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| 7 | 8 | 6 | 4 | 7 | 4 |
For now he left Nina to dig for information on Morven. Days had passed without communication, and he did not make any effort to seek her out. Silence was as good as failure, and in the meanwhile circumstance conspired to force his hand. One of Nimeda’s wardings had failed; worse, he had discovered the blame etched into her own palm when he discovered her in the dream. She was too frivolous a creature to expect loyalty, but the theft stung, stoking the ashes of a temper he did not often suffer the heat of. Thalia Milton had never seen his face, though he had supported her career for years now. He knew what she was.

And he would retrieve what she had stolen.

But he couldn’t leave Moscow, not while the headaches descended on swift and unpredictable wings, crippling him at inopportune moments. His legs dangled off the edge of the consultation bed, fingers curled over the edge. Ephraim had offered use of his doctors numerous times since the fundraiser, but though Paragon had planted the tech, he considered it a last resort. Morven would have been preferable, if the damn woman had not seen fit to disappear.

“Mr. Hart, sir?”

Sören’s gaze rose as the attendant spoke, then narrowed on the open door and unexpected arrival of Ephraim himself. The man’s smile was all sharp amusement barely concealed. He tugged at the sleeves of his jacket.

“I didn’t believe it was really you,” he said lightly. Sören only offered a grunt of dismissal. Ephraim chuckled and with the instruction of a gesture the attendant frowned, placed down his datapad, and left. “Still troubling you then?”


The man wanted something, that was clear. Sören’s mild-eyed stare could be enduring as a mountain, though. Life conspired, and there were fires within, frustrated and angry at the impotence, but he sensed Ephraim was needling him with intent. He wouldn’t bite.

“Run the numbers again. This time I’ll let you in on a little secret.”

“The numbers?”

“The error code, Sören. Run it again.” He came closer. His hands were pushed casually in his pockets, but there was a light in his eyes Sören recognised. He’d seen it as recently as at the fundraiser, when the man had pushed through the crowds to witness the girl’s possession; that hunger, a little feverish. It’s twin had been glimpsed in his own mirror enough times, one of the reasons he had counted Ephraim as an ally to court when he’d become aware of him through the Network. But though such passion could be conducive, it could burn too. One of the reasons they had never fully trusted each other either.

Sören straightened, hands resting on his knees. The granite of his expression had not changed, but his insides flooded cold. His eyes narrowed. He’d barely used the eye since it had begun malfunctioning in earnest, which appeared to alleviate the symptom if not the source. Ephraim offered answers, but at the cost of admitting ignorance. He did not like the loss of control, but as the moment stretched on in stony silence he was forced to concede.

He felt the tech activate like a hum inside his head, widening his vision; acutely aware, now, of Ephraim watching him. Red text scrawled. The numbers he had seen while Nina had continued to bother him, and had written hastily on his arm amidst her distraction.

The 7 began to flicker and pulse, until it formed the letter P.

His stomach tightened. Ephraim smiled.

U followed. N. I. S. H.

“What did you do?” He snarled; slipped down from the table, towering over the smaller man, temper scalding. His fist clenched and the runes danced into a frenzy, spiking his vision dangerously.

Ephraim took half a step back, a little pale.

And then the only spike was the one driven hard into Sören's skull, buckling the back of his knees with the sudden and excruciating force of it. An arm whipped out to soften his fall against the table, but he still fell, driving his fingers into his face and roaring. The runes scattered like chaff to the wind.

When he could see again, blurred and painful, what he saw was the edge of Ephraim’s shoe. Hunched, breathing hard, Sören growled. Words passed overhead. He grasped for the power but it howled away, a storm too insubstantial to tame.

“--too much, maybe? Shit, man, you aren’t supposed to kill him.” 

“Sir, perhaps you ought to--”

Ephraim crouched in front of him. He was vaguely aware of distant beeping. “Hey,” the man was saying. A finger snapped in front of his face, and had the runes deigned to respond, those fingers might have snapped clean off. “Hey, are you still with us? A little too much bite for a first try, but you rather looked like you might try to kill me.”

