Scene 17: Broken
Knickers had broken. Mara didn't have a better word for it; he had broken. If the eyes were "windows to the soul," as she'd often seen in the newspaper, the windows were wide open and there wasn't anyone left inside. He'd been non-responsive for over an hour now, and that meant all of a sudden she was the ranking officer. Also the only officer; troopers like Gerry didn't even count as the non-commissioned kind.
"S-so what n-now?" Gerry looked up from where he was cradling the sergeant's body, rigid in his catatonic stupor.
"Uh." Mara paused. She was usually more the trench-digging kind of combat alchemist than the healing kind of combat alchemist, but she did know a few tricks. "I've got an idea that might pull the kid out of it; if I tranq him, he might calm down enough to think again. But I'll need a little while to let some things mix. Let me set up my lab." She swung her pack off of her back and opened it up, quick as she could.
"W-what about th-the mission?" Gerry asked.
Mara stopped only to look him in the eyes, her hazel irises focused to hard points. "Screw this mission. We'll just have to hope the Aerie can hold out, because we're not saving anyone like this." She pulled out a long, flat, double-layered wooden board and began to unfold it into a bench; it had etchings for calculations and holes and indents for holding beakers. "I don't plan on dying and neither should you. Maybe some sort of black bulletproof blur of a monster is hunting us. One person abandoned us and our last remaining Sergeant just went faint. It's almost damn bloodmoon. If command's got a problem with that, I'll have every newspaper in Lanva shouting for us."
"Y-you can d-do that?"
"Sure can." She had no idea if she could. But that didn't matter right now. Bottles came off of her apron and out her bag, along with a mortar and pestle; she got to work.
"It ain't g-g-gonna fix him, y'know."
"Huh?" Mara looked up from the mortar and pestle.
Gerry nodded affirmatively. "No m-m-medicine that fixes this. N-not really. I t-tried 'em all." He ran a hand over Knickers' shoulder. The sergeant's skin was lighter and paler than his own red-tinged flesh, but he noticed a distinct similarity; faint, dark scar lines that crisscrossed his arms near the inside of his elbows. They mirrored similar marks on Gerry's wrists. The two had more in common than it looked, at first. He allowed himself a moment of stillness amongst the fallen leaves and dirt, then spoke again.
She tilted her head to the side and, for a moment, saw both men in a different light. Her eyes, intense with concentration, softened in that brief instant. "Alright. For now, not going to play doctor. But we need to find a place with safe harbor."
"N-no m-map?" Gerry said with some surprise. "Th-the s-sergeants seemed t-to know the a-area."
Mara glanced over at Knickers and sighed. "I looked though his things. If there's a map, the witch has it. Anything that Nicodemus knew was memorized."
Gerry hesitated. "If w-we f-find and f-follow the r-river, we'll h-hit the seas. B-but... also t-towns. In our u-uniforms..." Gerry pointed to the red top tied around her waist.
He had a good point, she had to admit. Mara chewed on that for a moment, glancing up towards the canopy thoughtfully. "We'll deal with that when we have to. No more sneaking, no guns. Surrender in uniform means we at least don't get killed. They signed a treaty and everything about it." A few years before the rebellion, as she recalled; a treaty between Duvencht, Giralnia, a few of the other big empires, setting down the "rules of war". The idea was that uniformed soldiers would be taken prisoner if they promptly surrendered, but that getting caught behind enemy lines out of uniform was always grounds for execution. It was as much to discourage desertion as it was meant to stop espionage. Sounded like a stupid idea to her when she'd read it in the news, the idea of rules on war — but it was useful now.
The young hermit frowned skeptically. "D-don't knnow about a treaty. Nnot sure th-they care."
Mara raised her hands up to the sky helplessly. "I know, I've heard the odd triggerfinger story too, but... not like there's a tailor 'round the corner in the jungle."
"P-p-plantations mmight have clothes," he said.
Mara half-laughed, quite bitterly. "Rich people clothes. We'd attract too much attention. And if we're caught out of uniform, that's license to kill us right there."
"Don't... die..." Knickers suddenly whimpered pitieously. "No one... else... dies..."
Mara leaned over and placed a hand on his cheek. He wasn't in any position to protect anyone, but — the sentiment still meant something to her. "Don't worry, Sergeant Shortpants. Not planning on it. Gerry, can you carry him?"
Wordlessly, Gerry stood up, lifting Knick up across his arms almost without effort. "Y-yes."