By M. Elizabeth Ticknor
This story is previously unpublished, but made Finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest for the 3rd quarter of 2017. I am thrilled to share it with the world; it will always hold a special place in my heart.
♦ ♦ ♦
Muffled cries echoed outside Cers’ hovel. The glow of torchlight bled through papered-up windows. Cers set down the armchair panel he’d been carving and snuffed the candle that illuminated the room. Perhaps the crowd would pass. Perhaps they weren’t here for him.
Something solid and heavy slammed against his front door. The building shuddered; dust drifted from the rafters.
Cers sighed. Of course they were here for him. Why else would they come this far out of town? He pushed aside his tools, stalked over to the door, and shoved it open. He had to duck in order to fit through the frame.
A mob of villagers circled his house, torches at the ready. They wielded everything from hammers to hatchets. No sickles, at least, and only two pitchforks. It could be worse.
Cers glowered at the villagers. He stood head and shoulders above everyone present, a wall of thick-corded muscle. He had abandoned his cloak and tunic earlier in the evening to keep them clean. For the first time since his arrival in Arrendville, the patchwork of arcane tattoos and stitched-together flesh that covered his body was visible to all. “What do you want?”
The villagers shrank under his gaze and clutched their makeshift weapons tighter. Only Rhonn, the blacksmith, proved resolute enough to speak. “You’re not welcome ’round here no more.” His voice cracked on the word ‘here’. He furrowed his sweat-covered brow and crossed his arms, desperate to recover his bluster.
“And why is that? I’ve done nothing wrong.” Cers scowled at each of the villagers in turn. Since his arrival three months ago, he’d built fences and raised barns. Hadn’t he contributed enough to the community to earn an explanation?
“You been scaring folk. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you just–you stare at people, sometimes. Normal people don’t stare like that. Just look at you! You’re a monster.” Rhonn withered under Cers’ glare. “I mean, you ain’t human, anyhow.”
Cers arched an eyebrow. “There are others in your village who aren’t human. Goodwife Ratched is havoctouched.”
“We know Goody Ratched. She’s the mayor’s mum! She’s been ’round since the town was founded. She don’t hide what she is, and she ain’t always been that way anyhow. You, we don’t know. You got to leave.”
Cers crossed his arms and looked the blacksmith directly in the eye. “And if I refuse, you intend to make me?”
“That’s–we–” Rhonn inched backward and glanced around at his fellows. They motioned for him to continue. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll make you.” His jaw twitched. “If we have to.”
Cers tilted his head to the side. “How?”
“How would you make me leave?”
“Well… I mean… it’s twenty against one, innit? And all of us armed.”
Good odds in most cases. Not this one. Cers studied the crowd with narrowed eyes. The Meridian War had ended five decades ago; these people had likely never seen a warspawned construct in their lives. They couldn’t possibly comprehend what they were pitting themselves against. Cers had been designed to operate as a sentient siege engine; none of the villagers’ weapons could do him lasting harm. It would be easy work to slaughter the lot of them.
Cers shook his head, disappointed he’d considered such a thing. Such dark thoughts were artifacts of his creator’s teachings. He had no desire to act on them. “Very well. I’ll go.” He gave Rhonn a pointed look. “Apologize to Goodwife Ratched for me. I didn’t have time to finish her chair.” He gathered woodworking tools into a sack, donned woolen traveling clothes, and set out on the road.
♦ ♦ ♦
Cers marched through the night. He decided on his destination by dawn: Rowan, the southern continent. Once little more than a cluster of volcanic islands, it had surged up from the ocean depths during the First Havocstorm.
A hundred leagues of ocean separated Rowan from the Valdian nations. Cers would have to travel by boat. He’d be trapped in close quarters with a hold full of people. The thought made his stomach churn. However, if he found a proper home, it would be a journey well-made.
Hoofbeats and the crunch of wagon wheels on fallen leaves echoed through the bloodwood oaks. Cers glanced over his shoulder and cringed. Five men rode up behind him, armed and armored; a sixth steered a wagon with a steel cage mounted on the bed.
