Belanflow, Late Spring, Dragon’s Accord Year 307

 

A cool subtropical breeze caressed Farel D’eksem as he latched the door to the warehouse he just left. The air felt cooler than most nights this past week, but even stripped down to his chest and hip wraps, Farel hardly noticed. He scrambled up the wall opposite the warehouse door, his fingers and clawed feet automatically finding purchase on the rough stone blocks that comprised most of Belanflow’s architecture. He turned towards his target without thinking, finding his way across rooftops by instinct. Correcting errant strides and navigating safe ways across gaps between buildings was by now habitual, assisted by a carefully-honed dexterity and light, lithe build that other reytra would envy.

His mind’s eye already looked down on his target, and his thoughts mulled over the best approach for the job ahead.

From his staging area in Belanflow’s southern quadrant, he headed east. The warehouses and workshops in the south stood roughly the same height, creating an illusion of relatively flat terrain that Farel strode purposefully across, broken only by alleys and narrow canal branches that serviced this district. To his left, over the large fortification at the center of the city’s northern bank, floated the crystalline bulk of a sentinel that took its city’s name, its usual glow dimmed so the city’s residents could get some decent sleep even in the Sunthravale Authority’s capital complex directly under it. Its efforts to minimize its presence, however, did nothing to calm Farel’s nerves. On nights like this, the city’s sentinel was his greatest obstacle and enemy.

In the east, his rooftop terrain broke up, and occasionally he’d have to scramble up sides and down faces to finish his last rooftop leg before making his final approach on the ground. At last he arrived at a massive compound of smaller structures clustered around a tower near the city’s wall – those fortifications were a little over two decades new, hardly older than himself – and quietly scrambled to the top of the compound’s own smaller perimeter wall.

Though the guardhouse was near the gate, opposite the central structure from him and facing the river, he could still make out a pair of guards patrolling between the tower’s satellite buildings. Each carried a vicious-looking forked polearm, and while some thought those weapons merely for intimidation, Farel had seen what they could do firsthand. Tonight was one of the very few nights he regretted his decision to work alone; the Sunthravale Authority’s naval yard was one of Belanflow’s best-protected areas.

He crept towards a corner tower of the perimeter wall opposite the length he surmounted, then wedged against it at an angle that obscured himself from Belanflow’s sentinel. He grabbed his bow from its clip at the back of his chestwrap, freed an arrow from one of the two cylinders hooked horizontally above his tail, and adjusted the small bundles of fur silencing his bowstring. A slight snap of that string confirmed they worked as intended, so he nocked his first arrow and waited.

Flattened against the stubby tower and crouched on the reverse slope of the wall’s top, no guard noticed Farel’s presence. He eyed the patrolling pair heading between the tower and the city wall, and listened for the sound of others above their murmured conversation about recent Somark aggression. He only drew when the tower’s bulk obscured the two from Belanflow’s sentinel.

His first arrow hit its mark square in the back; he saw the shaft deflect as it grazed the guard’s spine. His comrade turned immediately, tracing its path back to Farel, but a second arrow buried itself in the base of his throat before he could cry out in alarm. From where he crouched, Farel only heard a faint hissing wheeze.

In the ensuing silence, Farel couldn’t hear any footsteps, nor could he see the other pair of guards he previously spotted. He edged along the wall’s slope until he found a section butted against a building inside the compound, then jumped down to that building’s roof, landing on the side that sloped away from the center of the city’s northern half. After dropping to ground level, he waited, again listening for movement.

Another pair approached from the western side of the compound. Farel didn’t dare peek around the corner where he waited, but could see from there the bodies of his previous victims. He nocked another arrow just before the new guards discovered them.

