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A note from PSHoffman

Book #1 is officially published!

Buy a Copy Here or keep reading on RoyalRoad :)

As a freelance listener, Eolh had three unbreakable rules. This was the only way to get by in a place as lawless as Lowtown.

The first rule was practical: Eolh never took a job unless he got to choose the listener’s roost. You have to be the master of your own self-preservation. That’s just the way it was.

Number two: No blood contracts. This rule was born of hard-earned experience. People who hire assassins always fall into one of two groups: either they have no money, or they have no qualms about murdering said assassin once the job was done.

Besides, he hated wet work.

Number three: Eolh only did his share, no less and never more, because nobody ever got paid extra for overachieving. And if a job went south, as they frequently did, he wanted the least amount of blame possible.

Horace knew about Eolh’s three rules. He also knew that Eolh never broke his rules, and once a job began, Eolh always did his part.

“That’s why we need you, Eolh,” Horace said. Horace was the boss of the Blackfeather gang. A huge corvani who only seemed to grow larger with age, Horace never started a fight he didn’t intend to finish. He was sitting on a stool, one winged elbow on the high-top bar. A copper pitcher of ale, sweating and half-empty, sat between them.

“This job is different,” Horace said. “I need someone who will see it through, no matter what.”

“Why not one of your own? Or one of the new beaks?” Eolh asked. “They’d be cheaper.”

“Money isn’t the problem.”

“Money is always the problem.”

“Not on this job. Listen, Eolh,” the old boss said, leaning closer, “I need you on this one. It’s too important. Too big. You’re the best in Lowtown. In the whole city. We both know it’s true.”

The Blackfeather boss reached out a feathered hand, and if Eolh had been sitting any closer, Horace might’ve clapped him on the shoulder. But Eolh never let anyone get that close anymore.

“And,” Horace leaned over the table, almost knocking over his own mug as he did, his breath ripe with ale, “all you have to do is follow and listen.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

“Extra pay, depending on the situation.”

“How much scrap?”

“You? Ha. You’re too old for that. Besides, I’ve got plenty of muscle already.”

Eolh narrowed his eyes. “Who?”

“Eolh, my old friend. You know I can’t name them.”

Who?

Horace sighed, a huge, cawing sound rattling through his old beak. “Sanvosh is in, of course. Bozmeer, too.”

Eolh made a croaking sound in the back of his throat. Not because he was refusing the job, but because he hated working with bruisers like Bozmeer. Bozmeer fancied himself a bloodwing, though he was too stupid to strike out on his own. No tact. Too stupid and too proud.

“I don’t trust Bozmeer,” Eolh said.

“Who does?” Horace squawked out a laugh. “Not paying you to trust him. As I said, he’s muscle. Nothing else.”

Eolh absently traced lines on the bar, feeling the old, ale-soaked wood under his feathered finger. Horace must’ve felt like he was losing him, because the Blackfeather boss threw his hands up and said, “All right, fine. Double rate, that’s what I’m willing to pay you. Come on, Eolh. It’s one night, one job. A quick in and a quick out, and I promise you’ll be set for months. Years, maybe.”

That was the first sign that Eolh should have backed out. Horace never negotiated, especially not with himself.

Eolh could sense it. He could hear it in the way Horace spoke. The old boss rarely took no for an answer, but today he was hungry. Horace was leaning forward, and even his black crest feathers—normally smooth even under the tensest situations—were pricked up along the back of his skull.

Yes, Eolh thought, there’s something very different about this job.

“It’s an artifact? OK. So, who found it?”

He’d already asked the question once, and Horace gave him the same answer now.

“You know my sources don’t like to be named. That’s why they’re mine. Eolh, this is a rare opportunity. I need someone dependable. Someone I’ve worked with before. Someone who knows how to stay easy in case the job gets hard.”

Eolh pulled away from Horace. He looked down the bar, where the barkeep was wiping down the counters carefully out of earshot. And then up, where two greasy chandeliers lit the bar with foggy light. Gas quietly hissed from the fixtures. The wall behind the counter was lined with glass bottles, most of them empty.

The truth was, Eolh had already made up his mind. It wasn’t every day an artifact showed up in the Cauldron, let alone in Lowtown. And when the imperials caught wind of it, they would take it before anyone else had a chance.

