Blistering coronas of pain covered Ana’s face and chest – a shower of still-hot lead that had fractured along the heptagram-shaped ward before simply flying through fast enough to cut through her clothing and embed themselves in her skin. A blinding star of pain was somewhere in her face. For a moment, she thought that Danza had put her eye out. She staggered back, supporting herself on the wall of a nearby home and blinked.
Two eyes. Everything was blurry streaks before it focused again. Danza was approaching, fast. Her coat fluttered like the wings of a moth. It was her or Ana. There was no camaraderie left. Her hand went for her gun. Flickering muscle sprung to her aid and instinct took over as she cocked and fired the pistol. The shot tore its path through the night and clipped Danza’s shoulder. She cried out, stumbled, and ended up supporting herself on the self-same wall, glaring at Ana with hatred. They both breathed heavily, now not even ten paces from each other. Ana took the moment to take stock of the damage. She blinked again to confirm that she definitely still had both eyes. The shards of metal in her cheek, chin and shoulder screamed out in pain, but it was just that – pain. She could push through it.
“Kept the pistol, I see. And you still dress the same. Are you pretending to still be like us?” Danza snarled.
Ana coughed and staggered to her feet again. She could fight. Temari’s territory wasn’t far. She needed something, some interference, some coincidence, some fucking break so that she could make it through the night.
“Just habit,” she said.
Danza touched her shoulder and daubed away blood. The black fabric of her coat shone silver with the wet. It had only clipped her, but it had to hurt. That was a break. An advantage she could press, if only for a moment. Danza rose as well, and Ana pressed forwards at a brisk pace.
“I’m sorry for this,” she said, slamming the smoking-hot barrel of her pistol into the bleeding wound before breaking into a full run. She heard the flesh sizzle like pork in a pan before her foot hit the brick. Though it was faint and hard to hear over the ringing in her ears from the gunshots and the pain, there was definitely some kind of scuffle in the distance. The sound of guards was getting louder, and more men were in loud arguments. She holstered her gun as she ran. Somehow, there she also picked up the distant sound of a fiddler.
That might just have been the gunshot, though. Or the iron stave striking her in the back. She stumbled forward and nearly planted her face into the ground, her back ribs a white-hot wall of pain on her body. The stave had hit one of the pieces of goldenware, forcing it into her back like a hammer to a nail. She skidded to a halt and whirled around, fist already raised to Danza’s face. The backhand hit with a painful-sounding crack, and Danza stumbled backwards in kind, clutching her face. Ana pulled her knife, and sliced it towards Danza wildly, cutting a path clean through her jacket.
Danza retreated even further, and Ana took ground backwards. Her nose looked broken, clutching it heavily and groaning as blood trickled down over her lip. She threw her stave up to her chest and held it with both hands not unlike a sword-fighter, pushing her thumb into a divet in the stave. Brilliant sparks of verdure mana promulgated down the length and revealed a hidden inscription on the down the length of the deceptively simple focus. She waved it upwards, and a bolt of light launched itself towards Ana. She reached her ward just in time. The green plasm writhed like a centipede, spreading multifarious and segmented limbs of the light across her small shield. She felt mana drain from her body like water through a sieve. It was clearly designed to do as much. Danza began to advance again, steady and fearsome, her bloodied face filled with an awful and awe-inspiring determination.
There were mere moments to react. Order of the Bloodied Head – they specialized in containment, confinement and capture. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to just let go of what it was holding. She needed something – anything – to throw at it. If she just let go, she’d be caught instead.
The knife was too essential for her defense. Could be too small as well.
The stave that Edam had made? No. She had put too much effort into it, it was too precious to give up so easily.
With no other option, Ana frantically reached into her backpack, clumsily clutching one of the plates next to her knife. With a smooth motion, she threw it directly into the strange, octopus-like conflagration of mana. There was a sudden crack and flare of mana as the plate was caught in the scintillating net. Mid-flight, the tendrils condensed down into a single rope of mana and there was a terrible, awful wrenching noise as the plate was cut right in tw. Danza batted away half of the flying golden shimmer, clattering away somewhere to her side. Her nose was bleeding even harder now – from exertion or backlash, Ana couldn’t tell. She was a fearsome shade lumbering ever onward down the street, licking her lips and spitting out blood.
Ana turned and ran again, her head pounding and blood rushing. The sounds of a loud group of people grew louder and louder as she ran. She looked back briefly, and saw Danza running after her in close pursuit, the whites of her eyes gleaming like a predator in the night. She pulled Edam’s stave from its place, leveled it in her rough direction, and prayed. Blistering green light flared behind her; there was a sound of metal wrenching, and a sudden jerk that stopped as soon as she stopped the flow of mana. She dared not to look back – she wasn’t even sure if it had done anything at all.
