Across the street we went (me jerking Paulo into a straight cross versus a diagonal one–the fool was going to leave himself in the open longer) toward the marshal tower. Perhaps it was the time or the commotion earlier, but it seemed the militia was spread thin. There were no obstacles awaiting us as we slipped past the guards to the side of the building. We stopped beneath one of the windows, barred and nearly twelve feet from the ground. It seemed the building’s main floor was raised.
“Now what?” Paulo said through grit teeth.
I pointed to the window. “Give me a boost.”
“What’re you going to do? Bite through the bars!?”
“Shut up and give me a boost!” I snapped.
The boy laced his fingers together and crouched low, holding his hands down like a step. I took a breath, then stepped into his hold, and he grunted as he lifted me up. His arms shook with the effort, and there was a scary moment when he lurched and I thought we were going to fall. I stretched and managed to grab onto the window bars, steadying us…but there was another problem.
My Twin was holding me back.
She had Paulo by the shirt, causing the boy to panic as he tried to beat her away uselessly with his shoulder. In my head, she had come to the fore–hackles raised, and fangs bared.
“This is going to get us killed!” My Twin shrieked.
“I’m doing this with or without you, beast!” I whispered aloud.
“What??” Paulo whispered back, his face bewildered and bunched tight.
My Twin spat at me. “Then do so by your own limbs, but not at the expense of mine!”
“Then give me mine back!” I hissed back.
“Lia, dista’gea ya! You’ll bring the guards!”
With my free foot, I kicked at my Twin’s arm. At first she didn’t relinquish her hold, but another blow with the tip of my boot made her let go, and I straightened quickly. With Paulo’s help, I pulled myself up higher, leaning my weight against the iron bars and sliding my hand up further as I inched like a caterpillar. When I was high enough, I slipped my sapien arm through the bars, then turned my head as far to the side as I could. The bars were a tight fit…but not impossible to squeeze through. I sucked in air and proceeded to push my body through the gap. The pressure on my rib cage was immense, and the sides of my face scraped painfully by, making my eyes tear up. When my head was clear, I let out a sigh of relief. My temples, ears, and cheekbones hated me.
Placing my hand on the small space where the bars curved and embedded into the building facade, I pushed myself up higher and lifted my foot from Paulo’s hands. Awkwardly, through an odd twist of the leg that made me a little embarrassed, and through lots of shimmying, I managed to get my right leg through the bars as well. I bent it at the knee and rested my shin against the bar so that my foot dangled in the air beneath me. Now I was really, really cramped, but with my leg keeping me stable, I could finally use my sapien hand.
Squinting at the window, I tried to see any anomalies–any apparent cracks or thin spots in the glass that I could exploit. The tall, four-paned window seemed largely in good condition. New even.
“Nyx, what’re you doing?” Paulo hissed, peering up at me with narrowed eyes. He kept glancing at the street, licking his lips.
I ignored him. As I peered closer at the lower left corner, I noticed a hairline fracture at the bottom. I had to wipe at the glass a few times, just to make sure it wasn’t a streak of dirt or a cobweb. Then, with my breath held, I gave the window pane a firm rap at the top corner. Then another where the crack was. The sound was different.
I looked down at Paulo. “Have you got a knife or something?”
The boy nodded. He twisted around as he fished through his pack, then produced a small knife in its holster. He held it out to me, and I took it by the hilt and pulled it free. Holding it up, I inspected the blade. The tip was thin enough, at least. I took the knife and wedged it into the gap between the glass and the seal, and I looked at Paulo.
“You’re not going to like this…” I breathed, my brows pushing together worriedly. “But no matter what, this glass will shatter, and it won’t be quiet.”
Paulo frowned at me warily. “Okay…”
“So what I need you to do, is to let the guards see you, even after I’ve slipped in…because they’ll come looking, and if they’re chasing you, they aren’t coming after me or Lethia.”
“You want me to be the distraction.” His voice was deadpan.
“It will only take a minute!” I pleaded. But when Paulo’s hazelnut eyes turned stormy and his lower lip seemed ready to conquer the upper lip, my patience vanished. “You wanted to come along with me, remember? There’s no other way into the building besides the main entrance and these barred windows. You know that Lethia will not be able to do what I just did, so you’ll have to lure the guards away from their posts. Understand?”
