Author: rednightmare PM
History would say she was an animal. Myth would say she was a demon. The Good Thief would say she was foolish, belligerent, stubborn – blind. None of these are true. Viktoria always knew the cost of shaking Soulforge. She did it anyway.Rated: Fiction T - English - Words: 6,267 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 9 - Published: 01-11-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7730752
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Author's Note: Well, more of a confessional. So I confess: I've never cared for Viktoria. That makes it even more surprising to report that I really enjoyed working on it. I hope you enjoy reading it! Less of a story, more of a character exposition. My main goal was to keep her scary (see: lapses into Pagan dialect), but also somewhat of a sympathetic figure.
As with all my pieces involving these two, approach this with your own take on the relationship between G and V – The Jackal was written to allow for multiple interpretations. In the spirit of Thief, I like to keep things between them nice and ambiguous (read: frustrating). There are, however, loose connections with her portrayal in Half Full. I'll tell you my own theory about this ghoulish Odd Couple another time maybe.
Warning: Don't even start in on this if you're worried about TMA spoilers. Seriously. The first line is a hell of a doozey.
Trappers Is We By The Works Of Hands,
And Forgets Us We Were Ever Free.
In the last moments before Viktoria dies, she stares into the soulless bronze face of a construct that kills her, and sees Karras swimming in the fluid of its eye.
MISGUIDED SOUL. ALL SHALT HEAR. ALL SHALT HEAR. ALL SHALT HEAR THE-
Loud, this furnace is – loud, wretched, reeking blockhouse of steel and culm and rancid coals – so loud the siege-deaf dryad would mangle her own ears rather than let them soak up rotten sermons. Enough, she screams. Or perhaps she would have screamed, had these valves not drowned her voice into nothing but haze. They squeal and clap and whistle all around. They clip and buzz and rumble rough. They gush and jangle and scrape and squeak and rattle the bones in her skin!
"ENOUGH!" thunders forth – past jank and chinkle, it is her roar that makes it.
Viktoria's longest claw pummels shut the hinged mouth of this repulsive beast; twigs snake around copper teeth; woody tendons wrench until gears burst off so it may not finish its dull, hollow, mindless texts. The jaw flies free and steam wails out. This iron slave can no longer finish his preachings with mandible smashed, voicebox crushed, yet even now will not be silent. Its unnatural workings creak, fracture, moan, flicker with remnants of speech that turn like wheels from a mouth that will never comprehend them. Less than monsters, worse than Hammers that pave and cleave. They stomp to sing praises for a limp, pathetic, imitation god. Loving titles in his own voice – Master, Reverend, Savior, Maker – hallelujahs these fiends do not understand… all uttered for a counterfeit father that has made no blood-children, but only empty suits.
Each makes her bristle. Each fills every ligneous pore with hate.
She is silent. A thousand things Viktoria could have yowled – martyr rites, authentic holy writings, names of those made dead by steel, their oldest doom words. But the nymph picks none, for such fine rage would be wasted on these brainless foes. For this creature who is lichen and sap and stringsie things, violence speaks clearest because it is pure; the Woman of Wood does not choose to mangle and bash merely because there is nothing to say. Tricksy One witness: there is much to say. Years have ticked by where odious thoughts stewed nightly as the meliad and her waning flock were driven back to their hidden green places. None of them come here at the end. She has no words that could mean more than golden masks shattering on consecrated tile.
THE WORDS. THE WORDS. THE WORDS OF KARRAS.
