The words echoed through my head. I stretched and opened my eyes, yawning. I hadn’t really been asleep, just dozing. I had been too restless thinking about today to get any real rest.
‘Morning Baylen, I thought.
Good morning. It’s about one hour before sunrise, just like you asked.
I nodded. Baylen wouldn’t be able to see the action, but he would be able to understand the accompanying feeling. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, pulling a long sleeve shirt on against the morning chill. As I walked to the lavatory, I tossed the previous day’s clothes into a hamper for the maids. Baylen grunted his approval. He always seemed to like it when I did something to lighten the staff’s load. It made me wonder if he had been a servant in a previous life.
I ran a hand through my unruly brown hair, not really trying to tame it, and turned on the sink. Baylen, if you would. I felt a flood of warmth through my head and mouth as the water turned a slightly opaque brownish color. Baylen finished flushing my body of toxins and I turned off the faucet, watching it drain. My morning routine certainly had simplified since creating a contract with Baylen; I no longer had to wash my hair, scrub my teeth with roughroot, or even wash my face; he was able to completely purge my body of all impurities.
Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Would you mind getting Selana? I’ll need her help getting to the warrens.
He nodded; or rather, he gave off a feeling of affirmation, but in my mind’s eye I saw it as nodding. The same thing happened for smiling, scowling; everything. I felt his presence fade slightly as he moved deeper into the spirit realm. While I waited, I finished getting dressed, making sure the cloth fully concealed the Demia Mark that covered my entire body. I was told that the people far to the south tattooed themselves with similar patterns to scare their enemies, but mine were the real deal. The patterns appeared on all Contractors, and was both proof of our Contracts and catalyst for our powers. Those who entered into a Contract with spirits were no longer considered fully human, instead being called Demians, and many Naturals, or people without contracts, were uncomfortable around Demians. It had become common practice among Demians to keep the fact we weren’t quite human quiet by covering ourselves. It had bothered me at first, but since I started wearing suits it had become more natural. My musing was interrupted by Baylen returning with Selana.
Good morning. Baylen said you wanted me? Selana’s voice whispered pleasantly through my head.
I did. I want to go to the warrens to ask Brunner to come with me. Can you–”
‘Morning Boss! An abrasive voice cut me off. I grimaced. I’d hoped to have peace and quiet for a little while longer, but that dream had been shattered.
Fell, you just interrupted your master, Baylen growled.
It’s fine, Baylen. I’m used to it by now. ‘Morning Fell. You’re as… energetic as ever. I said, purposefully pausing.
But of course! Today’s the big day! What’s not to be excited about?
I bit back my retort. I knew he was being an ass on purpose, probably in response to my insinuated insult, and I knew if I reacted in turn there would be no end to it. I turned my attention back to Selena as she spoke.
In response to your request, which someone so rudely interrupted, yes of course I’ll help. We’ve been together long enough that you should know you don’t have to ask, Selana said with a smile.
I know, but it’s more polite to. I felt Baylen’s approval once again at my remark.
Ha! Politeness is overrated. Better to have fun, I say, Fell commented.
I guess that’s why you’re so insufferable, Selana retorted. I chose to not get involved and moved to open the door to the balcony. The wind immediately whipped in, blowing papers and documents everywhere. I hastily stepped out and closed it before anything could be blown away, then turned and looked out across the city with a sigh. It was quite a spectacular view. Since this was the highest point in the entire city by a fair margin, I was able to see all the way to the far walls. On clear days and with Baylen’s help, I could even see the farms past those. I took a deep breath of the clear air, then climbed up on the railing.
I held my arms out from my sides and pushed off from the edge, plummeting towards the earth. My skin tingled as Selana’s energy pushed it’s way out, and my Demia Mark began to shine a brilliant green, bright enough to be seen even through my clothes. Just as I reached about a third of the way down the tower, my path began to level out. Soon enough, I was flying almost perpendicular to the ground. Well, gliding, technically. Selana couldn’t make me actually fly, but if I started high enough, she could use my momentum and make me seem like I was. We sped towards the squat buildings past the river.
It looks like we won’t quite make it across, but that saved a good hour or so of walking, Baylen said
Good enough for me. Thank you, Selana.
You’re welcome, she smiled.
We were low enough that I was able to make out the faces of the early morning commuters. I thought I saw a few of them turn to follow me, but they passed by too quickly to be sure. The thought of their surprise and confusion at seeing a man speed by throught the air made me grin.
As we got closer to the river, the buildings gradually got shorter and more run-down. The ground steadily got closer and closer, and I felt Baylen readying himself. I was nearly brushing the rooftops before Selana finally let us fall. I felt heat flash through my body as Baylen prepared to shield my landing. My feet touched the ground and I slid for a good fifty feet before finally coming to a rest inside a cloud of dust. I nervously glanced about to make sure no one had seen my extravagant entrance, and, seeing no one, sighed in relief. I stood and surveyed my surroundings, trying to get my bearings.
