Chapter One: You can't tell but I'm coming for you
The air is suffocating with the acrid mix of blood, sweat, tears and bodily miss-functions. It is sour with it. Just one little whiff and it makes her skin wrinkle and her hair to deflate. Over all it just completely drags her down with the thickness of it, catching in her throat and pulling forth a heaving gag that very nearly forces her to drop forward and spew her meager dinner that she only just consumed.
I worked hard on that, she thinks, a whine echoing between her ears. Admitting defeat for a moment she staggers back out into fresh air, gasping for the tasty, clean oxygen that she had just been sinning for taking for granted. You can do this, she tells herself, a pathetic self-pep-talk if there ever was one. She shakes out her hands, bounces on her feet, prepares to pull in the biggest breath she can muster on such short notice, and then she barrels back inside, the swinging doors spanking her ass as she falters on the threshold once more.
This time, though, it’s for the sight that greets her and not the smell that just tried to murder her.
Directly in front of her, blocking the walkway up to the central bar, four big men with wild-growing beards are looming down over a slightly smaller man with pale blonde hair, much like her own, who is laughing.
Laughing in the face of such threats that the four men pose with just their fists.
Laughing even though a crooked dagger is pressed not-so-innocently to his unprotected throat.
Laughing like a moron because, essentially, that is what he is.
It’s times like these that she wishes she were an only child … or she had chosen to travel on her own.
Oh, Eiylahm, smite me now, she groans, rubbing her sore rear as she waits to figure out just what has resulted in this escalation in a card game. She has a pretty good idea, her eyes narrowing in on the card that she can just see peeking out from the sleeve of her stupid brother’s shirt. Again?
Threats are hissed, she can’t make out the exact wordage, but the message is clear. A painful demise or dismemberment and the suches, all of which has the moron swallowing thickly, face dropping pale, nodding to whatever is being spat into his face. His life depends on his answer, and it would seem that he has given the correct one because, with a promising flick of the knife to leave a reminder-gash, the four men straighten. They laugh and jeer, mock, but they look as though they’re going to let go of whatever happened to piss them off.
She breathes a sigh of relief and takes a step closer to pick up her moron of a brother—
—And realizes almost too late that she jumped to the wrong conclusion far too quickly.
The man with the dagger twists his head side to side, sharing a happy moment with his monstrous friends, and then his eyes drop to her brother and in the split second before he moves, she knows that he is going to kick her brother. Maybe in the face, hard enough to break his nose. Maybe in the shoulder, the steel-toes of his boots cracking the clavicle. Maybe he won’t even kick, but instead he will stomp down, right on her brother’s hand, fracturing the fingers beyond repair.
Either way it is something that she can’t allow to happen – not again – so as the man’s foot is being lifted off the floor she dives forward, giggling excitedly and pulling the attention onto her.
“LIAM!” she cries happily, throwing open her arms as she forces her feet to get tripped up, nearly sending her to the ground but instead crashing into a nearby table. The drinks slosh from her weight, grumbled disappointment echoing up from the man slumped face-first on the wood. “You made friends?” she wonders with forced cheer and surprise, changing her direction so that she now collapses against the nearest monster’s side. He catches her, just like she knew he would, and to keep his attention firmly on her she bats her eyelashes upwards and smiles as brightly as she can. “Aw, thanks, babe.”
“What’re you doin’ here?” her brother asks warily, eyes swiveling from her to the others, back and forth, back and forth, so fast and so long that she gets dizzy just watching him. “You were supposed to stay in tonight.”
She nods vigorously, pretending as though she’s trying to straighten but her legs won’t work so she instead latches greedily to the man who caught her. Nimble fingers make contact with the leather ties of an over-full change-purse and she can’t help herself as she quickly works the knots loose and takes what wasn’t hers but now is.
Teach him to grope me when I’m faking at being drunk, she thinks smugly.
“I did, but you weren’t around and no one was around and I was bored so I went out and they kept buying me drinks and who’m I to refuse a free drink an’ …” She trails off, letting her gaze go distant as she lets herself breathe in the scent of the tavern – a dirty man’s smell – and promptly gags on the taste that fills her throat. “’m gonna be sick,” she moans to her brother, sagging against the man holding her. “You won’t mind if I puke on your boots … d’ya?” she asks him. She bends further over and, without waiting for the man to respond, points out, “You have blood on your boots. Blood. Looks sssoo pretty.”
