by J. C. Hay
Someone had been eating crows on the roof. I clung to the copper plates, weathered with thick patina the color of grave molds, and looked out over the remains. Black feathers clung to imperfections in the metal, bloodstains darkened in a broad patch centered on four carefully placed skulls. I studied the dead birds' heads, trying to decide if there was a symbolism to it I didn't see, but no great secrets revealed themselves.
Then Arduga reached past me, grabbed one of the skulls, and popped it into his mouth.
I glared at him, but not for long. He chewed with his mouth open. He swallowed, and smiled. "What, were you gonna pick that one?"
"No." I moved along the roof, following after Tylar. Behind me I heard more crunching as the ghoul continued through the leftovers.
Tylar waited at the roof's edge, crouched down to hide behind a rain spout carved to look like a serpent's head. He pointed across the way. "Corus Fen's been using that building as his main base of operations for several years."
I glanced at it. Like many buildings in Mechitar's old district, it bordered on ramshackle. At first glance, most passersby would write it off as abandoned. Even I had. It took a second look to see how carefully placed the decay was, how every boarded-up arch added protection, rather than sealed the place away. "Fen's got good taste."
The goon snorted in what I assumed was a derisive chuckle.
"If you're so opposed to him, why do you work for him in the first place?"
He looked at me. "It's in my best interests. There's a lot of big fish out there. Safer to school up, know what I mean? Fen's as good as any."
"But not as good as you."
"Obviously." He grinned. "Ambition is its own reward."
Elias and Arduga finally caught up to us, with the ghoul looking decidedly uncomfortable with the height from the ground and safety. Up on the rooftops, at least Elias didn't limp and slouch, though his nimble movements made his zombie disguise even more jarring. Zombies weren't supposed to have that kind of grace. "I'm going to want you two to wait here for me,” I said. “I can move faster on my own, and I'd like to know I have backup that I can call in if I need it."
The ghoul looked disinterested, but Elias had the good grace to protest. "You can't possibly think I would allow that. Jaros would never forgive me if I allowed you to go in without me."
"Concerned I'll sell his prize to the highest bidder, more like." I had to admit, the thought crossed my mind more than once. The antidote would fetch a high price on any market, but fencing it seemed like too much trouble when I had easy money waiting once I turned it over. Besides, I felt like I could trust the old man to keep the stuff from falling into the wrong hands. "I want to grab the cure first, then we can take care of Fen." I grinned. Elias looked at me suspiciously, but agreed.
At that, Tylar pulled a short crossbow off his belt and fired it into the side of the building opposite us. A thin silk cord spooled off a caster under the crossbow and connected it to the bolt. He grinned at me, as though he expected me to be impressed with his cleverness, and when I failed to respond he looked disappointed. It got him to tie off the rope, however, so I didn't mind. He tugged it hard, then gestured to the line. "Ladies first."
"Find one, and she's welcome to go. Until then, I'll do." I grabbed the rope and hooked a leg over it, expecting the bolt to pull free at any moment and send me to the cobblestones below. It sagged under my weight, then stabilized, and I shimmied across the thirty or so feet. The whole way, I whispered a silent prayer to any god willing to cover fools and thieves that anyone below wouldn't look up.
At the opposite wall, as Tylar had explained, a partially open window waited. I levered it up with one foot, then pulled myself the rest of the way inside. The hall beyond stretched only a few yards before it opened into a stairwell down, the banister cracked and split in the few places where it remained. I crouched on the worn boards, waiting for any sign that I'd been discovered.
Tylar dropped through the window next to me, quiet and smooth. He had more skill than I'd guessed—not that I'd let him know that. He made a few quick gestures, indicating the only door in the hallway as our destination.
I slipped across the floor, testing the old boards for creaks before I let my weight settle. The door was locked; a heftier device than what had been out at Grayearth, but just as vulnerable to rake and pick. It clicked open with the soft sigh of a well-cared-for mechanism.
The room beyond looked more like an alchemical lab than the testing area at the farm. On every surface, glassware glinted in the dim light. Small coal braziers gave an orange glow to several tables, and sent smoke curling up to nest along the soot-stained ceiling. Tylar followed me in, and I tugged his sleeve as soon as he was close enough to hear my whisper. "Where is it?"
"It's in a locked drawer, second table from the right." He pressed a thin key into my palm. "Move quick."
Inside the drawer, a small wooden box stuffed with old burlap contained what I'd come for—two of them, labeled with a paper tag that read only "Soleren 291." I held one up for Tylar and he nodded.
Then the door opened.
A man with the many pockets and tools of an alchemist stood in the door a heartbeat, framed in the light of the hall beyond. Then he screamed.
"Damn!" Tylar had rooted to the spot. I jammed both vials into my pockets and charged at the alchemist, but he had already started running for the stairs. I threw a dagger after him, but in my haste it hit pommel first and bounced off. The threat to his life only made the man scream louder.
