MERcURY IS HoT
In a distant land, in a distant time...
The city haunts my dreams.
It is nothing like a citadel of the five hundred cities of the north. Not a fortress of stone in sight, yet replete with towers that shimmer as the surface of the sea.
Never have I laid eyes upon it. Yet, I awake from the vision sweating, my cloak wrapped around me, sure as the islands soar that I have been there. Such a place of majesty, and yet soaked in misery.
I must have fresh air.
I cling to the rigging on the exposed deck of my cloudship Northwind and let the gale tear at my cloak. The air carries water on its currents—salt spray, the lifeblood of the sea. Granted, the sea is hundreds of feet below, a carpet of undulating waves tipped with whitecaps, yet even at this altitude I can imagine myself seaborne.
It is the second smell to reach me that raises alarm. Smoke. The acrid stench comes and goes, a faint odor.
“Must have been a devil of a blaze.” Niall Phelan is at Northwind’s wheels, guiding the cloudship nearer to the surface. Long red hair whips behind him. Green eyes search the horizon. Lips curl in a sneer, revealing teeth that appear unnaturally sharp, yet which I know can become even sharper should the need arise. “What a stink! It’s a whole village consumed, I’d wager.”
“Then we’d best make haste. The message indicated they faced annihilation, and I will not be one to let an entire people die.”
“Judging by the smell we may be too late.” Niall wrinkles his nose. “There’s no doubt we will find dead when we arrive.”
But he cranks the rise-wheel in any case. Northwind plummets, a controlled dive that her reinforced timbers absorb with the barest of groans. I pray the aethershard ensconced deep in the hull does not fracture, as such magic-imbued stones are wont to do when subject to extreme stress. The metal clamps connected to the rise wheel do their job, though, and our descent is that of a dragon on the hunt.
Northwind parts a bank of clouds. I’m shrouded in mist one moment, then out in the sun the next. The sky seeps orange, with purples and pinks shooting through as dusk approaches. The Balaericore Islands sprawl as far as the eye can see, and beyond, great swathes of green and brown snaking across the Atlan Sea. Would that I had the time to explore their sandy shores, I would take Vesna and Evan to the most beautiful, where she could repose with me in the shade of a palm as our son chases gulls through the sand.
There are few villages to be seen. Farmlands cut through forest, their long rectangles wrapping around hills and encircling lagoons.
A black tendril smudges the sky. “Niall! You see it?”
“That I do, Captain.” Niall twists the alter-wheel. Northwind banks to starboard, a dagger thrown at its target. “I reckon this is Josarcha. What remains of it.”
His assessment is, sadly, accurate. Josarcha village perches on the edge of a hillside, surrounded by palm trees. Thatched roofs peer from beneath a thick canopy of emerald fronds—where they have not been charred beyond recognition. A vast swath of destruction has burned through the homes, leaving few walls intact and fewer people alive. I count three dozen black stains that were once the villagers. Here and there handfuls cluster either for comfort or care.
Cursed creature got to them before we could.
Niall lands Northwind in the lagoon a quarter mile away. I let the gangplank slap onto the sandstone outcropping that juts into the water. Fiddler crabs scuttle down barnacled edges and out of the way of our boots.
“Be wary.” I load my wheellock pistol and insert it behind my belt. The falchion sword in its leather sheath slaps against my leg as we walk. “We know not where the beast has taken shelter.”
Niall snorts. He lays a musket over his shoulder. “One would think a walking bonfire would be easy to see, whether or not it remains in the depths of the forest.”
“Still, I’d rather not happen upon it unprepared.”
“Your tone suggests I’m the one who needs preparation.”
“No, my tone merely insinuates you are the one who is more likely than not to blithely ignore his surroundings until it is too late and then launch a reckless attack.”
“To be fair, we’ve both been our own fair share of reckless,” Niall says.
We trudge up the path to the village, but the moans of the stricken reach us well before we lay eyes upon the ruins at ground level. Fires burn in several homes, having lit trees ablaze.
“It’s him!” An elderly woman approaches. Her caftan is scorched, yet her spirit seems undiminished. The glistening burn on her cheek does not prevent her from smiling. “Captain Bowen Cord.”
“The one and only,” Niall mutters.
I wish I could physically skewer him with the glare I render. “At your service. We received word of an infernal creature threatening your island. I regret we were not able to arrive in time to prevent this tragedy.”
“A tragedy of our own making.” She points to a clump of soot. My stomach churns. It was once three people, judging by the hazy outline of limbs among the charred remains. “Those fools thought they could tame the beast, make it to do our bidding against corsairs who raid us. They should have known better than to cross paths with a monster that lives in opposition to the will of the Most High.”
