"Charity, hey, stop struggling! Wake up before you send us both to the void!"
I kept struggling. "Huh?" Where was I? What was going on?
"Can you hear me? We're on top of a train and we'll fall off if you don't keep still, you sun-wit!"
I stopped struggling. "Skids?" Right, I was travelling with the mage. With the drone. Dro, for short.
"Yeah, I'm still here, barely. Are you all there?"
"I think so," I said. "I am awake, at the least. I feel a lot better than before." My head did not hurt, though my arm did. I checked the sky, particularly the position of the sun. "Looks like I was out for over four hours. We must be through Exaltation."
"You slept through the whole thing like a rock, until the end. Then you freaked out and started thrashing around," Skids said. Dro sounded both annoyed and relieved.
"Did I roll off my pillow?" I asked, rubbing a sore spot on my head.
"Yeah, and I was lucky to stop you and grab my sack before it rolled right off the roof. Nightmare?"
"Something like that. I hardly remember," I said, checking myself for more injuries. I very quickly found one, as a gash on my left elbow was bleeding profusely.
"Yeah, you repeatedly scraped it against an exposed metal edge when you started flailing around," Skids said when dro saw that I had spotted the new wound. "Hold still, and I'll clean and bandage it for you, alright? The carers will fix it right up for you when we get to the hive. Shouldn't even leave a scar."
A wound without a scar. That did not sound right to me. It was like a crime without a punishment, a loss without sadness, a purchase without a receipt. My own actions had lead me to be sleeping atop this train carriage — a place no one had any business being — and I ought to bear the visible consequences. I had not followed the laws laid out in the Codex and so I deserved far greater punishment than this scratch.
"Ow!" It was actually a fairly deep scratch, and the process of Skids cleaning it was far more painful than the untended injury had been. I chose not to say anything else, as I did not want dro to be distracted during the process.
Reflecting on that thought, another language question occurred to me. "Um, Skids?" I asked once dro had finished securing the new bandage. Apparently mages used safety pins the same as ours.
"I have another language question. Mages use 'dro' to refer to drones such as you, like they use 'she' for seers and 'he' for hexmages, right?"
"That's right. Good job remembering that on the first go."
I smiled, glad that my memory was serving me well. "What about 'her' and 'him'?"
"For example: He told me that she was talking to her about him."
Skids took several seconds to process that statement. "That's a weird way to say it, but... nevermind. Language doesn't make much sense when you think about it too much. That's why I stick with simple, solid things. Anyhow, I think the way we'd say that is, 'He told me that she was talking to sheem about heem.'"
"He, heem, she, sheem, dro, drome?" I guessed.
"Yep. And sa, sarm, ra, rarm, jur, jume. Or they, them in general."
"We use 'they' and 'them' the same way. For single or multiple people."
"Multiple people, really? We say 'thall' and 'themall'. And 'drall', 'dromall' and so on."
"I think I have it now. That might actually be clearer than our way."
So, that meant I actually didn't want drome to be distracted while dro had been cleaning my new cut. That was one more step up in climbing the language barrier.
This morning, improving my skill at talking to a mage would have been unthinkable. What had happened to the devout young woman who had hoped to become a cleric's secretary? Obviously that was never going to happen now.
"Hey, Charity, you look down. What's wrong?"
"You would be 'down' too if you had unexpectedly left your entire... world behind." I almost said 'family', but remembered that mages did not really have such a concept. I was not satisfied with that explanation though, and tried to clarify. "Not just your world, but specifically all the people you were connected to. Like... those you were close to growing up, your carers, people you work with regularly, I guess. And on top of that, everything you aspired to do and become some day, was suddenly completely impossible."
Skids looked thoughtful, but did not appear to be really relating to my words. Neither did dro have anything to say.
That line of thought brought me to wonder something which I really ought to have asked much sooner. "Skids, why are you here? Not here specifically. I mean outside your hive, visiting Forrester's Crossing."
"I actually should have mentioned that a while back. Oh well, can't change that. I'm on a mission to track down a missing person."
