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The Soldier’s Wife 1 – Foundation of Courage 

The Soldier’s Wife 1: Foundation of Courage


Beautiful woman in a kimono with samurai sword isolated on white background

The Twenty-Third Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom

Halfway there,” Lamahavi’s new husband said. He nodded to his right at the passing terrain. “The Mid-Hive.”

A shiver ran through Lamahavi. The young woman held tight to the light yukata, a thin robe of cotton, she wore. The light-blue cloth was decorated in a pattern of soaring cranes and white orchids, her namesake. Her delicate face rippled with distaste at the first sight of the demonic hive. She’d grown up all her life knowing about the dark beings who constantly sought to invade her world. The Forbidden Kingdom had guarded the human race for three thousand and forty-nine years.

Their watch had never failed.

Their guard had never wavered.

They were the shields of the world, chosen by the Goddess Layiv herself to defend against the Black Blood Rift that lay in the heart of the rolling plain they crossed. The Rift was a permanent scar left over from the Shattering. The one place where the Tonal Barriers could not be healed by the Diamond Lady. Layiv’s one failure.

The Mid-Hive was an eruption of black rocks forming winding tubes and spires. They had a bulbous and knobbly texture, not unlike termite mounds. No termite mound towered higher than any building constructed in the Forbidden Kingdoms.

Grass grew around the hive’s base and the weather had worn down its irregular surface. They rode over a battlefield. For twenty-one days, the Songblade Knights, supported by regular infantry and the famed Rangers, fought to contain the breach.

Three thousand had died stopping the demons.

Mid-Hive wasn’t the farthest the demons had ever tunneled, but it was the largest eruption. It lay halfway between the great city Fortress and the Black Blood Rift itself. To face the invaders, a guard had been created. Men like her husband trained to stand the watch armed with a Songblade.

Pride surged through her at his accomplishment. She recrossed her legs, covered in baggy wool pants called hakama, and glanced away from the hive. Her lavender eyes desired to focus on Yelaikav instead. He held the reins of their carriage in an easy grip, their water buffalo plodding along at a steady pace that devoured the leagues they had to travel. Their belongings filled the back of the covered wagon. The furniture their family and friends had gifted as well as wedding presents, clothing, stores of food for the garrison, and more.

A smile spread on her husband’s face. They had only married a moon’s turning ago, uniting after his anointing. He was young, like her, approaching his twenty-first summer. He had the hairless cheeks that characterized a Westerner, his skin the same yellow-brown as her own. His brown hair was cut short along the back and side while the top was shaved to expose his smooth crown. There the character for protection, a diamond surrounded by a wall on all four sides, had been tattooed in black ink. The mark of a Songblade as much as the hilt he wore tucked into the belt of his yukata. His robe was cut in the men’s fashion, worn loose. The light brown cloth, bearing no design, hung open to reveal his hairless chest. Westerners weren’t as hirsute as Easterners or Northerners.

He had the same height as her. Though she was from the east, she was tall for a woman. She wore her brown hair in a complex coil of loops piled up to her crown and held in place by her wedding gift from her husband: an alabaster hair comb shaped with a turtle holding an orchid in his mouth.

She treasured it more than any other possession she owned.

Is there something on my face?” Yelaikav asked. He glanced at her, his eyes a deeper shade of purple from her own.

What?” she asked, cocking her head.

You are studying my face like I have dirt on it.” He rubbed his cheek into the shoulder of his yukata. “Did I get it?”

There’s no dirt on your face,” she said, relaxing as the ruined hive slid past them.

Ah, so it’s just the masculine perfection of my face that you are drinking in.” He puffed out his chest. “I know, it is the visage that inflames your womanly passions.”

His playful tone helped to ease the talons of fear clutching at her heart.

Yeah, that’s it,” Lamahavi said. “Just take me right here.”

Interest gleamed across his eyes. “Really?” He glanced behind them. Three other wagons trailed behind theirs, the newest knights heading to the Black Blood Rift. “I wouldn’t want to make the other wives jealous of my prowess.”

Oh, and I thought you didn’t want to embarrass yourself before your fellow knights,” she said, a saucy heat rippling through her. She rubbed her shoulder against his. Of the two men she’d had in her life, Yelaikav proved the more satisfying lover. “I’ve heard rumors of Asozyem.”

