The tear ran black and jagged up into the sky, like lightning in reverse. It branched out thousands of feet overhead, a colossal tree whose boughs were fractured void. Each jagged crack held the obsidian darkness of space, with the occasional pin-point glint of too-bright stars peeking through. The fractal pattern writ itself large across the sky, spreading as she watched, twisting Heather’s guts and instincts as wrong.
Heather knew what was happening. The instinct was in her bones seconds before her mind could catch up. She spurred Njorn towards the town without a second thought. Distant relief registered at the sound of hooves right behind her. I’m not the only one running toward the explosion, instead of away from it. Duty first.
The wind blew in at a gale-force roar, as air was sucked into the tear in the sky. Birds and low-lying clouds were vanishing into it, disappearing from sight. Lost to this world, Heather thought, as she watched a fluttering white flock fight against the suction, and lose.
She ran her frightened horse straight towards the centre of the crack that sprouted from the centre of the town plaza. The central crack was at least eight feet wide, but overhead it split into hundreds of jagged, irregular branches, as if the sky was a window shattered in every dimension. Each crack branched and split again and again, a fractal horror, like a bramble carved of obsidian.
The Sending Gate’s site was a wreck of broken stone rubble and debris. She didn’t see Squire Norris.
Norris, she thought. The bastards got Norris.
As screaming people fled the centre of town, Heather’s spooking horse was outpaced by Ramdas. He led the charge, bellowing to be heard over the rush of wind: “Clear the way! Take shelter in your homes! Get to safety!”
She followed Ramdas towards the small plaza, dodging Njorn left around a jagged branch that was descending from a larger crack. It looked like obsidian lightning, slowed to the speed of molasses. As it descended, inch by inch, it cut through the corner of the overhanging roof of the mage college. A piece of the roof slate, about an inch across, fell to the ground.
“The cracks are spreading!”, she bellowed to Ramdas. They’re growing. And they cut through everything they touch. Or that touches them.
She could feel the void overhead, in its absence, a hovering numbness spreading across her scalp. Feels like that moment when you know a spider’s hanging on a thread, just above your skin. You don’t feel it, but you somehow know it’s there. She shuddered, and dodged her horse around another hissing crack in reality, air rushing away to be lost forever.
The Sending Gate was a blasted ruin. The man who operated the Gate was laying on his back on the rubble-strewn ground. He was bleeding from his ears, and the cowl of his Merchant Guild livery had been torn away by the blast. Part of his scalp had been stripped free of his skull, and was left dangling by a scrap of flesh.
But the man was conscious, and his shaking hands were still trying to weave magic, staring up at the towering crack in the sky overhead. So close to the epicentre of the disaster, the howl of escaping air was as loud as a hurricane, and it tugged hard at Heather’s cloak and Ramdas’ mane.
“Help him!” shouted Helga, as she leapt from her spooking horse. She landed with a heavy clang of armor, hammer, and dwarven fury, glaring around for a target. Her landing disturbed a scattering of confetti out from under the rubble, tiny bits of paper left blasted and torn.
The fluttering bits caught Heather’s eye. That’s my watercolor paper, Saints damn it. I can tell by the grain. So much for Squire Norris, she thought, a sick rage rising in her gut. He was carrying that message. They killed him for it.
Heather dismounted, and let her pony flee the glittering tear and the rushing wind. She knelt in the rubble beside the wounded mage. Up close, the sensation of one spider dangling over her had turned into a hundred, an absence of sensation unnatural and menacing, leaving her skin crawling.
Fight the urge to look up into that, she thought, her mind bobbing atop the tide of her rising terror. She turned her eyes to the injured man. Focus here. There’s nothing out there. Not in that horrible pitch blackness between the stars, empty of everything. Only Void. You can’t do anything about it. But he can. Save him. He’s trying to close the tear.
The man cast Heather a grateful look as her hands settled around his head. Blood trickled from his blast-ruined ears, and his face was speckled with tiny shrapnel cuts. Bits of stone were flecked and embedded in his face and had torn tufts from his salt-and-pepper hair.