Metal Man, be afraid! she should have bellowed. Viktoria had not slipped inside this glinting structure on quiet arches, slinking through boiler shadows like some – or one very particular – thief. She knows it cannot truly be an image of that fanatical priest sloshing about in his soldier's lifeless gaze, for he is shuttered safely at the tower-top. Or so the tinseled snake believes. But conceited heights and locking mechanisms will not save him from nature's judgment or these ruthless clapperclaws. Viktoria has armored arms, shins, thighs in thorn trunk heartwood much harder than her own; attrition cannot defeat the old war magic, nor these gifts of loam-bound friends. She knows her battle cry can reach, and that it will ring terror inside his headdress. Perhaps it is a spark of that terror – the bare throat of his own mortality – that glimmers here in robotic visor glass. Her provocations are less human and more like a wild dog's screech. They show a predator that starves. Find your mock god; I am coming for you, Metal Man!
It is not Karras in that glowing orb – such a false, offensive shade of green.
"THE W-W-WORDS OF," it stutters, and before that line can finish, Viktoria tears off its whole head.
She has no time to relish victory. Two more combat units are hulking down the far corridor, where smelting equipment glows steadily, charcoal searing her nostrils. It is anyone's guess how many wait for activation in the massive storerooms of this place. The dryad looks quickly from her most recent kill to where four more demolished combat machines lay strewn in pieces about this clanking floor. Char marks and dents have been punched in all directions. Brutal scrapes have taken bark from her stomach to bare a second layer of aloe skin. One particular blow has given Viktoria a naval in the form of belly lacerations, ebbing sap. Fingers touch at it and come away yellow. They smell reassuringly like eucalyptus rather than death; it will heal healthy, instinct soothes. We are not dying – we only need to catch our breath.
She hops a severed pinscher, stomps one small foot into the newest slave corpse as it slumps, and jumps from varnished shoulders into a ceiling rafter.
It is dark up here. The wild-woman crouches against rivets, ten toe-prints smeared upon steel. She holds her injured stomach, huffs, tries to reassess. Viktoria is rather good at reassessing. Through the harangue of fighting and this foundry's general din, several things are clear: air in her lungs, hotter than is comfortable; more clinking Mechanist puppets approaching; creepers she has placed in their vents, cajoled, pleaded to grow fast as they can. Pagans understood: thriving is a hard task with no soil to crawl upon. They will have to find a way, however. They must, for there is no other option; should Karras win his gambit tonight, not an acre of fresh ground will be left for any being to live on. It is not an acceptable fate. One alternative to sabotage exists: kill him. Kill him, twist out his tongue, scoop head from shining helmet and shred all the fleshy colors from his neck.
She has not owned this, but it is true: Viktoria prefers the second choice. Were he not lording on high, propped so tall in his central tower, sweating behind bars, this angry invader would have already snapped that manfool's spine.
A circular blade ejects from the nearest construct's mouthpiece, flies at her. She dodges injury. It hits steelwork, and tiny teeth stick in studded beams. The nymph, panting – angrier than anxious – pulls these metal spurs out to hurl back. They skid uselessly off a sentry's crest.
Viktoria is choosing where next to spring when there is a small crash – one glass case shattering – followed by a very large mechanical groan. She looks at the flickering, frizzling behemoth. Vapor rises. Sermons devolve into monotone alarm. Its eyes flutter, flash, and then blink out.
There is an arrow throbbing in the neck – nozzle case broken, dripping water – shaft snapped off in those narrow tubes that once connected mask to chassis.
She looks up.
ERROR. ERROR. ERROR.
He is halfway up Soulforge's third floor maintenance ladder now – elbow hooked around a rung to pull the string – a spot of shadow with a sharp, sharp sting.
It has not been long since Garrett came here – against his wishes and his judgment – but with aim trained for blood. "If you want to die, throw yourself on a fire," the Good Thief had told her so ungently but hours ago; he'd left their thicket before she could shout back or feel burned. "Do this, and you're doing it alone." It did not matter. Viktoria knew all things died alone – and if she would, as this man deemed so likely, then better a worthy sacrifice instead of waiting for mutox to eat them all. Perhaps he realized this during a walk through his own murky world. Perhaps not, because there is something still furious in the way he stood, bits of window shivering in thick cape, blade halfway from its sheath before boot soles touched floor. Sometimes meticulous reason must take a backseat to necessity. There can be no disagreement between them now: this is necessary. How much foresight can there be in seizing a fortress built explicitly to destroy you? In sailing feet-first through glass when you cannot find a door?
