There was, it turned out, one fairly bloody major problem with being the person who decided that challenging a whole group of armed people to a fight was a smart idea, and it was this: there were a whole lot more of them than you, and they were a whole lot better-equipped to try and hurt you.
Should’ve kept my damn mouth shut, Viola thought, sidestepping a blow which, if it’d connected, would’ve likely snapped her jawbone clean in half. She grabbed hold of the attacker’s arm as it swung past her ear, pulled down and sideways hard, and had the distinct satisfaction of feeling the other woman’s shoulder slide out of joint with a grinding pop that sent her staggering, grey-faced, towards the nearest wall.
Least I can still remember how to do that. Seb’d be pleased I got something out of those lessons before we ended up having to get rid of the tutor for being a Sinnlenst assassin. Heads had rolled in the Order for that particular breach of security – some literally so – but there’d been the odd silver lining to the fact she’d spent six months as a child getting self defence lessons from someone who’d turned out to be one of the Sinnlenst’s better hired killers.
Speaking of, what in the name of all the ancestors is going on with that lot? Last I checked, they’d not got to the stage of civil war where they were hiring outsiders to kill their own people for them.
She kicked out hard at the thug closest to her, foot slamming in between his legs with a precision which just about made up for how badly the impact jarred her spine, and, as he crumpled to the ground, took the opportunity to take a brief glance around in an attempt to gauge how the rest of the fight was going.
Amelia, unsurprisingly, was still clinging to her ladder. Most of the enemies seemed to have decided, wisely, to leave her alone – of the two who hadn’t, one was clutching a gash on her arm which was bleeding profusely, and the other was sprawled in the snowdrift at the foot of the ladder in a pose which suggested he was unconscious at best. Sabbat, by dint of still being out for the count (or, at least, doing a very good impression of it), seemed to have escaped notice so far – he’d slowly shifted himself further into the shadows of the overhanging buildings, so much so that even Viola’s dark-adapted eyes were having trouble picking him out, and she got the feeling that any of their attackers who did venture in after him wouldn’t be coming back out again.
She looked around, caught a glimpse of embroidered waistcoat in the middle of a scrum of bodies and swore, violently.
Of all the sodding ways to spend an evening, saving a bloody Sinnlenst from the consequences of his own stupidity is not high up on my damn list. But if he dies, so does any chance I have of graduating from the university – not to mention half my prospects of ever holding down a job in this city again.
“It’s your own sodding fault, you know that? Could’ve chosen to be anything else, but no, you had to go be a bloody Sinnlenst. Serve you right if I let you stew in the consequences.”
But preferences aside, she couldn’t leave him to die here. No matter how much she really, really wanted to.
“You’d better be bloody grateful,” she growled, and charged.
He really was starting to like her. Pity she was about to go get herself killed.
Slowly, painfully, Sabbat pushed himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the nearest wall of the alleyway in an attempt to keep some of the weight off his wounded leg. He wasn’t in any shape to be fighting, he was smart enough to know that much. But he also knew that, tough as she was, Cervanso couldn’t take on all of them by herself, and he wasn’t about to let another Order member get themselves killed trying to save a fucking Sinnlenst.
This is a fucking stupid idea. You’re going to get yourself killed for a girl you barely know.
Always knew I’d die young. And she’s Order. That matters, even if she did steal Archer’s shirt. And besides, Archer’d be disappointed at him if he didn’t at least try to stop her getting shivved. Or, worse, he’d be understanding.
It was meant to be a shout. Given the mess Caine’d made of his throat, it came out as barely a whisper.
It was worth a shot. Nothing for it, then.
He flicked his razor open, folding the blade back along his knuckles in a fighter’s grip, and limped into the fray.
The first inkling Viola had that she’d suddenly acquired backup was a sudden spray of red across her vision, as the enemy on the outside edge of the ring surrounding her suddenly seemed to lose interest in the fight, collapsing backwards with a crimson smile stretched across the width of his throat. As she blinked away the gore, another of the fighters dropped away, fingers scrabbling at the blood pumping from the side of their neck, and into the gap left by the two fallen bodies stepped a battered figure, one hand gleaming in the sparse moonlight that filtered down through the clouds and the snow.
