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Quick, wash out the blood! [closed]

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The witch turned his cup over in her hands, inspecting it with the kind of careful attention one might might pay a rare gem. She did this for a long time, her features set into a firm, cool mask as she searched for... something. Anything. But no matter which way she looked at it, there was nothing there; nothing that would tell her anything about Jericho at least. She'd encountered this before, though it was exceptionally rare (and remarkably frustrating). People, rather people like him (them), did not act with purpose and avoid fate altogether. It just..it wasn't done! Try as she might, she couldn't wrap her mind around it.

Enid picked up her own cup and began comparing the two, tilting them this way and that (she'd considered pouring him another cup just to try again, to be sure) until something clicked. Her head was tilted far to one side as she peered up into his teacup at an unusual angle. A picture was finally forming in the amorphous blob of wet leaves sticking to the sides of the receptacle, but it wasn't what she'd been looking for. It wasn't even his fortune exactly.

“Odd.” she said. She hated to admit it aloud, but there was no other word for it, and it was the only way she could think to describe him at this point. She set her own cup aside and tilted his so that they could both see into it. “It's as though someone else drank from this cup. You see?” she pointed to the inside where the leaves had spread in a sort-of wide circle, leaving the center empty. Everything worth looking at was caked on the sides. “There are snakes slithering along the walls,” she gestured to a clump of residue that might be considered somewhat squiggly, but was otherwise unspecific in shape, “Symbols of treachery and deceit. They seem to be the targets you spoke of, but they're too entangled for me to see their number. There is a dagger cutting through one.. This is meant to be aid from a friend? It's so unusual, I can't be certain. They're encircling something I can't quite make out.”

Enid raised the cup and angled it toward the lamp light. “A flowering shape, though it seems to be wilting. It's-” She felt her breath catch in her throat as the picture came into focus. Belladonna was normally an endearing symbol of hope and resilience, but if wilted, as it appeared to her now, that hope was fading fast. She set the cup slowly on the table, so delicately that it barely made a ceramic click against the wood. She'd suspected something especially foul when Jericho described the trucks as carrying 'living cargo', but knowing something and really understanding it were two very different things. “Whoever they are, they've lost hope. Their only friend in this pit of snakes is this one dagger...you, presumably. But it does not make sense to me when you should be here.” She pointed to the empty bottom of the cup, as if to emphasize her point. “If you are removed from fate, as I suspect you are -which is terribly frustrating, so you are aware-, then I shouldn't be seeing you in this cup at all. Unless the dagger is someone else..” she paused again before reaching for her own teacup to inspect it again.

To speak truthfully, Enid's leaves showed nothing resembling a dagger, nor did it show any snakes or wilting flowers. What it did show was largely irrelevant to what she'd decided to do in that moment. “Perhaps I am fated to help you in this task.” She most certainly was not.

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As Enid inspected the contents of his cup, Jericho inspected the contents of Enid's expression and posture. Jericho was an alien to this world, and to its varied cultures, but that was his lot – he had been a stranger in strange lands since the moment he gained the means to travel across the many faces of reality.

To date, Jericho has assimilated into hundreds of different cultures. But his great breadth of experience deepened the well of knowledge, multiplied the flexibility of perspective, and sharpened the focus of insight; there were many things about Enid he didn't know and never would, but what little she showed him allowed Jericho to see the frustration on her face and the engine which drove it.

All of that frustration was at the cup – none at him. None of her doubt or suspicion leaned violent, and precious little surrounded him. She was frustrated and curious and skeptical, and still invited him into her parlor to share a cup of tea, made clear her intention to read his leaves, and had helped to refine his battle tactics.

Is this what destiny looked like when you were immersed in its fishbowl?

"You're right. It's odd. Supposed to be that way, in case anyone comes looking for me. In case I leave something behind at a hostel, or on the road. If someone wants to hex me they're going to have to look me in the eyes to do it."

