The days passed at the pace of drunken mule marching up a hill. The carriage was not built for speed in any sense of the word – had Glaw not been busy feeling sorry for himself, he might have felt a twinge of pity for the poor horses forced to drag the cursed thing – and the land road wasn't meant for fast travel either.
Outside the barred windows, the same view of the main road-channel and grasslands rolled passed, the monotony only broken a handful of times when less tactful onlookers decided to approach and talk to him, either keeping pace with the carriage or asking the drivers to stop.
The drivers never refused.
The conversations were always the same: "You're doing a great service to your country!" and "Have you been to Outer Camps before?", always spoken with the air of an easy chat, like they'd just run into each other at the theater or a restaurant. One old salesman even gave him a bag of some rare tea from overseas, reaching in between the bars without commenting on them and depositing the tea into Glaw's trembling hands, with a smile and a "Good luck, boy!"
Glaw had thankfully never had to study torture techniques, but as the days turned to nights and boat after boat breezed by down the road-channel, thoughts of them took up more and more of his waking hours.
There was nothing to do in the carriage other than to try reading the books he'd been given by his friends (which he had neither the presence of mind nor the light to try.) The only breaks in traveling were the few times a day when the drivers let him out to relieve himself. Even on the rare evenings that they ended up at an inn, he was made to sleep in the carriage; 'for his own safety' as they put it.
It had to be a strategy to break him. That was the only explanation. A way to show him that no matter how dearly he wished for it, he'd never get to go home.
The mounting dread grew heavier for each turn of the carriage wheels. The walls were closing in on him, the food he was given tasted of nothing, and he nearly lost count of the days. But whenever that feeling of hopelessness came over him, he sat down on the floor, pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his forehead against them. With his eyes closed, he did his best to recall the view from the top of the city gate and the windy spot on the wall opposite the hangar where the military was building airplanes.
When the rain started falling on what he thought was the sixth day, he spent all his waking time remembering the sword lessons Dylis had given him the week before. The ground had been slippery with mud and they'd laughed at each other just as much as they'd actually practiced. They'd gone back to the barracks soaked to the bone and grinning like idiots. The memory was enough to keep the panic away for a little while longer.
On the next day, he blinked awake to find that the carriage had come to a standstill, the door left unbolted and open. He hesitated, taking in the deceitfully blue sky and green grass that beckoned him.
"You coming out?" The female driver stuck her head into his field of view, smile still in place.
He gave her a curt nod and hastily gathered his bags, hugging them to his chest to managed to carry them all at once.
The first thing to catch his eye were the trees. He'd seen some before of course, in the parks of Search, but they had been small, tame things, their slender branches decorated with flowers or colorful leaves. Compared to them the things growing here were more towers than trees. They dwarfed Outer Camps itself – a gathering of barracks ten times the size of the military housing back in Trade, boxed in by a three-meter-high timber wall – and some of the branches looked sturdy enough to support the weight of a full-grown ox.
"Close your mouth or the birds will lay eggs down your throat," a gruff and clearly amused voice said, interrupting Glaw's staring. He immediately straightened to stand at attention, which unsettled the contents of his bags enough for several of the books inside to make an escape for the ground.
"Colonel Hari Blevins," the owner of the voice introduced himself, circling around so they ended up face to face. The man was dressed in a uniform fitting for his rank, though decidedly less cared for than those of the Colonels in Trade, with an unshaven chin to match.
Glaw did his best to salute without dropping more of his belongings. "You've got quite the welcoming committee waiting for you, Private. I'd suggest you hurry up and get inside."
The gates - if two large wooden doors in an equally wooden palisade could be called that – stood open, revealing barracks and soldiers by the hundreds. Glaw's feet started moving on their own, used to obeying commands without first having to take a detour to the brain. Behind him, he heard the carriage start rolling again, the sound of hooves hitting mud growing fainter by the second.
"Are you going to leave those there to rot, Private?"
The question halted him in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder, spotting five books that decorating the ground in an uneven line. "O-of course not, sir. I'm terribly sorry, sir!"
The rest of the walk Glaw did everything he could to keep his eyes on his bags, doing his best to ignore the hush that fell around him. The colonel kept up a brisk pace, so there wasn't much time to notice, but everywhere they passed all soldiers stopped what they were doing and stared without even pretending to be busy with something else.
Just as they were about to enter one of the bigger buildings, a man about Glaw's own age could be heard grumbling from a small gathering of people dressed in uniforms without rank markings: <Hey, why do you think he's getting special treatment? We've had to stand out here for two hours!>
Colonel Blevins stopped in his tracks. Glaw had to jump a step to the right to avoid crashing into him.
The hush that fell over the crowd this time was far heavier, more oppressive than curious. The gathered soldiers all stood at attention, leaving a ring of free space around the man who'd spoken.
"Listen up!" Colonel Blevins voice echoed in the compact silence. "People back home might be impressed with your demon chatter, but out here we only use human language, understood?" No one spoke. "You're not proving yourself by babbling on like the idiots you are, you're just giving away information to the enemy. No one is to speak the demon tongue unless given a direct order to do so! This goes for all of you." He paused and simply looked at them all, taking the time to meet the gaze of the few brave or stupid enough to keep their heads held high.
"Yes, sir!" came the unanimous answer. Glaw joined in on it too, keeping an eye on the colonel from the cover of his bags.
Colonel Blevins got down from the steps leading up to the door he'd been about to enter and made his way over to the soldier who'd spoken out of turn. He walked at a slow pace, dragging each and every second out until the man quivered in his boots.
"As for special treatment," the colonel said once he'd gone one turn around the soldier, eying him as if he were an insect, "I hardly think that's your place to question, is it, Private?"
The soldier shook his head, then nodded, then shook it again, his face as pale as a sheet.
"Have you any idea who's being kept waiting right now due to your little snide comment?"
This time there was only a nod.
"You're going out on patrol early, dog." The amusement in the colonel's voice was back with full force, shadowed by something darker Glaw wished he could make himself ignore. "You're lucky that's all the punishment I have time for. Back in line!"
The soldier scurried away and blended in with his fellows without protest. As one, the ranking officers at the scene began to direct the men and women present into smaller groups, leading them away towards different barracks.
"New recruits," Colonel Belvins said to Glaw as he turned his back to the crowd. His tone was light and airy, though somewhat exasperated, like a parent who'd gotten fed up with the antics of their young child. "But you're a well-behaved sort, aren't you?"
He squinted his eyes and brought his face up far too close to Glaw's, nearly bumping their foreheads together. Glaw did his best not to flinch away. "Yes, military born, aren't you? Or at least joined young. Oh, and you're free to answer my questions."
"Yes, sir," Glaw said, doing his best to not meet the colonel's eyes without obviously avoiding doing so. "Since I was five, sir."
"Then you'll know how to act in the presence of a brigadier, I bet."
