Pain pulled Judy back to a fuzzy awareness. She was on her back, the world dreamily spinning around her as if in sheer defiance of the abominable pain creeping up her arm. Nick's face, tight with worry, swam in and out of focus above her, but he wasn't looking into her eyes. Judy lolled her head to the side in the direction he was looking and saw that he was cinching his belt around her arm. The flesh beneath the belt was swelling like a balloon, and despite a fresh searing wave of agony the association made her smile.
The taste of strawberries on Totchli Barony Fair Day was so real on her tongue it was almost as though she was there, sticky strawberry juice on her muzzle and a balloon in one paw. She remembered being so small that it felt as though that balloon could have carried her away, and remembering how she had wished that it would. Judy could feel herself floating, and suddenly she was drifting as she rose above the Middle Wall, leaving the celebrations and all the fairgoers far below as the serenity of the clouds above beckoned her toward their embrace. Their cold and foggy hug pulled gently at her and—
The pain returned so explosively that Judy could not help but scream, a high keening wail that sounded alien to her own ears. It was agony, it was unbearable, it was as though Nick was ripping her arm off in degrees while stabbing it with a thousand knives. She fell back to herself, the pleasant spring air of Fair Day dissolving into the dim ruins of Quimichpatlan Barony. Nick was pulling his improvised tourniquet cruelly tight, and something red-black and foul oozed sluggishly out of her many wounds as it pressed harder and harder into her skin. "Stay with me," Nick was saying, his voice pleading, "Come on, Judy, stay with me."
"Hurts," she murmured, her throat raw from screaming, "Tired."
"I know. I know," Nick said, "But I need you. Are any of your quauhxicallis good for healing?"
Considering the question stretched off into infinity, offering some little refuge from the brutal pain as her mind slowly worked. Judy was only an ensign, and the uses of each vial on her belt ran through her mind. Bat, which was good for about twenty minutes of something like a sickening mixture of sight and sound to navigate in total darkness. Might have been useful fighting Ehecatls, if only she had had the time to drink the vial and it wasn't so disorienting to use. Cheetah, which would boost her top running speed for four or five minutes. Elephant, which would make her so strong she had to move by slowly shuffling her feet or she'd crack her head against ceilings just trying to walk. There had been one time, in the academy... Judy could feel her thoughts running away from her but was helpless to stop them. None of her quauhxicallis were any good for healing. But she had missed her chance, hadn't she?
She was back in the Phoenix City Guard barracks, her footsteps echoing ominously as she and Nick went through the silent building. There would have been more powerful quauhxicallis there, if only they had looked. She could see them, rows and rows of little vials, all carefully labeled and locked away. Why hadn't they taken any? It would have been the work of minutes to find the vault and have Nick force it open with alchemy. But now she'd never get the chance to make up for any of her mistakes. She was dying.
The realization hit her suddenly and helpless tears came to her eyes. Without a quauhxicalli and with alchemy still being blocked by the hateful monster levels below, Nick wouldn't be able to do anything for her. It seemed horribly cruel that the gods would make him watch her die and leave him alone deep underground. Why couldn't the Ehecatl have just stayed down? The depressingly orderly barracks were gone, and she was standing among the pile of monster corpses with Nick in front of her. "I want to tell you something," she said.
His face lit up with hope, and it made him handsome beyond words. "Is that so?" he asked, and the smile teasing at his lips was beautiful, completely devoid of the slightest bit of cynicism. Nick entwined his fingers into hers, pulling her close against her. Judy could feel his fur and the fine silk of his clothes brushing against her, and his paw was warm as he brought her chin gently up. The entire world receded until it was just him, everything else forgotten. "And what's that, Judy?"
The way he said her name, her actual name, made her melt. "I—"
"Judy! Will any of your quauhxicallis help?" Nick interrupted.
Oh, Judy thought vaguely, That hadn't been real either. The pain returned in waves that made her tremble with the enormity of it. It was all-consuming, completely blocking out her ability to think. In the dim light of the lantern Nick's face grayed as the colors seemed to run out of the world, and then filled back in to its normal red-orange.
"No," Judy croaked.
The look of despair on Nick's face just about broke her heart. She wished she could say more, but her throat was stuck and her brain couldn't put the right words in the right order. "Come on, then, up you go," Nick said, and he heaved her off the floor and across his shoulders.
Judy's ruined left paw brushed against his side and the entire world went gray again, bursting with pinpoints of vividly coruscating color. "—fine," Nick was saying, however he had started his sentence lost to the pain, "You're doing fine."
He was panting with exertion as he staggered across the cracked floor of the barony, still lit only by the dim glow of his gas lantern. "Tired," Judy said again, and she was.
