Bey Lestorn stared at the faces of his neighbors and acquaintances as he prepared to die. The noose, fashioned of mage-spun rope, already lay about his neck; the executioner stood by to knock open the trapdoor under the gibbet. Though the sun almost touched its zenith, it could not warm the chilly autumn air. The day held an uncomfortable note, as if the light shone a little too bright and the chill felt unnaturally sharp. The mayor’s speech lengthened Bey’s last moments, heightening his sense of anticipatory dread: Would this “wherefore” be his last, or was there another “herein” to follow?
The faces watching the show looked solemn and disapproving. Well they should, said the mayor’s speech, for Bey’s guilt could not be doubted. All sorts of trinkets, treasures and magical devices had been recovered from his stash in the basement of the old cheese factory. It didn’t matter that the list was longer than the number of trinkets and treasures available to steal in the entire town of Montida. After all, there on the platform for all to see, stood the most important, indisputable item: a gilded music magaphone imported from far off Ocilious. It was a rare and expensive wonder, shown off with endless pride by its owner, Captain Attor, Commander of the Ocillian Guard in Montida. Everybody knew that the draconian law against thievery was being pursued to its fullest because of Captain Attor’s rage and humiliation when the magiphone vansihed from under his nose at the town’s Harvest Ball. The farewell celebration for the important summer residents, like Sir Torrzen, the Tax Minister for the region, had been quite disrupted by the theft.
Captain Attor now stood behind his treasure, feet spread, crimson cape rippling; looking for all the world like he was prepared to defend the glittering device from an entire troop of thieves. The mayor thought this might be a good time to remind everyone that this is what it meant to be a good citizen: to uphold the noble character of the town.
Bey wondered if the mayor lectured long enough, would people get hungry and go home to their dinners instead of waiting to see him hung? His eyes skimmed over the restless crowd. There—the baker, Manfred, pressed a hand to his belly. Nearby, the sour-faced school-mistress must have brought a snack, because she was chewing surreptitiously. Bey’s stomach growled. Terror, anger, resistance all dulled to a tired endurance and a fervent wish they would get on with it or give him another last meal.
The face of Alisa swam out of the crowd and with it the memory of sharing a bag of peaches with her under the sun-warmed stones of the Temple Street Bridge. Her face looked pinched and furtive, and she clutched her stained shawl about her thin shoulders. But then she always looked pinched and furtive, even when she had peach juice dripping off her chin. In that moment, he regretted that the greatest kindness he had ever offered her was that bag of peaches.
Sunlight stabbed Bey’s eyes suddenly. His head pounded. Breath came hard and painful. He glanced down to make sure his feet still stood on the trapdoor. Perhaps he had been hung and hadn’t noticed. The mayor broke off—he clawed suddenly at his brocade tunic and the chain of office around his neck as if he also could not draw breath.
With a strange, hollow sound, the world warped: faces elongated, tree trunks bent, the sky stretched and shivered. It was more than just his vision: Bey could feel his cheeks twisting in different directions and one arm felt twice as long as the other. Then everything snapped back so suddenly that Bey’s legs buckled. The magical rope exploded from off his neck, leaving it red and raw. The mayor screamed and fell off the platform, which rocked like a ship’s deck in a storm. The magiphone exploded with a wavering musical shriek, like a tortured soul being released. Captain Attor had no time to scream as he was impaled by flying shards crystal and scalded by liquid gold.
Below the platform, cracks opened as the earth wrenched itself apart. One of the distant mountains exploded, the sudden eruption filling the air with a plume of black smoke. Across the town, houses and shops burst into flames or crumbled to the ground. Others swayed, shuddered and sank, groaning back onto their foundations. The air filled with cries and wails, screams for help, people’s names. Bodies littered the green, and the survivors huddled together in shock.
They discovered later that many of those who survived did so because the mayor had ordered the town out onto the green to see Bey’s hanging. With the exploded interiors and shattered exteriors, the houses of the town had become death traps to those few left behind.
Dark clouds rushed in, roiling across the sky. The temperature plunged. Lightning struck the temple spire, then the pump-house. Across the valley, a twister touched down and tore a path across a swath of farmland.