Up so close to the magic he was weaving, Heather’s spine felt as if it were crawling up through her head. Complex flows of magic were erupting from the injured man’s fingertips, dozens of flows whose flavors she’d never felt before. His eyes were intent on repairing the damage the Gate’s destruction had torn overhead.
The man didn’t look at her again, as he locked every drop of concentration he had in mending the tear. Heather steadied herself into a low-slung posture, secure and stable on her hands and knees to support the man’s head and neck.
She swallowed as she avoided looking at the slowly spreading cracks overhead. I’ve heard legends of a Sending Gate circle failure before, old stories from centuries ago. But reading about the tears in the sky and the Void beyond was one thing. They never mentioned the rushing wind, or how terrifying the emptiness beyond is.
Sweat began to drip from down Heather’s face as she gripped the man’s head tightly, straining to recall her triage training as a squire: Knees and elbows down, be rooted, be stable. Stabilize the head and neck, keep the airway open. Let the body supply the mass, make the magic supply the energy. Knit flesh and bone. Don’t think about the process, visualize the result. Need that result with all your heart. If he dies, who knows how far these cracks would spread before rescue could come and close them?
A nearby shop collapsed, the roof falling to the stone of the plaza with a loud crash of stone tiles and failed timbers.
Heather closed her eyes to pray. Saint Aysha, thrice blessed, hear my plea. Let him be made whole. Let the town be saved. Please, Saints, please, help me heal this man!
She let emotion overwhelm her, and overtake her. She felt her heart reach out for the Light. Clear your mind, follow your training. Don’t think about the flows, the earths and waters, fires, that are braiding together inside his body. That’s too many moving parts to hold in your conscious mind. Think of healing. Put him together. There’s blood on his lips, and when he coughs. So knit the lungs first. Airway, then air, then blood, then everything else.
The jagged cracks in reality fanned out densely, forty yards away from the epicenter. But now they were beginning to branch out in fine, wire-like filaments from the trunk. One long crack began to split and elongate, jinking this way and that, moving inexorably towards the mage on the ground.
That one’s coming close. I don’t have long, healing doesn’t work fast. Saints, how am I supposed to do this in time? Heather thought.
The mittens on her hands were the reminder she needed, prompting that clear memory of the old woman in her stall back in Landsdowne. The old woman had been knitting seven pairs at a time with her magic, all while tending the money. Don’t think about the parts, they’ll take care of themselves. Put the whole together. Focus on that, and you can do this.
“I need help here!” she bellowed.
Immediately, the knights gathered around her, joining themselves in supporting the man’s body, and lending their flows of magic to her.
Heather’s skin continued to crawl with sensations of sand and dust, heat and cold, sliding all around her body. Helga’s bringing the earth. Ramdas has the fire, no surprises there, but light and void too? Black and white’s more than skin deep on you, Lieutenant.
Persephone’s flows were alien things, subtle and fine-scale, working far below the sizes her magic understood. It’s not time magic, after all. She’s using something even stranger than that. Her magic works so small I can’t even tell where it stops. Slows things down right at the kinetic level. My skin doesn’t even know what to make of it. If you could mix the feel of satin and head cheese, that’s what it feels like.
The approaching crack hissed its way into Heather’s field of vision; creeping, no faster than an inch every few seconds. A drop of sweat fell off of her forehead, and was sucked up into the Void.
Four inches from my face. Seven from his. Trending downwards. Touching it will cut like a razor, even through armor. Adamant wouldn’t stop this. If I move him, he could lose his concentration, or consciousness. If I don’t move him, that crack is going to wander through his left eye in the next minute.
Ramdas’ voice cut through the hurricane roar around them: “We’re here, Blackthorne. Take our strength.”
Training said there should have been someone guarding, someone on watch protecting their back, but Heather called out for Squire DuChamp to join. Doesn’t matter if a necromancer’s watching, waiting to send minions. Doesn’t matter if we take a dagger in our backs now, if this mage doesn’t get the tear closed.
Their magic throbbed around her, and she reached out with her heart, a wash of gratitude momentarily surging over her worry and terror. They gave their flows over, and she set her will to shaping them, drawing from each as they offered, and her patient needed. Doing her best to ignore the steadily creeping cracks around them, breaking up reality, shattering it in the wake of the devastation of the Gate.
