Fire and Gold Chapter Four – Innocence Lost

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Danica hurried out of the barn, her eyes scanning the field, not looking far ahead towards the gulch that funneled down into the valley but rather studying the grass just a few feet ahead. It was quite muddled with hoof prints and boot prints from the last day’s activities. But there was a clear set horse tracks on top of it all that hadn’t been there before. With a satisfied grunt she followed them.

It quickly became apparent the horses had riders, for they moved in a very straight line towards the boardinghouse. Nor did they cut into the center of the compound, which would allow them to reach the boardinghouse door fastest. Instead they stayed in the field, which made them less likely to be noticed from any of the buildings.

Not good. Danica picked up speed and followed the tracks to the point where they were moving past the back of the boardinghouse itself, clinging stealthily to the lee of the building. She was so focused on watching the footprints she almost didn’t hear the people coming the other way. Two horses rounded the corner, a tall, fair haired man on one and slightly shorter woman with similar features on the other. The woman had the son of the rancher family in the saddle in front of her wrapped in a blanket.

Danica froze. The man’s face split into a smile. “At last! Another survivor.” He got down from his horse and handed the reigns to the woman. “Hold these, Cassie.”

“Be careful, Brandon,” the woman murmured. “Something sounds off here.”

Danica’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them. She wasn’t sure what the Cassie woman was hearing that sounded off but perhaps she was picking up on the noise of Janice looking for the boy. Either way, Brandon didn’t seem to take her that seriously either. He got down from his horse and carefully approached Danica. “What is your name, young lady?”

“Danica,” she said, doing her best to appear harmless and frightened as she answered. “Danica de la Feugo.”

Brandon looked down at her with a mix of concern and compassion, neither of which were as big a concern to her as his incredible height. Danica estimated he was more than twice as tall as she was. The extra weight of iron and gold in her veins was an equalizing factor but given the extreme size difference she wasn’t sure she could more than equal his weight.

As she finished sizing him up, Brandon also finished with her. “You look like you’ve been hiding,” he said, picking a bit of dust from the boardinghouse floor out of her hair. She flinched but he didn’t seem upset. “I don’t know how much you saw of what happened here but you’re safe now. Was there anyone else hiding with you?”

“No,” she said, guessing at what Brandon thought had happened to her. “I was alone.”

“Brandon!” Cassie’s voice had an odd strain in it. “Brandon, come here for a moment.”

“Just a minute, Cassie,” he hissed, half turning away from Danica to look at the woman. The shift in his bulk was enough for Danica to make eye contact with the rancher’s son and see the spark of recognition there. In that moment she knew she couldn’t lie to the pair anymore.

Danica gathered as much of her metal reserves in one foot as she could and lashed out at Brandon’s knee. After that things happened very fast.

Brandon rolled with the impact, flopping over onto his side with a grunt. The momentary contact between Danica’s foot and his knee was strange and spongy, almost as if she had kicked an old tree stump rather than a human body. She gathered herself to spring for the rancher’s son only to pull up short when Brandon grabbed her arm. The man had sprung up from the ground like he was a spring, his legs seeming to pull at the ground, with no sign that he felt any pain from Danica’s kick. Shocked, she yanked on her arm once but found it impossible to break his grip.

“What’s this?” He demanded. As she watched his chest and arms seemed to swell, the buttons on his shirt and vest straining to stay closed. His cuff links pulled loose and his shirt sleeves sprang open to reveal a strange, greenish brown color spreading down his body and over his hands.

“What are you?” She retorted, giving up on pulling away as the strange color closed over his hands. She was vaguely aware of a change in texture, but her sense of feel was too dull to tell her more. It was time to improvise. Pushing the metal in her veins back down into her feet she pushed away from Brandon and towards the wall of the boardinghouse she jumped up, braced her feet on the wall, and vaulted over Brandon’s head. This gave her enough torque to pull free of the man’s grasp, although she lost most of the skin on her left hand in the process.

