They could have been planning against the royalty and nobility and leaving them out because they were a princelet and lady. But Amaya was a Herald first and foremost and Croy-li was part of the team more than a prince, so they couldn’t justify it, and there was no real reason for their friends to be a part of anything political. They were setting up a surprise for them. But, considering that their birthdays were months away, that possibility was just as unlikely as the others.
They couldn’t figure it out, and the longer they were in the dark, the more frustrated they became. To make matters worse, Blu had just disappeared on them. She wasn’t in any of her normal places, she wasn’t answering her DS, and as far as the others would tell them, she wasn’t in Rattigattan with them.
Croy-li turned onto his side, to look at Amaya. “They could be on a secret mission for the Thief Lord. If he told them not to tell us, they wouldn’t.”
“But why would he choose them?” Amaya countered. “He knows we’re the better duo out of the team.”
“Maybe he wanted the team and they fought to keep us out of it?” he suggested.
“Why would they do that?” Amaya retorted. “That would be keeping us in the dark. They wouldn’t do that.”
“Unless it’s against us? He might be having them do something against us.”
“He can’t do that,” she reminded him. The Thief Lord’s ability to force them to obey him went pretty far, but couldn’t break their other allegiances, and there was no allegiance stronger on Resor than the one between the seven of them.
“Okay, but what if it’s about someone close? Like they have to murder Amadhay or Khale? He might think we have allegiance and not use us. So he would have to use them.”
“But he wouldn’t. It would be the best way to test our allegiance to our families, Cole. If he wanted one of them dead, he’d use us to see if he could. And he wouldn’t keep it secret because he’d want to see if we’d fight them.”
“Unless he doesn’t want it linked to him. Or he really thought we would fight him. If he ordered you to kill Hynnkel, could you? No. If he then ordered me to, I couldn’t because I couldn’t hurt you or even Kelly or Khale. But the others don’t have any links here except us. And so they would keep quiet to keep us from being hurt or trying to stop them. Because, Hynnkel’s life on the line? Who are you going to help?”
“If it came between one of us and him? Them,” Amaya said. Croy-li thought she believed that, but he didn’t. She might stop Hynnkel from insulting him, but if he had a knife to Hynnkel’s throat because the Thief Lord told him to, he wasn’t sure what she would do.
“Okay, next idea.”
“Well, you can’t keep a secret,” she started. “And I tell you everything. So whatever it is, it’s sensitive information, right?”
“Maybe,” Croy-li agreed.
“That’s all I’ve got,” she admitted. “I’m out of ideas. You?”
“All gone,” he seconded. “And I’m hungry. Sneak to the kitchen with me?”
She nodded. “Or maybe we could even go to dinner.”
He shrugged. He didn’t want to chance a meal with all of her family. Besides Hynnkel, he didn’t particularly care for her uncle, Arne Riff, who went out of his way to be proper and in charge. Then, there was Christein, who was between Nolando and Hynnkel and incredibly crass. Amadhay was always a joy to eat with, and then there was always a chance of running into Amaya’s other aunt or distant family.
“Actually,” he started, trying to determine how best to say what he meant without angering Amaya.
“You want to avoid my family and go home?” she suggested for him.
“Not exactly,” he denied. “But I should head back. Khale was getting antsy. You could come with me?”
He knew before the words left his mouth that there was no chance. In a choice between him and Hynnkel, it was going to be Hynnkel, even if the man had been a first rate hunk of feral ass. She liked him, looked up to him, and even though he seemed to be a different person now, that wasn’t going to stop her infatuation.
“Well, I would, but maybe we should do what Bart said? Rest up, not drink that crap. ‘sides, I bet your tutors are getting all worried you’re dropping them for mine.”
Croy-li shrugged, “Fine by me. I’ll enjoy not nearly dying for a few days.”
“Woah, woah, who said anything about a few days,” Amaya whined. “I was giving you the rest of today away from me.”
Croy-li smiled at her. “Then you’re going to have to come to Kayden,” he told her, pushing himself to his feet. “Because I’m missing the beach.”
As he expected, Amaya smiled goofily. “You’re right. We should go to Kayden, spend some time swimming. Then we’ll figure out what the others are doing. Plan?”
“Plan,” Croy-li agreed, checking his pockets to make sure he had everything. “See you tomorrow, Aimy,” he called, leaving her rooms.
In doing so, he nearly ran right into Barthew Base, who was once again trying to reach something in his bag. The boy nearly toppled over after smacking into the solid man, only catching himself when his flailing hand caught the wall.
Distractedly, Base smiled at him. “I was just looking for you,” he said, making Croy-li sputter.
“Me?” he asked in surprise.
Base nodded, pulling a hunk of metal out of his bag. Croy-li studied it for a few clicks when the man held it out to him. It wasn’t just a hunk of metal. It was some kind of conductor, for what, he wasn’t sure. It was dull and bent in a few places that didn’t look purposeful.
“Can you fix that?” Base asked, staring at Croy-li in a way that made the boy uncomfortable.
“Maybe,” he hedged out, turning the thing in his hands. “What is it?” he asked.
Base raised an eyebrow. “You tell me.”
Oh, Croy-li realized. This is a test. Nodding to himself, he turned the object a few more times before pulling a small strip of testing metal from his pocket. Both of the metals sparked on impact. “It’s some sort of conductor,” Croy-li muttered, walking as he thought. He turned it again and was certain that he had it right side up that time. He blew lightly on it and a small spark of electricity flew up, making him smile.
He pulled his handheld multitool from his pocket and poked and prodded at the conductor for a few clicks before it sparked again. “Thought so,” he muttered. “What did that mean phantom do to you, baby?” he muttered, stroking the metal gently. Through his gloves, he couldn’t feel the response from the miniscule computer deep inside of the hunk of metal. “Just tearing you out of your home,” he soothed.
He turned around, heading back for the medical wing. “Don’t worry, I’ll put you back,” he muttered, only stopping when a hand landed on his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Base asked him.
Croy-li blinked a few times, staring up at the man, having forgotten he was being tested. “Um. This is the pneumatic cylinder for the engine of the hydraulic chamber in the tank. The, uh,” he gestured to the outside of the device. “This is the conductor to allow for the electrical currents to work the cylinder inside. Underneath the cylinder is the data and compression chip. If I don’t put this back soon, won’t it stop working?”
Base smiled slightly. “It’s an old part,” he answered. “Did you speak to it?” he asked. Croy-li shook his head. “Then how did you know it was part of the hydraulic chamber?”
Croy-li fingered the metal for a moment. “Amaya used to be stuck in a tank a lot,” he answered softly. “Only hydraulic chambers require the piston to be that shape. And there’s a certain type of rust that comes from a leaking one. That’s why you took this out, right? Because it was leaking.”
Base stared at him critically for a few clicks, making Croy-li shift uncomfortably. “Yes,” he agreed. “Are you going to Kay Castle?” he asked.
Croy-li nodded, but didn’t ask why. He didn’t have to.
“Good, I’d like to speak with you brother about you.”
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” a harried voice called, shaking Croy-li.
Groaning, he cracked open one eye to see slanted, golden eyes on a pale olive, oval face framed by straight, strawberry kissed auburn hair. The feline ears placed near the top of her head twitched in irritation. “Why won’t you lemme sleep, Blu?” he whined.
“Because you aren’t supposed to be in here!” the girl hissed in a hushed whisper. “You’re going to get Amaya into trouble.”
“Who’s gonna know?”
“Amaya’s aunts! They’re coming right now!”
“Arche Loralyn doesn’t care,” Croy-li muttered, turning onto his stomach so that he could try to ignore the cat girl.
“But Arne Riffle does and Lady Peru will tell him!”
“They’re not gonna come in.”
“You’re awake enough to argue, you’re awake enough to move to the next room,” Blu stated matter-of-factly, pulling him up.
Croy-li groaned, but allowed her to pull him to his feet, not that he had much choice considering she was more toned than he and far more stubborn. She steered him by his shoulders, practically using her thick legs to move his gangly ones.
They almost made it to the attached guest bedroom, but three quick knocks preceded the main door being pushed open before they could. In walked three women, two of which were of obvious relation to Amaya, with similar, dark complexions and dark hair. The third was blonde, with a lighter complexion and more athletic build than the other two as well as having a few inches on them. She wore a thin circlet on her head, and immediately grinned, raising an eyebrow at the two.
“What is happening here?” the less attractive of the two remaining women asked. She had a permanently pinched face and her scowl was unfortunate.
The remaining woman, who was beautiful despite her sickly thin, frail looking body, hid a smile and arched her brow questioningly.
“Um,” Croy-li started, glancing to Blu, whose lips were pursed to give an explanation, but no words came out.
“I asked Cole to wake me up. Blu was trying to keep him out,” Amaya said, not moving from under her covers. “He stayed the night again.”
The blonde smiled knowingly. “Your brother was looking for you, Croy-li,” she said, looking expectant. “You should perhaps contact him so that he doesn’t send his watchers out looking for you again?”
“Oh, right, of course,” Croy-li responded, stumbling back from the room. He paused before exiting, remembering his manners and nodded in acknowledgement to the older women and gave a short bow to the blonde. “Princess Anne.” The blonde rolled her eyes at him and waved him on.
Croy-li closed the door behind him, but stood at it, listening in on the conversation on the other side.
“Now’s as good a time to ask as any, Loralyn,” the pinched face woman, Lady Peru, said to the beautiful one.
Arche Loralyn sighed heavily. “Of course, but considering other news, perhaps it could wait?”
“I think Riff would agree that it is important to know now.”
Arche Loralyn sighed again, but it was Princess Anne who voiced the question. “Are you and Croy-li entwining or just blunderlusting together?”
Croy-li flushed, but noted that Amaya didn’t respond for a few clicks, undoubtedly staring at her cousin-by-binding. “What?” she asked incredulously, but her irritable aunt seemed to think she didn’t understand the question.
“Are you in a romantic engagement with the Prince du Kay, or is it just blunderlust rutting?”
Croy-li felt even more embarrassed, though he had no reason to. He knew, logically, that given their closeness and how often he had to sneak out of her bed to keep those kinds of rumors at bay, that it was a good question. Still, he wished that he didn’t have to be there when it was asked, especially when Blu and Amaya began giggling, as though there were no chance.
“Me and Cole? No, of course not,” Amaya said, humor still in her voice. “He’s my friend is all. No one’s asking if me and Blu are entwining. Or Jazz, even. I could be her thrall.”
She was finding the entire situation too amusing. And while it hurt Croy-li a bit to know that she didn’t consider him as any more of a romantic interest than Blu or Jazz, both of whom the duo regarded almost as sisters, the humor did take away from his embarrassment.
“Well, I would hope that you would have better sense to choose a princeling over your servant or a disowned valev.”
She could have pointed out that Heralds were legally not allowed to become involved with each other for fear of them banding together against the rest of the world in the best case or the horrifying children they were known to have with each other. Instead, she chose to make it about status, which was a bad idea, given Amaya was hardly going to start caring about their statuses now. Surprisingly, the girl didn’t explode. She didn’t say anything, though the tension was thick.
“That’s not what we came in here about. You went to sleep early last night, so you missed the news,” Arche Loralyn said, ignoring the tension. “Hynnkel is—”
“Is he okay?” Amaya asked immediately. “Does he need help? Is he lost?”
“He’s home. He got in this morning, and you missed him at breakfast.”
The sounds of her getting out of bed quickly, followed by her jumping to the floor were followed by shuffling. He could only assume that she was getting dressed. “Where is he? Is he in his rooms? With Arne Riff? Croy-li! Stop eavesdropping and get dressed, Hynnkel’s back!”
“What do I care about Hynnkel?” Croy-li joked, opening the door and leaning against the doorframe.
Amaya gave him a murderous look, her blue eyes narrowed, and he remembered just how strongly she felt for this cousin. He held his hands up and she turned to Blu, gesturing to her hair. “Anything?” she asked, undoubtedly wanting to look pretty for the cousin she all but hero worshipped.
Blu sighed. “Sit down. Let me brush it some and you can wear it down.”
Amaya made a face. “Just braid it,” she said instead. She hated brushing her hair, which was why it was always in a state of messy, wildly curling disarray.
The other women exchanged glances and when Lady Peru started to say something, likely a snide comment on the girl’s appearance, both Princess Anne and Arche Loralyn raised a hand to silence her. Fuming, the woman simply left.
“Hynnkel is resting right now,” Arche Loralyn said gently. “It was a long trip, so it wouldn’t hurt to take a little more time.”
Princess Anne was much more blunt. “You’ve been doing that weird grooming thing. I get it, aelfe, cat share, whatever. But your hair looks like you could have baby sparrows playing hide and seek in it and, honestly, you smell bad.”
Blu turned her face away to keep from laughing, while Croy-li had to keep a straight face when Amaya threw an affronted look his way.
“I don’t smell bad, do I?” she asked.
Croy-li glanced to the older women, who gave him expectant looks. Blu went so far as to kick him and he sighed. “You smell very...natural?” he suggested. He was used to her scent, and it didn’t bother him, though he had no doubt that it was getting to her family of cat-aelfe and their sensitive noses. “Maybe Feral is the word I’m looking for.”
Amaya stared at him aghast. “I do not smell Feral.”
“A bit,” he returned.
“So that settles it,” Princess Anne broke in. “Amaya will bathe and brush her hair. Croy-li will call Khale, before he thinks you’ve been kidnapped again.”
“And Blu, sweetheart,” Arche Loralyn added in while Princess Anne gave Croy-li a serious look and mouthed ‘Now.’ “Would you be willing to help Hynnkel for the time being? His servants were all sent away and can’t come back for another day at least. I think I remember that he liked you?”
Blu nodded quickly, always glad to be of help, though Croy-li noticed the flush at the mention that Hynnkel had liked her. He started to tease her, but after another look from Princess Anne, Croy-li crossed the room and reached under Amaya’s bed for his DS.
“I’m going, I’m going,” he said when she looked ready to say something. He glanced back at Amaya before leaving the room. Standing there, with her wild hair, half-dressed in baggy pants and her thin sleeping top, she looked beautiful.
