A bounty hunter prepares for every possibility. We feel the pulse of the city’s veins, sense danger before it strikes, and ideally make a bit of coin staving off the trouble. But even I never saw the Riot coming. None of us did. It struck in an instant. I set out from the Burg one morning to track an elusive target, blinked, and found myself in the Market surrounded by blood and flames. Over six thousand deaths before the noon bell tolled, yet only the ghost of a memory remained. Of the Riot itself I could recall nothing.
Its bloody aftermath, I would never forget.
Fires shimmering in streams of blood that flowed between bodies in the streets, the sun obscured by black smoke as thick as the wailing cries that haunted our beloved city. I would never forget the way fear gripped me each time I left a vestige of safety to walk among the carnage. For weeks I’d defended myself against attempts made on my life—nothing personal, only desperate endeavors to survive by those plagued by deprivation. The city had lost thousands of hungry mouths to feed, yet food had never been scarcer. Robberies had spiked, businesses had burned, the Church even failed to ring the arrival of dawn one frightful morning. Criers had howled that the fated Dark Era of yore had returned. For a time, I’d believed they were right.
Chaos reigned in the city of Liwokin until the Agency was established. But even after the Agency’s Fingers quelled the unrest with the heavy hand of the law, every passing day was a new chance for the violence to erupt once more. When an impossibility becomes real, you never let it catch you unawares again.
What started the Great Riot?
As I hunted for the answer to this question, countless Liwo gave me the same response, like students trained by an instructor. “Everyone knows what started the Riot,” they’d say, as if the common answer made any sense.
“Oh? What’s that?” I’d ask for the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth time, because apparently, I never learned.
And they’d laugh, or glare, or cast a look at me like I was the one losing my mind before the same word inevitably slipped off each of their tongues.
The warning call of the half-dusk bell rang out as I came sliding to a stop, slipping in the waste-splattered dirt alleys they called streets in the Old District.
“You don’t have to run, you know,” I called. “We can just talk.”
Several residents of the Blight—the name most Liwo gave this district—looked up at me in surprise. A shaggy, gray-haired man snickered at me from a mound of detritus in front of the husk of a hovel lost to the Riot’s fires. The wooden foundation that once kept it level on the hill had collapsed long ago. Against all odds, two walls remained standing—enough to make a home in these destitute parts. In the street ahead of me, a barefooted boy began to cry. His stone-faced mother held his hand in her own, cradling his baby sister in her arm.
I looked beyond the family, searching the shadowed path running up the steep, narrow street for any signs of movement. Nothing.
“They never want to talk,” I muttered, sheathing my knife and adjusting the weight of the crossbow slung over my shoulder. “Why don’t they ever want to talk?”
My target had fled the pawnbroker’s shop and entered the Blight just moments earlier only to vanish without a trail. The thief had finally shown up to try and sell an expensive bauble, newly acquired, he claimed, after many measures of saving hard-earned wages. I laughed at the perpetual lack of creativity criminals possessed. It took a certain desperation to show up at all, but to do so with a lie so galling? No one in Liwokin would believe any story in which a Blightdweller saved a sum of coin. Certainly not the pawnbroker, whom I’d known since he set up shop in the Artisans District, and who was happy to help out an old friend.
It’s good to have friends. With eyes all over the city, what hope did my targets have?
The old man jabbed a thumb at the alley past his hovel, then winked. I smiled my thanks and strode toward the alley’s entrance. The protective mother tugged her boy’s hand, yanking him behind her.
“Miss,” I said, nodding kindly to the woman, who stepped back and held her baby close. The infant looked at me with bright, round, innocent eyes. She might have been a Blightdweller, but unlike me, she at least had a family; she didn’t know how lucky she was.
I squeezed my way between the upper half of one home and the base of another, a narrow path, even for the Blight. Frantic footsteps sounded as I pushed through the gap, then I caught sight of a cloaked man knocking someone aside and turning the corner. My crossbow caught on a stuck-out pipe. I wriggled free of the strap and tugged the weapon loose. Freeing a quarrel from my belt, I took off in pursuit.
