She lay her head down on the table, wild dark hair soaking up spilled beer and mingling with the guacamole. “The problem with places that never close,” she said, her airy voice barely audible over the driving ranchero music of the cantina, “is that you can never go home.”
It has become a tradition for me to post my first night’s work here on the inaugural day of NaNoWriMo. This may not be all I write tonight, but it’s a good size for an excerpt.
Jaqi broke the surface with a gasp. “Four divers up!” Smokey called from the raft, his raspy voice carrying over the calm water. As Jaqi tread water, panting, she allowed herself a little smile. Last one up, again. Once the firefiles cleared from her vision and her breath slowed down she turned and swam to the raft, where her friends were already being pulled aboard. She passed her arm through a hoop welded to one of the steel barrels that foemed the floats of the raft, and waited until someone could pull her up. It would have been an easy climb, had she not just spent four minutes holding her breath.
After a few seconds Aaron’s sunburned arm reached down and she took his hand and let him pull her up.
“Madre,” she said, and laid down on the sun-hot planks, feeling the heat of the sun on her skin. Someone handed her a tin cup with fresh water. Aaron had retreated to the sheltered section of the raft, heavy canvas supported by a steel frame cast half the raft into shadow impenetrable to her light-adapted eyes, but she could hear the children in there, doing their lessons with white-haired Annabelle, while young, gangly Alex no doubt watched over the cook fire. In the sun to her left Big John cursed steadily while fussing over one of the guy lines that held the mast in place.
“Anything?” Smokey asked. His dark hair was showing gray now. He had never been a big man, but now it seemed like a puff of wind would carry him back to his home in Cuba. He had threatened to pilot the whole raft there, one of these days, but Jaqi had heard that they were shooting new refugees there now. Sparrow said they were eating them, but Sparrow said lots of things.
Jaqi shook her head. “Fuckin’ South Beach,” she said. She sat up and looked down at the water, reading the gentle waves as they revealed where buildings stood below the surface. To the east, the rolling waves from the Atlantic broke over a reef that had once been the hotels and night clubs that lined Ocean drive, now just a jumble of broken, twisted beams and slabs of concrete breaking the surface, discolored by a slick layer of algae.
On the other side, the towers that lined Alton Road had also fared poorly when Henrietta had struck, the storm surge toppling two while undermining the rest. The Icon still stood, damaged when the Murano Grande went down, but only a few crazies lived there, distilling the brevetoxins from red tides into a substance they called “Brevelicious.” What they didn’t consume themselves, they sold to the archipelago. Sparrow knew a couple of them, he even said he’d spent the night there once, but Sparrow said a lot of things. At night the screams of madness from the Icon carried over the water for miles, while lights flashed wildly only to go abruptly dark
Jaqi lay back down, her black braid still dripping onto the deck. “Everything’s collapsed down there,” she said. “Your fuckin’ wine bar is gone, acere.”
Smoky looked up along the darker blue stretches that announced a streets lay below, forming a neat grid. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said.
Javy stood and spit over the side, his brown skin perfect in the sun, his lean frame starting to fill out with muscle. He almost caught Jaqi looking at him. “Either someone got it already or all the bottles are broke. There’s nothing left this close to the towers,” he said. “Fucking scuba dipshits were all over this.”
“We got time for another dive?” asked Jaqi.
Aaron frowned and looked at his phone. “Satellite says weather’s comin’ in.”
“Don’t look like it,” Javy said, making a show of inspecting the horizon.
Smokey shook his head. “Those are the worst ones. Barometer?”
“Dropping,” Aaron said. “But not much yet.”
“One more dive,” Jaqi said. She hated coming up empty-handed.
“You haven’t had time to recover from the last one.”
“I’ll make it a short one,” she said. “We’ll be heading for the towers in five minutes.” Already she was taking deep breaths, hyperventilting to fill her blood with oxygen.
Smokey sighed. “Anyone else want one more?”
Javy shrugged. “Sure.”
“You just said there was no point.”
He shrugged again.
Rosa said, “Fuck it,” and took her t-shirt off. Jaqi watched Javy watch Rosa adjust her bikini top. Jaqi busied herself with her fllippers and her mask. Short dive. The building she had tried to find a way into her last time down might have had retail space on the bottom floor. If she went straight at it, found an opening, there might be something worthwhile inside.
“Three divers,” Smokey said. “Get ready.”
