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Author: A.J. Maguire
The ceramic mug shattered before he’d gotten it halfway to his mouth. Hot mocha exploded with the impact of bullet to mug and the once pleasant teem of quiet conversation made an abrupt switch to startled screams. In the dizzy moment before he took action Dorian had one thought; he was going to die over a cup of coffee. Spurring his movements with his Witch-Born magic he slid to the left. The magic took immediate effect, quickening the whole of his body so that he appeared like a blur to the general public. Jacket, skin and undershirt flayed open as the bullet grazed his left arm and Dorian hissed in pain.
Only another Witch-Born could have hit him at the speed he’d been going. He tried to catch the trajectory of the bullet as people scrambled out of the way, deserting the cafe porch with gasps and screams, but there was no time. As soon as he had evaded the bullet he heard the telltale whoosh of a dart gun somewhere to his right. With a panted curse he kicked his table over and dove behind it, shielding his body from the succession of darts that sunk into the wood.
Thirteen years on the run, hunting the Bedim Assassins, dodging through the more squalid ditches and byways of Magnellum and he was caught by surprise. For coffee, he thought again.
Dorian hunkered behind the table and squinted at the cafe porch. His manservant Gremor was leaning up against the cafe bar, terror and distress contorting his saggy features in an almost comical way. The poor, useless man quivered and waved one of his ridiculous handkerchiefs in front of his face. It was mildly baffling that Gremor had proven so loyal, insisting on accompanying Dorian on his mad quest against the Bedim Knights. The most the old man had managed to do was make sure he had a bed to sleep in when one was available.
Dorian turned his attention to his weapons, sliding down until he was almost prone as the assassin shot at the table again. It seemed a bit excessive given the fact that both he and the assassin knew the table was sufficient cover. His hand touched his rapier hilt and he determined that the Bedim had to be new, perhaps not even a full Bedim Knight yet. A full Bedim wouldn’t waste the gunpowder or bullets; they would just lie in wait for Dorian to pop his head up again.
Which Dorian would have to do if he wanted to get out of the cafe.
He had six daggers strapped diagonal against his chest, disguised in his waistcoat as mere decoration. At his belt was a portion of gunpowder, several bullets and his pistol. Dorian took his pistol and began to load, his eyes roving over the terrain while he tried to formulate a plan. Most of the knot-worked steel chairs had been tossed over on their sides in the jumble of moments after the first bullet. Partially cooled coffee streamed through the curvatures of the wooden porch until it encountered his left leg. Dorian ignored the seep of liquid through his pants and pulled his Talent to his vision, dragging the world around him into sharp focus.
The cobbled street beyond the little cafe’s porch was empty save for a fine wisp of steam as it snaked from a nearby sewer grate. Daylight was nearly done and the temperature was changing; tall buildings fell into shadow with the dying light, casting near everything in sight with a golden-sepia tint. Dorian shifted against the table and rolled his neck, feeling the strain of too many days without sleep bunch in his shoulders. If he had his calculations right there would be a moment of glare when the sun hit the horizon. It would reflect off the copper water tower that stood at the end of the street and blind the Bedim long enough for him to move.
Not that he knew where the Bedim was hiding to know which way to go, but Dorian figured he could address that problem when he got there.
"My Lord!" Gremor called from behind the cafe bar.
Dorian ignored him and took another steadying breath, praying to the Fates that he survived the next few moments.
"But My Lord!"
There was a stress in the old man’s voice that made Dorian look his way. Gremor hid one hand behind his handkerchief and pointed southwest. Dorian nodded to his servant and frowned. If Gremor had managed to spot the assassin then he was right about the boys training. He was almost insulted by that. He wasn’t just any contract target. He was the Lord Saldorian Feverrette, the only man who could boast three contracts out against his life and still manage to keep from dying for over thirteen years.
Someone should have warned the boy not to come after him until he was better trained.
The sun hit the water tower and Dorian made his move; everything around him distorted in the wake of his magic, elongating and pulling in such a way that it almost resembled the reflection off a soapy bubble. He was bending time, slowing things around him while he pushed his magic to make his own body move faster. It was a dangerous strategy given the number of unknown elements surrounding him but Dorian figured crashing into the Bedim mid-time-bend was preferable to getting shot.
