[Cecily] Prologue: "Blood Money"





March 27, 2189

       I felt like the cliched kid in a candy shop as I wandered among the tables scattered in a hodge-podge order on the floor of the civic arena. The Harkness Firearm and Blade show was the largest in the Nexus; over 900 retailers of guns, ammo, armor, swords, knives, explosives, and surplus military artillery.
       And I had an armory to replenish.
       I left Murray to close the deal with our usual ammunition supplier. My little goblin shadow may be a pain, but he is one of the best hagglers in the known universe. Plus, he's a complete skinflint; can usually shave about 10% off the best price I can argue.
       With Murray occupied, I was free to wander without my cost-conscious conscience. It's not like we're broke or anything, far from it in fact. The work Harry and I do commands a high price, and not to sound to smug, I'm probably the best demon slayer in the Nexus. I have a very high success rate (not counting the Hakthla business, but that's another story altogether) and get paid accordingly. So I am more than willing to spend for the best. And today I was in a mood to splurge. Most women who have a bad day go out and buy shoes. Me, I buy guns.
        Unfortunately, nothing had really caught my eye. I have two good shotguns at home still, I had already found two more Essen80 9mm pistols. I'm not a big fan of large automatic weapons, and that seemed to be the theme this year.
        I was becoming somewhat depressed at the lack of interesting firearms when I came across a blade-dealer. I use swords and knives, but only as a last resort. I much prefer to kill something before it gets that close. But this guy's stuff caught my eye. It was obvious that all his blades were silver alloy - expensive stuff. And some were engraved with glyphs; not the lame kind you see on demon-knives in the mall shops, but the real thing.
       I was examining a pair of dirks when I caught the booth's proprietor staring at my hands. "Gethen warding glyphs," he nodded at the intricate tattoos that covered the back of both my hands.
       I was impressed. And wary. Most people took my marks for personal body art, but they were really just another part of my arsenal; protective glyphs that some demon classes can't abide by (like the Mercurian ambassador's imposter...). They are ancient and damned obscure. I'd guess only a handful of demonologists know their true properties. "You have a keen eye, good sir." He was older, I'd guess in his fifties. New here, too. I didn't recognize him or his wares. Fit and trim, with a build that suggested a hard life of hard work.
       He gave a slight bow. "Given the clientele I cater to, I have to." His eyes sparkled with good humor, and I noted that he was giving me as careful an examination as I gave him.
       "I don't believe I've seen you here before," I said casually, laying the dirks back on the table, and shifting my attention to an intricate ritual dagger. That in itself was odd. Harry and I are the only demonologists in Blythe, and we know the few others in the Nexus pretty well. This guy's stock was definitely the sort of stuff tailored for people in my line of work.
       "No, you haven't," he replied, still watching me. "I tend to be occupied elsewhere this time of year, but my previous plans fell through, and they happened to have a space left. I thought it couldn't hurt to try and expand my client base." He paused, his eyes shifting back to my tattoos for a moment. "You seem rather knowledgeable yourself, to have those. My guess is they aren't just for show?"
       I pulled a slim case from my pocket. "My card," I handed over the embossed rectangle of elegant marbled cardstock. I personally had thought business cards were a waste, but Harry had been adamant. And I had to admit they looked good. Plus it was a bit more professional than my old method of scribbling down my name and address on a ripped off corner of my case book.
       The man quirked a brow slightly. "Ms. Greyfalcon, your reputation preceeds you." He sounded impressed.
       Given the last couple of weeks, my suspicious nature was in overdrive. I'm pretty well-known in these parts, but the fact that this odd stranger not only recognized my name, but also knew details of my trade that most other slayers don't, made me a bit edgy.
       I think he picked up on it, because he physically backed off a half-step. I forced myself to calm down. "How far has it preceeded me?" I tried to keep my tone conversational, but there was just something about this whole situation that didn't sit right. And if there is one thing I trust more than anything, it's my instincts.
       "Far enough," he commented evasively. "I don't get to these parts often."
       Even though I really wanted to, I refrained from asking him which parts he did frequent, since I knew he'd just evade that, too. I glanced at the dealer tag hanging from his booth. A. Dexter. The name didn't ring a bell, but I'd have Harry check it out. "Well, it was nice talking with you," I said, moving away from his display. I'd only gotten a few feet when he called, "Ms. Greyfalcon, please..."
       Something in his voice stopped me cold. A sharp edge of desperation and despair like I had never heard in anyone. I turned back slowly, to see him staring at me beseechingly, his previously cheery gaze now looking haunted. "Please. I handled this badly, Ms. Greyfalcon, but I need your help."
       I've seen that look before, in the demon-plagued. But this man's sense of desperation rivaled almost anything I had ever witnessed. Suspicious or not, I had to know what could cause a man with his knowledge to need my help. "Three o'clock tomorrow, at the address on the card. Bring everything related to your situation."