Jaqi moved to the edge of the raft, and fiddled with her own one-piece suit, almost dizzy from the oxygen in her blood, but still breathing hard.
“Divers go,” Smokey said, and Jaqi dropped from the edge of the raft into the cloudy tropical water.
A setting for a story: Miami 2049. Shining towers rise from the sea, a glass archipelago. On the lower stories, buffeted by the sea, glass has been replaced with stout timber, purchased from the mainland, but higher up the old glass still gleams. If you look closely you will see missing panes here and there; in Miami, breaking a window isn’t just bad luck, it’s reason for exile.
Some of Miami’s towers have have fallen in the storms; others still stand tall, each a city-state.
All around them, the sea. Once teeming with fish, perpetual algae blooms have robbed the water of oxygen. All that’s left is algae and whales that eat algae. Suddenly-prosperous whales seem more organized than they used to be.
Algae is the blood of this place. Each building has a small fleet of algae harvesters, plying seas once rich with fish to provide protein for the starving masses on the mainland, now 100 miles away and receding. Protein is worth a premium, and what is left of Miami is prosperous.
Below the surface are streets still clogged with cars, and drowned shopfronts where once was sold for a premium things which have no value now. Gadgets and fancy clothes. Two stories up, piers extend from the glittering city-buildings, providing a place to load cargo, but offering no shelter from the all-too-frequent storms. It is widely accepted that once ocean temperatures find a new equilibrium that the storms will return to the relatively benign level of fury known in the 20th century and before, but the people of Miami have learned not to wait for that to happen.
The buildings’ bosses can efficiently control access, both at the piers and in the stairwells. Socially, building-states are insular, with two exceptions: There is a complex system of taboos governing sex and enforcing the exchange of women between buildings, and there are some tradesmen, primarily doctors and merchants, who can move between the buildings relatively freely. Of course, wherever they go, they are quizzed about the other buildings, but the smart ones know that those who tell tales won’t be in business long.
Out on the sea the algae harvesters have their own society, quite distinct from the structure in the archipelago. While the harvesters are not completely separate from the building-state rivalries back home, they have their own ethical code while out on the sea. Because of the wealth they bring, they have a level of autonomy other citizens do not.
There is still enough tech that they know when storms are coming. It has been a couple of years since a building toppled, but the possibility is real – though the greatest risk was when the surf lapped at the buildings’ foundations.
When a building falls, the city pulls together to save the victims. And if your building rescues particularly valuable citizens, all the better. Spoken out loud is a strict ethical code regarding helping a drowning neighbor, but some building-states might not honor the intent, even while they honor the letter.
So there’s a setting, one I rather like. If someone were inspired to use that setting for a story, I’d be right pleased.
Time makes no sense when the world is ending before your eyes. We stood, watching, helpless, as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could burn was consumed until not even ash remained. The captain held his men back and held back his own tears. After a while the horror exhausted us and we were just a group of empty shells, staring down on the destruction. Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat remained mounted, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.
Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said. The captain looked up at her, startled, his eyes empty. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.
I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.
Finally it was over. The land around us was released from its unnatural twilight, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to draw water from the river, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.
The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”
“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.
“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.
“I think that would be unwise,” I said.
The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”
“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”
He looked at me with narrowed eyes.
“That was for us.”
He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”
I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”
Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted between slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.
And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. As we walked I flipped a piece of wood between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping them moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.
The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same for myself.
We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.
Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.
We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.
The air was heavy with the smell of cooked meat and the astringent smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brower’s Landing would face a host of new problems. But, cooked as they were, the bodies would be slow to ripen.
We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind reluctant horses.
“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.
I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.
I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair, teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.
My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.
The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a slave in the pits of hell. I took off my shirt, tore it up, and wrapped a sleeve around each of my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities. Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.
The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the heat of the stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen stone to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.
I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, shifting world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive.
I stepped off my rock. The rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, someone who could change the weather was on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face.
Other rescuers would be here soon. If I was to gain anything from my head start, I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.
Even a simple plan — say, perhaps, “reach the outpost by nightfall” — is subject to the whims of cruel and capricious deities whose stature is raised when a working man curses.
The captain of the squad of soldiers who were our captors was building those gods a citadel with his angry words with every step we took. Brewer’s Ford was not far, a reasonable goal even though one of the party on foot had recently been beaten badly. Yet, as the day progressed we seemed to draw no closer.
