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Lighning Between Your Fingers

By Austin Worley

“Watchers, you ever hear of someone killed by a direct lightning strike?  Inside?  With all the windows closed and no damage to the structure?  When it ain’t stormed going on two weeks?”  The rings of Captain Calvert’s hauberk jangled as he threw open the door.  “Well, you have now.  That’s how Emerei Dawson died.”

Knight-Sister Arlise Dun sucked in a breath at the name.  Emi?  She hadn’t known the high-class courtesan long enough to call her a friend, but Emi’s aid had broken at least half a dozen cases wide open.  Always polite, always compassionate, always ready to help.  She’d beaten alcoholism and sworn to be better.  To be a decent person.  Who’d want to kill a woman like that?

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from an image by alibarber21 on Pixabay.com)

A tap on the shoulder drove Arlise’s thoughts away.  “We need to focus,” her partner and lover, Knight-Brother Beren Grau, whispered.

She nodded and stepped into Emi’s room, clenching her arming sword’s hilt all the while.  On a better day, the gilded molding, ebony floor, satin curtains, erotic wall art, or silk bedsheets would’ve seized her attention.

Not today.  Today, the stench of burnt human flesh hit like a war hammer to the teeth.  A smell all too familiar to Arlise.  Visions of blue flames, charred bodies, and a ruined village flashed behind her eyes.  Mother, Prophets, don’t let the memories swallow me up.

“Corpse is over here,” Captain Calvert muttered as he struggled to light his pipe.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Arlise edged toward his position between the bed and a desk along the brothel’s outside wall.  For the first time, she noticed a low hum.  Magic.  Traces of energy called up from the Outerworld.  The sound grew louder with every step.  No normal human could’ve sensed it.  “You were right to call on our Order, Captain.”

“Knew this weren’t no normal lightning.  No way, no how.  This here’s Watcher business.”  Calvert puffed on his pipe and wiped filthy fingers on his green surcoat.

Why can’t Drakes Hold find someone cleaner to lead its homicide division?  Arlise pushed the question aside.  Like it or not, somebody had to examine Emi.  Figure out how exactly she died.  Whether she was murdered.  Adjusting her stark white coat of plates, Arlise knelt at the woman’s side.

Emi lay on her stomach, dressed in a translucent silk robe and lace lingerie, auburn hair braided as usual.  She was working when this happened.  One might’ve thought her asleep, if it weren’t for the right arm.  Emi’s hand was charred to the bone.  Burns of decreasing severity ran all the way to her shoulder.  A red branching pattern arced across her back and neck.  Electrical flowering, Arlise noted, recalling the term from the Magicis Iniuriam.  It occurred in the victims of lightning strikes…and combat-strength electrical spells.

Beren cleared his throat.  “She’s bleeding from the ears.”

Nodding, Captain Calvert puffed on his pipe some more.  “Folk heard a thunderclap just before they found the corpse.”

“It burst her eardrums.”

Her ears weren’t the only thing damaged by the thunderclap and its accompanying shockwave.  One pupil was dilated so wide Arlise barely made out the blue iris, while the other had contracted into a pinprick.  Evidence of brain trauma.  Whoever cast this spell, they had to be close.  Perhaps so close they’d injured themselves, too.  Who’d take that sort of risk?  Why?

Beren continued chatting with Calvert.  “Was she…seeing a client at the time of this thunderclap?  These high-end brothels keep sign-in sheets in case clients don’t pay or rough up their employees.”

Glancing up from her grisly work, Arlise cocked an eyebrow.  “And how do you know that, Sweet Meat?”

He smiled.  “Three years as muscle at one, Cinnamon Bun.”

She flushed at the pet name, and her eyes widened.  He never mentioned that before.

“So,” Beren said, turning back to Captain Calvert, “have you checked?”

Calvert took a long drag on his pipe.  “I’m not a day-old lamb, Brother Grau.  I checked with the Madame soon as I arrived.  Nothing.”

Emi was alone?

Arlise’s thoughts broke off as the hum of magic suddenly reached a crescendo.  Had the spell which killed her been cast by something, rather than someone?  An enchanted object?  If so, it couldn’t be far.