It didn’t take them long to come to a plan of action; the larger of the two waved the other off deeper into the compound, but as soon as that smaller one turned away, Farel’s arrow speared him low on his right side. The surviving guard turned with a shout and charged his position, and Farel ducked back behind the corner, crouching out of sight with his back to the wall and dropping his bow in favor of the weighted daggers that hung at each hip. As the guard came around, still looking for someone at eye-level, Farel drove his left shoulder – along with the dagger in his right hand, held under his left arm – up through the guard’s diaphragm. He then stepped back and swung his left arm around in a hard backswing that drove his second dagger’s heavy, flattened pommel into the side of the guard’s head, dislodging his helmet even as his skull cracked against the wall beside them.

A sergeant’s rank insignia sat just above the bottom of this guard’s badge strip. Four other guards patrolling outside then, possibly. He dragged the body further behind his cover and recovered his bow, before sprinting across the gap that formed this corner of the main track around the compound and flattening himself in a corner alongside a thrust-out entryway. He heard more guards rushing towards the sergeant’s shout, and darted around to the other side of the entryway. As he drew back another arrow, he saw two figures approaching in the heavy shadow between buildings.

The first he took in the forehead, an easy enough shot at that range, but the second was closing fast. He swore as that guard thrust his polearm at him, dodging to his right and swinging his bow out to collide with its shaft as it passed. The weapon’s head clinked against the stone building to his left, and Farel thrust out with the arrow he still held in his right hand, driving it up under the guard’s jaw. He grabbed the guard’s weapon shaft even as he crumpled to the packed earth.

He could hear more running around the compound’s track, back the way he’d came. He pulled the guard’s polearm up in front of him as he waited in the corner. Two more, it sounded like, which should be the last he’d have to deal with outside.

As soon as one came into his view, he exploded forward while bringing his weapon down in a savage chop. The blade’s serrated section, close to the head’s base, flayed open the guard’s left arm, punishing Farel with yet another cry of alarm and pain before he could draw the weapon back and thrust it into the guard’s throat. With a dead body weighing his weapon down, he had to dodge the final guard’s thrust. He managed to withdraw his own in time to catch the guard’s follow-up swing, wedging his opponent’s shaft between his polearm’s tines. A sharp wrench downward buried both of their weapons in the dirt. Farel then pivoted on his back foot, bringing his other down onto the guard’s wooden shaft to snap it, continuing his turn by sweeping his tail underneath his enemy’s legs. Releasing his own now-useless weapon, he yanked both daggers free again, and by the time he was again facing the guard, he was falling on top of him, blades-first.

When he stood again, silence fell. Farel looked up at the compound’s central tower, then down the shadowed track towards the gatehouse. With no activity discernible yet – though sure to come – he should have just enough time to get inside. He retrieved his bow, hooking it on his back once more, and looked at the eight bodies strewn across the ground. Keris would be proud.

He jumped up to grab a ledge of a nearby roof, and hauled himself atop it. He peered over the peak of the roof, into the open area surrounding the tower. Empty; the guards who would normally flank its entrance bleeding out in the dirt behind him. He dropped down into the cleared area, then jumped onto the roof of one of several levels clinging around the tower at uneven increments.

Halfway up the tower, a small balcony looked over the city wall to the east, where the Sunthra River wound its way through the surrounding forest and towards the sea several leagues away. Pulling himself onto the balcony, Farel crawled to its glass door, but saw no lights or guards within. After unscrewing its watertight cap, he fished around in the cylinder beneath his quiver at the small of his back and retrieved a thin metal plate. Inserting the plate in the gap between the door’s top and its frame, he nudged aside its latch, then slowly swung it open.

An array of small open-faced compartments filled the tiny office’s back wall. Farel edged around a desk in the room’s center to examine them. A small brass plate with numbers sat beneath each one, thirty in all. At the base of the entire structure was a tag looped over a hook, with the name of the month. He looked back to the numbered pigeonholes for the date he was concerned with. The cubbyhole in question was empty. Biting back a curse, Farel whirled to take in the rest of the room. A small clutter of paperwork sat atop the desk in the center of the room, and Farel sifted through it. The documents he was looking for rested at the very bottom of the pile.