Odd. "You think a missing mage might be in Forrester's Crossing? Or in one of our other cities? Do you think they are a prisoner, or someone in disguise as one of us?"
"Nah, the other way around. I know where the person is but not where they're from. Do you know of anyone who went missing three or more years ago?"
"Hmm... About five years back, there was a man who was exiled for a month but did not return. We assumed he either died or joined a barbarian group, but no one has seen evidence of either."
"How old?" Skids asked quickly, leaning a little closer to me.
"Older than my father. Early forties, I think."
Skids deflated like a punctured air hose. "No, way too old. Anyone else?"
I searched further back in my memories. "There was a little girl, about two years old, who is believed to have been taken by wild dogs about ten years back."
"There are tame dogs? Never mind, that's too young. Anyone else?"
"No, and I think I would remember if there was. I suppose the person in question does not remember where they are from. Were they found as a young child? No, you said they went missing at least three years ago but are older than twelve now. A child of nine should know their city. And their name. Head injury?" I said, theorising out loud.
"No detectable skull damage."
Skids shook dro's head. I hoped that was the correct shorthand. "Mages can't just 'magic' people's memories away."
"Then what can it do? All I was told was that it is an invisible force which corrupts all who use it, gradually turning them into twisted demon-like monsters controlled by evil, by causing tiny magic-infused devices to grow inside their bodies, forming larger and larger mechanisms until they are more machine than creature."
Skids pushed dro's eyewear up onto dro's forehead. "Wow, what sun-wit came up with that one?"
"Sun-wit? Is that an insult?"
"Oh, yeah, we mages say if someone's been out in the sun too long... well you get the idea."
"You called me that earlier."
"When I was waking up."
"Oh, I probably did. You were trying to push us both off the roof of this train. And your people called me a lot worse."
"You blew up a train and a bakery with magic!"
"I stopped the bridge from being destroyed, and the bakery was later!"
"You distracted the signalman!"
"That wasn't my fault!" Dro realised how loud we were being, and lowered dro's voice to a more reasonable tone. "I didn't do anything that deserved how thall treated me."
"You are a mage. That is enough on its own. If you expected otherwise, then you are the sun-wit."
Skids shrugged. "Maybe I am, for thinking the daywalkers weren't as barbaric as the stories I'd heard. For hoping that was all in the distant past. But yall still consume beasts, breed like beasts, and think that we would use magic if it actually turned us into monsters."
"But... the clerics say that they have seen the magical corruption growing in mage bodies."
Skids pulled the eyewear back down. "No mage I've seen has had any 'magical corruption' growing in them. Mages sometimes have very simple devices such as magestones and aetherbottles implanted temporarily, but nothing ever grows or is grown."
"Then what did the clerics see?"
"Not mages. Perhaps titans."
"Titans? What are titans?"
"From what little I've heard, they were once mages, but are not part of any hive. They have learned great secrets of enhancing their bodies with metal and magic, and making implants that the body doesn't reject. I don't know much more than that."
"So they were corrupted by—"
"Magic doesn't work like that!"
"Oh, then how does it work?"
"I have no idea!"
Great, I was stuck on top of a train with the world's most useless mage. "So the ritual you performed to call up dark forces to destroy Val's Bakery... you have no idea what you were doing?"
"Dark ritual? I was remotely activating an ABAM, not performing a 'dark ritual'."
"And an ABAM is what exactly?"
"Aether-boosted artificial magestone. Don't bother asking me what that means."
"Aether? You mentioned that before."
Skids shrugged. "It's a different type of magic? Or a different form of magic? I don't know, I just plug things in."
This was immensely frustrating. How could I argue with someone who did not even understand the subject? "So, the ABAM, what did it do?"
"It just pushes some metal things around, and messes with some other magical gear unless it's protected well. No corruption, no monsters, just pushing, or pulling."
"But you cannot see what does the pushing or pulling. So it has to be dark forces," I reasoned.
"Why does it have to be something evil?"
"If it was good, would it not show itself?"
Skids raised a hand and waved it around.
