41. City on Fire
Kiren kicked the handle to Bits’ door until it splintered, then shouldered it open.
He entered the room, two confused Heroes at his back.
He found a pile of papers and books burning in the middle of the room. Everything else had been cleaned out, drawers empty. The window was open, smoke funneling out of it.
“Damn it!” Kiren hissed. He hurried over to the window and looked out, but didn’t see anything below. “He got away.”
The Hero known as Somnus put out the fire by throwing a blanket on it and patting it down with her hands. Voicebox made a quick round of the room but found nothing.
“What exactly did this lad do?” Somnus asked. She stood from the smoking pile, clad in a black outfit glittering with flecks of gold, like yellow stars upon a night-black field.
“I don’t know yet,” Kiren growled. He turned away from the window and faced the two Heroes. “I don’t know who he’s working for, but I do know that he just instigated an attack on the Guild Leader.”
Voicebox spun around to look at him. She was a young woman, with blonde hair and a freckly button nose. She wore a loose outfit of rust-red hose and a forest-green tunic, with a copper horn hanging from her neck.
“He just instigated an attack on the Guild Leader,” she repeated in Kiren’s exact voice, matching every subtle detail of his inflection while her expression remained unchanged. “Explain.” With this word, her voice returned to a normal, feminine timbre.
“He conspired with another apprentice, Jahn, to kill Bloodhound. They failed, but Bits got away.” He motioned to the open window. “Obviously.”
“Wait, you’re that kid, aren’t you?” Somnus said. “The one who freed those prisoners.” She walked a few steps closer to him and raised one finger, which lit up with a faint, golden glow. “How do we know you’re not part of this little conspiracy?”
“Are you serious?” Kiren took a step towards her, holding his chin high. “I cleared myself of that whole thing. Brought those Villains back by the scruff of their fucking necks.”
“Step away from him,” came a voice from the doorway. “He’s trustworthy.”
Eagle-Eyes stood in the hallway, arms crossed.
Somnus slowly looked back, sighed, and lowered her hand, the glow fading from her finger.
“Eagle, what the hell is happening?” Voicebox asked. “I was enjoying a drink and some good music, and all of a sudden the whole Lodge is upside down.”
Eagle-Eyes drew up his feathered shoulders. “Enemies everywhere, as always.”
Kiren rooted around the smoking pile of papers with his foot. He couldn’t read any of it, of course, but he figured there had to be something of use in there.
Most of the papers were burned beyond legibility, but he caught a brand at the bottom of one.
He leaned down and gingerly picked up the paper, then rose back up. A large chunk flaked off in his hands, but the brand at the bottom of the page was still clearly legible.
An angular eye with a slitted pupil scratched in charcoal.
Kiren drew in a sharp, hissing breath.
“Bits was working for the Dark Eye,” he said. He held up the paper so the others could see. “Can’t be anything else.”
Somnus and Voicebox gasped, then threw uncertain glances at one another.
“That’s impossible,” Somnus said. “The Dark Eye was disbanded.”
“Maybe a splinter faction,” Voicebox suggested. “Amateurs fashioning themselves after Ender’s likeness. Certainly not what you’re suggesting, sirrah.” She made a nervous sound, like a mix between a hiccup and the clucking of a hen.
“He’s obviously been listening to too many fanciful stories,” Eagle-Eyes said. He came inside the room and took the paper from Kiren’s hand, folding it into a pocket. He grabbed Kiren by the arm and led him out. “I’ll talk some sense into the lad. It’s been a trying night for all of us.”
“It’s been a trying night for all of us,” Voicebox imitated, matching his voice perfectly. “You could say that again. Oh, wait. I just did.”
Eagle-Eyes pulled Kiren out of the room, out of sight from the other Heroes. He put him against a wall and held him there by his shoulders.
“Do not throw that name around,” he said.
“What the fuck?” Kiren hissed. “Did you not see that paper? Bits is working for the Dark Eye!”
Eagle-Eyes clamped a hand over his mouth and held it there.
“Shh,” he sounded, eerily calm. “I know already, sirrah. My investigation led me to this conclusion. The letter you found all but confirms it. You cannot mention this to the others, however. No one. Most of them don’t want to believe that they are still a threat. Tensions are high on the subject, especially after… recent developments.”
“Magpie was questioned regarding his knowledge of the Thieves’ Guild. He insists that they are working with…” He looked up and down the hallway. “Them.”
Kiren whistled. “Nice. So, boiling tar over my head and a beehive down my pants.”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“What do we do about this? The Da…”
Eagle-Eyes gave him a dark glare.
“The bad fuckers. We have to find out what they’re planning somehow. Judging by all those documents Bits left behind, it seems big.”
“Right now, options are limited,” Eagle-Eyes said. “Until we know who our allies are, we can’t trust anyone. Paragon doesn’t tolerate what she sees as fear mongering. Bloodhound can’t operate outside her jurisdiction.”
“Lace believes,” Kiren said. “So does Excelerate.”
“I know. But Excelerate is a husk of his former self, and Lace isn’t here. For now, I will continue my investigation independently. You will stand by. If I need you, will you help me hunt them?”
“Yes, Master. I’ll kill them all if you say the word.”
“Nothing so ambitious just yet. We need the rest of the Guild behind us before performing a full-scale operation. Right now, our aim is finding them and proving their existence to the world.”
“So, you already suspected Bits? How long?”
“Since the start. Why do you think I made him my apprentice?”
“So he could lead me back to his allies. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been in contact. You revealed the game by approaching him so directly. It appears he had contingencies in place.”
“I… see.” Kiren had the shame to lower his head. “What ticked you off to him in the first place?”
“His skin,” Eagle-Eyes said. “It’s not his own.”