Is that why Jiabevu always has a big grin in the morning?” he asked without pause.

She gave a wicked giggle. He had a talent for saying the right thing to lift her mood. He’d rescued her from the grief when she’d broken off her first engagement with Vevoztaj. That day, Yelaikav had produced a handkerchief and his smile.

Some women look radiant when they cry, but you’re the type of woman who shines when smiling,” he’d said that day when she’d taken the handkerchief from him.

It had shocked her. “Are you saying I look ugly?”

Undignified.” His eyes had danced with good humor. “But the choice is yours.”

Not to cry?”

No, whether you can smile.” His lips had spread wide. “It always makes me feel better no matter how sad I am. Jimuja once wrote:

Tears flowing down cheeks

banished by a simple act

smiling to spite grief

I never heard that poem of hers.”

I lied,” he’d said, winking at her. “I wrote it myself. But I think it captures a simple truth. Happiness is a choice. It can be a struggle to embrace it. Sometimes, we need those in our lives to inspire us to release our radiance.”

So she’d forced herself to smile. It had helped. The pain in her heart didn’t fade for weeks, but it lessened. After, Lamahavi had noticed him more and more around the Academy of the Shining Blade. When she’d returned his handkerchief a few days later, he’d asked her to walk through the garden beneath the moons. The plum trees had been in blossom, the air crisp with frost.

She hadn’t needed to force a smile that night.

She took Yelaikav’s right hand. He held the water buffaloes’ reins in a loose grip in his left while she played with his fingers. He had callouses from practicing with swords and spears and bows.

He glanced at her and recited:

When wife is pleased

blissful peace is known to man

harmony sings joy

Mmm, I like that one,” she said. Yelaikav wasn’t a great poet, but his words were always precious to her. She’d recorded them in a journal, carefully drawing the characters with a flowing brush made from her own hair. I’ll paint this one on a scroll and hang it over our door.

He squeezed her hand as they trundled across the Forbidden Plains.

They traveled closer and closer to the Black Blood Rift. An hour past the Mid-Hive, dust gleamed on the horizon. A patrol of the Rangers, the elite cavalry of the Forbidden Kingdom, passed them. They were the finest horsemen in the world. Many women who chaffed at the role of wife and mother found success amid their illustrious ranks. A woman’s lighter form allowed her horse greater range. They kept watch for any tunnels and breaches, so were often the first line of defense against any demons who’d escaped the Rift.

If they failed, the Hundred Forts ringing the Forbidden Plains would stop any demonic incursions.

The group stopped for lunch with the sun high overhead. She joined the other four wives in preparing the simple meals of bread and meat. Every knight sought a wife. The Diamond-Born Emperor and his Warlord believed a soldier fought best with the knowledge that his family would perish if he failed. She was both her husband’s inspiration as well as his succor from the trials of his duty.

A plum tree to give restful shade.

To Lamahavi, there was no shame in this. It didn’t make her lesser. It took a different sort of strength to be a soldier’s wife. To endure the fear without breaking. To face the same risks without flinching. Wives were as revered as their husbands. Stories abounded of their feats. Many had statues erected in their honor.

And she wasn’t helpless. There was one final defense of the Black Blood Rift. If their men fell, the wives would lay down their lives. They would fight with spear and crossbow. In her own way, she was as much a soldier as her husband.

She brewed a tea mixed with soothing chamomile while the other wives carved bread and cut slices from hunks of salted beef. The women chatted and laughed while the men patrolled the edges, looking dangerous.

Yelaikav’s swagger brought a smile to her lips.

Look at you and those hot eyes,” said Jiabevu as she cut the shank of beef, producing thick slices with plenty of succulent fat on the edges. “We heard you and your husband last night.”

Kavi,” moaned Saipoz in imitation of Lamahavi, her eyes bright. She was a Northerner with her silver hair styled in a dozen braids wrapped in blue ribbons. She had them drawn up to the crown of her head and pinned together by a hair comb of alabaster shaped like a wading heron. “Oh, Kavi!”

The three women around Lamahavi burst into laughter, Bioku covering her mouth as she giggled.

