Tag Archives: jewel machine universe

Weekly Free Short Story – Brother’s Shadow

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Brother’s Shadow

17th Day of Honesty, 737 EU

Who am I?

A shadow?

He flexed his fingers, studying them in the light from a nearby diamond street lamp. The fingernails were chipped, dirt forming dark stains beneath the beds, the cuticles gouged in spots. They were slender, possessing a certain dexterity about them. His shoulders rolled and he bent his knees. Familiarity grew and grew in him. The clothing fit. The boots were comfortable, laced up tight. They were worn and scuffed, like the rest of his clothing. The trousers had frayed hems and were belted with a length of gray rope. Extra pockets, weighted with tools, were sewn down the thighs. A stained shirt, mended in several places, spilled over his lanky frame.

He nudged the dead man’s naked foot behind the refuse bin resting in the alleyway, hiding it from the main road. He straightened his back and nodded in satisfaction. Everything felt in place. The fight had been swift.

Over.

“Phred!” a voice hissed from the other end of the alley.

That’s who I am. Phred.

Phred turned and smiled to the even skinnier figure, a youth hovering between boyhood and adulthood, standing at the alley’s mouth. The newcomer had the same bulbous nose, readily identifying the pair as brothers. Their builds were the same: tall and lanky, their hair the same dirty-brown, though the younger had a lock of pure gold curling in the middle, a memento of their mother.

“Thought you might have bungled it,” Phred said, sauntering through the alley without a care of the dead person being noticed. “How long does it take to start a fire?”

“Not as long as it took you to give Cerine a tumble behind the Plucked Rooster last night,” said the younger brother. Nayton flashed a toothy grin.

Phred returned it. “Well, she’s a wet thing, ain’t she? Knows how to get a man’s seed flowing right quick.” He ruffled his younger brother’s hair. “One day, you’ll learn that. Have her callin’ out to the Colour of Virtue.”

Nayton scowled and stepped out of reach. “You know I’ve tumbled my share.”

“When you pay, it don’t count, little rooster.” Phred stretched his back. “So, we clear?”

“You shoulda seen those Gas House boys racin’ to save their favorite brothel. We got our opening.” The Gas House Gang worked in the heart of Kash. If they caught a pair of Roosters strutting in their territory, they would split the brothers’ heads open.

Especially considering their business in the prosperous district this night.

Phred nodded. “Then let’s yank out their short hairs.”

Phred sauntered down the dark street with a boldness. The cobblestones of the great city of Kash gleamed from the rain that had swept through an hour before. The air still held that oily tang clinging to it. He whistled as he walked, his younger brother racing to catch up.

They were burglarizing tonight.

It was a scheme Phred had been working on and off again for the better part of a year. Braffan Dacerin’s strongroom bulged with gold and gems. The merchant made his wealth importing the exotic goods of Tethry, Democh, Zal, and Ny’zil. He sold it to the nobles and even the king. He had wealth to spare, his home full of jewelchines.

He paid the Brotherhood for protection, and they used one of their local gangs, the Gas House Gang, to watch their client’s house and keep burglars like Phred from slipping in and taking his picking of a rich man’s nest. Phred didn’t mind angering the Brotherhood. They might control the heart of Kash, but he ran with Braglin’s Roosters.

Their gang didn’t crow to the Brotherhood.

The light of a diamond jewelchine street lamp illuminated the corner of the merchant’s house. It dominated the block. Music drifted from the rear garden where, this night, Master Dacerin showed off his wealth and extravagance to high society of Kash. Rumor held that the king himself might make an appearance.

The perfect time to slip into his strongroom.

Phred’s skilled eyes flicked along the shadows, searching for any sign of the Gas House boys. He didn’t see any eyes lurking in the shadows. Farther down the street, smoke rose. Nayton did good work, thought Phred. His younger brother was coming up. Sixteen and mastering the skills of being a proper burglar. You had to know when to be daring, when to be stealthy, and when to be smart.

