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.”