The small, black Daeltis hawk folded its wings in and dove from its lofty height. Down it plummeted through the night sky in a rush of air and adrenaline. Clear membranes covered its eyes while tough, strong feathers protected its body. A sharp beak had tightly closed and no cry issued forth.
It was a night predator and usually struck silently and deadly. This night, however, it wasn’t in search of food, but rather in search of some thing. A foreign intelligence peered out from behind its eyes and its choices were not entirely its own.
Coldwell Height loomed quickly in front of it. Opening wings and banking hard, the hawk flew in a circle around the area. It saw a few men but not the ones sought. Sharp ears heard a voice and the hawk turned around in a tight arc. It landed on a house roof a short distance from the voice.
“Will he challenge?” the voice asked. Turning its head slightly, the hawk looked at the men. The one who belonged to the voice was tall and husky. Short-cropped hair hung down evenly at neck level to offset his squarish face. A small nose, large eyes and high cheekbones filled out the rest of his face. He was dressed in fine silk and a large, flowing cape that showed no tears, stains or wear.
“He will, Darrin,” the second man answered. The hawk was forced to turn its attention to this man. He was of medium height, but his hair was long and straight. Toned muscles pressed through his tight tunic and formed myriad hills and valleys along his chest, shoulders, back and arms. The hawk’s sharp eyes watched for any movement around him, yet he stood deathly still. Only his chest moved slightly as he breathed.
“As planned,” Darrin said. “Arthur, you will make sure he is successful?”
“Yes,” Arthur replied. “As long as you pay me, you will be successful, too.”
The hawk opened its wings as it was ordered to do and flew off into the night. It traveled across the Coldwell River and headed for the bad section of town. Somewhere between Ramit and Layman Streets and close to River Street, the hawk slowed its flight. As it located the Shattered Spear, it circled lazily over it, waiting.
The door opened and three people walked out. One was a very large, muscular man. The second was a tall, thin man walking behind the first. It was the third person that the hawk had waited for. She had long wavy black hair with blue eyes and a blue dye adorning her full lips. Freckles spread across her cheeks and in the dark, only the hawk’s eyesight could see them.
“Do you think we’ll find any information at Spirit’s Haven, Simona?” the large man asked.
“I hope so,” she answered. “Me–” She looked upwards into the night sky and searched it. Her eyes met the hawk’s and she cried out. “Something watches us!”
The hawk swerved quickly and fled the scene.
“Aaaah,” he cried as he broke the connection and plopped back into his soft, padded chair. The staff in his right hand stood straight and tall held in his steady grip. Sighing as he rubbed his temples with his left hand, he relaxed and let the sights of the night replay in his mind.
“Darrin, are you controlling events or is someone behind you pulling your strings like the puppets in the marketplace?” he mused out loud. Opening his eyes, he slowly turned his head left and then right to clear the ache in his neck. Small tables were spaced throughout the room and held many items: vials, scrolls, books, herbs, rings, bracelets, mugs. A fireplace was set in the middle of one wall, but no fire burned for the night was warm. Two windows looked out upon the old city. In front of him, on another small table, sat a glass sphere. Under it was a circular metal band that kept it from rolling. Around it, drawn on the table, was a chalked circle inscribed with runic symbols.
“Simona,” he said. “Will you lead me to your sister, Megan? Do I interfere in Arthur’s plans? If he is controlling everything, taking that away from him would be simple. If he isn’t, I will need to find out who is behind him. I don’t have the time to devote to that, yet.
“Someone, either Arthur or the one behind him, is trying to replace the void created by Liriss’s absence. He is trying to use the shadow boys to aid him. They have the run of the city and know most of the city’s secrets. They would be valuable to the Night Lord of Dargon now that Liriss is gone.
“But Megan is in dire trouble and my magic pushes me to aid her. There is no word from the Elders on what course I should take, but I believe that both need to be resolved. If I follow Simona, she will leave Dargon for Megan is not here. I have looked.
“If I stay, I believe my headaches and cramps will worsen. Magic dictates I find Megan. But it hasn’t helped me locate her, just her sister. One will find the other, I believe. Arthur and the shadow boys must wait while I search for Megan.
“Simona won’t leave tonight, though. I will have time to look in on the shadow boys …”
“I challenge leadership!” a boy called out. He stood defiant with his hands at his sides clenched tightly into fists. Ragged and curly hair fell around his face, but did not interfere with his piercing gaze. “I am Tumas and I would be king!” Whispers raced through the group of his challenge.
“There is a challenge!” another boy yelled. He was skinny and bones seemed to push out from under his skin. Blond, matted hair crowned his dirty face. “I am Geller and I hear the challenge.”
“You must accept, Shadow King,” Tumas cried out.
“Why should I?” the Shadow King asked. “You are but one amidst our family. One small homeless child among a sea of us.”
“I challenge!” another shadow boy yelled. “I am Crey and I would be king!”
