Freedom of Choice
“This is it,” she said, holding out a card. One of Irulon’s spells—or a copy of it that Alyssa had made. The spell, Contract, seemed useful. More than that, Alyssa wanted to keep a record of as many spells as possible. The more tools in her possession, the better off she would be, or so her logic went. Especially because her existing tools wouldn’t last forever. They could run out of uses or get damaged. It was almost assured that they would become useless sooner rather than later. “Contract. Take me to Bacco.”
“What!” she said, acting shocked. Her hand drifted toward her pistol, but Cid’s lack of hostilities made her hesitate. “You agreed. That’s the whole reason we let you out.”
“You must think I’m a fool. Take you to Bacco?” Cid shook his head. “And what if he’s been moved or killed, your little spell will kill me!”
“Well, yes. That is the point of it. I’m not just going to blindly follow you wherever you want to go. Either agree to the contract or I’ll dump your unconscious body in front of Oxart’s tent.” She didn’t actually have a spell that induced unconsciousness, but the potion master should still be watching from not too far away, along with a guild knight she had convinced to come with—on some bargain about that upcoming fairy job. If she whistled, they would jump in to assist.
“I don’t want to die. So how about this: I’ll take you to where Bacco and I were being held. That should be possible. If Bacco isn’t there, I don’t die.”
She pressed her lips together, acting as if she needed to think it over. The spell was limited. Too limited, in fact. It would force him to complete a single simple task. The more caveats added, the higher chance the spell would fail. That was as far as Irulon’s description went. It didn’t say exactly how the spell would fail. Maybe it would explode. Maybe it would kill Cid. Maybe it wouldn’t enforce the task at all. Regardless of the how, none of the outcomes for failure could be beneficial.
Really, if she had been in charge of spell names, she would have called it Agreement or something. Contract felt too large for how simple the terms had to be. But who was she to decide what all the foolish humans called their stupid little spells.
Frowning, she pretended to think over his words. In truth, this possibility had already come up. If Bacco had moved, Cid would die. The real question was whether his proposed change was alright or not. She wished that she didn’t have to make this decision, but Cid didn’t know that she was being followed by anyone else. Revealing that little secret so early would make the whole charade pointless.
She wished she could just tell him not to lead her into any ambushes, but they were about to walk down Waters Street at night. A random mugger popping out of the shadows could kill Cid before he had a chance to bring her to the Taker. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think up anything better that didn’t also have too many clauses added on. Nothing that was both simple and wouldn’t have a chance at just randomly killing Cid. “Fine,” she said, holding the card up once again. “Contract. Take me to where Cid and Bacco were being held.”
“Agreed,” he said, showing off his teeth.
As soon as he spoke, the spell activated. It was a novelty experience, watching the card in her hand vanish only to be replaced with a cloud of greenish-black smoke. It lashed out at Cid, leaping from her fingertips to his chest where it snaked up to his neck. There, it wrapped around, coiled tightly just under his chin like a snake.
He tried to tug at it, smile completely gone, but his fingers passed right through it. “Unnerving a bit,” he said with a strained chuckle. “Let’s go then. Don’t want this thing on me longer than needed.”
“Right. But I’m going to be hanging back a bit.” With the contract in place, he couldn’t lead her to some prearranged trap unless said trap was at whatever holding pen he had been kept in. The theory was that, since he hadn’t seen any of his old gang mates since finding Alyssa, he wouldn’t have time to arrange alternate ambush points. Moreover, since the wording of the contract included both him and Bacco, it lent credence to his story that they had both been captured. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to lead her to where they had been held and would have essentially just signed his own death warrant.
“Shall we get going then?”
“Sure thing, boss. But you fall too far behind and I’ll pick you up and haul you there over my shoulder. I’ll fight and claw to get you there now.”
She nodded, not arguing. She would do the same were their positions reversed. Or rather, she would never have agreed to a contract like this in the first place. Too much relied on the other person. “I won’t let you get out of my sight.”
