For the first time in over a month, Catryn woke to bells. Not the crystal clear chimes of midnight, which only served the nobles in the clouds. But the deep heavy gong, telling the workers it would soon be sunrise. Blearily opening her eyes, her senses honed in on the heartbeat thrumming beneath her hand. A heavy arm was slung over her, a comforting weight she had long forgotten.
Through hazy eyes, Catryn looked up at Ric’s sleeping face. His other arm was her pillow, tucking her close to his body. Just a breath away. Like her, he was usually a light sleeper. But they both seemed to forget that when they were together. Sleep beckoned her back to its embrace, but she resisted with an ache in her heart.
With trembling fingers, she reached out to caress the line of his jaw. His stubble prickled her fingers slightly, and a tender smile pulled at her lips. Ric’s face turned instinctively into her hand and she allowed herself a shuddering sigh as his lips brushed against her fingers. This was a mistake.
“I was certain you would be gone by now.” He murmured, and the husky quality to his deep voice sent a tremor straight through her.
“I should have been.” She admitted, reluctantly. Despite her best intentions, her fingers still traced the contours of his lips longingly.
His eyes opened slowly, a flash of silver peeping through lids still heavy with sleep. “Then why are you still here?”
Her lips trembled as she whispered, “I’m weak.”
Ahren slowly moved his arm from her waist to brush her cheek. Unlike her, he was completely steady. In the low light around them, his eyes were glowing, drawing her in. He gently tilted her face up when she half-heartedly shrank away and insisted “This is not weakness.”
“If I were stronger, I would put a stop to this.” She murmured, but she savoured the heat of his hands touching her skin. How long had it been since they had been so close?
Echoing her thoughts, Ahren sighed “Do you remember the last time you let me this close to you?”
“It was the last job we did together.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and cast her gaze down to his chest. “I died.”
“No.” Ahren’s hand stilled on her cheek, and his quiet voice hummed powerfully. “I have played that bounty over in my mind a hundred times. I thought I lost you, but you kept fighting. You came back to me.” He faltered, and his eyes scanned her face, searching. “And then you walked away.”
Catryn flinched at the memory. Leaving the guild had been the hardest thing she had ever done. It had been the only place she had been able to call home since fleeing Beystone with the twins, with their family burning behind them. Aeric Ahren was so much more to her than just her Captain. If things were different, if she were different…
Looking back at him, she did not see his eyes of molten steel. Instead of his masculine features, she saw a boyish face, eyes wide and pleading. Blood splattering. Her dagger at his throat. It wasn’t her first kill by a long shot. But it was the first time she realised no one was safe from her, if they could pose a threat to her family. As a mercenary, a bounty hunter, Ahren was a threat.
“I need to pick up some supplies.” She said suddenly, rolling away from him to hide the regret in her eyes. She needed to leave. She couldn’t trust herself alone with him; every fibre of her soul was screaming out for him. She belonged with him. But it was too dangerous. If she could kill her best friend, her first kiss, then even her first love would not be safe from her.
Behind her, Ahren sat up slowly and placed his hand over hers, murmuring “You don’t need to run from me, Catryn.”
She closed her eyes, feeling the tears spill onto her cheeks. How many more times must she find the strength to walk away, when all she wanted was to be with him? She stayed there, soaking up as much warmth from his hand as she could stand, far longer than she should. The hint of sunlight on the horizon reminded her that time was not her friend, and she pulled away. “It’s safer this way. For both of us.”
With her mask firmly fixed back on her face, she risked one last look back at Ahren. His faint smile as she climbed out through the window told her it was a mistake. But she drank him in just the same. Dishevelled, hair tousled from sleep, he rarely looked sexier. Catryn shook herself and clambered carefully to the ground, cautious to stay quiet.
The scent of the sunrise was prominent in the air, like a summer breeze, and Catryn picked up her pace. She didn’t have much time before they were expected at the Gatekeeper’s temple. Hunkering low to the ground, she rushed through the streets towards the Inner City gate. The evening’s rest had relieved her exhaustion immensely, but her legs were still unsteady. Luckily, she didn’t have far to travel.
The Dragon’s Nook had an intricately carved door, featuring a dragon’s tail curling from the entrance of a cave. The sign was nailed to the top of the door, with curved lettering at which most in the Outer City would turn up their noses. Yet the trinket shop thrived, primarily due to its attractive owner.
Ninian was the only woman in the city more exotic that Arabella, though the two women could not be more different. With hints of powder blue scales, matched by her eyes and hair, her Wreika heritage was evident. Somewhere in her lineage was a blue wyvern, a fearsome and mystical creature, the likes of which was rarely seen in the current age. With her pale skin, fair as snow, and nails shaped into talons, Ninian looked ethereal and dangerous. It was no surprise that Arabella had tried on numerous occasions to recruit the mysterious beauty.
“I thought I might see you this morning.” If mist had a voice, it was Ninian’s.
“If you can call it that.” It did not surprise her to find the shop open, and Ninian waiting for her. On the counter were several items, arranged and waiting for her. The enigmatic proprietor always had an uncanny knack of knowing what was going on in the city.
Time was short, so Catryn inspected the counter to see what Ninian had picked out for her. She had been visiting the Dragon’s Nook long enough to know that the Wreika was seldom wrong. She was also particular about her patrons, and few were privy to the true nature of the shop. Even so, Catryn was confused by some of the items laid out before her.
A set of four silver batons, etched with strange runes Catryn had never seen, drew her in immediately. One was the length of an arming sword, where the others matched her long knives. If she had given the situation any thought, she might have been concerned that her daggers would do little against any skeletal remains. The thought of shattering bones did not appeal to her, but she could not argue that it may prove to be necessary. Convenient sheaths of fine leather lay beside each weapon.