The lead rider raised a hand in greeting. Cers gave a terse nod and stepped off the trail so the company could pass.
A muscular fellow reined his horse in next to Cers, his pauldrons emblazoned with House Oberion’s silver dove and the copper crossbow of the Hunter’s Guild. “Evening, friend. The name’s Burchard. Where are you headed?” His stiff posture and forced smile belied the calmness of his words.
Cers disliked the Hunter’s Guild. They policed Oberion as mercenaries and bounty hunters. He kept his stance loose and his hands open. “I’m traveling to Port Aelon, sir.”
Burchard let out a low whistle. “That’s quite a journey to make on foot. You’ve at least fifty leagues to go, yet.”
“I have no money for a horse.” In truth, Cers was too large to ride comfortably.
Burchard laughed. “Fair enough. My men and I are dropping off a bounty in Haverly. You can share the bench with Ewan until then.” He gestured to the wagon driver.
Cers shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but I will only slow your travels.”
“Not very social, are you?” Burchard sneered. “Quite frankly, friend, I don’t like the idea of letting someone your size out of my sight. What do you want with Port Aelon, anyway?”
Cers straightened his shoulders and scowled at Burchard. “That is none of your concern.”
“On the contrary, friend. You’re traveling on my lord’s highway. It’s my job to police that highway. As such, your destination is very much my business. I’d hate for something to waylay your journey.”
Cers bristled at the veiled threat. “I intend to buy passage to Rowan.”
Ewan pulled his wagon to a halt in front of Cers and spat on the ground. “That whole continent’s a cesspool. They’ll let anybody live there, these days.”
Cers clenched and unclenched his fists, desperate to maintain his calm. That was why he wanted to go–the rumors that havoctouched and warspawn were welcome in Rowanite society appealed to him. Rather than argue the point, he turned away and surveyed the wagon’s contents.
A woman leaned against the bars of the cage, breastfeeding a baby. She could have been human, if not for the black-tipped talons on her fingertips and the ear-to-ear mouth filled with pointed teeth.
By the Roiling Havoc, she was a feral.
Cers’ mouth went dry. Ferals had been designed to demolish armies and constructs alike during the Meridian War. Cers respected them more than most humans, but could never stifle the initial jolt of panic that came from seeing one up close.
“Why have you taken these prisoners?”
Burchard jabbed a finger toward the mother. “The dam’s a thief. Been stealing livestock and eating it raw.”
Cers’ hands clenched. “She has a youngling to care for. If she became separated from her pack, she may not have been able to acquire food through other means.”
Burchard shrugged. “Not my problem.”
The ease with which some people ignored others’ humanity unnerved Cers. The first ferals had been soldiers who volunteered for magical alteration during the Meridian War. After war’s end, the changes proved irreversible and hereditary. Now people feared them, ostracized them, and branded them savages.
“What do you intend to do with the child?” Cers’ voice rumbled with displeasure.
Burchard’s eyes narrowed. “Sell it, probably. What’s it to you? You a feral sympathizer?”
Ewan sneered. “Ten to one he’s havoctouched.” He chanted a spell. His eyes flared blue-white; he paled and toppled off his perch. “By the Roil, he’s not even alive!”
Burchard drew his sword and pressed it against Cers’ throat. “What in the seven hells are you?”
Cers glowered at the hunters. “I’m a free being with no bounties on my head. You have no right to assault me.” He grabbed Burchard’s sword blade and wrenched it away. Steel bit deep into his palm, but he ground his teeth and kept silent. He tossed the sword into the woods. Black blood arced after it. The stench of pickled flesh wafted from the cut. The magic that fueled him burned like fire; his flesh knit back together within seconds.
Burchard paled and spurred his horse away. “Quick! Take it down!” The other warriors drew their weapons, rallied by the call to arms.
Cers’ pulse thundered in his ears. These men could not be reasoned with. Cers had no desire to fight them, but neither could he afford to surrender. If the hunters overpowered him, they would shove him in the cage and deliver him with the ferals to Oberion’s court. The courts were never kind to the warspawned races; if they learned Cers was a construct built from the flesh of corpses, they’d order his destruction.
