CHAPTER 25

"No, no please! Don't do this!"

Spark flashed as it flew from Nick's sword belt and into his hand. The fire mage stepped forward, the air around him becoming incredibly hot. Fire crackled to life around his head, tiny flickering sparks that danced near his long, unruly hair. "He won't get away with this."

Kim's hand came down hard on his shoulder. "Don't be an idiot!"

The man in the black waistcoat sneered down at the shopkeeper. "You owe my employer a substantial sum, and he wants it now."

"I… I don't have the money!" the shopkeeper wailed. "Business has been slow! Please, take any of my stock, and I'll have the money in two weeks!"

"Two weeks just isn't good enough," the man sighed. He snapped his fingers at one of the men looming behind him. "It's such a shame the water shifters of the Voltaria Family weren't around to put out that unfortunate fire."

"What… what are you talking about?"

With a nod from the man in the black coat, the henchman stepped forward and rubbed his palms together. He took a deep breath in, and when he exhaled, he created a fire that raged along the shopkeeper's stall, setting it ablaze in an instant. The man in black seized the shopkeeper's collar and hauled him out of the stall. Using strength that could only have been brought on by earth crafting, he hurled the man across the street and into the wall of a building. He strode across the conspicuously silent marketplace and picked the man up.

"That was your only warning," he growled. "If you ever cross the Voltaria Family again, it will be your life."

The terrified man gulped and nodded. The man in black scoffed and turned away, striding unmolested down the thoroughfare. Nick whirled on Kim. "Why did you hold me back? That man just lost his livelihood! We could have saved him!"

"Did you forget?" the Chosen of Mana hissed. "We're trying to keep a low profile here. Dispensing vigilante justice left and right is definitely not what we want to do."

"So we're just going to let those bastards get away with what they did?" Nick snapped, shrugging off Kim's hand. He pulled Dancer from his belt as well and made to shove through the now-bustling crowd.

"Stop," Kim commanded, and Nick found he had no choice but to obey. The general lowered her voice. "Of course I'm not going to let them get away. But we can't call them out in the middle of the street." She pulled Anna away from haggling for a bushel of apples and tugged her along.

Nick scanned the marketplace, looking for the other members of their company. They had all come from their separate boardinghouses to meet up and exchange notes on Domines in a forum that would throw off any suspicion. "Should we look for Seth? Maybe Michael?"

"Not enough time," Kim replied. "We've got to act fast."

Anna nodded. "All right. Did you see where they went?"

Kim scanned the crowds of people. "Not really. I'm trying to track their mana signature, but with so many people milling around, it's hard. I know they went this way. Just follow me." They had shoved their way through the press to a point some distance up the street when Kim suddenly tensed and stared at an alleyway. "Got them. Come on."

Nick twirled his knives and rolled his shoulders back. "I don't know about you two, but I've been itching for a fight lately. And we can't let ourselves get rusty, now can we?"

Anna chuckled. "Now that would be a tragedy."

Kim closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, telekinetically feeling anything that could be used as a weapon. She levitated a small stone and launched it at a point behind the three mana signatures loitering in the dark alley. It made a pinging noise as it bounced off the walls and back to the ground, and the men turned towards it.

"You're on," she murmured to Nick. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Nick was sprinting into the shadows. From the darkness, there was a savage roar, and three bright bursts of brilliant flame. Shadows writhed behind the blaze, though Anna could not quite make out what it was.

"He's to the left, you idiot!" the man in black shouted.

There was another burst of fire that shot up and struck one of the brick walls. "Is that the best you can do?" Nick intoned. "Gods, you'd think you had never fought another fire mage before."

There was a strangled cry and a dull thud, and one of the mana signatures died out. Something rumbled in the dark alley, and Nick cried out. "Go," Kim snapped, channeling her power. Anna nodded and conjured tendrils of water from moisture in the damp city air. Kim followed the water shifter into the alley, allowing Anna to take point. The second lackey jumped at her, only to be sliced by water that flowed so fast and fine that it cut like a razor. Anna's hands moved in lightning-quick motions, the water drawing a lattice-work of red over the man's chest.

