Gate Pass’s skyline seemed to sag beneath the mantle of snow. The city huddled between the mountains, looking wary as a beggar in an alley, tucking in under a white blanket and wondering where to turn for a friendly face. Its streets were thick with slush, barely foot- printed. Rumors of war, Kathor thought, must have been keeping even the drunks at home. The usual all-night parties and intoxicated revelry weren’t spilling out of doors this year, and the folks who were celebrating seemed to have all picked their tavern early in the evening and stayed there. Some cities capered and caroused on the eve of war, a final riot in the face of destruction, but tonight, in the Free City-State of Gate Pass, the celebrations seemed muted, solemn, almost funereal. The city was dark, the waning moon only a thin silver splinter, and there weren’t lights in most of the windows. Even a few inns had closed their doors at sundown.
No one was doing business outdoors tonight, it appeared, except for the Resistance. And because the Resistance was on the move, so were their enemies.
The bounty hunters called themselves the Black Horses. Their leader was a man named Renard, but those inside the city walls tonight were under the command of Renard’s second, a former soldier who hailed from Ragesia, the vast empire just west of Gate Pass. That was Kathor, and he didn’t want to be there.
Standing high above the streets now, atop one of many vantage points in this city of towers and buttresses, Kathor could see out for miles, over the ice-topped walls and into the west. Across the valley and the bottom of the nearby pass, distant fires dotted the horizon. Scattered in groups, they twinkled through the falling snow like earthbound constellations. The glorious Second Army of the Ragesian Empire was camped on the city’s doorstep, far sooner than expected, and the locals expected an attack within the week. But Kathor knew how fast that force could move, and to his mind, a week was very wishful thinking.
He couldn’t help thinking that he belonged out there, with the army. With his father. For a second, impossible as it was, Kathor let himself search for the blur of a high banner in the wind, or the circle of larger fires that would surround the general’s tent, before he turned away, shaking his head. Even if he knew where the old man was, what would be the point? As much as Kathor wanted to be out there with the army, he knew the conquest of Gate Pass would not be for the glory of the Empire. It would be for the glory of one woman. Since the assassination of Drakus Coaltongue, the Emperor of Ragesia, less than two months before, the world had descended into madness. Coaltongue’s chief allies and lieutenants had immediately begun positioning themselves as the next in line. Over time, two candidates had risen as the likely successors: Lord Shaaladel, ruler of the Shahalesti elves, and Leska, Coaltongue’s Supreme Inquisitor.
It was Leska who had seized command of the scattered Ragesian armies. Instead of summoning them together, she had set those forces to work on pursuing new conquests of Ragesia’s neighbors. This tactic provided multiple benefits: it kept the generals too busy to plot against her, and kept rival nations too busy to interfere. But the conquest of Gate Pass was different.
The Free City-State of Gate Pass had been free since the insurrection forty years before because of its location. Gate Pass was named for the narrow passage between the mountains that separated Ragesia and Shaaladel’s kingdom of Shahalesti. In Coaltongue’s time, keeping that central city neutral had held together the peace and sometime alliance between the Emperor and Shaaladel. But now that Lord Shaaladel had emerged as her chief rival, Leska was surely seizing the city to gain further advantage against the elven king. Dragging his gaze from the far-away encampments, Kathor looked down on the pair of humble two-story buildings he’d come up to reconnoiter. They were connected by a bridge, leading from the top floor of the taller one to the roof of the shorter. The taller was a home, while its squat companion was a pub, named the Poison Apple in an example of the locals’ flair for the perverse.
Gate Pass was a city packed with bridges and heights, a web of widening arches crisscrossing over every street, all now rimmed with ice and snow, yet in many places still welcoming, even majestic. A marvelous place, Kathor had thought, years before, when he’d admired the tall buildings. Back then, he’d seen them as a testament to clever citizens who made the most of the narrow mountain pass confining their city.
Nowadays, Kathor didn’t feel much wonder walking these streets. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, the novelty of those clever citizens’ achievement had worn off when he’d started kidnapping them.
Tonight’s targets were meeting at the Poison Apple. The pub was closed, since the owner, a magus, had been carried off by the city guard the night before — Kathor didn’t have to read the note on the door to know that, having led the city guard there himself.
The guardsmen had already been locking up the city’s magi when Kathor had arrived in town, as an attempt to appease the Ragesians and forestall further hostilities. But sometimes, when orders came from Ragesia, he was told to make sure certain ones were picked up immediately, before they could sneak out of town. Yesterday, such an order had come for the magus who owned the Poison Apple. Tonight, one had come for a member of the Resistance, a witch called Torrent.
Information said Torrent would be using the empty tavern to meet a contact, or contacts. How and when his Ragesian employers got their intelligence, he didn’t know, but all their messages so far had been eerily precise. The plan was to attack right after midnight, when the noise of an ambush could be mistaken for nearby New Year celebrations.
