Season Two of the Hundred Halls is coming soon!! I hope you're as excited as I am to see how the world has changed since the end of The Order of Merlin, though you don't need to have read any of the other Hundred Halls books in order to enjoy this series. As usual, each series stands on its own. Here is a sample from the first book of The Crystal Halls Series, Shadows in Amber.
The shadows moved. Not the kind of movement that the clan brothers and sisters called the flicker, which surfaced during the long watches when the mind grew restless. Kuma would have asked Carlos if he'd seen it, but he'd gone for a piss ten minutes ago and was probably nosing around the ladies at the bar in the Pale Sun.
No, this was a different type of movement. The kind with teeth and claws, or maybe a knife. Kuma reached for the curved blade in his jacket, wishing guns weren't forbidden in the Terreno. If he were a waku, it wouldn’t matter as much, as he’d be able to wield stones that would make him powerful. Even an amber stone, which would give him the capacity to see in near-darkness and hear a single drip of water from two caverns away, would be enough for him. For now, anyway. Certainly he'd wish to be like his uncle Brazio, who carried four stones. No one carried more.
Kuma leaned forward, studying the shades of darkness that permeated the caverns, looking for the glint of whiteness that he'd seen briefly at the edge of his vision. There were three kinds of shadows, all of them dangerous in their own way. The first held the quick death. Creatures born of the Undercity, or the people living on the edges that hunted in the darkness. These shadows were the easiest to avoid, or frighten away with numbers or light.
The second was at his back inside the Terreno. The shadows that flowed from great men and women like his father, or the head of the Drops. When the inhabitants of the Undercity spoke of the clans, or RZR, they were speaking of his father, Niran Santos. Since the discovery of the stones and the forging of the waku, his power had grown. So too had the power of their rivals, the Drops, and even the smaller clans that operated in the northwest regions. Now their shadows reached aboveground, where the power of the mages and the school no longer held the sway that it had before the Awakening. The people that lived above them called it the Invasion, or the Sundering. While it had brought trouble and lessening for them, it had been a boon for the clans, even if the Undercity was more dangerous now. It was the reason the clans had come together on this evening, to end the petty battles and divide the Undercity between them, so each could gather profit on their own terms.
The final shadows were the ones his father said held the greatest danger. The unknown. The shadows behind the shadows, and the reason Niran had reached out to the other clans to make a deal. The discovery of the stones had brought interest from outside the Undercity. It was these shadows that he'd said would prove to be the biggest danger. Best to bulwark their defenses while they had time and space.
But it was the first shadow that was threatening Kuma now. He kept his back to the passage, not wanting anything to sneak by him, even as he desired to creep forward to investigate the shift in the darkness. It would be a blow to his honor if he, the clan leader's son, let intruders into the Terreno during this critical night.
Keeping one hand firmly gripped around the wrapped hilt of his curved blade, Kuma used his other to cup his ear, focusing his hearing towards the shadows. He calmed his breathing, using the circular technique to slow his heart until it was one lonesome beat after another.
There. He heard the scraping of two rocks together. Barely perceptible. Whoever—or whatever—it was, was at the back of the cavern, probably fifty feet from his location. This was a back entrance near the Umbra, which was a bar loyal to the RZR clan. Kuma crouched down and picked up a small stone. He side-armed the rock into the cavern, hoping to spook any critters, if that's what it was. The rock bounced against the back wall.
As Kuma took a step forward to investigate further, the tip of a blade pressed into the tender part of his back. He made himself relax, deciding if he should spin forward and knock away the blade, or try to slip backward along the length of the intruder's arm and attempt to break their wrist against his knee. The first maneuver was safer, but would leave him facing an unknown foe with a potential intruder at his back. The second was riskier as there was a good chance he would get cut.
When the blade was pressed further into his flesh, Kuma shifted backward, the edge slicing through his shirt. He grabbed the arm at the same time as he slammed his foot down on their boot, then lifted his knee to break the wrist. The arm didn't budge. Before he could decide on another maneuver, the blade was pressed against his throat.
"Good, but not good enough, Little Bear," growled Carlos' pack-a-day voice.
He pushed Kuma away. The older clan member, a topaz waku, spun the blade in his fist before shoving it into the hilt on his hip.
"It's your topaz," said Kuma.
Carlos scoffed and knocked the wave of greasy black hair that hung over his forehead out of his eyes. He pulled a cigarette from an inside pocket, tossed it in his mouth, and fired up a lighter. The tip glowed bright orange before fading to dullness. He blew a cloud of smoke over his shoulder.
