To say Luned felt like new the next morning would have been a vast overstatement, but she did feel better, and that was enough. If anything, the comforts she found her made her feel human again, her humanity now just something else she had lost in the Tular sands some weeks ago.
Mithread’s clothing was beautifully made, though she was forced to make do with the best-fitting garments in her rush to meet Pyralis. Still, tailored linen felt blissful against her skin after journeying in what essentially had been rags, and she cobbled together an ensemble that helped her recognize herself in the mirror for the first time in ages. Either Mithread or Ms. Sethrin had also thought to place a new pair of boots next to the chest, crafted with gorgeous burgundy leather. Luned recognized the mark on the sole –– a gothic letter G –– as Gravebeard’s seal. She pushed thoughts of Swan’raan’s lackey from her head and put them on, hoping they weren’t a sample from his orphan-sourced line.
And then she set out. To her relief, Luned finally felt ready. Ready to take on the burden of helping Pyralis, ready to face her fear of the sewers, and ready to find Flint and set things right.
Pyralis was already waiting for her when she arrived. The young elf had changed her own clothing into something still worn, but vaguely cleaner, and it appeared she’d given her face a good scrub. “I always figured you were secretly a proper lady,” she greeted Luned. “But I still barely recognize you. Have you recovered?”
“Yes, thanks. Here, for you and the kids.” The scribe offered a parcel containing some bread and fruit that she’d nicked from the inn’s breakfast spread.
The elf smiled and accepted it. “Thanks. But first, let’s go for a walk.”
The sun finally peered over the rooftops, its warm rays expelling the rest of the early morning chill. Ettermire was a gray city of stone and smog, and it appeared much as Luned remembered. Pyralis led her away from the tunnel into a busier part of town, weaving through the streets until they found a bench near the markets. The shouts of sellers rang above the white noise of the traffic, and as they sat, the elf leaned in.
“I wanted to talk somewhere Helethra couldn’t follow or hear. You see… I need your advice.” Luned nodded, watching the crowds pass by, and Pyralis continued. “I’m torn. I… you know that job I mentioned, that would earn me some Swaysong? It’s for this person, she has a tannery, but… she’s bad news. She asked me to betray Helethra. She thinks she’s competition, but I can’t imagine why.”
Luned looked Pyralis in the eye, freckled brow pinched. “You mean Swan’raan, don’t you?”
Pyralis gulped as she nodded, fully understanding the predicament by gut instinct, even if she was unfamiliar with the politics of such an infamous person. “I should be clear that Helethra and I aren’t exactly friends. She’s proud of her mutations, not that she shouldn’t be, she’s healthy and capable and can take care of herself. But not all of us are that lucky. I told her I was sick of seeing other kids die, that we deserve a way to opt out if we need it. She was so angry, Luned.”
A passer-by bumped into them as he carried some sacks of grain, and Luned lowered her voice further. “A deal with Swan’raan is never worth making. Please trust me on that.”
“I do,” the elf forced a half-smile. “In my heart, I’ve known all along. It’s just so hard to pass up any chance. Lufe has started fading, and I don’t think I can take losing another one.” Luned reached up to wrap an arm over Pyralis’ shoulder, who accepted the embrace. The elf stared into her eyes, lilac meeting blue with new determination. “I’m tired of being naive. You know more than you’re letting on, and I need you to tell me. I need to understand what I’m dealing with, here.”
Luned hesitated, sighed, and spilled. She told Pyralis, at length, everything: how she was going to purchase Swaysong from Swan’raan, but a thief got it first and drew Luned and one of Swan’raan’s thugs, Flint, into the sewers; how they met the terrible creatures living there, barely surviving; how that brought them to Helethra and her scientist mother, Ezura. “All Ezura wanted was a cure, but it pushed her daughter away until Hel started hiding in the sewers. We didn’t realize until it was far too late that Ezura had stolen the Swaysong and given it to Helethra. She almost died.” Ultimately, Swan’raan captured Ezura, but it was Flint who exacted revenge by forcing her to take some Swaysong, herself. Luned and Flint eventually escaped together and hoped they’d never look back.
