The Rat’s Nest underground crew house felt morbidly empty with only the three thieves and con-women left in it.
“You should have seen this place in its heyday, Mags,” Hastra said softly. A soft slur edged her words, but it was the only sign which she gave that she was five cups deep into the Harbour Red. Gregyr, the temporary and somewhat begrudging leader of their crew, usually kept a close eye on the wine-cellar, but he and Big Gristo had gone up north and had left them unsupervised. “When Cal and I were growing up, the Rat’s Nest bustled. We had, what, fifteen, sixteen folks in our crew in our salad days.”
“What happened to them all?” The kid asked, her eyes wide. Hastra, who seemed to have discovered some maternal instinct after all, insisted on watering the brat’s wine down herself, but the skinny little sewer brat seemed less guarded than usual tonight, so Calli thought that she, too, had probably had too much to drink.
Maggi had also found some ink from somewhere, and had done a poor job painting her hair as night black as Hastra’s own, but neither Hastra nor Calli had commented on it. Calli thought she probably didn’t want the attention drawn to it.
Hastra looked over to Calli at Maggi’s words, and Calli felt herself scalding against the glow of the fire.
I happened, at least in part.
Calli knew that Hastra held it against her, though it wasn’t entirely her fault. True, Calli had decided to go storming off into the wide world as a headstrong youth, seeking her own independence, and, true, that had been the catalyst, of sorts, for the crew’s decline, it seemed. Bit by bit, as if they had only been waiting for her cue, the others had also drifted away from Dryvus’ little family, too, until only Gregyr, Hastra, Big Gristo and Dryvus himself remained. Then Dryvus himself had died and any hope there had been of reconciliation had died with him. But still…it wasn’t all her fault.
I came back. That has to count for something. And now Mags is here, too. Perhaps we can grow again, even without Dryvus… The thought lingered wistfully in her mind and she reached out a hand for her cup to wash the thought away.
All the lights inside the Rat’s Nest extinguished themselves before her fingers could reach the cup. The candles sputtering on the table, the safety-charmed lantern hanging from the ceiling, even the fire belching out heat from the fireplace besides them. Darkness was immediate and overpowering.
Calli stiffened, the warm buzz of wine fleeing at once. She could hear Maggi cursing in a high pitched shrill—words that surely no nine year old ought to know—and Hastra’s voice tersely comforting her.
Calli fumbled for the tinderbox waiting atop the mantelpiece blindly, but as she struck it, it refused to catch. She could hear Hastra striking her flint-stone desperately into the fireplace, too, but she didn’t have any luck either.
A charm. And a malignant one at that.
The realisation hit her like a wave of nausea, sending her stomach churning, as all too slowly she realised what it meant.
“The Rat’s Nest has been compromised,” she whispered grimly. “We need to leave now.”
“It could well be a trap. They could just be trying to flush us out.”
“We’ve got to take the chance, I think.”
A soft moment of silence followed and then Hastra said quietly: “I’m in no state to fight right now, Cal. I can’t protect Mags if there’s a horde of guards or mage-witches out there waiting for us.”
“You won’t be able to protect her if they’re coming in here, too,” Calli pointed out.
“They can’t come through the warding on the door.”
“No magic should have been able to break through the wards on the door, either Hastra.” There was a pause as Hastra took this in. “We’ll be safer out there than in here. We ought to get out whilst we still can.”
“Besides, I can protect you,” Maggi said defiantly in the dark and Calli couldn’t help but smirk.
She heard a sigh in the darkness and then a whisper of metal on leather as Hastra unsheathed a dagger.
“Come on, then. But if we die tonight, Cal, I fully intend to make you pay for it in the afterlife.”
“I look forward to it,” Calli said darkly. “Join hands and keep your wits about you.”
“I wish Big Gristo was here,” muttered Hastra. “He makes an excellent shield.”
I wish Dryvus was here, Calli thought in return. He’d know exactly what to do in situations like this. Their late leader had the knack of confidence, even in uncertain scenarios like these.
They crept together towards the warded door, Calli leading the procession, knife in one hand, Maggi’s small bird-like hand in the other, Hastra bringing up the rear, also with a knife in her spare hand. Though her reaction times were slower, her edge blunted by the wine, she’d still be sharp enough to ward off most sewer rats and gang men.
Calli took a deep breath and then threw the door open, leaping out to try to maintain the element of surprise.
The tunnels beyond were empty, almost startlingly so. Even the flamewyrms, which usually sat oozing light softly from the top of the ceiling, had gone dark. Calli felt her mouth go dry. In all of her twenty-six years of life, she had never heard of such a thing before.
This is bad.
Hastra obviously thought so, too, for she was muttering endless curses beneath her breath.
“Have we all gone blind?” she whispered.
Calli didn’t answer. She didn’t know.