She turned a corner, then another, her knuckles white and red against everything she could carry, the heavy golden plate beating against the bruise on her back. Eventually, she came to the source of the commotion – not a brawl, but several tough-looking men and women patrolling the streets. At first Ana thought that they might have been guards themselves, but their irregular formation and casual attitude disproved that. The weapons they carried were makeshift and crude; worker’s hammers, discarded wooden beams, black sackcloth bags fashioned into simple saps. No, these people were resisting the surprise curfew. Ana thought on her feet.
“She’s crazy!” She yelled at them frantically and pointed behind her, “That guard there is a monarchist, she’s going to kill me, you’ve got to stop her!”
As soon as she knew the message was received, she fled forward, barreling through the loose crowd and putting them between Danza and her before they could react. Immediately behind her, the commotion began, men and women yelling as they fell on Danza. They wouldn’t beat her, but they’d slow her down and throw her off the trail. That was enough. She ducked around the corner and kept on her course towards Temari’s territory, following the familiar streets back towards the docks. Eventually, she came across more and more people who flaunted the curfew until she finally found their temporary headquarters.
The street was in abject and total chaos. A low barricade of ransacked furniture and disused equipment blocked it off from the approach. Ana had to clamber over a broken chair and several boards from what looked like a dinghy to make it to the other side. A bonfire had been made from stinking boat-tar and old wood, burning with a terrible-smelling smoke. Rough men and women had climbed out of the curfewed dark to paradoxically revel; Mostly itinerant sailors or else the tradesmen and workmen that made up Temari’s payroll. The whale-hooks and fishing-rods had been made to makeshift polearms, though they had been swiftly replaced with the many stolen pikes and pistols of whatever passing guards they had so clearly robbed. They were wild men and women with muscles that seemed oiled by the firelight and their sweat.
Sure enough, Ana spied her in their midst: a young woman with bright yellow hair, fiddling away by the fire. She grinned, seeming to enjoy the attention, the sheer moment of ecstatic violence that they all existed in. The ones that shooed Danza away returned shortly thereafter with one member less and far more bruises to show for their efforts – but Danza was nowhere to be seen. Out from the rioting throng emerged Temari. She had taken on a fearsome pagan look – the practical clothes of a dock-worker with a simple machete made to aid in the butchering whales at her side. Many of her people looked drunk, but she looked as sober as death. She’d cut her hair like a pankrator, shaved down on the sides to a thin stubble and too short to tug on top. She came down from a stoop as a commander at the front emerging from the camp to speak to a soldier.
“I suppose you didn’t expect the curfew,” she said, looking at Ana’s wounds.
“No,” groaned Ana, “You’re… rioting?”
“They try to sweep these streets once, twice a year. Usually they do it in the late winter, when people are easier to control. Any which way we riot every time.”
“The guards are bad for everyone,” said Temari, “And the riots are good for business. Drum up fighters, people looking for a spectacle, people looking for war. Surprise curfew’s new, but I had my sources on it spill their information earlier this evening. That’s how we were able to get defenses organized so quickly.”
Ana shook her head.
“This is different,” she said.
“Yes. Yes it is. They’ve cut off the ports, saying nobody is to work there until further notice. The workers are up in arms, the merchants too of course – but they’ve got the manpower for it this time. Someone pulled in some favors from the army or another city, I think.”
Ana nodded. Temari took her off to the side, walking a little ways from the others.
“We’re having a meeting at the salon to figure out how to deal with this. Tomorrow, at noon. I’ve sent an olive branch to Dzhate as well – we haven’t been on the best of terms before this, in fact we’ve never met, but she doesn’t like this any more than I do. Get yourself cleaned up and come. We might be needing someone like you.”
“Will it pay?”
“With any luck,” said Temari, “You’ll be paid. Not that money is going to mean much for the next few days.”
Ana clicked her tongue against her cheeks and sighed. She owed Temari this much, considering that without the fight money she probably wouldn’t be where she was today.
“Just so you know,” she said, “There’s an inquisitor a few blocks from here. She’s very pissed off. She’ll probably make it here in a couple of minutes. Half an hour at most.”
“Thanks,” said Temari, “But Blackwood isn’t the type of place where someone can just walk in uninvited. We’ll ward her off, send her in another direction.”
She chuckled softly – a dark, crackling thing, marked by her experience and age..
“Lads,” she yelled to the gathered crowd, “Make sure this woman gets home safe, alright?
