There was that moment of hitting the button, the moment of relief that this was over and life could go on, that the Sundered were dead and the crisis averted. Demos opened his mouth to say, let’s get out of here.
And then the lights went out, and everything went wrong.
Shouts. Screams. The sense of movement in the dark, and then something – a hand of something – plunging into his abdomen, through him, ripping things out.
Dying while falling, falling to the ground, fading before he fell, with one confused thought of the button that was supposed to fix this, supposed to turn them off, I don’t understand—
And in the moments before Demos’ soul left for other pastures, he remembered.
Tomas must not suffer.
That was the goal. That was everything. Being older meant Demos was responsible, and it got harder every year to make it true.
He’s your little brother. You have to take care of him.
Funny how the last words from a dying parent dig their way into the mind, anchoring themselves and leaving bloodied fingerprints on every thought. Demos remembered them like a mantra while mopping floors, shouted them in his head as he trained on the practice-tufts, and sighed them in his sleep every time he gave Tomas the last of their food.
It wasn’t so bad, really. Third-tier Sundered Ones would always give kids food for free, so the brothers never went hungry. But it wasn’t safe; gangs with low-tier Sundered roamed the pathways, and grownups had no interest in you if you couldn’t somehow serve them.
Demos refused to serve them. He’d let them pay him for chores (there was always some delicate thing people didn’t want a Sundered One to handle), but that was it. They wouldn’t be poor forever. They would not. He’d make sure of it himself.
“Demos, I don’t want to do this anymore!” tiny Tomas whined. Such words usually inspired Demos to change direction and spare the boy whatever irked him, but not today.
Not today. “Get back up and try again.” Demos balanced on the fake tuft, glaring down at his brother in the shallow water of the practice pool. It was creepy to see so much water here, knowing this was safe to touch, even if it was desperately cold. “Get up, Tomas!”
“Screw you.” But Tomas did, pulling himself back onto the tufts for more balance-work, obeying – and maybe only obeying because Demos did not usually push so hard. Usually, Demos backed down. But not this time. Not today.
The plan was a good one, simple, but clear. It was obvious that two jobs made the real money: scavengers, and sellers of Sundered Ones. Those two were connected, because if you didn’t know how to scavenge, you couldn’t find the Sundered Ones to sell. And how did one (safely) get into scavenging and Sundered sales? Well, that part sucked. You had to be physically fit as hell, and you had to impress somebody in the business.
Demos trained his eye on the best: the famed Iskinder family.
So Demos scrubbed floors in the city of Irish (the building owner swore that when Sundered Ones cleaned it, it changed color), until he had enough money to move himself and his brother to Tenisia, and they started practicing. It seemed a good sign that Iskinder’s first name was Thomas. Thomas, Tomas – surely that meant something in the laws of causality, and would land in their favor.
Demos trained until walking on tufts and rowing in boats grew easier than walking down the street, and then he made Tomas train, too. They were ready when Thomas Iskinder came back to town. It all paid off, and they were hired by the time Demos was twenty-three.
They’d be rolling in money before the decade was out.
For three years, they traveled together. Demos saw death, saw the black water take people away. Saw Travelers burn out, or finally decide to retire, or start a family. People quit one by one, or failed, or died. But Demos and Tomas stayed, and they learned.
If Iskinder was more obsessed with maps and the Hope of Humanity than had been advertised, well, that wasn’t anyone else’s problem. No one scavenged like Iskinder; he claimed with ferocity, rowed without fear, and trusted his map with a spooky faith that always proved true. The map really did have all the answers necessary for life on the black water, including the location of free Sundered Ones.
Iskinder handled the losses of his Travelers with such calm that Demos almost fell in love right there. The man seemed to feel no pain, no sorrow. Loss was loss; it happened. And while Tomas wept that night, huddled against the bonfire, Iskinder stared off into space, his large, calloused hands covering much of his precious map, and planned their next adventure.
And three years in, when Demos was twenty-six and Tomas twenty-two, Demos learned for the first time that Iskinder had a son.
Harry came, and all Demos’ confidence grew red, gritty, and disintegrated.
“This is my son, Harold,” said Iskinder the Elder, as none of them had laid eyes on the boy before. “He will come after me. He will lead you when I am gone. And he will do it well.”
At fourteen, Harry was pale, quiet, and refused to meet people’s eyes. He rowed well, oh, there was no question, and he handled tufts as if he’d been born on them. But something was off about this kid, something Demos might have been able to ignore if not for whose son this kid was.
The first night, Harry amused himself by drawing in the mucky dirt of landfalls, creating little scratch-work images and scenes as if mentally transporting himself to far-away places. Then Thomas Iskinder showed everybody what discipline really looked like, and Harry didn’t do it again.
The boy was a shame to the Iskinder name.
This kid was going to lead? Not hardly. But it didn’t matter; he wasn’t leading yet, and Demos still made money hand over foot.
Stick it out.
Take care of your brother. He was.
Suddenly, Iskinder senior was gone.
“He went exploring on his own,” said Harry, eyes red and raw, unable to handle the looks of disbelief, discouragement, and outright doubt at his announcement. “Come on. We have some searching to do.” Unlike his father, Harry never pretended they were only after goods; he spoke of the Hope as if he believed in the thing, which fact alone made Demos want to smack him in the face.
It almost all ended right then.
Nobody would follow this kid. Nobody liked him.
They would all follow Demos forever if he asked them. He sighed, considered what wealth a few more years would net him, and spoke. “Come on, guys,” Demos said, and those three simple words animated the others into following.
The Travelers followed Demos. Him. Not Harry. All of them knew it. Nobody said it. Besides, Harry had the map, and he knew what to do with the damn thing. The few glances Demos had at it left him completely baffled.
Maybe in a year or two, he’d declare he was done with Iskinder, and start his own group – and they’d simply go with him. He wouldn’t need the map by then. He’d know where to go until it was time to retire, and everything would be solved. Either way, they’d still make enough money to be set for life.
Take care of your brother. He was.
It was dark, the Hope smelled of blood, and everyone was dying. Screams rose like fading embers, and the dull shock of pain as he hit the ground nearly made him pass out. Demos reached in Tomas’ direction. Where Tomas had been.
He wasn’t there now. Demos’ heart strained. Every beat pushed more precious blood onto the floor, and his hand went limp, too heavy to raise again.
Take care of your brother. He’d tried. In this hell of a world that didn’t even belong to humankind, he’d tried. “Sorry,” he tried to weep through the blood in his mouth, and night fell behind his eyes.