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The Square Root of Spy

#1
Carmelita huffed as she stood in the shadows of a bar, eyeing up each patron as they entered. After returning with the hostages liberated from the Silver Hand, she'd been swift to ask for a meeting with a Guardsman high-ranked enough to discuss her proposal. Upon being denied, she'd decided to try and get their attention with a few more displays of Interpol's finest at work.

That had been a month ago. She'd caught a few thieves, and received a slap on the wrist for doing a guard's work without permission. She'd brought in a list of criminals she'd staked out, only to be told that the majority had died in a brutal gang fight two hours earlier, and that the rest had fled the city. She'd even tried to curry favor with one of the nearby duchies, only to be turned away in favor of a 'more experienced' human detective.

That led her here. She would have given up and left by now, had she not stumbled across a recently used dead drop. Someone had fastened a package to the underside of a bench in an out of the way park in one of the non-human parts of Minas Tirith, and the freshly torn tape had given her a clue. Following that, it had been as simple as asking the groundsman, a spry old squirrel by the name of J'kotter, for descriptions of the last few people to pass by. One of them had been a quadrupedal pony with a scarred eye, a blue mane and tail and an azure coat, the other a seemingly human man whose face was hidden behind a blue mask and wearing a guards uniform.

And that, followed by a little subtle questioning and a few quick words, led her to this bar, hopefully to find out who these two were and what they were communicating straight from the horses mouth, ignoring the pun. So far, no dice. Winged bipeds, a dwarf, a couple of elves, and a centaur, but not a hint of the supposed patron Black Hoof, the scarred eyed pony of blue and azure who came in, supposedly as regular as clockwork, in order to drink a couple of pints of cider and buy a few cubes of salt. Carmelita shuffled the cloak tighter around herself, settling in to wait all night if she had to.
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#2
Late at night, with the majority of the patrons having left and the barkeep looking torn between bed and profit from the few remaining customers, the door swung open quietly. Carmelita, who’d been keeping herself awake by reading and filing paperwork on her eyepieces, glanced at the door to find that her lead had finally arrived.

Dressed in a light coat, and drenched in sweat, the pony trotted up to the bar and slammed down some coins onto the wooden surface.

“Two ciders and a salt lick.”

The barkeep nodded and began tapping one of the barrels lined up behind the bar. The first mug slid along the surface and was grabbed in the cleft of a foreleg, before being swiftly drained and slammed down on the surface. The second was cradled much more gingerly, the cube of salt being crunched beneath the ponies teeth as he stared at the wall.

Carmelita eyed him up. Black Hoof, assuming this was the same being that had been involved in the dead drop, was a mass of lithe muscle. His hooves were shod in dark grey felt boots, and the black shirt he had on had two grooves or pockets along his back. There were also strips of velcro, indicating that some other pieces of clothing were designed to be attached.

Once his drinks had been dunk and his salt cubes crunched, Black Hoof made his way to the door. Carmelita quietly pressed a thumb to her collar, and as soon as her cloak descended she trailed the pony outside.

She followed Black Hoof for almost half an hour, the pony glancing backwards as though expecting to catch a pursuer. After the fifth time, Black Hoof ducked into an alley, and Carmelita turned to follow.
As she did, she was met with an empty alley. The sound of a tile clattering down from the roof led her to glance up just in time to see Black Hoof disappear across the rooftops, blue tail flicking out of sight. Looking around, there was no way for her to climb up quickly enough to pursue. She’d lost him.

---

Chip frowned thoughtfully as Carmelita described what had happened.

++And you were thinking a grappling hook might be what you need? A mechanical version would be very heavy, even with monofilament wire and a proper magnetic latch.++

Carmelita sighed as she walked along the busy midday street.

“Well, it’s a shame that I don’t know any solutions to that. I mean, it’s not like either of us know how to magically remove the… weight… wait. Would magic be able to help with this?”

