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Burden shouldered Hope as he trekked across the wasteland. Hope had worn out yet another pair of shoes and he didn’t want her to cut her feet up on the cracked and rocky terrain. His old leather boots seemed to be indestructible, so much the better. Hope wasn’t heavy to bear, despite being older and larger than when he found her in that cannibal shack. The wasteland didn’t offer enough to get fat.
The world don’t offer seconds no more. No second chances, not a second’s respite, and definitely no second helpings, Burden could imagine his father saying as he divided a can of beans between them, always giving Burden the bigger portion.
Hope whispered into Burden’s ear, breathy and only semi-lucid, muttering about water and cool breezes and other sparse blessings. The sun beat down on their backs relentlessly. Only a threadbare tarp covered them, a treasure that they’d scavenged in the last stand of buildings they’d come across. Burden had used a length of cord to tie it around his neck, creating a sort of hooded cloak. There was enough excess cord that he’d been able to tie it around both his neck and Hope’s scrawny shoulders as she clung to his back.
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.
Marie held him tenderly, sweat dripping off her nose, shuddering, sharing his breath.
The French have a phrase, la petite mort. It means “the little death.” People use it to describe an orgasm.
He looked up at her, unfocused, shock written on his features. She was smiling beatifically, her eyes poring forth into his, glimmering his soul at the bottom of a pool, fading fast, deeper and deeper.
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.
There is life and death, beginning and end, salvation and destruction, and they can all, on occasion, align and blur on the whim of chance. The two greatest people in history never met, but they did, on such a whim, unwittingly share in existence, as he gasped and wheezed in his final hour and she wailed and cried out in her first. Though it cannot be disputed that one saved the world and that the other destroyed it, it is far from clear who played which role.
The first cut is not always the deepest. In fact, it almost certainly never is. The deeper cuts come later and the deepest of all at the end. Examination of “advanced stage cuts” will come in due course.
Cut – a general term to describe any method of extraction; used in this sense, not necessarily the literal “cut” of a knife
As all extractors well know, information extraction is a formalized progression. Though the subject, extractor, information, and cuts may change, the steps that prove most efficient are linear and immutable. The previous chapter covered anticipation, concluding that it rarely offers valuable information on its own. The next step after anticipation is the so-called “first cut.”