Then all was still. The wind stopped. The clouds settled. Ash fell like rain. Beyond the cries of the townsfolk, a great silence settled over the Empire.
Bey’s muscles ached with the fatigue of hard labor. The old guildhall, which lately had been used for storage, now hosted a noisy town meeting. In the eightday since the disaster, everyone, able-bodied or not, had worked themselves to exhaustion. They had lost a little over a third of the population of Montida: some to falling stone or fires, but most to something more baffling and frightening: every bit of magic had shattered. From the weakest good-luck charm, to the intricate and elaborate pump-house above the city that provided the hot and cold running water in each dwelling; any item imbued with any sort of magical power had gone crazy. Some exploded, some melted, some simply stopped working; others saw intense and unstable power increases, like the teapot that had gushed boiling water and steam in greater and greater quantities, until someone smashed it to bits with a shovel.
Those unfortunates who wore such items on their persons had died. Some of those who had been gifted with the power of magic also died, or in a few cases ran mad. Others had lost their gift, or it became so unstable that they were a danger to everyone.
The first few days had been a blur of rescuing survivors and burying the dead, trying to find food and safe shelter for everyone. The communication crystals had all exploded, so there was no way to send for help, save sending a rider down the mountain. That was on the list, but there were more important things to worry about.
“…finished checking on all the farms,” reported Geniva. The baker’s wife had been put in charge of the team venturing out into the outlying farms and hamlets. “Overall, they fared better than Montida since they relied less heavily on magicraft. There was heavy earthquake and wind damage, but few deaths. I did hear something interesting—there’s a hedge-witch up by way of Alder Corner. She swears that the lines of power are disrupted—not just up and down Orin, but throughout the Empire. She claims she felt Ocilious fall—‘sink beneath its sins’ was her way of putting it.”
Silence met this news. At last someone said, “Well, if this disaster did strike the whole Empire, it stands to reason that Ocilious would fall. If any city was built on magic, it was.”
They could not spend long pondering the scope of the disaster in the distant capital. Pierre Grenn, acting mayor, called them back to a nearer disaster. “Master Fenn was well enough to examine the pump-house. He says its magic is building to a dangerous crisis. If something isn’t done, the pump-house could explode and every pipe leading into every building with it. Nothing will be left of Montida if that happens.”
“What ‘something’ can be done?” asked a voice near the front of the room. “Master Fenn is the only guild mage we have left, and I assume he would have done something if he could.”
“He can’t get into the building without the unstable magics setting off a cascade in his own gift,” said Pierre. “But he says that our best hope is be to send someone in to retrieve the central magistone. He says without that power source, the individual spells and components will fail quietly. He thinks it is unlikely that any explosion at that point could get past the remaining shielding on the pump-house.”
“So how do we get it out?” said Anna Colfmen, who, it had turned out, was an unexpected fount of knowledge about cooking and storing food without magical help.
Pierre grimaced. “The hard part is getting to it. The main access has collapsed, and the magical lock on the back door has sealed itself. My grandfather used to be the Chief of Operations there. He says that a slim, athletic person might be able to get in through the venting shafts. The problem is that all the magical bits are on the fritz. Brush up against the wrong one and you could go up in flames.”
“Do we have anyone who has enough magic sense to avoid those bits?” Anna asked.
“I’ll do it.” The sound of his own voice surprised Bey. His interest had caught at the description of the venting shafts, but he hadn’t intended to speak up until he suddenly was doing so. “I reckon I have some experience with getting in places and getting past magical wards.”
Captain Attor’s replacement, Lieutenant Dorian Yesterin, popped up. “Absolutely not! You are a convicted thief, Bey Lestorn! The only reason your sentence has been transmuted to hard labor is that we need all the hands we can get. I don’t even know why you were permitted to come to this meeting. It’s for citizens only.”
For a moment Bey felt a stab of fear. If Lieutenant Yesterin convinced the others that he should still be punished for his crime, he could be facing the noose again. But then defiance rose up in him: he had been given an unexpected reprieve–did he really want to live his life always afraid that it would be snatched away from him? Besides, nothing was the same as before and no matter what Lieutenant Yesterin said, nothing ever would be.
