Hello there! If you’re here from my kickstarter, welcome. I promised a preview of the book, so here are the first three chapters for you. Without further ado… enjoy!
It’s dangerous, knowing something, Suken thought as he looked down from the rafters at the crying girl and her kidnappers. These idiots know their plan is foolproof. Know that the girl’s parents will pay any ransom to get her back. Know that the abandoned dye factory they’ve chosen as a hideout is safe and secure.
They were so secure in their knowing that the thought of anything going awry was unthinkable. Unplanned for.
And something was about to go very awry. The best up-and-coming bounty hunter in Adunare was about to spectacularly ruin their plans, and all the knowing in the world wouldn’t help them.
There are only two of them. I’ve faced worse odds, Suken thought, flipping a thin golden prayer-coin across the backs of his knuckles. The edges were smooth from the fingers of all the bounty hunters who had used it to ask for the Lady’s favor, the symbols on front and back nearly worn away.
This job was supposed to have been a simple missing persons case, but in Suken’s admittedly limited experience, nothing was ever as simple as you expected it to be. A runaway child, the warrant had said. When he’d discovered that she’d been kidnapped, he should have brought that information to the Bounty Hunter’s Guild. But if he did, he’d have to share the reward, fame, and prestige a successful rescue would bring. He needed to pay off his uncle’s debts to the cartels, but more importantly, he needed his reputation to spread.
It’s not like the girl’s in any real danger. Criminals they may be, but even criminals aren’t going to kill a ten-year-old girl. Especially not when keeping her alive will get them more ransom money.
Suken looked at the girl again. She huddled against an empty vat fifty feet away from the box of crystallin where the two men were sitting, playing cards. She watched them and sniffled quietly, a purple bruise blooming on her left cheek. He couldn’t remember her name, so he named her Flower.
“What we waitin’ for?” One of the men asked, tapping a deck of cards on the box of crystallin. Suken wouldn’t sit with a box of that flammable shit between his legs for all the aerans or prayers in the city.
Add another point to the stupidity tally, he thought, rolling his eyes. And, to make matters worse – or better– they’d left a metal-bound dagger lying on the table. Silver inlaid into the steel of the blade and wrapping the hilt indicated that the weapon was imbued with stored power by some mage or another.
The man began shuffling, thick fingers deftly maneuvering the battered cards. His arms were muscle-bound and covered with remembrance blooms. Looks like he could squeeze the piss right out of you if he managed to get those arms around you, Suken thought, pulling a heavy cloth from his belt and pulling it tight around his mouth and nose, tying it behind his head. Python, then.
“We got the girl, don’t we?” Python continued, dealing out a hand to his partner. “What else we need? I could go now, deliver the bloody ransom note, and we could be hittin’ the Rum Tub by midnight.”
Suken unslung his crossbow from his leg and pulled a bolt with a silver tip from the case at his belt, placing it into the channel, careful not to touch the silver.
I’ll only get one shot at this. But then, when have I ever needed more than one shot? He couldn’t toss a prayer to Lady Chance; not now. But he mentally promised the goddess her rightful tithe, knowing that she’d hear him. That done, he crouched down and waited for Descent, his heart thundering in his chest.
“I’ll deliver the note,” the second man said, and as the words left his lips, his face ran like melted wax, shifting and changing into that of a nondescript man in his early twenties.
Suken grinned, clenching his fist around the prayer in his left hand. Bringing in a pair of kidnappers and saving a little girl was great and all, but a shifter? That would put him up to rank three at least.
“You’re being paid well for your time,” Shifter continued.
“Not well enough,” Python said, examining his cards. “’specially when I ain’t heard what we’re ransomin’ for. How much we getting’?”
Shifter threw him a dark look over his hand of cards. “You’ll get what you were promised, and not an aeran more.”
Right on time, the beam below Suken’s boots began to vibrate. Below, the kidnappers braced themselves, placing their hands on their possessions so they wouldn’t rattle off of the box.
Suken reached down and tapped on the little nub of silver protruding from the back of the bolt with one finger.
Tiny white and purple sparks began to spit from the silver as the convergence activated, bouncing off the crossbow’s wooden handle.
Outside the windows, Suken saw the familiar mist beginning to roll through the streets as the city descended deeper into the perpetual cloudbanks shrouding the rainforest below.
Four. Three. Two . . .
The shuddering stopped, and the lights in the dye factory flickered and went out as the city drew upon all remaining magical energy to stabilize.
In the moment of darkness, Suken released his pent-up breath and squeezed the trigger. The string released with a twang and the bolt whistled towards the box below as Suken’s hands, quick as caal-fire, yanked back the lever to reset the string and drop a new bolt from the magazine into the channel. This new bolt wasn’t metal-bound; it was too dangerous to keep those in a magazine.
Suken heard a thud as the metal-bound bolt implanted into the box. Then the lights came back on.
For half a heartbeat, Shifter and Python stared at the new decoration gracing their table. Then they scrambled away as blue-white energy crackled from the bolt to arc over the scarred wood and across the metal of the dagger, activating whatever convergences had been stored in the blade in a dull whump. The box went up in a great gout of fire which smelled of bad fish. The explosion rattled the rafter Suken crouched on.
Bad luck for you, boys, Suken thought with a grin hidden by the cloth. Excellent luck for me. As usual.
Dust poured from the ceiling following the concussive blast and smoke rose from below. They met in the middle like two stormclouds crashing into one another, shrouding the factory in an acrid, swirling fog mirroring the mist outside. Between the smoke and the afterimages dancing in his eyes, Suken didn’t see if either of the men had been knocked unconscious by the blast. Oh well. He’d find out soon enough.
He kicked the coil of rope lying beside his foot. It unraveled down towards the floor as shouts of alarm and pain began below.
Suken hung his crossbow from the hook on his belt and grabbed the rope in both hands, lowering himself hand over hand into the roiling smoke. One of the two of them was roaring at the other, and Flower’s panicked cries joined the cacophony.
Hold on, Suken thought. I’m gonna get you out of here, kid. As soon as I knock your new buddies around a little.
He dropped to the floor, the cloth blocking the worst of the smoke. His eyes stung and watered, making it difficult to make out which blurred shape in the billowing clouds was which. Flower let out a loud cry, followed by a bout of coughing.
Suken knelt and waited, listening. Nothing. Apparently the kidnappers were waiting, too.
Well, he couldn’t sit here all night. The smoke was going to clear out eventually. Time to throw a prayer and hope the Lady likes me today.
“What kind of idiots,” he called, “would choose a dye factory for their base of operations?”
A grunt, and footsteps to his right.
Suken raised his crossbow, tracking the footsteps with it. “All the good locations already taken by the real criminals?” he continued. “You know . . . the ones not resorting to kidnapping ten-year-old girls?”
Python burst from the smoke and skidded to a halt, his eyes widening, staring at the loaded crossbow pointed right at him.
“Hey,” Suken said. He loosed the bolt towards the man’s leg. A shattered kneecap was a damned good way to keep a mark from making a run for it. But Python took a hurried step backwards, tripping over a broken chair. Suken’s bolt, intended for the man’s knee, buried itself in his abdomen instead.
