THE PLAGUELINE

 

About

When Anthony Brink was very young, his father left him to go fight a war. The Church agreed to take him in until his father returned - but he never did, and when Brink came of age, the Church sold him into indentured servitude as a miner to pay off his father’s debts.


THE PLAGUELINE takes place in a dark fantasy setting inspired by Slavic mythology fifteen years after a war that left the land a scattered, isolated collection of cities walled off to keep the terrors that roam the wilds out. Brink is a scavenger, having escaped from the mines, and makes his living off the things people left behind when the city of Strateny was destroyed in the war.


When a coven of cyclopean, bird-like monsters from beyond the Plagueline show up at his door and try to steal an ornamental bronze egg he had scavenged, Brink goes on a quest to find out just what’s so special about that egg - and instead finds out there’s something very special about him.

Available in its entirety below.

Plagueline.jpg
 

Chapter Select

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

 

Chapter 1

Anthony Brink sat on the porch of his cabin, listening to the soft sounds of his music box as his gaze wandered over the ruined city of Strateny just a few miles away. Fifteen years, and still no one had so much as come back to bury the bodies.


He sighed, turning toward the mountains resting under the setting sun. The Knuckles of the World, his father had called them. He didn’t know their actual name - though he was sure he’d heard it in passing - but, as with most things his father said, the imagery was better than reality ever could be. The man had been quite the storyteller. The memory of his tales had filled many a lonely night for Brink in his cabin.


The lullaby spilling out from the music box stopped, its winding finished, but Brink barely noticed the difference in the silence of the plains around him, the wind rustling through the grass just as musical to his ears as the song that came when he turned that little brass key. Still, it was chilly for an early summer evening, and so he gathered his things and headed inside. He had already put Hartlocke up in the pin he’d built the mule around back with enough hay to last him til morning, and an early night after a long day’s scavenging sounded pretty good.


It had been a pretty good haul this time around. There were more valuables left behind in Strateny than he could likely collect in a lifetime, and no one else would dare risk venturing beyond the Plagueline to give him any competition. He had a good system for it, though - a heavy jacket, hood, gloves, boots, and mask with glass lenses to limit his exposure to the plagued air, and spend no more than four or five hours at a time past the Plagueline. It had worked for him these past couple of years, and he intended to keep doing it.


He had barely latched the door shut when he noticed a cloud of dust on the horizon. It was small, not enough to be a storm, and he squinted to try to make out what it was. Figures moved within, running with enough speed to kick up the dust around them. Figures coming from Strateny. Brink cursed, scrambling back from the window. 


Nothing good came from Strateny - at least, nothing that moved on its own. 


He grabbed his crossbow from its mounting on the wall and loaded a pair of bolts within, cranking the twin bows back to their ready position, then edged back up to the window. Any hopes he may have had of the figures passing him by vanished as the cloud grew larger, closer. Whatever they were, they were heading right for his cabin.


Scrambling, Brink ran back out to the porch and set the crossbow down by the railings, then bolted back inside to pull the iron lockbox he kept for emergencies out from under the bed. He fumbled the key twice before he got it open. Within was some gear he had scavenged, looted, or built himself for whenever something nasty came too close to his cabin. He grabbed a bandolier loaded with a half-dozen glass vials filled with blue liquid and strapped it across his chest; he belted on a pair of small bucklers, their iron faces curved slightly into quarter domes around his forearms; he even pulled out his small belt-quiver of extra crossbow bolts, though he doubted he would have time to reload the thing in a pinch.


Finally, Brink grabbed from off its place on the shelf his pick-hammer, the whole tool a single piece of forged iron with comfortable leather wrapped around the base to make a handle. It was a versatile thing, especially to a scavenger; if the rubble in a ruin shifted and caved him in, he could use its pick end to help tunnel his way back out.

And, if something decided it wanted him for breakfast, he could use the hammer end to convince it otherwise.

Arming himself this way was a practiced motion that took him only a few minutes, but by the time he got back outside, the figured were close enough to make out. Likho, a whole coven of five. The bird-like creatures were just over half his size and looked like old crones when hidden under the rags they liked to wear, but they were nasty enough to live beyond the Plagueline, a feat generally reserved for things starring in stories to scare children. 


A dull chill of fear spidered its way through him. He had prepared the tools he needed to defend himself, but he was still no warrior. The bottles he used for target practice didn’t move or dodge or leap about, and they certainly didn’t have long, taloned claws. He had seen likho before as he was scavenging in Strateny, but Anthony Brink could hide with the best of them, and that was the tactic he generally employed against the crone-beasts.

Now, in the open plains that surrounded his house along the border of the Plagueline, hiding wasn’t an option. He could try to run, perhaps, but the avian creatures were deceptively fast, and if he was exhausted from running when they caught him, he would stand no chance at all. All he could do was pace back and forth and sweat. He checked his crossbow for the third time and looked up again to find the likho now only a hundred yards away. They had covered the distance from the blurred horizon to the foreground of Brink’s view in less than ten minutes, and the dust was billowing behind them as they ran furiously on. If running was once an option, it wasn’t anymore. 


Brink tried to steady his breathing. His hands were shaking now as the blunt realization that he could die in the next couple minutes seeped into him. He shook his head; he couldn’t banish his fear entirely, but he could push it away, hide it in a dark corner and pretend it wasn’t there. He knelt on the side of his porch, bracing the crossbow on its banister. He could see them clearly, now, make out their ravenous forms. There were five of them, and they weren’t trying to masquerade as human – their heads were unhooded and they were clothed only in tattered rags that draped off their angular forms like the wings of angels long since fallen.


Now at fifty yards, the crone-beasts were in range of Brink’s crossbow. He inhaled, lined up his sights on the lead likho, and exhaled as he fired. It was a difficult shot, but Brink had always been good at hitting moving targets – there was something about their pace, their stride; there was always a rhythm to it, and once he caught on, it was a simple matter of firing at their next beat. The heavy, bone-tipped bolt slammed into the creature’s chest, and its forward momentum sent it into a violent tumble that ended only when it crashed into a jutting rock. It twitched once, twice, and then lay still. But if the death of one of their companions discouraged the remaining four crone-beasts, they didn’t show it.


Quickly, Brink took aim again and fired the second bolt. He rushed the action, and the bolt merely grazed the next likho across the side of its chest. The creature’s body jerked in response, but Brink’s second shot had done little more than slow the likho by a few steps. He cursed and dropped the weapon, drawing his pick-hammer in his right hand and the uppermost glass vial from his bandolier in his left.


“Damn it!” he cried at them, taking a quick step back from his banister, “What do you want from me?”


Their answer came in the form of a wild howl, a horrifying mix of an old woman’s raspy cackle and the clarion call of some beady-eyed bird of prey. The first likho to reach Brink’s porch barely slowed its murderous pace before leaping onto the banister, clinging to it like some twisted parrot swinging on its cage’s perch. Instinctively Brink ducked low, beginning the movement even before the crone-beast swung its three-taloned claw high at his face. He felt the rush of air as the claw barely missed its mark and responded with a wide-arced swing of his pick-hammer. The likho jumped a few inches off the wooden railing, just enough for the hammer to pass harmlessly beneath it, and landed lithely back onto the banister. It brought its claw down on Brink as it did, this time slashing across his right shoulder. He growled at the pain, but the cold spider of fear began to creep back out of the dark, hidden corner of his mind. Likho are a lot faster than he had realized. He might be able to fight off one or two, but four?


An idea appeared in his mind, a bright lance of light that sent the fear scurrying back to its hiding hole. He slashed his hammer again, this time not at the beast but at its perch, smashing the banister’s supports away. The likho rocked back but kept its balance, lunging once more at Brink with its claws. But the scavenger dropped to the ground, kicking out with both feet as he landed. They connected solidly with the railing, and with a sharp crack the wood splintered and fell to the hard dirt below. The crone-beast let loose a quick shriek as it hit the ground, the wind knocked out of it. Brink scrambled to the edge of the porch and tossed the glass vial hard onto the prone likho. It shattered, spilling out an oily blue-green concoction that spread rapidly over the helpless creature, igniting into an eerie blue flame as it made contact with the air. The crone-beast gasped, trying to catch its breath to shriek in pain but could not. It rolled on the ground to extinguish the biting blue flames and found them too persistent, too wild and powerful, to be defeated by such a tactic. Brink didn’t have time to watch to be sure, but he was confident that one was out of the fight.


In those seconds he had been fighting with the first likho, the next two had made their way to the back of his porch and were moving in to flank him. He got to his feet just as they set upon him, clawing this way and that, their impossibly quick talons slashing viciously at his legs and chest. Thankfully, without the added height of the banister, the shorter creatures weren’t able to easily reach Brink’s head and neck, and the scavenger’s heavy coat took the brunt of the assault. Still, he needed a plan, one that hopefully wouldn’t burn down his house in its implementation. He held his arms up, the bucklers on his forearms facing out to guard against the crone-beasts’ attacks, scrambling for some way to go on the offensive. He let one of the claws slip by his shields and it slashed painfully across his chest, his coat doing little to soften the blow. With a cry he lunged forward, the likho’s overextended claw unable to stop him, and slammed his pick-hammer down in a vertical chop onto the creature’s angular head, putting all his weight and strength and anger behind the blow. The crone-beast’s skull caved in beneath his rage and it crumpled unceremoniously to the ground.


Brink yelled as fierce a battle cry as he could muster as he turned to face the remaining likho. But he was reminded suddenly of the fifth creature, the one that had fallen behind when his crossbow bolt grazed it on its approach, when an sudden weight bore down on his shoulders and a stabbing pain raked his back, nearly toppling him to the ground. The crone-beast had leapt onto his back and was clawing at him furiously. The creature couldn’t get much force behind the attacks and hold its grip at the same time, but Brink could still feel the warm blood beginning to seep out of a dozen claw marks. He knew that if the creature on his back brought him to the ground, the one in front of him would simply tear out his throat as he lay there. He turned and rammed his back into the wall of his house, trying to dislodge the grasping likho. 


Or rather, he thought he was ramming his back into the wall; in the confusion of the melee he’d lost track of where he was standing, and instead of a solid wooden wall he’d slammed into a window, the force of the impact shattering its glass and sending the two combatants tumbling inside.

Hitting the ground hurt, even more so because Brink wasn’t expecting it. His feet had snagged in the window on his way down and his fall was an awkward, contorting thing. But he also knew that if the fall had hurt him, it certainly hurt the likho he had fallen on even more. He felt the creature’s grip loosen on him and he tore himself away. His pick-hammer wasn’t in sight and he cursed as he realized it had probably fallen from his grasp outside on the porch. Improvising, Brink scrambled over to the nearest wall and, with a heave, shoved his shelf down onto the still-prone likho. It and all the trinkets and books it had on it landed with a crash that shook the house, and Brink was quick to finish the stunned crone-beast with a stomp from his boot.


As he struggled to regain his balance, Brink saw the last remaining likho enter his house. But instead of rushing the tired and wounded scavenger, the monster ran for the corner of the room. There it began to tear through the boxes and bags where Brink had stored his loot from Strateny, haphazardly tossing back discarded goblets and jewelry onto the floor behind it. At last the creature paused, its body going rigid, and then reverently held up a decorative egg, roughly the same size as a chicken’s, made of bronze and studded with modest gems. Its eye widened and it made a soft humming sound as it slowly, meticulously turned the egg over again and again in its talons. It didn’t even notice Brink edging up behind it, pick-hammer raised, until the spike of the pick had been driven through the top of its skull. It hung there, a macabre marionette, until the scavenger shoved the lifeless beast off with his boot.


With the five likho dead and the immediate threat to his life ended, all of the adrenaline and fear that had bottled up within him escaped in a single rush. He collapsed to the ground where he stood, panting, shaking, suddenly wanting nothing more than to be very far away from the blood-soaked pick-hammer that lay on the floor beside him.

After a moment, he looked over to the bronze egg the likho had picked out of his loot, which had rolled just a few feet from where the creature had fallen. He picked it up and turned it over a few times in his hands. It was cold to the touch and heavier than it looked.

He had never seen likhos hunt for treasure that didn’t include meat before, and if there was anything special about this egg, it wasn’t about to let on about it.


Brink sat there on the ground for a long while before picking himself up. He set the egg gently into one of the lockboxes he used for valuable or breakable goods and locked it, then stripped his coat off, wincing, and moved over to his wash bin. His body felt like it was on fire, covered as it was in scrapes and bruises. He would have to clean his wounds, and dress them. He knew he was going to feel all those injuries keenly on the two-day trip to Cesta, but being behind walls far from the Plagueline would make it all worth it.

 

Chapter 2

Unfortunately, scavengers, as a general rule, don’t have a lot of friends. Their work simply isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Brink compensated for this by attaching himself to places, rather than people; he couldn’t say who lived in a particular district in the walled city of Cesta, but he could tell you the stone the buildings there were built from or the places to go when you wanted to be alone. He walked the city’s streets, leading his mule, Hartlocke, who carried all of his various reclaimed goods he intended to sell in the city. It wasn’t that he didn’t know where to go to get the best prices for each of his trinkets – no, he knew that easily enough – he simply enjoyed the roaming, spending time with the city and its many things. Maybe that was why he became a scavenger. Bring lost things back to the world.

Or, it occurred to him – and not for the first time – that it was simply in the best interest of an escaped indentured miner to keep a low profile. Brink shrugged the thought away.

He was shaken from his reverie when he noticed a hooded figure out of the corner of his eye. It was the third time that figure had come into his view - too many to be a coincidence in the crowded market. Normally, Brink wasn’t concerned about thieves. His goods were too unique to be safely fenced, and even if they weren’t, who steals an old, chipped ceramic mug? Or a rusted sword with a half-legible name engraved on the hilt, or…

A bronze egg. Maybe that was why Brink was on edge. He put a hand on his pickaxe.

He nearly drew his weapon and swung it when someone bumped into him from behind, but it was just a kid, a street urchin of twelve or so. “Sorry, mister,” she said simply, walking on. Brink didn’t respond, instead turning back to keep an eye on the figure. His hunch, it seemed, turned out to be right. The figure was gone, as was a small saddlebag of baubles. The urchin girl hadn’t taken them – he’d been watching – but she had been an effective decoy for the one who had.

“Damn it!” he cursed, looking around frantically.  Then he spotted, by chance more than careful observation, a glimpse of his saddlebag bobbing through the crowd on someone’s back. He took off after it, though he had to shove through the crowd to reach it. The thief turned around at the commotion and took off in a sprint. Brink cursed and tossed a silver piece to the large man selling potatoes at a nearby stand. “Two more for you if you watch my mule!” he called to him and, without waiting for a response, ran after the thief.

The thief, whoever he was, was fast, and pretty good at navigating crowded streets, but Brink knew the streets themselves. He saw his target round a corner, and he cut down an alley he knew would gain him a few seconds. The thief nimbly leapt through a merchant stall, dodging some of the crowd, but Brink knew a side street that would avoid the crowd entirely. And when he saw the robber climb the scaffolding on the side of the Hall of Commerce, its southwest wall still under repairs after the earthquake several months ago, Brink looped around and climbed the ladder leading up to the roof of the small bank adjacent to the Hall.

The thief landed in a roll on the roof of an adjacent building – an impressive jump from that height – as soon as Brink crested the lip of his ladder and got to his feet. He had his pickaxe out and ready, breathing hard. The thief wasn’t twenty feet away.

“Stop,” he said, exhaustion clear in his voice, “Just… stop. Give me back… my bag… and you won’t… get hurt.” He took a long breath. The thief, hood still pulled up, looked left and right, exploring his options.

“Why… the hell… would you rob me… of all people?” Brink rasped, “All those… fat, rich merchants… and you rob the guy… with the mule? What kind of… thief… are you?”

The thief stopped looking around, clearly deciding his only options were confronting Brink or jumping off the building. “You looked like an easy mark,” she said – a she, Brink noted – “Guess I was wrong.”

“You’re damn right… you were wrong!” Brink huffed. “Do you even know what you stole?”

She looked at the bag. “Looked like fancy cutlery and dishware. Easy stuff to fence.”

“Right. Take a look at your cutlery there.”

The thief opened the saddlebag. Then she frowned. “What is this crap?”

“I’m a scavenger,” he shot back, his breath coming in a bit less laboriously now. “They’re antiques.”

She sighed. “Worthless is what they are. Sorry to rob a fellow thief, but thanks for the chase,” she said, and, setting the bag down gently, she jumped off the roof.

Brink scrambled over to the edge where she had jumped off just in time to see her disappear into the crowd below. “I’m not a thief!” he called down to her, feeling oddly defensive. “You’re the thief!”

He doubted she heard him.

-----

Brink returned to the merchant and collected Hartlocke, fixing the saddlebag back into place – a little more snugly, this time.

“Kept your mule nice and safe for ye,” the barrel-chested man rumbled from behind a moustache large enough to be considered a game animal. Brink dug into his coin purse and pulled out the merchant’s reward. “Thank ye kindly,” he replied, dropping the coins into a lockbox behind the stall. “So what was all that about, if’n ye don’t mind my askin’?”

“Thief grabbed one of my bags.” He sighed, shaking his head. He still wasn’t sure what he was more upset about - getting robbed or being called a thief. “But I caught up to her and got it back.”

“Oh ho! A young man with no need for guards to protect what is his!” His moustache leapt and danced about his face. “You must be quite the capable warrior.”

Brink felt his cheeks flush despite himself. “I didn’t fight her. She gave my bag back when I caught up to her.”

The potato man laughed again, or rather, continued doing so. “A rather obliging thief then, hmm?” An idea seemed to spring upon the man – indicated by a twitch of his moustache – and he extended his hand to Brink. “The name’s Livingston.”

He turned to regard the potato man – Livingston – in detail for the first time. He was a boulder of a man with an appropriately bald head, maybe in his mid-thirties, with a square face adorned with a moustache large enough for three men, tree-trunk arms, and a stomach made of what his father would have called hard fat. He shook the man’s hand, his own quickly becoming lost in the grip.

“Brink.”

“Well, Brink, m’boy, I’d like to thank you for my entertainment for the evening. How’d you feel about grabbin’ a drink later? First one’s my treat.”

Brink finished tying the rigging on his saddlebag without answering.

Livingston didn’t seem to take that for the answer it was intended to be. “Tonight, then. I’ve a fine, rowdy place called the Grog ‘n’ Grot with the cheapest ale in town. Remember, lad, first pint’s on me!” He had to yell this last bit as Brink was riding away.

He wasn’t very good at making friends.

 

Chapter 3

“I’ve shaken it, tossed it about, twisted it, pulled on it, and done about everything but smash the thing open with my pickaxe,” Brink said, holding the bronze egg aloft by the tips of his fingers, “but there’s just nothing more to it. It’s heavy enough to be solid bronze all the way through, and it sure as hell seems like that’s exactly what it is. So why’d the little crone beasts want it so badly?”

The old man took the egg gingerly in his hand and studied it from the other end of an oversized magnifying glass that made his eye look comically large. Gregor Mudry was the proud proprietor of Mudry’s Curios, a shop specialized in selling odd things to odd people. When the silversmith, gem cutter, or local jeweler wasn’t interested in something Brink found in Strateny, the scavenger would bring it to Mudry. Mudry was also the only merchant Brink had shown the egg to. He didn’t know if he’d consider him a friend, but Brink trusted the wizened old man. Maybe that was close enough. There was a chance other merchants and dealers could know more than Mudry, but he wasn’t eager to show the egg off too much around the city for fear of attracting unwanted attention. From whom, or even if there was someone whose attention it would attract within the city, he still didn’t know.

He was always amazed by the shop that was almost as unique as its owner: the old wooden building had to be at least a hundred years old – a feat in itself, given the number of major fires in the last century – and it sat defiantly in the center of Cesta’s market district, flanked by the finest clothier in the city on one side and the only potter who specialized in porcelain for a hundred miles on the other. The other buildings on its block were no less ostentatious, and their owners had unsuccessfully petitioned many times to have the curio shop torn down and replaced by something nicer on the eyes. Brink had to admit that it was an ugly building. The unpainted wooden structure sat stoically on its square base, each wall no more than thirty feet across. Above its squat door sat the faded red letters that spelled out the name of the shop, four of which hung upside-down on their fixtures. Its six stories weighed heavily on its archaic foundation, causing the entire building from the third floor up to lean precariously southward. Locals had been predicting its inevitable, any-day-now collapse for the last two decades.

But it was the Curio’s interior that made it the glorious oddity that it was. A single spiral staircase ran the height of the building with a break in its rickety railing at each floor. The floors themselves were single rooms, full of shelves and cabinets and display cases, all stocked full of things. These things could be – and often were – anything, arranged in no particular order: great tomes of ancient wisdom sat neatly beside jars of viscous green goop that held unlabeled parts of creatures unknown; a chain made of some luminescent orange metal was draped over a shelf that held the nearly-completed skeleton of what appeared to be a human-tiger hybrid; a painting of a regal man in a black and grey suit with no face sat against the wall beside a torso-sized turnip that somehow never rotted. This strange menagerie of uncategorized miscellany persisted the entire way up the building, filling each of its six floors nearly to the ceiling, with carefully crafted rows of small walking space arranged between its many shelves.

The top two floors had thick hemp ropes tied to the staircase, allowing visitors to explore the parts of the floor that leaned at steep angles and return again.

Standing behind his wood-and-brass counter, Mudry scrutinized the little bronze egg. He finalized his examination with a scratch of his wispy beard and a hand through his one remaining tuft of white hair.

“I don’t know what it is or why your little birds wanted it,” he said, shortly, “but I’ll pay you four crowns for it.”

“I’m not selling it, Mister Mudry; I want to figure out why a coven of likho chased me out of the Plagueline and tried to kill me for it.”

The old purveyor thought a moment before responding. “Strateny was a city known for its artists and craftsmen. A traveler passing through would never fail to be amazed at its whimsical wonders that lined its streets and filled its people’s windows. Where the nobles of other cities commissioned their artists to paint pictures of them standing in front of their castles, the nobles of Strateny commissioned things like… this.” He paused, gesturing to the egg with a gnarled finger. “When the war came and the Plague was released, the city’s strange and wonderful art was sadly lost to us. Likely, this is one of many such pieces of art that we will likely never understand the context behind. In short, it is the perfect addition to my shop. I will pay you five crowns for it.”

Brink shook his head. “I think I’ll hang onto it, all the same. Just a feeling. And if it turns out to be nothing more than some kind of lure for likho, I’ll do the world a favor and toss it off the nearest cliff.”

He thanked the old man by buying a little wooden flute and walked out onto the crowded street. He wasn’t sure how the curio shop stayed in business, given how few customers he ever saw brave entering the rickety establishment, so he always bought some small thing before he left.

The market district of Cesta was alive with activity, its wealthy shoppers traveling to and fro on seemingly important business; Brink liked to imagine that half of them were just acting busy to blend in. Likely, most had never done the hard work of a hard life. He walked casually down the street, flute in hand. Brink had saved the trip to the curio shop for last; he had already sold his bits and baubles and spent most of the profit on filling his cart with the goods he needed to last the month before his next return to town. The remaining silver jingled in his coin purse, and without anything more useful to spend it on, Brink decided to take them to the nearest tavern. A good drink always did wonders to ease his nerves, and those had been more tense than usual lately. It was getting close to dusk, and the streets would be clearing soon; he might as well take a walk until they did. He loved the city. He loved the alleyways, the awkward angles its roads sometimes took, the not-quite-matching architecture of its buildings, and especially its sounds – sometimes, he could hear a sort of music in them, the din of conversation and the hammering of workers and the wind singing between the houses and merchant stalls, almost as clearly as if he were listening to his music box.

It was nearly dark when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, a light that fluttered like the wings of an insect. Probably a firefly, he thought, but he went to investigate just the same. Scavenger’s instincts, or maybe miner’s. Both are rewarded by pursuing shiny things.

Brink rounded a corner – he’d gone a ways from the wealthy merchant district – and the light was gone. A firefly, then, or some trick of the light, but he found himself in front of a tavern all the same. He shrugged; one tavern was as good as another. He peered up at the poorly-painted lettering above the door – the Grog ‘n’ Grot. The name sounded familiar, though it took him a moment to place it… Livingston. This was the place the potato man had said he would be tonight, to buy him a drink. He thought about it, then went inside. A free drink was a free drink, after all. Likely, the man had forgotten and wouldn’t be there, or else he’d put the merchant off enough for him to avoid the place entirely.

The tavern the potato man chose was a crowded, smoke-filled dive full of rowdy folk and cheap ale. Brink squeezed in, nimbly dodging the busy barmaids and the drunk patrons, trying his best not to spill anyone’s drinks. He was in no mood for a brawl. The scavenger had barely made it halfway across the tavern when a voice that could have belonged to a giant bellowed out.

“Brink! Over here, m’boy!” Livingston seemed to just make a clear path through the tavern with his bearlike presence alone. “Come on, lad, ye’ll not get anywhere in here if ye’re not willin’ to bump a few shoulders to get there!” Brink shrugged, following in the wake of the potato man. A free drink, he reminded himself, was a free drink.

They lucked out with a pair of open stools near the edge of the bar and took a seat. Livingston chatted, and Brink mostly just listened. The potato man seemed nice enough. He spoke as if Brink were an old friend, though, and the scavenger had a hard time keeping up. Most of the conversations he had these days involved prices, not small talk. A trio of musicians played from a nearby corner of the room, their raucous and lewd songs drowned almost entirely out by the living noise of the crowd.

“So Brink, lad,” Livingston said, once he was clearly starting to feel his drinks, “what’s your business, hm? If’n ye don’t mind my askin’, ‘course. Ye seem like a young man to be a travelin’ merchant all on yer own.”

Brink shrugged. “I’m a scavenger. I find things, and then I bring them here and sell them. And then I go find more things.”

“Aye?” Livingston replied, as if what Brink was saying were actually interesting. “And where do ye find this stuff?” He laughed at his own question, a thing he seemed to do often. “And don’t ye be worryin’, lad, I’m not out to steal yer turf!”

“Strateny.”

The potato man’s face lost its smile, and his walrus-like moustache quivered. “Strateny? The Plagued City? Ye’re goin’ past the Plagueline, boy? Are ye mad? What if ye bring the Plague here with ye?”

“You just have to do it right,” Brink answered. “A heavy coat and gloves keeps the dust off, and I designed a mask so I don’t breathe in the Plague. As long as I’m not over the Line for more than a few hours or so, there’s no problem.”

“That right? Been doin’ it a while now, I reckon, so it must be. Ain’t it dangerous work, though?”

“Well sure,” Brink said. His words were coming easier now – maybe from his own drinks, maybe since it was a subject he could talk about – and he continued. “You have to be quiet. There are likhos,” Livingston nodded, and Brink didn’t stop to explain about the crone beasts, “and the draug. The crones are less dangerous but easier to startle. The draug don’t pay you much mind unless they can smell you – but if they start after you, they’ll come in numbers.

“The biggest danger is collapse. The buildings there are in ruins, and one wrong step will send your foot through a floor and stick you there – or else drop a roof on your head. And the likhos and the draug, and sometimes worse, will come investigate any loud noises like that. But if you’re careful, and you’re quiet, there’s decent money to be made in it. The folks of Strateny never had the chance to pack their things before the Plague was released on them, and the Plague doesn’t follow you back out of the Plagueline. Plenty of goods – silverware, art, that sort of thing – to be found there, and plenty of people to buy it from me here. And it’s tough, but not as tough as mining.”

“Ha! Look at ya, all skin and bones, what’d you know of-“ Livingston began.

“So how did you get into potato farming?” Brink cut him off quickly, hoping to steer the conversation away from himself.

The potato man’s face above his moustache was already beginning to redden from his own drinks, and he laughed easily – as Brink was discovering he did at most things – at the question. “Farming’s hard work, m’boy! ‘s why I get m’wife to do it! Ha!”

Brink just stared, and Livingston continued, unfazed. “Used to be in the army, in m’youth,” he said as his laughter died down, “durin’ the war with Aszlo. Always been a big fella, y’see. Figured survivin’ that was a good sign to quit while I was ahead, and m’wife’s father, rest his soul, had just passed on, leavin’ his potato farm to us. So we started farmin’, and never looked back.” He ended with a nod.

Brink found himself nodding. He understood what it was like to fall into a profession. “What about yourself, m’boy?” Livingston continued, “Ye mentioned somethin’ about mining. How’d you get into the scavengin’ business?”

The younger man scratched his head. He felt confident the big man wouldn’t run off to inform the Zelezo Mine foremen that he’d found a runaway, but Brink had been cautious for a long time. And Livingston had been quite persistent in meeting him. “I used to be a miner,” he started, slowly, “but it wasn’t really my line of work.”

Livingston laughed. “Aye, lookin’ at you, I’d be afraid they’d mistake you for one of the picks!”

Brink gave a forced smile, “Something like that. So I quit, but I didn’t have much money saved up. I traveled for a while. Then I heard a story about Strateny – an abandoned city filled with riches, just waiting to be found.” The potato man guffawed. “That was only about half true, obviously, but after I nearly got myself killed going there the first time, I adapted. Made new tools, new strategies, and I got better at it. Eventually I found I could make a living doing it, and so that’s what I do.”

Livingston nodded and looked like he was about to respond before he put a hand to his head, grimacing.

“Hey, you – uh, are you alright?” Brink asked.

“Aye, aye, I’m fine, m’boy, just – urk! – just need some air.” His face had turned pale, and he rushed out of the bar, knocking over a few drinks and eliciting more than a few complaints in the process. Brink started to ponder the big man’s weak stomach when he felt a sudden burn against his thigh from his longcoat’s pocket. He bolted upright to get it away from his body, the burn immediately stopping as the coat fell away from his leg.

He reached down and felt the bronze egg from the outside of his coat. It was scalding, and getting hotter. He took off his coat and bundled it up on his lap, curiosity outweighing any fear he might have of the surprising little egg. He raised the lip of the pocket, cocking his head to the side to get a better view of the egg, though it didn’t look any different than it had before.

When he looked up a woman was sitting next to him. She was perhaps thirty and wore a long grey coat, its double-breasted buttons clasped up nearly to her chin. Her auburn hair fell in curls over her a long face that was angular but not unattractive. And there was something about her confident smirk that put him on his guard. It reminded him of a bandit he’d met on the road to Cesta a year ago; he had seemed an innocent enough traveler, but he’d had a that same smirk. The encounter had ended with Brink getting a broken nose and losing half his cargo.

“It’s rude to stare, stranger,” the woman said, giving Brink a sidelong glance. He mumbled an apology. He’d used up his social energy for the day – the month, more likely – and was ready to be done with this place. Heat ran up his face and his cheeks burned. He looked away, fumbling for his coin purse to pay his tab. She persisted. “I didn’t mean to send you packing, but the least you could do is introduce yourself.”

Why was everyone so interested in talking to him today? “Anthony Brink,” he started, slowly. “But most people just call me Brink.”

“I’ll call you Anthony, then, because I’m not most people.”

“Sure.” Brink felt the heat in his face growing more intense.

“Well, aren’t you going to ask my name?”

“I figured if you wanted to tell me, you’d have already done it.”

She laughed, lightly. “It’s Brielle. Nice to meet you.”

Brink didn’t respond, finding his coins after an eternity of fiddling with the drawstrings. He placed them on the bar.

She extended her hand to Brink before he could leave. He considered it a moment before shaking it, cautiously. Her hand was gloved in the same material of her coat. It was a strong handshake and he felt his hand tingle at the touch, even through the glove. Strange, he thought, though it could have been the drink. She smiled and held the shake for a heartbeat longer than was comfortable. When she released her grip and turned back to the bar, Brink’s hand felt a tiny pull from the woman’s, as if she had hooked it with imperceptible threads.

“So, Anthony,” Brielle said, wiping her mouth after draining her first drink, “Let’s talk about that egg.”

 

Chapter 4

All hints of the drunkenness drained from Brink’s mind. Hadn’t the likhos also just known about the egg, somehow?

“What egg?” Brink retorted too quickly. He knew it sounded lame as soon as the words escaped his mouth.

Brielle smiled condescendingly as she cocked an eyebrow. “The one in your pocket,” she said, her smirk growing. She held up her hands as Brink subconsciously pulled his coat closer. “Look, I’m not going to steal it. I just don’t think you know what you possess, and that’s a dangerous ignorance to have.”

“Alright, alright,” Brink said, waving her off in frustration, though in truth his curiosity was almost bubbling over. “Take a look.”

Her grin widened.

Brink unfolded the coat to reveal the pocket where he had hidden the bronze egg. He gestured to it, not willing to burn himself again. Brielle didn’t hesitate to do just that, but if the egg burned her at all, she didn’t show it. She held it reverently up at eye level.

“It started to burn, didn’t it?” she stated more than asked, her voice a hushed whisper. Brink had to lean in closer, catching Brielle’s sudden solemness. The noise and clamor of the bar seemed to fade away and he found himself simply nodding in reply.

She began to hum a low tune, as soft and melodic as a lullaby. Brink stared intently at the egg as she did. He was sure the air around it was beginning to distort, like haze on a hot summer day; he closed his eyes and tried to clear his vision, blaming the distortion on a hair in his eye or one too many drinks in his body, but when he opened them again the haze had only grown. It now encompassed Brielle’s entire hand and was slowly spreading outwards. Still she hummed, her eyes half opened lazily, and she began to sway to the beat of her little song. No one else in the bar seemed to notice.

“What are you doing? What’s happening to it?” Brink hissed, pulling back in alarm as he began to realize he was facing something he truly did not understand.

Brielle opened her eyes in response and stopped her humming. The haze dissipated almost immediately. “I thought so,” was all she said, and hopped off her stool, heading for the door.

“W-wait!” Brink stammered, grabbing his coat and following her swift pace out of the bar. She didn’t stop until she reached the middle of the street outside, the ebb and flow of the crowd parting around the island of her now still form. She turned on her heels to look at Brink, her face marked by that sly grin she’d had earlier.

“Here,” she said, tossing Brink the egg. He caught it, then recoiled, thinking he’d be burned, but found the thing cool enough. “We can talk later. Your friend’s coming back. Until next time, Anthony.”

Brink extended a hand to bid her to wait again, but she was already gone, disappearing into the night crowd. His hand was still outstretched when the potato man returned, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and looking much healthier.

“Sorry about that, m’boy,” he said, wrapping an arm around Brink’s shoulders. Brink held his hand out a moment more, but the woman, Brielle, was gone, and he let it fall. “Come along, then. Say, where’re you stayin’? The ol’ wife and I are put up in some inn called the ‘Sea Fairy’ while we’re in town to sell our potatoes. Nice enough place, sure – far as cities go, that is, m’boy, but I’ll take the open air of my farm any day - but who the blazes names a tavern after the sea in a city that’s nowhere near one?”

Livingston chattered on drunkenly. Brink left him to it, lost in his own thoughts.

-----

Brink decided not to tell the potato man about the mysterious Brielle, though he wound up helping him to his room at the inappropriately-named inn down the street simply because the big man wouldn’t stop leaning on his shoulder – he was still feeling sick, though he swore that he normally had a much higher limit than a few ales – and Brink found he would have felt a little guilty leaving him throwing up in an alley somewhere. He dropped Livingston off on the doorstep to the Sea Fairy before heading to his own inn closer to the market district. Brink usually spent just a night or two in Cesta to collect supplies and walk its streets before returning to his cabin on the edge of the Plagueline, and he made it a point to stay in a different inn each time. Give them each a chance, he thought. At least, he used to, until he had stayed in all of them once. Then he set up a rotation.

This month’s inn was the Pickerel, named, Brink had learned, after a fish the owner had eaten one time and greatly enjoyed. It was a nice place, a middle-of-the-road establishment that Brink could afford for the next three nights or so on the money he had left after buying his supplies. He had not originally planned to stay that long, but that plan had been formed before the woman in the bar had suddenly appeared and made the mysterious bronze egg that much more mysterious.

He had to find out what it was. It couldn’t just be an ornament. What was that haze he saw around it? And why had Brielle hummed to it, just as the likhos who attacked him had? Brink wondered how he’d find her again and how she’d found him in the first place. Had she been following him?

Brink left his belongings in his room and Hartlocke in the inn’s stables before heading back into the city. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but just clearing his head and wandering about had always helped him come up with solutions in the past. It was the middle of the night in the most literal sense, that quiet limbo of dark where the sun had set hours before and was not even considering rising for hours more yet, and the streets were filled with silence. Brink walked.

Something shiny caught his eye. It was hidden under a scrap of trash under an unlit lamppost, and Brink never would have seen it had the darkness not given it away – but it glowed like the small flame of a candle. It was the second time he’d seen such a light tonight, and it had been an odd enough day that now he wondered seriously about its significance. Carefully, he knelt down and lifted the refuse away. Beneath were wings. Brink’s eyes grew wide as he beheld what looked to be a moth – it wasn’t colorful enough to be a butterfly – about the size of his outstretched hand that seemed to emit a soft, white light. The wings began to flutter.

“What the…?”

Suddenly it took off, fluttering briefly in front of Brink’s face before darting off, leaving a trail of light like some fast-moving firefly. Brink tried instinctively to catch it, missed, then called after it as it flew by. He scrambled to follow it, driven in his mind by curiosity, but also something more, some voice in the back of his mind telling him that this was one of those rare things in life worth chasing. His feet could barely find a hold on the ground beneath him, but he darted after the creature, pushing off the ground with his hands to right himself before running down the street to keep up.

