Black Dahlia—one of the many names they called her, and the name she used for this latest job. She took great pains to ensure that no one ever knew her real name. She sat at her customary stool in the tavern, nursing a mug of ale. Lord Mulberry would likely not miss the cache of gold and jewels from his collection for some weeks—and in the event that an inquiry began, she had several letters in her possession that would induce most of the peacekeepers to look the other way. She grinned and fingered the gold, jewel-encrusted brooch tucked into the leather straps of her glove. Gratuity, she called it.
"What is it with girls and shiny things?"
The question issued from under the dusty hat in a corner behind her. She had dismissed him as a passed-out drunk when she came in, but now she mentally berated herself for not realizing when he woke up. She affected a nonchalance, drawing the hand with the brooch through her cropped, violet hair as she pulled the straps of leather back to their places either fingertips. Meanwhile, she pretended to inspect the empty hand in a similar fashion. "What is it with boys and their great big sticks?" She nodded to the subtle reveal of his waist, decked with a utility belt and near-complete arsenal.
The hat came up. "They say female thieves take their cues from magpies: always after what belongs to others, always hoarding useless trinkets," his eyes twinkled as he spoke, "and prone to making loud screeches just because they enjoy the sound of their own voices."
"That's interesting," she responded, holding his gaze and leaning closer. "I hear the men take their cues from roosters: crowing about their own achievements, strutting about with no purpose except to dominate as many females as possible, obsessed with their peckers, trying to make themselves as big and colorful as possible in a desperate effort to be noticed by these females—and when it comes down to it, they're too stupid to figure out anything taller than a ten-inch fence."
She felt his fingers close around her wrist at the same time she remembered which hand it was. She kept her expression neutral as he twisted her hand palm-up and pulled out the brooch.
"Looks like you're the one who should be worried about a fence here, sweetheart," he teased.
"I've got my network," she pulled her hand away, reaching for the jewel—but he just held it out of her reach.
"Ah-ah!" He chided her like a child. "You want this back, you gotta do something for me."
The Black Dahlia raised dubious eyebrows at the man before her. "You look like someone I'd hire for a job, not the other way around."
He grinned, straight white teeth showing between grungy, scruffy lips. "You, of all people, should know better than to judge a book by its cover."
Dahlia rolled her eyes and pulled away; the man fairly reeked of a trap, and she felt better keeping her autonomy while chalking up the brooch as a loss.
"I've never been much of a reader," she mused, turning her back on him.
"This one will get you lifetime," he called at her back.
The force of the implication stopped her in her tracks.
He noticed. "That's right; you do this one mission and, if you come out the other side, you retire and you'll never have to work again. You'll be paid to just go on living. Heck, they might even call you a hero."
Hero—perhaps she could come out of hiding, start using her real name again; it did sound too good to be safe.
She turned back slowly. "What do you mean, if I come back?" She demanded. "I don't do suicide missions."
His bright blue gaze seemed to cut right through hers. "Not unless the cause is worth fighting for," he said.
His words seemed to lance a nerve center; her whole body went numb at the memory of—
"No!" She barked. "I take the job, I name all the terms. It's my body, I decide what risk it takes."
He grinned at her. "You can sure name them, but words do not guarantee implementation, especially not your words." He stood, still holding the brooch tightly in his gloved hand. "So, do we have a deal?"
The Dahlia pressed her lips and relaxed her stance. "I'm still thinking," she responded.
He shook his head. "Not good enough; either you accept the offer—"
"Or you can tell your employer to find another Hunter if she dares," the Dahlia hissed. She was rewarded with a flicker of his eyelids. "Don't presume to know me so well if we've only just met. I have plenty business on my own. You're going to have to sell a little harder if you want me to accept." She turned heel and began walking away.
"Very well," he said behind her, "I suppose we are doing this the hard way."
She heard him stand up, heard his hard-soled boots clacking behind her, but he never addressed her, so she kept walking as he fell into step behind her.
The minute they both emerged from the tavern, she felt the clink of cold steel around her wrist. She twisted, but he held.
"Dennahlia Firron!" The sound of her full name hit her like a blast from her own pistol.
The man pulled up something on a chain hanging inside his jerkin and held it out. "You are hereby arrested for thievery and the marketing of stolen goods, and remanded into the service of the Twin Regents!"
One glimpse at the Royal Seal dangling in front of her face, and Dennahlia—the infamous Black Dahlia—wilted into compliance. She glared at the twinkling blue eyes. "You could have just told me who they were!" She snarled.
He shrugged as people gasped and pointed at this man leading the esteemed thief through the streets.
