Naltu woke alone in the wagon and shifted in the straw. His arm was thin, and the black streaks on his skin lightened. Naltu rushed from the moving wagon and fell to the soil, and Perry startled and found him twisting in pain, and quickly pulled him out of the path of the next cart.
"Naltu, sit. You need to rest."
"Where is Metta?"
"She went to the woods. She'll be back quickly-"
A shout filled Naltu's ears, and he felt warm arms surround his thin bones. The girl crushed him with a force that threatened to drive the wind from his lungs, and Naltu gasped.
"I was so scared. Derin thought you might not wake. I thought I saw that man chop your head off, but you saved us both."
Naltu kissed her cheek with his cracked lips, and tasted warmth and salty-sweet tears that told him of his body. She returned his affection, and the wagons moved, and Perry tugged at Metta's sleeve.
They lay in the wagon on the straw, and again Metta fed Naltu from the wineskin. Pain wracked his body as he struggled to move, and she bid him rest. He stirred, and his eyes opened enough only to know that her legs were strong, and his arm was still absent. Her spirit was strong for the events that had transpired, and he could see the hollow behind her eyes that explained.
Metta caught fish, and brought fresh meat, and Naltu ate the flesh raw. The last days passed and Naltu's body grew thick enough that he could stumble and walk, and the girl held his good arm. Perry and Derin kept a distance. The wagons drove through the fields surrounding Seat, and then across the stone road that circled the city.
The caravan broke apart, and Perry sold the wagon and horses at a road house. Naltu struggled with walking, feeling like he was drunk though he had not touched a drop. The earth lurched under his feet, and his head threatened to float away.
They found a tavern and rested. Naltu struggled to adapt with his one arm, and Metta supported him, and form returned to his face. They slept during the day and brought torches and walked the streets at night. Metta was astonished to watch Naltu's arm grow day by day, and after two weeks, the nub of his elbow had returned.
"Naltu, I know what I saw... can you tell me what happened?"
He shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you."
She pushed him onto the pallet and crawled on top of him. "You lit up like that before, in the... when you were... Who was that man?"
Naltu turned his head to the side and breathed, pushing dust away from his face. "My brother."
"Oh. He's dead now?"
"Yes. He is dead."
"Your real brother, or is that a tribesman word?"
"My brother," Naltu said, and sighed with sadness.
Metta rolled to the side and let her head lay on the shoulder of Naltu's ruined arm. "You're growing back. How's that?"
"I've always healed quickly."
"Limbs don't grow back."
Naltu turned. "Mine do."
She grinned and smiled. "Have you ever lost one before?"
"No," Naltu laughed. "A finger, once."
"Are we going to be in trouble? For what happened?"
"What do you mean?"
"We... um... killed a lot of people coming here."
"People die. Can you hold your tongue?"
"In Dosille, if someone dies, you have to tell the military, and they do an investigation and make a letter. We're not going to do that, are we?"
Naltu shook his head, and the straw underneath shifted. "No. Perhaps we'll write a letter for the Academy. Perry will do this, and the words will be clean."
She kissed his cheek and lifted herself on her elbows. "I thought you were gentle. You've always been gentle with me."
"I am gentle," he promised.
She touched the winding black marks with her fingers. "No. Only with me, I think." Her eyes rose. "I don't know if I like that. What... what did you do that was... made your brother want to torture and kill me?"
Naltu's heart trembled. "His wife died."
"Did you do something to her?"
"He believed so."
Metta sucked in a breath. "I need to hear this."
"Yegha died in childbirth."
She put her fingers to her lips. "I know that name." She paused for a moment, considering. "Do you have a child?"
Naltu frowned. "Kertu had the infant killed."
Metta threw her arms around his neck. Her eyes were dry, but she let her voice waver. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, and I love you, and I'm... so glad you told me."
While Naltu and Metta rested, the others left. Perry and Derin searched Seat, pausing to place ears on the stone roads, and drew attention. They explained their purpose to the military and were given a small escort. They searched the city for three days until they found a well near the center, encircled by black slate. An old ladder had once been nailed into the stone, but had rotted with age.
The well was large enough to be comfortably passable with a pack on one's back. Perry tied a rope to a close tree, and descended until she came to an opening in the wall. The tunnel was round and tall enough to stand comfortably.
They brought packs of food down then spent two days exploring the tunnels, drawing maps. The tunnels were lined with more black slate, and Derin made a torch that burned red without diminishing. The tunnels wove under Seat and they discovered more exits near the edge of the city, and a series of large rooms.
At last the Magisters returned and told Naltu of what they found. Ancient iron machines under the city rusted and rancid oil seeped from spots where the metal had rotted. They scribed the shapes they found on the metal, and Naltu knew the sigils of Meghor, but could not read.
