What the Fires Burn
by A. Merc Rustad
It’s near dusk when VanDrake Tage Rannheim trudges into the city to meet a friend. He sticks to the lee of buildings, smog and shadow wrapping his coat. Don’t like a lot of attention. Can’t help it, mostly, but he keeps his greatcoat pulled closed to conceal weapons. Ain’t wiped the mud off the back sigil, either.
He spots Sparrow across the street, leaning against a gritty brick wall. The kid’s no more than fourteen, skinny and quick. Got his frayed satchel over one shoulder. Tage’s known him and the gang—Lark, Starling, Crow, Gull, Titmouse—and for a couple years now, ever since they saved his life when he took on a demon and near lost. He’s more than obligated. He wants to keep ’em all safe.
Tage lifts an arm, waves. Sparrow straightens and grins. Relief winds through Tage. He’s always afraid he’ll show up one day and Sparrow won’t be there. Doesn’t let himself dwell on what’ll happen when it’s him who don’t show.
Tage waits for a coal-laden wagon to rumble past before he crosses.
Suddenly, Sparrow goes still, eyes wide.
A coal binger shuffles down the sidewalk, yellow-eyed, teeth grinding. It used to be a thin young man, too-big coveralls tattered, hair and skin caked in soot. Bloodied nostrils twitch. Every bone stands out under papery skin. It’s aimed right at Sparrow.
People on the street look away, walk faster, ignore what ain’t their problem.
Tage grits his teeth, storms forward. He dodges round the back corner of the wagon. He don’t know why a binger’s wandering the city, why it’s eyeing Sparrow ‘stead of the wagon that just passed. Don’t care. Bingers ain’t got minds no more, but that don’t make them less dangerous.
“Sparrow, move,” Tage snaps.
The kid don’t budge.
Goddamn it. Tage’s muscles burn as he sprints, reaches Sparrow first. He grabs Sparrow ‘round the shoulders, hauls the kid bodily down a narrow side alley. Sparrow don’t weigh much more than his namesake. The jostling shakes him sensible, and Sparrow flinches, thrashes.
Tage drops him, turns. The binger follows them. Its eyes are fever-bright; its hands twitch, grasp. Tage steps in front of Sparrow, right into the binger’s path. It lurches to go ‘round him. Going after Sparrow. Fucking hell—there ain’t nothing normal about this one.
Tage grabs the binger’s jaw in one hand, its bony shoulder in the other, twists its neck full around. Bones shatter with brittle popping sounds. The binger goes limp. Tage drops the body in an ash-muddied puddle. Water splatters his boots.
The adrenaline fades, leaves Tage’s body aching. A burning cough flames in his lungs, the cold air and exertion no help. He swallows. The itching pain fades as he sucks in a steadying breath.
No one follows them into the cart alley, no one lingers to watch. Tage turns to Sparrow. “All right?”
Sparrow shudders, thin arms tight around his ribs. “Shit. I hate them.”
Tage rolls his shoulders. He shares Sparrow’s revulsion, if not the horror. He sees corpses, not the people they once were. Only way to work. He’s spent his whole life as an enforcer. Murder and execution go arm in arm. “Ain’t seen one act like that.”
“There’s too many of them about now.” Sparrow hops a step further from the body. “They’re moving in packs. Half a dozen, sometimes.”
Tage’s spine prickles. “That ain’t possible.”
Sparrow hacks and spits. “I think it’s the same ones. They almost grabbed Lark a few days ago.”
Bingers rot out their brains on coal fumes. Factory workers get the infection the worst. But bingers ain’t got the skills or coordination for organization. Long as people keep their distance, bingers ain’t a threat. They cluster by the factories or train stations, looking for coal, and die within a few weeks from starvation.
“Don’t make no sense.” Tage nudges a boot under the binger’s shoulder, flips it face-down so he don’t see its glazed eyes. “Even if they organized, what would they want?”
“Trap me,” Sparrow says. He shivers again. “Let’s fly before the blue-jackets show.”
Tage don’t argue. They match a brisk pace, though it costs Tage. He won’t show how much a jog hurts. His joints creak. People around them shy aside, drab men and women in soot-stained clothes, hats pulled low and handkerchiefs held over faces, for the little good it does. Factory workers, mostly. This block is made from tenant buildings, a few shops, the odd pub.
