(A/N: So, here's the deal--this chapter is obviously taking way more time than it should to write (and has somehow survived two formattings), so I'm splitting off the 'evening' segment until next chapter; the real chapter 6, which is quite long, will also be split up so that I can put up new parts faster. The good news is that the morning segment for that has already been written, and afternoon is well underway, so it should be up in record time after I finally finish evening. Thanks again for your patience!)
The killer sat on the edge of the windowsill, the toes of his boots planted firmly on the floor. He was cleaning his fingernails with a knife, and had come to the conclusion that the third occupant in the room, the man with the briefcase who never spoke, did not meet his favor. Whether or not the third man would be concerned with knowing a killer disliked him, he did not know.
"Five days," the second man said. His tone was still and bleak, trailing like smoke in the darkened room. "Has any progress been made?"
Yes," the killer said, setting the knife into the table. "Progress has been made."
The third man said nothing.
"Then see it continues to be made," the speaker replied, and the killer nodded and left, a patch of darkness rushing in to fill the space he had been standing upon. The third man rose to follow, but at a motion from his partner, set the briefcase upon the table and undid the clasps, letting the leather sides drop to the wood with muffled thuds.
For a few long moments, silence reigned in the room, weaving its way through the sparse furniture, the moonlight in the window, the dirt and ash. Then the second man sighed, gathering up the folders within. "Ah, Spider," he said, looking down at the pale crisp cardboard, "whatever did you do to upset her so?"
It was the voice, concerned and soothing, more than the shaking of his shoulder which woke Spider, who opened his eyes into thick darkness. For a moment, he thought he might have gone blind, but Spider then realized it was simply dark, for he could see the faint pale outline of Ceri's hair if he focused hard enough into the space before his eyes. The scents of his surroundings were those of his resting place in Astin's liar, as was the feel of the coarse blankets under his bare back—it was the point of his unexpected semi-nakedness that brought him fully to consciousness, and he started to sit up until the girl reached out and pressed him back down, holding one delicate hand over his mouth.
"The Scorpions have made it in," she murmured to him, and Spider's eyes widened and shut as such a motion shot painful bolts of protest through his head. "I didn't want to move you, but you must come with me, if you can bear it."
He nodded instinctively into her hand, which slipped away as she turned around; Spider noticed for the first time that they were not alone, as two women he didn't recognize and Calypso were standing at attention behind Astin's sister, stances ready and weapons in their hands. She said something to the three too softly for him to hear, and before Spider could move, the taller of the two women had leaned down in a swift movement and hoisted the boy over her shoulder. He found himself too embarrassed to protest and in too much pain at the movement to care overmuch, and tried to think light thoughts as the five started down the maze of pitch-dark hallways.
They stopped soon enough in front of a patch of black that looked no different to Spider's eyes than any other, but when the door was opened into sudden brightness, the boy was somewhat relieved to see they were in Ceri's room, Hapriit's flowers waving in the breeze from the windows and the faintest light of dawn. "Put him down on the grass," Ceri whispered, and the thief carrying him obediently did so. Spider relaxed gratefully among the plants and softness of dirt, and watched as the four women briefly conferred before the newcomers set up guard on the outside of the door, the last thing he saw as Ceri shut and bolted the heavy stone entrance.
"This is a safe-room," the girl told him in a more conversational tone as she went over and, spreading out the skirts of a soft mauve dress, settled down beside Spider. "We may be here awhile, I'm afraid, but you should take this time to sleep and heal. Your condition is severe and it will not do to stress yourself unduly."
Spider nodded, absently watching the sun rise outside of the great cuts in the stone, and wondered why the colors were so much paler than the way it had set the previous night. That and the daisy planted just over his head reminded him more sharply of the evening's occurrences, and he tugged on Ceri's arm in sudden panic, drawing her eyes down towards him. Astin, he tried to say, but found his voice had failed him and sunk back dejectedly; the girl smiled softly all the same. He noticed for the first time that her skin was of a nearly gray hue, her eyes red-rimmed, and Spider felt a sudden lurching in his chest.
"His condition is... more severe than yours, but..." The girl shut her lovely ocean eyes, letting out a soft sigh. "He is alive, and so he will fight until he is not. There is nothing anyone could say that will convince him otherwise."
She looked down as Spider tugged on her arm a second time and wrote into the dirt, What happened? The boy felt numb and suddenly guilty as Ceri bit her lip and tried to smile again.
"Apparently, you two had been followed last night by a few of the higher-up Scorpion members. Astin said that one of them pushed you aside when they rushed him, knocking you down a flight of stairs. I am not sure what exactly happened then." The young woman rearranged her position, lightly brushing her fingers over the stiff arcs of a bird of paradice.
