A week of sitting in the cave had worn everyone’s tempers thin. Heather sat shivering near the entrance of the cave, Ramdas’ spyglass carefully propped up on some rocks.

Hands aren’t steady enough anymore to work for this, she thought. Feels good to use a tool for it, though. There’s no way I could hold this array together without it. Hold still, you bony bastards. I’m going to kill you with your own trick.

Her array of conjured lenses and reflectors had grown from a single lens and reflector to thirty, allowing her a bird’s eye view for kilometers around. And her view at that moment was centered on three skeletons, forced to cross a short valley between two ridges as they scoured fruitlessly for caves and hiding places that might hold the knights.

“Ooluk, those three you heard? They’re nice and low. You’ve got eight skeletons within a kilometer of your position. Your call if you want to try for them or not.”

A buzzing murmur from the rock near her head carried Ooluk’s voice: “I will take them, Knight Heather. I have closed my cave for now. They cannot reach me.”

“You make sure you have enough air in there, Ooluk. Make an air-hole or two, okay?” She hoped nobody noticed the maternally nagging tone that crept into her voice.

“Yes, Knight Heather.” Ooluk’s tone suggested he’d heard it too, but he was kind enough not to argue. Heather swept the lenses carefully across the horizon.

“They aren’t keeping to the lowlands anymore,” Heather said. “They’re learning where you can and can’t reach.”

“An expensive lesson,” Ramdas chimed in. He stood near the back of the cave, methodically stretching each of his legs, hooves clopping as he moved them through a series of calisthenics. Staying confined was harder on him than the rest of the team, and Heather winced in sympathy as one of the centaur’s tendons popped loudly.

“Ooluk’s taken ten more since we got here,” Heather said. “We’re about to add another three to the list. Weathers should have recruited him to be a knight, at this rate.”

“Impossible, Caballero. Weathers liked him,” retorted the centaur.

Heather snorted, and turned her eyes back to the spyglass. Sustaining this conjuration isn’t hard, conjuring the mirrors and lenses takes a trivial amount of magic. But holding them in place in the air, and position them just right, no wonder the Army teaches this to Logicians. Ambrose could probably do all the math for it in his head. I’m just winging it. Keeping everything in focus is really hard, she thought. Heather rubbed at her right eye, strained from peering through the spyglass.

“Ooluk, whenever you’re ready, crush them,” she said.

“Wrestling the earth now, Knight Heather,” said Ooluk’s voice.

The bird’s-eye view afforded her by her magic showed the three skeletons hastily crossing the low-lying plain, sprinting for the safety of the next ridge. As she watched, the snow around the three skeletons began to churn. Here and there the snow-pack cracked and broke, revealing grey-brown stone crumbling to boulders. From the distance her lenses afforded her, she watched as the three skeletons fell. Their futile magic went spinning off into the air, flows of fire and lightning lashing out at nothing. A moment later, the shaking rocks crushed them like grain in a mill.

“That’s three down,” Heather said with a smile. “Good kills.”

“Easy to do, Knight Heather. They cannot chase me through stone, and they cannot fly.”

Heather swept her vision across the horizon again, and frowned. “Don’t get cocky yet, Ooluk. There’s some skeletons all converging on your location.” And they’re triangulating. Three are pointing right in line with where he cast from. Those flows he uses are so slow and powerful, they can’t be hard to feel. Damn it.

Thunder rolled from the fortress, and a small puff of white smoke escaped over the walls.

“Oh no,” Heather said. “Ooluk? Get deep, get deep as fast you can.”

“Knight Heather? Why, what is h-” his voice through the rock cut off with a crash that was loud even through the speaking rock. Heather bent back to the eyepiece, conscious of both Ramdas and Helga crowding around behind her.

The sight through the lenses was terrible. A bloom of smoke mushroomed into the air, overtop of a crater in the bedrock. That’s adamantine rock, not even the best artillery that fortress has can do more than crater a few feet of it. Please, Ooluk, be okay!