“Damn it,” Suken said through gritted teeth. Such a wound was often fatal, and Suken wasn’t the type of hunter who brought his warrants in dead. Criminals were assholes, yes, but it wasn’t Suken’s place to pronounce guilt or sentence them. That that was for the law to decide, no matter what the warrants said.
He hurried forward and knelt beside Python. The older man groaned, both hands pressed over the wound. His shirt was already soaked through with blood.
“Stop pressing on it,” Suken snapped, reaching into a case at his belt and pulling out a little vial of bloodweir. The stuff was worth a mage’s ransom, but Suken could save up for another couple months and get more. This man would die without it. He pulled the stopper free with his teeth and yanked the bolt from the wound, then poured the bloodweir over it to mix with Python’s blood.
It wouldn’t stop the bleeding completely, but it would slow it enough for Python to get medical care in time to save his life.
He heard the footstep behind him a half a second too late.
Something slammed down onto Suken’s shoulder with a blinding burst of pain. Suken swayed for a moment, the already hazy smoke-filled world growing dim and unfocused. He gritted his teeth against the pain and lurched his way into turning to face his attacker, then dodged back to avoid a broken piece of wood lashing at his face. The jagged end of the broken chair leg Shifter was wielding knocked Suken’s wide-brimmed hat off backwards, but it blessedly missed damaging anything important this time. Suken dropped to his hands and knees, then darted to his right into a thick bank of smoke.
Shifter tried to follow him, but he wasn’t quick enough. Suken dodged back and forth through the smoke, blinking and trying to ignore the pain in his left shoulder. He took a moment to try to lift his arm, and managed to get it to shoulder height before a wave of blinding pain shot from his shoulder up his neck. He gasped and let his arm drop back to his side. Not good. He pressed his back to a stack of boxes and peered around the corner. No sign of Shifter. Suken rested his crossbow against the ground, bracing it with one foot so he could pull the lever back with his good hand to reload it. He’d nearly finished when a dark shape loomed out of the smoke to his left.
Suken ducked under Shifter’s first clumsy swing, spinning and bringing his crossbow around to crack against the side of the man’s head. Shifter took the hit, reeling back into the smoke bank. He didn’t reappear. Suken glanced at his crossbow, but in the smoke he couldn’t tell if it was damaged.
No time to worry about that now.
Shifter probably wasn’t feeling too great after that blow to the head, and Flower wasn’t screaming anymore, which could be either very good, or very, very bad. Suken had thought that Shifter wouldn’t risk killing a ransom. Could he have been wrong?
He shoved those doubts aside and concentrated on the present.
The smoke was beginning to clear, blown to wispy shreds by a warm, wet wind smelling of ash and rot from the nearby incinerators. Suken saw the curved wall of one of the vats looming out of the smoke, and darted over to press his back to it, his shoulder alternating between throbbing and jagged bolts of pain. He winced and braced his crossbow against the ground again. The lever pulled back harder than usual, and the weapon made a strange clunking noise as the bolt fell into the chamber.
Suken winced. That didn’t sound good.
“You’re not bad,” a gruff voice called, then coughed. “Whoever you are. But you’re not good enough.”
Shifter. The smoke had dispersed enough for Suken to see that his hiding spot was little more than a narrow alleyway between two huge vats, closed off on the far side by the outer wall of the factory. The voice had come from the other side of the vat he had his back pressed against, the same area where he remembered seeing Flower.
Chances were good that Shifter had no idea where he was. He could use that. He reached down into the prayer-pouch hanging from his belt as the man continued, “This ends here, hunter. Come on out, nice n’ slow. Lay down your weapons, and no one needs to die.” The girl cried out, then the factory went silent save for her muffled sniffles.
Suken hesitated, the thin beaten gold of the prayer warm against his fingertips. He wanted to take these men, but even he wasn’t willing to put anyone’s life at risk to further his career, especially that of a little girl.
He won’t kill her, Suken reminded himself. If he does he’ll get no ransom, and he’ll be bumped up from a fourth rank warrant to third. Maybe even second. No one’s stupid enough to risk the scaffolds for a kidnapping.
If I let Shifter walk away now, he’ll go to ground with her. He’ll give her father his ransom demand, and the old man’ll pay it. But Shifter won’t hand her over. Why should he, when he can continue to bleed a desperate father dry?
Suken read stories like this in the broadsheets twice a month. Honesty wasn’t a trait that the criminals of Adunare held in high regard, not when there was a rain-barrel full of aerans to be made.
Suken didn’t care about how much money the kid’s father stood to lose. But he did care about Flower. An experience like that would scar a kid for years, if not a lifetime. He’d already irreparably scarred one child in his life. He wouldn’t see it happen again, not if he could stop it.
He balanced the coin on the back of his thumb and his bent index finger, whispered a prayer to the Lady for luck, and flicked it.
The coin flipped end over end towards the far side of the factory before hitting the ground with a dull clink and bouncing across the wooden floor. Suken stood and stepped around the curve of the vat, his crossbow already raised. He adjusted his aim as Shifter came into view, kneeling with the girl in front of him, a knife to her throat and his head turned towards the place where Suken had thrown the coin.
Suken took a half-second longer to aim than he usually did since he didn’t have his other arm to support the bow, then squeezed the trigger.
As the string released, the bolt jammed in the channel, wood splintering and flying in all directions. The string snapped with a dull twang, one end whipping back to slice across the back of his hand, lashing through his thick leather glove and the skin beneath it. Suken dropped the weapon on reflex, and it thunked to the floor.
Shit, he thought with a wince. Of all the bloody–
Shifter whirled towards him, hurling the knife he’d been holding to the girl’s neck. Suken ducked back behind the vat, panting. That had been a near miss. He’d felt the wind of the knife’s passing. Auriss’s kiss, his uncle had always called it.
He edged close to the side of the vat again and peered around the rounded corner. The smoke had dissipated enough to give him a clear view of Shifter and Flower. The kidnapper faced him, his eyes narrowed, one hand clutching the girl’s shoulder. He must have drawn another knife from the bandolier slung over his shoulder, for he had it pressed against the girl’s throat again.
Suken took a deep breath and stepped out into the open. He raised his right hand, palm out. Blood soaked his sleeve from the gash in the back of his hand, staining the cloth the crimson of a sicario’s tattoo.
“Don’t hurt her,” he said, spotting his crossbow lying on the ground a few feet away. It was too far for him to reach without giving the man ample time to part the girl’s skin and let her life drain out all over the floor. Oh well. Not like the weapon would have done Suken much good with a snapped string and a jammed bolt anyway. He’d have to rely on brains instead of brawn. Thankfully he was almost as quick with his wits as with his hands.
“Get out,” Shifter snarled, his eyes fixed on Suken. The hand holding the knife was rock-steady. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“I’m stopping you from making the biggest mistake of your life,” Suken replied.
Shifter tightened his grip on the girl. “I’m leaving,” he said, “and she’s coming with me.”