The elf listened in fascinated, horrified silence, until Luned finally trailed off. “I’m so glad we met,” Pyralis took the scribe by the hands, tears in her eyes. “I had no idea what Helethra’s been through, and I can’t believe I ever even considered betraying her to someone like that. Maybe I should try talking with her again, now that I understand… well, you know.”
Luned offered a wistful little smile. “I’ve received a tip that Flint is here in Ettermire, as we speak. I need to go now, I need to find him, but when I have, I’ll come to you and we’ll devise a real plan. At the very least, we can find Lufe a doctor. Does this sound all right to you?”
Pyralis wiped her eyes on the grimy sleeve of her tunic. “Yes, yes it does.”
Within a few hours, Luned ran out of the savorier options of where she could get a lead on Flint. Distant mutual connections, past business relations, and even Gravebeard couldn’t help her. The dwarf wouldn’t budge from his place at his workbench, where he nailed a heel onto a silk shoe with such delicate finesse that one never would have guessed at his cruel choice in materials. “With all due respect, ma’am, if you don’t leave my shop in the next ten seconds, I will be forced to tip off Swan’raan to the presence of your brute. You’re not the only one looking for him.”
There were two options she hadn’t explored yet, but she hoped so deeply that Flint hadn’t gone back to working with Swan’raan that she opted for the second, which was only marginally more enticing.
The tavern-brothel-general place of ill repute was mercifully quiet this time of day, as morning hours were generally reserved for the recovery of both patrons and hosts. But still, the pragmatic organization wasn’t one to turn away any business, and Luned was welcomed by unlocked doors.
“What’s your pleasure, miss?” a yawning barkeep mumbled from the floor.
“Just looking for a friend,” Luned waved him off, much to his relief. “Won’t be long.”
Flint had taken Luned here when they were on the run, though now that she looked back on it, he’d probably only thought to drag her with him as some insurance his boss wouldn’t have it out with him over allowing the Swaysong theft. After all, as a buyer who never even met Swan’raan face to face, she probably didn’t have much to fear, herself. At the time, this place had overwhelmed her, but with the morning sun betraying its shabby, pitiful face, it wasn’t as bad as she remembered. But, then again, she returned a changed woman.
Luned searched as efficiently as she could, sidestepping piles of vomit and sleeping bodies as she climbed stairs and roamed hallways. She didn’t expect to find Flint here as much as she hoped for a sign of him; he’d used this place for his stash before, and though she didn’t think he’d use the same place again, it was all she had.
The scribe peeked into yet another room, spied a couple lithe, slate-skinned bodies snoozing on a naked mattress in an otherwise nondescript room, and gently closed the door. As she stepped away, she felt something pull on her skirt, and looked down to see one of the drunkards peering up.
“Excuse me,” she whispered, pulling the cloth from his grasp.
“Excuse you,” he laugh-coughed, then tsked. “Not very nice to spy on others.”
Gut reaction said to shrug him off but Luned was desperate, and instead, she looked him in the eye. “Do you come here often?” she whispered, kneeling at his side. “I’m looking for someone. Very tall, light skin, bald head, black beard. Built solidly, huge even, but definitely human. Wears a lot of leather. Have you seen him?”
The prone man’s grin oozed sleaze. “Hmm, might ring a bell. Let’s get a room and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Never mind,” Luned sighed. As she stood to walk away, his fingers found their way up her calf, and in one smooth motion, she struck his hand down against the floorboards under her heel. She glared down at him, reminded of yet another nuance of the horrors she experienced in this godsforesaken city. “Did I give you permission to touch me?”
“Bleedin’ sakes, woman,” the drunkard howled under his breath. When she released him, he pulled his hand to his chest and laid on his side. “Bitch!”
This was a silly idea, and Luned knew it. She walked toward the stairs, so incensed and anxious that when someone stepped out of a room in front of her, she just about leapt out of her skin. Before her towered a wiry dark elf in black leather decorated with many straps, all of which held blades of various sizes and shapes. Her silvery hair was short and mussed; perhaps she’d just woken up, as well.
“Leaving so soon?” the thug greeted Luned, easily blocking her path with her long limbs. “He’s right, you know. What sort of person creeps about a place like this, spying on others? Can’t be up to any sort of good, wouldn’t you think?”
