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Weekly Free Short Story: Blood to Flame

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each 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!

Blood to Flame

Day of Flames, Month of the Fire, Year of Heart’s Flooding 1062

Passion burned in Sdacsa’i.

Taek’a buzzed with euphoria as he rose from the woman’s embrace, his seed spilled in her. She cooed her delight, her ebony skin gleaming in the torchlight spilling between the two ruined buildings. The revelry raged beyond, the clash of cymbals, trumpeting of horns, and the rill of pipes created a melody of disharmony. A dozen different songs blending together with the shouts of the celebrants.

In Sdacsa’i, passions did not have to be constrained. Only one oath mattered, and only a fool would take that one.

Taek’a lurched with drunken laughter from the woman, his loincloth half-covering his manhood as he stumbled into the debauchery. He hardly thought of the woman who called herself Sa’ina. It meant “Desire” in his Ki’manese tongue.

A fake name. But who cared.

The oaths to the Passions didn’t matter here. The duty to family, friends, town, and Ki’mana did not hold power. Sleeping with a girl, spilling his seed in her, didn’t mean he had to take her for his wife and care for her children.

He’d come to taste fire. The raw Passion without any oaths or rules constraining him. A last chance of freedom before the repercussions of his deeds crushed him. Before he added his melody to Wueda and settled down to manage her father’s bakery.

He didn’t have flour on his hands here. He had the scent of a woman’s passion. He inhaled as he lurched out into the revelers dancing on the edge of the desert. Here, the fertility gifted by the Heartspring ended and the fiery death of the Anvil loomed ahead. The dry scent of the desert brushed his nose. He felt the warmth from its sands even though the sun had long set.

A giggling girl, naked and smiling, pressed a drink into his hand before being dragged off by a pair of her friends. All laughing and stumbling. He inhaled the fruity scent of fortified strawberry wine, the alcohol almost drowned the sugary sweetness. He took a swing, his tongue and throat almost dead to the burning.

Once a decade, this town lived. Once a decade, any acts here were free of the weight. Passions didn’t have to be constrained. He felt a freedom he’d never had in his village alongside the Heartspring, the massive lake at the heart of Ki’mana. From it sprang the Three Mother Rivers, the blessed channels that spread the life-giving water across what should be arid savanna.

A bonfire blazed to his right. Women danced around it, the firelight painting across their ebony skin. Like Taek’a, they were Ki’manese, not pale-tan like the Tethyrians to the north, or snow white like the staid followers of Elohm across the sea. They were the Children of Water and Fire, of passions restrained and blazing.

He drifted to the women, entranced by their movements. Some wore skirts of beads that flashed and swayed, exposing parts of their body kept hidden across the rest of Ki’mana. Breasts heaved, oiled and gleaming. Men clapped a beat around them, drinking, singing, lusting. A feverish pitch burned through Sdacsa’i.

Something built. Taek’a could feel it in the root of his phallus.

Did Wueda come here? he wondered idly. You never announced if you were going to Sdacsa’i, and your family and friends would pretend you hadn’t left. She was a fine girl and would make a fine wife, but…

He smiled as a girl darted past chased by an older man, his snowy beard almost shining against his dark skin. His muscles sagged, but he still had the virility to chase her into the dark corners between the ancient walls of the city.

Taek’a finished off the rest of his fortified wine, the flavor of strawberries lingering on his lips. He looked for a pretty girl to kiss. His eyes cast around, flicking past two men locked in their own embrace. It was Sdacsa’i.

Nothing was forbidden on this night.

The song around the bonfire hit a feverish pitch. The women were swaying in ecstatic passion. The growing sensation he felt rippled through him, a deep, resonating harmony. All the Passions had their own tones. The Passion of the Wind, of the Earth, of Father and Mother. Here, the Passion of Fire reigned. The most destructive. The most fierce. The one most needed to be controlled, or it would destroy everything.

The one place where it could sing to its fullest.

He felt it in the root of his manhood. Everyone did. The rhythm clapped louder and louder. The fire burned and blazed. The flames danced at any one moment looking like frozen crystals of oranges and reds and yellows before they shifted to the next pose. The coals of the burning logs blazed bright. The flames roared to a feverish pitch. The ground rumbled beneath his feet.

She was coming.

The Avatar of Fire. The Passion of Flames given flesh. The time to pledge the one oath enforced in Sdacsa’i had arrived. The one action that was binding. The one drunken boast you never wanted to make here.

The harmonics hummed. The buildings rattled. Groaned.

