Grip insisted on bringing the dwarf.
Her logic was sound: simply taking directions from their hostage would have almost surely resulted in being sent on a mockingjay hunt. That did not make the prospect a pleasant one, however. Despite the increasingly inclement weather driving people off the streets, there was no chance of dragging a bruised and bloodied captive through the city without attracting notice, even had their prisoner been inclined to behave. Fortunately, a veteran thief like Grip knew ways to get around Tiraas invisibly. Unfortunately, hauling a bound dwarf along pretty well ruled out traveling by rooftop.
That left the sewers.
Once below street level, the apprentices were forced to rely on Grip to navigate, both because only the enforcer knew her path through the tunnels, and because only she had brought a light source. This left them to manage the dwarf, who quickly proved her spirit to be unbroken by the beating. With the rope firmly secured to both her and Ross, she had few prospects for escape, but by the time they reached their destination, she had hauled him off his feet half a dozen times; tripped, hip-checked, and headbutted each of them repeatedly, and made a game of trying to tip them into the “water,” which by its smell, was not even mostly water. The apprentices were lucky to avoid that fate, though due to the dwarf’s antics, none of them managed to avoid getting splashed.
Attempts to earn any favor or cooperation from their prisoner were wasted. She refused to impart any information, including her name, except under threat of further torture. Grip declined to provide this, scathingly reminding them that the Guild didn’t employ such methods to gain what amounted to small talk.
The exit Grip chose from the sewers brought them out in yet another dingy alley. She moved carefully to ensure no one was present before gesturing them all forward, out into the street beyond.
“Oi, what about this one?” Tallie asked, scowling at the dwarf. Any sympathy she had gained for their captive appeared to have vanished at some point, probably between the time the stocky woman had first tripped her and the last time she stomped in a puddle of vile-smelling sewage, splashing all of them. “Dragging her around up top is still going to risk attention…”
“Yeah, well, the address she gave isn’t obligingly right next to a sewer access,” Grip said sardonically, but turned to grant them a cold smile. “Don’t worry, though. They picked a good neighborhood in which to hole up. Nobody here’s going to care, not even if she starts screaming.”
“Uh oh,” Darius said nervously as Grip turned to stalk out into the street beyond. “I’ve got a bad feeling…”
It wasn’t the same street, exactly, but the aspect of the place was unmistakable. The buildings were tall, cramped together, and had been ramshackle and askew even before falling into their current state of disrepair. Everything was filthy, most things were broken, trash littered the sidewalks, and under a thin blanket of newly fallen snow which failed to obscure the squalor, what had to have been several years’ worth of smashed bottles glittered in the gutters.
“Oh, yeah, this is a problem,” Tallie said grimly. “We’re, uh…not exactly welcome in Glass Alley, Grip.”
“Yes, so I hear,” the enforcer said pointedly and without turning. She continued on her way up the street, forcing them to fall into step or be left behind. “Nobody’s going to hassle you as long as you stay with me.”
“Have you met Ironeye?” Darius muttered.
“Met?” They could almost hear her grin as she answered. “Yeah. You could say we’ve met.”
“Now tell me,” Darius asked quietly as he and Jasmine brought up the rear, keeping watch over their sullen prisoner being dragged along by Ross, “was that sexual innuendo or ‘I beat the shit out of her’ innuendo?”
“I have a bad feeling they would sound about the same,” she muttered back, “from either of them.”
“Man, that would be hot if it wasn’t looking increasingly likely one of them’s going to kick our asses before the end of the day.”
“At least one.”
“Bite your tongue.”
The district was much less occupied than when they had last visited, which made sense, considering the snow. They did pass a couple of huddled shapes crouched in the mouths of alleys, one of which shifted slightly at their approach, but no one attempted to interfere with or even acknowledge them. Either Grip was, indeed, a widely known quantity here, or far more likely, none of the hardscrabble residents of Glass Alley wanted to try their luck against five people clearly dragging along a badly beaten woman against her will.
Grip strode swiftly for half a block, then crossed the street and led them into such a narrow alley that they had to walk single file.
