Ganhook banged at my door at 4.46 AM this morning. While he had a habit of keeping us alert with training alarms, the look in his eyes spooked me when I opened the door. That look was normally reserved for when he’d made a decision involving me. He always looked calmer when he’d a task for Aisling. Then again, she wasn’t officially a Dawnhunter.
“Supernatural Intruder reported in gatehouse 3, North Wall,” he said. “Hurry.”
Aisling was waiting when I stumbled into the kitchen. As usual, she looked fresh and ready. I don’t know how she manages it. If she was dragged through a jungle and then dipped in a bog she’s emerge fresher than Wonder Woman. It’s admirable, though.
She tossed me a shadow cloak. The knot in my gut tightened. Shadow cloaks meant secrecy. If Ganhook didn’t even want the night guard street patrols to see us, things must be bad.
We only got called out at night for really horribly bad things.
We slipped out of the compound by the rear gate, and followed the northern canal for a while before cutting through the dredge quarter. The moon was up, bathing the bones and towers and rooftops in a misty glow that made it easy to imagine I was in bed and dreaming.
Not a single guard, drunk, or passer-by noticed us, which gave me a fantastic feeling of invincibility. The feeling evaporated when we reached the north wall and saw at least three troops of soldiers had cordoned off the streets leading to gatehouse 3. Behind the cordon, city guards and medic guild personnel were busy tending to the line of wounded men on stretchers.
“Uh oh!” Aisling said.
I shifted my gaze away from the casualties. Even in the light of a dozen flaming torches, the tower rose so high it disappeared into the darkness. The great iron gate was bolted shut, and towers four and two were barely visible in the gloom. The tower was at least seven floors, and I didn’t much fancy spending too long searching the honeycomb of passages inside. Ganhook started our daily tutoring at 8:30 AM every day. Spend too long here, and lessons would run late tonight.
“Prepare a pot of detection smoke,” Ganhook said. “I’ll talk with the guards.”
As Aisling mixed powders and bone dust in a clay pot, we tried to overhear Ganhook’s questions. They spoke so fast it was impossible to make a word out.
“Sounds like a Tagge Imp inside,” Ganhook said when he returned. ‘I’m too tired to be climbing stairs. You must deal with this?”
“Of course,” Aisling said before I could reply.
Resisting the urge to tell Ganhook I was feeling tired too, I tried to recall what I knew about a Tagge Imp, which wasn’t much except that it was a nasty, biting thing that sometimes sailed out of the Garant Mountains to cause mischief. But at least now I understood the secrecy. The mere rumour of a loose Imp would trigger citywide panic.
Ganhook unlocked the gatehouse door, and beckoned us inside. “Release the smoke. Use ball nets to snare the imp. I’ll take it from there.”
I glanced back at the soldiers and felt oddly proud that those well trained warriors were staying behind while we went inside too. The feeling did nothing to ease the anxiety in my gut.
Once we were in, the door clanged shut behind us. Most of the lanterns were out, making the armoury look like one big ball of shadows. Aisling conjured up a breeze spell, and used it to send threads of detection smoke through the ground floor and up the stairs to the upper levels. The smoke was designed to hiss and spit if it detected any number of dangers. Unfortunately, the Tagge Imp didn’t appear to be one of those dangers, because we heard nothing.
We moved through the armoury and into the living quarters, past overturned furniture, discarded weapons, and a kitchen smouldering from a recent blaze. The smoke stung me eyes. I stifled a cough. Apart from flies buzzing around a pool of blood in the hall, nothing moved.
“Smoke’s useless,” Aisling said.
“Or maybe it’s gone?” I replied, though I doubted it. My eyes wandered over the breads, fruits, and pies spread across the table in the dining hall, annoyed that the guards ate better than us. My eyes rested on a pepper pot. A light bulb flashed in my mind. “What if,” I said, “We mixed pepper with detection smoke?”
Aisling grinned. “Make the imp sneeze?”
“Exactly. Maybe even confuse it.”
Spilling a handful of pepper into the smoke pot, I stoked it up and let Aisling direct the smoke upstairs. We followed it up into a barracks room that overlooked the gate. More blood. More flies. The stink of spilled lamp oil.
Then, as we moved through the room, I heard a muffled sneeze from behind a chair. I froze. Aisling whispered something. But my heart was thudding so hard I couldn’t understand. I tugged the safety cord on the ball net, and immediately felt it bulge and strain in my hand. A chair flew over our heads. A shadow darted across the room, and disappeared up the stairs. Sending peppery detection smoke ahead, we went after it.
The hunt continued until my hand cramped, forcing me to stop and reset the net ball safety cord. We crept up to the fourth floor and paused outside the sleeping quarters, listening.
“Something’s wrong,” Aisling whispered.
Half hoping the thing had flown out a window, I said, “What now?”
“You go first.”
“You have the net.”
Just to let her know I didn’t like her reasoning, I sighed, and stepped forward. The instant I passed inside, the imp sprang for me, all claws and teeth, its breath so hot it singed my hair. I dived forward, rolled past it, and sprang to my feet. I flung the net ball. But in my panic I’d forgotten to disarm the blasted thing and it ricocheted off the imp’s head and flew off into the darkness.
The thing’s eyes flared crimson. It hissed something at me, something I felt I should have understood. I balled my fists, and squared up to the thing, which was about the dumbest thing I could have done because it put me within range of the thing’s claws.
Something rolled past me. I glanced down. The ball. It had hit the back wall and settled a few feet behind me. It might as well have been in Dublin. If I made a move, I’d die.
Then Aisling yelled, “Duck!”
I ducked, and saw the smoke pot shoot over my head. It smashed into the roof, dousing the imp in ash and embers. It squealed, spun, and flew for a window, leaving a tail of sparks in its wake. I grabbed the ball net and flung it at the imp. The net billowed out, snaring the imp an instant before it reached the window. Flailing at the cinders tangled in its bristles, it thrashed about, shrieking, and tearing at the net.
But Ganhook had made that net. It could have held a dozen imps.
Seconds later, Ganhook appeared. I’ve no idea how he knew what had happened so quickly. I could only assume he’d been watching, which made me feel grateful and angry at the same time. He could have helped.
“Ha, pepper and detection smoke,” Ganhook said. “Ingenious. I’ll take care of the imp.” He pointed at my singed head. “You take care of your hair. Might as well start classes early seeing as how you’re already up.’