Chapter 51: A Little Light
“Kind words don’t usually betray good intentions.”
-Captain Legarius Rand, 181 U.E.
“You don’t have to do this,” Stephan said, frowning.
“Of course I do,” Yin said. She looked at herself in the mirror, tugging out the wrinkles on her black bodysuit, making sure that her swordbelt was firmly strapped. “Is there anyone else on this crew who could do it?”
He didn’t answer.
“It’ll be dangerous.”
“Isn’t it always?”
“More than usual. If something goes wrong, you won’t have any backup.”
“That means more fun.”
Stephan sighed. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
Yin shrugged. “That’s what you signed up for, old man. Or are you saying you regret that?” She threw him a sidelong glance.
“I don’t want you to end up dead, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I won’t, okay? I promise. Happy?”
“Not really,” Stephan muttered.
“Well, that’s the best you’re getting.” She turned to Stephan, her father, and grinned. “You can take me out for ice cream once this is over. Thank me for all my good work.”
It felt strange to think of him that way. Father. She’d never had one of those.
“How about this?” Stephan said, stepping up to her and placing a hand on her shoulder. “If you come back without a scratch on you, I’ll buy all the ice cream you can eat. My treat.”
Yin grinned wider. “I’ll take you up on that, old man.” She gave her blades one last check, polished to a shine, and nodded.
Her job awaited.
Yin watched the worn-down tenement building from across the street, crouched on a rooftop. She peeked through a window on the third story. The windows were drawn, but she caught a glimpse of a man laying in bed.
It was a moonless night, the sky like a black sheet over the world. Magelights lit the streets below in uneven rows, voices of the few pedestrians still out drifting up to her. One of Vormor’s imps, Groggy, sat next to her, idly picking its nose.
This is it, she thought.
Yin coiled up like a spring, gripping the edge of the tiled roof, and leapt out across the street. She flew several meters in a tidy arc, wind dragging at her hair, and landed atop a light pole on one foot, displacing the bobbing magelight at its peak. She jumped again and hit the other building, catching the windowsill for Rand’s window.
She hoisted herself up and inspected the window up close. It was locked up tight with a proper latch. She wouldn’t get to it, even with her sword. Her only option would be to smash the glass, but that would probably wake Rand.
Groggy, suddenly on her shoulder, gave a low gurgle. It held out one finger towards the latch, and it slid open with a flick of its hand.
“Neat,” Yin whispered. She opened the window and put a leg through. “Stay outside, for now. I’ll call if I need you.”
The imp made no sign that it understood, but stayed on the windowsill as Yin climbed into the bedroom.
Rand snored, sheets tangled about his waist. his biomech leg sat next to the bed, placed so he could simply stick his stump in it when he rolled out of bed. The room was large, adorned with a fur rug from some kind of exotic animals, gaudy paintings taking up most of the wall space. There was a small desk near the foot of the bed, and a locked chest next to that.
Yin stalked over to the left-hand wall, steps mute on the old floorboards. Gingerly, she took one of the painting off its nail and set it on the floor, revealing a bare spot on the wall with a fine crease. She felt along the edge of it, finding no switch or mechanism. Tired of looking, she pried it open with a sword, revealing a small compartment.
Within lay a few stacks of cash, a small silk bag that looked like it could contain gems or pearls, and a bronze plate. Yin felt up the bag—definitely gems—and tied it to her belt. She tucked the map piece under her arm.
Two down. Twelve to go.
On her way back to the window, Yin stopped. She looked over at Rand, deep in slumber. Her hand inched towards her sword.
Rand dead would make for one less problem.
She handed the map piece to Groggy, who promptly distended his jaw to swallow the entire thing—leaving a square outline on his stomach—and returned to Rand’s side. She drew her sword, wicked point angled at the man’s heart.
Rand tossed in his sleep and muttered something under his breath.
“Sweet dreams,” she whispered.
Yin plunged her blade downward. It split his seasilk shirt with ease but scraped against something underneath, blow deflected.
Rand jerked upright. He ripped his shirt open and rubbed at the flexteel mesh he wore against his skin, a deep scratch where Yin had struck it.
Shw swung at his neck. Rand ducked and kicked with his one leg, sending Yin reeling. He threw the covers on top of her, and she cut them away with a few swipes of her sword. By the time she had gotten herself untangled, Rand was already pulling on his prosthetic.
“Think you can kill me, huh?” Rand hissed. “I’ll show you a thing or two. Oh, I’ll show you.”
Yin turned and ran. This wasn’t worth it. She jumped through the window and pushed the imp out with her, both of them hurtling at the ground. She tucked into a ball and hoped for the best. The imp broke her fall, its rubbery body squishing together, and she bounced back to her feet with only a scrape on her elbow.
“Thanks, Groggy,” Yin said. She helped the deformed demon back to its feet as it slowly filled back into its original shape.” She started off down the street. “Let’s get a move on. We are officially in a hurry.”
Groggy stumbled behind her, wailing miserably.
Yin dashed from rooftop to rooftop, breath labored, imp draped over her shoulders.
Her feet moved on instinct more than anything. One roof, then the next, then the next. The city became a blur around her, cars falling behind. She stumbled on a loose tile, flipped end over end, and just barely got her feet beneath her before landing on the edge of a roof. She skidded to the edge, heels grinding on the tiles, and stopped just before she would fall off.
