I was not surprised to hear that Lu Shenks had 'freaked out' at the situation. It was paradoxically easy to picture the unthinkable scene. A wagon lying dismembered, just short of a critical bridge support. A valuable cargo of logs strewn about, delaying a critical delivery. And worst of all, the steel rails bent all out of skew on their timbers. A vital connection of civilisation, severed. Our town's reputation, ruined.
"And he shrieked like a steam whistle, 'A million mages! What wizardry is this? My beautiful bicycle! The spokes, and the paint and it's all out of shape! And where did my crossbow go?' For a moment it looked like he was about to dive into the wreck," Friche said. Father had said something dull and factual while I imagined the carnage, which I'd missed.
Father clearned his throat uncomfortably. "That is... correct, as I recollect the events, but... there is a young lady present. I was attempting to gloss over the strong language."
"Oh, my apologies, Wilison, to you and your daughter." Friche sounded more annoyed than ashamed.
I made a slight nod in his direction, indicating that I accepted the apology. Privately, I agreed more with what I presumed was Friche's opinion. While cursing by such dark concepts was considered shocking and uncouth, it was less extreme than the actual situation being described. It was understandable that a man should use such words when faced with actual horrors. Mentioning such things casually was less concerning to me than the very real hints of such things actually being present. I really hoped someone would soon get to the point of confirming what had caused the damage. I knew I was not alone, having spotted restless movements from Channing and Champion.
Father was responding to Friche's apology. "...happen a third time. Now where were we? Ah, Shenks was about to search the wreckage for his crossbow. I ordered him to back away slowly. He followed my directive, and I proceeded to scale the nearest ladder to street level."
"There was more to it than that," Friche said. "Lu was clearly almost vibrating with tension—"
"He was not close enough to see—"
"I know Lu, and he was tense. He almost ran off and we both know you would have had to put a bolt through his leg if he had tried it."
"But he did not make the attempt, and thus his life was spared."
"Assuming his exile is completed successfully, that is."
"Friche, you are jumping ahead of the story," Father said with one of his stronger looks of disapproval."
"You were already jumping ahead, Wilison."
"I was trying to avoid needless... never mind." Father had evidently realised he was only wasting further time by prolonging the argument. "I began to cautiously approach the bridge, keeping an eye on the stranger while also being wary of possible danger from other directions. This was both necessitated and confounded by the rapidly failing light of dusk. The stranger left the bridge and was now directly before me, though further away than Shenks."
Finally we were getting to the point. My brothers leaned in a little closer to Father, so I let myself do the same.
"As it stalked towards me, the creature spoke," Father said, abandoning any pretence that it was not what we had all surely suspected. "Due to the distance and its unfamiliarity with our tongue, I only understood the last two words: 'kill much'. That, combined with its insolently casual gait, and decidedly uncivilised manner of dress, were enough for me to identify it."
A chill of fear went through me as I anticipated his next words. I saw the men try and fail to suppress their own shudders.
"This was the enemy of everything Pure. This was a Walker of the Night, an Agent of Darkness, One Hated by the Sun, a Practitioner of the Forbidden, a Consort of Demons, a Traitor to Humanity and a Dweller of the Underground. This was the ultimate prize, and it was mine to capture. I banished all hesitation, took a firing position, and spoke confidently to the beast: 'Surrender, or die.'"
I realised I had forgotten to breathe throughout the proclamation. It was indeed as I had both hoped and feared. Feared, because this was an enemy greater than the demons which had erased Nearton's Bend. Hoped, because this foe was the source of my salvation. By capturing this dark one, Father had definitely earned a boon from the clerics.
"It claimed to surrender, but attempted to mislead and ensnare me with distracting words. I paid these no mind, but instead ordered it to indicate its surrender with utter silence. It had no reply."
A solemn silence decended on the room.
Friche looked like he had plenty more to say, but he waited for Father to continue.
"The clerics and their containment team arrived shortly after. We gave an account of the situation and they took over the scene of the incident. In the course of the handover, we learned that Yen spied the dark one casting something at the wagon, which caused the arcane detonation."