"However, based on the extent of the injuries you two sustained, Astin was able to stop your fall before too long, and he tore open my stitches doing so," she continued, voice gentle. "It is lucky that he can fight just as well with either hand... I think that there may have been one or two more attackers than he could comfortably handle, however."
No, Spider thought, closing his eyes; he disagreed. He knew how Astin could move, had to be able to move to race down a flight of stairs—there had likely been one or two more attackers than Astin could fight only with his arm laid open, guarding an unconscious boy. If the thief lord had simply left him... would Ceri be here, red eyed, while the people outside the door were possibly dying without their leader's guidance?
"Spider," he heard her say softly, "why did he take you outside?" The boy only shook his head, at a loss for a reason—he couldn't begin to guess, but wondered if it would be giving his curse too much credit to blame such a thing upon it; he could not bring himself to believe that his bad luck could spread to the indomitable thief lord. Astin, it seemed, did what he willed.
"Ah, well," she sighed, "I suppose that's the way things are." Ceri reached out to lightly pull a weed from the dirt, setting it to the side, and stroked the nearby rose stem carefully around its thorns. "Did you know that turning off the lights in the halls was Rindel's idea? The gang should do well with that advantage. We might even scare those Scorpions away for good, hmm?" She smiled down at Spider gently, readjusting the bandage across his forehead.
'Why?' he wrote between the wildflowers, confused, and Ceri laughed, shifting her weight to the side to smile downwards at the boy.
"Don't you know about the Scorpions' gang skill?" she asked, and Spider shook his head again. "It's what makes them a contester to the Roses, even with their smaller numbers—they can move through the shadows, blend into the faintest casting of darkness. They say that their leader has the book of Thirteen Stars, and that he uses that knowledge to pass on the ability to his gang... but the leader has been underground for quite some time now, and it's his second-in-command that doesn't like Astin. Lindsie, our darling cook, you've surely met her, haven't you? Well, she was the second's favorite, er, lover, you see, and he was most upset when my brother rescued her from his grasp."
Spider had not heard of gang skills, but wondered if that's what Jackstar had been after last night, the knowledge that Spider was a spy from a rival gang. It was as far from the truth as one could come but, the boy reflected, not something he could readily prove. He would remain in the gang's suspicions for now—if they survived this day, that was.
Why had Astin taken him to the top of the walls, when there had been enemies waiting for him? The thoughts combined sent a sudden chill through Spider as he realized that now Jackstar and the others might become even more suspicious, since Astin had gotten attacked while alone with him. The scenario made him realize how careless he had become in just four short days, to have indulged in the high spirits he had basked in the other day on the wall, just to be taken down into despair again. If he was apathetic, the curse could hurt him less; if he numbed his nerves and shut down his mind, it could hurt him not at all. Spider was never good at apathy, however, no matter how hard he strove for it. He had never been good at anything at all.
Ceri was still talking, he realized after a moment, and directed his attention towards her once more—it was hard, with the buzzing in his head caused by the evening's injuries. "Of course, they've never approved of Astin from the start. He caused quite a stir when he showed up, you know, and I'm afraid the other gangs have not been pleased with his actions. I tell him that he should try to form allies, not enemies, but he says his agenda doesn't allow for that. The silly boy..."
She reached out to stroke Spider's hair absently, and he felt the roar of his headache dissipate with some relief. "He's so intent on getting those passwords that nothing is going to stop him. Getting trapped inside these city walls was the worst thing that has ever happened to him, he feels—he can't even recognize the goodness that is here, although I have to admit it's sometimes hard to see. Finding you was a lucky break, though," she said, and laughed at the expression that sentence drew to Spider's face. "No, don't disagree—I just remembered why Astin would have taken you to the wall. Yesterday was Y'ffennor, and you're supposed to do something nice for someone you know, according to the people of Abry. That's where we're from, you know."
Ceri trailed off, raising her gaze to the apple blossoms overhead, and Spider watched her intently in confusion. Why had Astin felt that he was a someone to do something nice for, and—even if there was some underlying reason behind that—couldn't the man have just given him a book, or a good piece of meat? Spider did not have many requirements for happiness, and now the black-dressed assassin was in such a state that his gang's healer would not look at Spider while she spoke of it. It didn't seem right, or fair, to him.
With a sigh, he half-shut his eyes, relaxing further into the ground of Ceri's garden. He could see, from the corner of his vision, bandages wrapped across his left ankle, securing down flat slips of wood there, and thinner gauze-covered patches on his chest, where he must have scraped his skin open on the jagged stone steps. The thief had stopped his fall, Ceri had said. Spider, surprisingly, had not taken trips down very many flights of stairs, but he was aware of the forces that pulled things downwards at quick speeds, and could not imagine how fast the man must have moved after him. The thought was bewildering to Spider. The answer to what Astin wanted seemed just out of his reach, but he couldn't make the connection, laying outstretched among the goddess's flowers.