Sparrow slows a few blocks away and ducks into a delivery street. He’s short of breath, hands on knees as he rests.
Tage can’t shake the unease at what he saw. “So why’d it go after you?”
Sparrow straightens, tucks his hands under his armpits. Even under the loose shirt, his ribs show. Taut, jaundiced skin stretches over bones. The streetlight shines lime-white, throwing muddy shadows around them. “I don’t know. Bad luck?” The laugh sticks bitterly in his throat. “Thanks,” Sparrow says after a moment.
It takes Tage a moment to realize what for. He shrugs it off. He’s froze up before, knows how it feels. “Old habits.”
The clip of shod boots on cobbles cuts sharp against the dimmer, rougher street sounds. Tage tenses. Sparrow shrinks against the wall. Two blue-jacketed lawmen march by. They glance at Tage, hesitate, note his open greatcoat and the pistol and kama at his belt. More, they notice the two-headed drake with tails of flame stitched on his lapel.
One lawman is about to speak. His partner elbows him hard. They nod and stiffly shuffle off. A wizard’s more hassle and danger than they’re paid to handle.
“You shouldn’t come back,” Sparrow says at last. “It’s risky. The VanDrakes could find you.”
Tage tamps down the urge to say the Clan won’t find him. They’ll kill him if they know he’s alive—or worse, take him back. Trap him, use him once more. So he stays low, alone.
“Jobs show up ‘round here sometimes,” Tage says. Work ain’t come from this city in months.
Sparrow grinds his heel against a pothole edge, nods.
“How’re the others?” Tage asks.
“We get by.”
Tage shrugs off the lie. He takes a drag on his cigarette, offers Sparrow one. Sparrow accepts the cig, has a matchbook, lights up. They watch the smog-dimmed street. Smoke curls about them, hazing the gaslamp’s weak glow.
Tage hates how much Sparrow reminds him of himself, when he was a street orphan with a gang to protect. He failed ‘em, got taken for a wizard apprentice, heard later that none of ‘em made it through the winter. He’s got no one else, not no more.
He pulls the parceled food from a large pocket in his coat and hands to Sparrow, who nods and tucks it in his satchel. It’s not much. Tage wishes he could do more.
“Could get something from the apothecary for you,” Tage says, gruff.
Sparrow exhales with a cough. “Don’t.” He taps ash onto the cobbles. “No good at this point.”
Tage glares. “Goddamn it, Sparrow.”
He don’t want to see Sparrow so hopeless, so accepting. A coughing fit half doubles him over before he can speak again. The pain splinters through his sides, bones grinding and glass shredding his lungs. Sparrow moves before Tage even takes notice, grips his elbow. Tage’s vision blurs from lack of air. He leans against the soot-streaked brick and finally sucks in a breath.
“If you ain’t dead, you still got a chance,” Tage says, wheezing.
“You’re one to talk, VanDrake.” Sparrow smiles. “But save your breath. I know what I’m doing.”
It ain’t the same. Tage don’t have anyone who needs him anymore. Sparrow does. Sparrow should live, protect his family. Simple fucking facts.
“Starling gets what else we need. She’ll…” Sparrow bites his lip, eyes hard. “I’ve got to check with the others.” He tucks the half-finished smoke in a pocket, steps into street-shadow. “Good to see you, Tage.”
Tage nods. “Same.”
Sparrow skitters off down the alley. Fog swirls about the curbs, sour and thick off the wharves.
Tage clenches a fist, his chest too tight. He takes a long drag, holds the smoke in his decaying lungs. A few months and he’ll be the one who won’t show up. He hoped, just once, maybe at the end Sparrow would stick by him. But he can’t ask. Won’t. He never could say goodbye.
A week drags by, harder than ever. Tage’s been hungry every day. Nothing he ain’t used to, but it don’t make it any easier. His bones ache in the morning chill and scars throb like fresh cuts. Winter’s coming hard, grey skies and harsh winds sharpening Autumn’s days into razors.
The magic, though, that’s the worst. It scraps dull in his blood, depleted, worn. He’s got no way to replenish it, cut off from the Clan.
