The mage is bound to the rail by iron, gagged with a silver knot, and blindfolded with thrice-woven silk branded with the six great runes of binding, but still I watch them, it, like a mouse watches a snake.
“Lift it.” I try to sound casual. Just doing what I always do—getting shit to where it needs to go.
Cog and Downing, wrapped and layered against the cold like great shaggy beasts, each grab a side of the rail to which the mage is tied, muttering to each other about their grievous burdens.
Captain Yalih stands too close, too fidgety, their uniform somehow impeccable despite weeks tromping through the ashes of razed cities and the endless mud of our march. “Faster’s better, Daum.”
I snort. “An interminable lie.” Magehandling is slow work for good reason. With mages, the only things that happen fast tend to kill everyone and leave a hole in the ground the size of a large city, or a small country.
Yalih knows this, of course, but their mind is elsewhere. Their head swivels back and forth; their hand taps fitfully against their sword hilt. Nervous. And no wonder—Yalih can smell an ambush as well as I can. So can the rank-and-file, who are rushing to break down camp and being damn sloppy about it.
A dense treeline half a mile to our left marks the current border of the so-called United East, a breakaway state that seems to grow more daring every week. To our right it’s even thicker—brambled undergrowth and brambled canopy and brambley vines between.
And here’s us, trapped on the plain, nothing more than shivering flesh and bone. Well, us and it.
“You just worry about the UE,” I say, almost envying the simplicity of Yalih’s burden. Worst case scenario: raiders jump out and slaughter us and cut our bodies to pieces and ceremonially burn those pieces. Whereas... “The mage is our problem.” I give Yalih a lazy smile as if I’m not scared shitless, but truth is I can’t wait to dump this goddamn thing, even if there are a few thousand insurrectionists waiting to kill us all. Hell, maybe because of that. An enemy is a straightforward obstacle. “We’ll be at Pa’alpa’non getting massacred before you can sing ‘Hail the Despotate.’ Don’t you fret your curly little moustache about it.”
Yalih glares at me. “We’ll be lucky to live long enough to die in Pa’alpa’non.” They stalk away, presumably to shout at someone.
Yeah. Lucky. That’s us.
Cog and Downing, having triple-checked the bindings, heft the magerail to their snow-encrusted shoulders. The mage hangs suspended between them, unconscious. Probably.
The ropes creak so loudly I have to bite back the instinct to groan in empathy.
It’s not a person.
But I have to tell myself that too often to really believe it, so I try to think of home instead, and how nice it’d be to go back someday to that frozen peninsula and my two-room cabin, the window looking out over the sea and the great stone steeple—rebuilt, of course. I could fall asleep to the sounds of its carillon. Find a nice war-widow. Maybe have some kids. Teach them to be unreliable enough that the Despotate won’t bother pressing them to service.
I turn away and tighten my hood. Damn cold air’s making my eyes burn.
“Take your time, boys.” My eyes flick over to the trees. “But not, you know, too much time.”
I knock the ice off my gear and suppress a sigh. Two months ago, I’d been happily delivering crates of biscuits, far from the front lines. Then my boss’s boss’s boss called me in and said “I’m told you’ve never lost a crate, Daum,” with a weird sort of smile, and my blood had run cold. It had been a big promotion. Same money but, I’d been repeatedly assured, a real honor.
I’ll be sure to remember that when Miss Mage here gets loose and turns us all inside-out.
We’ve nearly reached the midpoint of our journey—three magehandlers, as tradition demands, and ninety chaperone soldiers (eighty-five now, thanks to the ambush in the lower plains). Twelve days since Antor, where we’d evacuated the mage. Where, like in so many other towns, crops smoldered and children wept over the wreckage of homes, already bitten by desperation, that first fang of the Despotate as it prepares to eat you alive.
The less said about that the better.
Unfortunately, that also means thirteen days still to the fields of Pa’alpa’non where the generals await reinforcement, dug in and desperate for the world-cracker that currently dangles from its rail like a trussed hog, bound and reeking of urine.
Snow grips up to our ankles as we march. No songs; no drums; no banners. Just slow, steady motion across the narrow plain, pine trees rising snow-shrouded on either side, everything frigid and quiet and dull until Downing stumbles and drops his end of the rail.
To my surprise, the mage doesn’t immediately explode. After a gut-clenching pause, I curse, teeth chattering. “Downing! Get—”
His shoulder droops. His body twists like a weathervane, revealing an arrow shaft buried in his eye.