My husband is quite proud of his sword,” said Lamahavi without missing a beat as she measured out the tea leaves for their drinks. The hum of the tuning fork powering the ruby in the kettle was hardly noticeable. “What wife wouldn’t want to shower him in praise?”

Saipoz laughed louder, her youthful face bursting with delight. She glanced at their men circling in their solemn pose. “They do perform better when you don’t laugh, eh, Bioku?”

It was crooked,” Bioku said. “I didn’t think they were supposed to be. I felt so bad when he wilted.”

Still, he was a true knight and soldiered on despite your mocking sally,” Saipoz said, nudging Bioku. “I see him strutting now.”

Bioku smiled as she resumed cutting the bread on a board balanced over her knees.

Lamahavi enjoyed talking with the three others. They had all trained together at the Academy. These women would be her support when their men stood watch of the Diamond Ward, the barrier of light constraining Black Blood Rift from poisoning the whole world.

They were good women. The instructors at the Academy were skilled at winnowing out the chaff from the useful grain. Those women who they thought had the strength to be a soldier’s wife were encouraged to stay while those who weren’t were tormented.

Sometimes, the tormented persevered, proving they had the inner strength after all.

Lamahavi hoped she did. Saipoz certainly had the mettle to be a soldier’s wife. Behind her playful laughter lurked a woman as hard as a widowed matron with steel for hair.

After their meal, they were on the move again. She dozed on the driver bench, leaning back against a crate of clothing, warm from the tea and full from the food. She let herself drift, rocked by the wagon following the only road across the Forbidden Plains.

A water buffalo bayed.

A skittering sound like sand tumbling down a hill.

A curse from Yelaikav. Vile. Terrible. “Layiv’s cunt!”

Yelaikav!” she gasped in shock, her eyes snapping open.

Yelaikav hauled on the reins to stop them and shouted, “Demons!”

The sound of skittering sand increased. To her right, the grass covering the hill bowed outward. Something wiggled beneath the soil. Something large. A slimy sensation, like falling into a pile of rotting blossoms, drenched her skin. Bursting out of the sod reared a black, insect-like head. Sharp mandibles, caked with dirt, snapped. More soil spilled off spindly arms as they reached out of the hole and grasped the ground. Bristling hairs jutted from the chitinous limbs.

The demon hauled itself out of the earth.

She wanted to scream. Nothing could escape the fear strangling her throat.

Shouts roared behind her as she stared at a demon. Not an image painted in watercolors. Not a statue carved of marble or cast in bronze. This was no design stitched on a tapestry.

The black-shelled invader from another Reality moved.

It stood a head taller than her father, its body segmented like a bug. Its triangular head, adorned with multi-faceted eyes gleaming like foul obsidian, was perched atop a spindly neck. Antennae twitched above, ending in feathery fronds. Its thorax was wide, three pairs of limbs thrusting from it. A narrow tube connected to its swollen abdomen. Its rear brimmed with a foul venom it could deliver with a massive barbed stinger. It stood on the largest of its six limbs, three claw-like toes thrusting from the armored legs. The upper limbs were short, ending in finger-like appendages that could bend in all directions. Its middle limbs held its weapons. Swords formed of resin, the same substance from which they fashioned their hives. They regurgitated it and shaped it before it hardened.

A second burst out of the hole, its resinsword possessing a deadly curve. The third scrambled free of the hole in a heartbeat. It held two shorter blades. All three demons’ antennae twitched in her direction. She felt their compound eyes focusing on her with alien regard.

They chittered.

She struggled to say her husband’s name.

He rose on the wagon, the wind rippling around him. He looked so calm. “Lama,” he said, his voice rising over the shouts behind them, “surrendering to fear is a choice, too. I can feel it clawing at me.”

What?” she croaked, shocked to hear him admit it.

That’s what they tell us. It’s a choice to be scared just as it’s a choice to be brave. To fight on despite the horror in your bowels. I need you to make the choice. Fear or bravery.”

I-I-I,” she sobbed. She shrank into the wooden back of the bench as the three demons scuttled down the hill towards them.

They’re scouts!” snarled Yelaikav. “We have to kill them now before they can report to the hive that they made a successful breach. There are eight of us here.”

Eight? He’s counting me and the other wives? Tears stung her eyes.

