“Let’s get moving,” I said, mainly to call Ronnie’s attention away from her surroundings. In all the years I’ve known her, I’d never seen her as shaken up as she was then. This was someone who once ran through four miles of a forest full of cannibals with an injured porter on her shoulder. Another time, she’d been trapped alone in a cave for a month after a shell from a nearby battle caused a cave in, surviving off ground water and grubs before the rest of her expedition dug her out.
“Ronnie,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
“Right,” she said. “Yes. If Adella is here, she won’t spend another second here due to my own inaction. Let’s find her.”
We exited the room and entered a long corridor that ran the length of the building. The paint peeled from the walls in long strips, and discarded medical debris and other detritus littered the floors. The dense odor of mildew filled the space, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. We pushed forward.
I kept one ear open as we walked, but the only sound to be heard was dead silence and our tiny footsteps crunching against a layer of dirt that covered the floor. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for other signs of passage. Surely any occupants would have left a trail.
It wasn’t footsteps I found, but an adjacent corridor that had been swept clean, coupled with wall sconces that emitted a small gaslight. Not enough light to draw attention from outside, but just enough to see. We walked the length of the corridor. A second hallway similar to the one we’d started in ran the length of the building’s far side. It showed no signs of passage.
“Hmm,” I said, turning back. “I wonder, is this the hallway we’re looking for? Or is it lit precisely to draw our attention?”
I made the choice to walk back down the lit hallway. There were spaces where doors might have been, but they were bricked over. On a hunch I reached up and pulled one of the sconces as we passed it. Nothing happened, so I tried to turn it. Nothing. I repeated the process with the other sconces, hoping one of them might open a secret passage or some such. Nothing happened. I was stumped.
“Pixie, look.” Ronnie pointed at the ground ten feet in front of us. There was a threadbare rug, completely unremarkable, laying askew on the floor. I walked over to it and pulled it back. There was nothing underneath.
“Well, I’m out of ideas,” Ronnie said.
“There has to be something. A lever, or a trapdoor. Something.”
“Kill your light.”
I stuffed the glow-tube in a pocket while Ronnie went down the hall, cutting off the gaslights. Once they were all off, we were in complete darkness. After a minute of trying to fight off my imagination, my eyes adjusted. There, in the middle of the hall, from underneath one of the bricked over doors, was a thin strip of light.
“Do you think that’s it?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t hurt to check,” Ronnie said. I pulled the glow tube out of my pocket. Ronnie stood in front of the door, smiling warily. It was a short lived smile as her eyes shifted to something behind me.
“Pixie, look out!” she shouted, but I was already throwing myself forward. I felt a rush of air over the top of my head as I rolled forward and turned, my hand reaching for my dagger. There stood the mad woman. She still had her rifle, but was using it as a club.
“Out of bullets?” I asked.
“I don’t need bullets. You sure as hell didn’t.”
“So, you can talk. Mind telling me what this is about?”
My not knowing pissed her off to no end. Normally, someone her size barreling at me like a charging elephant would be cause for alarm, and it certainly was, but rage makes people stupid, and stupid people are predictable. She brought the rifle butt up and down in a wide arc. I sidestepped the blow, dropped low, and put all of my weight behind throwing myself into her broadside. If she’d been standing ready, I’ve no doubt I would have just bounced off of her, but she was off balance and off guard.
The mad woman fell to the right, striking the bricked over door. The bricks didn’t fall away, but I did hear them shift. I waited for her to begin to stand.
“Ronnie, with me!” I said, and pushed forward again. Together, Ronnie and I crashed into the woman and pushed her back through the loosened bricks into a stairwell beyond. The three of us tumbled down the steps, the edge of every one a threat to life and limb. We made it to the bottom in a nice little pile, with me landing on top of the mad woman and Ronnie landing on top of me.
The landing knocked the breath out of me, but Ronnie seemed alright, if a little dazed. She stood first and helped me up. As I stood catching my breath, the mad woman started to stir. I was trying to decide what we should do with her when Ronnie tapped me on the shoulder.
“What is it now—oh.”
Five cartographers stood behind us, guns raised.
“Ah, hell,” I said, raising my hands. I was too damned tired after that fall. And besides, if they took us alive, maybe they’d just take us to wherever Adella and the others were being held.
The voice didn’t come from the five men in front of us, but from a sixth man farther down the hall.
He stepped out from around a corner, holding his hands behind his back, his hair slicked back and a know-it-all smirk on his face. I disliked him immediately.
“Lower your weapons,” he told his people, and they did. “Let Miss Sinclaire and her companion through. As for the Circle assassin, restrain her and bring her with us.”
Circle assassin? I turned to look at the mad woman, still laying on the ground but otherwise fully recovered. She was watching me with a keen eye. And I remembered who she was.
Arufina Villanova, a member of the Scarlet Circle. I’d had a run in with them a few years before. She’d led a group of her compatriots in an attack on an arms dealer I’d been sent to negotiate with. The whole affair had led to the discovery of a Pre-Rift vault, just like the one at Lelina. And just like Lelina, the vault had contained automatons like the Mistwalker described by Veronica.
Over the course of events, I was directly responsible for the death of one of Villanova’s team, a young woman named Osyn, if I correctly recall. I supposed that’s why Villanova had been hunting me, to exact some sort of vengeance.
The Cartographers picked her up off the ground and placed her in shackles, then wrapped her upper body with a heavy rope.
“Isn’t that a bit excessive?” Ronnie asked.
“No,” said the man. “Wouldn’t you agree, Agent Sinclaire?”
Five minutes ago I would have agreed vehemently, but now that I knew the woman’s identity and an idea of why she wanted me dead, I found it hard to feel much animosity toward her. Don’t get me wrong…I didn’t appreciate her trying to kill me, but I could sympathize with her position. I’m not a monster.
“Come this way, then,” the man said. “I have someone who’s been waiting to see you for a very long time.”