Carmen Avel kept her head below the tops of the thick, shoulder-high grass, not to avoid predators, but because she feared the sky. Having spent her childhood tending mushrooms in the shadow of giant trees, the forest elf was a creature of shade. That life was gone, replaced with a chaotic rhythm that crunched and warbled in her mind. The empty blue above the meadow seemed hungry. She feared it would notice her—snatch her from the ground to fall forever into an infinite void.
Foolishness. Carmen cursed herself for daydreaming. She scouted ahead through the wide stalks of fertile heather. Her tea-colored tunic was dotted with burrs, as were the feathered tips of her arrows. The elf’s olive-green skin was pink from unfamiliar exposure to the sun. Carmen moved around muddy areas and clumps of wildflowers that might give away her position. She stayed far enough ahead of the group to determine the safest path, but not so far as to lose them. With clever tiebacks she created a trail they could follow without disturbing the meadow. Carmen Avel was an excellent guide, not that it mattered; the three strangers who made up her party were louder than a branch of magpies. She heard the negotiator, Paja, yelling twenty yards behind her.
“Will ye slow down, Nil? I can’t run the whole day long!” At two feet tall, Paja hadn’t seen the sky since they left the road. The field was a jungle to the city-born trick. His black velvet, silver-buttoned vest and fine linen shirt trailed a thicket’s worth of thistles and thorns. “Maybe ye should swaddle me like a babe to your breast, ye huge oaf!”
“I didn’t sign up to work with no trick!” Nil growled, pulling a length of bark off the eight feet of fresh sapling she had cut an hour before. The wood stripped easily in her huge, calloused hands. It would make a fine quarterstaff. Hired to provide security, the muscular young woman followed Carmen’s tiebacks with casual competence. Broad, and taller than six feet, the brown-skinned human could see over the grass they were moving through. Untamed fields surrounded them for miles. The millennium oaks of the Cloud forest ahead were specks on the horizon. The yellow-tinged smog of the city was a mere ribbon in the sky behind. The world was a fresh breeze and a sea of rippling, chest-high grass.
“I didn’t sign up to work with no wine-soaked bum in mismatched leathers!” Paja’s baritone brogue was too big to come from his tiny body. “I’m legal! Ye saw me paperwork. Tricks are a protected species. We don’t steal souls nor switch babies like them bed stories say.” Like most of his kind, Paja had the outward appearance of a stout, six-year-old boy. He had milky skin, rosy cheeks and impossibly thick black hair that tousled over his light blue eyes. The illusion of innocence shattered when he spoke, showing a pointed tongue and sharp, cat-like teeth.
“In the third volume of the Book of Balance, the Preceptor, Wudlow, postulates that the wisest being walks only as fast as their slowest companion.” Rub was in the rear, close enough to put their hand on Paja.
Just four feet tall, the barrel-shaped dwarf cut a huge swath through the grass. The priest was using a fine steel comb to brush seeds and nettles from their thick off-white robe. Their hair was a bowl of sun-whitened blonde that rode above their large, sunburnt ears, never touching their wispy squarish beard. A wooden scale, its arms in balance, hung between their small, pillowy breasts.
“Did ye just call me slow, priest?” Paja blustered.
“Be quiet! Will you stop yelling!” Carmen’s head popped above the grass twenty yards in front of the group. At her full five feet, only her face and crudely shorn white hair were visible. The elf’s olive skin was flushed wine with emotion, her delicate mouth twisted. She felt tears creep into her voice and swallowed them. “We have to get to Pawkett, and you need to be quiet!” It was the most she had said since meeting the three strangers that morning.
“Who was that? Was that the elf?” Paja hopped but could only see grass and the back of Nil’s thighs.
“Yeah, it’s Carmen.” Nil looked beyond the elf, shrugging. Her ill-fitted leather armor creaked like a saddle. Her wide, acne-scarred face held an earnest resignation. “We got time to make up. Going off road shaves two days off the trip; we save the per diem. That’s good money. A field this close to the city? Safe as boiled water. Even if I was quiet, Rub’s pack—”
Thirty feet beyond Carmen, a pheasant burst into the air, chirping an alarm. Three green and black grasshoppers, the size of ears of corn, buzzed into view nearer the group on Carmen’s left side. What had disturbed them? The elf felt her skin prickle as she heard something crashing through the grass. Clicking noises, like teeth snapping, began to whisper in the concealing green. Carmen watched as the big human, Nil, stripped the last of the bark off her staff.
“Carmen, get behind me!” Nil yelled. She moved into a fighting stance, grasped her new weapon with both hands, and swung in low, widening arcs. Not as effective as a scythe, the whooshing quarterstaff cleared enough of the tall grass that Nil could see in a rough circle around her.
