Nev sat on the end of the charred pier, casting his line again and again into the murky water in the hopes of catching a corpse.
A new war raged thirty miles upstream, and if Nev was patient, he could often hook one of the bodies that washed down the river. Beside him, Pig, a little pot-bellied pig, lay snoring softly in the folds of the cloak he had shed as the suns rose over the gray water. Mist still clung to the waters’ edge, and he caught a glimpse of crested herons poking around in the shallows for breakfast.
The rise of the suns made the horizon blaze red-orange. Nev felt a tug at his line and reeled in his catch. It was not a body, alas, but a little trout with a pouting face. He tossed it into the basket beside him with the others. Today’s catch wasn’t good; the river had been fished out upstream, or maybe there had been a change in the fish runs. They came and went, those runs. He only had about six small fish to sell at the market this morning. He might as well just eat them.
Nev packed up his gear, eager to get to the market before the last of the stalls was taken. He poked Pig in his belly to get him to wake. Pig gave a little snort and rolled back over and went back to sleep. Nev gently pulled the cloak out from under him, dumping Pig on the pier, and that woke him properly. Pig rolled to his feet and regarded Nev with a perturbed look.
“You’re the lazy one,” Nev said, and shook out the cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders. He grabbed the basket of fish and threaded his pole through the top and turned back up the smoky pier. Mist made it difficult to see more than three paces ahead, but Nev spent every day but Prayer Vigil on this pier, and his knew how to avoid the worst of the cracked and worn boards. Pig followed, so close Nev felt the whisper of Pig’s little breath on his ankles.
As he walked off the pier and onto the road, two men waiting there moved into his path, effectively cutting him off from transitioning from pier to boardwalk. Nev tensed. They didn’t have the look of government people, or Body Guild enforcers, but times changed quickly, and he couldn’t be certain what agents of either were like anymore. He had lived out here in this backwater town for eight years. The death of his body manager, Tera, had left nothing for him in the cities. Tera had died in her sleep a year before she turned seventy. She had a little smile on her face and a bottle of her favorite bourbon in her hand. If he were to ever die, really die, he hoped to go the same way.
Tera had preferred to be near people and public houses. He didn’t. So, he had packed up himself and his pet turtle and come out here. The morning he arrived, the little pot-bellied pig had burst out of the butcher’s door and squealed across his path. Nev had bought the pig, and called him Pig, because he had expected he’d eat it himself, eventually. Eight years on, that seemed less likely. Between him and the turtle and the pig, that was company enough for Nev.
These men were not welcome. And by their aggressive postures, they knew it.
“How’s your catch today?” the one on the left asked. He was a beefy man, without tattoos or piercings, lean and brown, with an unremarkable complexion and forgettable face.
“Not well,” Nev said. He did not attempt to summon a smile, but he held out the basket for inspection.
The man on the right leaned over, though he was barely tall enough to clear the basket’s rim. “You sell these?” the man asked.
“I suspect you know I do,” Nev said. “I have a stall reserved in the market.”
“Too late for us to get one,” the short man said. He nodded at the railing behind them where two large baskets overflowing with fish were just visible through the mist. “My name’s Parn, and this is Shotsky. Think you can help? These will just go bad. You can keep a good cut. Say, seventy percent.”
“Eighty,” Nev said.
“Sure,” the one called Parn said, and that made Nev’s spine tingle, just a little. They had offered too high, and not bothered to haggle. Bad sign on top of bad sign.
Nev glanced down at Pig, who was snuffling at the men’s bell-shaped trouser hems.
“I’ll take a basket,” Nev said. “To see how it goes.”
“Sure, sure,” Parn said. “Shotsky here will carry them for you, eh, old man?”
Nev grimaced at being called “old,” though by every measure he was certainly old. The body he currently wore was the sort that accumulated a great deal of hair, from bushy white head to busy white toes. He had tried, in vain, to tame some of it but had given in and grown it out long and scraggly. His beard ended in a little tail that nearly reached his belly button, and the braided rope of his hair was the same length in the back. He had longed for some of the spry, smoother-skinned bodies of his youth for years, until he remembered that no one would even think to look for him in a skin as foreign to his people as this one.
