Claude ascended the stairs slowly and perked his ears to anything he heard. It was completely quiet. Nevermind a pin hitting the ground, even a feather would have been heard. His footsteps thundered through the building and its echoes came back in the groaning wood.
Where were they? Surely he should have at least been able to hear their breathing. But no, the second floor was completely deserted. The corridor in front of him was empty, only doors broke the long stretch of wood, some open, some closed. A luxurious carpet covered the floor, almost sensual beneath his feet, even through his shoes.
The first room's door was closed. Claude opened it. It barely moved at first, but as he increased the pressure, it eventually swung open. He was surprised at how heavy it was, but he supposed it was a thick door made for better sound absorption. It would not do to have someone else's grunts interfere with your own pleasure, after all. Not in as grand a place as this had turned out to be. The room, large as it was, was empty. Another door broke the monotone of one of the side walls; the door was open, and he could see a smaller room beyond. The smaller room had a bed, messed with recent activity, though not recent enough for Claude's liking. Though it was recent enough for him to smell the stench of it even from the big room's doorway.
He saw in the reflection of a small mirror in the smaller room a washroom, and inside it a toilet. It, too, was empty. He caught a glimpse of one end of what was clearly a private gambling table, chips and cards strewn mid-game as the players abandoned the game.
The edge of the mirror revealed to him also the intersection of two couches, covered in grey blotches the origin of which was not hard to guess. A table in front held up a couple of half-empty grape and blueberry wine-filled glasses. Six in all. One had been tipped over and its former contents stained the table.
He saw beside the mirror, behind the table, a long table half-hidden beneath silver trays of food, about three-quarters eaten. Mostly meat and fine, honeyed bread. Rare fruits and about a dozen different types of confectionary also made a fair showing.
Claude turned back to the corridor and continued on to the second door. This one was open, and the rooms beyond him were of much the same layout, though it was pristine, clearly as yet untouched since its last cleaning.
Where had the lot gone? He was shocked at how terrified people could make themselves in places where it should be impossible. All the other rooms were the same as well, used or unused, they were now all abandoned, only the furniture left to tell the tale of what had happened within.
His pondering steps brought him back the stairs about five minutes after he'd ascended them. The corridor was a literal dead end, besides the rooms, none of which had any way out besides the doors leading into the corridor, and the balconies, all of which also came back to the corridor, which itself lead into a solid wall on its far end, and to the stairs on this end, there was no way to leave it.
He turned and headed to the balcony again. There had to be some secret passage somewhere. They hadn't just vanished into thin air.
"On the second floor!"
"Up there! Catch him!"
Voices started shouting below.
Claude's eyes darted to the ground floor and saw a mass of gangster pouring into the den through the entrance. These did not have the neat uniform of the bouncers, but they were armed to the teeth nonetheless. Two even had rifles. He counted 60 at a glance, and more were coming in as he did so.
They were taking advantage of their numbers to flood him with bodies, literal ones if need be. The men themselves, however, were less inclined to being the bodies when they saw the state of the den, and the mass lost all momentum. A few of the ones in the front dropped their weapons and collapsed to their knees vomiting.
Claude dashed back to the corridor. He was just a target up there on the balcony. At least in the corridor he could also lessen the impact of their numbers. He wanted to avoid that as well if he could, however. His eyes darted up and down the corridor, stopping for half a moment at each door. Which had the secret passage?!
His mind raced and he decided the most likely candidate was the storeroom in the middle of the corridor between all the other rooms. It was slightly smaller than the other rooms, now he thought about it; one wall was closer to the door than the other. He would not have noticed it had he not been specifically looking for something like that. The various racks and ledges in front of the wall obscured the abnormality well.
He reached the room and started slamming against all the racks, looking for something abnormally loose. He passed through a small door at one end of the room into a smaller side room with two servant's beds. The first one sounded fine, but the one against the wall shifted hollowly when he kicked it. He yanked it away easily, and saw the split in the wall planks. He kicked it as hard as he could, and a neat square of the wall gave way to reveal a dark, musty passage hidden between the walls. It descended down a small, creaky set of stairs to one side.
'Luminous Pearl' escaped Claude's mouth and an orb of light danced about him for a moment before darting down the stairs. He saw another door at the foot of the flight and headed down quickly.
The door led to small room, on the other side of which was another door. Beyond that was a long tunnel that vanished into the darkness under the earth. The floor of the tunnel was damp enough that the mud betrayed the escapees who'd run down it.
Claude gathered his thoughts and breath for a moment, cast another Projectile Barrier, then started down the corridor, leaving a trail of radiant orbs behind him like lamp posts along a dark road. The tunnel continued on for several hundred metres before he came to another flight of stairs. At their head he found himself inside an old hut just outside of town. He also found three young maids cowering in a corner, the whites of frightened eyes accusing him of all the wrongs in the world.
"Where're the rest?" he asked, his voice hoarse again.
The girls shuddered and tightened their grasp on one another, their fingers white with tension and their arms red from the cold. The eldest of them pointed at the hut's door.
"They've... they've scattered," the frightened words shivered out of her chattering mouth.
