“Are you coming tonight?” Hastra glared at them all in the gloom of the Rat’s Nest, the underground lair they lived in. She’d already grabbed everything she thought she might need for this suicidal mission, including a vast number of knives. She’d do this alone, if she had to…she just hoped it wouldn’t come to that…
Gregyr, the most senior member left of their little crew, groaned and rubbed his fingers at his temples. He hadn’t been the same since he had come back from the dead, Hastra thought. He’d been decidedly twitchy of late, and occasionally she had heard him talking to someone who wasn’t there. Today though, his iron grey eyes were clear and shrewd as they pierced her own.
“Marda will be expecting us to go back,” he said. “It’s folly to play into her hands.” Hastra opened her mouth to argue, but he cut across her firmly. “Look, I’m worried about Maggi, too, but Marda is powerful, Hastra, and so far we’ve underestimated her at every turn. We can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes.”
“So we just leave Maggi there then?” Hastra spat. “She’s a child, Gregyr, we can’t leave her in Marda’s clutches any longer.”
And she’s my responsibility, she added to herself silently. Ever since Hastra had picked up the waif at Prince Odoro’s assassination, she had felt responsible for the child. Marda, who had been the one to commission the assassination, was a menace. One of the three contenders for the Seasalt throne, Marda had proven herself to be both ruthless and underhand in pressing her claim. Hastra dreaded to think what Marda had in mind for the smallest member of the Rat’s Nest crew now.
“The kid won’t leave Marda willingly, Hastra,” Calli said with patronising patience. “Not unless we can break the enchantment on her.”
Hastra ran a hand subconsciously over the wound between her ribs. It had taken longer to heal than Hastra had liked. It still wasn’t fully healed, if she was honest, but she couldn’t wait any longer. Part of her still couldn’t believe Maggi had actually attacked her. It had been clear enough that she didn’t really want to, but all the same…the betrayal hurt almost as much as the blade had done. Hastra clenched her jaw. Still, she’d take a dozen scars if it meant she could break Mags free.
Hastra paced the dimly lit underground lair of the Rat’s Nest anxiously, her thoughts whirring in time to her footprints.
“If she won’t come willingly, we’ll have to take her by force then,” she said, grimly at last. The others all looked at each other in dubious silence. There was only the four of them left now: Gregyr, the grey haired second in command, Big Gristo, the one-eyed muscleman, Calli, the tempestuous prodigal, and Hastra herself. They couldn’t afford to lose anyone else right now.
“Please,” Hastra said hoarsely into the silence, the word lodging in her throat and coming out in little more than a strained whisper. “Please. We can’t lose her.”
To Hastra’s surprise, it was Calli who nodded.
“She’s right,” Calli said. “Maggi is one of us now. We have to try.”
And that, it seemed, was that.
It was a lot easier said than done, though, and now that they were creeping around the grounds of the large and abandoned mansion Marda had set up as her head-quarters, even Hastra was starting to have second thoughts. The last time Hastra had been here, there had been no security at all. This time there were regular patrols of guards trooping both around the outer perimeter and the building itself, and there were charms on the windows, doors, and even on the chimney, which Hastra had to delicately unpick before she could slip inside. It was tricky, but not impossible and all in all, Hastra thought that this was probably a good thing. It meant, she decided, that this probably wasn’t a trap. It had been far too easy to break in before. Marda had wanted her to come for the child, just to prove her power over poor Mags.
A power I will break, if it is the last thing I do, Hastra vowed silently as she broke the charm upon the window, unpicked the lock and tumbled through into the waiting darkness beyond.
She hesitated in the musty gloom, but nobody seemed alarmed by her presence. She grinned. Hastra had been artfully trained as a house-breaker since she had been rescued from the silk-house as a youth, but she thought she had never put her skills to such good use before now.
The others would hopefully have broken through without drawing attention to themselves either. Big Gristo might struggle, discretion was not his forte, and Gregyr was not as young as once he was, but all of them were well practised in the…less legal arts. Hastra grinned to herself again in the dark. No, it wasn’t the others she was worried about. It was Maggi.
Hastra hurried down the darkened corridors on fleet feet, praying that Maggi hadn’t been moved since their last encounter. She hesitated outside the kid’s bedroom door, petitioning all the gods above and below that this wasn’t going to be a trap, and then whispered the door open.
The room was dark, but she could see a small figure of a girl stretched out on the mattress against the wall. She released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding and, casting an anxious glance over her shoulder, crossed the room towards her. Hastra stroked a hand down Maggi’s head softly. The now golden hair, forced into artificial curls, splayed out across the lumpy pillow, and a scowl was etched into the kid’s face even now. Her eyes fluttered and flickered open at Hastra’s gentle touch, and then she sat up sharply. Hastra breathed out half a smile. That was a remnant from a sewer kid’s upbringing. The gang children learnt to wake up quickly, or they might not wake up at all.
Maggi shuffled up the bed and eyed Hastra suspiciously.