They followed the side of the house. It rose three stories above them, built in imitation of a castle. The mortared stones of the wall were large, heavy blocks quarried and dragged to Kash. The windows were narrow, more like arrow slits than anything proper. The weather had pockmarked the stone exterior. Some of the mortar was crumbling. It was at least two hundred years old, built in a martial style that had long gone out of fashion.

“Where should we make our climb?” Phred asked as they reached the far corner. An alley ran here, darker, more cover from the bright diamond that illuminated the front of the house.

“You don’t know?” Nayton asked.

“Course I know. Wanna see if you got a set of helidors, or only obsidian for eyes.”

Nayton’s blue eyes flashed. “Course I got helidors. I can see far and keen.”

Phred nodded as his brother paused before a section of the wall, studying it. Helidors were used in jewelchines involving sight and detection. Phred wasn’t an expert on the science of gems and metals, possessing only the faintest ideas on how they could be fashioned to make devices; he just used them. Some could strengthen, some could heal, some could illuminate, and some performed more sinister tasks.

He was well aware of the obsidian blade tucked in his pocket. In Kash, in the entire Kingdom of Lothon, that was a death sentence to carry, but any burglar who had a polished mind carried one anyway.

“This is it,” Nayton said, his voice hardly heard over the party spilling over the garden wall. The house didn’t occupy the whole block. Two-thirds were taken up by a walled yard blazing with lights. The clear, bright shine of diamond jewelchines, and not cheaper candles, torches, or lanterns, bled from the garden. “Right here’ll be an easy climb.”

“Well, best get to it,” Phred said.

“Wot? You just gonna lounge down here while I go and do all the work?”

Phred shrugged. “Why risk my neck if you’re wrong? Get to climbin’. Burglar that chooses the route goes first.”

Elohm’s Bell tolled from the Temple of Seven Colours. The ringing toll boomed once. Midnight had arrived. Phred flexed his toes as his brother grasped crumbling mortar and began his ascent. His boots’ leather soles squeaked and crunched as he pulled himself up. Phred winced at the noise. The party’s music and revelry helped to mask it, but . . .

He shifted his shoulder, wishing he could see the fire. To know if the Gas House boys were still distracted or not. He ran a hand through his brown hair, smoothing it back. He felt the chill of the night deepening as the exhilaration pumped through him. He breathed in, smelling the sour musk from the alley.

Nayton reached the second floor and used a narrow window’s ledge to pull himself higher. He scrambled past it, working with surety. The route was the one Phred would have chosen. His brother had spotted it with ease.

Helidor eyes, he thought with a smile.

Nayton reached the small fence of wrought iron that ran along the flat roof’s edge, mimicking the barbicans of a real fortress, like those that ran around the Curtain, Kash’s old walls. Nayton rolled over the roof fence then twisted around and peered down.

Phred grinned and followed his brother up. He climbed up with confidence scaling a hundred walls had given him. He gripped the cracks in the mortar. His fingers were slender but strong. They were skilled. He had done this a thousand times. His boots had fresh soles. They gripped the crumbling mortar. Some burglars used expensive grip-gloves, jewelchines with fine emeralds woven into the leather.

Not Phred. He had better things to spend his money on.

He passed the second floor with ease and worked towards the third floor. Nayton watched, a big grin on his face. A slight pang twisted around Phred’s heart as he climbed higher. His fingers felt cold as he gripped the slick stone.

Then he was at the roof. He seized the wrought iron fence, each rod ending in a sharp, arrow-like point. He slipped over it with care not to catch his pants, or his flesh, on those spikes. He settled his boots onto the flat roof. His gaze swept over it. Six chimneys thrust up, five slender pipes of clay, one rectangular and made of brick.

“Now comes the hard part,” Phred said.

“That wasn’t it?” asked Nayton. “I set the Gas House boys’ whorehouse on fire. Almost got my head cracked in doin’ it.”

“Robbin’ a rich man’s strongroom’s like seducin’ a church marm. Can’t make a wrong move, or she smacks you up the back of the head.”

