Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part Six
Tony whispered without looking at D.A., “Our contact will be here shortly.”
She heard a shift in the gravel behind the nearest building, just behind her to the left. Leaning quickly but unalarmed toward Tony, she whispered, “Our guards are under attack...”
He turned his head just enough to silently demand an explanation.
“One of ours, behind the store just behind me, has been knocked unconscious. I heard it. I do not know how many Mr. Aimes has sent. How many guards are we supposed to have?”
“Only Draezen and William. My father is in another part of the Citadel, attempting to attract attention away from us.” He glanced toward the wall of the Citadel’s edge. “Our contacts should be here soon.”
She took a sharp breath. “Your smugglers are too late. They’re here.”
An implosion of wood cracked behind them, and they whirled around to see a monstrous Darigan Lupe—Jason—atop the remains of a fractured crate. “No Cohens in this one,” he said of the crate at his feet. “Guess I’ll just have to keep trying.”
Tony uttered a guttural cry and ran for the crates.
They would have to break the Cohens out of their crates. Otherwise, the mother and child would be nothing more than gift-wrapped fish in a barrel. The trouble was that D.A. did not know which ones contained the iron goods and which ones trapped the Cohens.
Charging the massive Lupe, D.A. forced his attention away from Tony. Jason raised his broadsword and she met his swing with her own blade. The metal scraped together, but she could not hold back his weight. She slipped out from under him, and his body fell forward. He caught his weight with his leg and began to twist around to meet her attack, but she came up on his back, slamming into him with the blunt side of her sword, pushing his already off-balance weight to the ground.
She heard footsteps behind her and turned in time to see a pink Kougress pouncing on her with a sword. D.A. tried to slide out from under her, but did not have time. Their swords met, and D.A.’s back ground into the gravel.
She heard crates smashed open; the work of Jason trying to destroy the survivors of Cohen’s family. She glanced over, instantly returning her eyes to the Kougress. No bodies were on the ground yet, but Tony had been unable to free the Cohens while holding his ground against the Lupe. The Kougress smiled at D.A. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
D.A. groaned under the strain of the Kougress’ surprising strength. “And you are Anna, executive under Mr. Aimes.”
“How did you know?” she replied, feigning shock in a sing-song voice. “Jason, forget Rother and get the Cohens.”
Unable to maneuver herself out from under Anna, D.A. heard swords clash, and heard Tony’s feet sliding under the might of Jason’s sword.
D.A. strained to see if the Cohens were free, how many there were, if any could defend themselves.
“You might want to look away,” said Anna as she pressed her sword harder against D.A.’s faltering blade. “It’s not going to be pretty, what Jason does to those Cohens.”
D.A. gritted her teeth, pushing against the Kougress, but Anna was well trained, and put her weight into her blade without faltering.
A shoulder slammed into Anna’s side, pushing her off D.A. D.A. leapt up and whipped her sword around to face Anna. Draezen leapt away from Anna, whose eyes were on fire as if she were a cornered wild cat.
D.A. took the briefest moment to center the weight of her body and her sword, then went after her opponent. Anna hopped back, equalizing the distance between herself, D.A., and Draezen. D.A. stopped short of Anna’s fighting range.
A crate cracked open. D.A. saw in her peripheral vision Tony guarding a Xweetok mother and her young son. The smaller child screamed with terror as the wood splintered open.
That sound of innocent fear chilled D.A.’s spine. Anna’s attention shifted to the sound, though she showed no pity and her eyes never left her opponents. D.A. examined her, wary of attacking again. Anna was not an ordinary fighter; her sword style did not even seem entirely of Darigani training.
Draezen charged Anna, rashly assuming he could take her. D.A. ran to assist him, but Anna was quick. Wielding her sword like a baseball bat, Anna slashed into his sword, then ran into him with her surprising strength and momentum, running him into the stone wall at the edge of the courtyard.
Draezen yelped as his left shoulder cracked against the wall. Anna stepped back, letting him slump to the ground. D.A. did not dare attack her again. Anna was wound up like a wild cat, drunk on the adrenaline of battle.
Anna turned her fierce orange eyes on D.A., who was cold and hard as ice. A flapping sound reached D.A.’s ears, and she knew that Tony’s tiny ears would be the last to hear. Anna noticed too, and her posture changed, commanding control of her instincts.
