Chapter One: Eight
Dust rolled along the floor in small clouds as they were chased into the dust pan. The rhythmic motion of dragging the broom across the floor was automatic and simple, something Timothy Drake could relax into as he made his way slowly across the tiled kitchen floor.
There was a maid who came once a week, cleaned the whole place from top to bottom, but to his dismay, dirt always managed to ease through the porous window screens even after she'd gone.
Tim knew full well he could have closed them and the dust would have left, but he liked having the windows open, especially in summer: Birds were singing outside, their happy chatter ringing like sweet music, and wind would always find a way through the house to combat the heat, playing with the papers on the table. Sometimes they would blow the untouched business reports across rooms, and Tim would laugh to himself as he tried to catch them before they fell to the floor. It was a fun game he liked to play when he was alone.
And so, he kept the windows open and swept instead, losing himself in the easy action of pulling the broom back and forth.
Tim didn't mind being by himself. He'd become accustomed to it after eight years, and he convinced himself that he'd even grown to like the solitude of the big empty house.
But one thing he did not like was dust.
He decisively swept another pile into the pan.
Dust was something that only appeared when an object was left alone for too long; it was the tangible form of the word "forgotten," gathering forlornly as if to signal that whatever it fell upon was unimportant, unneeded and unwanted.
Tim hated it, hated it because sometimes he worried that he'd wake up one day and find himself covered in it and would never be able to shake it off.
He deposited the pan's contents into the garbage, relishing the grainy sound it emitted as the refuse poured out.
A few pictures on the refrigerator called for his attention in front of him. Usually Tim did his best to ignore them, but this time, he glanced up uninterestedly, eying the dozens of postcards tacked to the shiny surface.
Mom and Dad always sent them. Every cruise, every dig, every business trip heralded the arrival of another flashy photograph with a hastily-scrawled "We miss you!" embellishing the back like a tacky souvenir. The door of the refrigerator was covered with them.
Tim finished emptying the pan and set it back on the ground, continuing his mundane task.
It went on like that for another hour; he let himself stop only when he was sure there wasn't another speck of dust in the whole house.
A loud crack roused him from sleep. Tim bolted upright, ears perked in anticipation of another sound.
The house remained stubbornly silent. That wasn't something that should have bothered him, the logical part of his brain complained. He'd probably just imagined the sound somewhere between sleeping and waking.
Tim swung his legs over his bed anyway and slid the rest of the way to the ground, ignoring the chill floorboards under his bare feet as he made his way to the light switch on the other side of the room.
He flipped the switch a few more times before letting his hand fall, the only light in the room the distant shapes flickering through an open window. Something must be wrong with the circuit breaker, he registered distantly. Looking back, he should've just gone back to bed, treated the problem as something that could have been handled in the morning with a simple phone call.
But the investigative part of him argued that no circuit breakers make a crack like shattered glass, and he cautiously peered out from behind his bedroom door into the hallway.
It might have even been possible to convince someone that no one had traversed the corridor for years. But against the odds, a small child of eight crept through it and down the grand staircase his father always made a point of mentioning whenever they hosted guests.
"It's absolutely divine, Mr. Drake."
His father would tap the handrail as if it were a war horse that had led him to victory many a time. "It's modeled after the one in the Petit Trianon. Very expensive, as you can imagine. But you know Janet. She loves the classics."
His father hadn't been wrong: Everything in the estate was based upon that principle, all "classic" and "expensive" and old—so old they could break simply by virtue of existing. That's probably what happened, a voice in his head chimed. You're overreacting.
And Tim almost listened to it, that nagging presence in the back of his mind recalling that they had an alarm system and everything was fine. Only…
Only the alarm was linked to the electricity.
Which was nonoperational.
Tim's eyes sank closed, his whole body following suit onto the stairs, as the numbing realization set in. No, he wasn't overreacting; he had ample reason to be scared.
After a moment of controlled breathing, he dared to peek through the lavish and overpowering guardrail down to the entryway. The foyer was also vacant, white tile gleaming up at him as if to inquire innocently why he was still awake. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Completely quiet. Until it wasn't.
"Wait! I didn't mean to steal from you guys! If I'd known it was you, I never would've…!" The new voice was panicky and guttural, like it was struggling to breathe. "I'll pay it all back—I swear!"
The voice continued desperately, "Why do you think I'm here? I just need more time to get the funds together!" Breaking pottery accompanied the splintering of wood furniture against the floor. "No, no! Please!"
Tim hated the piece of him that calculated which room the blood-curdling scream had come from, the angle at which the Victorian armoire had toppled, and the identities of each and every ceramic dish that was no-doubt now speckled crimson.
He fumbled to shut down his brain and blend into the sparse shadows the guardrail threw back on him. It was hard to decipher if the metalwork he was clinging to was a shield or a cage, only distantly realizing that he was scratching the black paint his father had bragged about so often.
"But aren't you worried about having such a young boy around a masterpiece like this?" Tim recalled an older patron asking pointedly one night.
"That's why we bought this specific one," his mother had supplied cheerfully, linking an arm in her husband's. "The spindles are closer together, you know. Much less risk of Timothy falling and hurting himself if we're not around."
If we're not around.
