The Lion and the Lord Pub crawled with its usual patrons. Petty thieves and their fences shared a pint. Ladies of the night mingled with men, and a few of them even stepped away to make more bastards. But, Rat sat alone, staring into his amber drink.
“If you ain’t gonna drink that, is there anything else I can get you, Rizz?”
Rat’s gaze shifted up from dark liquid in the pint glass. The barman stood there with a sympathetic smile. He could only guess what the barman thought of him. Maybe I’m the husband whose wife left him? Or am I the father who lost his son? Or perhaps I’m just a long-faced drunk?
“What’ll it be, Rizz?” the barman repeated.
“I don’t need anything, Clive. Thanks,” Rat said, responding to one of his many aliases.
The barman nodded and moved to attend to the other patrons.
Rat sighed with shoulders slumped. He felt content with the relative silence. He’d prefer to spend his evening with a full mug of beer. Rat might even drink tonight. He sure needed it. He needed something – anything to clear his mind.
Don’t they call this liquid courage?
Rat took a sip – trying to absorb some of that courage. But, instead, the amber drink slid comfortably down his throat and hit his stomach full force.
He didn’t remember what he’d eaten in the last three days. Had he eaten at all? It felt good all the same.
Rat drained the pint glass slowly. He’d needed that. He’d forgotten how much he needed that. He wanted to order another, but he decided against it.
One. One beer. One pint. One whatever was the rule in the Network.
Rat had made the rule himself, but damn if he wanted to ignore it tonight. Many of his agents ignored it recently, but Rat turned a blind eye if he noticed them in The Lion and the Lord.
Damn, they all needed a drink, and he wouldn’t be the one to stop them. They weren’t his responsibility anymore. How could he be responsible for something as simple as drunk Network agents after everything that happened?
The bottom of the pint appeared much sooner than he would like. But one was his rule, and one was all he’d have for now. He’d made the rule, so he felt some obligation to follow it, even through his grief.
Rat nodded goodbye to the barman and left the last of his silver crescents on the counter. He wouldn’t need them now, would me? He’d find out soon enough.
Chilling night air filled his lungs as Rat faded into the lolling fog that filled the shady streets of Knightsdale. He felt thankful for it. It would chill him to the bone, but it’d keep Boxer or anyone else from looking for him.
Boxer had lost more than most because of Rat’s mistakes, yet the man still wanted to make sure that Rat wasn’t doing something stupid. He knew he’d made at least one good decision recently when he made Boxer the captain over the Network’s base in Knightsdale. Rat just wished his friend would leave him alone.
Rat was responsible, and their blood was on his hands.
Where am I supposed to go now? Rat wondered, glancing down the shadowy street. He didn’t want to return to the Centre – he couldn’t look his former subordinates in the eyes. But the Shadows were likely watching Rat’s usual haunts, and they were watching. I guess nowhere…
The cobblestone streets were empty, not even a shade jumping Darkling moved through the fogged shadows. Halos of light periodically dotted the lane like stalwart sentinels. His breath condensed in a puffy cloud as he sighed and paused on a street corner.
Rat would call nights like this peaceful – beautiful, even – if he didn’t know better about Knightsdale.
A wrathful voice broke Rat’s peace. “No sudden moves. Do I make myself clear?”
Something very sharp and very pointy dug into his back right between his shoulder blades. Even his thick layers of winter coats couldn’t dull the weapon.
“Perfectly,” Rat choked, carefully pulling his hands out of his pockets.
His mind raced. Had the Shadows finally caught up with him? Was this the latest Gray? Or was this some commonplace Darkling throwing his weight around?
Rat couldn’t tell just yet, and he wouldn’t panic because of it. He’d survived forty years living on the streets and founding the Network in Umbra. He’d lived through simple muggings and been threatened at æther pistol point before. So he’d survive this too, maybe – whatever it was.
“If you’re looking for money, I spent the last of it at The Lion and the Lord,” Rat started with a calm voice. He may as well try to be helpful to his attacker. “I’m not worth your time.”
“I don’t care about your money, but make another sound, and I’ll bleed you like a pig,” growled his attacker.
Rat nodded and bit his tongue.
A gloved hand gripped Rat’s shoulder tightly. He’d find a bruise there tomorrow, and he couldn’t bolt now.
The very pointy and very sharp blade shifted to a different angle and dug a little deeper into his back.