Nayton grinned. “Is that how you got that lump on your noggin last week?”

Phred winked at his brother before continuing, “We gotta take care. Watch your steps. Don’t make a wrong move. There’s a hundred people in the garden. Servants are movin’ through the house. The kitchen ain’t far from his office and the strongroom.”

Nayton nodded. He looked around. “Uh, not to question, but how we gettin’ in? We passed a buncha windows. Coulda kicked one in.”

“Probably wired to alarms.” Phred padded to the one chimney that was made of brick and thrust up from the southwest corner. “So, think you can fit?”

“Are you sellin’ crap as topazes?” Nayton shot a look of incredulity, the lock of gold hair spilling down his forehead.

“You’re skinnier than me. I got some grease if you need it.” Phred patted one of the pockets sewn onto his canvas trousers.

“Not lettin’ you do that to me ‘gain.” Nayton bit his lower lip. “Wot I do once I’m done?”

“Open a window.” Phred reached into his pocket and grasped the hilt of the obsidian blade. He pulled it out, the knife shaped from midnight stone that gleamed like smoky glass. Black iron wire, the forbidden metal, wrapped around the tang, forming a handle. Using obsidian went against Elohm and his Seven Colours teachings. Only Black didn’t come from the Lord.

It was evil, not that Phred much cared about the state of his soul. “Twas born in a hovel in the Breezy Hills up to my neck in muck,” he’d always joke. “Doubt Elohm wants my soiled soul noneways.”

Phred flipped the blade around and handed it to his brother first.

Awe kindled in Nayton’s eyes. His hand trembled as he reached out and grasped it, fingers wrapped tight. A shiver ran through him. His chest rose and fell. He stared up at his brother.

“Just don’t break it, you hear? Or I’ll stuff you in one of them round chimneys.”

“I won’t.” The younger brother said, his voice breathy. He slipped it into his boot on the inside of his calf. “I can do this.”

Phred ruffled his brother’s hair again, spilling bangs across Nayton’s forehead. “No, you won’t botch this. Now get to it.”

Nayton hopped onto the chimney. It was narrow, but so was the lad. Phred’s chest tightened as his brother’s legs disappeared into the hole. Then Nayton thrust his right arm in and wiggled his body. His left held the lip of the chimney. His chest then his head vanished, only the hand remaining. Then he let go of it and was swallowed by the chimney. This was the most dangerous part. Phred would do it himself if he could.

Let your Colours shine over him, thought the thief. It couldn’t hurt.

Fog drifted from the Ustern River, spilling over the streets while Phred waited, his heart almost in his throat. His fingers flexed. He stroked them, massaging away the growing chill of the night as he listened to his brother working deeper, grunting, groaning, sliding against the brick.

The sound stopped.

“I did it,” echoed up the chimney.

Phred moved back to the wall. He threw his leg over the railing and climbed down the side of the building to a window on the third floor. He braced for the clatter of alarm jewelchines bursting through the night. If his brother missed any wires . . .

Phred didn’t understand more than the basics of jewelchines. You wrapped the right jewel cut in the right way with the right type of metal wire, and it did things. It illuminated streets, locked doors, rang like windchimes, made automaton toys, or could create water. There were so many uses for them. Men made fortunes if they could find a new effect while others squandered inheritances in the vain search of the next revolutionary jewelchine.

Phred would rather just buy what he needed and steal the rest. All that work sounded far harder than clinging to the side of a merchant’s house with the tendrils of fog creeping over his fingers, the cold numbing the tips.

The window creaked open. Nayton’s head popped out, a boyish grin spilling across his lips, ash smeared across his cheeks and dusting his hair, staining that lock of gold with streaks of soot. He arched his eyebrows as he leaned back in. Phred shuffled over, grabbed the window frame, and slipped inside. He landed in a crouch into a room. A light shone from a diamond lamp set in the wall and encased in glass.

“That just turned on when I came in,” muttered Nayton. “Didn’t do it or nothin’.”