Tim chose to ignore the conditional and focus on the sentiment, the thought that his parents had cared about him getting hurt. The more he clung to that one idea, though, the more he began to question if it had really happened at all, if he had perhaps dreamed up the whole thing and was going to die without his parents ever having worried about their only son.
He shoved the thought back to the corner of his mind to focus on keeping his breathing quiet and maintaining any semblance of motor control that shock hadn't already ripped from his body. It doesn't sound like it involves me. Not a ransom. They probably thought no one was home. Just don't be stupid and panic. He clamped his eyes shut as if it would make the whole situation disappear like a bad dream. Don't panic. You're fine.
It became a mantra founded in a denial so strong that he almost convinced himself that no one had materialized one step beneath him, that no knife was poised in front of his face—so close that he could feel the metallic chill.
Tim knew he should've opened his eyes. He should've been able to stare down the trespasser and be brave. But he was only eight. Eight and alone and about to meet the same fate as whoever else had been downstairs. He hated that he wasn't like normal kids, whose natural response would have been to scream or run or fight back.
But the estate was far away enough that no one would hear him if he screamed or see him if he ran or help him if he fought; there was no point. He was on his own with whoever the person was, someone who was six feet on the dot. Likely 200 pounds. Male. The subtle clinking of armor told him he was probably like the crazies Batman and Robin locked up on the morning news.
"What are you doing, child?"
The timbre was tinny and deep, like it had echoed through a church bell before reaching Tim's ears. It was so jarring that it startled the eight-year-old into opening his eyes, locking with the passive gleam of orange lenses and an eclipsed form, head tilted slightly to the side with an interest one would pay a Sudoku puzzle in the Sunday paper.
"You're not begging," the figure commented matter-of-factly.
"No—" Tim was surprised his voice didn't squeak. He used the small confidence boost to continue, letting his grip slacken on the guardrail. "No, I'm...thinking."
The shadow's head inclined even further to the side in curiosity, and Tim was aware of eyes glazing over him from behind the lenses' sheen. He continued to match the gaze from over the knife tip even though his instincts told him to take the chance and book it. He was sure his legs wouldn't have worked, anyway.
"What is your name, child?"
It took Tim a moment to remember, the revelation that it might not be the end for him yet causing his brain to short-circuit. "Ti—Timothy," he finally forced out.
"And is there no one here save us?"
The staircase was pregnant with pause as Tim parsed the sentence. For a split second, he almost misheard it: Is there no one here to save us? He blinked up at the lenses with a strangely-sympathetic feeling churning in his chest before the true meaning crashed into him.
"Answer truthfully, young one," the voice pressed impatiently.
"It's just me," Tim answered on the breath of an exhale, still painfully aware of the blade's edge hanging inches from his face.
The specter hummed thoughtfully in reply and rolled his wrist so that the knife's curved edge faced upward, pressed closer to the underside of Tim's chin. "You have witnessed something you should not have, child. I should kill you."
"But it was not willed by the Court," the figure continued, unmoving. "And it is beneath me to kill children." Tim instinctively tipped his head back when the blade guided his chin upward. "But what to do with you…?"
It sounded like the shadow was contemplating a matter as trivial as what to eat for breakfast the next day.
After a telling moment, it seemed he had reached a decision. The knife fell back to the figure's side, letting Tim's gaze slide down to his lap.
Tim didn't—couldn't—move, still struggling to process the new development. His heart was beating so loudly, drumming in his eardrums with such vigor that he feared it was audible to the other person in the foyer.
But if he could hear it, the man never said. He had since glided down to the entryway and was cleaning the blood from one of his knives, back to Tim. He paused, knife in hand, as he addressed the boy from over his shoulder. "If you choose to stay, you choose to die."
The ultimatum was enough to drive Tim to his shaky feet and join the figure downstairs.
The lighting was better there. Tim could make out all the intricacies of the shoulder plates, the gauntlet on the man's left hand, and the golden claws glistening on each and every finger. An aquiline beak emerged from a hooded mask between the orange lenses. They paid him no heed as they refocused on the throwing knife.
"What's your name?" Tim finally worked out, praying the sentence came out smoother than it did in his head. The casual conversation was one he imagined would fit in perfectly at his school's cafeteria—not with a murderer whose victim's blood still tainted the air. But Tim was desperate to distract himself from that last fact, and small talk was one of the few ways he knew how.
It turned out not to be too bad a move.
The figure stopped for a beat before turning his attention to the boy. "You may call me Talon," he answered, fixing him with an empty stare.
"Talon," Tim repeated obediently after averting his eyes. The intensity of such a gaze was something he was unaccustomed to.
In response, the man gave an approving grunt and slipped his knife into a scabbard behind his back. The overwhelming presence exuded from the figure made Tim scarily aware of the food-chain that existed between them.
"We must leave this place now," Talon remarked flatly and began weaving through the first floor into the kitchen where broken patio doors let in the crisp air. The assassin stepped over the threshold with ease and continued into the night.
But Tim hesitated when his vision caught on the dozens of postcards, dutifully keeping vigil from their place on the refrigerator. A smiling couple beamed at him in all of them—always hundreds of miles out of his grasp.
"We miss you, darling!"
The words drove Tim to chase after the one person who waited for him within reach.