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02 December 2011 @ 12:08 am
How to sway them - Part 3  
I'm slowly recovering from my fairly overwhelming NaNo-experience, as well as the exam I had yesterday. I'll catch up and comment tomorrow, for now, please enjoy another part of my very rushed, unedited How to sway them!

Synopsis and part 1
Part 2


Dylis glared at the calender in the guard room, as if its mere presence was a personal insult to her. The first day of the week had been crossed out that very morning, leaving a black dot on the previously unmarked row of the month's last seven days. Her eyes went back up to the week before, all blacked out with the steady hand of the guard leader.

A hand waved in front of her face nearly had her punch its owner in the gut. Huw jumped backwards, out of the way of her unenthusiastic attack and eyed her warily until she returned to leaning against the wall, arms crossed and scowl firmly in place.

'You're free to go,' he signed, as he took a seat by the room's rickety table and poured himself a cup of steaming coffee.

Dylis didn't spare him as much as a nod before rushing out the door and into the cool evening air. The wind had been picking up during the day and now the flags lining the wall of the city gate were flapping wildly, creating a jumble of blue, gold and red around her as she descended down the stairs.

The mission assignment house was a modest structure - more a cabin than a house, really - and this late in the evening there was never anyone in line outside. Dylis walked in without knocking and made her way through the dimly lit hall, stepping over the sleeping excuse of a guard dog without giving it a second look.

The old man behind the desk in the house's only, cramped room glanced up from his newspaper as she approached. The look in his eyes was close to fatherly - a look he gave to all soldiers below his age and rank, which was a good portion of the military.

Dylis planted her feet firmly on the carpet before the desk and waited, her heart beating at the speed of a startled rabbit's, as the old man placed the newspaper next to a cup of greenish liquid (tea, by the smell of it) and laboriously got up out of his armchair. He untangled a key from where a score of them nested inside his left pocket and opened one of the many boxes lining the wall behind the desk.

Dylis said nothing as he presented her with two papers. One was written in her own hand and had a large red 'x' drawn across it, the red in much fresher than the black she'd used to write the letter in. The other had Congratulations! written at the top in official print and the wasted no time tearing it to pieces, throwing its maimed remains in an overflowing wastepaper basket by the foot of the desk.

By the door, the guard dog perked up, lifting one ear and one eyelid to give her a brief look of interest, before going back to sleep. The old man merely shook his head at her and returned to his newspaper and his tea.

The night outside was somehow even colder when she stepped back out into it. She stood nonplussed for a moment, the letter with the red x on getting more crumpled by the heartbeat. Her eyes were drawn up to the outline of the guard room, next to the top of the city gate. The flags were still waving frantically, flickering shadows against the dark, starry sky. She was too numb to scream, too dead inside to as much as kick something.

It took her less than a second to realize she was cornered. Human-shaped shadows lined the alleyways around the small patch of land the assignment house rested on, blocking every walkway leading away from it. She reached for her sword and cursed to herself as her hand only met empty air. A brief image of the sword leaning against the fireplace in the guard room flashed before her mind's eye and she felt her gut clench in beginning panic.

Quickly she pick the walkway that looked to be least populated and set her course for it, her steps steady and confident. Giving any other impression would be suicide.

There were three men waiting for her there - she recognized at least one sergeant among them.

Reading lips had never been an exact skill; there were far too many words that sounded completely different though looked the same when said and when a person talked fast enough, their lips, teeth and tongue moved far too swiftly to be analyzed.

Still, it didn't take much knowledge to recognize a "Get her!".

She dodged the first swing aimed at her and felt the breeze of it swishing by a centimeter above her head. She punched back, catching the man square in the stomach and watched him buckle, right before another man's fist connected with her jaw.

Reeling, she let herself be unbalanced, tumbling backwards and tangling her legs with her attacker's. He too went down like a felled tree. The third man was right behind him and dove for her. She rolled out of the way a split second before he could grab her and delivered a heavy hit to the back of his neck.

As the second man was getting back up, Dylis scrambled to get her feet under herself again and darted off along the walkway. More men and women were drawing closer, helping the one's she'd brought down to stand. With a last glance over her shoulder, Dylis took a deep breath and set off in a mad dash.

Her throat burned. Every corner seemed to have a new shadow shaped as a soldier, every walkway leading to a new possible trap. She ran for an hour, doubling back as often as she dared, even diving into the road-channel once.

By midnight she'd reached Rhian's apartment. It wasn't anything fancy, a third floor room with a kitchen near the middle of the city, but it was located in an area blessedly free from military guards and the light was on even before Dylis knocked.

The door opened with less than a minute's delay and Rhian took in her appearance first with a knowing roll of the eyes and then with a worry frown. She beckoned Dylis to step inside and take seat on her rugged couch, then clumsily signed 'bear' and dove out the door.

