2 – Hallways and Heartaches
“Why try and change the past when we can only stay today?”
“Wait! How the hell do you know my dad?”
Valeo trailed behind the ragtag bunch, the shock far from wearing off. He fired the half-dozen questions spinning around his brain, but Drake strode silently ahead of the group perfectly at ease, as if he had known these halls for years. He led them up the main staircase to the fourth floor, precisely above the grand ballroom and its hundreds of obliviously sleeping guests.
“Twelve minutes,” Thatch said. Everyone picked up the pace.
Why was there no resistance? Since Valeo had entered the villa, countless soldiers had stood as statues beside nearly every door and entrance. Now, none could be found. Anywhere.
They came into a wide sitting room, complete with several overstuffed chairs and tables. Along one wall was a massive iron door: The Magistrate’s treasure trove.
The severe-looking man from the patio, the one downing glass after glass of bourbon, crouched over an unconscious soldier, putting the final touches on the cords binding his hands and feet.
“Impeccable timing,” the man growled as the group fanned out about the room. “Not here for the work but just in time for the coin. Always much appreciated.”
Drake gave a sweeping bow. “’Tis the only wish in my life, Alistair . . . fulfilling your every expectation.”
Alistair snorted and stood up. He was around six feet tall with close-cropped curly hair and gaunt eyes that bore holes into all they fell upon.
Drake looked down at the unconscious guard and grimaced. “Are they all like that?” he asked.
“Of course. Every closet from here to the front door’s got a solider tucked in it”—he jerked at the unconscious man’s wrists, cinching the cord—“all tightly bound and gagged.”
Drake winced. “A little looser please. We do want them to retain the use of their limbs.”
Alistair frowned. “Do we? Just another opportunity to turn the tide.” Despite his words, he loosened the cord slightly.
Valeo gaped. There was no telling how many soldiers had roamed the corridors leading here, and Alistair had taken down every one and without raising a single alarm. Valeo whistled low, making a mental note to never piss this person off.
“I brought presents.” Alistair hefted up a bundle of cloth nearly as big as he was and out fell an assortment of swords and flintlocks of all shapes.
The group rushed forward, claiming their weapons while Valeo stepped back, watching with growing intrigue.
Who exactly are these people?
Drake claimed a sword and a brace of pistols. The blade was silver to match the scabbard, the pummel wrought into a falcon’s head. The pistols were no less impressive, shining the same silver with a pair of roses stamped into the lacquered handles. Valeo knew sod all about weapons, but even he recognized these were no mere trifles.
“Well?” Drake said.
Looking up, Valeo realized everyone was looking at him.
Drake’s warm smile didn’t waver as he gestured to the last sword.
“That’s meant for your hands.”
Several crew laughed at Valeo’s obvious disbelief. He fumbled the belt and sheath, strapping them awkwardly over his right hip. The weight felt strange and out of place.
“A dawn shot!” Drake cried.
Valeo raised his eyebrows.
“You fight with your left hand,” Drake explained.
Valeo nodded. “Not sure flailing can be called ‘fighting,’ but yeah, left handed.” He shrugged, finering the hilt of his new sword. “Why the arsenal?”
“Insurance,” Drake murmured.
“For a troublesome fear I dearly hope comes never to pass.” Without further explanation, Drake turned to the vault. “Now . . . does anyone have any ideas how to get past this thing?”
“Lock like this,” Thatch piped in, pushing his glasses up his sharp nose, “should be buttercream for our finest gunslinger.” He stared at his fellow red-eyed Brightwin—the arrogant, handsome man from the patio. The man ignored the summons, picking at a spot of dirt beneath his fingernails. He looked bored.
“Cespin!” Alistair bellowed, muscles rippling and balance perfect.
False ignorance exhausted, Cespin pushed himself off the wall and slunk toward the lock.
“Eight minutes,” Thatch stated.
“With haste, if you would be so kind,” Drake added. “Holson, Garrett, stand watch.”
A slight man, hardly older than Valeo, and a burly fellow with the patchy remnants of a half-beard strode from the room.
Those that remained turned to Cespin as he clicked away at the lock, a set of spindly tools in hand. Valeo leaned in to check his progress.
“Would you mind not fumigatin’ my neck?” Cespin snapped.
Valeo took a step back and laughed. “Doing it wrong.”
Cespin rounded and stood in one fluid motion. Valeo didn’t back down an inch.
“Ya think so?” Cespin spat.
“Absolutely.” Valeo’s dislike rocketed.