Liam, you had better buy me whatever I want for my birthday, she snarls in her head as she does what she had sworn to herself she would never do. Never again. Not after the first time and especially not after the fourteenth just last month.
She makes herself puke. All over the man’s boots.
Her aim is so good that she even manages to get splatters on two other feet. And maybe even a few chunks of half-digested jerk on her brother’s pants, too. Good.
She would like to say that never before has she heard grown men scream so high and so loud and react so piteously but … this isn’t the first time she has forced herself to puke to save her brother from a severe beating. It likely won’t be the last, either, no matter how many promises she makes to herself, no matter how many threats she gives trying to straighten up her brother’s gambling ways. She’ll hear it again, she knows that, though. And she’ll laugh again around the bile coating her teeth and the cramping in her gut and the smell that she is just adding to with her own gross emissions.
She’ll laugh because it’s pretty damn funny how hardened killers can turn into such babies over something so normal.
Normal for a bar, that is.
“Oh, Eiylahm, Kaethe,” Liam gushes, jumping to his feet and tilting over her. “How much did you drink? C’mon, let’s get you home. You can sleep this off. Here. Gimme your arm.” He takes it instead of waiting and pulls it across his shoulders and, when he straightens up, lifts her straight off her feet. “Oh. This won’t do. Here, I’ll take your legs.”
“NO!” she whines, flailing in his grasp, keeping up with the charade until they’re safely outside. “I want my legs! DON’T TAKE MY LEGS!”
“Easy. Easy, Kaethe. You can keep them. Just swing them up.”
She does, making sure to swing too hard and drive her knee into her brother’s nose. Liam hisses and staggers. Tears pool in his eyes and she has to fight back a smirk because now all the occupants of the bar are watching them. Many with disgust, their fingers twitching dangerously close to weapons as they itch for a brawl.
“Wee!” she giggles, and then pouts when her brother gathers her legs close and restricts any further movement. “Oh.”
“C’mon, Kaethe. Let’s get you home. You’re gonna have an awful hangover tomorrow,” he moans, walking slowly out the swinging doors and into the cool, dark night. He carries her through a few streets, keeping up a litany of soothing phrases as she still acts like a foolish drunk, but once they’re far enough from the bar he, without ceremony, drops her straight down on her butt.
“OW! What was that for?” she demands, scrambling to her feet to glare up at him, hating the nine inches he has lorded over her since he hit his growth spurt three years ago. “I just saved your dumb life!”
“I was doing fine on my own,” he snaps back. “What were you thinking, barging in there like that? You know you’re not supposed to go to bars alone, without backup”
“And what did you think you were doing? Having a get-together with all your imaginary friends?” she throws straight back, giving up on intimidation from below and instead punching him firmly just above his hip bone.
“Payback hurts, don’t it?” she crows victoriously. Her smug pleasure turns to disgruntled horror as her brother digs his shoulder into her own gut and then rolls her over his arm. “HEY! Put me DOWN!”
“No. What were you doing out? You were supposed to stay back at camp. It was my turn.”
“Yeah, and I would have followed the schedule if you hadn’t started a card game with four ogres. FOUR!”
“Who else am I going to gamble with? They’re the only ones dumb enough to put any money down. It’s not like I can pick and choose who to steal from. By the way, don’t think I didn’t notice your greedy, little fingers. You can’t go off on your high horse and lecture me on stealing when you did just that in a room FULL of mercenaries. They were all watching you. How stupid can you be?”
“Obviously very stupid. I have you for a brother,” she answers him sweetly, reaching over and pinching his butt-cheek between her fingernails. Just because.
“OW!” he yelps, jumping fairly high, at least two feet, even with her added weight. “How many times do I need to tell you to stop that? We’re not kids anymore and—”
“Then put me down!”
“Fine.” He drops her and she has to rotate to get her hands and feet under her. As it is she barely manages to turn into a crouch before she can belly-flop onto the brick pavers. “Very cat-like there, Kae. Not only do you have nine lives but you also have a feline’s grace.”
