I stood at the sewer’s entrance.
The Spider’s Lair.
I knew it well. Too well. I’d spent my youth crawling into its dark, dank depths only to claw myself free with a name and address. And after every time I’d promise myself I’d never do it again. I was done. I’d figure out a way and leave it all behind me. We all would. We’d live in another district, hopefully some place close to Lunda, but really, anywhere was better than the shithole we came from. We all knew it. And we all knew we had to leave. But in the middle of my plans, when I thought we might actually make it, something would happen. We’d run out of food. Or Jeremiah would need money. And I’d find myself crawling back into Nero’s sewer of bounty hunters and assassins, looking for a name that I hoped wouldn’t haunt me all like the others.
But I wasn’t going for a name.
I was going for the Black Spider. After all these years, I’d finally skewer the creature that’d terrorized me throughout my youth, the sinewy face that haunted every decision I made and chased me endlessly with guilt and fear. I should’ve killed Nero years ago but I never had enough nerve. I guess all it took was killing my baby sister.
Slipping past tin walls, I jogged silently down the damp corridor that led into heavy darkness below. It was hard to see, but my eyes had become accustomed to it. My entire body had. It knew which way to go and how to move, always careful to dodge the endless corners of sticky ooze that Nero insisted on leaving. It was a trap, a warning for others to stay the fuck out. But I’d been here so many times it’d become instinctual and my leather boots glided easily over the puddles of goo—remnants of a strange disease that Nero developed years ago after eating the eyeballs of his victims. His skin secreted a white goo that shriveled human bone like acid, and it laid in gobs like haystacks around the black sewer walls.
Getting past that was the easy part.
It was the Sparrows I’d have to kill that’d prove challenging. And there was no way of knowing how many there’d be tonight. Could be the handful Nero kept for his personal security. Could be the entire nest. But one Sparrow or a hundred, I was here to kill that sadistic motherfucker and nothing—not even a swarm of the deadliest assassins in the Quantara realm—would keep me from it.
I slid silently down the stairwell and behind Tomia, the first and largest of the posted guards. Dueling blades already drawn, I dragged one across his throat and caught his body before it hit the ground, quietly laying it down instead. Killing was almost too easy. And too hard. As long as I didn’t have to see their faces I could deal. It was the alternative I feared, so I made damn sure early on that I learned how to kill without being seen.
Tomia’s was the first in a string of bodies I left as I crept further into the lair. Nero shouldn’t have spaced them out like this. He knew better. Or he just didn’t care. With another Sparrow on the ground, I marched silently past the hanging white ooze and descended into the final pit, the “throne hall” as the Black Spider put it.
I slowed to a stop and listened. Something whistled ahead. I ducked back, narrowly avoiding a flying blade which stuck to the white gob with a low hiss, and then melted into the acidic ooze. A second blade soared, quickly followed by a third and I easily dodged both. Movement shuffled through the darkness but I held my pose, listening and waiting for the next assault. More metal slicing air. From all directions this time. Guess no one wanted to invite me in personally. Fine.
Let’s play, motherfuckers.
I whipped both swords around, deflecting and rejecting all launched items as I sent them back to their owners. Gasps and chokes snapped through the air like a symphony until one by one, Sparrows rushed the floor. Bodies flew at me—five, six at a time—and I sent pieces of them soaring back just as swiftly, some hissing as they stuck to the acidic gobs. Fingers and hands and parts of legs—anything they foolishly allowed close to my swinging blades. I was the Spider’s top dog for a reason and if they didn’t understand why before, they were finding out.
“Enough!” Nero’s nasal voice boomed into the chaos. A couple candles sparked, barely illuminating the dingy space and the Sparrows who stood at ease, awaiting further direction as Nero plopped himself on his throne. One skinny black leg curved over the armrest while he draped himself across the rest of his stone chair.
“Ah,” his white eyes flared when they caught mine, “that’s better. I couldn’t see before,” the corners of his mouth peeked high on both sides. “It was rude to arrive unannounced, Josiah. You knew I’d be looking forward to your return. Tell me, did you receive the gift I sent?”
He was talking about Sarah.
“Come now, you still have a voice. I have not ordered it to be taken from you yet so please, enlighten me. How did you feel when you saw her…” he slowed the word, enunciating it, “…mutilated body? Did it displease you? Seeing her like that? Seeing what was done to her?” His smile widened as he continued to pull at his chin. “Were you sad? Angry? Did you want to rip my head from my body much like you do now? These were the very emotions you stirred in me when you told me you were leaving. Look around, Josiah,” he lifted his hands, “this is where you belong. Not at that pathetic hole you crawl into every night. But here, with your brothers.”
“I have a brother.”