***
        "It was weird, Harry, " I mused as I set out the old coffee service. "Something about him got my hackles up, so to speak, but at the same time, I really felt he was only after my help." I measured the grounds carefully and poured them into the filter. I may not be able to cook anything more complicated than hot dogs, but I was a master at coffee.
        "It does seem unusual, 'silly," my brother responded as he finished shelving 'Morton's Demon Index' and came down the ladder.
       We always greet prospective clients in the library. It's Harry's workspace, and my favorite room in the house. Our house is an enormous old three family farmhouse, and the library alone takes up 1100 square feet of the ground floor. The walls are completely covered with bookshelves that stretch from the floor to the vaulted cathedral ceiling, excepting the picture widow that looks down on the remains of the 'henge.
       My brother has what is probably the most extensive personal demonology library anywhere. We're also the only two people in the Nexus to own a complete Zolgrav's Field Guide, which I assume he sold some or all of his soul to obtain. Our research base gave us a distinct edge in the early days of Infernal Image, though now the company survives quite well on our respective professional reputations.
       Harry took the cup I held out to him and sat down in one of the huge, overstuffed antique chairs. "Do you think he was looking specifically for you?"
       I sat across from him on the horrible pea-green velvet divan. "I wouldn't have thought so, but the end of our conversation makes me wonder." I shrugged. "He knows demonology, that's for sure. I've never seen work of the caliber he displayed anywhere outside of the research books."
       Harry sipped at his coffee, looking faintly disgruntled. My brother was as over-protective as he could manage, given my career choice, and since my last run in with Hakthla a couple of weeks ago, he'd become positively stifling. "I didn't find any record of a demonologist named Dexter, but that's likely an alias."
       "Well," I sighed, "it's not like he-" The doorbell rang, interrupting my thought. Leaving my brother to get a last few minutes of disgruntlement in, I went to welcome our guest.
       Mr Dexter looked as if he had aged 10 years when I opened the door. It was the demeanor of a man who was at the end of his rope. He carried a well stuffed satchel over one shoulder, and a rectangular case in the other hand.
       Once we were all settle din the library, Mr. Dexter opened the case and took out a file, which he handed to me. "I have followed your career, Ms. Greyfalcon, ever since your first run in with the Beholder Hakthla."
       I saw Harrison twitch slightly, his usual response whenever Hakthla and I are mentioned in the same sentence. And Mr. Dexter saw it too. "I understand that you have had... difficulties with him ever since the incident, but..."
       "That's putting it mildly," I murmured as I opened the file to see a sketch of another Beholder, the name 'Paxthlac' neatly lettered at the top of the page. I looked up to see Mr. Dexter smiling wanly at my consternation. "But, he repeated slowly, "I'd like you to do the same thing to that one..."
*****
       After Dexter had left, and I'd put my sputtering and enraged brother to bed, I went down to the old henge. It was my favorite place to go when I needed to ruminate something complicated, and the old man's story certainly fit the bill.
       Harry had been about ready to throw the old man out after he realized just what was being asked, but Dexter's story about his daughter and Paxthlac hit me hard. The thought that by destroying a Beholder's oculous one could release the souls' imprisoned there...
       He had of course, offered to pay an astronomical amount for my services, but (not surprisingly) Harry had still demanded I refuse. "What use will it be when you get killed?!"
       But Harry was only thinking of my safety, and not of my job. And it's not really the money. I do what I do to protect those who can't protect themselves.
       Besides, things were getting boring with just Hakthla to keep my busy...

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