After that things fell into a routine. Once the runners learned that I could deal with Lord Samdi, I became the only runner who was allowed to deal with him. I was given an office in the mess hall down outside of the main fortress, and any runner who was assigned to visit the Inquisitor would instead come to find me, and I would carry their message instead.
The rest of the runners held a party the day that my new position as official liaison to Samdi was announced, which was surprisingly tame compared to the revelry I’d experienced in Larkin. Mostly we sat around on our cots and swapped stories about our lives before coming here.
“I can’t believe he talked like that,” said Tiger Willow.
Tiger Willow was one of the older runners. At 15 years old he was a sort of leader among the group and had taken the loss of his friends to Samdi hard.
That there was nothing, he could do weighed on him. He was distantly related to the Lord General and had spoken to her on numerous occasions. But her hands were tied. If Samdi had been an officer under her command, she would have brought him up on charges of rape and murder or at the very least disobeying the orders of a senior officer. But as it was Samdi was an inquisitor and was entirely out of the chain of command.
“I suppose I am out of the chain of command too. Technically I think I am supposed to report directly to Samdi, but I think Lord Er Peregrin Mahogany back in Larkin may have made it, so I reported to someone a little bit more rational. I can’t see my Father doing something like that.” I said.
“You didn’t tell us much about your family,” Tiger Willow said.
“He doesn’t like them!” Red Panda said.
“Like Red Panda just said, I’m not on the best of terms with my parents. I don’t like my father, and my mother isn’t the most emotionally stable person I can think of. My brother and sister are older than me and I never really knew them that well.”
“You must have spent time with them occasionally.” Insisted Tiger Willow, who had just spent the last twenty minutes talking about hunting, wrestling and the first time he got drunk with his brothers back on his family estates.
“They were sent to the capital to be raised by tutors and extended family when I was young. And I spent most of my time with tutors or with helping the soldiers train for a big part of my life.”
“Then you went out into the forest with this Wilmette fellow?” said Badger Alder. She was a lithe blonde girl who thought that none of the other Runners noticed that she spent all of her time with Tiger Willow.
"Yeah, it was mostly survival, tracking, and forestry training. Nothing too spectacular. I spent a year outdoors hunting and living off the land." I said not wanting to go into how I had spent the year.
"My turn, my turn" yelled Red Panda.
"I have five brothers, and they are all useless. Well, Terrald isn't a complete tool. But the rest of my brothers couldn't find their balls if their balls were blue and the biggest wettest vagina were staring unblinking right at them."
Badger Alder said "Red Panda. Do you have to be so crude?"
"Who me?" said Red Panda.
Red Panda over the months became my closest friend among the runners. While everyone was grateful that they no longer had to have any dealings with Samdi, for Red Panda it went further, I was the only one who didn’t mind going out in the trenches to visit her brother Terrald.
Not that my getting along with Red Panda was that odd. She got along with all the male runners. We treated her as one of us. The female runners hated her though and gossiped about her behind her back. Red Panda didn’t care and would share raunchy jokes us boys, often at the most gossipy girl’s expense.
The biggest problem with my being the official liaison to Samdi was that I didn't have a lot to do.
The entire military had somehow over the years come to the conclusion that it functioned best if the wild card factor that was the Lord Samdi was taken out of daily deliberations and left to act on its own.
Unless something was critically off; Unless supplies of some munition or device only Samdi could create; very few messages were mine to carry.
As a result, while I was on duty a lot, I also had a lot of free time. I read through all the blood magic books I’d brought, and as I suspected, they were simply basic and college level biology texts with very few spells. The blood magic books from the library contained mostly spells but lacked the specific scientific knowledge the books I had stolen. Instead, they spoke about the four fluids of the body, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. And while it was amazing what, modern blood mages could do with the primitive concepts of fluids and body humors.
The books I’d stolen — even with a few spells as they contained — provided an invaluable roadmap to modernizing my learning. Both my new Blood Magic and my Healing. While the books I got from the library ensured that I could adequately converse like and with the rest of the medieval witch doctors who practiced blood magic in the Empire.
During that time I also discovered that I had a minor skill with Earth Magic.
“It would seem that you have a small affinity for earth mana. It’s up to you if you want to register it or not.” Terrald said while he was up in the keep visiting his sister.
