The whole mob seemed to groan as it came to a halt, like steel creaking and bending. Dodger had a foot out, ready to take another step, but held put as the order came to halt. They'd arrived at Whore's End. The stench of sulfur had been present for hours. Now there was a distinct tinge of ammonia and chlorine.
"Beautiful place," Dodger said with a smile, approaching a nearby riverbank, where the water gushed rapidly, giving off the sulfur stench most prominently. It was even lined with trees — no leaves, though. A group of young people started flocking to the river, one girl kneeling beside it and reaching in to scoop up some water. Dodger vaulted over to her, grabbing her by her hair and yanking her back away from the water.
"What's wrong with you? Didn't they tell you not to drink the water?" She looked in the girl's face. She was cute, though not as young as Dodger had thought. Her skin was red and pink, broken out like a typical greasy teenager.
"They did, but- but then the others, they said 'Get Stoneface' — that's what they call me, by the way, Stoneface — 'to drink it! She'll drink anything!' and so I went and did."
Dodger leaned in closer, clasping the girl's face and examining her skin, "Why do they call you 'Stoneface'?"
"It's because of my face. It gets wet and bumpy, and when I scratch the bumps, they start bleeding. Then the blood turns to stone and I can peel it off like ice but it don't hurt any."
Dodger smiled, "That's called 'acne'. You just have to wash your face more often and it'll go away. What's your real name?"
The girl squirmed, "I don't know. I been called 'Kitt' before, but that's all."
A voice howled in her direction, sounding like the braying of a large animal. Dodger let go of Kitt and slowly turned to see a tall, imposing figure bounding towards her, dressed all in metal and black leather. She smiled sweetly, then stopped as she saw it was a woman; near seven feet tall, she figured, close-cut dirty blonde hair, and eyes so dark as to appear black from so far down as Dodger stood.
"Why are you harassing the peasants?" The woman asked in a surprisingly wispy, throaty voice.
"Familiarizing myself with the girl, and dispensing advice," Dodger smiled, bowing politely to the tall woman. She fished into one of her pockets, and found a small pack of antibiotics, precious few in existence, able to be spared only due to the recent influx in panacea she'd managed to get a hold of. She knelt down and handed it to the girl, "Swallow one of these with every meal," She hesitated, noting how small and skinny the girl looked, "Actually, swallow one in the morning, and another at night. Should help you with your stone face." She smiled and patted the girl on the head.
The woman grabbed Dodger by the armpits, easily hoisting her up to her feet and turning her to face the woman, "Are you a Dark? Darks are banned from Whore's End. If you've got to lie, I recommend you lie well, or it could be I wear your panacea-laced head on my shield as a trophy."
Dodger furrowed her brow, "Such violence. And racism, too."
"Marshall. Carter. Dark." The woman snarled nastily, her grip on Dodger tightening.
"I was just teasing you. I don't work for money. I serve Manna. My name is Dodger. What about you?"
The woman let Dodger go, and said nothing for a long while. Dodger broke the silence, "You must be a Foundation Knight, then? Who'd you serve before Number Eight?"
The woman grabbed Dodger by the shoulder, and started to pull her along.
"I'm not a spy, if that's what you're thinking! If what I hear is correct, I might actually know Number Eight from another time —"
"Good. Then you're less likely to die in the next few hours. If you've got to lie this time around, I recommend you lie well."
The way up the tower smelled heavily like chlorine. Somehow, the smell of sulfur was entirely gone. It was almost pleasant, like living in an above-ground aquifer tainted by chemical waste. She pitied the peasants having to stay outside with the sulfur. Maybe there was some manner of design in this tower that kept out the sulfur? She didn't know anything about engineering.
Finally she reached the top floor, sweat beading along her hairline. The towering woman behind her hadn't slowed, and hadn't changed her easy breathing in the slightest. The room looked carved straight from stone, without any décor beyond a few seats and tables, and the vast open window carved on the opposite end of the room, using preciously rare clear glass to allow a view of the land around them.
The Eighth Overseer stood on a dais extending towards the windows. The windows extended like a bulb, offering a view straight down below as well as straight up and all around. Pre-Fall construct, it had to be. Dodger could easily see the rot starting to set in around the edges, where the glass had been fused together and rammed into stone. Like every other braggadocious castle and fortress in the land proclaiming grandeur and terror, it was falling apart.
"Speaking of falling apart," She muttered aloud as the Overseer turned and started moving towards her. It looked like she had gotten to the panacea too late to save her face.
"Hey Anna," Dodger waved casually, knowing better than to try and flatter someone like her.
The Overseer smiled, then tilted her head slightly, putting Dodger on edge before those coy words left her lips, "Do I know you?"