“Then let’s see what ya got, bright eyes,” growled Cespin, shoving past Valeo to stand with his arms crossed.
Valeo threw Cespin one last foul look, then dug a small leather-clad set of picks from his pocket. He bent to examine the lock.
“Really think you can do it?”
Valeo jerked back, nearly flinging his picks across the room. A blond, freckled man was inches from his face.
“What are you doing?” Valeo sputtered. The blond, still crouched down, reached forward to steady him.
“Just checking in.”
“It’s been five seconds,” Valeo snorted.
The blond shrugged. “I’m supportive, not patient. So . . . you got this?”
Valeo nodded. “Easy as breathing.”
Valeo closed his eyes, searching for that warmth in his chest, his luck. Sometimes it came. He needed it now . . .
He sighed, resigned to do it the old-fashioned way. Even so, it only took two minutes. Cespin tried hard to hide his ire.
“Well,” Drake exclaimed, “you are full of surprises.”
The freckled man whooped, clapping Valeo’s back.
“Matt McCanty,” the man said with a toothy, gapped grin. Valeo smiled and took shook the offered hand.
The pair pushed their way through the heavy portal. What awaited made Benetzio’s magnificent ballroom seem a pauper’s cupboard. Pure gold armor of several Cloud Weavers, Soren Wraithwhite’s jeweled daggers, six of the nine diamond-riddled crowns of Everwind, and countless other treasures filled endless display cases and vogued on podiums about the room. Drake and his crew filed in, quick to start smashing open cases.
“Take only the unnamed,” Drake called out.
Eyes bulging, Valeo wound his way through the horde. Rubies and gems were replaced by ancient stones and statues, edges eroding around them. Artifacts of ages past lay strewn across velvet sheets, and in the biggest case of all, scarred by a hundred battles, stood a terrific set of steel and stone armor . . . The King That Never Was.
Every piece here, every jewel and broken scrap, told a story. The scant few he recognized were thanks to Threepwin’s Tales. Without that book, Valeo would have been utterly clueless.
A strange feeling welled up in his chest. He closed his eyes and imagined slinking through crumbling ruins, taking paths untrod for millennia, finding such wonders him—
A hand on his shoulder pulled him back thousands of years. He looked around, blinking.
“I know,” McCanty whispered.
Valeo cocked his head.
“That yearning beating in your chest,” Drake explained, striding over. “To face the edge of adventure and dive in eyes wide. Our calling.”
“The wild spirit of the unknown pumps through every Corsair,” McCanty added. “We share the same heartbeat.”
Valeo smiled, all hesitation washing away.
“Come,” said Drake. “I may have found something to interest you.”
Valeo quickly followed, excitement blooming in his gut. Drake led him to one of the cases. Inside were an assortment of old compasses, shards of metal, cracked cogs, and right in the center . . . his father’s watch.
Valeo’s skin crawled. The clasp was open, the watch face depicting spindly golden numerals and the jagged interior of the clock’s mechanical parts. Though old as the rest of the case’s stash, the watch shone as if newly polished. Valeo knew better. As a child he’d dropped it in mud, sent it rolling down stone steps, had never shown it the proper respect such a treasure deserved. Never had it lost its lustrous shine, nor taken a single scratch to its flawless casing. Since gifted to him, Valeo had been careless with the watch until the day it had been taken.
Emotions and memories surged through him. For the first time since parting, he remembered his father’s smell. Valeo yanked his jacket off, sending buttons flying, and wrapped it around his cocked fist. The casing exploded, launching glass in every direction, but he didn’t take his eyes from his prize.
Punching free the remaining shards, Valeo scooped up the heirloom. The smooth, circular edges were as familiar as his own palms. He rubbed the hard metal, savoring the swirling pattern of the hummingbird on one side, and the sweeping bow of a frigate on the other. He popped it open.
There. The inscription that had gotten the watch confiscated in the first place:
When You Follow Your Heart, Not Even Your Mind Can Catch You.
These words had ignited a revolution, one nearly overthrowing the Timeless seven hundred years before. A single guard had heard Valeo muttering them, made him turn out his pockets, and that was the last Valeo had ever seen of the heirloom. Until today.
Valeo hooked the fob chain along his waistcoat, slipping the watch gently into his pocket.
He turned and thanked Drake. The captain reached into the case himself, hooking an aged little journal with excitement in his eyes.
Outside, a cannon boomed. The pirate nearest the window, Garrett, peered through it. Body going rigid, he turned back. A sheer mask of terror filled his features, suddenly shaking violently.