“What do you want?” she whispered.
Hastra tried not to let the pain which those words caused show upon her face.
“I’ve come to fetch you home, kid,” she said. “Come on, let me help you.”
She held out a hand, but Maggi didn’t reach for it. Hastra felt her throat grow thicker.
“Please,” she whispered. “Let me help you, Mags.”
For a long moment, Maggi didn’t say anything, indecision flaring in her eyes. Hastra’s hand was cramping from holding it out to her so long. She licked her lips and then stretched out her hand a little further, making her fingers brush against Maggi’s own.
Maggi seemed to come crackling back to life.
“Marda!” Maggi screamed, leaping out of bed, ducking underneath Hastra’s arm and sprinting for the door. “Help!”
Hastra cursed and followed, hot on her heels. The kid threw the door open and sprinted out into the darkness, running blind. She bumped hard into Big Gristo, coming up the corridor the other way, and fell to the floor. Gristo scooped her up hastily, one large hand cramming over her mouth, the other crushing her against his chest.
“I’m sorry, Mags,” Hastra whispered, tears streaming down her face, as she withdrew a potent bottle and a kerchief from her satchel bag. “I really am sorry, but this is for your own good, I swear it.”
Maggi clearly realised what was going to happen. She kicked and squawked desperately as Hastra approached, trying futilely to escape. Gristo withdrew the hand over Maggi’s mouth and Maggi took a deep breath in to scream for help, but Hastra had smothered the potent soaked handkerchief over that mouth in the same movement. Maggi inhaled a large lungful of the potent and, after half a moment more of struggling, slumped into Gristo’s arms.
Hastra smoothed Maggi’s hair flat as Gristo scooped her up like a baby, cradling her far more delicately to his chest.
“Take her back to the Rat’s Nest. I’ll round up the others. Hurry,” she ordered. Big Gristo nodded and followed her down the darkened corridors. They didn’t light a lantern, though surely their position had been compromised by now—but if Calli and Gregyr had been successful, the guards would be too busy with the distraction to worry much about Hastra, Big Gristo, and their silently sleeping bundle.
With a last reluctant look over her shoulder at Maggi, Hastra left Big Gristo to work his way home alone and fled silently down the corridors to find the distraction Calli and Gregyr were making.
She didn’t have to search for long. She could the clash of metal and raised voices echoing through the dark towards her even from here. There was the acrid smell of magic in the air and Hastra pushed herself onwards. Perhaps it was about time we got a magewitch of our own on the books, she thought grimly. If the others are going to fight dirty with dark magic and technomancy, we’ll need some way to properly defend ourselves…
Hastra skidded around the final corner to see Calli and Gregyr desperately fending off a large horde of guards. The cheaply bought mercenaries were not as well trained as the Rat’s Nest crew, of course, but Calli and Gregyr were heavily outnumbered and it seemed that Gregyr, at the very least, was flagging.
I’ll try again to get him to see a healer, if we escape tonight, Hastra thought distantly as she darted into the middle of the fray. Gregyr was a stubborn old goat when it came to seeing Healers, but Hastra could be stubborn herself, and she hadn’t helped save his life just to see him waste it now.
Of course, their escape was in no way a certain thing.
“You’re a very hard man to kill, Dryvus,” Hastra heard Marda crowing at Gregyr as she parried a blade thrust. If only she knew, Hastra thought. For all his grand reputation, Dryvus, their erstwhile leader and friend, had died just as easily as any other man.
Gregyr, still struggling valiantly for his life, his teeth gritted as he swiped and parried, didn’t spare her a reply. Calli fended off a blade aimed at Gregyr’s back and then kicked the assailant somewhere that he should have protected better. The man went down with a grunt.
“Fall back,” Hastra called as she sprinted forwards. “You two, fall back.”
Gregyr and Calli spared a glance in Hastra’s direction, and another one of the assailants took the opportunity to lunge at Gregyr again. Gregyr went down hard, sprawling across the floor. Hastra dived forwards to rescue him, but Gregyr had fished a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and had withdrawn a small, tarnished silver charm which he held up to the light between a finger and a thumb.
“Stop,” he commanded. “Or I’ll destroy it, Marda. I mean it.”
“Everybody halt!” Marda screamed. Confused, her guards obeyed. Hastra and Calli hurried to Gregyr and hauled him to his feet. They stood there, the three of them against the combined weight of Marda’s personal guard, panting in the bloodied corridor. Hastra cast an eye over her shoulder. There was a door at the far end of the corridor, but it was sure to be locked. There was another door behind the gathered guards, but they’d never fight their way through all of them. There was a window to the side of them. Hastra edged towards it, whilst everybody else was distracted and peeked through. It was a hell of a drop, but they’d made worse before now, and it didn’t seem like they had a choice. She thrust her weight against it and hauled it upwards. One of the guards moved towards her to stop it, but Gregyr waved the small silver charm at him like a weapon and, raising his hands defensively, the guard edged back again.
