The carriage driver had stopped and was staring down the track with a pale face when Lucretia carried Alta back. When he saw Lucretia’s state of dress, he blushed further. “Miss, the mounts, they can smell-”
“I know.” Lucretia cut him off with a sharp glance. Being reborn into the body of an attractive young woman was a complicated experience, and in important moments like this, she was unwilling to humor other’s reaction to her. “Do you know anything?”
“No,” He shook his head furiously.
The door to the carriage opened, and Darcy came out with a wailing baby and a frown. “Why have we stopped? If Dalmanica is forced to starve, so help me-”
“Shut up the baby,” Lucretia said bluntly. In her arms, Alta was trembling, and she was looking around with glassy eyes.
“Creta, something feels bad. Everything… everything is so bad…” Alta mumbled.
“How DARE you!” Darcy bellowed, setting off an even louder set of wails from the baby. Mother of the year, right there. “Do you think for a moment that I wouldn’t-”
Luckily for Lucretia, the noise brought on the first wave of attacks more rapidly. The beast stood up amongst the tall grass of the fields and roared, their strange facial pustules oozing. They were shaped like bears, but their torsos and head were largely without hair and instead covered with boils and worts.
Lucretia pressed her lips into a thin line. With a firm hand, she reached up and covered Alta’s eyes. What was about to happen would still be too much for the girl.
Darcy began to scream as the first two dashed forward to only a few meters away and more were worming up out of the woodwork. As Lucretia’ channeled Randidly’s strength, her mind was quickly calculating the likelihood that a band of half mutated Soulless could coincidentally end up here, deep in the countryside of the Spriggit elite.
Obviously, that wasn’t very high.
“Growth,” Lucretia whispered. Her three-meter talons trembled, and then as energy flooded into them, they sprouted outwards. First five meters, then ten. And as they grew, offshoots sprouted outward like branking courses of a river. Soon, there were a dozen talons flashing left and right. The Soulless were helpless before the attacks and the first way was mincemeat before the second arrived.
The reinforcements fared no better.
Within a minute, the area was clear and silent, aside from Darcy and Dalmanica’s screams. As the energy left her, Lucretia’s talons shrunk to their normal size. Fat drops of black blood fell off of them. The carriage driver had enough presence of mind to fumble his sidearm out of the holster but had made the intelligent decision to freeze up rather than embarrass himself by shooting it.
Slowly, Lucretia kneeled and set Alta on the ground. What surprised Lucretia was that it seemed the baby read the mood, and slowly fell silent.
“You shouldn’t look around,” Lucretia said as she took her hand from over Alta’s eyes. The karma in her chest was spreading thin tendrils outwards. It was all she could do to refrain from pouring her own energy into the girl’s body to feed it. What was it about this moment that was important, however…?
Of course, Alta looked around anyway. And as she did so, she grew pale. But after biting her lip, the girl seemed to firm her resolve. She looked straight at the shredded bodies of the Soulless. “What… what are they?”
Lucretia sighed inwardly. It would be too much to say they were the sad and desperate children that the Creature had left in Randidly’s Soulworld when her incarnation had been burned away. “...they are debris from an older era. From an old war.”
Abruptly, Alta’s eyes widened. “If we were attacked, do you think daddy and brother…?”
Lucretia said nothing, and instead stood and looked at Darcy. The woman was weeping silently, holding her baby to her chest. She was doing everything she could to not look at the bodies spread around them. In a way, it made sense. Darcy was a pampered and pretty daughter. What would she know of death? What did she know that two of the seven lands were engulfed in constant warfare, and the Spriggits were the merchants of death for both sides?
On the back of the founding Bounty’s invention, Spriggits had been able to control trade amongst the lands on a scale that none could replicate. This was not the first attempt on the lives of the Bounty family, and it would not be the last. If she wanted to survive in this family, Darcy would need to toughen up. Perhaps imitate the maturity of Alta, for example.
Without even Lucretia’s answer, Alta came to the correct conclusion by herself. Several small tears formed in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. But it was with an even voice that she said. “Go. Find them. Protect them. You are strong, right? That’s why- that’s why daddy takes you sometimes. Out. Please, Creta.”
Lucretia nodded, watching the slow and gradual shifts in Alta’s chest. Was it simply that she would mature here? Well, perhaps that was fine too. It wasn’t as exciting as Lucretia wanted, but it would be enough. Her time wasn’t wasted, not as long as she felt that constantly growing connection between Alta and Randidly.