He rolled the pages up and stuffed them in his waterproof cylinder as he strode for the door. As soon as he opened it, he froze; the sound of voices drifted up to him from below. Slowly readying his bow, he looked to either side of the tower to make sure the city’s sentinel wasn’t visible. Then he launched his first arrow towards the four guards standing among his prior victims.

His first arrow hit where one guard’s neck met his shoulder. His next deflected off another guard’s helmet to bury itself behind his clavicle, but at an unfavorable angle. This guard managed to locate Farel, and pointed up at him with his good arm before Farel could put him down for good. The other two guards took off running before he could line up a good shot.

Farel hastened back down the side of the tower, dropping from rooftop to rooftop. When he hit the ground he instinctively looked to his right; the sentinel was visible from here, a terrible beacon in the night. Grimacing, he sprinted for the building near where he first came over the perimeter wall, climbing back up it and then to the top of the wall itself. Just as he dropped down its other side, back into the city proper, a crossbow bolt whipped over his head at an angle suggesting the two guards made it to the balcony he’d just left.

Hurrying back west through the city at ground level, Farel only stopped for breath almost a mile distant. After washing his daggers in a narrow service canal, he clambered back onto a rooftop. He couldn’t make out any details of the distant tower he fled from. If the compound guards had alerted their comrades patrolling the rest of the city, no activity had reached anywhere near this far yet. Turning back west again, Farel traveled across rooftops at a much slower, safer pace.

Arriving back at the warehouse he’d left early that night, he eased open a door and slipped back inside. All his belongings were as he’d left them, in their falsely-sealed crate nestled among other random goods. He should change locations soon; he was overdue, and that his stash hadn’t been disturbed by now was mere luck. Carefully pulling up the lid’s loose nails, he opened his crate, and started shucking his gear. Now unstrung, his bow went in first, followed by his daggers. Removing the two cylinders comprising his quiver and storage last, he retrieved the documents he’d found, folded them, and placed them inside a small watertight box. This box nestled into a pouch on a belt, which he donned after slipping a tabard over his body. He replaced the lid and pushed down the nails falsely holding it on, then slipped back outside again.

Stepping out of the alley towards the edge of the city, he noticed a presence to his left just as it spoke. “Hello, Farel.”

Suppressing a start, he turned to regard the speaker. “What is it, Kav?”

Kav R’iltseh was taller than Farel, and far bulkier. At this distance Kav would be able to grab him in a single lunge and easily overpower him. Fortunately, he appeared relaxed, eyeing Farel casually. Unfortunately, his finger tapped on the business end of a crossbow that rested butt-down on the ground beside him, and his other hand held something behind his back. “Made a pickup tonight?”

Blinking in confusion, Farel replied, “How’d you know?”

Kav produced his hidden object; the overly-long arrow of a meteor bow. Rolled around its shaft was a thin piece of paper, wedged almost entirely underneath the hollow cone of the arrow’s tip. “Made some noise tonight. Keris would be disappointed; I’m sure she trained you better than that.”

Wincing, Farel slowly sidled towards a wide canal running down the center of the avenue. “Maybe. Since when was Riptide interested in the doings of other currents?”

“Since Dawn Bay got it in their heads to hoard information,” Kav replied, grinning. “We gotta air the Authority’s dirty laundry. You can make them look bad while still achieving anything you want.”

“Anything except keeping them off our backs.” Farel glanced north. The warehouse he’d just left obscured him from the sentinel’s sight.

Kav shrugged. “Take one for the rest of us, then. Everyone knows Den can handle himself.”

“Not if you guys bring the whole city down on our heads. Riptide’s reputation for trouble makes it difficult for the rest of us. You don’t need to resist so openly.”

“Call it an artform, making something beautiful of trouble. And you and me, we’ve been fellow troublemakers for awhile, huh? Tonight’s seen enough though, I think. So why don’t we be all friendly and make this handover peacefully. I’m not going home without those documents.”

“Now’s not the time for a war between currents.” Farel stopped at the very edge of the canal.

“Fine.” Kav lifted his crossbow to point it at Farel’s chest. “They’ll never know. Give ‘em.”

