She hobbles through the Old Bridge Market, her stick slipping on the cracking timbers. Despite the lashing rain and spray from the torrent below, most of the tents have their flaps tied back, revealing jars with tiny figures, servants shambling unnaturally and crates that rattle on their shelves. Near the shattered middle of the once vital causeway, Erynd stops at one that’s closed, a white eye painted across its flaps. She studies it with her own white eye, pushes a flap aside with her stick and enters.
A hanging lantern illuminates a small front room. Its glow barely exceeds the flicker in the crystal that powers it or those in the crystals displayed on the table below. Bulbous and misshapen, these crystals wouldn’t fit a standard socket, and no one would consider them art. Erynd wonders whose souls they contain--and whose the taker claims they contain. That’s why she's insisted that hers be fresh.
Ponge ducks through a flap in the tent divider, naked except for frayed breeches and completely shorn. His tattoos indicate he’d once been a senior pneumatic and member of the Imperial Society of Mancers. His boniness suggests he hasn’t fared well since. Erynd’s commission is probably his biggest in years, perhaps since her last.
“Is he here?” she says.
Ponge nods again. His lips are so tightly compressed, he seems to lack a mouth.
Erynd shudders. Outside, the rain beats harder, seeping under the canvas walls. She yanks up the greasy collar of her soiled shearling coat and draws it around her throat. She tugs her sleeves down. Inside the right one, the edge of her knife scrapes her wrist, waiting to drop into her palm. She reaches for the divider's flap with her stick.
Ponge blocks her. He arches the white ridge where others have an eyebrow. Erynd pats her coat hard enough to jingle the money pouch hanging at her waist. He's paid half on assignment, half on delivery of a live crystal, and this time he's due a finder's fee too. There’s never been a payout for trust. Ponge steps aside.
Sedgwick Vim is propped in a chair at a small round table lit by a red candle. His long gray ponytail lolls on his shoulder. His head lolls on his ponytail. He faces her, eyes unmoving. Drool sputters over his lips. The scratch on his neck shows he’s been paralyzed.
Nevertheless, his wrists are shackled behind him, and his ankle shackles run through an iron ring bolted to the bridge deck.
Erynd readies her knife and tests the shackles. Heavy and strong.
She kicks the ring. Solidly anchored.
“Bring him to,” she says and hobbles back around the table.
Ponge rubs the scratch on Vim’s neck with his left pinky. Beneath its sharpened nail a gob of clear unguent glistens. A moment later, Vim shivers and lifts his head. His eyes focus on Erynd.
“You’re already old, Sergeant,” he says.
“I wasn’t young long.”
Erynd signals to Ponge. The ghost taker unbuckles a leather tool roll and opens it across the table. Its pockets display a crescent blade for pricking the forehead, bronze tongs for holding the waiting crystal, and a small black bellows for coaxing free the soul.
“Do you have them?” Vim says. “Show me. Show me before--”
Erynd twists her mouth. Would Vim hate it more to see them or to not? The former. If she doesn’t show him, he’ll just think she’s a liar. Erynd unclasps her coat collar. Around her neck she wears a leather thong with two live crystals in simple brass mounts. Their flickers glisten on her rope-scarred throat and the empty third mount.
Vim leans forward. His shackles clank. His voice catches. “Which?”
“This,” Erynd says, holding up a clear crystal with a red flicker, “this is your oldest, Speedwell. I tied him to a post, and before I summoned Ponge I took away a little piece of him every day to remind him of what you Vims did to my squad. And to my own soul.”
Vim stares at the crystal, then at the other: yellow with a green flicker.
“Cumber,” Erynd says. “He didn’t scream as much as his little brother. You'd have been proud.” She strokes the crystals with a crooked thumb. “It’s strange, but I’ve grown attached to them while searching for you.”
“Give,” Vim says.
Erynd shakes her head. She tucks the crystals away and does up her collar tight.
Ponge, meanwhile, plucks a fresh yellow crystal from a pocket in the roll.
“No,” Erynd says, “use this one.”
She twitches her elbow. The knife drops into her hand. Vim shifts back in his seat.
