Knell had her prisoners gagged, cloaked in heavy robes, and hauled up to the gangplank. Daffyd held one, Wainwright the other.
“Claws in,” Knell said, warning, and Wainwright’s grin faded. They scurried out into the port in the darkening evening, darker still from the sorceries infusing the temple at Towerpeak’s heart. No word of a curfew in effect, but as they wound their way through the Sprawl’s messy streets. Not an official part of Towerpeak – just a collection of platforms lashed together, held up by gasbags, Magic, repurposed ships and cunning engineering, clinging parasitically to Towerpeak proper. They passed only a few people, hurrying as much as them. A few curious faces glanced from quiet pubs and restaurants, a few buskers were packing up.
“No formal curfew,” Wainwright purred. “What’s so scary?”
“Irrelevant,” said Daffyd.
Knell nodded grimly, to keep the Clawtorn on track. Wainwright was probably less human than even Daffyd, more cat than man, and sometimes needed his worse impulses reined in. But he was an absolute monster during rougher boarding actions.
As they turned a corner, Knell spotted a pair of Savaan at the far end of the street, the ground creaking and shifting gently on its flotation devices. She held up a hand, halting her crew and prisoners while they were still out of sight. She kept walking, slow and nonchalant. The problem with Savaan was that most of the time, you couldn’t tell where they were looking. Their biological armour bristled with obscure ways to detect a person, and the helms were often closed up into featureless or terrifying masks without obvious eyes.
The two ahead seemed to be speaking, by the way they stood, but Knell couldn’t be sure. She was halfway down the street when they finally left along a side-alley, and she breathed again. Pulled her hand away from her gun and force it into a pocket.
On looking back, she could see Wainwright’s eyes gleaming in the shadows, and waved curtly. Waited for them to catch up with twitchy glances in all directions, especially the alley by which the Savaan had left. Out to a particular edge of the Sprawl.
Their destination loomed ahead; a ruined temple to the Dragon Gods, said to have been a miracle in its heyday; flying cathedral that turned out to be a hoax, subtle Magics keeping afloat rather than divine providence. It was deconsecrated, lashed into the Sprawl, and largely forgotten save for supplicants among the poor and misguided of the parasite city. Knell wasn’t religious but she’d seen a few temples in her time, and it was a shame to see one in such a sorry state. Crumbling dome, cracked facade, and the doors replaced with sheets of metal.
Knell and her crew hustled up to the crude new doors, and she tapped three times. After a pause, they were let inside with a scraping of metal on stone.
Inside the alcoves had long been plundered of their beautiful mosaics, the symbols of the Gods looted, leaving a dusty shell like a half-buried ribcage. Cold stone and portable lamps over planks and sheets.
There were four buyers – all human, dark clothes, two with pistols and two with rifles across their backs. Masked by hoods and goggles.
Knell held up her hands. “Easy. We have what you want, and all we want is payment.”
Daffyd and Wainwright held their captives close, stepping to either side of their captain.
“Robes off,” one of the buyers said, heavily accented but unfamiliar. Knell’s crew complied, the robes whispering to the ground. Daffyd shoved the doors shut as a lamp was turned on them. The speaker nodded, satisfied, slipping their pistol back into the holster. They spoke in a language Knell didn’t recognize.
“Keep it to Trades’ pl-” She started, annoyed, but was cut off when the Spriggan replied in the same tongue.
The speaker nodded again. Gestured. One of the riflemen tossed a suitcase down in front of Knell. She picked it up, opened it a crack. Glittering gems. She handed it to Daffyd, who lifted it thoughtfully.
“All there,” he said. Knell watched the buyers, all so still.
“Hand ‘em over,” she said, half-looking back, and her companions released their captives. No push, no stumbling. A dignified walk to the other end of the room where the buyers removed their bonds.
“All done, then?” Knell said, watching the weapons. The speaker looked like a fast draw, to her seasoned eye.
“Done,” said the speaker, unmoving. “Go.”
As she turned to leave, Daffyd pulling open the door, the Spriggan spoke.
