“They stole it, Ratten. They stole it and…I want it back!”

Tomoe was drunk. Her cheeks were flushed and her drink sloshed upon the table as she poked it back and forth, despondent. The frustration made her plumed hat skip from time to time as her hidden, sable-coat ears disobeyed her illusions. Ratten glanced nervously at a group of musketeers at another table. He hoped they were too interested in the boisterous crowds and rowdy music of the tavern to notice the slip. Moreso, he hoped her five fox tails wouldn’t make an appearance – that would be harder to miss.

“Keep it down, keep it down,” he requested, making soothing gestures with his hands. Tomoe was a contrarian drunk. She scowled, then picked up her drink and finished it in one gulp. “You already stand out enough. Couldn’t you, I don’t know, use your illusions to look more French?”

“I am a Nippon woman!” Tomoe was yelling again. “I don’t care if shum – some” she self-corrected, looking aloof, “barbarians think I look strange, they stole my hoshi no tama. Anyway, they look strange. You look strange.” Her wit wasn’t at its best.

Ratten continued to play it calm. He had been surprised when Tomoe had summoned him after they had last parted on such negative terms. The chance to make it up to her had been a strong draw. Venice to Paris wasn’t that long trip, but her messenger had offered few details. “I know they did. I’m sure we can get it back, but just tell me what happened. How did you lose it?” He leaned forward and settled in for the story.

“I gave it to a farmer for good luck with his rice crop,” Tomoe began, looking into the empty mug. Ratten knew she hated when the joke was on her – no jester ever does. “He seemed like a good man, very polite, properly respectful. But then he sold my hoshi no tama to a bunch of foreigners! For a pittance!”

“How much of a pittance?” Ratten wondered.

“Ten ‘kan’ of silver and gold – nothing! Absolutely ridiculous. A man and a woman and their cadre of thugs. I followed them, but they had wards on their effects, and I technically can’t steal it back unless it is given freely. What a stupid rule…” She grumbled out the side of her mouth. Ratten did a quick calculation in his head – it came out to around a Roman talent, or eighty pounds of gold. Not a pittance for a simple farmer, nor a wealthy merchant. That fact alone was troubling.

“You followed them all the way back to France?” Ratten asked. “And they had magic? Who were these people?”

“I don’t know. Foreigners, gaijin, thieves. I’ve tried a hundred tricks to retrieve it, but the wards always stung and bit. I couldn’t get closer than a few paces: every time they were within an arms length they saw through my illusions. Even the ‘old woman by the side of the road’ mirage – that always works!” She shook her head and hissed through her teeth in disbelief. “I followed them back to this country and then sent a spirit for you -”

“Did they have any marks or symbols?” Ratten interrupted, becoming a bit nervous. Tomoe thought for a time.

“They had a coat of arms, I think. A white cross on a red oval, surrounded by a kind of star, with a crown above it all.” Even drunk she noticed Ratten’s face sink, “What? What is it?”

“Do you absolutely need it? Does your hoshi no whatever -”

“Tama,”

“-Tama have any grave importance?”

“Yes!” Tomoe exclaimed, not liking where Ratten was going. “It is very…sentimental. And the stars inside sparkle just so, and when you chase it and it rolls, it makes a sound like tiny bells -” her face had taken on a far off look, and she was smirking at the memories. He interrupted her again.

“Do you have to have it for your magic, or to keep you alive, or something, Tomoe. You never told me exactly what it does, even back, well, back then. But now I need to know.”

“Well, no.” Tomoe admitted, “I don’t need it. It’s more a boon that we give – it doesn’t matter where exactly it is, I am still spiritually connected to it. It can’t be destroyed unless I am. But, Ratten, when it rolls, and then you chase it, and then roll it again…” Her gaiety was trodden when she realized the bard would never understand such grandeur. Annoyed, she called for another drink.

Ratten sighed. He knew who had taken Tomoe’s property, but hunting it down would be foolish. The Order of Malta had become powerful in six-hundred years, no longer a trifling worry. They hunted and killed eotin, monsters and fey, crying ‘Deus Vult!’ all the while, and he and Tomoe happened to fall in their classification of unnatural.

“You should probably just forget about it, Tomoe. The Order has it; I honestly think you should just ignore it.”

“Ignore it?” Tomoe protested, “But it’s…it’s…I can’t just ignore it.”

Ratten nodded his understanding, but he pressed. “You aren’t going anywhere. Just wait them out, and it’ll get back to you. We have the advantage of endless time.” Her new drink arrived and she dove in with relish.

“I thought you were going to help me, not stand by like a coward while robbers make off with my property. If the rules weren’t in place I’d just do it myself.” Tomoe was only half-serious, touching at the sword at her side for comfort. She was flustered and inebriated, but took Ratten’s counsel seriously – or so he believed.

“I am helping you,” Ratten said, “Trust me. If you want I’ll look into this in the morning, find out who these two Order members are. Maybe we’ll get lucky. You can get a rest.”

She raised an eyebrow and tried to decide what she thought of this idea through the haze. Finally she shrugged and tilted her head in surrender. “Fine,” she decided, “we can play it your way. I’ll wait and see what happens.” Ratten was familiar with ‘fine.’ It meant he had a very small window of opportunity before Tomoe did the opposite of whatever was ‘fine.’ It would have to do. Tomoe was probably much more capable of combating the Order if it came to blows, but her illusions were less useful against their prepared agents. Some things required a bard’s touch.

Tomoe had stood, and was making her wobbly way to the stairs leading to the guest rooms. At the foot of the ascent she turned and gave a small bow. “I’m glad you’re here, Ratten. It’s been too long. We can talk about…history…later.”

“I’m glad to see you, too” he told her. A moment’s awkwardness before she climbed to her room and disappeared inside. Ratten was once again thankful he had decided to make the trip.

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Jean De la Valette, Knight Grand Cross of Justice of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, watched his sister prepare the godless artifact. The fox’s sphere sparkled with a foul, internal light, only partially obscured by the blood that thinly draped its surface. They had tried to destroy it many times, to no avail. This would be the next best option.

Alize’s hand still dripped blood from where she had drawn the blade across her palm. It fell at irregular intervals, splashing sticky upon the marble floor. She showed no signs of discomfort as she recited the appeal to the Clavicula Salomonis Regis – the Lesser Key of Solomon. She was a practiced Opener of the Ways; such pain was hardly a concern. Alize was his most trusted disciple, and he trusted so very few.

“I call upon Prince Gäap, Monarch of the South; Watcher beneath the Current, lord of sixty-six legions. Fulfill your promise and open the path.” Her voice did not echo when it struck the walls of the cavernous room. Normally, even the sound of a pin dropping would have reverberated through the arched stone ceilings, but Alize words were not so mundane. The building had been a gift from Cardinal Richelieu. A disused church before, Jean had seen it turned into a suitable barracks for the Order. This room was of special make. An intricate sanctuary with recessed balcony like an opera house. It had been emptied, but for a tapestry of God’s Ark that covered an entire wall. It was a fitting symbol for a vault.

“Marquis Furcas, the crow-winged miser; Treasurer of the Court and lord of forty-two legions. Your obedience is bound to this ring. Protect that which is hidden.” There was a distant sound, like a massive boulder rolling along the ground as Alize continued. The air was charged; Jean could feel the prickling upon his skin. It troubled him to invoke powers such as this, but even if his sister failed he was there as a stopgap. And there had been no expense spared in protecting the old church. Jean had a reputation for paranoia. It was this which made him best at dealing with the monsters that threatened the flock. Monsters like the fox woman from the Orient. They had no record of such a creature, but the Order was always probing, learning. Soon they – he – would destroy all similar abominations.

“Duke Leraje, the abandoned blade, traitor at the Gate of Heaven and lord of sixty legions. Repay your betrayal, and keep well this blooded offering.”

The sound of rolling granite clomped to a stop with an ephemeral echo. Alize flicked her wet hand towards the tapestry, a few drops of her blood arcing before they came to a stop in mid air, drawing into a thin line perpendicular to the ground. “My blood will be the key,” she declared and thrust her hands into the sanguine line as if parting thick undergrowth.

There was a sound like tearing meat, and she struggled momentarily before the line began to expand into a ovoid, and then a circle tall as her. In the space between there was a gray void that seemed to stretch forever, liquid like an overcast sky reflected upon a still pool. Jean and Alize both avoided gazing straight upon it. He stepped beside his sister and picked up the sparkling sphere, then thrust it blindly into the rift. A hiss escaped his lips, and he pulled his arm back out quickly. It seemed to have grown translucent for a brief instant but faded back to normal.

Alize released her hold on the portal’s periphery and it snapped shut, the red line sloshing vertically like a disturbed wine bottle.

“My blood is the key,” she said again, “I gift it to you.” Jean had pulled his own knife and cut his hand. No blood emerged from the wound. He placed his palm near the suspended ichor and it flew into the cut. The ritual complete, Alize exhaled deeply and rolled her neck. He marvelled at how much she clung to normalcy – her gifts had cost so much less than his own. Her blue eyes still shone with life while his were slate and strangely matte. Her raven hair played about her shoulders; all his, down to his eyebrows had fallen out long ago. Opening was difficult work. Closing that which had been opened – and did not wish closed – was an entirely different animal. ‘Never call up what you can not put down,’ the old saying went. The Order despised Jean, his existence in their eyes tentative at best. His skills made him worth the trouble. Hate was a small price, he reckoned.

“Well done,” Jean complemented. “God’s will be done,” she replied as if rehearsed. A smile crawled across his face as if he had to remember the muscles needed, and he took her about the shoulder.

“Come, there is other work for us yet. Semper vigilans.”

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Ratten was awakened just before dawn by a scream. He rushed outside onto the second floor balcony before he realized he was running. The rest of the inn was still empty and retired, though he could hear others had been roused by the sound. Another pained cry rattled the evening, and he realized it came from Tomoe’s room. The door was locked; his shoulder met the wood a moment later, and he stumbled in. Tomoe was half-rolled from her bed, head first, temples viced between her hands. She groaned in pain or discomfort, but Ratten saw no threat within the simple stateroom.