“Come get me when you’re ready,” he told her before leaving the room. He waited to hear her agreement before closing the door. Crossing further into the guest room that, for all intents and purposes, was really just his room, he sat down on the bed. He still wore his working gloves, so those were the first things he changed. Dreading calling his brother, he then looked through the closet and drawer space for spare clothes. Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit to choose from, so he chose to take a quick shower.
Exiting the shower in just a towel, he was in no way surprised to see Amaya sitting on his bed with Blu behind her, brushing her hair out. By the faces Amaya made every time her hair got caught, he’d have thought Blu was killing her if he hadn’t known how whiny she was about her hair. Neither girl watched him as he put on underwear, but once it was on, Amaya looked to his side, where there was a pretty ugly cut he had forgotten to take care of the previous night.
“Is Squirrel around?” Amaya asked Blu, watching as Croy-li gently patted the wound dry and wrapped it up.
“She’s back in Rattigattan for the week. What about your family healer?” she suggested, giving Croy-li a disappointed look.
“What did I do? She wanted me to go with her. She would’ve gone alone. Tell Blu you would’ve gone alone without me.”
“I would’ve taken Soda,” Amaya said instead. “But I dunno. Bart asks a lot of questions when I have to go to him. And you know Cole’s a nervous blabber mouth.”
“Hi, accused blabber mouth right here.”
“Then we’ll go with him and keep him distracted from the blabbering,” Blu suggested. “But that needs to be looked at sooner than later.”
Amaya and Croy-li both sighed at their friend’s mother henning. She had only taken to doing it once they’d been freed of Thief Lord, and only for them. Brave was barely a year older than them and she didn’t get nearly the same treatment.
“Yeah, yeah,” Croy-li said, pulling on a light, long-sleeved shirt, followed by a sweater. While it wasn’t snowing, like up north, it was still an unusually cold spring and Hartin’s temperature charms were set for someone with far warmer blood than he. Donning his normal cargo pants, he checked his pockets to be sure what he wanted was in there.
“I have to call Khale first though,” he weakly protested, wanting an excuse not to.
“Call him while you’re getting fixed up. That way your stories will be the same,” Blu suggested and Amaya agreed.
“Remember the time you told Nolando we were going to the beach, told Arche Loralyn we were checking out some witch shops and told Khale we were going to eat?”
“Can’t forget. Soda keeps reminding me of sand-witches.”
Blu was so good at ushering the duo that Croy-li didn’t even notice they were moving until they were out of the rooms.
“I really think I can wait until Squirrel comes back,” Croy-li complained, remembering his last and only visit to his own family’s healers. The trio was so old that he had to yell for them to hear and they had steadfastly ignored his suggestions for newer equipment, saying that if what they had worked for his brother, parents, and grandparents before him, that they would work for him too. And he hadn’t honestly been doubting them—though, to be fair, with only him, his brother, his uncle, and his cousins Fallora and Chun-ti still alive of their families out of the twelve that had been there only a decade before, he had a right to—he was only suggesting that it would be faster and more efficient than using old blood elf traditional healing magic, especially for simple check-ups.
“That’s three days from now. That looks like it might be infected. Squirrel would murder you if she came back and you had a four-day-old, infected wound waiting for her.”
He had to concede to that point. Squirrel would heal him, hurt him, heal him, and hurt him again just to heal him one last time. Then she wouldn’t talk to him for weeks on end and then, when she did, make him explain to her all the reasons he shouldn’t have waited. Missing out on one uncomfortable encounter with an official healer wasn’t worth the trouble.
“I know,” he whined, giving Blu his saddest eyes. “I just—”
“Hate dealing with healers who aren’t Squirrel, I know,” Blu reassured him, “But Bart isn’t like the others.”
Amaya nodded. “Yeah, he’s nosier,” she said with a grin. “But also,” she added once Blu gave her a warning look, “He’s got all the machines you like and doubles as a doctor and healer.”
Croy-li raised his eyebrows hopefully. “You promise?” he asked.
“Yup. He’s not even old. Nolando’s age, I think. You’ll like him. He talks genius-ese.”
Blu snorted at the term, guiding her friends through the Hakinato estate until they reached the medical wing. She stopped outside of the doors and allowed them to continue forward. “Bart doesn’t like it when we stomp in together,” she stated when Croy-li and Amaya looked at her questioningly.
Amaya rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t like it when we’re loud and distracting and only in here to steal his stuff,” she corrected. “He doesn’t care if we’re quiet.”
“Either way,” Blu said, the downturn of her mouth saying that she disagreed, “I have other work to do. Find me when you’re done here.”
“What other work?” Amaya called after her. “You’re my servant! What’ve you got to do? Clean my room? Please don’t clean my room. I’ll feel bad forever.”
“Duties that don’t involve you!”
“But she’s my servant,” Amaya said again, this time in confusion as she turned to Croy-li, who was apprehensively eyeing the open doors. “What duties could she have that don’t involve me?”
“Arche Loralyn did just ask her to take care of Hynnkel.”
Amaya made a disbelieving face. “I think she’s hiding something,” she stated flatly, walking forward.
He followed her after a click. “Why?” he asked.
“Have you noticed that she’s been gone a lot lately? She’s here when I wake up and when I go to sleep. But between that? Anyone’s guess. We have Lessons together and she’s been absent, but when I ask, Pride says that she’s making up for them at other times.”
“What times?” Croy-li asked. “Because Brave has been running off too. I thought she was with Jazz and Squirrel down in Rattigattan, but they say she isn’t.”
“Then again, they could be lying and they’re all doing something together.”
Croy-li frowned. “Think Soda would trail them for us?”
“If she isn’t in on it with them,” Amaya replied sullenly. At a bark of male laughter, the duo paused.
“I thought you said he liked it quiet?” Croy-li asked uneasily. There was more loud laughter and this time they could hear the rumblings of a deep, male voice talking.
“He does,” Amaya replied uncertainly, and the two found themselves holding hands as they approached where the sound had come from. Before Croy-li could discern anything other than an examination room full of state of the art machines and simple yet nice furnishing, Amaya had launched herself across the room.
“Hynnkel!” she exclaimed, hugging a tall man with black hair and a similar, sandy complexion. He laughed and hugged her back. “I just heard you were back, but Arche Loralyn told me that you were sleeping and to wait to come see you. Where have you been? Where did you go? What happened?”
Hynnkel patted the top of her head, effectively mussing up her hair when entire tufts of it clung to his rings. “Nice to see you too, Amaya,” he said, before nodding to Croy-li. “Prince du Kay.”
Croy-li wasn’t sure, because he’d never really spent much time one-on-one with Amaya’s cousin before, but he thought he detected a frosty tone when the man said his name. He took a step back and avoided his mahogany eyes.
“Hold on now,” another voice spoke up. Croy-li turned his head to see another man, even taller than Hynnkel, and much, much paler. “I sincerely doubt these two came here to see you. What is it you need?”
Amaya seemed to either not hear the man or not care, because she kept chattering on to Hynnkel, demanding to know where he’d been, what he’d seen, why he left, what had made him decide to come home. Croy-li, on the other hand, stared at the man in absolute awe. Obviously an elf by his height and elongated ears, the man wore a white lab coat over his clothes, which held almost no contrast to his snowy complexion, silver hair, and pale grey eyes.
It was a face Croy-li recognized better than his own brother’s. Standing there, looking at him expectantly, was Sir Barthew Base, the main inventor and owner of Base Inventions. He was Croy-li’s hero, an elf killed in the 2300’s and raised as a phantom to fight at Empress Kellinara’s side against the Earthlings. He was to thank for almost all of their current electronics, was the main brain behind the intergalactic network and the Roadesian/Resorian datastream.
In the face of his greatest idol, Croy-li was struck dumb. Unfortunately, he was not struck mute. “I build stuff.”
Those three words stopped Amaya’s flow of words. She looked from Croy-li, to Barthew Base, and back again. “Did you break him?” she asked accusingly, moving from her cousin. Touching his shoulder and receiving no response, she poked her best friend, who was hiding his face in his hands, feeling absolutely embarrassed for the second time that day. “Hey, what does that mean?”
Barthew Base, on the other hand, laughed. “I take it you’re the technopath Amaya talks about?”
“Have you not met?” Amaya asked, looking from Croy-li and Barthew Base again.
Hynnkel coughed into his hand. “That’s when you introduce them,” he suggested.
“Oh. Right. Bart, Prince Croy-li du Kay. I really can’t believe you’ve never met him before.”
“I tend to stay to my warehouse when I’m not needed,” Barthew Base said, still smiling at Croy-li, who was looking at him between his fingers.
“Croy-li, Sir Barthew Base.”
“I know,” Croy-li blurted before he could stop himself. “I mean, not that I stalk you or anything. I don’t. I just, I’m a fan of your work. And I like to tinker. And sometimes I invent, but mostly I tinker, no way in league with what you do, but I do build things. Like I was recently working on a nanite cloaking cloud, but for some reason it doesn’t work as well as I thought it would. The vision is barely passable and it goes down when scanned, I think, but I don’t know because I haven’t checked it out. I mean we used it last night but—”
Amaya covered Croy-li’s mouth with her hand and he silently thanked her. Once he got started nervously talking, he couldn’t stop himself.
“Croy-li got cut. We went out last night, to a, uh, place to do something and he got cut. We forgot about it and now it looks gross. Fix him.”
“Sorry Hynnkel,” Barthew Base said, gesturing for Croy-li to come over to him and the examination table he had been sitting on. “Duty calls. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Hynnkel nodded. “I need to go talk with my mother anyway.”
“I’ll come with!” Amaya invited herself after pushing Croy-li all the way over to Barthew Base.
Hynnkel smirked. “Don’t you want to stick with your princeling and make sure he doesn’t implode from Bart excitement?”
Amaya waved it off. “He doesn’t need me.” She glanced to Croy-li, who was shyly lifting his shirt for Barthew Base to see the wound. “Do you?”
Yes, he thought, but shook his head because he didn’t trust what would come out of his mouth. And even though he knew she had to know better, Amaya linked arms with Hynnkel and walked with him.
“I can’t actually see anything through the wrapping,” Barthew Base said gently, and Croy-li forced himself to stop watching after Amaya and to instead focus on the phantom. “So I’m going to cut them off. Anything I should know?”
Croy-li shook his head, unsure what the man meant by that. It wasn’t like his wound was going to gush blood or let loose an angry astral. It was just a little, well alright, a big cut. It barely bled, just hurt and oozed a little.
“Is your brother aware that I am treating you?” Barthew Base asked, and Croy-li was glad that he wasn’t trying to make small talk. He shook his head. “I am required to call him and ask permission before I do anything other than look at it. Do you understand that?”
Croy-li nodded. There was no more talking as Barthew Base cut the bandages off of Croy-li, though the boy recognized his ‘wrong-hypothesis’ perplexed look. He wanted to ask what had perplexed Barthew Base, what he had hypothesized, but didn’t, unsure what else would come out of his mouth if he did. It could be anything from ‘You look different from the poster in my room,’ which would be embarrassing, to ‘I got cut by glass jumping out of a window at an RA archive to steal some chip for the Thief Lord last night,’ which would just be stupid to say aloud.
“This is a surprisingly bad cut, Prince Croy-li,” Barthew Base stated, moving away from him, to a moveable screen. “How did you get it?” he asked before tapping a few times on the screen. “King Khale du Kay,” the phantom spoke into the screen before Croy-li could think up a good excuse.
He really should have come up with an excuse before coming. What had Amaya said? Oh, right. I got cut when we were somewhere, doing something. She usually lied better than that.
“For the last time, Bart, I didn’t bother your warehouse,” Croy-li’s brother snarled, his face appearing on the screen. “And I am busy, so I would appreciate if you would continue blaming me some other time.”
Croy-li’s eyes widened at the tone Khale took with the inventor and he looked to the phantom, whose mouth turned down in irritation. “And while I maintain that, as they are technically on your and Fallora’s lands, one of you had to have had them moved without my consultation and the damage done is on you, that is not what I called for. I have your princeling here and need to know if I have your permission to heal him. He has a rather bad cut received last night.”
“What? Croy-li? Are you alright?” Khale’s tone went immediately from angry and defensive to worried and he seemed to be trying to see his brother over Barthew Base, which was nearly impossible, given the gangly teenager wasn’t as wide as the elf and at an awkward angle from the screen.
Barthew Base turned it so that Khale could see Croy-li before speaking. “I was just asking him where he could have received such a cut.”
With both men looking at him expectantly, Croy-li avoided looking at either of them until he could come up with a good excuse. “Um. Well. Uh. Could we maybe talk after?” He met Barthew Base’s eyes and held them unblinkingly, “It really hurts a lot,” he lied.
Barthew Base looked to the screen for Khale’ permission.
“Of course you can heal him. Why wouldn’t I let you heal him?”
Barthew Base shrugged, turning his back to the screen in order to get a suction tool, which made Croy-li grimace. While he tended to prefer scientific healing, especially with infection, he absolutely hated the tools used to get the gross bits of the liquid proof of infection out. They felt horrible, and as someone who regularly hurt himself and forgot to get the wounds looked at until there was an infection, he was on the receiving end of one at least once a month.
“Your family has had a history of not wanting any of the direct royal line healed by anyone other than your healers,” Barthew Base pointed out. “I had no reason to believe that tradition had changed.”
That comment made Croy-li mildly suspicious about the strange drop in living members of his family. His generation only held four children, only two being direct du Kay First Family. The previous one had been also been four but all First Family, each had bound and all but one had died so far. His grandparent’s generation had been with sixteen members and before that, sixteen. It had continued in that vein six generations further. And all only healed by their personal healers, elves who had lived through eight generations.
It was suspicious, but he wouldn’t say anything yet, until he had decided what to do about that, if there was something that needed to be done.
“How long have you been at the Verseins Fortress?” Khale asked, forcing Croy-li away from his thoughts.
“Uh, all week,” he lied, keeping eye contact with his brother through the screen. Barthew Base was finished sucking the infection out and was now coating it in a salve that would expedite the healing process on the inside. If he had wanted, he could have watched the muscle and skin stitch itself together, but he had lost interest in that a few years back.
