26 7 / 2014

He couldn’t blame Ivan for underestimating Schuler. The title “Theist” was weak, dry, almost scholarly. It was a flavorless Renaissance invention, a piece of verbal obfuscation lifted from 17th century philosophy, new jargon meant to veil the truth. Secular listeners only heard the uncommon noun related to a common belief—that there was a creator and a ruler of the universe. Depending on the century, the term had sliced awkwardly across faith in miracles and divine revelations. After the final cut, “Theist” had indicated belief in the reality of divine intervention. It implied an occult reality. This change had reinforced the spread of “Theist,” supplanting countless superstitious titles, myths and legends with a single word.

Theist. Was that any better than wizard?

Theist Jakob Böhme was apparently over a hundred years old when he suggested the name himself, nearly a century before he would meet the Baron d’Holbach and set in motion the Fall of Trust. Vatican chapters had casually referred to him as the Mystic of Görlitz. He’d buried his secular name by the banks of the river Neisse and accepted his title, but his peace with the occult hadn’t lasted. On the long search for a rational proof of the divine, he’d been received in homes and churches with fear and worship. As the Mystic, he’d realized that he was the living embodiment of an irrational heritage, one he’d sought to overthrow by example.

Renaming his position to Theist was meant to dispel superstitions.

It’d worked, the Baron supposed, because people didn’t treat Meister Schuler with the right degree of caution. If he’d been the Magician or the Thaumaturge, he might’ve been given the distance usually reserved for hermits, shamans and other holy men. Instead, cultists treated him like a servant—like an occult freak created and herded by more important authorities in New York.

But Schuler was a power as significant as the Zombie.

The Baron only hoped they would leave the Khyber peacefully, with Schuler’s empty hands folded at his waist, his eyes unfocused behind lustrous copper frames.

25 7 / 2014

The Zombie smiled, perfect teeth framed in the gap of a half-open door. “Is today the eve of nuclear armageddon?”

“It’s no closer to midnight,” the Baron said, referring to the Doomsday Clock.

“There’s your answer. They won’t throw an apple any sooner than the apocalypse.”

“Rumor is Soviets have used the apples on each other,” Beth said.

Ivan scratched the stubble on his neck, red and prickly from the heat, collecting beads of dark grey grime under his fingernails, dead skin cells and dirt caked in sweat and baked in sunshine. He’d say nothing, but he listened and disapproved with a soft glare.

“Don’t rule the apples out,” Beth continued, “They used them in London, to attack the Apostate. I’d say the Rites matter more than the British Empire ever did.”

“We bring no apples,” Ivan insisted.

“Right, you’d use the least force that’ll get the job done absolutely,” the Baron said.

“Sure,” Ivan said, lost in the Baron’s rolling English.

“If you’re certain a gun will kill a bear, you don’t use a bomb,” he said.

“You may hate bear,” Ivan said, “or fear bear also. Some would bomb. Realistic.” Rey-ah-lee-stick. The word was over enunciated, as if it bore excessive importance. “But Schuler is not bear.” That was his final word on the matter.

The Baron reflected on Ivan’s evaluation while they returned to the main hall. He’d kept his response to himself, but it sounded within him. “Schuler is a bear. Schuler is a bear.” Who else would deserve comparison with the feral and the powerful, if not the Theist of this age?

24 7 / 2014

The Baron heard what was said, but the question couldn’t go unasked. “Did they bring an apple of Perun?” If the Soviets assumed Schuler was conventionally untouchable…

“No, no,” Ivan said, “Absolutely not.”

“You would know?”

“I know.”

The Baron patted Ivan Emin on the shoulder. “Good.” Using an apple in the presence of Langley alone could precipitate an international incident. Using one here, in an allegedly peaceful auction, would be unspeakable, even if the target was Schuler. The apples were feared as the most effective assassination artifacts yet discovered. No modern fortification could protect against them, and if used, the major cults would fight to destroy them.

Not to mention the Zombie’s reaction. Murder. Smashed apples. All in the name of the Baron’s safety, of course, violence met by equal violence, threat with threat.