“What are the benefits of registering, and what are the drawbacks,” I asked.
Terrald thought about it for a second, and then he said. “If you register your talent, I or another Gold or Platinum Status Earth Mage officer can train you. You will be advanced in status to Silver and advanced in rank to Corporal, with a corresponding rise in pay. You will be put on lighter duty digging and shoring up trenches, ensuring the integrity of the fortifications, digging new latrines. Once you are released from the military, your options are nearly endless. If you choose to go back to the farm, a talent in earth magic like yours will make plowing fields, clearing stumps, or digging foundations easy. Or with the skills you get in the military you can easily find work in a city working as an assistant to a civil engineering mage or even an architectural mage.”
Then he said, “really, Lynx it’s a minor talent. If you don’t already know the runes for it, I can show them to you off the books. I doubt the Army cares if one of their runners has a minor talent. But just in case it is best not to let them know, or you might find yourself digging holes in your spare time. If there is one thing this army does well and constantly seem to need, it is holes in the ground.”
The army tested all of their soldiers for magic ability and trained any troops with any useful skills. People with minor life magic became stretcher bearers, minor nature mages kept rats away from the food and helped rid the camp of lice, minor earth mages (like myself) dug trenches under Earth Mage officers like Terrald’s command, minor air mages helped with artillery, etc.…
Any major magic talents were sent off to one of several advanced officer training schools the military maintained. Graduates became the elite of the army no matter what their background and elevated to gold status. It was one of the benefits of joining the army, other than a constant stream of freedom points. In no other place could a farmer so quickly rise in status to wealth, power, and position than by joining the army and lucking into having a magical talent.
About a month after my visit to the trenches a newly minted gold status life mage stopped by my office.
“Boy, I have been sent to evaluate the spell you claim to have and its effect on vermin.”
I had been rereading one of the texts on blood magic I’d stolen. I’d ripped the cover off and replaced it with the cover of my basic herbology text. When he saw what I was reading the Life Mage who was waiting for me sneered when he thought that I was reading about herbs and alchemy. I ignored him and got up, and pulled the book on folk magic that I’d bought back in Larkin off a shelf, and brought it over to him.
“Peasant magic. That book is well known among Life Mages. Next, you will tell me that the Army must banish the demon king from carrots. Or maybe your spell is a panacea for the gnome problem.”
“I will admit that some of the spells in this book are questionable. There is a spell in here that causes herpes in goats. It doesn’t cure it; I’m not sure why anyone would want a spell that causes a sexual disease in barnyard animals. But every once in a while there is something useful. The lice spell works and the soldiers like it. So what’s the harm.”
“The harm is that I’m the one who will have to crawl around in the muck casting this spell. I have enough work as it is. I am a vital person. I don’t need to cast petty spells made for farmers.”
I sighed and put the book back on my shelf. “What branch of life magic do you follow?” I asked.
“I don’t see what business it is of yours, but I specialize in detection magic.”
“So you sit in a fortified room and scan the battlefield for signs of life where they shouldn’t be? Interesting. I’ve never looked into that area. Do you like it? What kind of range do you have?” I said.
“That is none of your business. If we are done here, I would like to report to my commanding officer that this was a waste of time.”
“I guess I’ve got to thank you for your time Lieutenant, I wish I could change your mind, but it seems like you are pretty set in your ways.”
“Next time don’t waste my time.”
“Squire Lieutenant, Lieutenant”
“Next time don’t waste my time, squire lieutenant. We’re both equals here.” I said.
“Whatever, squire lieutenant. Whatever. I’m a busy man, and I don’t want to take you away from your nap or play time.”
And that was that. Nothing happened officially on the lice front. Unofficially Terrald and some of the other front-line officers would take me out to different bunkers during times when the pyromancer was assumed to be sleeping, and I would set up the wards to clean up infestations.
As close as I was to the front, I could extend a tendril as thin and visible to mage sight as four-pound test fishing line of my witches sense out towards the enemy’s trenches and fill up on mana. Draining a human was hard. Quite often they resisted, and my efforts came up with nothing. But I got enough successes make the attempt worthwhile.
