Wesley leads me through the city. I have been here many times before but never for something like this, only when I was out hunting a charge. He turns and looks at me over my shoulder. "I am sticking my neck out for you here Alani. You have to be on your best behavior." I frown, unappreciative of being scolded like a child.
"I know how to behave Wesley," I snap. He glances back at me and smiles gently.
"Of course you do, I am only worried for you Alani." I look away with a scowl; I don't need anyone's worry. I shift the bag on my back feeling the absence of Ezla's weight. Wesley had suggested I leave him at the bar.
It makes me nervous not to have him with me in case I need to make a quick escape, the sun is in the middle of the sky making the shadow's the shortest they would be all day. All of this seems fishy to me and if it were anyone but Wesley I would think this was a trap. Even so I am uneasy. "Why wouldn't you give me any details Wesley? I don't like this."
"Trust me Alani; have I ever led you astray?" Wesley asks, smiling back at me.
We approach a place that was once a park. There are still a few stubborn plants that grew here. They are nothing but glorified weeds if you ask me. I step onto the soft grass, stepping over the fallen gate. Marigolds sway in a breeze so slight that it doesn't stir my hair. There is a dirtied and polluted pond where nothing but scum grew but I suppose some would call the green water pretty. A part of a building served as a bench next to the large puddle. On it sat a girl that was clearly pampered.
Her clothes are neat and spotless. A ruffled skirt falls about her ankles, a lacy hem hand-sewn to the ends. Even her shoes are only slightly worn. Her skin is lightly tanned and her small, smooth hands lay folded on her lap. They are clearly hands that have not seen a hard day's work or held a weapon. Hair that looked like sienna silk cascades down her shoulders and hazel eyes stare at me unabashedly.
I immediately regard this girl with general dislike. She was given privileges that cost others much in this world where everyone needs to pull their weight. Standing beside her is a stern faced man in a suit that doesn't look cheap. He regards me coolly, no doubt comparing my haggard appearance to the girl that sat in front of him. I glare back at him, lilac eyes unwavering. I had practiced this gaze and I knew it showed no weakness.
The man clears his throat and the girl stood up swiftly. She gives a slight nod of her head. "It is a pleasure to see you again Wesley." Her hazel eyes move to me, "You must be Alani, I have heard much about you from Wesley."
I frown, how does Wesley know this girl? And what has he told her about me? I shoot Wesley a dark look from the corner of my eyes and then look back at the girl. "Really? I have heard nothing about you."
She looks surprised and the man behind her spoke up. "Surely you have heard of the princess of the After. She is to be crowned in a little more than a month. Are you that self-sheltered you naïve girl?" Anger sparks in my stomach.
I glare at the girl, so this was the chosen princess of Aftermath? The people of Beacon had agreed to come under the rule of this girl, as they were eager to be under the protection of the knights of the crown. I sighed, "We are going to revert back to medieval times then?"
A look of confusion passes over the girl. She probably didn't even know how to read. I had learned at an early age and read anything I could get my hands on, books were hard to come by but many held details of the past.
A shadow moves beneath one of the near buildings and a young man steps out that I have not seen until now. From his attire I immediately recognize him as another of the king's knights, just like the ones that stole my mark the night before. A red cape cinches in front of his throat and falls down his back, almost brushing the ground. Thick looking boots had black pants tucked into them and a shirt that matched it. It looks like they were made out of some kind of tough hide, hammered to a softer feel but still much tougher than any cotton or other textile. He didn't wear the thick brown leather armor of the men I had seen last night. Gloves hid his hands and they rested on the hilt of a sword at his hip. His eyes were a dusty brown under blonde hair and he openly glares at me. "You are one to talk Bounty Hunter." His words are crisp and short; there is a harshness behind them that shows more experience than any scars. This boy has experienced hardship. "You think that it is better to let these people live in a lawless city? Without some kind of rule society will collapse in on itself. If monarchy is what we need, then at least the people have approved the choice of monarch."
I scoff at him, "You think this girl knows what this city needs? Look at her, she's never known a cold night or an empty stomach, she has no idea the kind of life her own people live."