Magic runs through the body like blood. It’s replenished through sex, energy exchanged and kindled bright. Clans stay strong by keeping intercourse restricted between wizards. Those without magic get infected if they fuck a wizard. It works—Tage’s known other VanDrakes and different Clan wizards who like seducing or raping those uninfected, then killing ’em afterwards if they ain’t taken for an apprentice. It’s Clan law. He can’t do that. Much as he aches for another’s touch—man or woman—he ain’t approached another wizard in a while, even those who might be less inclined to care who he is. Doesn’t want to be located by the VanDrakes again, dragged back to his leash and collar.
Still. Magic would help him. Keep him alive a few months longer, let him keep watch over Sparrow and the gang. See ’em until the spring, at least.
There’s one wizard surgeon-doctor in town. VanDrake Jillian Silverfield. She’s got her own practice now. He walked past her door and almost got seen, couple months back, when he hadn’t known she was around. He’d been lucky, avoided her. What he knows about Ms. Silverfield is she ain’t exactly known to play nice with Clan rules. She might help him, if he paid well, and keep it to herself.
He’s got barely enough in pocket to buy cigarettes.
This’ll be the last time he comes into the city to see Sparrow. The knowledge twists his insides, the fear buried deep but never gone. He plans to give Sparrow and the gang whatever he’s got left, get Sparrow help even if the kid don’t want it, then leave. He’ll walk, and he won’t stop until his lungs give out. Better that than staying nearby, where he ain’t any use, where Sparrow might try and help him.
He wants to stop thinking, so he walks quicker, focuses on the pain in his knee and hips. The shop’s close. He won’t stay long.
Sparrow ain’t there.
Tage pauses on the shop’s front porch, glances up. The overhang’s crusted with mud and paper swallow nests, cobwebs, dust. The rafters stand empty. Sparrow should be there, crouched quiet and watchful. Tage rolls his shoulders, unsettled. Goddamn it.
The sign’s still in the window corner: No Wizards. Tage’s ignores it, always does. He grips the brass doorknob, pushes his way into the shop before he attracts more attention. Does that enough already, big and husky as he is, his leather greatcoat branded with the VanDrake sigil on front and back.
Bells chime dully above the door. Tage breathes in familiar smells. Licorice, iodine, tobacco. Sooty prints smudge the glass display counters and cramped, narrow shelves. It’s all wrong. Sparrow got paid a copper to wipe down the grime from the factories that filters into everything.
The shopkeeper looks up, dull-eyed. Her knotted hands twitch, swollen and curled worse with age. “Usual?”
Tage slides the crumpled notes across the counter. His own knuckles ache. Least he can still use his hands a bit longer. “Lost your help?”
A shrug. The shopkeeper pulls three packs of cigarettes from the tin. “Hasn’t shown up in a couple days.”
Tage’s back twinges. Even if Sparrow didn’t come back, one of the gang should have. They’ve tended the shop for coppers since he’s known ‘em. His gut tightens; old scars on his side ache. Something’s damn wrong.
The shopkeeper dabs her nose with a handkerchief. “Not many urchins around to take his place, either.”
Tage thought the streets were quieter. He ain’t seen no bingers—but Sparrow’s words still cling to his memory like old tarring. “Why’s that?” he asks. He tucks the cigs into his pockets.
“Damned if I know. Seems they’ve just disappeared.”
People don’t just vanish. Street brats get pressed into factory work or picked off by hunger and other gangs. But there’s always bodies; in the gutters or the river or ash pits outside the city. Somewhere. He don’t want to consider where he’ll find Sparrow.
He don’t think Jillian Silverfield is involved. She’s always been decent. And he can’t risk asking her if she knows anything.
The shopkeeper’s bony fingers rap the glass, rhythmic. “Get you anything else?”
Tage limps out as answer. The door jingles and clicks behind him. Up in the rafters, Sparrow still ain’t there.
Tage shouldn’t have left Sparrow alone last time. Guilt twists sharply into anger. He knows where the gang roosts; he agreed never to go there. But he ain’t leaving until he’s found Sparrow.
