Silence. The blade that entered the man’s body is so sharp, he doesn’t yet feel it. Melai doesn’t yet know why the hand holding him is suddenly limp. Lynn hasn’t yet processed what just happened. Neither has Isabel, and she’s the one holding the dagger.
Azary begins to laugh.
Fury. The man lets out an angry scream, turning to swat away the girl who dared to attack him. Blood sprays out in an arc with his movement, hitting Isabel’s dress. He collapses by the time he faces her. Lynn has pulled out something dark and sharp from her bag. “Get him!” she yells, and a clawed screeching blob flies out of it at the face of another man.
Movement. Lynn pushes Melai forward as she rushes to grab Isabel’s hand. Tamara draws her weapon. The man attacked by the clawed thing stumbles backwards, disappearing into the Shadow. Melai jumps over the prone thug. Blood drips from Isabel’s dagger. Lynn yanks Isabel after her. They run.
“Well, that was an amusing diversion,” says Azary, “After them.”
Isabel would be lost here, in the half-ruined remnants of the old Valenar drowning in the Shadow, if not for Lynn. Is it the familiarity with this part of town, she would wonder soon, or the glow of her eyes that allows her to navigate their path so easily? But right now, all Isabel could do was run. Melai kept up effortlessly, his long legs outpacing the girls. Shouts of their pursuers propelled them forward.
Just as Isabel was starting to run out of breath, she saw the safety of lit streets was within reach. Blazing through the clutching Shadow, a daylight crystal had appeared from around a corner. Instead of leading them towards the light, however, Lynn suddenly took a sharp turn. When Isabel tried to voice an objection, Lynn hissed at her.
They clambered over a broken wall, barely visible in the deepening darkness, then onto another. The populated terraces ended only a couple of meters to their right. To their left, vast nothingness boiled. Lynn expertly led them down the middle, stepping into the light one moment, into the Shadow another.
She ducked into a dilapidated building, with Isabel and Melai blindly feeling their way up a flight of stairs after her. They stepped out through a hole in a wall onto a lit ledge, breathing heavily. Below, the collapsed masonry peaked from the Shadow. They were hidden on both sides by the remains of the tower’s exterior. In front, only terrace roofs and a daylight crystal towering over them were visible.
“No one will find us here. At least for a while,” said Lynn.
Melai collapsed onto the floor, leaning onto the remains of the wall. He tried and failed to find an angle at which the bricks sticking out wouldn’t poke into his back. Lynn sat down and lowered her legs over the edge. Isabel paced back and forth their tiny safe balcony. Though tired, she couldn’t stop.
Couldn’t stop, that is, until Lynn transfixed her with a glare.
“You may have killed him,” said Lynn.
“I guess so? That’s what happens when you stab someone,” replied Isabel, repeating what she once heard her father say. She suddenly noticed the bloody dagger still clutched in her hand. Isabel knew she had to clean the blade, and, in the absence of grass, wiped it on the already ruined dress. This gave Lynn the time necessary to collect her thoughts.
“He was, is, a person.”
“A bad person. He works for that dreadful crime lord, Azary.”
“So does Tam. So do I.”
Lynn hadn’t blinked yet, realised Isabel, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. Why couldn’t Lynn understand? It was so simple: he was a bad guy, she fought him off.
“It’s different,” said Isabel, “You have a good reason, I’m sure.”
“And you’re sure he doesn’t? His name is Karl, by the way. He likes to carve wooden figurines when he’s not busy,” replied Lynn by way of accusation.
“Girls,” interfered Melai, “Maybe now is not the time for arguments about morality.”
“When he’s not busy being a bad person,” ignored him Isabel, “This Karl was going to hurt Melai, surely you don’t think we should have let him.”
“No, I… No,” said Lynn, anger gone from her voice, “I dunno, okay? You are right, he was a bad person. But he was still a person. He is what a friend of mine may have grown up to be. Had he not been killed by the Beast.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” said Isabel, “I didn’t know…”
“What was that thing you commanded?” asked Melai to break the ensuing silence.
After some hesitation, Lynn pulled out the demonic claw and held it up for them to see.
“A demon,” she said, “A nasty little demon I stole from Karadash.”
Isabel gasped. Melai leaned forward, examining the grisly object.
“This is how you control it, right?” he asked.
Lynn nodded: “Here, I’ll show you. Stan, come out.”
Heavy smoke poured out of the claw, making Isabel recoil. Moments later, it coalesced on the ground into the most hideous creature she had ever seen. The bloated toad looked up at her, and recoiled in turn. It expertly mirrored Isabel’s expression, quickly going from surprise to disgust to confusion. The creature didn’t waste a moment of bodily existence on not mocking.
“Stan, be less insufferable,” said Lynn, struggling to suppress a smirk.
“Not my name, boss. And what’s all this, a snack for me?” the demon barred its teeth at Isabel. Instinctively, she bared hers in response.
“Oooh, scary. And you’re covered in blood. I like this one. We can keep her. This one, however…” the demon turned to Melai.
