The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
As soon as Elrin pushed her aside to leave the prison wagon, Minni knew there was something wrong. That wasn’t the Elrin she remembered. He was brave, without a doubt. But the Elrin she knew would have hesitated a moment to calculate the risk. This mob was ravenous, chanting and screaming. They hurled rocks and broken cobbles and fought the guards with knives and cudgels. More and more appeared crowding the yard, wives and elderly took up brooms and rug beaters ready to show the city guard what they thought of Calimskan justice. The mob would tear Elrin to bits for a slice of his bounty, yet the proud fool strode forth like a galant knight of yore, daring them to do their worst.
Of course, Elrin was a mere man under all the righteous heroics. He wanted to save the pretty sorceress, didn’t he? She was an intellectual and from a high society family too. The woman was all his bookish fantasies wrapped in rich green robes and draped with magic. Even Minni thought Kettna was attractive, but that only made jealous roots grow deeper. All of this was Kettna’s fault. Why couldn’t Elrin bloody-well see that? The know-all just wanted to do it the sorceress’s way to get all the credit from her superiors. Some shiner’s were so desperate for a pat on the head.
As much as Minni thought Elrin was making a bad decision, she wasn’t going to leave him to fight through the crowd alone. She’d seen him fight before and, truth be known, luck had saved his skin more often than not. There was a problem though. The damn Inspector had taken all of Minni’s blades. That bitch sure had a lot to answer for.
One of the rear guards fighting the crowd was taken down by a hatchet swinging maniac and Elrin didn’t even flinch. Elrin stared through the crowd to where Kettna had been dragged off and drew his magic dagger. Minni saw the sigils burning like molten gold and Elrin’s eyes smoke over in a trance.
A lanky ganger shoved his way from the mob, hefting a cruel looking bat over his sunburnt shoulders. The thug ran at Elrin, who was oblivious to the danger. Minni jumped from the prison wagon, snatched up the fallen guard’s sword and caught the street rat’s attention. The youth was all grin and grunt, swinging the bat at Minni as if she’d cower in a ball and get out of his way. This kid needed a lesson in manners. She dodged the bat and slammed her fist into his obscenely tattooed belly. When he doubled over, gasping like a runt, Minni introduced his smug face to the pommel of her sword a few times.
As the thug dropped unconscious to the cobbles, Minni claimed the prize bat and rolled it over, examining the graffiti of macho slogans, kill tallies and indecent sketches. It reminded her of a cudgel she’d held many moons ago. Back when she was a scrap of nothing, fighting for her life on the streets of Jando. Taking that old cudgel saved her life. Maybe this one would save Elrin’s.
Minni handed the bat to Elrin, wary that more attackers would try their luck. Let them come, she thought, relishing the memory long past victories and excited for the future she and Elrin were fighting for. Minni grinned with enthusiasm, while Elrin looked on the bat with disdain. He reluctantly took it, wrestling with ghosts of his own.
“You’ve gone pale as a sheet.” Minni caressed Elrin’s cheek. “Don’t worry, sweet. The mongrel’s not dead … I don’t think.”
“I’m fine.” Elrin frowned as he hefted the bat, tortured by some worry he wouldn’t share. “We have to hurry or Kettna’s gone. They took her that way. Towards the mage on the dead dragon.”
“What Mage?” Minni saw no mage on the fallen beast. Was this another illusion only Elrin could fathom? It didn’t matter. “Look, we can’t fight through the thick of the mob. No way. No how. Let Captain Malek and his bucket heads hold them off. Just stay close to me.” Minni locked Elrin’s hand in hers again and gave him a wink to let him know he would be safe. “I’ll get you out of here.”
A keg-bellied guard noticed they’d broken out of the cage and rushed to grab Elrin. “The no name’s getting away!” he yelled, abandoning his post while the mob pressed in behind him.
What fool would turn his back on a crowd like that? A gold hungry shiner, that’s who.
Minni let Elrin face-off with the guard, while she kept an eye on the rest of the unruly mob edging in. Out of nowhere a fist-sized rock hurtled through the air and hit Elrin square in the head. He teetered for a moment, his eyes clouded with anger and confusion. A drip of blood trickled down the side of Elrin’s dark brow and Minni’s dragon senses tingled all over.
As sure as darkness follows the setting sun, the dagger came alive to hunt.
The bounty crazed guard seized Elrin’s arm and was greeted by the enchanted blade. Elrin hooked the dagger into the man’s axilla and cut across his shoulder, crippling his sword arm.
“Easy now!” Minni pulled the screaming guard out of Elrin’s way just before the dagger sliced open his throat. “He’s got the message. Let’s get moving before—”
A woman in a grubby apron thrashed a broom stick over Elrin’s back and screamed curses on him like a witch hopped up on who knew what mystic brew. The mob cheered and laughed at the spectacle, but the mirth was short lived. Elrin’s blade flashed out like a viper and bit the woman in the belly then retreated with a slice along the arm swinging the broom.
Minni was dumbstruck. What madness had come over Elrin? This woman was not some soldier. Nor was she a thug. She was a family’s keeper, a mother enraged beyond her limits. As sure as shadows, poverty followed her each day, gnawing and gnashing at her heels. As she fell to the cobbles, bleeding her life out, a handful of women rushed to her side, pressing dirty rags on her wounds and shrieking in terror.
Elrin didn’t even look at what he’d done. His eyes were clouded by midnight and veiled in crimson. Blood hunger rumbled inside his heaving chest. Minni had miscalculated him entirely. Elrin was no stranger to that blade. They worked death together like old friends reunited. One after the other, poor shiner’s and thugs alike fell before Elrin’s blade. The smart one’s hung back and gave him room, the rest painted the cobbles red.