She wanted to stay awake; she really did. But anything would have been better than reality. Why couldn't she have been with Nick again, standing in triumph over the monstrous Ehecatls? Why couldn't—"You can't fall asleep," Nick interrupted sharply, "I need you awake. Come on, Judy, you're too stubborn to give up now."
"I'll try," she managed, and the effort it took was exhausting.
She did want to fight on. There was too much left to do; she had to make the City Guard understand Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro's treachery. They needed to be warned about the army amassing under the banner of the Betrayer. And she needed to tell Nick—"Listen," Nick said, "I'll tell you a story. But you need to pay attention, understand?"
Judy nodded weakly.
"Once upon a time," Nick began, "There was a fox. A very young one, smaller than you are."
He paused a moment, and something like curiosity tickled at Judy's brain. "Cuter, I have to say," Nick continued, "Lighter, too."
Some of the tension had drained out of his voice, and it made Judy glad. "I'll be honest, I was an adorable kit. Could you imagine me at age seven?"
For a long moment, with poison—or was it venom?—coursing through her veins and the increasingly distant throbbing in her arm Judy couldn't. And then suddenly it was as though Nick had lost more than two decades. He was adorable, his green eyes sparkling and full of honest cheer, his expression more mischievous than cynical. His ears seemed longer on his smaller head, his muzzle shorter, and Judy imagined him wearing the simple smock kits back in the Totchli Barony wore.
"I can," Judy murmured, her head bouncing against Nick's shoulders with every step he took.
"Good, that's good," Nick replied.
He was still panting with the exertion of carrying her, but something like hope had come back into his voice. The image of a younger Nick was fading, the reality of the pain setting back in, and he continued. "When I was seven, I had everything I could ever want. My parents..."
Nick's voice caught in his throat. Or maybe he was just tired of carrying her. "They loved me very much. They weren't rich, but they had their own shop in the Inner Baronies. Can you guess what kind of shop?"
Judy couldn't, but for his sake she tried. "Bakery?" she asked, and Nick chuckled.
"No, they were both terrible cooks."
"Quauh... Qua... Quauhx..." Judy began, but she couldn't help but fumble over the word; it was far too difficult to say.
"They weren't blood magicians," Nick said, "Not alchemists either, of course."
"They made clothes," Nick continued, "Good ones, the kind that merchants and minor nobles would buy. My parents always wanted me to take it over someday."
Judy's parents had wanted her to follow their footsteps, too. She supposed that was something she and Nick had in common, and she wondered what his parents thought of his career. "Anyway," Nick continued, "My father got sick. My mother and I would have done anything for him. You understand that, don't you?"
Yes, of course she did. Judy nodded again, her head brushing against Nick's shoulders. She knew what it was like to have someone she would do anything for. "We started with blood magicians, but none of them could do much more than write expensive bills."
There was a casualness to how he spoke that Judy didn't believe. "So then we went to an alchemist. The alchemist said he could cure my father, so how couldn't we try? It was going to be expensive, though. Selling the shop and all the stock would barely be enough to cover treatment with a philosopher's stone the size of a grain of sand."
The words were coming out of Nick faster and faster, and Judy found that she couldn't focus on anything but his words. The throbbing pain and spreading numbness were forgotten as he poured himself out to her. "He didn't want us to do it. Begged us not to. He didn't... He didn't want to sell my future for his," Nick said, and Judy could feel his shrug gently lifting her body.
"That's being a parent, though, isn't it?" Nick asked, "A good one, anyway."
Judy thought of her own parents. They had never been happy with her decision to join the City Guard, but they hadn't stopped her either. Would either of them made the same demand if they had been so sick? She thought they would. She had been blessed with wonderful parents, and she couldn't help but wonder if she had done enough to show them that.
"I convinced him, though. Even at seven, I had a way with words," Nick said, "I told him we could build it all back up again as a family, that he was more important than the shop."
Judy could see it in her mind's eye. Nick's mother and father were only vaguely fox-shaped phantoms, their features indistinct and shifting, but she could picture Nick. Small and earnest and unashamed about telling his father how much he loved him. She wished she could have seen that Nick for herself.
"The philosopher's stone didn't work," Nick said.
His voice was bluntly steady, but Judy thought there was a world of emotion hidden inside the words. She saw a sobbing fox kit and wished she could comfort him. Judy hugged the little fox tight, feeling his body trembling against her as he wailed. But that never could have happened. Nick was older than she was, and with the realization the kit vanished.
Reality washed over her like a cold wind, the illusion of giving comfort vanishing in an instant and returning her to the misery of her ruined arm and her own impending death.
"No one would lend my mother the money to buy back the shop, so she got the best job she could," Nick continued, "I got a job too."
"Alchemist?" Judy managed to say.
