Chapter Four: The Ice Does Not Forgive

South Port, Blitzkrieg

Ryker twisted around to face the husk, his boots sliding on the snow-coated ice. Surprisingly, the husk had followed him across the slippery surface, its homogenous gait even more rigid on the glacier. Behind Ryker, the choppy waves of the Frigid Sea rammed against the edge of the icecap, broken slabs drifting away from the shallow port. This was the furthest Ryker could go without risking his own skinny neck.

Before the husk reached him, Ryker dodged right and sprinted out of reach. The husk stumbled, its body lurching toward him while its feet continued where Ryker had stood. As it repositioned its limbs beneath itself, Ryker crouched low to the crystal surface. The chunk was so clear that if snow didn’t drift across in unparallel piles, he would see the streaming dark waters and the native pinniped critters beneath–their slim, sleek bodies driving against the fierce waves.

When Ryker’s finger touched the solid slab, he gasped at the cold. It dug into his skin, numbing his bones. But he had to continue. He thought of Wren running down the street toward their nest. If he didn’t return, she would be alone. If he didn’t return, what would she do?

Focusing on the energy of his body, aside from the rapid thump of his heart, Ryker began to trace a line of warmth into the ice. Keeping low with one finger on the ice, he started around the husk; the fiend lumbered toward him in an angry, tottering waltz.

Around and around, he circled the husk. His fingertip never left the ice, even when it grew so cold he thought it must have turned into an icicle. His boots skidded; his eyelids drooped heavily with fatigue. But the ice cracked.

The husk rotated in an unending whirl as it tried to lock onto Ryker. Blood slobbered from its mouth, its lips chapped and peeling. Ryker paused for breath, his chest stitched tight. The husk swiped at him, a moan rumbling in its throat. Ryker jumped back, teetering near the end of the glacier, as the husk’s long, gray fingers clutched his coat. Inches away, the husk’s face peered at him with its splotchy, gaunt skin and reddened eyes. The stench of raw meat and feces mingled between them.

Ryker thrust his palm into the husk’s chest, pushing it back. The husk released its grip and staggered onto the chunk Ryker had cut from the glacier. Ryker tumbled to the left, away from the edge of the ice and the crack he’d created.

The slab the husk stood on began to dip toward the nebulous waters. Ryker slipped his hands into his coat pocket, rubbing his fingers together to bring back feeling to the tips. his nose felt raw around the nostrils. His bones felt coated in a layer of morning frost–crisp and splintering with every movement.

The husk tilted its head to the side, its eyes unfeeling. Ryker felt a shiver run through him. Would he become like that eventually? He pulled his hand from his pocket and stared at the mottled skin. Red droplets hit his palm in rapid succession. He sucked a shredded breath in through his mouth and brought his hand to his nose, intercepting the flow. Blood dribbled out of his nose in a calm rivulet, spilling over his upper lip and across his fingers. Globules fell and hit the glacier, staining the white snow.

He heard a satisfying crack as the slab the husk stood on split from the main glacier and capsized. The husk took a step, bewilderment flashing across its face to Ryker’s surprise, before it fell into the rippling water. Ryker stepped forward, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand, and peered down the skiff-sized hole he’d formed in the ice. The husk bobbed at the surface, the slab sticking straight up. Then the husk lunged for him, its arm shockingly fast. It wrapped gnarled fingers around Ryker’s ankle and tugged.

Ryker crashed to the ice, his head banging against the hard surface. He scrambled for purchase, his bloodied fingers digging at the snow, but the slab was smooth, the snow scattering beneath his grasp.

His boot touched the waters, and he heard the husk groan. Ryker screamed, his muscles burning as he scratched at the glacier. He gritted his teeth and felt something bump against his ankle. A gray body, slim and sleek, gently passed underneath the ice. Dozens of pinnipeds dove beneath the waters, their bodies bumping against the husk. Ryker focused on the spot where the pinnipeds gathered, their smooth skin rippling against his exposed flesh. He transferred their heat through him, up his leg and through his torso, until the warmth reached his fingertips. Then he dug into the ice until he had melted away a handhold and he pulled himself up.

