Ducking under a horse, Lilae changed direction and made her way down a side alley in the vast market that sprawled across packed dirt in the open square on the western side of Ythis. She spotted Ilassa, who was carrying a bag over her shoulder as if the girl was on an errand for some adult. Lilae glanced behind her but didn’t see the man whose purse she had just lifted. She was pretty sure he hadn’t seen her, but it paid to be careful.
She made her way to the edge of the market square and leaped lightly down into a ditch that ran along one edge. Crouching down, she slipped into a culvert that disappeared under the roadway and found Jienda waiting for her. Lilae dumped out the contents of the pouch on the dry, dusty floor of the culvert, and let out a sigh of disappointment.
“Not much here,” whispered Jienda. She was a tiny girl with long, black hair who had seen perhaps seven summers and seemed incapable of speaking any louder than her current volume. Lilae put her arm around the girl.
“It’s something, and better than we started with this morning,” she said, gathering up the meager coins and dumping them in Jienda’s small pouch. She took the man’s small purse and flung it deeper into the culvert. It was foolish to wander around with stolen items in your possession.
“Did you see Ilassa?” Jienda asked.
“She’s trying her bag trick. I hope it works okay.”
Lilae made her way back out of the culvert and climbed up the side of the ditch. The early afternoon sun hammered down into the square and the air was full of the smell of animals, strange spices, and unwashed bodies and was nearly thick enough to chew. Lilae shaded her eyes with one hand and looked down the alleys that she could see from her vantage.
No sign of trouble.
She darted down one alley and emerged onto one of the larger thoroughfares that cut through the heart of the market district. Here was where the wealthier merchants had their stalls, selling more than just trinkets and cheap foodstuffs. Most of the men and women walking along this stretch had personal guards around them.
Lilae knew she stood out in such a crowd and would draw attention if she spent any time here. But she liked to take in a quick glance now and then, to marvel for a moment at some of the fascinating wares on display.
Today, though, a merchant’s guard spotted her as soon as she stepped around the corner of one of the stalls.
“Piss off, brat!” he growled at her and swung a boot at her head.
Lilae easily avoided the clumsy kick—the guard’s heart wasn’t really in it—and spun back the way she had come. A moment later, she spotted Azim, wandering like a little lost child through the market.
She guessed Azim was perhaps six or seven years old, and a natural when it came to stealing. He could play the lost little boy so well that most adults remained convinced of his innocence long after he had taken what he could and disappeared. He was a little too ambitious at times, though, and Lilae knew she had to keep an eye on him or he might get himself into a situation that was beyond his ability.
Lilae noticed a group of five men up ahead of Azim. The man in the center of the group was obviously a wealthy merchant of some sort, a man who would normally be seen on the main thoroughfares of the market district. The four other men around him were guards, professionals constantly scanning the crowds for any signs of trouble.
A glance at Azim and back to the men confirmed Lilae’s fears—the boy had selected this merchant as his next target. But those guards gave Lilae pause. Something about them, about the way they moved and watched the crowds around them, spelled trouble as far as she was concerned.
But before she could get Azim’s attention and warn him off, he was moving towards the five men.
“Uncle!” she heard him call. “Uncle Bejurru, it’s me!”
One of the guards turned and stepped in front of Azim, who tried to peer around the guard’s legs to see the man they were guarding. The merchant was a tall man, thin with long, black hair and a thick, black beard. His eyes glittered dangerously as he turned to face the disturbance behind him.
“Chamadar, step aside,” he said in a soft voice. The guard complied and the merchant stepped forward and looked down at Azim.
“Uncle, it’s me, it’s Azim.”
Lilae felt her jaw drop open. Azim was an orphan, like all the children in Lilae’s little group of pickpockets and thieves. He didn’t remember his family name and only knew that his parents had loved him, and that they were killed while traveling outside the city. How he ended up living on the streets was his secret, one that he had never wanted to share.
But apparently this obviously-wealthy merchant was his uncle. If that were true, maybe he would be brought back into his family. Maybe he could help out Lilae and the other children who had cared for him while he was homeless…
“Azim,” said the man, and smiled, but there was no joy in that smile. “I thought you dead along with your parents.”
