Fractures 2.8

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Erik knew his way around the city far better than I would have expected. The Dierkhlani led us away from the inn down a narrow alley, and then through a winding network of streets both large and small. The neighborhood didn’t improve as we walked; if anything, the square by the gate seemed to be nicer than average for this district. I had seen much, much worse, but I had also seen much better; Rose was visibly unsettled by our surroundings.

 

It wasn’t that long of a walk, though, before we reached the ocean.

 

I spent several long moments standing still and staring out over it, once we reached the dock. It was….amazing. There were no words. I had heard it described, of course, but I had never seen a body of water larger than a large lake. I’d never really grasped just how awe-inspiring it was to look out over the water and not see an end to it. Oh, there were islands in front of us, a substantial number of them, covered in buildings–the bulk of Aseoto was built on that collection of islands, it seemed. But I could see out through the gaps, and the water…just kept going. It seemed to stretch on forever, the surface of the water painted gold by the setting sun. I could smell it, salt and water and a touch of rotting meat. I could hear the constant lapping of the waves.

 

It was beautiful.

 

Erik stood patiently as Rose and I had our first experience of the ocean. She seemed to be as awestruck as I was, or more so. Her eyes were wide, and I could see tears running down her face.

 

Finally we began moving again, walking on. There were small boats, dozens of them, being rowed or poled along the edge of the water. Erik waved to one and the boatman, a thin Tsuran man with arms that were almost thicker than his legs, rowed over to where we were standing. Erik helped us in before stepping into the boat himself, his grip rock steady as usual. He spoke to the boatman in Tsuran, too quick for me to catch the meaning and with the accent of a native.

 

As he started rowing out away from the coast, towards one of the islands, I looked at Erik. “You know your way around,” I said. I said it in Tsuran, not Skellish; I was guessing that getting into the habit of using the local language was a good idea. Nothing marks you as a foreigner quite so clearly as using a foreign language, and I didn’t want to be seen as an easy mark.

 

He shrugged. I could barely see his face as a silhouette against the sunset, but I thought he was smiling slightly. “I’ve spent some time here,” he said. “There’s more business than you’d think for someone in my line of work. The wards keep most of the monsters out and the civic legion handles criminals, but there’s always something they don’t want to deal with. Or someone who wants something done with, shall we say, no questions asked.”

 

I looked at the boatman, a bit shocked that Erik would all but admit to committing crimes with a stranger right there. Apparently my expression said enough to get the point across, because Erik laughed softly. “Don’t worry about it, Silf,” he said. “No one in this city hears more than the boatmen. They know enough not to pass it along.”

 

I was still dubious, but I decided to yield to his judgment. He was, after all, the one who knew the city. It would be foolish of me to insist that I knew better.

 

The boat took us out a good ways onto the water, as the sun finished sinking below the waves. The ocean was even more amazing in the night. I could see the reflected moonlight on the water, and the lights of the city.

 

Aseoto blazed with light in the night. Everywhere I looked I saw alchemical lights gleaming bright against the darkness. Our little boat had a small but bright alchemical lamp hanging from the bow, as did almost all the other boats plying the waves between the islands. The islands themselves were fairly covered in light, alchemical lights of every color imaginable shining out from the windows of buildings.

 

I hated to admit it, but…this city was beautiful. Every bit as beautiful in its way as the Whitewood had been, before the fire.

 

The boat passed a number of islands before it pulled up to a stop at one of them. Erik stepped easily off the boat; Rose and I stumbled, not used to it. The Dierkhlani tossed the boatman a coin–I caught the flash of silver in the sanguine light of the nearest building–and walked confidently off down the street. We were on solid ground now, again, on a large island amid the waves. I could hear music coming from the windows of many of the buildings we passed, and the people passing on the street were dressed in exotic finery.

 

I was a bit surprised at the building Erik stopped in front of. It didn’t much resemble the inns I was used to. There was only a single floor to it, and it wasn’t terribly large. In the light of the silvered alchemical lamp over the door, I could read the sign that declared the building to be Komatsu’s  Silver Star.

 

Erik proceeded inside without hesitation. I followed, rather more hesitantly, and found myself in something that had only the vaguest of resemblance to the taprooms I was used to. It was superficially similar–there were tables around the room, and a bar. But it was far quieter, far more subdued. The lights were soft, many of them having the same silver tone as the one hanging above the door. The kitchen was on the other side of a closed door behind the bar, but I could smell the food, fish and meat and spices and hot oil.

 

Erik walked straight to one of the tables, set aside in a semi-private booth at the edge of the room. Rose and I followed him, not knowing what else to do, and sat across from him on the padded bench.

 

“Where are the rooms?” I asked. I had been wondering since I first saw him moving towards this building.

 

He gave me an odd look, then realization dawned across his features. “This is a restaurant, not an inn,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d be familiar with them. They don’t let rooms; they only serve food here.”

 

I blinked. It…made sense, I supposed. In a city so very large as Aseoto there would be enough people who didn’t care to cook for themselves that you could support yourself cooking without having to rely on travelers. It was just a foreign concept to me.

 

There were other people in the room, sitting at tables with food. A young woman was circulating around, talking to them or carrying plates away. I’d spent enough time doing similar work that I’d have known what she was doing instantly, even if she hadn’t been wearing a black dress with a four-pointed star embroidered on the chest in silver.

 

When she walked up to her table, she smiled the same bright artificial smile I’d pasted over my own features often enough. “What would you like tonight, ladies, sir?” she asked. Her tone was bright and bored all at once. She spoke Tsuran, of course.

 

“The grilled tuna, with rice and the house sauce,” Erik replied in the same language. I was surprised to realize that I recognized the name of the fish, though I couldn’t remember having eaten it since the Whitewood. It had been a luxury there. I couldn’t remember whether I’d liked the taste.

 

I shrugged and said, “The same,” anyway. It was as good a choice as any, and I got the impression that Erik had been here before. He likely knew what was decent.

 

“Are you staying in the city?” Rose asked, while we waited for the food. Her voice took me by surprise. From the look on her face, it had surprised her too.

 

“Not this time, I think,” Erik said. The serving girl returned with glasses of water, and he smiled at her and sipped the water before continuing. “I’m not in the mood for Aseoto. Too crowded. I’ll probably wander out east. The legions always have plenty of work on the eastern front. They don’t care to chase monsters into the jungles themselves.”

 

I nodded. I couldn’t blame them. I’d only heard distant stories of the southeastern jungles, but from what I’d heard I wouldn’t want to set foot in them myself, let alone do so in pursuit of a Changed monster.

 

I didn’t expect that the legions would, either, given the choice. But where else would they go? They’d pressed all the way out to the Tears in the north, and to the northeast. Crossing the Tears to the far northeast to reach the kingdoms on the other side was as impractical as sending the legions across the ocean to the south or the west. Clearing the jungles was all but the only direction they had left in which to expand.

 

The food came out startlingly fast, faster than I would have guessed by far. It was much nicer looking than what I was used to. The fish was cut into thin slices and seared, then spread out on a bed of white rice. The sauce was a thin red one, which smelled strongly of vinegar and almost as much of sharp spices; drizzled delicately over the fish and rice, it was a strong visual image. There was a leaf vegetable that I didn’t immediately recognize beside it, as well as half an orange which had been carefully cut into the shape of a flower. My mouth watered when I saw that. Oranges were a tropical fruit, an expensive imported luxury in the north, and I hadn’t tasted them but a handful of times in my life.

 

I managed to restrain myself long enough for the plates to be set on the table and the server to hurry off before I dug into the food, but only with difficulty. When I did, I found it to taste as good as it looked. The fish was tender, and the taste of the fish contrasted wonderfully with the hot, rich flavor of the sauce. The orange was sweet and tart and amazing, and the rice had a slightly floral taste to it that went well with the spiciness of the sauce.

 

Erik laughed, apparently amused by my enthusiasm, and started cutting into his own food, rather more slowly. “The cooks here aren’t the best with fish,” he said. “But the house sauce is good enough to make up for it.” He took a small bite before continuing. “Are you sure you want to stay? The Changed are…not always treated well in this city.” His eyes flicked to Rose, somehow making her a part of what he was saying though I knew she wasn’t even slightly Changed.

 

I shrugged. “Where else?” I asked.

 

Erik shrugged back at me. “North,” he said. “Or take a ship. There are other places in the world.”

 

“Better?” I asked, then coughed slightly as something caught in my throat.

 

Erik said nothing.

 

“I want to stay,” Rose said. “I’m tired of running and hiding.”

 

“It’s your choice,” he said. The Dierkhlani’s voice was calm, and slightly distant. “I hope Aseoto is what you want from it.”

 

The rest of the meal passed in silence. Erik seemed to have spent his store of words already, and I wasn’t carrying on a conversation myself. At the end he paid for the food, casually tossing a handful of silver onto the table. He walked away without looking back, leaving us alone on the streets of Aseoto with no idea of where to go or what to do.

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Fractures 2.7

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The next day we moved on, leaving Hasburg behind us. We got on the road at dawn, the same as usual, though some of us were clearly happier about it than others. I could barely wait to be gone, but Rose looked almost heartbroken at the thought of leaving her warm bed. Derek was clearly nursing a hangover, and had less to say than usual.

 

I showed Rose a simple clapping game, to fill the silence our driver left, which I had learned in the Whitewood, when I was a child. She’d never seen it before, and took to it with such delight that I wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything of the sort. She hadn’t had much of fun and games in her life, I thought. Afterwards, I took a nap, making up for lost sleep the night before. I’d barely been able to make myself sleep in that inn, and even when I did manage to sleep my dreams were filled with nightmarish visions of people calling me a freak and beating me for being Changed.

 

I slept longer than I had expected to. It was evening by the time I woke up. I sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep, and felt Rose remove her arm from around my shoulders and shift away.

 

The roads were better here. It was the first thing I noticed, the first sign that we were drawing near to the Tsuran heartland. Unsurprisingly, imperial roads were better maintained closer to the core of the empire. Here the road was smooth, groomed gravel. The land to either side was clear, open grassland. It was a warm evening, with a gentle breeze flowing through the caravan.

 

Dinner that night was better than usual, with some chunks of meat in the beans, and fresh bread rather than hardtack. Olga had clearly purchased supplies in Hasburg before we set out. It was a considerably better meal than we had received in the inn the previous evening, which amused me.

 

Over the next two days, we continued to progress through steadily more settled land. We passed two small villages, both appearing quite prosperous for their size. The wards around them were expansive and well-maintained. The wooden buildings were substantially more sturdy-looking than those in Branson’s Ford had been, and larger. Most of them even had glass in the windows, and brick chimneys.

 

We were far, far further south than I had ever been before. It was more of a change than I had expected. I had been ready for the warmth–it was a common topic among travelers from the south, after all. Even with autumn almost upon us, it was warmer here than I was used to. I found myself leaving my heavy wool cloak packed in my bag even in the night, and regretting the insulation my fur provided.

 

Beyond that, though, things were just…different. The ground was far more even, compared to the hilly land I was used to. The air smelled different, warmer and with different plants. When we passed the farmers’ fields around the villages, their crops were different from what I was used to, far different. The people here took foods for granted that I had always seen as a foreign luxury–rice and maize, soy, even oranges and melons were not terribly uncommon. The people all spoke Tsuran.

 

And there were no Changed. Or so few as to make no difference.

 

It was a long few days of travel.

!!

I had been ready for Aseoto to be different from what I’d heard of it. Those tales had been told by travelers, after all, and stories tended to change with travel. Distance, like time, had a way of blurring the details of a memory, making it shift and waver and grow out of all proportion to reality. There were some features of the stories I’d heard which were consistent enough to be confident they had at least some grounding in the reality, but for the most part I knew better than to trust them.

 

I had not, however, been ready for them to be an understatement rather than an exaggeration.

 

The first I saw of the city was the wall. It was much as it had been described, but…more so. The long, smooth curve of stone was well over fifty feet tall, tall enough that it was visible as a hazy outline on the horizon for quite some time before it was in sight. It was made of stone, some dark stone I didn’t recognize, woven and reinforced with metal. Towers stood at regular intervals, looming over even the formidable height of the wall itself.

 

And it stretched…far. Very far. The long, smooth curve of stone had to cover several miles of coastline.

 

In front of us, the road passed through a large gate. It would be easy to see it as gaudy or even ornamental, but I knew better. I’d lived through a siege. I knew enough to see that the portcullis was heavy iron with what I was willing to bet were alchemical formulae of some kind worked into it in a black metal I didn’t know. I could see the murder holes, the arrow slits. It would be no easy feat to break through this gate. I could see similar gates at similar roads to either side, some ways off. Within the city, I could see a number of towers, visible even over the walls. The narrow, delicate-looking structures stretched high up into the sky, higher than seemed possible for a building.

 

I hated to give them the credit of admitting it. But…imperial methods were capable of great things.

 

A group of legionnaires were checking the entrants to the city, of which there were a great many, mostly trade caravans like ours. I was a touch concerned by that, but managed to reassure myself that they would certainly not think to look for me here. I still didn’t fully understand why I’d come, myself. It seemed implausible that someone else would have figured it out.

 

In the end, I didn’t so much as hear a word from them. Konrad handled whatever inspection was necessary, and they waved us through without question. I sat in the back of the wagon, trying to stay calm, and they didn’t even look at me. The wagons and horses produced odd, echoing sounds as we passed through the wall. It was so thick that it was less a gate than a tunnel, with more metal portcullises at regular intervals. Light was provided by alchemical lamps, brighter than the setting sun outside.

 

Inside, things were tight, and loud, and crowded. The gate opened into an expansive cobbled square, which was thronging with people. I had never seen such a varied crowd of people in my life. There were merchants wearing silk and jewelry, and there were beggars clothed in rags. Children, and wizened old people barely able to stand with the help of a cane. Most of the people had the fine features typical of Tsuran ancestry, but there were plenty of pale northerners, and people with the dark skin typical of the lands south across the ocean, and a handful of Changed. The din of people shouting, haggling, arguing, and begging in a dozen languages was almost overwhelming.

 

This was clearly not the nice part of the city. The beautiful, graceful architecture of the towers I had seen from outside was nowhere in evidence here. The buildings here were still tall–fix or six stories on average, I estimated–but they managed all the same to look squat and dense. The streets were all cobbled, but they were narrow and overshadowed by the tightly packed buildings. I’d grown up in a city, and I knew enough to recognize this as a poor district. Not brutally so–the people here, for the most part, had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. It was not a slum, not truly impoverished. But it was not wealthy, not by the standards of Akitsuro.

 

On my own, I would have been lost, hopelessly so. I didn’t know where we were precisely, didn’t know where we were going. Actually reaching the city had felt like such an implausible, far off dream that I hadn’t prepared nearly enough for it. I didn’t know so much as what the city’s districts were.

 

Konrad turned off from the square, heading further into the city at a shallow angle. The street he chose was wide enough for the wagons to pass, but not a great deal more. The drivers were all moving carefully, keeping the horses to a slow pace so as not to injure anyone.

 

I didn’t know what all the buildings we passed were, but I knew quite well that the one we stopped in front of was an inn. It was much the same class as the one he had chosen in Hasburg, cheap and with little else to recommend it. The wagons pulled to a halt in front of it and we began getting out, stretching and looking around at the city. It was hard to believe we had reached our destination. It felt as though we’d only joined the caravan a handful of days before, and at the same time like we had been on the road for a lifetime.

 

There was little ceremony in the parting, for how close we had been on the road. Reika, looking perfectly at home in the city of her youth, walked up to me and gave me a quick hug; she had to bend over to do it. “I’m staying in Ukiyo, have a place lined up. Don’t be a stranger.” As quickly as that, she turned and walked off, and disappeared into the crowd. I realized that Finn, the silent northern boy with one hand missing, had already left.

 

Konrad came up to me, after Reika left, and clapped me on the shoulder. I stumbled, but managed to keep from falling. “Good trip,” he said, his tone carrying a hint of casual satisfaction. “Ugly business with the kid, but you kept your head nicely. I reckon our deal is done.” He spat into his hand and grabbed mine to shake.

 

When he let go I realized that he had pressed a silver noble into my hand, fully half the coin I’d paid for Rose and I to travel with his caravan. I opened my mouth to protest, but by the time I noticed he was already inside the inn, and I had no desire to follow him in. Not after what happened the last time I was in a place like that.

 

“He’s not as hard a man as he likes to pretend,” Rose said softly. She was looking at my hand, and I knew she’d seen the coin, too.

 

I nodded, thoughtfully, and pocketed the coin. It would have been rude to refuse it; he knew what he was doing. “What now?” I asked. I was still looking at the inn. It was a place to sleep–which we needed, given we no longer had the privilege of resting in the wagons. But I was having a very difficult time convincing myself it was worth it. I didn’t want to spend my first night in Aseoto in a dive like that.

 

“I’d appreciate some dinner company, if you’d like.” Erik’s voice was completely unexpected, coming from right next to me. By all rights I should have heard him approaching. My hearing was damned good, and he was only a few feet away. But he was Dierkhlani.

 

I considered, then shrugged and nodded. I had nowhere better to be, and he was still such an interesting enigma to me. Rose was clearly less convinced, her grip on mine tight and anxious, but she nodded.

 

“Excellent,” Erik said, smiling. “Come with me. I know a better place than this dump.”