Paulo looked at the ground and nodded sullenly.
I trembled from the rush of anger that had channeled through me. A taste appeared at the back of my mouth–like cinnamon and sugar. My head began to hurt again, and I could Her whispering in my head, that something about all this seemed familiar.
But I did not have much time to dwell, even as my eyes ached from some unknown pressure. I turned back to the knife in my hand. With a deep breath, I counted to three. Then I wrenched at the knife. There was a squeal from the glass and the metal, but I couldn’t get it to move. My eyes widened and dread washed over me. I had forgotten…my abilities in my sapien form had become that of an average human’s.
I swallowed and closed my eyes.
In my head I spoke to Her. “…I…need your help.”
I saw the beast in my mind’s eye, creeping, the muscles beneath her fur like rolls of power that taunted me. “Now you seek me,” she hissed. “Now you seek the unwanted one. Is that right, sister?”
I grit my teeth, hand tightening on the knife. “Forgive my frustration, sister, but the power you consolidate was once shared!”
“But never your Words! Never your Life! Those I had to fight for! Steal! Like a beggar!” She growled. Her tawny eyes cut holes in my spirit.
I licked my lips slowly. “…What would…you ask of me?” Already, the idea of giving her anything made me sick.
The animal sat on its haunches, and I could feel Her weight on me. I could see her whiskers twitch, her ears flicker forward, her nose flare. “I want…a name.”
My eyes opened a portion and my eyebrow quirked. “A name?”
“Yes.” She laid down along her stomach, but kept her head up to gaze at me. Something of her had become gentle…and this disturbed me. I had never known Her to be gentle. “If there is one thing I have learned, sister…is that proper names…good names…are to be given. While the circumstances that bring this about may still be contrived…it is the best I can hope for, especially from the likes of you.”
“…I…” I faltered and opened my eyes in full. I stared at the ground, then let my gaze climb to the sky, where the gray skies felt like a looming blanket, ready to smother us all. Why, of all things, would She want a name? Something so simple, so mundane, so…individualistic.
My heart clenched. To give her a name would give her a foundation upon which she could stand on her own–apart from me. This would further the wedge between us, the wedge, I could freely admit, I was not keen on closing…but to see it get bigger…?
“I…I’ll think about it…” I whispered aloud.
Paulo looked at me uncertainly. “Are you doing the crazy talk again, lia?”
“No!” My Twin roared inside me. “Either you name me, or we both sit here till death.”
“Alright…alright!” I snarled. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them, my gaze furious. “I’ll name you, beast, but not now. Later, when I have the time.”
She faded from my mind’s eye, and I was frightened that perhaps my answer still did not satisfy her. I didn’t want to choose just any name for her. In Ailuran culture, our names were of great importance. They often foretold what sort of person we would become. But did She understand that?
I let go of the breath I had been holding when I saw my Twin’s arm come around to grip the knife’s handle with me. I nodded and said, “Okay, on the count of three…”
Paulo drew his sword with a nod of his head, and jogged back a few steps away from the building. It was good thinking on his part. To jog closer to the street would give the guards a better chance of catching him, but being close to the window (and thereby, close to me) would draw attention to what was really happening. His placement was good, and I was glad he thought to consider this small detail I had overlooked. So far, his odd illness didn’t seem to hamper him much. In fact, as I looked at him again…I realized he looked healthier here in Belcliff.
I started the count, my stomach clenching. “One…two…three!”
Together, my Twin and I pulled down on the knife. For the briefest of moments, the glass didn’t seem to budge–then it suddenly cracked, and as the blade came up the shards fell away, tinkling like bells.
I frantically punched away the remaining shards on the sides, then pushed my way through.
Inside, I heard Paulo give a shout and take off running. I heard the guards outside follow him, shouting, “Stop!”
With a wince, I raised myself from the floor, off the glass shards. I crouched low, felt the floor beneath my feet like a reassuring cradle to my body. There was no one in the room–there wasn’t even a torch or candle left lit. But ahead of me, adjacent to the main entrance, was a heavy door that seeped with ruckus. I could only guess this to be the way to the holding cells. I tried to think how I could get the door open. The desk where the attendant likely worked was unlikely to have something I could use, and I didn’t know if my Twin knew anything about using her claws for such a task of finesse such as lock picking. And what if there was a guard on the other side? I considered knocking on the door–a brazen act, but the quickest (if most dangerous) way to get the door open. The guard would come, and I could chance a direct confrontation…but that defeated the purpose of avoiding the others. What chances did I have against this unknown opponent, especially in my weakened state?
