That night, Eolh was not the only shadow on the rooftops.
He ran atop the Lowtown houses. Every few steps, he thrust his wings back, pushing himself forward over the dark alleys and the half-paths between houses.
Far below, the droid’s feet clanged on the cobbled streets, hugging her precious human cargo to her chest. Each echoing footstep was like a beacon for the other shadows that were surely lurking up here.
The only question was, who would get to her first?
The droid stopped underneath a balcony that was laden with old, laundered sheets. She ripped off a piece of brown fabric and wrapped it around the human. She scanned up and down the winding alleyway. Up at the rooftops. And then, she was running again, in an uneven line towards the Midcity ramps. Towards the Gate.
Faces stared out of unlit windows. A Redenite, a rodent-faced creature, was standing under a balcony, tar smoke curling up its whiskers when she ran past. The Redenite did not even growl at her.
Up here on the roofs, Eolh could cut corners and watch her progress without wasting his energy. It gave him time to think. Why would she go towards the Gate? Even this late at night, It would be swarming with traders, craftsmen, nighthawks, not to mention the Watch. Maybe she has a safehouse nearby?
But Eolh didn’t know of any clans, any gangs at all that made their house so close to the Midcity. Too many guards. Too many imperials.
Eolh flung himself to his next perch, crouching into the shadow of a chimney stack. He saw the droid stop. She wheeled in place, searching the alley for something, before throwing herself behind a stack of old barrels that had green mold growing up their sides.
A string of half-drunken Redenites stumbled together down the alley, hugging close to each other despite the humidity of the night. Their goggles and their sleeveless uniforms were covered in the grime from the factories. They were followed by a small, two-legged chicken droid, which had a lamp on the front and the back of its head. It stopped and pointed its front light at the barrels, chasing away the shadows with its light. It made a small, crowing alert.
One of the Redenites barked, and the chicken-droid tore itself away from the barrels and hopped back to the Redenites.
Eolh let out his breath. If the droid kept this up, she was going to get caught. He would have to do something.
The droid emerged from the shadows of the barrels. She was still cradling the human, a shapeless, cloaked thing, in her arms. Eolh could hear it, hear the human groaning. It made a sound, like a newborn chick clucking for food. And then, there was a wet splattering.
The droid responded, “Hush. It’s going to be alright,” and Eolh was struck by her tone. Tender and worried. Strange, for a machine to be so emotional. She looked both ways down the alley and started to jog away, her clanging footsteps bouncing off the uneven walls of homes and crafthouses and run-down storefronts.
Eolh waited. He had a sense. And just when he was starting to doubt that notion, he saw movement on the rooftops across the street.
A large shadow peeled itself away from a disused balcony. It, too, flapped its wings and followed after the droid. So, Eolh followed the shadow.
The droid was stopped at the mouth of the alley. This was the last alley on this side of Lowtown that fed into the Vium Cynuam, the Road to the Gate. Of course, Eolh and the rest of Lowtown would never call it that. That was the imperial name. They would always think of it as the Low Road.
The Low Road poured out from Midcity, widening as it divided Lowtown and funneled beyond into the new factories and the old farms of the Wash. The Low Road rose to meet the Midcity at the ramps. Hundreds of narrow steps, with a few strips of flat stone for hauling cargo up or down the ramps.
From his vantage, Eolh could see the twin semi-circles of solid metal resting at the top of the ramps. One semi-circle was on the ground, the other was floating - impossibly - several meters above, so that, looking from the top, down, the two pieces of metal formed a complete circle.
It was crawling with aliens. Midcity citizens in their clean, colorful clothes. Denizens of Lowtown who were headed home for the evening. Traders and crews and guards from the Watch. And there were more than a few Imperials, walking around in twos and threes, wearing their gleaming helmets and sporting hefty half-kit, despite the Cauldron’s sweltering humidity.
The droid paused, standing in the center of the alley. It was thinking.