Eolh always wanted to see one firsthand. A relic from the old gods.

But Eolh wasn’t about to show his hand. That’s not how he played the game. Better to let the old Blackfeather boss think he was interested only in the money.

“Triple rate,” Eolh said, expecting Horace to balk.

But Horace shouted, “Deal!” with so much excitement that Eolh suddenly had the nagging sensation that he had just cheated himself.

This is bigger than I thought. He hadn’t agreed to anything yet. He could still back out . . .

Eolh held out his hand.

“Deal,” he said, and the Blackfeather boss shook it vigorously.

They drank until the morning light. And for one last night, it was just like old times.

***

On the evening everything changed, Eolh was listening to the music of aviankind. Brief snatches of song, the sleepy hoots and clucks and coos flitting from tower to tower, echoing through the streets of the Cauldron, a city nestled in the remains of a long-extinct caldera. Talons scraping on stone roosts, and wings fluttering into window-lit apartments high above the city’s narrow, winding streets. A lone rig, held aloft by an envelope filled with gas, sailed over the high roofs and reaching towers.

As the sun sank below the rim of the Cauldron, a mournful song rose and fell from the closest tower. Echoing in the alleys, calling the faithful to their evening prayer.

Eolh was five or six stories above the street, depending on how one counted the floors. The streets in Lowtown weren’t exactly level. Or planned. They weren’t even streets, in many cases. He sank his talons into the wooden beam of the apartment rooftop, holding his body steady so he could focus on watching. On catching every sound. The creaking of a door opening into a tavern, or the rustling of leaves from the vines climbing up the bricks. The swaying of sheets hung on a line.

And the three hooded figures turning into the alley.

Two of them were obviously imperials. They strutted down the alleys as if they owned the place. Despite the cloaks covering their uniforms, Eolh could tell they were soldiers by the way their polished boots echoed on the cobblestones. One of them, the younger one, even had badges gleaming through the gap in the front of his cloak.

But it was the other figure that caught Eolh’s eye. At first, he didn’t recognize what she was for two reasons:

First, she had a humanoid shape. Constructs usually weren’t humanoid, which meant she was old tech. Specifically, an android. Older than the city itself.

Second, she carried a massive chest in her arms, which made her silhouette look awkward. The chest was a huge thing, made of hearty blackwood. It must’ve been heavy with coin because the construct was struggling under its weight, and her footsteps clanked loudly through the alleyways.

Foolish to carry something like that into Lowtown. Even the lowest cutpurse would come sniffing at this opportunity. Eolh scanned the nearby rooftops, checking for signs of other thieves. If anyone were following them, this could get ugly before it even began.

The imperials and their android didn’t seem to notice the noise they made—or they didn’t care. They thought they were untouchable.

Imperials weren’t stupid. Which means they’re armed. Heavily.

As they came under Eolh’s listening roost, he could hear them speaking in that posh, liquid tongue of theirs. He could even pick out the words.

“You think they know what they have?”

“The birds?” The other imperial chuckled. “Absolutely not. They have no idea what it’s worth.”

“Then why did we bring so much?”

“Extra grease. We’re going to pay them twice the asking price. Make them feel like they cheated us so they won’t ask any questions. You know how they are. Stupid birds see something shiny, and all they can think about is how to get their greedy little talons on it.”

The android interrupted them. Her voice was a polite, mechanical sound that seemed not to belong in this world. “I offer a suggestion. Lower your voices.”

The younger imperial spun around, his voice quavering with the indignant rage of his assumed superiority.

“Who told you to speak, machine?”

“Eyes are watching,” the android’s voice clicked. “Ears, listening.”

“You’re here to carry the money, not talk,” he said, shoving the blackwood chest hard enough to make any other construct tip over. Only this android didn’t. There was an odd precision to her stumbling, something Eolh had never seen before in a construct.

“Honestly,” the younger one sniffed, “why did they send this thing with us? A portofex or drudge would’ve done the same job without the back talk.”

The older imperial shrugged and said a single word. “Verification.”

“That’s ridiculous. Anybody can tell an artifact from a fake. I mean, it’s old tech. There’s nothing else like it.”