“But I’ve asked—”
“I told them not to tell you,” Croy-li lied, not blinking. “You’ve been smothering me and I needed some air, so I got some with Amaya and Blu.” It could have been a good lie if not for the fact that Khale had been ridiculously lenient. He only checked up on Croy-li once a day, he didn’t sit in on his Lessons any longer, he didn’t force him to spend any time with him or to learn about his duties as prince of Kayden any more than he learned in Lessons, though Croy-li knew there was much more to it.
Either way, the lie hit home with Khale, who looked away, as if ashamed. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, and Croy-li had to look away to keep from feeling guilty. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. What can I do?”
“Nothing. It’s fine. It’s not too bad,” Croy-li recanted, rolling his miniature electric fuser between his fingers. He wasn’t sure when he’d taken it out, but was glad he had something in his hands. “You’re fine.”
Barthew Base patted the regrown skin lightly. “Feel better?” he asked. Croy-li nodded, watching his tool to keep from making eye contact, being forced to acknowledge that he was in the same room as Sir Barthew Base and getting nervous.
“I should probably go find Amaya and--”
“Hold on,” Barthew Base said, holding his hand to Croy-li’s chest to keep the boy from jumping off the table. “How did you get that? It’s important for me to know that I couldn’t have missed anything.”
“I, well, Amaya and I. We, not I, really. We, uh, went out last night because we, um. We needed to do something because we were bored and needed to do something. So we went out. Last night. To go, uh, sledding?” Finally grasping at a truth, he felt comfortable rambling about his own brilliance. “We tried out my new sled and it works well. It works really well, better than I expected. We tried out a new speed alteration and we made a thirty minute trip in ten. On a sled!”
Remembering who he was talking to, his eyes widened and he looked to Barthew Base, whose eyebrow was raised. “I mean, it’s not like your hoverboards, because I’m nowhere nearly as talented as you and couldn’t come up with the technology to get it to hover, much less move as fast as it does or with the network. I mean my sled is pretty simple in comparison, so I shouldn’t really talk like it’s special. Because it isn’t. It’s just a sled.”
“Croy-li,” Khale cut in. “I get that you’re excited to meet Bart and all, but you never really answered the question.”
“Oh. Right.” He pulled out a small toy he’d been working on and tinkered with it nervously.
“Right,” Barthew Base added with a knowing grin. “So while sledding with Amaya, how did you get a cut that deep and nothing else?”
Clearing his throat, Croy-li set the toy down and tried to channel Soda. She could make the most ridiculous thing sound true. “We ran into a tree.”
“A tree? That left no splinters and didn’t impale you.”
“I mean a house. We ran into an old cottage and I got cut by the broken window?”
“Where was this cottage?” Barthew Base asked, looking like he was enjoying himself. A glance at Khale showed the king to have a similarly amused look to the phantom.
“Uh, I don’t know. We weren’t really paying attention.”
“And when did you try the nanite cloud you mentioned?”
Croy-li choked on air, completely having forgotten he brought it up. “Um. Just. We were testing the cloaking cloud and sled at the same time,” he said, looking away, but still not blinking. His eyes were dry, but he couldn’t blink until he was done. He didn’t want to be like Brave, who blinked a million times when she lied.
“So, to get this completely straight, you and Amaya went somewhere north with enough snow to go sledding in a cloaked joyride and ran into a tree or cottage, where you were cut deeply.” Croy-li nodded. Barthew Base’s mouth twitched and he looked ready to laugh, but he didn’t. He did, however look to Khale, who was smiling widely. “Alright then.”
“Sounds plausible,” Khale stated.
“I’d like to go find Amaya now,” Croy-li said, staring at the floor.
“Of course,” Barthew Base said, waving for him to go.
“Please tell me if you plan to stay at Verseins for longer,” Khale called after him before he could rush off.
“Okay,” Croy-li squeaked out before rushing away.
“I think I understand why you enjoyed when we tried lying to you,” Croy-li heard Khale say to Barthew Base before he was out of hearing range.
“This was a bad plan, Aimy,” Croy-li whispered to his best friend, who glanced up at him from the ground to where he was hiding in the rafters of the building, nearly unseen in his black sneaksuit, with his dark skin and black hair hidden partially under his hood.
“It was your plan,” she hissed at him, getting a running start before she launched herself into the air. Aiming at the wall and kicking against it to get herself higher, Amaya made it into the rafters as well. Croy-li grunted when her weight slammed into him, but he kept them both from falling, holding tight to the support beams with his long limbs hooked around the beams until she was situated. At that point, he balanced on a single one, reaching into the pouch at the small of his back.
“That doesn’t make it a particularly good one,” he contested, pulling out his datapad as she hung onto him with her legs, her arms keeping them in place on the support beams while alarms went off in every direction. He was lucky she had grabbed him when she had, because he nearly tilted over in surprise even though he’d been expecting them. She helped him balance.
“Well, bad plan or not, it got us this far. Now will the escape part of it work?”
“I don’t know,” he responded. “That’s why it’s a bad one. I didn’t know they had override power on their alarm system! I can’t get in without, well,” he waved his hand at her and she grunted. “But I’m trying to see if—”
Below them, light spilled and a group of no less than ten armed soldiers entered the room, their guns and lights pointing all over. Croy-li silently put his datapad back into his pouch and pointed up. Amaya closed her eyes for a long moment, as though praying, before nodding. As the soldiers below searched through the room, its many containers and hiding places, the duo made their way higher up, trying to be as silent as possible. None of those below so much as glanced up, apparently not even considering up to be a possibility.
They were almost to the top when Croy-li slipped. Even though Amadhay caught his arm, bracing herself with the crisscrossed support beams to help hold his full weight and helped him steady himself, neither of them realized the amount of noise they made with their scrabbling until they were found. When lights shone up at them, they exchanged glances. The sound of wings and heavy feet and claws on metal approaching them forced the duo to make a rash decision.
“Throw me,” Amaya ordered, grabbing Croy-li’s hands. The boy started to argue, but a heavy body landing close to them changed his mind. She was the better bet at getting out and back in if he were to get caught. Besides, he had something he wanted to try out, and she would be an impediment to him if it did work.
“I’m right behind you,” he promised, throwing Amaya as hard as he could, through the glass dome. Light from outside shone in where the girl had gone through, and Croy-li was able to see that he was surrounded by guards, rather than soldiers, which made it easier on him. Adjusting his mask and hood with one hand, he rummaged through one of his suits’ many pockets, going by sense of touch to try to find the right tool.
“Hey guys,” he said nervously, taking a step up.
They all rushed at him, and without any time to find something else, Croy-li pulled out what he hoped was his blind bomb and dropped it. He jumped up and it hit a lower rafter, just as his legs were grabbed by several of the guards. Silently mouthing a prayer to the Escort that it would work, Croy-li squeezed his eyes closed just in time, holding onto a support beam to keep from being pulled down. The little metal sphere exploded with a soft fwoom and even through his eyelids and with his head facing away, he could see the bright light and felt its warmth through his sneaksuit and on his exposed skin.
Unlike him, the guards had not been ready for the heat or brightness of the light. Those holding onto him let go to catch themselves as they took wrongs steps and found themselves falling from the rafters. The other guards near him were crying in pain.
Light-blindness achieved, assumed temporary. Unexpected accompanied heat and probable severe burns, Croy-li thought, looking over the guards once the light died away. The ones that had remained on the ground seemed to have been hit by some debris, or perhaps the bomb had been harsher on them, because they were all unconscious, most looking injured. Will need to observe the focus subject’s accompanied effects and—
“Hey, dummy!” Amaya’s voice hissed from above him. Looking up, Croy-li remembered that they were still on a mission and still attempting to escape. He could get into the system from the safety of his room to look at the security footage at a later time to document the progress of his invention.
Amaya reached out for him and he climbed higher as quickly as he could, taking her arm to help lift him up. The broken glass cut through his top where it wasn’t reinforced with padded armor when he pressed against it, lifting himself up. Mentally noting to have Squirrel heal it before someone outside of their team noticed, he brushed glass off, making sure to use the reinforced back of his gloves. Stepping lightly, he followed Amaya’s mimed directions to avoid where the glass was thinner and breaking further.
“Have they found our sled?” Croy-li asked Amaya once they were off of the glass and headed for their escape mobile, which was hidden near the tree line. The girl grabbed his arm and leaned into him, using his movement to keep herself going before looking all around them with a distant look in her eyes that told him she had reached out and was seeing someone’s thoughts.
She snapped back. “No one’s thinking of the trees or the sled. But they know we took the chip, so maybe run faster.”
Croy-li groaned, but ran faster, getting ahead of her so that he could get to the sled to start it up. If he could get it going by the time she caught up, they would be out free. Otherwise, it was far too possible that they would have to fight their way out. He hated fighting the RA. The soldiers were too well trained and comfortable with what was necessary to take them down.
“Have I mentioned how horrible this plan was?” he asked.
She grunted and a thud made him look back just in time to see her jump over an unconscious body. “Well, it was your idea, genius.”
Assured that she was alright, Croy-li focused back on his own running when he stumbled. “I feel like you’re using that term as an insult and as a genius, I am insulted.”
“Good. It worked, then.” She left out a huff of breath that made him look back again. She had stopped running and was frowning, with that distant look in her eye. “They know where we are,” she stated, snapping back. “So get the sled up. I’ve got your back.”
“I’d feel better if Squirrel were here,” Croy-li muttered, hopping over a fallen tree branch to their sled. He pulled it up from its hiding place and brushed the snow off of it. “Or Jazz. Or Soda. Even Brave or Blu. Why are we here alone again?” he muttered, pulling a small spark stick from his pocket. “Oh, I remember. Because you wanted to do it without them. ‘cause the stinking Thief Lord told you to do it alone. And of course you do what he says.”
“Are you done complaining?” Amaya asked hurriedly, “Because we have two Arachins coming at us and I definitely forgot my bug spray.”
Croy-li glanced up and at seeing the scorpion Arachins, looked back to what he was doing. “You could take them,” he said with a shrug, wishing suddenly that he hadn’t unplugged everything. He had only needed to switch the spark plug out and no one would’ve been able to take it anywhere. But no, he had to be thorough.
“Can I borrow your gun?” Amaya asked and Croy-li scoffed.
“You asking tells me you want me to shoot them. Wouldn’t work. Scorpions’ exo’s too thick for bullets except for point blank. And I’m not getting that close. You?”
“Only if you don’t get the sled working in the next few clicks.”
A loud whir came from the sled and both teenagers sighed in relief.
“Thank Goddess,” Amaya muttered, keeping her eyes on the Arachins even as she jogged over to Croy-li and wrapped herself around him. Once she was tucked behind him, Croy-li glanced back to see the Arachins still hadn’t closed the distance between them. They didn’t move through the snow very fast and he assumed that they simply couldn’t. He vaguely remembered that scorpions hibernated in winter, so for there to be any out was atypical.
“Wait a click,” Croy-li muttered, trying to take a quick picture of them with his vid-pod.
“No clicks,” Amaya stated, reaching around him to put the sled into motion. The runners beneath them moved jerkily to get them moving on the even ground. She was wise, because the Arachins started moving more swiftly, closing the distance between them almost in time to catch the duo, but the sled hit a hill and sped down, dropping them right out of the stinger’s reach.
Amaya gave a relieved huff, wrapping her arms around Croy-li’s waist once he took the controls. She pressed her face into his back and Croy-li smiled, almost forgetting that they were still in danger.
“For the record,” she muttered and he strained to hear her over the wind. “Thief Lord told me to pick a partner. He suggested Jazz or Soda. I chose you.”
“He was probably right,” Croy-li said loudly to combat the wind, smiling when she pinched him in the side.
“Mutt,” she teased, and Croy-li relaxed as they got out of the RA’s territory.
They were only a few yards out when the vrrm of snow cars and the crunch of snow under running feet indicated that they were still being chased. They both glanced back and cursed at the sight of wolves. The snow cars weren’t as much of a worry, considering they were obviously standard peacekeeper mobiles and wouldn’t last much longer at their current speed—especially not given that Croy-li had made sure to pour a drop of Sludge Freeze on all the wheels he’d seen while they were back at the compound.
“Drive for me,” Croy-li ordered Amaya, not giving her a chance to argue before he opened the main panel for the engine of their sled.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, grabbing the joystick with both hands so that she could evade a large rock. “Other than trying to get us killed.”
“Trying to not get us killed?” Croy-li suggested, focusing on rearranging the wires. “I put this in just in case of wolf ferals, so here’s hoping it works.”
“Hoping?!” Amaya screeched. A loud howl came from behind them, echoed by several others. Both of them glanced up and back to see that the snow cars were, in fact, stuck in the snow. Unfortunately, they had been replaced by several wolf ferals, two large cat shifters, and an enormous bear that neither was sure if it were a feral or shifter.
They exchanged glances and Croy-li went back to switching out wires and gears. He wasn’t sure that Amaya noticed when the motor in their sled stopped, since she was focused on trying to steer them, and he hoped she wouldn’t need to. Taking a deep breath and shooting a quick prayer to Escort, he molded his sticky tack into a ball, stuck three wires into it, and then pressed all of that to an otherwise untouched, shiny metal box the size of his thumbnail. At first nothing happened, and Croy-li chewed on his lip, ignoring when Amaya again asked him what he was doing.
He pressed the sticky tack more closely against the box, taking care to keep the wires from directly touching the box with a thin layer of the tack insulating them. Unsure what he had done wrong, he flicked the box, noting that it moved when he did.
Is it not in right? He wondered, moving the box until it was firmly in place.
“Take the wheel and I’ll shoot,” Amaya said right before the speed adapter started working. The motor woke up and worked double time, making the runners move with the momentum of the sled instead of just allowing the momentum to take them.
“No shooting,” Croy-li muttered, checking his hip to make sure his friend hadn’t taken his gun while he hadn’t been paying attention. It was still there.
“What do you want us to do, then?” she asked, glancing back again. The animals had stopped chasing now that they were moving too fast and were watching them, but had not stopped howling. “Because they’re still tracking us.”