The bonfire collapsed. Logs spilled towards the dancers. They screamed, fleeing. Coals spilled across the desert sands. Sparks danced through the air. Men yanked gaping women to safety. A silence descended despite the roar of the spilled fire.

The harmony ended.

Well, well, well, look at all of you,” a voice purred in a strange form of Ki’manese, accented but not like any of the Relashim traders that passed through Taek’a’s town.

The woman who stepped up to the spilled fire had skin as pale as milk, her hair the color of spun gold. Her age was hard to say, at once young and bursting with hormonal passion, then mature and blessed with the wisdom of years. She held a silver goblet studied with garnets in one hand. She took a long drink, her ruby-red eyes flashing about the watchers.

O’csari had arrived. The Passion of Flame made flesh.

She finished her drink and threw the goblet into the fire. She laughed and pulled the nearest woman to her. Their naked bodies came together as O’csari planted a hungry kiss that made every watching male groan, Taek’a included. The woman shuddered, her ebony skin as dark as night against the Avatar’s flesh.

Mmm, don’t go far,” purred the Avatar as she broke away. She whirled around and fire burned at her fingertips. They blazed up her arms as a harmonic ringing filled the air. The single note of a tuning fork plucked.

The cup in Taek’a’s had purred.

Look at all of you,” O’csari said, her voice ringing through the night. In the dark around the bonfire, revelers gathered. She stalked around the spilled blaze, her pale flesh painted in dancing reds and oranges. “All this passion unleashed. You burn with it.”

She passed a woman, stroking her face with fiery fingers. The woman shuddered and touched her dark cheek, maybe to soothe a burn or to savor the caress of the demigoddess. The Seven Passions were sacred to Taek’a’s people. They could embody Avatars to enact their will, divinities with purposes mere mortals could never understand.

Yes, yes, you blazed with it.” O’csari breathed deep. “I can smell it. Intoxicants on the air. Lust brimming in all of you. No focus. No control. You spend your fires without any purpose. Isn’t it wonderful?” She smiled. “All this freedom. Look at what you do with it.”

A strange shame rippled over Taek’a as he realized his manhood was exposed. He shifted his loincloth. Women tugged at the scant clothing they wore. Men squirmed in place, shoulders hunching as O’csari circled the blaze, eyes judging.

She shook her head, golden hair dancing down her back. “This? You can do anything in Sdacsa’i, and this is what you choose? To fornicate with any man or woman you find? To sing songs and stumble around in a fog of drugs and wine? To satiate your own passions with no concern for others?”

Taek’a swallowed. Silence reigned

No one?” she asked. “No one wants to defend the pleasures you’ve indulged in? The freedom you’ve chosen?” She paused, glancing at a large man, his chest powerfully muscled. “Not you? You’re a strong one. What do you do?”

Blacksmith,” he grunted.

You know all about passions then,” she said. “Huh? Controlling the fire. Tempering heated metal. Is that why you’re here? Did you think you’d find satisfaction in dancing like the ephemeral flame? Swaying this way and that, blazing bright until you’re snuffed out.”

The man shrugged.

Why aren’t you reveling now?” O’csari looked around. “You have your freedom. Do not let me stop you.” She liked her lips, eyes falling on some of the half-naked dancers huddling together. “Not when there are such beauties to enjoy unless… Unless you came here for the ultimate expression of passion.”

The fire on her fingertips swelled up her arms as the resonance grew louder. It hummed through the soil and rattled Taek’a’s bones. He stood transfixed by her. The flames reached her shoulders, dancing towards her head and caressing her blonde tresses. The tips of her fingertips seemed to blur like the tines of a tuning fork.

She’s humming, he realized, the harmony coming from her divine flesh.

The ultimate resonance of passion is to give yourself completely to something else. Something beyond your selfish existence.” She whipped her gaze around. “You’ve fled your dreary existence to find freedom in this night of excess. You are tired of giving a little of yourself. To your parents. Your children and spouses. Your community. You think you want passion, that you’ll find it in this momentary pleasure. To truly resonate with passion, you have to surrender everything to the flames.”

Her eyes, almost glowing like ruby jewelchines, fell on Taek’a for a moment.

Feed it everything you have until nothing, not even ash, remains.” She shuddered. “That is why you are here. You don’t want freedom. You want the slavery that comes from true passion. To be a servant to something greater than yourself. Do you have the courage to face the trial of the desert? To let the blazing sun consume you and the sizzling sands devour you? Can you survive the furnace and become something better?

A Bloodfire?” someone called.