The nest’s tucked inside a gabled attic atop a crumbling, condemned old boarding house on the edge of the factory district, in view of the wharves. Squatters cluster in the stripped-out rooms, on the stairs. Dull eyes and pinched faces watch him. Those who recognize the VanDrake sigil flinch away. Air smells of rot, sweat, old shit.
Tage grimaces as he drags himself up the stairs. Bones creak along with wooden treads. The hatch is only accessible by ladder, and Tage ain’t risking the worn rungs with his weight. He pulls the kama lose, holds it just below the blade, uses the handle to rap the hatch. Four times, pause, twice more. Sparrow’s code.
His heartbeat quickens. He ain’t expecting Sparrow to answer, much as he hopes. Knows it’ll hurt worse when the disappointment comes. He can’t believe Sparrow’s dead yet.
The peephole opens, a pistol muzzle levels at his face. “Who’re you?” a tiny voice demands.
“Friend of Sparrow’s. I’m Tage.”
Footsteps scuffle on the ceiling boards, the hatch creaks open so he can see a thin, dirty face. The girl’s as skinny as Sparrow, got the same dark eyes and pointed chin. Starling.
“Sparrow’s gone,” she says. Her knuckles whiten on the hatch. “So’s most of the others. Just me and Lark now, and no one’s getting either of us. Get the fuck out, wizard.”
All of them except two—Hell. That’s four missing or dead. Pain digs deeper in Tage’s chest. He swallows bile before he asks, “How?”
Starling glares. “Doesn’t matter, does it? They’re gone, there’s no bodies. Don’t you ever come back here.”
The hatch slams. A bolt scrapes into place.
Tage flinches. Panic claws in his throat; he chokes it back. He turns and hobbles down the stairs. He prefers anger to helpless fear. He has control, then.
Outside, the evening air already tastes of sour river fog. Tage leans against the boarding house’s rotted porch column and lights up. The binger he killed went after Sparrow specifically. One almost nabbed Lark, Sparrow said. If that held, it’d figure the rest of the gang—and Sparrow, God—had been grabbed.
So he needs to find the bastards and kill every one of ‘em, get the kids back.
Tage ain’t losing Sparrow like he’s lost his brothers. Don’t care if Sparrow resents it. He shouldn’t care anymore. He’s too fucking stubborn, and still does.
A lane of broken cobbles and puddles stretches ‘round the back, cuts through what used to be a yard. The fence is gone for tinder and there’s just a slice of ground churned to muck now. Tage squats in the house’s lee, coat edges dragging in the mud.
Sparrow trusted him, gave him a curly lock of hair stiffened with blood. Tage keeps it wrapped tight in paper, safe in his coat. He fishes out the parcel, a slim ivory bowl, a silver penknife. Wind gusts, the first edges of a storm. He hunches his shoulders and lays the bowl on a semi-dry bit of earth, then sets Sparrow’s hair on the ivory. Tage pulls off his gloves, cuts the side of his thumb. Three drops of blood will do.
There’s water aplenty, even muddied, so he scoops a handful from a puddle, splashes it in the dish. He wills a fragment of his magic into the liquid, demands to See where Sparrow is. Pain knifes behind his eyes.
Tage curses and grips the bowl so he don’t knock it over. He tastes blood. In the scry dish, images wobble. A flicker of metal, flame-lit. Bubbles. Opaque glass, yellowish water, a streak of pale skin. Sparrow, submerged with a copper pipe crammed down his throat.
Straining, Tage wills the vision’s scope wider, seeking a destination. His neck tingles, the taste of oily water in the back of his throat. Coal dust burns his eyes. A factory by the river. Smells of magic.
Then the image snaps out with the tortured keen of metal.
Tage falls back hard. His spine cracks against the peeling siding. The dish overturns and the Seeing shatters quicker than window glass. Hell.
It ain’t the river. Sparrow ain’t drowned.
Tage’s lungs seize and he doubles over, coughing hard enough to bring up blood. His balance reels, leaves him too shaken to stand. Sparrow is trapped somewhere, in water.
Tage drags himself up, one knee stiffer than iron-banded wood. He clenches his jaw, massages his hands so he can use ‘em. Bit at a time, feeling seeps back into his joints and limbs. His stomach twists, empty but for bile.