++I guess, but I know nothing about magic,++ Chip replied. ++And I’d be willing to bet Al doesn’t either.++

“Well then, I guess it’s up to me to find someone to help us. Talk later Chip.”

Carmelita closed the call and folded the eyepieces back into the earpieces, allowing her an unobstructed view of the streets around her. Blacksmiths, leather workers, bookshops, grocers stalls… what was she even looking for? A voodoo shop? A wizard tinker?

“No time like the present,” she muttered to herself as she set out through the city.
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#3
Carmelita had been looking all afternoon, walking round three different districts with shops. She had found trinket sellers, enchanted clothiers and widget makers, but none of them had been anything more than very limited magical creations. In the evening’s waning light, she spotted a blacksmiths. One of the weapons on display glowed an ethereal blue, and she entered in the hopes that she had found what she was looking for.

The inside of the shop was ill-lit, the majority of the light coming from the forge that was slowly cooling. A man, presumably the blacksmith, was snoring rather loudly as he rested behind the counter that separated the front of the shop from the back. As Carmelita approached, he gave a snort and sleepily scratched his belly beneath the large blacksmith’s apron he wore.

“Excuse me?” Carmelita knocked on the counter. “Are you awake?”

“Huh?” The man came to rather blearily, and stared over the counter with sleep still in his eyes. “Oh. What do you want?”

“I wanted to inquire about the glowing sword you have on display outside.”

“The magic sword? Well I can tell you that the price is-”

“I mean, the magic behind it. I’m in the market for a magic item.”

The man’s expression fell, and he wrinkled his nose in an unpleasant manner.

“Eh, then you’re out of luck. I got it enchanted to see if it would increase my custom. Didn’t work.”

Carmelita bit back the thought that his lack of customers was less to do with variety and more to do with his attitude, and instead smiled politely.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Might I inquire who performed the service?”

“Some fancy-pants wizard from Dalaran. Made me pay through the nose.”

“Where is Dalaran, might I ask?” Carmelita staunchly continued.

“Great flying city in the sky. Can’t miss it. Now go buy a pegasus flight and bugger off.”

With a little, shallow smile, Carmelita left the blacksmith’s behind. She brought up a few maps from the Dataverse on her eyepieces before scrolling through a few explanations of the omniphysics of flying vehicles and mounts. As she did so, she wandered through the streets until she found a suitably large plaza, mostly empty of people at this time of night.

Put off by her last experience, she had no desire to ride another equine. Instead she closed her eyes and carefully brought to mind the most memorable occasion she had flown in a vehicle: the first time she’d ever really talked with Sly. The blades whirring overhead, the cargo hold big enough for the two of them, the pilot unconscious and the helicopter set to fly in circles for hours on end. The omnilium rainbow flowed out and slowly took shape.

---

Eventually, the police helicopter was finished. After checking that the flight controls were ready, and all systems read green, Carmelita tentatively piloted the vehicle into the air.

The blades began spinning, and the spotlights mounted on the front of the helicopter showed dust flying away as she carefully pulled back on the controls and eased it into the air. Soon she had reached two hundred feet, and began making her way east, the lights of the city vanishing quickly behind her.

The flight quickly grew dull. With little to see below her on the now overcast night, and with no lights to guide the way, Carmelita pulled up above the clouds, startling a flock of what seemed to be tiny fairies made of mist as she did so. One of them flew alongside the cockpit for a bit, pulling faces in the dim light given out by the flight controls, before flitting away. An orange light alerted Carmelita that the cargo bay window was open, but she shrugged it off. She couldn’t get everything perfect on a first try.
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#4
Dawn was breaking as Carmelita blinked sleepily. Flying through the night had probably been an unwise decision, but without anywhere safe to land, she’d been forced to keep her attention on maintaining altitude and direction. Now, with the sight of a large floating rock in the distance, she could afford to find somewhere to nap.

She descended towards the ground, spotting a rocky outcrop with sheer sides all around. A defensible position to rest at, she carefully settled the helicopter down and spun the blades down. After taking a quick break to relieve herself and summon some food, she curled up in the cockpit and took a quick nap.