"What are you doing?"
"Feeling the air."
Oh. "I see your point. But we cannot feel magic like we can feel air. Magic is so deeply hidden that we cannot sense it at all. If magic was good, the Great Maker would have provided us with some way to sense it. He clearly has not. However, mages who are creatures of darkness can sense magic, as well as create and manipulate it, so—"
"Hold up. We can't sense magic any more than yall can. Or manipulate it. Not without magestones. Which anyone could use, if they wanted to. And while I have no idea how it works, I know that we can't create it. Not from our bodies, if that's what you mean."
That made no sense. "Then how did you do the ritu... I mean remote activation?"
"The gloves. They have magestones in them. I think. Or aetherbottles. Or both?"
This was not helping me understand at all. "I suppose I shall have to ask a seer," I said. Inwardly I marvelled that I had actually said such a thing. Consulting anyone with knowledge of magic was expressly forbidden by the Codex of Purity, in section ten, subsection two.
"I don't recommend that. The last one I talked to started rambling on about bernstainbits. Or was it bernstonebits? Something involving magical ripples and motes."
That sounded fascinating, and it really should not have. My fascination with the topic frightened me. Was I so easily led astray? I quickly recited the relevant statutes a few times, then looked around to distract myself.
The landscape outside the train was unfamiliar to me. While I had taken this rail journey previously, everything looked and felt very different from the confines of a carriage. An unobstructed view from the carriage roof while sitting in the open air was a much more real experience than looking out through a window. It was also much colder, especially now that evening was drawing near.
"I think we are about twenty minutes before sundown," I judged. "This train will reach Deepbloom at ten minutes before, and will terminate there. Where is the hive in relation to Deepbloom? If it is far, I will need warmer clothes. Oh, and food."
"I'm out of food," Skids said, looking rather annoyed at that fact. "Your clerics gave me nothing to eat, and I wasn't allowed to touch anything being served at your ceremony. So I ate all my supplies while you were asleep. So that's one problem."
"I sense that is not all," I said.
"Yiwarra hive is quite close to Nearton's Bend. I was hoping another train might take us most of the way there."
"Trains do take freight from Deepbloom to a depot at the end of the remaining rails, from which it is transferred past the Gap by wagon. But trains do not run after dark." I was beginning to realise that Skids had not planned our 'escape' out very well.
"That's a problem. Looks like we're stuck in Deepbloom tonight unless we find alternative transport. Could we steal a train?"
I stared at Skids in horror.
"Yeah, I thought not. Bikes?"
"Pedal all that way? In the dark? Not happening."
"Don't you have powered bikes? Steam bikes?"
"Not in Deepbloom, and they are quite short range, would be impossible to steal, and do you really want to be sitting next to a pressurised chamber while fleeing in the dark?"
"I have a magelight, but you're right, that sounds like a terrible idea. Um, horses? Would they be able to find their way home once we're done with them?"
"Do you know how to ride?"
"Don't think so. Do you?"
"No. Is there no way to fly with magic?"
"If I could fly, don't you think I would've done that instead of coming here by spinnerbike?"
"Spinnerbike? Is that the one you needed a blacksmith to repair? Is that some kind of magic-powered bicycle?"
"Yeah, and I really need to get it back home. It's an experimental one that runs on inflammable air, somehow. I'm testing it out as a favour to some seers."
"How do you plan to do that? You have to know that there is no chance of getting it fixed in Forrester's Crossing."
"I figure I can borrow an older standard spinnerbike from Yiwarra and some tools to repair it. Or else rig something up so I can tow it back. That'll cost me months out of my pay though."
"Well you had better find a way to do that soon, before my people find it. I hope you hid it well."
"All the more reason to find a way to reach Yiwarra hive tonight," Skids said, sounding concerned.
"I am more worried about how we will get off this train without being noticed, and what we will eat."
"The first part is easy. I just put the dress on over my clothes."
"These are very visibly not travelling dresses. We will stand out like a cracked lens."
