Thursday, December 22, 2016

Chapter Eighteen: Blackness(Part Two)



If John MacTavish is killed in Nurem, there will be war, Midnight thought, inhaling sharply. She watched the little suicide boat making its way across the harbor.

There will be no war. Out came another grapple arrow. I won't allow it.

She took aim, exhaling. She would only have one shot - and then a very small window to make it across her line before the boat's crew found her rope and cut it. 

The last of her breath went out into the night air. Her heart beat once...twice...

Thwack! Her arrow lanced out in the gap between the second and third beats. The arrow soared over the water-

And drove right into the little boat's side.

In a flash, Midnight fired her second arrow to pin down the line, and then she was sprinting, maintaining her balance on force of will. One slip and she'd be in the water and unable to act.
There was motion ahead. Midnight snapped her bow up as a figure approached the end of her grapple line, and without pausing she drew back a shaft, aimed, and fired. The man tumbled backward, clutching his chest. Midnight reached for another arrow, and this one was a grapple.

"Cut the line!" a man's voice shouted from ahead. Midnight swore as she saw how long she had left to go. More of them approached the end of the rope, and she saw at least one axe rise-

Up came her bow. She couldn't shoot down all the crewmembers on the boat, but-

Down came the axe. Her line severed in the same instant as she fired upward, and her grapple arrow embedded itself in the boat's mast. Midnight swung forward, dipping until gravity held her feet mere inches above the surface of the bay-

And then she released the line and slammed down on the suicide boat.

The first man wound up in the water. The second Midnight impaled with an arrow and kicked into the third. A pistol came out and she fired, claiming two lives at once. She dropped the smoking gun on the deck and drew her other as more surged at her, and out came her knife to match. She slashed and evaded as they drove towards her, shouting angry cries of hate and masked fear. She struck left and right with fist and foot alike, and bones snapped and men collapsed.

And then they retreated towards the bow, recoiling in surprise. It was fear, exactly like what had happened on the docks. They knew she'd already gone through so many of their friends...so what chance did they stand?

Midnight seized the opportunity to retreat to the stern, herself. She grabbed for the tiller, but paused when she saw it was lashed in place. She could cut it free, but that would take time, and the dozen or so men still on the boat didn't seem likely to give it to her...and she wasn't really superhuman. If they all rushed at once, she'd be in serious trouble.

Tactics. She needed to divide and demoralize them, like she had the men on the docks. On the other hand, she was running out of time. She had to act quickly.

Midnight sprinted away from the tiller towards the waist. She skidded along the deck as she approached the barrels of powder, looking for a fuse but not seeing it. That there was one she didn't doubt, but finding it wasn't really her aim.

She ripped the lid off one powder keg. She eyed the black grains inside.

"Get back!" that was a man with a hatchet. Midnight ducked his swing, snapped his leg, and flung him over the side almost without thinking. Before she did, though, she took something else from his belt: a black sphere with a length of fuse hanging from one end.

A grenade.

Midnight lit it in the first lantern she found. She hurled it into the powder keg and threw the lid back on.

Ten seconds.

Two men seized her arms. She grunted as they tried to drive her head-first into the mast.

Eight seconds.

Up came one of her feet, her heel crushing everything in the left man's groin. He folded over and released her, and her now-free arm wrenched the other man off of her by his hair. Midnight tore for the rail, drawing bow and arrow.

Six seconds.

The second man wrapped his arms around her from behind. Midnight fired her arrow, and she had the pleasure of seeing it arc all the way over to MacTavish's ship. She had her way out.

Four seconds.

Her elbows flashed and she spun her grappler around. His spine hit the rail and one of the two cracked - Midnight wasn't sure which. He howled, but didn't let go. Wouldn't.

Two seconds.

Midnight threw herself backward, straight over the rail. She held firm to the line, but her hapless passenger wasn't so lucky. His grip slipped, and down he plunged into the dark waters of the bay. Midnight swung toward the Clan ship-

"Oh, come on!" someone shouted behind her, very indignantly. "That's not fair!"

Now.

The little boat exploded in a shower of splinters and fire. Midnight closed her eyes as the heat assailed her from behind and the water reverberated from the blast, scattering in great sprays. Shouts of alarm filled the night air from all the other ships around.

Midnight perched in the upper spars of MacTavish's galleon, observing the funeral pyre for what had once been a war-starting suicide boat. She allowed herself a small smile.

