From the author: A wounded soldier and a warrior clad in living armor find each other through the shattered pieces of their past.
I first saw the blur of her, cutting through the Disquiet in a flash of godsteel. She seemed more liquid than steel as she drew an arc of gore through the swathes of silent faces crowding the town square. Serrated blades spread fin-like from her wrists and extended past her elbows, glimmering in the midday sun.
Perhaps she distracted me. I don't know.
As she slipped under a mound of Disquiet, one of them capitalized on my distress and caught me. It felt like I had plunged my whole sword arm into a winter fishing hole; the shock sent spikes of adrenaline and panic into my very core, and I struggled like a rabbit against a collar trap.
It was useless. The old man who had me, his gray eyes emptied of light by the Disquiet, had a death grip on my right arm. My sword fell from my numb fingers.
I remember thinking he must have had a name, once.
Something heavy and wet nearly knocked me off my feet. I wiped blood from my eyes, understood with a gasp that it poured from the Disquiet's severed neck.
"Quick," said the godsteel warrior, her voice muffled by a polished visor. "What's your name?" She barked the words with the promise of a threat. "Tell me your name!" Around us, the Disquiet's empty faces had turned to watch us, threatening to engulf us in its multitudes.
The absurdity was profound. The Disquiet had me in its clutches a moment ago, replaced just as quickly by this creature draped from head to toe in dark godsteel. And she asked for my name! I looked her up and down: the armor yielded not an inch of skin and barely any hint of her shape, yet I marveled at the power and confidence in her stance. The armor was smooth, with no visible articulations at the joints. She didn't need any: the godsteel bended to its wielder's will.
On instinct I stared into her eyes, then realized I was looking at myself, reflected in the smooth polish of her visor. I looked scared half to death, a young frightened boy sent to die far away from home.
"Your name!" I saw her center of gravity lower: she was winding the springs of her legs for the killing blow.
"Akyaj," I said.
She lowered her arms, and I heard her sigh through her helmet.
"I'm so sorry, Akyaj."
And with an upward swing of her razor-edged forearm, she sliced off my right shoulder.
The pain in my right arm was all I could process for a long time. The arm was gone, but every nerve ending still wailed with pain. It swallowed all my senses and seared my mind every instant I was awake. I don't remember screaming, but there's no doubt that I did.
I remember her wiping my forehead with cool water. I remember whispers, also, and the dancing of a fire. I remember the taste of broth and the sweetly sick smell of Disquiet flesh, outside.
For a long while all I could focus on were her godsteel fingers. They felt hard and cool on my skin, but the way they bent along the knuckles of her fingers made them appear as delicate as silk gloves. Where she touched my skin, she left the faint fragrance of oil.
One day the world fell into focus. The pain was still there, nearly unbearable, but somehow I had once again become a thinking animal.
The warrior woman had brought us inside a small, near-empty granary within the city walls. Sunlight filtered through the planks, often broken by the Disquiet walking outside. I could hear the quiet shuffling of feet in perfect unison. I smelled the pervasive odor of perspiration and feces. When I thought about the Disquiet, something dull and seductive pressed against the back of my mind.
I saw my face reflected into the polished darkness of godsteel.
"What's your name?" the warrior asked, kneeling next to me.
My abdominal muscles clenched. She must have seen me wince because she raised her right hand immediately, the blades turned sideways from me. The godsteel visor melted from her head, exposing the smooth hemisphere of her face. Her skin was pale, almost diaphanous, and her dark, almond eyes shone like the godsteel she wore. The metal itself clasped her face in a tight cowl, not allowing a single wisp of hair to show.
"I swear I won't hurt you anymore. I'm Vaelle. Just tell me your name, please." There was an odd note of fear in her voice.
"I'm Akyaj of Heldaron, of the Gypto caste." Even with the thin smile blooming on her white lips, she terrified me.
"Nice to meet you, Akyaj-Gypto of Heldaron." She extended her left hand, and I fumbled to shake it with the only one I had left. I knew she had meant the reversal as a friendly gesture but I was humiliated by it.
Her eyes flickered a moment to the absence of my right arm. "You're beating back the infection but it will take a while. It won't ever stop hurting completely, but you'll get used to it. You know I had no choice... Right? The Disquiet had you. I'm sorry I had to do it."
