He sucked in a deep breath and held it as he slowly moved away from the wall, creeping down the side of it, his back still pressed to the rough brick wall. It was uncomfortable, but he would do anything for his mistress. Breath held, he tested each step with his bare toes, careful to make sure each step didn’t make the boards squeak. He went this way down the hallway to the open window, from which he dropped down the side of the single story building to the dirt beneath. He landed on his feet, bending his knees as he went down. His fingers brushed the dirt alleyway and then he was off running.
He dodged people, animals, and odd pieces of torn furniture, making a mad dash down Raven’s Way before taking a sharp right onto Catcher’s Way. It was a long run and he was winded halfway there, but he couldn’t let Raven down. His heart was pounding in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. His arms were flailing, colliding with people and things. His bare feet, heavily callused, could barely take the beating. His body ached, but the fear shining in his eyes and beating in his heart kept him going.
People and dogs scrambled out of his way, yelling and barking after him. The pigs and horses and sheep weren’t so bright and he bowled over a few of them, leaving their squeals in his midst as he picked himself up and hurled back down the alley.
The slums rose around him, the air thick with heavy smells of food, rotting wood, and human and animal waste. He and everyone else kicked up dirt as they went along, tattered bits of clothing trailing and making snake-like swirls along the winding alleys. He passed tents, lean-toes, shacks, and crudely constructed one and two story buildings of brick and wood.
Men yelled at him to be careful as he raced by. Children scrambled out of his way and watched him go with wide eyes, all knowing the silver raven crest at the left shoulder of his cloak. It was every slum child’s dream to join Raven’s following. Orphans had it easy; they could join at a moment’s notice. Children with parents weren’t so lucky; they had to ask permission. Which explained the disdainful looks the women, most likely mothers, cast upon him, snatching up their children and hauling them inside as he flew by.
But he didn’t care. He had to get to Raven. Nothing mattered more to him than to warn her. He knew she would be leaving her hideout soon for the bath houses in Ninth Sector.
He cursed the size of the slums as he ran along, making that sharp right onto Catcher’s Way. He really needed to learn the shortcuts. Really, the slums weren’t as big as the other districts of Needle City; it was the smallest of them all. But the Thief Lords had chosen to gather at Needle Sector, clear across the slums from Raven’s lair in Arrow Sector.
Finally, he made it into Arrow Sector and wound his way through the buildings, if they could be called that, until he found the little door in the side of a crude building that led deep underground into Raven’s lair. He scrambled through the door, banging it shut behind him, and fumbled around in the dark for a torch and light. After a moment of fumbling and cursing, he finally latched onto what he needed and had the torch lit in no time.
The tunnels were hard packed dirt with air vents every few feet. Those were constructed of metal and cleared every day by members of Raven’s following. He followed the tunnels as they wound around and up and down until he reached the main tunnel system. Here, the tunnels were wider and taller and had their own entrance, but it was on the edge of the city and only Raven and Aven used it.
The tunnels and chambers were filled with people going about their business, oohing and aahing over someone’s particularly shiny catch, boasting about their criminal deeds, and laughing and eating with each other. It was really a very merry following. Raven took care of her people.
He knew exactly where to find Raven. Unless she was sleeping or out prowling the city, she was in the main chamber. It was the loudest and most crowded, but it usually held her most loyal followers.
Indeed, he found the diminutive Thief Lord holding court with her trusted adviser by her side. Raven and Aven made a striking duo. She was small and lean with black hair cropped close to her head. Her eyes were large and almond shaped and a shiny ebony color. Her skin was tanned, but she mostly kept covered up in long gowns unless she was wearing pants for one of her criminal deeds. Aven, on the other hand, was tall. When he stood by Raven, he appeared to be over twice her height. He was slim with long limbs and chocolate colored skin. His kinky black hair was clipped even closer to his head than Raven’s. His eyes were rounder, but just as dark. He was usually dressed in loose shirts and tight pants with dirt streaked boots. They could afford better clothing, but they never wanted to appear better off than the rest of the following.