First there were the signs of a poacher’s camp. We stopped, and the men around me prepared to approach the camp. But on this day one rider, a gruff man named Smalls who seemed to be part bear, tumbled from his horse and broke his arm. While some went to his aid the rest found that that camp was long cold. The sun was sinking toward the horizon by the time Smalls was back on his horse, and soon after that another horse threw a shoe and then it was a farmer’s cart broken down blocking a bridge. We could have forded the stream, but the captain was responsible for safe commerce. So we stopped and helped the old man get rolling again.
There may have been other delays I have failed to catalog; it was a slow and frustrating day. Frustrating for the captain because had an important job to do, and for me because I wanted to see little Elena protected from the Soul Thieves. But, despite our best wishes, when night stole over the land there were still many miles to traverse. The captain wanted to push into the night, but heavy clouds rolled in, until I could see no farther than I could spit. We had no choice; we made camp.
Another fireside knife lesson for Elena. She followed my instruction with uncanny focus, eager to move from stick to sharpened blade. At the end of an hour, I relented. I asked Wingles to give her my fish knife, a slender blade sharp only on one side, delicate in the same way Elena was delicate. Deadly delicate. After the lesson Wingles took the knife and we curled up together near the dying fire. We had no tent, but the soldiers had given us a heavy tarp we could pull over ourselves if the clouds turned to rain. She snuggled in next to me to share warmth, and for a moment I felt at peace.
The air was heavy and still, and carried sound well. Around the camp I heard the three sentries move, and breathe, and snuffle. Between the spits and cracks of the dying fire I heard the creatures of the forest as they moved around us in the night, some curious, some wary. The fire’s smoke hugged the ground and I heard some of the company snort and sneeze in their bedrolls. A perfectly ordinary night.
“Do you think I can be as good as you, someday?” Elena whispered.
“Better, I hope.” I think she understood because she didn’t ask any more questions.
The next morning, the clouds were a distant memory as the sun sparkled the morning dew. We ate a swift, unsatisfying breakfast of hard bread and cured meat, the soldiers decided who was to have the honor of carrying Elena for the next hour, and we set out, covering ground much more quickly than we had the day before. It was just before noon when we broke from the forest on a ridge over the flood plain and saw the outpost ahead.
What the captain called “the outpost” turned out to be a rather large military installation. I hadn’t been to Brower’s Ford in several years, and in that time the fortress had been expanded and the garrison greatly increased. It seemed that the King had decided to be more than just the titular lord of the north. The lands of the north were not as empty as they first appeared, and either the king or someone who whispers in his ear had decided that it was time for those folks to start paying taxes.
The fortress itself squatted on the banks of the Artles river, just north of the town, where the lazy water made a gentle turn in its easterly journey, dodging an outcrop of black rock that served as the foundation for the fortress. Some time in the distant past a channel had been dug to divert part of the river around the other side of the rock, giving the fortress a moat. While the outcrop was too small to support a castle of any real significance, the modest structure was impressive in its own way. Three stubby towers anchored a wall that followed the contours of the native stone, broken only by a stout gate wide enough for two horsemen. The bridge across the moat was wooden, and no doubt could be demolished in moments should the need arise.
The plain at the foot of the fortress was busy with human activity. I could recognize the stables even from a mile away, as well as other stone and wood buildings that appeared to be barracks, a smithy, and livestock pens. The fortress had outgrown its perch, it seemed.
Surrounding fortress and town were fields green with grain blowing in waves with the gentle breeze, fed by the rich soil of the river valley. Hedgerows separated the fields, the boundaries following a logic that I could not decipher.
When we came into sight of the fort, Katherine stopped. Bags pulled up his horse as well, and the rest of the party eventually followed suit. The captain turned back on his horse to see what the problem was.
“I’m not going in there,” Katherine said.
“You are my prisoner, your grace,” The captain said.
“I surrendered on the condition that you take me directly to the King. Is the king in there?”
“No, your grace.”
“Then I will not go there, either.”
“I must report to my commander, your grace. It is he who will see to your escort down to Langifer.”
“Langifer? What the hell is the King doing there?” Katherine asked. I was curious as well. Langifer was a capable military fortress, but away from any large city it lacked the amenities the king was rumored to enjoy.
“When last I heard, the king was en route to Langifer to confer with his liege lords in the south.” The captain shrugged. “Of course that news is weeks old now. Commander Harrick will know more, and will see to your escort.”
