The Sunlit Man | Chapter Five
Nomad cried out in frustration as Glowing Eyes turned toward the sound, then began shouting orders as he strode—tall and unflinching—back toward the podium.
Weapon fire—blasts with a distinctly red-white heat—rained from the sky. Glowing Eyes shouted something else, and ember people—a good two hundred of them—came running out onto the rims of ships. Then, as one, their embers dulled.
Their bracers were activating. Nomad’s did as well, but in a panic, he summoned Auxiliary in a specific shape—two thin metal bracers underneath the ones on his arms, separating them from touching his skin. It was an odd construction, as he generally had to make Auxiliary into pieces that were touching—so these weird bracers-under-his-bracers were connected by a rod.
It worked, though, keeping him from being frozen this time.
Clever, the knight compliments his squire with true appreciation. That’s an odd shape, even for you.
He could manage practically anything with Auxiliary, assuming he could make it from the appropriate amount of metal. And assuming he understood the construction on a fundamental level. He’d failed to make a clock, for example, until he’d carefully studied the schematics for one.
The remnants of the scholar inside him whispered that he was too simple with this power—that he could do much greater things if he practiced. There just wasn’t a lot of time for anything in his life other than running, and the constant pressure sometimes left it difficult to summon the imagination for any but the most obvious solutions.
Regardless, his bracers buzzed as if annoyed to be rendered nonfunctional by being unable to touch his skin. The ember people had no such protection—and they dropped like toddlers at nap time, collapsing where they were, falling into the mud.
Glowing Eyes spun around, obviously shocked by this turn of events. Whatever was happening to them, it seemed to be the actions of the attacking enemy. In any other circumstance, the look on that man’s face would have been comical, but Nomad couldn’t pause to appreciate it, as the ship he was chained to slowly rose away from the arena floor. It got about five feet up before a blast hit it from above. A violent explosion ripped it apart, ejecting the part with Nomad from the rest of the disintegrating vessel.
On the plus side, Nomad dropped to the ground.
On the minus side, a smoking, sparking piece of the ship came with him. He hit the ground with it right on top of him. His body protested this rough treatment, and all the air was knocked out of him. Invested or not, if he hadn’t fallen into the soft mire, he’d have been crushed.
As it was, he was stuck there in the muddy darkness, the huge weight pressing him down—his thumb still broken and healing slowly—as a firefight broke out above.
Oh, come on. He could hold his breath practically forever—with his highly Invested soul renewing his cells in much the same way the sun here made the plants grow. But his chance to steal a weapon was dwindling by the moment.
Nomad, the hero says to his exceptionally lazy valet, this is no time to take a rest.
Nomad gurgled an annoyed reply through the mud.
Yes, that was a joke on my part, Auxiliary said. Proof that I’m not completely mirthless since my death. But, to be more serious, you should probably try to get out of this. That sunrise is going to arrive eventually. I tasted the strength of it earlier. Let it catch you here and you’ll be vaporized. Right now I don’t have the strength to shield you from such power, and there’s no way we can absorb something so potent.
An explosion shook the ground, vibrating Nomad where he was stuck. His left hand was still manacled to the large piece of wall on top of him. He could pull it free, maybe, but that would probably break his thumb or wrist at the same time, which seemed like a bad idea. His right hand was healing but mostly useless.
Fortunately he could feel air on his legs and even move them. His ankles were sore. He guessed the bonds there had been ripped free in the blast and that the piece of wreckage holding him down covered only his top half.
Right, then. He tried imagining Auxiliary as a knife first—but that didn’t work, even though Nomad insisted he was making a tool, not a weapon. He needed something else. He thought back to his days as an aspiring scholar—that seemed so, so long ago—and imagined a jack for lifting something heavy.
The more complicated an item Nomad needed Auxiliary to be, the longer it took—unless he’d been turned into the same thing many times. The jack took a while and formed wrong the first time, so Nomad had to try again. But eventually he got Auxiliary to appear next to his right hand in the appropriate shape, with the jack’s saddle just underneath the metal’s edge.
Nomad didn’t have much maneuverability, but he was able to move his free hand onto the specifically designed crank and rotate it a few times. It was enough to lift the metal up perceptibly.
Another clever adaptation, Auxiliary said. Glad to see some of the old you shining through.
Fresh air flowed in as he slowly turned the fallen piece of wall into a sort of lean-to over him. Eventually that gave him the room to get both knees underneath him.
Then, with a supreme effort almost betrayed by the slipperiness of the mud, he heaved with his legs and flipped himself over. This planted the metal wall down into the mud with him lying on top—one manacle still in place—staring upward.
Ships buzzed around. There wasn’t as much blaster fire as he’d thought—these ships didn’t have onboard guns. The explosions were from dropped bombs, and the gunfire he’d seen was all from people wielding rifles on the decks. The ships also couldn’t get very high; the highest he saw them flying was fifty or sixty feet. These weren’t proper warplanes, but more hovercraft with a little extra oomph.
