Gasping for breath, the skinny boy ran through the drenched streets, bare feet splashing through filthy puddles as he pulled an even thinner girl along behind him. A dozen paces back, shouts and the stamp of heavy boots echoed off ramshackle, decrepit buildings as the guards of the Order gave chase.
“Just a few more paces…” he panted as they rounded a corner, then just as quickly skidded to a stop. “What…no!”
What should have been a narrow, trash-choked alley was gone, blocked by a slapdash wall of rough wooden planks and scrap metal. The route had been here a few days ago—he was sure of it—but the Gelspar slum was like a living thing, always growing, changing, expanding…only this time, it had cut off their escape.
They both whirled around as three scale-suited guards of the Military Order appeared in the lane behind them. Retreating until his back was against the new wall, the boy glanced around, hoping to find an overhang to climb or a boarded-up window to bust through. But the cobbled together buildings offered no hope of escape.
He exchanged a fearful glance with the girl, who stared back at him with eyes ringed in the white of a Chaser initiate. She squeezed his hand and shook her head. Don’t. He slowly shook his own at her, whispering, “No choice…”
“Well, this merry chase is at an end,” the guard leader said between his own pants. His hand dropped to the hilt of his short sword. “Now come along, both of you. The girl for theft, and you—” he pointed at the boy, “—for aiding a criminal in evading the Order.”
Eyes flashing, the street kid stepped in front of the girl and drew his own blade, a rag-handled sliver of iron he’d scavenged from a garbage pile. “You want us—come and get us.”
The three guards all laughed as they advanced. “Gutterkin’s got a claw, does he?” one teased as they drew their swords. “Drawing a weapon on a guard of the Order—this day ain’t getting any better for you, boy.”
The boy slashed his pitiful blade through the air, knowing he was seconds away from arrest if he was lucky, and death if he wasn’t. But he wasn’t going to just leave Lucille to them, no matter how many guards he had to face down.
The three men were only a couple paces away now, the patterned steel of their blades gleaming in the rain and moonlight.
The calm voice carried the unmistakable tone of command, and everyone reacted to it. The guards all halted their advance. The boy, however, snatched up the girl’s hand again and bolted for the narrow opening between the nearest guard and the open lane beyond.
He had only taken two steps when a blur solidified in front of him, and a woman in night-black plate armor blocked his path. The boy raised his knife, but again she was faster, striking his wrist and knocking the blade out of his hand.
“Shall we take ’em both, Sergeant?” the lead guard asked.
“The girl is yours, Constable,” the woman replied. “Her crime was witnessed and attested to—”
“NO!” The boy surged forward again, fists raised, ready to fight her, to fight all of them—
The woman shifted her weight and reached out an arm, and suddenly the boy was flying head over heels through the air, landing on his back in a splash of muddy water. Blinking droplets out of his eyes, he made to get up—but was stopped by the point of a sword at his throat.
“You, however, have a choice,” the woman continued, as casually as if she were buying melons at the market. “You possess something that is in rare supply down here—loyalty. Given different circumstances, you can be something more than a street runner or skull-faced ganger…if you’re wise enough to recognize opportunity when it comes.”
“You cannot save her.” The Sergeant nodded at Lucille, already shackled and in the grip of two guards. “But you can save yourself.” She sheathed her sword, so quickly the boy didn’t see how, and extended a gloved hand to him.
Warily, the boy took it, and she pulled him to his feet.
“With all due, respect, ma’am…” the leader of the three guards shifted back and forth on his feet. “Surely you don’t intend to bring this…gutterkin into our ranks?”
The Sergeant did not look at the man as she answered. “Best to concern yourself with the prisoner you already have, Constable. No one has agreed to anything here…yet. In any event, I’ll take full responsibility for whatever choice he makes.”
Still regarding the boy, she cocked her head slightly. “Two paths lie before you. Which one is it going to be?”
The boy shot a quick glance at Lucille, trembling between the guards, and tried to send a message with his stare: Stay strong. I will come for you.
Then he turned his attention back to the sergeant, who was still regarding him calmly, and stared boldly into her eyes, not giving an inch. Unlike the guards, she didn’t look disdainfully at him, didn’t seem to view him as just another piece of living flotsam swirling in the violent tides that swept over Gelspar. Whatever she was offering, it had to be better than starving and scrabbling for whatever scraps he could find on the streets.
Brushing sodden black bangs out of his eyes, he straightened up and nodded at her. “I’m with you.”
She gave him a curt nod in return. “Very well. Welcome to the Military Order of Adriel. I’m Sergeant Raya. What’s your name?”
The boy regarded his new master—for now, he thought—for a long moment before answering.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.