“Yes, Micah, isn’t it?” he rolled his eyes. “For a twin, he displays half the talent. We were undecided whether it would be him or your darling sister that’d get your attention most. Several of the votes had been for him, but once some of your brothers saw little Sarah...”
One quick movement. That’s all I needed to kill him.
Just one shot.
“You look like you want this to end already,” Nero shook his head. “Too soon, my boy, too soon. You would be kind to do me the honor of at least describing what happened to your sister, as you were spared from witnessing it.”
“Oh, hardly, I think. When you told me you were leaving, I wasn’t sure how I would respond. Obviously there would be retaliation, but I wasn’t sure how much or if I would keep you alive at the end of it or what I would do. You gave me a lot to think about, Josiah,” he nodded. “And let’s face it, you are the most talented assassin I have.”
“You don’t have me anymore.”
“I will always have you. As long as you continue to draw air in this realm, you and all of your talent belongs to me. And if it doesn’t, you will either suffer for me or die for me. The choice, of course, is yours.”
“You said that once before.”
“And you chose. Now it’s time to choose again. So what will it be?” he gestured to the remaining Sparrows, “return to the brothers you left unharmed or suffer under their blades? And you will suffer, my boy. Trust me.”
I dropped into my lunging position, my dueling swords ready.
“So be it,” Nero waved his hand dismissively. “Spare his face. I think I will mount it on a spike in my chamber.”
Five Sparrows charged and it only took seconds to remove their hands. Howls and screams echoed through the dripping sewers as another eight attacked and I flew about effortlessly, slicing and slashing until eight heads rolled along the ground. If I had to, I would work my way toward Nero. Sparrow by Sparrow. And when I reached him, I would chop him up finger by finger, inch by inch until I’d carved him into nothing but an eye and an ear, so he could see the mangled form he’d become, so he could hear himself beg for his miserable life. And only then I’d end him.
“I will admit,” Nero laughed from somewhere in the distance, “it is a pleasure watching you work. Such disregard for human life. Such easy ability to cut flesh. I love it.”
Another five launched themselves but I dodged and deflected easily, slashing my blades across every little movement. Fingers and arms catapulted through the air as gasps and groans echoed off the tin walls, crashing back into one another and the flesh that sizzled along the white walls.
“Consider, Josiah,” Nero stood and the Sparrows stopped their assault again. I paused too, watching the Spider stroke his chin and scan the mangled bodies across his floor with pride. “Look around you. Look at what you are capable of. All of this talent, all of this mastery gone in an instant,” he snapped, “if I really wanted it. There would be no more of this useless fighting, no more unnecessary deaths. But then…” Nero gestured to the broken, bloody bodies surrounding me, “you would be gone and all this beautiful work with it.” He walked down his stone steps, his black eyes never leaving mine. “I’m saving you, my son. Swear your fealty and you may resume your post. All will be forgiven. All of it. Even the indiscretion displayed here tonight. So come along now,” he stopped at the base of his throne with a wink. “Put your talents to better use. My use.”
“Um, fuck you.”
“Oh,” Nero frowned, disappointed. “Not polite at all. I told you it would all be forgiven with a single bend of the knee.” He snapped and the Sparrows parted behind him. My stomach dropped. This wasn’t good. Nothing good came from the back tunnel; it was where he kept cages for the few victims he kept alive to toy with. Still frowning, Nero stepped to the side and I forgot how to breathe.
Tossed to his knees at the base of the throne, his swollen eye and bleeding lip caught my attention first. They’d bound his wrists and ankles and shoved something into his mouth. No cuts and no incisions though, which meant he was still relatively unharmed.
“I did you a favor with Sarah, but I’m not feeling so generous tonight. If you do not swear fealty, then you will watch as your brother bleeds out. It takes a while the way I do it,” Nero produced a tiny knife, an inch or so long. “You know I never make deep incisions. Just enough to get the river flowing,” he waved it over Micah’s body with an artistic flare. “Maybe I’ll even give him some valleys. Carve something nice in him for you, Josiah, what do you say? It all depends on how your knee is working. Come on,” he grinned with another wink, “how shameful to be responsible for both your sister and brother’s deaths.”
Every instinct told me to kill the Spider. Now. I certainly could’ve, but I wouldn’t have been able to save Micah too. It was kill or save and in that moment, I refused to lose my brother. I’d lost too much already.“And if I swear fealty, you’ll let him go?”
“If you promise to serve me and never mention this ludicrous idea of leaving again,” Nero shrugged, “then sure, why not? Your twin’s free to go. He’ll make it home to that pathetic hole and you will stay here, with your real brothers and me. Forever.”
I looked at Micah.
“Do we have a deal, Josiah?” Nero tapped the knife against his throat. “Or another mutilated body? Your choice, as always.”
I squeezed the handles of my blades.And took a deep breath.
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