The bridges to the warrens are one street over to the left, Baylen supplied.
Thanks. I walked down the road and, sure enough, I could see the bridge. And a kid.
Damn, kinda hoped to get to Brunner without dealing with anyone. I rubbed a hand through my hair again, sighing.
Ah! A miniature snot factory! My favorite kind of person, Fell said cheerfully.
What’s someone his age doing out here alone? This isn’t a safe place for him, Selana said.
It’s none of our concern. Ignore him and let’s go, Baylen said gruffly.
I hate to say it, but I agree with Selana. You should at least figure out what’s going on, Fell said, unusually serious.
Sorry Baylen, I have to agree with the others. This won’t take long; promise.
Baylen grumbled but said nothing. Truthfully, I didn’t really want to deal with the kid, but I didn’t want to leave him alone out here more. I walked forward.
“What are you doing out here?” The kid whirled around at the sound of my voice, eyes wide with fear.
Jeez, way to be a great adult, Fell said, voice dripping with sarcasm. Has anyone told you you’re good with kids? ‘Cause they were lying.
I winced, realizing how that must have sounded. “Er, sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you OK? Do you need help?” The kid shook his head, eyes still wide. He suddenly took off, dashing past me before I could do anything.
“W-wait! I can help–” my words faded as I saw him run into the arms of a worn looking old woman. Her clothes were raggedy and her limbs were thin to the point of looking brittle, but her eyes were steely and clear when they met mine. She held my gaze for a moment more, then turned and walked away without saying word, kid in hand.
Fell burst out laughing. Your face! You should’ve seen your face! You looked so scared!
His words became unintelligible as he continued laughing, and my cheeks heated up. Selana and Baylen both kept their quiet, which I was grateful for. Fell’s laughter finally subsided, and I turned to look towards the bridge. Now came the hard part.
So, where are we meeting good ol’ Brunner? Fell asked.
Well, I figured we could just look around. He doesn’t actually know we’re coming.
Seriously? That’s your plan? Well, I hope you brought a magnet.
A magnet? Why?
To find the needle? In the haystack? Come on, that one was obvious!
Selana snorted, and I shook my head, smiling in spite of myself. Even Baylen didn’t radiate disapproval as much as usual.
Stealing myself, I took a last deep breath of the clean air on this side of the river, then crossed into the warrens. Immediately, the cloying stench of rotten garbage and human waste hit my senses, and I gagged.
Baylen, can you do something about this? He nodded, and the odor ceased immediately. How anyone could live here, I would never know. Gods, why Brunner chose to live here I would never understand. Admittedly, he had grown up here, and since he had returned the number of crimes and murders in the warrens had dropped tremendously, but still.
Let me give us a general direction at least, Selana said.
The skin on my forearms tingled again, the pattern there giving off a much softer light this time. The air seemed to shimmer, and the trash and dirt around us stirred as it was caught in the breeze that originated from my body.
Hm, it’s no good. He’s too far away for me to detect by myself. She paused, waiting expectantly, then sighed. Fell, can you just help instead of making me ask?
But where’s the the fun in that? Fell laughed wickedly.
Before she could respond, the pleasantly cool rush of Fell’s power flooded my chest, and the air began warping once again. This time however, the gust the came rushed out violently, sending dust and garbage flying. I winced at the sudden noise, looking around nervously to make sure we were still alone.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be that forceful, Selana said, chagrined.
I guess you really know how to give a good blow, don’tcha Selana?
Fell! That was low, even for you!
I agreed with Selana. It was still too early to be dealing with Fell’s inappropriate ‘humor’. I cut him off before he could respond. Enough, Fell. And Selana, don’t worry about it; what’s done is done. We waited for the spell to return as Fell continued grumbling.
I looked up from my fidgeting just as the wind came back, whipping my hair behind me and to the left.
“That way, huh?” I murmured. I turned and walked towards where the the wind had blown come. Judging from how long it had taken to return and its direction, Brunner was likely to be around The Wenches Foot, the one and only bar in the Warrens. I sighed and continued on my way.
As we approached the street where the bar was, I asked Selana to check Brunner’s whereabouts again. She nodded, and the tingle had just started when Baylen suddenly sensed movement behind me. I tensed.
“Oy! What do ya think yer doin’ ‘round these parts?”
I groaned internally, glancing back to appraise my assailants. It was a group of Natural thugs, likely from the self-proclaimed ‘thieves guild’ of the warrens. These men were dressed in ill-fitting clothing that hung loosely about their bodies, but the fact they had clothing at all confirmed my suspicions.
Oh look, they have knives. How cute! Oh, and is that a baseball bat? With nails in it no less! Ha! All they’d need now is to start calling you names and it’ll feel like they fell out of one of those gangster stories, Fell laughed condescendingly.
Hush, Fell. I turned and started walking away.
