The Sunlit Man
Nomad woke up among the condemned.
He blinked, prone, his right cheek to the dirt. Then he focused on the incongruous sight of a plant growing in front of him. Was he dreaming? The fledgling sprout quivered and shook, heaving up from the earth. It seemed to stretch with joy, the pods of its seeds parting like arms after a deep sleep. A stalk emerged from the center, testing the air like a serpent’s tongue, then stretched to the left. Toward the dim light shining from that direction.
Nomad groaned and lifted his head, mind fuzzy, muscles sore. Where had he Skipped to this time? And would it be far enough away to hide from the Night Brigade?
Of course it wouldn’t be. No place would hide him from them. He had to keep moving. Had to…
Storms. It felt good to lay here. Couldn’t he just stop for a while? Stop running for once?
Rough hands grabbed him from behind and hauled him to his knees. The jolt shook him from his stupor, and he became more aware of his surroundings: the shouting, the groaning. Sounds that had been there all along; he’d just been numb to them in his post-Skip grogginess.
The people here, including the man who grabbed him, wore unfamiliar clothing. Long trousers, sleeves with tight cuffs. Shirts with high collars, all the way up to the chin. The man shook him, barking at Nomad in a language he didn’t understand.
“Trans…translation?” Nomad croaked.
I’m sorry, a deep voice said in his head. I have insufficient Investiture to establish a local Connection.
Damnation. Nomad wouldn’t be able to understand the local tongue yet. He winced at the breath of the shouting man. He wore a hat with a wide brim, tied under the chin, and thick gloves.
It was dark out, though a burning corona of light rose from the horizon. Just before dawn, he guessed. And by that light, sprouts were growing all across this field. Those plants…their movements reminded him of home. A place without soil, but with plants that were so much more vigorous than on other worlds.
They weren’t the same, though. They didn’t dodge as the men stepped. The plants were merely growing quickly. Why?
Nearby, people wearing long white coats pounded stakes into the ground—then others chained down people who didn’t have those coats. Both groups had a variety of skin tones, and wore similar clothing.
Nomad couldn’t understand the words anyone was shouting, but he recognized the postures of the condemned in those being chained down. The cries of despair from some, the pleading tones in others. The abject resignation in most.
This was an execution.
The man holding Nomad shouted at him again. Nomad just shook his head. That breath could have wilted flowers. The man’s companion—dressed in one of those long white coats—gestured to Nomad, arguing. Soon, the first of his two captors made a decision. He grabbed a set of manacles off his belt, moving to cuff Nomad.
“Yeah,” Nomad said, “I don’t think so.” He grabbed the man’s wrist, preparing to throw him and trip the other men.
But Nomad froze. His muscles, they locked up—like a machine that had run out of oil. He stiffened in place, and the men pulled away from him, surprised by his sudden outburst, calling out in alarm.
Nomad’s muscles unlocked and he shook them, feeling a sudden and sharp pain. “Damnation!” His Torment was getting worse. He glanced at his still-frightened captors. At least they didn’t seem to be armed…
A figure emerged from among the others. Everyone else was swathed in clothing—male or female, they showed skin only on their faces. Even their sleeves were tight, and their gloves thick. But this newcomer was bare chested, wearing a diaphanous robe that was split at the front, over thick black trousers. He was the only person on the field not wearing gloves, though he did wear a golden set of bracers on his forearms.
And he was missing most of his chest.
Much of the pectorals, rib cage, and heart seemed to have been dug out—burned away, leaving the remaining skin seared and blackened. Inside the cavity, the man’s heart had been replaced by a simmering ember. It pulsed red when wind stoked it—as did similar pinpricks of crimson light among the char. Black burn marks spread out from the hole across the man’s skin—as far as a few specks on his face, which occasionally glittered with their own much smaller cinders. It was like the man had been strapped to a jet engine as it ignited—somehow leaving him not only alive, but still burning.
“Don’t suppose,” Nomad said, “you fellows are the type who enjoy a comical misunderstanding made by a newcomer to your culture?” He stood and raised his hands in a non-threatening way, ignoring the instincts that told him—as always—that he needed to be running.
The man pulled a large bat off his back. Like a police baton, but more begrudging in its non-lethality.
“Didn’t think so,” Nomad said, backing up. A few of the chained up people watched him with the strange, yet familiar, hope of a prisoner—the one that was happy someone else was drawing attention for once.
The embered man came for him, supernaturally quick, the light at his heart flaring. He was Invested. Wonderful.
Nomad dodged to the side, barely.
“I need a weapon, Aux!” Nomad snapped.
Well summon one then, my dear squire, said the voice in his head. I’m not holding you back.
Nomad grunted, diving through a patch of grass that had sprung up in the minutes since he’d woken. He tried to make a weapon appear, but nothing happened.
It’s your Torment, the knight helpfully observed to his moderately-capable squire. It has grown strong enough to deny you weapons.
Nomad dodged back again, while the ember man slammed his baton down in another near miss—making the ground tremble at the impact. Storms. That light was getting brighter. Covering the entire horizon in a way that felt too even. How…how large was the sun on this planet?
“I thought,” Nomad shouted, “that my oaths overrode that aspect of the Torment!”
I’m sorry, Nomad. But what oaths?
The ember man prepared to swing again, and Nomad took a deep breath, then ducked the attack and body-checked the man. As soon as he went in for the hit, though, his body locked up again. Muscles freezing.
Yes, I see, the knight mused. Your Torment even appears to prevent physical altercations now.
He couldn’t even tackle someone? It was getting bad. The ember man cuffed Nomad across the face, throwing him to the ground with a grunt. Nomad managed to roll and avoid the baton and, with a groan, heaved himself to his feet.
The baton came in again, and by instinct, Nomad put up both hands—catching it. Stopping the swing cold.
The ember man’s eyes widened. Nearby, several of the prisoners called out. Heads turned. Seemed like people around here weren’t accustomed to the sight of a person going toe-to-toe with one of these Invested warriors. The ember man’s eyes widened further as—with teeth gritted—Nomad stepped forward and shoved him off balance, sending him stumbling backward.
Behind the creature, blazing sunlight warped the horizon, molten, bringing with it a sudden, striking heat. Around them, the strangely fecund plants started wilting. The lines of people chained to the ground began to whimper and scream.
Run, a part of Nomad shouted. Run!
It’s what he did.
It was all he knew, these days.
He turned to start dashing away, but found another ember man behind him, preparing to swing. Nomad tried to catch this attack too, but his storming body locked up again.
“Oh, come on!” he shouted as the baton clobbered him right in the side. He stumbled. The ember man behind finished Nomad off by decking him across the face with a powerful fist, sending him down to the dirt again.
Nomad gasped, groaning, feeling soil and rocks on his skin. And heat. Terrible, building heat from the horizon.
Both ember men turned away, and the first thumbed over his shoulder at Nomad. The two timid officers in the white coats hastened over and—while Nomad was in a daze of pain and frustration—manacled his hands together. They seemed to contemplate pounding a spike into the earth and pinning him there, but rightly guessed that a man who could catch the bat of an Invested warrior would just rip it out. So they hauled him over to a ring that had been affixed to a section of stone, instead locking him there.
Nomad fell to his knees in the line of prisoners, sweat dripping from his brow as the heat increased. His instincts screamed at him to run.
Yet another piece of him…just wanted to be done. How long had the chase lasted? How long had it been since he’d stood proud?
Maybe just let it end, he thought to himself. A mercy killing. Like a man mortally wounded on the battlefield.
He slumped, soreness in his side pulsing, though he doubted he’d broken anything. His body didn’t respond to hits the same way other people’s did. When others broke, he bruised. Fire that would fry others only singed him. And his body could heal from most secondary wounds in a matter of hours.
He was Invested enough to keep him alive through a great deal of punishment. At times, he wondered if that was blessing, or just another part of the Torment.
The light continued to increase, almost blinding. That smoke in the distance…was that the land itself starting on fire? By the light of the sun?
Damnation. Damnation itself was rising over the horizon.
The nearby officers—including the ember men—finished locking down the prisoners and started running to a line of machines. Hoverbikes, maybe? Nomad had seen enough of those on various worlds to recognize the general shape, even if this specific architecture was unfamiliar to him. So he wasn’t surprised when fires blasted underneath the first of these, raising it in the air a half dozen feet or so. They were large machines, capable of seating six people, so maybe “bike” wasn’t the right term, despite the open top.
What did it matter? He looked toward the ever increasing light as the plants—vibrant only minutes ago—browned and withered. He thought he could hear the pops of the fires in the distance as full-on sunlight advanced, like the front of a once familiar storm.
Thing was, even though he hated much about his life, he didn’t want to die. Even if each day he became something more feral…well, feral things knew to struggle for life.
A sudden frantic desperation struck him, Nomad began pulling and railing against the chains. The second of the four hoverbikes took off, and he knew—from the speed of the advancing sunlight—that they were his only hope of escape. He screamed, voice ragged, flailing against the steel, stretching it—but unable to pull it free.
“Aux!” he shouted. “I need a Blade! Transform!”
I’m not the one holding you back on that count, Nomad.
“That light is going to kill us!”
Point: it is going to kill you, my poor squire. I am already dead.
Nomad screamed something primal as the third hoverbike took off, though the last one was having troubles. Perhaps he—
“Weapons are forbidden to me. What about tools?”
Why would they be forbidden to you?
Idiot! he thought to himself, summoning Auxiliary—a shapeshifting metal tool that, in this case, became a crowbar upon his request. It formed in his hands as if from white mist, appearing out of nothing. Nomad got it hooked into the ring on the stones below, then threw his weight against it.
He lurched free, hands still manacled, but with two feet of slack between them. He stumbled to his feet and dashed toward the last of the hoverbikes right as the fires finally ignited underneath it.
In that moment, he summoned Auxiliary as a hook and chain—which he immediately hurled at the back of the bike. It hit as the machine took off. By his command, once Auxiliary locked on, the hook fuzzed briefly and sealed—making a solid ring around a protrusion on the back of the bike. The other end of the chain locked onto Nomad’s manacles.
Sunlight reached him. An incredible, intense, burning light. People in the line burst into flame, screaming.
But in that moment, the slack on the chain pulled tight. He was yanked out of the sunlight before he was more than singed—the speeding bike towing him after.
He was taken away from certain death. But toward what, he had no idea.
Nomad slammed to the ground side-first, dragged with frightening speed after the bike.
He ripped through barriers of withered plants, slammed repeatedly against rocks, dirt grinding against his skin. But again, Nomad was built of strong stuff. Where another man’s arms might have been twisted free of his sockets—their skin flayed as plant detritus became like razors in the high speed—he stayed together, and managed to even turn and put the brunt of the damage on his thighs and shoulder. Though the clothing of his rough jacket got ripped away, his skin held.
He wasn’t immortal. Most modern weapons—storms, even many primitive ones—could kill him with enough effort. But he didn’t wear out quickly, didn’t scrape easily. So, while the flight wasn’t particularly comfortable for him, neither was it deadly. Plus, any complaint he might have had about the jarring treatment was burned away by the sweltering heat behind.
He closed his eyes, trying to banish a greater pain. The memory of the yells of the unfortunate people from moments ago, when the sunrise had hit. Turning them to the ash in moments.
Some of them had been screaming at him for help. Once he’d never have been able to ignore that. Eyes closed, he tucked in, protecting his face from the jolting chaos of his flight. Millions, perhaps billions, of people died each day around the cosmere. He couldn’t stop that. He could barely keep himself alive.
It hurt, regardless. Even still, after years of torment, he hated watching people die.
Still, he had survived the light—and he was moving again. Motion made him feel stronger, better. More in control. Soon, the sky darkened again, and the sunlight vanished behind the horizon—sinking as if at dusk, though in this case, nomad was the one moving. Fast enough to round the planet ahead of the rising sun, staying ahead of the dawn. An enormous planetary ring rose from the opposite horizon—a wide disc that reflected the sunlight.
Planet must have a slow rotation, the knight observed to his sometimes erratic squire. Note how these ships can outrun it easily.
Nomad had little opportunity to enjoy the return to safe darkness, though he did catch a few glimpses of the people on the bike looking back at him with befuddlement. Several tried to pry loose his chain, but at such speeds—and with him as a weight on the end—they would have had difficulty even if he hadn’t sealed the loop. He wondered if perhaps they’d stop to deal with him, but they just kept on flying after the other bikes, never more than a few feet off the ground.
