Ch3.15 The Pearl

She looks at the people gathered within the long-abandoned storage building from a high vantage point, on the roof. Through the dirty, sun-worn skylight, she can see all three of them in the light of flickering blue flames, hunching over some yet-unseen item in the middle of a small clearing outlined by the random distribution of large wooden storage crates, stacked in short towers of two to four units. The crates partially block her view but the gang members are standing in such a close circle that she can still see them all.

“Come on, come on you Dukaine thugs!” she mutters under her breath in anxious expectation. “Show me what you’re up to so I can ruin your plans.”

With an expert eye, she examines the three figures. Two males, one female. The female is, by far, the most dangerous one. She is their source of light, and the blue flames licking her skin are a dead giveaway of someone ranking demigod or higher. She won’t be easy to take out. As for the two males...

Suddenly, the three figures part. One of the males is carrying what looks like an orb, dull grey and about as big as her fist. The man himself doesn’t look very threatening. Heavily built – scratch that! Fat and short, he doesn’t look like he’ll be too difficult to overtake. Unless one accounts for the strange glow coming out of his hands. As for the third one, he looks like trouble. Thin but muscular, tall but graceful in his movements, he looks like someone who can fight and dodge blows with ease. An experienced fighter, no doubt.

“Hmm, a divine, a magic-wielder and a fighter. What can be worth so much that it merits such protection?” she wonders as she watches the orb with intent. Unable to identify its origin or purpose, she merely shrugs. “Ah well, whatever it is, it’ll be mine before the sun rises…”

As she watches the three gang members gathered around the orb, she begins to devise a plan of attack. Now, the orb is clearly the target but it would be nice to know why it’s important to the Dukaines. So, one of the three will need to be left standing to answer some questions… Hmm, maybe the magic-wielder. The fighter probably doesn’t know (or even want to know) much and the female is too dangerous to be given a chance to fight back.

“How am I gonna defeat you, divine?” She feels for the crossbow strapped to her back and then for the quiver hanging from her belt. She draws one bolt from the quiver, and then a tiny vial from a padded pocket on the side of the quiver. Opening it with extreme care, being careful not to breathe, she applies a few drops of a black, glue-like liquid to the tip of the bolt.  She loads the arrow into the crossbow and seals the vial before she dares to breathe again, being sure to keep the tip of the arrow far from her face. Though the distilled demon-blood poison is deadly to mortals and even many immortals, it may not be enough if the lady proves to be a full goddess.

From the street below, a chain of less-than-rational ramblings cuts her line of thought. “Break free from the ancient ties of superstition, brothers! There are no gods!”

She moves away from the skylight and leans over the edge of the building to look down at the street and the tall man wearing a bright aluminum foil hat currently walking down below. He sounds drunk, preaching to no one.

“My oh my, if it isn’t Atheist Jack, as I live and breathe! Now that’s some good timing!” she whispers to herself.

Silent as an owl in flight, she climbs down the fire-escape ladder and lands in a dark alley, just a couple of steps away from an unsuspecting Atheist Jack. With the well-honed, efficient movements of someone who has been doing this for years, she quickly grabs him from behind as he walks by, not giving him time to know what hit him as she overpowers and renders him unconscious, her arm wrapped around his throat, cutting off the blood flow to his brain.

“Sorry, Jackie, but I kinda need your ‘special abilities’ for this one,” she apologizes as she lowers him to the ground and ties him to a drainpipe running up the building with one of the many pieces of old crossbow string she makes sure to always keep on her person. “Now, if you’ll just be a good boy and sleep for a bit while I do my thing...”

She finishes binding and gagging him, making sure Jack won’t leave the perimeter of the building until she’s done dealing with more pressing issues.

“I just hope you’ve got enough range on you to suit my needs, love,” she mutters.

Leaving Atheist Jack’s unconscious form in the ever-concealing, ever-forgiving shadows of the alley, she climbs the ladder again and slips into the building via a dusty, long-broken window. Leaping silently onto a small tower of stacked crates, she crouches low and lies belly down, peeking at the other occupants in the room from above. She can see the female and the mage, but not the fighter.

Damn it, all these crates are blocking my sight!, she thinks as she pulls up her crossbow and tries to aim. And not a clean shot at the other two either! Stupid crates...

She begins to move swiftly and soundlessly, climbing down the crate she once perched on and finding her way down to a hidden spot at ground level. Moving slowly among the boxes, she searches for a good spot from which to see without being seen. Try as she might, though, she cannot spot the fighter.

Probably on lookout duty... she concludes after a while.

A stifled cry of surprise makes her take a left turn to look directly at where the divine female and the mage are standing, both looking at the female’s body with wide eyes. For the blue flames that once licked her skin seem to have expired, leaving the woman’s pale skin exposed and, most literally, naked.

Ah... That would be Jackie doing his thing... Good thing he showed up when he did.