It took Glaw a moment to give the question due consideration but ended up nodding a 'yes'.
The colonel's entertained expression withdrew a hand's breadth. "How about the Field Marshal?"
Glaw's blood ran cold. The panic that had been building up until that moment was nothing compared to the numb horror that struck him now, making his cheeks pale to rival the ghostly hue of the loose-tongued soldier.
"I'm taking that as a no," Colonel Blevins laughed. "But no worries, I'll give you a quick lesson." He stepped back fully, leaving Glaw room to move again, and set off down the wide corridor they'd entered. Glaw followed suit on shaky legs. "Don't speak unless spoken to, address him as Field Marshal or Field Marshal Warlow, and look him directly in the eyes when he's talking to you."
This time Glaw's answering nod was absentminded, his thoughts running empty circles in his head.
The rest of the way, which wasn't long, they walked in silence. Colonel Blevins pushed open an unremarkable door at the end of the hallway and saluted, before stepping inside. Glaw followed, hunched over with his bags held as close to his face as they would go.
The room they'd entered was about as unremarkable as the door they'd passed through. There were two small windows, a desk covered in paperwork and beakers, a table and a bookcase, as well as two occupied chairs and two unoccupied ones. The occupants, however, were as far from unremarkable as one could get.
"Put your things on the table, Private."
Glaw hurried to obey, dumping his bags on the table, hardly daring to look at the woman who'd spoken. She wore the silver stripes of a brigadier and was a tall and slender, her an angular face set in a stern expression. Unlike the colonel her clothes were pristine. It looked like she spent hours every day polishing the buttons and medals - or rather, had someone else do that for her.
Still, no matter how immaculate and domineering she looked, or how unnerving the smirk plastered on the colonel's face was, Glaw's attention was drawn away from them, to the room's fourth occupant; the man lounging in the chair by the desk.
Field Marshal Warlow stood out like a peacock in a hen house. His finely gold brocaded coat of royal deep blue and his wavy blond hair granted him an air of grace and a presence Glaw previously had seen possessed only by the best of actors. The sword and dagger at his side were equally impressive, decorated not in the gaudy fashion of rich young men playing at being war heroes, but with delicate carvings in the hilt that must have taken a very skilled smith months to finish.
"You're Glaw?" The lack of his surname or any sort of title brought Glaw up short and he almost forgot to add a 'Field Marshal' to his stuttered 'yes'. "Good, then let us get started!"
The Field Marshal laughed at the shaky nod he got in reply, which was followed by more stuttering and shaky apologies. "My, my, Hari here seems to have gotten you quite worked up about seeing me." The words, as well as the smile that accompanied them, were surprisingly pleasant and friendly as if Glaw was a visiting relative.
The brigadier and Colonel Blevins had both taken up position by the door, flanking it as if they were on guard duty. Blevins wore the same amused expression he'd had since they'd entered the building, and the brigadier was as blank as a statue, staring straight ahead at nothing.
The Field Marshal leaned forward over the desk and laced his gloved fingers together, to rest his chin on the back of his hands. "No need to look so shocked," he said in an almost teasing tone of voice. "Just give me your documents and the formalities will be over before you know it."
Something in his light tone of voice set the few parts of Glaw's mind not numbed by panic on edge. Nevertheless, he stuck his hand into his pocket and produced his crumpled credentials.
The Field Marshal accepted them with a pleased smile and began skimming through them. He had a handsome face, one fit for the old fairy tale knights in shining armor, but there was something almost uncanny about his eyes. To say they looked old would have been a lie - they were just as youthful as the rest of his face - but there was something off, something that Glaw couldn't quite place.
For a second Glaw wondered if he too would have looked as unnatural, had he been alive for the better part of a millennium.
"Oh, how time flies," the Field Marshal said, as he put the documents down. "Last time I saw you, you were barely three apples tall and a great deal louder. Now here you are, fully grown. And a pilot too! Quite impressive."
The image of a mask made of bird bones appeared like a shadow in Glaw's mind. It didn't seem to fit the Field Marshal. But why should it? He's the Field Marshal for cry out loud!
"You'd really think I'd be used to this by now," the Field Marshal continued, either ignoring or not noticing the distant look in Glaw's eyes. "Then again, I dare say not even the Emperor will ever get used to standing outside the passage of time. How could I expect to do better?"
Murmured agreement came from the doorway, starting Glaw into remembering that he wasn't alone with the Field Marshal.
"Hari, would you do the honors?"
Colonel Blevins' calloused hand wrapped around Glaw's left wrist, pulling up the arm of his uniform. Wide-eyed, all Glaw could do was watch as the colonel gave his arm a tug, forcing him to lean over the desk. This put his arm in place over one of the small glass bowls standing there. The colonel drew a knife from his belt and, without as much as a word of warning, put it to use on Glaw's exposed skin.
The knife stung in a way that couldn't possibly have been just the steel cutting into his flesh. It felt like touching a thousand nettle leaves. The sensation crawled up from the wound along the inside of his wrist, all the way to his shoulder.
A thin brook of blood dripped down into the bowl, staining it more than filling it. Glaw clamped his mouth shut, fighting not to make a sound.
"That should do."
At the Field Marshal's command, Colonel Blevins released his hold on Glaw's arm – careless, like a child might have dropped a colorful leaf when a parent called that it was time for dinner – and went back to his post by the door.
Glaw cradled his arm close and gently brushed the fingertips of his right hand over the damaged skin, feeling a strange heat radiating from the cut. The burning inside of his skin was dying down, draining away and leaving such relief in its wake that he couldn't help but sigh.
On the desk, the glass bowl had begun spinning slowly. The Field Marshal held his hand above it, a puppeteer guiding the strings of a marionette. He twisted the bowl it this way and that, using only muttered words and the gentle play of his fingers in the air.
The glass began to bulge inwards, folding itself double and forming a lens around the blood, before twisting even further. Grooves appeared in the no-longer-a-bowl's surface, deepening to form an even spiral pattern. The pattern mimicked that of the three Emperor's Signs which hung on a gold chain around the Field Marshal's neck; seashell like yet clearly artificial. The blood followed the change, staining the transparent shell's grooves with thin, dark red veins.
The Field Marshal lifted the thing from the desk, cradling it as if could break at any moment, and beckoned the brigadier with his free hand. She stepped forward and accepted the small glass trinket.
"Put it with the others, would you, Meinir?" the Field Marshal said, his smile serene. "It wouldn't do for anyone to get too curious about our dear friend here."
The brigadier hurried out of the room, back so straight it looked like she was leading the Day to Remember parade. Glaw watched her go, unable to tear his eyes from the small glass shell.
"There's that anxious look again." The Field Marshal's voice wasn't as much disapproving as it was exasperated. Glaw felt his cheeks redden.
