Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: The Seventh General
Next: Darclyian Circus


 

Ahren braced himself inside the coffin-like box.

“Saint Vishtin, this thing is heavy,” a guard grunted, carrying one end of the long, brass-bound crate.

“Put it over there,” his deep-voiced partner said.

The men carried it several feet before setting it down with a careless thud. Listening to the two men shuffle back and forth, Ahren remained still, suppressing his urge to peek outside. Katze never ceased to laugh that the Black Raven, the greatest thief in Delakurn, didn’t like the dark. He had told her the story of Dolch, the thief master with the powers of demonic darkness whom he had crossed years before, but Katze had waved it off as silly paranoia. Reluctantly Ahren succumbed to her pleas to extinguish the lamp he burned beside their bed at night.

Muted thunder echoed outside.

“Damn it,” one of the guards growled as they slid another crate on top of Ahren’s.

“Hurry up and get the rest before it starts raining.”

Ahren’s pulse quickened as the men worked. The hair on his legs tingled as if the blackness was slithering along him, smothering him. A thud came from outside as another crate was unloaded followed by several smaller boxes.

“That’s it. Let’s go.” The heavy warehouse door groaned shut and the men’s wagon squeaked away.

Ahren slid a latch beside his head and peered out a tiny hole. A wooden box rested inches beside his, preventing him from opening the side door to his crate. Turning over, he checked the peephole on the other side and found a support pillar standing beside him. There was no way he could open the door with enough room to escape. He rolled onto his sweating palms and peeked out the hole at his head to find it clear. Holding the leather strap so the door wouldn’t fall open, he unlatched the small door and lowered it quietly to the floor.

Lightning erupted outside through the narrow windows, filling the huge room with fleeting light. Shadows flickered along rows of crates and stacked barrels. A loud crash of thunder shook stone walls.

He peered around to ensure he was alone, and then slid from the confining box that had held him for six dreadful hours. Stretching his legs and back, Ahren surveyed the massive room. No thief in over two centuries had successfully entered the Royal Warehouses. Carved, emotionless faces stared down at him from the tops of the stone columns, cast orange from torches beside the main door. Wavy, leaded glass sealed the windows along the upper walls. Nobles and wealthy merchants paid too high a price for housing their goods only to have them spoiled by the elements.

Soft taps drummed the ceiling above as rain began to fall.

Squinting in the dim light, Ahren walked the aisles between stacks of crates, and bolts of fabric. He wished he could carry one of the burning torches, but the moving light in the windows could alert one of the guards along the palisade outside. Dark shadows seemed to move and flood around him as he searched. Another flash of lightning burst, sending the shadows scurrying away. Gold glinted on the second floor loft. Ahren made his way to a steep stairway and hurried to the top.

Dim light, cast through the narrow arched windows circling the second floor, made it much easier to see. Pulses flashed through the cloudy skies outside, illuminating the other warehouses crowded within the fortified walls.

A small gilded chest rested atop a stack of large polished trunks. Lifting the heavy box, Ahren set it on the floor and removed the tools from his pouch. He slipped the wire picks into the gold-trimmed lock and worked. The closing shadows crept nearer as if curious. The growing patter of rain on the roof nearly drowned out the click as the lock opened.

Carefully, Ahren opened both sides of the rounded lid. A black leather bag, stitched with gold thread rested inside. Its contents softly clacked as he lifted it out. Squeezing the soft calfskin, he felt six distinct round lumps like acorns. The buyer said there were to be five. Ahren untied the golden cord holding the bag shut and slowly pulled it open. A bright beam of light peeked out the tiny opening. Quickly, he drew it closed. The gems were definitely inside. But he couldn’t open the bag in view of the windows. With a smile, Ahren drew out a long raven’s quill from his pouch, dropped it into the empty chest, and relocked it before returning the box atop the trunks.

A deafening boom of thunder rattled the window panes as Ahren slinked back down the stairs. Wind whistled outside as the rain grew harder. Clutching the leather bag, he crawled back into the crate and pulled the trapdoor shut. The unsettling darkness immediately closed in; Ahren opened the leather pouch.

Iridescent rays of light burst from the pouch, flooding the wooden box, scattering the shadows. Ahren reached inside the soft leather and drew out a faceted gemstone. Light, equivalent to a single candle, glowed within the crystal’s walls, bursting from each of its many faces like a prism in the sun. Squinting, he peered into the bag to see five more brilliant gems resting within the black velvet lining.