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Fractures 2.6

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Hasburg was exactly what I had expected it to be, an ordinary enough city with no particularly impressive qualities. To Rose–and, I expected, to many of the villagers of Branson’s Ford, had they lived to see it–it was an awe-inspiring sight. They had never seen a city before, never in their lives seen such an enormous congregation of people in a single place.

 

I had seen a number of cities, the large cities of northern Skelland. And before that, I had lived in the Whitewood. I was a child of the city, raised in the urban wilderness rather than the literal one, and Hasburg had little to surprise me with.

 

Konrad chose to stop over for the night at an inn, one that he was clearly familiar with. I was, too, though I’d never seen it before. I’d seen plenty of inns on my way south, and I’d worked in one for years with Corbin. I knew what to look for, and I could see that this one was the worst kind of dive. It was an ugly place, small and dirty. But it was cheap.

 

Heinz left us when we got to the city, taking Mathias’s body with him. He hadn’t invited any of us to the burial ceremony, which would presumably be carried out under the eyes of a local priest, with appropriate offerings to gods both black and white. It seemed a bit rude of him to so deliberately not invite us to the burial when we had been the ones who cared for the boy in his final hours, while his father sat out with the other humans. But I couldn’t blame him, not really. He probably couldn’t help but blame us for his son’s death, and he would never know how right he was.

 

I would have preferred to stay out of the inn, eat our usual trail rations and sleep in the wagon. But Rose looked at me imploringly, and I gave in. The poor girl was clearly exhausted. She’d seen far too much death on the road, and that wasn’t even counting what had happened in Branson’s Ford. Between that and the simple fatigue of the road–she’d never traveled before–it was no wonder that she was tired.

 

Inside, the inn was everything I hadn’t wanted it to be. It was tight and close, the ceiling too low for comfort. There was a crowd, a busy one, but it didn’t have a good feeling to it the way inn crowds sometimes did. The people here were clearly locals, for the most part, and they weren’t from the good part of town. The taproom stank of spilled beer and unwashed bodies, with a hint of burning meat. The innkeeper was, it seemed, not a particularly good cook.

 

The fees we had paid to Konrad for the privilege of traveling with this caravan didn’t cover this, and we were left to negotiate our own food and lodging for the night. The innkeeper was more pleasant than the rest of his establishment, a large man with Skellish features and a scar on his throat that suggested he’d had a brush or two with death himself. Despite the imposing appearance, he was nice enough in a gruff sort of way. Rooms were cheap, and food wasn’t much more. I paid for them in Corbin’s coin, purchasing a jug of chilled tea with lemon and hibiscus to go with the stew. It was a very Tsuran drink, suggesting that this inn might get more travelers than I had thought.

 

I took the food and drink and carried them to where Rose was sitting at a table in the corner of the room. It was the same table I’d have taken myself by preference, tucked into a dark corner out of the main action of the inn. The girl looked overwhelmed, and I couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t, I thought, been in an establishment like this one. It was a hard sort of place to be comfortable if you weren’t accustomed to this environment.

 

The food was about as good as I’d expected, which wasn’t very. The stew was too salty and the bread was a touch burned. Rose and I devoured it with the kind of enthusiasm you can only muster after living on trail rations for eleven days.

 

We finished the food quickly, wiping the bowls clean with the bread. It was only a few minutes before I settled back in my rickety wooden chair. Rose was looking less uncomfortable, and even had a tentative smile on her face like she was trying it on to see how it felt.

 

“Thank you, Silf,” she said softly. “For everything.” Her tone suggested she didn’t just mean the food and drink.

 

“Of course,” I said. I watched her take a drink of the tea, and there was an odd sort of satisfaction in it. Something in me was happy that I was giving her something she needed. It was a feeling I hadn’t had often; I’d usually been too poorly off myself to do anything to help other people. “Would you like some more to eat?”

 

Rose hesitated, and then nodded shyly. I smiled, enjoying that novel sort of happiness, and went to order more stew and bread from the innkeeper.

 

It was edging into evening now, and people were crowding at the bar more than they had been, wanting dinner. I considered slipping between them, but decided it was better to wait, and stood at the back of the crowd.

 

I couldn’t see who said it, but I clearly heard someone say, “Changed freak.”

 

I ducked my head, hoping that it was just a drunken whim and the drunk in question would move on to something else.

 

No such luck. He pushed himself to his feet, moving in front of me. I could see the group of men he’d been sitting with, none of whom looked bothered by what he was doing. Likely they’d been egging him on.

 

“Changed bitch,” he said, staring at me. He was a large man, with the heavy muscles of someone who spent his time on hard physical labor. “Get out of here, you freak. Don’t want your kind here.”

 

I felt the old, familiar spike of pain go through me at the words. It was hard to say precisely what it was, hard to put a finger on it; it was too tied into tangles of old emotion and association.

 

I’d spent so much time around people like Corbin that I’d almost forgotten he was the exception rather than the rule.

 

Some of the Changed got aggressive when they were confronted like that. They tried to push back, or lashed out in anger and frustration. I could understand that. When you were singled out and targeted for something you had no control over, when you were hurt that way, it was easy to want to fight back.

 

But I’d been Changed for a long time, now. I’d learned that trying to fight back never worked. You couldn’t fix them. You couldn’t even make them see that what they were doing was wrong. Pushing back just made it work.

 

So I just ducked my head. “Not staying,” I muttered, edging further into the crowd around the bar. “Just hungry.”

 

He backhanded me hard across the mouth. “Don’t think you heard me, freak,” he said. “Get the fuck out.”

 

I stumbled back with the taste of blood in my mouth. It hadn’t been that hard of a blow, on a relative scale, and it hadn’t caught me by surprise. He hadn’t done any serious damage. But I could taste blood in my mouth from a lip that had been cut on one of my own too-sharp teeth, and it stung. Before I had experienced real pain, I might even have said that it hurt. It was enough of a hit to leave me stumbling backward, off balance.

 

I was steadied by a sudden hand on my shoulder. Erik was standing behind me, though I was sure he hadn’t been there a moment before. The Dierkhlani didn’t have most of his weapons on him but his sword was visible on his back.

 

“I think you owe my friend here an apology,” he said. His voice was calm, quiet, and deathly cold.

 

“What’s it to you?” the man asked. He sounded less drunk than I had expected. “This isn’t your business.”

 

I didn’t see Erik move. Not really. I could see him moving, but I couldn’t follow the movement. It was like watching a striking snake, an explosion of motion so fast it was hard to believe it had come out of that coiled stillness. One moment, he was standing loosely at my side.

 

The next, he had one hand around the throat of the man who had been causing trouble. The rest of his body had hardly moved.

 

The group at the table he had been sitting at stood, pushing themselves to their feet with surprised shouts. Erik didn’t even look at them. “I suggest you think carefully before you do anything stupid,” he said, his tone just as calm and cold as before. Without any apparent effort, he forced the man who had hit me to his knees.

 

The man’s cronies looked at each other, then at the man on his knees with Erik’s hand clamped on his throat. I could almost see them sizing him up, looking at the sword on his back, considering the ease with which he’d overpowered their friend.

 

Then they sat back down.

 

“Now,” Erik said, still in that quietly dangerous voice. “I’m about to let you go. You’re going to apologize to my friend, and then you’re going to get out. And you aren’t going to cause any more trouble for her. Because if you do, I will know, and I will find you.”

 

As suddenly as he’d grabbed the man, he let go. The man collapsed to the floor, then pushed himself back to his feet. He opened his mouth, and I could tell that whatever he was about to say, it wasn’t any kind of apology.

 

Erik just smiled. Whatever the drunk saw in that smile, it made him go pale. “S-sorry,” he stammered, sounding so insincere it was almost charming, and then staggered for the door.

 

“My apologies,” Erik said, walking towards the bar with me. The crowd was in a great hurry not to be in his way. “I would have stepped in sooner, but I didn’t expect him to get violent.”

 

“It’s fine,” I said. “He’ll come after you.” There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about it. He wasn’t the sort of man to take humiliation well, especially when it was delivered on his own home turf.

 

Erik just shrugged. There was no hint of concern in his demeanor, no indication that he cared at all. Maybe he didn’t consider the drunk to be a meaningful threat, or maybe he just had so many enemies that one more or less meant little to him. Given he was Dierkhlani, it was probably both.

 

I took the food back to the table where Rose was watching. All of the ease and comfort which she had developed while eating was gone, and her face was far from a smile. She didn’t say anything about what had happened, and neither did I.

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Fractures 2.5

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The next day was a long, tense one. I rode in the wagon, hunched over staring at the floor. I hadn’t slept. I should have made up for that over the course of the day, napping like I had been, but I found I didn’t have it in me. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the needle slipping into the child’s vein, over and over, in excruciating detail. Sleep was impossible.

 

I hadn’t been there when they “found” Mathias dead, apparently of heart failure while he slept. I’d heard them, though, the sharp screams and sudden activity. I’d been lying awake in the wagon, staring into space and waiting for them to find him. I’d stumbled out with the rest, pretending to be shaking off sleep, and stood at the periphery while the rest gathered around the body.

 

We had considered a burial out here, on the road. But we were only two days out from the city, where they would be able to perform an actual ceremony. Heinz had decided that was preferable, and so that was what would happen. In the meantime, the body was in the wagon with Trevor and Heinz. I didn’t envy them that. Riding with the corpse of your dead son staring sightlessly at you from across the wagon had to be awful.

 

I knew how they felt. I felt like he was staring at me too.

 

Even Derek was less talkative than usual as we traveled on, one fewer than we had been the day before. He had little to say and we had less, so the ride passed largely in silence.

 

Did he know, I wondered? Did he suspect what had happened last night? Did he know what I had done, in the dark hours of the night? Did he know about the needle in the dark, covered in black fluid too thick to be blood?

 

Probably not. Probably it was just my imagination.

 

When it came time to break for dinner, I was guilty and exhausted. I found myself looking around for an unknown threat as we sat down around the fire, paranoid and twitchy. Every time someone looked at me I was sure they knew, that they would call me out as the murderer I was.

 

But they didn’t. And by the time I was finished eating the spare meal of beans and bread, I realized they weren’t going to. They didn’t know, and while I’m sure some of them suspected that Mathias’s death hadn’t been entirely the result of the Change, they weren’t going to say so. They were too afraid, or unsure. Or they simply didn’t want to believe it. It was nicer in their world of peace and sunlight, where you never had to kill people who didn’t deserve it.

 

After the meal I found Erik and the varg, out at the edge of the firelight, and sat with them instead of the main group of the caravan. Neither of them commented on it. Erik had apparently spent his store of words yesterday, and the varg was even more a mute than I was.

 

I spent some time studying the varg, as I sat there. He was still as fascinating as the first time I’d seen a varg, body and mind alike so close to familiar, and yet so far away.

 

It was hard to say quite what the varg looked like. He was similar to a canine, certainly, his general body something like a fox but between the size of a large fox and a small wolf. But there was something almost feline about his movements, the grace with which he carried himself. His head was larger than I would expect to see on an animal of his size, with large eyes and a long muzzle.

 

I didn’t know that much about vargs. Most people–most humans–didn’t. Vargs mostly kept to themselves. Intelligent as humans, give or take, but they had little to interact with humanity. They couldn’t speak in any way that a human could understand, and they had little use for human products. Mostly, from what I’d heard, they lived in packs in the wilderness, hunting together to bring down prey far larger than they were.

 

Every now and again, though, a varg decided that she was interested in the benefits of civilization. There were many things that they weren’t interested in–they didn’t have hands to use tools, and they were too carnivorous to eat much in the way of human food. But they got as much use out of a warm bed and a good meal as anyone else. They were much in demand as ratcatchers, scouts in the army, and in any other position where their speed and small size were more important than hands. There were difficulties in their employment, of course, but commerce always found a way.

 

This one didn’t look particularly civilized, up close. He looked a great deal like the Dierkhlani he habitually sat with. The rich red fur covering his fur was marked with dozens of thin scars, one of which had removed his left ear, and he was missing several teeth. It gave him a dangerous, almost feral look.

 

I went to bed early that night, and dreamed of bloody needles.


The next day, with the city of Hasburg looming on the horizon, we were attacked by bandits.

 

I had to appreciate the placement of the ambush. It was quite clever, really. Only half a day’s travel away from the city, most caravans would already have lowered their guard in expectation of a day’s rest in the city. They were just far enough away that the city guard wouldn’t likely get in the way, though. And between caravans, they could go back to the city to spend their loot. These people likely weren’t full time bandits.

 

The first warning I had of it was when Erik rode alongside the wagon I was in. Rose was asleep; she’d relaxed further in her sleep than she would while awake, and was leaning against my shoulder. I was holding very carefully still, trying to avoid disturbing her fragile peace.

 

Erik was very much the Dierkhlani, this morning. That long sword was strapped to his back, and I could feel the presence of other weapons as well–knives, daggers, the chain coiled at his hip. I was sure there were others, as well, that weren’t metal. He would be ready for channelers.

 

He rode up, easily keeping his seat on the horse he always rode, and looked at me. Without speaking, he beckoned slightly to me. The horse kept pace with the wagon, without any obvious instruction. It was, I thought, very well trained. He had brought it himself, rather than borrowing a horse from Konrad as I had first expected.

 

I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, but I knew better than to think the invitation was an idle one. I’d gotten something of a feel for Erik, and he wasn’t the sort to do anything without reason. So I slipped out from under Rose, delicately lowering the sleeping girl to rest against a sack of flour, and slipped over to the edge of the wagon, beside Derek. The driver was clearly curious about what was happening, but for once he was silent. Likely he was too intimidated by the Dierkhlani to ask.

 

Erik reached out his hand as I got close. I took it, and he swung me over to his saddle behind him. I barely even had to move. He had to be almost as strong as Black.

 

I wasn’t much of a rider. It wasn’t something I’d had a great deal of opportunity to do. My family hadn’t owned a horse back in the Whitewood, and riding had been a rare luxury on the trip south, one usually bought at a dear price. This saddle wasn’t ideal for it, either; it clearly hadn’t been designed to hold two, leaving me perched on the edge. Erik was rock steady in the saddle, so I settled for clinging to him to keep my precarious balance. I’m sure it looked ungainly and embarrassing, but I didn’t particularly care.

 

He didn’t explain what this was about. He seemed to prefer to let his actions speak for themselves, most of the time. I didn’t question him. I was confident I would find out what was going on soon enough.

 

We moved forward, passing Trevor’s wagon and then Konrad’s, to ride out in front. It was where Erik normally rode while we traveled, sweeping the road in front of us.

 

Once there, about  thirty yards in front of the lead wagon, we settled in to a steady walk. It was a bit easier to stay seated now that we were moving more slowly. I even let go of Erik with one hand.

 

Less than ten minutes later, I paused and looked up, away from the saddle I’d mostly been staring at. There was something…off. I couldn’t put a finger on it, couldn’t place what was bothering me about it, but there was something wrong.

 

Ten seconds later, I saw the bandits.

 

There were four of them in front of us, stepping out of the trees that lined this section of the road. They were hard-looking men, all of them, and hard-used. They wore a mixture of simple leather and Legion-issue armor. Deserters, most likely. A quick glance back showed a similar number behind us, stepping out to block the retreat.

 

A complicated wave of emotions swept through me at the sight. Rage and hate and fear melded together inside me to form something more subtle and multifaceted than the sum of its parts. It was tempered, more surprisingly, by satisfaction.

 

I was already in so much emotional pain. I felt guilty, scared, helpless. I couldn’t forget what I’d seen, what I’d done, and it hurt. There was a sick pain twisting inside me. These people, these thugs, they were…scapegoats. I could take my own pain out on them. I could hurt them without feeling bad about it.

 

Was this how the legionnaires felt as they massacred us, I wondered? Taking out their own guilt and pain on us? Trying to erase the things they’d seen?

 

I shivered, felt the metal hatchet at my back, waited.

 

“You know the drill,” the apparent leader of the bandits said. He was a tall man, narrow, with a hungry cast to his features that had nothing to do with food. A vivid red scar crossed his forehead just below the hairline, and his nose had been broken in the past and healed poorly. His stance was cocky, his walk a strut. “We go through your goods, take our pick. No need to make this any uglier than it has to be. We’ll let you carry on once we’re done, promise.”

 

Oddly enough, I believed him. It was more efficient for them to leave some, if not most, of the goods. Try to take everything, and you pushed the merchants into a corner. Even a rabbit bites if you corner it. Take too much, and you put yourself at risk–not just from the merchants, but also from the legions. They didn’t treat highwaymen kindly. As long as your thefts were small, though, they had no reason to care.

 

Not that it would necessarily be a pleasant experience. I hadn’t missed the way that his cold black eyes had lingered on me, or the fact that one of the men with him was openly leering. It was a simple reality that girls didn’t often fare well at the hands of men like this. I didn’t even want to think about what they might do to, say, Rose.

 

“Counteroffer,” Erik said. His voice was so icy it could have frozen water. “Let us pass and no one gets hurt.”

 

One of the bandits, the one that had been leering at me, guffawed. The leader, though, smiled in a vaguely patronizing way. He’d clearly been expecting something like this. “Be reasonable, mate,” he said, in a tone that sounded affable enough but had a dark undercurrent to it. “Eight of us, and only one of you. Fighting won’t get you anywhere but a ditch.”

 

The Dierkhlani dismounted. His motions were smooth and slow, fluid. I followed his lead, though considerably less gracefully. I managed to keep my feet on landing, which was all I felt I could ask for. He slapped the horse lightly on its flank, and it trotted back to the caravan.

