Gaslamps illuminated the flagstones with dull light, bringing with them the constant hiss of the Nordturm night. Fedor raced across Kathryn Square when a pair of patrolling constables disappeared from view.
He knew their route well, their timings, their patterns, their habit of doling out violence before asking questions. He’d been at the receiving end more times than he could count, but nothing left deeper bruises than a beating from the watch.
His gaze shifted to his crewmates, Yorik and Onwyth, their forms barely visible against the night, their whistles signalling the all-clear.
He gestured for Lev to follow him around the Mercer’s Company building, its walls glowing white against the moonlight, and positioned himself below the drainpipe. He’d worked hundreds of jobs as Lev’s second—sneaks, snatches, scams—all with the hope that one day they would score big.
Lev squeezed his shoulder. “You ready, mate?”
Fedor glanced up at the roof, his stomach muscles clenching. “You sure this thing’s legit?”
“Lita said so.” Lev pulled his hat down. “Who am I to argue?”
“I just don’t get why no one else has bothered before.”
Lev let out a sigh. “Let’s just focus on the payoff.”
“Right.” Fedor began to climb, his teeth gritted as he heaved himself up three storeys.
Cold wind blew in from the Braun Sea, muffling the sounds of the city below. If Yorik or Onwyth whistled the signal to abandon the job, would he hear?
When he reached the roof, he flexed his fingers and took a moment to catch his breath as Lev slowly made his way up the pipe.
Upper Nordturm’s rooftops glistened with the day’s earlier rainfall, reflecting the light from hundreds of dotted gas lamps, and the full moon staring down from the blackness.
“It’s higher up here than you’d think.” Lev stretched and gazed across the city. “You can see for miles.”
Taking care not to slip, Fedor clambered up the slate tiles. When he reached the roof’s apex, his eyes latched onto the weathervane.
It stood just over half his height—a black wyvern cast in wrought iron, its wings thrust back, no doubt to create the illusion of flight and a flat surface to catch the wind.
“You sure this is—” He spotted the weathervane’s ravenglass eyes, deep endless black orbs swallowing the shadows. “Wow.”
Lev rubbed his hands together and elbowed Fedor aside. “Look at the size of those beauties.”
“I still don’t get why people pay so much for these things. It’s not like they do stuff.”
“You could say that about anything, mate.” Lev cracked his knuckles, crouched next to the weathervane, and groped around the eye sockets. “They’re in pretty tight.”
“You got the bag of tools?”
“You’re a bag of tools.”
Fedor sighed. “Have you got them?”
“Yeah.” Lev reached inside his coat and pulled out a crowbar. “Just be ready if this thing pops out.”
Fedor listened out for warning calls from the others and stood behind Lev in an awkward half-crouch, his hands spread, ready to catch.
“This thing isn’t shifting.” Lev pulled off his flat cap, revealing curls of black hair matted with sweat, and dragged a sleeve across his brow.
“Maybe you need to cut round it.” He stiffened at an owl call—a signal from Yorik. “Shit.”
Fedor glanced back over his shoulder as a pair of constables joined the square below. “The watch are about. They shouldn’t be here.” A breath caught in his throat. “Shit.”
“Screw the watch, mate.” Lev waved a hand. “They won’t see us up here.”
“They could. The moon’s pretty bright.” He glanced up at the moon and licked his lips. “I don’t know…maybe we should call a thirty-three?”
“Sack that.” Lev shot him a glare. “Mate, we’re here. No way they can see us.”
“And even if they did, who knows these rooftops better than us? Those waddling bastards don’t stand a chance.”
Lev was right.
Fedor just had to hold his nerve. He’d chosen his hooded tunic and leggings to match the tone of the slates. They were as good as invisible. But, still, the prospect of a beating and a night in the cells didn’t appeal to him. “Can’t you work any faster?”
“You want to try?” He offered Fedor the crowbar and cocked an eyebrow.