“I don’t . . .” he whispered. Incomprehension lurked beneath his fear. “Fallen”—a tremor twisted his voice—“the Fallen are here. We’re dead.”
The room went eerily silent. Not a soul moved.
A colossal explosion rocked the foundations of the world, renting it apart in a shower of glass and shattered stone.
An endless hammering percussion thundered down on his eardrums. Opening his eyes, he found only bright flares of gold where his vision should be. He didn’t know where he was, or who he was. Ever so slowly, with several dry heaves and spinning nausea, the world returned to Valeo.
Past the blinding spots, he could make out hands, his hands, splayed out on polished wood. Someone called his name and he tried looking around, triggering vertigo. Focusing on each long finger in turn, Valeo shut out the myriad noises around him.
After counting his digits five times apiece, he chanced a look around. Drake was crouched beside him, shouting something Valeo couldn’t hear past the ringing. He tried to stand, but his head began to swim again. Firm hands kept him upright. Slowly, his vision cleared, and the ground stabilized beneath him.
“Are you all right?” Drake shouted.
This time, Valeo could hear. He shrugged, not knowing the answer. “What happened?”
Drake motioned toward the king’s armor . . . except . . . it was gone. Nothing remained except a ragged, gaping hole, tendrils of darkness creeping in around the edges. Thatch, Cespin, and all the others scrambled about, still trying to recover. Valeo stumbled past Drake and the debris to the hole.
The silhouette of a black ship loomed far off, a specter even darker than the night sky around it. It’s ghastly pale sails were billowing burial shrouds in the moonlight. Bright flares erupted from the ship, angry retorts howling through the still air. The building rumbled. Frantic shouts carried up from below—the newly awoken guests.
Valeo glanced down, spotting the arm buried in the rubble. Bile filled his gorge. Drake strode forward, shifting chunks of stone to reveal the broken and bloody form of Garrett. Blank eyes stared up, seeing all the things they could not.
“I am so sorry,” Drake whispered, pulling a single red cloth from around the man’s neck. The captain sniffed, standing up. “It is past time for us to take our leave.”
Looking once more at the spectral ship, Valeo couldn’t agree more.
The once-deserted halls were alive with movement. Soldiers and patrons ran to and fro over debris through a haze of dust. Though their valuables now lined the pockets of the pirates before them, not a single pilfered partygoer paid Drake’s crew any mind.
“Perfect moment for cover fire,” Cespin quipped.
Drake’s stern glare silenced him. Worry, even fear, filled the captain’s once calm face.
What, in all the skies, could frighten him so? Fallen? Truly? That couldn’t be possible. Fallen were no more real than wickerwinds or cloud harpies.
Several blasts rumbled the floor. There’s more than one ship.
Laden as they were with baubles and gold, the crew picked up the pace. Adrenaline drilled Valeo’s veins like never before.
“Keep together, whatever the cost,” Drake yelled over his shoulder, dodging past a well-dressed woman and her panic-stricken husband.
Rounding a corner, they came back to the grand foyer. The once pristine image of wealth was shattered. Furniture lay twisted and broken, covered with glass and dust. The regal chandelier lay monstrous in a tangled heap, tiny crystal rivulets a thousand teardrops scattered across bodies of soldiers and citizens alike. All dead.
The grand oaken doors, once so proud, lay warped and ajar, one completely torn free from its hinges. The group came to a shuddering halt. If Valeo’s veins had been pumping hot, they now turned to ice as that man stalked in.
Valeo called it a man out of sheer habit of the word. Its features were sexless, sharp and angular, its skin dead iron, dark as the night filtering in behind it. Its inhumanly long fingers and bright-silver, pupiless eyes . . . no doubt remained
The Fallen had come calling.
Something crawled underneath Valeo’s skin, a terrible itch he could never scratch. This rather entertaining adventure suddenly morphed into a dread nightmare.
Two more slinked in, silent as shadow. Even from the stairs, Valeo could make out their cold, gleaming eyes. They scanned the room, searching for something . . . someone. Their eyes found Valeo’s and held. Cocking their heads in terrifying unison, seeming surprised, taken aback. Then their icy mouths split into identical wide leers.
“We begin,” Drake stated, drawing his blade with the hiss of metal on leather.
The sound echoed as the crew mirrored their leader. Valeo groped at the clasp of his own sword and fumbled it free. He would be about as much help as an extra set of elbows.
As they tensed to strike, the inky night shifted, reveal several new forms shrouded in the mist. A primal sense of death dread screeched through Valeo’s marrow.