The husk struggled beneath him, but its grip on him released as the waves crashed over its wailing mouth. Ryker scrambled out of the hole, shaken by the husk’s dying sound, and dragged himself across the snow. Tears pricked his eyes, freezing at the corners. The husk had sounded almost human.

He rolled over, breathing heavily, and stared up at the colorless sky. Beside him, the slab of ice crashed back into the water, splashing the waves.

Ryker lay there for a while, trying to find the energy to pick himself up. His bones felt brittle; his skin felt burned. His entire body trembled. He could smell the cold layering him in a blanket. He shivered; his toes and fingers aching. He coughed and coughed, unable to stop the tickle at his throat or the blood from meeting his lips.

At some point before the dock workers arrived, Ryker stopped coughing and managed to roll himself onto his belly, his muscles protesting. He crawled his way back over the ice, onto the dock, and down the streets of the southern port until he found Wren waiting for him at the alcove. Then he closed his eyes and slept–the eyes of the husk plaguing his dreams.

♦♦♦

East Port, Blitzkrieg

“Wren,” Ryker hissed between the folds of the makeshift curtain. He glanced back at the small crowd surrounding their corner of the marketplace in East Port and flashed a smile toward the pale faces. Everybody in Blitzkrieg looked the same after a while, whether they were from South Port or East Port or the Northern Tundras. If it weren’t for his curved eyes, Ryker would blend in just the same. Wren would never blend in, even if she didn’t already have darker skin or bright eyes. “Are you ready?”

“Almost. I can’t find my beak.” Wren’s voice was muffled.

Peeking through the slit, Ryker saw Wren, buried beneath layers of clothes, spinning in a circle as she tried to unravel her feet from a bright yellow skirt. Her cheeks were flushed, and not just from the cold, Ryker noted. She stepped out of the skirt and straightened the feather boa around her neck.

“Just do without. You look great,” he said. She looked up at him, eyes bright, and smiled. He grinned and thrust the curtain back together. He felt a tickle at his throat but ignored it and spun around, arms thrown wide.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” His voice rose over the crowd and turned the heads of hagglers near the food carts.

During the winter months, East Port held market day once a month to sell any imported goods. Ships didn’t travel this far north often due to the Frigid Sea freezing over, but when they came, the people arrived from the city and nearby settlements to taste something other than coarse bread, rice, and pierogies. On those days, Ryker made sure they performed in the center of the market square. They were always able to wow the onlookers into handing over a few coins, which they could then use to purchase their own food. Ryker’s stomach had been rumbling since he first whiffed the freshly cooked meat and the baked bread.

“For our final act, we will pull a bird out of the sky.” Ryker lifted his hand toward the endless grey clouds. A few gasps came from the people clustered nearby. Birds were uncommon in Blitzkrieg, especially in the larger cities, and if there were any, they only arrived on the wings of spring. Pulling one from the sky would have the people buzzing for days.

Ryker smirked and gave a dramatic bow, his lanky frame spreading out across the makeshift stage. The three boxes he’d haggled from a nearby fruit cart were lined up next to each other, giving him ample room to perform his tricks above the crowd’s heads. As he bowed, he took off his top hat with one hand and pulled a rope with the other. The curtain opened behind him.

Standing atop another stack of boxes–these he’d found in a back alley trash heap–Wren poised like a bird about to take flight. Long material draped over her, swaddling her body in white flutters. The boa spread out with her arms, giving the illusion of feathery wings.

Ryker straightened and stepped to the side, giving the bystanders a full view of the little wren bird. The throng erupted in applause, and Wren beamed. She hopped off the boxes, her dress flying out behind her like a tail, as if she were gliding down from her perch. The crowd murmured in awe.