“Don’t even think about it,” Tallie warned the dwarf, who just curled her lip disdainfully in response. “Oy, you in the dramatic coat! Aren’t you gonna remind this fool what happens if she doesn’t behave?”
“That crap is for amateurs and bards,” Grip said curtly. “Professionals know what’s up, kid. Look at her; does that look in any way cowed to you?”
Tallie again glanced back at the dwarf, peering around Ross; the captive stared expressionlessly back, eyes hard.
“I know very well she’s going to try to screw us over at the first and every opportunity,” Grip continued, “and she knows what I’ll do about it when she does. Don’t ever let me catch you blathering on like a villain in a story during a job. Or worse, like a hero.”
They emerged into another actual street, albeit an even narrower and dirtier one. Grip paused, glancing up and down, then turned right and continued another twenty yards, coming to a stop in front of an old tenement which looked pretty much like every other structure in the neighborhood, which was to say, falling apart. It was smaller than most, though, only two stories tall and quite narrow.
She paused right in front and grunted, sizing it up. “This is the spot she said.”
“So…what now?” Darius asked quietly.
“It’s believable enough as a hideout,” Grip mused. “The surrounding layout makes it difficult to properly case. With this baggage along, I’m not even going to bother with that. Two stops, then: Tricks needs to be informed of this tip, but first, we check with Ironeye. If a gaggle of dwarves have been using this as a base, she’ll know.”
“Whoah, wait a sec,” Tallie snapped. “If Ironeye knows about this, why hasn’t she warned anyone?”
“Why would she?” Grip countered. “Ironeye’s pretty focused on this district. She’ll know other Guild business when someone’s told her. You kids and your dwarf troubles are nothing more than rumor except to those who’ve followed you or been asked by the Boss to address this. You should be glad she’s not in either category.”
“Uh,” Ross grumbled, “we’re just standing out here in the street… What if they’re watching?”
“If this is the place and if they have any sense, they are,” the enforcer replied. “I’m not interested in catching them all in one place; that’d be a brawl. First rule of enforcement: fight as little as possible. There’ll be at least one guard left, he’ll have noticed us, and he’ll probably have a way to signal the others to stay away.” She grinned unpleasantly. “We just need one. This one would suffice; whoever’s in there is icing on the cake, if they stick around. If not, meh. Our new best friend here is not done talking, by a long shot. C’mon, let’s find Frost.”
“Then why didn’t we just do that first?” Jasmine exclaimed in exasperation.
Grip gave her a withering look as she passed back they way they had come. “The hell I’m getting Ironeye down here without at least having a look first. If this turned out to be a vacant lot or one of her shops or something, I’d never hear the end of it. Now come on.”
“I’m not sure you have time,” the dwarf said suddenly, planting her feet against Ross’s efforts to tug her along.
Grip came to a stop. Slowly, she turned around, then held up a hand to signal Ross to stop pulling.
“All right,” she said flatly. “Let’s hear it, then. What’s your play?”
A very thin smile flickered across the dwarf’s bloodied lips. “Our first source of information has steadfastly refused to be helpful. With things going sour, orders were to give up and dispose of him; they may have already. Maybe not, though. Whiny fellow, name of Pick. I think he’s an acquaintance of yours? He mentioned you.”
For a moment the only sound, apart from the wind, was Tallie’s sharply indrawn breath.
“Oh, bullshit,” Darius said without conviction.
Grip pointed at him and he fell silent. She stalked forward till she stood just beyond arm’s reach of the dwarf.
“So,” the enforcer drawled, “you’ve either imprisoned a member of the Thieves’ Guild, and a personal acquaintance of mine, or you’re making that claim just to tweak my nose. Is there a third option I haven’t thought of?”
“Yes, yes,” the dwarf sneered. “Go on, get it over with, you moronic thug. It’s not as if you have a better way to express—”
A moment later, she gasped and doubled over. Grip had withdrawn the shocker from her coat pocket, aimed it at the dwarf’s groin, and fired. She held its flickering blue beam steady as her victim buckled to the ground, keeping it more or less in place until she had tried to curl into a fetal position, then finally released the switch.
