Saving Ourselves: Ch. 6: Escape


Dira Bae

The rest of the trip didn’t amount to much. Dira studiously kept himself from hitting his head again by sitting in the middle of the cart, tail curled around his legs where he had them crossed. He started to whistle before Noyo told him to cut it out. Since they were the ones exposed to any threats out in the smog, he did as he was told to shake things up for a change. Frankly, it was dull. He should be happy about that. No creatures in the smoke went after the carriages, meaning they were out of the path of any crystals that drew them in. That kind of luck on their exit would make this trek a fireside tale to boast about to the littles in Genoa. With some parts cleaned up for young ears, of course.

He conveniently forgot that fortune wasn’t one to smile his way.

First, it was in the whistle carried through the smoke. Noyo directed the horse towards it so sharply, even for the cart, that he moved closer to the slit.

“What? What is it?”

“Stay,” they commanded, hopping down from the driver’s spot and joining Loren—probably the whistler. That explained why he was banned from it or at least gave him a reason not to have his pride wounded.

“I’m tied up!” The reminder was senseless, maybe even eaten up in the heavy smog. His aura had pressed in close to the point where it barely covered his body. When he tested the door at the back, it rattled and stayed shut. So, locked. He could burn it open, then have Noyo mad at him and still nowhere to go. Dira settled back down facing the door and grumbled. “Stay, they say. It’s locked.”

They couldn’t stay still long. Not in conditions like this, no visibility and the risk of beasts anywhere. They could leave a carriage behind if it turned out they didn’t need it, though. It or the tied-up prisoner in the back. Voices outside got muffled in the smoke, so Dira couldn’t make out words. He pieced together that there weren’t many survivors, at least from who was talking, over the course of ten or so minutes. The situation didn’t sound sunny based on hissed whispers and people interrupting each other. What was bad for them probably wound up worse for Dira.

He exhaled and put his forehead against the wall of the cart. This time, he’d outdone himself.

The carriage door opened, and it didn’t get any brighter.

Loren’s aura kept most of the smog away, but hers didn’t even reach his. It stopped short of it—maybe two hand lengths away from one shimmering border to the next and shrinking. Her absent mask proved they’d only barely made it in time for that to run out, leaving only her charged tattoos to keep her safe from the smoke.

Anyone else leaning towards him with a dagger drawn wouldn’t catch Dira being still, and that wasn’t saying he wasn’t nervous. The elven fighter in her hid it well if she felt a fraction of the betrayal Noyo did. She had him free in two quick cuts and stepped back to give him space to get out.

“It’s Fekhi.”

“Who?” Dira shuffled out the open carriage, dropping to the packed dirt. A main street, it had to be. This was their city-state, and they knew where to find it even in the dark. Side streets wouldn’t have been so easy.

“Our mayor,” Loren kept her voice taut like a bow and led him with purposeful steps. For someone barely up to his shoulder, she had a way of looking in control. “She’s not well.”

Dira followed her, stretching his four arms out. Having them tied left an uneasy feeling with the stiffness and that took care of both. He could make out people in the aura of two ward generators, one glowing brighter than the other. Made sense, since a human Union mage was transferring the energy they’d harvested earlier into it. It moved in a slow, lazy arc with the usual orderliness that Union casting fostered. Why have beauty coursing through your magic when you could have predictable structure?

…Not that it was really the place or time to nitpick.

Noyo sat maskless with a couple townspeople, he figured, maybe farmers or builders. The human and elf on their right looked familiar with long days in the sun, based on hallmark weathered skin. There wasn’t much else to tell about two strangers lit only by the wards. He pulled his own useless mask off, then glanced where Noyo glared and found who he had to believe was Fekhi laying down on a battered bench.

Stepping closer, he saw midnight violet markings on her arms through the blood drying on her skin. Her own blood—he could see that with it also seeping through her shirt. Red hair clung to her clammy face, mostly serene from her being unconscious. Loren stood with him and looked down at their injured mayor with her shoulders squared. She was like Stefan that way, he guessed. Nothing determination couldn’t solve in that perspective of theirs. At least until you stood over someone bleeding out when help was all the way past the smog settled in over their city-state.