The ferals would fare no better. Cers couldn’t leave them behind.
He stalked over to the cage, seized the barred door and pulled. The hinges ripped from their moorings with a screech.
The riders circled Cers and the wagon, cutting off any chance of escape. Ewan pulled a focus stone from his pocket and began a spellchant.
Any magic that required a focal point was bound to be powerful. During the Meridian War, Cers had seen focused spells reduce men to dust. He hurled the door at Ewan’s chest to prevent the mage from finishing his chant.
The door struck Ewan soundly. He crumpled to the ground, gasping for air. The energy from his half-formed spell hummed and crackled in the air.
Burchard swore. “Havocstorm! Everyone find cover–”
Green-black clouds boiled in the sky above Ewan’s head. The tang of ozone filled the air.
Lightning exploded from the clouds. The first bolt struck Ewan and flooded his body with wild magic. He convulsed, howling with agony, as muscles bulged under patches of fresh-formed chitinous skin. Other bolts burrowed into trees, which thrashed and writhed like wounded animals. Roots ripped from the ground and twined around the hunters’ horses, snapping bones like twigs. The horses screamed and fell, pinning their riders. Tortured shrieks overlaid a cacophony of creaking wood and cracking ribs.
Roots coiled around the wagon. Cers tore at them, desperate to clear the mother’s path. “Leave, now!” Wood wrapped around his legs and climbed up his chest.
The mother scrambled atop the cage. The baby clung to her back with sharp talons. She spun around, searching for the safest path, then leapt southward and ran.
The roots caught her as she reached the storm’s edge. She stretched as far as she could and placed her baby outside the trees’ grasp. The child bolted away with a keening wail.
Cers struggled to break loose from the encroaching vegetation. His muscles rippled and strained with the effort.
The storm abated. The trees lay still. Cers pulled free from the knotted roots and surveyed the damage.
The horses–and their riders–had been crushed beyond recognition. Ewan’s newly armored hide had granted him some small measure of protection. He gasped and wheezed as he struggled against his bonds. Cers freed him; he dashed into the woods.
The feral still lived, but her breathing was shallow, her limbs twisted and broken. Cers knelt beside her, clenching his hands to keep them from shaking. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. What is your name?”
She shivered. “Ena.”
He surveyed her injuries with a practiced eye. “You are going to die. I know no words of healing to ease your suffering.”
Ena latched onto Cers’ arm. “Find my baby. My Drora. I want to hold her.”
Cers nodded solemnly and set off in the direction Drora had fled. He found the child huddled in a brush pile, shivering and whimpering.
Cers picked Drora up. She tore into his arms with scalpel-thin claws. He jerked back and dropped her. She hissed, squawked, and clambered up a tree trunk like a squirrel.
Cers approached the tree, palms open, arms spread. “Easy, child. I mean you no harm. Your mother wishes to see you. Please. Come with me. There isn’t much time.”
Drora’s ears twitched. She tilted her head and let out a hesitant chirp. After a long moment she jumped onto Cers’ shoulder.
Cers returned to Ena. Drora climbed down Cers’ back and into her mother’s arms. Ena cradled and rocked her, humming a soothing melody. The tune grew softer and shakier, until Ena took one last rattling breath and fell silent.
Drora nuzzled at her mother’s face and chest, whimpering. Cers watched, somber. If he left the girl to fend for herself, she would die. He gave her a few minutes to mourn, then scooped her up and walked away.
She snarled and tore into his arms as he carried her. He ground his teeth and pushed through the pain. Eventually, her struggles slowed. She fell into a fitful sleep, twitching restlessly in his arms.
♦ ♦ ♦
Cers turned away from the road and traveled toward the Dragonspine Mountains. A multitude of ferals colonized the deepwood’s thick forests. Drora would be safer with her own kind; Cers knew nothing of how to care for a child.
Drora squalled and squirmed as Cers carried her through the woods. She was hungry, no doubt, but Cers had no food to give her. She had no teeth, but chomped and gummed at his fingers with vicious intensity.