“You, my dear, are a mess. You are in no condition for this.” Ninian appeared at her side, clucking her tongue sympathetically. She held out a small vial of shimmering scarlet liquid. “Here. This tonic should help you to recover your…strength.”
Catryn suppressed her sigh; Ninian was right, of course. She took the concoction quickly, holding her nose, but was pleasantly surprised at the subtly sweet taste. Warmth suffused her limbs, sweeping over her like wildfire coursing through her veins.
“Thank you.” She said sincerely, but her attempted smile faltered as she saw a satchel with various vials neatly arranged inside. “I am not sure this is all necessary.”
“The dead are in different stages of decomposition. It would be best not to let their diseased flash touch your skin. The coat and gloves will help you with this. As will the poultices and potions, if they fail.” Catryn felt the waxy material of the coat again, at Ninian’s urging, and nodded uncertainly. It had not occurred to her that flesh would rot and decay.
Continuing along the line of items, the shorter woman pointed to the fabric masks. “You will find pools of miasma. Poisonous air you should not breathe. Your mask is decorative; it will not suffice. These have been soaked in a concoction to protect from the deadly air. More of the liquid is in this pouch, among other items you will find useful.”
“I am certain I need not explain the worth of silver, holy water, and talismans of the Gatekeeper?” She added, tartly.
Catryn sighed, waving her hand in defeat. Preparing herself for the worst, she asked “How much will this cost me?”
It was not difficult to pick up on the concern in her voice, and Ninian smiled kindly. “I have never steered you ill, and I do not intend for that to change. You may return what you do not use, or no longer require. We will find a suitable price for the rest when your job is complete.”
“You always were good at avoiding that question.” Catryn murmured. She reached for the items and was rewarded with a smile, revealing Ninian’s pearly fangs.
“The list of the inventory I have provided you is in the bag. The vials are labelled, to avoid confusion. There is a separate pouch with ritual components, just in case.” Ninian explained, as Catryn pulled on the heavy canvas coat. Despite the situation, she couldn’t help but admire the fit. It could have been made for her. The fabric mask hung around her neck, and she hooked the batons onto her belt before pulling the leather gloves on. It was stuffy under all the material, but she knew it was better than the alternative.
Her hand trembled as Catryn reached for one of the talismans. Instead of putting it over her head to join her amulets, she carefully fastened it around her wrist, slipping it just inside the cuffs of her gloves. She avoided letting the symbol touch her skin, not that it would make a difference. A strange buzzing surrounded her, distorting her senses for a slow heartbeat, and she felt him. Ninian watched her curiously as she broke out in a sweat, her skin suddenly as pale as the Wreika woman’s.
Instead of tearing the talisman off and throwing it across the room, Catryn growled and snapped her mask down over her face. There was no time for her to break down. If she couldn’t handle the talisman, there was no way she could step into his temple. It was time to stop running, if only for a day. Without another word, Wolf stepped out into the rain and sprinted to the Bone Quarter.
A wet, earthy scent permeated the air. Even the Iron Quarter was almost fresh when the rain washed through the streets. Wolf focused on silencing her pattering footsteps as she ran. She honed her senses to trace the paths of the raindrops. Anything to distract herself from her destination.
Far too soon, Wolf skidded to a halt at Ahren’s side in front of the temple gates. He immediately held out his hand to Kihyun, one of the mercenaries of Iron and Bone. The leaner man tossed a silver coin into Ahren’s palm with a shrug. Clearly, he still insisted on betting on everything. Ignoring the exchange, Catryn turned to Ahren and thrust a small sack of items into his chest.
He lifted his own mask, which depicted a bear, from his face to inspect the contents. His expression was unreadable as ever until he quirked an eyebrow at her “Where did you get all this on such short notice?”
“You’re not the only one with contacts.” She replied enigmatically. She had already removed the items she needed, so she scanned the groups assembling around them. She was curious to see a small contingent of Iron Marauders; most of their work was in soldiering abroad. It was a surprise that there were still capable members left in the city. They were easily recognisable by their uniform grey armour and the simple cross embossed on their chests.
The Iron Marauders had a fair reputation, at least. They worked outside the city, but they brought the wealth back in to benefit Mar K’shinta. The Black Fang, however, had a more dubious history. They were more typical of lawless mercenaries. Iron and Bone turned down some bounties if they weren’t in the best interests of the city, or the guild. The Black Fang had no such scruples.
With a sour expression, thankfully hidden by her mask, Catryn looked back past Ahren. Kihyun stood quietly, and she followed his gaze to the gate she had been desperately trying to ignore. The towering bleached archway was as old as the city itself, and it cut a striking figure against the mountainous backdrop.
As the talisman at her wrist hummed, she dropped her eyes once more. Her eyes fell on a wiry man with dark hair and a face like a weasel, and she sighed. Looking up at the Captain, she muttered “Really? Tomas?”
He cleared his throat, pulling his mask down a moment too late to hide his smile. Lowering his voice, he muttered “Varrien said no.”
Many of the guild members would follow his lead; if Varrien passed up a job, it was because it wasn’t worth the coin. Tomas was still desperate to prove himself, so he took any chance sent his way. Still, she wrinkled her nose and stepped back to watch Ahren distribute the items she had brought for them.
It did not surprise her that Ahren was already geared up in similar attire to her own. His scent had lingered with her distractingly ever since she had left his side. It was as though even her magic rejected the idea of parting with him. Before she could dwell too deeply on her traitorous instincts, the grey gate began to open.
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