Then everything came together.  The charred fingers and hand.  Burns of decreasing severity crawling up the arm.  Whatever was enchanted to kill her, Emi held it.  Did she still hold it?

Reaching for the burned arm, Arlise gulped.  Looking at burnt bodies, breathing in the stench, that could be stomached.  If only just barely.  But touching them…touching them was a different story.

Her fingers wrapped around Emi’s wrist.  Even wearing leather gauntlets, Arlise winced at the texture.  Emi, I swear by the Mother and all Her Prophets, we’ll find whoever did this.  Deliver you justice.  She owed Emi that much, for all her aid.  She owed the Mother that much, as penance for Laufenden.

Seeking even the tiniest clue, Arlise swept her eyes over the ebony floorboards.  Nothing.  Then she spotted it: a coin so blackened it almost blended in with the floor.  What in the Mother’s name…?

The coin still hummed softly as she picked it up.  That removed all doubt: this coin had been enchanted.  This coin was the weapon used to murder Emerei Dawson.

Arlise turned her gaze on Emi’s desk.  A purse lay open, with more coins scattered about, but none of them carried even a whiff of the arcane.  She was counting her earnings.  Arlise looked at Beren.  “Sweet Meat, you used to collect these things, right?  Look at this.”

He ran his fingers along the edge, turned the coin over and over in his hands, then scratched at it with his thumb.  “Hmm.  Milled edges, but most mints have started using those.  Completely defaced, probably by the spell.  Same size as Ciriac reales, Marcher stallions, and Tyrian aurei.  But Tyrian coins don’t circulate this far south.  Letters, for a mint, along the bottom edge. Tyrian, but everyone uses their letters.  ‘NO—.’”

Beren scratched his bearded chin.  Prophets, how cute that little gesture was.  Arlise shook her head.  Focus.  There’ll be time for us later.

Her lover sighed.  “Nordmarch, maybe? Noboneaux?  I really have no clue.”  Tucking it into his coin purse, Beren shrugged those broad shoulders.  “I can say that somebody gave it a wash in coryphium.  Probably our murderer, so the coin could be enchanted with a spell.  Since even a child could tell the difference between coryphium and other precious metals, it likely had a second wash in one of them.”  He stared down at Emi’s body.  “She held lightning between her fingers and never even knew it.  A ghastly way to die.”

Calvert piped up for the first time since the coin’s discovery.  “At least it was just a whore.  We don’t need upstanding merchants zapped while changing coin.”

The following seconds passed in a blur.  One moment, Arlise knelt at Emi’s side.  The next, she stared down at Calvert’s startled face.  “This is a human life we’re talking about.  Gone.  Her murder deserves the same concern and respect you’d give to one of your ‘upstanding merchants’.”

Arlise stooped over to look him right in the eyes, nose to nose.  “She was not ‘just a whore’.  Emi donated every copper she could spare.  To orphanages, to the Faith, to the Order.  She helped us stop a blood mage preying on streetwalkers, called in favors to clear a pack of lurkers from the sewers.  I’d dare to say Emerei Dawson was a better person than you.”  Arlise recalled a bloody war, a stupid order, and one hundred eighty-seven innocents caught in the middle.  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  “She was certainly better than me.”

Calvert simply blew smoke in her face.

A firm hand gripped her arm.  “Arlise, this isn’t getting us anywhere.”  Beren slid between her and the guardsman.  “I’d bet the coin was part of her last client’s payment.  Captain, you read the ledger.  Do you recall this client’s name?”

Gnawing on his pipe stem, the captain gave Arlise a withering glare. “Cotter Pembroke,” he finally answered.  “Stayed for three hours, paid handsomely.”

Pembroke.  Something about the name tickled Arlise’s memory.

Judging by the look on Beren’s face, it had done the same to him.  “Isn’t he on the list of registered mages in Drakes Hold?”

Arlise found herself nodding.  “Yes.  He’s a—” A breath caught in her throat as realization dawned.  “He’s an enchanter.  They work with coryphium ore all the time.”

