Chapter 03 – Hostile Return, Part 02

Splitting up hadn’t done them any good. The four that scrambled to pass word of their arrival weren’t just on the lookout for any returning contractors. The people now following Toaaho were very professional. They worked as a team, taking turns tailing him every few blocks in the hopes they’d go unnoticed. Toaaho hoped the others were facing better odds.

A thin alley appeared as he passed the next merchant’s cart, and Toaaho ducked inside. The walls tapered closer, and the Mana’Olai pressed himself against either side, climbing quickly between the small, squat houses surrounding the square. He vaulted over the short mud wall around the roof and landed motionless, one leg passed through the ties of a hammock. The man stretched out in his nap did not move as Toaaho silently stepped around him.

The three men who had been following him were still in the plaza, idling between the carts, looking across the merchandise and around at the crowd. They converged slowly at the head of the alley and whispered through their thick veils before separating once more. Toaaho watched them mingle again, deciding which to follow. As he rose to trail his target, the sharp whistle of a feathered shaft slicing through the still air caused him to throw his body back, leaving him leaning dangerously far over the edge of the building. His foot hooked into the base of the small mud wall and held him as the arrow passed just across his chest. He rolled to the side and watched the round clay tip burst. Its contents swirled in dark blue vapors across the sleeping man.

Toaaho held his breath and lunged into the cloud, grabbing the edge of the hammock. He felt his skin start to numb as he dumped the sleeper uncaringly out of the net and down the hatch that lead into the house below. He heard the man hit the floor with a thump, but it couldn’t hurt more than the gas had it gotten into the man’s lungs and blood.

His knife sang as it deflected the second arrow, this one tipped with iron and ready to kill. The third flashed in the setting sun, dropping down from a high tower across the plaza. It buried deep into the mud wall where Toaaho had been just moments before he’d dropped to the street.

The Mana’Olai ran down the alley, holding his breath until his lungs burned like white embers. The vapors released by the exploding arrow would cling to fabric, though such a small amount would not knock him unconscious. He could not afford his mind to slow; his tingling hands would be problem enough.

The alley opened into a cool garden backing the small houses built flush against the surrounding streets. Toaaho did not break stride, hearing more footsteps than his own echoing between the mud walls. He tore into the next alley, continuing even as a dark silhouette raced toward him with a silver blade extended. The two closed fast, and Toaaho did not change his pace until he saw the man would not feint, but drive him through.

The Mana’Olai vaulted again, cartwheeling above his attacker. His short knife parried the blade down as he bit into the walls with his knee and shoulder, bracing tight. He hung there for a moment, his knife drawing blood under the man’s neck as his other hand ripped the cloth from his attacker’s head.

Toaaho searched the face, ignoring the fear and the sudden surprise that always comes before death. A quick glance was enough to confirm this man did not know who he was after, not truly. The men that would come for Toaaho, son of Anitelu, would come prepared to die, as the Köpeka did not die well.

Two hands grabbed him from above and Toaaho was flung back toward the garden. He fell hard, and the man charged again, but the Mana’Olai was already rolling to his feet and back out of the alley. The two men above dropped from the roof, and he could feel others filing in from the other streets. He pulled free his robe, his fingers still numb but able to hear them tap at the blades in his belt.

*****

The assassin’s dart passed through Wraethe before it struck the door of Simonez’s shop, Boruin was sure of it. He could still see the thin hole and the loose thread torn from the fabric of her cloak. He pulled the boy behind him as a second and third were thrown through the woman’s body. They stuck shivering beside the first in Simonez’s door.

Boruin looked for a seizure of pain, the hurt of the needle-sharp metal puncturing her body. He saw instead her eyes appear, the blue coming forward like a down rushing storm.

If they had thought to catch Wraethe asleep, they’d come too close to Diuntyne’s dawn. The sun still covered the threshold of the shop, but Wraethe woke all the same. Her robe swirled about her like overlapping shadows, and Boruin heard the twang of her bow from somewhere beneath. The assassin doubled over and then whipped back as the first shaft caught him in the gut and the second through the skull.

“Inside,” Wraethe commanded with a whisper, rationing her strength. Boruin threw his shoulder against the wooden door and pushed the wide-eyed boy into the shop. He turned and guarded the opening as they came for her.

