Month 1, Day 17, Sunday 9:30 p.m.
The door to the back room of the warehouse was locked and thoroughly reinforced, enough that a few concussive blast spells did barely any damage.
While one of the others handled the bodyguard, Oliver dragged Lord Morrow onto a chair, tied both his arms and legs to it, then used a rope passed underneath the chair to tie his arms and legs together as well.
The Morrows that had been on the roof were brought down. All those who were severely injured were restrained, stunned unconscious, and given basic first aid before a team took them off to the closest medic station. Meanwhile, the rest remained, unconscious, tied up, and waiting to be taken to the holding cells. Cells that Oliver had paid an exorbitant amount to have set up on short notice.
The alliance’s contracted wardbreaker came in when they were sure the front half of the warehouse was clear, going to work on the door to the back room. They could have used the augers again, but were worried about setting off traps. Also, since this warehouse would soon belong to Oliver, he didn’t want to damage his future property any more than necessary.
The wardbreaker took a few minutes to examine the door while the others looked through the boxes of goods stacked around the warehouse. At first glance, this location appeared to be legitimately used to process seafood caught in the Charybdis Gulf. But some of that seafood was used as a cover for other, less conventional deliveries. They found packets of illegal components tucked into the stomachs of several creatures, and piles of restricted components covered with thick layers of unpleasant things like stinking sea slugs or thorny sea urchins. The Morrow workers had been in the middle of processing the incoming shipment when the attack began, but it seemed like the most valuable things were missing.
There were no artifacts, no celerium, no components from the Elemental Planes.
The wardbreaker called out to get Oliver’s attention. “This is exceptionally well-done. It might take me an hour or two. If you’re in a hurry, you can try to overwhelm the ward instead, but that will come out a lot more expensive for you in the end.”
“So that’s where you were keeping all the interesting things,” Oliver murmured, looking down at Lord Morrow’s pale, unconscious body. “Keep working on cracking it,” he said more loudly. “We’ll see what I can get from him.” From his utility belt, he took out a small paper packet of magically enhanced smelling salts that had been “repurposed” by one of the coppers on the Verdant Stag payroll.
They were torturously strong—literally—and woke Lord Morrow up immediately. The man flinched back, wide eyes rolling around like a stuck pig as he took in his current situation. “You’ll never get away with this!” he bellowed hoarsely. “We will erase you and your people from the face of the earth for this insult! And don’t think you Nightmare Pack degenerates will be able to squirm your way out of it, either,” he yelled, catching sight of a man with curling horns and a tail.
The Nightmare just smiled at him mockingly.
Red-faced, Lord Morrow—who was not a real lord by birth, only by affectation as the leader of an organization large enough to afford him the title—turned back to Oliver. “You.”
“Me,” Oliver agreed, staring down at the man through the eye holes in his mask. With the artificial darkness behind those eye holes, Lord Morrow would know nothing of Oliver’s expression, but his satisfaction was clear in his voice. It only made Lord Morrow’s face flush redder.
Oliver hadn’t woken him to waste time monologuing. “I have some questions for you. Whether you answer or not, you are going to die either way. But if your answers prove useful, the innocent members of your family may be spared. I am not a cruel man.”
Lord Morrow spat at Oliver, but the fleetfoot potion hadn’t quite worn off yet, and Oliver dodged easily. “You don’t have my family,” he snarled, “and the only words I have for you are maledictions.”
Oliver had never believed in the power of maledictions—a curse spoken with a wronged person’s dying breath—and even if he had, Lord Morrow hadn’t lived the kind of life for this ending to be an injustice. “This world is not fair,” he said. “If you get what you deserve, it is by coincidence or expended effort. But in this case, Lord Morrow, it seems you really will be reaping the fruit of what you have sown.”
He leaned foreward. “I do have your family. We attacked your home first. They put up the wards, and your guards tried to fight back. When your wife realized it was hopeless, she abandoned the guards to buy time, set the traps, and escaped with your children. They went to the safe house. The one you prepared for a day like this. The one you thought no one knew about. My men were waiting for them, but they haven’t been harmed. Much.”
