One-Shot

White Meat

By: Skyraptor66

Kimmel felt searing cold against his leg as snow gathered into his boots and soaked through to his thick wool undergarments. Terrific.

Since the war, many of the soldiers in the Black Brigade had gone home to their families if they weren’t needed for menial tasks. Unfortunately, Kimmel was one of those unlucky few, and seeing as how the Storm Brigade had the Kirlsa area more than covered—and seeing as how his rank rendered him of such minor importance in the military—he had been restationed to an outpost guarding the forested, snowy foothills of the southern mountains.

At least I don’t have to wear that damned armor here, he thought. The heavy black metal of his Brigade uniform proved uncomfortable whether in heat or in cold, and so he was glad to trade it for furs, wool, and leather. He adjusted his glasses and looked back towards the outpost just as a gust of icy wind blasted against him and rattled the weathered sign that hung by its chains on the makeshift gate. Snow filled the indentations left in the wood, spelling out “Chiron Military Outpost” in white, jagged letters.

Just inside the gate, Kimmel could see the smoke curl up from the chimney of the main hall—an almost farcical label considering how few buildings the outpost had—and smelled the burning wood with longing and envy in his heart. But there was something he had to do first.

Two nights ago, the men had heard strange sounds coming from the woods just outside the perimeter—sounds that could neither be accident nor animal. One soldier recalled a low muttering, like a man deliberating to himself in the dark, and yet it seemed “not quite man enough,” as if the speaker had a voice unnatural to humankind. The next morning, the lock on their supply shed lay broken on the ground, though everything seemed accounted for in the food and weapons. An immediate and mutual agreement passed through the company that at least one of them should perform rounds every few hours, and draw straws on a night watch. Today was Kimmel’s turn.

The blond soldier crouched and inspected the snow in a futile attempt to make out any tracks. A collection of elk droppings caught his eye–which he made note of in case he decided to go bow hunting later–but little more aside from that. He turned again to the gates, examining the trees above them for any low-hanging branches a skilled climber could scale in order to infiltrate the camp. The perimeter was made of vertical slabs of local trees haphazardly nailed together, yet the irregularities in the stacked wood were hardly big enough to fit anything more than a squirrel. And if there had been a dragon involved, the men would have heard it for sure. The absent logic of their intruder’s arrival baffled Kimmel.

He wandered around the outpost a few more times to make sure that he had been thorough in his assessment. Even if it failed, he at least now had a chance to put his taste for strategy to use in something other than runic chess. However, he found nothing more than what the passing elk had left, and so trudged back to base.

A welcome breeze of warm air nuzzled Kimmel’s numb and reddened face as he entered the main hall. His ears throbbed painfully with sudden life, as if to remind him that they still had yet to fall off in the snow. The scent of a stew wafted up from the stone fireplace and filled the cramped, shoddy cabin they called headquarters.

Not bothering to strip off more than his boots, Kimmel took the rocking chair beside Alferd, a fellow “Blackie” who had likewise been stationed at Chiron against his will. As with many of the men, Kimmel and Alferd spoke as equals in spite of the fact that the former stood a rank above the latter in the chain of command. Both hung low on the social ladder, at any rate, which was enough to make them comrades. A bald man with a wicked-looking dark goatee, Alferd’s dull brown eyes and rounded facial features dumbed any sign of ferocity in him.

Huddled by the fireplace across from them was Ned, a redheaded Dragon Brigade trainee who had never completed the ceremony to earn his companion, and probably never would. Kimmel assumed that the young man’s light build—suitable for riding a flying beast–had more than helped him in passing the recruitment tests, but that was where his use as a soldier ended. Forgetfulness and disorganization plagued him like a diseased hound, and his knack for sarcastic comments had perhaps angered his superiors on more than one occasion.

“Of all times for something to happen…” Alferd was saying as he toyed with the corkscrew on his pocket knife, idly grinding holes in the wooden armrest of his chair. “The hell do we have to worry about in this god-damned place?”

“Hypothermia. Starvation. Wolf-men.”

“Thank you, Ned.”

“Wolf-women…”

“Nah, only in Aquaria.”

Most of the men chuckled at that.

“Blast it all, I’m so sick of being shacked up here with you blokes that I’d bed an Aquarian wolf-woman even if she jumped down the mountain with the Count’s bloody head in her teeth.” Reed growled from the desk at the far end of the room that served as an office. The grizzled man seemed to be in his forties, making him the elder of the Chiron company. He had once served under Count Woltar as a Storm Brigade sergeant until a panicked lum bucked him from his saddle, giving him a permanent limp and a bad back. His refusal to retire and his sheer hardiness earned him the unspoken admiration of many of the soldiers, and he himself seemed to be half wolf with his piercing yellow eyes and mane of silvered black hair.

“Fuckin’ boring is what this is.” Alferd continued. “The war is over. Just let me go home so I can remember what my wife looks like.”

“Care for some chess?” Kimmel offered. The sole runic chess set in the camp was made from a rudely-carved slab of wood and cork stoppers whittled into the various figures by some unoccupied soldier before them, but it was better than nothing.

“I’m sick of chess. You always beat me anyway, you smartass. Play Ives instead—at least that’d be an interesting match.”

Kimmel looked around for the former strategist. “And where is he anyway?”

“He may still be searching the shed for clues. You’ll be hard pressed to get him to give that up. I think he feels like his intelligence is being insulted.”

“He’s not the only one. My scouring of the perimeter yielded nothing, and there are no means that I can discern through which the intruder could have gotten into our camp. Maybe there is another entrance strategy that I just have not considered…”

Ned rolled his eyes and smirked. “Is this what you do instead of getting yourself laid, Kim? At least Ives finds the time to share his bed with a nice woman in between all that brainwork.”

“I had a woman, and I’m afraid she spoiled the rest for me.” Kimmel replied, just masking his bitterness. “I’d almost feel guilty if I found someone new.”

Ned made a face while Alferd nodded in understanding. Say what they might about lonely soldiers, Alferd’s sense of fidelity was a defining virtue for him.

“I’ll bet she’s an Aquarian.” Reed barked. “Only an Aquarian woman could fuck a man into undying devotion.”

At that moment, Private Tamsen came running through the doors wrapped against the cold in a lum skin cloak. Tamsen was the youngest of them all, and a nephew to Ives. He and his uncle shared the same face, which betrayed their high class with their red irises and angular noses. But while Ives was bright and amiable, the younger man seemed quiet and sullen by comparison.

“We’ve found something! Uncle thinks he’s found what the intruder took.” Tamsen huffed through his chattering teeth. “He wants you all to come and see right away.”

The men yanked on their boots in seconds and stumbled out into the snow towards the shed. As they approached, they could see Ives clad in wool standing at the back near the surplus medical supplies. The born scholar owned a considerable amount of intelligence, and the grace of good breeding to avoid pomposity. Of course, the supposed nobility of Airyglyph were far from noble compared to their neighbors, but Ives managed to make himself seem worthy of the highest civil courts in Aquaria.

