Balancing Act

"Lorden, shut up and do as you're told!"

Lorden was disgruntled, but he couldn't help but respect Ceridwen, even in her mooments of annoying superiority. Even in such tense times she was cool, calm and alert. She had total control of the entire operation.

The underworld was buzzing like a huge ants' nest. He had never seen so many maggots flocking in the corridors. Men carrying barricades which they were enhancing with magic as they walked; young boys practising spells for the attack in dark corners; plasma bulbs swaying in the press of people. Lorden had never seen children in the underworld before, yet now the corridors were full of them, most of them looking half-starved. He was glad that the women were leading them to safety, but at the same time furious at the King and his skivvies for forcing this fate on their people purely because of some overblown stereotype against magic.

He had headed to talk to Elenia, who he had grown close to over the past month. Their lessons with Oakstaff had got better - Elenia's unusual ability had grown beyond comparison and she was now beating Lorden in duels on a regular basis. Oakstaff had taken to Elenia rather more than Lorden, possibly because of the friction between the two at Lorden's first lesson. Oakstaff was no longer grumpy or taciturn, however - teaching magic again seemed to have brought him out of his shell, as if he was again the young man who helped the persecuted in the Purge all those years ago.

Ceridwen would have spoken to the Princess directly, but she knew Lorden had befriended her and his word would be far more influential, even as it had been on the day of her arrival. Lorden was to tell her the situation. She had to make up her mind which side she was on.


Ceridwen was headed towards the slums, and Oakstaff's house, when she first spotted the signs of Royal activity. She was speaking to Dagger on her PI, when she spotted him.

"- go and talk to Ben, we need him fighting, he may be stubborn, that's just who he is, but -"

CRASH.

Ceridwen closed her PI with a touch and drew her knives at once. This part of the underworld was dark and unused - it was the place of Hero's death, and people had become rather superstitious of it. Ceridwen had encouraged people to use the area more, as it was the place the King would most likely strike again - and he had.

But it wasn't the barrage of army personnel she had expected. It was a CTO. She prepared to throw her knife, but then he turned.

It was Grimwald.

Ceridwen hesitated. So did he. They stood for a whole second in silence. Then:

"You're alone?" said Ceridwen suspiciously.

"Naturally," said Grimwald smoothly. "You know how I hate working in a group."

"Why are you here?"

"Well, what I had planned to do is now impossible."

"And why's that?"

"Because I tripped over, that's why."

Ceridwen couldn't help but laugh.

"You've grown up," she said sardonically. "And you're still clumsy. I would've thought they'd've knocked that out of you before you ever went on special operations."

"So - go on then, you've got me cornered. What are you going to do?"

"What do you think? I can't let you live."

"And why not?"

"Come on Grim, don't ask stupid questions. You may be a coward and a total clutz but you aren't thick."

Grimwald's hand was slowly creeping towards his pocket. His PI was in there - his ticket to safety.

"I assume you've come for the Princess?" said Ceridwen coldly, who had already clocked the subtle hand movement.

"Even I cannot save her from the bowels of your filthy hideout alone," said Grimwald coldly. "We have prepared a large troupe of highly trained riot officers who will approach when I give the signal."

Ceridwen suddenly let loose one of her knives. It embedded itself into Grimwald's pocket, puncturing his PI. A small amount of blood started trickling down the material as the PI gave a small phut and broke apart.

"You and what army?" she said, a gleeful smile upon her face.

Grimwald's face blanched. The command button hadn't even been for the riot team ...

"Fine. You got me," Grimwald conceded, holding his hands apart. "There's nothing I can do - well -"

Suddenly, there was a cascade of rock, and the opening above Grimwald's head, before unseen, was suddenly visible. A CTO's head poked through the hole as he dropped a taser into Grimwald's waiting hand.

Ceridwen cursed. She gathered her first reserves of energy and blasted the CTO's head off. It rolled pathetically at Grimwald's feet, charred and mutilated, the body still jammed in the tiny tunnel the CTOs had clearly dug.

"Don't cross me, Grim," snarled Ceridwen. "You cannot beat me, and I'm not about to surrender this place."

"Surely you wouldn't kill me? Your old schoolfriend?"

"School was a long time ago, Grim," said Ceridwen sharply. "Times have changed."

"No, they haven't. You left school ten years ago, it's been quite a while since -"

"Yeah! And why did I leave school? Remind me of that, why don't you!"

Grimwald fell silent.

"I thought that would shut you up," snapped Ceridwen. "Come on, out with it! Why did I leave school?"

"You already know."

"Say it! Admit you did wrong for once!"

Grimwald's face was tortured, almost twisted. He'd hoped the conversation wouldn't turn to this.

"I betrayed you."

"Exactly! You took your cowardly arse off to the master as soon as you saw the posters go up. I wasn't your friend any more, I was your burden - a criminal burden you wanted gone before any yellowcoats caught up with you."

"I knew you'd never understand. They were finding maggots everywhere, I was doing you a favour, they would have found you eventually -"

"Doing me a favour? Do you have any idea what they do to maggots? It's a long and painful death, Grim, that's what you condemned me to. And you cared more for your own hide than mine, scared they'd give you that punishment because you were my friend. And to think you used to love me? Yeah, I know that, too! You were a rubbish liar, you know that? A coward and a liar. You didn't think I had a right to be part of society because of what I am. You disgust me."

She spat on the floor at his feet.

"There is nothing between us, not anymore. Not now I know where your loyalties lie."

"I had no choice, Ceridwen, they were -"

"Don't give me that rubbish. You chose the biggest bully in the playground to hide behind. Well - there's no-one here to defend you now -"

- and Ceridwen lost her temper. Grimwald was forced to dive to the ground as she began to bombard him with everything she had. Grimwald barely dodged the blade of her other knife while letting loose several salvos aimed at her face. She ducked and used her free hand to send a Stun slamming towards his head. He lifted the taser to block the attack and Ceridwen pressed forward again -

- and Ceridwen knew she had the advantage. Grimwald had always been rubbish at fighting - and he wouldn't ever hurt her. Not now she knew that the soft spot he'd had for her in their youth had grown into something a lot more serious ...

... but then, Ceridwen's body froze, as did Grimwald's. Ceridwen's knife was poised in midair, inches from Grimwald's head. It caught the insubstantial light from a rusty plasma.

Dagger.

It was the longest moment of his life, the indecision that pounded through him at that instant. It was like looking at a set of scales. Ceridwen was one pan, and Grimwald was the other.

Dagger was not stupid.

Ceridwen had never treated him like an equal, as she should have done. She might have saved him from a few tricky spots in the past, but he was easily as powerful as her, and at the moment he had more powerful assets ... he'd never received the respect he deserved.

Grimwald had lured him with the promise of money, and freedom - despite his own criminal burden. He had shown Dagger the deserving respect ... he had promised Dagger would not be persecuted for being a magic user.

Dagger didn't know who to trust. It was all too easy to leave things as they were ... would he ever benefit from joining the Compliance Team? There was no way of knowing that he wouldn't end up dying slowly like the other maggots who'd been caught ... and from what he'd heard, Grimwald was about as trustworthy as a paper bridge ...

The End

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