Shadow's Ascendance

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Chapter Nine

It took me a few minutes of walking before I was finally able to shake the image of that dog from my mind, at least for the time being. Somehow I knew that I would be seeing it for a long time to come, but at least for now I could block it. Thankfully, Dorf made sure to keep me hustling. At first I thought he was just trying to keep me moving so I could clear my head, but then it occurred to me that with me being dazed, if anyone wanted to attack us as payback for former police shakedowns or anything of that nature, now would be the best time to do so.

Speak of bad luck and you invite it in, as the saying went. No sooner had I thought that than I felt a gathering in the air, like a storm, but without a cloud in the sky. Quickly I looked around, and spotted an abandoned steam-carriage close to the entrance to the Arcane Market, wheels falling off. I shuffled Dorf over there and picked the wheel up; then, I pulled out my athame and made a small cut on the palm of his hand. He gave a small indignant shout, but I had no time to apologize. Using some of his blood, I marked the wheel with a few runes, and then told him to grip the wheel with his bloodied hand. Dorf must have realized it was serious, because he stopped protesting and grabbed the wheel, specifically the rubber part of it.

I stood up and reached into my duster pocket, feeling around blindly for a certain charm I needed. The electricity in the air was starting to crackle, and all of my hair was slowly standing on end. Looking over at my partner, I was pleased to see that his hair was still flat on his head, which meant my grounding spell was working. Getting more frantic, I was close to panic when I found what I was looking for, pulled it out of my pocket, and put it on my right wrist. It was a band carved from a single piece of wood –from a tree that had been struck by lightning- and twined around it was a small strip of rubber.

Seconds later, a lightning bolt came smashing into me from far away; I couldn’t see where it originated, but it didn’t even veer off to strike any of the tent poles located around us; that could only mean that somehow someone had gotten a drop of my blood or a piece of my hair, helping the spell hone in on me and me alone. Even though the electricity itself did no damage, the force of the impact still knocked me off of my feet and threw me back about 10 Paces. Luckily, an empty tent was there to help cushion my fall, but I knew I would be sore and bruised by morning.

Getting untangled from the tent took precious seconds, since I didn’t know if there would be another attack, how it would arrive, or where it would originate from. I noticed that Dorf had pulled and unfolded from inside his jacket a small hand crossbow. Smart man, I complimented him. He knew that he couldn’t bring a pistol inside the Arcane Market, since all pistols are powered by steam technology; but the quaint old-fashioned hand crossbow would work perfectly here. And, he had done it all without letting go of the wheel.

Once I got free from the tent, I could feel the air starting to hum and crackle again. Knowing I had little time to spare, I started humming a tune while digging in my duster once more for another spell component. I’ve heard that wizards use a belt pouch for all of their components, which just seems silly to me. Since everyone knows that’s what is in there, all an enterprising attacker has to do is remove the belt pouch, and the wizard is practically helpless. It would be damn near impossible for someone to disarm me by removing my duster, and if they could do so I would either be unconscious or beyond such worldly concerns.

“Aha! Gotcha!” I exclaimed after I had finished humming my tune and once I found the component. I pulled it out, relived to know that the tiny mirror was still intact. Granted, I had the glass enchanted to resist breaking, but you couldn’t always assume those things would hold, especially in times like this. “You doing OK there, partner?” I yelled to Dorf.

“What the fuck do you think? Gods damn it, I really hate magic!” he snarled out.

“Good to know!” I shouted back. Normally, if we had been attacked, by being shot at or having various sharp objects hurled at us, I would whisper so the attackers wouldn’t know where we were hiding or if we were hurt. But now, now I really wanted whomever was dumb enough to try and take me out with magic to know that not only were we fine, but I was pissed off. “Come and get me, you son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath. “I’m waiting.”

As if that was some sort of command, I barely spun around to spot another lightning bolt heading my way. In moments like this, time seems to slow down. Your movements become drawn out, every breath takes a lifetime to take in, and it almost becomes deathly quiet. Everything comes down to doing that one thing you know you need to do to live. For me, it was bringing up the small mirror so it was cupped into my palm, reflective surface out. I did my best to make sure it was lined up with the bolt that was coming my way. If I was wrong, it would hurt really bad, and possibly shatter the mirror. Offering up a minor prayer to whatever deities might be listening, I hoped that I had aimed my hand correctly.

Then, time seemed to speed back up. The bolt hit my hand, and by luck or by skill, my aim was true. Resonating in the mirror for a second (which felt very weird), the bolt bounced back the way it came, reflecting off of the mirror on a return trajectory back to its origin. “Come on, let’s go!” I helped Dorf to his feet and we both began to run down the path the bolt had just taken. Within twenty seconds of me running full speed (and Dorf panting and wheezing behind me), we arrived at the end of a rundown alley. Laying there, smoke rising from the charred body, was whomever our mysterious attacker was. They were burnt pretty badly, but I was hopeful that we’d be able to at least get something out of their corpse.

