The Power and The Glory 7.6

Kallin, in an instant, had transformed. No warning, no announcement, simply an instant transmogrification of the empty night streets of a city into something totally monstrous and hostile to Ana. Whatever strings had been pulled to do it, whatever legal openings had to be made, they had made them and made them fast. The guards crawled through the streets like termites in the woodwork. They were flitting shadows of men lit by lamplight and by torchlight up and down the street, glimmering white sclera shining like bloodshot beacons in the night. A whole regiment’s worth of men had flooded the street. Ana had made a half-dozen close calls until she reached a small townhouse near the banks of the Teper. With her muscles straining, she clambered onto a high, thick wall that surrounded it, her coat hanging low and getting a clear view of the bridge back to Blackwood. 

She felt like she now knew how a limpet might feel, stranded at high tide.

The bridge, in the distance, was so dotted with men that it looked as if it was on fire. Even from further out she could make out barricades, men on horseback, thin legs on thick quadrupedal bodies, a primordial and ethereal hunt painted by the moon and the blazing light. Ana descended from the wall and continued her approach. The ships and the boats sat in the stinking water, sewage and offal of the Teper at low tide like vast carcasses; many were pushed up against the banks prematurely. She shivered. The guards didn’t have any boats in the water at this point, but they didn’t need them. The waters and the current looked almost choppy at this hour with the dark rivulets and swells burning white again with foam as the high wind off the sea whipped them. Autumn was coming on stronger than ever; a brief gust cut her right through her coat.

She weaved in and out of the back alleys as she approached. The air felt cold on her cheeks. She had crossed the river dozens of times now, and known its byway. The whole whole thing was ensconced by a chest-high wall, to prevent people or animals from falling off the edge and into the water below. Beneath that was a ledge, a few bricks thick. There was no swimming it, no forcing her way through the bridge. The only way was on a precipice. 

She approached in a crouch, peeking out from behind a small tenement. The barricade was make-shift, but effective, wooden pallets and boards set to stop any traveler by horseback and clear off lines of approach. She had seen this sort of tactic on a small scale before, for when they knew a route of a person of interest that they needed to stop. Here it was in full force. She observed from a distance. She felt the weight of the goldenware in the bag on her back, and then looked to the Teper. The men at the front were waiting, peering into the dark, looking – looking for her.

She needed to drop some weight if she wanted to get out of here. She needed a distraction.

Damn the money, she thought, I’ll still have two.

Ana stood and pulled out one of the golden plates, and hefted it, rolling it back in her palm. She had always been fit, but professional athleticism hadn’t been her thing of preference. She arched one leg, swung her arm back, and threw the golden disc out into the night, far down the street that ran perpendicular to the bridge. For someone who had never done it before, she felt it was a good throw. It clattered against the paving stones, and she watched six, seven, eight men and women stand at attention and come loose from the barricade, bearing spears and muskets, moving in formation. Ana took the opening, barreling forward. She muffled the sound of her footsteps as she hiked over the wall and to the ledge. She balanced herself perilously – the drop wasn’t terribly far, but it was into cold, diseased water that sought to sweep her out to see. She lowered herself onto her hands and knees, and began to crawl. 

There was a brief moment where she thought that they might have seen her. A man yelled something about a plate in the distance. There was a good bit of confusion that seemed to spread through the many voices as she crawled, inch by inch, across the thin ledge. The bag was unbalanced, heavy on her back. She had to put in extra effort to keep it at the right point of balance, to keep it from toppling her over into the depths. They clamored for a moment over the goldenware. Somewhere, a horse whinnied. 

It was painstaking. Each movement felt like a potential pitfall; each tiny crack in the brickwork a ravine for her to maneuver around. It felt like an age before she made it even half-way across the bridge. In spite of the chill in the air, sweat wicked through her shirt and onto her brow and fell in thick drops down onto the bricks. Looking down would only throw off her balance. She focused on the straight path ahead instead. A bit past the half-way mark, she tried to steady herself against the wall that separated her from the forces of the law. 

Almost immediately, she regretted her decision. The cord rolled against her back and shifted her center of balance over the edge, and her hand slipped on the damp brickwork with it, scraping painfully on the stone in a terrible chain reaction. A brick came loose from the works under the force of her foot, crashing in near-silence down into the water below. Her leg went over the edge with it, and she collapsed onto her chest. The goldenware and Edam’s stave which sat on her back jangled against each other as she tried to find any handhold at all with her free hand and foot. Her fingers split and bled in the struggle. The metal clattered. The choppy swells beckoned from below – she could almost feel the contaminated, saline spray on her skin.

Ana thought of Edam, and bit her tongue to keep herself from crying out from the exertion until she tasted blood. She righted herself, jamming her fingers as hard as she could into the brickwork before she found stable footing again. She breathed hard for a few moments, this time being more careful as she used her hand to steady herself against the wall properly. Her fingers burned with scrapes and blisters. She knew she would be feeling that blunder for at least two weeks. She spat out the blood in her mouth, and kept moving. Forward was the only way through. 