It chills Tage deeper that he don’t know who took Sparrow. Why. Could Jillian Silverfield be involved? Doesn’t seem her style—too dirty, too disorganized. But he can’t discount her. And if he goes up against another wizard like her, he’ll lose.
Don’t matter. He might walk in blind, but he ain’t leaving Sparrow trapped in some fucking prison, enduring God only knows what.
Tage gathers the dish and penknife, slips them back in his pocket. His pistol’s been empty of ammunition for weeks, but the kama’s edge never dulls. He straightens as needling pain threads through his lower back. He limps towards the wharves and wherever Sparrow’s been taken.
Tage stands in the lapping shadows on the weathered planks, eyes the wharves and factories on either side of the river. Gaslights leave sick, pale clumps of light around their posts. He’s got sharp pain in his lower back, scarred memories scraped raw. He watched his brother drown in this river, in another town, years ago.
Exhaustion burns in his muscles, and his lungs ache with cold. It’ll be early snow this year, for sure. His hand trembles as he taps ash from his cig.
The tracing magic still twitches the nerves in his neck. He’s close, but something interferes with the precision. He can’t tell what—it don’t feel like another wizard’s wards. Tage shuts his eyes, breathes slow until he forces himself calm enough to focus. He pictures a compass in his head, metal forks spinning slowly, pointing.
Across the river.
Tage scans the gray-black landscape. The half-moon scrapes through the thin clouds. The twitch tugs his senses north, and most of the eastside factories are further south, downstream. Tage frowns. When he looks again, he spots only one large structure visible beyond the bridge and road.
Fuck. The abandoned factory only stands because no one will get close to pull it down or reclaim it. Too many workers died or got the binging sickness. Always reported as accidents, but rumors spread. The factory was left to rot, even with the scrap and fuel still worth salvaging.
Good place to hide, especially for bingers. There’s got to be plenty of coal left from the cold furnaces.
Tage grits his teeth, crushes the cigarette butt under his heel. He trudges on, loosens the kama in its strap.
The road’s empty, like the blackened fallow ground ringing the old factory. The industrial slums trickle out in a broken wheel-spoke pattern around it. He ain’t sure if it’s the wind and shadows, or if there’s shapes crowding ‘round the broken gates. Smoke spirals from a couple stacks. Tage’s shoulders tense.
Bingers lurch back and forth, mockeries of sentries.
Tage stalks forward, kama readied. Bony faces swivel towards him, sunken yellowed eyes ember-bright. His blood pounds in his throat and ears. He wants to slaughter the empty shells—but he ain’t quick, not like he once was. Time carries a high price, one Sparrow can’t pay.
One binger opens its mouth. A tattered grey work dress clings to a spare, skeletal frame. The jaw works, and slowly a cracked sound emerges from the binger’s throat. Words. “Go…away.”
He’s never heard one speak, not when they’re this starved and barely standing.
“Get out of my way,” Tage snarls.
They jerk their heads, shuffle, then they obey. Tage hides his shock.
“Don’t…go…in,” the binger says. “Please. Leave…us…be.”
Since when do bingers plead?
Shaken, Tage flicks the kama, motions them aside. The bingers lumber into a shallow ditch by the gate, watch him. He don’t turn his back as he limps through the corroded iron fence. The grounds are littered with rusted metal, brick rubble. He picks his was through, careful of his footing.
Bingers ain’t subtle. He’ll hear any that try and follow. They don’t move from the ditch, and he don’t see no more around. Tage steps into the factory.
It’s mausoleum-quiet and blacker than the river’s heart. The red tip of his cigarette ain’t enough to crack the darkness. Still air smells of rot and ash, putrid decay that leeches from the walls.
A low, deep thrumming vibrates under his boots. The hot, metallic bite of twisted magic nibbles the back of his awareness. If that’s a rouge wizard, it’s stronger than any Clan master he’s ever heard about. Walking in there is suicide.
Tage ain’t going back.
Lowering himself to one knee, he fishes out a vial of powdered zinc sulfide cut with silver. He pricks his finger on the kama tip. He shakes a dab of the powder on his hand, calling a string of magic. It burns in his veins, infuses the blood and yellow-white dust, and he smears the paste under each eye. Needling pain stabs into his head. Then the world brightens into blue-green phosphorous shades.