“They’re wired to that. Got them a helidor sensor, detects currents in the room or somethin’.”

A shiver ran through Nayton. “How do you deal with that if it’s attached to an alarm?”

Phred ruffled his little brother’s hair. “Come on, no dawdlin’.”

He closed the window and moved through the smoking room. There were several chairs covered in a cream brocade with darkly polished wooden frames. They sat around a marble table that had a wooden cigar case, probably fresh from the plantations of far Ny’zil, in the center. If there hadn’t been greater riches ahead, he would have been tempted to grab one.

He passed a shelf holding bottles of Onderian brandy, the amber liquid making his mouth water. At the door, he paused, listening. Distant sounds drifted through the house. He pushed the door open then strolled inside. He didn’t go at a hurried pace as he headed down the hallway, feet tramping on the roll of carpet running down the middle of the polished wooden floor. It was worked with scroll designs, the weave soft and muffling his step.

“Shouldn’t we hurry?” Nayton said, his voice low but cracking.

“Runnin’ footsteps will draw the servants’ attention,” he answered. “We need to blend in, not draw attention to ourselves.”

“Right, right, like seducin’ a church marm out of her knickers.”

Phred nodded.

They reached the dumbwaiter by the merchant’s bedchamber. Phred smiled and opened it, peering down the shaft. It went all the way to the first floor. He saw no issue in using it. He worked the rope, making sure the dumbwaiter was lowered all the way, then slipped his scrawny leg through the opening. It was wider than the chimney by a good handsbreadth. His lanky frame could squeeze down it.

Nayton would have no problems.

He slid down, the rope burning his hands. He passed the second floor and slowed as he reached the dumbwaiter. He rested on the box, its pulley creaking as it swayed. He listened and, hearing nothing, slid open the door and slipped out. He was by the downstairs kitchen. A hallway ran to his right. It led right to the study and the vault.

His heart quickened its beat. His fingers flexed against the exhilaration surging cold through his veins. His brother slipped out after him and the pair padded down the hallway. Phred could hear servants bustling in the kitchen. They prepared food and carried it out to the revelers. Phred felt the cooks and waiters moving behind them. If they came out the wrong door . . .

No helping that, he thought.

He examined the office door when they reached it. Nayton pulled out the obsidian blade. He touched the lock, an amethyst bound to the knob. A jolt of dark lightning rushed into the gem, animating the mechanism. The lock clicked. With a grin, he grabbed the brass knob, twisted, and—

Phred grabbed his brother’s wrist and pulled him back. Phred had noticed, just beneath the door, a faint shadow. Instincts screaming, he slipped down onto his belly, the hardwood floor cold against his cheek, and peered through the gap. A shiver ran down his spine.

A wire ran along the bottom of the door. There was another jewelchine tied to it.

“Elohm’s blessed Colours,” muttered Nayton after Phred whispered what he’d found. “Wots it leading to?”

Phred followed it to where it vanished into the frame of the door. He felt up the wood molding covering the frame, his instincts honed by many capers. His fingers slipped over the beveled molding until he felt . . . a section that was different. There was a gap. It was clever, matching the grain of the wood and covered by a bit of wax sealing it shut to make it look solid. He took his dagger from his brother and worked the delicate blade into it, popping off the small cover.

A helidor gem, wrapped in delicate aluminum wire, nestled inside.

“So just cut the wire?” asked his brother.

“Not the bit running off the bottom and down beneath the door. That’ll trip it off. Got to be the wire wrapped about the gem itself.” It was in a curious pattern, following some of the jewel’s facets and ignoring others. The shape of it all is what ensured it worked as intended.

Phred plucked one of the tools he carried out of his many pants pockets. This was a small pair of wire snips made of iron. He’d stolen them from a jewelchine mechanic. He exhaled all the air in his lungs to steady his hand. If he triggered the other wire, it would start ringing. He brushed a wire on the surface.

Nayton trembled beside him. His breath spilled over the back of Phred’s neck.