“No. It’s just—”
“It’s just nothing, mate. The quicker I can get these things out, the quicker we can do one.” He jammed the crowbar around the left eye socket, straining as he levered it back and forth. “I can do this.”
“It’s no good. You got any cutters?”
“How about a saw?”
“Saw would be good. But, no.”
“Damn it.” Fedor tracked the constables as they strode towards him. “They’re headed this way.”
“Settle down.” Lev gestured to the square. “They’re not even looking around. They’re just walking and talking, mate. Probably not even on duty.”
“Right.” Fedor’s heart raced. His chest burned. Every part of him had to run, his instincts crying out for them to abandon the job.
“You got it?” Fedor leant forward, ready to catch.
“No. But I think I felt something shift.”
“This is taking too long.” He started at the sound of flapping leather and spun to face a grey wyvern, its black eyes staring back at him. “Erm…thirty-three.”
“Mate. We’re not—” Lev fumbled his crowbar and shot to his feet. “Shit.” He charged past Fedor, shimmied towards the bottom of the roof, and slid down the drainpipe.
Fedor went next, a bolt of pain streaking up his feet and legs as he landed.
Lev let out something like a bird call, letting the others know they had abandoned the job, and led the gang back towards the lower city.
The crew reconvened when they crossed the Kusten Road. The priests had told Fedor the ancient road was built during the early days of the Ostreich Empire and cut a straight line along to the eastern coastline, stretching from Gottsisle to the north, to Wiete’s capital Welttor to the south.
During the day, carts and taxis crowded the road, but at night it stood silent, no doubt all in fear of thieves and bandits lying in ambush between Nordturm and Hafendorf.
Fedor followed the slope down to Lower Nordturm’s entrance. Wide enough for two people, its stone maw was smoothed by wind and time. The oldest part of the city stood beneath the looming Great Tower, the city’s interior carved from the cliff overlooking the Braun Sea.
Some say the city was carved from stone by Wiete’s earliest settlers, or shaped by Creation herself. Others believe it was once a great nest for hundreds of wyverns in the days when the creatures were as broad as ships and enslaved humanity.
Fedor was never sure where the truth lay, and if he was being honest, it didn’t matter. He had a roof over his head and a bed he could call his own, which was more than could be said for the countless street kids and beggars that made their homes around the city.
The maze of caves, canals and tunnels had been Fedor’s home since he’d been brought there as a young child to live with the priests of Creation.
Constables eyed them when they stepped inside. The familiar smells of damp stone and sulphur mingled with the ever-changing aromas drifting from docked ships.
Fedor’s skin prickled at the rising temperature as they passed through the hive of tunnels.
The others didn’t speak as they passed through the docks, its cavernous roof enclosing scores of moored ships.
Wind howled in through the sea gate, the giant portcullis structure catching light from alchemical globes hanging from the rocky ceiling.
Fedor followed a path between empty crates and fishing nets and turned into the tunnels.
He traipsed along the canal, trying to ignore the haunted waters, dark and black and stinking.
Nothing lived beneath that surface, though many things died.
He glanced back over his shoulder, checking they hadn’t been followed, and stopped at the den’s entrance.
Lev stepped forward and rapped on the door in his usual rhythm.
Yorik and Onwyth huddled together, their breath like clouds. Yorik’s broad shoulders and thick arms reminded Fedor of an ice bear he had once seen fighting a man in the arena.
An eye appeared through a peephole and the door opened.
Fedor acknowledged the crew’s boss with a smile. Melita, tall and slender with long red hair and bright green eyes, returned the gesture. His gaze drifted to the gold coin hanging from her necklace as she held the door open.
“Any luck?” she asked.
“Had to call a thirty-three,” Lev said.
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow and gestured them inside. Yorik and Onwyth went on ahead.
“We were spotted. Had to be done.”
Her hand briefly clenched. “The watch?”