He closed the door behind him, tight as the splintered bolt would allow, and helped her to sit up. Tomoe was dazed, as if still dreaming.

“It’s gone,” she kept repeating, dumbfounded.

“What? What’s wrong?” He asked. It brought her to her senses, but her eyes had a far off look.

“My hoshi no tama – it’s gone. Somehow I can’t feel it anywhere. It…it was painful.”

“I thought you said it can’t be destroyed,” Ratten worried, “what happened?”

“It can’t. I didn’t think. I don’t know, I just know it’s gone…” The night before she had seemed petulant at losing a toy, now she was shaken. It piled upon Ratten’s dread. Tomoe was not one to be shaken; even at Awazu, with Minamoto, she had been stoic and sarcastic.

“Are you ok? Are you wounded, diminished?” He continued. Tomoe looked at him, touching at the top of her head and then searching for tails – the illusions were still in place. Her irises had taken on an orange blush, but that was to be expected. Her eyes narrowed, and then widened in surprise.

“Wait,” she whispered, “Wait, I can’t make any illusions!”

“You’re making one now aren’t you? I mean you still look -”

“I can change my form, I can’t make any others,” Tomoe said, “I can’t make any beyond myself -”

The door to the room crashed open, and a swordsman lunged in, rapier at the ready. A wide brimmed hat sat atop his wavy blonde hair, and he was smiling as if enjoying himself greatly. A blue tabard hung over his chest, the white fleur-de-lis upon the front. He had not taken the time to don a shirt, and the tabard flapped about as he waved the blade.

“I am Emilian Gaspard d’Orleans – you will unhand that woman, sir, or I will run you through.” He informed Ratten. There was a long silence as Ratten and Tomoe sat shellshocked. The stranger took this as mortal terror. “I will not repeat myself, Monsieur. Unhand that woman.” Emilian had quickly broken his word, but didn’t seem to notice. Ratten sighed and reached for his flute, but realized he had left it in the other room.

“Just get out of here ‘Emilian’ or whoever you are.” Ratten snapped, “We haven’t got time for games.”

“Stand and draw if you’d see me gone,” Emilian responded. He was trying to look threatening, but a dumb smile kept intruding upon his best intimidating scowl. For some reason it greatly annoyed Ratten. This was important business, and this smug, arrogant fool barged in with his lopsided, stupid grin. It didn’t help that he talked too much as well. The irony was lost on the Rattenfanger.

“I hate to do it, but if that will be rid of you,” he answered the challenge, grabbing up Tomoe’s sword that rested against the bed stand. He drew it from the scabbard and held it before him one-handed. The curved blade was considerably more substantial than the rapier; Ratten was sure he’d have this finished quickly. He’d just embarrass the boy, and then send him on his way, no harm done. Well, maybe a cut or two, but nothing scarring. Emilian and Ratten watched each other warily, waiting for the first move.

“Ratten,” Tomoe said, “that’s not how you -”

Emilian lunged, beat the katana’s side with a clang, circled the other blade and cast it from Ratten’s hand in one quick motion.

“Hold that.” Tomoe finished, sighing. Ratten had always been a much better swordsman in his own mind than on the battlefield. Emilian pointed his sword at Ratten’s chest.

“You are defeated. Surrender…and I will spare you,” the musketeer bit his lip and nodded, as if considering the impact of his own words. Tomoe sighed again, louder, and stood up.

“Monsieur d’Orleans, your help is appreciated -”

“No it isn’t,” Ratten added.

Appreciated,” she went on, “but as you can see everything is fine here. Just a misunderstanding.”

Emilian looked suspicious, his rapier still prancing through the air. “This knave hasn’t coerced you, has he? I think it’s best if you break your fast, mademoiselle. I couldn’t in good conscience leave you here with…him.”

“You smug, ignorant…” Ratten grumbled, marching forward. The sword point met his chest, the skin dimpling at the contact. The blade was only so dangerous to him, but appearances had to be maintained. He rolled his eyes and huffed. “Sure, Emilian. Breakfast.” The smile was only loathing. Emilian sheathed the weapon and gestured them out.

“I will have to change first,” Tomoe explained. Emilian suddenly became shy. “Ah, yes of course. Take your time. I will be right outside.” He gave one last knowing look to Ratten before stepping just beyond the threshold, where he could hear any further trouble. After he had left, Ratten pulled Tomoe aside.

“I think you should stay here. Take some time to recover. I’m going to investigate like we planned. With your sudden malaise things have become more complicated…”

“You aren’t going to eat with my savior?” Tomoe smirked. Though there was still an unfamiliar weight over her, she couldn’t resist prodding. And she had little trouble seeing through her old, old, old lover.

“Are you kidding me? I’m not eating with that joke… Are you?” He wondered why he asked.

Tomoe shrugged, “He reminds me of someone I knew when I was younger,” she kept grinning while his face turned sour, “Besides,” serious again, “You’re right. I’m still a bit…out of sorts. I have to get my legs back under me. I’ll meet you back here later today?”

“Fine,” Ratten said. Ratten’s ‘Fine’ usually emerged from annoyance and defeat. He returned to his room, collected his things, and set out into Paris to see what could be seen.

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Ratten took to the streets, visiting crooks and businesses along the way that might have some connection to the Order of Malta. The city was crawling even in the early light. He strolled the Seine, enjoying the sights but not the smells of the romantic river. At the south end of Pont Neuf he sat a moment, watching the old church the Order had converted across the river. Notre Dame loomed in the foreground, and Ratten remembered a time when he had been younger, thinking nothing would ever surpass the Etemenanki. How times had changed.

A barber nearest the Order barracks had been particularly forthcoming with information. Idle soldiers could rarely keep from talking, and a hierarchy was beginning to take shape in Ratten’s mind. Jean De la Valette was a name that had been mentioned many times. A sister, Alize, was also of note as well, though her position was murkier. They were both distrusted by their subordinates – and if he had his guess, feared. Beyond that, Ratten could always count on who was likely at the reigns of any Order operation.

Satisfied with his casing, his instinct took him below the bridge where the flood walls, ferrymen, and sewer outpours could be found. He walked without direction until a lonely culvert drew his attention. Ratten approached, but felt a familiar tingling of danger on the back of his neck. He pulled forth a rosewood flute and stalked closer to see inside the dark recess.

Always with the flute – you need a new trick, Kakkeshu Re’u,” a tiny voice chastised from within. In the sewer, a plaque of shadow writhed almost imperceptible against the blackness. Scores of furred bodies rubbed together, mixing in a maddened flurry. In an instant the chaotic motion ended and the multitude had become one – a mastiff sized rat tottered lazily into the slivered light of morning.

“Though I suppose sword fighting is out of the question after that last demonstration, eh?” The Rat God plopped onto his hind legs and mimicked an incompetent duel with his forepaws. He squee-chortled appreciatively at his own acting. Ratten found it less humorous.

“Rather brave of the God of Rats to show himself. I seem to recall sending you running last time we met…” Ratten threatened. He was on his guard, used to the Rat God’s fickle moods after a few millenia. The Rat God pawed at his left ear while Ratten postured, snapping an unlucky flea out of the air when it was ejected.

“These sewer rats are absolutely filthy!” He exclaimed losing track of the conversation, “What? Oh, threats and all that. We’ve both had our victories over the years, eh? But I’m not interested in any rough and tumble right now. I might have accidentally overheard you have a problem and, well, I thought I’d offer my help. Hate to see a beautiful girl cry, though I don’t care for foxes. Gods, I am polite, aren’t I?” The Rat God complimented himself.

Ratten barked laughter that went on for some time. It was the Rat God’s turn to look nonplussed. “Is this a joke? There isn’t a chance I’d accept your help, even if I thought you were actually offering it.” He shook his head, wondering why he was even talking. The Rat God never did anything except for himself. Listening would only cause misery. “You must have cracked in your old age. Now, I’m having a bad day and my friend is in trouble. I’m one second away from seeing if our last little ‘rough and tumble’ was a fluke.”

The Rat God was nodding quickly and waving a claw to hurry Ratten along. “Yes, yes, such passion. I could have written this all down earlier and fed you your lines.” Ratten inhaled and lifted the instrument. “But,” the large rat squeaked an interruption, “do you know every word that passes within the Order’s church? Do you know the layout, and the routes the guards patrol on a daily basis? Do you really know who Jean De la Valette is? If you did, you wouldn’t be so keen to take him on by yourself…” The Rat God smiled like a crocodile, enjoying some private fancy. No music had raged in response. He took it as a sign to continue. “Most of all do you even know where the nogitsune’s ball of stars is? Only three do, and two aren’t talking, eh.”

This was the biggest danger with the Rat God, Ratten remembered for the umpteenth time. He always started to make sense the longer you indulged him. He was rarely as malicious as his brood – though he could be, depending on the weather, or the stars, or whatever drove his random humors. But there had never been a time when the Rat God hadn’t intended trouble. There had to be something in it for him.

“I’m not always in it for myself,” the Rat God huffed, striking during the small indecision. “The Order isn’t just a danger to you and yours, it is important that they be stopped-”

Ratten raised one eyebrow skeptically.

“Ah, altruism not very believable, eh? New tack? Very well, they took something of mine, too, and I want it back. No, I hear what you are going to ask, and I won’t say. It’s embarrassing. But rats aren’t the best operatives for this sort of work.” He shrugged, very endearingly if he weren’t a massive rodent with a penchant for lies and subterfuge. “What do you say, Kakkeshu Re’u? Partners? It’ll be just like the old days, when we first met…”

“You left me to die.”

Without the leaving to die. Do you never let anything go?”

Ratten knew he was about to make a big mistake.