"That's enough," Kim commanded. "I want him alive."

"Mercy? Don't be stupid!" the man growled, coming at them again. Kim sighed and ducked under the clumsy punch, wincing at the smell of liquor on his breath. She tapped a finger to his forehead, and the man fell back with an agonized cry, his mind overloaded with conflicting signals of panic and pain. He ran headfirst into one of the walls and collapsed in a heap.

"The man in black is up there," Kim said. "I think he's got Nick's leg in some kind of stone construct. When I make my move, hit him from the right. But remember, I want him alive."

"I'll try to keep that in mind."

"That's not a request, Commodore Anyarana. That's an order."

The water shifter swallowed. "Aye aye, your generalship."

"That's what I like to hear." Kim swept her hand to the left, seizing a large barrel in her telekinetic hold and hurling it at the man in black. To his credit, the Triad enforcer had incredible reflexes. His fist shot out and shattered the damp wood.

However, he did not have time to focus on Anna raising up a torrent of the sewage that ran down the sides of the streets of Domines and deluging him in a spray. The force of the water drove the man in black up against the far wall, coughing and spluttering. Anna released the torrent when the man collapsed, gasping for breath and trying in vain to wipe the refuse from his now less-than-impressive cloak.

Nick leaned back against the wall he had been pinned against, his right leg encased in a tight sheath of rock. He took a deep breath and ignited the air around his foot, superheating the stone and shattering the slate with a sharp jerk of his leg. Anna caught him as he staggered forward, slightly off balance.

"Why didn't you do that earlier?" the water shifter asked.

"Kim told me not to," Nick replied, tapping his forehead to indicate that she had used telepathy. "Said I needed to keep his attention on me so you two could get into position. Plus…" He grimaced as his weight fell onto his right leg, and he lifted the hem of his trousers to reveal several raw gashes. "The rock was jagged, and it was safer for me to just stay put."

Kim nodded brusquely, striding towards the fallen man. "Anna, see to that. I've got an idea, and I need to ask this bastard a few questions."

Anna pulled water from the air, focusing to make sure that it was free of anything that would make the wound fester. She placed her hands over Nick's calf and focused, willing the water into the cuts to speed along the fire mage's natural healing process. Nick winced at the slight pain, but knew that meant it was working. The blood coagulated and stopped flowing, and the dirt was washed from the wound. The angry red welts lightened in color, and they grew slightly smaller. Anna took a deep breath and ended the manipulation.

"Can you walk?"

Nick stood up slowly and tested the leg. "If I'm careful, yes."

"Good. I don't want to try anything more until I can get some water I'm sure is clean. I'll boil some when we get back to the boardinghouse."

The man in black screamed in pain. Nick and Anna whirled to see Kim with her index fingers on the man's temples, her golden mana signature flaring to life around her.

"I said, tell me who your employers are, and where I can find them."

"I'm not telling you anything," the man gasped, his chest rapidly rising and falling.

"You don't have to," Kim answered evenly. "I can wrench the information I need, but I must admit that I'm not very good at it. I lack a certain finesse, and odds are good that if I don't kill you trying to get it, it will leave you unconscious for a very long time. It will also be incredibly painful. So, you can tell me what I wish to know now, or let me find it for myself. The choice is yours… for the moment."

The man shook his head. "No. No, you can't do this!"

Kim tightened her grip on the man's head, feeding more signals of pain into his brain. "The only thing stopping me is my own self-restraint."

Nick shivered. "She's terrifying when she gets like this."

Anna scowled. "She's lying."

"What?"

"She said she has no finesse when taking information. Come on, Nick. Kim's got nothing but finesse. Yeah, she could leave him a slavering wreck, but she wouldn't do it by accident."

The fire mage scowled too. "She's intimidating him."

