The coughing kicks in by the time I’ve made it down to the gaslit streets at Grenornac’s rocky feet. My body bends over double as convulsions spike through me; a gang of sea urchins explodes in my belly. I spit blood and something greasy onto the alley wall, and curse... and then feel a wave of guilt wash over me as I realize that wall belongs to God’s home here on the surface world. Weakly, I try to wipe it off with what’s left of my robes, but only succeed at leaving a bloody smear down the temple wall before I collapse in another fit of coughing.
This one brings up less than the first, and I lay still on the ground for a moment, letting the rain cool my fevered skin.
This isn’t good. I’ll be the first to tell you that internal injuries are bad news, unless you’re really excited to die slowly. Whatever that thing did to me up on the roof, my body’s not taking it well. But I’ll be God-damned if I’m going to die from some pink octopus, psychic or not. I’m lying right next to Grenornac, for God’s sake! If you’ve the coin for the rituals, they’re better than any chirugeon’s ward. I’d really rather avoid the chirugeon’s ward. That place gives me the willies.
On the other hand, I believe Patriarch Juniar’s last words to me had something to do with “working on your excommunication.” He’s not going to do me any favors--holy brotherhood or not. And I don’t have any money with which to press the issue.
But I do have something that’s worth a lot of money, to the right people. I just need to make it to the club. Lord Culnor wouldn’t dare stiff me on this. Besides, he likes me. I think.
Well. There is one other option. Corwinne could patch me up, no doubt about it. She’d have some elixir or another, I’d swallow it, and in seconds my innards would be knitting themselves together under some process of arcane rejuvenation. I’d ask, knowing better, and she’d prattle on about sub-microtic phosphalgia or thaumic resonance induction, and after a minute or two of watching my eyes glaze over, she’d explain that it was magic, and I should just relax while she made me a nice cup of tea. She could definitely help, and wouldn’t charge a dime.
As I slowly get to my feet and start to press towards the club, I tell myself that she might not have gone home--probably helping someone get a kitten out of a tree, or saving someone’s grandmother from a burning building or something--and then I’d just wind up going to the club anyway. It’s the most logical choice, really it is. Absently, I stroke the gear at my chest.
Wait--no, I don’t. It’s missing. I remember the stench of death--suddenly its remaining fourth hand tears the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander from my neck, flinging it out into space. The hatchling... the second one with the squid-thing on its face. The squid had crawled off of it, but I never knew where that stinking bug went. I didn’t remember seeing another body on the roof... it must be out there, somewhere.
“Seven hells,” I mutter weakly. “If I ever find you...”
Frankly, finding it should be a priority, but I’m in no shape to do anything except vomit blood at it. Impressive as that might be, I doubt I’d survive the rest of that encounter. My cogwheel, though... it belonged to my father. I eyeball the distant roof of the temple from where I’m standing. Chances are good that the wheel is within a couple of blocks of here, depending on the wind. I could--
I could just see it, directly across the alleyway from me, pinned to the wall by a black-bladed dagger with a jagged edge.
“I’m in a really bad mood,” I call out, straightening up and trying not to look like my insides have been recently pureed. “Let’s just get this over with, all right?”
I wait for several heartbeats. The alley is pretty typical for this area of Noldon: gray, littered with refuse, shadowy doorways aplenty, smelling vaguely of piss and cleaning elixirs. It’s dimly lit from either end by the gas lamps along the main thoroughfare, but there are shadows everywhere here. They seem to sway and move closer as my vision blurs from pain and injury... or is it something else? One of the shadows is just slightly darker than the rest...
The shot rings out from the cloak of darkness, but I’m already moving--not a hell of a lot, mind you, just a little sidestep and lean, but it does the trick. The shadow solidifies, and I see his cheshire grin. And the smoking muzzle of his pistol.
“You look like shit,” he says smoothly.
“You aim like shit,” I retort.
Ferian Darkleaf is tall--my height, I guess, about six-foot-one--and has a lean, muscular build. His shaved head reveals skin that’s a creamy brown, like the People of the Crescent; a gift from his father. His large eyes--I overheard a chamber maid once call them “dreamy”--and slightly-pointed ears come from his mother... an elf. You don’t see too many half-elves around, especially not these days. Most try to pass for human to avoid the hassles, but not Darkleaf. He wears his heritage like a badge. He even uses his mother’s name, in keeping with elvish tradition.
He glides past me without further threat, holstering the gun as he moves. It disappears somewhere on his body, concealed by his strange costume. It’s the only garb I’ve ever seen him in: tight black leather that seems to drink in the light, with a cloak of some material that looks like nothing so much as a solid shadow wrapped around him. You can’t see its contours, just a featureless black shape in space; if a part of it folds over another part, it is lost to sight entirely until it unfolds. It conceals his form perfectly, hiding the array of weapons I know lurk there.
“I’ll get you one of these days,” he smirks. “Still, not bad. Thought for sure I had you this time. You love that stupid wheel.”
I pull the dagger out of the wall and fling it in a single motion, letting the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander fall into my other hand. The blade quivers in the ground at Darkleaf’s feet.
“You’re cocky. You think I wouldn’t notice one of your signature daggers? Might as well announce it with a speaking ring. I mean, come on,” I shake my head, “pinning it to the wall? Real subtle.”
He laughs easily. “I don’t do subtle, Fellthorn. I like people to know that I’m coming.”