"Oh. Then we walk to the front of the train and climb down and into the luggage wagon. Someone's sure to have a change of travelling dresses that will fit us, right?"
"Maybe. But that would be theft. And entering a railcar in motion."
"Is there any alternative? And is the punishment for that any worse than what you've already accrued?"
"I would be inconveniencing innocent people," I protested weakly. "People who are here because they specifically chose to avoid the ceremony."
"Cowards. They did nothing to stop it either. It's not like we can pay them anyway. I suppose you could leave your fancy dress behind if it bothers you that much."
"I do have a few coins," I realised. Father had given me a few coppers, not knowing that I would be allowed a free lunch today. Was that really today? Lunch with Kim seemed so distant now, like it had happened to someone else.
"We'll need those for food," Skids said.
"About that. The markets and stores will be closed by the time we leave the train."
"Is there food on the train for the passengers?"
"Not a full meal. They will likely dine in their hotels, with family or friends, or in a tavern."
"Can't we just—"
"No, taverns and hotels would not dare to serve unaccompanied women. Females, that is. Which is what I am, in case that was unclear."
Skids shook dro's head. "I figured that out from all the birth talk. And males are the ones in trousers, so can't I just find a fitting male travelling outfit and... accompany you to a hotel or tavern?"
"Not without either rings or chaperones."
"Not important. I hardly have enough copper for a single lunch. Unless you have some coins?"
"It seems that when the clerics confiscated my belongings, they judged my coins as having no contamination risk," Skids said with obvious mock officiousness.
"Oh. In any case, if we did get inside a tavern, the most we could do is try stealing someone else's meal. Then we would have the patrol after us and the only thing in our bellies would be a crossbow bolt."
"We'll have to think of something later. If we don't get a move on now and find new disguises before the train arrives, the lack of food won't matter."
I could not argue with that, so I kept my mouth shut and followed Skids to the front of the train. The track was rather straight at present, so jumping from carriage to carriage presented no additional danger. That did not make it at all safe, however. Skids went first while I held dro's backpack and sack. Once dro had a secure footing on the other side, I threw the bulky items one at a time. I followed once dro had cleared the landing zone enough to give me space, remaining close enough to grab me if I stumbled.
Three nerve-wracking jumps and a terrifying climb and shuffle later, we were inside the freight wagon, hoping no one had noticed one of the doors opening briefly. Before leaving the roof I had observed the shape of a city on the horizon, which meant we did not have very long.
"You take that stack and I'll look in these," I said, indicating the closest two towers of travelling trunks. My hands were shaking as I prepared to open other people's personal possessions. The luggage was not even locked, as no one would dare do what we were about to do.
I tried forcing my hands into stillness. My right hand stopped jittering. Good enough.
"Paydirt!" Skids shouted from my right. Dro had already found a thick brown dress which looked to be about my size. Knowing how cold it would soon become outside, I slipped it on over my fancy dress, silently apologising to its owner. Skids was already looking in the next trunk, making a mess of the neatly folded clothes within. "Nope, that's no good. It's a good thing what's-their-name had serious muscles from hauling bakery stuff around. I can't fit my arms into any of these."
"Gloria? The girl you stole the hair from? Oh, you will need to fix up what is left of that to make it look less obvious. Or pull it all off and hope no one realises there is nothing under your bonnet. Um, or is there?"
"My hair's super short, cos I hate helmet hair. I have wigs though," Skids said, pushing one trunk out of the way and opening another.
"Let me guess. Are they orange?"
"One orange, one blue. The seers weren't really meant to let a drone take their spinnerbike, so—"
"Tell me later. We'll need shoes."
"I'm sticking with my boots this time. And no one's packed extra shoes so far, other than some which look even less practical than the ones I grabbed from Gloria."
"Right, no one needs a second pair of travelling shoes," I realised. "We'll have to make do and hope no one notices."
"Quit talking and help with the searching. No, I think I've got it." Skids threw on an ugly grey dress which was both large enough for dro's arms to fit comfortably, and long enough to completely hide dro's very unladylike boots. "How do I walk in this without tripping on it?"