Carmen saw moving ripples in the meadow, like shark fins; one was five yards away, the other ten. The angry mouth sounds and clacking of teeth grew louder. She turned and sprinted back towards the group. Her head was fully above the heather, no time to worry about the hungry sky; she was being hunted. The clear area of Nil’s protection was fifteen feet away when she saw Rub and Paja move into its outer edge. Something was whirring in Paja’s hand. A few more steps and Carmen would be safe.
Smelling like vinegar and rot, a creature landed on Carmen’s back, driving her to the ground. She felt hands clutching, finding purchase on her quiver while dragging her down into the grass. Carmen’s eyes met with Nil’s, seeing anger there. The big woman checked on either side of herself and swiped down more grass, but she did not help the endangered elf.
Carmen Gets a Job
Carmen Avel pushed her hands into her pockets, feeling hollow and lost on the best-smelling street in the city of Knock. To her left was a store window displaying a chocolate sculpture of a falcon taking flight. To her right, a vendor was sprinkling cinnamon onto freshly made crepes. Sweet Street turned butter and sugar into money. Carmen had eaten boiled weeds for the last three days; her stomach rumbled.
The early morning air was humid, hinting at the heat to come. The sky above was yellow, stained by the great white walls which surrounded the city. In between a candy maker and a shop selling bespoke muffins, the elf spotted the Bakers Guild. The white clapboard row house had arched windows and a blue-veined, marble sculpture of a cupcake wearing a chef’s hat perched on the slate gable. Near the street was a well-maintained bulletin board with a tiny roof that matched the guild house. The board was full of writs, some official, some scrawled by hand. The top of the board read:
Bakers Guild Contract Employment
At the bottom corner of the board was a thick piece of pink paper stamped with two seals: the Scale, the official sign of the Church of Balance, and the Triad mark of the citizens. It read:
Earn a Citizen Mark
Forest Guide Experience Preferred
When Carmen saw the triad mark, the chaotic thing that had stolen into her mind surged against her mental defenses. Her head throbbed. The elf did not know what shared the space in her that had once been held by the forest god. She knew it had something to do with earning the three marks of citizenship.
Carmen ripped the paper free, leaving two corners behind, and marched up the stairs to the guild. The converted house had the overripe smell of pulped paper mixed with the sour scent of expensive ink. The smooth plaster walls were lined with large, framed articles and cheerful caricatures of famous bakers holding complicated treats. The scuffed pine desk was larger than the main entrance. It was built for a human, manned by an elf, who struggled to keep his legs under it, even in the low wooden chair. His brass name tag read:
Isaac: Bakers Guild
Isaac looked up as he adjusted his tailored brown vest. “You took a writ from the board?” His contoured white haircut and fertile blue-green skin showed his youth. The gold glasses hanging around his neck spoke of age.
“Was I not supposed to?” Carmen stopped herself from hiding the writ behind her back like a scolded seedling.
“Not if you promise to leave it so I can put it back up. Is this your first time contracting through a guild?”
“Yes. Well…yes. I have a lot of experience in the Cloud forest. I was raised there and—”
“Is it true? About one of the root trees burning?” Isaac asked.
“Yes.” Carmen’s complexion grayed; acid burned its way up her throat.
“My family has been four generations out of the forest; we had night terrors and the taste of soot in our mouths for a week. It must have been terrible for someone like you. Still connected. Do they know what happened?” He asked.
Carmen stared at her feet, projecting misery.
“It is a tragedy. Let me see the paper,” Isaac said. He hooked a delicate finger through the chain around his neck and pulled on his gold-rimmed glasses. He read for a moment then chuffed through his nose.
“Ahh, this one. What is your name?”
“Carmen Under—Carmen Avel.”
“Carmen, this contract is specifically vague and well paid, for a reason. It has drawn the most opportunistic workers from the free pool of the city. Folk who are used to working on both sides of the balance. I am not sure if you are qualified to—”
“I can scout, fight. I still speak to the forest. You say opportunistic but you mean desperate,” Carmen said.
“Carmen, this job is dangerous. The people who are paying do not care about the safety of the noncitizen labor. The forest does not have such ambiguities.”
“Can you stop me?” Carmen asked, working to sound brave.
“Pardon?” Isaac replied, taken aback.
“If I want to take this contract, can you keep me from—”
“No, there is no reference check. No skills test to qualify. It is bait for the naïve,” Isaac said as he leaned over the desk.
“I need that mark. How do I—when do we start?” Carmen asked.
“Did you want to know what the job is before committing?”
“I should, yes.” Carmen blushed, her cheeks turning the color of wine.
