A shrill whistle pierced the air, followed by shouts and curses. By the time Shu reached the window, the racket had faded. He shoved the curtains back and looked down at the street below. Nothing odd there, only the usual afternoon crowd.
Shu slammed the window shut. He recognized the whistle and knew that someone was in trouble with the Indigos police, but it had nothing to do with him. He settled back on the sofa and closed his eyes.
A few minutes later he jumped up again, wakened by someone rattling the doorknob, along with loud, frenzied knocking.
"Come on, it's me! Hurry!"
Shu unlocked it and stepped back to avoid being trampled when Elc hurtled in, flushed and breathing quickly, but with a triumphant grin on his face.
"I was here the whole time," he said, and threw himself down on the bed.
Shu rubbed at his eyes. "What happened to your key?"
"Dropped it. Shh, they're coming."
There was more pounding on the door. Shu hurried to answer it and found himself staring at the angriest police officer he'd ever seen. He pushed past Shu and instantly locked his furious gaze on Elc.
"You can't run now! Where is it?"
Elc looked utterly bewildered. "What do you mean, officer?" he asked politely. The policeman clenched his fists.
"Don't play dumb, you little-"
Shu decided it was a wise time to cut in. "You're mistaken. He's been here all day."
The officer finally noticed the other man for the first time. Shu saw his scowl transform into a smirk at his black costume.
"Really, you Hunter types." He waved a finger at Elc. "You're not off yet! I'll get you somehow!"
He stormed out. Shu was relieved that he didn't turn around and see the faces Elc made at his back.
"All right, Elc. What did you do?"
Elc reached under his cloak and handed him a package. "Don't open it."
Shu felt the object through its brown wrapping. He wasn't easy to surprise, and the only sign was how his eyes widened. "Gemstones! How did you-"
Elc held up a hand. "Sorry, can't tell. You can't expect a Hunter to give away his secrets, can you?"
True enough. "What does this have to do with the police?"
"The thief bribed them," Elc replied. "When I got the jewels from him, the police chased after me instead! What's this city coming to?"
"That's no rarity." Shu told him. "It might even work to your advantage sometime."
"But they're the police!" Elc cried. "Shu, have you ever done that?"
"A few times," Shu said vaguely. "You'd be wise not to anger them. You already made one enemy today."
"Enemy?" Elc was scornful. "That one who burst in here? He's just a rookie."
"Men like him tend to rise quickly through the ranks," Shu warned. He crossed over to the sofa. "Promise me you'll be careful."
"All right," Elc said, humoring him. "I'll try."
Shu spent the rest of the day looking up at the ceiling. Elc had the sense to stay inside after the scene he'd caused, but success made him restless. He squirmed and the bed creaked.
Elc, Shu thought, shifting position for the tenth time. What's going to become of you?
He could still picture the day, two and a half years ago, when he found a boy stumbling through the desert, dazed and starved. He remembered how viciously the child resisted his attempts to touch him, biting, kicking and scratching like some wild animal, until he fainted from exhaustion.
What am I doing? the Hunter wondered as he carried the unconscious boy over his shoulder, back to his apartment. He was new to Indigos himself at the time. It was hard enough getting enough work to pay the rent.
Shu was a little startled at the revulsion he felt at the idea of throwing the kid out to fend for himself. He thought of another child, forced to skulk in alleyways and dig through trash for his next meal. He thought he'd put that all behind him, but he couldn't force back the memories of escaping execution by becoming an assassin.
He looked down at the boy, who was huddled on the bed, asleep but moaning softly. So he wasn't the only one with demons. I'll make sure you never go through the same thing as me, Shu promised. It would be his penance. He liked that.
It wasn't easy. He couldn't recall ever having a mother, or any family at all, so he had no clue how to handle the kid. But he understood one thing. He'd have to earn the boy's trust first.
Shu taught him everything he could about being a Hunter, and once Elc was old enough, even took him on his jobs. Shu often told him how important it was for Hunters to follow the news, so he was pleased when he returned from a late job and found Elc seated at the table, the morning paper spread out in front of him. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Elc’s face was ashen white, and he stared down as if in a trace. He'd knocked over his breakfast, and a glass of orange juice had shattered on the floor.
Shu paused for a second, startled by this unexpected scene. "Elc?" he asked softly. The boy didn't even acknowledge him. Shu moved behind him to see just what was so shocking.
'Arc Strikes Again,'" he read over Elc's shoulder. He glanced at the pictures included with the article. Looking into those youthful eyes, it was hard to believe the man and his friends were really terrorists.
"The bastard," Elc suddenly cried. "That airship..."
"It's always sighted when Arc gets caught," Shu said. "What about it?"
Elc took a few shuddery breaths. Then he tore the paper into bits. The pieces fluttered and drifted to the floor. "Damn Arc! Damn him!"
"Elc!" Shu said again, and this time Elc looked at him. "What is this?"
"My village," was all Elc said, and he refused to say another word until that night.
Shu knew how Elc felt, but couldn't keep back his own worry. He didn't want Elc's vengeance to consume him.
"How do you expect to deal with Arc now?" he demanded. It took some work, but he finally managed to convince Elc that it was better to wait, that working as a Hunter would help him discover information about the fiend, that he had to grow stronger first. Finally, Shu was confident that Elc wouldn't run off some night and get himself killed. Gradually, the old Elc returned, but since that day, he threw himself into his work like he'd never done before. He even talked of moving on to another city, maybe even another continent. Shu knew it would happen soon. He'd never admit it, but he'd miss him.
"Hey, get up! You're going to be late!"
Shu opened his eyes and realized that Elc was shaking his shoulders.
"All right! Stop!" He looked over at the table. The package was gone.
"Another job well done," Elc said. Shu listened while he did some last-minute preparations for his own night's work. "While you were catching up on your beauty sleep, I slipped out and returned the jewels to their owner. I already collected the reward - nine hundred Goz!" Elc tried to sound offhand, but couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. "I hid it with the rest of our stash. That should keep the landlord happy for another month."
Shu put his hand on the doorknob and looked over his shoulder. "Elc?"
"I'm proud of you."
Before the other Hunter could reply, he stepped into the dark hallway and was gone.