“Thayn, take him,” a slithering voice commanded, each syllable leeching life from limb. All Valeo desired now was to run until he was dead, anything to never to see those waiting beyond the doors.
A white-cloaked figure materialized. Broken veins lined a bone face, with glass-like shards for teeth.
All thought of resistance blew to broken memory. If the Fallen had struck fear in him, Valeo now had nothing inside him at all.
The figure’s eyes, too, met Valeo’s and paused. It smiled and blood poured down its chin. “Come for family, and instead find the answer. Hello, Valeo.” It began to laugh, gore running freely down its neck.
“Run, now,” Drake whispered, his terror barely able to link the words. “Death has come.”
Sword still in hand, a sudden, horrifying thought slammed into Valeo.
In a panic, he glanced over the bodies littering the floor and felt sick with relief. None wore purple.
“We can’t.” Valeo pushed through to stand beside Drake. “Have to find Breeze.”
Drake edged backward, forcing Valeo back. Dozens of Fallen filed in with utter, terrifying silence. In the center, the bloody white specter strode forward, eyes gleaming with darkest horror kept locked away in nightmares.
Drake didn’t understand. Valeo would face every demon in hell with a broken corkscrew before leaving his best friend, his only friend, behind. The Fallen crept past the chandelier with strange, twitching movements. With every blink, the shadows swooped closer in to claim them.
“Dammit, Valeo,” Drake growled, “I promised to keep you safe. Trust. These foes are beyond you.”
“Promised who?” sputtered Valeo.
“Time and place, lad,” Drake said. His eyes were still locked on the entry despite dozens of closer foes at hand. “Not the time, nor the place.”
They were the only two left on the landing. The first of the Fallen were only ten feet away, their black skin absorbing the light. Valeo wouldn’t budge. He just couldn’t. He’d rather die.
On the far side of the foyer. A flicker of movement. Half hidden in shadow, sheaf of black hair framing sharp features, Breeze appeared. She was smeared head to slippered heel in soot. Relief. Dread. Distance deeper than sky separated them now. As soon as they locked eyes, she shook her head against the foolish course forming in Valeo’s brain, striking home just how impossibly far she was. Raising her hands, she signed one word:
Drake shunted him farther back, but Valeo fought. Not for himself. For her. There was no way she could cross the city alone. Not with these things out there. She gave him an almost hopeless smile, a shrug, and was gone.
Drake shoved Valeo again and drew a pistol. Valeo’s eyes locked on where he had seen her last.
“Go!” Drake roared, taking aim and firing at the nearest Fallen, only a few strides away.
The shot cracked the dam.
Drake and Valeo didn’t stick around to see if the shot struck its mark. They tore back up the staircase, bouncing off each other. Dozens of Fallen poured after them without even a whisper.
“Run!” Drake bellowed, startling the crew into flight.
The shard-toothed figure watching them flee, evil roiling off it in waves. The shadows beyond the entry had vanished, unsettling Valeo more than everything else combined. Thatch stood at the stairs’ joint landing, beckoning to his companions even as several forms merged behind him with blinding speed. The freckled McCanty noticed what Thatch had not, but had no time for warning.
A creature’s wicked claws shot down with deadly purpose.
Flinging Thatch sideways, McCanty leapt, the Fallen’s blade sliced inches below his exposed back. He kicked out, feet smashing into the creature’s face with a sickening crunch, sending it crashing backward and out of sight.
In a selfless gesture Valeo thought far beyond him, Cespin dived after McCanty, keeping him from sliding into the swarm of Fallen. With Thatch’s assistance, they dragged McCanty back to his feet, and the three of them bolted up the stairs.
Valeo dashed up the landing behind them, eyes flicking down to a horde of silvery eyes. Turning to take the first step, cold sharp fingers spun him about, the blade descended, and Valeo’s life was over. At the last instant, a hurtling body knocked him wide and took his place. Blood spurted as a corsair, whose name Valeo didn’t even know, was opened from shoulder to hip. She fell limp into Valeo arms, crimson blossoming down her chest. Drake cleaved the foul creature nearly in half.
Mind numb, Valeo took one of the woman’s arms over his shoulders while Drake took the other. They tore after the rest of the pack, winding their way up and down seemingly endless corridors. Not a rustle betrayed the silent wave of monsters pursuing them.
The crew worked in seamless unison, those at the back firing shots over their shoulders while those in front threw back encouragement or fresh pistols. What treasure they still managed to hold on to bounced and clanked off their tired backs. They formed a protective diamond as they ran, Valeo, Drake, and the woman at its center.