By the time she landed on the ground again she’d shifted her weight of metal back up into her hands and, balling them together, she slammed them into his knee again. The impact had the same strange feel to it and this time he didn’t even respond to it. Then he pivoted to face her. In the process he lifted one foot and Danica saw the sole of his boot fall away, strange, rootlike tendrils pulling up out of the ground and into his foot. His other boot remained rooted and twisted unnaturally as he pivoted. Finally he slammed his foot down and spread his arms wide and lowered his center of gravity and sneered at her.

His face was unrecognizable. It had transformed into the same brownish green color as his hands and his eyes and mouth had shrunk and twisted down to small, strange orifices like knotholes on a tree. Shocked, Danica scrambled back from the strange creature. “What’s this?” His voice creaked with wooden overtones. “Did they change you as a child?”

Talking wasn’t really going anywhere so Danica ignored the question. She did know that Hernando wouldn’t be happy if the boy escaped. She wasn’t sure he wanted to fight with the incredible tree man or whatever Cassandra was, he’d made it a habit of avoiding people he assessed as dangerous magicians, but they’d already collected all the ranchers once and letting someone he’d captured slip his grasp was not something Hernando believed in.

So she turned away from Brandon and jumped up onto his horse. Pausing for just a moment on its saddle, she aimed herself towards the boy and jumped again before the animal began to prance in distress. A sharp, piercing sound, unbelievably loud, pierced her head and for a moment her vision disappeared entirely.

Vague impacts told her she’d hit something solid, like a horse, then something even more unforgiving, like the ground. A series of hard impacts on her back told her she’d gotten trampled afterward. In spite of her best efforts, Danica couldn’t get her arms and legs to do as she told them for a good four or five seconds, by which time her vision had come back and Brandon, the Walking Tree had scooped her off the ground and wrapped her into a constricting bear hug.

She looked over to see Cassie’s horse cantering up the canyon away from the ranch. Her hearing was returning slowly and she caught the last few words the woman was saying. “…both know you’re not going to do anything to hurt her. Put her down and come away, Brandon.”

“Harper said there was a way for them to change back. We can-” Danica pulled her iron up into her head and snapped it backwards, cracking him between the eyes. He sputtered and his grip loosened but didn’t let go entirely. She braced her feet on top of Brandon’s knees and snapped her head forwards and back again. This time Brandon managed to move his head so the blow landed on his cheek rather than between the eyes but his grip loosened again as the two of them twisted in the grapple. Finally Danica pushed her blood metal back to one foot and stamped on his knee.

The third time was the charm. She felt something pop as her foot came down and Brandon let go, falling flat on his back. Danica scrambled away from him and after Cassie, staggering back and forth as she tried to find something like balance again. At first it seemed that her difficulty staying upright was just a result of the damage to her ears. But then she realized a deep, baritone rumble was building in the ground beneath her feet and she could see fist sized stones rolling down the canyon as it shook.

The rocks parted around Cassie as she moved up the pass.

They didn’t do the same for Danica. In fact, as they came rolling along she realized they were actually funneling towards her. Putting her hands over her head she packed her arms full of iron and gold and did her best to ignore the impacts that pelted against her arms, legs and torso. The rumbling suddenly stopped and Cassie called, “Come on, Brandon! He told us to bring away the survivors and not worry about the gold drinkers! Leave the man to his work!”

Danica lowered her hands enough to peek over top of them just in time to see Brandon canter past on his horse. She wasn’t sure how he’d gotten up and into the saddle but his strange, treeish abilities certainly made it possible. For a moment she considered chasing them further. Then Cassie stood up in her stirrups with hands clasped under her diaphragm, new harmonics layering into the rumble, and the canyon walls began falling apart, filling the canyon with rubble from gravel to man sized rocks. Cassie’s horse whinnied and shied backwards, Brandon’s increased its speed to a mad gallop.

The rocks avoided both of them, their horses misgivings aside.

A bitter taste filled Danica’s mouth and she knew she wasn’t going to catch either of them now. With a final, baleful look at Cassie she turned away from the canyon and ran back towards the ranch house with the rocks and rubble nipping at her heels. Hernando wasn’t going to be happy. But she knew that his wrath was momentary and mostly harmless. Getting buried alive was much, much worse.

