In any other city, an establishment like The Tooth and Claw would’ve been found in some scummy alley, guarded by two enormous thugs with necks like tree trunks. But in Istima, things were a little different. There was a street entrance where two Aketsi were checking tickets. The door was framed by marble columns and a sign reading “The Tooth and Claw” hung overhead, glowing with magical light. Burr was right, the only rule here was “don’t get caught,” and the owners of the club had clearly realized that the easiest way to do that was simply to pay off the guards.
But Cal couldn’t just stroll through the front entrance. So she waited and watched. It didn’t take long to observe that there was more than one way in. Those who went through the front all had something in common—they screamed wealth. Dresses and gowns, gems sparkling on their necks and in their hair. If she had the time, Cal could’ve gotten Callion’s dress and done her hair to pass as one of the patrons, but she still wouldn’t have a ticket.
Fortunately, a place like this would need another entrance. Once that would allow the riff-raff to enter without sullying the view for the blue-bloods. Cal found that entrance on the side of the building, down a flight of stairs. There were Aketsi standing at this entrance too, but they didn’t notice her slip past in the crowd. She made her way inside, and was hit by the smell of stale beer and body odor.
The place was massive, three rings of balconies looked down upon a ring of sand thirty feet wide. Inside the pit were workers, raking sand over several pools of fresh blood. On the first floor, it was standing room only, with a bar on one wall and some sort of stall for taking bets on the other. Peering up to the second floor, Cal saw rows of wooden benches; and on the third, seats so elaborate they might as well have been called thrones.
She brought her attention back to the first floor. There was a crush of bodies standing at the railing of the arena, as well as a crowd around the bar and the betting booth. Humans, Aketsi, even some Saakarans. There were only a few Len, and most of those that she saw were working behind the counter. But this was just one floor.
As Cal looked for a way up to the second balcony, she spotted something that gave her pause. It was a lone Len, who despite his best efforts, looked incredibly out of place. There was a certain aura you had to put off in these sorts of places. You had to act like you belonged here, like you’d always been here, and that if anyone tried to question you about it that they’d end up hurt. Cal could fake it pretty well, but it was obvious this Len couldn’t.
It was also pretty clear that he was the one who had treated her hands only the day before. He had the same skinny body, same wolf-like face, and even the same travel worn clothes.
As the next fight was announced, Cal watched him try to shuffle his way towards the railing. He was boxed out by the crowd, and had to contend with standing behind them and craning his neck.
“Laaaaadies and gentlemeeeen,” a voice called out. Whoever was speaking was using magic to project their voice, but Cal looked up and saw a man on the third balcony in robes of purple trimmed in gold. “You’ve had a snack, but who’s ready for the main course?” He spread his arms wide.
The crowd roared.
“In one corner, from way down south, hailing from the swamps of Aketsan, we’ve got a stinging stygiopede!” A heavy iron gate was lifted on one side of the area, and a long, flat, bug-like creature came crawling out. It was at least four feet long, and covered in shiny, black plates. It twitched its antennae and flexed a set of horribly sharp serrated mandibles.
“And in the other corner, a hometown hero, from the forest floor beneath the city itself, the fearsome karagor!” The second gate was lifted to reveal a hideous thing of fur and claws, its face a writhing mass of fleshy tendrils. Even from this distance, Cal could see its ribs poking out along its belly. It let out a howl and the audience went wild.
The handlers prodded their animals toward the center of the ring. When they came close enough, they seemed to notice each other and began to circle. In a flash, they set upon one another. The stygiopede slashing with black claws and the karagor rising up on its hind legs to try and pin its opponent down.
The fight was evenly matched. The stygiopede couldn’t easily pierce the matted fur of the karagor, and the karagor couldn’t easily crack the hard shell of the stygiopede. They grappled and broke off, circling again. All the while, the crowd jeered and screamed. Cal never did get blood sports. And not just because gambling was a waste of hard-stolen money either.