“Gentlemen, I think I’ve found our answer.” He sounded proud—or maybe just relieved—as he pointed to a single shelf stacked with dusty bottles of herbal balm imported from Peterny. “Our inventory records claim that we have twenty, but here are nineteen bottles. The dust on some of them also seems to be recently disturbed. I would say that this is what our friend was looking for.”

“Some answer,” growled Reed. “What would anyone want with a single bottle of balm? There’s a reason it has never been disturbed: it’s for heat burns only.”

Kimmel stared hard at the balm in thought. “What kinds of herbs are in them? Maybe they have other properties worth using?”

Ives turned one of the transparent bottles over in his hands. “It has a unique purple color…perhaps aconitum flowers? The weed of Folstar? But I can’t tell. I’m not an herbalist after all.”

The two soldiers exchanged glances. A heavy silence followed.

Alferd waved his hand dismissively as he turned to leave. “Bah, whoever it was, if he’s burned at least he saved us the trouble of having to go out of our way to help him. Mighty convenient, if you ask me.”

oOo

Near the mountains, the night lay as heavy as the snow. No insects stirred in the cold, leaving Kimmel nothing but the crackle of his bonfire to keep him sane in the sheer quiet. He huddled at his post as the night watch and thought of Arias again, as he often did. Much of Aquaria was still a mystery to him, but compared to most of Airyglyph the small riverside town remained warm for half of the year, autumn and winter kept mild by the breezes from Aquios. He missed its weather now more than ever, among other things…

The tin mug of watery coffee burned his tongue. He chewed his peeling lips and spat into the fire. Wilderness like that took all of the gentleness out of a person, and already Kimmel’s mannerisms were becoming rougher. A cracked old book describing the various philosophies and methods of war lay balanced on his legs while he kept his gloved hands tucked deep into his fur coat. His rear felt numb from sitting on a cold log that served as his chair.

He wondered briefly if his family missed him at all—his parents and four siblings, many of who had moved to Sanmite with their husbands and wives since the war. He had forgotten to pay his mother and father in the capital a visit—not out of disdain, but because it didn’t matter. Why come home when he wasn’t truly free of his duties? Why make his mother worry about his imprisonment in this Apris-forsaken forest? Why let his father assume that he had been placed there for the same reasons many of the soldiers were stationed at Chiron: out of uselessness and disgrace?

Kimmel froze. He strained to hear over the sounds of the fire. Yes, there it was…a faint scratching like that of claws on wood. A canine whimper broke through the quiet. Kimmel grabbed his sword and a lamp and followed its sound to the eastern gate. He crouched several inches from the wooden wall to peer through the warped spaces in the slabs.

In the dark beyond, a glint of amber caught his eye as a long snout brushed past the small gap in the wood. Another whimper, more insistent. Kimmel lifted the lamp to see the shadowed form of a wolf pawing at the gate, a rope tied like a leash around its neck. When the animal noticed him, it let out a loud moan of joy and wagged its tail in a submissive gesture. Kimmel inched closer and offered his hand through the gap for the wolf to sniff and lick. It’s domesticated…but by who?

Kimmel whistled and the wolf followed him along the gate to the heavy log door. It took a few tries, as the soldier was far from the strongest in his class, but he soon hefted it open just wide enough so that the wolf could slide through into the camp. The friendly creature nuzzled up to his legs with an array of happy barks and grunts. Kimmel patted its head, brushing the snow and pine needles from its thick brown-red fur. “Good boy.”

He heard the muffled crunch of boots as one of the men emerged to investigate the noise. “What the hell is that?” Kimmel heard Ned’s voice say.

“A wolf.” He replied, “And a well behaved one. I’m certain that he belongs to someone.”

“Who? Nobody lives around here but the lot of us.”

“I don’t know. But we should at least let the poor animal come in from the cold, don’t you think?”

Ned drew closer with his lamp and bent down to ruffle the wolf’s ears. He smiled. “Yeah, we can’t just let him die. My father raised pups like him to be guard dogs for the nobles when I was a boy. They are good animals if you treat them right, and loyal…Unlike people.”

“I assume you will take care of him then?” Kimmel asked, mildly surprised at Ned’s sudden compassion. Perhaps this was why having a dragon for a partner had seemed so appealing to him when he joined the Brigade.

“Of course.” The wolf seemed engrossed in Ned, jamming its nose into his gloved hand.

“I shall have to tell the others,” Kimmel noted. “The wolf’s not the one who broke into our stores, but maybe he belongs to whoever did.”

Ned nodded, his eyes still on the animal. “I shall let him stay in my bunk for tonight, if that’s fine with you. I have some leftover jerky rations he might like.”

“I don’t have a problem with you feeding him, but I would have to see what Sargent Reed says about keeping him.”

The other soldier grimaced. “Reed hates dogs,” he said, and nothing else.

oOo

“So this wolf,” Alferd began as they sat in their shared bunk the next morning. “Did it have any other markings aside from the rope, like a brand on his rump or something?”

Kimmel blinked. “I don’t think people brand canines often, Alferd.”

“Some people might.”

“But it’s a wolf, not cattle.”

“Never you mind. But there was nothing else on him?”

“Well, his coat patterns do not match that of the local wolves—too much red and brown for all of the snow–so I would say that he is foreign to these parts, and perhaps his owner is as well.”

Alferd shook his head. “Perhaps he ran away?”

“No; he seems too dependent upon people to feed himself on his own, but that is just my initial impression.”

A pause. “Where is the beast anyway?”

“Ned still has him, I think. They are likely in his bunk.”

Kimmel stood up from his small, hard bed. “Where are you going?” Alferd asked.

“To the main hall. I have not told Reed about the wolf yet.”

“I shall come with you then.”

Alferd followed Kimmel to the main hall. They opened the door to find it empty, save for a pot of stew boiling over the fire. Neither man had eaten that day, and Kimmel felt his stomach growl at its scent.

“Thank the gods,” Alferd said, wandering over to pull the lid off the pot. “I wonder what it is. Probably more elk jerky with old carrots and no spice. Pitiful.” Kimmel looked around for any sign of Reed as Alferd spooned out a bowl of stew for himself.

“Do you think Reed is still doing his rounds?” Kimmel asked before the other soldier could have a taste of the food.

Alferd shrugged. “Perhaps. Or perhaps our intruder came back for his pet and slit Reed’s leathery throat for stealing him.”

Kimmel propped open the door of the hall to see Reed walk back through the gates in his furs. The blond soldier called out to him as the aging man began to shamble towards the hall. “Sargent Reed! Did you find anything today?”

“Not a fucking trace. And stop your damn shouting, I’m almost there.”

Kimmel waited for Reed to reach the hall and shut the doors behind him before speaking. “Honestly? No dog tracks or anything of the sort?”

“No, why?” Reed shook the snow from himself as he removed his hat and coat. “Did you see a dog?”