Eventually, the ships slowed, then stopped. Nomad came to rest in a patch of wet soil, appreciating the sensation of something soft for once in his life. He groaned and flopped over, clothing a mess of rips and tatters, skin beaten and battered, hands still manacled. After a moment of agony—spent trying to appreciate the fact that at least no new pains were being added—he turned his head to see why they’d stopped.
A floating city moved through the twilight landscape just ahead. An enormous plate, lifted by hundreds of engines burning underneath it. Nomad had been on flying cities before, even one on a planet near his homeland, but rarely had he seen one so…ramshackle. A mottled collection of single story buildings. Like an enormous slum, somehow raised up—but only thirty or forty feet high above the ground. Indeed, it seemed like getting that much lift was straining the city’s engines, barely giving it enough height to navigate the landscape’s features.
This wasn’t some high-flying, soaring edifice of modernity. It was a desperate exercise in survival. He looked back, into the distance, where the light had faded on the horizon to be almost invisible. Yet, he could see it peeking, the preglow of dawn. Looming. Like the date of your execution.
“You have to remain ahead of it, don’t you,” he whispered. “You live in the shadows because the sun here will kill you.”
Storms. An entire society that had to keep moving, outrunning the sun itself? The implications of it set his mind working, and old training—the man he’d once been—started to worm through the corpse he’d become. How did they feed themselves? What fuel powered those engines, and how did they possibly have time to mine it while moving?
And speaking of mines, why not live in caves? They had metal, obviously, to spare. Otherwise they wouldn’t have chained those poor sods to the ground.
He’d always been inquisitive. Even after he’d become a soldier—and turned pointedly away from the life of a scholar—he’d asked questions. Today, they teased him until he beat them back with a firm hand. Only one of them mattered. Would the power source that ran those engines be enough to fuel his next Skip? Get him off this planet before the Night Brigade found him?
The bike engines roared to life again, and they rose upward this time slowly. Climbing toward the city—leaving him to dangle under the last of the four, weighing it down, the engines underneath throwing fire his direction and heating his chain. Auxiliary could handle it, fortunately.
Once the bikes reached the surface level of the city, they didn’t park in the conventional way. They moved in sideways and locked into the side of the city, their engines remaining on, adding their lift to that of the main engines.
Nomad dangled by his hands and chain, his pains fading as he healed. From this vantage, he could see lumps of barren hills and muddy pits, like sludge and moors. The city had left a wide trail of burned, dried out dirt behind it. Probably wasn’t difficult for those bikes to track their way home, with a scar like that to follow. He found it odd how well he could see. He blinked, sweat and muddy water dripping into his eyes, and looked up at that ring again.
Like most, it was actually a collection of rings. Brilliant, blue-and-gold, circling the planet—sweeping high in the air, extending as if into infinity. They pointed toward the sun, and tipped at a faint angle, reflecting sunlight down onto the landscape. Now that he had a chance to study it, a part of him acknowledged how stunning the sight was. He’d visited dozens of planets, and had never seen anything so stoically magnificent. Mud and fire below, but in the air…that was majesty. This was a planet that wore a crown.
His chain started rattling, then shook as someone began to haul him upward. Soon, he was grabbed by his arms and heaved up onto the metallic surface of the city, into a crooked street lined with small, squat buildings. A collection of people chattered and gestured at him. He ignored these, though, and studied the five others at the back—people with embers in their chests.
They stood with heads bowed, eyes closed—embers having cooled. Two were women, he thought, though the fire that had consumed their chests had removed any semblance of breasts…leaving behind just that open hole stretching two handspans wide, bits of the ribs poking through the charred skin, embers where the hearts should have been.
The rest of the people were dressed as he’d seen below: high collars that reached all the way to the chin, swathed in clothing, each wearing gloves. A dozen or so of them wore the white coats, formal, with open fronts but insignias on the shoulders. Officers or officials. The rest wore muted colors, and seemed to be civilians, maybe? Some of the women had on skirts, though many preferred long, skirt-like jackets, the fronts open and revealing trousers underneath. Many—both men and women—wore hats with wide brims. Why did they wear those when there was barely any light?
Don’t think about it, he thought, exhausted. Who cares? You’re not going to be here long enough to pick up anything about their culture.
Many of them had pale skin, though some had darker skin like him. The crowd soon stilled, then lowered their eyes and backed away, parting to make way for some newcomer. Nomad settled back on his heels, breathing in and out deeply. The newcomer proved to be a tall man in a black coat—and eyes that glowed.
They simmered a deep red color, as if lit from behind. The effect reminded Nomad of something from his past, long ago—but this was less like the red eyes of a corrupted soul, and more like something that was burning inside the man. His black jacket glowed as well, but only on the very edges, with a similar red-orange color. Looked like he had one of those embers at his chest as well, though that was covered over with thin clothing. It didn’t seem to have sunk as deeply into the skin as with those other ember people, etiher. He still had the shape of his pectorals.
His glow was mirrored on many of the buildings: the rims of walls glowing as if by firelight. It gave the city a feel like it had been aflame just recently, and these were its ashes.
The man with the glowing eyes raised a thick gloved hand to quiet the crowd of people. He took in Nomad, then nodded to two officers and pointed, barking an order. The officers fell over themselves to obey, scrambling to undo Nomad’s manacles.
They backed away, nervous, as soon as the manacles were off. He rose to his feet, making many of the civilians gasp, but didn’t make any sudden moves. Because storms. He was tired. He let out a long sigh, pains having become aches. He told Auxiliary to stay in place as a chain; he didn’t want them to realize he had access to a shape-changing tool.
The man with the glowing eyes barked something at him, voice harsh.
Nomad shook his head.
The man with the glowing eyes repeated his question, louder, slower, angrier.
“I don’t speak your tongue,” Nomad said, voice rough. “Give me a power source, like one from the engines of those bikes. If I absorb that, it might be enough.”
That depended on what they were using as a fuel—but the way they managed to keep an entire city floating, he doubted their power source was conventional. Fueling a city like this with coal seemed laughable. They’d be using some kind of Invested material. If he could get some, he could maybe start accomplishing something here.
The leader, finally realizing that Nomad wasn’t going to respond to him, raised his hand to the side—then carefully pulled off his glove, one finger at a time. People gasped, though the move revealed an ordinary, if pale, hand.
The man reached forward and seized Nomad by the face.
The man seemed surprised by this for some reason. He shifted his grip, taking Nomad by the side of the face.
“If you lean in for a kiss,” Nomad muttered, “I’m going to bite your storming lip off.”
It felt good to be able to joke like that. His distant, once master would be proud of him. In his youth, Nomad had been far too serious, and had rarely allowed himself levity. More because he’d been too embarrassed, and frightened, by the idea of possibly saying something cringeworthy.
Get dragged through the dirt enough times—get beaten within the inch of your life, to the point that you barely remembered your own name—well, that did wonders for your sense of humor. Basically all you had left at that point was to laugh at the joke you had become.
People were really amazed by the fact that nothing happened when the glowing-eyed man touched him. The man took Nomad one final time by the chin, then let go and wiped his hands on his coat before replacing his glove, his eyes—like the burning light of firemoss—illuminating the front brim of his hat and the too-smooth features of his face. He might have been fifty, but it was hard to tell, as he didn’t have a single wrinkle. Seemed there were advantages to living in perpetual twilight.
One of the officers from before stepped up and gestured at Nomad, speaking in hushed tones. He seemed incredulous, pointing toward the horizon.
Another of the officers nodded, staring at Nomad. “Sess Nassith Tor,” he whispered.
Curious, the knight said. I almost understood that. It’s very similar to another language I’m still faintly Connected to.
“Any idea which one?” Nomad growled.
No. But…I think…Sass Nassith Tor… It means something like… One who Escaped the Sun.
Others behind repeated the phrase, taking it up, until the man with the glowing eyes roared at them to stop. He looked back at Nomad, then kicked him square in the chest. It hurt, particularly in the state Nomad was in. This man was definitely Invested, to deliver a kick so solid.
Nomad grunted and bent over, gasping for breath. The man seized him in gloved hands. Then smiled, realizing—it seemed—that Nomad wouldn’t fight back. The man enjoyed that idea. He tossed Nomad to the side, then kicked him again in the chest, his smile deepening.
Nomad would have loved to rip that smile off with some skin attached. But if fighting back would make him freeze, then the best thing to do seemed to be to play docile.
The leader gestured to Nomad. “Kor Sess Nassith Tor,” he said with a sneer, then kicked Nomad again for good measure. A few officers scrambled forward and grabbed him under the arms to drag him off.
He found himself hoping for a nice cell. Someplace cold and hard, yes, but at least some place he could sleep and forget who he was for a few hours.
Such blissful hopes were shattered as the city started to break apart.
The entire city began to vibrate and shake. Cracks appeared in the metal street beneath Nomad, though as he panicked, his captors just calmly stepped across them and pulled him to a building by the side.
The city continued to shake and split. It…it wasn’t breaking. It was disassembling. It shattered into hundreds of pieces, each chunk raising up on its own jets. And each chunk having a single building on it. Each chunk…was a ship.
Earlier, he’d remarked on how the hoverbikes had locked into place along the street, adding their thrust to the city. In a daunting moment, he realized that every section of the city was similar. It wasn’t one big flying city; instead, hundreds of ships had joined together to make it.
Most of them were modest in size; the “single family home” version of a starship. A great number were smaller than that, built like tugboats, with wide decks and a single cab on top. Some few were larger, carrying buildings that were wide like audience halls or warehouses. They all had fairly wide, flat decks that could be joined together to make the streets. As they flew off, railings rose out of those decks and walls opened up to reveal windshields and control cabs.
He got the impression that this city hadn’t been built as a cohesive whole that could also be disassembled—rather, this was a hodgepodge of individual vehicles that could work together. That helped explain the city’s eclectic nature. The place was like…like a caravan that, for sake of convenience, could combine its separate pieces to form a temporary city.
The fact that it worked so well together was incredible. Responding to shouts and instructions Nomad couldn’t understand—and Auxiliary failed to translate—many of the ships flew off into the distance, about some activity. Nomad squinted, and noticed that several were spreading something out to the sides.
Seeds, he realized. They’re planting seeds. Or…dusting the ground with them. A piece of this bizarre world began to fall into place. That sunlight itself must be Invested, like on Taldain. That would explain the fast-growing plants, maturing almost instantly as they absorbed the highly-potent pre-dawn light.
This society had a harvest every day. They would sew crops and reap them mere hours later, before fleeing back into the darkness. Was that light from the rings sufficient, or did they need to get in close, run the edge of the deadly sunlight?
He had to fight back his curiosity with a bludgeon.
You make, he thought at himself, a terrible cynic.
The ship he was on didn’t join those sowing for the harvest; it joined a large group of ships that flew down toward the ground. Several others here had “buildings” that reached up two or three stories, largest he had seen. They landed in a wide ring on the muddy ground. His ship came down and locked in next to a domineering one with several tiers of balconies on the front.
The man with the glowing eyes stepped up onto one of these, settling into a seat. Nomad inspected the muddy ring as lesser ships moved to lock in on top of one another, creating tenement-like structures, four or five ships tall. He felt a sinking feeling he recognized this setup. It was an arena. While the farmers went out to work, the privileged were setting up on the front decks of their ships to enjoy some kind of display.
He groaned softly as his captors affixed his forearms with a golden set of bracers, just like the ones that the ember people wore. Once these were in place, his captors hauled him to the front deck of their ship. When he tried to resist—taking a swing at one of them by instinct—he locked up. They tossed him down some twelve feet below into a patch of rancid, waterlogged earth.
It wasn’t the first arena he’d been in, but as he pulled his face from the muck, he decided it was almost certainly the dirtiest. Several larger, shipping-container-like vessels landed and opened their front doors. Officials in white coats forced out three tens or so people in ragged clothing, forcing them down into the mud of the ring. Nomad sighed, pulling himself to his feet, trying to ignore the stench of the mud. Considering what he’d been through the last few weeks, he figured the mud was probably trying to do him the same favor.
These people cast into the ring did not seem like the fighting type. Poor souls looked almost as tattered as he felt. They stumbled and tripped as they tried to walk through the thick mud, which stained their clothing.
No weapons were offered. So, Nomad thought, not a gladiatorial arena. They weren’t here to fight…but they might be here to die. Indeed, another door opened, and three of the ember-hearted people strode out, carrying whips. A ship floated down overhead—the heat of its engines uncomfortable—and dropped down several large crates and other detritus, each hitting with a thump in the mud. Obstacles.
The ember-hearts came in running. The crowd cheered. The unarmed peasants scattered, frantic.