This was always Ryker’s favorite part of their show. He would open with a few displays of simple tricks, growing more and more intricate as the hour passed. But always, they ended with Wren and her ability. This far north people didn’t hold onto magic like they did in Central or in the south. It was known to exist, but Blitzkrieg didn’t harness it. If they could pull off a good enough trick, they might attract other customers to pay more for Wren’s magic. Wealthy customers that had more to offer than a few coins. That would buy Wren warmer clothes or a place for her to stay when the weather worsened.

Wren held a finger to her lips, eyeing the crowd with her bright eyes. The spectators immediately silenced, their faces full of anticipation. The younger viewers watched with hungry eyes.

Slowly, Wren raised her hands above her head, the material shimmering with every movement. She closed her eyes and her lips parted. She let out a series of chirps, which sent startled shivers through the crowd. Above her head, her fingers danced in the air, spelling out words that only she could see.

Ryker held his breath, watching her closely. He knew she could do it; she’d done it before in other ports. But lately she’d become impatient during their shows, trying to rush her magic to please the crowd. They’d practiced, Ryker emphasizing that sometimes raising the tension was a good thing in the show, but Wren still tried too quickly and the magic would fail. When that happened, Ryker had to salvage the show with another display of tricks. It didn’t always work.

But ever since the husk two days ago, Wren had paid closer attention to Ryker’s advice. She hadn’t disagreed with his method of setting up the show, and she didn’t object to the bird trick. He hoped this was a sign all would go well.

As Wren traced letters into the air with one hand, she began to make tugging gestures toward the sky, as if she could merely pluck the bird from the clouds. The whole trick was done with complete silence. They didn’t need large movements or dramatic monologue. Ryker would prefer to include music in their shows, but unless they made more money or could magically pull an instrument from the air and know how to play it, they couldn’t afford to do that. If only they lived in Central–where people performed magic every day and other people paid generous fees to watch it.

With a flick of her wrist, Wren pulled a bird from the air above her head. The crowd gasped, and Ryker grinned. She had done it flawlessly. He, of course, had seen the pieces of the bird come together, hovering in the air for the briefest of seconds, before merging into a solid form on Wren’s finger.

She held the bird over her head; its wings fluttered and it shifted its head.  Warm murmurs spread through the crowd, astonishment weighing their words. The bird lifted from Wren’s finger and flew around her head. Wren beamed and stood up straighter, the dress shifting around her body.

She bowed, stretching the boa out with her arms, and when she rose, the bird landed on her outstretched palm. The spectators broke into applause and smiling faces. Ryker joined her at the center of their stage and gave another sweeping bow. He left his hat on the stage edge, flipped up so people could deposit money into the top. Wren took Ryker’s hand with her free one. The bird stayed perched on Wren’s palm. They stepped back, and Ryker pulled the curtain closed, the applause ringing in his ears.

Wren slumped against the stack of boxes, eyes drooping. She crushed the bird, which was made of parchment, into a ball. Ryker dashed around the back of their stage, gathering the various clothing and objects he had used during his performance. Wren yawned and rubbed at her face.

“That went well,” she said. She unfolded the paper, smoothing it out against the boxes. Numbers were hastily written across the page in chicken-scratch. Ryker’s calculations and estimates of their work over the last few weeks.

“Yes. You did splendid,” Ryker said. He paused stuffing a pair of pants and a vest into a bag to look at her. “You stole the show.”

Wren shrugged. “We’ll find out.”

Ryker zipped the bag closed and made a mental note to drop it off at the governor’s office on their way out of the market square. He had borrowed the outfit for the show along with the top hat. He didn’t think the governor would miss one suit from his closet today.

“Do you want to go get the hat?”

Wren nodded and pulled the shimmering dress off her form. Beneath, she wore her typical mismatch of clothes: a sweater pulled over a long tunic, leggings with a long skirt that reached her calves, and her boots. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and pulled on her mittens.