"You gave it away. I saw your shoulder lift in anticipation of the wrist break. I could have stepped away and countered with a punch to the throat, or just jammed the blade in before you could spin. Either way, you were dead." His eyes glinted in the dim light. "Why didn't you move forward? It would have been the better move, Little Bear."
"I've got twenty pounds on you, Carlos."
"You ain't waku yet, so you little to me," said his clan brother with a smirk.
Kuma turned his head towards the back of the cavern. "Thought I saw something, or someone. Didn't want to place myself between two threats."
Carlos made a fist, the clan slang for understand. In the darkness of the Undercity, the difference between living and dying could be boiled down to how much noise you made. All the clans had their hand signals, though most were similar enough to decipher.
"What took you so long? Trying to snag some skirts?" asked Kuma as he placed his back against the wall and probed the slice in his shirt. The blade had creased a line across his flesh but not drawn blood.
"The head of Drops and her fists showed up."
"What's she look like?" asked Kuma, jutting his chin out.
Carlos lifted a shoulder. "Dunno. She wore a mask. Black and gold."
"She's afraid to show her face, not like my father," said Kuma.
"May the shadows keep you safe," said Carlos with a shit-eating grin.
"I know, but this is the Undercity. If you can't show your face here, then you don't have any power."
Carlos lifted his eyebrows towards the cavern ceiling, indicating the city above.
"They say she's a big dog up top. Owns businesses and has her tendrils in all sorts of shit. Wants to stay legit in the eyes of the light."
"May the light keep her blind," said Kuma.
Carlos slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Don't say that. This peace will be good for all sides. We don’t want things to unravel because someone ran their mouth."
"No one's here."
Carlos gestured towards the back of the cavern. "Didn't you just say you thought you saw something?"
Heat rose to Kuma's cheeks. He'd let himself get too worked up. Niran was always cautioning him that emotions were a threat to his safety. Best to understand them, but then let them pass through unheeded. Easier said than done.
"I wish I could be there."
"It's not going to be interesting," said Carlos. "All the details were worked out ahead of time. Tonight is a formality."
"It's a bad idea, getting all the heads together at the same time. What if something happened?" asked Kuma.
"That's why we're here, so nothing happens."
"Do you think they'll really keep the peace? That everyone will stay in their regions and not meddle in each other's business?" asked Kuma.
Even though Carlos was only three years older, because he was a waku, it seemed like it was a decade or more. It'd only been recently that Kuma had been allowed to be involved with clan business. Unlike the Drops, they didn't use their kids as mules or workers.
"For now? Yeah. The scraps have been bad for business, which is the only reason all sides have come together. But eventually, someone will see an advantage in breaking the peace, and then we'll be scrapping again." Carlos jammed his finger in Kuma's chest. "Which means you'd better be ready. I know you start training next week. Keep that in mind. Stay focused."
Kuma hated being reminded, as if he didn't know already. It was hard enough as the son of the clan leader. Everyone was always looking for him to screw up, which would damage his father's position. Since his father had proved to be a null—no stones would work for him—and his brother Brazio could use four, there'd been tension in the clan. Uncle Brazio was looking for an excuse to leverage his brother out of his position, another reason why Niran had proposed the truce between clans. The loss of profits was only hurting his status.
"When did you know?" he asked Carlos.
The older clan member hunched his forehead, before understanding smoothed the skin flat. He placed his hand on Kuma's shoulder and gave a firm squeeze.
"Don’t worry, Little Bear. I'm sure you'll be waku. At the least, you'll be an amber, maybe even a two-stones like me."
"And if I'm not?"
Carlos' gaze hardened. He gave a tight shake of the head as he looked away. "Focus on the training. Nothing else matters."
That's what worried Kuma. There were three kinds of shadows, and all of them wanted to kill his family.
Pandora returned to the Goblin's Romp for the second time in a week. The outside of the building looked new even if she knew the clientele inside were old and worn with smoke-stained fingers, rope-like scars, and faded tattoos. Murals on the outer brick walls depicted scenes from the Invasion three years ago when demons had broken through the barrier between realms. The bar had been the point that the demons had surfaced into the city, making it infamous. The painting nearest the entrance showed the huge flying creature that had landed on the Glitterdome, destroying it when it died from the heroics of countless mages, many who lost their lives when the structure collapsed.
She checked back to the city. Light was fading. The Spire was mostly in shadow. It'd be the last time she'd see the sun for a while. Or ever if things went sideways.
The interior was the equivalent of taking a nice bottle of scotch and smashing it to stab into someone's neck. The stage was protected with mesh, sawdust and old popcorn littered the floor, and the bartender had ochre skin and gold eyes that followed her when she entered. He recognized her, which was good, as the next part wasn't going to work if they didn't remember her from a few days prior.