“Then you’re never going to get me,” I shrug.
“Who’s cocky now?” he rejoins. “You think I’ll never manage it.”
“If I doubted that, then this little game of yours would get a lot more serious, wouldn’t it?”
We face off for a moment, eyes locked. Out on the edges of my perception, I’m aware how still his hands are; how close they are to his belt. I’ve returned Jorngnir to its dagger form, and it’s strapped to my wrist, but detecting the chance for mayhem, the blade grows warm in anticipation.
Then something spasms in my gut, and I’m doubled over coughing again. Damn! (And, ow.)
That casual laugh again. “Yeah man, very serious.” I feel his hand on my shoulder, steadying me. I look up as my gut un-clenches, and he’s proffering a tissue.
I take it, shaking my head as I daub my lips. “I don’t get you. You’re trying to blow my head off one minute, and now you’re helping me clean myself up.”
“You know, just practicing. At some point, you’re going to piss off someone enough that they’ll want you dead. I may as well know all the ways to kill you that won’t work.” His eyes betray no emotion; he’s not being cocky now, not trying to knock me off my game. He’s talking about future attempts to murder me with less vigor than he’d use to describe a bowel movement.
“As for the handkerchief, it’s not mine. You can keep it, but if I were you I’d look to being sure that the constablery didn’t catch it on me.”
I recoil from it in disgust... another of his damn games. I hadn’t paid much attention as he was handing it to me; I’m definitely not sure that all the blood on there is mine.
“You’re repulsive,” I spit. “How much did you get for this one?”
“That’s privileged info. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Besides,” he sneers, “how many people did you kill today?”
“I don’t keep count,” I lie. I drop the twitching corpse onto the deck, wiping myself clean on his uniform... There wasn’t a choice, I tell myself. He would’ve tried to stop me, and I barely got the pyrotoxin off as it was. I had no time!
“Did you know,” he asks casually, “that the Society has a pool going? About us? Who earns more kills before the end of the year, is how I hear it.” He sniffs.
I have heard about it. Last I heard, I was losing. Happily. “You’re not a member of the Society,” I dodge. “Where do you come up with these nasty little rumors?”
“Oh, come off it. You know it’s true as well as I do. You’re their most notorious member. You don’t have to be born with a silver spoon stuck up your ass to find the challenge... interesting.”
I shudder. “A challenge? We’re talking about people here--real, dead people.” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands... “I don’t do it for the pleasure, or for money. I do it because I have to.”
“No pleasure?” He arches his eyebrow, his elven blood making it a gesture as subtle as a slap. “No religious ecstasy as you send the damned to their reward? No battle high as you fight the wicked?” He sees his words hit home, and presses on. “Yeah... that’s what I thought. Don’t get self-righteous with me, choir boy.”
“I’m doing the work of God,” I whisper.
“I don’t see much difference between doing His work and doing the work of any other sack of shit with the coin to give you what you want. He gives you super powers, and you kill for him. Neat deal.”
“I don’t have to stand here and take this from you.” I turn, heading out of the alley.
“Hey man, at least I don’t think you’re just a psychopath.” I pause, not looking back. “I’ve seen too much weird shit in this world to tell you you’re crazy. That said, you’re sure as hells not getting a good deal from Him. Lots of little hidden costs.”
“Costs?” I echo, softly.
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but people tend to die around you. Not,” he cuts off my interruption, “the same way people tend to die around me. Heard you were supposed to be on the Falkoj. Funny coincidence, that it’s falling down around our heads even still.”
I clench my teeth, half-turn to glare at him from the corner of my eye. “What’s your point?”
“Just making a little observation. I see a lot of death, Fellthorn. I know him well. He hovers over you like the clouds over Noldon. Today it’s a ship full of soldiers. That orphanage, last year? That wasn’t a pretty sight. Yeah, yeah--demonic possession. Even your good buddy Juniar said it was legit. But the body count keeps creeping up, doesn’t it?” He lets the corpses stack up invisibly between us. “People around you keep dying. Makes you wonder how long that pretty little redhead of yours is going to last.”
“She’s not mine,” I mutter to myself, eyes downcast. Nothing gets lost on those pointy ears, though.
“Oh no? You know, we’ve never been properly introduced, her and I. Maybe I’ll see if she’s looking to upgrade her black-clad accessories.”
I manage to keep a lid on the threat that instantly bubbles to my lips. Instead, I snort, “Try using proper grammar when you pop in, then. It’s, ‘she and I’. She’s not into gutter trash.” Ugh. Weak comeback, Fortis. Grammar? Not that I’d know what Corwinne’s into--I’ve never seen her with a man. Or a woman, for that matter.
“Thanks for the tip, academy boy.” Damn him, he’s too smooth to bristle. “I’ll tell her you said.”
My eyes flicker back to him, but they’re too late: all that’s left in the alley are lengthening shadows. I start to call on God’s light to banish them--let’s see how well he hides when the divine is illuminating his sorry backside--but instead I just sag. It doesn’t really work that way, does it? You don’t get to call on God when it’s convenient for you, or because you feel like it. You’re just an agent of His will. He calls, you answer, occasionally checking back in for a bit of advice and maybe a wee bit of help here and there. Whatever Darkleaf’s many sins, God hasn’t seen fit to call me to cleanse them.
I make my way out of the alley and into the greasy light of the gas lamps, hoping He’ll at least see fit to help me call a cab.