The massive room is ribbed with broken assembly lines. Rusted tools and clumps of unrefined ore litter the floor. At the back, he spots a reddish-lit door. His neck twinges hard. The last of the Seeing crumbles, leaving his senses blind. But he knows where to go.
One of the assembly lines twitches.
Tage holds still, breath caught. Metal strut-legs and rollers explode from the floor and whip at his head, shrieking. Tage lurches sideways. The assembly line crashes down where he stood. It snakes out again, grasping at him. He sidesteps again, heart rabbiting.
“Hungry,” it whispers. “Wait, my love…”
He slips on a wrench, grabs the line behind him. It writhes under his hands, snaps free with a shower of bolts and dust. It throws him aside with a starved pop of metal and wire.
Tage hits the ground hard. Pain shoots up his leg and spine, his knee all but giving out. He gasps for breath, swipes the kama at the second assembly line. Steel sparks against iron. The line rears back, a ghostly cry echoing through its rivets. He rolls. His back spasms. Fuck. Gasping, Tage gains his feet, riding adrenaline, and snatches the heavy wrench in his fee hand.
All around him, the assembly lines break free and wave through the air, keening for the lives they’ll never know. Ghosts. The metal’s thick with them, dead factory workers, all lost.
He limps towards the inner door. The fallen cigarette fades to red ember on the floor. Little wonder the factory’s gone untouched.
“My love,” the first assembly line begs. It’ll rip him apart, feed on his energy, his blood.
Metal cables snap and grasp at him. He bats them aside and dodges the ones he can’t. The door, the stairway, is near. A few more yards.
Twin assembly lines rear up on either side, working in tandem. Tage snarls and throws himself forward. The lines pincer closed behind him. He trips, slams into the wall. Breath flees his lungs, leaves brand-hot pain behind.
He ducks into the doorway, heaves the door shut. Iron slams into rotted wood, splinters the frame. Tage can’t breathe. He staggers, half-collapses against the wall. Behind him, the ghosts keen. His vision spins. His hacking cough’s drowned out by the metal protests.
Tage crouches, his knee folding. Arm over his mouth, he strangles back the wheezing gasps, looks around. He’s in a smaller room, full of storage crates. The reddish light and the hum of engines fill the room. The twisted magic grinds against his senses, overwhelming.
He sees the source, then.
Coal-fueled engines crowd the center, pistons and bellows working with no human assistance. Connected to the engines are a series of wires and heavy glass tanks. In each tank, filled with murky water, bodies bob with an unnatural current.
Some are in pieces. Others look asleep. The flesh has been peeled off the backs of every one, showing the white of spines. Heavy needles pierce the base of each neck, slowly draining the clear spinal fluids. Hundreds of tables fill the room behind the engines. They hold dissected bodies—some still twitching. Bingers, all of ‘em. The stench of shit, coal, and formaldehyde thickens the air.
Fucking hell. Tage’s jaw locks tight, he tastes blood from a bitten tongue.
A man in a grey coat and goggles pads around the workbench where vials and measures, surgeon tools and butcher knives are arranged in neat rows. Ratted hair pokes around his ears and he mutters incessantly to himself. Formulae, drinking songs.
A boy, a little older than Sparrow, sits strapped to a barber’s chair beside the man. Yellow eyes roll in a skull-like face. The older man pats the boy’s shoulder, lifts a vial of milky yellow substance. “Soon, soon, we must test it first.”
Tage scans the room. His heartbeat drills his bruised ribs. Tage don’t pray, can’t bring himself to do it now, but he hopes to God and Hell his scrying was wrong, that Sparrow ain’t in one of those vats.
A line of bingers sit at a long table, trenchers in front of them lumped with raw meat peppered with coal dust. The old man hurries over and rations the liquid onto the food before the bingers. “Eat up.”
They obey, spoon the food without wolfing it. Quiet, civilized. If they notice all the dead and dying laid out so close, they don’t react.
Tage shakes aside the exhausted pain, desperate. If he keeps still, he won’t be able to move soon. He stands slow, keeps behind the crates and shadows.
