Everything started here:
A broad plain of yellow grass, the stalks crushed and smeared with blood, and the sounds of dying men—yes, all men—sobbing and praying to the rusty pink sky. The high grass hid their forms and faces. They were bodiless voices, as if ghosts already, rising above the field like ashes to heaven.
Nev had his fist in his own wound, pressing hard to staunch blood that flowed free as a spring rill, pumping across his breast with every heartbeat. He used his other hand to claw himself towards the sounds of the dying men. Not to save them—no—not to help them—no—but because he hoped they were not quite as doomed as he. He hoped they carried six more breaths instead of his two. He wanted to become them, to steal the last of their conscious moments, to take harbor within their mangled, broken bodies and mend them with the fire of his corpse-jumping soul. He had to find a form that would house his soul for another day, another hour, another breath, until he could jump again, and again, into his promised immortality.
But for now, in this moment—Nev needed just one more breath.
And he did not have it.
That’s when he heard the little girl singing.
Nev’s life after that day in that bloody field, after the war, after he fled the guild that once protected his immortal soul from superstitious mind clerics and osteomancers, was no easier. No matter how far he ran, or how many times he changed his face, Nev could not escape his past, and the sound of the little girl singing while he bled out. His old masters would inevitably find him and remind him of his obligations to the Body Mercenary Guild. They knew what sort of person he really was. They knew what had happened on the field that day.
They knew about the girl.
And what he had given her.
“Name and occupation?”
“Nevarius Plum,” Nev said, and not for the first time, he felt the urge to say he was a scribe, or perhaps a tax clerk, because it seemed so fitting to the current name he used. Body mercenaries like him should have had names that inspired fear and awe in the presence of the foes whose faces they would soon wear. But names didn’t always make a person, however much weight they gave on first impression. He had once known a man in the guild called Torgenson Bold. Torg perished on the field during his first skirmish, screaming and blubbering like a colicky newborn babe.
It wasn’t about the name—it was about the soul. Nev chose names that reflected the soul he wanted to show the world. The soul he aspired to.
“And occupation?” the squat woman repeated, sweating heavily behind the smooth wooden counter of the mud brick toll gate that flanked the main road into the city of Avarise. The tattered coil of fabric above her did not give much shade in the muggy heat, and the sun was high and hot. Most of the toll booth operators at the gates to the city were men. He considered asking her if she knew of an open position among them, grasping for an alternative to the summons from his guild masters, then shuddered at the idea of touching and speaking to so many people every day.
Too much temptation.
He could have said, “I’m a member of the Body Mercenary Guild,” but his kind were hated everywhere, here more than most; here they were routed out and run down. He had not been in contact with anyone from the guild since that day in the field, some seventy years ago, though he could still feel them, pursuing.
It’s why he needed to make this trip.
“I am a simple trader,” he said, “with goods to take to market.”
“Doesn’t mean you get in for free. You are showing very little respect.”
He bowed. “I apologize. Please, examine my wares and let us agree on a fee.”
Nev had learned that apologies and passive subservience cost him nothing in exchanges with those who fed on the power afforded their own little fiefdom. No doubt this woman enjoyed making visitors like him wait outside the gates indefinitely if they crossed her. Petty, counter-productive… but human beings were not rational. A hard lesson. Logic did not convince people to come over to one’s position. One had to appeal to their emotions, egos, and desires. That had taken Nev many bodies’ worth of lives to learn properly.
He brought his lop-eared alpaca forward and divulged the contents of her plump saddle bags. Hunks of volcanic glass shimmered. Nev gingerly picked up a chunk and offered it to the woman.
She took six pieces for herself, and one of the bronze bands he wore on his fingers for just such a bribe. Her ego assuaged, he passed into the city without further issue.
Avarise hugged the riverbank of the crushing gray wash of the River Monesi, a bloated, fast-moving breadth of water prone to lose its banks each year and overtake the stilted homes in the flood valley on the other side. The city proper loomed above the great river, tucked securely on a hill dug by thousands of hands for just this purpose. It afforded citizens not only a view of potential trouble, but safety from the river’s wrath.
Nev climbed up the narrow cobbled streets. Flat pavers at the center of the way were for the carts; the knobby pebbled paths on either side were for hoofed creatures who would have found the flatter way far more treacherous. The alpaca, with her soft padded feet, was content to tread next to him, though as he glanced at her two-toed feet he made a note that her nails needed trimming.
He consulted the little map in his pocket several times. Like many cities formed in the early days of the last empire, the streets were a hodgepodge of dead-ends and narrow alleys that sometimes opened briefly into airy plazas, then closed and pinched again, running down and down to some sewer grate or back up and up again only to bring him to the battered calcified door of some private residence.
After several bad turns, he finally came to the residence he sought, a pleasant little first-floor apartment with the family name “Clovanis” set in tile next to the threshold. Bursts of lovely pink flowers sprouted from window pots. Potted palms and heart-shaped snaking vines grew in the small yard just to the right of the door, a rare, narrow band of open space. An old woman sat out there, lean and regal, slightly hunched over a swath of fabric. At the rear of the garden, an unfinished canvas lay dashed in spots of color meant to mimic the flower boxes.