A few hours later, Carmelita blinked the sleep from her eyes and started up the rotor again, pulling up towards the massive rock that floated overhead. She circled a few times, looking for the best approach to make with the bustling lifts and pegasi that were taking off and landing from various platforms around the city’s edge, when a splash of colour caught her eye.

Below her, emerging from a few clouds, she spotted a very familiar quadruped with a blue coat and azure mane. Blackhoof, it seems, had been hiding a pair of wings under his clothes, and she followed him at a significant altitude as he made his way towards the city.

Dalaran from the air was an astonishing conglomerate of twisted streets, tall towers and old architectural styles. It reminded Carmelita a lot of some of the more elegant brick streets of London she’d visited in her time with Interpol, or perhaps the soaring towers of some Austrian chateaus. Banking to keep her quarry in view, she saw several omnibuses making their way along a central street, glowing ethereal stallions pulling the wooden double deckers on their rounds.

A backstreet, lit with gas lamp posts and lined with corrugated iron dumpsters appeared to be Blackhoofs destination. Pulling her chopper into a hover, Carmelita summoned her binocucom to zoom in on the building.

From outward appearances, it appeared to be an inn, the worn wooden sign proclaiming it to be the Druidic Dilettante. She shifted her view from the sign to the windows, seeing curtains being opened and what appeared to be a clockwork chambermaid replacing bedsheets.

All of a sudden, her vision was invaded an enormous frown, and she lowered the binocucoms to find her helicopter surrounded by several uniformed guards, each held aloft by a pegasus or other flying mount. The captain gestured angrily for Carmelita to follow them, and she carefully did so.

---

The guards escorted her to a vacated landing pad on one edge of the floating city, and as soon as she’d wound down the engine the captain strode over angrily.

“What do you think you’re doing, hovering over the city in a highly volatile piece of technology without a care for how your presence interacted with the ley lines? Did you even visit the flight approval office? Honestly, it’s not as if this is going to fit in any stables, and unless you were smart enough to call ahead and book a shed, this thing is going to have to be scrapped. Do you understand how lucky you were?”

Carmelita pinched the bridge of her muzzle.

“No, I don’t, Captain…?”

“Captain Flitburgh. Well then, let me explain. There are numerous leylines that crisscross the city, and sometimes the mages need to shift them through the airspace. If you had been caught, in a piece of technology that can’t automatically get out of the way, you could have suffered terrible magical consequences. Now, are you a prime or do I have to call the scrapping service?”

“I am a prime, Captain. Don’t worry, now I understand I’ll take care to discuss flight plans with the office you mentioned. I shall begin deconstruction immediately.”

“Good. See that you do.” At this, the guards remounted and returned to the air, the flight returning to circling the towers.
Carmelita sighed and turned to the chopper, preparing to desummon it.

“Wait!”

A small voice spoke up from within the cargo hold as the omnilium laced field began to encircle the craft. She pulled it back in surprise as a small human child, no older than ten, stumbled out, fear on her face.

“I’m sorry I snuck on board your vehicle, Miss Prime, please don’t hurt me!”

The child was scruffy, with a crop of messy red hair and an ill-fitted tunic of rough cloth. Carmelita couldn’t help but notice that the girl had no shoes, and looked horribly emaciated. The vixen knelt down and used a hand to lift the girls chin so they could look each other in the eyes. Carmelita’s brown eyes met soft green, and she smiled in as friendly a manner as she could.

“Don’t worry, little miss, I wouldn’t hurt you for doing something like this. You realise how dangerous it was, though?”

The child nodded.

“Now, where do you live? I can call the Minas Tirith guard and have them deliver a message to your family.”

“I don’t have a family, or a home.”

Carmelita’s heart fell, and she gently laid a hand on the child’s shoulder.

“Then follow me and I’ll get you something to eat. But first, let me deal with my vehicle.”