“Wyvern,” Fedor said.
Melita bolted the door and turned to Fedor. “Same one as before?”
Lev sighed. “You don’t know that, mate. It was dark.”
“It was the same one. I know it was.”
He followed Lev and Melita through the vestibule and along a winding tunnel to the common room.
No more than ten paces across, its walls curved into the ceiling. The glow from an alchemical tube cast crooked shadows along the rock.
A pair of sofas pressed against the opposite wall.
A gaming table stood to the door’s right.
Fedor flopped down onto the nearest sofa and forced a smile at the others. He hated returning from a job empty-handed.
Yorik leant back on the other sofa, his skin pale, his thick red beard a stark contrast to his thinning brown hair. “What happened?” He spoke in a clipped Molotok accent. “Why thirty-three?”
“I saw that wyvern again.”
Yorik folded his arms and leant back, his top lip curling. “Is not good.”
Fedor shrugged. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You keep seeing wyvern. How do you know it is same?”
“I just do.”
Onwyth sniffed and turned from her seat at the gaming table. She bore the dark tones of the Southern Isles and wore her ash-dyed saltlocks loose down her back. She held Fedor’s gaze. “How many times has that been now?”
Fedor glanced down at his hands and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“What does it want? It’s like every time we do a job, you keep seeing that…that thing.”
“It’s not every job.” His voice came out higher than he would have liked. “It’s just been a few lately.”
“It’s too many.” Onwyth scrunched her nose. “Don’t you just hate wyverns?”
“I don’t know why it keeps following us.” Fedor blinked up at the ceiling and let out a sigh. “But what can we do? It just appears from nowhere.”
“You should turn the tables.” Onwyth leant forward, her right hand closing into a fist. “You should go after it. Let the hunter become the hunted. I bet you could get a pistol or a harpoon, and then next time you see it, you could shoot it, and then you won’t have any excuse to call thirty-threes all the time. You’d probably even get a few coin for a wyvern skin.”
Fedor glared at her. “I’m a thief, not a killer.”
“Wyverns aren’t people.” She waved a hand. “You’d kill a rat, wouldn’t you?”
“I would.” She grinned. “I love killing rats. I see them all the time by the canal.” She gestured towards the den’s entrance. “If you grab one of the big ones by the tail, you can smash it against a wall. It makes a great noise. Bit like a squashy kind of thud.”
“I think rats are a bit different to wyverns.”
“They’re basically just flying rats.”
“With scales,” Fedor said.
“More like flying bats, then.”
“Bats can already fly.”
A deep crease set along Onwyth’s brow. “All I know is that they’re horrible slimy creatures that fly around costing us coin.”
“I don’t think they’re slimy.”
“They’re scaled. Scales are slimy.”
Fedor shook his head. “I don’t think they are.”
“Who cares? You’re missing my point. All I’m saying is that doing a wyvern in is no different to playing splat-the-rat.”
Fedor’s eyes widened. “You’ve got a name for it?”
Onwyth sniffed. “Tell me how it’s any different?”
“They’re sentient creatures.” Fedor shrugged and met Lev’s gaze, hoping he’d speak up. “They, erm…they think and feel.”
“How would you know?”
“They talk for one thing.”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “Parrots talk.”
She gave him a confused look. “Huh?”
“They don’t really talk, do they?”
“I heard a parrot the other day at the docks. It kept swearing and begging for crackers.” She jabbed a forefinger down on the table. “That’s talking.”
“It’s not though, is it?” Fedor tried not to sigh. “Parrots just copy whatever they’ve been taught. Wyverns are just like people.”
Onwyth snorted out a laugh. “Yeah, slimy reptile people, maybe. How many people have you seen with wings?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“They’re no better than rats. They’re getting in the way of our jobs. I say you get yourself a sack and a club and take that thing out once and for all.”
Fedor sighed. “I repeat, I’m not a killer.”