Unless these men had?
You are too distrustful, Nev thought, but it was that distrust of and disappointment in people that had kept him alive this long. He had learned to measure time in bodies instead of years, until he lost count of the bodies, too, sometime after the third war he’d fought in for the Body Mercenary Guild.
Nev called Pig back to him and waved at the men to follow him to the market. The entire enterprise was not auspicious, but he couldn’t figure out their game. What did he have to lose if this was legitimate? Perhaps the fish were bad. If the fish were bad, no one would buy them anyway, and he could say so honestly. There were some criminal enterprises making their way down the river, and if this was the first foray of such a family into town, he didn’t want to be on their bad side. What bothered him was why he had stood out to them at all. Was it the age of the body? He must look old and feeble to them, an easy mark.
The man called Shotsky put the big basket of fish in the middle of Nev’s stall. Now that the suns had fully risen and he could see the fish properly, Nev saw that they were fresh, gleaming things, so radiant and dewy-eyed one could almost believe they were alive. Early morning shoppers were already moving to the stall, drawn by the beautiful fish.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Parn said, and winked. “Good luck!”
Nev had no trouble selling the fish. They were lovely, cool, and intact. They didn’t appear to have been tampered with and bore only the usual damage to fins and scales that one would see from wild trout. Nev decided the fish must be stolen goods, something the men had taken out of the back of a cart and didn’t want to be found with. The sooner Nev sold them all, the better.
The fish were nearly all gone by mid-afternoon when the market closed for the hottest part of the day. Only two remained in his basket, and those were the smallest of the bunch. He added them to his own catch. What he didn’t eat for dinner, he could cook up for breakfast for he and Pig.
Nev trekked across the thinning market and out of the village square. He lived up on a little rise about a mile outside the village in the rough hewn cottage that the man who inhabited the body before him had built, likely with the two well-worn hands that Nev used to open the door.
The coals from the morning fire still smouldered in the stove. He went out to the little pond in the back where his pet turtle lived. The little turtle had grown large over the years and was now as long as Nev’s arm. It surfaced in front of Nev, and Nev fed it one of the little fish. He watched contentedly as the turtle ate, then went inside and stoked the fire and cooked up his little fish.
He left the door open in the front and the back to invite a breeze. While the village was small, his neighbors had learned to leave him be. He had found this body much further up the mountains, dead for a few hours, no more, because the beasts up there had yet to tear it apart. Nev had been ready for a change, then. When he came back into the village, he found that the man had been a hermit, and that suited Nev just fine. He could pretend at being an old, mad hermit. He had been pretending at that most of his life.
Pig sat at the base of the table where the two large fish remained, snorting his complaints about not being able to eat them. Nev got up and took one from the table and tossed it to him. Pig squealed and pawed at it.
He noted some movement outside and peered out. Shotsky was making his way up the path to the house. Nev felt a chill, though surely, the man was just coming for his money?
A sharp, familiar scent caught Nev’s attention. He scrambled back to the table where Pig was tearing into the fish and snatched the fish away from him. He grabbed its body so hard that its guts escaped through the tear Pig had made in its belly, and the tangy scent of cloves and lemon assaulted his nose.
The gooey insides splattered all over Nev’s hands, and in that moment he was transported back to a battlefield eighty years back, when he bore some other body. The air smelled just like this, and all around him were the dead and dying. A woman on the ground reached out to him, her fingers grasping for him, and he had scrambled away from her, shrieking, because he knew she wanted to kill him and take his skin, the way he wanted to kill her and take hers, because the bladders full of toxic goo that had exploded on the field were murdering them all...
Nev gasped and wiped the toxin off on the table. He hurled the fish into the sink and scrubbed his hands, knowing already that he was far too late. His flesh puffed up around where the liquid had touched him, and his tongue went numb. He turned just as Shotsky entered.
