EXCERPT Chapter 1 - Escape
The bone-white smoke billowed from the bakery chimney, staining the murky blackboard of the night with its presence, signalling to Aidan that his time had just about come.
A familiar feeling of dread found Aidan as he waited. The same feeling that filled him most days. Though, tonight, this was a concoction of dread and trepidation.
Aidan rose from where he was supposed to be sleeping. There were no beds, only crude constructions o rotten plants and crooked nails, you considered yourself lucky if they didn’t snap through the night. Aidan knew that having the nails prod and poke you like a surgeons tool through the night was never a good thing to begin with. He had enough marks on his back to soundly say that.
Now, regardless of any digressing feelings, tonight would have to be the night. The night that Aidan would escape the workhouse. Leaving so many years of beatings and forced labour behind himself. Aidan let out a brief and almost bemused smile. Perhaps this life will finally be worth living.
His eyes fell over the room, regarding the other ten children that shared the room with an analytical gaze. Each of them slept. Though, it was a wonder how. Everything they owned was about as bare-bones as they were, those unfortunate enough to be an orphan in Stoneveil. They were each drastically underfed, much like Aidan, with bones that threatened to burst through their thin bodies if they weren’t careful.
Aidan was very careful in prying apart two of the planks at the head of his bed. He supposed that the design was a curse in some aspects, but if one wanted to conceal something and was looking for a place to do so, the gap in between the planks was better than any other place.
Aidan pulled a knife from between the planks, catching a brief look at himself in the reflection. His hair had grown rather long in recent years, becoming more of a messy brown ball atop his head. Not to mention the ash that filled it and covered his face. It often tarnished his hair with an oddly grey look to it. Aidan quickly stashed the knife into the deepest recesses of his boot.
Aidan had been preparing this for the better part of two months, so he had a good idea of his plan. If he was correct, this would be the hardest part of it. Attempting to get out of the room unnoticed. He glanced around briefly, there were around ten others that shared the room with Aidan, each of them was sleeping. To those in the workhouse, sleep was about as valuable as any form of food. So they each made an effort to get as much sleep in the night as possible. Aidan gritted his teeth, he just hoped it would stay that way.
In Aidan’s first few years at the workhouse, he’d thought himself unlucky to have been assigned a bed so close to the door, one so close to Lockheart’s enraged beatings and beratings. He’d thought that way for a while. But what that made him was something that he could only thank Lockheart for. While that man thought he had shut Aidan down, killing the tiny part of him that wanted to carry on. He had instead kindled the flame in Aidan’s heart, only making him more hardened than before. Not only that, it made Aidan an underdog, a surprise. In all of Aidan’s years, the most important lesson he had learned was that surprise can be as sharp a blade as any.
Now, he saw such a placement as a blessing in multiple ways. Not only had it made him the person he now is, but it also gave him fewer steps to reach the door, fewer risks of misstepping on a creaking floorboard. That was something that Aidan simply couldn’t have, not tonight. The second he would rouse even a singular person from their slumber, he would be done for. They’d certainly rat him out in an instant. In truth, Aidan couldn’t blame them either, he would have done the same in their situation. He would do anything for an extra ration of food.
Aidan felt the cold pierce his skin in whisps, swirling around him with ease. While Aidan had always held a fondness for the cold, today, he feared that it could make him misstep, making his judgement less precise. He couldn’t risk placing a step on a creaky floorboard, that way, his escape would be over before it had truly even begun. That was a true fear he had as he chose his next movements carefully amidst the never-ending myriad of choices.
For once, he actually found himself cursing his senses. They had always been rather acute, ever since he was younger. With an unparalleled sense of hearing and smell being a gift to him. He assumed it was a product of his upbringing. Most people in the workhouse tended to pick up enhanced senses after a while. But that didn’t explain his eyes…
For as long as Aidan could remember, he had never had any trouble seeing almost perfectly in the void of night. As if it were never even there to begin with. This was one of the pieces of information that he held the closest, hoping that one night, it may help him.