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“I found an informant, of sorts,” Ratten told Tomoe. They were back in her room at the small tavern and inn on the other side of Paris. “He should be able to help us get into the church. But we’ve got other problems. Are you feeling better?” He asked her. She nodded back.

“The weakness is passed. But I’m…limited. There’s still something wrong.” Ratten took a seat on the side of the bed, preoccupied. He pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. It took a moment before he realized she was waiting for him.

“Sorry, I’m a bit distracted. I don’t exactly trust our ally. You can come out now,” he called to the room.

Tomoe’s nose began to twitch, scenting at the air. Her senses were fine tuned, and already could tell something was amiss. She cocked her head quizzically at Ratten. “What exactly did you bring back?” A moment later a darting lump trailed under the bed sheets beside Ratten. Then another, and another, all meeting in the center. There was an orgy of motion, and then a dog-sized rat peeked its nose out from under the covers.

“Sorry, I hate doing that trick in front of people,” the Rat God said, “It’s actually rather disgusting.”

“I have to sleep there…” Tomoe lamented to no one.

“We can switch beds. Or burn the linens,” Ratten offered.

“I assure you, I chose only the cleanest of my flock to grace your bed, Lady Tomoe Gozen,” the Rat God bowed dramatically. “Might I say, your black fur is enchanting, and your five tails are soft and majestic.” The illusions had little effect on his perceptions. Tomoe laughed lightly.

“I like him, Ratten. He’s totally full of shit.” She turned back to the Rat God and bowed. He did not seem to have taken the statement personally. If anything it had puffed him even more. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Tomoe continued, “We both seem to like fine sable.” She understood compliments that were meant to provoke reciprocation.

The Rat God glanced at his chest as if finding it for the first time. “Why, you are right! How kind of you to notice. I would have expected the Kakkeshu Re’u’s friends to be just like him, but I see you are refined and possess exquisite taste – company notwithstanding.”

“Enough,” Ratten growled, “get to the point.”

“Can you believe I’ve been a victim of this for thousands of years…” the large rat gestured to the bard. “But, business.” He collected himself, shaking his body from the base of his tail upward to the tip of his nose. “It is most important to understand what has happened to your hoshi no tama – or ‘where’ happened to it, more precisely. One of my children, a particularly fat female, happened to sneak a peek while foraging. Thus I also snuck that peek. She is normally rather lazy, but she makes up for it by being very perceptive and cunning. The stories I could tell you about that one,” the Rat God tittered to himself. “Very old – for a rat you understand – one time…one time…one,” the Rat God had become distracted, chomping at a spot beneath his ribs..

Ratten was forced to speak up. “Jean De la Valette and his sister Alize De la Valette put it in some sort of magical portal. That’s why you can’t feel it anymore. We’re probably going to need them to be able open it.”

“He stole my thunder!” the Rat God mourned, falling onto his side and writhing melodramatically.

Ratten scoffed, “If you’re going to tell the story, tell the damned thing. Go ahead.”

“No! No! You go ahead, bard.” the dog-rat scooted across the bed and dropped to the floor, before curling up next to Tomoe’s leg like a loyal hound.

“Fine. This Jean is incredibly paranoid. I found that much out on my own, and I think it could be used to help us. Alize is a zealot. The Order uses those two to store what they can’t destroy. It seems Alize’s blood is the key to open the way in. There is also a ritual of some sort, that will be even harder to figure. The bottom line is we will be forced to break into the church, sneak or fight past Order soldiers that are trained to combat magic, somehow open a gate that requires blood and an unknown incantation, and then get out with your hoshi no whatever -”

“Tama,” Tomoe and the Rat God interrupted.

“Tama. The God of Rats knows a lot about the building. He has insiders, so that should help. I also called in some extra help, just in case things get out of hand.”

Tomoe was scratching behind the Rat God’s ear, causing his hind leg to jerk reflexively. “Who’s that?” she asked.

“Eir. An old friend. She wasn’t too keen until I mentioned la Valette. She left from Gothenburg and should be here by tomorrow morning.”

“That’s fast,” Tomoe said.

“She borrowed – well, stole – a relative’s horse. Eight legs, never tires, convenient.”

Tomoe nodded her head in approval, impressed at the details Ratten had managed to acquire. The weight was mostly lifted, replaced by an enthusiasm for new adventure. She did so hate the mundane.

“The groundwork is good. Great even – do you have any plans?”

“Cardinal Richelieu is hosting an event tomorrow evening. The Order will want to ingratiate themselves; it should provide an opportunity. I’ll go into more detail when Eir arrives but -”

“What’s this about Cardinal Richelieu?” Emilian Gaspard d’Orleans barged through the still broken door, holding a variety of pastries in the crux of his elbow. He picked at the fruits on the top of one delectable, popping them into his mouth with aplomb. The Rat God’s head snapped up from the floor, stock still in surprise. Ratten’s mouth was agape, looking between the massive rodent and the musketeer. “I brought you those pastries, Tomoe – mercy! That is an ugly dog!” Emilian bent over and began to offer one of the sugared breads to the Rat God. “Here you go, mmm, good boy…” The Rat God opened his mouth as if to speak but was shot a cold stare by Ratten. Instead, he gave an imperceptible shrug and trundled over to devour the treat. His dog acting skills were without equal.

“So what were you saying about the Cardinal?” Emilian continued, patting the Rat God on the head.

“What the hells are you doing here?” Ratten marvelled, “What the hells is he doing here?” he asked Tomoe.

“Getting pastries,” Emilian said as if it were obvious. He dipped his knees beside Tomoe and she picked a few out. She shrugged and bit into one delicately, sampling the flavor. Her eyes lit up and she crammed the rest into her mouth.

“Ees frenly, an I luv payries,” she told him through a full mouth, before finishing the large bite. “Particularly cherries. Besides I can make friends if I want.” Tomoe declared.

“It’s a little more than that…” Ratten argued, but the nogitsune was waving him off.

“He already knows that women from Nippon often have odd ears, and wear fox tails,” she said. Emilian faced Ratten and nodded knowingly. Tomoe took the chance to tap her head with the flat of her hand, point at the musketeer, and mouth “slow.”

“Indeed,” Emilian agreed, “I am not one to judge other cultures and peoples for differences in appearance and dress. It may be difficult for a rogue like you to understand. French nobility is worldly and respectful.”

“I bet you are…” Ratten stated flatly. He wasn’t sure what to say. Having the Rat God around was bad, but this imbecile might be worse. It shouldn’t have surprised him that Tomoe wouldn’t take anything completely seriously, but this seemed a bit much. It dawned on him that it was his annoyance that was probably her end goal. He should never have shown weakness. “Sure, ok, whatever. Why not tell you about the Cardinal? He’s having a party, and we plan to crash it.”

“Good for you!” Emilian complemented, “Richelieu is a pox on the country. Did you know he ordered all forts and castles razed if they weren’t ‘vital to the defense of France’? He wants to weaken the nation and ruin the lords that faithfully serve the king! My own family was forced to hand over land because of him. If he thinks any of the King’s auxiliary would go to his party, he is sorely mistaken!”

“The musketeers were invited?” Ratten asked, now curious if Emilian could offer something. “If you aren’t going can we use the invitation?”

“He must think he can get on our good side, pff.” Emilian replied, “But as for my invitation, I would do anything to help a beautiful lady,” he turned to offer the last few pastries to Tomoe. She tipped her head in guilty surrender and took two more. The Rat God began to whine and received the last. Ratten realized he had been offered none. It would be a stupid thing to worry about, he decided. Thus his annoyance went up another notch.

“Go get your invitation then, d’Orleans. Bring it to Pont Neuf tomorrow morning. When my other friend arrives we will have planning to do.” For the time the conclave was broken while Ratten stayed behind considering the mismatched cards he had been dealt.

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“I don’t care what it does to your plan, Rattenfanger. I’m here to kill la Valette. Add it to the mission if you want, otherwise just don’t get in my way.”

Eir leaned against the stone buttress that supported Pont Neuf, her arms crossed. Tomoe sat on a nearby rock, listening while the Rat God rolled on his back to scratch. Emilian had fortunately not arrived yet. Talk of murder might not have sit well with the soldier. Ratten stood in the middle of them all, fist to his forehead. Around the perimeter, a few normal rats kept watch like prairie dogs, heads snapping for trouble.

These are the sorts of friends I expected him to have!” The Rat God offered, wheeling back to his feet and nodding.

“Don’t get started,” Ratten said.

“She is a bit confrontational,” Tomoe agreed. Eir pushed herself off the stones and her brow knit in annoyed confusion.

“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced, princess.” Eir growled. Ratten walked between them, using it as an excuse to calm the unexpected tension.

“Eir; Tomoe, Rat God. Tomoe, Rat God; Eir.” The truth was Ratten didn’t remember Eir being quite so aggressive either. In four-hundred years they had crossed often and she had become something of a friend. While her first solution to any encounter was often direct action, she was usually somber rather than quarrelsome. And threats mostly came with good reason. There was a melancholy surrounding the Valkyrja that had never been there before. The sort that made sharing the same space uneasy. “Maybe if you told us why you need to kill La Valette so badly it can be arranged. But we’d prefer not to stir up a hornets nest if we don’t have to.”

“I’m telling you as a favor. I don’t have to explain myself to you. Fighting isn’t your nature – I didn’t expect you to agree and I won’t go into a fight with half-committed.” She shrugged, “That’s all I came to say. Good luck with your hoshi no whatever.” She walked away from the bridge and down the cobbled path while Ratten stared after her, puzzling. He considered yelling after her, but decided it could wait for privacy. Tomoe spoke first.

“Fortunate I recruited Emilian, then.” She joked.

Ratten must have been rattled. He didn’t play back. “Yeah, I guess so. I will have to talk with her; a lot of my plan counts on Eir’s help, but I’ll go over two options. One with her, one without. Anyway, let’s break this down. If Eir starts wreaking havoc maybe we’ll get lucky and it will help. The party is tonight – we don’t have much time to prepare. D’Orleans can catch up when he gets here.”

