24. Show of Force
Jorge heaved into the chamberpot. Dark bile sloshed around the bottom. He wiped his mouth with a shaky hand, violent tremors going through his naked body. Sweat beaded on his back and forehead and his stomach burned like wildfire.
He inspected the vomit with a close eye. At least there was no blood in it. That was something.
Too old. Too fucking old for everything.
He needed something for the pain. Something strong. Even Good Doctor’s aid did little for him, these days.
“Excelerate!” shouted a voice from the other side of the door. Counter’s harsh baritone. “You’re gonna want to hear this!”
“What makes everyone think they can just come knocking whenever they please?” Jorge muttered under his breath. He raised his voice. “Yeah, I’m coming! Give me a minute!”
He set his trusty chamberpot aside and got up to find some clothes. He keenly felt every crackle of his joints, every painful spasm of his muscles, every old scar flaring up like a fresh wound.
It was light outside. Time seemed to blur together more and more, these days. When he went to sleep, he was never quite sure when he would wake up.
He got into his robes one excruciating movement at a time. He pulled the cloth mask around his neck and took a moment to collect himself.
He went outside and met Counter, who explained the situation. There had been some sort of breakout at the Lodge-side jail.
Counter led them down into the main hall. A startled guardsman sipped at a mug of mulled wine while Conversia, Bloodhound’s assistant, questioned him.
“How many got out?” Jorge asked.
Conversia turned to face him and folded her hands behind her back. “All of them. Five in total. Low risk, but three are pertinent to the current Evangel investigation. That isn’t the important part, however. The man who broke them out is one of yours.”
“Kiren, I think the captain called him,” the guardsman said. He rubbed his blotchy, red throat. “He lured all the others out of the jail, then choked me out. By the time I came to, everyone was gone.”
Jorge frowned, burrowing his face in his mask. “My, that is something.”
Kids, what are you thinking? First one’s a liar, second’s a traitor.
“We are dispatching Heroes to handle this situation,” Conversia said. “I thought you would like to know. You won’t be getting your apprentice back.”
“No you’re not,” Jorge said firmly. “I’ll handle this. My apprentice, my responsibility.”
“Not happening. You lost that privilege when you failed to prevent this.”
Jorge stepped close to her and leaned in until their faces were almost touching.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You’re going to let me handle this, alone. If you don’t, I resign. We both know you can’t afford that.”
Conversia cocked an eyebrow. “You’re willing to throw away your career over one traitor apprentice?”
Jorge didn’t move a muscle. “Yes.”
She sighed and took a step back. “Alright, fine. You do it clean. Bring them in, or you will get your wish.”
“Excellent. Last sighting?”
“They were last spotted climbing the wall to the south-west, facing the Slog.”
He nodded. “Right. I’m on it.”
He walked towards the doors of the main hall, his Power buzzing beneath his skin. He grabbed an untended flagon along the way and drained its contents in one go, tossing the empty vessel aside.
Lace spotted Jarl’s house coming into view down the street. It was hard to miss, both larger and cleaner than most residences in the Slog, the clapboard facade even sporting a flaking paint job.
Even with reliable directions, it had been a nightmare to find the place. Navigating the Slog was like trying to find your way through an anthill.
Lace had a bad feeling in her stomach. Something didn’t seem right. The streets were too empty. The only movement was from a pair of stray cats fighting over a dead rodent.
I’m doing a Hero’s work, she told herself. There’s nothing to worry about.
The thought rang hollow in her head.
“Ready yourself,” Hulda said. “Jarl may know we are coming. I will be relying on your help if a fight does ensue.”
Lace pulled the fluted staff out of the makeshift loop she had pinned to the back of her tunic. She held it in a two-handed grip and gave it a whirl, the hollow metal producing a high-pitched hum.
The staff was lightweight, made of some kind of composite steel, and it was nearly as long as she was tall. Three holes were bored into each side of the top end, with delicate, hinged stoppers on the inside, which could be opened when channeling air through the other end of the staff to push air out the sides.