With a nod, Lucretia turned to depart. But she had only taken a single step before she froze.
“Wait! Damnit, you can’t just leave us.”
Lucretia pirouetted on the spot to find that Darcy had apparently placed the baby back within the carriage and emerged with her own sidearm. Inwardly, Lucretia cursed herself for writing Darcy off as harmless.
Although she was standing and trembling, Darcy had one hand on Alta’s thin shoulder and held the sidearm with the other. It wasn’t pointed at Alta, but…
The meaning in Darcy’s eyes was clear. “What if we are attacked again. Please. You must stay.”
In the weeks that followed, Alta cried endlessly between the two wooden boxes with the ceremonial black cloth draped across them. All the while, Lucretia said by her side, studying the warping karma within Alta’s body with sharp eyes. This was the change. Now it only remained to be seen what the ultimate effect would be.
Both Imnor Bounty and Puar Bounty were pronounced dead on the scene by the time the medical tank arrived. Darcy’s interference had prevented Lucretia from moving, but Lucretia was honestly unsure whether she could have made any difference to protecting their lives at that point. The fact they smelled blood already would indicate someone had already died and included the two bounty men there were only five individuals.
Plus, Alta’s group had been attacked by the mindless variety of Soulless. Although physically powerful, they were without guile, and therefore not truly a challenge to Lucretia. Imnor Bounty, who was himself one of the most powerful warriors in the Spriggit nation, had the misfortune of running into a Soulless Behemoth. And based on the face it had escaped, it was clear it developed sentience.
A monster such as that was not one seen often except in the lowest Land of the Tree and Lucretia wasn’t sure how she would measure up against it.
But of course, this truth wasn’t one that Alta knew. And early on, the only thing that woke her from the storm of misery was hatred for Darcy.
Imnor Bounty had a younger brother who took the helm of the Bounty Agency, but without Imnor’s firm hand, things swiftly fell apart. Some of the other Ministry officials related to the family would have only been happy enough to feast on the corpse of the family, but Lucretia had stepped in at that point, strictly off record.
She reminded those Ministers that her reputation as the “Taloness” was not something that should be treated lightly. If Alta was not given her due, Lucretia would ignore the Spriggit’s precious rule of law and bleed them all dry. It wasn’t a boast to say she could do it. For all the Spriggit’s ingenuity, very few among them could even give Lucretia a run for her money in a fight. It was part of the reason that so often Shadows from other races were brought in.
Defending Alta was a priority, but when accusations of extra-marital affairs were brought against Darcy, Lucretia didn’t even bat an eyelash. When that woman was driven away from the Bounty ancestral manor on the South slopes of Taft’s affluent district, all breathed a sigh of relief.
When the dust settled, most of the servants had left, because most of the money was gone. All they retained was the manor, some small shops owned in Imnor’s personal portfolio, the now empty research facility below the house, and piles of scattered documents.
Amongst all that, Alta just sat with blank eyes, staring at the wall. In her chest, the karma was twitching intermittently.
For another week, Lucretia brought meals to Alta’s chambers and forced her to bathe every couple of days. Nothing solicited a response, and Lucretia didn't’ force the issue. That was one trick of karma that was true here, as everywhere else; nothing grew if you pulled it out of the ground early.
“Creta… would you kill someone if I ordered you to?”
The question that finally signaled Alta’s return to some semblance of consciousness was one that Lucretia was not expecting. But at the same time, it couldn’t be considered too surprising. She simply responded by given Alta a look. Alta might believe the look was for her, but it was truly to follow the path of the karma.
Because at long last, the karma reached out and took root from Alta to Lucretia, forming a bridge. And as it did so, a terrible darkness spread through the karma from Lucretia. In creeping fashion, it followed the bond back across to Alta. Very soon, every inch of the karma in her body between Alta and Randidly had been twisted and warped into a black and oily substance.
Then it bloomed, and it was a pale flower.
“Those… Soulless weren’t an accident.” Alta said slowly. The ten-year-old girl looked up at her Shadow, who harbored the soul of a seven-hundred-year-old woman who had been accepting the souls of the innocent in bargains for generations. It was, after all, a very rare hand that would not find a way to use the sharp knife it possessed. “We need to find out who is responsible. And when we do… I order you to kill them all.”
Lucretia smiled without the faintest hint of guilt and nodded. “Nothing would give me more pleasure.”