Scintillating light set the young inquisitor’s face in dark shadows. Ana stared her in the eye.
“You don’t want to do this.”
She adjusted her grip on the blade.
“I do. It’s my duty.”
“Listen,” said Ana, “You take another step, and someone might get hurt. I know you’re probably already stretched thin as it is. You make an alarm, you cry out, you fight, and somebody might die tonight. That’s on your head.”
“You’re the one who broke in,” she replied, not wavering in the slightest, “How did you get past the locks?”
Somewhere behind her Ana heard Edam stumbled again, supporting herself on the wall. She didn’t have much time on her feet. They needed to end this quickly.
“I’m the best pick this side of the country,” said Ana, feeling an odd obligation to some truthfulness with a former comrade, “Don’t worry about the rest.”
“Enough of this. Yield, or face the full wrath of the Church.”
“I’m going to be facing the full wrath of the Church anyways.”
There wasn’t another word before the Inquisitor thrust herself forward. Seven holes ran up and down the center of the blade, whistling like a flute as she charged. There was not time to cock a pistol. Ana drew her sword just in time as the other blade went by where her head once was. The flute shrieked and they traded places as Ana drew the sword up close to her face, ready to lunge. Korel pushed Edam out of the way, surrounding the inquisitor. There was no way Edam could fight.
“Last chance,” said Ana, “You can just walk away. But another word, and it’s on your hands.”
Ana lunged, and let azure mana flow through the sword. It lept forward into spear-form, grasping the haft with her other hand to add to the thrust. The holes in the blade glowed and shrieked with mana, until they reached a hideous, whining pitch. The strange ward buffeted away the blade of her sword-spear, knocking it to the side. Ana retreated to assess just as Korel made his own assault. Ochre mana flared around charm on her wrist, and she lifted the blade like a twig with one hand to clash against Korel’s metal club. He recoiled, and moved weightlessly as a bird. For a brief moment he was suspended in air before pushing himself off against the wall and bearing down on her again with the full gravity of a grown man. The two were locked together in a moment of club against the sputtering ward of her blade Ana altered the angle of the sword-spear, and swept low at the girl’s feet.
The first blood was drawn as the blade narrowly grazed her calf, and the inquisitor yelped with pain, leaping away. Whatever she was using to enhance her strength was potent stuff – even with the advantage of gravity and his height, he couldn’t help but be knocked back as she forced him away and lept forward towards Edam. Edam seemed delirious, still meandering in her movements, and like a drunkard she stumbled low. Ready for the blade. Ana gasped.
Whether it was instinct on the part of Edam, or compassion on the part of the inquisitor, she didn’t kill her then and there. Edam ducked out of the way of the charging inquisitor. She reached into her pocket, a different charm and a knife now in her free hand hand. Ana advanced, getting a clear shot, and let loose a blast from her bracelet. This time, though, she seemed ready for an attack from behind, loosely deflecting it with her blade ward once more. Instead, the eerie bolt of green deflected into one of the solid cell doors, rattling its hinges. Ana readied her ward as the inquisitor entered a practiced throwing stance, only to be surprised when no knife came. Instead, she threw it forward towards the other inquisitors.
The confusion was only momentary. One of them – a man with wild black eyes that glimmered in the light – didn’t take the time to untie his compatriot, or even remove the gag from his own mouth before producing a sharply-pointed wand. With a flick of it and a spark of verdure, Ana could already feel the heat of controlled, mana-sparked fire behind them. They were trying to box them in. Ana hefted the sword-spear in one hand, and grasped her pistol in the other. She cocked it swiftly. It was already loaded.
She didn’t want to do this, but it was the only way out.
“Keep her down!” Commanded Ana, hoping that Korel would understand the gist of her
She thrust herself forward again, swinging for the girl’s throat. She pushed Edam back as gently as she could, who yelped and stumbled more as Korel advanced, too delirious to do much but be pushed around. The girl narrowly avoided a decaptitation of her own, making a wild upward swing that scraped the dull end of her blade across the ground. Ana swung back, and forced her to move again, leading her into the open and clinching arms of Korel, who wrestled her towards the ground, grappling with her from behind. The other inquisitor threw a knife to his comrade before rushing forward with his sharpened wand, wielding it as one might a knife, a blood weight in his other hand. Ana retracted her weapon back to a sword, and readied herself.
He had fallen perfectly into the trap, her gun angled low, almost towards the floor. She caught the charge as the third inquisitor began to rise free of his bindings. Ana let him come, catching the charge flawlessly with the guard her sword and cinching him off to one side. There was a surreal moment of quiet – or perhaps an all-encompassing noise of blood in her ears, her heartbeat pounding, her lungs breathing in and out calmly in spite of the intensity of the moment. She simply took his weight, leaned slightly so as to jam the gun into his kneecap, and pulled the trigger.
