Bergersen Street stood right in the dead-center of Lupanar. At least, that's what Keydis estimated from how long she'd been walking. In other parts of Terminus, she could have gotten a ride of some kind, but there was no public transportation in the Little City and the only carriages and automobiles around were the spoils of rich thieves, drug lords, and murderous crime bosses. With each one she passed, Keydis had to silence the voice inside that begged her to rip the owners from their ill-gotten wealth and beat them right there on the street.
The Lupanar District continued to offend her every sensibility. In her early teens, after she had first learned about the district and it being a safe haven from the law for criminals in Terminus, just the idea had been bad enough. Back then, though, she imagined it as being literally lawless, though, a slum where the dregs of the population fought over the scraps.
Instead, she saw people living better lives than she had known as a law-abiding citizen, some even seeming to live in the lap of luxury. Rich people didn't bother her, but people grown fat and rich off the misery of others? That rankled fiercely. Through it all, Keydis reminded herself that she was after a particular criminal. Just the one.
The tip from Igne Ebrius led Keydis to a restaurant, three stories tall. The building was wedged in between two larger buildings. When the sun was directly overhead, it would have been well-lit, but that time had passed. Night remained hours away but the entrance was cast in dark shadows. A neon lavender sign bore the name, "Sympathy for the Devil." Keydis chuffed in disgust.
Before she could walk into the entrance, there was a tug at her cloak. Keydis looked over, hand twitching as she prepared to reach for her sword. She paused. "You're that waitress," she said, recognizing the woman at the one who brought her drinks at the pub.
"You weren't supposed to get here so fast," the woman complained, a little short of breath. "I had to run to catch up!" Keydis noticed she was carrying her heeled shoes, bare feet against the cobbles.
"Why would you want to?" the brunette asked suspiciously. She folded her arms.
"No reason," the woman replied tersely. She dropped her shoes and stepped into them before turning Keydis a cold shoulder. She folded her arms, huffing and waiting for an apology of some kind. Since Keydis wasn't feeling particularly apologetic, she waited it out. Finally, the waitress grumbled and turned around again. "I'm supposed to tell you to wait in the building across the street." Keydis looked in that direction -- it was a taller building, a hotel by the looks of it. "Just ask for room three-oh-three, you’re your name as 'Zero Tivrusky.'"
The brunette looked at the hotel again, then squinted at the waitress. "Why?" she asked carefully.
"It's a room that we keep reserved for certain occasions."
"No, I mean why do you want me to go there? Don't have enough goons with the balls to jump a lone woman on-hand?"
The woman hissed back, "We're trying to help you, you ungrateful--!"
"Sure you are. You yanked away the man who was giving me information, sent me deeper into criminal territory, and now you're asking me to wait in a room with no escape without an explanation. Real helpful."
"Serpens still my tongue," the unnamed waitress muttered under her breath, clicking a heel against the street. "The room has a window facing this way, you'll be able to watch for when you-know-who leaves Sympathy. Without standing around and drawing attention to yourself like a jackass."
Keydis lifted an eyebrow. "He's in there now?"
"Yes, along with a lot of very important people, plus their bodyguards, and the restaurant staff aren't just going to stand and watch." The waitress was visibly uncomfortable, now looking around to see if anyone was listening to closely. "Room three-oh-three, Zero Tivrusky."
Eyes on the restaurant, Keydis considered her options. There were two men at the entrance, one of them the bulkiest enlil Keydis had ever seen and the other a thin velen with a mohawk of a fin atop his head. The men looked over at Keydis, seeming to feel her stare. The enlil tossed her a wink.
Things were starting to fall into place. Keydis smirked and made her way to the entrance. "What are you doing?" the waitress hissed, heels clicking after the woman before stopping.
"That was all I needed to know," she replied over her shoulder. A chill ran down the back of her neck. She was wary for an ambush as she stepped up to the doors and past the two men. One started to drop an arm to stop her, but she winked at him and brushed the arm out of her way, pushing through the door before he could react to her brazen action.