He caught a bit of the wire and snipped, severing it. The tension sprang back one end from the gem.

“There,” he said.

He rose, his legs stiff, and opened the door into Braffan Dacerin’s office. A diamond lantern burst to life in the ceiling. Just as the fired servant had described to Phred after an evening of buying cheap ale, it was an opulent room. Shelves lined the walls with a window draped in dark curtains. On the opposite wall, an iron statue of Boan Sword-Arm stood beside a small fireplace, his left arm ending in the famed blade that had slain the Darkling King and driven their ilk from the Stoytin Isles five thousand years before.

A wide desk of exotic hardwood from the Shattered Isles dominated the room. Several neat piles of papers and a ledger lay on it along with a silver quill and an inkpot. To protect the wood, a leather writing blotter was spread across the surface, a silver-plated letter opener lying on it. The chair pulled up against it was carved with the spreading antlers of the Stag of Lothon. They would frame Braffan’s head as he sat there. Behind him was the heavy iron door of the vault.

Trembling, he pulled out his absorber. Where an alarm made noise, an absorber did the opposite. It had aluminum wire wrapped around the helidor. It was the same gem used in an alarm, but the wires were bound around it in a different manner, forming a different effect. He placed it right on the desk and a deep silence descended.

He couldn’t hear his own heart beating blood through his veins, let alone the sounds of his brother moving. It was like his ears were stuffed with wool. It was a terrible feeling. It made his skin crawl every time he did it. He shouted at the top of his voice.

Heard nothing.

Nayton appeared before him, lips moving fast, his eyes wide. He smiled and then grabbed the ledger off the desk and slammed it down. Silent laughter peeled from his lips. Phred smiled at his brother’s amusement.

Then he faced the vault.

It was a new design using tumbler locks. There was a large dial in the center numbered from one to a hundred, each inscribed into the metal wheel. A knob thrust from the center. These types of safes would have alarms built into the very metal of the door. He could do nothing about those from this side, so he’d killed all the sound. However, that denied him one of the easiest methods to deal with a tumbler lock.

Listening to the pins clicking into place.

He would have to do this by touch. He pulled out his final tool from his pocket, a glove of fine leather with small amethysts in the fingertips. They were able to detect the faintest of motions. They had been invented for the inspection of foundations, feeling if there were any minute weaknesses that could lead to an old structure collapsing.

The man who’d invented it had been given a minor barony and owned a fine house by Lake Ophavin.

Phred knelt before the vault and flexed his fingers in the touch-glove. He grasped the dial and felt quivering through it. He felt the tiny vibrations caused by his brother’s movement. He turned around and glared at his brother capering around the room like a child.

He arched an eyebrow.

A sheepish look crossed Nayton’s face. He mouthed, “Sorry.”

Phred turned back to the vault’s lock. He turned it, feeling the tumblers moving as it clicked to 1.

2. 3. 4.

They felt the same.

5. 6.

He didn’t detect any shift in the pins.

7. 8.

He paused there. Eight felt a little different. A trap? He turned the dial again.

9. 10. 11.

He drew in slow breaths, feeling each click almost shake his fingertips.

13. 14. 15.

Sweat trickled down his brow.

21. 22. 23.

His head cocked to the side. He’d felt an audible pop on twenty-three. Something had definitely moved, not a trap but a pin sliding out of the way. He smiled. Twenty-three. He turned it the other way.

22. 21. 20.

He waited for that feeling, his shoulders shifting. A new vibration rippled through the floor.

Irritation flared. He threw his head around to glare at his brother and—

A metal sword flashed at his head.

With a soundless scream, Phred ducked low. The blade struck the vault’s surface, marring the finish. Sparks flared and popped without a hiss. He looked up to see the statue moving, flashes of emerald light bleeding through gaps in the metal plating, white glowing from its eyes.

A clockwork automaton? thought Phred in disbelief. The statue of Boan Sword-Arm was more than mere decoration. It moved, the heavy steps muffled by the absorber. The click of the gears inside animating its limbs were swallowed up by Phred’s own device. Powered by emerald gems, it followed basic instructions encoded into its diamond heart.

