Chapter Four

30 Leafcull, YK 73

"We found a body, sir."

Rory tensed, but otherwise hid his alarm well. If the disappearances were turning into murders…

"It's not one of the previous victims."

The sense of relief was almost a palpable thing…

"He was, however, a known Family member."

…and horribly short-lived. Rory closed his eyes and took a deep breath, struggling to keep his expression carefully neutral. "Show me."

The journey out of the city and into the Dwells was less than pleasant. It was an uncomfortably chilly day, and the Dwells were smelly, dirty, and filled with beggars and louts of every sort. Rory was glad Lieutenant Coleman had thought to order an escort.

Four Guards had been stationed at the crime scene. They were busy fending off a crowd of interested onlookers when Rory and the other Guards arrived. Coleman immediately took the situation in hand, sending the majority of the spectators packing with a single look or harsh word. A few were displaced residents, and one was the owner of the boarding house. These Coleman left in the hands of his underlings with orders to allow them in once Rory had surveyed the scene. Then he and Rory entered the building.

The smell struck him first. Rory coughed and lifted a hand to his nose. Coleman nodded sympathetically. "Aye, it smells something awful. We suspect the body's been lying there for two days or so. It would smell worse if it weren't so blasted cold outside."

Rory nodded and steeled himself against the ghastly odor.

Coleman led him up a flight of stairs to a room halfway down the length of the building. The smell grew stronger with each step. Finally, Coleman threw open a door and waved Rory through.

Rory hesitated on the threshold. Aside from the smell, the man within might have simply been sleeping. The window was open, but there were no signs of a struggle. There wasn't even any blood. Rory forced himself to approach the corpse lying in the bed. As he came closer, he finally saw the blood. At first, he couldn't tell where the wound was. He had to lean in close over the body to find the small incision on the side of the dead man's neck. The cut was quick and precise, the work of a true master.

Rory took a moment to explore the rest of the room, but there was nothing amiss. No sign of burglary. The small chest tucked into a corner was still closed and securely locked. He shook his head in bafflement as he rejoined Lieutenant Coleman in the corridor outside. The Guard closed the door quickly and led the way back out to the street.

"So, what do you think?"

Rory considered for a long time. He began to pace slowly away, headed back to the city and the palace. Finally, he looked up at the young lieutenant. "I think it is one man."

Coleman nodded. "I'd agree with you there. It's just too similar in style to be a group of people. I thought at first that it might be another petty gang war, but I don't know what to think anymore."

"It was very…cold. Businesslike."

Coleman nodded again. "Aye, I'd noticed that too. There's no theft at all, whoever is doing this has a very clear purpose in mind." He paused. "Do you think it's a hired assassin?"

Rory shook his head. "I doubt it. Aside from their connection to the Family, none of these people are important or distinguished in any way. Why waste the money on an assassin? Even if the person who wanted them dead could not handle them himself, he obviously knows of their unlawful activities. He could simply turn them in if he only wanted them dead."

Coleman scratched at his chin thoughtfully. "Aye, that makes sense." Another pause. "Perhaps it's vengeance, then."

"Vengeance?"

"Maybe someone who has a grudge against the Family in general, or maybe its leaders in particular."

A faint memory flickered at the edges of Rory's mind, but it vanished the instant he turned his attention to it. He dismissed it as he and his escort approached the South Gate.

"Keep me informed, please," Rory called after Coleman as the Guard turned toward the guardhouse, leaving him to continue on to the palace alone. The lieutenant nodded emphatically before leading his little troop away.

As soon as Coleman was out of sight, Rory turned on his heel and headed back toward the South Gate. The guards shot him a bemused look, but opened the gates quickly enough at the sight of his uniform and the black incal stitched on the breast of his green tunic. They saluted him respectfully and murmured "Sir" as he passed.

Rory stopped at the first clothing shop he came across and purchased a plain, slightly frayed cloak. He swung it over his shoulders and pulled it tight against the chill in the air. It covered his uniform admirably.

Wrapped up in his new disguise, Rory hurried through the streets, taking turns with confidence and surety. He finally stopped before a small shack wedged in tight between a cobbler's workshop and an abandoned building with a faded and battered wooden sign. Rory knocked firmly, three times. A small thud came from within, and then silence. Rory knocked again.

"Come out or I am coming in after you."

