A bitter wind whipped around Ortega’s body, dusting him with a flurry of ash. He cursed. The words were lost, drowned in the whirr of stabilizers and the whine of steam turbines. Ortega drew his coat in tighter, pulled his scarf up over his face.
Another, stronger gust caused the freighter to lurch, and Ortega cursed again as he felt his balance falter. He held fast to the balloon rigging, braced one foot against the deck rail. He breathed in sharply. It was a long way down. Below, he could see the bulbous silhouette of the freighter, a tiny thumbprint of shadow against the nondescript landscape of the Fringe.
Freighters weren’t allowed east of the 23rd Parallel of Longitude. The smugglers Ortega had hired flew high to avoid detection, but conditions at those altitudes were dangerous at the best of times. The wind and ash had only gotten worse the further east they traveled. Toward the Veiled Sunrise. Toward Saturnina.
Ortega normally didn’t travel so far into the East. But business demanded otherwise. The plague had returned.
Twelve days ago there was a letter. And a box. Both were delivered to Ortega’s home in Puerto Engranaje; the former object carried by a wiry, middle-aged courier, the latter borne between a pair of hollow-eyed grave laborers.
Ortega was immediately suspicious. His hand went to his knife, loosened it from the sheath. “The dead don’t walk in Engranaje, friend,” he said. “There are laws against the grave trade.”
The courier bowed. “Sebastián Ortega. A pleasure. I assure you my business here is legitimate. My assistants and I won’t be here long.” He motioned for them to lower the box. “I bring greetings from Saturnina.”
“Your accent and your company betray you. You’re clearly from Caldierra.”
“You’ve been away from Saturnina too long, Ortega. Things have changed. Saturnina is now under Caldierra’s protection. Stop fingering your knife,” the courier said with a smile. “I don’t care about your past, and I’m not here on behalf of the Merchant Lords. I serve Señor Duelo de Saturnina. He requested your assistance personally.”
Ortega took the envelope from him. “A job?”
“Yes. Those are your instructions; you’ll find a formal contract on the last page. The box holds your down payment.” As he said this he waved for the grave laborers to remove the lid, which they did with stiff-limbed compliance.
“I have little interest in money these days,” Ortega said.
The courier shrugged. “Señor Duelo was confident you’d accept his offer. He mentioned a reunion.”
Ortega felt the courier watching carefully as he opened the envelope and looked over the message within. He was familiar with the handwriting: neat, practiced, precise. He saw lines about the plague, statistics and figures, estimated infected. Then a name caught his eye. A name he had tried forgetting for nearly ten years. “Luz . . . ?”
“Luz Doslunas? Do you know her?”
“I do. I did. It’s . . . not important.” He had read enough. “Very few things could get me to travel back East,” he said, signing the contract. “It seems Señor Duelo knows me too well. The down payment will be sufficient. Take the contract to him. Tell him I’ll leave as soon as I’m able. I need to make some preparations, travel arrangements.”
“Don’t take too long,” the courier warned. “The plague isn’t as widespread as it was in Caldierra, but Saturnina’s not big enough to accommodate one of any size.” Ortega thought he looked sad, distracted. “I’ll report to the governor at once. He’ll be very pleased, Ortega, thank you. And good luck.”
Then he left, grave laborers shuffling behind him. Ortega didn’t watch them leave. He only whispered softly to himself as old memories piled one on top of the other like slabs of granite. “A plague in Saturnina. And Luz hasn’t been able to stop it . . . .”
Ash rode on the back of every gust of wind. It latched onto whatever it touched, the freighter and everything on it covered in a thin layer of gray. The smugglers had stripped the craft down, trading armor plating for speed. A dangerous decision. If the ash accumulated too thickly, it could damage the freighter’s moving parts. As the craft flew toward Saturnina, the crew went to work with rags and tarpaulins, cleaning and protecting the more sensitive pieces of machinery. Ortega stood aside, trying hard to ignore the weather. He kept his mind on business. On the plague. On what would soon be expected of him.
“Nearly there,” came a brusque voice. Ortega turned to see the captain standing beside him. Ash clung to his hair and beard, aging him fifteen years, but the captain didn’t seem to mind. “We’ll go high until your signal,” he said, repeating the orders Ortega had discussed with him earlier, “but I won’t lie to you. I’m worried you’re overconfident. At least take Lucas and Ariana with you.”