She disappeared between the curtains. Ryker continued to organize the items he had “borrowed” from the surrounding area. He would have to drop off the stage crates at the fruit cart, take the leftover bundle of wood to the tavern down the street from the governor’s office, and smuggle the white gown back into the infirmary on the other side of town. He could manage all of that before dark if they didn’t have any other client requests.

“Ryker,” Wren’s voice came from behind the curtain. He set the bundle of wood on the stack of boxes. He pulled open the curtains. Three men, all wearing fancy suits tucked behind long overcoats, peered up at him from the cobblestone. Wren clutched the top hat in her mittened hands, slightly trembling.

“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Ryker said, making sure his voice was level and commanding like when he gave announcements to the crowd. He eyed the men, a little wary at their polished shoes and fancy buttons.

“We request an audience with your…” The man in front glanced at Wren. She didn’t look at him; her eyes stayed fixed on the top hat. Ryker had taught her not to engage with potential customers, in case anyone got the wrong idea. He’d heard of too many stories where magic-wielders were hauled off against their will because someone thought they would be better as a slave or personal companion. He’d also taught her how to defend herself and get out of someone’s embrace if they grabbed her.

“Conjurer,” Ryker offered.

The man nodded. The other two, who stood a step behind him, didn’t even twitch at the word. Whoever this man was–with his sallow face and thin-rimmed glasses–he knew of magic. Perhaps he had visited Central, or was a foreigner to Blitzkrieg himself.

“We still have to clean up. Can we meet you at the tavern in an hour?” Ryker offered.

The man’s mouth twitched; the other two wore the same stone-like expression. “We prefer someplace more private. I have an office in the trade district, near the docks, number 342. Can you meet there?”

Ryker went over the city layout in his head. East Port was slightly less confusing than South Port. It was organized into several districts to make trade and the market more appealing to visitors and merchants. He knew the trade district; it was near the small hovel he’d managed to convince a nearby innkeeper to let them stay in.

“One hour. We’ll be there,” he said.

The man nodded, and without a word, he and the other three turned together and walked across the market toward one of the streets that exited toward the docks. Ryker watched them go, feeling uneasy. They needed the money, of course, and the man looked like he might have a lot to offer. He would prefer to meet somewhere more public, but the trade district was always teeming with fishermen and dock workers. It couldn’t hurt.

“Are you alright?” he asked Wren, once the men had disappeared beyond his sight. Something about the way they moved–all in sync–nibbled at his mind, but he let the thought go. He was just paranoid because of the husk. They weren’t husks; they didn’t look or smell like husks. They were just wealthy men–probably cheating some bloke out of his rightful wages–that needed assistance. Ryker could provide that assistance for a price. A fat price that would even the odds a little.

“I don’t like him, Ryker,” Wren said. Her bright eyes drooped, both from exhaustion and fear. They hadn’t gotten much sleep between traveling to East Port and finding a place to set up the show.

Ryker sighed and went to her. He put his hands over hers, holding the hat with her, and kneeled down on the crates. “I know. East Port is a little different than Southern or West.”

She shrugged but refused to look at him.

“Hey,” he said. “You’ll do great. You always do. And I’ll be right with you the whole time.”

“He just… looked scary.”

Ryker frowned. Sure the man hadn’t been the most attractive face in Blitzkrieg, he had a little pudge to his cheeks and a pallid tone to his skin, but that was typical of the citizens here. There wasn’t anything about the man that he would describe as “scary.” Strange, maybe a bit repulsive, but not scary.

Sometimes Ryker felt that Wren saw things in a different way than him. It was as if she could see another layer of the world–and not just with people. At times she would say things that just didn’t make sense to Ryker such as “the falling sky looks like diamonds” or “the children like your music, Ryker.” Things that were slightly on the gibberish side, but at the same time rang true. Children were enthralled by Ryker–not because of music but because of his magic abilities. And at times the snow did look like diamonds falling from the sky. It was just an oddity that Ryker thought stemmed from her magic use or because of her tragic past.