14 7 / 2014

They filtered into the building. Schuler was nowhere to be found, and the Jade Emperor was left unguarded in the middle of the room, a massive lump of inert terracotta. It was far more detailed than the sculptures that’d been sold out of China in the 18th century, even bearing what appeared to be an independently crafted suit of stone armor and an authentic ji, a short Chinese halberd with a spearpoint. The metal of the blade was covered in green paint too, but it appeared to be untouched by the passage of centuries, even millennia. At its waist, it bore a sheathed short sword, double-edged. He guessed it would be authentic too. This terracotta soldier was worthy of a world-class museum, if only someone first scraped away the acrylic.

The Chinese had nearly ruined it with house paint. So foolish.

The Zombie led them into one of the side halls and chose the first empty room on their right. Nobody was around to watch them walk inside, but Ivan was quick to shut the door once they were all inside. There was no lamp nor electric light. They waited in darkness.

“Talk quietly,” Ivan whispered, “I risk my life for you.”

“Why?” the Generous Man asked softly.

“I owe the Baron a great debt. That I can say.”

“We’ll be quick, Emin,” the Baron said. “What is the news?”

“The first, you have wondered. Baron, I did not supply soldiers in Landi Kotal with prestige. It was to prove we did not know about attack. But we knew, Baron. We planned attack! I helped plan attack, because we feared London investigations.”

“Are you still after me?” Beth asked.

“No, no. We have no need. Our secret is exposed.” Ivan’s voice was growing louder in the dark, an unconscious reaction to sensory deprivation. “Bolshevik were told by Yuri, you take care of woman. We failed, and Orthodox put Sannikov on cross, understand?”

“Did you kill Wells also?” the Baron asked.

“No idea,” Ivan said, “Yuri may have ordered that kill. Too many men, too many conspiracies. We are all afraid of each other, not comrades. Not with cult leaders unknown.”

“The Chinese are a mess of infighting as well,” the Zombie said.

“We know,” Ivan said, “we will fight them, and they will break.”

“So what’s the second thing?” the Baron asked. He’d been given a satisfactory explanation of the situation in Landi Kotal, but Ivan didn’t need to pull him aside for that. Anyone could’ve come to that conclusion after speaking with the Soviets directly.

“Number two,” Ivan said, “this is what pays my debt, understand?”

“Understood,” the Baron said.

“Did you see troop transport outside before bid?”

“Absolutely.”

“They were not sent to attack Chinese. That was threat? Bluff? We mobilize for another reason. We perform operation, but I do not know what it is. Sannikov does not know.”

“Who does?” the Baron asked.

“Yuri is in control. Last we talked with Moscow, Orthodox was ruling. He decided to send only Orthodox soldiers, real soldiers. Some are spetsnaz. After failure to kill woman, he keeps us outside. He does not tell Sannikov what he does until he needs him.”

“So there’s an unknown Soviet operation happening? When?”

“Now? Later? I do not know.” Ivan breathed out audibly. “May be important, may not? But you would not know if I did not say, Baron. I betray Sannikov’s trust for you. Are we settled?”

“It’s a paid debt,” the Baron said.

Ivan opened the door, letting in the soft light. Sweat was running over his jowls, even though it was quite a bit cooler this deep into the building. “You leave first. I leave later.”

The Zombie stepped out and waited in the hall. Beth and the Generous Man wandered out after him, but Ivan stopped the Baron before he could go. “Wait, one more thing. I almost forgot. Schuler, he is strong? He killed Malik, his guards?”

“Very strong,” the Baron said. “He killed them by himself.”

“Yuri, Sannikov, they both think they can kill Schuler.” Ivan shook his head. “Be careful. Schuler scares me. His burning arm… I heard he dodged a bullet in yard. He killed Chinese guard without being shot. He twisted his arm, fired weapon with a wish. Very scary.”

“I’m very careful around Schuler,” the Baron said.

“Good, good.”

“Do you know how they plan to kill him?”

“Ikons,” Ivan said, “I know no more.”

13 7 / 2014

“Baron?” Beth asked, having waited long enough for his answer.

