Angels Rally On

Chapter 1

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           Fear the Watchmaker, trust the Specter, don’t upset guards. These were the laws she had lived by, and the ones that had kept her alive until this point. She was afraid. But she was hungry. She looked up and saw the Specter at the top of the tower blanketed in swirling gray clouds. Down she saw hard stone at a deadly distance. She clung to the wall by her fingertips, knowing that she had to move quickly or risk losing her grip. The wall had been hurriedly built, and had many places to grip. However, the next grip was too far to grab without jumping, and she did not have the heart to try.

        Another child on the wall was more courageous. A boy tried to leap up across the polished stone to reach the stones beyond. If the Specter had done so, it must be possible, and hunger made the children try stupid things.

        It was the first time she had seen someone die. She saw the terror in his eyes when he realized he hadn’t jumped far enough. His hand tore at the air and slick stone for anything to break his fall. She watched him tumble and collapse as his back struck the ground and the body floundered. His eyes were fixed on the sky when the body calmed. She could still see him blink as blood pooled around the body.  

        Nearby she heard guards laugh. She watched as the fear overwhelmed the hunger in the other children and they began to descend. She looked again at the hooded figure up above. He was watching intently, unmoved by the death of the child. In his hands a loaf of bread was still warm.

        She felt her fingers getting weak and looked around. There had to be another way. She circled round the tower, looking for any other way up. The polished stones seemed to have no end until she found a window. The top of the window frame seemed to have easy access to other grips, but the window itself was still too high for her to reach by leaping. Her forearms began to stiffen with overuse. Her toes and fingertips begged for release. Despite this there was a forlorn hope that the other side of the tower had some magical gap in the smooth stones.

        Strangely, there was. Another window, this time she could find some grips leading up to it, but not up from it. If there was a path from one window to another inside, she could make it.

        For a lowborn like her to enter the tower would be a terrible crime, punishable by removal of a foot if she were lucky, a leg if she weren’t. Though, if she was not inside for long, it could be done. She spared a glance to the guards who had taken to cleaning the streets of the boy’s body, then up at the Specter, who had changed positions to watch her. His head darted curiously like a bird’s in an unnerving fashion.

        She climbed to the window as quickly as she could and glanced in. She saw red curtains, and nothing much beyond. If there were anyone inside it would mean disaster for her. Regardless, her mind reminded her of how many days it had been since she ate and she took the risk.

        She slipped in quietly and cautiously. Upon entering past the scarlet satin she was shocked to see rows of cages on either side of her. More shocking still were the creatures inside.

        They were monsters. She had never seen any like them. Some hurt her mind to look at; others were far too entrancing for her to dare take time to investigate.  

        The first she saw, and the closest to her, seemed to be a darkened outline of a man, but it had no features. It seemed to pulse and buzz loudly when she looked at it. It shifted across her sight when she moved, like it was a shadow cast from an invisible object, and she was the light. She turned her eyes away but the buzz persisted until she began to walk away towards the window across the room.

        She passed another monster. It was a massive black slug with skin that crawled with human faces. Thin limbs jabbed from the body, violently breaking at many odd angles to form joints that moved in an awkward fashion. It moved slow and effortlessly like a cloud. She thought it smiled at her, and quickened her step, hoping not to stir any of the other beings.

        The last she passed was a human-looking thing that writhed as if in pain. At first she stopped to inspect it. A large blood red gash stretched from shoulder to hip. However, she soon realized that the gash was toothed. The monster thrashed against its chains and against the bars the moment she slowed, biting and gnawing the air and iron with his body-sized mouth. Inside the gaping mouth were other mouths. They all squealed like children.

        Panic granted speed to her limbs, though she found her body shaking. She wasted no time in leaving from there, and climbed up and back out onto the side of the tower, this time above the smooth line of stones. Her arms screamed as she put them back to work, but one floor later and she was clambering onto the top of the tower out of breath from panic and exhaustion,  

        She had to take some time to recover; her limbs felt cold. As feeling returned into them they began to ache. However, in no time at all she noticed that the man was holding out the bread and she snatched it from him like a hound to meat, quickly forgetting her past fears. No words were exchanged; she simply mauled it into nothing.

        “Brave.” His voice was deep and commanding, but casual. It was an off duty military tone. “But not stupid.” The man looked down at the dark red stains below the shadow of the tower with a shrug. In-between bites she saw the reflection of his eyes behind the hood, but not much else. All it did for her was suggest the Specter was human. “But more impressive still, is that you never thought to share that with anyone else.” A pang of guilt for her friends down below was short lived. They had given up. She had not. “You are promising.” As he made his way to the edge of the tower he ruffled up her hair like she were some kind of pet. She did not mind. She hardly noticed. She was high on adrenaline and bread. She did spare a glance to see him hop of the edge and adeptly attach himself to it on the way down, breaking his fall as he descended.

        She quickly became the Specter’s favorite. Sometimes she’d even share her bounty if she’d beat his test several days in a row. Rivals came and went, some stronger, some faster, but none as clever as her. The Specter even had a name for her. “Mouse” he called her. She never had a name before, but she was glad to have one. The others started calling her the same.

        Mouse had been eating well for several weeks. Before, the Alsciocian priests would arrive monthly with alms, but this was gone within days. It was enough to continue to starve. She had tried saving some for later before, but had been attacked for her trouble.

        Sometimes the Specter had them swim, or pick a lock, or distract guards. Small things. When she was old enough to wonder why he was doing what he was doing, she had already accepted it and no longer cared, much like the monsters in the tower.

        When she had first seen someone die, she had been the smallest child among the crowd. On this day she was the tallest girl, and only one boy she knew was taller. This was due to time, and the death of older children. She was also old to the point that the dead boy and the monsters were distant memories. Everything before was a blur. No person other than the Specter had lasted long enough to have a true relationship with her, or any lasting impact. She trusted him and him alone, though knew that she was of little importance to him.

        Mouse found the Specter in the marketplace. He was flipping a coin in his hands. It looked valuable. The silver circle had the king’s seal on it, and was as long as her big toe. She wondered if that was the prize. It shone despite the overcast sky. She got a good look at his fingers. They were scarred, calloused, strong, dexterous, subtle, and brown. It was an oddity; rarely did anyone tan in this city. Mouse was outside all day and was still very pale. He must have been a foreigner.

        Mouse was hesitant. There were many guards in the marketplace. Many were looking at the group of street rats gathering. She tried to slouch to hide herself.

        The Specter spoke, “This coin is very valuable. By nightfall, at the top of the northern tower, should one of you return this to me I shall have an important assignment for you.” He shrugged. “Or you can keep it for yourself. It’s your choice.”