“Move!” the attacker demanded.
The hand and the blade guided Rat from the illuminated cobblestone street towards a disused and dark alley. His attacker kept pushing Rat deep into the shadows even once they were clearly out of sight. No one would see them here. No witnesses would ever see what happened.
Rat waited for a dagger to stab him between the ribs as they came to a stop. But he waited for something that never happened. Instead, both the hand and the blade disappeared.
Impatiences got the better of him. He pivoted, swinging a clenched fist. But, unfortunately, it glided through thick, foggy darkness instead.
“What the hell?!?” Rat exclaimed.
Nothing but shadows and fog separated him from the main street. In that already inky depths was a void that absorbed all possible light around it. Rat knew what that meant.
He sprinted for the street, but he knew it was already too late. This shade jumping Darkling had him trapped. He couldn’t escape now.
Rat didn’t see the first punch coming. Instead, he felt it slam solidly into his jaw. He didn’t see the next one either, but he doubled over in pain when the Darkling’s fist hit his stomach.
Then the crescendo of blows started from every side, and Rat lost track of where they were coming from.
He wasn’t sure which direction he was even facing as the Darkling herded him back into the shadowy corners.
Something in his sternum cracked, and his head swam. Rat crashed into a wall, but he was happy to lean against it, even for a second.
This Darkling is gonna blitz me to death, Rat thought. Do I even care?
But the frenzy ebbed.
Rat was breathing heavily and was bleeding from somewhere. He needed a moment to focus. If the Darkling blitzed him a second time, he wouldn’t be able to tell his left from right.
He glanced down the alley towards the street. Maybe the Darkling just wanted a rush? Rat couldn’t spot the Darkling’s wraithed form in the shadows. Maybe he could make a break for it?
Just one step and another after that. That’s it. That’s what I need to do, Rat thought. He lurched forward and almost fell flat.
But it wouldn’t have mattered. The Darkling materialized in the path of Rat’s only escape.
The Darkling stood there, his figure outlined by dim lamplight, poised to strike and shoulders heaving, breathing heavily. The punishment given had taken its toll on the shade jumping Darkling. The power and strength of a Darkling could also be their weakness. Rat knew this better than most humans.
Fog stilled between them as if waiting for one of them to take the next move.
In the stillness, a warm liquid trickled onto Rat’s lips. Blood. He wiped it away.
“Take it easy, will ya? I’m not as young as I used to be.”
A hoarse, angry voice answered, “Did you take it ‘easy‘ on Warren? Did you, Rat?”
Rat’s eyes widened. Oh, shit.
“That’s right. I know who you really are.”
The Darkling closed the distance between them and caught Rat by his lapels as he staggered backward. His attacker pulled him up to eye level and held him against the stonework wall. Only Rat’s toes touched the ground.
“Tell me the truth: Did you make Warren suffer? Did you Rat? How did your Network kill him?” The Darkling’s breath steamed in Rat’s face as he spoke.
He stared into the Darkling’s eyes. He saw anger gleaming in them, but he thought he saw tear streaks across his attacker’s face. Strange.
“That depends on who you are,” Rat gasped. He needed more information. “I’ve known several Warrens in my lifetime.”
The Darkling pulled him off the wall only to slam him against it. Hard.
“Lightner. Lord-Senator Warren Henri Lightner. Does that jog your memory?”
Rat’s head swam as he tried to focus on the Darkling’s face. But, unfortunately, the shadows and fog and condensing breath obscured a lot – his blurring vision only made things worse.
“Course it does. Wouldn’t be much of a Network captain in Knightsdale if I didn’t mingle with the Umbran senate.”
He tried to focus as the Darkling processed what he’d said. Rat thought he looked young. That was a given. Most people Rat met with were younger than him. But this Darkling was young enough to be an eligible bachelor at the balls and banquets the lordly noble houses threw.
Yet, this couldn’t be a sissy lord. Whoever held Rat up by his coat had to hail from a war forged house and background. He had to be the son of the new nobility, forged in Shade Empress Rosen’s conquest of Dire.
“How. Did. He. Die?” the Darkling threatened, annunciating every word forcefully.
“That depends on who you are,” Rat responded. “Only a few people actually want the truth.”
Rat saw stars and the three moons after the Darkling slammed him into the wall. He crumpled to the ground, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes focused and opened.
