I made my way through the press of bodies towards the back of the tavern, my heart pounding. None of the men milling about spared a second look for me, but I still shrank away from their incurious looks.
There. Set into the back wall of the building, a bare wooden door – and a huge, hulking bouncer leaning against it, his arms crossed.
I moved closer, my heart pounding in my throat. He had to have strains of ogre in his ancestry. No human possessed arms so big, such gray skin. His hand could easily close on my head, and likely pop it like a grape. I nearly turned and fled, my courage all but exhausted, but forced myself closer.
He looked down at me, his heavy brow furrowing. “Yuh?”
“Hextech,” I choked out through dry lips. “I need to see him.”
The guard didn’t reply. He just took a single step to one side, moving away from the door. He stopped, waiting for me.
Now or never. I took one last breath, prayed for luck to any gods who might be listening, who could take pity on me, and then stepped through the door.
On the other side, I found a narrow set of stairs, a landing halfway up where they changed directions. I climbed the stairs towards that landing – but stopped as I saw that it was occupied.
I blinked, but the sight didn’t change. A young teenage girl, surely no older than fourteen, leaned insolently back against the wall.
“What’re you staring at?” she challenged me, as I gaped at her.
“I, uh…” I tried to get my thoughts together. “What are you doing here? How did you get back here? You shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous-”
The girl slowly advanced on me, frowning a little. She didn’t seem scared at all. Her perfectly straight blonde hair fell in a waterfall down her back. She looked clean, thin but healthy.
“You’re here to see Hextech?” she asked, looking me up and down without any attempt at subtlety. “Here to beg for his help with something?”
“I, er- yes.” She knew Hextech? She knew where she was? Who was this girl?
My eyes flicked to her belt, but I saw no weapons tucked away there. Not even a knife. The girl grinned sardonically at me when she caught my eyes straying. “Get a good eyeful, pervert?”
“I’m not-” I began, but gave up. Instead, I turned to the stairs ascending from the landing. I continued to climb, but I heard the girl fall in behind me.
“Good luck, pervert. You’re gonna need it.” She didn’t sound angry, though. More… amused?
Another door stood shut at the top of the landing. I took one last breath, trying not to hyperventilate, and then pushed it open.
And there, on the other side of a wide, paper-covered desk, sat Hextech.
He looked ordinary at first glance, just another man. But as I stepped into the room, I heard the clicking and hissing of mechanical components in constant motion.
A chair stood in front of the desk; it was small, roughly made of wood. A child’s chair. I took a seat in it, and my foot bumped against a cable snaking across the floor, thick as my wrist.
My eyes followed the cable. It snaked back behind the desk, rising up and connecting with the back of Hextech’s neck. I shivered, wondering what it did. Was it some sort of power supply? A source of information? A weapon?
Hextech held a quill in one hand, writing carefully. At first, I thought he wore a metal glove, but I realized after a moment that I was looking at his hand – a hand crafted from shining brass, moving as fluidly as if it was flesh.
Hextech continued writing, not looking up. I sat and studied him.
He had been a man, once. That was what the stories said. Long ago, in an age now forgotten, he’d been normal. But as the years passed like leaves floating in a stream, he felt the ravages of age – and refused to accept them. He stole fantastic technology, magics of clockwork that no one could recreate or understand, used them to augment his failing body.
And now, he was more machine than man, according to the rumors. Looking at him, watching him work, I could believe the rumors. They said that he commanded other relics, creations from the Lost Age, ones that could accomplish miraculous tasks.
A miracle. That is what I needed.
Finally, with a little sigh that sounded like a deflating bellows, Hextech set aside the quill. His gaze finally rose to me – and I caught my breath in my throat as his eye twisted to focus on me. From the holes in his face, shimmering devices of glass stared back at me.
“Burgher Francis.” He knew my name. “You are here because of the bandits in the northern passes?” He knew why I was there.
My tongue paralyzed, I nodded. “They, they have some relic that they use against me,” I stammered out, not knowing the right words. “They strike from the air, too fast, and then vanish before my guards can find them. We have lost many shipments-”
Hextech nodded, as if he’d heard all of this before. Maybe he had. Those glass eyes peered at me as if they saw straight through me. “Yes, I suspected that they uncovered a cache.”
“A cache?” I repeated, lost.
He continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “I will send Cassandra with you. She will retrieve the devices that the bandits recovered from the cache.”
“Cassandra?” I echoed. Who was Cassandra?
Startling me, the young girl from outside the room stepped forward. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I hadn’t heard her enter, hadn’t realize that she stood just behind me. “Do I really need to run this errand in person?” she grimaced.
Hextech, however, just nodded. “You understand the technology better than anyone else at my disposal.”
For a moment longer, the girl glared at Hextech. Then, apparently reaching some decision, she tossed her hair back imperiously as she transferred that glare to me.
“Fine,” she decided. “Burgher Francis, huh? Sounds like a take-out order. Let’s go.”
My mouth hung open. “But what use is this girl?” I asked, confused. “She cannot hope to stand against a bandit-”
She moved faster than I could see.
One second, she stood a pace away, wearing an expression of mild annoyance. The next instant, I was up and out of my chair, pressed against the back wall. My feet dangled a foot above the floor, and the girl’s fingers felt like steel on my throat.
Her expression didn’t even change as that impossibly skinny arm hoisted me aloft. “One twitch,” she remarked, still looking bored. “Crunch goes the spine.”
After another couple seconds, she lowered me back down to the ground, releasing her grip on my neck. I stared at her, unable to believe what just happened, as my own hand rose up to rub my bruised neck.
“Take care, Cassandra.” Hextech had returned his attention back to the papers on his desk. Our meeting, clearly, was at an end.
Cassandra, the girl who was not, nodded. “Let’s go,” she told me, and I headed for the door. The girl lingered back a step, however, and I caught her last words to Hextech.
“I shall, Father.”
And then the door closed, and the girl skipped ahead of me as we descended back down into the tavern.