God is everywhere, but you cannot see him until he makes himself known. Wild magic is just the same.
We stood in a long line, all three hundred people of our village, arranged by the first letter of our family names. I bounced my daughter Greshel in my arms while we waited. Soldiers in old coats left over from the war stood a dozen paces from us on either side of the line, their rifles slung over their shoulders while they peered nervously from beneath the sloped brims of their helmets.
The iron eels, long as a grown man’s arm and glinting silver in the air, drifted between the soldiers and us. Like all creatures born of technology and magic, they defied nature. Though they had no wings, they flew; their only motion was the constant shifting and twisting of their braided iron skins. The air around them thrummed, like the buzzing of horse flies, and shimmered like the air on a hot summer day. Where they passed, the falling snow melted and dripped to the earth like rain.
We had been standing since just after dawn. Common farming folk, in patched boots and fraying coats. We shivered against the winter cold in the snow-blanketed commons of our village. I had been sure to dust off my medals and pin them to my chest. The Black Arrow, for bravery. The Silver Eye, for my service with the Order Magiteknique. The Red Teardrop, for my wound. Surely, I assumed, the soldiers would go easy on an old veteran and his family.
“Present your papers and your right wrist.” A soldier’s voice blared from a bullhorn in front of us and echoed over the murmuring of our neighbors.
“What is this about?” Mrs. Selnik muttered behind me.
“That flash three nights ago, to the east,” said my wife, Tresha. “You saw it, yes? Bright green, so bright it blotted out the stars. And the sound of it! Our Greshel woke screaming.”
“Yes, but what was it?”
I felt her question and her eyes needling the back of my skull. They all expected me to know things. Had expected such since I came home from the war. Oh, Hrelki Telmans fought with the Silver Eye! He must know so much of the world! Oh, I learned a great deal but nothing worth reporting. How to disassemble an arcane apparatus without killing ourselves, or worse, while the magiteknicians drank their tea. How to stomach displacement sickness when they led us through one of their portals. How to swallow my gorge at the scent of burning flesh as sorcerous fire rained upon our enemies.
“Nothing to worry about,” I said, trying to keep the nervous tremble from my voice.
“Nothing to worry about?” Mr. Selnik hissed. “The Magic Refinery lies that way. Do you think we should not worry when an explosion happens where magic is pulled from the ground?”
He stepped past his wife to stand beside me, then pushed his leathery face close to mine and gestured to an iron eel as it hovered by. Its skin of braided iron clicked as it swung its blunt-nosed head from side to side. “Why all this, if there is nothing to worry about?”
“Just a precaution,” I said. Mr. Selnik snorted, disbelieving, but stepped back in line.
He had reason to be concerned. The morning of the rumbling thunder and green flash, he had been in the woods to the east of our village, stalking elk. Still, the Refinery was half a day away. Whatever had happened there would not have reached us, nor the woods where Mr. Selnik hunted.
This lie, I told myself.
Soon we neared the head of the line. Soldiers—young men, without the medals to mark service in the war—studied our papers and waved us toward canvas tents that had been hastily raised that morning. One of the soldiers called Tresha forward. I started to follow, but he placed a firm hand on my arm.
“One at a time,” he said.
Tresha glanced back at me. I tried to make my face reassuring. She gathered her shawl close around her chin and stepped toward the tent. A guard drew the flap aside, revealing a glimpse of arcane machinery and a man in the harshly angled uniform of the Order Magiteknique.
There are consequences to tampering with the proper order of the world. It has ways of rejecting what it does not want. The dangers my comrades and I had faced in assembling and disassembling the arcane engines of the Magiteknique were the result of that rejection. Explosions. Unnatural sicknesses. Twistings of organ and bone. Wild magic.
The machinery in that tent, I had seen before. A tall box, high as a man’s chest, with two lights, one green and one red. A wire tipped with a thin copper needle trailed from one side of it. A simple enough device. Feed the needle a drop of blood. Green for untainted. And red...
If the light showed red, the iron eels would burn the source of that magic-tainted blood to ash.
The flap closed. Greshel whimpered for her mother. I shushed her, told her that her mother would be alright, that it was all only a precaution. The government and the magiteknician had to check for the taint of wild magic, to be sure none of us had been touched by it.
None of us had been, of course. They only needed to be sure, so that they could move on to the Refinery and deal with the monsters made by whatever accident had happened there.
