RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 050 – Wake Up

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The wagon bounced in the muddy roads and lurched as it stuck and unstuck. My sweat dried on my skin. The man I was trying to save was cold as death, but his lips twitched and stirred a little. His fingers grasped futilely at the boards and sacks in the cart, and at my clothes, weak as a child. He didn’t shiver.

The night guards shouted a challenge as we rolled up the hill to the fortress gates. They came to the back, and there I gave my rank and name and they thrust a lantern in my face and dragged me off the dying man. He, too, they inspected, and they let us pass.

The fortress never sleeps. Guards circled the walls on scaffolding. Lanterns swung and braziers flared along the roadways. Scouts were dismounting from steaming horses and small groups of soldiers gathered about the fires or smoked in corners, the little glowing motes of their cigarettes moving in their mouths or tracing the air when they moved their hands. I peered at two of these as we stopped beside the hospital building, but neither was Estevo. Leaving them, we rushed inside, with me shivering once again and two medicos coming out to help carry the dying man. On my way inside, I reached out to one of the medicos and took his arm.

“One of mine fell in the river, but I told her to take shelter in one of the Ona’s houses when we pulled her out.” He promised they’d send someone to tend to her, and I told him the approximate whereabouts of the house.

I made my way into the hospital tent, and there the medicos had already stripped the frozen sergeant and put him in bed. They stoked up fires on either side of him and by his feet. Acrid smoke filled the tent. Meanwhile, one of the phisicos came to see to him.

They always gave me pause. The man leaning over him wore a mask with a mouth like a grinder set between two protrusions like mandibles and a number of smaller, jointed protrusions arranged around them. The eyes were reflective and glinting in the flickering firelight, multifaceted and huge. His garb was red and black; it appeared spotless, due to the mottling, but I knew it was anything but. I’d seen a phisico saw the infected foot off another Nabani conscript’s leg in less time than it took to tie his restraints. A good thing, too. He was awake. The blood had sprayed the front of the phisico’s uniform and blended right in. This one looked like nothing so much as a great, red and black insect creeping over the dying sergeant.

“Ayeh,” a voice croaked. I turned away from the sergeant, toward the source.

The building was dim; it had once been a storehouse, but was hastily expanded and fitted to serve its new purpose when we took over the trading post and it became clear that Lonireil was there to stay. Now, the room was divided by partitions of woven straw, like broad curtains. The brazier and lamp light filtered through, casting strange patterns of light and shadow on the little alcoves between where the patients had their beds. I moved to one of these alcoves, where the voice had come from, and stood over the dark bed. A hand reached out, moved toward me, and then contorted into a rude gesture.

I looked up at the shadow-shrouded face, and realized it was Estevo.

He was in pain, but I stifled a chuckle at his prank. He grinned and drew his hand back under his covers, wincing.

“What are you doing in here? Shirking duty, hiding out and pretending to have a sniffle?” I said.

“Hardly.” Estevo shifted again and nodded, clearly in pain, in the direction of the light and murmuring of the sergeant and the doctor and his servants. “What’s he?”

“A night patroller. No sign of his squad, but Tash and I found him in the river.”

“And he’s alive?” He shivered.

“Little-ly.”

“Barely,” he corrected. “Your Lonireilan may sound fine, but you still use idiot words sometimes.”

My vocabulary was a work in progress. I felt my face heat at the joke, and I prodded him in the arm with a finger. He groaned. “Ahh, fine, no more.”

“So what happened to you?”

It was hard to tell in the dim, but I thought his face twisted into something in between a smirk and agony. “I guess I pissed the wrong stall.”

“What?”

“It means I did something stupid. Back home, we have sort of little rooms where you go to talk to the Emperor. It’s not him, I mean, but it’s his man in another room, where only the two of you can see and hear each other. You’re supposed to say all the bad and stupid shit you did, and learn how to make up for it. But sometimes those little rooms look like the shithouse, and more than one drunk has pissed in one. They don’t like that.”

“What did you do?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but a shout of anger from the phisico drew my attention. I ran back across the tent to where he was slapping the drowned man lightly in the face. “What are you–”

“He’s dying.” The phisico shook him. “Wake up, by his Name, wake up!” He slapped him again and shook him, but the man’s head lolled to one side. His eyes remained closed.

The phisico dropped him with a sigh and removed his insectile mask. Underneath he was sweating. “Get these fires away, it’s too hot. Well, that was a waste.” He scrubbed his face with a sweaty hand.

I said nothing as they took away the body. I had needed him. I needed to know who was helping the refugees get out, or where they were going. As it was, my report would be nothing but a dead man and a near-dead Tash. I ground my teeth and turned back to Estevo, but one of the medicos took my arm and started ushering me out of the hospital. Estevo had turned on his side and appeared to be sleeping, anyway.

His bottom sheet, on which he’d laid his back and which was now visible where he’d rolled away from it, was printed with cross-hatched lines of drying blood.


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