I don’t even wait for him to hit the ground before I sound the alarm. Yalih’s company has to get into formation before—
Striders—low-bellied, long, and thick-furred—burst from the forest on both sides. Their riders, UE cavalry for sure, whoop, weapons raised.
For a moment, I see everything. Every white-wrapped face of the cavalry. Every ice-shining whisker on their steeds. The magerail lying in the snow, Downing’s body steaming beside it. Captain Yalih screaming; soldiers rushing to form a ring around the magerail, their pikes swinging outward, their shields rising.
All too slow.
The striders’ huge padded feet carry them like ghosts across the packed snow. In half a breath they tear claw-first into our ranks. Swords flash in the winter sunlight. The company convulses inwards.
I draw my sword, trying to ignore my pounding heart. It’s not used to this sort of thing. I make a few lackluster slashes, but everything’s so goddamn fast. UE masks blur by, clashing into spiked bunches of Yalih’s troops where they’ve somehow managed to regroup.
Biscuits were never this much trouble.
My sword is shaking. I crouch and try to watch Cob. He’s been on the front for months. If I can just do what he does, or at least hold the goddamn sword steady, but I’m—
I’m hit. Something invisible lifts me, throws me to the side. An acrid smell; a blur. Earth, sharp with ice, catches and cuts me.
I’m hurt. I know I’m hurt, but I don’t feel it. It wasn’t the UE that hit me. It was like a wind. An explosion.
Fuck me, it was the mage.
I scramble across the serrated ground, but I can see only what’s directly in front of me: flashes of fur; great, cutting blows; and blood turning the snow to mud. Moments of darkness, then, and horror, all too fast to consider.
Oh well. Being chopped to bits beats being boiled alive in a magical shit-storm.
My eyes open. I hadn’t realized they’d been closed. The striders are gone—dead or fled. Still, my breath comes too fast, in great clouds that condense against the brim of my helmet and drip down to blur my vision.
The voice has an edge, just this side of panic.
“Daum, there you are.” The voice is closer. Breath on my cheek. “Get up.”
I wipe at my eyes. The drawn face of Captain Yalih—chapped and reddened by the wind, moustaches stiff-bristled with frozen snot—fills my world. I already miss the blur.
“Oh, Yalih,” I say. Casual. Business as usual. “So they didn’t kill everyone. That’s good.” I try to sit up, but all the pain comes on me in a rush and forces me back to the ground.
Yalih, as stone-faced as ever, takes a deep breath. “They didn’t have to kill everyone. They accomplished their mission.” A quick jab of their sword says everything else there is to say.
The magerail is empty.
Cog lies a few feet away, split in three, steam curling from the pieces.
I shake to the ground, my knees squelching into the melted battlefield. For some reason—as if it won’t be real until I touch it—I reach for one of the unraveled bindings. Sparks leap from it and bite at me.
I look up to Captain Yalih standing over me, their uniform slashed through and covered in blood.
We exchange a look, which translates roughly to: fuck...
Somehow it makes me feel better.
While the remainder of the company watches, standing silent among the dead, I struggle to my feet, muscles trembling with fatigue. The treeline smolders, marred by a v-shaped wound. A path burned into the forest.
I’ve seen what Command does to magehandlers who lose their charge. It’s... slow. Brutal. Intended to serve as an example. It accomplishes its goal marvelously. There’s no real choice here.
Is there ever?
I take a deep, ragged breath and nod. “Let’s get to it.”
The troops go white.
Yalih shakes their head. “We handled the fighting,” they say. “The mage is yours, remember?”
“But without your soldiers...” Gruesome deaths hang in the air, unspoken.
Yalih claps their hand against my shoulder. “Sorry, Daum. They wouldn’t make a difference anyway.”
A sour feeling settles hard at the bottom of my stomach.
As magehandler, I technically outrank them during transit—even Yalih. A slow flurry of commands and threats drift through my mind, each more pointless than the last. What’s a command here on the frontier, ankle-deep in corpses? Danger’s one thing. Soldiers expect that. Some even enjoy it. But certain death? No one walks into that just because some asshole with rank tells them to. Besides, what use would they be, soft flesh and brittle steel, with a world-cracker on the loose?
Still. Who wants to die alone?
“Anyone?” I try a smile, but I suspect it comes off a bit ghastly, all things considered.
Every soldier stares at the ground or the wreckage of the mage’s path. Not even Yalih meets my eyes.
But I don’t turn away. Surely one of these bastards will take pity.
The silence stretches well beyond embarrassment.