Nomad jogged through the mud. It only came up to his ankles, but it was treacherously slick, and had a habit of sticking to his feet with a surprising suction. He skidded toward one of the larger boxes, fully six feet tall. Peasants scattered like hogs before a whitespine, but Nomad heaved himself up onto the box by his fingertips.
He figured that if he made himself the most difficult target of the bunch, the ember hearts would chase easier prey first. That might give him time to figure out some storming way out of this situation. But as soon as he got onto the box, a pair of white-knuckled hands appeared behind him, and a figure hauled itself up after him. Ember burning at the center of her heart, eyes fixed solely on him, her lips snarling. She had short black hair streaked with silver, and her face was scored along the right cheek with a long, thin line of blackness that glowed in the center.
While the other two ember hearts carried whips, this one held a long, wicked machete. Damnation. Why come after him? Nomad glanced up toward the throne above. Where the man with the glowing eyes watched with interest.
Do you think, the knight asked his faithful squire, he wants to see what you can do?
“Maybe,” Nomad whispered, backing away from the ember heart. Except…the look in those glowing eyes earlier. The way he’d been upset when the others talked about Nomad…
No. This wasn’t a test. The man with the glowing eyes wanted Nomad to be killed in public. Wanted him humiliated and defeated in full display of everyone.
The ember woman came in swinging at Nomad, so he turned and ran, leaping from the top of the enormous crate toward a smaller one. Here, he rolled purposefully off and down into the mud, pretending to scramble and find something there. As the ember woman came leaping down toward him, he heaved upward with a newly-formed crowbar—deliberately not trying to hit the woman, but only deflect the machete.
His body didn’t lock up. So long as he was focused only on a defensive posture, it seemed that he could resist. He shoved the ember woman aside, causing her to lose her balance and slide in the mud. She was up a second later, glaring at him in a feral way. She didn’t seem shocked by the sudden appearance of his weapon, and he’d tried to hide how he’d obtained it with his roll and fall. He hoped that those watching above would assume he dug it from the mud somehow; that it was some piece of junk left by some other passing group.
Growling, half her face covered in mud, the woman came scrambling for him. Behind, one of the poor peasants had been backed into a corner. An ember man had grabbed her and hauled her aloft toward the sky with one arm. The crowd yelled in delight while the woman screamed in a panic, though she didn’t seem to have been hurt.
Nomad dodged back, once, twice, three times—narrowly avoiding strikes from the ember woman, who moved with supernatural speed and grace. He had more trouble than she did with the mud. Despite being on the run for years, soil still felt unnatural to him. It was wrong to not have solid stone underfoot.
A second person was caught, Nomad blocked another blow from the machete—then barely stopped himself from hitting at the woman with a backswing. Storms, it was hard to restrain himself from actually fighting. But he also couldn’t just dodge forever. Eventually, those two other ember people would come for him.
He hit the woman’s machete extra hard on the next clash—knocking the weapon free from her muddied hand. As she howled at him for that, he turned and ran, hooking his crowbar on his belt—covertly making a small loop to secure it. He didn’t look to see if she followed, instead leaping up a set of smaller boxes, then hurling himself up toward the tallest one, some fifteen feet high.
He barely grabbed the top with the tips of his fingers. He tried to haul himself up—but unfortunately, his hands were slick with mud, and he started to fall free.
Until a gloved hand caught him by the wrist. There was a man on top of the box already, one of the peasants, a fellow who was a tad heavyset, with pale skin and dimpled chin. With a determined expression, the man heaved, pulling, helping Nomad get the rest of the way up.
Nomad nodded to the mud-covered man, who gave him a gap-toothed smile in return. He glanced at Nomad’s weapon, then asked a question—sounding confused.
Something about…you killing? Aux said. I’m sorry. I can barely make out any of this. You need to get me some Investiture.
“Sorry, friend,” Nomad said to the man, “can’t answer. But thank you.”
The man joined him in watching the arena. Another captive was giving the ember people some troubles, dodging well, scrambling through the mud. It took two, eventually, to capture the poor woman.
The ember woman who had been fighting Nomad—however—still ignored all other prey. She strode carefully around the large box, planning her ascent. As one more person was captured, the rest of the peasants gave up running, falling to their knees or leaning against a wall, puffing in exhaustion.
The ones who had been captured were herded toward a different ship, screaming and crying—though notably, not fighting back. Curious. From the way they acted, Nomad got the sense that…
“That group who were caught first are another set of condemned, Aux,” he guessed. “To be left for the sun.”
So… Auxiliary said in his head. This was some kind of elaborate game of tag? To determine who’s next in line to be executed?
“That’s my best guess,” Nomad said. “Look how relieved the others are not to have been caught.”
Relieved, yes, the knight said to his squire. But also…sad.
Auxiliary was right. Many of the survivors turned pained eyes toward the ones who had been taken. One man even screamed in a begging posture, falling to his knees, gesturing. As if offering himself instead. These captives all knew each other. The ones who had been taken were friends, maybe family members, of those who had survived.
Nomad’s ally started to climb down. But the contest wasn’t completely over. Not yet. Though the two other embers had moved off after corralling the condemned, the third one—the woman with the silver in her hair—-began leaping up the set of blocks toward Nomad’s vantage.
She wouldn’t stop until he’d been killed, he was certain of it. Well, then. Time to see if he could trick his Torment. He waited, tense, as the ember woman approached.
Nomad? Auxiliary asked. What are you doing?
“How heavy an object can you can become?” he asked.
Currently? Mass of metal weighing about a hundred pounds or so. I can’t get heavier unless you deliver appropriate Investiture. But why?
He waited until the ember woman was nearly upon him—leaping for his box from the next perch over. At that moment, Nomad hurled himself right toward her. He raised Auxiliary over his head—worrying that he’d have to reveal his secret—and created a barbell of the appropriate weight. Nomad held it right in front of him, as if to swing it.
In response, his Torment sensed he was trying to do harm. His arms locked up. But the ember woman still slammed right into the large chunk of iron, gasping as the two of them smashed together mid-air.
He became, essentially, another dead weight. They both plummeted to the mud below, and he landed on top of her, his barbell hitting her in the chest, his elbow smashing her in the neck. The twin weights drove her down into mud.
When Nomad stumbled to his feet, she remained down, eyes open—but stunned. Her ember fluttered, like an eye blinking from exhaustion.
The crowd grew deathly soft.
“Doesn’t happen often, does it?” Nomad shouted, turning toward the leader with the glowing eyes, seated on his balcony at the head of the arena. “Someone defeating your soldiers. Why would it ever happen, though? These are Invested warriors, and you pit them against unarmed peasants!”
The man didn’t reply of course. Storms, Nomad hated bullies. He stepped forward, as if to challenge the bastard. As he did, however, a shocking coldness swept through him, originating at his wrists.
He looked down at the bracers he’d been given. They were leeching his body heat straight out. Leaving him cold, his muscles lethargic. He breathed out, his breath misting. He looked up at the glowing-eyed man—who held a device with several buttons on it.
“B-bastard,” Nomad said through chattering teeth. Then fell over face-first into the mud, unconscious.
When Nomad woke this time, he found himself manacled to a wall. No…it was the side of a ship, one of those still forming the arena. It seemed he hadn’t been out for very long, though it was impossible for him to tell with no sun in the sky. Just those dramatic, sweeping rings.
He tried to move, but was held tight against the side of the ship by both wrists and both ankles. The crowd was still in place, rowdy, though a small ship with a podium and four ornate columns on the sides had settled into the center of the arena. Glowing Eyes stood upon it, addressing the people, stoking their enthusiasm.
“Auxiliary,” Nomad growled. “Did I miss anything relevant?”
They moved the boxes out of the way, he replied. Then strapped you here. I’m trying to make sense of that speech, but I haven’t caught more than a word or two. Some of this is about you. And…an “example?”
“Lovely,” he said, struggling against the chains.
I don’t think they realized or saw what you did with me, Auxiliary continued. With the barbell, I mean. The angle was wrong. So I turned into a crowbar again when they picked you out of the mud. They took me, then tossed me aside, assuming I was nothing important. I’m still out in the mud, off to your left.
Well, that was something. Those bonds on his wrists were tight, but Auxiliary could become all kinds of odd shapes. He might be able to work something out with the tool. But if he wasn’t in immediate danger, then there was no reason to reveal what he could do. So for now, Nomad considered other methods. Perhaps if he broke his thumb, he could get his hand out, then let it heal. Unfortunately, he healed fractures much more slowly than bruises.
The ember man’s voice rose to a crescendo, gesturing to Nomad. Damnation. Even if he could get out, he still had those bracers on that froze him. And he was still surrounded by enemies, and couldn’t fight. What good would it do to get a hand free in such a situation? He growled, struggling at his bonds.
You might be in trouble this time, Auxiliary said.
Do I think? I’m not sure. Depends on your definition.
“You know, I liked you much better when you were alive.”
And who is to blame for that?
Nomad snarled and raged against the chains. His attention was finally drawn away from his predicament, however, as several officials led a ragged captive up to the podium ship. One of the white coats carried a long spear, but the other had a rifle.
Nomad’s eyes lingered on that. A rifle? The first modern weapon he’d seen here. Were those rare? He finally thought to inspect the captive, and realized it was the woman who had been doing so well earlier avoiding escape. The one that had taken two ember people to catch.
“That woman…” Nomad said. “She was one of the better fighters—or at least, better dodgers—in the arena earlier. Perhaps because she fought well, they’re going to reward her?”
Glowing eyes gestured to the woman, and the crowd roared. He slapped her on the shoulder in an almost congratulatory way, smiling. But then, the captive woman started to struggle harder, and Nomad got a sinking feeling.
Not my problem, he thought to himself.
Glowing Eyes waved to the side, and one of the guards handed him the spear. Glowing Eyes whipped off a sheath, revealing that the spearhead itself had a glowing ember at the tip—so bright, it left a trail in Nomad’s vision.
The captive screamed.
Glowing Eyes rammed the spear into the woman’s chest.
Nomad had just the right angle to see what happened next. Glowing eyes yanked out the spear, leaving the ember behind. The officials scattered in a panic, though Glowing Eyes remained, unconcerned. The beleaguered captive fell to her knees, screams intensifying as glowing heat flared at her core. Sparks and jets of flames sprayed out, like from a fire suddenly stirred up, individual motes scoring the skin of her arms and face—leaving streaks that continued to glow even after the central fire in her chest quieted.
The woman finally slumped to the side, eyes not closing. She just lay there, staring sightless, a quiet flame at her chest lighting the floor of the podium in front of her.
Well, Auxiliary said, I guess we know where those cinder-hearted people come from now.
“Agreed,” Nomad said, feeling sick. “My guess is that they picked the captive who was most agile—most skilled at avoiding capture—to be elevated like that.”
A stretch, perhaps, but logical enough.
Nomad took a deep breath. “That might give us an opportunity. You think whatever powers those spears would be enough to let us Skip off this planet?”
He hungered to get ahead of the Night Brigade for once. If he jumped from this planet quickly, then to another, he could build up a lead on them. He might finally be able to catch a breather.
No, I’d say it isn’t powerful enough for a Skip, Auxiliary said. Should be powerful enough to establish you a Connection to the planet, though. You’d finally be able to understand what people are saying. Might power me up a little as well. Let me get bigger, heavier, for a little while at least.
As the guards returned to drag off the newly-made ember woman, glowing eyes strode back onto the podium and someone approached with two more spears. Glowing Eyes took one and whipped the sheath off, revealing a second glowing tip—like metal heated super-hot, but somehow never cooling. The crowd shouted and cheered even louder.
“I’ll bet,” Nomad said, “he’s going to use one of those on me. He tried to get me killed, but his people failed. So now he’s going to try something else.”
Ah, Auxiliary said. Yes, that’s reasonable. Why isn’t he worried that you’ll turn against him once you’re given powers?
“I suspect he counts on the freezing bracers to control the others, and he just proved to himself they work on me.”
“Agreed,” Nomad said. In this case, the situation wouldn’t play out as Glowing Eyes wanted. If he touched the spear tip to Auxiliary, or even Nomad potentially, they’d be able to absorb the power from it. One of the few valuable sides of his Torment—Nomad had an unusual ability to metabolize nearly any kind of Investiture, though he often needed Auxiliary to facilitate.
Right. But why are there two spears?