The setting Brightdaughter, greater of the two Sibling Suns, shone through the next street, the watchful star hovering directly ahead where the Blight ended in open air with a sudden drop. Sunlight streamed through kicked-up dust and highlighted the fleeing thief’s silhouette. His undoubtedly pilfered gold-trimmed cloak billowed as he raced toward the crowded wooden structure overhanging the cliffs.
They called this man-made monstrosity the docks, as if it were comparable to the actual docks of the more reputable districts far below. No ships could be moored to them since they hung precipitously over the water, unreachable except by climbing the hill of the Old District. No one hauled cargo on them; they probably couldn’t handle the excess weight if tested. They weren’t flat like most docks but multi-tiered and connected by rope ladders and wooden trusses. The name made no sense except as a petty proclamation by the small men of the Blight who engineered it: “We’re as capable as the rest of you.”
“I hope you’re more careful than my last bounty!” I shouted, then I curled my lip.
More often than not, my targets who’d risked the docks slipped on the treacherous walkways and took the long plunge down into the bay. Some of the men I chased had chosen to jump of their own volition. A swift and painless end was better than being taken alive, I supposed, but they’d cost me my reward and the comfort of a roof over my head at night. This wouldn’t be one of those nights, I hoped, but there was no way I could retrieve my client’s pendant if my target died and fell from the docks. I stowed my crossbow.
The splintered wood creaked and groaned as soon as I stepped on to the lowest level of the docks, and for a moment it seemed today was the day the whole structure would buckle. Several of the anchor points securing the makeshift scaffolding to the cliff face seemed shakier every time I climbed this rickety creation. I had no choice but to trust them—my target had nearly finished climbing a hanging ladder to the next tier of walkways, and I had to follow him until he got back on firm ground.
Firmer ground, at least. It was the best one could do in the Blight.
As I clambered up the rope ladder, it started swinging like a violent storm had suddenly materialized. I peered up at the thief desperately shaking the ladder, hoping to drop me into the waters. Unable to overcome my grasp, fear filled his eyes, for everyone knew what happened to those who were caught by bounty hunters. Much like the city’s criminals, justice in Liwokin had always been swift and cruel. This time, however, my client had only requested his pendant’s return.
“Give me the necklace,” I shouted. “I don’t want to kill you!”
He didn’t toss down the necklace. Instead, he hawked a glob of spit that struck me square in the eye. The wood trembled with the echoes of his flight.
“All right.” I wiped my eye clear. “Now I do want to kill you.”
I climbed up onto the second tier. The thief was crossing a beam that spanned two anchor points, both hands outstretched for balance, one holding the pendant dangling precariously over the water. There was no rope for him to grasp such as there were in areas designed for foot traffic. But that also meant there were no people to slow him down.
Still, I chose the safer route and climbed up to follow him from a higher tier. There was only one exit on the other side of his path—the central dock with pulley elevators to the peak of the Old District hill. If I could get to it first…
It was going to be close. On this tier, the ramshackle path was twice as wide but had three times the people. I tramped past fishing men and women dangling their legs over the edge, jumped over a bucket of dead fish, and nearly slipped in the discarded guts. I weaved my way through the dangerously dense crowd, careful to guard my pockets from picking, more careful not to push anyone over the edge, most careful not to step off the edge myself. Rushing as I was, I collided past a man carrying a basket of rice and sent it spilling out through the cracks in the wood. I only had time to shout my apologies back to him; he shouted his curses in return.
I neared the central dock one level below. But before I could climb down, I saw the thief entering the nearest elevator cage, either not trying to draw attention to himself or thinking he was free of his tail. Below, there was a gap in the crowd. Without stopping to think better of it, I backed up two steps and took a deep breath.
“Lightmother, preserve,” I prayed.
Then I leapt.