Pandora walked through the room with three pool tables, catching a whistle from a biker leaning over to strike the cue ball. Five balls on the table. Eleven pool sticks in the rack on the wall. Seventeen people in the bar on a Tuesday afternoon. Focus, Pandora. She squeezed her eyes shut momentarily, receiving a funny look from the biker as he struck the ball with a clean stroke, the nine ball going into the side pocket with a satisfying clunk.
In the back of the Goblin's Romp, a brick archway covered in metal bars signaled the entrance to the Undercity. Three years ago there were numerous ways to get below, stairwells and elevators that took one down nine hundred feet to the lightless caverns that most people in the city rarely thought about. Now, most of those entrances were gone, as interest had grown in what was happening beneath the streets. The seemingly endless spiral staircases turned to scrap metal and the stone passages filled with concrete or deadly traps. The clans that ruled the shadows had decided to cut off easy access, which meant one of the few places to enter the Undercity in relative safety was through the back of the bar. Assuming they'd let her through.
Three guards stood at the portcullis. One on the near side, and two beyond the metal bars. The tallest had bleached hair, dark eyebrows, and the neon RZR tattoo on his forearm. The presence of the clan member complicated things, but she couldn't back out.
"Go away," said the guard on her side of the barrier, barely looking up as he thumbed through his phone.
Pandora stopped a few feet away. She stared at the second guard, the one behind the bars, but not in the RZR clan. He made a kissing face and elbowed his buddy, before looking back to her. She never broke eye contact.
"You don’t want to go this way, girl. It leads to the Undercity, which is clan territory. Not a place for tourists," said the guard behind the bars.
"You mute or something?" asked the first guard, tilting his head as he shoved the phone into the back of his jeans.
She kept staring at the same guard, who swallowed uncomfortably. Eventually he narrowed his gaze.
"I recognize you."
The first guard said, "You do?"
"Yeah, she kicked the shit out of four dudes last week, Friday I think. Tore 'em a new one. Left with bloody faces and tails between their legs. She didn't have a hair out of place when it was over."
The mood of the standoff changed. The three guards were quietly piecing together the facts of what they were seeing. A young woman, probably no older than twenty, had approached the Undercity gate. Her outfit—all black, no sleeves, skirt, lots of buckles and buttons, black neck wrap—marked her as a well-dressed waitress, or a prostitute. But adding the news about her physical prowess had changed the calculation. She was no longer prey, but a hunter. They were curious.
The second guard, the one that she'd been staring at, was looking mighty uncomfortable. He kept trying to look away, but knew that he shouldn't. She heard him whisper to the RZR clan member, "She's got cold, fucking black eyes. It's like the time I ran into that gray folk. Couldn't scrub his gaze off fast enough."
The RZR clan member lifted his chin. "You gonna stand there all day like that? Or you gonna tell us why you need to get through this gate?"
"Whoa, she speaks," said the bleached blond clan member to his buddies. "Which question were you answering?"
It was their turn to be quiet. She amused herself by counting the bars and the buttons on his jacket. Eleven and thirteen, respectively.
"I think we're supposed to let her through," said the second guard after a long, uncomfortable silence.
"Yeah, fine, whatever," said the clan member. "Just get her the fuck out of here. I don't like her staring at us like that."
The gate was unlocked from the other side. She strode past, leaving them in her wake. The way down was a long, wide ramp. As the sounds of the bar disappeared behind her, there was nothing but the steady clop of her heels on the concrete. She killed the time thinking about how easy it'd been to pay those four guys to lose a fight with her. Sure, she could have taken them, but not as cleanly as it'd looked.
At the bottom of the ramp was a settlement called Big Dave's Town. It was owned by Razor clan, which was the largest and most respected of the clans in the Undercity. The kidney-shaped cavern glowed with electric lights, including a pink neon sign for the Devil's Lipstick at the far end. Pandora passed a guy in a black leather jacket with horns on his forehead—newish implants by the angry red flesh around them, the latest fetish for those that didn't give a crap about fitting into normal society. She saw a mix of non-humans and RZR clan members in the streets. Not as busy as she understood it used to be, but given the stinginess of the guards letting people into the Undercity, it was to be expected. It used to be a place that was avoided, except for those that had nowhere else to go, but now it was becoming more interesting, which was why she'd been sent.
Pandora spotted a pair of RZR members speaking into walkie-talkies. They'd probably been warned about her from above. The clan didn't let anyone in their area that they didn't know without keeping an eye on them.