Garrett is a methodical mind, Viktoria is well aware – it is why a covetous criminal has been of so much use rather than passionate warriors of a cause. He is not honorable. He is predictable – will follow the most utilitarian, self-serving course of action. He heard frenzied courage and let it lie. Walked away from her, he had, cruel and prickly as his words were. But while this professional detachment cannot be questioned, there is evidence in the watery way he breathes and slouches that the Thief ran back.
He had landed in the shards of a window hurdled through and his face was all fear. Skitter and dart and dash and scramble – like a startled fox, Garrett is never still – rifts shadow with bow half-drawn, arrogant sneer deadened to shock. No confidence or gall does this small legend have here. Battlefields are not for thieves. His mind cannot respond to it all: fluster and clash; lances that swing; smoke and pitiless, razor-edge light. He wants to be anywhere but here yet he is here.
Viktoria foolishly told him so because she was surprised. A pause had just delayed the fray. When he arrived, so horrified and unexpected, Soulforge's left wing door only minutes prior jammed shut – no electrical failure, but the handiwork of vines hoisting down and collapsing enormous bits of Mechanist contraptions to make a blockade these stupid clankers cannot cross. Industrial trappings will hinder them as well as her. Pipes and concrete piled high in the echoing, cavernous entry foyer. It is an ugly mountain in miniature. Even with this barrier, however, she had not gained them much reprieve. Karras would order another access hatch open to send waves of drones inside. Dumb, yes… but even the most slack-jawed pawns could be redirected. No doubt they were already lumbering slowly on their way.
It took Garrett a moment to realize this with his face so stark and shining – the expression and stance of a man who has charged willingly into lunacy. What it is he hoped to do rushing here with tiny weapon brandished, the dryad does not know. Kill what she cannot? It is unlikely; her grapplers slash at paint and branches crush bindings, while sneaking-thieves have never been able to fight. Two crossbolts were already twanging in Viktoria's shoulder, heads too deep to yank. They snapped off easily enough. She felt her split veins well around the studs and smiled. Shark teeth. Wild mane. Cracked cedar scale around an eye.
"You are come," the nymph announced again – a victorious tint to obvious statements. He looked at her blankly. His mouth had slipped unhinged, ink pupils everywhere, bare sword hefted and knowing nothing it ought to do. "I am glad of it."
"This is mad, it's cracked, it's utterly mad…" Garrett kept repeating so, ghost-pale, jabbering with nerves. But to his credit, did not retreat. Not even at the sound of clockwork marching from a southwards corridor. Her canines sparked; his joints bent, ready to jump either forward or away. They waited.
"As all the things worth doing are," she told him. She watched the new gates that rose.
Her voice was not familiar tonight, not woman – caught in the bowels of something worse. It sifted eerily between sprite and demon as Viktoria had pushed Garrett back into a dark place, first with hands, then with claws that grew. Karras loomed high, higher, higher yet above them; his cityman tools are critical to their success, but dials and knobs and printing switches are foreign beneath woodsie paws like hers. This battle is all glow, glister, unbreakable lights. "Do not fight here, little Thief," she'd growled kindly, the plea from a king bear with a forked tongue. Fang and pooled blood moved against her gums. Before he could react, cheeks drained of color, she stretched far her woody arm, branchy fingers folded carefully around skinny ribs. Cloak hung listless, sword dangled limp in his right fist. The meliad set him with a soft thump upon grated catwalks overhead.
Yes, this is a Dark Place – tall and dry. Sylvans do not know city humans, but she knows how to make things grow, and thieves are not sunflower or pimpernel. What do weedie ferns need to unfurl their green? Dark Places. Viktoria knows: "This is not a Place for you."