“Ooluk? Ooluk?! Ooluk can you hear us, dearie!” shouted Helga.

Heather’s hands clenched, and she pulled her eye away from the looking glass. Her mace lit up as she stared at the cave ceiling, worry and anger filling her thoughts.

Not again. Not again and again and again, you bastards! You took my family, now you take my friends?

The rock Helga was shouting at was still making noise. They weren’t clear sounds, though. They were distorted, mewling noises of agony, half-choked sobs that Heather had heard before.

“Ooluk? Ooluk!” she screamed.

More choking noises followed from the stone.

He’s hurt, she realized. He’s hurt and he’s trapped under enough rock the entire town couldn’t dig him out. Nobody can save him but himself.

Wrapping her arms tightly around herself, Heather stepped out of the cave, away from the noises coming from the rock. The sky outside was bright, the light off of the snow searing to the eyes. Aside from the cold, it was a beautiful day. And somewhere in the dark, under Saints knows how many tonnes of rock, Ooluk is hurt.

I could walk, right now. I could walk right to those fortress gates. Maybe knock them down, somehow. Maybe take a few of them out with me before they killed me. That wouldn’t count as suicide, right? I wouldn’t be breaking my confessional promises, then. Just death in the line of duty. Where it should be happening. Not to one of the few good kids I’ve met in this forsaken place.

Tears ran down her cheeks, and her mace was running so hot in her hands that snow around the cave entrance was beginning to melt.

Ramdas’ voice slipped into her brooding. “Heather,” he said softly. “He’s calling for you. You should answer.”

She turned, and fixed him with a pleading look. Please, no, she thought. “I can’t take it, Lieutenant,” she said. “If he’s dying, I can’t- I can’t.”

It would feel too much like my son.

“You must,” Ramdas said. “If he’s dying, he’s dying for you. If he isn’t dying, he needs your help.”

Heather shuddered, and made to argue, but Ramdas forestalled her with a grip to her elbow, and the anger in his eyes staring down at her. “This is part of our job too, Caballero. Never forget that. The higher you rise, the more lives you will become responsible for. Now go. That’s an order.”

Exactly why I don’t want to rise, Lieutenant! Everyone around me dies! She wanted to scream it at him. But the sound of Ooluk’s pleading leaking from the cave hooked her by her heart, and she ducked back inside.

“I’m here, Ooluk, I’m here,” she said, crouching down by the little speaking rock. He’s conscious enough to keep that link going. That’s a good sign, I hope.

“I’m hurt,” Ooluk’s voice said. He sounded confused, surprised, and unhappy, through the weak buzz of the link.

Don’t think of him alone in the dark. You’re here with him, you’re the only voice he can hear, right now. Think.

“Tell me how you’re hurt, Ooluk?”

“What happened, Knight Heather? What did they do? I heard no magic.”

“Not important right now, Ooluk. But they might do it again. Listen. It’s very important you don’t try to move any more earth right now. If they know you’re still alive, they might do it again.”

“But what did they-“

“Artillery, Ooluk. They fired it from the fortress. Like the cannonball they punched through the wall with, but worse. It explodes when it hits, and they dropped one right on top of you. Only reason you’re alive is how deep you were under the earth. And if they dropped one, they can drop an entire barrage, which would be many many more of those. You don’t want that, right? So no earth-moving.”

Heather’s voice was frantic, and she knew it. Helga pressed a cup of tea into her hand from the kettle, and held her hand when it threatened to shake the contents right out of the mug.

“Easy, dearie,” Helga murmured. “Focus. Close your eyes, be there with the boy.”

That’s the last place I want to be, Heather thought, but did as she was told. Cheek to the rock, and eyes closed, she strained her ears for the ragged sound of Ooluk’s breathing.

“Ooluk,” Heather began. “I want you to not move. Listen to my voice. I’m here with you. I want you to focus, can you do that for me?”

