Misery loves company? Don’t it just. Do us all a favour, mate. Walk this off. Nothing good’s going to come of dragging us down too.

Matea Fleet-footed, Grand Warlock

 

Sarea walked onwards, careful and slow, across roof lines that’d never been even or straight. She cut left to cross two gaps with only one shack for a bridge, and they had to be jumped, so you could cut around the edge of the dying house.

The walls weren’t so tall that she couldn’t look inside, but she kept her eyes down and her mind on the walking. But Mae gasped, a choked noise –

Sarea turned back and saw Mae leaning over it. She took her head. Mae looked at her, face slack and white. “Look down,” Sarea said quietly. “Think on something else.” She tugged Mae around the first side of the building, and only let go on the second side, where the wall was higher. There they crouched in the shadow. 

“There are people in there,” Mae hissed. “Still alive, but -” Her mouth worked, no sounded coming out. “The bones,” she managed at last. “The bones.

“It’s the dying house,” Sarea said. “We don’t have healers here.”

Mae shook her head. “So you just toss them in there -”

Sarea held her gaze, silent.

“They go there themselves?” Mae whispered, and her voice betrayed her horror.

“Not all of them,” Sarea said. “This way.”

Shacks had once lined the entirety of the dying house. Now there was a gap at the corner. Sarea rose to her full height to hunt for holds in the wall and, on finding them, she inched around the corner to the next shack against the wall, into bright moonlight. She paused, trying to hear for Instigators. The next stretch was lit, and if they were nearby…

But there wasn’t another way.

She dropped down again and moved a shade faster.

The way was straight and easy. The big old house next to her home never got robbed out, but the roof fell in years before she was born. And hers, next to it…

The roof gave way, in her absence. On the front, at least. Now that section gaped open, and the first and second floors had gone down too, taking the wall with them. No way through, she thought. Not here. They had to keep going.

Around the corner of the Durasoona home, the source of the collapse became apparent. She stood on the edge of the final shack, by a path that hadn’t been there seven years ago.

“What is it?” Mae said, coming up beside her.

“The pit is larger.” Sarea pointed into it. “Those walls, there, rising up. They were homes.” The marsh crept outwards, everybody knew that. As if the earth itself rotted and fell away. But this…

She had an image of the marsh pit swelling outwards, to fill the entire Wall, and shivered.

This time Mae said, “This way,” and dropped off the roof. Sarea followed, feet on solid ground.

Her old home stood open, cut sharply across by some old collapse. Once, it’d been whole. Now it was losing itself to the pit. She walked straight into the gap, daring the crumbling roof.

The kitchen. This’d been the kitchen, not that they’d ever used it. Water dripped from the upper floors, and where the stone floor wasn’t slick it was covered in sickly yellow moss. But the iron-bound door to the central room was still there, ajar. She slid her fingers into the gaps and pulled it open. It creaked, but obeyed.

The room was dark, moonlight filtering inadequate silver streams through the upper floors. But there was the fireplace, empty and full of dust. There was da’s bed, and the empty space where hers and Amisine’s had been. Nothing more than iron frames, but off the ground was warmer than on. There the stone shelves they’d stored whatever food they had. There a pile of rags, and a pot of water –

Not rags. She darted across and fell to her knees, catching da’s head in her hands. “Father?”

He peered at her through two black eyes. “‘Rea?”

Black eyes and more. She knew the signs. Kicked and beaten, to be taught the error of their ways. Again her anger rose up, hotter and fierce. Damn the food.

She was getting him out. “Y’can’t be here,” he slurred. “‘Rea. Run.”

“It’ll be all right,” she said quietly. “It will.”

She turned back to Mae. The Hunter shook her head. “If Pachin wasn’t getting across that, neither is he,” she said. “Then we’ve got to get him to safety, unseen. It’s not possible.”

“I’ll make it possible,” Sarea said. It had to be. She couldn’t let him stay here.

“No,” he moaned, long and drawn out. “No.” And he fell silent, not responding to even her touch.

