Three weeks’ ride north and east of Shatterdown – plus or minus the ferry, depending on the weather and the good mood of the ferryman – lay the island city of Asheholm. Built into the side of the sheer cliffs of its island home, Asheholm sprawled in a way few cities do, with streets and alleys stretching from piers built against the cliff into tunnels that cut the cliff face like sword wounds. Ships at port crowded the docks connected to the lower levels – merchants, pirates, and down-on-their-luck naval ships praying to get repairs before the lawless rats living within the city stole their ships. Every now and again, a new ship arrived, or an old one left, and through it all the lower city bustled with the press of busy people doing their best to secure one another’s coin.
At a bar known popularly as the Money Pit, the Ragged Angel was drinking chai.
She drank by herself, at a quiet table near the bar itself. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and despite the early morning – and friendly surroundings – she wore her sea-green leather armor. The tabard over the breastplate displayed her symbol, the shattered teardrop, though it was hard to see past the hot teapot, her cup, and the book she was reading. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her pointed ear, absently, without looking up from her book.
“You gonna be around today, Kes?” the bartender asked, curiously. The human man was older, with gray in his hair and a tired, if optimistic, quality to his voice. He had known the Ragged Angel when they were both children, and sometimes felt strange about growing up when she had stayed the same.
“For a little while,” she answered, looking up with a faint smile. “Probably not during the rowdy time, Jack. I’m close to a breakthrough with the Cliffside Seven, and if they shake on it -”
Jack raised his hand with an understanding nod. “If you bring ’em back here to celebrate, they’d better keep their weapons down. You know the deal by now.”
“Yeah, I do,” the Ragged Angel agreed. She poured another cup of her chai and took a long, contented sip. “How’s – wait, do you hear that?”
Jack opened his mouth to say that he didn’t hear anything, but then the sound reached him – the echoing report of cannons, and the splintering of wood. The door flew open, admitting a pack of frightened teenagers. They scanned the room in a hurry, saw the Ragged Angel, and ran over.
“Miss!” the one in front half-yelled, in breathless panic. “Miss Kestrel, it’s the Daughter! She’s burnt the docks!”
The Ragged Angel stood in an instant and held her hand out to Jack. “Sword.”
Jack reached beneath the bar and removed a bright, double-edged claymore from its place there; he handed it hilt-first to the Ragged Angel, who murmured something quietly to the blade. Rime crawled from the hilt to the tip at her command, and the blade dripped freezing water onto the floor.
“Get people to the shelters at high ground,” the Ragged Angel told the teens. She clapped her hand on the oldest boy’s shoulder. “You need to sound the alarm. You know how to do that?”
The boy nodded, his body shaking.
Jack followed the Angel outside, concern written all over his face. “Kes, you don’t have to do this. We have a militia.”
“I’ll be fine, Jack,” she reassured the bartender. “Stay inside. You’re not as young as you used to be.”
“Neither are you, Kestrel.”
The Ragged Angel shook her head sadly. “Yes, Jack. I am.”
Jack took a step back as the Ragged Angel spread her wings – wings that were not there a moment before, with tattered brown-and-black feathers marked here and there with the stains of old blood. She turned and put a hand on his shoulder before taking a running start. With a leap, and a mighty beat of her wings, the Ragged Angel took off, dripping frozen tears from her blade.
The raiding party from the Lich’s Daughter landed on longboats and streamed onto the flaming docks. Sea mages at the front of each ship parted the flames with gusts of wind or blasts of frozen air to permit the pirates to surge towards the city, and were met by a ripple of rifle fire from inside the shops and buildings that hugged the cliff face. Some, defended by sorcery, pressed onwards – others staggered as bullets slammed into their armor or drew blood from exposed flesh. One of the mages raised his hand and began the incantation to create a wall of wind.