“A wolf appeared at the gate last night. He had a leash and was domesticated, so I let him in.”

Reed squinted at him. “You let a cur in here, did you? Thank the gods I don’t keep a lum with me anymore or the bastard would have it stampeding.”

“He is with Ned as we speak. I thought that it would be suitable to put off contacting you until the morning—a friendly trained wolf is hardly a threat to our company.”

“Ned?” Reed growled. “I made to go fetch that stupid lad earlier, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.” He paused and sniffed the air. “Is that stew? Who made it?”

“I thought you did,” Alferd said. “It smells good, anyway. Have some, Sarge.” He handed Reed his bowl.

The older man gingerly took a sip. “Could be worse. I bet Ives made it—it’s got meat, but it sure as hell isn’t elk.”

“Would you like me to find Ned for you, sir?” Kimmel said. “If the wolf has escaped his care, we will need to find it in case its owner and our thief are the same person.”

Reed nodded as he downed the bowl of stew. “Take Ives with you too. Between the two of you, finding him shouldn’t be an issue.”

oOo

After scouring the camp a second time for any sign of Ned or the wolf, Kimmel and Ives ventured outside the gates to search the woods. The snowfall had lightened up, meaning that any tracks left an hour ago would still be visible to the soldiers.

“Let’s try the east side,” Ives suggested. “That’s where the wolf appeared last night, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Kimmel replied, “But that doesn’t guarantee anything. The wolf may have circled the camp a few times before approaching. Even with good training, instinct dies hard in beasts, especially wolves.”

“Very well, but it is our only lead so far.”

The pair trudged around the perimeter of the outpost to the east entrance. Ives inspected the gate while the other soldier searched the surrounding forest. Further off into the trees, Kimmel squinted through his glasses at a set of tell-tale indentations in the snow. He whistled to Ives: tracks.

Even from a distance, Kimmel could tell that the tracks were human—bootprints, deep with the weight of a grown man. Unfortunately, the trail ended a few feet from the first print, at the base of a tree. Ives circled the trunk. “Do you suppose he climbed it?” They both glanced up: the branches were bare and empty.

“Well, I can’t imagine that he dug himself under it.” Kimmel said, but crouched to inspect the piles of snow gathered about the tree’s roots anyway. A speck of unnatural color amid the dead leaves and sticks caught his eye. “Here,” he said, brushing away the debris. He pulled free a standard-issue wool coat, dyed green and black with the colors of the Dragon Brigade.

Ives stared at the coat. “Ned?”

Kimmel shook his head. “I thought Ned lost his uniform long ago.”

“Maybe this is it? But the stripes on the shoulder indicate the rank of a colonel.”

The blond man folded the coat once and slung it over his shoulder. “At any rate, we should take it back to Reed.”

“Wait, is there anything else?”

Kimmel continued to dig through the leaves until the clink of glass caught his ears. He looked under one of the gnarled upper roots of the tree to find a half-empty bottle of balm tucked away next to a worn pair of leather breeches.

oOo

“So no Ned?” Reed asked as the entire company gathered in the main hall minutes later.

Kimmel warmed his hands on a bowl of stew, but he no longer felt like eating it. “No, sir. Just the missing bottle and the brigade uniform.”

“Even without the stripes, it couldn’t be Ned. He’s such a skinny bastard, those clothes would fall right off him.”

“But you found the wolf?” Kimmel asked.

Alferd nodded. “The damn thing was curled up under a burrow he had dug for himself under this hall. He seemed happy and fed, so maybe Ned isn’t so far off after all.”

“I bet he will show up before nightfall dragging an elk calf behind him.” Reed muttered. “And I shall give him a beating he won’t forget when he does.”

“So what do we do until then, sir?”

Reed thought for a moment. “Double up on the watch and the rounds. If anything suspicious is going on, at the very least it won’t catch one of us alone.”

The click of claws on wood alerted the men to the wolf’s presence as it nosed the door open and wandered into the room. It trotted over to Reed, who paled and began to sweat.

“Are you feeling ill, sir?”

“Damned mutt.” Reed growled.

oOo

Reed and Ives offered to take up the watch that night, but Kimmel still lay awake in his bunk. The mystery of the jacket, balm, and wolf both frustrated him and disturbed him beyond explanation. The pieces seemed like they should fit somehow, and yet the logic to bring them together escaped him. He assumed that the wolf might belong to whoever owned the coat, and the owner of the coat most likely was not what he seemed: a Dragon Brigader had no reason to be in the mountains, stealing supplies from his own comrades. Perhaps their thief had stolen the coat from a dead soldier; former inhabitants of Chiron were known to sometimes die of the cold in the deep of winter, giving the mystery intruder an opportunity to loot lost bodies for their clothes. But how had this person remained unnoticed for so long?

Kimmel rolled over with a grunt of annoyance at his own inadequacy and, for the first time in several days, let himself dwell on whom he had left behind in Arias. Of all people, she would be clever enough to help him deduce the situation and the proper strategy, but the two hadn’t spoken for months…Perhaps he was already long-removed from her concern.

“Hey…Hey Kimmel…”

Kimmel looked over to the other bed at the sound of Alferd’s voice. “What is it?”

Alferd lay on his side, the shine of his eyes just visible in the dark. “Do you hear that?”

The two of them went quiet as they listened. The faint sound of a man’s frantic shouting echoed up from the other side of the camp. On impulse, the soldiers leaped from their beds and snatched up their weapons.

“It sounds like Tamsen!” Kimmel panted as they rushed out the door and into the cold. They found Ives already at the threshold of the bunk he and his nephew shared, Reed behind him.

“What! What the hell happened?” Reed was shouting over the boy’s weakening cries.

Kimmel peered around the other two soldiers to see Tamsen huddled at the corner of his bed in his nightclothes, clutching his knees in terror. “Something was licking me! I swear it! I-I woke up and someone’s mouth was on my throat!”

“Nobody’s in here, lad,” Ives said. “And that wolf is tucked away in his hole. You were dreaming it.”

“No! I woke up and I saw…”

“You saw nothing but a phantom of your imagination.”

“I swear to you, it was real.” Tamsen lowered his voice to give his trembling words gravity. “I think it was a man. Maybe…maybe it was the thief.”

“And why would a thief break into our camp to have a taste of your scrawny hide, boy.” Reed said.

Tamsen went quiet at that. His trembling lessened.

“If it would comfort him, sir, I can stand watch at his door.” Kimmel said, “I have not been able to sleep lately anyways.”

Reed glanced at him. “Fine,” he grumbled. “If it makes him feel safe from his own bullshit. Carry on.”

Kimmel borrowed Tamsen’s cloak and planted himself to one side of the door as the others wandered away to their posts or their beds. He rested his sword across knees and sighed, watching his breath curl and mingle with the night air. The touch of cold and longing for warmth made him want to fantasize, which was the last thing he needed at the moment. They joked in the capital that more children were conceived on frigid nights, because the cold with its bite brought people together in ways that warm weather never could. The Aquarian soldiers may have suffered from their urges as well, but few of them knew the pain of being mateless on a snowy evening.

