Dark Moon Rising
I awoke with a start to the sharp pain across my back and the sound of leather slapping flesh.
“Wake up my sweet” he said with a mocking tone in thick Urgolian. “It’s time for more questions.”
The pungent smell of fresh leather and honing oil cut over the rancid stench of human shit, vomit, fresh sweat, blood and rancid meat as he leaned over my face.
“Did you have a nice little nap?”
“Fuck you…” I responded hoarsely in Five-cant, spittle dribbling over my chin and freezing in place.
It was cold in this tiny, dark room. Freezing, actually. Ice had formed in my wet hair during the time I had been placed in the meat locker. I was strung-up in a chair, hunched over with my hands tied against my feet, head doubled over so I faced the floor. The wet leather binds had been cutting into my wrists and ankles as I struggled against the chair. I could see pools of frozen blood that had formed around the front feet of the chair. Only then do I realize that I am naked.
I think it had been days, but I was not entirely sure how many had passed. My body ached all over. I had been beaten, healed, stabbed, healed, bones broken and healed again, countless times. I had lost all track of time.
“I keep asking you these questions, and all you give me are lies. Why would you murder innocent children?” he questions in a mocking tone.
“I did not kill those…” I begin to say slowly, and an electrical pain arcs up my back. They are using magic again, I think.
“More lies…” he responds with a dismissive sigh.
“It pains me so very much…” another electrical arc crawls up my spine and my right arm goes numb “…to see you suffer like this.”
“Where are your murder accomplices? Where are Gyri, Kerchenko and Samiel?” he asks sharply back in Urgolian.
“Dead!” I respond back as a scream in Five-cant.
“So you admit to murdering your accomplices as well?” he retorts in a laughing tone.
“NO!” I scream with tears in my eyes. And another arch of pain screams across my back.
“LIE!” He yells back in my left ear, matching the pitch and volume of my last scream.
“Your ‘Wolfe Hunters’ killed them all!” I say dryly and racked with pain, the tears a near constant stream now.
He slowly bends down next to my face, the leather of his long coat creaking slightly in the cold air as he moves. I can hear him rubbing his leather-clad hands together as if the cold is finally starting to creep into his bones.
“Why would Elite Urgolian scouts kill children? Hmm?” he whispers softly into my ear.
It’s so cold in this room and I am shivering uncontrollably. I just want to die. Let it end. Please, just let it end…
“Answer me this riddle… Why would they burn a woodsman’s shack to the ground, in the dead of winter, if it only had unarmed women and children and a fellow loyal compatriot in it? What would they have to gain?”
He stands again and begins to slowly pace behind me.
“Were they cold and needed firewood? That is a war crime if anyone had found out. No, worse – it’s… Murder. Our Elite soldiers are responsible and respectable…”
“They were MONSTERS!” I scream, cutting him off in mid sentence.
Another shock arcs from my left shoulder to my left hand, casting a blue light on the walls and floor. I scream again, much louder than before.
“Would you please stop with these lies!” he yells back.
“They hunted us like animals! For SPORT!”
I scream again in agony as I am shocked at the base of my spine.
“More lies!” he screams back, and I vomit on his boot.
Then I feel a dull pain on the back of my head and everything goes dark again.
Two weeks earlier…
It was a sunny morning when Natalia stepped out of the Troubleshooters’ office front door. It was also unusually early for her to be up, let alone willing to set foot outside. The light rain during the later part of the night had left a few unseasonable puddles here and there along the street. And she promptly stepped in one as soon as she closed the door behind her.
Her hair had freshly been cropped into a bob the day before, jet black as ever. Her eyes, cold and piercing, surveyed the street for suspicious individuals. She carried a pistol and her father’s trusty hunting knife hung loose off her hip. Somehow she had kept that knife all these years, that reminder the long lost family she had loved as a child.
Most local merchants were just arriving at their shops at a little after 6:30 in the morning. Some had been hard at work all night, like the bakers down the way. The smell of fresh bread and sweets wafted by from not too far down the street. The spiced scents caught Natalia’s interest and steered her toward the west. The first order of this or any day was to satiate her stomach.
A Fruit merchant on her left had just opened a window to set out his bounty. Melons and oranges seemed to be the selection for today. A street urchin, a young girl, plucks an orange from the stall just as he turns his back. Natalia catches a glimpse of the poor thing’s face just before the child turns and disappears down an alleyway.
“That is unusual around here,” Natalia thinks to herself. This part of town does not typically have homeless orphans running about.
Without another though on the subject, Natalia continues on to her destination – somewhere to get coffee and a fresh baked spice cake.
The spice cakes have a slightly more Cinnamon hint today, which sits well with her coffee. The coffee is a little stronger as well this early in the morning. An extra half spoon of sugar and a splash of cream, instead of the usual milk, helps tame the strong brew.