The man turns. Nothing about him sparks against Tage’s mind. Studied in sciences and natural law, maybe, but the man ain’t a wizard. Small favors.
“Intruder!” the scientist shouts when he spots Tage.
The bingers drop their plates and stumble forward. Tage heaves himself onto a crate, hopes it takes his weight. The wood creaks, holds. The first binger grabs at him. Tage hops to the next stack, angles his path towards the glass tanks. He balances, turns, cleaves the first binger’s throat open. Blood sprays red on glass.
“What are you doing?” the scientist cries. “You murdered him!”
Tage wishes he had bullets. He’d put one in the man’s skull with ease. Crates form a stair to the nearest tank, and heavy planks balance across the top of each.
“Stop. Goddamn you, man, stop.” The scientist clenches his hands. “I spent a lifetime on this. I can cure it. The binging disease. I’ve found an antidote. Listen to me.”
Listen? The bastard has dozens of kids in vats, Sparrow too. He pulls on the last few sparks of his magic; it won’t take much to cook the old man’s blood and brains, drop him painfully. “What antidote?”
“Look at them.” Strangely calm now, the scientist puts his hands on two bingers’ shoulders. “They’re almost people again. I can cure it, with enough serum.” His looks at the boy in the barber’s chair. “I can save my nephew.”
The cost clearly don’t matter. Dozens of kids or more—and Tage ain’t so sure all the bodies on tables are bingers. Hard to tell in the dark. Tage snarls wordlessly, raises the kama. With one blow, he severs the wires and tubes above the tank.
A ghost-sigh glides past him, thankful.
The scientist yelps. “Stop!”
The bingers jump, grasp at Tage’s boots, but the tanks are a span too high for them. Uncoordinated hands slip off the metal and glass. Tage steps across to the next one, severs the strings of the dead puppet kid. He wants to save ’em. Knows it’s too late.
The factory engines—ripe, rotting with energy and magic absorbed from so many lives—pulse with anger.
Tage’s head snaps around.
The factory hates him. What fluids the scientist don’t take, it absorbs itself. The cables he’s sliced whip at his head. He throws himself forward, lands crooked on the next tank. His boot slips, plunges into the water. A weak hand grasps at his leg.
Tage flinches and yanks his foot out. From the murky waters, Sparrow looks up at him.
Tage can’t see straight. Air tubes thread down Sparrow’s mouth, strapped in place and unmoved. A needle pierces his spine, siphoning fluids.
The cables snap out at him, catch him off guard. The impact throws him over the side. He grabs the lip of the tank. Muscles burn. The bingers shuffle around, some with knives in hand now. He grunts, heaves himself up again.
The factory ain’t got the skill to manipulate the magic precisely. That’s still enough. He can’t destroy it with force, can’t fend off attacks long. And he keeps seeing Sparrow’s face in the water.
It’s tempting just to stop. He’s too late. It hurts so fucking much to keep trying.
The wires and tubs whip out at him again. Tage hates his weakness. He grabs the wires in one hand. They wrench him off; he swings with them, over the bingers, then drops on the scientist. The man ain’t got his height and muscle. Tage flattens him, keep a knee in his gut.
“Don’t do this,” the man gasps. “It works. Don’t you see it?”
Tage sees it. The bingers outside, the ones almost cured in here—Hell, he sees it. Maybe the antidote works. It’d change everything, if the binging sickness could be cured. How many more kids wouldn’t lose parents and siblings to the slow death? But the price ain’t worth it, not when measured with street kids. Like Sparrow, Crow, Titmouse, and Gull.
Tage lifts his arm.
The scientist writhes, useless. “You don’t understand…years…cities…I was so close to perfecting it…All I need is more time, a few more tests. I only take what the cities don’t want. I’m not hurting anyone who matters. No one misses them…no one will care.”
Tage imagines labs all over the country, missing kids. Bodies in tanks, bodies on tables, rows of the lost that never end.
“Wrong,” Tage says. He cares. Always will.
He punches the kama blade through the scientist’s frail ribs. Blood bubbles on the withered lips, and this close, Tage sees the fading yellow in the dead man’s eyes.