One night, and she'd dealt a vicious blow to Aurora and Ward's plans. MacTavish was safe, and most people would assume an unlicensed gunpowder smuggler had met a bad end in an unfortunate accident. 

She stood on her perch, aiming another grapple arrow into the dark. By the time anyone started looking for her, she was long gone.

***

Midnight entered Estelle's ornate bedroom, and once she was inside, the door closed and the curtains drawn, she finally reached for her helmet and undid the clasp behind her ear. Slowly, she took it off, and she felt a great sensation of...relief, as if intense pressure had abated.

Estelle set the helmet down where it belonged. Then, she set about taking off the rest of her armor, which was a slow, methodical process without Kui. Finally, though, it was done, and she locked the trunk all her gear rested inside. Off came her shirt, off came her pants, and on went a thin but elegant shift.

"This might be possible," she whispered to herself, thinking about how successful tonight had been. "This might be possible."

She took a seat on her bed...and froze. Frowning, she glanced around behind her, feeling the mattress.
It was different. Firmer. Estelle blinked, but then saw something she must have missed before she left, so preoccupied was she with her hunt.

A basket sitting on one of her tables, with a few chocolates and a little bottle of wine in it, all with a simple note of explanation:

Sleep better, Estelle. 

She didn't need to see the half-moon drawn in place of a signature to know who left it.

Estelle lay down on her harder, firmer, much more comfortable bed with a smile borne of success and the gift alike, and that one night, sleep was very easy for her, and far more restful than any she'd enjoyed since her time cast away.

***

Anthony Sessions groaned as consciousness lovingly came to him, caressing the dark places in his mind with awareness and memory. He shook his head vigorously a few times, trying to clear the pressure in it. His eyes cracked open.

"Oh, gods!" he cried, as he saw the bay fifty feet below him. One glance around, and he discovered he was hanging by his ankles from one of the loading cranes. "Demon. Demon!"

Revenge. He would have his revenge. He'd hire bounty hunters, first thing in the morning. The best that money could buy. This creature had to be the oddly effeminate man who'd raided his house. He was perfecting his technique, but there was nothing supernatural about him. A swarm of bounty hunters, yes: renegade wizards, Clanless warriors, Gifteds with no place who didn't fit in...yes, he would overwhelm him with the best killers money could buy. And he'd talk to the other fellow about it too. With his resources bearing down on this monster too...

The crane twitched, and Sessions gasped. He whimpered as he swung left and right, then started going up. Was the monster back? It wanted to toy with him some more, he just knew it. Sessions frantically scrambled for some manner of weapon, but he could find none.

The crane brought him up to the top of a stack of shipping crates, and it dropped him none-too-gently. He crashed on his side with a cry, and lay on the wood gasping for breath.

At least five sets of footsteps resounded through the night. Sessions looked up to see his minder, the woman's eyes cold and irritable.

"Took you long enough," the Lord sighed, cursing himself for his paranoia. "I could have been hanging for hours."

"You have." That was a man's voice, and Sessions froze as he saw a large, broad-shouldered, powerful one emerge from the dark. His green eyes shone down without pity.

"Please," Sessions started, clasping his hands. "I tried. Those layabouts, they didn't - conspirators, I think. They deserve punishment, but me? I did my best to stop the demon."

"Demon?" the man asked, an almost amused note in his voice. "She's hardly a demon."

"You...know her?" Sessions blinked. "She?"

Out came the green-eyed man's pistol. Sessions blanched.

"No!" he begged. "We fought to the end! To the last man and arrow! Not one step back, victory or death, that was our stand!"

The pistol leveled right between his eyes.

"It is now," the green-eyed man said.

"Wait-"

Bang!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Chapter Eighteen: Blackness(Part One)



Midnight let go of the rope and let herself hurtle through the air for just a few feet. She landed on the docked ship's poop deck, searching for threats. When she saw none, she nodded contentedly, then rose to her feet and shouldered her bow. Here it wouldn't serve her well, at least not once she was belowdecks. Out came Callan's knife.

She descended to the weather deck, treading carefully. The ship was almost silent in the dark, save for the odd creak as the waves lifted her up and down. Midnight didn't trust the quiet. Someone had to be aboard, or they wouldn't have protected the ship. Oh, perhaps her crew had come ashore and joined Sessions' stand on the docks, but more likely they settled in to defend themselves belowdecks, where Midnight's archery and mobility advantages would be negated. It only made tactical sense.