“Trust me, okay?” Croy-li closed the engine and covered her hands with his. “We don’t need to shoot anyone.”
Amaya huffed, leaning her forehead on his spine. “I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” she said softly, and Croy-li forced a laugh.
“I know,” he said, trying not to look back at her. We’re moving too fast, he told himself. If I look back, we could crash into something. The truth, though, was the he didn’t want her to see that he didn’t believe her. “I just don’t want any more evidence left than necessary.”
“You’re using a standard Local Force 2802 Hemlok,” she stated matter-of-factly. “We chose that gun because it’s standard fare and evidence left by it would be useless.”
“And you’re a crap shot,” Croy-li added defensively. “I mean, I don’t think you’d kill them if you weren’t meaning to, but…” You might not hit at all was where he meant to continue with it, but they both knew he was lying.
“I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” Amaya repeated, lightly hitting her head against his spine several times. “I don’t do that for him, not anymore.”
He wanted to believe her and knew that she needed to believe that, so he didn’t point out that her continued requests for his gun really pointed the other direction. Instead, he shrugged. “Point is, we didn’t kill anyone. Still got the chip?” he asked.
She bit his shoulder. “Of course I still got the chip.”
“Still got that can I gave you?”
“Yeah…” she said slowly.
He lifted his hands from hers. “Grab it,” he ordered, taking the joystick again once she took her hands back to rummage through the pouch attached to the small of her back. “Got it?” he asked after a moment.
“Spray it all over yourself and as much of me as you can.”
“Why?” she asked even as she did it, spraying a cloud over herself. “Woah.”
Croy-li glanced back to see that the cloud hadn’t moved from her, staying tight to her skin and the sled. It was white and glittered like the snow, but when he looked close enough, he could see the nanites that he’d set into the can. Amaya stood, her arm linked loosely around his neck, to spray his front and the rest of the sled.
“Are we invisible?” she asked, sitting down again as the cloud settled.
“Close enough,” Croy-li responded, squinting to see. It hadn’t come out at transparent as he’d wanted. It was supposed to be undiscernible from the outside, but easily seen through inside of it. Instead, he managed a sort of translucent cloud, more like a thin sheet or curtain than glass, like he’d expected.
“Can you see?” Amaya asked after a moment.
“Yes,” he responded instantly, even though he was having trouble. Considering the cat of her aelfe and the low light of the early morning, he had no doubt that she would be able to see better than him. Still, he didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t planned the cloud to be so thick.
She laughed softly and wrapped her hands around his, looking over his shoulder and through the nanites. “Stop being like that. You know my sight is better than yours.”
He mimicked her under his breath before making a face at her. “Anyway, wanna know the best part?” he asked, seemingly just in time when the sounds of large wings and clicking reached their ears. Amaya reached one hand up to cover his mouth, but Croy-li shook it off. “They can’t hear us. Or locate us by sound.” That part he was sure about, considering it was the nanites main function.
“I could kiss you,” Amaya flattered, making Croy-li flush. “How long before they give up?”
Croy-li shrugged. “How should I know?”
“How long before the cloud goes?” she asked instead.
“Uh, that I don’t know either.”
She pinched his side as hard as she could. “I take back the kissing,” she snapped. “So what do you know?”
“I know the boiling point for every element off the top of my head,” he quipped, wincing when she pinched him again. “And that you need to cut your nails,” he muttered under his breath to receive another pinch. “And that we’re twenty clacks from Ainran and since Thief Lord didn’t sign the new RA accords, they don’t have jurisdiction and can’t search his land or air.”
“Finally, something useful. So if the cloud fizzes and they follow, they can’t go in after us?”
Even as they talked, the wing beats seemed to get farther away. Bird cries were still loud, but didn’t seem to be following them. In fact, the loudest sound was their motor as they lapsed into comfortable silence.
“I am going to sleep for six years when we get back to Verseins,” Amaya whined, rubbing her cheek affectionately against his back.
“I thought we were going to Whitestaff tonight,” Croy-li whined.
“If we finished last night, we were. But it’s easier to sneak into Verseins in the morning. Amadhay gave me a fool-proof way.”
At the mention of Amaya’s sister, Croy-li tensed. “Oh, and if Amadhay says it’s good, I’m sure it’ll be all clear,” Croy-li drawled.
Amaya sighed, rubbing her cheek against his back in relaxing circles. “I know she’s, well, Amadhay, but can we just not right now? If she says it’s fool-proof, it’s fool-proof.”
Croy-li sighed. “Fine,” he said after a few clicks. “Verseins. We stop by the kitchens though.”
“Get in, change, kitchens,” Amaya assured him. “Gotta feed my growing princeling,” she teased, hugging him and pointedly squeezing his stomach.
“I’m a growing boy,” he whined. “I need constant sustenance.”
“I think you’re getting fatty,” she stated. “The aelfe’s kicking in.”
He snorted. “Alright then,” he said, knowing that the only way he’d get fatty would be if his dominant, elfin genes completely shut down and let his metabolism slow down to a crawl. And he stopped getting so much exercise running for his life.
A green light scanned over them dispersing their nanite cloud and surprising the duo out of their chattering.
“What was that?” Amaya demanded, while Croy-li’s hands jerked and very nearly ran them into a tree.
“Ainran’s borders?” he suggested doubtfully, as confused as she, though he tried to hide it.
“But we didn’t leave Repunsil!” she exclaimed nervously, clutching his sides as she looked around. “And it’s barely been ten minutes. We weren’t ten minutes away from the border!”
“Maybe,” Croy-li brainstormed for explanations and only came up with one plausible one. “I miscalculated our speed?”
“And what? The cloud worked leaving Repunsil and failed into Ainran?”
That wasn’t likely, no. The two border scans were simultaneous: red showing exit of one territory and green showing entry of another. So, for the cloud to have malfunctioned only on the other side was highly suspicious, if not utterly impossible. Croy-li kept trying to find an answer even as he changed course to head to the Thief Lord’s mansion.
“Worst case scenario, we’ve been made and have to fight out of RA custody. Game plan?” Croy-li asked, shifting the control back to Amaya, who took it easily.
“Lay low,” Amaya said, eyeing the change in scenery from coniferous tree to bare ones. “Only fight back if they try to unmask. I have Blu and Soda on retrieval mode if no contact by full sun.”
Croy-li nodded, glad that she had thought of all this beforehand. He wouldn’t have, considering he was more of a sneaking plan than fighting one. That’s what made them such a good team.
“But considering we just passed our tree,” Croy-li started, watching as they sped past their old treehouse, “I think we’re safe.” He was smacked on the back of his neck by Amaya’s thick braid when her head snapped back to find the colorful, peeling paint on the orb in an old, misplaced willow tree amid the snow. She relaxed for a moment before tensing again once the mansion was in sight.
Taking one hand off of the joystick to squeeze one of hers, Croy-li leaned back into his friend. “Quick in and out. We step in, throw the chip at him, and leave without a chance to get new orders. Kay? Kay.”
He thought she might have kissed his back, but he wasn’t sure because it was quick and followed by a quick, “Kay.”
In no more than two clacks, they were sliding to a stop before an imposing building surrounded by three gates. The first of the gates was made of a thick, smooth material and raised twenty feet off of the ground. The second was even higher and glass plated, sparking with something. The third was the tallest, a curling patterned iron, deceptively pretty yet every inch had poisonous needles to keep intruders from climbing it.
The first gate was already open. “Yay,” Croy-li drawled sarcastically, “We were expected.”
He followed Amaya’s suit in hopping off of the sled and to the gates. Once inside the sleek gate, less than a full foot away from the clear one buzzing with the promise of a good, life-ending jolt of electricity, the duo slapped their dominant hands on the smooth gate and it closed tightly and silently behind them. A quick, blue light scanned over Amaya upon recognition of her biological signature, but there was a red one that slowly filtered over Croy-li. When the red lights touched his gun, an alarm went off, screeching high pitched threats of violence to an assessment of perceived danger. Both teenagers looked around in alarm, stepping back when the second gate inched closer to them.
Amaya turned to Croy-li and studied him as he tried pressing his hand against the gate again, receiving the same dissatisfied beep at each attempt.
“Let me in! You know me!” he yelled, to the gates, attempting to use his technopathy to force them to do his will. However, as the gates had been made specifically with his abilities in mind, and with his help, to keep those Gifted like him out, they didn’t have nearly enough passably sentient technology or data in them for him to override the code red—at least not with his gloves on.
“Why am I red listed?” Croy-li whined. “Jazz I could see. You, Squirrel? Definitely. Immortals, I could even understand Soda or Blu. But me?”
Amaya suddenly made a sound of disgust, smacking herself on the forehead. “Your gloves, genius. It doesn’t recognize you through the new gloves!”
Oh, Croy-li opined, glancing to the new additions to his otherwise unchanged uniform. That makes sense. His old gloves--identical to those that Amaya wore--had been thinner and clung to his palms specifically for the purpose of allowing biological scans. They had also, too often, allowed for him to be sucked into the data-sphere, any network, and the motherboard of most complex machines he touched. His new ones didn’t allow any of that, limiting the distance he was allowed to be pulled while also not completely cutting him off, as his everyday gloves did. He hadn’t remembered to have them made with scanning frequencies embedded.
“Oh, for all the water in the world,” Amaya cursed, grabbing Croy-li’s hand as he thought about the major flaw he had overlooked. She took his left glove off, slammed it against the wall, and waited until the second gate stopped moving. By that point, his pale blue eyes had been covered by a staticky, sick blue film and his skin felt electrified. There was barely a pause between the blue light scanning over Croy-li and the door opening, but in that time, Croy-li had gone fully into the computer controlling the gates and back out.
He snatched his hand away from Amaya, who was breathing a sigh of relief. “Damn it Aimy! That hurts. You know that,” he hissed, shakily forcing the glove back onto his hand. Using only his fingertips, he pushed Amaya away when she tried to brace him with her body.
“Let me even out,” he gritted out through clenched teeth, his hands balled into fists at his sides. The girl took a step back, tilting her head to watch him unblinkingly. The data on his tongue and electricity in his veins was boiling, making his head throb. He took a deep breath. Synchronize the TAU channels. He let the breath out, only seeing 0’s and 1’s to dictate his brain waves. He breathed again. Increase circuit efficiency. Even in this state, Amaya was a comforting familiarity. He breathed again. Lower variable control. And again. Faulty microfilament pathways. And again.
Then, finally, the world was in colors and shapes, rather than computer code. He could breathe without tasting the flow of data all around him. Croy-li rubbed the palm of his hand against his leg, feeling slightly better when the scaled palm of his glove slid easily against the smooth fabric of his sneaksuit.
Amaya rubbed apologetically against him, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she walked past him, apparently recognizing that he was leveled out. He followed her through the second gate and stopped short before the guard in front of the third gate. Amaya smiled sarcastically at her old Rageing instructor, Dawles, who nodded in response, though the woman’s eyes were set on Croy-li, who ran a hand through his short, dark hair.
“Hi?” he asked, unsure why she was so focused on him.
“Your gun, Cole. We aren’t trusted enough to have weapons when meeting with him anymore. Right?” the last word was aimed at the woman, who merely nodded.
Croy-li sighed. “If I was gonna shoot him, don’t they think I’d have done it back when we lived here?” he suggested, unstrapping his gun. Not particularly trusting the woman before them, he opened the gun to show that it only held stun pellets and emptied them into one of his pockets. She watched him, but made no move to stop him from doing it.
Only once all of the pellets were out of the gun and Croy-li showed it to be empty did Dawles hold her hand out. Rolling his eyes to Amaya, who rolled hers in agreement, Croy-li tossed the gun to the woman, who caught it without taking her eyes off of the pair.
“If we split up, who do you think she’d watch?” Amaya whispered to Croy-li out of the corner of her mouth.
“You,” a man’s voice stated, passing through the last gate as though it were merely an illusion. Both teenagers tensed, instinctively moving closer to each other while simultaneously taking a step forward.
“We have what you wanted,” Amaya stated, reaching back into her pouch for the canister holding the chip.
“Because without his gun, Croy-li is rather unintimidating. He is lacking in any real physical skills, defenseless against most attacks. Even his Gift is rather lackluster and more of a handicap than an advantage,” the man continued his explanation as though Amaya hadn’t spoken.
The girl faltered for a moment, looking up at Croy-li, whose expression was a simple smile, covering his absolute hatred for the man standing in front of them. Not only was this man—not that he could prove it—responsible for not only his parents deaths, Amaya’s parent’s deaths, and the eradication of Squirrel’s entire tribe, but he had kidnapped all but two of them, attempted to brainwash them, and blackmailed them into doing his dirty work. And beyond all that, he never let up on an opportunity to remind Croy-li that, as the only non-Herald of their team, he was dispensable, the weakest link, one only kept around to keep the girls, primarily Amaya and Jazz, compliant. He hated him. There were only three people in the world that Croy-li could say he hated. Amadhay was number three. Amaya’s power-hungry uncle, Arne Riffle Hakinato was number two. Thief Lord was number one.
“So it confounds me to attempt to understand why, time after time, I hand you a difficult mission and you choose him.” He turned his attention to the canister. “And surprises me time and again how talented you are.”
Croy-li knew Amaya’s temper was about to flare up and he tried to stop it, grabbing her hand. She looked up at him again and smiled, but it was a dangerous smile, with the same look in her eye a cat gives its fellow before downing prey. He didn’t try any of the switches, not with the Thief Lord watching. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing something that he’d taught him was still being used.
The girl tossed the canister at the Thief Lord’s feet. “I’m talented because I have Croy-li to pick up my slack,” she snapped. “This is my last job. You can tell the world what you want to, but this is it. I will snap your neck before I do another thing for you, so find someone new to blackmail.”
“And the others?” his asked archly. “Will you leave them to do your dirty work? You and your little princeling might be shielded from repercussions by your families, but what of the rest of my Twisted Dragons. How about the banished Lazaili? My little orphaned Bravery? Our pirate refuge Adosoda or freed slave Bluregarda? Can’t forget Kruremuangra. She doesn’t even speak Roades. How do you think any of them would be to fare if information became loose about their escapades?”
