As seven recruits picked up their weapons and prepared themselves, Wolf grinned. Ric joined Captain D’luran with a quiet chuckle and she approached the group. One advantage of her mask was that her opponents wouldn’t be able to tell where she would move first. She felt exposed without it, but one look at the fresh-faced boys she was up against showed her they wouldn’t easily monopolise on her tells.
To her amusement, half of them seemed disappointed when they saw her. Obviously, they doubted that she was the “Wolf” from the stories. Sebastian and Bryce were speaking with them, as different in their approaches as night and day, and she prowled slowly while she waited.
The standard rules in their usual matches were simple, and Catryn had skulked around the barracks enough to know them well. The main one was that if you receive what would be a fatal wound with a live weapon, then you step out. Otherwise, the only rule she needed to care about was not to do lasting damage to your opponent. There were implied rules of engagement, of course. Trainings the guards were required to follow. Catryn had no intention of following them; she had a reputation to uphold after all.
Once Captain D’luran barked “begin”, the first mistake the recruits made was grouping up in front of her instead of trying to surround her. Their second mistake was hesitating and coming at her individually. With a wry smile, Wolf predicted that she would be able to incapacitate them all in less than a minute.
Even so, she wouldn’t underestimate them; that was a sure way to end up on the floor. Wolf used everything at her disposal, especially the terrain. Kicking up pebbles to distract them before closing the distance, throwing dust from the ground into their eyes, and forcing them to pursue across uneven cobblestones. Every strike she made would be debilitating with sharpened blades.
The upright guardsmen hadn’t been able to anticipate her actions when she deviated from the expected styles. She could tell from their forms that they were skilled, and that they were dedicated to their training. Their defeat was entirely due to the fact they had only ever sparred with honourable opponents; if they ever went up against a skilled bandit, they would die.
Most of the guards were too shocked to complain about the outcome. Only one scrambled to his feet and charged over to where their captain waited, spluttering “Sir, the rules! We only lost because this woman used underhanded tricks to gain the advantage.”
Raising an eyebrow, unruffled, Wolf bit back on a sarcastic response and watched the exchange. With a wry smile, Captain D’luran responded “Your opponents out in the city won’t much care for our rules.” Without glancing her way, he scanned the crowd of wide-eyed recruits and asked, “Any other volunteers?”
Despite the overwhelming loss, another six recruits stepped up. Whether they wanted to avenge their colleagues or actually saw value in facing her, Wolf didn’t know or care. She met Ric’s eyes briefly, looking for guidance, and his smirk told her everything she needed to know. She had already shown them how she would incapacitate them; it was time to reveal how deadly Wolf could be.
The truth was that it was frighteningly easy for her to go for the kill. Holding back to only disable her opponents was much more difficult. Wolf didn’t need any “underhanded tricks” to destroy them. The second round of recruits had learned from the mistakes of the first. They tried to surround her, and they didn’t wait to be picked off one by one. They had watched the way she thought and were already trying to adjust their styles accordingly.
It was almost a shame to change her tactics. Almost. Three of the guards were down with the daggers she threw within the first few seconds, before they could reach her. The others closed the distance, to use their extended reach. She couldn’t fault their logic, only their inexperience. They clearly didn’t know how to fight as a group, so it was easy to use their momentum against them. Two fell to the blades of their fellow guards. The last did his best to fight but it took no time at all to dart inside his defences and land the finishing blow.
The recruit that had been appealing to Captain D’luran stared and spluttered as the captain called that the match was over. Ric, smirking, suggested “You would do well to remember that it is far easier to kill than to keep your enemies alive.”
“Ahren, what are your thoughts on making this a regular activity?” Captain D’luran asked thoughtfully as he watched his recruits slowly getting to their feet.
Smug, Ric asked “Impressed?”
The captain nodded slowly, replaying how easily his men were overpowered. “This is experience we cannot give them at the moment. Additional training in this regard would keep more of my guards alive in their early patrols.”
“If you want Wolf specifically, you’ll have to ask her yourself. Otherwise,” He paused, his polite expression darkening, “you know my rates.”
“No discount for an old friend?” He asked quietly with a subtle smile.