Nev came to the little courtyard gate. “Pardon, matron,” he said, “Are you Matild Clovanis?”
“Nev Plum,” he said. “I’ve brought the volcanic glass from Magoransa.”
“Of course, please, come. I didn’t expect you to be so young! What a journey you must have had.”
She rose, smiling. Her white hair was nested into an intricate knot of strands bound in multicolored ribbon. She did not walk with a cane; she moved swiftly, for all her years, and the sun-hardened lines of her face.
“I don’t have many visitors from so far away. Let me get you tea. We have clover tea! And biscuits.”
“You are very kind.”
Matild bustled into her home, though he noted she did not invite him in. Nev knotted the alpaca’s lead at the table and began to unload his stones.
When Matild returned, she chatted absently about the weather, then asked about his journey.
“Uneventful,” he said, but he shared details he supposed she would enjoy, about the people, the scenery, a scrappy young dog who ran off with the last of his jerky, a child with a voice like a bell, and news of a small settlement lost to a storm said to strike from a clear sky.
Matild exclaimed over the volcanic glass. “I have so many more buyers,” she said, which he already knew, because he had posed as one of them not long back. “But alas, not as much coin as I’d hoped in exchange.”
“I’m sure there are other bits and bobs I could settle for.” Nev pretended to give a longer look at the surroundings, the hanging vegetation, blooming purple flowers up on the roof, aged brick walls; the bird poking its vibrant orange head from a nest snugged tightly in the mouth of a tentacled nightmare meant to cover the otherwise inelegant appearance of a drain.
Nev drew a broken trinket from his pocket and placed it on the table between them. A blue stone shot through with green glass. “Have you ever come across a stone like this one? I’d be very keen to find one intact. I collect them.”
The woman brushed the bits of stone with her fingertips. “I had something like it, a very long time ago.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have it anymore.”
“You sold it?”
“I simply don’t have it.”
“I suppose that’s best. Those who carry intact stones can be in danger. Some… bad people are looking for intact stones.”
“But you aren’t one of the bad ones?”
“I don’t like to think I am.”
She leaned back in her seat. “I’m an old woman. There’s very little you or they can do to me. I’ve seen the world and lived a good life.”
Nev’s stomach twisted. He did not like to use fear, but in this instance, the tactic was warranted, and terribly true. “Perhaps you could tell me what happened to it. If I can have something to go on, I’m even happy to leave extra with your religious order. Whichever you subscribe to.”
“My mother sold it, a very long time ago.”
“You know where?”
“A company creditor, I imagine. She made a living in the ironworks. I was twelve or thirteen, then. Fifty-three years on, now. In the summer. I remember the sound of the cicadas.”
“Could I speak—” Nev stopped himself. He knew better than to ask, but it slipped out sometimes, his assumption that everyone lived forever.
“She passed some years ago.” The woman’s attention shifted. She seemed to re-evaluate him.
I’ve shown my hand, he thought. She knows.
“You should speak with my granddaughter,” she said, flicking her gaze up to the squawking bird in the drain. “She is very good at finding things.”
“It’s all right, I—”
“Nice young man like you. This is a very dangerous place, you understand? She could help you. You may not look foreign, but your accent is archaic, and you are… odd.”
“Perhaps I’m not as nice as I look.”
“I very much doubt that.”
Nev stood. He unloaded a few more stones from the alpaca’s saddle bag. “Thank you for your help.”
“Give me your map,” she said. “I can show you where my granddaughter is.” She peered at the angle of the sun. “Yes, this time of day I know where she’ll be.”
“That’s kind,” he said, “but I really do prefer to work alone.”
The old woman tugged at the map, though, pulling it from the table before he could snatch it up. She traced a section of the city about a half a mile back down the other side of the city, right up along the riverfront. “The Wandering Eye,” she said, and chuckled. “That’s where she’ll be. Ask for Mezelda.”
“Thank you.” Nev tucked the map back into his pocket. He hurried away, dropping his gaze, not wanting to look back.
But she spoke again, a line from a very old tune, one he had had long ago tried to banish from his memory:
Come little Jini in your flying machine
Come across the waves with me
Those golden waves, Jini
Those golden waves.
Nev glanced back, just the once. Met her look. Tipped his hat, and then he and the alpaca were back in the square, drifting among the other residents, trudging deeper and deeper through the maze, the map forgotten, wanting only to disappear into the twisting labyrinth of Avarise forever.
Nev went down to the ironworks first. The pawnbroker there was young; he asked after the former proprietor, and celebrated his luck when the girl trotted into the back and came out with her mother. When he presented the stone, the old woman did not recall it, but her records went back a hundred years, she said, and for a few bronze rings, she put her daughter to work combing through the records from fifty-three years prior, in the summer months.
