The room was quiet; everything gleamed under the light, polished to a high shine. The mahogany bookshelves, the black walnut desk from Samarkand. Small trinkets won over years of royal visits littered the shelves and tables, all winking in the late morning sunshine. They reigned over their small domain, the earth replaced by stone floors and a plush rug – a silk import from Chaoxiang, the capitol city of the Eastern Kingdom. It had been a gift on one of Logan's diplomatic visits to their Emperor, offered along with generous amounts of gold all forged in the symbols of their religion. He had melted them down into sovereigns the day he returned, storing them away among the growing pile locked in his treasury.
Logan slid a silver letter opener across his desk, rolling the heavy handle in his hand. The wood was inlaid with thick hide, dyed green and edged with gold filigree. The blade of the opener shone, the bright whiteness of light sliding along the knife next to reflections of the dark leather. Darkness chasing light; death chasing behind life. Logan sighed and cast the opener aside, rising to stand over the focal point of the room.
It was a table, round and heavy. Its top crested and fell away in jagged formations. Logan touched the whiteness of one point, expecting it to be cold. Mountains – they were mountains. It was a marvel of Will, one of magic's greatest inventions. His brooding over it was not a comment on the table itself, but on his complete inability to use it.
Several months ago, Logan found a spellcaster in a remote village of the Edgelands, which pressed against the northern borders of Albion like a cheek against a pillow. Separated by the Ironwash River, the Edgelands bore scattered remnants of many cultures that came before. One village was known for having been the sanctuary for a group of powerful Seers who had fled during the fall of the Old Kingdom. The Enlightened, as they were known, had established a settlement in the middle of Thorndeep forest, where they had also been rumored to have hidden the three powerful Willstones that once belonged to the Hero Academy of Albion. All countries had their tales of Heroes, especially those of Heroes who had fled during the great purge that led to the fall of the Old Kingdom when Heroes became tyrants and the common people turned on their former protectors. The Edgelands, however, had more than a few campfire stories to prove their heritage. Though they did not possess the Will of Heroes, minor spellcasters called Toveriji had been known to exist within Thorndeep for generations. It was one of these that Logan had brought back to work the magic of his mother's map table.
Unfortunately, the woman had died in the effort. Her primitive magic only afforded Logan and Reaver a window of entry that could have resulted in their deaths – either by rending of their bodies in the closing of that window, or starvation in the Sanctuary after years of trapped isolation. Logan had counted on that Toveriji too much, but it had to be done. He would cross whatever ocean – whether physical or spectral – necessary to get his sister back. She would learn her place and, in time, would become useful to the war Logan had been preparing to fight for nearly five years.
The map table remained stoically unresponsive to any further efforts of the King since his return from the Sanctuary six months ago. Jasper had been with him then; he wondered if the old butler's death had somehow locked the door. Perhaps with Aurora's flight from responsibility, Jasper had become the table's commander. Which would mean the only way to once again control the table would be to capture Aurora.
Furious at the thought, Logan grabbed the letter opener from the surface of his desk and threw it at the hearth behind the table. It spun and stuck into the upper lip of the hearth's mouth. The handle vibrated from the force of his rage, the polished silver casting sharp arrows of light into his eyes. As it slowed and stilled, the light merely glinted off its surface, the shadows still chasing it up the blade and handle.
Shadows; darkness. Logan's face began to sweat. He had less than two years now until the Darkness and its greatest general, the Crawler, came to Albion's shores. An infestation of unholy grime and shadow, sucking the life from everything it touched. It had destroyed the faraway lands and would soon run out of nourishment. And then he would be out of time.
"Tsk, tsk, Your Majesty. You should learn to better control that temper."
The voice was like silk and smoke wrapped into one. When Logan turned, the light spilling through the door cut her shape into an hourglass that would make a weaker man seethe. As it was, Logan merely stared at her, keeping his expression blank.
"Rose," Logan swept around the corner of his desk, the exactness of each movement a testament to years of army training. "Please, come in."
