Knell raked the side of the temple with her scope, again, and again, and snarled in frustration.
She could see well enough in the dark for at least a little longer. Long enough. But she couldn’t draw a bead on Feidhlim, to the point she was starting to sweat. Boxes and crates, searchlights, very serious-looking guards. To be on the safe side, she’d braced the rifle against a stone pillar. Maybe it had some clever recoil-dampening trick, but she wasn’t risking her shoulder to find out.
“Fucking spooky tree,” Knell grumbled, lined up a shot on one of the uniformed, masked ringleaders, and breathed in.
Soldiers. Line of duty.
Her target’s shoulders shook briefly. A laugh.
Maybe, when this is all over, I’ll ask Cerro about the gods.
They’re supposed to make this right.
She pulled the trigger, the report more of a thud and hiss than the usual explosion. Hard to trace, she thought, but the violent spray painting the far wall was a good an indicator of direction as any. She fired again, another target, almost jumped out her skin at the sound of cracking stone, and dropped the gun.
Nest kicked. Time to run.
She didn’t have a chance before the cold dark swept over her, almost losing her footing, and emerging into the real world a second later. The Crantiré had dragged her inside through the World Without Sun.
The soldiers had all taken cover. Feidhlim had not, standing imperiously at the centre of the room. Knell’s shadowy hand faded like smoke, coalesced on the grip of the flamecaster. The Crantiré’s eyes widened, his body glowing with power in the seconds it took her hand to rise. A satisfying whump accompanied the ball of fire that streaked from the barrel, the recoil just under what Knell was used to. Feidhlim shrieked, a fast jabber of creaking and cracking noises that she assumed were akin to screams, and she turned to deal with his co-conspirators.
The undead present were flailing in eerie unison with the Necromancer’s movements, and as Knell stepped back towards the deeper shadows they cast about in confusion before her second shot lit one up. She bumped against a crate, launching herself up into a sitting position and rolled over into a crouch, checking her rear. The front door. Good. That was her out.
The soldiers were speaking in their unknown tongue again, but over all the screaming Knell doubted anyone was heard. Then again…
She drew the gun-blade, checked the chambered shell. Lightning, she was mostly sure. A better idea.
She spun the cylinder to an electrum-ringed shell, popped over her cover, and fired on Feidhlim again. A blade of amber light lanced from the weapon and knocked Feidhlim back, dripping and scarred where one of the soldiers had dumped a vat of water over him. Where was his lady friend?
Knell ducked under a hail of fire, cut off abruptly. She lifted the lid from the crate a crack and confirmed her suspicions – explosives.
“Seems we’re at an impasse!” She shouted.
More gibberish answered her. Likely directed at each other. The dead were no doubt shambling on her position.
“Not quite willing to die for the cause?” She added, with a mocking grin she didn’t especially feel.
“I’m not fucking having this,” she muttered, and abandoned her cover – sure enough, a tenebrous portal hung in the air like a hole in reality. The gun-blade hummed in her hand. She’d expected a Fated tracer, but this was even better. Aside the very obvious downside.
She stood before the portal, surrounded by corpses, and stared. Not a trip she’d made by choice, ever.
Gripping the weapon like a club, she stepped through. Once more into the cold, following the hum of the blade to find Feidhlim’s course, and stumble, shivering into a welcoming, wordly darkness.
A warehouse. A warehouse she knew. A warehouse without lights and enough of the Vampire’s gift to give her an edge.
She cycled to the lightning shot again, and set off after a trail of soot, soft sounds of chatter, and the ringing of blades to find Feidhlim with three surviving soldiers, hiding behind a rack of mattresses, six shelves high. Knell’s contact in the city liked to do business here; innocuous imports, plenty of traffic, not too close to Towerpeak nor too near the edge of the Sprawl.
Eldryss sailed over the top of the shelves like an Autumn storm, crashing to the ground just beyond the rebel posse. He rolled aside in the same moment an almost-nude women struck the ground beside him with a beautiful, curved sword. It took Knell a moment to register that she was wearing a blindfold, her skin covered in faintly luminous script – a warrior-monk of an obscure order.
The monk and the Savaan dueled briefly, Eldryss’ claws smoking where the blade met them. He was obviously flagging, and the monk only seemed to grow more savage, more powerful. Knell stepped from hiding and, as noisily and unnecessarily as she could, clicked the hammer of the gun-blade back.
The monk halted immediately, and Eldryss pressed himself against the side of another row of shelves, the monk’s ivory blade aimed for his throat yet perfectly still.
