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Two doomed men, barely more than boys, rode at the head of a column full of women, children, and elderly out of the Rook’s Gate and underneath an overcast sky that promised wind and rain.
Cole could hardly stand to look at Roland Fuller as they attempted to draw him out the back of the covered wagon, covered as he was in vile growths that seemed to jiggle with fluid with every slight jostle. Black webbing grew from his eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears. Mrs. Fuller was wailing from another wagon, incoherent with her grief. The Fuller boys, Ben and Gabe, watched from a distance with the rest of the party.
The locals said the first disappearances occurred in the winter, but no one could see a pattern then. Folk had just assumed that the missing had merely lost their way and died somewhere of exposure. It was, all agreed, an exceptionally cold winter with more than its fair share of blizzards.
An approximation of the proper rites were conducted for every missing person, or as proper as the rites could be without a body. Widows mourned, widowers drank, orphans left to go live with relatives, and bereft parents waited up at night for their little ones to come home again against all hope or reason.
It wasn’t until later, after the snows had melted and the weather had warmed, that several villages realized that they’d all suffered an unusual number of losses. Not only that, but disappearances were still happening on a regular basis, despite the milder weather. People would leave to tend their fields, collect firewood, or hunt and never come home.
A group of local men traveled to Aumflau, the nearest town of any import, to petition the burgomeister. Heeding their concerns, he, in turn, dispatched a letter to Parder addressed to the Jaegerhalle there. The morning after the letter arrived, in the dark stillness before the sun has yet risen, four horsemen left the Jaegerhalle and rode out the River Gate, taking the Imperial Highway towards Aumflau.
The Empire turned in on herself when winter came early — turned to huddle over her hearth and tend the coals, to pull the thin blanket of providence tighter about her shriveling form. If the Empire were a lady, then surely these far-flung provinces were her extremities. The frostbite was evident, even as the gloves were pulled on.
The Saint was like a jewel in the mud, like a shaft of sun cutting through sheets of rain, like a dab of flower in a field of weeds, like a shiny copper bit in a turd. He was like a fair number of other poorly conceived similes, but Farred wasn’t a bard and the scene unfolding in front of him wasn’t worthy of song.
Mender Brighton pretended to examine the dying man on the bed — he had to make a show of it. The man’s breathing was a wet gurgle and his face was covered with sores. Stage 2 Plague. Brighton could save the man, but he would not. Could not. His datapad told him as much.
Binta couldn’t be sure when delirium ended and death began. Fevered and dehydrated, she’d been walking for days, carrying her son, trying to reach safety. She’d reserved all the water she carried for her son, even as her lips cracked, her eyes sunk, and her tears stopped flowing. She stumbled, she fell, but she kept getting back up.
At first it was just a tiny dot in the cool blue afternoon sky. Moses Dudley saw it first as he and his companions, Jacob Wittman and Robert Normandin, were descending into the valley. Moses reined in his mule and looked up at the dot, shielding his eyes with his hand to mitigate the sun’s glare off the snow.
Fletcher opened the door to his dark office. Most nights he was greeted by a chesty, leggy blonde broad, distraught yet demure. She’d tell him of her woes, they’d engage in some innuendo-laced banter (his gruff, hers coy), he’d take the case, find it oddly tangled, cut to the damn truth like Alexander through the Gordian Knot, and then collect his payment. Rinse. Repeat. Good system.
Theo sat in the single room apartment near the docks all morning, his feet propped up on a table that was covered in vials and beakers and a bunch of other crap. The sun, shining through the wooden shutters, had slowly worked its way down the opposite wall and across the floor, the sound of the city increasing in volume as it did. Fishmongers selling their catch, teamsters loading and unloading the merchant vessels, people just going about their day.
He was tired and ready to be done with this business. The damn alchemist had fled halfway across the world to escape his debts, forcing Theo to follow halfway across the world with him. By foot, horseback, ship, even on a fucking camel. Yes, he was ready to be done with this business.