That made sense. As a signalman, Yen was outfitted with a quality set of binoculars. I doubted he was still a signalman, however.
"Yen was of course removed from his vocation, and recieved a week's exile. The yard-worker got two weeks. They should be fine. Shenks though..." Father shook his head sadly. "Shenks was exposed to the blast, so he was sentenced to a six month quarantine exile, immediately."
That explained why Mr. Friche seemed so unlike himself tonight. Usually when he stopped by after a patrol, he was a man of few words, and rarely interrupted. With the loss of his friend, he was filling the silence. But now that the story had reached its tragic conclusion, he appeared lost for words.
"The nightwalker's dark implements were carefully confiscated, and it was securely swaddled and imprisoned. On the morrow, at the sun's zenith, it will be sent where it belongs. Charity's healing ceremony will follow, as a reward for the destruction of a fallen being."
And that was that. A corrupted life in exchange for one of the pure. A nightwalker for a daywalker. Except that I did not feel especially deserving. Belatedly, I realised that Father was looking at me expectantly. If he had prompted me to speak, I had missed it. "Thank you again, Father. And thank the Great Maker for allowing our foe to fall into your hands. If only it had not come at so great a cost to our city." His expression showed that he expected something more from me. Something less formulaic, I guessed. "Are... are you certain? That you wish to use your boon for me, I mean?"
Father's eyes softened, though I barely caught it in the waning glow of the mushrooms. "You are my firstborn daughter, and about to be married. How else should I use a boon?"
"Your mother is fine, and has borne me many children already. You are the future. You are the one the enemy wishes to destroy, and you are the one who needs to be protected from harm. Now, off to bed with you. I have much to discuss with my sons."
In the space of a few words I had gone from the most important person in Father's world, to hardly existing at all. Being a girl, I was used to that. I slipped away from the table as he began grilling Channing and Champion on the doctrinal implications of the evening's events.
"Charity, before you go..."
I froze halfway through the dining room door and turned back to find out what I'd missed. "Yes, Father?"
"Friche needs to get back to his boarding house. Would you prepare a lantern for him?"
"Of course, Father."
Moving with careful swiftness, I opened a high kitchen cabinet and took down a pair of stoppered glass jars. Mr. Friche had already fetched one of the guest lanterns from its hook beside the front door, so it was a simple matter to fill it. I carefully poured out the appropriate amount of each liquid into the lantern's graduated glass reservoir. As two kinds of fluid combined, a minor miracle of the Maker occurred and the resulting mixture began to glow with a greenish light stronger than that of the potted mushrooms or even the fish in their tanks. A combination of lenses and mirrors would focus and direct the light. It would not hold back any dangers of the night, but at least it would keep the bearer from walking into anything.
"It is ready, Mister Friche" I said unnecessarily.
"Thank you, Miss Wilison," he said, picking the latern up, and then putting it back down so he could put on his coat and shoes.
"I am sorry about what happened to Mister Shenks," I added, unable to hold my regrets in.
"We are the patrol. It happens," he said, as if that made it better. "But thank you all the same." He took the lantern again and was soon outside, standing in a tiny haven of visibility in the otherwise unknowable darkness. I bolted the door behind him, hoping the nightwalker Father had captured was the only one. If not, Friche knew what to do. No one on the city patrol was stupid.
Knowing that tomorrow would be a very important day for me, I hurried to prepare for bed. As I recited my evening prayers from memory, the pain in my hand made itself known again. I did not let it distract me. It would be gone tomorrow, so it was not worth agonising over. It was already essentially defeated, so I put all the more effort into praising the Great Maker. I would live. I could not ask for more.
I brushed my right hand over the bandage, then up until I felt my engagement ring. I would live, and after the winter I would leave. Somehow, even after having my life guaranteed, that still frightened me. Almost frightened me. To fear something as simple and universal as change would be stupid. And above all, I promised myself that I would never be stupid.