Lord Morrow roared and jerked against his restraints, trying to spit at Oliver again. “I’ll kill all of you! All of you!”
A Nightmare lunged forward and kicked at Lord Morrow’s side, knocking the air out of his lungs.
“You won’t.” Oliver almost felt guilty about how pleasant it was to solicit such reactions from a man he so despised. “You could have avoided all this, you know. I was content to grow slowly, but you made that impossible when you started attacking my people, in my territory.”
“You think I’m stupid? You were sneaking around like a weasel behind our backs, trying to take over our source of product. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Did you think we would let that go?”
Oliver experienced an instant of confusion before making the connection. “Really? Because I used the same smuggler you did? That’s why you attacked?” The warehouse incident had been shortly after his first meeting with Captain Eliezer, but he’d never connected the two. It made even more sense that Lord Morrow would have warned Eliezer off working with him again tonight. “But that can’t be it. You were harassing us before that.”
Lord Morrow laughed. “Those were warnings against getting too uppity. Which you failed to heed. You don’t know who you’re messing with, whelp. The Morrows have backers stronger than you could ever imagine. That bitch, the so-called Raven Queen? I’ll have her fed to the dogs!”
Oliver had no doubt the man meant the threat literally. He’d heard the stories. Though he felt a powerful urge to slap Lord Morrow across the face, he suppressed it. “The University, right?” he asked. “They are your backers. Well, not all of them. Just one faction.”
“If you think my contacts will just take up working with you once you’ve gotten rid of me, think again!” Lord Morrow said, uncertainty seeping into his voice for the first time. “You’ll never be able to hold my territory or my business.”
“Enough of this,” Oliver said, suddenly impatient. He didn’t need Lord Morrow for details about their operation and contacts. He had many captured lieutenants for that, and his enforcers were already working on waking and questioning them. He only needed Lord Morrow to save him some time getting into the warded back room. “I need the password to the back room. If you don’t give it to me within the next ten seconds, I will give the order for my men to kill your oldest son. If you still refuse, it will be your wife next. Then your younger children, descending by age.”
In truth, Oliver had no intention of killing the younger children. Lord Morrow’s oldest son had committed enough crimes that he was going to be executed anyway, and his wife was complicit in many of his crimes. The younger members of the family would be tried for their own actions and punished accordingly, but Oliver doubted very much they deserved death.
Lord Morrow sneered. “Just because you were able to guess they escaped to a safe house means nothing. You cannot threaten me with something you do not control.”
Oliver hadn’t been sure he would need Siobhan’s group proprioception potion, but he’d kept a set of vials for himself anyway, just in case. He realized now might be the perfect time to use them. “I thought you might say that,” he said. “Proof is being delivered as we speak.” He turned around and walked out of the warehouse without another word.
Outside, their people were guarding the building to make sure no Morrow backup attacked them by surprise.
Oliver handed two of the three group proprioception potions to a Nightmare with big yellow eyes, chosen because she was an owl skinwalker and also happened to own a watch. “Go deeper into the Morrows’ territory. North of Lord Morrow’s mansion, somewhere you won’t be seen. In exactly five minutes, break one of these potions and hit the remains with a fireball spell. Make sure it’s completely destroyed. Wait another three minutes, then do the same to the other.”
The woman looked at him strangely, but accepted the task, moving into a dark corner to transform in private.
Oliver waited four minutes, then returned to Lord Morrow. He forced the last of the three potions down the man’s throat.
Lord Morrow, probably thinking it was some kind of interrogation potion—which would actually have been quite useful to have on hand—tried to gag it up. But before he could succeed, the effects took hold, and his eyes widened. “What is this?”
“Do you feel that? It’s a simple potion that connects you to two other people. Your son, and your wife.”
“You can feel them. You know it’s no lie,” Oliver bluffed. “Don’t you sense the kinship? They share your blood. And if you do not give me the password, you will share in the sensation of their death. You will feel it as they slip from this world.”
Some of the enforcers around him shared uneasy looks, probably imagining experiencing such a thing themselves, but no one tried to intervene.