“I. Still. Might.”

“You won’t.” Ephraim smiled. He leaned in, and the slim silver necklace he wore was visible through the slit of his shirt collar. The hourglass. “We’re friends, Sören. I gave you your sight back, and a lot more besides, and in return I get data. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find viable specimens? It’s a commendable service to the cause.”

I’ll gouge it out.”

“Wouldn’t make a difference. To me, I mean. Not so pleasant for you, I’d wager. Look, just think of it as an insurance policy. The world changes, and men like me, we need to change with it.” His wrist flashed as he checked a vintage timepiece, and then he stood and rose dizzyingly from view. The pain faded, but Sören could barely focus. His fingers clenched against the tiles on the floor. “Move him to recovery, would you. He should be fine. Couple hours maybe. Better make it the luxury suite, eh? And keep me posted.”
They did not hold him long. His head was still pounding upon release, but it was his pride more grievously wounded.

He’d known Ephraim to be discontent with the differences between them; who wouldn’t be, when confronted with the power of gods? But he hadn’t fully considered the lengths he might go to. The arrogance had bitten him now. Hard. Ephraim might have simply asked, and Sören would have considered it -- it wasn’t like he’d not already laid himself bare for the Network’s scrutiny once before. Had the runes consumed him all those years ago, as he had almost been sure they would at the time, they would have recorded his very death. But this was not about information, or data, as Ephraim suggested. This was about power.

He did not go home, such as home was. The bar was open to the air, and he sat in the shadows outside, smoke curling from a cigarette. The first whiskey had burned, and the second sat on the table in front of him. It wasn’t a usual vice, but for once he wanted to erase the edges from his thoughts.

Ephraim had been certain of Sören’s impotence, despite the bald threat to his life. And killing the man wouldn’t remove the eye from his socket, or undo whatever had been done to taint it. But he was concerned it was more than that. The Network’s webs struck far and wide, and worst of all deep, and though Sören managed it with expert finesse it did not make him immune to its sting. He had to consider there might be more Ephraim had to hold over his head. The possibility soured his mood.
What is the point of all this digging? What is the point of living forever if it’s in a ruined world?

Several glasses littered the table now, as well as the stubs from spent cigarettes giving work to his idle hands. Muscovites were born such that a tolerance for alcohol was a necessity if a man hoped to do any sort of successful business here, so the glaze of stupor was proving difficult to attain. It was not a state Sören chased often. Even that failure curled displeasure to his lip.

Those words were stuck in his head too, like all his current troubles chose this moment of desired oblivion to parade his failures before him. He flicked some ash from his current smoke and watched the drift of patrons in and out of the bar; from the wash of its garish lights, and into the shadows that cloaked him on the outside table. None sought to join him in his vigil, though the hard planes of his expression did not particularly invite the trespass. He watched people often, though usually with more surreptitious a flare. Either way he rarely saw a world worth saving.

At that thought a grunt of derision vibrated his throat. The first form of a terrible idea, stemmed from a desire he knew better than to indulge. So he was drunk enough to recognise its stupidity, but not so sobre as to pluck the urge free from his skull.

Balancing the cigarette a moment between his lips, he pulled his wallet into his palm. The eye was still quiet in its cavity; he didn’t even want to think about it, let alone risk Paragon’s taint touching this call. He thumbed through the contacts before he finally hovered on one, paused, then set it to call. He lay the wallet on the table, smoke curling from his lips as he watched it ring.

It rang a long time, in fact, but no one picked up.

Sören watched the screen darken, jaw tight, and called for another drink.
It wasn't usually his thing to go out and drink, but after the week he'd had he figured a night out on the town alone was good for the soul. Not that it mattered, he had no friends. Those he had were dead now. Ivan was not a friend, and neither was the new one. Nox might have but he burnt that bridge with Yun Kao's protection of his family. And in the long run he hadn't needed it. His vision was short sighted. It usually was when it came to family.