Dylis collapsed on the couch and watched the keyhole be eclipsed by a key for brief moment. She rubbed at her split lip and spat into her hand in an attempt to get rid of the coppery taste of blood.

The apartment looked like it always did; sparse but homey furniture, a forgotten plate of food left on the table by the couch and every other surface occupied by books of all shapes and sizes. Dylis soaked in the cozy feel of it all for a few minutes, before making her way to the indoor lavatory, to wash her face. Getting blood on the couch wouldn't be the best way to thank someone for help.

She was half dozing in her seat when Rhian returned with Huw in tow. Without a word, Huw set about examining her, wrenching her mouth open none too gently to poke at her teeth and pulling her shirt up to stare at her back. He let her go after less than a minute's
examination and sank down on the couch next to her, glaring. 'You idiot!' he signed. 'You utter, senseless, mush-for-brains, idiot!'

Rhian had made herself scares in the kitchen, so Dylis had no reason not to reply to this with a rude gesture.

'Did you think that if you were stubborn enough and kept asking to be reassigned to Outer Camps, they'd actually give in and send you there?' he continued as if she hadn't moved at all. 'I'm aware that you corporals are spoiled for choice otherwise, but that is not how things work and you know it!'

'Then what would you have me do?' Dylis asked, rubbing at her tender jaw.

Huw's chest expanded and shrank slowly, as he took a deep breath. 'Accept the reassignment to Search. Go learn to pilot one of those...' He flapped his hands like the wings of a stiff, metallic bird, 'and you make something of yourself. How will Glaw react when he gets back and sees his sister degraded to guarding the city gate in his place, instead of soaring through the clouds?'

Dylis gave a laugh. To her knowledge, it wasn't a pretty sound and she doubted it was any prettier in a moment like this. 'Unless the gods have smiled on Glaw,' she signed, scoffing at the very thought, 'his mission begins tomorrow. Stop with the act! We both know that he won't make it back, if we don't something - I don't do something.' She struck her chest hard enough when she signed 'I' that she'd surely have a bruise there when she woke up next morning. 'If left by himself, he's as good as dead. Don't give me more empty words, help me!'

Huw looked her up and down, stroking his beard with one hand in a nervous gesture. He glanced over his shoulder at the door to the kitchen, still firmly closed and then back to Dylis again. Finally he signed: 'I was hoping it wouldn't come to this.'

Watching with narrowed eyes, Dylis observed him dig around the many pockets on his uniform. What he produced didn't look like much; a dirty piece of graying paper that he unfolded with careful hands and gave her.

She gave him one last look, before reading the address written on the note. 'And?'

'The commandant who lives there lost her daughter to Outer Camps a few years ago. If you approach her off the record and offer to look into the matter, I'm sure she could get you reassigned in a heartbeat.'

Dylis very nearly dove for his throat. 'You bastard! You had this the whole time?' She waved the note under his nose, doing her best not to scream. 'It might be too late now!'

Huw effortlessly brushed her hand aside and met her glare head on with one of his own. 'I thought you had a plan! A better plan than pissing off the higher ups, at least. Just be grateful I gave you this at all.'

Dylis' raised her hands, ready to point out all the times she'd stepped in for him, saving his face and place in the military, if not his rank, but Huw wasn't looking at her. Instead, his eyes were on the now open kitchen door, where Rhian stood, a tray with three cups and a teapot in her hands.

They drank their tea in silence.

'Have you talked to your squad?' Huw signed as soon as Rhian had ushered them out the door.

Dylis tore her eyes away from the closed door behind them and answered: 'I haven't had a decent squad since they reassigned you and Glaw. They won't be any help.'

They came to a stop at a crossroad. Below them, the water of the main road-channel flowed by at a languid pace.

Huw didn't look at her, as he signed: 'You be careful now.'

'Enough with the orders or I'll have you reprimanded.' There was no bite to the threat. Huw simply shrugged and turned his back, walking away in the direction of the barracks.

Dylis watched him go, waiting until he'd disappeared around a corner before she set off into the night, eyes fixed on every shadow. She wouldn't be surprised again.

****


"Damn! Damn, damn, damn!" Glaw cursed softly, fighting to keep his breathing even. The blindfold Colonel Blevins had wrapped around his head several hours ago was putting horrible pressure on his temples and he'd long since rubbed his wrists raw, trying to loosen the rope that tied them together behind his back. The bandage around the cut from the day before had long since fallen off.

Around him the alien noises of the forest were doing nothing to calm his raising pulse. Leaves rustling in the wind, branches breaking, tree trunks swaying and creaking - all so very different from the bustle of a city that there was no way of telling if something was amiss.

No warnings.

Slowly he got up onto his knees, flinching as the Field Marshal's dagger they'd stuck in his boot scraped against his shin. The thin cut burned like fire, made worse by the salt from a steady supply of cold sweat.