Up, up, up – she looked; he did, too – there is understanding from mutual hatreds that make mutual goals.
And now there is no need to exchange gratitudes. It was not long ago, their final conversation – that understanding reached – only ten minutes, perhaps. It seems like hours from where the nymph crouches fatigued upon this beam. Garrett slings bow over shoulder, climbs higher, disappears.
The Collected Sermons of Karras,
Chapter Twelve, Verse Four:
The bellows are burnt, the lead is consumed of the fire, the founder melteth in vain, for the wicked are not plucked away.
"ERROR," the construct blares. Is there a note of panic in these stammers? She will never know.
The third machine avoids its brother's crackling form. Instead, this unaffected shell lifts a cannon and points – not at her, but overhead. Viktoria does not waste time tracing the target or shouting warnings. She pounces for it. Limbs tangle around that mammoth forearm, ankles locked, nails squealing upon plates. Lips withdraw from snarls inside. Tendrils bristle around her face, barbarian locks threatening to drape the floor. Not heavy enough to move the appendage on her own, she dangles; Karras's insipid fiend recalibrates and attempts to shake her off. It almost does. Fingers slip and grope to keep a hold. The dyad bites from instinct; teethes uselessly on metal. She kicks the body and struggles to pull nuts from bolts. It is difficult with so little energy, such slick footing, and so much at stake.
A strange moment: the construct turns its head, and looks at her.
She sees a crown of gold. Karras has made himself a Maker – he is in every eye.
Is this the man who has murdered, then, her Trickster; her Leafy Lord? It is a dozen villains His lost child blames; and yet at once, it is none of them, at all.
A MISGUIDED SOUL.
She is not the first.
She was not the first Left Hand called to serve her rightful warder – this much as certain – truth seen in scribbled histories and in prophetic dreams. There are dried-out florets that failed before, other Women of their own Woods that could not resurrect Him. Foxglove, Hickory, Sweetgum, Hyacinth, Lavender. And in their most ancient days: Melia, blooding those foremost manfools to wield the Hammer. Viktoria does not know how she hears these names – dust lingering along canopy breeze. It tastes of something she wants, but cannot quite remember. Cannot remember! She is too young to have memories of such a time! How can minds conjure what they have never seen, breathed, touched? Her world has always been a place of ingot horizons, factory smells, towers in the distance, whimpering wolves that shy from men to feed on lowly rotting things. This feels like a gravest tragedy and she does not know why.
When the Cloven One had approached her – a creature weaker than his prior brides or daughters (and daughter-brides), tender shoots stunted by all this City smog – he'd tell stories of sylvan rings passed… stories where a dozen happy sisters dwelled among their own, defenders of a thousand goodsie humans. It is an image sad and beautiful all at once. What might such sisters have been like, she can only wonder? Perhaps there are others that live today – growing miles from here in damp or airy greens across an ocean – and the thought made this young one hope. Indeed, still hope. She has listened before to old whaler tales of glittering cousins who dance with fishtails in deep water. But they are too far run, swim or wind to her. Her Wood is dying – has been burnt back, weeded, cut away before the dryad's birth – and when their great Trickster rose again, he came to this lonely one.
She was never sure where to stand beside him. Woodsie Lord had found her – sought her out? who could say? – a savage and wordless thing, fully grown but not five years aged on that frivolous calendar of 'civilized' men. He had watered a plantlet mind, taught the nymph how to communicate with her greensie people in gentle words rather than gestures, violence or animal sounds. And most dear of all, he had given her a name. Viktoria was reared to be a cat's paw – this she knew, for she was craftier than her steward thought – but it was a destiny welcomed. As a small leaflet – a child, if one such as this could be called such – the meliad had spent her energies sprinting through miles of juniper, girl-creature flitting between red lindens, searching for something that murmured in wet air. What? Something. Origins. Father Tree. Trickster. God.