For a moment, no-one moved. Then Sabbat stepped forward again, dragging his wounded leg as he did so, and turned to stand beside her, shifting position until he was leaning shoulder-to-shoulder in a way that was definitely comrades-in-arms and definitely not him using her as a convenient crutch.
Given he’d just killed two people and caused the rest to back off and rethink their lives for a minute, she wasn’t exactly minded to argue with him about it.
“Took you long enough,” she managed, after a while, because the alternative was ‘thank you’, and like hells she was letting him have that one right now.
He inclined his head to her in something which might have, if he’d been anyone else, been a very slight bow of acknowledgement, and rasped something which sounded like a question.
He rolled his eyes, grimaced, and ground out “Av’br’y?”
“Oh. Alive, I think.”
“Indeed. And, I must admit, rather indebted to the two of you for it.” Despite looking as though he’d been dragged through several thornbushes backwards, Avebury somehow still managed to generate an intolerable air of smugness. He stood up, brushing the snow off the skirts of his coat, and bowed in the direction of the remnants of the gang, who were now looking more than a little the worse for wear. “Shall we continue this another time, perhaps? Diverting as this evening’s entertainment has been, I do have a pressing engagement elsewhere.”
Smug git. If I didn’t need you alive-
“Guess you’re going to have to cancel, then,” came a voice from the back of the assembled thugs.
“I don’t-” Avebury began, and then several things happened in quick succession.
The gang member who’d spoken raised his arm, the flintlock he’d been preparing pointed squarely at Avebury’s chest. Viola dived forward in an attempt to wrestle the pistol from him before he could fire. Sabbat seemed to lose his balance as she moved and fell sideways, cannoning into Avebury and knocking him backwards into the snow.
The gun went off.
The world went white.
And Viola found herself, once again, lying on her back in the snow with someone on top of her.
This time, she was pretty damn sure the person she’d ended up under was dead. Living people tended to have more in the way of faces.
She rolled over, pushing the corpse off her, and tried very hard not to throw up.
Once she’d finished swallowing down the bile (it wasn’t that this was the worst corpse she’d seen, not by a long shot, but there was something uniquely awful about having someone’s halfway-missing face that close to your own) she sat up, shook her head in an abortive attempt to stop the ringing in her ears, and took stock of the situation.
At least I’m not dead. That’s a start.
As far as she could tell, the rest of the gang had scarpered as soon as their friend’s pistol had gone off in his face – either he’d been the leader, or they’d been smart enough to realise that a gunshot at this hour of the night would likely get the Watch called on them even in this district. As for the rest of her party…
She looked up, scanning the buildings until she found the ladder Amelia had been clinging to. The younger girl wasn’t there.
Dammit! Where did she go?
And, come to think of it, while she could still see Avebury (currently sitting in a snowbank and looking mighty pissed off about something), Sabbat seemed to have vanished into thin air.
What the-? Did they go to get help? Were they kidnapped? Did something happen while I was busy trying not to get shot?
The last thought seemed to catch on something in her head. Slowly, and with a sinking, twisting feeling in her stomach, she looked down – and saw the spreading dark stain soaking through the lower leg of her trousers.
It didn’t hurt, which surprised her. She’d expected it to hurt.
Then again, being stabbed didn’t hurt nearly as much as she’d always thought it would either, and being shot was essentially like being stabbed with a blunt, round piece of metal, which meant… that it wasn’t anything like being stabbed at all, and that she was probably going into shock.
Should probably tell someone about that.
She tried to say something – she wasn’t sure what – but her face felt oddly numb, her lips wouldn’t work, and whatever words she did manage to get out were lost in the all-encompassing ringing aftermath of the shot.
I think I’m going to faint, she thought, with an odd, clinical detachment. And, as the world spun away into the grey, she had time for one final thought. If he shot me… then who in the hells shot him?
When she woke up, she was in a bed, and the room smelled wrong.
Not wrong-wrong, like whatever had attacked her on the night she’d been trailing the Sinnlenst spy from Fest’s rooms, but wrong inasmuch as it wasn’t a place she knew – the scents were unfamiliar, layered and mushed together in a way that didn’t fit with any of the rooms in the Luciels’ townhouse or Archer’s place, or any of the Order safehouses she’d ever come across.