A noise from somewhere far to his right had him freeze in place, back bent at an awkward angle in an attempt to grasp the hilt sticking out of his boot shaft.

Why had they done this? What purpose did leaving him helpless in the middle of nowhere - in enemy territory - serve?

He held his breath, straining his ears to try and catch any sign of approaching danger. Not that he knew what a demon approaching sounded like - a realization that turned his insides to ice.

With another half-choked curse he reached a little further, fingertips brushing against carved wood. Just a little bit further...

"-tain!"

Glaw gasped, both from surprise and from the new cut he'd given himself. The voice had sounded human and faint, barely within hearing range.

"Captain!" the voice came again, stronger this time and colored by panic. A clash of metal against metal followed it, echoing among the trees like a watchtower bell. And then a scream.

The dagger cut as much at his wrists as at the rope as he hurried to get free. The blindfold was easier to untangle, the knot stiff but easily loosened once he had his hands to work with. As it fell away, he took in his surroundings for the first time and felt ice nest in his belly.

There were trees everywhere, so much more menacing here than when seen from Outer Camps. The branches grew so tightly intertwined that only a few specks of the sunshine made their way down to the grass below, leaving him surrounded by tree trunks, shadows and little else.

But at least he had the sound of battle to guide him.

The trees seemed to bend towards him as he ran, creating a claustrophobic tunnel of branches and darkness. He rushed through it as quickly as he dared and nearly stumbled on something that was the size of a small log. A strangely soft log.

Looking back over his shoulder, he squinted into the dark. There was a man lying on the forest floor, a soldier of low rank going by his uniform. His eyes were open and vacant, unmoving and Glaw's first impression was that he was dead, left to rot there by whatever the others were battling.

But the man was breathing. It was hard to see in the dim light, but his chest was rising and falling at a steady pace, as if he'd just gone to sleep and forgotten to close his eyes. At closer inspection, his uniform was undamaged, except for a small tear in one arm that revealed a shallow cut in the skin beneath. There was also nothing left of his Emperor's Sign but a crumbled pile of seashell pieces at the end of a leather string.

Glaw's blood ran cold and he threw himself backwards, knocking the air out of his own lungs when the trunk of a tree halted his escape. He stared at the soldier, who seemed return his gaze with a blank look of his own. Glaw's grip on his dagger firmed until his knuckles whitened. He raised his hand, just so he could catch a glimpse of he weapon, as it reflected a stray ray of sunlight.

For the moment he couldn't care less that the glimmer this create could give away his position; just knowing he had some way to defend himself helped him gather enough strength to not simply give in and join the fallen soldier on the ground until it all was over.

He set off again, his breath coming in short gasps, his free hand grasping the familiar shape of the Emperor's Sign hanging around his neck. He ran blindly until he caught sight of soldiers - standing, fighting, living soldiers - all gathered in a defensive inner and outer circle in the middle of a glade. Glaw darted in behind one of the many trees lining the boarder where trunks gave away to grass alone and tried to catch a glimpse of what they were battling against.

The glowing eyes was the first thing to grab his attention by the neck, strangling the very last doubt from his soul. Its skin was as dark tan in color and its hair a mass of light brown tresses, pinned into a complicated knot on its head.

It could have looked human - was even dressed like one, though with a strange choice of colors and oddly wide cut pants that looked more like a skirt than anything suited for fighting in - if it hadn't been for the eerie blue light shining from the place where its eyes should have been and the large, coal black spots decorating the sides of its neck.

The soldiers had the demon surrounded, swords raised and aimed at it from all directions. The demon was panting, its shoulders hunched and its bare arms shaking. Glaw couldn't see if it was wounded, but he did see more than a few lifeless bodies sprawled unmoving on the grass outside the circle of soldiers - bodies dressed in the imperial uniform.

"We've done it!" a soldier no older than sixteen cheered from his spot in the inner ring. "We've actually done it!" Glaw couldn't see his face, but judging by the tone of almost shocked relief in his voice, he had to be wearing a wide grin.

"No celebrating just yet, brat!" a voice Glaw recognized as belonging to Colonel Blevins called out from somewhere in the outer circle. "You've got to draw blood before you can drag him back to camp, or he'll just chew your guts out and leave you for the crows."

The boy seemed to take this as some sort of signal, as he immediately made a sortie against the demon, waving his sword the way a small child may have done while playing at being a robber. The demon sidestepped, twirling around his attacker as graceful as a dancer, and the youth stumbled forward, nearly skewering a very tall soldier on his rusty blade.

"Watch it!" the tall soldier bellowed, backhanding the youth across the face, who staggered into the outer circle of armed men and women. "One more stupid move like that and I'll beat the living daylight out of you when we get back to camp!"