Now inside, Keydis had to pause and consider. If she went any further, it wouldn't be easy to get back out, even for her. Up until that moment, she felt like she could go a dozen different directions if things got heated. Now, though, her routes were being compressed. She'd be leaving enemies at her back, literally, if she went deeper.
She crossed the point of no return and headed further into the restaurant. A beefy looking laicar with a scar over one eye came up to her with a menu tucked into one arm. He was wearing a fancy suit without the jacket, white sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing his heavily-furred forearms. The collar of the shirt was visibly digging into his throat, and Keydis was sure he was sucking his gut in. If he did anything more strenuous than walk, if he even tried to walk faster, she bet the too-small shirt would just burst apart.
Keydis reached up to pull the cloak down from her face, cracking her knuckles and giving her neck a satisfying roll before flashing a grin at the host and walking right past him without a word. "Ma'am?" he grunted out, confused but trying to stay polite. "Hey!" he snapped in an angry hiss as she pushed her way through a white door and into the restaurant proper. "No weapons!"
The streets outside and the lobby had been nearly empty. That's because everyone's right here! A dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at Keydis as she pushed into the dining room. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. None of the patrons moved to stop her right away, so Keydis walked past them, keeping a mental tally in her head of how many potential enemies there were.
The rest of the room was packed with people in all manner of dress. Smaller tables filled up the outer edges of the room, almost all of them filled. A broad table took up the center of the dining room, with the men and women seated around it digging into opulent and expensive-looking meals. Piles of coins and stacks of paper covered every part of the table not buried under food. Nine people sat there, one with a girl in his lap and assorted others standing behind the VIPs. Keydis walked right into the den of thieves, suppressing her chills with immediate action.
There he was, at the far end of the big table, exactly like the poster showed: Niketas Leon. He was a ruddy-skinned terran, with greasy and disheveled black hair and scruffy stubble. A scar sliced from his cheekbone to his ear, taking a chunk of the lobe with it. The eyes, light blue according to his bounty notice, were hidden behind dark glasses. The man was wearing a pin-striped black suit with a turtleneck; more surprising, two albino ferrets climbed all over him, each in their own miniature suits, one even wearing a top hat.
He nor the rest at the table even looked up when Keydis entered, not even with the host chasing after her. That just wouldn't do. Keydis jumped onto the table, boots slamming heavily to the wood and sending plates clattering. Everyone burst into movement all at once. Five of the seated individuals jumped to their feet and all of the standing ones reached for weapons they didn't have.
"What is the meaning of this?" a caramel-skinned and ebon-feathered enlil woman demanded, glaring at Keydis from behind emerald glasses before shifting the dark look on the host.
"I tried to stop her! She wouldn't listen!"
"Hoo, girly, I don't think you want to be doing this," one of the men remarked with a laugh. He had been standing from the start, a terran wearing a rough blue tunic with a bright, smiling sun painted on it. Probably a bodyguard to the man in front of him, who hadn't budged.
Keydis noted his face, recognized it, but turned to the matter at hand. "Niketas Leon," Keydis said, ignoring the others. "You're coming with me. Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?" She walked closer, stepping on plates and documents.
At the head of the table, a velen spoke up. "No concessions were broken; guards are not welcome here." He was a bright shade of red with black tiger-stripes. The top of his head was bald, but his ears had grown into wide, winged fins. Although he was older, with visible wrinkles, his scales had not started to grey, yet. As she watched, he put a plain red leather mask up to his face, blending perfectly with the rest of his skin and hiding his lips.
It was a trick Keydis had seen before, and so she marked him as a practitioner of Castus or Aquila, or both, someone who wanted to be able to whisper incantations without being noticed. The fact that the mask blended with his skin just added an air of creepiness to it.
"I'm not a guard and don't care about your 'concessions.'"
Niketas himself spoke up, then. "A bounty hunter? Young lady, you've just made the biggest mistake of your career. Please, allow me to introduce myself." With a smug expression, Niketas leaned back in his chair, ferrets clinging tightly to avoid falling. He started petting one of them. "I'm a man of wealth and taste. I've been around--"
"You're a slaver, Niketas," Keydis interrupted. The man in the smiling tunic laughed aloud, and she heard a few sounds of amusement or aggravation from the others. "One with a bounty on your head."
