The Steel Quarter was the safest part of the Outer City, if you could walk the walk. Thieves and thugs knew to avoid it, but the mercenaries were always out for one thing: gold. Any sign of weakness would be exploited, sooner or later. Wolf fought to keep her shoulders back and her head high, but her mask was the only thing keeping her safe from the increasingly suspicious glances.
Murmurs and whispers followed her. Paranoid, she tuned into every hushed dialogue and rowdy banter. She always struggled to put her guards back up after overextending her capabilities, which meant she was bombarded by scents and sensations from all sides. Her feet knew the way to Iron and Bone, leading her where her clouded eyes could not.
Instead of entering the tavern, she skirted around the building towards where she knew the meeting room was. Smoke and steel drew her, threads of gold and silver dancing in what was left of her vision, leading the way. She murmured a prayer of thanks to whichever gods were listening that there were no mercenaries in the alley. She no longer had the strength to keep up any kind of façade.
Slumping at the ground, far beneath the window, Catryn could hear Jared’s low rumble of concern. “She should be here by now. Something must have happened.”
“You worry too much, old man. She can take care of herself.”
“Then why are you the one pacing?”
Catryn could feel his scowl as Ahren sighed “I’ll find her.”
Taking a deep breath, Catryn grabbed a stone from the ground and tossed it up to the window. She gathered the dregs of strength she had left and followed the stone, scrambling up the side of the building. As she had hoped, Ahren was reaching his hand down to help her inside by the time she reached the second floor.
Ahren moved aside as she tumbled through the window. Her senses were bombarded by the essences of the men, of smoke and steel, silver and gold. The roaring in her ears grew until all else was pushed aside. Ahren knelt beside her when she remained on the floor, and his presence was the comforting stillness she needed to gain her bearings.
The moment fingers closed around her hand, the world went silent once more and the pressure lifted. Clarity came to her vision. With the sudden change, she gasped a breath of air and wondered when she had stopped breathing. A rough hand remained around hers, anchoring her. Looking up, Catryn was not surprised to see Ahren and Jared at her sides.
“You still in there, wildcat?” Ahren asked gently.
Jared’s features were lined with concern, but still he opened with “Remove that preposterous mask and let me take a look at you.”
Catryn smiled in spite of her pounding head. Jared never changed. Every time he saw her in her “uniform”, he called her ridiculous and told her to focus more on her work than her clothing. She slowly unfastened the mask, wondering absentmindedly why her limbs were so reluctant to obey her, and dropped it to the ground in front of her.
“By the Judge, what have you been doing, girl?”
“You should see the other guys.” She joked weakly, shooting him a smile. His glower softened briefly, and he stepped back to the table, muttering to himself.
Ahren remained at her side and murmured “It doesn’t look very comfortable down there. Do you mind if I pick you up, little one?”
“I can walk.” She muttered, fighting with her leg muscles in an attempt to get to her feet. When they would not respond to her sluggish demands, she said sheepishly “On second thoughts, I like it here.”
Leaning in, much too close for her comfort, Ahren whispered “It wouldn’t be the first time I carried you to my bed, Catryn.”
Flushing bright red, she groaned “You can’t say things like that.” There had been nothing untoward about any of those instances, but her heart could not handle his seductive tone. Whenever she had pushed herself too hard, she always seemed to end up collapsing at his door. He would laugh, calling her reckless, but he would always end up scooping her up into his arms. He had once said the only way to make sure she took the rest she needed was by watching over her himself.
As he lifted her, Catryn allowed herself a moment of weakness to bury her face in his chest. “The table is fine. You know I cannot stay past sunset.”
“Aeric Ahren, if you think your ludicrous rules are going to kick my girl out onto the street, you will answer to me.” For an older man, Jared was still surprisingly muscular. He had lost none of his tenacity since retiring from the City Guard. If anything, the additional time on his hands only led to more extensive training. It was a rare man that could stand against him without flinching.
“With respect, Jared, I am more concerned about answering to her. Besides, I would not be able to make Catryn leave any more than I could convince her to stay.” He looked down at her, still in his arms, and grinned “Wolf makes her own decisions.”
Looking her over once more, Jared pursed his lips and said sarcastically “I can see that.”
Sliding out of Ahren’s arms, she perched carefully on the edge of the chair. “I am certain that you did not call me here to discuss my poor decision making.” Catryn wiped her eyes, and her fingers came away smudged with red. She did not need the metallic smell to know that this was blood. Clenching her jaw, she looked up at Jared expectantly.
“I have a request. A job.” He spared Ahren a glance as he took the third seat at the table, waiting patiently for him to settle. With a sigh, Jared shrugged “It requires careful handling, but I suppose I shall have to entrust it to the two of you instead.”
Ahren was still watching Catryn carefully, but he smiled wryly at that. “Hilarious, as always.”
“I try. This, however, is no laughing matter.” Jared stood and moved around the table, kneeling in front of her to make sure she was lucid enough to understand what he was saying. He seemed satisfied enough with her condition to continue. “The contract will go to the guild, but I must pass along the request that you are included in the roster on this occasion.”
Feeling the tension he barely concealed, Catryn took a deep breath to steady herself and met his gaze. “Go on.”
“The dead are rising in the catacombs.”
Silence met his words. Whatever they had been expecting, that was not it. The dead did not simply rise, especially in a place sacred to The Gatekeeper himself. Catryn stole a glance at Ahren, trying to read his ever-inscrutable expression, but gleaned nothing.
Clearing his throat, Ahren asked sharply “What, exactly, do you expect us to do about that?”