In so many words, and attempting to derail as little as possible in his explanation, Jericho admitted that the inability to read him was the result of deliberate action. This revealed to Enid a certain proficiency with abjuration, perhaps the single largest piece of information Jericho had exposed in present company.

Enid proceeded to diagram the symbols – in reaction Jericho sat up in the chair, pressed his back to its back, and closed his eyes. She was talking symbols now, and Jericho handled the abstraction of sumbols better when he could project them against the void canvas of his mind instead of the ordered matrix of physical reality.

" . . . to help you in this task."

"I see it. I see everything you've said now you've said it. The snakes, the circle – the snake that eats its own tail is not immortal, but deranged, and will see itself destroyed. We take the dagger and separate the snake from its head; we break the circle and the flower of hope will be free to blossom."

He opened his eyes and leaned forward, grasping the pot to pour water into his cup, waiting just long enough to be stopped if Enid saw it fit to do so, and pouring into a new cup if so.

"I'll tell you who they are, and then you tell me if it moves the needle of your fate or not . . . they're slaves. Some are debtors, or the families of debtors. Some are simply the victims of organized crime, abducted from their homes, from the streets. Some are old, some are young. None are free. None owe their life to another.

"In my lifetime I won't see the end of slavery, not as I would like. There are too many shadows for filth to hide in. But in my lifetime, by my hands, I will see the institution brought low. The machinery corrupted. The infrastructure turned to rubble. The men and women who have profited and glutted from the misery of others made to pay back every ounce of that suffering. It is my fate to fight evil until I die . . . which, I'm aware doesn't sound very fun. Changing the world rarely is."

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“............”

It should be made clear that while Enid was certainly posturing some of her thoughts and feelings, her general method of expression was not an expression. Apart from knitting her brow in thought and offering him a single smile that had long since faded, her mask did not differ greatly from his throughout the course of their conversation. If he saw something in her face, then he was projecting it there to meet his own expectations. She was frustrated, certainly, but she hadn't emoted it so much as just said it outright. That said, the forward shift in her shoulders as she rested her elbows on the table and the tilt of her head were enough to suggest something like apprehension as he spoke. She didn't much care for speeches.

“You do not need to explain them to me. A shipment of 'living cargo' does not usually present the possibility of armed guards unless they are prisoners. I admit I did not know what kind, but thieves and murderers do not usually appear to me as wilting flowers.” Besides that, she wasn't asking. The readings were meant to guide her decisions, but apart from that, she was content with secrecy. After all, if he was there, then she had what he needed, and it was as simple as that. She didn't mean that as an empty slogan when she'd said it.

Then again, Enid very (very) rarely offered to assist a client directly. That did change things a bit, didn't it?

She hadn't stopped him from pouring himself another cup of tea. In fact, she pushed her own cup across the table somewhat absently for him to fill as well. And after a while she reached into a discrete pocket on her witch's garb and pulled out a small notepad. She fished around in an opposite pocket for something to no avail before abandoning it to stick her hand into the valley between her cushion and chair. “Ah!” she exclaimed in a sort of flat tone. She bent over the table and began to scrawl a list accompanied by various figures. “Let us see... You will need two Hands of Glory, both modified to specification. Then there's the reading, the price of tea, consultation, and..” She slid the pad of paper cross to him. The last item on the list was 'Changing the world and/or fate', which came at a greater cost than everything else combined. Three times that, in fact. But before Jericho could speak on the matter, Enid raised a finger to interject with a caveat.

“This,” she indicated of all items but the last, “Is what I am asking now, before offering my assistance. And this,” she pointed to the large number at the bottom of the paper, “I will divide by half for every person that is freed by our effort, and due upon its completion.” She presented the offer as though the pricing scheme was perfectly standard, but nothing about the transaction was usual. “If these terms are agreeable, then we have a contract.”

The witch extended her hand across the table, awaiting his questions and inevitable answer in silence.