Niketas leaned forward again. "Do you know where you are? Do you know who you're standing in front of?" His voice darkened and the two standing behind him tensed. "Congratulations, you've signed your own death warrant. The Lupanar District is neutral ground, bitch, but if you're going to start something, you aren't leaving here in one piece." A twisted grin replaced the scowl. "Or maybe in one piece, clapped in irons."
Keydis crouched down, resting her arms on her knees. "I don't give the slightest fuck who all your friends are, but I know what they're thinking." She stood up and folded her arms. "Criminals, hell all of us, are all the same. We all do dumb or shady shit but it's okay, because there's worse out there. The whore over here," Keydis went on, pointing. One of the nine at the table was a mixed man in a wide-brimmed hat with a fur-lined green coat. A girl, also mixed, sat in his lap, wearing a too-short red dress with thin black stockings, long red hair tied with black ribbons. She bristled at the name-call. "She's thinking, 'I might fuck total strangers, but at least I'm not forcing anyone.'"
The brunette looked around the table and pointed at a disturbing demvir. He was clothed in mismatched designs, like different suits of cards, and a black skull mask rested over his face. "Patchy thinks to himself, 'Maybe I steal, but only from people who deserve it. At least I'm not hurting anyone.'" Next, she turned to the smiley-sun man. "Garrett Windstrom, wanted for six cases of assault and battery and telling himself, 'At least I let 'em live.'"
"Ooh, she knows me!" Garrett exclaimed, grabbing his boss's shoulder and giving it a shake. "D'ya hear that, she knows me! Knows me good, too!"
"Idiot, that's not a good thing. It means you're sloppy!" the other man pointed out. There was a smirk on his round face, though. His skin was dark, and his loose mop of hair was darker, but his eyes glowed with intense blue light.
"You want to know something, Nicky?" Keydis asked bringing her attention back to the target. "I had no trouble finding you. People on the street were happy to tell me right where you are. People I didn't even ask thought, 'fuck that guy' and they led me right to you. Do you know why? You know why none of these assholes have done anything to actually stop me, yet?
"Because you're the afternoon entertainment, girly," Niketas replied, although he didn't seem as sure of himself.
"No," Keydis replied, voice growing colder as her heart raced. "It's because you're the bottom, the lowest of the low. The worst bastard here is still comforted to know there's someone worse. 'I might have murdered a man,' one of them is saying right now, 'but at least I'm not a slaver!'" Keydis paused before adding, "'At least I don't force men and women and children into slavery.' 'At least I don't get my jollies by torturing kids."
"Knows me good," Garrett repeated in a grim whisper.
Everyone else was silent, staring at Niketas. His smile had disappeared but he looked angry rather than ashamed. "If anyone cared about that…"
The red-scaled velen looked up at Keydis. "This is true?"
From a pouch, Keydis pulled out the bounty notice, tossing the folded paper to the apparent leader. He read the details, visibly disgusted. But then he ripped the paper in half. "Lupanar has always been neutral," he stated, reluctantly but adamantly.
"Then be neutral and sit there quietly while I take out your trash," Keydis said, hopping down from the table. The others, even the other restaurant-goers and the host, all looked to the velen. He said nothing, staring ahead into empty space.
No one else moved.
"So that's how it is?" Niketas asked. He stood up and looked around, laughing shakily. Keydis realized he was barely taller than her. "That's it?"
"Handle your own mess," the woman in the green lenses suggested.
Niketas took a step back from Keydis, forearms raised in a mock surrender. His ferrets chittered and hissed at her. "Handle it myself? Fine, I will! Rather, Tigris will." The bigger of the two bodyguards stepped forward. He was a towering beast of a velen, head and shoulders well above Keydis. Dark orange scales with flesh-colored skin covered his bulging muscles, and his head swept back in a large bony crown. He pulled his shirt off and dropped it, showing off even more of his powerful physique.
