A beaten, pale, crooked man lay in the bed. A thick bandage had been wound over one side of his forehead, covering his right eye.
Excelerate muttered in unsettled sleep, his exposed eye moving beneath its lid.
“No…” he whispered. “…Reya…”
Reya? Lace thought. He’s never mentioned anyone by that name.
“Who’s Reya?” she asked.
Good Doctor shook her head. “I don’t think he would want me to tell you.”
She dug the tongs into his leg and pulled out a piece of splintered metal, stained red. She dropped the metal into a shallow tray containing a pile of its counterparts, set the tongs aside, and placed her hands upon the wound. Slowly the flesh began to creep together.
“Will he live?” Kiren asked.
“Yes,” Good Doctor said with a bitter chuckle. “He’s a stubborn old fool. He’s not dying until the Unmaker swallows us all. However…” She paused for a long moment. She seemed to slump, a strand of white hair slipping out from behind her ear. “This was a long time coming. He’s been pushing himself too hard, too often. Fighting someone like Hulda… It was beyond his ability at this point, I’m afraid.”
“What does that mean?” Lace asked.
“I do not believe you are familiar with the way Jorge’s Power operates, unless he has been uncharacteristically open with you.”
“No, he… hasn’t really told us much. I just figured his Power made him faster, like the other Routers.”
“He is not like the other Routers. Not where it counts. His Power allows him unimaginable speed, far beyond that of any other of his blood. It also strengthens his muscles, bones, joints, and ligaments against wear and impact. There is, however, a drawback.”
Kiren shuffled uncomfortably on his crutches. “Which is?”
“The strengthening of his body can only do so much. When Jorge is using his speed to the fullest, it places a tremendous strain on his body. He is essentially rattling himself apart from the inside. That’s not even mentioning the inherent weakness of the Routers’ Power.
“Imagine yourself as a sprinter. The more you run, the more tired you get. Now imagine that a hundredfold. Overuse of his Power causes him to develop extreme fatigue. I’m sure you have noticed his… habits.”
“He usually sleeps half the day,” Kiren said.
“So that’s why…?” Lace said.
Good Doctor nodded. “Yes. Do not take offense—Jorge keeps his weaknesses private, even from other Heroes—and for good reason, it seems.
“Regardless, as one of only a few A-Rank Heroes active within the Guild chapter, Jorge has been straining himself to keep the city together. Even without this…” She motioned to his cut-up and bruised legs. “He was at the end of his rope, so to speak. The way he overextended his Power caused tiny lesions to appear in his muscles and fractures in his bones. I gave him six months until he would be unable to continue performing his duties.”
She shook her head and sighed, gently touching his hand. “That was two years ago.”
“Why don’t you just fix him?” Kiren asked.
“It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. Even my Power has limits. We brought in Songbird to help—his music can cure all sorts of ills. No improvement. We sent for a healer all the way in Marqesh. He walked away perplexed, unable to help.”
“And what about these wounds?” Lace asked. “The ones he sustained against Hulda.”
Good Doctor shrugged. “Hard to say. I will heal them as best I can, but they are… extensive. His eye is lost, that much I know. His legs may yet be salvaged, but I wouldn’t bet money on him ever taking another step.”
“So he can’t be a Hero anymore,” Lace said.
The Hero turned to face them. Her expression was calm, composed, but there was a quiver in her lip. “Correct.” She blinked, wiping a bitter tear with the palm of her hand. “This will ruin him, you know. It was all he had left.”
“He already had a plan in place,” Kiren said. “He knew this was going to happen, right?”
“What do you mean?” Good Doctor asked.
“Well, that’s why he recruited us, isn’t it? He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep this up. That’s why he’s been throwing us into the deep end this whole time. He had to know we could swim. He had to know that he could trust us with his role, someday.”
She nodded, and a faint smile traced her lips. “I suppose so.”
“We will make him proud,” Lace said firmly. “I know I’ve let him down. I’ll make up for it. I’ll make sure he sees that he can leave things to us.”