A bone-shattering impact interrupted the mage, as the entirety of the Ragged Angel landed boots-first against his spine with a series of sickening cracks. Brown wings curled protectively around her as the Angel stood up straight, watched by the disbelieving eyes of the pirates. The rifle fire paused in shock as well, both at the impact and because the citizens did not want to shoot her by accident.
“Leave,” the Angel commanded softly.
“Here I thought I’d have to comb the city for you,” a female voice called out, from the middle of the raiding party. The pirates stepped aside to reveal a human woman with her hand on the hilt of a scimitar. The Angel noted chain armor beneath her sailing clothes and potions thrust through her belt.
“Captain Redgrave,” the Ragged Angel greeted, in low tones.
“Kestrel of Asheholm,” Redgrave replied, smiling brightly. “I see our reputations precede us both. I’ve come to ask you to join my crew for a…certain expedition. We could use someone with your talents.”
Redgrave was surprised at the immediate, direct response. Most people were slightly more conciliatory after she lit their city on fire.
“Do you really intend to try and fight us all, Kestrel?” Redgrave asked. “You’re outnumbered.”
“Not for long,” the Angel answered, with a shrug. “The militia will have reinforcements here any minute. Leave, and do not come back.”
“I have enough explosive rounds to bring that cliff down on these docks,” Redgrave warned. “And I’ll use it. You don’t have a ship left standing to follow me back, not in time. But I like your nerve, Kestrel. Let me make you a deal – you and I fight, here and now. I win, you come with me. You win, and I’ll leave. No help from outside.”
“Deal,” the Angel answered, and no sooner had the word left her lips than both she and Redgrave vanished into thin air. They reappeared together on the roof of a nearby shack with a flash and the screech of steel on steel; Redgrave had just managed to parry the Ragged Angel’s claymore in time. Redgrave blurred into a series of vicious swings, only to see her opponent dodge each, dancing along the roof with effortless grace.
A brown-feathered wing slammed into Redgrave from the side, sending her spilling from the roof with a frustrated cry, but the pirate captain teleported away from the follow-up, leaving the Ragged Angel to land on the dock with a whirling parry. Her blade met Redgrave’s with an echoing clash, followed by a closed fist into the human’s face. Redgrave staggered back, then leapt at the last moment to avoid being gutted by the Angel’s follow-up swing.
“You don’t mess around, do you?” Redgrave complimented; she and the Angel circled each other warily, the pirate smiling, the Angel’s face expressionless. “You fight like a gangster, Kestrel. Are the rumors right? You been walking these streets since my grandfather was a child, fighting and killing?”
“My past is not your business,” came the soft answer. “Concede, or I’m going to have to hurt you. I don’t want to do that.”
Redgrave’s smile turned into a furious, offended expression. “You think you can toy with me, elf? I’ll have your guts for garters and fly your skin beneath my fucking flag!”
Redgrave charged, her scimitar crackling with electricity as she blurred into the attack. She had time to register, for a fleeting instant, that there were suddenly three of her opponent, all of them streaming tears down their cheeks that ran down their faces and dripped from their chins. Then all three of the Ragged Angels whirled and vanished.
They reappeared just behind Redgrave. One swing took the pirate’s left leg off at the knee, and as Redgrave toppled to the ground, the Angel’s boot slammed into her lower spine. Redgrave screamed, felt bones twist and crack, and then blacked out from the pain.
For a brief moment, there was silence on the docks, with only the sea and the flames to disturb the stillness.
The Ragged Angel took her boot off of Redgrave’s back and set her sword down. Slowly, gently, she picked up her fallen foe and carried her to the pirates that followed her.
“She needs healing,” the Angel said softly, tears still running down her cheeks; behind her, two mirror images copied her every movement. “Take her and leave this place. Do not return.”
Mutely, the pirates took their captain and, as one, marched in silence back to their longships. The Angel turned to collect her blade and, with a sigh, banished her mirror images.
“It’s going to be a long day,” she murmured to herself, as she spread her wings.
Kestrel of Asheholm took off into the morning sky.