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A girl travels the alleys of the Hive. A thousand levels below her, the city tears into the earth, stretching and mining low. A thousand above, it batters the sky. Hundreds of kilometers in any direction. The Hive is the world. Her grandparents told her of when the Hive was small, and there were deserts and grasslands all about it. But that might as well be children's fictions. It may well be.

The girl is on the cusp of womanhood, and knows all the dangers this brings. She carries a knife up her sleeve, a cruelly serrated blade. Her grandfather's grandfather used it in the Miner Rebellions. Its weight deadens her arm. A cloak hides her face, tucked about her. The hood forms a silhouette of an eagle's crown, bringing a tapered beak low over her face. Such is the fashion, and the girl knows advantage when she sees it.

Every tale-abiding child in the Hive knows how to find the Ravens. Every constable too, but they would never. The Ravens would not forgive them, or their families. The girl has little option.
    High above the water-treatment, far from the gambling pits. At the furthest wing of the Hive, past the flesh-market. The girl knows all the rhymes for finding the Ravens, though the songs and rhymes are meant for caution, not exploration. A flesh-hawker offers her a new arm, a new face, gesturing to glass casks of bubbling amniotics. Percentile people, and all possible constituent parts, bob in the tanks. She ducks past, away from the racks of jaws, and their gleaming never-rot teeth. The hawker laughs after her, and cries out his wears all the more loudly. The girl does not look back.

The Ravens find her before she finds them. She seeks signs and runes on the ancient bulwark walls, seeks the raw steel buttresses of the first constructions. The pleasure cults sell their own services there, and offer such cruel things to the girl to make her flee with tears in her eyes. She runs, trying to catch her breath, and she is in the alleyway. She did not see it coming, and turning, sees it stretch behind her. Children's stories rush back to her afresh, Raven-tales and their strange domains. The walls are high and claustrophobic, and everything the dark monochrome color of neglect. The girl wishes for light, even a flicker, but knows it will not come. Ravens live in midnight realms, the tales say. In the walls of the Hive, say the poems. The Raven that appears before her is not fit for either. As she looked from one end of the eternal alley to another, it is before her, immediate and silent. It is perfectly still, from its strange boots to its mask, all in perfect black and midnight shades. The girl finds her chest tight and empty, but manages not to shake. The round lenses of its mask flicker with dim light as the Raven cocks its head.
    "What do you offer?" It's voice is perfect, smooth and quiet, touching.
The girl goes to a knee, her hands disappearing into her cloak. She offers carved jade in one hand, a priceless family relic. In the other, a sack of platinum coins, a nobleman's collateral. Black-gloved hands appear from beside her and behind, lifting the treasures away. The girl shudders under her cloak. She is surrounded. She does not look up, in case the Ravens would take offense.
    "What else?" The voice is too perfect, a facsimile of the real thing. No human ever spoke in such tones. The girl hesitates, remembering old legends, rituals to be observed. She draws, ever so slowly, the knife from her sleeve. She takes it in both palms, and raises it above her head. She does not feel the hand that takes it, only the awful weight disappearing.

There is a moment, staring at the hard pavement of an impossible alleyway, that girl wonders if she will die there.
    "Rise. We will hear you."
The girl raises her head, and draws back the beaked hood, but does not stand. She is suddenly weary beyond any physical measure, only her mind alight. The Raven turns the knife over and over in its hands, examining the every spiteful barb and angle of the blade.
    "Treasures you bring. And an artful weapon." The Raven turns its mask to her. "Name who you want dead."
The girl's tongue is sand in her mouth, and betrays her. She looks away, forcing herself to regain control.
    "Speak, girl," says a soft voice behind her. This one seems encouraging, but equally artificial. Too perfect in tone.
The girl stands her full height, not quite reaching the Raven's neck.
    "I want you to kill me."
Her reward is silence, then awful laughter. The Raven before her chuckles with a noise of cracking fingers, and hollow echoes. Behind her, there are too many calls. Chittering giggles, aching gasps, vicious low sounds. Raven laughter, so the tales say, brings misfortune. The girl knows this sincerely, standing before them. Nothing would fill them with mirth, but for dark deeds. The Raven with her grandfather's grandfather's knife leans in, just a touch. The many serrations of the blade take an fearful light to them.
    "A girl wants to die? A short fall down a long shaft would do it, and painless. A short dance with a sharp razor would do it quick." Another awful chuckle. "Any dark pathway in the Hive could do it, but maybe not painless." The Raven cocks its head to a side, almost touching its shoulder. "But a girl goes to the Ravens, king-killers. A very expensive way to die."

The girl has readied herself for this, and speaks with all the strength and imperious confidence her blood allows.
    "I am Amaya Silver-Tongue, of the House Amaranthine. I am to be wedded in two days. My betrothed is... terrible." Her voice catches, and she speeds on, emotion filling the small fractures in her voice. "I am no stranger to the matters of politics. I know I will die on my wedding bed." If she felt fear, she disguised it well. "Which is why I want you to kill me... at a time of my choosing."

