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Content Warning: Leeches, drowning (obviously), suicide

Fayne was silent while she made the tea, and then she was silent as well while they drank it. She poured it into porcelain teacups—the one set they had, that Pa had gifted Mama for their wedding, and with swans around the outer rim and little blue flowers on the inside. The tea was black so Verti watched the flowers disappear as Fayne poured it, and she put a hand on his shoulder when he leaned forward without realizing it. She was still silent then, but he heard her gentle chiding. He slumped back against his chair and waited for her to stir sugar and milk into it and make sure it wouldn't burn his tongue.

She poured less for herself; Fayne had never cared for poppy tea, so Verti didn't quite understand why she was making it now. To relax, was what she'd said except she always told them that poppy tea made her too sleepy. Now, Mama and Pa were gone so why not make another tea? They had lavender, and lemon balm, and both of those were good for relaxing.

He didn't say anything, though, because Fayne was on edge, moreso than usual. She poured the tea, and then she spilt some water from the teapot on her socks on the way back over to the stove. Said fuck. Pa always yelled at her for it, said how are you gonna be a lady with your mouth so full of shit? and so Fayne was usually good about it. But since Pa had left to find Mama, she'd said fuck eight times.

Pa had been gone for a week now. Mama had been gone for two and a half. Fayne said it wasn't that long, that time just seemed longer because Verti was so little, but he'd been counting and he was fairly certain he hadn't done it wrong. Two weeks that they'd been cooped up in the flat, and one week that it'd been just them. They hadn't done much except wait. Sometimes Fayne read him from Hawker. Sometimes they could hear the screaming from Hellfisher's, and Fayne pulled Verti into her lap on the big chair and put her hands over his ears to muffle the sound. She'd rest her chin on his head and he could hear her heart thumping, too fast, too light.

Fayne was born with the long fever and since the purges had started it'd been exacerbated. You need to stop stressing, it's making it worse, Pa would yell at her, and then Fayne would yell back and get more stressed. And she kept getting her cough, the same one that simply ebbed and flowed in its assault on her lungs only now it came up like a storm. It thundered in her chest, and it wouldn't stop, and she'd get spotty blood on her hand. Pa would look at it like he was going to cry—Verti wanted to cry.

He drank the tea now. It was just the right temperature. Of course it was; Fayne knew how to make it, and he rather liked the loopy way it made him feel. His whole body got just a bit heavy, and his panicky thoughts started to ease. And the little buzz in him, that Mama and Pa said was his arcana, felt like it was coming down from its simmer. He couldn't sense blood as easily—his own rushing through his body, or Fayne's pulling through her skinny limbs with a harried rhythm that got him queasy. The tea made him content.

He was working on a drawing anyway while he sipped his tea, so he didn't notice the silence so much. He could see Fayne watching him intently if he lifted his head; her finger tapping on the teacup and her knee bumping underneath the table. But mostly he had his head bent to the parchment, his left hand on the teacup and his charcoal working in his right. He tried not to think about how anxious Fayne was, because if she was anxious then that meant he should be anxious too. And it meant that something bad had happened to Mama and Pa.

Something bad had happened to them, they both knew. Verti wasn't really supposed to know—when Mama and Pa had started talking about it they went into the bedroom, and they closed the door and all Verti and Fayne could hear even when they pressed their ears to the door was murmur, murmur, murmur. But then somehow Fayne found out and she was speaking with Mama when Verti was supposed to be asleep. Only Verti could hear Mama speaking about the leeches, and then they tied the people up until their blood ran out at the executioner's square. And then Fayne asked why? and Mama told her that the Commander's son was killed by a blood arcanist.

And Fayne asked if it was just blood arcanists, and Mama said it's supposed to be.

There were two blood arcanists in their family, and then Mama left and there was only one. But Fayne was a slighen, so when Mama said it's supposed to be, Verti thought that maybe that meant they'd burn Fayne too, and not just him.

"Verti," Fayne said when she was done with her tea. He looked up, and there was an odd set to her face like she was about to tell him that something bad had happened to their parents even though he already knew. Instead she said, "we're going to go to Beourjen North. To look for them along the river." She was clenching her teacup with both hands even though it was empty. But Verti thought it was a good idea, going to look for them in the north of the city.