She sashayed into the room, the murkiness slipping off her like a shawl as she stepped into the path of the windows behind his desk. No more shocked than the eyes of many men before them, the windows seem to expand under her beauty. Everything moved with her; the walls seemed to breathe with her inside them, the rug attempting to roll up under her feet. Nature itself desired to bow and slip around her curves.
Logan shook himself. He had to keep a clear head, not get lost in foolish drivel. Without thinking, he grabbed his quill and pulled out a piece of parchment, slapping them on the desk and averting his eyes from her.
"What did you want? Do you have something new to report?"
There was the ruffle of lace and silk moving against a body, and then her porcelain hands were splayed across from him on the green leather. "Maybe, what do I get for it?"
Logan paused; in the silence, he heard the clock on his mantle ticking. A moment later, he cleared his throat and tugged the parchment closer, giving her a briefly severe look from under his brows.
"You will receive payment, as always."
Rose waited, then sighed and withdrew. She knew his moods – knew when to push and to back away. Her instincts had always struck him as remarkable. A beautiful, clever creature emerged from lowness and filth. It was nothing short of a miracle.
"Of course," Rose's tone became clipped – business-like. She folded herself into one of the chairs across from him, her expression serious.
"Your sister has returned. She is in Bowerstone Industrial."
Logan nearly dropped his quill; his head snapped to attention, no longer interested in the pretense of writing a letter; "When? Is she in custody?"
Rose tugged on her leather gloves; they clung tight to the elbow, then gave way to the sleeves of her green dress, which had an unusually high collar. Underneath the skirt, he knew, were a pair of tight black trousers and boots useful for disappearing into shadows and climbing over high places. That hair – like a house on fire, so bright it could be painful to look at under the right light – was swept up and out of the way. He remembered what it felt like to touch… slipping through his fingers as easily as water….He had to force himself to ignore her breasts, which almost defied imagination.
Smoothing her skirt, she put on her best pout of annoyance. "She escaped."
There was a brief, internal explosion of sound in Logan, then silence. He had to maintain control. Rose was right – to lose himself to anger would be weak. Aurora needed his guidance. He had to find her.
However, that did not mean those in his employ would not be punished for their error. Standing slowly, he leaned across and said through his teeth, "You. Lost. Her?"
Rose nearly preened, casually leaning back her shoulders. Logan did not miss that this very nicely showcased her bosom. "No, it was that idiot."
Logan sighed; "Which one?"
Rose looked at him from under her lashes, "The Rat Ferret."
Rose had always referred to Nigel in such derogatory terms; she was entitled, he supposed, after serving as a thief for Nigel until Logan had pulled her from obscurity and given her the training she needed to really tap into her talents. Nigel had very much returned her affections – he resented her for leaving, but resented her even more for being a better criminal and far more clever than he could ever dream of being. Nigel had begun to become less useful as of late; he wasn't bringing so much to the table anymore since most of Bowerstone now worked in the factories. It had taken years of careful intimidation to undo the power of those who would have stood in Logan's way. When he had not been able to convince them himself, representatives like Ferret had been handy, as they could do the dirty work without tarnishing Logan himself. If Nigel had found and lost Aurora, then he had outlived his utility.
"Kill him," Logan ordered, sitting back down. Inside, he was furious. Outwardly, he appeared to have moved on to the next step. Rose smiled, knowing better.
"Done – I know what you like." She murmured the last part so low he could barely hear her. It made the hair on his neck stand on end. Rose stood and stopped in front of his desk, tipping her hip out casually so that her skirt split to show off her endless legs.
Logan considered her for a moment; he could use some relief from his stress, but he didn't want a distraction today. Not when what he had been seeking was so close. Keeping eye contact, his brown to her green, he issued one order.
Aurora woke up.
The bed felt much lighter and more comfortable than when she had gone to sleep. A warm rustling to her left told her Roosevelt was stirring. As she was about to stroke his ear, the covers above her were suddenly dispatched from her person. Shocked, she turned to see the culprit.
"Wake up, Princess! Oh, would you look at that, the pair of you!"
Roosevelt yawned luxuriously, grinning at Jasper as the latter went to open the curtains. Aurora was in her room in the castle.