The blast and scorch of the powder was muffled by the sound of his kneecap shattering and the bullet driving its way through flesh and out the other side. Immediately, he fell to the ground, wailing in pain but unable to speak through the gag that he had left on. The wall of flames behind them ceased its eerie glow, no longer fueled by the mana of its caster. Limp and now completely within her control, she pushed him towards Edam’s former cell, where he collapsed. A spatter of blood began to form around his legs as he struggled to rise again, and failed. He screamed through the gag as he did. Struggling only exacerbated his pain.
Ana swiftly holstered her gun and turned around to see Korel on the brink of death. The inquisitor had turned the tables on him. She was now over him, the blade of her sword being levered over his neck like a chicken at slaughter. Ana took to her legs again, and this time she was unprepared. With a swift swipe, she cut into the girl’s outstretched calf – not deep enough to do permanent damage, but enough to make her leap with pain and get off of Korel, pre-emptively flaring her ward for another blow that never came. Ana turned to see another inquisitor, knife in hand, swinging for her wildly.
Ana tried to avoid the blow. She managed to avoid the full weight of his charge, but the blade gouged a line in her outstretched forearm. She used his momentum against him, throwing him towards his comrade. The inquisitor crashed into the other, tumbling back towards the open cell. Ana briefly met Korel’s eyes, and there was a moment of recognition. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be the quickest and least obtrusive way of dealing with them. Killing them would bring down too much weight on their heads.
Unfortunately, the girl seemed to recognize the gambit just as well as Korel did. She retreated away from the open door and grasped the blade of her sword in a metal gauntlet. The other inquisitor was much less lucky. He caught a blow from Korel’s club to the belly, and was pursued by him into the cell, stumbling away from the sudden impact. The first raised her sword high in reverse, both hands tightly entwining the blade as she swung it down with surprising force. Ana had crippled her, though. She stumbled from the injury to her leg, and instead of driving the blunt pommel of her sword into Ana’s chest, it lodged itself into the masonry with enough force to crack the stone wide open and throw several bricks out of place. The girl struggled as she tried to force it out of the freshly-renovated stonework. Ana took the opportunity to respond in kind, bashing the neonate across the face with a pommel of her own.
The girl stumbled back, leaving the blade lodged in place. A monument to her strength and her failure. She grasped at her wounded cheek, spitting up blood. Her nose was bleeding in kind, and whatever ochre mana she had used was now burning at her wrist so brightly that it seemed like a miniature sun. She was young, inexperienced and at her limit. Ana put the tip of her sword at her throat before she could even get the knife out of her pocket.
“Come on. Make the smart choice. Get in the cell.”
The girl looked up with hateful eyes.
“I know,” said Ana, “Hard to be beaten by a witch when it’s your job to hunt them. But frankly, you were outmatched here. You’re pretty good, but you need to be more versatile.”
Reluctantly, the girl walked backwards and into the cell, where Korel was waiting to grab her and force her further back. He had seemingly subdued the other in a more permanent fashion than before. Once he was out, Ana grabbed the door, and slammed it back into its frame. The lock re-engaged itself pin by pin, and the fight was done. Ana raised her mask briefly to undo the thin trickle of blood from her nose – backlash from all her mana use – and then rushed to Edam’s side. She had slumped against the wall again, sitting down. She picked her up and supported her under the shoulder, the two of them limping down the hall and into the stairwell. She swiftly handed the pistol off to Korel alongside her kit.
“Load it,” she ordered, heaving Edam along, “I might need to shoot it again.”
Korel rolled his eyes, and did as he was told, finishing just as they reached the landing. She took the time to speak.
“You’re switching places with Sol,” she said tersely as they marched down the stairs.
“She needs medical attention. Sol has some experience there.”
“What if they recognize me?”
“Then turn into a fucking bird and fly away, like you said you would,” said Ana, harsher than even she expected. She needed help for Edam now. Every moment, every wasted step, seemed to weigh on her a little more. She knew that hours could make the difference with an infection. She wasn’t going to let it get any further than she needed. All the while, Edam babbled quietly.
“Torment, Torment!” She hissed, “You are here and I’m up there and the ceiling is- oh, I see it. You’re a devil, you separated kin, you lesser divinity of the outer sphere, star-born isce betran, star-born devil come to take me away to the depths. Take me, take me to him. I want to see him. I want to gouge his eyes out. Curse him, curse him, fury upon him, isce betran upon him.”