After all the blood ran out they dumped the bodies, and the leeches, into the river. The river flowed north, so Fayne thought that they might find Mama and Pa there. It made sense, and it was better than sitting around in the flat doing nothing except reading and drawing and listening to the outside noises. And maybe, if Mama and Pa weren't dead, then he and Fayne could save them. Because perhaps they weren't dead. Perhaps they were just stuck in some part of the city, and they couldn't get back home because they didn't want the chaska to catch them. According to Pa the chaska were swarming the Loched Quarter. That was where they lived.

"Okay." Verti looked down at his drawing. It wasn't finished, but he could add in the rest of the gods later. He'd already finished drawing Mount Lune, and the dwarven clans meeting at the base, and even himself because Pa always said the taephic blood ran strong in him. He'd drawn a jellyfish on the mountain's autumnal bastion, and Mama had said you can't have jellyfish on a mountain! to make him giggle and since she'd left he had drawn other fish. Dolphins. Whales. A fishman, like in the books Fayne was always reading. And when they found Mama and Pa, and came back to the flat, he could show her everything else on the drawing.

"Okay," he said again. He nodded, and then Fayne nodded too only she looked like she was trying to convince herself that they should go even though she had been the one to suggest it. So Verti smiled to reassure her. And Fayne smiled back only it was still warped. It was a smile but it wasn't happy; it looked like she might die.

"All right." She took a deep breath; as deep a breath as she could take, anyhow. "Get yourself bundled up. I need to get a few things, and then we'll head out right away." She smiled again, and her smile said don't ask any questions. Verti nodded; his nod said what's wrong? But Fayne had dropped her head to look at the little flowers at the bottom of her teacup, and was lost in her own deep thoughts, so Verti finished off the last of his tea and then got up to get ready.

When he got back, all his layers on and his coat and two pairs of socks so his toes didn't freeze, Fayne was at the table writing out what looked to be a letter in her jagged chicken-scratch writing. It didn't make sense—it was probably to Asa, because she couldn't see him that much while the purges were happening, but she should just write it when they got back. Verti almost said as much to her, but her arm was all shaky as she wrote and there was a smear of blood on her knuckles so he held his tongue. Maybe she just wanted to get her thoughts to Asa written down while they were right there. Mama sometimes said that: You have to catch your thoughts and write them down before they fly away. But really, they had to go and find their parents; that was more important than whatever Fayne was writing to Asa.

She finished, and then she folded the paper and muttered, "All right." It sounded like she meant fuck. "Don't read that; it's private," she told Verti. Verti nodded, and then he waited for her to pull on all of her layers in their bedroom, and he didn't read the letter even though he was tempted. But Fayne would know. She would ask him and she would smell it on him, so he didn't read it.

"When we're out there—" She came out buttoning up the last buttons on her coat. She was only wearing one pair of socks, which she sometimes did and then complained about her toes freezing. "—stay by me. Right by me, the whole time. And you can't say anything."

Verti nodded.

"You need to understand, if you say something, or make noise, something bad could happen." She hacked up her lungs for few long moments.

"The leeches?" Verti said quietly, and Fayne thinned her lips. They were already thin, and dry, and when she thinned them more it opened up the cracks. She licked the blood off of them.

"Yes. Er. . ." Neither of them wanted to think about the leeches. Verti had seen them once, little black slugs that wriggled and sucked on your skin and then grew fat with the blood. But they were supposed to help people, not kill them. They had used them on Fayne once, when Verti was even littler. Thought that they could suck the long fever right out of Fayne's blood, but it just made her weaker so they didn't do that again.

Fayne was rooting around in the kitchen cabinets now, and Verti wondered if she were maybe finding a snack to bring for them. That would be smart because he got hungry when they went for a long walk, and it was a bit of a walk to Beourjen North. Not too long, but long enough that he'd appreciate a snack along the way. There wasn't much in the kitchen cabinets, though. They'd run out of most of the food several days ago, and Fayne had had to scrounge around in the pantry for what was left. Beans, potatoes, that sort of thing.

She pulled out a small burlap sack and tossed it to Verti.

