she called up her magic to send an avalanche of green fire in my direction. The burning flow washed around the shield I threw up, but the heat bearing down on me from all sides was taxing my concentration. I gasped for breath and dropped to one knee as my strength wavered. It had been ages since I had to face something like this.
I tried to think of a response, but each time I moved, I could feel her mind follow my thought. Her mind kept getting closer to mine. I braced myself as best I could, but her inhuman awareness was gigantic and I could feel my mental defenses starting to crumble. Her pressure threatened to crack me. I was seconds from having my mind ripped open like a bag of crisps when the flames stopped raining down.
“Why did you come, mage?” She was standing right over me. I tried to focus on a counter-attack, but my already taxed awareness focused instead on the plethora of tattoos which were visible through the semi-sheer silk. Her entire body was shrouded in ink. Defensive spells, empowerment charms, and others whose functions I could not identify. Although she had asked a question, she seemed content to keep talking, her dozens of fluffy tails flicking idly.
“Did you harbor some hope that I would join you and those foolhardy knights against the machines? Do you believe me to be the enemy of your enemy? You could not be more wrong. Our world is vast, even their empire does not reach this soil. I care not for what The Imper do.”
She continued, bearing down on me with her monologue as her mind strove to crush mine. Everything melted as my perception was dragged under the edges of her awareness. Grabbing desperately, I hit an imperfection in that endless curve and for some reason, a riddle crossed my mind.
[I consist of three pieces. Take one away and I become strong. Take two and I become ten. What is my name?]
Pushed to one knee in the real world as my connection to my body began to weaken, I grappled with the question which was likely the answer to surviving this. What was significant about ten? Fingers were the first thing that came to mind, but that did not work for the other parts. Maybe the middle was the riddle’s weak point. What two-piece item was strong? Answer after answer flashed through my mind, but nothing that also had anything to do with ten.
I could hear her taunting me, the sound distorted like I was hearing it in another room down a hallway. I tried to focus, to stay aware as the heat of her mind consumed more of mine. Okay, what two-piece word became ten when one word was removed? The pressure on my mind lessened just a hair and I knew that was the right train of thought. Perhaps it was just one word. What three-letter word became ten after becoming strong?
The weight of her mind pulled back and then crashed down once more. I could actually feel my psyche being crushed. I had to guess. Guess or die.
“Fox! The answer is the word fox!”
The pressure vanished. As my vision cleared, the older woman had shrunk and in her place was a very fluffy white fox with significantly more than nine tails. Wait, did this mean-?
“That is correct, mage, you look upon the true form of Ban Chi Tham. You should consider yourself fortunate.” Her voice was more in my mind than my ears.
Disarmed, I said the first thing that came to mind. “I thought Kitsune had at most nine tails?”
Ban Chi hissed and I felt something like a weak slap. “Huli Jing.”
“If you must call me something other than a fox, at least use the right words, human.”
“My apologies. Well, this certainly explains why I could never corner you.”
“Even without this sanctum, I would have eluded you. A magi, no matter how adept, simply cannot outfox a fox.”
I did not mean to, but I laughed at the statement. It was such an amazing tautology that I could not even wrap my head around it.
The fox bristled. “What do you find so funny, mage?”
“I mean, of course, I can’t outfox you, but I don’t need to either.” I reached out and pinched her big pointy ear. The ends of the ring of binding coming together like magnets. “You did that yourself.”
“What did-?” Blue runes flared to life as the enchantment took effect. I had finally captured Ban Chi. Except for one thing, the spell symbols continued to brighten until cracks formed in the metal. With an anti-climatic pop, the ring shattered. We both looked at the pile of shards and dust. When I looked back up, Ban Chi was human once more and her piercing green eyes were inches from my own.
“I should kill you for that," she growled, raising her hand to call forth another emerald blaze. "But I also respect that you seized an opportunity. Had that artifact not shattered, I would be your servant now.”
I gulped but said nothing.
“Tell me what you came for and I will see what I can do.”
“But I didn’t come for anything, you summoned me.”
“To make the encounter on my terms, nothing more. I was sure you had come to recruit me to Fay’s cause.”
“Fay and I aren’t in communication at the moment. She’s letting me operate on my own.”
Her eyes flashed solid green before she closed them and exhaled. “Well, whatever the reason, a promise given is my bond.”
She turned and lifted my chin, her lips drew close to mine. “If you ever need me mage, just whisper my name and I’ll be there.” Then I was sitting in Sunbucks, but the heat from her breath lingered against me.