The tent flap opened. Tresha stepped out, cradling her wrist, relief plain on her face. She smiled at me and waved to Greshsel. A soldier touched her shoulder and guided her away from the line to where a few other husbands and wives waited for their families. The guard waved me forward. I carried Greshel into the tent.
She studied the magiteknician and his machine with wide eyes. Her tiny body tensed against my arms.
The magiteknician was a few years older than I. Wings of gray hair sprouted from above his ears, and he peered over thick spectacles as he wiped the needle of his machine with a strip of cotton gauze dipped in iodine. The hard angles of his uniform coat hung loose about his shoulders. He had lost weight recently, or else inherited the uniform.
What sort of man was he, I wondered, to have been put in command of this unit, tasked with cleaning up after the accident at the Refinery? Either a genius, and thus given a difficult assignment that few else were suited for, or someone considered by command to be competent but expendable and thus suited to the dangerous work no one else wanted. By the look of him, I guessed the latter.
“Your daughter first,” he said, reaching for Greshel’s hand. She shied away. I whispered reassurance in her ear and held her tiny hand while the magiteknician took it. With a quick jab he drew a speck of blood from her wrist. She yelped and squirmed against me. I patted her back and told her that everything would be alright while my eyes fixed, unblinking, on the lights atop the magiteknician’s device.
I counted, slow and steady. Fifteen seconds. That was how long such devices had taken when the magiteknicians had tested we foot soldiers whenever we moved them from one place to another disassembling and then rebuilding their unnatural machines. My heart thundered in my ears. Greshel squirmed. What would I do if the red light burned to life? What if she was tainted, her flesh soon to slough away, her bones soon to twist into a nightmare configuration, as wild magic took hold and made of her what it willed?
With a click, the green light turned on. Tension uncoiled from my back and shoulders. I smiled at Greshel, kissed her on the cheek. She squirmed away from my whiskers, still frightened. But thank God! Thank God! My family would survive.
“Very good,” the magiteknician said. I thought I heard a note of relief in his voice. He turned his hand palm up. “Now your turn.”
I shifted Greshel to my left arm and offered my right. As I did, the magiteknician’s eyes dipped to my chest and the medals hanging from the frayed wool of my jacket. He breathed sharply through his nose, and the ghost of a smile touched his eyes.
“Ah, you were with the Silver Eye in the war?” he said. “Where did you serve?”
“Wherever the portals took us, sir,” I said. “I was with Fourth Inferni Squad. We burned our way up and down the line.”
The smile in his eyes reached his mouth. “Ah! Well, perhaps I will call on your services during the cleaning up of this mess, yes?”
I wanted to decline, to say that I had put such dangerous work far behind me and had no interest in ever taking it up again. But one does not say no to a magiteknician; not when one’s village is being tested for contamination, even if only as a precaution.
“Whatever you need, sir,” I said.
“Very good. You will be used to this. Just a formality, of course,” he said, and jabbed my wrist without any more warning. I winced despite myself and watched the lights. The green lit up quickly, much more quickly than it had for Greshel, or so it seemed to me.
“Yes, well, good luck to you,” the magiteknician said, gesturing toward the tent flap. “God willing, we will not need your services.”
“God willing,” I replied, and went to join Tresha.
She stood with her hands clasped tight beneath her chin. A dusting of snow on her shawl and thin shoulders showed that she had not moved at all while Greshel and I were inside the tent. At the sight of us she fell to her knees. I rushed to her, gathered her to her feet. She wrapped us in her arms.
“Oh, thank God, thank God,” she said, shuddering with relief.
A shout erupted behind us, from the tent where Greshel and I had been a moment ago. I turned as its canvas backing tore. Mr. Selnik burst from the tent, which collapsed behind him as he sprinted east. The magiteknician fought free of the fallen canvas. Blood stained the gray wing above one of his ears. Behind him, the light atop his device burned red.
“Shoot that man!” he shouted.
Rifle fire crackled in the air. I watched in disbelief as blood burst from Mr. Selnik’s calf, his shoulder. He toppled to the ground. Mrs. Selnik shrieked and threw herself against the soldier at the head of the line. The iron eels darted toward Mr. Selnik’s body, their skin of braided iron clicking, the air burning in their wake.
