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In the Storm
The sand storm was going to be a problem.
When the wind had shifted earlier, I had thought nothing of it. But now sand was swirling all around and slipping in between the cracks of my goggles, making my eyes itch. What was worse was that, because of the sand storm, my scope of the men standing guard on the roof across from me was limited.
I couldn’t take them out as easily as I had thought, but it was still possible.
It had to be.
Using my binoculars, I zoomed in on the two men grimacing against the storm. I had to admit they were loyal, if them standing out in such a cacophony was any indication. All of them were; the two at the back, four in the front, and the aforementioned two on the roof.
I shifted the binoculars to down near the door, peeking my head up over the stone lip of the roof. From what I could tell, all the men had various guns, swords, and flat little disks that would most likely burn me alive if they attached to my skin. That would be a problem if I was going to get any closer than I already was.
Which I wasn’t planning on doing.
Dropping the binoculars at my side, I picked up my stunner and carefully aimed it towards one of the men on the roof; lefty was as good as any mark. Unlike righty, he had his scarf pulled low like someone who was used to such a storm, his pale skin winking at me from the scope attached to my gun.
If the storm got any worse, he would be tasting sand for weeks. Already, I could feel the itch of sand in between my knees, elbows, and the curve of my thighs.
A single bath would never suffice.
Shaking off my thoughts, I adjusted my gun and peered into the sight. His neck was wide open.
I inhaled carefully, chest rising against the butt of the gun, and then exhaled as I pulled the trigger.
The perfect shot.
The dart flew through the wind; an object too heavy to be blown away, but not so much so that it would fall out of the sky. Without a sound, it sank into the guard’s skin and stayed buried, the barbs extending to emit the sleeping poison.
Before I could blink, he had fallen. And before his friend could do anything, another dart was piercing his flesh and putting him soundlessly to sleep. Swiveling my gun’s sight down, I made sure the guards below hadn’t noticed anything.
Nope. They were still standing near the door, heads ducked against the wind.
I smiled only slightly, barely a flutter of the lips. Of course, I still tasted sand, but my plan was working.
If I kept on track, that is.
Putting my gun aside, I sifted through the bag at my feet and pulled out a smaller, simpler gun. This one wasn’t to shoot or kill, but to grapple onto the lip of the building across from me so I could climb across.
Quick and quiet.
In a sand storm.
Using the little dot at the end of the barrel, I lined it up to the top of the lip, holding my breath.
The end of a rope, studded with claws, flew out and away from the gun, attaching to the roof with a scrape I felt in my bones. Panic stroked a finger down my spine as I fumbled for my binoculars. The guards were still leaning against the house, unaware of any movement above them.
I exhaled in relief, putting aside my binoculars, and detached my side of the rope from the gun, tying it to a spike I had driven through the stone of the roof. This next part would be the hardest, but I steeled myself and emptied my pockets of everything but a knife and a little laser.
If all went to plan, I wouldn’t need the knife.
Wiping my goggles with sandy hands, I took a moment to steel myself. Then, with my scarf wound more firmly around my mouth, I grabbed onto the rope and swung beneath it.
For a moment, panic took over as I hung there, biceps shaking, but then sense kicked in and I wrapped my legs about the rope too, swiveling my head to the guards nearly invisible in the storm.
Silence and stillness.
Not wasting any more time, I used my arms to pull myself forward, trying not to think of what my blood would look like smeared on the earth below. Or what the authorities would tell my sister if I fell.
Stop it, I chastised myself, moving a little faster.
Finally, my fisted hands hit stone and I struggled onto the roof amidst the sleeping guards. I only stopped to drape the foolish guard’s scarf around his mouth and bare face, not wanting him to smother in such a storm. I had seen firsthand what a sand storm could do to someone, and it wasn’t something I would ever wish upon even my worst enemy.
After I had hidden his face, I sprinted to the hatch set in the ground and carefully pried it up. Darkness greeted me, the kind that had something to hide, and I gently dropped to the floor, the hatch banging shut above me.
I had fallen into a room; one square with a bed in the corner, a basin near the door, and a table littered with different kinds of jewels. I hovered over them, hand sliding over their rough surfaces, before I shook my head and moved towards the door.
Light spilled through the crack, a sign that someone was home. Moving closer to the door, I pressed my ear to the wood and waited for the sounds of movement outside. Despite the light, all was quiet on the other side.
Freeing the knife from my hip, I slowly opened it and risked a peek outside. The room led out into a hall with a set of stairs in front of me leading down into what I assumed was the fourth floor. The light bleeding through the door crack was a lantern swinging on a hook.
No one was in sight.
I pulled the scarf away from my mouth and started for the stairs. Down deep in the belly of the house would be the dank basement, my destination.
I had a lot of stairs ahead of me.
The first set took me down into another hall, this one branching into more rooms. Empty, all of them, and set up just like the one I had dropped down into, right down to the gems and jewels sitting idly on the table. Again, I hesitated as I stared at them; they were probably worth a fortune.
But I hadn’t come to steal. Not gems, at least.
Pushing further down, I came to an oval room set up to be a workshop, with beakers and tubes spewing smoke and metallic scents.
More lanterns hung here.
Someone was definitely home.
I turned away from the shop, getting lighter on my feet to be soundless, and felt the air shift as I took another stack of steps down. It grew colder, which was saying something since the house was made entirely of stone. At the last step, I paused, sniffing the air.
Sweat and a smokey tang fought for control of my senses.
A faraway noise, that of metal meeting metal, hit my ears, but I didn’t think whoever the noise was coming from was close to me. For now, they wouldn’t hinder my mission.
Being even more silent, I moved toward the next to last set of stairs, located only a few paces to the left opposite me. To the left of the staircase entrance was a cracked door that I momentarily looked through; a man was bent over something, swinging a hammer up and down, up and down.