He had to be genuine. She was clearly measuring the degree of his trust. “I’m upset,” he said, “but I’m already thinking.” He wanted to say, I’m hoping you have good intentions, but he respected the secrecy she was aiming for, and there wasn’t much point in probing her moral intent. When the chance came to talk, the details of the kidnapping would be enough.

“Good,” she said, “I was afraid you’d just… accept it. You accept a lot of terrible things.” She turned about, walking backwards a couple steps, and looked the Zombie up and down.

“Oh, offense taken, and enjoyed,” the Zombie said.

“He hasn’t broken me,” the Baron said, “he’s just my keeper.”

“You have some control,” Beth said.

“I can try to talk him down.” He hesitated to say more. “I try.”

Beth spun back around. “This just means you have a heart after all.”

The Baron raised an eyebrow. “How did this end up being about me?”

“What else do we have to talk about?” she asked.

“Heh.” The Baron glanced back at the Generous Man. “Gen, anything to say?”

“No,” Gen said.

He might be involved too, the Baron thought. His criminal contacts could play a large part in Elizabeth’s network, giving a woman access to a mostly misogynistic criminal underworld.

More remarkable was the Apostate’s attitude. She was worried that the Baron wouldn’t be upset. The Zombie’s influence must frighten her terribly. She rightfully wondered if a man who could spend two centuries with an invincible murderer could feel anything at all.

“I feel fear,” the Baron said. “I just cope.”

“Mmm.” Beth started patting her pockets and found one of her pre-rolled cigarettes. She looked over. “Smoke?” she offered.

“Really, only cigars.”

She lit up and started puffing, with a concentrated fold on her brow.

The Baron looked towards the British tent. Beth was implying that the kidnapping upset her, even though she’d played a part in it. Now she’d be thinking about the status of her allies. She’d never lied, but she’d clearly left out this part of the story, and it cast doubt on the safety of her plan. Would Zin be reliable? He had turned in Tan, but that could be read two ways.

Zin might’ve turned in a failed traitor to deflect attention off himself.

Zin might’ve turned in his ex-partner to warn Song about the London threat.

There might be other outcomes for that matter. Beth would be wracking her brain for an answer to the question. Could her remaining man be trusted? If she’d kidnapped his family too, the Baron thought there might still be a chance. Both hopeful and terrible, but a chance.

“Baron d’Holbach!” called out a Russian man. “Baron!’

The party halted near the barracks. Ivan Emin was stepping out of the shade and into the sun, his porcine face glimmering with running drops of sweat. “Baron!”

“Mr. Emin?” the Baron asked. “How can I help?”

Ivan walked up, taller than the Baron, and offered his sweaty mitt of a hand. The Baron accepted and they shook. Ivan was all muscle and callous. He was clearly a working man. “Baron,” he said, letting go, “I must talk with you. It is important.”

“We have a moment,” the Baron said.

“Not out here,” Ivan said, “at least come inside the barracks. We can find a room.”

“May I choose the room?” the Zombie asked.

Ivan nodded eagerly. “If you must. Come, come!”

12 7 / 2014

Was he supposed to consider why she’d kidnap the families of Chinese soldiers? Or was she asking him to consider her innocence? But she hadn’t denied the crime. No, this was a plea for sympathy. She’d kidnapped them, but she must hope that he’d trust her judgement.

He could already hear her words. Was anything more obvious?

It’s the world, Baron. The whole world. The Rites are like the atomic bomb. Not a question of if. A question of when. Unless the instructions are lost again, men will carry the Ark on the global battlefield. What evils would you do for the sake of civilization?

We can mock the greater good, but society blindly builds itself on the notion. The comfort and power of others comes at the cost and labor of the meek. Even the occult relies on this system; women and men like us don’t toil at tasks. Their occult experience isn’t defined in the day to day struggle, routinely honoring the aimless demands of unknown gods. We are the scholars, the generals. Prestige flows to us through other means, and our time is freed. We make the decisions for the rest. You make those decisions even now, thinking you know best!

If we are asked to judge the good of the planet, we must judge!

That’s why I’ve kidnapped innocents. I don’t want to kill, but I’ll risk their lives for a key advantage. I’ll save them and countless more from a Biblical death, from the tyranny of Old Testament wrath, or from a drenching bath in the lake of atomic fire.