Instead he thought about Tamsen’s panic, of which he could make almost nothing. The windows in the bunk were shut when he had peeked in, and the only other entrance was the front door. It occurred to him to check for tracks, but the chaos of bootprints from the soldiers had destroyed his chances of finding something.

Kimmel waited for several minutes, distracting himself by drawing out maps and strategies of approach in the snow with the tip of his blade. He heard nothing from Ives and Reed, and so guessed that they had perhaps dozed off or settled into a book.

Minutes later, the crunch of footsteps and the low muttering of a man’s voice alerted him to another presence. Kimmel recognized the voice as Reed’s, though its eerie quality confused him at first. The sergeant sounded as if something had coated his throat to make his voice so unnatural. It was as if a creature unused to the human tongue were trying to speak. Kimmel searched around to find that Reed was approaching not from the watch’s post, but from against the inside of the gate near the other bunks.

“Sir?” Kimmel called, fighting the sudden impulse to flee. Every animal instinct warned him against that voice, begged him to escape before its owner saw him. “Sergeant Reed?”

The sergeant stumbled into sight, his limp more pronounced than usual. He looked at Kimmel with wide eyes, as if he had just woken from a nightmare and no longer recognized him.

“Kimmel?”

“Yessir. I’m still on watch as you ordered.”

Reed shook his head like a dog emptying its ears of water. “I apologize. I haven’t been quite well since that stew wore off. Perhaps the meat was bad.” He fixed his piercing eyes on Kimmel again. “I’ve never been so hungry, though.”

“Where is Ives? I’m sure he could make you something more to eat.”

“Ives…?” Reed stumbled forward. “Ives is…”

The sergeant broke off as a sudden chill ran down his body. He bent over and began to vomit in the snow. Kimmel cursed and rushed to his superior’s aid, dropping his sword beside him so that he could tend to the fallen man. It was at that moment that the light of his lamp revealed the wound in Reed’s shoulder. Blood soaked through the layers of wool from a gash that seemed to plunge down to the bone.

Kimmel reached for his sword in alarm, accidentally grasping it by the blade so that it cut deep into his palm. “Who did this?”

Reed’s breathing became heavy as the blood from Kimmel’s hand dripped into the snow. Without warning, he snatched Kimmel’s arm in a ferocious grip. The blond soldier gasped and swung blindly at him with his fist, managing to knock the sergeant aside so that he could scramble away.

“Tamsen! Wake up!” he cried, his back slamming against the wall of the bunk in an effort to distance himself from the crazed warrior as he brandished his sword from the wrong end. He heard a clatter inside as the boy leaped from his bed and threw open the door.

“What is it?” Tamsen shouted, and then caught sight of Reed. The older man snarled, a guttural sound, his wolfish eyes now burning with inhuman rage and insanity. He growled again as Tamsen rushed to help Kimmel stand.

“Something is wrong with him.” Kimmel replied. “Get the others and something to restrain the sergeant. I’ll distract him, but you must hurry.”

The boy nodded and ran off towards Alferd’s bunk. Reed made to follow him, supporting himself on all fours like an animal. “Sergeant Reed!” Kimmel called. He held up his sliced palm. “I believe this is what you wanted, is it not?”

The Sergeant panted and twitched as he inched forward, hand and foot, his belly so low to the ground that it drew a faint trail in the snow. He examined Kimmel with wary eyes, his gaze flitting between the soldier’s face and the blood that slid down his wrist.

Struck by a sudden idea, Kimmel ripped off a piece of the lum cloak and smeared it with his own blood. He waved it before Reed’s face, and then threw it into the open door of the bunk. Reed hesitated for a moment before leaping past the soldier at a hellish speed and landing inside. Kimmel slammed the door shut behind him. He then used his sword to jam the hinges just as Tamsen returned with Alferd and Ives.

“I thought he was acting strange,” Ives murmured as the sound of Reed tearing and sucking at the piece of cloak reached their ears. “But…the sergeant? I cannot believe this.”

“Before he attacked me, he mentioned the stew from this morning,” Kimmel said. “Perhaps whatever was in it poisoned him and made him go mad.”

“Who made the stew this morning, then?” The men looked at one another. “No one?”

“Not that I know of,” Alferd said. “I didn’t eat any of it, but the sarge mentioned that it tasted funny. I think Ned already was missing before we found it, so it couldn’t have been him.”

A horrible thought crossed Ives’s mind. He looked at Kimmel with terror in his eyes. “Do you think that Reed was lying and that Ned…”

The other men balked. “If the sarge were really that crazy, we would’ve known by now!” Alferd growled. “I’ve been here longer than all of you, so believe me when I say that Reed is no monster!”

“I’m not saying that he’s been crazy all this time. We just don’t know when he was…infected with whatever this disease or poison is. He could have been sick for days now. He left his post shortly before Tamsen raised the alarm tonight as well. Maybe he was the one who…”

Alferd went red with anger and repulsion. “I swear to the gods, Ives, if you don’t shut the hell up I’ll kill you and everything you love.”

“Perhaps it relates back to the stolen balm?” Kimmel quickly suggested. “We found an empty bottle, so the thief could have done anything with it, and none of us could tell what sort of herbs were in it that might be poisonous to digest.”

Ives nodded. “Yes, but we still haven’t discovered how the thief has been breaking in, or why. Until then, we’re almost helpless to defend against him. And even so, there is no certainty that he did any of this to Reed.”

“Who else was it, then?” Tamsen said in a quiet voice.

Ives shook his head. “It’s our only lead. We might as well pursue it.”

“So what shall we do about the Sergent?” Kimmel asked. “If it is a poison, he might die, or he might never recover from the madness.”

“Check the shed for some extra aquaberries. We can slip some in to him and hope that it works. Two of us should check on him every so often.”

Kimmel nodded. “Then I suggest that we stay together in the main hall. At least from there we will have all angles of approach in sight.” He paused at a sudden thought. “Should we bring the wolf with us?”

Alferd glowered. “Fuck the wolf.”

oOo

The men sat in silence around the fireplace. For two hours, none of them moved or loosened their grasp on their weapons.

Finally, Alferd spoke. “I didn’t survive the battle of Aire Hills for this shit. I must’ve crushed more heads with my sword than I can count, and now this mystery asshole has me cowering inside. Fucking pitiful.”

“He’s smart,” Kimmel said. “Or she. Or it. We have not even truly discovered if this enemy exists at all, and yet here we are.”

“He exists all right,” Alferd muttered. “It ain’t us, and it ain’t the sarge. Somebody has us by the balls, and I swear I’m gonna make him bleed for it.”

“You fought at the final battle?” Tamsen cut in.

“He did.” Kimmel replied, gesturing at Alferd. “I saw everything from Kirlsa, though. I was one of the lucky ones given permission to disobey Duke Vox’s orders.”