She looked over at the Len and saw that he was entranced, but not like the rest of the crowd. While everyone else was hungry for violence, the Len appeared to be… studying the animals. Cal also saw what looked like horror on his face. He winced each time the animals attacked.
“And there it is!” The announcer shouted. Cal turned back and saw that the karagor had managed to find a gap in the massive bug’s armor. It sunk its teeth in, releasing a disgusting spray of green fluid. The stygiopede squirmed and struggled, but it was over. “We have a winner!”
The crowd began to split; half heading to the betting booth to collect their winnings, and half heading to the bar to drown their losses. The Len took this moment to head for a side door. Cal followed him.
Past the door, the noise of the arena died down, echoing softly through the rough stone hallways. Cal stayed back, tailing the Len as he headed deeper in. It was clear he didn’t know where he was going, but he was looking for something. Occasionally, he’d peer down passages or into rooms before continuing on. Eventually, he seemed to find what he was looking for. He headed inside a room and Cal ducked in after him.
Inside were row after row of cages. Some were empty, but most held some manner of strange beast. The cages were spaced so that none of them could attack each other, or whoever was walking between them. Still, Cal saw spots of blood and claw marks on the floor.
The Len looked around, as though he was at a market. He’d pause occasionally, observing an animal before shaking his head and continuing. Eventually, he stopped in front of one long enough that Cal decided to make her move.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said. The Len jumped, wheeling around to face her and raising his hands in some sort of vaguely defensive stance.
“I can expla—” he stopped, peering at her in the dim light. “Wait, it’s you! The one with the hands!”
Cal raised an eyebrow and looked at her palms. “Guilty.”
“What’re you doing here? Do you work at the arena?”
Cal laughed. “No. But I am working at the moment. I was hired to track down a stolen ticket… Know anything about that?”
“I know about lots of things,” the Len said reproachfully.
“Oh, cut it out! Just answer the stupid question.”
“I have a ticket, and I may have gotten it from someone.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Cal sighed. “Look, just hand it over and I’ll go away.”
“No!” The Len said. “I need it to come back.”
“Well I’m not leaving without it.”
From somewhere near the front of the room, above the noises of the animals, Cal heard footsteps. The Len heard it too. Cal looked around, but saw no other exit.
“Who’s there?” Said the approaching stranger. “I know someone’s in here!”
Cal ducked down. She turned to bring the Len down to hide with her but noted with approval that he had already joined her behind one of the empty cages.
“What’re we going to do?” The Len whispered.
“Oh, it’s we now, is it?” Cal shot back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly capable of making it out of here on my own.”
“Then you won’t get the ticket.”
Cal cursed under her breath. He had a point. And she couldn’t go back empty-handed.
“Fine. But you’re not off the hook.” The footsteps were getting louder now. They didn’t have much time. She looked around. Most of the cages in this area were empty. Not that releasing anything kept down here was a particularly good idea. Then she saw the cage nearest to them was not only empty, but the gate was open. The footsteps were nearly upon them. “Alright, I’ve got an idea.” She looked at the wide-eyed Len. “The security in this place isn’t great. And operations like this can’t have dead ends, in case the owners need to get out in a hurry. We have a chance of getting out of here if you follow my lead.”
“Okay, what do I do?”
Cal shoved the Len out into the open.
“Hey!” A voice said. “Who the hell are you? How’d you get down here?”
“I… uh, er, that is—”
“Shut up!” The man said, drawing a knife. “Now, you’re coming with—”
Cal stepped up behind the man. She gave him a kick to the back of his knees and he folded over, dropping his torch. Unable to see her, it was easy for Cal to then shove the crumpled man into the open cage and shut the latch.
“Come on!” She grabbed the Len’s hand and ran, dragging him along.
“Wait! I came here for a creature!”
“No time!” She pulled him through the door. There were more voices down the hall from where they had come. The only choice was to head further in. They ran down the corridor, away from the noise. The tunnel ended at a winding staircase. She followed it up, hoping this was some back way to the surface.