“Underplayed that, don’t you think?” Dira wouldn’t just describe her as ‘not well’. He’d need to learn what Loren actually meant with things like that, assuming Noyo decided later on that Dira deserved a speck of trust. He leaned in for a better look and didn’t like any of it. The worst of the damage was across her torso, and he spotted some grazed scrapes on her arms for good measure. “Whatever made you think I can help her, it’s not true.”

Dwarves were strong, not fast. Most of them leaned on endurance too much because of it. Fekhi got caught by surprise with a creature sometime in all this and she didn’t die right away, but she didn’t have good odds of living either. He shook his head, flicking his tail impatiently, and the handful of townspeople there took that for what it was: Their mayor wasn’t likely to make it. If they stayed much longer, no one would.

“You can sense the energy.” Noyo spoke up, standing and challenging him to lie with a firm glare. Everyone huddled in the aura—except for Loren and the Union mage—were briefly more concerned about them than the crushing smoke. “How bad is it?”

In other words, should Fekhi be left behind? Dira examined her again and frowned. Abandoned, she would die. There were better ways to be shuffled off this plane and not many worse. His connection to the crystal energy afforded him some privileges, he’d say. Immunity from the blatantly eavesdropping mage didn’t feature on the list. If he gave Noyo an honest answer, he’d be inviting extra attention from a group of people who just captured him earlier that day and had a presence in every city-state within their sphere of toxic smog.

Then again, they’d done the same to Noyo and Loren.

Dira took a short breath in, held it, and let it out with a nod. Moving red hair aside to her forehead, he checked the markings encroaching on her temple. Stage one became stage two in the mind. Those wisping stains on her skin, disappearing past her hairline, put Fekhi right in the middle of that part of a three-stage transformation. He could blame the dense smoke for a very rushed infection that would make her into one of those monsters, but even that couldn’t make a weeklong process into a matter of hours.

“Wait, it—” He stepped aside to let the glow of the energy transfer shine better on her. The first tank had filled up, so the Union mage moved onto the other one loaded into a wheelbarrow at an unsettling angle. Dira had no idea if that affected how it worked. It did, however, point the light of that glowing magic right where it was needed. The marks branched out towards her eye and down her cheek. “It’s still spreading.”

“It can’t. She’s not in the smoke,” Loren observed for anyone who couldn’t see that much on their own. Ah, to be young.

“What’s that mean?” Noyo refocused the conversation for Dira since he was busy scooping Fekhi into his arms and moving her closer to the light.

“You were at the capital when it fell,” he pointed out to Noyo as the two of them walked on opposite sides of him. “No number of years makes you forget what this means.”

“Who said I—”

“I was too, so,” Dira cut the latest bad evasion off and ignored the Union mage squinting at their combined intrusion on his workspace. “One alike is one recognized.”

“I wasn’t!” Loren insisted on an explanation. She really was a kid of the Howards. Distantly, Dira wondered if they were all so adamant on being in the mix.

“She’s becoming one of those creatures,” Noyo said, wasting not one second on doing away with the widely accepted social standard of not talking about that. Everyone knew but who wanted to chat about it? Yes, most missing people from the capital were now trying to kill anyone who survived the first appearance of the smoke. Plus a few unlucky additions from runners caught in the smog with compromised barriers—which turned to none if you weren’t careful. The subject was unpopular and touchy.

Unless you were Noyo in an emergency. They did the hard part for him, that was a start.

“And these are making her change faster, smoke or not.” In the glow, he pointed to the black-violet substance in the cuts on Fekhi’s arms. “A safe Union outpost could save her. Maybe,” he corrected in the seconds-too-late hindsight that this was their mayor in his arms, “if they know anything about this.”

“You are very well-informed,” the mage interrupted, flicking off a few sparks of magical energy after the transfer had finished. Dira had to admit he looked ominous that way as the dark closed back in.

“Everyone,” Noyo started and stepped between him and the mage, “get into the carriages. Loren, get the other tank.” They lifted the one from the wheelbarrow and met Dira with a look that didn’t suggest a sprawling distrust. “Get Fekhi into a carriage.”