Her throat seemed to swell out any possibility of speech as she watched Jasper circulate the room, flooding it with as much light as the kingdom could muster. The last curtain drawn, he turned to them, the severity in his voice belayed by his twinkling expression.
"A fine sight you both are on this late morning – the kingdom is doomed."
Aurora wanted to wail.
Suddenly, she was propelled as if on strings into the courtyard. She was dressed now – it was that morning. The morning that changed everything. If this is a dream, I can wake up. Wake up, come on, wake –
"Aurora!" Elliot waved at her from one of the balconies overlooking Old Town. Roosevelt ran to him, barking.
No, Aurora thought, panicking. No, please, I can't –
But there she was, as if watching herself from afar. Smiling at Elliot, flirting. Her laughter carried across the garden; as if a spectator in her own life, she saw a servant and a palace guard smiling in their direction. Then she was back in Elliot's arms, looking up into his happy face, his dark eyes molten.
The feeling of him was so clear to her that she gave in to it. A dim part of her consciousness felt the physical manifestation of her sadness – the way her throat swelled, the sting of welling tears. But Elliot was about to kiss her and – since it was unlikely she would kiss a man she loved ever again – Aurora closed her eyes in the dream to enjoy it.
And he was ripped away from her.
Aurora fell to her knees, her arms restrained painfully behind her. Elliot and the people from Reaver's factories were being dragged from the throne room. Everyone was screaming, Aurora the loudest of them all.
"ELLIOT! NO! STOP THIS, LOGAN! STOP THIS, PLEASE-" The doors shut, Elliot's horrified face swallowed up in darkness….
"It's alright, Princess," a voice called Aurora's attention to the throne, by which Jasper stood. Her stomach roiled to see him covered in blood, dripping from injuries all over his body. His normally dapper uniform was torn and grimy, his skin the sickly color of death. Smiling with rotten teeth, he extended one hand to the throne as if offering it to her. His head tipped to one side, revealing a purple bruise wrapped around his neck in a tight ring. "We shall follow you wherever you lead us." Abruptly, he choked, his neck snapping loudly as he crumpled to the floor, his eyes rolling back into his head-
The Princess gasped, coming back to reality with a jolt. Her senses flooded – it was cold, the air wet with moisture. The cot beneath her was hard. She could smell sewage and the sour tang of rust.
She also became embarrassingly aware of tears – they had streamed down her face, her pain manifest even in unconsciousness.
Walter sat on the cot next to her, Ben standing a little distance behind him. Roosevelt was whining over her; when he saw her try to wipe her humiliation away, he began to lick off the tears, wagging his tail and fanning them all with cold air.
"Thanks, boy," she murmured, hiding her face in his black and white coat. Roosevelt whined again, nuzzling into her.
"Are you alright?" Walter whispered. His face was nettled with worry. In the tunnel, his voice sounded loud even at that volume, echoing into the empty spaces.
"I'm fine, just a bad dream, nothing more." Aurora forced herself not to look at Finn, whom she was sure would be mocking her. Unbeknownst to her, she was wrong.
"It was a bloody night terror if I ever saw one – you were screaming at the top of your lungs." Abruptly, his face cleared and he went ashen as he understood, "You were dreaming about-"
"Nothing," Aurora snapped, cutting him off. Her face flushed uncomfortably; ripping the covers off, she threw her legs over the edge of the cot and forced Walter to stagger out of her way. Roosevelt jumped from the bed beside her, casting a reproachful glance at the elder pack member.
Aurora shook her clothes as straight as she could manage. The escape from Ferret and his men had been part luck and part electrified fire. Some of their things had been lost in the scuffle and Aurora's somewhat poorly timed destruction of one of the Cesspool tunnels. Thankfully, they had managed to seal themselves off from further pursuit, but it had left them with only one way out and so they had been forced to hurry.