He had the look of an animal backed into a corner. His eyes were a little too wide, his posture too still. Suken had seen that look before, and knew better than to make any moves that the man might construe as threatening. He bit back the gibe that rose to his lips, instead taking the time to consider his words and the effect they would have on the man standing in front of him.
Shifter had reasons for what he was doing. Money, probably. It was almost always about money down here in the Valley. He probably needed it to pay off the cartels, and unlike Suken, he didn’t give a monkey’s diseased shit who he hurt in the process so long as it saved his own skin.
The girl shuddered, her red-rimmed eyes fixed on Suken’s face. Tears had tracked clean lines through the dust caked on her face. She knew that Suken would help her. That he’d save her. He saw it in her eyes.
Suken wasn’t about to let her down.
“You’re not getting out of here,” Suken said. “Not with her, or without her. But if you let her go and come quietly, you won’t be charged with the murder of a child. The child of a rich lord, I might add. Old Garron’ll be able to buy any judge in the damned city. Kill her and you won’t live to see daybreak.”
“Lord Garron,” Shifter snarled, “isn’t who he pretends to be.”
“I don’t give a damn who he is,” Suken said. “The way I see it, you’ve got two choices.” He lifted one blood-stained finger, ignoring how his hand throbbed. “One, you drop that knife and get charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault. Two,” he lifted a second finger and pitched his voice down, “You kill the girl, and I make sure that you regret that decision before I turn you over to the guards. You’ll keep regretting it until they march you to the Arrival Circle and fit the noose around your neck.” He took another step forward, lowering his voice still further. “It’s not too late. No one has to die here today.”
Shifter’s eyes darted to the closest door and back to Suken.
Suken saw what he intended in one moment of horrified realization.
He’d known that Shifter wouldn’t kill Flower.
But knowing things was dangerous.
Shifter grabbed the girl’s wrist and whirled her around, pulling her arm up. Suken started towards them, but he was too far away. He’d only made it two steps before Shifter sliced the girl’s arm from wrist to elbow, digging the knife into the flesh and along the vein. She screamed, blood beginning to spurt from the open wound.
Shifter dropped the girl and ran for the door. Suken let him go, dropping to his knees beside Flower and pulling his cloth from his face.
“Hey,” he said, giving her a smile as he grabbed her wrist and pressed the fabric of the cloth against it. “Look at me, kid. Everything’s going to be all right. You hear me?” Warm blood suffused the cloth alarmingly fast. Flower didn’t reply. She cried in huge gasping sobs, tears streaming from her face.
He reached for his case, but cursed when he realized that he’d already used his only vial of bloodweir on Python.
Suken glanced towards the door. There would be people out there by now, drawn by the smoke and the shouting. Probably standing around chatting with one another about what was going on inside.
“I need help in here!” he shouted. “Someone, please!”
The girl kept crying, and Suken kept pressure on the wound, but no one entered the door.
Bloody Valley district, Suken thought, gritting his teeth. Someone ready and willing to fuck you over on every street corner, but Chance forbid you ever find yourself in need of some help.
He heard a groan to his right, and turned to see Python roll to his hands and knees, crawling towards the door.
He was going to lose them. Lose them both.
But that didn’t matter. Not anymore. There was only one person in this warehouse Suken was concerned with losing now.
“We’re going to go and get you help,” he told Flower, giving her his most reassuring smile. “But I’m going to need to pick you up, and while I do that I need you to press down hard, right here where my hands are. Can you do that for me?”
She met his eyes, her crying fading into hiccupping sobs. She was growing pale, little red splotches standing out on her pale cheeks. “I want my d-daddy,” she whispered, her lip trembling.
“I know,” Suken said, feeling as if his heart were constricting in his chest. Somehow he managed to keep that reassuring smile on his face. “I know. We’re going to go and find him. But to get to him, we have to play a game. To win, you have put your hand here, and press down real hard. As hard as you can.”
She looked down. At the sight of the blood coating his hands and soaking her dress, her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp.
Suken swore under his breath and looked at the door again. Still no one. Lady’s breath, he’d seen at least fifteen people out there from the roof before he’d come in. Someone had to be within hearing distance.
“Help!” he tried again. “For fuck’s sake, there’s a little girl dying in here!”
He shook his head and turned his attention back to Flower. Putting pressure on the wound was helping, but not enough. She was still losing blood. He had to get her to an ardein. The closest Temple was a half hour pathway ride away, but as long as she held out until they got there, the ardein could save her. The guild could pay the damn fee out of his wages. He didn’t care . . . as long as she lived. He hesitated another moment, then took a deep breath and pulled his hand away, tying the cloth as tightly around the girl’s arm as he dared. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said to her unconscious form as he pulled the knot tight. “You hold on until I get to an ardein, and I’ll make sure the bastard who did this to you gets a pounding he won’t forget. All right?”
Her eyelids fluttered, but didn’t open. He lifted her, ignoring the pain in his left shoulder, and starting loping towards the door. He exited into the warm wet air of the Valley District and the reek of trash, urine and soot. What he could see of the buildings lining the street through the mist were dirty and rundown, mostly abandoned factories or warehouses with their windows boarded up. One leaned forward over the street like a drunkard, half of its second floor collapsed inward. People in soot-stained uniforms or beggars’ rags wandered by, giving the dye factory a wide berth. They ignored Suken and the blood-soaked girl in his arms, and he wished them all the Rotting Death.
He began to run through the Valley District. Buildings and beggars, slaves and pickpockets lurking in dark alleyways all blended together as he ran. He ignored his pain, ignored the wary looks the poor gave him, ignored the piles of trash he leapt over and the calls of whores and the taunts of men lounging outside of bars.
He ran as fast as he ever had chasing a mark, but it wasn’t enough. Halfway to the pathway station, he felt Flower give one little shuddering breath and cease breathing.
He stopped in the middle of the street, panting, staring at her. People walking by gave him furtive looks as they passed. Suken set Flower down on the soot-stained cobblestones, uncertain of what he should do. He tried untying the cloth, planning to put pressure on the wound again, but as he did, he saw that the bleeding had stopped.
There was no longer a heart beating to drive it.
He looked up at the people walking by him. Some threw him disdainful looks, but no one stopped. Another dead kid in the Valley . . . nothing to write a broadsheet story about. Not one of them cared.
I care, Suken thought, reaching up to press a finger against Flower’s chin to close the girl’s mouth. He brushed her hair back from her still face, then reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled free a prayer, unable to wrench his gaze from the girl’s face. With trembling fingers he took her hand and placed the prayer on her palm, closing her fingers over the blood-smeared gold.
Her hand was so small. Like his brother’s had been, the last time Suken had seen him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, bowing his head and closing his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
He sat there holding her hand in the middle of the street until the guards finally showed up an hour later.
Suken made his way down a narrow street towards the edge of the merchant’s district in the bright light of early morning, houses and stores looming over him on either side. Suken barely noticed the crowds of people as he walked, head down, wide-brimmed leather hat pulled low to hide his eyes and the bruise blooming high on his right cheek. People glanced at him as they passed, but they didn’t stop to question him or ask if he were all right, despite the blood spattered on his tan pants and soaking the sleeves of his off-white shirt.