The girl brought out the big book and after reading a dozen pages, found the entry he sought.
“Oh yes, this family,” the old woman said. “The wizards. I didn’t realize that stone sat here so long. Bad buy, bad buy. Fifty years to turn around a trinket! Terrible.”
“Yes. I remember her, Bafasa Mundi. She came looking for a good luck stone. The green crystal soothed her. It was for her son. I recall her because they left the city a few months ago, after their youngest passed the wizard trials, and well… he was chosen for temple work. And you know what happens to children, especially boy children, chosen for such a fate.”
Nev did not. “Do you know where they went?”
“No, no. I’m sure no one does. They left in the middle of the night. The fewer they told, the better their chances of escape. A shame, really.”
Nev thanked them for the help and wrote Bafasa Mundi on the back of his map. As he did, his gaze went to the tavern along the waterfront. The Wandering Eye. It was true that he did not know these people, and they had no reason to trust him. He was also almost out of volcanic glass and bronze rings. Too much more of this and he would be broke, and no closer to the stone than when he started.
He reasoned that if it was difficult for him to find the stone, it would be equally difficult for the Body Mercenary Guild. Perhaps he was being overly anxious. Overly cautious. But it was this extra care that had ensured his freedom and survival over these many long decades. To turn away now…
Nev sighed and patted his alpaca. “Long way to come for nothing, right?”
The alpaca hummed.
They began the long way down to the water.
The wharf smelled of copper and death, a combination that Nev had not yet encountered. The churning gray waters carried detritus from upstream; broken trees, dead animals, silt runoff, but from the smell, less sewage than he would have suspected. Avarise lay close enough to the headwaters that it was the first major city on the river’s wending path.
The Wandering Eye lay furthest upstream, closest to the boat docks.
Nev’s body was not terribly tall, but he had to stoop to enter the low doorway. He removed his hat. Inside; darkness, and the cloying stink of old sweat and cheap spilled beer. Beneath that, the whiff of aged cedar and hardened leather. Outside was hot; inside was much hotter, almost unbearable.
Three women collected at a table in the back. A barkeep spoke in low tones to a patron at the smooth cedar plank of the bar. Sounds of raucous laughing in the back could have been the cook staff or a gambling den.
Nev kept his head down and went to the bar, asked the beefy bar keep, “Excuse me? I’m looking for Mezelda?”
The barkeep rolled her eyes. Jerked her thumb at the hefty, heavy-lidded woman she spoke to. The woman bent over a gravy-soaked potato dish and what remained of a thick, frothy black beer.
“Good to know you have my back if the dock patrol comes calling,” the woman said, wiping her face on her sleeve. Her voice was rich and smoky; it put Nev in mind of another mercenary he once knew, long dead on the same field that had nearly claimed him.
“He’s definitely not dock patrol,” the bar keep said, and laughed. The table in the back called for another round. She went to the tap to satisfy them.
“Mezelda, I’m Nev. Your grandmother said you find people. Things.” Nev guessed Mezelda was in her late thirties, maybe early forties. He had found it difficult to judge the ages of those from cultures he was not yet accustomed to. It wasn’t so much that the age markers differed, it was that the way bodies aged was so intrinsically tied to their lineage, their daily work, their habits, and above all, their environments.
“Mez,” she said. “Nobody calls me Mezelda but Grandma. You have money?”
“I have some volcanic glass, a few bronze—”
Mez help up her hand. “Forget it.”
“Surely there’s some other—”
Mez nodded at the noise from the back. “Tell you what. Beat me at a game of cards, I’ll hear your sob story. I win, I clean you out.”
“This… does not seem like a deal a sane man would take. Thank you for your time.”
Nev put his hat back on and trudged to the door.
“Who you looking for?” Mez called.
“A boy. A wizard. His family left here some time ago. He has something I’m looking for. Your grandmother had it at one time, but her mother pawned it away. She said you could help.”
“Why ask for my help? Do you not like wizards?
“So you don’t like children?”
When pressed, he always preferred honesty. Fewer things to remember. “I’m never certain how to treat them. Many parents take offense if I speak to a child as I would an adult. Should I treat a child as half human? Part animal? Does the percentage of their humanity change based on age? Is there a sliding scale?”
“I find children amusing.” Mez gulped her beer. “I once told my nephew that griffins weren’t extinct, just nocturnal. He loudly proclaimed this fact to his professor. It delighted me to no end.”
“You must have lost his trust.”
“I taught him critical thinking. He was, like, four.”
“You taught him adults are liars.”
“Is that untrue? Now he asks for a second opinion when I tell him anything. How many kids just believe whatever nonsense their Aunt Edna spouted off after she heard it from a grocer? The world would be a better place if we all questioned our elders more.”
“You advocate for disrespect?”
“Who do you think I am? A priest?”
“I… need to find someone else. You aren’t the right person for this.”