The sewers were disgusting. Aurora hadn't been able to make it far without vomiting after the initial rush of adrenaline began to fade. Ben and Walter were better prepared, having navigated their depths for years in their dedication to the Resistance. Once Aurora was done glaring at Ben as he offered his handkerchief, they had found an exit into the east end of Industrial. Now that they had been discovered, renting a room was out of the question, so they had circled back to find one of the Resistance's old bases on the far west side of the canal, a few miles north of where Nigel had initially discovered them. Thus far, they seemed to be safe.
The sewers were eery; the ceilings disappeared into darkness, the arches leading into new tunnels like the wide, staring eyes of someone who has seen something too horrible to speak of. Every drip and rustle echoed endlessly outward, making her senses feel constantly on edge. There was no indication of night or day unless you stumbled upon a grate in the ceiling – which you looked up into at your own peril. The walls were fuzzy with mold, the ground of mushy waste both human and industrial. Down here, they not only had to worry about Elites and lapdogs of her brother, but some creatures so nasty even the King's men might be preferable to them.
The chamber they had locked themselves into for the night was relatively dry and clean. It was dusted with cobwebs and filled with empty crates and barrels, most of them overturned or ripped open, but it was sufficient space to sleep. Walter and Ben had insisted Aurora take the only remaining cot – Walter rather more heartily than Ben - and had managed to eat some food they had brought with them from the ship. Now that they had made it through the night, they would need to get more supplies. Unfortunately, in the heat of pursuit, Aurora had dropped her coin purse. She was penniless.
"Two… three… Right, we have about three sovereigns and a silver between us. Enough to get some food, but not much else, and you need clothes." Walter tried to mask his amusement at Aurora's disheveled state underneath his trembling mustache. Ben was not so suave either. He had a streak of what Aurora hoped was dirt on his chin and his normally rakish hair was a bit like a haystack. Walter, as was customary, was hearty in the face of trouble and seemed to barely have a hair out of place.
"Well, I was fairly certain I had left my days of pickpocketing behind me, but needs must…" Ben smiled as Aurora burned him with a disapproving glare.
"You will not rob these downtrodden people – how would we be any bloody different than my brother, winning the revolution on the backs of our own people?"
"Too right," Walter agreed happily, "But Ben has a point; we're going to have to be creative if we're going to make it out of Industrial alive." He raised one bushy eyebrow at Aurora, as though challenging her to solve the problem and prove Ben wrong.
Aurora huffed, trying to think. She couldn't fight her way out of this as she would have in Rookridge. She'd be one fireball in before the Elites would be descending on her from every direction. The question was did she have any other skills that could wipe that smug look off Finn's face and get them what they needed?
Inspiration struck; Aurora began to comb her fingers through her long hair, trying to work out the tangles while looking around her for the pack she had managed to salvage in yesterday's ruckus.
"What? What is it?" Walter and Ben leaned in as she tugged the pack towards her, ripping open the flap.
When she found what she had been looking for, Aurora cackled and pulled the leather bodice out to look at it. It was held together with silk ribbons the color of blood and the leather was inlaid with her mother's heroic symbol just above the right hip. Without further ado, Aurora stood to undress.
"Oi!" Walter swung around, grabbing young Ben with him, who seemed less concerned about protecting Aurora's virtue. "Warn a man first!"
Aurora snorted – Walter was like a father to her and she'd electrocute Ben the moment he tried anything – and removed her soiled top. Her trousers would have to do as is, and her leather boots were still in good condition. With a resounding snap, she folded the bodice out and over her torso, tying the ribbons at the top with deft hands.
"One of you come here and help me with these damn things. I can't reach them."
Ben immediately went into motion, but Walter stopped him with a hard hand on the shoulder. Blustering, Walter forced Ben to turn his back completely, then came to Aurora, mustache trembling.
"If your mother saw you in this –"
"She'd know," Aurora replied loudly, "That it had come from her closet in the Sanctuary. Don't hide your own disapproval behind Mother. Now pull those good and tight."
Muttering, Walter did as he was told, alternately frowning at Aurora and the back of Ben's head. In the silence, Ben shifted on his feet. The set of his cheek from behind suggested he was smiling.
Once the deed was done, Aurora flipped her hair over her shoulder and turned to look down at herself. Sensing movement, Ben turned around.