“Harrick. He’s in charge here?”
“Yes, your grace.”
Katherine considered a moment before speaking. “He hated my husband, and respected my father. I almost trust him.”
The captain looked relieved. “Then —”
“Almost. Once we’re inside those walls, it becomes much easier to forget promises made by underlings out in the woods somewhere.”
“I assure you, you grace, that the commander is a man of honor, as am I.”
They continued to argue, but I stopped listening. Something was happening to the sun. I looked around as it began to feel like twilight, though it was midday. The sun was just… dimmer. Down on the plain, a horse cried out. It was dimmer yet where I stood, but the castle on the rock below was lit so brightly I could barely look at it. As the world got darker, the fortress began to shine so brightly it seemed to be lit from within.
The commander and Katherine stopped their argument. A shout floated up to our position, then another. Suddenly, the air was filled with shouts and screams and smoke began to rise from behind the stone walls. On the plain at the base of the castle walls, buildings, crops, animals, and people all caught fire. Some rushed for the river, few made it.
Nearby an evening bird chirped as the day dimmed into night and the temperature dropped. I had to turn my eyes from the blinding furnace on the plain, and trails streaked across my vision as the image of the burning castle was seared into my eyes. More shouts, more screams, the animals and the humans no longer distinguishable.
A roar, and a blast of hot air on my face forced me to turn my gaze back toward the fortress, to try to peer between my fingers as I hid my eyes behind raised hands. In my distorted vision it was as if the stone itself was burning. I turned away again. In the town, a bell began to toll, calling men to action. But what could anyone possible do?
Elena found me and latched onto my hand. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What the fuck is happening?”
I shook my head, but it took me several moments to find a word. “War,” I said.
Kat looked shocked. “I shall submit to no such abuse!”
The captain did not rise to her ire. “You have surrendered, your grace.”
“What about him?” She jabbed an angry finger my direction. “You have no idea how much cutlery he’s hiding.”
The captain looked pained and turned to me, shaking his head slowly. “You heard her,” he said to one of his men. “Apparently this gentleman has some other weapons. Make sure the only one here who can kill a soul thief is unarmed.”
Katherine stood, white-lipped, as she was relieved of her weaponry, and I of mine. Bags gave up his glittery sword and his hunting knife, but no one present considered him defanged.
I cooperated, giving up one blade after another, until I was naked for the second time in as many days. The soldier handled the blades with respect, pausing over the black blade. Traces of wizard blood clung to the base of the blade. “Beautiful,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Old friend. There’s another out there somewhere.”
“Hopefully she’ll find her sister someday.” He was a big kid, angular, with a sideways smile and a crooked nose. I had been planning to kill him hours before.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“I like you, Wingles.”
He gave a half-shrug, not sure how to take that.
“Take good care of these,” I said. “And if the world goes sideways, maybe you can help them back into my hands.”
“I can’t do that, sir,” he said as he nodded yes.
I smiled, but already that naked feeling was growing in my gut. “Well, I had to try.”
“All right, then,” the captain said. “Let’s move.”
And so I walked, the mounted patrol matching their pace to mine. Elena was on a horse always, riding behind the soldiers each in turn, entertaining them and worming her way deeper under their skins. They had already faced death for her once, and they would welcome the opportunity do it again.
The Captain’s plan was simple: travel some fifty miles to the outpost the soldiers called home, deposit the corpse of the man I had most recently killed, get more horses and men, and proceed on to Sky City to allow Katherine to face the King’s justice. I was confident that none of the prisoners in the group, myself included, had any intent to meet the king, but I was willing to follow long enough to see Elena under the King’s protection.
We covered about half the distance to the outpost on the first day, and once more I sat by the fire as the soldiers made camp with unthinking efficiency. I found myself next to the captain.
“I wonder,” I said.
He smiled. “This should be good.”
“I was thinking that I should teach Elena the basics of the knife.”
He thought for a moment. “I can’t let you have a blade.”
“But she can have one. She needs to be able to defend herself.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I think half my men would follow her orders instead of mine right now.”
I smiled. “She does have a way about her. Still, I’d feel better if she knew how to use a blade without hurting herself.”
The captain mulled for a moment and nodded. “All right. But you don’t touch the knife. Ever. You’ll be strictly supervised.”
“I want to use the black knife,” Elena said. Of course she had been listening in.