“They’ll want to do me last,” Nomad said. “As the big finish. So I assume there is another poor captive to be…”
He trailed off as they pulled a second person up onto the podium. It was the gap-toothed man who had helped Nomad earlier. As soon as he saw the poor fellow, Nomad realized it made sense. He’d just been theorizing that they turned the best fighters into ember-people. This fellow might be a little overweight, but he’d managed to elude the ember people better than the others—and had even gone out of his way to help Nomad who was aggressively being targeted.
The man’s grit had earned him a terrible reward. The crowd cheered as Glowing Eyes raised the second spear. The poor captive screamed a piteous sound, pulling against his captors, trying desperately to escape.
Not my problem, Nomad thought, closing his eyes.
But he could still hear. And somehow, in shutting out the light—there within the blackness of his own design—he felt something. Of the person he’d once been. And words he’d once spoken. In a moment of glorious radiance.
Damnation, he thought as the man’s terrified shouts shook him to the core.
Nomad forced his eyes open and ripped his right hand out of the bonds—down through the manacle, his supernatural strength shattering the thumb and ripping the skin along the sides of his hand. He raised his bleeding hand above his head to the side, then summoned Auxiliary from the mud.
He whipped his hand forward then, throwing Auxiliary to spin—flashing and glorious—through the air. Aux slammed into one of the pillars on the podium right next to Glowing Eye’s head: a six-foot long, glittering sword. Auxiliary’s truest form. It sank into the pillar up to Auxiliary’s hilt, then hung there, quivering.
The crowd hushed.
Huh, Auxiliary said in his head. I thought you couldn’t do that anymore.
He intentionally hadn’t aimed for Glowing Eyes, as to not be a threat—and not trigger the Torment. But it had been a while since Nomad had seen the full Blade, been able to access it in its glory. The crowd hushed, and as Nomad hoped, Glowing Eyes gaped at the sword—forgetting his captive. The gap-toothed man huddled in the grips of the officers, but hadn’t been touched by the spear, not yet.
Nomad resummoned Auxiliary, and tried to form the Blade again. He failed. The Torment seemed to have slipped that once, but now it was adamant. No weapons. Instead, Nomad raised Auxiliary high in the form of a tall poll—his thumb screaming in pain, but a bracer formed at the bottom of the tool holding it in place and letting him grip it with his unbroken fingers. He formed a wrench next, then a crowbar.
Glowing Eyes watched the weapon, a visible hunger in his wide, glowing eyes. He stumbled off the platform, carrying the spear. Fixated on Nomad.
“Good,” Nomad whispered. “Good. You want this. Come, try to take me as one of your embers. Then you can command me to give you the weapon, right?” He met those glowing eyes, daring them forward.
The man approached, then paused, then held the spear in front of him threatening as he got closer.
“You…can absorb that, right?” Nomad asked.
Yes, Auxiliary said. Just form me as a receptacle—or even just a standard shield—on your chest as he stabs, and I’ll recycle the energy.
Glowing Eyes hesitated a few feet from Nomad.
“Come on, you!” Nomad shouted. “Stab me!”
Instead, the man put the white hot spear tip near Nomad’s eye and demanded something.
“I don’t speak idiot,” Nomad said. “Just stab me!”
The man waved at Nomad’s hands, speaking again, more stern.
He wants you to show him—the knight explained to his sometimes-dense squire—how you summon the tools.
So instead, Nomad summoned a nice dollop of spit—spiced by the mud that crusted his lips—and delivered it right into the bastard’s glowing eye. The spittle hissed, as if on a hotplate, and the man stepped back, growling. He lowered his spear, causing the crowd to cheer.
Here we go, Nomad thought.
At that moment, one of the nearby ships exploded.
Nomad cried out in frustration as Glowing Eyes turned around toward the sound, then began shouting as he strode—tall and unflinching—back toward the podium.
Weapon fire—blasts with a distinctly red-white heat—rained from the sky. Glowing Eyes shouted something else, and ember people—a good two hundred of them—came running out of holds onto the rims of ships. Then, as one, their embers began to dull—their bracers, it seemed, activating. Even Nomad’s did something, buzzing a little bit and shaking. Then, the ember people began dropping like toddlers at nap time, falling off of perches down into the mud, or just slipping down where they were. It didn’t affect him, he wasn’t sure why.
But Glowing Eyes spun, obviously shocked by this turn of events. He’d summoned them but had not expected them to all suddenly fall unconscious. The image of that happening to them would have been comical. However, Nomad couldn’t bask in the moment, as the ship he was chained to began moving, hovering up and away from the arena floor. It got just about five feet before a blast hit it from above. A violent explosion ripped it apart, ejecting the part with Nomad on it off of the rest of the disintegrating vessel.
On the plus side, Nomad dropped back to the ground.
Unfortunately, a small chunk of the ship—smoking and throwing sparks—came with him. He hit the ground, still mostly chained in place, and the metal chunk fell right on top of him. He grunted, body protesting the treatment. Invested or not, he suspected if he hadn’t fallen into soft mud—able to squish around him beneath the weight—he’d have been crushed.
As it was, he got stuck there in the muddy darkness, a huge weight on top him—his thumb still broken and healing slowly—as a firefight broke out above.
Oh, come on, he thought. He could hold his breath for practically forever—with his highly Invested soul renewing his cells much in the same way that sun made the plants grow in quick speed. But his chances at stealing not only that spear, but the rifles he’d seen, seemed to be fleeing by the moment.
Nomad, the knight said to his exceptionally lazy squire, this is no time to take a rest.
Nomad gurgled an annoyed reply through the mud.
Yes, that was a joke on my part, Auxiliary said. Proof that I’m not completely mirthless since my death. But…to be more serious…you should probably try to get out of this. That sunrise is going to arrive eventually. I tasted the strength of it earlier. Stay long in that light, and you’ll be vaporized. And I don’t have the strength to make a shield that could resist that kind of punishment.
Some kind of explosion shook the ground, vibrating Nomad. One hand, unfortunately, was still manacled to the chunk of wall. He could pull it free, maybe, but would probably break his thumb or wrist at the same time. Which seemed like a bad idea. His right hand was still kind of useless, though starting to heal.
Fortunately, he could feel air on his legs, as well as move them. His ankles were sore. He got the impression that the bonds there had been ripped free in the blast, and that the chunk of metal holding him down was covering only his top half.
Right then. Time for some complex visualizations. He could summon Auxiliary in practically any shape he could imagine. He tried a knife, first—but that wouldn’t work, even though Nomad insisted he was making a tool, not a weapon. So he needed something else. He thought back to his days as an aspiring scholar—that seemed like so, so long ago—and imagined a jack for lifting something heavy.
Auxiliary appeared next to his right hand in the appropriate shape, with the front of the jack just underneath the piece of metal. Though Nomad didn’t have much maneuverability, he was able move his free hand onto the specifically-designed crank and move it a few times. Not much different than doing weight lifting at the gym. It was enough to inch the metal up a little to the side.
Clever, Auxiliary thought at him. Glad to see some of the old you shining through.
Fresh air flowed in as he turned the fallen piece of metal into—essentially—a lean-to, with him underneath. That gave him some increased maneuverability, allowing him to slide both knees underneath him.
With supreme effort—barely managing in the mud—he gave an extremely powerful heave and flipped himself (and the chunk of metal) over onto his back. The maneuver planted the chunk of metal down into the mud behind him, and left him lying on top of it—one manacle still in place—staring upward.
Ships buzzed around. There wasn’t as much weapons fire as he’d imagined—these ships didn’t seem to have on-board guns. The blasts that were happening were from dropped bombs, and the gunfire he’d seen was all from people on the decks bearing rifles. The ships also couldn’t get very high; the highest he saw them flying was fifty or sixty feet. These weren’t jet fighters—more like hovercraft with a little extra oomph.
All through the arena, plants had started sprouting. Just weeds, but it was dramatic how quickly this barren pit of mud was becoming a field. Most of the ships forming the arena had launched into the air, and Glowing Eyes was nowhere to be seen—though many of his ember hearts still lay in the mud, where they’d fallen.
Nomad formed Auxiliary as a pair of bolt cutters, and tried to maneuver to get his other hand free. But he couldn’t get leverage with his broken thumb. If he made the bolt cutters large enough to work on the manacle, they were too big for him to grip in one broken hand. But if he made them small enough to hold, he couldn’t make enough force to to cut through the metal. And the Torment continued to forbid him a knife or a sword, even though it had worked just earlier.
As Nomad slipped in the mud, a sleek hover-bike-like ship came roaring down, frying plants with its jets. Two people jumped free, a man and a woman. The man carried a rifle, and the woman wore skirts, but neither had the uniform coat of the guards he’d encountered before. They were the aggressors, it seemed. The ones who had attacked Glowing Eyes and his group. Enemies of his enemies, dared he hope?
“Hey!” Nomad shouted as they dashed past. “Hey!”
The woman glanced at him, but the man continued searching the ground for some reason. Nearby, a ship went roaring past, the small “deck” crowded with people in dirty clothing. It made off into the distance.
It’s a rescue, Nomad realized. Those were captives from earlier. That’s what’s happening here. These ships are here to save these people.
“Hey!” he shouted louder. “Help me!” He held up the bolt-cutter, waving for them.
The two people continued to ignore him, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what they were looking for in these weeds. Though nearby, someone sat up out of the grass. One of the ember men. He looked lethargic, still, but…
“Whatever you did to them is wearing off!” Nomad shouted.
The rescuers continued—frantic—searching through the growing grass until… The man shouted. His companion joined him, and together they heaved something up from the grass. A muddy figure.
The ember woman that had hunted Nomad during the game earlier. He recognized her easily, with that silver mixed into her hair, the single glowing mark on her cheek. She looked dazed, disoriented as the two hauled her back toward their hover bike. They walked right past Nomad.
“Storm you!” Nomad said, struggling again in his bond, pulling at. “At least look at me!”
They didn’t, instead loading their captive onto their bike. He didn’t miss some manacles there, too, which they used to lock her in place. They didn’t trust this ember woman. Perhaps they were taking a captive for some kind of ransom?
Well, Nomad would need to break his other hand to get free. Damnation. He was already handicapped enough. He didn’t fancy being trapped her without the ability—
The man among the two rescuers suddenly screamed, a blast of energy hitting him on the shoulder. He stumbled back, and the next shot vaporized his entire head.
The body slumped to the weeds as the woman cried out in anguish, barely thinking to take cover behind her bike. Overhead, a ship lowered down—the one with a large podium on the back. Four Pillars. Glowing Eyes—face lit by the heat inside of him—stood on the edge, a rifle in hand, sighted. He fired again at the woman, blasting off a small part of her long, four-seater hoverbike.
She huddled in the shadow of the vessel, facing Nomad. She managed to grab her companion’s fallen rifle, but when she ducked up to try firing, Glowing Eyes almost took her head off with an expert shot. She, in turn, only got a few wild shots off that came nowhere near to hitting. She tried firing again, and was even further off.
“You need my help,” Nomad said, gesturing to the bolt cutters. “Come on.”
She glanced back at him.
“Come on,” he said, wiggling his fingers. “Come on!”
She said something unintelligible. Then, noticing he didn’t understand, she held up the rifle.
“Yeah, I know how to fire one,” he said, nodding. “I’m better at aiming than you seem to be.”
Liar, Auxiliary said.
“It’s not a lie,” he said. “I am a good shot.”
You’ll lock up the moment you touch a gun.
“She doesn’t understand anyway,” he said, nodding eagerly to the woman.
On the other side, Glowing Eyes was forced to turn and deal with some other ships buzzing him—dropping explosives to try to catch his ship. In that distraction, the woman rescuer finally scrambled over to him and took the bolt cutters. She struggled with them though, throwing her weight onto them. But the manacle was made of strong stuff. And before she could get him free, Glowing Eyes turned his attention back toward them from his hovering platform in the near distance.
“Go!” Nomad said, pointing at him.
The woman ducked back under cover, and Nomad twisted, dismissing Auxiliary—then immediately summoning him again as a shield on his arm. That intercepted the shots Glowing Eyes fired. Nomad huddled to his knees, taking shelter behind his shield, one hand still trapped beneath him.
The woman huddled beside her own ship as—on top of it—the ember woman groaned. She was waking up.
“The gun,” Nomad said, pointing and waving.
Hesitant, eyes distrustful, the woman tossed it to him as another barrage of fire came down from above. He didn’t dare dismiss the shield, but he could alter its shape—giving it a long set of spikes on the bottom, which he could ram down into the earth and let go. He huddled beside this and then awkwardly moved the rifle—broken thumb screaming in pain—around toward the lock holding his hand on the wall.