“You sell them all?” Shotsky said, and then he stopped still, because he must have smelled it too.
The toxin was rushing through Nev’s bloodstream now, and in his experience, that meant he had about two minutes on his feet before his organs failed.
Shotsky folded his arms and shook his head. “Shouldn’t have opened those up, old man,” he said.
Nev knew for certain, then, that this man had no idea who Nev was. If the man had known, he would not have stood so close to him. The man would have run.
Nev did not like violence, as a rule. He knew too much of bodies. But violence was his profession, had been since he was just a young girl in a rural little wastewater like this one. Eight years, and the outside world had let him alone. They had been good years. But the outside always intruded, eventually.
Nev kicked Shotsky in the kneecap. The man howled. Nev thrust a palm into his face and felt his own bones jarring in protest. His mind knew how to fight, but this body was not fit for it.
Shotsky pinwheeled back and tripped over Pig. Pig squealed and ran behind the loft ladder, shrieking.
Nev picked up his stool and bashed Shotsky over the head with it. A sharp pain ran up Nev’s arm, causing him to drop the stool. He hissed and clutched at his arm. Tingling numbness was already running up his hand and into his shoulder; the toxin doing its work. He grabbed the fish from the sink and sat on Shotsky’s chest and shoved the fish into his throat. Shotsky’s eyes bulged. He flopped on the floor, clawing at his own face.
Nev suspected he would regret doing this, later, but all he could think about now was murdering this man as quickly as possible. Nev had fished no corpses from the river this morning. He had no fresh bodies to save him. The only corpse he could jump into today was one he made himself.
Shotsky choked and swung hard. The punch took Nev clean off him and onto the dirt floor. Nev saw blackness, heard a terrible crunch. Something felt strange in his mouth, and he knew his jaw was broken. Shotsky came up spitting toxic fish mush, yowling at Nev in some language he didn’t know.
Nev drooled blood and spit. The numbness had moved into his chest now, and into his other arm. He could only kick his feet helplessly against the floor.
Pig romped over to him. Nev tried to yell at him to go back, to stay away or he was going to become Shotsky’s dinner, but he couldn’t form any words. It all came out a garbled moan.
“You have killed us, you stupid little man,” Shotsky said, and slapped Nev. The pain was so intense that Nev saw a brilliant, glaring light spill across his vision. Heard his bones grating against one another. “We are lost,” Shotsky said, “lost to the God of Light. Lost to the cause of the righteous, you foolish old man.”
Shotsky fell heavily onto his side. He gasped and clawed at his face, which was likely going numb.
Nev tried to reach out a hand to him, for his own comfort more than any other, but neither arm worked. Pig clammered up on top of Nev, pushing his snout into Nev’s hair. All that gory hair. Nev would miss the hair. He stared into Shotsky’s bullish face, wondering which of them would die first. Nev had more experience at holding it at bay, but death came to every body sooner or later, even body mercenaries.
Pig snuffled and pressed himself into the crook of Nev’s neck. Nev wanted to comfort him. It’s all right, little pig, he wanted to say, it’s all right. But it was not all right.
Shotsky huffed out a breath. His eyes went still.
I beat you, Nev thought, grimly. I outlasted you. He said a prayer to God’s eye, out of habit.
And then, he leaped.
Nev experienced a moment of darkness, then a buzzing softness, like that muzzy place between sleep and wakefulness. And suddenly: blazing consciousness. It was always shocking to come awake inside a new body. Nev gasped. He tasted fish, and the tangy acid of the toxin still swimming in the body’s throat. His throat. My throat, he thought, because the sooner he claimed the body as his, the easier it was to use it.
Nev heaved himself up and stumbled to the sink. Shotsky’s body... my body, Nev amended, was tall and beefy. It had been a long time since Nev had been in such a body. He pushed his hands into the sink and turned on the tap that ran water down from the cistern on the roof. He scrubbed his hands and washed out his mouth. He vomited, then, fish and toxic goo and whatever the body had last eaten. His bowels loosened, and he shat and pissed himself. His limbs felt like dead meat, but that would pass. His second wind would come soon, the wind that burned out whatever ailed this body and refreshed it for its new host.