Or was that just philosophical fantasy, the Baron wondered. He didn’t know the depth of Beth’s moral character. He couldn’t measure how deeply she’d struggled over a decision of this magnitude. Maybe she committed terrible crimes with ease. Maybe they wounded her, double-edged, effective but brutal. He had a notion that she was reflective, from what he’d read of Apostasy, but that was writing. Everyone was different when reflected off a page.

11 7 / 2014

“Justice, from your mouth?” Song asked.

The Baron ignored the insult and walked outside. Song snapped his fingers irritably, and the guards pulled the tent flaps closed. Then the Baron slid between his allies to his friend, where he very carefully tapped the Zombie on his invincible shoulder. “Question.”

The Zombie started walking, and everyone followed the steps of his confident stride. “What?” he whispered, once they were a few yards away from the tent.

“Why?” the Baron asked. “He already antagonizes us.”

“He hates us,” the Zombie said.

“You ate a gun barrel. How does that help?”

“Song made it clear, he already had his conclusions.”

“So you undermined his authority in front of his men?”

The Zombie grinned and stopped, turning to meet the Baron. “After that song and dance, I had to intimidate him back. We aren’t children. We aren’t afraid.”

“Song and dance?” the Baron asked.

The Zombie’s grin grew wider.

“Terrible,” the Baron said, sidling around the Zombie and taking the lead of their march. He wanted to return to the London tent at the other end of the yard. Major Callum had to answer questions. Beth would volunteer her own explanations, he imagined.

She stepped quickly into sync beside him. “I wish we couldn’t be overheard,” she said.

“Again?” the Baron asked. “Who is insane enough to waste prestige listening in? We could talk any time. They can only eavesdrop for a few seconds a time.”

“Tan once told me that Song spared no expense.”

“You think he’s listening?”

“I didn’t ask for much time,” she said. “No stupid questions.”

The Baron wasn’t offended. “Go on.”

“Don’t tell any of this to Major Callum.” She glanced around, as if looking for observers with a spyglass that might read lips. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“Is that all?” the Baron asked, tapping his watch with his fingers.

Beth understood. “Sorry.” Yes, her wish had run out.

“Time to collect your thoughts?” the Baron asked, now shifting the subject to the situation at hand. Even if he’d agreed to postponing the interrogation, he couldn’t let this slide without any questions. She’d been accused of kidnapping Chinese nationals to use as hostages.

“You should think about it too,” she said. “Okay?”

09 7 / 2014

“I suggest you mend him,” the Baron said, “then send him home.”

“We don’t need instruction,” Song said. “I appreciate your time, Baron. Your opinion is valuable, even when I believe it’s wrong.”

“Why is that?”

“Why is it valuable, or why is it wrong?”

“Both.”

“It’s valuable because you would only lie for a noble cause. It’s wrong because I think you’re lying, but I don’t know how much you know. Tan truly has given me nothing.” Lieutenant Song shrugged. “We’ll deal with London in good time. Let them out.”

The medic stood by the door, and the outside guards pulled open the canvas flaps, filling the tent with harsh sunlight. They’d been standing ready, likely aimed to shoot at the interior of the tent. It wasn’t something the Baron cared to comment on, but the Zombie straightened.

“I’m invincible,” he said to Song. “I would slaughter the nation of China.”

Song was angry in kind. “I wouldn’t shoot the Baron in the back.”

“Then these rifles?”

“If someone aided Tan, wished him healthy, he might run.”

The Zombie looked around the tent. Nothing appealed to his sense of destruction. “It’s principle,” he said, finally sighting the medic standing with his rifle. He held out his hand. “Give me your weapon.” The man eyed the Zombie’s open palm but didn’t move. “Tell him!”

“Gěi tā de qiāng!” Lieutenant Song ordered.

The medic handed over the rifle, barrel pointed to the earth. The Zombie flipped it over, put the barrel in his mouth, and bit down hard. With a single squeal of cold steel ripping, his perfect teeth pinched and severed the barrel, and the closing of his mouth crushed it with a sound like tin in a distant garbage compactor, crackling interspersed by bangs of bursting metal and screeching rips, all small and muffled behind invincible cheeks and lips.