“Escort the priests while they consecrate the area.” He replied quietly. A man as seasoned as Jared could be shaken by very little. Catryn wondered how he could keep his composure, when she could feel his fear beating at her. “Their rituals require time and concentration, or so I am told. It is a simple matter of keeping them alive.”
“Simple. But not easy.”
Jared managed to roll his eyes at that. “There is no need to haggle, Ahren. You will be paid handsomely, provided the task is completed.”
“Why me?” Catryn asked quietly. Keeping her eyes on the table in front of her, she schooled the dread out of her voice, continuing “Why specifically request me for this?”
“You would have to ask the High Priest.” Jared replied. “The job came directly from him, as did the request that ‘the mercenary with the face of a wolf’ accompany them. It seems your reputation precedes you, my girl.”
Ahren was watching her as closely as always, but he showed no sign if he noticed her fear. With a wry smile, he said “You have made a name for yourself. We get requests for you more often than I care to admit.”
“Strange this is the first I am hearing of that.” She muttered, irritably.
He replied with a wry smile, “Strange that I would give work away instead of keeping it for the guild I am responsible for.”
She was saved from having to conjure a response when there was a knock at the door. Catryn jumped, earning her a concerned look from Ahren. Even if he didn’t know about her particular abilities, it was strange she hadn’t sensed anyone approaching. Things rarely startled her.
Maco entered with a tray of steaming tea, laden with three cups and a selection of food. His keen eyes flashed with lightning, taking it her dishevelled appearance, but he said nothing. Glaring at Ahren, he simply backed out of the room silently.
Ahren raised his eyebrow and grinned at Cat, indicating to the closed door. “There’s another man who will be after my head if anything happens to you.”
“That sounds like your problem, not mine.” She managed a smile, and turned her attention back to Jared.
“I should tell you, you are not the only guild they are approaching. Each of you can bring up to five of your best, to escort and protect the priests.” He hesitated, looking sympathetically at her again. “Catryn, you have been requested. However, if you are not fit for the job, no one is forcing you to take it.”
She longed more than anything to take him up on that. The last thing she wanted to do after so narrowly escaping meeting the Gatekeeper in person was go into his domain. It had been scarcely two months, but the scars still ached. Not to mention the uncomfortable pull, which still came back to her in her nightmares. Yet she found herself saying “No, I will take the job.”
She told herself it was because she needed the money, and because Jared had asked. It was true that she had never turned down a request he had made of her. But she would be lying if she said that fighting alongside Ric again had nothing to do with her decision. Besides, if there was one thing she could not do, it was take a step backwards.
“When do we begin?” She asked, projecting confidence she did not feel.
“At first light.”
At that, she faltered. “So soon?” There was no way she would be strong enough to get to her safehouse and back again by sunrise. Not if she wanted to recover enough to be of any use.
“We cannot leave the dead to roam, my dear. The priests were reluctant to delay until the morning.” Turning his attention to Ahren, he stated officially “If you have this in hand, I will take my leave.”
Ahren nodded, and stood to clasp his hand. Catryn waited quietly until Jared walked over to where she sat and murmured “It was good to see you again.”
“Next time, it will be under more pleasant circumstances.” He assured her, though they both knew that would not be the case. Touching her shoulder briefly, he turned on his heel and left Catryn alone with Ahren.
Fixing her with his molten steel gaze, Aeric muttered “You think you’re going to be able to scale the wall in your condition?”
She felt naked without her mask, but she knew he could read her either way. Lowering her face, she did her best to hide behind her hair. “Even if I wanted to stay here, I don’t exactly have a bed to fall into anymore.” She knew she had no chance of leaving the city, but that didn’t mean she had to stay there. She would be able to find some shelter, somewhere in the Undercity.
“Yes, you do.” His voice was quiet, but firm. Catryn was surprised to feel his hand tremble slightly as he drew the hair off her face. She hadn’t heard him move, but he was kneeling in front of her. “You can have my bed tonight. You’re going to be watching my back tomorrow. I need you at your best.”
Looking at him slowly, Catryn tried to muster some bravado but she couldn’t. Instead, she bit her lip and murmured “Where will you sleep?”
“You let me worry about that.” He insisted gently, keeping his expression neutral. “Can you make it to the bed?”
“I don’t know.” She admitted, feeling tears prickle in her eyes. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to cry, but it had been a long day.
Aeric’s mask finally cracked. “What have you done to yourself this time, kitten?” His calm expression gave way to something she could hardly name, and he gathered her into his arms. Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t help but breathe in his scent as he pulled her close to his chest. Her senses sparked to life, savouring the feel of him.
“If you sleep somewhere else…they’ll know something is wrong.” She realised, waiting uncertainly for his reaction.
“I certainly wouldn’t call you in my bed wrong” he replied, with a small teasing smile, “but I see your point. What would you suggest?”
Her face was still buried in his chest, but she didn’t dare look at him. “Stay with me.”
“It is the logical decision, if you want your presence to be unknown.” He suggested quietly, giving her every opportunity to shrink away from what she had said. It didn’t have to mean anything more than she wanted it to.
She should let him believe that she was making the smart, logical choice. Correcting him would only make it more difficult to distance herself. And she knew she had to distance herself. But she found herself whispering “I don’t feel right sleeping here without you.”
“That makes two of us, wildcat.” He murmured into her hair. “Come on, you need to rest.”
He lifted her effortlessly and carried her out of the room and down the hall. Snuggling into his chest, she insisted to herself that she would be stronger tomorrow. She could be weak, just for one night. Feeling safer than she had in two months, Catryn was asleep before they even reached his room.
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