“We will start,” I said, “With a stick. Tomorrow, if you do well, we will use a simpler knife. The dark one…” I took a breath as I allowed that it might even be possible. “You will have to earn that.”
I expected protest, but she was watching me carefully. I wondered what she saw. “I will earn it,” she said. “Let’s find some fucking sticks.”
When Kat finally cornered me after the lesson she didn’t seem concerned that anyone in the camp could hear us. “That wasn’t the first soul thief you killed,” she said. She’d been waiting a long time for this conversation, and I have to admit that after avoiding it for so long I was hooked by her opener.
“No shit?” I asked. I hope historians see fit to make my words more clever.
Kat rolled here eyes “No shit, Martin. If you spent a little more time with your eyes open, you’d know that.”
A petty jibe. An attempt for high ground in the coming debate. But false. My eyes are always open when I kill someone. “You husband, then?” I asked. After all, he was the only other one I’d killed that she had known.
I couldn’t remember her ever smiling before. “Don’t make me laugh. The baron was a boy playing in the games of men.”
“And women,” I said.
She paused, and her smile came back, a little different. “And women. But no, my dearly departed husband was not a Soul Thief. It was Bags who figured out who you are.”
Who I was, to the best of my knowledge, was a smaller-than-average man who was physically and emotionally well-equipped to solve my problems by cutting people open. When I had money I was rather unpleasant to be around. None of those characteristics is terribly unique. Nothing that makes “who I am” terribly interesting.
“You are known to the Shadow Thieves,” Katherine said.
“And how do you come to know this?” I asked.
“Bags has done some work for them in the past. So have you.”
Many of my employers over the years had gone to lengths to preserve their anonymity, so now that the existence of the Soul Thieves was incontrovertible, it was certainly possible that they had hired me before. But I don’t as a rule kill my employers. Bad for business.
“They called you the Gray Man,” Bags said, sitting on my other side. “I wouldn’t have heard about you, but your last job for them caused a shit-storm.”
“What’d he do?” Elena asked, injecting herself in the conversation.
“There was a power struggle going on. The wizard I took my orders from hired the gray man to eliminate one of his rivals,” Bags said. He turned to me with his gap-tooth smile. “I was unemployed soon thereafter. At least for the moment, all the other Soul Thieves agreed on something. My master had crossed a line.”
“And you think I’m the gray man?”
Bags nodded slowly. “I do.”
“I don’t remember killing any wizards.”
“You took something from him. The stiletto you keep strapped to your wrist. I didn’t see it until we were in Mountain Forge. That’s when I knew.”
Unconsciously I rubbed my forearm where the knife should have been. It was true that I had relieved it from a man who would not be needing it any longer. He’d been a big man, well-muscled, with hair cut to a rough stubble, sleeping in a run-down hostel surrounded by others down on their luck. He hadn’t seemed very wizardly, whatever that meant. It was entirely possible that the man I’d killed had been the gray man, but there didn’t seem much point chasing that idea any further. My comrades had made up their minds. “And that’s when Kat started trying to get me to join you.”
Kat snorted. “That’s when I knew I’d succeed.”
Elena jumped forward and sat on my knee and put one arm around my neck. “He’s with me,” she said. “You two can fuck yourselves.”
Bags laughed and tousled her hair. “Things like this don’t happen by chance,” he said. “Someone wants us together. Someone whose wishes come true.”
I looked up at the stars, hard and unblinking in the cold mountain air. “They’ll kill him,” I said, softly.
Elena whispered, “Mrkl? The blacksmith?”
I nodded in the darkness.
“You’d slice open all these soldiers, even after they gave us food, to protect him?”
I nodded again, after a short pause. “He’s my friend.”
“Maybe he can get away,” she said.
“Traveling with an anvil is slow.”
Silence for a few moments. “You’re in no fuckin’ shape to take on nine of them.”
“I have to try.”
“Please,” she said. “There has to be another way. What fucking happens to me when they fucking kill you?”
If it was anyone besides Mrkl I might have listened. “They won’t kill me,” I said, and sat up to look around.
The camp lay in stillness. I could see seven forms wrapped in their bedrolls, leaving two others. A simple plan is the best kind. Find the two on watch, kill them silently, then cut seven throats. I inhaled to test my ribs. Adequate.
I almost cut myself when Elena screamed. “In the woods! In the woods! They’re out there!”