"Put some of your rocks in that, will you?" Which utterly baffled Verti. His rocks?

"For what?"

Fayne gave him another look to remind him that he wasn't supposed to ask questions. "Because I said so."

Verti picked the sack up off the floor in front of him where it had landed, and looked at it. Why his rocks?

"But they're my mountain rocks." Some of them Pa had given to him from when he'd worked in the mines. Some he'd acquired through other acquaintances, who'd traveled much further than Verti ever had. One of them was from Lune, that he'd gotten at school when they still went to school. An archaeologist had come in, to tell them about how people went to the mountains in Ethana and dug up people's bodies from ancient history. She'd given him that rock, and just him. You looked like you might be interested one day, she'd said. You know there's a whole college in Ethaeras for kids like you. And she'd winked at him; a little secret that she passed right there into his hand.

"Verti." He looked up at Fayne. "What else are you going to use them for?"

He put some of his rocks in the burlap sack, but he left the Lune one under his mattress where it always was. He carried the sack, now heavy and awkward, back out, still wondering what Fayne meant to do with it. But she was serious, so it must've been something important.

She took the sack from him and tucked it under her arm underneath her coat. There was a cord of thin rope under there too, looped over her belt. Verti didn't understand why that was necessary to bring either. He thought about asking if they should bring a snack, because he hadn't seen her grab one, but also there wasn't much in the kitchen that they could bring as a snack. A potato, but he didn't want to gnaw on it raw and they were already about to head out.

They both put on their boots, and then Fayne asked him, "You ready?" and he nodded because he wasn't sure what else there was to do to get ready. He was dressed for the cold. He didn't need to pee just yet, though he'd just drank the tea so he probably would need to soon. But not yet.

"All right. Stay right by me. And be silent, completely silent." She glared at him even though he hadn't not been silent yet. Verti nodded again. His nod said tell me what's wrong!!! but Fayne just turned to the door.

She stepped out first, her shoulders bracing against the bitter cold, coughing into the neck of her coat as muffled as she could make it. Then Verti after, the chill making his eyes water and his nostrils hurt. Fayne shut the door behind them, then looked at it a moment for no reason whatsoever, and Verti nudged her arm with his nose.

"Are we going?" He was shivering; so was Fayne but hers was a different shiver. Not quite a cold shiver.

"Yes. Yes, we're going."

They took a winding route through back alleys around the far edge of the Loched Quarter, avoiding Hellfisher's and the executioner's square, which Verti was thankful for. He knew he had a steady heart and he liked to think he was brave, at least compared to other kids his age, but he did not want to see the leeches, or what else they were doing to people there.

The rest of the Quarter was quiet. Eerie quiet, like it was in mourning, or like everyone was gone. But people weren't gone; they were just all in their homes like he and Fayne had been, and praying to Casper that the chaska wouldn't come. Well, some people were gone, but it was difficult to leave the city, Pa had said. Not many could make it traveling far in the winter.

Occasionally, they passed by a chaska. Verti had not seen the chaska much before. He was young, and the chaska didn't come out often anyway, only when the Commander really asked them too, and deemed them necessary. Which was apparently now, since his son had been killed.

The chaska themselves were dark-clothed figures, black leather and silk-steel covering their entire bodies and even their faces. They walked with a rigidness that most soldiers had, and they had falchions or rapiers. Sometimes a crossbow on their back. Their boots made heavy thump, thump, thumps as they walked because they had steel on the toes and soles. Pa said when they kicked you it could make little pricks in your skin and it hurt like a bitch, so you couldn't get too close. He hadn't told Verti that, but he'd told Fayne once and Verti had overheard.

None of the chaska saw them, though. They crept along the alley tenements, and they were all in the shadows, so the chaska really couldn't see them. And Verti didn't make any noise; Fayne made more noise because she had her cough, but she would stop and bend over, stifling it in her coat and pressing her hands to her face as though she could push the cough back in. Verti sometimes touched his hand to her back. It was the only comfort he knew how to give her but he reckoned it didn't do much and most of the time he was too cold so he kept his hands in his pockets instead.

