Cale opened his eyes. His head throbbed with sharp pain with each beat of his heart. His arms were sore and hung above his head. It took him a moment to remember what had happened. He remembered Izon Dueck and some fat nobleman at the King’s Ball, then nothing. Wherever he was, it was dark, almost pitch black. He tugged at his arms, trying to shift his position in favor of something a little bit more comfortable, but the telltale jingle of chains confirmed his fears. He was attached to the wall.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. “Hey, what the hell is going on?” he rattled his chains against the wall.
The area in front of him flooded with dim light as a small door slid open, part of a larger door. There was barely enough light for him to make out the room he was in. If any place could be called a dungeon, this was it. He could see a man looking through the little window in the doorway.
“Hey!” Cale said. “What gives?”
“Quiet,” the man on the other side of the door ordered. “We don’t take kindly to assassins here in Cilasia. You’ll be dealt with come the morrow.”
“Assassins?” Cale asked. “What the hell are you talking about?” He pulled at his chains. “Let me out of here.”
The little door slid shut, and he could hear talking coming from the other side. A moment later, the door slid open again.
“Constable?” a familiar voice asked. He saw Nalya peer through the doorway.
“Nalya, what the hell is going on?” he asked.
“I was just about to ask you the same thing. Izon Dueck was going on about how you tried to kill him. He ordered your arrest and execution. Why did you fire your weapon?”
“Fire my weapon?” Cale thought about it for a moment. “I didn’t– wait! I was hit on the back of the head!”
“Do you know who did it?” another voice asked. “Did you see them?” Cale didn’t recognize the voice at first until Corpus’ head appeared in the sliding door.
Cale shook his head. “No.” He chewed his lip for a moment, trying to recapture his memory. “I remember drawing my gun– wait! Dueck! He’s planning on killing us! I overheard him talking about it with that other guy!”
“It wasn’t either of them that struck you?”
Cale shook his head. “No, it couldn’t have been. There must have been someone else there.”
“As I thought,” Corpus said.
“Where are Ryan and Terra?”
“Sent home,” Nalya said. “Ryan was coming dangerously close to ending up in here with you. If Dueck had his way…”
“No, you don’t understand! I overheard him. He said something about a Council, said that they wanted Terra! They were going to kill Ryan and I to get to her.”
There was a moment of silence from outside the door. Nalya and Corpus were looking at each other.
“You should go find them,” Corpus said. “The city can be dangerous at night, especially with the likes of Dueck roving about.”
Cale could see Nalya nod from his perch in the cell. She looked back in at him. “Constable, please bear with us. We’re doing what we can to get you out, but unfortunately Halish law favors the word of our Noblemen over foreigners,” she said. “We need to find proof of your innocence before tomorrow.”
“Wait!” Cale called. “What happens tomorrow?”
Nalya looked back at him. “You’ll be executed at sunfall.”
Terra opened her eyes and looked around blearily. The room was dark, the floor cold and covered with straw. The only light she could see was coming in a thin strip from under a large wooden door. She rubbed her head and winced. The mother of all goose-eggs was on the back of her head, and it took her a moment to remember what had happened.
Henna! She had seen Henna! She had come up upon them and–
She stabbed Ryan in the chest, knocked him over into the water. Terra recalled a brief moment of sheer terror before the girl she had thought to be her friend had closed the distance to her, and all she saw was black.
Her dress was ripped, her hair disheveled, and Ryan could very well be dead. Henna was responsible.
Terra stood up. There was little sense in panicking, although that was what she felt most like doing. She walked over to the door and put her ear to it. She could hear something on the other side– the crackle of a fire, a steady repetitive sound of metal-on-metal. Wherever she was, she had a guard.
Terra banged on the door loudly, trying to force it open. “Hey!” she exclaimed. “Let me out of here!”
The repetitive metal-on-metal sound stopped, and she heard footsteps approaching the doorway. Terra stepped back.
“You’re awake, I see,” a voice came from the other side of the doorway. Terra recognized it instantly. It was Henna.
“Henna!” Terra called. “Why are you doing this? What’s going on?”
Henna laughed, a shrill, cold laugh. “Surprised?” she asked. “Didn’t expect innocent, curious little Henna to be capable of such things?”
“Henna, what are you doing?” Terra demanded. “Let me out!”
“I’m doing my job,” she replied. “And there’s little point in begging. Henna won’t be listening.”
Terra remained silent for a moment. “Who are you?”
“Nobody you should worry about,” she replied. “But for argument’s sake, and sheer boredom, my real name is Astara.”
