Shadow's Ascendance

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Chapter Sixteen

The ride back to Aerendor was actually pleasant for a change. Oh, not because Dorf actually started driving safer and less like such an asshole. No, it was nice because Natalya rode with us, and since she had never ridden in a steam-carriage before, it was incredible watching the wonder and the joy through her eyes. She stuck her head out the window, letting the air blow into her face, smiling and making little laughing sounds the whole time. It almost was enough to make me forget how sick I got riding around in that stupid thing…almost.

We had spent the day in the pub in Aerdale, eating whatever food we wanted that was left out and deciding to bring what wouldn’t spoil back with us. I knew a women and children’s center that would love to have this kind of bounty dropped off. After we woke and broke our fast, while Dorf got the steam-carriage loaded up I went back with Natalya to the caravan, so she could grab whatever she wanted to take with her. She had a little travel sack, and into it went a couple changes of clothing, some toiletries, and a blanket her mother had quilted for her. Everything else she left there, even a small stuffed bear that was so threadbare and worn it had obviously been passed down many times. Looking at it with sad eyes, the half-Elven girl had simply signed that she was no longer a child, and it was time to leave childish things behind.

When we got back to the village, Dorf had pulled the steam-carriage up to the gate and turned it around, so we were already facing away from this place. While he helped Natalya get herself and her travel sack settled in, I went back to make sure that the rocks we had plugged the well with were still in place, my runic sealing still intact. Thankfully, both things were correct. My partner was right, nobody would ever live here again. It would come to be known as cursed. I would bet good gold that after he found out what happened, our King would send some of his war wizards down here, to raze this place to the ground. It made sense to me, and so it more than likely would make sense to our monarch. Honestly, it was better that way.

Even though there were two roads leading into the city, each road split off into three entrances. The first one was the trade entrance. There, city officials went over each item a merchant was bringing in to trade, to make sure it wasn’t on the contraband list or that the items weren’t dangerous to the inhabitants of our fair city. Supposedly, if you were willing to pay a bribe, most of the officials were willing to turn a blind eye every now and then to things that were supposed to be taxed more, if not outright banned. But, I also heard that the King sent out spies, both posing as merchants and as city guards, to ensure that this didn’t happen. Since the penalty for trying to bribe a city official was 50 gold or 20 lashes, I personally didn’t think it was worth it. Then again, I’m not a shady merchant, so what do I know?

The second entrance is the travel entrance. Whether by steam-carriage, horse and buggy, or on foot, if you weren’t a merchant, this was the way you entered Aerendor. City guards kept watch to ensure nothing untoward went on, and at times the line got backed up pretty badly. However, that was the price you paid by not entering the city via steam-train, airship, or sailing (not that there weren’t checkpoints there as well, they just were different).

And last but certainly not least, you have the third entrance, which is for official use only. Guess who is considered official? That’s right, the military, the government, and (drum roll please) the police. About time we got rewarded for risking our lives every day. I kid, since I actually enjoy doing that for little money. Just goes to show I’m obviously not right in the head. But, it is pretty funny just pulling up to that entrance, having your identity verified, and then just driving into the city whilst everyone else moans and complains about how unfair it is. Yeah, just remember that the next time you’re getting mugged or your home is broken into, and then tell me how it’s unfair. Oh, that’s right, you won’t, because you’ll be hoping we can help you out.

As we pulled up to the entrance, I watched Natalya go from enjoying the ride and sticking her head out to very afraid and slinking down in the seat so she couldn’t be seen. I realized that to the Ronan, big cities were something to be feared and avoided, and Aerendor was not only the capital of Tyrinos, but also one of the larger cities in the world. There was probably more people waiting in line to enter the city than the half-Elven girl had ever seen in her life. Reaching forward, I tapped the seat next to her shoulder so I wouldn’t startle her, and then I placed my hand on it, patting it gently. She reached up and clenched my hand tightly.

The guard walked up to Dorf’s side of the steam-carriage, hand resting lightly on his crossbow that he carried on a strap around his neck. Their uniforms were very simple, consisting of a pair of breeches, a tunic, and a metal lined leather vest over the tunic. They also wore an archer’s pointed hat, which did little more than keep their head warm. If it was raining, they had hooded wolf-pelt cloaks that they could throw over it all. It was all done in blue and yellow, Aerendor’s official colors. Why a city had to have its own colors was something I couldn’t figure out. My partner had already taken my badge from me, and along with his own handed it to the guard when he came up to the door. “Hey, Wallace, how’s it going? At least there’s no rain today, eh? That really makes the people at the entrance start bleating, am I right?”

