Cual shivered, awakening from soft, hazy dreams into a shaking, pounding consciousness. A pool of frozen blood lay around her and cold steel manacles cut the circulation from her wrists. Ice crystals shattered as she tore herself from the floor.
Blood defined the surrounding room, explosions of brilliant red coated the walls and floor, and crimson stalactites hung from the ceiling. A mangled crate lay beside her, blood spattered diagonally up its length and shards of frosted steel swam in the pool of gore around it.
Three conduits stood just out of reach, watching her. Blood stained the hems of their thickly furred robes and fear clouded their eyes.
Cual's stomach heaved. What happened here?
“Are you lucid?” Mazio asked, his broad face strained with a furious scowl.
Cual shook her head desperate to clear the haze behind her eyes. She vaguely remembered taking something from an elderly man, something of Klain's. Memories twisted within her mind, leaving only distorted shadows and impressions of fire.
“Let me see your eyes,” Mazio snarled.
The manacles around Cual’s wrist lurched toward the man, dragging her with them. Mazio roughly grabbed the collar of her shirt, his touch burning with angel light, and pulled up.
“How dare you,” Cual hissed, willing heat into her. None came.
Mazio stared intently into her eyes, searching. “You seem coherent enough. Let's go.”
Cual yanked free of his burning grasp.
Mazio’s strike sent an explosion of white fog bursting from her lips. She fell to her knees, gasping.
“Did you think we'd ignore this Cual?” he yelled, throwing her to the ground. “Perrn tried to help, you know. Offered her arm while you were heaving. Tried to get you to your room. And then you, you…” His voice grew quiet and his fists shook. “By the time I got there, her entire face was caved in. But you were just getting started. Two more fell before anyone realized what was going on. You stabbed a crate straight through Mue’s ribs and ripped Tro into a dozen pieces without breaking stride. I've never seen anything like it, Cual. Ajaf wants to speak with you.”
Memories returned, sharp, painful and laced with fear. Not of the warehouse but of Caldor pass, molten demons, and the Light Breaker. Cual felt at her pouch, the metal case still resided there. She pushed herself to her feet and faced Mazio.
“You should have killed me while I slept.”
She wouldn’t beg or plead to be spared. Tools such as those belonged only in the minds of cowards. She would face her judgment in silence, and it would bow before her.
Ajaf resided in the penthouse atop the gang's building. Paintings of women wrapped in lace filled the walls, and jade angels taller than Cual stood beneath them. A bed large enough for ten laid under the massive gold trimmed window at the far side of the room. Three women were sprawled across it, sleeping off a drunken stupor.
At the center sat a throne fashioned of wood and dull inlaid gems. Ajaf sat upon it, eyes glazed and brow furrowed.
“Cual,” the fool said as they entered. “I hear your tantrum cost us thousands of vesos.”
He shivered and rubbed his hands over his bare chest against the sudden cold. A show of weakness unbefitting of one who fashioned himself a king.
“A pittance compared to the tragedies of your rule,” Cual said.
Energy swirled at the edge of her reach rushing to fill the void left by Mazio's channeling. They underestimated her, she was still in control.
“Watch your tongue,” Ajaf said. “I might decide to kill you yet.”
“You missed your chance.”
Mazio shoved her roughly from behind. “I'll kill you right now, Cual. You forget your place.”
The fool stood from his gaudy chair and walked toward them. “It’s okay, Mazio, assassins are an uncouth bunch. She can’t exactly be expected to grovel. But she will pay me back.”
He towered over Cual, just within striking distance.
How is he still alive?
“What do you want?” Cual asked, her voice cold and devoid of emotion.
“Mazio told me what happened downstairs. Seven people dead and a hundred pounds of tobacco destroyed. He says it took four of our best conduits to subdue you and they might not have even succeeded if you weren’t so focused on fighting unseen demons.” A conceited smile spread across Ajaf's face. “I always knew you were skilled, Cual, but this… You truly are blessed by the angels.”