Natalia had been daydreaming about some new pistols a shop down the street had just put out for display the other day, when she noticed the girl again.
“There she is again,” Natalia thinks to herself as she watches a small, sticky hand covertly glide along the edge of the bakery counter. The shopkeeper has noticed, too, and grabs hold before any goods can be pilfered.
“Gotcha!” yells the woman behind the counter.
“Let me go!” the girl cries out.
“And what do you think YOU are doing!?”
“Nothing, honest!” the girl blurts out hastily.
Then her free hand carefully snatches a pastry and stuffs it into an empty pocket, opposite the counter lady. She looks around and catches Natalia looking straight at her with a slight smirk. The girl blushes, she knows she’s been caught.
Just then, just at that moment, Natalia’s gaze freezes and her expression flashes with recognition that only the girl will notice and remember. The girl, dark haired and blue eyed, looks nearly exactly how Natalia remembers her own reflection as a very young child.
The image that flashed in her memory was that of her own dirty three-year-old face, reflected in a fountain pool with her father standing over her shoulder. It was a singular moment that no-one could ever forget, no mater how old you got. One of those moments that could always come back to the surface if just the right reminder triggered it. The moment you realize someone you loved with all your heart would never, ever come back to you. It was the moment she learned from her Father that Mama had passed on and would not, could not come home again.
The moment flashed and a tear swelled at the corner of Natalia’s eye, just as she turned away from the girl to wipe it away. Just then, the counter lady let go and the girl ran off to her hideaway down the alleyway.
“Best be gone now,” says the woman after the girl. “And don’t let me catch you ‘round here again, lest I send the guard after yah!”
Distracted, Natalia gathers her few things for this day’s expedition through the city. She then bumps the table with her hip, the coffee cup clattering and breaking on the floor.
“Oh, let me get that,” the counter lady says.
“I’m sorry,” Natalia responds in a slightly hurt tone, her Urgolian accent showing through. “Let me pay…”
“No need for that, Miss,” the woman responds as Natalia places a few coins on the table in respect.
“I mean, let me pay for the pastry.” Natalia responds.
“You’ve already paid in full, Miss.”
“No, for the pastry the girl took,” Natalia says while handing the woman a few coins.
“Oh! That little rat,” the woman responds with a growl, looking in the direction the girl went through the side of the open café.
Natalia continues to gather her things as the woman cleans up the spilled coffee and broken cup fragments with her free hand.
“You aren’t from around here, are you?” asks the woman.
“Not many are.” Natalia responds dryly.
“I’ve had some customers, recently, who sound a lot like you.”
Natalia stops for a second and her blood runs cold.
“Military types. Tall lanky men in funny black hats and long leather coats.”
The woman looks in her hand and notices a gold coin and exclaims, “Goodness!”
“Miss, I can’t…”
And Natalia is already gone.
The alleyway was darker than most in this district due to how much the buildings hung over it. It was an old construction trick of building the 2nd and 3rd floors of a building larger than the actual footprint of the ground floor. The construction methods were usually shoddy, and people would sometimes fall through the floor of one of those over-hangs.
Along this particular ally, there was evidence of just that. Trash, crates, boxes and all manner of semi-ridged objects had been piled up the side of a building, just up to a hole in the floor of an over-hang from a neighboring building. The building in question looked like it had recently been damaged in a fire, and was currently mostly boarded-up. It was prime pickings for any would-by squatter who just needed a place to hide for a few weeks until the owner could fix the structure up enough to be rented again.
Since this was the alley Natalia had tracked the girl to, this was the most likely place to find the child.
“Girl, show yourself.”
Still no answer.
“If you don’t show yourself, I’ll report you to the local district guard.” Natalia said. It was an empty threat, but she knew it would get some attention.
“How did you find me?” a young, mousy voice bleated from above.
“You ask as if it was difficult of a task,” Natalia responded with a slight amount of humor in her voice.
Natalia took a few steps up the trash slope, and found it more solid than it had first appeared.
“Don’t come any closer,” the girl blurted, “I have a gun!”
A small, rusty cylinder appeared just over the edge of the hole.
“Do you even know how to use that old thing?”
“Do you have any bullets?”
“No,” the girl said sadly after a long pause.
“I’m coming up,” Natalia said defiantly.
The room looked like it had been a small boy’s bedroom before the fire. It was mostly intact, with a bed, a toy box full of toys, and a closet full of cloths that were much too small for the girl. It was mostly clean, and the bed looked like it had been freshly made. No wonder the girl chose to stay here.
“Not a bad little place to hide,” Natalia commented with wonder as she surveyed the room.
The roof over a wardrobe in the north-east street side corner had caved in partially, exposing the room to the elements. The floor was charred around a heavy metal pot that looked like a fire had blazed in the night before to keep the room warm.
The girl was backing away now, scooting on her back-side as she went. She settled under a window near the north-west street side corner corner of the room, just a quick jump away from the hole in the floor.