"Alani!" Wesley looks shocked at my words. I do not know why it surprised him; surely he sees the truth in them.
"She's right," I turn my vision to the soft-spoken girl. "I have not lived the same hard life as my people, but I will help them, it is all that I want to give them a better life." She looks up at me and smiled. "I think maybe one day we could even rebuild here and on the other cities as well. Why should we continue to live among our ghosts?"
I stay silent, keeping my lips pressed together, not only is she naïve, she is an idealist. This city does not need such a leader. One or the other we could survive, but both could in this one person, could prove fatal for us. "This still does not explain why I am here," I change the subject quickly; I am beginning to lose my temper, "I came here to hear a job offer not meet some soon-to-be politician."
She looks confused at the word for a moment but shrugs it off. "That is precisely why you were called here Alani, I assure you we never intended to waste so much time." Well she had certainly been taught how to talk. "As my guardian here has informed you earlier, I am to be crowned in a little over a month in the royal city." She pauses, "However, I need escorts. I handpicked yourself and Raphael because both of you were highly skilled for your age and I thought it might be fun to meet someone close to my age." She smiles at this last bit.
I grit my teeth; she had chosen blondie and me because she thought we would be… fun? I look at him to see if he was at least a bit astounded at this proclamation but he stood unfazed, his expression blank. "So then we are to be your body guards? A crown knight, a princess, and a bounty hunter? What a group." I stepped forward, crossing my arms, "So tell me this princess: why should I help you, when I don't even like you?"
She doesn't seem to know what to say to this. It is clear that she is not used to meeting people that don't trip over themselves to please her. I won't fall to her feet as if she were already some kind of royal. Right now she is just a spoiled child. "I will not allow you to speak this way to our future queen!" Her guardian says, moving towards me, his face red with anger.
She puts a hand on his arm which draws him up short; she sure has him trained well. "Please, she has every right to say those things." The girl says. The young guard, Raphael scoffs. I spare him a glare before returning my gaze to the princess. "You will be handsomely rewarded for your work Alani. I want to be honest with you. I was advised not to choose you, because of your temperament and lineage." I grit my teeth, how does she know what I am? "But I admire you, and I really wanted to meet you. I really hope you'll accept my offer. I would enjoy the company of someone who challenges my views." I have to keep myself from laughing.
"How much money are we talking?" I ask, still not quite ready to dismiss the idea and walk away. I can use the money; I'm tired of barely living in between marks.
I hear laughter and look back to the guard, "You go off on her about her upbringing and ability to lead, and yet you're only in it for the money."
"I would imagine that you get quite the salary to push people around in lieu of the king," I snarl, "I don't have a steady income like you. Therefore I take what I can get."
Wesley sighs, "I can tell you three are going to get on splendidly." He shakes his head, "Can I talk to you alone Alani?" I start to protest but before I can he grabs my arm and starts pulling me back. Once we are out of ear shot he frowns at me. "What is wrong with you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," I reply with a glare. "Why in the world should I work with that spoiled brat, and a knight of the crown as well?"
"Alani, you shouldn't be so quick to judge, you are not like every other bounty hunter, allow others to prove themselves to you before you pass judgment." He scolds. I roll my eyes at his brotherly tone. "This job may open doors for you, do you really want to be a bounty hunter forever?"
"I'm good at it," I say quickly, "Besides, there is nothing else I want to do."
"This job would be good for you, and you'd be around people your own age." Wesley argues. He has always said that I don't spend enough time around other young women. I've never cared to change that either.
"Shouldn't she be traveling with a large group of soldiers, not two children?" I didn't like referring to myself as a child, but at least it made the point.
"There are many people that would attempt an assassination, there is a large group of king's men that will be escorting a decoy. You two will leave in the middle of the night, before the others leave, with the princess in disguise. It is safer for her this way." He explains.
"How do you know her Wesley," This question has been nagging me since their greeting. It was clear that they were familiar with each other.
"I am one of Sophia's tutors." Wesley says with a smile, "It was a matter of utmost secrecy, I wanted to tell you." I can only scowl, Sophia, even her name sounds pampered and soft. I glance back to see that she is busily chatting to the young knight, who answers politely, but he doesn't seem very involved in the conversation. "At least promise me you will consider this."