The knights chanted together, but the chant was merely words, distraction and focus to keep the conscious mind busy while the unconscious handled the details. Flows of earth pulled minerals around to fill in cracked bone, and supplied salts the tissues cried out for. Lightning and fire fed energy, and fed the cells what they needed. Ice and Water to cool overheated, overworked tissues, keeping swelling down. A hundred complex bits weaving together at once, fighting to keep the man conscious.
Alive or not, after this, is less important than keeping him conscious for now. If he dies later, one man dies. If he faints now, we all die. The cold-blooded thought wasn’t a comfortable one.
Meanwhile, the Merchant’s Guild mage was weaving flows so fast and complex Heather couldn’t keep track. The mage was casting a net of Time and Void, threading the magic together in the air around the spreading cracks. He was also adding other, stranger flows, some of which were elements she had no name for. The net began drawing closed around the tear in the sky.
The man’s flows were overly complicated, too complex even for the titanic task unfolding over their heads.
He’s hiding his work, even now, Heather realized. He’s laying in the dirt, one foot in the grave, town in danger, and we’re drawing everything his body can spare just to keep him alive. And he’s still protecting the Guild’s secrets. Heather snorted, and a nudge from Persephone’s elbow reminded her to focus.
The hair-thin crack wove lower, and neatly sliced through the mage’s eyelashes, the shaved bits of hair vanishing into the vacuum.
Feedback from every flow she adjusted came loaded with emotion. Just tweaking Ramdas’ proffered flows was distracting and painful. He’s like a man on a beach at sunset. With an ocean of faith between him and the sun of his own anger. There’s nothing human about that rage. Bring it any closer to his heart, it would boil every sea.
Persephone’s emotions were raw, everything about her flows an exposed nerve. Anger, fear, love, affection, faith. She has to put those walls up around the outside, because there’s none on the inside. She rattles around inside the armor of her own heart.
And Helga, sweet, stout-hearted Helga, her flows held no surprises. She’s sad, angry, concerned, worried for us. For everyone. But she’s not afraid. She believes in us. The world could end tomorrow, she’d grab the first piece of rubble she found and make it into the first brick of a new world.
Heather tried not to think about what that feedback, in turn, felt like for her comrades. Bet that void overhead has nothing on me, she thought.
The crack nicked the mage’s eyelid, and opened a thin red line in the skin. He made a sound, and squinted that eye, but didn’t look away from his work. The blood from the cut vanished into the Void, keeping his vision clear. Heather quickly shunted the flows, offering them up to the mage in her hands. He rejected them, flatly, with a grunt of negation.
Heather wanted to shake the man about by his head. Take the damn magic and seal that void before you die, you idiot!
His magic wove up like a net around the crack in the sky overhead, and then slammed taut, drawing the great tear closed. Heather could feel it rising and squeezing, pulling reality back together through the great rent the Gates had torn in their destruction. It feels like someone wrapped fishing net around my face and cinched it tight, she thought.
Confetti-like bits of paper kept getting swept up in the howling gale around them, the pieces burnt and torn everywhere. Scraps of cloth and dust pelted them, forcing Heather to close her eyes as she worked. The sensation of her face and head being caught in tight netting broke her concentration, and she let her flows and those of her team evaporate around them. Time to find out if it was enough, she thought. She forced her eyes back open to watch the mage beneath her and his frantic work.
The injured mage grimaced, his eyes wide, hands clutching at the air as if throttling it. The thin filament of Void withdrew from his eye, and then sank back into his forehead, cutting at bone. The man screamed, and tendons strained and corded his arms and neck as the tear, towering thousands of feet over the town, began to close. The crack drilling its way towards his brain paused in its advance, and then began to recede again, as slow as the tide. Heather couldn’t see the cracks closing overhead, not with her head bent down and focused on the mage.
But she could feel them squeeze tight, as the gale around them became a stiff wind, and then the sucking noise became a hiss. Then a whistle.
Heather fell back on her ass, gasping in relief, her eyes staring up at the shockingly blue, clear sky. Persephone and Helga both did the same. Ramdas let his head hang in grateful prayer: “Saints protect us and guide us, we give our thanks for our salvation to the divine.”
