When Viola opened her eyes, she couldn’t see.
Her head ached, a stinging, thudding pain radiating out from just above her right ear, and one of her arms was twisted awkwardly under her body – she must have rolled onto it when she fell, or was pushed, or… whatever had just happened.
And she couldn’t see.
A breath and two heartbeats later, with panic just beginning to claw at the inside of her chest, she realised that there was something heavy and unmoving draped over the top of her. And, two breaths later, she realised what it was.
Oh spirits and ancestors. I think I just had half the life scared out of me by a bloody curtain.
It wasn’t even a particularly good curtain, as far as she could tell – it was cheap brocade, barely lined, and stank of cigar smoke badly enough that it was making her eyes water. It was also too damn heavy, and she was fairly certain the bloody curtain pole had come down with it when-
When what? I remember seeing Fest starting to move, and then Foreval looked up and yelled something, and… and then something hit me in the chest and-
That must have been how she’d hit her head. Or, at least, she assumed she’d hit her head. Equally possible someone else had hit her, but-
I’m wandering. Not a good sign, with a head injury.
Especially if Caine’s still out there.
Almost as soon as she’d formed the thought the swath of fabric just above her face shifted suddenly, as if someone had taken hold of a corner of it. She froze, breathing shallowly, willing herself still and quiet and very very definitely not a threat.
Just a corpse under here. Leave it. Leave it and go.
Caine’s scent was lingering in her nose, too blurred by the stench of smoke for her to tell if it was new or just an echo of that overwhelming avalanche of a first impression. If she shifted, would she be able to get out from under the damn curtain fast enough to escape him? Or would she end up tangled up in it like she’d been tangled in the blankets as a cub, only this time with no grandmother to save her from the consequences of her actions?
Ancestors, please. Show me the way out of this, because I don’t know what the hells I’m supposed to do.
The fabric moved again, the brocade catching on the sticky half-dried blood on her skin, and then, suddenly, it was yanked away and she was staring up at a face which was a good deal more welcome than anything she’d been expecting.
“Cervanso?” He sounded rough, but better than she felt. “That you?”
“It’s me.” She wondered for a second why he’d needed to ask. Then she blinked, and, as the rest of the ballroom came back into focus, realised exactly why. “What the hells happened to the lights?”
“Fucked if I know.” He scrubbed a hand over the dried blood coating his own face, suddenly looking as tired as she’d ever seen him. “Archer’s brat did somethin’, an’ then everythin’ went t’hell.”
‘Archer’s brat’? Oh hells. “Fest!”
“Don’t know, not here. Ain’t seen Caine or Foreval either.” He coughed. “Can you move?”
“If you give me a hand to get this damn thing off me, yes. We should-”
“Get out of here before some fuckin’ idiot lights a match,” Sabbat finished, grabbing hold of one edge of the curtain and dragging it sideways just enough for her to wriggle her way free. “Whole room full o’ broken gaslights, all it takes is some bastard thinkin’ t’light a candle t’see their way to the door.”
Oh shit. She hadn’t thought of that. “But-”
“Y’want t’be in here when it goes up?”
She didn’t. But equally well, if Fest was around here somewhere, she wasn’t leaving without him. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“Can an’ will. An’ if Foreval’s got her hands on him-”
“Which she has,” Mortimer interjected, limping over to them through the gathering gloom. He reached down, offering Viola his hand – she took it, and he pulled her bodily to her feet. “Assuming you’re after the vampire boy she was standing with.”
“He’s one of ours,” Viola confirmed. “And he,” she added, turning to Sabbat, “is on our side.”
The assassin dropped his hand from his belt-knife, though he still didn’t look entirely convinced. “Ain’t seen you around.”
“He’s new.” She sighed. “Look, I’m prepared to vouch for him and we do not have time for this. We need to grab Fest and go.”
“Fuck grabbin’ the kid. We need t’go before someone sets this place alight.”
“You do that, then. I’m not leaving without Fest.”
“An’ Archer told me t’keep the both of you safe. He ain’t easy t’kill permanently, you are.”
“He’s pack. We don’t leave pack behind!”
“He’s a fuckin’ sorcerer, Cervanso. Ain’t him y’need t’be worryin’ about right now.”
“We need to leave,” Mortimer said. He held up his hand, forestalling both of their objections. “Now.”
