Styx was nothing but a shadow to eyes untrained to darkness. Fortunately for Styx he had spent all of his seventeen years in The Shade, the sprawling mass of caverns and holes that lay beneath the city of Pentalus; the den of those who were unwanted in the clean and lighted streets above. His eyes were well accustomed to piercing the darkness, though he did have the edge that many of the Shades had as well. The Shadesight tattoo at the side of his left eye was infused with the blood of a small rodent that lived in the depths, and granted him the ability to see in ways that his human heritage did not. Seeing in the darkness was never a problem for most Shades.
The structure in front of Styx sat high in the wall of the grand cavern, a pit so deep that if he dropped a stone from its top he would never hear it hit the bottom. That was enough for most non-natives to stay as far away from the edges of the pit as possible, though generations of people living in The Shade had carved out dwellings into the high walls of the cavern, and had likewise carved homes into the large pillars that supported the roof of the cave. The Shade was a city to rival Pentalus all on its own, and it teemed with life; if one could call the existence of those who lived there, 'life', instead of mere 'survival'.
Far beneath him lay the lower levels of The Shade, which housed the majority of its populace. Though torches and lamps dotted the cavern floor on occasion, they did little to fight away the oppressing darkness that filled the great expanse. Nefarious business was done in the shadows more often than it was done in the light, and the darkness gave ample opportunity for those with the urge to take advantage of their neighbors without detection. The Shade was dark, damp, and dirty, and only those who had the skill to survive on their own would do so. Everyone in The Shade served their own interests first, and rarely served another's at all, unless it would also benefit them.
The upper levels of The Shade held little interest for the thieves and scoundrels who made up most of the denizens of the lower depths. They preferred to distance themselves from Pentalus unless they had business with its inhabitants or were working a heist in the city. Styx appreciated their apprehension; there were pickings in this section that no one even realized. He had spent the last two years clearing out abandoned buildings in the Upper Shade, looking for hidden stashes and long forgotten relics. His wealth had grown significantly, and he was considering starting his own guild if he could find anyone worth sharing his interests. He had distanced himself from nearly everyone he knew and only met with others when he fenced his acquisitions. Friends were hard to come by in The Shade.
Styx had been casing the structure for the better part of the month, and knew it for the drop point that it was. He had been clearing out a dwelling on a pillar some twenty yards inside from the cavern wall, when he had noticed a portly old merchant from Pentalus entering the stone structure. He watched from a window as the merchant and his bodyguards walked cautiously through the entrance, fear evident in every step they took. Styx had stifled a laugh at the man's trepidation, not wanting to scare the old man off. Other than the few who still lived in the Upper Shade the region was virtually empty, and the merchant had nothing to fear. Styx's curiosity was piqued as he realized what that meant; the merchant had no reason to be there unless he had business with one of the lower denizens.
Where there was business in The Shade there was also profit to be made by those on the sidelines, if they had the nerve to take advantage of it. Styx had watched a merchant make weekly deliveries; always at the same time, and always in the same manner. The merchant would walk down the steps to the entrance; his movements encumbered by something heavy which Styx assumed to be a large sum in coins. The merchant would then move to the upper level of the structure where Styx could observe him through the window as he put several sacks in the corner of the upper room. Then the merchant would leave the building, his footsteps lighter, though his trepidation was anything but. He was still looking over his shoulder as he took the path back up the staircase to Pentalus.
It was always a few minutes later that another man arrived from lower levels to retrieve the sacks, as if he had been watching for the drop, from somewhere in the shadows of the stone steps that skirted the wall and led toward the bottom of the cavern. Although the cloaked figure was watching the house the whole time, Styx assumed that he would be watching the entrance and not the window on the second level. It was that same window that Styx would use to pull off his heist. The only problem he faced was crossing the distance over the pit between the pillar and the structure. Thankfully he had just the thing to accomplish that task.