Rory listened intently as a scraping sound reached his ears, followed by the patter of quick, soft footsteps. Playing a hunch, Rory ducked off to the side of the building and around to the back. He turned into the alley that ran behind the three buildings just as a short, skittish figure emerged from a small door set into the middle one. Rory strode confidently forward.

The lithe figure turned toward Rory just as he came within reach. He was a small, freckle-faced man with a shock of flaming red hair. The man inhaled sharply as Rory approached. Rory was well accustomed to this sort of reaction--his height and heavy build easily intimidated the large majority of people he met. But he wasn't expecting the man to suddenly whirl about and take a running leap at the far wall of the alley.

Rory lunged forward and barely managed to catch hold of the man's ankle. The smaller man kicked out wildly just as Rory yanked, and though Rory lost his grip, the man cried out and fell away from the rough brick he had been clinging to. Rory pounced and caught the man's shoulders as his feet hit the ground, spinning him around and pushing him against the wall. The man grimaced and cringed back.

"Hold it." It was unnecessary at that point, really. The little man obviously wasn't going anywhere. Rory eyed him warily, then gave him a bit of a shake to get his attention. The cloak fell back from his shoulders as he did so, revealing his uniform. The redhead froze on the spot, and Rory swore he could smell the man's sudden fear.

"What do you want?" the man snapped, his tone clipped and abrupt.

"Manners would be a good start," Rory growled in response. The man flinched back, but met Rory's gaze steadily. Rory stifled a snort. "You are a member of the Family." It was not a question, and the redhead's sudden stillness and wide eyes only confirmed it. Rory pressed on. "Who is the one who hunts your people?"

The redhead squirmed, suddenly dodging Rory's hard gaze. "I don't know."

Rory shoved him harder against the wall, lifting him up off his feet a bit. The man yelped. "Do not lie to me."

"I don't know, I swear it! No one knows! We call him the Nighthawk, but no one knows who he is or where he came from!"

The Nighthawk. Rory considered for a long moment. The name suited well enough, he supposed. "What do you know of him?"

"Very little. He targets Siblings. No one speaks of him. No one knows why."

Rory let the man go, and he slid down to the ground with a sigh of relief. With a flick of his fingers, Rory settled his cloak back over his uniform and turned away. He made it only a couple of blocks before he hesitated, suddenly positive that he was being watched. Rory turned in a slow circle, carefully peering into all the shadows and alleys nearby, but he saw no one on the narrow road. With a slight shiver, he turned back and hurried off toward the city.

A pair of dark, dark blue eyes followed his progress from the top of a nearby roof, tracing his path until he vanished into the maze of the Dwells.

Two days later, the man Rory had visited turned up murdered in his sleep. Rory never did find out whether he died at the hands of the Family, or the Nighthawk.

Two down.

----------

Seth sipped appreciatively at the thick, warm liquor, then raised his glass in a salute to the only other occupant of the room. The other man smiled thinly and sipped at his own glass.

"You've heard about the murder, then."

Seth nodded agreeably and took a longer drink.

"Why come to me?"

Seth's slate grey eyes flashed as he set his glass aside. "You know Roland disappeared."

"Aye."

"There's reason to believe the same man is behind the murders and the disappearances."

"Ah."

Seth pursed his lips in contemplation and paced the width of the room twice as his companion digested the news. It was the other man who broke the silence between them.

"I see. And you feel the need to rescue young Roland."

"I owe him."

The other man nodded sympathetically. "Perfectly understandable."

"Can you help me?"

The man hesitated. "Yes, but likely not as much as you'd like."

Seth shook his head. "All I need is a name."

"That, I cannot give you."

"Is it restricted?"

The man chuckled softly. "No. No one knows it, not even I."

"I see." Seth took up his glass again and took several slow mouthfuls before he replied. "What can you tell me about this elusive Nighthawk?"

"He's good. Very good. Possibly even better than you."

Seth narrowed his eyes. There was only one man in all the world he'd ever encountered who was truly more skilled than he was. "Where did he come from?"

Seth's companion shrugged helplessly. "We've no idea. No one seems to know. He simply…showed up."

"People don't simply pop up out of nowhere."

"He obviously has quite the grudge against the Family."

"Did Roland ever mention anyone like that before we lost him?"

"No."

Again, there was only one man who came to mind, but he was long dead. He had died four years ago. The moment Seth had learned of his death, he had given himself up for dead as well. Seth shook his head at the bitter memories and drank deeply, draining his glass and filling himself with the warmth and comfort of strong alcohol. He set the empty glass on the table. His companion moved away from the window, crossing the distance between them in three swift strides. He took the uncorked bottle from the mantle above the large hearth and refilled Seth's glass to the brim.

