A/N: Warning for some minor violence in this chapter
“You’re so heavy,” Roman grumbled.
“Quit whining, Roman. I almost have it.”
Roman shut his mouth. But every time the alfar shifted, his boots dug into Roman’s shoulders and Roman didn’t know if he could keep this up without a distraction. “I should have been on top. You used to be such a twig. What happened?”
“Surprisingly enough, people age and grow when you don’t see them in sixty years,” Leandros said, voice strained. “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 just need 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. Roman had been trapped in enough cages to hate them more than anything. He never thought he’d find one here in Home.
Fortunately, 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.
“How’d you manage that?” he whispered.
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.”
Roman stepped around the oanai, joining Leandros in the street. “I suppose the oanai aren’t used to holding people here,” he said. “What would you have done if he was awake?”
“I’m not terribly sure. Left you, maybe?”
Now that they had slipped their guard, escaping was just a matter of making it 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 their keen hearing. They traveled in groups and spoke loudly, making them easy to avoid.
As they walked, Roman wondered if Devikra was still in Home. Wilhara would still be in Damael— the girl never left. So even if she did see them escaping, she wouldn’t be able to warn Devikra. That was in their favor, at least.
By unspoken agreement, they gave Central Field a wide berth and kept off the main roads. Due to the recent rain, their boots sunk into the mud with every step. And Home didn’t have lamp posts like modern cities, so with the city darkening around them, it made for slow going.
Leandros kept his gaze on the ground below him, but Roman watched the steep-sloped hill marking the edge of Home ahead. When something shifted in the shadows at the top, his sharp eyes caught the movement. He grabbed Leandros’ arm. “Wait. Come this way.”
He led them along the side of a crumbling building, closer to the source of 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. He and Roman waited in the shadow of the building, watching the two figures tumble the rest of the way. “Is that—,”
Roman laughed. “I think so.”
When they reached the bottom, the first figure pounced on the second, 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 in a flash 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 advanced, Roman hid behind Leandros.
“I understand how infuriating he can be, Ms. Corscia, but please keep quiet. Home may be asleep, but we’d best not take any chances,” 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 in a similar state. 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?” she asked. “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 gone back to its usual gentle lull. “We’re here to rescue you, and it turns out you’re just wandering around?”
“I’m flattered,” Leandros said. He sounded, to Roman, more suspicious than flattered, but he doubted the others could hear the difference. “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, one that waved when he looked.
“You brought Thea?” Roman asked. Then, remembering the mud-soaked nympherai, “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 dear Eresh is nympherai,” Eftychia said. “He’s the only one who knew how to get here. Besides, he and I are the only ones who could be seen in Home without raising suspicion.”
“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 Orean 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 have Nochdvor, so let’s get out of here.”
“I’m not going back through the mud,” Eresh said, still trying in vain to wipe it from his person.
“It’s too slippery, anyhow,” Leandros said. He considered the Grand Staircase. “Sneaking up the stairs with two of us would have been easy, but a group this large…the stairs are visible from most points in Home, and oanai can see well in the dark. I doubt we’d make it up without being spotted. I recommend we stagger our ascent.”
Together, they made their way over to the base of the stairs, those in the group who hadn’t been to Home before taking in the sheer size of each step with dismay.
“I’ll go first, since there’s guards waiting at the top. Ivor’s waiting on my signal to take him out,” Eftychia said. With that, she began bounding her way up the steps, enthusiastic 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 that this left her alone with Roman until Leandros and Eresh were several 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 his 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 follow.”
Roman cringed and opened his mouth to apologize, but the sound of frantic bells picking up somewhere deep in Home stopped him. Instead, he swore. “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 one of the guards, narrowly dodging his spear. The other guard lay nearby, already fallen. Roman couldn’t tell if they were unconscious or dead, but the dark pool in the grass beneath them didn’t look like shadow.
As Roman, Evelyne, and Leandros rushed forward to help Eftychia, a figure darted past her from behind, leaping at the last moment to barrel into the oanai’s chest. The oanai stumbled back, swatting at the newcomer, but the figure was deftly climbing his thick chest armor. With a fluid movement, he hauled himself onto the oanai’s shoulder and drew one of the swords strapped to his back.
“Don’t!” Roman shouted, but it was too late. The man plunged his sword into the oanai’s neck.
While the oanai fell, Ivor jumped gracefully off his shoulder, withdrawing his sword in the process and landing 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.”
Roman shoved past Ivor, kneeling at the dying oanai’s side. He was still breathing, barely, and Roman pressed his hands to the wound on impulse, trying to staunch the blood flow. But it was too late, and too much blood had already been lost.
“I told you to watch Ms. Fairfax, Ivor. Not nap,” Evelyne scolded.
“She can watch hersel—hey!” Ivor said, cutting off when Roman fisted a hand in his shirt and hauled him close. Roman’s hands were covered in blood, now, and they stained Ivor’s clothing.
“Why did you do that?” Roman snarled. 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 be thanking me,” Ivor said.
“An obstacle? He’s a person, and there were other ways to incapacitate him! He did nothing to you!” Roman yelled. He could feel the warning tingles that meant he was losing control, but he couldn’t help it. In Ivor’s eyes, he saw the man he used to be and he hated it.
Ivor shrugged. “I’m better than Eftychia. She plays with her food.”
“Roman,” Leandros warned.
“Ivor,” Evelyne said slowly, a hint of worry making its way into her voice, “Stand down. That’s an order.”
Roman growled, the sound too rough and animalistic to have come from a human throat. That, finally, made Ivor struggle to get away. His eyes widened when he realized he couldn’t fight Roman’s grip, even with both hands prying at Roman’s fingers.
Leandros put a hand on Roman’s arm. When Roman’s grip loosened in response, Ivor pulled himself free so suddenly he fell gracelessly back into the grass. Leandros took his place in front of Roman, urging him in a low voice, “You need to calm down.”
Thea chose that moment to join them, looking from Ivor on the ground to Roman, visibly shaking, 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 your darling head over,” Eftychia said, her cheer—for once— sounding forced. She took Thea’s hand and pulled her over to where Eresh stood, watching the confrontation with wide eyes. She took his hand as well. “It’s time to go rejoin our team, don’t you think? Home will be looking for us here soon.”
Leandros patted Roman’s arm before joining the trio, disappearing into the forest. Ivor scrambled after them, his careful composure broken. Before Roman could follow, Evelyne cut him off. She appraised him coolly, looking him up and down, but Roman recognized her hesitance. It was a hesitance he’d seen before— the same you’d show a beast or a monster, trying to determine whether it might attack.
“This may be a rescue mission, but we’re not heroes. We’re killers,” she said. “You of all people should know that.”
Roman grit his teeth. “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. “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 trail after her.