        A simple challenge. But this was different. He would rarely speak to anyone before a challenge. Her uneasiness peaked. She wanted to skip this one. She could skip eating this day. If she were wrong she’d do better tomorrow. Her eyes darted to the guards, who had eased up at the moment, sometimes glancing in their direction in a bored fashion.

        “You may sit this one out, if you’d like.” She noticed for the first time that he was looking at her. The entire time his hood had been in her direction. Being the object of his attention forced her to step back with embarrassment, almost shame. She shook her head. “Good.” The voice insinuated a smile underneath. He flipped the coin in the air in the direction of the crowd.

        Mouse was quick and tall. Her only rival had been caught off guard by the sudden motion. She snatched the coin out of the air with a grin developing on her face. She liked winning, especially if it was easy. For a moment she savored the look of the boy’s face as he slowly swiped the air behind her. If she could avoid the other kids well enough the coin was hers.

        “Thief!” She turned to hear a sudden scream. The Specter was pointing at her. “Guards! A thief!”

        The true nature of the game had finally been revealed. Her sense of betrayal was short-lived as the children she had once thought were threats suddenly turned and fled, taking with them her only cover. She followed low down as best she could, covering her head and face and sprinting for cover.

        Don’t upset the guards. She had broken the rules.

        A zipping sound, and a child by her side fell screaming, clutching his bleeding leg. Another zipping sound loudly passed right by her head as she ran. No time to stop and look. The guards were well known for their slings. She hoped they had decided she was not worth the lead. The stones were less accurate.

        Another zip, and she felt like she’d been hit in the side by a hammer. She gasped but fumbled forward. A graze. A solid hit might have gone through the cloth and skin both. Finally taking some time to look where she was going, she found herself running down one of the many alleys that made the veins of the city. She turned into a yet smaller one.

        A stone of a nearby building exploded into shrapnel as a bullet struck it. She ran as fast as her bare feet could and enjoyed a brief moment of peace. The narrow corridor was perfect for her. If she could just manage to get to the next fork a few dozen paces away she’d be free. Her side reminded her of her injury, but she kept running, no longer shielding her face.

        She was only two strides from the exit when a guard charged from behind the corner. She yelped in surprise, grabbed the wall and turned back the way she came.

        “You!” She heard, “Stop!”

        She dodged as much as she dared, hoping the guard would lose his aim. She was more scared than she had ever been in her life. She knew the price of thievery. The only thing that kept her calm was the thought of winning. Of overcoming the odds. She always did. She always came out stronger. The Specter never gave an impossible mission. There was always a way.

        A stone grazed her head. She grunted, holding her ear for a moment. It was wet with blood and numb. Too much adrenaline, or maybe it had been torn off. She could take care of it once she escaped.

        Another guard turned the corner before her. Her body felt cold as she stopped and turned either way, seeing a guard in either direction. She looked up at the sky and walls. Two stories. She’d never climbed this fast before but it was her only option. She put the coin in her mouth to free her hands; it was just small enough to fit behind her teeth. She took to the wall and scaled with foot and hand as if she were crawling on the ground. She did not dare look down.

        A crack, and pain. She had not gone more than two strides up the wall when her ankle gave way, half numb and half agony. She screamed against the coin in her mouth, willing herself to stay on the wall. She looked down to see a strong hand grab her limp ankle and pull. She was plucked like an apple from a tree and collapsed on the hard stone, knocking the wind out of her.

        She grit her teeth trying to breathe as a hardened hand pulled her up and slammed her again against the wall. Her eyes were wet. One leg could barely support her weight, other failed to respond.

        “Got ya missy.” He was old and fat. Hairs sprung up where they shouldn’t, and his nose was entirely too big for his face. He was just taller than her, but small for a guard, and stocky. “Where is it?” With a swift, strong tug her removed her weak clothing with a tear. It was a raggedy dress she had worn for several years. She whimpered like an animal as they searched her. “Not here.”

        He held her down as the man placed his fat fingers in her lips, forcing them apart. “Eh?” He looked around. “Good teeth on ya. Could sell ya to the Watchmaker for as much as you stole.” He commented. “Alright.” He slammed her bare back on the cold wall. “Who ‘as it?”

        They thought she didn’t have it. She could not bear to feel relieved, but it gave her hope.

        “Well?” He asked. She could not speak. “Protecting them are you? He took a leather wrapped weapon from his belt. A blackjack with a core of lead. “That makes you an accomplice!” He tapped the leather on her bare skin threateningly. “You going to talk?” She whined again through her nose, trying to look away, to look at anything else, to think of something.

        “You are a pretty one aint ya?” He said. “You want us to cut a deal?”

        “Fallow.” It was a more regimented voice coming from the other guard.  “We dispense with the King’s justice. No more, no less.”

        “The girl wants to lose an arm ‘tis fine. But she’d not actually done it, jus’ coverin’ for ‘er boys. Think she may be entitled to, uh, lessened punishment.” He looked over her. “You bled yet girl? Don’t want to be contributing to the problem ‘ere.”

        “You’d just be saving someone else the trouble,” the other guard scoffed. “She’d probably riddled with illness though. Just take the limb or beat her and be done with it.”

        “Don’t be buying that Alsciosian nonsense!” The guard that held her said. “Curses ain’t contagious. They be witches’ doing. And I got a lucky Talisman!” He motioned to a wooden trinket on his coat. “So she’s fine by me. Now little girl, what do you say, hm? Life without a hand or a minute or two with old Fallow?” He seemed hopeful.

        Mouse could only think to grunt and shove. It earned her a firm shake, and the back of her head hit the stone. It took everything she had not to cry out and to stay standing. “Pity.” He shrugged. “Resisting arrest again. Was going to settle for a few fingers if you was good, but it’ll be your hand then.” She did not fully comprehend the statement until she was stretched out on the stone ground, a firm hand on her forearm. She saw the glint of a blade realized what was happening. She seized with all her strength. “Settle!” Fallow said, putting his weight into her body. “You don’t want my friend to miss aye? You want to keep all you can get right…”

        She screamed as the blade hit stone, not slowing down a moment as her flesh got in the way. Her mouth opened reflexively her body shook, and when released, she curled up quickly, her stump on her bare chest, her other hand pressing hard into the forearm. “Bloody shame.” She felt a cloth come over her and heard the footsteps leaving her. She could hardly see past the teary blur in her eyes, but she was able to force herself to tie the stump with what was left of her clothes.

        At least, she thought she did. Someone had by the time she awakened several hours later. She only remembered the cutting pain that had become a low throb. She shook with cold and shock when she blinked her eyes open.