"Wait, wait. Leon. Tigris." Keydis pointed at each of them, then turned to the other bodyguard, a slender blonde laicar woman slightly taller than her. "What do they call you? Kitten?"
Garrett bust out laughing. "You got it!" he called out.
The short-haired blonde was dressed in tight black clothing, sleeveless leather for armor. She had a fingerless glove on her left hand, while her right seemed to be a mechanical prosthetic. "It's 'Ludicer,' bitch," she declared, grabbing Keydis' shoulder and preparing to hit her.
Garrett was calling out, "That means 'kitten!'"
Keydis grabbed the woman's wrist and twisted it, following with a lightning-fast hook from her other hand. The blonde didn't even make a sound; she went down in a slump. Before Niketas could step away, Keydis quick-stepped forward and slammed her forehead into the slaver's nose, shattering it along with his glasses.
He fell on his ass, clutching at his face while blood spurted from his nose. Keydis side-stepped a rush from Tigris and then introduced her bootheel to Niketas' face. The slaver went down.
"Sure you want to do this, big guy?" Keydis asked, gesturing to the two on the floor.
Tigris said nothing, instead cracking his neck left and right.
"Is this a 'problem,' boss?" the man with the blue eyes asked.
"Not ours," the velen replied, and while blue-eyes looked disappointed that seemed to end the discussion.
The man sitting on the other side of the velen was a strange sight. A laicar, but with black machinery replacing half of his face, pulsing with green light. He held a cane of the same material in his lap, and his first two fingers were mechanical, as well. He was in a suit with a long coat and had a monocle on his one good eye. Snow-white hair was tied back in a ponytail. "You'll get no help from us, either of you," he called out to the two brawlers. "If you can beat Tigris, you can have the slaver, girl."
"Hmph. That's not your call to make," the enlil woman pointed out. No one argued the point with the monocled man, though.
Keydis grabbed the axe-handle over her shoulder. Just when the velen started to look worried, Keydis slammed it into the table. She pulled her sword and sheath from her belt and tossed them onto the table. Nearby tables started scooting away with their occupants, clearing a good space for the two.
The demvir in the black skull mask let out a mechanical hum and then picked some coins from the pile in front of him. "Five prophets on Tigris," he declared, tossing the auritium coins into an open spot on the table.
"You're doing that now?" A small girl sat next to the demvir, but once she spoke, it became clear that she was also a machina. She had the appearance of a laicar in her teens, but a closer inspection showed that was just a foam padding of some kind. Eyes glowed with mechanical light behind glass doll eyes.
The blue-eyed man added his own coins. "Five on Tigris," he agreed.
Keydis and Tigris faced one another, Keydis with folded arms and the velen with arms by his side. Once again, the sheer size difference impressed itself upon her; the top of her head was barely nipple-high to him. The velen and Keydis slowly started to walk toward each other, but then Tigris sprinted ahead bringing his right fist around in a brutal haymaker.
Keydis ducked low, his fist so close it ripped the hood off her head; she landed one quick punch before swaying back to avoid another. This time she landed a hit on his jaw, another high on his forehead. He grunted and stumbled back a step but came back with another heavy swing. Keydis threw herself back, narrowly evading the attack.
Tigris dipped and charged, trying to grab her. Keydis jumped and rolled over his back, landing shakily back on her feet and instinctually tucking into another roll, avoiding a heavy backhand. Back on her feet, Keydis faced the imposing velen. He seemed to eye her with a grudging respect, lifting his fists this time as he slowly walked in.
"No betting, but," said another of the nine. This man was an enlil with tightly-packed grey feathers over his chest and bright white atop his head. His face was grey-black, his eyes glowing red. He wore a black overcoat with no shirt, and a ruby pendant hung around his neck. A scepter on the table in front of him had a matching ruby. "The young woman will take it."
The woman behind him, strange and fragile-looking, nodded her agreement.