The crossbow probably had something to do with that. Citizens recognized a bounty hunter when they saw one, and knew that it was a good idea to keep their distance. Even from one as young as Suken.
A lot of good the bloody crossbow did me last night, he thought, kicking at a loose stone as he walked. Chance, the girl’s mother . . . her eyes, when the guards had told her . . .
Suken tried to shove the memory away, but it lingered like a bad hangover. He hadn’t been permitted to go with the guards to deliver Flower’s body, so he’d followed them and waited across the street, concealed in the shadows of a vine-covered glass awning. He’d watched as a servant opened the door, then ran to fetch Flower’s mother and father. Suken had a horrible suspicion that that mother’s eyes filling with horrified disbelief and tears would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Flower’s father had stared in disbelief. He’d reached out once, his fingertips brushing against his dead daughter’s cheek, then turned and walked away, leaving his wife to collapse to the floor, screaming in anguish.
Lord Garron’s not what he seems, Suken had remembered Shifter saying.
From where he’d stood, Lord Garron had looked like any parent would after hearing that they’d lost a child.
After he’d left, Suken had stopped at one of the many remembrance artist’s parlors dotting the merchant’s district. The woman had asked no questions, going about her business in quiet efficiency, the lei-powered machine buzzing as she added another remembrance bloom to the ever-growing garden climbing up Suken’s left forearm. This was the fifth bloom he’d gotten, the inked lines tracing memories and regrets across his flesh.
He stopped at a pathway crossing as a rail-car swept along the silver tracks set into the street, bluish white streaks of magical energy trailing in its wake. The pathways crisscrossed the floating city like a spider web, looping over and under the streets to convey their passengers from place to place. Like most things in Adunare, they were powered by the energy mages bound into metal. The wind from the rail-car’s passing pulled at his serape, and he raised his uninjured hand to hold the brim of his hat. Suken glimpsed faces staring out of the well-lit windows; barely blurs, suggestions of eyes and hair and hats. The last car swept past with a rattling shriek and one last rush of warm, humid wind, revealing the fifteenth precinct of the City Guard.
The precinct was a riot of activity even this early in the morning. Suken opened the door, ignoring the twinge of pain in his shoulder, and held it for a guard in iridescent armor dragging a criminal through the doors. The guard nodded to him, and Suken lifted his bloody fingers to the brim of his hat in response. The criminal, a brawny man wearing a scarred leather vest and a ragged shirt and pants, growled curses under his breath as he struggled against the chains binding his wrists behind his back. Suken followed the two into the lobby of the station, glancing around. The benches lining the walls were full of hunters and civilians, waiting to sign up for warrants or fill out paperwork. There weren’t enough seats, so the rest stood in a loose crowd near the front desk, where a harried-looking young woman sat, surrounded by stacks of paper. A few guards filtered through the crowd with papers clipped to wooden boards, calling out names. The only guard wearing his armor was the one with the brawny criminal who had now made it to the front desk. The others wore well-pressed grey uniforms under their iridescent cloaks.
The hunters were simple to pick out due to the weapons they carried. Some wore small crossbows like Suken’s, but just as many favored metal-bound knives, clubs, or swords. One man in the corner had a spear. Idiot, Suken thought as he followed in the wake of the guard and his catch. Hunting was difficult enough without a weapon like that sticking up over the heads of the crowd, giving away your position to every potential mark in a ten yard radius.
He took a deep breath of the warm air and let it out slowly. He wasn’t looking forward to this report, but it had to be done.
Suken waited as the young woman behind the desk, Kora, directed the guard to an open cell. Suken stepped forward. She looked up at him, the necklace of glass beads around her neck catching the light of the luminaries in flashes of various colors. Those beads must have cost her a pretty prayer – they were mage-glass, unless Suken was mistaken. Kora was pretty, with a heart-shaped face and full lips and thick dark hair pulled back into a braid. Unfortunately, that prettiness was soured by a scowl.
“Anisaria,” she said flatly.
“You remember me,” Suken said with a forced smile, resting his elbow on the counter and lifting the brim of his hat. “I’m flattered, Kora. You know–”
“State your business.”
Suken allowed his face to fall. “Can I at least ask you how your vacation was?”
“Do I look like I have time for chit-chat?” She gestured to the crowd of people in the lobby. “State your business.” She picked up a stamp and slammed it down onto a piece of paper so hard that it made Suken flinch, then handed it to a guard who approached her from the side.
“Here to make my report on last night’s job.”
Kora gave another piece of paper a mild concussion with her stamp. She set it down and pulled an unbludgeoned piece of paper from one of the stacks, handing it over the counter to him. “Take this and have a seat. They’ll see you when they can.” Suken turned, scanning the crowd. All the spots on the benches were occupied. He took his form and walked over to an empty stretch of wall between two benches.
Filling in the form and returning it to Kora took ten minutes. Suken spent the next hour leaning against the wall with his sketchbook open in one hand and his pen in the other. Sketching usually helped to clear his head. He started with Kora, removing that scowl (it added about ten years to her looks. She looked much better with a smile) and moving on to a quick sketch of Flower, smiling as she played with a puppet. Maybe he’d deliver it to Flower’s mother, anonymously, of course.
Suken sighed and snapped his book closed, wondering how much of a chewing-out he was about to get.
A guard in a pristine grey uniform gave him a disinterested look over the top of his clipboard. “This way.” He turned, and Suken pushed himself away from the wall to follow him, muttering apologies to the people he pushed past in the crowd as he went. The guard led him through a thick wooden door and down a narrow hallway lined with open and closed doors. The open ones displayed rooms small and large, most holding only a single desk and two chairs. In one, a guard leaned forward over a table, his face red and cords standing out in his neck. The criminal he was staring down looked back at him across the table with a smarmy smile and a relaxed posture. The next room boasted a gigantic map of the city, taking up the whole wall and criss-crossed with colored strings. Notes and warrants were tacked haphazardly to the wall around it. The guard paused outside of a closed door and rapped on it once.
“Come,” a muffled voice from within said. The guard opened the door, then stood aside so Suken could step in. As he did, he the floor began to vibrate in Ascent. The empty ceramic mugs on the man’s desk rattled and several pieces of paper fell from the corner of the desk. The man sitting behind the desk muttered a curse under his breath, reaching out to steady a framed picture. It was clearly a family portrait; similar to the one Suken had hanging in his own study. A much younger version of the man behind the desk stood in the center of the drawing, with his arms around the shoulders of a pair of little girls, their hair bound in twin braids and their faces lit by huge smiles. A woman stood behind him, her dark hair hanging loose to below her shoulders.
It was a decent drawing. Suken could have done better. Outside, the mist faded into sunlight and the vibration of Ascent ceased.
The man himself was a stark contrast to the disorder of the room. His grey uniform was neatly pressed and he wore three knots of rank on the shoulders. Three knots, Suken thought with a sinking feeling. That’d make you Corporal Niden. The highest-ranked officer at the precinct.
That didn’t bode well.