Luned did her best to stand tall. “I apologize for my intrusion, I was just looking for––”
“––a friend?” The thug’s purple-red lips slid into a sharp grin. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve only been here once, years ago.”
The elf’s musical laugh filled the dusky hallway and she lifted her arms into a malicious shrug. “It’s my job to never forget a face and I haven’t forgotten his, either. Especially with the interest that followed. I’ve been looking for a gift for Swan to get her off our backs and it’s just fallen into my lap, like fate. Will you help me find him, or shall I let her deal with you, herself?”
“You’re mistaken,” Luned glared back at her. “Please allow me to leave.”
“No,” the thug replied more seriously as she reached for one of the daggers at her hip. “That would be silly of me, wouldn’t it?”
Unconsciously, Luned stepped back. She tried to remember –– they didn’t use the stairs to leave last time either, did they? As the elf stepped forward, Luned twisted and took off down the hallway, bounding over bodies as she went. She’d seen an open window just a few minutes ago. She just had to get there.
Attempting to outrun the gazelle of an elf with her short legs was a fool’s errand, but she did manage to scramble around the corner before she caught up. The thug grabbed her by the back of her shirt, sharp fingernails tearing holes in the fine linen, and Luned swung her right arm back in what she’d hoped would be one smooth motion, but was more of a defensive flail.
The thug shrieked as Luned’s blade clipped her thigh, surprising her just enough that her grip faltered. As the scribe took off again, her dagger vanished into thin air, droplets of the elf’s blood falling to the floor in her wake. “The fuck was that?” she spat after her, taking up the chase once more.
Luned finally reached the room, swung the door open, and darted through to the window on the other side. Someone groaned in disgruntlement from one of the stained mattresses on the floor, but she couldn’t be bothered to apologize. Instead, she started to climb through, but only when she was halfway through the process did she realize this window didn’t face the roof or anything else. Below was a three story drop to the pavement below. There was a balcony across the alley, but too far for her to jump.
The elf’s laugh startled her from behind. “Nice try,” she grinned. “I won’t hurt you if you come willingly.” And then, swiftly, something swept the amusement from her face. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
The breaking of bones was a new sensation for Luned, one she’d anticipated and braced herself for, but she learned the hard way that there was no way to prepare oneself for one’s limbs to collapse under them. She probably screamed as it happened, though she wasn’t self-aware enough to hear it over the visceral crackle of her legs snapping into gods knew how many pieces. She felt it through her entire body as she hit the ground hard, but through the temptation to vomit, pass out, and call it a day, she recalled a spell she hadn’t cast since she left Radasanth.
Again, in the blink of an eye, that pain vanished. Luned picked herself up slowly, looking down at her legs to see her new skirt bloodied and torn, but her limbs as healthy as they were when she knelt on that windowsill. That surreal thing happened to her again where it was like watching her life through the eyes of an onlooker and she realized others were watching, passers-by who stood shocked and upset by what they just witnessed. Should she feel self-conscious? She couldn’t tell.
She did know, however, that she had to move. Luned picked herself up off the street, dusted off her ruined new clothing, and pushed her way through the small crowd that had collected when she’d fallen. She ran, though she wasn’t sure where she was going.
As the scribe wove her way through growing crowds of workers on their way to or from their shifts in the industrial quarter, it dawned on her: she had no idea how to find Flint. Maybe he wasn’t here, or perhaps even worse, he didn’t want to be found. Maybe Resolve was right about everything and he was just… gone, and not worth searching for. Her skin broke out in a cold sweat as she ran with labored breath, her legs sore from exertion, heart tight in her chest. It felt wrong. Everything was wrong.
It got even wronger as an arm darted out in front of Luned just ahead, clotheslining her and dragging her coughing, sputtering self into the shadows of an alley. The familiar thug threw her down on her back and pressed one steel-toed boot onto the scribe’s chest, pressing her hard against the pavement and hindering her breathing.
“Nice trick,” the elf smiled in triumph. “You’ll have to teach me how to do that later.”
“Listen, you h––” Luned started, ending with a wheeze as the thug placed her weight almost entirely on her breastbone. Her lungs refused to inhale, and little black spots danced in her vision.