“Yes. It’s a disguise—and a good one. Nearly perfect. But he cannot fool my eyes.”
Kiren stiffened. “You don’t mean…?”
The Hero nodded gravely. “I think it might be.”
One of Ender’s commanders has been sleeping one floor below me this whole fucking time.
Kiren put a hand on his head, and Eagle-Eyes stepped back to give him some space.
“No wonder he’s always smiling,” Kiren said. “He fucking fooled us all.”
“Not me,” Eagle-Eyes said. “I will find him. Have faith.”
Lace entered her old home.
It was dark, and the only sound was that of her own footsteps.
She wandered through the hall into the adjoined kitchen and living room. She wanted to call out, but she felt as if her throat had been tied up.
She was afraid of what she would find. Afraid that if she called out, there would be no response.
She passed through the kitchen, walking past the cold scraps of a dinner. She inched up to her mother’s bedroom, looked around the corner.
And almost walked into someone.
“Oh, Creator’s breath!” Mom exclaimed. She stumbled back and clutched her chest.
Lace did the same, hitting the wall behind her.
“Who’s…?” Mom squinted. “Lace? Is that you?”
Lace quickly got over her shock. “Mom, are you alright?” she asked.
She approached her mother, who seemed almost like a stranger now. Even in the dark, she could make out some of her features. Her hair was a bit longer, a bit smoother. Her skin wasn’t so deathly pale. Her face wasn’t so gaunt. Her eyes were just a tad brighter.
“I-I’m alright,” Mom said, blinking. “I’m more than alright, I suppose. I hadn’t expected a visit from you. Oh, Lace, I have so much to tell you…”
She looked like she was about to tear up.
This wasn’t quite the time for a tearful reunion, however.
Lace persisted. “Mom, I need you to focus. Can you breathe? Have you been coughing blood?”
Mom frowned. “No, why?”
“Have you had any love potion tonight? Answer honestly. This is important.”
“I haven’t. Truly. That’s… what I wanted to tell you.” She paused, playing with a strand of her hair. “I’m clean. Lace, please. It’s been a long time. Can we… hug?”
Mom extended her arms, and Lace reluctantly let the older woman gather her into a hug. Mom squeezed her tightly, allowing Lace’s head to settle on her shoulder.
Lace was shocked into silence.
She was sure she had heard her mother correctly, but she couldn’t believe the words.
“You’re clean?” Lace asked, her voice choking up.
Mom was sobbing. “Yeah.” She held her tightly. “I quit the day you left. I guess that was the thing I needed to realize what I was doing.”
Lace took a step back, allowing one hand to remain on her mother’s arm. She looked her straight in the eye. “You’re off the stuff? Swear?”
Mom wiped a tear and sniffled. “I swear. I-I have something for you, actually. Wait a moment, please.”
She moved back inside her room and rustled around in the darkness for a bit. She came back, holding a full purse, and handed it to Lace.
Lace looked inside.
Dull copper coins gleamed within.
The money she took from me.
The money for my admittance tests.
“It’s all there,” Mom said. “I, uh, actually added a little bit to it. I know there’s not enough money in the world to repay a bad childhood, but…” She shrugged, still sobbing softly. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Lace stowed the purse away, then gave Mom another hug.
This time, it was her turn to hold her mother tightly.
“Thank you,” Lace whispered.
“I’m sorry…” Mom whimpered. “I’m so, so sorry. It’s just what happened… to your father, and I, I couldn’t… It was too much… I didn’t… didn’t want…” Her words descended into indecipherable spluttering.
“I know,” Lace whispered, stroking her mother’s hair as she cried heavy tears on Lace’s chest. “There’s still time to make up for it.”
Mom looked up. “You think so?”
Lace let her go. “Yeah. I do.”
Mom sniffled and wiped her nose. “Oh, thank the Creator.” She studied Lace closely for a few moments. “You look so different.”
“How so?” Lace asked with a tentative smile. She looked down at herself.
“Just… taller. Stronger.” Mom reached out and touched her hair. “You cut your hair. I like it. Suits you.”
Mom frowned and pinched Lace’s arm. “You’ve not been eating enough, though. No man’s going to woo you if you look like a boy.”
“Mom!” Lace exclaimed.
“What? Is it so bad I want my daughter to get married someday?”
A muffled scream from outside brought Lace back to reality.
The scream was followed by another, then urgent yelling.
“Stay right here,” Lace said firmly.
“O-Okay,” Mom stuttered.
Lace pulled the gale-staff off her back and jogged over to the front door. More screams sounded from outside. She slowly inched it open.
She locked eyes with a young man who lay down in the street, being devoured by a creature like a squid—the size of a large dog—whose tentacles ended in human hands.
It tore the man’s throat out with a jagged beak and lapped at his blood before slowly looking up at Lace, fixing her with scarlet eyes.
There was no time to think.
Lace dropped into a ready stance and pushed a sharp wind blade through her staff.
The spawnling slid towards her on fluid arms, its hands digging into the muddy street. It called to her, a strange mix between a bird’s caw and a human scream.
The thing leapt at her.
Lace was ready for it.
She waited until the last possible moment, then swept her staff in a wide, horizontal arc. The spawnling split in two, and she stepped to the side as its two halves hit the wall behind her.
One piece was slack, while the other still writhed, screaming with hatred as its hands grasped for her legs.
Lace thrust her staff into the main part of the body.
The wind blade found the creature’s heart. The arms stiffened, then fell to the ground, all limp.
Lace withdrew the staff and wiped away the inky beast-blood on the ground.
She spotted more spawnlings coming up the street, clawing at the doors of the buildings and tearing down the citizens who didn’t have the good sense to flee.
“Mom!” Lace shouted into the house. “Come, now! We need to go!”