All through the arena, plants had started sprouting. Just weeds, but it was amazing how quickly this barren pit of mud was becoming a field from only the light reflected off those rings.
“There’s Investiture in the light coming from the rings,” Nomad said. “Can we absorb that?”
Slowly, it seems, Auxiliary replied. There isn’t much. Maybe ten or twenty BEUs an hour?
Damnation. Well, most of the ships that had formed the arena had launched into the air, and Glowing Eyes was nowhere to be seen—though many of his ember-hearted subordinates lay in the mud where they’d fallen. This was Nomad’s best chance to escape, maybe steal a ship.
He tried to form Auxiliary as a pair of bolt cutters, but even that was too much of a weapon for the Torment at the moment. Why had it let him form a Blade one time, and now forbade bolt cutters? He tried a crowbar, leaning on it to get it to break him free of the wall, but he couldn’t get the leverage right with his broken thumb.
As Nomad slipped in the mud, a smaller, four-person hovercyle came roaring down, frying plants with its jets. Two people jumped free, a man and a woman. The man carried a rifle, but neither had the white uniform coats of the guards he’d encountered before. They were the aggressors, it seemed—the ones who had attacked Glowing Eyes and his group. Enemies of his enemies, dared he hope?
“Hey!” Nomad shouted as they dashed past. “Hey!”
The woman glanced at him, but the man ignored him, searching the ground for something. A ship went roaring past, the narrow deck crowded with people in dirty clothing. It scooted off into the distance.
It’s a rescue mission, Nomad realized. Those were captives from earlier.
“Hey!” he shouted louder. He held up the crowbar, waving for them. “Help me!”
The two people turned away from him, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what they were looking for in these weeds. Then, not far off, someone sat up—one of the ember men. He looked lethargic, but …
“Whatever you did to them is wearing off!” Nomad yelled.
The rescuers continued their frantic searching through the growing grass until the man called to the woman, who joined him, and together they heaved a muddy figure up from the grass.
It was the ember woman who had hunted Nomad during the arena melee earlier. She was unmistakable with the silver mixed into her hair, the single glowing mark on her cheek. She looked dazed and disoriented as the two hauled her back toward their vehicle. They walked right past Nomad.
“Storm you!” Nomad said, struggling against his bond. “At least look at me!”
They didn’t, instead loading their captive onto their hovercycle, locking her with manacles to one of the back two seats. They didn’t trust this ember woman. Perhaps they were taking a captive for some kind of ransom or prisoner exchange?
All right. Nomad would need to break his other hand to get free. At least the one he’d broken earlier was mostly healed. He tried yanking his captive hand out and heard—through his agony—the bone snap. But the hand didn’t pull free. Damnation! This manacle was tighter than the other, and even with a broken thumb, he couldn’t get it out.
Nomad, you’re dangerously low on Investiture, Auxiliary said. You’re going to start dipping beneath five percent if you need much more healing. It will weaken you, and remove many of your endurance and strength enhancements.
Damnation. He waved toward the two people again, but the man of the pair suddenly screamed as a blast of energy hit him on the shoulder. He stumbled back, and the next shot vaporized his entire head.
The body dropped to the weeds as the woman cried out in anguish, barely thinking to take cover behind her hovercycle. Overhead, a ship lowered—the one with a large podium on the back and four pillars at the sides.
Glowing Eyes himself—face lit by the fire within him—stood on the edge, a rifle in hand, and sighted. He fired again at the woman, blasting off a small part of her long, four-seater hovercycle.
She huddled in its shadow, facing Nomad. She managed to grab her fallen companion’s rifle, but when she popped up to fire, Glowing Eyes almost took her head off with an expert shot. She, in turn, only got a few wild blasts off that came nowhere near to hitting. She fired again and was even farther off.
“You need my help,” Nomad said, gesturing to the crowbar. “Come on.”
She glanced back at him.
“Come on,” he said, tears in his eyes at the pain of his wounded hand. “Come on!”
She said something unintelligible. Then, noticing he didn’t understand, she held up the rifle.
“Yeah, I know how to fire one,” he said, nodding. “I’m better at aiming than you seem to be.”
Liar, Auxiliary said.
“It’s not a lie,” he said. “I am a good shot.”
You’ll lock up the moment you touch a gun.
“She doesn’t understand anyway,” he said, nodding eagerly to the woman.
Meanwhile, beyond the uncomprehending woman, Glowing Eyes was forced to turn and deal with other ships threatening him—dropping bombs aimed at his ship. During that distraction, the woman rescuer finally scrambled over to Nomad and took the crowbar. She struggled, throwing her weight onto it, trying to break the chain where the manacle was tied to the wall. The motion jostled his broken thumb, and he cried out.
Unfortunately the manacle was made of strong stuff. Before she could get him free, Glowing Eyes turned his attention back toward them.
“Go!” Nomad said, pointing at the man.