I cross my arms, "I will think about it, but I won't promise anything more." Wesley seems satisfied with this.
"Be polite," he warns before walking back to the other three. I wish I could just walk away now, but the money keeps me from doing so, and Wesley's pleadings. So instead I walk back over to the small group as well.
"Have you come to a decision?" Sophia asks, she looks eager and hopeful. Just for that I want to say no.
"I will think on the matter, I have not yet decided." I reply, not meeting her gaze.
She looks disappointed. I notice that the knight is standing by the pond, gazing down at the weeds wistfully. I wonder for a moment if he sees beauty in them, I don't. He bends down and plucks one, presumably to give to the princess. I keep from rolling my eyes again. "We leave in two nights, if you wish to join us. Meet us here at nightfall if you do not show up we will find someone else."
"Fine," I turn on my heel and begin to walk away from them. I don't intend to show up when they leave. I would like the money, but I'm not sure that it's worth it. "Are you coming?" I ask Wesley on my way.
He shakes his head, "I'm going to stay here for awhile." I make a noncommittal noise, not saying goodbye to any of the others. I don't care to acknowledge them right now. I can't believe that Wesley would think I will work with a knight. He knows how much I can't stand them, the girl is just as bad. I have never been able to grasp why the people would want to be under the rule of a royal. But I can understand their wish for more protection. I just don't think the guard is very good at their job, they are mostly just bullies.
I roam around the city for most of the day, as the sun goes down I begin walking the back streets. I almost didn't recognize the entrance I was looking for. The small door blended in with the wall and if you didn't know it was there it would be easy to walk right by. The thick door swings open on well oiled hinges. The store inside is dimly lit, but I am not looking for any of the items on the shelves, I am here for information. The shelves are full of strange things, ingredients for spells, cursed and blessed objects, along with seemingly useless junk. A broken jack-in-the-box hangs from one of the shelves. On the table is a long dead plant that looks like it may have been a Venus Flytrap. The large form behind the counter shifts at my entrance. A thick snake slithers from behind the counter, tongue flicking out. A thick clawed paw rests on the table and the form leans forward, three faces coming into the light.
The middle face, a spotted hyena draws back its lips, leering at me with bright white teeth. The hyena's voice is a deep growl, "It has been a long time-" the snake head picks up the sentence in a hiss, "since you have come to see us Alani."
I give a respectful nod, "It has been a long time since I needed your help Hypatos."
The head on the right blinks at me, a large she-bear with horns curling around her ears. I have never understood how some of Hypatos's heads are female and some are male, but I have long since decided that I do not want to know. "What is it that you need our help with Shadewalker?" It is old slang for my kind, an accurate description. I like Shadewalker better than elemental.
I watch the third head, a stern faced hawk, preen the feathers that sprout sporadically from Hypatos's shoulder. "I know that you have your ways of keeping up with those who have a bounty on their head, before it has even been posted. I need to get a step ahead of the competition."
The hawk pauses in its preening to look up at me with golden eyes. "Since when do you have competition among the bounty hunters?" Hypatos looms over me, its large body dwarfed the store. I'd seen him, or her, have to duck to get through the doors and squeeze between shelves, trying desperately not to knock things down.
I scowl, "I do not. There are King's men all over the place, and they are interfering with my hunts." Thinking about the night before still makes me angry. The coins that the Knight tossed at me are in my pocket, kept purposely separate from my coin purse.
The hyena head cackles, the sound fills the room and makes me flinch. "We are all under the boot of the royals and their dogs," The she-bear says, "Even you Shadewalker." The snake wraps around my ankle, its scaly body cold. "We may have a mark for you," it hisses.
"Just give me a description and where I can find them and I'll be out of your … fur." I take a step back, forcing the snake to pull away from my leg.
The hawk head regards me again, "We may know of one; a succubus that has gone too far. She works in a night club, but recently she has taken to killing her customers." The clawed paw reaches out expectantly. I open my coin purse and place some of the wadded up bills in the chimera's paw. The hyena head grins at me, "Always a pleasure Alani."