Metta woke in the morning next to Naltu and found him smiling strangely. She stood and dressed in a simple linen tunic, and he watched with a sort of melancholic stare that confused her.
"I have a gift for you."
"What? What kind of gift?" she laughed, grinning, and wrapping her arms around him. The thin black lines on his bare chest contrasted with her light skin in the dim room. His hand grazed her shoulder and fell to her wrist, and he pinched the brand there between his finger and thumb, and plucked the flesh from her with the ease that a child might brush away a bee.
She gasped and her grin was wide as she touched the skin where the brand had been. He pressed his finger to his lips, and kissed her roughly. His hand dove under the tunic and between her legs, and she quivered and sighed and pulled away.
He held the petals of the blue flower in his fingers, and she stared into it. He closed his hand, and Metta's face burned, and when his fingers opened, a spark leaped to her. A thin piece of leather, the brand pulled from Metta's flesh, glistened with purple flame in his hand, then vanished. He poured the ash into a leather pouch on the floor.
"What was that? What did you do?"
Tears came to Metta's eyes. "Oh Gods. Oh, Naltu, Oh my Gods."
She fell to her knees, and he bowed in front of her. "You are free. Not only in my heart, but in truth."
He placed his fingers on her arms, and she shivered. "Please. Don't touch me."
He rose and stepped back and watched, blank-faced. His skin burned, and his hairs prickled, and he could not control the shiver that twisted his neck.
"I'm sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. Just... don't touch me. I need to be alone for a bit, alright?"
Naltu bowed low and kissed the dust-covered floor. He gathered clothing and the pouch and left. He found Perry in the tavern hall and met with her.
"What's the matter, Naltu?"
"This morning I removed Metta's brands."
"What? You got it all figured out? How is she?"
"As expected. She is well enough."
"Was it easy?"
"I don't know," he said, smiling sadly. "I'll go with Derin to the store and fill our supplies. In another day, my hand will be whole, and I can go with you into the tunnels. We'll pray to Meghor and repair what we can of the machine according to the books you have found. And we'll go to Dosille?"
Perry was surprised at Naltu's urgent speech. "Yes. Derin just left for the market, along the main road to the east. If you hurry you'll find him. Do you want me to come?"
"No. Rest, you have worked harder than I these past few days."
Naltu found Derin and they bartered in the market until lunch, filling their packs with food. They found a group of desert nomads that had collected scraps of metal and pungent oils to sell. The nomads were poor, but glad, and the pair shared pipes of sweet grass with them. Derin picked through the scraps, collecting brass pins and discarded metal plates. Naltu paid the price they asked, and spent another hour drinking ale.
Perry was pale when the two returned to the tavern.
"Naltu? I'm so sorry, and I don't know how to say this. Metta left. She's going to find her family. She said not to follow her. She said not to wait for her when we leave for Dosille."
Derin gawked. Naltu's knees were weak, and bent, and he bowed so that his fingers touched the floor. "I knew. I knew from the moment I lay with her the first night and stared into her eyes. I could see that the breaking rod had bound her spirit and her will, though she could not."
He looked up at Perry and she cradled his face with her hands. They drew attention, and the group returned to the rooms and prepared until the sun fell. They tied the packs tightly, to fit through narrow openings, and carried bundles of rope and straps for pulling. Perry promised that the passage was not difficult, but Naltu was growing larger again, and reminded her of this.
The tavern became loud in the morning, and the group dressed and met in the hall. The keepers had seen the tribesman's healing, and guessed at the purpose of the group, and gave them space. Naltu's hand was imperfect, but he wore a rough glove and assured the others he was strong enough. The three returned to the well, and Derin made new torches.
They walked through black slate tunnels and found the broken machine. Derin led the others to a sealed hatch, and used his flames to melt the welds, and pulled the red-hot door aside with his fingers protected by red silk gloves. They entered the heart of the machine.
The thing was as wide as a mansion, with brass pistons hanging from a domed metal roof, descending into dark pits. The pistons had seized. Perry pushed Naltu to the center of the room and climbed on his shoulders, reaching for the wire chandelier. She pulled a glowstone from the mesh. She closed her eyes, filled it with energy, replaced it, and climbed down the tribesman.
The room was well-lit. Derin showed Naltu the symbols. He did not understand the marks, but he remembered the sequence as if from a dream. Levers and rods hung from silver chains in the ceiling, so that position of the pistons in the room were all mechanically linked.
"How does this machine work?"
Perry sat on the dusty floor and flecks of black soot rose and settled on her clothing. "It's a water-lift. Like a well, but instead of raising a bucket of water to whoever turns the crank, this machine fills the soil. It's basically a mechanical Perry, like what I did in the desert."
"This is an old machine," Derin observed. "Spherians first came to New Spheria a hundred years ago. Is that how old this is?"