Azim shook his head.
“I wasn’t with them when the accident happened. I was at home with my nanny.”
“Accident!” boomed the merchant and laughed heartily. “Is that what they told you?”
Something about this man bothered Lilae. He didn’t seem glad to see Azim. He just stood there, staring down at the little boy who was his nephew.
Azim didn’t know how to answer the merchant’s question and just waited, looking up at his uncle.
“Come, boy,” the merchant said at last. He knelt down and motioned Azim toward him. “Your appearance here surprised me, that’s all.”
He held out his arms and Azim ran into his embrace. Lilae wanted to scream to him not to go, to run away from this man, but it was too late. She moved along the side of the stalls until she was as close as she could get to this scene playing out in the middle of one of the market’s alleys—close enough to hear but not close enough to gain the attention of the guards.
“How did you end up on the streets, boy? Your nanny wouldn’t have let you go out alone.”
“She took me out into the city and then had me wait on a corner for her while she went into a shop,” Azim replied. “But she left the shop by the back and never came back to get me. I tried to get home, but I don’t know where it is. I made some friends, though, and they took care of me.”
A little thrill of fear crept down Lilae’s spine. If Azim spotted her among the other inhabitants of the market, he might point her out, call her over. The last thing she wanted was to be identified to this man.
“Amazing,” the merchant chuckled. “And here I thought you had died more than a year ago. I guess I’ll have to take care of you myself, now.”
The merchant looked up at the guard who had tried to stop Azim from seeing his uncle.
“Chamadar, your knife please.”
The guard stepped forward and drew his dagger, handing it hilt-first to the merchant.
Azim looked at the blade in his uncle’s fist, and then threw himself backward as the point of the blade thrust at his heart.
Azim rolled backward and came up on his feet as Bejurru lost his balance and had to put down a hand to steady himself. Chamadar grabbed at the boy, but Azim darted to one side and was then running into the crowd, dodging legs and sacks as he fled.
Chamadar and another guard were already chasing Azim as Bejurru bellowed for them to get the boy.
Lilae knew Azim wouldn’t lead the guards back to the culvert where Jienda waited—he was too smart for that. Instead, he would zigzag around the market square until he was sure the guards had lost sight of him. Then he would no doubt bolt for one of their hiding spaces in the buildings near the market district.
A rough hand grabbed Lilae’s arm and she was spun around to face the merchant. His eyes blazed with an unholy anger and his teeth were bared.
“Where is he going?” growled the man into her face.
“Who? I don’t—”
Bejurru slapped Lilae across the face but didn’t let go of her arm.
“Stupid child! Don’t lie to me—I can see the web between you. You’re connected, you and the boy. Tell me where he is going!”
Lilae’s face stung where he had slapped her, and his grip on her arm was painful.
“I don’t know!” she wailed, forcing her eyes to tear up. Anything to get this man to underestimate her. She reached her free hand up to the back of her neck and grabbed the small, slender blade that hung hidden there. Yanking it from its sheath, she jabbed it at the man’s face. But a gauntleted fist closed over her hand and stopped her thrust.
One of the remaining two guards had seen through her ruse and he casually plucked the blade from her fingers. As he let go of her hand, she snapped a kick up and caught the merchant between his legs.
His eyes bulged and his grip on her arm loosened just a bit, but it was enough for her to twist free. The guard grabbed for her hair, but she ducked and threw herself forward, rushing down a side alley in the opposite direction than the one taken by Azim.
She heard the man shout something at her in a language she didn’t understand, and her vision blurred, but she kept running and her eyesight cleared after a couple of seconds. The remaining guards did not chase her, keeping close to Bejurru the merchant.
Lilae made her way across the vast market and saw Nilay. He was walking in the opposite direction she had come, and she angled herself to intercept him. He saw her coming and gave her a small shake of his head, but she ignored the warning.
“Find a place to hide,” she hissed at him. “There’s trouble, and I think he’s some sort of magician.”