Anna nodded. "She made me leave the other one alive too. I'll bet she sifted through his mind when she tapped him and didn't find what she was looking for."

"I'll ask you one last time," Kim murmured. "Tell me where to find the head of the Voltaria Family."

"I… I…"

Kim tightened her grasp and inhaled.

The man's composure broke. "Reyman Voltaria and the higher-ups meet at a tavern not far from here, in a back room."

Kim nodded. "That's all I needed." Then, her aura flashed again and the man in black fell unconscious.

"What do you want to know that for?" Anna asked as Kim strode over to them.

The Chosen of Mana smiled. "Well, like Derrick Brooks told us. The Triads rule the streets of Domines. And whoever controls the Triads… well, would they not control the city?"

"No!" Necro hissed. "It's too dangerous! I can't let you try this!"

Zephyr tilted his tankard of ale back and downed the last of the brew. "I don't know. I mean, let's look at the odds here. We've got the Legendary Seven, probably the single greatest alliance of manipulators on earth, unless you count the Ureonen High Lords all assembled together. And even then my money might be on us.

"Not to mention, we've got one of those High Lords here with us, along with the last archangel, a shape shifter whose only limit is her overactive imagination, and a bard who's seen more combat than a battalion of the Reversal's best combined. And who are we up against? Some Teresotan thugs. Some of them might have some good manipulation, but between us? Please. It'll be child's play after Vertalia."

Nick nodded. "I'm with Zephyr. This is just a raid on a tavern. Except for whatever guards the Voltaria Family brings, there are no fortifications. We can quite literally stroll through the front door."

Michael glanced at Necro. "They have been in worse situations before."

"Perhaps," Lucian murmured, glancing around the crowded pub with his sightless eyes, "we should keep our voices down a little bit."

"Good point." Kim leaned across the table. "Listen, I don't want us all going in there. Five should be enough. A group too large would attract attention. Best we keep some of our number on the outside, to deal with any patrols."

"So who goes?"

Kim glanced around her assembled companions. "I want Nick and Anna there with me. They complement each other's fighting styles, and their sheer destructive power is invaluable. I might need to make a power play, and my psychic powers just don't have that much of a flair." She turned to Zephyr. "You'll do more good for us on the outside, waiting on a rooftop and keeping watch. If anyone tries to flee from the tavern while we're in there and gets past our first line of interceptors, I want you to chase them down."

"Who's the first line?" Nick asked.

"Lucian and Grimsbjorn. I want you two to wait just outside the door and bottleneck any runners. Lexa, Seth and Kita, you wait in an alley across the street. If they come out in high numbers, I want you to contain them."

Necro sighed. "So the other two you're bringing…"

"Are you and Michael, yes." The Chosen of Mana sighed. "Michael, I am bringing you along because you are an accomplished swordsman, not because you are an archangel. If word got out that you were here, it would immediately be traced back to us. We can't allow that cover to be blown. If you absolutely must use your energy manipulation, do it in a way subtle enough not to pick it out."

Michael nodded. "I understand. My swords are yours to command, Kimara."

Nick tugged at the fabric of the heavy cloak. "Don't you think this is a bit of a dead giveaway we're hiding something?"

Anna shrugged, handing Typhoon to Lucian. "We only have to slip in for an instant. If your swords were in plain view, we wouldn't even have that."

Kim checked Wrath in its scabbard. "All set? Let's go."

Grimsbjorn rolled his shoulders back and leaned against the wall of the tavern. He nodded to Nick as the fire mage walked past. Anna tapped Lucian's shoulder twice. "You'll actually throw it to me, right?"

"Anna, I'm blind. You're going to be lucky if I get it in the right general direction."

Necro held the door open for them, and the cloaked manipulators entered the tavern. "Something's wrong," Anna murmured. "Everything's so quiet."

All the patrons eyed them coldly. The barkeeper looked up from polishing his mugs. "We're full up. Private function."

"We just want a drink," Kim replied slowly.

"Take your cloaks off," the man growled. "I can see a sword under there. We don't serve your kind."