She’d only been able to try it out briefly, but it was intuitive enough that she didn’t need much practice to be able to use it.
It was definitely going to add some extra power to her arsenal.
A man stepped out of an alleyway and into the street, face downturned.
He stopped in the middle of the street, facing them, and looked up.
Lace stopped dead in her tracks.
Kiren’s dark, almost black eyes pierced through her, leaving her breathless.
“Hulda Ludenhaas,” he spoke, words dripping with venom. “You won’t be getting any further. I’m putting an end to this.”
Hulda stopped. She cocked her head at the young man standing before her.
“And who are you supposed to be?”
“Kiren, what are you doing here?” Lace asked urgently, taking a few uncertain steps forward.
“Still with Hulda, I see,” Kiren remarked. “I should be disappointed, but, well… you already made your intentions clear. I suppose it wouldn’t change anything if I told you she’s a criminal.”
“How’d you find that out?”
“Mug told me. The book is a cipher.”
“You mean the fence? The criminal?”
“I’m a criminal,” Kiren said, spreading his arms. “Does that mean you don’t trust me?”
“You know what? Maybe it does. There’s a line between Heroes and Villains. You crossed over to the wrong side. At this point, I’m not sure whether to believe anything coming from you.”
“I remember you now,” Hulda said. “Excelerate’s little gutter rat. Remove yourself from these premises. I did not request your presence.”
“I’m not moving,” Kiren said. “If you want the book, you face me first.”
Hulda sighed. The silver spear flew into her hand as if by the power of a lodestone.
“Lace, go on ahead. If you find the book, burn it.”
“Yes, Master,” Lace mumbled. She could not bear to look at Kiren.
Lace took off in a run towards Jarl’s house. Kiren moved to intercept her, but Hulda’s spear zipped in front of him. It spun and slapped across his legs, knocking him on his stomach.
She made it past him and kept running, feet slipping in the cold sludge.
“Now, tell me,” Hulda’s voice echoed from behind. “What in the Creator’s memory possessed you to pick a fight with me?”
As Hulda Ludenhass came towards him at a slow amble, Kiren began to realize that he might have made a slight error in judgment.
The spear flew back into the Hero’s hand. She held it up, point angled at Kiren. She stopped a few meters from him.
He got to his knees, shirt dripping with mud, and stood to face the Hero.
“I will give you one chance to rethink this folly,” she said.
Kiren couldn’t take his eyes off that spear.
He steeled himself and forced a grin.
“Once I get my hands on that book, guess what I’ll do with it? I’ll show the world whatever bad business you’ve got tucked between those pages. Something tells me not even you will be able to plug that hole once it’s been made.”
Hulda’s upper lip twitched.
“I see. I suppose the ‘unfortunate accident’ excuse will do the trick.”
She cocked her head.
The spear shot out like an arrow.
Time seemed to slow as the long, slender tip drove through Kiren’s midsection. Every layer of skin, every chunk of flesh, every fold of his intestines. It went out the other side and he toppled backward, but he didn’t fall. Completely impaled, the spear jutted into the ground on the other side, keeping him up.
Kiren breathed in short gasps.
The pain’s coming.
It’s going to hit.
It’s going to hit.
Hot lightning wracked his body, freezing every muscle. He screamed.
His perception distorted, eyes crossing, and he wished that he could have taken back every decision leading to this moment.
“Ah… fuck…” he groaned.
“Stop being so dramatic,” Hulda said. “You wanted this, after all.”
Kiren took a few plunging breaths, steeling himself once more. He grasped the spear haft with both hands, using all the strength he could muster.
“Now!” he shouted.
Hulda raised her eyebrows. “Oh my. Looks like you’ve gone quite delirious. I suppose I should wrap this up quickly. I’m not some cat that plays with its food, after all.”
“Now!” Kiren repeated.
Another few seconds of silence.
“Is that our cue?” Hyena called.