"Thanks." I meant it sincerely, but the pain was still too fresh and it colored my words with a jarring irony. She looked away.
She was right, of course. If she had left me in the clutch of the Disquiet, it would have chewed and swallowed through my sense of self until all that would have been left of me is a shell that believes it still exists. I would have gone through life not realizing my soul was gone, until one day the Disquiet summoned me. My hollowed mind would have joined its armies of puppets, wearing the same empty eyes, the same slack jaw.
"So, Akyaj," she said, gathering herself up. "I didn't know Gypto women went to war. Is that why you have a man's name?"
"Excuse me?" The pain in my missing arm was almost too much to bear, but the shock of her words cut through like a bonfire in the fog.
She turned around with the thin smile on her lips now taking a mocking arch.
"You make a convincing man, but it takes a woman to know one."
I turned away. The words drove a wedge between us, and neither of us knew how to dissolve it. She frowned, and her efforts at understanding my anger just fanned it further. She must have sensed it, because she stood up and went to stir the embers of the cooking fire. I let the pain swallow me whole again.
I stood by the main door of the granary, held upright by the crutch Vaelle had helped me make out of a broken pitchfork and a pair of spare overalls. She was gone on one of her foraging expeditions, and the only thing I could do was hope she would survive the trip.
I spied the Disquiet through the spaces between the planks of the door. I saw what used to be merchants, peasants, soldiers, children, and even a priest. They walked by with that clockwork gait, shoulders slumped, their stare vacant. The shuffling of their feet in perfect unison sounded like some obscene ocean washing on the shore of the world.
The Disquiet was too numerous for this town. No wonder my scouting unit had been overtaken so easily. If it hadn't been for Vaelle, I would be with my squad right now. And judging by the numbness at the back of my mind, I knew I might join them yet. Sometimes when I slept, I could hear the monotone whisper of the Disquiet, just outside the thin walls of my skull.
I could feel it sniffing around, looking for fresh minds. It would find us sooner or later.
The trapdoor on top of the granary flew open, and Vaelle jumped down from the roof and into the threshed grain. Her armor was covered in gore, and she held a fawn over her shoulders. The godsteel withdrew from her face like a receding tide.
I made no effort to conceal my relief.
"They're growing in numbers, aren't they?" I asked. "I can tell from inside here."
She set the deer down as if it might break. I saw doubt creep in her dark eyes. "They're all over this town. I've seen nobles dressed in capital fashion, and those are definitely not from here. The Disquiet is gathering."
"Why here, though? We are still far from the capital. Antyak has no strategic value."
"Not to the Imperator's armies, no. Even less since the crops burned last season." Vaelle studied the Disquiet through the planks. "Which is why it's perfect for the Disquiet. There's no value in us retaking it, and holding it would be too hard. Perfect place to mass your troops before you walk them on the capital."
Her words sent a shiver across the nape of my neck.
"You speak as if the Disquiet can think. The Disquiet is the death of reason."
She shook her head. "Individually, yes. But what if there's something driving all these empty minds? Something that bends the flesh the same way we shape godsteel."
"You have to get away from here." I wanted to tell her about the ache at the back of my head, but courage failed me just then. Surely she would kill me as soon as she knew I was infected. It would be a mercy.
"I will. We will. As soon as you get a bit better. Besides, the Disquiet might leave soon. Sometimes it cleans an area of food and moves on."
"I'm just a crippled soldier boy."
She just shook her head, looking sad.
I took a deep breath and took the plunge.
"I think the Disquiet infected me. You didn't cut my arm fast enough." She stared at me, shock widening her godsteel eyes.
"You telling me is proof enough that you're still yourself," she said. "It's very brave of you."
"I'm trying to save you. I won't be myself forever."
"As long as you remember your name, there's no reason to think the Disquiet has you, Akyaj. I'm sure you'll be fine."
"Then why don't you take off your armor in my presence? You're afraid of me."
She stared at me, not without kindness. "I am, but not in the way you think."
"What's your name?" Vaelle asked the question like she did every morning. She pushed me to meditate, to envision my own mind as clearly as I could. But no matter how hard I tried, I felt the Disquiet eating at my consciousness, a gangrene of the soul.
Vaelle's refusal to abandon me, added to the pain and shame of my amputation, kept me in a state of constant brooding. Having her dress my crippled shoulder twice a day was like oil thrown on the coals of my anger.
