The Jackal

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 WORDS.

Loud, this furnace is! Loud, wretched, reeking blockhouse of steel and culm and rancid coals – so loud the siege-deaf dryad would sooner stopper her own ears than let them soak up these rotten sermons. Enough, she screams. Or thinks she does, for Viktoria cannot hear her own voice above valves and clipper-snappers. They squeal and clack 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 out – past click and clackle, 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; her woody tendons wrench and pull until bursting, so it may not finish its dull, hollow, mindless worship. The jaw flies free and steam wails out. HAH HAH HAH, she barks, all frothing and hate, for the iron slave cannot preach with mandible smashed, voicebox crushed. Yet even now will not be silent. Its unnatural workings creak, fracture, moan, flicker with remnants of speech, syllables turning 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, sniveling golden calf. Loving titles in his own voice – Master, Reverend, Savior, Maker – hallelujahs these fiends do not understand. Counterfeit father. Imitation god!

Each of Karras's words makes her bristle. Each fills every ligneous pore with hate.

She is silent. A thousand words Viktoria could have yowled, too – the rites of martyrs, real 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 here, on foes who cannot hear her, who cannot fear her bashing hands and stomping feet. For this creature who is lichen and sap and stringsie things, violence speaks clearest because it is pure; it is not silence because there is nothing to say. Tricksy One witness: there is much to say. Years have withered 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 metal 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 Karras is shuttered safely at the tower-top. Or so the tinseled snake believes. But his conceited heights and his locking mechanisms will not save him from her judgment or her ruthless clapperclaws. Viktoria has armored herself – arms, shins, thighs in thorn trunk heartwood much harder than her own. Machines cannot defeat the old war magic, cannot spoil these gifts of deep-rooted friends. She knows her battle cry can reach, even if there are no words in it, and that this sound will ring terror inside his headdress. It shows a predator that starves. It says: Find your mock god; I am coming for you, Metal Man!

It is Karras in every machine eye – such false, offensive shades of green.

"THE W-W-WORDS OF," it stutters, and before it can finish, Viktoria tears off its whole head.

She has no time to celebrate her 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 still wait for activation in the massive storerooms of this place. The dryad looks quickly from her most recent kill to where four more demolished 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 navel, a punch-hole, ebbing sap. Fingers touch at it and come away yellow. They smell like eucalyptus and not flesh.

She hops a severed pinscher, stomps one small foot into the newest metal corpse as it slumps, and jumps from its varnished shoulders to a rafter, waiting for her.

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 has gotten good at reassessing. Through the fighting and the foundry din, several things are clear: air in her lungs, hotter than is comfortable; more clinking Mechanist puppets approaching; creepers she has placed in some vents, cajoled, pleaded to grow as fast as they can. Pagans understand: growing 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 will be left for her folk to live upon. It is not an acceptable world. One alternative exists: kill him. Kill him! Twist out his tongue, scoop head from shining helmet, and shred all the fleshy colors from his neck!

Were Karras not bundled high, propped so tall in this central tower, sweating behind bars, Viktoria would have already snapped his manfool spine.

A circular blade ejects from the nearest construct, an unexpected tool, flies at her. She dodges. It hits steelwork, and tiny metal teeth stick in studded beams. The nymph, panting – angrier than anxious – pulls it out to hurl back. This city thing skids uselessly away.

Viktoria is choosing where next to jump 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 a flat alarm. Its eyes flutter, flash, and then blink out.

There is an arrow throbbing in the neck – nozzle case broken, dripping water.

She looks up.

ERROR. ERROR. ERROR.

He is halfway up the third floor maintenance ladder now – his left elbow hooked around a rung to pull the bowstring – one spot of shadow with a sharp, sharp sting.

It has not been long since Garrett came here – against his wishes and what he calls wisdom – but with arrowheads aiming for blood. "If you want to die, throw yourself on a fire," the Good Thief had told her so ungently but hours ago. hH'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, too, then better a worthy sacrifice instead of waiting for mutox to eat them all. Perhaps he realized this while limping back to wherever he went in his own murky world. Perhaps not, because there was something still furious in the way he had arrived, kicking through the window, bits of it shivering in his thick cape, blade halfway from its sheath before his boot soles touched floor. Sometimes meticulousness and reason must sit behind 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 thief is of more use here than a passionate warrior or a shaman with heads to take. He is not honorable. He is predictable in that the thief will follow the most effective, self-serving course of action. He hears frenzied courage and lets it lie. Walked away from her, he had, cruel and prickly as his words were. But while this method cannot be questioned, there is evidence in the watery way he breathes and slouches that the Thief came running back.