"You should trust more in your superiors, Glaw," the Field Marshal went on, shaking his head in exaggerated disappointment. "What I did just now was merely a more advanced tracking spell than the one that we usually use. Demons are tricky creatures, you know. It wouldn't do to take unnecessary risks."
Glaw took in the sight of him; the bejeweled coat sleeves, the silvery sword hilt glittering in the grasp of an equally fine sheath and the unsettling eyes above a smile that said everything would be all right. A part of Glaw wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but nothing had happened yet to make him that suicidal.
"You should feel honored." The assurance in the Field Marshal's voice sounded sincere and steady as bedrock. "This mission means a lot to both the Emperor and me. Know that I will do anything in my power to make sure you succeed. I'll even let you use my dagger, for good luck." He unsheathed said weapon and handed it over, hilt first, into Glaw's shaking hands.
"Thank you, Field Marshal Warlow, sir!" The words, like his voice, were unsteady. Glaw had a feeling the Field Marshal couldn't have cared less if it had crossed over into the falsetto region.
"You are most welcome!" The Field Marshal leaned back, returning to the languid position he'd been sitting in when Glaw had entered the room. He took off his gloves and placed them neatly on the table, the white silk just avoiding being stained by a forgotten dot of ink on the back of a book. "Now, I'm sure your long journey has exhausted you. Hari, please show him to his room."
That was the extent of the farewell. Glaw saluted and bowed, then saluted again before he dared to turn around, only to be faced with Colonel Belvins' mocking grin. Had the Field Marshal not been present, Glaw suspected the man would have laughed out loud.
The colonel opened the door for him with a mocking half-bow. Glaw would have stormed out of the room if it hadn't been for one thing; the person blocking the door. When Glaw looked up he wasn't met by a face, but a blank wooden mask. It was impossible to tell anything about the mask's wearer from first glance, as the rest of their body was hidden under layers of cloaks and robes.
Still, Glaw knew enough about the world to tell when he was facing one of the Emperor's tame demons and quickly got out of its way. It passed him by without comment and Glaw hurried to follow the colonel out of the room, without as much as a glance over his shoulder.
The room the colonel led him to was not five steps down the hall and well furnished; much like the carriage, though somewhat bigger. Glaw hesitantly left his bags on one of the many bookcases, feeling like an intruder, a burglar in the bedroom of a nobleman.
"Cheer up, boy!" The encouragement and the enthusiastic pat on his back felt like a mockery of Huw's kind words. "Tomorrow you go into the woods!"
The woods. It was the only thing he'd been hearing for the past weeks, a thought that wouldn't leave his head no matter how many distractions he invented for himself. As he stood in the dusty room and heard the bolt click into place, he really wished he'd had the courage to ask the Field Marshal what his orders were beyond 'go into the woods'.
Dylis glared at the calendar in the guard room, as if its mere presence was a personal insult to her. The first day of the week had been crossed out that very morning, leaving a black dot on the previously unmarked row of the month's last seven days. Her eyes went back up to the week before, all blacked out with the steady hand of the guard leader.
A hand waved in front of her face nearly had her punch its owner in the gut. Huw jumped backward, out of the way of her unenthusiastic attack. He eyed her warily until she returned to leaning against the wall, arms crossed and scowl firmly in place.
'You're free to go,' he signed, as he took a seat by the room's rickety table and poured himself a cup of steaming coffee.
Dylis didn't spare him as much as a nod before rushing out the door and into the cool evening air. The wind had been picking up during the day and the flags lining the wall of the city gate were flapping wildly, creating a jumble of blue, gold and red around her as she descended the stairs.
The Mission Assignment House was a modest structure - more a cabin than a house, really – and this late in the evening there was never anyone in line outside. Dylis walked in without knocking and made her way through the dimly lit hall, stepping over the sleeping guard dog without giving it a second look.
The elderly man behind the desk in the house's single, cramped room glanced up from his newspaper as she approached. The look in his eyes was close to fatherly. It was a look he gave to all soldiers below his age and rank, which was a good portion of the military.
Dylis planted her feet firmly on the carpet before the desk and waited, her heart beating at the speed of a hunted rabbit's. The old man placed the newspaper next to a cup of greenish liquid (tea, by the smell of it) and laboriously got up out of his armchair. He untangled a key from where a score of them nested inside his left pocket and opened one of the many boxes lining the wall behind the desk.
Dylis said nothing as he presented her with two papers. One was written in her own hand and had a large 'x' drawn across it, the mark's red ink much fresher than the black she'd used to write the letter in. The other had Congratulations! written at the top in official print. She wasted no time tearing the cheerful letter to pieces, throwing its maimed remains in an overflowing wastepaper basket by the foot of the desk.
By the door the guard dog perked up, lifting one ear and one eyelid to give her a brief look of interest, before going back to sleep. The old man merely shook his head at her and returned to his newspaper and his tea.
The night outside was colder when she stepped back out into it. She stood nonplussed for a moment, the letter with the red x getting more crumpled by the heartbeat. Her gaze was drawn up to the outline of the guard room, next to the top of the city gate. The flags were still waving frantically, flickering shadows against the dark, starry sky. She was too numb to scream, too dead inside to as much as kick something.
It took her less than a second to realize she was cornered. Human-shaped shadows lined the alleyways around the small patch of land the assignment house rested on, blocking every walkway leading away from it. She reached for her sword and cursed as her hand only met empty air. A brief image of the sword leaning against the fireplace in the guard room flashed before her mind's eye and she felt her gut clench in dawning panic.
Quickly she picked the walkway that looked to be least populated and set her course for it, her steps steady and confident. Giving any other impression would be suicide.
There were three men waiting for her there. She recognized at least one sergeant among them.
Lipreading had never been an exact skill; there were far too many words that sounded completely different though looked the same when spoken, and when a person talked fast enough their lips, teeth and tongue moved far too swiftly to be analyzed. However, it didn't take much knowledge to recognize a: "Get her!".
She dodged the first swing aimed at her and felt the breeze of it swishing by a centimeter above her head. She punched back, catching the man square in the stomach and watched him buckle, right before another man's fist connected with her jaw.
Reeling, she let herself be unbalanced, tumbling backward and tangling her legs with her attacker's. He too went down like a felled tree. The third man was right behind him and dove for her. She rolled out of the way a split second before he could grab her and delivered a heavy hit to the back of his neck.
As the second man started getting back up, Dylis scrambled to her feet and darted off along the walkway. More men and women were drawing closer, tending to the ones she'd brought down. With a last glance over her shoulder, Dylis took a deep breath and set off in a mad dash.
Her throat burned. Every corner seemed to have a new shadow shaped as a soldier, every walkway leading to a new possible trap. She ran for an hour, doubling back as often as she dared, even diving into the road-channel once.
By midnight she'd reached Rhian's apartment. It wasn't anything fancy, a third-floor room with a kitchen, but it was located in an area near the city's center that was blessedly free from military guards. The light was on before Dylis knocked.