The Ravens fall quiet. Her family's knife disappears behind the Raven's back, and it interlaces long, agile fingers.
    "Well, now. A girl is interesting." It leans close, the lenses of its mask catching Amaya's reflection. Too many reflections, she thinks. Too many lenses. "And why does the girl wait?" the Raven asks. Its voice is soft now.
    "You - the Ravens - were placed on retainer by Imperator Karolus, three centuries ago. He was my ancestor. It's said that he contracted you to kill his enemies, but only when he said so." Amaya raises her chin, a small gesture to noble birth. "Is that true?" The Raven seemed to nod, but she couldn't be sure. Amaya took a deep and resolute breath. "Then you will kill me, when I give the order - and you will prevent all others from taking my life." There is silence for her answer, and Amaya can almost imagine surprise behind the Raven's mask.
    "A girl is clever," the Raven allows after a moment. "What is the Ravens', the Ravens keep. If your life is given to the Ravens," it cocks its head again, voice too perfect and too sure, "then the Ravens will keep it."
    "Do we have a compact?" Amaya knows she must ask now, once and for all. Her voice does not betray her, but she is glad of the gloom for her face.
    "Why should the Ravens care? You bring treasures, but Ravens are not magpies. A girl should give us a reason." There is snickering from behind.
Amaya feels herself sag at the words. She rages behind her eyes. The stories had all said that payment and a name would satisfy. The rituals had been observed. The exchange made. She found herself whispering aloud. "Because I don't want to die for a fat noble of a fat House." She snarls her words. "Because I know what his House will take from my dowry, and I know all the Hive will pay for it." She felt herself move as she glared straight into the too-many lenses of the Raven's black mask, shouting, "Because the Ravens have always protected the Hive!" And the thought came unbidden: and they always will.

The Raven lifts its head to the razor-thin sliver of sky above. Amaya tracks its gaze, and sees the beginnings of a storm, testing the capacitor towers high above the Hive. "That we do." The Raven tugs off the glove of its left hand, revealing smooth, pale skin. It is a beautiful hand, Amaya thinks, coldly wondering that there is anything living there. A single gloved finger of the other hand tracks across the bare palm, revealing a shallow line of blood. Amaya had not seen a talon, or hidden nail. The Raven places its hand in hers, a warm trickle pulsing in her palm.
    "It is set." the Raven softly says. "The Ravens will take your life at the instant the word is given, and not before." The glove slips back into place, fingers flexing. "And no other will take it, for to do so would be to steal from the Ravens." The mask comes close enough to kiss, and whispers in its perfect, accentless intonation, "And we can't have that, can we?" The Raven steps back. "Have no mistake, clever girl. We will kill you, for we never fail in this. We have your death in hand." Amaya forces herself to shakily nod, and knows the deal is set.

Amaya does not see the Raven go. It gestures to the alley behind her, and the turn of her head is all it needs to disappear. The alley also disappears, a short blind ahead of her, and the streets of the Hive just behind her. The unseen choir of whispering Ravens similarly vanished.
    Amaya nearly collapses as she leans on the wall. Tugging her beaked hood into place, she shrugs her way back into the world. She hears the pleasure cults, full lips purring obscene comforts and offers to passers-by. She hears the shrill calls of flesh-markets, the bubbling decanting of fresh limbs, and silk-soft skin grafts. The wind above the Hive. Amaya sees the flash of lightning strike the towers before it cracks against the sounds of the Hive. Her cloak pulled tight, she does not hurry. The painted, guarded towers of her family's house would wait, and the scent of petrichor filled her head.
    "Be quicker. The storm will get worse."
Amaya flinches, jumping at the voice so close to her ear. She sees no one nearby, only tired and hooded citizens, fleeing the fresh rain. Then she sees the toothed edge of her grandfather's grandfather's knife, held inside a cloak, disappearing in the crowd. There is a smile in the mass of people, meant only for her. Amaya looks down at her left hand, the poetic lying hand, and sees a crimson smudge on her skin. Beads of rain fall on her skin, diluting it further.
    Amaya tugs the beak of her cloak as far down as it would go, and stepped up her pace. Surprising herself, she felt no fear. Her killer was at hand, and following her all the way. She knew that no House guard, or high tower would stop the Ravens. They would be near her always, she knew in her heart. And she felt not an ounce of fear. Her death could only come by command, after all. And she had a wedding day to prepare for.
Sometimes, all a girl needs is a little insurance.
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dark-precipice Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
... dUDE!!!

Girl's smart. Make her Empress. She has my vote.
Isengim Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
I like her. She has moxie.

Wrote this in one go, so delivery isn't perfect. A little Blade Runner in the mix, a little Warhammer 40k.
dark-precipice Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
In one go? I would've never guessed!! 

Loving the entire concept of the Hive, btw - it is... idk now to put it... viscerally gorgeous. The sheer size of it is mind-boggling, and the story-telling potential even more so! You've peppered enough details to make the place intriguing, all while not paying more attention to it than strictly necessary - just the things that would realistically cross Amaya's mind and path (one of the things I don't like about sticking to a single character's POV is the limitations - since we see what they see, we don't really get to look around on our own). 

Also loving the bird imagery - the Ravens are supposed to resemble plague doctors, no? And Amaya's cowl being described as ''an eagle's crown'' - very apt. I do wish she survives and thrives and grows into the majestic eagle she's born to be!
Isengim Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
Needed it out of my head.

I've always had problems doing physical detail. Either it becomes a separate section, or it doesn't flow. If I tie it directly into the feeling of the place, it seems to work fine.

The Raven masks have a version in my head, but I'll let readers come up with their own visions.

I'll toy with the idea of continuation, but I'll need a hook or two first. Amaya's a daring girl, so she'll be fine if she stays lucky.
dark-precipice Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Sounds like a good strategy. :nod: The physical description+general atmosphere connection, I mean.
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Submitted on
July 27, 2016
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