While I was out at the front, I would also cure some of the wounds that were deemed too minor to waste time on in the hospital. Things like food poison, the flu, STDs, hearing problems, trench foot, sprains, missing eyes. It was good practice on my healing spells, and I had a massive source of free mana among the enemy soldiers. Plus I could surreptitiously collect blood samples to practice my blood magic.
During that time I also got access to all the restricted sections of the library.
Lord Samdi helped me here. “Lynx darling, there is a saying that I’ve always lived by ‘If you want anything, take it’ of course I will make sure you have permission to the forbidden spells. If it didn’t involve the tedium of reading, I might join you. The forbidden is always delicious. Teach me anything scandalous you learn.”
The books in this section included books on breaking wards, opening locks, curses, hex breaking, remote listening spells, and remote viewing spells. Most of these spells fell under the pure arcane affinity where I discovered I was surprisingly powerful.
There was also a book on sex magic, which after I read through it, I passed on to an appreciative Samdi. He’d already read it and had a much more extensive library on the subject tucked away in his bedchamber. He offered to demonstrate some of the more fun spells with me if I had a few hours. I politely declined.
The sex book, since it was a version of the Kama Sutra with spells, proved much more popular when I brought it back to the runners' dorm. Maybe Lord Samdi was rubbing off on me, but it didn’t occur to me that I was ‘corrupting the youth.’ There was a lot of curiosity — some more obsessive than others — and a lot of giggling from the girls and a lot of rushing off to privacy from the boys.
About a month later, after I’d forgotten about the book, I got a strongly worded message from Merf demanding its returns. I had to ask around among the runners where it was. Eventually, I found a storage closet near the kitchens where I hear a lot of grunting and moaning. Finally, Tiger Willow and Badger Alder came out. They had been practicing page 34 and 35. I got the book back, slightly sticker than when I’d lent it out and with pages missing. I pointed out that neither Tiger Willow nor Badger Alder had any sexual magic affinity and also lectured them about first coming to see me to get contraceptive spells.
It turns out I needn’t have lectured. It turns out that because both men and women served in the fighting forces, contraceptive spells were quite common and easy to get. The enlisted troops of both genders were essentially sterilized while they served and only rendered fertile again after they left the military or by special dispensation if a couple was stationed away from combat and wanted to be legally married. Sex was a popular pass time. There were even private rooms set aside for it.
I also made a habit of joining Captain Orr every day to practice sword with the other Runners. We didn’t do a lot of sparring. Instead, Orr would show us sword Katas, and we would practice them over and over again until the forms flowed smoothly from one to the other. And when we did spar, he emphasized precision, speed, and technique over brute force, and raw animal instinct. It seemed like another lifetime when I had trained like this, well before I’d met Wilmette. The skills were slowly coming back, and I was becoming better with a blade.
When we sparred, I was the best of the runners even without using my knack. And while I couldn’t match Orr’s experience or the way he transformed his blade-work into almost an art, I could, on rare occasions, get past his guard with my practice sword.
“Impressive Lynx Elm, give me five years, and I will put you on the road towards being a blade master.”
“Do I get anything fancy for being a blade-master? A special token of recognition? A sword with a bird or some waterfowl etched on it?” I asked.
Captain Orr looked at me like I’d gone nuts, “No. You get to not die in a fight against someone better than you.”
“That’s important too,” I said.
The next day when I went to train, I discovered Captain Orr waiting for me with the rest of the Runners. For some reason, everyone was trying very hard not to laugh. Tiger Willow and Fox Maple were standing together giggling. For someone who still couldn’t talk to me without blushing and running away, and who Red Panda still claimed (with no proof) queefed loudly and consistently in her sleep, Fox Maple giggled a lot.
“Lynx Elm, the other Runners and I have thought long and hard about what you said yesterday.” Captain Orr was holding something behind his back. “While there is no mark of a master swordsperson, your words moved all of us deeply. A bird or some sort of waterfowl you said. We took this to heart. And while you are not a blade master yet, you are clearly on the path to become one, so it fits you should train with a sword marked for legendary swordsman you wish to become.”
Captain Orr brought the practice sword he was holding behind his back forward. Someone had tied a dead goose to it. Then one of the other runners splashed the goose with some water, and it began to honk and try to flap its wings. Someone had tied a live goose to a practice sword...