She approached the door into the aftercastle and the captain's cabin. Midnight flattened herself against the side of the entryway, took a breath, and tested the knob. When it moved freely, she threw the door open and darted in, bent almost double.

A crossbow bolt zipped through the air where her head had been. Midnight lunged upright, boosted herself over the captain's desk with one foot, and hit the shooter square in the face with her knee. She slammed him to the deck so hard everything in the cabin rattled.

"What's aboard this ship?" she demanded. "What's Aurora's play?"

"Go to hell," the man told her, which was not exactly the response she had in mind.

"Wrong answer." Midnight hefted him up with one hand, then brought him crashing down on his desk. She drove the knife into the wood an inch from his face. "Don't make me force it out of you." Her now-free right hand found the candle on the desk that somehow hadn't overturned yet.

"Arms," the man supplied, very quickly. "Gunpowder, pikes, arquebuses, you know. That sort of stuff."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I'm not the captain." He flinched as Midnight raised her fist. "I swear, I'm not! He's below, with the women."

"Women?" Midnight frowned. "Captives?"

"No, a bunch of warrior types like you," her new friend explained. "They say nothing, they don't help do anything...they just watch everyone closely, and they've all got lots of weapons. They don't look friendly."

"Neither do I." Midnight punched him out. That done, she turned and began opening drawers almost at random. On the third try, she found a red book that she presumed was the captain's log, and then a much smaller white one. Opening it revealed a sequence of numbers and symbols.

"A code," Midnight muttered. "Later." She slipped both books into the empty space in her quivers that had once been taken up by her arrows.

She emerged back onto the weather deck, hunting for a hatch. After a moment, she found it, and down she went into the merchantman's bowels. She waited for a moment for her eyes to adjust to the lack of light.

Boxes were stacked left and right. Sure enough, they appeared to be laden with weaponry, but what caught Midnight's attention was the gunpowder. There were tons of it scattered through the hold in little and large barrels.

Powder and weapons, she reviewed. They're planning an attack.

She advanced, taking quick stock as she did. She passed boxes and barrels, eyes narrowed, hunting for any sign of-

There. Her eyes fixed to an empty spot in the middle of a collection of powder barrels.

They've taken some of it off the ship somewhere.

She heard them before she saw them. Three figures lunged at her from the shadows, poised on the highest piles they could find in the hold. Midnight darted forward and the first one's midair strike hit nothing but air. Behind her came the other two, drawing blades and settling into familiar fighting stances.

Midnight raised Callan's knife and settled into hers. They waited in silence, neither Midnight nor her foes moving a muscle.

The first one came in silently at a dead run. Her sword came up and Midnight parried once, twice, then ducked under a slash. She gave her enemy one, two blows to the chest, then spun her away into a barrel of powder.

On came the second one, and she chose to vault into the air and off of a crate of weapons, flipping and attempting to carve Midnight in half from above. Again, she dodged, and the jumper found herself the victim of a vicious roundhouse kick the instant she landed that doubled her over instantly. Midnight spun, legs flashing, and in an instant one of her heels was above the woman's head. Down her foot came, and her enemy's jaw cracked on the deck below. She lay still.

The third one came next, arms flashing. Midnight blocked, blocked, blocked, knife still in hand. She slashed once and missed, then parried a slash from her enemy's sword. Sparks flew in the dark, and in the miniscule burst of light, Midnight took in the woman's determined face.

She also saw a reflection in the steel of her sword.

Her knee came up and she hit her current enemy in the jaw, winning momentary clearance she could use to spin around and drive her knife into the other one's sword elbow. She cried out, and Midnight forwent subtlety to just deck her with the most vicious haymaker she could conjure. It was a good one, too: the woman tumbled head over heels and crushed a little keg of powder underneath her. Black grains spilled everywhere, and Midnight worried about another parry-spark.

An arm wrapped around her throat. She coughed as the third woman hauled her backward, but Midnight refused to be defeated. She elbowed her foe in the chest hard, then took her arm and hurled her around. The woman landed on her feet, sliding to a halt on the wood, and then immediately came back for more. Midnight's hands came up.