Naltu touched the metal. "Older than that. Green men made this."
Derin chuckled and clasped Naltu's shoulder. "Doubtful, old man. These books are older than Baso, but not a hundred years."
"Could you make this machine with what's written in the book?"
Derin glanced at Perry and thought. "Well... I'm sure there's more. There had to be plans or something like that."
Perry nodded. "If there were plans, is our one reference a study? This place is a small maze. Baso would have given us the map if he had it. I'd bet his book... some Magister came before and copied something else, just like Derin's copy."
Perry spread linen on the floor, and they lay the pages out and studied. Derin worked with the scrap metal, and sealed the holes in the shell of the machine with white-hot fingertips.
Naltu pushed on one of the pistons and the thing creaked. "I think we must raise the water ourselves," Naltu mumbled.
"What do you mean?"
Naltu pointed to the pistons. "See? Water flows from the top to the bottom, and lifts the pistons. The pistons must be raised to fall."
Derin scrambled over to the book. "Right, Naltu. Exactly. There's a firestone beneath us. Well, there should be. It's a steam engine! Underground, well, deep underground, there's a river. This engine moves water from the lower river and makes a new one in these passages."
The boy moved over to the most central hole and asked Naltu to pull the piston out. Naltu exerted himself, bolstered his muscles with the force of his spirit, and the piston dislodged and rose. Derin helped, and the piston stuck in place high enough. Derin placed his head in the hole, and peered, and dropped flames below.
"I see the stone. It's dead. I can't fix it from there. Um, Perry, do you think you could fit down that tunnel?"
She gasped. "No! That's a stupid idea."
"What, then?" Naltu asked. "We hire someone in the town to go down? A child?"
Perry blushed. "Naltu! That's unfair!"
Naltu shrugged, found his pack, and removed all the rope. He let the end slip down, and Derin held the torch, and Naltu measured lengths, letting his hand fall from his head to the floor until the rope touched the lower chamber.
"The rope is long enough. Perry, will you go hire a child?"
Perry glared at Naltu. "I'll go down, you bastard."
She dropped her pack and her robes and Naltu tied the rope around her waist, and then himself and Derin. She clambered into the hole, and watched the piston overhead. The two men lowered her slowly. She reached the bottom, retrieved the firestone, and they pulled her up. Perry complained of the soiling and soot on her gown. Their hands were tired when she arrived, and so they rested.
The chimes of Seat's clock reverberated even so deep, and they slept for four hours. Derin woke, sipped blue water, and filled the stone with heat.
"Do I have to go back down there, or can we drop it?"
Derin laughed. "This thing could melt steel right now. Naltu, how hot should it be?"
Naltu struggled with the book, and shrugged, and held the tome for Derin. The boy inspected it, and found the measure, and dimmed the stone.
"I won't fit in that hole," Derin promised. "How do we get it back down there? Perry, was the stone oriented any particular way, or on a platform? Was there another entrance to that chamber?"
"No," she said, grumbling. "Just stone at the bottom of that damn tunnel, with a groove in the floor deep enough for the rats to scurry."
Derin shrugged. He pulled a length of chain from the supplies and welded the links around the stone. The glow moved along the chain as the stone's heat was absorbed. Naltu quickly cinched the long rope in a knot around the top of the chains. He found a flask and poured water on the rope. Still, the rope smoldered, and Derin quickly lowered the stone, reaching the bottom before the rope burned through. He tugged hard, and the nearly-molten chain broke free, and he pulled the remains of the harness to the surface.
Heat quickly rose from the chamber, and the pistons groaned, but did not move.
"Now, the water," Derin said with authority.
"Perry, can you find water below us? Like you did near the Grimkin? Can you pull it into the tunnels?"
Perry closed her eyes. "The closest source is hundreds of paces down. I can't pull that far without using a lot of quicksilver. It's going to make me very sick if you ask that. Is there another way?"
Naltu put his arm around Perry's shoulder. "I'll pull the poison from you when you're done. We'll finish this now."
She turned. "Are you sure?"
Naltu shrugged. "I have done little. I will do this."
Derin glanced over his shoulder. "Naltu, can you actually do that? Pull the poison out?"
Perry sighed. "Aina could. I don't know how."
She pulled a flask of black water from her pouch and took a swallow, and then another swallow, and finished the last. She coughed and waited until the clocks chimed again.
"Once I pull the water, what happens?"
Naltu shrugged. "The book says the machine will pull water itself."
Derin understood. "So how do we keep from drowning? This whole area's going to flood, and I still have to seal that door before we can go."
Naltu stood and pulled the heavy piston down until the tip was inside of the tunnel. "We'll run. Derin, we'll all die if you can't lead us to the well quickly."