“Behold oh mighty warrior, I present to you your goose-marked blade. A symbol of righteousness and a code to live by. Mighty warrior be like the goose: Don’t flap around. When your bottom is wet, it is likely because you are in a pond. If someone puts you in a cage and stuffs food down your throat, it is because your liver is the tastiest part of you. As the literary genius, Pierre Menard has written Be careful if you lay Golden Eggs. And above all, as the words written on the back of immortal Cart-san tell us, Honk if you are horny.”
Orr handed me the sword while the rest of the runners were in various states of laughter. The Goose was heavy, and only the rope which tied the poor thing kept if from beating its wings or flailing its feet to run away. I had to be careful because if I held the wooden practice weapon wrong, the could bite me.
I laughed. It was sort of funny. Poor goose though. I cast a quick spell and put it back to sleep.
Thankfully they didn’t require me to practice or fight with my goose sword. The goose made it awkward unbalanced. Besides midway through sparring that day the bird woke up and began honking and waddling in circles making a frightful noise. I had to put stop thrashing Tiger Willow long enough to put it to sleep again, and then Fox Maple ran off with the poor animal to take it the kitchens.
When Fox Maple got back, she asked Captain Orr, “Why is Lynx so good. A lot of us have been practicing with you longer. I know more katas and can do them better than he can. Red Panda is faster than he is. Tiger Willow is stronger.”
Captain Orr thought about this for a few seconds. “This is not a healthy discussion. I wouldn’t normally bring it up on my own. Most of the time I would say that some people simply have a better instinct for sword work than others. And this is true. But it is not the whole truth. Lynx Elm has something called a Killer Instinct. He hides it well, but it comes out when he fights. For most of you, when you spar, you hold back. You don’t want to hurt your friends. You worry about how much the force of a blow will hurt you. You think about what is for dinner. When Lynx Elm spars, he doesn’t care about these things. His mind is only on one thing. Killing the person or people he is fighting.”
“I suspect that at some time in his life Lynx Elm faced his inevitable death and instead of giving in and accepting it, overcame the odds at some cost to his goodness and soul.”
Orr sat down on the ground and put his practice sword beside him. He motioned for the others to sit too.
“But not only that. There is an anger inside the boy. A fury that I sometimes see come out when he fights. It isn’t a bloodlust. He doesn’t lose control like those who give in to blood fury. Instead, he when the rage takes him it is cold and focused, and everything is calculated and precise.”
“I have met people like Lynx Elm before. They are dangerous. On the battlefield and off. Many of them don’t care about anybody. They see other people as objects to be used or discarded. It is telling that Lynx is a member of the inquisition since that is where I have met most of those with this character trait. It is also fitting — and the reason I still train Lynx — that he volunteers with the wounded on the battlefield and in the hospital, and that he genuinely seems to be friendly with you runners. There is a conflict inside of him; it will be interesting to see if the monster or the man prevails.’
After that, the rest of the runners stayed away from me for a few days, and it took nearly a month before we got back to the laughing joking relationship we’d had before. Well except for Red Panda who was a pain in the ass with all her questions. But in a way, I was glad for the friendship.
One of the other ways that I spent a lot of my times was helping out in the hospital. Over time I grew to know the staff, both in the Keep and near the battlefield. Because I could only show up now and then, I could not learn surgery which I was told took years to learn. But I did help with minor things like sterilizing medical instruments, stabilizing soldiers in triage and refreshing the healing runes. And because I didn’t care if I wasted my entire mana supply, every once in a while I completely healed a patient who was not an officer. They didn’t mind this since they still got convalescent leave away from the fighting.
Out of curiosity on a slow day, I asked Tilde, the head physician, about the healing knack. I hadn’t used it since I had discovered it. It was easier to heal using runes, but the few people who had mentioned healing knacks claimed it was something rare.
“Tilde, once long ago you mentioned healing knacks. I’m curious, what do they do.” I was talking to Tilde the healer I had met them when I first arrived here.
“Not much. They are rare. Sometimes people with a Major Body Knack will have one. All a minor healing Knack does is regenerate wounds as long as you feed it mana. Useful in a fight I suppose. Depending on how strong it is and what kind of body knack the person has, I’ve heard of warriors who are nearly unkillable.” Tilde said, as his scalpel cut into the wounded warrior’s chest.