Minni screamed for him to stop, but Elrin wouldn’t listen. She shoved people out of Elrin’s warpath, but couldn’t save the fools who challenged him. Blood and fear filled the air and overwhelmed Minni’s senses. This had to end. She grabbed Elrin’s shoulder and he turned on her, blade striking without pause. Thanks to her training and lightning fast reflexes the golden sigils only sliced the air beside her cheek. Tendrils of magical energy arced so close her scales burned hot. It could have been the end of her. Minni’s only chance was to disarm Elrin. Maybe then, the magic blade would release him from this hellish trance.
Minni never imagined their first dance would be one like this. If she’d not been bitten by the dragon ring, she’d have been sliced to ribbons by Elrin’s dagger for sure. She parried and twisted, stepping left and right to escape the fell blade and brutal cudgel. Elrin fought like an angel of death, manoeuvring with finesse through a nuanced string of forms she’d never witnessed and couldn’t predict. Minni was fighting purely on reflex to keep ahead. Even with Minni’s new draconic powers, Elrin was almost her equal in speed. Almost.
After a grand flurry of attacks that Minni narrowly dodged, Elrin showed his weakness, taking pause to catch his breath. He was but a man while she had the stamina of dragon blood in her veins. Minni feinted left then sprung around to get behind his weak defence. Unfortunately, it was a cunning ruse to snare her.
For a moment time slowed, their bodies pressed close as they grappled. Elrin’s muscles strained like rigging, his sweat salty and slick as the sea. He gripped her like a battleship upon the cusp of a storm surge. Minni gave Elrin the momentum he desired, bringing him over and down upon her. The blood hungry dagger kissed her neck, but that was all she would allow. Like the untameable ocean, Minni punished Elrin’s temerity, surging up from below and crashing over him with every ounce of her newfound strength. She held him to the ground, his chest heaving with hot breath, his bloodstained eyes intent on her death.
“I don’t want to kill you,” said Minni, shifting her knees to keep Elrin down. “But hells tempt me if you so much as squirm, you’ll beg mercy.”
Elrin wouldn’t relent, so Minni let him have it, whacking him over the head with the flat of her sword. Once was not enough. Rage overcame her and then a moment of panic. She couldn’t knock the devil out and wouldn’t kill him. She screamed in frustration then forced her love to look into her eyes, frantic to break the spell that had cursed him with such foul bloodlust. Where was Elrin’s kind regard? This was a killer’s cold stare. Minni prayed the gods would return him to his senses. Not that she believed any deity would send a blessing; desperation was a poor substitute for faith.
Even so, something changed in Elrin’s gaze. Was that a glimmer of recognition? Minni wasn’t the type to bow her head and pray harder. She did what she knew best and slapped him again.
“What in the five hells is wrong with you?” Minni poked Elrin’s forehead.
“Enough!” Elrin squeezed his eyes shut and strained to free his arms. “I’m your master. Do as I command!”
“I don’t think so.” Minni removed the bloodstone dagger from Elrin’s clutches. “Ain’t a man alive to claim that over me.”
“No, no! Not you, Minni.” Elrin watched the dagger in Minni’s hand with mounting concern. It indulged a malign thirst, sucking every last drop of blood from the blade till the steel shone and the sigils glowed golden like the sun. Only then did Elrin appear to return to his senses, gazing up at Minni with sympathetic eyes. Realisation dawned on Elrin harder than any slap Minni had given him. “Oh, Gods! I’m so sorry! What have I done to you?”
“Don’t mind me.” Minni wiped the blood from her neck and got to her feet, anger brewing at the senseless killing in a swathe around them. “Look around. You made a fine mess.”
Still, it was a drop in the ocean compared to the carnage Minni had perpetrated in her felonious career. No matter how many dead deserved it, no matter how many evils were snuffed out, ending the life of simple folk somehow tipped the scales of cosmic justice. The innocent always weighed heavier on Minni’s conscience. Were these rioters innocent though? Downtrodden maybe, definitely desperate, but this mob was ready to take them apart and dance on the pieces. Sure, some folk were just riled up, but those gangers and thugs were blooded. They were organised. This was an ambush, pure and simple.
So how could Minni think bad of Elrin for defending himself? There was something more that bothered her. She didn’t feel ill at ease because she was ashamed of Elrin’s behaviour. If anything, the man’s fighting prowess was a marvel. Minni felt bad because she was frightened. Frightened of what she might have to do to keep Elrin in check if he lost control again. She was lucky to be alive.
“You’ve outstayed your welcome, no name.” Minni helped Elrin up and reluctantly returned the dagger, sheathing it at his hip rather than offering it to his hand. “Time to go.”
“We’ve got to save Kettna.” Elrin reached for the dagger again.
“Hells we will!” yelled Minni, batting Elrin’s hand away from the fell weapon in a flash of temper. “How much blood is that bitch worth to you?”
“That’s not what I mean. It’s the bloodstone sword. Qarim said—”
“Ash on Qarim and his pet wench! Kettna’s gone. Gone! You hear? We’ve got to run or we’re dead!”
Elrin was torn, his face a honourable mess of uncertainty. He stared through the growing mob, no doubt itching to rescue his stolen princess. Damn gallantry to pits infernal if he went after the witch. And damn his questing heroics if all this angst was to impress the blasted dragon and save the sword. Minni was at her wits’ end. If Elrin didn’t come to his senses fast and realise what was in front of him, Minni couldn’t bare it.
The no name took Minella’s hand and melted her heart with a smile. A smile that was not evil, nor gallant. It was the nervous smile of a man out of his depth. A man seeking forgiveness. A man who needed an ally. A man who chose her.
Together they ran from the chaos of the Cauldron.