Ortega shook his head. “No need. They’d only cause suspicion. I’ve done this before, Capitán. I can gauge it well enough.” He forced himself to smile. “The plaguewalker should be dead by morning, and once it’s gone the plague victims will be cured. But don’t wait around for me. If you don’t get my signal, assume the worst.”
“And you’re certain it’s a plaguewalker?”
“I am,” Ortega he said after a heavy exhalation of breath. “The governor wouldn’t have sent for me otherwise. There’s no mistaking the symptoms.”
Nausea. Dizziness. Chronic pain. Blotchy skin. Fevered delirium. The list went on. The symptoms were bad enough on their own, and worse collectively, but the plague wasn’t a normal disease. A person couldn’t sicken and die from the plague. They could only sicken and live. Therein lay the cause of greatest concern: a victim would live in a miserable state of near-immortality unless someone killed them—and after only a few days of infection, they often wished that someone would.
It was unnatural. Sorcerous. And only plaguewalkers spread it.
No one knew how, or how they drew strength from the eternal misery of their victims. Ortega didn’t worry about that. Like their victims, plaguewalkers were near immortal, and Ortega was careful to separate needless details from those that were truly important: How to find them. How to kill them.
He knew the subtle signs of their inhumanity: the parchment-like yellowing of the whites of their eyes, the grayish tinge to their skin. He knew their strengths. Their weaknesses.
He knew the same things Luz knew.
The captain saw Ortega’s change of expression. “Something wrong?”
“Just thinking of someone in Saturnina. An old friend.”
“A woman,” the other said knowingly.
“A woman, yes. A colleague.”
Ortega heard the captain sigh. “Has the plague taken hold of her?”
“No,” Ortega said with a slow shake of his head. “But I’m worried something else has.”
He was dropped off a mile from the town’s main gate. Ortega watched as the freighter rose slowly, becoming a black spot overhead before finally disappearing into the swirls of ashen clouds.
He used the walk to take stock of his weapons, to run scenarios through his head. “You can never be too careful with plaguewalkers,” he had told Luz once. The memory made him smile; she was a daring curandero, using tactics completely unlike the measured caution he used while on the job. They had balanced each other nicely. Maybe if things had turned out differently—
“You there!” someone shouted. “Where did you come from and what’s your business? The governor has this town on quarantine!”
Ortega looked up to see a guard peering down at him from a gatehouse window. His face was pinched and beady-eyed like a crow’s, and his expression was one Ortega was all too familiar with. The guard was there because someone had forced him to be.
“I’ve come at the governor’s request,” Ortega said, pulling out the letter. The seal stood out like a burgundy stain on the paper. “Sebastián Ortega de Engranaje, at your service. The sooner you let me in, the sooner I can rid you of your plaguewalker.”
He saw the guard turn and say something to an unseen companion. Soon one of the heavy, wrought iron doors was swung open, and another guard beckoned him inside. “We’ve been expecting you,” this guard said. “You couldn’t have come soon enough. Another victim was claimed yesterday, a prominent gentleman of Señor Duelo’s staff. Everyone’s more frightened than before.” The guard was young, sturdily built. He gave Ortega a wry smile. “Welcome to Saturnina, friend.”
Ortega stepped inside. And frowned.
“Saturnina,” he breathed. “It’s been a while . . . .”
Things had changed. He felt as though he wasn’t looking at Saturnina itself, but an old photograph of it; similar in appearance, but yellowed and faded and weathered around the edges. It had never been a vibrant town, but neither had it ever been in such a gloomy state of disrepair.
He walked down the wide streets, past the shuttered shops of apothecaries and machinists, smiths and gearmongers, and various other stores and workshops squeezed between the town’s neat lines of narrow row houses. But everything sagged. Everything looked sodden. Many of the buildings appeared abandoned; some even had their windows boarded up, their doors barred shut.
The street sloped upward as Ortega turned northeast into a more familiar part of town. The buildings looked better cared for, but even here Ortega could see the signs of age and disrepair slowly enveloping the neighborhood as had a strangler fig. The plant had already suffocated Saturnina’s clock tower, turning it into a dilapidated hulk of wood and brick and broken glass, its dirtied face frozen in a lopsided 10:15 grin.