Constantine, as he fashioned himself among the cityheads, was an evil man; but their maker was not a benevolent lord.
Woodsie One requested things that at first made his underling shed her leaves with dread. Viktoria was a good frond, true and fast-learning, but so often did she fear. To tread on bricked streets, roam where no trees dared sink, wear these itching garments upon her back, ply trade with their worst bottom-feeders; all were foreign dangers a wild thing trembled to face. Yet he did not shy from asking. Can she do these ugly tasks? It is hard to take risks when you are young, when you have so much to lose. Trickster understands that. It is even harder when you have never experienced all the wonders we have already lost. Their time was not here – not yet, he cautioned. But with small works, a hundred of them, time bided, strings tied, her help… they could make it so. If you want this vast wilderness where forests crumble castle walls – where the nymphs reign over a mighty folk; where wolves eat living flesh instead of crunching bones – Viktoria must be brave. "Little one," he would say – for he sometimes called her Little One – "Is not my vision the one you wanted?"
To make that world again, she would do anything, yes, anything! Make herself like one of them! Live amongst the Hammer iron! Speak pretty words in a pretty voice to a man who did not look at her soft-skinned hide in pretty ways. Carve the brown, wanting eye from his ripe skull!
To stop this one – metal and rust – she would do even more.
I DO NOT KNOW. I DO NOT KNOW. I DO NOT.
Viktoria wept long for many nights – as perennial dryads fancy time – when manfool trickery stole their beloved Trickster's chance away. She swore gory harm upon the bodies that so wished him dead, wicked and corroded factions: Hammerites, with sham religion and dense, murderous steel; Cityheads, spooking at every shadow on their cage-house walls; Watchmen with feet that clanked and fingers that pointed. The olden words were balm to roiling blood:
Calls The Serpents To The Heels Of My Foes!
Calls The Ravens To Pecks Their Eyes!
Calls The Jackals, Carry Thems Away
Their Children To Gnaw Bones In The Night!
Gristly hexes were hurled at what few names she knew to be responsible. Few, hateful, powerful names: church, builders, layers of brick. Mostly, however – because she knew little about the workings behind that last deception and less of those who orchestrated it – Viktoria had cursed Garrett.
Half-blind wall-climber should not see more than his eye can hold.
It has been a long time since she held accountable any single man for what happened to the Trickster. Certainly it makes no sense to blame an independent thief. Yet that bitter logic Garrett is so well-known for has never been a trait of peoples shaped by chaos. Sometimes Viktoria sees him now and there is still that seed, that kernel of rage. It is a naive and egotistical feeling. "All you have taken from me" rings hollow next to the scar laid deep across his emptied eye. It was why they had needed him then, pitted against a host of enemies less apparent than these shingled warriors that gleamed in torchlight. And, hard though this sometimes was to admit… it was also why their own god had ever needed her.
The Constantine flesh-disguise was suitable, but sylvan powers tangled grossly beneath sham wrinkles, balding scalp, mirage weakness; he could never move through urban alleyways like she could. Men did not listen to him the way they would her. The Cloven One had crafted his servant's human pelt with their banal nature in mind. Mortals find not purposes, but obsessions – waste their whole lives in an attempt to attain them. Fame, honor, objects, mates, property, wealth. Some blend many; some, like Garrett, lean possessively toward one or two. So Leafy Lord had picked their thiefsie puppet carefully; he had sampled, tested, elected; he had tailored her into something they guessed would be appealing to him. And her tricksy master chose well… if there was truly anything to be read from those clever ways light worked in the colors of human eyes. Viktoria could not claim to know. She does know he looked differently at her then – not the malice, mistrust and badly-hidden fear that gripped him when they met again beneath the thirsty sycamore trees. And differently still now. They may not agree on much, but she thinks he understands her.
Whether that is enough to redeem what harms she has done against him remains to be seen. Though it is doubtful, scratching and pummeling this limping construct, if either of them will. That is acceptable. Apologies are useless here. It is a small unknown to trade for the certainty Karras will not have his Sanguine Metal Dawn.