Mr. Selnik quivered on the ground as wild magic did its work. We were too far away to hear the bones popping out of joint, to see the flesh reknitting itself, to smell the burnt-hair stink of the change. Those sounds, those sights, those smells recalled themselves to me, dredged from the worst moments of the war.
The iron eels struck before the monster that was once Mr. Selnik gained its feet. Apertures at the tips of their blunted heads spun open, and white fire poured out. The monster thrashed once and issued a shrill, strangled cry as it died. Mrs. Selnik collapsed into the arms of the guard who had been restraining her.
“Those who have been tested, return to your homes!” a soldier shouted through his bullhorn. “The rest of you, remain in line. I repeat, remain in line.”
I spirited weeping Tresha and wailing Greshel away and thanked God that I had not accepted Mr. Selnik’s invitation to go hunting.
“There must be weekly tests now, you understand?” The magiteknician ashed his cigarette. A bandage wrapped his brow, stained red at the temple where Mr. Selnik had struck him. His eyes seemed to have sunken into their sockets. He had summoned me to his tent on the western edge of the village. “The wild magic may seep into the soil, or the ground water. You must all be very careful these next weeks. Any sign of contamination—anything unusual—must be reported immediately.”
“I understand,” I said, heart thundering, wishing I had a cigarette of my own.
“I will remain here, with a few of my men and what iron eels can be spared. The others must go to the Refinery, to see what has happened there and set about containing it. I will be busied by...” He waved his hand, stirring the smoke that wafted about the tent. “All of this. Can I entrust you with the small task of administering the tests?”
“Of course, sir,” I said automatically, my mouth forming the words as though I were back on the front, back in uniform, at war. I was not. This was my home, these my people—my Tresha, my Greshel. I was no longer a soldier. But one does not say no to a magiteknician. Especially not one on edge, already struck by a tainted man; his eyes sunken but bright with paranoia.
“Very good, Private Telmans.” The magiteknician smiled. It did not touch his eyes. A bundle wrapped in a dark cloth lay on the tea table beside him. He unwrapped it, revealing a box as long and wide as my forearm, with red and green bulbs on its top side and a copper needle jutting from its front. “Take this with you. It is less sensitive than the full-sized model, but sufficient for our purposes. The iron eels can learn the taste of their prey as well from it as the others.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, taking the device with a bow. It was leaden in my hand.
“No, thank you, Private Telmans. It is lucky we found such a reliable man in this village. It will make all our lives easier, I think.”
That night I sat at the table with Tresha, the device between us on the stained, knotted wood. Greshel dozed in her cradle nearby. It had taken a valiant effort—both that night, and the night before—to calm her enough for sleep. To think of what my daughter had seen, the horrors of my past brought home, broke my heart. Tresha sat stiffly, her arms folded tight across her body, watching the device as though it were a snake.
“It does nothing but measure,” I said. “There is no reason to be afraid of it.”
Her eyes flicked up to meet mine. “Did you ask the magiteknician? Will he let us leave for the west?”
She wanted to escape to the city of Dresovny, a two-day journey from our village. I had tried to explain why this was impossible, but she did not understand. She was ten years younger than I. The war had passed during her girlhood. She did not remember white fire raining down on the cities of the western provinces, burning steel and concrete to fine black ash, nor the crematorium stink of it all. She did not remember the howling magic-twisted monstrosities made by our enemy surging through the streets of Dresovny, their countless limbs churning the earth; their inhuman eyes full of fury.
No. Of course he would not let us go to Dresovny. The people there would have come to us if they had been permitted to leave.
“He will not,” I said, though I had not asked. “Listen, Tresha, we have nothing to be afraid of. Mr. Selnik was far from here when he was tainted, and he was the only one. This is only a precaution. And...” I leaned in and smiled conspiratorially. “I will be the one administering the tests. So, you have doubly nothing to fear, yes?”
Her eyes drifted between mine and the device on the table. She leaned forward, pressed her forehead to mine, and breathed a heavy sigh. “Promise me that we will be alright,” she whispered.
“Of course,” I said, and kissed her. “It is all only a precaution.”
There is a quiet that settles over a community in the wake of disaster. People begin to whisper more than they speak. Rumors flit about like flies. Confusion circles like a vulture. In my first week administering the test, I heard a great deal of speculation about the Refinery; what had happened there, and what it meant for us.