“What did it look like?” The boy asked quietly. “I heard it was a horrible red color and hovered far up in the heavens, and that the power of the gods destroyed it with a blast of light.”

“That’s about right, except there were no gods, and that is all you need to know.” Ives said.

Alferd stared at the well-bred soldier inquiringly. “I’ve been meaning to ask, how did an educated nobleman like you end up in this shithole anyways?”

“That’s my business, if you don’t mind.” And the conversation ended there.

A few more minutes passed, then: “Shouldn’t one of us go check on Reed?” Ives said. “He may have improved since we last saw him.”

Kimmel nodded. “Alferd and I will go.”

oOo

The two soldiers cautiously approached the door of the bunk. The wind had picked up since earlier that evening, chilling them through their clothing with its icy reach.

“Sargent Reed?” Kimmel called through the door. “Sir?”

Silence.

“Maybe he fell asleep?” Alferd said. “There’s not much else to do in there.”

Kimmel rapped his knuckles against the wood. “Sir!” Nothing.

“Check the window. Maybe you can see what he is doing.” Kimmel said. Alferd walked to the side of the cabin and heaved himself up to look through the small, frost-fogged opening.

“Hey Kim…he’s not there.”

Kimmel trudged to his side. “What? Did he break out somehow?”

Alferd shook his head, looking somewhat dazed. “The walls look fine. Everything looks fine. And there’s no way he’d get through that door without smashing it down first. He’s just vanished.”

“That’s…I don’t understand.” Alferd shuffled to one side so that Kimmel could peer into the bunk as well. He spotted his bloodied scrap of cloak on the wooden floor, the fabric wrinkled and tried with teeth marks. The beds lay empty, the blankets thrust aside. One of Ives’s field journals and an inkwell sat untouched on small desk made from a stool in the corner. “How could this happen? There is no logic to explain this.”

“Well, we can assume that he’s free now.” Alferd said gravely. “And judging by the fact that he hasn’t knocked on the main hall’s door with a keg of beer in tow, I’d say that he’s still got the sickness in him.”

Kimmel thought for a moment. “One of us should get help, then. We can’t hold out in the main hall with only the few of us. The capital is about three hours or so away on foot, but that is without all of this wind and snow.”

Alferd spoke up. “I’ll do it. You and Ives are smart, but you don’t have my grit—no offense—and the lad’s too young. I don’t even need to pack—if I go now, I might be able to reach town faster that you expect.”

“Are you sure?”

The older man pulled a flask from his coat pocket and dangled it from his fingers with a forced grin. “I’ve got this to put the fire in me if I need it. Don’t worry, my friend.”

Kimmel felt a spark of jealousy at the other soldier’s bravery and spirit. Perhaps that was what he lacked that made his beloved begin to spurn him. Her father did have a reputation as a legendary warrior, and perhaps he lacked the raising as well as the gall to be a part of her life in the way he wished he could be. But he knew that it was something more: within bravery itself was a willingness to face death, and he knew that she’d had enough of that. The look in her eyes when her childhood friend had vanished, leaving behind nothing more than a splash of blood on stone, told him just how tired she had grown of bravery.

“If you insist…” He clapped a hand on Alferd’s shoulder. “Take care. We’ll be waiting on you.”

Kimmel watched Alferd head towards the gates until the soldier disappeared behind the veil of falling snow. He paused to listen over the wind for any sound of footsteps—a growl, even, as if their assailant could be something other than human. A rush of adrenaline in his gut screamed for him to return to the warmth and light of the hall, but the mystery of Reed’s escape gave him pause. This lack of reason that the world suddenly seemed to hold toyed with his nerves and rejected his sensibilities as a strategist. Unless the gods themselves had willed it, there had to be an answer.

Stepping lightly, he wandered around the cabin until he’d reached the other side. The snowfall would have filled any tracks left prior to their arrival, but a faint dip in the whitened ground beside the cabin wall caught his eye. He brushed aside the snow with his boot until he reached brown dirt, and revealed a hole wide enough to fit a slender body beneath the side of the wall.

Kimmel noted the long swaths of scraping claw marks in the ground, as well as a faint stench that touched his nose above the sear of the icy wind. He crouched on all fours, an inexplicable panic building as the scent grew more potent. He took a breath and reached his hand inside the hole beneath the cabin.

A few inches in, his fingers touched something wet. Damp hairs brushed the skin of his palm, matted against a hard surface. He grabbed them by the fistful and yanked.

A wet snap, like the sound of bone, and a round thing made of blood, flesh, and silvered black hair fell into the snow. A ragged portion of its neck still trailed behind it. The eyes were wide open and drenched in slick red, but Kimmel could still make out the color of the irises—yellow and piercing as a wolf’s.

He had found Reed.

oOo

Kimmel’s first thought was to find Alferd before he ventured too far from the outpost, but the man was likely beyond his ability to track in the raging blizzard. He instead sprinted for the main hall, hoping to alert Ives and Tamsen.

His mind raced as he worked his way through the piling snow. The wolf. The wolf had done this. Didn’t that cur often dig itself a nest beneath the bunks? Perhaps it had bitten and clawed its way up through the floor beneath the beds and dragged Reed under. It was all Kimmel’s fault for letting it in.

But this still didn’t explain the balm or the Dragon Brigade uniform, nor could the wolf have been the source of Reed’s madness. As far as he knew, the wolf showed no signs of rabies, and it never came near enough to Reed to bite him.

Ives, Kimmel thought, Ives can help solve this puzzle.

He followed the light in the windows to the main hall and threw open the door. A fire still blazed at the hearth, filling the room with the calming scent of woodsmoke, but no one was there. The makeshift chessboard lay open on a table with its cork men frozen in action.

Kimmel made to call out, but a vague premonition stopped him. He drew close to the wall and kept his steps quiet as he inspected the scene from afar. Like the bunk that had held Reed, nothing seemed amiss, but he dipped his head to check beneath the tables and chairs. The floor was intact, but still he refused to distance himself from the shadows of the far walls. Someone lay in wait for him, he was sure of it. The thought made the hair on his neck rise like a dog’s hackles.

A crunch of approaching footsteps outside caught his attention. He ducked down and inched over to the window.

Outside, the figure of a man shambled over the snowdrifts, his gait made ungainly by the burden he appeared to drag behind him. Even in the dark, he could see that he wore an unbuttoned coat whose sides flapped in the wind like the wings of a startled bat. As he drew nearer to the light, Kimmel could faintly discern the green color of the wool, and the military stripes on its shoulders.

The figure paused to glance around, as if looking for him. After a brief moment, he adjusted the grip on his burden and lurched once more in the direction of the main hall. Feeling more like a child with a stick than an armed soldier, Kimmel rapidly searched the hall for a hiding spot, finding one behind a pile of supply crates. He managed to duck into the shadows just as the door eased open and he heard the scrape of boots and a heavy load against the wooden floor.