“Citizens of what exactly?” scoffed Bey. “The Empire? Sounds to me like that’s pretty much in ruins now. Montida? Same difference. And we’re all sentenced to hard labor at the moment. So I stole a few trinkets from the rich and pompous citizens. It hasn’t escaped my notice that not only are those trinkets destroyed, but every one of their owners died because of their collections of showy wealth. I’m telling you now, I can get into that pump-house and lift the stone thing. I don’t want to see what remains of the town blow up any more than you all do.”
“He could be right,” said Tabrin, one of the tavern owners. “Essentially, we are talking about stealing that magistone. Why not send a thief?”
Lieutenant Yesterin’s face turned red. “He is a criminal and a rogue. How do we know he won’t deliberately set off the explosion to get back at the town that condemned him?”
“I’m pretty pleased not to be dead myself,” said Bey.
The captain ignored him. “One of my guard, Justan Painter, is just the man for the job.”
“I think we should send Bey,” said someone. “He’s right–he knows how to get around magical blocks and such.”
An argument broke out as that person’s neighbor said loudly that they had no business trusting a thief. It took Pierre a moment to quiet them back down.
“You want to send a good man for a job like this,” said Lieutenant Yesterin. “Thieves can’t be heroes. Captain Attor always said…”
A slight figure stood up on the other side of the room. Her flyaway blond hair stood in wisps about her narrow face. “Bey is a good man,” said Alisa. “He gave me peaches once and didn’t ask for anything. Captain Attor made spread my legs for every last thing he gave me. Bey never asked me to lie with him. He talks to me like I’m a person. Captain Attor got what he deserved and I think you should send Bey.” She sat back down. An uncomfortable silence followed.
“It is against the law,” began Lieutenant Yesterin.
“What law?” someone demanded. “Seems to me like all the laws–divine, Imperial and even natural have gone up in a puff of smoke.”
Astra Meltor stood up. She had been a black-smith for forty years and though white-haired and stooped-shouldered now, she was still an imposing presence.
“I ain’t going to say nothing about who should do what,” she said. “But even if it’s true and the Empire has fallen, we still gotta stick by the laws. Sure and we can change them if that’s the thing, but if we toss them out wholesale, where will we be? We’re going to see tough times ahead—people who think because things have changed they can take more than their fair share, or hurt their neighbor because they’re mad or scared or greedy. I don’t know about the Gods or about the Emperor, but it seems to me that this here is our greatest test. Who will we be and how will we live from this disaster?”
Applause broke out as she sat back down.
“It’s decided then,” said Lieutenant Yesterin. “I’ll speak to Justan.”
It hadn’t been decided, thought Bey. But he was done drawing attention to himself—especially after Astra’s speech. He’d only ever stolen the ridiculous accoutrements the rich and fashionable liked to flaunt, but he doubted that distinction would impress anybody.
He dozed off as other reports were given and other problems wrangled with. When the meeting broke up, he dodged through the crowd to Alisa’s side.
“Thank you for speaking up for me,” he said.
She smiled tightly. “I only told the truth.”
“Where are you staying? Are you getting enough rations?” he asked.
“I’m with the group in the schoolhouse,” she said. “It’s been alright, some folks draw away and won’t talk to me, on account that I was the captain’s whore. But now that everybody gets the same rations, I’m eating better than ever.”
Bey wondered not for the first time how she got under the captain’s thumb and why he didn’t take better care of her–it’s not like he couldn’t afford it. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt,” he said instead.
“You, too,” she said. “I’m glad old mayor Gaven talked so long that they couldn’t hang you.”
Bey saw Lieutenant Yesterin headed their way with a frown on his face.
“I’m going to dodge Yesterin,” he said. “I don’t want him getting any new ideas about hanging me. If you need something–if folks start harassing you, or some bloke decides you might as well be in his bed now–you can come to me. Unless you want to get in his bed,” he added as an afterthought.
Her smile was a little easier. “You are a good man,” she repeated. “Go on then.”
