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The Children's Crusade


Gnomezilla
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That alleyway was the one the inquisitive child was looking for. No. 'Sought'.

Marlena thumped the heel of her hand against her forehead, hard. Teacher had gotten into there pretty bad, to still be lecturing her for her word choices the day after the rant. But then--she would have been angry with herself to see the smile that flitted across her face--that had been Treasure's lecture, for Treasure's mistake, for what the child had been called in anger. Treasure had been tasked with divining what fit Teacher's idea of "one which would suit you, although you're unready for an unwise choice"; the child herself had been told to divine "the others" and learn what quality she had that they lacked, or (more likely) what Teacher felt they had and she lacked.

At first, the child had thought 'the others' had been fellow-passengers on that train, but tiptoeing down the logical steps of testing a hunch that Teacher had taught, that explanation didn't hold. If she could have sensed any one of those, why couldn't she trace her parents? Others with a tiny teddy? Tiny teddy itself thought she was unique. Others who the spider-lady had helped? That thought brought a faint thrill of hope, and she hugged tiny teddy and concentrated on the feeling.

Children. Other lost children in the city, faint threads of feelings in the dirty alleyways, distant as the stars. Some floated tangled and alone, and felt a little joyful, like Treasure's happiness after she killed. Some, though, were suspended lightly between two points. The inquisitive child reached out and ran her hand along the silver cord that ran through her machinery and tiny teddy's as well. Stretched taut as it was, it acted as a rod instead of a thread, and so the two tended to move as one...

One of the beautiful hollow ones--waifs, she had learned was the correct word--drifted past then, and its thread stretched behind it, unwavering through walls and waste goods, to connect to Teacher. It didn't contain the feeling. It wasn't one of the others.

Marlena thought find the lost, and the tether trembled under her hand. Tiny teddy lowered one heavy forepaw to the floor and swiveled on the spot. She followed the line of its snout and felt where the distant stars gathered into a small constellation of children. She thought again, pursue, and tiny teddy loped out of the room almost before she had secured a firm grip on it.

[Series 4 of the battle narratives: Chasing Lazarus]

[Interlude: Magpie, Storied Soundtracks contest 2017]

[Series 5 of the battle narratives: The Children's Crusade]

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As she poked her head into the alleyway, the fire roaring in the middle of it, illuminating it twice as brightly as any rubbish fire ought to, vanished.

"You let the fire go out!" two shrill voices protested at once, and in what little light remained she glimpsed motion, then heard punches land. Other small forms moved in the gloom--

--and after a twist of the world and a tug at her neck Marlena found herself standing between the scrappers, and cuffed twice; she cried out in surprise. The thrumming of tiny teddy's paws echoed back from where she had been standing. Meanwhile the fighters both mumbled 'sorry', but too late: she felt tiny teddy pass her and launch itself at one of them.

The fire burst back into life, a column of searing fuelless flame. She blinked in the sudden glare and warmth, and tiny teddy froze as well. Five other big-eyed children surrounded them, the boys closer than the girls, the one furthest away from the fire still in shadow and impossible to judge. One of those boys took advantage of tiny teddy's inattention to disentangle his torn clothes from its claws. A smile spread over the firelit face of the other boy. "Lit the flames. And caught a witch to put through them."

"It's not always witches, Isaac," complained the other boy behind Marlena's back, as she circled around to keep tiny teddy between herself and the pillar of flame.

"She is," singsonged Isaac. "There's a warrant out for her. Master said so."

The inquisitive child sensed all their threads thrum at that statement. Master. For a moment they had more in common with the waifs than with her.

"Yes. The Guild will have her in custody." Even the voice of the shadowed child was no clue, though its hair hung loose and longer than it did on the other children.

"Reward?" That girl might have been pretty if she hadn't been scabbed with bite-marks all over her skin, and if her voice hadn't made the gouges on her throat quiver visibly as she forced the sounds out.

"Go hang, Natasza." The mauled boy moved closer to the fire and inspected the rents in his already ragged clothing. "You and your stupid rope, dragging her in here. I'm gonna freeze to death now and it's all your fault."

The world twisted again. In an eyeblink Natasza had been banished from the fire and in her place the shadowed child stood next to them. Marlena watched...him?...pull aside the rags at his neck to show a fine, warm, new undershirt concealed beneath them. "I earned a bounty from the Guild. I will not freeze." She saw the clean skin of his neck contrasted with the grime on his face, before the fire vanished again and doused them all in cold and darkness. "Give her to me and you can earn one too."

"No, cousin's mine," the other girl piped up. Marlena felt a hand grab at hers.

"Only the teddy--" began the shadowed child.

"Cousin's mine too!"

Marlena felt the impossible, and turned her head toward it despite the darkness: out where the girl's other hand had to be, the world sighed as though its strings had been disconnected. They reattached themselves before any harm was done, but the inquisitive child scowled. Teacher had been adamant that such a skill was unique.

The fire burst back into existence again, with the mauled boy smiling over it this time. Marlena stared back at the girl locked onto her with hand and eyes. Slowly that stare dragged one of the dreams which were not dreams back to the forefront of her mind. This girl had hidden in the scrapyard, laid plans to help her escape from Teacher...

"Cousin's mine now," repeated the girl.

"I'm not yours," snapped Marlena. "Teddy! We're going." She tried to pull her hand free.

"But it's my master who's going to find out what you are," said the other one, who didn't relinquish her grip. "Go home, Isaac, an'...and tell Reet to come see us, ok?" Isaac nodded and left the alleyway; he knew that handler's specialty. "Marion, just go! "

"Master disapproves." Marion spoke like a girl, darted out of the firelight like a boy, spoke out of the shadows again like a girl. "Eben needs to earn a bounty. Else Eben will freeze and die." The mauled boy turned away from the fire, raking the darkness with overlarge eyes that began to reflect flames of their own. The inquisitive child frowned. His thread didn't feel ready to die, and yet...

There were other threads. Marlena stretched out her mind to Eben's clothes. They were torn. They could be sewn still. But if she snipped this thread of being, they would stop being fabric at all. No substance, no fabric, no clothes.

Eben fled as his rags disintegrated, with the tittering of all of the girls ringing in the alleyway. Natasza seemed to come partly to life as he ran past burning with shame, and drifted after him, leaving two in the alleyway as the fire died one final time.

"Let go." She wondered what was wrong with tiny teddy that it hadn't already attacked.

"It's fair," argued the other girl. "I promised I'd help you escape. And there's a warrant. And it's our charter. And you took Ryle so it's only fair, we're going to take you! Come on, cousin!" She tugged on her wrist.

Marlena lashed out, "You took my magic! That's too much already!"

"Don'tcha wanna know how I did?" Marlena froze. Yes, Teacher would insist that she investigate any other instance of entropic magic. "'Cause I wanna know. He'll know." And the tone of the other girl's voice meant Master. Not Teacher. If she had a teacher, he would have already taught her.

Tiny teddy felt Marlena stop struggling, and fell into line between them once the other girl let go.

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They didn't walk side by side--the child of Malifaux hopskipped from side to side, ran ahead of tiny teddy, walked backwards trying to shout questions back at the inquisitive child, gave up and ran behind them both, spun around and peppered Marlena with questions again.

"Are you sure you're not hollow?" Always she started with that one, but from there the questions were unpredictable. "Didn't you get away with the weird kids? They weren't takin' you back to the scary scrapyard, were they?" Marlena shook her head. "Can I touch tiny teddy? Is he gonna swat at me too?" Marlena sagged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. "When'd it happen, you weren't that way before? Is it you or is it tiny teddy?..."

The child of Malifaux trailed off, then, and looked at Marlena with her thread under tension as it was when the other child had said master, and the inquisitive child seized the opportunity. "I'll answer that one if you answer mine," she offered.

"...Ok...but..."

It felt strange, keeping her hand on the thread of the big-eyed child as she pondered the bargain. It was no true tether. She seemed to push her own feelings along the thread and then wait for the echo. Nothing like hers. Teacher's voice was unmistakeable, unique, when Marlena's thread transmitted it. It was no echo. "...But I wanted to ask about you. So you've got to only ask about me. Nothing about Guild or anything. I'd get in trouble."

Marlena folded her arms and stared at the child of Malifaux until her thread knotted in on itself. 'What makes me 'yours' ' came to mind, as did a plain 'How dare you'. But that would not satisfy Teacher. She spoke, slow and solemn.

"If you could mimic my magic--if you knew I could do that sort of magic--why didn't you do it before?"

"But I couldn't!" The other child stopped walking then, twisting on the spot with distress before being spurred to catch up to Marlena. "Tiny teddy was a wild teddy then so I couldn't grab onto it, and you were--I mean, you weren't--" A sob bubbled out of her. "Cousin, why? You haven't got any pneumatic limbs. How'd you do it?..."

And despite the child's words making no sense, Marlena felt the answer, a psychic fumbling upon her own thread. ...Master? It was powerful as the tether, but flowing in the opposite direction. The beautiful ones were hollow, as her machinery was sometimes though she didn't care to think about it; the child sought a hollow to hide in, and called it Master. She had one, who cared about pneumatic limbs and such, who could mimic magic. And asked if Marlena was another.

Marlena scowled. She had a teacher. Not a master. She had no need to hide.

She halted, grabbed the hand of the child of Malifaux and pressed it on the side of her neck. Arteries, Teacher had called them, but she forgot the exact names.

Those big eyes couldn't widen any more, but they could unfocus, as she concentrated on the mechanical rhythm underneath the fingertips, where a pulse ought to have been. Marlena watched the child's lips quiver. Then, despite the claws of tiny teddy digging into her back and trying to drag them apart, the younger child latched onto Marlena. She winced under the hug crushing her skin and muscles against the machinery in her chest. "Come home!" she whispered. "Mr. Hoffman'll take care of you. Come home, cousin."

Tiny teddy tugged, Marlena shoved, and she freed herself. She looked at the child at arm's length. Her overalls were overlarge and stiff with grease. Her head had been shorn with pneumatic blades, to judge by the choppiness of her hair. Crying had made her face ugly, and brought out a fading black eye. "Nobody takes care of you," she pointed out.

