Death of the Grinderfish
“People of fear will never rise up. People of truth will never remain slaves.”
~ King Gaal
Sixteen-year-olds shouldn’t be so skilled at eluding soldiers. But then again, sixteen-year-olds didn’t have Tristin’s unique gift. He called it his God of Speed, though the soldiers would call it the annoying itch they couldn’t reach.
The green fog was thicker in the air than most nights and it took a toll on his wind. He gulped in poisonous breaths with each tired gasp, refusing to give in to exhaustion. Now more than ever he needed to fight through the fatigue, for it wasn’t only his life at stake but Makenna’s life as well.
The soldiers’ excited footsteps clopped against the road parallel to where he ran. “Stay with me,” he whispered as if they might somehow hear. “Don’t give up the chase yet.”
As he led the soldiers farther away from Makenna, he scoffed at their impotent shouts for him to “stop.” Like with other nights, they would never match his gift. They were fools to think otherwise.
He dragged his fingers across his brow and flicked the sweat away.
From one dark alleyway into the next, he raced south toward the deadly River of Alphadore. Once he reached the river’s puke-green sludge water, he would be home free.
As long as Makenna was there waiting.
The trip had been shaping up to be the most successful one Tristin had ever made until those bastards had spotted her. Two stolen lifemasks in one night was nearly impossible, but seven from the hated Richies? Well, that was unheard of. If only Makenna was waiting on the shore. With fear churning in the cellar of his gut, he understood that was a big “if.”
Worry poured through him thicker than the blood in his veins. Why had she pressed so hard about joining him this time? She never had before. And why did he give in, despite his better judgment? Deep down, he already knew the second answer. She had used her special God on him. Curse her for breaking her promise.
Tristin’s lifemask dangled from his waistband, bouncing against his hip with the pitter-patter of each blistering step. If she’s not on the shore . . . No. He shook his head as if it would jar the doubt out through his ears. Stop thinking like that. She’ll be there.
Satisfied that he’d led the soldiers far enough away for Makenna to have a chance, it was time to lose them completely. He used several quick bursts of his gift to lengthen the gap between them. Within seconds he was surrounded by only silence.
Winded, he ducked behind a closed shoe shop in the Terdicts’ district, which was by far the poorest district in the kingdom. The shoe shop set at the edge of the neighborhood where Tristin had grown up. From the back of the store he could see the lot where his childhood home once stood. In his mind he still saw the flames dancing on the bellies of the clouds, and the pain was as raw now as it had been when it happened five years ago. Easily the worst night of his young life. With dark thoughts of Makenna being captured creeping into his head, he realized tonight was shaping up to be just as bad.
After catching his breath, he listened closely for any sign that the soldiers had rediscovered his trail. It was quiet. He smiled and wiped the sweat from his forehead to his shirtsleeve. The only way they would find him now was by luck.
A single horse-rider appeared at the end of the street between where Tristin pressed against the store wall and where he needed to go. In that instant, every bit of hope drained from his being. No, no, no. It can’t be.
“Why would they send him this time?” he whispered.
The horse-rider looked south and away from Tristin, clearly overestimating the boy’s unique speed, if that was even possible. That mistake allowed Tristin time to scurry behind a rubbish pile. A fresh bead of sweat formed above his brow, but he was too terrified to wipe it away this time. The bead trickled past his temple, traced the outer edge of his eye, and followed the contour of his cheek to where it grew into a drop along his jawline. When the drop fell to the cobblestone ground, it sounded like thunder to his petrified ears. He held his breath, afraid even breathing would make too much noise.
By luck—damn luck—the horse-rider turned toward him. Tristin’s full view of the rider’s polished silver helmet with golden filigree decorating its side left little doubt that it was truly his most feared nightmare. Along the rider’s right hip hung an intricate, gold-encrusted lifemask unlike any in the world. Tristin’s hands began to shake.