She chomped a hunk of potato; a bit of gravy leaked out the side of her mouth. “Figured,” she mumbled around the potato. “Grandma sends me particular kinds of people.” Her gaze narrowed; black eyes, long lashes. Like her grandmother, she seemed to see through him. I’m being paranoid, Nev thought.
“I’m not keen on games,” Nev said.
“And I’m not keen on working with someone I don’t know.”
“I prefer my independence as well.”
“Independence rarely gets me paid. Come out back.”
Her followed her to a scuffed table out on the patio. Here, it was cooler; a blessed breeze came in off the boiling river below. Mez set out a deck of cards; already a bad sign. Playing with her own deck meant it was likely marked. Did he look so young that she thought he would fall for that? Young, a foreigner… maybe so.
But he sat across from her anyhow. Placed his hat on his knee.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said, dealing out the cards. The deck was familiar. The game, he suspected, was Five-Card Shot. When she placed a single card face up between them, it confirmed his guess, but he demurred.
“What are we playing?” he said. “I admit I don’t have a head for cards. I’ll need the rules.”
She told him the basic rules in a breezy tone, deftly dealing the cards. He knew to lose his first hand. He won the second two.
“You’re not from here,” she said, leaning back in her seat, hands behind her head as he lay his winning hand face up.
“You are a poor liar.”
“The mother is Bafasa Mundi. But it’s less a person I’m looking for and more of a thing. Is that all right?
“Things are generally either carried, lost, or hidden by people. It’s one and the same. Lots of trophies taken during the war. I’m wondering—we looking for something that got stolen from you, or for a trophy you stole from someone else?”
“You from Moronov?”
“And all you got outside is that alpaca with the rocks?”
That impressed him. He assumed she had not seen the alpaca, let alone had the time to see what he carried. But if she knew he carried the glass, she would know he was from Moronov. And of course—her grandmother had wanted the glass. Mez would have known that.
“Are you a wizard?” he said.
She collected her cards.
“I just wonder what kind of person walks five hundred miles from Moronov carrying just a few bronze rings, some rocks, and maybe a local script for a bank? You better have a script for a bank.”
“What kind of person gets into retrieving people?”
“Are we going to go visit this kid wizard or what?”
“Don’t you have to find him first?”
“I know where the Mundis are.”
Nev crossed his arms. Of course. “So you just thought I’d be an easy mark for cards? An easy day’s pay for you.”
“Not really,” she said. “They’re dead.”
That eerie yellow field of his youth, smeared in red. Blood always looked more watery than Nev expected. And there, again—the girl’s voice. High and melodic, surreal in its perfection because she was clearly so young.
He raised his head from the prickly pillow of grass, knowing this was among his last breaths, terrified to consider how many more he would see. Saw two small brown feet, toes curled in the bloody field. She was only four or five year old.
She wore a tattered blue shift. Her hair was coiled back from her head in braids coming loose now at the ends. She was unharmed. Unblemished. Smooth, perfect skin. All her fingers and toes. Bright, glassy eyes.
Five years old. The age he had been when he found out what he was. He had worn a tattered shift just like this, already begging his mother for men’s pants and wearing his brother’s hats into town. They told him he was a fool, back then, told him he was a she, that being born into that body came with its privileges, and he should be happy with his place in the world. He knew. But it never sat well with him.
And here, again—a young girl. A new, fresh body. A new start. As if the universe were offering her to him, as if he could start again.
He lay gasping like a fish as he bled out, reaching for the girl. He rasped, “Help me. Please. Please help me.”
All he needed to do was get his hands around her throat. End her life cleanly, swiftly, before his expired, and then move his soul from his body to hers. And then he would be free. He could get far, in her form. No one would notice another dirty, tattered child in the streets of the big cities, some refugee from the country, fleeing the war. He would be vulnerable for a time, perhaps, until he found another form, but he would take any body now, for one more breath. No matter the price.
The logical thing to do was to kill the child and inhabit her body. It’s what the guild had taught him to do. We all die. Few were so privileged to see their bodies inhabited again once their spirits had passed over. He was going to do her a favor, truly.
“Are you dying?” the little girl said.
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes. What are you called?”
She leaned closer.
He snatched her wrist. Dragged her to the bloody field beside him. Her face was so close he felt the heat of it; her dark eyes went so wide he felt he would fall into them.
Take her. Wring her neck. Steal her body. Do it, Nev. You have done it a thousand times before. You will do it a thousand times again.
Nev walked a step behind Mez, leading his alpaca. The way to the graves of the Mundi family was a day’s walk, and Mez had insisted on loading the alpaca with beer, musty blocks of cheese, and a fried meat product of some kind that she called jerky.
The family had been killed just outside the next town, a little hamlet called Fortezia. Nev knew the name from his map, but had never been there. The road turned quickly from paving stones to dirt, but at least the rutted way was dry. Mez insisted on taking side paths several times, muttering darkly about bandits. He had encountered none since crossing the border into this country, but he did not argue.
“You have a name for it?” she asked as they came over a wooded ridge and back onto the proper road.