“No,” Ooluk said. “It hurts too much.”

“Hurts where, Ooluk.”

“My ribs, my leg. Hurts. Rocks.”

“Rocks fell down on you?” That’s adamantine ore, Heather thought. Or close enough to it. Damn it. It’s a miracle he’s even alive.

“Yes,” Ooluk said. His voice carried a note of embarrassment. “I pushed them off. I am broken, inside.”

“Your bones are broken,” Heather said. “Okay. Did any hit you on the head?”

“No. My side, my leg.”

“Above or below the knee? Do your ribs hurt more, or your leg?”

There was a pause, as Ooluk either blacked out or assessed his injuries. Heather counted heartbeats until she heard his voice again: “Leg hurts more. Knee and below. It’s wet.”

Heather drew a long breath. He can’t evacuate from there. Not right now. Okay. Think. Broken bones. He’s blind, but he’s in the dark anyway so that’s less of a handicap than usual. Focus. He’s breathing, and conscious enough to talk for now. Then we need to staunch any bleeding that we can.

“Ooluk, do you still have your air-holes in the rock? Did the artillery break them?”

Silence for a long moment, and then Ooluk’s voice carried through the stone: “One is still open.”

Good enough for now, Heather thought. “Alright. Ooluk, if you have a fur you can spare, I want you to wrap it around your leg as carefully as possible. I want you to do it without moving your leg if you can help it. If it hurts too much then stop, okay?”

“Okay…” Ooluk said. Then he cried out, and cried out again, his voice cracking into a sob that Heather couldn’t help but echo sympathetically. It was a noise of pathetic agony, a high keening sound more in common with an animal than the little brown-skinned elf.

Helga’s gentle hands cupped around Heather’s mug, and lifted it to Heather’s lips. Right, that’s still there. She opened her eyes, and gave Helga a grateful glance. Persephone was awake in her furs in the back of the cave, watching the drama unfold with the incurious, restless gaze of an infant.

“How’s it going there, Ooluk?” Heather prompted.

“Hurts!” replied the boy.

He’s breathing okay, it sounds like. No gurgling or coughing in his voice or when he cries out in pain. Saints, maybe his lungs are okay.

“Ooluk, can you breathe okay? Can you take a slow, deep breath for me?”

He did, and cried out a few seconds later, the cry devolving into another fit of keening. “Hurts to breathe deep.”

“Okay, that’s actually a good sign, Ooluk. You’re not coughing up or tasting any blood, are you?”

“No.”

Heather shivered again. “Okay. Then you’re breathing fine, so the broken ribs haven’t pierced your lungs. This is the hard part, Ooluk, and it’s going to hurt a lot.”

She drew a long breath, before continuing: “You know how you use your magic on the earth, right? Do you know what the difference is between rock and bones, when it comes to magic? Nothing. There’s no difference. Can you use your magic inside you, instead of the earth? Can you pull your bones back to where they should be?”

Not even the stone could hide the dubious tone of the elf’s reply: “I can try.”

“If you can, then you can join them again. Don’t try and do them all at once. Just one at a time. Think you can try that?”

“That’s asking a lot from even a trained healer, dearie,” Helga said softly. “You can’t ask the boy to go so far.”

“There’s nobody else to do it,” Heather said. “He’s used to working by touch, in the dark. And he’s a tough kid. You hear that, Ooluk? You’re a tough kid. A tough Gaiman. If you can push mountains around, you can push bones.”

“That’s right,” said Ooluk weakly. Heather let a worried smile tug at her lips. That’s it, Ooluk. Nothing wrong with a little pride if it saves your life, today.

“So here’s what you need to do, Ooluk. You need to use your magic, feel inside you. Feel the way your bones are like stones, okay?” Heather clutched her hands around her tea, and felt the brew start to bubble as she poured her anxiety through her fingertips and into the cup.

There was silence for a few long moments, and then a soft reply from the stone: “I feel them. I know the rocks they’re made of.”