        Failed. She had failed. Utterly and completely. She almost wished she had nodded at the man’s suggestion. She was not noble. She had no reason to value that part of herself. She was valuable only to the Specter, and now she was not. Another spasm of grief wracked her body as the gray sky began to turn black. As she moved and sobbed she heard a metallic scraping sound.

        The coin. They still had not found it. She rolled, slowly, her body aching, and found the shining coin. She could use it to buy food. She had no other reason to keep it. No mission that the Specter would give was something she could do. She was dead to him now.

        But a part of her grabbed the coin and placed it in her mouth. It was the part of her that she let climb and run when she thought of other things. It was the animal part that took her somewhere, when her mind was elsewhere. The human in her groaned as her body moved. Her side looked blue and black, as did her ankle. Both were swollen and unusable. But she got onto her good leg, naked and grief-stricken. She unwrapped the soggy limb, the cloth slowly tearing at the wound. She somehow got herself half dressed in the bloodstained mess without breaking the black scab. She tied it to itself, the cloth nearly tearing against she did with her shaking fingers. She noticed how pale her body was. She’d seen a girl die from lack of blood before. She had the same pale skin.

        She wondered why she was so determined to move, but assumed it was the Specter. She didn’t know why, but the feeling in her heart was that she was his favorite, even now. Even broken. She almost laughed, but that would have made her drop the coin. Instead she braced herself against the wall with her hand and hopped. Pain doubled her over, her stomach lurched and her ankle felt like it would fall off at any minute. It took her four or five deep breaths before hopping again, gritting her teeth and groaning. She felt dizzy, even with two legs keeping upright would have been difficult.

        It was dark when she reached the tower. She was late. She did not see the Specter. There was no reason to climb. It was an Alsciosian tower, an old and weathered one. The stones were smooth all the way up, but some chipped stones offered meager hand holds. Naked figures danced along the top, some missing pieces and parts. She looked around and saw an empty barrel. It was enough to get her started.

        She winced at the thought, but found it to be the natural action of her body. She went to it, flipped it onto its head with all her might, and began trying to get up onto the flat bottom of it. She sat down on it, bent her legs, and pushed up with one while bracing herself on the wall. Her leg shook.

        She fell, tumbling to the ground and hitting her side and ankle. She screamed, the coin and her senses once again leaving her. The stump of her arm opened, a subtle flow of blood trickled from the black, crusted crack.

        She shoved the stub into the clothing on her chest with her good hand. Then she pressed down on the stone and pushed it back with the other. Her hand was once again wet with fresh blood. She sat up, placed the coin back into her mouth, and got back to her foot, her knee shaking with strain and pain. She once again set the barrel up, sat on it, and was careful to keep her balance on the way up. The barrel was uneven on the stones.

        She fit her bloody fingers into a crack and lifted herself up onto the wall. Her good leg found a spot to rest and the other dangled. She looked up and saw the inviting sky she looked down and saw the ground, one stride away. She saw another handhold and grunted in preparation. It wasn’t too far.

        Like plucking the coin out of the air, her hand shot out and took hold of the molding one brick above the last. She then pulled herself up, lightly hopping with her leg, and found another place to put it. She continued in this way for what seemed like the better part of the night. At one point, her clothes caught on a gap and pulled themselves apart again, revealing herself to the black sky and empty street. For some reason it didn’t bother her here, though the cold did. The aching pain of her wounds lessened as her limbs grew tired, but it would quickly return if she made a single mistake, or hopped too fast.

        She was exhausted by the time she reached the line of small statues. Here, the regularity of the stones was gone. She had to make a plan to grab something else. She looked down and saw a deadly distance. Up above she saw cracked faces and arms. Anything that jut out from the tower too much was already weathered smooth or too cracked to trust.

        There was an angel’s wing, the outcropping of which was so high, she’d have to jump further than she thought possible. The headless angel attached to that wing was bare-chested, her breasts pointing outwards, weathered smooth, but within reach and stable. Closer than the other targets was an outstretched hand as small as an infant’s. It was unlikely to carry her weight.

        She was scared and tired. She was still not certain of what she was doing. Maybe she needed to die this way. She remembered the boy who fell all those years ago. It was hard not to. She took a deep breath and chose her target.

        Her hand darted to the breast and grabbed it. Her fingers strained as she pulled. The surface was so smooth that her grip was as tight as she could possibly manage.

        The blood on her hand was too much and she slipped, leaving bloody red streaks across the angel’s chest. As she pulled she scrambled for any other handhold but it was too late. She was weightless. She’d had this nightmare before, and hoped that this was just another dream. Her body felt cold. On instinct she reached out with her phantom hand towards the angel’s broken arm as she fell.

        She nearly screamed when something jerked at her arm. Her eyes watered and she seethed as she looked up and found a strong, dark hand on her bloody forearm. The Specter had grabbed her.

        He pulled her up, as easily as he would a baby, and set her down on the solid base of the tower. She spat out the coin and sobbed uncontrollably. She heard her heart in her ears and felt it in her limbs. “You did well.” She heard, and felt a strong, warm hand on her back. She was suddenly very aware of bare skin. She wasn’t sure why she cared now and not before, but she huddled into a ball and cried. “You did well,” she heard again. Her eyes closed and for the first time in a long time, she felt safe to close her eyes and sleep. She allowed herself to slip away, and perhaps to never return.

        She could no longer tell reality from her dreams. Angels edged her on as demons nipped at her toes. She was climbing. Always climbing. The wall she climbed would sink into an ocean of fire, and angels would provide more and more stones for her to reach for. The ticking of a clock timed the demise of the stone. The fire burned but still felt cold. She thought maybe she should just drop into the fire, but could not bring herself to, not yet. The angels would sing to her for her to continue, words too pretty for her to understand fully. It was something between the chanting of priests and the falling of rain.

        Then she looked down and saw the Specter, walking up the wall like it was the ground, and she was the angel. The world spun like a broken gear, skipping some ticks, and jumping around at others. He looked at her wondering what to take from her, and she didn’t care what he chose, because she was of use. He measured every piece of her with string and then he took her all. He took her arms, her legs, her head, her body and then she was nothing. Nothing but the rain above, hellfire below, and the stones and towers crumbling down as she ascended up the tower.

        The first thought that she could understand was wondering where she was. She blinked, unsure of when she had awoken. She was inside somewhere wooden. There was something cold and wet on her forehead. She heard rain outside. She tried to move, but the effort proved too painful to consider again. She whimpered. She was tired.