 

“Last chance,” he said. He didn’t sound cold now. He sounded blank, analytical. The way he had sounded while determining that Mathias was dead and didn’t know it yet. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”

 

The lead bandit smiled. It was a nasty sort of smile. “Looks like we got a hero here, boys,” he said. He drew a sword from his side. It was a Legion blade, standard issue. Deserters for sure.

 

Erik started walking forward. He didn’t run, didn’t draw his blade. I could tell that the deserters were confused. Probably they thought he was suicidal, and they were happy to oblige him.

 

I never saw him move, not really. He was too fast to follow. One moment, he was walking towards the deserters empty handed. The next, that long sword of his was in his hand. He took two swift strides forward, getting within reach of the bandits’ leader. The other man raised his sword to block.

 

Too slow. He might as well not even have tried. The Dierkhlani flicked his sword in a tight circle, so quick and precise it might have been a willow switch. It worked around the deserter’s sword with lethal grace, the kind of maneuver that looked simple but which only an expert could perform with such speed and grace. He thrust forward, up under the defending sword and into the bandit’s chest.

 

He never even slowed down. He stepped forward and around the other man, flowing into a pirouette as he pulled the sword free. It looked like a dance, except for the part where the man he had been fighting collapsed into a pool of blood.

 

Just barely too low to have been the heart. To have dropped him so quickly, it must have hit the big vein just below the heart. Erik had gotten around the bandit’s defenses, landed a clean thrust through the ribs into a blood vessel with an anatomist’s precision, and then sliced him open inside and moved out of reach as he freed his weapon, all without breaking stride.

 

There were reasons people feared the Dierkhlani.

 

The other three standing there stood still for a moment, shocked. It had all happened so fast.

 

They recovered their composure and started moving. One closed with him, drawing another Legion-issue sword. The other two fell back.

 

I ignored the fool moving to close with the Dierkhlani. He was foolish, or else hadn’t yet processed what he’d just seen and was moving on instinct. Either way he would be dead in moments. The other two were more dangerous. They had crossbows.

 

The weapons weren’t Legion arbalests. They were nothing so dangerous as that. But they were still quite, quite lethal. They had to be dealt with.

 

The one on my left was closer to the Dierkhlani, closer to death. For no more reason than that, I focused my attention on the one to the right.

 

Metal wasn’t a common channel. You could only channel through something you had a connection to, on a fundamental level. Most people didn’t have that kind of bond to metal. It wasn’t something that people were surrounded by, immersed in, fascinated with the way they were the other elements. Earth, fire, air, those were the things people tended to be bound to.

 

Because of that rarity, people usually didn’t bother protecting themselves against us. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Sure, metal armor left you vulnerable to someone who could channel metal. But it protected you against everyone else, and the vast majority of the time, that was more important.

 

Most of the time. Not all.

 

I opened myself to the magic, invited it in, and it flooded in to fill me. There were no wards here, no protections against people like me. It came easily, a raging torrent of power rushing into me. Through it, I could feel the metal all around, sparks blazing against the darkness. I found the bandit’s armor, the hodgepodge of chain mail over the leather, and I let the magic pour through me into it.

 

I couldn’t push him over, or at least not easily. Probably I could have managed it had I really tried; I had, after all, done much more during the escape from Branson’s Ford.

 

But why do things the hard way?

 

The push, the sudden unexpected shove, knocked him off balance. He stumbled, then straightened, looking around in confusion at what had happened to him.

 

As he straightened, the blast of coins took him in the face. They weren’t very precise in their placement, several of them going past him entirely.

 

But the ones that hit were more than enough. Blood sprayed into the air, droplets flying from the holes in his cheek, his shoulder, his throat. Caught in the moment, the magic, time seemed to stand still. I could see the individual drops as they fountained out. I could see him begin to fall.

 

I could see the Dierkhlani. He had his sword in his left hand, in a high guard. He had just parried the bandit’s sword, it looked like.

 

His other hand snapped out, impossibly fast, and grabbed one of my coins in flight. He continued the motion, turning it into flipping the coin.

 

While it was in the air, as time was beginning to return to normal for me, he burst into motion. He ducked under their crossed swords, putting both hands on his weapon, and brought it into a slash across the bandit’s back. It severed the spine, and the man fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

The Dierkhlani kept moving, spinning, sword snapping up in front of his face. It intercepted the crossbow bolt flying at him from less than five feet away, deflecting it harmlessly aside. The momentum of the spin flowed seamlessly into a slash, putting so much force behind it that it carved the crossbowman almost in half.

 

In the sudden silence that followed, I could hear my coin hit the ground.

 

Unbelievable.

 

I was still gaping when he was turning, running back towards the other end of the caravan. He was fast, faster than he had any right to be. I wasn’t entirely sure if he wouldn’t have been slower if he were still on horseback.

 

I followed at a dead sprint, still losing ground fast. He crossed the distance in a blink, reaching the back of the caravan at about the same time as I reached the front. He turned the sprint into a lunging thrust, his body rolling to the side of the guarding spear at the same time as his sword slipped over it into the throat of the man wielding it.

 

I realized that I wouldn’t have time to get anywhere near them before the fight was settled, and instead turned towards the wagon next to me. I was a fast climber; it only took a pair of heartbeats before I was on the top of it.

 

In that time, the Dierkhlani had dropped another of the bandits. This one was a woman, the only one in their group. She was missing a head. The next bandit was more skilled, or luckier. He crossed blades with the Dierkhlani twice. On the second parry, though, Erik swept his blade out and around, taking off the other man’s hand and then on the backswing slashing his throat.

 

And then another voice shouted “Freeze!” from my right.

 

I turned to look at the source of the shout. So, I expect, did everyone else. Even leaving aside the unexpectedness of it, there was a sort of commanding quality to it. It demanded attention.

 

Another man swaggered out of the trees, where he’d evidently been waiting through the initial ambush. Between that and the air of command he carried himself with, I was guessing this was the actual leader of this group of highwaymen. The one who’d spoken earlier had been a decoy.

 

He had an arbalest–an actual arbalest, not one of the lighter crossbows his men had used. Also unlike them, he wasn’t pointing it at the Dierkhlani. He was pointing it at one of the wagons, the last in the row.

 

“You can dodge bolts,” he said to the Dierkhlani. “She can’t.” Which told me who he was aiming at–it wasn’t me, Reika was on the other side and closer to the front of the caravan, and Rose was still under the cover of the wagon, so it had to be Olga. “And I can pull the trigger before you reach me. So put the bloody sword down.”

 

Erik carefully lowered the blade to the ground and let go of it. I gaped.

 

“Smart man,” the arbalist said. “Damn good with a blade, too. Shame we’re on opposite sides.”

 

Erik said nothing. His head turned, very slightly, to look at me.

 

Ah. This would be why he’d brought me with him, then.

 

I considered for several heartbeats. In principle I was fairly confident that I could do what he wanted. It seemed like a simple enough application of my talents. It was nothing I hadn’t done before, really. Doing it with someone’s life so clearly in the balance, though…that made it harder.

 

But she was as good as dead if I didn’t. I had no illusions there. The bandits might have been planning to leave us alive. But with six of their number dead in the dirt, the need for revenge would outweigh the fear of the legions. He had no intention of letting any of us leave alive.

 

In a way, that simplified things. It meant that whatever I did, I wasn’t making things worse.

 

Again I opened myself, and again power flooded through me in a rapid, intense flood. I focused, feeling forward.

 

The arbalist had clearly put a lot of thought into this. He’d planned this ambush very carefully, even planning what to do if an eight-to-one advantage weren’t enough to decide things.

 

He hadn’t thought to use a nonmetallic arrowhead.

 

I hit it with a carefully focused, extremely intense spike of magic. It was challenging, affecting something so far away, but it was small and I had practiced. The arrowhead jerked violently upward, dragging the rest of the bolt with it. The arbalist reacted quickly, pulling the trigger, but it was already too late. The bolt was well out of alignment, and it went far wide. I didn’t even have to try to stop it. It soared harmlessly into the trees.

 

I was guessing that he’d thought having the Dierkhlani lay down his weapon had bought him a modicum of safety. If so, it had been a foolishly misplaced sense of security. The Dierkhlani didn’t need a sword to slaughter them. Probably he didn’t need anything but his hands.

 

Being a practical man, he instead used knives.

 

The first of the bandits hit the ground before the bolt had vanished from sight. Erik had produced a dagger, a narrow stiletto, and thrust it to the hilt into the bandit’s skull. Before the body hit the ground, he had produced a knife and flung it at the bandit leader.

 

The man dodged, and the blade glanced off his Legion-issue armor. He had been an officer before he deserted, I thought. He was certainly fast enough to dodge to suggest that he was a veteran.

 

It didn’t matter. He hadn’t even gotten back on balance before the Dierkhlani was on him. A quick slash and he was on the ground, bleeding out from a slit throat.

 

It couldn’t have been a minute since they first attacked, and nine people were dead. I was reminded, as I looked around, that I’d killed one of them. I could still see so clearly the droplets of blood spraying from the holes in his face, his throat.

 

I knew the memory would fade, just as the memory of bloody needles in the night would. I’d killed so many. What was one more?

 

Moments passed in stunned silence in the wake of the attack, broken only by the soft whisper of Erik retrieving his sword. He wiped it clean on one of the fallen bandits and then returned it to its sheath.

 

Underneath me, Konrad was swinging down from the wagon. “Seems you were a good investment,” he called, clearly speaking to Erik. The caravan master’s voice was cool and casual. You would never guess from listening what had just happened. Perhaps he’d been ambushed on the road so many times that it had ceased to matter to him.

 

“What should I do with the bodies?” Erik replied. His voice didn’t suggest any particular reaction to the violence, but then, he wouldn’t. He was Dierkhlani.

 

“Leave them for the ghouls,” Konrad replied dismissively. “They’d have done the same for us if they had half a chance. Come on, let’s push forward. We should be able to make it to Hasburg by nightfall.”

 

I opened my mouth to protest. Something about it seemed so wrong. I knew I shouldn’t care, that they had tried to kill us. But the memory of Branson’s Ford was too fresh and sharp in my mind. I had seen the monsters get enough people for a lifetime.

 

I closed my mouth a moment later. I didn’t know what to say, and anyway, the wagons were already starting into motion. The horses looked disturbed, but the drivers were experienced, and managed to soothe the beasts enough to get them moving. They would forget soon. It was a luxury I wished I had.

 

I leapt down from the wagon and went to stand by the edge of the road. It seemed easier to wait for my normal wagon to catch up than to walk back to it. As I stood there, I walked up to look at the man I had killed. It seemed the least I could do. I had, after all, ended his life. I owed him the respect of at least facing what I had done.

 

He had been a legionnaire. He’d murdered before. He’d attacked us. I tried to convince myself that meant he’d deserved what I had done to him.

 

I saw a coin lying in the road, its iron surface stained bright crimson with the blood it had been covered in. It had landed facing tails after the Dierkhlani had flipped it, and the stylized flower was still visible through the blood.

 

I looked at it for a moment, and then picked it up and put it back into my pouch.

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Fractures 2.4

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Konrad insisted on setting up camp right there, in the middle of the road, as we waited to see what would happen to Mathias. When Trevor protested that there was still plenty of sunlight and we were losing time, Konrad just stared at him until the younger man looked down and slunk away. It wasn’t much longer before the wagons were arranged into their usual positions and Konrad had started a fire just off the road.

 

Reika, Erik, and I continued to sit vigil over Mathias as this happened. Once camp was set up Rose slipped silently in to sit beside me. She was the only non-Changed person in the wagon, and I thought she was there less to sit with Mathias than to be near me. She had, I’d noticed, something of an aversion to being away from me in the caravan. I couldn’t particularly blame her for that.

 

Over the next several hours, Mathias continued to Change. It was a bit more subtle and slower once the drug was in his system. His veins continued to grow more prominent and richer in color, turning his grey eyes almost lilac. His features were broader than they should be, cheekbones heavy and with almost ridges of bone under the skin of his temples. His skin was faintly darker as well, though I wasn’t sure whether that was actually the skin changing tone or just the darker blood underneath.

 

Reika kept her hand on his forehead most of the time, monitoring the boy’s temperature. I didn’t ask how she was able to do so with such precision, any more than I asked how the Dierkhlani–Erik–knew how rapidly the child’s heart was beating. Some questions just weren’t worth bothering with.

 

Erik continued to dose him with my sedative throughout the day. He always did it the same way, sterilizing the needle and coating it with the stuff before slipping it into his arm. The blood on the needle was darker every time, going from the bright crimson of human blood to a dark scarlet that could pass for black in dim light.

 

Shortly before sundown, he spoke up, breaking the heavy silence in the wagon. “Heartbeat is mostly stable,” he said. “Pupillary response is still minimal, but the digitalis seems to be working. He needs energy, though. The Change is burning through his reserves.” He looked outside, to the group of humans out there, and raised his voice to address them. “Can you make a soup for him?” he asked, his tone making it less a request than an order. “Thin, with meat stock and salt.”

 

There was a brief flurry of activity and discussion outside, but it only took a few minutes before a pot was on the fire. I continued to sit quietly where I was, though my attention was less on Mathias now. His condition was…not stable, precisely, but not in such a rapid state of flux that he demanded constant focus.

 

Instead, I was focused on the people sitting with me. Reika, with her quick motions and almost reptilian features, was a continuing enigma. Her concern for Mathias, the intensity of her feelings on it, was at odds with her usual demeanor.

 

How had she been treated when she Changed, I wondered? Not well, I was guessing. It was rare for the Changed to be cared for as well as this. Even in the Whitewood, disregard and mockery were more common. I’d been taken to a medic, who had determined that I wasn’t in imminent risk of death and then left me alone. I’d laid there, on a simple cot, alone in an empty room for a full day as I went through the agony of the Change.

 

It was hard to imagine it being better in Akitsuro, where the Changed were now a novelty rather than a commonplace. And Reika had said that her family disowned her afterwards, so they almost certainly hadn’t been kind during the process. What had they done to her, I wondered, to make her feel so strongly about keeping someone else from going through the same thing? What had they done to her?

 

People could be so cruel, sometimes. I couldn’t comprehend what would make someone look at a child who was already going through a horrifically painful experience, for no reason beyond poor luck, and heap further torture on them rather than offer them help? Why did they look away and wait outside the room rather than even sit with you as you died?

 

After about an hour, Olga called, “Soup’s ready.” Her tone was concerned, even worried.

 

“Bring a bowl here,” Erik replied, shrugging off his pack. He rooted around in it, and eventually pulled out a long length of cord. It was strange, though, translucent and apparently hollow, and it moved with an odd sort of flexibility.

 

“What is that?” Rose asked, staring.

 

“Alchemical resin tube,” he replied, holding it up as though measuring something. “Quite clever how they make these. The resin is molded around an oiled glass rod, and then they pull the rod out.” Then, louder, he called, “And bring a bowl of boiling water, too.”

 

“But what is it for?” Rose asked.

 

Erik smiled a very flat, mirthless smile. “You’ll see,” he responded simply.

 

It didn’t take long before the two bowls were brought in. One was filled with steaming water, while the other held a sort of thin broth that smelled strongly of meat–rabbit, I thought. Someone had been hunting.

 

Erik, with inhuman precision, poured the water into the tube. The opening was tiny, smaller than my smallest finger, but he poured a steady trickle of water down it perfectly smoothly. He got no water on anything else; even his hands were completely dry. It was a degree of steadiness and precision that I didn’t think any normal human could have, except possibly a very gifted water channeler.

 

Once he was satisfied, he shook out the tube and returned to the boy’s side. He held the tip of it to Mathias’s nostril, and slowly began to slide it in.

 

Mathias didn’t seem to be awake, but he reacted to that. He moaned, a low, strained sound, and reached up to swat the tube away. He never opened his eyes.

 

Erik frowned. “Hold him down,” he said. “And hold his head steady.” He then returned the tube to where it was.

 

“Are you really going to put that up his nose?” Rose asked. Her voice was…I wasn’t sure how to characterize it. Shocked, distressed, confused, all of them seemed to apply.

 

Erik, on the other hand, sounded perfectly calm. “Yes,” he said, simply.

 

“That’s torture!” Rose said. Her tone had settled on appalled, now, and it sounded too strong and too personal to be a simple objection. It made me wonder what had been done to her to make her feel that strongly, much as Reika’s strong feelings of concern had made me wonder about her past.

 

We all had our scars.

 

“He’s currently in a state of advanced starvation,” Erik said, his voice still completely level. “His body is effectively eating itself to sustain the Change. Between that, the inherent stresses of the process, and what the drug is doing to him, his state is still very delicate. He needs food or he’ll starve to death in a few hours. And he is in no state to eat. So unless you’d rather he die than go through some pain, I recommend you hold his head steady.”

 

Rose swallowed, hard. She looked as though she’d been struck.

 

But she took Mathias’s head and held it steady. I took the boy’s arms, sitting as close to Rose as I could to provide some attempt at comfort. Reika held his legs down.

 

Erik then began slowly sliding the tube into Mathias’s nose again. He thrashed, but the motions were rather weak; it wasn’t hard to hold him still. Without interruption, Erik kept sliding it in, pushing the tube further and further up his nostril. His motions were smooth, precise, and too confident for this to be his first time doing this. He kept doing that for some time, as dark blood started to flow out of the boy’s nose.