The main avenue was wide, but the side streets were narrow and jagged, following the piecemeal construction of the town, which had had a third of its buildings rebuilt. She found Barely Edible at the end of a zigzagging street with colorful awnings and metal bars over the windowed doors. The store was butted against the cavern wall. Inside, she found glass jars filled with dried meats labeled as modrats, Cthulhu jellies, and other exotic creatures. The carcass of a bony, pale creature that looked like a miniature manticore hung from the ceiling, spinning slowly from the breeze she'd made coming through the door.
"A customer, what a nice surprise on this slow day."
An older woman with steel gray hair entered from the back. A wicked scar bisected her right cheek, making Pandora think about her mother, which only clenched her right hand into a fist.
The old woman's eyes widened when she saw Pandora. "Oh, it's you. I'd forgotten what day it was."
"Do you have black mamba jerky?" asked Pandora, forcing her hand to loosen.
The older woman blinked. "Oh, right. No black mamba, but we have some nice strips of ur-bear. Come on back, I'll show you the jars."
Pandora followed the woman through the blanket that served to block the back area. There were shelves covered in jars, mostly empty, and a desk covered in papers and a chessboard in the middle of a game. The pieces looked like miniature versions of the Halls. The woman stepped to a bookshelf on the back wall and pulled it forward, exposing a tunnel heading into the darkness. A black duffle bag was waiting for her.
"There's been a problem," said the old woman.
Pandora crouched down and unzipped the duffle bag. "There always are." She checked the contents, seeing everything she needed was inside.
"There's a big meeting going on tonight. Between all the clan leaders."
"You should have passed that information on," said Pandora as she slung the black bag over her shoulder.
"I would have, but it was hush-hush until today. The only reason I know about it is because there were people headed to the Terreno, only to get turned away. It's only clan members and the workers inside."
Pandora turned her head. "Why?"
"No one knows, but the guess is that they're making peace. They've been warring for months now. Dozens dead on every side. Probably decided it was too hard on business. Does this change things for you?"
"Going to abort?"
The older woman squinted. "Aren't you a little young for this business?"
There were a lot of answers she could give. None that would satisfy the woman so she wouldn't ask any more questions.
"Black checkmates white in three moves," said Pandora before she headed into the tunnel.
"Huh?" The older woman checked back to the chessboard as she squinted. "Well I'll be damned."
A short time later she heard the hidden entrance close. Pandora slipped the headlamp on. The light exposed dust floating in the air in the few dozen feet of tunnel ahead. She had an elixir that would help her see in the dark, but didn’t want to take it until she reached her destination.
During the walk, Pandora mused on the new information the woman had given her. A few years ago, she would have aborted and checked back with the Mod for new orders, but not today. The importance of her mission had been clear by the resources marshalled on her behalf. Completing it would require some improvisation. The Mod, her handler, would not take failure lightly.
An hour later, the hidden tunnel spit her out into a cavern with a clear path through the middle. The litter of travelers—old cigarette butts, candy wrappers, a plastic soda bottle—lay amid the glittering rocks. Pandora could smell meat being cooked somewhere ahead.
The Terreno was supposed to be neutral ground for the clans. It was a place they could come for food or entertainment and not worry about getting attacked. Few that lived above knew about it, as the clans had kept it a secret for decades, but as the faez crystal trade had appeared out of the ashes of the Invasion, the Undercity had become a much more interesting place. The idea had been to acquire an invite to one of the two major clans, but given the nature of the meeting happening in the Terreno, her previous plan wasn't viable. Any aggressive moves would be met with overwhelming force. Not a good way to engender sympathy and gain an invite. She'd have to improvise a new plan once she got inside.
Following the map she'd memorized, Pandora cut through the rocky section of the cavern. Once she found the narrow crevice in the wall, she switched off her headlamp and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. The urge to drink the elixir was strong, but she hesitated to have any enchantments on her body. Moving through the split in the wall required slipping sideways and using her hands as her eyes. Eventually she would come out in an area that was lighted.
The dim illumination from ahead helped her see the exit to the passage. It was something she was going to have to get used to if she was successful: living in the darkness, having billions of tons of rock above her head, and always being in danger. The last part she was used to after the last few years.
Pandora craned her neck to the side to see what was down the passage. She saw a man standing near the tunnel that went into the back of the Umbra, which was all she needed to know that he was Razor clan. There was no reason she should have stayed in that location. The hidden passage into the Terreno required climbing up through a chimney and then across and into the back of the Pale Sun.
But as he turned, she caught his profile.