But as I pondered, the door opened, and I squealed, jumping back with hands raised as quaking fists. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them again, hardly believing what I saw.
“Lethia!?” I exclaimed.
The girl stared at me–or rather, stared at my shoulder–her face deeply flushed, her wheat blond hair frizzy and sticking to her sweaty face. In her hand she held a wooden club tightly, stained at the end. The club lowered as recognition flashed across her face. I noticed the scratches and bruises on her cheeks, nose, and chin; the ugly stains on her clothes; that her glasses were missing. Her breath came in great heaves, and she pointed behind her with a shaking hand.
“I-I-I…I…” Lethia was stuck in a rut, jaw shuddering open and closed as she tried to force the words out. I stepped forward, grabbing her by the shoulders. Past her, at the back of the room, I could see a body lying face down, its feet sticking out of an open jail cell. Next to it was a large iron object that looked as though it were hinged. The girl, I surmised, had used her power on the guard, striking him dumb. Recalling my previous experiences with the young enchantress, the girl had most likely taken something of use from the man–something large and consuming that would take her time to sort out.
But we didn’t have that time.
“It’s okay, Lethia,” I said gently as I took her hand. “Come on, we have to hurry!”
The other prisoners wailed. Nearby a dark haired man with a cataracts begged to be set free. We ignored him and I shut the door behind us–if only to block the terrible noise.
“I-I fell–fell d-down, and–and–” Lethia went on stammering as we pushed through the main doors, out into the cold street. “The–The guard thought the mask b-broke my neck, so-so he c-came in and–” I didn’t understand what she was going on about. I twisted around, and shushed her, my gentility souring under the stress of the situation. I looked around as we walked, back around the building to where I had first broken in.
“Where is Paulo?” I hissed.
Lethia looked at me, confused. “Paulo…?”
We passed the marshal’s building and into the alley behind. There, down a block or so, I saw Paulo, fighting with the two guards. I cursed, turning to Lethia. “Stay here!” Then turning, I ran off to the Moretti’s aid. My legs pumped and my sapien arm sliced through the air. In my head, I called to Her.
“Please, help me!” I begged, my mind turning to the beast as she watched in her abstract domain of transition and subjugation.
“Again?” She snapped. “Can’t the boy defend himself?”
“Two against one is hardly fair, and at any rate we need him if we wish to escape this!”
The beast snorted, tawny eyes narrowing. “Very well…”
Her agreement came just in time.
As I came upon the struggle, Paulo was backed closer to a collection of garbage. He grunted as one of the guards, a slim but wiry looking man, crossed swords with him. I could see the sweat roll down Paulo’s face as his body was forced backward into a compromised bend–over broken crates and shattered glass. The other guard, larger than his partner and with brown eyes that glared with ire, came up along the side, his sword pulled back for a strike.
Not knowing what else to do, I jumped, rocking my body back and tucking my legs in. As I came near, the slim guard crossing with Paulo turned to look at me, a look of surprise coming over his face. He began to shout out a warning, but it was too late. I kicked out with my legs, pushing against his bared side with all the might I had. The man was launched into his comrade, sending them toppling to the ground. I fell to the earth, some air rushing from my lungs, but I rolled to my feet with teeth bared. Paulo looked at me, breathless and nodded his thanks.
Together we advanced on the guards, the boy sheathing his rapier and grabbing a crate as he went. Our opponents were still trying to disentangle themselves on the ground when we came to them.
My Twin grabbed the man on top by the back of his head, then slammed him brutally into his partner. She pulled him back and did this a second time quickly, then wrenched him away, onto his back next to the other guard. I grunted, trying to stabilize myself enough for this action. His shirt ripped from the force of her pull, and the cloth fluttered in her grip with the wind. She let the cloth go, sitting on the man’s chest, and pulled her hand back, claws extended fully.
My face drew up in horror.
I grabbed her arm. “Stop it, don’t kill him!” I shouted.