Nilay’s face went white under all the dirt.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“Just go to one of our hiding places. I’ll come around after and collect everyone.”
Nilay gave her a quick nod and changed direction, heading toward one of the exits from the market square.
Lilae sped off and considered her options. She figured it was best if she went to ground away from the others for a few hours. The man had said he could see the connection between her and Azim, and that meant magic. If he could track her somehow, she didn’t want to lead him to the others.
She continued on, leaving the market entirely and within a dozen minutes had slipped through the small opening at the base of a wall, into an abandoned cellar underneath a decrepit building owned by an old man who rented out the upper rooms to traveling merchants who came into Ythis from the lands surrounding the city.
For the next few hours, Lilae waited, listening intently for any sounds of pursuit. But no one came for her and by the time the sun was setting, she was ready to go meet the others. She slipped out through the hole and set off to make her rounds of the other hiding spots.
Luck was with her, and she found Ilassa and Jienda together at the first place she checked, an old stable attached to what had once been an inn but was now a tenement.
“What happened?” Ilassa asked when she saw Lilae. “Nilay came running up and told me to go hide, so I got Jienda out of the culvert. Is a magician really after us?”
Lilae looked at Ilassa’s wide-eyes and open mouth and realized the girl was frightened. She was close to Lilae’s age, but she was not nearly as wise to the ways of the city and could be rather naïve at times.
Lilae told them what she had seen in the market. Jienda started to weep silently when she heard about Azim’s uncle trying to stab him in the heart. Lilae put her arm around the small girl and gave her a hug.
“It’s going to be okay. You know Azim—it’s not like they could catch him once he got loose. I’m rounding up everyone now and we’ll figure out what to do.”
The three girls left the stables and made their way to the next hiding place, but it was empty. They found Nilay next, hiding in a sealed part of the sewers accessible through a small hole in the cellar of a low building.
Lilae began to worry, though she kept it from the others. There was only one place left to check, and if Azim wasn’t there it meant he might have been caught by the guards. She led her small gang through the streets of Ythis, and she had to force herself not to run ahead, knowing Jienda wouldn’t be able to keep up for long.
They reached their final hiding spot, in the basement of a tavern. They had to be most careful here, as the tavern keeper stored supplies in the basement and would come down here at least a couple of times each evening. They snuck in the back door that led to the kitchen and were down the stairs in a silent rush before the cook could spot them.
Lilae peered into the gloom, searching for Azim, but didn’t see him.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said from one dark corner, and stepped out of the shadows.
Lilae ran over to him and grabbed him into a tight hug. He held still for all of three seconds, and then began to squirm. She let him go and motioned the others to come near.
“Azim, was that man really your uncle?” she asked him.
He nodded solemnly.
“Bejurru Nayare. He’s a merchant, but I remember hearing that he was also some kind of seer or magician or something. My parents didn’t like him much.”
Lilae realized Azim hadn’t yet pieced together that his uncle was probably responsible for his parents’ death. She didn’t point this out to him—it would only make him feel worse.
“Can he find us?”
“I don’t know what he can do. He’s going to look for us for sure. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Azim. We’re going to get out of this, I promise.”
He nodded at her solemnly.
“What now?” Nilay asked. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” she retorted. “But we do need to get some food, and we need to lay low for a while. If Azim’s uncle can see things, he might be able to see us if we move around in daylight. And I’m sure he’ll have his guards out near the market tomorrow to look for us.”
“We could sneak some food from upstairs,” Nilay suggested. Lilae shook her head.
“No, never steal from the people who own the place where you hide. If they find you, they’ll usually just kick you out. But if they’ve been having things go missing for a while, it’ll be much worse if you get caught.”
She moved over the base of the stairs and listened. The cook continued to work alone in the kitchen.
“Let’s go,” she whispered to the others. “We’ll go back to one of our other hiding places and then Nilay and I can go find some food for everyone.”
She was just about to move up the stairs when she heard a voice.
“Where are they?”
It was a man’s voice, rough and threatening, coming from the door to the alley just beyond the top of the stairs.