“Good, Ooluk. That’s really good. Start with your ribs. Just do one at a time, okay? Use small flows, not big ones. Pull them back into where they should be, one after the other, and make the bones grab each other. Then make them stick. Only… only use just as much as you absolutely need to make them stick. And don’t conjure. Just use what your body has inside.”

Ooluk screamed once, and then again, and his panting rose loud enough to be heard clearly through the link. “… spinning,” he said.

“That’s okay, Ooluk. That’s okay. Take it slow. You don’t have to fix them all at once. Catch your breath, and then move on to the next one when you’re ready.”

Silence again reigned for a time, the only sound in the cave that of Heather’s tea boiling away in the cup. Helga and Ramdas stared at the stone intently, as if willing themselves to be in the underground hole Ooluk had buried himself in.

Then Ooluk screamed again, and his voice this time was clear, loud, and steady. Deep, gasping breaths followed, and Heather slumped in relief.

“I never thought I’d be happy to hear someone scream so loud,” Heather said. “You okay there, Ooluk?”

“Breathing better, now. Makes my leg hurt more,” Ooluk said.

“That’s sort of a good sign. Broken leg won’t kill you too soon. Don’t go trying to put that together yet, okay? Can you hold your leg still, so the bones won’t move around inside and cut you?”

Whether they’re in the right place or not can be the doctor’s problem, later. But I can’t have him cutting open an artery on a bone shard. He’ll bleed to death internally in minutes, Heather thought.

It took some doing, but within a few minutes she’d talked him through bonding the shards of his leg bones together.

When it was done, Ooluk said, “I need to rest now, Knight Heather.”

“Good, Ooluk. Bundle up and sleep, have some water. When you wake up, you get back to town, go deep underground, okay? We want them to think they killed you with that shot, but they won’t pull the skeletons back for a while. So you rest, and you get to the doctor’s tomorrow.”

“Okay. I hear many shouts from the town, Knight Heather. Running feet. Look on them, please?” Ooluk’s voice faded fast, and ended in a sleepy murmur, his body exhausted by the ordeal and pain.

Heather’s blood ran cold. “I will. Rest up, Ooluk.” Please let them not be attacking the town already.

She bolted for the doorway of the cave, and Ramdas crowded in with her until she conjured another lens, fitting it to the eyepiece of the looking glass. Her hands moved around the glass, pushing and pulling lenses. It felt like stretching her fingers out across kilometers, and then having to wiggle them just so to arrange the lenses properly.

Caballero,” said Ramdas, when the images stubbornly refused to focus under her shaking hands.

“What, sir?!”

His hand fell on her shoulder, and squeezed. “I cannot be there, to protect them,” he said softly. “And I wish to be, more than anything in this world, right now.”

Heather opened her mouth to snap at him, and then her jaw worked, and she shut it. He just said exactly how I feel. Because it’s how I feel. She looked up towards Helga, who was likewise staring hard at the lens in her hands, and the frustrating blobs of color and motion that refused to resolve.

Because it’s how we all feel. It’s our job. We’re all frustrated. So put our frustration to work, together.

Heather swallowed, and hung her head. “Help, please,” she said softly.

They reached out to her with their frustration, and she gathered their flows and lent them to her work. A reshaped lens here, a conjured mirror there, as she peppered them with instructions. “Hold that, there. Bend it like that. Okay. Left a little bit. Another lens here, Lieutenant, please hold that there. Wait, turn it. Yes. Three more to go.”

Nobody looked askance at her at the way she seized their flows and shaped them as needed. Lenses popped into existence, air conjured and bent and compressed so high up that nothing short of a bird would have noticed their existence. Light gathered in a dozen lenses, shot back to the looking glass, and appearing finally on the last lens where they could all see.

And what they saw was a town in an uproar. Guards nervously milled about near the gates and walls, and a knot of fist-fighting bodies centered around the church. A twist of a lens showed people streaming in and out of the broken door of the church, darting out with bags full of pots and jars. The largest of the jars were being fought over, teams and families working to carry off the biggest spoils, fighting over food while nervous eyes darted eastward, towards the fortress.