Beneath me, the guard tried to buck me off, as Graziano had done a few days ago. But this time my knees were set wider apart, giving me better support. I rocked forward with the motion, descending with the elbow of my sapien arm. My strike connected against the guard’s forehead, the bone of my elbow smashing against the man’s skull with all the might I could muster.
Next to us, the large guard had rolled onto all fours and was about to take off running it looked like, when Paulo came around and smashed the crate against the man’s back. The crate shattered, and the guard fell back to the ground with a shout of pain. Paulo jumped onto his back, his knee digging into the man’s spine, and punched him with all his might at the base of the head. The man collapsed and went still.
With both our guards unconscious, I looked at Paulo, panting. “Let’s…get out of here!”
We both stood and turned, and I saw Lethia coming toward us, her newly acquired club held down at her side. “Lethia!” I exclaimed with a shaky smile. “I think we’ll be alright for now–let’s hurry and get out of–” But the girl did not listen to me. She was focusing on Paulo, her pretty face screwing up in an ugly scowl. The enchantress turned her body to the side and lifted the club with both hands.
My expression fell, and I held out my hand. “L-Lethia, what’re you–?”
“Bastard!” The girl screamed, and she charged. She swung the club at Paulo, wide, forcing me to stumble out of the way. The boy dodged with a look of incredulity.
“Idi’ute! What do you think you’re doing!?” He snapped, holding up his hands.
Lethia looked vaguely in his direction, her teeth grit. “You! I remember you! I remember now! You shot Argos! You pretended to help me, back in Dolmensk, but all you really wanted was to turn me in for a sack of gold!” She advanced on him again, and I noticed the certainty of her attack, the control with which she wielded the club. This skill she must’ve stolen from the guard.
Paulo cursed as he evaded her second attack, and his hand went to his rapier. “And what about you, eh!? What about the shit you and your pretero of a mistress did to me? Eh!? Lia que ebriga destrucíon!”
“What did you say!?”
“I said you’re a girl who brings destruction!”
“How dare you! You filthy cozener!”
“Say that again, witch!”
Lethia attacked him again, screaming, and Paulo drew his sword, his handsome face turning dark with anger. “Stop, stop it!” I slipped between them forcing the bounty hunter to rear back and the enchantress to slide to a sudden halt. I gestured wildly with my hand, my eyes wide as I looked between them. “This isn’t the time for this!”
“You’re quite right!”
I froze, all my muscles turning rigid. The new voice that floated to us was deep and amused. All of us turned in the direction Paulo and I had come from to see a large man with deeply tanned skin standing with his arms crossed over his massive chest. He wore a studded tunic and a black fur vest, thick black boots on his feet and what looked like a massive blade strapped to his back. He had long dark braided hair, and around his waist hung pieces of metal. Ingots. They tingled as he took a step forward, then another. His smile was what caught my attention, however…
His teeth were all silver.
“Fottuto!” Paulo cursed. “Karolek! What’re you doing here!?”
Lethia looked at him. “You know this man?”
“Oh, I know him,” the newcomer said, before Paulo could speak. “I’ve crossed swords with him and his family in the past. Tell me, little Moretti…where are your brothers now?”
I heard Paulo swallow hard.
Karolek’s smile broadened. He continued to walk toward us slowly, and together the three of us stepped backwards in unison. “I knew something was strange when I saw Quincy come into the bar without Hakeem. Never mind that the woman has never set foot willingly into a bar as far as my memory goes, but to be without the company of her closest companion…?” The man gestured vaguely to the South. “Then there were those explosions, and all doubt fled my mind. Something had gone wrong.” He wagged a finger at Paulo. “But I had no idea you and your brothers were behind it! Why, I wonder? Is the girl going to pay you more than the marshal?”
I was shivering. With a voice that trembled, I cried out, “Please! Leave us be! We have no quarrel with you!”
Karolek looked at me, his smile never wavering. He shook his head slowly. “Ah…but I can’t! You see, no thanks to those wizards, I haven’t snagged a bounty in months! To catch you three would surely please the marshal, and with his reward, I’m sure I’ll be set for at least another year before I have to go hunting again!” He unhooked one of his ingots and held it up before him. Then he let his hand fall away, and the metal hovered in the air. There was a hum, and without preamble, the metal morphed and twisted, finally turning into a flat disc…a flat, sharp disc.
“I’m sorry, little ones…” he said.
…But Karolek didn’t sound sorry at all.