“Hm? The alpaca? I call her… Alpaca.”
“How can you call her the same name as any other alpaca?”
“She answers to it.”
“Creativity doesn’t improve the experience in any way. A woman called Mag is no different if she is called Magoransa. Same woman.”
“I’d disagree, obviously. Good dig, though. You wouldn’t just call her, hey… Human!”
“Not if she preferred another name, no. That would be rude. Would it not, Mez?”
“She hasn’t told me her name. I would be happy to use it if she had. Do you know it?”
“Now you are being didactic.”
They huffed along awhile longer. Mez clearly struggled a little more than he did. He suspected she was spending most of her time sitting around playing cards in taverns and a lot less doing the leg work required to find people. Perhaps she had people for that. Despite her imposing form, he suspected he could outrun her easily. Wit and speed and his peculiar talent had always been his most effective weapons.
“You said your nephew.”
“What?” She narrowed her eyes.
“The child,” Nev said. “The one you lied to. Do you not have any children?”
“No. And you must not either. Well, not any you actually hang out with.”
“I don’t think I do,” he said. “It’s been—” and he had to close his mouth, because though his face was that of a man who might have been in his mid-twenties, he could not clearly remember the last time he’d had sex. Four decades ago? Six? Before the war, certainly. He had spent long stretches of peaceful time in cities before, a year here, a year there. They were pleasant enough times while they lasted. But as time went on he found his was more comfortable traveling alone. Fewer questions. Fewer emotions.
Mez crooked her mouth. “Don’t tell me you can’t remember?”
“Perhaps I can’t.”
“Remind me to give you a drink. See if that kicks anything loose.”
They spent the night at a way house. He insisted on sleeping outside, but she offered to share a room. “For the trickery on my part,” she said. “This is a favor more than a job. Though you’re still paying me what’s left of that volcanic glass.”
Nev liked to think he was good at reading people after all this time. It’s why when she offered him a beer he pretended to drink it, and when she began pulling at him to dance with her and sing bawdy songs, he said he needed to find an outhouse and instead went to the barn, untethered his alpaca, and drifted back onto the road. He didn’t mind her company, but he had yet to relish it, and it was always a good idea to move quickly before one transformed into the other.
The stars were out; the night was blessedly clear. The great gory constellations and massive swirling nebulas gave him enough light to get by. He abruptly turned off the road at the first path he found and continued on, despite his alpaca’s annoyed humming.
“She’s drunk,” he said, thumping the alpaca’s cream-colored neck. “One turn enough will deceive her.” He was uncertain if that was true, but it sounded well enough there in the dark. It sounded so good that when the alpaca stopped, twitching her ears, he thought there must be some predator in the dark; it certainly couldn’t be Mez.
He was mostly right.
The thump in his chest knocked him back a step. Nev had a moment to wonder at the feathered shaft jutting from his chest before the pain hit him, a purl of fire that uncoiled across his whole left side.
How terrible. He had loved this body.
The second arrow took him in the left side, a little lower. He let himself fall because he knew they would keep shooting until he did. He loathed to let go of alpaca’s lead, but did so, yelling for her to run. She kicked up her toes and took off into the darkness.
Nev lay on the still-warm ground. He slipped his fingers behind him, took hold of the small utility knife he kept in a discrete sheath tucked into the inside of his belt. The burning pain of his wounds threatened to cloud his mind, but he breathed through it, as he has been trained to do.
“He’s down. Where’s the fucking camel?”
“I can track it.”
“Let’s search him first.”
Nev closed his eyes and listened to them approach. Two voices. More importantly, two clearly separate gaits, not three or six or eight. Two was difficult, but not impossible.
He had really loved this body. Youth was wasted on the young.
Their hands on him. A rough kick at his wounded side.
Nev rolled and lunged, stabbing the nearest man in the throat. Blood gushed. The man gurgled. Behind him, a younger woman, little more than a girl, shrieked. She fumbled with her bow, dropped it, thinking better of the distance, and went for a knife.
But by then the man was bleeding out. Nev pulled him close, so close he smelled the terror of his breath and felt the tinkling of the man’s curly black beard. Nev pressed his palm to the back of the man’s neck, skin on skin, as if they would share a kiss, while the man’s hot blood soaked them both. The man’s body sagged.
Nev huffed out a breath.
Felt the distant stabbing in his side. The girl with the knife.
Too late, though, too late.
The girl in his grasp. The yellow field. Easy to take her. Face to face. Breath to breath.
But as his fingers closed over her throat she murmured,
Come little Jini in your flying machine
Come across the waves with me
Those golden waves, Jini
Those golden waves.
Nev released her. Lay back. Huffing. “Bring help,” he said. He stuffed his fist in his wound. He wouldn’t make it. It would take too long. If they knew who—what—he was, maybe a line commander would send a body. But how…?
