It begins with a flash of light upon the slate, illuminating the stoic figures of Stormwrack's citadels. Ink blots of water smash against the windows of his place. High rise; good rent. My legs swing over the edge while I idly check the fresh bruising on my abdomen. "Damn eldritch kahna..." A Steamrail flows through the tunnel of the tower, only a few hundred feet below me, and I feel the heat and steam rise, pushing my matted hair out of my face. A fresh flash of lightning illuminates the Northstar Arena and the seven glowing towers of the Tyrium Court. If I didn't know better, I'd swear I'd spotted one of the arcane eyes of the stinkin' Amaranthine themselves.
So thanks, Rayph. At least you had a decent view of your own chains. I raise a glass to the lightning, and finish the bottle with a finger to the heavens...
It's midnight before we know it. We're soaked and freezing but we share the drag anyway. Something simple this time, just to warm our bones. An empty shooter sits at our hips. A third occupies the empty space next to me, filled to the brim with firewater whiskey, just the way he liked it.
The shot still spitting fire in my throat, I take the silence with solace and trace the line of his name in the brass dog tags I now find hanging around my neck. They were sent to me while I nursed my ribs back into place.
Benjin sits to my left. The smallest of us, but toned to a fault. The guy rarely stops moving, and he's as sharp as a tack. Boasts he feels no pain; body's a temple and all that, I guess. With a drawn breath, he starts.
"The first time I met Rayph I was in a gutter. I remember the rain hammering my back; broken nose, laughing blokes nearby. Seven lugs without a good heart among 'em. We laid them out - brothers born in battle..."
"Hm. Ride or die." I draw more poison into my lungs, letting the memory flow. Ben always liked a good story. There were four goons, not seven, and I spent most of the time trying to choke out one of 'em. Rayph was always built like a bruiser; left hook like a truck and an uppercut to lift a man off his feet.
Benjin stepped in first. Placed himself between her and them. Rough neighborhood; in over her head. A swift crack knocked him nearly out, but I gotta' give the kid credit; he always rises. You can't keep Benny down. I was next; tried the talking thing, transitioned to breaking wrists and headlocks. The brawl cascading over us - two idiot boys trying to do right for once - Rayph stepped in. Two broken jaws and a nasty concussion later, we stood soaked to our skivvies, a battle won. We escorted the lady back; no need for her name - she's not coming back here, lost pup that she is.
We signed up for the Guild that night. Our tags even share the same digits.
The memory fades and I reach out to squeeze Ben's shoulder. "The job ain't rainbows, buddy. We all know it. Anything we take might be our last night."
"Doesn't make it suck any less." He grumbles, shrugging my hand off.
"Aye, that." Cold rain spills down ahead of us over the eaves - a waterfall to obscure the view of the Tyrium Court, ever lit in the night. "How was the party?"
"Strix. Straight up." Benjin sighs, taking in another drag of the cigar. "I don't even know why I was there in the first place..."
"Rayph elected you as his second for a reason, Ben."
Ben's eyes flash with red and I shut my mouth. "As a representative of a Guild that murders for profit, boyo. These are 'enlightened' folk; they got no idea the choices we need to make and why we make them." Another drag and he expels smoke from his nose in a long column. "...I met a girl there."
My mind makes a few jumps before landing on the word and attempting to stay balanced. "Excuse me? I need details - Ow!" Benny cracks me in the arm. Kahna, it's still bruised...
"Shut your hole, nothing happened. It was good to vent, but she seemed a little vacuous and...malformed. Not my type, anyway." He chuckles and I listen to the sound. It's good to hear him laugh; news on Rayph hit him harder than I thought, and the look in his eyes before stepping onto the Steamrail did not inspire confidence for his intentions.
I decide to press the button. "You came back early. You're usually late; what happened?"
Ben crosses his arms and stares out through the liquid mirror. I follow his gaze to meet the warbling eyes of his reflection. He is quiet a long time. "The pendulum swings, brother."
It's been a long time since anyone close has spoken of the Faith. Most are zealots, bent on hunting Spirals and justifying their crusades with 'seeking balance.' Benjin has always believed in something; a guiding star perhaps...or a ticking clock. Either way, the phrase sticks in my mind whether I want it or not.
"I felt it shift last night." He shakes his head, chewing his lower lip. "I knew that Bonecross bitch has something to do with Lunatic's Fringe; I felt it in my marrow. But something wasn't right. None of the fish were biting when they were supposed to; it was all...off somehow." I watch the gears continue to turn. "That girl wasn't right. The more I talked to her, the more fishing she did. Not obvious; but it didn't smell right - voice was too high. Then there was Father Ventus. Wrong stride; guy doesn't glide, he clomps. Tobias was...himself. Unobservant and pleasant. ...Ironwoods command no matter what, and the Silverborne make you consider all sorts of pleasurable things - they were on point as usual. But Bonecross seemed scared; Munroe had extra Dead Beats in the stands, and no one dared touch their liquor. Like a powder keg ready to blow..."
"In a way. Someone attempted an assault; real magician stuff - meaningless in the long haul and between Lyla and her pack, short-lived. ...But it was a ruse. Shortly after that girl visited me that night - don't give me that look, boyo - something climbed into my room. A monster. Bloke threw me out a window."
"I told you to never take those boots off."
"...And that's why I'm still standing, taka. But this was planned; a coordinated strike. I don't even know who won..."
He chuckles again, deep and loud. "Yeah. I left. No job, no talon, no stake. Not my fight."
A stupid grin stretches across my face. "You've grown up, brother."
"I grew wise. Loss has a funny way of bringing things into perspective."
The rain shifts again; cascades part for a brief moment - a window beyond the Elevated Court to the mountains near Oroboros. Ben stares at the rising moon, huge and bright behind the clouds. A forgotten world tethered to our own. "You've been out too long - Liv's set to worry."
"Eh, I'll be fine."
"She's gonna' need you. Now, more than ever."
"...I've got this."
"I mean it, boyo. You're not back yet, and we ain't trackin' people this time. Let me take the work - you need to help her heal..."
I take the last drag and pitch the cigar over the side, looking Benjin square in the face. "Give me your word, then." Removing the glove on my right hand, I lift it up to him.
Setting his jaw in a decision, he steps forward, pressing his forehead into my palm. The words are crisp, and slow - practiced by every student of war. "I, a ward of the Old and New, do bring myself into the service of you. These rings you seek, I shall covet to keep, and none shall stand in my way."
"Be fast. Be safe. Bye, brother." The moment ended, I punch him in the shoulder and limp back to the stairs. It's late. Yes. Liv is going to kill me.
You Are Formally Invited
To the Grand Gala of the Sky and Moon.
Hosted here in the Arena at Northstar Tower in the Elevated Court.
Bring your friends. Bring your wares.