Heather fought to catch her breath, burnt adrenaline stinking bitterly around her, terror and fear left behind in the focus of the moment finally allowed to return. She glared around. The square was empty, but for rubble and body parts. Everyone with a lick of sense had bolted, hidden in cellars and homes. Some had caught themselves carelessly on the razor-thin cracks in reality that had fanned out. Slices of meat, limbs, and half of a stray cat lay about them. All cut as neat and fine as the best butcher’s blade.
Surprisingly bloodless, Heather observed. Their blood got sucked into the Void along with everything else.
She looked around for the wounded on her team. Ramdas had a long, thin cut across his left haunch where the cracks had scored him, but it looked superficial. Squire DuChamp and Persephone were untouched. Helga had a small hole in her left shoulder, a thin dribble of blood emerging from the wound.
Heather shot her an exhausted, grateful look. She held still while the Void was boring through her. She didn’t let the pain stop her from doing her job. Good girl.
“Are you injured?” Persephone asked Heather.
Heather counted four bodies in the plaza. Two dead nearby, woman, early fifties, one man, middle to late fifties. Wedding bands match, married. Stone shrapnel and blast wounds in them both. That means those two died in the initial blast of whatever precipitated this catastrophe. Two more, over by the market stalls. Woman, mid-sixties. Clean cut, right through the left femur, bled out fast. Young man, fur trader, native. Head jaggedly bisected. One third of his head is peeled away, brain exposed to air. Death was probably instant and painless for him.
“Blackthorne?” came Persephone’s voice again.
Four dead, one merchant guild mage wounded, two minor injuries on church knights. Probably six to twelve more hurt and hiding, judging from the blood trails. And that’s just in the town square. There’s some damage to the buildings all the way out past the docks and almost to the Church. Residential quarter will have some casualties.
“Blackthorne!” Persephone shouted.
Heather gave her head a shake, and refocused her eyes on Persephone. “Yes?”
“Come out of your head, Detective, we need you. Are you hurt?”
Heather checked herself over, felt for pains. Tweaked my left ankle a bit leaping off the horse. Nothing else. No sharp pains.
“I’m okay, Lieutenant,” Heather replied.
“Good. Help me get Helga’s armor open.”
“Triage, Lieutenant. Helga, can you move that arm, no loss of feeling in your fingertips, no problem wiggling fingers?”
The dwarf gave her gauntlet a slow clench, then wiggled all her fingers. “All good, dearies.”
“Then you’ll live. The bleeding is minor, and there’s no nerve damage. We’ve got at least a handful of amputations and avulsion injuries in town. We should round them up, get them help at the Church as fast as possible,” said Heather.
Persephone didn’t look pleased with the response, but Helga simply nodded and rose to her feet, looking to Ramdas for direction.
“Si,” said Ramdas. “I will organize it. Squire DuChamp, to the church. Have all beds opened to the wounded and what healers can be mustered. We’ll round up the horses later. People first.”
“Yes sir,” said the squire. He took off for the chapel at a run.
Frightened faces started to appear in the tiny windows of the cottages and stores. Scared eyes peeking out, staring wide-eyed at the devastation of the stones where the Sending Gate had stood. The rocky ground around the plaza was pitted and scored with jagged lashes and holes, like earth after a tree had been uprooted. A few smoldering little fires were burning in rubble, mostly ruined lamps and precious timber.
“Did Squire Norris get through?” asked Persephone, nudging the mage’s shoulder.
He turned to look at her blankly.
The mage’s ears were bleeding, and it would take finer talents than hers to mend organs so delicate. But he was breathing, and still somewhat conscious. His hands had dropped to his sides, his face one of exhaustion and relief.
“His ears, Persephone,” said Helga, her tone tired. “He’s bled from them. He can’t hear you right now.”
“Then we’ve got to get him back safe to the chapel for questioning,” replied Matthewson, eyes hard.
“Leave off, Lieutenant. Merchant and Mage guilds are going to want after him first. He’s theirs,” said Heather, her voice weary. I’ve arrested mages before. Merchants, too.
“Politics.” Persephone spat the word like a bitter seed.