Love is the backbone of courage,” he said as he stepped past her. “Love is the foundation of bravery.”

Love is the bedrock of civilization,” she whispered, finishing the aphorism of the Songblade Knights.

He hopped off and drew the simple handle at his side. It looked like a sword hilt, though wider than most. It was fashioned from the hollow wing bone of an Imperial Condor, the largest bird in the world. As a wedding gift, she’d carved out of jade an orchid sprouting from a diamond; a union of their two names. She’d then inserted it into the hilt.

White Orchid and Diamond Sword.

He smacked the hilt into his hip and revealed why it was hollow. The tuning fork inserted in the hollow handle sang. A single note. A heartbeat later, the diamond capping the handle erupted into a blade of pure white.

A Songblade.

Down their small convoy, the three other Songblade Knights activated their own Blades. Purple and Green and Red swords sprang into existence, each matched to their owner’s temperament. Only a few condors could be harvested a year; their species wasn’t fecund. Thus, only a few blades were manufactured.

Only the best could be trained in their use. They had almost no weight. They could slice through flesh and bone. Even steel. Fighting with one was unlike any other blade. The knight had to maintain the tuning fork’s resonance. The exact Tone activated the gem.

Yelaikav faced the demons rushing down the hill, his blade raised in a guard position. The three monsters split apart, rushing at the knights. The one with the curved blade came for Yelaikav. It chittered.

She sat on the bench, helpless. You’re a soldier’s wife. What are you doing?

It’s a choice.

Love is the foundation of bravery.

Training drilled into her during the last year surged through her. She turned around and lifted the canvas flap, exposing their packed belongings. Against a crate leaned a crossbow carved of maple. It was a weapon that took little training to master. It didn’t require the brawny strength of a bow or years of honed reflexes like the sword. She worked the windlass with practice cranks.

Three swift revolutions and the limbs were drawn back.

The demon rushed at her husband. A foul scent of bile filled her nose. They broke Black ichor dripped from its mandibles. The stink of their resin churned her stomach. She snatched up a bolt. It had a special tip, blunt instead of sharp; no crossbow bolt could penetrate a demon’s natural chitin. It served another purpose.

Bolt seated, she raised the weapon and set the butt against her shoulder. She aimed down it, tracking the demon’s movement. It was almost on Yelaikav. Her finger rested on the trigger mechanism, a length of thin steel running down the side of it to the windlass pinned against the haft to form it into a lever.

She exhaled.

The demon raised its blade to attack her husband.

She fired.

The bolt blurred through the air, flashed above Yelaikav, and slammed into the shoulder of the demon. The force of the blunt tip striking against its armored thorax threw off its next attack. Its resinsword slashed wide. His Songblade hummed. He swung hard, taking advantage of the opening.

The demon didn’t let itself get hit. Antennae twitching, it scuttled back on its wide legs. The white-glowing Songblade hissed before the monster. Already, Lamahavi worked the windlass. She had to support Yelaikav. She had done this a hundred times in training.

She’d learned to aim with skill.

To hit her target.

Cranking the crossbow windlass was a normality that reached through the fear choking her. Three swift turns and the triggering mechanism locked in place with a reassuring click. She drew the next bolt as his blade slashed through the air at the demon.

She raised her weapon and waited for her next opening.

Yelaikav moved with skill. A man’s looser yukata gave his legs more room to move. His sandals kicked up dust from the dry grass. The demon’s resinsword slashed down. He parried. Attacked.

There was one substance a Songblade couldn’t slice through. The demon’s regurgitated resin. Whatever foul substance coagulated to form their nests and weapons had toughness beyond anything found in the true world. The alien substance could not be destroyed.

Only eons of erosion could weather them.

The demon moved with speed despite its size. It scurried on its lower legs and swung its sword in a blur. Yelaikav danced with the bug, moving with all the grace she’d witnessed on the training sands. He swept through his forms.

Sweeping Swallows.

Plum Blossoms Dancing.

Crane Taking Flight.

The strikes merged from one to the other. Some were a flurry of three or four slices, like Badger In His Den. Others were hard slashes, Falcon’s Dive, or even powerful thrusts, Viper’s Poisonous Strike. Each returned to a guard position, a place where he could parry the demon’s counterattack.