Niden’s ash-blond hair was held back in a tail at the nape of his neck, and his short beard was meticulously trimmed. He was paler than most people Suken knew, his skin nearly as light as cream. Niden glanced up at Suken, his eyes hard and cold as brushed steel.
“Anisaria,” he said. “Sit.”
The guard who had led Suken here closed the door, trapping him in the room. As Suken sat down in a hard-backed wooden chair, Niden turned his gaze back to a piece of parchment in front of him, picking up a simple pen. “You’re making a bit of a name for yourself,” he said.
“Just a bit?” Suken said, though his nerves felt like exposed metal-bound silver. “Pretty sure I’m the youngest hunter ever to receive his license, and I brought in more warrants in my first year than–”
“Four low level cases,” Niden said, flipping one of the papers in front of him over and looking at the back. A remembrance bloom of his own peeked out from the hem of the sleeve of his uniform, mirrored by another on the other wrist. “Two mid-level, not counting the ten or so rank fives you brought in before you got your license.” He looked up. “Clearly, you have talent. So perhaps you can enlighten me as to why such a promising young hunter with a sterling record wouldn’t come to us for backup as soon as he knew that he was outnumbered?”
Suken winced. “I thought I had a better chance of taking them out on my own, sir.”
“Not a mistake you’ll be making again, is it.”
No, Suken thought, looking down at his blood-stained hands. No, I won’t be making that particular mistake again.
“I see from your report that you tracked the girl to the factory, where you managed to take down three of the four men,” Niden said, still not looking at Suken.
“Your report claims that the fourth, the one who escaped, was mage-born. A shifter. Are you certain?”
“Yes, sir. Positive.”
Niden’s expression soured a little at that, but he only nodded. He picked up a pen and began scribbling something on the paper in front of him. “Anything else you can tell us about him? Physical identifiers, other than his face?”
Suken gave him as good of a description as he could, and Niden jotted it all down, though Suken had included a sketch with his report. He waited a moment as the corporal finished writing, then took a deep breath. “Sir,” he said. “The man who I shot. . . is he all right?”
“Yes, though it wouldn’t have been a great loss had he died.” The corporal sifted some sand over whatever he’d been writing to blot it. “He’s worked as a sicario for the cartels in the past.”
Suken let out a little breath in relief, feeling as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. “I was hoping,” he said carefully, “that I might be able to continue on this case. I know that it’s probably a rank two now, but seeing as how I was the only one who actually saw him. . .”
“You’re being pulled to work on a different case.”
Suken blinked. “But, sir–”
Niden speared him with a hard look.
Suken swallowed and closed his mouth.
“All hunters not currently on assignment are being assigned to the Greencloak case,” Niden continued.
Suken looked up. “All the hunters?”
“That’s what I said.”
“I. . . thought Greencloak was a rank one, sir.”
“He’s been given priority,” Niden said, sliding a copy of the Greencloak warrant across the table along with a signed permit. “Word came down from the High Mages last night.”
Suken had seen the Greencloak warrant a hundred times, tacked up on walls everywhere hunters were likely to show up. The sketch was vague and shadowy, depicting a man in a cloak with his face half-hidden in the depths of the hood. Below the picture, a block of cramped text listed the man’s crimes.
Larceny. Grand larceny. Forgery. Several counts of each. In the case of grand larceny, the number was in the double digits, almost a hundred.
And three counts of murder.
That’s new, Suken thought. The thief had been getting a reputation in the past couple of years as being uncatchable. Rumors about him flew more thickly than flies around a rotting fruit. But Suken had never heard anything about the thief killing anyone.
He looked up. “Sir, about the shifter–”
“Forget it,” Niden interrupted. “If I see you walk in the door with that shifter before the Greencloak case is closed, you can kiss your license goodbye, Anisaria. This is your highest priority. Any information you find about Greencloak, you bring directly to me. Understood?”
Guy’s wound tighter than a cocked crossbow, Suken thought. Well, at least I’m not being demoted a rank, or having my license taken away. His relief was tempered by a touch of anger that the shifter was going to be free to run around until Greencloak was eventually caught.
“Understood, sir,” he said.
“Dismissed,” Niden said, turning his attention back down to the clutter on his desk.
As he walked out of the precinct, Suken paused to pull a prayer from the pouch at his belt, thinking.
Word among the other hunters was that Greencloak was well-nigh uncatchable. Dozens of first rank hunters had tried to find him, and had as much luck at it as trying to catch a cloud in their bare hands. Suken had never tried, being fifth rank. But now that he had a shot. . .
Could he find Greencloak? He had a lot of contacts in the Valley, where Greencloak was rumored to operate. And he was good, better than most of the first rank hunters who had tried, despite what the guild believed. Suken started idly flipping the prayer along as his knuckles.
If I catch him, he thought slowly, the reward will be. . . well, more than I’ve earned on any of my other jobs combined. Not to mention the marks towards my rank. It’d definitely put me up a rank, maybe two.
But what about Shifter? Suken flipped the coin up and caught it, looking at the symbol carved into the gold. Seven lines, forming a crude crown shape. Suken closed his hand around the coin. Something heroic, eh? He thought. What could be more heroic than bringing in the killer of a ten-year-old girl?
But he couldn’t show up here with the shifter before Greencloak was caught.
So I’ll find Greencloak first. While I’m chasing him, I’ll ask around after Shifter. I’ll get a few solid leads on the shifter, bring in Greencloak, then get the jump on any other hunters on Shifter’s trail. He’d be able to kill two birds with one bolt: secure his career and reputation as the best hunter in the city, and bring Shifter to justice.
He’d just have to make sure that he found Greencloak quickly. The sooner he brought the thief in, the sooner he could begin chasing Shifter in earnest.
No one stays uncaught forever, he thought, starting down the steps and tossing the prayer back over his shoulder. Not even Greencloak.
Fletch Greencloak glared at the iron chain leading from the manacles around his wrists to the ceiling. He sat on a cold stone floor, wearing only a pair of thin cotton breeches and shirt. The chains gave him enough leeway to lie down on the unforgiving rock floor, but he couldn’t move farther than a foot from the wall. The manacles around his wrists were locked on so tightly that he’d long since lost the feeling in his hands, and dried blood from the gash in his head had stiffened the back of the thin cotton shirt his captors had given him.
“You know,” Fletch called to the locked door across the room, “You could at least have the common decency to pay me if you’re going to tie me up like a fetishist’s plaything!”
No response. Either his guards weren’t out there, or they were ignoring him. As usual.
Footsteps coming down the hall pulled him from thoughts of his discomfort. Fletch turned his head slightly towards the wooden door, the muscles in his neck and shoulders protesting even that small movement. The footsteps grew closer, then stopped, only to be replaced with the metallic jangling of a ring of keys. The door swung open inwards to reveal two stocky men wearing black cloth masks over their faces flanking a young boy carrying a platter. The boy’s skin was grey with shifting patterns of black, like smoke. Vethin, the boy, wore a similar outfit to Fletch, with the addition of a steel collar around his neck. Behind them strode a man wearing Fletch’s own damn cloak, the hood drawn up to cover his face. The cloak faded from dark green at the hood to leaf green at the bottom hem, the inner lining a deep midnight blue so dark it was nearly black. As usual, the man wearing it leaned back against the wall, arms folded, silent. All three of them wore dark brown clothes, unremarkable in every respect. In short, nothing that would give Fletch any sort of indication as to their identities.
