Calder stepped back on his heels. The air around him hung heavy and crisp, cloaking him with cold. He sniffed the air, once again thinking that cold smelled almost clean.
Foul air they have in this world.
He ran his tongue over his teeth and glanced once more at the iron gates, the palace behind it quiet and dark. Dark enough that he knew everyone inside was sleeping. Dark enough that they'd never see him as he made his way inside and into each bedroom.
His boots clipped against stone as he scaled the wall, flinging himself over the top with grace that most in his cadre envied. The thought made him grin.
Sixty seconds and he was at a side door. A guard stood sentry. Calder pressed himself into the shadows, darkness blending with darkness. He checked the bedrooms.
The servant's quarters.
The barracks of soldiers in the east yard.
His breath swirled into white clouds as he exhaled, studying the palace grounds; his eyes probing into corners and places he could check again. But he was thorough. And wouldn't deign himself to check again like a novice soldier. No. What he searched for wasn't here.
Cursing under his breath, he ran and scaled the wall, landing with barely a sound on the other side. Anger simmered inside him. This was the ninth place he'd checked this week. And he'd failed his mission again. Master would not be pleased.
It was a short trip back to headquarters. Calder slipped into the War Room. Amir and Garvan glanced up as he entered, brows raised in question. Calder shook his head and watched in disgust as Amir crossed his city off the list. More lines were added each day. They were running out of time. He knew it. Master surely knew it. Still, they couldn't find him.
A roar of a scream echoed up the hall, shaking the room with it's intensity. Calder turned just as Master strode into the room, his face tight with rage. "Who had David's City?"
The question hung in the air for but a moment, but it was a moment too long. Master snatched Amir's neck in his grasp,. Amir gasped, his eyes growing large as he struggled for air. Master roared in his face. "Who had David's City?"
Calder stepped forward. "It was mine."
Six strides and Master was in front of him. He paused, his face serene where it had just been enraged. One breath. Two.
Calder didn't even see the fist coming.
He collapsed to the ground, cheek burning in agony, as Master's fist found him again. He stumbled but finally got his feet underneath him, then placed his palms on the cold stone floor. Submission was the only course allowed. The only one Master accepted. The only one that made Master proud. Calder pressed his cheek to the floor, rock scraping against it as Master's blows pummeled his back.
Minutes passed. He should get more. "I am sorry to have disappointed you, Master. Nine times my search revealed nothing. I indeed deserve your wrath."
Master grabbed the back of his neck and jerked him upright. "Nothing? Nothing?" He tossed Calder to the ground again, then raised his arms as he turned to the rest in the room. "This soldier thinks there was nothing to be found in his cities."
Master seized Calder's neck again, pressing his face mere inches from Calder's. "He was in the city."
Master's words echoed off the rock. But no. No; he couldn't have been. "I checked everywhere, Master." Every palace. Every barrack. Hidden political meetings. Groups of rebellious men. He'd even stood in the shadows of every temple, the reek of worship clinging to him for days afterward. Anywhere a leader might be found.
The hand around his neck squeezed tighter. Master's eyes loomed before him, dark and burning. "He was there. They've just announced it. You missed him."
Missed. But how? Calder never missed. "I saw no man such as he, Master."
Master tossed him to the ground with a bitter laugh. "No, you disgraced vermin. You saw no such man. What you should have seen was a child."
The air left Calder's lungs. "A child?"
"Yes." Master circled the room, his hand grazing the rough rock wall. "A baby. Born this night in David's City." He cocked his head to the tunnel entrance. "I can hear their wretched rejoicing even from here."
Calder fell to his knees. A baby? That couldn't be. Battles weren't fought by babies. Victory could not be had by such ridiculousness. It wouldn't work.
But wouldn't it? The enemy was clever. And what better way to throw them off than to disguise himself as a human child.
Calder curled his hands into fists. Babies were foul things. It was just like their weak-hearted enemy to embrace the humans like this. Which was foolish. Humans are soft. Weak. Easily turned.
And desperate for power.
"I will redeem it, Master."
Master snapped his head to him. "What was that, slave?"
Calder bowed his head in submission. "I will redeem it. I will destroy the child."
Master shook his head. "We have no direct access to him. Not until later."
"But others do." He raised his head and met Master's gaze. "Others can be influenced."
Master studied Calder's face. "What do you have in mind?"
He would redeem this. Calder's lips slipped into a wicked grin. "I'll whisper rumors of a King of the Jews. And I'll make sure Herod hears it."
Master's eyes lit. He thought only a moment, then nodded. "Make sure he kills them all."
Calder bowed, then slipped from the cavern and out into the night air again. He would not fail this time. His drew his cloak tighter around him, his dark form bleeding into the night again. Yes. Redemption was coming.