“He won’t be safe,” said Ramdas.
“If you know anyplace safer than the guild buildings, sir, you don’t know the Merchant Guild,” Heather said.
“So we must bow and scrape to speak to this man, once he is in their care?” the centaur said, stamping a hoof in disgust.
“We’ve just saved his life, and the town, sir.” said Helga. “I’m pretty sure they’ll spare us the time readily. But until his ears are healed…” she gestured to the mage on the ground, who was trying to follow their conversation with a puzzled frown, rendered profoundly deaf as he was. “… he’s not going to be able to answer questions without a lot of writing.”
The front door to the merchant’s hall opened, and a woman bearing a Consul’s uniform came striding out. She turned to inspect the building. The front face of the hall’s structure had taken some damage from the blast, and the windows were broken in, but the guild hall looked sound. The woman took a long, grim look over the blast site and the ruin of the Gates, and then she made her way down the steps and across the plaza, towards the knot of church knights. She moved with a nonplussed confidence, capable and unshaken despite the disaster that lay around them.
Helga and Persephone both raised welcoming hands her way.
“That the Consul?” asked Heather.
“It is,” said Persephone. “The chief one here, anyway.”
Ramdas stood to bar their path, until Persephone’s hand touched his side, laying fingers down across the stripes of the centaur’s flank. “It’s fine, Ramdas. She’s local. The Major’s vouched for her before.”
The centaur stood aside grudgingly, and the Consul stepped forward. Her temples were gray fading into black, and her face was severe. “Thank you, Lieutenant Matthewson,” she said. She turned to face Ramdas. “I’m Consul Sienna. That’s our man, Alfonse. Thank you for your aid.”
“Si, I am Lieutenant Ramdas Pramath. Can you tell us what happened?”
She turned her eyes up to the sky, shaking her head. “Gate failure. I never thought I’d see one in my lifetime.”
“For some here, Consul, it was the last thing they ever saw,” said Ramdas, glowering fiercely.
Heather cleared her throat. “There was an explosion, just before that tear opened. Maybe more than one. More blast than heat, judging by the debris. We’d just sent a Squire through. Can you tell us if he made it?”
Consul Sienna shook her head. “Alfonse didn’t tell you?”
Persephone gestured to the man on the ground. “The blast ruined his ears, for now. It’s urgent that we find out what he knows, as soon as possible. Knight Blackthorne saved his life. He was dying.”
I’m not sure that’s true, thought Heather, but it would probably help for them to believe that. Either way, the wounds were bad.
Sienna nodded. “You’ll have all the cooperation we can permit, Lieutenant, I give you my word. It’s the best I can do, under the circumstance. We’ll charter a ship as soon as we can to bring supplies for a replacement for the Sending gates. But there’s no chance at this time of the year of a replacement for the Gates before next summer. There’s only a week or two before the ice comes back.”
“So we’re cut off,” said Heather.
“Yes. We’re cut off,” said Sienna. “We’ll investigate the blast right away. We take the security and safety of our transport extremely seriously. The Gate was recently serviced and given a maintenance check. I think it’s safe to say that this wasn’t a malfunction.”
“A bomb? Sabotage? Magic?” asked Ramdas, glancing to Heather for confirmation.
Heather shook her head. “I can’t say yet, but if you’d allow me to investigate the circle, I cou-”
“Completely out of the question,” said Sienna, her tone managing to both snap and sound apologetic at the same time. “I’m truly sorry, Knight, but we cannot, do not, and will not allow agencies, neither noble, church, nor state, to interfere in our autonomy.”
Heather bristled. So it’s futile. I’ve heard those words before. You can drag a guild mage to any agent of state and church law. But Merchant Guild? Might as well try to pick a fight with an embassy. They’re beyond the reach of the law, and they know it.
She didn’t like it, and neither did Ramdas judging by the way he loomed over the woman and her short bob-cut blonde hair. But Sienna looked genuinely contrite, and not the least bit intimidated by Ramdas. “I will invite you to speak with Alfonse when he is recovered. We will keep him safe, and do what we can to restore his hearing. Is he in danger?”