Clanking.

“Instigators!” Amisine dropped through the ceiling. “Coming!”

“Where’ve you been?” Mae snapped.

“Watching out.” Amisine sniffed. “Like you can’t. But Sarea. You have to hide.”

Hide? Hide where? Half the building was gone, all their old hiding places, and the cellar. Even if they could get to it fast, it’d be full of marsh.

But not all of them.

The clanking noise grew louder. She looked at the fireplace. She said, “Mae, this way,” and darted across to it.

Back in the day, they’d been cleaned by small boys, so once you ducked inside there were half-bricks jutting out for them to climb. This chimney was too wide for them to climb otherwise. She caught at a higher one and pulled herself up. Scrabbled for at the lower for a hold her feet could keep, held, and pushed upwards.

Feeling for holds in the darkness, she found the upper room by accident. It’d been heated by rising hot air from the main fire, and had a fake fireplace. Once, there’d been a ring of metal around it, but one of father’s friends took them away to make weapons. She reached into the moonlit shadow-space, hauling herself in. The floor creaked alarmingly.

“Spread your weight,” she hissed to Mae, pulling herself further in, to a gap. The clanking, ever louder, stopped. The door below opened with a sharp shriek of the hinges. Firelight flickered through the gap, moving across the floor. Soft feet padded across the floor.

“Hello, Balint,” said a cool voice, and she knew it. Commander Guilliarme Jorge, he’d called himself in that alley, and that made him head of the Instigators. “What are you doing here? It’s festival day.”
Silence.

“I do hope you’re still alive.” Two more steps. The sound of leather as he – what? Crouched? She couldn’t see, couldn’t risk moving. “There. Was that so hard?”

“I won’t do it,” da rasped. “I’m not taking you anywhere tonight, Balint. Just wanted to check on you.” A pause. “If you’re good, and keep staying here, I’ll bring gruel around every morning myself.”

More silence. What was he doing to her father?

“But you have to drink,” Jorge said, almost gentle. “We can’t offer you to him when you’re in this state. Don’t make us have to bring a healer in, Balint. That girl of yours is just a ghost.

“And we know where the other one lives. South, isn’t it? Lovely place.”
Sarea lay still, fingers clutching the rotting floorboards. She’d never been safe. Never.

“We’re bringing her here, Balint. We’re going to bring her home. And if you’re not good…” Jorge’s voice went lower. “I’ll start breeding her.”

Breeding –

Mae’s hand fumbled across in the darkness, catching her elbow.

Think, Sarea told herself. Think! He might not know Tineke is dead. It doesn’t sound like he knows about the demon dogs.

Or that I’m already here.

Leather moving. “Get that fire going,” Jorge said. “We need him alive.”

More echoing silence. “I said – ”

A soft thud.

“Breeding,” Ionas said. “That doesn’t sound too good. Don’t worry, Sarea. They’re out like a light.” Caught between terror, anger, and annoyance that he’d disobeyed her, Sarea stayed where she was. May let go, and the roof creaked as she made her way back to the chimney. She dropped down with a thud.

Sarea followed, slower.

“They catch your face?” Mae said, as Sarea climbed down.

“If they did, they won’t remember it.” Ionas. Tight. “Don’t worry.”

Sarea ducked into the room and stood still. Commander Guilliarme Jorge lay on his back, eyes staring blindly. At the door, a pair of Instigators in full armour were the same, just sat against the wall. She said, “What did you do?”

“Put them out of their heads for a while.” Ionas gave her a crooked smile. It didn’t cover up the way he stood, with all his weight on his left, or the stiffness of his right arm, hand in his pocket. “They’ll be fine.”

She walked across and slapped him. On the right side of his face. He swore, keeping his head turned away.

“The more you do,” she told him, “The slower you heal.”

He nodded. “I didn’t crawl,” he said.

“I don’t care,” she said flatly. “You disobeyed your healer.”

He said nothing.

“But you can help us get father out of here,” she said, softening her tone.

 

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