He grabbed the chain at his neck. Yanked at it, too weak to fumble with the clasp. On the end of the chain dangled a stone of green glass and silver, etched with his name and rank within the guild. It contained something far more important than that, though.
“Get this stone to a soldier,” he said. “Command. Send…help.”
The little girl took the stone into her palm. Wiped at the blood. “I’m Matild Clovanis,” she said, “from Avarise. What is your name? I can’t help a stranger.”
“Nevarius. Now run! Go! Before I change my mind!” he snarled.
She leapt away, a startled deer.
He lay where she left him. Tears clouded his vision, or maybe the darkness was coming. He wasn’t sure which—or both. More the fool, him. A soft heart. Corpse soldiers with soft hearts wouldn’t last a decade, let alone a century. He would die on this field with all the others, because he did not have the heart to kill a little girl.
Nev rolled on top of his own fist, using the pressure of his body to further quell the blood from the worst wound. From this vantage he could just see the outstretched hand of a corpse, one half buried in mud churned up by some elemental wizard.
Nev clawed his way forward. An inch. Two. A hand’s breadth. Gagging, making bloody bubbles, sick with pain, he crept forward. Again. Again.
The darkness. Death. The long night. He felt it, comforting, like a warm bath after a long, agonizing day punishing his body to the brink of its endurance. How wonderful would it be to just…stop?
He stopped. How far to go?
Nev reached for the fingers of the corpse ahead of him as the darkness took him.
I should have been a better soldier, he thought.
It was the last thought he had in that body.
Nev was not the first to escape the Body Mercenary Guild; he certainly would not have been the last. There was no public record of rogue Body Mercenaries; it would inspire panic and pogroms if the public knew exactly how many people like him walked among them. His records, such as they were, would be closely guarded things. He liked to imagine that perhaps he had been officially declared dead. After all, there was no physical way to know he was still alive outside summoning his soul into another body.
And only one with the stone could do that. The stone he had given Matild that day. Matild from Avarise. He would never be free, truly free, until he destroyed that stone.
The guild loved to make its members’ lives more difficult; to make all lives more difficult. The more difficult the lives, the better it felt it was doing its job. It believed itself the arbiter of whose lives counted, and whose did not. In all his living years, decades, he had never thought who got to be human a political position. It was a moral and religious position. But in most of the countries and city-states he lived, there was no line between government morality and religious morality. Right and wrong were beliefs, as were religions. Intrinsically tied, for better or worse.
His own existence had come down to his military usefulness. What greater fear could an army invoke than unleashing a wave of undead against the enemy, undead who could take on the face of those they killed? Shock. Horror. Awe. Fear. He had seen all of it.
Nev came sputtering back into consciousness. He lay on the ground next to a pock-marked young man with two arrows jutting out of his torso. From this vantage, the young body Nev had worn looked foolish, foppish, the mussed hair, the terrible complexion, the knobby knees and elbows.
He bent over in his new, shaggy body and vomited. Black bile. A little blood. He reached reflexively for the wound he had inflicted while in his other body. It had already closed. His tunic was heavy with his own blood.
Nev gazed into his big, calloused hands. Coarse black hair studded the knuckles.
Across from him, the girl was on her knees, eyes glistening in the starlight. “Papa?” she said, choking on her tears. “Papa, are you all right?”
Nev’s guts churned. He stumbled off the path and yanked down his pants. A wet sea of shit left his body. He braced himself against a heavy tree trunk and vomited again.
Gasping, spitting, he yelled, “Stay away!” He did not even know her name. They tried to kill you, he thought, here you are, soft again. But he had made his own terrible choices often. He understood.
Nev heard the crashing before she did. Whether it was his heightened senses after the body jump, or her fear and grief that disguised it, he did not know.
A figure smashed into the girl, knocking her flat.
Nev cleaned himself up as best he could and slogged toward the ruckus.
Mez tussled on the ground with the girl. Popped her nose. Just as he got hold of Mez’s collar, she locked the girl into a neck hold.
Nev heard the snap.
He let Mez go. The girl’s body dropped like a marionette, the neck broken.
She punched him in the face.
Nev reeled back, stunned, but he could feel the second wind coming, the massive surge in adrenaline that he got after every body hop. His senses became heightened. The pain vanished all together.
Mez hit him again. He snagged her arm and twisted it behind her.
“It’s Nev! Mez!”
She snapped at him, nearly taking off his ear. He pushed her and held her down, relying on this new body’s brute strength and the adrenaline that still coursed through his healing body.
“Mez! I’m Nev. The alpaca named Alpaca. We played cards.”
She head-butted him. His nose burst. Tears welled. He spit. He was aware of the injury, of the pressure, but no pain. Not yet, not until the rush wore off. Already, the blood gushing from his nose stopped. He would have a few more impervious minutes for her to flail at him.
“Your nephew believed griffins were nocturnal. You have no children. You tried to serve me a beer and dance. You remember that part at least? I do.”
