South Port, Blitzkrieg
Taegan Ryker walked along the dock of the southernmost port in Blitzkrieg. Just beyond the snowcapped waters lay the rest of Bakkaj’s many islands. Blitzkrieg was the northernmost island, and therefore cold nine out of the thirteen months of the year. Ryker coughed into his palm, his breath steamy, and tugged the edge of his scarf over his mouth. He stuffed his fists into his coat’s pocket. Tonight was the coldest night of the season thus far. Most people wouldn’t dare to be out in such temperatures. But Ryker was not like most people.
He turned away from the Frigid Sea and headed down a cobblestone path mixed with snow and ice. The lamps along the dilapidated buildings were damp, the flames extinguished by the cold. He didn’t need lights to see; the sky was alive with lightning from the mountains. Blitzkrieg was known for its peculiar lightning storms. On most nights, especially the colder nights, lightning struck from the northern mountains of the island, which lit up the sky in incandescent streaks. Rumors surrounded the anomaly that dealt with the breath of dragons and magic, but no one had ventured beyond the mountains and survived. The mountains were too cold, buried in snow the further in, and the lightning made it dangerous to get any closer than the base.
Ryker thrived off the lightning storms. Every night, he watched the bolts light up the sky. The storms reminded him of why he was here, in Blitzkrieg. They gave his seventeen-year life a purpose.
He slipped down a narrow alley; the surrounding buildings seemed to lean as if caving in around the slit of the street. The South Port was the largest of the settlements in Blitzkrieg, but it was also the most congested with buildings haphazardly thrown together, streets that veered off in all directions with no layout or pattern, and plenty of dead end alleys and paths that abruptly stopped into uncarved land. It was as if the early settlers had continued to build upon the city as the population grew, plopping down buildings in the next available space.
On the far end of the alley, just before it ended, he pushed open a hatch attached to the building on the left side and climbed through the opening. His worn boots settled on stone floor covered in straw. He pulled the hatch door shut behind him and slid a piece of wood over it. The night might be cold, but that didn’t mean other things—non-human things—wouldn’t roam the streets.
“Ryker?” a small, light voice came from behind the curtain that hung between the hatch and the rest of the room. He could see the illumination of firelight and the silhouette of a person beyond the sheet.
“I’m here, Wren. I’m back,” he replied as he took off his scarf and hung it over a wooden support beam perpendicular to the curtain. His feet hurt because of his boots, but he decided to keep them on in order to keep his toes warmer. He kept his coat on for the same reason. The night was bitter, and their small alcove didn’t keep warm easily.
He pulled back the curtain to find Wren, a girl no older than eleven, sitting on a pile of hay. A small fire burned in the center of the room; the hay had been moved to form a bare circle on the stone floor. Ryker tugged off his cap and ran his fingers through his dark hair, ruffled and messy.
“Wren, I told you to save your energy,” he said squatting next to the pitiful fire. She smiled, her blue eyes shining. The flames melted off the snow dust that covered his clothes, the water dripping to the floor to form puddles.
“I wanted to surprise you. It didn’t take much effort, and I was practicing from the book,” Wren said using her elbow to nudge the bound book sitting in the hay next to her. She twirled pieces of string from her shirt around her fingers.
Ryker lifted his hands to the flame. “How did you find firewood?”
Wren dropped the strings in her lap and grabbed a handful of hay. “Just some hay. Then I made a fire like I’ve seen you do with the stones.” She closed her eyes and squeezed her sepia hand around the hay; her other hand danced above her head, her fingers etching invisible letters in the air. The hay stretched out, grew hard, and darkened in color. When Wren opened her hand, a small pile of twigs sat on her palm. She smiled up at Ryker, showing all her teeth.
Ryker took the twigs from her hand and placed them on the fire. “Clever, girl. But save your energy. We’ll be warm enough tonight.” He dug his hand into his coat pocket. “I brought something for you.”
Wren leaned forward, elbows propped on her knees. Ryker pulled a chunk of bread from his pocket and held it out to her. Her bright eyes grew wide, and she snatched the loaf from his hand.
“It’s still warm!” She lifted the bread to her nose and breathed in deeply, eyelids fluttering. Then her eyes opened, and she stared at him hard. Ryker felt like he had just committed a crime. “Did you steal it?”