Seth eyed the glass speculatively. Then he took it up and lifted it to his lips.

"There is one other thing that may be of interest to you."

Seth lifted one brow in silent encouragement.

"You're not the only one intent on tracking down this Nighthawk."

"Oh?"

"Aye. Rory Falcon has as much or more interest than you. He's been asking around, such as it is."

Seth blinked. Why hadn't he thought of that? Of course Roland's brother would be interested in finding the boy's captor. He tipped his glass back once more. "Is he interested enough for a fairly direct partnership?"

Seth's companion sipped at his glass, his expression thoughtful. "I'm not sure. He's young, but not stupid. He's very loyal. I know he knew a bit of his brother's interests, but not much, so I'm unsure how he'd react to the things he would need to know to be of use to you. I can tell you, though, that he would go to ridiculous lengths to see his dear brother home safe."

"Mmm." Seth buried his nose in his glass again, then lowered it and stared thoughtfully down at the last bit of dark liquor in the bottom. He twirled it about, sending the thick liquid into a swirling funnel. Then he tipped his head back, draining the last drops, and set the glass on the table.

"Thank you for your time. Your assistance is greatly appreciated."

Seth stumbled on the first step toward the door. Maybe the drink had been a bit more potent than he'd thought.

----------

Roland shivered. He was so cold. It was dark down here, with only the stone and the earth and the rats for company. He almost wished his captor would return, simply for the company and distraction. But he didn't.

Roland had only seen the other man twice in the week or so since he'd woken to find himself here. The grogginess, dry mouth, and gnawing hunger that first day let him know he'd been drugged somehow. His captor had confirmed it by checking a small bandage on Roland's upper arm on his first visit. The man never spoke, but he always brought food. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was something at least…

Maybe he intended to starve Roland to death.

But that didn't make sense; the man wouldn't have brought him food at all if he meant to do that. For the hundredth time, Roland pushed aside this pointless speculation. He had no idea why he'd been captured and brought here, but he wasn't going to find the answers by thinking himself into circles.

All he could do was sit, and shiver, and wait.

----------

"Come now…it's not that hard. It's just a little name."

Kevan shuddered as his captor ran his fingers lightly over his exposed ribs. He couldn't see the man because of the thick, heavy blindfold. He couldn't see the room either, but he knew from the echoes and the cold that the walls were stone and he was underground. He hung listlessly somewhere near the middle of the room, his wrists and ankles caught in iron manacles, and he wore nothing but his worn trousers, now even more worn and soiled.

"Kevan, just give me a name and I'll leave for the day. It's as easy as that."

Kevan pressed his lips together in a childish gesture of defiance.

"Kevan." A hard, cold note had slipped into his captor's tone, and Kevan shivered, trying hard to brace himself for what he knew was coming. "Do not fight me, Kevan. You know you cannot win."

The footsteps circled around to Kevan's front again. The silence hung heavy for a moment, and then: "Seems we've taken this as far as we can. Time to move on." The footsteps receded.

Kevan felt a sudden rush of relief. He'd finally bored his captor into giving up! Now the man would realize he would get nothing more from him and kill Kevan at long last. Kevan had begun to wonder if the man would ever tire of this. It had been at least three weeks now.

But then an odd smell touched Kevan's nose. He inhaled deeply. It smelled like something burning…a torch, perhaps.

A cold chill raced up and down Kevan's spine as the footsteps clicked toward him.

"Let's play a little game, Kevan."

A game…Kevan closed his eyes beneath the heavy cloth across his face.

"I have here a very, very hot blade. I wouldn't want it to go to waste, now. Would you like it on the small of your back, or your left armpit?"

Kevan realized abruptly that he was shaking. He tried to stop, but no act of will could make his weary limbs obey him. He shook his head in desperate denial.

"If you don't pick one, I'll do both."

Kevan couldn't quite suppress a little whimper of sheer terror. The boots clicked closer, circling over to his left. A moment passed.

"Or, you could just give me a name."

"I already have," Kevan gasped.

"One. Only one. I know you have more than one to give me, Kevan."

Kevan shook his head, sending droplets of sweat flying from the lank tips of his short hair.

"Choose now, Kevan."

Kevan clenched his teeth tightly.

"Ah…you're decision, then." Kevan felt the heat of the blade before it touched his skin.