However, she wasn’t going to forget what happened. One day these interlopers were going to pay for meddling in the affairs of the de la Feugos.

Fire and Gold Chapter Three – Drained Dry

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The ranch house was quickly becoming Hernando’s least favorite part of the homestead. Janice was spending most of her time there. Something about the ramshackle pile of sticks created a powerful attraction that kept her there. He found her standing naked in the kitchen when he returned. A bucket of well water sat on the counter beside her as she carefully adjusted the coils of hair on top of her head. Soft whimpers came from the master bedroom. Hernando scowled.

“What are you doing?” He demanded, striding through the great room to the tall cabinet by the root cellar door.

She hesitated, a long pin closer to a weapon than an ornament half impaled into her hair. “You said to clean up after-”

“Why haven’t you eaten yet?” Hernando demanded, irritation lacing his voice. “You’re as bad as Larry. It will take time for the gold to bond to new blood and give you command of it yet here you are playing with your food instead of eating it.”

Janice turned to face him, arms folded under her breasts. “Hernando, what’s got you so wound up? It ain’t like you to rush through things so much, you ought to be lookin’ at your diary and plannin’ out our next trip but instead you’re all fired up to move on tomorrow.”

“Today, if possible,” he snapped. “The people of Columbia take their holy orders so abominably seriously that we can’t hope they won’t look into the loss of a Watchpost. I thought a day here would let us lay in some iron and gold for emergencies. We’re hours past that and we’ve barely started on the process.”

“They had ranch hands up on the ridge,” Janice said with a helpless shrug. “Did you really want more people escapin’ to rat us out?”

“No,” Hernando snapped. “It’s not anyone’s fault that things didn’t work out perfectly. It is your fault that you won’t do as you’re told. Now go and finish your meal so we can put him with his sister and go about turning them.”

Janice perked up. “So you will give him the change?”

“Only if you have him ready for it before sunset.” With a disgusted shake of his head Hernando rummaged through the cabinet until he found the box he’d spotted there on his initial pass through the building the day before. He took it out and moved it over to the dining table in the great room and emptied the contents there.

“What is that?” Janice asked, still ignoring his instructions to gawk at the pile of paper and tools that spilled out.

“Maps,” Hernando said. “We’re on the edge of territory I know well, I’ll need to look over the counties north of here before I can decide where to go next.”

“Why not go west to Winchester county?” She asked. “There’s a bunch of skytrain stations there. We could fly anywhere in Columbia in four days time.”

“Because the Storm’s Watch is likely to bring in a team of their own to investigate what we did to their Post. Any team they send is far more likely to know a gold drinker than regular men are. And the Storm’s Watch can move their team a lot faster by sky train than by foot or wagon, so we’re going to stay as far from them as we can for the next few weeks.”

Janice sighed. “When you put it that way, I guess we’re gonna have to avoid the skies. To bad. I never been flyin’ before.”

Hernando didn’t mention the other problem with flying – as gold drinkers collected blood iron under the sway of the gold in their veins they quickly got heavy enough to fall right through the floor of most skytrains. To say nothing of what that weight did to throw them off balance. Although he’d taken most of the blood iron Janice drank she was still far heavier than she looked, and probably wouldn’t ever be able to fly without giving her nature away.

Not that her weight was a topic he was eager to broach.

This same difficulty made horses or stage coaches impractical, so they were going to have to walk wherever they wanted to go. “We need some place that is sparsely settled but close enough we can reach it in two or three days. Any ideas?”

“Honey, we been farther north than I’ve ever been since you changed me. But I know ranches, and they’ll have a map with their routes for cattle drivin’ somewhere. There’s usually some kind of way station along them routes we could lay low in for a few days. No one’d miss ’em for weeks.”

Hernando grunted, unhappy with her familiar language but willing to let it pass. Her plan was sound, if he could find those maps. “These don’t look right.”

“Nope. Those’re claims and deeds. The route maps are proably in the boardin’ -”

“Hernando!” Danica charged into the house, eyes wild. “Hernando, they got Larry!”