“Last year several of the richest, and most litigious, citizens in the city of Knock were poisoned at a tasting that served a rare and magical honey only harvested in a town named Pawkett. Our guild has exclusive rights to Pawkett honey; we are being held liable for the loss of life. All parties have agreed to dispatch a team to investigate where the poison originated and if it is safe to sell this year’s harvest of honey. Your job would be to guide the group and assist in the mission. Still interested?” Isaac asked.
“Honey...yes, I am.” The vision of the triad mark was pushing out other thoughts in Carmen’s mind.
Isaac sized up the young elf, then shrugged. “Very well, Carmen, welcome to the employ of the bakers. Let’s get your paperwork started.”
Carmen thrashed against what was holding her, digging her feet into the moist soil of the field. The elf forced herself to turn around, needing to see. Atop her was a man, or what was once a man. His yellowed face hung slack on the bone; most of his lips were chewed away, revealing blackened teeth and gums.
The fingers clutching Carmen were also chewed, nails gone; the tips were just bone sticking out of oozing flesh. He breathed in heavy gasps, mumbling, slamming his teeth hard enough to crack them. What remained of the man was dressed in the sewed-on smock of a debtor’s farm, covered in weeds and thorns. In one hand he clutched a rusted sickle that seemed to drink in the light; the weapon trailed an impossible dusk in its wake. His other hand was pulling Carmen closer. She watched as he raised the blade, tensing for impact.
Smack! A rock the size of a sparrow’s egg struck him in the shoulder. The man-thing grunted, tripped, and fell back, releasing Carmen and disappearing into the thick grass.
“This field is full of the same, fetch! Ye and your kin best spook some other folk!” yelled Paja, fitting another loam-covered field stone into his sling. Carmen dashed forward; the cleared area was slick with fresh chaff. She dipped under Nil’s staff and stood back-to-back with the huge woman. Carmen pulled her bow off her shoulder and slid an arrow in the intricately woven string. She scanned the expanse of grass, looking for movement.
“Back is clear; I have eyes on Paja and Rub. What are these things?” Carmen asked.
“Fetches, men hollowed out by blood magic. I’ve never seen them outside the city,” Nil replied.
“What should I do?” Carmen asked as the injured fetch staggered to his feet, one arm hanging limp.
“Keep your eyes moving. If you get a shot, go for the knees,” Nil grunted.
“And keep them away from me!” Paja yelled, moving into the center of the cleared grass.
The fetch with the dark sickle surged into the open area. Crack! Nil slapped him on his wrist. Her pole knocked the weapon from his hand. The fetch reached to get it and slipped, falling forward. He made no move to catch himself, landing on his face. Carmen could hear him biting the soil, still mumbling.
“Let it be known we are on guild business, sanctioned by the Church of Balance and in accordance with the laws of the city of Knock.” Rub stood at the far edge of the circle in front of Carmen, brandishing a half-rolled parchment at arm’s length. It was their notarized writ of labor from the Bakers Guild. “If you do not cease in this illegal action, we will use force--hooph!”
A nearly naked fetch, with the sagging, loose skin of massive weight loss, careened out of the overgrown grass from the side. He dug bloodless, necrotic nails into Rub’s heavy robes, dragging them into the tall weeds and out of sight. Carmen had no time to react.
Two more fetches lurched out of the concealing green, a middle-aged woman with blistered lips wearing an apron and a scarred older man with a red, infected eye. They flanked their fallen companion. Carmen made a move to run to Rub’s aid, but Nil elbowed her firmly from behind.
“I can’t protect you if you leave the circle. I need you where you are.” Nil shorted her staff forward six feet, relaxed her wrists, and swung. The pliant green wood cracked the apron-wearing fetch in the throat. She gasped and gurgled as she fell on her side. The red-eyed fetch to Nil’s right dove forward. He swung a rusted cleaver with the same light-draining quality as the sickle. Nil ducked under the strike, tucking her staff tight to her belly. Her back foot slid on the broken weeds; she sprawled forward as the cleaver whistled past. The fetch in the debtor’s smock reached up from the ground. He grabbed a puff of Nil’s tight black curls and jerked her to him, rising to his knees. Inches away, Nil could feel his breath on her ear. He began to whisper.
Thwomp! Another stone, this one to the skull, crossed his eyes and dropped him on his back.
“Stay down!” Paja hooted, keeping close to Carmen and away from the edge of the heather.
Rub was gone. Carmen could not see or hear them. Nil was right—she couldn't leave the circle. She slowed her thoughts and took a deep breath. Reaching inward, she became aware of the meadow. For an elf of the Cloud forest this connection was like putting her hand in water and realizing it was wet. The under-life of plants and tiny things hardly noticed the fight going on above. The meadow knew only that the sun was shining and soon the moon would come. Carmen allowed her consciousness to slip into the slow quiet dream that was the land beneath them all. She made a slight shift in that glowing world. The grass and flowers for ten yards around her bent low as if caught in some heavy, static wind.