He pointed wordlessly behind the two of them, towards the entrance of the ballroom.
Caine, silhouetted against the light of the still-intact gaslamps in the hallway, stood up, letting something fall from his hand as he did so. It hit the floor with a heavy, sodden thump, rolled, and came to rest on its side, facing towards them.
The two humans couldn’t possibly see what it was, not at this distance. But, hearing Mortimer’s breath catch in his throat and seeing the way Sabbat’s shoulders tensed, she had a feeling they’d guessed.
Caine’s head turned, faster than any human should’ve been able to move – but then again, he wasn’t human any more, was he? – and he started to walk, slowly and deliberately, in the direction of the noise.
There was an empty, hanging moment.
Then people started running.
Viola grabbed hold of the two humans, ignoring their protests, and launched herself towards the back of the room, dragging them behind her. She was moving faster than she should have been, panic lending strength to her legs, and she heard Mortimer swear as his boots skidded on the floor, but better swearing and skidding than trampled in what was almost certainly going to be a sodding stampede when someone remembered where the damn exit was.
They hit the door at a dead sprint and, thank all the gods and every ancestor, it swung open easily, spilling them out into a long, arched tunnel cut into the bare rock. There were gaslamps in here too, unlit but unbroken, and the floor was tiled – someone’d taken the time to make this place a little more than just an escape run for cornered rats.
It wasn’t the safest place to stop – more of the Sinnlenst’d almost certainly pile through once they’d got over their immediate panic – but she slowed down enough that the other two could catch their breath and pull their hands free of hers (which Sabbat did with a snarl and Mortimer with a muttered ‘thank you’).
“Where now?” she asked, turning to the one person who supposedly knew his way around the area.
He shook his head. “Can’t see a thing – or, at least, can’t see well enough for landmarks. There’s a left-hand turn somewhere along here, though. Leads to a gate out into a back alley, just off from the Boar’s Head and the Triumph Street baths.”
Sabbat laughed triumphantly. “Ha! Knew they had somethin’ round that way. Never realised it was connected t’this place, though.”
“They’ve got a fair amount of rat-runs and tunnels around this area of the city,” Mortimer confirmed. “Give you the tour sometime, when we get out of this.” He turned his face towards Viola, brows creasing in a slight frown. “Though your friend here and I are going to need to switch places, Miss Cervanso, if you want any help finding that turning.”
“How do you mean?”
“Because the only way I’m going to ‘see’ a pitch black tunnel-mouth opening in a pitch black tunnel is by running my hand along the wall. And unless you’re suggesting walking backwards, which seems like a pretty piss-poor plan…”
“What do you-” Viola began. Then, with an embarrassed flash of realisation that sent a flush of heat up the back of her neck, “Ah. Yes. Right.”
Sabbat muttered something under his breath that she was pretty sure wasn’t complimentary, but he seemed willing enough to swap places with Mortimer, running the fingers of his left hand along the stone as the three of them made their way deeper into the bowels of the Sinnlenst’s tunnels.
So now they were allying with a Sinnlenst. Well that was a fucking turn up for the books.
‘He’s one of ours,” Cervanso had said, back in the ballroom. She’d also said she vouched for him.
Problem was, Sabbat had no idea who the hells their apparent new ally fucking was. Oh, he’d seen him before all right – out on the street, talking Sinnlenst politics, and then again when he’d almost backed into him at the sixdamn gathering – but if the soldier was part of the shadow arm of the Order, he should’ve at least had some memory of him that wasn’t associated with the bloody Sinnlenst.
Cervanso seemed to trust him, for what that was worth. And, if Cervanso trusted him, Sabbat probably should too – or, at least, probably shouldn’t stab the bastard just on general principle.
Still ain’t exactly happy with this. Especially since he’s the one giving us directions.
If this was a trap, though, it was a bloody stupid one. All it’d take was the one person in the party who could see perfectly in the dark to spot whatever the fuck the Sinnlenst’d rigged up, and-
Something punched him in the gut, hard.
He doubled over, folding up around the knot of agony in his belly, his breath whistling through clenched teeth as he bit down on a yelp of pain. Somewhere ahead of him, footsteps thudded on the stone – he staggered to the side, trying to pull himself away from the threat until he’d enough breath to fight back, and then there was a hand on his shoulder and Cervanso’s voice, blurred and muddled as though he was hearing her from underwater, shouting something in his ear.