Cual winced. The fool had no idea how close he flew to the truth and yet how wrong he was. Their blessing weighed on her like a curse.
“What do you want?” Cual repeated.
“You're wasted as a soldier. I’ve always said that with your skills, you could be so much more. And now you finally owe me.”
“What do you want?”
“Angels damn it, Cual, you know what I want.” Ajaf turned from her and slumped back upon his throne. “The streets are awash with blood. We've lost two dozen men and three shipments to the Caldor Skulls within the last week. I need a new lieutenant to run the smuggling operations and I need the Skulls to become… well, skulls.”
“You can't!” Lightning flashed in Mazio’s eyes and the statues nearest him shook violently. “This bitch killed Perrn. She deserves death.”
Cual focused on the distant energy. A sliver of heat rushed through Mazio’s sphere of influence and flowed through her body.
A jade angel lifted from the floor and careened toward her. She flung herself to the side while mentally shattering her manacles. The statue smashed against the floor. Marble tile and jade rocks exploded outward from the impact.
Cual rolled forward, shrapnel pelting against her, and sent a nearby painting spinning through the air. It ripped to shreds long before nearing Mazio.
Another jade blur scraped across the floor. She rolled to her knees, arms outstretched, and her hands slammed against the statue. Vibrations jolted up her numb arms, the freezing jade stuck to her palms. It pushed her backwards, leaving shattered tile and blood in its wake.
Another statue lifted into the air.
Cual screamed, forcing what little energy she had left into the cold green angel. It shattered. Jade shrapnel rained into Mazio. He staggered backwards. No force cocoon had repelled the attack.
A fatal mistake.
Cual ran toward him, her knees burned and no heat remained within. She leapt and rammed into his chest. He landed hard onto his back and gasped. Cual landed atop his chest, her bleeding knees pinning his arms. Pieces of jade shook upwards, swirling around them in a vortex of sharp green. She grabbed his head and smashed it against the floor. The tile cracked.
Heat erupted from his still form and dark pebbles showered around them.
Cual stood over the broken man. His rising chest the only indication he still lived.
“I liked those statues,” Ajaf said, frowning.
Cual stepped toward the fool playing king, blood pounded in her ears. A succession was in order.
A sharp breeze brushed against her as the room’s heat rushed inexplicably toward the bed. Three women stood beside it eyes focused on Cual. Recognition struck, twisting her gut and spidering through her body with poison-laced talons.
Mag, Diaf, and Mila, three of the gang’s most powerful conduits, faced her. None were yet world shapers but each was on the cusp of claiming that mantle.
Jade pebbles rose from the floor. They collided together, breaking into miniscule chunks that flowed like liquid. The substance shot toward Cual and wrapped around her neck. The pebbled river wrapped around her wrists and reformed together, forming gemstone stocks. Her captors spread equally around the room ensuring no heat could be found.
Cual didn't resist. With what remnants of heat were left within her, a swift death was the best she could hope for.
Ajaf looked down upon her. “Did you really think me a fool enough to invite you here with only Mazio between us?”
Cual glared at the king.
“Why do you hesitate?” Ajaf asked, kneeling so his face was level with hers. “I’ve put up with your charade for long enough. You could be a grand warrior once again.”
“Enough Caldorans have died.”
Ajaf glanced at Mazio’s still form. “You just killed seven, maybe eight, of our own tribe and yet you quail at slaying our enemies.” Ajaf placed his hand beneath Cual’s chin and stiffly yanked her gaze into his. “I’ll make it easy for you. Either obey me and pile corpses before my feet or become one yourself.”
Cual strained against her restraints, testing their resolve. They held fast, their cold edges drawing a line of blood against her neck. Angel light raged within the conduits around her. They awaited only the command to strike her down.
Cual lowered her eyes.
“I'll need a sword.”
Her king smiled.