The shadow is my friend, a foe it is to others,
To let its friendship slip from my grasp is a sin that’ll get you murdered.
Guild Phrase –
* * *
Mainland, Karpaven – The Waterfront District
When the carriage finally left the docks, it thundered through the alleyway in blind haste. Like beasts possessed the horses galloped towards the safety of the main thoroughfare, urged by an equally mad and frightened driver. The coachman knew he was being followed. It was plain stupidity to even agree to his passenger’s proposition, plain greed to let the glitter of gold overcome his judgement. There was no use berating himself now,he thought. The deal was made. A generous amount of the passenger’s silver now rested comfortably inside his pocket, for all the good that did him.
The sound of hooves pounding close behind made him lash his whip above the horses’ heads. Spooked, they fled, as fast as the narrow alley allowed, crashing through empty crates and abandoned barrels, throwing mud into the air. The wheels jangled to the point of breaking but the coachman drove his team onward. He was not paid to die.
More than once an unexpected curve in the alley forced the horses to slow down. Each time they cleared a turn the rider cracked his whip, the desperation in his voice redoubled by the sound of pursuit close behind him. For what seemed an eternity he manoeuvred his horses through a maze of tall, damp walls, chased by hunters he did not have the guts to confront.
Then, the road began to widen. He could see the outline of Karpaven’s tall, pointed towers, and the unmistakable, gargoyle-guarded battlement which stood atop the city’s giant clock. Spurred by the knowledge that Karpaven’s guards patrol the thoroughfare just a few blocks away, he lashed his whip once more, whispered a praise to the Maker, and let his team make a run for it.
Yet all thoughts of salvation died as soon as he cleared the alleyway, for the road ahead was blocked by another group of dark-clad, masked riders.
This was the stuff of stories heard in taverns. Pursuers clad in black, with horses the colour of midnight. Bandits who preyed upon the innocent coachman for the goods inside the carriage. What could they possibly want with him, or his passenger?
His team bucked and slowed down, their hooves sliding on the cobblestones as the coachman wrestled them to a halt. Strained by his effort with the reins, he turned his praise into blasphemous curses. The riders still hot on his heels flew out of the alley. He was surrounded. He had a fraction of a second to register the harsh truth of his impending doom, a fraction of a second to try and reach for his flintlock.
Several pistols were raised in his direction simultaneously. The cold, dark fear which brewed in his bowels swelled to a tenfold, stopped his heart.
“Wait, don’t –”
The sound of gunshots burst through the air, paired with the startled neighs of the carriage’s horses and the sound of the city’s clock as it struck the second hour of the night.
* * *
The explosion of gunfire spurred Davek onward through the district’s derelict buildings. He tossed his hat aside and slipped out of his coat, a triumphant smile on his face. “Well that was easy.”
“Those thugs won’t be pleased to see that you ain’t in the coach, Sir,” said the beggar.
“Thank you, Sir Obvious. Your powers of observation are highly remarkable!” He dumped his coat into the hands of the next beggar they passed and peeled his shirt off. Underneath he wore the dull, brown vest of a common labourer over a plain old shirt. He unstrapped his visible weapons and hid them in the many secret pockets sewn inside his vest and pants, fast as a magician pulling tricks. He kept his dagger unsheathed, a deterrent for those who might wish to approach him. “Don’t worry. They’ll be far too busy running around this stinking maze shooting the other vermin down. Uh…no offence.”
Sir Obvious shrugged. “It don’t matter to me. More of em’ dead means more pickins for me empty belly.”
“Ahhh. No honor amongst beggars, eh?”
Sir Obvious shrugged again. “It’ll take a while to get back to the main streets. Keep close to me.”
The stone walls that towered around them were disorienting. Whatever landmarks there once were have long since succumbed to rust and decay. His skittish, filthy guide led him through a network of alleyways coated with mud and slime. Wherever they turned, the path sprouted crooked, ramshackle buildings that looked as though they were purposely built to be ruined. Old houses crumbled under the weight of neglect. Upper stories leaned heavily against the lower floors. The sky alternated between a vista of crooked spires and holed rooftops, with loose tiles hanging dangerously over the edge.