"Hey!" Walter shouted. Ben appeared not to hear him, merely staring with slightly wider eyes, his full mouth dropping open.
"Yes, it's a bit saucy," Aurora admitted with a blush, painfully aware of her now high, plush bosom. "But it should blend in well at the pub."
Walter nearly went into apoplexy, "Pub!" He growled, "What do you think you're going to do there?"
Aurora sighed, "Not that, Walter. My goodness." She shook her head at him and Ben began to grin. When Walter glared at him, Ben cleared his throat and looked at the floor.
"We're going to play a little game," Aurora announced, yanking on the coat she had also stolen from her mother's Sanctuary. It was made of some sort of hide and shown in the dim light. The deep red of the jacket contrasted nicely against her pale skin and the brown of the bodice, the hem descending down past her knees.
Aurora held out her hand, "Give me two of those sovereigns and I'll turn them into ten. Or twenty, if the game master has Blackjack today."
Walter looked mulish, "You're going to gamble? That's your plan?"
Irritably, Aurora wiggled her fingers for the coins, "What do you suggest, that I go ask the blacksmith for a spot of work? There's posters asking for me everywhere! The moment I apply for a job I might as well bring the Elites with me! It's tantamount to the same thing."
Walter thought that over; when he didn't respond, Ben interceded. "Now, Wally, you know that the Princess speaks the truth. The question on my mind is has she got the skill to back herself up?" He offered Aurora a crooked smile, to which she responded with a haughty snort.
"You're behaving like children," Walter admonished. In a rumbling growl, he added, "And don't call me 'Wally,' you idiot."
Ben chuckled, "Whatever you say, Sir Walter. Shall we go try our luck once more?"
"Keystone," Aurora groaned. "I bloody hate Keystone."
With a resounding clatter, the die were cast. A chorus of expletives followed, with the screech of chairs scraping back too quickly and the stomp of angry feet. A few takers remained, but most had already lost what little money they had hoped to turn over and, with no coin remaining for ale to soothe their bitterness, they departed.
The game master looked smugly upon his domain; Keystone was a complicated sport for the uneducated. It involved far more chance than actual skill and more often led to major loss than big winnings. The temptation was always to bet on the blocks 3 or 18 in order to roll either number on your first turn and receive the Jackpot. This happened so rarely, however, that it was hardly worth the trouble. There was always a chance you could roll those numbers later, but that opportunity dwindled with time and usually you were lucky if they were still on the board by the end of the game. In Rookridge and Bloodstone, Aurora had avoided the game master on Keystone days, knowing he was in the financial hole and looking for a few good suckers to pull him out.
The arch of stones were arranged back into their starting positions. Two gamblers, a woman and a man with heavy stubble, leered anxiously over the board. One could also turn smaller profits from the game if their "arch bet" (a particular number on one of the stones in the arch) remained on the board throughout the duration of the game. They could also place "inside bets" at each turn, choosing any range of numbers or combination of numbers and colored tiles on the board. If they don't roll the correct combination, their bet is lost and they move onto the next turn.
The likelihood of an arch bet staying on the board throughout the entire game was low. Once you knew your first roll wasn't going to snag the jackpot winnings, you had better prepare yourself for small turnover or none at all. Aurora hated that about Keystone – it was a game clearly favored towards the house and not the player. But they didn't have time to go to the Cock and Crown in Bowerstone Market and certainly couldn't risk being caught for a pub game. The Riveter's Rest in Industrial was their best and safest option.
"Ahem," Ben cleared his throat behind her, sensing her faltered nerve. Aurora glared back at him and turned to face the table. She was missing something – something important. A piece of the puzzle that could give her an edge. The game master leaned down and she observed his hat. It was a leather fedora with a wide brim that tilted to one side. He leered up at the players from underneath the brim as they lost for the last time, scooping their coin across the table into a pouch on his lap. As he smiled the grin of the rotten at their defeated backs, Aurora developed a plan. Sighing, she tilted her head to one side to crack out the tension, extended her arms and popped her fingers for good measure, and then walked confidently up to the table.