This one’s instructions were clear as it drew back its arm, the chisel-sharp point of the sword aimed right at Phred’s heart.

The burglar rolled backward as the arm lanced down. The weapon struck the hardwood floor, splinters flying. Phred felt the impact vibrating through his right hand planted behind him, almost hurting his fingers. The clockwork wrenched its sword free in a flare of green light.

Nayton shouted, mouth moving energetically, but no sound reached Phred’s ears. He felt the weight of silence around him. He could feel his heart pounding and his chest rising but didn’t hear that rush of blood through his ears or the ragged edge to his breaths.

The automaton swung again, driving Phred back. He didn’t know what to do. His only weapon was the obsidian blade, and that was a delicate object. Obsidian, the forbidden gem, could be shaped in ways the other seven couldn’t, but it lacked their strength. It could betray its owner at any time.

Another soundless swipe.

A wordless scream of fright bubbled from Phred. He leaped back and slammed into the wall. He felt cold stone behind him. He trembled, seeing his own reflection in the polished surface of the automaton’s sheet metal chest, sculpted to appear muscular, abs rippling, pectorals defined. Phred’s own face, twisted with fear, arrested him for a moment.

Bulbous nose centered on a round face. Blue eyes wide. Dirty-brown bangs falling over his pale forehead. Lips thick. A shadow of stubble around his cheeks.

Who am I? flashed through Phred’s mind.

The automaton drew back its sword.

Before death could flash, movement flowed behind the automaton. Something struck it. The clockwork stumbled a step forward, emerald light bursting through its joints as it turned around to face Nayton holding a wrought iron poker. A dent marred the back panel of the automaton, a long crease.

Phred cried out his brother’s name. The absorber swallowed the sound.

The automaton advanced in heavy silence. The green light bled through the room, splashing across items. Its sword swung, catching the fireplace poker and throwing it from Nayton’s scrawny hand. Fear burst across the youth’s face.

Terror surged through Phred. Flashes of a life burned through his mind. A young boy beaming to an older brother over a tin soldier purloined from a toy store. Racing through the slums, two front teeth missing, cheeks smudged with soil. Life burned in those eyes. In his laughter.

Phred grabbed the nearest object at hand, the heavy chair behind the desk. He screamed out his silent fury as he charged across the room. Nayton tumbled back. The sword crashed into a shelf, cutting through books and scattering them to the floor.

Phred slammed the chair into the clockwork’s back. Wood exploded into fragments. Stuffing from the cushion burst like fluffy snow. It danced around him as the automaton turned on silent hinges. The sword stabbed through the wreckage.

Instincts beyond Phred’s own animated him. He flowed back like water, feet sliding across the floor, the sword slicing past his chest. He stepped on a book. The shifting cover, the spine bending, caught Phred off-balance.

Even with enhanced reflexes, he fell as the automaton pivoted, landing hard on his side. An armored foot kicked out. Metal slammed into Phred’s floating rib. Air exploded from his lungs as he tumbled across the room. His ears begged for sensory input as he crashed into the desk. He let out a silent groan, feeling his heart pounding as he yearned for the sound of rushing blood.

The sword stabbed down at him as books, hurtled by Nayton, pelted the clockwork. Pages burst from spines and danced through the air. Phred saw death come from him. He was against the desk. Nowhere to dodge. All he could do was grab one of the heavy books which had landed by him.

He thrust it up before him; an improvised shield.

The shock of impact jarred his arm. The blade sank into the book. The chiseled tip burst out of the leather cover, poking only a fingerwidth or two from the book, blunted by hundreds of layers of parchment. Phred shuddered, relief darting through him as the automaton pulled back its blade.

He had his chance.

He darted to the right. The next blow slammed down, cutting through a throw rug and gouging the hardwood floor. The tip of the sword bent from the impact. Green light gleamed off its edge as Phred darted towards the vault and pressed against it.

He had to think of something.