“Yes, Edam,” said Ana, trying to comfort her. She seemed distressed, dragging her feet occasionally and at other times rushing headlong. More than anything, her mumbling ruminated on death – on her forthcoming execution. She whispered about devils and the Godhead and the Saints all punishing her.
She struggled under Ana’s grip, but it was little use. She had been weakened by her injury so much, and something in Ana suspected that she either had been refused food, or wasn’t eating well. She looked more gaunt and thin than usual, and Ana could feel the thinness of her belly under her fingers as she supported her down to the back hallways. Now she knew what Tros had meant by Edam not saying no. She was too weak, too delirious to do anything but follow along with Ana. Ana desperately wanted to stop, to hold her close and tell her that it would be fine, that she wasn’t going to die and that she wasn’t going to be executed, but there was so little time for even survival now, much less comfort. The whole place was ablaze with light now, some silent alarm having clearly been rung. The lamps burned at full pace, lighting their path to the back door.
They were almost there. What had been felt so simple and short on the way in was now fraught with danger and dread. At every corner, Ana was waiting for the next band of inquisitors to catch up with them, for the new set of pursuers to confront. They traced their way through the library, down past the many stacks of books. The further they went, the more likely it seemed like they might be home free. Preemptively, Korel took the form of a bird once more, and just as Ana turned the to the door out she heard the tramp of feet behind her. In the moment of panic she was uncertain – it could have been one, or a whole legion, and she could not care for either. She nearly kicked the door straight off its hinges and ran into the humid alleyway, Edam’s barebone sandals scuffing against the rough cobblestones. She seemed to be flagging.
“Come on dear,” she said, “Just a little further.”
Korel flew ahead to take his new position as Ana reached Sol, anxiously waiting at the corner out.
“With me!” She commanded as quietly as she could, “Korel has it handled.”
Sol raised his brows at Edam’s insensate state, but followed close behind. As planned, they hid in the back alley just a block down, listening closely. Edam slumped again, supporting herself on the side wall. Ana kneeled down beside her, removing the mask so she could see her face better. Her eyes were like dinnerplates. If she could see, she certainly was not seeing the same landscape that Ana was. She grasped Edam’s hand, rubbing the inside of her palm.
“I’m sorry dear. It’s just a little while longer, okay?”
She looked up blankly.
“I don’t- I recognize-”
She choked and coughed, slumping lower.
“It hurts. It hurts. My bones- my joints-”
“It’ll all be fine. I’ll carry you as much as I can. It’s just a little while longer.”
The night was almost silent. Somewhere, she heard the many feet of the inquisitors coming down the street, where they encountered a transformed Vella.
“Which way?” A voice cried.
“That way!” Yelled Vella back.
And then, like that, the sound of feet fanned out in the opposite direction. Just as planned. Ana breathed a sigh of relief. They were safe for now. She grabbed Edam under her shoulder again, and she went nearly as limp as a kitten. She heaved her up as much as she could, and Sol picked up the slack as they ran for the river. The buildings seemed to almost dissolve into the thin air as they approached the river, becoming shorter and stockier and more suited to meeting the needs of river transit, and sure enough their boatwoman was waiting for them. She was an aged woman, gray all speckling her hair and a single cataracts eye. She had left a lantern on in her dinghy, with just enough space for all of them. Ana took Edam up into a bridal carry and stepped onto the little vessel as the ferrywoman took up the oars.
Ana cradled her carefully, holding her head in her arms, close to her belly.
“Where- where am I? Am I going home?”
Ana didn’t know how to answer her right away.
“You’re going somewhere safe,” she said softly as Sol joined them.
“The river,” said Edam listlessly, “The river. Like the river to the Sepulcher. Riding along, all the way down. I- I just want to be home. I want-“
Her next sentence was unintelligible, a strange mix of Kolet and Agoran.
“What’s wrong with her?” Asked Sol as they kicked off from the riverbank.
“Infected cut on her arm,” said Ana, gesturing to the wound, “It looks pretty early, but I’m not a doctor.”
He took the lamp, and looked at the bandages with a grim expression.
“I haven’t been one in a long time.”
“Please,” said Ana, “You have to help me. If something happens to her – if she – if she dies-”
It’ll all have been for nothing. Selling my soul will have been for nothing. Leaving the Church will have been for nothing. And she will be dead, and it will be my fault.
He gingerly removed the bandages, cupping them with his hands. Ana felt relief at that; even at the center of the dinghy, she didn’t want the dirty, brackish water of the Teper getting into the wound by accident. He looked at it, examined the purulence, and carefully covered it again.