“After your behaviour earlier, you are lucky that I’m not charging you double.” Ric sighed wearily and relented “Work out the details. Then we’ll talk.”
“It appears our time is up.” He answered with a sigh of his own, and indicated towards Jared’s approaching figure. Ric cursed under his breath in response and fluidly moved to Catryn’s side; Jared wasn’t alone.
The figure, clad in familiar grey robes, drifted across the courtyard toward them. Jared followed closely behind, grimacing as the priest of the Gatekeeper stopped in front of Wolf. Her hands instinctively tightened on the training daggers. Their face was covered by a veil to conceal their features, and their heavy robes shrouded everything else.
The amulet she still wore at her wrist hummed and the priest sank into a deep bow. Without rising, they held a small oblong box out to her with both hands. As Wolf floundered, Ric gently touched her back to steady her. To her relief, the crowd quickly dispersed at a word from Captain D’luran. The priest didn’t stand until after Catryn carefully took the box from their outstretched hands.
The priest said that their duty was completely, and glided through the courtyard and out of the barracks. Ric touched Catryn’s shaking hands, still holding the box, and murmured gently “Let’s finish what we came here to do, and get some rest.”
Jared cleared his throat and offered his arm to her. As they walked together towards the main wall, where Jared’s office was, he said “It is a surprise to see you showing off. Ahren, I understand, but you don’t normally play so well with others.”
“I won’t make a habit of it.” She mumbled. If she thought he would allow it, Catryn would have lifted her hood to hide in its shadows. There were too many people around them, watching and whispering. She was relieved to finally get into Jared’s secluded office, away from all the prying eyes.
It had been at least a year since Catryn had last been inside the office. Like Jared, it hadn’t changed at all since the first time she had seen it. The desk was ordered and spotless, and everything was meticulously kept in place. The only personal touches were in the bookshelf behind the desk; alongside the numerous books, Jared kept his medals and a small portrait of his wife and son, Bryce.
Ignoring the rigid chairs in front of the desk, Catryn and Ric sat on the sofa to the left of the door. Jared joined them with a bottle of whiskey and poured three small glasses. Ric raised an eyebrow in surprise, looking at the old guardsman for an answer, and Jared shook his head. “That priest has been here for two hours, waiting for you.”
“Good. Did they up the offer?” He asked, carefully adjusting his shaking voice to give a more casual air.
“What exactly happened that you decided to renegotiate when you didn’t even know how much was offered!” Catryn flinched at Jared’s sudden harsh tone, but Ric fixed him with an unwavering glare.
Clenching his jaw, Ric insisted “Whatever they offered wasn’t enough. Did he renegotiate?”
“I wouldn’t call it a negotiation.” Jared held up a hand wearily at the anger twisting Ric’s features and added “He brought more coin. I was instructed that the other mercenaries didn’t complete their tasks. Their share of the reward is yours to do as you wish with. Beyond that, he didn’t deem it appropriate to speak further.”
The shadow of a laugh lifted Catryn’s cheeks slightly at the impression Jared gave of his afternoon, though she was too tired to let it surface. Instead, she asked “What did you do for two hours?”
“He insisted on waiting. In silence. In my office.” Noting the light in her eyes, Jared scowled and downed the rest of his drink. As he glanced irritable at the box sitting on her lap, he poured himself another glance. “He needed to deliver that box directly, apparently.”
Ric’s eyes narrowed and his hand automatically moved to Catryn’s leg, as if to make sure she was still there. “You said the others didn’t complete the cleansing?”
“They didn’t survive.” Jared replied with a heavy voice.
Catryn’s mood plummeted and her teeth irritated her lips. In theory, she understood that if a job wasn’t completed then there was no pay. Still, that all the mercenaries aside from their group had died in the catacombs was uncomfortable to consider. “Ric…do you think…”
He nodded grimly, moving his hand to her shoulder. “He wasn’t with us the whole time. It makes sense that he encountered the others as well.”
She hung her head to hide her expression. Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought of the Raven they had faced. Though she didn’t remember what had happened after leaving the inner chamber, she knew with complete certainty that he was gone from their world. Yet, she couldn’t find any joy in it.