“If it isn’t the asshole squad and their silent fucking guardian,” Fletch said, leaning back against the wall. “So what’s it going to be today? Questions about my career? My history? My bloody love life?”
One of the two guards flicked the chain leading from his hand to the boy’s collar, and Vethin flinched.
Don’t give them the satisfaction, Fletch thought savagely. When he’d first been brought here a week ago, he’d refused to eat or drink, or to answer their stupid questions. A day later, they’d brought Vethin in. They hadn’t said anything, just nudged him forward with the food and water, then met his eyes. Fletch had understood the threat. Cooperate, or the boy would suffer. Fletch had no idea how they’d known about the boy’s connection to him – but then, Fletch had no idea how they’d captured him, either. All he remembered was kneeling at the door of a mage’s house, pulling out his lock picks. . . then the world blacking out around him. No sound, no pain, nothing out of the ordinary. And then he’d woken up here, chained to a wall, his head aching and all of his clothes and personal belongings stripped from him.
After they’d brought in Vethin, Fletch had begun eating and drinking, and feeding them lies in answer to their myriad questions, each more outrageous than the last. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before they grew tired of him jerking them around, and then the serious threats against Vethin’s well-being would begin. But in the meantime, he took savage pleasure in keeping them guessing as to which of his answers were real, and which were fake.
Hopefully by the time you get tired of my attitude, I’ll have figured out a way to get out of this shithole, Fletch thought, his eyes fixed on the guards. And I’ll be sure to leave you bastards with a few parting gifts on my way out.
Vethin straightened his back and glared at the guard, who rolled his eyes and gestured towards Fletch. “Go on,” the guard said, his voice muffled. “Feed the bastard.” His eyes shifted to Fletch and crinkled at the corners in what was probably an unpleasant smile behind that mask. “Maybe this time you’ll give us some straight answers, thief.”
“I’d say it’s about as likely as you turning around and ramming your partner’s sword up his own ass,” Fletch replied.
The guard’s eyes narrowed. Fletch didn’t know exactly what the men wanted of him. He’d been approached by an operative of one of Adunare’s many criminal organizations – he wasn’t sure which one, not that it had mattered to him at the time – the night before his abduction. The hooded man had asked him to take part in some sort of plan, something that would supposedly pay well and required his particular talents. Fletch had promptly told him to go piss off the side of the city. He worked alone, always had, always would, and there was no way he was letting the bloody cartels get a chain on him.
But they’d managed to get a chain on him anyway. A real one. Fletch shifted position slightly, his numb hands resting in his lap.
“Where were you born?” the second guard asked.
“Who were your parents?”
“The fire god and his favorite pet bitch.”
The guards shared a look. “Where do you keep your stolen goods?” the second guard tried.
“In a warehouse on Farris Street,” Fletch said.
Both of the guards blinked at that. “Really?” one asked.
“No,” Fletch said. “Also, fuck you.”
“If you don’t give us serious answers,” the guard said, “we’re going to have to do things we’d rather not.” This one was softer-spoken than the first. The old good guard, bad guard routine. It was as old as a mummer’s play and just as likely to fool Fletch into thinking it was real, but at least they were finally getting around to the legitimate threats.
“It’s about time,” Fletch said. “I was getting tired of the foreplay.” He grinned viciously at them and lounged against the wall, crossing one ankle over the other. “So where are we starting, then, boys? I prefer whips to branding, but I’m willing to make concessions.”
“Bloody thief,” the bad-guard muttered. “Don’t know why we bother. I think we should kill the both of them and be done with ‘em.”
“What fun would that be?” Fletch asked. “Any cartel henchman worth a shit knows that you can’t pull answers from a corpse’s lips. C’mon. . . torture’s clearly the way to go. Your boss’ll approve, I’m sure.” Come on, Fletch thought savagely. Come within grabbing distance. I dare you, you bloody bastard.
The guards ignored him, as usual. So did their silent hooded partner.
Fletch narrowed his eyes, trying to peer into the shadows of the hood. It was made specifically to keep anyone from seeing the wearer’s face, and unfortunately it worked as well for the strange man as it did for Fletch. Does he have any idea how expensive that bloody thing is? If he puts so much as a mark on it, I’ll have him gelded.
Vethin shuffled forward and set the platter down on the stone floor beside Fletch. A simple clay cup of water. A wooden plate with a wrap filled with rice, beans and pork. The same thing he’d eaten every day for the last three days. Enough to keep him alive, but not enough to restore any modicum of strength to his limbs. Fletch met Vethin’s eyes, asking silently if the boy were all right.
A small stubborn smile was his reply. Fletch took the water, grasping it awkwardly with his bound and numb hands, and downed it in one long gulp. He ate the wrap next, careful not to waste a bite. He’d need every bit of strength he could muster for when the opportunity to escape presented itself. And it would. If there was one thing Fletch had learned, it was that new opportunities always presented themselves. Eventually.
Vethin gathered up the empty tray and started to stand. But he lost his balance briefly and fell forward, jamming his shoulder roughly into Fletch’s chest, the tray clattering to the floor and the plate rolling across the stone towards the wall. Fletch let out a pained cry, but the pain wasn’t jarring enough to keep him from noticing Vethin dropping something on the floor. Fletch shifted slightly to sit on whatever it was, hiding it from the guards’ view.
“Git off him,” the guard growled, yanking on the chain. Vethin fell on his side, barely avoiding the kick the guard aimed at his ribs. He rolled to his feet and edged away from the guard, who snorted and tugged on the chain.
“C’mon,” he said. “We ain’t got all day.”
Vethin bent and picked up the dropped tray and plate, meeting Fletch’s eyes long enough to drop him a wink. The guard shoved Vethin out into the hallway, followed by the good-guard and the man wearing Fletch’s cloak. Fletch stared at the wood of the closed door for a long moment, listening as the footsteps receded. Once he was certain that they were gone, he shifted his weight and looked down at the object Vethin had brought him.
A lockpick. Gods bless the bloody kid, he’d managed to palm a lockpick. And not just any lockpick, either. It was one of Fletch’s own.
Ten minutes later, Fletch massaged his wrists, the blood returning to his hands with dull tingles and frequent sharp jabs of pain. If these bastards damaged my hands, he thought, I’ll not only kill them, I’ll kill everyone they ever loved. Gods below, I’ll kill everyone they ever met.
As the hours went by, he forced himself to stand and begin pacing the room, continuing to rub the life back into his fingers. He didn’t know why these people had taken him, but it obviously wasn’t for the damned bounty on his head. If it had been that, they’d have turned him in to the cats or the pearls by now. The questions he’d been asked hadn’t given him any clues either. They’d asked everything from his opinion on politics to his favorite foods.
He couldn’t figure out why they would want to know things like that. It was a mystery, but not one Fletch wanted to know the answer to badly enough to stick around and find out.