Ryker shook his head, a small smile lifting his lips. “No. I promised I wouldn’t. I made an exchange.” She peered at him suspiciously for a second more, but then she ripped the chunk in two and held out half to him. Ryker took it while she ate her portion in small bites.
Ryker’s story was almost true. He hadn’t really stolen it, and he had made an exchange. It just wasn’t with money. They were running low on coins from their shows, and he wasn’t sure if Wren would have the energy to perform tomorrow. When the baker had closed shop for the night, he had thrown out scraps of barely burnt bread. Ryker had waited until he left before digging through the trash and picking apart the burnt sections. In exchange, he had left a good luck charm made of ice on the windowsill. It wasn’t much, but it was a pretty trinket that might catch someone’s eye–a morale boost during the cold months.
Ryker and Wren were still experimenting on different kinds of magic. For the most part, he could make things disappear and reappear to amaze the crowds that came to their shows. Sometimes he could fiddle with the elements, though earth was scarce in these parts aside from the rocks lining every inch of Blitzkrieg’s surface. Creating ice sculptures with his fingers or making fire dance through the air were especially rewarding in money. Wren, however, had a greater ability. She could make anything materialize if the correct ingredients were in the vicinity.
But they both craved more than simple tricks or a single flare of power. They wanted to study and become great like the mages from Central—the biggest island of Bakkaj. That kind of ability would grant them a fortune.
And Wren wouldn’t have to worry about food or shelter or what would happen if she became ill.
“Are we doing another show tomorrow?” Wren asked as she finished off the last of her bread. The words were mumbled, but after living day in and day out together for the past four years, Ryker could understand Wren perfectly—mouth full or not.
“I was thinking we could do something else tomorrow,” Ryker said. He settled on the stone floor, crossing his legs in front of him. He tore off a piece of the loaf and popped it into his mouth, savoring the warm, nutty taste.
“Like what?” Wren picked up her strings again and weaved them around her fingers.
“Maybe we could go fishing. Catch nice juicy fish for supper,” Ryker said. He thought of before Wren, before Blitzkrieg, when he lived on the southwestern island of Taegan with his family. His mother used to take him and his brothers—one older, one younger—to the white sandy shores of the island to fish in the warm water.
“Fish in the ice?” Wren said wrinkling her nose.
Ryker shrugged. “Other people do it. You’ve seen them when we’ve passed. They dig a hole through the ice. I think we could manage that.” He said it with a twinkle in his eyes when he looked at Wren. She nodded and then yawned.
“Sounds… delightful.” Her eyelids drooped, and she yawned again.
Ryker reached over, careful not to dip his sleeve into the fire, and ruffled her short, dark hair. Wren batted away his hand and scrambled back into her hay heap. She lifted her arms above her head and let out a sigh. Ryker pulled the sheet curtain off the beam and folded it three times. He got up and draped it over Wren’s body. Her eyes were closed, but a smile still lit up her face. He tucked it around her until she was cocooned inside of it. Next time they did a show, he would take what he could to buy her a proper blanket. The winter would only get worse from here on out.
After scattering the coals of the fire so they wouldn’t catch while they slept, Ryker lay down in the hay next to Wren. Their body heat gave them the most warmth. He felt a tickle in his throat and turned away from Wren to cough. When he pulled away his hand, blood glistened across his palm. He wiped it against the hay.
“Are you okay, Ryker?” Wren asked in a sleepy voice.
“I’m fine. Go to sleep, Wren,” he replied.
He rolled back so he faced her and wrapped his arms around her body, pulling her to his chest. She cuddled against him, her small frame light and tiny in his arms. He had promised her that he would stop stealing and stop lying. He was fine, though.
Because he had to be.
Ryker traced a circle on the ice, pressing his bare finger against the cold glacier beneath his feet. Wren stood on the dock, bundled up with so many layers of clothes he could only see her eyes and the bridge of her nose. Her scarf was wrapped twice around her neck and still trailed off down her back and into the snow on the boardwalk.