The child stood back and watched in awe as Carmelita desummoned the helicopter, slowly reabsorbing the omnilium that she’d used to construct it. After ten minutes, Carmelita took a moment to calm herself from the emotional whiplash before gently taking the child's hand and leading them to find somewhere to eat.
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#5
The streets of Damaran were a sight to see as Carmelita and her companion made their way towards where she hoped to find them some food. Magic interwoven with gas lighting and cobblestones that glowed faintly beneath clockwork hoof and steel capped boots alike were not the only sources of illumination as a small flock of birds wheeled overhead, piercing rays of green phosphorescence emerging from their throats with every firefly they ate. The sunlight itself was reaching a late gloom, and the cool of both altitude and damp was beginning to creep into the streets.

Carmelita led the girl to the right as she spotted a small cafe, the wooden sign illustrated with a glowing image of a blue blob with eyes and touting its name as the ‘Friendly Face Slime Cafe’. The two of them made their way to the glass windows, through which they could see a small number of patrons engaging in small conversation and petting and feeding cute globular creatures that bounced around, playing with toys and wearing items of clothing. In one corner of the glass door a sign had been placed that read ‘All our slimes are domesticated and deserve love! Please look after them as we look after you!’.

The vixen checked the child by her side. The human’s eyes had gone wide, soft green irises softening in awe as the girl stared at the sight.

“Shall we go in?” Carmelita smiled as red hair nodded vigorously in response.

A tinkle of a bell rang out as the door was pushed open, and the two of them stepped inside. A couple of patrons looked up at the sound, giving curious but not unfriendly looks at the blue-haired vixen and the dirty urchin alongside her. One of the servers, a humanoid being with blue tattoos along their pale skin that culminated at the tips of their pointed ears, made their way from where they had been relaxing behind the counter and walked carefully over to the door.

“Good evening! Guten abend! Welcome to the Friendly Face Slime Cafe!”

Carmelita nodded politely, pleased to note a small smile cross the server’s face as they glance down at the awestruck urchin by their side.

“Can I get the two of you a table?”

With another nod, Carmelita and the kid were led to a small table near the back of the cafe, where a small gaggle of slimes were clustered around a glowing purple stone that radiated heat. Occasional purrs and other animalistic sounds could be heard as the pile shifted around.

With the child distracted, Carmelita took the opportunity to order several items of food from the menu and, upon a moment’s consideration, a packet of feed pellets for the girl to offer the slimes. The server returned to what was presumably the kitchen area, leaving their coworker manning the till.

Once their food arrived, the two of them ate in relative silence. The girl seemed overwhelmed, so Carmelita was content to let her distract herself with feeding the slimes until after they had finished: after all, she had some thinking to do herself.
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#6
Once they had finished eating, the girl began twitching nervously. Carmelita smiled reassuringly.

“I should introduce myself properly. My name is Carmelita Fox-Cooper. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“... Jin. I’m Jin.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Jin. Can I ask why you wanted to be airborne so badly?”

“... I wanted to get to Damaran. I…”

Jin paused, looking around nervously before hopping out of her chair to whisper in Carmelita’s ear.

“I can make sigils.”

Carmelita carefully avoided showing the confusion that she had at what that meant, instead nodding thoughtfully.

“So you climbed on board to get up here. Do you have a plan?”

“They say artisans hire apprentices in Damaran. That if you can do magic, any magic at all, you can earn a living.”

“Hmm. And where will you live in the meantime?”

“I’ll find somewhere.”

Carmelita frowned slightly, as she pondered how best to continue the conversation. She couldn’t in good conscience leave Jin on her own, not when she was all too aware of the sort of trouble that could befall those alone in a city, and especially not when she knew the Cooper Gang’s own youthful troubles were born from similar circumstances, but at the same time she was in the middle of a potentially dangerous investigation, one that would be no place for a child.