While the youth mumbled what might have been curses as well as apologies, the demon drew a deep breath. <Terra!> it screamed in a tenor voice that was edged with panic, its wide, glowing eyes flickering from tree to tree. <Terra, please!>

Glaw desperately searched his memory for a translation of the word and took a step closer, praying that the shadows would be enough to keep him out of sight for a little while longer.

The noise that followed the demon's cry was deafening. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once; the trees, the sky, the ground – everything vibrated, shaking with the sheer force of it. The soldiers all fell to their knees, as did Glaw, all covering their ears.

His sight blurred by pain, it took Glaw a moment to once more focus on the scene before him. The demon had vanished and the soldiers were slowly getting to their feet, scrabbling for the swords most of them had dropped. Blevins was shouting orders, but no one seemed to be listening. Instead they were all frantically looking around, their cheeks pale as death.

A flicker of movement drew Glaw's eyes to one of the nearest trees; a few branches above the ground, the demon now stood, leaning heavily against the trunk. Next to it stood another demon, its eyes equally aglow and its expression far more mischievous than exhausted.

This new demon was dressed in much the same way as the first one; barefoot, no gloves, wide pants and an armless shirt in muted colors, fit for blending with the bark and leaves around them. In one hand it held what looked to be a crudely carved walking staff.

<I believe you've been playing far too rough with my little arbōs,> the new demon purred, its lips twisted in an all too cheerful smile. Compared to the first demon, this one's hair was short, cut at chin-length, and as black as the spots decorating its neck. <How about you play with me instead? I've even brought a toy to match the ones you have!>

The new demon jumped down a branch, landing on steady feet, and spun the staff over the back of its hand, like a juggler showing off a trick. Before their eyes, it shifted in color and shape, taking on a metallic gray tone. It spun one last turn around the demon's wrist, before being caught in its other hand by a hilt that hadn't existed a moment ago.

Down on the ground, the no-more-than-sixteen soldier had gotten back to his feet, sword at the ready. He bent his knees, as if to brace himself and gave a battle cry that was more rage than confidence.

Glaw stood frozen in place. His feet wouldn't move and his mind was blank. He watched with his heartbeat thundering in his ears, as the young soldier rushed towards the tree. The black-haired demon's face split into a wide grin.

The one man attack was halted by an arm, grabbing the youth by his neck. The tall soldier from earlier hauled him back, again just avoiding getting cut by the younger man's sword. "You wait for orders, Private!"

The youth threw a confused, furious look over his shoulder. "It's mocking us!"

"And you're doing exactly what it wants. Again, idiot!"

The circles were reforming, soldiers stumbling to take their assigned places on shaking legs. Only Colonel Blevins seemed sure of his place in the world, standing straight-backed and calm in the middle of the group of soldiers, his eyes focused on the demon.

"Maddox is quite right, private," he said, scratching at his unkempt stubble. "That one is clever as a fox and it won't jump down to fight you just because you yell at it a little. What did we learn about demons' eyes, private?"

The young soldier shrugged off the hand of the taller man - Maddox, presumably - and took a step back, finding his position in the inner circle.

Glaw lost sight of his face again and didn't catch more than a faint murmur of the reply he gave the Colonel, but whatever was said made the Colonel smile in a way that could be described as nothing but mocking. "Exactly! And if I'm not mistaken, that one was preparing to have its friend impale you on the roots of the very tree you were rushing headlong towards."

As if on cue, the grass around base of the tree in question bulged. Cracks appeared in the earth and inside them snake like silhouettes writhed. Glaw stepped back from the tree he was hiding behind and couldn't help but shudder as he watched the ground he stood on for any sign of a similar change. When nothing happened, he crouched down, trying to make himself as small as possible and once more fixed his eyes on the enemy.

<Your leader is quite right,> the black-haired demon called, its words positively swimming in mirth. <He knows us far too well, I see. Oh well, I guess I could always come to you, if you insist.>

One second the demon was in the tree. The next, a powerful wind swept through the clearing and three soldiers were on the ground, unmoving.

The circles broke again, as those still standing threw themselves away from their fallen comrades, the ones who'd retrieved their weapons holding them at the ready. From his hiding place, Glaw made a desperate attempt to catch sight of the black-haired demon, but it seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

"Order!" Colonel Blevins' still calm voice broke through the rising din of panic like a battering ram, stopping the soldiers dead in their tracks. "Back to your positions! I don't have room in my ranks for hare-hearted soldiers."

A stillness fell over the clearing that had nothing to do with peace. As one, the soldiers froze and more than one pair of eyes darted to stare at the sword in the Colonel's hand.

<Why bring them out here to be scared half to death, when you do it so well yourself?> The demon was back in the tree. It now sat next to its companion, swinging its legs and grinning like a loon. Its eyes had lost their glow, revealing a pair of strangely normal looking brown irises on white.