The factory roars in rage, lashes the freed cables at Tage once more. They’re sharpened into rigid points, ready to impale. Tage twists to the side. The cables drive into the nephew. The factory feeds, distracted.
The bingers stand, look at him blankly.
Tage stands, wobbles. Looks back at the tanks. Tage stares at Sparrow’s raw skin, hollow eyes. A wizard doctor might still heal that. It’d cost Tage everything, making that kind of deal; it might well put him back in the hands of his Clan. But Sparrow might survive.
His ribs throb. He can’t let go. Not again.
The bingers begin moaning, angry, and shamble closer. There won’t be a cure for them now. He wishes it felt like he’d done something worthwhile here, but he’s empty, so drained it hurts.
Tage presses a blood-smeared glove against the glass, can’t speak. Sparrow’s mouth works, words forms around the air tube. Help me.
“I’ll get you out,” Tage says. “Hold fast, kid.”
The factory stirs again, its focus turning towards him once more.
“Could…have…saved…us,” one of the bingers says, words rusted. It crouches by the dead scientist and the nephew’s husk.
Tage twists his aching wrist, flicks blood from the kama. “Yeah. Maybe he could’ve.”
He can only save one. Doesn’t see the others of Sparrow’s gang here. Wonders if they’re on those tables in the dark. He limps in a circle, severs every tank connection. The bodies bob limp, free. The factory rumbles. The walls creak, the grounds shivers. He holsters the kama and reaches down into Sparrow’s tank.
Across the room, loading doors stand unguarded. Must be how the tanks were transported through. Tage’s back creaks. He pulls the kid free, slides the tube as careful as he can out of Sparrow’s throat. Yanks the needles out.
Sparrow coughs, whimpers. Grabs at Tage’s shirt, hands too weak. Tage holds Sparrow close, hopes his body heat will suffice ’til he gets Sparrow help.
Tage ducks the stirring wires, stumbles away. Don’t look back, don’t look at the yellow eyes watching him.
He reaches the doors, hurting so bad he can scarce walk. Won’t stop now. Won’t ever. So he drags himself out, into the cold air. He pauses long enough to shrugs off his coat, wrap Sparrow’s frail body in the heavy leather.
“Hold on,” he says. Pleading. He’s got to make sure the factory don’t take any more kids, any more lives.
The scientist stocked the storage yard well. Coal, dry wood. Tage finds an oilcan half-full, uses it to leave a trail behind him.
Outside the factory, he pulls once more on his magic, the last flickers. He spreads it out, around the factory. It dances across the innate power in the engines, links with the other source. He grimaces. He shouldn’t do this without better precautions. Backlash could kill him. He hesitates. Sparrow’s shallow breath keeps him going.
The bingers still wait in the ditch. “Go back inside,” Tage says. They’ll just die slower if he don’t do this.
They shuffle past him, quiet.
Tage strikes a match, tosses it. Fire devours oil, powder, coal. As the flames reach deeper into the factory, he lets go of the restraints on the magic. His energy and will turn the snapping fire into an inferno and confines it from the wharves nearby.
The magic gushes out. Tage staggers, crouches over Sparrow, shields him from the falling ash.
Metal bends, wood cracks, brick shatters and the factory howls with pain. It explodes, igniting the dark in red smoke and fire. Shockwaves slam into Tage’s back. He braces himself, weathers it. The screams of ghosts and twisted magic fades and he watches the crumbling ruins dull into a bitter memory.
The emptiness inside stretches deep. His magic’s gone for good, but not everything else is. Tage picks Sparrow up again, limps towards town.
Sparrow’s scarce breathing when Tage arrives on the doorstep of Doctor Jillian Silverfield. She’ll want a price. He don’t know what he can give, but he’ll pay it. She can save Sparrow, so Starling and Lark won’t be alone.
He shifts the kid’s weigh—so fucking light, but alive, goddammit—and knocks on the door.
About the Author
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: http://amercrustad.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press (May 2017).
About the Narrator
Brian Murphy is a long time co-host of The Miskatonic University Podcast, www.mu-podcast.com. He works at home in the tech industry and has far more time on his hands than he will admit. He would also like to ask his neighbors to stop building things with power tools in the middle of the day.