The light of the flames gone, the two are temporarily blinded, but  being farther away, Saira’s eyes are adjusted to the thin moonlight. With extreme calm and care, she aims, waiting just for the right moment to shoot as the divine starts patting her whole body and trying hard to summon her flames back into existence while the mage stares at his own hands, now relieved of their eerie glow. One heartbeat, two heartbeats... she waits still as the magic-wielder puts the orb down with ritualistic care and tries to cast a spell at it. Three heartbeats, four heartbeats... the divine tries to hide her nakedness with her hands, in shame for probably the first time in her life. Five heartbeats... the mage’s spell fails to form and he curses under his breath. Six heartbeats...the divine turns away from him and throws her head back to scream in frustration. Seven heartbeats...the trigger is pulled, the string is released and the bolt flies, straight and true, past the divine’s parted lips and through the roof of her mouth, piercing muscle and bone and brain, until it sticks out through the back of her skull. Her brain severely damaged, the female immediately falls to her knees, the poison on the bolt rushing through her bloodstream and causing her muscles to contract in violent, obscene convulsions. Blackened froth rises to her mouth and spills from her icy-blue lips as she hits the ground head first, inanimate, dead, silent, and stiff.

Oblivious to most of this, the mage notices her death only when she finally collapses on the floor in front of him and his precious orb. He notices the bolt sticking out of his comrade’s mouth and his eyes widen with horror. He turns his gaze in every direction but sees no one and is unable to trace the bolt’s point of origin. The magic-wielder panics and rises suddenly to run around the little clearing created by the stacked up crates, without a clear destination. Just then, another bolt flies out of the shadows and pierces his robes, nailing his sleeve to a nearby crate. As he desperately tries to pull the bolt out and break free, another one nails his other sleeve to the crate, pinning him to the wood sideways, like a helpless high-relief living sculpture.

Just as the crossbow is being reloaded, its wielder receives a strong blow to the back of neck that sends her on a rather short downward flight. Trying to hold onto the crossbow with one hand, she breaks her fall with the other, spraining her wrist and landing awkwardly, the impact raising dust from the floor. The crossbow spins from her grip and slides across the floor beyond her reach. The side of her face bangs lightly on the floor but she still rolls over quickly to see the third element of the gang looking down at her with a mocking smile on his face. As she raises her head to get an angle on him, the hood that once covered the fair skin of her pretty face falls back to reveal the strong gaze of her light-brown eyes and  her long, straight, golden-brown hair.

“You must be that girl, Saira. The ghost that keeps hauntin’ our raids,” the man says as his eyes linger on the young girl’s fit, well-toned body, currently wrapped in a dark-grey catsuit.

Saira examines her immediate surroundings through the corner of her eyes in search of her crossbow. It’s fallen to her left, too far away to reach. She can feel her backup weapon snugly housed in her boot, pressing against her skin but, just as her hand begins to travel down her leg, the man draws his short sword and points the tip directly at her throat, moving closer to her until he is crouching by the left side of her still-supine body, between her and the crossbow, the tip of the sword resting gently against her neck.

“We killed your whole gang that night,” he states, his eyes a window to the darkness in his thoughts. “We pierced and cut and burned each and every one of them. Now, some of the lowlier minds in this gang think you died too. Came back from the grave to haunt us, they say. But, the thing is...” – here he adjusts his grip on the sword, allowing its tip to brush gently against her throat – “I was there, girl. You weren’t.”

“I was out that night,” Saira replies, her lips spitting the words as if they’re poisonous. “Came back just in time to watch you leave,” she adds as her left leg bends ever so slowly, beyond the man’s field of vision. “And your friends are right, love. My body may live but my heart died that night. All I care about now is seeing you all dead, just as you saw my friends...” Her fingers reach for the lip of her boot and slowly grab a leather-bound hilt. “My family...” Her hand silently pulls out a long dagger. “My home. As they fell, so will you. I will see to it.”

Suddenly, moving at astonishing speed, she drives the dagger through the man’s left boot, making him scream in agony and loosen his grip on the sword, allowing Saira room to roll over at the expense of a short rendez-vous between her chin and the tip of his blade. She gets up, ready to face him, a slight feeling of warmth to the left side of her jaw letting her know the sword has drawn blood. She decides to ignore it for the time being, too focused on the much more important task of staying alive to care about about small cuts.

While he still stands between her and her precious crossbow, she is no longer at complete disadvantage and uses the time he wastes hopping in pain and pulling her dagger out of his foot and tossing it aside to get her breath back and assume a more comfortable fighting stance. His short sword, held firmly in his hand, means she’ll need to get close to him and, without her dagger, there will be nothing she can use to block the blade. Other than her own flesh, that is...

Refusing him enough time to regroup, she runs towards him and aims a high kick at his forehead. But he’s faster than she anticipated and manages to predict and evade her attack, tilting his head and diverting her kick with a strong blow of his arm to the inner side of her knee. Thrown slightly off balance, Saira responds by spinning fast on one heel and blocking her opponent’s sword wrist with her left hand while landing a strong blow of her right elbow to his rib cage at the same time. The man gasps as the air escapes from his lungs and he reaches out his left hand to grab Saira’s neck from behind. But she’s too fast for him and swiftly turns around to face him, eluding his attempt and stretching his right arm to full extension, twisting his right wrist until the man cries out in terrible pain and releases the short sword. Again using her elbow, she smashes his nose and thrusts a knee into his groin, making him bend and kneel in pain.