“Yes, that’s your fucking cue! Get the fucking bitch already!”
Hyena and Snapjaw leapt out from their hiding places behind the buildings on either side of the street. The two colossal creatures charged at Hulda, their footfalls like thunder. They crossed the ten or so meters in only a few moments.
Kiren felt the spear move inside him.
She was trying to pull it out.
He grinned through the agony and held on tighter. He kept the thing burrowed firmly inside him, sliding only by inches. The pain was immense, but the look on Hulda’s face was worth it.
Eyes wide, mouth in a perfect O, she raised her hands in a cross over her head.
Hyena reached her first. He uppercutted her with a fist the size of a small anvil.
Hulda went flying. She flew several meters, hit the ground on her side, and rolled to a stop, face down on the ground.
“Shit, is she dead?” Snapjaw asked, slowly coming to a stop ahead of Kiren. “Hyena, I told you not to kill anyone!”
Hulda lifted her head and spat dirt. She got up with painful slowness, cradling one of her arms. The forearm was twisted at an unnatural angle, and several of the fingers had been snapped back.
Part of her grey hair had slipped out of its bun, hanging over her face. Her previously immaculate white dress was covered in mud from top to bottom.
“Okay…” she spat. “You’ve done it now. You’ve really done it.”
She held out her intact hand.
The spear was yanked out of Kiren’s body all at once, cutting his palms along the way. The force pitched him forward onto his hands and knees.
The spear spun through the air, slicing into one of Snapjaw’s ankles as it traveled to its master.
Snapjaw went down on one knee, swearing at the deep cut in his ankle as it oozed blood.
Hulda caught the spear and twirled it in a circular arc of shining silver.
“Time to show you what it means to be A-Rank.”
Lace tried the handle to the front door, but it was locked. She raised her new weapon—the gale-staff, as she had taken to calling it—and ran a steady current of wind through the bottom end, creating a thin blade of air running out of the top with a warm hum. With a few well-placed slashes, she cut the handle clean off.
She kicked the door in and found a man reeling on the other side. Long, blond hair and a braided beard denoted him as a Jagentander.
Before he had any time to compose himself, Lace grabbed the man by the beard and pulled him closer.
“Jarl, is it?” she asked.
“W-Who’s asking?” the man stammered.
“The Heroes’ Guild.”
She brought him through the hall, further into the house. There was a spacious living room area adorned with wooden furniture and a small adjoining kitchen.
When he started to struggle, Lace gave him a quick jolt of wind to the testicles. He doubled over, groaning.
“You’re Jarl, right?” Lace asked. “I’m going to find out one way or another. You might as well tell me before I have to start getting mean.”
Annoyance buzzed in her back of her head. Why did this have to be so complicated? Why did Kiren have to get involved? It was on her shoulders to do what was right, no matter what anyone else said.
I will be a Hero.
I’m doing a Hero’s work.
This is what a Hero has to do. They have to make the hard decisions.
She still remembered what Hulda had told her.
The man didn’t respond, so Lace gave him a quick tap on the head with the back of her staff.
“Yes, I’m Jarl, you crazy cunt!” he whimpered. “What do you want from me? It’s the book, right? Should have thrown the fucking thing in the river when I had the chance. Shouldn’t have let Mug call in that favor in the first place.”
“You have it, then. Show me.”
“I… can’t do that,” Jarl said. “I have to keep my promise.”
A scream echoed from the street outside. It sounded like Kiren.
Her body strained with the urge to go to him.
She resisted it.
Doesn’t matter. We’re no longer in a position to help each other. He can take care of himself.
“Listen, Jarl. Either you tell me where the book is, I burn it, that’s the end of it. You’re in the clear. Or you cling onto this notion of honor and force the Hero right outside to tear this house apart in finding the book. If she does, she won’t be in any mood to let you off easy, I promise you that.”
“An A-Rank Hero, I might add.”
“Fine, fine,” he said, holding his hands up. “I’ll show you.”