“We’re trapped here!” Maggi’s voice was high and shrill and she sounded on the edge of tears, something Calli never thought she would see. She’s just a child, for all that she has been toughened on the streets. She squeezed Maggi’s hand tightly.
“No, we’re not,” she said. “Hastra and I have walked these tunnels since we were your age, Mags. We know the way out with our eyes closed. Good thing, too, eh?” she joked weakly. Maggi did not laugh, but she did squeeze Calli’s hand tightly, which Calli took as a good sign. It was the closest thing to a friendly interaction she had had with the girl since Hastra had brought her home.
“Come on,” she said, far more brightly than she felt. “We’ll feel a lot better with some fresh sea air in our lungs.”
The walk down the tunnels felt interminably long. Calli had re-sheathed her knife so that her one free hand could trail along the ridged rock walls, tracing her way out. Without the soft flamewyrm light bouncing around the tunnel walls to guide her way, she took smaller steps than usual, and despite her bravado to Maggi, she felt a little uncertain about the way.
Eventually, a blessed wave of salt-tinged air wafted towards her and she stumbled gratefully out into the world beyond.
Well, she wasn’t blind at least. The faintest glimmer of starlight freckled the skies above them and reflected on the cresting waves of the midnight sea below, but it was the only light that shone throughout all of the harbour city.
“It’s not just us,” Calli realised aloud, staring at the endless dark swallowing the panicking streets of Highmast whole. Even the stars and moonlight, as it shone down upon the tops of the houses surrounding them, seemed muted. The city had fallen into disarray, screaming and chaos echoing down from the noble houses atop the hill, to the gang quarters down here by the docks.
“I’ve never seen a spell this powerful before,” Calli whispered. “I’ve never seen anyone strong enough to blanket a whole city in darkness.”
Maggi shuffled in a bit closer to her and Hastra did, too, until all three of them huddled at the edge of the cobbled streets, watching the mayhem unfold before them.
“Up there,” Hastra said hoarsely, pointing a hand up past Main Bridge. “Look.”
Calli followed her hand and stared up towards the Seasalt palace at the very top of the hill. There, a bright gleaming light slowly floated down the road towards them.
Calli glanced over at Hastra, who nodded back at her grimly in her the dark. They couldn’t just let a mystery like that pass by without investigating it. Nor were they the only ones attracted to the glow. A strange sort of parade fell into place as everyone hurried up towards the blinding, shimmering light coming down to meet them.
It was as if everyone wanted to be near the only source of light in the darkness, as though the glimmering, angelic starlight had come to greet them, one last desperate moment of hope. Calli snorted to herself as she manoeuvred Maggi and Hastra, still all holding hands, through the gathering crowds in the fumbling dark. They were probably the ones who had brought the darkness in the first place, and now they were being heralded as agents of light?
They had almost reached Main Bridge itself, the large bridge which separated the upper and lower halves of the city, when they met the light coming the other way. It was a blinding halo of brightness in the endless black. As Calli pulled the other two into the side of the bridge, she saw in the midst of the glowing circle a lady walking sedately, arm in arm, with a grey hooded gentleman. Unusually, he had two seersight orbs in his eyes. Most men usually only traded one eye, leaving the other eye for more mundane sight. He also had a charmed left arm, metallic and glimmering, which he held up gallantly for the woman to thread her hand around, a glowing red stone where his right ear ought to be, and metallic spikes pierced deep into his shoulders that hummed and throbbed with power.
Calli felt Maggi’s hand tightening in her own again and Calli squeezed it back reassuringly.
“Who’s that?” the kid whispered.
“Mattias McGomery. A magewitch, of sorts, though he thinks of himself more as a technomancer artificer. As you can see, he likes to experiment.”
“I’ve never seen anything like him!”
“Cal stole his seersight once, when she was just a smidge younger than you,” Hastra told Maggi, with a voice full of forced brightness, as if this was nothing more than a grand joke they were sharing. “She was even more reckless and foolhardy than you are, Mags, and that’s saying something.”
“He looks wicked,” the girl said fervently.
“You’re only saying that because of his technomancy,” Calli whispered, still eying up the slowly processing couple. A crowd followed them both, but no one dared to venture through into the bubble of light. “Technomancy is no bad thing, Mags. It helps a lot of people. Don’t let its appearance sway your opinion.”
“The kid’s right, though. He is wicked,” Hastra pointed out. “He goes meddling with things that ought to be left alone.”
“He’s ambitious. It’s not always the same thing.”
“Why are you defending him?” Hastra spat. “He has just cast the whole city into darkness.”
“Yes. Curious, isn’t it? And have you seen who he’s with?”
Calli herself had not taken her eyes off the lady accompanying him, dressed in a ethereal gown of glowing star-light. White stones also glistened in her golden hair, and a white veil trailed like a comet’s tail down her back, making her look like some fae of old.
Hastra’s mouth fell open.
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”
Hastra surged forwards, as if to take Marda down by force, but Calli held on to her tightly.