The soldiers had called in the one man everyone feared.
They had called in the one man people prayed to never meet.
They had called in The Angel of Justice.
Tristin would not escape unscathed this time.
The Angel’s stallion snorted through its own specially fitted lifemask. Two soldiers approached The Angel from a side street, reported something to him, and then continued their search down another street as Tristin waited for his best opportunity to flee.
While waiting and praying that The Angel would continue his search elsewhere, Tristin realized how long it had been since he had last used his own lifemask. He looked down, nervously. A slight bluish glow throbbed faintly from the tiny vents alongside his mask’s nosecone. A chirp was imminent. And with seven other lifemasks strapped to his back, any one of which could go off at any second, his time was quickly running out.
Keep moving, he mentally urged The Angel.
As though the gods wanted him to be captured, his lifemask released a single yet heartbreaking high-pitched chirp that echoed through his mind as well as the alley. He shoved his hand over the nosecone, hoping to somehow retroactively stop the damage that had already been done.
Wide-eyed, he stared at The Angel from between boxes, convinced the world had just ended. The greenish air between them grew thicker, though it could have just as easily been tension. The Angel squinted with searing eyes as though he hadn’t yet heard the mask’s chirp.
Maybe it was louder to Tristin’s ears, like the drop of sweat against the ground had been a few seconds before. His blood grew more toxic with every second that passed without a lifebreath from his mask. Another chirp was imminent. Tristin struggled with what to do. While taking a lifebreath would equalize his blood, the accompanying high-pitched whistle would bring the same end to his deadly game of hide-and-seek as another chirp might. His palms grew wetter and stickier as his heart fluttered within his chest. His only chance now was patience.
Patience and luck.
The Angel guided his horse a few steps toward Tristin’s rubbish pile, still not revealing whether Tristin’s cover was blown. Small chains stretching from The Angel’s hardened leather shoulder pads to hoops along the sides of his metal chest plate jingled with each of his movements. The very racket of the chains against his armor was intentional, for it showed any potential foes that The Angel hadn’t a need for stealth—that he was the most feared of all with no rivals.
The Angel looked once again toward the boxes that hid Tristin. If his stare had a blade’s edge, he would have opened Tristin’s flesh. The Angel flung his leg over his horse’s rear quarters and dismounted, his feet meeting the ground with a puff of dust into the greenish air. His own lifemask chirped. He unclipped it from his waist and pressed it against his face, releasing the high-pitched whine that accompanied a blood-cleansing breath.
While The Angel’s mask whined, Tristin’s own mask chirped again, muffled slightly beneath his palm and hidden within The Angel’s whistle. Again, The Angel didn’t react as if he’d heard it. Or maybe he was simply baiting his prey.
Now removed from his horse, The Angel stood eye-to-eye with his magnificent steed. His long, blond hair peeked from beneath his decorated helmet and framed his soft face to his clean-shaven chin. He had no visible scars despite his penchant for violence and war. Tristin knew the king’s crest well enough to recognize the curved sword that crossed the crude outline of a lifemask painted in purple on his polished silver chest piece. The Angel removed his helmet and fastened it to his saddle. He turned back toward the rubbish pile.
Why was he waiting so long if he knew Tristin was there?
A star’s lifetime could have passed while Tristin watched. If The Angel moved any closer, Tristin would be forced to test his speed against The Angel’s horse and it wasn’t a prospect he particularly favored. And then Tristin’s lifemask chirped beneath his palm again.
While wearing an all-knowing smirk, The Angel tilted his head slightly. Was this it? Was this the moment when everything ended?
Tristin’s next poisoned breath burned his windpipe. The Angel walked to within fifteen feet of the rubbish pile and then stopped. Tristin’s thigh muscles tightened, prepared for the run of his life. The next chirp would be his last.