Ramdas spoke in the measured tones of a man barely strangling his temper. “It is too soon to tell, Consul Sienna. Let us assume yes, until we have reason to believe otherwise.”
Sienna held out an upturned hand Heather’s way. “Thank you for your quick action, Knights. We’ll send any medicinal supplies you need, and our healer once he has seen to Alphonse. And please, send the names of the injured and deceased so that we can make appropriate reparations as soon as possible.”
“Let’s save the handshaking and the deal-making for after we’ve rounded up the wounded, dearies.” said Helga.
“Of course,” said Sienna, letting her hand drop.
Like every Consul ever, thought Heather. Business first.
Sienna crouched down, helping Alfonse’s sagging body up to his feet. With a grunt of effort on she slung the man’s arm across her shoulders, and walked towards the guild doors. Ramdas reached down to steady the man, and they walked him to the doors of the guild building. When they reached the Guild doors, two more guild-liveried servants emerged from the building to carry Alfonse the rest of the way in.
Sienna turned to Ramdas, and gave him a silent bow of farewell. After a moment’s frustrated hesitation, the centaur returned the gesture, and picked his way back down the stairs.
The team walked clear of the Sending grounds, kicking up bits of paper and debris. The sky overhead was shockingly clear and empty, the local clouds having disappeared into the tear. People began to emerge from their homes, some shouting cries for help. Heather turned to face a knot of frightened townsfolk that were peeking out the holes in a damaged shop.
“Bring the wounded to the church! Spread the word!” shouted Heather. “If they’ve lost limbs, find them, bring them with the owner. Those were clean cuts, there might be some we can save. Everyone, if you’re hurt, come out, get to the church now. Get wagons, horses, for those who can’t walk. Hurry!”
“Healers!” bellowed Ramdas. “Faithful healers, to the church, immediately! Any who may offer tender mercy, we call on you!”
His plea had an earnestness and volume that turned heads and earned nods. Persephone and Helga jogged down the street, commandeering an empty tradesman’s cart without a lick of argument from the owner.
As the hue and cry spread, the injured were carried out. Most, Heather was grateful to see, were only serious lacerations. Lots of clean cuts. Anyone with a serious arterial bleed is probably already dead. Almost everyone else will have to get by with stitches.
A man with a doctor’s bag in hand was seeing to the worst of the wounded as they were loaded on the cart. After careful checking of a woman’s bleeding wrist, he pressed the stump to her hand, and carefully poured a small black vial over the cut. It ran and stained her skin like ink, but seemed to bring her some relief.
Heather jogged over his way. “You’re the town doctor? How can I help?”
The doctor had patient hands, carefully turning the woman’s stained wrist over. “I am. I need tourniquets, and splints. I can seal the skin, maybe suture some of the arteries. How are you at sutures?”
“Terrible,” admitted Heather. “I’ll get you whatever I can.”
She ducked into the doctor’s office. His door had been cut through at about her head-height, the upper third of the door hanging on one hinge. The cut was seamless, a perfect, jagged gap the width of her fingernail, without a hint of sawdust lingering where the cracks in the world had passed.
Light from the cut shone a light across the cupboards and counters inside. Finding tourniquets was easy, and she passed them back out the door to the doctor. The splints came next, and so Heather hopped up into the back of the cart, to kneel shoulder-to-shoulder with the doctor as he worked.
The world fell into a tunnel for Heather. Nothing in the world mattered more than watching her hands, holding up bloodied limbs, pouring the inky black tincture onto broken skin to seal the wounds. Splints, carefully placed, supporting the limbs as men, women, children cried out in pain around them.
Fearful voices often intruded on her focus. Shouts of alarm rose from bystanders, pointing at the devastation of the Gate, crying out for the mercy of the Saints. Loud, sobbing prayers came from people around the cart, praying for loved ones lying wounded or dead in the streets. A few merchants and traders were shouting angrily, demanding reparations and justice. One frightened voice in the crowd kept shouting, asking if it would happen again, did anyone know?
Angry people hurled rocks at the front door of the merchant guild. That stopped the first time a defensive rune triggered, and caused the thrown rock to explode violently, eliciting shrieks of alarm by terrified bystanders. Mercifully, nobody was stupid enough to try it with a thrown spell.