“I need a familiar,” the Len sulked. She ignored him and kept climbing. After a few more flights, Cal tried one of the doors. Inside was a small, round room filled with small cages.
“If it’ll shut you up, take one of these.”
“But they’re so small!”
“Yeah… but they’re harder for anyone to reach, so maybe they’re more dangerous? Or more valuable?”
The Len cocked his head.
“Come on, come on!” She growled. “Make up your mind!”
“Okay!” He made a quick turn around the room. He lingered upon one cage, examining the creature within, then moved on to another. He pulled one out and looked inside. “It’s so hard to choose. Fate help me, it has so many fangs”
Cal heard shouts from down below. A group of people were charging up the stairs.
“That’s the one!” Cal said, pulling him out of the room. Together, cage tucked under his arm. they headed up further. The stairs terminated in a large wooden door. Cal burst through it and found herself on the top balcony.
The room was filled with well-dressed patrons sitting in the elaborate thrones. With her dark leathers and the Len’s rumpled clothes, they looked extremely out of place. Fortunately, another fight was taking place, and no one paid them any attention.
“Come on,” she hissed as they made theirway past the seats.
“Excuse me!” A voice called out. Cal looked and saw an elderly woman. She was wearing a rather large green dress and a thick layer of white makeup. “Do you work here?”
“We don’t—” Cal kicked the Len in the shins.
“I order my drink five minutes ago, and it still isn’t here. Won’t you be dears and take care of that?”
“Absolutely, ma’am,” Cal said, curtsying slightly.
“Good.” The woman turned back to the match.
Cal breathed out in relief and looked around. They must’ve come through a service entrance. The large entrance she’d first seen on her way in must be around here somewhere. She spotted it on the far side of the balcony. She nudged the young Len and pointed. He nodded, clutching the cage to his chest.
With the match going, people barely noticed as they made their way over. Soon, they were through the entrance. The guards didn’t give them much notice. After all, they were paid to keep people out, not in. After a few blocks, Cal pulled the Len into an alley.
“There!” She sighed.. “That was easy.”
The Len looked like he wanted to double over, but he didn’t refused to set down the cage in his hands. The burlap covering inside the wooden frame kept her from seeing what sort of creature, if any, was inside.
“What was your name again? Tum? Past?”
“Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.”
“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”
“I am in your debt. If you want the ticket, it’s yours.”
“Well, about that,” Cal reached into her pocket and fished out the ticket. “I already have it. Guess you’ll just have to owe me.”
“Thief!” Yam hissed.
“Oh, please! I just happen to be better at it than you.” She pocketed the ticket. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll need patching up sooner or later. Then we’ll be even. Besides, you got what you came for.”
“I suppose so.” He clutched the cage tightly. “Will you tell me your name?”
“Nobody. Just Cal.”
“I see.” Yam frowned.
“Great. Well, try not to get in any more trouble.” She nodded and walked off in the direction of the Falls District.
As she left, Cal shook her head. Why had she even helped him? That wasn’t part of the job, after all. She could’ve taken the ticket and ran. The guards would’ve been so preoccupied with him that they wouldn’t have even noticed her slipping out.
Maybe she’d gotten soft. Or maybe Istima was already so cutthroat that it felt wrong to leave someone so clearly out of their element alone in there. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something she would’ve done even a month ago.
It took her the better part of an hour to get back to Sable and Burr’s. She took it slow, her legs hurt from sprinting up all those stairs. She also routinely doubled back to make sure she wasn’t followed. Finally, she made it to the front door. Sable and Burr were waiting inside.
“Ah, welcome back, darling,” Sable said, looking up from a half-finished tunic. “I trust you had a good evening?”
“Good? I wouldn’t say that. Successful, though.” She handed him the ticket.
“That will have to do I suppose.” A bell chimed, striking the hour. “And just in time. Our client should be here shortly.”
No sooner had he spoken then the door opened. Cal turned and went pale as she saw Jasten walk in.