The Darkling stepped away and drew a saber Rat hadn’t noticed. Then, through his hazy vision, he saw how deliberate the Darkling held the weapon. This Darkling must have some training under his belt.
“Who I am doesn’t matter to you!”
“That so? Usually, I like to know who’s murdering me.”
“Will you shut up!” The Darkling stalked closer to Rat, the tip of the saber pointed threateningly towards Rat’s throat. “Keep your secrets, but know this: I’m going to avenge the death of a friend by killing you – the leader of the Network!”
Rat’s stomach dropped into his bowels.
It wasn’t well known what his part in the Network was. Any of the founders still alive kept that information to themselves. Most Network agents didn’t know the founders for being founders. Many of the founders didn’t go by the names they’d used back then. (Except Boxer, but most still didn’t know who he was to the Network.)
But, Rat was aware that the Shadows had an idea of who the founders might be and what their real, or chosen, names were. Likewise, they knew who Rat was, despite all his aliases and disguises.
But this Darkling didn’t appear like any Shadow agent Rat had the misfortune of meeting. This Darkling was angry. He wanted blood and justice.
Maybe Rat could get him to listen.
“Well, if you’re a friend of Warren Lightner, then you’ll be interested to know the actual circumstances of his death. Considering how few and far between those with that information are,” Rat said. He counted, on the one hand, all the people who knew. “You might want to hear me out before you kill me. It’s a tragedy that he died, and well – I understand if you kill me after I’m done.”
Rat stared down the Darkling’s saber, waiting for the answer. He wished he knew this Darkling’s name. Either this passionate young man was a real friend of Warren Lightner or a compelling Shadow agent actor. Either could mean he’d just signed his death warrant.
“Go on,” he said, withdrawing his blade from Rat’s throat. “But I’ll gut you if you’re lying.”
“Fine by me,” Rat answered, using the wall to help him stand. “Where I start, though? Might just start where it all began.”
Rat rubbed the stubble on his chin. Memories of a young woman with flowing chestnut locks and the Darkling who could get her to laugh so freely. He missed them. He missed all of them.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen. Warren wasn’t supposed to die. That wasn’t the plan when I assigned one of my agents to get the job as his secretary. I wanted her to do something easy, something safe.” Rat shook his head and tried to blink back tears. “We lost her too.”
“What does that have to do with Warren?”
“Everything, boy. It has everything to do with Warren. Let an old man grieve.”
He pulled a handkerchief from one of his inner pockets and wiped away his blood and unsatisfied tears.
“I wanted the Network to keep a closer eye on him, what he was up to – things like that. Warren’s always had similar interests to the Network. If even a quarter of the stuff he proposed went through the senate – well, it’d help us a lot.
“But that just wasn’t in the cards. Somehow, Warren found out that Deborah was one of us. How that turned into the two of them falling for each other, getting married, and Warren joining the Network.” Rat shrugged and shook his head. “I’ll never know.”
Rat really didn’t know. That had been the first in a long series of unexpected events.
“You’re lying,” the Darkling accused. He spoke slowly, almost as if that was what he wanted to believe.
“Am I?” Rat questioned. He felt his blood start to boil. “Am I really? Lord-Senator Warren Lightner advocated for furthering human rights, my rights, in Umbra! And you’re surprised that he married a human woman? How about joining the Network? Is that so farfetched?
“The Darkling senate, your politicians! They stopped Warren on any and every front. Anything he proposed – even supported – shut down! Warren couldn’t do a damn thing! But you knew that, didn’t you? You’re his friend; after all, you should know better than even me!”
Rat clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to keep his emotions in check. By all rights, he should be the one dead. Deborah, Warren, and everyone else – they’d died to keep many secrets, including his own.
He stared down the Darkling. He didn’t care about the saber anymore.
“Are you actually that surprised that he joined the Network? Warren wasn’t one to sit on his ass, but I bet you already knew that.
“You probably knew him before he joined when he was still sitting on his ass in the senate, where they all sit on their asses, twiddling their thumbs as your laws make everyone underneath your oh-so-enlightened race suffer.”
The Darkling forced him against the wall, pushing the saber to Rat’s throat.
“Enough whining, you son of a bitch.”
“Won’t dispute that.”
“Shut up! You’re stalling!” the Darkling continued. “You said you knew how Warren died, but you haven’t mentioned the cause of death once. You’re just an ignorant talking head.”
