Category Archives: In Progress Works

Glimwarden, Chapter 8

Philip

The inquest sounded good in theory. When something bad happened, it was important to understand how and why it had happened so that it could be prevented from happening a second time. As a concept, it embodied things that Philip cared greatly about; seeking truth and correcting bad policies.

Philip enjoyed reading through records. Most of them had been written by aides, such as himself, and they were spotty in ways that were sometimes frustrating, but for the most part it was possible for him to imagine what had happened at those previous inquests. What they revealed was an equal share of incompetence, reluctance to change, and political struggles. Hundreds of methods of improving both the town’s defenses and the lanterns’ engineering had been discussed over the centuries. Some of these had been implemented, but most had not. Sometimes the council agreed to taking a series of actions during the inquest, but there was no record of anyone following up on it in later meetings, or after an analysis of cost or feasibility, it was quietly shelved.

In the course of preparing for the current inquest, Philip made his own long list of measures which people would suggest could have helped to prevent the disaster from happening, all compiled from the notes made during previous inquests.

The most common suggestion was to have a second, empty lantern installed in the building of each lantern. When the lantern failed, the sphere of hava could be transfered to the second lantern, which could then be ‘lit’ in short order to bring the area back under the protection of gliminance. The most common rebuttal was that the lanterns weren’t designed for the removal of the hava; it was possible to construct a lantern so that the hava could be moved from within it, but these other designs hadn’t been tested by hundreds of years of continuous operation. Not only that, but changing the design of the lantern was necessarily a risky thing, because it was impossible to make serious alterations while the lantern was still on. There were also arguments over cost, both in terms of the cost of building an empty lantern and the work that the engineers would have to put in to ensure that the empty lantern stayed functional at all times. These arguments held little sway, since in the wake of a serious lantern failure many people believed that cost was no object.

The only development that had ever come out of that particular argument, repeated over the years, was that a pilot program had been done at Chancellor’s Lantern, which did have a different design from the others in order to permit removal of the hava. Chancellor’s Lantern had been protected by the other lanterns for many years now, which made switching over a much less risky prospect. It had been running that way for more than thirty-seven years now, which did much to blunt the argument that the design was untested; Philip wondered whether some like-minded fellow from back then had seen the shape of these repeated arguments and pressed for a change that would sway opinion some decades into the future.

There were other, lesser suggestions along the same line, but for the most part they were variations on a theme. Some were rejected due to cost, some were accepted and never implemented, and a few were implemented and then canceled decades later after having provided no benefit to anyone. Lantern failures were rare things, and serious failures even rarer.

Another common theme was adding to the defenses of the town in some way. Walls were brought up many times, and shot down just as many; darklings were excellent climbers, according to the wardens. Walls would inhibit both mobility and field of view — for the wardens, far more than the darklings. There were proposals to give better training to the Auxiliary, which definitely would have helped in this case. Of the eight previous times this had been suggested, on four occasions it was opposed by the members of the Auxiliary, on two occasions it was opposed by the glimwardens, and twice it was actually implemented, only to be stopped later on (it had lasted seven years the first time it was tried and three years the second time it was tried). It appeared that the Auxiliary’s mandatory appearance at any alarm was, in fact, a result of a previous attempt at ensuring that no lantern would ever fall.

(One of Philip’s greatest sources of irritation was that these matters were decided as part of the inquest itself, or immediately following it. Philip was capable of making good decisions in the moment, but it seemed that other people were not, in part because they let their emotions get the better of them. If the city council wanted to make good decisions, it should have waited until they could be made with clear eyes and a stone heart. One of the failures of democracy was that this went contrary to the desire of elected officials to continue getting elected. Philip suspected that reacting to the most recent event was a common failure of people in general, because otherwise the incentive wouldn’t exist for elected officials to rush to action.)

There was something in the inquest six years ago that caught Philip’s eye. A young engineer by the name of Kelso Kelly had come before the council and told them that it was idiocy to have the glimwardens fight when mundane means existed to kill the darklings. The meeting minutes were garbled at that part, but apparently he spoke at length about some kind of rotary gun, which the council had given him provisional funding to build, despite the protestations of the chief glimwarden. Philip had leafed through the meeting minutes of the next few months, trying to find some mention of it, but came up with nothing. He added it to his list of topics that might come up. If they’d paid Kelso for his invention and lost the thread, it was possible that the engineer would be called in.

The bulk of any inquest was not the suggestions for remediation, but instead the casting of blame. Sometimes this was a broad cast, touching every person even tangentially involved, but other times it was a clear act of scapegoating. Inquests were the place where the tensions between the glimwardens and the engineers ran highest, and that had been true even before this most recent bout of unpleasantness between the two. The engineers were clearly to blame for any failures in the lanterns, since of course it was their job to keep the lanterns running. The glimwardens, meanwhile, were responsible for defense, and any death, injury, or damage to public property was laid squarely at their feet. These two sides wouldn’t appear to have too much to do with each other, but both had a representative on the city council, and both had an incentive to push the finger of blame in a different direction.

When Philip was seven years old, his father had declared him a cynic. They had been in the middle of family dinner when Philip had said that people didn’t actually sacrifice their lives for others. His father had asked what Philip thought the glimwardens did, to which Philip had replied that they didn’t actually mean to sacrifice their lives. They were willing to accept the risk-reward proposition of having power and being important, but when they saw death coming, they would have been perfectly willing to murder a baby or flay one of their elders, if only it would buy them an extra minute of life.

His father had laughed in a way that Philip now understood to be the reaction of someone who didn’t want to face the truth of what his son was. Philip would never use such language these days, of course, not even when speaking to people who were prone to cynicism and would be amenable to the argument. If he were normal, he imagined that he would cringe in remembering the incident, but while he had taught himself to cringe when appropriate, he had no immediate physical reaction to social mistakes, only a recognition of what could be done better. Still, what he’d said was clearly worthy of provoking a wince. His father had ignored the problem and framed Philip as a mere cynic.

Philip wasn’t actually a cynic. He had expressed a cynic’s viewpoint then because he hadn’t understood people well enough; he had imagined that everyone else was like him. It had taken a long time for Philip to disabuse himself of that notion, especially since it was so easy to make up explanations for why people were really acting in their own strict self-interest, even when it appeared that they were not. Now though, Philip had a better grip on the truth. Other people really did love one another. This love went beyond what could be explained by reciprocity or appreciation. They felt honor, duty, loyalty, guilt, all things which he’d once thought were part of a tapestry of selfishness. Because his view of the world was incorrect, he made every effort to change that view. Being a cynic meant being wrong.

Philip tried his best to think of what might happen at the inquest that could reasonably surprise a cynic. He made notes, then left further notes in the margins of his notes. Next to the competition, the inquest would be the most important thing to happen in Light’s Hollow for the next year. He did his best to be prepared for every foreseeable outcome.

Unfortunately, it all went off the rails ten minutes in.

❧❧❧

Linda Linwell had taken the unusual step of calling for a closed inquest, which was unprecedented in the history of Light’s Hollow. Inquests were meant to be open, messy things, exposing the guts of the town’s defenses to the citizenry. She had refused to say why she was calling for a closed inquest, but the chief glimwarden certainly had no objections, and the mayor was inclined to heed her request. That left Gregor Golland as the council’s lone voice of dissent (a dissent which he delivered in a pair of rhyming couplets).

The day after the mass funeral for those that had died in the attack, the inquest was held in the same large meeting room where closed sessions of the council occurred. Philip found himself looking to the light of Chancellor’s Lantern more than once, and on occasion he thought he could hear the distant sound of a siren before deciding that it was nothing. Linda Linwell was dressed all in black, the color of mourning, even though not one engineer had died in the attack; Philip wondered how long she would keep wearing it. In contrast, Samuel Seaborn wore the same green armor he always wore, with his axes hung at his hips. His thick red beard had been recently trimmed, likely for the funeral, but he still looked unruly. Neither looked pleased.

“Let the inquest come to order,” said the mayor with a tap of his gavel. The city council members and their aides sat rigidly in their seats, waiting for what was to come. Philip imagined that this was his father’s favorite part of the proceedings, despite the dour expression he wore, but that might have been a simple case of projection. “Now, where should we start? I’ve always had a preference for the beginning. Councilor Linwell, if you could provide for us a summary of your findings?” Witnesses would be called in later, as needed, though only a few were waiting in the halls.

“At 12:14pm, the alarm went off, which was the first indication our engineers had that anything was wrong. Led by Lanternkeeper Duncan, they immediately began following diagnostic procedures. While engineer Odell and engineer Tolbert began tracing the connection to the alarm system itself to see whether there was a malfunction, engineers —”

“Why did you insist that this be a closed inquest?” asked the chief glimwarden, unable to contain himself any longer.

The mayor rapped his gavel once. “I am sure that we will get to that in due time.”

Linwell frowned at Seaborn. “While the alarm system was being checked for malfunction, engineers Duncan, Vipond, Spence, and Jardine began checking over the physical machinery of the lantern. That accounts for all six active members of the lantern at that time. There are a number of ways in which a lantern can fail. The most common are failures in the connections between various parts of the equipment, specifically with the insulating materials used for those connections. After ten minutes had passed, Lanternkeeper Duncan withdrew to a more supervisory role and recalled engineers Odell and Tolbert to help with diagnosis of the failure. It was at this point that engineer Jardine discovered what we now believe to be an act of sabotage.”

Seaborn slammed his hand down against the table. “Are you trying to start a civil war?”

“Obviously you have less respect for me than I have for you,” Linwell said coolly. “If you had thought about it for two seconds, you would realize that I called for a closed inquest precisely to keep this information from the public. It would be more likely to incite a witch hunt than a civil war, but either way it’s nothing that this town can afford.”

Philip’s eyes shifted quickly between the two of them. One of the places that Linwell excelled was in giving justifications for her actions. Philip’s mind started wandering down the familiar cynical pathways, looking for a reason why Linwell would have given up the advantage of an open inquest and a public declaration of sabotage. Sabotage, after all, would clear the engineers of any wrong-doing or negligence for the lantern failure, except perhaps for an argument that they should have kept tighter security. Linwell herself — or Colsum, who backed her — might have been involved in the sabotage effort for some unknown reason (Philip would have to check the records of land ownership later) … but it was more likely that she simply worried for the safety of the town.

“Sabotage implies a saboteur,” said the mayor. “If someone was responsible for the lantern failure, we need to know who, so that we might levy the harshest possible penalty against them.” Exile, in other words, though the mayor took it so seriously that he was careful to never utter the word.

“As I was saying, it was the first of several clear instances of sabotage,” replied Linwell. “There were no fewer than five places where action had been taken against the mechanisms of the lantern, whether that was in the insulators, regulators, fuses, wires, or switches. A single defect in the wiring insulation had caused the lantern failure, but the other acts of sabotage would have ensured subsequent failures if they weren’t caught. Lanternkeeper Duncan was hesitant to turn the lantern back on given what he had found, but he followed protocol once the parts were replaced from the lantern’s supply closet.”

“Five is a portentous number, ill and unbalanced,” said Gregor Golland. “It is the action of an ill and unbalanced mind then, to make such marks against a sacred fountain of our prosperity.”

“The sabotage will warrant a separate investigation,” said the mayor. “It is beyond the scope of this inquest.”

Seaborn turned to Linwell. “The engineers cannot be allowed to investigate on their own.”

“Wardens know nothing of the machinery,” replied Linwell. “Teaching you everything that you need to know would take time away from figuring out what happened.”

“The lanterns are uncomplicated,” growled the chief glimwarden. “I’ve personally assisted with field repairs of the traveling lanterns.”

“They’re on an entirely different order of magnitude!” Linwell protested. “The amount of power they generate should be enough to frighten even you. The lanterns are dragons, chained to our bidding but ready to strike the moment anyone grows careless.”

“A serpent with seven heads,” Golland nodded.

The mayor tapped his gavel once. “Again, this is beyond the bounds of this inquest. I think we can all agree that the matter will be kept strictly to those with a need to know, not just because of the panic it might cause, but to ensure that we have at least some element of surprise.” He looked to Philip, who sat beside him. “How many foreigners have come to Light’s Hollow in the recent past?”

“Twelve in the last year,” replied Philip. “All from Gossom.” The question wasn’t entirely unexpected; Philip’s father was attempting to find a convenient scapegoat which wouldn’t cause political problems. Outsiders were a perennial favorite for that purpose, but Philip disagreed on principle. Stringing up an outsider only solved the immediate political problem and did nothing to deter a second act of sabotage. If Philip had been a member of the council, he would have said something in protest, but his place was only as an aide.

“To continue on,” said the mayor. “I believe we must talk about the handling of the defense.”

Seaborn grunted. “Then we’re to hear no more from the engineers?” he asked. “If Councilor Linwell was aware of this claim of sabotage, shouldn’t she have come to the inquest with more? Details on the engineers that were posted or people who came to visit the lantern? We’re supposed to be getting down to the bottom of things. You’re telling me that there’s going to be a separate inquiry later on, so that the engineers can skip out on taking responsibility? If there was a sabotage, they should have noticed it sooner, there should have been regular checks.”

“Samuel,” said the mayor gently. “Linwell has done you a favor by requesting for this inquest to be private.”

Seaborn folded his arms over his chest. “Fine. You want an accounting?” He spat the word. “There was a new darkling, given a name just that morning. A Schism. It was ungodly powerful. Your son says that it was able to withstand the full glare of the lantern from two hundred yards away. While we fought it, the smaller darklings killed or slipped past the Auxiliary, until we had to retreat toward the lantern or risk losing it. The result was four glimwardens killed, with a fifth dead from her wounds this morning. The losses to the Auxiliary were far worse.”

“We’ll need more than that,” said Linwell. “What were the individual wardens doing when the alarm —”

“Five dead,” interrupted Seaborn. “Another three with serious injuries. I couldn’t tell you where a quarter of my wardens were, because they’re not alive for me to ask them. I’m telling you that we face a huge threat. The Schism can breach our borders. We don’t have the manpower to defend against it, if it attacks. And if there’s someone going around mucking up the lanterns, then you should know that we won’t be able to defend a second time, not if you want any wardens left alive to put hearts into your lanterns.”

Linwell drew her lips into a thin line. “I suppose I’m glad this inquest is closed to the public, if we’re speaking such harsh truths. You would inspire a panic if you said that to the masses.”

The mayor looked back and forth between the two of them. “The last thing we need is for people to start preparing for the collapse of this town. We’ll want to proceed with caution, so as not to display the weakness of our hand. Can we agree to that?”

Gregor Golland nodded along. “When wise men speak of conspiracy, the dolts grab their hidden blades and wait for nightfall. We of the council cannot last long with such duplicity, but the ties that bind us to our position command silence on our parts and beckon lies to trumpet from our lips.”

Silence fell over the meeting room. Even two weeks ago, Golland hadn’t been in such a bad condition. Everything that left his mouth now came out in a strange cadence, and the contents of his speech were little better. Philip could tell that everyone else was doing the calculus of keeping him around. The moment passed quickly, but Philip had felt it. Golland was not long for the council.

“This is not coincidence,” Golland continued. “The pitch black of a darkling made manifest and the darkness of the soul of a traitor, a foul duality, both the reflection of the other.” His two aides, both young members of his family, looked to one another for support and found none.

“If you’re feeling unwell, I believe this inquest can continue without your participation,” said the mayor.

Golland nodded along. “Yes, yes, quite unwell, sickened by secrecy and treachery alike, twin snakes in my guts.” He lifted himself from his seat and steadied himself with a hand on one of his grandchildren. The room was silent, save for the sounds of him shuffling off with his ineffectual aides behind him.

“We need a plan for what we’ll do if there’s another failure,” said Linwell once he’d left. “I’ve already doubled the shifts at the lanterns and instituted tighter procedures for who’s allowed access, but Lanternkeeper Duncan told me that it was possible for the sabotage to have happened at any time in the week before the failure, which means that there might be other instances of sabotage in the other lanterns. I’m having them discreetly checked over, but not all areas of the lantern are accessible while it’s running.”

“The lanterns have been running non-stop for years,” said Seaborn. “How would someone have broken the parts of the lantern that they can’t touch?” He was glaring at her; they both knew the answer before she said it.

“It would be possible with the bind,” said Linwell. “Projection of a non-conductive cutting edge is, I believe, within the purview of those abilities.”

“If you dare to accuse me and mine —” Seaborn began.

“No,” replied Linwell. “Again, you think less of me than I think of you. I defer to your expertise, but I was under the impression that members of the Auxiliary had some command of the bind. It’s also possible that a cullion might have taken this action, is it not?”

“Is there any evidence that the bind was used at Healer’s?” asked Seaborn.

“It’s unclear,” replied Linwell. “There was internal damage, yes, but it’s possible that it was the result of an error in the building of the lantern or happened in taking the lantern apart for diagnosis. But again, we’ll have our own investigation into the matter.”

Philip rested his hand on his father’s elbow, which drew a look, then a nod.