It somehow made perfect sense to her, picturing a young Nick dressed as he was in the present, the very building blocks of nature bowing to his whims. How could they not? It seemed as though there ought to be a connection between the loss of his father and his mastery of magic, as though his grief had somehow transmuted itself into the skill he needed. "You're really out of it," Nick said.
She felt as though his words should have been teasing, but they weren't. There was worry there, but that was alright. He just wasn't seeing the same connections that she was as her body failed her. "But I guess you're half-right. The Alchemist Guild wouldn't take on a fox as an apprentice—not that my mother could have afforded the fee anyway—but one of the alchemists did hire me to clean her lab. I think she—well, that's not important. It was beneath her apprentices to do anything so menial as sweep floors. That was a job for a fox."
Judy had never seen the inside of an alchemist's laboratory before, but she was standing in what could only be such a lab. It was a cavernous space, all filled up with workbenches covered in the same sorts of strange gadgets she had seen in Phoenix. Crumbling books and gleaming metal scrolls lined sagging shelves along the walls, complicated diagrams of straight lines and smooth curves filling up the few gaps not taken by narrow windows. The apprentices were the same mammals she herself had gone to the academy with. The cruelest ones, if she was being honest with herself, the ones who had taken delight every time she struggled and failed. The apprentices were dressed exactly like Master Rogelio's apprentice, and by comparison Nick looked particularly shabby. His simple smock was plain and unadorned, and the broom he used was taller than he was. But he was sweeping as best he could anyway, and if some sorrow had crept into his features there was still a sense of childishness to them. "You missed a spot," one of the apprentices, a tall and haughty deer, jeered.
The young Nick apologized profusely, but when he went to sweep the indicated spot the deer tripped him, exactly the way that deer had once tripped Judy. "Watch where you're going!" the deer said, and in Judy's mind everything seemed doubled, the memory of her own experience and her imagining of Nick's blending together until she couldn't tell them apart.
She was watching Nick, far away from her dying body, and that was enough. "They didn't think I knew how to read," Nick—the young Nick—explained, turning to look solemnly up at Judy, "It made them careless."
The complicated alchemical diagrams covering the walls exploded in complexity, shifting lines of text swirling around incomprehensibly, and the apprentice alchemists scribbled furiously away in their notebooks as they followed along. Nick wasn't writing anything down, but there was a thoughtfulness in how he studied those impossible notes that all the apprentices lacked. They were merely trying to keep up with the flow of information, frantically writing everything down. Nick was understanding it.
She could see him surreptitiously glancing up between sweeps of his broom, occasionally muttering wordlessly to himself. The lab shifted around her, the light streaming in through the windows fading away to nothing. In the center of the room, where there was a large flat and smooth piece of slate on a pedestal, Nick stood atop a chair drawing with a piece of chalk. His tongue stuck out one side of his mouth in grim concentration, his eyes narrowed in focus, and Judy saw that he had made a somewhat lopsided representation of what she recognized as an alchemical array.
The young fox's ears perked up and he turned as though he had heard her coming. "I'm going to learn how to make philosopher's stones myself," Nick told her, his eyes bright and full of determination, "So I can help mammals."
"Why didn't you say so?" a plain-looking sow asked.
The pig had suddenly appeared, completely ignoring Judy's presence. "Tell you what, Nicholas," the pig said, "If you prove that a fox can do any bit of alchemy, I'll show you how to make a philosopher's stone myself."
There was a cruel glint to the pig's eyes that Nick didn't seem to notice. "I can do alchemy!" he said proudly, "Watch, I can—"
"Why don't you show me tomorrow?" the sow interrupted, "I'll bring the rest of the apprentices. It's a difficult lesson we'll have to teach you. I'm going to need some help."
"Really?" Nick asked, "Do you promise?"
The pig smiled. "Absolutely."
"She was lying," Judy said.
The words seemed to come from far away, and when Nick replied his mouth didn't move at first. "She was," the young fox said, "It's a secret that only the masters of the Alchemist Guild know. The next day, when the other apprentices were around..."
A semi-circle of mammals had formed around Nick and the stone slab at the center of the room. With extraordinary care, he lit a candle and set it at one of the corners, populating two of the others with a pawful of dirt and a cup of water. He had drawn out a rather simple-looking alchemical array on the slap, at the center of which he placed a lump of charcoal.
"Come on, Nicholas, prove it," the pig said.
"Yeah, prove it and we'll teach you how to make a philosopher's stone!" another voice came from the crowd of apprentices.
They seemed to multiply around him, an endless series of voices calling for him to prove himself, but Nick planted his palms firmly against the slab without the slightest bit of hesitation and closed his eyes. The transmutation of the charcoal into diamond was more beautiful than any bit of alchemy Judy had ever seen before; it seemed to strobe with colors as what it was made of shifted.
"I know, I know, it's not a difficult transmutation," Nick said modestly, turning to face his audience, "But it's proof I can do it, right?"
