By Alec Austin
They cut out Kade’s heart before they sent him to the Front, and in his dreams, he still could feel the scalpel’s blade against his skin. It was far from the worst of his nightmares, but that didn’t stop him from waking in a cold sweat and clutching at his chest.
“Dead men shouldn’t scream,” Marya muttered at Kade from the next cot over, her eyes glittering like funeral jade in the bunker’s dimness. “Or have panic dreams, or sweat. You reek, did you know that?”
“They were cutting me open,” Kade said, drawing a shuddering breath.
When Marya spoke again, her voice was gentler. “You were dead at the time, Kade. Really dead, until they replaced your heart with a necropotence engine. Let the dream go. You have enough nightmares without inventing new ones.”
Kade nodded once, in acquiescence. As Marya rolled over, the impact of a shell landing nearby rattled the bunker, but neither of them deigned to notice it. Welcome to the Front, Kade thought as their lantern oscillated on its hook, making his shadow sway from wall to wall. The Front, where shells fell like rain, and men and Sidhe died like mayflies. The Front, where replacing his heart with an engine of spelled steel that could revive him when he died almost seemed sane and reasonable.
I hate this place, Kade thought, but the thought was worn and tired. Of course he hated it here, amidst the mud and the corpses. Anyone would hate it.
Anyone but your sister, a traitorous part of him whispered, and Kade shuddered and closed his eyes.
Like Marya said, he had enough nightmares already.
The morning’s delivery was more corpses from no-man’s-land—five mostly intact and a dozen more in pieces. Kade handled triage as Marya prepped the dead for reanimation: Black tags for the freshest bodies, brown tags for those that had swollen and gone ripe, and green tags for bits too putrefied for standard use. Red tags were for live retrievals, but they hadn’t seen one of those for over a month.
“Useless,” Kade muttered as he poked at a forearm with the flesh sloughing off the bones and tied a green tag to it. He was using more green tags every day.
“Do you think there’s anyone left alive out there?” Marya asked, leaning through the doorway to her surgery. Kade shrugged. It didn’t seem likely, what with the shelling and the tendon spiders and spine serpents that had gone feral, but you never knew. He’d died on the wire a dozen times before a collection sweep delivered him to Marya’s medical station.
“Any word from Headquarters?” Kade asked as he finished tagging the last set of limbs.
Marya shook her head. “Nothing substantial. We’re on our own out here until relief arrives. If it ever does.”
Kade hesitated, then asked, “You think there’s anyone on the other side of that telegraph, ma’am?”
“I’ve been wondering that since I was posted here,” Marya said. She swept hair out of her eyes with her maimed hand, the stumps of her ring and pinky fingers looking slick and glossy in the artificial light.
“I’m going to need your help with the next few,” Marya said at length, motioning for Kade to follow her into the surgery. Kade followed, mentally counting bodies and spare limbs. They’d be lucky to get half a dozen zombies operational today, even by Frankensteining spare parts together.
“‘And the living will envy the dead’,” he muttered under his breath. Though he didn’t. Yet.
That night, Kade dreamt he was back in the boxcar with the other children, crammed in like livestock and standing in their own waste. Blithe had run out of tears hours before, and clung to Kade like a limpet, holding a clear rubber ball with a tiny model horse inside it. It was trash; just a toy their mother had bought to keep Blithe occupied. But as the only thing of hers their kidnappers had left them, it mattered.
The train had stopped moving hours before, and one of the girls on the far side of the car was whimpering. Kade held Blithe’s hand and tried to close his ears; tried not to listen to the increasingly strident voices telling her to shut up, to plug her mouth and SHUT UP, and when the awful sound of flesh striking flesh was followed by the thump of a body slamming against the boxcar wall and sliding down into the muck, he closed his eyes and pulled Blithe closer. “We’re going to get out of this,” he found himself whispering to her. “We’re going to make it home. You’ll see.”
Boots crunched on gravel outside the car, and everyone tensed as they halted beside the car’s double doors. Someone spoke in an unknown tongue, their voice high and melodious, and then the doors were unlatched and opened. Some of the children near the doors toppled and fell, but Kade’s gaze slid past them and their captors to the landscape beyond, where fitting yards and canvas tents surrounded an impossibly tiered fortress. Filigree spires rose beside onion-dome minarets, and a chain of soot-blackened gazebos floated overhead, seemingly supported by a hundred threads of smoke.