“Jin, can I make you an offer of help? You may turn it down, but it may open some doors you would not get otherwise. I would like to find somewhere in Damaran that will give you food and board on my account, in exchange for keeping in contact with me.”

Jin’s eyes went wide, then narrowed.

“Why? What’s in it for you?”

“... If it makes you feel better, you can pay me back by listening out for strange happenings. Let me emphasise that that’s optional, nina, I’ll pay for the place regardless. I would feel bad letting someone young and brave be beaten down by circumstance.”

Jin’s eyes relaxed, and she scratched her hair with a sheepish smile.

“Okay then! You’re really kind.”

With a shared smile the two of them returned to petting the slimes.

---

After asking the cafe owner, Carmelita had been directed to a small cog makers on a nearby street that had a room to let, and after some haggling Jin’s room and board was paid for in a rolling deposit. Jin had been fascinated when Carmelita had created a sturdy communicator for her, and had held on to it like it was the most valuable thing she owned. Which, it occurred to the vixen as she left, it probably was. The girl had already struck a good rapport with the eldery couple that ran the workshop, and as Carmelita gave her her farewell she beamed up at her with a big, freshly washed grin before returning to talking about where she might find an apprenticeship nearby.

Having dealt with the unexpected stowaway, Carmelita returned to the task at hand. Waving down a magical cab, she asked to be dropped off near the Druidic Dilettante, the inn Blackhoof had entered. Hopefully despite the delays she would be able to pick up on his trail, maybe even tail him to whatever business he had in the city.
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#7
Carmelita entered the inn quietly, peering round the dingy room she’d entered with a little distaste. Even in a city of magic, some places seemed to be perpetually dirty: back alleys and grimey badly kept way houses appeared to be two of them.

It appeared that the inn had a few tables around the firepit, a dim grey flame the only source of light. A few half hearted murals of druidic figures stood half completed on one wall, a vague reference to the place’s name. Behind the bar a small cyclops, dressed in what once might have been a green robe, snored quietly in a pile of dishrags.

There were two other people in the inn’s common room: a small humanoid with a large bulbous nose and a staff that was perusing a large tome as he picked at a hunk of bread and Blackhoof himself, who was rummaging through saddlebags with his back to the door. Before anyone could look up at her, Carmelita pressed a thumb to her collar and let the stealth field activate, hiding her from view.

Her hopes that she wouldn’t have to stay there long were swiftly answered, as Blackhoof dropped a few coins on the bar with his mouth and put his saddlebags on his back, before exiting back out onto the street through the open door. Carmelita walked behind him, focusing on her suppression charm all the while to avoid letting sound or smell reach him.

The pegasus flapped his wings lazily and made his way up to the rooftop. Carmelita looked around for a way to follow, eyes locking on a drain pipe that she began to climb. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the blue tail vanishing over the crest of the roof, and she scaled the pipe as quickly as she could.

On the rooftops, she could see Blackhoof winging his way lazily from roof to roof, and grimaced. What was very easy for him was a difficult task for her. The vixen took a running leap and just about made the landing on the first roof. With her momentum she grabbed the crest and swung herself over, sliding down the incline before launching herself to the second. Fortunately, her efforts were rewarded by Blackhoof’s lazy pace, as she was just about able to keep pace.

They made their way towards one of the main thoroughfares, the morning sun illuminated a few guards as their mounts flew overhead. For a moment Carmelita wondered if she might be able to find out where Blackhoof went by following him with binoculars from a high vantage point, rather than attempting to tail him, but two streets before the main one Black hoof lazily flipped head over hooves before diving down into the street below. Carmelita smiled to herself, glad her persistence had paid off.

The feeling of satisfaction was quickly lost when she reached the street in question, however. The suspected ne’er-do-well had not dived down to walk the cobblestones, judging from the large open sewer entrance built into a storm drain, but had instead gone underground. Wearily, Carmelita dropped to the ground and jogged over to the sewer entrance.