The man was, to Kimmel’s slight surprise, entirely human. The Dragon Brigade uniform hung from his bare upper torso, which was crossed with scars and reddened by the wind, snowflakes clinging to the brown hairs on his belly. His face was slim and bearded, almost handsome, but like many weathered soldiers of his brigade, bore patches of puckered skin where stray dragon’s breath had burned it. Kimmel recognized the leather breeches he wore as those he and Ives had discovered under the tree along with the colonel’s coat.

The man gave his burden a hard yank, tossing it to the floor with a muffled thud. It appeared to be a body—hardened with the cold and naked as the moons themselves. The man removed the rope he had coiled over his shoulder and proceeded to crouch down and tie it to the body’s ankles. He then threw the other end over a strong-looking rafter, grunting as he hoisted the corpse high. Kimmel’s heartbeat throbbed in his ears as the hanging man spun lazily to face him, bald head and goatee smeared with blood from the gash in his throat. Alferd had not gotten far.

A mixture of rage and fear boiled in Kimmel’s gut, but he refused to act alone until he knew what this beast in Glyphian flesh was capable of doing. Instead, he watched as the man pulled a hunting knife from his pocket and checked its edge on the pad of his thumb. A spare cooking pot was thrown under the corpse, and the knife went to work on Alferd’s belly, spilling him open so that the heat of his entrails steamed in the air.

Kimmel looked around desperately for a way to inch closer to the man, but other thoughts interrupted his efforts. True as it was that the Dragon Brigade’s reputation had soured since Vox took over, their methods becoming more cruel, less likely to spare civilians, the idea that one of them would turn against their own alarmed and surprised him. It made him recall a tale he had heard from his father when he was a child—before his mother could scold her husband for telling macabre lies—about soldiers who sometimes became lost in the snowy mountains and would then feed off the bodies of their dead comrades. Their hunger would become insatiable as a result of falling to such a sin, though they would live forever so long as they had more human flesh upon which to feed. Kimmel spent many nights of his childhood looking for the wild, ravenous eyes peering through his window from the cold darkness. Now his old fears seemed realized as the man gutted Alferd like a butcher would a hog, eyeing the ribs and walls of bared meat with appraisal. The cooking pot had long overflowed, its contents soaking into the wood.

“I know you’re there. I can smell you.”

Kimmel froze in horror as the man called out in a voice that was light and clear—almost amused. On impulse, his hand went to his back where his heavy brigade sword would normally be, forgetting that he now wore a weapon at his side.

“Come on now. I’m not going to hurt you. Quite the cowardly one, aren’t you?”

Kimmel refused to budge. The man could be bluffing to coax him into the open.

“You’re smart too, I suppose. How about I tell you that you’re behind the crates? Will you come out then?”

Kimmel rose slowly and brandished his sword. The man gave the blade a nonchalant look. “Why don’t you kill me?” The blond man rasped. “You have me, don’t you?”

The man smiled. “Let’s be civilized. I haven’t gotten the chance to be civilized in a while. I almost miss it.” He offered his clean hand, the other soiled with gore. “Armin Nox, colonel of the Dragon Brigade– distant relation to the infamous Captain Albel, whom you might know. Very distant, however, except the name, of course.”

“He is my commanding officer, as well as his.” Kimmel nodded toward Alferd, the look of rage never leaving his face. “Why did you kill him?”

“I can’t expect to explain myself to you in terms you can understand, just know that I had to. He tried to kill me as well when I ran into him in the snow storm.”

“Liar. Then why did you have to hang him up like slaughtered cattle?”

Armin shrugged. “A man has to eat. Even the wise animals of the forests turn on each other when food is scarce.”

“So you do…”

“Yes, yes. It’s not as bad as all that. Just imagine—how many have you killed whose bodies have gone to waste? And of course, Apris is a fairytale of the deceitful Aquarians, so there’s no one to account for them after their spirits have fled. Be logical, my friend. Be practical.”

“Again, why don’t you kill me? I’m no friend of yours, though you claim otherwise.”

“I’m no glutton. And I miss the conversation. Besides, you seem like a clever lad.” Armin licked the blood from his fingers as he spoke, then wiped the rest off on his breeches, tucking the knife away in his pocket. “How about some chess while I wait for him to finish bleeding out? I meant it when I said that I missed being civilized. You’re the best opponent I have now that your rival has gone…”

Kimmel tightened his grip on his sword. “What have you done with Ives and Tamsen?”

Armin ignored him. “Or better yet, we can talk about women. All soldiers like to talk about women. Do you have one, or are the pickings rather slim for strategists?”

“Why did you poison Reed?”

The other man paused and knit his brow at him. “How do you know I did that?”

“Did you not steal the balm?”

“I did, but not to poison anyone. It was for my use only. It sounds like he was the one who found my stew. I made it from the trainee, and…well, certain meats don’t always agree with everyone. It’s not my fault your superior couldn’t handle himself. Never give whiskey to babes, as they say.”

“You bastard. You sick…”

Armin’s expression darkened. The hunting knife was once again clenched in his hand. “Remember your manners, lad. I’ve eaten clever scuts like you for saying less. The ball of your nose will be between my teeth before you can cry home to your frostbitten whore of a mother.”

It was clear to Kimmel that the man had tired of attempting to banter with him, and that his mind had once again become awash with bloodlust. “Fine… We will play chess.” He said, and Armin brightened.

“Good man.” He paused as Kimmel continued to hold his sword at ready. “You can stab me if you would like. It won’t do much. I’ve been eating too well.” He patted his stomach and gave a whooping laugh much like the sounds Kimmel had heard from the coyotes that roamed outside Kirlsa. He collapsed in one of the chairs next to the unfinished game of chess and began arranging the pieces into their starting positions. Reluctantly, Kimmel sheathed his sword and took the seat across from him.

“I can’t imagine that I’ll beat you, but it’s worth a try,” Armin was saying as he leaned back in his seat, one ankle balanced on his leg. “I assume you played chess often before…eh, coming here?”

Kimmel’s throat felt dry. He sat stiffly in his chair, hands clenched at his knees. “Yes. I quite enjoy it.”

“Anyone ever beat you?”

“One.”

“Hmm. And who was this clever man, if I may ask?”

“She was a woman.”

Armin laughed again. “Clever woman. Sounds like you should have married her, supposing she wasn’t your sister or dearest mamma.”

Kimmel fought to keep his emotions back. “You’ve been watching us.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“You knew I was a strategist, and that Ives rivals me at chess.”

“Indeed. Well, I have. Since my platoon broke from his majesty’s command at the end of the war, I’ve been looking for a place to dine more inconspicuously.” He glanced up at Kimmel with a grin as he made the first move on the chessboard. “I forgot about this place, but then everyone does, along with the people stationed here.”

“Then there’s more of you.”

“No. But I would not have survived this long if there had not been more, if you catch my meaning. What most of us dissenters don’t realize when we part from our ruler is that we no longer have the steady supply of military rations to keep us in good health. Elk and hares may help for a time, but then winter arrives and game dwindles. We had our dragons, of course, but they turned on each other long before we did. Odd that the bond between rider and steed is so strong that they’d rather make a meal of their own.”