“Get out of here!” the cook ordered the man. “Entrance is on the other side.”
Lilae heard the man move away from the door, toward the cook.
“I’m looking for a bunch of kids,” he said. “They’re in here somewhere. And you’re going to tell me where.”
“There isn’t no kids in here,” the cook replied, and Lilae could hear the fear in her voice. “We don’t let them in here.”
Lilae heard the man step farther into the kitchen and figured his back would be to the door. She motioned the others to keep quiet and follow her up the stairs.
Moving noiselessly, they reached the top of the stairs, and Lilae was about to dart out into the alley when another figure filled the doorway. She looked up into the face of one of the guards who had been with Bejurru Nayare today in the market.
He saw her at the same time she recognized him. There was no way through the door past him, and so she reacted instantly.
“Front!” she called back over her shoulder and darted into the kitchen.
The man who had been questioning the cook was another of Nayare’s guards, and he had cornered the cook in the back of the kitchen. Lilae bolted for the door leading to the common room of the tavern, the others right on her heels. The guard in the doorway shouted to his companion and gave chase.
Lilae shoved the door open and found herself in an overcrowded common room, with no easy way past all the bodies sitting and standing around. But she was thin and fast, and the four of them wove their way around—and in some cases under—the chairs and tables and patrons. The guard chasing them had no such skill, and was slowed down as he ploughed into the drinkers, who had little patience for such behavior.
A muscular man shoved the guard backward and blocked his way, not so much to help the children, Lilae thought, as much as it was retaliation for the guard spilling the man’s ale. She ducked around another patron and heard the bartender call out that children weren’t allowed in here.
She reached the door and yanked it open, looking back in time to see the guard rapidly strike the bar patron multiple times in the head, face, chest, and belly. The man sank to the ground, already unconscious, and the rest of the patrons suddenly decided they didn’t really feel like getting in the guard’s way.
“Run!” Lilae shouted, and her four companions followed her out into the night.
The next few hours were a nightmare for Lilae. No matter where they went, the guards showed up shortly after. Twice more they were nearly caught, as all four guards converged on their hiding places. But each time they managed to barely slip away.
Lilae slowly led them north through the city, knowing that if they went south to the dock area it would be easier for them to be cornered. She was concerned about Jienda, who was exhausted from running. Azim was wheezing, and Nilay was too frightened to complain about anything, a sure sign that he was barely holding on.
Eventually, they came around a corner and Lilae saw the large stone walls that surrounded the Forgotten City.
Filled with the graves of Ythis’ dead, the Forgotten City was a massively large cemetery that occupied the northwestern edge of the city. It contained elaborate and exquisitely-decorated mausoleums and tombs of the Ythis nobility and richest merchants, as well as the simpler graves of middle-class citizens, and even the unmarked paupers’ graves holding the bodies of the destitute dead.
Lilae shuddered to think about entering the Forgotten City at night, but they needed a rest and she figured the guards might be hesitant to enter it themselves. If Bejurru’s men could follow the children anywhere, they might wait until morning to enter the cemetery, which would mean at least a few hours of rest before needing to run again.
But she also thought of the stories of what moved among the graves in the darkness of night, and wasn’t sure it was a good idea to enter the Forgotten City. She had heard there were worse things than death, and she didn’t want to find out what they were.
Staying out here, however, almost guaranteed the guards would eventually catch them when Jienda and Azim were too tired to go on. They were almost at that point now, and Lilae didn’t know how much energy they had left.
“We’re going in,” she told them.
“In there?” Nilay asked, his voice trembling. “That’s worse than staying out here!”
“No, it’s not. Out here, the guards will catch us and then we’ll all be dead. But they might not follow us in there, and we all need rest and I need time to think.”
Nilay opened his mouth to protest but Lilae fixed him with a glare that told him she wasn’t going to put up with his complaints this time.
She motioned for Nilay to pick up Azim, and she lift Jienda into her arms.
“Stay close,” she said to Nilay and Ilassa in a low voice, and they both nodded to her, their eyes wide.