Three Meridellian Eyries came up the side of the wall, their powerful leathery wings beating, sinuous arms grasping ropes intended to wrap around crates. The three saw the battle and lifted themselves higher into the air, shrieking in dissatisfaction.
Tony yelled at them. “They’re over here, get them out quickly!”
The Eyries saw the Cohen mother and son, and D.A. saw in their eyes that this was not another paid job for them. They wanted to protect the survivors. The largest and oldest of the three Eyries dove first, aiming for Jason. The Lupe lost his balance in the wake of the Eyrie’s powerful wings, and just behind the first, the other two dove. These grabbed the mother and son in their talons, flying up into the air again.
D.A. looked up at the mother and son. She was tired, in mourning, but alert to her son; likely all she had left. The boy screamed at the Eyrie’s embrace. He lashed about and kicked at the Eyrie. The Eyrie’s wing tipped to the right with the violence of the boy’s writhing, bringing them slightly down to the Citadel. “Quiet, boy!” cried the Eyrie as he corrected his flight.
Jason darted in front of D.A., and Anna hunched on her powerful legs and leapt into the sky, grabbing hold of the Eyrie carrying the boy. The Eyrie shrieked like a hawk and the boy cried, and Anna lifted her sword against the Eyrie. The three fell from the sky, and Anna jumped off just in time to avoid the impact.
The Eyrie did not get up. The boy was crying, and all heard his mother screaming for him.
Anna raised her sword and charged at the boy. D.A. felt fiery disgust fueling her sword as she charged Anna. Hearing her coming, Anna turned to meet her sword, but D.A. knocked her to the ground.
Another Eyrie swooped down and picked up the boy, flying straight up out of their reach. The boy cried, but did not struggle. His mother cried her relief. The Eyrie looked down at his fallen brother. “You will be called to account for my brother’s death, woman of Mr. Aimes!”
And the Eyries were gone down the side of the Citadel.
D.A. allowed Anna to push her off, and the two jumped away from each other, breathing heavily. Wildness began returning to Anna’s eyes, but Jason called her. “Leave them for another day, we have work to do.” He ran down the empty street behind them, unhindered by Draezen or Tony.
Anna gave a last smirk to D.A. “This is not the end for us, D.A. And rest assured, the wife and child of Cohen will not live to claim their revenge on Mr. Aimes.” The Kougress ran down the street.
D.A. looked over to Tony, asking whether she should follow. Tony shook his head. “No, they were under orders to dispatch only the Cohens. If we follow, not all of us will survive.”
D.A. sheathed her sword and nodded. “We survive to battle tomorrow.”
Draezen leaned against the wall, sweating profusely and gripping his arm.
“Do you have a doctor?” she asked Tony.
He nodded. “I’ll take him. You go to my house, tell my father what has happened.”
The next two days were comprised of waiting. Waiting for Draezen’s deeply bruised shoulder to heal. Waiting for William to shake his long headache.
Waiting for word of the Cohens in Meridell.
D.A. had been spending her days in the Rother home, helping Samantha watch over her son and Draezen, who had been given the sofa to recover under her watchful eye.
On the second day after the battle, Barnes answered a knock at the door; a messenger boy with a note for him. Barnes snatched up the envelope, anticipating joy and horror, calling all into the living room.
All eyes were on him as he opened the envelope, eyes charged with anticipation.
His eyes met the words. A guttural sound escaped him, his face blanched, his fingers trembled as he clenched the paper, rereading its contents.
“What is it?” gasped Samantha, clenching her stomach. “Did Alyssa make it to Brightvale?”
His voice was weak, lifeless. “No.”
She choked short her scream. Falling onto her husband, she shrieked curses against Mr. Aimes and his executives, beating her limp husband’s shoulder.
D.A., feeling Samantha’s grief in the pit of her chest, turned her eyes to the boys. William had sunk to the floor, his eyes mourning and wet. Tony leaned against the wall, emotionless, reflecting. D.A. sensed the feelings the family shared: grief over the loss of their dear friend and her child so young, and fear. Terror of the realization that but for the whim of Mr. Aimes, they could be dead, and the Cohens mourning them. True understanding, perhaps for the first time, that Mr. Aimes would not stop with the Cohens. All the Guild families, even the Rother family, would be targets of his campaign of extermination.