Eolh’s stomach tightened. If the droid tried to cross the Low Road, she would be caught. There were far too many Kevadren. Far too many imperials. Which meant, Eolh would lose any chance of claiming the human.
The droid took a step towards the alley exit, right as a patrol of Imperials crossed. They swaggered past, their vicious-looking longstocks daggering proudly at the dusk sky.
The droid stepped back into the shadows. She turned and ducked into another branch of the alley.
A mistake. A dead end. This branch ended in a cul-de-sac, where a cluster of four- or five-story houses leaned over a small drinking well. One of the Towers blotted out the stars from the Midcity cliffs, casting a black shadow over the whole alley.
When the droid realized its mistake, it turned around.
Well, he thought. This is my chance. He crouched, preparing to fling himself down into the alley.
But the other shadow beat him to it. It dropped from the rooftops and landed heavily on its feet. Torches on the house walls illuminated its black feathers, and when the shadow rose to his full height, his shoulders almost brushed the walls of the cramped buildings. Eolh recognized him immediately. Bozmeer. One of Horace’s hired bruisers.
But bruisers were not meant to chase; they were supposed to stay near the Boss. Which meant Bozmeer had gone off-contract.
Can’t blame him, Eolh thought. The reward for cutting this contract was, after all, the only human being in existence. If you found a buyer, well, you would have more money than the Coward Queen herself.
Bozmeer’s iron talons scraped the cobbles as it approached the droid. Like Eolh, Bozmeer was a Corvani, though much larger than most. He was humanoid in shape except where his knees were bent backward, better for perching. Feathers covered every inch of his body and his black beak was carved with a latticework of tattoos.
It was incredible how nimble such a huge Corvani could be. Bozmeer had cornered the droid and even from above, Eolh could see the smile playing at the corner of his beak. When Bozmeer spoke, his voice was deep and laughing:
“Give me the cargo, and I’ll leave you alone.”
“Please reconsider,” the droid said, “You may not understand the gravity of the situation.”
“Oh? And do you? You know, I’ve heard an-droids can feel pain. Is that true?” He had a small hammer in his hand, the kind meant for driving in roofing nails, and he was tossing it back and forth between his hands. “Maybe we can find out together.”
Eolh slid out his knife. He dove off the rooftop, knife first, aiming for Bozmeer’s back.
It plunged into flesh, striking against Bozmeer’s spine, and the larger Corvid crumpled to the ground with barely a squawk.
The droid looked up at him. Looked down at the corpse. And looked back up at Eolh.
She asked, “What do you want?”
“What he said,” Eolh pointed at Bozmeer’s corpse with the tip of his knife, “More or less.”
“Please, bird-thing. You do not understand the gravity of this situation.”
“I’m not a bird.”
“Don’t you understand? Look at it.” she held it up in both arms so that the cloak fell from its face. Its skin was smooth and so dark it almost shone purple in the torchlight, “This is the future. This is the one who was foretold.”
The Cauldron was full of believers. The Priest Castes had been touting the one true religion for hundreds of years, it’s what gave them their power.
From what Eolh understood, people across the other worlds held similar beliefs.
But a droid? Since when could droids believe in anything?
“Look, droid. The only thing I know is someone’s going to pay me for that thing. Don’t make me ask twice.”
“No,” the droid cut him off, “You need to listen to me. The human is dying.”
Eolh shrugged, “Dead or alive, I’m getting paid.”
“Don’t you understand? This is the last one. There won’t be another.”
“Even better.” He took a step forward, dancing his fingers over the blade. “Means I’ll get paid a lot.”
“By who?” the Droid’s eyes flashed a white light. “The imperials will pay, and then they’ll turn around and stab you in the back.”
“There are chop shops…” Eolh said. Feeling uncomfortable.
“Yes. Sell him underground. The imperials will find out, and your results will be the same. See how long it takes for the imperials to hunt you down. ”
She was right, though he hated to admit it. It was too hot. Maybe he could hold onto it. Sell it when things had cooled down.
As if reading his thoughts, the droid said, “To hold the human is to be hunted. Anyone who touches the human will be hunted. What good is money when you are caught?”