“Is it possible for someone to hide the shadow of the bind?” asked Philip.

Seaborn frowned and took a moment to smooth out his mustache. “If it were possible, it would be something to be kept secret.”

“Naturally,” said the mayor. “But it appears that this meeting will be replete with things that must be kept secret.”

“Then yes,” said Seaborn. “It’s possible. It would take practice and concentration, along with leaving the cullion powerless for the duration.”

There were murmurs as Linwell conferred with her aides. Even if they knew that the sabotage had been caused by someone with access to the bind, it wouldn’t help them all that much. The scope of suspects couldn’t be limited to the surviving members of the Auxiliary or the glimwardens, nor would it be obvious if some outside force had come in.

Philip kept meticulous notes as the meeting went on, but all the energy had gone out of the room. Linwell had little interest in prosecuting the glimwardens’ mishandling of the defense, not when there were more pressing concerns, and not when there was no one to hear it. The inquest was closed not too long after, with no witnesses being called and no formal recommendations. Linwell and Seaborn hadn’t eliminated all tensions between them, but they had reached something of an unspoken truce.

“So,” said the mayor, once everyone else had left and he was alone with Philip. “What do you think?”

“Golland was right,” said Philip. He looked into his father’s pale blue eyes, which were mirrors to his own. “It’s not a coincidence.”

“I don’t see how that can be,” Philip’s father replied. He looked at the gavel. “You said yourself that there was some sort of new darkling.”

“Yes,” replied Philip. “The Schism was supposedly unknown to the glimwardens until that very morning, but Linwell said that the acts of sabotage would have been done in the week prior. If it’s not coincidence, that means that whoever our saboteur was, he must have been someone who goes out into the wilds, which narrows down the suspects considerably.”

“And then there’s the question of motive,” said Philip’s father. “No one benefits from a lantern failure, not the engineers, not the wardens. Both come out looking bad.” He paused with his mouth open, then closed it. “Philip, people are talking about you. They’re praising you for running into battle, for a speech you apparently gave about the importance of defending the town … you saved the chief glimwarden’s son and killed dozens of darklings without any bind. Of all the people who were there, you’re the only real hero.” His words were hesitant.

“That’s not true,” said Philip. “Sander saved my life at great risk to his own.”

“What I’m trying to ask is —” his father paused and bit his lower lip and sighed. “Did you have anything to do with this?”

Philip shook his head. “No.”

“If you did,” his father replied, “You could trust me. I would protect you.”

Philip felt his face twitch. It was an interesting possibility. Beyond the fact that he hadn’t done it, it would have been completely unworkable as a scheme. Slipping into Healer’s Lantern wouldn’t have been too difficult, but he would have had no idea how to set the lantern up for future failure. Even if he had been able to surreptitiously obtain that knowledge, that still left the immense problem of being able to make his mark on the field of battle. He had been able to survive the attack for a number of reasons: his friendship with Sander, Sander’s signature, and the fact that darklings seemed to preferentially target those with some amount of bind. The first of those was the only one he’d had any knowledge of going in.

But even if he had known everything he’d need to have known, including the appearance of the Schism earlier that morning, he still wouldn’t have done it. The plan would have had too many moving parts and too high of a possibility for failure. Philip didn’t commit crimes, because crime didn’t pay. He did his best not to tell lies, at least not when there was even a remote possibility of evidence being brought forward, because lies were too easy to uncover and too damaging to a reputation. Destroying a lantern wasn’t unthinkable, but he would never do it.

“It wasn’t me, father,” said Philip. “I know better than that. You called me a cynic once, but now I’m afraid that I have to turn that back around at you.”

“No, no,” said the mayor. “Of course not. I was only … I know you, and … you’ve always had a very different way of thinking from other people, even if you try to hide it.”

He seemed convinced, though Philip could tell that the underlying doubts hadn’t been allayed. It was gratifying to know that his father would stand by his side even through what was surely far beyond the limits of conventional morality, but at the same time, Philip wished that it were possible to live his childhood again. The number of unforced errors he’d made, especially with regards to his parents, was, in retrospect, simply unacceptable.

It was one thing to make the wrong response because you didn’t understand the question, but it was another entirely to say the wrong thing without any prompting from anyone. When he was little, he had told his mother that he loved her less than he loved his father, because his father was more powerful and important. She had cried, which he’d found irritating. Looking back, it was one of the things that he wished he could do over. He didn’t love either of his parents, not like they loved him, and if he had to choose for one of them to die he would obviously have chosen his mother, at least until his father was more obstacle than ally … but there was no reason to share that with anyone unless forced to.

He had made a similar error with Legal Multiplier, his radio companion, though he still wasn’t sure what that error had been. Their next radio date was only a few days away, but he wasn’t sure that she would be on the other end listening for him.

That thought brought him back to the matter at hand. The appearance of the new darkling at the same time as a lantern failure wasn’t coincidence. Legal Multiplier had said that the town of Langust had suffered their own failure more than a week ago, forcing abandonment of their town and an exodus to Gossom. If there was a connection between the two failures — Healer’s Lantern and Langust — it implied either a single saboteur or a single force striking out at both places at once. Perhaps his father hadn’t been so foolish to start thinking about outside threats.

Glimwarden, Chapter 7

Melanie

The Mender and the Builder were brothers. For a long period of time, perhaps years, perhaps eons, they lived together in harmony. One day, as they were laying together by the lake, the Builder said to his brother that there was nothing in life that equaled the act of creation. The Mender took offense at that, and proclaimed that there was nothing better in life than to fix that which was broken. The Builder protested that building was the finer art, requiring more talent and tenacity. The Mender responded that the act of creation took little in the way of intellect and likened it to a farmer casting seeds into a field, hoping that a beautiful flower might grow. The argument between the two grew heated, for neither was willing to back down from his position. Eventually the disagreement threatened to become violent, but the two brothers, being civilized men, agreed to settle it by means of a duel. The duel lasted three days without pause, as sword clashed against sword. When the Mender’s concentration slipped, the Builder drove his sword into his brother’s skull, killing him instantly. The Builder felt remorse at once, and tried to make his brother whole, but there was nothing he could do. He cast the swords into the sea and vowed never to harm another soul.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

In the thousand-lantern city of Tor Ellsum, far to the east, Ailos was regarded as a master among thieves. With a silver tongue and a black heart, he stole his way across the city, having no higher purpose than the accumulation of wealth. The princess of Tor Ellsum tried to tame him; she polished the soot from his heart to make it shine like a mirror. From that point on, Ailos found it harder to kill, because he saw himself reflected in those he once dispatched without a second thought. He took this in stride though, and began to carry a second sword with him in his travels. When he came across someone that stood in the way of his thefts, he would offer them one of the swords so that they could defend themselves. In this way, Ailos believed that he was giving them a fair chance for their survival and assuaged his guilt about what he was doing. If Ailos handed you one of his swords, it was a death sentence, as there was no better fighter in all of Tor Ellsum. The two swords became the stuff of legend.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

There was once a young prince whose bride died in a tragic accident the day after their wedding. Thoughts of how he might save her crowded the young man’s mind. He chased down every likely story he could find, then every unlikely story, seeking out any magic that might help him in his quest. Eventually he found an amulet that would wind back the years and return him to the night just before the wedding, so that he might avert the fate of his bride. When he arrived in the past though, he came across himself as a younger man. He conversed with his past self only briefly, until it became clear that neither was willing to share the bride. They fought a duel with identical swords, drawing from the same pool of tricks and techniques. Eventually, the scales were tipped in the favor of the future prince, and then only because of what they ate for breakfast the morning before. The prince slew his past, buried the body, and prevented the death of his bride. The swords he kept, as a reminder of what he would do for the sake of love.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

Melanie’s father had been overflowing with stories. The two swords that hung crossed on the wall were one of a dozen pieces he placed around the tavern. Fishermen used worms, but Gavin Masters used framed coins and multicolored masks. When people inevitably took the bait and asked him about these curios, he would eagerly spin a story for them. He’d once told Melanie that the stories were the primary reason that people came to the Black Mare. The curios gave the place an otherworldly ambiance, but it was the stories that accompanied them that transported the patrons to distant lands.

Eventually, Gavin Masters felt the need to be transported to distant lands in a decidedly less metaphorical way. Melanie found his note only after the caravan had already carried him away. It ran to six pages in dense, cramped writing. Melanie burned it after her first week alone, but she could still quote pieces of it verbatim. Her father only spoke to her directly twice, the first time to tell her he was proud of the woman she’d become, and the second time to explain that the Black Mare was in her hands. Everything else was the story of Gavin Masters, as told by Gavin Masters. He claimed to have been unfairly maligned for his status as a foreigner, denied the praise he so rightfully deserved, robbed of the happy life that always seemed to be just one step ahead of him. He was going to travel the world, to take caravans from town to town, to work where work could be found and start writing some of his stories down.

Melanie hadn’t found out about the debt until the next day.

In the two years since then, she hadn’t made too many changes to the Black Mare. The menu varied based on what was cheap and in season, rather than using any of her father’s eclectic ideas. At first she tried to tell stories like her father had, but they always came out wrong. She would realize later, when she was back behind the counter, that there was a more elegant way to say what she had wanted to. Eventually she stopped trying. This seemed to have little impact on the business, contrary to what her father had said about the importance of stories.

She had sold the curios that adorned the walls one-by-one. Some of them were worthless, like the five vials of colored water that her father had alternately claimed were potions of incredible power or samples taken from the bodies of dead gods. Others had some worth though, like the multicolored masks, or the rare coins from other towns. Melanie hated going to the market to sell those things. Trying to make a sale always felt like begging. Eventually, the walls were stripped bare, save for one exception: the pair of swords that Sander and Philip had taken.

The Black Mare had emptied out after the alarm sounded. Melanie sat behind the counter, reading Flowers of Bone, but her eyes kept wandering over the same paragraph over and over again without actually taking in the words. Flowers of Bone was a dark and brooding book, which was part of the problem, but Melanie didn’t think the problem would be solved by going upstairs to find something happier to read. The alarm could still be heard in the distance, loud enough that it was impossible to simply ignore.

Eventually, people started coming back in. Some of them were strangers to her; Melanie guessed that they were refugees from Healer’s Lantern. She listened closely to the conversations, trying to hear whether anyone had news to share, but they only knew as much as she did. They’d left their homes and businesses behind without knowing how soon they’d be able to return. In the backs of their minds was the thought that perhaps they were about to lose everything. Mixed in with the refugees were the regulars, most of whom wanted nothing more than a place to talk about what was happening and get the news as it came. After twenty minutes had passed, the Black Mare was full of people. Melanie worked as quickly as she could, which gave her little time to think about the spot on the wall that once held two swords.

An hour and a half had passed when an out-of-breath man made his way through the front door of the tavern. Everyone went silent as they waited for the news.

“It was a bloodbath,” he said. “The lantern is relit, but half the glimwardens are dead and not a single member of the Auxiliary is left alive. Most of the houses around Healer’s Lantern have been reduced to matchsticks and rubble.”

Melanie felt her heart drop. Her body tingled as she felt a cold sweat coming over her. Since everyone was talking at once and no one was calling for her, she sat down on her stool and rested her head against the counter.

The problem with having low expectations of the world was that it was all the more crushing when the world failed to meet them. She should have written Sander off the moment he walked out the front door. She should have told herself that he was as good as dead, so if it had turned out that he was alive, it would be a pleasant surprise. She tried to remind herself that he hadn’t really been much more than a pest, showing up where he clearly wasn’t wanted and insinuating himself into her life against her will. That was all true, but Sander had cared about her. He had, against the odds, liked her. When Melanie felt herself welling up, she went into the kitchen and slumped up against the refrigerator.

“I hate this,” she muttered to herself.

She wanted her father to come into the kitchen and tell her that everything was going to be alright. She would have to scream at him for leaving her all alone, but after that he could hold her, comfort her, and tell her that everything was going to be just fine. The world wasn’t so nice a place that it would allow a reunion like that to happen. She was never going to see her father again, just as she was never going to see her mother again.

Melanie cried, but only a little bit. She had gained quite a bit of experience with crying over the past few years. She could at least console herself that she never cried at trivial things; no book had ever brought her to tears. Instead, it was deaths, debts, and abandonment that moved her to tears. The world had simply decided that it didn’t particularly like Melanie Masters, and that was an appropriate thing to cry about.

In the end, Melanie did what she always did after crying. She got to her feet, said a silent curse, and went back to work. The world didn’t like her, but she didn’t like the world either. It would be impossible to burn the whole world down, so the only other option was to carry on as though she weren’t losing a small piece of her soul with every attack the world made against her.

When she came back to the tavern’s main room, it had emptied. The refugees had gone back to Healer’s Lantern, and everyone else had gone with them to gawk at the wreckage (or, if Melanie were feeling more charitable, to help with clean-up). Melanie shuttered the windows and closed the tavern, though it wasn’t even dinnertime yet. Business would be poor for the rest of the day, as people would be helping with salvage efforts at Healer’s, or at least helping to bury the dead. Besides that, she’d somehow run out of horse meat soup, which she hadn’t expected to sell a single bowl of.

She was finishing her cleaning when there was a knock on the door. When she went to answer it, she saw an unpleasantly familiar face: Nathan Norwood, one of Colsum’s men.

“I have five more days,” said Melanie. The answer was a reflex; she was always aware of how many days it was until her next payment was due. In truth, she already had enough to settle that month’s debt, but Melanie had every incentive to keep Colsum from knowing that.

“Colsum wants to meet with you about a different matter,” said Nathan. “He said you would know what it was in regards to.”

❧❧❧

The Colsum manse was a long building on the outskirts of Chancellor’s Lantern, with one side facing the fields and the other turned in towards the city. There were stories Melanie had read about vast, palatial estates segregated from their towns by large fields of manicured grass, but none of the richest families in Light’s Hollow had gone quite that far. The house was still imposing though, stacked five stories tall, each slightly smaller than the last until the top, where a pleasant garden with apple trees could be seen from the ground. Melanie had never been up there, but she’d often imagined it; she envied Colsum his view of the city and the solitude of being so high above everyone else.

She and Nathan took a runework carriage, one of the ones that Colsum owned for his own personal use, unattached to any business. Melanie had never been in one before. She had only ridden the carts, and then she’d been sitting in the back as it moved at a sedate pace. Nathan drove the carriage quickly, speeding down the road and kicking up dust as they went. If Melanie’s mind hadn’t been on the upcoming meeting, she might have found the experience exhilarating, but instead she found herself mired in thought for the entire trip.

She was led up into a sitting room, where books covered every wall. Colsum sat in one of the two chairs, staring at the heater on the wall. A red hot wire was shaped like flames, radiating heat across the room. Melanie had never seen a fireplace before, but that’s what the heater was trying to evoke. Behind the hot metal was a slowly circulating fan, which blew hot air across the room. Melanie found the whole thing unbelievably tacky.

Carter Colsum was an old man, in his late seventies. He had a hunched look to him, which was accentuated by the poor posture he displayed in the plump red chair he was sitting in. His hair was long and gray, lanky in a way that Melanie never expected from a man with his means. His face was dominated by a large, ugly nose, which only served to heighten how sunken in his eyes were. His mouth was wide and his lips were thin, revealing gray teeth when he spoke.

She sat down across from him and waited for him to speak. Colsum was looking at the heater. He picked up a pale white nut from a bowl beside him, cracked it with his teeth to reveal a green seed inside, then ate the seed and put the shell into a second bowl, which was already partially filled.

“Why are there so few glimwardens?” asked Colsum. When Melanie didn’t immediately answer, he looked to her for the first time.

“I don’t know,” said Melanie.

“It takes a thousand hearts to make a glimwarden,” said Colsum. He cracked another nut with his teeth and talked as he chewed. “That’s a fair amount, but even a novice glimwarden can capture three hearts a day. A glimwarden can make another glimwarden in the span of a year. Two glimwardens could then make another two, then four for four.” He paused and looked at her. “So why are there so few glimwardens?”

“They die too often for that to work,” said Melanie.

“No,” said Colsum. “Think about it. The hearts are divided three ways, with a third to fuel the lanterns, a third auctioned off by contract to the people of the city, and a third to the wardens themselves. The town’s third, almost all of it spent on runework, could be diverted to create more wardens. But even if the hearts were evenly split between the sides, the wardens could still make more of themselves. They’re able to rebuild when a large fraction of their number are wiped out. They did it six years ago, they’ll do it again after what happened today. They have more hearts than they need for simple replacement. So why are there so few glimwardens?”

“I don’t know,” said Melanie.

Colsum cracked another shell with his teeth and briefly held the green seed between his teeth. Melanie knew all of the nuts and berries that could be found in Light’s Hollow, but whatever he was eating was unfamiliar to her. She wondered how far away it had come from, and how much it had cost.

“Do you know what makes you strong?” asked Colsum.

“No,” said Melanie.

“Spite,” said Colsum.

Melanie didn’t respond. She still didn’t know why she had been brought here, or what Colsum wanted with her. She doubted that it was just to ask her questions that she didn’t know the answers to.