"Tell me where Reyman Voltaria is."

"I haven't got a clue what you're talking about."

"There's no such man—"

A man sitting across the room upturned his table as he stood. "Black Hand agents!" he cried. He drove his fist forward, a plume of fire arcing towards Kim. Nick stepped in front of the woman and casually waved his hand aside, making the fire change course and explode against the bottles behind the bar.

"Gods above, you really are all amateurs," he growled.

There was a sharp pop, and many of the bottles exploded, setting the wall behind the tavern keeper ablaze. Kim sighed. "You just had to make a scene, didn't you? This… complicates matters. All right, everyone, get ready."

Anna whistled, and Lucian appeared in the door, Typhoon flying through the air an instant later. Anna dove to catch the trident and came up in a roll, driving the crown of her head into the solar plexus of an advancing thug. Necro and Michael cast aside their cloaks, drawing their blades. In a matter of seconds, the bard had disarmed a man who had gone for a cudgel.

Nick pulled Inferno from his back and the scimitar from his belt. Tongues of fire licked down the steel, and he grinned as he advanced on the closest Voltarian. "I've been feeling really stressed out lately. Mind if I vent for a while?" The fire mage kicked a chair at the man, setting it ablaze with a gout of flame he spat from his mouth. The man screamed as the blood-red fires began to lap at the hem of his trousers, searing the skin beneath. Inferno flashed in the firelight, and drew a line of blood diagonally across the man's face. He went down with a strangled cry, clutching at the wound.

Kim winced when she saw that the sword had been so hot it had cauterized as it cut, leaving an ugly, permanent scar. Anna used the shaft of Typhoon to vault over a table and hurl a torrent of water at the man who was trying to creep around to strike Necro's back. The man was stunned, and he went down when Michael slammed the pommels of his slightly curved blades into both of the man's temples.

Anna swept her arms out, using her manipulation to extinguish the flames that were threatening the structural integrity of the tavern. Kim tapped a finger to her forehead, expanding her psychic senses. Zephyr, there's been a change of plans.

I can see that. Whose brilliant idea was it to light the place up like that?

Who do you think? I need you to control the blaze. Let Seth and Lexa handle anyone who runs. If this whole neighborhood goes up…

I've got it under control.

Kim nodded and sent a wave of gratitude. Then, she scanned the immediate area, searching for where Reyman Voltaria might be hiding. There was nothing behind the tavern but a storeroom devoid of anything but rats. However, when she turned her attention lower, she noted several minds working frantically below the tavern, in a cellar of some kind.

She did not have the time or inclination to put her discovery to words. Nick, they're down below. There's a basement. We need to find a way in. Use any means necessary. Then, she shifted her focus outward. Anna, Michael, Necro, cover us. Grimsbjorn, Lucian, pull back. No one's getting out of here now.

Nick swept his arms behind him, conjuring a wall of fire in the tavern door, cutting off any escape. Necro and Michael began flipping tables, trying to find a way in. "Nothing here!" Michael shouted, ducking under a flung bottle. "Is it in the storeroom?"

"Don't think so," Anna replied. "The lower room was probably a wine cellar before it was a meeting room. It'll have to be accessed from behind the bar."

Nick jumped over the counter, and the bartender fled before him. He scanned the narrow expanse of floor. "Got it. Trapdoor." He took a deep breath and expelled a blast of unmaking fire from his mouth. The wooden trapdoor dissolved into dust.

"Nick, Anna, with me. Come on, let's give this Reyman Voltaria something to fear. Necro, Michael, keep those grunts corralled." Kim leapt down into the vault, her comrades just behind her. Nick raised his flaming swords, casting flickering amber light on the long stone room. Several men were seated around a wooden table, and they were all watching the three manipulators. The man at the head stood and ran a hand through his cropped salt-and-pepper hair.

"Are you the young woman who took out my best enforcer the other day? I've been expecting you."