Beneath his finger, the ice began to melt. He pushed his body heat into the ice from his fingertip. The slab began to shrink until a round chunk broke free of the whole solid and bobbed in the choppy water. Ryker slid his fingers around it and pulled it out, the edges still melting at his touch. The cold bit at his skin, and a hiss escaped between his clamped teeth in a flutter of mist. He shivered. He set the block off to the side and peered into the icy waters of the sea. The hole wasn’t big, but he hadn’t wanted to test his magic ability further with such a thick slab of ice. Already he was feeling the affects on his body; he felt tired and hungry. His fingers felt numb from the cold.
He stood, stamping his feet for warmth, and beckoned for Wren to join him on the ice. She took a wobbly step forward, arms stretched out so her mittened hands were raised toward him. Her boots skidded across the ice, and she fell into his arms. He twirled her around, sliding near the hole. Laughter—almost as if magic could be heard—rose from behind Wren’s scarf. Her eyes were even brighter against the morning light.
They had woken early, which wasn’t unusual for them. It was easier to stake out a street corner or a spot in the market square in the earlier hours before the streets became congested with people. Ryker wanted the quiet of the morning to fish—something his father had taught him to cherish. No one else was out yet. The sun was barely rising over the sea. The world glistened as if layered in a sheen of magic.
Ryker spun Wren around until her laughter melted into wobbly “ohs.” He released her and helped steady her feet before leading her back to the hole. Where her hand locked with his, he felt a rush of warmth.
“How do we catch fish with a hole?” she asked, her voice muffled.
Ryker pulled a string from his pocket. A piece of burnt bread was stuck on a rusty nail that was tied to the end of the string. “You need bait to catch fish. I don’t know if this will work, but we can try.” He had seen other fishermen use all sorts of leftover food to catch fish in the chilly waters. When he had gone fishing in Taegan, they always caught bugs beforehand to tempt the fish. But Blitzkrieg didn’t have bugs; it was too cold.
He handed the string to Wren, and she dipped the bread end into the water. They waited, the morning’s cold settling over them. But nothing happened.
Wren jerked the string as if waving the bread around in the water would attract the fish easier. “How long does it take?”
Ryker coughed into his hand. “You have to be patient, Wren. That’s what fishing is about. Learning patience.”
She frowned, her eyebrows dipping down toward her eyes in frustration. It was something Ryker noticed about Wren since they first met. She didn’t like to wait; if she wanted something, she wanted it immediately. Sometimes her magic was that way too, which usually backfired. If she didn’t take her time to summon specific details, things could get messy.
Wren switched holding the string to her other hand. She placed one mittened hand against the ice, near the edge of the hole. She stared at the water as if willing the fish to come. Maybe Ryker had been wrong and fish didn’t live this close to Blitzkrieg; maybe it was too frozen for anything to survive.
But then the string went taunt. Wren let out a squeal.
“Pull it up! Don’t let go,” Ryker said leaping to his feet. Wren grabbed the string with both hands and yanked hard. She fell backwards, pulling the string with her. A small, black fish dangled on the end of the string. Wren scrambled to her feet and held the string out toward Ryker.
“I caught one!” she said, eyes bright and beaming. Ryker smiled until he looked at the fish more closely.
It wriggled on the end, but then it went still. The black color began to fade rapidly, the scales falling off and dissipating into dust. Soon all that was left was the skeleton body of a fish—white, thin bones.
“Oh, Wren,” Ryker said with a sigh. Instead of actually catching a fish, she had summoned it from the depths of the sea. He bent down next to the hole and sure enough, there were small letters rubbed into the ice where Wren had placed her hand. In response to her call, the sea had conjured up whatever ingredients were readily available to form a fish: old bones and dead scales.
Wren’s face fell when she saw Ryker’s disappointed look. She dropped her hand, the end of the string dragging against the ice.
“Wren,” Ryker said bending down so he was at eye level with her, “you can’t just use magic to summon anything you want. That’s cheating. And it doesn’t always work. Remember the heart?”
At one show, they had been approached for a special request by a wealthy man. He had requested Wren give his son the heart of a soldier after he was chosen to join Blitzkrieg’s border guard. He had expected his son to gain a sense of courage or bravery, but instead, she had summoned an actual, beating heart. The ingredients had been a combination of animal organs, human blood, and melted snow. It hadn’t gone well for them when the heart appeared on the middle of the table and a soldier stationed outside fainted from bloodloss.
