Smoke drifted into the darkness, glanced right and left, cursed softly. There they were again. Those men! He could not shake them. They knew where he was going before he went.
It was disheartening and frightening. The longer he delayed visiting his contacts the stronger Longshadow’s image grew within his mind and the more terrified he became on a level so deep it was a part of his soul. Something terrible had been done to him, something that had reached into him as deeply as a man could be reached. Somehow Longshadow had hidden a fragment of himself inside him, to drive him into executing the Shadowmaster’s will.
The voice within had become a shriek. If he did not shake the watchers he would not be able to avoid betraying his contacts.
He pretended not to notice the men, though they did nothing to remain anonymous. Did she know and just want to scare him away from his contacts? Maybe. Maybe it did not matter if he betrayed them.
He started walking.
His shadows followed.
He tried to elude them, relying on a superior knowledge of the city. He had haunted the shadows and alleys and-hidden ways all his life. As he knew the palace better than anyone living, so he knew Taglios. He gave it his best. And when ne stepped out of a shanty warren where he got lost twice himself trying to get back out, one of his stalkers was waiting, leaning against a building.
The man grinned.
Longshadow filled Smoke’s mind. The Shadowmaster was angry. His patience was failing.
Smoke stamped across the street. “How the hell do you keep track of me?”
The man spat to one side, smiled again. “You can’t evade the eye of Kina, wizard.”
“Kina!” Another terror to pile atop his fear of Longshadow.
“You can run but you can’t hide. You can twist and wiggle but you can’t get off the hook. You can skulk and whisper in locked rooms but you can’t keep secrets. Each breath you draw is numbered.”
The fear deepened.
“And always has been.”
Smoke turned to run.
“There’s a way out.”
“There’s a way out. Look at you. Maintain your allegiance to the Shadowmaster and you’re dead if your Taglian friends find out. If they don’t kill you, he will when he’s done with you. But you can get out. You can come home. You can shake the terror that’s like a beast starving for your soul.”
Smoke was too frightened to wonder why the thug did not talk like a street creature. “How?” He would try anything to get out from under the Shadowmaster’s thumb.
“Come to Kina.”
“Oh. No!” He nearly shrieked. The only escape was to yield himself to a greater horror? “No!”
“Up to you, wizard. But life isn’t going to get any better.”
This time Smoke did run. He did not care if he was followed. Exercise reduced panic. As he neared his destination he realized that he had not seen any bats since leaving the palace. That was new. Where were the Shadowmasters’ messengers?
He bustled into a tall slum tenement, hurried upstairs, pounded on a door. A voice said, “Enter.”
He froze two steps inside the doorway.
The man he had been talking to leaned against the opposite wall. There were eight corpses in the room, all strangled. The man said, “The goddess doesn’t want your master to know her daughter is here.”
Smoke squeaked like a stomped rat. He fled. The man laughed.
The man amongst the corpses shrank. He became the imp Frogface, who chuckled, then faded away.
Smoke calmed down before he reached the palace. His mind started working. He had one bolt left. It could bite him as easily as his enemies, but... Engulfed by the darkness he could but flee toward the only light he saw.
He would not yield to Kina.