Colonel Blevins didn't answer. Instead he nodded to Maddox, who grabbed a dagger from one of the fallen soldiers' belts and threw it at the demon, whose eyes lit up again. The dagger made a soft 'thock' sound as it struck the branch, burying into the the wood. From its hilt, a string hung, tying a small, golden Emperor's Sign to it. It swayed in the breeze for a second and then stilled.

<You didn't think it'd be that easy, did you?> the demon said from its new perch, three branches up. <Quite a disappointing strategy.>

"I'm sorry to disappoint," Colonel Blevins replied and turned around in a lazy circle, turning his back to the demons and the tree. For a split second, Glaw could have sworn the Colonel was looking right at him. "Maybe this one will be more to your satisfaction: retreat!"

The soldiers who'd remained on their feet scattered, tripping over each other as they threw themselves away from the glade. Some even left their swords behind, abandoned in the grass.

The Colonel was the last to leave. He stood his ground and looked up at the demons, who remained motionless on their respective branches and before he turned to run, he unlocked the clasp for the Emperor's Sign necklace he'd been wearing. Glaw's eyes grew wide as saucers as the Colonel grabbed the necklace by one end and began spinning it, like it were a toy-sling.

"Catch us if you can!" Colonel Blevins bellowed, as he threw his Emperor's Sign right at the tree, whirled around and rushed off.

The black-haired demon dodged this attack too, but seemingly with more effort. Glaw could clearly see it move, jumping from one branch to the next, its glowing eyes fixed on the necklace as it sailed passed its head, as if it were a poisoned arrow.

As Glaw did his best to get up as slowly and silently as was possible, the demon made a heart-stopping leap and landed on the ground without as much as a thud.

<Aww, they're no fun when they just run away,> it complained aloud, stretching its arms above its head and yawning. It then turned to its companion, which still stood barely upright on the tree branch it'd been left on. <Why don't you see if you can catch up with them? Keep them off the paths.>

The demon in the tree started, straightening up with help of the tree. It gave a curt bow and suddenly vanished; one moment it was leaning against the tree, the next there was empty air in its place.

Glaw's breath caught in his throat.

<You lot are late, as usual!> the remaining demon called out, looking right at the thick bush he was hiding himself behind.

The voice of a woman answered: <We're not guards.>

The was no pain. One second Glaw was on his feet, the next the ground had risen up to meet him, all sensation fading from his limbs, slowly, like he'd been wrapped in a cotton sheet that was growing thicker and thicker.

All he could see were shadows above him and the situation was so familiar yet strange that he wanted to scream, but his jaw wouldn't move. The only thing he could move was his eyes.

<Your brother still has a steady hand - jealous he got to the prize before you did?> It was the voice of the black-haired demon. Straining his eyes, Glaw caught sight of its bare feet, dangling from a branch not too far above him.

<Where are you keeping Aelius?> the harsh, female voice came again. There was movement at the edge of Glaw's vision and he caught sight of legs dressed in moss green fabric, ending in another pair of shoeless feet. <Did you send him after the intruders?>

As if it'd been summoned, the vanished demon reappeared, kneeling by the root of the tree the black-haired one had taken up residence in. <I-I'm terribly sorry, terra,> it spoke, head bowed, <I seem to have lost them. They even took->

<You worry too much,> the black-haired demon singsonged, making itself comfortable against the tree, like a viper basking in a ray of sunshine. <They'll get back here eventually. And it seems we've caught ourselves a prisoner! You should be proud of yourself.>

<Terra, I->

The black-haired demon flapped one hand in a silencing gesture. <Hush, hush, let Bernike speak. She seems to have something quite important on her mind.>

The moss green maybe-pants-maybe-skirt moved closer to Glaw, who wished with every fiber of his being that he could flinch away. The numbness was spreading, slowing down his thoughts. Even his eyes were failing him, making shorter and jerkier movements, blurring the world around him into a mass of green, brown and black.

The crunching sound of what sounded like a hollow egg being stepped on reached his ears. It was the last thing he heard before his eyes and hearing gave up completely, leaving him in unfeeling, silent darkness. One by one his feelings seemed to flicker out and die, like candles being blown out; first his panic, then his grief and at last his horror - they all disappeared like they'd never been, leaving only a vague sense of something that was 'him'.

And then there was nothing.

****


The light that seeped in through the distant windows spread a gray haze through the small room. Dylis blinked away at a snail's pace, twisting around in her bed, like a puppy searching for a more comfortable spot among its litter mates.

No one was waiting at the door. It was the first day of the second week, and still no one was waiting at the door. It set Dylis' teeth on edge.

She made her way out of bed with uncoordinated movements and poured herself some water from the porcelain jug on the dresser. There was a soft layer of dust around it, leaving only a small clean ring where it base had been resting.