“Out!” an impossibly huge man in an apron bellowed, and in pairs and trios, the children slipped out of the boxcar onto the gravel ballast. Kade half-carried Blithe to the door, staggered to the ground, then swung her down beside him, only to have her wrenched from his arms by a woman wearing a uniform and a wrought-iron mask. “You can’t—!” he protested, before taking a truncheon to the back of the knee.
With his cheek pressed against the gravel and his arm wrenched up against his back, Kade watched Blithe kicking and clawing at the woman’s legs as she was towed towards a chicken-wire cage full of cowed children. He opened his mouth to call her name, but the truncheon descended again, striking his head and leaving him stunned and nauseous.
As Kade gasped and gagged, his head spinning, his sister’s ball bounced across the gravel and came to rest against a soldier’s boot.
There was no delivery the next morning, so Kade and Marya huddled around their bunker’s tiny stove and traded questions.
“What did you dream about last night?” Marya asked. She warmed her hands on her steaming mug as Kade considered his reply.
“Arriving at the Kitchen,” he said. He let silence grow and spread between them before adding, “Losing my sister.”
Marya nodded and turned up one of her palms, inviting a question from him.
“How’d you lose your fingers?” Kade asked. It wasn’t the first time he’d asked, but each time she told him a little more.
“Friend of mine bit them off,” Marya said. “Down in the cold vaults, right before I smashed in her skull with a freezer door.” Her mouth curled as she twisted the ring of bone she wore on her good hand. “It’s funny. Some days I even miss the bitch. You know?”
“Yah,” Kade said, slumping. “I know.” He lifted his palm, passing the lead back to her.
Marya measured him with fey green eyes. “What was the worst part about being stuck on the wire?” she asked.
As she spoke, Kade was crushed by the memory of darkness, of the jagged pain of his flesh closing itself around strands of barbed and rusted iron. His unit had been sent over the top, charging into no-man’s land with nothing on their side but rifles, bayonets, and the necropotence engines in their chests. Flegel had been evaporated by a direct hit from a mortar, while Hemis had made it to the enemy trenches, only to be cut in half by a Sidhe hussar. Kade had fought his way down the trench, shooting and gutting goblins, until his ammo was spent and he realized both his comrades and the Sidhe were gone.
As a star-shell burst overhead, he looked up to see a steel rain coming down.
The barrage had flung him free of the trench, mangling his flesh and throwing him into a thicket of barbed wire. He’d died and revived a dozen times out there, drowning in mud, strangled by tendon spiders, and pierced by shrapnel, screaming his throat raw to be heard over the din of artillery and frenzied assaults. No medic ever heard him. No friendly troops ever found him.
Instead, he’d woken up in Marya’s bunker, as part of the day’s haul.
“The worst part was the hallucinations,” Kade heard himself say. “There had been a bombardment going on for hours. Someone was clearly planning a push. And just before it stopped…” He fell silent, remembering the stooped and feral shapes crawling across the torn and cratered ground, silhouetted against the sky as flares descended and star-shells burst.
“Just before it stopped?” Marya prompted him, her soup growing cool in her hands.
“I thought I saw Blithe,” Kade said. “On a ranging, with her pack.” He closed his eyes in a vain attempt to blot out the memory of his sister, her hair caked with mud and a knife in her teeth, pausing at the lip of a crater. She looked as frail as ever, but her eyes swam with alien hunger, and as he looked at her, he could feel the pressure of countless ghosts surrounding her, lending her unnatural strength.
“You’re sure it wasn’t real?”
Kade swallowed convulsively. “I hope it wasn’t real,” he said. He wanted his sister alive, but not like that. Not as a Huntswoman, grown cruel and savage on the deaths of fallen comrades.
Marya showed him her palm. “Hope doesn’t count for much out here,” she said.
“True enough.” Kade hesitated, then asked, “What was the worst thing about the Kitchen?”