“Escapades?” Amaya and Croy-li asked in incredulous disgust.
“You call forcing us to steal and kill for you escapades?”
“No one forced anything,” he responded with a smile, looking to Dawes. “Do you ever remember me holding a knife to their throats?”
“No sir,” Dawles responded with a fake smile. “You were nothing but encouraging of their interests and games, as any foster father would be. They were excited to learn. How were you to know what they planned to do with it?”
“Kill the Jasta master vampire?” Thief Lord gave a false gasp. “I wasn’t expecting our little Lazaili to do that when she was twelve. Steal important Roadesian Army plans? What can I say? They were always so eager to impress me. Do you know what the Roadesian Army does to Heralds they can’t control?”
It was too late to use a switch, so this time Croy-li kept Amaya from doing something she would regret by grabbing her wrist and twisting until she backed down. She even allowed him to push her to stand behind him. “Of course, my lord. We will be waiting patiently for your next summons. Until then, we both need sleep and to get back before we are missed.”
Amaya hissed at Croy-li and he easily ignored it and her spitting while Thief Lord and Dawles watched them with vague interest.
“Hand me the chip,” the man ordered, making Croy-li flinch.
“It is right there. It won’t hurt you to pick it up.”
“But it might hurt you if I have to,” he threatened blatantly, making Croy-li tense when Amaya gave a low, angry hiss. He kicked her.
“Of course,” Croy-li gritted out, keeping Amaya behind him, but knowing better—from experience—not to let her go when she was that riled up. She would only make the predicament worse. So instead, Croy-li closed the distance between them and the Thief Lord. Not lowering his eyes as he had been taught, he kept eye contact with the man to make it clear just how little respect he had for him. He bent at his knees, picked up the canister, and when he started to stand, the man touched the crown of his head to keep him down.
“Remember where your alliance lies and who your true king is,” he reminded Croy-li before turning his attention to Amaya. Without looking, Croy-li knew that she wouldn’t kneel without being forced, so he twisted her wrist again, only letting up on the force when she knelt beside him, in the same subservient position before the Thief Lord.
“Say it,” Thief Lord ordered.
Croy-li blinked, choosing to stay silent. He kept his eyes even with the Thief Lord, who looked from him, to Amaya, and then back with a decisive gleam. Even though he expected, Croy-li flinched at the white-hot surge inside him and tried to fight the need to properly kneel before the man. He lost the fight, as always, and moved from his crouch to kneel, lowering his eyes subserviently.
The pain left Croy-li’s body for the few clicks it took for the man to get the same reaction from Amaya, and returned, this time primarily to his mind. Croy-li tried to fight it, mentally listing the elements and their corresponding weights, but the pain seared until he couldn’t stop it and, as always, he and Amaya spoke at the same time, their voices monotone.
“You have my allegiance, my king.” Once the words were out, they were meant. Both teenagers hated it, hated the brand of the Thief Lord on their minds, but there was nothing they could do about it. It was better to have the brand than to have him push further and make them his like he used to.
“Canister,” he ordered, holding his hand out and Croy-li lifted it to him, placing it in the man’s hand as hard as he could. With that, the man walked back through the gate.
A few clicks later, Amaya and Croy-li were able to move from their knees. Amaya started toward the gate, as though to follow the man and the violence in her shaking body made it clear what she intended.
Dawles moved in front of her. “You have been dismissed,” she said, her fingers twitching in a tell-tale manner that had Croy-li grabbing Amaya again. Unlike before, the girl didn’t allow him to handle her, instead needing to get some of the violence out. She shoved him away and jumped at the Rager, who immediately swept her hands into the air, snatching water from the snow around them and making it circle the duo.
Amaya pushed at the water, easily making a path for herself and throwing that water back at Dawles, hitting her face. The woman didn’t so much as flinch, shifting to get a better stance. She pulled more water from around them and took her attention fully from Croy-li to focus on the Herald. Amaya pulled water of her own and swirled it into a mini whirlpool, aiming it at Dawles, who had to dodge it. The force of it hitting the third gate made the tiny needles thicken in threat to a nonexistent trespasser.
“Aimy, come on,” Croy-li tried as the girl dodged a water ball. Dawles was playing with her. While Amaya undoubtedly had more ability and power as the Water Herald, Dawles had spent her life mastering the element and the past thirty or so years as a Rager, the highest class of learned elementalist. She had always held back, blatantly so, when teaching Amaya because she didn’t trust her. Amaya was only proving her right, and Croy-li wished she wouldn’t. “We need to get home before Soda and Blu come looking,” he reminded her.
That made her pause long enough to be hit in the side by an icicle, though luckily not the sharp point. He hadn’t realized that water included control of ice, and the surprised look on Amaya’s face told him that she hadn’t either.
“You have a lot to learn before you can take me, much less our king,” Dawles stated. The second gate reopened to let them out. “Now leave.”
They did just that.
Christein was scoping out the crowds again. He knew it wasn't necessary. Those that knew his face wouldn't be interested in what he was doing—unless they saw Amadhay, of course, which he was pretty good at avoiding. And then those that would be interested in what he was doing wouldn't know his face. That was the great thing about invisibility.
When he got back to the table, both Amadhay and Ben were absent. It didn't take too much thought to recognize that they were probably together. Even though it irritated him that the girl would ditch him, even for a short while (which he knew it had to be considering she hadn't said anything to him and she wouldn't leave without saying something to him), with Ben, he recognized that it only made sense to let her have her time with the phantom as well. He knew that she had a strange kind of relationship with the man, even if she refused to admit it beyond that short time when Ben had been truly dead, that verged on a possibly romantic relationship. It was only fair that she spend time with him before the two of them went off for Goddess only knew how long. Especially since, even if he died on the mission, it would take a necromancer out in space to keep Ben from coming back to her, which pissed him off.
He wasn't the only one she would miss and he needed to come to terms with that. Especially since he was denying himself any untoward feelings for his little cousin.
So with the two of them out of the picture, Christein didn't much feel like sitting around and eating by himself. He had only wanted to get food to be sure that Amadhay ate something. So instead, he crowd-gazed, checking out the different people milling around the shopping center. There were groups of blunderlusters in abundance, especially ones wearing brightly colored clothes and talking louder than anyone had any right to do in such a crowded, public place. They were joking around, playing with each other, running back and forth and disturbing the peace, but in such a way that most of the older patrons simply smiled benignly after them.
He'd never been able to have that sort of freedom. He'd only had a few friends when he had been their age, and the sorts of friends he'd had wouldn't have been going out in public and playing around. They had, almost expressly stayed in caves, learning of the Old Ways and making plans against his father. Those had been his blunderlust years. He hadn't been like Hynnkel, who'd had a friend almost from the moment he had been born to wander around with and make idiotic mistakes that would just be excused as blunderlust. He'd been held to a different standard from birth.
Just thinking about that made him angry. Angry with his brother, his father, the happy teenagers, even Amadhay, whose freedom was always so distracting to him at the worst of times.
His eyes caught sight of a familiar pair of teenagers. There was Amaya, Amadhay's nearly identical sister, and her closest friend, the Prince Croy-li du Kay. The two were on either side of a young, dark-skinned girl with thick hair in matted coils. Neither of them had noticed him yet, which he counted as a blessing. The last thing he wanted was to gain the attention of the girl who could make this relatively relaxed and enjoyable trip into a horrible nightmare. The last time he had seen his younger cousin, she had shot him. He didn't really want to see what she would do this time.
Casually, he stood up from the table, leaving his bags. He sneaked easily to the corner of a food stand, slouching so that he would blend in with the shorter people of the crowd around him. He kept a close eye on Amaya, determined to get far enough way that she wouldn't spot him.
“So, the bathroom's over there,” his cousin told the little girl in a much too loud voice, pointing to the same bathrooms Amadhay had gone to. He should warn her. “Do you need me to go with you?”
The little girl gave Amaya a look to tell her that the suggestion had been unwarranted. “No, Lady May. I can go to the bathroom alone. I promise.” She hugged a small, rather ugly doll to her chest before smiling a wide smile at the teenagers and dashing off to the bathroom.
Amaya rolled her eyes and glanced at Croy-li. “Don't give me that look. I know Ten told me to go with her, but I didn't feel it was necessary, okay?”
Croy-li rolled his eyes right back at the girl. “Just know it's your funeral.”
“Oh come off it, what could happen to her in a bathroom?”
“She could fall in?” the dark-skinned teenager jokingly suggested before rolling his neck and running a hand through his dyed-teal hair. “How long do you think it'll take Tenshu to get her a present?”
“Forever and a day,” Amaya replied. “You know he's probably going through every toy store here to find something perfect for her. Or a bunch of things perfect for her.”
Tenshu. Tenshu Tanhakinshu was here, in this mall. Christein smirked and, with a certain feeling of predestined inevitability, he pulled the slip of dark fabric, his mask, from his back pocket and pressed it to his face, feeling the familiar magic form to his face and conceal his identity. This would be an excellent time to get a little revenge on the necromancer. He and his partner had been a giant pain in his butt for the past year. Between killing Ben, kidnapping Amadhay, beating him unconscious, threatening the three of them, and just being nuisances in general, he wanted to give Tanhakinshu a taste of his own medicine. A time when he wasn't with his partner seemed like the best chance he was going to get. And he knew that the necromancer's vampire partner wasn't around, because Melani had just reported last spotting him Over the Water yesterday, during his debrief on her mission there.
He looked up to the second level of the mall, where the toy stores were all located. If the necromancer was attempting to buy a toy for the little girl, then he was sure to be up there. With ease, Christein fell into his invisibility Gift, knowing that even with his mask, that his irregular height and tell-tale limp would give him away long before he could find the other man otherwise. He walked right past his little cousin, who continued talking to the prince as though she had no worries in the world. Deftly avoiding running into other people, Christein limped up the stairs to the second level and searched for a head covered in auburn hair. Auburn wasn't a common natural hair color for Roadesian natives, and considering the hair trends seemed to be bright, unnatural colors, he felt pretty sure that he'd be able to find the necromancers by his hair.
The first three toy stores were a bust. There was no trace of the man, not even a hint of his necromantic abilities to indicate he'd been there in the past ten clacks. Christein had almost resigned himself to using a tracing spell when he caught a glimpse of long, straight, auburn hair turning a corner. Forcing himself through a group of aelfe around Amadhay's age and making them look around, spooked and yet excited, he quickly followed the hair around the corner.
And there he was. Tenshu Tanhakinshu stood at the window of a toy store, eyeing the display with a strange intensity. He had his arms crossed over his narrow chest and his hip cocked the way Amadhay did when she was in thought. His narrowed eyes were focused on a set of porcelain dolls, a variety set of different ethnicities. One, Christein noted as he sneaked closer to the man, taking care not to let him know he was there, looked surprisingly like the necromancer, with long auburn hair in a ponytail, green eyes, and olive skin. It even wore a necromancer's seal on its black dress. Tenshu nodded to himself just as Christein made it close enough to touch him.
“Definitely that one,” the man muttered to himself just as his DS went off. He answered it. “If you're calling to tell me you lost Semi, I will kick your ass,” were his first words to the other person, but they were drowned out by screams. Tenshu jerked to a straight-backed position, listening carefully. “Cole, slow down. I can't hear you. Where are you?” he called loudly into the DS, turning from the shop and straight into Christein.
Christein turned visible as Tenshu was knocked back to the floor by his own force. The smaller man looked up at him in horror as Christein smirked cruelly. “You have something of your own to worry about,” he taunted.
Tenshu looked around, assessing the situation for a moment, before moving forward into a crouch. “Really, Christein? You honestly think you can take me on your own?” he scoffed, making Christein angrier.
The taller man clenched his fists, ready to attack him, but the necromancer was faster. With an incredible ease, Tenshu swept his hand up, as if swatting at Christein and though the gesture didn't touch Christein, the blast of black magic did. It slapped Christein away and into the railing of the banister separating the second level from the air above the first level. Christein hit with a sickening sound, telling him that something had probably broken. He gave a soft groan, pushing himself up on his elbows and watched as
the necromancer got to his feet.
“I'm here, I'm coming. I'll be down in a click,” the necromancer assured the person on his DS. “What? She what? Shit.” Tenshu didn't notice Christein standing and following him as he picked his way through the crowds. People were moving in masses in the same direction as him, pushing against him. “Don't let her move or the spell will increase, do you hear me, Cole? If you let her move, it will get worse.”
Christein was gaining on Tenshu, his appearance making it easier for him to intimidate those around him into moving and less likely to push back against him when he shoved them out of his way. His ribs hurt, and that was a major motivator to getting him after the other man. He wanted reparations for all the pain the necromancer had put not only him, but Ben and Amadhay through in the past year. He hadn't been able to do anything for her while she was with the Palnoki, especially since every time he'd come close, the damned necromancer had shown up and nearly killed him. But now? Now he could certainly get some sort of payback when someone needed him and he wouldn't be able to help because he was too weak.
He caught up with Tenshu at the bottom of the stairs. The necromancer seemed to know he was there, because the man turned at the last click, but it was still too late, because Christein grasped him by the throat and slammed him down, onto the stairs. He put too much force into it, and it knocked the breath right out of the necromancer, slamming his head against the corner of a step. Tenshu winced, the reality of the attack hitting him slowly. He clawed at Christein's hand, trying to get enough breath into his lungs to speak.
The aelfe clenched his hand even tighter, a sneer taking to his face as the necromancer began to turn a shade of blue to tell him that the asphyxiation was taking a very real toll in his body.
“Le...t go,” Tenshu managed in a whistling whisper, weakly snapping his fingers.
At the snap of his fingers, Christein felt a jolt, almost like lightning running through his veins and jumped back, letting go of Tenshu. The younger man gulped in air, gently touching his throat as the aftereffects of his curse rushed through Christein's body. The aelfe trembled for a few clicks, giving the necromancer time to refocus, grabbing for his DS.