“You know what? If you ever get an audience with the Historians, you can ask them. They’re the ones who sent her.”

“Why do they get to make demands?”

“Because they’re Historians. Don’t ask me.” The older imperial stopped and motioned for his compatriot to stop with him.

Eolh held his breath. Did they see me? He held perfectly still.

They were both staring at the door in front of them. “I think this is the place.”

“All these run-down hovels look the same to me.”

A sign hung above the door, a simple chunk of wood with a beak carved into it and painted white. To any Lowtown resident, it was an advertisement as clear as the sunrise: the back door to the Bonebeaks’ tavern. The Blackfeathers and the Bonebeaks went way back, and not in a good way. Which was another reason Horace was so excited about this job. Stealing from the Bonebeaks and the imperials was a dream job. At this point, it almost wasn’t about the money.

Almost.

But Eolh wasn’t here to get caught up in Lowtown politics. He was only here to watch. To listen. So when the three figures knocked, and the door to the Bonebeaks’ tavern opened, Eolh moved back across the rooftop, slow as mist, over to the cast-iron gutter that wrapped all around the tavern. He rapped the gutter with the back of his talon, three short taps.

After a pause, two more taps answered his call: “Message received.” And just like that, Eolh earned the first half of his pay.

But the first half was the easy part, and nobody got paid until the job was done. His role—his vital responsibility—was to stay put and watch.

If the job went easy, well, then it went easy.

But if the job went south, then he was supposed to follow and listen for information.

Of course, Eolh was not just a listener. He was the best. And good listeners aren’t passive—they follow the story of the job. They think about where the job is headed, and they try to be there before anyone else.

Never do more than your part. And never less. That was one of his rules. But he always did the job right. So he wasn’t exactly breaking any of his rules when he slipped off his perch and hopped down to the cobbled street, pulling his talons up so they barely clicked against the uneven stones. And he wasn’t breaking any of his rules when he pressed his fingers against the tavern door and pushed it open.

That was just being a good listener.

The back room of the tavern was crowded. Mean-looking corvani and other passerine muscle stood around the walls, all their arms folded, all their beaks dusted with the same bone-white powder. Horace’s double agent was in the crowd, but Eolh couldn’t guess who it was.

The center of the room was dominated with a regal old oaken table. Once, it had been smooth and lacquered, fine enough to sit in the Highcity’s manors. For all Eolh knew, it had been stolen from one of those manors. Now, it was covered in blood and liquor stains. Not to mention the knife marks. The android dropped the blackwood chest on the table, making all the coins inside jingle at once. Not a single avian in the room was immune to that sound—not even Eolh.

Both of the imperials were already seated with the android standing quietly behind them, and the Bonebeak boss—a fat, old corvani with white feathers around his neck—was trying his hand at hospitality.

“Gentlemen!” He sounded jollier than a redenite tinker with a new set of tools. “Please, make yourselves easy. What can we get for you? Everything is on the house.”

Everything about the imperials’ posture suggested they were anything but comfortable. The younger one waved him off. “We are here on orders from the Magistrate. We are not here to drink. Show us what we came for.”

Imperials—cyrans, as they called themselves—were humanoid. Most of this one’s scales were blue in the lamplight, though Eolh could see glittering silver along his neck and cheeks and the ridged fins that ran down the back of his head.

“Gentlemen, please!” the Bonebeak boss protested. His old beak was chalked with white powder, except at the tip, where, presumably, the chalk had been wetted by ale. “A drink before every deal. It is our custom.”

“Then let it stay your custom,” the older imperial said. “We will make the deal. You can drink when we’re gone.” This imperial had one arm under the table. He was touching something inside his cloak, and his posture was rigid. Well, more rigid than usual for a pompous cyran.

“Yes, well. About the deal, then,” the Bonebeak crooned, the rolls of fat and muscle and feathers becoming more pronounced as he leaned forward. “My associates and I have come to a sudden revelation, you see. We think this package of ours might be worth more than we first thought.”

All the heads in the room turned to look at the two imperials.

“The Empire will give you full value for the trade. What is your number?”

All the heads returned to the Bonebeak boss.