"Very carefully," I said, as I tried undoing the mess Skids had made of people's belongings.
The train ground to a halt. I hadn't noticed it slowing.
I threw together an escape plan. "Alright, we need to wait until we hear people leaving the carriages, wait a few seconds, then open the door and pretend we got here ahead of them from one of the other carriages. Then I will make up some pretext for us to leave without our luggage. I'll say I left something under our seats. Then we'll just walk past a couple of carriages slowly, perhaps looking in the windows ever so often like we've lost something. Once a few people start heading for the exit, we can follow fairly quickly like we know where we're going or are trying to catch up to someone. Got it?" That should work.
"Or we could hide in the back until... oh."
The door nearest to us slid open, and a uniformed porter stepped inside. Immediately he noticed that he was not alone. "Oi, what are you doing in here?"
"Finally!" Skids said enthusiastically, stepping close to the man, who I judged as a few years older than myself, and not as bright. Dro reached out to shake his hand. "You wouldn't believe how long I've fzzzzzt." That last sound came from dro's glove, which the porter had mindlessly accepted.
He became as limp as a doll, and thudded to the wooden floor. By some blessing of the Maker, someone's socks were under his head.
"Will he live?" I asked, unsure of what this new display of magic had done.
"Should." Dro checked his neck for a pulse. "Yeah, their heart's still pumping so there's no harm done. Alright, let's get out of here. Same as your plan, but we don't need the excuse, and we loiter until someone finds this brilliant spark and grabs everyone's attention."
An older man in the distinctive suit of a cleric stepped into the wagon.
Skids extended dro's other hand, but the cleric avoided entering striking distance.
I involuntarily stepped backwards, and tripped over an umbrella. I did not land on anyone's clothes.
I saw stars.
"Are you alright down there?" I blinked. It was Skids, offering me a gloved hand. I took it, and dro helped me to my feet.
"What were you saying, young lady?" a man asked. The cleric, I realised with sudden fear.
"Oh, yes, honoured cleric, this porter was stealing from the luggage, and when I insisted he stop, he attacked us," Skids said in the 'Mary accent'.
He couldn't possibly believe that, could he?
"Whereupon you successfully defended your sister?" the cleric asked.
"That is correct, honoured cleric."
"You have done well. I shall see to it that he is dealt with in a fair manner, and that your luggage is conveyed to... the Prism Hotel, or Three Turntables?"
"We are staying at Three Turntables," 'Mary' answered. "Hurry along, Gloria."
That must have meant me. "Uh, yes," I said, and fled.
"I can't believe we got away with that!" I hissed in Skids' ear once we were clear of the station. "How did you do that?"
"I really don't know. I just said the first thing I thought of, and it worked. If this dress wasn't so long he'd have seen me shaking in my boots. I'm still shaking in my boots."
"I know exactly how you feel," I said, feeling like a beehive buzzing with nervous energy.
"How's your head?"
"Surprisingly good, actually. I'm feeling a lot better than I have in along time. Your medication must really work. Or else I'm just numb from excitement. And from hitting my head again. Was I out for long?"
"Just a few moments. I think you just stunned yourself a little. But I'll make sure the carers check out your head."
Oh, right. We still had to find a way to get to the hive. "Maybe we could find someone who has a wagon or a cart. That would beat trying to learn to ride a horse in the dark." The sun was down now, and the light was fading quickly.
"You're putting the cart before the food."
"I mean almost getting caught again has made me hungry. I could eat a whole fish. Raw."
"You eat fish? Mages eat fish?"
"Sure we do. We eat a whole lot of fish. It's things that walk around that we don't eat."
"Oh. Well, raiding a fishmonger is probably easier than a butcher."
"A butcher? That sounds terrible."
"It would be to you. A butcher is who cuts up the 'beasts' for us to cook and eat. Actually, until you 'rescued' me, I was supposed to marry a butcher. In Deepbloom. Which is where we are now. And he would definitely have a cart."
Skids gave me a look of understanding. "You have a plan, don't you?"