“I saw you pay for my sweets,” the girl responded back with a little mistrust in her voice. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” Natalia says as she sits cross-legged on the floor.
“I don’t believe you. Everyone wants something,” the girl said with even more distrust.
“Alright, I lied. I want to know your name,” Natalia said with a smirk.
“Why, who are you?”
“My name is Natalia Kalishnikov,” she said with a flourish and extra emphasis on her accent.
“Alice. Now what do you really want?”
“Where is your mother?”
The girl reaches to her left and snatches a ratty stuffed bear. Her head tilts down slightly to nuzzle it against her chin, while looking more and more coldly at Natalia.
“OK, where is your father?
“They are both dead, why do you care?” she retorts with a little temper and a pout.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Natalia responds with a little surprise in her voice. Why did she admit this to the poor wretched girl.
“How old are you?” Natalia asks.
The girl looks a bit puzzled for a moment, but otherwise does not respond. She looked like she might be eleven or twelve years of age. Maybe if she had a good diet and a regular bathing, she might look a bit older, but not much more.
“I really don’t know why I am doing this… If you need any help, you find me.” Natalia places a small stack of coins on the floor between them, stacked neatly on a calling card with the address for the Troubleshooters office.
Later in the evening, Natalia had decided to visit one of the local bars she liked to frequent. Clean, good food, very good drink – ‘The Nibbler’ was run by a very respectable husband and wife. He poured the drink while she served the food. They knew Natalia by name, but otherwise really didn’t know here. She really didn’t care what their names were. It was a perfect merchant/customer relationship.
It was situated just a block away from the docks and was usually full of newcomers trying to avoid a rough dive. Mostly she liked to watch people cycle through and the occasional troublemaker get ejected from the premises.
She had been there for nearly three hours, had dinner and had nearly finished her third beer when she decided it was time to go. Just as she was looking to pay the tab, the bell on the door rang. Three men in leather overcoats and peaked caps came through and immediately began to survey the room.
“Kommissars…” Natalia whispered under her breath, and immediately tried to turn away to hide her face.
Carefully, she collected the few things with her and placed a short stack of coins on the table.
She started to stand and noticed one of the men approaching her from the corner of her eye.
“Is this table taken?” he asked in an Urgolian accent so thick that a knife could slice it like a baked ham.
“Natalia, leaving already?” The barman’s wife asks loudly over the din of the bar.
He grabs Natalia’s wrist, startling her.
“Please. Stay with us a while,” Natalia hears in thick Urgolian.
She looks up, and sees a cruel smile she had not seen in nearly seven years.
“Hey, wake up.”
It was a tiny whisper of a voice, like that of a young girl.
“Wake up, you need to hurry,” the voice says again. “They’ll be back soon.”
Natalia opens her eyes slowly. The light hurts, it is so bright. She sees Alice looking down on her.
“Quick, I found your cloths. Put them on before they come back.”
The girl runs over to a barred window high up on the wall and looks out. It is frosted over just enough so you can’t see much beyond it, most certainly not much inside the room. Occasionally, the silhouette of walking feet pass by.
Just as she starts to get up, the pain hits her like a fist. Her face feels, chest, left shoulder and right leg all feel swollen. Her wrists and ankles are cut and bruised. She has no choice but to let out a gasp.
“Ssshhhh…” she is scolded by the girl.
“Where am I?” Natalia asks with a quiet groan.
“Never mind that, let’s go.”
Slowly, deliberately, Natalia dresses.
The room is small, with a cramped ceiling like a root cellar. It is dark, illuminated only by the single small window. A small metal cot against the wall was where Natalia had been unconscious. Bloody leather straps dangled from the four posts. A metal door looms in the wall opposite the window. That must have been where they interrogated her.
Alice stands next to another wooden door is just to the right, near the window. She motions for Natalia to follow as she opens it with a slow squeak.
They enter a long narrow hallway and move as quickly as Natalia is able. Next they enter what appears to be some kind of office space or store front. Sitting on a desk is her pistol and her father’s knife.
“Waite” Natalia says quietly, sidesteps with a limp and grabs them.
The front door is locked when they get to it, but the girl seems to be ignoring it.
“This way.” She moves over to a side window and opens it.
“I followed when they took you. That was two weeks ago.”
They were walking slowly down the middle of the street in a very public, open space. Nobody would dare try to nab anyone here, with all the guard on watch.
“Why did you help me?”
“The counter lady at the bakery made me dinner. She said it was because of the kindness you showed in my favor. I thought I owed you.”
“You waited two weeks outside that place to help me just because I was nice to you?”
“You remind me of someone,” the girl said very mater-of-fact like.
“As do you.”
“What now?” the girl asks.
“I need to get back to my friends. They will be wondering where I went, and they can help us.”
“You are coming, too.”