The House of Wolves

Ravens and Horses

Every time Aurelia had stolen a life, shed looked at herself in the mirror. She expected herself to turn into a monster, for the blood on her hands to soak her entire body and transform her into some demonic, malformed creature unrecognizable as a former human. But every time she looked, all she saw was a girl. A regular girl, with dark skin and black hair with frosted white tips. A regular girl whose hands shook constantly when she was afraid, who was only fourteen years old.

A sister, a daughter, a child, that was what she saw and this sight was what saved her. But so was her code. Her promise to never take a life unless she was ordered to had been her salvation. Like a thread allowing her to hold hope for herself, that maybe she could be more than an assassin or a thief. That maybe she could be accepted for her skin tone and eye color and all the features which she was forced to hide, and which differentiated her from those up top.

It was these characteristics, which drove her to a life of crime. After all, she wasn born with money, and the easiest way to make it was by taking what she didn have. Yet she had always clung to the faith that if she kept even a sliver of morality, she would make it out one day.

But now? She was like a puppet without a tether, a dog without a leash….she was not even human. She was certain that when she looked in the mirror that day, the monster she had always feared would make its appearance.

It was a thought which brought tears to her eyes, which mingled with the blood on her hands and created a runny mess which simply wouldn stop. She was vibrating uncontrollably as she ran, everything was a blur to her. She needed to get herself away from here as fast as possible. Away from the masks and the knights who were not really knights. Away from the money and the clock towers and the clean water and the bridges and every thing she could think of which she wanted so badly yet hated so much.

She could not come back here. Not after what she had done. She deserved to stay in the underground, accepting whatever jobs could be found there. But until she got there, she would continue to run through the shadows cast by the buildings, through the alleys snaking through the houses, through all the places where the light didn dare shine. The little corners which made their way to parts of the city the highborn bastards couldn even fathom. Bayronds square was where the light was always shining and the buildings were made of gold. But these alleyways were the only place she felt comfortable running now. How could she walk in broad daylight in a place like this, with her clothes and with blood on her hands. With her grease and dirt and her ravenous bloodlust, one cultivated by the blackness of the underground.

She was more out of place here than a bloodhound in a pack of sheep.

”Don cry little girl, ” whispered a radiant voice making its way into her thoughts. She turned around, and standing in the alleyways, was another merchant without a knight. He was a male though this time, with a golden face reminiscent of a saints and a subtle expression which provided a feeling of security.

Like an angel in the body of a man, far too beautiful for someone of her caliber. She hated the light that seemed to emanate from him, a light which felt twisted in nature but yet so much greater than anything she could ever attain. This was the voice of a man who had everything she had ever wanted, and who could do nothing but indulge. No different from any of the other merchants, this was how all of them looked and sounded when stripped of their masks. With faces that only looked complete when behind a veil. Not because they were ugly, but because they could not live without distinction and flamboyance of the most hedonistic kind.

She did not trust the man nor his intentions, nor could he stand his face. But when she tried to pick up her pace again the mans hand gripped hers. He pulled her in his direction and clasped her mouth like how she had clasped the mouth of that woman just minutes before. But his hands were cold and his fingers spindly like a puppeteers. She didn like the way they felt against her skin. But the man was strong, abnormally so.

He pressed her against the wall and that serene face of his turned to the picture of lecherousness. Saliva dripped from his mouth as he ran his hands down Aurelias neck and to her shoulder. She tried to fight but he paid no mind, and simply whispered to not struggle.

His voice was not forceful, it was soft like hers could never be, and yet unmistakably evil all the same. He pulled back her cloak and began to unbutton it. She had to find a way out of the situation. Shed heard many stories like this, of young boys and girls being cornered by lustful nobles, and every time shed thought to herself:

Why? Why are these people like this? Why do they see a girl and lose themselves? What did I, what did they do to deserve any of this?