The approach of sunset betrayed the true time. Ortega turned to look into the distance, past the iron-spiked walls and into the gentle curve of the western horizon.
He had forgotten how incredible the sunset could be from the Fringe. The atmosphere out East was choked with volcanic ash; out West, it was pale and blue. The Fringe, caught between East and West, saw the sunrise filtered through a veil of brown and gray, while the sunset irradiated the western horizon with such comparative brilliance that it amounted to a religious experience.
Sunset made even Saturnina beautiful, if only for a moment. It painted the streets and buildings in orange and purple and gold, and gave a warm glow to the familiar building a few paces ahead. Ortega’s body formed a long shadow across it. Once upon a time, he had done research here. Once, he had called the building home.
It happened ten years ago. Ortega couldn’t remember what he had stepped out for, only that as he returned, a man in a long red cloak was ascending the stairs to his room. He watched as the man knocked, tried the door. It wasn’t locked. When the last scrap of crimson slithered through the doorway, Ortega advanced.
He tugged his weapon free, an unusual mess of reinforced wood and precision clockwork. Ortega flipped the catch. Hurried clicks sounded the meshing of gears and the release of coils. The weapon unfolded like an insect’s limb, the joints snapping together to form a heavy crossbow. Almost as an afterthought, a bayonet sprouted from the stock with a soft metallic scraping. Ortega loaded a bolt. Crept quietly into the room.
The man was facing his desk, fumbling through bottled samples and scientific equipment. And books. Old, valuable books, many of them on loan from Señor Duelo himself. Ortega pressed the tip of the bayonet, cold and sharp, against the nape of the man’s neck. “I didn’t come to Saturnina to be hounded by Guild trash,” he said. “Leave quietly. One twitch of my finger and I assure you that the blade at your neck will be the least of your worries.”
The man had gone stiff. “Don’t shoot. This is a misunderstanding.”
Ortega’s captive slowly brought his hands into view. The nails were black, the flesh from fingertip to forearm stained with orange and brown.
Ortega said, “An embalmer? Interesting. Turn around, I want to see your face.”
Sure enough, the man was tattooed under his left eye with a complicated glyph confirming his trade. Ortega spent only half a minute on the embalmer’s face. Frowned at what he saw below the neck.
The man was bare-chested. All over was a latticework of stitches and bruised flesh. In the center, bolted directly into his breastbone, was a golden sigil engraved with skulls and serpents. Ortega had only seen such a mark once before: on a sullen Caldierran exile in Puerto Hierro.
“You must have done something pretty serious to have your soul cut out,” he said.
“It’s complicated,” the embalmer said, “but I hope my service will earn me a pardon. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t kill me until after I get my soul back. I apologize for entering uninvited, but Lord Muertoculta wasn’t even sure if you were still living here.”
“Merchant Lord Muertoculta? What does he want?”
“To pay you,” the embalmer-emissary said. “Please, Ortega. Put the crossbow away.”
The emissary took him to a table in the teahouse across the street. It was crowded. Ortega pulled up a crate of chamomile and had a seat. The air was damp with the scent of herbs and flowers. Somewhere, a musician was strumming lazily on a guitar.
Ortega tried to focus on the people around the table, appraising Muertoculta’s hirelings with the critical eye of a professional. Most of them looked too inexperienced—little better than hired thugs—save the woman directly across from him. She wore plain, utilitarian clothes of a modified freightlander design, but braided feathers in her hair in the Old Style. It was an unusual combination, but Ortega found he liked the way it looked. The woman met his eyes. Quirked her brow.
“Ortega here has agreed to Lord Muertoculta’s terms,” the emissary said. “We have our second curandero.” Ortega heard the woman snort. Obviously, she had been the first. “We’ll leave Saturnina tomorrow morning. The coaches will be at the opposite side of town at quarter to ten.”
“He’s a freightlander,” the woman said, interrupting him. Ortega could hear the disbelief escape her lips like a hiss of steam. “You never said anything about that. Plaguewalkers don’t travel that far west; does he even know what one looks like?”
Ortega smiled. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ve lived here in Saturnina for the past six months. Before that I was up in Mezquisol for nearly five years.”
She looked at him. “I grew up in Mezquisol.”
“Really? Then you’re probably familiar with the curandero Gabriél Doslunas.”
A smile cracked through like sunlight through the Veil. “He was my grandfather.”