Calvert grunted.  “Pembroke paid and tipped.  No motive for….” He trailed off, waving a hand at Emi’s body. “For this.”

“Some lover’s tiff?” Beren offered.  “Perhaps Pembroke wanted more than a…business relationship, and she didn’t.”

She took a deep, ragged breath.  Enchanting a coin to kill at a touch.  A lot of trouble for one prostitute.  “Maybe.  We need to talk with Cotter Pembroke.”

✸✸✸

Cotter Pembroke was dead.

The enchanter might’ve reclined in an armchair by the window, lockbox on his lap, but nobody could mistake the pose for sleep.  Not like Emi.

For one, the unseasonably frigid study buzzed and hummed like a beehive.  Arlise didn’t even have to step inside to sense the traces of magic.

Evening light glittered off frost clinging to Pembroke’s hairy arms, balding scalp, and eyelashes.  In places, his skin was torn.  In others, its tone had become a mottled black and blue.  Like frostbite.

Topping it all off was the coin held between a stiff forefinger and thumb.

Beren groaned.  “Well, there goes my theory.  Looks like we’re back where we started: a method, but no suspect.”

While her lover frowned in thought and Captain Calvert examined shelves upon shelves of books, Arlise strode over to the thawing mage.  Obviously, a different enchantment.  A subtractive spell, by all appearances.  It sucked up body heat like a whirlpool, then channeled it into the Outerworld.  Every drop of water in Pembroke’s body froze.  She plucked the coin from his dead grasp.  Same size as the one that killed Emi.  Could they be from the same source?

“Hey, Sweet Meat.  This mean anything to you?”

Beren looked up just in time to catch the thrown coin.  As he grumbled and mumbled over it, Arlise turned her attention back to the dead man.

She’d noticed Pembroke’s lockbox earlier, but had been too focused on the coin he held to give it a second thought.  Now, though, one glance at its contents left her mouth agape.  Prophets preserve us!

The box brimmed with coins of all shapes and sizes.  Gold, silver, copper, bronze, tin.  ‘For a job well done,’ the plaque on its lid read.  Arlise recognized Marcher Mares and Stallions, Corhiel Marks, and Vyspan Crowns amongst a bevy of other designs.  At least a dozen hums of different intensities rose from within the lockbox, too indistinct to pinpoint exact locations.

And, worst of all, a handful of coins had clearly been taken.  Her heart skipped.  Pembroke paid Emi with some.  What if he shopped elsewhere today?  Mother only knew how many sabotaged coins were loose in Drakes Hold.

Arlise spun to face Beren.  “Tell me this coin is weird.  Exotic.  That you could pick out others like it easily and stop their circulation.”

“Well, Cinnamon Bun,” her partner began, stroking his beard, “I wish I could tell you that.  But this thing…it shouldn’t even exist.”

That tore Captain Calvert’s attention away from the bookshelves.  “What?!”

Beren shrugged.  “On its obverse, it bears the profiles of Tyria’s current suffets.  The reverse depicts Anart, Queen of the Tyrian gods.  Letters near the rim read ‘Nova Tyra’, capital of the Tyrian Dominion and home of their primary mint.  This all fits with the coin being a Tyrian aureus.  But it’s silver.”

“And?” Arlise and Calvert asked at the same time.

“And aurei are made of solid coryphium.”  Beren knit his brow.  “Unless…”  Without another word, he drew a dagger tucked in his boot and cut a wedge in the coin’s face.  A sliver of metal fell away, revealing the goldish tones of coryphium.  “My guess about Ms. Dawson’s coin was wrong.  It wasn’t washed in both coryphium and silver: it was coryphium, and a silver wash was applied to hide its odd coloration.”

He held up the coin and smiled.  “This is a real aureus.  So yes, Cinnamon Bun.  It is weird.  Exotic.  You could pick them out easily and stop their circulation.  Aurei almost never make it this far south.  Our murderer has some sort of connection to the Tyrian Dominion.”