I had always admired the way that Dorf could meet someone, talk to them for a few minutes, and then remember them whenever they met again, even if it was months or years later. It was a gift, and a great one in our line of work. Me, I’m better with faces. Sure, if I have an in-depth conversation with someone I can recall them, and I’m really good at being able to memorize conversations and text, if I do say so myself. But Dorf? The guy is good, no doubt.

Smiling, Wallace took the badges from Dorf. “Hey, Detective Waldorf, long time no see. How’s it going? You guys out strolling around, or was this an official trip outta the city?” While talking, the guard was running our badges underneath a hand-held scanner, hooked up to a steam-powered generator. See, each badge had its own set of ridges and such, and if ran underneath the scanner, the name attached to the badge would get printed out on a stenograph. And, each badge had a small drop of blood from the officer embedded in it. So, all a caster would have to do was cast a small sympathy charm on it. If we were who we said we were, the badge would tug towards us, proving our identity.

After the stenograph dinged and printed out our names, Wallace –who was a partial caster, since they had an easier time with Steamtech for whatever reason- cast the charm on each badge, and watched as they tugged towards Dorf and myself, respectively. Why partial casters were less likely to cause steam-powered tech to explode violently wasn’t something that anyone had been able to figure out. Personally, I held the belief it was because they were closer to mundanes than full caster, and therefore had less stray energy floating around them. But, all of that was speculation, and not important in the slightest. All I cared about was whether or not we were cleared to go through, and we were. Wallace gave us both a small smile as he handed us back our badges.

“Oh, and this is Natalya. She’s a witness for a case we’re working on. I’ll vouch for her.” Dorf said this very off-handedly, as if it were something trivial he had forgotten. I held my breath, trying not to let on how worried I was. While the guard couldn’t hold us, as we were on business, they could make things difficult by summoning a scribe and making it official in the record books. Not that I was worried that she would try anything, but I already knew that life was just going to get more challenging for the half-Elven girl; I didn’t want her first experience with our fair city to be one of suspicion and prejudice.

Looking into the steam-carriage, Wallace frowned when he spotted Natalya, who did her best to burrow back into the seat. “Sir, you do know she’s a Ronan, right?”

“Yeah, but she’s our only lead, so we need her. Is there going to be a problem?” Dorf still sounded casual, but I was growing increasingly more nervous. Natalya reached up for my hand, and I held it tightly, not giving a good damn if it bothered the guard or not. Right now, I didn’t see her as a Ronan, but as a scared little girl who had already endured more than most adults would deal with, and she hadn’t succumbed to her experience. That should be enough for the guard to wave us through, but of course I couldn’t tell him all of that. Besides, if he was one of those people who was bigoted about Ronan, none of that would matter in the slightest to him.

Still frowning, Wallace stared at her for what seemed like a good minute before finally leaning back out of the steam-carriage. Shrugging his shoulders, he then waved the all-clear to the other guard so she could open the gate. “If you vouch for her, that’s fine. But, if I hear one report of a Ronan going around stealing things and spoiling milk with a touch, I know where to find you.” Tipping his hat, he simply said. “Drive through, and have a good day.”

“Thanks Wallace. Next time you’re at the Pig and Whistle, put a round on my tab. I’ll let Vlad the bartender know that I said so.” Giving the guard a wink, Dorf put the steam-carriage out of idle mode into forward mode, and we drove through the opened iron barred gate. He kept that silly smile plastered on his face until we were well past the guards, only dropping it when he knew he couldn’t be seen. “Fuck, that was close! I never thought I’d see the day where I was defending a Ronan and hoping a guard WASN’T suspicious. Huh, I guess things do change.”

Letting out a loud sigh of relief, I clapped my partner on the shoulder. “Good job, Dorf. Before we go back to the station, why don’t we swing by your place? It should be Gregory’s day off, and he can keep an eye on Natalya. I don’t think walking in with her is a good idea, especially since the Chief isn’t going to be happy with us. Not only haven’t we got the bastard that killed the young girl, but now we got a whole dead village to deal with!”

Looking back at me in the rear-view mirror, Dorf glared at me. “You do realize that the minute my husband lays eyes on her, with all of her cuteness, that he’s gonna want to adopt her, right?”

Trying to appear innocent, I put my hand on my chest. “Dorf! I’m offended that you would even think I had ulterior motives for doing that! I just want what’s best for her!”

Shaking his head, Dorf said, “And you’re a dirty fucking liar.” Looking over at his passenger, still gripping my hand tightly, the features on his face softened. “Well, I guess we all gotta grow up sometime, don’t we?” He said it so softly, I wasn’t sure if he was applying it to himself or Natalya. Not that it mattered. Slowing the steam-carriage down to something resembling a reasonable pace, we drove through our city towards his place. Anything was better than heading off to the major ass-chewing we both would be getting when we went back and reported to our captain. Made me almost miss battling the blood beast…almost.

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