“You cannot be serious!”
She extended her hand across the table. “Luz Doslunas.”
“Sebastián Ortega,” he said, firmly grasping her wrist in the freightlander fashion. “I have no shame admitting it: I’m a bit jealous. I’ve read all of Señor Doslunas’ books. Amazing stuff. I’m a better curandero because of them, so I’m sure you’re particularly skilled.”
The light was such that he couldn’t see her blush, but the smile was unmistakable. “Maybe I can show you a few new techniques,” Luz said with a shrug.
“Your confidence is reassuring,” the emissary said. “But I have to warn you, this job won’t be easy. The plague has hit Caldierra pretty hard. It snakes through the barrios, swallowing up people like a python. Poor people, mostly. So many that the Merchant Lords worried it would affect the grave trade.”
“And that’s why we’re here?” Ortega scoffed. “To protect their precious grave trade? Don’t the Merchant Lords give a damn about the health and safety of their own people?”
“Well, they do now,” the emissary said. “When they thought the plague was only a poor people’s disease, they figured they could contain it on their own. They contracted out folks like me to scour the city and cull the infected. Mercy killings, really, enough to keep the grave trade afloat. But a merchant’s daughter was accidentally killed with the others. Now they don’t know what to do.”
“They hired us,” offered Ortega. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
The emissary shook his head. “House Muertoculta hired you. And outside Guild Consensus, I might add. As far as I know, the Merchant Lords are still arguing a decision, but Lord Osmín Muertoculta grew tired of waiting. It was his daughter that came down with the plague.”
“Then we should start looking for the plaguewalker wherever she was found,” Luz said. Her eyes shot briefly to the sigil on the emissary’s chest, then flicked back up to meet his face. “Your unique situation is sure to give us some insights there, correct? Perhaps we’re fortunate that Guild Law is so strict regarding the deaths of their own.”
The emissary looked troubled. Brought his hand to the sigil, as if it suddenly pained him. He nodded slowly. “I can tell you where I found her, yes. She was out in District Six, in the Sprawls. She never even left her own neighborhood.”
Five days later they were in the Sprawls of Caldierra. Three weeks after that, the plaguewalker was still at large.
The ashenfall had been unseasonably heavy that year. The dirty rains that followed filled the streets with a mud of ash and filth that squelched beneath Ortega’s boots with every step. Grave laborers toiled to clear away the muck, their shovels clinking and scraping against the ancient paving stones. People walked by without so much as a second glance. Ortega muttered, tried to ignore the noise, the damp, the stench of ash and necromancy.
The city was built upon the bones of an older civilization. Thousand-year-old stonework supported multi-storied buildings of stuccoed brick and gray-stained terracotta. Ancient glyphs leered at Ortega from the ground floors. Buzzards clustered around the rooftops like pigeons. “I feel like I’m walking through a tomb,” he said. “A noisy, poorly drained tomb.”
“It’s not all bad,” Luz said with a friendly nudge. “They keep fresh flowers in the windows.”
“Every grave needs its bouquet.” Ortega saw her roll her eyes. “Sorry. I still feel out of place here. If I didn’t have you to keep me company, I think I’d be completely lost.”
“It’s culture shock.”
“Three weeks’ worth, yes. If any of our leads actually led us anywhere, I might be too busy to notice. But whatever rathole the plaguewalker operates from, it’s a damned good one. And so I do notice. The people here are a strange sort, Luz.” He motioned toward the grave laborers. “No one should be so casual about death.”
“You think they should fear it instead? We live in a world of plaguewalkers, Sebastián. They give us a reason to fear life.” He could feel her searching his expression. “Are you afraid of death?”
“No. But I’m wary of it. Anything less seems inhuman.”
“Inhuman?” Luz said, laughing. “Caldierra’s hardly the place for that word.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “I know you don’t like it. It takes some getting used to. But it does have its charms, if you take the trouble to look.”
He shrugged. They had entered the wealthier section of District Six, where the merchant class had built haciendas on the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Ortega looked around. Found nothing charming. Found something else instead.
As they walked by the hacienda of House Muertoculta, a maid exited from a side door. She carried a wicker basket, dumped the contents into the gutter. Out fell day-old vegetables, crusts of bread, toughened meat. Table scraps for the buzzards and the homeless. The former had already taken notice, shuffling from side to side anxiously from the roof. They made noise, bobbed their heads.