He was handsome, young—probably around her age—and excessively fit. Not the kind that came in the gym, but the harder to earn version from studying martial arts. The gym version was bulky, and a detriment when it came to the face-to-face fighting that happened in the Undercity between the clans. He was part Japanese, but that wasn't a surprise as the Razor clan had descended from some Yakuza that had mixed with a Brazilian gang. Until that moment she hadn't cared which clan she was able to get into, but she was suddenly incentivized to join Razor.
There are worse ways to pass the time.
He turned his head in her direction and she was sure he'd seen her. Pandora leaned out of view, sucking in her breath as not to give herself away. She didn't know if he had any faez crystals on him, but if he had an amber, he'd be sure to sense her. She cursed her curiosity.
She heard him take a few steps forward. It wasn't far from her location. If he came to investigate, he'd probably see her stuck in the crack of the wall. Pandora held her breath.
A light scuffle was followed by the gravelly voice of a second person.
"Good, but not good enough, Little Bear."
Pandora wanted to take a quick peek, but knew she was running out of time. She grabbed the handhold and pulled herself upward, taking care not to make a single noise. She scrambled into the chimney and then was crawling through the cut shaft, pushing the black duffle bag ahead.
The hidden passage came out behind the apartments the workers from the Terreno lived in. Pandora pulled a key out of her pocket and slipped into the building. The apartment had been rented for her weeks ago, but no one knew she hadn't been living in it yet.
As she slipped down the hallway across an ugly swirled carpet, a door opened up. A blonde girl with smudged mascara and an unfocused two-hundred-yard stare wandered the other way. Pandora found the apartment, pushed into the room, and locked the door behind her.
Pandora changed into the all-black waitress outfit with a short skirt that was carefully folded in the duffle bag. She removed the few other clothes in the bag and placed them in a drawer. The unusual gun she pulled out next. She checked to make sure it was properly loaded. It could be fired in two ways—manually, or by a small remote that she placed in her apron pocket.
Beneath her skirt, she strapped the weapon to the inside of her thigh. It wouldn't survive a thorough inspection, but it was the best she could do on short notice. Had she been given more warning, she would have found a way to hide the weapon on the premises.
Pandora left the apartment, but she paused at the next door, leaning her ear against the thick wood. Nothing. Using a pick, she worked the lock. A click later and she was into the woman's apartment.
It looked like a bomb had gone off, with clothes lying on the bed, light blue powders on a tray next to the couch, and crumpled cans everywhere. The place stank of old beer. A badge for the Pale Sun was half stuck under a popular book about the Invasion called The Magic of Betrayal. The girl's name was Leslie Carmichael. She looked much better in the picture.
"This won't do."
Pandora found a trash bag under the sink and quickly cleaned up the cans and wrappers. Then she piled the clothes in a hamper and made the bed. The kitchen barely looked used, but she wiped the counters, scrubbed the gunk off the stainless steel sink, and organized the meager spice shelf. Then she took the black duffle bag she'd brought and shoved it under the bed.
With the door locked behind her, Pandora headed out of the apartment. The bright lights and colorful buildings reminded her of Vegas, as if it'd been shoved into a cavern deep in the Undercity. An enormous stalactite hung from the center of the cavern, wrapped in LED lights that shifted colors. She was surprised by the density of buildings. The space was three separate levels, and her apartment was on the highest terrace, giving a good view of the town. It was probably two-thirds the size of Big Dave's Town.
On the way to the Pale Sun, she passed men and women with clan tattoos of various designs. They moved in groups of twos and threes, staying away from each other as not to upset the fragile peace that would be negotiated today. The Undercity was ruled by two major clans, but there were dozens of smaller ones that lived in the less civilized areas of the northwest part.
The Pale Sun was between a pachinko parlor and a hostess club called the Onyx. The bright lights and noisy machines of Kogo drew in the clan members. Some sat in front of the machines, trays of silvery balls next to their spots, as they smoked and drank from bottles of beer imported from above. Pandora noted that she'd seen no RZR clan members wandering around the streets, or in the stores. She'd heard they were the most disciplined of the clans.
She entered the Pale Sun. A woman in the same outfit was standing at the hostess station, chewing gum with the efficiency of a bored bovine.
"Hey. I don't know you."
Pandora lifted her own badge as she checked the woman's for her name. "Hi, Suzy. I'm Pandora. First day on the job."
"Yeah. I saw your name on the list for today, but no can do. With everything going on with the big meeting, we were told by the boss that no one comes in who hasn't been here before."
A simple throat punch and she could be walking past. "I'd really like to get started. It was a long day getting here, and if I go back to the apartment, I'll just sleep, and my schedule will stay screwed up."