Farel reached for the pouch on his belt. As soon as his hand closed around it, however, he slipped back off the ledge into the canal below.

He hit the silty bottom hard, and twisted his feet in the sediment to cloud the water. As he reoriented himself and pushed off the canal’s wall at an angle for a burst of speed, he thrashed his tail to spread that cloud around. He felt a thin jet of water rocket past his shin as he pushed through the water as fast as he could swim.

Ahead, the canal he swam intersected with the Sunthra River’s channel through Belanflow. As slow as he was going – pausing every few strokes to stir up more sediment, but trying to remain unpredictable to force Kav closer for a clean shot – he was sure Kav could keep pace on foot. Even as he was trying to figure out if he’d make it in time, another bolt swished past his outstretched hand. He started counting down in his head the seconds he expected Kav to need while reloading.

He’d almost ran out of numbers by the time he felt the currents shift as he hit the Sunthra. Tilting for the surface, he breached the water near the center of the river. Even as his head broke the surface, he heard the snap of a crossbow firing.

No other sound followed.

When he turned behind him, he saw Kav standing frozen, transfixed by a tiny, impossibly bright shaft of light emanating from the crystalline form of the sentinel at northern Belanflow’s heart. Suspended exactly between his outstretched crossbow and Farel’s head was a crossbow bolt, hovering in midair. Kav’s entire body remained unnaturally stiff; only his eyes, and tongue within his open mouth, moved. His eyes flashed raw fear, and his tongue tried to form soundless words.

The fur on the side of his body facing towards the sentinel started to smolder.

Suddenly, with a sickening crackling sound, all the flesh on Kav’s smoking arm and leg flayed away, as if burned off impossibly quickly. His body soon followed, and his head after; Farel stared slack-jawed, able to make out every organ in the reytra’s torso just before they disintegrated. The charred bones left behind started falling to ash as soon as the last of his flesh had disappeared. Nothing remained.

The crossbow bolt dropped straight down into the water. Three seconds later, Farel finally looked down to where it disappeared.

He shivered uncontrollably where he tread water. Deciding against getting out – he wasn’t sure if his shuddering would worsen by trying to stand – he slowly started swimming for the canal branch that led past his home. Once more, his body navigated on its own; the scene wouldn’t stop repeating in his head. Through his shock, his other senses finally pitched in for the memory. The awful stench of cooked flesh and fur, how the sound intensified into a loud hissing, that paradoxical chill emanating from an effect that was clearly caused by heat. Each replay brought a new sickening detail.

Only when he arrived at the unassuming cluster of buildings serving as Dawn Bay’s HQ did he haul himself out of the water. His shivering had calmed by then, but Tave D’utice, standing in the main building’s doorway, immediately lost his usual expression of impersonal disdain in favor of a rare display of open concern. The tall, thin reytra moved to Farel’s side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “What happened out there?”

“They always told us.” Farel said, unable to hide a stutter. He let Tave steer him wherever they were headed; he had stopped paying attention as soon as Dawn Bay’s second-in-command touched him. “They always told us. Don’t kill where it can see you. Don’t do it, Kav.”

“Kav? Kav R’iltseh?” Tave closed the door once the pair entered the main building.

Farel nodded, once more mute. The warmth inside had trouble penetrating the chill he felt, but it made slow progress.

“Sunder’s touch,” Tave muttered. His curse earned him an abnormally harsh look from Farel.

Tave guided Farel to his room, then leaned him against the wall so gently as to be comical in any other circumstance. “The documents, Farel. Did you get them?”

Farel’s hand went to his belt. On his fourth try, he located the pouch containing the small waterproof box. He almost dropped it when he presented it to Tave.

After grabbing it, Tave looked Farel up and down. “You won’t be able to sleep, will you?”

Farel furtively shook his head no.

Sighing, Tave wrapped an arm around his shoulders again, guiding them back down the hall. “I told Den you were too young for all this. Come on, you can stay in the planning room with me tonight.”