“Ignorant?” Rat tested the word. It didn’t sound correct. “I’m not the ignorant one. You’ve been living in the dark too long.
“Wanna know how Warren died? That’s simple enough. Of all my agents, my people, my brothers, and sisters – out of all of them, he’s the one the Shadows, your secret police, gave a decent execution. Deborah, Overland, Diggerby, and Foxtrot – they tortured them to death!”
Rat held the Darkling’s gaze. He needed to see the younger man’s reaction. Rat’s throat should be slit right now if he were a Shadow agent, but the only blood was the bruises forming and a broken nose. But, if he a friend of Warren’s, this news might break the younger man.
The younger man stared back, rage giving way to grief.
“I’m sorry,” Rat said, his own sorrow breaking his voice. “We couldn’t save them. I’m sorry, son.”
Rat broke the staring contest to let tears start to fall. His failure hadn’t had this many dire consequences before, yet he hadn’t been the one to pay the price. He should be the one tortured, the one dead for his mistakes, not someone else. Yet here he was, alive and breathing.
The Darkling shoved him against the wall, but not so hard this time. His assailant stepped away from Rat, putting a few paces of distances between the two. At least now, the saber was farther away from his throat and in a more neutral position.
“But they wouldn’t … they wouldn’t … not without a trail? That’s unlawful,” stuttered the Darkling.
Rat scowled. “Oh, but they can. Shadows only answer to the Shade Empress. It’s their job to work for her interests, especially the interests that involve staying alive. So, yeah, they’d deal with that the best way they know how.”
He watched the young Darkling break as he processed Rat’s statement. The implications of what he’d just said could only mean one thing.
“Warren would never … He just wouldn’t ever try. He’s a Darkling loyal to Umbra.” The younger man shook his head in frustration. The Darkling, whoever he was, obviously had learned so many things about Warren that he hadn’t known before.
“You’re right.” Rat slumped against the wall. He needed a sit-down. This was taking a while. Was his nose still bleeding? “He never could. The Shadows got to Warren and Deborah and the others before they had the chance. Hell, we’re lucky that they let Warren’s son live.”
Rat’s head snapped up as the sound of the Darkling’s saber falling to the ground, shattering the night’s silence.
“Warren had a son?”
He swallowed. “Yeah. I guess you didn’t get the birth announcement either. The Network almost didn’t. We’re lucky that we found out anything at all.”
The younger man looked almost frantic. “Do you know where he is? His name? Any – anything at all?”
Rat considered for a moment. He’s said more than he’d intended to tonight; would it truly hurt to continue?
“All I got is the child’s name and the name of his godfather – someone called Magus, whoever that is.”
The Darkling leaned against the wall only to slid down to have a seat next to Rat. “I’m his godfather?”
“Yeah, if you’re Magus.”
“Where is the boy?” The younger man gave Rat a pleading look, but Rat couldn’t help him.
Rat shook his head. “I’m sorry. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“You must know something,” Magus pleaded. “You’re Rat. You’re nearly the Network itself. How is it possible that you know nothing? Nothing at all?”
He sighed deeply and watched his breath cloud before his eyes. “I have my guesses, as do others, but we don’t know. It’s better that way. Someone, maybe the Shade Empress or the Gray, showed mercy by letting the kid live, so the Network will let it be. I see no reason to get him more involved than he already has been.”
“A lot’s changed since….” Magus trailed off with a somber tone.
“Wherever you’ve been for the last two years, you’ve missed out on so much.”
Magus shook his head. Dismayed. “What else did I miss during Blade Master training?”
Rat shrugged. He’d felt the same way when he’d first received the news, so did others. Volunteers flooded him. They wanted to be a part of a rescue attempt, but he had to turn them away, even the bravest of them. Rat couldn’t risk any more lives.
The news had come too late. By the time the Network got information on the locations of their friends, Warren, Deborah, Overland, Diggerby, and Foxtrot were broken, dead, or both. The Shadows wouldn’t have left their friends in a condition worth living – if they were alive at all.
Rat couldn’t do a thing. His agents were dead, and he wouldn’t risk more lives on a rescue mission that was doomed from the start.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, Warren didn’t go quietly. He took some Shadow agents with him. But that’s to be expected out of a Solling like him.”
The younger man turned to Rat with a wide-eyed look. “Warren is a Solling?”
“Damn, kid, you did miss a ton.”
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Categories: Personal Writings
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