He followed Loren to her cart, passing the Brooks Mills mayor to one of the townspeople who’d been sitting with Noyo before. The elf was stronger than his cut build looked. They shared a nod before Dira doubled back to Noyo’s carriage, where he was captive before, and joined them at the front. Unfortunately, he knew from who wasn’t with Loren’s group that the Union mage decided to keep close by climbing into this one. With the extra weight of four arms and a tail, Dira didn’t have a choice but to go with Noyo or slow down the other carriage—a death sentence to everyone on it.

“Keyah!” Noyo gave the command, and the horse broke into a canter. Faster could hurt it and lose Loren, possibly, all while drawing attention. Slower would mean Fekhi died for certain (or worse).

They weren’t moving long before he felt it: a sensation of being watched blended with the impulse to duck or hide. Neither would help. Dira curled his tail around himself, winding down his leg as an empty comfort. The denser smog behind them roiled deep in its mottled violet shroud.

“Out of time again.” The warning came across different then as opposed to saving Loren from their first attackers. Probably because these ones often had talons and no problem using them on less sturdy folks than Fekhi.

“How can you see—” The man inside the cart had reached incredulity at last, almost shouting from behind the barred window behind the driver’s bench.

“I don’t see it,” Noyo agreed, never mind that they could only risk a scant glance. Not being able to see too far ahead into the thinner smoke was no excuse not to look at all.

“We’re not missing much.” A beast of the smog was fascinating from a distance and in a scholarly way, what with most of them being distinct from each other in the little touches. Not so interesting was when it had every intent to infect your person to become one of its kind. Sensing it in the smoke by the same way crystals resonated with him, Dira could tell it was drawing up in the center. Whichever cart was a better mark first would catch its claws.

“Can it catch us?”

“It’ll try,” Raising all four hands, Dira cast the spell to cloak their carriage and followed his ability to focus on Fekhi’s infection to aim when he cloaked Loren’s cart too. Her spreading contamination was dulled next to the creatures and crystals, but it was enough to direct his concealing spell. One set of palms faced their friends out in the dark while the other was angled a tad awkwardly back at their own carriage.

“You can hold that?”

“Long enough.” He regretted that headache from fainting and hitting his head earlier. Twice. Chiali had larger reservoirs of magic to draw on, yes. Everything had a cost anyway. They weren’t any different from other mages like that. He’d be hungry and tired with sore arms, and in for a questioning with Noyo and Loren no matter what spells he held for however long.

They only needed to clear the thicker smoke trapped into the mountain range’s valley before he could drop the protective spellcasting. Then, in a runners’ haven with charged sigils engraved into the stones underfoot, they could wear him down with endless interrogation.

“I will take over if you fall.” The mage from the carriage decided to contribute to the escape from Brook Mills, however backhandedly.

Dira rolled his eyes for his own sake.

“Astoundingly generous of you.”


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 5: Honesty


Dira Bae

At the edge of his consciousness, Dira felt a motion like a carriage rocking. The paths surrounding the forest were all beaten down by people instead of paving, after all. He shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when they hit a ditch and he slammed his against the wooden wall. He groaned and reached up to rub at the sore spot only to find both hands came up. Because they were tied together at the wrist. The same went for the second set of arms, and the only reason his feet were free was probably because they ran out of rope.

“You deserved that.” Noyo’s voice came from a sliver at the top of the carriage near where the driver sat. At least this driver talked to him, not like the last time he was kidnapped. Earlier that same day. Did it count for something that it seemed personal with his current captor? Dira doubted that.

Distrust was a survival tool for Noyo, no different than a magic staff or armor. He never even got the opportunity to fumble and break that trust himself before he was written off. But he could see there was more to it than he caught at first glance. Most people were like picture books without words. Enough guessing, and you could figure the rough outline of their story.