Lilae hurried to the stone wall that surrounded the Forgotten City, and gently placed Jienda down. She quickly scaled the rough surface of the wall and lay down across the top. Nilay boosted Azim up to her, and she helped him reach the top. Jienda was next, and then the others joined them.
Lilae looked out across the vast cemetery, mostly hidden in the night, the closer tombstones lighter smudges of grey in the empty darkness. She listened carefully for any sounds from this side of the wall, but could make nothing out.
“What if the guards follow us in here?” Nilay asked. “Where do we go then?”
“Then we keep running.”
He was obviously unsatisfied with her answer, but she pushed herself off the top of the wall and landed lightly in the tall grass at the base of stone barrier. Motioning to the others, Nilay and Ilassa helped Azim and Jienda lower themselves into Lilae’s waiting arms.
Lilae led them away from the wall, weaving among the tombstones, unsure of her direction in the dark. She wanted to put some distance between them and the street that ran along the outside of the Forgotten City. She hoped that the distance might make it harder for the guards to track them.
They had walked for perhaps a dozen minutes when Nilay whispered that he needed to stop and rest. He put Azim on the ground and leaned against a tombstone. Lilae looked around, but in the darkness she could see no more than twenty paces in any direction.
She felt Azim’s small hand grasp hers.
“I’m sorry, Lilae. This is all my fault.”
She crouched in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders.
“This isn’t your fault, Azim. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know I should have just run,” he continued in a small voice, “But I couldn’t help myself.”
Lilae’s could feel her insides shrink.
“Couldn’t help yourself do what?” she asked him.
He reached into his trousers and pulled out a small pouch.
“I took this from him when he hugged me. I did it without thinking!”
Lilae took the pouch out of his hand and gave it a small shake. It didn’t make any clinking noises. She opened the pouch and found a small wooden box inside.
“What is it?” she asked.
Azim shrugged again.
She pulled the box out and held it in her palm. There was a small hinge on one side, and it seems as if the top half of the box could lift up from the bottom. She tried to open it, but was unable to pry the two halves apart. There was no locking mechanism that she could see, no place for a key.
She dumped the box back in the pouch and handed it back to Azim.
“Could your uncle be tracking us through this?”
He shrugged, and she had the urge to scream at him. Why hadn’t he told her about this earlier? They could have dumped it off somewhere and Bejurru Nayare would never have found them.
Lilae considered flinging it away into the darkness and them leading the others in the opposite direction. But as she straightened, she heard something close by. She motioned the others to crouch in the shadows of a tall, stone monument to some wealthy scion from years past. Everyone went still and hardly dared to breath.
The sound of a young girl’s weeping came to Lilae’s ears, and she looked at Jienda in alarm, but it wasn’t her young companion making the noise.
“Who is that?” Nilay whispered. Lilae motioned for him to be silent.
She slowly crept around the side of the monument and scanned the darkness. The source of the sound was close, perhaps a row or two in front of her. It was child’s voice, quietly weeping in the darkness.
What is a child doing out here at night? she asked herself, but then realized that she was in the same situation.
Lilae raised herself to full height and stepped forward. In the darkness, she could just make out a small figure seated on the ground in front of a tombstone, head bowed. The child—for that’s what Lilae assumed it must be—was obviously female, and her long, dark hair hung down around her face.
Lilae took another step closer.
“Hello?” she whispered, not sure if she was more concerned with not frightening this lone child or gaining the attention of whatever else might stalk the grounds of the Forbidden City in the darkness.
The child turned her head slightly, and sniffed a couple of times.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl said quietly.
“Are you okay?” Lilae asked her. The girl shrugged, still not raising her head.
“I…I miss my mother. And I’m very hungry.”
Lilae had not been able to bring any food with her on their panicked run through the city.
“Are you alone?” she asked the girl.
“Mostly,” the girl answered. “They don’t like to have me around.”
A cold ball of dread was growing in Lilae’s belly as the girl continued to talk. Nothing about this was right—and her answers were not reassuring in any way. She took a step back, but the girl spoke again.
“You’re not alone, are you? There are others with you.”