The velen jabbed straight ahead and Keydis side-stepped low, ducking in for another punch at his gut. This time, though, Tigris was ready. His knee slammed up from below and then he followed with a thunderous punch. She got her arms up to block, but felt herself flying backward; as soon as she hit the ground, Keydis rolled backward and then clambered onto all fours, trying to regain her bearings. Hot blood poured onto her tongue, lip split against her teeth. She spat on the floor.
"This is childish," the woman in the green glasses chided. "Tigris doesn't lose."
"I agree," the man with the robotic face said, but then he pulled a stack of coins from a pocket. "Five prophets is a child's bet. Let's make this interesting. Fifteen on Tigris."
The velen was moving in again; Keydis planted her hands on the floor then twisted and launched herself boots-first at his abdomen. After hitting those rock-hard abs again, she fell to her back and Tigris stumbled away; Keydis rolled back to her feet and Tigris crouched to recover his breath.
This time it was Keydis who went on the offensive. She ran forward; Tigris lifted both beefy arms to block but Keydis jumped overhead, slamming one foot into the top of his head before twisting to land a second kick to the back of his head. The velen dropped his hands to the floor, spitting blood from his bitten tongue.
"Call it, darling," the spurii in the green coat suggested, nuzzling in against her neck and biting gently.
"Oh, ahh!" the redhead cried out, squirming in his lap. Her high-pitched voice was grating to most but seemed like music to her lover's ears. "Oh, um… on… the bitch!"
The man casually tossed in his fifteen coins while the others upped their bets to match. The wagers stood at thirty for Keydis and forty-five against.
Keydis jumped up on the velen's back, locking her arm around his throat. He huffed, grasping at her hands, but she was a blacksmith by trade. It would take a lot more than that to shake her loose. Instead, Tigris reached higher and slammed his fist against the side of her head. Her brain was rattled, ear ringing, but Keydis clung even tighter with a determined growl, hooking a leg around his middle and trying to duck in tighter against his neck. He punched again, and a third time, unable to get in another solid hit. Still on one knee, he clawed at her arms and then suddenly Keydis was falling backward.
Her head cracked against the floor and the velen fell on top of her, blasting the breath from her lungs. She continued to cling, choking as hard as she could. Tigris rolled over onto his front, pulling her with him. He pushed himself up with his elbows until he could get a foot underneath. With a quick shove, he lifted all the way up and then dropped again, slamming Keydis beneath his three-hundred fifty pound bulk again.
She let go.
Keydis groaned and clutched at her ribs, trying to tell if any were broken. The velen sat up, still partly atop her, gasping in breath and spitting more blood from his mouth. He came back with a sudden elbow, but Keydis blocked it with both arms. Another elbow, another block, both of them striving to catch their breath. The restaurant watched, some shouting for Tigris to finish her, others calling for more bets.
Tigris went for another elbow, but Keydis lifted her foot to block it, then started rolling away, getting some distance between her and the bigger brawler. Down on one knee, she paused to catch her breath; across from her, Tigris was doing the same but also climbing back to his feet. "Tough bastard, I'll give you that," she complimented.
He said nothing. Keydis was moving suddenly, low but fast. She jumped and twisted her body, throwing herself into a whirling roundhouse that slammed into the velen's midsection, then his thigh and his knee. Tigris reeled back and dropped to one knee again. Catching herself with her palms flat on the ground, Keydis shoved herself upright. With Tigris down on a knee, they were almost face-to-face, both labored for breathing. Keydis slammed her left fist into his jaw then swayed backward to evade his sudden uppercut. Two quick punches under that arm and then she dove into a roll away before he brought his elbow down on her.
She came back up and slammed both fists at once into his opposite side before he could move into another punch. Every hit was like beating a tree, but this time, Tigris felt it. He stumbled away, then desperately spun, weaving a backhand and a haymaker together, both narrowly missing Keydis as she swayed and skipped backward. Shouts of surprise rose up from the crowd.
Face to face again, Tigris came in with two left jabs, Keydis again narrowly dodging both. She slammed her right in hard under his arm again, then planted her left into his nose. Tigris stumbled away a step but came back swinging. Keydis side-stepped this one and then jumped into her own uppercut, cracking knuckles against his jaw. Forcing Tigris back even further, she punched his abdomen twice, then stepped in closer and delivered a straight kick right to his stomach. When he reeled back, she chased after him and jumped, slamming her knee into his chin.