“If I’m caught.”
But he could feel the weight of truth, barrelling down on him. Crushing his hopes and half-dreams.
“They are imperials. They never stop.” The droid squeezed the human to her chest. It was shivering and it was so much smaller than Eolh thought it should be. From all the stories, you would think they were eight feet tall.
“If you take this human from me,” the droid’s voice clicked mechanically, “It will cost you everything.”
One of the doors opened to Eolh’s right. A ruddy face poked out. It looked at the droid. At Eolh. At the knife. And the door slammed shut. A light in the window went out.
Eolh took a step closer to the droid. He had never seen a humanoid droid this close. An-droids were rare, because every part of them was old tech. None of the manufacturers could replicate such complicated mechanics. Not even the artisans.
She looked so… alive.
He could see the metal components of her wrist, sliding over each other as the droid lifted her hand. The ancient technology that was still, after all these ages, moving. How strong was its arm? Eolh had watched her it kill two imperials in a matter of seconds, but she had caught them unaware. Still...
Eolh lowered his knife. “Where are you taking it?”
The droid hesitated, her eyes dropping to the human. Eolh could almost see the droid processing the question. Debating whether she should tell him. And who knows what else she's thinking?
“To the Gate. To Cyre.”
“But it’s still Harvest. The Gate doesn’t open for a few more days yet.”
“I will charter a rig. I will steal one if I have to.” The word steal seemed to cause her pain.
Eolh shook his head, “They’ll have guards all up and down the towers.”
She paused. Her eyes were two white coals burning deep in her metal face.
“Then what should I do?”
Eolh lifted his knife up, using the tip to straighten one of the feathers on his brow. He had a few ideas, but the best routes would be watched. And it wouldn’t do any good to hide in Lowtown. Blackfeathers had an aerie of finders, and if they didn’t get to her first, it would be the Bonebeaks. Or the Stone Eaters.
There were shouts in the alley behind them. Metal clashed on metal. Someone cawed loudly, and then, there was the unmistakable thunder of a gunshot.
“Please,” the droid said, “Help me. Help us.”
“Why?” he said defensively, “What will I get out of it?”
But this job was already ruined. If Horace had been honest - had told him what the cargo was, Eolh never would have signed on. Now, he would be lucky if he got out without the imperials catching his scent.
“Of course,” the droid’s voice managed to sound sad. Defeated, even, “You are not the right one. Look at your hands. Feathers. Not metal. They said there would be a guardian, but it is not you.”
“What are you talking about? Who is ‘they?’”
“Nothing,” she said. “No one. And I have nothing to give you.”
Eolh looked at his dagger. He looked down at the dead Corvani by his feet. What a waste of a night.
Eolh tensed up his legs and stretched out his arms. He aimed towards the nearest rooftop, but before he could leap up, the droid held a hand out to him.
“Name a body part. It’s yours.”
Eolh cocked his head. “What?”
“You may not sell the human, but my parts will be worth much.”
Eolh dragged his eyes along her arms, up the scratched, muscular metal of her shoulders. Her body was discolored from age, but she was old tech. And old tech always fetched a price.
“A hand,” she said, her mechanical voice, not quite muffled by her facemask, “An arm. An eye. Anything you wish. Please, help me get out of here.”
The fighting in the streets was growing louder. Eolh could see more than one shadow on the distant rooftops, though they weren’t circling overhead… yet.
This was his last chance to leave. Last chance to walk away from this night, clean. Nobody had to know he’d killed Bozmeer.
Maybe he could sell the information about the an-droid. Behind them, and only a few alleys over, there was more shouting. Eolh could just make out the controlled stomping of imperial boots. Gunshots, and screaming.
“You’re sure the imperials want it that badly?” he asked.
“Nothing could be more valuable to them.”
Good. It had been a long time since anyone had crossed the imperials.
The human was coughing now, a weak, pitiful sound.
“Come with me,” he held out his hand, and the droid took it. “I know someone who can help.”