Bloodfires… The greatest warriors in the world. Unparalleled in their skill. They fought without fear because they had none. Every ten years, O’csari recruited for her fighters. Men and women who could take wounds that would slay Taek’a. Who could run for days on end? They never disobeyed because they gave themselves utterly to their master. They were the ultimate expression of Passion.

It terrified Taek’a that any could take the oath.

O’csari thrust her arms high.

Are you cowards?” she demanded. “Are you too scared to give yourself to me. You didn’t fear surrendering to the wine you drank, the drugs you chewed, the lusts you enjoyed. You willingly threw yourself into debauchery. You have come close to the flames. They are waiting for you. Cast yourself in. Blaze with me and be reborn as something noble. Something beautiful. Give yourself unto me and find the ultimate freedom.”

A drunken man stumbled forward, his hair shaved in the manner of a Kiwuj Ki’manese. He wore a dirty, tunic-like thwab. “I’ll become a Bloodfire!”

The Avatar of Fire whirled. Flames blazed across her entire body as she sauntered to him. She cupped his face and kissed him. The fire burning on her fingers danced to the harmonic resonance surging through the air.

The fire melted into the man. He stiffened and gasped. She broke the kiss. “I accept your oath. Dawn, you start your journey.”

Bloodfire!” a man shouted in salute.

Bloodfire!” Taek’a roared with the others.

I’ll be one!” a lean woman said, pressing from two others. She swayed with drink. “I’ll do it. Sounds easy.”

As easy as being born,” said O’csari before seizing the lean woman’s face with burning fingers and planting the fiery kiss.

The resonance hummed.

Why would they do this? Taek’a asked as another man stepped forward followed by the blacksmith. Most die. Who could survive walking days through the desert without water or food? It’s madness.

I can do it,” slurred a slender man who tripped as he marched forward, falling on his face on the sand. “I can swing a sword.”

Anyone can,” O’csari said as she knelt to kiss him.

Are they too drunk to know? He felt the alcohol burning through his own veins. The fire intense. They’re abandoning everything. They’re families. Their homes. A life of making bread…

He stared down at his dark hands. Wueda would make a fine wife. She had a plump figure. Her father’s bakery was profitable. It would be his one day, and until then he would make loaf after loaf. Day in and day out.

You slept with her that night, he reminded himself. You spilled your seed in her. You made an oath with her that night.

He thought of Sa’ina and the other women he’d enjoyed in drunken romps since arriving in Sdacsa’i. It didn’t matter here that he’d enjoyed their bodies. Even if a child quickened, it would be their husbands’ responsibilities to raise.

If Wueda is here… He pushed that thought away. She didn’t chafe under the regimented life in their village. Every day the same thing, forcing himself to wake up before dawn to work in the bakery. To find his bed before dusk.

He’d grow slowly fat like her father had from nibbling on his own wares. He’d face the ovens day in and day out. This strange horror filled him as his future stretched out before him. He swayed, dizzy from the wine.

Who else has the courage to surrender everything to the fire?”

Everything… His eyes lifted. He met her ruby gaze. A smile spread on her lips.

I can see it,” O’csari said. “Say it. Make the oath.”

I’ll be a Bloodfire,” he said, flinching from that stark feature. He never should have slept with Wueda. He’d been drunk for the first time on wheat beer, the music had been pounding, and the girl he’d wanted to dance with had instead chosen Bue’ab.

I’ll be a Bloodfire!” he declared, his voice slightly slurred. “Better than being a baker.”

Giving life is more work than taking it,” agreed O’csari before her blazing hands seized him. Fiery lips kissed him.

The resonance he felt early intensified. It shook his entire body. He shuddered as his bones shook. His flesh suddenly felt liquid. Porous. It was like the vibrations were energizing every bit of him, allowing him to become one with her flames.

They merged into his body.

She broke the kiss, and he collapsed to his knees, panting. Sweat dripped from his brow. Locks of ropy, twisted hair spilled down his cheek. He looked up to see O’csari collect the first woman she’d kissed, snag a flagon of wine from a man’s hand, and vanish into an alley.

What did I just do?” he groaned, feeling the weight of his oath. The only one that mattered here.

*

The Bloodfire oath was not easily broken.

Taek’a felt it in his bones as he waited for the sun to rise with the others who’d made it. The fire lurked in him, waiting for him to uphold his word, or he would truly surrender everything to the flames. The lean woman rocked back and forth a few paces from him, her eyes wide with the horror at what she’d done. On his other side, the blacksmith wept, staring down at his broad hands.