“The worst thing?” Marya said. “Its existence, probably. But that’s not what you meant.” She raised her maimed hand and inspected it, as if seeing it anew. “The worst thing was necromancy training. Calling back spirits and binding them in torment. Knowing the cost and doing it anyway, because if I didn’t, I would be the one getting bound. Learning exactly what I was capable of.” She met Kade’s gaze and didn’t flinch. “I was the only graduate in my class. The only survivor.” As Kade turned his palm up, she added, “The attrition rate was usually lower.”
A shell landed nearby, making the bunker shake. And as the lantern swung on its hook, Marya asked, “What would you do if you could go home?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” Kade admitted. For an instant, a vision of the house he and Blithe had lived in with their mother filled his mind, the lawn looking lusher than it had in life; the house freshly painted. A shake of his head dismissed the daydream. “Nothing like what we do here, though.”
That drew an ironic smile from Marya as she spread her hands.
“What would you do?” Kade asked. “If it turns out we’re alone; that we’ve been taking orders from some automaton?”
“I would pull back,” Marya replied. “To wherever there are people, to see if the war’s still live, or shambling on of its own accord.”
“You think that’s possible?”
Marya gave Kade a thin, bleak smile. “I worked in the Kitchen,” she reminded him. “Turning kids taken in the Teind into weapons. And they shipped the last batch of us to the Front months ago.” She stared down at her soup, then shook her head. “You don’t eat your seed corn unless you’re desperate.”
The two of them sat in silence, listening to the distant thunder of artillery, until a familiar, irregular set of footsteps announced the arrival of that day’s shipment. Marya stood, leaving her cup on the floor, and wiped her hands on her trousers.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s see what we’ve got today.”
Kade followed her out to the armory, where they armed themselves with shotguns. Marya flipped open the shutter to the receiving room and grunted as she recognized the massive, much abused zombie that stood outside, carrying three wicker baskets.
“Looks clear,” she said, and unbolted the bunker door.
The zombie wobbled slightly as Kade and Marya relieved it of its burdens. After giving it fresh baskets and sending it on its way, Marya bolted the door again and joined Kade in inspecting the day’s haul. “What’s wrong?” she asked, as he stared down into a nearly empty basket.
Kade just pointed, trembling so hard that he couldn’t keep his hand steady.
In the bottom of the basket, gripped by a freshly severed arm, was a scarred and filthy ball of transparent rubber. A miniature horse was embedded in it, barely visible through the grime.
“Nice of your sister to send us presents,” Marya said, quirking an eyebrow. “Fresh, too. That one’s a black tag for sure.”
Kade sleepwalked through triage that day, and forced himself to focus when Marya set him to stripping rotting flesh from long bones while she reanimated corpses. Memories of Blithe lurked at the periphery of his attention, waiting to ambush him if his mind wandered, and after the third time she caught him staring off into space, Marya called a break.
“Tell me about her,” Marya said as she handed Kade a mug of watery broth. There was only one person she could mean.
Kade shrugged helplessly. “I only knew really knew her before we were kidnapped,” he said. “Before…you know.” He gestured at his chest, encompassing the Kitchen, the Front, and the bunker—every aspect of his adult existence.
“She was determined, though?” Marya asked.
“Determined?” A peal of laughter escaped Kade before he could suppress it. “God. If Blithe wanted something, you didn’t get in her way. Mom was always able to wait out my tantrums. Not Blithe’s. She was fierce, and stubborn, too. Whenever she stuck out her lower lip, I knew she was going to get her way—and sooner rather than later.”
“It sounds like you admired her.”
“A bit,” Kade said. “Mostly I wanted to protect her. She’d hurt herself, you know? Climbing on things and falling off. Once she got onto the roof and wouldn’t come down. Mom had to borrow a ladder to rescue her.” He stopped, seeing the incomprehension in Marya’s eyes.
“Your home sounds like a better place than mine was,” Marya said after a heartbeat, looking away. “Safer.”
Kade swallowed, searching for something to say. He knew Marya had grown up in the Kitchen, seeing her friends killed and sent to the Front as zombies or raw materials. Kade had only spent a few months in the Kitchen’s shadow, under the clouds of smoke and the whips of the drill instructors, and the thought of living there made him want to crawl out of his own skin.
The silence was broken by the sound of the telegraph chattering in the next room, and Kade was halfway to his feet by the time Marya waved him back down. A few minutes later, she returned, frowning at the message she’d transcribed.