Erynd snorts. As if she’d give him that mercy. She unscrews the pommel and shakes a dark blue crystal out of the hollow hilt onto the roll.
“I bought that for you,” she says, “the day I could finally walk without braces. Let’s begin.”
Vim tips his chair over sideways. Erynd’s instincts take charge, and for the first time in years she moves without pain, moves without first planning to move, glides to Vim and slams her knife through his right calf, pinning it to a bridge timber.
“No more running,” she says.
Distracted, she doesn’t notice Ponge reaching down and sticking his right pinky inside her collar to scratch her neck. Beneath its sharpened nail, a different, darker unguent glistens. Erynd stands halfway before falling, paralyzed, on Vim. He laughs, despite his agony.
“I’m tired of running anyway,” he says, “just as Ponge is tired of poverty, and I paid him far more than you did for my commission.” He heaves Erynd off and rattles his shackles. “Unlock me, taker. Then put her in that blue. She'll look good set in a ring.”
Erynd can’t smile, but she can see Ponge squat beside Vim, hold the shackles against his abdomen and, despite the enemy general’s struggling, scratch his cheek with his right fingernail. Vim goes numb and flattens.
Ponge turns to the table and trades the dark blue and red crystals for two misshapen ones. He starts arranging his tools. He puckers his lips and squeezes the bellows. It whistles. He smiles with pointed teeth and makes it whistle again.
Erynd revels in her relief from agony for the few moments before her body comes to. Then she quietly wrenches her knife out of Vim, lunges at Ponge and pounds the blade twice into his groin, cutting his femoral arteries. He staggers, slips on the blood gushing over his filthy bare feet, and collapses against the tent wall.
Ponge’s head nods and doesn’t rise.
Erynd wipes her knife on Vim’s doeskin pants, plants her stick, and pushes herself up. She rubs the scratch on her neck through her collar. Earlier she had soaked the wool lining with the same clear unguent that had brought Vim to.
Vim stares up at her, his mouth an O.
She’d howl too if she had the breath. That little exercise was exhausting. She’s losing her legs. And now she’s losing Vim. She watched Ponge extract his sons’ souls, but she can’t perform the procedure herself. Erynd squeezes the bellows. It won’t whistle for her. She clicks the tongs and throws them at Ponge. Then she throws the bellows. Erynd pockets the crescent blade. It could have other uses.
Vim’s blood trickles between the timbers. She could cut his throat, but where’s the victory in simple slaughter? She could leave him here. He should bleed out before the poison wears off. That might seem similar, Erynd thinks, to being in a crystal, his bodiless, helpless waiting like hers at the prison camp he’d run. And Vim would also be conscious, as she had been, not insensible as he would be in a crystal. It wouldn’t be for long enough, though. An unspent soul could last for decades, and he might be dead in an hour.
Erynd picks up the chair and slumps into it. She waits. She plays with her dangling crystals. She flicks the empty mount. Vim’s bleeding slows. She turns his leg with her stick and jabs the wound. It seeps, but it’s no use. He’s going to survive.
Erynd remembers realizing, a mile from the camp, that she'd survive too. Crawling had scraped apart her knees and palms. The barking of Cumber's guard dogs had faded. And Erynd had found a stream. Lapping at it from the rocky bank, she'd first conceived of her revenge, and it had tasted as refreshing as the cool, dark water, as bleakly beautiful as the cool, dark night. Had she imagined that then that Vim would escape his fate, she'd have put the dogs back on the scent.
Then Erynd hears the most exhilarating sound punching through the storm: a baby shrieking. She can’t tell what tent the baby’s in. Whether it’s a girl or a boy. Whether it’s just been born or about to die. The shrieking reminds her, though, that the market is full of wonders, her pouch is full of gold, and, thanks to Vim, she has some time. Erynd almost laughs. So this is what hope feels like. For in a market such as this one, she could surely find another ghost taker.
©July, 2016 Stephen S. Power
Stephen S. Power's first novel, The Dragon Round, was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this moneth. His work has appeared at AE, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming in Amazing Stories, Deep Magic and Lightspeed. He tweets at @stephenspower, and his website is stephenspower.com.