Every time I get drunk, I make a bad oath,” Taek’a said.

The blacksmith glanced at him, tears staining his ebony face.

I mean, it could be worse, right?” Taek’a tried to focus on that. “We’ll be warriors. Invincible. Not forced to marry the ugliest girl in the village because we were too drunk to see straight.”

The blacksmith looked down, his broad shoulders rippled. The lean woman barked a laugh that turned into a croaking sob. She shook her head and rubbed at her temple.

Headache?”

She nodded. “I’ve never been drunk before.”

I know a great hangover cure.”

She groaned, “What?”

Baking in the desert. We’ll be feeling the sun frying our bodies soon.”

She cocked her head. “Do you always babble stupidly in the morning?”

When I’m nervous. Too drunk last night to be nervous but now…” He glanced out at the desert. The sun neared rising, the world lightened to iron grays. Sand stretched across the horizon. It was said to be nothing but dunes between here and Bue’csa’i. The fortress where O’csari trained the Bloodfires lay at the end of the peninsula.

We’re not going to make it,” groaned the blacksmith. He flexed strong hands. “Passion’s curse this oath!”

But it’s what you want,” the purring voice of O’csari said.

Taek’a glanced behind him to see her emerging wrapped in a robe of Demochian silk. It clung to her lithe, pale body, her ruby eyes almost glowing. A woman hugged her from behind, ebony face blissful, eyes glazed from liquor or chewing brown soothe.

Passion has driven you here. Passions have hammered your life into the shape they now hold. Be free of them. Surrender them to the flames.” A cruel smile crossed her lips. “One way or the other, your lives have ended. You accepted my kiss. My flames burn in you. What will be left once they blaze? What will be born from your ashes?”

The blacksmith snarled and lunged at her. His bulk crossed the iron-gray sands in a flash, a charging rhino. A hum rippled through the world, the vibration of creation itself, the Passion of Fire roaring from O’csari.

Taek’a didn’t see her move. The woman hugging O’csari gasped, suddenly holding empty air. The blacksmith flipped through the air and slammed down on his back. It was an impossible feat of strength. O’csari weighed half of the blacksmith’s bulk and stood two heads shorter. She planted her foot on his broad chest.

Sun is about to rise,” she said. “Burn here or burn in the desert.”

Let me go back!” the blacksmith snarled. “I’ll make their passion-cursed pots and pans. I’ll slave before the furnace. Release me!”

But you gave your oath.” She leaned over. “There are consequences to everything. I used to think differently, I did. I believed in Anidze. We thought we could change the world, and instead we shattered it. We ruined it all.” Her lips curled in a smile as confusion rippled through Taek’a. Anidze sounded so much like A’nimize, the deadly manifestation of the Black Passion. The dread one that caused strife and discord, which had ruined the world in the distant antiquity, fracturing the peoples. It was why oaths were important.

A word spoken held power. A deed committed held repercussions. He could feel that truth in him.

Passions must be channeled, and if you do not have the self-control to manage it yourself…” Her eyes flicked to Taek’a and the others. “Go or die with him. Perhaps you’ll be reborn into something with purpose. Something strong and powerful. Perhaps you can be free of it all.”

A Bloodfire?” I asked.

Her smile flicked across her lips. “Maybe. We’ll see. Succeed or fail.”

Taek’a felt the harmony in him swelling. He glanced at the desert before him, gray, almost cool and inviting. The hairs at the back of his neck stood up. He ran a hand over his hair dreadlocks. He thought of Wueda. Is this better than marrying her?

No.

He jogged out into the desert, the others rushing with him. Flames erupted behind him. The blacksmith howled in agony, his screams flogging Taek’a. His legs found endurance. Despite the queasiness in his stomach, his pace quickened. He ran as fast as he could. His sandaled feet smacked on the sun-baked sand. The muscles rippled beneath his dark skin. The pounding in his head intensified. The taste of blood soon filled his mouth. His side throbbed.

He ignored it. He pressed into the desert.

The sun rose behind him. He felt its fire kissing his back. It spilled over his skin. A coating of sweat gleamed over his flesh. Scrub brush passed him by as he crossed the sandy soil. Lizards scurried into cover and desert thrushes chirped from thorny bushes. Grasshoppers bounded with him, their bodies as tan as the soil.

Finally, his endurance failed. He stumbled to a gasping halt. The sun’s heat already hammered at him. The air danced and wavered on the horizon, showing deceptive pools of refreshing water.