She stood up on the wagon bed, taking advantage of the height. She focused on the demon’s triangular head. There was one spot that her crossbow bolts could inflict damage. She sighted on the compound eye, the multifaceted surface reflecting the brilliant light of Yelaikav’s sword.

Firing!” she screamed, remembering her training.

Yelaikav backpedaled suddenly, his feet a blur as he retreated a few steps and dodged a scything blow. She exhaled, tightened her finger on the trigger, and—

The wagon rocked.

As she fired, the jostle threw her forward and her aim down. The bolt leaped ahead and slammed into the flank of the left water buffalo. The blunted tip at such close range penetrated its thick hide. He bellowed in pain and charged forward, blood bubbling over his coarse hairs. She screamed. The sudden shift of momentum threw her back into the supplies. She crashed into a crate.

Lama!” Yelaikav screamed.

The wagon jostled and bounced. She shuddered, hearing wood cracking and snapping behind her. She had no idea what had caused the impact. She struggled to right herself in the tight confines of her yukata. Fabric ripped. Her legs suddenly had more freedom.

She pushed herself to her feet and clutched to a crate of clothing for support. She peered over it. Something was in the back of the wagon, thrashing. A snapping mandible appeared over the box and lunged at her head.

She screamed and thrust the butt of her crossbow out before her. The mandible snapped into it. Wood cracked. The body of the crossbow split in half before it was ripped out of her grasp. The demon chittered and thrashed its head.

A feathery antenna brushed her cheek.

The wispy caress felt like the kiss of cobwebs. She screamed in panic and threw herself back. She landed on the driver bench, her back on the rump of the right water buffalo. Muscles flexed beneath her as it snorted in fear. A resinsword slashed through the canvas top of the wagon. It parted the covering. The demon clambered to reach her. It was missing its left sword arm, greenish ichor bubbling down its black, waxy side.

She pushed with her feet against the back of the wagon seat and slid onto the broad back of the side of the water buffalo. It snorted beneath her as it barreled across the plain. The demon slashed down, its sword hacking through the blocking crate. Wood burst. Clothing spilled out around it. It ripped silk kimonos and cotton hakama away. The thing climbed over the wreckage and set a clawed foot on the driver bench.

She scrambled upright and straddled the right water buffalo, riding it backward. She struggled to think. The beast beneath her was yoked and harnessed. She couldn’t unhitch it with swiftness or ease. The ground sped passed them. She didn’t see any hope of escape.

The demon thrust its sword at her.

She threw herself to the side.

The ground rushed up at her. The water buffalo bellowed behind her, impaled by the demon’s blade. She hit the dusty grass. The world spun about her. Her back and arms burst in bruising pain. Strands of wild sorghum whipped at her face. She tumbled to a stop.

The water buffalo stabbed in her stead collapsed in groaning pain. The momentum of the wagon crashed into it. Wood snapped. The back end of the wagon lifted into the air. The other beast squealed in fright while the demon was pitched off. It struck the grass in a blur of segmented limbs. It rolled and came to a kicking stop.

Lamahavi had to move. She couldn’t lie there. A surge of cold exhilaration rushed through her, energizing her flesh. She hardly felt the bruising throb on the back of her left thigh. A trail of dust led back to the main fight. To her husband.

She ran into the brown mist.

The demon skittered behind her. Its chittering assaulted her panicked mind. She didn’t look back. She rushed ahead on her sandals, the leather straps wrapped tight about her sock-clad feet. Her torn yukata didn’t slow her down. Bruised muscles screamed, but fear had driven her beyond notice. She hadn’t run races since she’d been sixteen summers. Her legs remembered. They stretched out before her.

She raced across the plains as fast as she could, her torn yukata flapping about her legs. In her frantic mind, she could see her husband waiting for her. She’d find safety in Yelaikav’s arms. His smile would banish the fear. His laughter would drive away the demon.

The skittering grew louder.

A shadow fell on her. Over the scent of dust, the acrid bite of bile burned her nostrils.

She could almost see her Diamond Sword riding towards her rescue on the back of a water buffalo. She stared ahead at that fevered image, focusing on the fantasy that Yelaikav was hurtling to save her. She embraced the delusion as the final moments of her life approached.

The demon raised its sword.