“Cole, is she still alright? Croy-li?” Tenshu made it to his feet just as Christein recovered from the curse. Both of them heard a harsh, angry cry that sounded alarmingly similar to Amadhay’s voice. Tenshu wavered on his feet as he tried to run in that direction, pushing himself against the stair’s railing and stumbling awkwardly. All Christein could assume was that the necromancer was having a hard time getting himself back to normal after nearly being strangled.
Although he kept his ears attuned to Amadhay’s voice, Christein kept his focus on the necromancer. He refused to let the man go, even if it meant not helping Amadhay. Making sure that he could never touch her again was far more important than checking on her when she had Ben to keep her safe if she needed it. He doubted she needed any help. Truth be told, he had very little doubt that the necromancer was in fact, trying to save someone from her.
With that in mind, the aelfe focused inwardly, keeping his eyes tracking Tenshu, who was closing the distance between the stairs and the oversized fountain that separated the shopping area from the food court. He only had one chance to do this, one chance to catch the necromancer with enough magic to incapacitate him long enough for Christein to catch up and dole out the last, painful, blows. The necromancer was far superior with magic, but Christein had quite a bit more brute force and that roughness to his power was what was going to help take him down.
Christein could feel his magic gathering in his hands, could see the darkening of his skin from dark olive to brown as he lifted them and aimed at Tenshu, muttering the incantation as quickly as he could. The necromancer made it to the fountain just in time for Christein to easily plant a target right on his back. “Boom,” the chameleon aelfe said, using his trigger word to shoot dark brown from his hands and into the other man’s back, hitting him hard enough to knock the younger man into the fountain headfirst. It immobilized him as Christein limped as quickly as he could to get to him. Mentally, he counted the clicks as they passed, knowing that he had thirteen before the spell faded away. 4…5…6…7…8
One brave little man tried to stand between him and his prey. Christein didn’t even give him more than a quick look, his eyes flashing red to tell the man that he had no chance. It didn’t stop the man from attempting to tackle Christein away. His tail lashed forward and smacked the man away faster than he could take another step, making Christein smirk. 11…12…13.
He wasn’t quite to the necromancer when his curse ended, but he was close enough that Tenshu was only able to push out of the water and hack out several coughs, trying to get the water out of his lungs, before Christein landed a blow to the back of his head in time with a loud explosion from the other side of the fountain. Tenshu drooped forward in the water, barely keeping his nose and mouth above the water while Christein paused, considering leaving him here and checking on the other side, but a loud, strange laugh that was definitely Amadhay’s confirmed that all was fine. Instead, he focused him attention back on Tenshu, who had managed to lift his upper body and turn so he wasn’t lying face-first in the water.
His auburn hair floated in the water beneath him as he took in labored breaths, trying to focus his eyes on Christein. The lazy focus of Tenshu’s eyes told Christein that the necromancer was only barely holding on to consciousness. He punched him again, and was unpleasantly surprised when the necromancer tried to shock him again. Luckily, the power behind the attack was waning and it only felt like a minor shock, not the full intravenous lightning he had dealt with before. Unluckily for Tenshu, it only served to make Christein angrier. Grabbing the front of the necromancer’s shirt, he lifted him into the air and slammed him into the statue of an ancient Ora ruler, hard enough to put cracks into the rock. Now, instead of just spewing from the statue’s palms, water was dribbling from the cracks and there was red staining the light color. Red that had to be Tenshu’s blood.
Christein grinned savagely. “Looks like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he taunted the necromancer, who seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes open. “Here, let me help you with that.” He tossed Tenshu back into the water and watched with a strange glee as the man struggled to sit up above the water. He was failing. His head kept falling under the water and the abject terror in his green eyes only served to make Christein more excited. He limped through the water, toward him, only to be stopped by a body flying into his path, through the statue.
The contained pandemonium broke out all around him and now that his focus was off of Tenshu, he could see that everything was quite a bit more problematic than he had thought. People were running around, screaming and hiding. A few bystanders even seemed to be injured, though he was almost positive it wasn’t from his battle with Tenshu. The statue was completely destroyed, there were abandoned bags and food everywhere.
The body that had been thrown through the statue was Ben. And on the other side of the water spout that had once been a statue, were both of his little cousins, the Prince du Kay, and the little girl. The little girl lay at the edge of the fountain, obviously unconscious, with Amaya next to her, struggling to stand in front of her. Amadhay was standing with her back to him, facing off against du Kay, a strange red and black speckled aura coating her and thankfully hiding her physical attributes from any onlookers that had yet to already flee. He could hear the sirens of the Local Force coming closer.
He glanced at Tenshu one last time, before realizing that getting a few more hits in to an already dead man wasn’t worth the chance of being caught by the Local Force. “Ghost Sparrow,” he snapped at Ben, who was slowly getting to his feet. Ben snapped his attention to him. “Erase evidence of us,” he ordered the phantom, who immediately looked ready to argue, his eyes on Amadhay.
“I will get Red Robin,” he said through gritted teeth, already making his way around the spout and toward her. He didn’t look back to Ben, simply expecting him to do as he ordered. While he didn’t have any higher ranking than Ben, he was supposed to be the leader of their upcoming mission, which he used to give him leverage this once.
“Red Robin,” he called, trying to get her attention away from the Prince, who looked as if he wanted nothing more than to get to Amaya and the little girl, not fight Amadhay more.
Her code name did nothing to get her attention. She cackled as she tossed a ball of strangely colored power at du Kay, who held up a small, opaque, shield, which bounced the ball right back at her. She absorbed it without a flinch. “Red Robin!” he tried again, louder this time.
She still didn’t look at him, though du Kay did. That click of inattention to her was apparently all she needed, because before either of them could blink, she was smashing du Kay’s shield against his own face, bloodying his nose. When he let go of the shield to grab his face, she dropped the shield to the ground and pulled her arm back, letting her power cover her fist.
She’s going to kill him, Christein realized just before she let her fist fly.
Before it could hit, however, Amaya, who no one had been paying attention to, knocked into Amadhay from the side and both sisters fell to the ground. Amadhay reared to attack her, but almost as if an off switch had been flipped, she lost the red glow. Something was whispered between the two sisters, and Amadhay’s eyes went searching, moving away from Amaya, who fell back in a crumpled heap. For a moment, he thought that Amadhay was looking for him, especially when she relaxed at spotting him. But then her eyes moved past him, into the fountain.
Before he could follow her eyes, she was standing in front of him, panting and holding her side as if she were injured. “You should take these and leave. I’ll help Benjy.” She pressed their forgotten bags into his arms. He started to argue that they should both leave, but she interrupted him. “You’re noticeable. You need to leave. I’m fast. Benjy is a phantom. They can’t catch us and we need to not leave a trace, especially not in videos. I wasn’t wearing a mask. So go. I’ll catch up with you.”
There was something in her words that didn’t sit right with him, but he did take the bags from her, noting that she had given him Ben’s bags as well. She was right, in a way. He was noticeable even when invisible. If they caught sight of him, they were in trouble. She, on the other hand, was small and could get in and out easily where he couldn’t. Ben could go completely incorporeal if he needed to, he could even go partially corporeal and still get the information out that they needed.
He nodded. “I’ll wait for you at Ben’s,” he told her, and she nodded. “If anything goes wrong, you call me.”
“I know. Go.”
“Ya know, Monkey,” Amadhay started seriously, “If you grew your beard out, you would look dead on a monkey.” She smiled up at her cousin, staring fixatedly on the short, but very present hair growing on his face.
Christein sneered at her, leaning back against a wall and crossing his arms. “Aren’t monkeys supposed to be fast, physically?”
“Okay,” she conceded, “You don’t move like a monkey, but everything else is right.” She dropped onto the ground to sit near his feet with a soft huff, glancing up at his face in time to see him roll his eyes.
“Just be glad that you don’t have two different legs,” he told her, referring to the fact that one of his legs had been cut off when he was small and regenerated an inch longer than the other.
“I am,” Amadhay replied simply, staring at his feet as she decided what her next move would be. The two of them had been waiting for their target for twenty clacks so far and she was doing her best to keep them entertained, despite his best efforts not to engage with her.
He flicked her off. “Shut it.”
She gave him a sweet smile, “I’ll bite it off if you don’t put it down,” she warned him, now looking up at him as he loomed over her.
“Good thing I regenerate then, huh?” he spit on the ground only a little away from her knee, giving only the barest of smirks at her look of utter disgust. “How long are we going to have to wait for this guy?”
“Ah dunno,” Amadhay replied, scooting away from the spit with a single quick motion. She pinched his leg. “Spitting near me is unacceptable, Monkey,” she told him, trying for an imperious tone. Instead, she simply sounded whiny. To make up for it, she let out a glob of spit between his feet.
In retaliation, he gave her thigh a quick, hard kick. “Shut it!” he repeated, then, muttering more to himself this time, added, “Damn, talk about stupid people.”
Amadhay rubbed her leg, watching him thoughtfully. Ever since she had come back from Palnoki, especially after she had gone to Arne Riff to override his and Nolando’s decisions for her, Christein had been much colder to her. She was just trying to amuse them as they waited for their mark. He didn’t have to be so angry and uncooperative. He never had been before.
“For shears?” she responded, trying to annoy him this time. “Don’ be so mean tah me, monkey-breath.” She quickly stood as she spoke, not wanting to give him an easy kicking target when she recognized the irritated glint in his eye.
“You’re acting like an idiot,” he snapped. “Smart people have a right to criticize the stupid.”
He wasn’t even looking at her. Amadhay was ready to counter with ‘And how would you know, idiot?’ when he held his hand up into her face. “Here he is…”
Amadhay followed his gaze to a middle-aged human that Amadhay had been positive she had killed earlier that evening. Immediately, she knelt in the shadows, trying to blend into her dark silhouette as a smirk eased onto her red lips. This is what they had been waiting for. She watched Christein shift into the shape of their target’s knot, the one he had killed a zoot ago while Amadhay had taken care of the kids.
Watching him, she sighed, wanting to do the deed herself. It had been a while since she could really enjoy her job. If she was being honest, she really meant that it had been a while since she had been allowed to work with Christein or Benjy, which was the only time this felt right. Since coming back with such good intel on the Palnoki, all worries about her loyalty had been wiped clean and she had been able to go back to bloody and violent missions. It was the only thing keeping her sane, the knowledge that she still liked killing, and she did like killing, no matter what she might sometimes think when she was alone and thinking about Ribbon.
Regardless, knowing that it was Christein’s mission, she stayed out of the way. “Do your magic, monkey boy,” she whispered.
“Not a monkey,” he hissed at her before running up to the man. Still guised as the man’s late knot, he spoke to him as her for a few clacks, gathering information that she wasn’t privy to. She wasn’t entirely positive why she had been brought on this mission, considering it had gone so smoothly. Christein had told her that there would be difficulties because the man had bought a guard, but so far she had yet to see hide nor tail of anyone who might attempt to intervene.
Once Christein was apparently satisfied, he gave a sharp, derisive laugh that she could hear all the way back to the building, before shifting back to his own form. The man took a step back, looking around as if searching for something, before focusing back on Christein. Her cousin seemed to enjoy the man’s horror of realizing that he had been terribly misled, just before he slit the man’s throat. There was something strange about the man’s expression though. She just wasn’t sure what it was.
“What else were we supposed to do?” Christein called over to Amadhay, who relaxed from her crouch and slunk forward, brushing possibly imaginary dust from her crimson coat, black tank top and shorts. The heat of this area had caught her by surprise earlier, so she was indecently underdressed for the job, having had to ditch her normal sneaksuit to keep from overheating. The full body black outfit was now tucked away safely at a Phoegani safe house a few blocks away.
She gave a one-shouldered shrug, eyeing the body, slumped beside her cousin. Yes, that was definitely the same person she’d thought she had killed. “Make sure he’s dead. He plays really well.”
Christein scowled and knelt by the body. Taking the seemingly dead man by his hair, he slashed the head completely off at the neck with his knife. He then tossed the head to Amadhay before standing at his full height. “There, he’s dead. Let’s go.” He was already walking away from the body.
Amadhay blew her hair from her face, irritated that the wind was fighting against her symmetry, but mostly appeased by the head she held in her hands. It felt somewhat like their old lessons, when Christein would show her best ways to kill a person or toss her body parts to help her past her original squeamishness. This was her comfort zone with him.
“Monkey, you’re so cruel,” she told him with a slightly endeared smile.
She had drowned the man and then watched as his body tangled with anchors, yet he had somehow, still been alive. She wanted to look into that, because that was something she might expect of a magic-use or vampire, possibly even an elf, but not a human. Not a human who was, as far as she knew, unconnected to all of the major names and associations. Still, the brusque execution was so purely Christein that she couldn’t help but be amused and ignore her curiosity about the man. She dropped the head when Christein turned back to her.
He gave her a disarming smile and handed her his blades. “Here, have a present.”
She frowned, staring at him in confusion, taking the blades so that they didn’t fall. He was fastidious about care for weapons, especially his own, and the last thing she wanted with him in this strange mood, was to somehow damage his favorite blades by dropping them. “What?”
“She did it,” he stated as he turned away from her, thrusting his thumb over his shoulder at her and holding his hands up as two Arachin Local Force officers stormed up.
Another day, Amadhay would have loved the present. But today she was incredibly irritated with her cousin, given the way he had just played with her emotions, how he kept messing with her head so much that she wasn’t sure if she was his favorite person or someone he wanted to be rid of. She was tired and just wanted to go see Lizumeizei. Mostly thought, she didn’t want to fight two full-grown Arachins on her own, especially not the half-scorpion-man that reminded her all too much of Sha’adahk.
“Jackass,” she muttered at him before launching herself at the scorpion guard faster than any of them could react. Wrapping her arm around one of the scorpion’s legs, she hid the weapons behind the bend of its knee. Sliding the blades into her empty sleeve-sheaths, she pressed her forehead against the reinforced leg armor and then started sobbing.
“Help me!” she cried to the Local Force, who eyed her skeptically, but had yet to attack, holding his stinger up in the air but not yet poised to do harm to either aelfe. “He just killed my uncle!” The wolf-spider started toward Christein, looking from the decapitated body to the head next to Christein’s steel-toed boots. “I told him I didn’t want him and…and he assaulted me!” It only took the briefest of thoughts to add a glamour and a deep purple bruise appeared on her neck, with the bruise Christein had actually left on her thigh deepening to a black against her sandy olive skin. “And my uncle tried to stop him and he…” she burst into harder sobs, her large, now brown eyes overflowing with fake tears. “He-he killed him!”