"...But you're a construct. I'm not." The child of Malifaux looked at the ground, her face flushing with shame--

Tiny teddy growled and spun around on the spot, so fast Marlena was knocked flat on her back. His paws flew overhead, across her face, catching a descending greatsword. The inquisitive child glimpsed a blade inscribed from hilt to point, white gauntlets and red patches sewn to the palms, hair with the literal color and sheen of copper, a long feminine face unfamiliar with smiling. The other child began to shriek, but that was unimportant next to the words the swordswoman spoke over Marlena.

"I, Reet Eastman, bring evidence against you. You are an abomination."

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Less than a kilometer distant, Samael Hopkins threaded through the aisles of the construct workshop, punctuated by the mechanics' heckling.

"Check out this one! Paper bag over her head ain't fancy enough for him, he's got a full-on mask ready to go! Lemme buckle it on here and you can pretend--"

"Keep yer dungarees on, Bridget."

"--I've been married to you for sixteen years, I've put in my time! Don't be a stranger, now..."

This last to Samael as he ignored the first mechanic flaunting her toolbelt at him. He knocked on the door of Hoffman's office and pushed it open. "We sent the handler," he said, as soon as his foot cleared the threshold. "Where is she?"

Hoffman looked up from a checklist. "She never arrived. Was the highlander not available? She's punctual."

"The highlander?..."

"She has the look. Accent's a trifle strange even for a highlander, what little I heard of it."

"Yes," Samael understood, "we sent Reet. You wanted to track the makers of those camouflaged monsters, and she's our best for that." No point in correcting Hoffman, or anyone whose expression was as distant as his was now. "But until she arrives, I have to fill in."

"I've just dispatched a hunter to track her." Hoffman paused as the mechanical attendant appeared at the door, opening it further as the master of machines let his harness lift him to his feet. "She was already known to our department. Come."


A few kilometers further away, a breeze surged through a crowded rehearsal space, cresting and fading in less than a second.

"Ah, you have just felt the chill?" purred the performer juggling smoldering clubs.

The lady, reading from a great slab of a book propped up in a lap widened by one foot atop her opposite knee, didn't look up. "No, Carlos."

"I could never leave a lady to catch her death of cold!" Despite the immediate repetition from the lady, all of the cold clubs immediately burst into a shower of sparks.

"It was just a gamin, Carlos." Kudra picked one of her living bookmarks off of the far edge of the tome before the flying specks could touch its scales.

"And you could never accept. You will not make a showgirl if you never let your guard down," he chided her. Each descending club was twisted, extinguished, and holstered at his hip as an Oxfordian mage caught their attention.

"Witchling handler spooked the gamin--but she was working alone!" Even as he spoke the mage clipped theater jewelry to his cloak, concealing its shape and aura of magic. "Sandeep wants her overpowered and brought in for interrogation." He set the second epaulette in place and left at a run, looking to both mundane and magical eyes like a disheveled soldier on leave.

Carlos sauntered to the door and opened it for Kudra. He never turns it off, does he, she sighed to herself--and then perceived his previous compliment.


"Reet, no!" The big-eyed child grabbed a fistful of coat-tail and tried to drag the handler away. "She's under investigation with us! Not you."

Miss Eastman didn't move a millimeter. Slowly she turned her head to look at the child of Malifaux. All at once the mass of copper strands that were her hair (a mane as fine as that of the Lady Justice herself, had she been a statue wrought in metal) slid over her far shoulder and fell, but they did not fall straight to earth. They were pulled at a slight angle, wavering as a pendulum over the chests of Marlena and tiny teddy. She lifted one little finger off of her sword to point at the phenomenon, then grasped its handle again.

"Copper doesn't do that," Marlena protested from underneath the blade, "that's only for iron." She'd reached out for the blade with her mind, when the handler turned her head. That was almost a mistake. Its threads didn't just fan out into the same nothingness from which Teacher emerged. The sword itself was unraveling and reforming endlessly, and the energy with which it unknotted itself...the copper strands absorbed that from all which was nearby, and too unstable to hold itself together.

Reet turned her attention back to Marlena, flexed her grip and lit different runes along the great blade. The inquisitive child knew, then: the handler was kin to Teacher's creations, and her sword could unmake abominations as surely as Teacher could unmake all things.

Nowhere in the threads nearby did she feel death, yet Marlena still trembled when Reet activated a charged soulstone set into the pommel.


Carlos Vasquez watched the bands of light take flight from the handler's greatsword, pursed his lips and whistled very softly when the symbol wove itself around the handler and the children. "Snakes, to be criminalizing little children like that."

"That's doing a disservice to the snakes," Kudra muttered. Still, she also peered from behind the same intact building. There wasn't much choice of unfallen walls in the area; even this one was shored up with stout props of wood. "That's a ward against the living, curse her. We'll have to wait for the Oxfordians--"

More bands of light shot through the scene, arrow-straight and radiating past the handler. The building shuddered from impacts moments after they'd regained cover. They didn't dare emerge again until the scent of smoldering shingles overpowered that of Carlos' powders and warned them the building would soon be a loss.

"Hold," said Kudra, and ducked out under burning timbers with a fold of her veil shielding her face. "Careful! That was the witch hunter's gunner--enchanted bullets. If you have magic to cast, do it before you come out."

Carlos Vasquez vaulted onto one of those diagonals and off again as it snapped, trailing sparks. "Magic? Oh no. All skill. And that burning building, it must have--" his eyes widened at the sight but his patter continued, "--ignited my clubs. Whatever is that?"

"It's something which won't please Sandeep," she muttered, hearing the academic's bodyguards shriek.


Reet froze in place. Tiny teddy grabbed hold of the back of Marlena's dress and dragged, but when her head crossed the threshold of the flaming runes, she squealed in pain and tiny teddy could drag her no further. The child of Malifaux gazed upward, even as she sank down on one knee. "Cousin," she whispered, "do you see?"

Marlena looked up, over the handler's sword and head. "It's a giant carrying a cage?..."

The younger girl hadn't even been this quiet when she begged Marlena to follow her before. "No...It's the battle angel, cousin. I told you he'd take care of you..."

Another dream that was not a dream surfaced. She'd been lying down then, also: Marlena on the floor with her blankets, Alyce on the bed on her stomach and looking down over the edge, late night, lantern burning. Alyce trying to frighten her with stories about Leveticus and his powers, terrible unbelievable stories that tried to paint Alyce's murders as the gentler, less damning death. Except for one.

"...I couldn't kill them. He couldn't kill them." The room was eerie with silence; Alyce's mechanical arm had gone limp and ceased to squeak. "And the killing sort of...bounced off of them and kept on going through everyone else. It went through me..." The soft rasping tone of her voice was the tone of the child before her on one knee. "He...sucked that killing up into him...no that's not right...he rode it. He grabbed hold of it and made an abomination out of it and rode it." She'd balled up her other hand, hit the edge of the mattress. "How do you hurt someone who can kill off killing itself? How can he ever die???"

Marlena was puzzled, looking back, at how they were ever so confused. You cut his thread, of course. That problem was easy to solve. Teacher would not set such a simple problem.

Power drained from her fingertips into the witchling handler's sword.

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The mechanical attendant moved through the battle's aftermath as though the traces weren't even there. Despite the cloaked and turbaned bodies punctured by bullets, smoking piles of scrap metal, despite the guardian following it shielding the wounded side of Ryle, it followed the path the hunter had taken minutes before. Hoffman's harness followed, but his thoughts were withdrawn from his surroundings. That was the trouble with the giant which stalked the Guild: even after it withdrew and the nearness of death and dominion withdrew also, it oppressed.

He walked into the barrier of the greatsword held horizontally, and jerked awake as it halted him. Power discharged from him, but instead of sinking into the runes it shot up the blade's edges and into Reet. The handler involuntarily stepped back, and lifted her sword to rest against her shoulder. He glanced down at where the binding circle had glowed not so long ago. She looked at the abomination, until the guardian interposed its shield. Neither spoke.

At last Hoffman stirred, and asked, "Were there any?"

"One small girl." She pointed to the child tangled in the rubble of a ruined house, then shook her head.

The mechanical attendant trotted over to the child of Malifaux as she leaned away from the rubble and tugged at her snagged overalls leg. Hoffman made it extend a tiny blade and cut threads which had looped around the rubble and through the child's clothing. She popped loose and stumbled backwards, noticed the mechanical attendant, looked back at Hoffman, and tried to swallow her sobs.

"I assigned you to the death marshals," he said.

Between hiccups she reached into her overalls pocket and pulled out several crumpled sheets of paper, picked one out, tried to smooth it out over a bit of pipe projecting from the debris, and handed it to the attendant. Hoffman received and read it: a death marshal's scribbled report on the child, giving her back to the 'masheen shop'.

An intake form. The Lady Justice's department was, of course, better prepared to recruit people off of the street. Now the child could be a transfer to his department. Not something taken up in a moment of weakness. The whispering would stop.

The child, still sniffling, scribbled on another piece of paper stretched out over different, flatter debris, but handed this one and the drafting pencil (he would have to chide her later for filching that) to the witchling handler. Miss Eastman made a rubbing from certain runes of her greatsword, then handed this over to Hoffman also. He saw the runes, above the child's drawing: dark hair-scribbles over a circle of a face and a triangle of a dress, another circle with spiky scribbles in the middle of it and off to both sides, tiny button eyes ground down with the pencil's point.

Neither of them, if they looked much like anything, looked like constructs, but that was the point. Reet knew her own, and he knew her. Her mechanicals were not integrated with her flesh and so he could not affect her through them unless she chose, but by volume she was as much a construct as Howard Langston (or to be more accurate, he amended his thoughts, as much as Galatea the spider-lady, whom Ramos didn't realize Hoffman knew about). Abominations, no matter how lifelike, did not pass by her undetected, and Reet's stalkers might have told stories of creating them, before she had branded the makers.

Hoffman paused and re-read. She hadn't used that common rune, though, had she? Not 'abomination'. No, she'd used the rarer one. Not metal and flesh sewn and welded together in undeath, but fused by magic, suspended in life. Amalgamation.

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The child of Malifaux swallowed another sob and tried again. "We've got to find her--"

"Yes," he cut her off, "we do."