The horses whinnied and their horseshoes hit the stones like thunderclaps as she progressed. Men marched, moved, changing the guard, giving reports. Their churning of the city had turned up a few stragglers and the homeless into their clutches, by the sounds of it. Prostitutes too. They often worked nights, often walking the street. More than a few had been arrested by the sounds of their talk. What she heard of it, anyways – it was barely audible over the whistling of the wind. She didn’t pick up her pace an inch. She couldn’t risk another close call like last time. A heavy wave crashed somewhere in the distance, the sea seeming to pick up and swell. Though she couldn’t look up, the light had changed. Clouds must have swollen up to cover the stars and dim the light of the moon. 

Finally, she was at the end, though that presented its own problem. She couldn’t vault back over the wall – not without knowing where her enemies were already. Even peeking would be too much of a risk. For all she knew, there could be someone right by the wall ready to peek back at her. There was, however, a handhold. 

Just a handhold. A double row of bricks that branched off from the already thin ledge she was on. The embankment was steep – not a sheer drop, but she was a tall woman laden with a heavy package of loot, a lone knife for self-defense, a loaded half-pounder pistol and the world’s most macabre gilded walking stick. She reached back, balanced herself again, stretched her aching, bleeding fingers. She breathed out the pain, prayed once to Tros, and then to the Saints before grabbing onto the handhold, barely visible with the dark clouds passing overhead. 

She clenched her teeth and thought of Edam as she flung her legs out over the edge. It was the point of no return now. The sheer surface of the embankment gave no purchase to her feet but her hands were strong. Her muscles screamed with the exertion – the air whipping around her and making her shiver as she sidled, hand by hand, hand by hand, away from the bridge. She could see a small ledge of jutting brickwork in the embankment. Ana broke it down into steps to keep her mind off the pain – off of the ever-wet bricks – off the slippery blood that was coating her fingers and removing her traction bit by bit. She didn’t even dare look back at the bridge. If she looked back she would lose concentration, and she would fall, and failure was not an option for her. Not here. Not now.

Five hands away. Four hands away. Three hands away.

She stretched herself as far as she could, her boots slipping on the exposed, miniscule ledge. Ana felt her teeth grinding against each other as she sidled her hands along and exhaled. The slight leverage felt like the relief of a lifetime, however miniscule it was. She exhaled heavily as she heaved herself further along the embankment until she finally was able to force herself up and back onto the street. She felt as if her body had become so accustomed to crawling that her legs wobbled and gave out for a moment, breathing hard and returning to all fours before rising again and looking back at the bridge from a distance of some forty feet. 

Ana didn’t linger. She dragged foot after aching foot. The rickety, run-down, sooty houses of the Blackwood Quarter embraced her and sheltered her from the often-interrupted light of the moon. Hiding in the depths of an alleyway she stared at her fingers, stretching them. Her knuckles and fingertips were pretty torn up but none of them seemed broken or dislocated. She finally took a heavy breath in before running once more. Silver puddles splashed silently as she muffled her own footsteps and zig-zagged circuitously through the alleyways and byways. All around her the city clamored with discontent and fear. Some had been forced back inside their houses by the regular patrols, bars and late-night shops all shuttered. Somewhere off in the distance she heard a woman screaming and men yelling. The guards here were tense, tightly packed into formation to keep things secure. They clearly didn’t want to be picked off one by one, but that made them all the easier to get around. It was like watching a rabbit hunt – the guards chasing the occasional straggler back into their burrow or else into their waiting jaws. The formations moved almost like singular living things themselves. She watched from a distance from behind a corner as eight men fell down on a man. In an instant it was a mass of writhing limbs and weapons, a bizarre octopus that thrashed and flailed on dry land with slimy sweat and iron beaks and hooks until at last it disassembled itself into individual human beings once again. 

She wasn’t certain if anyone had begun to pursue her this deep into the quarter and she was not planning on looking back to find out. She wasn’t stupid, though. Hunters knew how to track and move surreptitiously. She’d head towards Dzhate’s territory, double back before she hit any more roadblocks through Temari’s and finally return to Edam. If Temari or Dzhate weren’t at least running some interference on this matter she’d be downright surprised. She hid from the flickering of a passing lantern as she planned. Ana slinked away from the Teper as another shadow on the walls of the tenements, dark as the settled soot itself. 

It was half-way to Dzhate’s territory that she made the turn back towards Temari. As she pulled around to a major artery she felt a chill run down her spine. Not thirty feet away was a woman, tall, thin. Her hair shone like a streak of gold in the night, a freckled face with stern eyes glowing by her lantern. Her face was far sterner, more sour than the last time that Ana had seen her. A thin iron stave was at her waist, but her gun was at the ready and aimed at Ana. 

“Evening,” said Danza, “Looks like I drew the short straw after all.”