Good Doctor picked up her tongs once more. “Good. Now, leave. There is still much work to do before I can rest.”
They left the sick room and Lace closed the door behind them.
Kiren leaned back against a wall. He set his crutches aside and rubbed his face with both hands.
“Creator’s balls…” he muttered. “I’ve never seen him like that before. Even though he was out, he looked…”
“Scared,” Lace finished.
They stood there for a while. Lace watched Kiren intently.
He’d actually tried to kiss her. That was… different.
He was a strange man. One minute, it seemed like he hated her. The next, he was pouring his heart out and wanting to kiss her.
Men. Creator only knows what goes through their heads.
Even beaten half to Svarta, bruised and limping around on crutches, he was a handsome thing to look at, with his lean, muscled body and sharp jaw.
Lace blushed and quickly looked away.
Once Kiren had caught his breath a bit, they left the House of Healing and returned to the Guild Hall. She helped him up the stairs and into their room so that he could rest on the bed.
It was the least she could do. She had been the one to put him in that state, after all. Mostly.
Good Doctor said Kiren would be fine with a few days of rest. Once his regeneration was fully recharged his injuries would disappear quickly, leaving not so much as a trace.
She still worried about him, though. Not for his recovery, but what would happen after that. She had heard about what he did. Choking out a guard. Breaking both criminals and full-blown Villains out of jail.
That did not bode well.
So far, no one had confronted them, but it was only a matter of time. Lace suspected they were giving Kiren some time to heal before putting the torch to him.
Kiren seemed to know this, as well. He looked… Solemn, staring into the ceiling. He didn’t even have any snarky comments to come back with when they spoke, which was the most disconcerting part.
Lace rolled the gale-staff between her hands. Looking at it made her feel sick. It had been tainted, in a way. She had used it in the name of a Villain masquerading as a Hero. It still had flecks of Kiren’s blood on it where she had been unable to clean it off.
She had contemplated throwing it away or having it melted down, but that didn’t feel right, either. Gantho had spent weeks on it, with help from Squiddy, and it was named after her father.
I will put the staff to a proper use, she decided. This time I won’t be led astray. If I am, I know Kiren will lead me back.
That was a comfort, at least. Regardless of the circumstances, the air had been cleared between them. They had only known each other for a little under two months, but she had entrusted him with her life and would do so again. Based on the end of their fight, she knew that he would, too.
It took a few hours, but eventually, the call came. A knock on their door. Conversia, the Nightmare Woman, walked in.
“The Guild Leader wants you,” she said, her face locked in a constant scowl, arms locked behind her back. “He is not in a patient mood, so make it quick.”
Lace got up.
“Not you,” she barked. “Only Kiren.”
“With all due respect, Master, I’m his partner,” Lace said. “I—”
“Zip it. Kiren, get up. We are going.”
Kiren worked his way into a sitting position with a long groan, clutching his midsection. He took his crutches which leaned against the bed and managed to stand.
“Well, I’m coming with him partway, at least,” Lace insisted. “He needs help with the stairs.”
Conversia rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
Though he protested profusely, Kiren eventually let Lace help her. She wrapped one of his arms over her shoulders and helped him up the stairs to the fourth floor. Conversia walked ahead of them, keeping a quick pace. Kiren had a hard time keeping up.
They got to the end of the hall and Conversia opened the door. Bloodhound sat behind a large desk. He took in all of them with his narrow wolf’s eyes, his fingers templed in front of him.
“There. You, girl, will stay outside.”
Lace obeyed reluctantly. Kiren shambled in on his own and Conversia slammed the door shut behind her.
Lace blew out a breath and settled against the wall of the corridor, sliding to the ground.
He’s going to be alright, she told herself.
He better be.
Bloodhound motioned to the chair opposite the desk with a clawed hand.
Conversia assumed a position in front of the door, hands clasped in front of her.
Kiren did as he was told and set the crutches aside. He worked through the pain wriggling around his stomach and took a few deep breaths until it passed.