She opened her mouth to protest his harshness, and the words died in her throat. With the exchange of papers her psychic bond to the Guild had slipped away from the death marshals and returned to Hoffman. Her will could not remain set against his.

"Miss Eastman," Hoffman said, handing the paper and pencil back to the handler, "can you provide a better picture of our quarry?"


Marlena had fled the moment the binding circle had been spoiled. The giant had created an all-encompassing cage, and the lesser magical cage had melted before the greater. While tiny teddy tugged at her collar she had slid on her back and watched the giant disgorge two full-grown creatures from its coffin: the man carrying shackles and leathers had been unfamiliar, but the sight of the large, lumbering abomination almost dislodged a dream from the time before. It was no time to wade through dreams, though, and she pushed it from her mind.

She had pulled herself to her feet against the rubble of a ruined house and was about to grasp tiny teddy when the younger child's hand had closed on hers. "Please don't go!"

"It's your fault that woman was here to capture me." Teacher would be pleased to hear how she had said 'capture' and not 'catch'. Maybe. "Was that how you were going to take care of me? Did you mean you'd cut out whatever makes me a construct now?" No, Teacher wouldn't be pleased. There had been no reason to jump all the way to talk about being mutilated. The sword had only been consuming loose threads.

"Cut you up?..." The other child had been startled enough to let go. But immediately after that she'd crushed Marlena with another painful hug. The inquisitive child had seen the grief in her expression, but still hadn't been prepared to hear, "But you're so lucky..."

Marlena had waved tiny teddy back, and raised one hand to pat the child of Malifaux on the back, and the other to wipe the younger child's tears as she babbled. "Mr. Hoffman will like you, 'cause you're a construct now, he takes care of them..." As they'd rolled down her fingers, she had rubbed her fingertips together the way the Widow Weaver had taught her, always twisting in the same direction. "...but he won't make me a construct, I asked him to..." Black threads of grief had coalesced and spooled around Marlena's upraised hand. "...he's never gonna say 'come here Minta, tell me about your clockwork dolly'..." She'd slipped her threaded hand around the nearest bit of debris, while the hand on the other girl's back had unraveled the thread of being which made her overalls be overalls. "...but he'd like you, he'd learn your name, oh no I forgot to ask, I'm sorry cousin..." She had intertwined the black thread with the silver cord, and then let go: the overalls had reformed around the thread, and the younger child was sewn to the spot.

Tiny teddy had pulled her out of the other girl's reach easily, then, but the inquisitive child had felt some guilt. "...I'm Marlena. I'll be coming back to rescue you."


Reet was no artist, but Hoffman nodded thanks regardless. She had drawn a nightmare-teddy, but of a height with the black-haired child--a healthy child with arms and legs drawn almost as long as his were. The little one's scribbling had been just as informative, as far as outward appearance went. What Reet added were diagrams of power. "Waif," she confirmed.

Hoffman swallowed bile. When he had hunted the child before, she certainly had not been a waif, nor any sort of construct. If it hadn't been for that foolish gremlin lass and the barkeep she traveled with...

"Child. Go back to the workshop, deposit this paper," he handed back the death marshal's report, "and whatever other papers you have, turn them over to me. You'll need my signature to fetch reinforcements beyond the constructs. Do not take pencils from the workshop again."

"Yes, Mr. Hoffman."

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The interview with the Brewmaster, he'd remembered later, was short and pleasant. Never mind that the barrel-construct kept swatting at him with a stave. It just skimmed over their heads and provided a refreshing breeze. Sitting in the shade of the gremlins' towering still, he felt the breeze made the afternoon heat quite tolerable.

"Fine construction," Hoffman remarked, and adjusted several plates of his walking harness to mimic the staves which weren't sprung. It hadn't been fine, upon reflection. It had been leaky. But at the time, after several cups of liquor which had shimmered as it caught the light, everything was dewed in glory.

"It's takin' the edge off of the grief of it, then? Good, good." The Brewmaster nodded and knotted his hands over his knee. "Don't like to hear of bad things happenin' to children."

They both looked at the child of Malifaux, sprawled unconscious next to a half-full cup of her own.

"She was very proud to take the first sip, you know."

"You let her. Thinkin' you don't trust me as well as you ought."

Hoffman sipped, coughed, smiled as the whiskey golem finally landed another blow which smoothed out the dent in his harness the first blow had left. "I mistook you for the other one. I apologize."

They looked over their other shoulders, to where Fingers lay sprawled out as dead to the world as the child, but with huge purpling bruises where Ryle had punched him flat.

"Don't fret. He's 'customed to it. Now, I never saw your other child here, not any teddy neither. Now, I sent the others away, as that business with Trixiebelle and her fiancé has soured tempers a bit." The Brewmaster tipped his staff towards the moon shinobi glowering at Francisco Ortega. "They're forever lookin' to find him and thrash him for what he done to break her heart."

Just then one of the moon shinobi who had been flashing two angry fingers at Francisco's face flicked his wrist and popped up like a bullfrog, poking those same fingers into Francisco's eyes and a green foot into his groin.

"'Course, they can't see straight at the best of times," chuckled the old gremlin, and Hoffman had to laugh also. "I didn't see her, but Trixiebelle, she did. Saw them both. Your missing girl's bigger than this one and she ain't pretty. Big glasses and a big nose to hang them on, she said, but little bitty dark eyes. Y'all look alike to me, but trust Trixiebelle on that, she's a spotter. Now here's the interestin' bit. She had a teddy with her and not a full-grown one. Sort o' quarter-sized."

The struggling heap of Francisco and the moon shinobi stumbled into the supports of the second still, setting it to swaying. "Leave off of that!" barked the Brewmaster, suddenly nothing but business. "Wesley, slide off there and steady that still."

"Oh, I do apologize. The mining machinery causes tremors." Hoffman looked down, patted the earth. "I'll bring it aboveground."

"Wesley! Stop that crazy machine." The burdened apprentice turned around and shuffled back the way he'd come. "And you stop apologizing. I said, I don't like to hear of children getting hurt on account of us. You leave our young'uns be, and mind the one you got now, and we'll try and make it up to you some." The old gremlin uncorked a bottle which smelled pure enough to cleanse logic engines. "Scrapyard fence wasn't yet built which could keep us out. We'll set a tracker in there, see what we can find."

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  • 1 month later...

There hadn't been an alternative. No amount of shaking would wake the drunken child, Francisco was long gone on the trip back to Latigo (and a small barrel from the stash along with him), and Hoffman would not entrust the carrying of the child to Ryle. He sealed a note inside the toolkit and sent it down the road, then settled back onto the ruined toll gate to wait, still cocooned in good cheer from the Brewmaster's drink. Yes. He would help mind the children. Was he leaving this one behind to sleep it off? No. Was he going to leave the other one to run through Malifaux unsupervised, with a monster in pursuit? No. He was blameless.

Hoffman barely even minded it when a passing female stopped, turned, and pointed her shoes at him. He had set Ryle far inside the fallen stonework of the tollbooth. She would have to move Hoffman aside to see past him. All the same, he willed spring-mounted studs to unlatch from the undersides of his boots and grip the ground--there was an oppression dogging her footsteps which dimmed the afterglow of the liquor.

When the oppressive shadow fell over her she breathed in, nostrils flaring, and seemed to straighten and solidify. The notebook and pen appeared in her hands with barely a twitch of her fingers. Her eyes focused on him, and a smile snapped into place on her face. "Mr. Hoffman," she began, with another snap. "We have been searching for you. We have questions, my employers and I."

"Employers, plural?" Hoffman couldn't turn, but he didn't need to. That shadow in the corner of his vision was the giant which stalked the Guild, he knew, and it had been turned against him.

"I'm asking the questions, Mr. Hoffman."

This was unusual. Nellie Cochrane objected to the--what had she written, in that editorial about the riots?--"uncompromising quietus" when she meant the constructs' refusal to heed spoken commands. She'd at least recognized that he had ordered the constructs not to respond to her reporters' questions either, and nowadays she set them other tasks and tried to ambush Hoffman herself. Neither fact fit the situation.

Even in the emissary's shadow, he drew on the last of the liquor, and relaxed. Where that giant was, Nellie generally was not, and with Ryle nearby he feared the journalists more. "I asked first," he reminded the reporter. Behind his own fixed smile Hoffman scanned the area. His guardians were nearby, fighting with unwarranted coordination against something which he could sense but not grasp. Much like Reet.

Journalists. Employers.

Phiona!

He jumped from one guardian to the next, feeling the scars of shorn metal and piecing together the arc of the pickaxe he could not see. A whip flicked past, displaced air popped twice, and his physical body flinched. Queeg. He had attached himself to the squadron somehow, and from his orders came the guardians' coordination--

Hoffman snapped back to himself with a jolt, and found his harness beginning a slow turn about, and something tugging at one leg of his trousers. It was the child, barely conscious and propped up on one elbow. She mustered just enough energy to let go and point into the tollbooth, then slumped back into unconsciousness. "Mr. Hoffman!" repeated the reporter behind him, but he ignored her. There was a more important voice inside, and a familiar glow.

"What the hell? A cartouche?"

Hoffman had noticed two whips, not one.

McCabe.

"Scared of the light, are you? Ha. You're smart for an abomination. Hold still, I'm gonna cut this off of you--"

He didn't remember grasping his welding torch, nor turning it on at full blast, nor propelling himself into the toll booth and pinioning McCabe against the wall. It seemed he simply had teleported there, with the illuminated saber biting back against his harness' heavy manipulator arms, thrusting him away from McCabe and Ryle. Again it seemed that time passed in leaps, and now the greatsword of the emissary was aglow and cutting a crescent through his squadron of guardians. Now the reporter herself had dropped her notepad and held the saber's hilt in both hands, swatting it around inside the tollbooth as though trying to cut down a fly. Afterimages of all the swords' arcs hung in the air, turning the interior of the tollbooth bright enough to read the arcane scars on Ryle's torso.

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  • 3 weeks later...

A dictionary had been easy to consult, but access to an encyclopedia had proven to be a challenge: books were a precious commodity in Malifaux, and his own library was too tightly focused on the technical. In the end, he found himself trading the promise of a five minutes' interview for five minutes in the Malifaux Tattler's reference room. Cartography...Carton (see: Packaging)...Cartoon...Cartouche (see: Hieroglyphics). With impatience he waited for his minder to clear away the useless volume, wrestle the correct one out of its shelf, and heave it onto the reading desk.

