I sat on a three-legged stool at the well-crafted table in the cottage, watching Worm as he lay on a folding cot while Old Robert fussed with his bandages. The cot occupied the middle of the room; the walls around us were covered with meticulously-joined wooden shelves crowded with pots, jars, and dried leaves. A log glowed on the hearth at one end of the room, muttering to itself. Opposite the hearth two neat beds stood along the wall, an orderly row of weapons of every description between them.
Elena sat on the far side of the cot, holding a damp cloth to Worm’s head. Worm’s eyes were open, but had taken a while to focus on anything. Now he was looking at me. “You’re pretty tough to kill,” I said.
“How long was I unconscious?” he asked.
“Only a few hours,” Old Robert said. “Mighta been better for you if you stayed that way a little longer.”
He tried to lift his head to see what Old Robert was doing. “My hand?”
“In a bucket outside.”
Worm nodded, then sucked in his breath as Old Robert cleaned the dying skin away from the end of the stump where his hand had been. He was paler now than ever, save for the dark rings under his eyes.
Elena grinned, her teeth white in the lamplight. “You could get a sword to attach to the stump,” she said. “Or maybe an axe.” She made an enthusiastic chopping gesture to show what a great idea that was.
“More likely a shield,” Worm said between breaths. Sweat beaded up on his forehead but he didn’t look at what Old Robert was doing to him. Instead he kept his eyes on me. “You killed another one.”
I nodded. “Threw a rock at him. Hit him on the head. Then cut his throat.”
Worm closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, swallowed, then opened them again. “Remarkable.”
Old Robert said, “This next part’s going to hurt like fuck.” He picked up a small crock and stirred the pink, viscous contents with a horsehair brush.
“You shouldn’t have been able to do that,” Worm said to me, before clenching his jaw shut with enough force I could hear his teeth grinding. His right hand gripped the frame of the cot with white knuckles. He stared directly at me, but I don’t think he was seeing anything. Small sounds came from his throat.
“All right, worst of it’s over now,” Old Robert said. He reached for a fresh bandage.
Worm slowly relaxed, taking careful breaths. Elena offered him a mug of water and he raised his head to take a sip. He swished it around his mouth before swallowing tentatively. “You were right, Robert, that did hurt like fuck.”
Old Robert grunted. “Should keep the rot out.”
“That man was after you, not us,” I said to Worm.
“Obviously,” Worm said. He took another sip. “So you just picked up a rock, threw it at his head, and knocked him out?”
“I like to keep things simple.”
“Indeed. How many Soul Thieves have you killed?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even think you existed until recently.”
“How many since you knew?”
I tallied them in my head. One in the forest, one in the dungeon, one at the bottom of the well, and now Lightning Man. I saw no need for honesty, but no doubt Bags would give him a full accounting later. “Four,” I said. “Not counting the one that exploded herself. How many are left?”
“Many,” Worm said. He glanced at Elena to gauge her reaction to my answer to judge the truth of it, and was greeted with a look of annoyance.
“I made the bitch explode,” she said. “And Kat put a hole in that old fucker’s kidney before he ran away. He may be dead by now, too.”
Worm shook his head. “No, he had his escape ready. You can be sure he got to somewhere he could get the help he needed.”
“How many Soul Thieves have you killed?” I asked him.
Worm hesitated before answering, weighing how much honesty was necessary. “Two,” he said. “But they’re ready for me now. Franklin — the one you just killed — was barely touched by my counterattack.”
“Maybe you should have thrown a rock at him,” Elena said.
Worm allowed a ghost of a smile. “Perhaps I should have.” He was starting to fade. Worm fought off sleep long enough to ask, “What did you with his body?”
“I was thinking of burning it,” I said.
Worm nodded and gazed somewhere past my shoulder. “Good, good. But don’t burn any of his belongings until I can look at them. He may have something I need.” He laid his head back on the cot and closed his eyes. “Let me have a look, then we’ll destroy everything. We need to…” His voice trailed away. After a few more moments he started to whistle through his nose.
“About time,” Old Robert said. “There was enough opium in that water to knock out a dead man.”
I nodded and watched our new perhaps-ally sleep as the light faded in the cottage. I wondered if the thing he needed was a map. That would be frighteningly convenient. I glanced at Elena. If she wanted things to work out that way, did she have the power to make it so?
“What?” she said, feeling my gaze.
“It’s getting dark out,” I said. “It’s time you learned how to make darkness your ally.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means it’s time to go sneak around in the woods,” I said. Old Robert grunted his approval.
She stood up. “I used to be scared of the fuckin’ woods,” she said. “But the shit out there is nothing compared to what I’ve seen lately.”
I rose from my stool and mentally checked each of my inventory of blades, each were it belonged. “The goal is to be more dangerous than any of those other things,” I said.
Kat looked up at me and smiled. “Once Martin teaches you everything he knows, I can teach you the rest,” she said. Elena laughed. I was never sure whether it was a good thing when the two seemed to be bonding at my expense.
Out the door and carefully down the path we had first arrived on. The clearing seemed smaller in the dim light of a moon shining dimly through high, wispy clouds, the ring around it announcing a change in the weather. What little breeze there was carried a chill, and the leaves in the trees rattled a little more loudly where the cold had begun to make them brittle. In the coming days they would pass from green to red and orange, before falling, brown and dead, to the forest floor. I put my hand on Elena’s shoulder and stopped her before we reached the trees.
“We’ll be using our ears more than our eyes,” I said, “but let’s give our eyes a chance to adapt.”
She nodded and stuffed her hands into her cloak. “It’s fucking freezing out here,” she said.
“When it is still and cold, there is a special kind of silence,” I said.
She nodded and pulled one hand out of her cloak long enough to wipe her nose on her sleeve. She understood my message but tonight she needed to talk. “Cold was good for business,” she said. “Half the heroes in that town would come in to share our fire. Ass-to-elbow with filthy drunken miners. Get so drunk the fuckers would stop to take a nap on the way home and freeze to death.” She paused and looked up at the moon. My eyes had adapted enough that I could make out the rainbow colors in that icy circle. “Hey Martin?” Elena asked. Her voice was small and uncertain.
“Do you think the Soul Thieves would fix that? Do you think people wouldn’t get worked to death just to make someone else richer?” Before I could answer she continued, “Because if they would, then I want them to win.”
She already knew the answer, but I said it anyway. “They kill children to enhance their power,” I said.
She nodded. “Yeah.” In the low light her teeth gleamed as she smiled. “We’re just going to have to keep killing ’em until the ones that are left decide to help,” she said.
It was, I had to admit, a simple plan.