“I hope you realize the severity of what you have done,” Bloodhound said, showing teeth. He was backlit by a large window behind him, creating a gloria of light around his mane of fur.
“I do,” Kiren said.
“Then perhaps you should show your senior some respect.”
“I do, Master.”
“You are facing expulsion at best. At worst…”
“Wailing Hill. I know.”
Bloodhound gave a low, throaty grumble. “If you’ve already thought that far ahead, why did you do it? What possessed you to break those prisoners out?”
“Because three of those prisoners were friends, family,” Kiren said. He looked the guild Leader in the eye and refused to break away. “The other two I needed to take down the woman who falsely imprisoned them. You’re welcome for that, by the way.” He paused. “Master.”
Bloodhound showed his teeth. “Watch your tongue, sirrah. Do not presume to get snippy with me. I am ready and willing to send you off in irons.”
Kiren straightened his back, ignoring the pain.
“Sounds fine to me. I did the crime. I’m not afraid to get locked up. I did what was right, and that’s enough.”
“What was right?” Bloodhound slammed his fist on the table to punctuate the last word. “If you had some proof of Hulda’s criminal involvement, you should have come forward! It is not your job to pass judgment! Yours is to learn and obey!”
“I had no proof,” Kiren said. “Only what I knew. Besides, even if I did, could you honestly say that you would have acted on it? She got away with it thus far. I find it hard to believe there were no clues pointing to her involvement in this drug-trade.”
Bloodhound remained quiet, letting his claws clack against each other.
Kiren grinned. “Your silence speaks volumes.”
“I have been informed that you served a previous sentence at Wailing Hill,” Bloodhound said. “That you were a part of the Dark Eye.”
“I was held captive by the Dark Eye,” Kiren said, leaning forward. “Those monsters are no allies of mine. In fact, they are my mortal enemies. Ones I’ve vowed to destroy.”
“So you say.”
“You don’t believe me? After all this?”
“You did not inform us of your past,” Bloodhound said. “We had to sniff it out on our own, so to speak.” His muzzle wrinkled. “Considering this latest debacle, I’m willing to say that yes, we do not believe you. After your imprisonment at the hands of our organization, I see no legitimate reason why you would attempt to join our ranks.”
“Other than to infiltrate them,” Conversia added. “We have credible reason to believe that the Dark Eye has a spy inside the Guild. You are the obvious suspect.”
Kiren burst out laughing. “That’s really what you believe?” It turned into a coughing fit, and he wiped blood from his mouth on the inside of his sleeve. “Why did you even want to meet with me, then?”
“I wanted to hear your version of the story,” Bloodhound said. “Every man deserves a trial. Even scum like you. Now I have given you one.”
“And the verdict? Are you going to execute me?”
“No. You will be given a thirty-year sentence at Wailing Hill. Once you have been thoroughly interrogated, you will be left to rot. Enjoy these last few breaths of fresh air, because they are the last ones you will take in a long time.”
Kiren leaned back in the chair, consigned to his fate. He had assumed something like this would happen, even before he had carried out his plan.
“Fine. I have no regrets.”
A lie. He had one.
Not kissing Lace when he had the chance.
Maybe he’d still get one, while they were dragging him outside. Not the most romantic scene, but he couldn’t afford to be picky at this point. She couldn’t rightly say no to a man on his way to a cold and lonely life in prison.
“Well, I’ve heard enough,” Bloodhound said. He motioned to Conversia. “Nyssa, take him away, will you? Have him brought directly to Wailing Hill. No transfers.”
“Yes, Guild Leader,” Conversia said with a shallow bow. “I—”
The door burst open, and Conversia was barely able to stagger out of the way to avoid being hit by it.
Kiren leaned back over his chair.
Excelerate shambled into the room, looking like he had been visited by death itself. He hung off of Lace, barely standing. Metal leg braces squeaked with every uncertain step, helping hold his legs firm.
He wore only a bed sheet tied around his waist, exposing countless scars across his torso and arms, some fresh and others old.
He stared at Bloodhound with one piercing eye.