“There are people who, when put to the challenge, will simply lay down and die,” said Colsum. “Your father, he was the type to run from his problems, which is almost as bad, but I can respect that in a way, even if it raises my ire. Now, some people will take that challenge and rise to it with a smile on their face, happy to have some way to prove themselves to the world. Some will soldier on forward because they know that’s the only thing to do. You though, you passed my test because there’s a deep, cold hatred that runs through your veins.”

“Alright,” said Melanie. The word ‘test’ stabbed at her.

Colsum smiled at her with his gray teeth. “I do believe you’d sit there taking any sort of abuse I could throw at you, never budging an inch. That’s an impressive skill all by itself. But spite, that’s your true power. You’ve spent two years running that tavern by yourself, doing the work of at least three people, and you did it because it was your way of spitting in the face of everyone who didn’t love you.”

Melanie didn’t reply. The debt to Colsum had eaten away at her sanity in the first few months. Even now it left her with trembling nerves when she thought about it for too long. Colsum was trying to reduce her down to a single aspect, but it wasn’t true. She felt spiteful, but spite wasn’t what motivated her to get up in the morning.

“You hate me,” said Colsum. “That’s fine, I expect that. I turned the screws on you. But right now, it’s unbecoming, and you and I can’t have a proper conversation if you’re going to continue acting like a child.”

Melanie straightened herself in her chair. The room had grown uncomfortably warm, and she was sweating. “You didn’t do me the courtesy of explaining why I’m here.”

“It’s about the competition,” replied Colsum. “You know that.”

“Half the glimwardens are dead,” said Melanie. “There’s not going to be a competition.”

“Half?” asked Colsum. He shook his head. “There were four wardens dead.”

Melanie stared at him, trying to tell whether he was lying. “How many Auxiliary?”

Colsum shrugged. “Irrelevant. Twenty, forty, a hundred, the only people who join the Auxiliary are desperate or fools.” He cracked another nut between his teeth. “You know why you’re here. You know why we have to have a conversation. Stop speaking in monosyllables and give me your attention. Why are there so few glimwardens?”

Melanie met his eyes. She didn’t want to play these games. “It’s better to have the power concentrated in fewer glimwardens,” she replied.

“Is it?” asked Colsum.

“I don’t know,” replied Melanie. “It was a guess.”

“Tell me why it should be the case that it’s better to have fewer wardens with more power rather than more wardens with less power,” said Colsum. “You’re smart enough to figure it out.”

Melanie wasn’t sure that she was. “The wardens … they die from time to time. If they have more power, then they die less. It’s about attrition. Or maybe … when the power is concentrated, it feeds off itself, making them stronger.”

“How might we test that?” asked Colsum.

“I —” Melanie stopped herself from saying that she didn’t know. Colsum knew that she didn’t know, but for whatever reason, he wanted her to guess. This was all for his amusement, so if she was going to debase herself, it was better not to drag her feet. “We could have them lift a weight.”

“Indeed,” said Colsum. “We could do that. In fact, fifteen years ago I proposed a similar thing, though we would have used a spring, not weights. The wardens said that such a demonstration of their power, if done in full, would drain them of the power they needed to gather the hearts. I said that naturally, I would stagger the tests so that only one warden would be spent at a time, and, seeing their next objection, I said I would pay handsomely to make up for the hearts that they wouldn’t be able to collect. Do you know what happened?”

“They never ended up doing the test,” guessed Melanie. “They —” she tried to think of what a conniving politician would do, from one of her books. “They said that … that the hearts were vital to the town above and beyond the material costs. Spending money for a display of power would be the same as buying hearts and then throwing them away.”

“The chief glimwarden — eight chiefs ago, much more savvy than this current one — framed me as being too rich for my own good. He said, in fact, that I was too rich for the good of this town. He spoke through implication and made everyone believe that I cared nothing for Light’s Hollow.” Colsum shook his head sadly as he cracked another shell with his teeth. “But of course none of that was true. I wanted to know whether or not glimwardens got more powerful in strict proportion to the hearts that they ate. Because if they didn’t, why were there so few glimwardens?”

“Can I say that I don’t know yet?” asked Melanie.

Colsum grinned. “Ah, there she is.” Melanie hadn’t realized that a faint — very faint — smile had come onto her face, but with Colsum’s words, it vanished. “And there she goes.” Colsum cracked another shell between his teeth. “But the answer is no, you can’t say that you don’t know. Instead, tell me what you would do to find out whether the glimwardens are behaving rationally.”

“I’d make my own glimwarden,” said Melanie. “Someone on the inside.”

“Hrm,” said Colsum. “And how would you do that?”

“I …” Melanie paused and tried to think before giving her answer. This was more social interaction than she’d had in a long time, excluding the perfunctory interactions with patrons at the tavern. She was flagging. It was the only extended conversation she’d ever had with Colsum. He was less odious than she’d thought, though she still got the sense that he was playing a game with her. In contrast, her conversations with Sander — her mind hiccuped at the thought of him. Sander was dead and gone forever, only a memory now. But if the news about half the glimwardens dying had been wrong, then it was possible some of the Auxiliary survived, and it was possible that Sander was among them. His father would have protected him, wouldn’t he?

“You?” asked Colsum.

“I’d buy hearts,” said Melanie. “But obviously that’s not the solution, because you haven’t done it.”

“Do you know what happened to my sons?” asked Colsum.

Melanie shook her head. “No. Or, they … moved.” The word didn’t feel right. The same word couldn’t be used for both crossing town and leaving Light’s Hollow entirely, not if words were to have meaning. Her vocabulary was failing her.

“Do you know why?” asked Colsum.

Melanie shook her head again.

“They wanted to be glimwardens, both of them,” said Colsum. He stared at the glowing red wires of the heater. “It was foolish. I counseled against it. But they went anyway, begging Killian, the chief glimwarden of the time, to join the ranks. They were refused. They were determined boys though, and I had given to them too freely, so they decided that they would buy their way in. A thousand hearts for each … it was a high cost, but one that they were ready to pay. They were refused.”

“Refused?” asked Melanie. She hadn’t heard this story before, but she could tell it was something of a tragedy.

“The hearts come from the glimwardens,” said Colsum. “It is within their power, if not their explicit authority, to prevent someone from obtaining a heart. They exercise this power very rarely, because they know that it rankles. It’s in the same way that the town’s glaziers could, if they wished, collude with one another to prevent a new building from having windows, thereby stalling construction entirely. The thing that prevents it is public outcry. In the case of my sons, there was none of that, because what they were attempting to do was unprecedented and screamed of privilege.”

Melanie stayed silent, because that was exactly what she had been thinking. She had read stories where only the rich were glimwardens, and assumed that it was likely the case in other towns, but the concept had always made her uneasy. Colsum already held a considerable amount of power by dint of his money. If he were to buy up hearts, he would have physical power on top of that. There were signatures that frightened her, ones that almost always belonged to villains in the stories that described them: mind control, mind reading, or the ability to reach into a person’s head and change their emotions around.

Colsum seemed to remember where he was and turned to look at Melanie. “I’ll tell you now that I have reason to believe the wardens aren’t acting in the best interests of Light’s Hollow. I’ve looked into the paltry records that have been kept over the years. I had Linwell institute new systems of record-keeping for the engineers. From everything I can see, the answer to the question of why there are so few glimwardens is that it serves the wardens to have it be so. Why is power concentrated in so few hands? Because it’s their hands.”

“You want the power to be in your hands instead,” she said. “That’s why you want me to join the competition.”

“No,” replied Colsum. “I could never trust you.” He smiled at her. “The debt doesn’t buy your allegiance to that extent, I’m not so stupid to think that it does. What I need is information. You’re to be my spy.”

Melanie watched his sunken-in eyes. “And if I join the competition and win a spot, you’ll wipe away my debt?”

“Yes,” replied Colsum. “While you’re in the competition, win or lose, I’ll suspend the need for payment on the debt.”

“No interest accrued either,” said Melanie.

Colsum waved his hand, not caring about the money. “You understand my intent? You understand that I’m not an evil man? You owe me a debt, but that’s no fault of mine.”

“I understand,” said Melanie, because she thought that was what he wanted to hear.

“Very well,” said Colsum. He seemed satisfied with himself. “Our business is concluded here then. Ready the Black Mare for an extended closure, once this business with the lantern failure is concluded and the competition starts. I want you at the top of your game.”

The mention of the lantern failure returned Melanie’s thoughts to Sander. Before she could return home, she had to make sure that the world was as terrible of a place as it seemed to be.

❧❧❧

Light’s Hollow had three outlying clinics, which were little more than a lone physician and a nurse or two, but any serious injury or sickness was dealt with in the hospital very near to Chancellor’s Lantern. Chancellor’s was the center of governance, but it also served as a redoubt; a single lantern might fail, or even fall, but it would take two failures for the heart of the city to be in any danger. The hospital was in a constant state of readiness for whatever calamity might fall. Any survivors would be taken there.

Melanie had visited the hospital often, while her mother was in the process of dying. She read books by her mother’s bedside and tried to drown out the sound of shallow breathing. She hadn’t wanted to be there, but that was her duty as daughter, a duty made all the more important by her father’s refusal to accept her mother’s inevitable death. Once Melanie’s mother had finally died, she had avoided the hospital as much as possible, sometimes even taking a longer route if it meant she didn’t have to see the tall building and its elaborate front doorway with a bas relief of the Healer beckoning the sick inside.

Now she found herself walking through the front doors again. The place was quieter than she’d thought it would be. It didn’t strike her as a good sign. She walked up to the reception desk, where a weary nurse was making marks in a ledger. The nurse marked her place and folded the ledger closed just as Melanie made it to the desk.

“I had a, uh, friend who went to the battle,” she said. “Do you have a list of the deceased? Or survivors? I just wanted to know … it’s Sander Seaborn.”

“The chief glimwarden’s son,” replied the nurse with a slight frown. “Room 203. You’re free to visit him, if you’d like.”

Melanie felt a wave of relief wash over her, followed closely by a trickle of annoyance. Of course Sander would go running off to give up his life for no good reason, and of course he would somehow manage to come out of it just fine when others had died. It would embolden him to take bigger risks, until eventually one day he would end up dead because he thought he was better and more capable than he really was. Unless … well, it was possible that he’d suffered a grievous wound that he wouldn’t recover from. Melanie opened her mouth to ask the nurse, but she had already gone back to her ledger.

It would have been easy to slip out. Sander would never have to know that she’d cried over his death. To let him know that she, in some sense, cared about him would only exacerbate his belief that they were friends. You didn’t need to be someone’s friend to mourn their passing, nor to visit them in the hospital, but she was certain that distinction would be lost on Sander.

Still, something Colsum had said was lingering in her mind. He had said she was a creature of spite. Her interactions with Colsum had been limited, but he had a great many people who worked for him. Had one of them told him that she was spiteful? Thinking about it bothered her. She wondered whether she had been too unkind to Sander in the past, for all that he annoyed her. He was oblivious in certain ways, casually arrogant in others, and often downright boring when he got to talking about the things that were of interest to him and him alone. He did care about her though, and even if he was largely unsuccessful, she could tell that he was often trying to lift her normally sour moods.

Melanie took the stairs up and found his room, doing her best to avoid looking down the hall to where her mother had drawn her final breath. She hesitated at the door, listening for any conversation that would give her an excuse not to go in, but there was only silence. She knocked softly, wondering whether he was asleep.

“Come in,” said a man’s voice. It wasn’t Sander.

Melanie slipped into the room and saw Sander laying in a hospital bed with his eyes closed. There were bandages on his arm and leg; he wore only loose-fitting shorts, displaying a body that was more muscular than Melanie would have imagined. Sitting in a chair beside the bed, to Melanie’s complete surprise, was Philip Phandrum. She realized with a start that she hadn’t given much thought to Philip. She felt guilty for not having asked the front desk whether Philip was alright, but her shame was lessened significantly by the fact that Philip seemed perfectly unharmed.

“He’s going to be out for a few days,” said Philip. “He overdid it, and he suffered some injuries, but he’ll be fine.”

“You’re okay?” asked Melanie.

“Perfectly fine,” replied Philip. “Sander saved my life.”

Melanie looked at Sander’s still form. She watched his breathing. The rooms at the hospital were all built the same, so it didn’t even matter that this wasn’t the room her mother had been in, it was bringing back unbidden memories all the same. Her mother had slept most of the time while on her path to death. Looking at Sander, it was hard to accept the assurance that he would get better with time.

“Would you like some privacy?” asked Philip.

“No,” replied Melanie. “If he’s not going to wake up, I should just get going.” She looked to Philip. “Did his father make it?”

Philip nodded. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Melanie. She and Sander had both lost their mothers. Sander didn’t deserve to lose both his parents like she had.

“I have your swords, by the way,” said Philip. “I didn’t bring them with me, but I’ll drop them by the Black Mare as soon as I’m able.”

“Oh,” said Melanie. She had forgotten about the swords. At least now they would have one true story to go with all the false ones her father used to tell. “Thank you. Would it be terribly rude for me to ask how things went?”

Philip twitched his lips. “Do you want the short version or the long version?” he asked.

“The short version,” replied Melanie. “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be overhearing the long version for the next several months to come.”

“There was a new type of darkling,” said Philip. “It was more powerful than the wardens were prepared to deal with. The Auxiliary were called in to form a fall-back perimeter, but what ended up happening was pure chaos that left many of us dead. At some point, the glimwardens beat a retreat to the lantern proper in order to ensure that no darklings would break in and start killing the engineers, which left the remaining Auxiliary in an even worse position than they were in before. I didn’t make terribly good use of that sword that you gave me, but I managed to kill a few before I was one of the only ones left alive. I was seconds from being torn to shreds when Sander teleported us away. That was about when the lantern came back on. Sander was passed out and choking on his own vomit, so I cleared his airway and got him breathing again.”

“You saved his life,” said Melanie. She had never paid too much attention to Philip. In school, he had seemed to melt into the background. Even now, he sounded dispassionate about all the death and destruction he’d seen, though Melanie supposed that was to be expected in the aftermath of it all. Sometimes people came out of tragedy feeling numb. It happened in her books all the time.

“Sander was a hero,” said Philip. “He fought more ferociously than I did and risked his life to save mine. What I did for him was what anyone would have done for him. Failure would have cost me nothing.”

“He won’t see it that way,” said Melanie.

“Perhaps not,” replied Philip.

Melanie shuffled her feet. “Well, I should get going. But … you’re on the city council, aren’t you?”

“I’m not on the city council, I’m an aide to the mayor,” replied Philip.

“But you’re part of the meetings?” asked Melanie.

“Yes,” replied Philip. “Why?”

“There was going to be a competition to see who the new glimwardens were going to be,” said Melanie. “I was wondering whether you thought that was still going to happen. Is the eighth lantern still going to be built? It’s — I was going to try out.”

“Ah,” said Philip. He looked her over and Melanie tried to act naturally under the uncomfortable weight of his evaluation. “First there will be an inquest. We’ll see what happens after that.”

“An inquest?” asked Melanie.

“It’s a judicial hearing to determine the facts of an incident,” said Philip.

“No, I know what the word means,” replied Melanie. “I just don’t understand what the purpose is.”

“So it will never happen again,” said Philip. He narrowed his eyes at her, focusing on her face for a moment, then shrugged. “Of course, what’s really important is giving the appearance of making sure that it will never happen again. I’ve read all the notes from past inquests that were held after lantern failures like this, and it’s quite common for the reactions to be underfunded or underplanned and never come to fruition.”

“The reaction to the failure isn’t actually about stopping the failure from happening,” said Melanie. Low expectations of the world were almost always justified. She noticed Philip looking at her more intently than she really liked.

“I should get going,” she said. She took a last look at Sander, who was still out like a light, and then turned to the door.

“Melanie?” asked Philip. She turned back to face him. “The competition to find a new glimwarden, if it happens, won’t be about finding the best potential glimwarden. It will be about power and who holds it. Remember that.”

Melanie nodded, but that, at least, she’d already figured out.

Glimwarden, Chapter 6

Sander

It took a thousand hearts to become a glimwarden. Darkling hearts came in different sizes though, so when a person said “one thousand hearts”, that was really just an abstraction for “one thousand hearts of average size”. But that was also an abstraction, because what they really meant was “a certain intensity of the shadow of the bind”. That was the metric that the glimwardens used, because counting hearts (or worse, measuring them with a scale or calipers) was impractical. One of the benefits of the bind was the ability to see its effects on the world around you. The glimwardens could gauge how many hearts a person had consumed just by looking at them.

While it took a thousand hearts to become a glimwarden, anyone with the shadow of the bind on them was expected to help in the defense of the town. It didn’t matter how much or how little you had. If a lantern failed, the Auxiliary was supposed to come and help out with evacuation, defense, or whatever else was needed. The obligation was more than just a social one; if you were in the Auxiliary — if you had any of the shadow on you — and didn’t come running when the alarm sounded, you would face exile, which was as good as death. Failing the town in its time of need was one of the most serious crimes a person could be charged with.