Hoffman skimmed his finger over the blocks of text and their sub-headings, about the pictographic language of the Egyptians; the ovals which bracketed names of god and patron and author; the idea of writing as authorship instead of the anonymous oral tradition; writing as sympathetic magic in the tradition known to-day as--

His minder heaved the volume shut on his hand. "Time, Mr. Hoffman," she honked. She was the same reporter who had ambushed him on the road hours before, with the same knack of making her notebook and pen leap to hand. "Now, as head of the Amalgamation Office, I trust you have some advice for our ever-vigilant readership..." Her accent was so nasal she'd nearly rhymed the '-mal-' of his office with 'now'. He extracted his hand, and most of the paper flower she'd just dropped into the pages, but a bookmark of a petal was left behind.


Later, in his private workstation, he reexamined the scars on Ryle which he'd memorized months ago. Copies of them had been sent, one by one as he could afford it, to the witch hunters' offices for discreet analysis. For the privilege of interrogating the witch who'd written those runes once they had captured him (there had been no need to tell the witch hunters the entire truth), the price had already been paid.

Each rune returned with, at a minimum, a page's worth of muddle. Multiple possible translations which maybe amplified their meaning when combined with this-that-and-the-other--it was worse than his tutor's brief attempt to interest him in translating poetry. Hoffman glowered at the scars. So, Anna had imagined herself to be a poetess, atop of all her other crimes. Which crimes, if McCabe was correct, she had signed as though Ryle were some wall to be graffito'd, and not...Ryle. He was a man; he had a name; even if that name had been forsworn, in order to keep him anonymous and safe...

It came to mind, then, the narrow gauntlets of her clockwork dress: pressure plates within attuned to the twisting of fragile forearm bones, the pointing of her finger, all that was needed to control and focus the mechanisms of her dress. He'd gone about it all wrong. Her ego was big enough to scrawl her signature across the breadth of Ryle, yes, but her gestures were not.

Hoffman released all hold over his flesh and went limp in the straps, triggering the harness to stretch out pistons and flesh in hunter's leaps. He bounded around Ryle faster than a man could run, the lines of runes spooling past his eyes and blurring into one another, leaping arcs of writing combining, amplifying--

The harness halted on the instant, but racked him regardless, at the slightest start from Hoffman. The runes channeled the currents of the aether, and who knew what explosive power they would inflict upon Ryle if he cut them away? Not a single one returned from the witch hunters without a translation of 'danger' or 'ill-will'. Not every line was part of a rune, though. Some tiny flourishes translated only to modifiers. There were several of them in every column, meaningless on their own, but when they began to overlay one another he had seen Anna: a stick figure, crudely female, no better than the child's drawings.

His eyes went to the scar, nearly invisible, where Seamus' shot had bored through Ryle, and then they went distant.


The child walked ahead of the watcher which herded her to Hoffman, and soon the image of her dangling her doll by its wrists was coupled with babble and singing. "C'mon, you've gotta use your feet! Only Mr. Hoffman gets a harness. Stomp stomp, step step, stompy little Ryle! Gotta wind your key awhile," she did so and then dangled it again, "stomp stomp, step step, gotta keep the clothing wet, now it's laundry day--" He flapped the watcher's wings unnecessarily while landing it and returning to himself. She looked up to the watcher, and then jumped and whisked the wriggling doll behind her back.

"It's time to work, not to play." He extended a manipulator arm, and left it until the child sighed and relinquished the doll. She watched it be deposited in a file box, and locked, instead of looking at Hoffman. He paused, started to speak, but instead held his peace until the child turned away from the files. Once she did, he watched her attention settle on him and Ryle, and the ditty that was still moving her lips die away. "Ryle will need additional maintenance again, after repairs." She nodded. "Climb up, please. You will need to be measured." Hoffman transferred to Ryle the dimensions, and was pleased. Only two sessions would remove all of the flourishes and the upside-down rune which formed Anna's cartouche. "Fetch some of the flat instrument trays. The tools must all be boiled clean."

"It's laundry day, Mr. Hoffman? I don't know where the tool soap is kept." Hoffman's expression didn't flicker one bit. "The mechanics yelled at me for that."

"As they should. No, I don't require any tool soap. Draw water from the boilers while I fill the trays--but scrub yourself first, also." There was still danger from disrupting magical writings. "Scrub again once the tools are boiled. I may allow you to assist, if you watch very quietly and give me exactly what tool I need."

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Tiny teddy sank its claws into the scrapyard mud, hurled its weight forward, and tried to tug its feet free. Marlena hung onto its ears, her feet flailing dangerously close to metallic rings glinting through the mud. Alyce had buried the oversized glue cans months ago, the inquisitive child knew. In between tiny teddy's lunges, she glowered at the shop and at Alyce, laughing too hard to hold herself upright without holding on the doorjamb. Alyce straightened herself just long enough to hold up one of the cans' lids still wet and muddy, skim it at Marlena who shied aside and almost fell, and bend over whooping again.

The standoff might have lasted until the glue dried out, had a waif not come to the doorway and laid a finger on Alyce's human shoulder. Her metal arm detached from the shop and flew to the waif's throat, but let go before constricting. Alyce hugged herself then, wheezing and wincing as the laughs died in her throat. Even while being shaken to and fro by tiny teddy's struggle, the child found reason to pout. The silver cord glowed with the light of the living Teacher, but that wasn't enough of a clue for Treasure, no, he had to seize hold of the waif-flesh slowly and give her a warning.

Alyce thrust her arm out at Marlena, twice, emphatically, palm outward, then turned and followed the waif into the shop. The child stuck her tongue out at the retreating backs for form's sake, but was relieved. Whenever Marlena laid her hand to the thread instead, Leveticus almost wrenched her soul out of its sockets clawing his way along it, and the combination could be...odd. Last time, the creature they made had swayed, dark-haired and dark-eyed and female as Marlena but hollow, and danced a few hip-thrusting steps before Leveticus seized control and emerged from the conjured waif. (That had earned both Marlena and Alyce half an hour's lecture on nautch dances, speckled with reminiscences and digressions on feats of skeleto-muscular control and demands to replicate the steps the creature had danced, until he proclaimed Marlena hopeless and pulled Alyce aside for further tutoring. 'Boring' didn't half cover it.)

The inquisitive child hunted in the pockets she'd added to the dress, searching for the remaining threads of grief, while she scanned the nearest wrecks for another good point to anchor it onto. With luck she could haul tiny teddy out of the snares before Teacher returned to the world.

*

In the witch hunters' compound, Isaac and another boy scooped handfuls out of a lunch pail stamped with the insignia of the Guild. The potatoes were small and speckled, the onions still crunchy, the eggs so runny they shattered and leaked yolk when peeled, and the ham had been filched before the pail was ever delivered from the kitchens. Still, the food was good, and hot, and well earned. Sonnia understood that flames need fuel, and paid her children accordingly.

*

Marion drifted through the leafy Downtown street twice, counting children, before approaching the one pretending to guide traffic with a lollipop. Marion walked past a third time and whispered secrets toward that child's ear, except for one. Marion had seen the points on this other child's teeth, and presumed to know that the other two observers had teeth filed just the same.

*

Natasza found Eben huddled under several sheets of the Malifaux Tattler, under a second-floor driveshaft in a gap between factory buildings. The driveshaft shed flakes of rust and a bit of heat, but not enough. His torment died away along with his shivering. She frowned, and kicked him sharply in the spine. He jerked awake, and nearly fell off the ledge, which became the first spasm of the returning, violent shivers. Not long after that Daw would land another bite on her, for Eben failed to die that night.

*

Hoffman was displeased to find, when next he could return to his private workstation, that the child was still resting against Ryle's surgeries. He reached for her, shook her shoulder, winced as his fingers flexed. She half-opened her less sticky eye and leaned her cheek against his hand. "No, child," he told her, and took it away.

She watched it go and tried to smile. "Misser 'Offman..." she mumbled, "I don feel so good...’Ows your hand."

"It's fine, thank you for asking. The harness grounded much of the current." Even with both their hands on the scalpel, the upside-down rune's reaction to being disrupted had burned flesh like an ungrounded steam arachnid. "And yours?"

The child wiggled her fingers, whimpered in pain, then gulped. Hoffman saw her face drain of color and got a tool tray in front of her just in time. Under cover of the noise of her vomiting, he eyed the cuts. Ryle would have yet more slender scars interwoven with the majority of the runes he had not dared remove, but they would be his scars, not hers. And they would, with the child as a living compress, heal almost to invisibility. Much better.

He set the fouled tray on a lower shelf and summoned his mechanical attendant to remove it. "Come, child, if you can. I cannot lift you down. You should rest today." He did not care to learn if Ryle could still fall ill.

"Bu' Ryle..."

"Climb down, child. You may have your doll back, and nap with it. Somewhere else. I must keep this workstation clean."

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  • 4 weeks later...

Later that day, Hoffman admitted a visitor to his office. "You're not having trouble with the steamchair, I hope?"

"No, she turns fine." Abuela Ortega patted one of the boxes of shotgun shells latched onto its side, within easy reach.

"Good. I remember almost having to pay you for the privilege of repairing it, last time--"

She swept his attempt at humor aside. "You go and find me a guardian! There will be trouble at the railroads. I need one."

Overmatched, he led the Ortega matriarch through the workshop, between rows of idling constructs, until they found the hunter with the child resting alongside. Abuela clucked her tongue and halted the steamchair. Hoffman continued past, leaving her there holding out her arms and whispering, "[Wake up, sweetheart, come to grandmama, little ones shouldn't have to sleep alongside machines.]"

Soon after that the mobilized guardian conducted him back to Abuela. The child was sitting in her lap with her doll, still heavy-eyed and talking slowly. "That one means boiler. Wash mama made me learn all the washing words. So you go to the boiler part of the train and--" the child paused, and yawned. "Mr. Hoffman, am I gonna have to go to the railroads too? Someone told her directions she didn't understand." She added a bit of Little Kingdoms speech, then yawned again and snuggled the doll, "that one means pay me now, so you gotta learn to say that one."

