10 Aug Into The Slums by Katie Cross
This short Story contains spoilers for The Network Series. It was originally part of the final book, the WAR OF THE NETWORKS.
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If you’re up to speed, enjoy this short story!
While plotting the final book, WAR OF THE NETWORKS, I planned to have killed Camille by a Factios attack at the beginning of the novel. Eventually, I scrapped the plan because it was too similar to the second book. But it had some interesting scenes that came as a result, and this is one of those.
* * *
If there was one thing I had promised myself, it’s that’s Camille’s murderers wouldn’t walk free.
That night, I put on my favorite pair of breeches and slicked my hair back in a tight braid to hang underneath my shirt and down my back. Then I placed a cap over it, low over my distinguishable gray eyes. A dark black jacket followed. Seconds later, I faded out of the apartment and into the hall.
The halls of Chatham were all but deserted as I jogged through. Not even Mrs. L roamed around this late. It had to be late, or else I could be seen. Detection was the last thing I wanted. No, tonight would focus on finding those responsible—and the swift justice that would follow.
I’d slipped past the gardens and nearly stepped into Letum Wood when a shadow slipped out from behind a tree. I jumped, but my stuttering heart quickly calmed. I slowed.
Annoyance rang through my tone. He ignored it.
“I know what you’re doing.”
“Do you?” I snapped.
“Yes, and you’re doing it wrong.”
The edge in his voice set the hair on the back of my neck straight up.
“How could I be doing it wrong?” I asked, jarred by his casualness. Shouldn’t he be yelling at me? Telling on me? “I don’t even have a plan.”
“Exactly.” He stepped closer. The moonlight fell at a slant and illuminated the blonde strands of his hair. He wore it back in a ponytail, away from his face. “You always go into it without a plan, but you can’t do it like that when you’re dealing with the Chatham City factios, can you? You’d be mad. They’ll kill you.”
“Just like they killed Camille?”
“Without all that flair,” he said easily. “They would probably just slit your neck with a knife and dump your body somewhere no one would find it.”
“No curses?” I asked drily.
“Witches like these don’t learn magic the same way you did.”
His words were honest, not dry or cutting, but they split me to the center all the same. I studied him for several moments. Was he doing this to stop me, or help me? Unfortunately, I couldn’t deny his logic. I strode recklessly into something stupid again. Something that could get me killed—or worse—in a rather violent fashion.
“What would you suggest?” I calmly asked.
“I’d suggest you follow my lead and let me take you there. I have connections you couldn’t possibly dream of. If you really want to find out what happened to Camille, we will. But only if you do it with me.”
“You’ll take me with you?”
It was his turn to look uncertain.
“Yes,” he finally said. “Although I could lose my position over it.”
“I won’t tell Papa,” I breathed and stepped toward him in grateful desperation. This was doing was madness for me to attempt. Throwing myself into the heart of violent Chatham city? Taking on the factios myself? But what did logic matter to a thrice broken, grieving heart?
I began to wonder if I would have gone through with it had the opportunity presented itself.
“If your father finds out, we’re both in serious trouble. Follow me and don’t say a word. Do you understand?”
I nodded once.
Seconds later, we faded into the darkness. At first, we jogged through the forest until we edged close to the back of several shops. Then we skirted the edge of Chatham city, slogging through the trees in the deep shadows. The dragons wouldn’t come after us when we were this close to the city, but I had no doubt that they stirred, all to aware that I had entered Letum Wood. Perhaps they watched me. Perhaps not. They weren’t enemies . . . but neither could I call the dragons friends.
Merrick slowed to a stop after almost an hour of skirting the edge of Chatham city through the forest. Sweat rained down my back despite the cool winter air. Snow fell from the boughs at trees in trickles of glitter and powder.
Merrick motioned towards the city with a jerk of his head. The forest stopped about thirty paces away. We were far enough back that I could just make out the dirt road that separated Chatham and Letum. Out here, so far from the castle, the skinny road was poorly kept and not used as often. Most witches didn’t want to get too close to Letum.
There was too much in the forest they couldn’t ignore.
“Here,” he whispered in a voice so low I almost didn’t hear it. “I’m going to go talk to a witch in that tavern. You are going to follow me in and not say a word, little brother.”