 

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Jericho pinched one corner of the bill and lifted it from the desk, held it in one hand while he poured water into Enid's cup with the other. The side-to-side motion of his eyes was both swift and sure, pausing only when he got to the anomaly at the very end of the chit. Enid anticipated his intrigue, pre-empting him, answering his question before he had a chance to ask it.

"I gotta say, I sure like the way you run business. It's a deal."

Jericho reached behind him, into the space between his overalls and his canary yellow button up. He kept a pouch there, one which dexterous fingers deftly pried open and soon his hand came back into public view holding a small sheaf of notes. He thumbed through it with one hand, counting them up, and peeled off half the bundle, sliding it across the table to Enid and placing the remainder back in its pouch.

"If you don't take Alterion notes I can get my hands on some Terran gold, it'll just take me a little while."

Regardless of her desired form of currency, the deal as it stood was an appealing one, so Jericho sought to make the deal concrete – he reached across the table, took Enid's hand in his own, and shook on it, so that however informal it may be, there now existed an agreement between them.

# # #

They were far removed now from Enid's shop, far removed from the village of Minaiki in which Jericho had first made her acquaintance.

Jericho and Enid were just off a main road, obscured by nature.

One end of it led towards the birthplace of the First Rebellion and the High Masons; they could see Izral's mightiest tower punching through low-hanging clouds and cresting into the sky. The other end of the road led to kimpusen-ji, the village of iron bamboo, known for its dark arts and home to a nationally renowned death squad. Jericho knew that the convoy coming from kimpusen-ji to Izral was full of slave chattel, and doubted very much that any of them were natives to either city, speculated that the people of the iron bamboo were merely the enforcing arm of the spider which wove its webs out of Izral.

"They'll be along here in," He looked up at the sky; unable to see through the canopy of the tree-made overpass they currently occupied, he settled for the bars of light he could catch slanting through the occasional gap. "Half an hour. Maybe less."

Turning to Enid, he quickly reviewed the changes to their plan.

"I couldn’t get 'em in an open field like I wanted but that ain't so bad. Gave us something to block the road with that shouldn't arouse too much suspicion."

Jericho motioned with a nod of his head at the tree blocking the road, singed and cracked at the base so that one was left with the impression lightning had struck it down some time ago.

"The trees should keep 'em contained, keep 'em out of sight. Any signal flare types oughta get intercepted by the branches. It'll be tighter though. Easier for 'em to duck around and hide in the Glory perimeter, more materials for their casters to work with . . ."

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The day was bright enough, but from their vantage point beneath the trees it may as well have been overcast. Enid milled about the side of the road to assess his handiwork (the tree) from a safe distance while Jericho talked through the details that crossed his consciousness as they waited. True to form, the witch wore black from the tip of her pointed hat to the toes of her polished boots. If one looked close enough they might catch the flowery shapes delicately embroidered into the fabric of her coat; they matched the hellebore blooming around the band of her conical crown. She was as much a part of the thicket as the shadows under such dense branches. She nodded to his words as she paced back and forth in the brush, rattling something in her right palm that clacked like popping knuckles.

“The advantage of cover goes both ways.” she replied, “I would choose the safety of wood and branch over an open field any day.” Suffice it to say, she was in her element.

A drawstring bag hung loosely at Enid's hip, rolling side to side as she walked parallel to the road one way and back again. “The Hands of Glory should immobilize up to ten of them so long as each wick remains burning within the bounds of the circle.” she continued, gesturing to the pouch where she carried her half of the gruesome set. Jericho had the other. After making some adjustments, adding a wick to the end of each finger and carving the symbol of a snake into either palm, Enid had tailored both hands to serve their purpose without affecting the people they were meant to save (she hoped). Of course they'd been through these details before, but their anticipation was wasted on silence. Enid couldn't be sure if Jericho (damned if she still couldn't spot a good and proper name for him) was the type to get anxious if left to his own thoughts, but she certainly was, even if her face didn't show it. (The pacing had said it well enough.) “They might not ensnare a full ten,” she said, tossing the clacking bits, sheep knuckles, into the air a ways and catching them again in her palm, “but the outlook is favorable.”

