Knell kept thinking of her as Duster, but Laine hadn’t hesitated to introduce herself once they were strolling down Hawker’s Mile toward the spinward tip of the island and the dock.
“Used to be a marshal out by the Bulwark,” she said, chewing a wad of nicogum, “but I got sick of the paperwork.” She tapped the butt of her gun, “now makin’ the world a little more just is easier.”
Knell just nodded, betraying nothing.
“Where you reckon’ we’ll find the killer?” Laine asked.
“She’s probably headed back to my ship, or she will be,” Knell said, “she’s got no reason to think I’m onto her.”
“Who is she?”
“A monk?” Laine stopped in the street; a pack of goblins flowed around her like water around a stone, “a monk killed those people?”
“I don’t really understand it, either,” Knell replied, stopping a step or two ahead, “but she wanted everyone to turn on the vampires in the Archive.”
Laine snorted and resumed walking. “I thought they musta given up. I know they hate the bloodsuckers, but you can’t clear out a nest of them.”
“Not alone, anyway.”
“So she frames ‘em and we do the work,” she said, and spat, “disgusting.”
“You seemed pretty eager,” Knell said before cursing inwardly.
“I was,” Laine replied, unmoved, “because I thought they were murderers.”
They turned a corner by a partially-ruined hotel covered in painted murals, music and a faint smell of sweet greensmoke bleeding into the street, and carried on toward the dock.
“No problem with them otherwise?”
“I don’t trust ‘em, but that’s just common sense. I don’t hate wyverns for spittin’ or dogs for barkin’.”
She looked sidewise at Knell, who had the impression Laine rarely looked at anyone dead on unless she was shooting them.
“Get the feeling you’ve got something personal against ‘em?”
“They just… “ Knell trailed off, frowning.
“You’re a liar or an idiot, Blackhand.”
“Don’t start waffling about the wisdom of fear, I get that enough from the ship’s chaplain.”
“Oh?” Laine looked at Knell slightly less side-on, “what do you have one of them for?”
Knell shook her head, “just a joke among the crew.”
Laine grunted and kept walking.
One street from the warehouse where the ship was docked, they stepped into a trail of blood. A wet trail of red dots in the dust leading down the road to their right – and at the end of the street a pair of Enforcers apparently in conversation, one of them scribbling in a notebook.
“None of our business?” Knell suggested.
Laine snorted and pointed at the bloody handprint on the door to the warehouse.
“Weren’t we going there?”
“Fuck,” Knell said, and stomped toward the Enforcers. The empty handed one stepped forward at her approach to stop her with spread arms.
“This is a crime scene,” they said through a vocal distortion spell.
“My ship is docked behind that building,” Knell said with arched brow, “have you looked inside yet?”
“We’ve got someone inside questioning the orc who fired the shot,” they said, and gestured vaguely behind themselves, “and agents chasing the suspect.”
“She’s been shot, and you can’t catch her?” Laine said, incredulous.
“Her?” The Enforcer’s tone was hard to read, but not impossible, “what do you know?”
“Little more than you.”
“There’s no time, let us join the hunt,” Knell said, moving to step around the investigators.
“This is city business-” They started, but a flurry of wings interrupted them. Barrel-chested, twice Knell’s height, the Vampire towered over the assembled. Ominous red eyes glowed in a bat-like face, dark fur rippled in a phantom breeze. Revulsion and fear of a familiar kind turned Knell’s guts to water and she bit her tongue trying to keep her composure.
The Vampire, for its part, ignored everyone and dipped one long talon in the blood on the street, then licked it clean with a long, worrisomely mobile tongue. Its sex was impossible to determine – it was all wiry muscle under the fur, wings folded like a cloak, and only a hint of humanity left in the face. It hissed on tasting the blood, blinking, looked at Knell and Laine like a drunk trying to identify a stranger.
“Poisoned,” it said, and laughed. It stumbled to the side of the street, sat slumped against a wall. The tips of its pointed ears poked a second storey sill. “Five hundred years I have lived, and now by tainted blood I am slain,” it continued, red eyes fixed on Knell. “An irony not lost on the monk, Blackhand.”
“How does everyone know my fucking name?” She replied, voice shaking.
“I can taste her memories,” the Vampire said, as the Enforcers conferred in hurried whispers. “She flees from Balston’s Rock where await yet more conspirators of sinister intention.” It sighed, the first sign of any breathing it had shown. “I am fortunate that you believe everything you are told.”
Another, sleeker, Vampire appeared as if from nowhere, this one silver-furred. It helped the other to its feet, and the two were gone.
Laine spat in the dust.
“I want to go back to hunting horse thieves,” she said, and sighed, “you know where the Rock is?”
Knell swallowed hard and tried to calm herself, shaking her head, struggling to understand what the monster had meant.
“Follow me then.”
Balston’s Rock spun out of the mist and buried itself in the side of Moonbend a long time ago, an invader veined with jade now hollowed out and fused with the bulk of the island. Perhaps it was the situation, but Knell thought there was something sinister in the misshapen bulb, more occluded than illumined by bright mining lamps leftover from its arrival. The two women huddled in the shadow of a tumbledown watchtower at the end of an ill-kept street, peering over the curve of the island’s outer side – kept bare for the sake of safety and comfort. Some people visited the ‘Sea once, and left never to return soon after emptying their stomachs.