I’d never been a pious man, but a bounty hunter prepared for every possibility. Sailing through the air, I felt sure the wood would buckle under my weight as soon as I struck, collapsing and taking all of the Blightdwellers on the central platform down with me. But the gods showed mercy, the platform held, and the worst I got was the wind knocked from my lungs. It was more good fortune the crossbow, loaded and drawn on my back, hadn’t triggered. The crash and commotion from the crowd drew my thief’s attention. He frantically closed the gate and rang the signal bell. A few pounding heartbeats later, the elevator began to rise. He was going to get away.
I rose to my feet, coughing, surrounded by wide-eyed onlookers, and searched for any way to get to the top before him or to turn the elevator around, but there was no way. The elevator and the massive stone counterweight were both out of reach. My only chance now was to make sure he was dead before he reached the top.
The elevator would catch the pendant…right?
My crossbow was armed, quarrel already locked in, string already drawn. The shot would be narrow, and I had to take it soon, before the elevator ascended out of range. I took aim, steadied my breath, and…
Another bell rang from the peak; someone was coming down in the adjacent elevator. I immediately lowered my sight and sprinted toward its counterweight. Just in time for the elevator to start moving, I vaulted over the wooden rail and landed atop the stone, grabbing hold of the heavy rope that lifted it up. The weight swung forward and clipped the cliff’s wall but continued to rise, slower than usual with my weight added to the balance. The thief would still reach the top well before I did and would have plenty of time to disappear.
“All this for a useless trinket,” I said, groaning at the pain in my legs and chest. But no, it wasn’t useless. It was for my client, and a bounty hunter keeps his promises.
The thief’s elevator reached the top. Its lock extended from the cliff while mine only crossed the halfway point. He opened the cage and exited with haste, back toward the Blight’s labyrinthine streets. As my rising counterweight crested the peak, I jumped to land right in front of the elevator operator whose job I had just made significantly harder. He looked exhausted as he extended the weight’s lock and let go of his tether.
“I’m sorry, Bello,” I told the operator. “But which way did he go? The cloaked man. I’ll give you a cut of the reward.”
“Still waiting on my cut for the last favor I did you,” he said, grumbling between heavy breaths.
“You’ll have double, then,” I promised, “but if he gets away, we’ll both have nothing!”
Come on, hurry up, old man!
Bello spat, but pointed toward the second of five streets, one that led back down toward the Artisans. Then his bell rang again, and he took up his tether with a huff.
I ran for the street, shouting back to the fed-up operator. “You’re a true friend!”
“Aye? And what’s that worth?” Bello muttered as I ran off. “Friendship won’t put food in my belly.”
Three steps after turning the corner, my own hopes of supper that night were dashed. A tall, heavily muscled man in a calf-length, grayish-green coat was holding my thief out at arm’s length. I knew those colors; I saw them too often of late. The man stealing my bounty was a Finger of the Agency.
“You haven’t been reporting your status,” the Finger said in a bored drawl. “Makes people mighty uncomfortable when someone like you stops showing up on schedule. Now, stop squirming. I’m authorized to use lethal force if you resist.” The massive two-headed axe strapped diagonally across his back gave the ring of truth to his threat. But the Agency had a different conception of justice, far less brutal than the kind commonly practiced. A kind of job security, I figured. Let the criminals go free and you’d never run out of work.
“Lethal force?” The thief scoffed. “Ulken would have your head.” He narrowed his eyes. “But Ulken didn’t send you, did he? Reed did.” The Finger didn’t deny it. The thief smiled.
Did this thief work for the Agency? I sighed. What had I gotten myself into?
“It doesn’t matter which one issued the command. Ulken or Reed, those two are of one mind.” The thief laughed, and the Finger turned him around to bind his wrists. Then the green-cloaked man looked up and spotted me leveling my crossbow at my target. He grinned. “A crossbow’s a bit old fashioned, isn’t it, bounty hunter? Lower the weapon. This one’s mine. The Agency sanctioned it.”
“This thief’s got my client’s pendant,” I said. “That’s all I’m after. Give it to me and I’ll be out of your way.” I didn’t lower my aim. I would fulfill my contract, whether he agreed with me or not.
