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I lay on my back, presumably on the floor, though with my senses still swimming back from one of the most stressful Readings I'd ever done, it might have been the ceiling for all I knew. Would have been a bit strange, mind, unless Miriam had decided to rattle my brains again. But no. If it had been Miriam, I'd have been in a great deal more pain.

Not that I wasn't in pain altogether, and as my senses started coming back to me, I started feeling it. Ow! Bruises. Lots of bruises. Bones? No, all good. Head? Absolutely splitting. Skin? ... Skin not very intact, actually. Blood. Bleeding.

Blood mage.

Shit! I sat up like I was on fire, and immediately curled back down into a fetal ball as my head screamed at me in agony. Shit, shit, shit! Where was he? Where was I? And dammit, bleeding like I was, why the hell wasn't I dead yet?

"Ho, Finnicky!" called a crushed voice nearby, and I froze. "You awake, my frantic friend?"

"John?" I managed, lifting my head out of its defensive cradle to peer around the room, searching. I found him soon enough, propped wearily on his elbows, smiling in exhaustion at me from the other side of the body.

The body.

Well, at least it explained why I wasn't dead. Hysterical, doing my best to deafen Whistler by screaming in his face, but very much alive. And very much annoyed. "Blood of the rocks, Whistler!" I roared, scrambling onto my knees, leaning as far away from the ferromancer's body as I could. "What the hell did you do?!"

The damned bastard vivimancer burst out laughing. Right in my face, after leading me along to this devil's farce, after near getting me damn killed with his bloody death wish and his do-right mentality and his assurances that the bloody mages would be here any second to save us, and were they bloody here? Were they hell! And what the bloody hell had he done to keep us alive, him who could only follow Trace, could only follow in the footsteps of killers. With all the blood around, it must have been bloodly good ... Blood. Blood, blood, blood. And my own, and the ferromancer's hands, and the singing in the gaps between his cells ...

All the blood drained out of my face, the strength out of my body. I crumpled in a heap beside the man I'd killed, beside the man who'd sung with power and rage and the sweet singing of other people's blood in his veins, and the way they'd spun from harmony to discord as he drained me, as my own meager power swam inside him to wake the alien blood to its identity, to its memory.

I'd killed him. Alan Duprie, the ferromancer, mage of metals, mage of blood, who'd wanted to steal the magic of others through what carried it, through their blood. And in the end, failed. Because of me. Because blood obeyed him, but everything answered to my call, and even my tiny power was enough when threaded so expertly through the gaps between his own blood and that he had stolen. Enough to drive his body against itself, and cause it to fail. He'd had all the power of a mage. But I'd had an alchemist's understanding.

"Finn. Finn!" John had made it to his hands and knees, made it to my side. Crawling through the blood to do so. I stared at his hands, at the stains on his pants, at the glistening darkness that even now I could feel, hear, smell, touch, Read, dive into. The sweet singing of the forces in all things, the weaving wonder of the world. Grisly and empty and old, in a dead man's blood. I gagged, trying convulsively to pull back, to get away, my senses scrabbling for the between places, where nothing ever reached, where there was peace like no other ...

And then he had me by the shoulders, with his great bloody paws, and he was shaking me, and hugging me, and the damn bastard was laughing again, pulling me close to stroke my hair and cough out 'Well done, Finn!' in his crushed voice, and all of a sudden I was mad again, and the world was alright.

"John Whistler!" I snarled, right in his damn ear, and the bastard let me go with a chuckle, and took my hands in his own while I glared. And then he sobered, laughter dying back to only a small smile, a twinkle in otherwise grave eyes, and he looked at me.

"You did good, Finn," he said, as if pronouncing vows. "Best of the best, like you always say, right?" And damn if I could argue, because it wasn't every day an alchemist, even one like me, beat a mage in a straight fight, and beneath the visceral horror, I was rather proud of that. But that was not the point, damn him!

"Where are the damn mages!" I cried, thumping him furiously on the shoulder. "The damn backup, you bloody moron, the ones who're supposed to fight these bastards for us! Blood of the rocks, Whistler, if you dragged me in here to die while they're on their bloody tea break, I will never speak to you again, and I swear that by the bloody Hollow itself! You damned ..."

"Shhh!" he interrupted, hurriedly, holding out a placating hand. "I swear, Finn, swear by the Spirit, that I was told they'd be here. I passed the location on to my contact. They should have been here, Finn." He paused, looking worried and annoyed, and with the beginnings of his serene anger drifting in his eyes. "They should have been here."

I sat back, mollified. At least the bastard hadn't brought me here solely to help him indulge his death wish, then. "Well, they're bloody not, Whistler!" I grumped, sitting in a puddle of sticky robes on the floor of a dead man's room, my head pounding, my wounds stinging like hell, my whole body one big bruise. "They're damn bloody not!"

And he looked at me, the whole pathetic sight, and the biggest grin I ever saw on his face crept out to beam at me. My spine damn near crawled away on its own. "Yes," said he, all grins and easy confidence. "But they will be next time." And he burst out laughing while I stared at him in horror, fell back in fits as I launched myself at him, trying to pummel him into submission, squawking all the while.

"Next time! Next time, you bloody son of a fermented goat, I'll show you bloody next time ..."

And, you know, life has never been the same since. A whole new chapter of my life started in that bloody moment, my entire understanding of the way the world worked rewritten, and damn me if I haven't wanted to kill him for it.

Credit where due, though. The damn mages were there, the next time.



 

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