It occurred to Bey that if something was going to go wrong during the magistone extraction, it might set off a chain reaction that would cause the very disaster they were attempting to prevent. He slipped away from the group clearing rubble and snuck around the back of the tannery. They had found his stash under the cheese factory, but that wasn’t his only hidey-hole. Most of the bottles of wine in the little stone alcove between the basement of the tannery and the neighboring apothecary had broken, but there were three intact. He chose one–a mellow red–and stuck it under his jacket. Keeping out of sight, he made his way to the laundry where Alisa had been working. He thought it was deserted, but as he was about to leave, he heard a faint sound. Alisa sat in one of the high windows, cleared of broken glass, looking out over the valley below.
“What are you doing up there?” asked Bey.
She started and looked round. “Oh, just sitting.”
“Why are you still here if everyone else is gone for the afternoon?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I got tired of the nasty looks. People say everything’s changed now, but they haven’t much. People are still just as stuck up as ever.”
He brandished the bottle of wine. “I’m going up North Bluff just in case their antics at the pump-house set off an explosion.”
“You think they might?”
“I think they’re sending someone down there who has no experience with that sort of thing and I’d rather not risk it.”
She swung her legs over the edge and slid down. “Let’s go.”
The air felt very still as they climbed. Birch trees that had been covered with golden leaves an eightday ago had abruptly lost them, making the season seem much closer to winter then it really was. Bey fleetingly wondered if the trees would leaf out in the spring, or if the disaster that had stripped their branches had also killed them. He shuddered and pushed the thought away.
The high granite bluff gave them a view of Montida at the top of the high mountain valley and the patchwork of farmland out to Dorin Pass. The town looked less broken from up here, though it was eerily still. They sat on an outcropping and Bey wrestled the cork from the bottle. He took a swig and passed it to Alisa.
“I don’t imagine we’re going to get much Lorgren wine for a while,” he said. “So enjoy.”
Alisa took a sip and handed it back. “It’s good.”
“I stole it from Sir Torrzen.”
She laughed. “That makes it even better. I wonder if he’ll be back. Or if any of the summer residents will come up again.”
“I wonder if Rhine survived,” said Bey, taking another sip. “We’ve been so busy trying to get our feet under us here, we’ve barely considered what might be going on elsewhere.”
“I wonder if the traders will come next year,” said Alisa, taking back the wine. “I sometimes thought of joining one of the caravans and going with them to Rhine, or going south to one of the warmer provinces.”
“Why didn’t you?”
She gave that one shoulder shrug. “Sometimes it’s easier to stay with what you know, even if it’s no good.”
“That’s true,” he said. He pondered. “When I was fourteen and my mother died, I was apprenticed to Johann at the tannery. Then my father remarried and went down the mountain with his new wife. I decided that if I was going to be beaten by my master, at least I’d be beaten for something I did. My apprenticeship didn’t last very long after that.”
“You helped the building crews work on the pump-house expansion and then the new guild hall.”
He shrugged. “I did odd jobs here and there. And helped myself to the odd trinket. I’ve gotten by.”
“And you never left either.”
“No,” he said. Then with some surprise, “I like it here. Even if the folks in charge are greedy idiots, I still like it.”
“I’m sure there are greedy idiots everywhere.”
“Maybe that’s why I stayed.”
Below them there came a muffled sound and a jet of smoke puffed up from the pump-house.
“You were right!” said Alisa, jumping up.
Bey rescued the wine bottle and stood too. They watched carefully, but after the first explosion, nothing more happened. There was a buzz of activity around the pump-house, but the streets of the town lay quiet under their layer of rubble. After a while the chill of the wind forced them off the bluff.
When the townsfolk decided make another attempt to deactivate the pump-house and one of the blacksmith’s apprentices volunteered, it was Alisa that came to Bey, carrying a bag of dried apples and a rough blanket. He had been clearing rocks from one of the side streets. The rest of his team had called it quits when a light rain began to fall, but the dreary weather and the hard labor suited his dour mood.
Grumbling, he washed his hands and followed Alisa out of town. “They’re just condemning that boy to his death,” he said. “I don’t care how carefully the mage has been over what might happen, the kid has no experience with this sort of thing.”
