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Weekly Short Story: Mutilated

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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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

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!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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Weekly Free Short Story: Mutilated

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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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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