Lord Morrow glared at Oliver’s serene, black-eyed mask and said nothing.
After a nonchalant look at his watch, Oliver lifted his wrist to his mouth and said, “The son. Do it.”
Nothing happened for a couple of seconds, and Lord Morrow was just beginning to smirk. His expression was aborted immediately as his whole body convulsed, his wide eyes rolling back in his head.
The woman must have destroyed the first linked potion. Oliver had not expected such a strong reaction.
Lord Morrow shook, red-faced and breathless for a moment, then let out a wailing keen.
The sound hurt Oliver’s ears, and made something inside him flinch.
The tied up man sagged forward finally, panting. “My son! What have you done? My son! I’ll kill you for this. Slowly, in the street for everyone to see.”
Oliver kept his tone neutral. “Your wife is next. The password?”
Lord Morrow glared at him, gritting his teeth for a good thirty seconds, but as soon as Oliver moved to lift his wrist to his mouth again, the fight seemed to finally go out of the big man. “It’s a two-part verbal password, and I only have one part. But it doesn’t matter!” he added quickly, seeing Oliver lift his arm again. “The ward is also keyed to my body. I can pass through with impunity. If you just take me to the door, it will open under my hand, no password required. But you must promise me the rest of my family is safe.”
“As long as you cooperate, they will be safe until they are tried for their crimes. The results of that are up to them.”
Lord Morrow agreed quickly.
Oliver’s eyes narrowed, but he still ordered two of his men to untie Lord Morrow’s arms from the chair, keeping his ankles bound to each other so he couldn’t try to run. Oliver kept a good grip on Lord Morrow’s left arm, his eyes trained on Lord Morrow’s face as the man reached for the handle.
The handle turned.
Lord Morrow threw himself forward, uncaring as he hit the door and fell forward into the room beyond, dragging Oliver with him through the ward.
The ward stayed firmly in place behind the two of them, keeping the rest of Oliver’s men from entering or coming to his aid.
Lord Morrow stared at him in surprise, looking back at the intact ward. “B-but that’s impossible!” Obviously, he had assumed that the ward, keyed physically to him, would keep Oliver out. If it were someone else, perhaps it would have.
Oliver had fallen on the arm holding his battle wand, and before he could free it and attack, Lord Morrow rolled over onto him.
Oliver hooked his own leg around Lord Morrow’s still-tied legs and continued the roll until he was on top of the much broader man. “There are exceptions to every rule.”
Lord Morrow grabbed the wrist holding Oliver’s wand, squeezing until Oliver physically couldn’t help but drop it.
He punched Lord Morrow in the face, with the hand wearing the ring artifact, but apparently it only had had one charge remaining, and nothing happened.
Lord Morrow’s free hand scrabbled for Oliver’s face, his fingers sinking into the shadowed eyeholes of Oliver’s mask.
Oliver jerked back, and the mask ripped away from his skin, ripping the remains of his fading bark-skin armor with it.
With both of Lord Morrow’s hands temporarily occupied, Oliver reached for his utility belt, scrabbling frantically for something, anything.
Lord Morrow tossed aside Oliver’s mask, smiling ferally up at him, then reached for Oliver’s neck, just one of his hands big enough to close around it. He squeezed and lunged up to try and pin Oliver beneath him again. “There is only one sin, and it is weakness!” he snarled.
Oliver’s fingers closed over a potion vial, and without even stopping to check its contents, he brought it up and smashed it into Lord Morrow’s face.
Liquid stone spilled out, quickly overwhelming the blood spilling from both Oliver’s hand and Lord Morrow’s face where the shattered glass cut into them both.
It expanded rapidly, building up and pouring over Lord Morrow’s face. Liquid stone potion was not intended as a weapon, and contact with living flesh purposefully inhibited the conversion process so that workers using it didn’t accidentally entomb themselves in stone if a vial broke. Still, straight to the face, it would expand more than enough to kill a man.
The man sputtered, drawing his hands back to wipe off the quickly hardening goop.
Oliver tried to restrain the large man’s arms, but his strength was no match for Lord Morrow.