The door opened with less than a minute's delay. Rhian took in her appearance, first with a knowing roll of the eyes and then with a worried frown. She beckoned Dylis to step inside and to take a seat on her rugged couch, then clumsily signed 'bear' and rushed out the door.
Dylis collapsed on the couch and watched the keyhole get eclipsed by a key. She rubbed at her split lip and spat into her hand in an attempt to get rid of the coppery taste of blood.
The apartment looked like it always did; sparse but homey furniture, a forgotten plate of food left on the table by the couch and every other surface occupied by books of all shapes and sizes. Dylis soaked in the cozy feel of it all for a few minutes, before making her way to the indoor lavatory to wash her face. Getting blood on the couch wouldn't be the best way of saying thanks for the help.
She was half dozing in her seat when Rhian returned with Huw in tow. Without a word, Huw set about examining her, wrenching her mouth open none too gently to poke at her teeth and pulling her shirt up to stare at her back. When done he sank down on the couch next to her, glaring.
'You idiot!' he signed. 'You utter, senseless, mush-for-brains, idiot!'
Rhian had made herself scarce in the kitchen, so Dylis had no reason not to reply to this with a rude gesture.
'Did you think that if you were stubborn enough and kept asking to be reassigned to Outer Camps, they'd actually give in and send you there?' he continued, ignoring her 'reply'. 'I'm aware that you corporals are spoiled for choice otherwise, but that is not how things work and you know it!'
'Then what would you have me do?' Dylis asked, rubbing at her tender jaw.
Huw's chest expanded and shrank slowly, as he took a deep breath. 'Accept the reassignment to Search. Go fly one of those...' He flapped his hands like the wings of a stiff, metallic bird, 'and you make something of yourself. How will Glaw react when he gets back and sees his sister degraded to guarding the city gate in his place, instead of soaring through the clouds?'
Dylis gave a laugh. To her knowledge, she'd never had a pretty laugh and she doubted it was any prettier in a moment like this. 'Unless the gods have smiled on Glaw,' she signed, scoffing at the very thought, 'his mission begins tomorrow. Stop with the act! We both know that he won't make it back if we don't do something – I don't do something.' She struck her chest hard enough when she signed 'I' that she'd surely have a bruise there come morning. 'If left by himself, he's as good as dead. Don't give me more empty words, help me!'
Huw looked her up and down, stroking his beard with one hand in a nervous gesture. He glanced over his shoulder at the door to the kitchen, still firmly closed, and then back to Dylis. Finally, he signed: 'I was hoping it wouldn't come to this.'
Watching with narrowed eyes, Dylis observed him dig around the many pockets of his uniform. What he produced didn't look like much; a dirty piece of graying paper that he unfolded with careful hands and gave her.
She gave him one last look, before reading the address written on the note. 'And?'
'The commandant who lives there lost her daughter to Outer Camps a few years ago, circumstances similar to yours. If you approach her off the record and offer to look into the matter, I'm sure she could get you reassigned in a heartbeat.'
Dylis very nearly dove for his throat. 'You bastard! You had this the whole time?' She waved the note under his nose, doing her best not to scream. 'It might be too late now!'
Huw effortlessly brushed her hand aside and met her glare head on with one of his own. 'I thought you had a plan! A better plan than pissing off the higher ups, at least. Just be grateful I gave you this at all. It took me this long just to get in contact with the commandant!'
Dylis' raised her hands, ready to point out all the times she'd stepped in for him, saving his face and place in the military, if not his rank, but Huw wasn't looking at her. Instead, his eyes were on the now open kitchen door, where Rhian stood, a tray with three cups and a teapot in her hands.
They drank their tea in silence.
'Have you talked to your squad?' Huw signed as soon as Rhian had ushered them out the door.
Dylis tore her eyes away from the closed door behind them and answered: 'I haven't had a decent squad since they reassigned you and Glaw. They won't be any help.'
They came to a stop at a crossroad. Below them, the water of the main road-channel flowed by at a languid pace.
Huw didn't look at her as he signed: 'You be careful now.'
'Enough with the orders or I'll have you reprimanded.' There was no bite to the threat. Huw simply shrugged and turned around, walking away in the direction of the barracks.
Dylis watched him go, waiting until he'd disappeared around a corner before she set off into the night, eyes fixed on every shadow. She wouldn't be taken by surprised a second time.
"Damn! Damn, damn, damn!" Glaw cursed softly, fighting to keep his breathing even. The blindfold Colonel Blevins had wrapped around his head was putting horrible pressure on his temples and he'd long since rubbed his wrists raw, trying to loosen the rope that tied them together behind his back. The bandage around the cut from the day before had long since fallen off.
Around him, the alien noises of the forest were doing nothing to calm his racing pulse. Leaves rustling in the wind, branches breaking, tree trunks swaying and creaking; all so very different from the bustle of a city that he had no way of telling if something was amiss.
Slowly he got up onto his knees, flinching as the Field Marshal's dagger, which they'd stuck sheath-less into his boot, scraped against his shin. The thin cut burned like fire, made worse by the salt from a steady supply of cold sweat.
A noise from somewhere far to his right had him freeze in place, back bent at an awkward angle in an attempt to grasp the hilt sticking out of his boot shaft.
Why had they done this? What purpose did leaving him helpless in the middle of nowhere - in enemy territory - serve?
He held his breath, straining his ears to try and catch any sign of approaching danger. Not that he knew what a demon approaching sounded like; a realization that turned his insides to ice.
With another half-choked curse, he reached a little further, fingertips brushing against carved wood. Just a little bit further...
Glaw gasped, both from surprise and from the new cut he'd given himself. The voice had sounded human and faint, barely within hearing range.
"Captain!" the voice came again, stronger this time and colored by panic. A clash of metal against metal followed it, echoing among the trees like a watchtower bell. And then a scream.
The dagger cut as much at his wrists as at the rope when he hurried to get free. The blindfold was easier to untangle, the knot stiff though easily loosened once he had his hands to work with. As it fell away, he took in his surroundings for the first time and felt the ball of ice in his belly grow bigger.
There were trees everywhere, much more menacing here than when seen from Outer Camps. The branches grew so tightly intertwined that only a few specks of sunlight made its way down to the grass below, leaving him surrounded by tree trunks, shadows and little else.
At least he had the sound of battle to guide him. Fight or no fight, joining up with other soldiers would be his best chance at getting back to Outer Camps in one piece.
The trees seemed to bend towards him as he ran, creating a claustrophobic tunnel of branches and darkness. He rushed through it as quickly as he dared and nearly stumbled on something that was the size of a small log. A strangely soft log.
Looking back over his shoulder, he squinted into the dark. There was a man lying on the forest floor, a soldier of low rank going by his uniform. His eyes were open and vacant, unmoving. Glaw's first impression was that he was dead, left to rot there by whatever the others were battling.