The doll's music box plinked out a few notes, muffling the beginning of Hoffman's answer. "...If they need you, child, to interpret."

"Be quiet, you unmarried man!" The head of a Guild division withered under Abuela's scorn. She turned a sunny smile upon the child and patted the doll's nightgown. "Good little girls stay here and take care of sleepy dolls." The child smiled back as her overlarge eyes drifted shut. Abuela waited for the half-minute it took her to doze off, then rounded on Hoffman again. "Send her out in the smoke when she's sick! You think I cannot reach my gun with a little girl here?--"

"She was fine yesterday--"

"You run the watchers, I know why we never see anything important!--"

"And she needs to earn her keep--"

"Oh so your Union-rights-and-brotherhoods not in your own house? I talk to Johana too. [Close your ears and take a nap, sweetheart, grandmama needs to flay a bachelor who is not fit to be head of household.]" The Ortega matriarch piloted the child back to ground level without waking her up fully, still scolding Hoffman. "God help your wife and children if you ever get them, no play no sick-leave no feelings, everyone a machine, and you think I did not see what you tried with Nino--" She plucked a jagged bronze piece of cyborg mechanism from a box and threw it straight into his chest before reversing the steamchair. "--Do that to Perdita and Guild never find your body. Leave that alone! Give the guardian to me and go. Take care of your little girl, learn maybe how people take care of people and not work them as machines...."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Abuela accepted no explanations. She pursued Hoffman through the workbenches further forward in the shop, with the mechanics cheering her on.

"The peacekeeper's in-laws are visiting! Look busy."

"Bingo must've finished--"

"--so now you have someone here who knows what bullets are for!" Abuela fired back, to additional cheers. "Always constructs with harpoons, don't know how to use a gun..." She only raised her voice as Hoffman began to explain steam-guns and projectile sizes and weights, shouting over him and the counterpoint cries of "bingo!" as they left, constructs falling into line behind them both.

Just as she swiveled her steamchair to depart, though, she craned her neck to the right and sniffed the air. "Lots of it," she muttered to him reaching for her shotgun, "Neverborn stink nearby. You get something that can shoot a real gun."

Hoffman looked across the yard to where Ryle was already striding toward them, disregarding the child trying half-heartedly to herd him back into the workshop. Abuela reversed her grip on the stock and glared up at Hoffman. He clacked over to Ryle, moving just fast enough to evade Abuela's jab at him, and pointed back at the building without a word. The child's shoulders slumped, but she turned and shuffled back inside, the mechanical attendant walking out to take her place.

 

Later he regretted the half-formed wish that, since Ryle had to be assigned duties before he was certain of complete healing, they should not venture out without a child nearby.

"Yah, Lindy!" jeered the boy flickering from tree to tree, "You're useless! You're slow! Chop your head off!" Every time he flickered, he struck the trunk of the nearest tree, scattering chips of bark, and a gibbering bundle coalesced around the blow and cheered the boy on.

He'd understood, before, the Neverborn which liked to disguise itself as a well-bred child. Of late, however, it had changed its disguise. Now it appeared older, imitating the speech of youths instead of the adults who hemmed in a child's world--and Hoffman felt himself to be older too. Had Earthside changed so very much, that youths no longer shouted 'flag the bull' at the child who couldn't run as fast as the others?

Hoffman looked up from the access panel of Ryle's gun, and met the alien gaze of one of the Dreamer's more persistent creatures standing further off in the copse. Slitted pupils stretched almost to human roundness, then popped back to their natural shape. Hoffman felt that the creature Coppelius had shrugged at him, just then. Don't ask me to explain, my friend. It's your kind which changes. I stay the same.

The Dreamer whizzed something past Hoffman's ear, and the daydream crowd cheered their hero again. He flushed--children in Malifaux were maddening, every one--and ordered Ryle to rake the area with fire. The gun swept around, studding daydreams, alps, trees, and Coppelius with bullets. Coppelius dissipated along with all the rest, lifting the fingers of one hand in a gesture of forgiveness.

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"Firing squad?!" the Dreamer hooted. He blinked behind another tree as Ryle locked onto the boy's voice and fired another burst. "That's cheating. It's not your game to change!" The sapling had just enough time to melt into the gibbering shape of a daydream before the bullets tore through it with the sound of leaves ripping, which faded into metal striking metal.

Hoffman cast his mind outward, then, in puzzlement, and felt nothing beyond the oppression of fog under the tree canopy, but nevertheless ordered Ryle to halt. The gun's chatter faded, and immediately he heard human voices.

"Bridget, my dear, would you be so good as to attach a plate...here?" Snap of an igniter, hiss of vaporizing water. "Well done. Now, both of you follow the toolkit, I'll be along presently."

That was Ramos' voice, but he was imprisoned in the Guild enclave, somewhere Hoffman could not get authorization to visit. His was a special wing, not patrolled by wardens but by humans pensioned and promoted from the barricades; they tended to shout, after years spent standing too close to heavy gunnery, and played up their half-deafness in front of civilians, supervisors, and anyone they found too brainy.

Hoffman glanced to his side, and caught the hiss of hydraulics lengthening and, impossibly, sharpening Ryle's metal fingers.

"...Remove the illusion," he told the empty air.

The construct looming beside him lifted its other arm, bringing equally outsized claws to its mask in a parody of thought. Under their tapping, Ryle's mask warped as well, and the smile it then turned upon Hoffman fanned out teeth in all directions.

It was too ridiculous. If the Dreamer had only meddled with Ryle's forearms, he might have felt uneasy. But to twist him entirely into the semblance of a nightmare teddy-bear? No. Ryle was Ryle, no matter what happened to the surface of him, and the 'teddy' was no enemy, and the gloom which lay heavier than fog was in service to the Guild. He sought constructs nearby, again, and this time the giant which stalked the Guild answered.

The fog swirled up and out from the sweep of the giant's sword, clearing away to show a dream-Ramos with a dream-Joss at his right hand as ever, but another false, steely teddy-bear on the flank Howard Langston usually defended. Steam arachnids stirred the last of the fog, chittering like daydreams. Hoffman considered the trio. Ramos was in prison and was certainly false. The teddy was as false as his. Joss, however, could possibly have his true, electrified axe.

The emissary lifted its other arm as weightily as it had the first, and swung it around with equal gravity. Joss's axe arced electricity too late: he had already been swept inside the cage, grounded and unthreatening. "Remove the illusion," repeated Hoffman.

"I think you're taking this a bit too seriously," countered Ramos, as he plucked at the mobile toolkit. "One of you brings a cricket bat, and the other one brings a fully automatic gun." The pieces of the toolkit formed themselves into more dream-spiders, their gears floating unmeshed. "I would accuse the one who brought the gun of escalation."

"No, you wouldn't. You're never so blunt."

"We can't speak plainly, as engineer to engineer?" Dream-Ramos beckoned the plated teddy forward. "But you are right. I would have tried to de-escalate the situation instead, like so." The teddy charged, slamming into the interposed shield of Hoffman's guardian with a series of clangs that Hoffman felt as well as heard. The constructs skidded further away with every strike and soon were lost to view.

"Speaking plainly," Hoffman announced for the Dreamer's benefit, "that bit of steel you attached only makes it look armored." He recalled the synergistic gearing of Ramos' true arachnids, the self-sustaining scavenger edict. "I don't spend my time working on constructs," Hoffman touched his soulstone torch to the nearest bit of scrap and melted it with a delicate jet of flame, "without learning the weak points of any armor plating." He engaged the emergency leap and let the harness vault him into the fog, trailing droplets of solidifying scrap metal from the tip of his torch, to land by the side of dream-Ramos' teddy.

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The nightmare-teddy visage melted away under the soulstone torch, dream-metal dripping as readily as candle wax. Once Hoffman had uncovered Ryle, the illusion lost its power and the copse faded away, taking the dream-Arcanists with it. He looked down at the wisp of steam which had been scrap, then up at the familiar timbre of another childish voice.

"Search this area." A beat. "Search this area." Another beat. "Burn our tracks."

Two guardians and a peacekeeper, and commands given without an accent. He sent out a thought to guide the constructs, but puzzled over the voice. The Dreamer's wasn't quite correct...

"Ryle! You found him! Good guardian!"

It was the child of his workshop, her joyful and unschooled chatter, and it had been her before as well. Hoffman watched her trot over to Ryle and stare at the half-healed cuts over the runes. He cleared his throat. "Child, have you been...imitating my commands to the constructs?"

"Yes, Mr. Hoffman. But it was important!" Without any apology, she spun around and pointed back the way they had come. "The witch hunters are out hunting again, and they've brought Reet, and dogs! And they aren't turning towards the scary scrapyard!"

"...Take Ryle to safety. I'll intercept them." Hoffman set aside the child's disobedience, but the emissary sensed it, and gazed at her until she sank down on one knee and quivered.


She couldn't help scurrying behind Ryle's leg once the battle angel let her go. The child latched onto Ryle's knee brace and peered out from behind him, but didn't even dare try for the safety of the guardians' shields.

The great construct spread its plated wings to the rooftops, then scooped Hoffman up and slammed its wings down and backward to gain speed. A hand on the sword, a hand on the gun, a hand above the peacekeeper to sweep it along, and a hand below Hoffman and master was not a grand enough word for someone who could command a battle angel...

The peacekeeper, bowled forward, came out of the roll with its harpoon already accelerating. The emissary's hand halted the spin, rocked the peacekeeper back onto its rear feet and snapped the ratchets back from the chain's capstan. The chain flew back at the great constructs, Sonnia entangled with it and shrieking as half-healed skin dragged against brick, but the peacekeeper's front feet slammed down to earth atop her and the shouts stopped cold.

Coronas flared out from the peacekeeper's shell, bullets dove into the glow and punched holes through the armor, flames jetted from the holes reaching almost to the rooftops, but Ryle remained locked upon the sight of the battle angel. The handler's hair glinted in the firelight exactly as the emissary's gun did. Her stalkers slunk around the giant constructs to point runed pistols at Hoffman. The guardians lowered shields and barreled between the remaining witch hunters; the hounds had tried to latch onto Hoffman's walking harness, and he had turned his torch upon them.