 

After pushing a considerable length of hose in, Erik paused and pulled Mathias’s mouth open, looking inside. Apparently whatever he saw satisfied him, because he went back to pushing the hose inside, sliding several more inches in before stopping.

 

He then picked up the bowl of broth in his other hand, raising it over the boy’s head. He began, with the same inhuman precision as he’d demonstrated with the water, to pour it into the tube. Then, in a single motion as fast as a striking snake, he dipped the end of the tube into the broth as he returned the bowl to level.

 

Broth continued to move in a very slow, steady stream after he stopped pouring. It flowed up through the tube and then down into, presumably, Mathias’s stomach. I recognized it as a siphon, though I’d never seen one be set up so smoothly.

 

“You can let go now,” Erik said, almost as an afterthought. “It should be essentially painless now that it’s in place, so I doubt he’ll try to pull it out.”

 

“What now?” I asked, as I let go of his arms.

 

“Now we wait,” Erik said. “And see if his body can adjust before it tears itself to pieces.”


Camp that night had none of the cheer and bustle that had become its norm. We sat, in our two sharply demarcated groups, in silence. It had the feeling of a deathwatch, and I think we all suspected that it was.

 

But none of were the sort to give up without a fight. I hadn’t known these people for long, but I was very confident of that. And so we continued to sit and wait, watching. Erik fed Mathias twice more over the course of the evening, pouring thin broth down that tube and into the boy’s stomach. The rest of us just…waited. Oh, there were things we did to cover it. Reika kept checking his temperature, and fetching cool cloths to apply to him when the fever started to rise again. I checked and rechecked that the bleeding–from the needle tracks in his arm and the tube in his nose–wasn’t too severe, that he was breathing evenly.

 

But a cover was all it was. We’d done all we could, and we knew it. Now…well. There was nothing left to do but wait and see whether he was strong enough to pull through, or the Change would kill him the way it had killed many others.

 

Waiting was always hard. It gave the dark thoughts time to seep in. What if we’d done something wrong, or overlooked the right answer? What if I had been wrong to give him the drug? What if all this was for nothing?

 

It was a long, grim sort of evening, the sort I’d passed too many of already.

 

After the sun set, on our usual schedule, Olga brought us our dinner. It was more substantial than what was being given to the kid, by far. Beans with rabbit meat, and bread so dense it could have been used for building materials. She gave us our portions and then went back out to the others. To the circle of firelight, the border of which seemed to mark the line between the two worlds. On their side, it was calm and pleasant and human. Food was had, and conversation had started up again, almost normal in tone if you could look past the tension, the long silences and gaps.

 

On our side it was dark, and silent, and there was a child who was being stuck with needles and having soup poured down a tube into his stomach for something he had no control over.

 

I could see why they preferred their world over this one.

 

We kept our vigil into the night, but eventually people had to go and sleep. There would be more work to do tomorrow, and being exhausted from lack of rest would do no one any good. It was the way of things.

 

Even within the wagon, people started leaving. Reika went to rest outside, as she usually did when the weather was pleasant, on a bedroll beneath the stars. The others retired to their wagons, Rose giving me a long look and a quick squeeze of my hand before leaving.

 

Finally, there were only three people in the wagon. Mathias, unnaturally still on the floor, with that damned tube still running into his nostril. Erik, who was leaning against a crate with his eyes closed. The posture looked careless, but I knew better. He was probably listening to the kid’s heartbeat and who knew what else. He was, after all, Dierkhlani.

 

And there was me.

 

I sat quietly, watching. I was looking at Erik more than the boy. I’d never really had an opportunity to look at him up close.

 

He looked much the same as he had at a distant, lean and quick and dangerous. But there was an almost alien quality to him, now that I really saw him. It was almost like looking at the varg, in a way. Seeing something that was a person, undeniably a person, but one with something other about him. He didn’t twitch or fidget–even his breathing was so slow that you could be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t breathing at all.

 

He was scarred. I hadn’t noticed it before; it was nothing that you could see at a distance, and most of his body was covered anyway. But now that I looked, I could see the marks. A fine silver line across his face, just next to the eye. Another on his hand, bare since he’d taken his glove off to put the needle in, the pale line disappearing under his sleeve. At the edge of his hair was another, this one a complicated web of marks. Still more were just visible at his collar, the edges of the scars showing from under the jacket.

 

So many scars, and that was just the part of him I could see. All of them so very old, and healed so cleanly.

 

When he spoke it startled me, though his voice was soft. “You’re an unusual girl,” he said, not opening his eyes.

 

I didn’t say anything in response. There was no need to.

 

“Very decisive,” he said. “Very…assured. You make your choice and you act on it. No hesitation. It’s an uncommon trait.”

 

“Needed it,” I said simply. I didn’t say why. He knew, anyway, at least enough. The details, the exact story of what I’d been through, didn’t matter.

 

“You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago,” he said. His voice was softer still, so quiet that I might not have heard him at all if I were human. “A friend of mine, once. She was…there was a fire in her. A hunger.” He was silent for a moment. “I’ve not thought of her in a long time.”

 

“Why are you here?” I asked. It wasn’t a question I’d asked him before. I wasn’t sure anyone in the caravan had. This was, I thought, probably the most personal conversation he’d had with any of us since setting out.

 

His lips twitched in a mirthless smile. “No particular reason. I had nowhere better to be.”

 

“No home?”

 

His shoulders shifted, the barest shadow of a shrug. “The friend I mentioned had something she used to say,” he said. “She would say that home is where you go when no one else will take you.”

 

I nodded. I didn’t point out that he hadn’t answered the question, because really, he had. “How did she die?” I asked. I didn’t have to ask whether she was dead. His tone said it all.

 

He was silent for a time. “It was simple enough,” he said at last. “They pushed too hard, and one day she…well, she’d simply taken all that she could bear.” He smiled again, still without any humor in it, still without opening his eyes. “It was a very, very long time ago.”

 

I nodded. I said nothing.

 

“The boy is dying, still,” he said after a few moments.

 

I jerked upright, stared first at him and then at Mathias. As far as I could tell, nothing had changed.

 

“It’s the blood, I think,” the Dierkhlani said by way of explanation. “Too thick. His heart is breaking down trying to keep it moving. The drug is slowing the process down enough to keep him alive for a time, but it’s doing its own damage in the process. He’s having…unexpected reactions to the digitalis. I tried weaning him off earlier, and his heart rate started to skyrocket again.”

 

“How long?” I asked. I didn’t specify whether I was asking how long the kid had, or how long Erik had known. I wasn’t sure which question I was asking.

 

“I’ve only been sure the past hour,” he answered. “Always difficult to predict what will happen, with the Changed. But it’s been, what, twelve hours now? The deep tissue changes are mostly done by now. The major changes that are going to happen have happened, at this point, and he isn’t pulling out of it. His heart isn’t adapting to suit the change in blood. And look.” He picked up Mathias’s arm, held it out towards me.

 

I looked. It took me a moment to see, but when I did it was obvious. His fingertips were tinged with violet. At first I took it for an effect of the changing blood, but then I realized it was bruising.

 

“Damage to the blood vessels,” Erik said, lowering Mathias’s arm back to the floor. “They weren’t made to deal with this. The capillaries are breaking under the pressure. Larger vessels aren’t outright breaking, but the damage is accumulating. We can’t see it, but he’s bleeding internally.”

 

I swallowed hard. I knew how internal bleeding ended. It was…not a condition that had had many outcomes back in the camps.

 

“What do we do?” I asked. My voice was a touch more thready than usual.

 

“There are two choices, as I see it,” the Dierkhlani said. His tone was still level, steady and dispassionate. “I can take him to Hasburg as quickly as possible. At hard ride on horseback, we could be there tomorrow. They have medics there, and medicines. But a hard ride might kill him on its own. His body is still in a very delicate balance. And I don’t think the medics can do anything to help him. This isn’t a peripheral issue, or a transient one like the fever. It’s a fundamental malformation of his circulatory system.”

 

“Or?”

 

He finally opened his eyes, and regarded me with a steady gaze. His eyes were a gold just barely too bright to be human, and his pupils were narrow slits like a cat’s. “Or I put an extra dose of the digitalis into his vein,” he said. “And he dies tonight. It will be painless; he’ll simply drift to sleep and never wake up. And his father will never know the truth of what happened here tonight.”

 

I looked at Mathias. He looked…peaceful. Calm, like he was just sleeping normally. There was no suggestion that his body was ripping itself apart beneath the surface.

 

“No chance he lives?” I asked. I didn’t sound hopeful, even to myself. I sounded dead and tired.

 

“Possible,” Erik said. “Remotely. But…no. I don’t think it can actually happen. And I think if we try to save him, he’ll die in agony.”

 

I looked at the Dierkhlani. His eyes were still open, still fixed on me. His gaze had a heaviness to it, a weight of calm sorrow. I looked back to Mathias.

 

My hands didn’t shake as I slid the needle in, and I hit the vein on the first try. I offered a silent prayer of thanks to the black gods for that. Hard enough to do this once. I wasn’t sure I could have done it twice. I held the needle in there for the three seconds that the Dierkhlani had instructed, and then pulled it out. The black syrup of the sedative was gone, replaced by blood so dark it was hard to tell the difference. I held the needle, watched as a drop of the blood formed and fell onto my hand.

 

A pale finger reached out and wiped it away, so lightly I could hardly feel the fingertip brush over my fur. I looked up and saw the Dierkhlani standing over me.

 

“You did well,” he said. His voice was gentle.

 

“It hurts,” I said.

 

“My friend had something else she said. Ethics are what you do with what’s been done to you, she said. You couldn’t save him. But you did everything you could to help him. And that isn’t nothing.”

 

I said nothing.

 

Half an hour past midnight, Mathias slipped silently from sleep to death. I snuck back to my usual place beside Rose with a guilty conscience, and lay down, and did not sleep.

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Fractures 2.3

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Over the next week things settled into a steady routine. I spent the days in the wagon, sleeping as often as not. My wounds were still healing, and rest would help. And it wasn’t as though I was missing much. The wagons continued their slow roll to the south, forest and field passing us by with steady monotony.

 

Rose slept a great deal as well. After the first day we silently came to an arrangement in which we would trade off through the day, one of us resting while the other stayed awake. It wasn’t precisely keeping watch, but it resembled it closely enough to make the difference minor.

 

Rose, as I’d observed, didn’t sleep well. The girl tossed and turned in her sleep, and when she woke her eyes were often dark and hunted. She didn’t talk about in what she saw in her dreams, and I knew better than to ask. I had enough nightmares of my own that I felt no great need to stack on more of someone else’s.

 

In the times between naps, I spoke with Derek. Our driver was a relentlessly cheerful man, talking about flooded out bridges and broken axles with the same good humor as sunny days and clear nights. I honestly wasn’t sure whether it was an act. He had endless anecdotes from years of life on the road, and he never seemed to tire of sharing them.

 

I was just as glad. It meant that I didn’t have to share any of my own.

 

The days were long, which was impressive given that it was the wintertime. Each morning we were roused well before dawn by the clanging of a spoon on a metal pot and the harsh, strident sound of Konrad’s voice. Breakfast was passed out, a simple meal of dense bread and honey. The camp–such as it was; we slept in the wagons and there weren’t all that many of us, so camp was a small one–was swiftly packed away as we ate. By the time the sun rose, we were already on the road. We stopped in the middle of the day to water the horses, and then continued until it was dark enough that the humans couldn’t see. I was quietly grateful that my vision had been improved by the Change; I couldn’t see in the dark, but I needed less light than they did, which was almost the same thing here.

 

It was this which was, in my opinion, the interesting part of the day. After the wagons had stopped, a fire was quickly built. Konrad carried a tinderbox, but he used alchemical matches to light the fire each night, a luxury which was at odds with his otherwise frugal attitude. Konrad’s wife, an imposing woman named Olga who was at least as large as he was, prepared the meal each night. More of the heavy trail bread was accompanied by beans, as well as sparing rations of jerky and dried fruit. It wasn’t good food, precisely, but I’d eaten less and worse often enough not to complain.

 

As we sat around the fire and ate, people talked. The topics of conversation varied widely, everything from idle chatter about the things we’d passed that day to idle speculation about the road ahead, all the way to talking about family left behind and hopes for what was at the end of the road.

 

It was strangely intimate. I could understand that, in a way. We were all just brought here and tied together by circumstance. We would never see each other again after this, would never touch each others’ lives at all. It was easier to talk about hard topics when you didn’t have to care what the person you were talking to thought of you.

 

I learned a lot about my fellow travelers, in those first few days. Konrad and Olga were hard but fair, and while they were strict, they held themselves to the same standards as everyone else. Konrad had a dry humor about him and Olga sometimes looked over the camp with a quiet contentment that reminded me of Corbin in the inn on a busy night. The memories that brought up were so sharp that they hurt, not least because I knew they would come to hurt less with time.

 

There were two men who traveled with the caravan, working for Konrad. Derek was one, and he was much the same in the evening as in the daytime, always ready with a quip or a wry observation. It wasn’t until the third day that I realized that while he was always talking he didn’t talk about anything of consequence; there was no discussion of home or family, no mention of what he wanted or what he feared. Nothing at all to let anyone see past the surface, aside from the occasional glimpse of bitter hatred towards the empire.

 

The other man, whose name was Trevor, scared me. There was an ugliness to him that went further than his features, though those were none too pretty either; he was tall and muscular, but blocky features and a missing eye more than outweighed any aesthetic credit those might have bought him. More than that, though, there was something about him that was wrong, and deeply disturbing. He leered at me when he thought no one saw, looking at me less like a person and more like a piece of meat, and at Rose even more so. It didn’t escape me that Konrad had set the father and son to ride in the wagon driven by Trevor, and left the two girls with Derek.

 

The father and son were named, respectively, Heinz and Mathias. The father was old enough to have grey hairs but not so old that he moved stiffly, and the son was perhaps ten or slightly more. Heinz was clearly worried but he managed to keep up a pleasant front, forcing cheer and pretending to think that everything was all right. Mathias, I thought, hadn’t managed to see through that front yet. They were going to Hasburg in the hopes of finding work, Heinz being a metalworker who had lost his livelihood when the mine closed down. His wife–not Mathias’s mother, I thought, but more likely a stepmother–was staying behind in the village they’d left, hoping to join them if they found a way to support themselves in the city.

 

The other two passengers were more of an enigma. Finn was a young man, hardly more than a boy, who spoke no Tsuran and spoke Skellish only with a heavy accent of the far north. His right arm ended in a stump, and he fumbled with his left hand too much for it to be an old wound. He spoke not at all of his past and, when the topic of family had come up, only bent his head in what looked like deep sorrow. Reika, on the other hand, was a Changed woman from Akitsuro. She was tall, significantly taller than anyone else in the caravan, with long limbs and scales. Her tongue flickered out of her mouth like a snake’s when she spoke, and her fingers were always moving, fidgeting and tapping. She didn’t say why she’d left, nor why she was going back, though at one point she did share a story about having been cast out of her family after being Changed.

 

And then there were the last two. The Dierkhlani, and the varg. They sat at the edge of the firelight, more often than not together. Neither of them partook of the shared meal, instead eating bread and meat from his packs. The Dierkhlani seldom spoke unless spoken to, and it was even more seldom that anyone else worked up the courage to speak to him. The two of them sat, a silent but very tangible presence, with our camp but not a part of it.

 

Late one night, after the rest of us had gone to our rest, I looked out of the wagon and saw them there, lit by the embers of a dying fire. The man was sitting on the ground, his legs crossed, staring into the coals with eyes that reflected back golden-yellow. One hand rested on the back of the varg, which was curled up on the ground next to him. The other was on the hilt of his sword, lying naked across his legs.


We had been on the road for nine days when it all went to pieces. Hasburg was two days in front of us, and another three days past that was the border of what had once been the Kingdom of Skelland, and was now the Imperial Province of Skelland.

 

I’d been expecting it for a while. Ever since that scare with the imperial blockade the first day, things had been going smoothly. It had been going well, and I’d learned better than to expect for things to go well for me.

 

My first warning that the magic pulse was coming was when the fur on the back of my neck stood up, rising like a dog’s hackles though the display it made was rather less impressive. I felt the tingle run down my spine and I sat up straighter, my ears perking up. I could feel the potential gathering in the air like the aftermath of a lightning strike, my connection to the metal around me flaring up so bright I could almost taste every coin in the pouch I carried, could almost smell the nails holding the wagon together.

 

Rose woke out of a light doze, startled by my motion. She could tell that something was wrong, but she couldn’t tell what it was. It left her startled and scared, flinching and looking around like she was wondering where the blow would come from. That reaction, all by itself, told me more than I wanted to know about Rose’s scars.

 

Derek couldn’t feel the magic, either. But the horses could. Blackie paused midstep and looked around, making a noise that I didn’t know horses well enough to name, and even Star’s ears went flat against her head. Derek was a good enough driver to recognize it instantly, looking around for trouble in much the same way Rose was.

 

Then, just seconds after I felt the building tension, the pulse crested. The air rippled, a flicker of red passing from left to right across my vision. I could taste cinnamon and less strongly charcoal, and my body abruptly felt like it was squeezed into a suit of clothing two sizes too small, the air pressing in on all sides. The metal around me abruptly strained towards me, everything from the pouch of coins on Derek’s belt and the horses’ bridles to the nails in the wagon being pulled towards me by the invisible connection between us. A corner of the cloth canopy over the wagon caught on fire, flaring briefly with viridian flames before settling in to a more typical smoldering.