“Where did you get that, Dryvus?” Marda asked carefully, pushing her way to the front of the crowd. Her thick, blonde hair was disarrayed, and she was in a sumptuous nightgown—clearly she had been caught unawares by their visit. That was some small satisfaction at least, Hastra thought. Even Marda wasn’t prepared for everything. Her voice was tightly controlled, but her eyes were wide with panic and her fingers were twitching at her sides.
“No. Not Dryvus,” Gregyr said quietly. “Are you telling me you still don’t recognise me, my lady, even after all these years?”
There was a heartbeatless pause whilst Marda stared at Gregyr for a moment, and then her long, thin fingers fled to her lips.
“Gregyr Albright?” she whispered. “My uncle’s ward? It was you? It was always you?”
Hastra would have been offended by Marda’s tone, if it had been her, but Gregyr just nodded grimly, still holding up that small silver charm.
“Let us go, my lady. We only want the child. What is one more kid to you? We’re not here to get in your way. Let us go, and leave us in peace and I won’t be forced to destroy you.” He shrugged a little self-deprecatingly. “I’m a fool still, it seems. I don’t want to ruin you, even after you tried to have me murdered. But I will, Marda, if you don’t leave my family alone.”
He held her gaze defiantly and it was clear enough that he wasn’t bluffing. Marda hesitated, chewing her lip, then she took a step forwards.
“No. That’s close enough.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you sooner, Gregyr,” Marda purred, her eyes wide and innocent. Hastra dared not think what magic had been used to keep them so lustrous and large. “I can’t believe you’re here after all these years. My first ally, my dearest saviour. You have been in my thoughts often. I never would have hurt you, if I had known it was you. Say you’ll be on my side, once more. I could always rely on you. The only one I could ever trust.”
To Hastra’s horror, Gregyr hesitated, too. His breath quickened slightly, and Hastra could see him actually considering it. She tried to call out to warn him, but her lips seemed to be fused together—perhaps a part of the same spell that she was trying to wind around Gregyr.
Gregyr shook his head hard, as if he was shaking water-droplets out of his hair, and then took another step backwards.
“That won’t work on me this time, my lady,” he said firmly, and Hastra felt herself beginning to breathe again. “Call off your men.”
A brief scowl flittered over Marda’s face, but she held up a hand, and her men lowered their weapons and took a step back.
“We’re leaving now,” Gregyr said. “And you won’t follow us. Calli, Hastra, out the window.”
Calli barged past Hastra and fled through the opening immediately, but Hastra hesitated a moment more, reluctant to leave Gregyr behind.
“Give me the charm first,” Marda said sweetly, holding out a long, thin hand. “Give me the charm and I will promise to leave you and yours alone for good. Including that wretched brat you’re all so fond of.”
“Ha. I know what you’re promises are worth, my lady. I think if it’s all the same to you, we’ll hold onto it. Just for insurance, you understand.”
Marda’s eyes narrowed, almost hiding those startlingly blue depths from view completely, but Gregyr had grabbed Hastra and thrown her bodily out of the window again. The wind streamed through her hair as she fell backwards, but she managed to twist and roll as she landed, and she was sprinting for the outer gates barely before her feet hit the ground.
Big Gristo was nowhere to be found, and the three of them all darted in different directions lest they were being followed. Though Hastra wanted nothing more than to flee straight to Maggi’s side and see she was alright, she took the long way home, through the winding streets and crevice-like alleyways. By the time she found the dimly lit lair again, the others had all returned already.
“By the fire,” Big Gristo said before she could even form the question, and Hastra saw that he had laid out a little cot bed beside the roaring hearth. Her shoulders inched down slightly.
She was home, at last.
She crept forwards silently, her hushed footsteps barely making a sound across the floor, as though she was afraid to wake the child—though the sleeping potent would not leave her system for hours yet. Mags was bound to her little cot bed, her now blonde hair spread out across the pillow. She looked peaceful enough under sedation, but Hastra knew there would be hell to pay once the little plague woke up. She sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair lovingly.
“We’re going to sort this all out, Mags,” she promised the sleeping girl. “I swear it.”
“We’d better,” Calli said darkly. “Marda is getting out of hand. What even was that thing you threatened her with, Greg?” Calli asked, stepping forwards into the glow of the firelight curiously, but before Gregyr could answer her there was a scraping noise in the wyvern tunnels outside.
Everyone drew their weapons with a curse. Nobody knew where the Rat’s Nest was. It was warded against strangers. Marda’s men shouldn’t have been able to find it, even if they followed on the footsteps of the fleeing crew.
The door swung inwards and a figure slipped through the darkness of the door towards them. He hesitated slightly as he saw them all staring at him, weapons raised, and then tipped his hood back. Hastra heard Calli gasp loudly at the brown haired, brown-eyed man standing there, grinning at them irreverently.
“Hello, everyone,” Micah Dawlish said. “Long time no see.”