She asked but she knew why. It was because they had power, they had the city in the palm of their hand. What was one person, no, one lowly piece of meat in the face of their wealth and status. She hated them all, she hated their clothes, their food, she hated their blood itself and all the shitty privileges it gave them. They could take whatever they wanted simply because of their birthright!

How could they cause innocent people so much suffering whilst they laughed from above in their piles of money?

But no…she did deserve this. She was a monster now after all, not a maiden or a girl, but an inhuman oathbreaker undeserving of salvation. Her code had meant everything to her, and she had broken it so casually, so easily. As simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

She would submit to this assault, she told herself, but her body did not agree.

Her eyes caught sight of a loose brick in the building she was currently pinned against. A rare sight in a place this perfect, this grand. But she could not be more grateful for it. She grabbed the brick and slammed it against the mans head. He stumbled back immediately, blood spurting from his wound.

”You- ” he reached for her with those perverse, malignant hands, but they failed to reach her. He fell to the ground unconscious, hopefully even dead. She stared at him numbly all the while, as if failing to recognize what she had just done.

And then, her heart dropped. Dropped like a rock it did, into the very pit of her stomach. She had lost control again, given into the voice without it even needing to whisper in her ear. She didn care about the reasons, she didn care about the justifications. She was done with all of that. All she could see was her own gaping pit of insecurity and self loathing.

She punched the wall in front of her with such force it stained her knuckles red. But she did it again, and again, and again, until a guttural scream loosed from her lips. And then she ran, even harder this time. Through the winding shadows and the lights too. As long as she could go away from here she didn care who saw her. She caught sight of a boy around her brothers age, sneaking through the city, looking as if he didn belong. But she didn care, she ran all the same. Even after she made it past the square she continued to run, blood dripping from her knuckles all the while. Through the blocks where all the normal people were, where she and her brother lived in ignorant bliss.

She only stopped when she reached the black market, the one on the far side of town. Here was where she truly felt at home. She didn like the place, but right now, it was the only spot she could allow herself to be.

A stubby little creature bumped into her then, one with pointed ears and splotchy colored skin. It grumbled when it did and shot up a look of pure animosity, yet continued on its way all the same.

It was a dwarf. But not like the dwarves in tales and legends who wielded axes and worked in forges, these creatures were far uglier, far less noble. They had grown drunk on human pleasures, lived comfortably in the underbellies of human cities whilst the rest of the world continued to believe in fantasies and dreams. Versions of these beings who were far better than the ones who actually dwelled in their lands.

Dwarves weren the only creatures who shared the black market with humans. One of the most famous meat shops in the district was run by a fat blob of a creature, one with pale green skin and fish-like protrusions extending from the side of his head. He had beady eyes and a figure reminiscent of oversized toads, yet no one paid any heed to him. No one saw him as a monster, why would they? Everyone here was the exact same, whether they looked like one or not.

Everywhere one looked in these parts, was utter depravity. It was the picture of indulgence which dwelled in the hearts of all the businessmen up at the square, just reciprocated by the common people in a much cruder way.

Old men with crooked yellow teeth smoked pots of tobacco and sipped gallons of booze every day on one hand, while the more fashionable criminals used these kinds of people and orchestrated violence all across the city. Trading lives down here was easier than coin. In fact it was preferable.

In the center of the underground was a building. One story, black wood, not much going for it but a sign which said Raymonds shop. Inside was Aurelias boss, Raymond Braedius. He was a pub owner who also led a circuit of assassins and robbers, performing jobs for anyone who would approach him.

When she swung open the door he was there, making a deal with…a man in a mask. The last kind of person she wanted to see. Thankfully, the deal was almost done, and the moment he handed Raymond a sack of money he stormed out the door, desperate to not be here any longer.

”Ah yes, my favorite little worker has arrived. Good to see ya Relia. ” Raymond said casually. Aurelia said nothing, prompting him to continue attempting to make conversation.

”Come on…why so blue? You look like you just performed your first kill! ”

She averted her eyes from him, prompting a shrug out of Raymond. He reached for a glass of beer he had been clearly working on, and drained it with a simple sip.