"Sorry, Pandora. Them's the rules," said Suzy with a shrug. She double clicked the pen in her grip, which brought a spike of adrenaline, which Pandora pushed away, reminding herself that it was just a pen. Her past was the past.
She collected herself, offering a stark analysis. "No offense, but this doesn't look like the kinda place that follows the rules."
Without breaking eye contact, Suzy pulled out her gum and stuck it in the wrapper that she'd pulled out of her pocket. Almost as soon as the trash had been lobbed into the bin, a new piece of gum was shoved in her mouth.
"That would be true on every other day, except today." Suzy checked over her shoulder. "When even one clan leader shows up to the Terreno, this place loses its fucking mind. Now you gots all of them? Everyone's expecting trouble and no one wants to take a chance at getting dropped into a dark place because they looked at someone wrong, so I know you're ready to start today, but take it from me, it's a great day to sit in your apartment."
"I'll take my chances," said Pandora, pushing past.
Suzy stepped in the way.
"I ain't gettin' in trouble for someone I don't know. Go home. It's not your day."
Kuma was practicing his knife strikes when Adrenalynne appeared in the tunnel to relieve him. She had a shaved head of multicolored fuzz, wore a sleeveless jean jacket, and had more piercings than if she'd gotten in a fight with a porcupine.
"Take a break, Little Bear. It's gonna be a long day. Not all the clan leaders have arrived yet," she said.
"They should just have the meeting without those gnats," said Carlos. "Not sure why they bothered inviting some of those smaller clans. They're barely big enough to pull off a circle jerk even if you spotted them two hands."
"Thanks, Adrena," said Kuma, bumping fists with her. "I won't be too long."
She snapped her fingers with a wrist motion, cocking a sly grin. "Take your time. Visit the Onyx. I'm sure you could get your wick wet for practically free, bein' the heir to be."
Heat rose to Kuma's cheeks. "You know it don't work like that. I gotta battle for position just like everyone else. Broken hells, I'm not even a waku yet. Maybe I can't work any of the stones."
Adrenalynne tapped her ear where an amber stud was stuck through her tragus.
"You'll have one soon enough, Little Bear. I'll keep watch for you."
Carlos had been leaning against the wall with a smirk. "Maybe Kuma doesn't want to get an amber stone—then he'll have to smell you. Do you ever get sick of smelling like old, rotting french fries, Adrena?"
"Fuck you, Carlos," she said, punching him in the arm hard enough to make him flinch. "I can take you down anytime I want."
Laughing, Kuma left the tunnel, which led into the back of the Umbra. The place was packed with RZR members. Under normal circumstances, he would have stayed, but with his father in the middle of an important negotiation and his academy training coming up, Kuma wasn't interested in everyone razzing him.
He pushed through the front door into the Terreno cavern. It probably wasn't the safest thing for him to be moving about alone, but he wasn't in the mood for companionship. His gaze fell upon the sign for the Onyx. There were a few new girls who might not know who he was. Maybe he would see if one of them was available.
Kuma passed the pachinko parlor, shaking his head softly at the waste of time. At least the poker tables at the Grand Darkness could be beaten. Pachinko was about as rigged as the Hundred Halls.
His feet slowed near the Pale Sun as he saw a slender girl with glistening black hair speaking to Suzy. He knew every waiter and waitress in the establishment, which meant she was a newcomer. He thought about entering and seeing if he could get seated with the girl, but they seemed to be having a disagreement, and he wasn't in the mood for drama.
The bouncer at the Onyx nodded him through the door. For the Undercity, it was classy, with a chandelier hanging from the center of the grand space and a karaoke stage surrounded by dark green curtains near the front. Kuma took a spot near the end of the bar, which would give him a view of the entrance. Until he had his amber stone, he had to be strategic about moving about alone.
He smelled sweet perfume a moment before a soft hand caressed his lower back. A redheaded girl with rosy cheeks and a constellation of freckles across her nose leaned into view.
"Care to buy me a bottle, Little Bear?"
Kuma swirled the fizzy drink the bartender had brought him right before she'd arrived. He lifted his glass.
"Keepin' it real, Leesa. You know, on account of everything going on."
Leesa leaned in close so her breath tickled his ear. "You know everything's gonna be alright. Come sit with me. I'll massage your shoulders, they look tense. Gotta be tough being the son of a clan leader, especially with your testing coming up."
Kuma took a sip as he shook his head. "Does everyone know what's going on in my life?"
Leesa put her hand in his lap and grinned impishly. "Hard not to."
He gently removed her hand from his thigh, kissed the back of her hand, and gave it a squeeze.
"Another time, Leesa."