        “Mouse.” She heard the Specter. Her tired eyes darted around for him. “A boy will come to help heal you. Obey him.” She obeyed, hearing the closing of a door. She was still curious, but found it strangely easy to once again fade into sleep.

        Pain woke her as her body was shifted. She smelled something better than anything she had ever smelled before and her eyes opened. There was a boy, brown hair, about her age. Her head had been pushed up, a bowl was being held to her lips. It was tilted till the broth entered her. She’d tasted old dried meats and rotten vegetables before, but this tasted fresh, with spices and sweet nectar.

        “Not so eager.” His accent was foreign, like an Alsciosian. “It won’t run from you.” He spoke like he was talking to a friend. If she had any energy left she’d have used it to feel awkward. “You were sick but you are past the worst of it now.“ He dropped the bowl and she let the fluid slowly drip down her throat.

        She tried to ask where she was, but only managed to murmur incoherently. “It’s fine. Just rest.” She obeyed, and drank more of the broth. “You really like it huh? I never did. Hated it when the cook made it. ” She faded off again, almost forgetting her injuries in the taste.

        When she woke again she was full of energy. Her body creaked and resisted, but she willed herself to test some motions. Her right hand was numb. No, it was gone, she remembered. The rest of her was there, though her ankle was stiff and bound. Reaching up with her resistant left arm she felt cloth around her head. She assumed she still had her ear.

        She managed to sit up, the blanket over her fell to her waist. Her torso was bandaged. Looking lower she saw a hard brace around her shattered ankle. Someone had also cleaned her. Not just in water, but in some sweet smelling oils she could not describe.

        “You are up.” She turned quickly, covering herself. The Specter was there. “Good. The boy tells me you won’t be in condition to walk for at least three months, but I need you in one. You will be wearing a brace.” She looked to her phantom hand and then back at him. “You will not be climbing, or stealing. Or swimming. You will be killing a man. Are you ready for that?” It was an odd question. But she found herself nodding. “Good. You have another mission as well in the meantime. There are books on wall.” He pointed and she looked. “I expect you to know the meaning of those by next summer. You will need it for another mission.” His gaze lingered on her for some time after. She avoided his glance nervously. “You don’t ask questions. I like that.” And he left.

        The Specter said little else to her over the coming weeks. The priest would come to feed and treat her. “I’m just a student,” he’d tell her, “I was raised at the church as an orphan. What about you?” She’d never respond. “Mute? Are you… no, Apostates are branded as well as muted. But your arm… are you a thief? That can be forgiven you know. Though, I’m not sure how’d you confess…”

        When free she would scan through the books. She had only ever seen a book once before, carried by a priest. She thought perhaps that same book, or a copy, was one on the wall, as the cover had the same symbol. The marks inside were small and straight, sometimes the symbols would repeat. Clumsily, she took a small piece of coal and used the floor to copy the symbols that repeated. Then she wrote the small combinations that would repeat between empty spaces, since some were common. Another book had pictures with markings below them. She learned these as best she could, and attempted to match them with other known markings.

        “Oh, me?” The boy asked when she motioned to her work one day. “No, I’ve seen the book, but I’ve yet to learn the drawing of sounds. Sorry…” It was worth a try.

        Other books were less helpful, and seemed to have even more strange markings and pictures. In these she drew over a hundred symbols before giving up. There were too many, and worse, they would blend together and there seemed to be no end or beginning to the thoughts. She hoped it was another language and went on to decoding the first book once more.

        She treated it like just another wall to climb. Unlike those she faced in the past, there was always something to try. She wrote out the marks in different ways, guessing at their meaning or how they would be spoken. She had a lot of time. It took a full week to put possible sounds to some marks with the help of the picture book, but the rules were not always the same, in fact, she worried that it was the wrong way to see the marks. Perhaps they did not mean sounds at all.

        After the second week she believed the theory more fully, and understood the simple rules of the marks, but not the more complex. Some words with known mark sounds would sound like something she’d never heard of. She could go word by word now, sometimes missing a word, and understand parts of the passages.

        The picture book was for teaching. It had been put there to help her, she thought. The other was a history, or myth, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was both. It spoke of a Goddess Alsciosia, and the laws she made. She made the earth pull and she made the stars shine. Her children formed the major branches of the Alciosian order, the sea, the land, the sky, and the heavens. The first three dealt with simple matters of the world, while the last concerned the human mind and soul.

        The worship of things made of water: animals, plants, rain, and the secrets to preserving, and destroying life, went to those who followed the sea. Alsciocians of the land prayed to stone, earth, and metal, and built towers as monuments to the gods they knew, kept up by the laws they believed in. Those who looked up to the sky heard Alsciocia in the wind, and saw her in the stars. Then those that looked inward found her in words, poems, hymns, and in every other expression of thought and feeling.

        Alsciocia placed laws both on the material and spiritual realm. Just as one could not crush a stone into nothing, simply change it’s shape to dust, a villain can never go unpunished. They must always serve penance, either in this world or the next. A confession, and time and action served to right your wrongs, allowed you to become one with Alsciosia upon your death.

        Crimes against her were heretical. They included taking a life entrusted to you, taking property from another without permission, causing unnecessary pain, the telling of secrets, and preaching falsehoods in her name. Repentant heretics were given opportunity to right their wrongs with toil. Otherwise permanent punishment fitting the crime was administered. These punishments also served to prevent a second offence. A hand from a thief, the taking of a liar’s tongue, the eyes of a murderer, these were all given to Alsciosia. If they proceeded to again offend her, their life, or freedom, would be forfeit, depending on her nearby agents will and accommodations.

        But those who followed her will were granted fantastic powers based on how they worshiped her.

        Those of the sea held life in their hands. They could cure curses upon entire kingdoms, turn the tide of battle by granting strength, or imparting weakness, and they could turn infertile sand into nurturing soil.

        Those of the land could make castles taller than a score of men and stronger than any battering ram, create machines to conquer time and distance, lift mountains, sink cities, and find gold and silver by reading rivers and stone.

        In the sky the Alsciosians could tame the untamable seas, fighting off storm gods and guiding sailors with paths set by stars and guided by clouds. Some, it is rumored, could even tell you both the future and the past, as they also kept the time, and knew the secrets of when to reap and when to sow.

        Those heavenly minded knew the will of Alsiocia. They were the ones who interpreted her will, spoke it, and judged those in her kingdom. They could see through lies, read thoughts, mend, or create rivalries, and break the will of any heathen. Their bards wielded satires that could ruin any lord, their priests wielded men with faith unshakable.

