They kept moving, following the road down the cliff-face, but staying in the bushes and long grass until at last they could see the glow of the foundries and hear the sound of the train pulling in to the station.
“Come on, we won’t have long before they finish loading,” Justin said, gesturing for her to hurry. They kept moving down the winding road, and soon they were in amongst the buildings, keeping to the narrow back alleys as they made their way towards the station. It was only by the silhouettes of the cranes looming over the skyline that Rachael had any sense of how close they were. In the gloom, she could almost have been in London again. The buildings had the same feeling of faded industry, though up close they were obviously recently built. Even in the night they could hear the sounds of work coming from the warehouses, getting louder as they grew closer.
Around the station lanterns blazed, burning some form of chemical that gave a far brighter light than the ghostlamps could. She heard the sounds of machinery and tools at work. Lights flared from the mouths of the buildings around them. She caught glimpses of the men who moved through the pools of light, tough working men, some scarred, all weathered and worn. Some reminded her of faces she had seen before amongst Korban’s men. The thought worried her.
They kept moving, until Justin finally gestured for them to stop by a large stack of cargo that was being prepared for loading. Leaning out a little, he nodded at a bridge that crossed over the whole of the train station.
“We’ll drop down from there,” he whispered. “As the train is leaving.”
She nodded. From the looks of things the train was nearly ready to go. They could already see the loaders closing up most of the carriages.
“Alright, let’s move,” Justin whispered. They dashed across the gap and up the stairs onto the bridge itself. It was little more than a walkway, wide enough for four people to walk abreast, with a railing on either side. The bridge itself was unlit, and in the shadows they could easily wait until their moment. Below, they saw the workers close up the last of the carriages and turn away, heading back towards the warehouses. The hissing of the steam engine suggested that it was preparing to move.
It was Justin who saw the movement in the shadows at the far end of the bridge. He moved with breathtaking speed, flicking out a hand towards the shape in the darkness. Rachael saw something small and shiny fly out of his hand, and then heard the ringing impact of metal on metal. A loud cursing erupted from the darkness and she heard two objects bouncing across the ground.
Then a shape erupted from the shadows, hard and fast, barrelling into Justin like a freight train. She saw him fall, as the heavy-set man slammed him into the ground. She glimpsed the shaved scalp, bisected by a ragged scar. Korban, the mercenary captain.
“Gave me a lot of trouble back Veil-side, you did,” Korban growled, as he kept Justin’s face pressed against the bridge. “Good men I’ll have replace. Good friends I lost. All for… What, this?” He turned to look at her, clearly unimpressed.
“Can’t say I see why. Now you, I see why a man would pay money for a freak like you. Damage you did… Impressive.”
“You want to be impressed?” Justin grunted. The next moment Korban’s hands were clasped around nothing, as Justin’s body dissolved. An instant later the dark smoke cloud reformed above him. Justin fell, throwing his hands around the man’s neck. Korban reacted with astonishing speed, hurling Justin over one shoulder so fast that the boy didn’t have time to shift before he slammed into the walkway.
Korban’s hand went to his pocket, but before he could produce whatever weapon he was reaching for Rachael hurled herself against the man’s leg, making him stagger back a step. With an almost casual gesture his hand caught her hair, and she was hurled away like a rag-doll, an explosion of pain rippling across her body as she went tumbling down the steps from the bridge.
Breathing hard, she pulled herself up on her hands and knees. Her head was pounding, and every part of her body seemed to be screaming at her. Below them she could hear the train moving, picking up speed. She looked up to see Justin and Korban on their feet, facing off across the narrow bridge.
Justin lunged, but Korban’s guard was up and the man deftly parried every blow, even as Justin struck out at him a dozen times or more. Whatever angle of attack he chose, the man with the scarred face seemed to counter it without effort.
“What, no more tricks?” Korban snarled.
