Ferst grimaced, gritting his teeth as he lifted his pint glass to his lips. He really didn’t want to waste any more energy on thinking; he’d had enough of that for today. All he wanted to think about was the rapidly dropping level of liquid in the glass.
But try as he might, he couldn’t totally block out the grating, strangely high-pitched voice of the guy in the booth next door.
“…and it took us at least ten years, maybe longer – we lost some of the records, damp, you know – but we’ve finally got the proper translation! This one makes sure that only the small holes open, and we retain full control…”
Maybe if he got drunk fast enough, Ferst would lose focus in his ears, his hearing growing blurry like his vision tended to do. He focused on gulping down the last of his pint, but even the satisfying thwack of the glass hitting the scarred tabletop wasn’t enough to fully block out the whining voice.
“…so we’ve planned the big event for tomorrow night,” the voice went on. “We still need to gather a couple more virgins – you wouldn’t believe the amount of blood required. Still, James and Quentin say that they’ve got that well in hand…”
Inside the booze-soaked recesses of Ferst’s brain, a remaining neuron struggled to make itself heard. It fired several times, trying to send a signal to its alcohol-paralyzed fellows on either side. Finally, on its fifth attempt, it managed to start a signal propagating through the gray matter inside his head.
Hating himself for it, Ferst forced himself to listen to the conversation behind him. Carefully, moving slowly, he turned to look back with one eye through the lattice that separated booths.
The subtle glance didn’t reveal much. Both of the young men sitting in the booth behind him wore brown robes of coarse fabric, obscuring much of their faces. They hunched forward over small glasses of some dark alcohol, making a vague attempt to pitch their voices low.
“…so we’ll send him against the military, first,” the man facing towards Ferst said, a growing grin on his face making him look even more like a shrew than before. His thin blonde hair hung in limp little strands across his forehead, and his skin glinted with a sheen of perspiration. “The politicians can decide whether to yield or not after we make it clear that they don’t have another choice!”
“But what if they come after us?” asked his companion.
Shrew-face shook one hand free from the sleeve of his robe, holding it up. Ferst, trying to see out of the corner of one eye, only caught the vaguest little glimpse of some sort of intricate diagram on the young man’s palm. That glance, however, apparently was enough to impress his companion.
“And you can control them well enough?” his companion asked, sounding suitably awed.
Grinning, Shrew-face shrugged. “It’s just a matter of focus and willpower,” he said, as if brushing off a compliment he secretly loved.
Ferst pushed himself up from his seat with a grunt, heading for the bar. “Another,” he told the bartender, passing over his empty pint glass and receiving a full one in exchange.
Full glass in hand, Ferst took a moment to adjust his walk. He added an extra bit of stumble, let one of his eyelids droop slightly. It wasn’t as hard to add as usual, a warning as to how much drink he’d already consumed. He lurched back across the bar, towards his table – but veering towards the two men in robes as one foot twisted beneath him.
“Aw, shit,” he exclaimed, as he reached out to put one hand on their table to catch his balance. “Shit, guys, I’m sorry.” Beer from his glass slopped out across the table, catching both men.
“Watch it, you drunken oaf!” exclaimed Shrew-face, jumping up to his feet barely a second too late to avoid getting his sleeves damp with beer. “Have you no control? You’ll be the first to go in our new world!”
“Nah, I’m sorry,” Ferst insisted, making sure to slur his words nearly to the point of incomprehensibility. One hand still gripped his beer, but the other slipped beneath his jacket, feeling for the comforting weight holstered inside. “Look, lemme buy you another to make up for it-”
He set the beer down on his table, reaching out with wobbling fingers towards Shrew-face. Shrew-face, however, rose up, flicking back both sleeves to reveal pale, thin-fingered hands.
“In fact, I should cleanse the world of you right now,” the young man hissed, his pale eyes glittering. He held out his hand, once again showing the intricate circle inscribed on his palm. He kept speaking, sounding as if he was reciting some sort of strange incantation. his words slurred and hissed, melting together in an incomprehensible stream.