The extra plamya stone was an unexpected surprise. A burglar could find many uses for a light without flame. It would make a fine gift for Katze.

Ahren dropped the gem back into the bag and cinched it before opening the crate. He knelt beside one of the other boxes from the shipment he arrived in, and unlocked it. The gray uniform of a Lichthafen guard lay tightly folded inside. Bright bursts of lightning erupted outside as Ahren stripped off his clothes and dressed in the cold, heavy chain mail and hard boots. He cinched a sword belt around his waist, then stuffed his clothes into the box and locked it.

Pulling the heavy guard’s helmet over his head, he headed back upstairs.  The hard boots clonked across the wooden floor as he approached the back window. He peered through the streaked, wavy glass to see dark rooftops silhouetted behind the perimeter wall. A single guard stood huddled out of the rain, beneath one of the tower overhangs. The grounds below appeared empty of patrols. Ahren waited until the guard turned his attention out toward the city, then opened and closed the leather bag of plamya stones. Somewhere on the seemingly empty rooftops Katze would have seen his signal.

He slipped the bag beneath his dingy tabard and headed downstairs. One of the flickering torches waned, then burnt out, sending up wisps of gray smoke. Shadows encroached inward, patiently anticipating the other flame’s impending departure. The patter of rain on the roof came in waves with the wind.

Ahren waited.

Weak blue flames clung to the dying second torch as a bell outside tolled three times in the yard. Ahren extinguished the light, then cracked open the warehouse door. The grounds were mostly empty. A pair of drenched soldiers hurried past, toward the front gate for the shift change. Ahren took a breath, then slipped outside.

Cold rain pelted his face. A cascade of water fell beside him from the slated roof, splattering off the dark cobblestones. Stepping beneath the pouring water, Ahren drenched himself, giving the appearance that he too had been standing in the rain.

Casually, he strolled between the towering warehouses and silos, slowly making his way toward the front gate. He crossed the open courtyard past a stone well when he noticed a group of fresh soldiers standing beneath the covered awning before the gate. An officer in a trimmed and embroidered cloak nailed a poster to the wall.

“Keep your eye out,” he said. “He’s here somewhere.”

Squinting, Ahren could see his own face sketched on the tan parchment, ‘WANTED: The Black Raven’ boldly lettered above it. Lowering his face, Ahren feigned scratching his eyebrow as he turned and headed back.

The weight of paranoia settled in his chest. Who had tipped the guards? How did they even know I was here? Only the buyer, Katze, and Griggs, her father and Thief King, knew where he was. None of them would have betrayed him. He took a long breath to calm himself, then nonchalantly strolled toward the outer wall.

“Hey you,” a graying soldier said. “There’s a thief about. Keep on the lookout.”

Ahren nodded, and then hurried up the stone steps along the outer wall. The strong wind blew harder as he reached the top. Lightning cracked the sky, briefly illuminating the rooftops and stormy sea outside the city. Keeping his head low, as if to shield it from rain, he followed the narrow walkway around to the rear side.

The sentry standing below the tower overhang left his position as Ahren approached. “Have fun,” he chuckled, mistaking Ahren for his replacement.

Ahren smiled as he passed.

“Halt!” someone yelled from the courtyard.

Ahren pretended not to hear.

“I said, halt!”

Ahren stopped beside a spot where the roof of an outside building leaned out over the neighboring street, just a few feet from the wall. He turned to see the officer and a trio of soldiers standing in the courtyard glaring up at him. The freshly relieved sentry stood not fifteen feet away with a confused expression.

“Who are you?” the officer asked.

“Fritz,” Ahren replied.

The officer’s eyes narrowed. “Stay right there.” His hand moved to his sword as he marched toward the wall’s steps. Two other soldiers hurried to the stairs on the wall behind him. The guard on the wall reached for his sword.

Ahren raised his hand high above his head in a tight fist.

The sentry stepped closer. “I don’t know you.”

Ahren opened and closed his fist three times.

An arrow flew from the darkened rooftops and pierced the guard's arm. The sword fell from his hand as he dropped to the stones with a cry.

“Archer!” someone shouted.