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“What was that all about, Eir?” Ratten demanded hours later, cornering her on a lonely rue. The Rat God’s infinite supply of spies were more useful than he cared to admit. A quick whistle of the flute and the straggler rodents that might think to listen in were dispersed for hundreds of yards. Sometimes there had to be secrets between “allies.”

“Don’t pry. I’ll kill la Valette and be out of your way soon enough. It will probably help you and your friend.” She looked unconvinced by her own promises. Ratten could sense a rage and frustration.

“First off,” Ratten argued, “You know that isn’t what I meant. I want to know what’s wrong. And second off, if you are going to pretend that will help – it won’t. I thought you’d be willing to back me here. Tell me what’s going on.”

Eir glowered at him as if he were the source of all her hate. For a moment he wondered if she might even attack, such was the force of her distaste. But it’s origin must have been in the admitting. Finally she relented, looking askance.

“La Valette killed my sister. Sigrún. Now I have to kill him, and I will do it alone.”

“Is that a rule, or just one you made up?” Ratten wondered. She turned back to him, snarling again, but he stopped her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I just don’t want to see you charge into something unprepared.”

“It wasn’t a good death, Ratten. Hunters kill, the Order hunts. This was torture. If you had seen what was left of her…” She was silent a long time, her eyes shut. “My sisters have declared war on all the Maltans. I just owe Sigrún.”

“I don’t know what to say, Eir. I didn’t realize. You never talk much about your sisters.”

“We don’t get on well, I told you that.” Eir said.

“Sigrún was different?”

“Not really. But she was my shield sister. We trained until we knew what the other was thinking. I know – knew,” she corrected herself sadly, “her as well as I know myself. Even if we didn’t agree, there was a respect.” Eir looked at the ground, a rare show of defeat. “It is a difficult relationship to explain.”

Ratten only nodded, agreeing that such a relationship might be beyond his experience. Hollow words of understanding would probably be misplaced. But it still upset him to see her wounded.

“You have my condolences and my time if you need it,” Ratten paused awhile as they both ruminated, then spoke up once more. “La Valette is extremely dangerous, Eir. Killing him alone might not be simple or even possible.”

“Don’t try and talk me out of it for your own reasons…” she gently warned. He shook his head.

“You know I wouldn’t. But it’s true. Both La Valette and his sister reckon to be powerful opponents. The God of Rats was running his mouth; he isn’t free with the compliments. I wanted you to know.”

“He has a sister?” Eir was curious now, turning back to face him, “She’s here? Who is it?”

Ratten opened his mouth to speak, but the words died on his tongue. There had been something wrong with the way in which she had asked the question, some intonation that worried him. An appetite for knowledge that hinted at obsession. He chewed over his response while she watched him anxiously. If he was to share this information, he would require Eir to come fully on board. Not because he wished to manipulate her for his own reasons, though that didn’t weigh against the idea. It was because he wanted to prevent a tragedy he could sense on the horizon. His sixth sense rarely lied about these things, though it was a devil with the specifics.

“I’ll tell you everything you could ever want to know,” Ratten told her, choosing each word steadily, “I wanted you to help with Alize anyway. Just, please. Sign on, agree to help. Deal with Jean later. That’s all I ask.”

“Here comes the self-serving ‘friendship,’” Eir said, chagrined. Ratten didn’t bother arguing. It couldn’t be claimed as anything else, though he hoped it was mostly for her sake. She considered a long time, but the draw of knowing more about Alize must have been too much. Ratten wasn’t sure that made him feel any better. “Fine, Fanger. You tell me about his sister, then tell me what you know about Jean and I’ll take part in your little ‘plan.’”

Eir’s ‘fine’ was a crushing vice, an oath that would never be broken. There was a death sentence masked in the words. Ratten wondered how many more mistakes he would make before this was all over. But now he had everyone he needed. Tonight they could make their move.

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Richelieu’s Palais-Cardinale blazed like a jack-o-lantern in the lonely autumn. Columns outlined recessed windows that cast a warming glow on the arrivals outside. The east and west wings jutted out from the main estate like the paws of a great sphinx. Past the main gate, boisterous conversation thrummed through the air, while each newly arriving guest caused a current of conversation to buzz through the crowd. Above it all, the French flag and the Cardinal’s own coat snapped in the breeze.

Tomoe and Ratten came on foot. A soldier, even a noble, wasn’t likely to arrive by coach and they didn’t want to appear ostentatious. The less attention drawn the better. Ratten was playing the part of Emilian – a role to which he was well suited – though he had complained vociferously at the comparison. Tomoe’s personal illusions were enough to play the part of a local courtier. She had complained as well at the indignity, but it was a necessity. A Japanese woman would certainly have alerted Jean to her presence. Without a bit of luck, he might notice anyway.

She wore a simple dancing gown, with a large frill about her neck. One of the Rat God’s diminutive followers hid within, giving them a means of communication with the rest of the “team.”

“You really must stop scratching,” the normal rat whispered in possessed-by-Rat-God voice, “It isn’t lady-like. Or at least I don’t suppose it is. Quite a shame; wonderful pastime.”

“If you don’t stop sniffing so much, you’re going to lose the whiskers,” Tomoe gnashed. The sniffing stopped. The steward at the front arches gave her a troubled look, but her sneer quickly turned into a pleasant smile.

“Mon cher,” Tomoe said, “do you have our invitation?” Ratten stepped forward and produced Emilian’s invitation. Master d’Orleans and guest. The steward checked it over and waved them inside with a quick ‘a pleasure.’

“The Cardinal is such a gentleman to invite us to his party. I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you, monsieur.” she told the help, looking very haughty and pleased. “Do you know if my friend Jean de La Valette arrived yet?”

“We really should be going, mon cher,” Ratten insisted pulling Tomoe beyond while the rat tittered on her neck. “Slow down on the mingling, I think.” he told her, realizing she was having entirely too much fun. Tomoe didn’t look agreeable.

“This is all very new, and it’s so…clandestine. I can’t help it if I’m enjoying myself a bit.”

“It’s your hoshi no whatever on the line,” he shrugged, scanning the crowd. A pavillion had been set up in the gardened courtyard between the jutting wings of the Palais. Many of the guests milled and chatted, while servants brought drink and food to sample. Only a few stopped to glance their way, for which Ratten was thankful. He shuffled off into one of the darker corners, his ‘guest’ in tow.

“I don’t remember you being such a wet blanket.” Tomoe observed, reaching out and snatching a bit of cheese that was brought nearby. “Your plan is quite good and exciting.” The rat on her shoulder squee-chortled again. The Rat God had been rather critical of the plan. But he was critical of everything.

“Are Eir and Emilian in place?” Ratten asked, hoping that handoff would go without a hitch. There was a brief pause while the rat network passed messages.

“She says ‘shut up and get on with it,’ as well as some rah-rah declarations of how she will ‘deal with Alize.’” the Rat God avatar answered. It would have to do. “Also, one of my children managed to find ‘that whoreson’s sister’ – is that what we are calling her now? The valkyrja has the most fascinating names for – food!” Tomoe tensed up as her rodent passenger was flooded with conflicting signals, scurrying about her neck. “Ah, sorry. Got caught up in the moment. Hard possessing so many minds in a busy setting like this. East ballroom. Wearing some garish carnations on her lapel. I’ll let you know if Alize makes any further moves.”

Ratten and Tomoe made their way around the courtyard perimeter and passed through the heavy wooden doors. Inside was luxury run amok. Burgundy velvet covered the floors, leading paths through a maze of hallways. Curving stairways flanked each side of the foyer, and paintings and tapestries were placed to impress. A massive chandelier hung in defiance of gravity, flooding the walls with light. Ratten yearned for the days when he had been a guest of royalty. A hiss from Tomoe disturbed his dreams.

“It’s him,” she whispered, watching as Jean de La Valette and Cardinal Richelieu emerged into view at the top of one of the stairways. They were exchanging generic pleasantries, neither seeming to enjoy the socializing duty which had been foisted upon them. There was an otherness to Jean that Ratten could sense that went beyond the hairless head and oddly tinted eyes. Magic ebbed and flowed where the man walked. More than he had felt from a mortal man in some time.

“I guess we’ll find out if his wards are always up sooner than we thought…” Ratten grimaced. He pulled Tomoe aside and held her close as if they were discussing some private business. The two men descended the stairs at a polite but quick pace, eager to discover an excuse to excuse. They walked to the front door, only a few paces away. Jean’s eyes strayed toward the nogitsune and lingered a time, brow furrowed as if considering some odd puzzle. Ratten brushed a lock of hair behind her ear and moved to eclipse her further. The momentary spell was broken. The two men continued outside and the doors clamped behind them. Ratten sighed.

“That’s it?” Tomoe wondered, looking up at Ratten’s near face that had turned from her’s to watch the departure. He didn’t get the hint. “I feel like we missed something.”

“Yeah, I guess we got lucky. If he can’t see through your transformation further than a few steps this just might work. I expected him to be more perceptive.” He replied.

“I’ll say,” Tomoe huffed, extricating herself from the bard’s feigned embrace. “For a storyteller you never were one for the drama of the moment.” He turned and gave her a skeptical look, but she was already heading down the east hall. Had her eyes been orange? He hustled after her to make sure there were no further problems with her ability to change forms.

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“She’s been in there forever,” Tomoe observed as a curse. She and Ratten had taken up a position in the hall outside the ballroom. The impromptu stakeout had gone on for near an hour, and Alize had done nothing but read a book in a corner, indiscreetly avoiding the other guests. It hadn’t quite been forever, but Tomoe had expected some derring-do, or at least a clever repartee with their opponent. Standing and watching hadn’t been on her agenda.

