A/N: Warning for some minor violence in this chapter
“You are so heavy,” Roman whined.
“Shut up, Roman. I almost have it.”
Roman tried to keep quiet, but Leandros’ boots dug into his shoulders every time the alfar shifted, and Roman couldn’t keep this up without some sort of distraction. “I should have been on top. You used to be such a twig. What happened?”
“People age when you don’t see them in sixty years,” Leandros said. “Though I suppose you’re the singular exception to that.”
Roman glanced down at himself and frowned. Above him, Leandros grabbed for the wall.
“Stop moving,” he hissed. “I need just a few more inches, Roman. I’m sorry about this.”
“About wh-,” Roman started, then one of Leandros’ boots shifted and stepped onto his head. “Ow!”
All at once, Leandros’ weight disappeared as he grabbed hold of the high window sill and hauled himself up. Past the narrow window, only darkness seemed to wait, but when Leandros pushed the window open, it came with the distant chirping of crickets and a gust of warm, humid air.
“I’ll come around and open the door for you,” Leandros said, already climbing over the sill.
“Wait, but-,” Roman called, Leandros dropping out of the frame of night sky and disappearing from sight. Roman sighed. “What about the guard?”
Not expecting an answer, he looked around the room at the friendly decor and comfortable furniture. As short as their stay here had been, this was still a cage, and Roman had been trapped in enough cages to hate them more than anything. He never thought he’d find one here in Home. He wasn’t left to brood long; not even a minute had passed before there was a click on the other side of the room’s single door. It slid open, Leandros waiting on the other side.
Beside him slouched an unconscious oanai.
Roman raised an eyebrow, but knew better to speak until they were a good distance away from the cage and its keeper. The oanai’s sense of hearing was legendary, and Roman didn’t want to risk anything.
“How’d you manage that?” he finally asked in a whisper.
Leandros smiled at him, barely more than a twist of his lips. “I wish I could take credit, but I didn’t have to do anything. He was asleep at his post.”
“Ah. And what would you have done if he wasn’t?”
“I’m not terribly sure. Left you, maybe?”
Now that they had slipped their guard, escaping was just a matter of picking their way through Home to the Grand Staircase. Normally, this would be no easy feat, but Home quieted at night. Unless there was a party happening, the oanai slept like clockwork, not to wake until sunrise. The fae were another matter, but they had neither the oanai’s attention to detail nor keen hearing. They traveled in groups and spoke loudly, making them easy to avoid.
The nearer they grew to the steep-sloped hill that marked the edge of Home, the less buildings stood around them. That meant walking more in the open, but the Home had no lanterns like Unity cities did, and the further from Home’s center they traveled, the deeper the night grew around them. They kept off the main path, their boots sinking into mud from a recent rain with every step.
Leandros kept his gaze on the ground ahead of him, but Roman watched the hill ahead. When something shifted in the shadows of the hill, his sharp eyes saw it immediately. He grabbed Leandros’ arm. “Wait. Come this way.”
He led them along the side of an abandoned building, closer to the movement. When he focused, he could just make out three human-sized shapes picking their way down the hill in a line. Even as he watched, the second figure in the line slipped in the mud, toppling and taking the first down with it.
“Atiuh’s name,” Leandros groaned. They both stood in the shadow of the building watching the two figures tumble the rest of the way. “Is that-,”
“I think so.”
When they reached the bottom, the first figure pounced on the first, grabbing them by the collar. Even from ten feet away, Roman and Leandros could clearly make out the litany of curses leaving the first’s mouth.
Roman cupped his hands around his mouth and, lowering his voice for effect, called, “Who goes there?”
The swearing figure jumped to her feet and half-drew her sword, looking around for the source of the voice. When she saw Roman, she let out the most vicious swear yet and drew her sword the rest of the way, using it to point at him. “You! You think that’s funny?”
When she started advancing, Roman took a step behind Leandros.
“I understand how infuriating he can be, Ms. Corscia, but please keep quiet. The oanai have remarkable hearing,” Leandros said.
Evelyne scowled and sheathed her sword. She was almost unrecognizable, covered from head to toe in mud from her tumble. Behind her, Eresh Ochoa was much the same.
“Leandros! Mr. Hallisey!”
The third figure, a lanky human with long ears and a tail swishing from side to side with excitement, reached the bottom of the hill then. “That was quite a tumble, Eresh, are you alright? Oh! Hello, Captain lion cub!”
“Eftychia,” Leandros acknowledged. “What are you three doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” Evelyne asked. Now that she was no longer shouting, her voice had taken on its usual gentle hue. “We’re here to rescue you, and it turns out you’re just wandering about?”
“I’m flattered,” Leandros said. He sounded, to Roman, more suspicious than flattered, but he doubted the others could hear the difference. “But we were about to escape on our own. You didn’t have to come for us.”
“We did, though,” Evelyne said, glancing up the hill. Following her gaze, Roman could make out another figure waiting at the top of the hill, one that waved when he looked.
“You brought Thea?” he asked. “And Eresh?”
“Ms. Fairfax is the one who insisted we run this little rescue mission,” Evelyne sniffed. “And she refused to be left behind.”
“And as dear Eresh is nympherai, he and I are the only ones who could be seen in Home without raising suspicion,” Eftychia added.