The threat of exile was a convenient excuse for Sander to go where the action was. He was still feeling queasy from the short bit of teleportation he’d done earlier in the day, but a few bites of Melanie’s soup had settled his stomach somewhat. He had only the loaned sword, which he had no practice with, but part of being a glimwarden was making do and thinking on your feet, so that wasn’t really a problem either. So far he had only had small tests of his ability, and only a basic ability to really feel the bind, but that was a fairly minor problem.

Sander and Philip jogged together. It was two miles from lantern to lantern, unless you were going all the way across town, or if you had to cross one of the bridges over the Akim River. Healer’s Lantern and Rogue’s Lantern were adjacent to each other though, so it was a simple run across flat land. As they went, they began to encounter a number of people going the opposite direction, those fleeing from the alarm and moving to somewhere safer. A few people gave them odd looks, but no one stopped them, which was gratifying. Sander had worried that he would have to explain himself.

“Let’s call field strength at the town’s border one unit,” said Sander. “I can’t remember right now what their gliminance target actually is, but let’s say that it’s just one, and that they’re meeting it, or were before the alarm went off. Since the border is a mile from the lantern, and adjacent lanterns are two miles from each other, and power falls off with the inverse of the cube, that means that Rogue’s Lantern is still giving Healer’s Lantern one eighth of its power. The same is true for Chancellor’s and Ranger’s, so that’s three eighths. But then Singer’s and Watcher’s are … uh, root three times side length, three point four, inverse cube, something like a fortieth each? Which means Builder’s does practically nothing at all.” A few seconds of jogging passed as Sander’s mind caught up to what he was saying. “It’s four miles away, so one sixty-fourth power.”

Philip nodded along to this. Philip was a question that Sander could feel his mind trying to steer toward, but Sander had learned long ago that questions about people rarely had satisfying answers.

When Sander had been fourteen and just about to graduate, he’d heard his father talking about an upcoming city council vote about the fishing quotas on Ox Bow Lake. The quotas had to be set low enough so that the lake wouldn’t get fished out, but high enough so that the fish wouldn’t overbreed. The quotas changed quite often, as the city council attempted to keep the lake properly stocked. Sander had seen an opportunity to use his math; he spent a long time working on the numbers, learning about the life-cycles of fish, and making various surveys of the lake life. After two weeks, he presented a formal report at an open session of the city council, laying out a scheme that would revolutionize the quota system and allow the city council to focus on more important things. It would first have segregated the quota by fish species, and second have set the quotas based on a stock assessment and evaluation.

The city council had apparently brought it up in closed session the week after and voted against it nearly unanimously. The only vote in favor had been Gregor Golland’s, for whatever reason. Sander had spent another week trying to figure it out, first thinking that his math was wrong, then thinking that the council’s math must have been wrong. It was with utter dismay that Sander realized that there hadn’t been any math, just specious arguments. To solve the problem, he would have to solve the people, but the people were problems all on their own. He gave up early on, and considered the lesson a valuable one about how to go about fixing things: leave people out of it wherever possible.

So Sander was in no hurry to figure out the answer to Philip. He didn’t even really want to bother with properly defining the question of Philip. All that Sander really needed to know was that Philip was ready to rise to challenges just like Sander was, and they had each others’ backs.

“Wait, my math is wrong,” said Sander. “Field strength is one unit at the border, but that’s not just the power of the single nearest lantern, that’s the summed strength of all lanterns at their respective distances. Rogue’s doesn’t project out to Healer’s with one eighth power, because Rogue’s doesn’t project out to a mile with full power, it’s only with the addition of the other six lanterns that it maintains that level.”

“It’s okay if you’re nervous,” said Philip.

Sander almost stopped jogging. They were nearing Healer’s Lantern and the cluster of buildings around it. “Nervous?” he asked.

“Odds are it’s just a false alarm,” said Philip. “Even if it’s not, we won’t be put directly in harm’s way, since that’s not an efficient use of untrained personnel.”

“I have some training,” said Sander.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” said Philip. “I had thought you were busy with apprenticeships.”

Sander didn’t have a response to that.

It took them fifteen minutes to cross from Rogue’s Lantern to Healer’s. They passed dozens of evacuees fleeing to safety. More than once, Sander and Philip split apart to let a runework cart through; these were laden down with people sitting on top or hanging off the sides. Twice they were passed by glimwardens going towards the failed lantern, moving at speed: Baxter, with his red-hot sword held out in front of him, and Eppie, who seemed to float off the ground. Sander watched them closely for the brief time they were nearby. He could see some of the color of their bind as they ran, primarily at the location where their feet touched the ground. Eppie’s was the color of raw salmon, while Baxter’s was the blue of deep waters.

All the outlying lanterns had similarly shaped settlements around them, owing to a commonality in the organizing principles. Each lantern had three main roads leading away from it, two which went to adjacent lanterns and one which went to Chancellor’s Lantern. Houses and businesses sprung up around these roads, and side roads filled in the acute angles. Believers in numerological significance found it pleasing that the settlements had three arms. The road leading to the central lantern was always the most populous though. It provided access to the most populous part of Light’s Hollow, certainly, but at the back of everyone’s mind was the idea of a lantern failure. In the event that the darklings came storming in, buildings closer to the edge of town would be hit the hardest.

The battle was already taking place in a field of snow peas when Sander and Philip arrived. The darklings had no proper sense of tactics or strategy, but they were focused into a relatively narrow section of land, perhaps a hundred meters across. Their target, obvious just from looking at their movements, was the unlit lantern. Where the majority of the fighting was happening, green plants were stained black. There were more darklings than Sander knew the names for, sinuous shapes and inky blobs that raced in towards the glimwardens. From time to time, Sander would see a flash of colored light from some particularly high-powered attack, but for the most part, the battle was nothing more than men and women hacking away at the darklings with their weapon of choice. The alarm stopped moments after Sander and Philip arrived, though the lantern was clearly not yet fixed, since the darklings were still roaming in cultivated land. It was eerily quiet.

“Over here!” Eppie called to them from near the houses. A small group of people were standing around her, all of them plainly dressed.

“Your father thought you might show up,” said Eppie with a frown. “It’s still early yet. Hopefully we won’t need you. The engineers say another ten minutes, but past experience is that in ten minutes they’ll tell us it’s another twenty minutes. The last outage ran six hours.”

Eppie was short and rail-thin, though her armor was able to hide some of it. She’d taken a gut wound two years ago, one bad enough to do some serious damage to her internal organs. Glimwardens healed faster than normal people, but they didn’t regenerate. Eppie had the worst injury of any glimwarden in recent memory, at least among those that hadn’t been killed outright. Her hair was visibly thinning as well, almost certainly as a result of her injury. Every time Sander saw her, he was reminded of how she’d been when he was eight years old, young, lively, and staying up late into the night laughing with his parents. She was still lively now, but there was something false and strained about it, like she was pulling the strings on a puppet of herself.

“We don’t have use for you unless something goes wrong,” said Eppie.

“I thought we’d be fighting,” said Sander. He tightened his grip around his borrowed sword.

“The day this town has to depend on a sixteen year old boy to fight its battles is the day that it’s fallen,” said Eppie. Her face softened somewhat. “We’ll call on you when there are fires to put out. In the meantime, head to the lantern and wait for orders.”

Sander grimaced as he did what she said.

The last serious lantern failure had been six years ago, not too long after his mother had died. Three glimwardens had died that day. Sander remembered his father coming home from the battle and wrapping him in an enormous, uncomfortable, crushing hug. Sander had wanted to ask questions, but it reminded him too much of his mother’s death, so it was always easy to push the subject to another time. If Sander had known that there would be another lantern failure so close on the heels of joining the Auxiliary, he would have pressed Merry for information. Instead, he was going in blind. Apparently the Auxiliary would sit back and watch as the glimwardens efficiently dealt with the incoming darklings.

“It’s a battle of endurance,” said Sander in a low voice as they walked. He was sure that his voice wouldn’t carry, and even if it did, that it wouldn’t distract the glimwardens from their battle, but it felt wrong to try to hold a normal conversation under the circumstances. “Each glimwarden has a limited amount of charge available to them, which is being depleted faster than even the strongest of them can recover. Meanwhile, the supply of darklings is unending. Earlier today, Merry said that she stayed out for an hour or two each day, which I think must be the limit of what she’s able to physically do with the bind she has. So at a certain point, the glimwardens will be run down, even if they ration. At which point it will be our turn to join the battle.”

“At which point, it will be our turn to die,” said a tall man wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Sander had been talking to Philip and found himself surprised that a response was coming from someone else. The man’s face was familiar, but no name came to Sander’s mind. He and Philip had arrived at the lantern, where a score of people were standing around outside the door.

“Don’t pay him any mind,” said another man. He had on a white shirt and a jacket that he’d thrown over his shoulder. Sander didn’t know his name either. “Rudy has been trying to ruin morale.”

“But … why?” asked Sander.

“Because the system is unjust,” replied Rudy. “Compulsory service with a risk of death —”

“It’s not compulsory,” said Philip. His voice was loud and clear. People had been looking at them since the moment they approached, but now the conversations stopped. “A person chooses whether or not to take in the hearts, and until they do, they’re free to take to the roads as soon as the alarm sounds.”

“The glimwardens want to keep power in their own hands,” said Rudy. “They threaten us with death if we dare to try buying that power from them. If we don’t take the uncertain death of service in the Auxiliary, then it’s exile from the town, a more certain death than a simple hanging.”

“You’re here, engaging in idle conversation,” said Philip. “The glimwardens are fighting for their lives right now.”

“Until, as the chief’s son has said, the glimwardens start to flag,” replied Rudy. “Then we’ll take their place, with a tenth their strength, wheat for the thresher.”

Philip folded his arms. “The town can’t afford to lose its glimwardens.”

“And it can afford to lose me?” asked Rudy with a sneer.

“I won’t speak to the value of your life,” replied Philip. “But I will say that the glimwardens are more important than me. If I had the choice of my life for one of theirs, I would choose theirs. The town can live without me, but it can’t live without its glimwardens and its engineers.”

All at once, right before Sander’s eyes, the puzzle of Philip was resolving itself. Philip was a believer in the town of Light’s Hollow, in its structures and its systems. If not for what they’d talked about over lunch, Sander might have taken it for blind fanaticism, but in context it was something else entirely. Philip had a singularity of purpose that still permitted some level of intellectual examination. It was something that Sander had been searching for what seemed like his entire life, now recognized in another and impossible to emulate.

“Fracture!” came a cry from beyond the houses. Sander and the others were a block away from the field where the fighting was going on, able to see only what was visible between the houses, but the Fracture was tall enough that its head could be seen above the roofs. It was the same sort of darkling that had followed Sander home the day before. His father had killed that one alone, but it had been under the effects of much more gliminance.

Sander felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Philip holding him back.

“If they need us, they’ll let us know,” said Philip. “Until then, we should stay out of the way.” Sander’s feet had started moving of their own accord. The conscious thought to go help with the fight hadn’t even crossed his mind. As soon as he was physically stopped, his brain kicked into gear, its teeth meshing together. Of course Philip was right, of course the proper thing to do was wait, but Sander simply didn’t want to. He had to strain to keep himself from running to help. He had to clench his jaw to keep from creating a principled argument about why he should go from whole cloth.

A beam of green light pierced the Fracture through its head, which staggered it low enough that it was out of Sander’s field of view. A few seconds later, the roof of a nearby house seemed to explode upward with a spray of shingles and wood. Sander saw a blur of dark blue in the center for just a moment before it cleared away to reveal a glimwarden tumbling through the air.

Baxter landed thirty feet away with bits of shingle tumbling down around him. Sander had expected him to land in a mangled heap, but instead the glimwarden righted himself the moment before he touched the ground and landed in a crouch. He looked over to the Auxiliary with a stunned expression that lasted just long enough for the remaining debris to find its way to the ground.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

Sander gave a mute nod before realizing that he should check around first. Some of the pieces of broken slate tile had come down around the gathered Auxiliary, but no one was injured.

“Can’t take too many more hits like that,” said Baxter with a strained smile. He looked around for his red-hot sword and found it burning its way through a patch of grass nearby. He snatched it up and jogged back to the fight. Sander stared after him, wishing that there was any way he could justify following along.

The thick door to the lantern opened just a crack, allowing a young engineer to stick his head out. “We’ll have it fixed in fifteen minutes,” he said. “Someone tell the glimwardens.”

“I’ll do it,” said Sander. He started off toward where Eppie had been directing things. He felt a flash of annoyance when Philip followed behind him, but that was irrational and easy enough to quell. Besides, he and Philip were friends now, as of this morning.

When they rounded the houses, Sander slowed down to take in the battle. The ordered rows of snow peas had been torn up by the rapid movement of combat. Sander tried to focus on the individual darklings, picking out their anatomy. There were plenty of Grapnels, but those were being dispatched almost as quickly as Sander’s eyes could resolve them. Some of the darklings took animal shapes, like large wolves or an immense bull, but there were others that were more abstract. One looked like a jet black rope as thick as a man’s thigh. It billowed out black smoke from its tail and slithered across the ground before being sliced through six times in rapid succession by a sword that briefly glowed turquoise. Another stood eight feet tall on ten spindle legs. It seemed to stumble slightly, but the stumble turned into a lurch, and one of the legs extended with a fist-sized claw. One of the glimwardens threw a hand to the side and pushed herself to the side with a yellow blast before dashing forward to make a counter-attack.

“Come on,” said Philip. “We have a message to deliver.”

Sander nodded, but his eyes didn’t leave the dazzling display of the wide open killing field. The moments of light and color were coming faster than they had been when Sander had first arrived. Either the glimwardens were already using their bind to supplement their endurance, or the darklings had increased the pressure. Looking further down the field, Sander could see that more of the black shapes coming.

“Sander?” asked Philip.

“Right,” said Sander. “Thanks.” He walked over to Eppie, who was now standing all alone and watching events unfold. She glanced at him only briefly before returning her attention to the fight.

“The engineers said fifteen more minutes,” said Sander.

“They said it five minutes ago,” said Philip. Philip wasn’t watching the battle. His attention was on Sander and Eppie. Sander found that mildly unnerving, but then a sound of clanging axes and a beam of green light drew Sander’s attention back to the field. That green was his father’s color.

“Their estimates are meaningless,” said Eppie. Her eyes flickered back and forth, tracking the trading of blows. “I asked once what they were doing while we were out here dying, and I got a boring story about replacement parts, diagnostics, and testing cycles. They’re worried about killing themselves when they turn it on.” She turned to Sander. “Thank you for the message, but your father would kill me if I gave you special treatment. Go back with the others. It looks like we’re going to be needing you sooner rather than later. I’ll let you know.”

Sander stayed. If Eppie wanted him gone, without a view of what was happening, she would need more than just dismissive words. Sander’s parents had both dedicated their lives to this, but this was the first time he’d truly seen glimwardens in their element. His eyes rested on his father, with his thick beard and green armor that had somehow avoided being completely covered in black ichor. He had two handaxes, which he wielded like he was a whirlwind, never more than a few seconds between slices. Every so often, he would bring the axes together, slamming the sharp edges together in a way that only runework weapons could endure. The result was a tightly-focused green beam, which packed enough power to pierce through a darkling and hit the one behind it as well.

“Schism!” came a shout from the field. It was a woman’s voice, and it didn’t take Sander long to pick out Merry. She had apparently discarded her pistols in favor of daggers, though her fighting style seemed to be more stationary than seemed practical. Sander peered around, trying to figure out which of the darklings she was talking about. Then he saw it, a black shape on the horizon that was towered above everything else. It was the thirty-foot monstrosity that Merry had described to Sander, a darkling whose type she didn’t know.

“Go get the others,” said Eppie. “This is where we lose someone.”

This time Sander didn’t need prodding. He turned away from the battle and dashed back past the houses to where the Auxiliary were standing around. He nearly tripped over the debris left over from where Baxter had been punched through a building, but in only a few seconds he was standing in front of the Auxiliary.

“They need us,” he said. “All of us, for a second line of defense.” He dashed back to the frontlines without waiting for a response.

When he returned, the landscape of the battle was being drastically altered. Sander’s father was clanging his axes together over and over again in rapid succession, sending out rays of green light that pierced through the darklings further down the field. Gunshots were ringing out from those glimwardens that used firearms. Sander saw a Grapnel explode at the seams in a flash of light blue color, though he had no idea which of the glimwardens had been responsible. The strategy they were employing seemed clear; they were burning through their bind at a fast rate to give themselves some breathing room to deal with what Merry had christened the Schism.

Sander felt a brief sickness as he realized that the glimwardens didn’t know how to fight the darkling that was coming their way. As the sickness deepened, he realized that the feeling was something else, more than he’d ever felt from simple despair. He tentatively tried to feel for his bind. He was surprised to find that it was coating his skin, instinctually wrapping him in a thin protective layer of some kind. Anxiety over the coming battle gave way to panic as he realized that his bind was betraying him, pulling from reserves that he needed in order to keep standing, let alone for fighting.