Where am I? And, more to the bloody point, where’s Amelia?
Opening her eyes seemed to take a good deal more effort than it should have done, but doing so quickly provided an answer to one of her questions. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one.
Oh good. A room I don’t recognise. That’s helpful.
Wherever she was, it wasn’t in one of the richer neighbourhoods. The room she was lying in was barely big enough for the bed, piled high with the kind of clutter she automatically filed under ‘lives alone, doesn’t have company over much, cares more about how easy something is to get to than how pretty it looks’. There was a battered-looking wooden door at one end, which seemed promising, and a window at the other, tattered curtains parted to show darkness and the occasional snowflake caught in the moonlight.
Haven’t been out for that long, then. Either that or I’ve been unconscious a full day, at which point I’ve almost certainly fucked up something in my brain beyond repair.
Her ears had stopped ringing, at least. And, even if everything did still sound as though she was hearing it with her head in a sink full of water, she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t, after a moment of concentration, pick out a very familiar voice coming from the next room.
Oh thank the ancestors. She’s alive. And… laughing?
For someone who was potentially being held hostage by nefarious kidnappers, Amelia sounded in surprisingly good humour – better than Viola had heard her for a while, even. As she listened, trying to ignore the pain slowly building in her leg, she heard a male voice raised in what sounded like mock alarm, followed by something that she was damn sure was a giggle from the younger girl.
Well, I’m glad she’s having fun. Wish I knew what was going on, but I’m glad she’s enjoying it. Her and… whoever that is.
Wait a moment. Poor area of town. Living alone. Male voice. Someone she knows well enough to be that open with.
Spirits and ancestors, of all the luck in the world-
“Vi! You’re awake!” The door banged open, admitting a small whirlwind of brightly coloured cloth and black curls which resolved itself into the figure of Amelia, looking a good deal more together than she had done the last time Viola had seen her. Admittedly, that’d been when she was clinging to a ladder and covered in other peoples’ blood, but since then she’d apparently found time to clean herself up and, somehow, get a clean set of clothes from somewhere. “I was so worried – are you feeling alright? I know you can heal, of course you can, but I didn’t know if you’d ever been shot before and-”
“Slow down!” Viola interjected, laughing. “I’m fine.” She wasn’t, of course. Her leg hurt like hell, she was stuck in a place she didn’t recognise, and, she was slowly realising, she had absolutely no idea what time it was and whether Amelia’s parents had realised they were gone. But like hells she was telling the younger girl that.
“You got shot,” Amelia said. She perched on the edge of the bed, scowling down at Viola. “That’s not ‘fine’. Harry said the bullet almost hit an artery.”
“Harry?” If she’d been almost certain as to the identity of the other person in the adjoining room before, that cinched it. Well, that and Amelia’s smile. “Your mysterious fiance?”
“My Harry,” the younger girl confirmed. “He’s the one who saved us.” She paused for a moment, thinking things over. “Well. He’s the one who shot the person who shot you in the head, which helped. You pretty much saved me. And Avebury. And Sabbat, probably.”
That answers that, I suppose. Though it does also raise a fairly significant second set of questions. “Speaking of – where are they?”
“Avebury’s gone off somewhere – he said he had a prior engagement, but given how distracted he looked while he was saying it, I think he was lying. Sabbat… I don’t know. By the time I’d checked that you were alright, he’d gone, and Harry didn’t see anyone aside from Avebury leaving the street.”
“Ha!” She couldn’t help herself: despite the pain, despite the confusion, despite everything else, she burst out laughing hard enough that for a horrible moment she thought she’d cracked a rib. Once she’d just about managed to get herself back under control, she wheezed “Oh bloody hells, I wish I’d seen the look on that snake’s face!”
“I don’t understand,” Amelia said, tilting her head to one side in an almost adorable mixture of puzzlement and concern. “Are you alright, Vi? Do you need me to get someone for you?”