The woman turned to watch Luz and Ortega walk by. Briefly, very briefly. But in that moment, Ortega caught a glimpse of her face. He saw the flash of gray flesh. Raised his crossbow to his shoulder.
“What are you doing?!” Luz hissed.
“The housemaid,” he said, taking careful aim. “She’s our plaguewalker.”
The plaguewalker pivoted, hand snapping forward. There was a cracking sound as the oncoming bolt was split in two, the pieces spinning away harmlessly. “Damn it,” Ortega said, winching another bolt into place. “Right out of the air. . . .”
Luz charged. Drew her blades with a flourish. They flicked and spun around her with such speed that the sunlight reflected off of them in short, angry flashes.
The plaguewalker sprang forward to meet Luz’s attack.
Ortega watched those first crucial seconds from down the stock of his crossbow, waiting for a clear shot. The plaguewalker was faster than them, stronger than them. Better than them. This was a straight fight. Two against one. And the one was as good as six. The plaguewalker was parrying Luz’s swords with the palms of her hands.
Anyone else would have grown frustrated. Not Luz. She moved with a purpose, one Ortega quickly realized was some unspoken plan of attack that he was expected to follow. And so Luz would move there and let the plaguewalker counter there, presenting a target that Ortega immediately exploited.
He fired, loaded, winched. Fired again. The plaguewalker was hit in the shoulder, the leg, the lower back. She turned to snarl at him, only to be caught in the cheek by a quick thrust from Luz.
Then the fight took a different turn. As a bright red line welled up along her cheek, the plaguewalker’s hand went for Luz’s neck. Ortega could see the muscles in the plaguewalker’s arm tighten. She was lifting Luz off the ground by the throat.
Ortega didn’t like remembering that day.
Like every battle before it, this one had stored itself in his memory as fleeting scraps of sights and sounds and smells: Luz hurled into the street, the plaguewalker’s laughter, other people’s blood.
He remembered shouting something—a challenge, or maybe Luz’s name. Then the plaguewalker crashed into him, wielding one of Luz’s swords. He had no time to react. The back of his head hit the paving stones. His vision exploded with tiny sunbursts.
He was sprawled out, wide-eyed and gasping like a stranded fish. Ortega couldn’t see properly; the world had become all shapes and hazy outlines. He saw the plaguewalker as a brown-black stain against the sky, felt her foot pressing down on his chest. There was a blurred suggestion of movement. A sharp pain in his leg.
Then another shape slammed into the first, freeing him. Ortega struggled to his feet. As his vision slowly returned, he saw Luz grappling with the plaguewalker. Her face growled defiance, but her limbs screamed desperation. The plaguewalker was winning. They were running out of time.
Against plaguewalkers, there was no such thing as a fair fight. Nothing short of trickery could reliably defeat them. Ortega knew this all too well. And he liked to be prepared.
He reached into his pockets, fingered the explosives within. He smiled as the narrow cylinders rubbed against one another with a reassuring metallic scraping.
Ortega braced the crossbow in one hand, held a bomb in the other. He aimed his bolt at the plaguewalker’s throat, hit the collarbone instead. The effect was the same. She reeled back, clutching at the bolt. Ortega armed the bomb with a quick twist of the detonator. Gears and tumblers rattled inside.
“Luz,” he said breathlessly, “get away from there!”
Luz broke into a sprint. Ortega tossed the bomb and lurched into an agonizing sprint of his own. He heard the cylinder bounce once, twice, saw the buzzards instinctively disperse. He covered his ears. Closed his eyes.
There was a thump and rumble. The ground shook, the buildings shuddered. Ortega felt the heat on his back, and his nostrils filled with the tang of alchemy and blasting powder. When he ventured a look back he saw a circle of shattered paving stones and a pall of red smoke. The plaguewalker was there, clothes tattered and smoldering, flesh raw and scorched. But still standing. Ortega slowly brought his crossbow to his shoulder again. How was the damn thing still standing?
Luz must have been feeling the same way. “A bigger bomb next time, I think,” she said.
Ortega smiled mirthlessly.
Standing or not, the plaguewalker was still injured. Badly. She hissed at them. Clutched at her side. Fled.