”Ain nothing like a Harpys Blood before the brothels open, am I right? ” He said to Aurelia with a chuckle and a wink. He was an older man, in his mid forties. He had a full head of scruffy gray hair and a tapestry of scars marked his face.

He had lazy brown eyes which stood out amongst his pale skin, and despite their lethargy they held a clarity and perceptiveness to them which Aurelia couldn stand. Their relationship had only soured after their fight about five weeks ago. In which Aurelia, in a fit of rage over him refusing to pay her on that day, decided to punch him square in the jaw.

She hadn regretted it, but it had terrified her the way he got up, and with a shard of broken glass sliced the edge of her stomach before she even realized what hed done. It had been executed efficiently, precisely, wasting no movement and causing just the right amount of pain to send a message.

He was a lustful, slothful, gluttonous old man but he was also dangerous, frustratingly so. He had no hesitation when it came to doing what needed to be done and that was why he could never be predicted.

She wanted to be away from him as soon as possible so quickly, wordlessly, she set down the masks which hung at her belt, which she had almost forgotten were there. Thankfully, all seven she had been commanded to obtain were intact. The seventh had a few specks of blood on it, but it was nothing which couldn easily be cleaned off.

Raymond narrowed his eyes and stared at her coldly, before shrugging and tossing her a bag of coins. When she opened it, she was outraged to find only fifteen copper coins instead of the amount she had been promised.

”The deal demanded thirty five, Raymond! This is only fifteen! ”

”Well….I thought it would be good to remind you of your position. Take the damn money and be on your way. ” Asserted Raymond coldly, no longer jovial and carefree.

”What right do you have to
emind me of my position? ” She slammed her fist on the table. She needed this money, not only to survive but because she knew that without her ability to kill, she was nothing. Nobody. So she deserved to be compensated appropriately, because if she wasn , it would mean that she was not even worthy at the only thing she could do. Which was to kill, to steal, to take until it sickened her. If that was the life she had to live, fine, but she would make sure that it meant something.

”You know what…I-I quit! ” she exclaimed, practically screaming. She didn really mean that, but at the same she did, because if there wasn proper compensation for her work than what was she even here for?

”And how do you intend to do that? ”

”I have money, nicked it off one of them merchants. Theres enough in this little bag to keep me out of this life forever. ”

She smirked and jangled the bag of money Ardos had given her in front of Raymond.

Of course..her bluff was empty. She hadn really nicked the money of course, and in her current state she was far too angry at herself to even think of going back up top, or anywhere away from here for that matter. She would have too…she knew that, but for now, she just couldn .

Unfortunately, Raymond saw through her bluff with ease.

”Nicked it off in a noble ay? Pretty hard to believe but, I know the sound of gold coins, so fair enough. But…whatll you do when you spend it all? Sure that money, if ya use it wisely, could last you for a year, maybe two…but it doesn change you. You won be able to leave this city, nor this life, and just like a drunk does with his liquor, youll always come crawling back. ”

”Y-you don know that. ”

”I don ? You think I, whove heard forty years in this game, this little game which all the thieves play, don know what it does to people? Even the bums who call themselves crime lords and what not are trapped in it. They just don want to accept it. This whole new damn generation doesn wanna accept it! ”

He shook his fist at Aurelia, no longer talking just about her anymore.

”Fuck you, Im getting out whether you like it or not! ” She was angry now. Genuinely determined to prove Raymond wrong whatever it took.