The muscular Finger laughed. “You think you can stand in my way?” He shook his head. “Bounty hunting is dead. You’re one of the last in Liwokin. You know that, don’t you?”
Of course I knew that. I gritted my teeth, tempted to alter my aim and pull the trigger.
The Finger searched my thief for hidden weapons but didn’t do a good job and came up empty. All he had was the pendant in his hand along with some slip of paper that gave off a strange blue glow. Something was wrong. This man didn’t look like a Blightdweller at all.
You’re no ordinary thief, are you?
His face was shaved clean, his hair styled, if messy from our chase. With a clearer look at him I saw now the cloak he wore wasn’t trimmed with silver, but with Archemetal. Not just anyone could afford such decadence. If it wasn’t stolen, this thief must have been from the Gild. As I looked him over, he gazed back at me with keen eyes. He dropped the slip of paper to the ground.
The Finger didn’t notice. He was now focused on me, and it was clear his patience was wearing thin. “When’s the last time you had a real bounty, not one searching for some trinket or standing guard from dusk to dawn?”
I scowled, because he was right. Ever since Ulken convinced the city council to establish his Agency, bounties had become scarce and ill-rewarded. How could I compete with the free services the Agency provided? Surely not by letting them take the few bounties I did have. I was ready to fight to keep this one; my fingers hovered over the trigger.
“Fine,” the Finger said, “have your trinket.” He pried the thief’s fingers off the pendant.
A glow of golden-red bloomed between the two men, but it was too late for warning. Archefire flowed from the thief’s hand. It destroyed the pendant’s chain and traveled up the Finger’s arm. The Finger screamed. The thief threw his head back, skull connecting with the Finger’s nose. Blood flowed. Stumbling backward, the Finger’s coat sleeve burned. The thief turned to me, summoning more of the Fire between two hands.
“Too slow.” I squeezed my hand, and my crossbow kicked. The quarrel punched into the thief’s skull. But Archefire has a will of its own. Without the mage’s control, the Fire tore its way through his body. Every visible bit of skin began to glow gold, as if the man were made of molten iron. His clothes burst into flame. His skin peeled and blackened, and he crumbled to the ground, a charred heap. I shielded my face from the radiating heat.
Burning up was a bad way to go.
I tossed my weapon down and rushed to the Finger’s side, then used my coat to smother the flames on his arm. Together, we threw dirt on the flames consuming the thief until the fires were low enough to stomp out. I cringed each time my boot cracked a bone, but we couldn’t let the flames spread. When we finished, chests heaving, all that remained was a smoking corpse.
“That fool nearly began another Blight Fire,” I said, remembering the thousands of Blightdwellers who perished in the Riot.
The Finger grunted. “Glad you hit him in the head, or we’d have worse than fire to contend with. Reed never mentioned he was a damned Archemage.”
“You should have known when you found no weapon on him,” I said, retrieving my crossbow. “They’ve always got some way to kill you. How’s the nose?”
“Not as bad as the hand,” he said, grimacing as he prodded it. His clenched fist was cracked and blistered. “I can’t smell anything either, but in this city that’s a blessing.”
I laughed. “True enough.”
“I was careless. Would have been ash if you hadn’t killed him. Thanks for that,” the Finger said, and held out his unburnt hand. “Name’s Bengard. Seems I owe you my life.”
“Call me Grim,” I said, shaking his hand. “And he had it coming. It was nothing.”
“‘Nothing’ is a powerful thing, it seems.” Bengard had a crooked smile. “First it starts the Riot, now it saves my life.”
Nothing, or so everyone said. I refused to accept this new common sense, as uncommonly senseless as it was. After the tragedy, Liwo had longed for normalcy, but this city would never return to the state we once knew. Something had ravaged the city I called home. And no matter the city’s evident state of mass delusion, the worst had yet to come.
“I’ll take the pendant now,” I said.