Her response is to hiss at him.
“And expression of anger,” Liam adds. “Now c’mon. I did manage to eavesdrop on a hush-hush conversation before I got challenged into that card game. You’re going to want to hear about what’s happening in two weeks.”
“Oh really?” she snorts indignantly, rising to her feet with a pop of her left knee.
“Yes, now c’mon.” He grabs her sleeve and turns down a narrow alley, shimming along with her leisurely following along. They exit the alley and crisscross through several more before hitting a twenty foot wall that is meant to deter the lesser-folk of the city from mingling with the pompous. Not for a second do they bat an eye at the height, Kaethe taking the lead as she sprints to a corner, scaling up with an ease that only comes from life-long commitment to such activities. Fingers and toes find narrow spaces in the chipped and cracking brick, and soon she is swinging herself to land lightly at the top of the wall.
Moving over a foot she gives Liam the space to join her just a moment later.
“Here good enough?” she asks, crossing her legs as she perches herself comfortably at the edge.
Her brother nods, but instead of lounging to discuss the route of a caravan in need of its load being lightened, he gets up and starts pacing. It’s nervous energy, she can see, his fingers fiddling with the hem of his shirt, knuckles cracking in pattern. Not often has she seen her brother frazzled. Of the two of them he is the cool and collected one, soft spoken and easy to get along with. He has his moments, such as dares to join card games like tonight, but on the usual he acts lazier than one would expect.
“What did you hear?” she presses, her eyes narrowing because whatever it is must be very, very important … or very, very bad. “Did you do something?” she wonders.
“No,” he grumbles. “It wasn’t anything I did. It wasn’t anything, really. Just a mention about the tournament to be held in two weeks over at Arq’hen. The best of the best to battle it out to see who will be declared the Akelda’s Champion.”
“The same thing that is to be held every year,” she states, lifting a hand to pick at the dirt stuck beneath a nail. “So? What does that have to do with us? We’re not going. I don’t care how much the prize money is. We’re not that desperate that we need to risk our lives like that.”
“It’s not about the money, Kaethe,” Liam sighs, tugging a hand through his hair, frustrated because he can’t convey what he wants to – or so she supposes. “The front-runner, the one who is set to win the entire tournament, the one that everyone is betting on to make it to the final … I only heard a vague description but I’m just about completely positive who it is.” Her brother turns to her. His eyes are wide, and his lower lip is being worried between his teeth.
She knows that look. It’s one she has mirrored more times than she cares to count. Her mouth drops open in shock. “No …”
Liam nods, the severity of the situation weighing heavily on his shoulders as they droop low. “Yes. Dark hood, Stains up and down his arms, doesn’t have a solitary weapon, brutal and without mercy.”
“But … but that could be anyone,” she tries, going for logical even though her gut is fluttering with the stirrings of hope.
“It could be, but … they called him Crowe. I haven’t heard of anyone else being given that name.”
That settles it. Not the explanation but the very name her brother has uttered. It is enough. More than enough. It is all the information she needs, really, to make up her mind.
Kaethe’s stomach flips and she is suddenly grateful she had the ignorant foresight to puke up her dinner. She pushes hurriedly to her feet, dusting off the seat of her pants. “Get the others. Meet me back at camp. We leave tonight.”
“We’re going to Arq’hen, Liam. It’s about time we caught that turd-muffin.”
Her brother barks out a laugh, shaking his head as he goes to drop back down to the streets below. “You do know that I’m older than you, right? By like … like a few minutes.”
She rolls her eyes, heading in the opposite direction on the roof. “You may have popped out first but you definitely aren’t smarter than me.”
“No, I think you mean I’m not as bossy as you. You, dear sister, are a control freak.”
She is unconcerned. Shrugging she says, “Same difference. I’ll see you in an hour. We’re leaving the second you guys get back so make sure you take your bathroom breaks before coming. We’re not stopping.”
Liam dips into a mocking bow, fluttering his arms as he says, “Yes, milady.”“Shut up,” she snaps with a frown, and then leaps to the next roof as she starts her sprint out of the city.
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