Thirst attacked him.

He looked around and saw none of the others. He glanced back behind him and only saw his footsteps disturbing the sandy slope of a dune. His head cast about while the pulsing rhythm of fire buzzed through his bones.

It pulled him onward.

You’ll be a warrior of legend,” said Taek’a as he stumbled forward. His feet kicked at the sand. His chest heaved. He licked lips, finding them cracked. He panted, his mouth dry. He rubbed his tongue across the roof of his mouth, struggling to generate moisture. “A mighty Bloodfire. Won’t that be something?”

Of course, have to be consumed by the desert,” he answered himself.

True.”

The sun’s heat intensified as he spoke to himself. The sheen of sweat on his body evaporated by noon. None replaced it. When he stopped to urinate, a weak stream of dark yellow spurted out. It hurt. He kept rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, struggling to find any moisture.

His steps grew woozy. He stumbled and swayed, panting. His heart screamed in his chest. He felt it pounding with a frantic rhythm. He sucked in breaths, the air as hot as a baker’s oven. He coughed and wheezed. The sun kissed every inch of his body. His skin broiled in it. He shook his head, the world stumbling about him.

Someone has to make it through this,” he muttered, his bones buzzing. “I’ve seen a Bloodfire, remember?”

The Water’s Gift Festival?” he asked himself.

Yes, yes, the big chap with the huge sword. All the girls swooned over him. More than a few tried to entice him into a marriage.”

Not that he cared. Do Bloodfires even care about pleasure?”

Don’t care about anything, do they? Not surprising, feel like I’m getting wrung dry.”

Every drop squeezed out.”

His words trailed off as he stumbled forward into the setting sun. He blinked at that, his thoughts molten. It shone on him, half-blinding his eyes. His back and shoulders throbbed. His skin felt pinched taut by a thousand tiny fingers. He licked cracked lips oozing sluggish blood.

He tripped.

Pain flared through his toe. He gasps, stumbling and falling on the sizzling sand. He sucked in a breath, rolling over onto his back. He screamed in agony at the pain bursting across his blistered skin. He staggered to his feet, swaying.

Stared at the skull he’d tripped over.

Sand spilled out of one of the eye socket. More gagged the mouth. It was human, the exposed parts bleached white, the buried stained a dirty brown. He groaned and picked it up.

Look at you,” he said. “What happened to your flesh? Burst into flames?”

A mad cackle rasped from Taek’a. “Tried to turn your blood into fire, eh? That’s what I’m doing. Feeling it boiling out of me. Soon, soon, I’ll blaze!”

He turned and stumbled forward again, marching into the sunset, a skull gripped in hand. Sand tumbled off his back, spilling over the oozing blisters cooked into his dark flesh. The sun vanished. He’d survived the first day in the desert.

One down,” he muttered. He chortled again, his mind broiling. “See, did better than you, huh? Can’t fail. Can’t be like the blacksmith. He burst into flames…” A mad idea popped into Taek’a’s sun-addled mind. “Is that you, Blacksmith? Did you blaze here? Where did it happen?”

He staggered as the world cooled around him. Darkness deepened. He collapsed onto his chest and sank into dreams.

A dark, warm confine held Taek’a. He felt safe, curled up into a ball, his knees pressing into his chest. Whatever held him rippled and shifted. It squeezed him tight like a babe wrapped in swaddling.

Are you strong enough?” whispered a woman. “Birth comes in blood and pain.”

His eyes snapped opened.

The sun cooked him. Heat danced around him. Movement cracked pain across his back, muscles rippling splitting open blisters. Thick puss oozed across leathery skin, quickly congealing in the heat. He clutched the skull and staggered to his feet.

It was a wild night,” he babbled to the skull. “You know it. You were there.”

I was, answered the skull. He spoke with the deep timbre that reminded Taek’a of his father. Good harvest. A night of bounty. Many oaths were sworn.

Wrong oaths,” Taek’a muttered. “Wueda nice enough girl, but Obra’a… Now there was a girl to marry.”

She danced with Bue’ab. What was so wrong with Wueda?

Shrugged. He stumbled towards the west, the sun flogging his aching back. His heart screamed in his chest, struggling to pump his thickening blood. He shook his head, the skull floating beside him. Ropy locks of hair spilled around the bleached-white bones of her face.

Wueda’s hair

Yes, what was so wrong with me? Wueda’s skull asked, mandible moving, teeth clattering together.

Just… Just…” Taek’a shook his head. His ebony skin had a waxy complexion where it wasn’t blistering from the sun’s burning touch. “It’s not fair. One drunken mistake, and I had to marry you.”