A throng of men approached her, drunken and wailing and laughing all. A few of them complained at it, wanting to wreak more havoc in this part of the city, but in the end a few of the more sober among them came together and escorted her away from the barricade. Ana awkwardly took the head, too tired and too exhausted to talk with any of them. Her head throbbed with backlash, and she hated every step she took – every step was another load on her bruised back and knees and elbows, on her bloodied fingers and shredded chest. Eventually, a few blocks from home, she waved them goodnight, and walked the rest of the way alone, in the dark. The small tenement loomed dreadfully, the warm light in the window to the main room forming a cyclopean eye.
She pushed open the door, and Edam was waiting for her by the yellow lantern light. She looked up, and immediately ran to her, embracing her as Ana closed the door behind her. Her muscles ached and finally relaxed under Edam’s grip. She held on very tightly, and Ana embraced her in kind. They both breathed for a minute before Edam pulled away.
“Ana, you’re bleeding. What happened?”
“What do you think? Got in a scuffle with some of our former comrades,” whispered Ana, “Where’s Seonya?”
“Not back yet. I think she might be stranded at her work.”
She went silent and clutched herself with worry.
“They didn’t follow you?”
Ana shook her head.
“Don’t think so. Temari helped me keep the Church away. She wants to meet me tomorrow.”
Edam nodded softly. The lantern-light put her face into a strong contrast; there were deep bags beneath her eyes, but her mouth stayed still, not turning to a smile or a frown.
“Let me clean you up, dear,” said Edam, “You can head to the bedroom.”
Ana staggered to the bed, exhausted, letting her mostly-empty bag fall to the floor with a resonant clang. She sat beside it, not on it, so she wouldn’t get any blood on the sheets. She shook her head as she looked down at it. The gold plate had peeked out from its secure place in the bag, and something was off. She gently pulled it out of place and then put her head in her hands. The gold had flaked away from the core of the plate. Under an exceedingly thin layer of plating there was nothing but gray lead. The stave that Edam had made was much the same – using mana so recklessly had made the weak gold flake away from the metal core of the stave like petals from a macabre flower. She had spent all that effort and blood for a pittance, and she had ruined Edam’s hard work. She put her hand to her face and sighed.
Edam returned quietly with an armful of medical supplies and a bucket, the lantern precariously balanced and flickering in her strained hand. Ana felt glad that Seonya had the foresight to keep them around. She knelt down by Ana’s side.
“Let me guess. You tried to-”
“I tried to block a pistol with a ward. It was that or be shot,” said Ana tiredly, “Just get it over with.”
Edam leaned in, and gently pulled at the piece of leaden shrapnel in her cheek with a set of forceps. Ana cringed as she eventually pulled the shard of metal free – surprisingly small for how much it hurt. She opened a small cask of cheap fortified wine, letting it splash as it mixed with water before soaking a sponge in the mixture. She brought herself very close to Ana’s body, and held her face up. She dabbed away the gore from her cheek.
“That’s going to leave a nasty scar,” said Ana.
“Trust me,” said Edam, “It won’t be that bad.”
She pulled back her sleeve and started to count up a row of scars on her forearm, until she came to a small, nearly invisible one, vanishing and reappearing in the light of the midnight oil.
“That one was from a paring knife,” she said, “Way bigger than that little pockmark. A month from now, and it would be like nothing ever happened. On the Saint’s names, Ana.”
Ana sighed, looking back at the plate and the stave.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s late,” said Ana, “I didn’t want you up late for me. You- you must have been worried.”
Edam nodded as she applied some clean resin to the bandage before applying it to Ana’s cheek. It’d be a pain on her skin to take off, but it was worth it to avoid having to wrap bandages around her face like a leper. Then again, given what was going on outside, that might have been a good idea after all.
“I was,” said Edam, “Apparently rightly so.”
“And I ruined your work on the stave,” said Ana, pointing at it.
Edam looked over to it, noting the ruined gold plating.
“That was actually supposed to happen.”
“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“No, seriously,” said Edam, “I figured that I could make something where the gold was basically inessential, that way we could sell it. I was considering putting in more than necessary to fleece Dzhate a bit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighed the entire supply she gave me every night and was paying attention to my plans. You knocked some of it off, but it’s fine.”
“It also – well – it didn’t seem to do anything when I tried to use it.”
“Did you course mana through it for an extended amount of time?”
Ana shook her head wearily.
“Only for a moment.”
“That’d do it. I’ll show you what it’s actually used for later. I want to modify it a little, actually. Make it more practical, less ostentatious.”
She then noticed the plate and held it up to the light.
“Is this lead?”
Ana nodded solemnly.
“Wait, hold on,” said Edam, putting the plate between her lips and biting down. She pulled it away from her face and examined the luster in the light again. She frowned, and rolled her head back.