As soon as the merchant came into view, Styx went into action. He climbed higher up the pillar to gain a greater vantage on the drop, and then waited for the right opportunity. Seeing the merchant leave the building, Styx grinned as he pushed his dark hair back and touched the hawk tattoo on his cheek, causing the magic inside the blood-infused design to come alive. He jumped from the pillar toward the blackness of the pit. The rush of freefall ended quickly as the spirit of the hawk stored within the tattoo slowed his fall. Styx extended his arms as he dived toward the structure, releasing the leathery membrane he had attached to his clothing to help him glide. He gained control of his trajectory as the membrane caught the draft running through the cavern. Combined with the influence of the hawk he easily cleared the gap between the pillar and the structure's window.
Styx landed quietly and balanced on the windowsill, his eyes taking stock of the small room. The room reeked of dust, but it was a scent that Styx was well used to and he ignored it as his eyes settled on the goods. The sacks sat in the same corner they always did and he wasted no time in moving toward them. As he picked up the first sack he found that it was even heavier than he had expected. He knew the weight of coins as well as he knew his own weight; something was wrong.
He opened the sack and peered inside, and his heart fell. It wasn't money after all, but instead small arrowheads made of an unusual black metal. Whatever purpose they were intended for, it wouldn't do him much good unless he could sell them. His grin returned as he considered that option. They were obviously valuable if they were going through this much trouble for these drops.
His backpack was off and opened in a few seconds and he quickly shoveled the objects inside. He had just finished emptying the last sack when he sensed someone coming up the stairs behind him. There was no doubt in his mind that he had allowed himself enough time for a clean escape, based on the time it always took the cloaked recipient to climb the stairs. That left only one possibility; he had been expected.
Drawing his dagger, Styx turned around to face his opponent and screamed in pain as a knife whistled through the air to pierce his weapon hand, causing him to drop his blade. "You're good, boy. Coming through the window was a great idea," the cloaked man said as he stepped toward Styx, another knife ready to throw, his other hand resting casually on the hilt of his sheathed kukri. Though the hood of his cloak blocked his face, the man's foreign accent had given his identity away. It was Dogo the Watchdog, the most notorious bounty hunter of The Shade. Dogo was from a distant land, though he had resided primarily in The Shade for as long as Styx had been alive, and his manner of fighting was foreign enough that he often had surprises that those born and raised in The Shade could not deal with.
Styx didn't have time to wonder what The Watchdog was doing on a job like this. He had to get out of there or he was going to be captured, or killed, depending on Dogo's orders. He eyed his backpack as he considered trying to take it with him, but he knew that it was going to be a longshot getting out of there even without the heavy goods.
He grimaced as he pulled the knife out of his hand, though he expected the pain and managed to keep from vocalizing it. He wielded the weapon in his right hand, though he wasn't used to it there. If needed he could still throw from that hand with reasonable accuracy, but he was already at a severe disadvantage. Styx eyed Dogo warily as he slowly stood up straight, but to his surprise Dogo stayed still except for tracking him with his eyes.
"What are those things?" Styx asked, with a nod toward the backpack full of arrowheads. He took a step back, away from Dogo and toward the window. Dogo didn't drop his gaze at all, and kept his attention fully on Styx.
"I honestly have no idea, Styx," Dogo replied gruffly. Styx stumbled as he heard his name on Dogo's lips. Dogo noticed the movement and chuckled before asking, "What, you're surprised that I know your name?"
"I wasn't aware I'd acquired enough of a reputation to attract the attention of one such as you," Styx answered as he inched closer to the window. He could feel the cool draft of the cavern upon his skin and smell the damp air. His heart was pounding in his chest loud enough that he was sure Dogo could hear it, and he focused on the air coming from the window and used it to calm himself. He was close, and he couldn't let his nerves ruin his chance of escape.
"You haven't. Don't fool yourself," Dogo replied with a sneer. "However, you do have a reputation. It didn't take much digging to find out who was watching this drop point. You have the makings of a great thief." Dogo's tone sent a shiver down Styx's spine as he added, "If you live."
"So you are going to kill me then," Styx replied. He shook his head and let his shoulders slump a little, giving the appearance of being defeated. He shifted his feet slightly so that he could spring toward the window if Dogo moved toward him. It was unlikely he'd be able to escape before Dogo managed to hit him with another knife but he was going to try. Anything was better than letting someone kill you.
