The creature moved too fast for Baen to get a good look at it, but as it darted past us and rushed towards the window I got the impression of dark hair or feathers with skin like black, exposed muscle, larger than even a charr, patches of sinew glowing here and there on its body with a fell green light. I couldn’t imagine how it had managed to tuck its bulk under the bed, but as it burst through the window, a skeletal, whip-like tail trailing behind it, neither Baen nor I had time or inclination to ask any questions. My sword slid into its sheathe as I took the lead, Baen rushing along just beside me, her eyes giving me sight as I leapt through the window after the creature.
I landed on the roof of Fiegrsonn’s neighbour, buckled a little under the impact, then came up running as the creature leapt to the next rooftop, silhouetted for an instant against the afternoon sun as it did. It did indeed have hair – or something like it – that formed a billowing mass in the air as it moved with a sinous, serpentine grace. I couldn’t shake the impression of feathers, somehow seeming less solid than normal feathers should, as though motes of ash drifted off of them with each movement.
It landed, took off as a dark blur and I kept running, knowing that there was no way we could catch something this fast in a strict foot race. I mapped out a quick path, planning my steps as I saw Baen’s bow come unslung from her back. An arrow was nocked on the run, and she hesitated only a moment as she brought the weapon up, drew back and fired. I felt the wind of the shaft pass by me as the arrow shot over my shoulder and struck the creature mid-leap.
It twisted in the air like a cat, shrieking in what I hoped was pain, then crashed onto the rooftop of the next house. This building, rather than the firm wood we’d been sprinting across, had a thatch roof and could not stand up to the impact. There was another ear-splitting shriek, an eruption of thatch and splinters, and the creature tumbled out of sight.
I pushed myself harder as I heard Baen come up behind me, and I reached the end of the rooftop to leap across the alley. Rolling once across the thatch to absorb the impact, I slid down into the gaping hole, as the green-tinged vision of the beast showed me the door and the streets beyond.
The small house was empty, and we had just enough time to see the end of the creature’s tail, black and skeletal like a fleshless spine, vanish out of the doorway as we landed. Baen swore, and we took off running, rounding the corner as the creature’s eyes left my range. Whatever it was, the arrow seemed to have barely slowed it down, and had no apparent impact on its strength, given the splintered fragments of what had once been a solid wooden door we almost tripped on as we burst into the street.
I fired my gun into the air, scattering the few merchants and other denizens of Lion’s Arch that had fled the sight of the creature, opening up an avenue in gathering crowd that Baen spotted the creature through, already all the way at the end of the street. It ran, smashing through a fishmonger’s stall and hurling the screaming human that had tended it aside as it did.
“Move! Move!” I shouted, waving for the few fools who hadn’t run yet to get out of the way as we raced after our quarry. The creature was definitely faster than us, and though agile for its size its sheer bulk meant it had to go through obstacles more often than around them, slowing it down considerably. I felt a surge of fresh adrenaline as I realise we were now gaining on it.
There were more eyes now, staring at us, giving me more than enough information to guide my feet and when I was barely twenty metres behind the creature I raised my pistol and fired. The first shot missed, but when the hammer went back the second time and I squeezed the trigger the bullet took the creature directly in the back. It screamed, stumbled, then crashed into another stall, falling in a burst of broken boards and smashed wares.
Baen slowed to a walk, bow coming to bear again, full drawn with a broadhead arrow nocked and aimed steadily at the shifting mass. I drew the hammer back on my pistol and unsheathed my sword, advancing slowly now. “It’s not dead.” I warned.
“Figured that much, thanks.” Baen said. “Any idea on what it is?”
“No-” The tail slammed into us, faster than I could react, and sent me hurtling back, Baen sailing through the air beside me. Dropping my weapons, I brought my arms up around my head a moment before I hit the ground, curling into a roll, but the impact still sent pain shooting up my spine, and I cried out as my sleeve and forearm were scraped along the rough cobbles.
Baen’s roll was neater, and her bow was still falling when she was up in a crouch and sent her hatchet spinning through the air at the creature, only for it to be batted away as the tail flicked out again, impossibly fast. The monster shrieked once more, extracting itself from the rubble, a whirling mass of dark hair, ethereal feathers, black muscle, and green light. Hissing, it leapt almost straight up, catching itself on a gutter with wicked claws and vanishing over the roof’s edge in a dark blur.
People were starting to appear, emerging from their hiding places now that the brief fighting had ended and a swearing Baen hauled me roughly to my feet. “I think we should leave.” She said, her voice low. “It won’t be long before the law gets here.” I muttered my agreement, not quite trusting myself to speak aloud until I’d fully caught my breath. Using her eyes and those of the gathering crowd to find our weapons we quickly pushed, shoved and threatened our way to freedom.