He chuckled. "Would you have believed me? As far as I can tell, it probably wouldn't have changed your answer any."
Dennahlia feinted and wrenched—but her bonds held. "Of course not!" She grunted. "Everybody knows you have to be crazy to put yourself on the payroll for those two." She tried another maneuver, stopping suddenly and thrusting her body toward him. He merely sidestepped and she stumbled backwards.
"I see what you did there," he mused. "I'm not crazy; I'm not on the payroll. Just an independent contractor—with a hefty bounty for bringing you in."
"Bounty hunter?" Dennahlia twisted to stare at him in surprise.
"Not usually—but they promised a hefty fee to whoever could bring them a Hunter—and they specifically named you. Naturally, as the only one in the room capable of actually finding you, I had to volunteer my services."
She rolled her eyes. "Naturally."
They arrived at the castle and the bounty hunter dragged the erstwhile thief all the way to the Inner Court, where a wide marble balcony overlooked the courtyard at the center of the castle.
There they stood, the infamous Regents: young, pale things in black clothes with deep, crimson hair. The girl wore hers straight down her back, while her brother's hair curled softly around his face and rested at his shoulders.
The Lady Regent clapped her hands and smiled when she saw the Black Dahlia. "Oh! You found her!" She cheered.
The Lord Regent just stared. Dennahlia refused to make eye contact with either of them.
The enterprising bounty hunter took the opportunity to step in. "I certainly did! And in record time, I might add. Now if you will just deliver me the reward, I will be on my way."
"Of course!" said Her Ladyship. "My brother will get it for you." She nodded to the young man at her side, who glanced at the man and tilted his head, indicating the exit.
Now the Lady Regent was alone with Dennahlia. Her Ladyship sighed.
"Miss Firron, I have heard so much about you!" She gushed. "They say you can find almost anyone, and anything, even in the deepest shadows of the blackest night, when most people can't even see their hand in front of their face." She trained her weird gaze on the young Hunter's face. "I want you to find somebody."
Here it was at last. Dennahlia appreciated the forthrightness. She was exceptionally good at finding people, though she always assumed she merely had a knack for it. "Who's the target?"
Her Ladyship opened a display screen and accessed a rather grainy image of a man in a long robe with a white beard growing from his chin, and long white hair. From his hand dangled a talisman of sorts, but Dennahlia couldn't tell what color it was, from the poor picture.
"He is a Mage named Korsan; he served King Balwyn, and then when the King died, the Council foolishly decided to banish him. I want you to go to the wilderness, find him, and bring him back." She paused. "Secretly."
Dennahlia tilted her head. "Why secret?"
Her Ladyship pressed her pale lips. "It was discovered at his sentencing that he is one of those Outcasts."
Just the sound of the word made her want to recoil, though Dennahlia was not entirely sure why. It was only a recent discovery, that there were those living among the normal humans with power so much greater than it should have been. They could do things that weren't normal. The Lady Regent was still watching her carefully.
"You know what this means, don't you?" She asked Dennahlia. "He was the last person who could actually work true magic, not just manipulating something in his surroundings like the Outcasts do. It makes him dangerous, out of sight."
Dennahlia smirked. "You want him in arm's reach?"
A smirk played about those pale lips. "If you can," she challenged.
Dennahlia nodded. "Let me at him."
The Lady Regent nodded. "Very well, you will rendezvous with your team at the barracks. Do this one thing, and I can make it so you live the rest of your days comfortably in retirement." She beckoned a soldier forward, and he offered Dennahlia a small bag filled with coins.
The former thief evaluated the bag as she recalled the bounty hunter promising the same thing. "You'd give me hero status?"
Those eyes again, and a small smile. "Of course."
"Consider it done." Dennahlia accepted the advance and nodded to the Lady Regent.
She was on her way to the garrison when a voice stopped her. "Hunter!"
Dennahlia turned to find the Lord Regent striding toward her, a paper in his hand. "Something else we need. There was a caravan tasked with delivering a suit of armor for my sister," he explained. "It was supposed to arrive at the harbor today but it didn't. See if you can find it."
As Dennahlia accepted the paper with a drawing of the armor, her eyes registered an unnatural sheen staining the leather of his black gloves. She could smell it's essence on the paper he'd held. Her mind identified the material instantly.
Meanwhile, he'd caught her staring. "Something wrong?"
Dennahlia looked into his eyes and found the same piercing gaze his sister had. She swallowed. "There is blood on your hands, Milord," she stated.
He smiled in a way that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Well, so there is." He walked away.