The clank and slap of armor intruded on Heather’s focus, as Noble house soldiers came running down the street and poured into the plaza. House Oiselle soldiers flooded into the square, taking over rescues, clearing the uninjured out of the streets and ushering them back into their homes. Six stout soldiers took turns lifting and sliding timbres under the roof of a collapsed house, to check underneath for survivors. What dead and wounded were uncovered were all carried back to the doctor by grim-faced men and women, each of them sporting a white swallow sewn on their breast.
In the centre of a tight knot of fierce-looking swordsman, a blonde girl in fine silks watched the goings-on. She wore an anguished look on her face that never touched her eyes, though her voice was the very model of compassion and concern: “Pierre, get these poor creatures our doctor. Have him sent to the church right away.”
“Yes, m’lady,” came the reply from one of the men in her retinue. “It isn’t safe here. We should get you back to the house.”
“Nonsense. I’ll not cower while people suffer. Find me Mister Weathers. I should like to speak with him.”
“I’m afraid, mi Doña, that will not be possible.”
Ramdas’ voice carried. He trotted up, to the consternation of her retinue. Heather looked up from a leg she was suturing, in time to count four hands go to pommels around the Lady.
The centaur spread his hands, showing them to be empty. “Peace. I am Lieutenant Pramath. Mi Doña Oiselle. I am in command, today.”
“Well,” said the Lady Oiselle. “If Weathers left you in command of the situation, I have full faith in him and you. My men are yours to direct, Lieutenant Pramath. In the meanwhile, I would like to speak to Major Weathers personally. Where is he?”
The way the Lady Oiselle spoke had a way of turning imposition into fervent favor. Heather disliked her on the spot.
The centaur smoothed his features, in the way Heather had seen Persephone do. “I cannot discuss his whereabouts in public, mi Doña, my apologies. I will arrange a briefing for you and the Lord Goldbrace at the earliest opportunity.”
The Lady Oiselle pursed her lips, her sharp blue eyes glinting like knives underneath her pale blond hair, but her charm didn’t falter. “Very well, Lieutenant. Please have word sent if more help is needed. Our doctor will be at your chapel within the hour.”
“Gracia, thank you, Lady Oiselle,” said Ramdas.
The Lady bobbed her head, and daintily stepped over the spreading puddle of blood leaking from the corpses on the cart as she took her leave.
“Blackthorne,” said Ramdas.
“Finish that suture, and then I want you door to door with the others.”
“Sir, what about the wounded?”
“You’ve been at it for three hours, Blackthorne. Nobody new has come by the cart in the last twenty minutes. Leave it to the doctor, get out there and search.”
Three hours? Heather peered up at the sky in incredulity. The sun had crawled a fair way across the sky. Eight splints, nine amputations, a burn from a spilled lamp. That time adds up fast.
“Yes sir. You’re headed for the church?”
“No, the fortress. We’ve House Oiselle sweeping the plaza and House Goldbrace is checking the docks and the perimeter for wounded,” Ramdas said. He gestured down towards the docks, where men and women in crimson and gold finery milled. “I want to know why the soldiers of the empire aren’t here as well. They have doctors and supplies, and warm, safe beds for the wounded and homeless.”
Heather shook her head. “Don’t go alone, sir. You’d be vulnerable.” She lifted her eyebrows in silent emphasis. Dead in the streets, and undead in the hills.
“The town needs you and the others here, Caballero,” Ramdas said. He tapped a hoof on cobblestone. “I’ll be swift. Go.”
Without another word, he turned towards the road leading up to the fortress, and broke into a fast gallop.
Heather finished her stitching on the man’s gashed finger, and then made her way down the street towards Persephone and Helga. They were rounding up the horses, and this time, Persephone’s horse was obediently at her side. Heather raised a hand to get their attention.
“Oi, Blackthorne,” said Helga. “Major’s running off to the fortress?”
“Yeah. He ordered me to join the search and rescue. Lieutenant Matthewson? Where do you need me?”
Persephone cupped a hand around her horse’s cheek. “All the collapsed buildings have been checked and cleared. But the whole western row hasn’t had a door-knock yet. See to that, please, while we get the horses to the cart, and the rest of the wounded up to the chapel.”
