Loreli ran through the streets, staggering as the rough, wet cobblestones dug into her feet. She gasped as her foot crashed into a puddle, spraying cold water up her legs, soaking her thin skirt. On she ran, sobbing and shivering, her black wings flapping weakly to try to keep her upright. Finally she could run no longer, and she stumbled and fell into a puddle of muddy water, staining the front of her shirt and skirt, lying limply, unable to move. Her wings shook tremulously, the only motion in her.
Several pairs of combat boots clomped down the street, headed for the limp girl. Combat boots meant soldiers, and soldiers meant… She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, whispering to herself, “No, no, please no, not again…”
The heavy footsteps drew closer, and finally stopped, surrounding her. “This one’s still alive, Sarge.”
“Glad to hear it. They aren’t as much fun dead.” A rough hand grabbed her hair and hauled her to her feet, slamming her into the brick wall of the alley.
Loreli’s heart plummeted. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to her, and she doubted it would be the last. She braced herself against the wall and tried to relax, hoping they wouldn’t hurt her too much.
Just as the soldiers closed in on her, a different set of footsteps approached. Fancy shoes, they sounded like, and accompanied by a cane or walking stick. She turned slowly, looking past the armored soldiers and their grey wings. The man approaching them looked to be older, with wings as white as his hair. Loreli began to hope; white wings indicated a good heart, white hair indicated age and wisdom, and his pristine clothing indicated wealth and influence.
He stopped close to the soldiers, leaning idly on his silver and hold cane, which ended in a very sharp-looking point. “What seems to be going on here, gentlemen?”
One of the soldiers spit at the newcomer’s feet. “Get lost, gramps. We’re having ourselves some sport with this one, so just move along.”
“Oh, I don’t think you are. I think you were just leaving.”
Their grips on the young woman loosened as they all turned to the intruding man. “Do you want us to break your face?”
He laughed, a rich, full laugh. “Oh, you boys are welcome to try.”
Two of the soldiers walked towards the man, cracking their knuckles. “All right, you asked for it.” One of them drew back his arm and threw a punch straight at the man’s face.
His hand shot up, catching the soldier’s fist in midair. Judging by the shock on the soldier’s face, and the pain which could be heard in his gasp as he tried to pull away and then fell to his knees, the man’s grip was very strong. “It’s not nice to strike first.” He followed this bit of advice with a strong kick to the soldier’s solar plexus. As he collapsed backwards, the man ducked under the punch the other soldier tried to hit him with and followed up with a swift, strong punch to the kidney.
As the soldier collapsed, the man straightened, twirling his cane like a sword. “Next?”
Three of them charged, drawing combat knives from their belts. A single slice for each of them from the man’s sharp cane left them all on the ground, bleeding.
The Sarge gaped at him, then turned tail, running. He paused at a corner to yell over his shoulder. “You haven’t seen the last of me!” Then he vanished.
Loreli looked slowly up at the man, who slowly approached her.
“Are you all right, little one?”
She looked up at him, trembling, and slowly nodded.
“Do you have somewhere safe to go? Any family or friends to look after you?”
Briefly, she considered lying to him, saying she had somewhere to go. But what good would that do her? She shook her head.
He held out his hand. “Do you want to come with me?”
“I…” Loreli made up her mind. No matter how bad this man turned out to be, he could not be worse than the streets. “Yes, I do.” She reached up and took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet.
“How are your wings? Can you fly?”
She shook her head. “It’s been too long… And they were broken recently.”
“Will you let me carry you?”
Again, she hesitated. But again, what did she have to lose? She nodded.
The man stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. Loreli held onto him tightly, faintly surprised by how gentle his touch was. His wings slowly unfurled, and he leapt into the sky, his massive wings lazily beating, easily carrying the two of them upwards, out of the undercity.
Loreli expected him to stop in the Midway, the central city where the average citizens lived, for it was also where all businesses and charities were based. If he wanted to help her, the most likely thing would be for him to drop her off at a charity. So she was shocked when he kept climbing, his wings carrying them past the dull grey Midway.
“S-sir… Where are we going?”
He smiled at her confusion. “To the Shining Heights. To my home.”
Her eyes grew wider still. Only the fabulously rich and powerful lived in the Shining Heights, and they never left their luxurious homes. They had servants to do their errands for them. To imagine that a resident of the Heights would come, in person, to the Undercity, and take one of its residents into his home… it baffled her.
The baffling man spread his wings as they glided down onto a landing platform on the edge of one of the great homes in the Shining Heights. As soon as they touched down, a pair of servants came out, one male, one female.
They greeted him in chorus, “Welcome home, Master Chandler.”
He nodded to his servants. “Clarisse, accompany this young woman to the guest quarters and find her some fresh clothes. Milton, come with me.”
Clarisse curtsied to Loreli. “Right this way, miss.” She led the dazed young girl through the gleaming house, bringing her to a suite of rooms more luxurious than any she’d ever seen before.
“These… are to be my rooms?”
“Yes, miss.” Clarisse nodded. “Master Chandler has kept these rooms set aside in case of a situation such as this.”
“Have these situations arisen often?”
“The Master often intervenes in the goings-on of the Undercity, but this is the first time he has brought someone home.” The servant girl indicated one of the doors. “The bath is just through there, if you wish to freshen up while I get you some clean clothes.”
Loreli nodded, still somewhat dazed. After she had washed and changed, Clarisse led her to the dining hall, where Chandler sat on an elegantly worked white chair at the head of the table.
His wings were half unfurled and relaxed, though when he saw Loreli he stood, his wings folding neatly behind his back. “Well, you certainly clean up nicely.”
She blushed lightly, something that normally wouldn’t have shown through the grime that usually coated her, but her cleanliness left her bright red cheeks plain for all to see, accented by her red hair. “Thank you, Master Chandler.”
He walked over to her with a faint smile. “No need for titles, Loreli. You’re not my servant, but my guest.”
If he had been going to say anything else, he was cut off by Loreli abruptly throwing her arms around him, hugging him tightly. “Thank you…”
Chandler’s wings unfurled, almost of their own accord, wrapping loosely around the young girl as shelter, as he held her close. “It was my pleasure, Loreli. No one will ever hurt you again.”