She stepped a little deeper into the thicket off the side of the road, considering the dense trees as they obscured the landscape before them. “Tell me again what our escape route is?” Another detail they'd been over a few times before, but clarity helped the witch to focus.

The knuckles went into the air again, each successive toss coming at a shorter interval than the last. And each time they settled in her palm they seemed to weigh her arm down with an invisible heft. She was inspecting them casually, but with with purpose, until finally they settled in a way that gave Enid a moment's pause. “They're fast approaching..” she said as she tucked the old bones into a coat pocket. She turned about, looking to him for confirmation, as he'd been peering down the road.

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Jericho took final inventory of everything on his person. Most notable were his sword, green-tinted spectacles which now rested on his brow, and his own pouch, one which he kept conspicuously empty alongside another just like it, in which he kept the Hand.

"When this is over, those drivers are either gonna be lame or dead. How far it goes is really up to them and how much they wanna die for a paycheck but you never know. Them outta the way leaves their trucks behind, in decent enough condition I'm hoping. I'm also kind of counting on a few of the slaves being able to drive the trucks too but if they can't, I have a plan for that too. We turn 'em around and head to a rendezvous I got with some affiliates. Then I come back to Izral and try to cut the head of the snake."

Jericho left it at that. He extended his legs as if coming to a stand but instead lofted through the air for several meters. Observation of his movement confirmed he was not flying. Jericho landed on a trunk and lofted again towards a dirt road. His proficiency in moving through the tight space of the forest explained his advantage in this setting.

He landed without grace, skidding along the road and kicking up a telltale plume of dust. The sloppy landing gave away Jericho's position and put the drivers on their guard. More important than either of those two details was the fact that his tactic drew attention to him, to the lone mand standing in the middle of the road with a sword embedded in the earth before him, well out of reach. Towards him, and away from the obscured delineation of the giant circle which defined the threshold, the limits of their Glory, and into which the trucks now drove before coming to a still.

A lone truck from the middle of the pack continues to pull closer to Jericho. It moves to the lead, stops. Two men get out, leaving one behind the wheel. With just that, knowing there was at least one guard with chattel to keep them from organizing, Jericho knew that plans had changed. All other aspects of the information were accurate; the right number and type of trucks, their formation, their timing. But they had brought more men.

Jericho's hands were already behind his back, projecting the deceptive posture of benign curiosity. His hands were working the firestarter, lighting the individual wicks, then swinging the Hand out in front of him while jerking his hand down in a sharp nod. This brought the glasses down onto the bridge of his nose, and their reflective surfaces caught and threw the light from the Hand – the lone man who had come to screen him was now screaming as part of him turned to stone, and the man behind the wheel didn't move at all, held in place by the Hand.

This left only the third guard, a woman whose hulking physique suggested brawler but whose poised wand screamed otherwise.

The fight for their lives was on.

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Even severed from its body, the head of a snake would still bite, she thought. But there was little time to wonder at what the future held beyond that moment as her companion literally sprang into action. Did he just.. float away, she wondered momentarily? It seemed unlikely, as he stuck the landing about as well as a bat running aground (but that was the point, wasn't it?). When the dust settled over the old dirt road the witch had vanished from her previous vantage point, presumably into the thick of the woods.

Three of four trucks rolled to an easy stop before the peculiar person standing before the block in the road, though the last in line seemed surprised at the sudden change of pace. Unable to see beyond those in front, initially at least, it skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding a (very low impact) collision. It was then, when everyone was neatly gathered in their clever and exceptionally large ring, that the Spring witch stepped in to flank them at the other end of the road. Her Hand of Glory, the left as it were, was already alight when she stepped into the bounds of the circle. She held it aloft in her right hand while the other brandished an especially pointed wand with a hilt formed from leaves and little vines. It looked more suited to stabbing than casting spells, and her posture wielding it suggested much the same.

