31. Neutral Ground
Lace cut the door in half with a focused beam of air from her gale-staff and kicked it down, then stormed into the room. She had Tommyn behind her for backup, a murder of crows circling the ceiling at his behest.
She made a quick scan of the room. The healer, Kit, was only an arms-length away, stunned with surprise. Hyena and Snapjaw crouched in the other end of the room, all bandaged up. There was another man with black, greasy hair, a pocky face, and a large feathered cloak standing in the middle of the room, just as Tommyn had relayed.
Haden broke through the back door with a shoulder charge, wooden splinters flying all throughout the room.
Lace whipped Kit with the back of her staff and sent her stumbling into the right-hand wall. She knocked over plant pots as she sank to the floor.
One down. Three to go.
Hyena tried to stand up, but Haden was on him in a split second. He pummeled the larger creature in the gut with punches that cracked like a peal of thunder. Hyena howled, knocked back against the wall, and Haden kept on top of him with brutal punches, preventing him from retaliating.
Snapjaw got up to help his companion but was stopped in his tracks as Kiren’s greatsword cut the air between them.
“I’m sorry about this,” Kiren said. “It wasn’t in our deal, but I don’t have a choice.”
Tommyn let slip a shrill whistle, commanding his birds to fly into the room. They circled the two criminals, pecking at their faces and clawing their skin.
The two-pronged attack left them both reeling.
Looks like this’ll be over sooner than I expected, Lace thought.
There was only the pock-faced man left to deal with.
“I’ll take care of him,” Lace said, pointing at the man.
He looked at the healer on the floor and slowly shook his head.
“You’ll wish you hadn’t done that to my sister,” he said solemnly. “I am a man of the people, and I do not bow to tyrants.”
Lace stepped closer, prepping the gale-staff with a medium-intensity wind blade. Strong enough to wound him, but not enough to cut deep.
With a grand flourish, the man threw the flaps of his cloak aside and raised both hands high in the air.
Lace heard dull creaking coming from behind her.
She looked back and saw the nails shaking in the walls. A handful of them came out all at once and flew across the room with jarring speed.
She raised her arms just in time, catching the nails on her forearms. They dug into her flesh, some all the way to the heads as if hammered in by some sadistic carpenter.
Lace let out a scream and dropped her staff. She looked down at her arms as blood began to trickle from the wounds. Her hands shivered with hot agony.
“Lace, look out!” Tommyn said, drawing his shortsword.
The warning barely processed in her mind before she felt a hard smack on the back of her head. She curled up in a tight ball as she fell forward to avoid landing on her injured forearms.
Everything was knocked out of whack with that hit, vision blurry, her hearing deafened by a loud ringing.
She was vaguely aware of Tommyn shouting something, the sharp gleam of metal arcing through the air.
Lace shook her head and forced the world back into focus. She sat up, put an arm against the wall, and worked herself, slowly, painfully, back to her feet.
She drew in a few sharp breaths, and slowly the world set itself back to a normal state, though her ears still rung.
The pock-faced man held up his hands, and two of Tommyn’s birds were pulled out of the air behind him. Cawing in panic, they hurtled towards his hands, and at the last moment he pulled his arms down. The birds kept going and thudded harmlessly against Tommyn’s chainmail before flopping to the ground.
The psychological damage seemed far more keen, however, as Tommyn’s eyes went wild, his body seizing to move. He held his shortsword in a tight, two-handed grip, the tip shivering slightly.
Oh, shit, Lace thought. This won’t end well.
The pocky man raised one hand.
Lace pulled up hers, struggling to form a diamond with her fingers. She sucked air towards her hands, beginning to form an aero-shot.
The man turned towards her instead, waving the fingers of his hand.
Lace fired off her shot.
It tore through the room, whipping up wood splinters from the destroyed doors. The man twirled out of the way, his heavy cloak sent aflutter by the wind.
“A little slow for a Hero, aren’t you?”
With Tommyn distracted, his birds began to scatter, disorganized. Hyena regained his balance after taking a dozen hits. With a snarl, he grabbed a folded-up cot and broke it over Haden’s head. The big man crashing into the wood floor with a heavy crack, breaking several floorboards.
Hyena dropped the ruined cot came after him, claws out and howling like a madman.
“No!” Tommyn shouted. He squinted, putting one hand to his head, and all the crows settled into a tight grouping, all attacking Hyena at once and keeping him from pouncing on Haden.
Which meant that Snapjaw was free to attack, arms and chest cut from Kiren’s long swipes of his greatsword, face pecked to bits.