        Mouse read all this in the first few pages of the text. Some words she missed, some passages she skipped, but she was getting faster every day. She found walking on her braced leg more easy near the end of the month, but it would be a long time before she could climb or run. Once her arm seemed well enough her bandages were removed and she could see a sewn seam where her hand had once been. It was eerie. She still sometimes forgot that it was not there. Her fear of uselessness was abated however.

        Her side had all but recovered by the time she was needed for The Specters wishes. Her body was still sore, but it was only a matter of time now. As the month drew towards its end she wondered for the first time who it was she would be killing, and if she had the stomach for it.  She could only think of that boy those years ago and his eyes dumbly staring at the sky. Would it be the same kind of hopeless horror? Perhaps it would be as easy as pushing someone off a ledge.

        She wondered who the target was. She hoped it wasn’t a child like that boy, or a strong soldier like Fallow. Perhaps an old decrepit man that was on death’s door anyway, with a life filled with doing terrible things.

        The Specter was dressed the same as always, but gave her something new to wear. It was a clean, white nightdress that she’d seen noble girls sometimes wear in high towers and merchants selling for a handful of silver. There was not much to it, and it felt too cold, light, and smooth on her.

        When bade to leave the wooden room for the first time in weeks The Specter offered his hand. She took it in hers as he led her away. The hard hand was as gentle as it could be, she imagined.

        She limped at a slow pace through the crowd. Cleaned and dressed, she imagined anyone who had known her before would not recognize her now. The Specter led the way to a shack in the center of the oldest part of town. The boards were almost falling off the frame, and candlelight tore through the gaps.

        Before they entered, the Specter stopped and stooped to her level. “You can leave now if you like.” He said, taking one knee. Some passerby’s were present, but none seemed too interested in them. “Otherwise, you must play along, and kill him at your first opportunity once you are alone with him. Then you must meet me back at the northern tower. Do not fail. Do not let him live through the night. Do not wait too long. The longer you wait the harder it will become.”

        Mouse looked away. She wasn’t sure if she could do this. “If it helps, he is a bad man.” It did help. “Ready?” He stood and held an outstretched hand. “Last chance to leave.” She took his hand. He opened the door and slowly entered.

        She’d seen the Watchmaker in town, but never considered that he’d be in a place like this. He had small, bright eyes that shone like pearls and a bald head with a dull leather cap. His teeth were too white and he smiled too broadly. He was scrawny, but sinewy, denoting strength inherited in his youth that was mostly lost in time. He was dressed in a polite and unimposing manner that made him hard to make out in a crowd. All around him were mechanisms and devices that she could hardly guess the use of, and of course watches of all kinds.

        By him were two guards. She recognized neither. The Watchmaker had a reputation for being off, and the mark on the outside of his left hand was eerily familiar. It was a broken gear, missing many of it’s teeth.

        “Well hello little girl.” He smiled on her way in. “You seem to have recovered nicely. I don’t know if you remember, but I was there when you were sick. And… oh, it’s good to see you again.” He nodded to the Specter. “How have you been?”

        “Very good. Your work as always has been a great help. And how have you been?” The Specter spoke in a friendly manner. They advanced on the Watchmakers table.

        “Excellent.” His smile broadened. “It is always good to be of use, and to be appreciated. What can I do for you this evening?”  Like a spider’s legs his thin fingers skittered across his table and cleared it of what had had been working on before with meticulous intent as he focused his attention on the customer.

        “Have you finished the project I had asked you about?” The Specter questioned. His attention was idly on a trinket that spun in a chaotic fashion.

        “Oh yes! Just in time.” He bade on of the guards enter a room in the back to retrieve a black case. It was heavy enough to require two hands to carry comfortably. It was placed on the table and the Specter inspected the contents. Mouse could only see partially inside, just enough to see some clothing, and iron.

        “As promised, this girl shall be your ward.” The Specter closed the case. “I trust you will keep her safe.”

        “Of course.” The Watchmaker responded, then looked to Mouse. “We’ll have a lot of fun together won’t we?”

        Mouse looked up at the Specter, his eyes reflecting the candlelight.  “Be good.” He said to her, and then turned. “Oh,” He stopped before he left, “Your apprentice, does he still live in the capital? I may need to travel there, and could use some adjustments.”

        “He is a silly boy.” The Watchmaker rolled his eyes, “But if you are fine with something second rate, he can fix my machinery. Just don’t expect as much craftsmanship.” The Specter nodded, gave a final glance to Mouse, then left.

        “Come.” She turned to the Watchmaker. His hand motioned her closer, around the table. She came to him. “Look at you.” He examined her. “You must be famished. You are all skin and bones! It must be hard living day to day out there, not knowing where your next meal in coming from. It is a dreadful problem, but you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Those days are gone.”

        He brushed her hair out of her face with his careful, spindly digits as if she were a doll, “You are very pretty. You are a pretty little girl you know that? But this old thing,” he pinched the fabric of her dress, “We can do better, don’t you think?”

        He expected a response. She nodded. “Don’t be so nervous! Your life in changing for the better I can assure you. Now, I need to close up shop, but if you would like there is a room in the back with toys and clothes to try. If you go play for just a moment, I will be there soon. And then we will eat something. And maybe even something sweet.” He delicately tapped her nose with his forefinger. “Run along now.”

        She left the man and the room, and the gaze of the watchful guards. The back rooms were numerous, but two were unlocked. One seemed to be a closet with boxes and cleaning equipment. She checked the boxes, but found nothing to help her in her mission. The other room was small, but cozy. There were wooden figures strewn across the floor and clothes hung up along the wall. The clothes did look very beautiful, and the figures were painted and lacquered smooth, with joints that moved and held their position. They intrigued her, but not enough to throw off her nagging desire to get away from this place. Though she could not do that until the mission was complete.

        “Hello.” She turned quickly. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” The Watchmaker had his hands behind his back. “My apologies, I’ve been told that I can be very quiet. But I wanted to give you a surprise. A gift for being so strong for so long.” Mouse resigned herself to wait. The only exit was the one occupied by the Watchmaker.  “Hold out your arm.” He asked, motioning to her stub. She did so.

        He revealed and slipped on a prosthetic, slightly tightening a single strap to keep it snug. Like the toys it was painted and lacquered smooth on the inside, but also covered in leather and linen to give the appearance, and feeling, of a gloved hand. “Fits perfectly!” He smiled. It looked so real that for a moment, she tried to will her fingers to move. Even feeling it with the other hand it felt soft; cold, but soft. Squeezing it, she could feel the wooden bones and joints shifting underneath. “Do you like it?” She nodded. “Good. You can pick out a dress to match, and then we can go to dinner. Would you like that?” She nodded. ”Do you need any help getting dressed?” She shook her head, “I will wait outside.” As he left and closed the door his smile never left him.