"The pleasure is all mine Hypatos." I say after the chimera tells me the address of the night club and the description of the succubus. The sun has set by the time I exit the store, which works in my favor anyhow. I flit from shadow to shadow, arriving much sooner than if I actually had to walk to the nightclub. The club is on the roof of one of the fallen skyscrapers. I am glad for the outside location, it makes it easy for me to get in and skip the line. I appear in the shadow of the bar, no one notices my sudden entrance. It isn't hard to remain unnoticed, people have learned to stop looking for the unusual.
Hypatos is bad at distinguishing humanoid beings. But it is easy to spot the succubus, she moves with complete confidence, and there is an otherworldly beauty to her. Her skin shines in the moonlight from sweat and even still she looks too perfect to be real. She is with a man, standing close to the edge. I slip through the crowd, trying to get closer.
I wonder how I am going to get her out of here without attracting too much attention. I have to lure her out of the club, or maybe I could wait until she lures the man to a more private location herself to feed. I don't know how long that will take though, and I am uneasy in such a busy place like this. There are too many flashing lights, they keep the shadows from staying and leave me stranded here in a way.
I manage to get closer to them, leaning against the edge of the building. I glance behind me, looking around. Ever since leaving I got here I have had the feeling of someone watching me. I don't recognize anyone in the crowd and everyone seems preoccupied by their conversation. I must be getting paranoid. Turning back around I catch the gaze of the succubus on accident. Her lip curls down in a sneer and her eyes flash black like a shark's.
I swear under my breath, she has recognized me, no doubt. I hope that maybe she will just try to get lost in the crowd, but no. She shows her true self, wings bursting from her back and a long tail appearing from under her short cut dress. She pushes past the man and launches herself at me. I try to move but the lights flash on the shadow I was focusing on and trap me there. The creatures long bony fingers wrap around my shirt and she lifts me from the roof with inhuman strength. With a few flaps of her wings we are off of the side of the building and dangling over the city.
"I'm not ready to let you ruin my little game just yet bounty hunter," she croons to me in a sickly sweet voice. I feel her hands loosen but before she has the chance to drop me something severs the thin membrane of her right wing and she screams in pain. Her claws lose grip on my shirt and I feel myself begin to fall. Just as I'm about to pick a shadow to appear in on the ground a hand wraps around my arm. I slam hard into the building, the breath knocked out of me and I find myself once again dangling in someone's grasp.
The succubus is spiraling downwards, trying desperately to gain ground with her one good wing. I look up to see who it was that grabbed me from the air. I stare up in surprise at the young knight who was pulling me up over the building. "Impressive, how do you manage to stay alive if you're always throwing yourself into danger like that?" He asks.
"What are you doing here; did you follow me here, Raphael?" I snarl, glaring at him. The people in the club are still in a panic. I brush myself off and quickly head for the door. I hope he hasn't seen me flit between shadows already, but if hadn't then he wouldn't now. That meant I had to take the lift down to go after the succubus.
"Don't flatter yourself," He kept pace with me, his eyes fixed on the lift as well. "I was here for the succubus, just like you." I almost stopped in my tracks, how had he known about the succubus? I was not going to lose my mark to a guard two days in a row.
"Your salary isn't good enough for you, you have to pick up bounty hunter money too?" I hiss, pushing past him to get on the lift. I stab the button, hoping it will start moving before he can get on. He jumps on with me, fixing me with a glare.
"I was not doing this for the money. I was after the succubus to protect the people she was going to kill." How charitable of him, but I was not convinced.
The lift moves much too slow for my taste and it was all I could do to keep from jumping to the shadows on the ground instead of waiting. "I need that money, some of us have to make a living."
He shakes his head, "I'm not interested in your reward money, you can have it." This draws me us short. I stare at him, waiting for him to take it back.
"Please you're only saying that so that I'll help you catch her," I cross my arms, leaning away from him.
"Like you said, I don't need the money. I have no reason to lie about it." He looks offended that I would suggest otherwise.
I narrow my eyes at him, "If you go back on what you said, I'll make sure you regret it, whether you're under protection of the crown or not."
He grinned at me, "Be careful Alani, I don't take well to threats."
