Part III - All That's Left is Blood :: 61
This would not wait for a courier.
Cain Shepherd, Alchemist Guild Master, jostled back and forth on the deck of an experimental travel cart that the guild had just recently put together. Instead of steam, it operated off of lightning cannisters. Though the devices were technically weapons grade, with their energy funneled the right way, a set gear could be forced to turn through a conductive wire harness. This method was far more efficient and provided much more power than the traditional steam locomotion and didn’t require a boiler to be attached to the cart, drastically lowering minimum required size. The cart he was sat upon had one passenger seat to the right of a driver’s seat. The cart steered with two rods connected to either side of a wooden wheel. The wheel turned, the rods tilted, the axel joints pulled the thin wooden wheels in a direction. Crude but effective.
The cart’s driver was his trusted aide Barthmore, a feline Animas that had lost his tongue and left arm in the siege of Millewhist. There was no stronger alchemist from a technical stand point. The cart had been Bart’s invention. Today was only its third voyage.
Barthmore weaved the cart with a deft care through pedestrian and horse cart traffic, moving swiftly through the busy streets of Cobble. The rain from the morning had let up enough for them to travel without the cart’s canvas cover, an awkward, absurd addition that Barthmore had insisted upon. Cain had seen little need for such contrived convenience. The encroaching sunlight caught ripples in the puddles between the eponymous cobblestones in the street and sent up prisms of sparkling reflection.
Early afternoon shadows stretched across the streets, clinging to the citizen’s feet, turning them into shadow-world giants. In the far distance set walls of dark grey, the contrast between the dark and the light growing stronger as the sun regained its confidence. Cain had a fleeting pang of yearning for his old life, the one he had left years ago, on the farm in Millewhist. The work had been hard but rewarding and there was nothing more beautiful to him than the world waking from a midday rain. He lost himself in the sheen the bright light covered everything with, the brightness of it in stark opposition of his task at hand. He had bad news, damning in some respects. The guilt of it tore at his chest and he waved it away by closing his eyes and imagining the endless fields of wheat and barley in which he spent most of his childhood.
A tap on his shoulder brought him back to the present. He opened his eyes and saw that they had just entered the Sash district and were stopped. Cain looked to his aide.
Barthmore pointed to a large crowd in the middle of the street. The gathering was huddled around a few individuals dressed in grey coveralls, all on the ground in fetal positions, hands over their heads as the mob around them punched, kicked, and swung various objects at their bodies.
Cain stood and held out his hand. A ball of bright blue flames burst from his palm and floated lazily in position above the mob. The beatings stopped as the crowd looked overhead and saw their predicament. Cain tapped his throat with his other hand and shouted, voice amplified “Disperse, leave them be.”
At first, only a few minded. Cain lowered his hand a few inches and the large ball of flame grew closer to the standing mob. They got the message and made away with haste.
After the mob had cleared, Cain dropped from the deck of the cart and jogged over to the Machine workers that still lay on the ground. They were all staring wide-eyed at the chunk of magic flame floating above them. Cain looked up and the ball vanished.
“There,” he said, squatting between them. “No more flaming sun.”
“Magic...is...illegal,” one of the workers managed to gasp out.
“Uh huh,” Cain muttered, a large smile pulling at his lips. He held out both hands over her and closed his eyes. Blue light erupted from his fingertips. The worker gasped as large cracks sounded throughout her body. Her bones mended. The cuts and splits in her visible flesh closed on their own. The shattered cartilage at the bridge of her nose snapped back in place.
Cain repeated the heal across the two remaining victims. Once they were all on their feet, he asked the woman where the Sigil were.
“The Sigil have not shown their faces in Sash for a while,” was her answer.
“Why?” asked Cain.
The woman shrugged. “The beatings are happening every day. We new workers have to run from the Machine to our homes and back again. None of us are safe.”
“Union?” Cain probed.
He sighed and motioned for the three of them to move. He could see a growing crowd just at the edge of the next street. “Be safe,” he warned them as he climbed back atop the cart.
As the cart shook along its way, Cain regretted not having remained with them, at least until they were in their homes. They were just as likely to have been killed the moment he and Barthmore were gone. He couldn’t save them all. He had spent a good part of his young adult life trying to do just that and all he wound up doing was more harm than good. Those days were behind him, at least he had hoped. Not until he had found...
Another tap on his shoulder. They had arrived at the Sigil post in Little Mille. The district was quiet, much more silent than he had ever experienced it. No people were on the streets. No vendors were shouting their wares. The entire main street was more or less free of any worthwhile activity. Had the situation devolved that quickly?
Cain dropped down from the side of the cart and pulled a satchel from its side storage compartment. He opened it, checked that its contents were in order, and then nodded. He looked up to Barthmore.
“This may be a while. Please wait here.”
The silent aide nodded his understanding of the order.
Cain turned and made his way to the post’s door. He knocked, waited, and then knocked again. He turned his head and leaned towards the door, hoping to hear something. Nothing.
He threw the satchel over his shoulder and tried the door knob. It turned but the door seemed to be stuck. Once, twice, three times he pushed against it until finally, the door cracked open just far enough for him to squeeze through.
The place smelled of blood and slugsmoke. He looked at the back of the door and saw a desk askew against the wall just to the side, its corner steadfast against the door’s inward face. To both the left and right of the left of the desk were bodies. The one on the left had a knife sticking from its chest. The corpse wore the uniform of the Sigil Protector, but it wasn't Greer. Cain sighed.
He turned his attention to the other body. This one had met a much grislier end. It was half leaned against the corner of the blood-covered desk. The left side of the man’s face had been ruined by repeated blows to a hard surface. Blood and ripped flesh stuck out at odd angles with the occasional jutting, shattered bone.
Death made flesh did not scare Cain. His early life had been full of death, some of it aided by his own machinations. But this scene looked particularly bad, as if there had been one mighty struggle between just two individuals. He was obviously staring at the corpse of the loser.
Who was this person? He didn’t know. His eyes moved to a cot that lay on the floor, then followed that to the opened cell door in the back of the post, and found a final resting place upon the wide open back entryway. Cain’s hands grew fire red as he approached it. He stuck his head out and looked left, then right, but saw nothing and no one down either side of the back alley. Whomever the victor of the fight had been, they were gone.
“Hands up, kill the magic.”
Cain heard the click of a rotating slugthrower cylinder and did as he was ordered.
“Protector,” he said as he turned around.
“What happened here,” asked Greer.
“I was about to ask you the same,” replied Cain.