”Do you even know how hard I worked to steal those masks? All you do is sit back here like a bloody idiot, wasting away on booze whilst forcing the
ew generation you seem to hate so much to do your dirty work! ”

”Do you expect pity from me girl? Want a pat on the back for doing your **ing job? Take the money and leave before I steal another piece of your flesh. ”

”Well if Im doing my job then why don you give me the money Ive been owed? And besides, you
e just a cranky old man, how do you expect to steal anything from me when you need others to do your thieving for you? ”

”I did it before girl, you would be wise to presume I can do it again…and besides, its only right for an adult to teach a child a necessary lesson. Especially the immature sort, which you clearly seem to be despite all your years. ”

”Oh? So now you want to act like a proper adult? Don make me laugh! When have you ever stepped up to do anything for me unless its for the sake of discipline? ”

”Ah…so you even admit its discipline, ” Raymond poured himself another glass of alcohol. ”And besides, in this world discipline is far more crucial than love. Why would I give you something you don need? ”

”Don pretend as if you care for me! You aren doing this for my benefi- ”

”And when did I ever say I was? Im not your father and I don intend to be. My discipline is to ensure the survival of the business, nothing more. ”

”So then why, ” She slammed her fist on the table angrily, ”will you not let me leave? ”

”Because you
e an important part of this company. You aint worthy of my respect nor full payment, but the fact that there were men requesting your service means you
e important. ”

”Well I won be staying until I receive that full payment. ” Aurelia spat, now face to face with Raymond. She turned to leave, but once again Raymonds voice drew her back.

”You can leave…but as I told you, youll come back eventually, I know you will. And that time, youll be so desperate, so hungry for this life that the payment Im giving you know will seem like a **in blessing. ”

”And how can you be so damn sure of that, huh? ”

”You truly never learn do you? I told you, because I have experience. Ive seen kingpins attempt to become merchants, only to return to their old habits or be betrayed. Ive seen men try to escape, to try to go clean and devote themselves to god and grace and all that nonsense and come crawling back all the same. Youd think the people would learn but no, they keep telling themselves the same lies and drinking up the same fantasies until they actually start to believe em. And what happens then? They slip up, and get punished for it in all the worst ways. ” He seemed genuinely bitter when saying this. Practically trembling with sheer, unconcealed frustration.

”Embarrassing is what it is. All trying to be king of this and king of that, trying to overthrow the status quo and reject some so called oppression- ”

”But there is oppression! ” Aurelia interjected angrily. ”Those bastards who call themselves merchants force people to hide their peculiarities whilst they showcase them proudly! There is discrimination and you know this for a fact! ”

In response Raymond simply raised his eyebrows at Aurelia and laughed.

”Its always amazed me how you could go from crude to suddenly articulate, yknow? Twas about five minutes ago when you were all ** you and you
e just a cranky old man, and here you are now talking like a goddamn scholar! What a riot! ”

”As if you
e any different. ”

”Ah, but I ain so impassioned as you, especially not about a matter I have a very basic understanding of. Im articulate when Im explaining the truth. You
e articulate when spouting out false injustices. ”

”Bullshit! And besides, what does being articulate or not have to do with anything? ”

”Tell me, how can you complain about hiding peculiarities when a place like this exists? We have dwarves, monsters, creatures of all kinds amongst us and no one says a damn thing! Pretty, peculiar don you think? ”

”Yes but we live in the underground, its far different down here than up there! ”

”Bah, the undergrounds no more than an illusion for peasants to think they can play noble. ” He shook his head with the same air of a frustrated educator, which aggravated Aurelia to no end.

”Tell me, those on top here, what differentiates them from the businessmen? The blood barons, pretty stupid name by the way, were all born into power too, power their daddy or mummy carved out of them when they were no more than a distant dream. So really, whats the big difference? They take and we take, they waddle around in their masks and shit while the elite in this place look as if they just walked out of a coffin! Like really, have you seen the so called Lord of Crows? He actually wears feathers around his cloak you know! ” He broke into a chuckle.

Aurelia on the other hand, looked around frantically, afraid that an assassin of some sort might spring from behind the tables and fill them both with holes. It was not wise to insult the Blood Barons here, and certainly not the Lord of Crows. It was the same as insulting the High Council when in Bayronds square, except here the punishments were perhaps even crueler.