The girl raised her head and turned to Lilae. In the darkness, her eyes stood out as dull red points of light as she crawled to her feet.
“I can smell them. I’m so very hungry.”
Lilae’s first impulse was to flee, in a direction away from the others so that she didn’t lead this creature back to them. But on the heels of that thought came the realization that if she ran off, the girl would simply go after the other children.
“Please,” she whispered, unable to find her voice. “Please don’t.”
The girl shuffled forward and Lilae tried to back away, but her feet didn’t seem to be cooperating.
“The others don’t share. I can’t dig up the bodies. I’m not strong enough, and the others won’t let me have any of theirs.”
Lilae regained control of her limbs and moved to put a headstone between her and the girl.
“I just need one. A fresh one will take care of me for a long time, longer than the dead bodies. Just give me one and I’ll leave the rest of you alone.”
Lilae had no words to say to this request. She shook her head and continued to move, keeping the tombstone between them.
“I can’t let you have them,” she told the girl. “I take care of them, and they’re just children.”
“I was just a child,” the girl replied. “My name was Heka. They weren’t supposed to make me one of them, but the one who got me made a mistake. I think it would have been better if I died.”
Heka slowly moved around the side of the tombstone, obviously trying to get a clear line between herself and Lilae.
“Please, just give me one. I’m so very, very hungry.”
As Lilae tried to find something to say, the girl launched herself forward with a surprising speed. Lilae threw herself sideways, but Heka managed to grab hold of her left wrist, and she went sprawling. In an instant, the girl leaped on Lilae’s chest, driving the air from her lungs.
She saw Heka’s teeth were long and jagged, and the red eyes bored into her skull when she looked into them. Lilae fought and scrambled to get loose, but the girl held on and opened her mouth, the jaws distending to allow the teeth to pull apart.
Lilae’s hand grasped at the ground, trying to pull herself from underneath this creature. Her knuckles smacked off something hard, and she grabbed it and swung it up at Heka’s head.
The chunk of broken tombstone in her hand connected with the side of the girl’s skull and drove her sideways. Lilae rolled away and sprang to her feet, ready to run. But Heka curled up into a ball, clutching the side of her head. She let out a loud cry but didn’t make any further move.
Lilae spun and ran for the others. In a moment she was among them. She grabbed Jienda and clutched her in her arms.
“We have to run!” she cried to the others. Nilay just stood here, his mouth open. Ilassa grabbed Azim and hefted him up.
“Come on!” Lilae cried to Nilay, but his eyes only went wider and focused over Lilae’s shoulder.
She spun around to find herself face-to-face with what had once been a human man. His emaciated body was barely covered by torn and ragged remnants of clothing. He stood before her, his shoulders hunched and arms hanging down at his sides. The man’s eyes glowed with the same dull red as the girl’s, and his mouth sported the same jagged teeth.
And behind him, Lilae could see two more figures standing among the tombstones.
Ilassa screamed and Lilae turned to see a fourth figure appear from out of the darkness.
They surrounded the children and there was nowhere left to run.
* * *
Relust walked up and handed the small glass globe back to Chamadar. He looked at it in the palm of his hand. It was filled with a silver-colored liquid, and an iron nail floated in the center, spinning slowly.
Yesterday, it has pointed unerringly toward the location of the pouch that had been stolen from Master Nayare. It had enabled the men to follow the children across half the city. They were a crafty lot, and he had to admit he had been impressed with their ability to evade capture over and over as he pursued them late into the night.
And then, without warning, the nail inside the glass ball had simply stopped working.
He had ordered the men to spread out and see if they could spot any movement in the streets around them. For a moment, he considered that the children were in the sewers, right under his feet. But no matter which direction he walked, the nail continued to slowly spin in circles.
“He’s rather unhappy,” Relust told them. Chamadar sighed.
“He should never have allowed the boy near him,” he replied. “I would have done the little bastard with a quick swipe and that’s it. Instead we have this.”
He gestured at the city around them in the knowledge that any further search was futile. Those children knew the streets better than anyone, and they would lie low for a long time after last night.
