Thirty Pieces of Silver, Plus Inflationary Costs

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Rare books containing methods to excelling in any field. Limited printing, little wear. Hand delivery in the north-eastern United States. Price negotiable. Will exchange for equivalent goods and services.

Do not contact the seller with unsolicited services or offers.

"Turn to the next page," said the ethereal projection of Overseer-6, floating an inch above the seat of a chair in an extremely cheap, extremely beige motel room located just outside Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Egret dutifully turned the page of a book she had retrieved from a dead drop in an abandoned school bus. "Next page." She flipped from one heavily annotated page of Organizational Symbology to the next. None of the red ink notes crammed into the margins did much to improve her own understanding of the text, nor did the new diagrams that had been scrawled over old ones. "Next page."

"I can have the book delivered to you, Overseer," said Egret, turning the page regardless. She might personally consider her time better spent hunting the last owner of the book, but her boss knew best. As always.

"No, I don't want it near me. Next page."

"Should I be wearing gloves or something?"

"Not unless you're also being kept together by a thaumaturgic superstructure, no." The Overseer's apparition sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose between two fingers. "Forget I said that."

Egret did, and quickly too. Tossing aside a few just-passed seconds was as easy as discarding an empty beer can once one was practiced enough. "Should I be wearing gloves? Or like, a mask?"

"It's not dangerous. Next page." Egret recognized the sensation of lost seconds but refrained from looking at her watch. Better to not give her brain any reason to start worrying over what might have just happened. "Next page," the Overseer said again, faster than before. "Next page. Next page. They want you to do what? Not you, Egret. Skip to 46 for me. Next page. No, no, this is absurd. Next page. You can't arrange the substantiation apparatus like that, not without… Next. Next. Hold it there." The Overseer's projection abruptly fizzled out, leaving Egret feeling foolish for presenting the book to an empty chair. Several minutes full of the sensation passed in silence.

"Overseer?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm still here," replied a small cloud of bright shapes, shifting shapes that flickered into existence over the seat. "It's unfortunate, but I believe we're dealing with a powerful idiot."


"You'll have to kill them, of course. Whoever edited this copy and whoever was trying to sell it. Bring me their heads. As much of them as you can."

"Yes, Overseer. And the books? If there are more?"

"Burn them all."

Egret's smile leaked out as the last traces of the Overseer's presence vanished from the tiny room. Arson and murder, she could live with that. Whether or not other people could was more of an open question.

The tome itself didn't contain any hints on who had bought or sold it, especially not after it was reduced to ash in a rest stop parking lot. That was fine. She had already been chasing ghosts when she found the book. She could chase them a while longer. Sooner or later, she would draw close enough to hear the beating heart of the conspiracy. Close enough to grab it and squeeze.

A string of informants who toed the boundary of what the Foundation would consider to be acceptably weird led Egret eastward. A man with impeccably awful luck and brothers in the local doomsday cult told her about two strangers who came in the night offering to sell the stars' secret key. A woman who mixed remedies out of spit and swamp water told Egret about a similar pair who came in the night wearing masks and seeking trades. A bank owner (who birds swore at in Arabic) told her of the pair's strange familiarity, and a cigarette smuggler who worked for the Sarkic-connected mob told her of the pair's common strangeness.

Egret caught up to her prey on a chilly morning in the distant outskirts of Philadelphia. Breath clouding in the air, stomach warmed by a thermos of soup, she stole intermittent glances at the pair of booksellers as they left Mack's Taphouse And (whatever came next on the sign had been painted over long ago). It was a known nexus of anomalous activity, though nothing ever seemed to be done about the place. The two booksellers could have passed for any number of normal people, being of intermittent builds and dressed in slightly-ragged parkas, if only they had not been wearing wooden masks carved in the likeness of sheep heads.

Egret could have gunned them down on the curb, of course. She strongly considered it in between mouthfuls of wilted vegetables and mystery meats. The Overseer wanted more than two corpses to pick apart though, and it was hard to imagine these two being at the center of the conspiratorial web. Especially not as she watched them argue over a map of the city. Memories of hollow siblings picked at the back of Egret's mind, but she shook them away.

The booksellers were gone the next time Egret looked over. Whether they walked away or vanished into thin air, she couldn't say, but she had their scent now. Ink, paper, secrets, and the faintest trace of some unimaginable atrocity, it wasn't a bouquet she was likely to lose track of any time soon.

Following as closely as she dared, Egret tracked them around the city, watching as others paid them so little attention as to almost run them over. Each attempt to get close enough to eavesdrop ended in failure, as one would invariably straighten up and look around as she approached. Weirdness never failed to interfere with honest fieldwork.

The pair returned to the bar as the sun completed its slow descent past the cloudy horizon and snow began falling in earnest. Egret watched as they brazenly walked into the building, and why wouldn't they? She was going to have to settle in for the long term to figure out what the pair was up to. Renting an apartment nearby would be the best start, something with a view of the street if possible. Maybe see if there were any kids loitering around who could be useful. Egret began sorting out plans in her head, ordering them from bloodless to bloodiest, and raised her thermos to her lips for the last bit of soup.