“I beg your pardon?” up until now, Melai had been too fascinated with the creature to react to it properly.
“Can I eat this one, boss? He don’t look like much, but at least I could gnaw on his bones for a while. He can watch, if that’s his thing.”
“Stan, enough,” tried to control her demon Lynn.
“What a remarkably horrible demonic entity,” exclaimed Melai, “Though I suppose that’s a tautology.”
“Boss, he’s saying something about me and I don’t like it.”
“Turnabout is fair play,” Lynn could no longer hide a smirk.
“I hate fair. Watch out, not-quite-elf. Blink, and I will use your not-quite-elven-ears as a chamber pot.”
“Charming,” Melai did his best to appear unfazed.
“Lynn!” finally found the ability to speak Isabel, “How can you joke around with this, this monster. You have to know it’s evil. It’s a demon!”
Stain bowed, or at least rolled forward on its gut a bit.
“Now you get it,” said Lynn, pushing back her hood, exposing the scarred, slime-drenched visage beneath, “I ain’t whatever you imagined me to be. Take a good look. See if I’m a ‘bad person’, too. Do you feel like stabbing me yet?”
“Yeah. Do you feel like stabbing people? Cause I’m in,” unhelpfully joined in Stain, taking a break from licking blood off its claws.
Isabel retreated, lost for words.
“Very dramatic. If you’re quite done scaring Isabel, can you tell us what your plan is? You’ve got one, right?” intervened Melai.
“Stay alive. That’s my plan,” replied Lynn and pulled the hood over her eyes again.
“No arguments there. Any details? We can’t remain here forever.”
“We’ll stay for a bit more. Then we need to move to a better spot, somewhere to spend the night.”
“And then they’ll move on and forget about us, right?” asked Isabel.
“No,” replied Lynn flatly, “Azary doesn’t forget. You went against him. He’ll get his due, one way or another. If he can’t get to you, he’ll get to me and Melai.”
“Well that’s hardly reassuring,” let out a nervous laugh Melai. “But at least I’m alive right now, and for that you have my thanks,” he nodded at Isabel, “As for shelter, I suppose my humble abode may suit our purposes. It is not that far from here.”
“It’ll do,” said Lynn after some thought, “Azary wouldn’t know who you are yet. For now, get up. You don’t want to be sitting on the cold stones for long.”
She struggled to follow her own advice, nearly stumbling over the edge before Isabel caught her. Cold proved a sufficient distraction from silence, and for the next hour only their teeth did the chattering. At one point, they heard movement nearby, but no one came up to confront them. Finally, Lynn decided it was time to move.
As they walked through the streets of New Valenar, Isabel and Melai kept twisting and turning, looking for their pursuers. They looked into the eyes of every passer-by, searching for a hint of recognition, a glimmer of bad intent. All they saw was indifference turning to fear. No one wanted to help blood-covered fugitives, but at least no one wanted to bother them either.
The only one to spare them more than a passing glance was a cogheart. Isabel shivered, imagining the wheels in its head turning, weighting, evaluating whether or not they were in violation of Iron Judge’s law. Evidently, they weren’t. The machine man let them pass, and Isabel sped by towards the already visible tower, trying not to look guilty. Lynn concentrated on putting one leg in front of another.
Isabel spotted Stefan approaching them from an alley, and felt her worries lift. They were going to be fine now. Her bodyguard would take care of it.
“Well, here we are. We made it sa…” Melai’s words were interrupted by a mail glove colliding with his stomach. He fell backwards, all air knocked out of him. Stefan followed, putting all the maintained momentum into a kick to the head.
“Stop! What are you doing!?” shouted Isabel. Her worries didn’t lift. Entire world had turned upside down and she’d been too slow to notice.
Stefan ignored her, turning to Lynn as he drew his sword. The dragonkin man was dressed for war, his polished armor glinting under the daylight crystal. Lynn jumped back and crouched, clasping the demon claw like a knife, more cornered animal than a person. Melai groaned. Stefan took a step forward, and Lynn jumped back again, maintaining the distance. Sadistic smile played on his face. Stefan was finally in his element. Isabel punched his back, to little effect.
“Run, scum,” spat Stefan, “You’re not worth staining the blade. And you, my lady,” he turned to Isabel, deftly grabbing her by the hand, “Are coming with me.”
“How dare you! Who do you think you are, attacking my friends, laying your hands on me!” Shouted Isabel, increasingly hysterical.
“I am the one your father hired to keep you safe, you spoiled brat, and that is what I will do. If I get to kill someone stupid enough to try to kidnap you, that’s a bonus. My lady,” sneered Stefan.
With the assailant momentarily distracted, Lynn crept up to Melai. He had rolled to his hands and knees and was trying to stand up. Blood dripped from his mouth onto the frozen ground. Lynn went to pull him up but jumped aside when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Stefan’s boot connected with Melai’s ribs, tossing him like a rag doll.
“You really are the dumbest kidnapper alive,” Stefan towered over the moaning man, Isabel still clutched in his left arm, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out your name, or where you lived?”