“Why don’t you get some rest while I pack up the rest of the show?” Ryker suggested. Wren nodded, eyelids fluttering. She let go of the hat and slipped from beneath Ryker’s fingers. He watched her saunter back through the curtain and sit against the cold stone wall of the nearby building. She curled her knees to her chest and lay her head between them.

Maybe she’s too tired to work today, Ryker thought. Maybe we shouldn’t go.

But as he looked down at the top hat, he knew they hadn’t received nearly enough for the coming weeks. They would have to perform again tomorrow and hope people would be out and about. Or they could meet the wealthy man and get three times as much as he held in his hat.

Ryker poured the coins into a cloth bag and tied it to his belt. Most people would be satisfied by tucking their money purse into a jacket pocket, but Ryker knew better. In a few hours, when the market began to close up, the urchins would take to the streets to pick through whatever was left over, including people who wandered around. And that’s when most people would find their money purse was not secure in a jacket pocket. Ryker always tied anything important to his person or kept his hand clutched around it as he walked.

He took down the curtain and folded it up, and packed up the rest of the scattered items. He grabbed the crates and returned them to the nearby fruit cart owner, who didn’t look any more impressed than when Ryker had originally asked for the crates. But she did hand Ryker two round fruits–grapefruit, from what Ryker could remember of his time in Taegan. He hadn’t had grapefruit in years, and he doubted Wren had ever tasted it.

While Wren ate, Ryker explored the market to find their next week of supplies. He splurged once on fresh bread, and he only slipped a few extra potatoes in his pocket when the merchant turned his back to restock the carrots. All the food from the market would pale in comparison to the fields in the Southern Isles. By the time the food reached this far north, it was barely salvageable. Ryker made sure only to take small potatoes, ones that wouldn’t be missed and would probably be thrown out at the end of the day.

When he returned to Wren, it was time for their appointment.

“We don’t have to do it, Wren,” Ryker said as he gathered the curtains in his arms. “We can skip out, go back to the room and sleep.”

Wren shook her head and lifted the bag of fancy clothes. “No, we need to go. I’ll– I’ll be fine.”

Ryker nodded, but Wren didn’t sound convinced. Maybe she was just worried–like he was–that they would run into more trouble. When he’d crawled back into their hidey-hole after the fight with the husk, she’d been upset. She hadn’t left his side the whole day while he slept off the fatigue of using his magic. She had protested about traveling to East Port, worried over him.

They left the market square, stopping at the tavern to drop off the wood. He received a mug of chicory in return, which he handed to Wren. She needed the energy more than he did. After leaving the bag of clothes in the governor’s office, exactly where he had found it early that morning, they headed toward their hovel to drop off the curtain and their other belongings. They would return the gown in the morning. It would give Ryker the chance to scout out the northern part of the city for any potential corners to put on another show.

They reached the Trading District as the sun was beginning to touch the edge of the horizon beyond the sea. They would have plenty of time to fulfill the man’s request and return to their hovel before sundown. Ryker wondered what a man of luxury would even need, but it must be something that wasn’t easily purchased on the frozen island.

Dock workers loaded cargo onto ships while fishermen prepped their catches. Most of the Trading Offices were finished for the day; the windows darkened and signs that read closed left to hang in the windows. Still, Ryker continued on, confident in their choice to respond to the business request.

They found number 342, and Ryker rapped his knuckles on the sturdy wood door. Wren stayed behind him, clutching at his coat sleeve. He gave her a reassuring smile when the door opened. One of the stone-faced men stood at the door; once more he wore no expression and didn’t even seem to blink.

“Mr. Lock awaits you. This way please,” the man said in a gravelly voice. Ryker felt Wren shudder against him. He took her hand, squeezing it hard. The man stayed at the door, but motioned for them to enter the room. Ryker led Wren inside the office.

Mr. Lock sat at a desk, hands folded on the surface and back against a highset chair with fancy cushions and a wooden design. Ryker tried not to calculate in his head how much the chair alone would cost, not to mention the desk, the carpet, and the paintings on the wall. He swallowed hard. If they pulled this off, they could get perhaps five times more than they had earned earlier today.