He had landed in the shards of the window he had hurtled through and his face was all fear. Skitter and dart and dash and scramble – like nervous foxes, Garrett is never still. No confidence or gall does this small legend have in worlds that do not belong to him. 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. When he arrived, so dramatically and unexpected, to this ugly mountain in miniature, she had only just defeated the third wave of them. It took Garrett a moment to realize what was happening with his face so stark and shining, the expression of a human 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 her branches crush bindings, while sneaking-thieves have never been able to fight. Two crossbolts were already throbbing in Viktoria's shoulder, heads too deep to yank. They snapped off easily enough. She felt her veins well around the studs and smiled. Shark teeth. Wild mane. Cracked cedar scale around an eye.

"You are come," the nymph announced, obviously. 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 completely mad—" Garrett kept repeating so, ghost-pale, jabbering with the sight of things he cannot hide from. Clockwork marching from the southern corridor: slamslamslam! But to his credit, the thief did not retreat. Her canines bare; 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 rise.

Her voice is not familiar tonight, not as a woman's is; she has shed that lying skin for the something more terrible. 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 need working, but dials and knobs and printing switches are strange beneath woodsie paws like hers. This battle is all glow, glister, unbreakable lights. "Do not fight here, little Thief," she'd growled, kindly, a queen bear who is not ungenerous to her followers, even with blood plicking from her mighty teeth. It moved against her gums. Before he could react, shivering and white like the insides of a pearl, she stretched far her woody arm, branchy fingers folded carefully around his skinny ribs. Cloak hanging, listless; sword dangled limp in his right fist. The meliad set him with a soft thump upon the grated catwalks overhead.

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.

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 next machine avoids its brother's corpse. It lifts a cannon and points – not at her, but overhead. Viktoria does not waste time tracing the trajectory or shouting warnings. She pounces for it. Her limbs tangle around that mammoth forearm, ankles locked, nails scratching at the plates. Lips withdraw from snarls inside. Tendrils bristle around her face, hair that threatens to drape the floor. Not heavy enough to move the appendage on her own, she dangles; Karras's child 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 flower 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 god – this much as certain – she has seen the scribbled histories and dreamed the prophetic dreams. There are dried-out florets that failed before her, 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 – they are 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 hurt, small creature, then – weaker than his prior brides or daughters (and daughter-brides) – his tender shoots stunted by all this City smog – he'd tell stories of olden eras. Stories, yes, but truths, too, of sylvan rings and fairy magicks, where a dozen happy woodsie sisters dwelled among their own, defenders of ten 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 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 Viktoria was even born – 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, she, fully grown but not five years aged on that frivolous calendar of civilized men. He had watered her 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 is craftier than her Cloven One thought – but this destiny she welcomed. As a small leaflet – as a child, if one like this could be called such? – the meliad had spent her days sprinting through miles of juniper, girl-creature flitting between red lindens, searching for something that murmured in wet air. What? Something. Origins. Father Tree. God.

Constantine, as he fashioned himself among the cityheads, was an evil man; but Trickster 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 find purchase, wear itching garments upon her back, converse with their worst manfool thieves and liars – she is a brave one, this nymphlet, but all these asks were foreign dangers a wild thing trembled to face. Can she do these ugly things? It is hard to risk much when you are young, when you have so much to lose. Trickster understands that. It is even harder when you have not even seen 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 a vast wilderness where forests crumble castle walls – where the dryads reign over a mighty folk again –where wolves eat living flesh instead of crunching bones – Viktoria must be braver yet. "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 armies: 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 – she hurled them 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 blamed any single man for what happened to the Trickster. Certainly it makes no sense to blame a 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 of weakness; he could never move through that stonework place 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. Most 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 is truly anything to be read from the clever ways light worked in the colors of human eyes. Viktoria could not claim to know. She does know the thief looked differently at her then – not the malice and unhidden 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.