The woman caught on and ran away. Nomad twisted, dismissing Auxiliary, then immediately summoning him again as a shield on his arm. That intercepted the shots Glowing Eyes fired. Nomad crouched on his knees, sheltering behind his shield, one hand still trapped beneath him and attached to the wall.
The woman huddled beside her hovercycle as—atop it—the ember woman groaned. She was waking up.
“The gun,” Nomad said, pointing and waving.
Hesitant, eyes distrustful, the woman tossed it to him as another barrage of fire rained down. He didn’t dare dismiss the shield, but he could alter its shape—giving it long spikes at the bottom that he could ram into the earth so he no longer needed to hold it. He huddled there and—with a single hand—awkwardly moved the rifle around toward the lock.
You’re going to blow your hand off, Auxiliary warned.
“Eh,” Nomad said. “I’ve got two.”
He fired. As he’d hoped, it blew the lock and let him pull his wounded hand free. He grabbed the shield and moved up close to the woman’s ship, huddling beside her.
Healing your other broken thumb now. This is about it, unless you want to drop below five percent.
“Fine, great,” he said, examining the hovercycle. “How hard would it be for me to steal this thing? Have you seen how they start the engines?”
You’re despicable, Aux said. This woman saved you. You’d steal her ship?
“She only did it under duress. How do I start the engines?”
I haven’t seen.
Blast. Well, he needed to get rid of Glowing Eyes. Nomad set up with the rifle right beside the seat where the ember woman was strapped down. She glared at him and growled as he insistently told himself he was not going to fire at any person in particular, just kind of randomly.
It worked, though only if he aimed very far away. He blasted the air, and it was enough to frighten Glowing Eyes back for a moment. The woman who had saved Nomad glared at him, shouting something and waving her hands.
I believe she’s mad about your bad aim.
“Lady,” Nomad said, “I’m having a really bad day. If you’re going to scream at me, could you at least do it a little softer?”
She grabbed the gun from him, then fired, keeping Glowing Eyes at bay. Then she gestured at the hovercycle and spoke.
I believe she’s offering to take you, Auxiliary said, if you use the shield to protect her from behind as she flies.
That would do. He shook his wounded hand, eager for the healing to take hold. Then he paused, scanning the field full of quickly growing tall grasses. The podium had been right over there, hadn’t it? He thought he saw something in the grass nearby. A body?
Damnation. Cursing himself for a fool, Nomad held up Auxiliary for cover and dashed in that direction—ignoring the woman’s cries of surprise. There, in the muddy ground near where the center of the arena had been, he found the gap-toothed man. He was almost buried in the mud, leg twisted in the wrong direction, his face bleeding from what might have been a kick—doubtless one delivered by the soldiers who had thrown him free when the fighting started.
The poor man looked up and saw Nomad. And even as bombs fell and a glowing line of automatic rifle rounds tossed up soil and burned grass nearby, something sparked in the man’s eyes. Hope.
Nomad seized the man by the arm and heaved, ripping him out of the muddy soil and throwing him across his shoulders. Unable to keep Auxiliary up with his wounded hand, Nomad dropped the shield and dashed through the battlefield, the weight of forgotten oaths on his shoulders. He somehow avoided being shot as he reached the hovercycle and threw the man onto one of the seats. The back left one, across from the ember woman. Hopefully her manacles would hold.
The man, tears in his eyes, whispered a few words. Nomad didn’t need to know the language to sense the gratitude in them.
That was uncharacteristic of you, Auxiliary said as Nomad summoned him again as a shield.
“He reminds me of an old friend, that’s all.” Nomad looked to the woman, still taking cover beside the hovercycle, and gestured toward his shield.
She growled something at him, then held up three fingers, counting down. At zero, he leaped onto the top of the hovercycle, kneeling on the middle of the fuselage between the seats. The woman took the operator’s seat, front left. Nomad expanded his shield, growing it big enough to cover them both. He couldn’t protect the gap-toothed man, but hopefully attention would be on the driver instead.
Nomad watched carefully as she fired up the machine. Unlike the big ships, which doubled as buildings, these cycles were intended only as vehicles. She pulled a lever and pushed a button, then paused, gazing toward the headless corpse of her companion.
“Fly!” Nomad said, nudging her as blasts hit his shield. Another enemy ship had noticed them and pivoted to come at them. Worse, the other ember people were all rising from the field of grass like Awakened corpses. Several turned toward them—particularly after the one tied to the back right seat, now fully awake, began shouting and raving.
Finally the woman lifted off and sent them in a low flight just above the grass, following others of her group who—together—fled with the rescued captives. For a moment Nomad thought they’d escaped. He saw Glowing Eyes watching from a distance, standing tall on his podium ship.
But the man didn’t need to give chase personally, because in moments, several ships landed to gather the people with embers in their chests. Most of the friendly ships that had executed the hit-and-run attack were far ahead, almost out of sight. Nomad’s craft was the lone straggler.
So, naturally, the ships bearing the ember people targeted him.