He stood over the sink, breathing heavily, until his new body filled with a cramping, searing pain, like birth. His legs buckled, and he fell to his knees, big hands gripping the edge of the sink. This was how he had been reborn a thousand times, a mercenary who would never time, leaping from body to body as long as there were fresh bodies on the field that he could put his hands on. He had fought this way for so long he hardly remembered who he was or where he had come from.
But the toxin, he knew. The toxin had murdered a good many people. Soldiers he loved as brothers and sisters, back in those days when he could still care for anything human.
Nev pulled himself upright and peeled off his clothes. They had been filthy before he soiled them. Nothing he had here would fit this new body, so he would have to wash them.
He balled up the clothes and washed his body as best he could in the sink. When he was clean, he turned.
His former body was curled on its side. It looked vulnerable and delicate, like a twisted flower. And there, tucked into the crook of the neck, was Pig.
Nev approached the body, still naked, calling to Pig. “Can you come here, Pig?” he said. “It’s me, Pig?” His voice sounded strange, because of course, from inside this head, the voice that he had heard as Shotsky’s sounded very different.
Pig raised his head and peered at him, then buried his face back into the comforting braid of hair that had fallen across his former body’s shoulder.
Nev knelt next to the body. Blood pooled from the mouth. He was careful not to touch anything, as some of the toxin could still be on the floor and on the body’s skin. “Come, Pig,” he said softly, but still, his voice sounded deep and gravelly.
Pig did not stir.
Nev didn’t want to leave Pig alone with the body because it could still be contaminated. So though it pained him, he pulled on a pair of old gloves and picked Pig off the body and rolled the body up in an old sheet. He hauled the body up into the loft, grateful for this new body’s strong arms and legs. Nev avoided looking into the face of his old body. When he was done with a corpse it became a thing, a tool, like a pen or an ax.
Pig squealed at him throughout the ordeal. He ran around in circles, irate at what was being done to the body it knew and loved.
“Come, Pig,” Nev said, one last time as he moved to the threshold. But Pig trotted up to the end of the ladder and lay down and gazed up at the old corpse there in the loft.
Nev rubbed at his eyes. He needed to keep moving, because if he paused to think about what he needed to do now, he would lose heart. Someone had deliberately used him to offload those fish. Maybe they had even meant for him to die, too, and he didn’t take kindly to that. People who tried to kill him often came back to finish the job. He took his cloak from the wall, which was a cast off large enough to cover him, and knotted it around his thick waist with an old length of rope.
Nev walked outside, shielding his eyes in the low afternoon light. At the bottom of the path leading up to his house was a llama. Two llamas, in fact, hitched to a small cart filled with empty baskets. Llamas. It had to be llamas.
“You know where you’re going?” he asked the llamas. One of them bared its teeth at him. “Good,” Nev said, “because I don’t.”
Nev climbed up into the seat of the cart and took up the reins. He had seen a few llamas around the village, but never driven a cart pulled by them.
“Forward,” Nev said. “Go?” He flicked the reins.
The llamas looked back at him sedately. “Dinner?” Nev suggested. “I’d like to have a word with Parn.”
That seemed to spur some latent memory, and the llamas trundled up the path and around Nev’s house, heading back toward the village. Nev held the reins loosely, hoping they knew where they were going. If nothing else, maybe they would take him to a tavern where he could drown out his memory of this whole day.
But the llamas took him instead through the village and halfway to the next, down a little pebbled path to a dilapidated wreck of a mill along the waterfront. They halted in front of a big empty feed trough and made a little humming sound, oddly soothing after Nev’s day.
Nev got down from the cart and turned just as little Parn came out from the mill, wiping his grimy hands on a leather apron.