When Spider's vision suddenly shut off, a sudden sense of fear overtook him. The last time this had happened among these corridors, it had merely been Astin's arrival to the room, but now the loss of his vision reminded him sharply of the previous night. Astin had told him says ago to ask for help—and yet, it could be nothing, his curse striking back at him for having grown so careless.
However, those slighter fears of unsureness were dismissed he heard the breath of a dagger drawn from the far side of the room where he had been sure no one was standing. A whistle split through the air, and it was followed by the repulsive crunch of a knife sinking into muscle and bone. Terrified, Spider struggled upwards even as he felt the air currents of Ceri falling away from his side, and then nails were dug into his arm as he was hauled fully to his feet.
Nothing further happened, however, and when his vision faded back in he was surprised to see the blonde haired girl peering at him with anxious eyes, apparently unharmed. "Did you wish to stand?" she asked him, and over her bared shoulder Spider could see a fair-haired man crumpled on the ground, a red-handled knock-out dagger protruding from his shoulder. From the angle, the boy numbly guessed that one of the guards outside the door must have heard the noise and thrown the blade in, and yet...
"Oh," the girl said, following his gaze, and he saw a light blush spread across her nose from the corner of his eye, "don't worry, he'll be fine. I appear to have forgotten to put the extra warding tokens Astin had brought me over that patch of floor, but luck blessed me to have him fall as he did; I don't believe the Scorpions can actually traverse shadows through one of their own." Her wording drew the boy's attention from the fallen gang member, and he looked at her for a blank moment before the lady gave a small cough and showed him the set of red-gripped daggers lining the generous folds of her elegant dress. "My brother taught me how to throw."
"Ah," was all Spider found he was able to say as his eyes shut off once more. The safe room, then, was not quite as safe as they had thought, but he was worse than useless in a fight—what was he able to do, to protect this girl who seemed impossibly, unconditionally willing to help him? Astin, he knew, even from his relatively short time inside the dark hair man's lair, would be wrathful should he let any harm befall her even despite his handicaps.
Although, she perhaps was not so defenseless as he had thought, Spider mulled absently, as the girl gently helped him back onto the grass. He had never spared a thought on why Ceri, of all the world's individuals, had ended up in the jail city of Yuran—he might have guessed that she had followed her brother in out of some misplaced good will, but if it had indeed been she that had pegged the attacker at such an angle, then it might be true that the girl was imprisoned for a real reason. The thought gave Spider a headache again, and he sat with nervous stiffness, wondering if the man was going to come to consciousness while they weren't paying attention.
"Fear not," he heard her say, "We're quite safe now. Won't you sleep?" Spider shook his head in reply, too anxious to rest, and she sighed audibly but could not persuade him.
They sat in silence for a few moments before Ceri placed her hand over Spider's, tone bright and hopeful. "Well," she said, "if not, then... perhaps, Spider, you could tell me about how you came upon this curse of yours?" When his hazy eyes widened in surprise, she continued hurriedly, "I've been ever so curious. Either you or Calypso must have told me that it was fairies that did it, but I've never heard of them cursing someone such as you. Tell me, is it true that they are as beautiful as everyone says?"
It was not the first time Spider had been asked such a thing, and he was sure it would not be the last. He didn't like being distracted from paying attention to his surroundings, but... well, the attacker had been dispatched with incredible speed, and the boy doubted he could do anything about another even if he could hear it, so the gardener took a deep breath and leaned into the grass.
Spider didn't remember much of his time before the fairies, but for a gray farmhouse with grass-dragon hatchlings grazing in the yard, two older figures that must have been his parents, and three freckled, long-haired sisters that ran with him by the river. One, he knew, he called Ifni, and they were the closest of the family—the names of the other two, he could not remember for all the trying in the world, but he remembered that he loved them. He recalled certain scenes, flashes of memory, like freeing a grasshopper trapped in the attic, and slowly pushing the wagon towards town, but of his family, that was all.
He remembered the fairies well, however, Yi and Gy and Ar, and that they were all indeed beautiful enough to break the hearts and minds of any of a certain age who looked upon them, which was why fairies dealt almost always with human children. They had hair that swept the ground and did not stay the same color from moment to moment, and wings of gold and silver chainmail they kept under unicorn-fur coats, and they lived with their tribe in the ancient woods by Spider's house. It was from Ar that he received his first kiss, and Yi his first lover's token, and Gy his first courting, because the fairies loved to tease and drive the still-child to blushing. They and their families all took great joy in Spider and his sisters, he remembered, and welcomed them whenever they would come.