She does not expect to be trusted – not fully. She does not anticipate to be liked. She does hope, however, that he will forgive her. Some things are more important than green gods or gleaning eyes… and some are less than seething, stale wishes for revenge.
In a time before Viktoria had realized the Thief was the Good Thief, there was not much to hope for at all.
So little had been left for them once the Trickster had fallen, his mana and blood withdrawn into wet earth. Stone-cutters and lumberjacks chipped at the hinterland edges; merchants paid for sandy cobbles that suffocated fresh grass; militia outposts pushed at their bottomless autumn skies. The dryad worried loudly for her worshippers. These posts and cement hunks and chimney smoke curdled in Viktoria's stomach, images that reminded her of being young – running the breadth of these glades in belief they stretched forever – then stumbling upon a second city wall. Cyric. It was a memory that encapsulated despair: the shepherd bitch who strays too far and discovers her pen bars. Every fiber in this one bawled to dig them up. Reckless guerilla charges against manfool caravans were folly, however; raids attracted hostile attentions during a time they were already weak. She hated the Hammerites and all their government mannequins – hated them fiercely for the injuries they caused. And yet, in the interest of survival, this godless wolf-dog had resigned to peace … had retreated to the wild spaces, seeking only to shelter her straggling herd.
Viktoria was now a minion with no master, but she had manling sprouts to tend and their humble village – sticks, straw, living wood – to keep. Perhaps this responsibility was even dearer to a lone nymph than rearing the ghosts of deities, for she had loved them long before Leafy Lord had meaning to her. This tribe had fostered all their sentinel now knew. Lotus (then a scrabby boy) told stories of how his mother found her there – how Goodwife Lilac threw out a plump mandrake one night, heard thumping but one morning later, and found this tiny green girl-child – naked body, onyx eyes – pressing both woody hands upon her house wall. There had never been ownership claimed of her. These nature-worshippers never truly knew what she was but a gift of their earth that often wandered through. But while no nurse ever suckled Viktoria on her breast and no household clothed her, she had loved them even as a beastie waif. They sung her songs, showed her what frail flares of magic still lived within them, left little things they treasured at her tree. Other babes would sometimes give her their sweets, dot pretty colors on her cheeks and shins. A younger Larkspur, new to his warrior furs, would pick plums for her and plait braids into mossy hair. Once – three years with them, after she had grown tall and leggy in adolescence – he had slipped her a bowl of wine, and then giggled and giggled his happy goodman giggle as Viktoria spat it out to scowl at him.
And there was this memory, simple irony, that shimmered now: when one of the elders had stuffed and bowed for her a straw doll. Too infantile and too uncultivated to know what this symbol meant, the wee dryad chewed up both hay arms looking for nectar, pulled out spindly insides, plucked off its dark bead-eyes.
You do not beat a curious child who is unaware of how her nails hurt. But can you forgive a monster if she knows exactly what she does?
It is hard to presume what others think or suspect, but Viktoria, at least, knows this: she can be trusted. Malevolent acts do not always serve as indicators of loyalty, and hers is particularly earnest; pledges and covenants are not for spoiling. Love and friendship lasts. Garrett was no kind Pagan, no creature to love – hardly to like – but she trusted him, and expected that fragile dependence to be reciprocal.
Then again, Viktoria did not say so, and she was not sure why it seemed appropriate to feel he ought to know this on his own.
Her life was one of debts repaid: to enemies made allies, a walking god, those uncomplicated woodsie kin who had nurtured her. Though untamed feet ran far and free into the wooded groves, she always came back to them. And they never refused her. The commune behaved as though this relationship was normal, welcome, sacred. Perhaps it was. Divinity among Pagans is something that can be seen and touched. You do not poke or prod it into what your imagination wants; you accept and appreciate what is. Their Trickster's finest blessing was that he'd given her the words to speak with those who'd cultivated her. They had guarded her fiercely when she was an elfin, rootless weed; now, with adulthood and primeval power, she would guard them.