Feidhlim and his crew turned, weapons ready, but unwilling to fire through the monk to Knell.
The silence stretched out, and Knell measured it in the string of blood trailing, breaking to a drop from Eldryss’ hand, soundlessly splashing to the concrete floor.
“This,” Knell said, carefully, “is a lightning round.” I really, really hope. “Which means it’s going to go right through the lot of you with a squeeze of the trigger.”
The monk tensed.
“Now that we’re on the same page-”
The monk slashed, Eldryss’ helmed head toppling from his shoulders with an arterial spray, and Knell fired without thinking. Electricity arced from the blade, rolling over the monk’s skin as her tattoos glowed brighter, and struck the soldiers beyond her. Knell had to squint to keep from being blinded, rapidly cycling to a flame round, trying to ignore the strangled cries and burning pork stink.
When she looked up, gun-blade still trained on the monk, the soldiers were all dead. Even Feidhlim seemed a bit scorched. The monk’s clothing smouldered a little, the loose pants, sash, and wraps.
“My quarrel is not with you, stranger,” she said, sheathing her blade.
“It is, exalted.” Feidhlim said. “It very much is.”
“Oh?” She asked, ignoring Knell, folding her arms as she turned to face him. “Who are you, to know the demands of the gods?”
“A simple pilgrim, exalted, waylaid by this criminal.”
“This is a flame shell,” Knell chimed in. “Big bang. Fire. If it doesn’t hurt her, it’ll hurt you, Feidhlim.”
“Feidhlim?” The monk said, slowly, her posture shifting subtly.
“Feidhlim of the Black Gate,” Knell said, hoping there was a grudge there. Seemed all of these people knew each other. Maybe only as well as she’d known Eldryss.
At least there was enough left for burial, if the Savaan did that.
The monk was drawing a pair of needles from her sash – eight inches long, steel, engraved with tiny script.
“Feidhlim of the Black Gate,” she crooned. “The apostates of Kaer promised me retribution, but not so sacred a task. You will deny the cycle no longer.”
“Very sorry to fuck your church-y shit,” Knell said. “But this one’s mine. Contract. I don’t think you can kill him with needles.”
She pulled the trigger, but the monk was too fast. A needle buried itself in Knell’s good hand, and she dropped the weapon as the blade of fire sliced through a row of shelves, igniting the contents.
“Mytherion will not be denied, stranger,” the monk said, as Knell raised the long grip in her shadow-hand to hold the weapon like a sword.
“I knew a girl who referred to herself by name, once. A poet,” Knell said, backing away from the monk, who was facing her but unmoving. She watched Feidhlim edging to the right. “Can’t decide if she was a crap lay, or just the unfortunate to assure me I wasn’t so fond of girls.”
“You stall, stranger.”
“You see a lot, for a blind woman. Knell Blackhand.”
“Ominous.” She said, and spun on her heel, hand scything through the air to nail the creeping Crantiré to a metal pillar.
“You’ve dropped your weapons.” Knell said, gripping the blade carefully, testing the balance.
The monk looked over her shoulder, and grinned.
“I am Thousand Blades Smiling.” She said. “I am a weapon.”
Knell threw herself aside, hissing in pain as she caught her weight on the spiked hand. Right through the palm and out the far side, almost catching her shoulder. The monk’s kick bent the supporting bar of one of the racks, and Knell swung the blade up to try and cut the ankle. Blades was a blur as she spun out of reach, slammed a palm into Knell’s jaw as she found her feet, sending her sprawling. She retrieved the needle, aimed a jab at Knell – who let it pass through her black hand, letting the gun fall for a moment, and catching it again as the monk retracted her weapon. You won’t dodge this, Knell thought, and fired.
Thousand Smiling Blades was hurled backward into broken, still-hot rack of shelves. Concussive shell is better than nothing. Knell spat out a tooth and ran for Feidhlim. It was too dark for him; he couldn’t stop her but instead caught the blade in his hand, the metal biting deep into his living wood. He wrenched the weapon away, but Knell was willing to let him. She reached for his head, sank her hand through the forehead, and crushed.
Before she could blink, she slammed into the racks on her right, blinded by pain. She frowned, convinced some ribs had broken, and waved her hand in front of her face. Had she actually been hit so hard she went blind?
“Any last words, Feidhlim of the Black Gate?”
A succession of creaking, cracking noises followed.
All was silent.
A similar string of sounds followed, more human. Thousand Smiling Blades.
Knell blinked a few times, then realized the night vision must have worn off just as Blades hauled her to her feet.
“You have killed him.”
The monk sounded like she was frowning.