She blocked a jab, an uppercut, two crosses, and then a spinning kick. Then she had her opening, and out went her hands, driving into the woman's throat, her cheek, and a pressure point on her arm. She collapsed on her knees, and that was the opening Midnight needed to seize a box of swords that probably weighed fifty or sixty pounds and hurl it right into her head.

She heard something creak above her, and Midnight's head turned. The final - first? - woman was atop a ladder, shoving the hatch out of the cargo hold open. Midnight tore after her as she scrambled onto the deck. She flew up the ladder and out the hatch-

"Gotcha!" That cry turned out to be premature, as Midnight ducked the wild swing of a belaying pin from one of a half-dozen men who had appeared around the hatch since she went below.

A trap.

Midnight's knife flashed and the first man ceased to be a concern. The woman she'd been chasing clutched her arm and stayed back, eyes probing the fight intently, almost like she intended to give a report when it was over.

Midnight had no intention of letting her.

Bones snapped. Two men wound up with their heads cracked together. Three were left, and one took an arrow to the ankle as Midnight vaulted onto the railing, fired, and then flipped over the next one's head. She made sure to catch said head with her bow's string mid-flip, and the hapless man wound up flipped right over her a second later, so hard the deck cracked where he landed. Her foot shot out and she kicked the lamed man into unconsciousness.

The remaining sailor grabbed her and rammed a blade into her chest. He drove it in as hard as he could, but his aim was off: instead of punching into her, it skidded along her armor and then off into thin air. He stared.

"What the hell are you made of?" he demanded. Midnight's response was a cross that made him spin twice like a ballerina before falling on his face.

"Where do you think you're going?" she asked the woman. Midnight sheathed her knife. "There's no escape."

"There's always escape." The woman flinched as Midnight seized her. "You won't win. You've already lost."

"Wishful thinking, honey." Midnight hoisted her into the air. "Where's the rest of the powder? Who are you?"

"It's flown away, traitor," the woman hissed. Midnight frowned, then yanked her up close.

"What did you call me?"

"Nurem will destroy the Clans. War is inevitable." Her mouth twitched, and Midnight's eyes widened as she saw one of the woman's teeth vanish. She bit down hard on it. "Long live..." she broke off as her limbs began to twitch. Midnight dropped her on her back, and the woman thrashed as her eyes darkened and foam formed on her lips.

"Long...live..." she repeated, her voice much weaker, but whatever came after that, Midnight couldn't hear. Her eyes flicked upward.

There was a ship in motion in the harbor. Not a large ship, no, but more than a rowboat. It cruised straight away from the docked cargo vessel, and Midnight's eyes narrowed as she saw the missing pile of powder kegs aboard her, plus several more men.

She glanced ahead, tracing its destination, and her blood ran cold as she saw not the shore, not another merchant vessel, not even an important building, but instead a ship flying the insignia of the Clan MacTavish.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Chapter Seventeen: Midnight(Part Two)



The crossbow bolt flew through the night. To Sessions' disbelief, the man caught it, left-handed, and dropped it uncaringly.

And the next instant, he was gone as the rest of Sessions' few archers filled the air with quarrels. Sessions took a half-step back, dropping the bow instead of bothering to try and reload.

"What the hell," he whispered.

Whoosh!

He ducked at the sound of an arrow through the night, but nothing nearly killed him. None of his men collapsed. Instead, he heard a dull thunk from above, somewhere on the stack of logs. He paused.

Why is he shooting the logs?

Whoosh....thunk.

Creak!

"Oh, hell," Sessions muttered as he saw one of the remaining ropes on the display of uncut lumber snap in the dark.

He lured us here!

Logs thundered down from above like an avalanche. Sessions screamed and dove flat, crawling away, and he heard his men crying out. He didn't know what happened to them, but he covered his head and prayed to the gods he didn't wind up crushed. The earth shook and rattled, and it jarred his teeth. He bit his lip so hard he tasted blood.

And then it was over. He looked up, gasping for breath. Around him, surviving men staggered to their feet, holding their heads or other injuries. There were...six, seven, eight...

And then the demon was among them.

Its first kill was with an arrow, in mid-fall as it flew down from where it must have been hovering in the air on dark wings or fell magic. As soon as it landed, it rolled, and then it was up, bow forgotten in exchange for a vicious, horrifying display of hand to hand combat. It moved like smoke, shrieked like an animal, and its blows sent men flying.

It couldn't be human. An elf, it had to be, or a drow: yes, a drow made sense. Even the elves feared drow.