Arlise snorted.  The Dominion.  Figures they’re involved.  Be it cursed ruins, the lure of lost lore, or blood mages slaving on the coast, half the problems the Order of Watchers dealt with circled back to that crumbling empire.  If only the Prophet Torsten had finished them off all those centuries ago.  Could anything good come from a society built on human sacrifice and slave labor?  On the upside, their penchant for brutality left Tyrians loathed across Anura.  This far south, one would stand out like a crippled horse.

“Captain,” she began, “do you happen to know if any ships from Tyria are docked in the harbor?”

Calvert laughed so hard he swallowed smoke and descended into a coughing fit.  Sputtering and wheezing, the guardsman tried to answer.  “Ain’t you heard, Sister Dun?  King Livona forbade those baby killers from setting foot in Corhiel on pain of death.”

“What about ones from the Colonies?”  That gaggle of city-states might not bow to the Dominion anymore, but many maintained close relations, and a Tyrian could easily pass themselves off as a Colonial.

“Too many to search before your killer leaves the city, I’m sure.  And then there are the caravans.”  Captain Calvert rapidly puffed on his pipe.  “If you want to waste your time, I can pull Customs records on all the Colonials.”

Beren grunted.  “We might get lucky.”

“Suit yourself.” Snuffing out his pipe, Calvert turned to leave the study.

“Wait,” Arlise called after him.  “While you’re out, talk with the newspapers and criers.  Ask if they can put out warnings about these enchanted coins.”

The guard captain stopped in the doorway and grinned.  “The papers and criers don’t like me much, Sister Dun.”  He scratched a stubbly cheek.  “Of course, magic and murder do sell copies.  I’ll see if they’ll bite.”

Once Calvert was gone, Beren sighed.  “He’s probably right.  We need something more specific than a nationality.”

Arlise nodded as she swept her gaze over the dead man’s study.  “Judging by the plaque on the lockbox, I’d say Pembroke knew his killer.  Was in league with them.  Whatever they were doing, he probably kept some record of it.”

Spreading his arms to gesture at the walls covered in towering bookshelves, Beren smiled.  “Where better to hide your shady dealings than in plain sight?”

They scoured Pembroke’s study for hours, sifting through every dusty manuscript and scrap of parchment.  The sun’s last rays died, leaving them to work by starlight and a crescent moon.

Another treatise on Mklaria’s wildlife.  What kind of man needs five books on the same damn thing?  She took a ragged breath and thought about her vows.  To Emi, and to the Mother.  What if they couldn’t find more clues?  What if there weren’t more clues?  What if the killer escaped?

Her eyes settled on a portrait beside the window.  Pembroke, though clearly a few years younger.  His painted visage bore a half smile and haughty eyes.  She knew that expression.  Mockery.  This fruitless search seemed to amuse him.

Between the fearful questions and those mocking eyes, it was all too much.  Arlise hurled the useless tome at the portrait.

Beren looked up from his pile of books.  “Arlise, what’s wrong?”

Staring at row upon row of books, she didn’t answer.  He used my real name.  Most of the time, he was too busy crafting new pet names and acting the jester to bother.

A thick arm wrapped around her waist.  “You’re usually more respectful of the written word.  Something’s eating you inside out.  I can tell.” Chapped lips kissed her cheek.  Whiskers scratched skin, but Arlise didn’t care.  Of all the men she’d known since abdicating her noble title, only Beren managed to make her troubles go away.  If only for a little while.

She broke from the embrace and took a deep breath.  “I joined the Watchers to make penance for Laufenden.  For my stupid orders.”

Even though it seemed a lifetime ago, Arlise still heard the screams, smelled the burning homes and bodies, saw blue flames gobbling up the village.  A chance at flushing out the damn Usurper and ending the rebellion, at saving thousands down the road…she’d thought that would be worth a few innocents caught in the middle.  It wasn’t.  Walking amongst one hundred eighty-seven dead freeholders—her dead freeholders—had made that crystal clear.

Try as she might, Arlise couldn’t escape the grip of her memories.  A downpour of arrows battering surging shadows, her scarlet and gray banners, the wailing of wounded.  It took another kiss from Beren to break her free.  “The woman you were is dead.  You killed her when you took the Order’s vows.”