But the man was breathing. It was hard to see in the dim light, yet his chest was rising and falling at a steady pace as if he'd just gone to sleep and forgotten to close his eyes. At closer inspection, his uniform was undamaged except for a small tear in one arm that revealed a shallow cut in the skin beneath. His Emperor's Sign was broken, a crumbled pile of seashell pieces at the end of a leather string.
Glaw threw himself backward, knocking the air out of his own lungs when the trunk of a tree halted his escape. He stared at the soldier, who seemed to return his gaze with a blank look of his own. Glaw's grip on his dagger grew firmer until his knuckles whitened. He raised his hand, just so he could catch a glimpse of the weapon as it reflected a stray ray of sunlight. For the moment he couldn't care less that the glimmer this created could give away his position. Knowing he had some way to defend himself helped him gather strength and fight the urge to simply give in and join the fallen soldier on the ground until the danger had passed.
Under his breath, he began to mutter the order in which one should check if an airplane was ready for takeoff. It was an old safety mantra; for once he wished someone he knew could have been around to tease him for falling back on such childish habits.
He set off again, his breath coming in short gasps, his free hand grasping the familiar shape of the Emperor's Sign hanging around his neck. He ran blindly until he caught sight of soldiers - standing, fighting, living soldiers – all gathered in two defensive circles in the center of a glade; a neat inner circle and outer circle, very textbook. Glaw darted in behind one of the many trees lining the border of the small open space and tried to catch a glimpse of what the soldiers were fighting.
Glowing eyes were the first thing to grab his attention, strangling any last doubts he'd ever had about the existence of demons.
Its skin was a dark tan in color and its hair a mass of light red-brown tresses, pinned into a complicated knot on its head. It could have looked human – was even dressed in human clothing, though with a strange choice of colors and oddly wide cut pants that looked more like a skirt than anything suited for fighting – if it hadn't been for the eerie blue light shining from the place where its eyes should have been. That and the large, coal-black spots decorating the sides of its neck.
The soldiers had the demon surrounded, swords raised and aimed at it from all directions. The demon was panting, its shoulders hunched and its bare arms trembling. Glaw couldn't see if it was wounded, but he did see more than a few lifeless bodies sprawled unmoving on the grass outside the circles of soldiers; bodies dressed in the imperial uniform.
"We've done it!" a soldier no older than sixteen cheered from his spot in the inner ring. "We've actually done it!" Glaw couldn't see his face, but judging by the tone of almost shocked relief in his voice he had to be wearing a wide grin.
"No celebrating just yet, brat!" a voice Glaw recognized as belonging to Colonel Blevins called out from somewhere in the outer circle. He was sure Blevins had been in the group who'd left him alone and blindfolded. Almost made him feel better about finding them fighting a demon. Them being his best chance of getting out of the forest alive dampened the feeling. "It's still got its feet on the ground. You've got to draw blood before you can drag it back to camp, or it'll just chew your guts out and leave you for the crows."
The boy seemed to take this as some sort of signal, as he made a sortie against the demon, waving his sword the way a small child may have done while playing at being a robber. The demon sidestepped, twirling around his attacker as graceful as a dancer. The youth stumbled forward, nearly skewering a very tall soldier on his rusty blade.
"Watch it!" the tall soldier bellowed, backhanding the youth across the face. The young man staggered into the outer circle of armed men and women. "One more stupid move like that and I'll beat the living daylight out of you when we get back to camp!"
While the youth mumbled what might have been curses as well as apologies, the demon drew a deep breath. <Terra!> it screamed in a tenor voice, edged with what sounded like panic. The demon's wide, glowing eyes flickered from tree to tree. <Terra, please!>
Glaw desperately searched his memory for a translation of the word and took a step closer. He prayed that the shadows would be enough to keep him out of sight for a little while longer.
The noise that followed the demon's cry was deafening. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once; the trees, the sky, the ground – everything vibrated, shaking with the sheer force of the sound. The soldiers all fell to their knees, covering their ears with their hands, as did Glaw.
His sight blurred by pain, it took Glaw a moment to once more focus on the scene before him. The demon had vanished and the soldiers were slowly getting to their feet, scrabbling for the swords that most of them had dropped. Blevins was shouting orders, but no one seemed to be listening. Instead, they were all frantically looking around, their faces pale as death.
A flicker of movement drew Glaw's eyes to one of the nearest trees. A few branches above the ground stood the demon, leaning heavily against the tree's trunk. In front of it sat another, new demon, its eyes equally aglow and its expression far more mischievous than exhausted.
This new demon was dressed in much the same way as the first one; barefoot, no gloves, wide pants and an armless shirt in muted colors, fit for blending with the bark and leaves around them. In one hand it held what looked to be a crudely carved walking staff.
<I believe you've been playing far too rough with my little arbōs,> the new demon said, its lips twisted in an all too cheerful smile. Compared to the first demon, this one's hair was short, cut at chin-length, and as black as the spots decorating its neck. The only thing the two demons really had in common were the glowing blue of their eyes, their spots, and their tan skin. <How about you play with me instead? I've even brought a toy to match the ones you have!>
The new demon jumped down a branch, landing on steady feet, and spun the staff over the back of its hand, like a juggler showing off a trick. Before their eyes, the staff shifted in color and shape, taking on a metallic gray tone. It spun one last turn around the demon's wrist before the hand of said wrist wrapped itself around a hilt that hadn't existed a moment ago.
Down on the ground, the no-more-than-sixteen soldier had gotten back to his feet, sword at the ready. He bent his knees, as if to brace himself, and gave a battle cry that was more rage than confidence.
Glaw stood frozen in place. His feet wouldn't move and his mind was blank. He watched, heartbeat thundering in his ears, as the young soldier rushed towards the tree. The black-haired demon's face split into a wide grin.
The one man attack was halted by an arm, grabbing the youth by his neck. The tall soldier from earlier hauled him back, again just avoiding getting cut by the younger man's sword. "You wait for orders, Private!"
The youth threw a confused, furious look over his shoulder. "It's mocking us!"
"And you're doing exactly what it wants. Again, idiot!"
The circles were reforming, soldiers stumbling to take their assigned places on shaking legs. Only Colonel Blevins seemed sure of his place in the world. He stood straight-backed and calm in the middle of the group of soldiers, his eyes focused on the demon.
"Maddox is quite right, Private," he said, scratching at his unkempt stubble. "That one is clever as a fox. It won't jump down to fight you just because you yell at it a little. What did we learn about demons' eyes, Private?"
The young soldier shrugged off the hand of the taller man - Maddox, presumably - and took a step back, finding his position in the inner circle.
Glaw lost sight of the youth and didn't catch more than a faint murmur of the reply he gave the colonel. Whatever was said made the colonel smile in a way that could be described as nothing but mocking. "Exactly! And if I'm not mistaken, that one was preparing to have its friend impale you on the roots of the very tree you were rushing headlong towards."
