Carbon: Prologue – Part II

by Steppen Sawicki

Novel: Sci-fi fantasy

How dare you.” Her voice cracked from terror and indignation. She kept her eyes and the knife trained on Dmitri, but spoke to Hilt. “You come into my house bringing that with you?”

Hilt paid her no attention. “Dmitri?”

Dmitri looked at him and, seeing something in Hilt’s expression, the snarl dropped from his face. The blood seemed to seep into his skin as he took it in, until there was no trace of it left. With a final soft exhale of breath, he was back to normal, once again the same round boyish face half-hidden by dust-colored hair. No indication of what he had just done, was capable of.

“Demon!” The woman backed away behind a table, putting it between her and them and leaving a trail of blood. “Whoreson bastard shade!”

“I told you to wait outside,” Hilt said weakly, trying to get a grasp on the situation.

Dmitri shrugged at him.

Gekor!” she spat. “Leave! Get out!”

Hilt considered her, as well as the imprint still on him. “All right. We’ll leave. As soon as I get what I came for.”

The second imprint was still in the room. At his words it was within him again, and he winced as it plucked at his brain like it was twanging a guitar. But it wasn’t any lasting harm – she was only intimidating him now.

Dmitri noticed his wince and yowled at the woman.

“Disease-ridden pest!” She flung a jar at Dmitri. He ducked and it burst against the wall, flinging ceramic and contents and a sickly-sweet odor through the air. He shrank down to the floor as if readying to pounce on her again.

Hilt reached as far as he could and grabbed at Dmitri’s cloak, shaking his head.

Dmitri shook his head back. “Let’s get out of here,” he growled. “Not only is she crazy, she’s crazy and dangerous.”

“No.” Hilt had done too much to get here. He returned his gaze to the woman, staring her down. He was taking a hard gamble. She could set them on fire or mangle their innards or who knew what else. But this was too important and he couldn’t run from it this time.

“Cursed changeling,” she groaned. She turned her eyes to Hilt again. “Get it out and I will help you.”

“Help me and I’ll get him out.”

Her eyes flicked to Dmitri and back to Hilt. “I will help you, once it is gone.”

Her voice had gone too soft, her right hand had twitched, and her body temperature had risen. She was lying, and she was too stressed to cover it. When no one moved, her face contorted in a grimace. “This is not how things are done. I need payment.”

“I never said I wouldn’t give you payment.”

She studied him carefully. Her left hand was pressed against where her ear once was. She took it from her head now and fumbled behind her, not taking her eyes from Dmitri. She found the bottle she needed through touch alone, though perhaps she used other senses as well. Dmitri tightened up as if she would throw it at him, but she drank the contents down in one swift motion, her hand smearing red over the surface of the bottle.

“What was that?” Hilt asked, trying his best to sound demanding.

“Blood,” she barked at him, her voice thick from drinking the liquid. “You might notice I’ve lost a bit of my own. I want your hearing.”

“My hearing?” That would be no problem; if she affected the receptors and transmitters in his ears he would be able to repair them easily. “For the finding? I agree to that.”

“Not for the finding. For my ear. Then we’ll decide the payment for your finding.”

“No. That will be payment enough.”

“You owe me for what your little pet did.”

“And what would you have done with me if he hadn’t interfered?”

“It took my blood!” She shouted this, as if it were a great injustice.

Again a twinge inside his head, and Dmitri nimbly leapt onto the table and back again as she swiped her knife at him and backed against the wall.

“Fine!” she yelled. “Your hearing, that’s all! Keep it away!”

The imprints left Hilt completely. He staggered to his feet and absently brushed grime from his clothes.

“It is a hard bargain you drive,” she added, scowling at him.

Dmitri stalked back and forth next to Hilt, stooped over, his back up. In any other situation, it might look silly. “Are the imprints gone?”

“They’re gone well enough,” Hilt said. The imprints had drifted to the woman, now standing one on each side. But Dmitri didn’t question the vagueness of the response.

The woman was clearing a space on the table, mumbling under her breath, cursing them and the situation she had found herself in. She was composing herself, trying to even her voice and stop shaking. Eventually she looked up at Hilt, as if resolving herself to it. “Your token then,” she said, making a mockery of the word.

Hilt retrieved the box from where it had fallen on the floor and set it in the cleared space on the table.

After watching Dmitri for several seconds to make sure he wouldn’t come closer, she took the box and opened it. She looked over the contents before plucking out the tied bundle of hair. Weighing it on the tips of her fingers, she gave a hideous smile.

“You gave up something very precious for this.”

Hilt matched her gaze. “Then you should be able to use it just fine.”

“The token will break when it finds him,” she warned, taking a jar from the wall to her left and another that sat in the half light on the windowsill. “Better not lose him after that, unless you want to give away something else.” She watched him to see whether she was rattling him, maybe to see if she could find some advantage, but he showed nothing.

Placing the jars on the table, she spoke words over them. They were H’coma words, but Hilt could pick out or infer the meaning of most of them. She was asking for aid in finding the owner of the hair. It was a bit of a farce; the hair was Hilt’s. It had been reforged and only made to seem as Gabriel’s hair by the fact that Hilt had known him long ago.

“Will you give your hearing in exchange?” she asked.

Hilt flinched at the Common words. After a moment of hesitation, he said yes.

Other imprints were in the room now, crowding around and over and under the table. The woman spoke to one directly, picking it out from the others, and the dropped the bundle of hair into one of the jars. Hilt almost cried out, but she wasn’t paying attention. She swirled the liquid in the jar and then upended the thing over her palm. No liquid came out – only a stone, which she dropped into the other jar. There should have been a splash, but Hilt heard nothing. The entire room had gone silent.

Her mouth moved, and Hilt realized that he couldn’t read her lips.

She hadn’t told him she would be taking that as well.

She could be saying anything now – could be doing anything to the hair, could be doing anything to him. But she had taken his hearing, and she surely had to cooperate. She reached into the jar and took something out, her hand dripping. She unceremoniously held the object out to Hilt.

Hilt eyed her, taking the thing. It was a stone, cool to the touch, the hair bundle locked in the middle of it. A single imprint swam in and around it. The stone seemed to have two layers, the top flowing like mercury. As it settled into his palm, it shaped itself into a point directed to the west.

Forgetting all the possibilities of what could or might have gone wrong, Hilt couldn’t keep himself from smiling. When he looked up, the woman pointed in the direction of the door.