Instinct told Ortega to follow, but his leg suddenly buckled. He stumbled to the hacienda wall, throwing his weight against it with a wince. A dark, damp stain was blossoming from his calf. He tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt, tied it tight above the bleeding. He cursed. “That was clever,” he said. “House Muertoculta is the best rathole she could have hoped for.”
“We should go after her,” Luz said, breathless. “She’s wounded.”
Luz saw the blood. “Sebastián! How badly did she get you?”
“Not badly enough. I’m still alive.”
She grinned. “Do you need any help?”
“Are you okay to walk?”
“I’m okay to limp. Slowly.”
Her expression was anxious. Ortega thought it was for him. “Then I’ll go after her alone,” she said, lightly kissing him on the cheek. “But I’ll need to leave now.”
He shook his head. “You should at least call the others.”
“I’m not wasting this opportunity,” Luz said. “I can handle this. You know I can handle this; I have more experience than you. This is in my blood, Sebastián. Stay here. Call for the others if you want, but I’ll probably have this taken care of before they arrive.”
There was no arguing. No opportunity. She rushed off, her cheeks flushed with confidence. Ortega watched her go, trying to ignore the stinging in his leg. “Just because you have an opportunity,” he said to himself, “doesn’t mean it’s a good one.”
The plaguewalker was found dead the next morning. Luz was found nearby.
Her breathing was ragged, her body torn apart. Her right leg, her chest, the back of her left shoulder—if Luz survived, she’d be left with several clear reminders of the plaguewalker’s strength.
House Muertoculta was generous. They put her up in one of their spare rooms and told Ortega she could stay there for as long as was required. Physicians came in, stitched her wounds with black threads, wrapped them in pulped herbs and ribbons of soft gauze. They didn’t bother sedating her. Luz was comatose.
Ortega stayed in Caldierra for two months. He visited regularly. Her room always smelled of poultices and chemicals, and she was always dressed in clean bandages and hooked to tubes piping oddly colored solutions into her limbs. Ortega didn’t understand the science of physicians, nor did he like the look of it. Every visit, he asked them how she was doing. Every visit, he had to shoo the necromancers away.
Her condition never improved. When he had no choice but to move on, he tried to forget about Luz. It would take ten years before her name resurfaced: as a passing reference in the governor’s contract.
Purple lingered on the horizon. Stars strained against the haze overhead. Ortega watched as streetlamps shuddered to life in pale shades of white and blue and yellow. “Fae lamps,” he muttered under his breath. “Saturnina’s becoming so like Caldierra that I can scarcely tell the two apart. . . .”
He followed the fae-lit street until he found the building he was looking for. Above the door, swinging slightly in the breeze, was a sign painted with a crude caricature of a sad-faced tavern girl carrying a sickle. The paint was dull and fading. Melancholy Wench read the sign. Tavern and Inn elaborated a window display. Vacancy added a placard.
Ortega stepped inside. Bypassed the deserted front desk. Wandered into the tavern. He carefully noted every available exit, squinting against the poor light. More fae lamps. They were strung across the walls and centered on every table. Ortega draped his coat across the nearest chair and rested his weapon, a clumsy-looking alchemist’s carbine, on the table. He stared into the glass bulb. He couldn’t tell whether the faerie inside was exhausted or just poorly paid. The phosphorescence it cast across the tabletop was as dull as a waning ember.
Luckily, he knew how fae lamps worked. “Pay attention,” he said, lightly tapping the glass. “I can barely see.” The faerie pulsed brighter. Gave a rude hand gesture.
The dead man shuffled up beside him so quietly that Ortega hardly noticed. Shirt, pants, and apron hung loosely from the grave laborer’s shriveled frame. A recent construct. Ortega could tell from the stench of embalming fluid that lingered around him like a gentleman’s cologne.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised to see your kind here,” he said.
The grave laborer didn’t respond, only stared at him despite empty sockets. It shoved a paper and pencil forward, its wrinkled dead fingers crackling like dry leaves as Ortega gingerly accepted the items. “I cannot speak,” the paper read in the thick block-lettering of a printing press. “Please circle your order on the menu below. Payment up front. Place coins in apron pocket. No tips necessary.” What followed was a list of plain-sounding tavern food.
Plain-sounding or not, Ortega was hungry. He wondered if the cook was a grave laborer, too. He didn’t like the idea of a creature without a sense of taste preparing his food. He wrote a quick note on the menu and handed it back to the corpse. “I’m looking for your master, Luz Doslunas,” he said. “Please give this message to her.”