Through the mass of faces and questioning voices, I recognised a figure standing at the corner of one of the alleys, staying mostly out of sight. With skin the colour of burnt honey that seemed darker in the setting sun, Sahir Kincarron watched us leave with a hard, grim smile on his face.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” I asked between breaths as I slumped against the alley wall, too exhausted to care about filth around me.
“Didn’t get a good look at it.” Baen said, sitting across from me. “But no, nothing even close.”
We’d managed to escape the crowd and ducked into an alley some distance from the site of our chase with the monster. My legs and chest ached from the run, and even Baen, who normally seemed indefatigable, seemed out of breath.
“It’s not just an animal though.” I said when my breathing had gotten easier, and Baen looked at me.
“What do you mean?”
“I could use its eyes.” I explained. “It has to have a sophisticated mind for that.”
“Here I was thinking maybe it was someone’s exotic hunting dog.”
“It might well be.” I said. “I never said it was sentient. It just wasn’t what I’d call ‘just an animal’.”
“After what we just went through, I sort of figured that.” She sighed. “That was what? Two arrows and a bullet? Bloody thing barely slowed down.”
“I’m more interested in who it works for.” I muttered. “Sahir was watching us.”
“Yes. After the creature got away, I caught sight of him watching from the alley.”
“You think he was holding the leash?”
“On Levaunt’s behalf, maybe.” I crossed my arms, thinking. “Whatever’s going on, that creature has some connection to Levaunt. He knew about my fight with Fiegrsonn, so he probably guessed he’d talked, then had him killed to keep him from saying more or maybe to punish him for talking at all. The meeting and his offer? Might just have been a ruse to keep us from reaching Fiegrsonn before his pet did.”
“Though he didn’t try to get us killed if that were the case, or he’d have arranged for the thing to ambush us too.”
“His offer could be genuine.”
“Sounds like a theory.” Baen grunted. “And while we’re on the topic, mind telling me what happened back there?”
“I just said we wanted to think about it.” I gritted my teeth a little.
“Which means that he’ll never be certain of us even if we do say yes.” She said, rising to her feet. “Do you even know why you didn’t just accept? You know it would have helped the mission.”
“It wasn’t the right time.” I said, realising how pitiful it sounded as I stood as well. “And we should take the time to consider it.”
“That’s a mess of krait spit and you know it.” There was actual anger in her tone now, and I felt my temper rise to meet it. “You know damn well why you did it.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“Family?” I echoed. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” She snorted, and I couldn’t tell if she were truly angry or just playing with me as she did so often.
“The reason you do most of what you do is because of how you feel about your family. Why you left Cymea in charge, why you’re feeling all loyal to Tatianna and Coalpaw, and all of that.”
“My family has nothing to do with this mission.”
“Please, it has everything to do this mission.” Baen retorted. “Listen, I don’t care what decisions you make as long as you don’t turn us into failures or get us killed, but if you start refusing to accept the reasons why you make your choices I will bloody well call you out on it because my life might depend on it. Your brother is dead. Your father is dead. You’re head of your house or whatever. You can be alright with any of that or not, but you ran away from home so stop trying to replace what you left behind there with the people you meet here.”
“Right now I’m the only family you’ve got on hand.” She went on. “Tatianna and Coalpaw are as much our enemies as Levaunt. You know that.”
“Of course I know that.” I snapped. “I just…”
“You see how they interact and it conjures up warm and fuzzies in your gut by making you think about how a real family should be?”
“I don’t have any ‘warm and fuzzies’.” I muttered darkly. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure I do. It’s about loyalty.” She shrugged. “Coalpaw is loyal to Tatianna, she returns it. You saw the way he ran out to save her last night.”
“Yes, and I can respect that.”
“So can I.” She admitted, sighing. “Let’s just play things by the book from here on out, alright? Don’t get me wrong, I like them too.” She went on before I could reply. “But they’re rungs on the ladder we need to climb. That’s all.”
“Right.” I let out a long breath, wanting more than anything for this conversation to just be over. We were silent for a moment, then I nodded, more to myself than to her. “Whatever that thing was, regardless of whether it works for The Misericorde or Mishael, or both, we have a new factor.”
“Sure do.” She agreed, apparently content to move on to more practical matters than her opinion of my state of mind. “We fight that thing again, we’re going to need to prepare, and it’s going to mean no holding back from you if it comes to that.”
“If it comes to that.” I agreed, and I had a strong feeling that it would.