In one stretch of road he glimpsed the half-starved shades of children, perched on the broken balconies high up where no one could reach them. Their curiosity towards him lasted only until he disappeared into the shadows, their sunken, deadpan eyes matched by their stick-thin bodies and hollow cheeks. Hunger wasn’t the worst fate a child in the Waterfront could suffer. Slavers have been known to slip past the city guards undetected, prowling the district’s borders like phantoms, always on the lookout for an easy target.
Gunfire exploded in the streets again. Both Davek and his guide flattened themselves against the wall as panicked beggars scrambled through the narrow path. They left a trail of frightened shrieks and a wave of malodorous smells that would stay with him for hours.
“How much further?” Davek coughed in an attempt to clear his senses.
“Come, come!” His guide waved at him to move. “Watch your step, Sir. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
Despite the beggar’s familiarity over the uneven terrain and Davek’s ability to see in total darkness, out of here in no time proved to be nearly an hour later, in the heat of Karpaven’s summer night, at the very edge of an old, abandoned plaza. Drenched in sweat, Davek paused at the mouth of the alleyway to catch his breath. A thoroughfare stood at the far end of the plaza, perhaps sixty, sixty-five paces ahead. Stamped against the skyline were the newly painted spires and towers he recognised to be part of the city’s more decent districts. Distant sounds of civilisation pervaded the atmosphere. There, laughter and music and the comfort of warm firelight filled the night air with merriment – stark contrast to the desolation that haunted the Waterfront.
Uneasiness coiled around Davek’s guts. Thunder shook the ground, though the sky was barren enough to rival a parched desert. Something was wrong. Davek drew a sharp breath. “Find another way out of here, quickly!”
The beggar had doubled over to his knees, wheezing. “What?”
Hooves hammered the ground, too loud and near for comfort. They heard the whoops of riders and their barbaric war cry before they saw the poor soul who was the object of the riders’ hunt. And when they did finally catch a glimpse of that wretched soul, who happened to be dressed in that same coat Davek had generously contributed, the terrified man was running straight for the alley.
“Another way, now!” Davek grabbed the beggar’s weathered rags and hauled him upright. His guide squeaked, sputtered a few unintelligible words and spun on his heels.
The alley was narrow, but not narrow enough to stop crazed, greed-driven headhunters from their bloodthirsty pursuit. Davek threw a glance over his shoulder to see how far the riders were before his guide grabbed him by his wrist and made a sudden, sharp turn to the left.
“In here!” the beggar said.
Davek had counted on a hidden passageway, had spotted the crack between the buildings when they walked past it the first time. What he did not count on was for the ground to give way beneath him. Davek drew a quick breath as he slipped on damp earth and fell into a dark hole.
“Oh shit!” Hands flailing, he hit soft, wet ground. Mud splashed onto his face. His knees, when they made contact with the earth, sent another generous spray of muck upwards. Rats squeaked and scurried out of his path as he rolled to his feet. He spat the taste of filth from his mouth, hissed a series of colourful phrases, then scrambled back to the edge of the crack.
The sound of hoof beats ricocheted against the walls outside, not loud enough to drown the sobs of the poor fool being run to the ground. Davek positioned himself at the mouth of the hidden passage, eyes locked to the alleyway to watch.
He did not have to wait long. The beggar’s fast footsteps vanished under a short burst of gunshots. The poor sod fell in an ungainly heap inches away from where Davek was hidden, dead before he even hit the ground. Scarlet liquid trickled into the dark hole. If the sight of the bloodied, battered body made his guide gag and whimper, Davek swallowed his reaction with practised speed. He had to focus on the three riders who appeared in his line of vision just then.
Davek waited amongst the shadows while one rider dismounted and inspected their quarry. Disgruntled, the headhunter kicked the dead body aside and returned to his horse. The other two let out a flurry of blasphemies that would have made the temple priests howl in fury. None, fortunately, came near the hidden passageway, where darkness would be their greatest liability and Davek’s greatest advantage.
“Ye’d be wantin’ another way around, eh?” Davek’s guide spoke, his voice barely a whisper. “I can take you back across the alley. Use the rooftop paths, where they can’t shoot me…I mean shoot you.”