She asked my name again, urgency in her voice.
"If I stop answering that damn question, are you going to do the right thing and leave me here?"
"I might if you keep up this shitty attitude!" She spit the words at me, not a hint of humor in them. It was a refreshing change from her usual compassionate calm.
"You're angry at me? Good! Maybe you'll stop treating me like your wounded little pet."
She shook her head, her armored neck guard pivoting silently on the axis of her neck.
"You're no pet, Akyaj." She gave me a long look, filled with that pity that made me hate the both of us at the same time.
"Look... I know it's not fair to be angry at you like this. It's just... The constant, numbing pain, the Disquiet burning like a fever... They eat at my kindness. You understand?"
"Yes," she said. I believed her.
"I always knew I was a boy," I said, surprising myself. "In my heart, I mean. I told my mom on my thirteenth nameday. It was a liberation when I spoke the words. Mom just stared at me and cried for a while. "
Vaelle sat down cross-legged next to me, nodding at me to continue.
"I was sure she'd throw me out. Instead, she tried to bring back her lost daughter through sheer, naked love. She smothered me with it, drove herself half-mad trying to find ways to fix me. I tried so hard, too. I begged the gods to change my heart. That's what hurt the most."
"I think I know what you mean," said Vaelle in a half-whisper, and the shadow in her eyes told me she did, in her own way.
"I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not very good at people trying to fix me. I joined the army to escape my mother's hope."
"I'm trying to save you, not change who you are," She touched my shin with her godsteel-clad fingertips. "You know that, right?"
"I know that's what my mum thought she was doing." And I knew what I had to do.
Silence fell between us. I was the first to break it.
"How did you get so much godsteel, anyway? It's beautiful."
She gave a thin smile. "I'm from House Astaris." She watched my eyes widen. "It belonged to my four brothers."
"Wait. You're a princess?"
She laughed a crystalline laugh, hiding her teeth with her steeled hand like decorum demanded, betraying her upbringing.
"I've been called a princess a few times, but I don't think I ever was. I'm too... broken."
"So you inherited your brothers' steel and went to war."
Vaelle laughed, shook her head. "I stole it from the family vaults. Astaris women don't wield godsteel... It's unladylike."
That made both of us smile.
"I bet they're proud of you now."
The smile drained from her face, smoothing her features into an imitation of porcelain.
After a while, I noticed her looking at me.
"Hey," I said. "How can you wear godsteel as armor? I thought it only did swords."
Laughter. Her teeth disappeared behind the steel hand again.
"Godsteel can take any shape you want. By itself it's harder than steel, but hold it and think, and the godsteel bends as easy as the fingers on your hand. Shaping a sword out of it is a waste of potential. Other warriors would realize this if they weren't so obsessed with long, pointy things."
I chuckled. She brightened up.
"An armor is definitely clever."
"Best offense. The Disquiet can't infect me through the steel. Way better than a stupid sword... Just doesn't look as impressive."
"I have to disagree."
Silence fell between us, but this time it brought us together.
"You realize why I had to cut your arm, right?" she said after a while. She asked it in a hopeful tone that gave me permission to disagree. It drained the last shreds of my anger.
"I do. You stopped the infection from spreading. You saved my life. I wish I could stop being angry about it."
"Nothing about this is normal."
She nodded, her smile fading.
I made my move during her next foraging expedition.
I pictured her coming back to the granary to find me gone. I imagined the relief in her eyes when she realized I had done what she didn't have the strength to do. I tried not to picture sadness.
I told myself the Disquiet was about to find us. I reasoned that I would soon forget my name anyway.
I thought back to my mother, how much my departure must have hurt. I wiped the tears with my fist, and pushed the granary door open.
Outside, the Disquiet turned to look at me, the sea of faces turning all at once in my direction. Dull eyes. Ashen faces. All different yet so alike, drained of the selves that once made them laugh, mourn, rage, love. They were animated by a dull, singular purpose.
It felt like something between terror and relief.
I breathed in, marshalling the last shreds of my willpower. I meant to push through the silent crowd and get as far away from the granary as possible before the touch of the Disquiet extinguished me. I didn't want Vaelle to find me drifting among the gray masses.
The Disquiet blossomed in the back of my mind, spreading its icy tendrils through my consciousness. I took a step forward.