“Where’s Ryan?” Terra asked. “What did you do with him?”
“Oh, I imagine he’ll be feeding the fish for some time to come,” Astara replied.
“You killed him?” Terra was beginning to panic again.
“I did what I was hired to do,” she said. “And I would have done my whole job if that bloody lawman hadn’t shot off his weapon and surprised me, but the King’s men will be doing that job for me.”
“You knocked Cale out,” Terra said. “You’re working for that Dueck guy, aren’t you?”
“My, aren’t we observant?” she asked. “A pity you never picked up on that before. Your friends might have survived.”
“What are you going to do with me?” Terra asked.
“That’s not up to me,” Astara said. “In fact, I could care less. My job ends the moment Izon Dueck arrives. From then on, you’re his responsibility.”
Terra slumped into the corner of the room. It was airtight, there were no windows. Nothing that would give her an edge. The room was empty save for a small bundle of straw in the corner on top of a wooden pallet, obviously meant for a rudimentary bed for prisoners.
Terra could feel the tears starting at the realization of what had happened. She was a prisoner. Ryan was dead, and Cale was to be executed. She hadn’t asked for any of it. Not the visions, not the Blacklight. Not Nalya or Bayne or Vector or Halen. She suddenly had a craving for a cigarette, something she had quit years before.
She absently stroked her ankle, feeling the lighter she kept tucked into her sock in case she lost her usual one, then blinked suddenly.
She still had her lighter.
She quickly stood up and ventured over to the door. There was no window, little way she could see outside. She trailed her fingers to the bottom of the door and curled them up.
“Stop that,” Astara warned. “You’ll not reach the latch from the bottom of the door.”
Terra brought her fingers back in. The gap was small, but large enough to poke a finger in. She laid the side of her face against the ground and peeked out.
Her field of vision was limited, but she could clearly see a fireplace blazing with golden flame. Astara sat at a large wooden table, sharpening a knife. She could just barely see what lay on top of the table. Her purse lay to one side, emptied of its contents. Obviously Astara had been going through her things. She could see her camera, her wallet and the pepper spray she had made sure to bring, for all the good it did her now.
Terra stood back up and looked to the pile of straw in the corner of the room. No doubt it was meant for her to sleep on, but Terra had no such inclinations. She felt around the wall along the darker corners of the room.
Wherever she was, this building hadn’t been constructed by a Geomagi. It had dry old wooden rafters that held the ceiling aloft. There was even an old wooden barrel against one side of the wall, next to what used to be a crate.
Terra started to get an idea. Quickly and quietly, she started to gather together clumps of straw. She threw them inside the hollow crate and arranged the pieces of wood the way she’d been taught in Cadets. She gathered another clump of straw and laid it out in front of the doorway.
Finally, she moved the barrel to the middle of the room and turned it over. She pulled her lighter out of her sock and set the first clump of straw alight. It went up quickly, narrowly giving Terra the time to light the other pile up and climb under the barrel. She wasn’t sure if the idea would work or if she’d die of smoke inhalation, but it was better than sitting around waiting.
Which was all she could do at that particular time. She watched through a small knothole as the flames licked up and start to catch the rafters alight. The room was quickly filling with smoke. Even in her barrel, Terra was beginning to cough.
“He’s innocent,” Corpus said. “But you already know that, don’t you?”
Nadus looked back at the blond-haired man and cast his eyes to the ground. “Of course I do,” he said. “Don’t be daft. But there’s little I can do. Without proof–”
“Without proof we put an innocent man to his death,” Corpus said. “A lawkeeper, at that!”
“You think I don’t know that?” Nadus shot back. “I’m fully aware of the ramifications.”
“Dueck is corrupt,” Corpus said. “And I believe he’s hired the exile.”
“The exile?” Nadus seemed to go over something in his head for a moment. “The lost Indetae?”
Corpus nodded. “Yes, my sister. Astara. I can smell her hands all over this,” he said. “Although I can’t understand why she would dare enter the Palace.”
“Then this man, this lawkeeper has the Enclave’s support?”
Corpus nodded. “We’ve long suspected Dueck of bending to the High Council’s will. It appears the Council has a vested interest in preventing you from assisting these people.”
Nadus hummed to himself. “It is a delicate matter,” he said. “I shouldn’t like to see the man executed, but without proof–”
“Nalya tells me that these people have secret machines,” he said. “Devices that are capable of amazing magicks. I could not say whether or not the Council knows of such things, but we cannot let them have them. You must offer your support to them– if the secrets of these machines were to fall into any but Halish hands–”
“It would spell out the end of our way of life,” Nadus replied. “I understand wholly, Corpus.”