“Now where’s the fun in that?” Davek scooped some coins out of his purse. “I’m done with you. Here’s… ten pieces of silver. Stay here and keep quiet or by the Hound of Death, I’ll cut you ear to ear before those riders could even get their arses off their saddles.”
The beggar’s bony cheeks paled to a sickly shade – a remarkable feat, considering the fact that he already looked plagued to begin with. “Come to think of it, this spot ain’t too bad for a catnap.”
“Good man.” Davek pressed the coins to the beggar’s hands and climbed out of the hole. Precious seconds passed while he assessed the terrain to gauge his options. He kept one ear out for other pursuers on horseback, but those hunters were too far away to pose any threat.
“We can’t keep doing this,” he heard one of the riders speak as they guided their horses out of the alley and towards the square, the words thick and crude with the southern dialect. “That’s the second rat we shot down tonight, and there’s still no sign of that damned thief!”
“Orders are orders,” said the second pursuer. “If the boss says shoot people in green cloaks, we shoot people in green cloaks.” All three men wore their braids in the style of woodland barbarians – thugs hired for their brutality than skill, to judge by their lack of good sense. Never let your tongue wag in useless chatter when your mark is still alive, went an old Guild proverb.
“We’re wasting our bloody time. That’s what we’re doing!” The third man nudged his horse to a trot. “Come on.”
The anticipation for a kill set Davek’s nerves afire. He left the safety of the shadows to follow them towards the end of the alley, where he could see the abandoned plaza in all its wasted glory once more. Not a moment to lose. Flexing his left wrist, he pressed two fingers of his right hand to his lips and blew a sharp, shrill whistle.
They turned, which was a bad mistake for one of them. Davek knew the dagger would hit home the moment he let it fly out of his sleeve. The rider in the middle toppled to the ground with a short, gurgling scream, the point of the blade lodged deep in his throat.
There was no time to filter the artistic words the other two yelled at him. Davek took a few steps backwards, his grin as malicious as the riders were furious. The horses lurched towards Davek, but stopped short as their riders regained their judgment and reined their steeds at a safe distance. Damn! Davek thought. So this wasn’t going to be easy after all.
“Expect us to run in there after you?” One of the riders, the one on the right snarled.
“On the contrary, ladies,” Davek said with a chuckle. “I was expecting you to sit there on your ponies and look pretty. Afraid of the darkness, are we? Some brave clan warriors you two are.”
“You’ll have to do better than that mountebank!” The one on the left shouted back. “We aren’t the ones cowering in the shadows.”
Davek shook his head. “Has it ever occurred to you…” He paused to snatch a pebble from the ground, focused a sliver of his thoughts and energy to a single intention, then breathed that energy into the stone. A flash of fire roared through his blood, a jolt that made him grit his teeth. “That you should really mind your tongue when you speak to your foe?”
He aimed for the rider on the left. The pebble soared in a beautiful arch and landed squarely on the left horse’s nose. It squealed and reared, almost throwing its rider off. Timing was everything. Distractions were risky business, and the shadows out here were not thick enough here to conceal a man fully.
Or so the riders thought.
To an outsider’s point of view, Davek vanished entirely into the darkness, or rather, the darkness swallowed Davek whole. It was a spell which took years of practice, a magic discovered in desperation when he was but a starving little thief, running from the irate gentleman whose purse he had cut. Once again fire rushed through his bloodstream, and would have knocked him flat had he not been prepared.
Years ago he hadn’t been prepared. The spell had lasted a mere five seconds. He had screamed like a little girl when the roar of that magic overtook him, when it washed over his senses and sent merciless, searing fire through his body. After that it was easy for the gentleman to find him, screaming his lungs out as he was. Davek could barely remember which did the worse damage – the arcane fire or the gentleman’s fists pounding him to a bloody pulp.
Now, between the span of two heartbeats he had tempered the roar of that magic into a purpose, used its energy to weave the shadows around him. Just as he had on the fake Brimstone all those weeks ago out in the open ocean. The illusion of shadows would conceal him, wherever he went, even to the rooftops where the moon shone the brightest. In fact, that was exactly where he was headed.