“Remember this kindness, Knell Blackhand.” He said.
Knell looked back, frowning.
“You’ve lost me, tree.” She said.
“I’ll find you,” he said, and smiled.
Knell spat and left the ruin.
Wainwright sniffed the evening air. “Don’t like it, captain.”
Knell shook her head. “Well, we’ve got the money and an easy walk home. Don’t see a reason to worry now.”
“They were awfully friendly, though.” Wainwright said. “With each other, I mean.”
“We’ve been played,” Knell agreed. “But this is no different than the dead drop in Spinnard. Deniability.”
“That kindness he mentioned?”
“Must be. If we don’t know anything, we’re not worth targeting, right? Must be expecting all hell to break loose.”
“How’d you catch the job anyway, boss?”
They took a more direct route back to the ship, past a smoking parlour with bleary-eyed patrons staring from the windows, turning on a corner with an run-down haberdasher teetering over the street.
“Fella in the pub.” Knell shrugged, and Wainwright sniggered.
“Black robes, lurking in a dingy corner?”
“Yes,” Knell grinned. “And he wanted me to kill rats.”
Daffyd frowned. “Where are these rats?”
“It’s a joke, Daffyd.” Wainwright sneered.
“I do not like jokes.”
“We know, Daffyd.” Wainwright rolled his eyes.
“Simile is acceptable, if it is a good simile.” Daffyd continued, dogged.
The Orc’s expression darkened, furry brow wrinkling.
“I do not like metaphors.”
Knell yawned. “Lucky you that nonsense only applies to fancy languages.”
“You’re missing out, captain,” Wainwright said.
“You feel the same way about hunting orphans, Wainwright,” Knell replied, giving him a dirty look.
Wainwright flattened his ears, but the contrition was obviously false. “If you don’t look, captain, you don’t see, and you’d be happier that way.”
No one spoke for a few streets, until the ship was in sight.
“Lock up the cash, Daffyd, and dole out the pay. We’re likely stuck here tonight so we might as well enjoy it.”
“Aye, captain,” Daffyd said.
“I’m going for a pint.” Knell said.
Knell watched Wainwright and Daffyd board, turned sharply left, and made her way through the unnaturally quiet streets to The Red Diadem. If something awful was going to happen – and the huddled homeless, the locked doors, the depopulated streets all suggested it would – she wanted to know Cerro was okay. Yes, she told herself, I have to know he’s okay.
Ordinarily the Madam would make a joke about returning so soon, but she was tight-lipped and drawn when Knell arrived. Lighting incense, closing curtains, the older woman’s gaze rarely left the recessed shrine to Jura for long. As gods went, Jura was one Knell could see herself worshiping – goddess of hungers and independence. She was reasonably sure, however, that the brothel’s safe was hidden behind it. In this case, concern for the takings was probably close enough to piety.
“Quiet?” Knell said, taking a seat.
“Too quiet. Don’t pirates have a nose for trouble?” The Madam said.
Knell tapped her off-centre nose. “Must’ve been punched a time too many.”
The Madam barked a laugh, more anxiety than mirth.
“He’s upstairs. Go on, you know the room.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“If I knew… Something has the bloodsuckers riled up” She shrugged.
“Money up front, then.”
“Considerate of you.”
The captain left the gems, and went to find Cerro.
Knell knocked and opened the door in the same movement, and caught Cerro standing in the curtained doorway to the bathroom with flecks of foam on his chin and belly.
“Back so soon?” He said, softly, smiling, towel slung over a forearm.
“Just shut up,” Knell said, staring. Then she ran to him, buried her face in his shoulder, and wept.
In the deep of the night, they lay awake in a sweaty tangle, Knell’s cheek on his chest, staring out into the dark.
“I think they were refugees.” She said.
“And you shot one.” He said.
“I’ve shot men before.”
“But this was just an execution. A murder.”
“You needed the money.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Will you do it again?”
“No,” she said, a sharp whisper.
“Back to the Spires, then?”
“The bastards have it coming.”
“You’ve told me. Yet you let the Cult traffic slaves.”
