"How did—" were the final words of the raider leader. They were cut off either by a high velocity metal bar interfering with the existence of his throat, or by the sound of Cards' aetherrailer firing. It was impossible to say which arrived first.
The remaining raiders scattered in all directions, fleeing unseen foes. They might have tried spearing the source of the sound again, but they had lost all nerve.
It wouldn't have made much difference. Skids found a glove and we ran for the centre of the now dissipating cloud of magical fog. I hung back at first, but Skids urged me forward. "It's harmless, really," dro assured me.
We found Cards lying on sa's front in a drying pool of blood, still clutching the aetherrailer. There was just a little life left in the caster. Sa smiled at us, a weak smile which was really just a twitching of the corner of sa's mouth. But we knew it was a smile. "I held on, long enough," sa murmured.
Skids knelt down close by Cards' head and spoke to sarm softly, while I hung back, feeling awkward. "You did great. Waited for the signal and everything. They'd have run off for sure even without our extra mysterious help."
"You great too. Make a caster yet."
"Me? No, I couldn't..."
"Know you can. Sorry. Real mage. Best of us. Shouldn't... this job. Not right. Cleanup?"
"I don't understand. Cards, what are you saying?
"Oversss..." That final word turned into a final breath.
"The Over Seer? What does she... No!" Skids kicked at the ground with a bare foot, frustrated by the now dead caster's inability to explain.
I waited in silent support, giving dro some time to work out dro's grief and anger. My mind was mainly dwelling on Cards' final words. Sa seemed to have regretted some recent action. Possibly a job for the Over Seer? But what was 'cleanup'? Was the job the cleanup, or was this the cleanup?
That was a question for later. A more immediate question was about the weapons that had appeared out of the darkness. Who had helped save us from the raiders?
"I'm sorry to interrupt, especially at this painful time" said a new voice. Another man with a deep voice, but this one was older.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" Skids demanded. Dro stood up from Cards' body holding the aetherrailer ready to fire. Dro wore one glove, from which a magelight shone unsteadily in the newcomer's face.
The man squinted under the glare, but his face remained peaceful. "There's no need for that," he said softly. "We're simple traders, not raiders like the ruffians who captured you. I apologise for taking so long in acting, but I did not find a good moment sooner. Though it seems like you had a sufficient escape plan of your own."
"Yeah, how did you manage to..." I began to ask Skids, but dro cut me off. "Later, Charity." Dro turned back to the trader man. "For simple traders, that was highly lethal. And you haven't told me who you are."
"Even simple traders need to protect themselves against brutes. As for me, I go by many names. You may address me as my people do. They call me 'Sente'. I am their... advisor, you might say. May I know your name, young... hmmm... drone, yes?" His tone and manner felt parental. Not exactly fatherly though. I couldn't help but like it, though I was far from ready to trust him.
"Yes. Skids Dro. Of Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts." There was no humour in Skids' dogged reciting of the hive's full name, only weariness.
"I know of it. Now, if I could ask a small favour, could you shine a light on the former raider in charge? There's something I need... Yes, there it is." Skids had trained the light on the leader's body without stopping to think, allowing Sente to stoop down and pluck a small rectangular object off the ground.
I heard hushed, reverent voices around us. "Is that..." "Yes it is!" "Are you sure?" "Could it really..." The other traders in Sente's group, evidently.
"So you're not here to rescue us, you're here for the thingumy," Skids said, more scathingly than I felt was warranted. Sente's people had made a major contribution to our current safety. Or apparent safety, at least.
"A bit of both. Your lives are valuable, but trust me that this device is very important as well. I have been seeking it for most of my life, in one way or another. I wasn't certain that it was with this particular group until the bossman there showed it off to you. So I owe you my thanks for that."
"You're welcome, I guess," Skids said. "Does that mean you know what it is?"
I stepped forward, interested. If it was at all what the raider leader had said — I almost wished I had a name by which to refer to him, except that I did not want to dignify him with a name — then I really wanted to know. It might answer some of my questions. Questions which I should not be asking, because I had had the answers stamped onto me for years, but still felt like I needed better answers to. The part of me that told me what was true was in conflict with the part that wanted to see and touch and experience the facts behind everything. Part of me told me that I knew who I had to trust, and another part said that trust had to be built on something more concrete than words written in books or spoken by clerics, or even parents.
"I do know," Sente said after leaving us hanging for many agonising moments.
My eagerness got the better of me. "Well?"
"You wouldn't understand any explanation I gave you," Sente said, and my heart sank. Another man was keeping the truth from me. Had any man ever not?
Skid was almost as annoyed as me — was that even possible? — but didn't keep it in like I did. "Hey!"
"But... I can show you," Sente said, adding a cheeky grin as we groaned at the trickery which had turned out to be an innocent joke. Something about that grin reminded me of my mother's mother. She had died when I was young, but I remembered her being far more playful than Mother ever had. Not that Sente looked like either of them. He had a wide head, a deep forehead, and a thick, blunt chin.