 

And then it was gone. The pressure faded as abruptly as it had come, the tastes vanished from my mouth, the pouch fell back to hang naturally. Rose squeaked in surprise, one hand going to her face as she scrambled backwards. Derek exhibited no such signs of shock, instead leaping instantly to smother the smoldering fabric.

 

Not too bad, as magic pulses went. I’d seen them do substantially worse than just a minor fire. I let out my breath in a relieved sigh. I hadn’t even realized I was holding it.

 

And then I heard the screaming.

 

It was a high-pitched scream, and it had a certain authenticity to it that told me more than I needed to know about what the screamer was feeling.

 

There was only one person in this caravan capable of hitting that particular pitch. And that, in itself, was enough to know what had just happened.

 

Before that initial scream had entirely faded, I was on the ground and running. Derek and Rose stayed behind. From the sounds I heard behind me, I was guessing Rose was slightly hysterical and Derek was doing what he could to calm the poor girl.

 

I left that to him. There was someone who needed the sympathy rather more, just now.

 

I knew where to go. Two wagons in front of us was the one that Heinz and Mathias rode in.

 

I was fast when I needed to be. I got there just a few seconds after the pulse passed. But there was already a crowd there. Trevor and Heinz had been crowded out of the wagon; Heinz was clearly upset by this, while Trevor was just standing and trying to calm the horses. The animals hadn’t been pleased by the pulse’s effects, let alone the chaos that came afterwards.

 

The people who had done the crowding were no surprise. Reika was there, stooped over to fit into the wagon. The Changed woman customarily walked beside the wagon, her long limbs having no trouble keeping up with the horses; she would have been only a few strides from the wagon. And there was the Dierkhlani, who customarily rode a distance in front of the lead wagon and should have been a hundred feet away.

 

In between them was the source of the screaming. Mathias was lying on the floor of the wagon, twitching wildly. He’d stopped screaming, at least. If he were very lucky, he might have passed out. But his body was still moving, tremors running down his limbs and occasionally building to spastic convulsions. His breathing was rapid and shallow. His eyes were open, far too wide, but they were rolled so far back that nothing could be seen but the whites.

 

The people outside the wagon clearly had no idea what was going on. The people inside just as clearly did. As I was approaching, the Dierkhlani stooped down beside the boy. With a smooth confidence that made it look perfectly natural, he reached into Mathias’s mouth, pulling his lips open and sliding a strip of leather between his teeth. It was just in time, as moments later his jaws snapped shut hard.

 

Reika, meanwhile, reached out and rested one hand against the boy’s forehead. She didn’t try to restrain him, even when one of his flailing arms struck her on the shoulder. She just let him flail.

 

I pushed forward without asking, pulling my jacket off as I climbed into the wagon. Neither of them questioned it as I slipped in beside them, squatting down beside the convulsing child. I managed to dodge past his arms to his head. Once I was there I reached under his neck, momentarily displacing Reika’s hand, and slid my folded jacket between his head and the floor of the wagon.

 

The Tsuran woman glanced at me and smiled, just a quick flash of teeth and a couple gaps, before going back to resting her hand on the child’s head. The Dierkhlani didn’t even spare me that much attention. He was intently focused on Mathias, watching and waiting.

 

There are three things that can happen to people who are caught in a magic pulse. No one had ever really been able to predict which would happen to a given person, and the only way to really find out was to be in one. Or several; not everyone who was in a pulse was in a position to be hit by it, and it could take several before you happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like most things to do with the magic, all of it was strange and inexplicable, seemingly random. For all of that, though, it’s pretty easy to characterize the ways people are affected.

 

Some people are unaffected. The magic doesn’t touch them, doesn’t want them, and no matter how many pulses they’re in they’re left unscathed by it. Some people Change. And some people die.

 

Mostly people already knew which group they fell into. It was hard not to, not when everyone over a certain age had been in more pulses than they could count. Once you’d been through three or four without Changing, you could pretty much say that you weren’t going to.

 

Mathias, though, was young enough to have been born after the wards. He’d lived his whole life behind the alchemical protections, safe from the whims of the magic pulses. This was his first time outside, his first time caught in a surge of magical energy.

 

And he was Changing.

 

It took several minutes for the signs to start showing. The others left us alone in the wagon for that time, even pulling Heinz away. I knew exactly why they did, though it wasn’t something I could readily have articulated. It was just…wrong. Mathias was Changing, and that made this a thing for the Changed. Having them there would be like having men in a birthing room. And so they–all of them, even his father–stayed at a respectful distance.

 

He wasn’t a part of their world anymore. He wasn’t one of them. He was one of us, with all that implied, and now he always would be.

 

The first evidence of the Change was in his eyes. They were still rolled up into his head, but the whites shifted tone slightly, shading more to grey, and the blood vessels were more prominent. It made him look bloodshot. Instants later the features of his face began to shift as well, growing wider and coarser.

 

I winced as I watched. I knew from experience what it felt like to have bones shifting around like that. It was…a kind of pain I wasn’t in a hurry to feel again. I found myself once again hoping that he was unconscious. Most people were conscious through the initial Change, but some were lucky enough to pass out early in the process.

 

“Feverish,” Reika said. Her tone was bleak. She knew what that meant. We all did.

 

Some people Change in response to the magic, and others die. But there’s a degree of overlap between the two.

 

The speed with which the Change was progressing, the rise in temperature, the convulsions, they all said volumes about what was happening and the volumes in question weren’t happy ones.

 

Fuck,” the Dierkhlani said. The tone said more than the word could, harsh and too-loud. He moved forward, resting his hand next to Reika’s, and then swore again under his breath. I couldn’t understand that word beyond that it sounded northern, but again, the tone said it all.

 

“He might stabilize,” Reika said. She didn’t sound hopeful.

 

The Dierkhlani didn’t say anything, just reached up to the boy’s eye. He gently rolled it down until he could see the pupil, and frowned. “Too dim in here,” he muttered absently.

 

I glanced around, and saw a lantern hanging from the front of the wagon next to the driver’s bench. It was there, presumably, so that driver and horses could see their way if they were traveling after dark. Right now it was just a handy source of light, and I grabbed it without hesitating.

 

The Dierkhlani barely glanced at me as I held it out towards him, then looked again and snatched it away from me. He produced an alchemical match from one of his pockets, the sort that used a scrap of flash paper, and used it to light the wick.

 

I was expecting him to set it aside at that point. But instead he brought the lit lantern down, holding it as close to Mathias’s face as he could get, while also holding his eye in place.

 

His pupil was huge, dilated until only a scrap of a blue iris was visible around it. It didn’t contract as the light came close, though it had to be painfully bright. Not that I could have said from looking at him. Mathias was still trembling, badly, but he didn’t seem to be capable of deliberate movement.

 

Another bad sign. Your pupils weren’t supposed to be that wide, not when it was bright.

 

“Temperature still rising,” the Dierkhlani said. His tone wasn’t harsh now; it was blank and analytical, which was worse. “Heartbeat…almost two hundred per minute.”

 

I looked the kid over. His skin was flushed, a red almost too bright to look natural, though I wasn’t sure if that was the Change or the side effects it was producing. His features were still thickening, his face growing broader so rapidly I could almost see it happening. The veins were standing out in his arms, and the color was growing stronger, almost less blue than violet.

 

The Change wasn’t stopping. If anything it seemed to be speeding up.

 

“He’s dying,” I said. The words weren’t loud, but they fell like hammer blows, shattering the silence. My voice was steadier than I felt it had any right to be.

 

Reika looked away, and didn’t say a word. The Dierkhlani didn’t so much as flinch. “Yes,” he said simply. “Help me roll him over.”

 

I wasn’t sure how he knew what was going to happen next. Vomiting was almost universal when people were being Changed, but it usually took longer than this to set in. His timing was perfect, though, and we had the boy rolled onto his side just in time. He retched violently, throwing up the remnants of the morning’s meal and a stream of thick, foul-smelling bile. He kept going for some time after it stopped coming up, coughing in between. The leather pad came out in the process, but that didn’t matter. He was past the worst of the convulsions now, and in any case there were bigger issues than a bit tongue just now.

 

“Have to bring his temperature down,” Reika said as we rolled Mathias back onto his back. “Damp cloths?”

 

“Wouldn’t matter,” the Dierkhlani said. “His heart rate is out of control. That will kill him before the fever.”

 

“Drugs?” I asked. I remembered the doctors back in the Whitewood using medicines on people who were taking the Change this badly. I also remembered how rarely it worked.

 

“Dangerous with the Changed,” the Dierkhlani said. “The reaction to many chemicals is…different.”

 

“Dying anyway,” I said.

 

He laughed, a humorless chuckle. “True. But it’s a moot point. We don’t have time to get him to a medic, and I don’t have anything that would help.”

 

I thought for about half a heartbeat, then grabbed my pack. I’d brought it with me when I ran, less because I’d expected this contingency than because I’d had plenty of time to learn the habit of grabbing my bag in an emergency.

 

I fished around in it for a moment, and then came up with the smaller bag that contained the few things I’d managed to keep with me when we left Branson’s Ford. I pulled out the vial of sedative, and put the rest back into the pack.

 

I’d bought this thing more as a simple poison than for its medical value. That had been shortly after I got to Branson’s Ford, when the paranoia from the camps was still strong. I’d used it as a sedative a few times since, though I still didn’t wholly trust it. That kind of mixing between alchemy and herbalism was…unreliable at best.

 

I held it out to the Dierkhlani, who stared for a moment and then snatched it out of my hand. He quickly opened the vial and poured a drop onto his finger. The thick, dark liquid was viscous as honey, though I knew from experience that it was bitter in the extreme.

 

He sniffed at it, and then licked it from his finger. It was a quick motion, resembling a cat lapping up water. He didn’t seem worried about it being poisonous or even a strong drug. But then, he wouldn’t. He was Dierkhlani.

 

“This is tincture of digitalis,” he said. “In charged blackwater. Where did you get this?”

 

“Later,” I said. “Will it help?”

 

He frowned, considering it for a heartbeat. Reika looked to be caught between hope and fear. “Maybe,” he said. “It’s…risky, but he’s as good as dead otherwise. We can try.”

 

“Few drops,” I said. “More and–”

 

“I know,” he said, cutting me off. “Need a needle, a clean one.”

 

I had a great many things in my bag, including quite a few that were sharp and metal. But I wasn’t confident that I could come up with a needle quickly, and I wasn’t sure that anything in there counted as clean. I raised my hand to point outside.

 

Reika bolted, moving faster than I’d have given her credit for. Like the snake she resembled, it appeared the Tsuran woman was capable of moving very quickly when she needed to. It wasn’t more than thirty seconds before she was back, holding a thin sewing needle in her hand.

 

The Dierkhlani snatched it from her and passed it quickly through the flame of the lantern, heating the metal to a dull glow. He held it steady, waiting for it to cool, and held the bottle of sedative in his other hand. “Hold him still,” he said.

 

I moved to do so, grabbing Mathias’s legs while Reika got his arms. “Not drinking?” I asked. That was how I had taken it in the past, a few drops mixed into water.

 

“Too slow,” the Dierkhlani. “And he’d throw it up again.” He slid the needle into the bottle without saying anything else. When he pulled it out it was glistening black, coated in the thick liquid.

 

We all held our breath as he slid the needle into the boy’s arm, just below the elbow. It was, I supposed, one perk of those raised, vivid veins. They were easy to see. The Dierkhlani held the needle there for several seconds, and then pulled it back out. The black liquid had been replaced by blood, though it didn’t look like human blood. The color was a red a few shades too dark, and it glistened like oil. More of that strange blood leaked from the pinprick hole in his arm. None of us paid any attention to it. He had more to worry about right now than losing a little blood.

 

“Now we just wait and see,” the Dierkhlani said. He capped the vial of sedative and handed it back to me.

 

I let out a sigh of relief. He looked at me oddly. “You realize he’ll still likely die,” he said.

 

I shrugged. “Sometimes hope is all you have,” I said simply.

 

He smiled. The expression was odd, wry and sad. “Sometimes it is,” he agreed. “My name is Erik.” It was the first he’d introduced himself to me, or to anyone in the caravan that I’d heard.

 

“Silf,” I said.

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Silf,” he said, still with that wry smile. “Now let’s wait and see if he has more than just hope, or this has all been for nothing.”

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Fractures 2.2

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The next morning found us gathered outside the inn. It was a cold day, snowflakes drifting lazily down in the predawn twilight to gather on the wagons and horses. Some of the travelers were clearly nursing hangovers, but they still moved about their tasks without tarrying, albeit with a certain amount of groaning and grumbling.

 

There were a few notable exceptions. Konrad was watching over the proceedings with a steady, calm look that spoke of long experience. The caravan master was quick to step in when something was done incorrectly, but mostly the members of the caravan seemed to know their business, and he was left to watch in silence. That was reassuring; it suggested that this was a competent group of travelers. Most of them, I was guessing, had made this trip before. It was a profitable one for a merchant, carrying goods from the northern provinces back to the empire’s heart.

 

The other exception was the Dierkhlani. It took a few moments for me to locate him; he wasn’t with the others. Eventually, I spotted him leaning against the wall of the inn, eyes closed though he was facing towards the gathering caravan. He looked much like he had the previous night, in the same studded leathers and with the same broad blade strapped to his back. The main changes were that he had other weapons visible among the leathers–a dagger’s hilt here, a knife at his belt, a coiled chain on the other hip–and a small backpack. It took me a moment to see that he was standing next to a varg.

 

I stared when I realized that. The slender canine creature was lying on the snow, chin resting on its paws, watching the proceedings with a clear gleam of amusement. I might have thought it was a dog, but I had seen vargs, back in the Whitewood. Not many; even there, they had been an unusual sight. But I knew enough to recognize it for what it was.

 

I’d always found vargs fascinating. Intelligent as humans, they said, and from what I’d seen it was more or less correct. But it was a very alien sort of intelligence, very different in its view. As a child I’d been entranced by their minds, by the fact that such obviously inhuman beings were still people. After I was Changed, well, I had other reasons to find them fascinating. After all, we had rather a lot in common.

 

I shook my head, remembering the reason I was here, and walked to where Konrad was standing. Rose followed silently after me, eyes downcast. I wasn’t sure if she had looked at the people we would be traveling with at all, or she was entirely lost in her own mind. She had a tendency to do that, I’d found, to draw away from the world into the space within her head.

 

I couldn’t blame her. We all had our demons.

 

Konrad watched us coming, a faint smile playing across his lips. “Well,” he drawled, the northern accent coloring his voice more strongly than it had last night. “I’m no mathematician, but I seem to recall two being more than the one we agreed on.”

 

I shrugged and held out my hand, opening it. Two silver nobles were resting on my palm, twice the amount we’d agreed on. I didn’t say anything; the money seemed more eloquent than I was.

 

Konrad seemed to agree, as he grinned broadly and took the coins from my hand, dropping them quickly into a leather pouch at his hip. “Glad we have an understanding,” he said. “I’m Konrad, miss. What’s your name?”

 

Rose chanced a glance up at him, then flushed and quickly went back to looking at the worn cobblestones beneath our feet. “Rose,” she said, hardly above a whisper.

 

“I take it Silf here explained our rules to you?” Konrad asked. Rose nodded quickly, and he grunted. “All right, then,” he said. “Come with me.” He strode confidently over to one of the wagons, with us following behind him and trying to stay out of the way of the people working around us.

 

It wasn’t much to look at. The wagon was small, a bit battered; one of the wheels had clearly broken and been repaired. But it was a covered wagon, fabric stretched tight over a simple wooden frame–nothing too solid, but enough to keep the weather off. Inside there were some crates and sacks, and a pair of horses were standing in front of it, already buckled into their harness.

 

“This is where you’ll be riding,” he said, patting one of the horses affectionately. “The load in back is mine; don’t muck about with it, or the horses. Now sit tight, we’ll be on the way shortly.” He dipped his head in a slight nod, and then turned and walked back to his post at the center of the action.

 

I watched him go, then clambered up into the wagon. I offered Rose a hand up, and she looked at it for a moment, but then she hauled herself up without taking it. I didn’t comment on it, and neither did she.

 

The back of the wagon proved surprisingly comfortable. The wooden planks were worn smooth, and the cloth cover over us kept the snow off. Once I laid the blanket I’d stolen from the inn down over the planks, and leaned against the crates, it felt almost cozy.

 

A few minutes later someone else climbed into the wagon, more smoothly than either of us. He had the red hair of a northerner, though something about his features suggested Tsuran ancestry. “Derek,” he said, bowing to us. It was a clumsy bow, but a certain humor in his eyes suggested that it was deliberately so. “I’ll be your driver today, ladies. Feel free to complain if the ride is too rough. I can’t do jack all about it, but you can complain all you like.”

 

I smiled politely, and Rose let out a genuine giggle at his joke. Derek smiled as though well satisfied, and then turned to the horses, checking over their harness.

 

True to Konrad’s word, the sun was just peeking over the horizon when the caravan got on the road. The first I realized of it was when the wagon in front of us began moving, wheels crunching the snow quietly under them as they began to roll. Derek clucked to the horses, which obligingly broke into a slow walk.

 

I found myself smiling as we left the town behind. I wasn’t going to miss the place, even if I could have remembered where it was.