“There’s our Squire,” Helga said. “Poor dear.”

DuChamp stood to one side of the scrum in the yard, an acolyte pressing a bloodied towel to the left side of his face. Even through the distortion of the lenses, Heather could tell his face was heavily bruised. Yet he wasn’t cowering, but glaring in helpless anger at the riot in front of him.

“They heard the artillery,” Ramdas said. “The last straw, on the courage of the fearful.”

Heather grimaced as she watched a large jar go spilling across the lane in front of the church. A dark and chunky spread of confit shone greasy in the daylight.

“That doesn’t excuse what they’re doing, Lieutenant. Or what they did to DuChamp.”

“No, it does not,” replied Ramdas. “But they are fearing for their lives and their families. They will make reparations, in the spring, if they live to see it,” he vowed.

“Guards aren’t stepping in on this one,” Helga pointed out. “Most of them are joining in. Everyone’s got to eat.”

Heather watched with a sinking heart as the church larder was thoroughly looted, with some guards looking the other way, and others still joining in. Some had the sense of shame enough to cover their tabards or strip them off, but most simply dove in, wrestling out larger jars and pots with which to feed themselves or their families.

There’s no stopping it, at this point, Heather realized. Not from this cave. Maybe not even from the church yard. We’d be beside DuChamp, bruised and battered, watching all this from up close.

They watched as the panic continued until the last few jars were gone, leaving the church with an empty larder. I hope DuChamp and the acolytes thought to squirrel something away.

The sun went down, and Ooluk slept on, and Heather had no stomach for food that night.

***

Waking for last watch had become a habit by now. While Ramdas hadn’t ordered her to do it, Heather preferred waking early. At least this way, the nightmares don’t sink their hooks in my brain for the rest of the day.

Her eye roamed around the tundra and town, tracking motion. Skeletons moved in the moonlight, carefully skirting low-lying regions. The trails they left in the snow stayed clear for only minutes before the driving wind erased their paths again. Occasionally one would dart off in a chase after a hare or mink, kill it, and return to their searching. By midnight, the skeletons around the artillery-blasted crater had dispersed. With no magic in the area, they were convinced they’d killed their quarry.

Heather closed her eyes, and let her head come to rest against the chill of the cave wall. The air was frigid, but it helped her think.

Those skeletons are hunting pretty effectively. Too effectively. They’re spotting white creatures on white snow at a distance, even when the hares go perfectly still. She thought back to the infiltration of the fortress, and frowned. Maybe they’ve started to put heat-sensitive runes into the eyes now. Makes sense, if you’re hunting in the cold like this. Live bodies would be easy to spot. The animals would be well insulated, but their warm breath would still give them away.

She heard the rustling of someone in their sleep, and didn’t bother to turn. A bundle of furs and blonde hair sat down beside her, and Heather murmured: “Can’t sleep either, Helga?”

“Mmn,” said a voice that wasn’t Helga. Heather turned her head in surprise. Persephone sat, swaying sleepily, her face devoid of any mask. Her expression was puzzled, concerned, her jaw working slowly.

“Lieutenant… you’re- can you understand me?”

Persephone’s turn of her head was a jerky, uncertain thing, her puzzled, sad eyes squinting at Heather. Her gaze was full of worry and questions.

Her voice was the raspy croak of a voice unused for too long.

“Am I… undead?”

It was a question tinged with confusion, worry, and shame.

Heather’s mouth opened, and abruptly she wished very much that Helga had been the one she’d asked first.

“No. No, Lieutenant, you’re not undead. You’re alive. Do you remember what happened?”

Persephone shook her head. “Bad cave,” she whispered. “Not this one. Bad cave.”

“Not this one,” Heather said, in cautious agreement.

“Did I die?”