But to her shock, no assassins sprung from the now empty pub, no arrows lodged themselves in any of their heads, quite literally nothing happened. All one could see was a worried little girl and a middle aged man who was laughing away nonsensically.

This awkward stalemate of sorts continued for about a minute, before Raymond regained his bearings and reignited the discussion once again.

”You see girl, all that separates merchants and thieves is the names we call ourselves. ”

Aurelia shook with rage and anger upon that statement. She didn know why, after all, how could she believe in the views she spoke of when she had broken her own code. But nevertheless, she continued to argue, clinging on to a hope that perhaps she could at least verbalize the freedom from this life she had held onto desperately. Maybe she couldn attain it, no, she certainly couldn . But perhaps, she could prove that it at least existed. It had to…right?

”So you
e saying these injustices don exist? ”

Raymond let out an uncomfortably long sigh, and took a sip from his refilled glass.

”Yes, yes I very much am. These injustices you speak of died long before any of us were born, when this ” He threw his hands up, gesturing at the area around him, ”was created. When the people came together and decided to build this market for the commoners to play like the merchants. Quite beautiful it is, don ya think? ” He then took a hard, scrutinizing look at Aurelia. ”Who am I kidding, of course you don , with all your righteous rambling and what not. ”

He froze, as if to consider something. Aurelia hardly wanted to hear anymore, but she didn have the will to leave either. She was stuck, forced to listen as all her justifications were teared down right before her eyes.

”Well, there are those who still find themselves going to war or shipped to the mines. ” He conceded, only to follow up by saying: ”however those are the idiots too proud and too stupid to do what needs to be done to survive. ”

”So then what about the girls and boys forced to degrade themselves in this market of yours? ” Aurelia snapped back, empowered with a new argument. But to her dismay, Raymond laughed at that too.

”Far better than being sent to a battlefield to die because you
e too poor to afford anything. Id take being shacked up with an old man over getting my arm cut off any day. And besides, you act like its better up top. You can wear all the jewelry you want and still be treated like a toy by those whose jewelry exceeds yours still. Youll be hard pressed to find anybody not degrading themselves one way or another aside from maybe the High King himself. ” He scoffed and shook his head.

”Everyone else is just deluding themselves with dreams and codes and all that in order to make themselves think they
e better than what they are. Just because you wrap a dagger in a neat little bow and stuff it in a box doesn make the blade duller. Remember that girl. ”

NO! You
e wrong! Aurelia wanted to scream. But this time, she kept her mouth silent and listened. She wondered if the code she had held so much faith in was just another lie she had been telling herself, a false scrap of hope she had clung in order to run away.

I can accept that. I can , I can , I can , I can , I CANT!

”Learned your lesson yet brat? Or do you need me to continue my discipline. ”

She shot him a scathing glare, one filled with all the hatred and fury she could muster. She hated Raymond at this moment, more than she ever had before. She hated him for breaking her this profoundly on a day when she was already so broken.

She hated him for stealing the hope she had clung too for so long just like that. But he wasn done. She wanted him to be done, she couldn stand to hear more. But he continued all the same.

”Pathetic. Before, as irritating as you were, you were at least somewhat respectable. I had hopes for you, you know? What a **ing disappointment. ”

He got up and made his way to the door, leaving Aurelia in silence.

”Where are you going, ” She asked softly. She had not the energy to be ferocious, not even in the slightest.

”Hitting the brothels. Shop closed right after you came in. ” He spat. But before he could leave, she stopped him yet again.

”So then what am I supposed to do huh? That was the only thing, the only damn thing that kept me going you know? What do you expect me to do now!? ”

”You truly just keep hitting new lows eh? Are you a babe, still dependent on its mothers milk? ”

”Please. I don care how stupid I must look, just tell me. ”

Raymonds face contorted as he mulled it over but eventually he sighed, and she could see his shoulders slumping in the reflection of the glass. He muttered to himself, ”can believe Im doing this ”, and made his way back to her.