“Ten thousand,” the boss said, and the corners of his beak crooked up in a sly, shit-eating grin.

“Ten thousand!” The young imperial shouted, but the older one put a hand on his shoulder, his face revealing nothing.

“Yes.”

“That’s fifty times what we agreed upon!”

“Like I said. We had a revelation.”

Even Eolh balked at the price. No way will they go for it. With that kind of money, one could buy an estate in the Highcity. Several estates, if it was spent wisely.

The younger imperial’s eyes bulged, his scalp ridges blushed a deep blue, and he looked like he wanted to jump across the table at the boss. Fortunately, the older imperial was still holding him down.

“I have the authority to make this deal,” the older imperial said. “That is, if we can prove the validity of the artifact.”

The Bonebeak boss leaned back from the table. A few of his companions detached from the wall and dipped their heads together. After a few moments of quiet cawing, they returned their attention to the table.

“It will cost you to look.”

This time, the young imperial did stand up. He thrust a scaled finger at the boss and shouted, “You feather-faced thief!”

The room bristled. Blades slid up their sheaths. Fists wrapped around clubs. Even Eolh’s heart was pounding, though he was on the other side of the door.

The older imperial grabbed the young one again and pulled him back into his seat. “Sit down!” he whispered harshly. “Please forgive my compatriot. He’s never been to Lowtown before. He has not yet learned how things work here.”

The boss’s black eyes flashed brightly in the dim tavern light. Laughing. His bruisers eased back against the wall but kept their hands on their weapons.

“How much?” the older imperial asked. “How much to look?”

The boss seemed to consider this for a moment, though Eolh was certain the Bonebeaks had planned all this ahead of time. The Bonebeaks never played a straight deal. For any other gang, that would cause problems. But the Bonebeaks had plenty of muscle and most of the Upper Wash in their pocket. This was their game, on their table, in their house.

“One thousand.”

One thousand? That was insane. Eolh couldn’t remember the last job he’d been on that had paid more than two fifty.

Sure, this was a human artifact. But what could possibly be so important that they could charge a thousand just for a look?

And for that matter, why did the imperials want to see it so badly?

The young imperial looked like he wanted to shove a bayonet into the boss’s face. He’s wound up, Eolh thought. Far too tight.

The whole room was tense while they waited for the answer.

“Android,” the older imperial turned his head without taking his eyes off the Bonebeak boss. “Count it out.”

Eolh had been sitting on a feeling, deep in his gut. He should’ve known it would happen from the moment Horace came to him. It had started in his talons and wriggled all the way up to the pit of his stomach.

This job was about to go south.

The android unlocked the chest with a twist of her hand. Her joints creaked as she lifted the massive wooden lid and let it fall open. Eolh was not sure what was brighter: the glow of all those coins or the twinkle in the boss’s eye.

She began to pull out piles of coins, the mechanisms in her limbs whispering as she moved. Eolh could see the smooth, contoured metal of her arms slipping out of their sleeves. Her metal almost looked like muscle, though dark orange stains of rust highlighted the cut of her joints. The android’s face was empty except for two machine eyes glowing in her eye sockets, casting their own weak light on the coins. No mouth, no nose. No features at all except for the hundreds of faint scratches that dulled the sheen of her mask.

At times, she moved as fluidly as a living thing. At others, her arms seemed to jerk and catch unnaturally. And when the coins were piled before her, the android’s metallic voice clicked strangely in the confined space of the back room. “One thousand centarem.”One thousand pristine imperial coins stacked into perfect towers.

The Bonebeak boss crowed with pleasure. Unable to tear his eyes off the piles of coins, he gestured at one of his guards. “Go get it.”

While they waited, the boss started counting the coins.

Eolh pulled away from the door and checked the street. Still empty. No sign of movement on the rooftops either. But the sky was dark, and he could have missed something.

The guard came back, hauling a small handcart filled with ice into the already-cramped back room. Half buried in the ice was a metal cylinder larger than the blackwood chest. Large enough to fit a young packdragon calf.

Why the ice? And where did they get so much of it, anyway?

The Bonebeaks looked impressed with themselves. Even the imperials were intrigued. They whispered to each other, nodding excitedly. Eolh paid special attention to their hands, the way they worked under the table. What weapons do they have?