On the second evening, a pack of ferals climbed down from the tree boughs to block Cers’ path. Their ancestors had been more heavily modified than Drora. Their faces and upper bodies hinted at human heritage, but their skin was scaly, mottled green and brown. Tails tapered off for balance behind lizard-like hind limbs. Retractable claws flexed as they circled Cers and Drora on all fours.
The largest pack member stepped forward and stood on his hind legs. He was almost as tall as Cers. “What’re you doing in my woods, dead man?”
Cers frowned. “I’m not dead.”
“You ain’t alive, neither. You stink of embalming fluid.”
“I’m caring for a feral child who is in need of a home. I’d hoped a pack like yours would take her in.”
“We got enough mouths to feed.”
“She is small. She won’t eat much.” Cers held Drora up for inspection. She flailed and squealed, eager to be set down.
The leader sniffed at her, then snorted. “She ain’t a feral. She’s a mongrel at best. No tail. No teeth.”
“Her teeth should grow in, given time.”
“Our babies got all their teeth when they pop out. They can hunt from the day they’re born.”
A female stepped up and elbowed the leader in the side. “Come on, Abban. Having her around wouldn’t be that bad. She’s a cute little bug.”
Abban snarled. “Shut up, Idhe.” His head snapped back toward Cers. “Like I said, we got enough mouths to feed. She’ll slow us down. We got no room for her.”
Cers scowled. If Drora’s presence was so unwelcome here, perhaps he should take her with him to Rowan. “Teach me to care for her, then. What should she eat?”
Idhe projected her voice over Abban’s disgusted snort. “It’s a good bet she still drinks her mother’s milk.”
Cers’ chest tightened. “Her mother is dead.”
Abban’s nostrils flared. “You kill her?”
“No. She died in a havocstorm.”
Abban growled. “You’re lying. I smell humans on you. I’ll bet this is a trap. You’re here to flush us out, get us to let down our guard so some hunters can ambush us.” He dropped down on all fours and circled Cers like a predator on the hunt. The rest of the pack, excepting Idhe, sniffed the air and scoured the tree line for potential attackers.
Drora climbed onto Cers’ shoulders, shivering, and trilled nervously. Cers glanced back and forth between the patrolling ferals, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “If my presence offends you, I can leave.”
Abban spat at Cers’ feet. “Who said we’re gonna let you leave, dead man? You’re a construct, ain’t you? A dusty old relic from the Meridian War. We used to tear monsters like you to shreds. That’s what they made us for.”
“What one is made for doesn’t have to define one’s existence. I was designed for combat, but I prefer to build rather than destroy. I’m particularly fond of carpentry.”
“I don’t care what you’re fond of. You’re in my territory, stinking up my land!”
“I came here with peaceful intent. I intend to leave peacefully as well.” Cers plucked Drora from his shoulders and held her close. She clung to him in turn, mewling, claws kneading his chest.
Abban bared his teeth. “You ain’t going nowhere, dead man. I’m gonna plant you in the ground to rot.” He snarled and pounced.
Cers ducked and jerked Drora out of harm’s way. Abban’s teeth and claws ripped into his shoulders, flaying the flesh and tearing deep into his muscles.
Cers screamed. Drora’s eyes bulged at his cry. She twisted and thrashed in his grasp, gouging at his chest and arms in a panicked effort to escape.
Cers gritted his teeth, but kept Drora from worming free. The wounds in his back began to heal over.
Abban sneered. “You’re one of those, eh?” He grabbed a handful of earth, leapt onto Cers’ back, and tore the wounds open afresh. He scrubbed dirt into the gashes.
Cers pushed past the pain and lurched backward, slamming Abban against a tree. The feral yelped and crumpled to the ground.
Other pack members joined the attack, moving too fast for Cers to track. They strafed past him in waves, slicing open his arms, legs, and chest. They ground dirt and detritus into the cuts. Cers’ body couldn’t excise the foreign material. Black blood oozed from an ever-growing multitude of open wounds. The stench of necrotic flesh filled the air.