“Maybe it’s good they didn’t send you,” said Alisa. “If it’s that sure a death.”
“I’d be a sight better off than that boy,” boasted Bey. But he had to admit that he was secretly relieved that the council had rejected his offer for a second time. He had listened to the mage’s description of what the failing magic might be like and his blood had run cold.
Huddling under the dubious shelter of the blanket, they gnawed on the hard disks of dried apple and watched the crowd around the pump-house.
For a long while nothing happened. “Maybe it worked,” finally ventured Alisa.
“I wonder -” began Bey, then he stopped. An ominous pressure filled the air. A low rumble shook the pump-house and then a flash of sickly green light and a jet of smoke shot into the sky. For a moment a network of lines throughout the town shone with an eerie green glow and Bey caught his breath, waiting for the next explosion to obliterate Montida before their eyes. The pressure stretched and stretched and then suddenly dissipated. The dark clouds let loose a deluge on the reprieved town.
“Now you’ve got to send Bey,” said Tabrin. “I told you from the first—you want to steal something, send a thief.”
“It would be disrespectful to the sacrifices made already,” began Lieutenant Yesterin.
“All due respect, Lieutenant,” said the mayor looking tired, “we need the job done and frankly I don’t care who does it as long as the town is safe. Last time it was too close for comfort.”
“I agree with Tabrin,” said the baker. Several others chimed in in agreement.
“It’s decided then,” said the mayor. “We’ll attempt again tomorrow at noon.”
“Hold up,” said Bey, standing. “My price has changed.”
“Price! What price?” said Pierre. “We never discussed a price.”
“Well, I’ve got one now,” said Bey.
“You disrespectful cur!” sputtered Lieutenant Yesterin.
“This is my price,” said Bey, ignoring him. “I want my record expunged. If I save the town from another magical explosion, I don’t want that yapping puppy,” pointing at the red-faced lieutenant, “to decide somewhere down the line to hang me for past crimes. Furthermore –” he raised his voice to be heard over the Lieutenant’s indignant protest. “I know you’ve been allotting the repaired houses to family groups. I want to get on that list – me and my sister, we’re a family and when those folks with children are settled, I want to be next.”
“You don’t have a sister,” spluttered the Lieutenant.
“Right there,” Bey pointed at Alisa.
“She’s not your sister -” began the mayor.
“Oh?” said Bey. “We may not share parents, but we both know what it’s like to be abandoned by them. And not only abandoned by our parents, but by the whole of the town, including the Temple which is supposed to care for orphans. You all turned your back on the whippings doled out by my former master Johann, or by the cruelty visited on Alisa by the old captain. Well, I’m done being treated like I’m not worth anything. I’ve worked as hard as any of you these last days, and so has Alisa. And still we’re both sneered at and slandered and treated like dirt. That ends now. Clean records for both of us and a spot on the family list so that we can have a house where our stuff isn’t deliberately trod on, or ‘accidentally’ tossed in the trash pile.”
The mayor looked conflicted.
“You can’t be thinking about listening to him,” began Lieutenant Yesterin.
Anna stood up. “I have another agenda item,” she said.
The mayor looked harassed. “We’re not done with this one,” he began.
“I think it’s relevant,” she said. She pointed at Lieutenant Yesterin. “How did he get to be the acting captain? Just because he’s the highest ranking Ocillian Officer and Attor’s lackey, doesn’t make him qualified. We all agreed that everyone would get the same rations—but he’s been at me twice for special privileges. Plus, he’s always getting out of the dirty jobs. I think we should meet Bey’s price. I think all our records should be clean. It doesn’t matter who you were before, it matters what you can do for all of us now. Bey is right. The town did fail him and Alisa before. And yet, they’ve both been there working as hard as the rest of us. I say if they say they’re brother and sister—well the Temple’s burnt to the ground, so there’s no record telling me otherwise.”
Silence fell as she sat down. Then someone in the front began to clap. Quickly applause filled the room.
“Meet Bey’s price!” someone called.
“Make all the guard work,” insisted another, “What are they guarding us from? We’re on our own up here!”
Beside Bey, Alisa slipped her hand into his. “I’ve always wanted a brother,” she said.