The Fallen, terrifying eyes gleaming with hunger, gained with every stride. There was no sign of the bloody figure cloaked in white, something that only heightened Valeo’s panic.
The boards beneath their feet quaked with constant attacks from the ships outside. Each passed window brought still-frame snippets of death-skinned Fallen preying upon droves of fleeing guests. The horrific screams made it all too clear what awaited those who fell behind.
The corridor merged seamlessly into a large stone column ending in a heavyset, ironbound door—the base of one of the guard towers.
Valeo slowed and cursed. His doubts, along with his body, were knocked aside as a giant Rageborn parted the crew like a tornado. She rammed through the door, knocking it clean out of the jam to the opposite wall. Everyone rushed through in her wake, bouncing off the doorframe and each other. The space was bare, a round room with a solitary spiral staircase leading upward.
As soon as Drake was over the threshold, the Rageborn slammed the door back into its hinges, wrenching the warped iron bar into place not a second too soon. The wood shuddered violently as Fallen threw themselves against it.
“’T’won’t hold,” the Rageborn growled, her deep voice rumbling. To accentuate her point, the door lurched again, a crack appearing down its center.
Valeo and Drake lowered the injured woman gently to the ground, her breath coming in shallows gasps, and her face ghostly pale.
“Do what you can, Logan, please,” Drake begged the Rageborn.
Logan dropped to her knees beside the injured woman, hands working furiously to staunch the gruesome bleeding in her crewmate’s chest.
“Hold on, Philippa!”
The woman convulsed as she clenched at Logan’s shoulder. She gave one last gasping breath and grew still, glassy brown orbs burning into eternity.
The world grew still. An angry ringing filled Valeo’s ears, his ragged breath growing still. His breathing didn’t matter.
She’s dead because of me.
Logan roared, covered in blood not her own. A hole appeared in the door, a pair of gleaming eyes and wicked teeth jamming into the crack, trying to force a way in. Logan lunged at the face and the top half of the ironbound door exploded, shockwaves quaking through the stones.
Bellowing again in pure, blind hatred, Logan charged up the stairs.
Thatch grabbed Valeo by the scruff and pulled him to his feet. Round and round they went in single file, Logan trundling sideways to fit her girth on the narrow path.
“Fayt’s sake, I’m bloody sick of stairs,” Cespin growled, his pristine features disheveled and dirty.
At the top was a small landing, stripped bare except for a table and a single ladder leading up to a trapdoor.
Logan leapt, clearing half the length of the ladder in a single bound. She squeezed through the trapdoor, rungs squealing under her weight. The crew stayed hot on her heels, climbing up one by one.
The unmistakable shattering of the door below echoed up the tower.
“Get on with it!” Cespin shouted, pushing past Thatch and shoving McCanty from the ladder.
Still waiting for their turn, Drake and Valeo rushed to the table and flung it down the stairs.
Thatch was quick behind with a couple of chairs. Pushing his glasses back up, he rummaged in his coat pockets and pulled out a single glass orb.
“Last one,” he said, kissing the orb and nodding to Valeo.
He lobbed it down, and they shielded their eyes from the blinding flash.
“Does that even work on them?” Valeo heaved.
Thatch shrugged. “Probably not.”
Their turn came. Thatch took the lead, scurrying up the rungs two at a time. Valeo followed while Drake clambered up in their wake. They heard the tearing of wood as the tables and chairs were tossed aside but didn’t dare glance back. Logan appeared at the top of the ladder, grabbing Thatch by the wrists and yanking him up and out of sight.
Cespin appeared in her place, flintlocks ready. Valeo yelped and tucked against the ladder. Cespin fired round after round into a swarm of the monstrous things. Valeo tried again for his luck, hoping it would extend to Drake as they flew up the last few rungs.
Fortune it seemed, Valeo-made or otherwise, preserved them as they both scrambled safely through the trapdoor. As a filthy clawed hand groped after Drake’s coat, Logan slammed the metal door closed and flopped down.
“We’re safe,” she stated, crossing her bulging arms and ignoring the futile scrabbling underneath.
Chest heaving, Valeo pushed past the gasping crew and sank down next to McCanty.
“Nice dropkick back on the stairs,” Valeo panted.
“You pick, I kick.” McCanty pointed at Valeo’s pocketed lockpicks.
Valeo peered over the tower’s crenelated edge toward Heartstone and gasped.
The city was burning.
From Dock District to Delvin’s Hollow, wild flames filled the landscape. Even from here, over the sounds of his own gasping breaths, he could hear the screaming.