“Where are the other two?”
“One has probably been pilfered by some entrepreneurial guard who found it, having seemingly fallen from the sky. The other one got cut in half.”
“From the sky?”
“I’m apparently a very good throw,” said Ana.
Edam chuckled, and Ana’s heart softened a little. It didn’t make up for the terrible night, but it certainly helped.
“Well, it’s all the same. This plating is yellow gold. I mean, I figured it’d be an alloy, most goldenware is because of how soft gold is, but this is… just not good. I’d say it’s at least half brass by proportion.”
“You can tell that by tasting it?”
“No,” admitted Edam, “Just an educated guess. Still, it’s a shame. You look exhausted for all you got out of it.”
She put the plate down and held up the bucket to Ana.
“Wash,” she commanded softly. Ana put her hands in swiftly, the scrapes feeling as if they were being singed under the harsh alcohol. She shook them off, and Edam patted them dry with a towel before bandaging the bloodied fingers, one by one. She was very tender with her, occasionally looking up at Ana as she worked. Ana couldn’t meet her gaze in return. She still felt like a failure.
It was when Edam started undoing the buttons on her shirt that she started crying. Whatever defenses she had were totally undone by that gesture. She couldn’t explain it. She didn’t even quite register when it had started. Her eyes simply welled up with tears, and she began to sob. Edam sighed and leaned in close to her.
“Shh, shh,” said Edam, “Ana. Breathe. Breathe. You didn’t do anything wrong. I know you did your best.”
“It isn’t enough.”
Edam touched her knee and rubbed it.
“It doesn’t have to be. Not all at once. There’s lead in your chest, dear. Let’s get it out.”
Ana continued to cry, but she stayed very still as Edam took off her shirt. The process was painstaking. The pliers were sharp, cold metal, and she couldn’t help but cringe as they chafed and pierced her skin. There must have been four or five shards in total, and each felt more irritating and painful than the last. The last one was embedded just under her left breast – though she couldn’t see it, she could feel how it tangled in her flesh, how deeply embedded it was. Edam sighed as she finally got a good hold on it in her pliers.
“Deep breath out, dear,” Edam said.
Ana did as she was told, clenching her jaw in anticipation. With a slight twist, and then a yank, the shard of lead came free. Ana breathed a sigh of relief, and then doubled over in pain. Something was writhing beneath her skin. She coughed heavily, and felt something crawling around in her throat, under the skin near her ribs. She coughed again, and out came four fat, brown black locusts, covered in a mixture of mucus, spit and blood from where their spines had cut her tongue. At the same time, she felt two more crawl out from the wound under her breast. They flitted and scattered away, disappearing out the window or through the gaps in the floorboards with a loud buzz.
Edam stared for a moment.
“I guess you were going to find out one way or another,” said Ana, wiping tears from her eyes, “One of the many benefits of being a witch. It happens whenever I pray.”
Edam was silent for a moment before picking up the sponge again. She gently cleaned up Ana’s other wounds, washing away most of the dried gore from her body. She had to bite down on a towel while Ana stitched together the lowest wound; it had been the deepest of the lot, but she almost felt that she’d rather die of the infection. When she was finished, Ana felt like one enormous open wound, covered in bandages and made to bleed into the white linen. She tried to rub the small of her back where the plate had impacted her, but gave up after a few ineffectual attempts. The angle was just wrong. Edam gathered up the leaden shards and bloodied needle and placed them in a crude bundle made from Ana’s ruined shirt.
“We’ll have to find a way to get rid of that inconspicuously,” said Edam, “But that can wait. We’ve got a meeting tomorrow.”
“You’re sure you want to come?”
“I’m sure. You’re going to be exhausted even if you get a good night’s rest. I have your back.”
Ana nodded, too exhausted and pained to speak at length. She slowly rose, and then sat on the bed.
“Want me to get you a new shirt?”
“No,” said Ana, “I’m going to sleep.”
Edam nodded. She placed the bloodied shirt, the stave and the plate safely beneath the bed where they could be hidden. Ana stared at the ceiling and stayed awake until she felt Edam return. She latched her hands around Ana’s belly, and gently drew her in until they were close again.
“I love you, Ana.”
“I still love you. I don’t care about witchcraft.”
Sensing the want, Edam rose a little behind her and began to massage her back, gently pushing her muscles in. She expertly avoided the bruise, carefully kneading the sore muscles around it into relaxation again. Ana breathed a sigh of relief as Edam pulled herself up level with Ana, and kissed her neck, exciting the soft flesh there. She stopped the kiss and guided Ana back down into bed.
“Sleep, lover. You deserve it for your hard work.”
“Thank you,” said Ana.