“Of course.” I felt a twinge in my own hand when Bengard unclenched his burnt fist to drop the pendant into his other palm. He kept hold of it when I reached out to take it, said, “But you know, if you ever get tired of hunting for toy treasure, Ulken could use a fighter at the Agency.” He let go of the pendant, then knelt by the dead thief and sighed. “We need mages too. Why do they all seem content to waste their talents?” He shook his head and began gathering the unburnt Archemetal, no doubt to pad the Agency’s coffers.
And without leaving even a flake to me. But I had what I came for. I clutched the recovered pendant.
“Hardly anything left of this one to bring back. I’d say he’ll be cleaned up eventually, but…” He stood and made to leave, looking back one last time. “Consider what I said, Grim. You’ll have a friend on the inside.” He strode off.
As Bengard’s footsteps faded and the Blight grew quiet with dwellers taking to their homes in anticipation of the dusk bells, I examined the damaged pendant. The chain was broken, ends melted where they touched the Fire, but the frame, made of lustrous golden Archemetal and encasing a dark gem, was undamaged. Its gem inset was black as obsidian with iridescent hints of pink and gold reflecting the sky, light of the Brightdaughter fading fast. Intricate patterns were traced in the metal with expert manipulation of Archefire by the pendant’s creator. It was exquisite, precious, evident of extraordinary control and talent.
But what did the thief want with it? Surely, it wasn’t for the coin—his Archemetal cloak would have fetched an even better price. It must have had some other purpose. And why was the Agency interested in him? Something wasn’t adding up. Then I remembered the knowing look he gave me, the glowing paper that fluttered from his hands. I searched around the charred corpse, found the note half-covered with dirt, and picked it up.
It was blank.
Did the mage make it glow with his Archefire?
That inky blue it had given off had appeared quite unnatural. I’d have to find a mage and see what they could make of it. But first, I had a job to do. Hopefully, the friendship I had with my client would see that he’s still willing to pay the contract price with the pendant’s chain destroyed. With my luck, it would be the chain he was really after. I’d never worked harder to survive than in the past year, and never been paid as poorly. If things didn’t change soon, I might find myself reliving my adolescent years. Pilfering meals, sleeping in alleys, holding up honest Liwo at knife point.
That was one way to survive, but it was no way to live.
Ulken could use a fighter at the Agency. There seemed to be no room left in Liwokin for bounty hunters. I was the last holdout. Until now, I’d refused to join the Agency. I didn’t like change—it always seemed to be for the worse. Bounty hunting was all I knew, and I didn’t trust that organization. They quelled the chaos, but they stole my way of life. Maybe I was just stubborn. Bengard’s words rang with promise, and he didn’t seem a bad sort. I’ll have a friend on the inside…
A crack of gunfire came from somewhere close behind, followed by the chilling laugh of someone who pleasured in causing pain—a common enough sort in the Old District. I tucked away the pendant and the mysterious note in the inner pocket of my coat, alongside a folded-up contract that promised a hefty reward. Then, I slung my crossbow over my back to leave.
In the streets, debris from the Riot still hadn’t been cleaned up. The mess served as a reminder of what transpired that horrific dawn. Memories flashed before my eyes, and I felt myself transported back to the chaos. Fires shone through an open window, through which someone I loved had flown mere moments ago. I couldn’t breathe. Blood flooded my airway. A monstrous man stood over me. But I felt no fear. I felt nothing at all.
I shook my head to clear the dying memory. The thought lingered only for a moment that despite what I remembered, somehow, I had escaped the Riot unscathed.
Sunset’s light had dimmed to make room for the stars, and I heard a fading scream in the night as someone fell from the dark, wooden scaffolding below. The city’s worst criminals operated in the Old District, but most Blightdwellers were simply too poor to live elsewhere. They had my sympathy. I knew how hard it was to survive the streets of Liwokin, and it only ever seemed to get harder. The Brightdaughter had remained low all day after rising in the southeast, meaning the day passed faster than most. A short day always meant a long night, and lately the nights were becoming longer and longer.