It was Spanish Whiskey tonight - none of that watered down stuff that Ana would see he drank. 'You drink too much'. That's what she'd say. But she had no hold over him anymore. Cruz couldn't join him, not that his son was talking to him. At least Nox was - though grudgingly so. They at least had a common cause. With Cruz he didn't know anything.

The bar was full. It was hopping as they say, but Dorian barely noticed. He sat nursing his drink, he was on his third.

The man at the table next to him called for another drink his wallet lying on the table. He didn't look like the screwed up scientist type, he really didn't want to talk to them anymore than he had to. He'd had enough of the rich and pompous - himself included. If he could only be a little more like the obnoxious child Nox could be at times. Prim and Proper that's how his father wanted him. He'd balked at it most days growing up but in public it was always the same - even now. The suit neatly pressed, hiding the black ink that covered half his body. His father knew of course - Dorian made it a show of course when he'd gotten each piece. Though his father was didn't care much these days either. Cruz was his to mold away from under his feet now.

The man's call never picked up. Dorian wondered if they knew he was out drinking or just didn't want to talk to him. He could get the same results if he dared called Cruz or Ana at this moment. Neither of them speaking to him. But he'd just thought that and sighed, "Seems it's the times of not picking up calls." Dorian tossed across the space between their tables. "Sorry for the intrusion. Sorta my job to notice things." He didn't mean to pry. He wasn't going to ask. It wasn't any of his business.
It was for the best. Relief and regret curled behind his ribs. He rubbed a hand across his chest.

But still he thought blurrily of Declan in their hotel suite, tied to the family his travels left behind. Of the small child he called in the evenings while Sören made himself scarce. He had not even delivered the news personally afterwards, not wishing to be the pillar upon which Declan’s wife shed her grief. Financial compensation had been made. Declan’s own name credited discovery of the tomb. In such a memorial he would live forever.

Smoke curled from his mouth as he closed his eyes. The heat of his emotions made him angry, but moreseo the question of them, stirred by that damn dream. The shard he had stolen from the altar had been worth it. Wisdom demanded sacrifice, and this was but one more to burden. He would bleed every last drop of his own blood if he had to; make those slashes down his wrists and split open the veins himself. “Hon är inte min,” he murmured. But perhaps he would make his own assurances before the flight to Estonia.

His single eye glanced up at the intrusion, taking a moment to find the face. He doubted the veracity of the apology greatly given the drinker’s solitary nature at his own table, and usually it would receive little more than derision; if he’d usually choose to answer at all. He did not care what brought the other man out to nurse his own sorrows, or wished to find solace in another’s misery. It bred contempt, not company. Though then again, it beat the death rattle of his own thoughts, which were likely to see him err towards foolishness if he could not quell them quickly enough with the alcohol. After an unfocused moment he raised his glass in toast.

“Perhaps you are an ass,” he said. “Seems likely to be the case for me.”
The man spoke under his breath but Dorian was pretty sure it wasn't English, Russian, or Spanish, he'd recognize any of the three. He thought about opening his own wallet for a translation but the man wasn't really talking to him, until he was.

Dorian laughed. "My family and friends would likely agree with you." Dorian finished his current whiskey and waved for a waitress to ordered another. Ana certainly wood. Cruze likely would agree. And Nox had pretty much told him straight up he was an ass. So yes, they would agree. "Another whiskey and whatever he's having. An apology for interrupting his missed call."
“Then you already have a damn sight more than me.” He downed the drink and accepted the offer of the next without any thanks. Sören’s webs spanned great distances, but the people in them fell in neither category. He had been raised by money and minders, and perhaps the habit had never broken. Or if it had, that man was now dead. Of the rest he was unwilling to consider. “Eller kanske är jag den rika,” he added, his lips twisting in what might have been a smile or a grimace. It was a life he had neatly arranged after all, and with purpose, for the soothsayer’s future had never ceased its grip of his throat. People could be useful, and use them he did, but connections with others only ended one way; if it were not dive bars and a bottomless bottle, it was a black suit and funerary wreaths. Rather he had no friends or family to care at all.