I know, Wueda’s skull said. If I had been sober… Well, I was willing to make it work, but you were a coward. Too afraid of your passions. It’s why you’re going to fail. You’re not going to make it.

Show you,” he muttered and staggered forward.

The day passed in a haze of hallucinations. Skulls drifted around him, laughing, jeering, cheering. He struggled to speak to them, but his tongue didn’t seem to work. It felt shriveled in his mouth. Everything about him felt reduced.

He fell to his knees, not even feeling the searing heat of the sand. He crawled forward, staring at the horizon, at the ball of the setting sun. Skulls danced around it, a spiraling circle feeding the fiery orb. He would join them soon if he stopped.

His blood boiled away. It poured out of his pores, a red steam. His heart hurt. Every beat a struggle to pump congealing gunk through his veins. He dug at the sand, pulling himself forward another pace. He wanted to laugh. To cry. To… to…

Remember.

Taek’a collapsed into a ball. He dreamed he was in a womb, the comforting presence squeezing around him. Flames danced around him. They burned, hungry to swallow him. His bones yearned for it. For the end, but he was still safe here.

Protected.

He sucked on his thumb, his body held tight.

Do you have the strength to see the Eternal Tone? the mother asked him. Her voice echoed from all directions. To harmonize with pure fire. Your blood is gone. Sludge oozes through your veins. Do you feel it? The darkness? Do you want that?

He did not. Fear ripped through him. He trembled in the womb, the last of his passion raging in him. That was the last bit of him that existed. It had a name. Taek’a. He would have to surrender it to be born. He would have to give up everything to emerge from the womb.

His heart labored. He could feel the pain that living cost him. It was proof that he wasn’t gone. That he still breathed. If he gave up his last passion, it would take away his will. He would be bereft of it.

Terror rippled through him. He didn’t want to stop being Taek’a. He was scared of giving up his identity. It was his core. The flames burned around the womb. The fire wanted to devour his essence. If he were born, he would die.

He couldn’t surrender.

NO!” he screamed and clutched onto that last bit of life. He held it into his heart.

His blood caught fire.

He gasped as he felt his will, his desire to live, surging through his veins. The thick sludge that had become his blood, almost desiccated of any moisture, burned with hunger. It spread through his body. His heart pumped living flames through his network of arteries and veins. They spread, consuming everything.

Taek’a’s memories became the fuel for his life. His body grew stronger, sustained by his own passions, a never-ending inferno. He wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t pass from life into death. His flesh would survive.

You swore an oath, a voice whispered. To give it all up.

Taek’a’s awareness quivered at that revelation then it was gone, devoured by the fire now sustaining his body. His identity reduced to ash. The flames spread through him, merging with him. He became a living flame. The heat of the desert did not matter. The sun did not hurt. He didn’t need water when he had fire burning through his veins.

He opened his eyes.

I see you failed,” a disappointed voice said. A mother’s voice.

She stood over him, her pale skin framed by blonde hair, her red eyes soft. She touched his ebony face. The caress was tender and gentle. Pain swelled in her eyes as she stroked down to his thick lips. Her flesh felt cool, almost icy, on him.

They always fail,” she said. “No one can surrender everything to the flames. You tried. You were close. You came far, but it wasn’t enough, was it? You didn’t want to stop existing.”

Who am I?” he asked, his voice a rumbling monotone.

Her head cocked. “Why, a Bloodfire. A failed ascension. I have to keep carrying my burden.”

The Bloodfire blinked eyes.

You don’t understand. They never do.” She sighed and rose. “You need a name. How is… Ni’mod?”

Ni’mod shrugged. He flexed fingers, feeling the heat pulsing beneath his veins. A harmony sang inside of him, fiery and hungry. It demanded to be unleashed. It wanted to roar from him, to blaze and burn.

Come, Ni’mod,” she said. “I think one more made it far enough.”

As Ni’mod rose, his naked body hole and hale, he noticed a lean woman standing with a blank expression. He didn’t give her a thought. He turned and followed the pale-skin mother as she marched across the desert, lit by the setting sun. Ahead, another figure lay curled up in a fetal position, rust-red steam rising from dark skin.

Ni’mod walked into his future without care. Whatever burdens drove him into the desert were gone, consumed within his fiery blood. Only his life remained. The last passion he’d clung to. His final act of selfishness.

END

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Blood to Flame takes place in the Jewel Machine Universe!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

Get it today!

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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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