“What in the seven hells have you been?” Parn said. “What happened to your fucking clothes?”
Nev considered his options. He walked toward Parn, the mud squelching pleasingly between his toes. Nev took Parn by the throat and lifted him. It had been a long time since he could do something like that, and he reveled in it.
Parn kicked and gurgled.
“What’s the game?” Nev said. “Who’s handing that weapon out?”
Parn moved his lips. No sound came out.
Nev lowered him so his toes touched the ground, and eased up his grip. Parn gasped. “The fuck are you?”
Nev tightened his grip again. “I had a very happy life here as a very happy hermit, and you’ve fucked it up.”
“Just a job,” Parn sputtered. “Who the fuck... oh fuck... fuck... you’re... you’re a corpse jumper! Corpse mercenary! Fuck you! Fuck!”
“Let him go!”
Nev turned. A young woman was scrambling out from underneath the musty blanket in the back of the cart. She was in her late teens, all knees and elbows. Her dark hair hung into her face. She leveled a crossbow at Nev; not a homegrown version, either, but the sort carried by soldiers. Her clothing was torn and filthy; it was a wonder he hadn’t smelled her from his place at the front of the cart, but his senses were imperfect when he was still getting used to a body.
“This doesn’t concern you,” Nev said.
“It sure as shit does!” she said. “He murdered my sisters with that shit in the back.”
“There’s a great deal of filthy language being bandied about,” Nev said. “Is it necessary?”
Color flooded her already dark face. “I’ve been at the front,” she said. “I can skewer you through the eye.”
“To what end?” Nev said. “You can murder him when I’m done.”
“You can’t murder him,” she said. “He knows where the necromancer is.”
“Necromancer?” Nev said, because he had not heard that word, in any language, in decades.
“Necromancers make that shit in the fish,” she said. “It brings the dead back to life.”
Nev had a moment of dissonance. “It... does what?”
Parn was still struggling, limply. Nev released him. Parn tumbled to the ground, gasping and clawing at his throat.
Nev turned to the girl. “I know that toxin,” he said. “It murders people.”
“Sure it does,” she said. “Then it brings them back to life. They’re testing it up there at the front, and out here, because no one gives a shit about backward people out here.”
Nev said, “I think I need to find this necromancer.” He couldn’t help but put a hand to his own throat. This body had swallowed the fish, and the toxin it contained. So had his prior body. But if it brought the dead back to life... which dead was coming back into this body? Nev broke out into a cold sweat.
He kicked over Parn and pressed his bare, muddy foot to the man’s throat. “You heard the girl,” Nev said. “Where’s the necromancer?”
The girl’s name was Branka, and according to her she was seventeen, “nearly eighteen,” and had enlisted the year before to fight in “the war.” Nev did not ask what the war was about because it was assumed, in every age, that when one spoke of “the war” everyone else knew exactly which war they were talking about.
Branka insisted on coming with him, though he tried to dissuade her. She did know how to use a crossbow, and that seemed handy. Nev found some clothes inside the mill that fit him, though no shoes. Nev took it upon himself to drag Parn up into the mill and strangle him. It was done cleanly and without malice. A body mercenary needed a body. It was quite possible he would need this one later.
Branka saw him come out alone but did not ask about Parn.
“If he was telling the truth,” she said, “the necromancer’s only four days away by cart. We can do that faster, in two days maybe, if we take turns driving.”
“Llamas need rest,” Nev said, “like people. You can’t drive them into the ground.”
“Sure, sure,” Branka said. “I knew that, you know? I’ll drive first.”
Nev said nothing, but neither did he protest as she got up into the cart. He spent some time gathering a few supplies around the mill, and then they were out onto the road again, bumping along.
“So you’re really a corpse mercenary?” Branka said. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. The world lay at the cusp of evening, but it was nearly summer, and the day would stretch on another couple of hours. Nev wanted as many miles between them and the mill as possible before dark.
“We called ourselves body mercenaries,” he said, “back when we did that.”