A blade came flying out of nowhere, grazing Stefan’s neck. He spun around, pulling Isabel behind him. His sword came up too late to parry Tamara’s attack, her weapon leaving a bloodied gash under Stefan’s armpit. Caught in an awkward position, he retaliated with a backhanded blow with his sword arm. Using the force of the impact, Tamara bounced backwards. She smiled, her teeth stained red by the blood flowing from her nose.
“Hands off the prize, scaly. They’re not yours to hurt,” she said.
Tamara twirled a short sword in her right hand as she pulled out another dagger for her left. Stefan pushed Isabel back, readjusting the grip on his sword. The warriors took several measured steps, circling one another.
“What do we do?” whispered Isabel to Lynn, “Who do we help?”
“Ourselves. We have to run. Before they notice. Before Karadash notices.”
Isabel shot a nervous glance up, at the tower of the Beast. Were they being watched? Was the Beast laughing at the violence they were caught in? Beneath, steel clashed. Despite his initial wound, Stefan was an imposing opponent. He swung the sword in broad powerful arcs, keeping Tamara away. She ducked and weaved, waiting for an opportunity to close in. Every time she wasn’t fast enough, forced to parry, Tamara’s entire body rattled from the blow, accompanied by Stefan’s savage barking laugh.
With the fighters preoccupied, Lynn again tried to get Melai up and away. Isabel couldn’t do that. Stefan was horrible, and from what she’d seen Tamara wasn’t any better. But Isabel wasn’t ready to let one kill another. Maybe it was because she knew their names. Maybe, had she known Karl’s, she wouldn’t have been so willing to stab him, either. At the moment, it didn’t matter. She sprinted down the street. She would make it right.
“The prize is getting away,” said Tamara, taking a step back.
“You can have the elfblooded. I’m here for my House,” replied Stefan.
“That’s going to be a problem.”
“Not for long,” snarled Stefan as he advanced.
“Oh, bugger this. Scaly, BE BLIND,” said Tamara.
Stefan stumbled, and Isabel nearly did the same. Those words sounded different, heard clearly over the distance and her frantic footsteps. Was that magic? Her lessons in it weren’t supposed to start until next year. She just had to hope she’d live long enough to attend them. The absurdity of wanting to attend lessons escaped her.
“Help! You’ve gotta stop them,” she exclaimed as she ran into the cogheart they had previously passed.
The machine man turned to Isabel, its unchanging metal face impossible to read.
“Stop whom, child?” It said without moving its lips, soft whirring and rattling coming from within its throat.
“They’re going to kill each other. Please, do something,” Isabel pulled on its arm.
Several silent moments had passed while the cogheart evaluated the request and Isabel regretted not listening when the proper way of invoking Iron Judge’s law was explained to her.
“Remain here,” finally commanded the cogheart, turning to where Isabel came from.
She had no intention of obeying, though couldn’t keep up with it either. As she rounded the corner, Isabel saw Stefan on the ground, clutching his side, fuming Tamara next to him, with only the cogheart between them. Stefan rubbed his eyes with the hand still clutching the sword. Melai stood, leaning heavily on Lynn.
Everyone but the cogheart and Melai were yelling, trying to convince the cogheart they were in the right. Melai was busy probing at his teeth to see if any had been knocked loose. While the argument was heated, no one actually dared to cross the arbiter of Iron Judge. Maybe it would work out after all. Isabel didn’t think she had it in her to run for much longer.
As she approached Lynn, Isabel saw her stop mid-sentence, looking somewhere over Isabel’s shoulder. She turned around and saw Azary strolling down the street. The elfblooded man walked leisurely, all but whistling. Everyone became silent as he approached, even the cogheart turned around to see what drew their attention.
They stood opposite one another, metal faceplate to a porcelain-like face, cogheart to something much colder.
“Your involvement is unneces…” began the cogheart.
Azary sprang upwards, bounding off the nearby wall, rotating as he vaulted over the cogheart. He froze upside-down in midair, impossibly high, balancing on a thin blade Isabel didn’t see him draw, planted deep into the cogheart’s shoulder, where the joints of its metal body came together. Smile cracked the porcelain face as the blade slid deeper.
The cogheart collapsed, Azary landing on his feet with a flourish. A performance, nothing more. Stefan pushed himself upwards to face Azary, using his sword as a clutch. He griped it in both hands, letting go of the deep wound in his side. Blood steamed in the cold air.
“Run,” he shouted, a barely comprehensible roar, fury drowning out pain.
Tamara looked at him in amazement. Azary raised an eyebrow quizzically. With a juddering lunge, the cogheart grabbed Azary’s leg with its one functioning arm, irrevocably broken but not yet defeated. Stefan charged. Azary laughed.
The girls ran, pulling Melai after them. As they did, Isabel desperately tried to listen. To hear anything other than the beating of their feet. To hear Stefan. The horrible, violent Stefan who nearly killed Melai, who was going to hurt Lynn, too.