You’re going to blow your hand off, Auxiliary warned.
“Eh,” Nomad said. “I’ve got two.”
He fired. And, as he’d hoped, it blew apart the device and let him pull his hand free. He grabbed the shield and moved up close to the woman’s ship, huddling beside her.
“Hey Aux,” he said. “How hard would it be for me to steal this thing? Have you seen how they start the engines?”
You’re despicable, he said. This woman just saved you. And you’d steal her ship?
“Engines. How do I start them?”
I haven’t seen.
Blast. Well, he needed to get rid of Glowing Eyes. Nomad set up with the rifle right beside where the ember woman was strapped. She glared at him and growled as he deliberately told himself he was going to fire the rifle not at any person in specific, just kind of randomly.
It worked, though only if he aimed very far away. He blasted the air, and it was enough to frighten Glowing Eyes back for a moment. Still, the woman who had saved him glared at Nomad, shouting something and waving her hands.
I believe she’s mad, Auxiliary said, about your bad aim.
“Lady,” Nomad said, “I’m having a really bad day. If you’re going to scream at me, could you at least do it a little softer?”
She grabbed the gun back from him, then fired, keeping Glowing Eyes at bay for now. Then she gestured at the ship and spoke.
I believe she’s offering to take you, Auxiliary said, if you use the shield to protect her from behind as she flies.
That would do. Except…
Nomad paused, scanning the field full of quickly growing tall grasses. The podium had been right over there, hadn’t it? He thought he saw something in the grass there.
Damnation. Cursing himself for a fool, Nomad held up Auxiliary for cover and dashed that direction—ignoring the woman’s cries of surprise. There, in the muddy ground near where the center of the arena had been, he found the gap-toothed man. Mostly buried in the mud, leg twisted the wrong direction, bleeding from the face from what looked like it might have been a kick. Perhaps delivered by the soldiers who had thrown him free when the fighting had started.
The poor man looked up, seeing Nomad. And as bombs fell and a line of glowing automatic rifle fire hit the ground nearby—tossing up soil and burned grass—something sparked in the man’s eyes. Hope.
Nomad seized the man by the arm and heaved, ripping him out of the muddy soil and throwing him across his shoulders. Unable to keep Auxiliary up with that weight, Nomad dropped the shield and dashed through the battlefield, the weight of forgotten oaths on his shoulders. He Somehow avoided being shot as he reached the hoverbike and threw the man into one of the seats.
The man, tears in his eyes, whispered something. Nomad didn’t need to know the language to sense the gratitude in them.
That was uncharacteristic of you, Auxiliary said as Nomad summoned him again as a shield.
“He reminds me,” Nomad said, “of an old friend. That’s all.” He looked to the woman, who was still taking cover beside the bike, and gestured toward his shield.
She growled something at him, then held up three fingers, counting down. At zero, he leaped up onto the top of the hover bike and expanded his shield, getting it around himself and her. He also watched, with care, as she fired the machine up. Unlike the others, which doubled as buildings, this was one of those that seemed intended only to be a vehicle. It had two seats on each side of a large fuselage in the center.
The top left position seemed to be the driver’s seat. She pulled a lever and hit a button, then paused, looking toward the corpse of the man who had gotten his head shot off earlier.
“Fly!” Nomad said, nudging her as more blasts hit his shield. Another enemy ship was coming in around, having noticed them. Worse, the other ember people were all getting up, rising from the field of grass like Awakened corpses. Several turned toward them—particularly as the one they had tied to the back left seat of the hover bike began shouting and raving.
Finally, the woman lifted them off and sent them in a low flight just above the grass, following others of her group that—together—were fleeing with their rescued captives.
For a moment, Nomad thought they’d escaped. He saw Glowing Eyes watching from a distance, standing tall on his podium ship, apparently fiddling with the device that should have frozen nomad by his bracers. It still didn’t work.
The man didn’t need to give chase personally, though. Because in moments, several ships landed to gather people with embers in their chests. Those gave chase. Most of the friendly ships that had performed the hit-and-run were far ahead, almost out of sight. But Nomad’s vessel was the lone straggler, trailing far behind the others.
So, of course, those ships of ember people targeted him.
Nomad tapped on the pilot’s shoulder and thumbed backwards. She said something he was quite certain was a curse, then leaned down lower. He reached for her rifle, but she put a protective hand on it and glared at him.
Great. He could just kick her free and take the machine; he was relatively certain he could fly it. But then she pulled up, gaining elevation.
Something about getting away from the dirty ground, up into the sky toward those rings… It had an effect on him. Wind against his face, landscape shrinking down below. That reminded him of better times. Pure crisp air acting like a moral decongestant.
He smiled at that thought. It was wordplay like his former master would have liked. And maybe there was something to be said for the thinner air up here. Maybe he had been, after all, a little bit airsick…
Nah. That was absolutely going too far.
Still, he kept his shield in place, and didn’t try to steal the bike. Instead, he focused on the enemies behind. They crowded onto two sleek war vessels. Long and flat, with small cabs, the machines resembling actual fighter jets—though they had decks on the front, where ember people hung on to poles, standing otherwise in open air. Their embers stoked in the wind, growing brighter, like headlights. Their postures seemed determined, eager.
And they were gaining. How had these rescuers expected to pull off their raid when flying inferior ships? They had to know they’d get chased down eventually.
A sharpshooter in a white coat leaned out of the cab of one of the warships, then took aim. Nomad raised Auxiliary as a shield noticing that the sharpshooter wasn’t one of the ember people. Those seemed to only be given melee weapons.
The sharpshooter fired. Not at Nomad or the pilot, but just behind them, at the fuselage of the bike itself.
The pilot cursed, looking back past him. Nomad made his shield turn transparent to let her see—because the sharpshooter fired again in the same spot, blasting off a piece of the bike. Exposing something underneath, glowing bright. Nomad, sensing the pilot’s panic, scrambled back a little and blocked the next shot—which exploded into sparks against the shield.
Nomad glanced at where the sharpshooter had been firing. A housing that contained a brightly glowing chunk of stone…or maybe glass? Roughly the size of a grenade, it had the same red-orange glow as the embers, the engines, and the very blasts of the guns were firing.
“Power source?” Nomad guessed, blocking another shot.
Almost assuredly, the knight said almost assuredly.
“Think that is powerful enough to get us off of here?
Not even close, the knight said with flat disbelief at his squire’s lack of perceptive abilities. But you should absorb it anyway. Well, once we land. Unless you’d rather said landing be a little more abrupt than is normally desirable.
“Noted,” he said.
Ahead of him, the pilot leaned down even lower behind a short windshield, the throttle—least, that was what he guessed the lever was—smashed forward as far as it would go. The gap-toothed man that Nomad had rescued clung to his seat, eyes wide, hair fluttering the wind.
Nomad glanced ahead of them, hoping to see some kind of defensive force up there. A fortress, or a line of fighters waiting for them to arrive.
Instead, he picked out a deep blackness. Above, the rings of the planet had moved in the sky, away from them. Rather, by flying this fast forward, Nomad’s ship was getting behind the rings. The back sides were dark, not reflecting sunlight. And those shadows ahead…
That was the full dark of the planet, perhaps? True night. Away from even the frail light of the rings. Storms. How small must this planet be, if flying such a short time could round them so quickly? They were not only outpacing the rotation of the planet, but dramatically changing their orientation compared to the rings. That indicated small rings, but an even smaller diameter of the…
Eh, who cared.
The sharpshooter had pulled back, but the enemy ships were pulling up even closer—and the ember people on them were hooting and shouting. They crowded the front of their platforms, preparing to jump as soon as their ships got close enough to Nomad’s.
So, the knight asked, how are you going to survive this without fighting?
“I’m hoping the Torment will relax a little,” he said. “Maybe it will have pity on me?”
Good luck with that, the knight replied with an exhaustive amount of skepticism.
Nomad grunted, still keeping his shield in place. The transparent metal let him watch the approaching ember people as four prepared to leap. Even if he could fight, he’d have had trouble handling four at once—particularly with four more coming up on the second ship behind.
Fortunately, he had one advantage. Everything he’d seen so far indicated that these beings didn’t expect resistance. Especially not from someone as strong as they were.
So Nomad took a deep breath, then stood up, dashed along the length of the hover bike, and jumped.
Wind against his tattered clothing.
An infinite expanse above.
Distant land below, looking up, aspirational.
It felt familiar. Nomad and the sky weren’t currently on speaking terms. But they’d been intimate for some time in the past, and he still knew his way around her place.
He felt…stronger now. Where he’d struggled to make the leap onto that box earlier in the day, this time he soared.
Even the ember people seemed amazed by the distance he got with that leap, soaring over their heads, hitting their platform right behind them with enough force to shake the vessel. He turned with a grin, summoning Auxiliary as a sword…
Oh, right. No swords.
…summoning Auxiliary as an extra large wrench. He pointed it at the four ember people. Then charged them. They made way for him, sidestepping and surrounding him. He didn’t swing, though. He spun toward one of them and formed Auxiliary as a shield right as they attacked. He blocked the blow, then threw the ember-heart back, before spinning and blocking the next attack.
He anticipated each attack with alacrity—though having a huge, transparent, moldable shield was a tad of an advantage. He had to be careful not to push them back too aggressively, though, lest his Torment activate.
Nomad, the knight warned, check the other ship.
He glanced to the side, seeing that the second vessel had almost caught up to the escape vessel. He blocked a final blow, then turned and shoved between two ember people, leaping the distance to that other ship, just barely grabbing it on the side.
He formed Auxiliary as a ladder, hooked to the side of the vessel, then quickly scrambled up the face the surprised ember people on this one. The pilot turned in shock as well, causing the platform to veer to the side—toward its companion ship. That, in turn, let the four ember people there—now wholly focused on Nomad—jump the distance between the two ships. Putting all eight in position to fight him.
In a battle of one against many, chaos favored him. A trained military squad might have easily surrounded and pinned him, but these didn’t fight with coordination. They each came at him, shouting and angry. They were quick and strong, but their general advantage over others had taught them the wrong lessons. They felt they felt they didn’t need to fight as a team. He’d seen it dozens of times.
He rolled to the ground, skidding and coming up with his shield blocking the machetes and maces that managed to track him. Other ember-people stumbled or tripped one another in their eagerness to get to him. He jumped to his feet, throwing one man back into several others, then leaped over closer to the cockpit at the back of the long deck.
Through the open window, he saw the driver in her white coat—watching him with a panicked expression. She hit a button, and a blast shield went up between them, sealing the cab off. Fortunately, he wasn’t after the pilot. Because, set into the floor of the deck, Nomad spotted a similar hatch to the one that had been blown off the hover bike.
He rammed Auxiliary as a crowbar into the locking mechanism, and popped off the hatch—revealing the power supply.
Ah…the knight said with begrudging admiration. That’s nasty.
Nomad reached in and ripped the power cell out as the ember people tried to rush him from behind. But the ship—now without power—dropped beneath them. Nomad got off one last good jump, hurling himself toward the second of the warships.
Behind, the ember people howled as they fell. The unfortunate ship plowed into the wet, muddy ground below right as Nomad landed on the companion warship. He leaned out over the side, looking down. Here, the ground seemed as muddy and wet as it had been at the arena. Maybe rain fell in the darkness. Then, as the planet rotated that landscape toward the sun, the reflected light—and Investiture—of the rings made things grow. Finally, the sunrise approached, burning it all away.
What a strange life these people had, always a few hours from total annihilation. No wonder they didn’t trust one big, indivisible ship to carry them. He too would have preferred a lot of little engines—that much more redundancy. Not to mention the chance to eject your home from the others and move on ahead if something went wrong with the community.
Remarkably, down below, ember people seemed to be climbing from the wreckage of the other ship. Damnation. Those things were hard to kill.
He raised his shield and turned toward the cab of his particular ship, where the driver was accompanied by a sharpshooter. She had raised the gun at him, and he just smiled, stepping toward them. She fired, and each blast bounced off his shield. Then, predictably, they tried to raise their own blast shield. So he tossed Auxiliary at the window—jamming him into the mechanism as it tried to cover up the window.
Nomad advanced. Completely unarmed, of course—and worse, completely unable to harm these two. But they didn’t know that. He pointed at their gun, then glared at them. It seemed that people on this planet were, on average, shorter than ones from his homeworld. For while he’d often felt short there compared to towering Alethi, here he was the tall one.
Intimidated by the strange man holding an energy core in his fingers, the sharpshooter obeyed Nomad’s demand. She lowered the gun, then—in response to his miming—opened the side door of the cab and tossed it out.