Calm down, he told himself. Breathe. He looked at the Schism, which had drawn closer to the lantern. It had six long legs that poked down toward the ground and shouldn’t have been able to support it. The bulk of the creature was its mouth, ten feet wide and full of squirming things, like every tooth was a tongue. Its gut was distended and bulging, nearly scraping the ground as it trundled across the green field. Sander could already tell that it was moving with deceptive speed, and even knowing that it was faster than it seemed didn’t help.

Breathe, Sander said to himself. If it was possible for Merry to force our signature by pointing a gun at us, then the bind is at least partly sympathetic. It’s trying to protect us from a perceived threat, like a reflex to flinch. We have to look on the bright side here. Yes, we’re facing an unknown threat on our second day of training to become a glimwarden, we only have a non-magical sword that we’ve never trained with, our admittedly meager power is trying to use up our literal or metaphorical life force, everyone within shouting distance is stronger than us, and why did we think this was a good idea again?

It doesn’t matter. Everything is going to be fine. Sander firmed himself up and corrected his posture. He controlled his breathing and listened to the sound of his heart. Part of his brain was telling him that this wasn’t the proper way to calm down at all, it was just a distraction from the direness of the situation, and a different part of his brain was telling him that results were more important than taking a principled stand against self-deception, but the end result was that calm came over Sander. He began to feel better at once as the bind stopped drawing on his reserves. The moment of crisis passed. Sander began to feel like himself again, ready to take on whatever came his way.

The Schism barely reacted to the first volley that was sent its way. What passed for black flesh reformed almost instantly from the divots that were put into it. A green beam of light tore through one of its legs, severing it, but the creature didn’t even falter. A new leg thrust out from its central mass to replace the old one, liquid at first and then stiff and straight. The darkling didn’t even miss a step. Sander could only see the flashes of color that accompanied an attack using the bind, but there were others as well, arrows from a bow and a few thrown javelins, though nothing seemed to be working. Merry had said that killing a darkling was all about reducing its ability to maintain a cohesive form, wearing down its own sort of bind. The Schism wasn’t showing any strain just yet.

“Hold your position,” Eppie called to the Auxiliary. Sander could see that they were standing beside him, arranged in a loose line. Philip was standing next to him. “We’ll deal with the big one, it’s your job to make sure none of the little ones get through.”

When the Schism was twenty feet from the glimwardens, it flicked one of its pointy legs forward, moving it so fast it cracked like a whip. The tip struck one of the glimwardens, a red-headed woman in purple armor, and sent her flying backward. She crashed into one of the houses and caved in the wall.

“Find its heart!” someone cried. Sander looked and tried to predict where that would be as the darkling lashed out with its forelimbs. Another glimwarden took a glancing blow, angling downward, that sent him tumbling across the ground. Sander tightened his grip on his sword. If it came down to it, he would try to hack at the thing’s legs while avoiding its lightning quick strikes. That wasn’t a good plan, but Sander had no ability to strike at range.

Unless … well, he was a teleporter of some kind, and if his signature worked the way he thought it did, there was a translation of momentum component to it. He’d moved twenty feet in three seconds and come out of the teleportation moving twenty feet per three seconds. If he could change the distance to forty meters and the time to one second, then that should mean that he would come out at forty meters per second. He’d be going too fast to control much of anything, but that still wouldn’t be fast enough. How fast was fast enough? Sander had no idea what the limits of his ability were, but he started making plans for a true worst case scenario. If need be, it was possible that the working of his signature could turn him into a bomb of flesh and bone.

The fight with the Schism was going poorly. Even the glancing blows from its forelegs sent the glimwardens flying, sometimes pinwheeling into the air and other times smashing them along the ground. The hits weren’t fatal, not with the flashes of color as the bind did its protective work, but Sander was certain that the attacks were costly. He watched as Merry dodged an attack by a matter of centimeters and sliced across the limb with a smooth motion of her dagger, but a replacement leg was already forming as she beat a retreat. Every swing of a sword or telekinetic flash of color seemed easy for the darkling to close. Worse, the Schism wasn’t the only darkling taking part in the attack; behind it and closing fast were other, smaller threats. Some of these attacked the glimwardens, distracting from their efforts to kill the Schism, but the bulk of them rushed past and toward the Auxiliary.

Sander held his sword in front of him and assumed a basic stance. He angled the sword so that he could run a Grapnel through, which was how his first battle — only a day ago — had been won. Merry had said to aim for the heart, but Sander had no idea where that was on a Grapnel, aside from being somewhere in the center of its mass. For any other darkling, he was completely clueless.

When the darklings made contact with the Auxiliary, all hell broke loose. Sander swung his sword in the direction of one of the darklings that looked like a bull. His sword sliced into its hide and caught there, pulling him to the ground as he tried to maintain his grip. He rolled on the ground and jumped back to his feet, feeling a jolt of pain in his leg from the wound he’d taken the day before. He swung his sword wildly, trying to keep the darklings at bay, with all pretense of proper form lost. A beam of green light pierced straight through a Grapnel in front of Sander, killing it in an instant, but when Sander thought to look, he couldn’t see his father anywhere.

Sander did his best to hack away at the darklings. He was hit once by a darkling the size of a horse, its claw touching his gut, but his bind — cherry red — flashed brightly as it pushed back against the hit. Sander staggered backward and drove his sword into the ground on accident. When he looked up, the darkling was gone. Sander was feeling sick again, nauseous to his core, but he pulled his sword from the earth and swung it once more, this time hitting a Grapnel in the face. Too much was going on around him, too many screams of pain and too many dizzying motions. He had no idea whether they were winning or not. It was all he could do to bring his sword up in defense as the Grapnel he’d struck swung its claws at him. The parry was ineffective though, and Sander suffered a shock of pain as his sleeve was stained red with blood. The darkling opened its jaws wide and leapt at Sander, but he was saved once again as the darkling was ripped apart in a flash of light blue.

The Schism had reared back onto two legs, making itself look taller than it already was. It closed its mouth and puffed out its cheeks, though the darklings had no need to breathe. In the brief respite from being attacked, Sander steeled himself for whatever was about to happen. The Schism leaned forward and spat, shooting black chunks the size of a person’s head, over and over again at everyone around it. Sander was far enough away that a lunge to the side allowed him to avoid the projectile, but not everyone was so lucky. Where people were hit, they began writhing in pain and screaming, dropping to the ground and letting their weapons fall beside them.

Sander ran to the nearest of the fallen, a glimwarden in brown armor. He recognized her as Helene, one of the ones who had been slammed back by the Schism and into one of the buildings. Sander had seen her come over a few times when he was little, back when his mother was still alive. Now she was screaming in pain and trying to clutch at the black mass that seemed like it was stuck to her chest. Sander was about to grab for it, but he saw her thin fingers sink into it like tar. When she thrashed away from it, her hands were stuck.

It was only the movement in his peripheral vision that gave Sander time to leap to the side and avoid the rush of the bull-like darkling. It was possible that it was the same one he’d sliced into at the start of the battle, but if it was, any sign of the wound had completely vanished. It turned toward him and extended and sharpened its horns. Its head went down to charge, but the eyes stayed where they were, shifting across its face as it moved its head. Sander threw himself to the ground with his sword out in front of him, trying to get the darkling to impale itself. He slipped between the points of the horns and took a hoof to the chest as the darkling trampled over him, which forced the air from his lungs. He lost his sword in the process, and it was nowhere to be seen around him.

The bull-like darkling continued on past Sander, not stopping to finish its work. With horror, Sander realized that it was continuing on to the lantern, completely unopposed. When he looked past the darkling, he saw that it wasn’t alone; the darklings had swarmed the lantern and were crawling all over it.

When Sander turned back to where the Schism still stood towering over everything, he saw a field that had been stained red and black. The dark shapes on the ground were people, either dead or injured. If there were any glimwardens left, they were at the lantern now, trying to tear the darklings from the wall and prevent a breach of the lantern.

The last person standing was Philip. He stood thirty feet from the Schism with his sword held in front of him, looking utterly implacable. Bright red blood and dark black ichor stained his outfit, but he seemed perfectly unharmed. It was a frozen instant, the moment before Philip’s almost certain death.

Sander made a snap judgment and sprinted toward Philip, ignoring the stinging pain in his arm, the ache in his leg, and the queasy feeling that was threatening to make him vomit. He closed the distance quickly and touched Philip on the shoulder just as the Schism began a flicking motion with its foreleg.

One mile, fifteen minutes, thought Sander.

There was a sharp discontinuity as the world changed around them. Sander could see in an instant that what he’d tried hadn’t worked; the Schism was still in view, only further away. He had taken Philip with him and landed in a field more than three hundred meters away, but that wasn’t nearly far enough, not when the Schism had no better targets. That was about all the thinking Sander could do though, because the nausea hit him in a tight, painful wave that forced up his lunch.

Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was the Schism. It appeared to be melting.

Philip

Things hadn’t exactly gone as Philip had planned.

It hadn’t been a false alarm, for a start. That at least was foreseeable and a risk that Philip had been willing to take. He hadn’t thought he would ever see any actual contact with the darklings though. From what he had understood about service in the Auxiliary, it mostly involved helping the engineers and managing some of the damage that was inevitably caused by a prolonged battle near the houses. The lantern failure six years ago had been the most serious one in living memory; it had claimed the lives of three glimwardens, but only a single member of the Auxiliary, and he had been an old man with well-acknowledged heart problems.

Philip had shown up to find a painfully disorganized response to the lantern failure. It was impossible to tell whether this was typical of lantern failures, since this was Philip’s first time, but there should have been clear lines of communication between the engineers and the glimwardens, or at least something beyond someone sticking their head out the door calling for a random person to go deliver a message. The Auxiliary had been stuck away from the battle without clear line of sight for some reason, though Philip couldn’t tell whether that was by intent or just how things had ended up happening.

Lantern failures were, on the one hand, so rare that they were almost not worth thinking about. But on the other hand, lantern failures were so serious that they were vitally important to prepare for. Philip would almost have been angry, if not for the fact that he himself hadn’t prepared for a lantern failure either. He had full access to city hall, and it would have been easy enough to dig up the meeting minutes where such things had been discussed. Unfortunately, he had simply broken lantern failures apart into their political effects, as a total abstraction. He hadn’t dreamed that everyone else had been equally careless, but he should have expected it.

The battle itself was quick and to the point. Some large form of darkling had shown up and laid waste to everyone it encountered with only ineffectual resistance. Philip had no idea what the glimwardens did when they encountered one of those in the wild, but then again, everyone knew that it was a dangerous job, so perhaps the answer was that they simply died. All manner of black creatures, scaled and feathered, with horns and trailing smoke, had swarmed around the Schism and attacked the Auxiliary, whose line had broken instantly.

That had been another annoyance; the Auxiliary were either untrained or self-trained, but there was no reason that had to be the case. Philip suspected that this was simply an issue of inefficiencies in the political process. Since lantern failures were rare and the use of the Auxiliary so infrequent, it had never been worth the political capital to get the Auxiliary running regular drills or defensive courses being taught. This, despite the fact that it would obviously be worth the meager costs.

The fight wasn’t difficult for Philip. The darklings didn’t entirely ignore him, but they focused disproportionately on the others. In the calm moments, Philip suspected that this was because he had never consumed so much as a single darkling heart and had no trace of the shadow of the bind. He was attacked twice, both times by one of the smaller ones. Both times he slashed at them and they went off to find better prey. That was a very useful thing to know about the darklings.

Philip was so busy concentrating on staying out of the way that it took him some time to notice that the battle had moved elsewhere. Everyone around him was dead. There were still darklings coming in from beyond Light’s Hollow, but they were coming more slowly now. The only one left in the vicinity was the Schism, which was staring at him.

Death had never scared Philip. He didn’t want to die, but if it were unavoidable he would let it happen with a sigh, not the screaming, gnawing, thrashing of a rat caught in a trap. This was a matter of disposition, not philosophy. He was facing down a darkling that had destroyed the entire defense of the lantern in the space of a few minutes, but he still wasn’t afraid.

Instead, he started thinking about his outs. It was possible that the lantern would turn back on and either kill the darkling or drive it away. It was also possible that the darkling would take no interest in him and proceed to the lantern with the others. Salvation ended up coming from an unexpected place though; a hand rested on his shoulder and then the world changed.

He was standing in a different field, this one free from blood, ichor, and bodies. Sander, the owner of the hand that had seemingly pulled Philip through space, collapsed to the ground and threw up before going limp. Philip ignored that for a moment and scanned his surroundings. He was perhaps three hundred meters away from where the bulk of the battle had taken place. The Schism was melting, losing its coherence, reverting back to easier shapes that took less effort. It limped away from the lantern, oozing a black trail behind it. Every other darkling in view had died. A quick check of Healer’s Lantern confirmed that the light was on once more.

After he was done looking around, Philip leaned down and used his fingers to clear some of the vomit from Sander’s mouth, then turned Sander on his side. Sander was looking clammy and pale, and he wasn’t conscious, but he was still breathing. Philip sat down beside the limp body and started thinking about how he could use this situation to his advantage.


 

Author’s note: I’m continuing with my three weeks on, one week off schedule, so next chapter will be up in two weeks’ time. Thanks for reading.

 

Glimwarden, Chapter 5

Philip

Technically speaking, there were no laws against the mayor being a glimwarden. The laws of Light’s Hollow stated that mayoral elections were to be held once every nine years, or in a few other special circumstances. Every citizen in good standing was given the vote, including the engineers and the glimwardens, though they made up just a small fraction of the total population. If Philip became a glimwarden, he could still become the mayor. In fact, there were no prohibitions on the other two elected seats either; the engineers were allowed to elect whoever they liked, and no one was prevented from running for the at-large seat on the basis of profession. Yet the fact that there were no laws on the subject was almost meaningless given the weight of tradition. Through the history of Light’s Hollow, the mayor and at-large member had been from more mundane professions, and the engineers had never elected someone from outside their ranks.

It would be difficult for Philip to become mayor if he were a glimwarden, especially because that would result in two of the four seats on the council being occupied by wardens, which would raise all sorts of questions about the balance of political power. If he were a glimwarden, his only real path to a seat on the city council would be to become the chief glimwarden, which could only be accomplished through seniority — in other words, the death of some twenty people who were more experienced at the job than he was. Becoming a glimwarden was therefore at odds with Philip’s medium-term desires, even before he began to contemplate the risk of death inherent in fighting the darklings day after day.

Philip had decided against becoming a glimwarden after the better part of a day spent in the library at city hall, looking through books detailing the history of Light’s Hollow. The fact that there were no restrictions on the council positions was interesting — he wondered whether Seaborn and Linwell were aware of that — but for the most part he had only convinced himself that he would make life more difficult for himself by winning the competition.

The fact that he had no interest in winning didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to enter. The exact details of the competition were still being worked out, but Philip felt confident that it would be a public affair no matter what rules were in place. By entering, Philip would reinforce his place in the public eye, while at the same time giving him some conceptual distance from his father. Entering to become a glimwarden showed a strong spirit of sacrifice and dedication to the town above and beyond what the average citizen was expected to have, and so long as Philip made a good showing of things, he would be lauded for his dedication. Beyond that, Philip expected that the other entrants would disproportionately be important people close to his own age, which meant that he had a good chance of making allies, or at least strengthening old acquaintances.

Philip decided to begin training. He woke up early in the morning and went for a run, something he hadn’t done for quite some time. As he felt the strain in his legs and a burning in his lungs, he made sure to save enough energy to wave at people as he made his circuit of Light’s Hollow. He stopped at each of the lanterns to catch his breath, not only because he was tired, but because there were always people to talk to. None of the conversations went beyond the surface, of course, it was all empty pleasantries and idle chatter. Philip had been trying to work on his idle chatter.

“It’s shocking to me how many people keep their wandering to the domain of a single lantern,” he said to a baker who was loading his runework cart with bread. “Light’s Hollow is so big, yet some people only shuttle themselves from work to home and back again.”

“Oh I know,” said the baker. “Such a shame. The highlight of my day is in deliveries.”

Philip didn’t actually find it shocking that most people stayed within a mile of their homes. Runework engines were expensive. The carts were reserved almost exclusively for businesses and even then shared between several people. The primary way to travel between lanterns was simply by walking, but that meant nearly an hour’s round trip even at a brisk pace. Each of the outlying lanterns had services and shops for the people that lived there, if not to the extent that those were available near Chancellor’s Lantern. The baker had looked happy though, loading his bread up into the cart, so Philip had said what he thought the baker wanted to hear. He had cast the two of them as conspirators, worldly in a way that others weren’t. For whatever reason, people loved the idea of being set apart from their cohorts.

