The air was always damp in the undercity of Mar K’shinta. Its tunnels began at the edge of Thoras canyon, with the Ivantess’r river carving its path straight through. The river was a good source of fresh water, but in bad weather the lower tunnels of the slums were frequently flooded. A cruel balance of deliverance and devastation. Only the desperate would live in such a place. Unfortunately, there was plenty of desperation to be found in the Human kingdoms since King Deymuid’s fall.
In the shadow of the Crystal City and the Variden Mantle, there was little warmth to be had. The mountain range crested over the canyons like a shield wall, defending it from all attempts the new king had made to reclaim the territory. An ancient Ungarhek stronghold should expect no less. Before their exile, they had carved through the mountain and hollowed it to house a nation. Strong arms and backs could not account for such a feat. But the impenetrable walls meant little to those who had entered from beneath.
Catryn kept her head down and her hood up as she manoeuvred smoothly through a cramped tunnel, keeping her senses sharpened for her quarry. Those she passed made way for her; they knew her reputation. Even the people she didn’t recognise had heard about the mercenary named Wolf, and the mask she wore was enough to make them step aside. In the few short years since they had arrived in the city, she had ensured they were protected.
Closing her eyes, Catryn prowled through the tunnels and let her instincts guide her. People often said that she should be called Bloodhound instead of Wolf; she always found her mark. But those people had never seen her fight. Even so, she was lucky that her magic had no physical manifestation; the last thing she needed was to be locked up and shipped off to another mage prison. But outlawed or not, her talents were the reason she had so much work. Not that she would ever risk admitting it to Ahren. If he knew, his next bounty would be for her.
This mark was particularly slippery; he had managed to evade two other hunters for the last week. But she was always up for a challenge, if the coin offered up was worth it. This one was paying double her usual rate. It was also one of her preferred targets. A merchant that had tried to double-cross his Guild out of greed. Catryn had pity for those who stole to survive. But Daxiel Haro was a contemptable maggot, and the bounty had come from his own wife. He was to be taken alive, and he would stand trial. Provided he didn’t manage to escape the city limits first.
Catryn had some good contacts in the City Guard and they had confirmed that no one matching Haro’s description had been through any of the official gates. That left the Undercity. It had been a while, as Arhen had wasted his time with other mercenaries before coming to her. Long enough, in theory, for him to have slipped by unhindered. But the Undercity was a maze of tunnels and dead ends for those unfamiliar with its patterns.
As soon as she felt the signature tug in her chest, Catryn knew she had made the right call. He was close, and he was panicking. His fear spiked her blood, and she quickened her pace with a grin. Wolves lived to hunt, and she had developed a taste for it. But the thrill settled as she turned into the larger series of tunnels that were ruled by The Shroud. Followers of The Deceiver, the Caretaker of assassins and thieves.
Depending on what he had to offer, Haro might well be able to buy safe passage from the city. There may be no honour among thieves, but the priests of The Deceiver were another matter entirely. Catryn had no desire to incur the wrath of the only group decidedly deadlier than she was. But The Deceiver was a patron to all who wore masks. Perhaps he would also look kindly on her. She took a deep breath and cautiously entered.
She walked slowly. These were some of the only tunnels in the Undercity that were not familiar to her, and she was wary of getting lost. Finding Haro was one thing. Getting out again with a struggling prisoner, or even an unconscious one, was not as straightforward.
The usual bustle of the Undercity faded to a low hum as Catryn slipped through several sets of heavy black silks that had been strung up across the width of the tunnel. Silence invaded her mind and a vast presence settled heavily over her. From deep in the shadows, a voice she did not recognise murmured “It appears a wolf has wandered into the lion’s den.”
“You must know why I am here.” She replied evenly, her tone measured despite her instincts screaming at her to run. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t see them; she couldn’t sense them either. Just that unnatural weight pressing on her chest. True followers of the Caretakers often had their own gifts to call on. Gifts that human magic could not compete with.
A laugh echoed around her, shifting through the tunnel, and Catryn bit down on a growl. Forcing herself to stand still and straight, she waited. Eventually, she was rewarded with a quiet chuckle by her ear, and the voice whispered, “If you can find him, you can have him.”
“That seems fair.” Shivers rippled across her body and she scarcely contained her trembling. Catryn was glad that her mask would hide her clenched jaw and her barely suppressed snarl. It was all she could do to control her body, but she had always been too expressive for this kind of work. Ahren had often said he could read her like a book.