“Whence has it fled?” Niall traverses the lanes between the homes. He grasps the musket, ready to shoot. He sniffs the air. “There’s too much confounded ash. Clouds the scent.”
“Ash is its scent,” the woman says. “I could but run from it when it attacked us—clambering among the houses like a spider, spreading fire and death in its wake.”
A shout grabs our attention. Three young men with buckets cringe in the face of a wall afire, a blaze that has sprung up in the heartbeats since we arrived at the village. Tongues of flame leap onto another stand of trees. The pitiful contents of their pails do little more than turn to steam as they land.
Enough of this.
I stretch forth my hand, fingers spread. Magic suffuses my flesh, yearning to be unleashed, an intense cold pricking my skin as if I have thrust my palm into a pile of nails. One word will release it.
Ice springs forth. The spray, too, becomes steam upon its initial contact with the fire, but I reach deep within myself and open the floodgates to magic itself. More. Much more. Anything less than a deluge dooms the survivors and their entire island.
The storm spreads across the trees, dousing flames, crystallizing leaves, leaving a sheen on the trunks. Steam fills the air, as does the aroma of wet, burnt wood. I pivot, slowly, boot heels digging into the packed dirt. Widen the spray. Catch every flicker of golden light I see in the dark woods.
Most High, grant the strength to preserve these lives.
I do not know how long I spend extinguishing the fires, only that when Niall’s hand drops on my shoulder and he says, “It’s done,” my knees buckle. The village spins.
And the city takes its place.
I walk streets of stone and ride in carriages of steel. The man at my side is not Niall; I cannot see his face, but I have the impression of joviality and sorrow. Conflict drives him.
My hands are weathered beyond my years. Thoughts escape me, even simple ones... like my name. Yet those hands can still wield a sword, and they do, as the two of us battle unspeakable nightmares.
The dead walk and I slay them...
Niall catches me under an armpit. “Steady, Bowen. I’ll not have you fall faint and leave myself without a partner for the hunt. That would be unsporting.”
“Kind of you to not deprive me of further adventure.” My voice shakes. So. I am still in the village, even if the vision carried me far afield. Tremors wrack my hands as the blue light suffusing them fades. Hold fast. Breathe. My legs regain their stability. I stand straighter.
“Bless you, Captain.” The old woman takes my hands. She winces, shakes her fingers free, then attempts the connection again. Surely, she should have known better to touch the hands of a man who’s just shown himself to be an ice-summoner. “Your act of kindness will not be forgotten.”
“It is the least we could do, though it will not stop us from stalking the beast and ending its depredations.” I elbow Niall. “Ready?”
“I would be more ready had I been offered roast pork but given the poor shape of the village I won’t press the point.”
I give thanks that he keeps his sardonic tone to the barest murmur. To the old woman, I say, “Show us where it went.”
A bony finger, gnarled by age as an old tree’s branch, points deep into the woods. “Beware the lights, Captain Cord.”
I nod yet nestled deep inside the anger I feel toward this mysterious creature is the dark thought: The only light to be feared is the frozen form I will use to kill it.
Hours pass. Night falls upon the isles, bringing a warm breeze that makes the forest sigh with each gust. Leaves rustle overhead. Branches creak. The darkness is full of sounds, some of which I can identify and dismiss as harmless, others which fuel my anxieties. At any moment, the beast may emerge from a shadow, ready to burn away our flesh and crisp our bones.
So be it. My heart yearns for revenge, without even knowing a thing about the villagers. It is enough they were innocents.
Yet, there is a caution that restrains my bloodlust. Hate will take me on the wrong path. I have seen too many souls lost in the same manner.
Instead, I watch and wait and pray for guidance.
Niall ducks a low-hanging branch. He pushes aside dangling vines as gently as if he were parting a lace curtain. He is in his element—the silent pursuit. His form crouches, a vulpine silhouette that gives hint to his hidden self.
His fist rises. Halt.
I kneel, six steps behind.
Niall touches the dirt. He rubs it between his fingers, inhales the scent. Without looking back at me, he gestures right with his musket, then lopes into the underbrush.
Very well. Captain or not, I heed his orders in this environment.
Niall’s steps fade beneath the forest sounds. Now, I am alone, as surely had I piloted Northwind into the sky myself. My grip tightens on the wheellock. I dare not draw the falchion, not yet, not until I know what manner of beast we face.
Yet, from all I have heard, I suspect we are dealing with an arachnafury.
Reddish light explodes. I squint, shielding my eyes from the sudden dawn, and aim for the source. A shriek pieces the night, chasing away all other sounds with its vehemence. An arachnafury’s cry, I am sure of it, but there is something strained, something immeasurably terrible.