He rose to his feet and aimed his pistol southwest, shoving himself to the left and toward the cover of the bar. The Bedim shot again and Dorian was able to locate him - a half a block away, huddled behind a stack of wooden crates. Focusing on his aim Dorian pulled the trigger. Only when he was certain of the trajectory did he release time. His body hit the ground and he rolled behind the bar, smacking hard into Gremor. The old man made a grunt of effort to stay upright as the world around them settled back to normal.
"Making friends again, I see," Gremor sniffed in a haughty manner that made Dorian smile.
"I’m irresistible, Gremor. You know that." Dorian peered around the bar and squinted southwest. His gamble had worked. The Bedim had been too blinded by the sun to aim correctly.
"Did you hit him?" Gremor asked.
"I’m fairly certain, yes."
"Then why are we still crouched down here like a pack of animals?" Gremor went to stand up and Dorian grabbed his arm, pulling him back down.
"Because ’fairly’ is not ’absolutely’."
Glancing around the bar again Dorian spotted two men in white tabards as they made their way to the scene. The Warders in the city of Basten were faster than in many other towns Dorian had visited. They were also professionals. While one veered to the southwest, heading for the Bedim Knight, the other moved to the center of the cafe, unsheathed his sword and struck it once, hard, into the ground. The sword sunk three inches through the porch and stayed there, a bright red color streaming from the hilt and making an umbrella over the scene.
Dorian felt his magic recess into his core and stood up. Even if the Bedim wasn’t already dead the protection of the Warders was in place. A moment later his suspicions were confirmed as one of the Warders began to drag the Bedim into the center of the cafe. Taking an interest in the man who had just tried to kill him, Dorian moved to meet them. The Warder was respectful enough to lower the Bedim’s body, arranging arms and feet in the quiet reverence of lost life.
He was garbed in the traditional Bedim way, swarthy pants that would have been baggy were they not cinched around his legs with various belts and scabbards. Belted boots that rose to his knees, both containing at least one form of weaponry and a half-mask that covered nose and mouth while a pair of thick goggles spanned his eyes. Dorian exhaled through his teeth, recognizing just how young the man was before the Warder began to strip him of his mask.
"You are lucky," the first Warder said, "Not many survive an attack by the Bedim."
Dorian grunted his response as the Warder stood and outstretched a hand of greeting, "Targus apt Basten."
As their hands met in formal greeting Dorian could feel the smallest measure of Talent in the Warder before him. He wasn’t surprised by this, since most commoners who found they had an inkling of magic wound up in the Warders. It aided them in protecting the Civil Laws, and made them powerful allies to the Great Houses of Magnellum. Their hands parted again, and though Targus had undoubtedly been able to feel the measure of Dorian’s own talent, the Warder did nothing but nod down to the Bedim.
"I imagine you were expecting him?"
"No," Dorian rubbed the back of his neck. "This time I was not. Were he a full Bedim Knight I would not be standing here to talk to you."
Targus whistled lowly, "The Fates must have something special planned for you, then."
Dorian ignored the comment.
There was an angry, purplish-blue hole directly to the left of the Bedim’s eyebrow. It was the only flaw on the boys face. Dorian grunted to himself, calculating by the smooth, baby-fine features that the Bedim had been fourteen at best.
Dorian felt his neck hair stand on end, "Too lucky."
Targus stood, steely eyes casting out at the surrounding buildings. "You think there are more?"
Dorian glanced at the Warding Sword just to be certain it was still in place. Red mist created a bubble around the scene, negating all weaponry save fists and feet. Beyond the mist he could see the brass and copper rooftops making a sporadic, jagged line across the horizon. The puzzle began to make more sense.
Bedim Knights traveled alone, worked alone, fought alone. There was no particular style to their fighting because of this. It was unheard of for them to join forces, and yet he could almost remember the trajectory of the darts that had missed him. Even if the boy had the discipline to bend time he could not have moved fast enough to make that shot.
There had to be a second assassin.
Targus took a step to the left, crossing just in front of Dorian. Two small, muffled thumps sounded and the Warder staggered back. Dorian managed to catch the man as he tumbled, limp and gone before Dorian could breathe his surprise. At Targus’ chest protruded two small, thin darts.