“I wondered,” she said, “when I saw you come out of that house. I mean, a/etc guy went in, but it was clear some other guy came out. I thought maybe that old man put a spell on you.”
“Not far off, really.”
“Yeah, I guess. So you could jump into my body, then?”
“Only if you were dead.”
“Was that meant to be comforting? Because it wasn’t.”
“I’m simply clarifying,” Nev said. “It’s not as if I cast out your soul. Your soul is already gone when I inhabit your body.”
“Like a parasite,” she said.
“I prefer to think of myself as a snail,” Nev said.
Branka nodded. “Sure. A worm.”
Nev sighed. “What are you intending to do when you met this necromancer?”
“Same as you, I expect,” Branka said. “I’ll kill him.”
“Because he killed your family?”
“Sure,” she said. “You?”
“He murdered my life,” Nev said, and he thought of Pig. “This life, anyway.”
“There’s always some other life for you, though, isn’t there?” Branka said.
Nev shrugged his broad shoulders. He was beginning to get used to this body. He enjoyed the heft of it. He rubbed at the stubble on his face. “I liked my life,” he said. “I don’t always like the lives I have.”
“So why not just jump into some other one? You know, I thought all you guys were extinct. Burned out. Hunted down. I’ve never met a real corpse mercenary.”
“I haven’t met another one like me in a long time,” Nev said. “The world was different then.”
They rode on in silence until dark. They didn’t make camp so much as simply halt. Nev wrestled with the harnesses for the llamas and let them graze. After a time, they started up their humming, which he hoped was a good sign.
Then he lay in the back of the cart with Branka and pulled his cloak up over them both. They lay pressed together, warmed mostly by the heat of their bodies. Above them, the great spinning orbs of the God’s wheel tracked across the sky. Nev was reminded of the night before, when he had sat out under the stars with Pig and his turtle and breathed in the scent of the new grass and been still, so very still.
“Can you have sex?” Branka asked. “I mean, not now, but just... generally?”
Nev started. “What sort of fool question is that?”
“I mean... do you shit like other people?”
“You’ve seen me piss. These are very personal questions.”
“I’m a curious person,” Branka said. “Plus, if we’re going to fight a necromancer together, I want to know something about you.”
“Better not to,” Nev said. “I haven’t asked about you.”
“I noticed,” Branka said. “It’s polite to ask people questions.”
“I find it rude,” Nev said.
“Not me,” Branka said.
“Clearly,” Nev said.
She sighed heavily. “My sisters raised me,” she said. “I was the youngest. I enlisted last. My brothers stayed home and made some good matches, you know, but we all had heads for tactical stuff. Well, my sisters did. Not me, so much. They looked out for me. But on the field, that day, this same smell... like rotten lemons...”
“I know it,” Nev said.
“Everyone died,” Branka said. “I saw them die. I was up a tree, though, acting as lookout, trying to get us back on the road. Navigating from maps is shit, you know? I don’t know how they got us. Catapults? From where? But that stuff ended up in the air. Pretty big wind. I guess it all blew out when I came down. But that guy came by later, Parn. And I followed these guys for weeks. Weeks! And I heard about the necromancer when they talked at night.”
“Long time to track them,” Nev said, because she seemed to want some kind of human response. It had been so long since he’d engaged in a sustained conversation that he had the urge to flee.
“They were my sisters,” Branka said.
Nev had a fleeting moment where he remembered his own sisters, all older, all dead now. “I understand,” he said.
“Have you ever fought a necromancer?” Branka said, and he heard the hopeful expectation in her voice.
“No,” Nev said, “but there’s a first time for everything.”
Four days later, they wound their way into the little green valley that Parn had told them about before Nev wrung his neck. Torture, as a rule, did not work often, but Branka’s earnestness had helped. Parn may not have believed that Nev would spare him, but he hoped Branka might. It had been enough.
The valley was lovely; a little crease in the world, set against the sparkling, wine-dark sea. At the center of the valley was what had once been a little village, now just a charred ruin. The only building that still stood was the silver temple to the Eight Sisters of God.