“We must do everything within our power to prove the lawkeeper’s innocence,” Corpus said. He stood up. “Nalya has returned to her family’s House to check on the safety of the other two. I’ve already sent word to the Enclave here in Cilasia– by the morning, every Cloudstalker for twenty leagues will be working towards that end.”
“Noble,” Nadus said. “But Dueck is a shrewd man. He’ll be walking the line carefully.”
“Exactly why I believe those three should be key in uncovering the Council’s plot here,” Corpus said.
“And how will we do that?” Nadus said. “There are rules. Even Kings must abide by the laws set forth by the Lawmakers. If Dueck even suspects me of meddling, he’ll use it as an opportunity to have me deposed.”
“Unless we can prove that his allegiance falls not to Halen,” Corpus said.
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“Lady Nalya! You’ve returned, how was the Ball?” Ottom greeted as Nalya burst into the House of Roses.
“Ryan, Terra. Have they returned yet?” she demanded.
“Why, no, Lady,” Ottom replied. He looked back at her sideways. “Is there something wrong?”
“The Constable has been placed under arrest,” she said, to Ottom’s surprise. “For attempting to assassinate Izon Dueck.”
“Word!” Ottom exclaimed. “Is there any truth to it?”
“None,” Nalya said. “I may not know them well, but I know them well enough to say that they are not murderers.” She looked around. “Ryan and Terra should have returned by now. Something’s happened. I feel it.”
Ottom narrowed his gaze. “Shall I wake the servants?”
Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. Nalya swung around and opened it. On the other side stood a young girl, her blond hair flowing in the wind. “My Lady?” she asked.
“Yes?” Nalya asked. “What is it?”
“We found him, we did, my Lady,” the girl said. “Floatin’ about in the waters. Kept calling the name Terra. We didn’t know who ‘e was until mum recognized ‘im as standin’ with you, Lady. Recognized ‘is clothes, she did. Said ‘e was boardin’ here.”
“Ryan?” Nalya asked. “Is his name Ryan?”
The girl shrugged. “Dunno,” she said. “Pulled ‘im from the lake, we did. Heard ‘im yellin’ and screamin’. We saw what she did to ‘im. We saw she took the other one. The blood-‘air.”
Nalya could feel the blood draining from her face. “Where is he?” she asked.
“Come over to our ‘ome, ‘e did,” the girl said. “Mum said to fetch the Lady Ruus. Said she’d know what to do. Plucked a knife from ‘tween ‘is ribs. Mum’s a Healer, but ‘e’s still in a rough sort.”
“Can you take me there?” Nalya asked.
The little girl nodded. “Aye, come on then!” she turned and ran down the steps. “This way!”
Nalya turned to Ottom and said, “Find Bayne. Tell him what’s happened, have him to find Corpus at the King’s Palace.”
“Yes, Lady,” Ottom said. “I shall.”
With that, Nalya turned and ran out the door, following closely behind the little blond girl.
Astara barely noticed at first. In fact, she had been blissfully unaware of any problems until she heard Terra’s muffled coughs coming from the other room. That’s when she looked over and noticed the smoke coming from beneath the door.
“Blast it!” she exclaimed. She erupted from her chair where she had been going through Terra’s things and ran to the door. She grabbed the metal latch, and immediately yelled out. Blast, but it was hot! She burned her hand good, then used her shirt as a buffer between her skin and the heat and opened the latch, then kicked the door open.
The room was thick with smoke, and Astara coughed. She could hear Terra inside, coughing her lungs out, but the doorway was a wall of flame. She could not get inside.
It would not do to have her captive die of smoke inhalation, no doubt Izon would withhold her pay, and quite possibly never hire her again, or worse. Thinking quickly, she ran to the corner of the room and grabbed a wooden bucket, which she dipped into a full basin of water. She ran across and let the water spill out onto the wall of flame. The smoke billowed out, twice as strong. Terra’s coughing was getting weaker.
She turned back to refill the bucket and approached the door once more. The water flew out and onto the flame.
Astara was hit hard and fast in the stomach by a rampaging barrel. It came flying out of the room, propelled by human feet and striking her in the midsection, knocking the wind out of her and sending her sprawling back on the floor. She barely had time to understand what had happened before Terra shed the barrel off and started hacking up a lung. Astara wasted little time before she rolled over onto her stomach and leaped to her feet.