Shit. Ferst hadn’t meant to provoke him now. Nothing for it but to act, he supposed. Inside his jacket, his hand tightened around that familiar grip.
“Might I remind you boys,” he said, dropping the slur from his words, “that the use of black magic is forbidden in all areas of the Empire, by decree of the Queen herself?”
“Oh no,” exclaimed the other man in the robe, scrambling back, but Shrew-face’s eyes just grew harder, and his voice spoke the gibberish even faster.
Ferst tugged, pulling his gun from the holster inside his jacket. Shrew-face finally started to try and move away, but Ferst had the gun up before the young man could dodge.
Ferst pulled the trigger, and the man fell backwards, his words trailing off into a gurgle as his lungs collapsed.
The whole room, however, still seemed to darken. Ferst felt something licking against his ankles, and looked down.
“Oh *damn,*” he groaned, as he watched tentacles burst forth from the outstretched palm of the corpse at his feet.
Dancing backwards, Ferst fired his gun down at the corpse’s hand, although he didn’t see the shot cause any noticeable effect. The room had definitely darkened, now, and the other patrons had taken notice. Several of them jumped up and made a dash for the door, pushing and knocking at each other in their haste to escape.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ferst caught a glimpse of motion. His free hand shot out, closing on scratchy and coarse brown cloth. “Not so fast,” he growled, as he pulled back the struggling second young man.
The other young man’s hood had fallen back, revealing a youth with ruddy brown hair and the thin hairs of his pubescent beard and mustache. “No, no, no!” he moaned as Ferst dragged him in.
“What the hell is going on?” Ferst demanded, shaking the hapless youth back and forth by the scruff of his neck. “What did your buddy do?”
“He – he summoned the tentacles of-” the man choked out, adding some sort of strange combination of sibilant syllables that made Ferst’s head hurt. “You shot him, but he’d still summoned – no one’s left to control-”
“How do we stop it?”
The poor man just shook his head, his eyes so wide that Ferst could see the whites of his eyes all the way around his pupils. He went limp, sagging bonelessly down to the floor.
With a curse, Ferst released him. Already, those tentacles sprouting from the palm of the fallen corpse were starting to cover the walls, some probing at the windows and others snaking back around to menace him. He looked down at his gun, sensing that it wouldn’t be enough.
He needed something stronger. His desperate eye fell on the bar.
“I’m commandeering these!” he shouted at the bartender, now cowering desperately behind his bar as Ferst reached over the top. “Queen’s Agent! You’ll be reimbursed!”
“Just get me out of here alive, man!” the bartender replied, as Ferst snatched up several bottles of high-proof liquor.
Ferst spun around, hurtling the bottles, one after another, at the corpse in the middle of the floor. A couple of them bounced away, but most shattered, coating the body in alcohol. The tentacles, perhaps sensing the looming threat, focused on Ferst, rushing towards him.
He grinned at them, a grin tainted slightly with insanity. “Back to the nether worlds with you, you octopus rejects,” he snarled, pulling out his lighter and sending it flying after the bottles.
A few minutes later, a figure staggered unsteadily out of the burning bar, bent nearly double under the weight of something slung across his shoulders. Grunting, the figure deposited the other weight – another body – down on the street. He bent over the prone figure as the authorities started to move towards the blazing building.
“Talk, damn you,” Ferst growled at the other young man, spitting in a vain attempt to clear the taste of soot and ash from his mouth. “Your buddy mentioned others. Where are they? Where’s this ceremony happening?”
“Don’t know,” the poor cultist moaned, his eyes rolling as he lay in the street. “Near Parliament. And it’s happening tonight. That’s all I know!”
Ferst groaned, forcing the joints of his body back upright. “Hey, you lot,” he growled at a couple nearby policemen as they approached. He reached into his jacket, fishing around for the leather folder with the shield inside. “Queen’s Agent. Arrest this man, on suspicion of committing acts of dark magic.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the policemen responded, more out of habit than anything else, as his companion stepped forward to take the arms of the unresisting cultist. “But sir, where are you going?”
Ferst just shook his head. “Save the damn world,” he grumbled, moving down the street as fast as his tired legs would carry him. “Again.”