Where were the city’s defenses? Why had not a single alarm been raised? The Fallen were supposed to be a sailor’s tale, silly stories to get children to bed on time. People are seldom prepared for nightmares made real, but there should have been something.
These were no tales. The cries of the dying were all too real.
Shouting renewed from the grounds. Several Fallen poured out the front doors, dragging something past bodies strewn across the manicured lawns.
“Is that a person?” whispered McCanty. Valeo tried to nod but found he couldn’t.
The creatures dragged their burden through a patch of moonlight, and Valeo recognized Magistrate Benetzio’s tweed jacket. The poor little fellow woke with a start. Catching sight of his handlers, he flailed his stubby arms. The Fallen suddenly surrounded the magistrate, bodies writing as Benetzio was lost from sight.
The tiny man’s screams rent the night.
“This wasn’t what we agreed!” Benetzio’s tiny voice carried all the way to the tower, terrified and alone. “Llewellyn will know!”
A flash of moonlit metal. The Magistrate let out one final, blood-curdling wail. Then silence. The Fallen parted, and the same white-cloaked figure came into view, sheathing a long knife.
Benetzio was gone.
The seething quiet that followed beat against Valeo’s skull.
“B-but Timeless can’t die,” McCanty begged the night.
“Not by nature’s hand,” Drake answered, visibly shaking.
Valeo gripped the stone ledge so hard his hands turned white. Breeze was somewhere out there. Alone. He turned to McCanty, knowing what he must do.
“Rope,” Valeo whispered. “Give me rope.”
Still too horrified, the corsair didn’t seem to hear him.
“McCanty!” Valeo barked, tearing the rope from the dumbstruck man’s hip.
Several voices spoke. Valeo ignored them as he uncoiled the hempen fibers. Shoving his way to the tower’s opposite side, he peered down and felt a small burst of relief. Deserted.
“How long?” he asked, looking back at McCanty and waving the rope.
“F-fifty meters,” McCanty stuttered.
Valeo looked over the edge once more.
“Should be long enough,” he murmured.
“Enough for what?” Drake called. He stared at Valeo. They all did.
Valeo strode over to Logan still atop the trapdoor.
“Hold this, would you?” His voice wavered as he tried to keep emotion in check. “Don’t let go.”
“What are you doing?” Drake asked, grabbing Valeo’s shoulder.
Valeo shook him off. “What does it look like? Need off this thing, right?”
“Stupidity,” Alistair protested. His gaze dug into Valeo’s bones. “Gonna get himself killed.”
“Agreed,” Drake said, frowning. “How do you—”
“We need a way down,” Valeo snapped. “That way’s me. Will hold the rope, so you can all slide down after.” Leaving no time for argument, he mounted the crenellation a hundred feet high.
Valeo nodded toward Logan. “Better hold tight, or you’ll be scooping me up with a shovel.”
With one last look at the crew, crammed on the tower in their mismatched suit jackets and finery, Valeo smiled and dropped from sight.
He was wise to trust in the Rageborn, the rope holding firm. With great bounds, he rappelled down the tower, winds buffeting him back and forth. He made landfall without incident, checking quickly for anything lurked nearby. The silence held . . . not that it mattered. He wouldn’t hear a Fallen even as its claws found his throat.
He shuddered and jogged backward, tugging the rope taut. A distant figure atop the tower clambered over, beginning its rapid decent. Halfway down, Valeo cursed.
It was Drake. It would be much more difficult to get away from Drake.
As soon as the man was a few feet off, Valeo released the rope and leapt free.
Drake touched down with grace and turned his darkened scowl on Valeo.
“I am supposed to keep you safe.” His beard bristled as he took up the rope for the next person. “I cannot do that if you keep defying the skies. Promise to follow my lead here,” he demanded, worry in his eyes.
Valeo shrugged. “Wish that were possible . . . but it’s not.” He edged backward toward the high iron fence.
“Where are you going?” Drake shouted, body jerking as whoever was sliding down kept his hands occupied.
“Sorry,” Valeo whispered. He almost meant it. “Have to find her.” He took another step.
“Wait!” Drake craned toward Valeo.
“Such a big group will only slow me down.” Valeo didn’t dare think how slim the odds already were.
Drake cursed, eyes flashing up to Alistair, only halfway down. “Where do we meet you, then?”
Valeo had his answer ready. “Top of Crescent Lighthouse. Will signal you when we’re there. Oh, and bring your ship please.”
Drake almost managed a smile. “Stay alive, Mr. Sorte. I came this far for you.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Don’t get yourself killed now.”