The cover of the wagon kept out the weather, but it also limited our view of the outside world. I couldn’t see much past the horses’ ears, and the back of the wagon in front of us. As such, for the next several hours, my world narrowed down to the interior of our wagon, Rose, and Derek.

 

The horses were obviously well trained, and Derek was mostly content to lean against the back of the driver’s bench and let them follow the train. It gave him time to talk to us, which he obviously enjoyed. Rose was far too shy to chat with a stranger, though, and my throat was hurting, so he mostly talked to himself. He didn’t seem to mind, and he had an easy humor about him that made it charming rather than irritating.

 

Over the next several hours, I learned a number of things. I learned that the horses’ names were, rather unimaginatively, Blackie and Star, that Blackie was the more temperamental of the two but easily calmed with a touch or a word, while Star was steady and largely ignored the people behind her. I learned that Derek had been traveling with Konrad and his wife, whom I hadn’t yet met, for over a year now, making several trips from the capital north to the provinces and back. I learned that all but one of the wagons belonged to Konrad, making this almost less of a caravan than a personal convoy. I learned that there were five guests not including ourselves; one of them was a merchant with his own wagon of trade goods, two a father and son planning to stop in Hasburg, one a Changed woman from the south, and the last a quiet boy from the north who was missing a hand.

 

I also learned things which were less immediately relevant, but more troubling. I learned that the roads were bad, and getting worse, with deserters from the legions a major problem even this far south. I learned that Derek had heard of what happened in Branson’s Ford, not in any detail, but only that some villages had been lost and the legion sent to eliminate the threat. I learned that a tax collector had been found hanging from a roadside tree only a few miles to the east, and rumor had it that a whole village was to be decimated for the crime.

 

Eventually, I drifted off, the rocking of the wagon and the quiet drone of Derek’s speech lulling me to sleep. I felt Rose grab my hand as I was beginning to doze, her grip so gentle I could almost have thought I was imagining it. I didn’t say anything.

 

When I woke, it was because the motion of the wagon had stopped. The snow had also stopped, though the noon sun was shining through pale wintry clouds. “Have to water the horses,” Derek said simply upon seeing me stirring. Sure enough, a few moments later Konrad approached with a bucket of water.

 

“There’s a roadblock up ahead,” he said as he got close. “Nothing too bad, it sounds like. Just a few legionnaires going through people’s goods to make sure they aren’t carrying any contraband.”

 

I frowned. That might not be too bad for him, but…well. Given that I apparently had a bounty on my head now, it seemed like a poor idea for me to have much to do with them. “Hide?” I asked, simply.

 

Konrad understood exactly what I meant. I could see it in his eyes. “Something you don’t want our good protectors looking at, Silf?” he asked. There was a hint of sarcasm in his tone, a subtle twist on the last few words.

 

“Me,” I said dryly.

 

He nodded. “And just what did you do to draw their ire, girl?”

 

I considered for a moment how to answer that. What had I done, even? I’d killed Hideo, yes, but I had a suspicion that my fate had already been sealed long before that. From the moment I’d stopped him from killing the village, maybe. Or maybe even sooner than that, as soon as I’d come to understand just what their mission there was.

 

“Did the right thing,” I said. “At the wrong time.” My throat seized up as I spoke, and the last phrase came out in a choked whisper.

 

Konrad nodded again. “Sometimes that’s all it takes,” he said. “Reckon I know a thing or two about hard choices, myself. Don’t worry, Silf, I’m not about to hand you over to the legions.” From the bitterness in his tone, I was guessing this had less to do with me and more to do with his own feelings towards the imperial legions.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “Truly.”

 

He waved his hand. “You paid,” he said. “Now. Derek, make some room for her in with the furs. Won’t be comfortable, but should be safe enough. Just keep your head down.”

 

Derek nodded, but Konrad was already moving on to the next wagon. Derek came back into the wagon a moment later, shooting me a curious glance on his way. I pretended not to see; I wasn’t remotely up to answering questions right now.

 

It didn’t take long at all for him to clear out a space among the crates. I took the hint and climbed inside, crouching down. He promptly packed me in, surrounding me with the heavy wooden crates. The smoothness of the operation suggested that I wasn’t the first person they’d had to smuggle past a roadblock.

 

It was dark, once I was inside. My little pocket within the crates was cold, and dark, and claustrophobic. It smelled strongly of pine, of leather and fur and tanning agents. The enclosed space began to bother me, making me feel trapped, and it was only with difficulty that I managed to keep myself from hyperventilating.

 

When we began moving again, I couldn’t readily tell. Here in the back, in this strange little pocket, there wasn’t an easy way to know. I only realized it when I heard movement outside, a horse’s chuff and the quiet crunching of snow under the wagon wheels.

 

It was hard to say how long that lasted. Long enough for me to begin to panic. What if my read of Konrad had been wrong? What if this was just a way to get me to stay complacent until he could hand me over to the officers at the roadblock, pocketing the bounty and the profit from what I had paid him? There wasn’t a great deal I could do, if so.

 

Then I heard voices. They were muffled by the furs around me, the sounds blunted and blurred. I could make out Konrad, speaking Tsuran without a hint of an accent, and someone answering in the harsh tones of a person doing a job they hated. That could be good or bad; he likely didn’t care about doing his job well, but he might be looking for an excuse to make someone else feel as miserable as he did.

 

I went tense again when I heard footsteps coming closer. When I felt something nudge the pile of furs I was buried under, I almost panicked.

 

In the end, though, the legionnaire kept walking with barely a perfunctory prodding of the fur, moving on to the next wagon. I stayed where I was. There might be more of them.

 

What felt like a lifetime and was probably a few minutes later, I heard the wagons creak into motion again. They rolled forward slowly, snow crunching under the wheels, and then began picking up speed until we were moving as quickly as we had been earlier.

 

It wasn’t long after that that I heard another voice, this one definitely Derek’s; I’d heard our driver talk more than enough to recognize the sound of his voice. Moments later, I felt another rustle of movement in the furs, and then I was blinking against the harsh light of the sun as the last of them were pulled off of me.

 

Rose smiled down at me, and finished clearing the pile of pelts away. She didn’t offer me a hand as I climbed out, and I didn’t ask for one.

 

“Went smooth as butter,” Derek said. “Don’t you worry, they didn’t suspect a thing.”

 

“You’re sure they didn’t find anything?” Rose asked. The girl’s voice was anxious and wavering.

 

“Of course they found something,” Derek said, clearly amused. “They’d be all kinds of suspicious if they didn’t find any contraband at all in a convoy like this. They found a jug of unrefined blackwater that didn’t have the assessor’s seal on it, four bolts of Skellish wool that didn’t have their tariffs paid, and a pound of moldy cheese that fell all over them when they opened the cupboard to check it.” There was a note of vicious amusement in his tone as he said this last which made me suspect the prank had been his idea.

 

That amusement faded rapidly, though, as he continued. “All of that was fine, dealt with. Not something to worry about. But the other merchant with us was apparently smuggling a crate of legion-issue armor. And that’s a far sight worse than just having some things that haven’t been properly inspected and taxed.”

 

“What will happen to him?” Rose asked.

 

“You’ll see,” Derek said, his voice and manner uncharacteristically grim, and then he fell silent.

 

I made my way back up to the front of the wagon and sat down next to him on the driver’s bench. It was warm now, the snow having burned off after morning, and I was enjoying the fresh air after being stuffed under those furs.

 

Minutes passed after that in silence. Rose was slowly relaxing, losing the anxious tension she’d exhibited when she helped me out. I wasn’t. I knew what Derek meant. It began to snow again as I waited, but I didn’t go back into the covered section of the wagon. My own  fur was warm enough that it wasn’t too bad.

 

Finally, just when I’d started to wonder whether we’d see it or not, a tree came up on the side of the road. It was a large cedar, lightly dusted with snow. And, as I’d known there would be, there was something in the branches.

 

I could tell when Rose recognized the form of the merchant, dangling from a particularly strong branch by the rope around his neck. Her eyes went wide, and she was staring fixedly at it.

 

I’d seen more hangings than I ever wanted to. Back in the Whitewood, there had been lynchings of suspected imperial sympathizers during the siege. And afterwards…well. There had been plenty of reason to hang refugees in the camps, valid and otherwise. In watching, I’d learned that there are two ways to hang someone. The first is the merciful way, where you use a long drop. The fall snaps the neck, and the victim dies almost instantly.

 

This man hadn’t been hanged like that. He’d been hoisted into the air slowly, leaving him to slowly strangle. It was a long, ugly way to die.

 

The legionnaires had already left. They weren’t needed here anymore. He was already dead. He probably knew it. But his body refused to admit it. He was still moving, kicking, grasping at the rope with his hands.

 

“White gods,” Rose said, staring.

 

“Stealing legion equipment is a capital crime,” I said quietly. I wasn’t watching. I didn’t want to have to watch another person die, not right now.

 

“Are we going to help him?” Rose asked. Her voice, somewhat to my surprise, wasn’t accusatory. It was just a simple, honest question.

 

“Can’t,” Derek said. “They’d have us up there next to him as fast as you can blink.” He grimaced and patted Blackie’s neck, seemingly more for his own comfort than the horse’s. “Only thing I could do for him now is end it faster,” he said. “And we can’t even risk that. Don’t know how they would take it.”

 

I took one last glance back as we rode away from the roadblock, one guest less than we had been before. The merchant had gone still, slowly spinning at the end of the rope as snowflakes slowly drifted down from a cold, grey sky.

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Fractures 2.1

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I walked into the taproom of the inn again, grimly.

 

Seven days. I had spent seven days here, in this town whose name I still couldn’t remember, which had never mattered and never would. Seven days, trying to go south. I still hurt, my legs and chest aching from the wounds I’d been dealt, but my injuries had been more or less healed for days.

 

I generally considered myself to be a patient enough person. But even I was growing exceedingly tired of waiting, and it left me in a foul mood.

 

The problem was that it wasn’t such a simple matter, getting to Aseoto. The heart of Akitsuro was far to the south, on the southwestern coast. The trip would take weeks, and it involved crossing some dangerous territory. Impatient though I was, I wasn’t so desperate as to try and make that trip alone.

 

Most of the survivors of Branson’s Ford had already gone their own ways. Black had left to continue her wanderings, and Ketill to find another village where he could work as a farmer; both of them had good reason to leave as soon as they could, given that the bounties on their heads from the war were still high enough to tempt people into doing foolish things. Livy had an uncle in Hasburg, a nearby city large enough to actually matter, who was taking her in. Most of the others had gradually drifted away, going to other villages or finding work in the town and surrounding fields.

 

Much to my surprise, Rose was the only other survivor who was still around. I’d never met the girl before the ghouls, but now she and I were staying at the inn together. I think we both needed that connection, needed to have someone else who could remember the events of those few awful days in order to help ground ourselves. It was a strange, broken sort of tie.

 

I was at the inn today for the same reason I had been for the past week. I was looking for a caravan bound south which I could join. It was the way most people traveled cross-country. It was safer than trying to do it on your own, and relatively simple. You paid for your own food and a bit extra for their trouble, and in return you got the protection afforded by numbers. I’d seen enough of them passing through Branson’s Ford to know the gist of how it worked.

 

Money, at least, wasn’t a concern, at least not immediately. Before Black left, she’d given me a hefty pouch of coins, saying that Corbin had given them to her just before they parted for the last time and told her to pass them along to me. I believed her. I’d long suspected that Corbin was far wealthier than he let on, and it made sense that he would give me something indirectly. If he’d passed it along in person, I’d have known what he was planning, and I never would have left him there if I’d known he was going to die.

 

It was, I supposed, an inheritance of sorts. One of a few which he’d left me. That and the scraps of my old life which I’d managed to keep since the Whitewood burned were all I had left. Everything else was gone.

 

Today, though, things were different when I walked into the taproom. There was an energy to it, a life, that usually wasn’t there. Part of it was that there was an unusually large crowd this evening. But there was also a difference in attitude, in how that crowd was carrying itself. They looked tired, but they were still animated, excited. There was a feeling of energy and ambition which was unusual. Looking outside, I could see a number of wagons through the window.

 

A caravan. Finally.

 

I paused just inside the door, looking for the person who was in charge of this group. It wasn’t hard. I’d spent long enough in places like this to know how to read the movement, the flow of things. Once I’d parsed it out it was easy to see that it was all swirling around one man, a pale northerner sitting in the corner with a large mug of ale that he wasn’t drinking from.

 

I took a deep breath and then approached him, interrupting his conversation with a tall Tsuran woman. He waved her off, looking at me. “Something on your mind?” he drawled, in Skellish flavored with the northern language they spoke in the Tears. I couldn’t remember the name of it.

 

I nodded. “Caravan?” I asked. The word came out badly, hoarse and rough with a catch in the middle. Speaking, now, was even harder than it had been before. I suspected I’d done myself permanent damage screaming when I found out that Corbin was dead.

 

The northerner sat up straighter, focusing his attention on me. “Aye,” he said. “Bound south, to Akitsuro, then east. Interested?”

 

I nodded, relieved. With how very northern this man looked, I’d been concerned that he would be heading the other direction.

 

“Listen up, then,” he said. “We leave at sunrise. Anyone who isn’t ready to go at dawn gets left behind. We’re setting a hard pace, and if you can’t keep it that’s your problem. Everyone has to pull their own weight, and I won’t hear any complaining about it, either. You look like you can handle yourself, but we’ve got a guard along in case anything goes wrong.”

 

I raised my eyebrows slightly. “One?” I asked, in a slightly incredulous tone. One guard wouldn’t do a thing if something went wrong, not when most of the predators that haunted the roads to the south ran in packs.

 

“He’s Dierkhlani,” the northerner said simply, gesturing towards the fireplace.

 

I gaped at that, and followed his gesture. It wasn’t hard to pick out who he was pointing to. The man was lounging in a chair next to the fire, eyes closed. He had a lean, almost feline build, not large, but lean and fit. He had on leathers that reminded me a bit of Black, though these were clearly armor rather than hunting garb; it was studded with metal over key areas, providing another layer of protection. Most telling of all, he had a sword strapped across his back. It was a long, simple blade, something that could be used with one hand or two, with no frills or ornamentation.

 

“How?” I asked, unable to stop staring. I’d never seen one of the Dierkhlani before. They weren’t exactly given to wandering around backwoods villages. I doubted that Branson’s Ford could have hired one if every resident had pooled their funds together.

 

“He was going the same direction,” the caravan leader explained. “Could never have afforded his rates otherwise, I’m sure, but since he was going that way anyway, he agreed to come with us. So as you see, one guard should be more than sufficient.”

 

I nodded, still staring at the Dierkhlani. If what I’d heard of them was accurate, one was more than a match for a pack of ghouls or a group of deserters. Much more.

 

“On to business, then,” the northerner said, pulling my attention back to him. “We’re three weeks out from Aseoto, three and a half. Longer if the weather turns bad. We’ve got food and drink for you, simple fare, but it will keep you standing. I treat Changed folk right, and I won’t stand for my people doing anything else; someone gives you grief over it, tell me and I’ll sort them out. Same goes the other way, though; you start a fight with someone and we’ll be having words. Steal from one of us, and I will personally break your legs and dump you at the side of the road.”

 

I nodded. It sounded reasonable enough to me, and understandable. The bit about not treating the Changed poorly was a nice touch. I had seen more than enough of people who didn’t.

 

“How much?” I asked, my voice breaking slightly on the second word.

 

“Three silver pennies,” he said promptly. “Good Tsuran coin only, won’t take anything else. You walking, or do you need to ride in one of the wagons?”

 

I winced slightly at the cost, but then forced myself to nod. It was an exorbitant sum to me, but I could afford it with Corbin’s gift, and I’d heard that things cost more in the cities. “Ride,” I said after a few minutes, reluctantly. I hated to admit it, but walking that kind of distance wasn’t a good idea, not with my legs still healing.

 

“That’ll be another two silver,” he said. “Payment up front, in full. Sound like a deal?”

 

I nodded once, firmly. I had my doubts about it–the price was high, and the presence of the Dierkhlani certainly wasn’t something I’d expected. But it would get me out of this gods-forsaken town, and at the moment that was all that mattered to me.

 

“Just one thing left, then,” he said. “What’s your name?”

 

“Silf,” I said.

 

He nodded. “Mine is Konrad. Pleasure doing business with you, Silf.” He spat into his hand, then held it out to me.

 

I spat into my own, then shook his hand. It was a very northern gesture, that, especially with the spitting. Not quite an oath, but still a rather formal way to seal an agreement. I expected that in Akitsuro that habit was regarded as charmingly provincial, and likely rather unsanitary.

 

“Remember,” Konrad said. “Dawn, with the coin.”

 

I nodded, and walked away, towards the stairs. Before I left, I took one last glance back, and saw that the Dierkhlani had left. His seat by the fire was empty. I hadn’t seen, heard, or felt a thing. But then, I wouldn’t have.

 

I shivered slightly, and went upstairs.


The rooms here were nothing like those back at the inn in Branson’s Ford. That had been a noble’s mansion, before the war, and even after the scars of battle and years of disuse it had still been rather grand. It had also, I now realized, been refurbished by a gifted alchemist. Corbin had provided alchemical lamps and tumbler locks, imported drinks and exotic spices. Here, the light came from simple oil lanterns, and the locks were crude warded locks that I could likely have picked with just my claws.