I quickly descended the steps after seeing that.
Finally, I came to the last staircase, my breaths coming fast because of all my walking downhill. From the top, I could hear the clanking of chains and stifled coughs and groans.
I had found them.
Moving carefully so as not to scare the slaves below, I descended near the last stair and then waited, wondering what to say. How to make them know I was there to help.
To free them.
First, I should put away my knife, then take off my goggles and try to smile. I tucked my knife away and removed my goggles, pasting on a reassuring grin that I was certain looked more like a grimace.
Because this was going to be hard. Really hard.
My steps were slow and measured, but I still heard somebody shush the others and all was still as I finally came into the light of a lantern. The slaves were crowded close, their eyes blinking at me from a darkened corner.
I tried to make my voice soothing. “My name is Lucia. I’m here to free you.”
No one moved closer or cried out in relief. No one did much of anything.
I moved further into the light, eyeing the chains tying them together. It didn’t seem they could move well, or even sit unless the others did so too. Down here, they needed to rely on each other’s mercy.
“Just let me cut those chains. Okay?”
They all blinked, seemingly in unison. Suns, their cheeks were so sunken. Their eyes so hollow.
This was hard.
Shaking, I reached into the pocket of my loose trousers and removed a handheld laser. They all flinched away, chains clanking.
“No, this will free you.” I showed them the tiny, oval item, hands up. “Let me help.”
Someone, a tall man with honey colored eyes and deep brown skin, spoke to them in a language I didn’t understand. One by one, they all nodded, as if giving me, or possibly him, permission for something.
“They say okay,” he said, waving me closer.
I swallowed, tasting sand, and started to break through their chains. It was slow, painstaking work, and the slaves were flighty and quick to get away from me. They seemed to believe I would suddenly yell for the man upstairs, even though I was currently freeing them.
When I got down to the last person, the same man who had spoken for me, I tried to ask him who he was and who was selling him. He couldn’t tell me anything, so I dropped the matter and finished my work, sweat slipping down my back.
Once I was through, I gave them all a long look. “I’m getting you out of here, understand? But we need to be quiet.” I held my finger to my lips, nodding. “There’s someone upstairs; if we’re too loud, he’ll catch you again.”
And kill me, I thought, but right now I had to focus.
They did so, albeit reluctantly, and did their utmost best to stay as quiet as me. Years spent sparring and spying with my father had taught me a lot, so I didn’t expect complete silence.
What I did expect was for them not to cough and cry so loudly.
“Everyone stop,” I ordered, ushering them back downstairs.
My plan wasn’t working. The slaves were sick and too weak to sneak out the door successfully. I needed to readjust.
I turned to the man with the honey eyes. “I need you to get them out.” He opened his mouth, frowning, but I interrupted him, “I’m going to stop the man upstairs. I want you to take them out the door. A car will be waiting there for you, understand? Tell the woman there my name, Lucia Mariates, and they will take you to safety.”
That is, if my sister had successfully dispatched the guards by the door.
His brow creased. “They know?”
“Yes, she knows you are slaves and that I’m here to free you. My name will make sure of that.”
He looked over at the people leaning against the walls, their faces ashen. “Will you be all right?”
I laughed a little, shaking my head and watching dust flutter off my clothes and face. “Yes. Just get out and away. Okay?”
He squared his jaw and nodded.
“Good. Wait for a while, a few minutes at least.”
Before he could say anything, I was up both staircases and crouched near the door that the man was behind. That loud sound of metal hitting metal still echoed up here, making my ears ring. I withdrew my knife, cursing silently under my breath as I dragged the blade against my palm. I hated to do this, mostly because it took effort and exhausted me, but also because it took something from them, too.
I put my bloodied knife away and carefully squeezed through the crack in the door, breaths muffled by my clean hand. Every time I had done this, this magic, the end result was a person without thought, mind, or conscience.
They went crazy; killed and hurt because they didn’t know who they were. What they were.
I tried to remind myself this was for the men, women, and children downstairs waiting, that they were more important than the sleeping village of slaveholders outside.
Drawing up to my full height, I stalked closer to the man bent over a fire, his hammer swinging.
And then I reached out and brushed my bloodied palm against his bare neck.
The effect was instantaneous. The man went still, hammer poised above his head, and then he turned.
His eyes were blood red.
I cleared my throat. “Stay here for thirty-five minutes, as I command, so it must be.” The last part was to finalize the command.
To set it in stone. As I had set this man’s deterioration in stone by touching my blood to his skin.
I suddenly felt sick.
The man sat down his hammer and watched me, face impassive, eyes still dark red. I felt weaker now, a little less alert, but I stumbled out of the room and shut the door with a bang, fumbling to put my goggles back on and adjust my scarf.
When I stumbled back downstairs, the slaves were waiting, their forms swimming in front of me.
“The truck,” I slurred, pointing outside. “But there is a storm. We need to be quick. Use your shirts to cover your mouths.”
They did as I said and quickly filed out of the building, past guards bleeding from my sister’s attack, and into the waiting truck she was driving.
She gave me a long look. “Are you all right?”
I didn’t say anything, but she seemed to understand, “That’s forty, now. Forty slaves freed.”
I looked at her, smiling softly, “We have a lot more to go.”
She smiled back, watching the sand swirl a little more calmly outside. It seemed to me that the storm was clearing up for us. For the train waiting to take the slaves to freedom. To safety.
“We won’t stop.”
I startled at my sister’s voice, having nearly drifted off to sleep.
“We’ll free them all. Right?”
I thought of our father and mother. Their work at freeing slaves. At trying to help freedom reign. It wasn’t a question; not really. But a conviction. She only asked because she wanted to know.
If I was willing to keep going.
And the answer was yes.
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Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.
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