Ana swallowed. She didn’t have the time to draw her gun before Danza fired. She stood stock-still. 

“Evening,” said Ana, clenching her jaw, “I guess you’ve got me.” 

There was a tense moment. A seagull called somewhere far off.

“How are we going to do this?” Asked Danza.

“We really don’t have-”

“Don’t give me that,” she said, shaking her head, “How are we going to do this? Am I going to shoot you? Or will you come quietly?”

“I’ve got a ward on me,” said Ana, “And a gun of my own.”

“I think you and I both know that the standard wards that we make aren’t enough to deflect a bullet.”

But enough to turn it into a spray of slower-moving lead shards. They could still break a rib or penetrate the skin, but not deeply, thought Ana. It wasn’t a complex matter to build something that could easily deflect a lead bullet, but it was usually quite mana intensive. The easiest way was something with azure mana, something made of sturdy metal that would quickly extend into a strong, thick shield. Even if she had that sort of thing on her, she wasn’t certain that she’d have the time for it. The only defense she had was the little heptagram-ward around her neck. The raising of a verdure ward was nearly instantaneous in most cases. 

“You know,” said the hunter, “When I met you, I thought you might be a bit of a soft one. Not a bad Inquisitor. Not a bad hunter. Just that you seemed a little rattled by all of that business up in the mountains. And then I thought you were a coward for being so willing to run. Now I think I’ve got a better picture. You’re sly, you’re mean, and you’re a traitor to our cause.”

“I tried not to be.”

Ana knew Danza was stalling, trying to keep her off of her game. Waiting for more to arrive. 

“Tried? You call knee-capping one of your comrades trying? You call stealing forbidden knowledge trying to not be a traitor?”

“You were going to kill someone I cared very much about.”
“I don’t know what she sees in you,” said Danza. 

“She left,” said Ana.

“Oh, come on,” said Danza, “A dog wouldn’t believe that lie.”
“You don’t need to hear anything from me. You heard it at trial. And she did leave. She’s headed up north, to Darea.” 

She shook her head again. 

“Don’t give me that shit.”

“I assume your backup is on the way?”

“It is,” said Danza, “Think it’ll be a while till they circle back around.”

That meant she had five minutes, at the most. Probably closer to three. Danza was going to try to stall this out as much as she could. She was obligated to at least try to bring her in alive, and Ana was going to play that for what she could. If she could leave Danza disabled, bleeding, that could cover her escape; if she maneuvered herself right, ran, she could keep the others off of her and make Danza chase her, forcing Danza to make a play of her own. She was acutely aware of the fresh blood that her fingers were dripping slowly onto the cobblestones. There was a low chance that could find it and use it – using blood for foci tracking had a tendency to become increasingly unreliable after a certain amount of time, and the stones were damp with the humidity – but it was a real one. The less time she spent here, the less blood they’d have a chance to collect. She still had a pressing question, though.

“You asked me for one. Now I ask you. How’d you make this work?”

Imera,” she said, with an odd amount of venom, “Pitched it to the governor and the head of the watch. Said that even if we don’t turn up our specific witch, we’re bound to turn up dozens, hundreds of other criminal elements. That everyone would come out of it just great.” 

“I take it you don’t approve,” said Ana, “It’s like I said-”

“My orders are my orders, and I will follow them to the fullest and most complete extent of ecclesiastic law,” said Danza, “I am not as weak-willed as you or Edam. You will be coming with me, or I will shoot.” 

She paused. 

“I heard what she said. I thought-”

Danza faltered, but she did not look away. Her body was briefly unsteady, but there was not even a shake in her aim. It was as if all the confidence in her body had been concentrated into the singular hand.

“She was a good inquisitor.”

There was something else there, but Ana couldn’t place it – somewhere between surprise and regret. She felt uneasier and uneasier. Having a gun pointed at her was one thing. She’d faced down death many times before. Danza saw right through her flimsy lies about Edam leaving, which meant she knew that the two of them would be living together. Even with her dead and gone, that would speed up their search for Edam significantly. 

She could kill Danza. She shifted her hand so that the blood from her cut-up fingers would fall on her shoe. For a moment, Ana thought she might try to fire then and there, but then she noticed that Danza hadn’t cocked it yet. Smart and stupid. It meant it wouldn’t go off by accident and she would have a better way of escalating the situation, but it also gave Ana the advantage when it came to her reaction. Both a tactic and a negotiation technique – she still had the upper hand if Ana tried to go for her gun, but she was relying on that. She wanted to take her alive, interrogate her and then swiftly dispose of her. That would be what Ana would do in her shoes, at least. 

“She was the best I’ve known,” said Ana, “You’re not going to catch me without her.” 

“It’s a crying shame,” said Danza, “Crying shame about what I’m going to do to her. Last chance to-”

Danza cocked her gun and instinct took over. Ana flicked her hand to her ward and felt the pain, the mana and the blood come out all at once.

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