“Stupid whore!” she exclaimed, then kicked Terra in the ribs, sending her onto her back. The both of them coughed, gasping for breath as the smoke continued to pour into the room. The fire wasn’t yet entirely out, and visibility was starting to dwindle. Terra wrapped her arms around Astara’s legs, forcing her to the ground. She knocked her head on the stone floor and swore, kicking back at Terra.
Finally, she wrenched herself free, but the smoke was growing thicker now. It was getting harder and harder to see. She rolled back up to her feet, coughing wildly in the smoke. She could barely see Terra’s shape as she scrambled towards the table, using it to support her weight.
“Fuck you!” Terra exclaimed. Something flew through the air towards Astara, but she hadn’t seen it in time to dodge, and she took a harsh blow to her head. Disoriented, she tried to close in on Terra.
As she closed in, she suddenly felt a whole new world of pain. Terra had picked up something from the table and had sprayed it in Astara’s face, blinding her and causing her to yell out in shock and pain.
“Have some pepper spray, you fucking cunt!” Terra exclaimed. Astara was backed up against a corner, trying to rub the pain from her eyes, trying to see. The smoke wasn’t helping. Her eyes, her entire face stung. She could feel it starting to swell.
Astara was completely helpless. She couldn’t see a thing, not through the smoke or the blinding spray that Terra had used against her. She felt around the corners of the room, trying to get her bearing, while listening for Terra’s movement.
She could hear Terra on the other side of the room, knocking things over in an apparent attempt to find a way out. Stupid! She had been so stupid! She should have just let the girl die. She had been negligent, and allowed her a chance to escape. How had she started the fire?
Finally, she heard the creak of the door and the night’s cold air flooded into the room. Terra was out the door in moments, and Astara was still desperately trying to regain her bearings. She moved closer to the door, and after a moment she herself erupted from the doorway and stood in the dark alley.
Her eyes still burned and stung. She couldn’t open them for more than a moment or two before the pain forced her eyes shut, but she could make out the fleeing shape of Terra as she rounded the corner.
“I’ll find you, Bloodhead!” Astara exclaimed. “You may run, but I’ll be a step behind you!” She leaned over and scooped some water from a small trough outside the building, splashing it into her eyes. She still couldn’t see, and it would take her time to clear her senses enough to function properly.
There was little point in chasing after the girl now. With the commotion made by the fire, she would be found quickly. Money or not, Astara had only one option.
She had to flee.
Terra ducked into a dark alley, breathing heavy and coughing the last of the smoke from her lungs. Her eyes still burned from the smoke, but it was nothing compared to what Astara must be feeling. Not that Terra cared, of course, the bitch got what she deserved. In fact, by Terra’s count, she still had more coming, but that would have to wait. Terra was winded, the brief fight with Astara having knocked the spirit right out of her.
She sat and waited in the alley for a few moments, trying to regain her composure. She didn’t think Astara was chasing her, but she couldn’t be sure, and she didn’t want to risk it. She remained deathly silent, even as people passed by her hiding hole, yelling about the fire, which was surely starting to spread by now.
Terra had just enough time to grab a few of her things from the table after hitting Astara with the pepper spray, grabbing what she could and throwing it in her purse before fleeing. She had just grabbed a handful of objects and thrown it in before fleeing. Among them were definitely her camera and her wallet, but she didn’t want to take the time out to look through it right now, not when there was a chance of being followed.
After a few moments had passed, Terra peeked out around the corner. Groups of people were running up the alleyway where she had come from, gesturing wildly at each other. She looked around, trying to get her bearings. She had never been to area of Cilasia before, and in the darkness of the night, she could only barely see the lights coming from the palace, built deep within the mountain to the east. From there, she guessed she was not far from where she had been attacked– only blocks, if she had to guess.
She stepped out from the alleyway and started in the direction she assumed the House of Roses to be in. Astara, wherever she was, wasn’t following her, that much she could be sure of. That still didn’t mean she was safe– after all, Izon Dueck had hired her, and who else was working for him? Who else was going to be trying to capture Terra, or worse, kill her?
She stopped in midstep as a brief memory popped into her mind. Ryan. Astara had killed him, put a knife between his ribs and killed him. The reality of the event hadn’t yet fully struck Terra, her nerves being on edge since it had happened anyway. But now that she had escaped, she could allow herself to deal with it.
Terra never stopped walking through the streets, never stopped moving. She was numb from her ordeal, but slowly the reality of what had happened began to sink into her. She started crying. Moments later, she was sobbing uncontrollably. She needed to find Nalya. She needed to go home.
She had never wanted for anything else so badly in her entire life, as to be home again.