By the time he heard keys jangling down the hall, he almost felt back to his old self again. Fletch stood with his back to the cold stone, his heart beating a staccato rhythm in his chest. His hands were still a little numb, but he could move them easily. It would be enough. It would have to be.
“Bloody stupid, if you ask me,” one of the guards said, his voice muffled through the locked door. “Ain’t he got enough by now?”
“Don’t know. Maybe it’s harder than he thought,” the other guard replied. “Thief is a bloody sharp-tongued bastard.”
“So? Ain’t like anyone knows him.”
“Someone must.” The footsteps stopped right outside the door. The keys jangled again. “Ain’t nobody got no friends or family.”
“Other than the kids?” A snort. “Why’d we have to take one of the mongrel ones, anyway? I heard they got diseases. You know if they got diseases?”
Fletch bent his knees a little, the metal of the lockpick cold in his hand. He ran the ball of his thumb along the edge of the metal. It was thin, but the edge was sharpened to a razor edge. He heard the key slide into the lock, then the familiar thunk as the tumblers fell into place.
“Dunno,” the second guard said as the door began to open. “Never heard one way or–”
Fletch spun towards the door as it opened to slam the lockpick into the guard’s eye. It sank in as easily as a knife into hot butter, the eyeball beginning to ooze a white mucus. The man’s other eye widened. Before he could let out a cry that would alert any other guards to what was going on, Fletch yanked a knife from the guard’s own belt and used it to slash the man’s throat from ear to ear, spilling a flood of warm blood over his hand. The man began to stagger, gurgling as his lifeblood spurted from his neck. Fletch stepped back, lifting one foot to kick the dying man in the gut. He fell back into the second guard, who was cursing and struggling to pull his sword from his scabbard. Fletch glanced at the knife in his hand, noting the thin traceries of silver that marked it as a metal-bound blade. The uninjured guard opened his mouth to shout a warning, but Fletch leapt forward, slamming him against the doorjamb and pressing cold metal-bound silver and steel to his throat.
“Now,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “normally in this sort of situation you and I would have a long discussion about who hired you, how you found me, and how you caught me. But I don’t know how many of you there are, and even if you told me you two came alone today, I wouldn’t trust you. Don’t take it personally.” Beside them, the first guard collapsed to his knees, his hands scrabbling at his throat in a vain attempt to staunch the bloodflow. The eye Fletch had punctured was slowly deflating, clearish mucus oozing from it. The other was wide, terrified. The guard with Fletch’s knife to his throat watched as his friend fell to his side on the stones, the spurts of blood from the jagged wound in his neck coming slower, more sporadically.
“So this is how this is going to work,” Fletch said. “You’re going to tell me where the boy is, and where my personal effects are. If you do, I’ll kill you quick instead of leaving you to bleed out in agony for the next three hours.”
The man’s dark eyes darted back to Fletch’s face. “Please,” he whispered. “I’ve got a son, he’s only–”
“Should have thought of that before you took this job,” Fletch said, a hard note creeping into his voice. “The boy, and my things. Where?” He pressed the knife hard enough to draw a bead of blood.
The guard let out a strangled sound, his adam’s apple bobbing above the blade. “S-second door on the left,” he whispered, his upper face pale. The lower half was still shrouded by his dark cloth mask. “The boy’s there. Your things are in the next room down. But please. . . please, my son. . . he’ll be alone, I–”
Fletch reached up to grab the man’s hair. He pulled the guard’s head towards him, then slammed it back against the stone wall with a dull thwack. The guard’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he slid to the ground bonelessly. Fletch stared down at him for a long moment, then he knelt and began methodically stripping the guard of his clothes.
“Don’t think I spared you for your own sake,” he muttered to the unconscious man as he pulled his boots free. “Just don’t want another bloody orphan to take care of. I’ve got more than I can handle already.”
Each step was agony. The adrenaline from the attack had worn off before Fletch was even done pulling the guard’s outfit on, leaving Fletch exhausted, his limbs trembling. He hadn’t realized he was as weak as he was. He forced himself onwards, though. He was used to being weak. He’d experienced enough of it in his youth.
Dim light from luminaries set in the walls illuminated the tunnel he found himself in when he exited his cell. He was obviously in the undercity, the twisting warren of tunnels which bored beneath the city of Adunare like an anthill. Fletch knew a good portion of the tunnels under the city, but this part was foreign to him. They were probably under the Mage’s District somewhere, given the fact that the stone had been covered over with dark wood paneling both on the walls and the floor. The ceiling had been left uncovered, exposing lichen-encrusted damp rock.
As Fletch reached the second door, he paused. When men feared for their lives, they were considerably more honest. But there was always the possibility that this guard had lied. There could be fifteen armed men behind this door.
He knelt and knocked lightly on the door in a predetermined pattern. He heard the gentle pad of a thief’s footsteps from the other side of the door, then a series of knocks came back to him. He nodded. Vethin was in here, and alone. Good. He picked the lock deftly. He could have taken the guard’s keys, he supposed, but that would have seemed like a slight against his professionalism. Two heartbeats after he’d begun (one longer than it would have taken him if his hands hadn’t still been shaking), the door swung open to reveal a room containing a small bed with a threadbare blanket. Vethin stood in the middle of the room, grinning. His teeth were startlingly white against his soot-grey skin.
Fletch glanced around the room. “Terrible accommodations,” he said. “I think we can do better. Don’t you?”
“Lady’s breath, yes,” Vethin said, the grin widening. “I got the right lockpick, then?”
“Guess you were paying attention in Peshyn’s lessons after all,” Fletch replied, twirling the little tool around one finger. “Where’d you get it?”
Vethin gestured to the wall to his right. “The room next door,” he said. “It’s the same one as where they keep the food n’ water. Saw your things in there while I was waitin’ for ‘em to hand over the tray, so I spent the first two nights pullin’ that paneling out.” Fletch glanced at the indicated board, his mood darkening as he saw the dark blood staining the edges of the wood panel. The kid had worked at it until his hands were torn and bloodied. No wonder he was hiding them behind his back like that.
“Took hours,” Vethin said, the pride apparent in his voice.
“You’re lucky there wasn’t a stone wall between the rooms,” Fletch said.
“Nah. Rooms’re too close.” He looked up at Fletch, all big dark eyes and aching need for approval. Fletch nodded to him.
The smile that spread over his face could have lit the room with light to spare. Fletch turned and stepped back out into the hallway, glancing to his left and right. Empty. Good.
“So now what?” Vethin asked, bobbing up beside him.
“Now,” Fletch said, “we collect my things and get you home.”
The boy beamed and hurried ahead of Fletch to the closed door of the store-room, which wasn’t locked. Fletch opened it to find a small room well stocked with stacks of dried meat, flatbread, a wooden barrel half full of water, and a disorderly pile of pouches, leather scabbards, and cases. Fletch heaved a sigh of relief and picked up the pile. He’d spent the last five years commissioning these tools and knives from various merchants around the city, never using the same merchant twice. He’d have hated to have to do all that work again.
He pulled the belt around his waist and cinched it tight, then searched the rest of the wooden shelves, though he didn’t have much hope of seeing his last missing item.