“Hold it, Hastra, we have to play this smartly.”
“I’m going to kill her.”
“I want to see her dead. I want to watch her die.”
Hastra had a furious temper when roused, worse, perhaps, even than Calli’s, for though Calli had a quick temper, Hastra’s slow-burning blaze was far harder to quell. Calli wrapped her arms around her, struggling to hold her in place.
“She poisoned Gregyr!” Hastra spat, still struggling to extricate herself. “We helped her and she betrayed us! If you think I’m going to let her just—”
“I think she is walking arm in arm with one of the most powerful magical users in the whole city, perhaps even the whole country,” Calli interrupted quickly, still holding the struggling Hastra tightly in her arms, breathing the words in her ear. “I think diving in recklessly will get you killed and will not see Gregyr avenged. I think, Hastra, that whilst we are going to get our vengeance on her, and we are not going to let her take the throne she so clearly craves, we are going to have to be smart about it. In short, Hastra, I think that it is time you started thinking.”
Hastra paused and then slumped in Calli’s arms. Calli released her with exaggerated caution. She grabbed her shoulders and rested her forehead against Hastra’s, willing her to feel the truth of her words.
“I’m not saying we won’t kill her,” Calli whispered. “I’m just saying we can’t kill her yet.”
Hastra let out a long, slow breath and Calli could feel the shoulders still hunched up tightly underneath her hands, but Hastra let out a slow nod. She pulled herself out of Calli’s grasp and glared angrily at the passing halo of light.
“We should follow her,” Calli whispered. “She clearly has some great theatrical message she wants to spread, and we ought to know what it is.”
“Alright,” Hastra said moodily. “Come on, Mags. Mags? Where’s Maggi?” she asked with a sudden urgency.
“She was here just a minute ago. Maggi? Maggi! Cal, she was just here, she was just here. I only let go of her hand for a second!” Her voice rose high and hysterical as panic streaked through it.
“Calm down. We’ll find her. She was a sewer brat, Hastra, she knows how to take care of herself.”
“She doesn’t have the sense she was born with. I said I would take care of her. The crowd is panicking, Cal, it’s not a good time for her to be out in it alone.”
But Calli didn’t answer. She was staring in horror at the smudge of black winding its way through the crowds towards the halo of light, a faint glimmer of metal in its hand. Calli’s hands fumbled for her sheath and found it empty. Sneaky little pick-pocket. Hastra followed her gaze and cursed, too.
“She must have heard you saying you wanted Marda dead,” Calli whispered in horror. “You know that brat would move heaven and earth to please you.”
Hastra surged forwards through the crowds without wasting time replying and this time Calli didn’t stop her. She, too, forced her way forwards, abandoning subtlety and elegance for brute force as she shoved people out of the way, trying to reach the child before she broke through the halo of light.
She didn’t make it in time.
With a pounce, Maggi broke through the edge of light, flying through the air towards Marda, her dagger raised.
McGomery plucked her out of the air with his metallic arm without looking, his fingers tightening around her neck, holding her off of the ground. Maggi dropped the knife, her hands closing around the fist about her throat, her little legs kicking wildly in the air, her messy black hair tangling about her as she thrashed.
“A tiny assassin, eh?” the magewitch asked, sounding bored and amused. “Do you want me to dispose of her, my queen?”
Hastra threw herself at the magewitch, but McGomery flicked a finger and the halo of light was suddenly surrounded by an impenetrable, invisible wall. Calli reached it, too, a moment behind Hastra, but however hard she threw herself against it, she could not break through. Marda looked over at the two of them, trying desperately to break their way in, then she looked over at Maggi, who was going slowly more red around the face.
“Oh no,” she said softly, her voice gentle and beatific. Her golden hair glimmered in the halo of light encircling her, until she seemed almost angelic. “She’s just a child, Mattias. She can’t help the fact that she’s been raised in bad company. Set her down.”
Grudgingly, McGomery obeyed. Marda bent slightly, wiping away a strand of hair from Maggi’s face. Maggi stared at her in horror, but she didn’t seem to be able to move.
“It’s OK, child, I’m going to take good care of you now,” Marda promised in her musical voice, but her summer blue eyes, as she glanced up at Hastra and Calli, held an edge of malevolent spite. “I think it’s time to go home.”
She took Maggi’s hand in her own and Maggi hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Hastra. Hastra shook her head, screaming at her, pleading for her to return, but Calli got the distinct impression that Maggi could no longer hear them. Her eyes seemed strangely blank, as if she didn’t even recognise Hastra and Calli anymore. The child placed her little hand in Marda’s larger one, and together they walked down through the crowds of darkness and out of sight.
Hastra slumped to the floor besides her, a strange, guttural yell wailing up through her throat, her body shaking with suppressed sobs. As the little circle of light paraded slowly away, the darkness of the night flooded back in to overwhelm them once more.