His posture twisted a little, and he noticed a warm deadening in his limbs as he did so, so perhaps the drink was finally beginning its work. The stranger was on his blind side, which was an irksome reminder of why he was even here. He drew on the cigarette.

“Is this not the point where you curdle my ears with your tale of woe? Share the misery whether I wish to be bored by it or not? Perhaps I could use the distraction. Rather that than an apology.”
Dorian pulled his wallet closer and threw up a translator, so far he'd spoken twice and Dorian hated being ignorant of things. Specially if someone might be talking about him in a foreign language. He hadn't studied many - only Russian while he had gone to school here, but even that hadn't been for long. Spanish being his native language but learning English right along side - CCD's official language after all, but traditions ran strong in most countries still.

The man beside him had no friends and no family. That's how many Atharim were too. Dorian was like that too, before. But now as he got older, as the odds of his survival began to dwindle he saw family more clearly and he was losing it all. Old habits died hard. And it seemed he wanted a distraction. He recognized the man from a prior encounter however brief. Nox in peril yet again. When was the boy not? But his name he didn't get and he didn't speak to him prior.

Dorian didn't want to relay the whole sordid tale. It was his life, but there was humor in it all, that he could share. "It's a deary tale, one of love and betrayal on all sides." Dorian sipped at his renewed drink and pondered what it really was. "Mostly on my part, but some on theirs. My wife left me for another man I have known about for years. My son chose his friend over his father, and said friend nearly died because he was doing me a favor - twice."
“Låter som du skit i det blå skåpet*,” he said, half laughing bitterly to himself. It all sounded so mundane; the sort of life Sören had no desire for, filled with petty misunderstandings and betrayals. He tipped his fresh glass in another toast, perhaps only to himself this time, and drank to that. Self-served trouble was certainly a sentiment he could empathise with tonight.

“There are no dreary tales,” he said then to the stranger, “only dreary tellers. What else is a man but the story he spins for himself? And it’s a poor man who does not spin himself at the centre.” He smirked. His voice held something of the storyteller’s own cadence to it, a man used to weaving lies -- and that was true enough.

“Which of the tawdry three is your malady tonight? Or perhaps you are in the mood of indulgence, and choose to give each its own respect. You sound a dangerous man to do favours for.”

[[*sounds like you shit in the blue locker, an idiom that essentially suggests he thinks Dorian sounds like he got himself in trouble]]
Dorian glanced at his phone when he spoke again in the strange tongue. Swedish, interesting. Dorian couldn't help but laugh in agreement. Yes - that was for sure. He'd caused all his own problems first with Ana and then again with Nox. Which was the reason the rest of his problems had unfolded. Dorian had never expected his family to turn against him in favor of a boy they'd only known a few months.

"I could tell you all about the time I concocted a plan to marry my wife and her to father my child. And then how I later hired drives and pool boys for my wife's admiration before she settled on the steward of my house. But it's not what I did, or they did that drives me to drink tonight. It's the things I've seen. Men wielding power and monsters to their advantage, only to find out they walk again after you shoot them in the head three times. And a boy who is nothing but trouble sacrificing his own arm to do that favor I spoke of. You've met him, he leads a dangerous life all without my own. And I'm afraid he'll end up dead before he finds what he's looking for."

Even through all of the shit he had put Nox through the boy still worked with Domovoi. Even harder since the Ascendancy granted him priledges. And now he lost an arm - a fucking arm to the monsters. That was not a life Dorian had signed up for. Not even Martin could say he'd cut off his own arm for the cause. Dorian doubted most men would shoot themselves if they found out they could do what Nox did. And most wouldn't use it to hunt monsters. Power corrupts absolutely.

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