Wheeling around, Ahren ran and leaped across the chasm to the nearby rooftop. The heavy mail shirt pulled him down, but he managed to catch the edge and roll onto the wet shingles. Guards screamed in alarm as he scrambled to his feet and ran. Arrows whistled past, covering Ahren’s retreat.

Thunder boomed as Ahren jumped to a neighboring rooftop. His hard boots slid on the slick incline, sending him over the edge. He grabbed hold of the wooden eaves and caught himself before he fell to the cobblestones three stories below.

“There he is!” a guard cried.

Ahren pulled himself up and swung his leg onto the roof. He turned to see several soldiers leap from the wall onto the building behind him. Why did Katze stop shooting?

Rolling to his feet, Ahren ran as the soldiers gave chase. He raced past chimneys and scrambled up onto a higher building, desperate to reach her. The warehouse alarm bells had alerted the city guards, who scurried through the streets below trying to find him. Ahren jumped to a flat rooftop and froze.

Katze stood on the opposite end, her eyes wide in terror. Her bow lay at her feet. Black strands of wet hair clung to her face. A shadow moved behind her and a wavy dark blade formed at Katze’s neck.

A pale man with jet hair emerged from the darkness. A long scar ran down his face across a milky eyeball; the remnants from the last time they had met. “Good to see you again, Black Raven,” Dolch sneered.

“Ah…Ahren,” Katze whimpered.

“Let her go,” Ahren growled.

An amused smile curled across Dolch’s lips. He jerked the blade and blood burst from Katze’s throat.

Screaming, Ahren ripped his sword from its sheath and charged as Katze’s body fell. Black flames erupted in Dolch’s hand. He hurled the fiery ball across the rooftop.

Ahren sprang to the side. The demonic flames hit a chimney behind him and crackling ice spread over the wet bricks. He jumped and rolled back just as another ball of black fire hit where he had been. Squeezing the sword handle, Ahren lunged.

An echoey laugh escaped the demon-man’s lips. He leaped back onto the low wall surrounding the roof, and then jumped over the side.

Ahren dropped to his knee and lifted Katze’s crumpled body. Her dark eyes stared dreamily up at him, and then faded. Running his fingers across her soft face, he brushed back her black hair and closed her eyes. She lay still, as though calmly sleeping in his arms. Pink smears stained the colorless skin around the deep wound. Streams of diluted blood coursed along the wet rooftop and funneled out the drain to the streets below. “Katze,” he wept, pulling her close. Tears ran down his rain-spattered face. He squeezed her tight. “I’m sorry.”

“There he is!” someone shouted.

Glancing up, Ahren spied a pair of soldiers racing from the neighboring rooftop. Sadness melted into rage. Heat poured though his veins. He laid her body at his feet and stood.

“He’s killed someone,” one of them cried.

“Halt!”

Ignoring his pursuers, Ahren peered over the wall which Dolch had jumped. Lightning erupted above. Four stories below, the demon-man stood in a narrow alleyway looking up at him.

“Here I am, Black Raven,” he laughed. “Come on.”

Ahren jumped to the neighboring building and slid down the steep rooftop.

“He’s getting away,” the soldier shouted. “He’s going down to the street!”

Ahren dropped onto a small balcony and swung over the side to the railing of the floor below. Clutching the edge, he dropped to the filthy alley floor. He charged along the passage back to where he’d last seen his foe standing.

Turning a corner, he ducked as another ball of cursed fire flew past him. Black flames licked up the wall of a wooden shop, chewing into the wet timbers coating them in crackling ice. Undaunted, Ahren clutched his sword and moved into the alley. With an evil smile, Dolch reached down and tore a square iron sewer grate from the ground.

Jingling mail and clomping boots sped up the passageway from the far side.

A young soldier hurried around the corner, followed close behind by his partner. “Halt!”

Wheeling around, Dolch hurled the massive grate across the passage. It slammed into the soldier’s body, knocking him into a stone wall with a terrible clatter, nearly pinching him in half. Blood and broken chips of rock exploded across the walls. With Dolch’s back turned, Ahren charged. He swiped his sword through air as the demon-man jumped into the sewers.

Shouts and thundering boot steps raced from both ends of the alley. Crouching low, Ahren lowered himself down the wooden ladder into the black hole.