        She picked something colorful. It felt nice, and looked as good as any dress she’d seen before, though she was not a good judge. She left and found the Watchmaker waiting. “Good. I hoped you’d chose that one.” He fished out a key ring from his coat pocket and used one of the many keys on one of the many doors. Inside was a staircase leading down. He struck a match and lit a candle. As he led her into the cavernous deep with a candle’s light she took note of something that looked like a blade also buried in his coat pocket. It was small and built for craftsmanship.

        Once he led her down there was another door that he unlocked, and then locked again behind him. They were underground now, but there was a lot down there. The tiles on the floor were very smooth.

        He used the light in his hand to restart the fixture at the table. Glass spread the light to reveal the entire room, and the doors leading away from it. Food had already been placed, and was warm. He moved a seat and offered it. She took it and he sat across from her.

        “Please, eat.” She did. The food was good. He watched her clumsily use her left hand. She took note of the sharp metal utensils around the plate, but did not use them. Instead she subtly covered one with her prosthetic, hoping to nudge it inside over time.

        “You know, I grew up much like you.” He started. She listened as she ate. “I was poor. My earliest memories were of my mother reading stories to me as I slept, but that did not last long. After she was gone I had to do terrible things to get by. At one point I turned to religion. I learned to tinker and I dabbled in medicine. But my skills were focused more in military pursuits. I was good at it, but eventually I left.” He looked down at the symbol on his hand. “I wished fervently to take back what I had done, to turn back the wheel of time, back to those stories of my youth. I studied the arts of timekeeping, thinking Alsciocia may offer a way. After years of study I learned of many ways to stall it and keep it at bay… but I was released from my service, as the Magister who taught me believed my work to be heretical. He believed time was meant to go on, and that these were her laws.”

        He shrugged. “But he could not keep me from my worship. I should have been praised as a prophet… but I do not seek that kind of title.” Mouse was almost done eating. “Ah, but I am rambling. I am sorry, children are not so entertained by this kind of story. You must be tired. I can show you your quarters now, and tomorrow will be the start of your new life.”

        Once finished she followed him out of the room and into another hallway. Strangely, she was getting tired. Then, a door among many was unlocked and a room much like the one upstairs was revealed. “Here we are.” She stumbled and lost her balance. “Oh.” He caught her. “Careful now.” Something was wrong. Her balance was off.

        “You sleepy thing. I am sorry, I did put something in your food to help you relax, but I didn’t expect you to eat so quickly. Just rest now…” Panic flowed through her. She could not rest. Not yet. The Specter gave her orders. Don’t wait. No time.

        She resisted his grasp and went limp. “What’s wrong?” he asked, “Come, on, you can make it to…” He leaned over just enough for her to thrust her hand in the direction of his pocket and grab something metal. “Eh…” He was still smiling in confusion when she finally took hold of the knife and blindly thrust it.

        Her wrist was caught by the man’s quick hand. “Tut tut.” He shook his head. “Those days on the streets are over. You are going to be a good little girl now.” She struck with her right, but it was also caught.

        She pulled her arm out of the hand and thrust her elbow into his face. He finally fell back in pain, covering his nose.

        She turned and stumbled as best she could with the brace on her leg, “Get back…” She turned to see him just steps away, getting up. He was not running, but his legs were so much longer than hers. She tried the next door but found it locked, then tried to hop to the end of the hallway to the next one. “There is nowhere to run.” He was calm in his certainty. She found the next door to be unlocked and swung it open. Then she stepped in and slammed it closed. She was panting.

        It was pitch black. She took the few seconds she had to get some distance between her and the door and find something to hide under. There were several tables and she chose one. She lay on the tile floor and waited. Her breath was loud and echoed off of the chamber walls. The door opened and light entered the room once more. The Watchmaker was calm despite the minor injury. She tried to hold her breath.

        Upon seeing the light entering the room her eyes darted around. The room was filled with pieces and parts of toys and large dolls. Arms, legs, and torsos would be lying about in pieces, or together. They were all childlike.

        And after holding her breath for several moments she reached a terrifying realization. She could still hear it. The breathing was coming from all around her. The dolls were breathing.

        “Just close your eyes and you will wake up in the morning.” She let herself breath. She just had to keep it even. She saw him searching in the darkness, striking a match and lighting another’s candle. The doll’s faces were in various states. Some had perfect and shining eyes and teeth, and others had none. Some had delicate and motionless limbs, and others had none. But the torsos were all breathing. Muscles moved under the skin and some even darted their faces this way and that.

        “There.” The dolls had distracted her. Her eyes focused on those of the Watchmaker as he set his gaze on her. “Now, you can run and work off all that extra energy, or just lie down there and let me pick you up in a few moments. It makes no difference. But I want you to know that I didn’t want you to see this. You should have remained innocent.”

        Mouse stood up and looked for something, anything, and found a heavy looking wooden leg. She picked it up and tried to swing it at the Watchmaker. He grabbed it with one arm and pulled it from her with deceptive strength and she lost her footing. She fell to the ground, dizzy and sleepy. “Rest now. We will talk more in the morning.” she felt his hands on her but her body failed to respond. The breathing of the room felt like it was getting louder as she drifted off.

        She dreamed of the demons she saw so long ago in that tower. She had almost forgotten about them. She saw colors warp into shapes and shapes into monsters. Eventually, she realized that she was awake, and not dreaming. The monsters shifted into things, walls, stones, tables, chairs. She found herself looking up at the flickering stone arches lit in lantern light above her.

        She could not feel her limbs. She panicked, remembering the breathing dolls, and struggled. She heard a thunk and stopped, her breathing ragged. She looked to the noise and saw her crippled arm in the shadows. She moved it again, and let it fall. It was strapped to the surface she lay on. She could not feel it. Another strap around her shoulder cut off life from it. Looking around, the same was true of all her limbs, even her legs had been bound at the thigh, removing feeling below. But only her nub could move freely. She saw an empty binding beyond her nub. It seemed that the table she was on was built to hold down those with wrists.

        The numbness struck fear into her heart. She still had her limbs. She did not know for how long. She struggled against the bindings again, this time trying to exploit what was left of her free limb. She could run her forearm against the leather strap at her bicep, but no further. She tried moving her head, but found another binding at her neck, loose enough not to cut off blood, but tight enough to keep her teeth from the straps.

        There were metal buckles that sealed the straps together. They were tight, and even with fingers the task would have been arduous. Without feeling, and without dexterity, the task seemed impossible. She shook the table lightly, hoping to loosen something, or discover any other weakness in her prison. She was careful not to make too much noise. Signs of struggle, in any case, would not be good for her.