Claude nodded, then strode out of the hut. The hut was right on the edge of the slums, the outermost circle of its buildings, and the alley into which Claude now stepped seemed to terminate just a couple houses further along in one direction, while he recognised the other way as leading back into town in the general direction of Hurian's shop.
He stared down the alley to where it terminated, and saw across the plain outside it the other wing of the slums, where he could see a commotion in a rather large building which he recognised as the den from which he'd just escaped. That entire half of the slums had lit up like a hornet's nest, at least two hundred torches were darting up and down any number of alleys, all heading in the general direction of the den. It wouldn't be long before they started pouring out of this end of the tunnel either. He didn't have the time to search for Arbeit, even though he couldn't be far.
He supposed the bastard's luck still hadn't run out, though he bet it had to one day soon. He sighed unhappily and disappeared down the alley.
The whole night infuriated him. Every plan of his had gone wrong. He'd ended up fighting all of Blacksnake and he didn't even have a beaten bastard to show for it.
The night grew colder as he made his way out of the alley into the plain, and watched as the snow fell on his tracks, already starting to hide those further away from him. Good, he didn't want any unwelcome stalkers following him.
The snowfall thickened as he made his way back down the alleyway to Hurian's shop. He could barely see the building on the other side of the small square in which stood the tree in front of Hurian's shop by the time he arrived. His eyes darted down each of the four alleyways that fed into the small clearing in the buildings, and he breathed when he saw no one. He checked each of the four alleys again to find his bearings, then headed for the docks. It was a detour from where he wanted to go, but it was an ill-trodden section of the slums and his best bet to stay undetected.
The skies had darkened by now, and the snow fell black from the sky until the light from an open window bleached them white. His feet crisped those flakes already on the ground with a satisfying crunch which distracted Claude somewhat from his brooding. The alley narrowed as it neared its end on the docks. He rounded a corner and suddenly heard the clatter of wheels and hooves on pavement, the neigh of an unhappy horse, and the chatter of a dissatisfied carriageman urging his steed to keep his lane. He stepped to the side and let them pass, careful to stay as far in the shadows as the road allowed, then continued on once the feisty dialogue had faded back into the grey-black night.
A minute later he came across a group of four trudging through the snow. They spared him only passing suspicious glances as they passed.
"Did you guys just smell blood?" the woman in the group asked.
"You're drunk! It's the Bloody Mary you're smelling." one of the men said.
"Oh, screw you!" the woman barked, "That 'bloody' is the colour, not the smell!"
"Well, I don't smell anything. Come on! We're almost home, don't go off on one of your wild goose chases again! It's too cold for that tonight!"
Claude grimaced. He hadn't seen their faces, but he recognised their voices. The woman was Kesline, and the man her boyfriend, Jerad. They were probably going home from the tent the Mermaid ran at the moon shrine during new year's.
The memory of the tea he'd had with Kefnie the year before suddenly made its worming way into his mind. Actually, that wasn't right. It wasn't actually ran by Mermaid, at least it hadn't been the year before. Kesline had rented the spot in the tavern's name, but she'd not actually had permission from the owner. She'd wanted to run a pop-up tavern there for some extra money, but her name didn't have the clout to ensure a reservation of the spot, so she'd used the tavern's name. The money she'd made that night alone, however, was enough to pay for Kefnie's tuition for the next year.
Aleksim had forgiven her for the misuse of his tavern's name on condition that she ran the pop-up every new year's from then on, officially as a Mermaid pop-up. She wouldn't get all the money this time, but he was generous enough to offer her a decent cut.
Claude sniffed himself, and nearly vomited. Kesline was right, he wreaked of blood. The acrid smell of iron wafted off him like steam off warm water, and about as thick, too. He had to be more careful. If someone else had a similar nose, and decided to investigate where the stench had come from, he might yet get into big trouble. He doubted a dozen washes would get rid of the stench, either, so everything he was wearing was a complete write-off. Best to burn them when he got back home.
He rounded another corner, and a small figure ran into him so hard they both tumbled into the snow.
"Kyaa!" a familiar bell-like voice tolled in his ears.
Kesline's group stopped and darted back.
"You alright, Kefnie? What happened?"
"I bumped into someone... Ouch."
Claude struggled under Kefnie, half-buried in the snow. She'd sat up, but now straddle him across his stomach as she scratched her head, then her knees, in a slight daze.
"Sorry, Mister. You okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine. Could you please get off me?" Claude asked.
"Ah, sorry--" Kefnie darted to her feet, her face slightly flushed. Then her nose twitched. "--What's that smell?"
"Nothing. I was helping in a butchery. I usually stink of blood and meat for a couple of days afterwards."
Did the whole damn family have hound's blood?
"You sound familiar… Do I know you?"
Kefnie asked, her forehead a question mark. Then her eyes lit up and turned into saucers. SHIT! He'd forgotten to speak in his disguise voice! Thank the gods he was still wearing his mask.
"It's not me..."
What the hell? Now it was obvious it was him! What the hell was wrong with his mouth?! He pushed Kefnie aside and darted into the darkness.