Keydis tried to follow through with a punch, but then Tigris brought his fist swinging around, clocking her in the side of her head. The woman hit the ground and quickly rolled away. Her vision was spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up. She couldn't let up, though. If she let him regain his ground, it was going to get worse and worse for her. Attack, she told herself, even though she could barely keep her balance. Hit him harder!
The brunette rushed ahead, right, left, right. Under the velen's fist to bury her fist right into the center of his chest! She ducked forward, planting a hand on the ground and bringing her heel up behind her to kick in the velen's face. Tigris reeled away and Keydis jumped up, locking her elbow above his, throwing her shoulder down to twist him and send the brute flying down to his back. Holding his left arm down, Keydis punched his head and face repeatedly.
Tigris twisted his arm free to cover his face with both hands and then his leg came up, solidly kicking Keydis in the face. Not letting herself think -- Attack! -- Keydis kipped up and slammed her heel down at the velen's head, just barely missing as he rolled to his feet. She chased after him, jumping into another kick, but this time Tigris grabbed her leg, holding tight. His elbow went up. He was going to break her leg.
Keydis jumped and kicked with her other leg, breaking his grip. Keydis hit the ground and rolled back to her feet. Don't let up, keep going, she told herself, rushing ahead, not giving herself time to think about her injuries, about how much stronger the brute was, about how there were dozens of low-lifes who might pile onto her even if she beat this guy.
All she focused on was the next evasion, the next block, the next strike. Pain sharpened her awareness.
Keydis rushed ahead and jumped again, slamming her fist into the velen hard enough to push him back a step. She followed with a double punch, but it wasn't fast enough. She hit him, but he grabbed her arm. Keydis was slowing down and he was starting to read her. Desperately, she punched his arm, kicked his stomach, tried to pull her arm free, but he clung tightly with both hands.
Then, she was airborne.
Tigris lifted her overhead and slammed her down to the floor. Something crunched. Still not letting go, Tigris lifted the woman up by the arm and punched at her face. Keydis barely got her free arm up and then it just smashed back against her face, too weak to block. She partially blocked a second one, and then the third hit went straight into her face. She grunted and then a fourth punch followed. Her head snapped back and she dangled weakly from the velen's grip. Tigris pulled back for another punch.
Oh fuck, what the fuck. Her thoughts were scattered, everything a daze. Pain, throbbing, she could feel every beat of her heart pulsing in her ears, in the rest of her face. Hot blood poured from her nose, down her chin. She sloppily tried to coordinate her feet. Can't give up, can't, he's just a chump, a lackey, I can't…I gotta…. Her feet finally planted against the floor.
Attack! Keydis kicked herself up, slamming her skull into the brute's face. Her free arm came up and she bashed her fist into the hand holding onto her. His grip barely loosened, but it was just enough to rip herself away, leaving her cloak trapped in his fingers. She turned and kicked into a roll away, gaining some distance, trying to regain her bearings.
The velen stood up again. His face looked how hers felt, puffy and bleeding, one eye almost swollen shut. Tigris held up her cloak and ripped the wool garment in half. Keydis stood up straight, arms down as she tried to regain her bearings and balance. One of her eyes was almost swollen shut, too, and the taste of copper filled her mouth.
Tigris came running straight at her, an unstoppable behemoth. I'm not ready, there's no way I can be ready. He came at her with a flying kick. If I even try to block that it'll break my arms.
Blearily staring at the velen's foot, Keydis moved. It wasn't much, just enough. The cloth of his pants brushed against her as she fell to the side. Down on all fours, Keydis sucked in a heavy breath. Can't keep evading. The velen turned around and tried to stomp her into the ground, but Keydis fell to the side again and rolled. Have to attack! She rolled back the other way and threw herself into the air, bringing her right fist around to hit the brute in the face, followed by a kick to the gut.