"You are a knight errant, are you not?" asked one of the booksellers, appearing from a blind spot Egret never realized she had. Their voice was neutral and distant through the mask, but its black glass eyes felt firmly fixed on her.

"Sorry?" said Egret, coughing and wiping away a few loose drips from her chin with the back of her hand. "What did you call me?"

"A sellsword, then?" asked the other, appearing at her other side and speaking in the same tone.

"I don't know what you're talking about. I work at a bank, and–"

"You are an avatar of violence, clearly," said one.

"Clearly," repeated the other, nodding smugly. "Blood pools in your shadow."

Well, why shouldn't it be some kind of magic bullshit that made her job more complicated than it needed to be? The fact that the two wanted to talk at all was a reason for some hope, but it was difficult to tell their intentions through the masks. "What do you two want?"

"We require a bare blade," said the one to her right, "to address insolence."

"A trifling matter," said the one to her left, "for one with a keen edge."

"I don't do 'trifling matters.' Go do it yourself if you're going to waste my time." said Egret, careful not to make the pronouncement with too much finality. She was in a dangerous place, no doubt about that, but one with a sliver of opportunity. The two booksellers slightly inclined their heads toward each other, pausing for nearly a minute before either spoke again.

"Surely, a grand design may be present," conceded one, "though one wonders if your mettle is sufficient."

"I'm sure you can tell," said Egret, grabbing one of the pair's hooded heads and turning it up toward her face. "Go on. Look into my soul again, or whatever you were doing." That was a well-guarded place, and unlikely to divulge her secrets.

"Your shadow is indeed heavy," said the one not struggling in Egret's grip. They lifted cupped hands up, presenting her with an assortment thin, sparking silver coins. "We can offer commensurate rewards."

Egret gingerly picked one out of the pile. It had jagged edges and a somber face pressed into it. The coins rang like a hundred tiny bells in the figure's shifting hands. "So, what needs doing? Or who?"

"It is difficult for us to speak of it."

"Our liege will enlighten you."

Egret followed the two of them through the bar's front door (grimy glass, sticky handle), and through a surprisingly large crowd (sweating profusely, unfortunately loud). One member of it was a man she had been doing her very best to kill the year before, but she couldn't see any way of finishing that up at the moment. They walked past the bar, past a stairway leading upstairs, and through a poorly lit stockroom stacked high with sagging cardboard boxes that reeked of mildew. One bookseller pulled aside a rusted gate in front of a service elevator and the other ushered her inside. If the buttons could be trusted, it went deeper than Egret would have expected. At least fifteen floors down. Her escort pressed the lowest one and the lift descended with a grinding complaint.

"We aren't of a violent nature, you see," said one.

"It's quite apart from us," said the other. The only difference Egret could make out between the two of them was the undercurrent of smugness in the second's tone. Other than that, even the patterns of band-aids across their hands were identical.

"That's very civilized of you," said Egret.

"Not in the slightest." Both the booksellers shook their heads at once. "Civilization is violent by nature."

"It's but a means to transmute silver into blood."

"Sure, sure," said Egret. It wasn't her first time being lectured on the topic. The lift hitched on something, jerking a few times, caught and struggling like a dying rat before freeing itself and chugging downward again. Darkened floors slid slowly past them, each larger than anything she would have expected to find below the city's streets.

"Civilization is a body too, stuffed with tumorous growth."

"Groups with ill will and vile means."

"I've got some experience with them," said Egret as the last, brightly lit floor slowly expanded in front of her.

"Of course you do," said one bookseller as they pulled aside the lift's gate.

"You work for one," said the other as they pushed Egret inside. It was a hard shove, harder than could have been expected from their slight frame. Egret pushed herself up from her knees and bared her teeth. She was halfway through drawing her pistol from her holster by the time her brain registered on what filled the cavernous room.

Countless book pages were hung on every wall, layered on towering stacks of books, and strewn across the concrete floor. Annotated in red ink, connected by red strings, they formed a wide and bloody spiderweb stretching out around her. It had no visible end and no conceivable conclusion. The knotted yarn stretched back into her past, just as the text flowed out into her future, and all at once it consumed her present. Egret felt the tender tendrils of some impossibly vast, perfectly knowable entity wrapping around her, caressing her, sliding slowly in through one bunch of optic nerves and out through the other like floss around a tooth. She felt it, felt the grooves it left behind in her thoughts.

"You understand now," said one of the booksellers, appearing again at her side.

"Violence squanders precious resources," said the other, flanking her. Egret could feel their glass eyes staring up at her.

"There remains brush to burn away before you are extinguished."

"You are to be a blade inverted. Bleed those who once wielded you."