Sente seemed like an important person to understand, so I took more careful note of his face. His hair was mostly white, and he kept it out of his face with a pale red cloth tied around the crown of his head. His beard was bushier than the raider leader's, but his teeth were straighter. His eyes were grey and seemed kind but weary, and the lines on his face spoke of both joy and troubles, but not so much of anger. It was a little hard to tell under the wavering magelight, but his skin seemed to be as dark as obsidian. Even under the magelight he might have been hard to see, except that he was clad in a light tan robe with a grey sash. It was much more eye-catching than my dark riding outfit. My skin was a little more visible than his though, being a couple of shades lighter. I had about the same skin tone as my father, while Skids' was similar to my mother's lighter brown. I would have to see them side by side to make a proper comparison, and that was as unlikely as me seeing through my right eye again.
"Are you okay?"
"I mean are you two alright?" Sente asked mildly.
I glanced to Skids. Dro was doing a fair impression of a fish. I realised that I must have been staring vacantly into space.
"Yes show us!" Skids blurted out. "Please!"
"But maybe we could do that away from the dead bodies?" I suggested pointedly. I wasn't sure which was worse: the smell of death, or the thought of death. The former was terrible, while the latter was dreadful, especially since it made me think of Chalice. And Cards and Spire, but mostly Chalice. I couldn't handle dwelling on Chalice.
Skids was guiding me by the shoulder. "Come on, you. Pay attention or you'll get lost in the dark. Speaking of, here's my other glove, and yours... are over there. Now where did our boots end up?"
There had been so much going on that I hadn't even considered that I was barefoot in the dark again. At least there was light now, and the grass was mostly safe to step on. Besides the bodies. It didn't matter for long, as the rest of our gear was not far away. We put on our boots and gloves, but carried our goggles and helmets. Actually, I carried both our helmets, so Skids could shoulder the aetherrailer. That was only as a deterrent against any trouble from the newcomers. Skids left behind Cards' heavy pack containing additional aetherbottles and metal spikes. They would be needed if dro was to use the weapon more than once.
Noticing that Skids' hands were still trembling, I leaned close so we could speak without the traders hearing. "Can you use that, if you need to?"
"No," Skids said, punctuating the word with a small but violent shake of dro's head. "But I'm not letting it out of my sight." Dro had a haunted look which I felt went beyond the current loss.
"You've lost someone before?" I guessed.
"A friend," Skids said, looking up at the stars. "She was raised by the carers who took me in."
A girl? No, that meant something different to mages. "A seer?"
"That's right. You remind me of sheem. Price was she's name."
"A caster with an aetherrailer."
"Was it an accident? Or...?
"She owed carm several favours. It was a... messy situation."
"You seemed to enjoy using that on the doors earlier," I said, a bit confused by the change.
Skids' reply was rather scattered both in tone and direction, as dro looked around at nothing in particular. "I was getting over it. And blowing doors open is fun! Or it was."
Losing two more people had brought back the loss of dro's friend, I realised. And perhaps dro's earlier enjoyment of the aetherrailer had been mostly bravado. Dro had been noticeably averse to the idea of its use on people. I definitely agreed that it was not a weapon to be left unattended, or used without sufficient cause. The raiders' murderous attack had justified its use, as had the leader's intention of robbing us of our dignity and leaving us to freeze.
I studiously avoided looking at his corpse. One glance of what the aetherrailer had done to his head was more than enough for me. Instead, I looked around for our bags. They were soon spotted, and were recovered undamaged and with their contents undisturbed. I might not have been able to handle finding my belongings strewn across the ground, or worse.
"Will you be alright?" I asked as we walked away from the carnage. The traders followed close behind, carrying bags and bundles of belongings. A few more joined us, having waited some distance away until the trouble with the raiders was over. A couple were leading horses, also laden with bags.
"A lot of people died."
"Mostly theirs, bad people, but some of ours too. Good people."
"True. Yeah, they were good people. Cards and Spire. Good when it counted." Skids paused and I gave drome more time to consider everything. "Ours?"
"I lost family today. In the fire." I wanted to say more than that. I couldn't. It was too real. Even saying that much hurt.
"I... don't really understand family. I guess I already lost my family, if I had any. Lost completely. And thall lost me too. What I mean is... I'm sorry you lost your family. To the fire, and to... to you getting mixed up with me. I'm sorry I took you from them."
"Thanks," I said. "For being sorry. And... maybe thanks for taking me? I... Everything's so complicated. I don't really know what to think about anything, but maybe I'm where I need to be to get some answers. Anyhow, I understand that you were trying to help me. So. Thanks."
"Glad I could... help. Or I hope I helped. This is weird."
"It is," I agreed. "And it's starting to get cold. It's a still night, but it's clear, so it'll get colder quickly. And I don't think we're about to ride off to Yiwarra hive, so... How do the traders stay warm at night? Where do they sleep?"
"We use lots of blankets, and we hang hammocks in trees," said a new voice. "Easy up, easy down." No, a familiar voice.