Only the android was silent and unmoving, still standing over the coins and the chest. Despite the rust, her chassis gleamed in the candlelight.

With a few strained grunts, the Bonebeaks hoisted the huge cylinder onto the table, careful not to disturb the coins. It was dripping and left a pool of water that darkened the wood. Wisps of condensation still lifted off the metal.

But it was beautiful because it was undeniably human-made. That perfect contoured metal still glistened as if it had been forged yesterday. Its semichromatic surface was pristine, untouched except for the small nicks at the top, where someone had gouged the metal with a crowbar. Eolh almost couldn’t see the seam that ran down the side of the cylinder.

“Why did you freeze it?” the old imperial asked.

“You’ll see.” The boss’s grin deepened. “Go on, open it.”

Eolh’s heart was hammering in his chest. He could feel it thundering in his ears as he held his breath, watching a bruiser slowly—too slowly—dig his fingers into the gouged metal and pry open the egg-shaped container. A white vapor poured out, flooding the table, running through the coins, and falling down to the floor, where it pooled around their talons.

The older imperial sucked in his breath. The Bonebeak boss was nodding, his smug smile as wide as the ocean. The other imperial shook his head, his wet mouth hanging open, his gills opening and closing.

Even the avian bruisers leaned in to get a better look.

“This is impossible,” the young imperial said. “How can this be?”

“The Historians spoke of this.” The older one shook his head, his brow wrinkled in disbelief. “They said we would find a body. Where did you find this?”

Even Eolh wanted a better look, but that damned android was standing in the way. He ached to catch a glimpse. What is it? What did they find?

Eolh couldn’t help himself. He pushed the door open a little wider. One of the imperials pointed at a few glowing digits inside the container. “What are those numbers in there?”

The boss spoke first. “We have no idea—”

The android interrupted him, “Vital signs.”

“It’s alive?” the old imperial asked, looking around the room, directing the question at anyone who might answer. “It’s a living human?”

Before anyone could answer the question, three things happened.

One of the corvani bruisers—*Horace’s agent?—*smacked the back of another bruiser’s head, dropping him to the ground.

And the young imperial pulled his hands out from under the table, brandishing a firearm that was aimed at the corvani boss.

But before the imperial could shoot, the android extended her arm out in a quick, smooth movement. Her fist collided with the young imperial’s cheek, making a wet crunch as the imperial’s face caved inward. With her other hand, the android hooked the chest of coins and flipped it at the wall with such force that the wood smashed into pieces and scattered shining silver centarem around the room.

Before the coins could fall, the android turned to the old imperial. Wrapped her hand around the imperial’s chin.

No.”

One word. That was all the imperial uttered before the android snapped his neck.

The room erupted in feathers and clubs and gleaming metal shanks as the avians fell upon each other and the scattered coins. One of the hired muscles leapt for the table, clutching at the pile. A dagger seemed to sprout from his neck, and he died with a fortune under his wings. The others were heedless of the corpse, smashing and bucking each other as they clutched at the coins.

But Eolh had eyes only for the android. Amid the chaos, she dove into the cylinder—still leaking that white vapor—and scooped out a dark, limp body. Then, she was running toward the back door of the tavern.

Toward Eolh.

He flapped his wings, propelling himself back out into the street, and grabbed on to the roof just as the door burst open below him. The android vaulted out of the tavern, and a cacophony of shrieks and squawks and clashing metal erupted into the alley after her before the door swung shut.

The android looked to the left, then to the right, and seemed to make a decision. Eolh caught only a glimpse of the body in the android’s arms: it was fragile and thin and dripping wet. She darted down a narrow alleyway, far too fast for such an ancient construct.

The rules were clear. The job was not done.

What choice did Eolh have but to follow?

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A note from PSHoffman

Dear reader,

Thank you for joining me on this journey. I hope you enjoy, because there is so much more to come.

If you like this story, please share it with your friends. It would mean a great deal to me.

And if you love this story, please consider joining us on Patreon. You'll get access to advanced chapters and bonus content. Leave me a comment or a review if you loved this story, and I'll do my best to reply.

 

- P. S. Hoffman


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Bio: Questions, questions, so many you ask.
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