Sabotage, Mr. Pelaman was certain. An agent of the old enemy had snuck deep into the heartland to disrupt our country in its gathering of magic. The first of many attacks that would lead to a rekindling of the war.
Negligence, said Mr. and Mrs. Urlich. They jabbed their fingers at distant generals and politicians and accused them of distraction. Our leaders were too busy shoring up their power within the new post-war regime, too busy posturing, to attend to the vital infrastructure of the country they claimed to rule.
Mrs. Selnik alone had no opinion on such matters. When I knocked on the gnarled oak of her door, she studied me silently, then stepped aside. A single candle burned on the windowsill. Her fire had faded to low coals in the hearth, and a damp chill hung in the air. Mr. Selnik’s hunting rifle still rested on the mantel, where he had returned it after his ill-fated trip.
She slumped into one of three chairs around the small table she had once shared with her husband and her daughter, who was now married and moved to a different village. Had word been sent of her father’s fate? I was too cowardly to ask.
“Hello Mrs. Selnik,” I said, and swallowed the words how are you?
“Hello Mr. Telmans,” she said, her gaze fixed on the bundle beneath my arm. I sat down across from her and unwrapped it. The copper needle glinted in the candlelight. The red and green bulbs atop the device, unlit, were indistinguishable from each other.
I cleared my throat. “I’ll just need your wrist.”
The air between us became taut. I imagined the pain she must be feeling. The loss of her husband, and now to face the test again. Others in the village had been anxious and tense while I jabbed their wrists. Always the green bulb lit, and the relief in their homes was palpable.
“Mrs. Selnik?” I said. “Your wrist?”
“Why did they give you this task, do you think?” she said.
I took a moment to answer. “The magiteknician and his staff are busy, Mrs. Selnik. There is a great deal to be done at the Refinery.”
“I think there is another reason.” She did not move but sat stone-like in her chair, her hands folded in her lap. “You are one of us. We are more likely to let you do this thing, when we would revolt if one of their men in uniform forced it upon us.”
“Well, they did not give me a uniform, but I was made a Private again, so I am as much one of them as I am one of you,” I said. “Come now, Mrs. Selnik. Give me your wrist. It will be over in a moment.”
“I think it is to distract us,” she said flatly.
Again, I found myself at a loss for words. “I’m sorry?”
“I am not a fool, Private Telmans,” she said. “I have heard how the wild magic works its way through the world. Into the water, the soil, the very air itself. How long do you think we will be safe? What is the purpose of these tests, if not to ring an alarm and let them know when it is time for the iron eels to rain fire on us all? I know you are thinking of my husband, but he was far away in the woods to the East when the wild magic corrupted him. Do you think they will let any live after one of us in the village fails your test?”
I tamped down the sudden terror that filled my heart. No. She was wrong. I had witnessed wild magic before; had seen it leak from weapons misassembled, had watched men become worse things that what Mr. Selnik had been. I was still alive. It was possible to witness such a thing and escape corruption.
“Come now, Mrs. Selnik—”
“I want no part of it.” Her hands curled in her lap, gathering the fabric of her dress in tight fists. “Ask yourself, Private. Do the soldiers and the magiteknician drink our water? No. Will they eat food grown in our soil? No. Will they ever let us leave? They are our jailers. They will do as much as they can to contain this thing until the danger becomes too great. Then they will kill us and flee.”
The candle on her windowsill flickered. One of the blackened logs balancing in her hearth cracked and fell. My mind was blank. A last defense against her words. I refused to accept them. My family would survive.
“Mrs. Selnik,” I said, as though she had not spoken. “Your wrist, please.”
“I will have to report this to the magiteknician,” I said. “Please. There is no need for this. You will pass the test, and soon it will all be over.”
Her eyes were flat and unyielding, the lines of her limbs rigid as iron.
I sighed and wrapped the testing device in its bundle. “I will come back tonight. You must not be stubborn. I am trying to help. You ask for death when you say no to a magiteknician like this.”
She said nothing more. I stood, tucked the device beneath my arm, and left. I was a dozen steps away when I heard her call after me.
“Private Telmans!” she shouted. She stood in the doorway of her house, her husband’s rifle in her arms. My heart lurched into my throat. I remembered the sound of bullets whizzing past my ear, imagined them ripping through me. I thought of Greshel, of Tresha. Of the magiteknician burning our village to the ground in retribution for the death of a soldier—though an old one, dragged unwillingly out of retirement.