It was impossible to scale the wall in complete silence, so he had to make it up with speed. Cloaked by his magic, he ran up one wall, then propelled himself to the opposite building with a powerful kick. His hands grasped the rusted rails of the balcony – or whatever was left of it, which clung to the building’s upper story. The rails let out a screech as loud as a banshee’s under his weight.
The riders below snapped their heads up, freshly loaded flintlocks in their hands. Neither could see him, of course, yet they aimed their pistols towards the balcony nonetheless.
Damn. Have I forgotten to drop a few coins in the temple fountain this week, to be stuck in such a fine predicament?
Davek drew a sharp breath, then hauled himself up quickly. With practiced ease he jumped to the opposite building once more, this time reaching for the partially-ruined rooftop. Gunfire exploded and came near to bursting Davek’s eardrums. Sparks of fire rained down on the streets, a sight that would not have bothered any normal man, but stormed the thief’s magnified senses without mercy.
Teeth gritted, eyes squinted, he waited for a moment for the blinding haze to clear. Funny how that magic often persisted in reminding him that it had more limitations than usefulness.
“Think we got him?” one of the barbarians said in a voice fraught with both anger and panic. Loose pebbles rattled under the horses’ hooves, but no sound was louder than the panicked beating of their hearts.
“Hsst! Keep your wits about,” the other hissed. “No telling where he’s gone to.”
“You see what he did with the shadows?” The other tugged his horse around, fear evident in his eyes. “What the devil is he?”
Now or never. Davek leaped down, landed on the second rider’s horse and braced his feet against the steed’s sides while he ran the knife through the barbarian’s neck. The horse reared backwards, its terrified neigh no less horrible than the death-cry of the man whose blood now stained Davek’s fingers.
It was not a pleasant sound, but a morbid tune that sang of death for his foe and another day of life for the thief. Fuelled by the undeniable surge of adrenaline, he slid off the horse and backed away before the animal trampled him to the ground. His victim’s body followed suit, slumped in a dead, bloody heap at his feet.
Pressed against the alley wall to avoid the horse’s kicking hooves, he drew another knife free. While the second barbarian gave a frantic search for his unseen foe, Davek stalked his prey with the enthusiasm of a cat. He was but three paces away from his opponent when the barbarian let out a hoarse challenge.
“Come out you coward!” His voice was a little too high-pitched to have been anywhere near threatening. In a pack these headhunters were all alike – indistinguishable, murdering machines who knew naught about the subtlety of a true kill. Separate them from their kind, and they immediately revert to…lamentable opponents. Hardly the sort Davek would waste his time and energy on.
Guns exploded somewhere in the depths of the alley. Rider and horse jerked their heads upwards, ready to bolt.
“Fiends bedamned,” Davek muttered. Why must things never go my way?
“One,” he said under his breath and took one step forward, knife positioned at his side. “Two…” Davek used his left leg to leap forward, and with the momentum of the first move used his right leg to jump as high as he could beside the horse. “Three!”
As if warned by instinct, the animal sidled backwards, but Davek was faster. The point of his blade slid through the rider’s side without protest. The barbarian jerked in surprise, and stared without comprehension at the black, shapeless mass that lurked beside him. A ripple of energy touched the air where Davek stood. He emerged, as though out of water and stepped aside as the brute fell off the saddle. He grabbed the reins before the animal decided to bolt.
“My thanks for the horse.” The thief swung onto the saddle with practiced ease, his grin wide as a bobcat’s. “You just saved me an hour’s worth of walking.”
The echo of gunshots in the alley had grown more persistent now. Come morning all the rats who live, breathe and breed in this filthy warren will have been flushed out of their hiding hole, Davek thought. He dug his heels into the horse’s sides to gallop away from the ruins and did not once look back. “You can keep the other horse, Sir Obvious.”
“Bless yer black heart, sir!” came the beggar’s meek response.
Nevermind that the ugly truth remained unspoken – the riders will not cease their hunt until the wee hours of the dawn. If they find the beggar with the horse, Sir Obvious will join the ranks of the dead. Cruel as it may seem, if such a moment arises, Davek will have bought himself a fraction of a minute longer to escape.