Out of eight men, three survived the first ten seconds. Two of them tried to run. One grabbed a lamp and threw it at the demon, screaming about the light driving devils away. That this was a devil was not in doubt, because it simply spun, and one of its tendrils knocked the lamp away. It clattered down on the ground, extinguished by the rush of air...or by the devil's fell power.

Sessions stumbled up. He grabbed for his cane as the demon hurled the brave soul who'd tried to banish it what must have been ten feet into a metal column. The two who tried to run would take it a moment longer, even if it merely reclaimed its bow to kill them, and Sessions used that time to run as fast as he could straight for the ship. He had more men there.

"Milord-" one of his men cried as he sprinted into the great pools of light before the gangplank.

"Kill anything that comes after me!" he ordered. "Do you understand? If it moves-"

An arrow took the man he was talking to, before he'd gotten halfway through his sentence. Sessions whirled around, stumbling backward as his next set of subordinates closed in around him. More of them had crossbows, and Sessions raised a hand.

"Hold your fire," he ordered, trying and failing to stay calm. "Wait until we see it."

"It?"

"Him!" he corrected himself, heart trying to beat out of his chest. "Him. Him."

Another arrow came flying out, and this one landed in the empty space before his archers. They jumped, but held steady-

It exploded into a thick cloud of choking smoke. Men coughed and dropped weapons, and Sessions stumbled back even further. He nearly dropped into the water between ship and shore, as a matter of fact, and only hooking his cane around a mooring cleat saved him. He breathed shakily.

"What the hell are you?" he whispered.

More arrows flew. Three men collapsed, wounded or dead, Sessions didn't know. He traced the shafts' flight paths back to the metal framework underneath a crane.

"There!" he shouted, pointing with his cane. "Fire! Fire now!"

Seven crossbow bolts arced through darkness and smoke, and Sessions heard clanging as some hit metal. He held his breath as something - probably the wind - whooshed by over his head.

Is it dead? Wounded?

Another arrow came flying out, and this one took one of his frantically-reloading crossbowmen in the face. The man collapsed into the water with a shriek. Sessions blinked. How in the world...

His eyes picked through the smoke and night. He'd always prided himself on his vision, and tonight it served him well. He saw the metal frame where the demon had been standing - it had to have been! - but no demon. At least, not at first.

Its legs were wrapped around a bar, and it was hanging upside down, producing arrows from between its teeth and on its arms, firing them through the night with unerring accuracy. Two more men went down in the time it took Sessions to realize what he was seeing.

Drow. It must be a drow.

"There! Down there!" his voice was breaking, but he couldn't...it was...

The creature was gone, very suddenly. Sessions turned his head left, then right, then left again, but he couldn't see it. He grabbed his cane and held it up like a baseball bat-

He had one second to see what looked like a tightrope over his head, the end driven into the ship's mast. After that second, however, a dark shape landed in front of him, and he was screaming.

Men went down. Arrows, bullets, knife wounds, punches and kicks...fell magic, it must all have been. Some lived, some didn't. Sessions swallowed as he saw the creature wrap what looked like a rope around one dazed man's neck, then turn and fire an arrow the opposite direction. The force of the shot yanked the rope taut, and the man was pulled off his feet by his throat. Another demon must have taken the line.

It wasn't a demon. It was a man. It had to be. There were just...fifty of them, and he could only clearly see the one. It was the only explanation.

And then, very suddenly...it was over.

No more men were standing. No one made a sound. The dark shape of the demon was gone, melting back into the darkness like it was merely a part of it. Sessions stumbled backward, almost tripping over himself. His heart thundered, his palms ran with sweat, and his head was light.

"Keep it together," he urged himself. "He's just a man."

"Sorry to disappoint you."

Sessions screamed like a little girl as he spun to see the creature standing right behind him.

It was the last sound he made before it tore into him.

***

Kirsten Marriot shoved at the lid above her. Tears ran down her face. Was this how her life ended? All her trials, all her struggles, and she was to be carted off in a box to be a Lord's personal doll? Was this-

Thump. Her blood ran cold as someone grabbed the box. Gods. They'd decided not to wait on sending her to Sessions' house. They were going to take her here and now-

Clang! Was that the lock, falling to the ground outside? Kirsten took note of the sound, then looked up at the lid-

It opened to reveal a figure all in black, like a monster stepping out from her worst nightmares. Kirsten screamed and covered her face. She waited for pain, for assault-

What she got was a gentle touch on her hand. She looked up in shock.