Philip complimented women on their clothing and showed interest towards farmers growing their crops. Farmers loved to talk about the weather, he’d found, probably because there was rarely anything more exciting going on in the fields. Philip found it easy to talk with people, especially when he could get them to do the bulk of the talking. He didn’t have to feign interest in their topics very often. Most of the time he was holding his tongue, because by the time you’d spoken about the same subject for the fifth time that day, you began to know more than the people you were talking to. It was better to let them talk though. People enjoyed feeling like you were growing wiser for having heard their opinion.

Some of the people he met talked to him about his father and the city council, usually with complaints. The city council’s open meetings had taught Philip to expect as much. The problem was that people didn’t tend to think about the city council unless they wanted something from it, whether that was tax relief, an allocation of permits, or the resolution of some dispute. Few people noticed when things were running smoothly. That was one of the reasons that it was important for those in the city council to be seen out and about. If the people wouldn’t fondly remember maintenance of the status quo, then they needed to remember appearances at festivals, grand speeches, or chance encounters during a morning run.

Politics wasn’t about policy. That had come as something of a disappointment to Philip, who loved policy from an early age. He liked looking at laws and civic codes, not just because they were ordered and precise, but because they were an attempt at bringing explicit language and reasoning to a world that seemed largely dominated by implicit understandings. Laws were the imperfect result of imperfect reasoning, created as compromise between people with different values, but they were at least a noble attempt at bringing the world into a state of order.

Unfortunately, no one cared about policy. The average voter didn’t understand the policies that were in place, nor the candidates’ positions on those policies. As a consequence, there was only a very tenuous feedback mechanism between what the city council did and how the people voted. Other people had noticed this and called elections little more than a popularity contest, but Philip wasn’t quite so cynical as that. He believed that people chose their representatives more on the basis of their personal attributes than on any specific policy. The people wanted an honest, hard-working mayor who listened to his citizens, because they thought that this would have a good outcome. With that said, the ability of the average citizen to determine the personal attributes of any other person (whether running for public office or not) was fairly minimal. It was more important for a political candidate to appear as though they had desirable personal attributes than it was for them to actually have desirable attributes.

This was one of the reasons that Philip disliked democracy. Voting systems resulted in candidates who were maximally good at getting people to vote for them, rather than the best creators of policy. The glimwarden’s system of simply having the longest-lived member speak for their interests was also flawed, but it at least had the benefit of being a decent proxy for experience and expertise. Philip’s preference was for a more absolute rule by a single, highly-competent person. There were problems with that as well, since an absolute ruler wouldn’t necessarily be the best at ruling absolutely, only the best at seizing the power of absolute rule, but that was a problem Philip thought that he could work on.

He mulled it over as he ran. It was nearly eleven when Philip rounded his way toward Singer’s Lantern, the most recent of the seven lanterns and thus the smallest of the outlying settlements. There was a general store, but almost any other service would require a two mile trip to Chancellor’s Lantern. Philip had always imagined that it was the least prestigious of the lanterns to work at. He made a note to himself to find a roundabout way of asking the engineers whether that was true. It was possible that working on the newest lantern was some sort of privilege, in the way that a fresh cut of meat was preferred to one that had been sitting in the butcher’s window for three days.

When he saw Sander Seaborn and Merry Myles walking away from the lantern, he waved and called out to them. These were important people, each in their own way. Merry might be the chief glimwarden some day, which would usher in a new era of the city council. Merry Myles was blunt, same as the elder Seaborn, but a glance at her exposed midriff and twin pistols was enough to know she was no conservative.

“Hello Sander, Miss Myles. Sander, do you have a moment to speak?” asked Philip as he drew near them.

Sander looked to Merry and she shrugged her shoulders.

“I need to find your father anyway,” the glimwarden said. “You did well today.” She gave Philip a small, lazy curtsy that bordered on sarcastic. “Tell the mayor I said hello.” She walked off without standing on ceremony, humming to herself as she left them alone.

“How’s your morning been?” asked Sander.

“Good,” replied Philip. “We haven’t talked much since leaving school.”

“We didn’t talk much in school either,” Sander replied.

“You always had your nose in a book, if I recall correctly,” said Philip with a laugh. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“What did you want to talk about?” asked Sander. He shifted slightly and glanced up at the light on top of Singer’s Lantern. That was often a habit of older people, those who had been through some calamity and needed constant reassurance that the lantern was still working. The alarms would sound if there was ever a problem, and this close to the lantern there would be no missing it.

“They’re going to build an eighth lantern,” said Philip. “They want three more glimwardens to help fuel it, and I was wondering whether you wanted to be one of them.”

“I — yes?” asked Sander.

“So do I,” said Philip. “I’m going to tell you something that’s not quite public record yet. There’s going to be a competition to determine who the glimwardens are going to be, in order to keep the process as purely objective as possible.” He watched Sander closely. The lack of reaction gave away what Philip had already suspected. This was not new information to him, though Philip hadn’t fully expected that it would be. “I was wondering whether you wanted to be partners.”

“Partners?” asked Sander. “I didn’t think things were so set in stone yet. There are going to be teams?”

“It’s not set in stone,” said Philip. “I doubt that there will be formal teams though, because they’re trying to make sure they have the best individuals.”

“So how would we be partners?” asked Sander. His brow was furrowed.

“There might be some forms of competition that allow for two to work better than one,” said Philip. “It might never come up, but if it does, far better to have someone picked out ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to find someone, or worse, only realizing after the fact that everyone else picked a partner.”

Sander frowned. “But why do you want to become a glimwarden?” he asked. “Everyone says that you’re going to be the mayor some day.”

This was the question that Philip had been waiting for, one that he knew he would have to answer many times in the coming days. This was an opportunity to practice saying something rehearsed and coming off natural. “Glimwardens have a covenant with this town, one that extends deeper than the covenant of civil service or the mayor’s oath of office. My father helps this town to run properly, as do Miss Linwell and Mister Golland, but the glimwardens are the only ones that put their lives on the line. If I don’t end up being chosen to become a glimwarden, I think I can happily while away my life working at city hall in one capacity or another, but so long as they’re opening up the selection process, I thought I might have a go at the ultimate form of duty.”

“Huh,” said Sander. He slowly began to smile. “I think my dad would like you. But I guess you see him every week at the meetings, don’t you?”

“We haven’t spoken much,” replied Philip. “I’d welcome the chance to sit down with him sometime though.”

“I might be able to arrange that,” said Sander. He scratched his head for a moment. “Okay, team members, I think I’d like that. But why me?”

“There are lots of reasons,” said Philip. “The biggest one is that you have a reputation for having a keen mind, and I think that will be an asset.”

That was a lie. Philip had made an ordering of the reasons to approach Sander Seaborn first. At the top of the list was Sander’s father, the chief glimwarden, who represented one quarter of the city council’s votes and a substantial fraction of its raw physical power. Sander was also widely known to be lacking in wisdom, for all that he was supposed to be intelligent; three failed apprenticeships seemed proof enough of that. That meant Sander would have a real need for a partner, but also that he would be easy to steer.

“So who do you want for our third?” asked Philip.

“Our third?” asked Sander.

“There will be three glimwardens at the end of this,” said Philip. “If two can profit by promising to help each other, so can three. With four we might run into problems, since there would be an incentive for betrayal. Besides that, three is lucky.”

“I don’t even know who else is thinking of entering,” said Sander.

“It’s hard to say at this point,” Philip agreed. “We’ll know more once it’s been formally announced and people start talking. Colin Colsum seems like a certainty though, and I think Benjamin Brecker will probably join in as well. We don’t know what sort of requirements are going to be in place either. Unless your father has said anything about that?”

“No,” said Sander. “I haven’t heard anything. I’ll grill him on it tonight and let you know though. Based on the ages of prior glimwardens at induction, I think they’d probably restrict it to between sixteen and twenty-six, which narrows the field down to sixteen percent of the population. If one in ten of those wanted to be a glimwarden, that’s roughly two hundred people as an upper bound.” Sander rattled this off without a second thought. He looked up to the light on top of Singer’s Lantern again. “I’m getting hungry though, so maybe we can talk later?”

“Do you want to have lunch together?” asked Philip. “We are partners now, after all. I’d pay, if you wanted to eat in town. Otherwise my mom could make us something, if you’re headed in the direction of Chancellor’s.”

Sander hesitated. “Have you ever eaten at the Black Mare?”

❧❧❧

Philip had, of course, eaten at the Black Mare before. There were perhaps twenty places that served food within Light’s Hollow, and Philip had eaten at all of them. One of the mayor’s duties was to listen to the people, not just those who made appointments with him or showed up to the open sessions of the city council, but those who barely took an interest in governance. Philip’s father made regular trips all around Light’s Hollow, bringing Philip along with a pen and paper to make notes on names and issues. It hadn’t escaped Philip’s notice that this supposed duty (not spelled out anywhere in the city charter) also helped his father’s public image and increased his odds of re-election.

The Black Mare was frequented by a lesser sort of people. Tenant farmers, manual laborers, and contingent workers all tended to congregate here. It was the only tavern next to Challenger’s Lantern — which everyone called Rogue’s Lantern — so it also drew in some of the more well-to-do people who didn’t want to make the trek into town, but by and large it was occupied by the lower classes. Be that as it may, everyone got their vote, no matter how much money they were worth, so the mayor came to visit with Philip in tow.

Melanie rolled her eyes at Sander the moment he walked through the door, which immediately made it clear to Philip why they had walked two miles just for her food. He had never given much thought to Melanie Masters. She was quite poor, she was a distant relation of Linwell, she’d made a fool of herself at the Moon Rise, and she somehow managed to run this tavern entirely on her own. That was all that he knew of her though. He didn’t know what Sander’s interest in her was, but he expected that it was romantic.

“What’s the soup of the day, Melanie?” asked Sander.

“Horse,” said Melanie. “With onion and homemade noodles, plus some herbs and spices.”

“I’ve never had horse before,” said Sander. “Why horse?”

“Colsum’s horse had to be put down yesterday,” said Philip. “I heard about it on my morning run.”

“I was offered a good price on the meat,” said Melanie.

“Is it any good?” asked Sander.

“You claim to love my cooking,” replied Melanie.

“That sounds suspiciously like you’re avoiding my question,” said Sander. He was smiling, but she was not. “Is it any good?”

“It’s a traditional dish,” said Melanie. “When the first settlers founded Light’s Hollow, they had to slaughter a number of the horses and oxen that had pulled their traveling lantern along. They made noodles from the last of the flour they’d brought with them and used spring onions they found near the river.”

“That … is actually still not an answer,” said Sander.

“It’s horse,” said Melanie. “Do you like the taste of horse?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted horse before,” said Sander. “I just wanted to know whether you liked the soup.”

Melanie pinched the bridge of her nose.

“We’ll take two bowls,” said Philip. “And two cups of something to wash it down with, in case our palates aren’t quite refined enough to appreciate a historically significant dish like this. We’ll be at the table in the corner. Sander and I have a few things we need to discuss.” He grabbed Sander’s arm and guided him away. Melanie gave a small sigh of relief that Sander didn’t seem to notice, though if she felt any gratitude toward Philip, he could see no trace of it.

“Are you sure that we want to be eating horse soup?” asked Sander when they sat down.

“It will be a new experience,” said Philip. “There aren’t too many of those to be had in Light’s Hollow.” This was a safe thing to say to Sander, and it happened to also be true. “There are only nine horses left in Light’s Hollow now, if what I’ve been told is true. It might be that in another generation there won’t be any horses left at all. Or maybe they’ll just be inbred.”

“I’m not even sure why we have horses,” said Sander. “Glimwardens can’t take them out, because they’re a liability in a fight against the darklings. The tractors are all runework these days, no smelly animals required. Most of the caravans have runework engines as well, but the ones that don’t have oxen, not horses. The only place a horse excels is in going over rough terrain, but it can’t even be all that rough or the horse will have trouble.”

“No one owns horses because they’re practical,” said Philip. “Do you know who owns those nine remaining horses?”

“Colsum, probably,” said Sander. “If the horse we’re about to eat was his horse, then maybe he has another. I don’t know who else.”

“Colsum, Framing, and Padgecock,” replied Philip. “The three richest families in Light’s Hollow. They own the horses so they can show everyone that they’re rich enough to own horses. In fact, if horses did more than they do now, there would be less point in owning a horse, because it wouldn’t be clear that it was a waste of time and money.”

“That’s stupid,” said Sander. “Why do they need to show everyone that they have money if they have money? If you’d just asked me who the three richest families were I probably would have said Colsum, Framing, and Padgecock.”

“One school of thought would be that you only know that because they display their wealth with things like horses,” said Philip.

“Why is that even important?” asked Sander. “If they’ve got money, why do they need to tell people that they have money? They already have to show their money when they buy things, which is the whole point of having money.”

“People treat you differently when they know that you have money,” said Philip. He gave Sander a genuine smile. He’d had these conversations with his father, but those had been solemn affairs between teacher and student. Sander seemed to think that this problem was a stupid one that he could solve in a few hours thought. “If a man knows that you have money, he’ll treat you better even if you’re not paying him anything, both for positive reasons, like him wanting money from you, or negative reasons, like him thinking that you could use your money in retribution against him.”

While Sander was pondering that, Melanie arrived with two bowls of soup and two glasses of chilled wormwood tea. When she set them on the table, Sander gave her a wide smile, which she responded to with a roll of her eyes. Sander didn’t seem remotely fazed by this.

“Horse,” said Sander, looking down at his soup. “To historical curiosities?”

“To partnership,” said Philip. “And to trying new things.”

Philip was feeling good about himself. His relationship with Sander was progressing nicely, which meant that entering into the glimwarden competition was paying dividends already. Philip’s past experience was that he did better the less time he spent with people, so he began making a list of excuses in preparation for when it came time to say his goodbyes. He took his first spoonful of soup just slightly after Sander. Sander’s expression was one of puzzlement, so Philip followed suit, trying to look thoughtful.

“She’s covering up the flavor of the horse,” said Sander. “This is my first time having horse, but I still don’t know what the meat tastes like.”

“The soup tastes like onions and herbs,” agreed Philip. He found it easy to agree with people, even if he didn’t agree with them. It wasn’t hard to find both the positive and negative in most things. Philip was always ready with a compliment, if that was what was warranted.

“It’s good though,” said Sander. He turned around, toward where Melanie was reading a book at the counter. “It’s good!”

Melanie looked up briefly and gave them the smallest smile she could manage. It faded away as soon as she returned her gaze to her book.

“How long have you and Melanie been friends?” asked Philip as he took another bite of his soup. It was far from the best thing he’d ever eaten, but it was at least novel. He was skeptical about Melanie’s claim that this was a historical dish, since early documents from the founders were quite rare and didn’t, to his knowledge, include any recipes.

“I haven’t known her long,” said Sander. He’d lowered his voice slightly and leaned in closer to Philip. “I mean, I didn’t really pay attention to her when we were in school. It was just me, Richard, and Wallace, I didn’t really spend time with anyone else.” He frowned and paused for a moment. Philip made note of the weak spot. “Most people like to talk a lot, but Mel is content to stay silent most of the time. She likes reading books more than she likes people.”

“Why is that, do you think?” asked Philip.

“I don’t know,” said Sander. “I’m trying to figure it out, because I think she’s worth figuring out. She showed up to the Moon Rise in a white dress, with every type of flower in her hair. I think it was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen. It was like that feeling of seeing stars in the sky on a cloudless night, that expansive emotion that comes from a world that’s larger than you could ever comprehend. Like she was lifting me up into the air by my bones.” He glanced over at Melanie, who was still reading her book.

Philip had no idea what sort of response was warranted. He didn’t even really know what message Sander was trying to communicate. Philip’s experience with people was mostly with their exteriors, the things they said in public and the thoughts they would share with a stranger. Sander seemed to have just revealed part of his interior, without forethought, vulnerability, or shame.

The Moon Rise was always a month after graduation, when the girls of Light’s Hollow had found an apprenticeship or settled into unskilled labor of some kind. It was a celebration of the last night of girlhood and the transition to being a woman. There were usually around seventy girls taking part in the Moon Rise, but there were more than a thousand people in attendance.

Philip had been there, as was traditional for the male counterparts of the graduating class. He had been to every Moon Rise since he was little, and didn’t find much that was new or different about this one. Each girl wore a dress in a single color, with something of a pecking order to who wore which colors. There was meaning conveyed in the solid blue that Sonia wore, or in the deep purple dress of Claudia’s that trailed nearly to the floor. Philip understood little of it, but for once he wasn’t expected to.

Melanie had come late, wearing a white dress. Almost every time Philip had seen her before or since, she’d worn her hair in a tight braid that was pinned up, but on Moon Rise she had it down and flowing freely. Her black hair reached the small of her back. Woven into it were fresh flowers of nearly every color. On one of the nights when Light’s Hollow was most steeped in tradition, Melanie Masters had chosen to be completely unorthodox. People stopped talking to stare at her, and whispered conversations followed in her wake. She ignored the looks and the murmured conversation, spoke to no one, and only stayed long enough to take part in the firelight dance. There was considerable gossip about it after the fact, but that had faded away within a few weeks when nothing more came of it.

