Lila’s black boots landed on the pale street. Her head spun a little from the sudden change, and she steadied herself against the wall. She heard the sound of Kell’s steps behind her.
“Well, that’s an improvement,” she said, turning. “At least we’re in the same place this—”
But he wasn’t there.
She was standing on the curb in front of a bridge, the White Castle rising in the distance across the river, which was neither grey nor red, but a pearly, half-frozen stretch of water, shining dully in the thickening night. Lanterns along the river burned with a pale blue fire that cast the world in a strange, colorless way, and Lila, in her crisp black clothes, stood out as much a light in the dark.
Something shone near her feet, and she looked down to find the white rook on the ground, its pale surface still dotted with Kell’s blood. But no Kell. She picked up the token and pocketed it, trying to swallow her rising nerves.
Nearby, a starved dog was watching her with empty eyes.
And then, quickly, Lila became aware of other eyes. In windows and doorways, and in the shadows between pools of sickly light. Her hand went to the knife with the metal knuckles.
“Kell?” she called out under her breath, but there was no answer. Maybe it was like last time. Maybe they’d simply been separated, and he was making his way toward her now. Maybe, but Lila had felt the strange pull as they stepped through, had felt his hand vanish from hers too soon.
Footsteps echoed, and she turned in a slow circle but saw no one.
Kell had warned her of this world—he’d called it dangerous—but so much of Lila’s own world had fit that term, so she hadn’t given it much stock. After all, he’d grown up in a palace and she’d grown up on the streets, and Lila thought she knew a good bit more about bad alleys and worse men than Kell. Now, standing here, alone, Lila was beginning to think she hadn’t given him enough credit. Anyone—even a highborn—could see the danger here. Could smell it. Death and ash and winter air.
She shivered. Not only from cold, but from fear. A simple bone-deep sense of wrong. It was like looking into Holland’s black eye. For the first time, Lila wished she had more than knives and the Flintlock.
“Övos norevjk,” came a voice to her right, and she spun to see a man, bald, every inch of exposed skin, from the crown of his head down to his fingers, covered in tattoos. Whatever he was speaking, it didn’t sound like Arnesian. It was gruff and guttural, and even though she didn’t know the words, she could grasp the tone, and she didn’t like it.
“Tovach ös mostevna,” said another, appearing to her left, his skin like parchment.
The first man chuckled. The second tsked.
Lila pulled the knife free. “Stay back,” she ordered, hoping her gesture would make up for any language barrier.
The men exchanged a look and then withdrew their own jagged weapons.
A cold breeze cut through, and Lila fought down a shiver. The men broke into rotting grins. She lowered her knife. And then, in one smooth move, she drew the pistol from her belt, raised it, and shot the first man between the eyes. He went down like a sack of stones, and Lila smiled before she realized how loud the gunshot sounded. She hadn’t noticed how quiet the city was until the shot rang out, the blast carrying down the streets. All around them, doors began to open. Shadows moved. Whispers and murmurs came from corners of the street—first one, then two, then half a dozen.
The second man, the one with papery skin, looked at the dead one, and then at Lila. He started talking again in a low threatening growl, and Lila was glad she didn’t speak his tongue. She didn’t want to know what he was saying.
Slivers of dark energy crackled through the air around the man’s blade. She could feel people moving behind her, the shadows taking shape into people, gaunt and grey.
Come on, Kell, she thought as she raised the gun again. Where are you?