“-need to go!”
The fuck do you think I’m doing, standing around for my fucking health? He pushed away from the wall, pressing one hand against the box in the hope it’d start making with the fucking healing already, but it pulsed again under his hand like it had in the ballroom and, instead of the warm Smoke-like glow of the healing magic, something cold and twisting and silvery-feeling slithered against his skin, squirming and wriggling almost as though it was trying to work its way inside.
“Fuck off!” She was right, though. He couldn’t move as fast as he’d like, not with half the wind knocked out of him and a fresh set of bruises blooming on his ribs, but he’d run through worse pain (hells’ gates, he’d run three streets on a fucking broken ankle once, and that leg still acted up when thunderstorms came through). And, if Caine was gaining on them, he’d run through worse still – better that than getting caught.
Not fucking cowardice. Not when you’re facing something you can’t fucking kill.
He was going to kill Caine. Again. Make it fucking stick this time. But not here. Not now.
Not while that fucking box still has its hooks in you.
Whatever had hit him didn’t seem inclined to stay around and have another go, but that wasn’t any guarantee it wasn’t going to come back. He wasn’t exactly sure it was the kind of thing you could cut – if he was guessing, he’d say it had been some kind of magic (Foreval, maybe, or the damn box, or Caine, or any of the other sixdamn things which’d tried to kill him already tonight) – but he kept his razor out and ready all the same, blade folded back over bruised knuckles. Wasn’t much, in the face of half the things they’d been facing down in the last hour or so, but it was enough.
The tunnel had been sloping downwards for the past few minutes. Now it levelled out and narrowed, the smooth tiles giving way to bare rock floor.
“Not far now,” Cervanso’s pet Sinnlenst said. “Should be an opening on the left-hand side, same width as this.”
He sounded surprisingly calm, which put Sabbat’s hackles up. Didn’t necessarily mean he was leading them into a trap, but it sure as fuck wasn’t evidence that he wasn’t.
What do you know that we don’t?
Didn’t matter. If he’d led them wrong, Sabbat’d kill him.
Assuming Cervanso doesn’t get there first. She said she’d vouch for him. Far as I know, that means more for her lot than it does for most.
Where the fuck does she know him from, anyhow?
Not a question he needed to be asking right now. But when they were out of here-
His left hand plunged into empty space. He skidded to a stop, grabbed enough of a breath to bark a curt “Here!” in the direction of the other two, and used his momentum to round the corner into the passageway, eyes and ears open for any sign of a hidden Sinnlenst trap.
There wasn’t one. Or, at least, not one he could easily detect. Just more dead rock and cold air – though the air in this tunnel tasted different to the one they’d just left, colder and crisper and with the faint undertone of snow.
Fucking hellfire, we might actually have our way out.
Should’ve done this on four paws, Viola thought, skidding to an ungainly and undignified stop six feet further down the main tunnel than she’d intended. Mortimer had already changed tack, following Sabbat down the side route, which meant she was the only member of their little party still left in the main branch of the Sinnlenst rat-run. Gods, but I hate running footraces as a sodding twolegs.
She could’ve shifted back in the ballroom, she supposed. Likely would’ve got her killed by Caine, if he’d noticed her, but there was always the chance that she’d have managed to complete her transition to wolf form before he’d realised anything out of the ordinary was going on.
And then what would you have done when you needed to grab the humans, hm? Can hardly drag both of them along with you when you don’t have hands.
That was a fair point. But if she’d been able to jump Foreval as a wolf, then…
Then it would almost certainly have changed exactly sod-all, other than getting her knocked most of the way across the room in a different form.
Not as if there’s much time to shift now, anyhow. Not without holding everything up and likely getting us all killed by Caine, if he’s still hunting us.
So she was stuck as a damn twolegs until they’d got themselves out of this. Great.
The opening to the second tunnel was at least fairly easy to spot now she was looking for it, given the fact she could see pretty damn well even in this level of light. And, once she’d jogged back to it and ducked down the passageway, the route ahead looked clear almost all the way to the end – a barred gate blocking what was presumably the last stretch of tunnel before it opened out into the alleyway Mortimer had told them about.
She sniffed the air, grinning at the taste of snow on her tongue. Almost out. Almost free.
Ancestors, please let this be the end of it.
[Author’s note: this is NaNoWriMo 2020 content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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