        The bindings were like those of a belt. If she could pull the remainder of the strap with her teeth she could possibly free the pin of the contraption, and her arm could slide free. The strap was loosely held back by tucking it under itself at her elbow. That was her new angle of attack. She tried to untuck it with her nub, rubbing back and forth blindly and without sensation, shifting her shoulders back and forth

        It was frustrating, but she saw no other weakness to exploit. Eventually the leather strap came free, but was going the wrong way for her to reach with her teeth. She’d have to bend it back, and angle it.

        She heard footsteps. She stopped her efforts just in time for the heavy oaken door to open and close, The Watchmaker entering. He had a bandage around his nose, but otherwise looked the same. Shadows leapt across his face in the dim light. Every wrinkle and small scar was highlighted. He looked disappointed.

        “You are awake.” She gulped. “Shame.” He placed a row of tools upon a bench near the table. “You must think me a monster. But you have never seen true monsters. You don’t know about the horrors of this life. I do. I want to save people from that.” She recognized needles, a cleaver, a saw, a knife, all of a medical sense.  “There are children forced to do terrible things in their youth. Some surrender their bodies, or take the life of others. They must do what is necessary to live.”

        He began sharpening his utensils, his eyes on her between each stroke.  She could not act with him watching. “I think it’s better to hide such things from children. They don’t need to know what must die to feed them. They don’t need to know what acts were taken for them to be born. Such unnecessarily ugly facts can ruin the happiness and innocence of childhood. But I can make the childhood last far longer.”

        He smiled for the first time since she had awoken. “Would you like that? To stay young forever? To never enter the cruel world of monsters outside? To never feel pain again? To never be afraid? That is what I will give you.”

        He had chosen a wide bladed fillet knife as he went to her side. “There won’t be any pain. Not anymore. Without limbs you won’t be able to hurt yourself. Without eyes you will see no evil. Without ears you will never feel the sting that words bring to bear. Without teeth and a tongue you will be unable bite or feel disgust. After many weeks of my acid treatment, even your skin will lose its ability to hurt, and your nose will be unable to smell. You will be in a world completely of your own making. Eventually, you will forget any evil here. I will provide for you here on the outside. You can play in your mind and do whatever you like, for as long as you like, with whoever you like. No worries, no cares, no fears. I envy you.”

        He frowned, “That man who brought you here… he didn’t do anything to you did he? I know he does work of ill repute. I would hate for your mind to be poisoned before… oh well. Nothing to be done about that now.” He put the knife to her skin. “Oh!” He stopped. “Of course, I’m sorry, the blindfold. Silly me.” He turned and put the knife on the table. “Now where did I put it…” he scratched his chin. If he was forced to leave the room then she could… “Here!” he took it from his shirt pocket. “Where is my head today?” he chuckled. “Now then. ” there was nothing she could do to keep the spidery hands tie the black cloth around her head. It was very effective. She was completely blind. “Now, just wait there…”

        “Wait!” She shouted, her voice cracked. Everything was still.

        “…I wasn’t sure if you could speak.” The Watchmaker responded in surprise.

        “Could you…” She desperately searched her mind for something she could ask him for. Something to buy time at the very least. “Tell me a story?”

        “… If you are trying to stall me…”

        “I never had a mother.” She continued. “I’ve never heard any stories.”

        The words seemed empty in the stone chamber. She hoped she had convinced him. She worried that he would simply continue without her notice, or worse, tell a story while he worked.

        She was relieved when she heard a sympathetic, “That’s… terrible.” She heard his footsteps leave her. “I’ll return in a moment. I have a few favorites I’d love to share.” She heard footsteps go past the open door.

        This was her only chance. She blindly, numbly, moved her limbs in an effort to move the leather strap towards her mouth. If she remembered, it was long enough if her nub could angle it, but she had no feedback to know where it was. She was getting nowhere, and felt that she getting worse with each nervous moment. She’d hear herself floundering, and hear the strap slap the table on occasion, but had no sense to tell her how to grab it…

        She tried breathing slowly. She tried to stay calm. Her eyes were watering, but she could not afford to sob. She had to keep working. She had to think. She imagined an invisible scene in front of her. Outlines. She imagined feeling in her arm. She created a phantom limb in her mind and tried moving it, tried to move the imaginary scenery. She imagined angling the strap just right.

        She bit air. She had to try again. She listened to herself fumble with the strap and move it once more.

        She slapped herself with the leather and gasped. She was off, but close. She tried again. She grabbed it, just barely. She felt a rush of victory as she pulled and fumbled again where she thought the buckle was. It took several breaths, but she felt the strap slide and let it go. She fumbled around and felt her arm touch her chest.

        It was free. Her arm was still numb, but the elbow was free. She quickly used it on her face, wiping away the blindfold. The room seemed more bright now. The door was still open. She worked silently, hearing papers move and seeing shadows searching beyond the portal. She had no idea how much time she had.

        With full articulation of her arm, she worked on the strap at her armpit. She fumbled for far longer than she should have, panic and numbness making her movements sluggish. The strap was freed, she pulled with her teeth, and as she released the clasp she felt the familiar tingle of life returning to the limb.

        It hurt as the veins woke up again, like a million needles piercing the skin, but she had to continue. With her arm free she worked on the other, first returning life to it by releasing the strap in the same way as before. However, she could not reach the elbow in any capacity due to the brace on her neck.

        “Aha!” She heard from the other room. “Here we are. This one is my favorite.” She heard the footsteps come close.

        “W-what’s it about?” She asked, franticly working with the clasp around her neck.

        “A boy who learns that he has magic powers…” he was very close to the door.

        “I like girls more.” She tried to keep her voice even. “Do you have stories about girls?” She heard the footsteps pause. “And, flowers, and horses…”

        “I have those too…” He seemed disappointed. “Ah, I should have known. I’ll be back.” His footsteps went quiet again as her neck came free, but his pace was steady and direct. He knew where to go, and she had not bought herself much time at all.

        She pounced on the leather at her elbow with her teeth and tongue, quickly unearthing the strap, pulling, and freeing it from the buckle. She was becoming better at it. Her wrist however was too far for her teeth to reach directly. She needed, again, to use her nub to free and angle the strap.

        “There is a story about a princess, born as a pauper. Would you like that?” He asked.

        “Um,” She tried once again to control her breathing. She was getting dizzy. “What about fairies? I like fairies.”