Since then, Ryker was very careful about how Wren used her magic to grant requests. It had to be a literal, physical request or the side effects were disastrous. Another incident could end their shows permanently.
“I’m sorry, Ryker,” Wren said quietly. “I just wanted to catch the fish.”
He placed his hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I know. But we have to be careful. There are consequences to magic. You’ve read the book. We can’t use it for everything.”
She nodded, but she didn’t lift her eyes to him. The mage book they had managed to swindle from an apothecary claimed that every act of magic required an exchange. Something had to be given in order to take. By taking the decomposed pieces of a fish, Wren had given something in return. Ryker wasn’t sure what Wren’s exchange was comprised of, though. When she used magic, the effects didn’t come in a physical form–exhaustion, sickness, hunger–like it did for Ryker. Their single book of magic didn’t tell them much about the exchange, but magic books were hard to come by in Blitzkrieg. People liked to keep magic to the myths and mountains.
“We can try again,” Ryker suggested. The day was still early. The shops hadn’t even opened yet, and the other fishermen hadn’t arrived.
Ryker looked up from Wren. The streets were bare and cold, the lanterns were unlit, the snow brilliant against the grey-washed buildings. A figure moved toward them from down the dock, a silhouette against the port.
He thought it must be a dock worker preparing for the day, but as the figure grew closer, Ryker felt uneasy. He stood, his hand reaching instinctively toward Wren.
Then he heard the footsteps.
Slow, stiff, and perfectly timed. It was a rhythm he’d heard before, and every time it spread chills across his skin. Husk.
The figure didn’t move with the brisk bounce most citizens of Blitzkrieg used to keep warmth flowing through their bodies as they went about their day. It walked in an even pace, more like a trained soldier of war.
Ryker grabbed Wren’s hand and wrenched her off the ice and onto the dock. He whipped his head around, and his breath choked. There was no one else nearby. Ryker’s free hand shook at his side.
The figure drew closer, and Ryker noticed the other tell-tale signs: dulled, listless eyes, the skin reddened around the edges; mouth hanging open but without sufficient breath moving in and out; and wounds–dark and oozing–that didn’t heal. Like it was diseased.
It was diseased. Diseased by magic.
This was what happened when someone used too much magic. They became a husk, a being empty of thought and adequate feeling. Most husks wandered, lifeless, but other times, Ryker had heard, they were controlled by mages.
“Wren,” Ryker’s voice was a harsh whisper, “run home.” She looked up at him, eyes wide. He let go of her hand and when she hesitated, he said, “Go. Run!”
Wren took off down the nearest street, disappearing around a corner, her scarf fluttering out behind her. Twice he had encountered husks–once when he’d lost his family and another when he’d found Wren. Both times, he’d barely managed to get away. Wren had been hiding in a cupboard when they husks had ripped her parents to shreds. If Ryker hadn’t arrived, they would have taken her, too.
At the time, Ryker had a specialized weapon–an expensive weapon–forged by magic with the purpose of destroying husks.
As the husk approached, Ryker could hear its labored breathing as its body tried to keep up with its movements. This husk didn’t look like the ones Ryker had seen before; it looked more human. But he knew it was a trick, a distraction to keep him from destroying it. The legends he heard on Taegan claimed husks didn’t move of their own freewill; someone–something–took control of them once their souls were consumed by magic.
The husk’s eyes burned with darkness. Its face was taut, empty of emotions and understanding.
Legend also claimed there was only one way to destroy husks: kill the entity controlling them with a weapon forged by magic. Ryker had such a weapon–a lightning dagger of Blitzkrieg said to be forged with the breath of dragons–but he had used its magic to save Wren four years ago. He still kept the rusty dagger as a reminder of what he had done–something else to remind him of his purpose here. But it was back in the hatch with their other possessions.
Ryker glanced at the hole in the ice beside the dock. There might only be one way to kill a husk, but he doubted a husk would recover from being frozen in the Frigid Sea. As the husk lunged toward him, Ryker took off across the ice, praying it wouldn’t crack beneath him.