How old are you?

Lisheva Durasoona

 

The first man stumbled back, howling. The second man came at her, sword drawn. She stumbled away from one strike and the woman slammed her to the floor.

It’d been years since she was a nine-year-old play flighting, but Sarea fought like she was still that child, twisting and pulling herself away along the floor. The woman grabbed at her, fingers digging into her left leg painfully. Sarea kicked the woman in the chest with her other foot, once, twice, and she let go, gasping for breath.

Sarea pushed herself back along the floor. The woman just kept coming! Sarea blasted fire at her and she curled away from it. Sarea looked up – there were more of them than that –

The first man held the second back with a hand on his shoulder, his other rubbing his red cheek. The woman uncurled in one long, beautiful movement that finished with her on her feet, knife out. Sarea glanced between knife and sword.

“Stop,” the first man said hoarsely. He coughed. “She’s Durasoona.”

“She kicked me,” the woman snapped, but she grinned. Sarea stayed were she was, panting, new flames curling around her hands. What was worse, the anger or the smile?

Ionas melted out of the darkness by the barrel stack, all coat and melodrama. He held his hand up. She stared back at him.

“What did you do to me?” the first man rasped. “This – what did you do to me?”

She smiled thinly. “It’s a burn,” she said. “It probably isn’t going to be that bad.”

“Probably -” The second man jerked forward. The first man yanked him back.

“I don’t like people grabbing me,” she said, curling her fingers. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s true,” Ionas said, grinning.

The three strangers spun around almost as one.

“They’re called boundaries,” he said. “You should respect them.”

“Pot, meet kettle,” Sarea muttered. She frowned at him. “You followed me. How?”

He waved it off. “When one’s apprentice walks past them on the street, a fellow gets curious.”

“You could’ve done something,” she said.

“When you were handling it just fine?” He shrugged. “No one was going to have the chance to harm you. Don’t worry.” And if he’d shifted on his feet and gone from bright-eyed fool to tall, solid shadow, she wasn’t complaining.

The first man’s shoulders tensed. “Who’s you, then?”

Ionas smiled again, but this one sent shivers down her spine. “Ionas Pachin. Wall Guardian. You?”

“Tolle.” The first man nodded at the second. “This is Mettieu, and that back there is Mae.”

The woman flashed her teeth back at Sarea. “You’ve got bite, girl. I like that.”

Sarea stared back, eyes wide.

“And we’re the Hunters,” Tolle said.

Ionas’ face fell. “Not you! A more useless, ineffective -”

Tolle bristled. “Says who? We’ve kept the Instigators down all right.”

“And the actual baby demon growing in the west side?” Ionas said acidly.

Sarea counted breaths. It was probably safe to ignore the argument for a moment. She had to let the fire go. She had to think. Hunters. What did that mean? Tolle sounded local, but Mettieu and Mae didn’t. They clipped the end of their sentences and their vowels ran long. Northern, maybe? And Mae was truly pale, brown hair cut short and lit up with flashes of red, looking at her with bright blue eyes like she wanted to gut her.

Mae said, “Hah!” and sheathed the knife. “What you staring at?” Behind her, Ionas and the two men were gesturing. “You think you want a piece of this? You got bite, but you haven’t claws yet, girl.”

Think fast. Think well. “We weren’t properly introduced,” Sarea said, holding her hand out. “Sarea Sahar Durasoona.”

Mae flashed a smile at her. “Maevanon d’Sala Mon Loss.” Her hand was rough and callused, and she gripped hard. “Go with Mae. It’s easier. Want help getting up?”

Sarea shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said, but the woman pulled her up anyway. Mae wasn’t any taller than Sarea herself, yet she showed no sign of the move straining her. On her feet, Sarea pulled away, hugging herself.

“What’s a Hunter?” she said.

Mae grinned. “We fight demons.”

“You’re not doing a good job of it,” Sarea said doubtfully.

“Up home, you see the bad, you kill it. Down here, you see the bad, you wrap it up in people and give it bodyguards.” Mae shrugged. “Makes it hard for people to do right.”

Sarea nodded, worrying at her sleeves. “I hope I didn’t break anything,” she said.

“Knocked the wind out of me.” Mae patted her arm. “Good work.”

“Here, Mae,” Tolle called out.