I sought the words to talk her down, to return the rifle to the mantel, to convince her that we would survive; that there was no need for this mad grasping at revenge for her husband’s death. Before I could speak she turned the rifle, braced its stock at her feet, and pressed her forehead to its barrel.
The crack of gunfire. The wafting smell of smoke. Red sprayed on the frame of her door. She slumped atop the rifle and lay dead.
The echo of the gunshot quickly faded, muted by the drifting snow. I tested no one else that day.
After Mrs. Selnik’s suicide, the village was gripped by new, darker rumors. Howls that rumbled in the night, deeper than the throat of any wolf. An oily shimmer in the snowbanks at the eastern edge of the village. Mrs. Yoseliec said the soil in her garden was tinted blue. No one believed her, until she brought a jar of it from house to house and showed us all.
Mr. Pelaman and his wife tried to flee to the west, hoping to cross the river Gostikl and slip into Dresovny. I do not know what became of them, only that iron eels darted over the trail of their footprints in the snow and white fire burned that night in the western sky.
In the second week, I knocked on the door of Mr. and Mrs. Urlich, to no answer. When at last I forced the door, I found them in bed, their hands clasped together, their three children sprawled unmoving on the floor, and cups beside them that held the dark dregs of nightshade tea.
In the third week, Mrs. Yoseliec knelt by the river and bashed her own head in with a stone.
I watched the few dozen soldiers who remained in our village, to see if what Mrs. Selnik had predicted proved true. They never touched our wells, nor the water from the river, which flowed clear and fresh from a glacier. When I had served the Silver Eye, we often established systems of resupply by portal, building devices at the front lines that could bring canisters of water and food there from the heartland. I suspected one of the dozen tents in the magiteknician’s camp hid such a device, but I could not prove it.
When I told Tresha of my suspicions, the coil of tension within her—which had tightened day by day these last weeks, as our friends and neighbors vanished or died—finally snapped.
“We have to get out of here.” Tresha’s hands clamped tight around my upper arms. “This place is killing people.”
“Where will we go?” I offered no solution. No denial. Only practical reality. “How will we escape the iron eels?”
“There must be something you can do,” Tresha said. “You built their machines for them in the war, didn’t you? Can’t you build something to save us?”
“Build something from what?” I waved the testing device between us. “From this? It can do nothing but detect corruption and mark the prey of the iron eels. They taught me how to repair it, but not enough to rework it into something else.”
Greshel, in her cradle nearby, stirred at our raised voices. She started to bawl and rock herself from side to side, until Tresha gathered her up. Shushing and bouncing our daughter, she fixed me with cold, determined eyes.
“I will take Greshel and go by myself, if I have to,” she said. “This village is sick unto death.”
It was, and I knew it, and I began, at last, to plan for escape.
There was only one way in or out of our village. Any attempt to flee by foot would end in the fire of the iron eels. Only the possibility of a portal in the magiteknician’s camp offered any hope. Were there one, we might be able to slip through it, and when we were safe, wherever it led, I could break the portal device on the other side. I knew enough to do that, to ruin the pairing between portals so that the magiteknician, his men, and his iron eels could not follow us. First, I had to deduce the portal’s location.
I hid in the snow-dusted bushes on a low hill overlooking the magiteknician’s camp, watching soldiers move in and out of those tents, fighting my fear at the sight of half a dozen iron eels hovering through the camp in endless, inscrutable paths.
Sure enough, at dusk I witnessed the arrival of an old rusted truck; surplus from the war. Nothing of value would be risked on this mission. Even the slightest contamination of wild magic would ruin whatever it touched.
Unlike their vehicle, the soldiers that piled out of the truck, fatigued after a weeklong shift at the Refinery, were young. They had not fought in the war. Their first glimpse of what wild magic could do had been Mr. Selnik. If they had seen what I had seen, they would have refused to go near the Refinery even with pistols pressed to their heads. The magiteknician was with them, which surprised me. He, at least, had to know the threat of wild magic. Maybe he was loyal enough to risk terror and death. Or maybe he was a fool.
While the men from the truck retreated to their bunks, another group rolled metal drums out of a tent on the north edge of the camp, followed by standard-issue ration crates. These—along with a new group of young soldiers—were piled in the bed of the truck, which set off back to the east, toward the Refinery.