“Excuse you,” Grip said mildly, “but for your information I am a versatile and sophisticated thug. F’rinstance, while some would just use this device to keep you too weak to fight or run, I can wield it very precisely to neutralize your bladder muscles. And oh, look, it works! I really hope whatever heating charm you’re using isn’t about to give out, or you’re gonna literally freeze your ass to the pavement.”
The apprentices, grimacing in unison, stepped back from the twitching dwarf and the puddle spreading underneath her.
“That was just weird,” Tallie said. “Why would she tell you that? Why now?”
“Use your noggin,” Grip said curtly. “I was about to go for reinforcements. Instead of that, she wants me to go in there. So it’s either trapped, or she knows she has allies inside. Or maybe is just trying to waste my time, but she doesn’t strike me as quite that desperate just yet.”
“You think she was lying?” Jasmine asked quietly.
Grip was again staring at the alleged hideout with her eyes narrowed in thought. “…maybe. Whether she is or not, it’s a good trick. But we can’t leave a Guild member in enemy hands.”
“I dunno,” Darius said skeptically, looking down his nose at the fallen dwarf. “Way too convenient. I bet she’s full of it.”
“I know Pick’s faults,” the enforcer said softly. “Far too well. He’s not a coward or a traitor; I’ve been thinking it was out of character for him to bolt after such a minor job fell through, especially when he owed somebody money. Well, shit.” She scowled at the dwarf, who was now catching her breath and snarling into the pavement.
“So we’re going in?” Jasmine asked.
“Not just like that,” Grip replied. “If you find yourself having to do something an enemy wants you to, at the very least do it in a way they don’t want.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment, again raising her eyes to the building.
“We can still go get Ironeye?” Ross suggested.
The dwarf actually laughed. It was half croak, but the intent was obvious. “Tick tock,” she wheezed.
“Yes, Svenheim makes the best clocks,” Tallie said snidely. “Advertise on your own time, sugar lumps.”
“Oh, we’re not backed into a corner,” Grip said softly. “I just have to do something I prefer not to, is all. That’s life.” She put away the shocker and reached into the inside of her duster, rummaging for a moment before pulling out a curious object. It looked rather like two wands attached to either end of a perpendicular handle; one had a large power crystal screwed into it, while the other bore an assembly of wires connecting it to a brass disc engraved with a complex spell diagram. “We need to either coax whoever’s in there to come out, or summon Ironeye and her people here, quickly. I can do both at once. You’ll want to stand back, kids.”
The dwarf, gritting her teeth, had worked her way laboriously to her knees, and now snarled up at the enforcer. “Do you really think you—”
Grip pointed the device at her and flicked a switch with her thumb. Small arcs of crimson lightning sprang from the tips of both shafts, splashing across the dwarf’s body, and she immediately fell back to the pavement, violently thrashing and emitting an ear-splitting scream of utter agony.
“Stop! Stop it!” Jasmine shouted, lunging forward. “What are you doing to her?”
Grip cut off the device, shifting slightly to point it at Jasmine, who instantly skidded to a halt.
“Hurting her,” the enforcer said flatly. “That’s all. No permanent harm, no damage of any kind, just a magical effect that convinces the nervous system it’s in pain. Every part of it, in a great deal of pain. This one, Jasmine, is highly illegal.”
She fired it at the dwarf again, eliciting another animalistic howl. The woman bucked wildly, heaving about so much Ross was nearly yanked into the path of the beam before Grip cut it off again.
“Holy shit, stop doing that!” Tallie said shrilly. “Omnu’s fucking balls, don’t you have any limits?”
“Of course I do, you little twit,” Grip snapped. “I had to explain some to you less than an hour ago.”
“This is too far,” Darius said, more pale than the cold could account for.
“Now, that’s something you’re going to have to work past,” Grip said calmly, giving the dwarf another shock. She had to pause, waiting for the screams to subside again, before continuing. “You’re more or less sane mortal beings; of course you don’t enjoy seeing someone in the extremity of agony. Believe it or not, I enjoy it just as little. Instinct tells you to intervene, to stop this horror, right?”