Valeo buried the hundred questions again flaring in his throat.
“Likewise. And better bring some answers, too.”
Before Drake could reply, Valeo sprinted across the open lawn.
A twelve-foot fence had never been so easy to scale. The soldiers once standing guard were now either absent their posts or lying in blood. Valeo hit the ground on the far side and peered around through the gloom.
Panic, brazen and unfamiliar, welled in Valeo’s chest. Breeze was his only priority now, and by the looks of it, there was an army of monsters between them.
What a stupid idea.
Crouching in the darkness beside the fence, he tried to summon the courage to move. A cry of pain, of pure terror, cut through the night, echoing off silent houses. Valeo nearly jumped out of his stupid buckled boots.
He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, willing himself to stand on legs that would not support him. He reached into his pocket. The scrape of warm metal. His father’s watch. Valeo felt braver; he was no longer alone.
Fingers rubbing fine filigree for luck, the Fleetfoot sprinted into the growing darkness, memories driving him onward . . .
—As high as our feet will take us.
The boy looked down from the abandoned windmill. His hair had grown long, the wild, flowing strands of crimson and snow now down to his chin. His knees were raw and torn from wood and hard stone. He was getting better, though. He hadn’t fractured a bone in months. The worst were his hands—ragged, bloody masses with the general form of fingers. He clenched and unclenched them slowly, each sharp jab of pain a badge. He put one of the digits in his mouth, trying to staunch the slow trickle. Soon the calluses would thicken. Soon he’d be good enough that it wouldn’t matter.
Raised voices echoed drifted up from the congested alley. The ramshackle buildings in Delvin’s Hollow were fiercely cared for . . . even as gravity pulled them back into the dirt. A glint caught the boy’s eye. A small girl ran alone, trailed by a group of teenagers.
Her dirty, bare feet knew these potholes. Dressed in a ragged tunic, she had the black hair of a Rageborn, though was far too small to be one of those.
The girl was quick and confident, but it wasn’t enough. She bolted down a side alley. A dead end. The teenagers fanned out behind her, trapping her in.
The boy sighed. Knowing well what it meant to be cornered and small, he made a snap decision he would never again understand.
Standing up, he searched for a way down. Left—an eight-foot gap to the next building. Sheer sides. No path down. Below—an old crate filled with empty flour sacks stacked in front of the mill.
If he timed it right, he could swing from the tattered windmill’s blade down to the crates, roll from left shoulder to right hip, and leap to the streets below—easy as breathing.
Smothering a second guess, he leapt at a ragged blade, vertigo lurching in his stomach. He grabbed the rough wood with one hand but missed with the other. Spinning around, he lost his grip, and fell. The impact sent billows of rancid flour in all directions. Once he could breathe again, the boy groaned and rolled off the mass of debris, fresh scratches now accompanying the old.
The teenagers had caught up to the girl to begin their game.
“Look it, little rat,” a boy with a snout like a ferret sneered. “Paw roving and caught in a trap.”
One of his pack sniggered. The girl looked down at the bruised beet clutched in her fist, her prize. As far as eating was concerned, it was her only prospect this week.
The gang surrounded her, poking and prodding. The girl stood tall, eyes downcast yet defiant. Ferret boy stepped forward.
“Gonna give it back, little thief?” He shoved her hard, and she fell to her knees. “Say something!” The others laughed.
“She never talks. She’s an idiot,” someone mocked.
“Surely you’ll talk to me?” Ferret-face continued. The girl lashed out, punching him in the eye.
Howling, he kicked her, as hard as he could.
She hugged her sides, sobbing on the ground, black hair smeared across reddened cheeks. The rest of them poked her with stubby toes, enjoying their game of cat now they’d found a mouse.
The boy had seen enough. All pain in his body forgotten, he sprinted at the pack. He had no plan. He’d figure it out when he got there.
Ferret rubbed his eye furiously. “Can’t talk, but maybe she can scream. Let’s see how loud she—hmph!”
The fist slammed into the Ferret’s kidney, and he toppled over. The little boy kept swinging as he barreled in. The first few hits went wide, but the seventh caught a hard-eyed teen, his bone-bloody fist streaking across her chin. She squealed and fell back.
The boy’s arms were already tiring, not that they were much use in the first place. Time to go. He grabbed the little girl’s hand, smearing her with blood as he jerked her to her feet.
“You don’t know me but run!”
He forced his way between bodies, dragging the little girl in his wake. They tore hard down the darkening side streets, the pack hot on their heels.