Justin’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Once more, he darted in with a strike aimed at Korban’s neck. As the man raised an arm to block the blow, Justin shifted. The smoke reformed in the air, the small dark form of a raven striking at Korban’s face with its claws and beak. The man staggered back a step, angrily swatting the small bird away. As Justin backed off, Korban looked around, blinking. For a moment he didn’t seem to know where his opponent had gone to.
The bird swooped in from behind where the man stood, reforming into Justin’s own lanky form, black coat swirling around him as he took shape right behind where the man stood. As Korban wheeled around, an elbow jabbing sharply back in Justin’s direction, the boy caught the larger man’s arm and pivoted. Korban’s whole body seemed to roll across Justin’s shoulders, and then the man was flying across the railing, arms spread as he fell towards the train.
She heard the sound of the impact as Korban slammed into the roof, rolling so close to the edge that she was sure he would go over. At the last second the man’s hand snaked out and caught a handrail, just barely keeping himself from falling. Already the train was picking up speed, the distance between the tracks and the cliff-face widening rapidly. The man stood to his feet with a look of cold fury on his face, and produced something from his pocket. She supposed it might have been a sending stone. She turned towards Justin and caught his satisfied expression.
Then her eyes fell on the small silver object lying at Justin’s feet. It was round and flat, a little larger than a tennis ball. Catching her eyes, Justin noticed it too. Then everything went white. For the briefest moment Rachael saw sparks of blue-white electricity arc out of the tiny object, reaching out towards the metal support struts that framed the pier and framing Justin in silhouette. The shockwave sent her flying backwards into a stack of crates, the impact knocking all the breath out of her lungs. Then she could barely see anything at all, as a wall of hot air washed over her and she heard the deafening sound of thunder.
Blinking, she looked up at a dark sky. Her head rolled from one side to the other. The ringing in her ears slowly began to fade.
She heard the footsteps before she saw him, a figure emerging from the long shadows between the warehouses, his red coat flapping in the breeze.
“No. Oh God no,” she mumbled, her tongue feeling like it was too big for her mouth. She made it half-way to her feet before Rakesh’s hand caught her by the collar and hauled her the rest of the way up. He could almost have carried her like a doll. She had no choice but to walk or be dragged. She glanced back at the bridge and saw a crumpled heap of black cloth, smoking slightly. It took her a moment to realise it was Justin. She could just about make out his face, eyes halfway open and rolled back in his skull. She felt a knot in her stomach and her legs almost gave way beneath her as she wondered if he was dead.
Rakesh forced her onwards, between the tall buildings and out into the well lit streets.
“You’re crazy,” she said, her ears still ringing. “Can’t just haul me past all these guys like this.”
“Why not? We own them,” Rakesh said, his tone utterly mirthless.
She already knew that he was right. It was impossible to believe that struggling or crying out was likely to do her any more good here than it might have back in London.
“I’d advise against running,” he continued. “My patience with you has entirely run out. You were trouble enough in London, without Korban managing to twice botch the job of bringing you in. I won’t let that happen again, whatever father might say.”
They were passing through the lights of the warehouses and workshops, and she could see that they would soon be out on the main street. As she thought about where they might be going, some part of her recoiled from the thought of just going quietly, dragged like a dog to whatever cage Rakesh had waiting for her.
She twisted in his grip, bringing his arm up just enough that she could get her teeth around his hand and bite down hard on one finger. The taste of blood was on her tongue and he roared in pain, pulling his hand away. She didn’t waste a moment, darting away into the nearest side street.
Too late, she saw that it was a dead-end. Rakesh was already on her heels, the steel blade of a sabre gleaming in his hands. She ran towards the far end of the alley, looking up for any way to scale the walls, but there was nothing within reach. Just smooth brick walls, nearly impossible to climb.
Then she heard the sound of another set of footsteps. She glanced back to see Rakesh turn at the sound of polite cough.