As if on cue, the grass around the base of the tree bulged. Cracks appeared in the earth. Inside them, snake-like silhouettes writhed. Glaw stepped back from the tree he was hiding behind and couldn't help but shudder as he studied the ground for any sign of a similar change. When nothing happened, he crouched down, trying to make himself as small as possible, and once more fixed his eyes on the enemy.
<Your leader is quite right,> the black-haired demon called, its words positively swimming in mirth. <He knows us far too well, I see. Oh well, I guess I could always come to you if you insist.>
One second the demon was in the tree. The next, a powerful wind swept through the clearing and three soldiers were on the ground, unmoving.
The circles broke again as those still standing threw themselves away from their fallen comrades, the ones who'd retrieved their weapons holding them at the ready. From his hiding place, Glaw made a desperate attempt to catch sight of the black-haired demon, but it seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
"Order!" Colonel Blevins' calm voice broke through the rising din of panic, a battering ram stopping the soldiers dead in their tracks. "Back to your positions! I don't have room in my ranks for hare-hearted children."
A stillness fell over the clearing that had nothing to do with peace. As one, the soldiers froze and more than one pair of eyes darted to stare at the sword in the colonel's hand.
<Why bring them out here to be scared half to death, when you do it so well yourself?> The armed demon was back in the tree. It sat next to its companion, swinging its legs and grinning like a loon. Its eyes had lost their glow, revealing a pair of strangely normal looking brown irises on white, with human-looking black pupils in their centers.
Colonel Blevins didn't answer. Instead, he nodded to Maddox, who grabbed a dagger from one of the fallen soldiers' belts and threw it at the demon. The demon's eyes lit up again. The dagger made a soft 'thock' sound as it struck the branch, burying into the wood. A string hung from its hilt, tying a small, golden Emperor's Sign to it. It swayed in the breeze for a second and then stilled.
<You didn't think it'd be that easy, did you?> the demon said from its new perch, three branches up. <Quite a disappointing strategy.>
"I'm sorry to disappoint," Colonel Blevins replied and turned his back to the demons and the tree. For a split second, Glaw could have sworn the Colonel was looking right at him. "Maybe this one will be more to your satisfaction: retreat!"
The soldiers who'd remained on their feet scattered, tripping over each other as they threw themselves away from the glade. Some left their swords behind, abandoned in the grass. There was no order to how they ran, no clear way to follow them without being seen by the demons, so Glaw remained where he hid.
The colonel was the last to leave. He stood his ground and looked up at the demons, who remained motionless on their respective branches. Before he turned to run, he unlocked the clasp for the Emperor's Sign necklace he'd been wearing. Glaw's eyes grew wide as saucers as the colonel grabbed the necklace at one end and began spinning it as if it were a toy-sling.
"Catch us if you can!" Colonel Blevins bellowed as he threw his Emperor's Sign right at the tree, then whirled around and rushed off.
The black-haired demon dodged this attack too, but seemingly with more effort. Glaw could clearly see it move this time, jumping from one branch to the next. Its glowing eyes were fixed on the necklace as if the seashell were a poisoned arrow.
Glaw did his best to get up as slowly and silently as possible, while the demon made a heart-stopping leap and landed on the ground without as much as a thud.
<Aww, they're no fun when they just run away,> it said before stretching its arms above its head and yawning. It turned to its companion, which still stood barely upright on the tree branch it'd been left on. <Why don't you see if you can catch up with them? Keep them off the paths.>
The demon in the tree blinked as if to clear its head, then straightening up with help of the trunk. It gave a curt bow and suddenly vanished; one moment it was leaning against the tree, the next there was empty air in its place.
Glaw's breath caught in his throat.
<You lot are late, as usual!> the remaining demon called out, looking right at the thick bush Glaw was hiding behind.
The voice of a woman answered: <We're not guards.>
There was no pain. One second Glaw was on his feet, the next the ground had risen up to meet him. All sensation faded from his limbs, slowly, like he'd been given anesthetics. All he could see were shadows above him and the situation was so familiar yet strange that he wanted to scream. His jaw wouldn't move. The only thing he could move were his eyes.
<Your brother still has a steady hand. Jealous he got to the prize before you did?> It was the voice of the black-haired demon. Straining his eyes Glaw caught sight of its bare feet, dangling from a branch above him.
<Where are you keeping Aelius?> the harsh, female voice came again. There was movement at the edge of Glaw's vision and he caught sight of legs dressed in moss green fabric, ending in another pair of shoeless feet. <Did you send him after the intruders?>
As if it had been summoned, the vanished demon reappeared, kneeling by the root of the tree the black-haired one had taken up residence in. <I-I'm terribly sorry, terra,> it spoke, head bowed, <I seem to have lost them. They even took->
<You worry too much,> the black-haired demon singsonged, making itself comfortable against the tree, like a viper basking in a ray of sunshine. <They'll be back here eventually. And it seems we've caught ourselves a prisoner! You should be proud of yourself.>
The black-haired demon flapped one hand in a silencing gesture. <Hush, hush, let Bernike speak. She seems to have something quite important on her mind.>
The moss green maybe-pants-maybe-skirt moved closer to Glaw, who wished with every fiber of his being that he could flinch away. The numbness was spreading, slowing down his thoughts. Even his eyes were failing him, making shorter and jerkier movements, blurring the world around him into a mass of green, brown and black.
The crunching noise of what sounded like a hollow egg being stepped on reached his ears. It was the last thing he heard before his eyes and hearing gave up completely, leaving him in unmoving, silent darkness. One by one his feelings seemed to flicker out and die, like candles being blown out. First his panic, then his grief, and at last his horror; they all disappeared like they'd never been, leaving only a vague sense of something that was 'him'.
And then there was nothing.
The light that seeped in through the distant windows spread a gray haze through the small room. Dylis blinked awake at a snail's pace, twisting around in her bed like a puppy searching for a more comfortable spot among its litter mates.
No one was waiting at the door. It was the first day of the second week, and still, no one was waiting at the door. It set Dylis' teeth on edge.
She made her way out of bed with uncoordinated movements and poured herself some water from the porcelain jug on the dresser. There was a soft layer of dust around it, leaving a clean circle where its base had been resting.
Dressing took longer than usual; she kept tangling her hands in the sleeves and nearly fell over twice when she tried to pull her pants on. Her belt remained lost for a good while until she eventually found it on the floor of her narrow wardrobe.
Cheeks flushed and eyes blazing she slammed the door to her room shut and made her way with sure steps through the corridor. The people she met – fellow corporals, privates, a few higher ups in civilian clothing – all greeted her with friendly nods that she did her best to return.