He set aside the paper and sighed. “Do you mean Larry is missing? Has a group shown up and captured him?”

“He’s dead.” She skidded to a stop and pointed frantically towards the barn. “They cut his head off and all his blood is gone!”

Hernando pursed his lips, stymied. “His blood is gone? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know,” Danica said, “but I couldn’t smell any in his head or his body. He’s pale, Hernando. So pale…”

He didn’t understand how it was possible to exert control over a gold drinker’s blood. The tome he’d discovered that laid out the gold drinker ritual was long on process but very short on details of how that magic worked. It basically laid out the need to feed and how acquiring blood iron would allow them to concentrate their power. It was possible to restore a badly injured, or even decapitated gold drinker, with enough time and blood iron.

However if Larry had lost his blood somehow Hernando was certain he couldn’t restore him with the resources he had on hand. He glanced at Danica. “Did you collect his excess blood before he died?”

“No,” she whispered.

“It can’t be helped.” He loosened his sword in its scabbard. “Did you see any signs of who killed him?”

“No…” Danica seemed to be coming back to herself now. “But I did notice something smelled charred. The barn was smokey.”

Hernando grunted. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear anything. Most sulfurite weapons are on the loud side. Perhaps a spear? Some of those are on the quiet side.”

“Does it matter?” Janice asked.

“I’m wondering how many men are out there. If they were a large group I don’t think they’d be so sneaky about this, they’d already be beating down the door.” He gave Janice a look. “Get dressed, Janice. We’re going hunting.”

Once she was given sufficient motivation Janice could move very quickly. She got dressed and retrieved her machete. It was more tool than weapon, without even a mounting spot for a sulfurite crystal, but it was deadly enough at close range. Hernando had tried to train her in the use of a sulfurite blade but so far she was more a danger to herself and her allies than their enemies. So for now the machete would have to do.

They found Larry right where Danica left him. Hernando glanced at her. “Has anything changed?”

“No, he was like this when I found him. I – I just got scared and ran to find you so I didn’t look at him that closely but he looked like this as near as I remember.” She knelt down and studied the floor. “I think he was in a puddle before but it may have drained away or dried out?”

Hernando squinted his eyes and looked around the barn. “Where are the horses?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t here when I found him.”

Janice walked to the back and looked through the rear door. “They’re not in the fields, either. Do you think it was horse thieves?”

“Simple horse thieves wouldn’t know how to do this. I’m not even sure how this was accomplished.” Hernando knelt down and studied the stump of Larry’s neck. The cut was not particularly clean. In fact it looked more like the last bit had been torn off more than cut through, suggesting the blade that made the cut was on the dull side. Larry didn’t have enough blood iron to be unusually durable, so decapitating him wouldn’t have been any harder than cutting the head of a normal man. But that was still a difficult task.

Hernando picked up Larry’s head and set it aside to reveal a second wound in the stomach, not a cut but a deep stabbing wound. “That would be the spear,” he murmured. “They moved the body for some reason.”

“Maybe as part of how they removed his blood?” Danica said. “And they used the water to wash away the evidence.”

“I don’t understand why they would be so secretive,” Hernando said. “It’s a lot of time wasted for negligible return. Still the kill itself was quite masterful.”

He studied the two women with him skeptically. For all his erratic nature he was a dependable fighter when the need arose, where as the womenfolk were very early in their training. He definitely didn’t have the resources to revive Larry so he was going to have to be left behind. “I don’t think this is a fight we want to have. Janice?”

She turned away from the doorway. “Yes?”

“Go collect the boy, eat your damn meal and take him to his sister. Danica, look for the horses. If you can’t find them in a quarter hour, meet me at the slaughterhouse and we’ll perform the change on our new members.”

“Where will you be?” Janice asked.

“I’m going to find those maps.” Hernando grimaced. “It’s time to move on.”

“We’re runnin’?”

“Yes. I’m not tangling with the unknown when we’re this far in the red. One day there will be a reckoning for this, but it’s not today.”