“This is how this work usually goes,” Ratten told her, giving a nod to another guest that passed, “a lot of waiting followed by a few moments of excitement – or sometimes terror. Hopefully not terror.”

“What I wouldn’t give for some terror,” Tomoe sighed, popping the remains of a finger sandwich into her mouth. She was managing to stay well fed at the very least. “Can’t you play a song and march her out of there?”

Ratten shrugged. It was an option – a dangerous one, with so many unknowns – that could be considered. But the party still had hours yet to go. No need to rush things. Tomoe took it as a ‘no’ and became sullen. However she perked up when Alize set her book aside and stood up, making her way across the room towards them.

“Yes! Finally!” Tomoe whispered. They allowed Alize to walk past and followed surreptitiously, keeping a hallway’s distance between them. Fortunately, she seemed to be heading deeper into the East wing, away from the bustle of the rest of the party. Tomoe had taken the lead and took each turn and corner with only a token show of stealth. A last intersection and she and Ratten pulled up short directly in front of Alize and a garderobe guard. Alize turned and looked at them with a dawning suspicion.

“Are you following me?” she asked coldly.

“Uhhhh,” Tomoe hawed for an awkward moment, stunned motionless.

“We -” Ratten began, when Tomoe punched Alize in the face. She fell, sprawled motionless on the floor. Ratten and the guard looked at Tomoe, then to each other. The guard went for his sword but the bard was a touch faster. He played a quick melody and the soldier’s eyes grew heavy, and he slumped to the floor asleep. The man would be out for hours, if they hid him well.

“Are you kidding me?” Ratten crowed, already moving to pull the unconscious duo into a nearby room. “I didn’t want to have to use any music near Jean.”

“It worked didn’t it? I had to do something quickly, our cover was blown.” She seemed rather satisfied with the turn of events. It didn’t help that the rat on her shoulder was almost hypoxic with squeaking guffaws.

“Yeah, I guess it did,” Ratten surrendered, worried their narrow time frame had been condensed even further. “Stop the laughter for a moment. Are Eir and Emilian outside?”

The rat-as-Rat-God pulled itself together after a few more seconds and nodded it’s angular head. “She says, ‘just bring the…nice young woman.’ I edited that a bit, you’ll thank me.”

“Fine let’s make this hand off fast.” Ratten drew a small knife and slashed a line on one of Alize’s fingers. The wound had to be deep before any blood welled – many other scars criss-crossed her palm and pads. He used a small flask to collect as much of the liquid as he could. “I need to get to the church as fast as possible. Get me another of your rats and let’s get going.”

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Jean de La Valette’s stomach tensed, a sensation of falling similar to when they had tried to hang him the first time. Only this wasn’t a stool kicked out from under his feet, but a warning of sorceries somewhere near. In most cases such feelings were a fleeting spirit, or latent energies released by the strong emotions of the party. But he had been on edge all night and didn’t know why. He accepted this as confirmation of danger. His sixth sense was rarely wrong, it merely was stingy with the details.

Jean snapped to motion, startling a few nobles who had probably thought him a macabre statue. He realized he must have been standing in place near an hour, watching and thinking about plans days and years ahead. Their trivial banter returned to normal after the brief scare; Jean envied them their levity. Such mundanities were dead to him. Duty, as always, called. Semper vigilans.

Outside in the courtyard, there was nothing to indicate any disturbance, but he stalked the perimeter anyway. Caution was of no value without deliberate analysis. Revelry withered under his harsh gaze. Whatever had troubled him was not here.

He made his way inside, pressing for the East wing. Perhaps if Alize had noticed something amiss they could determine the origin together. However, as he approached the ballroom the foul sensation increased. The source was nearby. Jean traversed a maze of halls, walking quickly now, certain he was near to some discovery, but instead he found nothing but an empty garderobe. The humor of rushing to the privy in search of eldritch horrors was not lost on him, but magic had been used in this hallway. The trace was unmistakable now, and it filled him with a nagging fear and a giddy excitement. Perhaps tonight there would be a hunt.

Caution and analysis. He would find Alize, use her counsel. Perhaps a few of the Order who had also come at Richelieu’s request. Jean hoped whoever or whatever they found would have the fortitude to last a few hours of interrogation.

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Ratten was to pont Neuf when the first bad news arrived.

“The fox woman wants you to know that Jean is looking for Alize, who is, of course, missing. Guards are searching the party.” The rat on his shoulder informed. Ratten whistled through his teeth.

“That’s a lot earlier than I expected,” he told no one. The possessed rat took it as an invitation.

“I did try to tell you that was the worst part of the plan. Well besides adding the Valkyrja, eh? And all the other parts. Can multiple things be the worst?”

“Just tell her to stick to the script, but move whenever she must. We’ll have to go a bit faster than expected.” Ratten answered

“A bit?”

Tell her,” he snapped, to a tittering reply. The rat grew silent, perhaps fulfilling his orders. It was hard to tell. Ratten rushed across the bridge, passing Notre Dame on his right. The interior was still lit, playing colorful patterns on the massive stained windows. The roads were mostly empty, Ratten noted. A fine bit of luck on a night they could use some. Ratten came to the north end of Pont Neuf and approached the old church. As expected, two Order guards watched the front entrance, chatting about some gambles they had made on fighting dogs. A denatsate beggar had fallen asleep against the side wall. His breathing pulsed wetly, like a panting dog through his noseless face and commissures slit to the ear. The living skull was not an omen that instilled Ratten with confidence.

“Where to?” Ratten asked the rat hanging by the back of his neck. The rat ‘hmm-ed’ for a bit, then tapped his skin with a cold nose.

“Along the side, there should be an open window, third floor.”

“Third!” Ratten exclaimed, looking the church up and down. Built of rough, mortared stone, there were handholds for scaling, but they were certainly not plentiful. “You said you could get a way inside, you didn’t say I’d have to climb.”

“You didn’t ask,” the rat chastised, “And it isn’t easy to get rats to open doors and things, especially without being noticed.”

“Excuses. From a ‘god’…” Ratten needled. The rat sputtered and muttered, for once at a loss for words, or at least playing at it. He used the moments to approach the denatsate and drop a few coins in his bowl as cover, then walk further past, along the building’s West face. Here there were no guards to note his activities. He looked up. Three arched windows were inset into the walls, one slightly ajar. It must have been four times his height to the sill. This was going to take some time. He was ten feet up when a Maltan rounded the corner and noted his ascent.

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“This woman doesn’t look drunk,” Emilian noted, standing over the unconscious Alize with Eir, “She looks like someone punched her in the nose.”

Eir didn’t respond. They had retreated to a nearby stable after the handoff, just down the darker back street near Palais-Cardinale. Eir’s horse was here, and one of the Rat God’s rats watched from a corner.

“Should we not get her to somewhere proper to rest?” the musketeer wondered. “Mademoiselle Tomoe’s friend certainly deserves better accommodations.”

Eir huffed and pulled a half full bucket from the watering trough nearby.

“Rat God, time for you to leave,” she told the beady eyed avatar. The rodent sentry vanished into a hole and scuttled away. If it could have winked, she was sure it would. The Rat God’s silence had been expensive, but she would worry about paying that favor back later. For now there was one last chaperone with which to deal.

“Whoever are you talking to?” Emilian asked, still kneeling beside the unconscious Alize. Why Ratten had thought this mundane imbecile should take part in his plan escaped her. But the intention to leave him here was obvious – he must have hoped it would keep her anger in check. He had underestimated sorely, she knew.

“What’s your name again? Emilian? Why don’t you go to the well and get some clean water? She’ll need it.” Eir told him. It carried the weight of an order.

“Mademoiselle Tomoe told me to always stay by her friend’s side,” he responded. So he wasn’t a complete fool. Or at least understood duty. Eir could respect that, but right now it caused annoyance.

“Go. Water. Now.”

Emilian looked up at her, a confused war raging beneath, but finally he nodded his head in assent.

“I suppose she will need water. Keep careful watch while I’m gone!” He insisted before roaming out onto the street. Alone, Eir waited a ten count and dumped the water over Alize’s head. She woke sputtering. When she wiped the runoff from her eyes, Eir was there, face to face, dominating her view. Alize managed to remain indifferent and imperious.

“What do you want?” Alize questioned, recognizing the predicament in which she found herself, but not yet the nature. “Who are you?”

Eir grasped one of Alize’s hands in her own, holding it aloft as if to display. Her thumb found the second knuckle of the sorceress’ index finger and pressed backwards quickly. The bone snapped with an audible clack. Not expecting the pain, Alize sucked in through her teeth and grit. She tried to extract her hand but Eir held it fast.

“I won’t tell you anything,” Alize declared, defiant. Eir could see an iron will behind those blue eyes, and wondered if it might just be true. But Jean’s sister misunderstood.

“I don’t want information. I don’t want your cooperation. I just want to talk, and then I’m going to send you back to your brother piece by piece.” Eir told her. It wasn’t a threat, just a simple declaration of fact. Alize’s eyes narrowed, and she saw the Valkyrja again for the first time.

“Ah, so you are one of those…creatures.” She spoke the word as if it carried the plague. “Your time is fast approaching; I have done God’s work, ridding the world of your kind. Killing me will make no difference. Jean will finish – grrk.” Another snap interrupted her zealousness.

“Perhaps,” Eir shrugged, “but at least I will repay a debt. Come, I know somewhere more private where we can discuss uninterrupted.”

Eir thought there was a brief ripple of disconcert as she grabbed her things and prepared to move their meeting place elsewhere.

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Jean’s patience had run thin; Alize was nowhere to be found. His mind raced with possible suspects. Politics within the Order, religious leaders that opposed their methods if not their mission. He assumed the attack was directed at him, even if the target was Alize. She was a vital ally, but any enemy would recognize her as ultimately interchangeable. However, she was also his sister – the slight would not go unpunished when he caught up with the perpetrators.