Towards the end of the corridor, she spotted a man with curly hair and a round face. He too gave her a nod and a smile as she passed. She crossed her arms behind her back and clasped her hands together, to stop herself from touching the bruise that covered half of her left cheek. She was sure he had a similar blemish somewhere along his ribs.
The air outside was cool and fresh, just the kind of weather suited for long walks and thinking. Ignoring the waves from her squad over by the training ground, Dylis made her way out of the barracks' shadows and onto the walkway leading into the center of the city.
Finding an unoccupied bench across from a bakery, she sat down and rested her chin on the back of her hands. She really needed to think. As much as admitting it pained her, Huw had been right; her plan up until the night before had been suicidal at best and utterly moronic at worst. But how could she change that?
The door to the bakery opened and three children burst out, laughing and shrieking by the looks of it. In their hands, they all held brown paper bags. They were followed by an elderly woman who, while moving much slower, looked to be just as pleased as her charges, if the grin on her face was anything to go by.
Dylis gave the happy picture they made an absentminded look, forcing away any sentimental thought it might have awoken. Sitting around and wishing for power over time itself would only drive her mad.
With a shake of her head she bent forward to stare at the metal surface of the walkway the bench was welded to and began listing facts:
First and foremost, she had to give up on the system. She'd never be reassigned to Outer Camps, no matter how many times she sent in the request.
Secondly, she couldn't stay in Trade. Damnation, she couldn't stay in the Empire if things continued on the road they seemed to have taken since Glaw was forced to leave!
Thirdly, there was no way of knowing where Glaw was. His mission had been so secret only the details of 'woods' and 'alone' had been announced and then only to his squad (though the news had spread like wildfire through the ranks in no time, like always).
Before she acted she needed more information.
Sticking her hand into the inside pocket on her uniform she withdrew the crumbled note Huw had given her the night before. She read the address again, for the fifth time, and then began to systematically tear it to pieces, letting them rain down over her boots like beige confetti.
As the pile of paper pieces was scattered by a passing breeze the address and name the letter had held burned inside her mind, clear as day. As a way out she'd rather have taken a burning doorway, but it would seem there were no other choices.
Her eyes were drawn to the distant shape of the courthouse. There would be records there, all the records she'd need. Breaking in wouldn't take much effort this time of day; all guards talented enough to stay awake or hold a sword would be out training or enjoying a relaxing day in bed until the evening came. If she was really lucky the day watch would either all be getting drunk or nursing this weekend's hangover.
She was caught off guard by how utterly ashamed she felt at the thought of stealing from the archives. But if one rule was good enough to be broken so were the others.
The crowd was easy to navigate. It wasn't quite noon yet, so most people were holed up inside their shops and offices. The barges were full of the elderly and children too young to attend school, enjoying the clear skies the day had to offer.
Dylis concentrated on keeping her breathing and pulse even, as well as relaxing her shoulders. The silhouette of the courthouse was growing larger by the minute and it seemed to cast a foreboding shadow her way. She had to repeat to herself that the eyes glaring down at her were nothing but a pair of windows, accompanied by a trick of the light.
Once her feet were back on a steady walkway, she made her way towards the library with brisk steps. She rounded the corner of the courthouse like she'd done so many times before. The soldier guarding the entrance gave her a sleepy nod in greeting as she passed and then returned to his upright snoozing.
It seemed like she would be in luck.
The alley between the courthouse's back wall and the Holy House of the Seven Gods was empty and dark, shielded from the sunshine by the sheer size of the two buildings. There was a fire safety ladder leaning against each of the walls and enough room for her not to scrape her elbows on the bricks.
Her fingers shook as she wrapped them around the ladder and began her ascent. A mantra of I'm dead I'm dead I'm dead started up inside her head, the words repeating for every step she took. She ignored them as best as she could, holding her breath and calling up the image of Glaw; alone in the dark, enemy-infested woods, possibly unarmed, possibly-
A movement at the corner of her eye made her freeze halfway up the ladder. She turned her head, praying, hoping, and finally sighing in relief as she caught sight of a seagull on the roof of the house behind her back.
The roof was flat as a board and wide enough to hold a market square. The only thing that broke away from this monotony was a box of bricks, about four meters wide and two meters high, in which there was a maintenance door.
It took no effort to unlock it. The door frame was old and rotten, most likely not tended to even when they shoveled snow from the roof in winter. It gave away after two forceful pulls on the door handle. Dylis threw herself around the corner of the small 'house' and crouched down, counting to thirty.
No one came.
The stairway behind the maintenance door was pitch black; she could barely make out the first steps, even with the sunlight leaking in from behind her. She placed each foot down carefully in front of her, cursing that she had no way of telling if the steps were creaking or not.
As she descended a faint light appeared below her, growing brighter. The hallway she finally ended up in was dusty and only illuminated by the light coming in through grimy windows, lined with doors of which many had been left ajar. Her back stiffened and her whole body went cold with the realization that she'd repeated her mistake. She had no way of knowing where Glaw's records were kept – were any records were kept – and yet here she was, breaking and entering just because it had seemed like a good idea.
Cursing her own reckless impulses she glanced back up the rickety staircase she'd just walked down. She'd left footprints in the dust on the steps.
She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, clenching her hands into fists and letting them fall open over and over. She could still go back. There was no way there would be an investigation based solely on a bunch of footprints and a broken door. Unless something was stolen.
Something in the air shifted, stirring up dust from the far side of the hallway. Dylis crouched down in the shadowy comfort of a nearby doorway and held herself as still as death, waiting.
The woman that entered the hallway was dressed in a private's uniform, with stains on the edge of her jacket and buttons done up unevenly. She swayed from side to side as she walked and she was rubbing at her temples with one hand.
She took no notice of Dylis, passing by without as much as a glance in her direction, and then began to walk up the staircase to the roof, one unsteady step after the other.
As she disappeared around the first corner of the staircase cold panic take full control over Dylis. There was no turning back now.
Her legs started walking without her permission. She had to get out. There was no way even a rookie as hungover as that wouldn't take note of a broken door. But what other ways out were there?
The hallway came to an end in a small room, which had doorways that led to two parallel corridors. The room looked like most guard rooms she'd been in. It had a table and a chair, and the wall decorations bordered on distasteful.
There was also a map. A map nailed to the wall, with helpful directions on guard routes, how long said routes should take and where those who guarded should be at certain hours. She stared at it until she'd memorized the most important details. Her shoulders shook with barely stifled, hysterical laughter.
The record archives were on the third floor, four floors below the one she was on at the moment. The way there was easy to plan out. There were less than six guards between her and the archive, and the hungover private had even been kind enough to leave her ring of keys hanging on a nail by the guard room table.
Keys in hand Dylis made her way downstairs on lighter feet than before, avoiding discovery with little effort. She made sure to pass right behind most of the guards, to not risk one of them having gone on an unofficial break or been late. She soon found herself standing in front of the unguarded entrance to the record archives.