I wanted to be your plum tree, she thought to the phantasm rushing to her rescue.

Queerly, the fantasized image of her husband raised a crossbow to his shoulder.

A loud twang. A dark streak hurtled through the air and hissed over her head. A loud thud and a chittering screech. A blade slashed behind her, missing her by the width of her fingers spread wide. Footsteps faltered. The demon crashed to the grass.

It was no fantasy. No hallucination brought on by fear. Yelaikav was riding a water buffalo towards her. The beast panted, sweat lathering its dark hide. He leaped from the back of it, his yukata flapping around his waist, and landed before her. He drew his Songblade hilt and slammed it into the meat of his right thigh.

The tone hummed. The blade of white light burst from the hilt. He rushed forward, face twisted in a fierce mask of anger. Blood matted the right side of his face. Dark ichor soaked his left sleeve. He charged past her.

Lamahavi’s steps faltered.

She collapsed to her hands and knees, panting. Sweat dripped off the tip of her nose and ran down her forehead from her disarrayed hair. She glanced back to see Yelaikav falling on the demon as it rose. The Songblade flashed, the cuts too fast for her to follow.

A leg severed in a spurt of dark-green ichor. The demon fell on its side. It slashed its resinsword at Yelaikav’s legs. Yelaikav parried and followed with a powerful flick that swept his sword up the thing’s thorax, splitting it open. The blade carved upward and then slashed through the triangular head.

A bubbling laugh burst from Lamahavi’s throat. A sound verging on mad hysterics as she witnessed the demon’s death. It spasmed on the ground, limbs flailing in mockery of life. Yelaikav pressed the fingers of his left hand into the hollow of his hilt, stilling the tuning fork. The note died.

The light vanished.

Lama,” he said, his voice soft.

She stared at him as the laughter became tears. The fear metastasized into sobbing exhaustion. Into disbelief and relief and a clinging horror that another of the demons might lurk beneath her.

They’re dead, Lama.”

I-I-I got scared,” she sobbed out.

So did I,” he said, “but you chose!” He seized her shoulders and lifted her into his arms. He held her tight and spun her around. His laughter danced around her. “You chose to be brave and fight! You escaped a demon, Lama!”

She shook her head, tears spilling down her face.

You didn’t freeze. You didn’t panic. You escaped and survived!” He set her down, his smile broad, contrasting with the blood oozing down from a gash in his forehead. “You almost outran one.”

I was just . . . so scared . . . that it would . . .” She struggled to say anything coherent. “Kavi, I was terrified.”

You picked up a crossbow and fought.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “How many soldiers can say the same and still look as beautiful as the sun setting over the Golden Sea?”

Beautiful?” she gasped, his words cutting through her emotional turmoil. “I must be a mess. I am covered in dust and sweat and my yukata is torn. How can you say that?”

Because you’re alive.” He said those last words like a prayer. His arms tightened around her. Her ribs creaked. “Layiv’s blessing, you’re alive. You spat in the demon’s face and escaped. Fear isn’t just an enemy. It can be your friend. We can only be truly great when the consequences matter. When we have terror beating in our hearts.”

Those words sank in. She had escaped. The demon had burst into the back of her wagon, wounded from Asozyem’s attack. It had sought easier prey. She’d kept her wits long enough to escape. Only when it had seemed hopeless had she succumbed to her fear.

It had given her the speed to stay alive just one heartbeat longer.

She rested her chin on his shoulder and stared at the twitching demon. The invader from the Black Reality spasmed with mock paroxysms of life, its body failing to realize it had died. She’d faced the most dangerous thing in the world and survived. She’d fought.

She could be a soldier’s wife.

Her family carved jade, a profession she loathed for its tedium. Any stone could have a hidden flaw. One that wouldn’t be known until the shaping began. Chip by chip, the outer layers were chiseled away, revealing either the sublime beauty of the stone or the disfiguring crack that would see it discarded.

Her husband was right when he’d called her beautiful. Her inner depths had been laid bare. She had not crumbled. This day, she’d faced what life at the Diamond Ward, guarding Black Blood Rift, would be like. It had not broken her. Would not break her.

Lamahavi did not regret her choice to be a soldier’s wife.

To be continued…

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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!



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.”


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.


“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.”


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.”


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.


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