Kimmel carelessly pushed one of his pieces into play before Armin could complain about his lack of movement. He wracked his brains for an escape, though one option seemed clear: he could stab the colonel right there, maybe even take off his head if he was swift and strong enough. Whether Armin’s claim to be impervious to steel was true or not, it would at least be enough to distract him, if only for a moment.

“I did consider going back to the capital,” Armin was saying, “Our group had obviously…disbanded. But there was still a price on my head to consider. Not to mention how awfully hard it is for one man to commit frequent killings in a crowded city, no matter how cold and starved its poor citizens may be. So I came here.”

“But you eat your own. Killing in the name of country and honor is one thing, but…”

Armin cut him off with a shake of his head. “You think we went to war over honor, lad? No, we killed those sun-worshipers and Aquarian scum to survive. It always comes down to survival with us—the dragons of Gaitt.” He leaned back further so that the front legs of his seat rose off the floor, a thoughtful look on his face. “It’s in our blood, ever since Edyglyph broke from Aquor to seek shelter from Greeton in these mountains. Vox at least knew that the order of this godless world came down to the tooth and claw. To kill is to eat, and this false peace of ours with Aquaria will only last as long as the dogs are kept fed by charity.”

“If its killing you want then…” Kimmel’s boot connected with Armin’s chair, sending him backwards against the floor. He drew his sword as he leaped up, driving it deep into Armin’s gut before the fallen man could gather himself. The other soldier coughed and sputtered as blood from his pierced insides filled his throat. Kimmel pushed further, forcing his whole weight onto the blade until it emerged through Armin’s back and embedded itself in the wooden planks beneath him.

Armin choked out a laugh, spraying drops of red from his mouth. Kimmel let go of his blade and ran for the door, leaving him pinned to the floor as he seemed to drown in his own juices. Armin shouted something after him, but he barely heard him as he stumbled through the snow, desperate for shelter and weapons. His blind run brought him to the shed. He hurried inside and dragged the thick door shut.

Kimmel felt through the darkness for a lamp, a weapon–something. As he searched deeper into the blackness, a moan froze his breath in his chest.

“Kimmel?” Ives’s voice whispered. “Is that you?”

“Thank the gods, Ives! Are you injured? Do you have weapons?”

“He’s broken both of my legs. I don’t know what he did to Tamsen, but he’s somewhere beside me. Unconscious, I think.” A sound of a body shifting against the floor. “I still have my sword somewhere as well…”

Kimmel continued to feel around the shelves that lined the shed until his hand landed on an oil lantern. He lit the fuse with some flint he kept in his pockets and kept the shutter low so that a sparse halo of light broke through the darkness. He raised the lantern in the direction of Ives’s voice to reveal the strategist sprawled on the floor near the back, leaning upon one elbow at an awkward angle. Both his legs lay uselessly in front of him, the jagged edges of his broken bones sticking out through his shins like splintered wood, as if a great force struck them from behind until they snapped.

His nephew lay not far from him. He too had a bloodied leg, but his other limb seemed unharmed. A gash in his side—made by a hunting knife—bled out into his wool and leather clothing. The boy’s breathing appeared shallow, but at least he was alive.

Kimmel crouched beside Tamsen, ripping a chunk from his tattered cloak to bind the leaking wound. He then turned to Ives. “We can’t fight him. We need to flee.”

“That much is obvious,” Ives grunted through his teeth. “Weapons won’t harm him. At least not ours. I stabbed him twice through the heart and he merely laughed. Then he threw me against a wall and did this.” He nodded to his legs. “I passed out from the pain and woke up here.”

“He killed Alferd,” Kimmel said. “And perhaps Reed, if that wolf is really his.”

“Or if he is the wolf, rather.” Ives muttered as Kimmel searched for something out of which to make a splint. “I have been thinking about that balm…the herbs it contains are not just for burns. Do you remember the legends of the shapshifting men who could become beasts by stripping off their clothes and anointing themselves with a special mixture? Perhaps he stole from our stores so that he could pick us off one by one, starting with poor Ned.”

“On any other night I would not be in the mood to believe such stories, but this man…the thought of him chills me to the bones, whether or not he is as you think. He is no rogue beastfolk, that’s certain.”

“It’s the most logical explanation I can think of, as ironic as that sounds.”

“We need to flee,” Kimmel said again. “Let me find you something to bind your legs.”

Ives snorted. “Excuse me. It’s just that…well, I fail to see a way out of this predicament that includes me, unless I wish to be the cause of both your deaths.”

“I refuse to leave without you. What sort of soldier would I be if I abandoned you?”

“An intelligent one, which you are. I know you’ve already realized that the only way you and Tamsen might survive is to let me remain here. Both of my legs are beyond repair—you would have to drag me all the way to the city.”

Kimmel recalled what Armin had said about survival. He wasn’t forcing Ives to sacrifice himself for his sake, but the idea still put a sour taste in his mouth. Was that all his kind was good for: bringing death to others all for the sake of living to eat another day? “Please, at least let me try to help you,” he said, “I don’t know if I can forgive myself if I don’t.”

Ives looked him hard in the eye. “This is not the time to worry about forgiveness. Go to an Aquarian priestess for that.”

A heavy scent of smoke halted Kimmel’s protests. Through a crack in the door, he could see that the main hall and several of the bunks had gone up in flames, bathing the entire outpost in fierce, flickering orange light. The billowing gray smoke mixed with the snow, blotting out the sky and moons. “He’s setting the camp on fire. He wants to burn us out!”

As if sensing the danger, Tamsen began to stir. Ives reached out for Kimmel. “Please, take him and go. He will be here soon, and I will fight him. Just give me my sword.”

Kimmel hesitated before doing Ives’s bidding. This bravery again, this willingness to die—he wondered if it ever made her feel as ill.

He helped Tamsen to his feet as Ives propped himself upright against a wall, clutching his sword. The boy looked at him with glazed eyes. “Uncle?”

“You’ll be fine, lad. Kimmel will bring you to safety. You’re under his command now, so mind yourself.”

Kimmel felt as though he should say something, but he merely gave the nobleman a firm nod of thanks as he shambled to the door with Tamsen in tow, the boy leaning heavily against him.

Outside, he paused to glance around for Armin through the smoke and snowfall that blinded him. He hurried to the inner wall of the perimeter behind the shed, Tamsen in tow. As they limped their way towards the gate, Kimmel looked back to see a figure dart towards the shed. The wooden walls soon burst into flame as well. He fought the urge to cry out for Ives and instead quickened his pace, dashing for the exit.

At the log door, he left Tamsen to wait for him nearby as he hefted it open, his fingernails leaving marks as he clawed the wood, cursing his lack of strength. The logs eventually groaned open just wide enough for the pair of them to slip through, falling into the cold green darkness of the forest.