Slowly the child pried herself away from Ryle, leaving snot and tears soaking into his knee brace. "Come on, Ryle," she croaked, "the witch hunters won't get you now. Come and help me find cousin."

Ryle did not turn away.

"...I know, but we've got to. Come on," she repeated, and reached out to tug on his trousers leg. He reached out in imitation, and she froze. So did another creature, in the shadows thrown where the coronas of flame met the few witch hunters still standing. When Reet arched her spine and dropped with the clatter of falling metal, the last shadows dropped also, revealing a gremlin in soft black pajamas better suited for stealth than most gremlin attire.

"Got some news 'bout the young'un you was lookin' for," it mumbled, around a mouthful of crazy straw.

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The gremlin, the child, and the abomination stared at one another, uncertain, while behind them all the witchling handler thrashed as though electrocuted. Her hair clanged and clinked against a storm drain set into the pavement, and it seemed the only sound on all the battlefield.

At last the child wiped her face on her sleeve, only smearing it worse. "Why'd you bring them," she mumbled.

"I thought you was with them!" squeaked the gremlin. "That's the news! Your young'un," he held up one hand, "was talkin' to another young'un," up went the other hand, "who followed that'un," the moon shinobi pointed, with a foot, at Sonnia sprawled in the dirt and Samael kneeling beside her, "and your young'un went back home--"

The constructs' apprentice shook her head. "That's not her home. She's coming to live with us."

"She ain't sleepin' at your house, is she? She went back home, took her teddybear and went to bed. I peeked in the boarded-up part." The shinobi hopped easily to his other foot. "Y'all sleep weird. And that's all my news. Good day and good sippin' to you." His foot picked a flask from his belt and handed it up to his hand. He swapped that one for the flask hooked onto the other end of the crazy straw, ignoring the child's twisting aside, sucked on the straw twice with a satisfied slurp, and strolled away as the handler's fit passed and she went as limp as Sonnia.

"Don't ever drink that stuff," the child confided to Ryle. "It makes you feel terrible."

 

When Hoffman called the child over, Sonnia was sitting up on the ground, supported by Samael, with flame flowing out from one extended hand. The child stared, and didn't come any closer. Hoffman started to chide her, but Sonnia waved him to silence with the other hand. "I understand. The emissary fought for you. Mine get skittish around it, too, the ones who have been here long enough."

"You don't have to tell him--"

"--about it, he was there," Sonnia finished Samael's sentence, and added to Hoffman, "but you don't understand children." Then she turned and spoke to the child, "You lived through the plague, didn't you?"

The child nodded. "Me and papa," she said, and edged a step closer to the masters.

"The child sees, and the flames remember." Sonnia gestured and made the figures of fire melt together into the hunched shape of Marlena as she rode atop tiny teddy. "My children new to Malifaux show me the skull and cage, but those that have lived in Malifaux long enough..."

"He'll understand," Samael answered, and lowered Sonnia's hand. The vision extinguished.

Hoffman interrupted at last. "Why were you hunting me, if you knew what she looked like? Your child should have told you the difference."

"Yes, but the flames only show the shape. For all we knew, you could have dressed your child in that skirt yesterday, and that construct was some model of yours we hadn't seen."

"Is that why you haven't filled in its face?" Hoffman wanted to know. The witch hunters looked to the child, and found her gone. He sighed and looked to Ryle. Sure enough, there were small overalls trying to hide behind him again. "Describe the other child thoroughly. That is an order."

The constructs' apprentice frowned, but answered from beside the abomination, "They stuffed her into a leftover hollow waif dress! And stuck a big fluffy bow on her head!" Sonnia clarified the topmost flames into a lump of a bow and hair splaying out behind ears. "And she's got glasses." The flames burned hotter, touching the front of the fire-child's face with blue. "No, she's got dark eyes." Now they burned cooler, redder, and smoke set Hoffman and the child to coughing.

"I might be able to do gray, but brown," said Sonnia with the faintest of smiles, "is out of the question...Let's compare." Another fireball blossomed from Sonnia's hand, setting the face of the inquisitive child next to that of the constructs' apprentice, who squeaked to see herself in flame. Sonnia and Samael studied both flame-children, looking back and forth between the living child and the copy, while Hoffman gazed at Marlena and the teddy.

"Misses some detail still," Samael sighed, "but it's enough. Eyes are wrong for sure, chins aren't the same. Reet followed the trail the wrong way, I'm guessing. You'll be alright?" He settled Sonnia upright under her own strength, then stood and made his way over to the handler still lying limp on the pavement.

Sonnia took one last look at the living child before whisking the flames away. "We'll backtrack, then. Come with us...Hoffman?" She stood and snapped her fingers in front of his face, and he started. "Hoffman. Fire 'tranced you? We're going to backtrack along the trail, and I don't want that peacekeeper surprising me again."

"Yes," he muttered, "of course, I'll attend to the constructs..." He clacked over to Ryle without further intelligible words and shooed the child away. Sonnia looked at the child watching Hoffman in puzzlement, and then shrugged with the faintest of smiles again, which smile the child picked up on, and dared to return.

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The tiny teddy tore itself free of the snares, buffeting gluey mud in all directions, and its final lunge carried it all the way across the porch and inside. Marlena staggered under the assault, wiped off the worst of the mud with a mechanic's towel she stashed back inside one puffy sleeve, and followed.

She stopped between a column of books stinking of mold and an avalanche that had been its matching column when she left. Alyce was leaning over, inspecting one of the pieces of machinery that jutted from Leveticus' bare back. "Yeah, that didn't work." She scraped at the junction with a fingernail, and Marlena turned her head away. "Gross. It's not like, abomination bad, but it's not better either?...So I don't need to bother to read it--"

Leveticus didn't laugh. "If you're absolutely certain that I told you everything there was to know in that book, then you have no need to read it. Hand me that coat." The child didn't turn back until she heard him stop fussing with the buttons. "You should have rung the bell at the gate," he told Marlena, motioning towards the muddy mess she and the teddy were leaving. "Now, tell me what you've learned about the others."

"Oo, today we find out whether baby bimbos can learn!--"

"Alyce. She could have learned nothing at all, and still not done worse at her task than you did at yours." The inquisitive child's brilliant smile flitted across her face again, to hear Teacher scold Treasure. Alyce glared back before snatching a book, fanned open with a broken spine, from the top of the avalanche just beyond tiny teddy's reach. Leveticus watched it swat at her hand, and waited. Marlena realized she was expected to speak.

"I found lost children. They're like hollow ones--waifs. Like they would be, if they weren't cut off and--"

"Which ones are 'they'? Be precise."

"--The children are like waifs would be if they...if waifs weren't..." The inquisitive child groaned quietly and buried her head in both hands awhile. She began again. "If waifs had threads connected to the world, and still also had threads connected to you, then they would be like lost children."

He made a noncommittal noise. "That doesn't distinguish any lost child from you."

"We're not connected!" Treasure stopped pretending to read long enough to leer at Marlena and hold up a finger to her lips for silence, and then point at the book. The inquisitive child gritted her teeth together to bite back a retort. "The lost children. Have masters. Her thread said so."

Leveticus said nothing, moved no muscles. Marlena winced. He had laid a finger on the aetheric thread in question, which tethered her to tiny teddy. "That--one--," she muttered, clenching her jaws against the feeling. "Lost children--it goes--to masters. Waifs--to you. I'm--not--stop--" She snatched at the air in front of her, fumbling against the thread of loathing, the thread of guardianship, the loneliness, the pity....Alyce folded the book double against its broken spine and stared, one side of her mouth frowning.  "Stop--Teacher--"

Something dragged her hand to touch the thread of inadequacy, and she found Teacher attached to the other end of it, disappointed. She thrust him away, but staggered back herself, reeling into tiny teddy's outstretched arms.

"You shouldn't fight it," he said, unperturbed.

To Marlena's surprise, Alyce slammed the book onto the pile and shouted back, "To hell with that!"

"Then you will have to learn all your weapons, Alyce," he replied, and nodded again at the book. She glowered, but snatched it up again and bothered to find the same page she was pretending to read earlier. "Marlena, you should not have manipulated her thread in public. It leaves you vulnerable."

The inquisitive child pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. "I had to. She copied my magic. I had to know."

"Ah..." Teacher betrayed no surprise, but he was not further scolding her. "Did she try to accept you as her master?"

"How did you know that?!"

"The masters of soulstone--Alyce, now is not the time for reading--cannot seek out children. Even Hamelin can only call to the children and hope that they answer. The children are drawn to them, and copy their master through sheer force of will. You do not have the will to be either a master or a child, Marlena. Neither do you, Alyce." Alyce's eyes glittered, momentarily, before tiny teddy stepped between her and the inquisitive child. Leveticus went on. "What else did she tell you?"

"Nothing important," lied Marlena. "We didn't have time to talk. A lady with a sword came--she unmakes abominations! I could feel it untangling the threads."

"Abominations, specifically?" he clarified. "Not a ward against constructs, not against aetheric manipulation?" She nodded. "And yet she was Guild?" She gulped, and nodded again, but Teacher did not begin another lecture. Instead he let his eyes roam around the shop, empty except for the three of them and tiny teddy. "Alyce," he said at last, and Treasure pretended to be lost in reading, "I'll mind the shop while you both nap. We'll be breaking curfew tonight, and the Guild and I will both be disappointed if you yawn too frequently."

She slid to her feet with an elaborate stretch and yawn, and left Leveticus alone in the room, examining a series of gauntlets with palms worn to a gloss by the hilts of swords.

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  • 1 month later...

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.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Marlena listened to the scraping, like blades being honed, as a construct set its feet down among the grit and unstable masonry just beyond the hill’s crest. Alyce, lying flat to peer over the hilltop, grinned, cupped a hand behind her ear in pantomime and pointed off to one side. The inquisitive child strained her ears, but she needn’t have bothered. Leather boots beyond the hilltop screeched as they slipped, and they all heard the fall.

“Hell,” came the heartfelt word from the unseen, female walker. A male voice murmured, and the human footsteps steadied. Alyce’s fingers flashed signals downhill to where Leveticus lay in wait.