After a few carefully placed and shaky steps, Aidan had made it to the door, seemingly unheard, given the snores rising from the rest of the children. He sighed a sigh of relief, with his handheld to his pounding chest. Aidan partly worried that his own heartbeat would rouse the others from his sleep. He could hear his heart pounding rhythms of war throughout every fibre of his being. Beating tirelessly against his ribs like a dog in a cage that was yearning for even the slightest taste of freedom.
. He rested his hand on the doorknob, clutching it tightly. It was rusted by now, once again, Lockheart never bothered to replace it. He never replaced anything other than the children themselves. He couldn’t blame Lockheart in that regard, the average lifespan of a child in these conditions was short, besides, they were cheap…
Aidan himself had only been bought for a mere quarter copper. Lockheart had made it very apparent to Aidan as to how much his life was worth.
Aidan turned the doorknob slowly, with clinical accuracy. The second he heard the minute clocking sound of the lock opening, he opened the door. The creak that echoed from the motion was bloodcurdling, rousing every hair on Aidan’s arm, poising them to attention. Most importantly, it was loud, incredibly so, like a nail had been dragged along one of the chipped mess hall plates. The shrieking noise was one that could even startle a Manticore.
Shit… Aidan thought, as his eyes began darting back and forth between each of the beds. Luckily, no one had yet moved an inch. That put Aidan’s mind at ease for the meantime, well… as at ease as it could be. No one in Aidan’s room had been there for less than a month; a rarity by all accounts. So by that time, they’d all learned to drown out the mysterious noises of the night. Trading safety for those precious hours of sleep.
Aidan was swift in exiting the room, he didn’t want to take the chance of stepping on a creaking floorboard. After the situation with the door, he chose to keep it open. Closing it would cause more harm than good at this point. Besides, it was rare that Lockheart would check on the children.
Now, as Aidan made his way down the rest of the corridor, he didn’t have to be as careful with where he placed his steps, but he still was. That was a habit that he couldn’t quite break, one as persistent as the night itself. He stuck to the shadows, practically hugging the wall as he moved along it. He reasoned they would do a good enough job at shrouding him if he needed it, especially since other people couldn’t see even half as well as he could.
For a moment, Aidan found himself lost in thought. He was living the culmination of the last month’s dreams, at least a part of them. Now all he had to do was get beyond the wall. But that just so happened to be where his plan ceased, becoming more of a loose string of ideas held together by varying degrees of hope for each outcome. He had hopes of joining up with the Shadeborn guilds in the wildlands beyond the wall that encompassed Stoneveil in its entirety.
They were amongst the very few people that could not only survive the wildlands, but also call it their home. Aidan had heard their legends for years, they were the very thing that kept him going all that time. Legends that told of those that wielded magic to hunt down the beasts beyond the walls, and often, tame them too. Each of the beasts that were owned by knights in the city had been purchased from the Shadeborn by King Hadrian and then redistributed. Albeit, this was a rather new practice in Stoneveil.
The Shadeborn were his hope. If he ever got past the walls, they were who he hoped to find. Maybe they would be able to give some form of sanctuary. He’d more than happily join on as a leatherworker if they needed one of course. Sadly, he didn’t know enough about their practices to even know if they needed a leatherworker. But regardless as to whether the stories he’ heard were true or not, they were his best bet.
Besides, it all still rested on if he would even be able to stumble across a guild. It was all left to chance, especially since he had never been beyond the walls. That was the point of them after all, to keep the humans safe and the monsters outside. Aidan knew chances were that he could run into a beast before another person, perhaps a Griffin or a Manticore. Both could be as deadly as each other, each having their own ways to kill Aidan. Though, he supposed it would still be preferable to the slow suicide of the workhouse. This way, it would at least be on his own terms.
