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.
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.