He didn’t have to wait long before the familiar figure of Luz appeared in the doorway. “Well. . . . Sebastián Ortega. I never expected to see you here,” she said. Despite everything, Ortega found himself smiling. She still wore feathers in her hair.
A platter of food was placed in front of him, plus a mug of fine-smelling beer. Luz sat across from him, her elbows resting on the table. “It’s been a long time,” she said.
“Too long,” he agreed. “You’re looking well. The years have been kind to you; they’ve been far crueler to me, I’m afraid. I never got out of the business of hunting plaguewalkers. I should have retired from it all, like you. Gotten a tavern of my own.”
“It’s not as exciting,” she admitted. “But after my injuries in Caldierra. . . .”
“I understand,” he said with a nod. Ortega began eating, tearing away small pieces of chicken and popping them into his mouth. It was good. He tried not to think of grave laborers in the kitchens.
He watched Luz’s eyes fall on the weapon. “This is different,” she said, picking it up to examine the strange device. “Like a crossbow minus the bow. Clockwork, I take it? You freightlanders will never change.”
“It’s an alchemist’s carbine,” Ortega said. “Runs on clockwork and gaseous chemicals I can’t even pronounce. That’s what’s in the drum here,” he said, tapping the heavy metallic cylinder locked into the stock. “It shoots bolts like a crossbow, but further, faster, and harder. You come out of retirement and I can get you one, too.”
Luz put it down, almost distastefully. “You know I prefer swords to machinery, Sebastián,” she said. “And I’m unlikely to become a curandero any time soon. I tried to help here, but. . . I’ve lost my touch, apparently.” She smiled weakly. “Obviously Señor Duelo feels the same way if he’s dragged you out here.”
“Señor Duelo doesn’t realize you’re part of the problem.” He looked directly into her eyes when he said it, locked onto hers with a hard, terrible stare. He tapped the fae lamp. Harder. The phosphorescence grew brighter, revealing the pallor of Luz’s face.
Gray. Gray as the Veiled Sunrise.
“Ah,” she said, her face frozen in that same weak smile. “So you know.”
Ortega watched as Luz’s fingers played across the shining ivory buttons of her blouse. First at the collar, slowly through the horizontal hole, then down to the one below. She followed the pattern, and he followed her motions, one after another, until each was unfastened. There was a time when such a sight was exactly what he wanted. Now it just seemed cruel.
She pulled her blouse open. Just enough. Ortega saw the jagged scar between the curves of her breasts. “It was the plaguewalker’s dying act,” Luz said, running a gray fingertip across the knot of pale, raised flesh. “She broke through the breastbone, secreted the progenitoxin into my heart. With my other injuries, I was powerless to stop her.” Luz gave him a strange smile as she buttoned up again. “It’s probably good that she did. I would have died otherwise.”
Ortega shook his head. “Listen to yourself. There’s nothing good about what’s happened, Luz! You’ve brought the plague to Saturnina!”
“I can’t help what I’ve become,” she said calmly.
“You should have listened to me back at Caldierra. You should have waited. Your recklessness was for nothing, Luz. Killing that housemaid didn’t lift the plague; there were two plaguewalkers prowling the Sprawls.” He searched her face for any signs of surprise, was rewarded only with a curious cock of the eyebrow. “I could have helped you defeat the first, and the second one would have soon followed. We worked well as a team, Luz. We should have fought them together. Now everything’s a mess.”
“My instincts had served me well in the past,” she said with a shrug. “Analysis is always easiest in hindsight.”
“I should have suspected from the beginning. Had I known your coma was just part of your transformation. . . . I was just so preoccupied with hunting down the second plaguewalker, none of it registered.”
Luz chuckled. “You surprise me, Sebastián! Would you have really killed me?”
“Better then than now.” Ortega tried to keep his face free of emotion. Knew it was impossible. Blushed when Luz laughed at him. “How is that funny?”
“You talk about killing me as if it would be the easiest thing in the world! As if you could kill a monster wearing the face of a friend. You’re not a weak man, Sebastián; if the plaguewalker here had been anyone but me, you would have done what you’ve always done. But this time’s different. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
He looked away, took a few more bites of food. “You know I can’t let you continue infecting Saturnina. But you’re right, I don’t want to kill you. I was hoping I could convince you to leave.”
