Marlena lazily opened her eyes, smiled to see the sunlight glimmer through the fibers on tiny teddy’s head, stretched out her arms—and winced as pain shot across her back. Muscles scraped against metal, inside her. The sun shone the wrong way through the window. And instead of Mister Webster waiting at the doorway for permission to enter Miss Marlena’s room—
She was in Malifaux, and everything was wrong.
“Finish stretching.” Leveticus was standing between their beds, not turning his back on Alyce. “Pain is to be expected, after any surgery. Now, arms out, and the stretching will flex the—?”
Marlena turned her eyes to the sunset, and moved her lips trying to remember the rhyme she’d made to help her studies. “...Rumbles. Pecks and rumbles, like a soulstone miner. Shoulder-stone miner.”
Leveticus shook his head. “Pectoralis, to flex outward. Rhomboid, to adduct back into place. As I told you while I had to cut through the pectoralis, and three times after that. Now, use them.”
The inquisitive child reached out for tiny teddy, flinching, but scooping it to her side so that it rested between her and the others.
“Not enough flexion,” declared Teacher, as dolls stirred on the shelf above Marlena’s bed and dropped themselves down to the sheets. “Greater effort now will preserve a greater range of motion later. Be dressed and ready to leave in five minutes, both of you. Wear heavy gloves.” He backed out of the room, after throwing a glance at Alyce. Marlena looked over to the other bed. Treasure’s eyelids were laced together, and she was...no, appeared to be...asleep still.
“No further,” Sonnia commanded, and the mixed force of Guild all halted in the middle of the courtyard, constructs and stalkers alike taking up positions at the perimeter. “There’s two child-hunters lurking around this part of the city. We have to strike them both. That means we split up.”
“But I told us—“ the constructs’ apprentice began, from halfway across the yard.
Sonnia snorted, and the very air of it seemed to ignite. “You’d tell us the sky was gremlin green, to try and get your way. No, I’m going to investigate the scrapyard myself. Hoffman, take your constructs and run the other one, the piper, to ground.”
Hoffman tested his torch’s igniter. “His presence needs to be cleansed with fire—you’d seem to be better suited to it.”
Samael interjected, “Better than leading a pack of constructs to a scrap yard full of dead constructs which got to be scrapped, somehow?”
She actually laughed. “As the man says! Don’t you worry, we have a surprise in hand,” she nodded towards the copper-haired handler, and the child coaxed Ryle further into the shadows, “for any abominations we may meet. I’ve been itching for a field test.” Sonnia parted the crowd with a pointed finger, before singling out the giant which stalked the Guild. “Hopkins, Ukskarav and your creatures, to me! We take the lesser and leave the greater, understand, beast? The greater purpose is the children, today.”
The emissary lowered its cage to the earth and opened it, and a miniature copy of itself stepped out, falling into line behind Sonnia as she led her witch hunters towards the river and its scrapyards. Hoffman thought he heard Hopkins mumble “how do you wrap your tongue around that name of hers” as they disappeared around a corner.
Deeper inside the Quarantine Zone, the child of Malifaux scouted ahead of the constructs, reading the debris of the streets. Sometimes she coughed and scuffed her foot at a junction of alleys, drawing Hoffman’s attention to rats eviscerated but uneaten and layers of rat dirt. Other times she saw a sword-cut nicked into the underside of a clothesline, halted, caught her breath, and let the unseen eyes stare and whistle them through a choke point without an ambush.
“Wait, please,” she gasped at last, and sat down in the midst of steep-sided footprints and broken ropes. She held out a frayed end of bisected rope for his inspection. “‘Scuse me…It’s sick out here.” The child spat thickly aside, then splayed out the rope ends. “This got blood burnt….I’m sorry I made you take me along instead.”
“Blood burnt?” he echoed, then understood why she alluded to the attendant. “Black blood?”
“Maybe, Mr. Hoffman.” She stood and steadied herself. “Better hide, just in case.” The child of Malifaux tipped her head back and ululated in the pidgin of the Viktorias’ camp. The answer returned back to them with a pained whisper.
Hoffman clacked backward to the guardian, and so was first to see the creature stagger out of hiding. She wore a ronin’s rags, filthy, but untorn except for the gashes through the sash—he flinched, reminded of Anna’s self-violence. The daito’s case swung at her hip, empty. Blue-black bruises clustered in pairs at her eyes and forehead and temples, at the tips of her fingers where nails curved long and blackened.
The bloodwretch grasped at the split rope the child, with shaking arm, held out to her. She thumbed the cut, dropped her head and lifted it as though it were too heavy for a nod.
All at once she pivoted and lunged. The child squeaked, the guardian’s shield rotated into place ahead of Hoffman, but the bloodwretch shot past them all and slapped her palm against the wall. A four-legged beast splattered under her clawed hand, yowling once as it died.
The child gulped. “A-alright. You’ve got to pay her stones now. She killed for us.” She waved the rope. “This was her offer….”
The bloodwretch flicked the carcass away with a ronin’s gesture, flexed her newborn claws, and forced out words. “Kena...kitties...kill…” She scraped her claws against herself, shredding the sash even further.
“...She’s still a ronin, Mr. Hoffman...she’s got to be hired, to eat...please?...”
The bloodwretch had climbed into the emissary’s cage with gratitude that set Hoffman’s teeth on edge, worse than when the bolt slid home and she let her self-control slip. Claws raked metal in a frenzy safely contained, though the screeching metal drew answering cries from every alley cat in the ronin’s overrun territory.
Cats? There were no cats in Malifaux.
The eyes which flowed around them all put the lie to that.
Bloodwretch and emissary threw their heads to the sky at the same angle, and screamed together in a language unknown to most humans.
“I won’t have it!” answered an old lady’s angry voice, out of the alleyways. “It’s balderdash. Blaming my little sweeties for your cat-scratch-fever.” The voice dropped lower than any human’s, lost its pretense. “The fever is mine.”
Hoffman touched his torch to the giant which stalked the Guild, to mechanisms within it no one else suspected were there. It swung around under his touch, its cage door gaping open again and whisking Ryle to safety within. He shuddered. ‘Safety’. In Malifaux, locked in with a creature which might still be a ronin. But better that the creature from beyond life and death should take the risk of firing upon the plagued.