“Right,” I whispered. “Got it.”
He looked me over one more time.
“You’ll pass in the dim light,” he muttered. “Your face is too feminine to pass during the day. Let’s just hope this works.”
I grabbed his arm before he started forward.
“Thank you, Merrick.”
He nodded once.
“Let’s get this over with.”
* * *
The seedy tavern we walked into reeked like spoiled ipsum and sweaty men.
A few raucous fellows gathered near each other at tables in the middle of the room, laughing and swinging mugs from side to side. My gaze fell on the witches lurking in the shadows near the back. They regarded me with glimmering, resentful stares.
My heart quickened. Had they already seen through my disguise? Although cockroaches scuttled around the floors and I could hear rats in the walls, I felt grateful for the dim lighting.
Merrick strode in without hesitation, as if he had been there several times before. Of course he had. While he wasn’t welcomed with happy shouts, no one questioned his presence.
“Ay, Gerdin,” Merrick called as he approached the bar and slapped a pentacle onto it. “My usual.”
His voice had morphed into the tacky, rough tones of the Chatham City accent. He executed it so flawlessly that I had a difficult time hiding my surprise. I deferred my gaze to the floor instead.
A gruff man with a thinning beard that slicked all the way down his neck appeared from the depths of blackness behind the bar. He wore a greasy smile.
“Welcome back, Terrance,” the man said to Merrick. “Always a pleasure ta take your coin.”
He slid a cup of amber liquid with foam on top to Merrick’s waiting hand. Merrick grinned in a jaunty, arrogant way.
“Been busy,” he said around a small sip. “Ya know it. Jobs here and there.”
Terrance leaned back with a serious nod. I didn’t dare move for fear I’d draw attention to myself. This group would have eaten me alive if I even tried to approach them. A quick gleam and flash of light from the far corner caught my eye. A group of male witches sat around a table in the shadows, nearly hidden in the thick night, and as far from torchlight as they could get. They looked our direction every now and then. I could tell by the darting look in their eyes and the heated conversation that they didn’t like us being there.
Gerdin cracked his palm on the bar. “Work is the worst, I tell ya. The worst. Good ta see ya.”
Merrick took another sip of the foul liquid and muttered to me without moving his lips. “Stop looking over there.”
“But they keep staring at us.”
“I want them to. Just let me handle this.”
“Them?” I whispered in disbelief. “They’ll cut our throats if they find out who I am.”
“So stop talking.”
I remained silent, utterly terrified. All the lecherous eyes in the room felt as if they were trained on me, staring at my feminine features. They weren’t, likely. Merrick would have had us out of there if it was as bad as I’d imagined. Still, my heart hammered in my chest. I curled my fingers into a first and recalled Camille’s face. I gathered courage. My power surged, giving me strength. Rage was the first emotion I’d felt since Camille’s funeral that wasn’t numbness or annoyance.
Just like Mama.
One of the witches from the corner stood up and strolled toward us. He flapped a knife in front of him as he walked, catching it by the hilt everytime.
“Terrance,” he drawled. “Good ta see ya around these parts again.”
Merrick nodded vaguely and pressed his lips to the glass of ipsum. He acted like he took a drink, even swallowed, but it was a lie.
“Daved,” he finally said. Merrick didn’t even look at him. If he hadn’t addressed him, I would have thought he hadn’t even heard the dark, scathy man.
“What ya doing here?” Daved asked. Steel and challenge laced his tone. Merrick smiled darkly.
“Gettin’ a drink. Ya don’t own the place and neither does ya boss.”
Merrick motioned towards the table with a jerk of his head. I followed the conversation out of the corner of my eye and hoped that Daved didn’t notice me on Merrick’s over side.
“Oh,” Daved whispered. “But he does.”
A flash of metal in Daved’s hand made Merrick laugh. I forced myself to stay calm when the knife in Daved’s hand pointed toward the back corner in an unspoken command.
“Who is ya little friend?” Daved’s eyes flickered towards me. I pretended not to see him, as if something on the other side of the room wholly occupied my mind..