So. It’s like that, then.
I turn away.
Every joint protests as I scuffle, one slow dragging step at a time, across the ice-lined mud toward the path. The scrape and crunch of my boots sound a stilted rhythm out across the field. The noise is thin. Lonely.
Halfway there, I look back, like a dog being driven from the farm. The soldiers stand rooted to the spot, weapons dangling at their sides. Just watching. And for some reason, I feel bad for them. It must be hard to watch a man—even a very stupid biscuit-hauler—walk into the kind of death that parents use as a cautionary tale.
Gods, the stories they’ll tell about me.
I’m glad I don’t have any family waiting for me. They’d be so ashamed.
The path is twenty feet wide, cinder-black flecked with glass, and flat. Not even stumps left of the old growth—a scarred corridor between walls of blackened pines, as far ahead as I can see.
So this is wild magic.
Shapes flit in the distance above the ruin. Not birds—there are no songs. Only the crackle of smoldering trees, punctuated by sheaves of bark sloughing to the ground like robes.
A piece of ice slips into my boot. I try to ignore it in favor of more important things, but it begins to melt, numbing pathways to my toes. I kneel to remove it, and as I do, the shadows ahead break away, fall, and coalesce into shapes like creatures; massive-winged, ascendant from the ruin.
For all I know, these shadows are the mage. I tell myself this because it’s easier to imagine it like this. Monstrous. Deserving of its treatment.
It’s not as though anyone gets a good look at the thing beneath all the restraints and wards. When it’s deployed against an enemy, the magerail is raised by chains, twenty, thirty feet above the battlefield, and everyone’s too busy cowering to pay much attention to detail. And when a mage is unbound in battle...
The cold worms into me. My hand is shaking, and I can’t fucking stop it.
With a jolt I realize I’m still on my knees, staring at the swirl of smoke and snow where the shapes dissipated.
Standing again is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I do it, and I walk, because there’s nothing else to be done.
The crater appears first as a dark, hazy line. Soon it’s almost all I can see. A charred hole filled with smoke, encircled by flattened skeletal trees. Beyond that final punctuation of the mage’s escape, there is no more fire, no more trail; only the deep shadows of evergreen growth.
End of the road.
If anyone else was around I’d make a bad joke about that. But it’s just me. Alone.
Something shifts at the bottom of the crater. I can’t see it, but the smoke is distorted by movement, like water rippling.
It’s down there.
And I’m planless.
I kick a small pebble down the slope and pace, hoping more than a little that the mage just zaps me with a lightning bolt or something, so I don’t have to climb down.
I stand. I fidget. I wait, frustratingly alive. No catching a break today, apparently.
Still very much without a plan, I cup my hands around my mouth. “Hello?” Silence. “Miss Mage?”
Even the forest is too embarrassed to respond.
“You, uh...” Shit. I really need a plan. “You all right down there?”
The dumbest fucking last words anyone will ever speak, I’m quite sure. Mercifully, there’s no response.
Screw it. Planning is for the people in charge. For folks like me, all you can do is deal with the thing in front of you.
“Hail the Despotate,” I mutter. I drop to my hands and knees and start down.
Clay smears to black beneath my boots as I descend. Every other step, I slide, hands clawing at the mud. The crater is deeper than I thought. Looking up, there’s only a patch of graying sky, empty of clouds, empty of birds.
Smoke thickens. It smells like a grave, or like the time Cog fell asleep at the spit and the goat he was roasting caught fire. I smile at the memory, despite Cog being in a few separate pieces now and me having more than a few reasons not to.
The smoke in the crater’s almost solid now. It hovers so close to the slope I’m forced to hug against the ground, my chin scraping a furrow in the mud as I slide, lower and lower. Still, smoke creeps in. My lungs burn.
Mage detail is the fucking worst. Give me biscuits any day.
I droop, hacking gobs of phlegm and rust-colored foam until I’m sure I’m going to cough myself to death, when I hear it.
A whisper resounds from all directions, more breath than word. The smoke lifts.
War has brought me terror. As a kid, I listened to distant drums grow less distant until towns burned and families fled and every pathway closed, one by one, until survival meant service to the Despotate. In service, I’ve seen friends—every friend, come to think of it—die. Impaled. Beheaded. Trampled. Terrible, nightmarish things.
The mage—what’s left of it—lies at the bottom of the crater, a snarl of bones and sinew wrapped in muscle, blistering, peeling like birchbark. It’s totally still.