Few other options remained so he ordered his men out into the streets to try and pick up any trails that might still remain. Meanwhile he would attempt a sighting. A simple, if extended, ritual to locate Alize. He stood in the main foyer, at the base of the two curving staircases and drew a pen knife to cut his hand. The blood he had borrowed from earlier still resided in his veins. It would serve as an anchor for the magic, and scent her like a hound.

As he prepared the cut, there was a disturbance at the top of the stairs. From one of the hallways, Alize stumbled out, looking ill used and disheveled. She tripped along on unsure feet, and fell onto the balcony guardrail, barely supporting her weight. He rushed towards the stairs, but she called out.

“Jean, they took the key. They took blood.”

He froze at the implication. The absurdity of breaking into the Order barracks had not occurred to him, but if they had a way in which to open the gate… The items stored within the vault were varied and powerful, and it chilled him to think what a true enemy, any of those grotesque, multitude creatures, could do with them.

“Are you alright?” He asked. She was still his sister, after all.

“I’ll be ok. But you have to stop them.” Alize answered.

Jean gestured one of his men to the top of the stairs. “You, help my sister. The rest of you, with me. We are going back to the barracks – no time to retrieve the others out looking.”

He whirled and rushed out the door. Alize collapsed to the floor in exhaustion. The ride across town, through the winding streets of Paris, was not a short one. He prayed that they would make it in time.

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“What have we here? A thief?” The guard asked, standing to the side of Ratten’s climbing path. “You’re in for it now. Down from there!”

He didn’t have much choice if he was to stay silent. Or at least silent on the macro scale of his stealthy enterprise. Ratten shimmied a few handholds down and then dropped the rest of the way. He held his hands out to show he was no threat.

“Just…looking for something to eat.” Ratten said. It didn’t sound very convincing. The guard didn’t accept it either.

“I’ll bet you are. Let’s go now. De la Valette will decide what to do with you.” The sword gestured back towards the front. Ratten whistled a tune on his lips, intended to make the guard more agreeable, but there was little effect. These men had been trained and conditioned to deal with minor magics. Drawing and playing would likely alert others, if it didn’t get him stabbed and create a commotion before that. For now he would submit to his incarceration.

The guard herded him to the door and inside with the help of the other sentry on duty. They weren’t gentle with their treatment, but Ratten was glad they didn’t suspect his true nature. If so, it could easily have been much worse. Inside the church was quiet and short-staffed. A wide entry hall terminated in a pair of heavy oaken doors, beyond which resided the old sanctuary. Or so the Rat God’s scouting promised. Just before those barricades, he was pressed into a side room where two other Order soldiers sat around a table. They busied themselves with a game of liar’s dice, looking up with distaste at the disturbance.

“Got a thief trying to break in,” the first guard told them, “watch him until the party is over. De la Valette can fix him.”

“Why don’t you watch him?” one of the dice players grumbled, but he stood and shoved Ratten into a seat. He found a strong length of rope after a brief search and tied the bard to the chair. “Don’t cause any trouble, you. We have a game to play, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer, plopping back into his seat and scattering the dice once again upon the tabletop. The outside sentries looked unconvinced at such preparations, but left soon after.

“More good news!” The rat whispered, hanging precariously on the inside of Ratten’s collar, “The fox woman says that the Valkyrja is missing. Hard being right all the time, I must say.”

“Damnit, Eir,” Ratten mumbled, “Is the horse -”

“What’re you goin’ on about over there?” The ornery soldier scolded, without turning around. Fortunately the Rat God had heard enough to respond.

“The eight legged horse is still there. She should be arriving in moments – though not as far ahead of De la Valette as we had hoped.”

It was true. Ratten felt anxiety welling inside. It didn’t occur to him the source wasn’t the imminent failure of their plan. He hoped Eir wouldn’t do something she would come to regret.

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Eir had found a quiet spot in the Parisian sewers to conduct her questionless interrogation of Alize. It was going well, considering the Valkyrja expected nothing from her captive. “Well” except for the fact even sorceresses only had eight fingers.

“What do you want?” Alize coughed again; it was a refrain she had returned to a few times already. She cradled her ruined right hand at her side, sitting amidst the muck of the sewer walkway. Her face was pale and sweat beaded on her forehead. Still, there had been no begging and little fear. For some reason that comforted Eir. Perhaps this would have been more… difficult otherwise.

“An eye for an eye? Isn’t that something you people say?” Eir pondered. “I already told you, I don’t want anything except payment for what you did to my sister.”

“This pain -” Alize hissed through her teeth as a fresh bolt of agony assailed her, “will only serve to cleanse me of my sins. You cannot harm me in any way that matters, monster.”

“That sounds like a challenge,” Eir shrugged. She clenched her fist and cocked it back, when a sing-song voice echoed from the streets above.

“Lady Tomoe’s friend! Grumpy woman!” the voice called, “What was it again? Air? Air!” The yelling began again. Eir was almost too surprised to be angry. Somehow that idiot had followed them to the sewer entrance. She looked at the huddled Alize wondering how someone as stupid as Emilian d’Orleans had managed. The carnations from Alize’s lapel were missing. Looking back, Eir could see a few of the petals scattered upon the wet ground of the undercity, leaving a broken trail. Such a simple trick; but then again, it had worked.

“Clever. Clever.” Eir admitted to her captive. “Too bad instead of a knight you got a jester.” The metal grate down the hall screeched open and Emilian dropped down. He dusted off the knees of his pants for his imaginary audience and turned to the torchlight Eir had brought below.

“Ah, it’s you Air!” he walked closer, nodding in self-satisfaction. His silvered blue cloak trailed behind him as the passage yawned in some forgotten reaches. “I thought I might have lost -” Emilian pulled up short. Alarm marred his face when he saw Alize. “What’s going -”

“You are in grave danger!” Alize yelled, “You must go find help!”

“What did you do?” Emilian asked. For all his normal bluster, Eir was surprised at how…sad the musketeer sounded just then. Not exactly startled, nor hostile. Melancholy. She realized there was no lingering death on the man. None of the essence she could normally sense on a veteran warrior. Perhaps he had never before seen battle. Still, it was an absurd reaction: the whoreson’s sister was rather damaged, but not so badly.

Eir glanced back at her captive. The wounds looked worse now; perhaps a trick of the light. Her face was swollen and discolored, her fingers bent askew. Blood had spattered upon the stone at snapped angles. Eir faced Emilian again and her anger flared. She used it to bury the peculiar sense of exposure and shame that knifed in her sternum.

“This woman is a murderer, Emilian. She killed my sister.” Eir growled, wondering why she should explain herself to the fool.

“She’s a liar,” Alize choked, “The woman before you is not what she seems, miseur.”

“Enough,” Eir declared, “Or I’ll make you silent.”

“Why did you do this?” Emilian asked again. He made to approach, but Eir gestured him to stillness.

“I told you. She murdered my sister.”

“Then surely we can take her to the authorities?” Emilian didn’t seem convinced. “Whatever she’s done, it isn’t worth acting so monstrous.”

“You know nothing,” she scolded. “This is bigger than you, d’Orleans. Just walk away. I have a duty to my family.”

“Quite a way to honor your family…” Emilian hung his head. His shoulders were slumped, and for a long moment he said nothing. For some reason it rankled Eir all the more. She was about to curse him when he spoke up again.

“I’m sorry if this woman has harmed you, but I won’t let you do this.”

Eir scoffed. “Won’t let me?” Emilian’s rapier sang in the claustrophobic passage. “You can’t be serious…” She drew her own sword. Balmung was wide-bladed, heavy, and for chopping. But in Eir’s hand it would move more swiftly than the deftest fencing strokes. “You can’t win, you know.”

“I hate to disagree,” a quick smile traced upon his face, but it was immediately buried under a mask of consternation. It looked out of place on the jovial swordsman. “In any case, this is wrong. And so I must try.” Emilian lunged forward to strike.

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“These ropes are a bit tight…” Ratten announced to the room. The game paused a moment while the guards shot speculative stares, then returned to the dice, laughing softly.

“That was your best idea?” the rat at his collar squeaked.

“Be quiet,” Ratten surrendered.

“Here, I’ll slip down your sleeve – whoops!” the rat fell to the bottom of his shirt and tumbled out the back onto the seat. Hidden behind Ratten, fortunately. “Slipped. Shouldn’t have possessed a tail-less child. Always messes up my balance.”

“Just hurry up.”

“Just hurry up, I want the church cleared.” A woman’s voice echoed in the halls outside the guards’ chamber. A moment later the door swung open and the men from outside entered, flanked by Alize.

“This is him,” one of the men informed, while the others stood at attention. Their respect had increased considerably thanks to this unexpected arrival.

“Good. I’ll take him with me. The rest of you evacuate the building. Jean’s orders. It is too dangerous to have others around for what we must attempt.”

The Maltans seemed hesitant at the odd orders. They glanced about hoping someone would speak out. Finally, the oldest found the courage. “Is that wise, Lady de La Valette? There are already so few on duty.”

“Maybe you are right; you can tell my brother you disagree when he arrives.”

“That…that won’t be necessary,” the men saluted and collected their things, shuffling out.

Alize examined Ratten with pity. She seemed unconcerned that a rat was gnawing at the bindings around his wrists.

“You were supposed to have the Lesser Key of Solomon by now. Maybe even be working on the ritual.” She harrumphed.

“I did my part!” The rat informed happily, spitting out tufts of rope thread, “We’ve pulled the book almost to the gate room. But then Kakkeshu Re’u bumbled into captivity -”

“Keep chewing,” Ratten snapped at the smug rodent, “Tomoe, how far ahead do you think Eir’s horse put you?”

Alize-Tomoe gave a disappointed sneer that looked right at home on the other woman’s face. Ratten so rarely failed to rise to her baits. “That animal is impossibly fast. It only took moments; I’d say ten minutes.”