To start with, Noyo probably went by ‘they’ from that ambiguous elven haircut, woman’s shirt, and man’s coat. He wasn’t in a good spot to ask. Dark elf culture held the identity of the spirit above the limits of a physical vessel, so it would have been plenty acceptable for them to identify that way. All the exact beliefs around that concept differed from dark elves to the chiali like Dira, but they were the same at heart. Noyo also had to be one of the few and damaged Garres City survivors with a shrewd mentality like theirs. It was honest fact that anyone could be cunning, no catalyst of a world-altering disaster needed. You did lose that one-of-a-kind shared trauma if you were naturally sharp, though. The two of them might have found other tragedies to bond over if Noyo didn’t commit to suspecting him of anything they could get to stick.

He was prepared to gripe about that. Ignoring the ache spreading across his head, Dira slid along the cart’s floor to be closer to the window slot. It wasn’t that far from him on account of his height. He could see the braid meeting in a thin ponytail at the back of Noyo’s head and some of the thick smoke past their protective ward.

“Because you don’t like me? Seems harsh.”

“You knew you’d react like that to the harvest,” they presented a point, although not an especially good one.

“If I knew I’d fall on poor Loren and then some ferns, I wouldn’t have stayed,” Dira explained and threw his hands up in exasperation, knowing it was wasted. They couldn’t see him but could possibly hear his frustration. Maybe that was enough to rile them up? Even he didn’t believe that. Tapping his knuckles on the cart’s back wall, he tried for it anyway. “That was your doing, while we’re on about this.”

“You knew Loren’s brother, Stefan.” Noyo’s continued argument was as blunt as ever. They weren’t taking any of the reasons he gave to dislike him, just the ones that weren’t on offer. Dira clicked his tongue and sighed. If only Noyo would let themselves be distracted from his… unique condition.

He felt a pitch in the cart floor that suggested a western turn deeper into the dense smog and towards Brook Mills at the heart of it. So the plan was unchanged since he passed out, and that gave Dira something to work with. They had to find who or what still existed from their home city-state in order to be rescued and rescue them right back. The ward sigils for Loren and Noyo wouldn’t have lasted the distance to any other city-state.

“Ah, that’s a restrainable offense.”

“We shall see once I have the truth about both.”

Dira nodded to himself in the cart, familiar with this stunt of implying he wouldn’t be released until he gave them what they wanted. It happened from time to time. But it was hard to buy when there was a sweet sapling like Loren in tow. He couldn’t imagine her being so mad that she’d agree to using force or anything too messy to get answers. Could be that Noyo meant to wait him out and see if he tried to escape, giving them a reason to break out those darker tactics.

Better for Noyo not to know he could untie himself in that case. His tail was dexterous enough that he could manage, even if it took a while thanks to the hair along it, the dark, and the pitted road. If he did get the ropes loose right then, there was nowhere to go. The narrow windows in the cart walls showed only heavy smog on all sides. With his smaller aura of safety, some of it got into the carriage to claw at the glowing border of it. Dira had less of plan than they did.

He learned from hitting his head before and stopped himself from resting against the wall before turning to the sliver where Noyo sat.

“I didn’t know they were related, Noyo. Promise.”

The glare over their shoulder was immediate, and he wondered for a moment if they were watching the road ahead. Then he remembered there wasn’t much to see in the shroud.

“How did you know my name?”

“Loren used it after we killed those Union mages.” If there was one pattern Dira had memorized, it was that giving honest answers whenever you could made it easier to slip lies through like contraband nestled in with daily essentials.

“And she gave you hers.” He wasn’t being asked. Noyo was barely speaking to him, facing forward again with a frown in their tone. Dira waited for some kind of sign that they realized their mistake in making that assumption and when he got none, he held to his idea of being truthful.

“You did.” Silence as a response for his trouble came as less of a shock. He stood on shaky feet, moving to one thin slot on the side and tried to look for another barrier in the swirling smoke. Loren had to steer the other cart with him tied up in the back of this one. There was no leaving it behind if they wanted to help the Brook Mills survivors, and she wasn’t up with Noyo. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see by squinting into the inky black-violet abyss outside that seemed to move with intent. Dira braced against the rocking of the carriage and looked to Noyo before asking what he had on his mind. “Is she upset?”

“Don’t.” That harsh edge marked the single word as a firm warning. Sometimes, he could press those. Now wasn’t one of those chances. Dira sat down and moved to the center with legs crossed to wait instead. “You got what you were after. We’re stuck with you for now.”