The medic was horrified. The guards took a step back.

The Zombie simply swallowed the half crushed steel, and it could be heard grinding down as it slid into his tender throat, perfectly defiant to nature, without a moment of pause or discomfort, as if raw metal edges were as soft as overcooked noodles and easier to eat.

“My point is made.” The Zombie dropped the rifle on the ground. “Show everyone.”

“Are you finished?” Song asked.

“I spared your men,” the Zombie said. “Aren’t you happy?” He didn’t even wait for an answer, but took the lead and stepped out into the open sun, smiling. “Perfect.”

The Baron waited for Beth and Gen to follow, then gave Song a final word of warning. “You’ll look like a fanatic if you kill Tan. Do you want that reputation?”

“Armies throughout history have slain their traitors,” Song said. “They weren’t madmen. They were practical. They knew how little time there was when battle loomed.”

“Is battle… looming?” the Baron asked.

“You believe it is,” Song said.

“I do,” he agreed, “I do, but it’s not urgent enough to justifying killing Tan.”

08 7 / 2014

Song stalked along the back of the tent, staring intently. “Can I trust you, Baron?”

“I didn’t turn Tan against you,” the Baron said.

“No, but the Artemisian. She says she’s with you.”

“She hasn’t turned me against China.”

“You hardly supported us during the bid.”

“You were picking a fight.” The Baron wove his fingers together. “Song, make your accusations clear. I can’t answer them otherwise.”

“Do you trust her? Even though she’s London cult?”

“As much as she trusts me, I’m sure.”

“A smooth answer. Is that what you’d call it? Smooth?” Song stopped walking. “I’ll say it a different way. Will you vouch for this woman? With your reputation at stake?”

“Yes,” the Baron said. The true answer was no, not with accusations of kidnapped families and London involvement, but he needed her assistance, and his reputation was already at risk. If he succeeded in losing the Rites to the Ark, he’d be known as a failure. What was one more lie heaped upon the future ruins? No, if that didn’t break his reputation, this wouldn’t either.

“Thank you,” Beth said quietly.

“And your reasoning?” Song asked.

“My understanding is that she never chose to involve herself in Chinese affairs. She was asked to by Wells and Callum to join the investigation.”

“Thin evidence, Baron.”

“Thin evidence both ways. You have a traitor’s word. I have her actions. My word will have to make the difference, Song. I vouch for Beth. For all you know, if London is involved, the orders are coming from the Duke. He’d have the resources to hire kidnappers.”

Song grunted. He turned to Tan and said, “You have permission to speak. Is there something you want to say, now that you’ve heard their claims?”

Tan looked up slowly. He had difficulty turning his neck, probably after being batted around the skull. Whiplashed spine. He looked at Beth. “Tell your people.” His voice was thin and wet. There was a broken rib, probably fluid in his lungs. He wasn’t coughing because he couldn’t breathe deep. He could only say a little at a time. “I’m sorry.” Another breath. “I tried.”

Beth said nothing. She didn’t even frown.

“My family,” Tan said. “My family.” And now he’d spoken too much, because he began to cough, wincing with every shudder of diaphragm, every squeeze of lung.

06 7 / 2014

“Is he responsible for the death of Captain Wells?” the Baron asked, the first step of misdirection he could muster. He had to take the lead in the conversation, no matter what. If Lieutenant Song directed the discussion, he might learn more than he already knew. As it was, it was best to assume Song knew everything but act as if he knew nothing.

“On the contrary,” Song said, “he lost a master or an ally.”

“Wells was an investigator,” the Baron said, implying that Wells’s position over Tan was purely a function of the Chinese hiring London. “If he didn’t betray him, what did he do?”

“This is why I wanted your opinion, Baron,” Song said. “Tan won’t talk.”

That was impossible. Someone beaten that heavily would say something to end the pain. Even a lie would’ve escaped Tan’s lips. Torture was deeply unreliable for a reason. “He said why though,” the Baron guessed. “He told you something.”