“Little brother,” Merrick said. “Learning the ropes, if ya know what I mean.”
Daved’s knife hadn’t moved from the short distance away from Merrick’s right arm, but Merrick didn’t seem concerned. He took another sip of the drink. Daved studied me. I tightened my jaw and tried to imbue manliness in the slouched, annoyed way I stood. Inside, my heart beat a frantic staccato against my ribs.
“He’ll talk to ya,” Daved said after a long pause. “But you only got three minutes. Understood?”
Merrick nodded once.
“Let’s go,” Merrick muttered to me, but didn’t look my way. We followed Daved, who wove between the dilapidated tables in the room to the other side. Greater shades of darkness and shadow fell here. So many eyes stared at me that I felt a physical pressure o my shoulders. I hoped my costume would pass the test in the depths of dark.
A fat witch with a sparse brown beard lounged in a chair when we approached. The wood groaned under his weight, but didn’t give way. A sleazy smile flickered across his pudgy, swollen lips. Several empty glasses littered the table in front of him. The air smelled thick and heavy with ipsum. I wanted to gag, but breathed through my mouth instead.
“Terrance,” he cried, spreading his arms so that the loose skin moved and waved like waves. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen ya around here.”
“Work’s been busy, Liam,” Merrick said. “Ya have any jobs I could go one with my kid brother? Learning the family business.”
I couldn’t see the smile on Merrick’s face, but I heard it creep into his voice. The other witches around the table released guffaws. I didn’t get the joke, and really didn’t want to either.
“Really?” Merrick faked surprise. “I happened to see one of ya jobs the other day. Felt hurt ya didn’t call me for it.”
Liam narrowed his gaze. “What are ya talking about?”
“The attack on the Candy Shop in Chatham City. I was one of the lucky few in the crowd that got to see the explosion. A pretty flame, but it didn’t go through the way ya wanted, did it? Should have called me. Ya know I get results.”
Liam appeared confused.
“That pretty flame did exactly what we wanted,” Liam said, looking at the cronies on the table around him. My heart sped up. Images of Camille’s blood, the witches laying in the street, and Brecken’s horrified face slipped through my mind.
“Ya?” Merrick asked. “Ya wanted a pretty flame. I could give ya that for free.”
Another round of laughs.
“Ya killed a girl, that’s it. Miss ya target. The shop keeper, eh? We all know Miss Holly’s supportive of the insipid High Priest.”
Hearing Merrick speak against my father, even falsely, made my chest ache. Liam shook his head.
“The girl was the target.” Liam shrugged. “Orders can down from the boss.”
“Well done then to the team.”
My heart stuttered, and I made a strangled sound. These were the witches that had killed Camille. Pain and an unearthly rage ignited intisde me. As if Merrick sensed the sudden flare in my powers, he reached back and nudged me hard with his elbow. It jerked me from the downward spiral into uncontrolled madness.
“Stop laughing,” Merrick said in a gruff tone. Then to Liam, “He likes the sordid stories. Thinks they’re funny. He thought the girl was cute.”
“Pretty thing.” Liam agreed, eyes gleaming.
I forced my glass expression to remain. My hands vibrated with heat. My feet itched. With a flood of magic, I could level this entire room. And I would.
Although my hands were clenched, I forced myself to stay calm. No. I had to keep it together. Merrick fished for answers now that he didn’t have any business asking for. They’d kill us both on the spot if they sensed who I was, and what pain I inteded to inflict. One of the more grisly witches in the corner set an assessing stare on me. I forced my heart to calm.
Don’t lose it. You can’t avenge Camille or help Papa if you’re dead.
Liam studied Merrick.
“Why do ya care, Terrance?”
“Curious. The Candy Shop lady makes me crazy. Ya got any plans to get rid of her? Can I volunteer?”
A few chuckles littered the sordied crowd, but Liam wasn’t so easily swayed. He studied Merrick for a long time. The witch that watched me turned to another sitting next to him and said something.
“Not yet,” Lumos finally said with an empty grin that pushed his fat cheeks up into his eyes. “But we got ya information. Don’t worry, Terrance. There’s no lost love because ya have been too busy for us.”