“I hate to break it to you, but an orinian in Home is suspicious,” Roman said.
Eftychia tipped her head to one side. “Are the oanai not working with Orean?”
“I don’t think so, but that’s not the point. Most orinians are afraid of the forest. You were raised in Gallontea, I take it?”
“Since birth,” Eftychia replied cheerfully.
“Is this the time?” Evelyne asked. “We need to get out of here.”
“I’m not going back through the mud,” Eresh said, still trying to wipe some of it from his person.
“No, it’s too slippery, anyhow,” Leandros said. “Sneaking up the stairs with two of us would have been easy, but a group this large…the grand stairway is visible from most points in Home, and all nympherai can see in the dark. I doubt we’d make it up without being spotted. I recommend we stagger our ascent.”
As a group, they made their way over to the base of the stairs, those in the group who’d never been to Home before looking up at the sheer size of each step with dismay.
“I’ll go first,” Eftychia said. “Since there’s a guard waiting at the top.” With that, she began bounding her way up the steps, enthusiastic even in the face of such a task as this.
When she was halfway up, passing the stone statue of Ellaes, Leandros asked, “Who next?”
“I’ll go last,” Roman said.
Either not wanting to be outdone or not trusting Roman’s motives, Evelyne narrowed her eyes and said, “Me too.”
Leandros raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and nodded for Eresh to follow him. Evelyne didn’t seem to realize this left her alone with Roman until Leandros and Eresh were four steps up. She opened her mouth as if to call them back, then closed it and shot a challenging look at Roman, daring him to try to speak to her.
To Roman’s surprise, it was Evelyne that spoke first. They were both watching Eresh, waiting eagerly for him to reach the Ellaes statue so they could begin their own climb, when Evelyne said, “Hey.”
Roman eyed her, wary. “What?”
“I was just wondering…” Evelyne paused, then. It was hard to read her expression behind the layer of mud caked on her face, but Roman could tell she was frowning. “You know what, forget it.”
Evelyne whirled on him and jabbed a finger into his chest. “You have long lost the right to use my name, Egil. I would kill you right here if I didn’t have orders to obey.”
Roman cringed and opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of frantic bells picking up somewhere deep in Home stopped him. Listening for a moment, he said, “That’s coming from where they were holding me and Leandros. They’ve noticed we’re gone.”
“Then let’s go.”
He and Evelyne started up the steps at the same time, both climbing quickly and nimbly. They caught up to Leandros and Eresh near the top and found Eftychia dancing circles around the oanai guard, narrowly dodging his spear. As Evelyne rushed forward to help, the sound of quick feet moving through tall grass came from behind Eftychia. A figure darted past her, leaping at the last moment to barrel into the oanai’s chest. The oanai stumbled back and swatted at the newcomer, but the figure was deftly climbing his thick chest armor. With a one fluid movement, he hauled himself onto the oanai’s shoulder, drew one of the swords strapped to his back, and plunged it into the oanai’s chest.
While the oanai fell, the newcomer jumped gracefully off his shoulder, withdrawing his sword in the process and landing gracefully on his feet like a cat. That finished, he sheathed his sword and shoved his hands deep in his pockets. “You were faster than I expected. I was going to take a nap.”
“I told you to watch Ms. Fairfax, Ivor, not nap,” Evelyne said.
Roman shoved past her. “Why did you do that?” he snarled, getting in Ivor’s face. The Enforcer leaned back, but his typical lazy expression didn’t change. “You didn’t have to kill him.”
“I removed an obstacle. You should thank me,” Ivor said.
“An obstacle? Is that all people are to you?” Roman asked. He could feel the first warning tingles that meant he was losing control, but he couldn’t help it. In Ivor’s eyes, he saw the Enforcer he used to be.
“I’m better than Eftychia. She plays with her food.”
Roman growled, the sound too rough and animalistic to have come from a human throat. That, finally, make Ivor blink and take a small step back.
“Ivor, stand down. That’s an order,” Evelyne said, a hint of worry making its way into her voice.
Roman felt a gentle hand on his arm, then, tugging him away from the three Enforcers. “Roman,” Leandros’ low voice said into his ear, “You need to calm down.”
Thea chose that moment to join them, looking between the group members to the fallen oanai. Her gaze lingered on Roman, making him wonder just what she saw in his aura. “What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” Eftychia said, forcing false cheer into her voice. She took Thea’s hand, and pulling her over to where Eresh stood, watching the confrontation with wide eyes, took his as well. “It’s time to go rejoin our team, don’t you think?”
Ivor and Leandros started after them, following them into the forest, but Evelyne cut Roman off. She appraised him coolly, looking him up and down, but Roman knew the look in her eye well. It was a look he’d seen many times – the look of someone realizing that he should be feared.
“This may be a rescue mission, but we’re not heroes. We’re killers,” she said, adding, “You of all people should know that.”
Roman looked away. “Get out of my way.”
“Tell me something, first,” Evelyne said, holding a hand out to stop Roman when he tried to move past her. “Tell me, does it ever go away? Did running from us cure you, like you thought it would?”
Roman pursed his lips, not answering, and Evelyne said, “Thought not. I know bloodlust when I see it.”
With that, she turned and followed the others, leaving Roman with nothing to do but follow.