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By the time the seer reached the tavern, it was already well into the night. Stars had risen, hidden from his eyes, and this deep in the city their song was unnaturally quiet to him. Every so often a whisper from above would reach him as it slipped through the vrael’s grip, and he smiled, comforted by their words.
His legs trembled with blood loss as he consulted his memory, ensuring that he had reached the right place, going over his mental map of the city, which he had memorized weeks before. Concentration came harder than it should have—the wound inflicted by the demon was deeper than he had initially thought, and with the vrael, there was little he could do to fix it. It was fortunate enough that he had found the tavern at all among the countless shops and establishments lining the streets. Surely this was it, just as he had seen in his dream, with a sign laced with atriel so faint he could barely make out the word: Horsekick’s.
Feeling for the door latch, he turned the knob, and with a soft click, the door creaked open. Low voices from the few patrons who had not yet succumbed to the night emanated from within as he stepped inside, tapping ahead with the borrowed broom handle. Moving to the fire he cast off his hood, gazing around the room with unseeing eyes.
“Dyrius!” came a shout that caused the seer’s face to erupt into a smile. A familiar hand closed on his shoulder.
“Rearden, my old friend! How is it that I find you holed away in a common tavern in Querkus?”
“Common tavern?” Rearden roared. “You’ll find we have the finest ale east of the Aries River!”
“Because all that’s left before Cryson otherwise is Cratus, and its drinks might just as well poison you.”
Then Rearden grimaced, seeing the blood that had begun to pool at Dyrius’ feet, at first unnoticed in the dim light of the tavern.
“Dyrius, what’s happened to you? Quick, come into my study. I’ll have that cut wrapped up proper.”
Once the door was closed, Rearden’s voice dropped to a whisper.
“Are you mad? What brings you here? A seer coming here is a death wish. Have you gone completely blind? I don’t know how you made it.”
“I am here on most urgent business that cannot wait. Rearden, it’s time. It’s time the boy knows, you can’t keep him holed up forever. Though finding you was near impossible. And stop waving your hand in front of my face. I may not be able to see it but I can feel it.”
“He’s not old enough yet. This is the only place where he’s safe. The vrael keeps him hidden and any mischief—or worse—out.”
“Rearden, now is the time. We have seen the visions. We have read the stars. He is needed. The Shadows are hunting, and he will not stay safe forever. If a blind man can find you, rest assured they can. Even with this mess of vrael, so thick that it makes my skin crawl. You would think after hundreds of years the dust would have washed away, but it’s here sure as I am blind. Cursed stuff. The sooner I am rid of this city, and with the boy, the better. Where is he?”
“Not here. Running errands.”
“Come now, Rearden, when dawn is only a few hours away? Are you trying to make sure he’ll never reach adulthood?” Then Dyrius gasped as Rearden unfastened his makeshift bandage, letting it fall to the floor, where blood splattered out of the fabric.
“Dyrius, how did you get this? And where did you find a guard’s cloak to bandage it with?”
“Demons,” Dyrius answered through gritted teeth. “They’ve infiltrated the wall guard. Had to kill two just to get in.”
“In the city? Impossible!” said Rearden, his hand reaching up to stroke the scar on his face. Regardless, where there are two, there must be more. Have you considered that you may have stirred the hornet’s nest? You could have been followed! Has your mind gone blind as well?” Rearden’s voice amplified, thick with anger.
“No one saw. As I said, the sooner we move the better. Tonight. Demon wounds fester horribly, and I’d like to have a healer look at it soon.”
“The city is full of healers. Take your pick.”
“You know full well healers here have little to no power over this. And that’s beside the point.”
“Either way, he won’t be back for another half hour. You may as well rest. Here, take a drink, and I’ll see what can be done about your wound. It’s bad, but I’ve seen worse. And the drink will take it off your mind.”
Dyrius took the cup from Rearden, and as he took a sip, the liquid warmed him, replenishing some of his depleted strength and calming the shiver that coursed through his body.
Outside in the dark, a lone city guard prowled the streets. He stopped, sniffing the air, then bent and reached down to touch the worn walkway. Two of his fingers came back glistening in the moonlight and he brought them to his mouth, tasting it.
Blood. The same blood that littered the corpses of his two brothers when he had found them an hour before. Blood that was foreign. Blood that he would soon taste again.
He flashed a row of inhumanly sharp teeth, forming a snarl. A growl escaped his bared lips, and immediately two dark shapes garbed in the city guard’s cloaks appeared at his side, summoned by the sound. They bent, dipped their fingers in the puddle, and tasted the blood, conversing with him through their putrid breath. Then they ran.
Deep underground, Cinis also ran. The corridors began to thin, and he knew he was nearing the tavern. The air began to assume the smells of the city, with rotten fruit, urine, and musk becoming prevalent. In this part of the city, many of the homeowners had taken to using the upper tunnels to dispose of trash. The practice disgusted him.
Ahead he could see the fork that would lead him either to the street entrance or to the tavern’s trap door. He turned left and ascended the short spiral staircase that corkscrewed to the surface, one he had helped Rearden build years before. The wooden trap door appeared, boards freshly replaced and smelling of pine, and he pushed it open to enter through the closet behind Rearden’s study. Two heads swiveled toward him, one Rearden’s and the other an old man with searching eyes and a gray beard.
“He’s here,” said the old man, casting a triumphant look at Rearden.
Following the boy’s footsteps had grown more difficult as Jessica neared the surface. He had obviously frequented the tunnels and his tracks crisscrossed with older sets of footprints, all the same size, all his, making it difficult to follow the most recent pair. She came to a fork and stopped, studying the criss-crossing paths in confusion. After a moment of deliberation, she turned right, following the slight draft she could feel coming from that direction.
Soon she came to a makeshift door in the ceiling. Pushing it aside, she realized it was only a crate. A blast of warm air brushed her face as she climbed out, its fingers playfully tugging at her hair. She tried to get a sense of her bearings, looking around for any landmarks that she might recognize. She was far from the palace for sure, in an unfamiliar section of the city. She started moving eastward, but sank into an alleyway as three large shadows danced in front of her, speaking in low grunting speech. The city at night was no place to walk alone in the open.
Shrinking behind the crate, she peered out into the street, and her chestnut eyes blended into the dark.
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