“Are you serious?”
He nodded. “You could come with me. A plaguewalker with all the knowledge and experience of a curandero think of the good you could do! We could rid this world of plaguewalkers, Luz. Maybe even find you a cure.”
“You’re too hopeful.”
“I’m not. Please, Luz.”
She smiled. Laughed again, louder. “I don’t think so. A plaguewalker with all the knowledge and experience of a curandero only makes me a stronger plaguewalker! Because really, Sebastián. What curandero could possibly stop me?” Her laughter continued, thick and piercing in Ortega’s ears.
“It’ll have to be me, then.”
“You think you’re prepared for that?”
“I’m always prepared.”
“Or course you are. And you’ll be happy to know your precaution has rubbed off on me.” Her smile was broad and toothy. “I infected your food.”
Ortega had studied plaguewalkers for years. Read more books than he ever thought existed on the subject. Conducted experiments with alchemical fluids and decaying tissue samples. But how did plaguewalkers transmit their disease? The scholarly answers were nothing but rumor and conjecture.
He had never even thought about the food.
He went for his carbine, but his fingers were unable to wrap around the stock before Luz flicked her wrist in a thaumaturgical gesture. Ortega gasped. Plague. He could feel it bubbling to life inside of him. It was so strong that it dragged him to his knees. He tried again in vain to grab the carbine, scrabbling madly at it, but failing to do anything but jostle it across the table’s surface, nearly knocking over the lamp and sending his plate and silverware clattering to the floor.
With every twist of Luz’s wrist, Ortega could feel the strength of the plague ebb and flow in his body. There was no fighting it. It was crawling out from his stomach and into his extremities. Luz’s hand clenched into a fist. The pain became so horrible that he could do nothing but tumble backward.
“The control is incredible, isn’t it?” she said haughtily.
Ortega went wide-eyed as he saw a pair of grave laborers move up beside him. He could hear the soles of their feet shuffle across the floorboards with a sandpapery scraping. Each knelt on either side of him and pinned his arms.
Luz hovered over him. Straddled his waist. Ortega shut his eyes, tried to squirm free with a groan of defiance. She shushed him, caressed the side of his face. Ortega found it difficult to speak, but he didn’t care. “What. . . what are you doing?” he said, fighting for every word, willing them out of his tightening throat.
“I agree with what you said earlier, Sebastián. We would make a great team. There’s no need to have you suffer through infection. I can make you a plaguewalker like me.”
Luz started unbuttoning his shirt. Pulled it open. Stopped.
“What’s this?” she said when her eyes fell upon the scar tissue, the shining gold sigil hammered into his chest.
It was Ortega’s turn to smile, but there was no happiness in it. “You know damn well what it is.”
“Your soul. . . . When did you have it removed?”
“Caldierra,” he said, the name a gurgle in his throat. “The second plaguewalker was a. . . a merchant. And Guild Law is strict.”
She took a deep breath, set her lower lip as if trying to come to terms with this new piece of information. She nodded. “Then my progenitoxin will be a blessing.”
“No! I have nothing left to live for, Luz. Nothing. I won’t become like you. And I won’t. . . I won’t let the Guild take my soul.” His own words, the subtle sounds of the space around him, was turning to gauze in his ears. He coughed. Nearly retched. The room and everything in it was becoming spotty and distorted. “This ends on my terms,” he said. “For once in my life, I can afford to be as reckless as you.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“Señor Duelo will. . . he’ll get me the pardon I need. I’ll be reunited in the end. I can die well.” Ortega managed a weak, defiant smile. “I’m sorry, Luz. The drum. . . in the carbine. . . it has more than one use. . . .”
He trembled. Nearly blacked out. The cunning timer mechanism on the carbine finally wound down. Gears spun. Coils relaxed. Hammers snapped into place, releasing sparks into the alchemical gas swirling around inside the drum.
The last thing Ortega heard was the soft click of release. For a moment, he saw his whole world explode into reds and yellows and oranges, every brilliant shade of flame imaginable. He knew the plague would be purged from Saturnina that day. Swallowed up in a sunset of his own making.
Andrew Kaye is a writer, a cartoonist, and a proud (but exhausted) father of two. His fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him on Twitter (@andrewkaye).