Open doorways flew by, showing brief glimpses of flickering candlelight and curious faces. Curses and threats poured in from behind them. The boy pressed harder, running even faster. To his surprise, his new companion kept pace. He felt a twinge of annoyance. No one should be as fast as me!
They turned down an alley, damp walls pressing in. The boy’s mind raced, trying to decide. Snap decisions were either terrible or great, but sometimes he got that shine deep in his chest, Fleetfoot’s luck, and they were a little bit of both.
He kept the corners of his eyes focused for a flash of light, an open door. Less than ten feet from the end of the alley, he felt a tug, a warm feeling pulling him left, and followed it. He jerked hard on the girl’s hand, forcing her sideways, bursting into a completely foreign kitchen with seconds to spare.
“Evening,” the boy panted, looking at a dumbstruck old woman in the middle of her dinner. Not waiting for her reaction, they fled up a staircase at the back of the room two at a time into a bedroom. Behind a large bedstead was a window big enough to squeeze through.
Shouting echoed up from downstairs. The little boy launched himself over the bed, threw the window open, and climbed onto the sill. Turning around, his back to open air, he leapt, pulling himself up onto the roof’s wooden shingles. Flinging his arms back over the ledge to help the little girl, she just stared up at him, eyes like melons.
“Come on!” he shouted.
She shook herself from reverie, she clambered onto the sill, trembling all over. She looked down at the alley far below, then back up to the boy.
“Jump and climb, just like me!” he called down.
The older ruffians flooded in behind the girl. Whooping, they closed the gap in seconds even as the girl jumped. Several hands scrabbling at her ankles, the boy wrenched the girl up and away from the edge. They collapsed, chests thundering. The shingles cracked and they jerked back up. The sneering ferret climbed into view.
“Gonna make you pay for that punch, Fleetfoot. And here I thought you lot were supposed to be lucky.”
The boy stared in horror even as something slammed past him. The little girl. Planting both hands wide like support beams, she flung her legs between them like a human trebuchet. Her bare feet slammed into the leader’s chest, blasting him from the rooftop.
The boy ran to roof’s edge to peered down at the whimpering ferret writhing in garbage.
The girl shook with a fury without words, and for a moment the boy was terrified of her. She raised the beet, now considerably more woebegone, still clutched in her fist.
“All that for a beet?” Valeo barked.
She smiled, took a bite, and pelted the rest down at the ferret.
Taking Valeo’s hand again, she led the way into the waning sunlight, jumping from house to house, shouts and curses trailing.
Miles later, the boy flopped down, gasping for air. He had time for only a few breaths before the girl prodded his ribs with a toe.
“What?” he said.
Why? she mouthed, not a sound escaping her lips.
“Why what?” He sat up. “Help you?”
She nodded. He paused, trying to understand it himself.
“Because you were trapped . . . but stood your ground. Takes a very special kind of stupid,” he added with a smile.
She blinked and her face fell. Silent sobs began wracking her body. The little boy, feeling something akin to guilt, tried patting her back. He never saw the fist, just felt it driving into his gut. He toppled over, grappling for breath. When he looked up, she was smiling, her eyes quite dry.
“What was that?” he gasped, clutching his stomach. “Could’ve used some back there.” He coughed. “Though . . . had it under control.”
She raised an eyebrow and pointed a tiny finger down at him, then flailed about as if on fire.
“Did not look like that!” he argued, aghast. “My punches were more . . . regal.” He wasn’t sure what the word meant, but it tasted appropriate.
She laughed. The tinkling sound of chimes on a summer breeze. Her face grew serious. She pointed at him as he stood up, pointed back to herself, and mimed running and jumping.
“Umm . . . what?” he asked, brushing off his bloody knees.
She mimed it again, looking agitated.
He snickered, still a little unsure. “You liked how we ran?”
She nodded quickly, breaking into a smile. She stood next to him, moved her hand back and forth between. Finger at him, finger at herself, then running and jumping in place.
“You. Me. Together.” Jubilant head nods. “More. Running. Together . . .” He paused for a moment, thinking aloud. “Want me to teach you how to run?”
She clapped her hands, thrilled he’d figured it out.
He shrugged. “Guess we could.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “One thing first, though.” She looked at him, nodding. “Gotta come up with an easier way to talk . . . pen and paper or something.”
She punched him again and smiled. He lurched over, which was a good thing, or else she would have seen he was smiling, too.
Getting his attention, she pointed into the alley below, then to the next series of buildings higher still. Low or high?
Valeo grinned. “As high as our feet will take us.”
Together, they tore off into the night.
The day he’d met Breeze.