 

Inside, the room was small and sparse. The only furniture was a pair of beds with thin straw mattresses and a rickety wooden chair. There was a small glass window in the opposite wall, which wasn’t very well made; it leaked cold air around the edges all night.

 

Rose was in her bed, sound asleep. The girl had been sleeping a great deal, even more than I did, and that was saying rather a lot. I wasn’t sure if I should be concerned about her.

 

I rapped sharply on the wall to wake her. We had determined, between us, that that was the safest way to go about it. I couldn’t readily speak loudly enough to wake her up, and she didn’t respond well to being touched.

 

I didn’t know what horrors were in Rose’s past. But I knew that there were some. Her eyes had a darkness and a distance to them that spoke of ugly things inside, and I was sure that it was older and deeper than just the ghouls ravaging her home. Considering that her parents had been hermits, broken in the war and never healed, I had my suspicions about what it was that had put that darkness in her eyes, and they weren’t pretty ones.

 

She stirred a few moments after I rapped on the wall, slowly pushing herself upright. She had to lean against the wall to do it. Her eyes were too wide, staring past me without seeing me; her body jerked once, retching, before she settled down again.

 

She was waking from a nightmare. I knew that feeling too well to mistake it in someone else.

 

I gave her space, sitting in the chair and waiting. After a few moments, she resettled herself into a more upright position, and brushed her red hair away from her eyes with trembling fingertips. “What is it, Silf?” she asked softly. Rose had never, in the week and change that I had been more or less living with her, raised her voice.

 

“Caravan,” I said, simply. I didn’t have to say more. Rose knew what I had been looking for, and why.

 

Her eyes lit up, and she smiled. The expression almost seemed to light the room, made me realize that she was beautiful in her way. Considering the shakes still running through her hands, and the darkness still in her eyes, I wasn’t sure that beauty was much of a gift for her. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “When do they leave?”

 

“Dawn,” I said, looking away from her.

 

I could still see, out of my peripheral vision, as she nodded. “That’s excellent. Silf, I…I’ve been thinking.”

 

I looked at her curiously, waiting for her to continue. The silence stretched too long, and she didn’t seem able to finish on her own, so finally I prompted her. “And?”

 

“And I want to go with you. I want to go to Aseoto.” The words, when they did come, came out in a rush, tumbling over each other as though all of them wanted to be the first one out of her mouth.

 

I blinked. This was the first time Rose had mentioned any desire of that sort–the first time, in fact, that I’d heard her voice any kind of plan at all. “Why?” I said, too loud, and then winced at the lance of pain that went through my throat.

 

Rose looked down at the floor. “I don’t…have anyone else,” she said, more hesitantly. “To go to. Or anyone to stay with. I know we don’t…know each other very well. But you understand. You know what happened.”

 

“Why Aseoto?” I asked, more quietly this time. It still came out hoarse and thready, almost silent.

 

Rose was silent for a long time, at that, so long I almost thought she wouldn’t answer at all. “They wanted to keep the world away from me,” she said at last. Her eyes had that distance to them again, but now they had something else as well, something I recognized: rage. “They kept me…locked away. And I’m tired of it. I don’t want to go back to that, Silf. I don’t want to go to some village and, and marry some farmer and never see anything else ever again. There has to be more than that to life.” She closed her eyes tightly, her hands shaking more badly now. She laced them together, trying to control it, with moderate success.

 

I edged close and, very gently, touched her leg. She opened her eyes and jerked back as quickly as a startled rabbit, staring at me. There were unshed tears in her eyes.

 

“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll go to the city, and find something better. You’ll be all right.”

 

She smiled at me, her expression so grateful it was almost pitiful. If she hadn’t been who she was, and I hadn’t been who I was, I suspected that she would have hugged me. “Thank you.”

 

“Of course,” I said. “Now, I brought dinner, and then we should both get some rest. Have to be up bright and early tomorrow.”

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Interlude 1.z: Corbin

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I kept the smile on my face until Silf was out of sight. I thought it might be one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

 

Then I let my face fall, and sat down heavily, leaning against the tree behind me. The legionnaire–Sumi–sat down beside me, laying his crutches on the ground. He looked calm, almost peaceful–a great deal calmer, I expected, than I looked or felt.

 

There would be a great deal of work to do soon, and it would have to be done quickly. But first, I thought I was entitled to a moment for myself, to come to grips with what had just happened.

 

It wasn’t every day a man had to sign his own death warrant, after all. And for it to happen now, when I  had finally seemed to be safe, when I had finally told Silf the truth and her response hadn’t been the condemnation I’d expected after all, made the blow even more brutal. It was terribly, viciously painful, and a part of me wanted to just cry out in frustration at the sheer unfairness of it all.

 

But that wasn’t going to solve anything, and if I was going to sell my life, I wanted it to at least buy something worth the selling. So I bottled that immature frustration up, shoved it deep down inside, and then shrugged out of my pack. I placed the pack on the ground next to me and pulled open the flap, reaching inside. The pack itself was a simple traveler’s rucksack, the sort of large, heavy backpack which all sorts of travelers carried for long journeys. Inside, though, was a cavernous space, several times larger than what the pack should have been able to hold.

 

Folding space on itself was one of the most impressive pieces of alchemy, one of the things which caused the uninitiated to gasp when it was mentioned in stories, or to draw back with a shocked stare when they saw it in person. The irony of it was that it was actually very simple, as alchemy went, the geometry and technique very straightforward. Blackwater infused into silk, charged glass, and finely drawn silver wire, all folded through a simple four-dimensional polytope and stabilized with charged wolframite. The reason it was so rare had nothing to do with it being difficult; charged, purified wolframite was just hellishly expensive, and you needed exponentially more of it as the size you were warping grew. Expanding an entire room with it would be the sort of expense that probably only the emperor of Akitsuro could afford. A bag using those principles, though, was something that almost every veteran combat alchemist used. It was too damn hard to carry all your tools, otherwise.

 

I brushed my fingers over the contents, the jars and flasks and pouches. I tallied up what I had available, mentally working through how I could most usefully weaponize and deploy it in the narrow window of time I had remaining.

 

I’d always thought best when I had a deadline. It turned out that a literal one was no exception. My mind swiftly began drawing connections, pulling various things together and twisting them into place, arranging and rearranging at a million miles a minute. I fell so far into the diagrams and calculations that the world around me faded into the background by comparison. The aches and pains of the day, the worry and fear, the frustration, the dread, it all fell away.

 

It felt good. Fantastic, even. It had been so very long since I was presented with a really challenging project. I was good at this, once upon a time. One of the very best.

 

Finally, the picture in my mind’s eye was complete. I spent a moment surveying it, comparing lengths and angles, checking and rechecking my calculations. I changed a few things slightly where I’d made minor errors, where the system I was creating could be refined slightly, made more efficient, where slight vulnerabilities and exploits could be patched.

 

I would almost certainly have to adapt it. It was how things worked. Plans always had to be adapted to changing circumstances. But it was something to work from.

 

I blinked, refocusing on my immediate surroundings, and found that Sumi had moved. The legionnaire was standing beside me, leaning against the tree to balance without his second foot. His sword was drawn, hanging easily by his side.

 

I hadn’t even noticed him moving. It was why I had accepted his offer to stay and keep watch for me, why I would have asked for it if he hadn’t volunteered. I’d always had a tendency to sink so far into my calculations that I didn’t notice what was right in front of my face. It was a useful trait when I had to concentrate in the middle of a battle, but it also left me vulnerable when I was working.

 

Sumi noticed my shifting, and grunted. “Ready?” he asked.

 

I simply nodded, shouldering my pack. First, though, I took out a small vial of fire-oil. The clear, viscous liquid shifted slightly within the smoked glass, somewhere between oil and honey in its viscosity. Slightly thicker than what was normally used, slightly more concentrated. The vast majority of the time, what people thought of as fire-oil was actually cut with a relatively high proportion of regular oil. It stretched it further, and burned almost as well. This was diluted in that way as well, but not as heavily.

 

I placed the vial against the ground at the base of the tree, then took out a hand drill and carefully drilled through the stopper. I slid one end of a spool of cord through the stopper, down into the oil, and clipped it to the vial to make sure that it wouldn’t slide out. Then I hung the spool from my belt and began walking. Sumi sheathed his sword, grabbed his crutches, and followed me.

 

I didn’t go inwards, not yet. Time enough to go into the valley the ghouls had claimed later. For now, I would do the preparatory work outside of it.

 

As we walked in a slow circle around the valley, I stopped at irregular but frequent intervals to place another vial of oil down. Each of them had that specially prepared cord inserted into it, some of them using fresh spools and others splicing into one that was already running.

 

In many ways, this was the most delicate part of the entire process. Setting traps was always a delicate affair, as much art as science. When those traps were relying on a relatively imprecise type of fuse, it complicated matters further. Set the fuses too long, and they would be uselessly delayed. Too short, and they would trigger this ring before the ghouls were inside it.

 

That was unacceptable. For this to work, as many of the enemy as possible had to be inside before the outer ring of fires started. With luck it would trap many of them between the two fires and leave them to be burned to death with no escape. Without luck, it would at least trap and delay them long enough for the others to get far, far away.

 

Sumi was calm and silent as he watched me work. I could tell that he’d been around combat alchemists before. There was a degree of familiarity in how he watched me, a degree of understanding.

 

It took a while, to go all the way around the valley at enough of a distance to keep from alerting the things inside. We weren’t moving too quickly; Sumi was on crutches, I was concentrating on getting my placements right, and we had to stop frequently to place more of the fire-oil. Just as well; we didn’t want to draw the monsters in before the others got far enough away.

 

That was, after all, the point.

 

In this, if nothing else, I had to thank Hideo, or whatever his name really was. He’d had a rather gratuitous amount of the fire-oil with him, enough to leave the village of Branson’s Ford nothing more than a field of cinders. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that was to cover his tracks when he left, or because he knew that having that happen would destroy me. From what I’d seen of the Imperial agent, I was guessing both.

 

Now, though, it was serving a very different person, protecting instead of destroying.

 

There was enough of it to weave a very thorough web through the forest. Some of the vials were left lying against the trees’ roots, others up in the branches. A handful I very carefully opened and painted over the bark, or poured into the undergrowth. It wouldn’t burn on contact with air, not at this concentration. But having some of it already applied would help to ensure that the fire burned steadily, rather than in a single flash when the flasks lit off.

 

That was, of course, also the point of leaving the flasks full and stoppered. When the fire-oil caught it would expand too rapidly for the glass to bear, leaving it to shatter and spray flaming oil in all directions. Between that and the natural spread of fire in a forest, it would close off the gaps in the pattern rapidly.

 

Finally, we reached the tree we’d started at again. I checked the placement of the oil against my mental blueprints, confirming that there were no gaps, and then turned to Sumi. “Have to go inside for this,” I said, the first I’d spoken since sending Silf off with a lie and a smile.

 

He nodded. “There will be resistance inside,” he said. “We’ll have to work fast.”

 

“Yes,” I agreed simply. I glanced at the clockwork device I’d wound just after they left. It was designed to allow drops through it at regular intervals, allowing for the gradual and consistent addition of a liquid to a mixture. In a pinch, though, the amount by which it had wound down provided a decent estimate of time. “Seven minutes,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “That’s how long it will be until they’re far enough away for us to start.”

 

He nodded amiably, sinking down to rest again. His expression was pained. I couldn’t imagine how he had done all this with one leg. I had to respect him for that. It took one tough son of a bitch to do what he had done, let alone to do it while crippled.

 

“Why did you stay?” he asked, suddenly breaking the silence. “I couldn’t have made it out anyway, but you could.”

 

“I could have,” I said. “But they couldn’t.”

 

“And you’re willing to die for them?”

 

I was silent for a long moment. “They had a saying, where I grew up,” I said. “Back before it was annexed. ‘A man who has no one he would die for is not fit to live.'” I wasn’t talking about the villagers, and we both knew it.

 

Sumi didn’t pretend otherwise. “She seems like a good girl,” he said. “Strong. I’m sorry I won’t get to see her once she’s grown. She’ll be something great, I think.”

 

“If she makes it out,” I said.

 

“She will,” Sumi said, confidently.

 

“Do you really believe that?”

 

The legionnaire shrugged and grinned wryly. The expression made him look so much older, somehow. “I used to sit with the rookies before their first battle,” he said. “Every time. Seems near every one of them had someone they were worried about. Would their brother live, would their mother remember, would their lover be faithful, you name it. Every time, I told them it would be fine, even if I knew that the brother was in a unit that was going to be dead to a man by morning, and the lover was lying down with five other legionnaires in my century alone. You know why?”

 

“Because it gave them a reason to fight.”

 

“No,” he said. “Because you have to believe in something.” Sumi gestured with one hand, the motion somehow conveying the feeling of a shrug. “If they lived, they could turn things around. Do better. And if they died, well, at least they didn’t die feeling empty.” His expression turned deadly serious. “Sometimes people need to get better than what they deserve. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

 

I nodded thoughtfully. “She forgave me,” I said. I wasn’t sure quite why I was saying it, except that you had to talk to someone, sometimes. And what did it matter, anyway? We were both going to be taking this conversation to our graves. “That was…I never expected that. Not after what she went through. What I put her through. That forgiveness was…a gift I don’t think I deserved.”

 

Sumi’s eyes were piercing. “Anyone can forgive a person, I think,” he said. “But I reckon there’s only one that can really absolve you, and that’s yourself.”

 

I nodded. “I think…I think this might be my absolution,” I said. “This. Today. Not that you have to die to be absolved, I don’t think. But a long time ago, I made something that was supposed to help people, to protect them, and someone else turned it into something horrible. They used it to kill, to destroy so many lives. Now, today, I get to turn that around. I get to make it into something good again, I get to protect people. I get to save someone who was ruined by the consequences of my actions before.”

 

“There’s a fairness to that, I think,” the legionnaire said. “It isn’t right, but it’s fair. Balanced.”

 

I nodded again. “What about you?” I said. “Anything you need to talk on before we finish this?”

 

Sumi smiled wryly again and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Don’t have anyone left who’ll miss me, and there’s nothing I need to confess, either. Don’t get me wrong, I have my share of sins weighing me down, but I found my absolution a long time ago. I won’t say I’ve always done the right thing, but I’ve tried to do the fair thing. I did the best I could with what I had, and I made my peace with that. If I die today, I’ll die clean.”

 

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I glanced at my improvised watch instead. It said that we were a minute overdue for my estimated time. “Right,” I said. “Let’s roll.” There was a weight to the words, a finality.

 

Sumi nodded and stood, supporting himself with the crutches. I slung my bag over my shoulders, and took up my arbalest. I’d had the weapon ever since my Legion days. It had served me well, over the years. In a strange way I was more sorry that it was about to meet its end than that I was. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from bringing it with me, though. Letting it fall into the hands of these monsters would be…catastrophic.

 

We started into the valley, cresting the hill and continuing. We weren’t making a huge fuss about it, but we weren’t exactly being secretive, either. Attracting attention was, after all, the whole point of this endeavor. It would be silly to worry too much about being caught.

 

Still, I’d placed three of the interior detonation points before we encountered the first ghoul. I didn’t even realize it when we did, for a moment, being too busy notching a large, heavy jar of the fire-oil into fork between two branches. Any disturbance would make it fall, and break, splashing the contents over the grass and trees around it. When I turned around, Sumi was leaning on just one crutch, the other hand holding his sword. Said sword was buried two-thirds of the way to the hilt in the face of some vaguely froglike ghoul.

 

“They’ll know we’re here, then,” I said, unnecessarily. I hurried forward, reaching into deeper pockets of the bag, for things that weren’t so benign as fire-oil. At the next tree I took out a pair of small metal devices, a chisel, and a length of wire. I licked my lips nervously, and then started working.

 

Using another alchemist’s work was always a risky thing. Once you got beyond apprentice work, the lamps and iceboxes and such, every alchemist had their own style. The geometry, the folding, the ratios…hell, even materials could vary widely between one person’s work and another. It tended to produce odd quirks and idiosyncrasies of use, which were hard to predict if you weren’t familiar with the style.

 

Modifying another alchemist’s work, on the other hand, wasn’t just risky, it was outright foolish. Trying to patch one style of work into another, trying to use your own technique on someone else’s foundation, was an exceedingly difficult and delicate endeavor. It was the sort of thing best undertaken with great care, preparation, and a great many safety features and failsafes. I had a talent for it, and even so I wouldn’t normally dream of trying to modify a completely foreign working without at least a day of preparation.

 

I was reasonably confident that I knew what these two did, though, and I had very little to lose. So I quickly incised a set of glyphs which would provide a different track for the magic to take flowing through the devices, adjusting the geometry of the structure without fundamentally altering it. The length of charged wire I wound around one, touched to the other, and then pushed the end into the tree.

 

Once the improvised explosive was in place, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and turned around. I found three ghouls closing in, rapidly. Sumi was leaning on his crutch, sword in hand.

 

It was a simple weapon, that sword. Almost crude. A plain, straight sword, short enough to use without interfering with the person next to you. You could teach someone to use it in a matter of hours, and even masters tended to use mostly simple, brutal strikes.

 

It was easy to underestimate it as a result. I knew better.

 

As the first of the ghouls stepped in, I lifted my arbalest, quickly sighted along it, and fired. The bolt shot forth with awful speed, almost a blur, and slammed into the ghoul’s face, solidly between its eyes. The momentum of the projectile carried its head backwards, and its feet flew up in front of it as a result, leaving it to slam unmoving to the ground.