“You see, D.A.?”
She turned to look at Barnes. He looked shaken to his core, stripped.
“You see why we must stop Mr. Aimes? Why we cannot wait for the Chambers?” His voice choked, and he stroked his sobbing wife’s head. “This is not a battle over a Meridellian contact. He has declared war on us—all of us in the Guild. And he will exterminate us.”
“That is why you hired me, isn’t it?” she asked him. “You didn’t need another enforcer. You needed a soldier.”
“No, a soldier does as he is told regardless of how he feels. You have seen what Mr. Aimes has done—what he will do. You have a heart in there, beneath those cold eyes. You are an ally.”
“My heart and sword are yours, Barnes Rother.” She touched the hilt of her sword and bowed. “And I will serve to destroy Mr. Aimes and protect those he hunts.”
Auric lay on the couch, his silence unnoticed by the bereft family, but D.A. saw the blood drained from his face and fear clouding his eyes.
* * *
D.A. preferred the mornings, despite the air’s frigid bite. The Citadel’s streets lay empty and quiet before her. Auric’s shop stood on the left side of the street, but as she approached she saw its shudders were shut tight. Suspecting that Auric would open his shop soon, she crossed her legs and sat on the ground, laying an object wrapped in white in her lap.
As the first warmth of the sun reached her skin, she opened her eyes at the sound of a latch opening. Auric stood leaning over his counter, lifting up the tarp protecting his shop. She stood, catching him by surprise.
“Hi,” he stuttered, although the usual gleam was missing from his eye. “The sword is still in good shape?”
“Yes, it will serve me well.”
“Against Mr. Aimes.”
She nodded and paused. “Did you know the Cohen family?”
He dropped his eyes to the ground and turned to the knife he was polishing. “Yes, they were good people. Samantha used to babysit the boy. Tony and William would take him out and play ball sometimes. They were a good family. Barnes trusted them. All of them.”
“Is such a close relationship common in the Guild?”
“The Guild is like a big family. Are you from a large family, D.A.?” He looked up at her.
“Well,” he continued, looking back down at his work, “big families have kind people, reckless people, good friends, crazy uncles. Not everyone always get along, but in the end, you’re family. You take care of each other. That’s what the Guild is.”
“So you’re from a large family?”
“Nah, no siblings, but I have lots of cousins, uncles, aunts.”
“It was an interesting story you told me the other day. The one about your father and the knight?”
“Oh, right.” He caught the corner of his lower lip in his teeth.
“The knight was a wise man. I too am careful about who I trust with my sword.” She glanced down at the round package in her hand.
Auric looked at it for the first time, a slight frown in his brow.
“This, Mr. Auric,” she said as she clutched it with both hands, “is the most precious of all my possessions.” She stepped forward and placed the package on the counter, carefully unwrapping it to reveal a blade of completely exotic design. The blade formed a ring, with small sharp curls twisting out at the oppose sides. A leather cord tightly wrapped around a portion of wood formed the hand grip.
“What is it?” asked Auric as he held his fingers just above the circle of metal, but without touching it.
“This was given to me by my former master as a symbol of great accomplishment.” She took a breath and shuddered. “But see . . . .”
A fracture marred the surface of the dark wood hand grip, a fracture serious enough to prevent the sword’s use. The wood could splinter in battle, possibly harming the wielder and certainly rendering the blade unusable. “I have not used this sword in four years,” she said in an almost inaudible whisper. “I have trusted no blacksmith with it.”
Auric’s voice weakened and his eyes fell to the ground. “D.A., it’s beautiful. I’m honored, but I have never seen this kind of blade before.”
“I know. No blacksmith on this side of the world has skill in its making, and so I considered it a lost weapon. But you, Auric, I have seen your respect for the blade, I have observed your work in this shop. You can make a new handle.”
“Me? D.A., I would not know where to begin to make a hilt for a circular sword! I do not even know how it is used, so I could not possibly make—”
“I will explain its use to you.”
“I do not have this kind of wood available to me.”