Brink chased it through alleys, through merchant stalls left empty for the night, through streets and, once, through someone’s garden. He no longer attempted to catch it, instead just trying to keep up. If only he could follow it to its destination, he thought, he could… The thought trailed off, deemed unimportant by the chase. Something in his mind told him this was crazy, chasing a glowing bug through the night streets like this, but weren’t likhos humming to a bronze egg crazy? Wasn’t the woman in the bar doing the same thing also crazy? Maybe crazy was what he needed to get answers. He pressed on, rounding a corner in time to see the glowing moth fly up the side of a building. His eyes drifted upwards, following the edge of the building – more of a tower, really, he thought, and certainly not a very stable one, leaning as it was…

Mudry’s Curios. Brink didn’t even need to see the dilapidated sign to know what it was. Of all the buildings the thing could have gone up, he thought, it had to pick the one he might actually knock over by climbing it. Shrugging, he began his ascent.

Handhold to handhold he climbed, a grip on a windowsill here and a foothold on an outstretched plank there. Once, he was sure he heard the structure groan, the earthy protest of a very old and very weary building, but he kept climbing. It actually got easier the higher he climbed, the angle leveling out with the lean of the building. This, he reminded himself, was not necessarily a good thing, given that the fact that the tower was leaning at all was an unsettling indication of its dubious structural integrity. Still, he climbed farther, unwilling or unable to give up on the glowing bug.

At last he reached the top, taking a moment to catch his breath before standing up. The tower’s peak leaned so far toward the ground that it provided him with nearly level footing, and he stood atop it like a victorious mountain climber on his most recent conquest. But it was when he looked out over the city that he truly appreciated his accomplishment. The glowing bug fluttered up, this time seemingly to catch up to him, and hovered around him for a long moment before flying off into the night sky. His gaze followed it until it was little more than a speck on the city’s skyline, the desire to chase it replaced by the inexplicable but unmistakable feeling that he had reached where it wanted him to be, and then he marveled at the view of the city itself. Mudry’s tower was not that tall, sure, but it rested atop a hill in one of the highest districts in Cesta. The moon shone brightly tonight, and he could see everything as if it were an intricately detailed model, whitewashed by the moonlight, built solely for him.

A nearly-horizontal window opened up in the tower beneath him. Brink didn’t quite understand how the glass held up with the leaning of the tower, he realized suddenly, but didn’t pay the thought much mind – and a wrinkled head with thin, wispy white hair poked out. The image of a mole poking its head out of the ground immediately sprang to Brink’s mind, and he nearly laughed aloud, but caught himself before he did. When was the last time he’d felt this… happy? He realized it took a conscious effort to prevent himself from at least grinning and, unable to come up with a good reason not to, he smiled.

“Evening, Mister Mudry,” he said, not looking down.

“Good evening, Mister Brink,” came the reply. Mudry’s head turned to admire the same view Brink was enjoying. “A fine night for a stroll.”

“It certainly is,” Brink breathed, and he meant every word. Mudry was silent for a while, as if to give the moment its due time.

“You seem in fine spirits tonight, and a good sight it is to see. Though my roof is an odd choice for a walk. May I ask why you chose it?”

Brink broke his gaze over the city for the first time and looked down at the old man. He didn’t seem angry, and was still looking out over the city himself. It was a simple question.

“Sorry, Mister Mudry. It’s kind of a long story.” He scratched his head, the excitement of the earlier chase giving way to a feeling of sincere contentment. He decided to chase glowing moths more often, given the choice. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You did no such thing, Mister Brink, and consider yourself welcome to climb my tower any time.” Mudry ran his hand over his thin beard a few times. “But I’ve the time for a long story, if you’d like to come in out of the chill.”

Brink shivered, as if noticing the chill breeze for the first time, and nodded. “Thank you.” He looked about at the tower and climbed back down. “Can I just come in through the window there?”

“Please do,” the old man replied. “I’ll put the tea on.”

 

Chapter 5

“A glowing butterfly?”

“More of a moth, really,” Brink replied, sipping his tea. It was delicious, cinnamon and something else he didn’t recognize, and they sat comfortably in chairs on the much more stable first floor of the tower. He had told Mudry all the odd events of the day, from his near-robbery to the mysterious Brielle and his chase of the glowing bug through the nighttime streets. He’d been doing a lot of talking today, he realized. A lot more than he had in a long time. Mudry set his tea down, seemingly for the sole purpose of rubbing his beard.

“Still. I’ve never heard of one before, and I consider myself something of an expert on the subject of esotery. Are you quite sure you weren’t simply hallucinating? I certainly did not see it when I joined you outside.”

“I wasn’t hallucinating, Mister Mudry. It flew off just before you opened the window. I saw it. I… felt it, when it brushed past me.” Brink shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just that, with all the strange things that’ve been happening lately, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not a coincidence. There’s something going on, and that egg is at the center of it. I just can’t connect the pieces yet.”

Mudry nodded. “There does seem to be an inordinate number of strange events revolving around you – and that egg is getting more than its fair share of attention. I am somewhat glad now that you refused to sell it to me.” He gave Brink a small smile through the wisps of his beard. “Very well. I will look into this glowing bu-” he stopped to correct himself with a conciliatory smile, “-moth, as well as this bronze egg, and inform you of any information I should dig up about them.”

“Thanks, Mister Mudry. I’d appreciate that. But I can’t really afford to pay you for it.”

Mudry waved him off. “It is a mystery, as you said, Mister Brink, and I cannot in good conscience leave a mystery unsolved. That would be most unscholarly. Your patronage of my humble shop is payment enough. Now, if I may, I suggest you go get some rest. It is late enough to be deemed early, and nothing is learned without adequate sleep.”

Brink let his head drop and rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re right,” he agreed, finishing the last sip of his tea. “Thank you for the tea, Mister Mudry.” He turned to leave, then added, “Have a good night.”

“And you have a safe walk to the inn. Try not to chase any more moths. At least not tonight.”

-----

Brink stepped out into the crisp night air, shaking his head. An early morning fog had settled over the city, though it was still dark. And cold. This cold spell, so unusual for summer, was definitely persistent. It wasn’t quite cold enough to see his breath condense before him, but he was sure it was close.

The walk back to the Pickerel was uneventful, and the common room was empty when Brink walked inside, all but for an old gristle of a man working to keep out the riff-raff. Brink wasn’t sure if he was missing an eye or if he just squinted on one side more than the other. He pulled the door shut behind him. Unexpectedly, the old man behind the bar called out to him. 

“You Anthony?” rapsed the mildly irritated voice. Brink supposed it always sounded like that.

“Maybe. Why?”

“’Course you are. You signed the ledger. Letter for you.” He slapped the little folded piece of paper unceremoniously on the bar.

Brink took it without another word to the cranky bartender, unfolding the letter – addressed to Anthony – as he walked. He read its flowing script quietly.

Dear Anthony,

I was quite pleased to have met you, and I do hope you share my sentiments of such a joyous rendezvous. If you would like to continue this relationship, please find me two days from now, at the same time and place of our first meeting. If I do not see you, I will take that as your rejection and, with a heavy heart, will leave the city. I look forward to your decision with captured breath.

Yours,

B

Brink shook his head. Either she became worryingly fond of him at their first meeting, which he doubted, given the first impression he had bumbled through giving, or she was mocking him. He opened the door to his room and headed straight for the bed, kicking his boots off and setting the letter down on the night stand. The snoring of his neighbors, who, Brink surmised, must be at least part troll to make such a noise, easily sliced through his paper-thin walls. It didn’t matter either way. Brink was both too tired to be kept awake by such a racket and too distracted to care about it.

That night, he dreamt of eggs, and moths, and of a woman with an electric touch.

-----

Brink awoke a couple hours later to a knock at his door. Groaning, he rolled off the bed and shuffled his way over to answer, calling through the door with a sound that was supposed to be the words “Who’s there?” but instead came out as a mumbled croak more akin to the creaking of a strained rocking chair. The voice on the other end seemed to get the message regardless.

“It’s Livingston, m’boy,” came the familiar voice, muffled only slightly by the intervening door, “and ye’ve slept long enough, so open up now, quick as ye like.”

Brink groaned again but opened the door, letting the barrel-chested potato man inside. He looked haggard, like he hadn’t slept well. Livingston took one look at Brink before speaking.

“Ye look like ye've slept about two hours, m'boy. Our night wasn't that late, was it?”

Brink shook his head, rubbing his eyes. “No, no, I just went on a long walk last night.” He looked the potato man over. “You don't look much better.”

Livingston let out a half-hearted chuckle. “Aye, well, seems I'm getting a bit old for nights at the tavern.” He looked away, anxiously.

“So,” Brink started, slowly, trying to coax the potato man into getting on with it. When that didn't work, he continued. “What do you want?”

“I, ah, well, y’see…” he fumbled for words, rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t much remember last night. I remember chattin’ merrily at the bar for a time, then a few bits o’ conversation as ye helped carry me back to the inn – thank ye kindly, by the way – but nothin’ after! Was like I drank thrice as much as I remember doin’.” Brink raised an eyebrow. The big man had certainly seemed a lot drunker than someone his size should have been after a few ales.

“I suppose I just wanted to stop by and square up, aye? I’m only missin’ three silver coins, which means three ales, but I must’ve had a lot more’n that, which means you must’ve paid for ‘em. So how much do I owe ye, m’boy?”

“You don’t owe me anything, Livingston,” Brink replied groggily. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a thief.

“Are ye sure? Well, alright then – suppose I’m just gettin’ on in years, aye? And one more thing – did I happen t’ mention anythin’ about m’ wife last night? We were plannin’ on runnin’ the potato stand together this morning, but she wasn’t there when I woke up – and since I don’t much recall last night, I don’t rightly know she was there when I got back, either.”

Brink shook his head. “No, you didn’t say anything about plans with your wife last night. Maybe she just went off to run errands.”

“Aye, you’re probably right, m’boy.” Livingston rubbed the back of his neck again, and Brink could tell he was still worried. “Sorry for botherin’ ye so early after a long night. I’ll be off then.” He did a little half-wave and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Brink called out to him. “Would you, uh… Do you want me to help you look for her?”

Livingston gave him a bemused look at first, then beamed. “I’d appreciate that very much, m’boy. Very much indeed.”

-----

“You worry too much, you old lug,” Livingston’s wife said dismissively, her attention still focused on her shopping.

“Sorry, m’dear,” came her husband’s reply, his voice an even mixture of embarrassment and relief. The missing wife hadn’t been hard to find. Her shopping the day before had taken longer than she had planned – due in large part to an irreparably torn rucksack – and so she went back to the inn, planning on finishing the errands early that morning before opening the potato stall, to make up the time.

“I told you all of this last night, you useless souse, but you likely don’t remember a word of it today, drunk as you were,” his wife continued. Her voice remained dismissive, not at all angry, and was all the scarier for it.

Brink sighed. It had taken no more than an hour or two to find Lily, Livingston’s wife, in the marketplace. They just had to ask around – she was a very distinct woman, regal in stature if not in status, and held an air of matronly authority – and most of the local merchants knew her by name. Her austere bearing would seem more at home as a stern tutor to some young prince than as a potato farmer, Brink thought, but such was the way of things. At last she turned to look at her husband, and in doing so smiled, her annoyance dissipating before the concern still etched on Livingston’s face.

“Oh, stop fretting. I’m right here. You found me.” She kissed his cheek. “Thanks for looking.” The potato man turned red. Brink turned away, pretending a nearby fruit stand had suddenly stolen his full attention, which only helped in turning Lily’s attention to him.

“And thank you too, Mister…?’

“Brink,” he answered shortly. Then he added, “And don’t worry about it.”

“Yes, well, we should finish things up here in town, right dear?” she asked, moving the conversation along with a practiced expedience in such matters. “We need to plant day after tomorrow if we expect to get any kind of decent harvest this season. Have you managed to sell all of our produce already?”

“Not yet. But soon, m’dear, don’t you worry,” Livingston answered cautiously, and as the two began discussing their plans for the day, Brink caught sight of a pickpocket cutting the purse of a woman so old she didn’t so much walk with a cane as replace her leg movements entirely with it. He shook his head but did nothing except feel to ensure his own coin purse was still there. It was, and the old woman’s was now empty. But something about the cutpurse caught Brink’s attention, the lithe figure, the graceful movements, like a breeze blowing through a crowded street; even the simple, brown hooded jacket looked familiar. His mind registered again that inconspicuous hood, though today it was kept up, and it hit him: the thief who nearly stole his saddlebag yesterday. Brink slipped away from the potato couple and made his way through the crowd toward her.

He walked casually, keeping only a peripheral view on his target. She turned and stopped to browse some apples, likely just to blend into the marketplace, and Brink took his opportunity. He walked up behind her and grabbed her wrist with a quiet, “Thief.”

“Hey, what the hell, man? Let go!” she said, though not loudly enough to attract the attention of the guards. The volume of a habitual thief, Brink thought.

“You tried to rob me yesterday,” he stated simply.

She turned a bit more towards him, though her face remained hidden beneath her hood. “Oh yeah, you’re the graverobber, aren’t you? The guy who’s pretty good at climbing.”

“Scavenger,” Brink corrected, annoyed. His grip on her wrist tightened and she winced.

“Ouch, hey, I get it, alright?” She managed to sound annoyed instead of scared. Brink had used that voice before, knew it well. It was the voice of someone who knew better than to sound scared in front of a potential threat. “So what do you want?”

Brink thought about that for a moment. He’d mentioned to Livingston about dragging her off to a dungeon if he ever saw her again, and he considered it. Then he glanced over at the figure hobbling away on her cane.

“That last woman you robbed was a little too easy a mark, don’t you think?”

She looked back at the woman and sighed. “Damn it. Was just thinking the same thing.” She looked down at the coin purse she had just put away. “I get it, I get it. Can you let go of my wrist now?”

He hesitated, then did as she asked. She calmly walked over to the woman and slipped the purse back onto her belt. Brink imagined reattaching a cut purse had to be even harder than cutting it to begin with, but she did so deftly. She was grinning when she returned to him, extending a hand.

“Sybil.”

The scavenger took a moment to process that before shaking her hand. “Brink.” Then he added, “So do you ever end up actually stealing from people, or do you always give their stuff back when they ask for it?”

“Oh come on, that was twice. Twice! And a girl’s gotta have standards, you know.” Brink just raised an eyebrow, and Sybil grinned. “Anyway, gotta go. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

“More purses to cut?” he bit out scornfully.

“And pockets to pick. But no more helpless old ladies, I promise.” Sybil turned to go, then looked back. “And next time, don’t just go for grabbing a girl’s wrist. I could’ve just shouted for the guards, and then what would you do, hm?” She winked and disappeared into the crowd.

Brink turned to head back to the potato couple he had abandoned. They were still where he had left them, and had stopped their conversation in favor of watching him. He wondered how long they had been doing so.

“Brink, m’boy,” Livingston said, turning to face him as if he had never left, “Lily and I are goin’ to get the rest of our errands done, then head back to the farm. We’ll be ‘round for the next day or so, and-”

“And we’d love to have you for dinner before we go,” Lily finished. 

“Ye can even invite that thief friend o’ yours. Seems to me she’s stolen a bit more than that saddle bag, hm?” Livingston ribbed, one eyebrow cocked and the beginnings of a smirk showing on his face.

Lily continued as if her husband had said nothing. “How is tomorrow tonight?”

Brink ignored the potato man’s jab, thinking back to the letter from Brielle. She might have answers for him about the egg. “I’ve already got dinner plans then.” Then he added, “Sorry.”

The two looked at each other.

“Dinner plans, m’boy? With a certain thief, is it?” Livingston’s eyebrows threatened to overtake his hair as he asked his questions.

Brink glowered at him, annoyed. But it surprised him when that annoyance didn’t give way to anger – back in the mines, he couldn’t risk the possibility of showing weakness. But there was a difference, he was learning, between the potato man and the men in the mines.

The couple again shared a glance, and Lily smiled. “What about tonight, then? We’d be happy to host.”

His first reaction was to decline, and he nearly did. But he’d spent nearly his whole stay in the city so far with other people, something he’d never done before, and while it had been both complicated and draining, he found the idea of spending another night by himself somehow… wasteful, after that. Besides, Livingston had been kind to him, even when he hadn’t returned the favor. Slowly, he nodded. “Sure, I guess.”

 

Chapter Six

    Dinner with the potato couple was… nice, if expectedly bland. No potatoes, strangely enough, and Brink thought about giving them a different nickname. But he’d settled on what he had, and even if they didn’t feed him potatoes, Livingston himself had a strange sort of resemblance to a spud himself. Something about how his chest melded seamlessly into his rock-shaped head.
    Brink spent most of the dinner listening to his hosts chatting amiably with each other, responding only when they addressed him directly. Despite his reticence, they never dropped their genial attitude towards him – Lily even took to calling him Anthony - and he left… pleased.
    There was a glowing moth waiting for him when he returned to his room at the inn. It sat comfortably atop his pack, lying in the middle of the room where he’d left it. Brink approached it cautiously, but it made no signs of fleeing. The window was closed, in any event, and as he similarly closed the door as he entered, he knew he had the thing trapped.
    He wasn’t sure what he’d do with the moth when he finally caught it. That didn’t seem particularly important to him, though; far more important was that this thing was meaningful, unique, and, most importantly, centered around him. Or the egg. Either way, to Brink, it was a light in an otherwise dark room.
    The glow moth’s only movement was the occasional flap of its wings, like a bored worker stretching his limbs, and Brink reached it without any difficulty. He knelt down beside it, his movements still slow and reverent, until he’d lined his face up with it directly. It seemed to glow more brightly the closer he got to it. And as his eyes scanned the alien thing, he came to a realization.
    It was utterly featureless.
    He had called it a moth to Mudry because it had only the one color, but now he realized he was mistaken. It was only color, and that color could only be called light, the pale blue of the afternoon sky. It did not simply glow – it was composed entirely of light, and Brink was unsure whether if he tried to touch it his hand would not simply pass through it. He imagined someone hiding in his rafters shining down a moth-shaped light upon his pack. It fluttered slightly, just as an insect at rest would do, unperturbed by predators. 
    Cautiously, he extended his hand to touch it. There was no way he would simply walk away and let it go. Something was ingrained in his blood, his very soul, that mandated he do it. It was the same something that led him to make his living exploring instead of working as a farmhand or a blacksmith’s apprentice. It was just who he was. 
    The moth stopped fluttering just before Brink’s hand reached it. Its light expanded, growing until it was no longer shaped like a moth, shaped like anything, just an overwhelming presence of light. It engulfed his arm, and then his hand, then the room, and it brightened more and more the larger it grew. Brink heard someone yell and, realizing it was him, he collapsed.
-----
When he awoke, the woman from the bar – Brielle? – was standing across from him, tossing the bronze egg casually up and down in her hand. He was on the bed of his room, though he had no memory of moving there, or of Brielle entering. His limbs felt heavy, his body unusually warm, like it was being lit from the inside. He turned to Brielle and mumbled something, but the words felt too heavy to speak. The woman beside him continued tossing the egg, her eyes following it the whole time, and when she spoke, it was with a seriousness that was noticeably absent in their first meeting.
“I bet you’re feeling pretty rough after that. First conscious exposure? Sorry. Was hoping I could’ve been there to walk you through it.”
“First what?” Brink managed to ask, though his mouth felt like he hadn’t had a drink in days.
“First time you…” she paused and stopped tossing the egg, looking pensive. “It will be easier – and more believable – if I show you. Can you walk?”
With a grunt of effort, Brink pushed himself to a sitting position on the bed, then nodded to Brielle. What was she doing here, anyway? What happened after he touched that glowing bug? And what was that bug, for that matter? The questions flooded him in a torrent that sent a sharp spike of pain into his already aching head.
“Easy,” Brielle said when he didn’t quite make it to his feet. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions. I’ll answer some now and, if you want me to, I’ll answer the rest later. Just focus on standing, for now.”
Some voice, hidden away behind the jumble and the pain of his headache, told him this all was suspicious. Why should he trust her? But it wasn’t like he had much choice – he could either tell her to go away and probably lose any chance of finding out what the egg was and what was happening to him, or he could trust her. He nodded, and with a bracing hand on the bed, stood up.
His knees were weak, at first, but it didn’t take him long to get his balance. It was like standing after a hard blow to the head – which, for all he knew, could have been exactly what had happened.
Brielle nodded to him, though didn’t move to help him keep his balance. “Come with me,” she said simply, then walked out the door. Brink followed, falling into step beside her.
“Have you ever understood something without knowing why?” Brielle asked him as they walked, slowly, down the hall toward the stairs.
“What do you mean?”
“A flash of insight, maybe, that helped you out when you really needed it? An understanding of patterns, rhythms, sounds, that helped you make connections between things?”
He almost said no, then stopped. He did know what she was talking about, though he’d never been able to put his finger on it before. He understood the city in a way that no one else seemed to – more than its streets, though he knew those as well, he could hear how everything came together, the little sounds and motions that made it a city instead of just a collection of buildings. And he’d always been good at hitting moving targets with his crossbow because he could feel the rhythm of his target’s steps. He’d always thought he just had an eye for that sort of thing.
They had started down the stairs when Brink answered slowly, “I… think so. Maybe. I’m a good shot with my crossbow because I understand the rhythm of things when they move. And sometimes, the city, everything in it sounds like… I mean, all the noises together, they all…” the idea was so strong in his head, so clear, but he had no words to describe it.
“Connect,” Brielle finished. “Like an orchestra, each piece plays a different part, but they all come together to make harmony.”
That was it, Brink knew immediately. The words shouldn’t have made sense, but they did – it explained something he’d simply taken for granted all these years, or at least annunciated it.
“Yeah, that’s it,” was all he said. They were walking out the inn’s front door, though Brink had hardly registered moving at all. Brielle walked out the door then turned, barring his way to the street beyond.
“I can explain that,” she said, her voice grave. “And I can answer more questions, too. But I warn you, Anthony: nothing will be the same for you again if I do. You can turn around now, go back up to your room, and forget all of this. I’ll buy that egg off you for more than any merchant would pay, twenty gold crowns, and you’ll never hear from me again. The strangeness in your life will stop – though you’ll always be more… perceptive than most – and you can return to life as it was.”
Her gaze locked his, and suddenly Brink felt very small. A hundred more questions poured over him. What did she mean by perceptive? Why could he hear an orchestra of connectedness in the city? He could use the money she would pay him for the egg, of course, but why would she pay that much for it? It must have some value somehow if she was willing to pay twenty crowns for it. But none of those questions even approached the importance of the one that Brielle was really asking him.
Are you happy with your life now, or will you risk it all for something more?
Had she asked him that a few days ago, before everything had happened with the egg, he probably would have taken her money. Probably. But now… Something was different. He found himself wondering what Mudry or the potato couple would advise him to do, and that was new – since when did he rely on someone else to do his thinking for him? No, that wasn’t it; the old Brink, the lone scavenger at the Plagueline, wouldn’t have had a nice evening over tea with Mudry, wouldn’t have helped Livingston look for his wife, wouldn’t have joined them for dinner. The old Brink didn’t care, or was too tarnished and jaded to.
That was it, then. Did he want to remain alone, or did he want to become somebody who would choose more? A warmth spread through his body when he made his decision, and an intense new clarity broke through the murky pain in his head.
“I want to know,” he said, quietly but determinedly.
Brielle had been watching him as he considered his options, and continued to do so for a long moment after he’d answered. At last she nodded, then turned to walk into the street. It was late evening, the last bits of daylight giving way to the purple of night, but the streets were still mostly full of people trying to make use of every drop of the day they could. When she reached the middle of the wide cobblestone avenue, she turned to face Brink, and spoke in a voice that somehow managed to be quiet and yet still drown out every other sound in the city, if only to Brink.
“I had thought that perhaps you had taken the egg by chance, chosen it out of all the treasures you encountered in Strateny simply by its uniqueness, that your obsession with discovering its origins was driven by curiosity. But that’s not the case. No, you are special, Anthony Brink. You are an Essential. You can see the Essence in all sentient beings, feel its pulse beat through all you see. But like a man who has heard a tune in his head his entire life, it has faded into the background, and while you may still time your steps to the rhythm of its music, you do so unconsciously, unaware that all you do is influenced by the most dangerous gift anyone in this world could ever receive.
“Look around you, now, at all the people walking by. Listen to my song as you do. Feel the tune in your soul and use it as a lens to see past the flesh and cloth and into the Essence of their beings. See what you have been only feeling until now.”
She began to hum, no more loudly than she had in the bar, yet somehow Brink could hear the tune perfectly. He gazed around the street at the people passing by, and he began to match the movements and sounds of the crowd with Brielle’s song. Their steps followed its downbeat; a conversation in front of the shop nearby was in harmony with its melody; somewhere nearby a baby cried, and her high-pitched wail provided an echo to its high note. A small part of Brink wanted to shake his head and close his eyes, ignore the truth that sang around him, convince himself this was just a dream, return to the safety of his old life. But that was only a small part, he knew. That was just the small spider of fear encroaching on his excitement, and it was weak. He listened and watched, conducting the crowd in his mind as Brielle hummed just as he had shadow-conducted the song of his music box a hundred times. They became his orchestra, his instruments, and his dancers all at once. 
And as he took that fact in, he began to see what Brielle had wanted him to see. It was a haze, like what had come out of the egg, but colored. All of it was a silver-blue, but each person had his own unique shade. Some had a deep, steel blue; others, a silver so light, so fragile, it was almost white. 
It was beautiful.
And as quickly as it had started, the tune stopped, Brielle ceasing her humming and returning her steel gaze back to Brink. The world suddenly fell out of step.
“Why did you stop?” Brink managed to speak, his voice hoarse.
“Because that was all you needed to see. To get a taste for what Essence really is. To understand the tiniest fraction of the gift you have been given.”
“But why? Why me, I mean? That glowing bug – is that something only I can see, too? And what-”
She cut him off. “Those are all answers that will come in time. If you join me, I’ll give those answers to you, when you’re ready for them. But you have a decision to make now, Anthony Brink. You can join me and learn what it means to be an Essential; learn to control your abilities, to feel the song of the world and maybe change a few notes around. Make it play what you want it to. I will teach you how to turn Essence into reality and how to use it to impart your will on the world. You’ll leave your former life behind, though, for the study of Essence is not something that can be taken up part-time.”
It was all happening so fast for Brink. A few days ago, he was just a scavenger, an exciting job but one that kept him far from anything anyone would ever consider important. Then the egg came along, and with it came a dozen questions – he had suspected the glowing moth represented something new and unique about him, but he had never considered what Brielle was telling him. He was an Essential, a wielder of power he didn’t know the first thing about. He thought for a moment that the woman must be a swindler, conning him into believing such a fanciful tale simply to make off with his belongings later. Or worse, to sell him into slavery. That had happened to him once before, by someone he trusted, and he wasn’t eager to let it happen again.
But the song had been so real. He had never felt anything so real in his life. And what had happened with the glowing moth? Could she have simply engineered that? The rational, cautious, suspicious side of Brink screamed that this couldn’t be real, that he was falling for some sort of trap. His soul, however, was louder.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll join you.”
“You haven’t heard the other option.”
“I don’t need to.”
The strange woman who had leapt fiercely into his life and turned it on its head gazed at him for a moment longer, her face grim and contemplative. At last she gave a satisfied nod, pocketing the bronze egg and dismissing the dour look with her original wry one, a grin spreading its way across her face.
“Meet me at Perun’s statue in the city’ center, then, within the hour.” She left without another word.
With a feeling of excitement he had never felt before, Brink dashed back inside the inn to get his things. 

 

Chapter Seven

Brink didn’t take long getting his belongings. He didn’t own very much – given his lack of any way to keep thieves out of his cabin in the wilderness near Strateny when he wasn’t there, it wasn’t worth replacing everything he’d lose when he journeyed to town. So when he returned to his new tutor, it was only with a rawhide backpack he’d made himself and Hartlocke, who carried a pair of saddle bags and a few tools. In the backpack were his pick-hammer and crossbow, a few keepsakes, some rope, a pair of torches, and a heavy wool blanket. A knife was sheathed on its strap halfway up his left leg. The saddle bags contained his clothing and at least a month’s worth of dried food. Brink had checked his provisions four times, with a fifth as he walked, before returning to meet Brielle at the designated spot near the statue of Perun at the city’s center. He felt confident in his preparedness for whatever lay ahead, and so he strode up to meet the woman with a look of readiness in his eye and a knowing nod of his head.
“I’ve got my things,” Brink boasted, pride in his ability to be ready to embark on a great journey within an hour, “and I’m ready to go, wherever it is you plan to train me.”
Brielle looked bored. “What took you? And what is all that stuff?”
“It’s… they’re my things. For the trip. And it’s not even been the full hour.” Brink had expected to impress his new mentor and was frustrated to find her so dour. She sighed in response.
“We’re not going anywhere. This place is familiar to you. Maybe you haven’t lived here, exactly, but I’m guessing the few interactions with people you’ve had are here in Cesta. This city is important to you, and you’ve imprinted on it.” Brielle never broke eye-contact with Brink as she spoke. “The point is that you know the rhythm of this city, even if you don’t know you know. So we’re staying here.”
“We’re – what? But I was ready for-”
“For what?” she interrupted, more than a little annoyed. “Some epic journey? A grand adventure to some hidden castle, tucked away on the edge of a magical forest? Maybe you expected a waterfall in the backyard of my manor, under which you could meditate on the purpose of all things.” She scoffed. “This isn’t some fairy tale, Anthony. The power I’m going to teach you to wield is real, and the terrible things it can do to people are equally so. If you see this as just some quest you’re embarking on to have some exciting adventure, we can discuss your second option.”
“No!” Brink said, his eyes alight with desperation, “No, I want this. My life’s been pointless before now. Gods, I collect useless crap from a ruined, poisonous city to sell to people who probably use it as paperweights or doorstops, and I risk my life every day to do it! I thought that was enough but… it’s not. Not nearly. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” 
Brink surprised himself with his outburst, and immediately regretted giving away so much – it made him sound desperate, childish. Why did he always seem to sound like some petulant child when he spoke, even when he wanted to be anything but? She gave him a hard stare for a long moment before finally letting out a noise, as if she were consenting to something she didn’t really agree with, and nodded. Brink was growing more confused with her by the minute; it had been she who had invited him here, hadn’t it? And now she chose to show doubt?
“Fine. Find a place to stay in town, long term, and meet me an hour before dawn by the monument in front of the Church of Perun. And since you clearly need such step-by-step instructions, bring nothing but loose clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty or set on fire.” She paused, glaring at him like a disappointing child. “Don’t be late.”
What was this? Was she the same person who’d been so kind to him just an hour hence? The one who told him about his wondrous gift and promised him answers? Why was she so cold, so angry, now? Was Brink’s understanding of people so lacking? Had it been a mistake, this one time in such a long time that he chose to trust another person?
As he struggled to find the words to respond, Brielle’s face softened, if only just. She let out a sigh. “Don’t give me that look,” she said, though Brink hadn’t known he was giving a look. Still, her voice had lost a lot of its edge as she continued. “Essence is no simple thing to master, Anthony. It is dangerous, and it will take a hard teacher to impart that upon you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Brink managed. He hadn’t felt so strongly about anything since he was a child, and it was proving utterly overwhelming. But he would make this work. He had to. Brielle gave him another nod and left.
As that determination faded, though, his heart sank. He had spent most of his coin on provisions for his trip back to the house near Strateny. Long term residence in Cesta had never crossed his mind, and now that he needed it he hadn’t any coin to spend on it. He wracked his brain for options. Brielle had been right in her sly criticism of him. Brink didn’t have any real friends in town, not even any acquaintances aside from the merchants he sold his wares to and the potato couple, but they would be returning to their farm in a day or two. There was no one for him to lean on.
The thought almost made him laugh. Lean. Of course. Maybe he did have one person…
-----
Gregor Mudry opened the door to his leaning tower at the sound of Brink’s knock. It was getting late now and the shop was closed. Still, the old man didn’t seem to resent the scavenger’s third visit.
“Reconsidered my offer on that bronze egg, have you? Well, I’ll tell you, I was going through my inventory and, upon observing the number of other decorative eggs in my collection - not to mention all the strangeness it seems to be bring upon you - I must drop my asking price to three crowns.” He gave a scrutinizing raise of his steeped white eyebrows.
“That’s not why I’m here, Mister Mudry.”
“Ah, more glowing moths, then? I’m afraid I still haven’t found anything about them in my books. Nonetheless, please, come inside.”
“Thank you,” he started, his voice small as he stepped inside. He hadn’t asked for anyone’s help in… well, a very long time. “Actually, I was wondering if you had anywhere I could stay for a while.”
The question took Mudry off guard for only a moment before his thoughts returned to their usual, fiscal orientation. “Somewhere to stay, hmm? Local inns turn you away? I suppose I could make room, for a couple of coppers a night.”
Brink shook his head. “I don’t have any money.”
“There are no chores for you to do to work off your stay here, Mister Brink. No cleaning, nor filing, nor organizing or lifting. All of these things are already quite under control. I have no need for a porter. So with what do you propose to reimburse me for my hospitality?” The tone the old man took was neither hostile nor sympathetic, simply curious.
“Well,” Brink started, shifting uncomfortably, “I found an… unexpected opportunity here in town. A new job that uses a talent I’ve only just discovered I have. And I need a place to stay for it, but I’ve already spent my money on supplies to go back to Strateny. I’m… stuck. Unless you can put me up. This looks like my ticket out of a life of scavenging, and I won’t give it up just because I don’t have a bed to sleep in, so I’ll pitch a tent in the slums if I need to.” His voice had grown louder, and he paused to bring it back down to more acceptable levels. “But you’re the only person I really know here in town, so I’m coming to you before I head down there. I don’t have anything to offer you, but I’ll do anything you ask me to.” When he finished he took a breath, raising his head to look up at Mudry. The old shopkeeper was a little taller than Brink and always stood with his back straightened; he fluffed his wispy beard, which flowed like a white waterfall from his chin to his chest, and took in a breath.
“Very well, Mister Brink, I will make room in the back. But listen well. I am a seeker of knowledge; my life’s work has been the pursuit of truth – every truth, no matter how odd or trivial. My condition for your stay is this: you will answer any questions I ask, honestly, and to the best of your ability. I will do my best to not delve too deeply into that which you hold private, but if you ever lie to me, Mister Brink, I will return you to the streets.” He straightened his beard to a pointed tip. “Do we have a deal?”
Brink’s face went first to surprise at Mudry’s answer, then shifted to a smile – and not a forced one – then a grin that spread to his whole face. He nodded eagerly, relief flooding him as he extended his hand to shake Mudry’s. “Yes, of course. Thank you, Mister Mudry.”
He left Mudry’s Curios with a bound to hitch Hartlocke to a nearby post. He entered the tilted tower, his new home, and the old shopkeeper met him with a raised palm to slow his stride, lest he knock over one of the supposedly priceless treasures strewn about the shop’s winding shelves. Brink hadn’t realized he’d nearly been sprinting. He set his backpack down in the little square room tucked away behind an ornamental suit of orange armor. The room was small, but he didn’t mind.