There had been a minor skirmish that had finished minutes ago. Fewer fireballs and more flights of arrows. My job was to keep people alive as the stretcher bearers brought them in off the battlefield long enough for a surgeon to cut the arrows out of any of the critically injured. Anybody with arrows in arms or legs could wait until later.
Tilde Jackalope Treant liked to talk while he worked. It helped him focus, so I said, “But what about Major Healing Knacks. You once mentioned those too.”
“Oh, those are incredibly rare. Probably the rarest knack there is, and I don’t envy those who have it.”
This surprised me. “Why not?” I said, “I would think a healing knack would be useful, even if it has a limited application.”
“You don’t understand; a Major Healing Knack has no limited application. Someone with this knack draws mana by fixing wounds. If someone with a healing knack were here, they could use their knack to cure a patient, and then prevent the mana overflow could then cast any other spell, to empty their reserves, and then go right on healing. They can bring people back right from the very brink of death, and cure wounds or sicknesses that are so severe that runic magic is useless.”
Tilde had cut open a large enough incision that pulling the barbed arrowhead out of the soldier could be accomplished without ripping a hole in his flesh. The arrow had struck just an inch below the man’s heart, and he was barely holding on to life. I kept a small supply of healing mana flowing into the soldier, keeping him unconscious and alive and Tilde pulled out the arrow. I was tempted to use the Healing Knack. Being able to get mana by healing wounds would be useful. On a battlefield, the wounded were all around. But something in the way Tilde spoke made me cautious.
We moved on to the next soldier, a silver status orderly with a small affinity for life magic was stabilizing her for us until we got there. I took over the stabilization and Tilde got quickly to work removing an arrow that had somehow just missed an artery.
“A major Life Knack sounds like a remarkable gift. Why don’t you envy the people who have it?” I asked.
Tilde continued to cut. “Let me tell you about Sara Antelope Rye. She lived nearly 300 years ago and discovered that she had a Major Life Knack. Of course, she began to go around the country healing and caring for the sick. This was in the early days of the empire when the current system of status had not been created. The people loved her and followed her from town to town, and everywhere she went to festivals were held in her honor. Even the nobility loved her because she didn’t care about a person’s position, she healed whoever came to her, poor or wealthy, and asked for nothing.”
“The problem was this. Our current Emperor is the same Emperor that we had then, and while this is not spoken of much, she is a Vampire.”
I must have looked confused, because Tilde said, “A Vampire is a Body Knack that can take other Body Knacks if they are given to him willingly. Willingly in the case of the Emperor involves torture and mind magic and undoubtedly by now a major Mind Knack.”
“Still, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much to the Emperor. A strong Vampire can steal a multitude of ways to harvest mana, taking mana from wounds while useful except for the sheer rarity of the knack. And Vampires are not known for their benevolence or selflessness towards others. Sara Antelope Rye would have been the hero of the people, except for one thing. It was discovered that the healing knack could heal old age.”
“Since that time, powerful vampire lords hunt down any Major Healing Knack they can find. Fortunately, it is a rare knack. But Vampires travel from kingdom to kingdom; from land to land hoping to find and torture a healer into giving up their knack, so that the Vampire can live forever.”
Tilde had made another incision while he talked and was slowly pushing the skin back away from the arrow. Blood was flowing down the wound, and even spurting from a small hole in the artery. I focused on sending healing runes, to close that tiny hole.
“It is why so few life mages specialize in healing, and so many in blood magic or life detection. Even the rumor of an accomplished medic will bring Vampires. It is the reason why we still use knives and sutures rather than dungeon cores and more efficient spells. Vampires hide well, shapeshifters are rare, but the best vampires have often stolen the knack of one. Every good physician is at risk of awakening one day in a dark basement with someone they once thought was a friend about to torture them for a knack they may or may not have.”
Tilde must have seen the shocked and worried look on my face. “Don’t worry. The introduction of Status magic has made things a lot easier. Every citizen of the empire get’s their status taken when they turn 16, and all their knacks are recorded on their status. While officially what is on a Status page is private, it is known that the Inquisitors use Status magic to find Twice-Lived and I am sure the people who work for the House of Status have a way to look at any status page they like. The killings of prominent healers have slowed down considerably since then.”