Sounds of pouring water reverberated through the dark tunnel. Lightning burst outside, momentarily flashing down the entrance shaft and a second grate forty feet up the passage. A walkway stretched between them, running alongside a muddy, fast-moving stream. Cascades of water gushed from small openings spaced along the upper wall, feeding the rushing sewer.

“He went down there,” someone cried from above.

“Fetch torches,” another voice barked. “Alert the others to flush him out. That bastard won’t get away.”

Adjusting to the near darkness, Ahren peered up and down the passage. Fear balled in his gut as he imagined silky fingers of shadow entwining around his throat.

A low voice whispered from the shadows behind him. I see you, Black Raven.

Clutching his sword, Ahren spun to face his enemy.

Are you afraid? The voice came from above.

Ahren shot his hand beneath his soaking tabard and pulled a plamya stone from the leather bag. Thin beams of prismatic light shone from the small crystal, pushing the darkness back. Ahren looked all around him, but saw no trace of the demon-man.

You should be. The voice echoed from the passage ahead. I’m not through with you.

Slick grime coated the narrow walkway alongside the sewer reservoir. Sticking close to the wall, Ahren followed the tunnel to where the voice had come. He held the magical stone low, trying to keep from ruining his night vision. Brown insects scuttled along the path, retreating from the rising water. Horizontal lines of leaves and debris along the walls verified the tunnels’ history of flooding.

The sewer curved then narrowed to a low tunnel. Stooping, Ahren peered into the long passage. A pointed arch roof, four feet at its peak, extended the length of the tunnel. A narrow crawlway ran along the side, not more than a foot across.

Did the mighty Black Raven think I would never find him? Did you believe I would forget you; forget what you did to me?

Lowering to his knees, Ahren crawled into the narrow passage. Swift, foul water rushed only inches away. Pungent slime gripped the walls, reeking of filth and rot. Fresh prints from soft leather soles ran down the walkway. Curling his nose from the overwhelming stink, Ahren followed the path until coming to a set of rusted iron bars across the tunnel. Their attempt to block anyone’s passage had been thwarted by saws decades before, leaving the jagged remnants hanging from the ceiling like sinister teeth. A chamber opened up beyond it, filled with a wide lagoon. Ahren’s small light failed to reach the walls. Crawling under the bars into the room would leave him too vulnerable if Dolch were waiting inside.

Removing a second gem from his bag, Ahren tossed it as far as he could into the chamber. He risked cracking the gem, releasing its magic, but Ahren no longer cared about the client's prize. The glow of the light spun across the stone walls as it sailed past to finally bounce to a stop just short of the far side thirty feet away. Three tunnels fed into the chamber lagoon which emptied out Ahren’s passage and another just like it. Arched bridges linked the wide walkway circling the room. In one quick move, Ahren slipped through the cut bars and into the chamber, ready to defend himself.

Keeping on guard, he circled the room to retrieve the glowing stone. As he knelt to pick it up, voices came from the passage beside him.

“There’s a light down there.”

“It could be him. Be careful.” Orange torch light flickered from the hall.

Closing his fist around the glowing gemstone, Ahren hurried into an adjoining passage. Crouching in the shadows, he peered back to see five Lichthafen soldiers carrying torches emerge into the large room.

“He couldn’t have made it far,” their leader said. He motioned to one of the passages. “Jan, Bemot, you take that way. The rest, follow me.” He and two of his men turned and quickly marched toward the tunnel in which Ahren hid.

Still clutching the stone, Ahren hurried along the dark passage, trying to keep ahead of the soldiers’ torchlight. The tunnel turned unexpectedly and Ahren nearly slipped into the raging current. The marching guards drew closer. Keeping his hand against the wall for guidance, he rushed through the black passage as fast as he could manage.

Lightning flickered through a sewer grate ahead, momentarily illuminating the long tunnel. Gushing water poured from a rectangular hole near the ceiling ahead. There were no side passages or alcoves for him to hide. The flickering lights grew brighter as the soldiers neared. Before they turned down the passage, Ahren raced to the cascading waterfall and pressed himself against the wall behind it. The cold water, polluted with filth from the city streets, flowed over his body.

“He must be close,” one of them said as they neared.

Ahren held his breath. He could barely hear past the sound of running water.

“Be careful,” the officer said, walking past the cascade. “He killed a girl and one of our men already.”

“What does he look like?” a whiney-voiced soldier asked.