"You're safe." Two words in a very definitely feminine voice. The monster had brown eyes...very cold brown eyes, but in that moment, Kirsten knew it was human. No monster would have a light of care in its gaze if it found a victim literally packaged neatly for it.

"What..." She pushed herself upright, and let her rescuer help her out of the box. "You..."

She broke off as she saw the field of bodies. There must have been thirty of them, scattered over the dockyard.

"...you did this?" she asked. The woman turned away without a word, clambering a set of stairs to stand atop one of the larger cargo containers.

"Alone?" Kirsten pressed. Still, the woman said nothing, just drawing her bow and firing an arrow into the darkness, perhaps to finish off someone she'd missed. For a moment, the blonde thought there was something trailing after the shaft, but that was ridiculous. She ignored the possibility.

"Who are you?" she finally asked. Those brown eyes turned back to her.

"Midnight," their owner said, in the instant before she took something in her hands and jumped off the container. She flew in a half-circle, almost like she was swinging on a rope, straight for the looming, darkened ship at anchor by the pier.

Kirsten stared after her.

"Midnight?" she whispered.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Chapter Seventeen: Midnight(Part One)



Midnight stood perched atop the roof of a tavern not far from the harbor, bow in one hand and an arrow in the other, examining the dockyard before her. She saw piles of crates and cargo for shipment, lying mostly unattended in the dark. Her eyes flicked to the vessel Sessions had been overseeing not so long ago, and she saw a mild bustle of activity there - certainly the most of anywhere by the water.

There were few lanterns and torches on the docks. Laborers hurried to carry packages from one pocket of light to the next, around corners in the maze created by the cargo stacks. Midnight watched at least a dozen men do their thing on the docks...and what looked like a dozen more aboard ship. Whether they were loading the ship or unloading it she couldn't tell from this distance, but either way, something was definitely happening.

No doubt things will become more clear soon, she told herself.

She drew back the arrow and fired into the night, using another arrow to pin the end down after the cable drew taut, just like she had when escaping the Guiding Light. Midnight slung her bow over her shoulder.

Keep it quiet, keep it controlled, she told herself. Everyone's afraid of the dark - and that's what you are...Midnight.

Silently, she began to run along her cable towards the docks.

***

Lord Anthony Sessions waved the next men past him with their box. "Keep it moving," he ordered. "We don't have all night, do we?" He turned and glanced at the figure looming at his side, silent as always. "Do we have a more concrete timeframe?"

"No." That was definitely a woman's voice, and that unnerved Sessions. What kind of group would send a female overseer to be over his shoulder? Did they think he needed a nanny? That rankled. He was a Lord, damn it, and not the Highland kind that drank themselves to sleep, drank themselves awake, and drank in between on general principles.

We'll smash them, he assured himself. Nurem's rightful place as master of the seas is just tonight away.

"One little war," he muttered as the activity continued. "War's good for business, too. If you can't make money during a war..." He nodded to himself. "Everyone wins: Lord and Lady Garredin win. I win. The...other fellow wins." He glanced at the woman. "I suppose even you win."

"I always win." That she didn't tack a sir or milord on her sentences was what Sessions supposed was irking him the most. Respect, gods take her - it's what a commoner ought to show to a Lord, and definitely what a woman ought to show to a man. There were rules of nature, after all.

"Well, the Clan savages don't win, I suppose," Sessions said, with a little grin.

She didn't laugh, or smile, or show any emotion. Right. So she wasn't a Nuremite then. Was she a Clanswoman? He surreptitiously took a step back. The other fellow already sent him a woman, why not double down and make her a heathen Highlander? And it wasn't impossible that she might betray her country for gold. Highlanders were like that. Not an ounce of loyalty to their country and people. That was what Sessions despised the most about them.

He went back to examining the boxes being carried, and gleefully imagining how rich he would be once he could start selling weapons of war en masse. And all it would take was one night's worth of this kind of activity...

He heard a thump. He frowned as it was followed by a few more, and then a shout.

"What the hell is this?" he demanded, storming forward into the dark. In a moment, he rounded a corner, that silent woman still at his back, and ground to a halt.

"Found this woman trying to get the drop on us," one of his men grunted, holding a blonde drifter by the neck. She coughed and tried to slip out, but he just yanked on her throat and she choked.