Skidding to a stop, I waited for Dorf to catch up. When he did, he just said, “Baran’s Balls, that really stinks!” before leaning against the alley wall, hands on knees and trying to catch his breath. I agreed with his brief statement, while not his profaning the Elven God of Virility. The stench really did smell nauseating, and I did my best to breathe through my mouth and not my nose. Throwing up in an alley didn’t sound that appealing, thank you very much.

Finally, my partner wound down and he stood up, shakily but standing nonetheless. Once I saw he wasn’t going to die on me, I put Dorf out of my head and went over to the smoking body. I prodded the body with my boot, and it fell over, still holding a burnt piece of wood in its hands. Most of it had become blackened, but the ruby gems embedded into the wood told me all I needed to know. “Shit,” was all I said. “This wasn’t just an angry caster, looking for payback. This was a professional hit.”

“How do you know?” Dorf wheezed out.

Breaking the former wand out of the death grip the corpse had, I showed it to my partner. “Rubies on a wand can only mean one thing. Somebody with some deep pockets paid the Blood Guild to either keep us quiet –permanently- or scare us off this case.”

“Well, fuck, there goes my day,” Dorf exclaimed, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. The Blood Guild was a group of assassins of all types –mundane, partial and full casters- that had been operating out of Aerendor for many Cycles. Not only were they very good at their job, but they held to a code of honor. Once they took an assignment, nothing would stop them from completing it. Since we had killed this poor sod (not that I felt too sorry about killing someone who had been trying to kill me first), they would send somebody else; and if that person also failed, they would just send another person. And so on and so forth, until the contract was completed. At least they didn’t kill innocents, so I didn’t have to worry about any bystanders getting caught in the crossfire.

That explained why the spell had been targeted to me. As a caster, I was usually very carefully with anything that came from me and could be used as a focus. I cut my own hair rarely, and always burned what I cut off; I always wrapped and bound my own wounds, and burned the wrappings when I took them off; and when I cut my nails, you guessed it, I burned the clippings. But somehow, taking all of those precautions, someone had managed to get their hands on a small sample of something that came from me, and the thought both infuriated and terrified me in equal measures.

There were rumors of rumors that said that the reason the Blood Guild was so well known was that there was another shadowy organization hidden among them. They counted on the notoriety of the Guild to hide their own sinister plans and assassinations, and that they were so skilled in the art of death that they could kill a man a hundred ways and never have anyone suspect it was more than a natural occurrence or an unfortunate accident. Personally, I didn’t give much credence to those rumors, since not only did that sound paranoid bordering on the ridiculous…but the thought of people even scarier than the Blood Guild walking around amongst all of us wasn’t conducive to getting any sleep at night, ever. We (the police) made enemies in our line of work, there was no denying that. I didn’t want to think about someone who could find me, kill me, and have no one be the wiser that it was murder. Shivering, I rubbed my arms, though I knew it wasn’t from any chill in the air. Dorf made a protective gesture with his right hand, and I knew this had him shook as well.

“So, what’s our next move partner?” Dorf asked me.

Frowning in concentration, I thought for a second. “I say that now would be a really good time to get out of the city, try and chase down that lead Mister Black gave us.” Reluctantly, my partner nodded his head. “We both know that the Ronan won’t come to Aerendor for questioning, so it looks like we’ll have to go to them.”

“Do you really think one of those thieves is behind these killings?” my partner was skeptical, and I didn’t blame him. All the stories we had heard about the Ronan painted them as a very peaceful people, more interested in travelling around and fleeing trouble instead of defending themselves. Granted, they did have a reputation of being very light-fingered, but no one ever found any stolen goods in their caravans. Besides that, the thought of one of them being capable of committing these gruesome murders seemed like something a bigot would spread about them; designed to scare, but having no basis in truth or reality.

Sighing, I simply said, “No, I don’t think one of those people is capable of something like that, but we’ve both seen good people pushed to the brink and lashing out in ways that they couldn’t take back, no matter how much they regretted it. So, it would be unjust for us to not pursue this, no matter how illogical it seems. Looks like you get to drive your steam-carriage today after all.” The last was very difficult for me to say, it almost felt like pulling teeth.

Pumping his arm with glee, I tried to ignore the sinking feeling I got when thinking about being crammed into that murder machine for a few hours. Before we did that, we’d have to stop back by Mama Crea and let her know about the murder attempt and the body. From what I knew of the half-Giant, she wouldn’t appreciate something like that happening in her territory. But then, we’d go get Dorf’s steam-carriage and take a drive out to the country. Woo-fucking-hoo.

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