Waving her hand in dismissal, Cid started walking down the street. His moves were hesitant at first, slow and sordid with several glances back. Each time, she just waved and gestured for him to continue on. He got more nervous the further he got, almost constantly looking over his shoulder. It wasn’t until she actually started following him that he calmed down.
Waters Street was far creepier in the dark than it had any right to be. Did it even count as a street? It was more like one long alley that wound back and forth at random intervals. Its dirt road, which was partially mud at the moment thanks to the recent rain, wasn’t perfectly even. Stepping into even a shallow hole where she expected ground tickled at her nerves. The very same buildings that gave the street its run-down appearance during the day gave it a haunting aura once night fell. With the amount of deaths she knew had occurred both on the streets and inside those buildings, she wouldn’t be surprised to find a specter jumping out at her.
But still, she continued on. A ghost wouldn’t be able to hurt her. Slightly more worrisome was the simple fact that this street was the home of a gang. While most humans capable of magic tended to find respectable jobs that could make use of their talents, the gang had managed to snag a few with promises of riches, drugs, whores, revenge, or all manner of other things they might want. And magic did frighten her. Some magic, anyway. When directed at her.
It was a small comfort that those shadows moving in the sides of her vision would probably be men jumping out with swords rather than spells. The movement was probably just her imagination; She had an innate sense for everything around her and there weren’t any people out tonight aside from those she expected to be out. Especially not after that whole troll attack. Waters Street was close enough to the breached sections to have had to deal with a few invaders. Everyone would have been frightened into their homes for a while after that.
Clutching the weapon in her hands, she wondered how the stories might have spread through the gang of when Alyssa had killed Svotty. Its presence alone might be enough to ward off anyone actually hiding in the shadows.
Cid walked along those shadows, keeping close to the wall and out of the light as he moved. Disgusting scum of the human race or not, he was good at keeping stealthy. Even straining from not far away, hearing his footsteps against the utter silence of the city night was nearly impossible. His shoes, ratty though they looked, were soft enough on the bottom to prevent noise. Somehow, he managed to avoid tripping over a wicker basket left out in front of a boarded up building that she just about kicked down the street despite trying to keep aware of the surroundings.
The shifty rat scampered along, pausing every so often while looking around.
She followed along, keeping her eyes peeled for any assassins or this Taker. The Contract spell was in place and active, but it would be foolish in the extreme to blindly trust that something about it hadn’t gone wrong.
Similarly, Alyssa didn’t trust their destination. Leading them right to where Cid and Bacco had been held? Like some sort of makeshift prison? What were they going to do, prance right in? There had to be guards. And the Taker as well. No matter how much Cid thought Alyssa needed to fight this guy up close and personal in front of a crowd, Alyssa wanted that to be the absolute last resort.
Cid glanced over his shoulder one more time, ensuring she was still there, before turning a corner.
She glanced over her own shoulder, looking for any of the ones who were supposed to be following her. There was nothing but the dark street. Ah well, she was sure that at least one had eyes on her. With a shrug, she walked around as well.
They passed right by the Waters Street Waterhole. Light could be seen through the cracks of its blocked up windows. A hint of smoke seeped out as well. Apparently it was back in business. The foolish humans hadn’t escaped when the opportunity presented itself. She wasn’t about to feel bad for them. Maybe she would stop by in the future and see if any new monsters had been kidnapped and enslaved.
For now, she stayed a dozen paces behind Cid as they moved on.
It didn’t take much longer before Cid slowed to a stop. The building he stopped in front of was a smaller affair. Likely having only a single room, as most homes did in this section of the city. Its size wasn’t all that strange. The shutters blocking off the windows and door were some cause for concern. Why would Cid have stopped in front of a plague house? A recently infected house at that. The metal shutters only kept it blocked off for two weeks before the city removed them to be replaced with less secure wooden boards or bricks. Theoretically, the plague died off after two weeks without living hosts. Most people left the homes boarded up for months and months, if the buildings ever reopened.