Nev reined in the llamas beside the temple and tied them to the hitching post outside.
“Now what?” Branka whispered. She had her crossbow out.
“First,” Nev said, “put that fool thing away.”
Nev stepped up into the temple and pushed open the double doors. The benches were all focused around the center of the room. There, an altar stood with a great orb fixed atop it. The light of the suns drenched it from a hole in the roof, sending dazzling little colored spots of light/etc dancing around the room.
A woman sat at the farthest seat from the door, head bent over a book. She was an old plump woman with a cloud of white hair and a kind face. She reminded Nev at once of his grandmother on his mother’s side. He remembered his grandmother braiding back his hair and telling him to be a good strong girl.
The woman raised her head from her book and smiled at them.
“You must be the corpse mercenary,” she said.
“Everyone keeps calling me that,” Nev said. “I’m a body mercenary.”
“New words, same profession,” the woman said, and stood.
“Are you the necromancer?” Nev asked.
“I prefer the term ‘knowledge seeker’.”
“New words, same profession,” Nev said.
She laughed at that. “Oh, you are clever,” she said, “but I suppose one has to be, to survive as long as you have.”
“You don’t know me,” Nev said, with more conviction than he felt. It was impossible that he had given away who he was. He could be any number of body mercenaries. They had fled like insects after the last great war, set loose by a terrible act.
“I know your type,” the woman said, and she began to walk toward them.
Nev raised a hand. “That’s far enough,” he said. “I’m inhabiting a body killed with your serum. I need to know what happens when it comes back to life.”
The woman raised her brows. “Indeed,” she said, “so do I.”
“You don’t know?” Nev said.
“Of course not,” she said. “Why do you think we’ve been testing it? Many governments have been working together over the last fifty years to eradicate the last of the rogue corpse mercenaries. The body-hopping must stop. You must rest.”
“I decide when I rest.”
“That’s a selfish thing,” she said.
“Hold on here,” Branka said, and out came the crossbow, too fast for Nev to bat it back down again. “You’re murdering people. You murdered my sisters.”
“I murder a lot of people’s sisters,” the woman said. She pointed at Nev. “He has murdered more. He has even murdered himself.”
“She doesn’t have any answers,” Nev said. “Let’s go.” He would find out soon enough what would happen to him.
He turned just as he heard the clink and hiss of the crossbow bolt.
“Dammit, Branka!” Nev said as the crossbow bolt thumped into the necromancer’s chest. She grabbed at the bolt and grimaced.
“Foolish,” the necromancer said. “Foolish.”
The air around her began to darken. Nev thought it was a trick of his eyes, but no. A swirling mist kicked up around her, darkening the room.
Branka yelled and barreled toward her.
Nev called after Branka. The air filled with a low buzzing sound – flies. They seemed to burst out of the mist, made from motes of dust. The flies clogged his mouth and eyes, and he began to scream. He had woken up like this many times, covered in flies, screaming.
Branka was tangling with the necromancer, using her crossbow like a blungeon. The waves of flies pelted her, buffeting her away from the necromancer like a strong wind, but she was persistent.
Nev clawed his way through the swarm of flies. He gripped the necromancer by the collar and headbutted her in the face. Blood burst from her nose. Her legs buckled. She collapsed. The wall of flies collapsed with her, becoming a misty cloud, like smoke, that dissipated.
Nev let himself collapse on one of the benches, spent. He was trembling.
Branka stood over the body of the necromancer, crossbow still in hand. “Is that it?” she said.
Nev coughed. He spit up a couple of flies. Grimaced. But there was something deeper, something caught way down. He coughed again, harder this time. Again. He had trouble catching his breath.
“Are you all right?” Branka asked.
Nev heaved. His whole body trembled. The world began to feel fuzzy, that warm feeling he caught as he came awake.
“Go,” Nev said. “He’s coming back, Branka. Go.”
“What about you?” Branka said.
