A/N: This was meant to come out a lot faster than it did. Sorry to all those who might have been waiting. x).

Disclaimer: Forgot this last time. The Beka Cooper Series is not mine.

Summary: AU. Verene made it out of Beltane, but not without her battle scars. Now she must choose if she wants to follow the path of a Dog, even though it was her previous partners that almost got her killed.

Chapter One

"Going to sea wouldn'ta been so bad…"

The Lower City flitters in and out of her vision. Colour, grey, black – the cycle repeats, over and over, except colour is becoming greyer with each second that passes, the world fading as steadily as the light from her eyes. Is this it, she thinks, though the thought is abstract, as if it is not her own.

Footsteps – the ground shakes, dirt and pieces of rock bouncing into the air as booted feet and bare start moving. She tries to turn, but in the end it is weakness that sends her head flopping sideways, not her own will. Oxygen has long since left her lungs, blocked by the blood filling her airways, choking her, and she cannot scream. She knows this because she tries, desperate – terrified.

No sound comes out.

They will trample her, she realises, watching the onslaught of legs as she lies, unmoving, on the ground.

Is this the end? Will she go to the Realm of the Black God, now? She forgot to give Phelan a kiss this evening, before she came on watch. He'd given her one, as she'd pulled on her uniform, still sore and grumpy from the day before. Ahuda had beaten her proper in the last training run they'd had – the old, nimble wench. But for all her grumbles, her whingeing, and her curses, Phelan had simply smiled, cheeks dimpling, all boyish like, and pecked her on the nose. Her man had had the foresight to duck as she swatted at him, scowling, though her spirits were lifted.

But she hadn't thought to kiss him back. Somehow, that matters.

There is a little gixie, less than knee-high, stumbling in front of the masses. She is sucking on her hand. Soft, green eyes widen as their gazes meet, and Verene doesn't want the little thing to get caught in the stampede. Was her life not enough to appease the Black God, today? Would he taunt her with yet more lives taken? Ones she could not save?

The questions are answered as somebody swoops down, no doubt hauling the babe into their arms, and Verene sighs. Wet bubbles appear at the corner of her mouth as she exhales, and a slick trail of crimson dribbles down her chin. The people are closer, now, and vaguely she wonders how deeply she was cut. Was it naught but a line, a weeping gash – or was it something else. Had the blade gone so far that her skin was flapping in the wind, her insides bared for the world to see?

Mayhap someone will stomp on her heart. Put her out of her misery. What would that feel like? Would she feel it?

Everything is flashing. Grey, black, grey, black – even when her eyelids flutter shut. She forces them open again, and the flickering gets worse. There are fuzzy silhouettes on the edge of her vision, swaying this way and that, like long grass in a midsummer breeze. They are blocking out the people – the crowd that had been bearing down, ready to squash her flat. Spirits, she thinks, protecting her. Or mayhap she is passing into death.

It was very, very cold – she was, at least. And life only flourished in warmth.

Dark shapes were breaking away from the wriggling bulk, and there was relief, flooding through her like a hot drink. Two, no – three figures coming to take her away. At least, that was what she hoped.

If she was going, she would prefer to do it quick like. Before her heart began to ache, thinking of those she would lose, and those that would lose her. When she went, it would be the people she left behind that would mourn the most. She had never liked hurting her friends – when she did, she hurt herself more.

Mama, Phelan, Beka, Eskren, Jane Street and her fellow Dogs – even Rosto, Aniki, Kora, the Rats that had grown on her. A sob escapes – indiscernible as she begins choking, again.

"Oh, lass," somebody says, so close that she can hear them above the din. Suddenly there is pressure on her chest, pushing down hard, as though whoever had spoken was leaning their whole weight against her. It hurt, Gods did it hurt, but she couldn't tell them. Her lips move, blood spurts, and her clouded eyes stare at the dark shape above her, silently begging it to stop. Please, just stop. "We'll set you right. Don't you be worrying, now. Yoav, get her breathin', she's drowning in all that muck."

People, the shapes were people.

Yoav, that struck a chord of familiarity. Dog, Evening Watch – partnered with Jewel, Corporal and most Senior Dog at Jane Street Kennel. He must be the dark shape; the one trying to press the blood back into her body, the one she thinks is causing more hurt than good. It won't work. Surely a body can only hold so much blood, and hers was busy painting the street red, busy being washed into the drain ditches as rain began to fall. That was rain, wasn't it? It felt a bit warm to be rain.


Fingers are shoved into her mouth, checking to make sure she hasn't swallowed her tongue, swiping away the blood and debris she couldn't spit out. Her head was being lifted, supported, so the gunk would fill her mouth rather than her lungs. "Hold on, Puppy," a woman's voice – Yoav's, tells her, awful shaky for such a hard mot. "Vinehall's gettin' us a cart. There's a healer comin', promise. Just hold on."

To what, she wants to ask. Tries to, but the words are naught but a weak, garbled cry akin to that of a wounded animal. Her bones creak in protest as Jewel presses down harder, and suddenly she feels the difference. Somebody else is there, stoppering the wound – she can tell. There is a moment where they are lighter, easier to withstand, before they put just as much muscle behind their hands.

Something wails. Loud and long – like a newborn babe. She thinks it might be her.

"Sorry, love," comes an apology, but that is all she gets. Neither let-up, and she vows to haunt them both, when she dies. Why were they prolonging her pain? Why, when they knew as well as she did that there was no hope – nothing to bring her back. She needed a healer, if there was to be a chance.