Ilona’s hand snaked out, the silver mesh of her gauntlet crackling with a corona of blue sparks. It was as if she was reaching towards his face with a handful of lightning. Rakesh had scarcely an instant to react, and yet he seemed to simply fall to the side. There was no appearance of balance or control, yet with a strange shuffling of his feet he was suddenly upright once more. Ilona’s gauntleted hand grasped at empty air as he struck her across the face with the hilt of his sword with a resounding crack.
Ilona’s head flew back, and she scarcely stayed standing, her hand catching at his collar. With a nasty smirk, Rakesh span the sword over in his hand, the blade flashing as he drew it back to strike, but the swaggering gesture gave Ilona a brief moment to recover. The woman’s head flicked forwards, the movement so swift as to seem almost graceful, if not for the sound of the impact and the cry of pain as Rakesh reeled backwards, clasping his free hand to his nose. Blood spilled down the man’s face as he reeled. Her hands gripping tight about his collar, Ilona did not let him go. Her face a picture of cold fury, she slammed the man backwards into the wall of the alleyway and brought a knee up hard into his guts. Then the gauntleted fist snaked out once more, and with a bright flash of blue and a loud snap Rakesh slumped to the ground. A faint coil of smoke twisted upwards from his collar.
In the silence that followed, Rachael felt the sound of the streets around them come rushing back in. The creaking of the cranes, the clattering of the machinery and the rattle of the distant train. Ilona picked up the sword and hurled it away.
“You’re OK?” Ilona said, turning slightly to meet Rachael’s eyes, as she flexed her hands. Rachael wasn’t entirely sure if it was a question.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”
Rachael got to her feet, still unsteady, but oddly grateful that Ilona didn’t try to help her up.
“Justin… We have to…”
She didn’t even try to complete the half-formed thought. She went to dart past the woman and immediately felt a restraining hand on her arm. She twisted in the woman’s grasp, trying to wrench herself free.
“Hey, he’s OK,” Ilona said, sharply. For a moment Rachael just stared at the woman, uncomprehending.
“He’s OK,” Ilona repeated. “Micah messaged me. He’s with him now.”
The woman held up her sending stone, as if to somehow prove what she’d said.
“You think I came looking for you on my own?”
As the words sank in, Rachael began to breathe easier. She leaned back against the alley wall, feeling all the strength seem to seep out of her body. Her eyes settled on Rakesh’s unconscious form, slumped against the wall just across from her.
“Smug bastard,” she muttered.
She glanced up to see just the hint of a smile pulling at the corners of Ilona’s thin mouth.
“Aim over the belt, not under. Men like him expect you to go for the cheap shot. They don’t tense right,” Ilona said. “Micah taught me that.”
“Thanks,” Rachael said, not taking her eyes off of Rakesh’s face. There was a black mark where the last blow had struck him, and his collar was singed. Ilona seemed to follow her eyes.
“When it was you, I used a half-charge. Didn’t feel like being nice to him.”
“You’ve got a weird idea of nice, y’know?” Rachael said.
“I’ve been told that before,” Ilona said. This time, she really did smile. Rachael smiled back. It was a curious feeling.
“So, what now?” she said.
“That depends on you,” Ilona replied, her expression serious as she looked Rachael in the eye.
“You’re really giving me a choice, or just saying that?” Rachael said.
“Does it matter? It’s still your decision to make, whether or not I choose to respect it.”
“You’ve got a really funny way of thinking about stuff.”
Ilona said nothing, apparently waiting for her question to be answered.
Rachael leaned back and looked up at the sky. She could hear the faint sound of the train tracks shifting and the howling of the wind against the cliff-faces.
She let out the breath that it seemed she had been holding the entire time.
“I’ll stay,” she said.
Ilona simply nodded as she raised her sending stone. The call was brief. Not long after, Micah appeared in the mouth of alleyway. He had Justin’s limp form slung across his shoulders, the weight barely seeming to bother him.
“Fates, girl, you scared the life out of us,” he said as his eyes met hers.
“Sorry,” she shrugged, looking away. He turned to look at Ilona and the fallen man.
