First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
“Look…” Nikol tried to twist to look at the cat on her shoulders without dislodging it. “Look, I’ve got to get Aran. I’m – I’m kind of fond of him, and, I mean, I have a responsibility to him. And — okay, look, if I promise?”
Why was she negotiating with a cat? She twisted this way and that, scooped the beast up, and, mindful of its claws, held it so she could look it in the eye. “I am going to go get my friend. But I promise you – I promise you – I will be back and I will pet you when I get back.”
The cat hissed. She set the beast down before it could claw her eyes out. “I made a promise.”
She had made a promise to a cat. To an ordinary feral cat. She blinked at the thing. It growled at her. It wasn’t like it could release her from that promise, was it? “I will get back and I will pet you. I don’t have a choice now,” she added ruefully.
The cat was having none of it. It backed up from Nikol and ran off up the stairs.
“Well, shit.” She got herself back to her feet and followed the cat up the stairs, but it was nowhere to be seen in the alleyway.
Aran. Aran first. She turned to the second door, the one in the brick building, and let herself in.
She walked down the stairs, setting one foot in front of the other in cadence. The place smelled dusty and ill-used, with a faint funk that she couldn’t quite recognize. The air was so dry it hurt to breathe. And in the distance, she could hear a voice murmuring.
But what was being said? She hurried, tripping down the stairs, as the voice seemed to get fainter and fainter. She didn’t want to miss a word. She couldn’t quite make it out, but it had to be important. It had to –
“Aran,” she breathed. He was standing at the bottom of the steps, blocking her way. She couldn’t see. If she couldn’t see, she couldn’t hear the voice correctly. She had to be able to see the speaker. That would make it work. “Aran, move,” she whispered.
He shifted a little, from side to side – moving. But she still couldn’t see. “Aran, get out of my way,” she hissed.
He stepped forward three steps. Nikol stepped forward, too, trying to get around him, but he filled the narrow aisle.
She looked to his left, looking for a way — the seats were full. To her right — all the seats were full, too. The voice seemed to be getting even quieter. She had to–
She shook her head. The seats were full. She looked again. Every seat to her left, every cheap metal chair, held a decayed body, barely more than a skeleton. To the right, it was the same, except the two of the nearer seats held newer bodies. The row behind her was the same, except that two or three of the people might still be alive. One was, she thought, drooling.
She wanted to hear the speaker. Maybe once she had heard what the person at the front of the room had to say, maybe once she had seen them, she would leave. It was pretty bad, being in a place with this many dead people and none of them dead because they’d been fighting against her. But the speaker–
She found herself staring at a corpse, trying to figure out how to get around it to get to the front of the stage. While she had a moment of clarity, Nikol hissed out a Working, blocking her hearing. Then she grabbed Aran’s arm. “Aran. Aran, turn around and face me.”
He did so, his whole body jerky as the compulsions fought against each other. Nikol winced. That wasn’t kind, but then again.
“Okay.” When he looked at her, she took his face in her hands so she could hold some of his attention. “We have to kill the thing at the front of the room.” She thought she was whispering. She wasn’t sure.
He said something, but she couldn’t follow it, not with her hearing blocked. “Or… mute it,” she offered. A thought came to her, but Aran nodded sharply and started talking again before she could do anything.
She didn’t know what he was doing; she really had to learn to read lips at some point. But the air pressure changed abruptly in the room. Her ears popped. A moment later, the floor started shaking.
Aran gave her a push towards the stairs. She gestured at the people that were probably still alive.
His cursing was clear even if she couldn’t hear it – the way he wrinkled up his face, the way his lip curled up. But he shifted one of the people carefully.
They stank, she had to admit that. She didn’t know why she hadn’t noticed it before. And they were in very bad shape. She wondered how long they’d been sitting there.
Three days without water, that was part of the rule of three. Three weeks without food.
Magic, though, magic could do a lot with things like survival.
She moved towards another one of the probably-still-alive people and got an arm under their shoulders. She moved them to the stairwell and gave them another push.
And then another one, and all four people who had any chance of survival were crawling up the stairs.
And then Nikol made the mistake of turning around.Want more?