Kim scoffed. "Are you Reyman Voltaria? Then I think our meeting is long overdue."

Reyman held out a hand, conjuring three tiny fireballs that hovered above his palm. He moved his fingers one by one, making the fire seem to dance. "What could a little lady like you possibly want with me?"

Kim jumped up onto the table and strode down its length, flicking Wrath back and forth in time with her stride. "You control one of the largest crime organizations in Domines. I want to control Domines, and to do that, I need to control the Triads. And for that to work, I need to control you."

Reyman laughed. "Little lady, do you think I'll just step down for you? I didn't get to be where I am because of my good looks!"

He thrust his hand forward, expelling a pulse of fire. Before Nick could even rush forward, Kim swept Wrath up in an arc, the blade humming with pent up power. It cut a swathe through the orange and green fire, and an instant later, the Chosen of Mana was surrounded by a nimbus of gold and indigo flames that were slowly charring the table.

"Get her!" Reyman roared, and all of his lieutenants jumped up. Kim spread her arms wide, summoning a massive blast of wind. It spread in a perfect sphere around her, sending the men sailing into the walls and low ceiling. Those that struggled to rise were quickly knocked back down by Nick and Anna.

"Behind you, Nick!" Anna growled. Nick made to turn, but Typhoon's three pronged head darted under his outstretched arm and thrust into the chest of the man who had approached the fire mage with a long, wickedly sharp knife. He fell back with a whine, clutching at his shirt to staunch the bleeding. "Pay more attention."

Nick nodded and shot another fireball at the lieutenant who had been advancing on Anna's flanks. "Maybe it's best if we go back to back?"

Anna smiled coquettishly. "Where's the fun in that?" At Nick's hard glare, she sighed. "I know, fight first, flirt later." She held Typhoon diagonal across her chest. She took a deep breath and crafted two wolf constructs from the moisture in the air. The vaguely canine creatures opened their maws, revealing a mouth full of jagged icicle fangs. The wolves circled the two manipulators, allowing them to focus on ranged strikes to cover Kim.

Reyman had his back pressed against the wall, unable to comprehend a foe like the one he was presented with. The fire mage and water shifter were a cut above even his best fighters, dealing with his strongest lieutenants like they were nothing more than unruly children. And the young woman was in another class entirely.

"What do you want with me?" he growled, somehow maintaining his confident composure. The woman smiled and gestured with two fingers. Reyman was pulled through the air to hang before her, locked in her telekinetic hold.

Reyman grinned and conjured a raging firestorm. Against any other opponent, they would have been incinerated instantly, but a barrier of invisible energy surrounded the Chosen of Mana, preventing the fire from touching her. "Perhaps," she remarked, "we should try to be civil."

"You're the aggressor here, little lady. I was perfectly content to go about my business before you stepped in."

"Much as I dislike it," Kim sighed, "sometimes preemptive warfare is necessary." She thrust her palm forward and Reyman was slammed against the wall. Kim clenched her hand. Stone clamps anchored Reyman's limbs, effectively trapping him. She stepped off the table and glared into Reyman's eyes. "There are two ways this can go from here. I could kill you here and now, effectively carrying out a successful coup against the Voltaria Family, setting myself up in your place. But I'd really rather not do that.

"It would tie me to your assets indefinitely, and I don't want to linger in Teresoto any longer than I have to. Not to mention, it will create definite division in the ranks. The numbers of the Family will drastically diminish, only strengthening the Black Hand and Sentinels. And if I want to control all of Domines, I can't have that."

Reyman narrowed his eyes. "All right. So what's my other option?"

"You turn over control of the Voltaria Family to me, temporarily. You remain in your position as head of the family, and continue to manage the day-to-day interests of the organization. But, if an order comes from me, you obey without question."

"So, either I die, or submit to a woman? Maybe I need to make some new options…" Reyman Voltaria inhaled, preparing to try another fire technique. Kim jabbed her right index finger against Reyman's forehead, and her eyes became solid pools of gold. Reyman's mind was overloaded with emotion, and the very forces of creation were sent surging through his veins. When Kim broke off the contact, he slumped in his fetters. "I'll… I'll never yield to you."