The western road was quiet, people having been cleared from the streets by noble house soldiers. Smoke was rising from most of the chimneys, evidence of early dinners being cooked. And of families that were still whole nervously turning inwards, seeing to their own in the wake of the tragedy.
So many scared people, Heather thought. And none of them know what we know about who might have caused this. And if we told them now, it would be a bucket of oil on top of an already raging fire.
The streets had thin holes in the stones, here and there, as if impossibly hard nails had been neatly driven into adamantine rock, and then pulled cleanly free. Blood, gone brown and dry in the afternoon sun, streaked rocks here and there.
Heather knocked on the first door of the row. “Church Knights. Just checking in. Is everyone alright? Any injured?”
A frightened-looking native man opened the door. “Nobody is hurt,” he said. “The black tree, it’s gone?”
Suppose it did look something like a black tree, she thought. Bigger than any tree you’d see here, though.
“Yes, it’s gone,” Heather assured him. “If you come across anyone injured, or find a dead body, or a body part? Please tell a soldier immediately. We’re trying to get everyone injured into the church.”
“Yes, yes I will,” said the man. “The black tree, it is gone forever? It will not return? The Gates, they will not rebuild them, yes?”
She swallowed. “They’ll rebuild them next summer. It was an accident. I don’t think it can happen again.” Now I’m lying for the sake of the Guild, just to keep the fear off the streets. Damn it.
Heather thanked the man, and proceeded down the street. The next two houses were the same; frightened people, unhurt but rattled, all of them asking how something like this could have happened. None had never heard of a Gate, anywhere, having an accident.
The fourth house had no answer, when she knocked. A look in through the window showed too much light. Looks like a gap in the roof. Damn. Let’s hope nobody was home. Because today’s been such a lucky day so far.
“Hello? I’m a Church Knight. I’m coming in!” Heather called. “Call out if you can hear me, ple-”
The door swung open when she pushed.
First came the smell of blood, thick in the air. Flies hummed and buzzed around a lump on the floor. Heather swallowed her rising gorge as her eye fell on the fly-covered heap.
It was a chubby left foot, no bigger than her palm, cleanly cut at the ankle.
“Help,” she said. She tried to make it a shout, but the word could only leave her mouth quietly, her voice paralyzed in horror. Her legs went rubbery underneath her, and her back hit the wall near the open door. Armor scraped down the wood of the doorframe as she sat.
The inside of Heather’s head felt like a tin full of rocks, rolling down a hill. Her ears rang, and distantly, she was aware that she was choking on her own sobs. She flailed a hand out the front door.
Soldiers, call the soldiers, she thought. Don’t think don’t look at it look away look away damn it no please stop look away Anthony my boy Anthony that’s not his it isn’t it isn’t call call help help-
“Help!” she sobbed, the word turning into an involuntary scream, as she convulsed around the word. “Help!”
Soldier’s boots on the front steps responded to her cry, and Heather let her mind fall down the yawning pit waiting for her.
Victor’s careful hand unfolded the the two paper cranes that lay on his desk. He took up the late General’s pen, dipped it carefully into the inkwell, and repeated the same message on both pieces of paper:
The hinge is jammed.
“Quite a show, wasn’t it, General?” Victor asked, before blowing gently across the ink to dry it.
“Quite a show,” agreed General Montvenue. “Bad strategy to show your hand so soon, don’t you think?”
“It won’t matter,” said Victor, as he folded the cranes back into shape, and poured his smug joy into Martin’s neatly painted runes. “By the time Imperial forces can mount a response, we’ll have all we came here for. Church forces will be busy with the fallout for a while. A few arrows in the dirt around that filthy centaur got the rest of the message across. Persistent pest.”
General Montvenue cleared his throat. “Your employer’s going to have more to worry about than just the Empire and Church. Taking out the merchant’s Sending gate? They’re going to respond to that.”
Victor opened the window, and let both paper cranes out on the breeze. They wheeled once in the wind off the cliffs, calibrating, and then spiraled up on the updraft and flew south out of sight.
“My employer is counting on it.”