“Let’s assume five.” The ropes at his hands fell away, and he stood, rubbing his arms for circulation. The bindings had been a bit tight. “Let’s go; lead the way.” he told his rat passenger.

They flitted through the hallways, making quickest path for the room in which the portal could be opened. The rat nudged and cajoled them along with lazy directions. From time to time he ordered them still as a few stragglers passed by, spotted by advanced rat spies. Tomoe and Ratten had little idea where they were going – it had been part of the Rat God’s agreement, refusing to part with everything he knew, thus making himself all the more vital. And yet as even brief time dragged on Ratten began to grow suspicious of the circuitous route.

This could be interesting,” the rat at his neck suddenly cooed as they stalked another dreary, stone hall.

“What?” Ratten demanded, but the rat simply tutted.

“Quick, now go left! Left!”

They piled around the corner. Less than ten meters away an elderly man in priestly vestment was startled to see them approach. Ratten was so distracted by the unexpected encounter, he didn’t note the Rat God’s minion slink down his side, remove the vial of blood from its perch and scramble away.

“I’ll let you get reaquainted! Let me handle this!” The Rat God chirped, but only Tomoe heard him.

“Huh? Where is he going? What’s he talking about?” Tomoe asked, looking between the two men. Neither responded. Ratten had a distant stare like he was watching another time. “Ratten! Hey! Who is this.”

Ratten answered, though his eyes never strayed from the priest standing before them.

“Vater Alfred Gustavus Rilke,” he said, as if invoking a ghost. “of Hameln.”

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Emilian Gaspard d’Orleans looked like he had tried to wrestle a wolverine with his arms tied behind his back. His breath came in greedy gulps, and blood welled at hundreds of nicks as he picked himself up from the latest attack. It was a miracle none of the slices had clipped a vein or artery, putting an end to the fight. Or so he might have believed, if Eir hadn’t minutes before begun resorting to pommel strikes rather than the surgical cuts of previous. Even so, each blow was a trampling horse – such strength had to be impossible, he thought – and his vision warbled every time he picked himself back up.

“Stay down, d’Orleans,” Eir was telling him from somewhere distant. Her image danced closer as he came to full height and the ringing in his ears ceased. “There’s no shame in it; you did your best.”

“It isn’t…my shame I’m worried about,” Emilian panted, “I’m trying to put an end to yours.” Another clubbing spun him around and tossed him into the wall.

“Stay down!” Eir spat. This had gone on long enough. “I’ve been more than patient.”

“I’d…hate…to see what agitated looked like,” Emilian managed to joke. He was having trouble finding which way was up again. “You’re better than this.”

“You don’t even know me,” Eir countered. Her anger was receding, leaving a knot she couldn’t pummel into submission. Watching the punch-drunk musketeer tightened it more, so she turned aside.

“I’m…usually such a…good judge of character,” he sighed and gave up standing to lie his cheek on the moist, stone floor.

“She is a monster,” Alize offered with academic authority, “this is what she does. She isn’t even human. She is a thing, a beast.”

“Did you kill her sister?” Emilian wondered with a drowsy gravel.

“I put down an animal,” Alize confessed, “nothing more.”

Emilian was almost snoring now. His words perhaps flowing from some dream muse beyond his normal verbosity.

“Then I guess…we’ll see if I’m trapped down here with one monster…or two. Don’t be a monster, Air.” The muse wasn’t perfect. His face ground into the soft moss and he went slack, breathing hoarsely.

A valkyrja’s temper can be a terrible thing; only rarely is it directed within. A minute later the hounds of South Paris bayed in chorus with a roaring rage that reverberated beneath the city streets.

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“Rattenfanger. I haven’t seen you in – what? Two hundred years?”

“Three hundred,” Ratten corrected. His fingers twitched at the instrument slung at his side. Tomoe continued to look confused.

“Of course I was just a young man at the time,” Alfred continued, the initial shock wearing off. He drawled on like he was meeting an old friend, but Tomoe noted the twitches at the corners of the old man’s eyes. The Vater was poised like an Iaijutsu practitioner, ready to strike – but with what?

“Ratten. Hameln, wasn’t that…?” Tomoe hinted, but Alfred picked up the trail.

“Yes, he killed all of our children. A mistake, of course,” Alfred nodded in apology, “but his greatest of mistakes. Sorcery always returns to bring harm, unless it is meticulously tended. As you taught me.”

That was my greatest mistake,” Ratten finally spoke, “I should never have taught you anything. I’ve seen what you’ve done Alfred. What the Order has done, with the addition of your talent. It’s not you.”

“You gave me the tools to protect myself, Rattenfanger. And then I expanded upon that to protect others, the same as you.”

“You didn’t want to be afraid of rats anymore…”

“Yes, but there was so much more in the world than rats, wasn’t there?” His words had begun to border on sermon. “I sacrificed everything to be strong enough so that there would never be another Hameln. But to discover what I was up against! Fiends, monsters. The Order needed greater direction. It was an easy choice to join, and now I lead.”

“The worst monsters work for you, Alfred. De La Valette -”

“Come, we both know that isn’t true. He can be a bit overzealous. Sometimes we become monsters to fight monsters, Rattenfanger. You recognize that as well as any other.”

“It was a mistake.” Ratten growled. Alfred tilted his head as if accepting the point for both sides.

“Ratten, we have to go.” Tomoe interjected. “We can’t have much more than a few minutes.”

Alfred arched his eyebrows and looked Tomoe over. “Not exactly what you seem, are you?” He pondered to himself, “Odd company, Rattenfanger. Why are you here?”

“Your dog stole something from me,” Tomoe told him. “Ratten, we need to go!”

“The Rattenfanger isn’t sure he can win this fight, my dear. And you don’t seem to have what is necessary to help.” Alfred offered calmly. Ratten tweaked at the observation. Tomoe fumed, her fists balling near to her sword. As soon as she got her Hoshi no Tama back… Her eyes faded orange at the imaginings.

Ratten went for the flute at his hip, but Alfred held his hand up. Tomoe expected some fell power or eldritch energy, but nothing came forth. “No,” the priest told them, smirking. “You aren’t my enemy, Rattenfanger. I still owe you for everything you did, so I will forgive this trespass and stay out of your business because I know you mean no harm. However,” Alfred’s countenance became stern, the wrinkles of his face as defined as carved stone, “that could change depending on your choices tonight. Please, I don’t know exactly what is going on, but just leave.” He walked forward and placed his hand on Ratten’s shoulder, gave one curt nod, and continued on down the hall. He disappeared around the corner a moment later.

It seemed Ratten didn’t exhale until the priest’s footsteps vanished completely. Without a word they began to run through the halls, returning to the hunt.

“Can you scent that damnable rodent?” Ratten asked Tomoe, who nodded her assent.

“Already on it. Who was that Ratten? Did you really teach the head of the Order?”

Ratten was pensive, but he nodded while trotting. “He was just a boy, searched for me weeks, months after Hameln. Wanted to be a ‘sorcerer like me,’ protect people from the rats.” Ratten hissed, “I was flattered. I didn’t recognize the absolute hunger; his lessons did not end after mine. He was obsessive, amazingly so.”

“Is he really that powerful?” Tomoe wondered, “Were you worried?”

“That was closer than I’d like to think, Tomoe. This will not work unless he keeps his word and stays out of things. Let’s just get to the portal. I’ll worry about the repercussions later.”

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The door to the gate room slammed open. A tiger sized rat reclined on its hind legs, trying to look sheepish.

“Oh, I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time?” the Rat God offered before the question came. “Really? No fight with the old apprentice, eh? Well, I warmed things up for you. And it really is quite a nightmare turning pages with these.” He danced the digits of his paws dejectedly.

“Out of the way!” Ratten snapped. The Rat God huffed about manners, but shuffled to the side shedding rats and growing smaller as he did. Ratten picked up the book and the vial of blood that rested on the floor beside it.

“You always were better at this sort of thing, Tomoe…” He admitted, tilting the book her way. Tomoe accepted the libram and fanned through the pages until she found the passage the Rat God had mentioned overhearing.

“Jean is here,” the Rat God let them know, licking at his forearms, “Thought that might be important. At the front entrance, looks rather angry.”

“I don’t think I can finish this in time,” Tomoe told Ratten. He nodded looking up amidst that balconies of the sanctuary, lost in thought.

“Give it your best try, then. This is our only shot.”

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Jean de La Valette dropped from his horse and scanned the periphery of the church for the soldiers he had left on duty. There was no movement near the old church, and silence reigned. A few shouts carried on the wind from other parts of the city, revelers and victims of crime.

“You two are with me. The rest of you search the building.”

If they were too late, Jean didn’t want to consider the potential consequences. But whatever happened, he would catch the culprits and write a symphony in their agony. Only by answering every slight with the utmost of force could one insure such behavior would not be repeated. These creatures must learn the Order could not be fought – only running and hiding would extend their lives.

He rushed inside, entourage at his side and headed straight for the gate room. Jean’s adrenaline was peaked, his heart racing at the thrill of the hunt. The walk took too long, but soon they were before the double doors. A slight push and they yielded on well oiled hinges. It appeared the deadbolt had been…gnawed away, the lock rendered useless.

Within, the room was still. The tapestry of the Ark billowed slowly at the door’s opening. Upon the floor, the Lesser Key of Solomon had been discarded carelessly. He stepped to it hesitantly and saw what he had most feared. A red stain marred the floor. Blood from where a portal must have been opened. A roar started in his throat that grew in volume until he bellowed at the ceiling. He had been made a fool. The other Maltans looked at him with dread, more afraid of him than concerned with what had transpired. It infuriated him all the more.

“Go! They might still be in the building. Don’t just stand there, look!”

They scrambled off like frightened children, eager to be away from the magician. Jean had little time for them. He drew a blade and cut his hand where his own blood-key resided. He had to find what they had taken, identify this threat. It soothed him to know that, even in such a rage his judgment was sound – research before action.