“Banshee!” Christein swore at her when the wolf-spider attacked. He was almost impaled by one leg, but managed to get a knife right into his soft abdomen and tore down to his spinneret, cutting the spider-man open and killing him almost instantly.
The scorpion shook Amadhay off of his leg just in time for Christein to slit his throat. Amadhay brushed herself off, looking to the three bodies and mentally calculating how much time they had to leave before the Local Force sent more officer to check on the fallen arcachins. Christein grabbed Amadhay before she could say anything, slamming her back into the shadow of the building and pinning her against the wall.
“You little banshee,” he cursed at her again, his teal eyes glimmering with anger.
She pursed her lips at him. “I loves you,” she told him sweetly. “We can go now,” she added calmly. He didn’t move, so she raised both eyebrows. “Well?”
He slapped her hard enough to make her cheek hit the wall. When she looked back at him, her eyes wider than she had intended, he let go of her. There wasn’t even his normal flash of guilt or shame to accompany his loss of temper. Otherwise not moving, Amadhay carefully yawned, stretching her mouth out to try to make some of the pain go away. Besides that seemingly bored reaction, the same she had learned to respond to his father’s slaps, she took the pain stoically. Even if she wasn’t used to that kind of abuse from Christein, she was, indeed, used to it.
He gave her no acknowledgment, turning from her to glance up to the rooftops. The clicks following were silent as he walked a few paces but when she had yet to follow, he looked over his shoulder and just as calmly as she had, said, “Well? Are you coming or not?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. I was thinking about just walking around, seeing the sights while I’m here. Not every day we get to come to this little rats nest,” she told him, walking backwards. “So seeya next time,” she told him. She didn’t want him to see how much he had hurt her.
“Amadhay!” Christein’s yell of her actual name made her jerk and jolt backward. He only used it when he was surprised. “Duck, you fucking idiot!”
She turned back to him and jolted to the side just in time to avoid being hit by a micro-arrow. “Geeze, Baron, no need to be so loud,” she blustered, turning to try to determine where the arrow had come from.
He didn’t verbally warn her this time. Instead, Christein just tackled her to the ground, just in time as another one sped into the wall right where she had just been. When she let out a soft oomph from the force of his body hitting hers, he clamped a hand over her mouth. “Shut up and stay down,” he ordered. He pulled her closer to him so that they were side-by-side on the dirty concrete of the alleyway, hidden by shadow. She tried to pull away from him, her eyes scanning for any sign of their attackers, but he clamped on tighter, pressing her lips against her teeth and making it hard for her to breath when he accidentally covered her nostrils as well.
She bit his hand, making him curse lightly, and he removed it. In her ear, he whispered the things he was going to do to her if she bit him again. She completely ignored him, glaring at the arrow lodged in the wall just past her. She had better things to imagine than his threats, such as gutting whomever was shooting her with their own arrow. Had everyone completely forgotten who she was? In the past four months, she had found more people trying their luck with her than ever before. She was Red Robin. There was no way she was taking being shot at lying down. Looking at the three arrows, it wasn’t too difficult for her to see where they had come from.
“Someone’s gonna die tonight,” she sang.
When Amadhay tried to get up, Christein kept her pinned. “Idiot!” he hissed, clamping his hand back over her mouth. “Now they know we’re still here.” When she gave him a look that told him she was going to remove fingers with her next bite, he removed his hand but added, “And I hate to break it to you, but people die all the time, even without our help,” in a hiss.
Another micro-arrow shot into the shadows, as if the archer knew they were there but not quite sure where. It missed them by a foot.
“Do you want to die as well?” she snarled at him, her red eyes glinting.
Christein glanced up, as if seeing something. “No, not so much,” he answered her before standing up. He melted into the darkness of the bricks, using his second Gift to blend in with the wall quickly. “Stay down.”
Amadhay rolled her eyes as well as her body from where Christein had left her. Her hand reached out and snagged the micro-arrow sticking up from the pavement and rolled it between her fingers, waiting. She crawled almost out of the shadows, only enough for Christein to see her and become distracted. She grinned where she knew he was from the slight shift of the smooth wall when he moved.
“Get back,” he ordered. She ignored him, waiting for her chance when another micro-arrow hit the pavement only a hair away where she lay.
“Gotcha,” she whispered, jumping up. Christein reached for her, but a long, silver arrow just barely missed Christein’s head, forcing him to pay attention to his surroundings and take his eyes from her, allowing her to dart up the emergency fireway.
She kept an eye on him as he ducked back down into the shadows, visible once again, and knew when he found that she was no longer where he left her when he hissed her code name. “Red Robin!” She knew he used her full code name to remind her that they were on a mission, his mission. “I’m in charge here! You listen to me.”
She snorted, “Sometimes,” she muttered. “But not this time,” she whispered, shifting in her Gift to give herself an extra push for the running jump she’d need to make it from the smooth ramp of the fireway, onto the rooftop. It was an easy feat, through she had to tuck into a roll to soften the blow of the metal rooftop. She hated this city. The rooftops were made for people to walk across them, which meant that there was no cover when she made it there, especially with the bright light shining into her eyes.
It took her a moment to adapt to the difference in light, and when she did, she stood face to point with a micro-arrow, this one more dangerous than the last with a tranq-shaft and needle head rather than the normal magically imbued steel. Now they were trying to sedate her? She stood slowly, hands up in the air on either side.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” a mature voice told her, making her raise an eyebrow as she took in the sight of a man, most likely human if she had to guess. He had tracking goggles on, which made her grin.
“Good for you,” she stated, glancing away from him, across the rooftop. There was no one else around, but she knew that he hadn’t shot the full arrow. That wasn’t a standard Local Force weapon. It was a specialized one, and since the man in front of her was definitely Local Force, given his full black ensemble with the appropriate golden studs on his belt to indicate he’d been an officer for seventeen years, she doubted he had a pundit weapon on him. Only a recently demoted pundit member would be using the advanced micro-arrows, mostly because BI Weapons Division had only come out with that, particular, one a few months ago.
“Tell your friend to surrender and no one will get hurt.”
“Besides the two arachins and that human, right?” she reminded him with a grin, glancing down to the shadows where her cousin was being suspiciously quiet. Had he left?
“You’re still an innocent in this,” the man started, making Amadhay laugh aloud.
“Oh, that’s good. I needed that,” she joked, smiling at him. No, there was Christein. He had apparently heard her laughing and was now cursing at her. She thought she heard something about obeying order, but she couldn’t be too certain.
“Look, I’m going to make this quick for you, okay?” she smiled sweetly, and just as she was reaching for the arrow she’d stuck in her waistband, another of the long, silver arrows landed between her feet. She raised her eyebrows, looking at the officer before her.
He gave her a fake smile. “My partner isn’t as willing to just take you in as I am.”
She nodded slowly, scanning the rooftop again. “And you, you’re just trying to be a good guy, shooting an unarmed girl right between the eyes.”
As expected, that made the man lower his arrow to her chest. It wouldn’t hurt any less if he shot her there, and considering it was only a sedative, it didn’t matter either way, but it gave her a slightly better time to react. She just needed to find his partner, because even at her speed, one of those micro-arrows shot in such a short distance, and with such little room for her to avoid it, would probably hit. She saw something shift out of the corner of her eye, but it wasn’t a Local Force given there was color, so she ignored it and instead focused ahead of her. The other had to be somewhere ahead of her to have made that shot.
“Well, my partner seems to think that you’re more dangerous than you look.”
She raised her eyebrows, looking to around. “Me? I’m just having a little fun.”
He nodded down to the bodies and Christein, who was leaning against a wall, in plain sight. “That fun for you?” he asked before holding up another micro-arrow, this one with a nasty looking mixture in the shaft, dead-vampire venom. Dead-vampire venom would probably drop her in less than a second if even a drop got into her system. Apparently, he wasn’t falling for her innocent girl tricks. “Would this be fun for you?”
There, she thought, spotting something behind the closest lightbeam. That was why she couldn’t see them, because they were hiding in her blindspot. She wasn’t sure if it was luck or if they had recognized her sensitive sight to be her weakness. Either way, it didn’t really matter now that she’d found them.
Again, she smiled sweetly. “Well, I can’t say this has been fun. And it’ll probably really suck for you, but thanks for playing.”
Two micro-arrows were loosed at the same time, hitting right where she’d been standing. She teleported away, to the partner, and easily slit the woman’s throat with the sharpest edge of the micro-arrow, pausing after to stare at the blood on her neck before closing her eyes and stamping her magical three-fingered claw mark on her face to claim the kill. It was all very quick, quick enough that the man hadn’t even turned yet. She closed the distance between them in a click with her Gift and paused for a moment, the arrow lifted to his throat.
“No, please,” he started to beg, but Amadhay didn’t feel like listening. She kicked his legs from under him, making him fall backwards, not wanting to stab him in the throat. One was enough for the night. He dropped his bow and she picked it up, using the quick shoot setting to shoot him with his own micro-arrows until he stopped moving. At that point, she kicked him a few times to make sure he was truly dead before stepping back, bow still in hand.
She checked the macro holder to see that there were still a few micro-arrows in the system. With a grin, she lazily aimed and shot them in Christein’s general vicinity. None of them came close to him, but that didn’t make him less irritated.
“Red!” he yelled, and she could her how irritated he was, which made her decide to just leave the weapon and rejoin him. “If you’re the one fucking shooting me, you’re dead.”
Amadhay reappeared just out of his reach, purposely looking as sweet as possible, attempting to coax a laugh from him. “Me?” she asked innocently, hopping back when he made to grab her.
“We’re leaving now,” he ordered, glancing nervously back at the silver tipped arrow that had barely missed him.
“Okay,” she responded, not sure why he seemed so nervous. She had taken out the first responders. They had time before any more Local Force showed up and nothing to connect them to the crime given how no blood had stained their clothes. All they had to do was walk away.
“I’m not playing. Don’t make me have to carry you,” Christein warned.
She held up her hands in defense. “I won’t. I’m right behind you,” she promised. But when he disappeared, most likely teleporting back to base to report his findings, she stayed where she was. His mission was over and she didn’t have to listen to him anymore.
“What is his problem?” she asked no one, walking away from the scene. When there was only silence in response, she rolled her eyes, pushing her hair back against the wind as she made it down the abandoned block, heading for the safe house to pick up her clothes. This part of Ratigattan was always so deserted and she couldn’t help but feel like it was made for a good murder drop off, especially considering almost every job she’d had in this city had led her here. Pushing murder from her mind, she looked at her wrist DS to call Lizumeizei. It was weving night the following night and she wanted to know if she could come over sooner, like that evening, and just spend the night and day with him. She smiled when she got to the image of her cat-kin and she clicked on his icon to call him.
Suddenly, a full sized arrow zoomed past her, slicing a lock of her hair in half. She watched as it dropped down to the ground. She stared at it, feeling a stabbing pain in her chest, a tell-tale sign that something had gone terribly wrong and she was asymmetrical. She ended the call before it connected to Lizumeizei’s DS.
“I’m about to give someone a slow and painful death,” she said, glaring now at the arrow that had made her imperfect. She noted that the tip of the arrowhead was silver while the rest was a normal wood. It was definitely different from the tiny micro-arrows that had been zooming at them previously, but it also wasn’t the same silver one that had been shot at Christein either. This was made to kill, not tranquilize and capture.
Christein snickered from the shadows, becoming visible where he was leaning. He looked casual, but there was a tension in his body that made her think he was ready to run. “Bet you wish you had followed orders, huh? Little Miss Perfect ain’t so perfect now.”
“YOU ARE DEAD!” Amadhay roared, fighting both the urge to kill her most beloved cousin and the urge to find the broken hairs and tear them all out. She could fix her hair later.
Christein held both of his hands in the air so that she could see he had no arrows. “Hey, I didn’t do it,” he immediately replied, knowing how serious Amadhay might be about honestly killing him. “I know how you are about symmetry, remember?”
She did. Christein had once had the most perfectly symmetrical face Amadhay had ever seen. He had been verging on pretty. He had been the one to indulge her need for symmetry as a child because he understood it where the rest of their family didn’t. She still wasn’t completely sure what had happened, but she knew the basics of the story. Christein had propositioned one of Amaya’s servants—or friend as she truly was—because she was so cute. Blu, the girl, had decided the best way to say no was to cut his face. He was now left with several different jagged claw marks on his face, going from almost the center of his forehand and diagonally down to his ear, straight across his cheek and to the bridge of his nose, and a single one cutting right through his lip. The cat-kin had almost blinded him in his right eye. All of his symmetrical beauty was gone, instead replaced with rough skin where the scar had healed with thicker skin, making him look dangerous instead of pretty, a fact he tended to hide by brushing his hair over that side of his face.
Amadhay had a vague acquaintanceship with Blu, vague in that she worked as Amaya’s servant and thus, had been under Amadhay’s scope of interest, regardless of her being the light Herald. Honestly, the two of them had never really gotten along though there had never been any real animosity between them. There had been no real feelings either way until she had come back from the Madra job and first seen Christein with those scars marring his face. She hated anyone who could willingly ruin something of such symmetrical beauty as Christein’s face had once been. Honestly, she just hated anyone who would dare hurt her cousin in general.
Amadhay was brought back to the present danger and hatred when another silver tipped arrow sliced through the skin on her left arm. Christein was luckier, having jumped as soon as one of the arrows shot into the wall an inch from his face.
“Shit,” he muttered, glaring at it as if willing it to change.
“Whoever is shooting at me had better stop!” Amadhay warned. She hated arrows. They were always harder to avoid than bullets because they made so little sound until it was too late to move.
“Red, we need to leave. Now,” Christein ordered softly, reaching for her.
She moved away from him, squinting in an attempt to see the rooftops. It was too late for her to just leave. Someone had to pay. “I’m going to kill you either way for ruining my hair, but I may show some leniency.”