Viktoria 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 stale wanting 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 magic and his blood withdrawn into wet earth. Stone-cutters and lumberjacks chipped at the hinterland edges; merchants paid for sandy cobbles that suffocated fresh grass; militias pushed at their bottomless autumn skies. The dryad worried loudly for her worshippers. These posts and cement hunks and this chimney smoke curdled in Viktoria's stomach, images that reminded her of being young – of running the breadth of these glades in belief they stretched forever – then stumbling upon her first sight of city wall. It was a memory that meant despair: the shepherd bitch who strays too far and discovers her fence. Every fiber in this one bawled to dig them up. She hated the manfools and all their Hammer toadstools – hated them, fiercely, for the injuries they made. And yet, in the interest of survival, this godless wolf-dog had resigned her people to peace. She had retreated to the wildest 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. And it is dearer to her, truly. It is dearer to a lone nymph to keep her people than to rear the ghosts of deities, for she had loved them long before Leafy Lord meant anything to her. This tribe had done much for this little woodsie one when she was little, unwooded, and soft. Lotus liked to tell stories of how, when he was but a scabby boy, his mother found her there – how Goodwife Lilac threw out a plump mandrake one night, heard thumping 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 pagans never truly knew what she wasbut 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 sang her songs, showed her what frail flares of magic still lived within them, left little things they treasured at her tree. Other babes would give her their sweets, dot pretty colors on her cheeks and shins. Larkspur, then new to his warrior furs, would pick plums for her and plait braids into her 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 and made so many faces, all of them rude.

And there was this memory, simple and raw: 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. Her brutality is honest; her pledges and covenants are not for spoiling. Her love and friendship lasts. Garrett was not of the people, no creature to love – hardly to like – but she trusted him, and thought, if all was well, such a fragile thing should be reciprocal.

Then again, Viktoria did not say so, and she is not sure why it seemed appropriate to feel he ought to know this on his own.

She is loyal! Though terrible, yes, and crafty, like coyotes and rats, but all she does, she does for real love. See not you how loyal this one truly is? Her life is one of loves repaid: to a forest that made her, to a walking god, to those uncomplicated woodsie kin who had given songs and toys and fruits and cares. Though her untamed feet ran far and free into the wooded groves, she always came back to them. And they never refused her. The People behaved as though this 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 first raised this green one up. They had guarded her fiercely when she was an elfin, rootless weed; now, in her adulthood and her fearsome power, she would guard them.

But his vision of the Promised Land had died.

And now there is no place, no world, for what she is.

Viktoria grieved this unmade age, snuffed before its 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,
Sermon Nine:

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 the programming, a spat-out bolt. Before the construct can wallop Viktoria into a wall, still clinging to its arm, she swings to sit upon one 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 current – until that cannon falls off and leaves in its stead an impotent, fizzing stump. Something black drips out, like fish eggs, but thinner. There is a horrible smell. A tong snatches for her hair, rips some out; she drops and flits off before it peels away the 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, aiming 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. She cannot think! What is this foggy raining on her mind? Where are her buds, her creeping greens? They have died, Viktoria knows. They have shriveled up on a bed of iron and arid draft. 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-turning 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 sproutlings have been salvaged from the ruins, far more will never return – not in her lifetime, and likely not ever. They walk beneath half-gray lights. It is not an age for loyalty, love, sacrifice; it is a time of whispered plots behind screens, treachery, incomplete blindness. Such odd reflections these metals make, your shapes contorted and thrown upon dead walls. She has glimpsed herself too many times in the beryl glass of Garrett's eye and not quite recognized this carmine pair looking back.

There are no delusions about her chosen helper. For him it is not loyalty, not feeling-things, not that honesty of courage or that violence of seeing in pain what you most love. The Good Thief works not for some real heart, for he is selfish, prideful, creeping, sneaking, things she hates! Hates them! 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 about what must be done. He wants above all to survive. It is for him a practical thinking thing. She does not get to see, from the dark boughs of her hidden copse, him angry for them, punish for them, or him call her poor Lotus friend.

Viktoria has channeled so many plagues, poxes, ignoble deaths in the gnarled black of a withering wood, and knows her witchy verses. The Good Thief is no winter wind or killing scythe. In these old rhymes, Garrett is the ravens, striking at heights she cannot reach. She knows how a raven should make war. 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.

THE WORDS

Make miracles through dark work! Humble lordlings, destroy a god. Existence is enough of a reason for Garrett.

THE WORDS

It is not enough for her.

THE WORDS

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 said – 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 said – we bes can not loses you from us! Even the wood clusters to hold her back – hornbeams that tangle dense, knotted briars, twigs that catch underfoot and in her hair. She pushes them away.

"You can't," said the Good Thief, and – though she is much, much stronger than he, not ligaments but vine and tendril and timber – grabbed for her arm when Viktoria told him this savage plan. He is cold, cold, cold to her. Stormed off with toothy 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 harpoon lands its snout into Viktoria's chest, there is 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 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.)