She zapped the dwarf again as if for punctuation; the resulting scream overrode any response they might have made. It trailed off a moment later, and the dwarf curled up on herself, weeping quietly.
“Instinct will get you killed,” Grip stated, shocking the prisoner once more with a perfectly calm expression. “Being an adult is all about learning to control your instincts, to do what is appropriate and necessary to live in a complex society rather than what your animal brain thinks will help you survive. Frequently it does the opposite.”
“That is bullshit!” Jasmine snarled, deliberately planting herself between Grip and the quivering dwarf. “This is cold-blooded torture. There is no reason this is justifiable, or necessary, or in any way part of the greater good!”
“People who reason that way are just…” Ross trailed off and swallowed heavily.
“Monsters?” Grip’s purely weary tone brought them all up short. She shook her head. “You think kindness is always the answer? Lemme tell you kids a story. When I was an apprentice, I had a friend who lived in this very district. Old beggar; he’d been a soldier, fell on hard times…it’s an old tale, I won’t bore you with it. First real score I had, I came here and gave every penny I could spare of it to him.”
Moving swiftly and smoothly, she stepped to one side; Jasmine, momentarily distracted by her monologue, failed to shift in response, and Grip zapped the dwarf again for a split second, drawing forth a shriek.
“He was dead by dawn,” she continued in a flat tone. “Killed for the money by the other bastards who lived here.”
“Oh, come on,” Tallie said.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Grip snapped. “Shit happens. Random crimes occur. Hell, people get struck by lightning, and not because some god was angry with them. But this? This was a specific, predictable event which I caused, because I was kind rather than sensible. I knew he was prideful and lacked self-control; I ought to have known he’d boast of his good fortune. I knew what the dregs here were like, and believe me, this place has gone way uphill since Ironeye made it her mission to straighten it out. Twenty years ago some of the people here were damn near feral. If I’d thought, I would have seen the inevitable result my kindness would have. I didn’t. I did something nice, and got someone I cared about killed.”
“That has nothing to do with—”
Jasmine broke off, staring, as Grip leveled the torture device at her face.
A moment later, the enforcer lowered it again, shaking her head. “You haven’t learned. Obviously I am not going to use this thing on any of you. But facing it down, you didn’t think, did you? No, that was just instinct. Well, let me remind you of something before you get all self righteous.” She pointed at the dwarf again, with the hand holding the weapon; again, Jasmine moved in front of it, but this time Grip didn’t fire. “This creature is a servant of a government. All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power. The Five Kingdoms are monarchies just like ours; rather like the Tirasian Dynasty, they have a reputation for social progressiveness and reigning with a relatively gentle hand. And just like the Empire, this is for the sake of securing their own power, not out of any moral concern for their people. It’s because the velvet glove makes for more stability than the iron fist, is all. And just like the Empire, their cruelty is totally without bounds the instant they think it better serves their needs than kindness. Do you really think this one and her cronies would have stopped at just mentioning they’ve looked up your families? The people you love are in more danger now than before, and that will change only when every last one of these are stopped as completely and as brutally as necessary.”
Into the short silence which followed, the dwarf drew in a rasping breath.
“Scum,” she whispered hoarsely. “Everyone…compromises. A monster thinks…everyone else…is also a monster.”
Grip studied her for a moment with a tilted head, then suddenly jerked to the left. Jasmine shifted to intercept her, but the enforcer had already reversed out of the feint, stepping around to blast the dwarf again, this time directly in the face.
Her scream was cut off a second later as she heaved backward and cracked her skull against the pavement.
“Do that one more time,” Jasmine snarled, “and I will put you down. Completely and brutally.”
“Who are your family, Jasmine?” Darius asked softly. She jerked around to stare at him in surprise. “They know mine, and Tallie’s, and Rasha’s. Probably Ross’s and yours, too. You taunted him to try and harm them. Maybe they’re untouchable.” He stared at her, wide-eyed. “My family are…maybe safe. Dwarven agents would have to go well out of their way to reach them, and my House has defenses. But…circus folk? Fishermen? Do you want to see this,” he pointed at the twitching dwarf, “happen to someone we love?”