That much was obvious now, as Egret's thoughts followed new paths through her mind. Of course the Foundation was the world's true problem. How many times had best intentions turned to gruesome tragedies under their watch? Hadn't they been the ones to toss her aside for something she couldn't even remember doing? And the Overseers…

The long tendril of thought tied itself into a knot around that. The Foundation had never been perfect, but she had never served the Foundation itself. It was the Overseers who knew best. For the Foundation. For humanity. And hers knew best of all. The thoughts wound tighter and tighter around that knot of objection, constricting, splitting, and spreading until they reached the deepest parts of her subconsciousness. The fraying strings of thought reached out to complete their net, only to snap in an aching instant.

Egret split her mind into pieces. Amputated the anchors of thought. Carved away the tainted memories and cast them adrift into the sea of forgotten knowledge. Burned them at the altar of ignorance. Pieced the rest back together and forgot that the new holes even existed. The symbols around her meant nothing after that, and the scars barely ached.

Egret grabbed the nearest bookseller by the throat in one fluid motion. It felt remarkably human under her tight grip. With her free hand, she fired most of her pistol's magazine toward the other one in a wide spray. They squealed like a wounded animal and she turned her attention back toward her lingering victim. Violent punches and kicks slowed to feeble clawing, and even that was reduced to weak twitches. Egret calmly adjusted her grip, eyes focused on whatever lurked behind the mask, and smiled at them. Soon enough, the twitching stopped too. She looked to the other bookseller and saw that they had vanished, leaving only a puddle of dark fluid behind. It was a problem that could wait.

As to the issue of the room around her, the solution was obvious. Fire jumped quickly from her lighter to the stacks of paper around her. It all burned fiercely. A bit too fiercely, perhaps. Egret's ride back up the lift was a smokey one, and she felt lightheaded by the time she emerged back into an empty bar, its smoke detectors blaring loudly.

Outside, a faint scent intermixed with the expanding plumes of smoke. It smelled like a shattered fountain pen. Egret followed the smell around the building, through a snaking alleyway that was slowly filling with snow. Lengthening tracks and darkening splatters led her to a figure sitting against a brick wall, flanked by a trash can on one side and a bundle of newspapers on the other. Their bare head drooped low over the mask in their lap. Their breaths were loud and wet.

"You're going to defy me to the end, aren't you?" said Egret, staying a respectful distance away. "I won't hold it against you. There's nothing wrong with going out like that."

She expected something pithy and biting to come from the mouth of her victim. Some dangerous words uttered with the kind of conviction that true finality imparted. Bile spat in bold defiance against all things. Instead, the shivering figure stared up at her with wide, orange eyes, set in an otherwise unremarkable face. "I don't want to die."

"Not much you can do about it at this point."

"I have value. I have worth!"

"You have a bullet in your gut. Maybe more than one."

The bookseller looked away, breathed a long, pained breath, and jammed their fingers into the wound. Black blood splattered out as they dug in, and ran even faster as they pulled their hand back with a tiny bit of metal clutched between dripping fingers.

"I don't think that's doing you any favors," said Egret, scratching the back of her neck as her victim mewled and whined. "I'm not into torture, so don't make this any worse on yourself. Close your eyes. Think of something happy. I won't miss this time."

The bookseller stared at her again, eyes still wide and dry, and finally managed to snarl. "Hail your master instead of yelping at me, dog. Howl for them! Slink to the keep and bark at the gate! Ask of the sheep's worth and see me judged!"

Well, there wasn't anything to lose by it. Nine times out of ten, the Overseer would be otherwise occupied and Egret would watch this odd little thing die at her feet. She hit the proper buttons on her secure phone with one hand, keeping her other on her gun and her eyes on the bookseller. Six rings would mark the end of the whole affair. It only reached five before the Overseer answered.

"What is it, Egret?" she asked, voice heavy with the kind of crushing exhaustion that followed sleepless weeks.

"It's just a small question, Overseer."

Egret never managed to remember the rest of that particular conversation. A few scraps of the following hours survived, frantic field-medicine and an incredibly illegal drive to the nearest underground clinic. Even those were scant fragments, so innocuous as to escape her own meticulous purge. She never remembered why she had been told to forget it all either, but that hardly mattered. She had more important things to do than fretting.

Egret lay prone on a long table in a vacant suite of offices overlooking the shore of a still lake. The summer air plastered her hair to her forehead and left her neck itching, but she didn't look away from the scope of her rifle. Through it, she watched an opulent gala taking place on a long pleasure barge.

"So? Dhole?"

Her companion stared across the lake without a magnifier of her own, picking at band-aid laden hands. Even in this heat, she insisted on wearing an elaborate wooden mask carved in the likeness of a dog. Egret would not have been surprised to hear panting coming from behind it.

"The baron of this land has been heralded. He wears blooded diamonds and a royal noose."

Egret shifted slightly, turning her focus to a scarred man in a white linen suit who had just emerged from the cabin of the ship. A purple tie hung loosely around his neck and sparkling rings covered his fingers.

"You're sure?" asked Egret.

"His coffers are the fullest there."

"Good enough." She pulled the trigger, watched silently, and smiled to herself as a red stain spread across the chest of the businessman's suit. Dhole had not been wrong when she said that money could easily be turned to blood, but even that was at a poor exchange rate. The Overseer's commands traded much more evenly with death.

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