 

Chapter Eight

Brink was used to waking up at sunrise. At his house near Strateny, without the noise of a crowded city morning, the only thing to wake him was the pink light of the early-rising sun. He would rise, leisurely, as the light reached his eyes through the window, light a fire in the stove, and cook a breakfast of whatever dried food he had brought from town. He wasn’t much of a hunter. When the meal was ready he would take it on a simple wooden plate, recline on his lazy porch chair, and watch the sky swirl through its pallet of morning colors. Sky blue pink, his father would call it. 
In better days, before the mines and the scavenging, they would sit together on clear mornings and eat their breakfast outside, Brink’s father telling him stories of why the sky would start its day as a sea of pink and golden flowers.
“It’s from a time a long time before men walked the earth, Anthony,” his father would begin (he’d heard the same story a dozen, dozen times now, but always it would gain something in its telling, and so the young Brink would gape wide-eyed and attentive each time), “when the land was ruled by no one but itself. The earth, ever enduring, would sit comfortably and gaze at the ever-restless sky. The sky would change with the hour, from royal blues to scarlet reds to hazel greens and back again, only to decide that none of these colors were fitting. None of them were free and beautiful enough. But always it would look down on the earth, whose colors were set in its stone and, from the sky’s perspective, dull.
“‘Why do you settle for such bland colors as brown and dark green?’ the sky would ask. ‘There are many colors out there to choose from. You could try turning your dirt violet for a day, your trees orange, your mountains aqua. Do you not grow bored?’
“‘Your free spirit gives me joy, sky friend,’ the earth would reply in its slow, rumbling way, ‘but I am content with my own colors.’
“This did not sit well with the sky at all. He would mock the earth for its blandness, but in truth the sky envied his peace. Where could he find such a color that would make him so content? He looked to the stars, but they were too distant to provide any clues. He looked to the seas, but he had tried their blues and was still unsatisfied. He looked to the wind, but he saw nothing but himself. At last he decided to ask the earth.
“‘Earth, I am troubled,’ the sky began. ‘I envy your peace of heart with the colors you have. How have you settled on so few when so many are available?’
“The earth smiled in response. ‘Because I have many beautiful colors, sky friend, if only you would look with more patience. Look once more upon my colors and see if you still find me bland.’ 
And so the sky did. At first, he saw nothing but the browns and the greens and the greys, but soon he began to pick out the hidden colors across the earth. Surrounded by a sea of grass was a small patch of bright yellow flowers, all turned in a single direction to face the sun. Scattered amongst the thickest trees were flowers of vibrant purples and bold scarlet. And hidden amongst their canopies, nestled in the nests within, were tiny eggs of soft blue.
“‘They are… beautiful. More beautiful than I could have ever imagined,’ the sky said.
“‘And why do you find them beautiful?’
“‘Because they are so rare. Because I passed so many things I thought bland that when I saw their vibrancy I was stunned.’
“Once more the earth smiled. ‘Then you have found the secret to beauty and wonder. They are special because you found them yourself. All of my colors you have tried at one time or another, sky friend, and were not content. Yet in searching for them as lost treasures, you have come to appreciate them. It is not that which we take lightly that brings us happiness, but that which we earn.’
“So taken was the sky by the earth’s wise words that he gathered up a dozen flowers, each its own wondrous color, and made a glorious sea of their colors: pinks and yellows and blues. And the sky saved his most beautiful color, sky blue pink, for the first half-hour of morning, painting a new hue of the colors of the flowers he discovered each time the sun rose in the morning.”
Brink’s father would look wistfully to the horizon as he told the story, glancing down at his son only for its conclusion to be sure the moral was learned. Brink would smile wide and lean in close, watching the sky until long after the sea of flowers had faded.
-----
In the back room of Mudry’s Curios, Brink sighed, shaking his head. The hour before dawn was a very different color from sky blue pink. In fact, as a light rain drizzled down, he was confident the day would stay the same shade of grey-black all through the morning. He hoped training would be inside, but some cynical part of him assured him that would be too easy. But then he doubted even that thought, because nothing with Brielle had been as he had expected – in fact, he realized, he no longer had any idea what to expect with her.
He donned his loose clothing, adding a light hood for the rain shower, and began to sneak outside.
“I am already awake, Mister Brink, so you needn’t trouble yourself with stealth,” came the dignified voice of his new landlord. “Some of us have important work to do that cannot wait for the morning.”
“Yeah, like not organizing piles of useless junk,” Brink grumbled in reply. He hoped Mudry hadn’t heard him; he hadn’t meant it scornfully, grateful as he was to the old man, but it was cold and it was early. At the very least, there was no response.
When he walked out into the wet morning, the cool air made him shiver. Great, he thought, another cold morning, and this one with rain to match. It was early summer, and Brink had expected some warmth to come with the new season. Instead, he had been greeted for the past week by a chill more akin to an autumn frost than a cool summer morning. And for half of his walk to the courtyard of the Church of Perun, the young apprentice was miserable.
Then he thought of his father’s story, and Brink decided he’d seen enough browns and greens and greys. It was time for some violets and golds. He was ready to search for them.
Brielle was leaning against the great granite statue of Perun with one shoulder. The figure in the statue stood stoically, one foot upon a fallen horned helmet, a broadsword raised high, a grim and glorious expression on his bearded face. It seemed to stand in direct opposition to the bored and slightly annoyed look of Brielle. As he approached, Brink couldn’t help but notice the woman was completely dry. The rain impacted a thumb’s width above her clothes and skin and rolled off before ever making contact. He also noticed that, while the church plaza was busy even at this early hour, no one walked near Brielle or the statue. An odd thing to notice, he thought, especially given that there was no real reason people would approach the statue anyway, but there was something about how they weren’t doing it that seemed… off.
“I assume you’re ready,” she said more than asked, taking a step forward and breaking Brink from his thoughts. He was having a hard time understanding his new tutor, shifting as she did from one personality to the next.
“I am.”
She flung her arm forward and Brink felt a rock-hard fist slam into his chest. He stumbled back a few steps before falling on his backside.
“I disagree.”
Brink didn’t have time to get to his feet before she whipped her arm out once more, this time in an arc, and a hard slap across the face sent him spiraling down.
“The power of an Essential is dangerous, Anthony, and the enemies that power brings along for the ride are tough enough to match. They won’t wait for you to get your focus or your footing. Now stand up.”
She extended a hand and a pair of orbs hovered out. They crackled and shook as they spiraled around one another, floating toward the fallen Brink. Orbs of… lightning? How was that possible? He growled at the pain from his fall and the blows and scrambled to his feet. As he regained his footing he saw the crackling orbs were only seconds away. No time to consider the possibility of the orbs’ existence when the orbs themselves didn’t seem to care much about what was and wasn’t possible, he thought, and quickly leapt to his right. He half-rolled, half-tumbled into an awkward crouch as he landed, and for a moment thought he had evaded the attack. But a quick glance to the side showed him that the lightning orbs had merely turned to follow him, continuing their erratic advance.
“Anyone can dodge! I want to see you block! Gather your will; remember the Song that revealed the Essence of the crowd to you,” Brink had to quickly roll out of the way again as she spoke, “Hear the Song; hum it if you must. Tune it in to the rhythm of your body,” another frantic leap back, the ever-progressing orbs preventing Brink from getting his footing before needing to move again, “and use your own Essence to fuel a shield. Imagine reaching into your soul and beckoning forth a handful – just enough to make a wall before you.”
Brink was in good shape, but the explosive energy he was using from his rolls was quickly exhausting him. He knew it wasn’t a strategy he could keep up. With a grunt he hurled himself away from the lightning once more but this time came up into a kneel, a sturdy position with his knees planted firmly beneath him. He wasn’t mobile this way, but at least he was steady. He had a handful of seconds to prepare whatever defense he could muster but he couldn’t concentrate as he watched the orbs approach, so he closed his eyes.
And he began to hum.
It was easy to remember the tune because it was the tune that had changed his life. It was the tune that had shown him a vibrant violet when all he had ever known were dull browns and greys. It was the tune of sky blue pink. He clung to it, fused himself to it, let every movement his body made fall into its rhythm. And when he felt as if he could grab onto the music itself, the crackling of the ball lightning close enough now to drown out the sound of the rain, he flung the music forward, pushing his hands out as if holding up a physical wall.
All at once Brink was bombarded with new sensations. As he pushed his Song out of his body and into a wall before him, he felt something within him stretch, fighting his desperate tug, before breaking and snapping back within him. He felt a moment of sudden exhaustion as something returned to him with a piece missing. And then he felt an intense heat and heard a violent *crack!* as light flashed over his closed eyelids. Then he felt nothing.
-----
Slowly, the rain began to push its way through his unconsciousness. He was lying on his back on the rough cobblestone road. His eyes blinked instinctively to block out the intruding water from the sky above. A whiff of ozone passed by his nose, and he noticed a single puff of steam beginning to dissipate a few feet away. As his eyes cleared, Brielle came into focus above him.
“Well,” she said, extending a hand to him, “maybe we can do something with you, after all.”

 

Interlude

Essence in Our World

“Inside all men is a soul,” Brielle began, Brink sitting across from her on the lip of the statue where she had tested him, “at least, according to those who read to large crowds from larger books. Some believe that there is a soul in every living being, though that would be a tough sell for some of the dark things that lurk in the night. The truth is, we don’t know anything about souls aside from the mildly pleasant feeling we get when we think about them.
“What we do know is that within all men is Essence, and whether or not it’s related to souls, it is a tangible force that can be shaped and manipulated. Essence can be formed as its wielder sees fit, from a hovering wisp of light in a dark room to a torrential storm that engulfs a continent. But, like with most things, there is a counterweight to Essence. Two, actually. The first is that only a special few, known as Essentials, can access Essence. We happen to be among those lucky few. This precious trait is, as far as anyone can tell, totally random. It’s passed not from father to son but from Fate to chosen. So nobody has yet to establish some family line of great Essentials.”
She paused, taking a deep breath. “The second is that Essence must be drained from sentient life to be utilized.”
Brink rocked back on his perch. “Drained? What do you mean drained?”
“It’s a source of energy, Anthony. Fuel. Your lantern won’t produce flame if it runs dry of oil. The same applies to Essence. That fuel has to come from somewhere, and given that the only known source of Essence is living, sentient beings, the only way to fuel our powers is to draw out the Essence first.” She held her hands up in conciliation. “Yes, it sounds monstrous, and when it’s used by those whose souls - spiritual or metaphorical - are dark and uncaring, it can be a lot worse than that. But to be in touch with Essence as intimately as we Essentials do is to have an innate empathy for those who possess it. That’s been my experience, at least, with a few notable exceptions. So the cataclysmically-minded, madman Essential is, thankfully, pretty rare.
“Draining a given person’s Essence has a pretty predictable effect, based on the amount taken. A little dash, pulled lightly from the corner of the soul to create a bit of light, will lead to a little fatigue that will fade in the few minutes it takes the body to replace what was lost. More complex or powerful manipulations require more Essence, which have increasingly debilitating effects on those being drained. Starting out, you’ll just be drawing from yourself. It’s a lot easier to know your own limits than someone else’s. And, eventually, you’ll be able to pull from several people at once, which lessens the overall effect on everyone.”
“What happens if you take too much?”
Brielle considered the question for a long moment before answering. “Whether or not souls are real, Essence is a person’s life force. Without it, they become just a drained husk.”
Brink didn’t respond, though he could feel the color drain from his face.
Brielle gave him a bit before continuing. “The study of Essence and Essentials has taken many lifetimes, and it is still very much ongoing.  Many a weighty tome has been filled with theory, practice, and speculation on the subject, but for now, just keep this in mind. Considering how vital Essence is for life, it stands to reason that the body has defenses for keeping its own Essence. Strong-willed individuals can often resist its draining, and it takes a truly powerful Essential to drain from such a person. Draining from another Essential is all but unheard of, as even a rudimentary understanding of the craft allows for an almost-total defense against such attacks. So if you ever find yourself fighting another Essential, don’t even try it - and expect any people around you to suffer for his attacks.”

 

Chapter Nine

Brink’s training was not an easy thing. Back when he was an indentured worker in the iron mines of Zelezo, he didn’t have to think about his actions; he made no decisions for himself. The foremen instructed him on what they wanted done and motivated him to do it with their lashes. When he escaped and became a scavenger, his decisions were few and often instinctual. Will he turn left in the halls of the ruined building or will he turn right? Will he press his luck and grab just one more trinket or will he listen to caution and head home? His last two occupations had been dangerous, to be sure, but neither required any studious thought, any deliberation.

Learning to become an Essential – or, more accurately, to control his power as an Essential – was an entirely different beast. The work to be done was inside him, and to master it required a mastery of his own mind and soul.

“You have to be deliberate with Essence,” Brielle told him nearly every morning. “You can’t just wave it around and expect results like with your pick there. Concentrate; picture within your mind what you want done and then convince your soul to do it.” It was, of course, not nearly as easy as that. Beyond the concentration just to shape Essence, Brink had to actually do something with it, as well.

“Essence is a primal force,” Brielle instructed. “By itself, it is useless, discordant noise, but it can be shaped into elements: fire, water, air, earth, order, and chaos. These six forces are the foundation of everything an Essential does. Fire by itself is destructive, but allow it to harmonize with wind or find rhythm with order and it will sing the song you wish it to.”

The first week of Brink’s training was little more than instruction and meditation. For hours the two would sit before the statue, watching and listening to the commotion of the city. To Brink, the word meditation elicited an image of serenity, of sitting on a bridge, eyes shut, listening to the river flowing calmly beneath, and of monks living simple, quiet lives. Not so for Brielle’s meditation. “Life and sound and color are the tools of an Essential,” she would say, “and there is nothing to meditate on without them.” And so she would demand utter concentration and uninterrupted focus while they sat, eyes open, and meditated in the loudest quarter of the city, right in front of the church. 

No one seemed to mind the two as they sat in the same spot, every day, for hours on end – maybe passersby were just unconcerned with something so innocuous? Still, Brink thought, neither had they noticed it the morning Brielle had sent orbs of lightning after him at that same spot, so perhaps his mentor had done something a little more to prevent too much attention. Even at the peak of church traffic, the crowds kept five paces in all directions from the statue where Brink and Brielle meditated. His understanding of the church was murky, at best, but he didn’t know of any superstition about getting too close to a statue.

Brielle, however, would remain quiet in response to any questions Brink asked – including anything about the lightning orbs or why they hadn’t turned him into so much ash – and instead focus her attention entirely on the city around her. She would interrupt this meditation only once each hour to ask Brink a question, to ensure the young apprentice was equally focused. Her first question, asked as the sun was rising, was simple.

“How many birds have sung to us this morning?”

Simple, but not easy. He asked her to clarify.

“This city has many birds that sing even before the sun is up. How many birds have sung to us this morning?”

“How am I supposed to know that?” he asked incredulously. “Even if I’d counted the number of chirps we’ve heard – and I haven’t – how would I know which were made by the same bird and which were from different birds?”

“Eight birds have sung to us this morning. If you are to learn to control the world’s Essence, you must first learn to be aware of the world. It will tell you everything you need to know; you must simply watch, and listen.”

The rest of the questions that day seemed equally inane, at least to Brink. How many men with red hats walked by in the last hour? How many babies cried, and how many times was something dropped to the street from a window above? The most ridiculous of all was the last question, asked as the sun was beginning to dip: how old was the tallest woman who walked through the square?

Brink couldn’t answer a single one. Brielle would tell him each time that he needed to focus more, to concentrate harder.

“But how can I answer your questions when I don’t know what to pay attention to?”

“You know exactly what to pay attention to, Anthony, and that is everything.”

Brink let out a frustrated sigh. He felt helpless; he was failing, and didn’t know why. “So should I be humming, or something? Will Essence tell me these things?”

Brielle did not sound at all angry at Brink’s frustration. “Essence is no guiding force; it is a primal thing, bound to the land and everything that lives within. You must guide it, not the other way around, and in order to do so, you must listen – with your ears, and with your eyes, and with your every feeling – to the music of your surroundings. Being an Essential means you have the capacity to better observe the world around you, but you do not use your Essence in order to do so. You do so in order to use your Essence.”

Brink spent the week vacillating between frustration and hopelessness, desperately counting everything that came into view. His eyes darted rapidly about until his face ached from the constant movement. He still couldn’t answer any of Brielle’s questions; there was simply too much to keep track of. It was on the fifth day when his frustration finally boiled over.

“This is impossible!” he shouted, jumping to his feet and clutching his tired eyes. “No one can remember every tiny little detail like this! I’m not doing anything but losing my mind!”

“Shall we discuss your second option, then?” his tutor replied calmly, her cool eyes still slowly wandering the square.

Brink very nearly said yes – he had done just fine on his own, without any teacher, without any meditation or music or– but he stopped himself. The second option was to go back to his old life, scavenging ruins for baubles just to get enough food to eat. That was better than the mines, but… this was his chance to not just run, but to do something. He wouldn’t give that up.

“…No,” he said with an exhale. He sat down and turned his eyes back to the city. Brielle nodded, slightly.

“Don’t pay attention to any thing. Pay attention to everything. Don’t try to write the city’s score; it has one already. Listen to it.”

Brink breathed in deep to calm his frustration. Listen. He let his eyes drift out of focus, not looking at any one thing in particular, but instead seeing the whole square, if a bit hazily. He spent the entire hour like that, until the inevitable question finally came.

“How many apples was the short man in the green hat carrying in his bag?”

Brink didn’t know the answer, but he’d seen so much more this time, maybe he could find it. He’d seen all the instruments and heard their notes; he just needed to sift through them. Make a Song of the haphazard notes of the city. He shut his eyes and let the memories of the last hour play back through in his mind; he could almost see them, hear them, not just remember them. And then it was there – a short man with a greying beard, a dull green hat atop his likely-bald head. At his side was a satchel, and within were several round shapes bulging against the fabric. If he could just count them…

“Six,” he said at last. Brielle turned to look at him, breaking her gaze on the city for the first time.

 “Yes.” With that, she stood and walked off, dismissing him for the day. Brink’s heart raced; he’d done it. He thought it was impossible, but there it was; he had listened. He hadn’t used his Essence to do so, either – he had simply observed the notes and orchestrated them into a Song. Happily, exhaustedly, he rose.

-----

Brielle was waiting for him when he arrived the next morning, looking up at the statue. She spoke softly as he approached, though she did not turn to face him.

“I told you that you’d get answers, in time, to your questions. You can ask one now.”

A dozen questions flooded Brink’s mind, and all of them begged, demanded they be released. Should he ask about the egg? The likhos? The humming? What happens after his training is complete? But then he thought about the night he met Brielle, and his walk afterwards. And then he thought of the day Brielle had revealed to him that he was an Essential, and the question he had to ask first was obvious.

“The glowing moths,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “the one I chased through the streets, and the one I found on my pack. What are they?”

“It. Not they. The two moths were one and the same – it is your Osud. A manifestation of your connection to Essence; every Essential can see theirs, and each is unique. As an Essential, your mind will observe and understand much more than a normal person’s can – sometimes, even more than you notice consciously. Your Osud is…” Brielle struggled for words, for the first time since Brink had met her, “It is you, showing yourself something you think you need to see. But it is your connection to Essence that allows you to do this. As I said, Essence is no guiding force – your Osud is your mind using Essence to guide you. You should always pay attention when your Osud directs you. Though, a moth is an odd one. Perhaps it was a butterfly?”

“No,” Brink said, oddly confident in that, “it’s a moth.” Brielle nodded, giving Brink time to contemplate what she had said. The first time he had seen his Osud – or at least the first time he noticed it - it had led him through the city to Mudry’s tower, where he now lived. Had his mind been so prescient to give him the idea, or was there some other reason? And something else bothered him.

“The night you told me I was an Essential was the second time I saw the moth – my Osud. When I tried to touch it, it got so bright that I couldn’t see, and the next thing I remember, you were there, standing in my room. What happened to me?”

“That was the fault of that egg of yours,” his mentor replied, “and its release of power was how I found you. But I believe one revelation is enough for today. Are you ready to start our training?”

Brink nodded, and Brielle looked down from the statue. She had been calm, serene even, since his first ‘test’; Brielle’s demeanor shifted as her challenges changed. “Let’s get started, then.”

The morning began with meditation, as it had every day for the past week, and Brink was somewhat disappointed – he expected that they would move on from this tedious task now that he had correctly answered a question – but he was eager to see if he could continue answering questions correctly.

He got the first question wrong – he couldn’t remember the number of times the nearby rooster had crowed – as well as the second – someone dropped a vase and he hadn’t heard how many pieces it had broken into – but the third question he answered correctly: twelve pearls on the necklace of the old noblewoman with the red cane. He was getting the hang of it, he thought – the answers his mentor was looking for were notes in the Song, and he was viewing the entire orchestra at once. He needed only let the Song wash over him and listen to as much as he could to pick out the individual parts. And though it was several hours still before their noon meal, Brielle stood up, bidding Brink do the same.

“It’s time you started learning to wield Essence. Remember always that Essence is both primal and subtle. It does not naturally take forms noticeable by the casual observer, and so you must not be a casual observer to shape it.” She reached into a pouch at her side and pulled out a glass bauble, a little larger than her palm, and held it out to Brink. It was perfectly spherical and impeccably clean, and it reflected the morning sunlight so well that Brink nearly missed his own reflection within.

“This is order. It is structure, predictability, and logic. Nearly every time you influence the Song, you’ll need at least some order to keep it under control, so you’ll learn it first.”

She then dropped the bauble to the street, smashing it into many – twenty-three, Brink knew, as he let the Song wash over him – pieces, and gestured down to the fragments on the ground.

“And this is chaos, order’s opposite. It is turmoil, confusion, unpredictability – and, in many ways, life. It is the most difficult force to wield because it demands you give up control, and so you’ll learn it last.”

Brink nodded. At last he was learning to use his ability, and not just watch.

“Now fix the sphere. Use your Essence to shape order into it – reach within, just as you did that first night when you shielded yourself from my attack, and use what is within you. Picture how the sphere should be, and use that logic to guide you.”

Brink took a deep breath and exhaled, focusing his mind within. He felt something – something intimately familiar – and found he could handle it, like clay, though it took immense concentration simply to remain in contact with it. He heard humming, like what Brielle had done to show him the Song, but he pressed on, trying to grab a piece of his Essence.

“Don’t force it,” came Brielle’s voice from somewhere far away, only just audible over the growing humming, “let it help you. It’s a part of you; just let it out.”

He felt for his Essence again, but this time, instead of pulling, he imagined himself opening a window. It worked; the Song had been muffled, and no amount of force could make it louder, but when he let it out its melody spilled forth. He felt a pang of fatigue as a piece of his Essence came loose, now fully under his control – he could compose it, conduct it, however he wanted.

“Good,” Brielle spoke, softly still, “now focus on the world around you and return to it. Move the inner to the outer.”

It was easy to return to the outside world, but it took all his concentration to keep the window open as he did, letting the song flow out. Slowly his senses shifted from his mind’s eye to his real eyes. He saw the statue of Perun; he saw Brielle; he began to hear the noises of the city; he heard the humming, and noticed that it was his voice doing it, as if on its own. He felt the Essence he had pulled out of himself, felt he could control it still, and now saw it with his eyes as a small cloud of haze, just as what had come out of the bronze egg when Brielle had hummed to it. And he saw the shattered glass.

“Find order, Anthony. Use your Essence to fuel the order in the glass.”

Brink hummed, aligning his tune to that of the greater Song around him, and concentrated on the glass shards. The haze disappeared into the pieces with a soft flutter. He pictured how the sphere should be, how it was before it shattered, and he molded his Essence to return the pieces to their original whole. He had all the notes there – he needed only make a Song from them.

The pieces began to shift on the ground. If his tutor noticed, she didn’t show it, keeping instead her eyes locked on Brink.

But moving each shard to its proper place was difficult, and Brink’s concentration began to falter after only a few pieces had moved.

“Don’t focus on each note, Anthony! Focus on the Song. Let your mind hear the Song you want the notes to become, and let them flow out.”

Brink had been staring intently at each individual shard to return them to the whole, but he had been ignoring the whole itself. He relaxed his gaze, just as he had done during meditation, and settled his eyes on a hazy view of all the shards together. And there it was – the Song, as if the order of notes was a simple thing he’d been an idiot to not recognize. The results were instantaneous. The pieces shifted themselves without any direct control from Brink – he simply willed his Essence to fuel the order of the glass, and it did so. Within a few seconds, the shards had reassembled into the same unblemished bauble Brielle had pulled out of her bag. Brink exhaled and let his shoulders slump, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Congratulations,” his tutor said, “you just wielded order.”

-----

Brielle structured the rest of Brink’s training in much the same way. Brink would meet his tutor at the statue in the town square one hour before dawn. There they would meditate until Brink could answer her question from the world around them, after which she taught him how to shape his Essence into each of the six elements. Some were certainly easier than others; Brink could reliably shape order in four days, but water took him eleven. And each element had a Song to it, some small melody that clued Brink in to its presence. He knew he understood an element when he could hear its Song as he listened to the city. And when he understood it, he could shape his Essence to become it, pinching off a bit from his soul as he had that very first night, controlling fire or water and shaping earth and air with his will. Next to what Brielle could do with Essence, he felt like a child learning his first scales on a single instrument; he recognized the sounds and could perform simple melodies, but he was a long way from making real music. Still, those simple melodies were his now, and for the first time in his life, he could create. It was… liberating.

Brielle would dismiss her student every day one hour before sunset. Unfortunately, Brink discovered, learning to master Essence did not come with a salary, and so he would head straight from his tutelage to the job he picked up as a porter for the local Blacksmith’s Guild. He would then return, well into the night, to his room in Mudry’s Curios to fall immediately to sleep, exhausted as his body worked to replenish his Essence. Somewhere in between all of that, he squeezed time in to eat.

 

Chapter Ten

It took Brink almost three months to learn all six elements. Brielle smiled as he demonstrated his control over the final element, chaos, by foiling a loaded die. Order and chaos were rarely used on their own, she had said, but they did have their purposes. She gave him three days off, his first since his training began, and instructed him to listen for the notes he had learned making chords in the song of the city. He did. He walked the streets of Cesta humming the song he had committed to memory, and as he did he could once more see the haze of Essence, coloring each man and woman a varying shade of blue. This time, however, as he hummed the notes that belonged to the elements, the haze spread to that element and shaded it its own unique color. As he hummed the note for air, he could see a gust of wind, highlighted in a soft yellow; when he sang fire, a red haze gathered around the open flame in a blacksmith’s shop; earth brought about a pale green upon the unpaved ground; and water showed him blues not unlike the haze that hovered over living beings. Order and chaos were odd, he noted, because they covered locations, rather than objects, and were intertwined in an infinitely-varied scale of greys. He began to understand what Brielle had taught him, that Essence was created by life but manifested itself in the primal forces.

“Mister Brink, you are home early,” commented Mudry as Brink walked into the precarious tower.

“I just finished the first part of my training,” he replied, “and my teacher gave me a few days off.”

“How benevolent of her.” He stroked his long beard, squinting his eyes. “I would like to speak with you, now that you have the time for it. Perhaps as we dine?” The old man was as impossible to read as he had always been.

Brink scratched his head, and an inexplicable sense of nervousness crept up in his stomach. He had promised Mudry he would answer any questions the old shopkeeper asked as payment for staying in his tower. That should be an easy payment, he thought, but that didn’t stop the creeping feeling.

“Sure, I guess.”

Mudry nodded, causing the white tufts of hair on his head to wave back and forth. “I will see you in my dining room just after sundown, then, to allow you time to get settled.”

Brink looked around the tower. The stairwell spiraled up the middle of the room, Mudry’s counter filled one corner, and the strange shelves and displays filled the rest of the space. The only other door he saw besides the store’s entrance was the one in the back for the small storage room he had been given to live in. He had also never actually seen Mudry leave.

“Where, uh, do you live? I’ve only ever seen you in the shop. And I guess your tea room upstairs.”

“Here, Mister Brink; I live here. You will find my dining room through the door on the southwest side of the third floor of the tower. It will be locked, but simply knock and I will answer.”

Brink nodded, bemused; in all the time he had been visiting the shop and living there he had never noticed a door on the third floor. But then, he didn’t spend much time upstairs, anyway. The way the tower leaned made it more than a little difficult. He walked back to his room, setting down his pack from the day and laying out the nicest clothes he had, which still could hardly be described as being very nice. He sat down on his cot, his unease about the dinner with Mudry quickly replaced by excitement about his training with Brielle. He could create fire with his mind. Well, his soul, but that was splitting hairs. This was real, and he was about to learn even more. He didn’t know what Essentials did, exactly – maybe don cloaks and cowls and wander the land, being mysterious, which was an entertaining thought, even if Brielle discouraged the idea – but his future seemed much brighter than it had been three months ago. He had gone from scavenging the lands beyond the Plagueline to wielding the very power of the world itself, even if he was still an infant plucking at its strings. No one would ever throw Brink in a mine again.

-----

He decided to get his work at the blacksmith’s shop done before dinner. He should still have time to clean up a bit first if he worked quickly - an easy enough task, since he was already using Essence to expedite his work. He’d been promoted from porter to apprentice when the father of the old apprentice had some kind of falling out with the blacksmith, and he’d needed a fast replacement. And the blacksmith, Goran, had taken to Brink immediately. “The boy’s magic with the flame and bellows,” he’d said, not knowing just how right he was.

Goran greeted Brink with a grunt when he arrived. The blacksmith, a short, bearded fellow probably approaching fifty, was a man of few words, and Brink could appreciate that. The two usually worked in silence, broken only by Goran’s usually-monosyllabic instructions. Brink got to work immediately, a mercifully small pile of tools needing repairs for the day. The apprentice fixed things, Brink learned, and the blacksmith made things. He was fine with that – his skills with Essence gave him supernatural control over fire and air, but he had neither the skill nor the inclination to create new things out of metal.

The first tool he worked on was a simple garden hoe, the metal at the end bent straight up at a right angle. Brink wondered in passing how someone could manage to do such an odd thing to a gardening hoe, but he slipped into his routine naturally. He detached the metal head from the handle and held it, with the tongs, into the fire; he hummed air into the bellows just to convince Goran he was actually using them – it would be odd indeed if he did his jobs without using any of the tools necessary to do so – and pinched off a bit of his Essence to stoke the embers into flame. His training with Brielle had made drawing the Essence forth much easier, and now all he had to do was hear the Song and let his Essence out to give it life. Soon enough, he was bidding the flames to die back down again when the metal was hot enough. He hummed as he worked, using the hammer only enough to be convincing, and let the Song of order do most of the work straightening out the metal. He heard the melody it wanted to sing, and adjusted the notes of his humming to fit it. The whole process took him only a few minutes, and when he finished he cooled it off in the nearby water barrel – it looked newly forged when he pulled it back out and reattached it to its handle.

“Boy’s magic,” Goran grunted to himself, having looked up at the hissing sound of cooling metal. Brink smiled.

It only took Brink a couple hours to finish the rest of the tools laid on his table – most of them were a bit more complicated than a gardening hoe, but none were beyond his skills, and he found his tolerance for drawing out his own Essence growing the more he used it. No longer was he exhausted after a use or two, and now he felt about as fatigued as he imagined a blacksmith would have after doing the work he’d done in the more conventional way. Goran paid him for a full day’s work and sent him off when he finished. “Day’s work’s a day’s work,” he said simply. “Don’t much matter how long it takes.”

He had a few hours still before he was to meet Mudry for dinner, so he decided to clean up a bit first. Brink was never fully clean, exactly, his former lines of work having left their mark, but he could scrub the worst of the grime off. Looking down at the barrel of cooling water, he had an idea – he took a bucket of it into the shop where none might see and set it down. Then he tugged off a bit more of his Essence and hummed the Song of water, a simple tune with an appropriately fluid melody. He felt his control over the water and bid it rise, altering the Song to do so, and the water lifted from the bucket. He grinned but never stopped his humming, experimenting with his control until he had fully cleaned himself off, never once bothering with a rag.

Being an Essential had made most of his life more complicated, but perhaps there were a few things here and there it could simplify, as well.

—–

Brink approached the door he had never seen before, the one that Mudry told him held his dining room, and knocked. He heard nothing from the other side and was preparing to knock again when a man in servant’s finery opened the door. He was perfectly average in height and build, his age was difficult to determine, and his facial features were so nondescript as to be difficult to even remember. When he spoke, it was with the mellow tone of one used to keeping his voice low.

“Mister Brink, Mister Mudry is expecting you. Please, enter.”

Brink thanked the man and walked in. The room beyond could have been cut straight out of a lord’s manor and placed, rather improbably, inside Mudry’s leaning tower. It was a comfortable but spacious room with rich purple carpeting, a fireplace, and an oak table with enough room for six. Spaced out along the walls were several trophies of dangerous-looking beasts that Brink could not identify, a beautiful painting of a woodland landscape that nearly encompassed its entire wall, and a few vases of greens and purples. It did not look like the dining room of the owner of a run-down curios shop, nor did it seem as though the room should have fit within the shop at all.

Brink must have paused for some time at the hall’s entrance because Mudry, sitting at the head of the table and backlit by the fireplace, cleared his throat and said, “Mister Brink, please, come in and have a seat.” He did so wordlessly, still somewhat entranced by the unexpectedly lavish room.

“Mister Mudry,” he said after taking a seat at the only other place that was set at the table, on the far side from where the old man was seated, “I… had no idea this was back here.”

“That is why it is hidden from my customers, Mister Brink. If all the riff-raff who walked the street saw what my living quarters were, I imagine I would be robbed on a daily basis.” The servant in finery approached Mudry silently and poured him some tea before doing the same for Brink. Mudry didn’t even acknowledge the servant’s presence, so Brink followed suit.

“Mister Brink, I recall you saying that you were remaining in the city in order to pursue a unique opportunity that had presented itself. How is that going?”

 “Fine,” Brink replied with his usual verbosity. But he was learning how to get better with that. “The training for it hasn’t been easy, but it’s worth it.”

“It is certainly good to see a man who understands the value of a hard day’s work, especially one so young.”

Brink didn’t know how to respond to the compliment and so took a drink of tea, instead. It was hot, and he was surprised at the multitudes of flavors within – most of which he had never tasted before.

Mudry said nothing more as he stared at Brink for a long few moments. Brink’s uneasy feeling grew, and he broke the silence. Not something he was accustomed to doing.

“Have you always been a shopkeeper?”

“No,” he replied simply after a pause, “why?”

“Because,” he looked around, “this dining room is…” he paused, gesturing around the impressive space as if to wordlessly complete his sentiment, “and I bet the rest of your hidden rooms are the same way. And you can afford a servant.”

“Three, to be precise.”

“Three servants. You must be pretty rich, then.” He scolded himself, internally. He could control fire with his will! Why couldn’t he do the same with words?

“There are many wealthy merchants upon this street, Mister Brink. I imagine they have as many servants and fancy rooms as I.”

“Yeah, but…” Brink stopped, realizing that what he was about to say might offend his host. Mudry only smiled, slightly.

“But they sell expensive things that people like to buy,” the old man finished. Brink didn’t respond. “I have a very select clientele who appreciates my wares, it is true. But to answer your implied question, no, it is not my shop that has brought me such wealth. Now, you have mentioned your training for this new opportunity several times. I am curious as to what that training entails.”

Before Brink could think of how to respond, the servant returned, bearing a plate of delicious-smelling roast beef with several exotic-looking vegetables and, Brink recognized, baked potatoes, for each of them. Mudry began to eat, slowly, but continued to look expectantly at Brink.

“I… have been studying, really. It’s a very complicated job, and I only just finished learning the basics.”

Mudry narrowed his eyes at Brink for just a moment, more out of curiosity than apparent hostility, and then nodded. “I see.”

Brink nodded, taking a bite of the roast. It was better than any food the young scavenger had ever tasted, and he forced himself to savor the flavors instead of scarfing down another bite. Mudry looked at Brink with quiet expectation.

“So what did you do before you opened up this shop?” Brink realized he was thankful that Livingston and Lily had seemingly rubbed off on him. He never would have willingly continued a conversation before he’d met them, but here he was finding the silences just too strained and uncomfortable. 

 “I was something of a wanderer. A rewarding but difficult life, and one I am glad I have left behind.”

Brink nodded. He could relate to that, being something of a migrant himself.

 Mudry took a sip of tea and set it down, his eyes moving to meet Brink’s. “My servants,” he began, “are simple constructs of Essence. Too simple, in fact, to be seen by those who cannot already observe the stuff. So why can you?”

 

Chapter Eleven

Brink paused. Given the mysterious and seemingly impossible nature of Mudry’s tower, it made sense that there was something beyond the mundane going on here. His Osud had led him here, after all, which meant that his Essence-perceiving mind had picked up on things his conscious mind hadn’t. 
But he was still faced with Mudry’s question. Brielle had never specifically told him to not tell anyone of his gift; his reticence was more an instinctual fear than anything taught. But Mudry was becoming more and more terse, and this question seemed particularly so. His instinctual mistrusting of others snapped firmly back into place. But his instincts also warned him that lying to the old man across the lavish table would be equally unwise.
“You said it was here, and it was.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. Brink did not, after all, know the specifics of Mudry’s hidden door. That only made the old man’s eyes grow narrower, but he said nothing. He took a bite of roast, though his gaze never left Brink, who felt he should have regretted his evasive response – Mudry had taken him in, after all, with the one condition that Brink answer his questions. But his walls were rebuilt, and it would take a lot more than gratitude to bring them back down. Besides, he still wasn’t sure how much he should reveal, and what his Osud had meant in bringing him here.
The two ate in silence for nearly half an hour before Brink began to calm down. Maybe his paranoia was justified, and maybe not – but his Osud had led him here, and he wanted to know why.
“So what did you mean about your servants?” Mudry looked up, his eyes briefly surprised. “When you said only certain people can see them, what did you mean?”
It took Mudry only a moment before he responded, and when he did it was with a voice as excited as Brink had ever heard from the old shopkeeper. “Essence, young man. They are woven from Essence and imperceptible to anyone who cannot see such forces. Now I’ve a question for you. Are you an Essential?”
Brink’s eyes went wide and he felt the color draining from his face. He’d seen the power Brielle could wield with Essence, and now Mudry was admitting he could do the same? His mind raced. If Mudry was also an Essential, would he see Brink as a kindred spirit or a threat to be eliminated? He’d done nothing to provoke the old shopkeeper, he was sure, but then, why was Mudry being so uncharacteristically forceful? The question brought the sharp sense of caution about revealing his identity back to the forefront of his mind. His mind turned to thoughts of escape. But if Mudry was anywhere near as powerful as Brielle, what chance did he have of getting out of his? And with that thought came the spider of fear he felt creeping up from his gut whenever his life was in danger. He hadn’t felt it since the likhos attacked him at his house several months ago, not even when Brielle had sent the balls of lightning after him, but the cold spider of fear was an old friend. He had gotten to know it intimately back in the iron mines, when a tunnel seemed nearing to collapse or a drunken miner began swinging his pick about madly, and it had never crept up from its hiding place without good cause. He could feel its bony caress as he stalled for time to think of a response.
But his Osud had led him here… something about this place was important to him. He had to learn more.
“A what?”
Mudry’s eyes flared in frustration as he nearly shouted, “An Essential, boy! A master of Essence! One who can wield the power of souls and shape it to his every desire! Are you or are you not an Essential?”
The rising fury with which Mudry spoke removed any doubt of the severity of the question. His unconscious mind may have led him here, but his conscious mind was telling him he needed to get out. Quickly. No longer did he care about learning why his Osud led him here – his instincts to escape to safety overwhelmed any other thoughts he may have had. An idea came to him, thinking carefully on the wording of the old man’s question. He put on his best scared-and-confused face, one he’d practiced in the mines. He didn’t have to fake the shaking of his voice.
“No, Mister Mudry, I am not a master of Essence.” He could have continued with I’m just an apprentice, but he felt that part would be best left unsaid.
Mudry’s eyes went wild as he rose from his chair with a growl no human should be able to make. His figure did not change, not physically, but his presence did, filling the room with a palpable feeling of violence and anticipation like some predatory beast. Those crazed eyes stared at Brink for longer than he could hold his breath, or at least longer than it took the apprentice to realize he was holding it. Mudry’s eyes were searching Brink for something – a lie, perhaps – and when they did not find it, the old man exhaled long and slow before sitting back down, becoming once more the fragile old man he had been only a minute before.
“I think I’ll skip dessert,” Brink said, trying his best not to shake as he rose from his chair. He didn’t bother to thank his host for the meal. Mudry said nothing as he walked out the door. He walked quickly to his room and gathered his things, heading straight for the nearest inn.
-----
Brink’s work with the Blacksmith’s Guild had earned him enough money to rent a room, albeit a cramped one, back at the Pickerel. Still, it was better than staying with Mudry, who turned out to be not at all what he seemed. There was something about the way he asked his questions, some deliberateness, that puzzled Brink. There was a pattern to it, something he had obviously picked up on subconsciously – else he surely would have messed something up – but that he didn’t really have time to fully understand. It was angry, but somehow rule-bound. And Mudry had seemed furious when Brink evaded his questions, even though a simple rewording of the question would have trapped him.
His head was spinning when he noticed that one of his backpack’s pockets was on fire. He rushed to put out the flame with a shirt, stopping it before it did more than burn a small hole in his pack. Opening up the pocket, he found, to his surprise, the little bronze egg. Brielle must have placed it back in his pack when he wasn’t looking. It was glowing bright orange as if it had just been pulled from a fire – which, Brink supposed, it sort of had been – and was radiating a heat Brink could feel on his hand from inches away. He decided to try what Brielle, and the likho before her, had done to the egg – hum. Brink hummed the Song, reaching within himself to bring it forth. He felt the rhythm of the Essence around him and found the egg to be a sort of discordant note. Even from the cramped inn room he could feel the connection of the Song to the city around him – laughter from downstairs, the call of a peddler out the window – but the egg was like a grating minor chord that did not fit at all into the composition he was used to.
He stopped to think. He could try to find Brielle, to tell her everything, about Mudry and his mysterious questioning and about the egg catching fire, when he came to a realization: she had given it back to him, which meant she must have trusted him with it. Or else the egg was somehow capable of making that choice on its own, which he found vaguely unsettling. Either way, he was an Essential, and before him was a mystery clearly linked to the Essence that he was learning to control. He remembered what Brielle first told him about Essence: that he can listen in to the Song of life around him, and that he can change a note here and there, make it play what he wanted it to play. He started humming again. This time, he changed the tune; the city itself, his orchestra, seemed to protest, and all the notes began to grate against one another, but he was getting closer to the minor key of the egg. At last he matched its pitch, and everything snapped into place.