And there was none. Coming, but not here.

Something gives, deep inside, snapping, the resulting crack echoing in all their ears. She lets out another wail, then, quickly running out of the small amount of air that she has, and desperately sucks in another breath. She opens her mouth, pain fogging everything, her body, her thoughts, her voice – and starts to cry out for a third time. Starts to, but then the driving force behind her screaming is gone. Vanished.

Her sluggish mind struggles to catch up.

There is warmth spreading through her, feeling like feather pillows and fluffy clouds, smelling like blankets, spiced turnovers and spring. It cannot rid the sickening taste in her mouth, though, but that is all right. One of the dark silhouettes is glowing, and she thinks she might have been magicked, thinks it, but doesn't care. It is blissful. Painless. Good.

"There, that should help," the same cove says, softly. "Be at ease, little one."

"What did you do?" Yoav has to clear her throat once before she can get the question out, her dagger passing beneath Verene's nose again. It was comforting to the woman, seeing the mist of her breathe on the blade. The magicking had made Verene go worryingly still – not even her eyes were moving.

"Took away her pain," was the answer, from the Dog she had yet to place. Had they mentioned someone before? Getting a cart? His partner? She couldn't remember, and nor did she want to. She would rather float, thoughtless, uncaring. It was easier, nicer. Let her die like this, Gods be good. Please, let her die like this.

"Good lad," that was Jewel, slow and calm, for all his time as a Dog. Forty-two this year, Yoav had told them, having done twenty-six summers in the service of the Provost's Guard. "Can you-"

"No," the nameless Dog cut him off. "I- I can lessen the pain, but I can do naught to heal. I am more like -"

Yoav interrupted, then, having heard this more than once. "More like the juice of the poppy, than anything else."

"Aye," the man agreed.

"Nevermind, now," said Jewel after a moment, reassuring. "I think I be hearin' horses – Vinehall's here."

Distant shouting. A bell rings, signalling the arrival of somebody important. Shod hooves clatter against the road of hard packed, tamped earth, followed by the churn of cart wheels. Verene hears it. She sees the mass of black figures teetering on the outskirts of her sight, sees them start to part from each other, one by one, making way for something larger to come through.

"Move," somebody is roaring, infuriated. "I said move, you dozy scuts! This is the business of the Provost's Guard. Any layabout that interferes can visit the cages. You, over there! Help me with this."

Rattling wood and nickering – two horses, which meant a cart built for speed. There was the familiar clomp of combat boots, and two outlines surged ahead, moving at a jog. Between them they carried a thin, long object that she couldn't put a name to. Mayhap it was something to cover her body.

"Vinehall," Jewel greeted without warmth, acting very much a professional. "You got a healer in there? Birch, Yoav – let's get her on the stretcher."

"In the cart, Sir," replied Vinehall. "We got a good one – a friend of Lady Sabine. Learnt under the crown, I been told. There's another waiting at the Kennel – say, is that Pup still alive down there?"

"Birch's magic ticklers," Yoav grunted as way of explanation, shifting to hook her arms underneath Verene's. The cove – Birch – collected her legs, and Jewel supported her lower back as the hefted her off the ground and onto the stretcher. Not even Birch's magicked stupor could stop her from feeling alarm at the sudden gush of wet. They were quick to reapply pressure, when she was set back down.

"He'd pay you a gold noble to say that down the drinking den for all the mots to hear, Yoav." Vinehall told her, though with little mirth. "Rollo?"

"Dead," that was Jewel. "Got his throat ripped out, tongue and all. Otelia's drunker than a sarden tosspot. Don't know where she's run off to."

Somebody spat. "He should have kept an eye on is' Pup, then he wouldn'ta gotten in trouble tryin' to get er' out of it."

"As I hear it, it was the Pup that came to help im'." Yoav was trotting along beside them as they carried her to the cart. "Otelia wasn' nowhere to be found."

"Pox rot them both," Vinehall muttered. He swung about, carefully backing up into the cart. As soon as the edge of the stretcher rested on the wooden floor, the man holding onto the other end motioned for Vinehall to move before sliding the rest of it in. Vinehall turned to the heavy-set mot sitting on one of the raised benches. "Ere' she is, ma'am. Gods save us, tell me you can do sommat for her."

"I'll try, Master Dog," said the mot in a husky voice – foreign, mayhap Carthark. She slid from her seat to kneel amongst the Dogs that had piled in after them. Verene couldn't tell which were which. Beside her, the lady mage hissed sharply. "That's a nasty wound, Mistress Dog." Then she turned to the others. "I will do what I can to heal it, but I will need help soon enough."

"There are healers waitin' at the Kennel, lass." Senior Dog Nyler Jewel clambered in before the cart started moving. "They are some of our best. Others of merit should be at the Kennel by then, too. All we ask is that you keep her breathin' til' we get there."

"Of course," the mot replied, settling a pair of cool hands on Verene's separated belly. Jewel glanced at them. They were bare, save for a silver ring that carried a small, red stone. Most likely a magic stone, by the way it shone. "Is this your Gift I am seeing, Master Dog? No? It is yours, then?" A pause – Birch nodded slowly, having been the one she was addressing. "Very good. I advise that you use it, if you care for this poor gixie, Master Dog. I can well enough work around it, and as much as I would wish it to be, this healing will not be kind."

"… You get seasick, Verene. That's why you went for a Dog."