Merrick clasped Liam outstretched hand in a cordial farewell, both of them still laughing as some raucous joke that Merrick told. My eyes shifted back to the witch against the wall, but he disappeared.
“I call foul!” a voice shouted from behind.
My blood froze.
Moments later, a grubby arm snaked around my neck from behind. Another pair of hands grabbed my wrists and jerked them behind. “Terrance is lying!”
Merrick whirled around, eyes flashing. They calmed, not quite meeting mine.
“Let him go,” he muttered with a roll of his eyes. “He’s my kid brother. He’s done nothing ta ya.”
Behind him, Liam appeared amused for the first time. The pressure against my windpipe tightened. I strained to breathe.
“So ya say,” the witch hissed near my ear. “But I think ya lying! Why do ya need to know about missions we already completed?”
Merrick smiled in a lazy way. “Was that ya mission, Frank?” he asked. “Are ya annoyed that I didn’t think ya did a good job with the explosion? Poor baby. Ya will figure it out one day, don’t ya worry.”
Frank’s arm tightened. I clawed at it, fighting for a whistle of air in my burning lungs.
“Ya might want to be careful,” Merrick said in a barely controlled tone. “My kid brother is stronger than ya think.”
That, I thought, is the permission I’ve wanted all along.
“I’m not afraid,” Frank sneered.
Merrick shrugged. “Yer funeral.”
The power that gathered in my heart, filling the Camille-sized hole, rippled through my body in a burst. It spun through me in wild torrents, shoving back against Frank and into the room like a wild whirlwind.
The release felt as freeing as the air that surged into my lungs. Frank’s arm disappeared from around my neck. The sound of splintering wood and shattering glass followed. I scrambled away with only a glance back. Frank lay on the ground, dazed. He blinked, glazed eyes trained on me in question. Shattered glass littered the floor. Two torches smoked, blown out. Broken windows filled the wall.
Five other witches, no doubt Frank’s cronies, lay on the floor.
Merrick grinned. “Told ya, Frank.”
Liam threw his head back and howled with laughter, chins wiggling and shoulders shaking.
Panting, I turned a steady glare onto the rest of Liam’s crowd, but they deferred their eyes. Liam, finally recovered, wiped tears from his moist eyes.
“Bring him around again, Terrance!” he cried. “I got lots of work for that kid! Did ya see them fly against the wall?” he asked, turning to another one of his cronies. “I’ll never forget it.”
Merrick walked over to Frank, who lay on the ground just below a large dent in the wooden walls where his body had flown into it.
The rest of the room burst into half-hearted laughter, more to appease Liam than amusement, if the strained sound meant anything. Merrick grabbed my shoulder and shoved me towards the door with the affectionate gruffness of a brother.
The entire tavern watched us leave. I walked quickly towards the main doors and spilled out into the city in relief. Merrick directed me another direction without a word. As soon as we were out of sight, we transported back to the Forgotten Gardens without a word.
Once there, I fell onto the snow and sucked in a lungful of clean, fresh air.
“Nice work,” Merrick said.
I stared at the black velvet underbelly of the midnight sky, enjoying the pristine air. The smells of the tavern lingered on my clothes. I’d have to change and get them to the laundry before Papa found out.
“They were murdered one of my best friends,” I said. Tears filled my eyes. They choked my throat, making it difficult so speak. Merrick sat down next to me and propped his arms on his knees.
“Yes. I suspected, but wanted to confirm.”
All vestiges of his accent had disappeared. Back was the quiet, sing-song tone of his usual voice. His return to what I knew comforted me.
“Who’s at the top? Why did they want Camille dead?”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out?”
“I wanted to kill them,” I whispered, as if it were a private confession.
We fell into silence until I finally broke it, unable to keep it in any longer.
My nightmares flickered through my mind again. That alluring voice, so similar to Miss Mabel’s but deeper in tone and huskiness replayed through.
Bianca, come play with us.
I shuddered and sat up. The breeches were chilly from the snow and a little damp. I already knew who the boss was. The face that I always attributed to Angelina—just like Miss Mabel only with black hair—drifted through my mind again. Angelina was attacking me. This battle was a personal one. She killed because of me.
And I knew exactly who was next.