“Th-this…there’s nothing that justifies this,” she replied, but her voice was suddenly drained of much of its conviction.
“You want to be just?” Grip said, baring her teeth. “Go back to the Legions. You want to be nice? Join the Izarites and screw losers out of their sorrows. Join the Omnists, raise vegetables for your soup kitchen. But right now you are an Eserite, and that means your duty is to find evil people and make whatever needs to happen to them, happen.”
“Justifications are luxuries, Jasmine. Not everybody can afford them. But…” Tallie stepped forward, joining Jasmine and staring Grip down. “Jas is right. This is too far. Put that fucking thing away before we have to take it from you.”
“Quit,” whispered the dwarf. They all looked down at her in surprise; she was huddled on the ground with her forehead pressed to the icy pavement, but still speaking through cracked lips. “You children…still…have souls. Don’t let them…make you into—”
“Into you?” Grip interrupted. “Go on, pretend you wouldn’t do the same. We’re both the same monster, you ass; you loathe me because the comparison shows off your hypocrisy.”
“As fascinating as this is, I require a change from exposition to explanation.”
They whirled, finding themselves suddenly confronted by two figures who had appeared silently. Ironeye was armored and garbed exactly as they remembered; with her stood the same well-dressed man who had accompanied her before, wearing no coat but seeming quite comfortable in the chill and surveying the scene with a raised eyebrow and no sign of distaste.
“Where the hell did you come from?!” Tallie demanded. “How do you sneak up on people wearing that pile of tin cans?”
“Shadow-jumping,” Jasmine said curtly. “That man is a warlock.” He smiled pleasantly at her.
“Silence,” Ironeye commanded. “I will hear from the one person present who has any credibility. What kind of mess are you making in my district, Quintessa?”
“About goddamn time you showed up, Vanda,” Grip snapped. “I trust you recognize this piece of shit? You can’t possibly be unaware of this passel of shifty dwarves renting a space in your little slice of paradise.”
“Yes, you are correct, which means you are publicly abusing my hospitality. I’m still waiting for that explanation, and I will not do so for much longer.”
“I’ll keep it succinct,” Grip stated. “You are harboring enemies of the Guild. These dwarves are agents from one of the Kingdoms, trying to plant a mole in the Guild in order to extract information. They’ve been pressuring these apprentices to comply, without success. Now, this one claims they have Pick held prisoner in there.”
“I see.” Ironeye’s tone, impossible as it seemed, hardened further. “That, of course, changes the matter entirely. Avingell, get Branson and Ellis down here with a dozen of whatever street soldiers are handy. I want this place dissected and everyone in it secured within twenty minutes.”
“And send Rumor to the Casino,” Grip added. “The Boss needs to be brought into the loop.”
“As she says,” Ironeye said to the warlock, who had looked to her for confirmation. He smiled and sketched a cursory bow. Darkness thickened out of the air, which looked very peculiar through the fluttering snow, and an instant later he vanished from view.
“Listen,” the dwarf said weakly, again trying to wrestle herself up to her knees. “This woman doesn’t know—”
Ironeye stepped forward, drawing the sword sheathed at her waist, and pressed the tip against the dwarf’s collarbone, effectively pinning her down. The blade was ancient and scarred, its length marked by runes whose faint white glow was hard to discern amid the swirling snowflakes.
“I entirely lack Grip’s genius for causing pain,” the armored woman said. “However, Avingell can make her efforts look like the flailing of an idiot child. I strongly suggest that you earn what you can of my favor before he returns. You may begin.”
“Come on,” Grip said to the apprentices, stepping back. “Untie yourself, Ross, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Whoah, wait a sec!” Darius protested while Ross obeyed with clear eagerness. “We’re leaving? Don’t you wanna find out what happens? What about Pick?”
“What we want isn’t a consideration here,” Grip snapped. “We have responsibilities. Ironeye is both trusted and competent; this place can now be considered secured. But there are plenty more of these bastards out there, and we still need to find your friend the witch, who if I heard right is probably their top target now. Come on.”
She strode off up the street, and they could do nothing but follow.
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