Well-trained men rose from their beds with weapons in hand. Elena continued to scream, her voice high and cracking with panic, which added to the confusion in the campsite. The captain’s words finally cut through Elena’s piercing cries, and the camp was mustered and ready.
“Where?” asked the captain.
“Out there,” Elena said, pointing into the darkness. “They’re coming!”
I put my arm around her, acting the way I imagined a father might. “It’s all right,” I said, and things like that, hoping my anger was not visible to the soldiers around us. I would have done the same thing in her shoes, I knew, but she was going to cost my friend his life.
As the soldiers mustered, three people stepped out of the forest.
“Oh,” Elena said. “Oh.” Her grip on my sleeve tightened.
I had not heard them approaching, and I hear everything. The red glow of the embers in the fire ring painted their white robes the color of blood. The one in front, apparently the leader, was an older man, his gray beard long and tangled. On his left a woman watched us with hard eyes, her mouth set in a permanent frown. Her hair was pulled back so tightly I thought it must hurt. On the old man’s right a younger man stood, clean-shaven and fair-haired, perhaps my age if years meant the same to them as they do to us. He, at least, seemed to find some humor in the situation.
“State your business,” the captain of the soldiers said.
The woman spoke. “We are here for the girl,” she said.
The soldiers shifted, tense and ready to defend their foul-mouthed little mascot. “She is under out protection,” the captain said.
The younger man chuckled while the woman said, “Recent events suggest the reverse is true.”
I stood, slowly, prying Elena’s fingers off my arm. “She is under my protection also,” I said.
The old man spoke for the first time. “She is in no need of protection.”
There was no answer for that. I stood before the Soul Thieves, a tiny piece of metal in each hand, aware that I was probably going to die, for a promise I had made only hours before.
“Stand down, sir,” the captain said to me. His sword was in his hand. “No one will take your girl while I have anything to say about it.” He stepped between us and the visitors, and his men fell in with him. “You are trespassing on the holdings of Lord Fairmont,” he announced. “Surrender yourselves and we will escort you to Mountain Forge. If you cooperate there will be no further proceedings.”
“I am afraid, then,” the old man said, “that there must be further proceedings.” He stepped back as the other two stepped forward. The woman gestured, and with a cry that came from deep in her gut she sent a shock through the camp that slammed into my body with the force of a tornado. For a moment there was nothing but thunder — no sight, no smell, no touch of the ground through my boots, just a sound that filled me and broke me and the taste of metal in my mouth. Then it was over and I was lying on my back, blood streaming from my nose, my ribs on fire once again. And I was angry. I stood, cleared my vision, remembered how to breathe, and looked at the Soul Thieves.
The old man was talking again, but my ears weren’t working. I discovered I still had my knives. The woman gestured again but I shouted right back, leaning into the shock until I was almost parallel with the ground, my feet dug in against the log that had once been my seat. The shock passed over me — through me — and I regained my feet. I stepped over the prone form of a soldier and was peripherally aware that the captain was moving, but only slowly.
I am, I like to believe, an even-tempered fellow, not ruled by my emotions. I have been in love two times and shall not be again. In my life, I have been angry four times. The first was when I was very young, before my mother trusted me with even the most mundane of blades, and resulted only in a small fire. The second time I was angry marked the end of my second love. That night, at the campfire, being pummeled by wizards who wanted to take my friend, was the third.
The fourth — well, if you haven’t heard the legends already you will just have to wait for me to get to it. The stories aren’t terribly accurate anyway. But now let us return to the night the Soul Thieves came for Elena. The third time I was angry.
As I staggered forward the shaft of an arrow appeared in the older man’s chest. He looked at it in surprise as another arrived from somewhere out in the darkness. Kat had found us as well, it seemed. He staggered, steadied himself, and knocked the third shaft away with a gesture, smiling with teeth stained red by his own blood.
Another shock slammed into me but I was having no more of that. I was having no more of any of this. I set my teeth and pushed forward, aware of pain but only as a curiosity. This is the power of the white rage that consumed me. I was not immortal, but I was the next best thing: my own mortality meant nothing to me. I smiled to answer the old man, and I saw him falter. As I lunged forward the younger wizard put himself between me and my prey and I put one blade in his gut and the other in his throat and wandered though his life with both. His blood splashed over me and it was glorious.
