Readers decide: Episode 1, Part 3

Heya! This is part 3 in an ongoing, collaborative story I’m writing with my readers and fans. Every week or so, I send out a story installment that ends with a choice. Readers vote for the direction the story takes. If you missed the previous installments, go here first:

Part 1

Part 2

And here we go with the continuation!

Lin lays a hand on her dagger. She’s got about three breaths to decide what to do. If she’s quick, she might be able to slice the tendons behind the protector’s knee. Hobbled, he’d never catch her. But then he’d caterwaul and bring even more cudgel-wielding problems her way.

The contents of Lin’s satchel are starting to feel real heavy about now. She swore up and down that she was ready for this job. Her new acquaintances would not appreciate a commotion.

She sucks in a deep breath and bolts onto the lamplit street. The lantern-bearer lets out a startled yelp, and the light swings wildly. Lin snorts. Coward. Scared of a fleeing thief half his size.

The protector breaks into a run, a galloping set of pots and pans in his plate armor. His strides cover the distance to the end of the alley way faster than she anticipated. Lin focuses her Edge and shoves power into her running feet.

“Sire, I saw—”

A thud shuts the lantern-bearer up, and the lantern goes clattering across the street. The flames sputter and die, but the protector’s torch still hisses as he sprints. The glow eats at her heels—he’s way too close for her to ditch on open terrain.

Lin nails her gaze to the next alley opening. Thirty paces. She can lose him in the alley—no chance he can slither through the kind of spaces she fits. But she’s grave meat if she doesn’t make it there.

The soldier is gaining fast. Wet air surges in and out of her lungs. The hood of her cloak slips off her hair. Maggots! Not many blond street rats. Even if she gets away, he’s got a good description to hunt her by.

Ten paces to the alley. He smells like blade oil and leather and he’s a breath away from catching her. Nine paces. On the side of the warehouse ahead, her shadow grows tall as she sprints closer.

A clopping sound escapes the alley followed by a shout. What in the…?

Lin skids to keep from plowing into the team of horses that high-steps out of the alley. The beasts toss their heads. Eyes roll back as nostrils open wide as teacups. A whip snaps beside her ear. Behind the horses, a single driver sits on the wooden bench of a wagon. Tarps drape the wagon’s contents.

The protector snatches a handful of her cloak. Drags her back. Lin yelps.

His iron-studded glove latches her shoulder like a claw. She drops, trying to escape the grip. No use. He sets down his torch, slow, then smacks her on the ear with the palm of his hand. Lin’s ears ring and she sees stars.

“What’s your business?” the protector asks.

Lin’s rummaging for excuses when she realizes the soldier is glaring at the wagon driver. Not her.

“Early departure,” the man says. His voice is casual, but his hands grip the reins hard. “Gotta get the cargo loaded.”

Lin’s eyes go wide when she realizes the tarp is moving. She blinks. Stares hard. There are a few options for what might be under there. Livestock, but she’s never known an animal to sit under a tarp quiet-like. Slaves. That’s possible. Lovely warns everyone that arrives on the underground river. Not very many slavers work Hajinal Port… too far from the Wildsends and the overland smuggling routes. But it happens.

Or, maybe this is the new organization she’s heard about. Stormshard. Bunch of do-gooders running schemes against the Empire. She heard they won’t even accept rewards for their hard work. Bury that.

“With a tide coming in at dawn?” The protector tightens his grasp on her shoulder. “I’ll need to see your manifest.”

“Yeah, figured,” the driver says. “Just give me a minute.” He leans down onto the platform by his feet starts digging through a leather duffel bag. He catches Lin’s eye. With a twitch of his chin, he gestures toward the wagon bed.

What? Does he want her to help? The tarp is lashed down by thin cord strung through half a dozen grommets. Lin judges the distance to the closest knot. Even if she wanted to untie it or slice through the cord—which she’s not sure is in her best interest—she can’t reach.

The driver’s eyes widen. Is he pleading? Angry?

She shakes her head, just a subtle motion.

With a flare of his nostrils, he pulls something from the duffel. Even with Lin’s Edge, she can’t follow his movements quick enough to figure out what he’s got.

As the man hops down from the driver’s seat, the air abruptly saturates.Breathing is like drowning. Panicked shouts come from the wagon bed. From the driver.

From the rotted protector holding her shoulder in a death grip.

Holding her last gasp of air in her lungs, Lin whirls and knees the protector in the groin. He doubles over, releases his hold on her shoulder. A heartbeat later, the sodden air condenses into a ball of water that splashes over the protector’s sputtering torch, dousing it.

In the sudden darkness, she hears a grunt. There’s a wet pop, the gurgle of breath, a clatter and thud as the protector falls to the cobblestones.

Blessedly clear air surrounds her. Lin sucks in a relieved breath. Her eyes adjust, her Edge humming high now. Chaos all around. Dark figures boil from the wagon bed. They wear leather cut for secrecy and movement. One gropes through the dark, nearly lays a hand on her. Lin backpedals.

Straight into a warm body that lets out a startled squeak. She whirls, hand falling to her dagger. Gets the blade up and against a throat before she recognizes the face.

“Owell?” she hisses. “Rotten gravecicle! I told you to stay put.”

He swallows, eyes hunting in the dark.

Light flares, exposing his face. Lin sighs and turns. The driver raises a lantern and looks at her with hard eyes before turning his gaze to the dead protector. Only then does Lin notice the blood dripping from the blade in his other hand.

“We have a problem,” he says. “Patrol wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near here.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So the last thing we need is a protector turning up dead.”

“Not my problem,” Lin says. “I didn’t cut his throat.”

“But you were the one who brought him down on top of us. Nice trick with the water, though.”

“The water wasn’t—” Lin bites off the rest of her words when Owell jabs her in the spine with his thumb. Wait… does that mean the kid did… whatever that was?

The driver’s face remains flat. “We can fix this. We just need to relocate the body somewhere that won’t draw attention to this particular part of town.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lin says. “Good luck.”

She grabs Owell by the elbow. He really needs to be back at Lovely’s, and she really needs to finish the job.

As she tries to sidestep, a pair of rogues step to block her exit.

“Now wait,” the driver says. “By my guess, you don’t want extra scrutiny on this area either. We need a scout if we’re going to move a dead protector out of the area. Someone who knows the patrol routes better than we do.”

“Unfortunately, I have work to do tonight.”

“And you think we were out here enjoying the weather?”

“Plus I’ve gotta to get this kid back to his parents.”

The man snorts. “Won’t do me any good to force you, not when I need to trust my scout. But you don’t want to be known as someone who doesn’t clean up her own messes, do you?”

Lin narrows her eyes. “Who are you, anyway?”

“That’s the sort of information we only share with friends.”

Readers had a choice. Should Lin:

  • Agree to help move the body. The driver makes a good point about drawing attention. Lin’s new “associate” was rather adamant about keeping this job quiet. But she doesn’t really want to bring Owell on a corpse transport, and she can’t send him back to Lovely’s alone.
  • She’s never seen these people before, and it’s not like she’s got a particular reputation to protect. She needs to drag the kid home and finish this job before the fog lifts and the moon rises. Besides, she wants a chance to talk to Owell alone. What exactly was the deal with the water?

This was a close race! But with around 54% percent of the vote, readers chose Option 1. Looks like we have a corpse to move.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

If you would like to receive and vote on these little free bits of fiction (plus other fun stuff), scroll up and drop your email into the little form on the right side of the page.