I began to plot my family’s path from our house to the camp to that tent, to avoid soldiers and iron eels along the way. As I did, I was struck with the impossibility of my plan. The Silver Eye was not so foolish. I had forgotten their caution, born of working with so dangerous and unpredictable a power as magic. The portal likely led to a supply depot of some kind, which would be guarded by both soldiers and iron eels. The Silver Eye would kill us and burn our corpses to ash the moment we stepped through the portal unannounced. They would assume that we were like Mr. Selnik—contaminated, ready to twist into monstrosities at any moment.
What, then, were we to do? Return home? Sit and wait and endure the creeping dread until the wild magic leaking into air and water and soil finally poisoned us?
Hope faded within me, and I at last understood Mrs. Selnik and the others who had chosen the only clear path of escape.
No. I crawled down from the hill and walked to my home with my fists tightly curled. I would not give up. There had to be a way.
At home, while Tresha boiled some of the few remaining potatoes from last year’s harvest—in our paranoia, we refused to eat anything freshly gathered, for fear of contamination—I passed the testing device from hand to hand, feeling its weight. Another plan began to foment in my mind, but I refused to recognize it straight-on. Rather, I thought circles around it, considering it from shadowed corners and obtuse angles, so that I knew the shape of it without having to face the horror of what I would do.
A knock sounded at the door. I gave Tresha’s elbow a reassuring squeeze and opened the door. It was one of the young soldiers.
“The magiteknician wants to see you,” he said.
Panic bubbled up in my chest. Had I been seen spying on the camp? Did the magiteknician know that I had neglected the task assigned to me? Did they know I planned to escape?
No, there was some other reason. Perhaps word of how well things were going at the Refinery; assurance that soon this nightmare would end and our lives could resume, tattered by tragedy though they had become. The thought that I ought to bring the testing device flitted through my head, but I decided to leave it behind. The soldier had said nothing about it, and if the magiteknician’s summons were not for so happy a reason as I hoped I would still need the device.
In the three weeks since our last meeting, the magiteknician had aged years. The gray wings above his ears had turned white, and the rest of his once-black hair had faded to the color of old ashes. His eyes were pin-pricks buried in deep caves, and his uniform hung even more loosely around his shoulders. His tent was still sparsely furnished, but a gramophone had appeared—brought through the portal, most likely. It played quiet, calming music.
“Private Telmans,” he said. “It has been some time since last we spoke. I trust that this is because things go well here in the village?”
Did he know about the suicides? I decided it did not matter. “As well as can be expected, sir,” I said. “No sign of any corruption, yet.”
“I know that, Private Telmans.” He plucked a silver cigarette case from his chest pocket and flipped it open, pressed a cigarette to his mouth, and lit it with a match. “If there were, the iron eels would have burned it out, and they have done nothing but circle the camp, and circle the camp, and circle the camp.” He took a drag, sighed a cloud of smoke. “The ones here do that, anyway. Things are different at the Refinery. The men who work there—they are good men, you know. Good soldiers. God and the Military Secretariat alone know why they must suffer this task.
“They are tested every day when they return to the small camp there, on the edge of the disaster area. It is a mad place, Private Telmans. The world is... twisting. Folding about itself. How can I explain this?” Another drag. His eyes took on a far-off affectation, peering through his spectacles at some distant, remembered horror too strange for words. “Sometimes the men cannot see it until they stumble into it, and then it is too late. Some of them, we never find their bodies. It does not only affect animals but the trees, even the stone as well, you know.”
I did know, though I could not imagine the unfolding he described. No one who had seen such a thing lived long, but we who wore the Silver Eye had heard all the rumors. The earth glowing blue, turning to putty, swallowing entire battalions. Trees howling with bark-lipped maws. The air itself bursting into sudden flame. These terrors had haunted me all through the war. Now, they had followed me home. If the Refinery was already so far gone, it was only a whim of God or fortune that the wild magic had not yet destroyed our village.