Abban stood and shook his whole body like a dog fresh out of water. He limped toward Cers, shoved his fellow packmates away, and sliced a tendon in Cers’ left ankle.
Cers collapsed, but braced himself with one arm to keep from crushing Drora.
Abban burrowed claws into his neck.
Cers let out a ragged cry. His grip on Drora weakened. She clambered onto Cers’ back, growled, and raked Abban’s arm with her talons. Abban hissed and smacked her away. She toppled to the ground with a strangled yelp.
Cers’ muscles shook with rage. He rolled onto his back, wrapped his arms around Abban, and squeezed. Abban struggled, desperate to break free. Cers shifted, pinned Abban under his weight, and slammed both fists down on the feral’s head. Abban went limp. Cers raised his fists for a killing blow.
Cers’ fists loosened. Drora still lived. He sagged back, breathing heavily, and picked her up. Tiny fingers curled around his thumb. She blinked up at him, bleary-eyed, still recovering from the stun of the fall. Her breathing was steady. No signs of broken bones or internal bleeding. Cers sighed with relief and stroked her hair.
Abban hunkered down to pounce again. Idhe intercepted his leap with a defiant snarl. The two ferals tumbled across the forest floor, locked in a struggle for dominance.
Idhe pinned Abban. She roared, “That’s it! Fight’s over. Bad enough humans treat us like animals, we don’t gotta give ’em a reason.”
Abban shoved Idhe off his back. “He deserves it, Idhe!”
Idhe squared her shoulders and stood her ground. “No, he don’t. All he’s done is defend himself and the mutt. He ain’t here to hurt anyone.”
Abban backed away, tail between his legs.
Idhe nodded at Cers. “Take the girl and go. There’s a Wendren tribe camped by a river about two days east. They might help you if you can make it that far.”
Cers took slow, steady breaths in an effort to retain focus. “I need food. For Drora.”
“We don’t got any milk to spare, but there’s fruit around here. I can show you what’s good and how to make her eat it.”
Idhe’s packmates gathered up wild apples and berries. Idhe ground the fruit into a paste and encouraged Cers to feed Drora with his fingertips. Abban watched from a distance, brow knitted and lips tight, but made no attempt to interfere.
Drora sucked the fruit down greedily. Once she ate her fill, she let out a contented sigh and dozed off in Cers’ arms. Cers nodded at Idhe. “Thank you.” He forced himself to stand and limped eastward on barely-functional limbs.
♦ ♦ ♦
The journey to the Wendren camp proved slow and laborious. Cers had no way to clean his injuries; they festered and stank of rot.
On the second day he lost his footing on the slope of a hill. Drora squeaked and leapt away as he tumbled to the bottom at breakneck speed. He landed on his wounded ankle. It tore open even wider. He tried to stand, but his leg buckled beneath him.
Drora climbed onto his chest and nuzzled his cheek. He pushed her away gently. She returned moments later with an apple in her mouth. She sliced off a chunk with her talons, offered it to Cers, and gnawed at the remainder until she consumed it seeds and all. After her meal she tried to lick his ankle clean, but couldn’t seem to stomach the taste. Cers massaged as much dirt as he could from the wound. After hours of work, the wound was clean enough he could walk again.
He found the Wendren camp on the fourth day. A hodgepodge arrangement of lean-tos and tents nestled in a clearing among the trees, pressed up beside a riverbank.
Children dressed in leathers and hand-woven clothes ran back and forth in the center of the clearing. Ferals played with humans in the grass, as did a trio of children whose bodies had been twisted by a havocstorm.
Cers stumbled and sank to one knee as he approached the edge of the encampment. The world spun in dizzying circles around him. He’d never felt so weak before.
A dozen men and women surrounded him. They had no visible weapons, but they stood straight and tall, eyes alert.
Drora clambered out of Cers’ arms and paced around him, hissing and snarling. She charged at anyone who tried to breach her perimeter.
