First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
“You have to wonder what happened here.”
“I don’t have to. I mean, unless you tell me I do.”
Nikol looked around the town. As far as she could tell, it had been left completely intact, except for the ruined bridge on one end and the broken road on the other. Someone had laid planks down over the hole in the road.
But there were no collapsed buildings, no signs of fire, no skeletons – there were quite a few things left in the houses, as if people had packed up and left in a hurry, but they had, it seemed, all left.
“You don’t have to,” she agreed evenly. “How about this one? It’s pretty.” She gestured at a house with a Victorian feel, a matching garage, and three-tone paint with relatively intact gingerbreading.
“… Did you really just say it’s pretty? You? Hardened battle mercenary?”
“Hardened… yes. I like pretty things.” She wrinkled her nose at him while she picked the lock on the side door.
He started chuckling, then started laughing. Nikol rolled her eyes and stepped inside the house cautiously, hand on her blade.
The house was dusty, spiderwebs everywhere. That, she found, was almost relieving. Something normal. She brushed the spiderwebs aside and moved slowly through the downstairs.
The furniture looked cozy, and no animals had gotten in here, at least as far as her nose could tell. The house had been sealed up from anything bigger than spiders — lots and lots of spiders, she had to grant that — no traps, no ambushes — finally she sent her spatial sense out.
It was still blurry, as if she had been drinking too much, but it told her there was nothing alive in the place.
She flagged Aran – back down to snickers – inside. “Close and lock the door behind you. This should do. Though I’m still a little worried about what happened here. I don’t see any signs of a struggle, we’re not that close to a major city–“
“Maybe they consolidated with another town? Maybe they were one of those groups that all pilgramaged into the city…”
“Maybe.” She checked the second floor over twice and then again before flopping down on the biggest bed. “Maybe they all suddenly decided to go to the coast. I’ve heard lots of strange stories about things that happened when the world was ending, and most of them don’t make sense at all.”
He hovered near her, not sitting down. “I’m… I’m going to go put the horses in the garage. We’ve still got a little grain for them.”
“Rest.” He touched her forehead gently . “Rest, boss. You need it.”
She closed her eyes, thinking it might be for a minute or two. She did need the rest. She needed more than rest, to be honest, but rest was a good start.
She woke briefly to find Aran sliding into bed next to her. “… couldn’t sleep in the other bed,” he muttered. “Stupid bond thing. Sorry.”
“I like the company,” she muttered, her voice coming out so unclear she wasn’t sure if he’d understand her at all. Her stitches pulled a bit as she shifted, trying to get comfortable, and she grunted. “Heal those in the morning.”
“Morning sounds good,” he agreed. “Sleep, boss.”
She closed her eyes and drowsed against his warmth. The house felt safe and intact in a way that very few places had in her life, the walls complete and solid, the locks on the doors all locked.
And Aran felt comfortable, too. He was stroking her hair as if in some sort of affection, or maybe just hoping she would rest for a while. If she were him — if she were him, she’d probably like a break from having to think about what her owner was saying all the time.
No wonder he wanted to try running away.
She drifted into sleep to that set of thoughts, dreams taking her running through fields of daisies and forests dappled in sunlight. Her dreams shifted, slowly, almost without her noticing, until she was sitting in a large room with hundreds of other people. Everyone was staring straight ahead and, no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get anyone’s attention. In the front of the room, a man stood, taller than everyone else, taller than people ought to be and made mostly, it seemed, of leg, and he was speaking, but she couldn’t hear him.
Something in the dream told her that it was a good thing she couldn’t, that she needed to plug her ears, that she needed to leave. She pulled herself out of the chair and started running, but the exit grew further and further away.
The click of the front door closing woke her. Nikol started upwards, gasping. Her heart was pounding.Want more?