“That was just the beginning.”  She bit her lip.  “Every case we solve…it’s a way to show the world, the Mother, myself that I’ve changed.  That I’m better.  And if that’s true, so’s the opposite.  Every failure says I’m still the monster who razed Laufenden.”

“Nonsense, Arlise.  Failure to solve a case doesn’t erase your efforts to solve it.”

Nodding, she wriggled away.  “I know.  I know.”  Arlise paced back and forth over the study’s ornate rug.  “The thought just won’t get out of my head.”

Beren started to reply, then froze.  “Arlise, look!”

That smug little face in the portrait was gone, its canvas torn by the heavy manuscript she’d thrown.  Behind the canvas sat a steel plate and dial gleaming in the moonlight.  Her heart fluttered.  Perhaps she’d been hasty in assuming they’d hit a dead end.  “A safe?”

“Looks like it.”  Her partner edged forward and tossed the painting aside.  Beren chuckled as he stared at the wall safe.  “Where better to hide your shady dealings than in plain sight?  In a wall safe behind your portrait, I suppose.”

Her elation hit a stumbling block.  “We don’t know the combination.”

“And we don’t need to.”  Beren raised a hand, and a low hum filled the study.  Arlise felt it in her flesh, felt him drawing energy through his connection with the Outerworld and giving it direction.  “Cinnamon Bun, please step a little to the right.”

No sooner had Arlise obeyed than the safe ripped itself from the wall, hurtled through the space she’d occupied, and smashed into the granite floor.  It burst open, spilling out coins, jars of coryphium powder, and one worn book.  At the sight of it, her fears of failure melted.

She strode over and snatched up the book.  A ledger?  She thumbed through its pages.  No, a journal.  Arlise stopped at the final entry, dated the 10th of Harvesttide.  Yesterday.  She read aloud.

“Thought I was done with this business, but Valerius pulled me back in.  Threatened my nephews and sister-in-law.  Demanded twenty little ones by the end of the week, or he’d take us instead.  Mother forgive me, I delivered fifteen males and five females—gutter rats all—to the Cetus.  Valerius paid handsomely, said he’d set sail in a few days.  Think I’ll drop a tip to the Guard, then use his coin to build shelters for the gutter rats.  Men like him won’t ever prey on them again.  Owe them that much.”

Her guts twisted.  He was trying to be better. To be a decent person.  Just like Emi.

“Slavers.”  Beren spat out the word like it was a curse.

Arlise read the entry to herself thrice just to be sure she hadn’t missed anything.  “This Valerius must’ve noticed Pembroke’s reluctance.  He enchanted the coins to tie up loose ends, keep Pembroke from talking.  Emi was just collateral damage.  Pembroke probably grabbed a handful of coins to pay her with, but never touched the enchanted one.”

Of all the horrible, dumb luck somebody could have…

She tucked the journal under her arm.  “We have a ship name.  They aren’t due to set sail for a while.  We can stop them.”

Brow furrowed, Beren shook his head.  “They’ll shove off at the sight of Watchers.”

“So we don’t pay Valerius and his crew a visit as Watchers.”  Arlise smiled.  “I’m sure Calvert won’t mind us borrowing some of the Guard’s armor.  They won’t run from a few lowly guards.  And once we’re close enough, they won’t be able to run from anyone.”

✸✸✸

Despite the awkward kite shield, ill-fitting surcoat, and oppressively heavy hauberk, Arlise sat motionless in the alley.  This’ll all be over soon.

“Anything?”  Beren laid one hand on her shoulder, while the other rested on the flanged mace at his belt.  Minus the shield, he bore the same equipment as Arlise.

“No.”  She pointed to the great galleass moored at Pier 19.  “The Cetus can’t put to sea, at least.”

Beren grunted.  “We could storm it now, you know.  Calvert’s boys are chomping at the bit for a piece of these slavers.”