“You can use whichever variety you feel is best.”
He hesitated and then nodded. “Alright then.”
She smiled a little. “Excellent.”
* * *
In the morning, Draezen headed down the Rothers’ street, where hardy shrubs bordered old, tidy homes. The Rother house did not boast of wealth or power, but subtle acknowledgements from the neighbors could be seen. Every morning a neighbor swept clean the street in front of their house, the local kids didn’t pick berries off their bush, the butcher gave them the best cuts of meat.
This corner of the Citadel respected the Rother family for rescuing their dying little community, starved of the raw materials of life. The Rothers brought them necessities from Meridell: potatoes, corn, vegetables, and raw metals, as well as protection from the violence of petty thieves.
Draezen turned onto the Rother home’s walkway and saw Barnes standing in the doorway, holding a new hinge in his hand while the door rested on the floor.
“You doing that all by yourself?” Draezen called.
Barnes looked over at the red Zafara, but did not step away from his work. “I was going to call Samantha when I was ready to put the door back up, but if you don’t mind sticking around for a few.”
Draezen sat in one of the rocking chairs on the porch. “Not at all. I was just coming by to see how everyone’s doing.”
“William’s fine, he’s got a thick head. But what befell the Cohens . . . well, it’s a lesson in the reality of our business that we won’t soon forget. Especially Samantha.” He shook his head. “She’s such a tender heart.”
“Anna and Jason aren’t ones to be taken lightly,” said Draezen, his voice distant. He touched his still-tender shoulder.
“No they’re not. You know, Draezen, this is something I’ve not told Samantha or the boys, but it’s important. You saw how quickly Mr. Aimes had the Cohen family completely obliterated—their trade routes cut off, their contacts severed, even raided their hiding places. Mr. Aimes knew exactly how, where and when to hit them.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“The only explanation is that Mr. Aimes had someone on the inside of Cohen’s team. Not one of the family, I’m sure, but one of the hired hands. I asked Cohen’s wife if any new people’d been hired before the attacks, and she said he’d hired a few. She didn’t know names nor descriptions, though. Never was much involved in the business, she was. But there it is: Mr. Aimes had Cohen’s business infiltrated.”
“Cohen was a shrewd man—”
“Yes, and that makes me all the more cautious.” Barnes looked up from his work to Draezen. “Keep an eye on that D.A., Draezen. She just happened to so be exactly what we needed at exactly the right time.”
Draezen stood up from his chair, agitated. “But wouldn’t that be a little too obvious a trick for Mr. Aimes?”
Barnes shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe he thinks that I’d think D.A. as too obvious and discount her.”
Draezen made a confused face.
Barnes chuckled. “That’s what’s foul about this whole thing. I can think myself into circles over it. But think of this, too. D.A. was not hurt fighting against Anna.”
“True, but a real spy would be sure to be hurt, so as to allay suspicion.”
Barnes looked at Draezen’s bruised shoulder. “Does that mean you should be my prime suspect?”
Draezen let out a laughing breath. “I just think you shouldn’t be so quick to doubt D.A.”
“That’s right, you weren’t there when that Bori policeman accused D.A. of being a spy for Darigan’s Chambers.”
“It was a couple days after I was introduced to her, and I was just inviting her over to the house to meet you and Samantha. This Bori staggered over to our table and knew her name—or perhaps he’d only overheard it. But she admitted recognizing him. Anyway, he said he was a lieutenant of the Chambers and had seen her serving as personal guard to Lord Darigan, and that when he asked his superiors about it, he was demoted. He caused a big ruckus, that one.”
“What did D.A. have to say?”
“Said she’d been hired as a merc to guard the perimeter when that Meridellian ambassador came up a few months ago.”
“Do you believe her?”
“I think she speaks truth in general, just not always the whole and un-obscured truth.” Barnes finished nailing in the hinge and walked over to Draezen. “Keep an eye on her, Draezen. If she really is with us, she’s invaluable. If she’s against us, then I want to know everything she has done and is doing.”
“I do believe she’s with you, Barnes.”
“Don’t be blinded by blue eyes, Draezen. Treachery is in the air. Now, come help me put this door up.”
Draezen nodded and picked up the door.
To be continued...