The apprentices were watching him slack-jawed for a moment. And then the pig punched him in the face.
She was several times his size and the little fox kit flew to the floor, crying in pain. "You think you can steal the secrets of alchemy?" she asked, "You're a thief just like every other fox."
Nick was wincing as he tried sitting up, but the deer from before planted a hoof in the middle of his chest and pushed him down. "You do need a lesson, thief."
"Nick—" Judy began, watching the tears and hurt welling up in the fox's eyes as she tried to rush to him.
"I guess you don't need to hear all of it," Nick said, "Just stay focused on my voice, alright?"
The laboratory and other mammals faded until it was just her and Nick. He was an adult again, and for some reason he was carrying her across his shoulders in a dimly lit cavern. Judy felt as though she should know why he was doing something like that, but the answer refused to come. "After that, I knew that the Alchemist Guild wouldn't be any help. I only knew a tiny bit of alchemy, but I did have something most of those apprentices didn't. Do you know what that was?"
Judy considered the question as she bounced up and down on Nick's shoulders. She was utterly stumped, and Nick kept speaking. "I knew how to figure things out," he said, "Books on alchemy are rare and expensive, but there are ways to get them, and I knew I could work out what I couldn't learn from a book."
A bright light suddenly flared into existence, and Judy instinctively tried raising her arm to shield her eyes. When a sudden stab of pain exploded in her shoulder instead, she remembered what had happened to her arm. "Praise the gods, the Nopalayotl's gone," Nick said, and he carefully lowered her to the floor.
His lantern was glowing with the brilliant light of an alchemical torch again, and by its harsh light she saw him rummaging through his pack until he pulled out a number of what looked like flat stones that glowed pink with their own inner light. They were pretty, opalescent and shimmering in a way that made Judy think of fog hanging close to the surface of water. Nick delicately lifted Judy's left arm, which had swollen to nearly twice its normal size, and shoved a stone into one of her wounds.
The pain made everything she had felt leading up to that point feel mild by comparison. It burned as though it had been a white-hot charcoal, and Judy screamed until she lost all her sense of herself. When she could think again, Nick was carefully wrapping her arm in clean white bandages. The spots where he had inserted the stones glowed dimly through her flesh and the bandages, the pink hue of the stones becoming almost reddish. "They aren't complete philosopher's stones, but they're not incomplete either," Nick said, "I think I'm close to figuring out how to make a complete one."
The pain slowly faded until it was a dull roar, and Judy smiled. "You're a good mammal, Nick," she said.
Every word cost her a tremendous effort, and her arm itched as well as burned, but she somehow felt marginally better. "I'm not," Nick said, sighing.
He rummaged through his pack again, coming up with a package of chalk, a straightedge, and a length of string. "You wanted to help," Judy protested, but Nick just shook his head.
"How do you think I got those books on alchemy?" he asked, "No one was going to just give them to me. There was a mammal who wanted me to make him fake torcs, ones that would stand up to examination by the City Guard."
It took Judy's sluggish mind a moment to grasp the implications. Torcs uniquely identified a mammal; a mammal could be positively identified by theirs even if the rest of their body had been damaged beyond recognition. A perfect fake could let a mammal take on a new identity, and a mammal could only remove their own original torc outside of the Middle Wall. "Fermina," Judy managed to say as the pieces all fell into place.
"Yes," Nick said, keeping his eyes on the complicated array he was drawing on the floor, "I lied to you about her. She really is Alfonso's daughter, and I made her a new torc so she could start a new life."
He looked up at her, and his expression was full of sorrow. "It wasn't the first one I made for Big over the years, but it was the last. She didn't have anything to do with her father's crimes, and..." he said, trailing off.
"I'm not proud of everything I've done," Nick continued at last, "None of it had anything to do with Phoenix or the princess, but if you want to arrest me let's wait until we're through this mess."
Judy couldn't help but stare at Nick in the brilliant glow of the alchemical torch. Maybe she should have felt betrayed; he had lied to her face, tricked her into thinking she had jumped to an unfounded conclusion when it had been the truth. But thinking about it was so very hard, and she wanted to enjoy whatever time was left to her. "S'fine," she mumbled, "We'll talk later."
Nick looked up from his work, carefully rising to avoid his delicate drawing and walking over to where she lay. He gently felt at her left arm and his shoulder, and a frown touched his face. "Those incomplete stones aren't enough," Nick said even as he threw himself to the ground to continue scrawling lines and curves across the floor, "If I don't try something else, you're going to die."
Judy wasn't sure how much time passed before Nick looked up at her again, a nub of chalk clenched in his paw. Chalk dust had spread across the front of his shirt and there was a white shock of it in the fur on top of his head where he must have run his paw through it. "This is probably going to hurt a lot," Nick said.