That left Philip with the question of what Sander was talking about. There was no good way to ask though, not without exposing himself as ignorant of the message. Philip guessed that this was something romantic, or at least close to that. Certainly Melanie had the kind of features that Philip recognized others would find attractive. Yet he’d never heard the language Sander had used before, which meant that he couldn’t be sure what Sander was trying to say.

Philip tried to formulate some response that would be appropriate but found himself lacking words. He was saved from uttering something inelegant when an alarm started blaring in the distance.

The lanterns had lights atop them to indicate that they were burning. If the lantern failed, electricity would fail as well, and the lantern’s light would go out. That system had been in place since the first traveling lantern had come to a stop not far from where Chancellor’s lantern now stood. Yet a simple light wasn’t enough in a town as large as Light’s Hollow, not when people might spend their whole day indoors and out of view of the lantern. The decision had therefore been made to update the system and attach speakers to the lanterns which would let out a loud droning sound whenever the electricity went out. Philip wasn’t entirely sure how they worked, since he would have assumed that electricity was required in order to provide power to the speakers, but apparently the engineers had worked something out. Once or twice a year, one of the alarms would go off without cause, and at the start of every season all the alarms sounded off one by one to make sure that they still worked and that everyone knew what they sounded like. It was a keening wail that rose in pitch until it steadied itself into a droning noise in the background.

“Healer’s Lantern,” said Sander. He was twisted around in his seat. “I have to go take care of it.”

“Let the wardens deal with it,” said Melanie. She was looking at their table, not in the direction of the alarm.

“I’m in the Auxiliary now,” Sander replied. He stood up from the table and fished some coins from out of his pocket, which he hurriedly put down on the table without counting them. By Philip’s estimation, Sander was grossly overpaying for the meal. He also seemed to have forgotten that Philip had offered to cover it. “I have to go.”

Philip had decided long ago that if there was ever an alarm, he would go running headlong toward it in order to help out in any way that he could. The people of Light’s Hollow valued heroism, even if it was ineffectual. Alarm malfunctions were more common than actual problems. Actual problems tended to be fixed quickly, only rarely dragging out for more than half an hour. If Philip heard the alarm and went running, most of the time he would get the credit for quick thinking and heroic spirit without actually having to do anything.

Of course, the other side of his strategy was that sometimes Philip would be running toward actual danger. He would be weaker than the glimwardens, naturally, but also weaker than every member of the Auxiliary. It was also highly unlikely that he would have a weapon of any kind. Philip didn’t mind that too much though. Fighting the darklings was dangerous, but there were other things he could do, like helping with evacuation or assisting with lantern repairs, both of which came with far less danger. If it came to it, Philip had some basic ability to defend himself from the darklings. Coming out of an emergency with a serious wound would only serve to highlight Philip’s heroism. As for death … well, Philip didn’t really fear death. He felt the same way about death as he felt about the darklings. He quietly acknowledged that death was a bad thing, but he felt nothing like what other people described when they talked about not wanting to die.

“I’m coming with,” said Philip. He’d expected either Sander or Melanie to object, but neither of them did; Sander was too focused on the emergency, while Melanie was too focused on Sander. “Do you have any weapons?” Philip asked Melanie.

She nodded behind to one wall, where two swords were crossed. They were one of the only things that spoke to finery in the entire tavern. Sander ran over to them and pulled them both from their slots, handing one to Philip. Philip took it like he knew what to do with it and followed Sander out the door.

Glimwarden, Chapter 4

Sander

Sander was usually the one to make breakfast, but the day after his trip to the forest, he woke to the smells and sounds of frying bacon. Normally this would have been a pleasant surprise, but this morning it was undoubtedly a precursor to a conversation with his father. He debated staying in bed, in the hopes that his father would simply give up, but that didn’t seem like a workable plan. He took his time pulling on his trousers and buttoning up his shirt, if only to delay the inevitable. Before he left his room, he gave himself a look in the mirror, trying to practice keeping calm.

When he came out into the common room, his father was sitting at the table with a plate full of food in front of him. It was a mix of meat and eggs, not just bacon but pulled pork and steak as well. The only vegetables present were fried tomatoes, which seemed more like a garnish to add color than a part of the meal. When Sander entered, his father nodded to him.

“Grab yourself a plate,” his father said with a nod to the kitchen.

Sander moved cautiously and began piling his plate up with pulled pork and scrambled eggs. When he was finished, he sat down at the table with his father and began trying to decide what he wanted to eat first. He wasn’t sure whether his father would wait until after they’d eaten or start talking right away. Sander wasn’t sure which he would prefer. A tense, silent breakfast seemed unpleasant, but it would at least give Sander more time to wake up.

“The worst three months of my life were just before and just after you were born,” said Sander’s father. “When your mother was too pregnant to fight, she was miserable, and when she was recovering from giving birth, she was as impatient as I had ever seen her — and she was not a patient person in the slightest. She ached to go back into the field. I stopped her as best I could, telling her that we could pick up the slack, that she needed to be mindful of her health, not just for her own sake but for yours as well. It would have been better if she had come to that conclusion on her own, so that she could have that iron certainty she always felt about her own ideas, but that was not to be. Once I had said that she wasn’t in any condition to face the darklings, she was determined that she would. She snuck off a few times. She almost killed herself. She almost killed you, before you had been born.”

“I … didn’t know that,” said Sander.

“I don’t want to watch you die,” said Sander’s father. “When your mother died the light went out of my life. Now all that’s left are embers. If I lost you too …” He paused, unable to finish the thought.

“That’s selfish,” said Sander. “You want to put shackles on me for your own peace of mind.” That argument had felt good when he’d said it to Melanie last night, but it seemed to ring hollow now.

“Half of the glimwardens die in their first year,” said Sander’s father. “Do you know what made your mother and I different?” Sander shook his head. “We were lucky. We were trained by the best of the glimwardens, given a thousand hearts apiece before we stepped one foot outside of Light’s Hollow, but it’s a minor miracle that one of us didn’t die. I thought you would go through the records and see how dangerous it was, how imperiled you would be. Didn’t you do that?”

“Of course I did,” replied Sander. He could feel his cheeks growing warm. It was one thing for his father to think that he was foolish and another entirely to be accused of not having done the research. “Half die in the first year, but it’s not so grim after that. If you could figure out why that first year was so bad then you’d be able to mitigate whatever factors are at play.”

“I’m forty-five years old Sander,” his father replied. “Not so old, yet the most senior of the glimwardens. Death is not rare in this profession, even after the first year. Glimwardens do not wish to die, even those with little experience. Did you think that you were the first to consider these issues?”

“Well, sure,” said Sander. “But glimwardens aren’t selected on the basis of their intelligence, and it seems like there are selection pressures in favor of the risk prone, since everyone knows that it’s a dangerous profession. I was thinking that I would be able to make some headway where others had failed.”

“You think we’re idiots,” said Sander’s father.

Sander went quiet and took a few bites of meat from his plate. His father didn’t look angry, but it was always difficult to tell. It wasn’t that Sander thought the glimwardens were idiots, but they weren’t intellectuals and knowledge was decidedly not their domain. They knew how to fight the darklings, sure, but that was the sort of learning that wasn’t too much different from any other trade, as far as Sander was concerned. Learning to swing a sword was something he’d already devoted some effort to, but it wasn’t a test of wits. Sander was smart, above and beyond having read all of the books in Light’s Hollow. He didn’t think it was terribly unreasonable for him to think he could figure out something that everyone else had missed.

“It’s not that,” said Sander. “Thinking about things is sort of what I do. I just … I wanted to help.”

“No,” said his father. “If you wanted to help you wouldn’t need to be a glimwarden yourself.”

This was also true. It was frustrating, how his father seemed able to cut through the meat of a conversation, straight down to the bone. Sander had thought he was prepared, but now he felt foolish. He should never have mentioned wanting to lend his expertise.

“I want to be free,” said Sander. “I want to be able to leave this town, to travel with the caravans, to see more of the world. I don’t want to live in fear of the darklings, needing someone to protect me.”

“You will always need someone to protect you,” his father replied. “There is no shame in that. When we venture into dangerous places, there are always at least three of us so that we can sleep in shifts.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Sander. “I mean, if I were a tradesman I would be part of this system, dependent on people to buy goods from and people to sell goods to, and I like people, but I don’t want my whole life to be dictated by them.”

“What do you think it is to be a glimwarden?” asked Sander’s father. “We are more tied to this town than anyone else. If one of the lanterns should fail, we have a solemn duty to hold back the darklings while the citizens of this town make their escape. The last time that happened, three of us died. Our lives are dictated by the people of this town.”

“Yes,” said Sander. “But it’s your choice, isn’t it? A glimwarden makes a pact with the town, but a cobbler gets trapped by his work. A runesmith doesn’t make a vow that he’ll lay his life on the line, his life is on the line as a consequence of his profession, not as a terminal end.”

Sander’s father heaved a sigh. “If I gave you a chance to become a glimwarden, a real, honest chance, and if you failed at that chance, what would you do? Would you agree to give up if you didn’t make the cut?”

Sander pondered this. It felt like a trap. He didn’t want to have to make his way to a thousand hearts all on his own though. Accepting his father’s help in exchange for his father’s judgment didn’t seem like too bad of a deal, so long as the opportunity on offer was genuine. Sander had never known his father to lie, at least not directly. Perhaps a son with looser morals might have taken the help with the intent to run off in the event of failure, but while Sander was perfectly willing to disobey orders he disagreed with, he wasn’t ready to commit a betrayal on that scale.

“Deal,” said Sander. “What kind of trials will you be putting me through?”

“There’s to be a competition,” said Sander’s father. “Linwell wants to know that we’re choosing the next three glimwardens fairly and I agreed to the suggestion. That’s your chance.”

“But … I could have done that on my own, without you,” said Sander with a frown. It was a trap, he could see that now, but not like he had expected.

“It’s your moment to strike,” said Sander’s father. “And if you fail, you have agreed that will be the end of it.”

Sander nodded. He had no real doubt that he could beat out anyone else, and he didn’t even have to do that, since there were going to be three new glimwardens, not just one. He could potentially be worse than two others and still gain his father’s approval.

“Do other people know about this competition yet?” asked Sander.

“Everyone who was at the city council meeting yesterday, and anyone they’ve told,” said Sander’s father. “You’re getting a slight advantage on that front. I would suggest you not squander it.”

Sander started eating faster. He felt a faint relief at seeing a small smile from his father, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that. There were plans to be made.

❧❧❧

“I need you to train me,” Sander told Merry.

The second most senior glimwarden stood at the front door of her house with slightly bleary eyes. She was dressed only in a cotton robe, which wasn’t pulled closed quite as tightly as modesty demanded. Sander kept his eyes from wandering. Merry was practically family and fifteen years older than him besides that.

“You woke me up for this?” she asked. She cleared her throat with a growling sound and spit to the side of him, into a potted plant. “Can it wait?”

“I thought that you would be up,” said Sander. “It’s ten o’clock. And anyway, it can’t wait, I need my training to start today.”

Merry gave him a great big yawn and let her face settle into a frown. “Your father wasn’t interested?”

“I didn’t ask,” said Sander. “Personal stuff would get in the way. Besides that, you seemed like you wanted to.”

“Not this early in the morning,” said Merry. “But fine, give me a minute to make myself presentable and I’ll take you into the woods.”

“I didn’t think —”

“Best way to learn,” said Merry. She closed the door before he had a chance to object.

While Sander waited outside her house, he again tried to feel the bind. He’d felt the effects of the bind a few times since ingesting the hearts. The night before, when he’d jumped down from the roof of Melanie’s tavern, something had seemed to cushion the blow. He knew that glimwardens could take some hard hits, but he hadn’t known that it would happen without his conscious will. If he strained, he could almost feel a difference in the way the wind moved the hairs of his arm, but it was difficult to be sure that wasn’t just his imagination.

Merry came out a few minutes later dressed in long pants and a simple vest that left her midriff exposed. She was adorned with weapons: twin pistols at her hips and knives strapped to her thighs. She had pulled her hair back into a practical bun. All traces of grogginess had been swept from her face.

“Now, am I going to get in trouble for this?” asked Merry. “How’d things shake out with dear old dad?”

“He gave some conditions,” said Sander. “I gave some concessions. I think we’re okay, at least for now.”

“Well that’s good,” Merry replied. Her modest house was a mile away from Singer’s Lantern, which she looked to with a critical eye. “You know, I’ve been telling the engineers for years that they should just bite the bullet and put up some more lights so they could give some indication of what sort of state they’re in. I think we’re targeting Singer’s though. You ready to make a delivery with me?”

“Of course,” said Sander. He didn’t have his mother’s sword with him, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him.

“Have you ever fired a gun before?” asked Merry as she unstrapped one of her pistols from its holster.

“No,” said Sander. “Dad doesn’t like them.”

“If Samuel Seaborn had to make a list of all the things he didn’t like, he’d run through the town’s supply of paper before he got done,” said Merry. She offered the gun to Sander butt first. He took it with care. It was colder than he’d expected it would be, and heavier too. “Point it at whatever you’d like to kill, then pull the trigger. Don’t point it at things you don’t want to kill. Keep your finger off the trigger unless you’re ready to fire. Always treat it as if it were loaded, which that one is not. That’s about all there is to it. The bullets I have made for me by one of the engineers, a guy named Kelso Kelly, and they’re not the cheapest bits of metal in the world, so don’t waste them.” From one of the pockets on her vest she pulled out a meager handful of bullets, which Sander took and stuffed into one of his pants pockets. “These bullets shatter on impact, so they do a lot of damage. They’re strong enough to kill one of the smaller darklings in a single hit, if you aim right at their heart.”

“I appreciate this, but … I’m not sure that I want to use a gun,” said Sander.

“Come on, walk with me,” said Merry. She took off towards Singer’s Lantern without waiting for a response. Sander trailed behind her, still feeling hyper-aware of the gun in his hands. “Now, the first thing we’ve got to do before we pick out a weapon for you is figure out what your signature is. Any ideas on that front?”

“No,” said Sander. “I can barely feel the bind.”

“That’s what we’re going to work on today then,” replied Merry. “Your signature determines your optimal weapon, so once we know that we can know what direction to start training you in. No sense in taking up the broadsword when what you really want is a crossbow.”

“But how will I know what my signature is without eating more hearts?” asked Sander.

“We can force it,” Merry replied. She stopped for a moment and looked at the fields around them. Singer’s Lantern was some distance from the heart of Light’s Hollow, and like the other lanterns, it had its own cluster of buildings around it. Between lanterns, there were only roads and farmlands, with the occasional line of trees for a windbreak. Alfalfa was harvested two to three times a year, and it must have been the period between harvest and planting, because the fields were fallow. There were no runework tractors around either, nor any people watching. “Hand me that gun back for a second?”

“What are you going to do?” asked Sander. He hefted the gun for a moment. Its handle had warmed to his touch. He handed it to Merry. After a moment’s thought he fished the bullets from his pocket as well and handed those over.

“I’m going to hit you,” said Merry as she took the proffered items.

“Uh,” Sander began.

Sander had known Merry was fast, but her speed still surprised him. The blow landed in the center of his chest and sent him flying backwards and tumbling into the damp dirt. He felt something at the moment of impact, a vague sense of protection and dulling of pain, but it was gone in an instant. He picked himself up and began coughing. When he had cleared his lungs, he wiped his dirty hands on his pants and jogged back to her. He’d traveled ten feet, but it had seemed like far more than that.

“Well, that was worth a shot,” said Merry with a smile. “Another test then.” She raised her gun and pointed it at his face.

Sander found himself tumbling backward into the none too soft earth again. This time there was no sensation of impact and no pain, but he found himself feeling dizzy shortly afterward. When he started to stagger to his feet, he saw Merry jogging over to him, her gun safely holstered. They were quite some distance from the road.

“You aimed a gun at me,” said Sander. “You said not to do that.”

“Well, I’m a professional,” she replied. “And you, my friend, are a teleporter.”

“I feel sick,” said Sander. His stomach seemed like it was floating around in his belly.

“You were gone for about three seconds,” said Merry. “It had me worried, I can tell you that much. Not sure what I would have told your father if you hadn’t come back.” She moved over him and began patting him on the back, like his mother used to do when he was sick. “But you did come back, about twenty feet from where you’d been standing. Signature by reflex, we call it. The proof of the professional is in the results.”

“I’m going to throw up,” said Sander. He could taste bile at the back of his throat.

“You recall how I said that the bind was like a battery that builds up its charge?” asked Merry. “Well, you drained that battery when I hit you; it will recharge in a day or two. That alone wasn’t enough to give you the queasles, but when you popped out of existence for a few seconds you were overdrawing on your account.”

Sander tried to shake off the sick feeling. His muscles were weaker than they should have been; he was having trouble standing. He tried to focus on the problem at hand. “You can do that?”

“Many a glimwarden does, in their most desperate moments,” said Merry. “Of course, it leaves you weak and helpless after the fact, not to mention drained of bind, but it’s better than dying, and if you don’t have anything to lose, why not?”