"What did their homes look like?" Ceri asked him excitedly, and he told her of the great towering trees that grew hollowed out so that the fairies might live among them, and the bright cloths that lined the sweeping branches overhead to lessen the rains when they fell. Their leader, Ar's father, lived in the smallest tree with the silver leaves, and would always prepare the most wonderful meals for Spider, so that the boy might take some home to his family and honor them thus.
And for some reason, at that point, when he might have diverted on the tale of a poisoned and deranged fairy that he had come up with for entertainment at bars and frantic alleyway pleas, he told her the true story of Ar and the dragon, the great basaltic nest Spider and the three fairies had stumbled upon and the angry father inside.
Ar was always the bravest, and he stood in the dragon's path and urged his friends to run, that some of them might escape alive. Because of the War of Three Berry, dragons that lived in Spider's homeland—and he could not recall where it was, only that fact—hated fairies with great passion. Yet there had been a pact later made that the dragons all honored that they could never harm a human, and it was that pact that ran through Spider's head over and over again at that moment. They all knew it. Yi and Gy looked to Spider, as did Ar, and the boy knew, deep inside himself, that his friend was willing to die for him needlessly.
But Spider could only see the sharp teeth, the fierce claws, the mindless gaze. He ran.
Ar was killed in a few swift bites, as was Gy, but Yi escaped to run, and was caught by a great breath of dragon fire. The fire Spider remembered clearly, great red and orange flames that leaped to the sky in ravaging arches, that blazed through the ancient trees of the forest like parchment. It followed his footsteps, chased him to the fairy village, and ripped it apart in waves of heat and screams.
"Ar's father, their leader, was the only fairy living when the fires died down," the boy continued tiredly, watching the apple blossoms sway high overhead. "He named me as Spider—or really, Spy'dihaer in their language, which means cursed —and said I would long for death for all my life. And that is all I remember."
Ceri looked at him for a few moments in the silence, eyes wide and still. She leaned forward and put her hand gently on the boy's cheek, sending a shudder through him, and said quietly, "I hope you find more than death here."
Spider turned his gaze sightlessly towards the sound of her voice, and Ceri tapped the end of his nose, lightening her tone. "Astin would be awfully sad if you died on us now. In fact," she started, but never was able to inform Spider of further information as the door suddenly opened, and her grip shot towards her sleeves. The person standing in the doorway, however, was not dressed like the man still unconscious on the floor, but was Jackstar, blood dripping from a cut on his cheek and a serious look in his usually jovial eyes.
"It's Astin," he said, and Ceri leaped to her feet in a single swift movement, flowing towards the door. The smooth-domed man halted her with a gesture, shaking his head. "He's not... well, I mean, he is wounded, but that's not it. He's taking on the Scorps."
"All of them?" Ceri said, shooting pale, and Jack nodded. "I will go to him," the girl continued firmly, stepping to the side around him, but the man grabbed her shoulder and did not let her pass. She narrowed her pale eyes, tilting her head back and throwing her whole commanding aura into her demand. "He needs me."
The thief paled under the insistence but kept to his position, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, lass," he told her in a gentler tone, "but he needs you safe. And..." Jack's eyes flicked towards Spider briefly, and Ceri shoulders dropped with her gaze as she sighed, nodded, and returned to the boy's side.
Jackstar, meanwhile, had noticed the man in the corner, and gave a low whistle before shooting a thief's gesture of accomplishment towards Ceri, who accepted the praise with a nod. "Be careful," he said, and left, thumping the door so that the latch fell back into its locked state behind him—Spider, listening, wondered with a sudden frown how the man had entered in the first place, as he was certain he remembered Ceri barring the door earlier. His eyes faded back in before he could ask the question, however, and he had to contend himself with the idea that perhaps Astin's 'gang skill', if the cold-voiced man had any, was sheer uncanniness.
A sigh from the man's sister drew his attention and, looking up at the girl's forlorn expression, he felt a sudden twist of guilt. Astin was fighting Scorpions wounded, because of him. He reached out to touch Ceri's arm, motioning to the door slightly when he had her attention, but the young woman just smiled and shook her head. "No," she murmured, "Jackstar is right—Astin would be too upset if you got hurt." Spider, who had not seen the man's glance and would not have interpreted it in such a way, could only look at her in wonder and try to imagine what the man wanted from him, that he would become affected by injury to a boy useless to his gang. Ceri didn't seem about to give an explanation, so he settled back in among the flowers, inhaling their scent until the sweetness overwhelmed him and he had to breathe through his mouth instead.
Together, they waited. Buds in the garden around them rose, burst, and died. Among the leaves and stems, spiders scurried over rich brown dirt and fallen petals--the light would touch them, and they ran.