Derin swore. "Alright. Can you give me a few moments to try the lap? I can leave lit markers - glowstone fragments - at the turns, and we'll go."
"Yes. Do this!"
The boy quickly wrapped the group's valuables in a single pack, and made the route, tying the pack to the rope. He shouted up the wall, and ordered the guards to pull the rope, and to remove the pack, and to drop the rope again, and they did.
Perry leaned forward and attempted to keep her stomach from spewing as her bowels lurched. "Hurry, please."
Naltu found his own energy, and began to gather it in a way that would not destroy his body. The black lines illuminated, and mist evaporated from the floor near him, and they waited for Derin to return.
Perry concentrated and pulled. She shouted and the hiss of steam came from the tunnels. The pistons drove upwards, vented the hot vapor, and the room screamed in a deafening shout. Thunder sounded, and the room was silent for a moment, and the pistons dropped into the stone wells. The metal cylinders rose, pulling water. Derin bolted, and the others followed him. Naltu placed his shoulder under Perry's arm, and pulled her, and she vomited on him.
Derin pushed Naltu ahead, but Naltu stayed, and held the hatch shut while Derin welded it. The savage's hands grew red, but the force flowing through his body surged, and the wounds healed without thought. Derin slapped Naltu's shoulder, and ran ahead.
Derin had placed the glowstone fragments well, into crevices in the slate near the ceiling. Water rushed in and flowed past Naltu's shoulders as he pushed Perry through the opening to the well.
The water rushed and the level rose. Derin was already climbing the rope, and they raced the water, for the well was wide enough only for one to float. Naltu let Perry rest on his shoulders, and the water carried him upwards, and then Derin sat on Perry, for he could not climb fast enough. She squirmed and groaned in pain. Halfway up the well, the water reached a point where it began to flood the earth underneath the fields, and so the flow slowed, and Derin could climb again. He shouted to the guards, but they could not hear his voice over the bubbling water, and had retreated away from the well, fearful of the clanks and hisses from below.
Perry continued to vomit, and Naltu placed her legs on his shoulders, and struggled to climb in the narrow space without pressing the girl into the walls. Derin helped, letting his legs dangle, using his feet to stabilize her shoulders and keep Perry's head away from the stone walls. They climbed, and Derin pulled Perry out of the well, and lay her prone on the road under the dark sky. Naltu emerged from the well.
The tribesman dropped the bucket into the well, then removed a quantity, and washed the contents of Perry's stomach from his hair and shirt. He repeated the process twice, and then knelt next to Perry with more water. The military escort was nearby, but Derin bade them stay away. Naltu's face was dark, but the scars in his skin glimmered under the night sky, sparkling like cut granite.
He touched her shoulders, let his energy flow into her, and remembered her explanation of Aina's work. He found the poison and pulled the toxins into the waiting glands in her body.
She gasped awake, still covered in a green haze, and sat upright. She vomited again, then rushed behind a tree and worked the clothes beneath her robes. The military boys startled, and she let fluid loose, and silver glinted in the torchlight. She captured her water in the clear crystal flask.
Derin's eyes were narrow and his face twisted in disgust. "Are you keeping that?"
Perry swore. "Yes. Look away!"
She finished, stoppering the flask, and returned to the two. Derin leaned back. "You're going to drink that?"
"Not like this, idiot. It's got to be bound out first. But yeah, it's been the same material my whole life. Quicksilver's very rare. Doesn't just fall from the mountains, jerk. Sorry if that offends you."
Derin shook his head. "No, my apologies. Are we done?"
Naltu found a spot of grass and looked at the guards. They were all boys Derin's age. "I say we make the military carry us back to our rooms."
Perry turned and laughed. "That's a fantastic idea."
"No, sir, Master, Magister, Sir," one of the guards stumbled. "We'll fetch you a passenger cart, if you wish."
"That sounds delightful," Perry cooed.
They rested for a week in the tavern, quenching hunger and thirst. Metta did not return, and Perry wrote a letter to a farm a day's journey outside the city. The letter was written in Old Libbonese and contained a threat that she would bring Naltu to the Palace with his Riches to Assuage his Needs. She was drunk at mid-day when she posted the letter, but she woke at sunfall, and did not care.
They bought a wagon and two oxen and supplies, and made west with a summer caravan. Some of the travelers remembered the group and asked about the woman who made the spirits. Naltu's face was sullen, and he gathered his things, and walked north.
Naltu hunted in the forest while Derin and Perry followed the caravan. The brambles grew thick. The deer were fat and numerous. The wolves howled and hunted at night. Weeks passed and travelers heard of the forest's rage and hunger. The tales said that the trees ate even the bones of the brigands who dared to hide within. In the cooling winds of summer, the Magisters arrived in Dosille, and the forests and grasslands were full of life, but only the roads allowed armed men to pass.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]