“How long is this going to last?” asked Sander.

“Not more than a day,” said Merry. “Perhaps an hour until you don’t feel like killing yourself. Though you’re a neophyte, and I think that makes it a little easier.”

“Wait a second,” said Sander as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Where does the energy come from? You said that the bind was like a cup of water. There’s a constant trickle coming in, refilling the cup when it gets empty. But where does the water equivalent come from when the cup is dry?”

“Dunno,” said Merry. “Maybe it’s like … let’s say that you had a few pails full of water, one for cooking, one for cleaning, and so on. When you’re taking a hit, or powering up a sword, or using your signature, that’s all drawing from the same pail. Let’s say that’s the pail of water used for cleaning. But if you really wanted to, say, clean your floor, you could take one of the other pails and use that instead. It’s like, maybe, taking your drinking water and splashing it down onto the tile? You’d get your floor clean, but you’d be thirsty after you were done.”

“That’s just an analogy,” said Sander. He was too sick to think properly, but this sounded exactly like one of those things that the glimwardens should have put serious effort toward figuring out centuries ago. If you could use more bind than was supposed to be available to you, maybe it was possible to skip over eating all the hearts in the first place.

“The real question is what sort of teleporter you are,” said Merry. “Teleportation is just the categorization, it doesn’t describe the signature itself. You’re probably not up for a second jaunt across the aether today, but we need to figure out what the delay was all about. You were completely gone for three seconds, no trace to be seen with even my considerable senses.”

“I didn’t have a problem with it,” said Sander. “Let’s see, I fell down when the transition happened, because I was moving sideways and didn’t have my footing. I took three seconds to cross twenty feet, so I transitioned from being stationary to moving five miles per hour. That means … well, I don’t know, I’m going to need to test it.”

“Like I said,” replied Merry. “It’s going to have to wait until tomorrow. Just keep in mind the sensation of it so that next time you can do it voluntarily. Now, what sort of weapon are we going to use for you? I’m thinking something small and quick, so you can pop in and go to work right away, then maybe pop back out if you’re in danger. It’ll be some weapon that favors speed. Daggers? Short swords?”

Sander shook his head, which caused another wave of nausea. “I came through moving, almost at jogging speed. I’d want something that can leverage the change in momentum.” He paused. “I want to use the biggest, heaviest sword you have.”

“That I personally have?” asked Merry. “Well, first off, I’m already doing you a favor by revealing the secrets of the universe to you, even though you’re not a glimwarden yet. You’re welcome, by the way. Second, I’ve never had a taste for swords. So you’ll need to ask your father to borrow from his armory, which is more extensive than my own. If you manage to get your thousand hearts, you’ll get a smith to forge one special for you, and a runesmith to enchant it, which will take more hearts.”

“Skip it for now then,” said Sander. “I’ll need a backup, something that I can use if my big sword isn’t practical.”

“We’re not doing combat training today,” said Merry. “You’re looking too drained for that anyhow. I’m rethinking taking you into the woods today.”

“No,” said Sander. “We’ll go. You need to collect hearts for Singer’s Lantern, right?”

“The more I think about it, the more I think it would be easier if I’m not dragging you along,” replied Merry. “But I suppose I did agree to train you. Come on, let’s go.” She walked back to the road and toward Singer’s Lantern, and Sander trotted after her.

❧❧❧

The lanterns were all built the same, both for reasons of tradition, and because the design had been perfected long ago. The internal machinery which surrounded an enormous sphere of combined hearts was, of course, standardized, since efficiency in repelling the darklings was of paramount importance, but the buildings themselves had a like appearance as well. They were rounded, the better to serve as defensive structures of last resort, built with thick slabs of stone reinforced with iron. They had no windows on the ground floor; all the light came in from nearly twenty feet up, and from the light bulbs that circled the inside. In the event of an emergency, a rope could be pulled that would close all of the windows against intrusion.

Entrance to the lantern was through two large double doors, made of thick lacquered wood with iron rivets. These were kept open just enough for a person to slip in, most of the time, though they could be pulled wide in order to facilitate the comings or goings of large equipment. In times of emergency, the doors would be sealed shut while the glimwardens fought outside. On top of the building were two things that distinguished each lantern from its sisters and brothers; the first was a bright, colored light — Singer’s color was amber — and the second was a statue. Singer’s showed the singer herself, carved in marble and strumming a stringless harp.

“I’ll be making a delivery in the next hour or two,” Merry said to the chief engineer of Singer’s Lantern. “Try to have your act together this time.”

The chief engineer was an aged man, clearly no longer involved in the actual heavy lifting of equipment, which in Sander’s experience was left to apprentices. “We’ll be ready,” he replied. “You know, the glimwardens and the engineers used to get along.”

“That’s none of my business,” said Merry. “Just make sure that you’re ready when I come to deliver the hearts.”

Sander looked at the lantern itself as they talked. In the center of it was a solid ball of hava, the combined mass of thousands of darkling hearts, but that was obscured from view. Covering it were removable casings through which the internal workings of the lantern could be accessed, and one or two places where tightly coiled wire could be seen. The principle behind the lanterns was quite simple; a magnetic current was all that was necessary to slow the process of evaporation and emit the glimlight that kept the darklings at bay. That this also produced a strong electrical current across the surface of the hava was a boon, without which the lanterns wouldn’t be possible. The electricity was fed through coiled wire, which produced a magnetic field, which in turn meant that the process was self-sustaining so long as the lantern was regularly fed more hearts to compensate for what was burned each day. Because the lanterns produced more electricity than they consumed, the excess was used all around Light’s Hollow, in electric stoves and light bulbs, for heating in the winters and for cooling in the summers.

Sander had taken an apprenticeship as an engineer. From the time he had been a young boy, that was what he’d wanted to do. Still, he had known within the first week that the work wasn’t for him. No one was interested in making improvements to the lantern, nor were they interested in defending the way things were currently done. Sander wasn’t quite so arrogant as to think that he would stroll into an apprenticeship at fifteen years old and have some brilliant insight that would change the lanterns forever, but he had at least expected that someone would tell him why he was wrong. Instead, he was met with silence or dismissal. Eventually he had been taken aside by one of the senior engineers.

“What’s important is that the lantern keeps running,” engineer Plemont had said to him. “If the lantern fails, the darklings will be on us in an instant. People will die. The lantern must run every minute of every hour of every day of every year, in perfect perpetuity. The methods we use have been tested over the course of centuries. If we add in a secondary regulator, as you suggest, or replace the electromechanical regulator we’re currently using, we run the risk of death. I haven’t made a study of why we use one instead of the other, and I think that your idea has some merit, but what we have now has survived, Sander, through decades. We cannot risk change.”

Sander had seen that this was logically sound and displayed a fair amount of wisdom, but he had also seen that he wanted no part of it. The lanterns had been built, all according to the same design. Men were a part of that design. Sander had no interest in being a gear in an assembly, averse to even the slightest bit of risk.

“Time for us to go,” said Merry as she nudged him.

“Right,” replied Sander. As they left the lantern, Sander thought about a more complacent version of himself, who might have ended up here, tending to the lantern. The lanterns were dangerous in their own right, thanks to the extreme amount of current. They required constant maintenance, almost always with the lantern still on, and constant adjustments to keep an engineer occupied. In the end, it was simply an uninteresting piece of machinery with no mystery to it. A different Sander might have trudged through it, doing nothing with his life but keeping the lantern running.

“He’s right, it wasn’t always so terrible between glimwardens and engineers,” said Merry, interrupting Sander’s train of thought. “Even twenty years back it wasn’t so bad. They tend the lanterns, we kill the darklings, everything is copacetic between us. The problem is that runeworkers were hanging like a wart off the arrangement, begging for leftover scraps. Once Linwell brought them into her flock, maybe it was inevitable that we’d start having some friction.” She paused for a moment and then grinned at Sander. “The bad kind of friction, mind you.”

Sander blushed. “It wasn’t just the runeworkers,” said Sander, eager to move on from Merry’s lewdness. “There were always engineers working on things that weren’t the lanterns, setting up home lighting or making radios. Or bullets, for that matter. The lantern workers look down on them, but since the professions and knowledge base tend to be similar it’s hard to separate the two. Engineers would retire from lantern work to do something less stressful like building or maintaining air conditioners, and new lantern workers were pulled from the ranks of the engineer-laborers who already knew all about the lanterns. It was natural for Linwell to try to get everyone under one roof.”

“I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you’re informed on the topic,” said Merry.

“Well, I was an apprentice engineer,” he replied. “And an apprentice runesmith. And my father is the chief glimwarden.”

“Oh come now, like your father ever discussed these matters with you,” said Merry. “You’re not Philip Phandrum.”

“Okay, true,” said Sander. He looked at the border ahead of them, where the white bollards were waiting. “Can I ask the obvious question?”

“Go right ahead,” replied Merry.

“Why play into it?” asked Sander. “I saw the dismissive way you talked to the head engineer. Why even bother?”

“Last time I came to Singer’s Lantern with a delivery of fresh darkling hearts, they were in the middle of some realignment process that delayed the delivery by twenty minutes. Normally they have a small lantern set up that does nothing more than keep the hava from evaporating so fast, but that was out of commission for some stupid reason or another. I’m not sure how much waste there was, but I’d risked my life and they couldn’t even be bothered to be ready.” Merry was frowning at the woods ahead of them. “So far as I’m concerned that’s a perfectly legitimate complaint that has nothing to do with whatever the groups are saying behind each others backs. But of course when I tell them to do their jobs this time, they have to interpret it as this tribal thing, like wanting to keep my hard work from going to waste is part of this pissing match.” Merry sighed. “Your father tried to stay out of it, for what it’s worth, but if only one person is participating in a pissing match, that means that their would-be competitor is usually the one getting pissed on.”

“So what’s the solution?” asked Sander.

“Some problems don’t have solutions,” said Merry. “It’s your father’s problem anyhow, but since I’m next most senior, it might become mine at any time.” She glanced at Sander’s expression. “Not to be morbid, but that’s the truth. Most likely, we just need Linwell to choke on some food and die. She’s made sure she has no immediate successors. But that doesn’t mean that the animosity will go away, just that the initial catalyst will be gone. Now, are you ready to watch me kill some darklings?”

“I’m still feeling a little sick,” said Sander. “But I suppose I don’t need to be well if I’m only going to be watching.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Merry with a smile.

They walked past the border and into the woods, where the deer had worn a trail into the undergrowth. Merry followed it easily, humming as she walked, and Sander moved behind her a little less gracefully, trying to keep his clothing from getting snagged on branches. He held the pistol in his hand, careful to keep it pointed toward the ground where it wouldn’t go off without him willing it to.

“The darklings hate us,” Merry said. “Jonas and I used to have a game, which we called ‘see how far you can walk away from Light’s Hollow before you are attacked without provocation’. Not very catchy, I know. I believe I set the record before we stopped trying to best each other, with a distance of two miles.”

“Why’d you stop?” asked Sander.

“Oh, Jonas nearly got killed,” said Merry. She hummed a few bars of a song Sander didn’t know. “The darklings attack without you having to do anything in particular, but one of the glimwarden’s rules is to kill every darkling as soon as you find it. If you don’t, sometimes they’ll circle around you, waiting for a moment of weakness, and while that’s happening, a second or third comes along. Jonas wanted to beat my record, so he let a darkling stalk him. A second joined the first, then a third, until he had no less than seven tailing him, not quite attacking.”

“So what happened?” asked Sander after a pause.

“Eventually a Fracture showed up — that’s one of the big ones, like the one your father saved you from — and those are a hard fight even if they’re all on their own.” Merry sighed. “Jonas nearly lost his life. He took a cut across the belly that took ages to heal. Your father found out about our game and told me that I was an irresponsible blah-bitty-blah, I’m sure you know the drill.”

“But you’re still his second-in-command,” said Sander.

“Because I’m good at being a glimwarden, and because I’m the one that’ll take up the mantle of chief,” said Merry. “Now, have you spotted our friend?”

Sander looked around. They weren’t that far into the woods. He wished that he had a sword, and more than that, he wished for his mother’s runework sword. “No,” he said. “I don’t see him.”

“It, not him,” replied Merry. “Four legs, trying to be a dog, probably the same kind you killed in the woods yesterday.”

“I see him,” said Sander. The darkling was further away than Sander thought it would be, barely visible between the trees and standing more than a hundred yards away.

“That’s a Grapnel,” said Merry. “Smallest of the lot, cowardly, fast, fangs that hurt like hell, but easy enough to kill in a single stroke.”

“Okay,” said Sander, thinking of how much trouble he’d had in his first encounter. His leg still hurt, though it was fading. The darkling had clearly seen them, but it was standing stock still, mostly obscured by the forest. “So what do we do?”

Merry raised her pistol at the darkling, thumbing back the hammer with her finger and closing one eye to squint at it. There was a loud bang as she pulled the trigger, accompanied by a whiff of smoke that stung Sander’s nostrils. The darkling didn’t seem to be affected by the hit; it began sprinting toward them, occasionally pushing off the trees with its claws as it went by for more speed. Sander had thought that it would die from the pistol shot; he stepped back with his borrowed pistol drawn. For her part, Merry had drawn a dagger and seemed unconcerned by what was happening.

The darkling leapt at her, but she barely moved, turning only slightly and extending her blade toward it. The darkling collided with her. For a moment Sander thought that she had somehow failed, but she flipped the darkling over and laid it gently on the ground. She had stabbed it through straight to the very core and killed it in the instant that it jumped at her. Even as she removed her dagger from it, it was losing its form, black ichor sloughing off and landing on the ground in melted chunks. Merry reached in and snatched up the heart from within it, holding it up to the sunlight briefly to inspect it.

“And that’s how it’s done,” she said with a smile.

“That didn’t really clarify anything,” said Sander.

“I follow the show-then-tell method of teaching,” said Merry. She placed the darkling heart in a small pouch at her side. “Now, we need to kill about thirty more of those before we have a ball of hava large enough to bring back to Singer’s, and we need to do it fast before we lose too much to the wind’s share.”

Sander frowned. “So are you going to give me instruction?” He looked down at the gun. “Can these actually kill a darkling?”

“They’d be pointless if they couldn’t,” replied Merry. She began walking through the woods again, humming lightly to herself. Sander followed after her. “Penetrating power falls as distance increases, and accuracy suffers as well for a number of reasons. But if you’re within five meters and can aim right for the heart, a pistol shot — at least, one from these beauties — will kill a Grapnel outright and do some pretty heavy damage to the bind of any of the others. One of my proudest moments as a glimwarden was emptying both pistols and getting a kill with every bullet.”

“Is that a function of training or just your level of bind?” asked Sander. “Will I be able to move as fast as you do when I have a thousand hearts in me?”

“I was given my thousand hearts by the glimwardens that came before me,” said Merry. “That was when I was sixteen years old. The city council has declared that the hearts should be split three ways, with a third going to the wardens, a third going to the lanterns, and a third sold by the city to the people of Light’s Hollow for general use, though between you and me I would say that I take more like half for myself. Let’s say I collect thirty hearts a day, every day, for the past eighteen years. I assume you’re still fantastic at math?”

“98,550 hearts,” replied Sander, nearly automatically. “So you’re about a hundred times as powerful as a beginner glimwarden?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Merry. She scratched at her scalp. “Maybe the numbers are wrong. The last induction was Traverse, and in his first day after he’d been — wait, there’s trouble.”

Sander scanned the horizon, trying to see another Grapnel.

“No,” said Merry. “Listen.” She hadn’t been looking at Sander, only staring off into the distance with a glazed look in her eyes.

Sander listened. It was the sound of trees falling somewhere in the distance.

“Another Fracture?” he asked.

“No,” said Merry softly. She looked around them for a moment. “There are two other Grapnels coming toward us, call out to me if they start coming close. I’m going to climb this tree for just a moment to see what it is.”

Sander nodded and leveled his pistol. Merry clambered up the birch tree, breaking branches as she went and moving with a speed that Sander’s eyes didn’t quite accept. Sander had no clue where the darklings were. The creatures hunted, in a manner of speaking, and he worried that they would encircle him. He spun around, hoping only that he wouldn’t get ambushed by the creatures. The woods were thick here, blocking his view. The sound in the distance was the creaking groan of falling trees. It seemed like it was getting louder.

He had just spotted one of the darklings slinking its way toward him when Merry dropped twenty feet down from the tree to make a perfect landing. She leveled her pistol at the darkling and took it down with a single bullet. The shot echoed across the forest and sent birds flying.

“We need to cut our trip short,” she said with a frown. “There’s something big out there, I’m not sure what. Bigger than a Fracture, six needle-thin legs, gaping maw, and a big old gut. Perhaps you didn’t pick the best time to join the troupe.”

Merry killed five more Grapnels on their way back home, all with little effort on her part, but her mood had fallen and her earlier bluster was nowhere to be seen. That, more than anything, left Sander worried.