Meanwhile, Dennahlia tried to squelch the dread rising in her ever since she smelled the blood and somehow knew the source.
The blood belonged to the bounty hunter.
Damaris felt his limbs trembling as he held the sides of the contraption taut. Korsan wove a glittering spell over its surface, and when the circle closed he instructed. "Now let go!"
Damaris released the mechanism, and the spell held. Korsan blew across a finger held to his lips, and the light of the magic disappeared—taking the visibility of the trap with it.
Damaris rubbed his hands till they glowed with heat; this was the fourteenth trap they'd placed in the vicinity of the cave, and his muscles ached. "Are we done yet?" He whined.
To his relief, Korsan appeared to be heading back into the cave. The old Mage's shoulders slumped; he hadn't needed to work so much magic in a long time. He pointed with his staff.
"Go on ahead of me into the cave," he told him. "I have one more ward to lay, and once I do, we will not be able to leave the cave until it is safe to do so."
Damaris hesitated. Ever since being trapped in a burning building, he'd hated enclosed spaces. "What if it's never safe again?" He blurted.
Korsan stopped and regarded the young boy with much sympathy. "Someday," he assured him. "It will be. I have seen the future, and it is much better than this. We might be innocent prey for now, but soon the predator will be overthrown. All we can do now," he said as they settled in and he began the tedious process of forming boundary wards, "is wait."
She left her musings as Harlock completed his strange story—waking up in a boat, finding a half-dragon who healed him, and a boy who could shoot lightning, and hearing about this idea of Gifted people—and finally introduced the small fairy. "This is Jay," he said. "I don't know where she comes from, but she was in my pocket when I first awoke in the boat. At first I mistook her for a living star, but she has a body and wings—she just glows all the time."
Jay emitted a stream of jangling noises. Harlock glanced at Velora and flushed like he was worried she would be offended.
"What?" Velora snorted. "I didn't understand any of that."
Harlock frowned. "Really? It sounds the same as the common tongue we all use."
Aurelle shook her head. "Not to us, it doesn't. Anyway, I know this half-dragon of whom you speak. Her name is Erlis. I met her in the harbor after we were both dispelled from the central city and ended up in the harbor town at the same time."
"Yeah, she's pretty good at what she does," Harlock mused.
"So now you know why we are here," Aurelle continued, "but what brought you to the forest? Did Erlis send you?"
Harlock shook his head. "No; Jay sensed the danger last night and she warned me to retrace the Hunter's steps to find her camp. I had no idea I would find anyone else, but it's a good thing." He nodded to Velora. "That's what Jay was talking about earlier. The Hunter is after the armor and a faction called the Outcasts. I am guessing that's you guys—so if you know of anyone else, chances are good they are at risk too."
Velora recalled finding the armor; had the survivor group been assigned to deliver it? To whom? "What's so special about this armor?" She asked. "Why would we all be at risk if she doesn't even know how many there are? Heck, we don't even know!"
Harlock shrugged. "Oh sure, ask the guy who can't even remember where he came from. I have no idea about the armor, just that it's very important. The Hunter works for the Twin Regents; that makes her a threat. She also has a reputation for being flawless at her job; that makes her relentless. As long as there is an Outcast still alive, she will not stop—why are you laughing?" He whirled on Aurelle, who vainly tried to suppress her giggles.
"Outcasts... Are how the Council and the Regents regard Gifted people. The Regents issued the Outcast Ordinance banning the use of Gifts unless authorized by the Council—about the only thing they managed to agree on—and it seems they have themselves a Hunter willing to seek them out rather than just getting rid of the ones who cause trouble."
Harlock glanced around the clearing full of bodies. "Trouble, like dispatching an entire military detachment?"
Velora grinned. "Guess that makes you one of us, pal!" She teased.
Aurelle smiled. "Are you gifted as well?"
Harlock rubbed the back of his neck. "Kind of, I guess," he admitted. "I sort of found out by accident that I can manipulate water."
Velora lifted her head and sniffed. "Any water?" She asked.
Harlock shrugged. "Maybe; I only used water from the harbor." He stared at the strange girl. "Why?"
Velora looked between them. "It's going to rain soon, which would make the trail very difficult for anyone but this Hunter, I'm guessing. Also, she probably won't have any idea that we already know she's coming."
Aurelle could see ideas taking shape. Already, the designs formed against her palm. "I see!" she said. "With our combined gifts—your reflexes, his water manipulation, and my illusions—we could lure her into an ambush."
Velora smiled. "The predator becomes prey," she affirmed.
Part 7: "Signs and Wonders" >>>>>
Part 7: "Signs and Wonders" >>>>>