I must still have looked as worried as I felt, “Slowed down, but not stopped?” I said.
“Well, as Vampires age some get more and more desperate and more and more paranoid that someone has found a way to hide something from the status magic. Life Magic and Blood Magic are closely related after all, and what is Status Magic but a combination of life magic, blood magic, mind magic and arcane magic with some illusion magic and who knows what else thrown in for effect.”
Tilde pulled out the arrow from the woman’s body. Again, I let a flow of runes into her just barely healing her as I had been taught, conserving my mana for the next wounded soldier. Stabilizing her and keeping her alive, but letting her heal with time and nature.
“And of course the Emperor does not like other Vampires in his empire finding a someone with a Healing Knack, so sometimes he will kill a healer he suspects first before one of his servants finds it. The house of Status report to him above anyone else.”
“Servants,” I asked. This was beginning to be overwhelming.
Tilde looked at me in astonishment. “You are Clan Naato are you not?”
“What of it?” I said.
“Naato is a vampire. One of the Emperor’s servants. From what I hear the Emperor makes him young again periodically in exchange for his servitude. Naato was one of the warlords who established the early empire and began hunting down Twice-Lived. You are descended from him. Though descended is probably the wrong word since he is still alive.
“Of course Naato would love to find a Major Healing Knack. I can’t imagine someone like that, no matter how much power he enjoys as one of the most powerful men in the empire, he is still nothing more than a slave, dependent on someone to keep him alive. All the other Clan heads are like this. And of course, the Emperor knows this and makes sure to kill those healers off first.”
I spent the rest of the night healing in silence trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible.
Once a week those of us with body knacks would gather in the training yard and practice fighting at the incredible speeds and strengths that only someone with a body knack could manage. Here I was the slowest. I was reluctant to admit that I could go faster than double my speed. After I learned about the truth about Vampires; I resolved to keep everything I could about my skills secret.
My ever-increasing skill and technique did make up for a lot. And it was good practice fighting against people who outweighed me, and who was much faster, more robust and stronger than me except in short extremely limited bursts.
Besides myself, Captain Orr, and Terrald, the rest of the people with body knacks had been found among the soldiers. They had been promoted to Gold status upon discovery. Silver Status was useless for a warrior since it did not increase physical stats at all.
Alber Squirrel Kudzu was a farmer who wanted to go back to his farm after the war, though Captain Orr was trying to convince him to join the Imperial army. He could increase his stats by a factor of 1.75 and even had some minor regeneration abilities. Alber didn’t have nearly as much skill as Orr, but his speed and healing made him the next hardest for me to fight.
Micha Bat Ivy was a Zombie.
“What’s a zombie,” I asked.
“Life Knack. I get mana from eating flesh. The fresher, the bloodier, from the more intelligent the source, the better,” said Micha.
I looked at her horrified.
“Brains.” said Micha. She extended her arms, let her head tilt listlessly to the side, and her eyes glaze over and then said “brains,” again.
Since nobody else seemed worried I decided not to decapitate her, and a few seconds later when I didn’t run away in fear, she let her arms drop and laughed.
“While brains would probably really give me a real boost, I won’t eat them. Until I joined the army I was a vegetarian. Now they force me to eat as much steak as I can handle and all of it is rare. It’s disgusting. But it does fill me up with power. So I don’t complain too much. Plus whatever I can’t eat I give to the people in my platoon. They like the extra protein.”
I could never remember the two other people with minor body knack’s names. They never made much of an impression. Neither of them had ever held a sword before joining the army and even fighting at their best, amped up with their gold status, and the extra speed and power from their magic, I could beat them one on one in a fight. Privately in my head, I called them Flip and Flop.
Besides I could usually talk Micha, Terrald, and Alber into going to the officer mess for a beer after our weekly workout. Orr never joined us, and always muttered about corrupting the youth and that I was too young to drink. While Flip and Flop would leave together and I suspected they were a couple.
It wasn't until about nine months after I arrived that a runner came down from the keep with a message for me to carry to Lord Samdi.
There was a cart with a shipment of Twice-Lived for his use.