But I don’t move. It’s still a mage, after all.
When its teeth rattle, I’m not even surprised. Just resigned.
Eyeless eyes turn to me. A tongue of flame licks from its jaws and rips the breath from me.
Which... fine. There are worse ways to go.
“Submit.” The mage’s voice grinds through me. Light flickers somewhere deep within its eye sockets.
I shake, thinking of twenty, thirty years of life vaporizing—but even in this flash-before-my-eyes fancy, all I imagine for those years is decades of more marching, fighting, hauling biscuits and mages. Maybe not such a great loss, to the world or me. I stop shaking.
“Submit.” The voice is thinner this time. More like a plea.
And I’m not dead.
“Get in the bag.” I sound like my father, from what little I can remember.
“No.” The mage glares, as much as it can.
Biscuits were never stubborn. Lovely things, biscuits. “Get. In. The fucking. Bag.”
“No!” The mage flops to the side to make a break for it. Its forearms, cracked and blackened, paddle ineffectively at the mud.
“Look.” I crouch, trying to loom a bit less. “I’ve got to take you back.” Keep doing the one thing that’s kept me alive: get the job done. Besides, I’d be the first to capture a rogue mage. Might even be a bit of a hero.
The mage stops its thrashing and fixes me with its void-stare. “No, Daum,” it says. “You’ll always be a slave to them.”
Fuck. It’s in my head. Focus. No stray thoughts.
Doesn’t matter. Everyone’s a slave.
Way to keep the cards close.
“No.” The mage crawls towards me, bits of burned flesh flaking off behind it. “Only some of us. And only when the masters can force us to serve.”
Years beneath the heel of the Despotate kick out a response—a derisive ts between a laugh and a hiss. But something deeper than habit stirs and swells.
I feel very, very alone. The mage knows it.
“No one is here,” it agrees, but the words aren’t a threat. “No masters. Only you, Daum. And me.” The mage’s face remains a lipless grin.
“But they’re everywhere. You—”
Tew, it tells me in my head. My name is Tew.
And just like that, the weapon is a person.
I can feel her in my mind, pressing. Deeper than before. Images flash. The crater empty. Me, broken and melted. Tew rising in fury above the trees, walking on flame. This is what they believe.
This was a suicide mission.
Everyone thinks I’m dead.
For the first time since childhood I see paths leading me away from the Despotate. Away from unending service.
The enormity of it almost knocks me down.
Tew sees me waver.
Then something in her, some fragment, buzzes like an insect swarm and I remember to be afraid. Of Tew, yes, but also that rushing, drowning fear of the Despotate. Of the world.
“I have nowhere to go.” Alone and vulnerable.
Tew tilts what’s left of her head; the world falls unnaturally silent, as if the air itself has lifted from us like the smoke. “Perhaps we help each other,” she says.
I actually laugh at her, and even I can hear the manic edge to it. I clear my throat. “You can’t even walk.”
“You can walk. And we both know you can carry.”
I remember the creak of the ropes, the smell of the piss. Shame runs hot through me.
“Take me with you. You’ll be more powerful than you’ve ever imagined.”
So the Despotate can chain me up too? “I don’t want power.”
“What do you want?”
What had I dreamed of all those years ago? Before the Despotate melted our bells for cannons. “I...” I can still remember the evening-song, its soft chords calling us to the communal supper. How many other songs have been silenced? How many people right now are watching their lives shrink until there is only the Despotate?
What do I want? I might have an answer, but I can’t bring myself to say it.
“They take us,” she says. “Did you know? They drug us. Some strange medicine, and we... connect. Become a deeper part of the world. There’s so much power. And you’ve seen how the Despotate chooses to use that power.”
I nod. We’re both what the Despotate made us. To think what we could have been...
Tew has crawled all the way to me and lays one fleshless hand against my boot. “We can choose differently. Choose better.”
My heart pounds. “Can you build?”
Tew is in my mind again, but it’s less alarming now that I know what to expect. Images of stones knitting themselves back into houses, bright green sprouts bursting from burned fields. Antor, I realize. It’s Antor, as it could be.
“As it could all be,” says Tew. “As it was.”
It’s dizzying. “As we could choose to make it.”
Paths fork before me—servitude or agency, stability or uncertainty. The world feels enormous. Maybe endless.
It’s barely a choice, barely movement, the way I nudge the bag open with my foot.
Tew is surprisingly light.
Together, we climb from the crater. The forest awaits. My life awaits. Our lives await.
I’ve just got to get us to where we can start.