Song smiled wanly. “Very good, Baron. He said, my children, my wife.”

The Baron felt a chill drip over his spine like sweat. “His family?”

“He can’t talk because they’re alive,” Song said, “If he confesses or fails, they’ll die.” He reached up to the oil lamp and turned a knob to open the shutters further. The wick burned higher. The yellowing light spread throughout the tent, casting thick shuddering shadows behind every figure. “Do you understand now? Someone coerced Tan to betray us.”

“Who?” the Baron asked, knowing the full answer in his gut.

“London,” Song said, shifting his gaze briefly to Beth.

“I’ve heard nothing of it,” Beth said. A simple, calm lie.

“Do you know what London came here for?” Song asked.

“Observations, I was told. We don’t have enough to offer a bid.” She wouldn’t dare ask, how do you know it was London that turned Tan? The Baron knew she would speak carefully, or she might find a trap by putting her foot in it. Regarding motivations, she had to seem ignorant.

“Tan told us, London came to win back their empire.” Song’s face was flat, but his voice was strained. The notion of a British return to China clearly frustrated him—to what degree, the Baron couldn’t tell. “Tan said, they wanted to use China again.”

The Zombie said, “You beat the crap out of him. What’d he do?”

Song hesitated. “Nothing,” he said, “but hide the truth.”

Tan shifted in his seat, a single shuddering jerk. “Zin,” he whispered fiercely.

Song swung around and kicked Tan in the shin with the heel of his boot. The smack of meat, the whole chair creaked from the blow. Tan flinched but could hardly pull away for all his bruises. “Quiet!” Song kicked a second time, “Quiet!” Tan barely reacted beyond shutting his eyes. A breath escaped his gritted teeth like a hiss of steam.

“Zin Weiyan?” the Baron asked. “The banker identified Tan?”

“Zin found him stealing arms and artifacts. During the interrogation, Tan confessed to betraying the Chinese to London.”

“You’ve nearly killed him over petty theft,” the Zombie said.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Song said.

The Baron jumped on the Zombie’s train of thought. “How do you know it was London?”

“He told us,” Song said irritably.

“Right, but how do you know? I’m sure he’s betrayed you, he would steal for a reason, and certainly his family is in danger—but why give up the organization?” The Baron frowned. “There’s only three Londoners here. Two now. One was sent as a guest because the Duke of Cornwall is a Hound of Artemis. Who’s left to mastermind this? The Major?”

“Are you suggesting Major Callum?” Song asked.

“I’m suggesting it’s not London at all. He lied because you were killing him, and he wants to live for the sake of his family. He has to finish something, or they die, right?”

“He’ll die anyways,” Song said, “for that very reason.”

The Baron scowled. “Are you putting the responsibility on me?”

“You made the argument. I can’t even trust him to tell the truth.”

“You said you changed your mind,” the Baron said, “you were planning on killing him. Otherwise, you wouldn’t leave a half-stitched, weeping wound.”

Tan slumped over in his chair. The guard shifted his rifle, but there was no escape.

“He’ll die,” Song said, “because he won’t even tell me if it’s the woman or the Major. Because someone is giving him orders. Someone is his master.” He pointed to Beth, “It’s you, or it’s your leader. Wells died, but he was still working for someone. He won’t tell, because he thinks you’ll order the kidnappers to spare his family, because he died trying, because he died keeping the secret.” He clenched his hand into a fist. “The Major didn’t attend. You did.”

“I’m with the Baron,” Beth said.

“The Major must’ve known Tan failed his task,” Song said. “That’s the reason. That’s why he didn’t show. Schuler was a sleeping tiger. He wasn’t a threat.”

“I’m not sure I believe any of this,” the Baron said. “I’m sorry, Song.”

“Then who, Baron? What is your story?”

“The Soviets,” the Baron said. Langley would’ve been an easier accusation, but he needed Song to remain receptive to working with Fairfax. “They’ve been killing Roamers. Kidnapping Chinese nationals would be easy with their resources.”

“Tan says London,” Song said, “I believe that much.”

“I don’t believe a traitor’s account,” the Baron said.