“He was dressed as a guard when he fled the warehouses, but now he’s changed into all black.”

“When we find him, I’m…”

Ahren waited for his pursuers to turn down the far side before emerging from the rank water. He loosened his grip from the gem, spilling out light, and hurried back the other way. Torchlight from the other two soldiers still lingered in the far passage. He started toward the tunnel from which the guards had come, when he heard Dolch’s voice behind him.

Wrong way, Black Raven.

He whirled but found no one there. Across the room, the shadows within the second exiting tunnel seemed unnaturally thick. Opening his hand more, rays of light sprung from between his fingers and pierced the inky darkness.

Nothing.

He crossed the bridges over the canals and crept closer to the low exiting tunnel. Like its companion, the rusted iron bars meant to block passage had long been cut. Keeping his grip tight on his sword, Ahren carefully maneuvered through the jagged hole and onto the narrow crawlway inside.

The torrential water had risen to just inches below the pathway. The current’s echoing roar filled the tunnel. Knotted strands of moss hung from the dripping stones above and brushed along Ahren’s neck and back as he crawled as fast as he safely could. The tunnel opened into a wide, arched passage.

Squinting, he tried to see into the dark walkway, but the gem’s meager light provided little help. He tossed the plamya stone ahead. The light skipped off the filthy floor, illuminating the mortared brick side tunnels as it passed. The stone skittered, about to stop, then vanished, plunging the passage in blackness.

Panicked, Ahren drove his hand under his tabard. The soaked leather bag had swollen, making it difficult to uncinch. Blindly, he managed a finger inside the pouch and pulled out another gem.

He held it out, expecting to see the demon-man before him, but the shadows were empty. Still cautious, he crawled from the tight passage and stepped onto the wider pathway. Bits of refuse and moldy rat bones littered the ground. Creeping closer to where the last stone had disappeared, he saw that the walkway ended where a second stream cut through, intersecting with the large sewer. He peered into the dingy, brown-foamed water, hoping to spot the glow of the plamya stone beneath the waves, but saw nothing. The current had swept it away.

Lose something, Raven? Dolch’s voice chuckled. Tell me, is it the treasure or the woman that you mourn the most?

Ahren’s knuckles tightened around the sword handle. Holding out his light he scanned the passageway. He saw no sign of his quarry, but the rib-like arches lining the tunnel left dozens of dark hiding places. Something moved in the shadowy distance down the hall. Ahren turned in time to see Dolch step from an alcove and hurl a fistful of stygian fire.

Ahren leaped down the side passage just as the black flames exploded against the stones behind him. A hard wave of cold hit him as frost sheeted across the wall. Glancing back, he saw his attacker flee down the passage.

Rolling to his feet, Ahren hopped across the open canal and gave chase. The tunnel snaked from side to side, broken by iron grates pouring water from the streets above. He turned a corner and found himself in a wide chamber where two surging streams joined.

“Halt!”

Ahren jumped to see a soaked soldier carrying a lantern hurrying up the other passage toward him.

“Where did you get that?” the man asked, pointing his sword at the plamya stone in Ahren’s hand.

“Back there,” Ahren replied. “The thief must have dropped it.”

“You’re with the warehouse guards,” he said stepping closer. “Where’s the rest of your men?”

“We got separated.”

The soldier nodded. “Me too. Have you seen…” He stopped. “What’s that?” Holding his lantern high, he aimed the light across the rapid water. The yellow glow swept across the gray stones then froze.

Dolch crouched against the upper far wall like a spider, clutching a black wriggling blade of solid shadow. His single blue eye glinted as inky flame erupted in his other hand, dripping hissing drops between his curled fingers.

Staggering back, the terrified soldier cried out as Dolch hurled his evil magic. The black fire burst, engulfing the soldier in dark flames, extinguishing his lantern. Cracks spider-webbed across his screaming face and chunks of icy flesh broke off. Slapping at the cursed flames, he fell face first, sizzling to the ground.

Ahren sprang to the side as another fistful of fire flew from the demon-man’s hand. The frigid blast hurled him forward, knocking the glowing stone from his hand. The ground slid away as Ahren fell into the rushing water.

The cold sewage slammed into him, rolling him end over end. His steel helmet fell off, but the heavy chain shirt dragged him down. Chunks of sweeping debris smashed into his fingers as he blindly struggled to grab hold of anything. He slid across the sewer floor, pounding into the hard walls and tumbling back every time he tried to reach the surface. His lungs burned for air. Foul water pushed its way through his tight lips and up his nostrils.