She stepped back, raising her hands. The pilot kept at his controls, but as Nomad seized the gun, the man tried spinning his ship.
When they came back up, the sharpshooter was in a jumble on the floor. The pilot had kept his place. Nomad stood where he had before, Auxiliary having formed a boot on his foot with gripping portions melded into the natural holes between plates in the steel. His heart thumped quickly in his chest, as he hadn’t been certain that would work. But he covered his discomfort with a smile and raised the energy core to his face, then breathed in.
It had taken him months to get the trick of that. He was certain that the “breathing in” part was psychological, and he didn’t need it. But he’d learned, with time, how to feed on Investiture. An after-effect of the burden he’d once carried, the thing that had given him his Torment.
Either way, he easily absorbed the energy of that fragment of the sun—a ball of molten light, which wasn’t the least bit hot in his fingers. As he took the Investiture in, the entire core went to slag, its energy drained.
Inside of his head, Auxiliary sighed in satisfaction. That’ll do, the knight told his unwashed companion. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll have you Connected to this land. Their words should start making sense then.
Nomad nodded. He raised his gun at the driver, covering the way his arms locked up by making it seem like he was standing there, stoic, ready to fire. The pilot grew even more pale at the sight. Nomad lowered the gun as soon as his muscles relaxed, then nodded to the side.
The pilot obediently took him in close to the fleeing hoverbike. Nomad nodded, then pointed at the pilot and gestured dramatically backward with as much of an ominous expression as he could form. He tried to make the implication as clear as possible. I’d better not see you following.
Nomad jumped between ships, and it seemed the pilot had understood. Because he immediately turned and fled back toward the other ships that were giving chase in the distance. Those were, as Nomad had hoped, too far to reach them in time. The landscape was growing even darker, and ahead, he saw rainfall masking the air further.
Up here, speeding toward it, that sheet of rainfall reminded him of another tempest back home. A place he missed dearly, but he could never visit again, lest he lead the Night Brigade to people who loved him.
The gap toothed man was staring at him in awe. The woman flying the ship glanced back. Then paused. Her eyes went wide as she saw the one ship fleeing, the other one nowhere in sight. Storms. Hadn’t she been watching? Had she only now just noticed what he’d done? Judging by her expression, that was indeed the case.
He sighed. By this point, he had gotten accustomed to the way many outsiders looked. He didn’t think they were “child-like” because of their odd eyes; in fact, he had come to see that there were nuances in all kinds of ethnicities. He knew Alethi with eyes as open and wide as a Shin, while he’d met offworlders who could have passed for Veden—even within a population of people who otherwise wouldn’t have.
Still, he couldn’t help thinking they looked a little bug-eyed when they made expressions like she did at seeing what he’d done. Well, to each their own. He moved forward to the seat to her right. Once there, though, he stumbled—foot catching—and dropped his rifle over the side of the vessel.
He scrambled and reached for it, then came up empty-handed and shrugged.
She said something to him, sounding frustrated.
“Yeah,” he said, settling down in the seat across from hers, “I bet you’re annoyed I lost a gun. Those don’t seem plentiful around here. Ah, well.” He sighed and shook his hand, where his thumb—during the minutes of fleeing—seemed to have finally knit back together. It was working fine, and the pain had faded, the scrapes on the sides of his hand healed. “Don’t suppose, you’ve got anything good to drink?”
He said this in Alethi on purpose. His own language was about to get intermixed with the Connection to this planet—and he’d learned from previous experiences that he should train himself not to speak in his own tongue, lest it slip out in the local dialect. That was how Connection worked; it would make his soul think he’d been raised on this planet, so its language came as naturally to him as his own once had.
Since he had a habit of talking to himself—and since he generally didn’t want people listening in on him and Auxiliary—it was better to just get into the rhythm of speaking Alethi to her and to himself.
Regardless, the pilot of his ship could only stare at him as they hit the darkness of the planet’s true night.
The rain in here wasn’t nearly as bad as that of a storm back home. Just a quick wash of cold water, and then into the darkness. The sprinkle lasted less than a minute, though they soon passed through another one. He guessed that those omnipresent clouds made for near-constant showers in this dark zone.
“Must be quite spectacular,” he said to Auxiliary, “when the sun rolls around and vaporizes all of this. Superheated water, coursing through the air, until suddenly—bam. Darkness. No light.”
Indeed, the knight replied to his squire’s strange rambling. It’s been a long while since we’ve been on a planet with a persistent storm. Remind you of home?
“In all the wrong ways,” Nomad said.
The ship had consoles with lights to let the driver know what she was doing, so they weren’t completely blind. But there didn’t seem to be headlights on the thing, and the lack of even a token canopy or roof made him think that people didn’t fly these things into the darkness often.
That made sense. This woman’s force attacked a presumably more dangerous power in a rescue mission. He’d joined some sort of guerrilla force, perhaps—one that hid in the darkness others feared to enter. A small nation of raiders, perhaps?
But how had their people been taken in the first place? And if they were consistently doing this kind of work, why hadn’t they devised lights for themselves or altered their ships to fly in the darkness and rain?
So he walked back his assumptions, returning to what he knew for certain, then working forward again. Thinking methodically, logically. That part of him was still inside, the part that had pushed for evidence and statistics even when his friends had laughed. He was still the same person, all these years later. Just like a hunk of metal was, technically, the same substance after being forged into an axe.
They’re not raiders, he decided. They’re refugees. They were attacked by that larger group, then went into hiding. Now, they’ve dared strike back to rescue their friends.
A working theory only, but it felt right. What he couldn’t figure out was the reason they’d kidnapped an ember person. To experiment on, or perhaps…
I’m an idiot, he thought, looking at the pilot—who was flying by the light of her instruments—and noting her black hair, going silver prematurely. The shape of her youthful features, which mirrored those of the woman tied up behind.
The ember woman was a family member. Probably a sister, judging by their relative ages. He should have seen it earlier. These people had been attacked, captives taken, and some of them had been subjected to terrible torment. This pilot next to him had rescued one. Dangerous business, judging by how the ember woman—still chained up in the back—continued to howl and growl, light from her chest glowing blood-red in the darkness.
But who was he to judge? He was just here to steal a ship, then find a power source strong enough to get him off this planet. Though first, he figured he’d let this woman feed him and give him something to drink for saving her hide.
He felt the Connection happening as they soared further into the darkness. But the confirmation came as the woman spoke on her radio. “Beacon?” she said. “This is an outrider, requesting signal alignment.”
“Rebeke?” a man’s voice asked. “Rebeke Salvage, that you?”
“If it is agreeable,” she said, “it is me. Code for admittance is thankfulness thirteen.”
“Good to hear your voice, girl,” the voice replied, words nearly lost to Nomad in the howl of the wind. “Is Divinity with you?”
Rebeke’s voice caught as she replied. “No. He fell.”
Silence through the line. Finally, the man continued, “May his soul find its way home, Rebeke. I’m sorry.”
“My brother chose this risk,” she said, voice still catching. “As did I.”
Nomad glanced across the center of the ship, toward her. This Rebeke looked young to him, suddenly. Barely into her twenties, perhaps. Maybe it was the tears.
“Zeal,” Rebeke said. “I’m…bringing someone. If it pleases you to respond with temperance, I would appreciate it.”
“Someone?” the voice said. “Rebeke…is that why you fell behind? Did you go for your sister, explicitly against the will and guidance of the Greater Good?”
“Yes,” Rebeke whispered.
“She’s dangerous! She’s one of them.”
“We exist because of Elegy,” Rebeke snapped, voice growing stronger. “She lead us. She inspired us. I couldn’t leave her, Zeal. She’s no danger to us as long as she remains bound. And maybe… Maybe we can help her…”
“We’ll talk about this when you return,” Zeal replied. “Signal to Beacon has been granted. But Rebeke…this was reckless of you.”
“I know.” She glanced at Nomad, who was making a great show of leaning back, eyes closed, pretending he didn’t understand. “I’ve got someone else too. A…captive?”
“You sound uncertain.”
“I rescued him from the Cinder King,” she said. “But something’s wrong with him. He can’t speak right. I think he might be slow in the head.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“Maybe?” she said. “He helped rescue Thomos, who I had missed spotting in the grass. Tell his family we have him. But before that, this stranger pretended to be a killer to get me to free him, then wasn’t much use in the fighting.”
Not much use?
Not much use?
He’d brought down two enemy ships without being able to even fight back. He forced himself not to respond, but Damnation. Was she lying, or… Well, she hadn’t seen him back there, maybe? But she’d noticed him carrying a rifle after the other ships vanished. Where did she think he’d gotten that?
Have you noticed the names, the knight asked curiously?
“Elegy,” he said in Alethi, “Divinity. Zeal. Yeah, I did notice. Do you think…”
Threnodites, the knight replied, modestly confident in his wise assessment. An entire offshoot culture. Didn’t expect that. Did you?
“No, but I should have,” he said. “The clothing, it’s similar. Wonder how long ago they diverged?”
Did you guess that the captive was this woman’s sister?
“That I did pick out,” he said, thoughtful. “Threnodites. Don’t they…persist when they’re killed?”
They turn into shades, under the right circumstances, the knight explained to his dull-minded squire. Who really should remember almost being eaten by one.
“Right,” he said. “Red eyes. Complete lack of memories. I feel like we would have seen those, though. Shades come out in the darkness, and we’ve been in nothing but darkness since getting here.”
Perhaps this group split off before the Shard’s death—and the event’s after-effects—took them.
Nomad nodded thoughtfully, though the persistent night of this region—without even the rings glowing in the sky to orient him—felt more pernicious now. As if he were soaring through space itself, with nothing below or above. Eternal darkness. Perhaps populated only by the spirits of the dead.
He was pleased, then, when some fires appeared up ahead—the light of blazing engines underneath a city. In this darkened, rain-filled landscape—with misty showers and tall black hillsides—they had to be practically upon the place before it became visible. All things considered, it was fairly well hidden in here, even with those blazing engines.
Rebeke flew the ship up and locked it into place at the side of the city—the place known as Beacon, he assumed. Despite its name, it was running impressively dark. He spotted a few lights here and there, but only small ones, always soft red. The engines underneath would be masked so long as they kept low, among the hills. And if they didn’t shine lights on the top, there was a chance people searching for them could pass overhead and never spot the place.
He didn’t get a good sense for Beacon’s size, though the way their ship just settled in and became another part of its surface made him think it probably had the same architecture as the one he’d been on before. A few people waited for them in the blowing drizzle, lit by the deep red hand-lantern the lead man carried. Stern and dour, Nomad pegged him immediately as the man named Zeal, the one they’d spoken to the radio.
He was surprised, then, when Zeal’s voice came from the mouth of the very short man at his side. Not even four feet tall, the small man had a normal sized head, but shorter arms and legs than your average person.
“Rebeke,” he said. “What you’ve done is dangerous.”
“More dangerous than your plan?” she said. “Did you recover it, Zeal?”
He seemed thoughtful as he, instead of responding, studied Nomad. “Is this the stranger? What is his name?”
“I was not graced with such information,” Rebeke said. “He doesn’t seem to be able to understand the words I speak. As if…he doesn’t even know language.”
Zeal made a few motions with his hands, gesturing at his ears, then tapping palms together. He…thought maybe Nomad was deaf? A reasonable guess, Nomad supposed. No one else on this planet had tried that approach.
So, Nomad spoke to him in Alethi, trying to act confused and gesturing while he talked.
The tall man with Zeal had moved to help Thomos, the man with the gap toothed expression. By now the poor fellow was listing, semi-conscious, held to the bike by only his belt. Several others rushed him off, presumably for medical attention.
“Take good care of him,” Nomad said in Alethi.
“What is that gibberish?” the taller man said, moving back to Zeal’s side and raising his lantern. The fellow was so thin, so tall, he kind of resembled a light post. Particularly in that long black raincoat, closed at the front.
“He’s always making such noises from his mouth,” Rebeke said.
“Curious,” the tall man replied.
Zeal looked toward the locked-in hover bike, then approached slowly. The tall man joined him, as did Rebeke, all three standing and staring at the ember hearted woman tied there, growling.
“Elegy,” Zeal said. “Elegy, it’s us.”
This provoked only more growling. Zeal sighed. “Come. We must petition to the Greater Good, and supplicate them for your sake. Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually shall see to her, best he can.”
The tall man nodded.
His name was Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually? That was the best one he’d heard yet. Nomad really needed to keep a list of these Threnodite names.