“So now what?” asked Siqat. His left hand was fidgeting with the pommel of his sword, a habit that Chamadar found distracting and annoying.
“He had a few choice words for us,” Relust replied. “I think it’s best if we stay out of his sight today. He’s not going anywhere, no visitors, so the other team can stay with him for the next few hours.”
“We’re going to keep looking,” Chamadar said.
“You and Siqat, head back up the northern part of the city where we lost them last night. Wukau and I will go back to the hiding spots we found. Maybe one of them will get stupid.”
Chamadar sighed again and saluted the other men, and then turned and started walking. Siqat followed behind, thankfully silent.
The two men spent the day walking the streets just south of the Forgotten City. More than once, Chamadar wondered if the children had gone into the cemetery to hide. He knew nothing about magic, but he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that such a place might interfere with Master Nayare’s little glass globe.
If he was being honest with himself, he was glad the nail hadn’t pointed into the Forgotten City. It was not a place he would have wanted to enter at night, and he was a fully armed and trained warrior. He couldn’t imagine the children deciding to hide in there, but the desperate sometimes make strange and unexpected choices.
By evening, as the sun was setting, they had walked the streets too many times to count, and Chamadar was about ready to give up.
“It’s time to head back,” he told Siqat.
“Maybe the others already found the brats and recovered the pouch.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it. We’re going to be paying for this one for a long time.”
He pulled the glass globe out one last time and looked down at it. The nail continued its slow spin.
And then it stopped.
He blinked at it a few times. He turned slightly, but the nail spun to remain pointing in the same direction. Siqat was staring off down the street in the opposite direction and didn’t notice what had happened.
“It’s working,” he said, and the other man looked back and swore. But he wasn’t staring at the globe. He was looking past Chamadar down the street in the direction of the nail.
Chamadar looked up to see a girl hurrying down the street toward them. It was the same one that had kicked Bejurru Nayare in the groin yesterday. Now she was here, right out in the open.
He motioned to Siqat, but the other man was already moving to the other side of the street in case the girl changed direction, but she didn’t appear to have noticed the two men yet.
Chamadar put away the globe and drew his knife. He was looking forward to using it on the girl once she told them where the boy was hiding. He’d end her life, find and kill the boy, and then return the pouch to Master Nayare.
It would all turn out okay after all.
He was moving forward when the girl looked up and they locked eyes. For just an instant, the girl looked like she was going to panic. But then she spun and raced for the stone wall bordering the Forgotten City. Chamadar threw himself into a run, and Siqat followed suit on the other side of the street.
But the girl practically ran up the side of the wall and was over the top just as Chamadar reached spot where she had ascended. He leaped up and grabbed the top of the wall and began to pull himself up.
“It’s almost dark,” Siqat shouted, but Chamadar wasn’t going to let her get away again.
“Come on!” he shouted back and heard Siqat scrabbling at the wall as he rolled across the top and dropped to the ground on the other side. He spotted the girl running through the tombstones and took off after her.
He could hear Siqat following behind as he leaped over the low tombstones and dodged around the larger ones. The girl was fast, but Chamadar was gaining on her and would shortly catch her up.
She suddenly changed direction and headed toward a mausoleum at the top of a low rise. Chamadar worried that she had some way inside, perhaps too small for him to follow. He pushed himself to catch her before she reached the stone building.
But weighed down with his weapons and armor, he slowed as they went up the rise, and she reached the large stone door that was inset a couple of paces into the wall a moment before he reached the top of the slope. She shoved on the door, and Chamadar saw that it didn’t appear to be moving.
He heard her cry out and look back over her shoulder. He had her trapped, and she knew it. The door didn’t budge at her push.
Siqat reached the top of the rise and stood a few paces back from Chamadar in case the girl tried to get past him.
“Wait!” a voice shouted, and Chamadar looked to see the boy standing at the corner of the mausoleum, nearly hidden in shadows from the descending darkness. The boy held up one hand, and something small dangled from it.
“Is this what you want?”
It was the pouch. Chamadar motioned for Siqat to go after the boy while he blocked the girl’s escape. His companion drew a knife and walked toward the boy, who surprisingly stood his ground.