“You’re OK?” he said. Ilona just raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, kinda figured,” he replied. “Asshole deserved it too. Come on, we should get going. We need to meet up with the others, fast.”
Ilona nodded as Micah walked away. The woman turned to Rachael.
Rachael nodded as she fell in behind them. Micah lead them on a winding route that seemed to stick to the back streets and side alleys, finally emerging on some far flung part of the plateau. Ahead they could see a platform that protruded from the side of the cliff, iron struts holding up something that she guessed must have been designed as a landing pad. Resting on the platform was a small white boat, just like the ones she had seen flying over London. The memory made her a little uncomfortable.
Up on the deck she could see Abasi at the helm, the Professor standing at his side examining something at the controls. Milima was standing by the front landing strut, with Arsha close at her side. When the girl saw them approach she didn’t waste a second in running to meet them.
Arsha seemed about to launch into a full blown explanation when she remembered that Micah and Ilona were standing either side of her. She paused, and swallowed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t tell them. It was just… When Dad came to find us, you weren’t there and I had to explain and…”
“No, it’s cool,” Rachael said. “If… If Ilona hadn’t found me…”
She decided that she didn’t want to think about that.
“Is he OK?” Arsha said, looking at Justin.
“He shouldn’t be, given what hit him, but yeah. I guess he’s survived worse,” Micah said. “Never thought I’d see someone still breathing after an arc-mine to the face.”
“Hey, move it people,” Milima’s cry was a sharp whip-crack in the air as she gestured for them to get aboard. Micah went first, handing the unconscious Justin up to the men on the deck and then scrambling up the ladder. At the top he turned to pull the rest of them up. Milima was the last aboard, as the propellers began to spin up. They nestled down on long bench seats that lined the inside walls of the boat. As Rachael sat, Arsha immediately squeezed in beside her. Justin was laid out along the floor, his coat folded under his head.
“I don’t understand. What are we doing?” she said to Arsha.
“Leaving,” the girl said, with a confused shrug.
“Is this… Because of what we did?”
“Actually, it’s because of what I did,” she heard the professor say. She looked up to see the man standing over them. As the boat lifted off from the pad he seemed to scarcely think about keeping his balance, calmly shifting his stance with the swaying of the hull. The motion reminded her of people standing on the tube trains.
“What do you mean? How did we even get this boat? Are we stealing this or something?” she said, having to raise her voice over the roar of the propellers.
“Stealing? No,” he replied, with a smile that seemed to have no humour in it. “Why, Manindra Bhandari himself filed a flight plan and released this vessel on our behalf. Or, at least, that’s what their records show.”
“You faked them?” she said, already realising that it wasn’t really a question.
“Yes. Luckily for you and your friend here, we were never really planning on staying for long.”
“When he says ‘we’…” Micah interjected, with an aggravated look.
“Yes, some warning might have been nice,” Milima added with a scowl. The professor just nodded calmly.
“I’m sorry. It was necessary. Having you all know what I was up to might have given me away. I wasn’t even sure for myself exactly how all of this might go down.”
“So, what, you just came to talk to this guy and then run off? What for? What did you find out?” Rachael said.
The professor’s eyes met each of theirs in turn as everyone watched him, waiting for his answer. His whole manner suddenly seemed very cold. There was something about him that reminded her of the way Rakesh had acted.
“From Manindra? Very little. The man is more deranged than ever. But I learned a great deal from the files I stole from him. Whatever hope any of you held that we might have reasoned with this man, abandon it. Manindra is entirely beyond reason.”
There was a long pause, as everyone digested this.
“So… What happens now?” Micah said.
“We keep running. For now, it’s all we can do. I’m sorry. I really don’t have a better answer.”
He turned away, walking to the prow of the boat where could look out ahead. Peering over the edge of the hull, Rachael could see the lights of the town and the estate receding below them. Far off, Firecrest was an ember in the darkness.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.