She stuck her tongue out playfully, kissed him on the cheek, and then strolled back to the booths. It took all his self-control not to watch her walk away, but he knew once he did that, he'd want to buy her a bottle. It wasn't like he didn't have the money, but he didn't want others to think he was trading on his father's success. He had to earn his own way.
As he was finishing his drink, three members of the Drops sauntered into the hostess club. Kuma recognized Choo-Choo leading the pack. It was hard not to. He was built like a sumo wrestler with a shiny bald head and arms as big as Kuma's thighs. He wore a simple black vest that showed off the tattoos covering his body, including a shadowy dragon on his neck.
Choo-Choo and his crew approached his spot at the end. The bartender gave the four of them a wide-eyed stare before finding a reason to be on the opposite side.
"Lookie, lookie, we got Tiny Bear all by his lonesome. This wayhos ain't a smart one, no he ain't," said Choo-Choo as he sucked on a toothpick.
"This is neutral ground."
Choo-Choo pulled out the toothpick and dropped it in Kuma's fizzy drink.
"Wouldn't be the first time an unfortunate accident happened in the Onyx. Besides, you worried about little ol' us?" he asked with faux shock, placing his hand against his chest. "I thought you were the big bad clan leader's son, who could take down us foolish, backwards Drops."
Kuma fished the toothpick out of his glass, flicked it at Choo-Choo, and took a long drink, never taking his eyes off the Drops member. He considered smashing the glass against Choo-Choo's forehead and then making a break for it, but the third Drops member had a topaz in his nose. Kuma wouldn't get far without his own stones.
"There's enough business for everyone. We need to learn how to do it like the uppers. We can all get rich off their backs," said Kuma.
"We all know the peace won't last. Not until there's only one clan left, and we all know that will be the Drops. Your silly honor gets in the way. If you have the stones, you can do anything you want."
Choo-Choo grinned at his own cleverness. Kuma pushed away from the bar and reached into his pocket to throw some bills on the table, but Choo-Choo reached out and stayed his hand. He pulled a fold of bills out of his vest pocket and tossed them on the bar.
"I'll buy your little virgin fizzy drink, but one day, after you and me both have our stones, there'll be a scrap, and I promise you won't be walking away from it."
The Drops members parted as he left the Onyx. Kuma saw them slip into Leesa's booth, which shouldn't have bothered him, except that he wanted to shove his blade deep in Choo-Choo's belly.
Not ready to return to guard duty, Kuma entered the Pale Sun in hopes of finding the girl he'd seen talking to the hostess. He was seated right away at a table where he could keep his back against the wall. Only one member of the Drops was in the Pale Sun. His name was Duro, and while he wasn't displaying any stones, Kuma knew he wore three, including a topaz. Duro's fighting prowess was legendary. He was one of the few Drops that his clan brothers and sisters spoke of with respect. The story was that he'd killed four men who'd chased a girl into an alleyway in the city. This was long before the stones existed, which made the feat more impressive.
The girl he'd seen at the entrance was nowhere to be found, so he ordered a burger and soda and thought about Choo-Choo's warning. He might look like a meathead, but he was right about the state of the clans. The not-yet-brokered peace wouldn't last. Short-term losses could be made up by the clan that won the war. The only reason that the clan leaders had come together was the pressure from the city. It was hard to run their enterprises while fighting with each other, but once those issues were resolved, the war would resume in full. Or if one clan saw an opportunity. It was only a matter of time.
"Come on, this is probably the safest time to be a new worker. I know I'm fresh in the Undercity but I know enough about the clans to know nothing's going to happen today." Pandora checked around her and leaned in conspiratorially. "Look, I need the money. You and I both know that people don't come here to work unless they're running from something. I've got to make up for lost ground, or I'm gonna find myself at the bottom of a deep chasm."
"I don't make the rules," said Suzy.
"Is the boss here?"
Suzy frowned and shook her head.
"Then make an exception. I'll give you half my tips," said Pandora, leaning forward intently.
"Why would you do that?"
"A cut off the top is better than nothing. I'm desperate, and I'd really rather not be giving hand jobs in the back alley to make up my losses."
Suzy sighed heavily. "Fine. You can work today, but if anyone asks, I didn't let you in, and if you screw anything up, I swear to the shadows I'll throw you in that deep chasm myself."
"Thanks, I owe you one."
"No, you owe me half your tips," said Suzy as she returned to folding napkins.
Pandora went into the kitchen, which was steamy and hot from the grill. No one paid her any attention until she grabbed another waitress hurrying out the swinging doors with a plate of burgers.
"Which tables can I take?"