“Oh,” Zeal added, “and find quarters for Rebeke’s guest, if you would, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually. Grant unto him one of the tacships without local access controls, if it pleases you to do this task. He looks as if he would savor a bath and a bed.”
Zeal and Rebeke started off together down the street, and Zeal turned on a red flashlight to lead the way. A bed and a bath did sound good. But knowing what was going on here sounded better. So Nomad started off after the other two.
Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually, of course, hastened over to take his arm and gently try to lead him away. Nomad smiled calmly, then pried his fingers free and continued. When the man tried harder, Nomad yanked free more forcibly.
It was belligerent, yes. Maybe a great way to get into trouble. Perhaps they’d attack him, and he’d have an excuse to steal that hoverbike. He probably should have just done that, but…well, he was feeling charitable. So he just continued after the other two, tailed by a nervous Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually.
Rebeke and Zeal entered a building—well, a ship with a larger building on the deck—along the roadway. Nomad stepped in after them, not letting the door close. He found a small antechamber with simple black walls, and Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually crowded in after.
“My greatest repentance, Zeal,” the tall man said, chagrined. “He just…won’t go with me.”
“Maybe we should present him to the Greater Good,” Rebeke said. “It could be agreeable to them to see him, and perchance they might know what manner of person he is.”
“It is agreeable to me,” Zeal finally said. “You can trust him to us, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually.”
“What if he’s dangerous?” the tall man whispered. “Rebeke said…he might be a killer.”
“Those are frorens on his wrists, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually,” Zeal said. “Presumably, ones that the Cinder King hasn’t yet had chance to reset. I think we shall be well.”
Nomad had almost forgotten the bracers he was still wearing. He managed to keep from looking down at them as they were mentioned. This all but confirmed his earlier assumption—that these people had been able to take out the ember-hearted with some kind of hack or system exploit in the manacles.
After Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually left to go deal with the chained-up woman, Rebeke pushed open a door at the front of the small antechamber—and finally, he entered a properly lit hallway. It was almost blinding, though the electric lights in the ceiling were turned relatively low.
There were no windows, of course. That small antechamber had been a lightlock. Meant to keep people from spilling the building’s light out onto the street, allowing them to keep moving invisibly in this darkness. A quick glance showed him that the wall into the lightlock was made of less sturdy wooden material, when the floor and ceiling were metal. That antechamber had been added recently.
The windows covered over with thick cloth agreed with that assumption. Yes, they were almost certainly a people who’d recently gone on the run, hiding in this darkness.
He joined the other two in crossing the hallway, and didn’t miss that Zeal kept a close eye on him—with hand in pocket, perhaps on a device intended to freeze Nomad again. Right then. He wasn’t sure how these things worked on his wrists, but he’d have to be careful not to push the boundaries too much. They led him into a room at the end of the hallway, and he entered eagerly, to meet the ones they called the “Greater Good.”
It turned out to be three elderly women.
Old women? That wasn’t as exciting as he’d hoped. But, hey, maybe one was secretly a dragon.
The three ladies sat at a table, taking a report from a burly man with a beard that could have hosted a fine topiary, if it had been trimmed. He had a blast mark on one arm, the jacket there burned. Obviously, another member of the raid. Nomad could tell from the actions of the others that these women were in charge, though they weren’t wearing anything regal—just common black dresses, with gloves like everyone else, and hats even when indoors.
“Confidence,” Rebeke said to the first and tallest of the women. “Compassion.” This was the shortest of them, and most frail in appearance. “Contemplation.” A woman thicker of girth, with black hair—obviously dyed—curled up on the top of her head in underneath her hat. “I have recovered my sister.”
“So we’ve been told,” Contemplation said, rubbing her chin. “I believe you were told not to.”
“And you lost your brother,” Confidence said. “One sibling sacrificed for the rescue of another?”
“We couldn’t—” Rebeke said, though the short woman they called Compassion had risen. Walking on unsteady feet, she stumbled over and grabbed Rebeke in a hug.
Rebeke lowered her head, stray locks of silvery hair falling around her face, and held on.
The room fell silent. It was probably heartwarming or something. Nomad was more interested in the kettle of tea on the table. He grabbed a chair and pulled it over, then got himself a drink. He dripped water on the floor from his sodden clothing as he did so.
The tea was cold. But otherwise, not bad. Little too sweet, maybe.
Everyone in the room stared at him. So he leaned back and put his boots up on the table.
The fellow with the beard pushed them off. “What manner of person is this, with such terrible manners?” he demanded.
The man trailed off as Nomad stood. He’d grown accustomed to being taller than people, now that he’d left home. There, he’d often felt dwarfed by his companions—but traveling the cosmere had taught him that people from his homeland were practically giants by the standards of others.
Even as a shorter man from his homeland, he had a good half a foot on anyone in this room. Granted, they didn’t seem a particularly tall people, but still. With his clothing ripped, they undoubtedly could see his muscles—earned, not simply a result of his Invested status.
The bearded man took him in. Then backed off, letting Nomad settle down. He pointedly put his feet back up on the table, rattling the teacups of the three older women.
“As we took Thomas to the healers,” Zeal said, pulling over his own chair. “He kept muttering something, delirious. That he’d seen a man touch the sunlight, and live.”
He’d seen that, had he. Nomad had almost forgotten his moment of feeling the sunlight before being yanked out of it. He would have assumed Thomas hadn’t seen, but perhaps the prisoners had been forced to watch the executions. Nomad’s estimation of that man with the glowing eyes went down even further. That was a distinctive act of cruelty.
“Sunlit,” Contemplation said. “A sunlit man.”
“If it pleases the Greater Good, I disagree,” Rebeke said getting her own seat at the increasingly crowded table. “Accept this observation: if he were the sunlit one, he’d be helping us, not acting like…this.”
“He speaks gibberish,” Zeal said. “Like a baby, not yet weaned.”
“Does he now,” Contemplation said. “Curious, curious…”
“If it pleases you, I thought perchance you’d be able to say what manner of man he was,” Rebeke said. “And honestly…he insistently followed us in here. We’d probably have to freeze him to get him to leave.”
“Maybe he’s a killer!” the bearded man said, grabbing his own chair and settling in, leaning forward. “Our own killer! Did you see how he glared at me!”
That…was not how Nomad had expected this man to respond to his presence. The bearded fellow was smiling, eager.
Rebeke shook her head at the bearded man. “If he was a killer, I think I’d know it, Jeffrey Jeffrey.”
Jeffrey Jeffrey? He liked that one too. “Hey Aux,” he said in Alethi, “what do you…”
Oh, wait. Right. Auxiliary wasn’t around.
Everyone stared at him.
“Such odd words,” Compassion said. “I offer this thought: do you suppose he’s perchance from a far northern column? They speak in ways that, on occasion, make a woman need concentrate to understand.”
“If it pleases you to be disagreed with, Compassion,” Contemplation said, “I don’t think this is a mere accent. No, not at all. Regardless, before these newcomers entered, we were Discussing Jeffrey Jeffrey and his frustration that his rescue mission was co-opted not by one, but two separate operations. We will deal with Rebeke and her recklessness later. For now, Zeal, can I…be granted the blessing of seeing the object your team recovered?”
The short man reached into his pocket and withdrew something wrapped in a handkerchief. Outside, the wind seemed to be picking up, rain beating more furiously. Rapping on the metal ceiling like nervous fingers on a bell, demanding service. All of them ignored this, however, as Zeal unwrapped a metal disc—almost as wide as a man’s palm—with an odd symbol on the front.
One that Nomad could read, but which he absolutely hadn’t expected to find on this planet. Storms. What were Scadrians doing here?
“It’s real…” Contemplation said, resting her fingers on it, feeling at the grooves in the metal.
“If it is not offensive,” Confidence said, “let me speak with bluntness. Do we know this is actually real?” The tall, elderly woman took the disc. “It could be a replica. Or the legends could be false.”
“If it is not bold of me to say,” Zeal replied, “I offer dissent. It would not be fake. Why would the Cinder King have cause to think anyone would steal it? Few even know about his pet project.”
“But can we operate it?” Compassion asked. “Can we find our way in, past the ancient barrier?”
“We don’t even know,” Confidence said, “if the legends are real. Yes, perhaps the Cinder King believes them. But I offer this contrast: what proof is there that these mythical lands beneath the ground exist? A place untouched by the sun? I will speak with firm conviction: I will not lead this people in confidence without evidence.”
“Sometimes,” Contemplation said, “no evidence can be found. I offer that we must move by faith alone, for a time.”
“I find that offering difficult and strange to mark your tongue, Contemplation,” Confidence said. “What of science and reason? Your callings?”
Contemplation took the disk and held it reverently, her face—though aged—was marked with lines of joy, her eyes alight and dancing as if with a fire of their own. Her deep black hair might have been seen as vanity by some, but Nomad—instead—found it a token of self-confidence. She knew how she liked to look. And didn’t care that others knew it was artificial. Because in expressing herself, the artificial became more authentic than the original.
“Even in science,” Contemplation said, “faith plays a role. Each experiment done, each step on the path of knowledge, is achieved by striking out into the darkness. You can’t know what you will find, or that you will find anything. It is faith that the answers exist that drive us.”
She looked to the others in the room, skipping Nomad, but including Rebeke, Zeal, and Jeffrey Jeffrey. The heed she paid them proved that not only just the leaders were important to this society.
“It is a wild hope, these stories of a land untouched by the sun,” Contemplation admitted. “But we must ask ourselves. How long will we survive in this darkness? Elegy was right to move us here, but it was an act of desperation. And even now, our people wilt. We cannot grow food. We lose more ships and laborers every time we try to venture into the dawnlands.
“I offer this grim truth: we will die out here. Yet, undoubtedly, if we return to our previous column, we will be consumed by the Cinder King. We haven’t the knowledge of warfare and killing to fight him; we have not been graced by such brutal and carnal instincts.
“Yet, I offer further grim insight: he will never be taken by surprise again in a raid like this one today. His cinder killers will stand alert, prepared in wisdom against our further antics of malfeasance. The Cinder King will nary again allow a clever hack of their frozen bands, and his people will nary again let themselves become so distracted by their games that they relax their guard.
“Today is our greatest victory as the People of Beacon. But I offer, in contrast to that peak, today is the day that we begin to fade. We will die without a solution. And so, I ask. Confidence, is a little faith—a little time spent chasing a mythical reward—not worth the chance that we can avoid our fate?” She turned the disc over. “We should, by duty of our current accomplishments, test this key. And Zeal’s team should be commended in his willingness to steal it for us.”
“I offer this:” Confidence warned, “the Cinder King will chase us for this.”
“If it pleases you to be contradicted,” Compassion said softly, “he would chase us anyway. He desires greatly to destroy us. And that sense of purpose will have been bolstered by today’s events. He must destroy us, now. Lest more of his people question how far his authority actually extends.”
Nomad listened with interest to the exchange. They seemed to know that the key-seal could open a door. Even, they seemed to understand a little of what they might find beyond. The winds raged stronger, rocking the city. He wondered if, in their need to hide from pursuit, they’d let themselves move closer to the edge of the storm, nearer where the sunlight first vanished, leaving a tempest of humidity and air pressure.
How odd, to think of a land where instead of being chased by a storm, the people snuck up on its tail and hid among the edges of its cloak.
Regardless, Nomad’s earlier arrogance—his barbarity in shoving his way into this room—suddenly seemed shameful. Yes, he had moved on from the man he’d once been, a man who had been overly concerned with propriety and the right way of things. He knew that, like a teen leaving home for the first time, that he went too far in asserting himself. He rebelled against the man he’d once been, and in his selfishness, became a man who would blunder about like a blind chull.
Nomad moved his boots off the table, feeling a loathing for himself that—remarkably—even he couldn’t blame on his circumstances. Not this time. He stood up and—surprising the people in the room—strode to the door and pushed his way out. Through the hallway, through the lightlock.
And into the storm.
Walking into a storm wasn’t something commonly done on Nomad’s homeworld. Yet, he’d traveled the cosmere enough by this point to know that in most places, even a violent storm on other planets was nothing compared to what he’d once known.
Indeed, the wind buffeted him here—but did not lift him from his feet. The rain pelted him, but not threaten to scour away his skin. Lightning rumbled in the sky, but did not strike with such frequency that he feared its touch. He did wish he had something more than this ragged clothing, stolen from the cavern planet where he’d been most recently. That did little to keep away the chill. But then again, most of the coldness he felt right now came from within anyway.