The Concordian hideout beckoned at the other end of the street. An old, squat inn repurposed as a military outpost under the guise of being renovated. Allowing herself to settle into a more manageable pace, she made her way across the street.
In and out. No distractions. I have to wrap up before Rand alerts the Concordians. I’ve probably only bought myself a few minutes.
The inn had three stories, all crawling with soldiers. The pieces were on the second, which she had spotted during her reconnaissance, and Stephan had confirmed it using his magic glasses. The room containing the map had bars over the windows, so she would have to find another entry point. The window two rooms down—originally meant to house guests—had no such security measures.
That’ll have to be good enough.
Yin leapt to the ground. She walked up to the inn, spat in her palms, and worked herself up with a few deep breaths.
“You ready, Groggy?” she asked.
The imp gurgled something incomprehensible.
“Good. Here we go.”
She drew her swords and ran at the building. She kicked off the wall and leapt high, sinking her blades into the soft wood at the apex of her jump. Using them like ice picks, thrusting them in and out for handholds, she quickly scaled the wall. Groggy unlocked the window for her, and she slipped inside.
A soldier slept in the room, nestled in a multitude of blankets. Her rifle lay propped against the foot of her bed. Yin let her be and padded across the room, opening the door to the hallway just a crack.
“Ames?” came a man’s voice from beyond. “Ames, that you? Why are you still up?”
Footsteps. Coming towards her.
Looks like this won’t be so clean.
Yin waited until the man was right outside, then kicked the door open. The soldier fell back, clutching at a bloody nose, letting out a choked cry. She put a stop to that when she cut his windpipe, and the man fell away gurgling on blood. She looked around to make sure there were no others and left the soldier in the hallway. No time to hide him.
Yin hurried two rooms down and tried the door.
“Can you open this?” Yin asked, pointing to the sturdy lock with the tip of her sword. The imp shook its head. “Right. The old-fashioned way, then.”
With a series of quick cuts, Yin reduced the wood around the lock to splinters. She shouldered the door open and burst into the room.
Two uniformed soldiers looked up from a game of cards. Their shock passed quickly and they rose to their feet, reaching for their rifles on the table in front of them.
Yin went for the closest one, slipping her sword between his ribs and through his lung, out the other end. He gasped, air wheezing like a balloon with a hole poked through it. Groggy leapt off her shoulders and onto the second man. It clawed at his eyes and bit his scalp, the man desperately grasping at the little critter.
Yin twisted the blade and kicked the first soldier away. He fell against the wall and slumped forward. She threw the sword at the second man. The blade spun and got the man in the throat. He dropped onto the floor, pushing the sword all the way through to the hilt in the process, and the imp giggled atop his head.
Yin carefully closed the door and ignored the two soldiers as they drew their last. She kicked the second onto his back, placed a foot on his chest, and withdrew her sword. After cleaning it on his uniform, she took a step back and looked at what they were guarding.
Twelve bronze plates were put together on the floor, fitted so perfectly that Yin could hardly make out the seams.
“I’ll need those pieces now,” Yin said.
Groggy gave a mock salute and pitched onto all fours. His mouth distended, wider and wider, and he let out a choked gurgle. Saliva spilled from his maw, then black bile, and lastly two map pieces covered in a healthy layer of mucus. It cleaned the plates on its arm and handed them out to her, mouth split in a sharp-toothed grin.
Yin reluctantly took them and placed them in the bottom left corner of the map, completing the full thing. She stepped back, breath caught in her throat, and waited for the magic to happen.
Yin cleared her throat.
One of the soldiers gurgled and spat. The other begged for help in a wet whisper.
“Oh, I know!” she said. “Maybe I need to swap ‘em around.”
Yin did just so.
The map lit up with a complex knot of silver lines, winking stars, and runic symbols. The light grew, grew, grew, until all she could see was white. Even with her eyes closed, the light burned through her eyelids.
What is this? Did I do it wrong?
The map let out a soft hum like a gong being struck. The light faded, and Yin blinked, the bronze having returned to its dull sheen, all trace of the complex enchantry gone.
“Is that it?” Yin asked. “Am I supposed to know what that means?”
A little ball of silver light bobbed up in front of her, like a magelight in every way but how it moved. The thing flitted back and forth like it had a life of its own, spinning around her head and humming in her ear.
“Okay… I’m still confused.”
The light-headed for the window. It easily slipped through the black iron bars and bounced off the glass. It flew into the window over and over like an insect trying to escape into the fresh air.
“Are you… the map?” Yin frowned at the little light.
The thing made tight circles around the bars, growing increasingly frantic.
That thing wants to show me something. That must be it. If I follow the light, it’ll lead me to the treasure.
It was a bit of a stretch, but Yin’s time was up. She took one of the map pieces and stuffed it down the imp’s throat, ignoring its pitiful gurgles, and turned to the window. With a sharp tug, she yanked the bars out of their fixtures and threw them to the side, allowing her to open the window.
The wisp of light zipped out into the open air, but stopped a few meters away as it waited for her to catch up. Yin stepped onto the windowsill, Groggy jumping onto her shoulder, and glanced back.
A man stood in the doorway. Short, grey hair, skin tanned but well-kept. Waistcoat and tie, neat dress pants, black shoes polished to a shine. He regarded Yin closely, his gaze seeming to pierce right through her, hands folded behind his back. He made no move for a gun.
The Concordian leader.
“Be seeing you,” he said.
END OF 'THE FINAL PIECE' ARC