A scoff came from high up, probably where the shooting was coming from. “Ooh, so scared,” another girl’s voice rang out, tauntingly. “Scared of a hair-drama faie. Come at me then.”
Amadhay started, looking in surprise to Christein. That voice had sounded alarmingly like one she knew very well. His pained expression told her that he already knew. Before he could respond to her, two figures dropped down, with one in front of Amadhay and the other in front of Christein, separating the two.
A familiar feline-kin girl looked down sharply, her eyes glowing strangely behind a pair of goggles. She tried to fan-kick Amadhay, who easily dodged, but still knocked the aelfe down with a bright clap of light right in front of her face. There were few people who could use light in its pure form.
“Christein. I should’ve known,” a male voice hissed. There was yet another voice Amadhay recognized. She groped at the ground, trying to get back up, but someone, who she was sure was the cat-kin, kicked her back down.
“Cur,” she hissed, but waited until she could see without blotches in her vision before trying anything again.
The first thing she saw was Christein throw a punch and get blocked by a man whose back was to her, his dark hair pulled into a loose braid. “What are you doing here, Hynnkel?” he demanded, obviously pointedly trying to keep the man’s back to Amadhay. She tried to get to her hands and knees, but the cat-kin knocked her back down, this time to her back.
“Just trying to clean the streets of filth,” Hynnkel’s voice shot back, sounding disgusted
Amadhay froze, her muscles tensing. If that really was Hynnkel, and it was, then the still hidden archer most definitely was Amaya, her sister. The same sister who she had utterly betrayed nearly a year ago, before faking her own death. The same sister who had sworn that the next time she saw her without Nolando around would be her last breath. Amadhay kicked the cat-kin away from her and another silver-tipped arrow hit the ground alarmingly close to her head.
“Don’t you hurt my Blu-belle!” Amaya called out.
She caught Christein looking past Hynnkel, to Blu, who stiffened when she glanced up and caught him. Amadhay’s eyes narrowed as she managed to kick off of the ground and up to her feet, never taking her eyes off of the auburn haired girl. In that instant, the thought of just teleporting away completely disappeared from her mind. She now had the chance to deal with Blu, the “cute cat-girl” who kept catching both Benjy and Christein’s attentions. She recognized her in a recognition of scent and coloring way, since puberty had definitely hit her hard, carving an attractive, pale, round face with pink lips, long, muscular legs, a chest larger than her own, and generous curves that never for a moment made her look anything close to cute. She wondered if Benjy would still call the catgirl cute when she was dead. She shot up and at Blu faster than anyone else could move.
Anyone other than Hynnkel, that is. She always forgot his ability to stop time. Suddenly Hynnkel was between them, his reaction time faster than anyone she had ever met, with his lips pulled back in a vicious snarl. “Leave her alone!” he growled.
Amadhay stopped short, her hair going forward into his face. “Woah,” she said softly, wondering how aware he had to have been of the entire situation to know what she had been about to attempt. No one had ever been able to stop her when she used her gift to full capacity, not since she had found the ultimate speed Sha’adahk had been trying to train into her. The wind suddenly stopped, making her hair fall.
“Kitty’s got bite,” she joked with a smirk before punching Hynnkel in the chest with a glowing red hand. He went falling back into Blu even though she was sure that she had only been able to graze him. The shape of her fist was scorched into his shirt, but it hadn’t burned through the fabric, meaning it hadn’t touched his skin. She faltered when his eyes widened, studying her face and she became aware that she wasn’t wearing her mask. It, like all the rest of her sneaksuit, was at the safe house. This wasn’t the first time in the past few months that she’d made this kind of mistake. It was the first time that it could really hurt her.
“Mayday?” Hynnkel spoke, staring up at Amadhay in stunned disbelief. Amadhay quickly looked away from him, hoping he would convince himself that she wasn’t herself, just as another arrow sliced through her hair.
At the sound of a thud, Amadhay glanced back in time to see Amaya hopping from the roof, onto a fireway across the street from her. Her sister chose another one hiding place in the shadows, closer this time, but Amadhay kept her eye on her, easily seeing her in her bright colors through the darkness of the poorly lit street.
“Step away from them, or the next arrow will be in your forehead,” Amaya ordered. She turned her bow at a slant and added another arrow. “And Christein. So nice to see you. Move and you’ll get one in your shoulder. ‘cause you’re family.”
Amadhay rolled her eyes, glancing back to Hynnkel, who still hadn’t taken his eyes off of her. “I can move faster than your arrows, idiot,” she snapped, glancing back to Amaya just as Blu pounced from behind Hynnkel, pinning her to the ground. She mentally cursed at herself for her inattention as her head hit the pavement.
“Good luck with that,” Amaya retorted sarcastically, and Amadhay watched her feet come forward, out of the shadows so that she was completely visible. “Hynnky. You okay?” she asked, making Amadhay glance at him again. He was still on the ground, his back to Christein, whose eyes were on Amaya and her bow. He had an easy target, but Amaya never missed, so she hoped he wouldn’t attempt anything.
“Fine,” Hynnkel spat to Amaya, standing up. He clenched his jaw as he gently pressed his fingers where Amadhay had punched him and bits of fabric fell away under his fingers, revealing his unmarked chest. He didn’t move any closer, but he looked down at Amadhay with a constrained anger. “We thought you were dead,” he accused her. She squirmed under Blu, the superior weight of the cat-kin keeping her effectively pinned, and considered putting a last click glamour up, but recognized that it was already too late. “Where have you be—”
Christein interrupted him by plunging a knife into Hynnkel’s side. “Shut up, you piece of shit.”
Amadhay and Blu both moved at the same time. Blu sat up, forgetting to hold onto Amadhay and instead turning to help Hynnkel. She didn’t get anywhere however, because Amadhay pulled one of the blades Christein had given her from the sheath in her sleeve and stabbed Blu in the back, aiming for the spine but just missing when an arrow came at her and she had to move. She shoved Blu off of her and rolled away to miss being shot. She felt a second arrow just barely miss her face as she rolled to the wall.
Blu cried out and dropped down, falling onto her side. Amaya didn’t say anything, but another arrow flew at Amadhay, nearly hitting her as she forced herself to her feet. Hynnkel tilted his head back, gritting his teeth as he fought Christein to get the serrated blade out of his side. He could have easily used any of his Gifts to beat Christein back, but his focus was on getting to Blu, not fighting his brother anymore and that gave Christein the upper hand. Amaya wouldn’t shoot at him, not with Hynnkel that close. She might have been able to shoot him, but it was far more likely that Christein would use his brother as a shield if she did.
Christein tugged the knife out and glanced at Amadhay, who was pulling a second blade out as she used her Gift to avoid another of Amaya’s arrows, “Finish her off now, Red,” he ordered, stabbing Hynnkel again, but not able to get it as deep this time, now that Hynnkel was expecting it. “While Hynnkel’s down!”
The brothers struggled and then Christein’s back was to Amadhay. She moved from the wall and then had Blu by the hair, holding her just so that she could use her as a shield against any of Amaya’s arrows. Immediately, the arrows stopped coming, which allowed Amadhay to focus on the cat-kin. Before that, though, she made eye contact with Amaya, pulling her friend’s head back so that she could see the fear in both of the girl’s eyes. Looking down to Blu’s pained face, Amadhay felt a warmth that always came with this. Blu was panicking and forgetting everything she could be doing, which made Amadhay smirk. She loved that look, the moment of absolute fear right before she killed someone, when their entire body was giving the acknowledgement that it was the end for them.
Amadhay had the knife to Blu’s throat hard enough to draw a line of blood on the girl’s porcelain skin. She gripped the knife harder, staring at the line, feeling her breath quicken. She tensed her muscles to slit her throat, but paused again, just long enough to miss her chance.
“Now, Amaya!” Hynnkel barked, making Amaya loose arrow after arrow, the first one embedding itself into Christein’s shoulder.
At Christein’s cry, Amadhay dropped Blu, turning to see what had happened to him. She stood staring at the arrow in his shoulder long enough that she just barely missed getting an arrow shot through her hand. She dropped the knife and moved away from Blu, as the barrage of arrow was forcing. Amaya was trying to force her back against the wall, but Amadhay didn’t let her, instead using her Gift to speed through the arrow and to Christein’s side.
“Sorry, Baron,” she whispered, keeping Hynnkel, Amaya, and Blu all in her vision. Amaya notched another arrow and Amadhay knew that this one was aimed at her eye. If she allowed herself to, she could take out Amaya easily, but she wasn’t going to, and that made the entire situation incredibly dangerous for her and Christein because her sister didn’t have the same hold back. She ignored Hynnkel as he tried to tug Christein’s knife from his side, deciding that he was no longer a threat. Her only worry was getting Christein safe from the arrows. Hynnkel and Blu were distracted with their own hurts, but Amaya wasn’t. “But our lives come before ending hers, and that archer is dangerous.”
Christein gestured angrily towards Amaya, who was slowly but surely coming closer to them.“It’s just Amaya. You know sh—”
Suddenly Hynnkel’s short sword was all the way through Christein. Amadhay hadn’t even seen him pull it, much less get close enough to them to cut Christein down. Christein dropped when Hynnkel let go of the sword, falling to the pavement with his face making a horrible crack against it.
Hynnkel pinned Amadhay against the wall before she could so much as breathe, his hand around her throat. He didn’t squeeze, but there was something in his eyes that she’d only seen once before, when he’d been cursed. He didn’t say anything, only stared at her with a strange shadow in his eyes.
“What is it with men pinning me against walls today?” She tried to sound brave, but all she could think was Oh Goddess, Monkey. Is he alright? He’s regenerating, right? It will heal, right? He’ll be fine, right?
He slapped her hard enough to make her cheek hit the wall. It was the opposite cheek that Christein had slapped earlier and this slap made her eyes tear. Before he could react, her grabbed her face and turned it so that she was looking at him again. “She had better not be dead, Amadhay. And don’t pretend you’re not Amadhay, because I know you are.”
“Hynnky!” Amaya called from where Blu had fallen. Amadhay and Hynnkel didn’t look away from each other, though Amaya’s voice did seem to make the shadow back away and his mahogany eyes were a little softer, but still angry, still dangerous. “The stab was off. She’s bleeding pretty bad, but it’s not fatal if we get her to Squirrel.”
She tried to punch him in the side where Christein had stabbed him but he caught her hand with ease. “If Red Baron is dead,” she hissed when he slammed her hand against the wall. “I will start with Goggles, go to Archer, and then save your death for last.” Even as frightened as she had to admit she was, she was serious with the threat. She didn’t care that she had promised herself that she would never hurt Amaya again. She couldn’t see Christein over Hynnkel, but she thought she could just hear his wet breaths. He wasn’t crying out anymore, and she didn’t know what that meant.
“If you kill those two, I will take your fucking soul,” he threatened her, the shadow coming back full force and a strange red began to take over his eyes.
Amadhay watched the red with no fear. “I don’t have one left to take,” she stated simply, remembering the last thing Hlala had said to her. You are so covered in bad that your astral is almost gone. You’re barely even alive anymore. What happened to you?
Hynnkel leaning into Amaya until the red coated his entire eyeball, unlike her own simply over her irises, was all she could see. Images began playing through her mind.
There was a baby, a beautiful little girl with olive skin and a head covered by curly, black hair. She was suddenly aware it was her. There was a smoky fog reaching for the baby, crooning for her to help it. The baby reached out and a dark shadow smothered her hand, tried to follow the little hand up to her tiny face until she opened sky blue eyes. It dropped away from her.
The image disappeared and she stared at Hynnkel for less than a click that seemed like an eternity before another image hit her.
It was Amadhay again, a little girl dressed in all pink, the color of the soul Splinter, for a funeral. She had been to so many funerals, but this one was the funeral of her parents, she was suddenly sure. She stared at the ashes as they were thrown into the air. She wasn’t crying, but staring. Christein stood beside her, holding her hand. “It’s alright if you wanna cry,” he told her, but wouldn’t look at her.
She had simply stared at the ashes. “Why would I cry? Everyone dies.”
She took a deep breath and tried to fight away from Hynnkel, but she didn’t get anywhere.
Little Amadhay stared at a bird whose wing was broken. Hynnkel’s voice came out. “We can take it to the healers.”
She frowned and looked at him. “But then the snake won’t get food.” She pointed at the large snake slithering toward the frightened creature. She smiled. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
“Stop it,” she started to cry.
An older Amadhay lay in her bed, her head on top of a book of spells. She was muttering learned words in her sleep, summoning words. “Darelevan,” the dark voice whispered to her sleeping form. She kept muttering and a red fog started toward her. It was on her lips when her eyes snapped open. The sky blue was beginning to get a hint of red. She looked around, but the red fog was leaving her.
She focused all of her power on the words she needed. She couldn’t say it, because he had a feeling that speaking the curse aloud wouldn’t do her any good, she needed it at its full strength. The red eyes regarded her with amusement.
“You are mine.” The words echoed.
“Hynnky, she’s doing something weird…” Amaya warned.
A purple mist was beginning to form around Amadhay. She was determined to get out of this. The red eyes regarded her for a moment before Hynnkel’s lips slammed against hers. Amadhay gasped and Hynnkel opened his mouth. Amadhay felt herself choking on something, something shoving its way inside of her but she couldn’t stop it.
“What are you doing!” Amaya yelled, tugging on Hynnkel.
The last dregs of whatever Hynnkel had given her caught in her throat, but went down as Hynnkel was pulled back by Amaya, who was suddenly given the task of holding up the man who was a foot taller and close to twice her weight.
Amadhay stumbled away, falling to her knees. She could see Christein. Someone, she supposed that it had probably been Amaya, had removed the sword from his body. There was so much blood.
“A…Amadhay?” he whispered, opening his eyes only a bit. He coughed up blood.
Amadhay crawled to him as Amaya got Hynnkel to lean against the wall. Amadhay wrapped her arms around Christein gently, nuzzling her head into the crook of his neck. She held in a scream when a new arrow pierced her back.
Christein moaned. “Amadhay, I, I can’t hold on.”
“It’ll be okay, Monkey,” she promised softly as she teleported them away.