He started down the cold street, metal floor slick beneath his boots. At least those were holding up. He’d learned long ago during his travels: skimp on shirts if you have to, but never on footwear. He made his way vaguely in the direction of the edge of the city, though he had to go slowly, waiting for rumbling lightning to illuminate the path.
The frail lights he’d seen earlier had vanished. People were inside, locked up, hunkered down before the rain. That was universal. Whether on a planet where the rainfall could dent metal plates, or on one where it barely left you damp, people fled a storm. Perhaps they didn’t like being reminded that no matter how grand their cities, they were motes in the grand expanse of planetary weather patterns.
He’d come out here hoping he’d feel better in the rain. Hoping that it pelting him would feel like the embrace of an old friend—that the wind’s howl would, instead, sound like the chatter of men having stew at fireside. But today, those memories came harsh into his mind. The winds made him remember who he had been. A man who would have died before treating people as he’d done so today.
No, the storm did not offer him refuge. As much as he liked the rain—as much as it felt right to him—memories were too painful right now.
He finally arrived back at the place where they’d left their hover bike, attached to the city’s side and lending its thrust to the rest. Bold, to keep this place in the air during a literal thunderstorm. Still, the air didn’t seem as electric as it might have in another storm—and he didn’t see any strikes. Just a general rumbling in the air, with clouds glowing here and there.
By that light, he saw that the ember-hearted woman had been removed from her bonds in the back seat. And cleverly, the ship had been altered, panels placed above each seat, protecting the leather from the elements and making the bike fit in to the surface of the city. With the windshields folded down and the panels in place, the oversized bike resembled a thick rectangle of steel, bolted to the edge of Beacon. Like how a multitool might look like a box before the implements were folded out.
That made him worry as he crawled to the edge of it—careful not to be swept off into the darkness by the wind, and he felt around the bottom of the side. Fortunately, there, he found the rifle he’d stowed. Masked by a stumble to convince Rebeke that he was clumsy, he’d dropped it—then used Auxiliary as a metal bracket to latch it into place underneath the hover cycle.
He raised the rifle to his shoulder, hand slick with rainwater. The mechanism he’d formed from Auxiliary to hold the gun in place vanished.
And so, the knight said dramatically, his clever plan was fully executed. And his dull-minded squire was now armed with a weapon he couldn’t fire. For some reason.
“They’d have disarmed me when we arrived,” he said.
And again…such a clever plan…to get a weapon that one can’t use. All it took was stranding me alone in the rain, to be soaked all the way through—then doing the same to yourself, by the looks of you.
“I needed a shower anyway,” Nomad said, wiping the water from his face, then running his fingers through the tight curls of his hair. He knelt, rifle in hand, feeling with his free fingers at the panels covering up the seats of the cycle. Could he get these off?
Did he want to?
The lightning flashes left after-images in his mind of a man he’d once been. A man that, in all honesty, he didn’t want to go back to being. Naive. Overly concerned with rules and numbers. Locked down by responsibility in a way that had slowly constricted him with anxiety, like barbed wire on his soul.
He didn’t like who he’d become. But he didn’t miss who he’d been either, not really. He’d lived, grown, fallen, and…well, changed. There had to be some kind of third option. A way not to hold up his former life on a pedestal, but also not to be a personified piece of garbage.
What if he did climb onto this cycle and vanish into the darkness? What would that get him? Here, he had people that seemed—in a small way—willing to trust him and let him in. Maybe because they were desperate. Probably because he hadn’t given them much choice.
Beyond that, though, he got a sense that they weren’t practiced in fighting or killing. Yes, they’d pulled off a daring rescue. For that, he commended them. But he’d seen the panicked way the captives had responded to the ember people—and the same sense mirrored in the way that everyone treated him. This was not a people accustomed to violence.
In many places, struggle for survival brought out the most brutal in people. Yet here, he saw something remarkable. Was it possible that being forced to always move—being forced to work together for survival—had forged this people into a society that didn’t have time to kill one another? That perhaps this planet had created people who weren’t weak—that sun wouldn’t abide weakness—but also who were not brutal?
If he wanted a power source strong enough to get him off-world, he would need allies. And he got the feeling that going to the Cinder King for help wasn’t gong to turn out well.
He stepped back from the cycle, putting the rifle to his shoulder. And then, he felt something.
A tugging on his insides. A kind of…strange warmth. The storm seemed to slacken, the rain falling off.
Damnation. It wasn’t possible. Not here, on this world. This was a common storm, not a mythical tempest his homeland. Things didn’t happen in the darkness of common storms like they did…
Hey, the knight asked confusedly, what are we doing? Nomad? What’s our next step?
He saw a light to his left. Further along the rim of the city. Drawn to it, like he was a weary traveler and it a welcome cookfire, he started walking. That…was a figure, wasn’t it. Holding something that glowed in his fingers, a sphere. Wearing a uniform, facing away from Nomad, standing and looking out through the darkness.
Storms. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
Ignoring Auxiliary’s second prompting for an explanation, he walked further. Haunted by what he might find. Worried that he was going mad. Yet desperate to know. Could it…
“Kal?” he asked into the storm.
The figure turned, revealing a hawkish face and an eminently punchable grin.
“Aw, Damnation,” Nomad said with a sigh. “Wit? What the hell are you doing here?”
“What?” Wit said, dusting off his blue uniform—which seemed untouched by the rain. “A master can’t check in on his favorite student now and then?”
Nomad was certain the man wasn’t really there. This was an illusion, but why now? How had he…
“Auxiliary?” Nomad demanded. “Did you reinforce my Connection to Wit when you were playing with my soul earlier?”
Since I am dead, the knight replied with a huff, I don’t really have to care if you’re angry at me or not.
Oh, storms. That’s what had happened. Auxiliary had reached through the distance between and let Wit Connect to Nomad again.
“So,” Wit said, looking him up and down, “that’s a…curious outfit.”
“It’s what you get,” Nomad said, “when you’re dragged behind a speeding hover-cycle for a half hour.”
“Chic,” Wit said.
“I don’t have time for you, Wit,” Nomad said. “The Night Brigade is out there. Hunting me. Because of what you did to me.”
“You may have saved the cosmere.”
“I absolutely did not save the cosmere,” Nomad snapped, finding a pebble in his pocket—mud washed away—he threw it through Wit’s head. The illusion rippled then restored. “I might have saved you though.”
“It’s not,” Nomad said. “It’s really not.” He stepped closer to Wit’s projection. “If they catch me, they’ll be able to connect the Dawnshard to you. And then, they’ll be on your tail.”
Wit didn’t respond. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood up straight, a trick he’d taught Nomad years ago to convince an audience you were thinking about something very important.
“You’ve had a hard time of it lately,” Wit said, “haven’t you, apprentice?”
“I’m not your apprentice,” Nomad said. “And don’t pretend to care now. You didn’t do anything when my friends and I were dying to arrows all those years ago. I went to Damnation then, and you sat around playing a flute. Don’t you dare presume to imply you care about me now! I’m just another tool to you.”
“I never did get a chance to apologize for…events on Alethkar.”
“Well, it’s not like you had opportunity to,” Nomad said. “After frequently talking to my superior officer, asking him to pass messages to me. After living together in the same city for years, and never stopping by. You left me to rot. And it ate you away from the inside, didn’t it? Not because you care. But because someone knew what you really were, then had the audacity not to die and simplify your life.”
Wit actually looked down at those words. Huh. It wasn’t often that one could stab him with a knife that hurt. Took familiarity. And truth. Two things that Wit was far too good at avoiding.
“There was a boy, once,” Wit began. “Who looked at the stars and wondered if—”
Nomad deliberately turned and walked away. He’d heard far, far too many of this man’s stories to care for another.
“I was that boy,” Wit said from behind. “When I was young. On Yolen. Before this all began—before god died and worlds started ending. I… I was that boy.”
Nomad froze, then glanced over his shoulder. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but droplets of it still interrupted Wit’s figure. He glowed softly, visible even in the darkness, and his substance rippled at the rain’s interference. Like he was a reflection on a puddle.
He didn’t often speak of his past. Of…those days, long ago. He claimed, often, to not remember much about his childhood. A time spent in a land of dragons and bone-white trees.
“Are you lying?” Nomad called to him. “Is this a fabrication? The perfect hook designed to reel me in?”
“No lies, not right now,” Wit said, looking up at the sky. “I can remember…sitting on a rooftop. Looking up into the sky, and wondering what the stars were. And if people lived on those points of light.
“I assumed I’d never know. The town philosophers had talked themselves hoarse arguing the matter, as was often their way. Talk until you can’t talk any more, and then hope someone will buy you a drink to keep the words flowing.” He looked to Nomad, eyes twinkling. “Yet here I am. Eons later. Walking between the stars, learning each one. I got my answers, eventually. Yet…I’d guess that by now, you’ve seen more of the cosmere than even I have.”
“So it’s a blessing?” Nomad asked, gesturing. “This Torment you’ve given me?”
“Every Torment is,” Wit said, “even mine.”
“Wonderful. Very comforting. Thanks for the chat, Wit.” Nomad continued his way. As he walked, he found Wit appearing further along the rim in front of him, turning to watch him pass.
“You always wanted the answers,” Wit said to him. “That’s why I took you on. You thought you could find them, tease them out, write them down and catalogue the world. So certain you could find every one, if you just tried hard enough…”
“Yes, I was an idiot, thank you. Appreciate the reminder.”
Wit, of course, appeared just ahead of him again. Though he was fading, his form becoming transparent. The little burst of connection Auxiliary had used to make this meeting happen was running out, blessedly.
“It’s a good instinct,” Wit said, “to look for answers. To want them.”
“They don’t exist,” Nomad said with a sigh, stopping to look to Wit. “There are too many questions. Seeking any kind of explanation is madness.”
“You’re right on the first point,” Wit said. “Remarkable to think that I discovered the secret to the stars themselves. But then found questions abounding that were even more pernicious. Questions that, yes, have no answers. No good ones, anyway.” He met Nomad’s eyes. “But realizing that changed me, apprentice. It’s not—”
“It’s not the answers but the questions themselves,” Nomad interrupted. “Yes, blah blah. I’ve heard it. Do you know how many times I’ve heard it?”
“Do you understand it?”
“Thought I did,” he said. “Then my oaths ended, and I realized that destinations really are important, Wit. They are. No matter what we say.”
“Nobody ever implied they lacked importance,” Wit said. “And I don’t think you do understand. Because if you did, you’d realize: sometimes, asking the questions is enough. Because it has to be enough. Because sometimes, that’s all there is.”
Nomad held his eyes. Fuming for reasons he couldn’t explain. Exasperated, though at least that part was normal when Wit was involved.
“I’m not going back,” Nomad said, “to who I was. I don’t want to go back. I’m not running from him. I don’t care about him.”
“I know,” Wit said softly. Then he leaned in. “I was wrong. I did the best with the situation I had, hoping it would prevent calamity. I ruined your life. And I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
How…odd it was to hear him be so forthright, so frank. Sincere. Completely sincere. Storm that man, how did he keep being surprising? Even after all this time.
Nomad turned to go, for real this time, as Wit was vanishing. He stopped, and waited for the final word. Wit always had some kind of final word. This time, though, the man just gave Nomad a wan, sorrowful smile, then faded to nothing. Perhaps he knew there was nothing more useful he could say, and so had fallen silent. If so, it was probably the first time that had happened in Wit’s life.
Nomad sighed. He expected a wisecrack from Auxiliary, but the spren stayed silent as well. He usually did when Wit was around—he knew Nomad often felt double-teamed in situations like that.
“Damnation,” Nomad said, “we need to get off this planet. And I know how we can do it.”
How? the knight asked, wondering if Nomad had missed the entire point of an important conversation.
“The people running this place found an access disc that looks very familiar. Scadrian writing on it. And you can bet, if there’s a power source on this planet powerful enough to get me off world, it will be with them.”
Ahhh… Auxiliary said. So what do we do?
Nomad stalked back to the building he’d left behind, picking it out easily because he’d left the door cracked on accident. He stomped back inside, trailing water, rifle under his arm. He burst in on the people, still in conference, his arrival causing them to stumble back in surprise and worry. Not a single one reached for a weapon.
Yeah, they were doomed. But maybe they could get him where he needed to go before they fell. He grabbed the access disc off the table, holding it up, and spoke in their tongue—perfectly, without accent.
“I know what this is,” he said. “Key to a large metal door, probably buried somewhere, right? With similar writing on it?” He tossed the key onto the table, where it hit and flipped, clattering against the wood. “I can get you inside.”