"You have a strong will. That, at least, is admirable. But Reyman Voltaria, know that I have the power to utterly twist your mind, leaving you a broken wretch. Do you want that?"

"Do your worst, little lady."

Nick and Anna winced at Reyman's agonized scream. The men who were fighting them pulled back, retreating as far from Kim as the small room would allow, praying that they would not be next. Reyman's voice finally died off, fading into a choked whine. Kim placed Wrath on Reyman's collarbone. The falchion hummed melodiously as it drew a bead of the criminal leader's blood.

"What's it going to be, Reyman Voltaria? Will I have to build a better world on a blood-soaked foundation? Or can you see what an opportunity I have provided you with? A new start, Reyman."

"I know who you are," Reyman rasped. "You're Kimara Godhand. The Reversal general. You've spilled enough blood, little lady. What difference does a little more make?"

"To me, a great deal. But if you know who I am, you surely know that I am utterly without mercy, and will relentlessly pursue my goal no matter the cost in human life."

"Yes." Reyman sighed. "I see no other way out of the corner you drove me into. I'll give you control of the Voltaria Family. Use us as you will."

Kim released him from the stone shackles, and he fell to a heap on the ground. The Chosen of Mana whirled on the assembled lieutenants. Another magical wind swept through the chamber, making her waistcoat billow and her hair flare out behind her. "You heard him, did you not? I am in command now, and I expect you to do as I say. The first order of business is not to let anyone know what has transpired here tonight. The lower tiers of the Voltaria Family must still believe that Reyman Voltaria is still at the head. If I hear even a rumor to the contrary, I will trace it back to its source and have the man executed as an example to the rest of you. Do I make myself clear?"

When the lieutenants had all made some form of vaguely confirming sound, Kim swept out of the dank underground chamber and back into the tavern. As she and her companions strode back into the street, Nick caught her arm. "You've gotten very good at lying through your teeth."

Kim glanced at the fire mage. "I beg your pardon?"

"What you told Reyman back there. Utterly without mercy and willing to pay any cost in human life?"

"Politics changes people, Nick. We sometimes have to sacrifice our personal values for the greater good."

"I've known you long enough to know that you're far too empathetic to really believe that."

Kim stopped for a moment and sighed. "Perhaps I did not tell Reyman the whole truth, but I did not lie, either. This war has changed me as much as it has you, Nick. I don't know if you understand how many people have died in the past two years alone, on all sides of the fighting. By now, I've come to terms with it. And if we need to kill a little more, so be it. There is enough blood staining our legacy that a few hundred lives will make no difference either way."

Nick shook his head. "Kim…"

"Nick, you don't have to worry about this. You're just a soldier. Just follow your orders and try not to think about things too much."

This time, the fire mage grabbed her wrist and turned her around to face him. "Let me get this straight. You're telling me to stay quiet and do what I'm told? Am I just a sword to do whatever the arm holding it tells it to do?"

"Nick, that's not what I…"

"That's exactly what you mean. Don't bother apologizing for it, because you're right. I'm just a weapon. You point me at a target and I cut it down. I'm not supposed to think about it. I'm just supposed to do what the gods, and by extension, you tell me to do. And you know what? Fine, that works just fine for now. But what if I survive the fighting? What happens to me then?"

"Oh, Nick," Kim sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I've had to start thinking of my soldiers as facts and figures for so long that… I'm afraid I convinced myself. I'm sorry. It was for my own good, or so I thought. I'm sorry."

"I know why you did it," Nick replied softly. "You had to, or you would have driven yourself insane. I forgive you. I understand." Kim smiled at him and wrapped him in a tight, friendly embrace. "Just one thing," Nick murmured.

"What?"

"Don't forget that I'm a human being again. Because if you do, I might forget it too."

Kim nodded, and she held him tighter.