Charlie missed the sun. She missed the sky and the stars and the moon and the clouds. She missed breathing clean air, though she wasn’t certain she ever had. Her entire life had been spent inside the city walls, breathing the purified air through vents. Even once she’d managed to get beyond the walls, the air was far from fresh; lethal was a more accurate word, though with careful management, she was – as were other agents working for the Guild – trained to adapt to the air, exposed to the toxin in small doses until they all became immune to it or died.
She still remembered the first time she’d breathed the toxic air. It ate at her lungs like fire and dropped her to her knees within a hundred seconds. Nothing had ever taken her down so quickly and even the memory of such weakness made her itch for a fight. Even ten years later she carried a pair of scars down the length of her throat where her own nails had tried to claw inside to free the screams and the poison air from her body. Idly, she ran a fingertip down the strangely smooth lines of raised flesh, along the ridge where it intersected with her undamaged skin. Dismissing the memory, she lit a cigarette and stared up at the city walls from her balcony. It was dawn, though the only indicator was that the streetlights began switching to the daytime setting. From inside the apartment, she could hear rustling noises. A pair of feet padding gently down the hallway’s hardwood floors. Elliot was awake, and probably hungry, if Charlie knew anything about one of her favorite lovers.
She’d been ecstatic to find Elliot home – home, and awake, and already a few solid glasses of whiskey into the night. Gleefully, Elliot had joined her in the car and they’d spent the entire night in bed. Charlie still hadn’t slept, but she felt refreshed regardless.
Elliot found her on the balcony a few minutes later, a cup of coffee steaming between her lovely fingers.
“Have you been out here since I fell asleep?” Her voice was like a psithurism, blowing over Charlie’s whole body . Elliot seated herself in the adjacent chair. In her peripheral vision, Charlie recognized the bronze blur of skin and short crop of curly hair the color of dark soil with a warm familiarity. Elliot was a presence she enjoyed having around. Most of her lovers did not receive an invitation to stay the whole night.
“I’m not tired,” Charlie said, by way of response.
“Then I didn’t do a good enough job,” Elliot retorted, a trace of laughter already in her voice. Charlie smiled and took a drag.
The phone rang inside the condo and she left Elliot to answer it, ashing in one of the many ashtrays she had scattered in almost every corner of every room.
She picked up the receiver. “Yes?”
“You have a new target,” replied the smoky voice of one of the Guild’s dispatchers. Cliff, if Charlie’s hearing wasn’t mistaken.
“Where is the package?”
“East 9th, in locker 83. You know the routine.”
“Understood,” she said, and hung up. She took one last drag and stubbed out the cigarette.
When she turned around, Elliot was already behind her, a pleasnt smile already tugging at her full lips. “I’ll get my things and let you get to work.”
Charlie smiled back. One of the best things about Elliot was her quiet understanding that Charlie’s employment was not up for discussion. Whether Elliot thought Charlie was a drug trafficker or postal delivery worker, Charlie didn’t know – or care. She kissed Elliot’s lips and headed to the bathroom, leaving Elliot to see herself out.
Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was freshly showered and already on her way to East 9th. Her wet hair was pulled back in a tight braid and swished against her spine. She’d worn a simple outfit – something versatile in case the unexpected indubidably happened – a pair of leggings and a fitted shirt with a silver-buttoned vest sinching it close to her torso, and a pair of knee-high leather boots with thick soles and silver buckle straps going all the way up. Over everything she wore a tailored midnight black duster, but that was mostly to conceal the array of weapons she had stashed on her figure than to protect her against the cold morning. The streets were sparse and she passed only a few scattered people on her walk, most of them in a hurry to get home from a long shift – probably in one of the huge factories that made up the city. The closer she got to the train station, the fewer people she saw. Most who lived in the city never left – the trains were all long-term destinations, used mostly for tradesmen visiting cities to sell their goods for a few months before moving on to the next.
She found the locker in the row of lockers offered for public use by the train station and twisted the puzzle lock into place. With a click and a hiss, it released and the locker door swung open to reveal the small soft brown leather case. Once the case was safely tucked into an inside pocket of her duster, she left the train station and returned home.
She poured over the documents in the silence of early morning, making little annotations as she needed to and compiling a list of supplies she would need to bring with her. When she’d read everything, she sat at her desk with the papers spread all around and developed her plan of attack. Charlie had always excelled at strategy – it was one of the things that made her a top agent for the Guild – but her true skill, which she liked to keep to herself, was in her ability to improvise and adapt to any situation. No matter how good a plan was, there were any number of factors that could foul it up, and Charlie lived between these details, always paying close attention, always thinking a few steps ahead, always giving herself a variety of choices. That was something she’d learned very early on: one could never have too many escape plans.
It was a simple thing, a small thing, but never once in her training had someone told her that. They’d told her many things: how to kill a stone giant, how to wash off the staining black blood of the serpent-men, the proper way to stitch a gaping wound, the difference between poison oak and black oak. They had told her, you can never have too much ammunition, you can never have too much training, but never a word about escape plans. Never a word about the flaw in rigid planning.
Still, not everything Charlie had ever learned had been taught to her by the Guild. It was a defining factor in who she was, in what she was capable of, that she could think for herself. That she hungered for knowledge and information on her own. That she sought out these things on her own time, without direction or command. Her ashtray was full and her percolator of coffee was empty. Her clock said it was eleven in the morning.
She returned all the papers to the case and locked it away in the safe she’d built beneath the floorboards, gathered her supplies and pulled on her duster once more. It was time to start the day.
It did not occur to her that she still had not slept.
She found the nest of spiderlings a few miles beyond the city walls. Their name was deceptive – when she’d first heard of them she’d thought they’d be small and unimpressive – and it often served as a point of vulnerability to any going after them. A simple lack of awareness of their true form would get you killed, and it would not be quick or merciful. The spiderlings were enormous – most of them were bigger than the town cars the Guild had driving around their elite assassins, and the older the spiderling the bigger it was. Hundreds of beady little eyes stared in every direction, the unblinking black orbs more unsettling than anything else – except for their big, salivating mouths with sharp fangs almost as long as Charlie’s hand.
She knew a few assassins who were terrified of the spiderlings, but they didn’t bother Charlie. Most things didn’t.
The webs were densely spun in the tallest trees, wrapping all the way around trunks to be able to hold the weight of the giant beasts. Loaded down with her carefully selected supplies, Charlie climbed a tree a few feet away from where the webs stopped, to get a better view. She’d been hoping they’d be on the outskirts of the forests, but they seemed too intelligent for that and had nested much further in. She wouldn’t be able to simply burn them down without burning down much of the forest. She weighed the potential, but decided against it.
Instead, she would have to take them down herself.