Gremor gasped somewhere at his right and Dorian cursed the Warder’s sword for hindering his Talent. Not bothering with formality he dropped Targus and leapt for the edge of the protective barrier. Taking the offensive was the only way he would find any answers, let alone stay alive.
There was an unpleasant electric shock that passed through his body as he crossed, and then his Talent was alive. Every instinct tingled while he searched for his assailant, his muscles coiled and ready for the next attack.
It came in short order.
Another shot made a cacophony against the empty street, signifying the use of a pistol, and Dorian spotted the general position of the Bedim. Spurring himself forward he dodged the bullet with a quick swivel of his body. The Bedim shot again and grazed the right side of his ribcage, but Dorian kept running. He could see the Knight clearly now, positioned behind the large, three-meshed statue of the Fates at the top of the Median Temple. The temple was five buildings away from the cafe, giving the Bedim just enough time to drop his weapons and start a quick retreat.
Dorian ran, feet pounding on the cobbled street, lungs burning, and magic pushing him to be faster even as the Bedim spurred their own Talent to get away. The world around him made copper streaks in his peripheral vision, smearing with the speed of the chase. The distance between them began to close and he noticed that the Bedim was female. There was a fancy sort of bodice cinched tight around her waist, accenting the curve of hip and body. He swiped a hand at her back, missing by an inch or so.
Her left hand opened and several small objects clinked to the ground, chiming out a warning that he could not heed. He was too close to her to avoid the caltrops. His left foot slammed onto three of them, their points piercing through the sole of his boot. Dorian let loose a stream of curses and pushed himself so that his right foot missed the serrated objects but the damage was done. He came to an abrupt stop, keeping his left foot from touching the ground. Torn between the need to remove the caltrops and the desire to see the Bedim he hesitated, watching as she crossed the railroad at the end of the street. She disappeared behind the depot at the same moment that Gremor reached his side.
"My Lord!" the old man wheezed, doubling over to support himself on his knees.
Dorian grimaced and hobbled to the closest building. Resting one shoulder against the wall he began to pick the caltrops out of his foot. Each of them was an inch long and they hurt like hell. He tossed them aside with another curse and focused his Talent on healing.
"Did you ... " Gremor panted, coughed and straightened himself. "Did you get a ... look at him?"
"Her," Dorian frowned, fighting away the pain in his foot. Muscles fixed themselves, the several holes that had pierced into his skin mended with an alacrity that belied time. He’d always wondered why this part of Magic had to be painful. Bending time didn’t hurt. Spurring his body to move faster, harder, and longer than normal men never hurt either. That was the trick he supposed. One could struggle through being wounded and allow the injury to heal naturally or one could seek out the attentions of a male Witch-Born to have the wound taken away. The latter came with a monetary price as well as a physical one, as though the body itself wanted to take the time to heal.
"She was wearing a bodice," Dorian moved back into the street and began to collect the caltrops.
"My, my," Gremor squinted out at the depot. "Rather clever of her, I suppose. Using a decoy, I mean. I’ve not seen a Bedim do that before."
Dorian crouched and began to inspect one of the caltrops, "That’s because they don’t. The only common denominator among the Bedim is the Archives where they can find their contracts. They never work together."
The spindly, irritating caltrop was forged brass with three points. There was no distinguishing mark on the item, so he could not determine the maker. Dorian hissed and pushed himself to his feet again. Gremor looked about to argue something when the surviving Warder made his way to them. Far younger than Targus, the boy’s anxious face was drawn with struggle, knowing that he had a duty to fulfill and needing solitude to mourn his partner.
"We will ... " he paused, his mouth contorting a bit as he corrected himself, "I will need formal statements."
"Absolutely," Dorian clapped a hand on Gremor’s shoulder. "Gremor here will have them to you in short order. You will have our utmost cooperation." The boy nodded his appreciation and started back for the cafe. Dorian waited until he was a safe distance away before making his final orders to Gremor. "Find a way to steal one of those darts. I want a well-trained alchemist to have a look."
Gremor gave a dramatic and resigned sigh.