“She’s lucky we caught it early. No sign of sepsis yet. She’ll need immediate treatment.”
He examined her eyes.
“Yes, she’s definitely delirious. She should be getting rest as soon as possible. She probably is feeling intense pain because of the swelling around her joints. She’ll need poppy extract, lotus tree leaves…”
“But she’ll probably live. Worst comes to worst, we’d have to amputate her forearm. Been a while since I’ve done something like this. We’ll need a place for hospice which would be-”
That had been the initial arrangement. She’d be holing up with Seonya until the suspicion blew over and they could make their next moves. This had thrown a wrench into all of that. Seonya clearly didn’t have the supplies or equipment to treat her, and moving them there would be a pain.
Edam had gone quiet, the rocking of the boat and steady movement of the oars seeming to lull her into sleep.
“I’ll take her. But the instant, the instant she gets well enough, she needs to live somewhere else. I can’t be having two fugitives in my home – one is bad enough, two is damning evidence.”
Ana nodded solemnly, cradling Edam’s sweat-laden hair. She murmured still in her sleep as they made the agonizingly long crossing. Somewhere overhead, she heard the cry of a raven, a signal from Korel that he had made it out all fine. The boatwoman’s strong arms carried them across the river without further incident, though even with the distance she could hear that the far side of Kallin was now up in arms. It seemed that they had figured out their deception perhaps half an hour too late; now a bright swathe of the city was on aflame with the light of a manhunt and the calls of patrols. They were far away from that, though, and headed to the one place where a manhunt would have the hardest time penetrating. Ana clambered off the dock with Edam’s frail frame in her arms, and carried her down the long road home. Sol lit the way with a lone lantern, carrying them down the darkened streets.
It felt like a dream. A lonely light in a dark corner of the city, and Edam’s soft breath close to her chest, so close and seemingly so far away. She had her now, but she hardly had her consent in the matter, and that worried Ana dearly. Even if she had confessed her love, there was a nagging sense in her that something was amiss, that she had done something terribly wrong by taking Edam’s choice out of the equation. And still, looking down at her she felt a terribly possessive, awful love that wanted to keep her safe from all the ills, from whatever had injured her so. She tamed and tamped down the impulse. It wasn’t fitting. When she woke up-
If she wakes up, said an errant strain of thought.
Ana reassured herself again.
When she woke up, she would talk with Edam. Ask her openly what she thought, whether it was a ploy or not. She’d be certain then.
They returned to Sol’s thin tenement without another soul seeing them. Ana was fairly certain that even the dogs had stayed in during the humid night, their only companion being the flying raven overhead, and the insects who hummed, chirped and buzzed through the city. Ana laid her down on the couch, and swiftly set to building a fire as Sol went to go get his medical supplies. She set a match, and lit it, watching the fire roar to life. He returned with a thick leather bag and a pleasant smile on his face.
“You’re in luck. I did keep some of my old medicines.”
He set down a black iron kettle, and filled it with some strange-looking dried leaves and water. They seemed veined in an almost feathery fashion, and when he set them down, they fell carrying the same sort of gravity as a feather.
“You think you can look after her?” Asked Sol as he placed the kettle on the smoldering embers of the fire.
“We looked after each other for a few months,” said Ana quietly, “I’d be glad to do it for a while.”
He nodded, gesturing to the box from which he had taken the leaves.
“Tea made from lotus trees has natural properties against infection. You make this for her once a day, every day.”
He then produced a phial of amber liquid, rolling it in his palm.
“This is opium. It’s very potent stuff. Give her the smallest amounts you can, understand? We don’t want her addicted, and we certainly don’t want her to overdose.”
Ana nodded, memorizing the two drugs like the back of her palm. The kettle began to boil, bit by bit. Ana kept glancing over to Edam, hoping each and every time that somehow she would miraculously wake up and be cured. Each time, she was disappointed, made anxious by the minutes passing without her being safe, without her being well. For the past few weeks it had only nagged at the very back of her mind, some tiny fraction of her that had only slightly insisted about caring about Edam. Now it was back in full force, and it was hard to ignore. The kettle boiled, and Sol swiftly poured it into a cup, mixing it with a thimbleful of the opium.
Edam was hardly conscious, but she had enough strength and sense in her to slowly sip when Ana put the cup to her lips. Ana caressed her head and held her close. Sol rose, and bid her good night, and she waved in kind, too exhausted to speak for herself. Ana made sure that Edam took the rest of the medicine and swallowed it all. She carefully tamped the fire back down to its embers, and curled up next to the couch on the floor.I’ll wait, thought Ana, As long as it takes for her to wake up, I’ll wait.