But then sometimes they heard the screaming, a ways off and more of an echo but still. And Fayne touched a hand to his back. It was comforting, because then he knew that the screaming wasn't her. He knew already, of course, but then she'd touch his back and he really knew. The hand on his back said I'm here. We're all right. Even though they weren't entirely all right, they were still slightly all right.

Even once they were out of the Loched Quarter there were still chaska, but Fayne eased off of the brick and mortar a touch so they could cross streets and make their way toward the gate to Beourjen North. Maybe it was because they were just children, and it wasn't in the Quarter anymore, that the chaska here didn't pay them much mind. But they were still stealthy. At any time, they might be called to halt and question and then they'd be brought to Hellfisher's.

They crept closer to the gate, but they didn't go to the gate; instead Fayne led him a far way around it, over to the Obsidian. The canal was fenced off—it always had been—but Verti was tall so he could look over the fence and see the deep, frothing water a ways below. And his eyes widened and he gasped even though he wasn't supposed to be making any noise. Fayne shot him a glare because there were a few chaska around, but none of them had seemed to notice. And anyway, the water.

It was black, mostly, inky tendrils all swirling about even as the river remained set on its course north. And it carried. . . he didn't even know what. Thickened, bubbling sludge in misshapen forms that burped and oozed blackened crimson every so often. Even from where they walked, Verti could smell it: rancid metallic and menthol, and rotten flesh. Verti knew it was arcana, but then he looked at Fayne and there were black tears running down her cheeks even though she wasn't crying, and then he really knew.

He reached his hand out and took hers as they continued. Her fingers felt like bone, and were cold as ice, quavering. It seemed that maybe she was not going to make it back to the flat once they found their parents, and he squeezed her hand but gently. He didn't want her finger bones to break.

"We're almost there," she told him, which was also odd. Did she know where Mama and Pa were? Is that why she'd suddenly decided this morning that they would go look for them? Perhaps Asa had said something to her, and if she knew where they were and they were going to find them now, that meant that they were still alive. Didn't it?

But when he glanced up at her, Fayne didn't look like she was going to find their alive parents. She looked rather defeated, and like she had given in to something tremendous. She looked burdened, but that could've been because she was carrying the rocks and she had the long fever.

They should've brought a snack. Even a potato, for her, because the walk seemed to tire her out even more than Verti. Her legs were longer, but Verti wasn't sick.

"I might—I need to pee." He tried to make his voice as small as possible but still enough that she could hear him. They were away from the chaska now—the river curved downward, toward the tunnels where it ran underneath the city a bit to get to Beourjen North—but Fayne glared at him again anyway. Her gaze softened quickly though.

"Can you hold it a bit longer?"

Verti bit his lip. It wasn't that he needed to actually pee all that badly but he was nervous, and he was nervous that he might need to pee and just didn't realize he needed to pee. And he kept looking at the river, and that made him queasy, which made him feel like maybe he needed to pee more. But she'd said they were almost there. Wherever there was.

"Yeah, I can hold it."

They walked a bit further, both of their legs dragging—Fayne's from her fever, and Verti's from the effects of the tea—until Fayne stopped shortly before the tunnels. There was a bridge that crossed the river here, and across the river the road carried on toward Fort Brickard. He'd never been to this part of the city, namely because he'd never had any reason to. And he wasn't quite sure why they'd come here now. The road itself was all bumpy and scarred, and hadn't been redone in ages. The bridge was in a similar state; the metal was rusting, dark scruffy orange on the underside and ringing the bolts that held it together. But Verti felt strangely more relaxed here. No chaska in sight, and no far-off screaming. The belches from the river were somewhat unnerving but it wasn't so bad.

Where she stopped was halfway across the bridge. It was more steady than it looked, and only eeked a bit as they walked over it. And then Fayne stopped, pulled the rope off her belt. She left the sack of rocks on there, though, and Verti bit his tongue to keep from asking her what she was going to do with them. She'd said no questions, or she'd said as much. But he still had a lot of questions.

She looked at him, and gripped the rope the same, desperate way she'd gripped the teacup. He didn't know what her look was saying exactly, but it was a sad, awful look.

"Verti, do you trust me," she asked him, "that we're going to look for them?"