His battered hands managed to grab hold of a loosened stone along the wall. Fighting the torrential surge, he managed to pull his head above the waves long enough to gasp a short breath before the current yanked him away. He struggled to remove the chain mail shirt, but to no success. His strength waned and he felt euphoria wash away his panic as he began to drown.

He slammed into something hard. Water rushed around him, pinning him to a set of iron bars stretched across the canal. Chunks of wood, torn cloth and other refuse clung to the rusted bars. Grabbing hold of the sharp, slimy metal he pulled himself to the surface. Coughing and sputtering, Ahren found the walkway embankment and crawled onto the filthy stone. His stomach heaved and he vomited putrid water.

Still panting, Ahren rolled onto his back. His fingers felt along his stomach, finding the plamya bag still tucked beneath his drenched tabard. He had light, but his sword lay somewhere at the bottom of the canal. Removing one of the glowing gems would help him see, but leave him exposed. If Dolch or any of the soldiers scouring the labyrinth found him, it was over.

Taking a deep breath, Ahren rose to his feet. His hand moved along the smooth stone wall beside him as he blindly followed the passage. The roar of rushing water filled the darkness, but Ahren focused his ears, listening for the faintest sounds buried beneath.

Lightning flickered through the street grates above, momentarily illuminating the tunnel ahead. The arched passage appeared empty save a pair of black rats fleeing the rising water. He continued onward.

The passage sloped slightly upward as it turned. Torchlight flickered ahead and Ahren crouched in the corner. A pair of armed soldiers marched toward him. Ahren’s disguise had worked before, but he knew not to risk it. He inched back, ready to retreat, but they turned into a side passage instead. Ahren waited for their light to move away before hurrying past and continuing on.

Lightning pulsed above, briefly showing the tunnel split just ahead of him. Sticking to the left side, he made his way carefully toward the divide when another flash lit the tunnels. Dolch moved from a nook in the shadows.

Fear lurched inside Ahren’s gut. He dropped lower, readying for an unseen attack. Another flickering pulse flashed from above, lighting the tunnel long enough for him to see the demon-man heading toward the right passage.

Ahren waited several long breaths before moving from his place. Carefully, he followed the walkway toward the left tunnel. Again the passage veered to the side, and he spied a colorful glow through a low passage ahead.

Water overflowed from the canal, and now splashed under his feet as he hurried toward the plamya stone’s glow. Dropping to his knees, he crawled quickly through a cramped tunnel, before emerging in the passage.

The soldier’s body still lay face down on the stone, his extended hand inches from his fallen sword. Rainbow hues shone from the glowing gem resting only a few feet away. Its narrow prismatic beams danced off the encroaching water and reflected across the chamber walls.

Ahren scanned the rest of the passage to be certain he was alone, and then hurried from the low tunnel to the man’s sword. He leaned to pick it and the glowing stone up, but stopped.

He rolled the body over. The man’s pitted and broken face was beyond recognition. Ahren pulled the now corroded helmet from the dead man’s head. Bits of blond hair and scalp peeled off with it. He scraped them away and put the helmet on. Checking the body for anything else, he removed a copper medallion of rank and put it around his neck. The corpse watched him with ruptured and dimpled white eyes. Teeth grinned up from his lipless mouth. Ahren rolled the body into the surging current beside him. Its chain shirt dragged it instantly to the bottom. Ahren looked around one last time, then lay face down on the ground with his outstretched fingers brushing the fallen sword.

A thin film of water ran past his face along the stone, slowly covering the walkway. Ahren remained still. Sneaking up on the demon-man was hopeless, as would be a straight-out fight. Dolch expected him to be irrational. He was counting on Ahren’s emotions to weaken him. Ahren had spent much of his life around killers, and the true ones all told him the same thing: emotions got you killed. He had to bury his. Forget the darkness. Forget Katze. Only when it was done could he mourn her.

The water crept higher, past the helmet’s nose guard, and flowed against his face. Dancing light across the chamber walls waned as the rising water threatened to consume the half-submerged plamya stone. He’d need to move soon.

