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.