Chamadar glanced at the girl, who no longer looked frightened. Instead, she watched him with a grim expression.
Something’s not right here.
The thought came to him an instant before Siqat reached the corner where the boy stood. He reached out to grab the boy’s arm, and a large figure leaped out from around the corner and hammered into Siqat’s chest, driving him down onto his back.
In the darkness, Chamadar could only tell that the attacker was man-sized, and Siqat gasped as the figure landed on his chest and drove the air from his lungs. He stabbed the man in the side, but it didn’t seem to have any effect.
And then the man leaned down and bit Siqat’s throat. There was a tearing sound, and then liquid noises as Siqat thrashed underneath the figure.
All this took only a couple of seconds while Chamadar dropped his knife and drew his sword. His mind registered that this must a ghoul or some other creature that feasted on the living. He no longer cared about the boy, the girl, or the pouch. His single overriding goal at this point was escape the Forgotten City alive.
Leaving Siqat to his gruesome fate, Chamadar spun and raced back down the rise toward the lines of tombstones below. He reached the bottom and swerved around a large stone statue, hoping he was taking the fastest route back to the outer wall.
But as he came around the statue, something hammered into his side and he was thrown off balance. He tripped and rolled into the side of a stone grave marker, and the back of his head bounced off the hard surface, stunning him for a couple of seconds.
He blinked the stars from his eyes and tried to push himself to his feet, but knives sank into his arm and he dropped the sword. He looked down to see that another ghoul had pushed its claws deep into his forearm, right though his leather bracer.
Chamadar used his other hand to punch the ghoul into the face as hard as he could. The creature grunted as its head snapped back, but then his free arm was grabbed by a second ghoul. The creatures were strong, too strong for him to break free.
He looked from one horrific face to the other, and knew that he was dead.
* * *
Lilae stood with the other children, around the corner of the mausoleum, away from the feasting ghouls. This was the moment she most feared. Would they keep to their bargain? If they decided to attack the children, there was no way to escape.
Heka came around the corner, her dull, red eyes piercing the darkness. Lilae pushed the other children behind her and faced the undead girl.
“They let me eat,” Heka said, and Lilae could make out that her face, chin, and chest were dark with the man’s blood.
“Then we can go?” Lilae asked her.
“Yes, but you can stay for the rest of the night if you want. We won’t be hungry again for a few days. Living flesh is much better than the dead.”
“If you bring us more of these men, you can stay as long as you want. You’ll be safe in here.”
“I don’t think we can…” Lilae tried not to think about how she had led these men to their horrific fates. This was worse than if she had killed them herself. She couldn’t do this again, even if it kept the children safe.
If they left the pouch with the small box in the Forgotten City, maybe buried it somewhere among the graves, then the guards wouldn’t be able to track the children anymore. Or so Lilae hoped. If Bejurru Nayare was truly some kind of seer, he might find them even without the box.
She pulled it out of the pouch and tried once more to open it. Heka hissed and backed away a few steps.
“I…I don’t like that. Put it away,” the girl said.
Lilae looked down at the box in her hand. As she was about to slip it back into the pouch, she realized it felt different in her hand, almost as if the surface had become rougher. She lifted it up to her face and tried to see if there was something different about it.
Heka took another couple of steps back, and the four adult ghouls came loping around the corner of the mausoleum. They seemed to flinch when they saw the box in Lilae’s hand.
She felt along the sides and was able to feel a small seam. Using her fingernails, she pulled at the seam and suddenly the box opened up in her hand.
A sickly green light spilled out of the box and she nearly dropped it. The ghouls all gave a low hiss and crouched slightly, as if it pained them in some way.
The green light came from a small gem set into a ring. Lilae pulled the ring from the box and held it up, looking at the gem. She felt a chill from the object, but it was not unpleasant.
Without thinking, she took the ring and slipped it onto the middle finger of her left hand.
The ghouls as one gave a gasp. And then, in unison, they dropped to their knees in front of Lilae.
“Master…” she heard them hiss.
© 2017 Andrew J. Luther