Glancing down at an alley around the corner from the Poison Apple, Kathor saw his men trying to look nonchalant as they waited for his signal to attack. Some kicked at the brownish snow shoveled into a pile at the curb, others fiddled with a tarp that hid the weapons on their wagon, but most just couldn’t stop creeping to the corner to peek out at the pub. Clearly, the Black Horses weren’t used to being subtle. Kathor found it hard not to hate them.
He wished he hadn’t brought so many. Kathor had only joined these bounty hunters a month before, and he was already fed up with their company. But Torrent was a witch, and their source said she had a bodyguard of some kind, so overwhelming force had seemed like the safest strategy.
Now, watching all ten men fumbling attempts to stay inconspicuous on the street, he was rethinking his tactics. If Torrent were tipped off…
Mid-thought, he caught his first glimpse of her, strolling down the alleyway along the city’s southern wall, a few blocks away. As expected, she was walking with a massive man, two heads taller than she, wearing a bearskin as a cape over a small fortune in armor. He looked Ragesian. No doubt he was some kind of bodyguard, who would escort Torrent to her mysterious meeting. But he was unlikely to accompany her to the meeting itself; surely the Resistance would not trust any Ragesian, even a turncoat, to be privy to its secretive dealings. Kathor figured the bodyguard was too tall not to have orc blood in his veins. Half-orcs never went down easy, and though this one would probably be long gone before Torrent reached the Poison Apple, Kathor decided bringing ten men had been right after all.
As for Torrent herself, she looked just like the description he’d received: tall for a woman, shock of short white hair, carrying herself like a soldier, and sporting an expensive breastplate he could see gleaming in the dim moonlight even from a distance. Tonight she was wearing a dark winter coat, open in the front, probably because the heavy fur concealed a weapon and she wanted ready access to it. She didn’t look like a witch.
Then again, Kathor thought, neither do I. And if I weren’t, I’d be outside these walls where I belong.
He leaned over the railing to try and catch one of his men’s attention. It took longer than it should have. Kathor was six stories up, watching from the balcony of a boarded-up temple to the Red Archer, a god of summer, of sunrise, and hope, a god who seemed to be out of worshippers nowadays.
When he finally got one of the Black Horses to look his way, Kathor’s signal had them back on task in a hurry, but it took him a long minute to decide Torrent and her friend hadn’t seen him trying to get the bounty hunters to notice his gestures. Fortunately for him, they were stopping often, taking quick turns, clearly more concerned with making sure they weren’t followed than watching for signs of ambush at their destination.
He spared a glance to check on his men — they had one of the wheels off the wagon now, as planned, and were doing a passable job of pretending to try and repair it — then made a quick estimate of how long it would take Torrent to reach the tavern.
She was closer now, and he could just make out the handle of a weapon slung across her back, not hidden, but carried openly in defiance of city law. Her companion had no obvious arms, but a man didn’t wear that much armor without expecting to fight, so he probably had something. Either way, despite all the battlefield trappings, the two strolled casually beneath a picturesque array of icicle-draped archways and bridges, and their constant looking back to avoid being tailed made them look more like tourists than members of an armed insurgency.
An insurgency against an occupation that hasn’t even happened yet, Kathor reflected, with grudging admiration. Say what you would about the folk of Gate Pass, there was no doubt they had courage. The Resistance, the movement that had helped drive out Gate Pass’s Ragesian conquerors forty years before, had never broken up, presciently choosing to remain vigilant against future incursions. Torrent was one of their more prominent agents, which might have been why Ragesia had marked her for special attention. Not that the why mattered, Kathor reminded himself. Being second-in-command of this gang of thugs was how he paid the bills, even if he had grown to dislike the men — or more accurately, loathe them — in the past few weeks. Their leader, Renard, had been the first to take Kathor in when he left the army, and that debt had to be respected. Sure, there was no honor in hauling these alleged “enemies” of Ragesia away from their homes and loved ones, but there was honor in fulfilling an obligation. Besides, as much as he hated the work, he’d left behind the only other world he’d ever known, and he honestly had no idea what else to do.
“This is my life now,” Kathor said, out loud, shaking himself out of his reverie. He took one last look at his father’s army in the distance, and then rushed down the stairs. Whether they were fighting for their freedom or not, whether they were witches or not, and whether they deserved it or not, it was time to take these two in.
If he’d planned right, they’d go down quickly. There wouldn’t be any surprises inside the Poison Apple; Kathor already had a spy inside to make sure of that. Except for the owner’s wife, no one else had entered the pub all night. Beyond better intelligence and better control of the battlefield, Kathor had numbers. He had eleven Black Horses, including himself, although he didn’t expect to fight — Kathor still thought of himself as an officer, after all, and there was no honor in ambushing outmatched foes. The targets would be only Torrent and whoever she was meeting, and his information said that group would be fewer than half the number of soldiers he’d brought. And if Torrent or the others had witchcraft, well, he had an answer for that too, didn’t he?
Everything was set, Kathor thought, as he emerged from the temple and joined the company of the men he despised. When the time came, and the midnight bells chimed the New Year, he would be ready.