It seemed to Enid that the air had gone still and acrid when the trucks arrived, each crossing the threshold of the circle just as they'd planned. Part of it was the severed hand burning at the fingers in her grasp (the wax was beginning to drip away from the long-dead flesh), but was more a feeling than a scent. Her view of Jericho was skewed by the vehicles, though she could see something, or someone moving toward him from her obscured vantage. She couldn't even tell how many of them were affected by the charm, though at least one truck seemed to have gone perfectly still within. Others were beginning to exit their cars, most of them so focused on Jericho that they didn't even register the presence behind the last trailer as she approached. But at least one caught her reflection in the mirror.

The last truck stirred, rolling backwards toward the witch, clearly intent on increasing its speed, though such a task wasn't easy for a large vehicle. It would have been easy enough to step out of the way, but moving aside and allowing them to drive drive back the way they came with their human cargo wasn't really an option. Flipping the point of her wand downward in her grasp, Enid fell to one knee and stabbed her her wand deep into the dirt. As she did, thick, prickly vines sprouted up from the ground beneath the rolling wheels, gripping, coiling, snapping and pulling at them until they were thoroughly entangled and tethered to the spot. With little choice left, the passenger door flung open and a deceivingly petite frame hopped down from the cab and began reaching for something concealed in their coat.

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The woman took aim; a bright emerald vector sprang from the tip of her wand and sizzled the air with its acrid aura, glancing the mobile Jericho's left shoulder as the man sidled, positioning a man-turned-stone between him and his assailant. The ray of acid devoured the fabric of his short and peeled away the top layer of his skin, exposing the bleeding muscle underneath, which let run crimson rivulets down his arm to soak into the canary yellow of his sleeve.

The woman's second attack took longer, because she was charging the wand up, off-emerald light shedding from the small array of crystals along the length of her wand, increasing in lambency as the seconds wiled away and she took aim for the second time, paying no mind to the statue, knowing that her acid ray would punch a hole clean through it when unleashed.

Jericho had his own tactic to deploy in the meantime. Forming a ring with his thumb and pointer finger while his hand hovered near his waist, bringing that ring up to his mouth left a greasy, pearlescent ribbon in the wake of its movement. When the ring poised itself in front of his lips the pearl ribbon filled the circle; Jericho pursed his lips, blew, and gave breath to an expanding, shimmering bubble, one which retained cohesion even as it grew to a size just shy of a man's torso directly between him and the statue.

Her ray struck the statue, paused for just one second while it ate away the petrified flesh, bore a hole through which admitted the ray out of the other side and into Jericho. There it met his bubble. Popped it. From the contained space now unleashed there came a swarm of black motes, spreading out, obscuring Jericho before flooding forward. They moved like living things, jagged and aggressive like wasps or hornets, but keen inspection revealed the individual objects to be letters. Runes, more precisely. Lofting and lilting and squirming runes. Where one touched there followed a minor explosion. Where a dozen touched was enough to batter and bruise. Hundreds upon hundreds of these things now flooded towards the woman.

And Jericho?

Jericho was on high. He was rising through the forest canopy, through the sky above it, as if flung by a giant, now cresting two stories and then three and then becoming a pinpoint against the firmament.

His swarm having sacrifices enough exploding runes to render the woman concussed, sprawled on the ground and looking all about her as if drunk, they moved on to address the nearest mobile target. Two runners, whose specific purpose was to break off from the main body in the event of being attacked and reporting it to the larger criminal body which owned them all, found themselves in the midst of panic when they realized that the perimeter which encapsulated them all may have been invisible, but it was not intangible; a curved wall of force hemmed them in on all sides, admitting entrance and exit only from above.

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