A second man stepped out of the thinning crowd, thrusting his knife from behind. The blade passed in and out of the darkness of Wraethe’s robe. He slashed across, cutting only fabric as the iron tip of an arrow stabbed out of the shadows to pierce his throat. She let him fall and stepped back into the deepening shade of the building as if the dimming light smothered her and the growing darkness were air she could breathe. Archers let fly from the rooftops, and she held her ground as the shafts broke on the hard brick behind her. She slung her own upward, the feathers screaming their high-pitched whistle until throttled out by their smash into meat.

The street emptied quickly. Citizens disappeared around corners or forced their way inside through quickly closing doors. The few left charged forward in their mission, none noticing that Diun was now sharing the sky with the sun, pressing it deeper into the horizon.

The dark woman began to move as the harsh, hot light dimmed and a pale silver glow replaced it. The veil of shadows around her began to solidify as she came further into awakening. She shot the last of her arrows across the rooftops and into those stupid enough to come running at such a skilled bowman.

Wraethe stood in the center of the street, pulling the dark shafts from the dead and refilling her quiver when the crash of iron-shod horses echoed around the corner. Four strong horses followed four polished pikes, all lowered toward her breast.

One last beam of sunlight cut between the clay buildings. Wraethe stepped into it at the last second. The outlines of her shape blurred back out of definition as the pikes cut through her. They passed on, black strips of cloth clinging to the shafts the only trophy of their marksmanship.

The beam of sunlight dropped below the horizon, but it did not matter. Diun hung full above the city and Wraethe was angry. She cast aside her tattered cloak, and her pale skin glowed in the moon’s light.

Her eyes burned bright blue as two riders turned quickly and charged back for a second pass. She lunged toward them, catching the left pike in her hands and rolling right, across the other rider’s path. She dug her feet in and wrenched backward like an angry sailor digging her oars into a crashing wave. The animal went down, throwing its rider across the hard cobblestones. Wraethe came up with the pike and held it just long enough to aim and throw. A second rider went down in the dust, his hands clutching the wooden shaft now sticking out of his guts.

The horses of the last two riders stood stamping at the end of the street. Wraethe watched her enemies make a quick decision before one turned and disappeared around the corner. The last turned his steed in a circle so tight that it brought the charger up on its hind legs. The man cried a war curse and drove the animal back down at the stone. Sparks exploded from the horse’s shoes as they scrambled forward. Wraethe’s tongue traced the edges of her lips, as if tasting the cruel smile that formed there.

The pale woman leaned easily aside as the head of the long pike passed by. Her body then blurred in motion as she caught the horse’s neck between her arms and twisted. The animal’s shoulder dropped as its head turned too far around. It tumbled, sliding hard across the street and through the front wall of a cobbler’s shop.

Wraethe stepped out of the cloud of dust, her hands covered in the bright blood of the dispatched horsemen. She stepped lightly down the street, her stride more as if she were late for dinner than thirsting to find their merchant boss and spin his head off like a child’s top.

Boruin left the open door of the curio shop from where he had watched Wraethe’s furied battle. He placed himself in her path, squared his shoulders, and barred the woman’s way. Her eyes burned brighter then Diun’s shine, almost casting his shadow across the cobbled avenue. She moved to pass him, but he caught her hand, mindful that he could not hold her. Wraethe leveled her eyes into his, but Boruin did not flinch. Her breath was still frantic, but she did not pull away.

“You have your rites to give,” Boruin said.

Her voice was firm, but just barely. “Some business comes first.” Boruin knew she was being pulled in two directions. Her will was strong, but her desire for more blood was fierce. He was putting his blood before her, and it scared him.

Boruin let go of her arm. “I will have words with him, if needed. You have your rites to give.” She stepped back, her angry eyes still flooding his face with their light.

Wraethe turned and dropped to the first of the dead, and Boruin could hear the quiet whisper of her words. Whether they were prayers or some older magic, her words gave them redemption for their sins. The rites also took some measure of corruption from her own and lessened the price of death on her hands. The killing and the rites were a balance of the thinnest edge. Death brought something true out of her; what that was, Boruin couldn’t guess. He only knew to thank the Mother for the rites that released her war-rage, kept it from consuming her entirely. Who knew what she would become if left solely to killing?

Boruin watched until he was sure she was again calm, sure that her prayers were solemn, driven neither by the sins of the dead nor the rage of her own. When the balance had returned, he turned back to the darkened shop. His own rage settled under his skin as he thought of the words he would indeed have for that bastard Belok.

End chapter 03 part 02.

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