“What the—?” Paja stammered, taking in the wonder.
The bent grass revealed the saggy old fetch with the sun-blistered skin, kneeling on Rub. His blackened fingers squeezed the priest’s throat. Carmen, as still as a tree, made no move to help.
Paja drew a wood-handled dagger from his side. In his small hands it looked like a sword. He charged through the supplicant meadow and buried the weapon between the saggy fetch’s shoulder blades.
The fetch howled, jerking to his feet, wrenching the dagger out of Paja’s hand. The weapon jutted out of his back, making him look like a melting wind-up toy. He clawed, staggering, spinning, trying to reach it. Where there should have been bright red blood pouring from his wound, only a thick brown liquid oozed out.
Rub rose, coughing, and pulled a weighted silk cord from their sleeve. It was knotted with two smooth hardwood grips. They held for a moment, then swung one of the handles around the neck of the tall, saggy fetch, catching the free end at the apex of its swing. Rub turned to the side and pressed their shoulder into the small of the fetch’s back. Holding the garrote against their chest with both hands, the priest knelt. The saggy fetch’s eyes bulged and his back bowed as he struggled for balance. He clawed at the strangling cord, gouging his own flesh, head trapped against Rub’s shoulder. Still, he chewed the air.
In front of Nil, the fetch in the apron stumbled to her feet as the red-eyed one swung his cleaver. Nil reared back onto her heels, allowing the attack to fall short, then pulled her staff to equal and whirled it in a low arc. The wet wood cracked the red-eyed fetch’s knee. He howled and fell, white bone exposed to air. Nil reversed her swing into an uppercut to the aproned fetch’s jaw. The crunch and give reverberated up her arm. The fetch’s head slammed back, hanging limply on her neck. She took two unsteady steps, then fell silent into the grass.
As easily as it had slipped into chaos, the meadow was peaceful once again. The saggy fetch over Rub’s shoulder whistled a final breath, his tongue and gums black with trapped blood. Rub cradled him onto the flattened weeds. The group scanned the area, listening, then relaxed.
“The part where ye read them a story. That was my favorite,” Paja sniped at Rub. The trick rooted in his pouch and pulled out a small pair of steel grip pliers.
“It is not just the result of an action that matters. It is the way in which it was accomplished that avoids a tilt of the scales.” Rub’s voice was hoarse.
“You didn’t take a step to help me! When I was in the grass, with that thing on me.” Carmen stood close to Nil, raising her voice and pointing.
“It’s not my job to save you; I protect the group. There could have been ten more of them hidden in there!” Nil yelled back.
“Good to know.” Carmen turned away with her arms crossed.
Nil inhaled, scowled, then pushed air out with a whoosh. “Let’s do for these poor bastards.”
Carmen watched as Rub removed the garrote from the saggy fetch’s neck. The priest pulled a small, hooked knife out of one of the many tool holsters they had sewn inside their robe.
“May you find the balance you lacked this day in the next world,” Rub murmured, slitting the strangled thing’s throat, then the tendons in its ankles.
Nil unsheathed her blade, a butcher’s knife so cheap it dulled when she breathed on it. She supplied the same wet work for the other three fetches, without the prayer. Humans, even recently dead ones, would have spurted blood. These creatures oozed.
“What are you doing?” Carmen stared in disgust at Paja.
Paja straddled the arm of the saggy fetch with his butt on its elbow, holding a spindly wrist between his thighs. Hunched forward, he used the pliers to pull against the man’s finger.
“Thumbnail bounty, Green, they pay High Baht for them, don’t they? The Sorcerers Guild tracks who they were, where they got to.” The squelch when the nail pulled free made the elf feel like she was falling. Still, High Baht, the green-shaded, mixed metal coin of the city of Knock would further her goal of becoming a citizen.
“Help me with this one, would ye?” Paja tried to flip the fetch in the apron.
“I have to thank the meadow.” Carmen pushed the grisly bounty from her thoughts, sinking back into the under-life of the field. As she breathed thanks into the living silence, the grass remembered how to stand straight and seek the light. The atonal crunching chaos that lived in the back of her mind pushed forward, shattering her concentration. Carmen imagined the unknowable thing in a metal box, imagined that box in a deep pit, imagined a frozen lake on top of the pit. The noise in her head grew distant, then ceased.
“Dearest meadow. Thanks to ye for obscuring these fetches so they could near take a bite out of me tender behind. All my love, Paja.” He ripped off another nail. “There you are, ye beauty. You’re going to pay my rent.”