“Oy! Lil’ bitch! Are ya deaf? Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Fell howled with laughter. What’d I tell you! Oh man, these guys are great! Can’t say ‘little bitch’ is the most original name, but still!
As Fell continued chuckling, I felt the leader reach forward to grab me. I leaned slightly to the right, easily avoiding his clutching hand. Swaying back to upright, I sighed and turned to face him. He was visibly shocked that I had avoided his grip, looking dumbly between me, his hand, and his cronies.
He shook himself, brows lowering. “With clothes like that, the only way’d a bitch like you’d be over here is if you’re new to town. Listen up! This here’s White Hand’s domain. He don’t like no strangers in his city, ‘specially ones with no manners!” The other two shouted their agreement.
Oh my sides, my aching sides! This guy is gold! Fell’s laughter echoed in my head.
Damn. Fell would make sure I’d not forget about ‘the thugs who didn’t even know my face’ anytime soon. I let out another deep breath. “And White Hand, I’m assuming he told you this?”
The leader spat. “He don’t need to tell us, bitch. It’s common knowledge. White Hand’s too busy runnin’ the city to take care of every lil’ bitch like you, so we do it for ‘em.”
“And another piece of common knowledge is to not hassle people that wear clothing that conceals their entire body.” I gestured to the suit and slacks I was wearing. The cronie with buck teeth was starting to look uncomfortable. He tried to catch his leader’s attention, but the fool was getting too riled up.
“Look here, lil’ bitch. I might not know much about Demians, but even I know that they’re all big and tough, not scrawny and pathetic like you!”
This guy is such massive piece of work I’m surprised he’s not in a museum! Fell managed to gasp past his laughing.
Fell, come on. You’re distracting him! Selana pleaded.
Really? From what? This isn’t exactly bomb defusal.
I could feel contempt and disapproval radiating from Baylen as the two continued bickering. Guys, seriously. Shush. “And what if I was a Demian? There’s an exception to every rule as they say.”
The shortest cronie who stood head-and-shoulders smaller than the others was nervously shifting his weight.
“Olz, I think I ‘member hearing about a Contractor with odd colored eyes like him. Maybe we should–” Buck-teeth was cut off by a sharp movement from the leader. As Olz gathered himself to spew nonsense yet again, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. It looked like someone was lurking at the end of the alley; someone big. I felt Baylen’s attention shift to them, so I refocused on the fools.
“Look hear you little shit.”
Oo, ‘little shit’ this time? He’s making progress!
“I don’t care if your eyes’re different colors. If ya don’t hand over yer valuables ‘n’ get outta town, I’m going to mess ya up so bad–”
“And what seems to be going on over here?” The deep rumble came from behind the thugs, and massive hands descended to land on Buck-teeth and Tiny’s shoulders, nearly knocking them over. A towering, barrel chested man stood behind the trio, swathed imposingly in a night cloak. The hilt of a great sword stuck out prominently over his shoulder. I suppressed a smile as Fell whooped.
“Boss Brunner!” Olz grinned. The cronies relaxed visibly, squaring their shoulders and turning up their noses to me. “Now yer gonna get it. Boss, this–” He trailed off, withering under Brunner’s steady gaze.
Brunner turned to me. “Master White Hand.” He did a half bow.
“Brunner.” I nodded in return.
I could practically see the rusty cogs grinding away in the trio’s brains as they tried to process this information. My identity finally clicked and their eyes widened in primordial horror. The cronies looked like all that was holding them up was Brunner’s grip, and Olz…
He was opening and closing his mouth like a fish, eyes as big as saucers. Even as his legs crumpled beneath him, his terror-filled eyes never left mine. I flashed him an overly toothy smile and he flinched as though I’d struck him. Holding back a chuckle, I turned my attention to Brunner, motioning for him to speak.
“What brings you out to the boonies, Master White Hand?”
Dealing with pricks.
Fell! Not the time, Selana berated him.
Oh really? When should I pencil it in then?
You know what I mean, you incessant buffoon! You know, I’m not sure if the bigger fools are out there or if he’s in here.
I felt Talon stirring as the bickering got louder. Hastily cutting off Fell’s retort, I said “Oh, uh, I was looking for you, actually. I’m taking a mission, and wanted to get the old crew back together.”
“You’re going on a mission? Why would–” He stopped, realizing the implications. He slowly blew out a breath. “Alright, when do you need me?”
“Now would be good.”
He winced, then nodded acquiescence. I patted him on the shoulder gratefully as I passed, pausing by the sniveling trio
“Maybe you should remember what your leader looks like before you start spewing nonsense. Especially if he has a trait as unusual as one green and one gold colored eye.” I said lightly. Without looking at them, I started heading in the general direction of The Tower. I couldn’t help cracking a smile when I heard Brunner’s muttered threats to the three, and Fell’s hyena-like laughter echoed through my mind. I slowed to allow him time to catch up, then started to march towards almost certain death, Brunner in tow.