For a moment, Heather considered lying, but Persephone’s eyes were so hungry with worry that she couldn’t muster a kind lie in the face of that raw need to know.

“Yeah,” Heather whispered. “You were dead about ten minutes. It was bad.”

Persephone hugged her furs in around herself, and then began to cry, trickles of ice running down her cheeks. “I didn’t see anything,” she said. “I didn’t go to the Divine, or spirits.”

She thinks she– oh. And us without a priest, Heather thought.

“You didn’t see anything,” Heather said softly, “because your soul didn’t have a chance to leave your body. That’s all. Saints and Divine still await you, one day. When it’s your time.”

Saying it felt strange to Heather. She’d never felt much calling to the priesthood, and it felt like playing imposter to wiser words, but it seemed like the right thing to say.

Persephone seemed to accept her answer, laying her chin on her knees, shivering slightly in the cold. “What if I can’t die? Not all the way. What if I never get to meet the Saints, or return to the divine?”

“You get older,” Heather pointed out. “You were born and grew up, and became an adult. Which means one day you’ll get old, and die, and you’ll go then. Just not before. Lucky you,” Heather said, mustering as much false conviction into her voice as she could summon.

“Oh,” said Persephone softly, staring into space. She retched, and a lump of ice shot from her mouth, to land with a soft ‘pft’ out in the growing snowbank outside. “So it could happen again,” she whispered.

Heather put her head down between her hands. “Yeah,” she said. “It could.”

And this is exactly why there should be a priest having this conversation with her, not me,she thought.

Persephone retched a few more times, and more lumps of ice followed, and then she resettled into her weeping.

“Why are we here?”

Heather shook her head. “While you were recovering, a lot happened. Necromancer demanded we leave the town, said he’d spare it if we did. So Lieutenant Pramath made the call. Ooluk helped us escape. He’s been helping us ever since. They dropped an artillery shell on him yesterday. He’s hurt bad.”

Persephone hugged her furs tightly around her. “Are my relics safe?”

“Yes. We brought them. Weren’t going to leave them, or you, behind.”

“Can you get them for me, please?”

“Sure, Lieutenant.” Heather rose to her feet, and rummaged into their packs, emerging with the two carefully wrapped bundles of book and medallion. She handed them to Persephone, who carefully unwrapped and inspected each in turn. Satisfied by what she saw, she wrapped them up again and hugged them to her body.

“Did you tell Pramath about the cloaks?” Persephone asked.

Heather shot her a look. “I did, yes. Still doesn’t mean much.”

“What about the paper?”

“What about the paper?”

It was Persephone’s turn to stare at Heather. “You had a ream of it. There aren’t any paper vendors in Frostmoor, Blackthorne.”

Heather’s mouth ran dry. I’d been concussed. I kept thinking about the paper, and then the sea, and I —

She sputtered. “The saints-damned ship!”

Persephone stared at her as if she’d sprouted a second head. “What about a ship?”

“The ship! When I was recovering from my concussion, I kept thinking of the paper those runes were printed on. Thinking about the smell of the ocean. I couldn’t put it together. Damn it!” Heather slammed the butt of her mace into the stone.

Ramdas stirred awake at the noise, and then made a startled sound. “Matthewson! Blackthorne?”

Heather closed her eyes to focus on the memory of her time aboard the Longeau, and the faces of the men who’d worn those cloaks. Martin, handsome beard, easy smile. Charming. Victor had that sharp hook-nose and scowl. And the other one, younger. Daniel. Blond hair, that’s all I can remember. Why can’t I remember his face? She looked up to Ramdas.

“We’ve got the names of our suspects, Lieutenant.”

“Who?”

“Martin Andrews, he’s our bomber. It’s his watercolor and paints they used to destroy the Gate. Victor LaPaix is our necromancer, or at least our artificer. He had the tools and skill to meddle with automatons. And Daniel DuCroix, associate.”


 

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Click here to read Chapter 8.1 – Verdict