Marlena felt Leveticus lay his own fingers on the threads: that which lay between him and the construct’s hollow heart he augmented, and that which flowed from the construct through the other walkers and into an amorphous mass, he desiccated and broke. Alyce stifled a giggle in her elbow at the cries of alarm. The peacekeeper crested the hill, shuffled and turned, then backed behind an outcropping, pointing the harpoon mount back the way it had come.

“Fantastic! It’s still malfunctioning,” snapped the female voice. “I’m through with that walking dustbin. Ukskarav, you’re my spotter—Ortega, you’re my alibi.” Under cover of the male voice answering and laughing, Leveticus melted uphill without a sound. He reappeared near the peacekeeper, sloughing undead flesh from his forearms, and gestured as though to pull on gloves.

Of course, both girls noticed as the first stalker clambered over the crest and found itself face to face with Leveticus, he hadn’t followed his own edict. He reached his bared hand into the depths of the hood and extracted a charred human head sprouting abomination’s tendrils, but he winced while dragging it into the light. He mouthed something inaudible, and held it at arm’s length.

Sonnia appeared at the top of the hill at last, not without one final skidding footstep. The hand which had grasped masonry for balance moments ago instead flew to her sword’s hilt.

Teacher raised his voice. “Well?”

“Looks like it used to be the same guy,” answered Alyce.

“That’s not the right sword,” answered Marlena, at the same time.

Sonnia also started to answer at the same time, but when the girls spoke changed it to “Hand her over, we have a warrant.”

Leveticus tapped his unoccupied index finger to his cheek. “Composure, Sonnia, you haven’t relearned it…”

Her face contorted. “Don’t lecture me. I might have let you walk away from the outstanding warrants we have out on you—how do you judge that, Ukskarav?” She swept one hand across the hilltop, encompassing the peacekeeper and Leveticus and the girls.

The witchling handler crossed the crest of the hill just as Alyce slithered across and out of the child’s view. Like her master, once she glanced at the scene she reached for her sword. “Two mistakes,” she rumbled, and drew the blade with its runes already alight. It whirled over her head, the colors of the rune-light reflected in her hair of copper beginning to float in the static electricity. Marlena felt weird inside, like her threads were trying to float apart too, but tiny teddy crept up behind her and squeezed her back together with a bear hug.

Gunfire erupted from the far side of the hill, the pings and shouts sounding muffled next to Alyce’s unrestrained giggling.

“You’re counting the construction of that handler as one, yes?” he inquired, sidling closer to Sonnia.

Sonnia’s blade whipped through the circles of light from the handler’s sword, pulling down not electricity but flame. It sheared through Leveticus’ upraised arm, and the fire took him. As it fell the abomination seized the stump of Leveticus’s hand and fused it onto its conduit coils; Leveticus’ flesh transmuted to ash and fell away to reveal a newborn stalker’s sword scars; the ash cloud expanded in all directions, engulfed something just out of the child’s vision, and flowed back over the hilltop as a second abomination.

Sonnia swore and stamped down at the head-and-hand abomination. “You—will—undo—what you have done, witch!” she snarled at her newborn stalker, held at sword’s point. “NOW!”

Both stalker and abomination born of Teacher’s demise grappled, burnt skin seeping fresh lymph against skin dried and dead for centuries. One by one the abomination’s splayed ribs were bent back into their proper orientation, a construct pump twitched and glowed and transmuted to a living heart, and the second stalker stood reformed before the Leveticus-stalker.

Tiny teddy pushed Marlena to the ground and stood over her, growling: the handler had ignored the previous fights and crept closer, and now Marlena again lay under her gaze, the sword which unmade abominations upraised….

Yet another bit of Alyce’s suppressing fire zipped through the air over Marlena and struck the Leveticus-stalker in the chest. Heat, instead of ash, radiated out from that death.

The inquisitive child was unsurprised to hear Leveticus then continue the conversation from another part of the hill. “It’s juvenile, making me itch like that,” he remarked, and impassive Miss Eastman wrinkled her nose. Marlena guessed the handler hadn’t ever seen him scratching himself before. “Indicates a flaw in the design, which I’d be willing to look into on commission.”

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The next morning, Hoffman found a terse note tacked to the door of his office:

Your problem now

He unpinned the flimsy paper and turned it over, smudging his fingers with carbon, and read the serial number of the peacekeeper which had assaulted Sonnia the day before, above a scribbled “rec'd” and below a printed diagram of streets near the river.


Just before sunrise, Sonnia had jolted herself awake, her elbow sliding off the edge of the overstuffed armchair. She blinked, scanned the room and the piles on every surface. If there were any other chairs they were buried under junk, but then where had Francisco gone?

“Outside, on the porch.”

Sonnia leaped free from the chair, facing Leveticus who had just appeared from an inner doorway.

“Stretched out across my doorsill, no less. I have my protections, you know, he shouldn’t have. One of mine was patrolling and he cut it in two. I wouldn’t even swear that he fully woke up to do it.” Leveticus paused. “Best to let them sleep. I’m sure Alyce will be sleeping until midday.”

Sonnia waved the threat aside. “The handler, what about her?”

“Miss Eastman vows she doesn’t sleep either. Curious. So easy to disprove, and yet…” He beckoned Sonnia and melted back into the other room.

She followed, and found the handler lying on her back on a gurney, eyes closed, in the midst of a less cluttered but far more filthy room. On a separate table lay her sword. Clips and twisted wires attached to the sword’s individual runes, and to Miss Eastman’s copper hair bound into a ponytail, and to a hollow in her bared torso which ran up and under her ribs, bloodless. Sonnia dry-heaved to see the ribs and their muscle rise and fall, and yet also to see straight through to the musculature of the spine.

“You and Justice both,” he said, aside, and rapped his knuckles on the wall. “I’d like to keep her. For observation. If you permit it, of course. She is yours.”

“...It should have stayed in the book…” she croaked, still staring at the handler.

“Who are we to judge,”—she looked away from the gurney too late, and missed Leveticus’ smirk—“whether or not they wanted it.”

Sonnia was glad the mask was gone, then. But he didn’t recoil, as most people did when she let her anger show.

“Did you ever ask her, I wonder,” he nodded at the gurney, “what exactly she wanted, before she went under the Guild’s knife? I do. Marlena?”

In the doorway stood the inquisitive child, with the shadow of something rotund standing just behind her. Sonnia examined her nose, her pointed chin. Yes, this was the girl of the memories in flame. Dark brunette, then, and dark brown eyes behind glasses. The child stared at them both, then turned partly away but kept her gaze on them. It was a snub, and in Sonnia’s estimation a strange one from a child. She was brittle, this Marlena. Sonnia nodded once, relieved. Brittle things broke, and if she broke quickly enough a control collar would be sufficient. The child might be preserved—

“Ask her yourself. Sonnia Criid, this is Marlena, of no fixed address that she’s willing to tell me. Marlena, the lady on the gurney is known as Miss Eastman. Miss Eastman, Miss Webster.” The child shifted her gaze to the sword on the table beyond. Sonnia watched her clench her fists despite the lumpy oven mitts she’d chosen to wear, and wondered. “Marlena, this woman is Sonnia Criid of the Guild Enclave, master of the witch hunters: comport yourself as you would in public. In your own words, Sonnia?”

Sonnia folded the aether around her into a invisible defensive shell. “You evaded our patrols at the train station. That is...worrying. You will come with us, and we’ll finish what we began.”

The inquisitive child shook her head. “What did you do to him?” She scowled at Leveticus and gave him another sidelong glare.

Sonnia rolled her eyes. “Nothing permanent. Unfortunately.”

“Again, Marlena.”

She flapped her mitts around as though to grab the floating idea. “Ok, what’d you make out of him?” she blurted.

“He made it out of himself. Magic goes sour, in Malifaux. When it sours in the vessel, the vessel becomes a witchling. Especially acid ones,” she copied Marlena’s sidelong glare at Leveticus, and winked, “become stalkers.”

The wink didn’t work. “Stalkers. Like on the train.”

“Yes…”

“You tried to kill me?!”

“No! No. We want you to be safe—“

“You tried to kill me!”

“We heard you the first time, Marlena,” Leveticus murmured, raising his voice over the sounds of the handler stirring.

“You tried—“ she started to say a third time, but stopped herself, and instead screamed, “Teddy! Help!!!”

The inquisitive child ran straight at Sonnia, catching her off-guard. She lunged downward with both hands to intercept Marlena, but instead caught a double armful of fluff and fangs. Marlena darted around Sonnia and the end of the gurney, grabbing for the handler’s sword moments before Miss Eastman did. The sword slid out of her mitts and clattered to the floor trailing wires, and when the handler rolled onto her side to reach it, Leveticus yanked on her ponytail and dragged her out of its reach.

Francisco burst into the room swearing, shoved the gurney until it rolled into the far wall taking the handler and Leveticus with it, scooped up Sonnia and whirled her out the door. Sonnia froze: Alyce stood before her in the outer room, arms extended.

Alyce yawned from ear to ear. Her eyelids nearly shut along with her mouth. Sonnia tried not to let her eyes lead Alyce’s to the gun, even though the hundred pinpricks wandering over her shin were beginning to worry her.

“Stupid teddy woke me up,” Alyce mumbled, solving that mystery. “Can’t I just kill it?”

“He won’t let you,” came Marlena’s answer from beyond the rest of the melee.

“I won’t let you,” Leveticus echoed. “Alyce, Sonnia was just about to leave. However, the peacekeeper has developed an inoperable flaw and must be left here.”

Alyce yawned again, this time with a contemptuous curl of the lip, but stood aside. The handler tucked her shirt back into place, hiding her hollow torso, and took Francisco’s hand as she stood. “We leave her?”

Sonnia answered from the other room. “...We have to.”

“I was not strong enough?”

“No.”

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One open interview room, for the convenience of mundane staffers, had been pockmarked with permanent binding circles. Sonnia waited for one holding a female with nephilim talons to be vacated, then waved the handler across the border and to the chair. She took the seat facing her, with a desk attached to its arm.

“Not using your own?” asked the handler, eyeing the etchings.

“The ones you helped design? Not for this, Ukskarav.” Sonnia laid the handler’s own sword across her chair’s arm and traced the first of its runes in the air before her. The handler let the fiery tracings land on her skin one by one, and Sonnia watched her.