"Good afternoon, game master. Taking any bets?" Aurora looked down at him with clear blue eyes the shade of the ocean on a sunny day. The game master beamed.
"Of course, darlin' – have a seat." The master had a hefty black mustache over his lip, which curled back aggressively to show a row of crooked, discolored teeth. One glinted gold in the soft light, pressing tightly against his left canine.
"Thank you," she replied smoothly, lowering herself into the chair so that her coat slid further open to reveal the bodice underneath. The master's leer grew more pronounced and a few men who had been slumping in a drunken stupor moments before perked up. In response, Ben and Walter stood closer by, their faces stormy with unspoken warning. Aurora caught sight of the silent exchange of testosterone-fueled nonsense and sighed impatiently.
"Ben, Walter – go get some ale. You're blocking my light."
Walter looked hurt, but Ben rolled his eyes and grabbed the older man's arm, guiding him to the bar. Satisfied, Aurora turned back to the table.
The board was cleared with a sweep of one arm and then the stones were replaced. Aurora watched the man's work with care; the die he placed in the center gave her what she needed to ensure victory. Aurora looked again at the brim of the master's fedora, her posture alert but calm.
"Place your bet, madam." The game master tilted his head ever so slightly, eyes sparkling with malintent.
Aurora considered the board briefly, then sat back, curving a smile of invitation.
"But I have no one to play with."
The game master's grin grew wider, making the ends of his mouth as sharp as knives. "You play against chance itself, mistress. That is quite a game."
Aurora increased the wattage of her own smile, "Ah, but I like a bit more than chance. Life is chance – pub games should offer something more, don't you think?"
The game master cackled, tilting his head back so far she could see down his throat. "The game master don't play, young lady. We are the servants of chance - we 'ave the privilege of offering these games cause we respect its boundaries better than common folk."
Aurora's was the smile of a crocodile easing in for the kill. "So the game is rigged?"
The game master stopped laughing; this was an almighty accusation to make. Most pub games were rigged, but so slyly that the game master did not risk getting caught most of the time. If they were openly challenged, they had to prove to the pub keep they had nothing to hide. Thus far, the other staff and most patrons were ignorant of their conversation, but Aurora had tipped the first domino and the master's reply would determine whether they would all come falling down.
"I would never," he replied in an angry undertone, "Rig my games." The cheerful light had gone from his eyes, replaced by a thunderous shadow that bore much ill.
Aurora leaned in; behind her, Walter and Ben were tense over their mugs, not sipping the beer as they listened with every fiber to ensure they were ready to defend her if necessary.
"Then prove it," she whispered, her lips the pink of a rosebud. The game master scowled.
"Place your bets or move along," he replied shortly. Aurora tsked, shaking her head from side to side. As she raised her hand to call the pub master's attention, the game master grabbed her wrist. Ben's hand went to his pistol, but Walter stayed him, watching.
The game master stared her down; Aurora didn't flinch, waiting for his will to crumble. She needed him distracted for her plan to work and nothing could that better than worrying he was going to be caught weighing his dice.
The master finally released her with a grunt, but it was one of defeat. Looking mulish, he nodded at her with his chin, curling his lip with displeasure.
"You first, missy."
Aurora smiled again, "It would be my pleasure." She placed a sovereign on 3 for her arch bet and a silver on a black ten for her inside bet. The game master regained some of his former cheer at the sight of her money.
As he went to pull what she suspected would be a copper from his pouch, Aurora shook her head. "No, not money."
The game master glared, "Then what in the bloody devil – "
Aurora pointed, her crocodile smile back in play. "Your hat."
His eyes went as wide as saucers, "My hat? Are you huffin' somethin'?"
Aurora shook her head, gesturing for him to hand it over. Reluctantly, the game master looked again at the keep, who was now keenly interested in their game. Grimacing as though it pained him, the master removed his fedora, revealing tufty hair mussed from dirt and sweat. He lay it on the table.
"Three," he grunted, holding up the die. Aurora indicated her false surprise and carefully accepted them, ensuring her gauntlets were not revealed under her sleeve.