Tigris dropped to one knee for only the briefest of seconds. Keydis came back up swinging, just barely clipping his chin before he backed away, but she twisted into a roundhouse, burying her heel up under his ribs. Keydis jumped as high as she could and brought both fists down on the top of his head, throwing him down to a knee.
The velen lunged forward, grabbing Keydis around the middle, aiming to slam her into one of the nearby tables. Growling, Keydis dug her feet in and slammed her elbow into his back twice. He grunted and lifted her right off the ground. Keydis slammed a knee into his ribs next before he slammed her to the floor. Laying on top of her, he started punching at her face while she rolled and twisted to block, just about on fumes but determined not to surrender.
She managed to twist just enough to punch Tigris' fist aside, letting it slam into the floor. She took the opportunity to bash his face before she had to block again; her arms were starting to feel like they might snap at any moment. Twisting her whole body out of the way of the next punch, she used the new leverage to clip his chin with her elbow and roll into a haymaker.
Now! Keydis rolled back to her shoulders and then threw one leg around his neck with her knee to the opposite side of it, holding on tight to her ankle to stay locked in place. She growled and squeezed as hard as she could. Tigris rained punches down, and she blocked as well as she could with her one free arm, but damned if she was going to let go! She pushed with her shoulders, lifting Tigris higher and he started clawing at her legs, trying to break free. One more desperate punch with both hands, one more arm-cracking block. Tigris punched yet again, and it felt like he might be weakening. She pulled tighter when he lifted to his feet, pulling her off the ground.
He dropped heavily to his knees again, bashing her head against the floor and sending pain shooting up her spine. She held on, though. His eyes were glassy, his skin seeming to darken. His claws scrabbled against the floor for a moment before he lifted her up again. This time, Keydis grabbed onto his head. Almost..!
Just before he dropped again, Keydis threw her torso backward, yanking him down much harder and sooner than expected. His head, still locked between her legs, slammed into the floor hard enough to crack it. He stopped moving and almost immediately started snoring, leaving Keydis trapped underneath three hundred fifty pounds of dead weight.
After a moment, though, she groaned and rolled the bodyguard off of her. Keydis pushed herself to her feet, clutching at her head. The restaurant was silent only for a brief moment before the onlookers began muttering among themselves. Keydis looked down to make sure the bastard was still unconscious and then reaching into a pouch at her belt, pulling out a vial of golden liquid. She popped the cap and sucked it down, almost immediately feeling the pounding in her head lessening.
The eight at the big table stared silently. Keydis stepped over, still shaking with adrenaline. She retrieved her sword and the axe. "Bell-damn that guy was sturdy. What the fuck do you pay for a bodyguard like that? 'Cause whatever it is, it's worth it." She paused and looked down. "Almost."
"Well, well," the blue-eyed man said, letting out a whistle. "I didn't think you had it in you."
Behind him, Garrett smugly jabbed a thumb at his chest. "I knew you did."
"As did I," the red-eyed enlil noted, "but you struggled more than I expected. Perhaps you're not as much as you appeared to be."
"Seems like she's more, according to the wagers," the skull-faced demvir noted with a laugh.
"This is cute and all, but I've got a delivery to make," Keydis muttered, frowning as she looked at her ripped cloak. She pulled a knife and ripped the cloak the rest of the way, leaving her with just a hood. A hood was enough to keep her ears warm, though. "Unless anyone else has a complaint?"
"Do what you will," the senior velen said, his mouth still behind his mask, hiding his expression. "Garrett, make sure there are no 'problems' on her way out of Lupanar. I would advise you, young lady, to be content with this victory. If you dare to come chasing a bounty in my city again, even for the pettiest of pickpockets, you won't leave here alive. Understood?"
Keydis was tying Niketas up, bound with wrists behind his back and ankles lashed together. The ferrets hissed and chittered at her, but she brushed them aside with a boot. She hoisted the man up over her shoulder, trying to ignore the twinge of pain from her spine. "I understand, I just don't care."
The man with the half-machine face chuckled. "I've a feeling we'll be seeing more of each other."