He had to scoff and shrug in real disbelief at that. Noyo was direly overestimating how much time he spent scheming against two people he’d never met before. “You think I, what, planned this?”

“The alternative is that you met us by coincidence.” Noyo was quiet for a beat while the cart tilted at an angle. They were on a hill leading down into the valley where the city-state would be. If they found the barrier generators quickly, with villagers huddled up by it or not, they were saved. If not… Maybe Noyo was paying attention when Union mages recharged sigils and could use their abandoned tools. A Union outpost was easier to find in a city-state than a dead generator. Perhaps they wouldn’t die out there. “That answer it for you?”

The plan had changed slightly in that sense. Dira would stay tied up while they did what they had to at Brook Mills and took anyone they could to safety with the newly charged generators. Ideally. The next stop had to be finding refuge in Genoa Falls, since there weren’t many other city-states in range of what they harvested into the tank. When something did go wrong between Brook Mills and Genoa, all four of his hands were literally tied.

“Lovely.”


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 4: Harvest


Loren Howard

With the carts and horses left near the edge of the woods, all of them were forced to slow down in the forested terrain. Sound rarely startled creatures out in the smog, but the same couldn’t be said of motion. The trees were neither tall nor thick and not effective at hiding runners after the guarded crystal.

Thick curls of purple-black smoke wisped away from the gleaming edges of her barrier, and she could make out the outlines of Noyo’s warded sphere to the left easily. To see Dira on her right required her to focus. For now, she needed her attention on the path ahead. Some ferns persisted growing through the darkness, but nothing she had to worry about getting caught on. No, her concern was for any beast of the smoke she encountered. It would need to be defeated promptly before alerting any others. Rolling her steps from heel to toe over formerly cleared paths, Loren scanned through the dense darkness for their distorted figures.

The empty tank on her back remained steady through every fallen branch and careful step. The Union designed it to be compact enough not to be jostled when nearly anyone carried it. Had it been full, they’d have been saved the time and the detour… But griping to herself about it wouldn’t make either of those attainable. Keeping pace with the outline of Noyo’s barrier, Loren pushed on to the crystal site Dira reported ahead. Not too deep in the forest—or so he claimed. She’d yet to even sense it.

Instead, a dampening feeling rolled in from her left, recognized shortly as Noyo’s cloaking spell, and tipped Loren off to a creature’s approach. These beasts weren’t entirely consistent beyond their unsettling appearances, with discolored skin that glimmered unnaturally if any light managed to shine on them. She couldn’t see it fully between the trees and smoke, but a flat clawed foot did appear through swirls of darkness. The equivalent of its knee must have been eye level for her. Angling her shield upward, Loren pulled her sword closer to the edge and advanced. This creature would have incredible reach but being a smaller target would give her mobility.

A low hiss followed, and another foot slammed down on her shield. Before claws could curl around the edge and fling either her or the shield away, Loren swept her shortsword in an inward arc towards its limb. It was impossible to tell how deeply she cut it when it yanked that foot back, yet the surreal groan and wet slop of its blood gave enough away. Two bolts of lightning from above the beast made it drop and lay still in the heavy smog.

Had to be Dira.

“Look at us go,” he confirmed his involvement, not that it was necessary. He might be able to cast two spells at once with four arms but Noyo had no such ability.

Mages could coordinate easier with their practiced sensitivity to magic, or so the Union said, and Loren was glad that worked here. It may very well be the only way Noyo and Dira would cooperate smoothly.

Turning around a left corner through a narrow clearing in the forest, the faint thrum of the crystal that Dira mentioned finally reached Loren. He must have been incredibly attuned to such things, to have felt it only by passing near the woods before. Its soft tone didn’t prepare her how it resonated in her chest as if the vibration displaced everything else. To the crystal, her torso was a cavern waiting only to hold its echo. The feeling was jarring, and no amount of description would do it justice. Loren took a steady breath and another step even so. Being nothing but a sound, it still weighed on the air and seemed to resist her proceeding down the path.