 

Chapter Twelve

The world changed.
It was probably just Brink’s perception of it, but to the young Essential, it was as if he had entered an entirely new realm, some plane of existence beyond his former understanding. And his former understanding of things, Brink was quickly learning, was sorely lacking.
When Brink hummed the Song, everything in the city around him aligned in harmony to join him. Now, as he matched the strange pitch of the egg, his orchestra aligned, but rather than as a harmonious melody, it was a dissonant jumble, somehow working together to create a tense and chaotic refrain, and it seemed to almost beg to be resolved.
The new Song was painful. Brink’s eyes couldn’t focus and he felt a distinct sense of vertigo as he listened to it. No, not listen, he thought; sing. He was singing this Song, and though it was wildly different from the one he was used to, he was still its creator. And he could resolve it, bring it back to the harmony he was used to. Slowly, he worked backwards from before, towards the melody and away from the dissonance of the egg. But the egg followed his cues. More and more his orchestra began to reunite – a pair of footsteps outside at last fell into step, the baby crying in the adjoining room fit the melody – and the egg’s once-dissonant chord joined them. At last the Song was back to how Brink had first heard it, with the addition of the egg’s now-beautiful harmonizing chord; it sounded akin to a harp played by a virtuoso.
Brink’s vision returned to normal, the room around him snapping back into focus. The egg was no longer hot. In fact, it was radiating a feeling of… contentment. Happiness, even. Just being in its presence – no heat, no Song, just being close to it – made Brink more confident, more eager to get out and face the world.  It was like having an adoring pet nearby. He smiled. For a moment, his life seemed just a bit simpler.
Reality didn’t take long to catch up to him. He heard a commotion in the common room downstairs – a crash and a scream, followed by what sounded like a bar brawl – and he opened his door to check outside. For a moment he felt as if reality were slipping away again. A likho was running up the stairs, and from the sounds of the scuffle downstairs, more were soon to follow. Brink quietly shut his door, hoping the crone beast hadn’t seen him and trying to make sense out of the strangeness of a likho in the Pickerel. Instinct, though, was already pushing aside those questions for later. He ran to the window; a drop from the second floor would be rough, but not as bad as another tangle with a coven of likhos.
Brink had just grabbed his pack from the bed when his door burst open, the likho from the hall rushing at him, screaming its terrible cry. He kicked out, catching the creature with a solid boot to the chest. It stumbled for only a moment, but it was long enough for Brink to grab his pick from the backpack. The likho’s second charge was met by a blow from the pick’s hammer head, cracking the crone beast with an uppercut that sent it crumpling to the ground. Brink started again for the window, only to find another likho perched on the ledge just outside it. Cursing, he turned for the door, but stopped when another pair of the little beasts rushed in that way, moving to either side of the doorway, likely to encircle him. He lowered himself into a fighting stance and backed towards the corner of the room, keeping each of the likhos in his view.
But the crone beasts came no farther into his room. They were waiting for something, and Brink didn’t have to wait long to find out what it was. A man in a tattered brown robe walked in through the door, and the pair of likhos fell in beside him like a pair of unlikely bodyguards. He was frail, his face emaciated and his limbs lost in the many folds of his robe. His skin was pale, grey to the point of blue, and his withered head was bald, his hair replaced by a network of scars. The only large thing about the figure were his eyes; they seemed to bulge forth as if from the head of a mantis. They were comically bulbous, and Brink would have laughed at the very sight of the strange figure, had those same eyes not had the eerie, rapid movement indicative of madness, darting back and forth to see something visible only to him.
“What the hell do you want with me?” Brink demanded, his anger at the second likho attack showing through.
“Just the egg, if you please,” the figure spoke, and it did so with a gentle brogue befitting a dapper nobleman, not this madman with a crazed look in his eyes.
“What egg?”
“Oh, Brink,” the figure replied, shaking his head, though his eyes never blinked, “the one you hold in your left hand.”
Brink didn’t bother looking down. He could feel the comforting presence of the egg within his grasp. He wasn’t sure when he picked it up, or if he had ever set it down to begin with.
“Why do you want it, Crazy-Eyes?” It seemed an apt enough name.
“Because I do, and I have the power to take it.” With this, Crazy-Eyes waved his hand, just as Brielle had done on that first night – and many, many mornings since – and Brink only narrowly raised his mental defenses in time to block the invisible wave of air. If Crazy-Eyes noticed his block, he did not show it. “Is that not enough?”
Brink narrowed his eyes. Another Essential. Maybe they were more common than he thought. He had no idea how powerful this man might be – and he was outnumbered, to boot. But he could feel the comforting embrace of the egg…
“Alright. Here you go.” He extended his left hand, offering the egg.
Crazy-Eyes motioned at the likho to his left, who stepped forward to take the little bronze enigma. When it reached out its clawed hand, Brink blindsided it with a blow from his pick hammer to the side of the crone beast’s head. As he did he reached within himself, pulling a piece of his own Essence to create wind, singing it forth with the notes of Air and Order. He felt the now-familiar tug on his soul as the piece came free, and a sudden burst of powerful wind blasted the second likho through the room and out the window, shattering the glass and slamming into the third beast waiting outside. The two hit the ground hard and were silent.
Brink, no longer outnumbered, turned to face Crazy-Eyes. Shaping his Essence had never been that easy before, especially not with something so powerful. Maybe it was the adrenaline, his survival instinct boosting his powers to new heights. The madman across from him made no reaction to Brink’s attack.
“It would have been easier to give it to them,” said Crazy-Eyes. His eyes stopped their erratic shifting and focused on Brink, growing even wider as they did. Brink’s feet left the ground. He began to float helplessly into the air, as did everything else in the room – the nearby shelf tilted forward, spilling its contents out only for them to float similarly upwards, then become suspended in the air, spinning slowly.
Crazy-Eyes blinked. Everything in the room, including Brink, slammed into the ground as his eyes shut, then lifted once more at their opening.
“I don’t handle rejection well.” He blinked again. Another crash. Brink’s back hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of him. Still he held onto the egg.
Open. Closed. Brink yelled in agony as he hit the ground at an angle, his right shoulder dislocating. His numb hand released the pick hammer, which floated ominously above him.
“The egg. Now.”
Crazy-Eyes blinked a fourth time and Brink tumbled to the ground, slamming down and rolling to one side as his pick hit the floor hard enough to embed itself in the wood right where he had been a moment before. He growled at the pain and tried to focus his thoughts, pulling at his Essence once more. When the madman blinked again, Brink released his energy with a single, shouted note, sending a burst of wind through the pick and shooting it towards Crazy-Eyes. The pick hurtled end over end until stopping, suspended in the air, mere inches from the madman’s forehead.
Crazy-Eyes simply shook his head. “This will end as soon as I get the egg,” he said, sending the pick right back at Brink, the hammer head impacting his chest with a painful crunch. Brink’s vision swam, and he held onto consciousness by a thread.
“Last chance,” the madman crooned.
Brink was done. He wasn’t even close to being strong enough to fight this assailant. He was pulling his arm back to throw the damned egg at Crazy-Eyes’s face when a something moved in the hall behind him. A tree branch, the width of his torso and forked at the end like a claw, was extending towards the madman’s back. He was sure he was hallucinating from the pain and so closed his eyes and shook his head, but when Crazy-Eyes turned to see what Brink was looking at, he ducked to the ground just as the oaken arm swung a blow at him powerful enough to crack the far wall when it missed.
“It looks like we’re done for today,” said Crazy-Eyes, unfazed. “We’ll continue this another time.” He leapt out the window. When he was gone, everything in the room that had been floating fell unceremoniously to the ground.
The tree arm retracted back into the hall, out of Brink’s sight. A figure walked into the room a moment later, his back straight and his hand running down his wispy white beard. As Brink’s pain overwhelmed him, and his world turned black he heard Mudry say, “Mister Brink. I feel some explanations are in order.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

Brink awoke on a comfortable if out-of-place cot along the wall of a finely decorated room, his shoulder aching but clearly no longer dislocated. As the dizziness faded somewhat, he noticed it looked very much like the dining room of Mudry’s mysterious tower – it was the same style, and guessed that he was in a sitting room somewhere within Mudry’s Curios. It was dark, illuminated only by a small lantern sitting on the table nearby and the fire going in the fireplace. Brink’s suspicions were confirmed when he saw Mudry himself sitting in a cushioned chair, facing the fire. His wrinkled hand was rubbing his beard.
The old man looked over when he heard Brink stir, but turned back to face the fire once more, as if thinking on what to say. After a long few minutes of silence, the old shopkeeper finally spoke up. “I apologize for my behavior before, Mister Brink. It simply has been some time since I encountered an Essential and my… enthusiasm got the better of me.” He bowed his head slightly. “I did not mean to frighten you, nor to drive you from my home.” He paused again, and asked, somewhat tentatively, “How is your arm?”
Brink tried to sit up to respond, and winced as he did. “It, uh, hurts.” He closed his eyes for a long moment before opening them again, as if expecting to be back in his cabin, the last day – or even the last several months – proving to be nothing more than an overly-imaginative dream. They did not.
“You have questions, young man. I can see it in your eyes. I bid you ask them, with my guarantee of no more tricks or threats.”
There were so many questions bobbling about in Brink’s head that he struggled to focus on any one in particular – the concussion he probably had wasn’t helping, either.
“Who – or what – was that? The one who attacked me in my room, with the crazy eyes.”
Mudry shook his head. “I do not know. An Essential, likely, but more I cannot say.”
“But how did you drive him off? It looked like a… a tree, or something, tried to hit him.”
“Simply a trick I picked up in my youth. No shopkeeper worth his coin should rely solely on his guards to protect his property.”
Every shopkeeper should be able to dodge a question, too, Brink thought, but he didn’t press the issue. He was just thankful to be alive. He was about to ask about the egg when he felt its comforting presence in his pocket. It was as if the thing knew he was going to ask of its whereabouts, and responded before he could. He breathed deeply a few times before continuing.
“Why did you get so angry at dinner?” It sounded childish to Brink even as it came out of his mouth, like a boy with pleading eyes asking his father…
“I am sorry, Mister Brink. I truly am.” Mudry looked down. “It was no fault of yours. I began to suspect that you may be an Essential and simply invited you to dinner to have a pleasant chat about it – something we had been unable to share since you began your apprenticeship. But I…” he paused, trying to find the right words, “My self-control is not as great as I had thought it was. I believe I have mastered myself once more, however, and will endeavor to never see it happen again. I cannot express how sincerely apologetic I am, Mister Brink, to you who relied upon my hospitality.”
Another incomplete answer, Brink thought, but this time it wasn’t enough.
“What are you, Mister Mudry? Are you an Essential?”
“No!” came the response, defensive. “No,” he said again, calmer now, “I am no Essential. Neither am I… human,” he continued, slowly, as if considering every word carefully. “The world is full of more than just humanity, young Mister Brink. Humans are the people of cities and paved ground. I am a person of the forest, of unpaved ground.” He stopped, and Brink waited for him to continue. It soon became obvious that Mudry was not going to, and he left it there. His head was hurting enough as it was.
“So,” Brink said after a minute or two of silence. “What now?”
“That is up to you, Mister Brink.” Mudry’s voice was tentative, measured. “I would invite you to return to my home, with the promise that no more will I attempt to… question you, in such a manner, again, and that if I do, you may seek restitution in any form you wish. If you decline, it will sadden me, but I would most certainly understand your reasoning for doing so.”
“The questions,” Brink started. “What are they about?”
“About?”
“You know. There was a…” he struggled to find the right words. “A pattern to them. You asked a question, then I did, then you. Like that.”
“Ah, I see. Yes,” Mudry began, hesitation marking his reticence. “That is how my people engage in discourse on matters of some import. In casual conversation, the rules are often waived, so long as all parties agree to do so. And so when I give you my word that I will not hold you to such rules again, that is what I mean. Does that satisfy you enough to return?”
Brink opened his mouth to decline, to stay as far from the frightening old man as he could, but memories flooded up to protest. Glimpses of his father, and a home that was no longer his; the cold, hard quarters he and many boys like him had shared in the Church; the shack he shared with a dozen other men as an indentured miner, and the desire to be cold and hungry if only it meant escaping that wretched place; and his cabin along the Plagueline, empty but for the murderous likhos who had tried to kill him.
Mudry wasn’t perfect, sure. But, Brink had to admit, the mysterious old shopkeer and his enigmatic leaning tower made a better home than he’d had in a long time. Plus, Crazy Eyes and his likhos were out there somewhere, and it was only a matter of time before they showed up again.
“Okay,” Brink agreed. “Okay. But warn me if you start to get… angry again, alright?”
Mudry smiled, wearily, beneath his cloudy beard. “We have a deal, Mister Brink.” He seemed unsure of what to say next. “Shall I get us some tea? It is getting late, and I fear I simply cannot sleep unless I have had my tea.”
“Sure,” Brink responded. He was asleep before Mudry returned with the tea.
-----
He awoke early the next morning – his training with Brielle had made him an early riser – still on the cot in Mudry’s living room. His headache had faded to little more than a nagging reminder of his encounter the day before, and his shoulder was a dull ache, rather than a stabbing pain, so his arm was at least workable. The cold floor sent a chill up his sore legs – everything seemed sore this morning – as he stood to make his way over to his familiar room. He found his few belongings arranged neatly in a box along the wall where the door to that room used to be. It was now simply a wall.
Brink scratched his head. He was sure this was where his room was. Maybe he’d hit his head harder than he thought.
“Ah, Mister Brink,” came a familiar, scholarly voice from behind him, “you are up quite early; if you need more rest, please feel free to continue using the bed in the living room. The renovations should take no more than a day.”
“The renovations?” came Brink’s bewildered response.
“It is no trouble, I assure you. I felt you deserved a bit more of my tower space allocated to your own personal use: a proper room of your own. Besides, I make it a point to change things around here regularly, anyway; no one enjoys a stale living environment.”
“Right,” he said, scratching his head. All things considered, Mudry’s ability to change the rooms of his tower seemingly at will was one of the least strange things Brink had learned about the enigmatic old man. He caught himself in the thought. Mudry had admitted he wasn’t human; perhaps old man wasn’t quite the right expression.
“I think I’ll go for a walk. While you finish your renovations.” He paused. “Do you think that would be…”
“Safe?” Mudry asked. “I leave that to your discretion, Mister Brink, but know that I did wound your attacker in our confrontation. And while I would allow you to hide within the confines of the tower for the foreseeable future, that does not seem to be the best way to solve your particular problem.
Brink only nodded in response and Mudry disappeared back up the tower’s spiral stairs. Brink moved his hand instinctively to his pocket and, finding the brass egg still there, walked out into the chill morning fog that still lingered over the city.
He considered trying to find Brielle, to tell her all that had happened and get her advice on the whole affair – and maybe even learn who or what Crazy Eyes was – but he realized he had no idea how to find her outside of training; they had met every day, sunrise to sunset, over the past months, and so he had no need to learn where she was staying – and, truthfully, he had never thought to ask. He needn’t ask Mudry, either; he had mentioned Brielle to him the night he first saw the moth atop his tower, and the old man had never heard of her. And even if he could find her, Brielle was hardly the coddling mentor. Brink had allies in her and Mudry, but Crazy Eyes, he understood, was his problem to solve.
He could hide, as Mudry had said. But he had learned early on that the only way to get someone to stop shoving you was to shove back harder, no matter how big – or powerful – they might be.

 

Chapter Fourteen

The city was gold as the morning came rapidly upon it, and petals of pink unfolded throughout its sky. And there was no question about it – it was cold. Summer had been mild at its hottest and autumn arrived early to see its half-hearted predecessor on its way; Brink’s breath appeared thick and clouded in the chill air before him. Still, it was one hell of a morning.

Brink listened first to the Song of the still-sleeping city. Most of that was performed by its non-human residents, the birds, the bugs, the dew, the wind. It was a prelude, an overture to another day in Cesta. Brink had heard it every morning for the past three months now – and likely countless more times before that, though he didn’t know to listen then – and yet today was different. It did not herald an awakening, as the morning Song normally did, but some ominous event not yet understood. The wind was muted, and it rang low as it blew through the market stalls. The bugs were cautious with their chirps, quick to pause at interruption. The birds were staccato. Brink slowed as he listened. Something big was coming today, and the city was bracing itself.

His interpretation was confirmed as he watched the city come to life. Normally a rapid spring to life, today’s awakening was slow, gradual, careful. People looked around cautiously before leaving their homes, as if searching for some threat they knew in their subconscious was there but that had not yet made itself known. Horses were slow to be coaxed, and their riders were slow to coax them. Brink’s skin crawled as he watched and listened.

He realized he had felt this way before, the day he escaped the mines almost six years ago. He didn’t know then what he was feeling, but he knew to pay attention to it, and when the riot broke out, he was ready to make his move.

But Brink knew this wasn’t the time to cut and run. He liked his new life, he liked Cesta, and he wasn’t going to abandon either one.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He needed to learn more about Crazy Eyes. The best place to start looking would be the Pickerel, the inn where he had been attacked. His feet had taken him in the inn’s direction on his morning walk without him even noticing – he had walked for nearly an hour as the city awoke and was now little more than ten minutes from the Pickerel’s front door. He finished the trek and walked inside.

The first floor was still a mess from the likhos’ rampage. Broken furniture had been moved from the center of the tavern and into a corner, where it sat heaped in a sad, crumbling pile. Two kids, probably no older than ten, swept the floor and scrubbed at the walls as the Pickerel’s grumpy bartender sat glowering behind the bar. There were no patrons in sight.

“You!” called Grumpy as Brink walked in. He didn’t sound happy to see him. “This is your fault! I demand payment fer prop’ty damage!”

“How the hell is this my fault?” Brink called back.

“Monsters come in here with some crazy-lookin’ bug-eyed bastard, smashin’ and bashin’ and makin’ a ruckus, and then they just run upstairs! To your room! And then one goes flyin’ out the window – broken now, glass everywhere! – and then, what do I see, but some old man carryin’ you outta your wrecked room! They came fer you and I demand payment fer damages!”

“I don’t see how I can be-” Brink paused. He could argue with the cranky old bartender all he wanted, but it wouldn’t get him anywhere. He changed tactics. “Look, put it on my tab, alright? I’ll pay it when I can, but only if you can tell me something about the guy that came in with those things.”

“If I can tell you somethin’! Now listen here, you clout-headed, sheep-biting clotpole, and I will tell ye somethin’!”

Once, in a darker time of Brink’s life, standing quietly and taking insults from someone like Grumpy would have been as good as suicide. But things were different now, he reminded himself. He didn’t have to worry about a knife in the back or a hand in the dark. And so he stood, leaning a bit on a post in the inn’s common room, as the barkeep worked his way through elaborate descriptions of his inadequacies with the occasional comment on his mother’s nightlife thrown in.

The insults became almost comical, once he’d detached himself from them. “Okay, okay, I get it, but those things stole my pack, and my money. If you tell me what you know, maybe I can find them, and then I can pay you back.” It was only kind of a lie, given his use of ‘maybe’. Brink had no intention of paying the barkeep back – it sure as hell wasn’t his fault the inn got ruined.

The cantankerous barkeep mulled this over, his mouth roving about as if chewing Brink’s words like cud. He concluded with a wary nod.

“Fine. But you got a week, find ‘em or not, and then I want my money!”

“Fine.” Brink walked up to the bar and sat down. “Can you tell me anything about the crazy guy who came in with the likhos?”

“The hell’s a likho?”

“The bird things.”

“That’s what those are? Y’hear ‘bout ‘em on the road, but never thought I’d see one in person. Thought they’d be taller.” He paused, ostensibly thinking. “Yeah, crazy-lookin’ guy came in with ‘em. Little fella in a robe. His eyes kept lookin’ around all quick-like – was right creepy, but by then them likhos had smashed the place up good ‘n’ proper, so I didn’t have the time to get a good look at him. Some old man with a long beard came in maybe a minute after that.”

That would be Crazy-Eyes, then Mudry. “Did you see the first guy leave?”

Cantankerous nodded. “Sure did. Jumped out the back window from the second floor. Saw him land out that window yonder.”

That was something, at least. “Did you see which way he went after he landed?”

He thought a moment, his eyes going up. “Uh, left, I think.”

Great. Left. Nice and specific, Brink thought. “Did you see anything else that might help me find him?”

The barkeep shook his head. “Didn’t exactly sign the guestbook, did he? Already cleaned up out back, but yer free to look around where he landed, if ye want.”

“Thanks. It’s something, at least. I’ll bring your money as soon as I can.”

“You damn well better, you pox-marked, fat-kidneyed, dim-eyed, useless-” 

Brink decided he could take a lesson on insults from Cantankerous another time and walked outside. He circled around the back, where Crazy-Eyes had landed after his leap out the window, and looked around. His assailant had landed on a cobblestone street – not exactly a soft impact – but left behind little. The debris from the window had already been swept into Cantankerous’s rubbish crate, and so Brink wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for. He decided to listen to the Song.

As it had been this morning, the Song was ominous, wary, but it still held its regular patterns. It recognized its own and incorporated its pieces together to form harmony, even if that harmony currently seemed afraid of its own shadow – but one piece stood out. Something nearby sang a rancid, dissident note. It didn’t just not fit into the city’s Song – it seemed to actively work against it. 

Brink looked about for the source of this disharmony. It didn’t take him long to find it. A small brown smudge on a splintered piece of window frame – almost imperceptible to see, but Brink could Hear it – practically screamed at him, and at everything else around it. He picked it up and focused on the sound. If he could find more sources of discord like this… 

He turned left and walked down the street, holding the splinter out like some sort of macabre divining rod and paying little heed to the odd looks this earned him from passersby. It wasn’t long before he found another splotch of blood along the cobblestone road. It was making the same horrid racket the substance on the window frame was. Which meant the brown smudge was Crazy-Eyes’s blood, and it screamed louder in the presence of the splinter. They’re all parts of a whole, Brink realized. And just like the Song of the city, the melody came out when the notes were together. He could use the stick to follow the blood trail. It might not lead him directly to Crazy-Eyes, but it would lead him as far as his attacker had bled.

The next blood splotch was farther down the road, screaming as if wanting to be reunited with its fellows. It would have been almost impossible to follow the trail by sight alone, but now that he knew what to listen for – and had a bit of the dried blood with him – it would have been hard not to notice it. 

Brink walked on. More blood, turning down a street heading south. Splotch, splotch, and then a stain large enough to still be visible to his eyes – Crazy Eyes must have been hurt, and from more than just crashing through the window. Mudry must have been right when he said he’d gotten a good hit on him. At last he rounded a bend and saw it – a handprint in dried blood on the side of a brick wall, easily visible, and screaming out its horrid note. Brink stepped back to see what the building was.

The fortified stone structure he saw was familiar to him, though he had never had reason to enter the manor house of Rurik, current Nyas of Cesta. Nyas, as Brink understood it, was the title the leaders of the rebellion fifteen years ago gave themselves when they overthrew the tyrant Aszlo. None of them wanted to call themselves ‘king’ or anything that implied such, and so chose the ancient title for the oligarchs of old. When Brink was small, his father had been sure to teach him the history of their once-proud kingdom. A land of prosperity built on the unity of its many peoples, he used to say. Then he died, and Brink was barely a teenager when the war ended. He imagined his father would have been heartbroken to see the results of the war, when Pravidlo’s leaders decided to call it quits on unity.

Either way, the blood trail stopped here, at the corner of one of the walls surrounding the seat of Cesta’s power, and so too did any chance Brink had of getting at the one who made it. There was no way he would be getting in there. Maybe it was for the best. Crazy Eyes had nearly killed him the day before, after all. And at least now he knew something more about his mysterious attacker, if only that he had disappeared into Rurik’s manor. He could bring that to Brielle in the morning, when their training was to resume. Maybe she would know more.

He decided to head to the market, now that the city was waking up. But as he turned to leave, his glowing Osud flitted past his vision and drifted back up to a third story window of the manor house. There, behind the glass, stood Crazy Eyes. 

 Brink wasn’t sure if he was looking at him or not, but he was smiling.

 

Chapter Fifteen

It didn’t surprise Brink at all that the marketplace proved just as subdued as the rest of the city had that morning. Merchants hawked half-heartedly at the passersby, who proved equally half-hearted in their desire to purchase anything from the hawkers. The porters, strong men accustomed to making their living carrying heavy sacks of grain and crates of goods, walked more slowly, heads down to ensure their feet fell carefully. And while none but Brink heard it, the Song of the market fell to half tempo, adopting a minor key to lend the whole affair an ominous air.
Brink gulped. He couldn’t help it.
The events of the past few days alone should have been enough to send him running for his cabin along the Plagueline, but add in the deep foreboding the city was showing him now and it was almost more than he could bear. The only reason he wasn’t running was because he was sure he would prove easier prey in the barrens beyond the city walls than he would within watch of the city guard, not to mention the enigmatic Brielle and mysterious Mudry who could, potentially, protect him better than any watchman.
No. Brink stopped his walk, shaking his head. There was more to it than that. He’d done enough running.
---
He was only ten when he first entered the Zelezo mines. His father put him in the care of the Church of Perun when he went away to war and never returned.  And when debt collectors came to collect on some debt unknown to Brink, the Church of Perun – god of strength and mercy – quickly gave the young ward up for indentured servitude in an iron mine to pay them off.
It would only be for a year or two, Velnas Palatine had told him. The Nasi were the priests of Perun, and the Velnasi were their bosses, and that covered the extent of Brink’s knowledge of the religion. They had tried to teach him more, but the young boy much preferred the wondrous stories his father wove to the dull and often melancholic parables the Nasi preached. Eventually, after catching Brink telling some of the other boys how the first tree came to be – a man waiting for his love’s return waited so long he began to take root and grow leaves – they gave up on their own teaching and settled on quarantining him and his blasphemous fables from impressionable ears.
Anyway, Palatine, a kindly-enough but lazy and ultimately uninterested (and uninteresting) middle-aged man, had told Brink his servitude in the mines would not be long, nor would it prove any more difficult than his labors for the church. After all, he was ten, and entirely too small a boy to do any actual mining – and certainly his father would return to pay his debts by the time he grew enough for that to no longer be true – so he would likely wind up simply cleaning and delivering meals.
Which had proven true, to an extent. His work, while often made unpleasant by the lack of pleasant company, was simple. But his father never returned, and Brink grew into a young man capable of hefting a pickaxe earlier than most.
---
Brink walked the market streets until he saw a break in the gloom: a merchant, barrel-chested and towering above the passersby, selling his potatoes with such bombastic enthusiasm that he quite thoroughly compensated for the four sullen-voiced vendors on either side of him. 
Livingston. Brink smiled. He couldn’t imagine what calamity it would take to make such a man gloomy, and the rest of the dour city looked almost silly in comparison.
It didn’t take long for the potato man to spot Brink, sparse as the streets were. He did a slow double-take, rubbing his moustache as he did. When he was confident in his identification of his friend from several months before, he bellowed out a greeting that Brink would likely have heard from three blocks farther up the road. Livingston’s grin grew into a face-consuming smile as the young scavenger approached.
“Brink, m’boy! How’ve you been, then? I was just talking to Lily about you, I was, wondering when you’d turn up, and sure as daisies, here you are.” He emphasized the point with a clap to the back friendly enough to make Brink take a bracing step forward.
“Things have been… weird, lately, Livingston. Kind of a long story.”
“Weird, eh?” The potato man gave a considering twirl to his moustache, looking around surreptitiously. “Aye, I can see what you mean. Seems everyone ‘round here has a hard case o’ the jitters. Lily and I just got in to town a few days ago – fine enough harvest this season, potatoes likin’ the chill as they do; never did warm up much this year, eh? – but folks haven’t been buying. Almost like they haven’t the guts to come up and pay the coin for ‘em.”
Brink nodded. “It’s been like this all day. It feels like something’s coming.” He rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how to explain it to the big man. “It’s like they know trouble’s coming, but it isn’t a kind of trouble they’ve ever heard of before, and they don’t know how to prepare for it, or even if they can.”
Livingston arched an eyebrow. “Now that there sounded right mysterious of you, Brink. What do you know?” He seemed ready to ask more but a potential customer reluctantly approached; Livingston had to practically force a pair of potatoes into the man’s basket.
“It’s kind of a long story.”
The potato man scoffed. “Not like I’m sellin’ much now, am I? I was planning on meetin’ Lily back at the inn for midday meal. Why don’t you join us and tell us what’s goin’ on in this bleedin’ town?”
He considered evading the question entirely, but decided talking about the events of the last few days might help him process them better. Besides, he’d found Crazy Eyes already – he just needed to think of a way to shove him harder than he’d been shoved. He nodded. “Sure. Tell me where you’re staying and I’ll meet you there.”
---
He walked around town a bit more, just to listen to its Song. The busiest spots in the city seemed to suffer the melancholy the worst, though he found the happiest places resistant to it. The local schoolyard was a joyous harmony made of the laughter of play – its Song was usually happy, Brink had found, but the disparity between it and the surrounding streets was so stark as to make the school seem to float on its own in a bright bubble. He found similar patches of upbeat melodies, though they were few and always isolated. He’d never seen the city’s Song so strange before – he wondered if it was common, and added it to the list of things to ask Brielle.
Around noon Brink headed to the inn where Livingston said he was staying – the same one he had stayed on his last visit, and likely many more before that – and found it was also an island of good cheer. He wondered how much Livingston’s rooming here had to do with that.
The potato couple was chatting happily at a table in the quiet but content common room, near the hearth. They waved him over and smiled genuinely as he approached. Brink found himself both uncomfortable and strangely pleased at that. He’d never had anyone look quite so happy to see him before – at least, not since his father. He quietly greeted the couple and sat down.
“Lily, m’dear, you remember young Brink,” Livingston stated more than asked.
She smiled, giving her husband a look Brink couldn’t quite read but was sure it had mischief in it. “Of course I do. How are you, Anthony?” Brink had forgotten she called him that, but again he found himself pleased by it.
“I’m…” he paused, searching for the right word. “It’s been hectic around here lately.”
“Weird,” Livingston interjected sagely, then scrambled to complete the thought. “The word he used before. Weird.”
“Weird, hmm?” She leaned in to take a closer look at Brink and her face grew concerned. “You look like you’ve been through the wars, young man. What happened?”
Brink rubbed his shoulder subconsciously, thinking on what to say. “Someone attacked me in my room last night.” He was sure he could have phrased that more gently, led up to it in a way that was less alarming. He silently berated himself – Hi, haven’t seen you in a while, I was attacked last night, how are you?
Livingston’s eyes grew wide at that, but it was Lily’s face that shifted from concern to anger. “Attacked? By whom? Have you told the guard?” Her eyes narrowed and she looked towards her husband. “This city used to be a safe place, and now seems there’s nothing but thieves here. Thieves and brigands.”
“No, no, it wasn’t thieves.” It was scary crone monsters and their mad-eyed master who could lift everything in a room and slam it to the ground simply by blinking, he thought. Now how to tell them that? “Do you remember when I told you about that egg I found? I was attacked by a coven of likhos when I first brought it back to my cabin.”
Lily looked confused, but her husband nodded. “Aye, I remember you mentioning that.” He turn to Lily. “A likho’s a little crone-bird creature. One eye but plenty hate enough for two. Saw my share of ‘em in the war. Old Aszlo loved ‘em.”
“Well,” Brink continued when Lily cautiously nodded, “more of them attacked the inn where I was staying, just last night. They made a mess of the common room, but they were definitely coming straight for me. And with them was this… man. He was giving the likhos orders, and he demanded I give him the egg. When I didn’t he and the likhos attacked.”
Livington’s eyebrow arched at that, but Lily just looked on, her face calm now with the intensity of listening. “How did you escape?” she asked.
“Mister Mudry helped.”
“Mudry?” Livingston asked. “That kooky ol’ geezer in the tower that’s fixin’ to fall over?”
“That’s the one,” Brink confirmed, “but I don’t think it’s going to fall over any time soon. He and I had just had an argument, and he was coming to apologize when he saw I was being attacked. I guess he scared them off.” It wasn’t a lie, not really. It just left out the parts that could be dangerous to the potato couple, like how Mudry was really some kind of forest creature and Crazy Eyes was probably an Essential – or something like it. Livingston was a big man, but as far as Brink knew, there was nothing special about him – if Brink got him involved with monsters and Essence, he’d be sorely outmatched.
Livingston looked bewildered at the idea of the fragile old man that was Mudry coming to anybody’s rescue, but Lily nodded once, determinedly. “Then we’ll send him a fine thank-you. Dear, why don’t you make him that sweet potato pie you’re so good at?”
The idea of baking a pie seemed to snap Livingston out of his confusion, and a smile crept across his face again. “Soundin’ like I should do just that. The guards ever catch that scoundrel who led them likhos into the city after you?”
Brink shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m not even sure they know who they’re looking for, or if they’ll know him if they do see him. But I know where to find him.”
Both husband and wife responded to that immediately, likely something about how he should know better than to go looking for trouble and should leave it to the guards, but Brink’s attention was suddenly elsewhere. A young man, no older than sixteen, crossed the threshold of the inn and began to look about the common room purposefully. He was unassuming enough to avoid the attention of the rest of the patrons, but they had not the trained attention to detail of an Essential; Brink could have told him how many buttons were missing from his shirt, sleeves included, the moment he walked in the door, and so he certainly didn’t miss the fact that there was something off about the young man. His movements - jerky, stiff, and lifeless – looked more akin to those of a marionette imitating reality than someone of flesh and blood. Brink shifted his weight in his chair and brought his hand to his pick-axe.
The boy saw Brink in the corner and didn’t waste a second before lunging at him, his movements now even more like a puppet’s – it looked less like he had leapt from his position with his legs and more like he had been pulled by strings suddenly and with great force towards Brink.
Brink was ready, but he had hardly expected an attack to come with such speed. He brought the hammer end of his pick out of his belt just in time to collide it with the leaping boy’s chest. It was far from a proper swing, but the speed of the thing’s leap did most of Brink’s work for him – a great crack sounded through the inn as the hammer shattered the creature’s ribs. The force still drove Brink backwards in his chair, and he landed on his back with enough impact to cloud his vision with stars and remind him painfully of his injured shoulder. The leaping boy landed atop him, though it seemed most of the life had fled him already.
Up close, he smelled of death, and his eyes were a pallid white. He whispered a single sentence, his breath smelling of rot and decay, then collapsed. But the voice was not that of a young boy; it was the same eerie, gentlemanly voice that had demanded the brass egg just the night before.
“I have her.”
Crazy Eyes.