Dodger was sure the knight behind her hadn't moved, yet she could distinctly feel her presence far closer than she had upon entering. Dodger spread her arms slightly, innocently keeping her hands visible and open.
"Dr. Anna Sobotka. My name's Dodger. 'Spiffy Dodger', technically. Real name… doesn't matter anyways; everyone who was anyone only knew me as 'Dodger'. We used to work together a few times… After the Fall."
The Overseer smiled, eyes still blank and expressionless. Dodger twitched, anticipating the knight's hands coming down on her shoulders to whisk her away to some manner of dark horror involving iron, stone, and possibly fire. Then the Overseer stepped closer, reaching out to touch Dodger's face.
"I do remember you. What was it you told me? That you were a 'last light of life and love in a land lacking leisure'?"
"I may have been a bit boastful back then."
"What do you want?"
Dodger had hoped for at least a few more moments of small talk, "Pick up where I left off, hopefully."
Anna shook her head, but before the towering woman behind Dodger could wring her neck, she spoke again, "I can offer you a position tending to my flock…"
"Teach them to read and write, teach them discipline — "
" — Train them to use proper spears and shields, maybe."
"Hell no," Dodger stood her ground and waited for the woman behind her to kill her at any moment. Anna frowned as much as her porcelain jaw allowed her to. Dodger broke in quickly, "I happen to know where you might find some useful anomalies."
Anna's face remained fixed in that frown. Dodger continued, "We're close to at least three I know of. A hole; used to be in a building. Leads somewhere… anomalous. Still has things we can loot from them. Desks, chairs, tables, maybe some weapons. Other things. I've also managed to track down some a few hundred miles away. Very long journeys… could take years."
"You want to be sent to fetch things for me?" Anna asked incredulously. By reputation, Dodger was always the sort to want to see action, even if it was digging latrines and polishing armor by the front lines, "There's a war coming, you know."
Dodger squirmed a bit, clenching her porcelain teeth tightly together, "I know."
"You love war."
Dodger looked down sheepishly at her chest, "I love a good war… a liberation, annexation of a failed-state, crushing some petty warlord. This one you've got coming… It's dirty. Confusing. Political, even."
Anna grinned, "You only love when there's a clear-cut 'good' and 'evil'."
Dodger didn't look up, "Only the perception of 'good' and 'evil'. I know there's no such thing as 'evil' in the world."
Anna smirked, and reached out to take Dodger by the hand, "No. Of course not. Let's talk."
The square of gold-shielded men came to a stop near the edge of the vast bowl-shaped pit, where smoke still rose from the fires set weeks prior. Tracks indicated thousands of people moving to the southwest.
A young woman ran up to Overseer Seven. She was unarmored, lightly garbed, with a satchel hanging from her hips. Scar tissue on her thighs and legs marked her a survivor of the Upland Mine Riots six years prior. A former slave turned traitor, one of many who opened the gates to the Overseer's assault force, and was granted her freedom for her troubles.
She dropped to her knees before him, hands out and splayed open, "My lord. I've found a note from your servant."
At his nod, she reached into her satchel, and withdrew a rolled bit of parchment, sealed with a ring of stone, likely made from blood spilled on the field before it could petrify. He pulled the ring off, and unfurled the paper.
"Have I done well, my lord?" The woman asked, trembling.
He looked down to her, then glared at his men. He tolerated no abuse of women in his service, regardless of their status. None of the men looked away in guilt. He trusted these men enough to accept that alone.
"You have," He responded gutturally, and withdrew a bronze flask from his satchel, prying off the top and pouring a small handful of sticky golden syrup onto his outstretched gauntlet.
The woman started to whimper, and lunged at his armored hand as he lowered it, smearing the panacea on her face as she devoured it all, licking each metal finger clean of the precious substance, while he continued to read the hastily written letter left him by Hagne-Allon.
"Eight is alive." He drew a sharp breath. He still remembered Anna Sobotka, the way she had been; long blonde hair, shapely little nose, always with an over-shirt or a jacket of some type. Quick to wit and quick to forgive, always able to project a perpetual sense of calm and bring out the best in her coworkers. The Anna Sobotka he remembered didn't exist anymore. He wasn't even entirely sure that Anna Sobotka ever existed.
He turned his hand over, watching the woman stiffen and stop lapping like a dog as he pointed right to her face, "Find the redhead. Do not talk to her. Watch the people around her. Don't leave them; I will send messengers for you to report to."
"Ree… Recon? Conner Sense?"
"Reconnaissance" He confirmed.
The woman rose to her feet, and turned around, starting after the tracks at a jog.
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