“I hear it up ahead,” she shared in a loud whisper. The crystal’s guardians weren’t often reactive enough to hear speech, but there no sense in risking it.

“Good,” Noyo said in the smoke. “Trust your senses.”

Dira was oddly silent.

“Dira?”

Another crackle of lightning broke through the smog, but it was dim. He was cloaking his own fight, then… Loren had only taken two steps in his direction when Noyo stopped her.

“He’ll handle it.”

Of course they could foresee her initial thoughts to go and help. And Noyo was right to stop Loren. He was a runner himself and plenty capable of fighting alone. An odd trait, since all runners she ever knew were on teams. Noyo’s theory that he wasn’t one at all seemed more plausible than ever. It still meant he didn’t need her to rescue him.

She would wait regardless. Loren scanned the smoke for the smaller outline of his barrier, waiting for his cloaking spell to drop and show he was alright. They only lasted for so long. That time had to be even shorter with his magic divided. It was a tense wait that let her imagination create scenarios for what might be happening where he was. So she smiled behind her mask when that barrier did return, faint but glittering in the dense, dark fog.

“What’s the hold up?”

“Oh, I’m waiting on a teammate.” Loren teased, glancing to Noyo moving ahead of them. They did prefer to scout ahead and report back if needed. Noyo made thinking ahead look effortless.

“Heh.” Dira started walking, his barrier moving ahead and arching in toward the crystal and their meeting point. She kept pace with him, just in case. “Aren’t you sweet?”

They arrived at the clearing holding the crystal together. It loomed over Noyo and Dira both, and here, the thrumming had all but vanished. She did wonder why the crystals themselves, buried in the earth and standing taller than a shed, were the source of repellant energy while not warding off smoke effectively themselves. It was thinner, that much she had to admit, but shouldn’t it have been pushed back to some extent? Why did filtering it through sigils and barrier generators make it so much more powerful? All answers her brother would know, if she could have asked him. Loren got the feeling the Union would not be willing to explain it to a non-mage on the grounds of curiosity. Especially not since they apparently had factions within that were kidnapping runners that strayed from their team.

“Loren,” Noyo ordered, hands outstretched for the tank on her back.

“Yes,” she answered and slipped her shoulders from the straps. She’d only just passed it to Noyo when Dira took a few steps back towards the smoke and the woods. His tail flicked back and forth, swirling the fog in its wake.

“I’ll keep watch for—”

“You stay.”

True to form, Noyo didn’t wait for an answer. They twisted the valve on the tank that would automatically draw energy from the crystal into the tank.

“Guess I’m staying, then.” Dira glanced from Loren to the woods beyond, perhaps considering going out anyway. When he turned back to her with a nod, she was honestly relieved. He would be hard to find in the heavy smoke with his reduced barrier. Noyo might be comfortable leaving him to fend for himself but Loren wasn’t. Better that he stayed with them as long as they were in the wall of smog that had descended on Brook Mills and prompted the evacuation to other city-states in the first place.

Despite being magical, the tank was designed not to call on magical spells to function—in case the worst came to pass and the mage on a team of runners didn’t survive a run for supplies. As threads of light slowly flowed from the crystal and illuminated the meter on the tank to show its progress, Dira looked over his shoulder again.

“We’re safer together.”

“Hm?” He tensed when she spoke, his lower set of arms crossed tight. “Ah, right you are. Only habit, I guess.”

“Is there trouble?” Noyo stood by the crystal’s base, cast in its fading purple light. It looked more lilac as it was drained into the tank by their feet. For Loren, it made them look ominous with that critical gaze and waning glow. There was a distinct difference between Noyo’s disappointment and their distrust, and now Loren unfortunately knew it by appearance.

“None at all.” Dira forced that out and didn’t seem to notice their skepticism in the slightest. He looked quite preoccupied for someone standing still. His skin lost its color as they waited and he let out a shuddering breath through his nose, his mouth set in a thin line. The cloudy blue-grey tone of skin drained from his face to a pale grey. His freckles stood out unnervingly and as the tank reached three-quarters full, he wavered on his feet.