Dressing took longer than usual; she kept tangling her hands in the sleeves and nearly fell over twice when she tried to pull her pants on. Her belt remained lost for a good while, until she eventually found it at the floor of her narrow wardrobe.

Cheeks flushed and eyes blazing, she slammed the door to her room shut and made her way with sure steps through the corridor. The people she met - fellow corporals, privates, a few civilian clad higher ups - all greeted her with friendly nods that she did her best to return.

Towards the end of the corridor, she spotted a man with curly hair and a round face. He too gave her a nod and a smile as she passed. She crossed her arms behind her back and clasped her hands together, to stop herself from touching the bruise that covered half of her left cheek. She was sure he had a similar blemish somewhere along his ribs.

The air outside was cool and fresh, just the kind of weather suited for long walks and thinking. Ignoring the waves from her squad over by the training ground, Dylis made her way out of the barracks' shadows and out onto the walkway leading into the center of the city.

Finding an unoccupied bench across from a bakery, she sat down and rested her chin on the back of her hands. She really needed to think. As much as admitting it pained her, Huw had been right; her plan up until the night before had been suicidal at best and utterly moronic at worst. But how could she change that?

The door to the bakery opened and three children burst out, laughing and shrieking. In their hands they all held brown paper bags and they were followed by an elderly woman who, while moving much more quietly and slowly, looked to be just as pleased as her charges, if the grin on her face was anything to go by.

Dylis gave the happy picture they made an absent-minded look, forcing away any sentimental thought it might have awoken with all her might. Sitting around and wishing for power over time itself would only driver her mad.

With a shake of her head, she tilted her head down to stare at the metal surface of the walkway the bench was welded to and began listing facts:

First and foremost, she had to give up on the system. She'd never be reassigned to Outer Camps, no matter how many times she sent in the request.

Secondly, she couldn't stay in Trade. Everything be damned, she couldn't stay in the Empire, if things continued on the road they'd seemed to have taken since Glaw left.

Thirdly, there was no way of knowing where Glaw was. His mission had been so secret, only the details of 'woods' and 'alone' had been announced and then only to his squad (though the news spread like wildfire through the ranks in no time, like always).

She needed more information.

Sticking her hand into the inside pocket on her uniform, she withdrew the crumbled note Huw had given her the night before. She read the address again, for the fifth time, and then began to systematically tear it to pieces, letting them rain down on her boots like muted confetti.

Once they'd all landed, she watched the small pile be scattered by a passing gale. The address and name that had accompanied it still burned inside her mind, clear as day. As a way out, she'd rather have taken a burning doorway, but it would seem there were no other choices.

Her eyes were drawn to the distant shape of the court house. There would be records there, all the records she'd need. Breaking in wouldn't take much effort this time of day; all guards talented enough to stay awake or hold a sword would be out training or enjoying a relaxing day in bed until the evening came. If she was really lucky, the day watch would all be drunk too – or still drunk after the weekend.

She was caught off guard by how utterly ashamed she felt at the mere thought of stealing from the archives. But if one rules was good enough to be broken, so where the others.

The crowds were easy to navigate. It wasn't quite noon yet, so most people were holed up insider their shops or offices. The barges were full of children too young to attend school and the elderly, enjoying the clear skies the day had to offer.

Dylis took little notice of any of this. Instead she concentrated on keeping her breathing and pulse even, as well as relaxing her shoulders. The silhouette of the court house was growing larger by the minute and it seemed to cast a foreboding shadow her way. She had to repeat to herself that the eyes glaring down at her were nothing but a pair of windows, accompanied by a trick of the light.

Once her feet were back on a steady walkway, she made her way towards the library with brisk steps, rounding the corner of the court house like she'd done so many times before. The entrance guard of the court house even gave her a sleepy nod in greeting as she passed, and then returned to his upright snoozing.

It seemed like she would be in luck.

The alley between the court house's back wall and the Holy House of the Seven Gods was empty and dark, shielded from sunshine by the sheer size of the two buildings. There was a fire safety ladder leaning against each of the walls and enough room for her to walk between them, without having to scrape her elbows on the bricks.

Her fingers shook as she wrapped her them around the ladder and began her ascent. A mantra of I'm dead I'm dead I'm dead started up inside her head, the words repeating for every step she took, but she ignored it as best as she could, holding her breath and calling up the image of Glaw; alone in the dark, enemy infested woods, possibly unarmed, possibly-

A movement at the corner of her eye made her freeze halfway up the ladder. Slowly she turned her head, praying, hoping and finally sighing in relief, as she caught sight of a seagull on the roof of the house behind her back.

The roof was flat as a board and wide enough to hold a market square. The only thing that broke away from this monotony was a box of bricks, about four meters wide and two meters high, in which there was a maintenance door.

It took little effort to unlock. The door frame was old and rotten, most likely not tended to even during the winter time shoveling of snow from the roof, and it gave away after two forceful pulls on the door handle. Dylis immediately threw herself around the corner of the small 'house' and crouched down, counting to thirty.

