Actions

Work Header

Let Sleepers Lie: Orders

Work Text:

A bitter wind whips bladelike through Wrocław’s streets. The city’s residents bend themselves against its maddening howl, their bodies cloaked and heads bowed as they scurry across the stone. Above, the sun lingers at its apex, a pale, unflinching eye, distant and unforgiving. These things do not hinder the locals. The cold, the wind, the desolation—these things define Wrocław, define Pollen, and the people raised by its extremes.

Gabriel is no exception. He strides with purpose down the streets of the Merchants’ Quarter, unfazed by the tearing of the wind at his black wool cloak. He keeps the hood drawn over his freshly shaved scalp, but the city’s unwashed masses part before him regardless. The briefest glimpse of his uniform, the black sword at his hip, and the Splayer in his left hand is enough to tell passersby to give him a wide berth.

At the side of the street, a man in rugged, mismatched leathers notices Gabriel’s approach. The man spits a gob of phlegm in the Preservist’s direction and sneers.

A baleful stare peers out from under the black cloak’s hood.

The muscle in the glass tube at the end of his Splayer spasms.

The man in leather turns away, his face pale.

No one (everyone) notices the woman following Gabriel. She is everything he is not: petite, slender, with flaming red hair worn in a loose braid and thrown over one shoulder. Yet she walks with confidence, back straight, chin raised. Her clothes are mismatched but not ragged, well worn but not threadbare. The hunting rifle slung over her shoulder is a basic model, but the metal parts are oiled and polished, and the bandolier crossing her chest is full of bullets.

The Famulancers on guard duty outside the hospital don’t raise any questions when the woman follows Gabriel through the front doors. Only the sick patients spare her a second glance as the pair cut through the hallways. The Famulancers indoors look after Gabriel with a mix of awe and fear, but everyone who’s a higher rank in the Cult merely looks away. Mollusks in Splayers twitch as he passes, but no one pays them any heed. This is Wrocław, after all.

Or so they tell themselves.

Gabriel pauses in front of the pharmacy. “Klara, go pick up your medicine,” he says.

The redhead smiles and nods. She knows her place. She knows to wait for him there because the Pharmacist, Serafina, doesn’t let anyone in the hospital harass her with questions.

“I’ll be good,” Klara promises before slipping into the brightly lit room with its well stocked shelves.

Gabriel continues on, down a hallway and up a flight of stairs, his heavy footfalls overly loud in the growing stillness. Here on the second floor, the Spitalians make their quarters. He slips around a corner, pushes open a plain, unmarked door, and steps out again into the blinding noontide light. A short catwalk connects the hospital to its neighbor, an unmarked tenement building. Someone barred and boarded up the ground level doors and windows decades ago, preventing entry from the street. Now the only way inside is across.

Another Preservist greets Gabriel on the other side. They exchange the barest of nods. Their Mollusks twitch in unison. Gabriel moves past him into the Commando Prime’s office. Heavy curtains drape the windows, leaving unshaded lightbulbs to cast yellowed light into every nook and cranny of the chamber. An ancient desk of graying wood occupies the center of the room, the surface covered in papers. Pins tack more paper on the wall behind the desk, different colored threads connecting them in an intricate web of strategy and plots.

“Gabriel,” says the man seated behind the desk in greeting. He is not much older than Gabriel—perhaps five years. Yet there is a darkness in his eyes that speaks of a lifetime combating horrors. An acid scar mars the pale flesh of his face, making his visage terrible to behold.

“Commando Prime,” Gabriel says back, with just enough respect in his tone that it sounds almost like it was an afterthought. “You have new orders for me?”

Cibor Miazga is no stranger to his Preservists’ tendencies, especially this one’s bluntness. Without further ceremony, he picks up one of the papers from his desk and quickly scans it. “I do. We received this missive from the Spital just yesterday. It seems a Chronicler called Micron contacted them days prior, leaving a cryptic message about the smuggler tunnels in Laibach, a city in the Balkhan. Micron says there’s been a disturbing increase in Burn storage there—not trade necessarily, but storage.” He pauses to let those words sink in.

Gabriel knows the question he should ask. “Why would a Chronicler approach the Spital about this?”

“That’s the thing, isn’t it? Why indeed.” Cibor returns the paper to his desk, then leans back in his armchair, the fingers of his hands laced together in contemplation. “Micron is clearly looking for something to benefit him. An advantage of some kind.”

“So you want me to go to Laibach, find the Burn, and destroy it.” This one’s not a question.

Cibor nods grimly. “Our colleagues in Purgare are not in a position to investigate this rumor. They report Psychokinetic activity in Lucatore and have their hands full with that. So I’m sending you. You’re our best shot at uncovering the truth of what’s happening in Laibach ... and ending it, if necessary.”