He squeezed it, “I’ve always wanted a sister.”
Bey had never been so frightened in his life. “The gallows has nothing on this,” he muttered to himself. He stood before the dark, narrow opening that led into the bowels of the pump-house, flexing his fingers and rolling his shoulders in preparation to lower himself down into the tight venting tube.
Everything in him screamed at him not to go down into that tiny space throbbing with twisted magic.
He glanced behind him. “Alisa! You were supposed to watch from the bluff.”
“You’re going to get this right, Bey,” she said, seriously. “I am not afraid to wait right here.”
“Sure I am,” he muttered, but her presence steadied him. Fine, I’m going to do it, he thought. Gallows—ha! This will be the greatest and theft of my career and every citizen of Montieda will kiss me for it. He took a breath and lowered himself into the dark.
Squeezed into the vent tube, Bey lay perfectly still as the unstable filter spell cycled through its intermittent gyrations. There was no way back without disabling the magistone. Despite his care, the sensitivity of the warped warding spells had shut the physical safety hatch on the exit to the vent he was in. If water had flooded the vent, the hatch would keep it from pouring into the air intake system, but now that hatch made sure that his only way out was forward.
He counted. Fifty heart beats before the filter spell built up enough energy for another cascade. He could feel its vibration buzzing through his body. If it hit him at full power, he wouldn’t survive. He didn’t know if he destabilized it whether that would just spell his doom, or if the failing spell would cause the pump-house to explode. He also didn’t know if the lowest frequency of its cycle was low enough for him to get by.
Well, you’re not going to find out lying here. He took a breath: one, two, three–there, the buzzing increased. He shoved his pack through the gap and down to the lower level. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen; it was like a hive of bees thrumming under the floor. Thirty-two, thirty-three; he began to bunch himself up to thrust past it. Forty-five, fort–the cascade took him by surprise, but he had been primed to go. As soon as it began to decrease, he pushed off the uncertain purchase of the vent wall. The bees were all through his bones now; his teeth chattered with the intensity of the energy. Then he fell through the other side and down the short drop into the lower conduit. He lay there shivering, his pack an awkward lump beneath him. Above him, the cascade began to build again.
It took a moment, but all at once, he realized that the cycle had sped up. “Shit!” He rolled over onto his belly and squirmed forward down the shaft, dragging the pack. The tunnel was supposed to be large enough to crawl in, but debris and broken siding narrowed it. He had picked up several more cuts and bruises before he wormed his way out into the lower pump room. Something squashed underfoot as he stumbled about in the dim room and he recoiled in disgust at the dead rat he had stepped on. It smelled foul. He remembered there was a torch in his pack and took a moment to fumble out his flint and light it. He stuck it in a pile of rubble.
In the flickering light, he picked his way across the uneven floor. The door between the lower pump room and the main power chamber was not only locked, but the earthquake had warped the frame. He became aware of a tension in the air and a faint humming from wall and floor. He took out his lock picks. The mechanism gave on the third try, but the door stuck fast. He rammed his shoulder into it and felt it give a little. He rammed it twice more until it opened enough to squeeze through.
The pressure of power inside was like a vise. He had only taken a few steps before his head was aching and he tasted blood dripping from his nose into his mouth. A few of the light-crystals still worked, though they no longer shed a steady white light, instead casting a sickly greenish glow as the sylphyl inside them disintegrated.
There was the magi-stone, a smooth black sphere held in a sylphyl net. Strands of the net had broken and green sparks crawled on the surface of the sphere. Something about it made Bey sick to his stomach. He carefully retrieved the key the mayor had given him, the key that was supposed to deactivate the net. Casting a quick prayer to the Lord and Lady, he lifted it toward the dark hole in the collar that held the net in place. Like a lodestone to iron, the collar pulled the key nearer. Bey jerked his hand back. A shiver went down his spine. The pressure in the room had grown as that key neared the hole. He wiped sweat from his brow. Despite his instructions, the idea of fitting it there made his blood run cold.