No one came.

The stairway behind the maintenance door was pitch black - she could barely make out the first steps, even with the sunlight leaking in from behind her. She placed each foot down carefully in front of her, cursing that she had no way of telling if the steps were creaking or not.

As she descended, a faint light appeared below her, growing brighter. The hallway she finally ended up in was dusty and only illuminated by the light coming in through grimy windows, lined with doors of which most stood ajar. It was then her back stiffened and her whole body went cold with realization; she'd made the same mistake again! She had no way of knowing where Glaw's records were kept - were any records were kept - and yet here she was, breaking and entering just because it had seemed like a good idea.

Cursing her own reckless impulses, she glanced back up the rickety staircase she'd just walked down. She'd left footprints in the dust on the steps.

She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, clenching her hands into fists and letting them fall open again over and over. She could still go back. There was no way there would be an investigation based solely on a bunch of footprints and a broken door. Unless something was stolen.

Something in the air shifted, stirring up dust from the far side of the hallway. Dylis crouched down in the shadowy comfort of a nearby open doorway and held herself as still as death, waiting.

The woman that entered the hallway was dressed in a private's uniform, with stains on the edge of her jacket and most of her buttons done up unevenly. Her legs were unsteady as she walked, swaying from side to side and she was rubbing at her temples with one hand.

She took no notice of Dylis, passing her by without as much as a look in her direction and then began to walk up the staircase to the roof, one heavy step after another.

As she disappeared around the first corner of the staircase, Dylis felt the cold panic that had begun to sweep over her take full control. Her escape route was blocked.

Her legs started walking without her permission. She had to get out. There was no way even a rookie as hungover as that wouldn't take note of a broken door. But what other ways out were there?

The hallway came to an end in a small room, which split off into two parallel corridors. There was a table and a chair, and wall decorations that boarded on distasteful and lewd, similar to most guard rooms she'd been in.

There was also a map. A map nailed to the wall, with helpful directions on guard routes, how long said routes should take and where those who guarded should take up position at certain hours. She stared at it until she'd memorized the most important of the details, her shoulders shaking with barely stifled, hysterical laughter all the while.

The record archives were on the third floor, four floors below the one she was on at the moment. The way there was easy to plan out, as there were less than six guards between her and the hungover private had even been so kind as to leave her ring of keys hanging on a nail by the guard room table.

Keys in hand she made her way downstairs on lighter feet than before, avoiding discovery with little effort. She made sure to pass right behind most of the guards, to not risk one of them having gone on an unofficial break or being late on their way around the hallway they patrolled, and soon found herself standing in front of the unguarded entrance to the record archives.

It took her three tries to find the right key. The room inside was full of bookcases, standing in cramped rows and overflowing with leather-backed folders. Thankfully, the ones with the most recent dates were closest to the entrance. A dim glow coming from somewhere near the ceiling gave her the chance to close the door behind her without having to stumble around in the dark.

She pulled down all the relevant folders from their shelves and spread them out on the floor, squinting in the low light. Her brother's name appeared near the first entries, but most of the document was blacked out, leaving only his name, rank, and reassignment location bare.

She threw the folder across the room and watched it hit a distant shelf, scattering all the papers across the floor. Her eyes stung. She told herself it was because of all the dust she'd stirred up.

Her legs felt unnaturally stiff as she got up from the floor. She glanced at the thin ray of light that seeped in under the door, as if mesmerized by it. She remained unmoving for a good minute, unsure of where to go and what to do with herself. Her arms felt heavy, her legs even more so and the guard would pass by in less than a minute.

A sense of hopelessness washed over her. What point was there to run away now? At least if she got arrested, they might send her to Outer Camps as punishment. Wouldn't that be wonderfully ironic?

She let her gaze sweep across the shelves again and an idea struck her like a strike to the back of her head. There had been an unmarked room on the map, in the basement. It could be anything - it could be a garbage room for all she knew - but it was still better than nothing, right?

The light from under the doorway disappeared partly, darkened by two thin shadows a shade lighter than pitch black. Dylis held her breath. The shadows lingered by the doorway and she could almost hear the guard considering going to fetch the keys to unlock the door and check inside. Had she left some sort of track? Made too much noise?

The shadows drifted away, finally, and Dylis did her best to exhale as quietly as possible. In that moment she found herself missing the extra safety a backup brought - a backup with functioning ears.

Sneaking out the door and down the hallway outside, she tried to mind her steps and breathing even more than before. Three flights of stairs took close to forever to descend. The basement beckoned with an even darker hallway and no guards, which allowed her to relax a little. She fumbled with the keys as she approached the new door, a fireproof one made completely of metal, desperate to try and find the right one without unknowingly jingling the rest.