Jean rushed the Latin verses and flicked the welling blood from his hand. The liquid slowed in mid air and became a thin line as tall as him. With a gesture it wrenched open, revealing the cloudy-gray of the other realm. This time he did not balk at the sight – he had no time for such concerns, though the risk was great.

A peculiar, lilting sound began to suffuse the room, and Jean’s stomach lurched once again as if from a sudden fall. For a small instant his mind scrambled to determine what would make the portal behave in such fashion, before he realized the music emanated from elsewhere. He immediately tried to shut the gateway, but as he did the magical tune completed and the passage locked into place with a noise of rushing water. The blooded perimeter gyred and lashed like flames, refusing to obey his commands. The way through was held fast; he had been lured into an error, but one he would now correct. His prey didn’t realize the worst error had been their own.

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Ratten completed his music, forcing the portal open – at least for the time being. Jean reacted with preternatural alacrity, his bald head whipping around and pinpointing Tomoe and the bard. The lights of the room dimmed like a retreating tide. Jean’s hand still dripped blood through the crevices of his clenched fist. Where the gore fell, it pooled in the air like droplets of oil on water. He rubbed a bit across his eyelids with two fingertips, and mumbled a few words.

“You’re that thing from the Orient,” he stated flatly, “you seem less luminous than before. You.” He looked at Ratten. “You I don’t know.” He pulled the blade of a straight razor from one of his pockets and placed in between his lips, mouthing words out the corners. At the same time he clenched more of the blood from his hand. A faint tittering began, originating from everywhere at once. It was a wippoorwill’s cry, in alien, metal tangs.

“Tomoe, get ready to leave as soon as the Rat God finishes.” Ratten told her, gesturing her to move further across the balcony. She had drawn her sword and waited at a distance to provide spread targets. He brought the flute to his lips and began to play, his own music adding to a dissonant cacophony of sounds. Jean jerked spasmodically as the first notes brayed in challenge, but it was not the complete control that Ratten hoped. It did not interrupt the sorcerer’s work. Ratten choked a scream as small, rusted blades began to sprout from the skin of his arm. Red ran in ribbons as the blades snaked a path up his shoulder. He could feel others emerge from his back as well, burning and tearing. He fell to the floor of the overlook from the pain, but started a few clear, pure notes to try and hold back the damage. Behind the guard rail, the spell was slowed and the shards rusted away under the counter-magic as if aged a thousand years.

Tomoe saw Ratten’s plight and shouted a curse. She leapt from the balcony and landed in a roll which became a run. Jean turned, and smashed a small hourglass he produced from another fold of his tunic. The nogitsune hit the ground and skidded, choking on dry sand that trickled from her mouth and nose.

“Don’t die now. We have a lot to learn before the autopsy.” He chided, turning back to Ratten. The bard had managed to stand. While the damage was grim, it had been kept mostly superficial. Though it certainly didn’t feel that way. He began to play anew, a more forceful march. But once again the effect was negligible. Ratten wouldn’t yet risk his more dire music.

“I’ve seen your type before, however;” Jean announced through the barrage, “Just a demon in human form. It isn’t as important you stay alive.” Ratten was beginning to agree with Eir’s mode of thought. The constant talking was enough to push him over the edge.

As Jean began his next formula, the Rat God finally reemerged from the portal. De La Valette hadn’t noticed the miniaturized rodent slip in while he dealt with the others. His fur was matted and strangely translucent and he looked to be shivering, but the ball of stars tinkled and chimed as it rolled before him. Something else was dragged by the Rat God’s tail, but the deity scrambled away before Ratten could get a good look. At least the God of Rats had left the Hoshi no Tama behind.

Upon its emergence, the sand no longer clogged Tomoe’s throat and lungs. Her transformation was cast off with a flash and a rumble like thunder. When the brightness and sound dissipated, a mastiff-sized black fox remained. Her five tails waved behind her like charmed cobras.

“We’ve already tried this,” Jean told the newly minted nogitsune. He was blinking away the dazzle, but his lack of concern troubled Ratten. He tried to think of a plan while they bantered – this wasn’t supposed to have been so difficult. Ratten had been so confident that his music could hold Jean to a standstill after they got him to open the portal. He reminded himself for the hundredth or thousandth or millionth time not to be quite so arrogant in the future.“You know my wards are beyond you. Your magic can’t touch me, monster.”

“It won’t have to,” Tomoe informed him with cheery thought-voice. She tensed and her tails went straight as spears, arcing lighting like a volcano into the vaulted stone and wood of the sanctuary. Supports cracked and groaned, while mortar shattered into deadly projectiles. The whole ceiling began to collapse in a grand display of dust and debris. Tomoe grabbed the Hoshi no Tama in her muzzle and ran. As Jean futilely tried to dodge the rain, Ratten watched in a moment of destrudo jealousy before chasing after her. A final, deafening crash heralded their exit from the Order church.

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They had ridden Eir’s horse outside the city and waited for the others as planned. When no one showed up, they hid the stallion as best they could nearby and walked back to the inn on foot. In the room they found Emilian bandaged and asleep. A note from Eir rested by his side. It read:

‘I’m sorry, Ratten. Tell the kid I’m sorry too. He saved me a mistake. Alize is safe, a little worse for wear. Don’t worry, no one died.

I’ll find the horse.’

They searched for her for a time, but with nothing to go on gave up after a few hours. The Rat God was blessedly absent. They never discovered what he had pulled from the portal for himself. Tomoe and Ratten were simply glad he had decided to bring the ball of stars as well.

“Ouch, damn it!”

“You are such a baby,” Tomoe told Ratten, dabbing at his arm with whiskey drenched cloth.

“You didn’t get razor-stitches up your arm,”

“Excuse me? I was choking on sand. Sand! How disgusting.”

“You always did get the easy stuff,” Ratten teased her. She ground the rag into one of the cuts causing him to spasm.

“It was fun though, wasn’t it?” Tomoe sighed, “It’s been a while since, well. Since we had any adventure like that.” Ratten looked at her with disbelief.

“Only you would think that was fun.”

“You know it was.” She set the cloth aside and went to the nightstand to retrieve the bandages. “Your plan was grand – subterfuge, trickery – using Jean against himself is a bit of an overdone flourish, but dropping the heavens on him was worth it.”

“That was a fine piece of work. But there is no way that killed him,” Ratten worried aloud. Tomoe huffed.

“Well we didn’t want any deaths anyway. All in all a perfect result. Whatever, I don’t care what you think. It was an amazing diversion and we set aside our differences. I’m glad I sold my Hoshi no Tama, well worth the trouble.”

Ratten sat up like he had been bit. “Wait, sold? I thought you said…”

Tomoe turned about on her heel, a fake look of confusion on her face. “Sold? I meant gave away. To a…desperate fisherman?”

“It was a rice farmer,” Ratten corrected, letting his exasperation ooze. “You did not plan this.”

“Don’t be absurd, Ratten – I never expected that animal to put my Hoshi no Tama in some alternate world.”

“You know that doesn’t answer -”

Emilian finally awoke with a start.

“I’m sorry Lady Tomoe, but your friend is insane.” Were his first words. Ratten could tell, in this case, Emilian was only playing at dumb. He knew something had gone wrong, that he had likely been pulled into an enterprise not quite on the up and up. But he was going to own it. He hadn’t been exactly forced, but maybe he was fishing for an apology. Ratten felt guilty for what had happened. He had miscalculated how volatile Eir was.

“That’s fine, Emilian,” Tomoe said, smiling sadly, “We’re sorry for what happened.”

“Just did my – eep pain! – duty.”

“If I had my guess you did a lot more than that, Emilian.” Tomoe complimented.

“Yeah, you did a good thing,” Ratten admitted. They considered each other, Ratten with a new respect for the bruised musketeer. He offered his hand and they shook. Emilian looked at his own finger suspiciously.

“That’s not my ring,” he wondered. A solid gold band had been fitted to his middle finger. He brought it close to his face and examined it with one eye. “It says strrkrrrrrr – seeg roon.” Emilian pronounced it like he was sneezing.

Tomoe looked confused, but Ratten sighed and pulled the ring and hand to him. “Styrkr, it’s pronounced ‘steer-ker’. It means ‘strength’ in Norse. The second part is a name. Sigrún. That’s a very valuable ring Eir gave you,” Ratten informed, “I doubt it makes up for what happened, but she must be very grateful.”

“I didn’t think she was a monster, not if she was your friend Lady Tomoe.” The irony of the statement was of course lost on him.

“Emilian,” Tomoe told him, “the room is rented for another week. Please take your time and get better. The two of us have our places to be.”

“I wish I could say it had all been a pleasure,” the musketeer said, “but you are a joy, mon cher.”

They exchanged goodbyes and Ratten and Tomoe made their way out of the inn.

“Do you think it’s safe to leave him with Rhinegold?” Tomoe asked. Ratten shrugged.

“He earned it. It’s just another mistake in a litany, anyway.”

“Thank you, Ratten. Things didn’t exactly go as expected. It became too dangerous; I didn’t think I could be reduced like that.” Tomoe said.

“Hopefully more tails will bring more wisdom. Besides, it’s your nature. In the end I always liked it.” Ratten brushed his hand against hers and remembered old times. But they weren’t coming back. He would drift again. Not all things could be repaired complete. “There is one thing you could do for me,” He began. “If I come to Nippon, in the next century or two. I have an illusion I want help with. I’ve been thinking about it for some time now.”

“I’ll try, Ratten,” Tomoe agreed. “Of course. What is it?”

“Give it some time. I’ll tell you more later.”

Something about his voice troubled Tomoe. She held his hand briefly, seeming sad, and then bid him farewell. The Rattenfanger stayed in the city a few days. Long enough to hear of the ceremony to honor Emiliard Gaspard d’Orleans for his heroic rescue of a member of the Order of Malta. Then he moved on, to wander once again as he always did.

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