 

I’d always been a rather good shot. Nothing like a master arbalester, but I had very good coordination and an excellent grasp of trajectories. The skills transferred more than I would have guessed.

 

The next closed in before I could reload, lunging at Sumi. It had clearly identified the crippled man as the lesser threat.

 

It was quickly shown the foolishness of that view. He brought the crutch up in a sweeping motion, brushing its claw easily aside. It left him off balance, which he compensated for with the backswing of his sword, which opened the ghoul’s throat. Moments later, the next ghoul was struck twice with the tip of the crutch, expertly placed strokes to the throat and eye. It fell, moments before the legionnaire himself overbalanced and had to plant the tip of his sword into its chest to support himself.

 

It was an impressive display. No more so than many other legionnaires I’d seen, and less than some, but impressive nonetheless.

 

I didn’t bother saying anything as I hurried forward, grasping the staves of my arbalest and pulling them back. They came easily, pulling back until they clicked into place. In a bit of alchemy that I was inordinately proud of, the staves of the crossbow were stronger in one direction than the other, taking the force that should have been required to pull it back and instead adding it to the power transferred to the bolt when they sprang back. In combination with the alchemical engines augmenting the force of my pull, it was no harder to draw back the heavy steel staves than a moderately firm longbow.

 

I’d barely slotted the next bolt in when I had to fire it, launching the bolt into the chest of a strangely-shaped ghoul with scythes for hands.

 

That general pattern repeated itself several times over the next few minutes. Ghouls came, faster and faster and faster, and the two of us could barely clear them out long enough to buy me the space to work. I’d always done my best work under pressure, but now even I was pushed too far, forced to do fast work rather than good work. The geometry of my kludgy alterations to Hideo’s work was beyond clumsy, the materials only barely suitable.

 

At the fourth tree, there were half a dozen ghouls. Too many for us to reliably handle. Instead of jury-rigging another trap out of the other alchemist’s weapons, I simply threw a handful into the crowd.

 

Pressure triggers are the most common in alchemical weapons. They’re simple to use, unlikely to go off by accident, and easy to make.

 

This bunch of trinkets exploded with silent light. One of the ghouls shattered–kinetic force bound up in a spring structure, most likely. Another collapsed as the flesh in its legs melted and ran–something akin to an acid-based attack, probably using charged quicklime augmented with purified charged lye. Two more rippled strangely before collapsing with blood running from their ears–almost certainly a sonic resonance, targeting the delicate tissues of the brain and using a crystalline glass structure and slate. That last was actually clever.

 

The last two were quickly removed, and this time I used one of my own devices instead, a mixture of charged salts separated by a thin glass wall. Break the glass and the salts would mix, setting off a violent chemical and alchemical reaction which would burn rapidly and uncontrollably. It was a refined version of one of my earlier, failed attempts at fire-oil.

 

Half a dozen points later, we were at the keystone of my design. It was at the center of the valley, in the very heart of their territory.

 

It was a vile, disgusting place. The trees all around were covered in unnatural growths, tendrils of pulsating wet flesh growing all over them. The ground squished underneath our feet with a sick sound; ugly experience in the legions had taught me enough to know that it sounded like we were walking on exposed intestines. The air was moist, and thick with a heavy organic scent, somewhere between a birthing room and a slaughterhouse.

 

“This is the place,” I said. “It’ll take me a moment to set this up.”

 

Sumi nodded. His face was visibly strained, and he was starting to waver, barely able to stand. “Give me the bow,” he said, slurring slightly. “One of ’em got my wrist, can’t use the sword.”

 

I nodded and handed the arbalest to him without comment before kneeling. I reached into the bag, and then, very delicately, I drew out a cask.

 

This one was much, much larger than the vials I’d used before–where they had been the size of a single drink, this was a cask the size of a small keg. Made of heavy green-black wood, it weighed far more than its size would indicate, enough that I grunted with effort as I lifted it out of the bag. Part of that was the wood itself; lignum vitae was among the densest woods available to most folk. Much of the weight, though, was the contents, which were far more dense than the diluted fire-oil I’d used elsewhere in the trap.

 

For a long time, after the Whitewood, I hadn’t touched fire-oil. I’d nearly burned my notes on it, I had been so distraught at what it was used to do.

 

In the end, though, I was too much the alchemist to abandon the idea so easily. Fire-oil had been my creation, my great innovation, and even though just thinking of that made me sick now, I still couldn’t make myself entirely abandon it. Doing anything related to it made me feel like the weight of guilt burdening me was too great to bear, but there was a part of me that felt that I deserved to feel terrible. And so, over the years, I’d continued to refine the recipe, purifying and improving it.

 

This cask was the result. This fluid was to ordinary fire-oil what that substance was to the sort of oil harvested from olives. A drop of this thick golden syrup was enough to scorch someone to the bone; a vial would be enough to immolate them entirely.

 

And I had a keg of it.

 

I drew a dagger, the blade of which was high-quality steel augmented with a simple alchemical sharpening in charged copper, and slashed at the ground. The ground had a strange texture, somewhere between packed dirt and meat, and the sound it made when parting was more akin to the latter. With quick, hard strokes I chopped out a hole in the ground, using the fine blade like a shovel.

 

Before I could do more than that one of the ghouls tackled me from behind, dragging me to the ground. It clawed me across the back of the neck, opening a minor artery and ripping the muscle in my left shoulder. I managed to writhe around and stab it under the skull, the dagger sinking deeply into its brain. I shoved it off of me and stood, a bolt flying past my head into another ghoul’s chest as I did.

 

They were pressing in all around, now, too fast to clear out. I had to work fast, because if I wasn’t finished in the next few seconds this would all be for nothing.

 

Rather than drill carefully into the cask, as I would have preferred, I stabbed it with the dagger. Thick, golden fluid leaked out around the blade, barely visible in the darkness. I hadn’t even realized that it was getting dark, I’d been so focused on my work. I shoved the ends of the various fuses into the hole and then tossed the cask into the hole I’d dug, frantically pushing dirt back into place around it. The cask would be impressive enough on its own, but the explosion would be far greater if it were contained. Fire-oil didn’t require air to burn, but it still heated the air around it, and the resulting expansion if it were contained would be enough to level much of this valley.

 

I heard a sharp sound like breaking wood and I knew that my time had run out. I dumped my bag out onto the ground, hoping that some of the things still in it would trigger from the heat and pressure of what I was about to do, and grabbed one last vial of fire oil out of it. This one was rigged with a container that would spark when broken, setting off the contents.

 

Before I could stand again, I felt a sudden impact in my guts. At first I thought I’d been punched, and was merely out of breath. Then I felt the warmth running down my side, and realized that one of the ghouls had just stabbed me with my own dagger that I’d thrown aside in my hurry.

 

I looked up, and saw dozens of the things closing in all around. Sumi was standing, blade in hand. He parried a claw, slashed and just barely missed the throat of another monster, and then met my eye. His gaze was calm, serious, and peaceful.

 

Another ghoul came upon him from the side, reaching forward with a hugely oversized claw. It tore the legionnaire’s throat out, and he fell.

 

I stood, grinning, the flask in hand. I felt…clean. One of the ghouls came up behind me, reaching around. Its limb ended in a long, bony scythe.

 

“Come and get it, fuckers,” I said, tossing the vial hard at the bundle of fuses over the buried keg.

 

Some of the ghouls, perhaps getting more from their group intelligence than others, started to run. Others stood and watched. I watched with them as the glass shattered, the charged iron woven through the glass sparked, and the fire-oil caught.

 

The world burst into a bright, glorious rush of heat and light. I was grinning widely, staring up into the midnight sky, feeling clean for the first time in years.

 

Then I felt a burning on my neck, a wetness, and the world went away.

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Cracks Epilogue 1

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I sat in a room in an inn, in a city that never had mattered and never would. It was the nearest settlement of any size to what had once been Branson’s Ford, but I couldn’t bring its name to mind.

 

The inn had a name, as well, unlike the one Corbin had run. There had been no need to name it back there; it wasn’t like there had been another inn in twenty miles or more. This one was called some inane name, The Sickle and Sheaf or something of that nature. It was ridiculous.

 

I was eating dinner, a simple meal from the kitchen downstairs. It was a bowl of rice with bacon and mushrooms and a sweet sauce that made my mouth burn like it was on fire; a very southern dish, very Tsuran. I’d decided, after a few bites, that I liked it. That didn’t make me eat it any more quickly than my usual slow, jerky routine. The awareness that it was good was a distant one, on the level of abstract thought rather than visceral emotion.

 

I hardly reacted when Black came in and handed me a glass of water. It had the faintest trace of cloudiness to it, the barest suggestion of some other inclusion in the liquid. That, I assumed, was the drug, a delicate mix of alchemy and herbalism, distilled and blended with exacting precision. Black had been keeping me drugged for several days now, ever since I first woke up after learning that Corbin was gone. I didn’t entirely remember what I’d done, then. I remembered choking and running, fire pressing in on all sides and people everywhere running and screaming. They told me that wasn’t real, that the only reason people had been running was because I was a sobbing mess lashing out with magic and metal at anything around me. No one had been killed, but it had been a near thing, and then I’d slashed my own wrist open with a dagger.

 

Unsurprisingly, the people around me had deemed this undesirable.

 

I took the water eagerly, and tossed it back in one long swallow. The taste was slightly bitter, but I welcomed it.

 

It was easier to be drugged, right now. To be sedated, not so far as to lose consciousness, but enough to take the edge off the raw pain inside me. It was easier to handle it when everything was kept at one remove, wrapped in a thick layer of cotton gauze and held away from me.

 

“Are you eating all right?” Black asked, pushing the bowl of food towards me gently.

 

I shrugged and took another spoonful of the rice, then stared at it for a moment and set it back down. I was hungry–I could feel the hunger, gnawing at my guts, and I knew that this dish was appealing to my palate. But I had no appetite, no desire to actually eat it. The notion of actually chewing and swallowing it was revolting, enough to make me gag.

 

Black sighed. “The doctor looked at Livy,” she said. “The infection is gone, and that cut is starting to heal. It looks like she should be fine.”

 

I wondered if I should feel something at that. Happiness, anger, guilt, anything. It seemed like I should, but the actual reaction wasn’t there. Or, if it was, it was so numb and muted and distant that I couldn’t even tell what it was.

 

“Is there anything I can get you?” Black’s voice was gentle, but there was a touch of desperation to it, barely hidden beneath the calming surface. It was the sort of voice you used on someone who was standing on a high ledge, or had a dagger at someone’s throat. A person who might do something disastrous if you didn’t treat them just right.

 

I thought about it for a moment. And then, without really deciding to, I found myself answering her, the first time I’d responded to that question since we arrived at this inn two days earlier. My voice sounded distant to my ears, like someone else was speaking. The sound was barely a whisper, but it still sent a rush of pain through me, like dragging a rasp over raw wounds. I had damaged myself, screaming after Corbin died. Perhaps permanently; perhaps not. It could be hard to tell with the Changed.

 

“Juice would be good,” that voice said, and it was only after the words had left my mouth that I realized that they were true.

 

Black looked almost shocked, and then grateful. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and left the room once more.

 

I looked at the food and then raised the spoon to my mouth. It was delicious, the salty flavor of the bacon and the richness of the mushrooms contrasting with the bright sharpness of the sauce. It felt like chewing ashes, and I was almost sick as I swallowed.

 

Black returned a few minutes later with a tall glass of apple juice, fresh from the icebox; the glass was cold to the touch. She then went to sit on her bed, leaving me plenty of room.

 

There wasn’t much in the room; it was, certainly, nothing so extravagant as my rooms at the inn had been. Two small beds, one table, two chairs. Nothing else to speak of. At first I hadn’t cared, but after a few days cooped up in here the confines of this room were beginning to feel like a prison.

 

I raised the glass to my lips, and then found myself guzzling it as though I were drowning. It tasted like the most magnificent thing I’d had in years, the crisp flavor and gentle chill of it a balm on the ravaged flesh of my throat. Then I put it down, and my body heaved as though I was sobbing.

 

The next half hour or so passed uneventfully. Black worked on whittling a block of dark wood into a vaguely feline shape. I tried to eat, and stared at nothing for long moments in between bites.

 

The silence was broken by a knock on the door, two sharp taps spaced exactly one second apart. Black opened the door, and Marcus came in.

 

He and Aelia had both survived the flight from Branson’s Ford. Two out of four; better odds than the village at large. So few people had lived and made it here that I could remember each and every one of them. Black, Livy, Ketill, Samara, Otto and his son Renard. An adolescent girl named Rose who I hadn’t known before–her parents were hermits who were broken in the war, and wouldn’t allow her to visit the village. It didn’t matter now, since they were dead. Big Erik, who’d had an orchard and a field, and his wife Kari whom he’d brought back with him from a trip north to the Tears years ago. Small Erik, a boy who had been beginning to work as a lumberjack. Maria, a Tsuran woman who was startlingly handy with a bow and refused to talk about her past; I knew very little about her, since she kept to herself. Dagny, a refugee girl not so different from myself, even to the point of being Changed–though hers had a rather different manifestation, soft scales covering her skin and huge yellow eyes.

 

Twelve people. It seemed shockingly few, and yet at the same time extraordinarily lucky.

 

“I got the official response from Aseoto,” Marcus said as he walked in.

 

Black was so stunned that she forgot to close the door for several seconds, and I wasn’t far behind. Aseoto was far away, all the way down on the southern coast, and he’d only managed to find who he was supposed to report to this morning. It would take a fast messenger a week or more to get to the capital, and a comparable amount of time to get back.

 

“How?” Black said, voicing the question I was thinking.

 

Marcus shrugged. “Some alchemical invention they’ve come up with,” he said. “Can write something here and it shows up back at the capital. Too expensive to use most of the time, but it helps in an emergency. Anyway, the important thing is what the response is going to be. The emperor is dispatching the Fourth Skellish legion to deal with it.”

 

Apparently that phrase was supposed to have some sort of weight to it, from the way he paused to let it sink in. He might as well have saved his time, because both of us just stared at him. “Should that mean something to me?” Black asked at last.

 

He nodded. “The Fourth Skellish was the legion behind the attack on the Whitewood,” he said. “Third made up the backbone, but Fourth was the one that planned it, gave the order, and led the push in. After he found out about the attack, they say the emperor was so enraged by the destruction he almost had the whole legion decimated. But in the end he mostly only hit the officers, and repurposed the legion rather than disband it. Now they’re something of an elite force, lots of channelers and alchemical support. Especially fire. They’re the ones who get sent in when the throne wants something gone, burned to the ground and sown with salt.”

 

I barely heard the second part of what he was saying. I was too fixated on what Marcus had just casually said. The emperor hadn’t been the one to give the order to torch the Whitewood? Had actually been upset by it?

 

It had to be a lie. I just couldn’t see the reason for Marcus to lie about it.

 

“So they’re taking it seriously,” Black said.

 

Marcus nodded. “Very. The vanguard will be there in a few days, and then they have the full weight of a legion behind them. They’ll raze that whole section of forest to the ground. It’s over now.”

 

“Good,” I said, surprising myself a bit. Marcus looked at me, looking as surprised as I felt, and then nodded.

 

“There is one problem, though,” he said. “Apparently Hideo had some way of communicating with his superiors that we didn’t know about. He sent them his observations and guesses about how the ghouls were functioning. But he also sent something else. Something that apparently implicated a Changed girl of your description in his murder.” Marcus looked at me seriously.

 

I blinked in surprise. I had been expecting a lot of problems, but that wasn’t one of them.

 

“I won’t tell them,” Marcus said. His words had a weight to them, a sense of formality. “Not after what you did for us. But they’ll be looking for you, with or without me.”

 

“We have to leave, then,” Black said. “Get somewhere far enough away that they won’t find us.”

 

“Aseoto,” I said, taking myself off guard slightly. Not too much, though. I was feeling a bit more in touch with myself now, a little less blurry and disconnected.

 

They both looked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head. I flushed slightly, and then continued. “Not looking there,” I said. “And enough people to blend in. And….” I frowned, struggling to think of how to convey what I felt. That if Akitsuro had ruined my life, I wanted to at least see what it was all for. That going anywhere else felt like it would be running from that shadow over my life, and I was sick of running. That I remembered the awe with which Aelia had spoken of the city, the way Corbin had described the great alchemical workshops. That I’d had my fill of living in a ass-backwards village in the middle of nowhere.

 

In the end, I just shrugged, and hoped that they could understand, at least a little.

 

“She has a point,” Marcus said slowly. “They aren’t likely to be looking for her down there. This isn’t enough to merit a national alert; I’m guessing the order to bring her in will only be circulated through the local legions.”

 

“I can’t go with you,” Black said. “Not there. I’m wanted on sight. They’d string me up before I got through the gates.”

 

I nodded. I’d been expecting as much, given how much trouble she’d apparently caused them during the war. And besides, it had been inevitable. I’d heard as much from Ketill, from Corbin, even from Black herself. She never stayed.

 

“You’re sure about this?” she asked.

 

I nodded. “I’m sure,” I said, with more conviction than I really felt. It was already beginning to feel like a poor decision.

 

“All right,” Black said, with obvious reluctance. “I’ll start making arrangements, then. If you still feel the same after you’re healed, then…well, I suppose then you’ll go.”

 

I nodded, and stared at the table, and for a long time no one said a word.

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