“Squatters, now?” She asked. Laine shook her head.
“Machine shop that does a little smuggling on the side,” she explained. “You can swing under the ‘bend and dock here quietlike with a small ship.”
“Good way out then, you reckon?”
“It’s where I’d go.”
“Vampire made it sound like we’d be outnumbered,” Knell said, fingering a holster, “I should’ve gotten some of my crew together.”
“No need to stamp up with a war-party – deputy and me used to mop nests like this all the time, just the two of us, all sly.”
“Benefit of training I don’t have,” Knell said, rolling her eyes.
“You remind me of him, which is good enough,” Laine replied.
“That good?” Knell said, leaning back, skeptical.
“Only if I don’t have to shoot you, too,” said Laine, popping another tab of gum in her mouth. “Let’s get down there,” she added, before Knell could protest, and strode on.
There was no easy way to approach the Rock – a lazily assembled catwalk a foot from the ground, patinaed with corrosion, served as the only direct ingress. Laine didn’t like the idea of being an obvious target, and insisted they skirt around on the bare rock and approach the side.
Knell didn’t like feeling as if she could fall off into the sky. No comforting engine drone under her feet to offset the angle.
But they crept up on the shadowed side of the docking pad without obviously being noticed, hunched and slow to evade the strange currents of the ‘Sea. Laine had a pouch of brightly coloured sending stones and would pause to toss one ahead now and then, watching for it to settle on the ground or arc crazily into space, so they could circle the anomalies.
“Reckon those could be an inconvenient trail,” Knell said, as a sky blue pebble corkscrewed endlessly in empty air.
“Thought of that,” Laine replied, “so these ones disintegrate if they go twenty minutes without touching a piece of stone.” She shook the bag gently, “so there’s some fucking expensive dust ever at the bottom of this.”
“Do a lot of this, do you?”
Laine pressed her shoulder to a strut on the dock, peering up as if to see over the edge. The lights of the Rock didn’t so badly obscure it from here, and they could see how the gaps worn into the structure had been plugged with machinery, or slabs of smoky reinforced glass, or just sheets of metal. Suspiciously quiet, to Knell.
“Bounty huntin’s next best thing to keeping law,” Laine muttered.
“I’ll know what to look out for if you draw a contract on me,” Knell whispered, smirking.
Laine’s only reply was a grunt, one that seemed tinged with contempt to Knell, but she was content to follow her lead as Laine eased herself onto the walkway.
Behind them was the lit circle of the empty pad, and ahead a repurposed ship’s hatch sunk into the rock.
“Quiet, no ship… we’re late?” Knell whispered.
Laine shook her head, holding up a fist. Silent. She drew a revolver that made Knell’s arm strain just to look at – the stock intricately patterned in contrast to the sinister, efficient lines of the body – and leaned against the wall at the right side of the door. Knell took the opposite side and fingered the handle of the gunblade before readying to draw pistols in instead.
Despite her uneasiness, knowing Laine’s attitude was reassuring – so far, this was exactly how Knell understood the law to operate.
Faint, droning music seeped through the seal on the hatch, and Knell realised a second too late Laine was muttering.
“…stand down, and then the suspect fights or flees. She fights, we’re holding all the iron.”
Knell nodded; the gist would be enough.
Laine spun the lock and swung the hatch inward; Knell ducked through and swept her guns across the room, aware Laine was aiming over her shoulder. Five potential targets scattered across the rough-hewn hemisphere of a room, a few turning and reaching for weapons from their places at workbenches or makeshift cover. Why they’d expect a frontal assault was lost on Knell.
“Give up the monk, and no one whistles in the wind when they leave here,” Laine growled. A pair of humans, one of the ‘Sea’s particular mutants, and a rat appeared to rethink drawing their guns, but the lone orc among them frowned.
“I may whistle at any time?” He said, uncertain, holding a repurposed rivet gun in one meaty hand.
“They won’t shoot us if we keep shady, Gwyn,” said the rat with a hint of exasperation.
The orc nodded grimly, and Knell felt a pang of guilt as she was reminded of Daffyd.
“Your bounty is the next room with our doctor,” said the rat, leaning back in his chair and tossing a compact pistol on the tabletop in front of him.
Laine stepped past Knell with a grunt of assent, taking a bundle of quick-binds from a pocket. “Gonna need to restrain you before we turn our backs, yeah?”
“Suppose so,” he sighed, “done nothing to get your attention.”
Laine merely grunted again and set about snapping the around wrists, binding the occupants one by one. She tossed three to Knell; “do the other side of the room.”
Knell holstered a gun and did as bidden, binding a pair of red-haired young men and the shade woman. Odd, even for a shade – she didn’t take violet eyes off Knell and bared sharpened teeth in a smile. The Vampire’s warning echoed in the back of Knell’s head.
“Will this take long?” one of the men asked, “only we’ve got to pick up our little brothers at sixth bell.”
Humouring him, Knell pulled out her silver pocketwatch – and as she opened her mouth, something clattered to the ground behind her. The rat had bounded to his feet, knocking his chair back against the stone wall.
“Where did you get that?!”
“This?” Knell held it up by the chain, “looted it somewhere years ago, probably.”
The rat glared, and Knell felt a familiar migraine growing.
“From a ship called The Celebrant?” He said, fur on end.
“My father’s ship?”