Ionas beckoned with his hand, not looking across.

Sarea veered around the two men, conscious of Mae a step behind her. She stood where Ionas could guard her, a pace from grabbing his hand and running. No one seemed to notice.

Tolle jabbed a finger at Ionas. “Get the damn girl out of the city.”

Ionas folded his arms. “She stays with me,” he said. “I’m not leaving until the west side is clear.”

Tolle growled at him. “If that thing gets hold of her, the Wall won’t mean shit. As a Durasoona -”

“She is herself,” Ionas said flatly. “More than her family, and worth twenty of you.”

She looked up at him. Is he telling the truth today?

“And I’ll gladly protect her with everything I have,” he added, gentle, turning his head toward her. Not much. Just a little. She dropped her gaze, biting her lip. “So don’t worry about her,” he said. “In fact, I think we can help you.”

Tolle looked between them. “Get out,” he said. “And don’t let her out of your damn sight.”

Ionas held his hand out. After a moment, Sarea took it. “No leaving my sight,” he said. “Got that?”

“I’m not changing in front of you,” she muttered.

“Just get lost,” Tolle snapped. “And good riddance!”

“And if you need us?” Ionas said.

“We’ll find you,” Mettieu said. “Leave.”

“Come on,” Ionas said, quieter, sliding his hand around her shoulders instead. He walked her outside, the weight of his arm a kind of protection. She shrugged him off at the door, turning around.

“There’s an easy treatment for that burn,” she said. “I’d make it for you.”

Tolle stared at her. “She’s serious,” he said. “She’s actually serious.”

“Try not to break the nice man’s brain,” Ionas sang out, tugging her outside into a world of cool grey cloud. “Here,” he said, and dirt showered off her clothes. “That wasn’t bad, for you.”

For her? She let him pull her into the street before she pulled away from him, shoving her hands in her pockets. “You used me as bait,” she said.

He shrugged. “You used yourself as bait. I hung around to pull you out of the water.”

“Little biter!”

Sarea turned. Mae stood in the doorway, tossing a small, glittering object at them. Ionas snatched it out of the air. He held the ring up, turning it in his fingers.

“You might need it,” Mae said, grinning, and slammed the door shut.

“Mountain honour,” Ionas sighed. “Where’d you get this?”

She held her hand out. He raised his eyebrows. She waited, jaw set. He nodded, dropping it in her palm. She hid it away in her pocket before she said, “Jesse.” Then, daring him to ask questions, “Who are the Hunters?”

He rolled his eyes. “After the Wall came up, they were co-founded by three Charter families. Your lot down south, Auros in the west, and Pellorin up in the north east. They held three bases, back in those days, but they’ve lost them since. Now they’re one large group made from a lot of small ones.”

She considered this. “And no one know who’s who,” she said.

He snorted. “Absolutely.”

“Did all the Charter families do something?” she said, rubbing the ring.

“We’ll go back to Gregor’s for dinner,” he said. “Coming?”

He set off at a punishing pace, long-legged stride eating the ground. She struggled to keep up, and he was talking too, as he walked her out of the north side.

“There are families that built,” he said. “Families that guarded, hunted, or stored knowledge. It’s been so long, most people have forgotten their duties.”

“The O’Hallorns,” she said, breathing hard. “What did they -”

He stopped, turning on her. “Something terrible,” he said. “Then something great beyond measure. Why?”

She hesitated, stepping back. “I met a girl in the bath house. Isaye O’Hallorn.”

“Be careful around her,” he said. “Some families don’t change.”

“But some do,” she said.

“It’s more complicated than that. It’s…” He ran his hand through his hair. “There was an oath you could swear, something that could be passed down… I’ll explain it later, after you’ve studied runes more. It’s not easy.”

She nodded. “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Yes, you would,” he said, grinning. Then – “What’s that?” He spun around, facing down a narrow alleyway.

She frowned up at him. “You’re distracting me.”

He snorted. “I wish I was. Look,” he said, pointing. “There. What do you see?”

She peered into the shadows. There were boxes and crates, broken and abandoned, and stinking rubbish and muck strewn across the ground. And on the wall were a series of blue, glowing, hand prints. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “But we’re going to find out. Stay behind me, Sarea.”

She opened her mouth to protest but shut it again, frowning. At least she got to follow him.

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