“There is that old saying in the Silver Eye. You remember it? God is everywhere, but you cannot see him until he makes himself known...” His voice trailed off. The cigarette burned down in his hand. Perhaps he wanted me, another man who knew well the danger of wild magic, to tell him, however dishonestly, that we might survive. I could not offer him that comfort. At last he straightened in his chair and came back to himself with a feeble smile. “He is still making Himself known here, I think. Anyway, I should not say more. You have enough to worry about. Thank you, Private Telmans.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”
My heart thundered as I left the magiteknician’s tent. Iron eels thrummed through the air around me. Soldiers stood together smoking, or sat cleaning their rifles, or laughed at one another’s bawdy jokes. Yet a tension ran beneath the surface of the camp, like the tension in the calm hours in the trenches after one charge and before the next, when a solider has watched the deaths of his friends and knows that he might be next. I was determined that my wife and child, at least, would not die with them.
My gait quickened as I left the camp behind. I ran the last dozen paces to my house and threw the door open. Tresha stood at the stove, minding the boiling pot. I gathered her into my arms. She stiffened, searched my face with wild eyes.
“It must be tonight,” I said.
Her mouth opened, but whatever she wanted to say, she swallowed. Instead she nodded, pulled away from me, and—the boiling pot abandoned—began gathering clothes and silverware into a bundle.
“Only what we can carry on our backs,” I said. The testing device lay where I had left it on the table. I set to it with my tools. At first my hands trembled. By the time the last screw had fallen away and the workings of the device lay open to the world, my fingers were stable as stone.
I did not know how to make the device other than what it was. But I did know how to break it.
We crept past the camp, to the bank of the river Gostikl, where Mr. and Mrs. Pelaman had made their ill-fated escape. Or perhaps they had survived, dodging the pursuit of the iron eels. Tresha had accepted that we, too, would flee across the river and then turn south. There were other villages that way. In time they would face the same horrors we had. I had resolved to warn them as we fled, so that I might at least save more lives than I would take.
It was late winter, and the Gostikl was low enough to reach only to my waist but frigid. We waded across, Greshel clinging to Tresha and Tresha clinging to me. I felt my way along the riverbed with booted feet. The low current pulled at my coat and trousers and threatened to sweep my numb legs from under me. Tresha stumbled. I fell to one knee, but I caught her. Soaked to the bone, we emerged on the far bank of the river. Greshel whimpered in her mother’s arms, but our daughter had the good sense not to cry out in the darkness.
We took shelter in a stand of trees not far from the bank of the river. There, my hands shaking, I piled tinder and made a small fire with flint and steel, so that my wife and daughter would not freeze to death while I ensured our escape.
I kissed them both and clutched their hands tightly, for perhaps the last time.
“If I do not return by midnight, you must go on without me,” I said.
“Do you really have to do this thing?” Tresha said.
I nodded. “If I do not, the iron eels will be on us. This will at least sow a little chaos and buy us a little time.”
She set her jaw but accepted my answer.
In truth, I did not know if there were some other means we might have used in making our escape. There was even a chance that I had overestimated the danger; that the suicides and the nightmarish ramblings of the magiteknician were not a sign of worse things to come. Perhaps staying would have been the better choice. Who can say?
I slipped back across the river. After a moment to rub feeling back into my hands, feet, and legs, I went to the hollow stump where I had hidden the testing device wrapped in its bundle and buried in snow. I shuddered to touch it, knowing what I had done; the circuits I had rerouted. Only one of its two bulbs would ever light again.
We common soldiers of the Silver Eye had never been told the deeper secrets of the Order Magiteknique. The machines we maintained for them relied on circuits of translucent crystal that somehow controlled the flow of magic. We were not trusted with knowledge of how these circuits functioned. I had spent the night before poring over the testing device. The copper needle that jutted from it fed a maze of translucent crystals shot through with different patterns of gold and copper. From these crystals, single wires led to the green bulb and the red bulb, then another from the red bulb to a lone crystal. As near as I could guess, when contamination was detected, a signal went to the red bulb then on to the last crystal, which somehow told the iron eels who to kill.
It was a simple thing to disconnect the wire to the green bulb and strip the insulation on the wire connected to the red one. When the time was right, I would splice the two wires together, so that whether or not the device detected contamination in a blood sample, the iron eels would still attack.
If, that is, I understood the device correctly. Perhaps there was some failsafe I had missed. Perhaps, I thought, in my sleep-deprived paranoia, the iron eels would somehow know that I had tampered.
Failsafe or no, my plan was Tresha and Greshel’s only chance. Still wet and shivering, I tucked the device under my arm and headed for the camp.