The pub had gone quiet; everyone was watching their game. The game master seemed somewhat shriveled in appearance now, his brow shining underneath the lights. The keep had stopped cleaning a glass to watch, the wench pausing in her delivery of a mug to observe the scene. Walter was also entranced, while Ben was occupied with the strength this girl had over a crowd.
Casually, Aurora cast the die, emitting just enough magic to manipulate the weights – at least she hoped. Her mother's Vortex gauntlets commanded the power of the wind – so much so she could create the force of a tornado and decimate twenty men in one fell swoop. She prayed she had the self-control to manipulate something as small as two die with them.
The die tumbled and clattered, rolling up their sightless eyes.
"Black ten?" The game master blurted, flabbergasted. Aurora relaxed minutely, her lips curving upwards once again.
Carefully, she held out her hand, "Ten silvers please."
Blubbering like a fish out of water, the game master kept looking between her play and her face, disbelieving. When he caught sight of the keep – whose face was slowly becoming clouded with suspicion – the master offered her winnings right quick, still muttering to himself incredulously.
Once the right ten block had been removed, the master spoke again. "Place your bet," he commanded, his countenance now one of fear. Aurora lay her other golden sovereign on eighteen, earning herself some gasps from onlookers.
"She'll lose a sovereign!"
"What does she think she's playing at?"
"Bloody lunatic! I could eat on that kind of money!"
Walter stirred uncomfortably in his seat; this was drawing way too much attention. They needed to be done and move on quickly. This time, it was Ben who raised the stilling hand, driven to watch by his curiosity.
"Quiet, you lot!" The keep shushed the crowd, leaning on the bar to get a better look. Everyone subsided, the entire pub now avidly interested in their game. The game master stuck out a lower lip, becoming somewhat suspicious himself. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a copper, laying it on the remaining ten.
"Roll," he snapped, glaring at her.
Aurora picked up the die, jiggling them carefully in her hand. If she rolled a 3 or an 18, she would hit the jackpot. Only one of them, however, came with a hat.
Trying to hide her glee, Aurora rolled the die. For a moment, time itself seemed suspended in the bated breath of the crowd. The game master's eyes followed the rise and fall of his weighted die; the keep watched the game master, his brow curdling at the man's obvious case of nerves. Aurora tried to breathe in and out calmly, praying her gauntlets once again did their work.
The die landed, going still with the gentle click of chattering teeth. Everyone leaned in to see the number.
"Impossible!" The game master burst out, his eyebrows as high as the sky. "You bloody cheated!" His hands formed into fists on the table, a growl building in his throat.
"How did I do it?" Aurora demanded, taking care to lay both hands on the top of the table – the picture of honesty. "Prove wrongdoing or hand my winnings over!"
The keep came around the bar and stared at her hands, which were uncovered. Aurora hoped he didn't see the gauntlets underneath her legs, ripped off while everyone was watching the dice so that she could argue her innocence without question.
"There's nothing there, Rodney." The keep glared at his game master, who began to quake. "Why are you so sure all of a sudden this lass couldn't win?"
"She must have cheated!" Rodney whined, gasping nervously and wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. "The odds are outstanding!"
Angrily, the keep grabbed the die before Rodney could stop him. Aurora pretended to be shocked.
"Weighted!" Spitting with disgust, the keep threw the die into the fire, his hand forming into a fist. "You bloody cheat! You're fired!"
Quickly, before all hell broke loose, Aurora grabbed the fedora off the table and stuck it on her head. Mentally, she counted: One, two, three….
"Like hell! You owe me – I ain't going down without a fight!"
Aurora jumped out of the way as Rodney attacked the keep. Screams shattered the air alongside the sounds of breaking glass. A drunken brawl was in progress.
As quick as a dash, Aurora dove under the melee to retrieve the game master's pouch. Walter and Ben tore through the crowd to reach her, jostling men and women alike out of their way.
"Bloody lunatic!" Walter roared, slapping back a drunken patron with one hand over his face. The man waved his arms hysterically for but a moment before he was propelled back, crashing against the piano and a frightened wench who had been attempting to escape behind the bar.