"I hope we do," the blue-eyed man remarked.
Keydis left, no longer interested in trying her luck with the band of criminals. Even with what she said about Niketas being the lowest of the low, they were being entirely too casual about her taking him. She also didn't like how the velen called Lupanar 'his' city.
Once outside, Garrett joined her. He had strapped on an assortment of weapons, multiple pistols, a saber, a bandolier of grenades, and a blunderbuss. Smiling just as wide as the cartoonish sun on his tunic, he fell in step beside her with nary a word. Keydis was thankful for his presence, though: people who might have questioned her carrying a man through the streets were stopped with one look at the eccentric enforcer.
The cold wind bit fiercely, particularly at her inflamed injuries, but the potion had taken care of the worst of the wounds. As exhausted as she was and still with a long trip back home, she was brimming with pride and that was enough to sustain her.
She made a mental note of all the individuals at the table, unsure yet if she needed to avoid them or hunt them down again. Niketas and Garrett were the only ones she recognized from bounties, and the blue-eyed man's words came to mind. 'That means you're sloppy.'
Just who were they?
"Who was she?"
After the fiasco in the Sympathy restaurant, the remaining members from the table had reconvened in another neutral space, a penthouse belonging to Guadriar the Red. The velen tapped impatiently as he waited for an answer.
"I don't know. I have never heard of a bounty hunter like her before. She's certainly never entered Lupanar before now." The speaker was Sai Shurevad, the red-eyed enlil.
Celica Beryllias scoffed from over by the window. She peered over her green lenses. "How can you not know? You're in charge of the bounties!"
"Our bounties, not the world's," Sai retorted. "Just mind your trinkets, woman." Both enlil bristled at each other, but their bickering was cut off.
"Keydis Lysistrata," came the answer. Culm the Blue-eyed laid back on the penthouse furniture, his dirty boots soiling the fabric. "Not so notable here. A sizable bounty once, but it was revoked. In Aridus, though, she made a small name for herself. Seems she was feeling home-sick."
Harlequin laughed from where it sat at a table. The demvir with the black skull was head of collections and gambling. "Well, she may have done us a favor. Leon was far from cautious. It was his own inattention to detail that caused this."
"What? What is it?" Guadriar asked tersely. The third enlil plucked the bounty notice from him, looking at it closely.
She was Pepunef Zhuzhush, Sai's personal assassin. Although a full-blooded enlil, her only feathers were those atop her head, running black to grey. She was possessed of long, fragile limbs, the lack of feathers making her seem even smaller. "Boreas," she whispered.
Guadriar took back the bounty to look at it closer. "So it is. You said this woman, Lysistrata, made a name in Aridus. Did she also travel to Boreas?"
"Not that I've heard," Culm answered, now looking curious.
Standing near the doorway, Artemis Culpeper scratched at the edges of the machinery in his skull. "Who brought the bounty all the way from Boreas, then? Perhaps I should feed some inquiries to TorBru. A professor from Boreas has been a thorn in their side for some time. There could be a connection."
"So, boss, what about the bounty hunter? Is she a 'problem?'" Culm asked, hopeful. His sole purpose was to solve problems.
"No," Guadriar replied. "No, she's merely an attack hound, no more important than Tigris was. I want to know who put her on Leon's scent. I want the mastermind."
Pia Hanc Fur Mel, once known as Femina Pulchra, released a mechanized sigh. The miniscule demvir had no metallic plating, only foam padding in the approximate shape of a young woman and a simple dress. "Wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money," she complained. Used to handling political espionage, she had little care for such small-time worries.
"She's right, you know." This time it was Turin Vermouth speaking, still with his darling Carmine in his lap. "Our bigger concern should be replacing Leon. I have a candidate in mind, someone a little closer to home. Not one of my clients, mind you." He ran the prostitution rings and kept a firm hand on bootleggers. They were hardly ideal candidates to replace the illegal animal trader and slave trafficker.
"Of course," Harlequin agreed. "We can hardly keep calling ourselves Nefastus' Ignominious Nine if we've only eight."