Kimmel raced on through the trees, pausing only to help Tamsen regain his footing, certain from the position of the gates that they were headed westward towards the city. He could not be sure that their path was entirely straight, however—Tamsen’s weight as the boy struggled to maintain consciousness pulled him to the right, perhaps guiding him in the wrong direction. In the nighttime, the trees and rocks all appeared the same, though the light of the burning outpost, just visible through the thick branches, seemed to grow more distant with time.

After a several minutes of running, Tamsen doubled over coughing and shivering. “Wait…please…” Kimmel hunched beside him as he clutched his side, which had bled through the binding. He realized that he would soon lose Tamsen as well if they didn’t seek shelter somewhere from the cold.

His eyes had adjusted to the dark so that he could see a large collection of rocks and fallen pine branches. A cave would be too obvious for their likely pursuer, but their collective warmth beneath the evergreen cover might be enough to sustain them and hide their whereabouts until morning. Kimmel half-carried Tamsen towards the branches and buried him safely beneath them, burrowing down beside him once he was sure they could both fit. The sharp scent of pine needles filled his nose, his hands sticky with sap. The snow beneath them began to melt, dampening his belly through his coat. Tamsen whimpered and shook nearby. It took Kimmel a moment to realize that he was shaking as well.

He turned to offer a comforting word when a tell-tale crunch of snow beneath boots alerted him to movement outside of the makeshift den. Through the branches and needles, he could see Armin pausing to sniff the air, then the ground, crouched, lupine, upon all fours.

“You’re nearby, aren’t you?” The soldier crooned. “Your scent goes no further than this spot. I’m sorry I had to burn your noble rival alive, but I figured you and the boy would make up for the loss of meat.”

He paced the area like a hungry beast, still sniffing for them. The trail brought him close to the pines. “You’ll die out here. The winter is cold, lad. It eats everything. I’m just doing you a favor.” Armin grinned so that Kimmel could see the strings of flesh caught in his teeth. The scent of pine sap kept them hidden, but for how long?

As he lay there in the cold damp, the pound of his heartbeat throbbing in his ears, it dawned on Kimmel that this moment might be his last. His parents would never know, and nor would she.

Clair. He let her name ring clear in his mind for the first time since he had left for Chiron. Perhaps she was right to let him go—how much worse it would be for her if she knew he had disappeared as well, this time never to return. And yet, he wished he could say something to her, write her a final letter to say goodbye to the woman he swore to love. It pained him that she might never know how he truly felt.

Dear Clair,I don’t have long to live after writing this words, but I want you to know how much I’ve thought of you, and how much I’ve missed you these past months. I want you to know that I would have you with or without a family, even with or without a marriage. To have been by your side would have been the greatest happiness and honor for me. I want you to know that I am sorry.

He tried to still his thoughts as the sound of Armin’s pacing became deafening. He imagined that he could hear his harsh breathing, smell the rank carnivore odor of dried blood on his skin.

I love you. Please trust me. Goodbye.

Kimmel settled into the cold damp earth and waited to die.

oOo

The search party found them the next day. The fires from the burning outpost could be seen from the capital, and so a group of soldiers were sent out from the castle to investigate. One of the dragons nosed Kimmel and Tamsen out from under the branches, both half-dead with the cold and impending pneumonia.

For a week, Kimmel was ordered to remain at the castle infirmary while a doctor checked his health and tended to his minor wounds. He later discovered that Tamsen had expired from his injuries and exposure to the cold, making Kimmel the sole survivor of the Chiron company. The knowledge sent him into a mild depression, though the doctor assured him that there was nothing more he could have done to save the boy, and that his bravery had already gotten him this far. Kimmel wanted to spit at the mention of that word—bravery–but he feared that bitterness would overtake him if he let such things get to him. Instead, he accepted it with a nod.

A later visit from Count Woltar himself surprised him out of his misery, though it was to inquire after Sergeant Reed and the events that had passed. The Count took in his story with a look of maintained solemnity, hovering in silence at the end of his bed until he had finished. “That’s a tale for the campfires, boy.” He said, shaking his head. “I have no reason to disbelieve you, but surely even Vox’s followers aren’t so craven as that. Besides, nobody in the Dragon Brigade has heard of a Colonel Armin Nox. I think your madman was also a skilled liar.”

Kimmel made to argue, but thought better of it. He had no proof. The Count assured him that his efforts would bring him due consideration, and that he would likely be re-stationed in Kirlsa with the rest of his brigade after a few months’ earned leave. Kimmel accepted the news with a grateful nod, all the while praying that Armin did not seek him out in the meantime.

Once the infirmary deemed him fit to leave, he returned home to find that a messenger had spoken to his parents about his coming, and that his old bed had already been made up for him. It took a few hours’ persuasion to keep his mother from fussing over him any longer, and his father simply sat back in his chair with a solemn look that Kimmel hoped might hide his relief at seeing his son alive.

He decided, at his mother’s bidding, to spend his leave there, reading and helping his father with the shop. The events of Chiron sometimes haunted him in nightmares—Ives’s final moments, Alferd’s throat slashed open over the cooking pot, Tamsen dying alone in the infirmary, still stricken with fear in his delirium. It frightened him to think that he might rise to find Armin peering at him through the window with blood-soaked teeth and devilish eyes. When he awoke from the night terrors, he would settle back into his pillow and turn his thoughts to Clair, who still lived, and whom he still had a chance to see once more. He then dreamed of borrowing a lum and riding the full journey back to Arias, but caution kept him from seeking her out when he awoke. What if she hardly knew him anymore, or if she was unhappy that he had returned? The uncertainty put a knot in his stomach, but he dreamed of her anyway.

A few weeks later, a small boy turned up at the house with a letter for him. When Kimmel asked after the letter’s origin, the boy shrugged and said that the man who gave it to him had crossed the border from Aquaria. Kimmel’s hands shook slightly with stifled hope as he opened the parchment sealed in blue wax with the insignia of the Aquarian military.

To Kimmel Barth, Strategist and Private of the Black Brigade:

I know that it has been some time since we have spoken, but I must request that you visit me in Arias for personal reasons. I apologize for the coldness I have shown you in the past, and my failure to contact you since then. Please believe me when I say that I was afraid of bringing you harm, and that the folly of my actions is entirely upon me. If you refuse to accept my invitation on account of my behavior, I will honor your decision by refraining from further communication. However, please consider my request. I would like to see you as soon as possible. I mean this in all honesty.

Regards,

Clair Lasbard, Captain of the Aquarian Runological Unit and Shield Legion

Kimmel reread the letter, examining every line, just to be certain. Yes, she wanted him to see her, but refused to say why. He sensed that something had happened, and that he was indeed needed. Perhaps they both had something from which they needed to recover.

He folded the letter away and began to pack his things. A return message wasn’t necessary: he would send himself. A modicum of uncertainty still plagued him in the back of his mind, but it mattered little. He had sworn that he would come if she needed him, and now it seemed that she did.

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