“Please, sit,” Mr. Lock said. He pointed toward the two seats in front of the desk–one was a cushioned chair, the other a stool. Ryker glanced at Wren before releasing her hand and sitting on the stool. Wren went to the chair and perched on the edge. Mr. Lock frowned but didn’t say anything.

“You have a request, sir?” Ryker said.

“Yes, I do,” Mr. Lock said with smile. It wasn’t a terrible smile; it just made his cheeks puff out and look even redder than they did in the cold, but Wren still shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“As you may know,” Ryker continued, “there are limitations to what we can assist with. If we cannot fulfill your request, we will let you know at no charge.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” the man said, his voice taking a dark turn. “I already have what I want.”

He flipped his hand through the air, and before Ryker could react, one of the stone-faced men slammed his fist into the side of Ryker’s head. He toppled off the stool and hit the floor hard. Wren screamed, but all Ryker heard was a ringing in his ears. The stone-faced man stomped his foot into Ryker’s side. Choking for breath, Ryker lifted his hand in defense, but the man easily pummelled him again.

“Grab her, quick!” Mr. Lock’s voice roared, taking on an unearthly tone. Ryker shuddered and tried to get up, but his head buzzed and his vision twisted under his eyes. “Bind her fingers so she can’t write.”

The stone-faced man grabbed Wren by the arms. She screamed again, mouth contorted, eyes wide. Ryker reached for her, but his arm wouldn’t move. He felt another boot slam into the side of his head, and he slumped back to the floor. Black spots covered his vision.

Mr. Lock yanked Wren’s arms toward him and quickly bundled them with cloth and rope, until her hands were completely covered. The stone-faced man held her at the shoulders so when she tried to kick out like Ryker had taught her, she only punted the air. Both men towered over Ryker, and he swore their faces started to change into monstrous beings with purple eyes and antlers jutting from their heads. When he blinked, they were normal men again.

“What about the kid?” A deep voice came from the other side. The other stone-faced man.

“Leave him. He’s only a Nearti. He’d never survive the Oubliette. Too weak,” Mr. Lock said. “Let’s go.”

Mr. Lock pulled a sack over Wren’s head, and the three men left, not bothering to close the door behind them. Ryker’s heart lurched after them, pulling at him with such intensity he clutched at his chest and screamed. He crawled after them, trying to push across the carpet with his fingers. He tried to call out, to alert someone for help, but his throat felt choked still. The men walked down the docks toward a ship. The further they went from him, the more intense the pain in his chest grew. Ryker raised his hands, trying to summon the will to manipulate the sea, but his head felt buried beneath a layer of blankets. Blinded, suffocating.

As they boarded the ship, Ryker pulled himself against the doorframe until he stood. The world spun and he tasted blood in his mouth where his teeth had slit his cheek. He took a few steps forward and had to rest his hands against the office building’s stone walls to steady himself. A dock worker passed him and mumbled about it being too early to drink.

Workers pulled up the ship plank and began to prepare to set sail. Ryker half-stumbled, half-ran down the path after the ship, left leg limping and his heart pounding his ears. He had to reach her. He had to get Wren back.

The ship pulled anchor as Ryker reached the edge of the dock. He stood as the ship cut through the choppy waters toward the setting sun. He doubled-over, dry-heaving as he thought his heart would explode inside of him. When he straightened, breath ragged, Ryker checked his pockets and found the chunk of bread he had bought for Wren in the market. He shoved it in his mouth, chewing quickly and ignoring the sting on the inside of his cheek.

He checked that his money purse was secure at his hip, and he dug through his jacket pockets and pulled out two books. One was the magic book from the apothecary; the other was something his mother had made for him long ago. They were the only two books he owned. He shoved them down his waistband.

Then, Ryker dove into the icy waters of the Frigid Sea and began to swim toward the ship, shivering at the convulsion of his heart.

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