        “Oh, yes, this one then…” She pulled, her wrist was free. She went to her thighs with her burning cold fingers that were still mostly dead. She almost had forgotten how to use her fingers. She pulled and freed one, then the other, then each knee and ankle, more quickly each time, but more mistake prone as her panic began to overcome her. His footsteps were just by the door now. ”You know, I haven’t taken these out in ages? I must thank you.” She rolled off of the table and onto her half dead feet as quietly as she could, gripping the table with her good hand.  He was distracted when he entered, his eyes in the open book.

        “Now then…” She gripped the fillet knife in her prickling numbed fingers and charged at him. She fell forward, unable to trust her feet to work appropriately, and slashed at his leg.

        He jumped back with a yelp, holding his leg. She got up like a marionette, her limbs vaguely conforming to her orders. He seemed far too shocked to counter. She charged again, leaping, aiming a stab for his throat that was now in range.

        He met her eyes just as the blade touched his skin. He dropped the book and grabbed her wrist with both hands, but not before the blade sunk a fingers length into his adam’s apple.  She saw the blood, a flush of victory coming over her.

        He tossed her aside and she rolled to the ground. She saw him cough and gasp, pulling out the knife. His old eyes were wide with shock and pain. There was not as much blood as she’d hoped. He was still alive. The victory was gone. She whimpered, unable to stop her body from showing fear anymore, and dived for another knife, a cleaver, as The Watchmaker held his throat, bending over.

        She could not align the edge in her panic, and only managed to strike his head with the blunt side of the heavy iron. He was sent reeling to the side, but his attention was squarely on her now. This time, he seemed enraged. “You are not innocent.” He gurgled. “You are one of them now. A monster. It’s too late for you…”

        He began to rise to his full height and she screamed despite herself, holding the cleaver in one hand and leaning on the wall with her stub. The pain in her broken ankle was beginning to return to her as life returned to it. She went for the door and hopped more than ran, stumbling with each hop. Once past the doorway she clumsily fell, having to rise once more on her half dead leg. She risked a moment to turn and saw The Watchmaker patiently walking towards her, holding his throat and growling. He held the knife she had stabbed him with.

        She turned the corner and resolved herself to attack once more. She could not run like this. She needed to surprise him. Her vision was blurry. She made sure the blade was aligned this time. She only had a heartbeat to prepare.

        She made a guess and turned the corner, screaming and slashing. She saw her enemies blade flash with her own, unsure if it hit her or not. Regardless, it didn’t stop her own swing. It hit bone and kept moving in it’s arc. She saw The Watchmaker fall backwards, clutching his side.

        She half charged, half dived, aiming her weapon for his head. He tried turning away, but it struck the skull, sinking in like an axe into lumber. She quickly rolled away, The Watchmaker was screaming… no, that was her. She had never stopped. She tried to breath and control her fear as she crawled away from the corpse. Was he finally dead? Her screams turned to moans in the moment of peace. She watched the body on the ground, blood coming from his chest and head. She touched her own body looking for wounds. She saw blood. Was that hers?

        She heard a groan and The Watchmaker rose. Mouse screamed again, crawling away. The Watchmaker stumbled, his eyes blinking in confusion, the cleaver part way through the skull. She rose to her feet and tried one again to leave the room.

        He grabbed her by her dress. She struggled, but the cloth held firm. She turned, The Watchmaker’s murderous eyes shining with candlefire just as much as the knife was. Still screaming she reached up towards the handle of the cleaver and pulled.

        The glint of The Watchmakers blade once again came across her vision, and once again she was unable to know if she was hit.

        The body of The Watchmaker followed as she pulled however. He fell face first into the stone, she braced the body with her knee and tugged until the cleaver was free from the struggling man’s skull. She pulled it above her head then sent it down once more into the head of the man. Once again it was stuck. She yanked it free and continued. Again. Again. She screamed as if it would somehow scare the soul out of the man as she struck again and again. The body kept moving. She could not risk giving up. It was a long time before the body stopped, and even longer before she did. By the time it was over the cleaver was too slick, and her grip too weak to continue. She fell with exhaustion and crawled away with what strength she had until she found a corner to stare at the body.

        She could not recognize anything above the coat of the man. The body would still twitch on occasion. Her eyes were still cemented on the figure until she could once again feel her limbs completely. Everything hurt.  She tried to see where he had cut her, but there was blood everywhere.

        All she could hear was breathing. She hoped it was hers. It came from all around her now, as her heart began to slow. When she looked as the body she could swear it’s chest would move up and down… but that was impossible. It was as impossible as the demons in that tower. As impossible as the human dolls that surrounded her, that she almost joined.

        She rose on her uneasy legs with paranoia, her watering eyes not daring to lose sight of him for a moment. She crept up to him, and to his pocket, retrieving his ring of keys from the still warm body.

        Then she ran. Half stumbling, half jumping, she ran to the closest door she could and opened it, then closed and locked it. It was pitch black, but she didn’t care. She stumbled through the darkness, whimpering loud enough that she hoped to deaden the sound of the breathing.

        She thought she heard other murmurs in the dark. She covered her ears with her arms. She heard nothing coherent, but she swore she heard other cries for help, groans of pain, and tried desperately to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the vengeful Watchmaker followed her paces, her echo’s masking his approach. She stayed in the dark, forcing her eyes shut, walking till she met a wall, finding a door, opening it with a key, then locking it back and continuing through the labyrinth.

        The underground was vast, and she wondered if she was escaping, or going deeper. She wasn’t even sure if she was going in circles or not. Sometimes she’d run into a table covered in papers and trinkets. Sometimes what she’d run into felt human, and she redoubled her pace until she was sure it was long behind her.

        In time she found stairs. They led down. She avoided them.

        She found others not to far away leading up. She took them. Soon she found light and cautiously limped to it. She opened it slowly, letting light come over her bloody form.

        At first she thought it was sunlight. But the moon overhead surprised her. She had never realized how bright the night could be. The streets were empty. She felt a wave of relief stepping out from the shoddy building.

        But was she safe yet?

        No. She locked the door behind her and quickly continued her mad dash. If a guard saw her covered in blood, she no longer cared. She knew where she was and she silently maneuvered around the streets to her final goal.

        He was there. The Specter waited for her at the tower. She ran, not out of fear now, but longing. She was sobbing and limping. She dared not come too close to him, but stood several paces away as he measured her silently.

        “You’re late.” He said casually.

        She nodded. Why did she feel shame in that? She should have felt lucky to be alive.

        He took a step towards her and embraced her. She was shocked for a moment, but then dug her face into his cloak in response. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” they were the first words she had said to him in all the years she had known him.

        “It’s fine little mouse.” He patted her back. “It’s fine.”

           

 

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