She tensed. Arms tight, still pushing him away. But her look was different. She eyed him like a terrified animal caught in a snare. Maybe that’s what he had done.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can I let you up? Mez, if you kill me I’ll have to kill you and take your body. You understand? There’s no reason to attack me. Don’t make me do that.”
Her body softened, almost imperceptibly.
“All right?” he said.
One nod; a spastic jerk.
He eased his grip, but did not let up his guard. “You understand?” he said. He jerked his head at the young body filled with arrows. “That was me. Now I’m here.”
She mouthed something at him. A curse?
“What?” he said.
“Corpse soldier.” Soft and smoky. Not fearful. Factual.
His mouth twisted, even after all that time. “We prefer to be called body mercenaries.”
“Thought you were all dead. My grandmother—”
“I gave her the stone that can summon my soul.”
“I thought I was dying. If she got it back to the guild, they could summon my soul from the darkness. Bring me back. It’s where my soul goes if I can’t find a body to house me.”
“You’re already dead.”
“I’ve been dead many times, yes.” He saw her swallow; the starlight made her eyes seem luminous. “I’m going to let you go,” he said.
“You said that.”
“I said there was no reason to attack me.”
He released her. Took two long steps back. In this body, he was much larger than her; he stood a head and shoulders above her, and outweighed her by eighty pounds. He tried to give her space.
Mez sat in the dirt. Gazed up at him. Then at the body. She got up and went to his old body. Knelt beside it. Pushed the hair from the face, noted the wounds. Then Mez began to methodically remove all of the bronze rings Nev had kept on those skinny little fingers.
“Your remorse is touching,” Nev said.
“About as polite as you running off in the middle of the night. You fucking idiot.”
“I know about women like you.”
“Women like me? Like me?”
“It didn’t seem wise to stay.”
“I was being polite. You have a massive stick up your fucking ass.”
“I have been around a long time.”
“No doubt.” She snorted. Pocketed the rings. Leaned back on her heels. “You just kill people when you’re attacked? Just like that? No wonder we hunted you all until you were dead. Really dead. After the war. How did you live?”
“Not every country believed the genocide of people like me was humane.”
“You mean not every country wanted to give up their tactical advantage.”
“I don’t fight on purpose. The bodies I take… most are as this was. Defense. Or those already dead.”
“Stealing the dead is better?”
“They are dead. What do they care? You certainly didn’t care about the dead when you took those rings just now.”
“I can’t believe I fell for this.”
“For what? I’ve told you nothing untrue. If someone has that stone, someone alive, they are in danger. Because yes, you are right. People like me are being hunted. If they find someone with that stone—”
“If they find someone with that stone, it leads them back to you. I wasn’t born on a slow boat. You’re worried about your own guts.”
Nev shifted from foot to foot. The adrenaline was draining from his body now, leaving him feeling exhausted, hungry. “I need to find Alpaca. Keep the rings.” He bent and took the dead girl’s heavy knife. He felt a coin purse knotted against his own shin. He would have money enough, provided it was coin in there and not something more nefarious. It was horrifying, some days, to realize what sorts of bodies one had jumped into. Who they had been.
He headed down the way he had seen the alpaca go, humming softly for her. It was not long before he heard Mez crashing around behind him. She was nimble as a bear, that one.
“What?” he said without turning. “You want to knife me in the back? You’ll need to creep better than that.”
“Why didn’t you kill my grandmother? You gave her that stone and hoped someone brought you back, but why not just kill her? Then you’d know you’re coming back for sure.”
Nev lifted his gaze to the crowns of the trees. Little blossoms fell from the canopy, collecting around his feet like dying stars. “It was not necessary,” he said.
“I take you to the gravesite,” she said. “That’s it. That’s what I agreed to.”
He nodded, already turning his attention to the flash of creamy white in the distance.
The site of the massacre was mundane. All such sites were, in the end. He remembered a war from some time ago, when they buried all the dead beneath birch trees. For two decades after, he had avoided birch trees, made uneasy and anxious by their breezy forms.
The place where the little child wizard’s family had been killed was a tall field of grass, a clearing overlooking the little settlement they had hoped to settle, Fortezia. How terrible, to get so far, to be within sight of salvation, and to be cut down.
“Who killed them?” Nev said. Beside him, the alpaca hummed. Her saddle bags were empty. She had either lost, or someone had stolen, all of Mez’s beer and musty cheese and jerky. Of all the things that had happened the night before, Mez seemed angriest at the loss of the beer.
“Temple people,” she said. “You know what they do to those kid wizards in the temple.”
“Matild said that too… but no, I don’t know what they do.”
“Oh.” She shrugged. “Bad things. They think you have to hurt kids to make them powerful. Make them mean. You know, toughen them up.”
Nev knew all about that.
He found the fresher, humped ground over the graves. “They buried them?” he said. “Didn’t burn them?”
“You don’t burn wizards. Does bad things to the air. Miasmas.”
“Let’s dig,” Nev said.
They spent two hours digging. Brought up the corpses. A man and a woman, only a few months in the ground. Mez did not gag or complain, but searched the corpses thoroughly with him.