"Did you?" Sessions asked. He leaned on his cane. "What did you see, dear?"

"Nothing!" she cried. "Nothing at all, sir. All I wanted was to find a shipping crate or something to spend the night in, that's all...I haven't seen anything. I swear."

"She swears." Sessions nodded.

"I'll take care of her," his assistant said, advancing past him. She drew a knife.

"There's no need for that," Sessions said as the blonde cried out. "Throw her in one of the empty crates. That one, over there. Should be about her size, if she curls up."

"Wait, but-" Her protest cut off as the man dragged her that way.

"Mark it for shipment to my estate," Sessions instructed as the tough shoved the struggling piece of street trash in. "And don't tell a soul where she is, understand? There's a bonus in for you if you leave her for me."

"Very generous of you, sir," the man said, as he gave the girl a good whack on the head to make her more compliant. He shoved once more, then yanked the heavy wooden lid down overtop her and fastened the lock. Her protests became almost inaudible.

"Everyone wins," Sessions repeated, happily. An unexpected bonus for him.

"Sir, how do you spell Sessions?" the man asked, frowning. The Lord sighed.

"S-E-S-S-"

Something flew from the dark and hit the man in the chest. He abruptly stumbled backward two paces, glancing down at himself.

"That's an arrow," he observed, very knowledgeably, before falling flat on his face. His own weight drove his body down on the shaft, and the head punched up through his back. Sessions recoiled.

"Bloody-"

"Stay here." And then the woman was gone, vanishing like smoke into the dark. Sessions turned in a full circle.

"Guards!" he shouted. "Here! Now!"

In seconds, a dozen men appeared from the dark, holding cudgels and blades. They formed a loose circle, looking into the dark on all sides.

"We're being attacked by an archer," Sessions instructed. "He's probably up on the crates. Light some more torches so we can see him."

More fire lit up the night. Sessions' eyes probed the dark, looking for the slightest sign of motion.

Another man cried out. The Lord turned to see him drop with a shaft sticking out from between his eyes.

"How does he see us this clearly?" he demanded. "It's the middle of the night!" He paused and turned to see the mess of torches lit behind them.

We're backlit so nicely...

"Fan out," he ordered. "Into the dark, in pairs. He can't see you, he can't shoot you. Work your way up after him."

"Into the dark-"

"What are you, five?" Sessions demanded. "Be men, not boys!" He paused, then pointed at the three toughest-looking characters he could see. "You three, stay with me."

His men spread out, and Sessions backed away from the light...but not fully away from it. Just far enough to be safe, you understand, not to be crazy and make himself vulnerable. Not that he was afraid of the dark. It was a tactical consideration, and he was in command. Generals didn't risk themselves on the front lines, did they? Oh, no. He had to stay safe. In the light.

Silence. Sessions waited for a cry of got him or over here! None came for what must have been three full minutes, which seemed a lot longer than that at the time.

Then-

Bang! Bang! Clang, smash, crash!

"Tom!" someone shouted. "Over this way!"

"Get him!" Sessions roared. He tore off madly in the direction of a stack of logs awaiting shipment with his posse, cane in hands. He'd take care of this interloper himself, oh, yes he would. After his men had cornered him, of course. Possibly hurt him a bit of their own initiative.

He rounded the log corner and skidded to a halt.

Two bodies lay on the ground. One had a bullethole placed neatly in his throat, and the other lay in a bruised, moaning, barely-conscious heap, a straight-up dent in the wooden crate before him at about head level. Splinters protruded from his forehead like porcupine quills.

"What happened, man?" Sessions demanded. He reached down and grabbed the wounded man's crossbow. Precautions.

"He was on us like smoke," the survivor whispered. "Tom tried to shoot him...he turned the gun around like that. I stabbed him, I swear I did, I swear. Blade didn't go in. He smashed me up...broke my leg...then he was just gone."

Sessions grabbed a lantern from a nearby post and held it up. He hissed as he saw a rope hanging down from the crates above.

"He's above us, for sure," the Lord told the assembled men. "He's playing with us."

"This isn't good," someone muttered.

An arrow took him in the back of his head like a message. He nearly flipped forward, and Sessions whirled, crossbow coming up. He could barely see through the dark, but for just a moment, he caught a glimpse of a dark figure, a bow in hand.

Sessions screamed and fired.