Watching her curl in on herself, Ric felt his stomach churn. He knew her well enough to know how she must be affected by all this. If what Jared said was true, then the cleansing she finished would have been amplified to clear the full catacombs. The priest died, because the work they did was the work of six trained priests of the Gatekeeper. His heart stopped all over again, thinking about how close he had come to losing her, and how powerless he had been to stop it.
With a shuddering sigh, Ric put his arm around her shoulders and gently tugged her towards him. She came willingly, leaning into him like a puzzle piece slotting back into place. Catryn argued with herself that it was for Ric’s sake, that he needed her trust, but she knew that was a lie. At his low whisper, telling her to rest, her eyelids drooped and she felt what little energy she had escape her. Knowing that she was safe was the last thing she needed to release the strength that had artificially infused her with Ninian’s potion.
Once Catryn’s breathing evened out, Ric let the soft smile drift from his features and turned back to Jared. In a low voice, he asked “Jared…what do you know about the project to expand the catacombs?”
“I wasn’t aware there was one.” He responded apprehensively, waiting for the bad news he knew would follow.
“They were destroying the ancient burial sites to make room for new ones.” Ric reached carefully into the bag at his side, careful not to jostle Catryn, and placed one stick slowly on the low table between them. “With these.”
A long resounding silence followed his words. Jared’s expression froze on his face, but his eyes were fierce and firm. “Did the high priest know.”
“Hard to say. If not, they know now.” He paused to watch Catryn sleeping, snuggled against his side, and grit his teeth. “I need you to look into where they came from. Discreetly.”
Looking between them, dreading the answer, Jared gently asked “What happened?”
“She nearly died. Again.” So much more than that, more than he could ever say. The bottom line, the only thing his mind would come back to when Jared asked that question, was that he nearly lost her. He nearly lost her, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Once again, his strength and his skill wasn’t enough to keep her safe.
Jared put his face in his hands, a reflex he had to hide his expression when he knew he would falter, and forced himself to take a deep breath. His answer, once he had collected himself, was a resolute nod. He would get to the bottom of this, for the safety of the city. Looking at the bag, he grunted “Is that all of them?”
Ric shook his head with a guarded expression that showed he had no intention to elaborate or to yield. Instead of arguing, Jared sighed and lifted his drink once more. As he savoured the feel of cold glass on his lips, he paused. Eyes darting to the stick of dynamite still on the table, he grimaced and put his drink down; he would need a clear head tonight.
Catryn whimpered quietly in her sleep but calmed when Ric slowly stroked her hair. “What are you waiting for, Ahren?”
His answer stuck in his throat. A few hours ago, he was waiting for a sign that she was ready. Now, he could still feel her throat crushing beneath his hand. He couldn’t forget that she was fragile, and he was dangerous. If he ever lost control around her…he swallowed the lump in his throat and watched her sleeping face.
Ahren wanted to take her back to the guild, to rest. He wanted her in his bed; he wanted to wake up to see the sun on her face. Even though he knew how selfish it was, he wanted the peace her presence brought him. But he was afraid that he would break her.
In silence, he toiled with the thought of taking her to an inn, or to one of her friends. He couldn’t trust Arabella, and Galen was already too close to her for comfort. Besides, based on their interactions, he knew Wolf wouldn’t want to be there. Any other inn…how would he know she was safe when she was exhausted from the last few days?
Jared interrupted his internal agony by calling his name. Ric didn’t know how long he had been lost in his thoughts, and he didn’t much care. Instead of answering Jared’s question, he murmured “Can she sleep here tonight?”
Jared’s piercing eyes searched his face, but he agreed easily. Catryn had been the daughter he had never had ever since she collapsed on the very chair she now slept in. She had torn through a group of bandits like a wild animal, but Jared had only ever regarded her like a doting father. That was the reason Ric knew that Jared was the only person in the city that would put the same energy he would into keeping her safe.
Ric moved slowly, guiding Catryn from his side to lay down fully on the sofa. He smoothly knelt at her side, keeping his eyes on her, drinking her in as if it was the last time he would see her. With a heavy sigh, Ric pulled Catryn’s father’s amulet from his neck, where he had been keeping it safe for her, and pressed it into her hand.
He pressed a finger to her forehead, wishing it was his lips instead, and left without another word.
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