“Where’s the boy? Did we miss him?” Nev said.
“Maybe they didn’t get the boy.”
“Where did you hear about these deaths anyway?”
“The tavern. Old soldier I know from some jobs last year. He was in the party sent out after them.”
“And he said they got all three?”
“Maybe they were supposed to, so that’s what he said. Word gets around. He’s old enough not to yak in a tavern that he didn’t kill someone he was supposed to.”
Nev came up empty; the pockets and pouches held some old snuff and a decomposing map. As he dropped the map he noted the cord around the female body’s neck. He tugged it. It came up with a little bronze pendant. Nothing.
“Her hand,” Mez said.
Another cord trailed from the woman’s hand, filthy like the rest of her. He uncoiled her rotting fingers and slid the cord free.
A blue stone shot through with green glass gleamed from the end of the cord. As it dangled there, shimmering in the light, Nev remembered what Matild had said about the woman buying it as a good luck charm for her son.
He imagined this scene as it had played out here, some desperate family trying to save their child from harm. The soldiers drawing the boy away, the father dying, or already dead, the mother wounded, clutching at her boy, her fingers tangling in the pendant hanging from his neck. The soldiers yanking the boy away, and the pendant, there, curled up in her palm, all she could save of her child.
He let out his breath. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding it.
“That it?” Mez said.
“Yes. Thank you.” He knotted the broken cord and hung the stone around his own neck. It felt warm against his skin. It had been so many decades since he parted from it; he expected to feel some jolt of power, a tingling of recognition. But there was nothing. It was just a stone. Until it was needed.
“Well, let’s cover them back up.” Mez rolled the woman back into the shallow grave and began heaping dirt over her again.
After a moment more, Nev helped her. In half an hour, the bodies were covered again, leaving Nev and Mez filthy and breathless, sweat pouring down their bodies.
“Guess that’s it,” Mez said.
“I guess so.”
“What’ll you do next? Go creep back to a hole somewhere?”
He pressed his fingers to the stone beneath his tunic. As long as the stone existed, they could come back for him. He could live, yes, it was true. But he would be theirs. Always theirs. What was he really, now that the war was over and he’d fled the guild that had once shielded him and his kind from the obliteration of their immortal souls? What was he, but a corpse soldier running away from the same fate that dogged them all, mothers and children. He closed his eyes, and remembered Matild’s singing.
Nev took the stone from his neck and dug into the alpaca’s saddle bags. He had kept a few chunks of volcanic glass there, sewn into the bottom, just in case. Now he took them out and lay a flat piece on the ground. Put his soul stone on top of it.
“What are you doing?” Mez said.
“Making sure they never find me. Making sure they never use me again.”
He brought down the hunk of glass in his hand. Smashed the soul stone.
It shattered into half a dozen fragments. They scattered, bits and pieces lost in the uneven terrain of the field.
“Shit!” Mez said. “Are you…wait, you’re still alive?”
“Yes.” He smeared the dust of the stone between his fingers. “But there’s nowhere my soul can go but a body now. No stone. No other way to bring me back.”
She shivered. “Yeah, well, if you get sick, don’t come near me. I’m not some extra body.”
He met her look. Nodded. Stood. Nev took the alpaca’s lead and started down into Fortezia.
“Where you going?” Mez stood outlined in the afternoon light, her black silhouette large and beautiful in the heat.
“I’m going to find the boy,” Nev said. “I’m going to bring him back.”
“He could be dead.”
“No. He’s useful to them. They will keep him alive as long as possible.”
“That could take you far from here! The wizard conclave is a thousand miles south of here. You know it gets cold down there! What will I tell my grandmother?”
“You fulfilled your part.”
Mez came down after him, huffing. She came up to the alpaca’s other side, put her hand on the alpaca’s neck. “Hey, listen, you hired me to find a thing and a person. I’ll go with you.”
“We’ve established I work better alone.”
“So do I. But what else am I going to do, just go back to that tavern and get drunk?”
“You have exactly one life,” he said. “You spend it any way you please.”
“I’m going with you.”
He shrugged, and did not look at her. To look would be to remember how she came after him after he left her. To look would be to think how much she looked like Matild. To look would be to know what she would look like when she was old. To look would be to imagine how she would look when he put her body into the ground or under the torch. The little smirk. The long lashes.
“You must give her a name,” Mez said as they walked down and down into the widening valley. The alpaca hummed, as if in agreement.
“Now you outnumber me,” he said.
Mez scratched at the alpaca’s ears. “See? Listen to her. She has a great little voice. Call her Matild.”
Matild, Nev thought, the little girl who saved me.
“All right,” he said, “but don’t tell your grandmother that.”
“Lips are sealed,” Mez said, and whooped.
Nev kept his gaze on the blue, blue sky ahead.
© 2018 Kameron Hurley. Originally published through Kameron Hurley’s Patreon. Reprinted by permission of the author.