“Those weren’t the usual orders,” Kade said. He had the rhythms of the boilerplate message—stand and fight, show your valor, etcetera, etcetera—memorized.
“We’re to withdraw,” Marya said, holding the message away from her body as she reviewed it. “Gather whatever forces we command and rendezvous at the forward supply depot.”
Kade blinked slowly. “That’s miles away,” he said. Miles of barbed wire, torn earth, and abandoned fortifications, infested by autonomous war machines and feral corpse harvesters. They’d never make it on their own.
“Yes,” Marya said, letting the message go. Neither of them spoke as it drifted to the floor.
“So,” Kade asked at length, meeting Marya’s elfin gaze. “What forces do you command, exactly?”
They started from the bunker with an escort of half a dozen zombies, with Marya armed with a Dirge .45 and Kade carrying both shotguns. Marya insisted on recharging Kade’s engine before they left, so his fingertips tingled from where he’d held the kitten skull she handed him, while his mouth tasted of burnt fur.
Before they went half a mile, it was plain they were being hunted.
As distant batteries exchanged perfunctory barrages, Kade caught glimpses of figures pacing them through the cratered mire. A drizzle too thin to call rain veiled the landscape, but Kade was fairly sure they weren’t Seelie scouts. Whe he pointed out their tail to Marya, she grunted and said, “Huntsmen,” with utter certainty. She stroked the hammer of her revolver as she spoke.
The attack came just as the drizzle let up. At first, it looked like a tendon spider had pulled their lead zombie into an abandoned trench, but as Kade and Marya raised their weapons, a second zombie was pulled in, and the hand wrapped around its ankle was clearly human.
“Don’t flinch,” Marya shouted, and then she was firing at a pair of ragged boys who’d concealed themselves in the lee of an abandoned pillbox. The first boy lunged past their screen of zombies, and put on a burst of speed as one of Marya’s bullets tore into his companion’s chest. He became a blur as two shots from Kade turned the greybeard in the trench into a shattered corpse.
“Fucking Huntsmen,” Kade snarled as he chambered another slug, and turned to support Marya, who was grappling with the remaining boy. Kade stepped up to club the boy with the butt of his gun, and took a kick to the temple that sent him stumbling to one side. With two of his comrades dead, the little bastard was strong—and fast.
A voice barked an order Kade couldn’t quite make out, and as Marya drove her thumb deep into the boy’s eye, making him spasm in agony, Kade felt someone tear the shotgun from his hands. A moment later, he was laid out on the ground with a wild-eyed girl kneeling on his chest.
“Hello, Kade,” Blithe said, shouting to be heard over the thunder of incoming artillery. “Did you miss me?”
Kade coughed convulsively, trying to fill his lungs. As he stared up at his sister, taking in the bits of bone and leather tied to her mud-caked dreadlocks, he recalled the last time they’d spoken, at a mustering point some months before. He thought he’d seen her amidst a gang of other Huntsmen, and had called out her name, but she hadn’t replied; hadn’t even looked his way. He’d broken ranks to chase her, still calling “Blithe!” and her reply had been to turn and punch him in the gut, buckling him over.
“Blithe is dead,” she’d told him, her eyes as distant as stars. Then she’d gone, leaving him retching and heartsick in the dust.
“What…” Kade said, gasping for breath. “What happened to you?”
“The war happened, brother,” Blithe said, showing him filed and sharpened teeth. “But that’s all right. I’m the strongest now. I’m the alpha.” She chuckled, the sound low and throaty. “And that means you’re mine again.” As the force of her possessiveness washed over him, her fingers dug into the flesh of Kade’s arm like the talons of a hunting cat.
“Get off of him,” Marya demanded, her words sounding harsh and strident in the gap between barrages. Blithe hissed and spun, never releasing her grip on Kade’s arm, and a heartbeat later, Kade found himself hoisted to his feet.
“He’s mine, you half-Sidhe bitch,” Blithe growled. “My brother. No baby-stealer gets to have him!” She twisted Kade’s arm up behind his back as Marya stepped over the body of the boy she’d blinded, holding the Dirge in both hands.