 

Chapter Sixteen

“What the ruddin’ blazes was that?” Livingston shouted, he and Lily both rising to their feet. Brink shifted his body weight and used his uninjured arm to push the corpse off of him. He was sure the boy had been dead well before Brink ever saw him, but that didn’t make having a corpse on top of him any less jarring. He swallowed to keep down the vomit rising in his throat, not yet risking the motion to stand.
“Anthony? Are you okay?” Lily asked worriedly as her husband checked over the corpse of the boy. The big man was shaking his head and whispering something to his wife by the time Brink answered.
“Yeah.” He felt down his body, checking for wounds that he didn’t feel. Satisfied, he continued. “I’m fine.”
Livingston helped him to his feet. Brink leaned on the wall when he was fully upright, still not confident in his ability to keep himself from throwing up. “He’s dead,” Brink said, though he was sure the potato couple already knew. 
They nodded somberly, Livingston putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Ye were just defendin’ yourself, lad. Ye’ve no reason for guilt.”
Brink shook his head. “No, I mean he was dead before he came at me. He smells like he’s been rotting for days. And he said something before I rolled him off me. ‘I have her.’” As the potato man knelt to examine the corpse again, Brink noticed something off. He had just been attacked by a supernaturally fast teenage boy, who now was lying dead on the tavern floor, and no one in the inn had moved a bit. No panic, no concern, no rush to fetch the guards. The room was still.
He looked around. Everyone else in the common room, patrons and staff, had collapsed where they were; Lily gasped as she came to the same realization, and she ran to the nearest figure. “Still breathing,” she said, shaking the form. “It’s as if he’s asleep, but I can’t wake him.” She checked a few more collapsed forms, all yielding the same results.
It made sense that Brink had been left awake, because the whole setup was clearly meant to deliver him a message. But why were Livingston and Lily still conscious? Was that part of the message too, or something else?
Livingston stood from his inspection of the corpse. “Aye, the boy’s right – he smells like meat set out in the sun for a day or three. This one wasn’t breathing when he walked in the door.”
He sure sounded calm about admitting a corpse had just walked in and attacked someone, Brink thought. Brink was still shaking from the experience, and Livingston’s confirmation of his attacker’s less-than-alive status did nothing to calm his nerves. The potato man, collected as he was in the face of it all, must have seen plenty of horrors in the war.
“’I have her,’” Livingston repeated, his placid tone calming Brink’s nerves a bit. “Who’s talkin’, there, and who does he have?”
It didn’t take long for Brink to figure it out, now that the adrenaline was wearing off. There was only one person ‘her’ could be. He didn’t have a lot of friends. “He must be the one who attacked me last night, with the likhos. The voice sounded like him. And she is probably Brielle, my-” he wasn’t sure what to call Brielle. “My teacher. She’s been training me for the past three months.”
Livingston nodded, a thoughtful hand reaching to his moustache. “And you say you know where to find the blackguard what took her?”
Brink nodded, but Lily moved in to interject. “Then we should tell the city guard. No good ever comes from going out looking for trouble on your own.”
“That… may be a problem,” Brink said, running a hand through his hair. “He’s holed up in the Nyas manor. I tracked him from the inn where he attacked him there, and saw him standing by one of the windows.”
The potato man groaned. “There goes any chance we had o’ gettin' help from the guards to get your friend back.”
Lily gave Brink a look. “Your teacher was kidnapped by someone staying in the Nyas manor, which means we can’t go after him and probably can’t go to the city guard about it, all over some egg? Have you considered just giving it to him?”
Brink shook his head. “I tried. Didn’t work.”
“If he asked for a trade,” Lily said, seriously, “would you give the egg for your teacher?”
“Of course I would!” Brink answered. He wasn’t even sure what the damned thing did, besides the one time it made using his powers a bit easier. He was sure if he had more time with it, he could figure it out, now that he had a hint – and seemed to have made a connection with it. But none of that was worth Brielle’s life.
“Aye, that’s all well and good,” Livingston interjected, looking down at the corpse on the floor, “but do ye really expect such a character to honor a bargain?”
“I suppose not,” Lily added.
“But we have to do something.” Brink paused, looking at the potato couple. “Or at least, I do. You two don’t owe me anything.” He’d never really had anyone to protect before, but Livingston and Lily were good people – it didn’t seem right to get them involved in his troubles. And they had taken to him so quickly – what had he ever done to warrant such kindness?
“Hogwash,” Livingston replied, his whiskers twitching indignantly. “Some deader what’s got no right walkin’ about barges in on our fine meal and says he’s kidnapped a girl, and you’re sayin’ we ought to just pick up our dainty little skirts and skitter away all scared-like?” He harrumphed.
Lily didn’t smile, given the circumstances, but her eyes took on a comforting shine. “What my husband is trying to say is that we’d feel awful if we didn’t try to help get your friend back.” She turned to her husband. “And just because he was in the Nyas manor doesn’t mean we can’t go to the city guard. Surely there were plenty of witnesses at the inn who saw him attack with the likhos.”
Brink shook his head. “Even if they would help – and if he is a friend of the Nyas, that doesn’t seem likely – Crazy Eyes might kill Brielle for involving them. I don’t know.” He sighed, pulling out the bronze egg and rolling it over in his palm. “If I thought he’d let Brielle go for it, I’d gladly give this damn thing over to him. But since we can’t trust him to do that, we need to force him to. Gain the advantage.”
“Sounds like ye’ve got a plan, lad,” Livingston remarked.
“I think so. But I need to find someone, first.” A groan came from one of the collapsed patrons, and Brink slipped out before they could regain their senses – no use bringing attention to himself. The potato couple could cover for him.
---
Brink spent an hour walking up and down the market district, not entirely sure how he was going to find her but certain that if he she was to be found, it would be here. The people in the market were, if anything, more lethargic than they had been that morning. Shoulders were visibly slumped, and, as Brink was looking around, a heavyset porter bumped feebly into him. The man said nothing, readjusted his course, and continued on, as if he had barely even registered Brink’s presence.
This isn’t just an ominous feeling, Brink thought. Something is affecting these people.
“What is wrong with everyone today?” a familiar voice beside him asked. “I’ve got twelve coin purses already, and it’s not even noon. Twelve. One lady actually saw me take her money and just kept on walking. At this rate, I’ll be living like a duchess by tomorrow evening. I almost feel bad about it.”
Sybil looked, for all the gloom of the city around her, like a child with too many sweets to choose from. Her brown hood was down, revealing a mischievous face framed by short, dark hair falling in an uncombed mess that reached just to her neck. She was, Brink thought, just a year or two younger than he. But for all that Sybil tried to look unassuming, it was her eyes that made her stand out to Brink. They were a dark green nearest the center and grew brighter outwards from there, ending in a ring of gold that seemed almost to shine all on their own. They looked like nothing so much as a golden sunrise above a green sea. He wondered how anyone with such striking eyes managed to blend in enough to rob people.
“Hey, uh, you alright there, chief? You’re staring. It’s almost enough to make a girl blush.”
“Y-Yeah,” Brink stammered, turning back to face the crowded market street. “Sorry.” She stood beside him, shoulder-to-shoulder, when she spoke to him, as if to make observations on the people walking past.
“Good,” she said, accentuating it with a single nod of her head. “I was worried you’d joined the ranks of the walking dead, here.” She grinned, effortlessly snatching a small coin purse off the belt of a passerby. Any other time, such a move would have been painfully obvious to onlookers, but no one seemed phased by it. “So,” Sybil continued, pocketing her earnings within her deceptively small coat, “you’ve been looking for me. Why? And don’t give me that look – you’ve been walking in circles and zigzags for the past hour looking around, and never once at something to buy. Looking to give me another lecture on the-” she plucked an apple from a passing basket and took a bite, continuing to speak as she chewed, “-immorality of theft?”
Brink glowered at her.
Sybil barked out a laugh. “Oh come on. You’re a scavenger – the only difference between our jobs is that the people I rob are still around to care.”
“Which means someone loses when you steal,” Brink replied, though his voice wasn’t angry.
“Fair enough,” she agreed, nodding. “So what do you want?” It wasn’t a hostile question – she seemed just as comfortable around him, eating her newfound apple as she spoke.
“There’s this guy,” he started, haltingly, “and I, uh, need to learn more about him.”
“Uh huh,” Sybil replied. “I’m not big on information, chief. Sorry to disappoint.”
“No, no, I don’t need information from you. I need you to help me get it.”
“I’m not seeing a big difference there.”
“Well, what I mean is… I know where he lives. Or at least, I know where he’s staying in town.”
Sybil motioned for him to hurry up. “Just spit it out, scavenger.”
“I need to break into his house,” he blurted out, then finished with, “and I could really use your help to do it.”
The thief paused just short of taking another bite. “I thought you didn’t rob people who were still around to care about it.”
“I’m not going to rob him!” Brink said, defensively. “At least, not unless he has something I can use against him. He’s taken a friend of mine, and I aim to get her back.”
“And you think your friend is in the house?” She lowered the apple from her mouth, turning her sunrise eyes to look at Brink.
“I don’t know. If she is, I want to get her out. If she isn’t, I want to know more about him. Learn something I can use against him.”
“So you are going to rob him,” she said, grinning.
“I, uh,” Brink replied, after a short pause. “I guess. Maybe.”
“Okay,” she said, turning her eyes back to the market and taking another bite of her apple, “let’s say I help you be the hero. What do I get out of it?”
It was Brink’s turn to look at her. “I figured you could, you know, find your payment inside.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he sighed. She wasn’t making this easy for him.
“You can rob him.”
Her grin widened. “I like the way you think, scavenger. Yeah, this could work.” She tossed the apple into the air and caught it with her other hand. “So who’s the mark?”
“I don’t know his name. I call him Crazy Eyes.” She laughed, and he reddened a bit. “Yeah, well, you’ll know what I’m talking about if you see him. And he’s staying in the Nyas manor.”
“Robbing royalty, huh?” she asked, her grin fading somewhat. “Not exactly an easy target.”
“If you’re not up for it…”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” she replied, giving him a look. “I know your game, playing on my thief’s pride. And of course I’m up for it. But I want insurance in case we don’t find enough… reimbursement inside.”
“I don’t have much coin.”
“Then you’ll pay me back in services rendered. Some good marks around here are two-man jobs. I help you, and if I don’t get enough goodies, you help me ‘til I do.”
Brink thought for a moment. He wasn’t big on robbery – most people who sell things for a living aren’t – but he needed the thief’s help. “Fine. Do you know where Mudry’s Curios is?”
“The leaning tower of crap?” she asked.
“It’s not-” he sighed at her returning grin. “Yes. Meet me there tonight, at sunset, and we can talk details.”
“Of course you’d be using the biggest collection of useless junk in town as your home base. I’ll be there.” She turned to walk off, then looked back and winked one of her sunrise eyes at him. “You’d better be ready.”

 

Interlude

The Nine Years War

“The greatest irony of our land is that most people, of all eight cities, either don’t believe in or don’t understand Essence,”Brielle began, Brink sitting across from her on the lip of the statue where she had tested him. “It’s more than just a source of power for a select few born with the trait to wield it, after all; it’s the stuff of the soul, the stuff that makes us different from the animals and monsters, and what binds its members together. Every individual person was born with his own rhythm, his own beat to the Song of Essence, just as he’s born with a heartbeat. Maybe he can’t hear the rhythm, or see it, nor does he even know of its existence, but his life is tuned to it. It’s... inescapable.

“Similarly, people who live around each other – a people – start to tune in to each other. Little by little, the rhythms of the individuals shift to meet with those of others to create a rhythm of the whole. This isn’t an umbrella rhythm, created arbitrarily to encompass everyone who happens to live within a certain boundary, but a measured and balanced average of the rhythms of everyone involved. When a new individual joins a community, or an old one leaves, the rhythm is changed, if ever-so-slightly. A community, then, is like its own living entity, one that waxes and wanes with seasonal travelers, immigrants, and the death of its members. It is possible for two cities within even a few dozen miles of one another to have such disparate rhythms as to not have a single similarity between them.” She paused, looking over at Brink for a bit before nodding. “I’m going to tell you about the Nine Years War. The real story.” Brink could only nod. He knew about the war, of course, and he didn’t know how it related to what his mentor had been explaining to him, but everything Brielle said seemed both connected and important.

 “Fifteen years ago,” she continued, “Strateny, Cesta, and seven other cities were part of a kingdom called Pravidlo, which was ruled by the tyrant Aszlo. His laws were despotic, his universal punishment for crimes to put the criminal into slavery for either his army or his workforce; neither position had a very long life expectancy. He was a real asshole. A secret group of leaders from the nine cities met to hatch a plan of rebellion, and the Nine Years War began.

“We don’t need to talk about every little detail of the war here; it’s the outcome of the war and the impacts it has had on our land that are relevant. You know Aszlo was beaten. But what you probably don’t know about him is that he was an immensely powerful Essential, and so were his subordinates. That’s why he was able to survive for nearly a decade against the overwhelming rebel force: he and his cadre drained Essence from the people, both loyal and rebel, and used it to wield terrible power against their enemies, power that could boil the blood of an army or sink the land from beneath their feet. They probably would have won, too, if the rebels hadn’t recruited their own Essentials to shield them.”

“Wait,” Brink said, interrupting for the first time. “Where did they get their Essentials? How many of them - of us - are there?”

Brielle shook her head. “We’re everywhere, and there are more of us than you might think. We just prefer to keep a low profile most of the time. Aszlo didn’t give our kind the best reputation.” She looked at Brink and he nodded his understanding.

“When the war ended, the leaders of the rebellion decided to split into city-states, rather than try to forge another uniting kingdom. A lot of Essentials out there think this decision came largely from how different the Songs of those cities were, and that it had only been through the might of Aszlo that they had been united at all. 

“But here’s the point I want to make with telling you all this. The worst war crime Aszlo committed was with the power of Essence, the rebels used that same power to overthrow him, and its very existence is the reason the cities decided not to band together again. Essence be used to bind, destroy, protect, unite, and separate, and it all depends on who shapes it. In other words, it’s like anything else. Being an Essential gives you the power to make changes to the world around you, but it’s not the only thing out there that does. Never forget that.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

“Ah, Mister Brink, welcome back. Luckily, you’ve arrived when I have few customers to attend to,” Brink glanced around at Mudry’s normally-empty shop which was, he noticed, still empty, “so I can show you to your new quarters. I hope they are to your liking; I must admit to having taken no small degree of satisfaction in their fabrication.” The old man stroked his wispy beard excitedly – or at least excitedly for Mudry, which would likely be interpreted as mild interest on anyone else – and led Brink up the winding stairs of his tower.
Mudry’s seven-story tower leaned like the peak of a pointed hat – the fourth floor was a bit uneven, the fifth leaned enough to require handrails to navigate, the sixth had a sturdy climber’s rope that visitors would need to hold on to in order to plumb its depths, and the seventh leaned so heavily it nearly righted itself out again, only with the walls, floor, and ceiling all changing roles. Brink had rarely gone above the third floor for that very reason, but now Mudry brought him up to the fourth, heading for the southern end of the tower – downhill – and while the old man seemed to have no trouble keeping his normal pace, Brink had to turn his feet sideways and move slower and slower the closer they came to the southern wall. At last they reached the far side, having navigated the precariously-balanced shelves filling the room without knocking a single priceless oddity over, and Mudry gestured at a brass cage held aloft by a hook on the wall. A moth the size of Brink’s hand fluttered around inside.
“Here we are, Mister Brink. More comfortable than your previous accommodations, I’m sure you’ll find.”
Brink looked at the cage. “I’m not sure the moth would appreciate a roommate,” he said humorlessly.
“This is but the threshold, and the cage, a doorknob.” With that, he tugged on the cage, and the wall – attached by the cage’s brass hook – came with it, revealing an opening the size of a generous doorway. The old man gestured inside.
Brink’s eyes grew wide when he saw what was beyond. Through the door was a sitting room, easily twice the size of Brink’s previous bedroom. The walls were a light beige and decorated with oil paintings of strange places and beautiful scenery; a decorative loveseat and a wide, comfortable-looking grey chair sat on one end of the room, turned to face both each other and the large granite fireplace crackling with a homey fire. Bookshelves lined the walls, made of rich oak and filled with leather-bound books of various colors, sizes, and ages. And, perhaps strangest of all, its floor was level and quite at odds with the sloping tower they entered from. Two oak doors led out of the room along different walls.
“I chose some of my favorite books for your perusal, during what little spare time you seem to have.” He paused. “I trust you can read?”
Brink nodded. His father had taught him to, in a room not much different from this one.
“Good,” Mudry responded. “Then you should enjoy these.” The old man nodded, giving no further explanation.
Brink gaped at his new suite, dumbfounded. “Mister Mudry,” he started, speaking slowly, “this… this is too much. I don’t have nearly enough coin to pay you for this.” Mudry may have proven himself an ally, but he had also proven himself a powerful and frightening creature – Brink really didn’t want to be in his debt.
Mudry scowled. “I failed in my duty as host while you were within my household. This space is my recompense, and is yours for a century and a day, or as long as you would have it.” He scrutinized the room with a look of vague disappointment on his face. “Do you accept this token of apology and renewed hospitality?”
The question sounded serious – Brink’s answer would be important to Mudry. Perhaps a few months ago, before he found the egg, the scavenger would have considered such an offer a trick or a trap, but he found he had changed quite a bit since then. Gregor Mudry saved his life when Crazy Eyes attacked, yes, but he had also been the closest thing Brink had had to a friend in his years as a scavenger. He knew his answer the moment the question was asked, and paused only to show Mudry that he understood it was a question worth considering.
“I accept your apology and am grateful for your hospitality.” He said the words solemnly, like he would a vow. He didn’t fully understand what Mudry meant about his duty as a host, as if it were some palpable thing, but the solemnity felt appropriate.
His answer seemed to satisfy Mudry. The old man’s shoulders visibly relaxed, as if some burden had been lifted off them. “Very good. I have already had your things unpacked in your bedroom. My servants will restock your larder when it gets low.” He gave Brink a small bow. “I will leave you to get settled in. I shall be downstairs if you need anything.” The old man turned and left, walking back uphill towards the spiral staircase. He had nearly reached it when Brink called out to him. He had nearly forgotten about Sybil, and Mudry seemed to take the host-guest relationship pretty seriously.
“Mister Mudry, one more thing,” he said, feeling a bit childish for what he was about to ask. “I’ve invited a friend to meet me here tonight, to help me learn more about the person who attacked me. Is that okay?”
Mudry smiled in return. “Yes, Mister Brink, it is quite alright. You may invite guests whenever you wish.”
With that, the old man headed down the stairs, and Brink turned and began to explore his new home. The dining room was a miniature version of the one he had had his ill-fated dinner with Mudry in – a polished wood floor with dark red walls lightened by a waist-high beige trim. The round oak table and its four chairs matched the rest of the furniture in the suite, and they made his dining room big enough to accommodate guests but small enough to not seem lonely were he eating by himself. Along the far wall was the kitchen, with a long table covered in bowls, plates, cups, and utensils of various sizes beside a cooking fire in a nice but not extravagant stone stove. 
The door to the side of the table, as Mudry had said, led to the larder. It was big enough to walk in, though would be cramped for two people, and its many shelves held sacks of grain, corn, rice, potatoes, and many things Brink had never heard of before, as well as boxes of dried meats and glass jars of what he assumed to be jams, jellies, and other preserves. All were neatly organized and labeled. Brink could likely live off the contents of this larder for a year if he stretched it, and Mudry had promised to keep it stocked.
Brink had some experience with starvation. The Church considered cutting off food for a few days acceptable punishment for most infractions, and the foremen in the Zelezo mines could hardly be called diligent in their feeding of the miners. The worst of it was the uncertainty of his first days on his own as a scavenger. Would he make enough coin selling his findings to feed him until the next trip to Cesta? Questioning whether or not you will have enough to eat in the coming days is like walking along the precipice of a great drop, waiting for an unlucky gust of wind to send you over. It’s living with a constant, hovering fear.
Seeing the larder was an almost palpable relief to the scavenger – he was provided for now, and while he doubted he would ever settle down to grow old and fat off of Mudry’s generosity, something in him breathed easier knowing that he would never again have to worry about going hungry. 
He would pay Mudry back for that, even if the old man considered a century and a day’s worth of hospitality a fair apology for an unpleasant dinner.
He headed next to his bedroom, doubling back through the sitting room, and a surprised gasp escaped him when he opened the door. The room had a grass-green carpet and sky-blue walls with swirls of white. Brink imagined the colors would have clashed had they not seemed so natural; it looked more like a grassy meadow than a bedroom. And there, standing in the center of the room like a pillar, was a small but vibrant oak tree, growing from the carpet and reaching up to the domed ceiling of the room – a ceiling painted a hundred shades of forest green with gaps of whites and yellows, like a canopy on a sunny day. Brink had never seen anything like it. The furniture in the room – the bed, a nightstand at its side and a small chest at its feet, a chest of drawers along one wall, and a standing closet along the other – were all made of oak, and despite the natural feel of the room, did not seem out of place at all. A carefully hidden door at the corner of the room led to a privy.
This was a home, he thought, looking around the room that was as close to a forest as one could get inside a building, one lovingly crafted and with care. Then he remembered Crazy Eyes, and that Sybil would arrive soon to help him break into the madman’s room in the manor of the Nyas, and his face grew grim again. He opened the closet to find his crossbow, which he slung over his back and covered with a dark cloak. He looked at the glass vials he had used against the likhos who had attacked him at his cabin and decided to leave them here – he could control fire now, after all, and if he was going to be climbing up a stone wall and into a window, he didn’t want to have to worry about breaking one and spilling its volatile contents all over himself. He felt for his pickaxe at his side – it had been there all day, but he wanted to be sure he had it if he had to confront Crazy Eyes again – and found it resting comfortably along his belt. He collected a coil of rope and slung it over his shoulder, and he was ready. Then he felt the egg in his pocket pulse, faintly, as if only to remind him it was there. Should he take it with him, in case he needed its power or even so he could trade it for Brielle if the opportunity presented itself? He considered it, then shook his head, as if replying to the egg. If he were captured, the egg would be more valuable to him out of Crazy Eyes’s hands, where he could bargain with it. He left it tucked safely away in the closet and left the suite.
He was momentarily confused when he opened the door to leave, seeing the floor outside his suite rise steadily and everything on it tilt along with it. Then he remembered his own room was level and the tower’s room adjacent to it was not. It gave him an odd sort of vertigo that made him feel like he was standing on a wall looking down at the floor. He ran a hand through his hair and gave a bemused snort – he really didn’t understand how Mudry’s tower worked.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Brink noticed Sybil waiting in the shop as he made his way down the spiral staircase. Her hood was pulled up, as usual, and she held something she had taken from one of the shelves in her left hand, inspecting it curiously.
“My wares cost money,” came Mudry’s voice from somewhere below, “and I do not take kindly to those with fast fingers and thieving thoughts.”
His presence had obviously escaped Sybil’s notice, as she turned around with a start. “I’m no thief,” she replied defiantly, crossing her arms. Mudry didn’t reply, but Brink could feel the glare on his wispy face, even if he couldn’t see it.
“What she means to say, Mister Mudry,” Brink interrupted, continuing down the stairs, “is that she has no intention of stealing from this shop.”
Sybil looked up at him, and once more Brink caught a glance of her golden eyes beneath her hood. She grinned. “Yeah, what he said.”
“Ah, I was unaware you were a friend of Mister Brink’s,” came Mudry’s reply, his tone palpably less hostile. “My apologies for insinuating you were a thief.”
“Actually,” Brink said, reaching the bottom of the stairs, “she is a thief.”
Sybil gave him a look from under her hood. “Yeah, thanks for that.” She turned to Mudry. “I’m not here to rob your shop, old man.” She placed the object she was looking at back on the shelf; Brink noticed it was a small statuette of a bird.
Mudry raised an eyebrow, but nodded his head deferentially to Brink. “As you say, Mister Brink. I will leave you two to your undoubtedly nefarious plotting, then; you are simply fortunate it is closing time, lest you be eavesdropped upon by my other customers. Please return my lockpicks and climbing hook when you are finished.” With that, the enigmatic old shopkeeper walked up the stairs.
“Was he joking?” Sybil asked, when Mudry was gone.
“What, about having other customers?”
“No, I mean-” She snapped her gaze to Brink. “Was that a joke? Mister Grumpy Junk-Collector made a joke?”
Brink glowered back at Sybil. A flicker from a nearby lantern played suddenly and brightly in the thief’s eyes, and the scavenger caught himself before he made a nasty retort. He ended with a pathetic one, instead. “It isn’t junk.”
Her grin widened. “Sure. Discarded commodities, then. So,” she started, setting a small pack down on the shop counter and taking a seat on the stool behind it, “what’s the story with this Crazy Eyes fellow?”
“Why do you care?” Brink replied, keeping a generous distance between him and the thief. “I just need your help to break into the place.”
Sybil gave a put-upon sigh. “Normally, sure, I’d be fine with a time and a place. But normally I’m not rescuing some damsel in distress.”
“We don’t even know if she’ll be there. And she’s hardly a damsel in distress.”
The thief set her chin in her hand and gave Brink an annoyed look.
“It’s more dangerous for you if you know.”
She gave an impatient tap-tap-tap on the counter with her fingers.
“You probably wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”
Tap-tap-tap.
“Are you going to leave if I don’t tell you?”
Sybil nodded.
Brink groaned. “Fine. But I warned you. Do you know what a likho is?”
“Heard of them. Never seen one” She thought a moment. “Heard Aszlo used them in the war. It’s why we don’t see too many of them anymore.”
Brink nodded. “Right. Well, they’re little one-eyed crone-beasts, and this whole mess started when a coven of them attacked my cabin near the Plagueline…”
It was fully dark when Brink finally finished telling his story. Sybil had listened mostly quietly, adding a remark or a question here or there – “She sounds like a right bitch; why do you want to rescue her again?” – and sat silently for a moment when the tale was done.
“So you can do magic?” she asked at last.
“Kind of. I’ve only learned the basics. And I’m not really sure I’d call it magic.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Can you show me?”
“Well, I-” Brink stopped when a glowing moth flew in from a window he hadn’t seen a moment ago and landed on the counter between the two. His Osud. Its light illuminated Sybil’s face with an eerie but not unpleasant glow – she didn’t seem to notice it.
He wondered what that meant. He imagined more experienced Essentials could understand their subconscious mind more clearly, interpret what detail they had missed that caused their Osud to point it out. As it was, all his moth did was flutter vaguely in the direction of something that might be important. But this, at least, seemed fairly straightforward – Sybil asked for a demonstration and he was about to refuse. His Osud seemed to want him to show his powers.
Brink shrugged – to himself, he realized, though that seemed oddly appropriate – and grabbed the bird statuette Sybil had been examining from the shelf. Then he hummed. He heard the Song, and all around him it sounded like a dirge; he had not Listened since earlier that day, and already the melancholy had grown substantially. It took effort to break his humming away from the oppressive weight the city’s Song held, but he did so, his notes at first clashing sharply with the city’s then blending harmoniously as the Song around him changed. His control established, he tugged a bit of Essence from himself and hummed the notes of air, shaping it to his will. Then he released the statuette.
Sybil gasped as it plummeted towards the ground, but it never reached the floor to shatter. Instead it hovered unsteadily upward, held aloft by the breeze Brink had created. The air carried the statuette across the room to where the thief sat, wide-eyed, before coming to rest a few inches above the counter. She slowly reached her hand out and took it, gasping again as the air that had been carrying the statuette brushed her hand. She held it higher, then dropped it. Brink caught it again with the breeze. This was a game he and Brielle had played many times while he was learning to master the Song of air, though her version involved faster projectiles and more bruises.
When Sybil at last tired of playing with the flying statuette – which was at least a quarter of an hour later – she set the bird down and stared up at Brink, her golden eyes gleaming.
“That. Was. Amazing.” She spoke slowly, as if holding back a flood of words. Her control didn’t last long. “How did you…? I mean, with the- that was… wow! Why didn’t it…? Oh, and, and, could you- no, no, that wouldn’t make sense. But what if-” The questions spilled forth, colliding indecipherably with one another until she ran wholly out of air. At last she inhaled. “What else can you do?”
Sybil was leaning far enough forward that she barely seemed to be touching the stool at all. Her hood had fallen back during their game with the bird statuette, and her face was a mixture of joy and wonder. It was the first time Brink had ever had such an effect on someone. At that, Brink smiled. He couldn’t help it – nothing could stop the feeling of pride and happiness and worth that Sybil’s reaction had given him, and perhaps for the first time, Brink truly appreciated what a gift his control over Essence was. It was all he could do not to spend the rest of the night shaping the Song to his will just to show Sybil – and himself – that he could.
But Brielle, the person who had taught him this incredible ability, still needed him. He could show off when she was safe.
“How about this,” he started in reply, “we break into Crazy Eyes’s quarters in the palace and get out safe, and I’ll show you as many tricks as you want.”
“Yes!” Sybil replied excitedly. Then her smile turned suspicious. “But our previous arrangement still holds. I don’t get enough goodies, and you help me recoup my losses.”
Brink nodded. “Sure. Right. Not a replacement price.”
The suspicion left Sybil’s face. “Right then. Brilliant. So what, are we gonna fly up to his window or something?”
-----
“So you can make things fly around a room, but we still have to climb the wall?” Sybil mumbled as the pair made their way down the dark side streets of Cesta. Both of them could navigate them perfectly well in the low light of the waning moon.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” Brink responded, and not for the first time. “It takes a lot more wind to pick up a person than it does a little statue, and if I give it too much, I’d just launch you like a catapult.” He wasn’t sure if he could actually muster up that much power, not yet, but he imagined that the field was not the best place to try a new technique.
Sybil mumbled something about launching him like a catapult, but otherwise remained quiet the rest of the way.
They hadn’t seen a soul on their way to the Nyas manor, though midnight was still several hours away. There should have been at least some foot traffic to avoid – though Brink expected the day’s lethargy was still taking its toll. That was another question to answer, what was causing the Song to become so oppressive as to literally bow the shoulders of the city’s people, but he suspected Crazy Eyes was somehow involved. What else could it be? Brielle hadn’t taught him enough of the theory behind Essence to speculate – he knew the notes, the pitches, the harmonies, and he understood how to shape them, but that was the extent of his knowledge. Was this sort of phenomenon common? Does Essence ebb and flow like the weather or the tide? He’d never noticed such melancholy in the city before, but then, he was noticing a lot more about the world these days. More questions that could wait until he’d rescued Brielle.
Brink’s heart was racing by the time they reached the Nyas manor. They hadn’t sprinted their way here, so his heavy breathing could only give away his nerves. Sybil turned to grin at him.
“Nervous, scavenger boy? Not usually living guards at your marks, huh?”
“Sometimes,” he said defensively, and he found it calmed him down a bit. “Sometimes unliving guards.” Draug, the lifeless-but-still-walking husks left behind the Plagueline, were a common enough sight in Strateny.
Sybil’s wry expression cracked a bit at that. “Damn. Flesh-and-blood types should be no worry for you then, huh?” She turned back to examine the manor, and Brink did the same. The manor, thankfully, was more form than function – it was certainly no castle – but it was still clearly designed to keep out intruders. A brick wall topped with a spiked iron rail ringed the perimeter of the manor’s grounds, and the building itself was made of thick stone.
But the thief and the scavenger were both accustomed to sneaking into buildings. Skills of their trades. Brink gave Sybil a boost up and she easily reached the perimeter wall’s ledge, pulling herself up just enough to peer over and get a look at the grounds. She held that position for a handful of breaths before hoisting herself up. There wasn’t a lot of foot room atop the wall with the iron railing there, but Sybil had a small frame. She quickly tied off an end of rope to one of the rails and lowered it to Brink, who grabbed it, planted his feet against the wall to test it, then climbed up to join his thief companion kneeling behind the railing.
“Only four guards in the courtyard,” she barely whispered, “and only two are actually walking around. Which window was the mark’s?” Brink pointed out the third story window where he’d seen Crazy Eyes. “Alright. Good. I already see a way up. Come on, and stay quiet.” Planting a hand on the bricks, she gracefully leapt over the spiked railing, grabbed one of the rails on her way down the other side to slow her fall, then dropped into a roll on the grass courtyard below. She moved quickly into cover behind a nearby hedge.
Brink shook his head. Sybil must have been doing things like this her whole life to be that skilled. His own progress at clearing the spiked railing was a bit slower. He untied the rope and put it into his pack before grabbing one of the spikes and pulling himself up, then planted a boot on the adjacent spike to get leverage. Then he heard a creaking groan as the rail bent under his weight, a noise that would have gone unnoticed in the bustle of day but rang out like the chime of a bell in the silence of the night. Quickly he finished his climb and leapt off the wall, rolling when he hit the ground and making for the hedge Sybil was hiding behind.
She grabbed him and pulled him lower as soon as he arrived. “Damn it, Brink, they heard that!” she whispered harshly, pointing out the approaching patrol of two guards.
“They won’t see us hidden here,” he whispered in reply.
“No, but they might see that.” She pointed out the rail Brink had bent – it curved awkwardly, enough to lean against the next rail over, and it stood blatantly out from the otherwise neat row of rails. The guards would definitely notice that.
He silently cursed, then had an idea. Quietly as he could manage, he began to hum the Song, thankful he had already adjusted his melody to escape the dirge that hung over the city. Then he pulled forth his Essence, sang the notes of Order, and sent it to the bent rail. Iron was more difficult to move than shredded bits of paper, and the oppressive air the city bore made it all the more difficult; he tugged more Essence from within until the rail straightened to match its peers, with considerably less noise this time. The guards arrived and looked about, their torches shining around the area of wall they had just leapt over but revealing nothing. One shrugged, said something to the other, and they both walked away. Brink sighed in relief, feeling a bit of fatigue after that last Song – avoiding discovery like that had cost him.
The flames of the departing guards’ torches danced playfully in Sybil’s eyes when she turned to him. “You are really useful to have around, you know that? Maybe I won’t look so hard for goodies inside so you’ll have to work with me some more. I could use a handy sidekick in my life of crime.”
“Don’t count on it,” Brink replied, finding himself out of breath enough to make whispering an effort. “It still counts if you see something and just don’t take it.”
“Fine, fine,” she groused. “But you can’t blame a girl for trying.” She looked up at the window, which seemed to Brink to get higher and higher off the ground the closer they got to it. “Okay, see the ledge around the second floor windows? You give me a boost up to that, and then we can shimmy over a bit to that spot over there,” she was pointing as she whispered, “where the vines are. I know that vine – I call it Grandma’s Hair, but I bet there’s a better name for it somewhere – and it’ll hold us just fine if we climb on it. That’ll take us just a few windows over from your mark’s. Sound good?”
Brink ran a hand through his hair, then nodded. It was going to be a long night.