The waitress furrowed her brow. "None of them." She checked a clock on the wall. "Not for another hour. Until then you can help in the kitchen, they're behind."
Pandora made herself useful to the two cooks, working the frier and fetching frozen patties from the freezer. It'd been years since she'd worked in food service, but the routines came back quickly. While she was filling the fry basket, the previous waitress showed up and shoved a notepad into her chest.
"You have tables five through eight. One of 'em's empty, the other is full, but paid, and the last one just sat. Three assholes from Blue Dagger clan. Watch their hands, they like to get grabby."
"Thanks," said Pandora, but the girl was already gone. She swung by the hostess station to check the seating map. Once she'd identified the table numbers, Pandora entered the dining area to make the rounds.
Her heart jumped a little when she saw the Razor clan member she'd spied on earlier leaning against the back wall, running his french fries through a pile of mustard with a bored expression. She hesitated too long and his gaze flitted up, capturing hers. Pandora pulled herself away and went to the table of Blue Dagger clan members, being careful to stand back.
"Evening. What would you like?" she asked with a pen poised above the notebook.
The three clan members barely looked older than sixteen. Tattoos of a blue dagger were prominently displayed on their forearms.
"Hey babe, why don't you sit on my lap while you take my order," said the first Blue Dagger, reaching towards her underskirt where the pistol was strapped.
Pandora maneuvered herself away before his hand could touch flesh.
"Do you like spit?" she asked him.
"No. Who the hell would want that?"
She tapped the pen on the notebook. "Touch me and I promise you every inch of your food will be seasoned with a nice green loogie." To emphasize her point, she cleared her throat, filling her mouth with phlegm.
Blue Dagger stiffened, anger darkening his expression. He put his hand on the table. A curved blade was squeezed in his fist. "If you don't want me to slice the nose off your face, you'd better start treating me with respect."
None of them had faez crystals displayed. Pandora twirled the pen in her fingers. She wanted to tell him that she'd shove the writing utensil in his eye socket if he moved the blade even a millimeter off the table, but it wasn't the way she wanted to get noticed by the clans.
"What would you like to eat?" She smiled through gritted teeth. "Sir."
"That's better," he said, leaning back in his chair and throwing his arm around the empty one next to his spot. His feral grin was filled with implications. "Three burger plates and four Pale Paws."
Pandora headed into the kitchen. The Razor clan member watched her the entire way. She recalled his name, or nickname, was Little Bear. He wasn't big at all. Which made her wonder about the origins.
When she returned to the dining area, her empty table filled up with a single member of the Demon Dogs. While she greeted the new customer, she scanned the room. Having a member of both Razor and Drops in the restaurant made for a great opportunity. When she was finished taking his order, Pandora slipped the gun onto the empty seat next to the guy, under the pretense of collecting the extra silverware.
"Hey, Princess," said Blue Dagger with his blade displayed on the table. "We're still waiting."
"I think it's ready. I'll be right back," she said, smiling sweetly.
Inside the kitchen she collected the three plates and four bottles.
"Give me another," she said.
The bartender squinted. "I thought you said four?"
With the fifth Pale Paw on the serving tray, Pandora lifted it while holding the remote beneath. She closed her eyes before entering the restaurant, preparing herself for the chaos that was about to ensue. There was a chance that she might start a clan war and get killed in the fighting, but it was a chance she was willing to take. Mod would be disappointed in anything less.
As she carefully walked through the tables, Pandora pressed a gray button on the remote. The beeping could be barely heard above the chatter of conversation. The single Demon Dog clan member leaned over to inspect what was making the noise. Pandora reached the table of Blue Daggers when he pulled the weapon from its hiding place.
"Gun!" she yelled, tossing the entire serving tray of food and drinks onto the trio of Blue Daggers. Burgers, fries, and beer bottles tumbled everywhere.
As she ran towards the surprised member of the Demon Dogs, he reflexively pointed the weapon towards her. To his left, the Razor clan member was moving to intercept. As the angle of the gun trended away, Pandora hit the remote trigger as she leapt.
A punch to the chest spun Pandora around. She crashed into the table. Her shoulder was on fire. Lying on her back as the Demon Dog was tackled by numerous members of the other clans, Pandora touched the bloody wound, realizing that the damage was much worse than intended. She started laughing when she realized she'd triggered the remote too early. The bullet had torn through the right side of her chest.
As the spots in her vision started to connect, the Razor clan member leaned into view. Her body was going cold as he pressed his hands against the wound. Pandora smiled, knowing the coppery taste in her mouth would mean her display of mirth would be a gruesome one.
Then darkness took her.