Once outside, I pulled my cloak around me and huddled against the breeze. It was quieter than inside, but not by much. Sangeron had always been a town that didn’t sleep, and, in this neighborhood, calls from the ladies of the evening went on until the light shone. Then there was the music coming from the burlesque houses, where shows ran until four hours after midnight, and the drunken tavern goers who always seemed to have a song to sing on their walk home.
I sped my steps as icy wind funneled through the narrow street. Its needles pierced my cloak, and I cursed Bramwell for his insistence on the burlesque-style uniform he insisted we girls wear. Oh, it was mostly respectable—the operative word being ‘mostly’—but in the middle of the cold months the thigh high boots were the only part of the outfit that offered any warmth.
I turned down an alley and took a deep breath. The buildings hunched over me like toads squatting in a squalid pond, and I shuddered at their weathered boards and rusting metal. This was nothing like the small cottages I’d known in my youth in Waterford Down, and part of me wanted to say to hell with it and head back there. At least there, I would be warm and could find what my mother would call a ‘respectable’ occupation. Yeah. Right. In her mind that meant a husband and a gazillion brats constantly under foot. No thank you. Still, the thought of comfort was a strong draw, and I often had to remind myself that I’d left so I could be my own person.
I was nearing the end of the alley when the sound of boots on cobbles caught my attention. I cursed myself for letting my mind wander and hurried to the next street. Even the watery light from the gas lamps was better than the gloom of the alley. At least in the street, I had a chance of fighting back.
“You done with that generator yet?”
I sighed and pretended like I didn’t hear. I recognized the voice as the biotic in the tavern, and I still wanted nothing to do with him.
Now, his words were clear. The Bleeding Grim must’ve worn off. I hesitated, trying to decide if I wanted the hassle of dealing with him, for I was close to home, such as it was.
“I’m talking to you.”
His voice echoed in the closed space, and I could hear other booted feet join him. Three against one wasn’t good odds, and the gods knew I had little chance of getting away from them. Still, though, better to face them on my terms than on theirs.
“I heard you the first time,” I replied. “And, no, I’m not through with the generator. It’ll take some time, just like always.”
He closed the distance between us quickly, his long legs taking one step to every two of mine, and grabbed my arm. He leaned in close. The sickly-sweet smell of the Melon Peckers gagged me, but I swallowed hard and kept from vomiting. Let him think it was fear I swallowed against.
“What is it with you bitches that you think you’re too good for the likes of us? What’ve we ever done to you?” he snarled. His teeth were yellowed and decaying, and I idly wondered why. I mean, if he could replace half his body with biotics, why couldn’t he do something as simple as see a mouth physician and have his teeth fixed?
I snatched my arm out of his grasp and pulled my cloak more tightly around myself. I used the movement to pull the dagger from an inside pocket and held it ready. “I don’t think I’m too good for you. I think I’ve got better things to do. Sweet cheeks, you could be the prince of E’ma Thalas, and I still wouldn’t want to see the town with you. Got me?”
He looked confused for a moment, like he was trying to work out what I’d said, then he snarled again and reached for my arm. This time I was ready, and I slashed at him, not enough to do any real damage, but enough to let him know I wasn’t playing around. The blade grazed the skin of his good arm, and he howled like a toddler wanting sweets. He backed away with anger flaring in eyes a bit too green, and I let my own rage show.
I could feel my blood racing through my body, and my vision took on the reddish tinge it always had when I was angry. If the bastard didn’t back off soon, he was going to have a worse night than he was already having.
The man with the piercing had come into the alley and now stood with his arms crossed on his chest. The other friend, the one with the head plate, stood beside him with a matching snarl and flexed his muscles. I shook my head and sighed. Men.
Ruger snarled and whirled, and tentacles shot forth from his mouth. I gasped, nearly screamed, and almost tripped over some rotting vegetables as I tried to back away. Now, my thundering heart was from fear, and that was one thing I couldn’t tolerate.
The pierced guy grabbed one of the tentacles and yanked, and Ruger stumbled forward onto his knees. The other guy turned and shot tentacles from his mouth as well, but the pierced guy just slapped them away. He seemed resigned to the way this was going to play out, and I could’ve sworn I heard him sigh.
A golden glow surrounded him, and for a moment I could see all of the alley, all of the garbage piled around the bin, and it seemed to make the stench that much stronger. I coughed and held my nose, then the odor faded from my mind as a glowing sword appeared in his hands. My mouth dropped open, and I stared for a moment. “Shadow Walker.” Then he began to move, and I was lost.
His body was pure grace and fluidity. I could barely keep track of the individual motions, so smoothly did they flow together. Ruger shot forth more tentacles, and the pierced guy slashed them in one motion that began in his shoulder and flowed down his arm. Ruger screamed, a strangled sound like someone sinking beneath the rapids of the Crystalhand River, but the Shadow Walker simply continued his movement and slit his throat. Black ichor fountained from the wound, and the other creature howled as if it had been him who was wounded. But the Shadow Walker didn’t leave him out. He, too, lost his tentacles and his life, and the alley was soon filled with the stench of demon death.
Another glow surrounded the Shadow Walker, this one much dimmer than the first, and the sword was gone. The Shadow Walker seemed to disappear for a moment, and I stared into the darkness, now much deeper because of the light, but I couldn’t see any sign of him. A moment later, he appeared before me, and I jumped back, my own weapon raised.
“It’s all right,” he said. He gave me an appraising look that made my cheeks burn then looked back up at me. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
I shook my head and tried to untangle a tongue that suddenly seemed to big for my mouth. “I’m fine. Thank you.” I looked at the bodies on the ground. “What were they?”
The Shadow Walker sighed. “Demons,” he replied. “Though why they’re here, I don’t know.”
“I figured they were demons,” I replied. “I meant which kind? We don’t get too many of the non-humans in the Xaggarene Empire.” I shrugged. “Not out in public anyway.”
“I know. That’s what makes their presence here so disturbing.” He ran his hand through hair the color of autumn wheat. “It’s not like there are never non-humans here, but demons are a little less tolerated than everyone else. Most of them steer clear, especially of Sangeron.” He paused for a moment. “Or they stay in the sewers out of sight.” The Shadow Walker waved toward the north of town where the emperor’s palace sat on a slight hill. “With His Worship so near, it just isn’t safe for them.”
The temperature was dropping, and I felt the first snowflake fall onto my face. I was freezing in the short skirt I was forced to wear for work and wanted to get home and put on warmer clothing.
“Well, thanks for the rescue,” I said. “I really need to be going.”
He nodded then gave me a quizzical look. “They seemed particularly interested in you. Why?”
I shrugged and gave him a humorless grin. “Couldn’t tell you. Maybe because I’m young and nubile? Who knows?”
He nodded, but the look of consternation didn’t leave his face.
“Well, good night.”