Verti blinked at her. "Of course." His throat was so dry. He should've drank more tea, he should've asked her for more of it because there had been some leftover anyway. She'd spilt some on her way bringing it back to the stove.

"I need you to trust me," she said again. Her voice was raspy; she'd wiped the black tears off on her knuckles but there were still smudges on her cheeks. Her nose and mouth were crusty with blood, her nostrils raw and flaking at the edges.

"I trust you, I do." He wasn't sure why she was acting like she didn't believe him, but he tugged her sleeve and smiled at her. It was meant to be reassuring, but even he himself could feel its display on his face. It was wrong, the way Fayne's smile had been all wrong back at the flat, and he wanted to cry because he suddenly had the strongest notion that Mama and Pa weren't alive, and that he and Fayne weren't going to go back to the flat with them, and he wouldn't ever get to show Mama his drawing.

Fayne turned, got herself up on the top rung of the bridge's rail. She adjusted herself on the thick bar, her feet hanging limply out over the water before she hooked them around the bottom rail, somewhat securing herself. She motioned for Verti to climb up himself, and so he scrambled up whilst trying not to look down at the black water far below. It took him a minute. He was dexterous but nervous on the rungs of the bridge. Even if they were sturdy enough in his hands, they still looked like they might come apart at any moment. But he made his way up, swung his legs over and sidled up on Fayne's lap like he did in the big chair.

She put her chin on his head and he felt her heart going thump, thump, thump about to burst as she tied the rope around both their waists.

"They're in the river?" he said solemnly. He could feel the bag of rocks at the back of his right hip, tucked slightly between both of them. He thought of the rock the archaeologist had given him, still hidden underneath his mattress.

"Yes." Fayne sounded determined now. "But we're going to find them, and pull them out. I need to make sure I don't lose you once we dive in. Since you can't swim."

Verti gave a slow nod. Yes. They would find them in the river, and pull them out. And they might not be dead yet. Even if they'd had the leeches, the leeches didn't always kill people. Mama and Pa were both strong; they each had a lot of blood. It would've taken a lot to kill them, so they likely weren't dead but maybe they just couldn't get out of the river.

Fayne finished securing the rope, and murmured into his hair, "Are you ready? Remember, you have to be brave."

"Yes. I am—I can be brave." He didn't feel very brave, but he felt a little braver with the rope tying him to Fayne, because Fayne would make certain they were both all right. And she would make sure they found their parents too, and then they would all go back to the flat.

"I love you," Fayne told him, but she rather mumbled it into his hair and it was all choked so Verti wasn't even certain that was what she said.

Anyhow, he didn't have much time to dwell on it. She pushed off the rung, and then down, down, down they were going until they hit the black, inky water, ice cold and churning all around them. Fayne's arms were pulled tight around Verti and she was shaking slightly, though he didn't think it was from the cold. He sucked in heaps of air as they fell, and then they were suddenly underneath the water except Fayne wasn't doing anything but shaking and holding him, and they were just sinking.

Black tendrils snaked out to touch his coat as they lowered, and Verti gasped and wriggled because they looked sort of like leeches and it made him queasy. But he had gasped, and the heaps of air all rushed out of his mouth. The tendrils came snaking toward the opening and he screamed at them slithering down his throat, filling it with menthol and metallic and his lungs with water. And more wrapped around his face, shrouding the world in their blackness. He kept squirming, trying to get out, to do something. Anything.

The last thing he saw, which he perhaps didn't see at all, was a small bobbing etch of light. A jellyfish but that would've been silly, wouldn't it? There couldn't be jellyfish in the city.
A Note
So I wrote this for Spooktober 2022. It's a full short story, even though it's in a character-type article. It's 4.5k words long, and I've done the basic grammar edits but nothing more. It's also kind of experimental with the voice. It's told from a kid's perspective, and so the voice of the writing is meant to sound like a kid so it might be a little jarring to read. That all being said, I enjoyed writing it (honestly, I think it was mostly just cathartic) and am kind of happy with the way it came out, and it does have a few easter eggs to Vertixico's original article.


The original Verti:

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25 Oct, 2022 19:01

Dark, verbose and very eerie - definitely one of the more solemn entries for a Verti yet![/quote]

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