Taking a breath, he tucked the key back into the pack and studied the net. One side was torn up with a hole almost big enough to remove the stone. If he could draw off enough of the energy from the rest of the net and cut the links, he might be able to slip it out. He was no mage, but he had once stolen a box of jewels by siphoning off the magical wards long enough to remove the necklace and rings. He had used a bone power-draw for it, but he had nothing like that here. Unless…He knew it was a long shot, but sylphyl meant necromancy and necromancy meant… He went back into the lower pump room and peered among the debris on the floor until he found the dead rat again.
He rigged up a sort of pulley system—several strips cut from his shirt tied to the rat’s tail, then looped over a couple of pipes and tied it off. He didn’t want the rat to touch the sylphyl while he was touching the rat. He took out his wire snips and studied the net. There, there and there, he decided. The ball should slip free with those cuts.
He sent another quick prayer to the gods and then wondered if that was wise. One of the theories going around was that the Lord and Lady had decided to lift their favor from the Empire. Bey shook his head. He’d never wondered too hard about theology before–this seemed like a bad time to start.
He let out the slack on the rat’s cord. It swung down and hit the sparking net. Green light exploded in his face and he blinked his tearing eyes. He had not accounted for that. Dazzled, he couldn’t quite tell if the corpse was drawing off the magic–no, it was: the green sparks disappeared into the mangled fur. Muttering the prayer aloud this time, he snipped the first spot. His fingers tingled with magic, but he was still breathing. Snip, snip. The magistone slipped and smashed to splinters on the floor. This time, the explosion sent Bey hurtling across the room and into the far wall. Something fell to the ground with a wet smack and then skittered. The rat’s eyes burnt with a fell green light and it looked at least twice as big as it had before. Galvanized by horror, Bey sprang to his feet and kicked the rat across the room. It hit the wall with a crunching sound, clambered up again, and turned his way.
Bey didn’t wait. He lurched out the door, but there was no way to wrench it shut in time. He sprinted to the far door and yanked at the lock, which had been magically sealed. The magic was gone now–probably following him in the body of the animate rat corpse that skittered through the stuck door. Bey pushed frantically on the other door, then realized it opened inward. He pulled it open onto a dark hall, but there was nothing that could make him go back for the torch. He sealed the light behind himself just as the rat smacked into the closed door.
Heart still pounding, he felt his way cautiously down the dark hall. He was about half-way when a sound came from ahead and a faint bit of light illuminated the door on the far side.
“Bey! Are you down there?” It was Tabrin.
Bey had to take a breath before he could speak. ”I’m here. Lost my torch.”
When they reached him, he pointed back at the closed door. “Don’t open that.”
“Why not?” Tabrin lifted his torch higher.
“I accidentally reanimated a dead rat,” said Bey. As if in response, there came a furious scrabbling at the door. “On second thought, maybe you should let it out and destroy it. Sooner or later, it will find the vent that I came through and get out.” He pushed past the curious search party. “I’ve done my part. Undead rats are someone else’s problem.”
Bey and Alisa sat again on the high bluff, sharing Bey’s last bottle of wine. The smell of frost in the air suggested that winter was closing in fast. Below, Montida had closed ranks around one of its market squares. Inns once used for traders had become dormitories for the townsfolk. Houses showed a patchwork of repairs. It would probably be a hard winter—and even harder after that, but Bey thought he was ready for it. He touched the scar about his neck where the magical rope had left its mark. He had lived, and he was ready to keep on living.
He glanced at Alisa. She sat huddled in her sweater and a woolen cloak patched together from a number of old blankets. She caught his look and smiled. Her smile had lost some of its strain. He handed her the bottle.
“Here’s to the old Empire,” he said. “Who knows if the vineyards of Lorgress survived?”
She took a sip. “I once had pear wine. It was pretty good. One of the farmers in South Dale made it. Maybe next year we can sit up here and sip that instead.”
Bey wondered fleetingly if there would be a next year—if the pear trees would bloom in the spring, if the townsfolk would survive what lay beyond the winter. He pushed away those thoughts. Even if they didn’t make it, he would be happier knowing that he died the hero who had prevented the town from exploding than hung as a thief who stole trinkets.
“I could get used to pear wine,” he said. “It does sound pretty good.”