Vaelle's dark silhouette cut a path through the Disquiet, an arrow of gore aimed straight at me. At once the hundreds of men, women, and children turned to her. They reached for her, trying to pin her down or trip her up. With unearthly grace and speed, she dodged them all, slicing through flesh like a ship's bow.
By the time she reached me, her armor glistened with blood in the sunlight. She grabbed my remaining arm with an urgency that bruised my skin, the coolness of her godsteel fingers pulling me out of the Disquiet nightmare.
For a moment, I had seen the mind of the Disquiet, drawing patterns across the town.
"Southern watchtower," I said, panting. "The Disquiet hasn't made it inside."
She turned around, and not letting go of my arm, sliced us a path through the oppressively silent crowd. We reached the tower after long, agonizing minutes, and barricaded the ground-level door. We climbed until there were no more stairs.
Vaelle didn't take off her cowl that night, nor did she say a single word.
Vaelle shook me awake the next morning.
"Akyaj! What's your name!"
I blinked away the dreamless sleep and batted her godsteel hand away.
"I'm Akyaj. Akyaj! Alright? I'm still me."
She sat on the floor next to my cot. I noticed she had withdrawn her godsteel cowl completely, exposing her skull. I had imagined her with beautiful, silky black hair, but her skull was bare, patchy and raw. The skin hadn't breathed for a long time.
"Who is Akyaelle?" she asked.
She folded her armored hands on top of my single one. I expected the godsteel to withdraw but it stayed there, its cool touch a cruel substitute for the warmth of her flesh.
"How do you know my birth name?" Fear tightened my gut.
"You told me." Now I understood the worry in her eyes. "Before you came around, that's the name you gave me. You seemed half-awake."
"I don't have much time. The Disquiet... You have to go!"
"You'll be fine if we get you away from the Disquiet right now. We have to put distance between you and the hive."
"If you hadn't stopped me yesterday, you'd be free by now."
The slap was gentle, but it still stung.
"I knew you'd do something stupid. That's why I stayed behind. I'm glad I did."
"Vaelle, please. I'm doomed, but you don't have to be."
"I'll think of something." Vaelle hugged herself, and the cowl pulled up around her head, perhaps trying to protect her from the truth.
I struggled to say my name again the next morning. Vaelle and I both knew: the Disquiet was eroding me as surely as water polishing a stone.
We studied the Disquiet from the top of the tower. From above, we could see just how far the sea of gray bodies extended. It swallowed every street, every public place in town. It spilled out of the city into the villages outside the walls, swelling and retreating under some unholy tide. Down below, the reinforced door of our tower groaned under the pressure of bodies.
This was no ordinary swarm.
Vaelle reached out for my remaining hand and gave it an urgent squeeze.
"I know what we have to do," she said.
"I think I figured it out... You want to share the godsteel, don't you?"
"It's a bad idea. We'll both be exposed. We barely made it out of the granary."
"You're wrong. We can do it." The stench of sweat and flesh filled my nostrils. I heard wood splintering down below.
She gave me a long look, and I saw the frightened little girl she must have been once, a long time ago. "Stand away from the window," she said.
I did as she asked. She turned me around, wrapped her steel arms around my chest. I felt the godsteel withdraw from her stomach, snaking in wisps along my sides.
"Brace for my weight."
I started to ask what she meant, but then I knew.
Her armor's sleeves melted away, leaving empty air where her flesh should have been, tapering off at the shoulders. The weight of her, of her torso and head, drew me backwards until I braced against it. She was light, impossibly so. Her legs, too, had melted away like candles, the godsteel wrapping around my thighs and calves.
"Vaelle the broken princess," she said in a hushed voice.
"Never. You were never broken."
We stood together, she limbless, held against my back by the godsteel that wrapped us both.
"Vaelle... What if getting me away from here isn't enough?"
"Now's not the time to think about it, Akyaj."
The cowl of godsteel brought our heads together, her face to my cheek. Two legs and one arm between us. I walked us to the window and climbed on the ledge. Below, the legions of the Disquiet all turned their faces towards us in the same instant, their dead eyes shining in the daylight. I heard their footsteps in the stairwell. A flash of terror made me pant with fear.
She whispered the words against my cheek with the intimacy of prayer.
"What's your name?"
This time, the question made me whole.
This story originally appeared in Swords & Sorcery.