Prologue - Keep On Praying
Agent Salamander opened one eye cautiously, but saw only darkness. He didn't know where he was or how he'd got there, although the pounding headache and half-remembered noise behind him just before he lost consciousness pointed strongly to 'kidnap'. He knew there hadn't been anything in the Words that might lead to it, which implied... what? He knew his partner wouldn't have done this – Kayleigh might be insane, but she was more prone to random sunbathing than violence – and there were hardly going to be any other teams in the Story, so... freelancers? He'd heard about that sort of thing, but had never really taken the prospect seriously
I'm sorry, Agent, I don't know your name.
Sal relaxed. Whatever had happened, it was obviously over. That was a Flower, which meant he was home and safe, even if he didn't recognise the specific voice. "Salamander, sir. Department of – ow – Bad Slash. What..." He coughed, feeling several gaps in his teeth. "What happened?"
That's a very good question. The answer, I'm afraid, is: We did.
Salamander frowned. "Sir?"
Nendil, the Flower said, again.
Salamander opened his mouth to ask What? but was prevented by a foot impacting with his stomach. He tried to roll with the hit, but definitely felt something give. He groaned, curling up, but that only brought his arm into Nendil's range. A heavy boot slammed down on his wrist, which shattered with a sickening crack. Salamander whimpered in pain, pulling the damaged limb to him, and waited for the next blow.
It never came. Instead, a cheerful voice – a woman's – asked, "My turn, sir?"
No, not yet, the Flower – whatever it was – replied. Be a dear and open the curtains, though.
Apparently she did, as Salamander's eyes – closed though they were against the pain – were hit by dazzling light. As he waited for them to adjust, he tried to surreptitiously shift his wrist to a slightly more comfortable position; it didn't work, and he decided, in a blurry sort of way, that there wasn't really much you could do to make broken bones comfortable. When he thought his eyes were ready, he opened them again.
What he saw was mostly feet. The closest two were clad in heavy boots, one of which seemed to be bloodstained, and Salamander realised with a sinking feeling that it was his blood, the same blood that formed a sticky pool around him. There were several other pairs, wearing a range of different shoes, but the only moving set were bare, delicate, and walking towards what seemed to be a desk.
Oh, do turn him over, Nendil, the Flower – but could it really be a Flower, ordering things like this? – said. One of the boots swung forward, and Sal flinched away. He didn't flinch far enough, however, and what felt like a steel toecap hit his left shoulder, rolling him over onto his back and, from the feel of it, dislocating the shoulder. Salamander winced, but made no sound, and managed to blink away the tears in order to see his captors.
Standing over him, the owner of the boots – Nendil – was a tall, black-haired elf with hard grey eyes. Noldo, Sal thought, and, with deadly certainty, Kinslayer. He made Salamander shiver just to look at him, although part of that was certainly down to his actions – Sal had never much liked people who injured him. Despite – or perhaps because of – the obvious danger Nendil presented, Salamander's gaze was drawn away to the pair at the desk. The bare feet belonged to a dark-haired woman who looked to be in her late twenties, with startlingly blue eyes and a disturbingly innocent smile. Her attention was focussed on the occupant of the desk, which appeared to be a large white fungus of some sort.
He's boring me, the Fungus said. Nen-
"No!" Salamander exclaimed as the elf lifted a foot. "Sir, please!" The effort shifted something in his chest, and he gasped at the pain.
All right. Nendil lowered his foot again, not showing any sign of his feelings on the matter.
"Thank you, sir," Salamander babbled. "I promise you-"
Don't bore me again, Agent, the Fungus interrupted. Do you know who we are?
Sal blinked, stopping short. The group were clad in black, save for their silver sashes, and were led by a Plant, but he didn't know of any department which used a cat as its flashpatch. He also didn't know of any department which kidnapped and beat their fellow Agents, but you heard some strange things about DAVD when you worked in Bad Slash, or especially when your partner was Kayleigh. Something in their attitude reminded him of what little he'd seen of the DIA, but they didn't have an emblem at all, and anyway, they didn't torture.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said at last, "I don't. Er... should I?"
"Not if we're doing our job right," a high-pitched voice called behind another of the figures, and a small glowing dot darted up to the ceiling before dropping down to the desk. It was a fairy, Salamander saw with some surprise, and the others seemed to be leaning away from it. "No one's got away that I know of."
"Hush, Flicks," said Nendil in a surprisingly gentle voice. "He might have been around before we left, after all."
"No, I'm new," said Salamander absently, and then, "Left? I didn't know anyone had left..." He trailed off with a wince as his shoulder protested again.
"Then you weren't paying attention," the fairy – Flicks – snapped. "Even we know that Thorntree and that partner of hers are gone."
"No, yes, but..." Sal tried to clear his mind, and succeeded in part. "I meant, a group. Like you."
It was years ago, the Fungus said with deliberate vagueness. Now that we're on the subject, though, how are our old... friends?
"I'm sorry," Salamander replied warily, "like I said, I'm new. I don't know who was around so long ago."
Oh, no need to get into specifics, the Fungus said airily. Just general background. For example, how are the Agents these days?
Salamander tried to wave his hand in a dismissive gesture, but found himself occupied with screaming over his forgotten, shattered forearm. As soon as he could see straight and breathe again, he managed to say, "The same as usual. Overworked, not paid."
I see. Well, we wouldn't have stood for that, needless to say. Everyone was well paid when we were there.
Sal raised an eyebrow. "You must have been gone a long time," he commented, forgetting both pain and peril in his astonishment.
Yes, well. What of the Sunflower Official? He's still in charge, I suppose.
"In charge?" Salamander shook his head very slightly. "I read this in the Handbook. There's a Board, a committee of some kind. He's on it, but he's not in charge."
Nendil looked at him, startled. "The PPC is a... democracy now?" He didn't bother to restrain the disgust in his face or voice.
"Um. Not really." Salamander considered shrugging, but decided against it. "I don't know, really. The Board runs things, but..."
"Ah, he doesn't know anything!" Flicks exclaimed. "You should have picked someone older, Twp."
"The older ones are all too good," replied a man-sized rodent which seemed to have lost an eye in some accident. "They've got better since we left."
Well, said the Fungus, cutting off any reply the fairy might have made, it seems that our guest has outlived what usefulness he had.
Salamander looked up in shock, the pain of his injuries – and the memory of their callous infliction – rushing back into his mind. "Sir!" he protested weakly, clutching at his hand.
I suppose he has been marginally helpful, the Fungus admitted. Have your fun, Ontic, but... let him live.
Sal opened his mouth to protest again, but the barefoot woman skipped over and had a hand over his mouth before he could utter a sound. She grinned down at his terrified face. "We're going to have such fun together," she whispered, and lifted her knife.
On to Part 2
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