When she looked around her, the tunnel had become hazy. There wasn’t much colour in the shadowy passages anyway, but what little there was had been drained away. When Catryn glanced at her fingers, the only part of her that was uncovered, her skin was ashen. She was as grey as a Terikharn.
The comparison made her shudder; like her, they were apparently naturals with blood magic. They also had a terrible reputation. Glancing at the ground, her eyes found several tracks. Among them were a set that interested her, and she bent to inspect them. Finely shaped boots like those could not be found in the slums.
Frowning, Catryn took a few tentative steps before shaking her head. The prints shifted under her gaze and she sighed wearily. The Deceiver. Trickery, duplicity, and stealth. She likely couldn’t trust any of her senses in this place. Almost any of them, at least.
Catryn closed her eyes and took another deep breath to steady herself. In her pocket was the ring Haro’s wife had given the guild as a pledge, her husband’s ring, and she thumbed it carefully. Just enough to bring forth the essence of the man. The scent of spices and dyes. Sickly sweet perfume, smothering the sour decay of a rotten core.
Catryn swallowed the lump in her throat and ignored the chill that crept across her skin. This was her least favourite part of her magic. But once she had located the merchant, the hunt would begin again. She didn’t need to follow his boot prints when she could follow his spirit.
Pulling her deep hood further over her head, Catryn set to moving. Too fast. Too fast, but by the gods she wanted out of this place. The tunnels curved and coiled like a snake. The silks fluttered and flapped in a phantom breeze. Even growing up in a city of mages, a prison, she had never felt anything like the aura in The Shroud’s domain. The existence of the Caretakers was a certainty, but she had never known one to be so strongly rooted in a place. Not even a temple.
The sooner she found Daxiel Haro, the sooner she could get back to the secure solid walls of the tavern. Strengthening her resolve, she put her head down and darted down the main tunnel. She came to a fork and did not hesitate, barely flinching as she dashed straight into the wall between the passages. Beyond, a cavern opened out with a single solitary door fixed to the wall on the far side.
Other than a small table and three chairs near the edge of the cavern, it appeared empty. But Catryn’s instincts had never been wrong before. Haro was here. Somewhere. She faltered for a moment, grateful that her mask hid her expression, and drew one of her throwing knives. With one swift motion, she flicked it into the centre of the table, and lifted her chin. “Found you.”
A chair clattered back, falling to the floor, and a shrill male voice screeched “You gave me your word!”
Catryn followed the scrambling and scratching around the room with a confident smirk that no one would see. Play the part. “Haro, this is not fitting behaviour for a merchant.”
An image shimmered, flickering into view. A man in black sat casually at the table, the only hint of his confusion shown in the gentle furrow of his brow. The rest of his face was hidden by a scrap of canvas cloth pulled over his nose and mouth. The cursive glance Catryn sent his way told her little, but he was unimportant. Instead, she turned her attention to the gaudy array of colours that did not belong in the depths of the city.
His style was…unique. The dyes and fabrics were clearly expensive, and there was far more material than necessary. The baggy silk trousers were once a shimmering green, with orange embroidery and blue trim. Now they, and the fine red shirt and bronze cloak, were spoiled and ruined. The man underneath was a quivering heap, cowering on the ground. But even in his desperate state, he turned to the man in the chair accusingly, spluttering “I demand you return my payment.”
“It will do you no good where you are headed, Haro.” Catryn said passively, keeping any sign of her disgust from her voice.
“Bounty hunters make me sick.” He spat on the floor and pushed himself to his feet. Every word was accompanied by some gesture or wave. His face was red, and spittle flew from his mouth as he began to charge towards Catryn. A flash of her knives convinced him to halt. Suddenly, the anger switched to a broad smile and he coaxed “Any petty quarrel is worth your time, if you get the scraps from the table, is that right? I can pay you triple what you have been promised. Though I sincerely doubt you can even comprehend the meaning.”
When she replied, Catryn could not help but slip into the more formal tone she had been educated in. “You would do well to render yourself silent, merchant. Your wife requested you brought in, dead or alive.” She turned her dagger in her hand for emphasis. For the first time, she allowed a sinister note to creep into her voice and continued “As there is no difference in the price offered, it is down to you to convince me which is the easier option.”
After that, it was surprisingly easy to get back to the guild. Aside from dejected mutterings about cutthroats and mercenaries, Daxiel Haro had no fight left in him. His only plan for escape had fallen through, and it had not occurred to him to think of another. The lie Catryn had told about his wife and his bounty had also affected him more than she had expected.