A sharp snarl answers the cry, followed by a musket’s ear-shattering report.
I sprint through the forest, crashing through vines. Thorns pull at my cloak. “Niall! Niall, do you have it?”
“Of all the goblin-brained things to ask! Of course I have it! Lend me aid before it has me!”
I burst into a clearing, one as broad as Northwind’s deck, and recently made larger by the felling of a dozen trees. Niall brandishes his katana, the slender blade glittering in the firelight. His musket is slung on a strap over his shoulder.
But all that I notice only on my periphery. The beast ahead of us holds my full attention.
It may have begun its wretched life as an arachnafury, but some dark purpose has warped its form. There is a bulbous body, inflated from the natural shape of a giant spider, yet the hide has become slathered with ichor. Flame still issues forth, yet it consumes the eight legs, which have gone limp and writhing like the appendages of a kraken. Those tentacles slash at Niall, who rolls to one side and hacks at the nearest limb with his katana.
The keening wail threatens to shatter my eardrums. I take advantage of the wound to fire.
Smoke obscures my vision. The shot pierces the hide, the gash issuing forth a stream of thick, blue... sludge. Not only is the shot effective in striking my enemy, it brings his gaze toward me and away from Niall.
Bile rises at the sight of the mutated face. It is as if a mad painter has smeared a portrait of an arachnafury, blotting eight beady eyes into three orbs glowing red, and stretched mandibles into a yawning maw filled with more fangs than grains of sand on the shore. The beast looms over me, thrashing the air, flinging sparks and embers into the forest canopy.
I thrust my pistol into my belt and throw ice between us.
A wall extends from the ground, building upon itself until a crackling barrier taller than a cloudship’s mast hems in our adversary inside a horseshoe shape.
“Freeze him!” Niall’s voice is a low, guttural growl, a misshapen version of his mellow tones. His body twists in grotesque fashion, muscles growing, limbs lengthening. Face and mouth stretch into that of a fox’s, replete with red and white fur. “Freeze the fiend!”
“That is my goal!” I lift my arms, raising the sleet spray until it arches over in a frozen dome.
The monster breaks through as easily as if he were tearing paper, yet he gets stuck halfway through.
“Shark’s blood!” Niall lunges for the nearest appendage, ready to sever it without care for his well-being.
“Stand fast!” I snap. “I can seal him in!”
My body thrums with magic. There’s not an ounce of flesh that doesn’t resonate. I cannot tap into its source forever, though, and a distant part of my mind wonders if an ice-summoner has ever frozen solid.
Even as I contend against the beast, holding it back as best I can as scalding heat assails me, sounds slacken. Its thrashing slows, as does Niall’s swordplay. The sleet stabbing from my hands becomes lackadaisical.
And the city fills my thoughts yet again.
The visions are sharper, clearer. I could be walking the foreign streets...
As I have before?
No. Not possible. I have never in my life seen a place as strange. And yet, I cannot escape the feeling of familiarity.
Stars wink out. The nighttime sky swirls, a whirlpool of light and smoke. And from the pitch black at the center...
Upside down trees.
Sparks shoot from their crowns, up into the sky—or down toward us.
The ice wall shatters. The whirlpool drags the trees from their roots, both above and around me, and pulls shards apart.
Niall tumbles end over end, flung from the ground toward—another clearing. Another forest.
Two places become one, and in that instant, I see the monster stretched between realms.
I am flung between here and there. No matter for what I reach, I cannot latch on. I flail, useless.
The mad scramble ends when I smack into Niall, who must have reverted to his human form, for the vulpex is sans fur. But no. Not Niall. This man is too lithe, too short. His outcry is not the outrage I’d associate with my friend.
“Unhand me!” I push free.
Niall is suddenly there, standing guard. He brandishes the musket at this interloper. Never mind how he came to be in our midst on Josarcha.
Hold. The trees are stunted pines, blackened by fire. They’re nothing like the swaying palms. And the ground is too dry. And the sky—
The stars are wrong. Some too bright, others too dim, none in the proper place.
Niall helps me up. He is still the vulpex, his claws extended. “Shall I shoot the whelp? Or save ammunition for the monster, wherever it has fled?”
“Let’s let him live for the time being. I for one—” Words fail me as the young man’s face resolves in the evening light. I have never seen him before, yet I know him, somehow, as surely as I know Niall.
“You keep staring, I’m gonna have to have the cops get a restraining order.” His tone drips sarcasm.
That voice rings in my mind. Suddenly, the name is there. This is the man from the city—from the vision. The one whom I helped slay the undead. “Mercury?” I say.
His eyes widen. “Oh great,” he mutters. “Another one.”