Aidan made his way through most of the mess hall by this time, with most of the floorboards now being whole as opposed to the ones that could likely puncture armour with their splinters. Much of the floor was stained an indescribable colour, Aidan had to suppress a gag, not even willing to try and define what the stain was. The same ones carried true for the tables also, Aidan always tried to suppress the thought of it when he ate. So far, he’d made his way through the mess hall with his back to the wall, it’s splinters dug into Aidan’s back, scraping along it. He bit back the pain.
What the… Aidan looked down the corridor to the right of the mess hall, at the end of which was Lockheart’s room. Aidan saw something, a silhouette moving through the window of the door. Why is he up now! Aidan cursed, darting to the nearest corner. Now, he waited.
Lockheart was a burly man, with a relatively well-kept beard and moustache. But other than those two aspects and his clothing, they were the only fine things about him. His suit was a deep blue, with buttons that threatened to burst at the seem. Then there were his shoes, they were of fine leather, the kind Aidan was accustomed to working with. When he glanced at the welt of the shoe, Aidan half believed that it was his own handiwork. It wouldn’t surprise him either. Lockheart had a knack for wearing lavish things and only granting the children the bare minimum/ It was his little way of establishing order. Aidan knew Lockheart’s cruelty first hand. He’d been on the receiving end of a lot of Lockheart’s beatings. The man got twisted enjoyment out of it. Aidan had seen the twisted grin that fell upon Lockheart’s face as he did it, a grin so twisted that even the greatest assassins would cringe and recoil.
Aidan felt a shock in his eye as his vision overlaid with a purple tint. He let out an almost inaudible wince. Why now of all times? That was one thing he’d never understood about his eyes. Ever since he could remember, they’d had a tendency to overlay the world in a purple tint and let Aidan see far off things as if they were directly in front of him. Normally, he appreciated it, but now… it was definitely a bad thing.
Lockheart walked at a hurried pace, his cane in hand. Lockheart never seemed to be without it, the gleaming silver Phoenix as its handle was a particular favourite weapon of his. Lockheart walked as if he’d been part of a noble family for all of his life, but in reality, it was only in the last ten or so years that he’d actually ascended to that status. With enough wealth to get even the knights to turn a blind eye to everything he did, Aidan still wondered where the majority of the money came from. He can’t be earning that much off of child labour alone, can he? At least not at that rate.
Aidan sank further into the shadows as he approached. He was half tempted to pull the dagger from his boot, feeling his adrenaline-fueled hand itch towards it. Though, he fought against the temptation. While he would love the idea of killing Lockheart if he got too close, for him to pull out the knife now would be to risk compromising his position. Any sliver of light could be the end for Aidan.
The adrenaline that had been scorching through Aidan’s veins had come to cease, either that, or he’d grown so accustomed to it that he couldn’t feel it. Lockheart held some keys in his hand, walking over to a specific door down the way Aidan had come. Why there? Aidan mused.
That was the one mystery the workhouse still hid from him. That door in particular always remained locked, and Aidan had never seen it open once in all of those years. He figured that it was Lockheart’s storage room, so he didn’t pay it too much mind. Especially as Lockheart disappeared into it.
It’s now or never! Aidan thought, emerging from the shadows and charging for the windows at a breakneck pace. He was familiar with how they worked, a simple sliding lock. No key or anything. So in a matter of seconds, all the time Aidan felt he had, he had slipped out of the window and into the wet cobbles of Stoneveil.
The light drizzle was a fresh cold that lashed against Aidan’s skin, the light, rhythmic pulsing of the raindrops against his flesh were divine. He didn’t have much time to indulge himself in this. He turned, quickly closing the window behind himself to the best of his ability before then darting to the side of the workhouse.
A small pile of planks leaned up against the wall in a small canopy like fashion, with a sheet of tarpaulin having been thrown over the top of it. Aidan found it hard to quell the feeling of victory within himself at the sight of it. It was quite the surprise that it hadn’t been tampered with. Aidan moved some of the planks to the side, pulling a leather jacket from the centre. In the pockets, he’d managed to prepare a small amount of food and secure himself a weapon.