Even if the reputation of Wolf did not precede them, Haro did not know how to talk to the people of the slums. Those he tried to address would sooner kick him into the dirt and rob him than accept his bribes. After one threw a rock, which Catryn did not try to catch, he gave up. By the time they reached the nearest path to the Outer City, she was almost dragging him. Not because he was struggling against her, but because he no longer had the will to keep moving.
“You may have sullied your name, but your clan deserve better. I was under the impression that the merchants cared about reputations and appearances.” Catryn said, feigning indifference. But she knew that level of despair and, for a moment, she pitied him.
Obviously disgusted, he hissed “Do not presume to speak to me as an equal. I have not yet sunk low enough to need reassurances from a common thug.”
His words renewed her desire to throttle the man, but at least he was moving under his own steam once again. Strutting like a peacock, with his head held high and his arms tightly pinned to his back. They approached the Steel Quarter, where most of the mercenaries and warriors went about their days. The smell of coal and hot metal permeated the streets, and the sound of striking hammers kept the rhythm of the district.
Haro’s eyes lit with ambition at the sight of so many soldiers of fortune. This would be the most dangerous stretch of the journey, Catryn knew, but she did not falter. The Undercity knew her best, due to her humble beginnings in the city. But stories travelled far in Mar K’shinta, and she had once been part of the strongest guild in the Outer City: Iron and Bone. Ahren’s guild.
To her great surprise, and relief, she only had to cut down one ambitious mercenary on the way through. After that, the others went back to their individual businesses and paid them no mind. Haro had been easy enough to catch up with as well, and nearly as purple as his pointed boots. To add to her luck, he had been running ‘away’ towards their destination.
Trepidation burdened her steps as the tavern came into view. It shared the name of the guild it housed, and Catryn had seen it many times. Until a few short moons ago, she had spent most of her days and nights inside.
She did not pause to admire the bone carvings hung outside, or the way the wooden beams had been designed to look like iron bars. She did not feel her heart swell with pride at the guild symbol hanging above the door. The symbol that had once emblazoned her jerkin, and her cloak. Instead, she felt a pang of homesickness that she had thought she had left behind when she first stood at Ahren’s side.
With no need for flair, Catryn escorted Haro into the tavern quietly. But all eyes still turned to her as she entered, and the general murmur ceased. The sun had begun to set, painting the front of the inn with crimson light. She would not be welcome inside for much longer. Tightening her grip, she approached the bar without a word.
“Iron and Bone.” A gruff voice came from out of sight behind the bar, and the Kaczedar stepped up onto his footstool with a grimace. Maco was always the same; his wild hair and wide eyes spoke of his true nature, but at the front of the shop he had to be tough. Truth be told, he was energetic and almost childlike in his own time.
Catryn pulled up her mask and smiled, and Maco’s whiskery beard twitched with the effort not to return her grin. He was probably one of the people in the guild she missed most. With some hesitation, she sighed, and replied “Steel and stone.”
He nodded with approval and squinted sternly at the painted dandy trying to sidle away. Catryn had no need to hold onto him anymore, now that they were on guild grounds. She had gotten him through the door, so no one else could claim the bounty. Leaning in, he croaked “He didn’t give you too much trouble, I hope.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.” Catryn shrugged without bravado; boasting was not in her nature.
“Apparently so.” Maco continued to squint at Haro, wheezing “Not a scratch?”
“As requested.” She replied quietly, reaching over to pull Maco’s goggles from his head onto his face. He nodded gratefully at her and continued to inspect the merchant. Catryn ignored the enraged look on her quarry’s face as he realised her deception and waited patiently.
Several moments passed before Maco reached under the counter and pulled out a bag of coins. With a brief nod, Catryn weighed it in her hand and glanced inside. From what she could tell, it was all there. But she did not want to wait around long enough to count it out properly. Maco had never tried to deceive her or underpay her before.
Ahren would not approve, she thought to herself. Glancing nervously towards the window, she remembered the dying light with a sigh. “Time to go.” She murmured aloud.
Maco glanced at her, a hint of sorrow in his glassy blue eyes, and hopped down. He hobbled around the bar and grabbed Haro’s bound arms with his vice-like grip. The merchant yelped, with pain and surprise, and looked positively horrified as he was dragged away by the gnome.
Suppressing a slight giggle, Catryn slipped the coin purse into her satchel and moved towards the door with her head down. Until a voice she knew all too well stopped her in her tracks.
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