In the light from the wizard’s hand I surveyed the chamber. Kat lay where she had fallen, near where the old man still sat; Elena stood over Kat in an oddly protective stance. Hazel lay crumpled face-down farther to my right, unmoving, blood seeping from her nose and scalp. To my left, a neat stack of sodden corpses lay in pool of water, a tiny river flowing from them back to the center of the chamber to find a drain in the safety wall and to drip down into the abyss. The lamp we had hung from a hook now dangled askew, bent and battered, dripping fuel and filling the closed space with fumes that tried to crawl into my brain through my nose. It was almost enough to cover my own smell. Behind me, Bags shifted and cursed softly.
Everything, everyone, was coated with a thin layer of slime that had once composed a human being.
The old man glared at me. “Let me be clear. Unless I help you, you are going to enjoy a slow, painful decline into death. The only reason you are alive at all is because I think you might be useful.”
“Your people have been useful to us in the past. But if you don’t release the girl to come with me, I will be forced to finish what I began in the woods.”
“First you try to kill her, now you want to adopt her.”
“Do you think all this,” our shadows shifted as he waved his lit hand, his gesture encompassing the chamber, the ruined fort, and perhaps the entire world, “was because of a little girl? That is absurd.”
“You could have recovered your property without all this.” I waved my own hand.
“What we did was necessary for our larger purpose. When a child steals, do you not punish him?”
“That that would depend on how well he did it.”
The wizard sighed theatrically and rolled his eyes. “I forgot for a moment with whom I was speaking. In any event, it was necessary to punish the King and his generals. To instill fear, to restore respect. The events here had nothing to do with you or the girl. And surely it is obvious to you that she is much better off under our care than under yours. You are simply unable to help her through what she will soon experience.”
“It is not my decision to make,” I said. Elena’s eyes widened a tiny fraction when I said that.
“She will do what you tell her.”
I smiled over at Elena. “Obviously you don’t know her as well as I do,” I said, but I wondered if he was right. The wizard started to say something else, but I stopped him. “But she is family now.”
Behind me, Bags chuckled.
The wizard drew in his breath. “Very well. In that case, regrettably, it is time for me to simplify the landscape. Consider it a mercy.” He raised the hand not holding the blue light, his fingers moving like they were playing a harp only he could see. I lunged forward to close the distance between us before whatever he was doing was complete.
Kat twitched, the old man shouted, and then he vanished, taking the light with him. I hit the rough stone and bounced off my shoulder, rolling from simple habit to distribute the impact. I came to a stop on my back and stared upward in the darkness. I could feel the heat of Kat’s body near mine.
“Thought I had him this time,” Kat said softly, her voice weary and dry. “Stuck him right in the kidney.”
“You all right, Katherine?” Bags asked.
“No. But I’ll get over it.” I heard her shift in the darkness. “Arm might be broken. Ai! Yeah, arm’s broken. Ulna.”
“Found a lantern,” Elena said.
“There’s a flint in my pack,” I said, “Wherever that is.”
“It’s by the pile of dead people,” Bags said. “I’ll get it.”
“Don’t bother,” Elena said. “Godfucked lamp’s broke. Pissing oil.”
I lay back while the rest of the group dealt with the logistics of light. One of the lanterns the wizards had brought was still intact, and after more minor cursing it was alight. Kat kept the flame low, but it still hurt my eyes. I sat up but that was all I did.
Bags crouched down by Hazel’s motionless form, and gently touched her face. “She alive?” I asked.
In the low light the creases of his frown were exaggerated. “Breathing,” he said. “For now. Blood in her mouth.”
I took a breath. “Bags, let’s finish what we came here to do. Elena, Kat…” I did a double-take when I saw Kat’s face, close to mine; a swollen moon was already darkening around her left eye, and her cheek was oozing blood from a scrape that extended down to her jaw. She held her left arm tight against her side. “Patch yourself up and see if you can help Hazel.”
“How are you, Bags?” Elena asked.
He stood from Hazel and picked up the rope. “Lots of bruises,” he said. He flexed his right hand. “I hurt my fist on the old man’s face. That bastard was was hard.” He handed me one end of the rope. “Let’s get this over with. Between your smell and the fumes from the lamp oil, I’m getting a headache.”
Down once more, to shed the fouled shirt and clean myself quickly, to grab my own clothes and the bundle that had cost so much. Had the old wizard asked for only that, I may well have given it to him.
Elena, Kat, and Hazel were no longer in the chamber when I arrived back at the top. I put on the rest of my clothes and wedged the bundle in my pack. Curiosity could wait; I wanted to be far from that place. Without a word I followed Bags out and up, his shoulders hunched lower than usual, his gait more of a shuffle, until we were reunited with the others in the ruined courtyard. Hazel lay propped on her side on the impromptu table under the tarpaulin where Baldwin had turned me into a soldier and given me my orders. Blood still trickled from her mouth, black in the pale predawn light. Kat had bandages around her arm; beneath them I could see the outline of something rigid.
“We’ll have to leave Hazel here,” I said.
“There must be something we can do for her,” Kat said, but she didn’t seem to have any suggestions.
“The best thing we can do for her is to put a lot of distance between us,” I said.
Katherine nodded and looked away, toward the crude stairs. “It’s my fault,” she said. “I don’t know how they got past me.”
“They didn’t,” Bags said. “They came up from the dungeon.”
She glared at him with narrowed eyes. “How do you know that?”
He shrugged, perhaps a hint of a smile returning to his face. “They told us. Me and her. Uh, Hazel. I think they wanted us to be impressed.”
“You see that when people have tiny dicks,” Elena said.
I put my hand on Hazel’s warm cheek for a moment. “Let’s go. If I never see this place again that will be just fine.” I stepped back and Elena mirrored my gesture.
“Get better,” she said. I wondered if there was anything behind her words, some mystical force I would never understand. I turned and walked back to the stairs.
I descended quickly, aware of Bags above me, shaking the structure, threatening to bring it down on my head. At the bottom the guards waited.
“One of ours is still up there,” I told the sergeant in charge. “She’s hurt. Make sure she gets help.” Almost as an afterthought I said, “There’s also two dead Soul thieves. One in the well, the other…”
“Everywhere,” Elena finished for me.
The guard’s posture became more rigid, the way it might around an actual officer.
“Make sure our friend gets the best care possible,” I said.
“We’re not done killing ’em,” Elena said. “Tell people that.” I shot her a hot glance and she dropped her eyes, but it was too late. It was not something a Wanderer would say; her words would spread like wildfire through a population desperate for hope, along with descriptions of the odd confederation that had achieved this small victory. Anonymity would be more challenging when the story grew legs.
“Yes…” the soldier groped for the correct honorific. “… miss. I will tell them.”
Without another word I turned south along the river, hoping to get through town unnoticed, hoping to put some miles between myself and this place. There weren’t enough miles in the world, but I could try.