She scanned the sewer map with a practiced eye, saving several pictures to her eyepiece as she did so. The last time she’d had to deal with sewers directly had been in a job in Rome, and unless she had no other option she’d rather not enter into the dark to get turned around and lose her tail. It seemed likely that Blackhoof wouldn’t leave a trail down there either, so she had to guess where he might be headed. Following a few open storm drains along the rough direction he had been going, and Carmelita had her best guess of where she might try and find him: the Artificer’s Quarter.
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#8
Following the main streets was fairly easy, but as she jogged through the streets Carmelita knew she was losing valuable time. The city layout was not particularly regular, and Blackhoof would make good time avoiding both aerial surveillance from the patrols of pegasus mounted guards and the complex city layout. It occurred to her that he must have a reason to be so concerned about being recognised.

She turned a street to find herself entering a morning market place, slowly filling with crafters of various kinds as they began hawking their goods to magicians and fellow artificers. Most of this area seemed to be selling spell components and ritual paraphernalia, none of which Carmelita recognised. Reviewing the image of the sewer system on her eyepiece, she estimated that the nearest cover was still a few streets away, and began to maneuver through the stalls. With a practiced gait, she strode past two hawkers who were arguing, slipped behind a rolling cart and ducked into a back alley.

The street wove into a narrow path, arches supporting the buildings that interweaved their second floors overhead. A left and a right kept her roughly on track, at least as far as she could tell, but soon she ran into a wall between her and where she thought the storm drain emptied. Carmelita doubled back, took the left fork instead and pressed herself to a wall to avoid a pair of young adults running and laughing, the human in front waving a wand over his head that was releasing bubbles in the shape of rude words. Another turn and she saw the storm drain opening in a small dead end.

Looking up, Carmelita could see the rooftops nearby were practically pressed together, a gap just wide enough to allow rainfall through that in no way would have allowed Blackhoof to ascend. Instead, if this was where he exited, he must be already out in the maze of backstreets. Hoping for good fortune, Carmelita doubled back.

---

A few quiet enquiries with a middle aged badger forging a scope of farsight had her headed in the right direction. The badger hadn’t seen the pony today, but had seen him several times in the past heading past his forge at odd hours.

She continued into an even tighter series of streets, occasionally asking individuals if they’d seen her quarry. Apparently she had been gaining: one old woman with ram’s horns and a pair of enchanted knitting needles said that the pony in question had passed by only a minute ago. As she took the next corner she almost missed a strain of a familiar voice: the same voice she’d heard ordering at the bar not too long ago, now frustrated.

“... and full price! Now you want us to barter in services instead?!”

“Keep your voice down, Blackhoof. I’ve already confirmed it with your fellows, as I understand it you are just here to collect the packages. The tall one, the antlered one with the long ears, she sorted it out, said that their funds could be put to better use and they’d happily save me the trouble.”

Carmelita followed the reedy voice to a small open window on the second floor, and glanced around for an entrance. The nearest doors were locked, and there was no time to try and find a way around. With the voices only just audible, it was unlikely she would be able to record the conversation either, and cursing the lack of a grappling hook, she settled in to listen, activating her cloaking field.

“If that’s sorted then,” Blackhoof replied. “Give me the packages so I can be off.”

“Oh no, I am not so foolish as to trust in your word, Black Hooved One: return in three hours, once your companions have eliminated my erstwhile competition. No matter the tiefling’s genius, a swift and sudden robbery at his workshop, with tragic consequences for its owner, will do him in. Do you not trust the skills of your allies?”

“Why is he a problem? Why not just take the cash, and not give me this bucking hassle?”

“Because, you who are testing my patience, Dextrous Brass has been harassing me night and day for the details of my alchemical work, and I know he has more than enough ‘moral fibre’ to hand me over to the guards the moment he catches wind of what my product is and to who it goes.”

“Fine, I’ll be back soon.”

Carmelita raised an eyebrow as Blackhoof emerged from the window and and headed back into the maze of streets again. Perhaps this Dexterous Brass might be willing to help her help him…
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