“There are two!” Geller said. He looked about him in the deserted warehouse and saw a myriad of faces looking back. “Are there any more?”
“I challenge!” Ella yelled. “I am Ella and I would be King!” She was small, but her body was fit and healthy. Her green eyes flashed desire and she brushed a lock of blond hair out of her way.
“There are three,” the Shadow King sighed. “I submit to the challenge. I am Dessin. I am king. I accept the challenges. Let there be a run for who would be king. We now stand in a warehouse on the docks. By my right as king I choose the corner of Thockmarr and Red Avenue as the place for the flag. By my right, I decline the run.” Startled gasps ran among the group.
“I am done with being king. It isn’t what it looked to be,” Dessin explained. “Let the three make the run. For those of you who are new and weren’t here for the last run, here are the rules.
“The first one to bring the flag back here *and* stand before me is the new king. That’s it. Only the one who can run faster, fight harder, be more ruthless, and do what needs to be done to win can be a proper king. It is how we have always decided and it will always be the way.
“One of you will carry the flag to my chosen place. The first to reach you will grab the flag. The first to bring it to me will be king. We will wait until the next bell before the three run.”
A boy came forward, took the flag, and ran out of the warehouse. The group moved back from the doorway while the three gathered together near it. Ella stood between Crey and Tumas. They waited a little while.
“Remember there is only one rule,” Dessin stated. “Run!” he yelled before the next bell could ring, catching all off guard. Crey and Tumas started to run, but Ella reached out and grabbed their hair. Both boys’ legs went out from under them and before their bodies hit the ground, Ella was out the door. Crey hit with a thump and rolled over to gain his feet. Tumas hit, rolled backwards and sprinted out the door first. As he got outside, he took a moment to slam the door shut on Crey. Laughing, Tumas turned and ran to catch up to Ella. Crey landed a second time on the ground, blood pouring out his nose and tears running down his cheeks. He growled, got up and ran outside. The rest of the shadow boys slowly walked outside to wait for their return.
Ella was quick and she knew the streets as well as the rest. She crossed Main Street and went through several alleys to the Street of Travellers, where she turned right and ran. “I will win!” she thought. “Being king, I’ll get first choice on any food we steal, any jewelry we grab.” Passing by various shops, she went through the business district and then the intersection of Murson. “Everyone will like me, just like they like Dessin.” She made it to Thockmarr and turned left to travel down it. “I’ll be able to get finer clothes and not have to wear these rags. I can even get some of that scented water to wear.” As she closed the distance to Red Avenue, she glanced around to look for the others. She didn’t see any of them as she grabbed the flag from the boy holding it. Turning, she started back along Thockmarr. As she passed an alley near Traders, Crey stepped out and slammed her in the gut with a board. The air left her in a huff and she passed out on the street with screams of ‘no!’ filling her head!
“You thought you were quick,” Crey said as he grabbed the flag and ran. “But I’m quicker. And I know more shortcuts through this town than you ever will.” He moved through alleys that had no name and crossed streets whose names he couldn’t remember. “I’ll be king,” he thought. “I know the town and I know the right people. I can get us out of being hated and feared.” He skirted the hill of Temple Street and passed quickly over Nochtur. “I’ll be as good a leader as Dessin. No, I’ll be better. I’ll make people look at us without hate or fear in their eyes.” He didn’t look around because his concentration was on getting back to the warehouse as quickly as possible. “I know some merchants and they’ll help us. We won’t have to steal anymore. We won’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.” His breath started to become ragged as he leapt fences and ditches. His legs pumped stead ily as he crossed Travellers and Layman. After crossing Main, he let a smile break on his face. He was going to win. “Everything will be all right.” Tumas was nowhere to be seen and Ella wouldn’t wake up for awhile.
He saw the group in front of the warehouse, but he knew Dessin was inside waiting. As he closed the distance, a figure appeared suddenly and tripped him. He fell, confused at who was there. He heard gasps from the group; he was that close to winning. Landing face down, he bumped his nose and pain shot through his head. A sharp pain in his back followed that and blackness overcame him.
“Well done, John,” Tumas remarked as he stepped around the man and stooped to pick up the flag. “Come on,” he urged as he ran to the warehouse. Shrugging, the man pulled his dagger out of Crey’s back, wiped it off on the boy’s clothes and followed.
“I am king!” Tumas yelled as he stood before Dessin.
“He cheated and used a man!” someone yelled.
“There are no rules!” Dessin replied. “It is done! Tumas is Shadow King!”
“Tumas is Shadow King!” they all said, although not together.
“There is one thing to take care of before we let Tumas rule,” Dessin said. “A man has killed one of us. That will not go unpunished. He does not leave alive!”
“What?” John said, a look of terror crossing his face. “That wasn’t the bargain. Arth–” His pleas were drowned out by the mob of youths converging on him. His screams were short but painful.
“Dump him in the sea,” Tumas ordered. “I am Tumas. I am Shadow King!”