“Cloak?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” Vethin replied from the hallway. “The quiet one was always wearing it when I saw him. I didn’t like him. He felt. . . wrong.” Fletch glanced back over his shoulder at the boy. Vethin had remained out there, staring down the hall with an intent expression.
Keeping a lookout. Good. According to Peshyn’s reports, this one had been a particularly quick learner.
Fletch turned back to the shelves, looking a little more carefully, just in case. This search was as futile as the last. Damn. He turned back to Vethin. “Were there more than two guards and the bastard wearing my clothes?”
“Yes,” Vethin replied, turning his completely black eyes to Fletch. “I saw at least four others, and another one who wore a hooded cloak sort of like yours all the time. Never saw any of their faces. Dunno if they all stay here, or sleep somewhere else.”
Fletch stepped out into the hall. “We’ll–”
The twang of a crossbow interrupted him mid-thought. Without thinking, he leapt forward, shoving Vethin against the wall. Hot pain seared into his calf. He didn’t have time to stop and inspect the damage. He whirled, keeping his weight off of his injured leg, hands darting to the hilts of the short throwing knives in his belt. A man stood in the hallway ten paces away. He was pulling back the lever on the crossbow in his hands, his brow furrowed, his eyes darting back and forth from the weapon to Fletch.
Crossbows. Stupid weapons. Took too long to reload to be much good for most people. Well, this idiot’s penchant for the newest moronic weaponry would be his undoing.
Fletch pulled the knife he’d taken from the guard from his belt and twisted his body, throwing it with all his meager strength. It whistled through the air, but Fletch’s aim – not very good at the best of times – was off, and he barely nicked the man’s shoulder. He cursed, reached for his other knife. . . and found the scabbard empty.
Vethin ducked around Fletch, his hand darting out, Fletch’s knife leaving it in a bright flash. This knife caught the attacker dead in the chest. He cried out and dropped the crossbow, staggering back a step. Fletch lurched forward as quickly as he could, crashing into the attacker in a chaos of flailing limbs and grasping hands.
He didn’t bother punching, not at this close of a range. Fletch wasn’t much good at it anyway, and he knew it. Instead, he raked his fingers across the man’s face, aiming for his eyes. When that failed, he rammed the knee of his uninjured leg up into the man’s groin and was rewarded with a moan of pain. He managed to work his hands past the attacker’s flailing fists, gaining a couple short rabbit-punches to the ribs and an elbow to the eye for his trouble, but it was worth it as his hands closed around the other man’s windpipe.
The stranger’s struggles grew more feeble as his air supply dwindled, then ceased entirely. His arms fell limp to his sides, his fingers twitching once or twice as his eyelids fluttered closed. Life bled from him like aerans slipping from a cut purse. Fletch held on long enough to be sure that the man was dead, then stood shakily, his sides burning and his eye slowly swelling shut, and turned.
Vethin stood near the door, staring at Fletch’s leg, his eyes wide.
“Get those knives,” Fletch said. “And search him, see if you can find anything else, like a letter or some sort of identification.” Vethin rushed to obey. He fished through the man’s pockets, then looked up, shaking his head.
“All right,” Fletch said. “You go on ahead of me.” He took the knives from Vethin, tucking them into his belt, and pressed one hand against the wall. The luminaries in the walls around them wouldn’t continue past this section of tunnel, so he pulled one of his own from one of his cases and tapped the silver nub on it. The little glass sphere burst into light as the metal-bound energy reacted with the chemicals contained inside it. He tossed it to Vethin, who caught it nimbly, then Fletch pulled another out and hung it from a thin silver chain around his neck, activating it and pointedly not looking at his injury. As long as he left the bolt in, the blood loss probably wouldn’t be bad enough to kill him. Probably. He felt warm blood running down his leg, filling the boot he’d stolen from the guard. It squelched as he stepped forward, using the wall to help keep his balance. A flare of bright, stabbing pain shot up his leg, and he winced.
The boy stood there, staring at him, the luminary held in one dark hand.
“I said go,” Fletch said between gritted teeth. “I’ll meet you at the den.”
Vethin didn’t answer. Instead, he made his way to Fletch’s side and ducked so Fletch’s arm was over his shoulders.
“I said to go,” Fletch said as the kid grabbed his wrist.
“Ain’t leavin’ you,” Vethin said.
Bloody stubborn kids.
“This is how you’re going to die, you know,” Fletch muttered as he reluctantly put some of his weight on the kid. The phrase was part of a ritual all the kids knew – Fletch had taught it to them himself. It was the only thing he had taught them personally. Determine your weak point, don’t deny it, he’d told them. Denying your weaknesses got you killed. Facing them made you stronger. “You die from not bloody doing what you’re told.”
“Nah,” Vethin said, holding Fletch’s wrist and throwing a grin at him. “I’m gonna die jumping from one rooftop to another. Gonna miss and wind up with a broken back or neck in some alley. Besides, ain’t you always told us not to listen to anyone ‘cept ourselves?”
Fletch rolled his eyes. Leave it to Vethin to turn Fletch’s own words against him. Well, no use arguing, not when they might have more guards arriving at any moment.
They made their way deeper into the twisting tunnels. The wood paneling stopped after about a hundred feet, transitioning into the more familiar stone walls, moss, and dripping water. Fletch tried to keep an eye out for familiarities, but as time wore on he had to focus more and more of his concentration on putting one foot after another. Once or twice he thought he heard voices and running footsteps echoing in the tunnels, but Vethin guided Fletch into darker, less upkept tunnels until the voices passed, hiding the luminaries in a closed hand. The voices could have been people Fletch knew, but they were far more likely to be thieves who wouldn’t hesitate to slit Fletch and Vethin’s throats and rob their corpses of every last item they owned.
The pain grew with each passing minute, and after what felt like a mile of lurching, limping steps Fletch noticed the world beginning to fuzz at the edges, like a slow mist creeping in through the alleyways of the Valley. Whenever the mist began to encroach on him, Fletch brought his full weight down on his injured leg. The resulting surge of pain cleared away some of the haze, but each time it retreated less. It wouldn’t be long now before the darkness claimed him, and if he fainted down here, he’d certainly die.
“Fletch,” Vethin said. Fletch looked up blearily. How long had it been since the last time he’d looked up? He wasn’t sure. He’d been concentrating too hard on holding the unconsciousness at bay. Vethin pointed.
The dim light of their luminaries illuminated a stone carved into the form of a willowy woman set into an alcove in the tunnel wall ahead of them. The denizens of the undercity had painted her in several garish shades of red in mocking imitation of the Empress of Tyrodames, the desert land to the east. The Red Lady pointed the way towards the surface, her slim hand extended to point eastward.
“We’re almost home,” Vethin said, worry hovering at the edge of his voice. “Can you make it?”
“Yes,” Fletch said. It felt as if he were hearing his own voice from somewhere far, far away. “I’ll. . .” He swayed, the world spinning around him. “I’ll. . .”
The pain faded. The mist encroached, and Fletch smiled in relief as darkness claimed him.