”You have a brother don you? From what I heard, hes a bloody ignorant fool himself too. So fight to keep that, let that be your salvation. For some people its money, for some its women, the world goes around because people want. You just need to find what it is you want. ”

”But I thought you just wasted your time tearing down what I want. ”

”Theres a difference, girl, between wanting something and thinking that itll make you different. We all want things, you just have to not be stupid enough to assume itll make you better once you get it. Its like thinking that just because you can kill a merchant you can become one. Let me tell you what happens to people like that, they get burned by their own pride…or just burned, doesn really matter. But its especially dangerous when people like us think that. ”

”But what about those in power, what about the crime lords or the merchant bosses. ”

”Let the rich think what they want. Few can ever make anything of it, the rest are no different from clowns thinking they own the circus. Why should I care about their stupidity? All that matters is that I don get wrapped up in it. ”

Aurelia nodded. She understood now. Even if there was no salvation for herself, she still had her brother. She had always had her brother, since this all began. That had always been her primary purpose and objective, her desires had always been secondary. This experience had been no more than a necessary reminder and clarifier of that fact.

The articulate, questioning part of her died that day. Because she killed it. All she had now was the voice. The voice which pulled her into violence and which she had cursed for so long. But now she embraced, no, she drowned in it.

So much so that when it compelled her to to throw the bag of gold Ardos had given her into the river, she did so without hesitation. After all, she didn need it, she wasn worthy of it, and that was fine with her. Maybe, one day, she would earn it. But it sure as hell wouldn be from the hands of someone else. With it, was the box of contacts she kept for herself.

Ill take that money for myself with my own hands. I don care what I have to do to earn it, I don care if I have to degrade myself to get it. Im done with bullshit like that! Im done with other people and Im done expecting help or salvation or change!

The bag flew in a perfect arc as she that muttered those words to herself, and crashed into the canal. With it went the temptation of escape which she had wrestled with so greatly. When the bag hit the water, a coin spilled out, and instantly became dyed in filth, making it unrecognizable from the copper coins she had chosen to keep.

The canal that ran before her was the dirty, muddy, unfiltered part of it which couldn be bothered to be cleaned. But that was okay. It was the same canal after all, there was nothing to complain about. In fact, she liked the way it was now. Shed always been hesitant to admit the way it appealed to her, but what was there to hide?

Suddenly a man touched her shoulder. His teeth were crooked and his face was ugly. He threw her against the nearest wall, and clasped her mouth. He didn even hesitate or say anything beforehand,

”Nice hair you got there. ” He said, running his slimy fingers through her hair. Absolutely repulsive. But it was the same down here as it was in the square. It didn matter where she went, scum like this were everywhere. These people too drunk and stupid to see other people as other people would be found no matter where she went. And she had two choices, she could either join them, or become the pieces of meat who got played by them.

She had made her choice.

So this time, without hesitation, she drove her fist into the mans gut. He recoiled, giving her ample time to sweep his legs. She got on top of him, and for a second he grinned, thinking she was playing along with his twisted fantasies. Then, she raised her fist and with a single blow broke the mans nose.

Yes..beat him more the voice whispered. This time, she did not run from it. She beat him with her already bloody fists. Flesh was much softer than the wall was, and much more satisfying. She was tired of holding herself back, tired of her hopes being a double edged sword to keep her in line. She was tired of holding herself accountable and she was tired of her justifications compelling her to be better.

Now she knew it was impossible. Now, all of her hopes were thrust onto her brother, he was her only, absolute reason above all else. Soon enough, the man was dead, her hands dripping with blood, no longer hers. And thats how it would be. There would be no more self punishment, she was done with that.

I killed him for my brother, She told herself. This act right here, was all done for the purpose of making her stronger so that in the end, her brother would be happy. Upon further introspection she would have realized what a far fetched justification that was. But whether it made sense or not was no longer of relevance to her, because what need was there to understand? As long as she believed, she could do whatever she wished.

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