When Kiren went in for another slash, Snapjaw simply caught the blade in one big fist and yanked it out of his hand. He threw the sword aside, grabbed Kiren by the throat, and lifted him up.
Creator’s breath, Lace thought. This is not going to plan.
“I’d suggest you keep your eyes on target, girl,” the pock-faced man said. “I don’t like being ignored.”
He made a beckoning motion with two fingers, and Lace’s arms lit up with intense, grinding pain, her nerves strumming like lute chords. The nails came out of her arms and flew across the room. Magpie stepped aside and they buried themselves in the wall behind him.
Without them to stem the bleeding, her arms ran red, hands going slick with blood.
“Who are you?” Lace asked between gritted teeth.
The man bowed deeply. “Magpie. Formerly of the Thieves’ Guild. Emphasis on formerly.”
At the bottom of his bow, he raised a hand above his back and the nails he had buried into the wall shot out once more, straight at Lace.
She dove to the side just in time and hit the wall, getting a cold jab of pain in her left arm.
Snapjaw slammed Kiren into the ground, making him cry out. Kiren scrabbled at his arm, but he couldn’t pierce the thick, bumpy hide with his nails. Snapjaw merely chuckled at his attempts.
Haden got up, only to be slapped aside by a stray blow from Hyena as he swiped the air at random.
We need to get out of here, Lace thought. This is getting out of hand.
“Spread out your birds, Tommyn!” she shouted, dodging a volley of wooden shrapnel from Magpie.
No response. He was completely focused on Haden.
“Damn it,” she hissed.
She dug her hand into the pouch at her side and pulled out a vial of powder dye, leaving red prints all over the glass. If she could create a large enough distraction, she might be able to free Kiren and help them all escape.
“Ooh, what have you got there?” Magpie asked, holding up a grasping hand.
The vial was ripped from her grip and flew safely into his palm. He tilted his head as he shook its contents.
Kiren was completely subdued, face gone blue as efforts to escape grew more and more feeble. Haden had been pressed up against the wall, Hyena swatting blindly and drawing bloody tracks up his arms.
“Alright, I think they’ve had enough,” Magpie said, walking across the room. He stowed the vial away inside his cloak. “Let us disperse, shall we?”
Snapjaw slammed Kiren’s head down one final time, knocking him out cold, then stood up. Hyena backed away and allowed a bloodied Haden sink back against the wall.
Tommyn whistled, calling off his birds and making them settle in a defensive array on the floor around the young Trodvis.
“Thanks for the assist, boss,” Snapjaw said as they ducked out the ruined back door.
Magpie nodded and smiled. He lingered in the doorway.
“Remember this,” he said. “You live at the mercy of Magpie and the Wild Lads. Don’t come after us, or that may yet change.”
With that, he left. A single black-and-white feather fell off his cloak and drifted slowly to the floor.
Everything went quiet.
Tommyn rushed to Haden’s side and shooed away the crows. They scattered out of the doorways and the window as he helped Haden into a sitting position.
“Are you okay?” he asked, gingerly touching the bloody claw-marks running all up his forearms.
“I’m fine,” Haden said with a forced smile. “He just caught me off guard, is all.” He gritted his teeth. “Hurts like Svarta itself, though.”
Lace went over to Kiren. She was able to wake him by tapping on his shoulder with her foot, and it wasn’t long before his wounds had regenerated enough for him to sit up.
She, however, was not so lucky, and her hands were cramping spastically from the pain running up and down her forearms.
“It seems like you could all use some medical attention,” came a voice from behind her. “I’ll heal you, but you’re paying twice the standard fare.”
Lace looked back and saw Kit standing at the other end of the room. She had a lightly bruised chin but was otherwise no worse for wear.
“How long were you standing there?” Lace asked.
“Long enough to see that you are out of your league,” Kit answered.
The healer walked towards her, and Lace put her arms up in a defensive guard, unable to ball her hands into fists.
“No closer!” she said.
“Really?” Kit asked. “If I were going to throw in with Magpie and attack you, don’t you think I would have done so by now?”
Lace slowly lowered her hands. She glanced back at the others, who looked just as confused as she felt.
“He’s your brother,” Lace said. “We heard you say it.”
“Not by blood. We were both orphans, so we helped each other, growing up in the Slog. We are siblings by oath.”
“What difference does it make whose womb they were spat out of?” Haden said, standing up with Tommyn’s help. “Come on, we’ve got to get back to the Lodge so we can get patched up. Let’s bring this woman for questioning, so this trip wasn’t a total waste.”