 

Chapter Nineteen

Brink quickly learned why Sybil called the vines Grandma’s Hair, and he wished he hadn’t. It had the consistency of unwashed, clumped up hair; it stuck to his hands as he climbed, and he found more than a few bits of it clinging to his clothing. At least it was a short climb, and Sybil helped him with a hand up when he reached the lip of the window on the third floor. There was no way to get from the window at the top of the vines to their target from the outside, so as Brink cleaned the stubborn bits of vine gunk off, the thief glanced inside the darkened room through the glass, shading her eyes with her hands to see more clearly. Then, satisfied with its vacancy, she pulled out a prybar and wiggled it into the crack between the two shoulder-high glass doors that made up the casement. She pulled once and the window immediately snapped open with a mercifully soft pop – but Sybil clearly had not been expecting it to come open so easily, and she began to tumble backwards from the momentum. Brink lunged and caught her at the shoulders. They both paused for a breath to ensure they were balanced enough to move again, and Sybil nodded her thanks to Brink – or maybe she was just telling him to let go. He did so quickly.
The thief hopped inside, her feet landing softly on the wooden floor of the room they had just broken into. Brink followed shortly after, his own landing nearly as quiet as Sybil’s, and looked around. It looked like a guest suite, likely reserved for important visitors, and was fortunately unoccupied. Sybil stalked quietly over to the nightstand and picked up a silver candlestick, moving it towards her small pack. Brink grabbed her wrist.
“I said you could rob Crazy Eyes. Not the Nyas,” he whispered harshly.
The thief’s eyes narrowed. “He’ll not even notice it’s gone,” she replied, “and selling this thing could feed someone for a week.” Brink just shook his head.
“Okay, but you’d better hope your Crazy Eyes has some really shiny goodies,” Sybil whispered back, giving a put-upon sigh as she replaced the candlestick on the nightstand.
She crept over to the door that likely led into the hallway and tested the rounded brass door handle for creaks – it seemed well-oiled enough, so she pulled it open enough to peer outside. None of the candelabra in the hallway were lit, but there was a light coming from somewhere to the left, and it was plenty for their night-adjusted eyes to see just fine. She paused a moment more, but the halls were filled with a palpable silence – the Nyas must not expect thieves to enter through the third floor, Brink thought, if the window was so easily forced and no guards were on patrol. Sybil motioned for them to proceed and headed into the hallway, Brink quietly closing the door behind them. The light, they found, was from a fireplace behind a door left partly open at the end of the hall. Likely someone – perhaps even the Nyas himself – sat within, so all the better that their destination was down in the other direction.
The two walked quietly, heel-toe, for some ten yards down the hall, Brink counting the doors to line up with the windows outside until they reached the one he was sure led to the room where he saw Crazy Eyes. He pointed at it, and Sybil tried the handle. When it refused to turn, she knelt down in front of it, pulled out some tools, and started working on the lock. It took her just over two minutes to get it open. 
Brink was impressed – it took him a lot longer than that to jimmy open a lock, and he wouldn’t have been nearly so quiet. He stayed alert while she worked, but still no sound came to meet them; it was late, after all, and likely the servants would be silent so as not to disturb the master of the house. 
Slowly, Sybil opened the door and peered inside. The room was much the same as the guest suite they had entered through, though the décor was tastefully different. Sybil began to head inside, then froze, her head gesturing to her right, past the door. Brink looked over her shoulder. There, on the opulent bed, lay Crazy Eyes. He wore a simple brown robe, much the same as he had worn when Brink had encountered him the first time, and he lay corpse-still on the bed, hands crossed at his navel. The thief let out a barely-audible gasp as she noticed what Brink already had – his eyes were wide open, staring bulgingly out at the ceiling; they did not move, did not blink, only stared. The two followed his gaze up.
There, splayed out before them on the ceiling, was Brielle, Brink’s mentor. What kept her aloft was unclear – there were no hooks for her to hang from, no ropes or chains, just the unbreaking gaze of Crazy Eyes, and Brink knew from experience what that could do. Her coat billowed slowly, as if from some unfelt wind, and she looked unharmed but for her face, which was frozen in a silent, terrified scream.
“You have brought the Ničota, I hope?” came the genteel voice of Crazy Eyes, the same voice spoken to Brink from a corpse.
“W-What have you done with her?” Brink stammered. He noticed absently that Sybil was no longer in front of him, though he did not see where she went.
“It is impolite,” Crazy Eyes said, still on his back staring at Brielle, “to answer a question with a question. Did you bring it?”
Brink managed to tear his eyes off the horrified face of his mentor to look at the frail form on the bed. “The Ničota?” It was a word from the old tongue, but Brink didn’t know it. Still, there was only one thing he knew Crazy Eyes wanted. “Is that what the egg is called?”
Crazy Eyes’s lips turned up in a smile. “Yes, dear boy, that is what the egg is called.” He said the words derisively, as if scolding a child for using a childish term.
“Sure,” Brink said, “I have it right here.”
He grabbed the crossbow from his back and fired it at the still form on the bed. In the instant it took for the bolt to cross the room, Crazy Eyes stopped it, and it hovered, spinning before his face – just as Brink’s pick had the last time they fought. 
“Now, now, dear boy, there’s no need for-” Crazy Eyes started with a scoff, turning his head to look at Brink as he spoke.
But Brink had built this crossbow, and he was counting on the second bow he had added to take the madman by surprise. He pulled the triggering lever all the way back, and a second bolt followed the first. This one thudded into his target’s side, and Brink heard the crack of metal hitting bone as his shot pierced one of Crazy Eyes’s ribs.
The madman’s back arched as he bolted upward and released an inhuman shriek of pain, interrupting his mocking words, and black blood sprayed as he rolled off the other side of the bed, placing it between him and Brink. When his gaze on Brielle broke, she fell, falling spread-eagle the fifteen feet down towards the floor. Brink started towards the center of the room to catch her, tossing his crossbow aside as he did, but he knew he wouldn’t reach her in time – and then Sybil was there, with arms outstretched to catch her. It wasn’t a graceful thing – Brielle was as tall as Brink and wider of shoulder while Sybil might be a hundred pounds soaking wet – and it sent them both to the floor, but at least Brielle probably didn’t break her neck or crack her ribs on the way down. And Sybil’s grunt, annoyed but not in pain, told him she was fine, too.
“Ugh, Brink, a little help here? Your girlfriend weighs a ton,” she groaned, and Brink helped the two of them up. Brielle was unconscious and leaning fully on the two of them.
Then a note rang out from behind the bed, high and lilting, and with it came power. Crazy Eyes, Brink realized, was singing the Song, and he didn’t hum as Brielle had taught him to do – he sang loud with a piercing voice that Brink was sure would shatter the glass in the room. Sybil cried out as she pulled her free hand to one ear to block out the noise.
Brink had only a moment before Crazy Eyes released his power, and he knew from experience that if they became trapped in his levitation, they were dead.
“Run!” he shouted to Sybil, “Get her out of here!”
He could hear her begin to protest, but he wasn’t listening anymore, not listening to anything but the Song, and he brought his own voice to bear. Anyone in the castle would have heard this commotion anyway, he thought, so he might as well sing out too. So he didn’t hum, but sang, as loudly as he could, his crisp baritone challenging the shrill alto of Crazy Eyes. He didn’t know he could sing – he’d never really done it before – but his notes were coming out steady and true, forming sounds that would surely sound like an unfamiliar language to anyone else, but to him, it was the words of the Song.
And just as he knew the meaning of the notes he sang, so too did he recognize the notes coming from Crazy Eyes. They sounded strange, as alien to Brink as the accent of someone from a far off land just learning the common tongue, but he knew them for what they were. Crazy Eyes was bringing forth Chaos. He adjusted his Song, calling out the notes of order and pulling forth his Essence to give them power, and as the Song washed over him, he could see the colors of the Essence Crazy Eyes was calling out.
Chaos and Order had always been varying shades of grey for him, darker for the former and lighter for the latter, but he had never before seen either pitch black or pure white. 
The power sent against Brink now was as black as despair and twice as heavy. It rolled upwards like a wave, and in its wake, everything in the room not nailed to the floor began to float, moving as if carried upon its crest. He was going to need to draw a lot more Essence to shield them against such a power, and Sybil was still in the room, dragging Brielle towards the doorway – she was too slow, Brink knew, to escape the room before Crazy Eyes’s wave washed over them, trapping them as it had him in his room at the inn.
So he tugged at his soul, singing as loudly as his voice could manage, and pulled more Essence out than he ever had before – he had never needed more than a pinch before, but now he grabbed all his mind could carry and hurled it forth, forming it to Order and shaping it into a shield to stave off the approaching wave of darkness. Splotches of white filled his vision and he faltered, all the strength in his legs leaving with his shield – fueling it, he knew, for his Essence was his strength.
But even stunned and half-blind as he was, he could see the light his shield cast, coruscating with dozens of white, star-like flares; it rushed out in a half-dome, slamming into the darkness of Crazy-Eyes’s Chaos just before it engulfed Sybil and Brielle. There was no spark or crackle of energy as they connected, however – the chaos just rolled off the shield of order like smoke blowing against a wall. Brink half-registered Sybil grabbing his arm and pulling him out of the room as the shrill Song of Crazy Eyes grew louder, not frantically, but furiously, and Brink could see the light of his shield flicker has he stumbled after Sybil.
The thief paused as she reached the door to the room whose window they had entered through. She had pulled Brielle up into a somewhat less awkward half-carry, half-drag over her right shoulder. The thought of helping her carry his mentor crossed his dazed mind briefly, but then he realized that he himself was leaning against the wall just to stay upright. He would do little but slow them down further.
Sybil cursed, looking from the door to the stairs. She said something Brink half-understood about the window not being an option, and started down the stairs. Brink stumbled after her, leaning on the rails and occasionally going to his hands and knees as they descended the manor’s main stair. They passed dead-eyed servants as they crossed the second floor to continue down, and though Sybil gave them a strange look, they did nothing to stop their escape. Only when they reached the foyer on the first floor did two guards with spears held before them – likely the same two patrolling outside, Brink thought vaguely – move to try to block the pair’s passage. Sybil shouted something about intruders and the Nyas being under attack, though, and their heads bobbed dutifully before they turned to run up the stairs. Brink only had a moment to consider how odd it was that that had worked before he had to return his concentration to remaining on his feet and, his vision swimming, he stumbled out the door behind Sybil and Brielle into the night air.

 

Chapter Twenty

The night air was chilly and should have had a sobering effect on Brink, but he simply couldn’t find his focus. It was like a bad cocktail of drunkenness and crushing exhaustion, with a side of two or three blows to the head, and it brought Brink to the ground more than once as they made their way across the Nyas manor’s courtyard. He vaguely noticed Sybil throwing open the iron gates of the compound and he stumbled through, landing on the cobblestone street beyond. He pulled himself up to his hands and knees, but there he stopped – he pushed upwards, but his muscles felt atrophied and useless, and after a moment he slumped back to the ground.
He felt something shaking him as soon as he collapsed. Sybil? He assumed it was, and she was speaking to him, yelling frantically, but his mind was spent and little was getting through. Hazily, he saw figures walking towards him, a shuffle to their step, and something clicked. He’d seen that shuffle before, and there was something important about it. It was in… Strateny. When he was scavenging. But what were…?
Draug, his instincts screamed, taking over for his overtaxed mind. Those were the steps of draug, and there were a lot of them. Draug were mindless and cared for nothing besides their seemingly insatiable hunger, but weren’t they created by the Plagueline? What were they doing here?
Think later, his instincts told him, run now. But that was the problem – he couldn’t get up. He’d made it as far as the front gate, and that was as far as his body could take him. He felt empty, a glass that had been drunk all but for the last swig. His vision, blurry and spotted, began to fade altogether.
A light. It was blinding at first, juxtaposed to the darkness that was his vision, but his eyes quickly adjusted. The encroaching blackness receded, just a bit, and there sat his Osud, the monochromatic moth that was his subconscious. That meant something. It was important. Why? He couldn’t get at the answer without the Song, he knew, so he began to hum with what little strength he had left. He reached within to draw out his Essence, to give him something, but there was precious little there to take – his reservoir was taxed, and he could take no more. So he tried something new, his actions controlled more by instincts he didn’t know he had than any conscious thought: he reached out for other sources of Essence.
He could feel them, faintly, like reaching a hand out for help in a dark room. He felt pools of Essence in front of him, but they were nearly empty – they had even less life than his – so he turned his attention away from them. He flailed in the darkness and found two more reservoirs. One was nearly empty – why was everyone missing their Essence? – and even worse off than his, though not quite so drained as the figures in front of him.
But the other…
It overflowed with life, and he latched on. A man lost in the desert would not have clung to a canteen as tightly, and like water, he began to drink, slowly at first, then with reckless abandon, filling himself with the energy of life. It struggled, and Brink found it curious that water would resist being drunk, but it was not so strong a resistance that it impeded his consumption.
He inhaled sharply as his soul began to fill and his vision returned – as did his other senses. There was a change – he realized, if only because it no longer was, that something had been shaking him. He shook his head and looked around. He was still on the ground, though he was able to quickly pull himself up into a kneel, and took stock of the situation. The shuffling steps were definitely draug, and they were getting close – only a few yards away now. They wore the clothes of regular townsfolk but their skin was dark and stretched like tough jerky and their eyes were devoid of life, looking madly, hungrily towards him, jaws opening unnaturally wide to snap at him animalistically. He’d seen plenty of draug past the Plagueline – that’s what the Plagueline had done to the people there, after all – so he knew their slow steps would give him a little time before they swarmed him in numbers he couldn’t handle. But there was something else important, someone…
Sybil.
He stopped drawing the Essence from his newfound reservoir and looked at her in horror. Her sunrise eyes were wide with shock and pain, and her whole body trembled – she held herself in the fetal position against the wall of the compound, and though she glanced around wildly, she was clearly no longer understanding what she saw. Her mouth moved as if whispering something. Brink stumbled as he ran over to her and knelt down in front of her.
“Sybil,” he said, his voice hoarse with panic, “Sybil, I’m so sorry. Come on, we have to go.”
“Empty,” she whispered. “So cold. Empty.” She was repeating that to herself, again and again.
Brink put his hands on her shoulders and shook her a bit. She looked up at him, registering his presence for the first time. “It hurts,” she said, her eyes pleading and tears rolling unheeded down her face, “it hurts. Make it stop. Please, please make it stop.”
“I know it hurts. I know it does, and I’m so sorry. I didn’t know, I-” A noise from behind tore his attention from Sybil. A draug loomed over them, little more than three feet away, and lunged at them. Brink launched himself up from the ground with as much force as he could muster and met the draug with his shoulder, slamming the creature back and sending it stumbling away. He could kill a draug, he thought angrily. He could kill a lot of draug. He may have hurt Sybil, but he’d protect her now. His eyes narrowed as anger at these creatures began to take hold – anger that they’d made him hurt Sybil, anger that they would dare hurt her themselves. He’d kill them all.
But then Brink remembered a voice, one that cut through the rage. Control your anger; use your breath for more useful purposes. Brielle had told him that – Brielle, who was lying on the ground beside the terrified thief he’d employed to help rescue her. They needed him, and anger wouldn’t save them.
He took a steadying breath and looked around. There were at least thirty draug, and more were stumbling in from the streets beyond. Where were they all coming from? It didn’t matter – not yet. What mattered was that thirty was too many for him to fight. He had to get Sybil and Brielle away from them. But how? He couldn’t carry them both. Sybil had proven she could carry Brielle, albeit slowly, but she was still a sobbing mess from his… attack? He wasn’t sure what to call what he’d done to her.
His anger began to creep back up, this time at himself, for stealing Essence from Sybil. But he pushed it back down with an idea – if he could take Essence out of her, surely he could put it back in? He just had to buy himself some time. He felt for his crossbow and realized he’d left it in the room with Crazy Eyes – Crazy Eyes, who was still in the manor behind him, and could prove himself a further threat any moment now. He pushed that thought away, too – fear wasn’t useful to him now. The draug he had pushed away was bearing down on him again, this time with two others. But they were the nearest, and if he could get rid of them, he’d have a little time to help Sybil. He drew his pickaxe.
With quick, deliberate steps, Brink approached the leftmost draug. He pulled up close enough for the creature to lunge at him, arms leading snapping teeth, and ducked at the last moment, dodging the clumsy attack and bringing his hammer in an uppercut on its shriveled head. It split with a macabre *crack* and the draug collapsed, oozing black blood.
The second draug grabbed his shoulder with its extended arm – it was too far away to get a good hold on him, though, and had pulled itself off balance to cover the distance. Brink grabbed the arm and stepped away from it, yanking the arm forward as he did. The off-balance creature toppled gracelessly to the ground, and Brink was quick to stomp the back of its decayed head to put an end to it.
He turned to meet the third draug and found it bearing down on Sybil. It was little more than a step away and was already beginning to fall on top of her – and she was doing nothing but looking on with horror as its snapping jaws, ostensibly once human but now more than capable of tearing flesh, reached down for her unguarded neck.
Brink had no time to think. He shouted the note of air and pulled at his Essence, flinging it at the draug. It hurt to draw more Essence – his own soul resisted him, tired of being drained and content at its renewed fullness – but the blast knocked the creature off Sybil and onto its side. The air hadn’t hurt it, but it gave Brink enough time to rush over and finish it off with his hammer.
He looked behind him. More draug were coming, but they were half a minute away or more, and that was time he’d use. He knelt back down in front of Sybil and closed his eyes, humming as he did. He imagined a bridge between them and felt out to her reservoir Essence, as empty now as his was before he’d consumed it. He pulled at his own Essence, again feeling the pain of his own soul resisting the action, and sent some down the bridge. He watched it cross, and felt Sybil’s soul begin to fill. He continued to feed her Essence until he began to rock in place, his stomach lurching as he grew suddenly dizzy with vertigo.
“Brink?” came a familiar voice, one no longer panicked but confused and on edge. He opened his eyes. At some point, he had reached out to her, and when he opened his eyes, his hands were holding her face. “Brink,” she said again, steadier this time, “what happened?”
It took him a moment to process the question, then he quickly pulled his hands away. “It’s… hard to explain. Are you okay? Can you walk?”
She nodded and, somewhat unsteadily, rose to her feet, leaning on the wall behind her for support. Brink rose with an equal lack of grace and turned to face the draug. There at least fifty now, and some would be close enough to touch in moments. Sybil looked like she was going to say something, but Brink cut her off. “Kill these, then run. We’ll grab Brielle and go.” He didn’t wait for a response, instead holding out his left arm to fend off the nearest draug and, when it had grabbed him, slamming his hammer down on its head just before it bit. It was close – he was slower now that he had given Sybil some of her Essence now. He’d have to be more careful. He’d never been bitten by a draug before and he didn’t know what effect it might have; if nothing else, it would hurt like hell.
Sybil seemed to take the hint. She shoved her hands in her pockets; they emerged with iron bands across their knuckles, and she took a fighting stance. Brink nodded and turned back to the draug. They were coming from everywhere, but the street to their left had only six or seven. They could fight through that many, if Sybil was half as good at fighting as she was as thieving, but where would they go after that? Was the city full of these things? The thought briefly panicked Brink – what if the Plagueline somehow spread to Cesta and the entire city’s population had turned to draug? A plague would explain their sluggishness earlier that day.
Think later, his instincts repeated, run now.
Brink pointed down the street to his left. “There! Help me grab Brielle, and we’ll fight our way through them!” He knelt down to heft his mentor up around his shoulder and Sybil did the same.
“Can’t you just light them on fire or something?”
He shook his head. “I used everything I had on Crazy Eyes, and then… Look, we can’t rely on my Essence, okay?”
“So much for being handy,” she murmured derisively. The banter seemed to calm her down some, and Brink wasn’t going to begrudge her that.
The draug before them were shuffling more quickly now – they sensed a meal. There were three in front and another three behind, maybe fifteen feet back. There were a lot more draug coming from behind Sybil and Brink, though, and they were closing in, no more than fifty feet back; if the draug surrounded them, Brink knew, there would be no fighting their way out.
“Help me with those three when we get close,” he called out to Sybil, gesturing to the closest draug. She nodded, the fear leaving her eyes to be replaced by determination. Brink knew that look – fear no longer held a place when escape was no longer possible. Fight or die.
They were just out of arm’s reach from the draug when they dropped Brielle and attacked. Brink opened with an overhand swing of his hammer, but the creature caught his arm before he could reach its head, pushing back against him as its powerful jaws snapped forward. He grunted and hammered its side with a kick, and though he heard a crack of bone, it had little effect – a creature that feels no pain doesn’t care about a cracked rib or two. The draug’s head reached toward his outstretched arm, and Brink planted a boot in its chest then kicked off, ripping his arm out of the creature’s grasp and sending both of them stumbling backwards. A lance of white hot pain shot up through his arm, but he ignored it, for now – the second draug had turned its attention to him, and he nearly lost his balance as he sidestepped away from it. The two were now coming at him from the same direction, at least, though getting close enough to strike either of them was going to be tough, exhausted as he was.
He really missed that crossbow.
Slow, cautious attacks weren’t working anymore, and they were running out of time for them, anyway. With a shout, he gathered all the energy he could muster, lowered his head and raised his shoulder, and charged the nearest draug, slamming into its chest. His momentum sent them both barreling past the second draug and, eventually, to the ground. Brink planted his left forearm, already raised from his charge, beneath the creature’s chin to keep its snapping jaws at bay, and with one quick movement, he smashed its head with a blow from his hammer. It crunched gruesomely but still struggled, so he gave it another hammer blow. The draug went still, but Brink’s nerves had all but taken control and he smashed it again before he regained the presence of mind to turn and meet the second draug.
It was already upon him, and he had no time to raise any defense against it – then it stopped, reaching its arms frantically toward Brink but coming no closer. It took Brink a moment to realize Sybil had grabbed it from behind and was struggling to hold it. He scrambled to his feet and planted his hammer in its skull. The thief let the dead thing drop with a grunt of disgust.
“You okay?” she asked hoarsely, her eyes on his arm holding the pickaxe.
“I’m fine,” he replied, out of breath and refusing to look at the wound that was still burning with pain. “Those three,” he coughed, gesturing to the last draug still blocking their path, “then run.”
This time Sybil led the charge. She moved determinedly towards the draug on the right and baited it to attack before sidestepping and slamming a quick punch into the side of its skull. It turned to face her, and she repeated the move –it was the same way Brink would fight a belligerent drunk: bait him to overextend his reach then strike quickly and retreat. It was a pretty good strategy, especially since the mindless draug would never adapt to it. But he could tell Sybil was tiring, just as he was, so he rushed to help. He charged the center draug and grabbed it with left arm extended, pulling it off balance and slamming it to the ground. It wasn’t out of the fight, but he was on his feet and it wasn’t, so he had some time – he turned to face the third draug and kicked it hard in the knee. He couldn’t rely on pain to bring the creature down and so instead put enough force into the blow to shatter its kneecap; such a heavy blow sent Brink badly off his balance, and a more aware opponent could have taken easy advantage of that, but the draug simply pressed onwards. It crumpled to the ground when it put its weight on the damaged leg just as Sybil finally caved her own opponent’s skull in with a heavy-handed hook. She turned and crushed the downed draug with a stomp, and Brink brought his hammer down onto the head of the center draug as it struggled to rise to its feet.
The road was finally clear, though they could hear more draug shuffling towards them from behind and from side streets. Too exhausted to speak, Brink grunted towards Brielle, and the pair lifted her between them, one under each arm, and headed off at a stumbling jog. They made it three blocks before Sybil finally spoke.
“Where are we going?”
“Mudry’s,” Brink answered with a grimace. His arm was on fire. “He can protect us.”
“The old man?” she asked, then shook her head. “No, nevermind. What the hell were those things?”
“Draug,” he responded shortly. With a groan of effort, he continued. “Lifeless and mindless people. That’s what happened to everyone past the Plagueline.”
“The Plagueline? What are they doing here, then?”
Brink shook his head and grunted something noncommittally.
“And what happened to me back there? I felt fine, and then it was like something was… draining me, like it was sucking my blood or something. And then you were there, and it was like I had woken up from a nightmare.”
Talking calmed Sybil down, Brink could tell. But telling her that he had drained Essence from her soul – or wherever it was that a person stored the stuff – would probably just send her off in a panic. Instead he just grunted the same non-answer he had given about the draug. She took that in stride, though, and continued talking, Brink giving short responses when she paused for them, until they turned down the market road to head for Mudry’s tower. There were people there, merchants, customers, porters, pickpockets, the whole market crowd – though it was much too late for the market to still be open – and they simply stood and stared. It was as if night had fallen and the market had closed but no one had the will to leave.
They did little but turn their heads to watch as Sybil and Brink silently carried Brielle down the street, and even that they did languidly.
The trio passed a handful of people after the market, standing about on the street or in doorways or on porches. Always they did nothing but turn and stare, their backs hunched and faces drawn, and even blinking seemed a slow, weighty effort for them. Sybil said nothing, but cast Brink nervous glances as they walked. 
Brink wished he had answers for her, but he was just as scared as she was. Was this what had happened to Strateny? Had the Plagueline come here? Were they already infected by this disease? Should they flee the city while they could? And what about the potato couple, Livingston and Lily? Had they succumbed? They hadn’t seemed overcome by lethargy as everyone else in the city had. 
Was this Crazy Eyes’s doing? If he could regain his power by pulling Essence from one person, then what could that madman do by pulling from a city?
None of it made sense, and he didn’t have any way to find answers standing in the middle of the road. Sybil said nothing, just watched as he processed it all. And when he started walking, she did, too.

 

Chapter Twenty One

Mudry’s Curios was locked for the first time in Brink’s long association with the tilted tower. For reasons he didn’t quite understand himself, this was almost as unnerving to Brink as the presence of the draug and the dead faces of the market-goers. He didn’t bother setting Brielle down before knocking and so used his wounded arm to pound on the door, sending him a sharp reminder of the pain that had otherwise dulled somewhat since his fight with the draug.
He knocked three times, and that was all he could manage. There was no response from within. His head drooped and leaned onto the door. “Gregor, it’s me, Brink! Open the door!” he called, desperation heavy in his voice. He nearly tumbled inside when the heavy door abruptly opened, one of Mudry’s formally-dressed servants standing dutifully within, barring their way.
“Mister Brink?” came Mudry’s voice from behind the servant. The old man then peered up over his servant’s shoulder – which must have looked odd to Sybil, who, according to Mudry, couldn’t actually see the servant – and gave them an appraising look. Apparently satisfied, he nodded once, and the butler stepped aside.
Brink thanked the old man hoarsely as he and Sybil carried Brielle inside; Mudry had somehow managed to clear off a display table, and they set her gently upon it. Brink didn’t wait for Mudry to ask for an explanation – he closed his eyes and began to hum, feeling the Song flow around him. Never had he heard music sound frightened before - frightening, perhaps, to accompany a ghost story, but this was different; the Song itself was scared.
No, he thought, not the Song; it was the singer. The city was terrified. Something horrible had happened to wound Cesta so noticeably. Had the Plagueline enveloped the city entirely? He pushed the thought from his mind. What he needed to do now was get Essence back into Brielle; she would have answers for them. He felt for her mind, imagining a bridge between them just as he had done when he returned the Essence he had stolen from Sybil – stolen, he thought with renewed anger at himself for doing such a thing. But that was just another distraction. He cast the thought aside, focusing entirely on the bridge. He would restore Brielle.
His body strained with the effort to pull the Essence from his exhausted soul, but the bridge stretched out, just as it had before. But where Sybil’s soul was an open field he strode through with ease, Brielle’s was a stone fortress; his Essence touched hers only briefly and then recoiled, painfully, sending with it the unmistakable message that he – that no one – was allowed within. He grimaced and tried again – he needed answers, needed her to tell him what to do, and so he pushed, forcing his Essence back across the bridge. Again it met the redoubt of her soul and again it was repulsed, even more painfully this time – a stabbing pain shot up Brink’s spine and into his head and he fell back, collapsing to the floor and crying out in shock.
Sybil and Mudry both rushed to him, asking him something, but his ears were ringing and his vision was filled with coruscating white splotches, so he did little but shake his head in response. He pressed his hand against his forehead to try to stave off the growing headache, to no avail – but after a minute or two of keeping his eyes tightly shut and focusing on his breathing, his vision and hearing returned. Mudry was standing when he opened his eyes, but Sybil was kneeling next to him, so he turned to her.
“Hey, there he is,” she said quietly, concern etched on her face. “You alright there, chief?”
Brink shook his head. “No,” he replied, more shortly than he’d intended. He pinched the bridge of his nose and continued. “I’m fine. But I can’t help her.”
“Like how you helped me back at the Nyas manor?”
She didn’t know. Well, she knew he had given her Essence, or at least that he had done something to bring her out of her emptiness. But she didn’t know he was the one who’d made her empty to begin with.
“Yeah,” he said. “I tried to give her some of my Essence, but I can’t get through. Something’s blocking me.” Likely a defense mechanism, he thought, to prevent other Essentials from doing to her what Brink had done to Sybil.
Her eyes wandered from Brink up to Brielle. “Will she get better without your… Essence stuff?”
“I don’t know. Essence comes back over time, but only up until a point. She taught me that, to know when to stop using it. I used more Essence making that shield against Crazy Eyes than I ever had before, and I nearly couldn’t walk afterwards.”
“What happens if you, you know… use too much?”
Brink almost responded that he didn’t know, but then a thought came to him. Even in his weakened state, he’d noticed that the draug had only the tiniest fragment of Essence left within them, but that they otherwise felt like people. Maybe there was no Plague. Had Crazy Eyes just drained so much of their Essence that they became draug? Could that have been what happened in Strateny?
“Brink?”
“Sorry,” he said, still trying to puzzle things out. “I think they turn into draug.”
“What? You mean, those things were people that Crazy Eyes just… sucked dry?”
“Mister Brink is correct,” Mudry piped in. He was looking over Brielle as he spoke, leaning his ear down to listen for her heartbeat. “Draug were once people, but it was no plague that changed them – they are the victims of Essentials, their souls drained of Essence to fuel their abilities. And when the soul is empty, the body becomes little more than a decaying husk.”
“So Strateny…” Brink started.
“Was the result of the Nine Years War. The Tyrant Aszlo was an Essential, and he drained the life from an entire city to fuel his power.”
“And that’s what Crazy Eyes is doing to Cesta?”
Mudry shook his head. “I’m afraid I cannot say. But the presence of draug within the city implies that he is draining a great amount Essence from the people here.”
They paused at that, Brink sitting up to lean his head against the wall. Exhaustion was starting to overtake him when Sybil broke the silence.
“Brink, you’re bleeding,” she whispered, and he was suddenly reminded of the pain in his arm – a pain which his mind was previously willing to forget about in favor of sleep. He looked down at it.
His coat and shirt below were shredded, and blood was oozing out of four deep gashes in his forearm. The draug must have dug its rotten claw-fingers into it before he pulled away. It was just bad enough for him to worry about losing too much blood, but injuries were common when you were a young boy working in an iron mine and almost as much so for a scavenger sifting through crumbling ruins. He took out his knife in his left hand and held it up to his wounded arm’s shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Sybil cried out.
He looked to the knife, then back to Sybil, confused. “Cutting the sleeve off?” he replied slowly, unsure as to what he was missing.
“Oh,” she said, the alarm leaving her face. “Uh, right. Of course. You, ya know, need any help with that, chief?”
Brink had already finished cutting through the fabric by the time the thief got her thoughts in order enough to offer to help. He pulled the shredded, bloody remains of his sleeve from his arm and put them aside. The wounds didn’t look any better for their absence. Sybil blanched and looked away.
“Mister Mudry,” Brink started slowly, his words beginning to slur from exhaustion and blood loss, “do you have any clean bandages? Mine are upstairs.”
“Of course, Mister Brink,” he responded graciously, and his servant stalked off wordlessly. When he – it – returned, it handed Mudry a small parcel, which the old man opened gingerly. He pulled out a small jar of viscous white goop and opened it, releasing the sticky-sweet smell that Brink detected as a mixture of honey, Winterbloom petals, and something he didn’t recognize. “Let us apply this salve first, shall we? It will help stave off a fever and take some of the sting away.”
Sybil gasped as the servant took the salve and began rubbing it into the gashes on Brink’s arm. It must look like the salve is doing that on its own, Brink thought, though he imagined she had seen enough impossible things tonight for a floating jar to barely elicit a response. He grimaced as the servant slathered the sticky stuff on – it burned at first, but quickly turned to a pleasant heat that took much of the stabbing pain away. When the servant had finished – using most of the jar in the process – it took a roll of clean cotton bandages and wrapped his arm from his elbow down to his wrist. Blood immediately began to soak through, and Brink began to feel dizzy.
“Those should be tight enough to stop the bleeding soon enough, Mister Brink. If not, I shall have to retrieve my needle and thread. Either way, I will have your bandages changed in an hour,” Mudry explained slowly.
“Right,” Sybil started after taking a long breath, “okay, so you can make jars and bandages float around and work on their own. Got it. Weird, but got it. But what happened tonight? Did that Crazy Eyes guy make all those… draug things? Why? And what happened to me? One second I felt fine – scared out of my mind, sure, but fine – and the next it was like I was just gone, like I was a pond and suddenly all the water dried up. And-”
She took a breath to continue and Mudry raised a hand to stop her. “Perhaps answers can wait til the morning, miss? I fear our Mister Brink here is on the verge of collapse. He needs to rest.”
Brink vaguely noticed Sybil looking down again at him, and her expression changed. Resignation and… concern. Though concern for what, he wasn’t sure.
“Right. Rest. Sounds like a plan. Where’s his room?”
“Fourth floor. I fear my servants are not quite strong enough to carry him. Would you mind helping him up, miss?”
Brink shook his head and mumbled something he meant to sound reassuring, then braced his uninjured arm against the floor and pushed up. To his credit, he made it close enough to standing to begin straightening his knees, but got no further; Sybil held an arm out to steady him before he hit the floor.
“Yeah,” she said, grunting with the effort of supporting Brink’s weight, “I’ve carried people all night tonight. I can handle one more. At least there aren’t any deaders chasing after us this time.” Brink’s focus shifted to moving his feet and not collapsing, and soon he felt himself falling into a cloud, and then sleep took him.
-----
“So, good news and bad news, chief. Whatcha want first?” Brink’s vision was just coming into focus, and he noticed he was in his new room – tree, grassy carpet, and everything. He also noticed the morning sun peering in the window, and his mind went back to the night before. How long had he been out? He must have slept the night through.
“Uh, good – no, bad news,” he grunted hoarsely.
Sybil nodded from where she leaned on the wall beside the door. “Saw a handful of draug pass by the tower this morning, so last night wasn’t a nightmare. Well, not literally, right? Also, you stained those fancy sheets with all that blood on your arm.”
She paused as Brink fought his way out of sleep. “So what’s the good news?”
“I didn’t die,” she said simply. “Well, I guess neither did you, right? Didn’t need to stitch up that arm, either. And the old man went out into the city last night – not everyone’s changed into draug. ‘fact, he said only a hundred or so probably had; only thing is, no one’s awake enough in the city to fight them off, so they’re just wandering about like they’re on a morning stroll. Most folks are still just hanging around on the streets or at their windows, not doing anything but staring – gonna starve if they don’t eat soon, I guess. But at least the draug are ignoring them.” She did her best to sound casual, and to a casual listener, perhaps she would have – but Brink had been trained to pick up details, and he heard the subtle hint of fear in her voice.
He sat up slowly and groaned. His whole body ached, especially his arm – but at least it wasn’t burning anymore, and his bandages were clean.
“So what now?” he asked, grabbing a simple grey shirt that had been laid out on the nightstand and throwing it on. Sybil looked at the closet on the other side of the room as he did.
“Guess that’s up to you, chief, isn’t it? Old man says he can keep this place safe from the draug, least for a while, and I’m sure not going out there on my own with those deaders walking about. But you’re all…” she waved her hands around in front of her, making ‘woo’ sounds and ending with a wide gesture accompanied by a ‘pssh’ sound Brink thought was meant to emulate an explosion, “yeah? So you can fight this Crazy Eyes git.”
He looked over at her and saw, despite her attempts to hide it, a pleading look on her face. He stood up and stretched – he was sore and stiff, his left shoulder still ached from his first confrontation with Crazy Eyes and his right forearm still stung from his second, but he was alive. He lifted his pickaxe from the nightstand, where it had apparently been set beneath the shirt, and tested its weight. It felt comfortable, as it always had.
“Yeah,” he said. “I can fight him.”