“Dira?” Loren walked over to stand in front of him, holding a bracing hand up for him to hold onto. He staggered forward instead, forcing her to clumsily catch him more than anything. “Noyo! I can’t—”

“’M fine,” he breathed, his head falling forward while she struggled to support him. He was too tall for this and with his tail and second set of arms too, Loren couldn’t quite figure out how best to keep him from falling over.

“Almost there,” Noyo promised, their hand resting on the valve. There was no point in sacrificing the crystal energy for Dira. Harvesting it would have to continue again later, and it would lead to this happening all over again. Whatever this even was. No mage was so attuned to crystals that they matched its state of being. He wasn’t dying, that was all she could tell. Although he was weakened and barely able to stand on his feet, his heart only beat faster.

“Out,” Dira muttered, “run, Stefan.”

Her brother’s name was not rare, exactly, but Loren lost her chance to ask what he meant when Dira slipped from her grip. He collapsed the rest of the way to the forest floor as the tank finished storing the crystalline energy.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 3: Pursuit


Mari

All the old streets leading into the capital held up better than she guessed they would. Back when the first wave of smog rolled out of Garres City, people scrambling to outrun it, Mari figured they were done for. Then the Union broke out all kinds of new devices in a blink, and people held on. They farmed with small magic sunlight lamps. Worked around the beasts hiding out in the smoke. Everyone moved on.

No one found a way to maintain the roads like they used to, though. So the brick and stone had moss growing in places, and sometimes they were chipped, but a carriage could usually go over them. New paths cropped up over the years, wearing away barely living grass and leaving dirt roads behind. You could take either if you had to keep to pathways.

Mari liked it more her way. Standing on a wide branch in some stubborn, leafless tree let her see farther out without being seen herself. Watching and learning was a good chunk of her work as a Union scout. The enchanted map back at the Kagtan base was always updating with information from every scout in the field, and it really showed in your recon area if you didn’t measure up. The goggles in recon masks could filter out some of the smog, but that only helped if Mari traveled away from the spots where everyone already looked.

Anywhere far from people had more creatures—a few wandered around below her tree as she scoped out the hilly terrain near the Genoa Falls city-state—but Mari would take them over people any day. Beasts, she got. They attacked people on sight and didn’t give up easy. Simple. She knew where she stood and what the stakes were. But people? Figuring out what they had in mind was beyond her most of the time. With some people, that was a blessing as far as she cared.

Just like that, the sigil burned into the leather of her shoulder holster pulsed instead of its steady purple glow. Both in the way it lit up and how it thrummed against her chest like a frantic bird. Couldn’t miss a message from the Union if she tried. Pressing three fingers to the emblem, Mari took a seat on the branch and answered like she’d been taught. “Mari, Genoa.”

“Congratulations, you’re on a new assignment.” The butter upon bacon sort, mages in the Union didn’t have to introduce themselves to most people. Anyway, the less any random scout knew, the better. “The Mills-Falls carriages are off course, headed right for a shroud. Their assigned harvesters are gone. Investigate and report.”

Mari shook her head at the thin, waving branches. Gone. That didn’t give her much of an idea of what she was walking into. “They dead?”

“Focus.” It wasn’t a request. Scouting would have to wait, and she’d go into the latest task as blind as a dwarven bird.

Did answer her question about going to look for them, though. They were on their own if they were alive at all. Anyone working with the Union was used to it, especially after these four years waiting for the Union to clear the smoke. Each New Year Festival passed quietly and the people out doing the work mattered less and less each time. Hard to tell if they were getting close or getting desperate.

Not that it was Mari’s job to find out which was which.

“Where’re they?” She had her map in a hidden pocket, but she didn’t want to pull it out when she knew whoever this was had to be staring right at it in Kagtan. Maybe if she was lucky, this conversation would drain her two-way sigil and give her some peace. It’s not like she could use it to call for help, obviously. She was on her own as much as the others.

“Towards the valley city-state, Brook Mills.”

“That’s in the thick of the shroud now. Why go there?”