Gabriel knows he should feel proud of the praise, but in truth, he feels nothing.

“Remember: do not trust the Chroniclers,” Cibor reminds him. “But we do want to gain a foothold in Balkhan. So much of that cursed wasteland has been beyond our reach for some time.”

“I understand.”

“When can you leave?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll gather provisions today and leave after breakfast.”

Cibor nods again, satisfied. “Laibach is more than 700 kilometers south of here. It’s a long journey. Pack well.”

Gabriel quickly calculates the travel time in his head. 700 kilometers is about 18 days, then who knows how many days they need to stay in the city itself. Food, water, and other essentials should not be difficult to obtain while on the road, but Klara’s medication is another matter.

“Are you planning on bringing the girl?” Cibor asks, as if reading the other man’s thoughts.

Gabriel nods without hesitating. “I do.”

There is a long pause while the man behind the desk contemplates this fact. His hardened gaze scrutinizes Gabriel, like a scalpel cutting into, then peeling away the layers of Gabriel’s mind. But the Preservist’s face is devoid of any truths while he waits for the rest of the question.

Finally, Cibor speaks. “What is she to you, Gabriel? I know you’ve taught her to shoot, but she’s not what I would call a fighter. Not only that, but she’s an extra mouth to feed and body to clothe, and you already have a horse. Two horses now. Why keep her around?”

Ah.

In truth, Gabriel has been waiting for this moment ever since he saved Klara’s life a year ago. The fact that it took so long for anybody to ask him is what surprises him most of all.

“She’s useful to me,” he replies with an even, almost detached tone. It’s not a lie. Not technically.

Another silence descends upon the room while Cibor decides if the answer will suffice. Eventually, he sighs, sounding exhausted. “Fine. As long as she doesn’t get in the way of you doing your job.”

A threat lingers beneath the surface of Cibor’s words, and Gabriel has to fight the urge to clench his hand into a fist. Instead, he keeps his voice as cold and detached as possible when he next speaks. “I understand.”

“Then go.” The Commando Prime dismisses his Preservist with a wave of his hand. “Report back as soon as you have the situation in Laibach sorted.”

Gabriel’s uniform creaks softly as he gives a sharp salute. Without another word, he turns on his heel and exits into the hallway. He brushes past the other Preservist, crosses the catwalk in a few long strides, and emerges once again in the hospital with its white walls and distinct aroma of disinfectant.

Klara’s still in the pharmacy, chatting animatedly with Serafina. The women look up as soon as he enters. Gabriel takes note of the leather pouch cradled in the crook of Klara’s arm.

“How many bottles?” he asks.

“Three, as usual,” Serafina replies, arching an eyebrow. Years behind the counter have softened her athlete’s physique, but Gabriel knows she could last longer in a fight than many of the young Famulancers running around Wrocław.

“Give her another. We’ll be gone for a while.”

The Pharmacist looks like she wants to question him, but she knows better. She reaches into a cabinet and extracts a glass bottle. It is small and slender enough to fit easily in her palm. A cork plug keeps the little white pills inside it fresh. Serafina hands this bottle to Klara, who murmurs her thanks and stows it inside the pouch.

“What else do you need?” Serafina asks Gabriel.

“The usual. Four months’ supply.”

Even as she gathers the items, Serafina snorts incredulously. “Where are you going, lost Britain?”

But Gabriel does not deign to answer. By virtue of his rank, he doesn’t have to answer any of her questions, and she knows this. So silence fills the room while she lays out the syringes, bandages, antibacterial gels, painkillers, vials of EX, and other medical supplies. Gabriel checks each expiration date, then lets her pack them all away in a paper bag.

“You know where to get ammunition and fungicide if you need them,” Serafina comments as she hands him the bag.

He nods and turns to leave.

“Preservist.”

He pauses in the doorway, turning back to look at her. It’s his turn to raise an eyebrow.

Serafina hesitates for just a moment. “Klara could stay with me—”

“No.”

Both Spitalians look at the flame-haired woman who’d just spoken. She smiles at Serafina with fondness, but nevertheless shakes her head.

“I like spending time with you, Serafina, I really do,” she explains. “But I’ll be all right. Gabriel keeps me safe.”

Klara turns an adoring gaze upon Gabriel, who merely stares back at her. The corner of his mouth twitches in what would be the semblance of a smile, but it vanishes just as quickly. He gives Serafina one last look as if to say, There you have it, then exits the pharmacy without a backward glance. He doesn’t have to look to know Klara trails after him with a spring in her step.