 

Chapter Twenty Two

“So what’s the plan, chief?” Sybil asked as Brink gathered his gear to go out. He never expected to need his scavenging equipment just to walk the streets of Cesta, but he supposed he never expected those streets to be filled with draug, either.
“There’s somebody I need to go find. He didn’t seem to be affected by whatever’s happened to everyone else, and we could use all the help we can get,” Brink said.
“Resisted the Sleepiness like me, huh?” Sybil asked, cracking a grin.
“The Sleepiness?”
“Yeah. Ya know, what’s happened to everyone out there? We don’t know if it’s a plague or that Crazy Eyes guy or what, but I figure we need a name for it.”
“And you went with the Sleepiness.”
“Seemed to the point.”
Brink just sighed, shaking his head as he packed. He looked sadly at the strap that usually held his crossbow. He’d need to find a replacement for that soon.
“Might I suggest the Torpidity?” Mudry said, coming down the stairs to join the pair on the bottom floor.
“I’m not even sure I know what that means,” Sybil said, looking over at him.
Mudry rubbed a hand down his wispy beard in thought. “The Lethargia, then?”
“Ooh, like lethargic, right? But fancier. I like it. What do you think, Brink?”
“I think,” Brink replied, slinging his pack onto his back, “that you two should focus more on how to stop it than on what to call it.”
“Pfft,” Sybil scoffed, tightening a strap on Brink’s pack that had come loose. “That’s your job, remember? Now come on, we’re losing daylight. So who’s this guy who can help us? Some big warrior? Ooh, or another Essential, like you?”
“He’s a potato farmer, actually,” Brink responded, opening the door and heading out.
“A… wait, a what now? I don’t think I heard you. Brink!”
“You’d best just follow after him, miss,” Mudry said, taking a sip of tea. “You likely won’t get much more out of him than that.”
-----
Walking through the streets of Cesta was an eerie experience for Brink - it reminded him too much of Strateny. A thick fog had settled over the city that seemed content to stay, creating a stillness in the air that was broken only by the occasional shuffle of movement just beyond sight.
Just like beyond the Plagueline.
Still, eerie as it was, navigating a city like this was a task very familiar to Brink. He knew the streets of Cesta as well as anyone and likely better, and so he guided Sybil along through back streets and around buildings, always heading west and keeping steady progress toward the Sea Fairy Inn. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to go find Livingston; true, all the reasons he’d given Sybil weren’t wrong - Livingston had survived the war, which probably made him the best fighter of any of them with room to spare. But that wouldn’t do much to help them fight someone like Crazy Eyes. No, Livingston and Lily were important to find because they were important to him. He just tried not to think about what it would mean if they arrived at the inn and found it empty.
Or if they found the potato couple changed, like everyone else.
His momentary distraction at the thought nearly cost them dearly as he led Sybil out of an alley and almost straight into a cluster of draug. There were ten, maybe fifteen, all wearing used but well-kept clothes - a disturbing sight for Brink, who was used to seeing the dead dressed in tattered rags from years long past.
He half crept, half dove behind the cover of some nearby crates, and Sybil followed suit - only with considerably more grace. “Close call, chief,” she whispered as they watched the draug shuffle past.
“Yeah,” he said back, keeping his voice quiet. “Sorry about that.”
“Hey, I didn’t see ‘em either. Come on, looks like they’re almost gone.”
Brink nodded, and they quietly stepped out from their cover and made their way across the street. The Sea Fairy was just a block away, if the map in Brink’s head was accurate. They’d be there in a few minutes. Then they could make sure Livingston and Lily were safe.
-----
The door was hanging off its hinges when they arrived, the wood paneling dented and broken, and the fog had snaked its way inside. Peering through the gap in the doorway, Brink could see a couple of figures sitting around the bar - unmoving, but not draug. Regular people, then, or at least, as regular as anyone else now. He gently pushed through, careful not to let the door crash to the floor, and nearly tripped over something lying beneath the fog. He looked down and nearly knocked over Sybil standing behind him as he jumped back.
An arm.
It was severed just below the shoulder by something sharp enough to make it all the way through the muscle and bone cleanly. The flesh was withered and grey - likely a draug arm, then. Brink took a breath to steady himself.
“What is it?” Sybil hissed.
“There’s a severed arm on the floor,” Brink whispered back. “I think it’s from a draug.”
Sybil processed that and nodded, moving carefully inside behind Brink and noticeably not looking down as she did. The common room of the inn was still. Three patrons sat at the bar and another four at tables scattered around, all slumped shoulders, all sunken eyes. If there was anyone behind the bar, they weren’t standing. Brink reached outward for Essence as he had the night before and found that they were nearly as empty as the draug had been. As empty as Brielle still was. He realized with a sudden horror that it would be a trivial matter to push them over that edge, to pull just a bit more Essence and drain them completely, to leave them as more soulless husks to wander the streets. The thought made his stomach turn.
Brink shook his head and looked around at the patrons. “No sign of Livingston or his wife,” he said. “Let’s check upstairs.”
From the bottom of the stairs at the back of the common room, Brink could see a figure leaning against the railing on the next floor, reaching out desperately with one arm as if futilely trying to push itself up. He took a cautious step upwards, then another, and another. There was little light in the closed stairwell and it was only within a few steps of the figure could Brink make out what it was - a draug, its left arm missing, impaled on one of the supports that had been dislodged from the railing. Brink took out his pickaxe and got a bit closer. It reached its right arm awkwardly across its body towards him, fingers-turned-claws extending hungrily for him, but it had no leverage to get itself off the makeshift spike. Brink buried his pick in the side of its head and it slumped, the spike holding it mostly upright.
Sybil and Brink made it to the landing of the second floor and had taken only a few creaking steps along the narrow hall when a muffled voice called out from one of the rooms.
“Who’s out there?” it asked. It was the first time Brink had heard Livingston’s voice sound this… haggard, and it took him a moment to place it.
“Livingston!” he called back. “It’s me, Brink! Where are you?”
“Brink! Oh, but it’s good to hear your voice, boy! Second room on the right! I’m stuck, and one o’ them shamblers is in here with me!”
“We’re coming! Just hang on!”
Brink burst into the inn room. Two draug lay dead on the floor, and another was draped across a heavy wooden shelf that had toppled over and lodged itself in the corner. That one was still alive, and it was clawing furiously at something on the other side of the fallen shelf.
“I’m under here!” Livingston called, his voice coming from beneath the pile.
Brink nodded to Sybil and the two moved into the room to flank the creature. It turned around at their approach and lunged at Brink, the closer of the two, and he planted a boot in its chest before it could get too close. It staggered back into Sybil, who grabbed it long enough for Brink to finish it off with his pick. They tossed the corpse aside and then ran to the overturned shelf. It was a heavy thing, as tall as a man and with more than a few metal bits, but the two of them managed to pull it off a battered and very relieved Livingston. Brink offered the potato man a hand.
“Thank the gods for you, m’boy, and you as well, miss. Been trapped under there all night.”
“All night?” Brink asked. “What happened?”
“Was in the common room waiting for Lily to get back when a bunch o’ them shamblers came barrelin’ in through the door. I’d had my sword on me all day after that thing attacked you and you went stormin’ off, so I fought a bit, but they just kept comin’. I yelled for everyone to run upstairs and hold ‘em there, but none of ‘em listened. They just sat there. And the draug ignored ‘em, too. So I fought ‘em back to my room, but one of ‘em knocked that shelf over on top of me and decided to lay on top of it to try and get at me, and it was just too damn heavy - pardon my tongue, miss - for me to push it off on my own.”
“Gods,” Sybil said. “So you went the whole night with that thing clawing at you?”
“Sure did. But don’t you worry about me. I slept in worse places during the war.”
Brink wiped the blood from his pick as Livingston stretched and grabbed a sword off the floor. It was a solid thing, three feet long and not a hint of ornamentation on it, and Livingston held it like he knew how to use it.
“Now I thank you two for your help,” he said, grabbing a knife from his pack and hooking it on his belt, “but I need to go find Lily.”
“Where is she?” Brink asked.
“Last night, she said she was goin’ out to the watch post on the southern side of town to try and get help for you and your friend that got taken. Her sister’s husband is a watchman there, so she figured that’d be the place to go. Told me to stay here, ‘case you came back. Not long after that, them shamblers came pourin’ in, and then I spent the whole night under that shelf there. So I need to go find her.”
“Alright,” Sybil said. “We’re coming with you.”
“Now I can’t let you children do that,” Livingston said, turning to her. “I appreciate your help, I truly do, but there’s goin’ to be fightin’ if I’m to get to my wife, and you both look like I could pick you up in a hand each.”
Brink summoned a bit of air - a trivial task now, he found, especially with the egg in his pocket - and closed the door before Livingston could get to it. Then he used that same gust of wind to snatch the knife right off of the potato’s man’s belt and bring it gently over to where he stood. It hovered there, a couple feet off the ground.
“She’s right,” Brink said. “We can help.”
Livingston looked from the door to his knife, flabbergasted. “Brink, you’re a- you’re an Essential, boy?”
“You know about Essentials?” Brinked asked, surprised.
“Most people’ve at least heard of Essentials. Lots o’ folks don’t believe in ‘em, but I was in the war, boy, and the war was started and ended by those soul wielders. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different. How long have you been one?”
“Uh, you’re born an Essential, I think. At least, that’s what I was told. But I didn’t find out I was one until after that night in the bar when you got so sick. Another Essential came up and talked to me while you were gone.” Brink paused. “Come to think of it, she probably did something to your Essence to make you go away so she could approach me.”
“Hmph,” Livingston grunted. “Knew I could hold my ale better’n that.” He took a few steps toward Brink. “Now listen, boy. I know you’re young and you think little tricks like takin’ my knife outta my belt are fun, but that sorta power goes to folks’ heads, you understand? Aszlo and his soul wielders thought they could crush us all beneath their boots just because they could do tricks like that, and they nearly did it, too. So whatever that friend of yours is teachin’ you, don’t ever forget the nastier side of havin’ power.”
Brink didn’t know what to say. He’d never even heard of Essentials before Brielle had come into his life just a few months prior. The stories his father used to tell him usually had some kind of magic in them, but he’d always known they were made-up, and that was the closest thing he’d ever heard about to Essence. Now Livingston - the potato man - was talking like he knew some Essentials personally. How many people know about it, then? Was he just that isolated from the rest of the world?
He added that to the list of questions he would have to ask Brielle when she woke up. If she woke up.
Livingston’s face softened. “I know, boy. It’s all new and scary. But I don’t think you’re a monster or anythin’. I just think you need to be careful, is all.” He sighed. “And I suppose you two could be of some help findin’ my Lily, after all. That offer still open?”
Brink nodded, but it was Sybil who spoke. “Of course it is! Not a whole lot of people around who can resist the Lethargia, so we need as much help as we can get!”
Livingston turned to raise his eyebrow at Sybil.
“The what, now?”

 

Chapter Twenty Three

The going was slow for the trio as they made their way through the foggy streets of Cesta. The number of people turning into draug seemed to be steadily increasing - the hundred estimated by Mudry just the night before seemed staggeringly low, and more than once the party had to double back and find a new route just to avoid packs numbering at least that many. Brink worried that there wouldn’t be much left of the city to save if he couldn’t figure out something to do about Crazy Eyes soon.
An hour after they had left the Sea Fairy Inn, Brink and his companions came within sight of the southern watchpost. It, like the other four watchposts scattered around the city, was a squat building of solid stone with a simple but sturdy wooden wall surrounding its grounds.
And now, surrounding that wall, were enough draug to fill the small plaza where the building sat.
“Gods,” Livingston said as he peered out at the crowd from the cover of an empty storefront, “there must be hundreds o’ the shamblers there.”
“No sneaking around all that,” Sybil added. “Unless we distract some of ‘em and pull them away.”
“Do ye think that’d work?” the potato man asked. Desperation was etched clearly on his face.
Sybil shrugged in response. “I don’t see why not. Those deaders seem hungry enough for the living, right? So one of us runs up, yells, ‘Hey, deaders! Free meal!’ and makes a lot of noise and they should turn to follow, right? And since we’re not carrying anyone today,” she continued, shooting Brink a glance, “it shouldn’t be too hard to outrun ‘em.”
Livingston was nodding as she spoke. “Whoever does it’ll have to be smart about it, though. Can’t let yerself get surrounded by the things. It’d be dangerous.”
“Then we’ll plan it out,” Sybil said, picking up a stick and etching an outline of the plaza and the surrounding streets. Brink only half-listened to their planning. The egg - the Ničota, Crazy Eyes had called it - was pulsing with heat in his pocket. It wanted to be heard, but Brink wasn’t sure what message it was trying to send. He put a hand on it, and the warmth felt comforting, inviting, and so he began to hum softly to it.
“-and if nothing else, I can always just climb up a building. I’ve been climbing this city my whole life, and those deaders couldn’t follow me up there,” Sybil finished, then looked over to Brink and noticed him quietly humming, his eyes closed. “Hey, scavenger boy. Any input on this, or do you feel like just letting us do all the work?”
If Brink heard her, he didn’t respond. Instead, he opened his eyes, and they glowed with a brilliant white light brighter than anything Sybil had ever seen. He stood up, taking the Ničota from his pocket. It had told him how to take care of these draug. No, that wasn’t right - it certainly didn’t speak to him in any real sense. But he could feel the power of the thing, pulsing, radiating, demanding to be released, and he knew how to do it. Sybil and Livingston were saying something to him as he walked forward, towards the draug, but they may as well have been a thousand miles away for all Brink could hear them - he was fully engrossed in the power, submerged in it, his body practically glowing with Essence.
He didn’t know what the Ničota was, exactly. Brielle could explain that to him later. But he did know that it could help Lily right now.
Brink extended his hand toward the draug as he approached, and he began to sing. The voice that flowed from him was the same rich baritone he had used to defy Crazy Eyes, but now it was more, a bellowing, bell-clear cadence of sound magnified beyond anything that a human should have been able to produce. And as he sang, he pulled forth Essence - not from himself, but from the egg, the Ničota, and compared to his own reservoir, it seemed an ocean of nearly limitless power. With his Song he formed Fire and Chaos into a broad swath of flame that rolled forth like the hand of an angry god, its power and raw heat washing over the draug and burning them so completely that most simply vanished into ash and blew away before the fury of Brink’s fire.
The draug, mindless as they were, turned and shambled towards him, unaware of the death that had come and desirous of only the living body standing before them. They were coming for him, all of them, and for a moment, Brink thought that maybe the draug were attracted not necessarily to the living, but to Essence, as he never thought he would be able to get the attention of all two or three hundred at the same time. 
But he pushed that thought away. There would be time for such considerations later. Now was the time for flame.
It took no more than a minute for all the dead to fall before Brink, but to him, it felt like a lifetime. So much energy, so much power had passed through him, and as the last of the draug fell, it took all the will he could muster to stop the flames. His soul screamed at him to rejoice in the power of it, to bring forth more, but he pushed that aside. Already the watchpost’s palisade burned, and while the cobblestone plaza around it would likely keep that fire from spreading, Brink knew that he could burn the whole city down with such power if he weren’t careful.
And so he ended his Song. The flame died down, leaving only a wind full of ash. As his voice fell quiet, Brink nearly collapsed, overwhelmed by a sudden sense of exhaustion so different from the rush of power he had just felt that his vision blurred and he wretched as he doubled over.
But before he could hit the ground, a pair of strong hands steadied him at the shoulders. “Easy there, boy. Easy,” Livingston said, guiding him to a seated position. “Ye’ve done enough. Rest now.”
Rest sounded like the most logical plan at the moment to Brink, but he shook his head. There’d be time for that later, and if his guess about draug being drawn to strong sources of Essence was right, they needed to find Lily and get out of there before the rest of the city bore down on them. Assuming Lily wasn’t in the fire he’d created. The thought steadied him, bringing him back to the moment. He clutched Livingston’s tree-trunk arm and hoisted himself up, taking slow breaths until he found his balance.
“No, I’m fine,” he said, his voice raspy, like all the air had just been burned from his lungs. “Let’s find Lily.”
Livingston gave him a long look, but nodded, unsheathing his sword as he made his way steadily towards the watchpost. The fire had been hot enough to make charcoal of the palisade within a minute, and the flames had already died to a smolder.
Brink started after him, but Sybil held out a hand to stop him. “That was…” she said, her voice hushed as she thought of what to say.
“A little different from floating knives or fixing fences?” Brink finished for her, managing a strained grin.
“Terrifying,” she said, her voice mirthless. “The scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. What you just did… No one could stand against that.”
Brink shook his head. “It wasn’t me. It was this egg - the thing Crazy Eyes wanted. It has more Essence in it than I could even imagine. I just… pulled from it, and used it to make that fire.”
Sybil looked down at the egg in Brink’s left hand. It was cool to the touch, now, and, somewhat self-consciously, he put it back in his pocket. “You can’t ever let him have that,” she said. “I’m not even sure I’m okay with you having it.”
Anger swelled suddenly within Brink as Sybil said this. How dare she question his right to this power? Hadn’t she just seen what he did to save Lily? He wasn’t the bad guy here! He could use the Ničota to beat Crazy Eyes! Couldn’t she see that?
“Brink?” Sybil asked, taking a step back and slowly shifting her stance. “Are you okay?”
He wanted to scream. He could feel the egg demanding release again, to demonstrate its power. Already his exhaustion was gone, and the Ničota’s Essence welled within him. There was less of it this time, but still plenty to-
And then he was on the ground. Sybil stood over him, fists balled, and she dropped to a quick kneel to keep him on the ground. The power left Brink as quickly as it had come, and he lay there, confused. Had he been about to attack Sybil? That didn’t make any sense.
“You back with me, chief?” Sybil asked, caution as much as concern in her voice.
“Y-yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so. I’m sorry, I don’t know what-”
“Pretty sure I can guess,” Sybil cut him off, rising and helping Brink to his feet. “You use that egg thing of yours to bring the wrath of the gods down on those draug there, and then you almost do the same thing to me when I mention how I might not be comfortable with you having it? Seems pretty obvious to me.”
Brink stood quietly, head in his hand. The exhaustion had returned with more to spare after his anger had flown, and now his thoughts were a tangled mess. Was the egg controlling him? Or, perhaps more frighteningly, was it just the power going to his head?
“I… don’t think I should use the egg anymore,” he said weakly, after a minute or two of mulling it over. Livingston had told him to always remember the nastier side of having power. He just didn’t realize how direct the temptation could be.
Sybil nodded, a small smile slowly returning to her face. “I think that’s a good idea, chief. Come on - let’s go find Lily.”
-----
The bodies of four watchmen littered the floor of the watchpost as they entered, surrounded by those of at least a dozen draug. So some of the city’s soldiers had resisted the Lethargia enough to fight back. Even if it wasn’t enough for these sorry souls, it was a hopeful sign. Livingston was inspecting the bodies when Brink and Sybil walked in. He shook his head as he spoke.
“None of these are Flynn, Lily’s brother-in-law. Small blessings, eh?” he said, looking up at the pair. They nodded, and together headed through a doorway leading deeper inside, stepping over the metal-studded door that had been ripped off its hinges. They were immediately greeted by the sound of metal impacting flesh - or maybe the other way around - from farther in. Livingston said nothing, but gripped his sword tighter and sped up to a trot as he led the way through the watchpost.
The noise grew louder and louder until they passed through a doorway leading to the watchpost’s jail - a hall with eight iron-barred cells on either side, the floor covered with hay to help prevent the smell of holding belligerents in tightly packed quarters for a couple days before they could be sent elsewhere. It only half worked.
At the end of the hall was a group of four draug pounding themselves against one of the cells, reaching their arms desperately through the bars to reach for something inside. Brink had a guess as to what that was. Livingston seemed to come to the same conclusion, as he shouted, “Lily!” and charged the draug with his sword. They turned at his approach and, apparently recognizing more accessible prey, shuffled towards him. Brink and Sybil followed after, weapons drawn, but Livingston’s hulking frame filled the narrow hall too much for them to have a hope of contributing to the coming fight.
Livingston didn’t seem to need their help, anyway.
He skewered the first draug in the line with his sword, then drew it back and crushed its head with the pommel. He held that one in place like a shield against the others, blocking their attacks with its now-lifeless form, as he hacked off an arm and chopped through another skull. The draug were dead mere moments after Livingston reached them, and he tossed them aside like discarded rubbish as he hurried for the cell they had been trying to get into. He clutched the bars when he reached it, shaking them.
“Lily!” he shouted. “Lily, wake up!”
When Brink and Sybil caught up to the cell, they found Lily inside. Her eyes were half-open but unaware, her breath shallow and lethargic. Sybil was already working on the lock, and Livingston flung the door open as soon as she’d sprung it. He ran to his wife and embraced her, shaking her gently as he cried again and again for her to wake up. She would not.
Brink reached out to find her Essence. It was drained - not as drained as many of the townsfolk’s had been, but still with only a faint spark left within.
“Move aside,” he told Livingston, entering the cell with her. The big man gave him an incredulous look, his eyes wide with sorrow and barely-contained panic. Brink softened his tone. “Please, Livingston. I can help her.” Reluctantly, he nodded, though he moved only enough to allow Brink to squeeze in beside them.
Brink touched his hand to Lily’s face, picturing again a bridge between their souls as he had done with Sybil. He found it easier this time, and began to pull Essence from the egg almost instinctively before catching himself. He wasn’t sure he could control it enough to give its power gently to Lily, and he was neither sure what would happen if he gave too much nor particularly eager to find out. He pulled of his own Essence instead, sending it over piece by piece, feeling his own exhaustion growing as he did. At last, she stirred.
“Livy?” she said, weakly. Her voice grew panicked as she slowly gained consciousness. “Where am I? What’s going on?”
Livingston all but shoved Brink out of the way as he moved to embrace his wife again, sobbing desperate reassurances to her. It wasn’t long before she was the one reassuring him.
Brink and Sybil looked on. Sybil was smiling brightly, her eyes practically glowing. Brink decided he liked that reaction a lot more than the fear he’d seen after he’d conjured the flame.

 

Chapter Twenty Four

Brink paced the jail hall nervously as the potato couple embraced in the cell. It had only been a couple of minutes since he had burned the draug outside, but a pit of fear had formed in his gut and was growing deeper with every passing moment. Brielle had said she found him after he’d encountered his Osud for the first time just by… what? The radiance of his Essence? And he was pretty sure he’d been a whole lot brighter this time.
Something bad was coming. He could feel it. It might not be Crazy Eyes - he was hoping that madman was still wounded from their encounter - but it was something bad. More draug? He couldn’t say.
“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep that up,” Sybil jabbed, watching him from where she leaned against a cell wall.
“We need to leave,” Brink replied, not looking up from his pacing.
“Just give them a minute, will you? Pretty sure they both thought the other was dead for a while there.”
“And they both will be if we don’t get out of here!”
At that, Lily walked out of the cell. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Brink stopped and looked up at her. “I don’t know. Maybe nothing. But… I used a lot of Essence back there. I think the draug will be drawn to that - and maybe Crazy Eyes, too.”
Lily nodded. If she was surprised by Brink’s admission to using Essence - or even unclear as to what that meant - she didn’t show it. “Then let’s go. Come on, Livy. I’m okay now. Anthony, do you have a safe place for us to stay?”
Brink nodded. “Mr. Mudry’s tower is the safest place I know. He’ll take care of you there.”
Lily’s reply was cut short by a loud crash that echoed through the watchpost, down to the jail. The very stones of the building shook as dirt and debris dislodged from the ceiling. Livingston emerged from the cell wiping some soot off his face. “What the blazes was that?”
They stood there, quietly, for several heartbeats, as if hoping that whatever had made such a sturdy building of stone and mortar tremble might just pass on by if they didn’t draw its attention. Then the watchpost shook again, more violently this time, and the structure groaned as its wooden rafters began to creak and break.
“Whatever it is,” Lily shouted over the noise, “it’s going to bury us here if we stay inside! Come on!”
The others nodded and ran towards the exit, Livingston leading the way. Again the building shook, and Sybil had to dive to the side as an entire section of the wall beside her exploded into shards of stone. At last they crashed through the front doors and into the plaza just as a man-sized chunk of cobblestone soared overhead and slammed into the building behind them, caving in much of the already-damaged ceiling. Before them, perhaps fifty yards away, were two figures, twice as tall as a man and with long, gangly arms that reached into the streets beneath them like the roots of stubborn trees. Before Brink and the others could even register the movement, they tore their arms up, bringing with them chunks of rock and dirt and hurled them towards the group with frightening accuracy. They scattered, Brink and Lily going right while Livingston and Sybil went left, and the makeshift boulders slammed home right where they had been standing.
“Capcaun!” Livingston shouted. “They’re capcaun! Big, angry, and smarter’n ye think!”
Brink had never heard of such a thing before, but Lily nodded sagely at the name.
“Can we run?” Brink shouted as another pair of boulders soared in towards them.
“They’re faster than we are and excellent trackers,” Lily replied, her voice keeping that same calm cadence she had always had. “We have to fight them.”
“And how do we do that? We can’t even get close!”
“You’re an Essential, Anthony! Fight them like anything else!”
Easy for you to say, Brink thought, but kept running. He didn’t know if Lily would be any good in a fight, but she kept up with him as he ran, rather than hiding while he distracted the capcaun like she could have, so he figured she must have something in mind. And if she did, he mused dryly, she was further along that line of thought than he was.
The boulders kept crashing in - the capcaun were making them smaller now that their targets were closer, and so they could throw them much more quickly - and more than once Brink and Lily had to dive to the ground and roll as a particularly accurate hunk of stone hurtled towards them. He just needed to get in close - they must be better at throwing rocks at range than they are at fighting up close, or they would have given up the whole boulder thing and charged by now - but the closer he got, the harder it was to dodge. A rock clipped the ground a mere foot in front of him, showering him with painful shrapnel, and he grimaced through the pain, hoping his leather coat had caught the worst of it. He glanced to the side and saw Lily running on, her stride unbroken. She must have dodged that one better than he had.
Twenty yards away now and Brink called forth Essence, pulling from his soul to create Air and empowering it with Chaos. If they were such good shots, Brink thought, let entropy deal with it. The air around him began to swirl violently, unpredictably, and he extended the effect, expanding his bubble of wild air to encompass Lily as she ran beside him. Another rock flew in, this one no bigger than his chest, but it ricocheted wildly to the side as it impacted the sphere of air he had created.
He ran on, hoping that Livingston and Sybil could figure something out without Essence at their disposal.
Ten yards, and Brink was close enough to make out the details of this creature. It was tall, twelve feet at least, and hairless, its torso rippled with muscles and its arms long enough to reach the ground without stooping. Its face, oddly canine despite its lack of hair, twisted into a snarl as they approached, and the stone it tore from the earth this time was shaped more like a pair of spears, long and jagged. It braced them in front of itself in a wide combat stance. Those stone spears were at least as tall as Brink was, and he ended his sprint in a wild dive to the side as the capcaun swung at him, its unnaturally long arms giving it such an advantage in reach that he couldn’t hope to approach safely.
When he looked up, he found that Lily was no longer beside him - he hoped that meant she had run for cover, rather than that she had been swept violently aside by the capcaun’s furious swings. He didn’t have time to think about it now, though - he had to get up and keep moving, or the giant creature would flatten him into the cobblestone.
He lunged for the capcaun, or tried to, but he had to dodge aside long before he got close as the creature swiped its spears at him, clipping him in the shoulder and sending him in a painful spin to the ground once again. He growled, rising and keeping his distance this time. He moved in a circle around it, the creature keeping its black eyes on him as he did. He had a good idea of its reach, now, and while he doubted he had any chance of getting in close, neither did it have the range to throw those painful boulders at him. That, at least, was a step in the right direction.
With a grunt of determination, Brink pulled forth more of his Essence, this time creating fire and structuring it with Order. He pictured a beam the width of his thumb, focusing it at the tip of his finger, and the flames gathered, growing in heat and intensity until he at last released the energy in a concentrated burst of energy.
The capcaun, its eyes ever watchful as Brink moved, took a long stride to the side that was entirely too nimble for a creature of its size, and the beam missed it completely, crackling off into the empty air to fizzle out in the wind.
Brink groaned. The strain on his Essence grew beyond exhaustion, now, and began to make itself known in a pounding headache he had a hard time ignoring. He would have to finish this fast, or he wouldn’t have anything left to throw at the giant. The creature, sensing Brink’s weariness, hooted and charged, brandishing its stone spears straight ahead. It wanted to skewer Brink before he ever got the chance to try his attack again.
And then it howled in pain, arching its back and turning suddenly around to face behind it. Brink saw a spear jutting from its shoulder, embedded deeply within its flesh, and beyond stood Lily, a watchman’s shield in her right hand and another spear in her left. When had she grabbed those? Brink thought. Still, she held them like she knew how to fight with them, and goaded the creature on by pounding her shield with the spear a few times.
The capcaun must have decided that she was the bigger threat than the panting and exhausted Brink, because it turned to her and lifted one of its great stones to charge at her, instead. Brink closed his eyes. He pictured the Song of the Earth within the spear, and saw it glow a soft green, dying as it had been separated from where it belonged but still there, hanging on. He sang, pulling forth his Essence and concentrating on the spear. He called upon Chaos, infusing the spear with its wiles, and as he brought his brief Song to a climax, the spear simply fell apart into dirt and pebbles. The giant, confused, looked down at where his weapon had been
That was all the opening Lily needed to charge the giant right back, and she yelled a clarion battle cry as she lunged and drove her spear deeply into its chest. She held it there for just a moment before twisting it out again and falling back out of its reach, ready for another round.
Brink wanted the fight over before that ever happened.
Once again he summoned fire, this time fueling it with as much of his Essence as he dare spend, and he pictured another beam but this one the width of his clenched fist. He screamed the last note of his Song and let loose, his beam of flame tearing through the creature’s back just above its heart and piercing the sky beyond. Brink cried out as he poured his energy into the flames. He held his wrist with his other hand and began to move it, carving a burning path through the capcaun’s body. He had made it no more than a foot from where the beam had started before the energy was exhausted, but it was more than enough to drop the creature, dead and smoldering before it ever hit the ground.
Brink bent over, resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. That had been all his own Essence, he thought. He hadn’t pulled a scrap from the egg, and it was more than he had ever put into a single Song before. He was proud of that last blast of flame. 
Then reality came back to him in a rushing torrent. There had been two creatures attacking the watchpost.
He looked up to see Livingston parry a blow from the other capcaun, maybe twenty yards away, and he ran for them, Lily a few steps ahead. Sybil was at the creatures back, striking at the backs of its knees painfully with her iron knuckles before retreating out of its reach. The creature turned to swat at her and Livingston struck, his sword digging deep into its side, and it howled in pain. It took several steps to the side, half-retreating and half-maneuvering. It was trying to get both of its combatants in front of it, but Livingston and Sybil wouldn’t let that happen. With a howl, Livingston charged in again, his reckless attack knocked aside by the capcaun’s arm, but he had given Sybil enough time to leap onto its back and climb up to its shoulders where she latched onto its dog-like head and twisted. She hadn’t the strength to rip the thing’s head off, but her movements showed her intention to do just that, and the giant swatted desperately at her. But she was too close - its long, gangly arms could hit her with any effectiveness while she stayed latched on its head.
Livingston hardly stood idly by while Sybil struggled with the creature. As soon as its arms were up, he took his sword in both hands and swung with abandon, cleaving deep into its side before ripping the blade out and starting again. He hacked and hacked, chopping like he would a tree, until at last the creature stumbled to its knees. Livingston chopped into its neck as soon as it was within his reach, and Sybil hopped nimbly off as the potato man finished with the capcaun.
“Hey, not bad, old man,” Sybil panted as Brink and Lily arrived, her breath ragged with exhaustion and crashing adrenaline.
“Aye, and that was fine work ye did yerself, young miss,” Livingston responded, cleaning the black ichor that had been the giant’s blood off his sword. He turned to see Lily and Brink arrive, noting the same black ichor on his wife’s spear. His face beamed. “And it looks like the two of ye fared even better, eh?”
“It’s not a competition, Livy,” Lily responded, her own grin slowly growing to match her husband’s. “And I had a young Essential’s help, so it would hardly have been fair if it was.”
Livingston walked up to Brink and put a strong hand on his shoulder. In truth, he was glad Sybil and the potato man had handled the other capcaun on their own. He wasn’t sure he had anything left to contribute if they hadn’t.
“And well fought, Brink, m’boy. Come along, now. I’m sure old Mudry’s waiting for us.”
The potato couple took the lead, their weapons of war more fit to handle any draug that may get in the way than the tools Sybil and Brink used and so the two of them fell in step behind them.
“You okay?” Sybil asked, giving Brink a concerned glance.
“Yeah,” he managed. “Yeah, I think so. You?”
Sybil nodded. “A little bruised, and I’m a little worried about how bad my body’s going to hate me in the morning, but I’ll live.” They walked quietly for a while before she spoke up again. “You didn’t use the egg, did you?”
Brink looked over at her, but she looked straight ahead, her face unreadable. “No,” he said. “No, it was all me this time.”
Sybil nodded, her face unchanging. “Good.”

 

Interlude

The Oligarchs of Old

“Do you know much about politics, Anthony?” Brielle asked one sunny morning. It was a morning too nice to be wasted discussing politics, Brink thought, but he suppressed his groan and shook his head.
“I’ve never had much cause to learn.”
“That’s what I assumed. But you’re attuned to the land now. It’s a part of you as much as your own Essence, and unfortunately, the sovereigns and nobles are just as much a part of the land as everyone else is.” She smirk. Brink had found he liked these mornings of instruction Brielle gave him - it was just about the only time he ever saw his mentor smile, and in some small way, her storytelling reminded him of his father’s.
“The Kingdom of Pravidlo,” she began, “is remembered by many a nostalgic old storyteller as an enlightened land of art and commerce. The truth, as it so often is in history, was much more complicated than that. The kingdom was made up of nine city-states: Cesta, Strateny, Rybarcit, Zlata Pola, Zelezo, Stadimesto, Prepych, Obchod, and the capital, Kralmesto. Kralmesto was the first of Pravidlo’s cities, founded two thousand years ago by an ancient tribe of nomads fleeing their defeat at the hands of a rival, and so it was in their language that the cities were named. Many official positions still use titles taken from the old tongue, but no one really speaks it anymore outside the odd idiom.
“As a land of exiles, Pravidlo was never a kingdom of strict laws or firm governance. Each city was ruled by a Nyas, most of whom ruled with frontier law: let the people live as they choose, as long as they pay their taxes and tithes, and only intervene when absolutely necessary. Each city chose its Nyas according to its own rules – some were hereditary lines, some were selected from among the patrons of the wealthy families, and some were voted into power by the landowners. The connection between the city-states of Pravidlo was loose in the early days, most preferring to keep to themselves. The Nyasi met once every season to discuss matters of state and negotiate trade agreements, but otherwise left each other to their own devices.
“It was not until the Pozoji, fiercely territorial amphibious creatures, emerged from their homes in the sea to attack the coastal cities of Pravidlo en masse did that change. The cities’ contact with the Pozoji had, until that point, been limited at most – there were a few coastal settlements scattered about that fishermen made sure to avoid, though even they had been open to occasional bartering – and now they were faced with a  veritable army rising from the sea, laying waste to their outlying towns. Rybarcit itself was under siege within weeks, and the militias of the scattered human cities proved little match for the vicious, scaled invaders.
“The Nyasi held an emergency conclave to decide how to face this threat, though no agreement could be reached. Many of the lords wanted simply to remain behind their walls, confident that their own defenses would prove victorious where others’ had failed, while others went so far as to demand payment for the aid of their armies. They squabbled and bickered, and left their conclave even further from a solution than they had been before it.
“Months passed, and the situation grew ever more dire. Any settlement not firmly enclosed behind stout walls proved easy prey to the marauding Pozoji. Starvation and disease were running rampant in the beleaguered Rybarcit. Once more the Nyasi met, this time weary and scared. They now knew this was not a problem that would sort itself out.
“One of their number, Cevolod, Nyas of Zlata Pola, stepped forward. He was an experienced warrior, elected to his position by his realm’s landowners for his ability to protect their land from raiders, and he made the conclave an offer. Give him the power to command their armies and resources, and he would organize them to drive out the scaled invaders. The conclave debated, and many recoiled against such an idea, but in the end it was their desperation that led to the creation of a new position: Velnyas, Prince of Princes. Cevolod was the first, and he made good on his promise – within a year, the Pozoji were driven from Pravidlo and back to the sea. The Nyasi were grateful, and at last saw the value of unity – and so every year hence, they chose one of their number to act as Velnyas, not just to command their military, but to unite the nine cities in matters of everything from art to commerce.
“A thousand years have passed since then, and never again have the Pozoji risen from the sea in such number, though many coastal settlements reemerged in the decades following the war. The conclave of the Nyasi, led by the Velnyas, proved an effective system of governance for the united Pravidlo, barring the occasional civil war over trade or land disputes. But its cities have always been unique, independent entities united only for the prosperity and protection such unity brought – and so, when the Nine Years War ended with the death of the last Velnyas, Aszlo, the cities fell easily back into isolation from one another. The conclave of the Nyasi has met only once per year since, accomplishing little in those meetings beyond acknowledging one another’s existence. Whether this was the splintering of an enlightened land of art and commerce into divided and lesser pieces or the return to a more natural state of being for a fiercely independent people is often left to the opinion of the historian telling the story.”
“What do you think?” Brink asked.
Brielle pondered, chin resting in her hand. “I think there’s an ebb and flow to everything, including politics. Especially politics. The cycle of unity and disunity is as natural as the cycle of seasons. It’s just a longer, bloodier cycle.”