Nev showed his teeth. “There is always another body.”
The darkness took him.
Nev woke in the loft of the mill, gasping and screaming. He rolled over and vomited and gazed at the little hands that had once been Parn’s.
The necromancer had done it. She’d thrown him out of a body. If he hadn’t had another backed up somewhere/here... if he had only relied on the others on/from the battlefield, dead and contaminated.... He shivered. They were coming for him, and people like him. He had been foolish to think that if he lived a peaceful life, they would forget about him. People like him could never be peaceful. The world didn’t let them.
Nev walked all the way back to the hermit’s cottage, unsure of what he would find there.
When he stepped up to the door, it was already open. He gazed up into the loft and saw the sheet he had used to cover his former body. But the body was gone.
The old hermit was alive again, brought back from the dead. He shivered.
Nev walked into the back. He didn’t see the turtle anywhere, but the turtle was likely as safe here as he would ever be. And there, at the corner of the house near a rain barrel, he saw Pig.
Pig lay there in the mud, very still.
Nev approached, resigned. They took everything, all of them.
The little pig stirred, then, and Nev’s heart leaped. “You silly pig,” Nev murmured. “He didn’t know what to do with you either, eh?”
He knelt beside Pig. “It’s me,” he said. “It’s me, Pig.”
Pig snorted and shook his head and trotted away a few steps. He cantered around the yard. Pig came to rest in the doorway to the house, legs splayed, and stared at Nev.
Nev sighed and leaned back on his heels. “You can’t stay here,” he said.
Nev took up a sack on top of the rain barrel and managed to corner the little pig in the kitchen and scoop it up. Pig shrieked and flailed inside the sack. Nev always hated the sound of pigs shrieking. It sounded too human. He knotted some twine around the top of the sack and collected a few other things.
He didn’t like to take much when he moved from town to town. Too many unique items could identify him from body to body, and then it was only a matter of time before someone from the Corpse Guild caught on and captured him, and that would be the end of his very long travels. As much as he wanted closure some days, the deep fear of death, of going where he had watched so many others go, won over every time.
Nev knotted the sack of his belongings to the end of the sack with Pig in it and slung both over his shoulder. It would be dawn soon, and he wanted to be well clear of the town by then.
As the suns rose, he traveled up and up into the hills, mile after mile. The way was rocky, churning with mud. Finally, they came to a little clearing. Light brightened a soft blue puddle way back in the woods, and on the other side of that, Nev saw a little family of wild pigs snorting around in the undergrowth.
Nev untied the sack with Pig in it and gently released him.
Pig cankered out into the light, kicking up his heels. He trotted away from Nev a few paces, turned back.
Nev was down on one knee in the mud, the sack in one hand and an apple in the other. He tossed the apple to the pig.
“I know I don’t look like him,” Nev said, “no beard. Not enough hair, eh? That’s all right. You take care, little pig. You’re more human than any of us.”
Pig snorted at him.
Nev got up. He shook the filth from the sack and tied it back up with his other belongings. All he had in the world, again. On to the next town, again.
Where to, next? War upriver, death downriver. It was time to cross the river.
Nev headed further up the path, kicking up dirt and loam as he went. He wondered if Branka had headed his warning or murdered Shotsky. No matter how far Nev ran away from the world, it always came back for him.
He heard a little snort behind him, and turned.
Pig had come forward a few paces. He stood there, head cocked, snorting.
“What is it, Pig?” Nev said. “Pig?”
Pig kicked up his legs and barreled toward Nev. Nev got down on his knees and opened his arms, and the little pig hopped into his lap and pressed his nose to Nev’s face, snorting and snuffling all the while.
“Are you coming then?” Nev said. His throat closed, and his voice shook. He cried as he rubbed the little pig’s waggling butt.
After a time, Nev stood. He took a few hesitant steps forward. He called for Pig. And then, Pig trotted after him, content to follow his new family. Together they forged across the road as the suns broke through the trees.
Reprinted by permission of the author.