"No, I'm going to take you back to Salidar," Dogo answered. Styx's heart began to beat even quicker than it had before, and he felt drops of sweat upon his brow that then trickled down his face. Salidar was the Underking, the true seat of power in The Shade. If Styx was captured he would be tortured before he died, or worse; he could be thrown into the gladiator pits. If Styx had known that this drop was under Salidar's jurisdiction he would have stayed as far away from it as he could.
Even if he did manage to escape Dogo he'd be hunted down if he remained in The Shade. He'd have to leave the city or he'd eventually be captured or killed, and he'd prefer the latter if capture meant facing torture by Salidar. He wasn't going to wait around for Dogo to make the decision for him. He sprung for the window, the sudden movement earning a quick response from Dogo as a knife flew past his head, and then Styx jumped through and into the cavern as another knife grazed his thigh.
He activated his hawk tattoo again as he flung himself back out into the darkness and began banking toward the nearest pillar. Even though it meant abandoning all the wealth he had acquired, he knew a passageway to the surface from that pillar, which he could reach long before he was intercepted, and he'd be out of The Shade within the hour. Wealth was worth nothing if it meant losing his life.
Styx sighed in relief as he neared the rooftop of one of the structures built on the side of the pillar, knowing that he was free. It was then that he felt the bola wrap around him, ending his flight at just the right moment to drag him heavily down to the rooftop he had seen as his sanctuary. Now it served as his prison as he struggled against the cords of the bola that were completely wrapped around his body. The initial strike of the bola had caused him to drop the knife from his hand, but he had another blade hidden in his boot. He started to maneuver his bound form around in an attempt to draw it, hoping to cut himself free before Dogo arrived.
Styx quickly gave into despair as he heard grunting from a man climbing onto the rooftop with him, and then the sound of footsteps as the newcomer moved to Styx's side and rolled him over onto his back. It wasn't Dogo, but the black leather armor indicated that it was one of Salidar's operatives. He stomped on Styx's hand and crushed his fingers into the stone beneath him which abruptly ended his attempt to draw the dagger from his boot. Styx yelled in pain and tried to withdraw his hand, but the newcomer only pressed down harder with a sadistic smile.
"Stop struggling," the newcomer ordered, continuing to grind Styx's hand beneath his boot until Styx stopped writhing. "You're only going to make your fate worse."
No more words were spoken between them. The newcomer had little interest in him beyond his capture and Styx was too terrified to speak. In his seventeen years he had been in many tough situations but he had never incurred the wrath of Salidar. To do so was suicide.
Dogo arrived a moment later, climbing atop the roof with ease. He kept a careful watch on the other man as he pulled some rope from his belt and began to tie Styx before removing the bolas and replacing it on his belt. He hoisted Styx onto his shoulder and then said to his associate, "Go collect the drop in the building across the way. Don't dally, and make sure that you don't lose any or I'll kill you myself. I won't have Salidar on my case because you fouled this up."
The other man nodded and hopped off of the roof. Dogo waited a minute before he shifted Styx into a more comfortable position on his shoulder and then started his own trek down the pillar. As Dogo descended he began whistling a happy tune. Styx found the sound incredibly unnerving, wondering why anyone would whistle while they took a kid to his executioner. The whistling kept him distracted enough that he was unable to think straight, and by the time they reached the bottom of the pillar and Dogo set Styx down for a moment he had come up with no plans to escape.
"You know, you might be okay, kid."
Styx had been ignoring Dogo, and the sudden empathetic speech caught him off guard. The bounty hunter was eyeing him with curiosity. "You're smart, and you're tricky," Dogo continued, "You might be able to survive."
"No one survives the wrath of Salidar," Styx replied without hesitation, narrowing his eyes. Dogo's eyes flashed with amusement as Styx added, "I don't have any need or desire for your false hope."
"It's not false hope, and your assumptions are not true," Dogo insisted. "Salidar isn't as evil as you think, kid. He gives everyone a sporting chance to escape, and if you escape you earn your life."
"How come I've never heard of that? Has no one ever escaped before?" Styx asked, rolling his eyes.
