"Tell me, are you going there?"
The quavering voice nearly gets washed away by the river, as all things do.
"Your feet are pointed there, your wheels turn, your oxen are strong."
I don't look at him. They told me to look away. The sun tortures the rivermist and curls rainbows across my vision.
"Look at me son." the voice is stronger now, I recognize it. The urge becomes stronger. I keep my eyes glued to my feet. "You know where it is." I keep walking and the gravel crunches beneath my feet like a low growl. "You only have to go there. It's waiting for you." I move on, as I always do. Something moves funny in my heart, and I struggle to keep my breath.
Eventually the wind turns and the rivermist fades away like it was never really there. I look back over my shoulder, but the man I heard is gone. He never was.
They told me the river always lies. Its oil slick surface dances with playful colors, dissolving anything caught within.
Then again, they've told me many things.
They've told me that hidden deep within the treeline there is a valley where time stands still, where a man could sit and rest and contemplate for hundreds of years while the world holds its breath around him.
They've told me that there is a village, atop the barren highlands, that death passes by on her rounds.
They've told me many things.
Later that night we gather around a hasty fire and roast the lizards we caught, mixed in with spices Asher brought with him. Faces painted into orange masks by firelight that likes to make us into hollow mockeries.
Asher speaks up, as he always does. "What did the river tell you, this time?" There are quiet laughs around the fire-ring. They're all old hands at caravanning, and I am one of the few newcomers.
One girl, she speaks up, says it told her of buried treasure. Another man said fame, the admiration of his peers. Another woman, the old miller's wife, says in her gravelly voice one word: "youth". Then it's my turn. My voice quavers in the dark, ashamed of itself, a fleeting fire of another sort. "I heard the voice of my father. He told me where I could go to keep from dying."
Another twinge, a broken duet of ventricles singing out of tune.
They've all heard my story. They wouldn't sign me on otherwise, so I told them. There's no point in hiding it, though now they try whenever they can to treat me like an invalid. If one of them offers to carry my twigs for me again I'm going to slap them in the face.
Conversation picks itself up again after that slip. People packing away the food and dousing the fire. I make my bed between two rocks and stare up at the stars wheeling overhead. I know where I'm going the moment I fall asleep.
Across uncountable leagues,
on the cliffside,
battered by the raging sea,
at the end of all things,
stands the monolith.
My heart calls to it,
a vile and treacherous tune.
I will not go there.
I will not go there.
The mood has changed the next morning.
"Look." Asher says, pointing to the horizon. "Smoke."
And so it is. The plume is grey, winding up the sky like a snake.
We have few warriors with us. Asher has his gladius and shield from his time in the legion. Spades has her pistol. The strong men and womenfolk have what weapons they've made out of household objects. The belt fed motorgun atop the middle wagon is old and rusted, and few of us know how to use it.
Asher takes me aside. "I know how you feel about it, but I need to know." I don't meet his eye.
"If it comes down to it, if we can't hold, will you use your magicks?"
I say nothing. After a time, he takes my silence as assent, claps me on the shoulder as he goes.
I stand there, still, after he is gone. Thinking, calculating the risks and costs. The lives of everyone on this venture, versus a single spell.
A hard bargain.
Back in the Commonwealth, they torture people for being able to do what I can do. Hang them from boxes to have their guts ripped out by the crows. Cut off all their limbs and make them dance, spurting blood, in public squares. Flay them and throw them into salt baths.
One of those treatments costs more than a farmer will make in a year, but as it turns out, fear, hate, and loss are incredible economic motivators.
If I were born in far Qorenclave across the desert, they would have lobotomized me, drilled out my bones and filled me up with circuitry, stripped my veins and wrapped me in wires, hooked me up to two or three others, and used us all as a siege weapon. I, uh, don't really have anything quippy to say about that.
These mad reactions are learned from centuries of experience. The economics of power, energy, danger, and fear.
I am sitting on the front of the frontmost wagon when they come down from the hills around us, shouting and firing. Not outlaws or freebooter scum as we had expected, but dragoons: an enhanced tallsquad from Salvage prancing on their stilt-legs, here to enforce the blockade, outraged at our trespass. Gunfire, screams, and smoke break out across the line.
We're not enough.
The air fills with crashing-metal sounds.
I have to cast a spell.
Crinn turns our motorgun towards them and spits a line of fire, sending three of them tumbling to the dirt before they shoot her. She flops off the wagonside like a ragdoll.
We're not enough.
I clap my hands together and focus. It comes to me, the singing. Eerie and distant and beautiful, like the falling of snowflakes, the twinkling of stars. I can see each of them so clearly now. Flesh puppets in cloth and metal sheaths, liquids pumping and gases flowing, tapestries of heat and metal flowing between bodies like a spiderweb. The air boils. My heart flutters and kicks like an infant child. Something flowers in my brain and it is full of worms, the worms begin to sing and it is a song of the shudders and stops in the grinding clockwork of the world.
There are many different stories of what happened next, with very few of the details corroborating.
Asher, wide eyed, managed to form one kaleidoscopic sentence: "The insects were there in the sky the whole time, we just couldn't see them, until they came down and then they took all the blood away?" The end of his sentence spasmed, curled into a question.
Spades disagreed. "Clearly the blood must have decided to leave their bodies and walk away. That's what I saw. No, I don't know where it went. How the hell would I know why?"
One of the children said the blood floated up into the sky and disappeared. His father smacked him and glared at me.
The old miller's wife said nothing. She doesn't talk to me anymore.
For the next few days of the expedition, I will be a complete pariah.
But for now, we live. Some of us, anyway. Crinn was shot off the motorgun, her husband was hit a few seconds later when he tried to get her into one of the wagons. They died in the dirt, curled in each others arms.
I stand over the corpses of the Salvage tallsquad, their pruned flesh stretched tight across their bones. What happened to them? Where did the blood go?
I try not to answer questions like these.