Still, with the other man distracted, there was nothing to keep Oliver from going for his wand, which he did, breaking off large chunks of hardening stone from his fingers so that he could grasp it.
With it in his hand again, he stood tall, looking down at the panicking man in front of him, who had barely avoided suffocation by liquid stone. Lord Morrow was no fool, and even with both eyes caked over and coughing gritty mud out of his mouth, he knew he’d lost the advantage.
“Wait, wait!” he yelled, even as he contorted himself, trying to reach the rope still tying his legs together. It was no use. His head and torso were encased in the hardened goop and stuck to the floor.
Oliver shot him. The wand, despite their struggle, was still set to a stunning spell.
Lord Morrow collapsed.
Coolly, Oliver adjusted his battle wand’s settings, stepping a little closer so that he could aim properly with his trembling hand. “If there is no strength to be gained from hope, I will pull resolution from despair,” he whispered, paraphrasing a half-remembered quote from a bedside story his sister had told him as a child.
The next spell sliced right through Lord Morrow’s neck, separating his head from his body and leaving a gouge in the hardened liquid stone encasing him.
Blood gushed out, rapidly at first in a pulsing flood, and then quickly slowing.
It pooled over to Oliver’s shoes, coating their sides and bottoms.
Oliver stepped back, letting his huge, foxlike smile recede in favor of a grimace of distaste. “You taint everything you touch,” he murmured. “What a waste.”
Finally, he was able to look around. The ward was still in place over the open doorway, and the men who had been firing spells at it, trying to break their way through to help him, had fallen still. One of them had placed an augur in the doorway, probably figuring the risk of triggering traps was worth it with his life in immediate danger, and it was spinning into the empty air, digging into the ward. Oliver sighed and waved for them to stand down.
While he waited for the ward to be broken the safer way, Oliver turned to the rest of the room, stepping over Lord Morrow’s body and the pool of blood, which was steaming in the cold air. Absently, he cracked off the caked stone from his clothes and skin.
Shelves filled with boxes sat against the walls, with a few tables in the middle of the room. There were three hinged iron doors set into the ground beneath the tables, hidden but not invisible. Oliver inspected them first. He might not survive any more surprises in a single night.
The hatches were locked, and when he used his battle wand to break the locks and pull them open, he discovered that the ward around the room blocked them, too. But it didn’t block his sight into the tunnels that extended down beneath. Having a basement in Gilbratha was rare, because the water table was high, and magic was required to keep a subterranean room dry.
These tunnels would have been expensive, but all the more valuable because they were so unexpected. He would be sure to let his people know to search any other of the Morrows’ prior properties for similar additions.
After closing the hatches, he moved to place some of the boxes on the shelves over them. It would slow down anyone trying to come through into the room from below. He never actually got that far, because he almost dropped the first box he picked up in surprise.
It was full of beast cores. Hundreds of beast cores, ranging in size and color. Enough to power all of a thaumaturge’s spells for the rest of their very long life.
He put that box down and moved to the next. It was the same.
A few minutes of frantic investigation showed that about a fourth of all the goods in the room were beast cores. Even without the recent price hikes caused by the Crown’s import restrictions, the room held the equivalent of two hundred thousand gold, just based on a quick estimate. Perhaps more, if there were any of particularly fine quality. If sold, these beast cores could fund the Verdant Stag for a year or more, even with their expanded territory. It was more than his own inheritance and personal investments made in five years. And most of the boxes were labeled with the same incomprehensible shipping address, a string of letters and numbers. Oliver couldn’t decipher it, but he didn’t need to. He already knew who the Morrows were working with.
The University was secretly stocking up on an exorbitant amount of beast cores, in addition to other restricted, powerful components that would have otherwise been taxed as well as tracked.
He looked around again, then picked up one of the beast cores. He’d heard that thaumaturges could somehow sense the power of a beast core roiling beneath the surface, but it just seemed like a pretty rock to him. He moved it around, peering into its colored, crystalline depths. “The beast cores, and the book. They’re preparing,” he breathed.
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