"There have been few," Dogo admitted with a smile that appeared wistful to Styx. Styx was about to ask if Dogo was referring to himself when Dogo continued, "Trust me, kid. I think you're capable enough to get out. You probably wouldn't have been caught if I hadn't been the one handling the drop point." He sighed and looked away. Styx followed his gaze and saw the distant lights of Salidar's complex as Dogo began speaking again. "Anyway, it's time to get going again. I promised Salidar I'd have you there by the end of the day."
Before Styx could protest he was hoisted back onto Dogo's shoulder and Dogo started walking again. Styx's heart was pounding as they reached the Lower Shade. This area was always well lit and was the section where most of the people lived. Salidar had almost complete control here, and his operatives were everywhere.
Dogo was whistling again as he carried Styx through the marketplace. Though Styx normally would have felt self-conscious about being handled in that manner in plain view, he knew that the people nearby were minding their own business and weren't watching. From the path that Dogo was taking, he could only be heading toward Salidar's complex. Paying too much attention to what Salidar or his men were doing was enough to get you killed if you were watching at the wrong time. For most people, that was enough for them to avert their eyes anytime Salidar was involved.
It didn't take long for them to make it to the narrow wooden bridge that led to the heart of Salidar's domain. The bridge spanned a great chasm, carved by the runoff from the lake that dominated a large section of the Lower Shade, and it was guarded by a pair of large armored trolls; Elroks. Dogo wasn't stopped as he stepped past them, and nodded in greeting, as if he knew them well. They growled with contempt as Dogo continued.
Styx gained new respect for Dogo: anyone willing to fearlessly face an Elrok was a brave man indeed. This was the first time that Styx had been close to an Elrok, preferring to keep his distance from anything that could kill him easily with a single blow. He watched their broad forms as they returned to a more stoic position, amazed at how large they actually were. Their stone-like grey skin only made them seem larger, as if they were boulders that could crush a man simply by rolling over him. He cursed under his breath as he realized that if he did attempt to escape he would most likely have to pass by them again.
Styx noticed he was being put down again as they reached the other side of the bridge, though this time Dogo cut his leg bonds. He was about to question what was happening when he realized exactly where they were. They were standing in front of the heavy iron doors that marked the gateway to Salidar's palace. Four more Elroks stood by the doorway, while human archers stood atop the walls above the doors, eyeing the pair warily.
"You will stand now, Styx, and face judgment," Dogo explained simply, as he straightened and looked toward the top of the wall, regarding the archers with wariness to match theirs. "Salidar will be with us shortly."
True to Dogo's words, the doors opened wide and a small troop of men walked out to meet them. Salidar, dressed in the black leathers that served as a uniform for the Underking's guild, did not look as most would consider a king should appear, though he walked with a sense of confidence that would outmatch any royalty. Another man walked at his right, dressed in tightly wrapped black cloth that covered him from head to toe, and Styx assumed that if he were not in the torchlight the man would be nearly invisible, even to Styx's tattoo-assisted eyesight. He was sure that this was Fasha, Salidar's right hand man and chief assassin; one of the most notorious men in The Shade. On the other side was a youth who appeared to be of similar age to Styx, and who wore nothing on his upper body, displaying instead a myriad of tattoos across his flesh that Styx assumed were magical. If Styx hadn't been scared for his life he would have found the youth attractive, but he couldn't process much beyond the thought that these would be his executioners. He recognized the youth as Maxthane thulu'Khant, prince of The Shade. He was the last person Styx wanted to entangle himself with regardless of how attractive he may be.
"This is the boy that almost evaded the watchful eye of Dogo?" Salidar questioned, regarding Styx with his piercing gaze as he stepped toward the youth. He reached out with his hand to cup Styx's face which caused Styx to flinch. Salidar grasped Styx's chin anyway and looked him in the eye. Styx found something unexpected in the green orbs that met his own blue ones—compassion, though it was buried beneath a great deal of mischief.
He didn't have much time to contemplate the complex mix of emotions as Salidar decreed his fate, causing him to forget about anything else. "Throw the boy in the pit. Let's see how he fares against our new monster, shall we?"