Her assailant leaned down, bearing even more weight on the scribe’s chest, and grabbed her by the collar of her shirt. Luned’s eyes squeezed shut as she struggled, shuddering as she found herself unable to even gasp. “Now,” the thug glared down at her, “you’re going to cooperate.” And then, for a second time, something swept across the elf’s face as she suddenly stumbled forward: pure astonishment.
The elf still grasped the scribe’s collar in her fist, but there was no one left inside the shirt. Luned had vanished.
And then Luned could breathe again.
She opened her eyes, confounded by momentary blindness. Her vision adjusted to the sudden change: she was no longer in sunlight, but somewhere deep underground, cool and damp and stony. Goosebumps sprang along her arms and shoulders in the sudden chill, and the muscles of her back and shoulders complained when she sat herself up to look around.
She wrapped her arms around herself to preserve heat, surprised - and then suddenly not - to find that she was down to her silk camisole. The memory of her teleportation spell was back again like it had never been gone, and she was mildly amused at the thought of her assailant left throttling an empty shirt. Still, now she was missing the extra layer.
This was the sizable workshop of someone with magical talent. The outside walls were hidden, floor to ceiling, behind towering bookcases overstuffed with academic texts on magical and alchemical theory. There were tables arrayed throughout the room in the style of a chemistry class: each table an exact distance from the next so orderly rows and aisles were created in between, like roads. The tables were neatly covered in alchemical instruments and most were in active, dizzying use. The sound of bubbling liquid and low burner flame was everywhere.
The exception to the layout was at the front of the room: there were no bookcases hiding the naked stonework wall there, and the bench that ran all along the wall’s length was not divided at all. She knew this was the domain of a wizard, not merely an alchemist, because the entire chamber was lit by hundreds of enchanted candle sticks that floated just overhead, tirelessly exuding an antiseptic blue-green light and never dripping wax.
There was a huge body on the table, amid all manner of mechanical instruments, and it was covered head to toe in a thin white sheet. Luned’s heart sank. They’d already killed him. She should have listened to Resolve.
She stood arguing with herself for a long moment, knowing what she was going to do but not wanting to, and instead procrastinating by trying to decide what she should do. She felt numb. She either didn’t know the appropriate emotion to feel, or didn’t have it anymore.
She felt her breath tremble, hitch a bit. No, she decided with no relief, the feelings were still there. There were just too many at once to make sense of.
The scribe forced herself to walk toward the figure, one foot in front of the other. She stepped up to the work bench and reached out haltingly toward the sheet, and pulled it slowly downward. It was Flint, of course, eyes closed and face impassive - deeply browned by the sun, somehow, but still sickly in the clinical light of the room. She recognized him instantly despite the fact that she’d never seen him with much in the way of hair at all, and now he was covered in it. It marked the passage of time for her starkly, made it real: his hair splayed out all around his head long and thick and straight. His beard was fuller than she’d ever seen it. His cheekbones stood out alarmingly on his face.
She furrowed her brow, confused. He’d fought dragons, been eaten by leviathans, and should have died from a million more mundane wounds long before now. Fate was cruel, sure, and she wasn’t surprised that the universe would let them pass going opposite directions through death’s door without realizing it. They seemed destined to suffer twice over to earn a day of happiness. But why the hell would fate or the universe or the gods have a say? The man couldn’t die. She pulled the sheet down further, exposing his chest and his arms entirely. Something was missing.
“You idiot,” she whispered to him. He’d taken the gauntlets off. Why the hell would he take the gauntlets off? “Why would you take them off?”
Because of course the one thing that could kill him was inside him - swaysong. She’d wanted to be angry at their enemies, but in the end he’d killed himself. She glared over at his face, struggling with that. There was a little war in her heart for a minute. At first it was between anger at him and a sense of propriety, like one shouldn’t feel anger toward a dead man, only pity. Then her mind started to work on the why, on what might have been going through his head, all the myriad possibilities. The anger didn’t fade as understanding grew, but it mingled with something like sympathy. She reached out and rested her hand on his chest, over his heart. At least he was free of all that…
His heart was beating under her hand.