But his vision of the Promised Land failed. Viktoria grieved this unmade age, snuffed before their seedling breached the earth, and she mourned the death of a friend.
Yet she'd screamed not half so loud as when the Metal Man set fire to their manling village, all her pretty flowers stomped.
Seeking the Path of the Builder,
And Karras Said:
"Look thou at neither sun nor moon. Feel not the wind, nor muse at the passing clouds. At the end of those days and nights, than shalt thou know a perfect calm, and then thou mayest walk with me in my domain."
THE GEAR ASKETH NOT WHY IT TURNS.
A sudden lurch, a hiccup in programming, a spat-out bolt. Before the construct can wallop Viktoria into a wall, still clinging to its arm, she swings to sit upon that cumbersome pauldron. There is a lead pipe in her hand; the meliad is not sure where it has popped from. She is not accustomed to using weapons, but hoists the thing aloft. Once, twice, seven times – blows at hinges that connect ball to socket. The plates ping, dent, skew. Finally a cord is stripped to full exposure within its elbow. These she does not strike, but simply cuts – wood fingers kill the dangerous current – until that cannon falls off and leaves in its stead an impotent, fizzing stump. Something black drips out, like visceral fluids but thinner. There is a horrible smell. A tong snatches for her hair, rips some out; she drops and flits off before it peels off scalp.
Viktoria spins on her heel in the callous chamber light. Her wounds sting, their flows congealing; breath comes shaky with fury and concern. She has lost Garrett by this point. There is no time to worry about this, however; he scales higher, too quiet to be killed by such clamorous beasts, for their master's heart. Let him carry poison. It is a mean wish. Once they had another plan, but now it seems crippled and dry – an echo of stronger ground. Where are her buds, her creeping greens? They have died, Viktoria knows… have shriveled up on a bed of iron and arid currents. She feels it in her gut. You cannot call abominations home to slaughter with no bait.
The nymph has stopped too long. A volley fires from one of these twisting automated turrets – misses when she leaps aside – explodes against a catwalk beam. It snaps and timbers, falls upon her. Five score pounds are not enough to crush Viktoria, but one smarting edge hits, dipping into a new gash. Chips of oak fly from her back, melt to meat upon the ground, speckle yellow blood. She cries out because it hurts. Because they fear what lopes in the forest night, it sounds more like a howl.
AND ALL SHALL HEAR THE WORDS
So much has been lost. Though some slivers have been salvaged from the ruins, far more will never return – not in her lifetime, and likely not ever. They walk beneath half-grey lights. It is not an age for sacrifice; it is a time of whispered plots behind screens, treachery, incomplete blindness. Such odd reflections these metals make, your shapes twisted and thrown upon dead walls. She has glimpsed herself too many times in the beryl glass of Garrett's eye and not quite recognized that carmine pair looking back.
There are no delusions about her chosen helper and his motivations. This is a man who tolerates few partnerships and none with impetus enough to override his personal interests. What havoc he wreaks – what triumphs he takes – the Good Thief does not do for some greater purpose, but for simple drives: pride, greed, challenge, spite. She had held his harvested flesh between blood-slick claws once and looked that short-sighted mortal in the face, lovely though it was, with no remorse or moral ambiguities about what must be done. This is, the dryad thinks now, because the Good Thief has never been a fitting martyr or hero or even a summer's pawn. Viktoria has channeled so many plagues, poxes, ignoble deaths in the gnarled black of a withering wood, and knows her witchy verses. He is no winter wind or killing scythe. In old rhymes, Garrett is the ravens, striking at heights she cannot reach. Again and again had this sapling tree sent him out against their foes with sinister aims. Peck out the eyes of the Metal Man, fleet black bird! Fly back to me with blood on your talons! Dive into the iron towers where ground beasts cannot go, steal his shiny treasures, blind him, make him stumble and smelling of death! She is the jackal hungry outside for a mouthful of red mansie meat. When Karras falls, she will eat him alive.