Arlise stared at him, mouth agape.  Had Beren lost his mind?  “Absolutely not.  If he’s not here, Valerius will go to ground and we’ll never catch him.  If he is, he could seize the minds of Calvert’s men.  You and I are good, but I don’t like our odds against twenty-four guardsmen.”

Another grunt.  “You really think this Valerius is a blood mage?”

“He’s Tyrian.  Until proven otherwise, we have to expect the worst.”  Didn’t Beren remember the Order’s training?  Arlise wondered whether he’d been paying attention or ogling her back then.  “Calvert’s men have to hang back until we take Valerius off the table.”

“Looks like our chance just arrived.”

Following her partner’s gaze, Arlise spied a man headed toward Pier 19.  He wore a wrapped linen garment.  A…toga, she recalled.  Bands of purple dyed its edges.  A Tyrian custom, and an expensive one at that.  His coppery skin and black hair also suggested Tyrian ancestry.  A kopis hung at his hip.  “That has to be him.”

They waited for him to pass, then advanced from the alley.  “Valerius!” Arlise called.  “You’re wanted for the murders of Emerei Dawson and Cotter Pembroke.”

Valerius froze, then turned.  “Shit.”

Even with twenty feet between them, Arlise heard his heartbeat quicken.

“You have to believe me, Cotter was the only target.  A peddler of human souls.  I did your jobs for you!”  His tongue darted forth to moisten his lips.  “This Dawson woman…that was an accident.”

Arlise glanced at Beren.  “We’ll take that as a confession.”  She pointed at the Cetus.  “Care to confess to slaving as well?”

The Tyrian’s eyes went wide as a full moon.  “Damn you, Cotter,” he muttered.  “Still screwing me over, even in death.”  Valerius took a deep breath and smiled coolly.  “Honorable officers, this needn’t end in violence.  My business is profitable, and I enjoy sharing my wealth with the forgetful.”

Beren scoffed.  “After what we’ve seen, only a fool would take your filthy money.”

Rising fury drowned out everything else.  Bribery?  The nerve on him!  Arlise’s hand drifted toward her blade.  “Emi.  Pembroke.  They were trying to be better.  To be decent people.  And you stole that chance from them.”

“Sounds like I hit a sore spot.”  The mage slipped a needle from the hem of his toga.  “I’d prefer to avoid this, but your integrity gives me no choice.”  Valerius pricked his thumb.  A crimson drop welled up before Arlise’s eyes.  He pointed his bloody thumb at her and Beren.  “You two, jump in the harbor and drown.”

A sharp scratchy pain scraped the inside of her skull.  Salty air thickened and turned oily.  Blood magic.  She shook her head, and the agony faded.

Crossing his arms, Beren chuckled.  “Your little tricks don’t work on us.  I suppose we can add blood magic to your ever-growing list of charges.”

Sweat glistened on Valerius’ face.  “Watchers?!”  The Tyrian fumbled with his needle.

From the corner of her eye, Arlise spotted a group of drunken sailors stumbling along the docks.  Oh Prophets.

“You lot,” Valerius called out, waving his bloody thumb, “kill these guards!”  Then he turned and bolted for the Cetus.

“Catch him, Arlise!  I’ll keep this rabble at bay.”  Beren slipped the flanged mace from his belt.

Arlise barely heard him over the jangle of chainmail as she sprinted after Valerius.  Sea salt and a fishy stench filled her nostrils.

By the time she caught up with him, magical humming filled the air.  Valerius knelt beside the heavy chains mooring the Cetus to Pier 19, and their metal links glowed white hot.  A thermal spell.  He’s trying to melt the rings so they can shove off.

Mentally reaching out, Arlise seized the Tyrian’s connection with the Outerworld.  Energy surged across as it vibrated like a plucked harp string.  She raised a clenched fist and blocked the flow.  The vibrations died.  The humming ceased.  The chains cooled.  Arlise drew her arming sword, Ferde.  Dawn’s first light glinted off its black-flecked blade.  Mother Mighty, steel my soul for battle.

Valerius’ hand drifted toward his kopis.  “Watcher, if you let me go, I’ll call off those men I set on your partner.”