The Angel’s smirk widened, his laugh lines denting his perfect, golden skin. Instead of calling Tristin out from the rubbish, he turned and spoke to the air. His voice was deep and scratchy with a weight of power behind it. “I know you’re there, young one,” he said. “I have known for some time.”
A chill ran the length of Tristin’s spine.
“Whoever you are, you are due for a lifebreath. I suggest you take it and show yourself to accept your judgment. There can be no escape.” He reached over his head and slid a long blade from a sheath that was fastened to his back. The shrill screech of the blade sliding against the metal edge of the sheath could pierce the ears of a god. The sides of his sword’s edge were etched with golden carvings drawn in thin, seemingly random twirls.
Tristin slowly unfastened his lifemask from the thin, metal clasp that held it to his hip. With no other choice, he quietly called upon his God of Speed. “Please, make me faster than The Angel’s horse,” he whispered. “Faster than The Angel of Justice himself.”
He pressed his lifemask against his face, closed his eyes, and exhaled. A soft whistle preceded the louder whistle about to follow. But before he inhaled that wonderful, blood-cleansing breath, The Angel jerked his head around toward where his horse still stood. His chains rattled with each of his sudden movements, sounding like hail against tin.
Curious, Tristin lowered his mask and leaned around the pile for a better view, his lifebreath suddenly far from his thoughts. He counted seven soldiers approaching in a circle from the opposite end of the street with an eighth person walking in their center.
Without looking back, The Angel’s voice boomed, “Now you will see why I waited to draw you out, boy. I am well aware of your speed.”
Tristin swallowed hard. Though he grew dizzier by the second, he was more concerned with who walked within the soldiers’ circle than he was his lifebreath. Deep down, he already knew who it was. He leaned farther around the boxes. As if feeling Tristin’s stare, The Angel glanced over his shoulder and locked eyes with him. The air died between them. The death of hundreds, maybe thousands, hid behind The Angel’s cold glower. Tristin’s knees weakened.
“I will deal with you in a moment, criminal,” The Angel said. “Do not try to flee. You will only make it worse for your companion.”
Tristin broke his stare free of The Angel’s gaze and looked toward the seven soldiers. They stopped in the street next to The Angel’s horse and waited. The Angel walked to them.
A burning sensation rose from Tristin’s gut and into his throat, but he swallowed it back down with a bitter gulp.
The Angel pointed a skinny, crooked finger to where Tristin hid. “The other troublemaker—the fast one—hides behind that rubbish pile,” he said, sending all eyes Tristin’s way. The Angel then flicked his hand to the side and the soldiers parted, allowing Tristin to finally see their prisoner.
It was, indeed, Makenna. Her hands were bound in front of her waist. Her scared blue eyes met Tristin’s. His heart wanted to stop. The soldiers ordered her to her knees.
Tristin’s mask chirped again, no longer muffled by his hand, and reminded him why the world swayed at his feet. He pressed his mask against his face, exhaled the angry air from his lungs, and drew in a deep, chest-filling breath. The whistle screamed. With his blood leveling, he refastened his mask to his hip, shoved the rubbish pile over, and stepped out into the open as if bravery had pushed him from behind. Standing straight and defiant, he held his chin high and his jaw firm. Not more than twenty feet away stood his judge, jury, and, quite possibly, executioner. But worse than his own fate was the knowledge that The Angel now had Makenna.
The Angel climbed onto his magnificent, ghost-white stallion again and looked down at her for what seemed like a lifetime. She wilted from his stare. Her pale skin almost glowed in the dawn light. After studying her face, he looked back to Tristin with squinted, curious eyes. “How old are you, boy?” he asked.
Barely above a whisper, Tristin answered, “Sixteen.”
“You share a remarkable likeness to this girl.”
Tristin dropped his head forward. He had no words.
“You are twins, yes?”
Tristin hesitated before nodding a single time.
And then Makenna’s mask chirped a sick, muffled chirp. Tristin’s stomach turned. “Makenna? Your mask?” Everything had just gotten worse.