“I will come with you both.”
Knell blinked again, tried to reach the monk’s head, but her black hand touched it like one of flesh.
She shrugged, sagged, sighed.
“You are responsible for him, now. He will need a teacher, and as you do not speak Creak I must take on this duty.”
“You are having a fucking laugh.”
“Oblivion is not a joking matter, Knell Blackhand. Nor is destiny.”
Knell inhaled deeply.
Creaking. Creak, in response.
“I suppose that’s that, then.” Knell set her jaw. “Get us to a doctor and we’ll talk this out.”
After the weapons were retrieved, they left. Nothing interrupted their passage through the streets; the frightened Crantiré felled undead with a panicked wave, a gesture Blades said was a traditional ward against evil. He hadn’t forgotten everything, it seemed.
They arrived at a sealed bunker in the shadow of the central Temple of Night; formerly a warship, stripped down and reshaped into a patchwork metal dome. Knell knew the correct knock to get it open, and the trio were greeted by a rat with bristling whiskers and a white smock, round spectacles perched high on her long snout.
“Yes, yes?” She said, clutching a scalpel, only to widen her eyes and flick her tail violently left to right, “Captain Blackhand. My, my, busy night. Do come in.” She moved aside, gesturing. The trio stepped inside, to a brightly lit and sterile waiting room. Another female rat sat behind a reception desk with a book and a shotgun. Knell waved, weakly, and the receptionist closed her book, running to help Knell stand. Tall, for a rat.
“One day, I will regret sending you the invite,” she said, frowning at Knell, who grinned.
“It was such a lovely wedding, though.”
“She keeps my business afloat, love.” Said the doctor, holding the door to her theatre open. “Twice this year, in fact.”
“I’m going to miss your compassionate bedside manner, Doctor Quinn.” Knell said, still grinning as blood trickled down her chin.
“Pish. You’re not near dead yet. Who’re your friends?”
“This is Thousand Blades Smiling, who I think might technically have me hostage?” Knell said.
The monk shrugged. “The situation is complicated.”
“And the Spriggan-”
“Is a newborn.” Blades finished for her.
“Talia speaks Creak, she can mind him.” Quinn said, leading Knell through the door. Blades followed.
The doctor unfolded an array of diagnostic devices and ran them over Knell’s supine form on the medical bed, examining her wounded hand
“Clean strike. Less so for the ear… I don’t do cosmetics, Knell.”
“I know,” Knell sighed.
“But I can patch this up… three broken ribs, missing tooth, cracked jawbone.”
Knell couldn’t shake the feeling the monk looked proud about that. She was pale, lithe, and tall, with close-cropped black hair and full lips. Too lithe, as far as Knell was concerned. Scars were visible just under many of her tattoos, the flowing silver script that glowed faintly.
“So.” Knell said, while Quinn went to work with scalpel and sutures.
“So.” Blades echoed her, smiling faintly.
“Explain, please.” Knell said, through clenched teeth.
“You murdered the one named Feidhlim, yet left the body behind. His crimes are thus punished, but in so doing, you have become mother to the new child.”
“By your actions a new person is come to the world,” Blades said, soberly.
“Fine. I’ll put him up for adoption.”
“Ridiculous. You will return him to the Wood, and meanwhile I will teach you to speak with him.”
“To explain what you did.”
Knell remained very still only because Doctor Quinn was working on her, the picture of silent professionalism.
“Fine. Fine. I could use a heavy hitter like you on the crew.”
“I do not work for you.”
“You don’t travel on my ship for free.”
“I carry no wealth.”
“Fucking vows,” Knell snarled, and winced as Quinn cut away part of the false skin over her ear. “Right. How about this – your vows require you to help the innocent or something, don’t they?”
“Then I’m going to sign on with the Imperial Navy, and hunt some pirates. Better?”
“Better. We must also seek Vampires.”
“You’re on your own, there.”
“I would have it no other way.”
Quinn injected Knell just under the ribs, with a pale fluid.
“Right, if you’re both done, you should be fine, Knell. Payment as usual?”
“Do I still get the discount?”
“…Fair enough. I’ll send Daffyd round with the money tomorrow. No other patients tonight?”
“Some. All dealt with earlier. In fact, if you could fuck off so I can finally go to bed…”
Knell crouched and hugged the rat, who returned the gesture, tail looping around them both.
“At least you didn’t get shot again.”
“Thanks, Quinn. Really,” Knell said.
Quinn shook her head, pushed Knell away. “Go on, captain.”
Grim-faced, Knell and her new crewmates returned to the streets.