“I’m fine, ‘melia. It’s just…” that I don’t trust your boyfriend as far as I can throw him yet, despite your assurances, so I’m really not inclined to start crowing about pulling one over on the Sinnlenst when he’s in the next room. Unfortunately. “I’ll tell you later, alright?”
Amelia didn’t look entirely convinced, but, to her credit, didn’t push it. “You’d better.” She frowned. “Are you sure you’re alright, Vi? You don’t look good.”
I feel bloody lousy, but who’s counting? “Like you said, I got shot. All I need is some rest and some food and I’ll be fine.”
“I think Harry’s got some bread and dried meat left over from supper, if you want. I’ll ask him-”
“What time is it?”
“Past midnight, I think. I heard the bells go while we were on the way back here with you, but I don’t remember what hour it was.”
“And what time are your parents meant to be back?”
“Two. Three, probably, because Papa’ll insist on walking. I don’t- oh.” Her face fell, and Viola felt a sharp stab of guilt cut through the mist of pain and fatigue fogging the back of her mind.
Sorry, melia. But it really is for your own good. “We should be getting back.”
“I know.” She sighed, ran her hands over her face, and stood up. “I’ll… I’ll ask Harry if he can drive us back. You’re in no condition to walk anywhere with your leg like that.”
“He lives here and he has a sleigh?”
“Part-owned with some friends, apparently. He said he’d be willing to drive us whenever we needed to leave. I’d just… hoped it wouldn’t be so soon.” She sighed again, turned, and left the room, shoulders slumped.
Well, I feel like a monster, Viola thought, sourly. She’d not meant to ruin Amelia’s evening quite so completely – and yes, she understood why the younger girl was upset at having to cut her time with her fiance quite so short – but dear gods, did Amelia really not understand why this whole arrangement might not be such a good idea?
Probably not, if we’re being honest. She’s in love.
And I’m almost certainly being too bloody protective. Her boyfriend saved my hide, after all. I owe him at least that.
Just wish I knew what he was doing in the area to begin with.
“And that,” Anneke finished, “is pretty much it.” They paused, looking up from the last of the books they’d pulled out during their explanation, and smiled hopefully. “Did that make any sense, or should I go through it again?”
Fest stared at them for a long moment. Then he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose (a gesture he’d unconsciously picked up from Archer), and said, very calmly, “Anneke?”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I have absolutely no idea what you’ve been talking about for the last…however long.”
“…Oh.” They looked downcast for a moment, then rallied. “Was it the bit about the leylines? I understand that there’s a good deal of debate about the exact properties of leylines and their uses when it comes to boundary magics, but I think if we follow Strand’s principles and combine them with Kolensky’s five elements, we should arrive at a workable hypothesis which would, with some tweaking, allow us to contextualise the fourth of Bevan’s structures into something more workable for a modern-day summoning. Does that help?”
“Not really,” Fest admitted. “Sorry.”
“Oh. Would it help if I drew diagrams? I’m not very good at diagrams, I’ll admit, but I can-”
“No. And explaining it again isn’t going to help either. I’m sorry.” He winced, but pushed on. “The problem isn’t the explanation, it’s that I don’t understand how any of this is going to help us deal with either the tentacle monster that’s trying to kill us or the Sinnlenst agent who’s trying to control my mind.”
Anneke blinked, and then grinned, looking somewhat relieved. “Oh! Oh, that makes much more sense. It’s not.”
“It’s not going to help us deal with either of those things. That was the explanation of how I think Foreval got around the various restrictions on summoning creatures from the Beyond, and how she could have managed to do it within the limits of the city without anyone else realising what was going on when emanations from the Outer Realms normally cause a wider ripple effect which would set off any number of wards in at least the immediate area if not the wider city as a whole.” They reached across, resting their hand on the top of yet another stack of books. “These are the ones which will tell us how to defeat her and her entity. I think.”
Oh. Good. And I haven’t even managed to get round to the reading I was meant to be doing for class tomorrow. He settled back in his chair, picked up his pencil, and turned to a new leaf in what was rapidly turning into a very full memorandum book. “Let’s get into those ones, then.” And, as Anneke picked up the first of the books on the pile and turned to the first of several bookmarks, I could really do with some coffee.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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