“My partner is just fine.”  She glanced over her shoulder.  The drunken, mind-controlled sailors floated above the docks, held aloft by one of Beren’s kinetic spells.  “You, on the other hand, won’t be much longer…unless you surrender.”

With a strangled shout, the mage tore his blade from its sheath and charged.

Mother Mighty, guide my hand.  Arlise blocked the obvious slash with her shield and stepped back.  Best to get a feel for her opponent’s experience and style.

Another shout and slash, another easy block.  She thought of Emi, of burnt fingers and a life cut short.  Everything other than the scrap at hand died away.

On the third obvious blow, Arlise riposted.  Valerius dodged with surprising speed, but not enough.  Keen starmetal nipped his arm.

“Gah!”

The mage reeled.  Mother Moral, strike down the wicked.  Arlise slashed deep and diagonally, from ribs to hip.  Her blade should’ve spilled his guts on the pier.  Instead, a shriek rose as it ground over bronze scales.  Of course he couldn’t make this easy.  Of course he wore scale armor under the toga.

Trying to keep him off balance, she punched at Valerius with her kite shield.  Mother Moral, cast them into the Void.

Valerius sidestepped.  Arlise realized her mistake just as his kopis bit into her shoulder, shearing through mail rings.  Splashes of color danced across her field of vision.

The blow might’ve been fatal if not for her hauberk.  Still, it was bad enough.  Blood streamed from the gash, and its incessant throbbing broke her concentration.

He slashed again.

Arlise tried to block, but her shield arm refused to rise.  Panicked, she backpedaled.  The kopis swished past her face.

Another slash.  Arlise parried, but the blow’s force drove her to her knees.  “Beren, help!”

Though a short man, Valerius towered over her now.  He raised his kopis overhead, both hands on its hilt.

Mother Merciful, forgive me my sins.  Could her fleeting time with the Watchers make up for her mistakes as a noblewoman?  For Laufenden?  On her knees, staring death in the face, Arlise could only pray.  I wish I had more time to atone.

A magical hum flared to life as she glared up at Valerius, who ducked just in time to avoid a drunken sailor hurtling down the pier, and the poor man bounced off the boards like a stone skipping across a pond.  Mother Magnanimous, thank you for your blessings.

While Beren distracted Valerius, Arlise thrust at the inside of his thigh.  Ferde scythed through muscle and nicked an artery.  Blood poured from the wound like a waterfall.  Screaming, he staggered backwards.  By the Prophets, I pray.

Arlise forced herself up and took in the wounded slaver.  Valerius still clutched his kopis, but he swayed on his feet.  He’ll bleed out in a few minutes.  Too painless a death, considering all he’d done.

“Emi donated everything she could spare.  She tried to be better.  Pembroke planned to build shelters for street children.  He tried to be better.”  Arlise grit her teeth.  “You stole that chance from them.  Something nobody should ever steal from another.”

She lunged, thrusting up beneath Valerius’ ribcage.  Ferde pierced his diaphragm, then a lung.  “You won’t steal that chance from me.”  Blood frothed at his lips.  Arlise watched the life fade from his eyes.  “You won’t steal that chance from anyone ever again.”  She twisted the sword, made Valerius feel his mortality, then let him fall.

It’s done.  Two murders solved, a slaver ring shattered, probably hundreds of slaves freed.  Justice.  “I kept my promise, Emi,” she whispered.

Relief flooded her body as she sank to the pier.  Arlise barely noticed Captain Calvert’s men storm aboard the Cetus.  She barely noticed Beren kneel at her side, barely noticed the hum of magic as he mended her flesh.  Her attention lingered with the dead.  “Valerius might’ve stolen your chance to be better, but he couldn’t take mine.  I’ll put it to good use.  For you.  For Pembroke.  For all of us.”

This story previously appeared in Broadswords and Blasters, 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga

A native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Austin Worley writes fantasy, sci-fi, superhero fiction, romance, and more.  When he's not dreaming up new worlds, Austin enjoys amateur astronomy, gaming, astrophotography, and reading.