Had Metal Man – fool cog – not threatened him with sloppy death warrants, perhaps the one-eyed magpie would have been persuaded to light fire against her.
But this is not the way reality has crafted it. A tinkerer who once built for Garrett this metal-eye in his skull has now summoned lisping threats and devastating maces. To him this is grounds enough for making miracles through dark work. It is in the soul of self-preservation he has scaled this ironwork city, left its dons limping, exposed corruption, humbled baronets, destroyed a god. Existence is enough of a reason for Garrett.
It is not enough for her.
Viktoria smells burnt rust upon her wild spaces, and she wants war.
They tried to dissuade her. First what is left of the dryad's court – Dyan and Singreen and Woodbine. You cannot go, the shamans say – for what if she is the last? Then their subjects, too – those whom she coddles, confides in, favors with secrets and honeyfruit. You cannot go, the people say – we bes can not loses you from us! Even the wood clusters to hold back… hornbeams that tangle dense, knotted briars, twigs that catch underfoot and in her hair. She pushes them away.
"You can't," says the Good Thief, and – though she is much, much stronger than he; not ligaments but vine and tendril and timber – grabs for her arm when Viktoria tells him this savage plan. He is cold, cold, cold to her. Stormed off with biting, shunning words and no patience when she argued rather than ripped away. But he never told her what it is she cannot do.
And he never tells her why.
So she does.
And when the first javelin harpoons its snout into Viktoria's chest, grim prospects allow no room for pain. Wood ruptures inward. Tissue squelches. The momentum knocks her spinning across hot factory tile.
A headless husk has shot her from its master's floor.
THE WORDS OF KARRAS.
The words of Karras – decorous, rote, scripture that is hardly understood.
When she stands up, disoriented, barb stuck deep in her breastbone, sap dripping from nose and gullet, the decapitated sentinel has locked on. It fires again. Before Viktoria can pull either spear out, its ballista fires another time, skewering her torso straight through. Muscles lock. Both hands grab to cover holes that are already full. Ribs crack louder than whatever scream comes. Tar taste on tongue. Bronze-plate world is brighter and dimmer and whirling faster all at once. She cannot tell if the voice was hers or Garrett's or some other shattering sound. There is so little left for a daughter of green to do. Her weed is planted, her roots are sunk, her limbs can crack through silver and sledge and thick, red dust. What remains? What is there left in this cinderblock life for one such as her?
Leave Dark Places and stone futures to thieves. She is a jackal, and she will fight.
Psalm 13: When Thou Art Born
When thou art born, thou art blind, and weak, and squalling. So is the ore, weak and crumbling when it is pulled from the earth. Stoke thy forge, and burn away all impurity.
TO GNAW ON THEIR BONES IN THE NIGHT !
And there is nothing left in the end but a dead white ash tree covered in rust.
Viktoria always knew the cost of storming Soulforge would be a precious and personal one, but as the Trickster had taught her, nothing worth doing comes without cost – and as The Good Thief showed her, some things you must take for yourself.
She struck that golden mausoleum with every fiber of strength the wild had given.
And Metal Man remember this: it shook.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Thief made nymphs cool (i.e. scary) again – which, according to me, is a feat of all feats. No flowery frolicking or the giggly seducing of your idle hunter going on here. These things are terrifying. (Because the game has a little Classical inspiration, I added a bit of Classical mythology to the mix, but hopefully this doesn't override the originality of Looking Glass's creatures. Added also because I'm of the opinion that Viki would make a lovely ash. TREE. Ash tree.)
It's probably a mistake to date myself, but I was eight when I first fired up Thief. And let me tell you something. That jackals quote scared the shit out of little me even more than Cragscleft mines did.