 

Chapter Twenty Five

The trek back to Mudry’s tower was slowed by caution - as Brink had predicted, several large packs of draug had begun shuffling towards the watchpost after his fiery display, and every few minutes the companions had to stop and hide to let dozens of the lifeless creatures pass. It was nearly nightfall when they finally reached their sanctuary, and Mudry quickly ushered them inside.
“I would not recommend going about the city after dark anymore,” the old man advised.
“Really, now?” Sybil snarked, slinging her pack down into the corner. “And here I was planning on taking a nice nighttime stroll with the deaders.”
Mudry shook his head. “It is no longer just the draug haunting our streets anymore, young miss. More malevolent things have come, and Cesta has become a feeding ground for them.”
“More malevolent things?” Brink asked. “Is Crazy Eyes just bringing in all the monsters he can find to hunt us - to hunt me - down?”
“Perhaps so. Perhaps sinister eyes have noticed that no one watches the walls or patrols the streets anymore. Or perhaps they can sense the Lethargia and are drawn by it. I cannot say - but I can tell you that such beasts are often more active, and more dangerous, at night.”
“Well that’s a cheery thought,” Sybil added, dryly. “And what’s keeping those ghoulies out of the tower while we sleep?”
“Do not fret about the safety of this tower. Nothing will enter here that I do not permit,” Mudry said with finality.
“Aye, and we’re all grateful for it,” Livingston replied, cutting in before Sybil could add anything more. “I don’t rightly know what we’d do without a port to ride out this storm in.”
“Ride out the storm?” Sybil asked, hotly. “Not much riding to be done, or else you’ll be riding for a good long while, by my measure. We’ve got to find this Crazy Eyes maniac and end him before he wrecks our home for good. You want to sit here in safety while the rest of us do that, you go right ahead. I’ll be getting ready to attack.” With a huff, she headed upstairs.
“Now, that’s not what I meant-” Livingston called out to her, but she was gone, and Lily put a hand on her husband’s arm.
“Leave her be for a bit, dear. We all have to cope with what’s going on in our own ways.”
Livingston frowned, but nodded at his wife. “Brink, m’boy,” he started, after the group had settled in, “I cannot thank ye enough for savin’ me and me wife. You two didn’t have to risk yourselves for us, but we owe ye our lives. If there’s anything we can do to help ye with all that’s goin’ on, ye just say the word.”
“And that includes taking the fight straight to the one who started all this,” Lily added. “I know you’re an Essential and that means you have powers the rest of us can barely understand, but that doesn’t mean you can do this on your own - and you don’t have to. We’re behind you, every step of the way.”
Brink only nodded in reply, but in truth, the warmth he felt from the potato couple at their gratitude - their friendship - was positively radiating inside him.
“Thanks, you two,” he managed, when he trusted his voice enough to speak. “That means a lot.”
“Dinner will be ready within the hour,” Mudry said, breaking the silence that followed. “I will have my servants escort you to the dining room at that time. Until then, there is tea in the kettle - help yourself as you will.” With that, the old man walked upstairs.
Lily called out her thanks to him, but Livingston just glanced around the tower, bemused. “Ehm, where’d he say the dining room was, exactly?”
-----
As Mudry had promised, the night passed quietly in the tower. Brink had asked him where he was going to house the other three guests, and the old man merely smiled and said, “The guest bedrooms, of course.”
They shared a quiet breakfast an hour before sunrise and were packed and ready to go by the time the first rays of light shined through the shuttered windows. It was time to take the fight to Crazy Eyes, Brink knew - and this time, he had help, both in his new allies and in the Ničota. He didn’t want to use the egg and had told Sybil he wouldn’t; but while he knew what to expect from Crazy Eyes this time and had thought carefully about how he might shield himself and his companions from it, if he proved unable to, he could always draw power from the Ničota. It was his ace in the hole, and with it he knew he could defeat the madman who had brought so much death to his city.
The others had already walked out the door when Brink paused, turning back to Mudry. “Is she…” he started, glancing at a door on the far side of shop. Mudry shook his head in reply.
“There has been no change, Mr. Brink. But don’t worry - I have always found that solving one problem often leads to the solution of others. Good hunting.”
With that, Brink joined the others heading for the Nyas’s manor. He wasn’t sure if he’d still find Crazy Eyes there, but it was the only lead he had. And the city was getting worse by the hour - he could sense only the faintest Song in its streets, and there seemed to be even more draug than there had been the day before. And, perhaps worst of all, the still-living people of Cesta were beginning to look more than a little parched. They needed water, and they wouldn’t - or couldn’t - even make the effort to reach it and drink. He could save some, give them some of his Essence as he had Lily, but such an effort exhausted him. He could do two, perhaps three in a day. A drop in the bucket.
Cesta’s busier streets were clogged with the soulless, and it took the four companions nearly two hours to travel the mile or so distance to the manor. When they arrived, they found the iron gates open, along with the palatial front doors, as if no one had even bothered to close them after Brink and Sybil’s escape. Likely, the residents of the manor had been the first to be drained by Crazy Eyes after their encounter.
There was a pair of draug in loose-fitting watchman uniforms shuffling about the foyer - Brink wondered idly if they might be the same pair who had been patrolling the grounds the last time he had been here - and the potato couple brought them low as quietly as they could. Livingston still wielded his broadsword, cleaned from the day before, and Lily had kept the watchman’s spear and shield. They were both equally efficient in their bloody work.
“Looks like she’s done this a couple of times,” Sybil whispered to Brink from the entrance. He shrugged.
“I guess so. Livingston said he’d fought in the war, but I don’t really know anything about Lily.”
“Well, I’m now very interested to learn more,” Sybil replied, with a wink.
Livingston motioned them on quietly, and they proceeded up the stairs, guided by Sybil’s memory to the room where they had encountered Crazy Eyes in his bed. The door was locked. Sybil pulled out her tools and got to work while the others kept watch - though besides the draug at the entrance, they had seen no signs of life - or unlife - in the manor.
Brink stole a glance over to Sybil as she worked. Her face was scrunched in concentration as she listened to the lock, making subtle adjustments with her picks as she did. He found he liked the way her nose pulled up as she did, and made it a point to make fun of her for it later, if they got out of this alive.
But then he tilted his head, confused, as he watched her. Something was off. Something slight, something almost imperceptible, but there was something simply wrong with the sight. He was about to say something when Sybil turned and nodded, giving them a thumbs-up.
Her shadow did not turn with her.
Instead, it elongated into a pair of arms, its fingers too long to be human, that snaked their way up her lithe form. She shivered and exhaled, frost clear on her breath, then collapsed, her eyes rolling backwards. And before the potato couple could react, the arms had reached them, too - Livingston fell against the wall and slid to the floor, while Lily leaned on her spear for a moment, her eyes fighting to stay open, but then she, too succumbed. Panicked, Brink reached for his Essence, hoping to put up some kind of defense against whatever was happening.
One of the shadow fingers wagged at him scoldingly.
“Huh uh uh,” a voice whispered, so close to Brink’s ear that his skin erupted into goosebumps. “None of that now. Just go to sleep.”
And then he was falling, falling, whatever Essence he had managed to gather slipping from his grasp as the floor rose to meet him.
-----
When he awoke, he was standing in water up to his waist. The sky was grey and motionless, and the ocean - for that’s the only word he could place on it - continued on for as far as he could see. The water was still, save for the figures that walked around in it.
They were black, featureless, but were shaped vaguely like people. Some were a little taller, some a little thinner, but all were colorless and empty, wading silently through the water with no clear destination in mind. He could see twenty, maybe thirty, but all so far away he wondered if they could hear him if he called out. He tried. Nothing. His voice came out a harsh gasp, a whisper of air swallowed by the stillness.
He started walking towards the nearest one - it looked about a hundred yards away, but distance was hard to gauge against the endless water and oppressive, grey sky. His steps were slow, impeded by the water, but he could feel himself making progress. It might take him an hour, it might take him a day, but what else did he have here but time? And yet, when he looked up, he had come no closer to the figure than he had been. Sure it was just an illusion, he continued on, pushing himself to go faster this time.
Still nothing. He had gotten no closer to the figure.
He was nearly running now, as close to a sprint as he could get while treading water, and still the figure remained as far away as it had always been. He reached a hand for it, screaming silently, but nothing changed.
He stopped, out of breath as much because of his rising panic as for the movement. His head was spinning - how did he get here? Where was here? He struggled to think of what had been before the grey emptiness, but the waters pushed heavily at his thoughts. It wasn’t cold here, wherever here was. Nor was it hot. In fact, paying attention to it now, he realized he felt very little at all, and now he had been in the water long enough for him to barely even register its presence, either. It was as if he was feeling nothing at all.
Stop, he thought, his breathing growing faster. Stop and think. He couldn’t panic, couldn’t tip over that edge from which he might not return. He was alone, yes, but he had lived much of his life that way. And he couldn’t sense Essence, either his own or the Song around him, but that, too, he had done without for most of his life. He had to think. Calm, steady breaths.
Think.
Sybil. He remembered Sybil’s nose. Why her nose? He closed his eyes and pictured it, and a face grew around it. It was scrunched up, as if in concentration - she was working on something. Her arms appeared next, then her hands. Tools - lockpicks. She was opening a door, but why-
He built the memory in his mind, piece by piece, until at last he could see the entire scene. Livingston was standing to his left, Lily to his right - they were standing watch while Sybil opened the door. The door?
The door to Crazy Eyes’s room. They were going there to confront him, to end whatever it was he had done to Cesta. He pictured the city then, his city, as it was ingrained in his mind. It was nighttime, softly lit by the moon above, and he had a high vantage point he was observing from. There was a hatch open next to him - no, not a hatch, but a window. A window turned horizontally. And protruding from that window like a mole was another figure - older, wizened, but tall and straight with wispy white hair. Mudry.
He was moving quicker, now, through his memories. He had lost track of why he was doing it, why he was piecing back together the tapestry of events that had formed his life one still image at a time, but it felt important to him. It felt right. And so he kept going - Sybil again, this time running away through a crowd. Then his cabin along the Plagueline, a coven of likhos kicking up dust as they sprinted his way. Then Strateny. He pictured the first time he had ventured within the plagued city - no, not plagued, drained - and had viewed it from a ruined tower. It was a view oddly similar to the one he had of Cesta from Mudry’s tower, though lit by the sun through a thick haze rather than soft moonlight. And Strateny’s skyline was ruined, crumbling. The image hardened in his mind, made solid as the others before it had like fresh-fired claw, and he moved on to the next one.
He found himself in a dark cave. It was a man-made tunnel, the ceiling supported by sturdy wooden beams and a pair of crude iron rails running across the jagged floor. The sounds of metal impacting stone formed clearly in his mind - the first sound he had truly heard in his sojourn through memory - and suddenly it became clear.
He was back in the mines of Zelezo.

 

Chapter Twenty Six

The vision formed clearly before Brink - and it wasn’t a happy one. The foreman of the mine - a wiry man whose name Brink never learned but whose lash he knew very well - held his whip high as he prepared to bring it down on Brink. Rarely did the cruel taskmaster wait until his victims were bound to a post to lash their backs, as was generally tradition with such treatment. No, the foreman would waste no time if he saw the slightest slack in the work of one of the miners; he would stop his patrol and whip the poor slacker bloody, front, back, or side. The foreman wasn’t picky, and neither was he patient.
As the image formed in Brink’s mind, he felt all the emotions associated with it rage up within him. Mostly it was fear. He felt terror, raw and unfiltered, spider its way through his body, its tendrils reaching all the way to the tips of his fingers. He had to get away, had to run, had to do something to escape this awful place.
He opened his eyes. All at once, the mine was gone, replaced by the unending water and the unfeeling sky. He held his head in his hands, reminding himself again and again that it wasn’t real, that he’d escaped... 
...escaped what? He felt the fear still, keenly. But its source was gone from him. The memory, unfinished in his mind, began to unwind as the emptiness around him pulled on the tapestry of his past. He was losing it, losing the memory as he had lost so many others.
The figures in the water seemed farther away. Was he imagining that? He couldn’t tell. There was no reference to judge distance by in this place, and it seemed moot, in any event. The figures could do nothing for him. If he was going to escape this place, wherever it was, he would have to do so on his own.
His memories were the key. He had to remember them, to push away the fog that had enveloped his mind. But how? The last one he had tried to picture filled him with such terror that he had fled, and now he couldn’t even remember what the memory was. How could he steel himself against horror he didn’t even understand? Despair creeped in as he looked around the empty waters. There was no escape from this place. He still made no progress when he tried to run, and even if he could reach one of the figures, it was more than likely that they were just as trapped as he.
Brink looked down at the water, considering it. He could end it now. Just fall into the unfeeling embrace of the endless sea and let it take him away. That was easier, he thought. Better. Better than struggling forever and becoming another ghostly figure in someone else’s distance.
His knees bent and he brought himself closer to the water. The grey sky gave little light, and he could only barely see his own reflection in its surface, but something stopped him as he readied himself to plunge beneath. In his reflection, something fluttered. There was something sitting on his head, fluttering its wings lightly.
A moth.
Brink cocked his head at the sight, confused. He knew that moth, would know it anywhere, now. His Osud. He concentrated on it, focused his view, but he could see only its vague outline in the dark reflection of the still water. But it was there. And that meant something.
He blinked, and the moth was gone. Brink stood up, looking around frantically to try to catch a glimpse of it flying away, but it had simply disappeared. Still, he thought about what it might be trying to tell him. He still hadn’t learned how to tell what his Osud wanted - Brielle had said she would teach him more about that later in his training, and he cursed her reticence. He still had so much to learn, and his mentor would never consent to a simple answer to anything! He was suddenly filled once more with a burning desire to get back to his training, to learn and to grow. Brielle had just come into his life, had just started to make something out of him, and now-!
Oh. Brink laughed aloud at the thought. Is that what his Osud wanted to tell him? That he still had so much left to live for? It was either that or he’d missed the message entirely, Brink thought, but something in him knew he was right.
And besides - Brink had never been one to give up on anything easily. He shook his head away, and with it, the despair that had crept in through his memories. Whatever horror lay within his past, he had conquered it once, bested it when it was real - he could do so again.
“Okay,” he said to himself, shaking his arms out like he was about to go for a run. “Alright, I can do this. Just concentrate.”
He closed his eyes, focusing on his memories, searching for them through the fog. Once more, the mines of Zelezo began to take form around him.
-----
The mines were dark, and Brink found himself lying face-first on the ground after his foot had caught on a jutting rock. Normally, he wouldn’t have been hurrying quite so much for exactly that reason, but today was special - it was his thirteenth birthday, which meant he was about to graduate from being an errand boy to a full-fledged miner. It wasn’t a promotion he was looking forward to. One of the overseers had informed him of his new assignment and had handed him a pickaxe. It was small, compared to the picks the rest of the men used (which were about the size of Brink and likely almost as heavy), but the overseer said he had had it specially made, just for him. He had a sad smile on his face when he handed it over like some unwanted birthday gift. That overseer was one of the kinder ones - he only beat Brink a handful of times during his stay there.
The pick was well-crafted, a solid thing forged of a single piece of iron with a handle of wrapped leather, but Brink had no intention of putting it to its intended purpose. He had been an errand boy in the mine for three years now and had seen the suffering of the miners and the cruelty of the foreman. Big men, strong, mean and full of grit, brought low by their unending, backbreaking task. And the lash. There was always the lash.
No, Brink would not be broken. He would escape, would flee, and then he’d find his father. Maybe his father had gotten hurt in the war and needed his help, or maybe the Church hadn’t told him where they’d sent his son. Brink wouldn’t put it past those gnarled old men to do such a thing just for the spite of it.
But he’d worry about all that later. For now, he had to escape, and so he was running through the darkened tunnels towards the mine’s only exit. He could almost see the rays of light pouring in from the outside when a heavy hand came down on his shoulder.
That night, the overseers gave him the worst beating of his life. He’d get plenty more before he escaped, and only a handful would be worse than that night’s.
Brink watched as three years’ worth of memories passed by him. Most were faded blurs, hurried by and lost in insignificance. Some moments he remembered clearly - the beatings, for example - and a few he remembered with such agonizing clarity that he nearly turned away. But he didn’t. He lived through them again, just as he had the first time. He saw, he heard, he smelled, he felt the highlights of the worst three years of his life, all in a jumbled mess of agony.
And then it all coalesced into a single moment. Once more the still image of the foreman bringing his whip down on Brink splayed across his vision. All sound stopped, and Brink looked up to see the pure, unadulterated rage in the foreman’s eyes. He felt the fear he had felt then, felt it creeping in, felt it start him down his cycle of despair again.
He fought. He told himself again and again that this was just a memory, that it wasn’t real, that he’d escaped this place, that he’d survived it, but the fear didn’t care. The fear knew only the moment, that moment, and it refused to yield to reason. He could distantly feel tears running down his cheeks.
Logic wasn’t working. He couldn’t convince himself that this had all happened in the past, that he was in a safer place now - relatively, anyway - through reason alone. And so he summoned forth his anger.
“No,” he growled, his voice rough with tears. “No, that’s not how this happened. I’ll show you how this happened.”
The image slowly began to move, to progress forward through his memory. The foreman’s lash was bearing down on him, likely for the thousandth time, but this time, Brink wouldn’t just lie down and take it. He had started a riot to get this close to freedom, and he would not be denied. He screamed in the memory and he felt his throat go raw as he screamed in the present, and he dove forward, clutching his pick with all that he had.
The foreman’s eyes went wide as he looked down to see Brink’s pick stuck deep in his chest. He tried to bring the lash to bear, to form some kind of defense, but his arms had gone weak, and the whip, that terrible whip, fell to the dirt and iron dust.
Brink said nothing. He screamed, he screamed until he voice was hoarse and then he screamed until he tasted blood, all the while bringing his pick down on that wretched man again and again. At last, Brink’s arms grew tired, and he fell to his knees, desperately gasping in air. He looked over at what he’d done. The foreman was on his back now, long since dead, his chest a heap of gore, and his own arms and chest were matted thick with blood. He turned and vomited.
It was a long moment before Brink could think clearly again. His mind was racing - his anger and adrenaline were quickly giving way to fear and doubt - but the sound of clamor somewhere down the tunnels brought him back into focus. There were heavy footsteps pounding on stone not far from where he sat, and while he couldn’t tell if they were coming towards him or not, he decided not to risk it. He would have been killed for starting the riot that got him this far - now add the foreman’s murder to his list of crimes and he could be sure it would be a slow, torturous death.
He looked up, past the foreman and towards the light of the mine’s exit. The last three years had robbed him of any hope that his father still lived - or, at the very least, cared enough to look for him - and so he knew that with freedom came uncertainty. Still, he didn’t have any other choice. He’d made his decision already - now he needed only the strength to follow it through. He rose, picked up his pickaxe, and ran for the light.
Again the memory changed to an unmoving picture as he left his life as an indentured servant behind him. But this time, the image was of light pouring into a darkened tunnel, and it was within his grasp. The creeping fear the last image had left him with departed - there was still uncertainty, but it was the uncertainty of unknown possibilities, of freedom, and of knowing something better was waiting for him. The light spread through his vision, and he opened his eyes.

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

The endless sea and empty grey sky were gone, replaced by the hallway in the Nyas’s manor just outside Crazy Eyes’s room. To Brink, the whole experience felt like a dream - he could remember everything that happened while he was in the grey sea, but it all seemed so unreal to him now that he was out of it.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He was far from out of danger, but the fact that he was still alive after being - what, asleep? Unconscious? - for as long as he was seemed like a good sign. Maybe Crazy Eyes hadn’t expected anyone to escape that trap, whatever it had been. Even still, he glanced around with his eyes mostly shut, unmoving. He didn’t want to lose the element of surprise, if he had it.
In front of him, Sybil sat unceremoniously on her knees where she had fallen, her head slumped down towards the floor. She was breathing heavily, as if running or in a panic. To his left was Lily, slumped over her spear where she had tried to keep herself propped up. Her breath was calmer, though. More even. And to his right lay Livingston.
He was coughing up water, choking and gurgling as it bubbled out of his mouth, his body spasming.
“Livingston!” Brink cried, scrambling to his feet and over to the drowning potato man. He shook the big man vigorously, hoping to wake him. He kept gurgling, water frothing now as it ran through his lips. Brink cursed, shouting his name again and again, but nothing worked. He was running out of time.
And then something slammed into Brink from behind, bowling him over his drowning friend and sending him into a roll down the hall. He groaned as the floor met his injuries, but he found his feet before he ever stopped moving and turned to face whatever had attacked him. He had his pick out and ready, and had already pulled forth his Essence, but there was nothing there.
“Go back to sleep,” a voice whispered, soothing and yet terrifying all at once. “It’s calm there. No more fighting, no more running. Just peace.”
Brink’s vision swam as the voice spoke to him. He remembered what it was like out in his cabin by the Plagueline, before he had found that damned egg. The cool evenings on his porch, just enjoying the air and the solitude. It seemed… nice. So very, very nice. His pick began to slip from his grasp.
But then another thought began to barge in, struggling against the serenity. Not all the evenings at his cabin had been calm, had they? There had been plenty of nights where he had had to douse his fire, lock his door and windows, and hide beneath the straw he used for a bed as terrible things roamed the wilds too close to his cabin. Close enough to see him, if they were looking. There were even a few nights where some of those things scratched at his door, whispering sweet promises if only he would open it.
No, the calm in his mind pushed back. Those were just the nightmares of a younger Brink. You’re too old to believe in those things now, it told him. Just think of your cabin, and the cool autumn breeze after a good day’s work.
But Brink shook his head at that, and the calm began to fade. A good day’s work? Scavenging the ruined Strateny while hiding from the undead, or worse? Most nights he spent just trying to convince himself to go back the next day.
His vision cleared. Before him, slowly, slowly crept along the walls a pair of shadowy arms, with fingers too long to belong to any human. Inch by inch they made their way along the hall. Brink nearly broke into a run, to gain distance on the creature so he could turn and attack with his Essence, but then another thought occurred to him. He had done just that when he first awoke from the empty, grey sea, and the creature was nowhere to be seen. He needed a different plan.
He let his head loll a bit, let his pick fall to the floor. You can’t win if you don’t play the game, he thought.
The arms came closer, closer. He felt a shiver creep down his back as they drew near and fought to suppress it. He closed his eyelids a bit and swayed in place.
“Yes,” the voice crooned soothingly, “that’s right. Just let the calm in. Enjoy the serenity of it. There’s no need to struggle anymore. You’ve done enough.”
The imposing calm washed over him again, but he was ready for it this time. He had steeled his mind with thoughts of terror and pain - not a difficult thing to do, with the shadowy arms growing ever closer to him.
He could see something else now, a formless shadow that followed along behind the arms. The creature’s body, perhaps? That was his target, then. But how could he hope to hurt a shadow? Did he douse it with fire, hoping it burned with the walls or fled from the light? That seemed like his best bet, but the shadow was passing by his companions as it approached, and he didn’t feel nearly confident enough that he wouldn’t catch them in the blaze to risk it. But he had to do something - Livingston’s spasms were growing less frequent, now. An occasional flop, like a fish on the deck of a boat. He would only get one shot at the creature, and if he didn’t destroy it with that, he would lose Livingston.
Assuming the creature’s destruction would lead to the potato man’s safety, that is.
But it was all he had, so he had to be sure that whatever he threw at the creature was right. He needed to hear the Song of Essence so he could tell what the shadow creature was. But how could he sing and pretend to be falling asleep at the same time?
He closed his eyes, swaying a bit more on his feet. The voice whispered more reassurances. He began to hum, softly, his lips moving just enough to make it seem like he was trying to say something just before falling asleep. He hoped the creature bought it.
The Song came quietly, like the music of rain on a sleepy roof, but Brink knew what he was listening for. He cracked his eyes open again, just a bit, to see what the creature was made of. Right in front of his face, a couple of inches away, was a face, monstrous and deformed as it splayed across a splotch of shadow. One eye, twice as big as the other, looked rapidly over him - ensuring, perhaps, that Brink was as close to sleep as he seemed to be. The mouth, little more than a darker shadow below the eyes, moved as the voice whispered on.
“Good. Go to sleep, now. You’ll be happy there.”
It took everything Brink had to not scream at the sight of the shadowy face before him. It took even more to not let his eyes open wide in terror, but somehow, he managed to remain convincingly drowsy - and as he did, he got a good look at the Essence of the beast. It swirled with Water and Order, but rather than the silver he would have imagined, it was the sickly blue-grey of corpseflesh. A good thing he didn’t use fire, then. It likely wouldn’t have done a thing to the water beast.
Still, he had seen everything he needed to see. The shadowed hands reached for him, but before they could gain a grip, Brink shot out his hand and raised his voice in time with the Song, singing loudly with the rumbling bass of Earth. He pictured the hall where the shadow stretched collapsing in on itself to form a cube, a prison of stone into which no light could reach and from which no shadow could escape. He pictured the very bricks of the manor around him pulling together, and sent forth his Essence to make it a reality.
The shadow’s whisper became a shriek as the stone and mortar of the hall on which it spread sprang to life and flew together into an orderly cube. It was imperfect, and shadows began to grasp out from its depths, and so Brink sent forth more of his Essence to the walls, bidding it join the prison he was building. More and more bricks gave way as the stone prison grew, until at last it filled half the corridor and most of the walls, ceiling, and floor around it gaped with holes that led to wooden rafters. Brink panted with exhaustion at the effort, but he watched closely, watched for any abnormality of the shadows around the stones.
Nothing moved.
Then Livingston coughed and spasmed again, his eyes open now and rolled back to reveal red veins on pure white globes. His back arched and more water spewed from his purple lips, and Brink ran to him, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him again. He had no idea what to do for the man who had so quickly become so important to him.
“Livingston!” he cried. “Livingston, it’s me, Brink! Please, please don’t give in! I know it seems hopeless in there, but you have to come up for air! Think of a reason to live - think of Lily! All that despair is just trying to control you. You can’t let it!”
His words fell on drowning ears. Livingston began to go still, his spasm giving way to the cold claminess of death.
Brink panicked. He couldn’t lose Livingston. Not now - not to this. And so he did the only thing he knew he could - he closed his eyes and began to hum, picturing a bridge between his Essence and Livingston’s. In the darkness of their souls, he felt his own Essence, drained a bit from his battle with the shadow being, and Livingston’s across from him; it was full, a reservoir full of life, yet tainted somehow. There was a poison there, dark and rancid, and Brink’s very soul recoiled from the sight of it.
That was the problem, then. The despair the shadow creature brought had corrupted Livingston’s very Essence. But how to get rid of it?
There was only one way to do it. Brink’s father, back when they lived on their farm outside Zlata Pola, had told him to never suck the venom out of a snake bite. “That’s just an old wives’ tale,” he would say. “Never saved anybody, and likely made a good many more people sick than needed to be.” But this was a venom Brink had already fought, successfully. He had beaten the despair of his own tortured past - whatever it was that Livingston had failed to endure, he could shoulder it.
And so he began to mold his friend’s Essence, to shift it around. At first it felt like grabbing at sand in a pool of water, but soon he was working it like clay. He separated the toxic despair and brought it to the forefront, leaving the untainted Essence behind. He likely didn’t get it all - he was hardly an expert, after all - but Livingston would just have to deal with what was left.
Then he brought the corrupted Essence over to himself. At first, his soul rejoiced at the rejuvenation, just as it had when he drained Sybil that fateful night, but it quickly realized that what it was receiving was hardly the restoration it so craved. His soul resisted, but Brink forced it, pulling more and more of the despair into himself until at last it filled him whole. He severed the connection, and the world went black.
-----
“Hey, there he is,” said a familiar voice, soothingly. Brink struggled to focus his vision as he opened his eyes again. It was… sunny?
“Easy, easy,” the voice said again. “You’ve been out cold for a couple of hours now. But you’re alright now.”
Brink rubbed his eyes, and the sky above became a clear blue. He looked around - he was lying on a cot outside a well-built cabin, a much nicer home than the one he had built outside the Plagueline. There was a figure looming above him.
“How’re you feeling, son?” it said. A rough beard, pepper-black mixed with just a sprinkle of salt, obscured his view of the rest of the man’s face.
“Dad?” Brink asked, confused. This shouldn’t be…
“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry to disappoint,” his father responded with a little laugh. He always made that little laugh after a joke that was only a little funny.
Brink struggled for words. Memories of the Church, of the mines, flooded his thoughts, then flitted away with the gentle breeze. A bad dream, brought about by a fever, most likely.
“I’m alright,” he managed to say. His voice was rough, scratchy with disuse and dehydration.
“Are you, now? Because you sound like a dying mule. You sure Hartlocke’s not speaking for you?” Despite the words, a smile rose the edges of the greying beard.
Brink managed a chuckle. It didn’t matter how bad things were - his dad always knew just the right thing to say to make everything better.
“It’s good to see you, dad,” he said. He felt silly as soon as the words left his mouth. He had only just seen him a few hours ago, right? Nightmares only make the time seem longer, but the morning always comes at the same time.
“Is that right?” his father said, still smiling. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t say the same about you.”
“What?”
“You see, Anthony, I abandoned you. I left you in that Church because I didn’t want to have to deal with you anymore. All that pretending to care about you finally took its toll, I guess. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“But…”
“No buts about it, I’m afraid,” the man continued, his voice still fatherly and soothing. “I just didn’t want you. Your mother made the smart decision years before I did. Guess I figured I could tough it out, but boy, did I figure wrong.”
“Dad…”
“And when I got back to Zlata Pola and found out you’d bent sent to the mines all the way in Zelezo? Oh, boy, was I relieved. Not only did I not have to worry about running into you cleaning some alley somewhere, but you being in the mines also settled all my debts. Guess those first ten years of suffering really paid off, huh?”
“No…”
“I know, it may be hard to hear, son. But you have to grow up sometime. I never wanted you, kid. Your mother didn’t, either, which sure explains why you never met her. You’re just too hard to love, even for a parent.”
Brink’s mind was darkness. So it was true, then. The cynical thought he’d used to steel himself against the world, but that his heart had never accepted, was true. His father didn’t want him.
He was unlovable.
“Anthony!” a voice whispered from far, far away.
“You don’t even have any friends, do you?” his father continued. “I imagine not. If your parents couldn’t care about you, how in the world could a complete stranger?”
“Anthony, you have to wake up!” the voice came again. His father spoke again, but Brink didn’t register what he said. He didn’t need to. He’d heard everything he needed to hear. He knew it already, he supposed. He just had never faced it before. At least his father was finally being honest with him.
“Listen to me, Anthony!” the whisper came again, and Brink tried to shove it out of his mind. But something about it was familiar - something that didn’t belong, not with his father here on the farm. He listened, if only to escape the pain.
“Come back to us, Anthony!” The voice was desperate. It was… sad. Sad that he wasn’t there. Sad that he was here. But why? Thoughts began to flood him again, thoughts of Essence, of thieves, and of potato farmers. Suddenly, his father’s presence didn’t make much sense anymore.
“You’re not going anywhere, son,” his father said, angry for the first time since he started speaking.
Brink just shook his head. It was the despair talking, trying to bring him back to that dark, dark pit. He didn’t need to respond.
“I’m here,” he said instead, looking up at the sky, concentrating on the voice. “I’m here. Just wait for me.” He closed his eyes, denied the voice that was his father’s, and pictured instead those who cared for him. Livingston. Lily. Sybil. Brielle. Mudry. He did have friends. He did have people who cared.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying on the floor of the hallway outside Crazy Eyes’s room. Lily was leaning over him.
“There he is,” she said, smiling.

 

Chapter Twenty Eight

“Are you alright?” Lily asked him, after she had gotten him up and seated against the wall.

“Yeah,” Brink answered, rubbing his neck. “Never better. What happened?”

“Lily and I woke up first and found you curled up and sobbing like a baby,” Sybil said from across the hall, with feigned mockery. Concern was etched on her face.

“And Livingston?” Brink asked quickly, remembering how he had found the potato man.

“Fine!” the big man responded. His voice was raw and nervous. “Woke up a bit after they did.” He shared a look with Brink that told him he knew what had happened. The decision he had made in the grey sea. Brink didn’t respond.

“All I remember from when we were out is emptiness, and water. What happened to us, Anthony? Do you know?” Lily asked, her voice confused. Livingston hadn’t told her anything.

Brink shook his head. “I’m… not sure. There was some kind of shadow creature that came out of the wall when Sybil opened the door to Crazy Eyes’s room. It reached out and touched you all, and you fell asleep when it did. Then it grabbed me, and I was there in the emptiness.”

“I don’t remember escaping,” Sybil said. “Just standing there in the water. Not much of a trap if it just lets you out like that.”

“I escaped,” Brink said, “though I’m not totally sure how. And when I woke up, the shadow thing tried to put me back to sleep. I fought it, and trapped it in the stone there.”

“Was wondering what that was,” Sybil said, looking over to the prison cube Brink had built.
“So the thing that trapped us… it’s in there?”

“Yeah,” Brink said, getting to his feet. His head felt like someone had put a bell over it and given it a few good rings.

“Yeesh. You sure it can’t get it out?”

“Nope,” Brink said, moving over to the stone. “It just seemed like the only way to fight it. I didn’t know how to hurt a shadow.”

Sybil recoiled from where the beast lay imprisoned, but Lily smiled. “That was very clever. But why were you still collapsed when we woke up?”

Brink looked over to Livingston. The big man said nothing, but fear shone clearly in his eyes. “I… don’t know. I guess the fight exhausted me.” The relief in Livingston’s face was palpable.

Lily nodded. “Well, we dealt with the guard your man placed on his room. I suppose we’d best go in and see what we find.”

Brink couldn’t believe the calm in Lily’s voice. Sybil had moved as far from the stone as she could and still remain in sight of the group, and Livingston sat against the wall, dazed and lost. Even Brink was having a hard time sorting out his thoughts, his memories. But Lily remained as steadfast as ever.

“Alright. I’d guess he’s not here, since he hasn’t come running out at the commotion, but he might have left something behind.”

Pushing the door open, Brink could tell that Crazy Eyes was gone from this place for good. The room was barren, stripped of anything not a permanent fixture of the manor guest room. Even the sheets had been taken away - perhaps, Brink realized, to make sure he couldn’t be tracked using his blood. The group fanned out - all save Livingston, who stood idly in the doorway - searching for any clue as to where the madman had gone, but his departure had been thorough. There wasn’t a trace that Crazy Eyes had ever been here remaining.

“He’s gone,” Sybil said, the thief having checked every possible nook and cranny. “So where did he go?”

“He didn’t leave us much to go by,” Lily said dryly. “I’d question whether we even got the right room, but I doubt the shadow creature was a chance encounter.”

“So how do we find him?” Sybil asked, her voice both disappointed and relieved. Lily turned to Brink, as if he had any idea. He started to shake his head, but then a thought occurred to him.

“Uh oh,” Sybil said, looking at him. “I know that look. That’s the look you had when you suggested we break in here the first time.”

“I don’t know how to track Crazy Eyes without his blood or something here to go by, but maybe his guard dog might know where he went.”

“His guard dog?”

“Anthony, you can’t mean…” Lily paused, her brow furrowed. “You want to talk to that thing? Can it talk?”

Brink shrugged, looking back at the cube. He remembered the emptiness, the despair, and quickly began to like this idea less and less. “It spoke to me, when we fought. Maybe I can get it to speak again.”

“Just don’t let it out,” Livingston added, speaking up from the doorway. “Don’t let that thing out again.”

Brink nodded at him. “I won’t.”

-----

The stone cube sat right where Brink had made it. He could only imagine how heavy the thing was, after all - lifting it would probably take several strong men, or at least a pulley. He’d have to remember to apologize to the Nyas for wrecking his manor later - assuming the city was still alive to have a Nyas later.

Nothing moved along the prison’s surface, which was a good thing, as far as Brink was concerned. That meant either the shadow creature was still inside, or it had found a way out and decided to escape rather than attack again. He approached, pondering how exactly he was going to go about communicating with the thing. He could use the Song, maybe - sense for Water within it, and then try to tap into that.

First things first, though. He knocked on it with his pick. “Hello?” he called into it.

“‘Hello’?” Sybil chided. “Really? Here I was thinking you were going to do something all mystical to it.”

“Release me,” came a voice from within, the same whisper Brink had heard when fighting the creature before, only now it muffled by the stone and no longer attempting to be soothing.

“I have questions for you,” Brink said, steeling himself with the reminder that he had fought this beast already, and won.

“Release me!” the voice repeated, and a dull sense of dread washed over Brink. Sybil took a step back and Livingston ducked into Crazy Eyes’s room, but the despair’s power was far from where it had been before.

“Not until you answer my questions,” Brink said, crossing his arms. The imprisoned beast didn’t respond, so he kept going. “What are you?”

There was a long moment of silence, as if the creature were contemplating whether or not to respond. Finally, it said, “I am a baubas. I am that which weaves the fear that haunts your dreams. From nightmare I am spawned, and from nightmare I feed.”

Brink looked around at Lily and Sybil, shrugging. Sybil gave a nervous little laugh. “Not too scary now, are ya?” The baubas didn’t reply.

“What are you doing here?” Brink asked it, after a moment.

The creature hesitated. “There is much fear in this place. Those whose souls are nearly drained cannot perceive, but they can still fear.”

“Then why are you in this empty mansion, here, and not roaming the streets feeding on that fear?” Brink waited a moment, but the baubas said nothing, so he continued. “You were brought here for a purpose, weren’t you?”

Again, the baubas remained silent. “Tell me, creature, or you’ll stay locked in your prison until you starve!”

“Cracks will form in this stone with time, little soul wielder. And it will be a long time before I truly starve.”

“Then I’ll just add more stone,” Brink replied, his voice growing angrier. “And maybe I’ll encase it in metal, too, just to be safe. I’m sure I can be plenty creative in how I keep a shadow from leaving its prison.”

The baubas went quiet again. Brink nearly began making threats again - he had already been thinking of ways he might hurt the creature - but its sudden whisper stopped him.

“I was summoned to this place, yes. I was promised a feast the likes of which I had never before seen upon completion of my task.”

“Who summoned you?”

“Another soul wielder. One much stronger than you. A human, but one who has seen much fear, and one who has caused much more. A kindred spirit, that one.” Brink could almost hear a bit of humor in its voice, as if it was making a joke only it would understand.

“Crazy Eyes. It must be,” Brink said, looking to Lily. She nodded, and he continued. “What was your task? Why did he summon you?”

“To devour any who tried to enter this place. I can only assume you were his targets, as there have been no others to come here.”

Brink nodded. He imagined it would be easy to pay a creature who lived off fear for guard duty if the town was full of frightened people just trying to hold on to the last scraps of their souls.

“Where is he now? Where did the Essential who summoned you go?”

“Release me first, and then I shall tell you!”

“No. Tell me, and we’ll go find him - and if you were telling the truth, then I’ll release you. If you weren’t, I’ll add more stones to your prison.”

“Damn you, little soul wielder. Know this, and know it well - those who feed upon fear live long, and they live well, and few know better how to make misery eternal than we!”

The fear the creature projected as it spoke was nearly palpable, was nearly strong enough to make Brink free it from its prison just to escape its wrath. Sybil made a noise from down the hall, and Lily winced. It took Brink a long moment to remind himself who was in control here. Then he had an idea.

He hummed the Song, sensing the Essence around him. He couldn’t see the baubas from within its stony prison, but he reached out, feeling for Essence to draw from and fuel his powers. He felt the reservoirs of his companions and his soul cried out for them, demanded he drink deep from those waters, but he resisted - he was getting better at that, though the call was incessant, urgent. He kept reaching, focusing on the stone block where the baubas was imprisoned. He reached within, felt for the presence he knew the baubas to be - and there it was. Its Essence was… tainted? No, it wasn’t like Livingston’s had been - his had been corrupted by something, but untainted Essence remained mixed in. This was a well full of the corruption that had caused Livingston’s fear, a venom sac of despair.

Still concentrating on the Song, Brink pictured the bricks around him, and he pictured them building upon the stone prison he had created for the baubas. And then he pulled from the shadow creature, drew forth its dark Essence to reshape the stone and expand the prison.

He nearly screamed as he channeled the corruption, its energy thick and oily, almost entirely alien from the Essence he was used to molding. But on he pulled, until at last the bricks shook and then flew from their settings to add another layer to the baubas’s prison. The noise that erupted from the shadow beast tore through its prison and out through the manor, an unearthly wail of pain and terror.

The baubas, a creature of fear and nightmare, was afraid.

“Anything, master,” it groveled, its tone fallen far from the confidence it had once held. “Anything you wish to know. Please, do not drain me again.”

Brink exhaled, rubbing his temple with his hand. He was glad that had worked - he wasn’t sure he could go through the pain of drawing forth the creature’s Essence again.

“Tell me where the Essential who summoned you has gone. Where is he now?” His voice was raspy, made harsh by his pain and anger.

“Strateny,” the baubas whispered, meekly. “He has gone to Strateny. He seeks a Ničota, to battle another Essential who already possesses one. His fear was strong when he called me. He was desperate, as only one who faces a power he knows is greater can be.”

That made Brink pause. Crazy Eyes was afraid of him? Maybe he had seen what he had done to the draug surrounding the watchpost. Hundreds of the undead incinerated in a matter of seconds was enough to frighten even