Saira then releases him and runs to her crossbow, picking it up and loading it with a regular, poison-free bolt. By the time her opponent finally manages to get up, the crossbow is already loaded and aimed at his forehead.

“Now... love. I could... say I don’t mean... to kill you...” Saira tells him as she struggles to regain her breath. “But... that’d be lyin’. So... be a good boy and... stand still while I shoot you.”

With a maniacal laugh, the man lunges forward, running unarmed towards her. Adjusting her aim, Saira shoots without hesitation. The bolt pierces his chest through and through, tearing a gaping hole in his heart. Momentum pushing him forward, the man advances still, dead in his steps, stopping a mere arm’s length away from Saira and collapsing, lifeless, at her feet.

“Right,” Saira mutters, letting her crossbow arm hang. “Two done, one to go.”

After a moment’s search, she locates and retrieves her dagger, returning it to its proper spot inside her left boot. Moving slowly towards the pinned magic-wielder, she takes the opportunity to stretch her neck muscles and shift the crossbow from her right to her left hand. Her free hand travels up to her chin to wipe the blood currently staining the small, slightly jagged cut left by the previous opponent’s sword, and Saira kisses the blood off her fingertips, making herself look more frightening in the helpless mage’s eyes.

“Do you have any idea who you’re messing with, you crazy girl?!” he cries out as he struggles to break free, his every spell failing to conjure. “The Dukaines will skin you alive!”

Saira doesn’t answer his terrified threat at first. Instead she moves closer and closer to him until he stands at arm’s reach. As she gets so close that the stench of his panicky sweat begins to fill her nostrils, her right hand shoots out, fingers curled like claws, and grips the angles of his jaw between her thumb and index fingers with such force her short nails dig into his flesh, drawing blood.

The mage gasps under the pain, suddenly out of breath.

“Breathe now, love,” Saira whispers in his ear. “I’m going nowhere near your windpipe. The pain you feel may be a bit overwhelming but don’t worry. It is instantaneous and without consequence. As soon as I let you go, the pain will go away.” She squeezes a little tighter, making his body grow tense with the agony. “You just need to give me a reason to let you go.”

“What–” the mage swallows tentatively. Realizing Saira is telling the truth on this particular subject, he resumes normal breathing. “What do you want?”

“Personally? I want every single member in your gang dead. But first...” Saira points at the orb still lying peacefully on the floor. “I want to know what that is and why you want it.”

“If I tell you, I die.”

“Maybe. But if you don’t tell me, you die now.” Saira says as she releases the mage and walks over to the orb, picking it up and stroking its smooth surface. Even if it looks dull and almost lifeless right now, she can feel the slightly electric tingling of magic rushing through its surface.

“It’s really just a matter a location and schedule.” Hooking the crossbow by the trigger guard to a special stud on her belt, she opens her quiver and stashes the orb in it before returning to the mage’s side and pulling out her dagger again. “You either die here now or maybe somewhere else later on...” She shrugs. “Or not at all.”

Smiling nastily as she rests the tip of her dagger against his throat, she asks, “How fast can you run?”

“All right, all right,” the mage relents. “There’s this water goddess behind the Falls. We were told to steal her pearl and cast a spell on it.”

“The Oracle? You stole the Oracle’s pearl?!” Saira’s eyes shoot down to the quiver. “What for?”

“I don’t know,” the magic-wielder replies just a little too fast.

“I don’t believe you,” Saira states in a singsong voice and presses the tip of the blade against his skin until blood is drawn to mix with his sweat.

“OK, OK!” the mage almost screams. “The goddess refused to work with the bosses so they told us to steal her pearl and taint it with a life-draining spell,” he blurts out. “That’s it! That’s all I know, I promise!”

Saira smiles as she removes the dagger and stores it in her boot again. “Yeah, I didn’t expect a small fish like you to know much more than that.” She reaches for one of the bolts currently piercing the mage’s robes, punching him quickly on the jaw just so he won’t fight back. “Now, I have a little task for you, love. I want you to run to your masters and tell’em I’m coming for them.”

She releases the second bolt, half expecting the mage to attack her. He doesn’t though and merely looks at her, paralyzed in his fear, watching her use one of the bolts to load the crossbow.

“I would run now, if I were you,” she tells him in a conversational tone. “You have a message to deliver.”

The magic-wielder’s eyes widen just as his legs begin to respond again. He suddenly dashes towards the door, running as fast as his body will move. Saira watches him run, tilting her head in mild entertainment.

"You know, on second thought,” she whispers, raising the crossbow to aim it. “I think I'll deliver the message for you."

Saira shoots and he falls abruptly, belly down, the feathers of her bolt sticking out of the back of his neck. After a moment of silent contemplation of his dead body in search of movement, she straps the crossbow to her back, pulls the hood over her head and shrugs.

“Dead people make for better messengers anyway,” she mutters.

Walking leisurely, Saira crosses the room and leaves the building, stopping only to release the still-unconscious Atheist Jack before disappearing into the shadows of a nearby alley.

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