Aurora jangled the coin pouch, her face split with a mischievous grin. "It worked!"
Some angry shouts indicated a few of the men who had appeared too drunk to move were now in energetic pursuit of the master's coin purse. Nervously, Aurora chucked a handful of coins behind her, the loud chimes and thuds of the metal hitting the wood followed by the unmistakable sounds of air exiting lungs as people piled over the money.
"Let's get out of here!" Aurora led them out of the fray, dancing lightly between fighters. Two men tore past her, just missing her by the breadth of a hair as Ben yanked her from behind. Stumbling over each other's feet, the men tumbled out of a window, flakes of glass exploding in every direction.
"No, really do you think?" Ben shouted. Aurora cast him a guilty look while he all but carried her by the back of the collar out of the Riveter's Rest, Walter acting as a wall behind them.
Once in the street, they heard the whistles of law and order making a fast approach. If Aurora were found by even a city guardsman, she was as good as dead.
"Balls!" Walter cursed vehemently; veering back and forth, he pointed to potential salvation. "In here!"
They hurried into the backdoor of a factory currently off-duty. Despite Reaver's avaricious hunger, even he had to allow some of their machinery to rest or the factories could go up in flames. The space was dimly lit and foul with the smell of grease. Moonlight slipped in through windows high above the ground floor, leaving silver footprints in the blackened machinery.
The gentle chug of steam breathed quietly alongside the click of gears still in motion. They hid among some crates, ducking down so that someone coming in the front door wouldn't notice them. The obstruction in front of them couldn't disguise the harsh sounds of their breath, like ripping feathers. As her eyes adjusted, Aurora tried to grasp what the machines might be for. There was a long belt down the middle of the floor, surrounded by machines that obviously produced parts intended to be put together. Taut wires and pulleys descended from the ceiling, which she followed up to see the thin lines of a catwalk.
"Be. Quiet." Walter muttered, his eyes raking every corner, hand poised over his gun. Ben followed his lead, hand still wide and warm on Aurora's back.
A sudden clang from across the room made them all jump; immediately after, there was only the hiss of steam in many boilers.
Aurora reached out with her Hero senses to see if she could detect the source of the disturbance. The steam and clank of the factory fell away; Aurora listened and looked as hard as she could. Whoever or whatever had followed them here was doing a good job of eluding her discovery, which meant they did not want to be found. She waited, ignoring the movements and sounds of Ben and Walter, who continued to survey the parameter. Then – finally – something moved.
"There," Aurora whispered, slowly drawing their attention to where she stared. There was a shadow there – almost indistinguishable from the others surrounding it, but clearly different. It was as still as stone, which told Aurora something terrifying: it was watching back.
It wasn't likely a Balverine; half monster-wolf and half man, these creatures usually occupied the woodlands of Albion, preferring wet, green spaces to cities. She doubted it was a bandit or a guard – both were too stupid and self-confident to wait for an attack. No, this was a human and a well-trained one. Cursing silently, Aurora lowered to the floor as much as she could without actually lying down. Walter and Ben followed suit, their expressions serious.
"Let me think," she muttered. Ben and Walter exchanged looks of skepticism.
"Aurora," Walter whispered, leaning in so that his beard tickled her ear. "Let us handle this – you're far too important to risk – "
Aurora glared back angrily, stopping him midsentence. "What?" he asked finally, his expression becoming stubborn once again.
"Well, which is it Walter?" She snapped as quietly as she could manage; Aurora crossed her arms. "Am I delicate flower to protect or a Hero? Because I can't be both."
Walter opened his mouth to argue; another clang alarmed them. This one was closer. Aurora tugged on her gauntlets while Ben and Walter peered over the top of a crate.
"Alright, I'll choose for you." Aurora told them; without warning, she blew a strong wind that threw open the back doors and tossed both men out into the street. Ben rolled to one side, winded, while Walter snapped up into a sitting position. "AUROR-"
The doors slammed closed, once again plummeting her in darkness. Now, she was alone.