Tylar burst into the hallway and shoved me back toward the window. "Go, quick! I can convince him I'm the only one he saw!" He started toward the stairs, where I could hear heavier footsteps approaching. I climbed into the window and leapt for the cord. This time, I didn't care who looked up, though every tug of wind felt like the precursor to an arrow that never came.
Elias helped me onto the opposite roof. "What's going on?"
"We're made!" I stuffed one of the vials into his hands—no sense giving away all the cards after all. "We've got to go!"
As if on cue, the door to the roof burst open, showing three of Fen's soldiers in the stairwell beyond. Arduga barreled into the first, and I saw the guard's eyes glaze as his muscles froze under the ghoul's touch. The paralyzed thug toppled back into his associates, and Elias slammed the door shut. An arrow slammed into the copper near my feet. On Fen's roof, a pair of guards nocked fresh arrows into their bows.
I ran. Arduga, for all his discomfort, used his limbs in concert, grabbing any hand- or foothold to be found as he loped across the sloped roof. Behind us, I heard the crunch of wood as Fen's men broke the door open once again.
"Which way?" Elias appeared at my side, a smile on his decayed features that did little to improve my spirits. Up close, I could see where he'd pasted grains of rice into one of the wounds. The similarity to grubs was eerily accurate.
I pointed to the next roof over. "That way!" Before he could complain, I rushed toward the edge and jumped.
My feet hit the new tiles, and I let my momentum pull me forward away from the edge of the roof. Elias jumped after me, a new volley of arrows going wide over our heads. Fen's archers would need to find a new spot to open up on us. Arduga jumped after us, but not far enough. His hands latched onto the roof's ledge as he slipped past, and I heard his feet kick desperately at the brick wall below.
Elias went to grab him and I shoved him away. "Ghoul! Don't touch!" Technically, he might have been able to grab Arduga without getting the chill—I'd gotten accustomed to it in the years we'd known each other, certainly. Didn't mean I liked it, or wanted to risk the chance. Plus, Elias looked enough like a corpse that I didn't want Arduga to try snacking on him. I threw my belt over the ledge and braced against the wall.
Arduga clambered up just as the two guards from the stairwell reached the ledge we'd left. They shouted curses and one pulled a crossbow while the other made ready to jump. I didn't wait around. We dashed across the roof, thankful that most of the structures in the old district preferred flat roofs over the sharp-sided pyramids that denoted the most important buildings in the city.
I jumped across another, smaller gap and continued on the next roof. As soon as my friends were across, I tossed a bit of grease—usually reserved for recalcitrant locks and hinges—onto the roof's edge. It wasn't much, but with luck it might make our pursuers think twice.
The roofs were going well, but I started to appreciate Arduga's love of the ground. Down would be crowds, and right now that sounded a lot better than being the only people Fen's men could see. I hopped up on the ledge and ran, looking for anything that might provide us with a means to get down to the street below. My foot slipped on a bit of loose stone and I fought to keep my balance as I ran.
I amended my thoughts—a means down other than falling.
I glanced down and tried to fight off the vertigo as I ran along the roof's edge. Tylar stood half in a doorway, gesturing as subtly as he could.
"We can get into the sewers from here."
I chuckled. The warrens beneath the city would make Arduga happy at least. I leapt across to the next building and grabbed the downspout. While I clambered down, the pipe shook as first Arduga and then Elias followed my lead.
Tylar stood on the stoop beyond the barely open door, checking the street for any more of Fen's thugs. "Hurry!"
I waited for Elias and Arduga to get down and sent them through the door, then rushed after them. Tylar followed me in and shut the door behind him, plunging the small foyer into darkness. My eyes struggled to pierce the gloom, and I whispered, "Which way to the sewers?"
A thick, meaty laugh sounded from in front of me, followed by a flare of fire and the stink of brimstone. The flame illuminated a broad, jowly mouth while it lit an elaborate pipe, then was extinguished. The bowl of the pipe glowed a moment, and I could smell the cloying sweetness of flayleaf.
Hooded lanterns opened and flooded the room with light. In the glare, I saw Elias and Arduga, held in place by several of Fen's goons. Still smoking his pipe in the center of the room was a fat bastard I assumed to be Fen himself, with Tylar looking apologetic at his right hand.
"Sorry, Omaire. I got a better offer." He gave me a weak smile.
I knew when I was caught, and it's not like he didn't warn me in advance. I sighed and laced my fingers on top of my head, my gaze locked on Tylar's face. "Ambition is its own reward," I said.
Coming Next Week: The final chapter in J. C. Hay's "Blood Crimes"!
J. C. Hay is the author of numerous short stories and poems for such anthologies as Book of All Flesh (Eden Press), Up Jumped the Devil (PS Publishing), and Dark Faith (Apex Book Company), as well as a chapter in the Prodigal Sons Pathfinder's Journal in Pathfinder Adventure Path #33. For more information, visit his website at jchay.com.
Art by Gerald Lee