“Are you calling me a hypocrite?”
“You need to see the pens, sometime. Chattel are animals. Livestock, not slaves.”
“Hm.” He was unconvinced.
“The Stormlords make people suffer and bleed.”
“You have said.”
“The best just don’t intervene.”
“Why’d they make me do it?”
“You pulled the trigger.”
“They could have just stepped forward.”
“Fear is natural.”
“They were in on it! It was all a ruse, and they stood there…” Knell shuddered. “They stood there and watched me kill a boy, to force them….”
“Keeping up appearances,” Cerro breathed.
They were silent.
“I could’ve waited longer.”
“No,” he said, sadly. “You couldn’t.”
The dawn broke with the sound of gunfire. Knell was out of bed with pistols in hand before any of her clothes, peering out of the window, between the heavy drapes.
Smoke was rising from a building on the next street, screams and shouts punctuated the staccato report of water-cooled guns. Down the street, to the right, a chunk of the Sprawl began to detach and fall away in flames, terrified people desperately hurling themselves onto the intact platforms, some missing the jump.
Knell swore and fished for her underwear.
“Get dressed. We’re leaving.” She said.
“What? What’s happening?” He did, at least, start dressing.
“No idea, but bits of the Sprawl are falling off.”
“I have a contract, Knell, my things…”
“Not as valuable as your life.”
Knell rounded fiercely on him, pulling at the sleeve of her duster.
“I will hold a gun to that fucking madam’s head and demand your cut if I have to, but I’m not leaving you here, Cerro.”
“And that would be worth it?”
“Too fucking right.” She said, lips a thin line.
Downstairs was carnage. Other patrons were seemingly long gone, a few men and women in gauzy clothes huddled in a corner, and the Madam had taken a few stray bullets. There were signs of magical discharge and patches of blood scattered around the opulent fabrics and fittings. Points for soundproofing, Knell thought, and was briefly disgusted with herself.
She stepped in front of Cerro and pointed both barrels at sudden movement near the bar counter that served as front desk and occasionally an actual bar. A tall, lithe figure with bullet holes rapidly closing in its torso was hauling itself up from hiding. A Savaan – the armour was so sleek and sculpted Knell had mistaken it for especially ambitious cosmetic sorcery. Plates of bone, external muscles, taut cords of sinew crowned by a helmet that swept back like horns, or a crest. No eyes, but the chin and mouth were exposed. Full lips, pale skin – Knell was, not for the first time, curious what they looked like behind the exoskeleton.
The stranger held up one finely-clawed hand.
“You don’t look like a rebel,” he said. “So stand down.”
“If there’s a rebellion, which side are you on?”
The Savaan sneered, tapping an elaborate piece of scarification on his pauldron. “House Kinnoch, outlander, and the Twilight Caste. Not one of us will turn away.”
“Right then. We’re not on any side,” she said, gesturing to Cerro, guns only slightly lowered. “So we’ll be on our way.”
“Forgive me if I’m disinclined to just accept that.”
“You’re forgiven, and you said we didn’t look like rebels.”
“No, you look like a skywoman. A reputable one, I hope.”
“Looking to buy passage, eh?” Knell grinned.
“Yes, I think so.”
“So much for loyalt-”
His claws were around her throat in an eyeblink, his body perfectly still.
“Do not impugn my honour, mortal.” He hissed.
Knell tapped his breastplate with the nose of her pistol.
“Much protection at this range?”
“Do you want to find out?”
They regarded each other in silence a moment. Knell hadn’t realized how tall and long-limbed he was, and that reach had almost killed her.
He released her, backed away.
“I must get word to… a friend. The rebels have seized the ship pens and poisoned their feed. If you have a ship, if you can convince your captain, House Kinnoch will pay…”
“Good enough for me. But if you get shot again it isn’t my problem.”
He nodded. “Eldryss Volath Kinnoch.”
“Knell Blackhand. I’d shake, but…”
“I’m content to never have to touch you again.”
Knell rolled her eyes. “Stay behind us, Cerro-”
With a peal of thunder, the windows blew in all at once.