The plague had been quite a cause for concern back at the Waterhole. There had been heavy screening for the telltale sores around the mouth, bumps on the forehead, and the eyes of course. Such people tended to disappear quickly.
After a quick glance around the dark street—locking eyes as he looked in her direction—Cid walked right up to the metal shutter over the door. He did something, obstructed by his body, and swung open the shutter! That wasn’t how they worked. They braced against the door frame and needed a special tool to remove. Or they should have required that. But Cid just pressed it open and stepped into the darkened interior.
She hesitated. They had been expecting a larger manor. Or at least a building like the Waterhole. A tiny room might as well be a tiny tomb. Unless the potion master had something to turn herself invisible like that other spell Alyssa had, they wouldn’t be able to enter without being seen by Cid at the very least. On the other hand, there weren’t any guards around. Maybe this wasn’t the main headquarters of the Waters Street gang.
“I guess I’ll follow him?” she said aloud, though quiet. Nothing argued against the idea, so she shrugged and slid up along the nearby buildings until she reached the entrance. Cid hadn’t closed it behind him, but there were no lights on inside. Aside from his legs, still standing in the doorway and catching the dismal light of the stars, she couldn’t see anything.
Deciding to act nervous, she held the long weapon right up to her shoulder as she slowed to a crawl. It had the slight side effect of making Cid jump further inside and out of the doorway. His slight squeal broke the silence that had hung over the entire street since the Contract spell had wrapped itself around his neck.
“Quiet,” she hissed, stepping into the room. Cid was back against one wall. With him well away from being able to close the door, she stepped further inside to keep the way clear. “Do you want to get heard?”
“Don’t point that thing at me!”
Rolling her eyes, she complied, looking around the room. The darkness didn’t help, but she had a near innate sense of nearby objects. Or, in this case, a sense of no objects. The room was… empty. There was no other word to describe it. A normal plague home looked just like a regular home. When the city guards put up shutters, they didn’t remove any of the furniture, belongings, or people. So there should have been a bed, maybe a chair and table, and a corpse if the plague-carrier hadn’t been taken outside the home.
But there was nothing. It was an empty cube, save for herself and Cid. No bed. No table. No emaciated corpse. No vermin.
All of which she found highly suspicious. “What is this place?”
“One of the gang’s holdouts. Not used too much anymore because of its location on Waters Street, but there are still some people keeping it running. Mostly, it’s used as a storehouse and a place to keep slaves on their way to or from the Waterhole.”
“This is a storehouse?” The place was empty. Even if it had been cleared out not too long ago, it couldn’t store much just because of its size. He must have been mistaken. Clearly, he had been sampling some of Svotty’s drugs and his poor addled mind couldn’t take it. Glancing over to him, she frowned as she failed to catch any glisten in the dark of brain juice dribbling out of his ears.
No such luck.
Instead of leaking cerebral fluids all over the floor, he pressed his foot into a small notch in the wall. A barely audible click followed, but nothing else. Not until he walked over to the far corner, dug his fingers into the dirt floor, and hefted up a long hatch. Light flooded into the room. Not much, but enough to see colors again. The hatch opened up fully on hinges, though the dirt on top didn’t slide off the wood, revealing a narrow stairwell.
Now things made sense. His mind wasn’t mush. At least not enough to mistake an empty plague house for a storehouse. Still, she had been in far more welcoming subterranean dwellings than this. The stairs, carved right out of the dirt and stone, looked like they might crumble under any significant weight. Not a big problem for her, but she couldn’t see how Cid’s larger companion could make his way up and down. Maybe there was a secondary entrance elsewhere.
“Shut the door,” he said. “Don’t want to tip anyone off that we’ve come in.”