Nayton threw himself at the clockwork with the bravado of youth. He landed on its back, arms going around the neck. He tried to wrench the head off, pulling at it. Green light bled through the gaps in the joints, bleeding from the inner works of it where the jewelchines that powered the gears and widgets controlled the clockwork.

Jewelchines that have delicate wires . . .

He drew his obsidian blade and rushed at the clockwork as it thrashed. His brother flew from the heaving automaton in a soundless howl and crashed into a fresh bookshelf. He rebounded, landing on his stomach. An avalanche of knowledge crashed down on him.

The automaton turned and thrust its blade at Phred.

Those instincts he couldn’t have learned animated Phred again. He flowed faster than possible. Power burst through him, a flare of resonating energy that molded his flesh. The sword flashed past his head as he thrust his obsidian blade up and into the armpit joint. He churned it around, feeling it striking internal workings. The arm moved to strike him.

The obsidian cut something. He felt a wire snap.

The sword arm went limp.

The statue’s right hand barreled at Phred in a punch. He raised his arm to block, jerking the obsidian blade out of the joint. The fragile end snapped a moment before the fist slammed into his forearm. Pain flared up his body. He staggered back.

The clockwork’s sword arm sagged by its side, the tip dragging on the ground. It stomped forward, drawing back its right fist again. Phred threw down the ruined dagger. He needed something else. Long. Sharp. Something that could reach in deep.

Movement caught his attention.

His brother, waving a frantic arm, held the silver letter opener from the desk. Phred nodded. He ducked a punch and rolled to the side of the clockwork, coming up behind it. His brother tossed the knife, an underhand throw. Its arced point towards the ceiling, handle coming closer to Phred.

He focused on it.

Caught it.

He whirled around—

The fist cracked into his chest. Ribs broke. The letter opener flew from his hand. The blow threw him off his feet. He landed hard. Those resonating, topaz energies pulsed through him as stars danced across his vision. He coughed, gasped, making no sound as the automaton loomed over him. A foot raised.

Nayton appeared, letter opener in hand. He stabbed it into the hip joint, working it around. The leg went still. The automaton shifted, off-balance. With a soundless crash, it hit the floor, good arm and leg thrashing as it struggled to right itself. But Nayton was on it, digging the sharp blade of the letter opener into the clockwork’s neck joint.

A flare of white light burst out of gaps around the chest plate. The entire thing went still.

Nayton panted, his face flushed. He rose and stumbled to Phred, lips moving. Blinking, Phred focused, trying to read them, to understand what they said. The boy reached Phred, dropping the letter opener.

Then Phred understood the gist of Nayton’s lips. He nodded and sat up. The broken ribs were mending fast. “I’m fine!” Phred said soundlessly to his brother. “Not that bad.”

Nayton nodded, offering a hand. Phred took it. He had a safe to crack.

He snagged the letter opener. With his obsidian blade snapped, he needed a replacement to finish the job. He shoved the silver knife into his back pocket before stumbling to the vault door, wincing against his sore chest. He flexed his fingers, glad the touch-glove felt intact so he could complete his mission.

He set to work. In all, the tumbler lock had five pins he had to find. He focused on turning the wheel, not paying attention to anything else but the feel of pins. He teased out each one bit by bit until he felt that shuddering click of the lock springing open.

He spun the wheel beside the tumbler, retracting the locking bars that thrust out on all sides of the vault door to hold it closed. Then he yanked the heavy door open. He imagined the groaning creak it must make. On the back of the door, alarm jewelchines flashed yellow. They would have made a racket.

I’ll have to leave behind the absorber, Phred thought, surprised by how much he regretted that.

Nayton darted through first. He stopped in the middle of the strongroom, his eyes dashing around, staring at the sight of all the gold beams, the highest denomination of coins, stacked on top of each other. There was more than coins. Books with information, stacks of bonds and promissory notes worth even more money than any of the coins, deeds to properties, boxes holding rare and exotic goods such as narshark ambergris and Darkling silk.