The door must have made a sound when she pushed it open, because she had to put her entire back into it. Ignoring this, she took in the room she'd ended up in and found it to be quite similar to the records archive, with uncountable bookshelves and folders bound in leather lining the shelves. And, thank all the gods, these were also marked according to date.

A sudden tingling in her right hand brought her up short. It quickly spread through the palm of her hand, growing painful. She looked down and saw that the ring of keys she was hold had begun to glow with an angry red light. It burned in her grip, yet her fingers refused to uncurl from around the metal ring. She felt herself give what might have been a strangled cry. The metal had begun to dig into her skin, but what blood escaped swiftly evaporated, giving birth to a sickening smell of burning flesh.

A trapping spell. How could she have been so stupid as to not expect a trapping spell on a ring of keys that had been practically handed to her? It was such a rookie mistake!

Gritting her teeth, she grabbed a folder from the nearest shelf and knocked the keys away, as if they were a gigantic mosquito. It landed under one of the nearer bookshelves, its bright red glow still visible.

Heart in her throat, she pulled down a handful of folders and tore them open, smearing blood and thin pieces of her own skin on the covers. Photos and texts greeted her, falling to the floor in a jumbled mess and none of it looked the least bit relevant. Trying to regain her breath, as well as repress the finger-numbing pain radiating from her hand, Dylis cast her eyes about the room, looking for any hint, any clue-

The numbers suddenly made sense to her. They weren't dates, they were letters, only not. Rhian had showed her a book about it, once, years ago.

Thanking her lucky stars, as well as the years of memorizing drills her first squad leader had put her through, she searched for numbers spelling out 'Nevett', running down the narrow corridors between the bookshelves. What she found were eight folders bound in blue dyed leather. Only five of them had Glaw's name on the cover.

She grabbed all of them and stuck them under her injured arm.

The way out was a blurred memory. She could see movements in every corner, nearly crashed into one of the guards, who toppled over, his face a mask of utter bewilderment and then she was suddenly outside, a whole pack of soldiers right on her heels.

In front of her lay a maze of walkways and road-channel, a barge full of startled passengers waiting by the nearest jetty.

She dived.

The water smashed against her like a dozen, icy fists, knocking the breath out of her lungs. She smashed the side of her head against something and the pain blinded her for a split second. Nauseous and gasping for breath she resurfaced, vomiting up water and desperately trying to get her bearings.

No bullets whistled past her head, so no higher ranked soldiers had come to join the chase. Small blessings.

She managed to gasp in a lungful of air and dived under the surface again, kicking and pulling herself downwards as best as she could while her aching arm held onto her stolen goods. The water was dark and far from clean, but what she couldn't see her pursuers couldn't either - and she had plenty of experience making her way through the city under water.

Her lungs burned almost as much as her hand when she finally dared go up for new air, in the relative safety under a jetty. The soldiers were still rushing along the road-channel's sides, gesturing wildly at the water and the passing boats.

It took her seven more dives to reach the harbor. Still cradling the folders, she did her best to feel her way along the slippery stone wall, looking for - there!

Loosening the sewer grid with only one hand took a while. Her fingers slipped on the moss and algae and she had to take several breathers, bracing herself against one of the jetty's poles. The current was slow and steady, like an old workhorse, a pressure that plastered her against the pole and made breathing trickier, but not impossible.

The sewer entrance was narrow and lay right under the water surface and gods be damned she'd hoped she'd never have to go into one ever again. But this really wasn't the time to be fussy,

The claustrophobic sensation of stone brushing both her shoulders at the same time made the water filled sewer channel as unwelcoming as ever. She closed her eyes and kicked, putting what strength she had left in her legs into pushing herself forward. She let herself be guided by her sensory memory, ignoring the brushes of not-water against her skin and clothes.

A bump in the wall, big enough to be felt even through her uniform, alerted her to reach out her undamaged hand and grab it, bringing her body to a painful stop. She clamped her jaw shut to fight the urge to gasp for breath and heaved herself around a corner she knew had to be there, bumping her already aching head against the top of the tunnel.

Inhaling a mouthful of foul tasting water, she managed to get her head around an edge and up into equally unlit air. She immediately started coughing, nauseated. The stench in the enclosed space was overpowering, yet such a relief that she almost laughed out loud.

Finding the manhole was a matter of searching the rocky ceiling with her free hand, catching the edged of it with her fingernails. It opened up into the same forgotten alleyway it always had.

She collapsed on the ground in a stinking, exhausted heap. The folders were still with her - at least most of them - though she couldn't find the energy to check on how much the trip into the road-channel had damaged them. She'd get up and find a hiding place, somewhere safe to see to her hand and read through them.

But first, she thought with a grimace, she needed to get clean.



That's it for now! More to follow this weekend.
 
 
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Listening to: Whatever the piano piece my downstairs neighbor keeps getting wrong is called