He remained still. The rising water touched his lips. Soft tingles moved across Ahren’s back and neck. Through the corner of his eye, he spied shadowy tendrils snake across the walls. A faint splash came from behind him and ripples moved past.

Holding his breath, Ahren watched black soft leather boots creep past, only inches from his face. Fear and anger welled inside him, but Ahren suppressed them.

He waited until Dolch had moved past, and then slowly lifted his head. The demon-man’s back was to him. Wrapping his fingers around the wooden sword handle, Ahren lifted the blade. Water poured off him as he rose.

Dolch stopped and turned. His one eye widened is surprise, a blade of darkness springing to solidity in his hand.

Clenching his eyes, Ahren raised the soldier’s sword and swung, bringing it down hard on the glowing gem lying in the water between them.

A deafening boom erupted, trembling the walls and vibrating the bones in Ahren chest. Hot water splashed across his face as he held tight to keep the sword from flying from his hand. Redness filled his vision behind his tightly closed eyes as the magical gem exploded.

He opened his eyes to see trailing sparks, like miniature comets, shooting across the room, ricocheting off the water and bouncing off the grimy walls. Some sputtered and glowed as they flew burning beneath the muddy waves. A semicircle of hot steel glowed in Ahren’s blade where it had struck the gem.

Holding his eye, Dolch staggered back. He screamed in fury and black flames erupted in his open fist.

Ahren surged to his feet and lunged. Blindly, the demon-man threw his cursed fire. Ducking to the side, Ahren swatted it away with his sword. The hot blade steamed and shattered a foot from the hilt.

The bounding sparks began to fade and darkness encroached. Ahren sprang forward. He side-stepped a wild swing of Dolch’s black sword and drove the broken blade deep into the man's gut. Blood oozed over the handle and across his fingers. Orange lights grew around them as Ahren stared deep into Dolch’s one blue eye and shoved the blade deeper, twisting it upward.

The demon-man’s mouth hung open in a shocked stare. The black blade in his grasp wavered then dissipated. He staggered back, the broken sword jutting from his body, and fell into the raging current.

A hand grabbed Ahren’s shoulder and he spun around. Three soldiers with torches stood behind him. The leader said something, but Ahren couldn’t hear above the ringing in his ears. He shook his head.

“I said, good work,” the soldier yelled. “You killed the Black Raven.”

Ahren could only stare at him in shock.

“We heard an explosion and got here just in time. Are you okay, sir?”

“I…I killed him,” Ahren said, regaining his composure.

The soldier slapped him on the back. “That you did. Come. Let’s get out of here before the damned place floods.”

Ahren’s body ached as the adrenaline wore away. He followed the soldiers down a long passage before coming to a ladder to the surface.

“Good thing we found you,” the sergeant said. “What squad are you with, sir?”

“Merchant District,” Ahren lied. He pulled himself up the ladder to the raining street above. “Sergeant, how many more men are down there?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe a dozen.”

“Give me a few minutes to collect myself,” Ahren said. “You and your men do a quick sweep. Get our boys out of there before it fills up.”

The soldier nodded, and led his men back down into the tunnel. Ahren waited a few moments, enjoying the rain washing away the grime coating his body, then hurried several blocks back toward the Royal Warehouses.

He slowed in an alleyway looking out across the street to the building on which Katze had died. A lone soldier sat on the bench of a horse cart, staring down a narrow passage. A soaked dun tarp lay rolled around a dead body in the back.

Ahren threw his shoulders back and marched toward the cart. “You, what are you doing?”

“Waiting for them to bring the bodies out,” the bearded soldier replied.

Ahren jabbed his finger toward the rolled tarp in the back. “Who’s that?”

“A girl, sir. The Black Raven murdered her before running into the sewers. He killed a soldier there too.”

“Why don’t you go help them carry our fallen brother instead of sitting here. Men are dying!”

“B…but…the cart, sir,” he stammered.

“I’ll watch the cart. You go.”

The man nodded. “Yes, sir.” He scrambled from the bench and hurried down the alley.

Ahren watched him leave, then crawled up onto the bench and drove the cart and Katze’s body away.

 

#

The next night, Ahren and her father brought Katze outside the city and buried her on a hilltop overlooking the bay. Dressed in a gown of white they laid her in her grave with one of the glowing plamya stones upon her chest. The buyer would have to settle for three of the magical gems instead of five. This one was hers, so the darkness would never touch her again.

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