All artisans and farmers lived out there, typically trading with Genoa. That meant some must’ve moved there before it got too bad. But who would be mad enough to go into a shroud? As far away as Mari was, she could still make out the denser, darker purple-black gloom over their city-state. Mountains to the north of Brook Mills only made it harder for smoke to spread out and spare anyone caught up in it. Even with a horse-drawn carriage, there wasn’t enough crystal energy to make a round trip.

“You’re the scout. Investigate and report.”

The pulsing light dimmed again to a flat glow. End of conversation, then. Mari tightened her bun and started her climb down from the tree.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 2: Journey


Loren Howard

Noyo held the reins and a steady scowl as the horse clopped along behind Dira’s carriage up ahead, guiding them to the crystal site for them to harvest for energy and bring home. At least they weren’t returning empty-handed that way and Loren could be less ashamed of her fumble. Once in a while, a piece of whatever Dira was whistling reached them but not enough to recognize. He was calm for someone obviously being watched after just escaping Union capture. Until they reached their destination, Loren was under strict orders to watch him closely and tell Noyo if she found anything suspicious or even curious. According to them, there was nothing too small to notice.

Loren would never tell them this, but no one who made it out the collapse of Garres City was ever quite right again. All the survivors had this intangible sort of haze that separated them from others. As if the world they lived in now was no more real to them than children’s tales and might dissolve at any moment. Some were jumpy and others resigned themselves. Noyo was prepared. They did not fear the world falling apart, only not being ready for it. They focused on the path ahead of the horse, waiting for Loren or maybe fate to reveal some key flaw in Dira that exposed him as an awful omen.

And maybe he was. But Loren didn’t believe that was so simple. This disaster brought out the best or worst in people, and how that fell depended on how they were received. If you treated someone like a threat, it only made sense that they would feel threatened. The right way forward was somewhere between Noyo and Loren, as her fathers told her countless times. Why else would the two of them do so well as a team? At least when Loren listened and didn’t get captured, standing around uselessly while a stranger pulled more weight than she did.

Frowning, she offered up her first discovery. “His aura’s too small.”

If Dira was a runner too, his protective aura against the smog should have been about half the size of their own. But she could barely make it out in the smoke that only thickened as they went towards the harvest site and beyond that, Brook Mills. With how dense the fog was, maybe it was better that they ended up doubling back after all. That felt less like an excuse for her messing up than it probably should have.

“It is,” Noyo agreed. “He must have just the mask.”

“You think he doesn’t have sigil tattoos?” She turned, her voice rising in disbelief. Leaving the barriers surrounding a city-state with only a mask and no back-up if anything happened wasn’t brave, it was crazy.

“Reckless,” they agreed again, resting back as the horses climbed a hill turning out of the woods and into the open plains characteristic of the area surrounding their home. Loren looked back ahead at the translucent glowing sphere surrounding where Dira sat on his own carriage. She squinted and tried to come up with any reason at all not to have both defenses in place, thinking of just one.

“Maybe he thought it was too painful.”

“And the leader of his city-state agreed to that?” Noyo shook their head once and with conviction. With the old government sealed on the safe side of the barrier, the people here made do with whoever took charge in all the chaos four years ago. For Brook Mills, that was Fekhi, and she’d never agree to a runner going on an energy harvest without sigils inked into their skin and charged up. It was unlikely anyone else would feel differently. Even the most annoyingly unfazed person had a use, after all. “He can’t just walk up and get charged tattoos from the Union when he’s an unsanctioned mage, but he can send someone else to restore the mask sigils.”

Loren twisted her expression one more time, confused from start to finish. What did the Union care if someone practiced magic outside of their ranks? His casting wasn’t orderly, but it was effective. Was it really worth denying someone warding sigils or else… What could they do? Looking back at the attempted kidnapping, or maybe worse if they didn’t get away, how far were the people in the Union willing to go? Stefan was a mage, but he’d never mentioned what happened if he left the Union. And Loren never asked.

“Why do that? Wouldn’t it be safer not to go out?”

“Excellent questions,” Noyo praised her honestly, offering a small one-sided smirk. A short-lived one as the topic went back to the stranger up ahead. “If he’s not an official runner for any city-state, there’s no reason to risk travel unless it’s personal, or he’s a liar.”


Read chapter 3


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