The hammer was rusted brown, so much that there was barely a spec of the original metal left to be seen, the blacksmith had thrown it out for that very reason. But rusted or not, it was a weapon. One that Aidan hoped he wouldn’t need. He hastily slung the jacket on, feeling warmer now that he had it on. Though, it didn’t stop the frigid air in its entirety. Aidan watched as his breath became mist on the air, swirling and fluttering before it disappeared into the night.
Puddles splashed at Aidan’s feet, bringing a chill most of the way up his leg. As he made it partway down the street, he found himself glancing back to the workhouse. Only briefly. He had to admit, it was somewhat disheartening that he didn’t get to deal with Lockeart personally. But that was it, the workhouse was now behind him. Now… came the next part.
Aidan made his way down the streets leading to the wall in the distance. He glanced up at the bulking behemoth. It was at-least a good thirty-five metres high, constantly armed with patrols of knights along the top of it. With canons pointed out into the far off horizon, acting as a warning for any beast that would wander into their territory.
Most people were all in their homes at this time of night. Other than the few people that Aidan passed on the streets, those without anywhere else to sleep. They each coughed and spluttered as a result of whatever it was that ailed them, Aidan didn’t stop to ask. He couldn’t…
The puddles at Aidan’s feet were ablaze with the menagerie of moonlight from above. They seemed to twinkle and radiate the same light as if the ground itself were on fire and ready to burst. Aidan glanced up at the twin moons, noting their glow. It was seldom that they would both be full at the same time. It truly was a sight to be basked in.
He looked further ahead, those puddles held a different glow. Not the light blue hue of the moons, this was a blazing orange. That meant only one thing to Aidan’s still enhanced eyes and one thing alone. Fire.
Aidan found himself darting into a side alley and taking cover amidst the shadows, even pulling the jacket most of the way over himself.
“You hear about the bosses plans with that Ambrose guild?” Aidan heard a voice say. One that seemed to edge closer with every word. Aidan steadied his breathing, he couldn’t have that be seen either.
“Same deal as always, Rodrigue,” the other man replied. “He’s just buying directly from them.”
“But this time,” Rodrigue said, a tone of excitement lacing his tongue. “Apparently we’re getting some strong beasts, rare ones too! Not just these Shadowhounds and Bastions.”
A guild selling directly to a city? That was an illegal act under King Hadrian. All official deals with guilds had to go directly through him. It was one of the main ways he maintained order across all of the cities. Whatever fragile order there was anyway.
“Yeah,” the other man said. “But now that you’ve gotten us on patrol duty, I doubt any of those beasts are passing our hands.”
The men passed by Aidan’s position at a slower pace than most patrols would, clearly they weren’t too fond of the job. Aidan couldn’t fathom why earning a wage to just walk around and gawk at things? Well, that seemed like a luxury!
As they passed, Aidan got a brief peek at their armour. The steel breastplate reflected the dim orange hues of fading lamplight, casting the men in handheld sunrise. Given that city days were only around four hours, it was rare to see armour in that kind of light. Aidan caught a glimpse of a card slot on the men’s armour, over the heart. Each of them carried a beastcard.
They were the very tools that the Shadeborn used to capture their beats, using them to summon them from the dimension in which they’re stored. In Aidan’s life, seeing one of these cards was as rare as finding gold at the foot of your bed… or having a full stomach.
Aidan couldn’t make out what beasts the two knights had, but he knew they at-least had something. Whatever that could end up being would be another danger that he would have to look out for. Aidan waited for a few more mometnts, listening to the two men’s conversation get lost on the wind. Once they became only lost murmurs to the air, Aidan moved from his position. Now… every second was vital.