“Perhaps you trap it in net,” Yorik said. “Not kill it, but give it beating.”
“Or smash its wings.” Onwyth jumped to her feet. “Or snap its legs.”
Fedor shook his head. “I’m not going to do that.”
Lev grinned and drummed a rhythm on the sofa’s arm. “You know he’d only find something else to blame if he did.”
“Yeah.” Onwyth pointed at him. “Oh, no. There’s a rat. Thirty-three. Thirty-three. I don’t like how that parrot’s looking at me. Thirty-three.”
Fedor huffed and folded his arms. “That’s not fair.”
“Whatever.” Lev removed his cap and pursed his lips. “You’ve got to take risks in this line of work, mate. It’s almost like I didn’t teach you shit.”
“There’s risks and then there’s risks. I’m not taking unnecessary ones. They’re unnecessary for a reason.”
“Risk nothing and you risk everything, mate.”
Fedor glared at him. “You were down that drainpipe before I’d even had chance to move.”
“Yeah.” Lev raised a finger. “But only because you called a thirty-three.”
Yorik raked a hand down his beard. “And it was necessary call, huh?”
Melita cleared her throat from the doorway and raised her chin. “If he called a thirty-three, he called a thirty-three.” She narrowed her eyes at Yorik. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, boss. I just—”
“That’s the beginning and end of the discussion.” She stepped into the common room and sat on the sofa to Fedor’s left. “If we don’t keep that as a sacred part of our code, then we may as well walk away.”
“I agree.” Yorik’s head rocked from side to side. “But there are other things to consider—”
“No. There aren’t.” She held Yorik’s gaze. “We need to trust each other’s judgement.”
Yorik’s neck stiffened. “Fedor should toughen up. He calls most thirty-threes.”
Fedor’s mouth dropped open. “That’s only because I’m usually Lev’s second.”
“That’s enough.” Melita glared at Yorik and Fedor before relaxing into an easy smile and turning to Lev. “What did we learn from the job?”
“There’s two ravenglass orbs up there, each as big as a fist.”
“So, they’re real?”
“What went wrong?”
“Apart from the wyvern?”
She gave a slight nod.
“I don’t know.” Lev shrugged one shoulder. “That was it, really. Wyvern scuppered our game…again.”
“Tools,” Fedor said. “We need something better to cut the eyes out.”
“What did you use?”
“Crowbar,” Lev said
“To prise wrought iron?”
His gaze dropped. “Yeah.”
“And you thought that would work?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe.”
“On wrought iron?”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. We need something better.”
Melita rose to her feet. “Good idea. I suggest you get another plan together—a better one—and try again tomorrow.”
Lev frowned. “Tomorrow?”
“You got something better on?”
“We need the coin.”
Lev dipped his head. “Right, boss.”
“Good.” She strode from the common room.
Onwyth and Yorik followed, closing the door behind them.
Lev let out a long sigh.
“What’s up?” Fedor asked.
“I’m just sick of these shitty jobs.”
“Two ravenglass orbs. I’d say that’s at least, what, five hundred krones?”
“What’s that halved and split between five? We need something bigger, mate. Much bigger.” He banged his head back against the sofa. “How long we been doing this?”
Fedor shrugged. “Dunno. Four years, maybe.”
“And where we at?” His fists curled tight.
“We’ve got a lot more than some out there.”
“All I’ve got to my name is what’s in my purse. How are we supposed to get out of this shit-hole if we keep doing small-time jobs?” He ran a hand back through his hair. “Every time one of us calls a thirty-three, it’s like everything gets shoved back another day. I’m just sick of it, mate.”
“So, what? We get caught by the watch? I don’t know about you, but I’m not really interested in the mines or the gibbet.”
“That’s not what I mean. I just think…I just think we deserve better.”
“It’s alright here. At least we’ve got a roof over our heads. We never go hungry.”
“That’s just surviving, mate. I don’t know about you, but I want more.”