It took her three tries to find the right key. The room inside was full of bookcases, standing in cramped rows and overflowing with leather-backed folders. Thankfully the ones with the most recent dates were closest to the entrance. A dim glow coming from somewhere near the ceiling made it possible for her to close the door behind her without having to stumble around in the dark.
She pulled down all the relevant folders from their shelves and spread them out on the floor, squinting in the low light. Her brother's name appeared near the first entries, but most of the document was blacked out, leaving only his name, rank, and reassignment location readable.
She threw the folder across the room and watched it hit a distant shelf, scattering all the papers across the floor. Her eyes stung. She told herself it was because of all the dust she'd stirred up.
Her legs felt unnaturally stiff as she got up from the floor. She glanced at the thin ray of light that seeped in under the door as if mesmerized by it. She remained unmoving for a good minute, unsure of where to go and what to do with herself. Her arms felt heavy, her legs even more so, and the guard would pass by in less than a minute.
A sense of hopelessness washed over her. What point was there to run away now? At least if she got arrested, they might send her to Outer Camps as punishment. Wouldn't that be wonderfully ironic?
She let her gaze sweep across the shelves again and an idea struck her like a hit to the back of the head. There had been an unmarked room on the map in the guard room, located at basement level. It could be anything – it could be a garbage room for all she knew – but it was still better than nothing, right?
The light from under the doorway disappeared partly, darkened by two thin shadows a shade lighter than pitch black. Dylis held her breath. The shadows lingered by the doorway and she could almost sense the guard considering going to fetch the keys to unlock the door and check inside. Had she left some sort of track? Made too much noise? Throwing the folder had been a really bad impulse.
The shadows drifted away, finally, and Dylis did her best to exhale as quietly as possible. In that moment she found herself missing the extra safety that backup brought; especially backup with functioning ears.
Sneaking out the door and down the hallway outside she tried to mind her step and breathing even more than before. Three flights of stairs took close to forever to descend. The basement beckoned with an even darker hallway and no guards, which allowed her to relax a little. She fumbled with the keys as she approached the new door, a fireproof one made completely of metal, desperate to try and find the right one without unknowingly jingling the rest.
The door must have made a sound when she pushed it open because she had to put her entire back into it. Ignoring this she took in the room she'd ended up in. She found it to be quite similar to the records archive, lined with uncountable bookshelves that held folders bound in leather. And, thank all the gods, these were also marked according to date.
A sudden tingling in her right hand brought her up short. It quickly spread through her palm, growing painful. She looked down and saw that the ring of keys she was holding had begun to glow with an angry red light. It burned in her grip, yet her fingers refused to uncurl from around it. She felt herself give what must have been a strangled cry. The metal had begun to dig into her skin, but what blood escaped swiftly evaporated, giving birth to the sickening smell of burning flesh.
A trapping spell. How could she have been so stupid as to not expect a trapping spell on a ring of keys that had been practically handed to her? It was such a rookie mistake! Then again she'd been making nothing but rookie mistakes since Glaw's reassignment.
Gritting her teeth she grabbed a folder from the nearest shelf and used it to knock the keys away as if the key ring were a gigantic mosquito. It landed under one of the nearer bookshelves, its bright red glow still visible.
Heart in her throat she pulled down a handful of the most recent folders and tore them open, smearing blood and thin pieces of her own skin over the covers. Photos and texts greeted her, falling to the floor in a jumbled mess. None of it looked the least bit relevant. Trying to regain her breath as well as repress the finger-numbing pain radiating from her hand, Dylis cast her eyes about the room, looking for any hint, any clue-
The numbers suddenly made sense to her. They weren't dates; they were letters, only not. Rhian had shown her a book about it, once, years ago.
Thanking her lucky stars, as well as the years of memorizing drills her first squad leader had put her through, she searched for numbers spelling out 'Nevett', running down the narrow corridors between the bookshelves. What she found were eight folders bound in leather that had been dyed blue. Only five of them had Glaw's name on the cover.
She grabbed all of them and stuck them under her injured arm.
The way out was a blurred memory. She saw movements in every corner. She nearly crashed into one of the guards, who toppled over, his face a mask of utter bewilderment. Then she was suddenly outside, a whole pack of soldiers right on her heels.
In front of her lay a maze of walkways and road-channels, a barge full of wide-eyed passengers waiting by the nearest jetty.
The water smashed against her like a dozen, icy fists, knocking the breath out of her lungs. She smashed the side of her head against something and the pain blinded her for a split second. Nauseous and gasping for breath she resurfaced, vomiting up water and desperately trying to get her bearings.
No bullets whistled past her head, so no higher ranked soldiers had come to join the chase. Small blessings.
She managed to gasp in a lungful of air and dove under the surface again, kicking and pulling herself downwards as best as she could while her aching arm held onto her stolen goods. The water was dark and far from clean, but what she couldn't see her pursuers couldn't either; and she had plenty of experience making her way through the city under water.
Her lungs burned almost as much as her hand when she finally dared go up for new air in the relative safety under a jetty. The soldiers were still rushing along the road-channel's sides, gesturing wildly at the water and the passing boats.
It took her seven more dives to reach the harbor. Still cradling the folders she did her best to feel her way along the slippery stone wall, looking for – there!
Loosening the sewer grid with only one hand took a while. Her fingers slipped on the moss and algae and she had to take several breathers, bracing herself against the pole of a nearby jetty. The current was slow and steady like an old workhorse, a pressure that plastered her against the pole and made breathing tricky but not impossible.
The sewer entrance was narrow and lay right under the water surface. Gods be damned she'd hoped she'd never have to go into one ever again. But this really wasn't the time to be fussy.
The claustrophobic sensation of stone brushing both her shoulders at the same time made the water-filled sewer channel as unwelcoming as ever. She closed her eyes and kicked, putting what strength her legs had left into pushing herself forward. She let herself be guided by her sensory memory, ignoring the brushes of not-water against her skin and clothes.
A bump in the wall, big enough to be felt through the fabric of her uniform, alerted her to reach out and grab a metal bar. That brought her body to a painful stop. She clamped her jaw shut to fight the urge to gasp for breath and heaved herself around a corner she knew had to be there, bumping her already aching head against the top of the tunnel.
Inhaling a mouthful of foul-tasting water she managed to get her head around an edge and up into the equally foul air. She started coughing, sick to her stomach. The stench in the enclosed space was overpowering, yet such a relief that she almost laughed out loud.
Finding the manhole was a matter of searching the rocky ceiling with her free hand, catching the edge of it with her fingernails. It opened up into the same forgotten alleyway it always had.
She collapsed on the ground in a stinking, exhausted heap. The folders were still with her – at least most of them – though she couldn't find the energy to check on how much the trip into the water and filth had damaged them. She'd get up and find a hiding place; somewhere safe to read and see to her hand.
But first, she thought with a grimace, she needed to get clean.