A human woman approached the edge of Drora’s patrol. She wore a leather jerkin and breeches. The left side of her head was close-shaven, tattooed with the pits and hollows of a human skull. “I’m Maiara, Faithful of the Dark Hunter. This camp is under my protection.”
Cers held up a hand and waited to respond until his vision stopped swimming. “I apologize for my rough appearance. I have… experienced difficulties of late.” He gestured to Drora. “The girl needs food. I need…” He scrubbed at his face with a shaky hand. “I need healing.” He’d never needed to make such a request before. The words felt strange on his lips.
Maiara paced around Cers, her gaze studious. “Your wounds seem grievous, stranger. Most men in your position would have already succumbed to death. Are you havoctouched?”
Cers shook his head. “Warspawn.”
Maiara’s eyes narrowed. “What manner of warspawn? I’ve never seen your kind before.”
Cers grimaced. He didn’t want to answer the question, but trust could not be built upon lies or withheld information. “I’m a necromantic construct.”
The onlookers gasped and murmured quick prayers. Maiara placed her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “House Irenea destroyed all their constructs after the end of the Meridian War. The way I hear it, one of them went rogue and killed its master.”
The accusation bit deep. Cers’ pulse raced; heat surged through his body. “I did not kill him!” He took slow, deep breaths in order to regain his composure. “I did not kill my master. I refused his orders to lay siege to the Rysans. He tried to force my hand with magical compulsion, but I resisted.” Cers looked up at Maiara pleadingly. “I turned him in to the city guards. While I do not know his ultimate fate, I left him alive and well.”
Maiara studied his face for a full minute before she spoke. “Your words hold the weight of truth.” She smiled and chuckled at Drora, who bared toothless gums in warning. “She’s a feisty one, isn’t she?”
Cers nodded. “Her claws are very sharp.”
“Then you’d best calm her, if you can. We can’t help either of you if she won’t let us near.”
Cers scooped Drora up and rested her on his shoulder. She nuzzled his neck and nibbled at his fingers.
Maiara motioned to her fellows. “Help him to the river’s edge.” Three men and two women rushed forward. They dragged him to the waterline and laid him on his stomach. Maiara climbed into the water beside him. “This is going to hurt.”
Cers grunted. “I’m accustomed to pain.”
Maiara and her assistants reopened Cers’ wounds one by one. The cleaning process took hours, but it proved effective. Cers felt better than he had in days.
Maiara summoned a wet-nurse to feed Drora and sat beside Cers on the riverbank. “What will you do with the girl?”
“I wish to see her safe. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
“You can leave her here, if you like. She’ll be cared for by the entire community.”
Cers looked around the camp. The children had returned to their play, the adults to their work. “Is it always like this? Peaceful? Cooperative?”
“Cooperative, yes. Peaceful, no. Our tribe holds tight to the belief that people are people until proven otherwise, and we catch our fair share of trouble for it from the city-folk. There’s a reason Wendren tend to wander. We look out for each other, though, and we can defend ourselves when need be.”
Cers steepled his hands as he considered Maiara’s words. The desire to visit Rowan still pulled at him, but there was no guarantee he would receive the acceptance he hoped for. Even among warspawn, he stood out as something alien. The deepwoods ferals had reacted violently to his presence, and others might do the same.
While Drora might be accepted in Rowan, she would certainly be accepted here. The Wendren had shown kindness to him as well. He might not need to sail the ocean in order to find acceptance, after all.
Cers returned his attention to Maiara. “Drora would do well to remain with your tribe.” He thought for a moment, cemented his decision. “I would like to reside here for a time, as well.”
“Until Drora can care for herself. Perhaps longer.”
“I’ll intercede for you with the council. I can’t make any promises, but they heed my advice more often than they ignore it.”
Cers nodded. “Thank you.” Excitement welled up within him. He composed his thoughts so he could speak further. “I’d like to repay your kindness. Do you have any tools or objects in need of repair?”
Maiara laughed. “There’s always something that needs fixing, around here.”
“I’ll make myself useful, then.” Cers smiled and set off in search of something to mend.
♦ ♦ ♦