The final rune of ‘amalgamation’ extinguished. “You’re clean,” Sonnia confirmed, tossing the sword crosswise across the barrier. The handler caught and sheathed it. “Don’t trust him, never have, never will. So, debriefing: what did he ask, what did he do, what did you see.”

Miss Eastman paused often. “He does to the sword—I do not know what. He does not change it, he does not use it. He does not touch it with his hands. The girls, him, they all cover their hands to touch the sword.” Sonnia started to interrupt, shook herself silent. The handler went on, “The girls watch a little, he makes them read all the runes and say them, they go to the next room. I think the big girl sleeps. The small girl, she is like me, she does not. I do not have the sword, I cannot follow her spirit. This is what I know, but—“

“Yes?”

“I think this. If you ask the big girl she will let you take away the small girl. Burn the teddy.”

Sonnia blinked at the non-sequitur. “Burn it, you say?”

“The teddy is small girl’s abomination. Not Neverborn. Abomination!” Miss Eastman rose to her feet without warning, flourishing her blade. “To him the hollow girls, to her the teddy. Burn it first! It holds her together.”

Sonnia reached her mind across the binding circle and ignited the aether clinging to the edges of the sword. The handler cried out, her hand locking ever tighter on the grip.

“As your sword holds you together. That much,” Sonnia added as the handler sank back down into the chair, “I understood. Ukskarav, if when the time comes you want to be let through the doorway I keep, and not to be returned to his division...”

“To keep still when I feel machine spirit move me. I know.” The handler bowed her head, clinking her copper hair.

 

Hoffman entered his private workstation, and disapproved. Against Ryle’s torso the re-opened wounds still cratered the skin around the scars Anna had carved (but no longer, he felt, was her signature among them), without bandages. Those, and the child supposed to reapply them, he found after a few minutes, fallen at Ryle’s feet. Two minutes after that, once his attendant arrived, he reached out through it and shook her awake with one of its manipulator arms.

“Child. I let you not do your work yesterday. But maintenance must be done every day. It doesn’t wait for you to be well.”

She let her head fall back to look up at Ryle, then dropped it again, and did not stand up.

“You were lively enough to take several constructs out of the workshop. Now, up.”

The child huddled herself into a lump. Hoffman looked at Ryle, who could pick up—no. If he chose to, he would. Instead he slipped the attendant’s arm under her chin, and raised it. She was nudged up to a sitting position, and he abandoned the attendant and looked away.

Soon he heard her sleeves rustle against her face. “Dun look,” she sniffled. He felt her lean on the attendant, and gave it a slight push to counter-balance. If it got her to her feet and back into her work faster, and the work helped her forget the shame of her weeping, what harm?


Marlena sat in her bed with her arms wrapped around tiny teddy, watching the late morning sunlight crawl down the wall. She shut her eyes, but the afterimage of Sonnia sprang up before her, and she snapped them open again.

She stood in front of me and told me she wanted to kill me!

Alyce flipped over and flailed at the coverlet, but that was no different than any other night. The inquisitive child had learned not even to try touching Treasure’s thread in sleep. Instead she sank her chin into the top of tiny teddy’s head, in a furrow between ridges of fluff.

And he let her say it. He called me in there to hear her say it!

Tiny teddy swatted a doll off of the bed. It landed with a squish, and a pattering of fluids. Doll’s needles clinked against abomination’s syringes, and another, wetter foulness squirted upward from the scuffle.

She didn’t even bother calling me Miss Marlena. She didn’t even know—

The abomination flung both halves of the doll back onto her bed, then scuttled sideways and vanished under Alyce’s. The inquisitive child didn’t notice. Her eyes had gone wide.

I wouldn’t have cared. If I met her outside, and she’d said I know your parents...I would have gone with her. And died! But he called me in. Teacher had to introduce me…

Marlena scowled and tried to pick her way through the steps of logic.

Sonnia didn’t know my name. But she knew where I was. Leveticus invited her in. He called me in, but she was not ready to kill me right away….

“That kid ratted me out!”

“Willashuddup,” mumbled Alyce, tugging the coverlet over her head.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Later that day Marlena followed the clink of small metal objects through the maze of piled goods and found Leveticus crouched under an outcropping of piled brass vessels, tossing miniature replicas of swords up from a verdigris-splotched urn into hanging baskets on either side of him.

“There you are,” he greeted her, “test all the right-handed ones.”

“Make Alyce do it,” Marlena countered, “I’ve got to go—“

“Alyce hasn’t got a right hand. Observe those.” He pointed, and she picked out a cross-hilted sliver of partly tarnished brass. “How was that key kept bright, if it was only touched by construct hands? Do you think they’re all self-lubricating? Think, Marlena.”

“...It’s a key?” She shifted her grip, reversed the sword and covered up the polished streaks on the blade.

“One of them is likely to be. Fetch all the crawling locked books with ‘amalgamation’ written on their spines. Put their eyes out with those until you find one which opens when you do, and do not wear gloves. You are to wield this sword, not avoid it—stop.”

The inquisitive child halted with one foot sticking out into a wider bit of the passageway where tiny teddy waited. “They’re hiding under her bed again. I told you, I’ve got to go.”

“In a hurry to find your doom at the enclave?” She scowled down at him, tossing the miniature sword back into its pile. “Everyone in here heard you shout, Marlena. Wait. That child will come to us. We have the peacekeeper, he needs a living assistant to reclaim it—“

She interrupted him, “The peacekeeper! What’d you do to it? When you cut its thread.”

“I believe you just answered your own question.”

“...Can I do that? Make them follow me.”

“Aren’t the dolls and the stuffed animal—you have no conception of how impossible that companion of yours is—enough toys for you?” Teacher flicked a final scrap of metal into the other basket and crawled backward, wincing when his flesh-and-blood hand took his weight. Marlena backed away, ducking under one of the waifs’ tethers as its distant wandering dragged its thread across her own. “You ought to smile more,” he grunted, standing and steadying himself.

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The inquisitive child jabbed yet another miniature sword into the crawling book. It leaked ichor again, but kept its covers clapped shut. The rag wrapped around her face fluffed outward with a sigh. She sneaked a glance to the back room where Treasure sat with another book, tormenting the abomination with left-handed stabs and Teacher with puns about cutting. He was pretending to read a third book, pinned open and wriggling on a lectern, but the child could see him flinch when Alyce shared a pun and then tested out ten variations on its wordplay.

The shop bell rang. Marlena saw the door stay open, but not who held it. Leveticus murmured; Alyce stopped in the middle of another remark and stabbed with unnecessary force.

After half a minute the inquisitive child couldn’t resist, let go of the crawling book, and thought protect me. Tiny teddy stepped out in front of her as she untied the damp rag and threaded her way to the door.

The constructs’ apprentice stood just outside, trembling, one toe barely propping the door open. When Marlena saw her, the child of Malifaux only relaxed enough to rest her weight on both feet. “H-h-hi,” she chattered, “can you, I’ve gotta…”

Tiny teddy stepped out to the porch, whisking the other child gently aside after Marlena. The door snapped shut, the bell jingled again, the child of Malifaux blanched and whimpered, and the inquisitive child frowned at the dark hollows under the other child’s eyes and cheekbones showing clear as a skull’s face.

Too clear. The inquisitive child lifted her fingers and sorted through the other child’s threads as the constructs’ apprentice found her voice. “I, I, I was sent to get back the peacekeeper, I got the paper,” there were her strongest threads of awe and of obedience and love, stretching far away to the heart of the city, “but you’re here, he’s not,” a thread of loneliness and devotion too, and it twisted back to Marlena herself, “we’ve got to go, now!”

Marlena plucked at the thread which drained the other child. “With your master? He’s Guild. I don’t want to.”

A different thread thrummed master. “‘Cause you’ve got to, and he’ll like you…” She felt the thread between them light up, like the one inside that fancy vacuum bulb in the pile of blown-glass curiosities. “And you’ve got to run, before you get hollowed out!!!”

Marlena touched the last thread, the thread of obedience, and felt the giant and its great cage brooding at the other end of it. “...But the witchlings want to kill me there, too.” She spun her fingertips in the wrong direction, and unraveled it. The child of Malifaux‘s expression softened, the urgency draining out of it, and Marlena felt a little smile of relief break out on her own face. The thread between them absorbed the energy from the unraveling thread of obedience, strengthened.

You ought to smile more…

The inquisitive child plucked at the thread which drained the other child, and her smile faltered. There was an abomination attached to the other girl’s soul. She snapped that thread with a jerk that wrenched her hand back and collided with her scar. Spirit flooded back into the constructs’ apprentice, tickling Marlena also and forcing out a giggle, and the child blinked eyes where pupils were beginning to re-form in the midst of the glowing color. “What’re you doing?!?”

“I told you. I was going to rescue you.” Marlena smiled, and broke the final tether between the constructs’ apprentice and the Guild.

Master! MASTER!!!

Marlena stumbled and clutched at tiny teddy as the other child collapsed and screeched. The child of Malifaux was snatching at her soul, the world was reeling just like—

She disbelieved her eyes, but there it was: in the space between them, a waif’s outline was beginning to coalesce. The constructs’ apprentice, still writhing on the porch, fumbled at her new thread leading into the waif and poured herself into it: protect her echoed from the waif, down the frail new tether, into Marlena. But the inquisitive child also witnessed the other threads, slipping out of the other child’s distracted grasp and fraying into aether.

Master!!!

“I’m not a master,” Marlena heard herself say, as the child’s cry died out without anything to anchor itself. The tethers among them all, too receptive, drained spirit out of the child’s husk.

The insubstantial waif turned and—the inquisitive child swore she did what no waif ever could, and focused on her. Then it did not, and was not.

The spirit of the child of Malifaux flooded the inquisitive child from both conduits, and for a moment Marlena knew everything about her and what she had known.

Then the feeling passed, and Marlena found herself slumped over tiny teddy, with one idea expanding to fill her mind.

I can do it to others. I don’t have to be connected to him. Maybe it has to be a master of soulstone. She turned her thoughts away from the body on the porch. But I can find someone else, and I can choose. I can get away.

Slowly a smile blossomed on Marlena’s face.

And once I get away, and find somewhere safe...then I can find you.

 

[End The Children’s Crusade.]

[Series 6 of the battle narratives: My Jade]

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