“I-I don’t want you walking all the way back there,” Tommyn said. “Not in this state. Besides, Lace is badly hurt.”
Lace shrugged, showing teeth. “I’m hurting pretty bad. I’ll take just about anything right now.”
“She’s reliable,” Kiren said. “I know as much. Plenty of people in the Slog go to her for help. Only one who doesn’t swindle her patients out of their last dime after sawing their legs off.”
“I dunno…” Haden grumbled.
“No need to be stubborn,” Kit said. “My clinic is open to all. Even the Heroes who just decided to trash it. It’s neutral ground.”
“You don’t care that we just went after your brother?” Kiren asked, coming up to Lace and resting a hand on her shoulder for support.
“Oh, I care. And it pains me. But Magpie’s a big lad—he can take care of his own business.”
“Fine, then,” Haden grunted. He plucked a small pouch out of his belt and threw it over. “Will this be enough for your services?”
Kit took out a silver coin and threw the pouch back. “It is, yes.” She nodded towards Lace. “Girl. You’re first.”
Kiren stewed while Kit looked over the back of his head, the last in line to be healed. The healer worked fast—she had gone through them all in not even half an hour, no trickery, with only a drove of wilted ferns as casualties.
They had almost done it. Hyena and Snapjaw had almost been in their grasp, before things started going wrong.
“The plan would have worked if you’d reported the third Power user,” Kiren said, glancing up at Tommyn.
“I-I-I’m sorry,” the green-haired man stammered. “When I look through an animal’s eyes, it’s like everything’s d-dimmed. Sights, sounds, it’s… interpreted through the animal’s eyes. Diff-difficult to parse. I thought he was just a normal man, I s-swear.”
Kit yanked Kiren’s head firmly, and he was forced to lean back as she poked and prodded.
“Even so, we didn’t have to lose unless people had fucked up.”
He looked at Lace. Her injuries had been fairly major, still leaving large bruises even after the healing—and what had Tommyn done to help her? Nothing.
“Slow down, Kiren,” Lace said. “We’re as disappointed as you are, but there’s no use pointing fingers.”
Haden took a step closer, positioning himself in front of Tommyn.
“Listen, Kiren,” he said, holding up a hand. “We’re here on our own accord. This is your job, not ours. If you don’t like our help, we might just rescind it.”
“Your injuries look fine,” Kit said, helping him stand. “Looks like your own Power is dealing with them well enough. You know, I could probably use you for a lot of healing potential. You’ve got life force to spare, alright.”
Kiren stood, ignoring the healer. He was about to say something snide to Haden but caught himself once he saw Lace giving him a look as hard as glass.
She sidled up to him, grabbed his arm, and squeezed tightly.
“Apologize,” she mouthed, all the while smiling towards the two other apprentices.
“No way,” Kiren muttered. “I was just telling the truth.”
Haden waited, arms crossed, and Tommyn peeked over his shoulder.
“Do you really want to deal with those three by ourselves?” Lace asked. “Apologize, now, or you’re sleeping outside tonight.”
Kiren sighed and shook his head, arms crossed. “I’m… sorry.”
“Go on,” Lace said.
“For being mean or whatever.”
Haden smiled, putting his hands on his hips. “That’s alright. We wouldn’t want you to go any further—you look like you’re about to pop a blood vessel already.”
Kiren held back the urge to say anything further.
Lace turned to Kit. “Is there anything you can tell us about Magpie? He’s your brother, after all. Any information you have might help us track down Hyena and Snapjaw.”
“I might be willing to share certain details,” Kit said, “if you can do something for me.”
“And what might that be?” Kiren asked.
“If you capture him… I want to be officially sanctioned by the Heroes’ Guild.”
All the apprentices looked at each other.
“What’s that, now?” Haden asked. “You want to be part of the Guild.”
“On a freelance basis,” Kit clarified. “I’m sick of begging criminals for scraps to keep this clinic open. I know there’s so many I could help with my talents, but most of the people in the slums don’t have the funds to pay for care. If your Guild could spot the difference, then…” Kit shrugged. “I bet a Guild full of fighters could always use another healer on retainer.”
Kiren mulled it over in his head.
It might actually work.
“We might be able to sort something out,” Kiren said.
“We’d have to report everything to our superiors and get their take on it,” Lace butted in.
Kiren nodded. “What she said.”
Kit pursed her lips. “All I require is that you deliver the message. You seem upstanding enough not to cheat an old woman out of what she's owed.” She laughed to herself. “Now, what do you wish to know?”