He continued down the streets, being careful not to slip on the rain-moistened cobbled with each step he took. Aidan found his fist clenched as he turned the next corner, he hadn’t planned this far into the escape. Hell, he hadn’t thought he’d even make it this far, just a few streets before he would reach the wall itself. Aidan once again ducked into a side alley, kicking up tiny water droplets that shone like fireflies in the night.
This alley belonged to an inn on the outer edges of the city. Aidan knew the rumours, he actually knew many, but these, well… he’d heard more about these than any. Even those of the Shadeborn. Not a single soul had managed to escape the rumours of inns on the outer reach, more importantly, the men that owned them. They weren’t a friendly sort, even by slum standards. Not even those in the Catacombs are that cruel, and they’d skin a man just for the crust of their bread.
The men who owned these inns, they were of a different sort. Killers, extortionists, slavers, if you can think it, they’ve probably done more anyway. This group had a name.
More of a cult than anything, worshipping the god of light, Luminus. They believed in culling every Shadeborn they came across, no man, woman, child or babe with an ounce of magic from Natusumbra - the god of night - could be allowed to live. But that far from stopped them using beasts to get their way. They were some of the most well-funded people in the entire city, their pockets often weighing more than some lesser nobles. Even Lockheart’s fortune was dwarfed amidst that of the Lightbringers.
Aidan held his back to the wall and his stance low. He edged his way along to the street, somewhere beyond the inn himself he could hear murmurs, a fair few of them. Aidan was nothing if not curious.
He poked his head around the corner, praying he wouldn’t meet the face of an armed knight. Though, what he did end up finding was a cart, with five knights standing around it in a crescent formation, with their backs facing the wall. Well… he was a fifth right. There was only one thing that the cart could be in Aidan’s eyes. Eyes that had now gone back to normal, well as normal as they could be. It was the grain cart. It came through from beyond city borders once every other night, making deliveries to the bakers so that they could start in the night in preparation for the next day’s sales.
How men like that survived beyond the wall was something Aidan didn’t know. He chuckled lightly to himself. What if the walls were built to keep us in, not the monsters out… He allowed himself a smirk. No, that would be stupid!
He snapped himself back into the moment. How on Irratia was he going to distract not one, but five damned knights? He would need a miracle for that to work. Then, it hit him. He didn’t need a miracle, just something so crazy, so mind-numbingly insane that it might just work.
Aidan was prompt in quickly scoping out the alley, each entrance and exit in full. There were two possible routes that the knights could take, possibly even both. But that was the risk Aidan would have to take.
So, he thought, grasping the rusty hammer in his left hand. He eyed the window on the far side of the inn, taking careful aim for it. Let’s see if these bastards are as bad as they say! Aidan flung all of his force into the throw. It didn’t his quite where he had intended, but the smash that erupted from the window just below was bliss to Aidan’s ears.
He darted to the other side of the inn, feeling his heart thundering in his ears once again as frenzied shouts from both the knights and the inn seemed to strike a chord through the night. He peered back to the cart once again. Not a singular soul stood by it. They were all calming the Lightbringers.
So the rumours are true! Aidan smirked as he sprinted to the cart. He’d heard many things of the Lightbringers, many of the rumours conflicted and betrayed each other, but the one thing they all agreed on was that the group was certainly not to be trifled with. Even the knights stayed out of it, for the most part, be it them being paid off, or not being willing to deal with the issue. Preferring to wait until Hadrian would order a Shadeborn down here to deal with them. No knight would have denied them the right.
Aidan approached the cart in a frenzied dash, practically hoisting himself up onto the cart before balling up on his side near the back. Luckily, there was a black sheet on the cart with him. He quickly flung it over himself, reasoning that it was now the safer option. Everything from now on would be left to fate.
Aidan could still hear the muffled conversation of many of the knights. Seemingly, things had calmed for the moment. Aidan didn’t mind, of course, he’d already done everything he had needed to.
Within the next few minutes, Aidan could feel a rumbling sensation throughout his entire being.
He was on the move.
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