The camp was quiet. A few soldiers stood sentry, shifting their weight from foot to foot, blowing misty breath on their gloved hands for warmth. Most of the tents were dark. A light burned within the magiteknician’s tent, casting dancing shadows on the canvas walls.
Hardly daring to breathe, I crept into the camp, the testing device clutched in one hand. I waited for a sentry to pass me by, then darted behind him and through the open flap of one of the tents. A dozen cots had been arranged along its walls. A soldier slept in each. Some snored; others shifted in their sleep. I moved as I imagined God must move—quietly, subtly, inch by inch—and prayed the men would mistake the jab of my needle for the biting of flies.
I took blood from fingers dangling over the edge of their cots. From feet jutting from beneath threadbare blankets—the needle bit through stockings well enough. I took twelve men’s blood. Men I knew nothing about. Men who, I told myself again and again, had been as good as sentenced to death when they were stationed here for shifts at the Refinery.
The last of the men muttered as I pricked the back of his hand. He jerked his arm upward, nearly throwing the device from my grasp. I dared not move. If he woke, could I sprint far enough, fast enough, to escape the conflagration I meant to cause?
He only rubbed his forehead, leaving a hair-thin smear of his own blood, and murmured himself back to sleep.
Relieved, I turned toward the tent-flap and stumbled over a helmet thoughtlessly discarded on the ground.
The world lurched around me. The helmet spun away from my foot, its buckles clattering against the earth. The man who had muttered and moved his arm jerked awake. I did not wait for him to see me in the darkness. I sprinted away, through the tent flap, toward the edge of camp.
Shouts of alarm followed me. I had put the device back together with only one screw, loosely fixed in place. Now, with hands still cold and slick with river water, I fumbled to pry it open and get at the wires. All around me soldiers darted from their tents, half-dressed, rifles in hand.
My fingernails at last bit into the seam of the device. It came open. The camp was behind me, but soldiers were on my heels. Iron eels would soon follow. Some were men whose blood I had taken—I recognized them from the tent—but were enough of them? If too many escaped death, they might follow me across the river, and all this would be for nothing.
I found the clipped wire that should have connected to the green bulb. With numb, trembling fingers I wrapped it around the exposed part of the wire leading to the red bulb and prayed that this new connection would be enough. Then it was a simple thing to slam the device shut and trade the lives of a dozen men for my family.
Gunshots cracked behind me. The limb of a tree burst as I ducked under it, spraying me with splinters. Dazed, I stumbled over roots buried in snow. The device slipped from my hands and dropped to the ground. Its lights were dark as death. A new sound rose above the ringing in my ears. The rhythmic thrum of the iron eels.
One hovered above me, its braided skin shifting, twining about the length of its body. Its blunted head fixed on me. I looked to the device; to my dismay, the lights were still dead. The connection between the wires had not been enough, or they’d been juddered loose when I dropped the device. Or perhaps there had been a failsafe. My fingers had been numb. Had the wires cut me and left my blood on the circuit? Did the iron eels know the taste of it?
The aperture on the head of the iron eel spun open. I could only gasp a prayer that my wife and child would escape, then wait for the flash of white fire.
The red light clicked to life against the snow.
The iron eel turned away, bending in the air, and darted back toward the camp, following its first and most important directive: burn out contamination.
I did not wait for the screams. They followed me as I ran to the riverbank, then half-waded and half-swam to the other side. I gathered Tresha and Greshel into my arms. Without waiting for dawn, we struck south and followed the river. The horizon burned white behind us.
Tresha and I made a new home in Swalova, the southern neighbor of our country. That nation was so starved for skilled labor that, after a demonstration of my limited technical knowledge, no one ever asked for my immigration papers. I earned a place as a maintenance man at a small university. But every time I opened a malfunctioning appliance to replace a board or reconnect a wire, my hands would shake and grow numb. It became too much for me.
Despite Tresha’s protestations, when we had saved enough we moved to a village even smaller and more remote, far from wars and refineries. A place without even a radio. Still, I woke most nights gripped by terror; haunted by the Selniks, by visions of Greshel’s face on a monstrous body, and by screams rising from tents wreathed in white fire.
Wild magic is nothing if not unpredictable. It is everywhere, after all, but you cannot see it. Not until it makes itself known.