That actually made her hesitate. While she was certain that the others had watched her enter the home, there might be a trick to opening it like there was for the hatch. And if he closed the hatch, even if they got in, they wouldn’t be able to easily find the stairs.
Something brushed against her elbow. Just a light touch of air. A bit drafty with the hatch opened? Or…
“Alright,” she said with a shrug. “If you think that’s a good idea.”
“I do,” Cid said with a grumble. “Should have closed it before I opened the passage. Now close it and get over here—err… if you please.”
“Sure thing.” The metal shutters were real, even if they had been modified into a door rather than the door-blocker that they were supposed to be. As such, the door wasn’t exactly light. She had to throw her whole weight behind it just to get it moving. Once it was moving, closing it wasn’t all that bad. The latch fell into place, securing the metal door. Pushing and pulling against it did nothing. It was well and truly locked. “Phew.”
Cid cocked his head to the side. “You alright?”
“Fine. Fine. Just fine. It’s down here then, is it? How much farther after that?”
He eyed her for a moment, staring. Whatever he was looking for, he apparently didn’t find. With a shake of his head, Cid said, “Not far. There’s a small hallway and a short drop before we’ll find the cells.”
“Good. Lead the way.”
With one last look to her, he started descending the stairs. Taking care not to misstep on the narrow ledges, she went down after him, though she moved at a nice languid pace, putting just a little distance between them. When he inevitably ran into some guard, she would have at least a little warning. Though the distance didn’t matter when he stopped to wait at the bottom of the stairs. As soon as she joined him, he pulled a large lever sticking out of the wall. The hatch door creaked closed behind them, but shut softly without making a loud bang as the wood connected with the frame.
“Fancy. Elven engineering?”
“Yeah. One of the slaves a few years back.” He let out a slight snort before nodding his head down the hall. “Come on.”
The hall didn’t deserve to be called as such. It was more of a hastily dug out passage. Two people couldn’t walk side by side comfortably. Alyssa was a bit on the taller side of things, though not giantess size. Her head didn’t hit the ceiling because of that, but it was a near thing. Cid was actually having to duck. She couldn’t even imagine how Bacco made it through without being dragged along the floor.
Which he might have been for all she knew.
The passage had rocky walls and a rocky ceiling. No smooth faces so typical of elvish work. They must have had the elf do the door mechanisms and had humans working on the tunnel itself. The floor was somewhat smooth, though not thanks to any craftsmanship. The dirt and rock had worn from use. It actually made her wonder how tall the passage had originally been before all the floor compression and wear.
Little brass candle holders stuck out of the wall at regular intervals. Though they didn’t actually have candles placed atop them. Maybe at one point in time, they would have had candles. Now they had jars of liquid light, keeping the hallway lit.
“How long does this passage go on for?”
Cid paused and turned around. “Actually, it goes all the way back to the Waterhole, though we’re not going that far.”
“Ufu~ Does it now? I’ll have to remember that. But how far are we going?”
He hummed, turning back the way he had been heading. This time, he wasn’t looking straight ahead. He kept glancing between the wall and the ceiling. She followed along as he moved forward another ten paces. Then he made a little noise of epiphany. “It should be right… around… here.”
“Here?” Nothing around them looked any different than it had ten paces back. She couldn’t spot any markings on the ceiling. Though the passage did darken further ahead. Someone must have taken the lights. Or maybe they just hadn’t done maintenance on the tunnel in a while. The lights that were around were not at their brightest.
“Yep.” He put his hand on the nearest candle holder and glanced between her and the ceiling again. “You, uh, might want to take about three steps back.”
Complying, she looked around again. Right above her, a small cross had been scratched into the ceiling. “Here?”
“Perfect.” He yanked on the candlestick, sending another loud click into the air.
While her eyes were on the ceiling, the floor dropped out from under her. Air rushed past as she began falling. Her last sight was of Cid’s foul grin before she fell into a black pit.