The woman said something in a language I didn’t know and light hit me, so bright it threatened to blind me through my closed eyelids. But anger ruled me and I didn’t care if I never saw again; I rose and rushed toward the source, swinging my blades in front of me wildly, unconcerned with whose flesh they found as long as they cut someone. I heard a cry and darkness returned and I shouted in triumph. At that moment I was little more than a knife with a human body attached — sharp, unbreakable, eternal, a simple object created only to kill.
But force of will can only carry one so far. While my eyes were still nearly useless they hit me, the force of the impact doubling me over, and in my own tiny world I flung my blades about with a prayer to gods I knew didn’t exist that I might draw blood. And they hit me again, from the inside, and I felt my guts getting mixed up and if I wasn’t helpless before I certainly was then. As vision returned I found myself on the forest floor, unable to close my eyes as mud packed into my left eye, while my right struggled to focus on a frond of moss clinging to a rock red with blood. My whole world at that moment. The anger slipped away from me, back into the dark place where it lurked.
Eventually I realized that no one was trying to kill me anymore. Good thing, because I was pretty close to dead already. A hand touched my shoulder. A big hand. Bags.
“You all right?”
I wasn’t ready to speak but I managed to cough. A feeble cough.
He lifted me into a sitting position and next thing I knew water was splashing into my eye, clearing out the mud, leaving only enough grit to be irritating. I managed to blink, managed to croak, and finally managed to speak.
“I’m here.” Her small hands wrapped around one of mine. “I’m here.”
“Good.” I tried to put together my surroundings. “Did we… win?”
“You killed a soul thief.” That was Kat’s voice, a safe distance away.
“Huh,” I said.
“They’re not going to like that,” Bags said.
“We won,” Kat said. “You won. But it’s only the beginning.”
I opened my sore and scratchy eyes. The sun was dragging its sorry ass up over the eastern horizon, turning the sky pink. Bags and Elena watched me carefully, and I made a wish of my own that someday Elena could go a day in my presence without crying.
Beyond them, a shambles of a camp. The soldiers of the patrol, the five standing anyway, formed a rough ring around us. Their armor was dented and stained with blood, their faces bore the signs of abuse, but if anything they were more dangerous than they had been before. When you are given a chance to be a coward and you decline, you become a different person.
The captain crouched next to me. “Glad to see you moving.”
“Is anything you told me true at all?”
I pulled myself into a sitting position and Elena rushed to help, latching on to my upper arm. “The part about the berries,” I said. “That was true.”
“And the Soul Thieves want her?” He glanced at Elena.
“That was unexpected,” I said.
“I told you we had to go farther,” she said.
“Fuck me,” the captain said. “Soul Thieves. Never thought I’d actually see one. Didn’t really think they existed at all. Then the king puts out a bounty on the bastards and not a week later I’ve got three of them in my camp.”
“There’s a bounty?”
“Yeah. But good luck collecting it.” He sighed heavily and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m in an awkward position here. Your friends are fugitives. You knew that.”
“Then there’s the girl. If the Soul Thieves want her, then the King will very much want them to not have her. I don’t think I can protect her. And you saw what those arrows did to the old man. Right in his heart and he barely noticed. But you killed one. Which puts you in a position to be a very good friend of the king, were it not for the company you keep. Tell me the truth. Are you the third one we’re looking for?”
“He’s not,” Elena said.
I liked the captain. He seemed bound by honor, which is an annoying trait in any man, but he was straightforward and at least somewhat pragmatic. “I’m the only one you’re looking for,” I said. “I killed the baron. You can let the others go.”
“The baroness must answer to charges of treason.”
Elena whipped her head around to stare at Kat. “She’s a fuckin’ baroness? I just thought she was a bitch.”
Katherine frosted. “‘Hostage’ would have been a more accurate title,” she said. “And I am not a traitor.”
The captain shook his head and stood. “That’s not for me to decide, your grace.”
I managed to pull myself to my feet. The world spun a time or two before coming to rest; I was leaning heavily on Elena. My tunic was caked with deep red mud. “You’re in no shape to fight those two,” I said, gesturing to Bags and Kat. “Not after the beating you all took last night. Take the victory you can. You’ve got the man who cut the baron’s throat, the body of a Soul Thief, and Elena, whom the King will want protected.”
The captain considered, and nodded. “I place you under arrest in the name of the King,” he said. “Please surrender your weapon.” He was very careful to emphasize the singular.
“We surrender also,” Kat said. “On the condition that we are taken directly to the capital.”
I looked at Katherine in dismay. She smiled. “You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?”