"I don't take well to pushy knights," I reply. The lift reaches the ground and I dash off, not waiting to see if he can keep up. Unfortunately, but not much to my surprise he keeps up with me. I have the feeling he's holding back to keep pace with me. "Thanks to you I probably lost her," I growl.
"That way," He points to a smear of blood I didn't see and turns abruptly. I skid to turn in time and follow after him. We find the succubus collapsed on the ground, cradling her wing. She hisses at us weakly. She has lost a lot of blood from her wing, they are full of major veins.
"She isn't going to make it," I say, stopping ten feet from her.
The boy looks pale, "I didn't mean to hurt her that badly, I was just trying to get her out of the air." I have to admit I'm surprised, a knight with a conscience is rare.
"She would have probably been killed for her crimes anyway." I point out. "Isn't that right succubus."
She hisses at me, "You will pay for betraying your kind Shadewalker." The words are weak, she doesn't have much time left. Sure enough her eyes flutter closed, and don't open again. Her words have little effect on me, I've heard them often.
"What did she call you?" Raphael asks, walking up behind me. He still looks a little upset.
"Nothing, some kind of insult I suppose," I lie. I do not make it a habit to share what I am. I shake my head, taking a step back, "Great, now she's not worth anything." I notice his facial expression and turn towards him, "Don't act all disgusted. She was going to be killed for her crimes, she has devoured people. But I really needed that money."
He scowls but doesn't berate my lack of moral fiber "Why is she only worth money alive?"
I shrug, "Ralph has never paid for a corpse, only for a living mark," I explain. I can only assume that he wants information from them, or maybe they have to go through some kind of trial. I'm not sure, but once again, this is not something I can question. It's just the rules I have come to live by. I turn to leave him there, now that there is no debate over the mark I have no business here.
"I've heard stories about you," He says. This stops me, stories?
I turn around, "Where have you heard those?" And what were they about, I have to wonder.
He shrugs, "Around the city, from other bounty hunters." He crosses his arms, "Everyone says you're the best there is."
"Well I don't know about the best, but I'm pretty good when there aren't knights getting in my way." I say, watching him cautiously. How much has he heard from the other bounty hunters? I'm trying to devise a safe way to find out, without giving anything away.
"You really should take that job you know," He says, "Sophia really wants you to."
I frown, "I don't particularly care what Sophia wants," I inform him curtly. "And I don't care about your opinion either."
"If you need money so badly it would be a good way to get it," he points out. I have thought of this, many times today. I do want the money, but not the job. "Personally I don't care either way. I don't need the help of a bounty hunter."
"Well your comrades sure needed my help in catching that magician, and you wouldn't have been able to capture the succubus on your own," I snap, irate.
He frowns, "What magician?"
I should have kept my mouth shut. I should keep my mouth shut now, but as usual, I don't, "They took my mark, and robbed me of a night's pay, only after I had chased him and caught him of course."
"Surely they gave you payment for catching him."
"The reward for the magician was six hundred, they gave me this," I hold up the three coins. They are cold in my hand and seeing them reignites my anger. "Do you consider that fair payment Raphael."
"No, no I don't," He walks over to me, reaching into his coat. "Here," he counts out a number of bills, "this will cover your loss."
I stare at him incredulously. Counting out the money I frown, "This is more than I lost."
"Well thanks to me you won't be getting paid for the succubus either," he points out. "Do me a favor, don't call me Raphael, its Rafe."
I give him a hard look. "This doesn't change the fact that I don't like you."
"That's fine, I don't like you either, but I don't like seeing people get cheated." He walks past me, "If you decide to take the job, I'll see you tomorrow night, and if not, then I look forward to never seeing you again Alani."
I frown, looking down at the money in my hand. This will only last me so long, but I will not be dragged on a trek across the continent with a wannabe-hero of a knight, and an idealist princess. "In that case, see you never, Rafe." I turn the opposite way at the end of the street, eager to get back to Myth and Ezla and get something to eat. Wesley won't be too upset that I won't take the job; he probably won't even be very surprised.
A/n: I got this done A LOT faster than expected. I wish I could sit down and get 4000 words like this on all my chapters. Anyways, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!