“Shouldn’t he have some say in this?” Marya replied, never letting her aim waver.
Blithe spat into the mud at Kade’s feet. “He’s not the alpha. His word doesn’t matter. What he wants doesn’t either.”
“Kade,” Marya said, not looking away from Blithe. “Are you all right?”
“Of course he is!” Blithe bellowed. “He’s with his family, trollop! Get you gone!”
Kade opened his mouth to reply, and then a whistling howl filled the air as a shell descended on the trench behind them. A tsunami of dirt lifted him into the air, tore Blithe’s hand free of his arm, and filled his mouth with mud. He landed on his side, and rolled several yards before coming to a stop as he tried to clear his mouth.
“No, no, no,” Blithe shouted, her voice barely registering over the ringing in Kade’s ears. Her hand clamped onto Kade’s bicep as she pulled him upright. “Only I can have you.”
Kade blinked to clear his vision as Marya staggered to her feet. His hearing was coming back, the engine in his chest pulsing as it repaired his eardrums, so he could hear her cursing.
“Let Kade go,” Marya told Blithe, training the Dirge on her again. “I helped make you, you horrible little animal. I can unmake you, too.”
“Never,” Blithe replied, and began to drag Kade away.
As Marya hesitated, Kade mouthed “Take the shot,” at her, exaggerating the motion of his lips.
Marya cocked her head in a doubtful gesture, so Kade repeated himself, this time aloud. As Marya’s eyes began to glow, Blithe forced Kade to his knees and took cover behind him. She shuddered as a diaphanous stream of ghosts began to flow from her orbit toward Marya.
“I’ll kill him,” Blithe howled, fumbling for Kade’s throat. “He’s better dead than left with you!”
“Take the fucking shot!” Kade shouted as his sister’s hands closed around his throat, and then there was the thunder of Marya’s Dirge, the shock of impact, and the numbness that preceded pain, radiating from his left shoulder. Kade gagged as his airway was squeezed closed, then Marya’s Dirge spoke again, and he was falling down an empty well, descending into a darkness that never felt like home.
Kade woke to the gassy scent of a camp stove and the foul taste of burnt fur flooding his mouth. His shoulder and side ached like hell, and he had the mother of all headaches.
Thank God for small mercies, he thought as he flexed his leg and felt trousers instead of barbs. At least I’m not back on the wire.
“Welcome back,” Marya told him from the next cot over. As Kade craned his neck to look at her, she bounced a transparent rubber ball against the barracks floor.
“Where are we?” Kade asked, rubbing his temples. Something told him he should already know.
“Forward supply depot,” Marya told him. “I had them carry you.” She nodded at a pair of zombies standing against the closest wall, and as Kade squinted at them, he recognized the boys Marya had killed.
Kade nodded and fell back onto his cot. After his headache had abated slightly, he asked, “What about my sister?”
“She’s still out there,” Marya said. She paused before adding, “She fled before I could finish her.”
Kade stared at her for a long moment, recalling the stream of ghosts that Marya had drawn from Blithe before shooting through him. “You didn’t give chase?”
Marya looked aside. “I didn’t think you would approve.”
Kade shivered, remembering the feel of Blithe’s hands around his neck. A part of him, he feared, approved very much indeed.
“Thank you,” he said, uncertain whether he was thanking Marya for rescuing him or for letting Blithe go.
“You’re welcome,” Marya replied, tossing him the ball she held.
Kade caught it without thinking, then raised it to the light. The miniature inside was as crude as ever, and as Kade studied it, he thought of how casually his mother had fobbed it off on Blithe, and how much meaning they’d invested it with. The last link to home either of them had, and it was a piece of junk—as worthless as what he’d promised Blithe on their way to the Kitchen.
Kade threw the ball back to Marya, then rolled over and closed his eyes.
When sleep came, he dreamt of his mother’s house being flattened by an artillery barrage.
Alec Austin is a game designer with a tendency to ask questions like, “What would Total War look like in Faerie?” He holds a Masters in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, worked as a nuclear reactor operator as an undergraduate, and is an alumnus of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise workshops. In addition to Apex, Alec’s fiction has appeared (or will soon appear) in AE, Andromeda Spaceways, Daily Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons. He’s @AlecChaneAustin on Twitter.