From a pocket in his pants, Nayton produced a canvas sack and began piling the coins into them, joy on his face. He smiled like he had the day Phred had given him the tin soldier. The sight stabbed guilt into the older brother.

He had his mission. No matter how much he loved Nayton, the mission came first.

He drew the letter opener and struck.

The knowledge on where to precisely stab wasn’t something Phred knew. Like with the extra speed and the mending ribs, it came from beyond the young burglar. The letter opener’s sharp point passed between the fifth and sixth ribs to strike right into Nayton’s heart, stopping it, killing the flow of blood.

The youth went limp.

The bag of coins fell from his grip in a soundless clatter, spilling dancing discs across the stone floor. Nayton’s eyes widened in betrayal as Phred caught his dying brother, holding him. Nayton struggled to move his mouth.

Compassion stirred Phred. This was his brother he held dying. Nayton didn’t deserve to leave this life thinking his brother hated him. His soul deserved to be as free from as many burdens in his life as possible. Maybe he would rise up to the embrace of Elohm’s Colours instead of dragged down into the blackness.

Phred stopped being Phred.

The lank, brown hair melted from Phred’s head. It spilled off around him, shed. The flesh of his face softened even as the hue of his skin faded from the light-beige of a Lothonian to a pasty, milky white, almost the color of an albino. Lips became thick and waxy. The nose shrank to just the impression of one with tiny slits for nostrils. No distinct cheekbones or chin. Just the suggestion of a human face, the gender impossible to tell. Clothing grew loose as the frame grew slender, almost delicate.

Nayton’s lips moved. A question asked.

“No One,” answered the thing who had masqueraded as Phred.

Nayton died.

With care, affection lingering in No One’s mind as the memories he’d stolen from the real Phred bled out of it, the thing lowered Nayton’s body to the vault’s floor. Blood pooled out of the wound, soaking the youth’s shirt. The hem had ridden up, exposing a hint of his stomach and the rooster tattooed there in crude reds and blacks.

A sign that the Brotherhood couldn’t protect Braffan Dacerin’s vault from the outer gangs.

No One rose, the loose clothing rustling about its body. It would have shed a tear if it could, but Phred was fading faster and faster. All those memories were fleeing its mind like shadows retreating from the dawning sun.

No One grabbed the two ledgers bound in leather from the vault’s shelf. No One didn’t care why it had been sent on this mission.

It didn’t question. It didn’t think. It only mimicked.

No One scooped up a bag of coins then gave a final, sad glance to the boy caught up in grand events before slipping out of the vault. The office window was easy to open from the inside. It didn’t care about triggering the alarms. The absorber was still active. It thrust a slender leg, almost bony, through the window, a milky ankle flashing between pants and shoe. In moments, sound assaulted its ears again.

It felt strange to hear now. Who are you? echoed in its mind, spoken in Nayton’s voice.

No One hurried through the dark streets. The Gas House boys were still busy putting out the brothel fire, their dereliction another blow to the Brotherhood’s support. No One didn’t know what that meant. Didn’t care.

It returned to the alley where the real Phred lay dead. As instructed, it dropped a few coins around the burglar. As it stared at the corpse, No One cocked its head. It needed to become someone else.

Who am I? wondered No One. The shadow of a brother?

A final memory burst in its mind. Phred handed a tin soldier to a smiling child.

Flinching, No One shook its head and settled on a safe identity. One with no bad memories. Color returned to its flesh, arms growing thicker, stronger. The jewelchines implanted through its body molded it, shaped it, transformed it into a brawny young man named Carstin.

Who am I?

No One.

Carstin whistled as he walked through the night, the ledgers tucked beneath his arms, the sack of gold rattling from his other hand. He headed to the docks and the rendezvous with his employer. He felt good about succeeding at another mission.

Only a shadow deep inside of him grieved for two brothers.

The END

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Brother’s Shadow takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe! No One will appear in my upcoming The Secret of the Jewels series!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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Weekly Free Story: Mutalated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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