They were dying faster than Marcu had expected.
He’d known they would die. Everyone—well, almost everyone seemed to know it. (Mircea, he thought, wouldn’t have been quite so fierce about insisting he would personally make sure someone lived if he hadn’t known he couldn’t, and Marcu thought that probably counted as knowing.) A few of the youngest jägers, who’d been allowed to detach all in a (tiny for how they should be, huge beside the rest of the detached) pack of twelve or so, perhaps, had thought they could live and go home. But no one else.
Marcu had known he would die. He’d… not wanted to, but preferred a faster death in the Heterodynes’ service to a later one in Wulfenbach’s. He had not known he would be the last one left, but he was glad he hadn’t; it would have made volunteering so much harder; he might have missed it.
He also might still have made it on time; there had been a week to volunteer, and then two days while the Generals organized the packs. Most were three or four; the youngest jägers that were allowed to volunteer made the pack of twelve, and a few of the jägers that could best pass as not being jägers were sent out alone. (Those, Marcu was sure, had died the fastest; jägers weren’t meant to be separated, even if other living things were nearby.)
Marcu had been sent out with Mircea and Maria, and half convinced that they’d been sent together just because their names all started the same. He’d not been overly friendly or impressed with either of them; Mircea wasn’t good at fighting or interested in anything fun, and Maria was great at fighting only so long as you didn’t make noise near her ears, and when she acted stupid around humans she wasn’t usually pretending.
They got close anyway, over seventeen years in the wild, and they worked together well enough. Mircea’s complaints about fun meant he was usually anticipating problems and could get them out, even if his strategy was always to run away, and his aim when shooting things somewhat made up for his inability to fight any other way. Maria’s hearing let her track anything that made sound and some that, as far as Marcu could tell, didn’t, which covered almost anything dangerous. And if they needed a little break in the fighting, Marcu could always tackle something; a nice electric jolt knocked most things out for a while.
Most of the time. Their last fight together was four years ago. Marcu and Maria were caught by a team of the local spark’s clanks and constructs while Mircea was sneaking into the town, and they’d been too many and too strong for Marcu and Maria to get away. Marcu couldn’t tackle all of them; he needed time to recharge, and the two times he did another one stabbed him.
Mircea didn’t take long to show up shooting things from a tree, but Maria had already lost her legs, and been stabbed and burned beyond that. Marcu tried to get to her while Mircea distracted the enemies with arrows; did get to her, but she tried to punch him and snapped that she was poisoned and to run.
Something exploded next to them and knocked Maria over, a blade that smelled like her blood and acid almost caught Marcu in the face, and he ran. Mircea followed, swearing. They went back later, but her body and even her hat were already gone.
Mircea disappeared the next year, and Marcu didn’t even know how that had happened. The three of them had originally decided to travel towards Asia, and send one of them back every few years to check Europa for news in case a Heterodyne had actually been found, while the other two followed a route they’d planned in advance or stuck around a city they’d decided needed extensive investigation. Mircea was usually the one who went back, because he insisted he didn’t trust Marcu or Maria to survive on their own, and he went again that year. Marcu followed, months later when he should have returned, but never found out what happened to him.
It was time to go back again, now, and he followed the pattern even though it had no point, because it felt a little bit closer to having Mircea and Maria around still, and because there was a chance of running into another detached jäger who’d lost his pack and being able to stick together. The Generals hadn’t said anything about that, the closest they’d said was that the various packs should avoid each other in order to search more territory, but they were meant to last a long time. The detached jägers had been meant to survive for generations, in case some old branch line grew a spark that could be found, but it had only barely been one if you stretched a bit, and Marcu knew he wouldn’t make it much longer by himself. He’d started talking to himself like he was talking to Mircea and Maria almost as soon as he’d realized Mircea wasn’t coming back, he’d stopped looking for fun things to do in towns, he kept having to tell himself that he shouldn’t go back to the place Maria had died unless he knew he could leave. Even fighting wasn’t much fun anymore, not alone. (He’d tried befriending a bear, since Jenka had always said Fust made traveling easier, but that just got him attacked by the bear’s mother, and he didn’t want to kill his could-have-been-friend bear’s mother, so he left.)
So he went back West. He could at least hear news about the jägers that had joined Wulfenbach, if nothing else, once he got far enough to understand the languages. Which was another reason Mircea had usually gone back—the Heterodynes had had done a lot of conquering to the East when Mircea was young, and he’d picked up more of the languages than Marcu had bothered to.
It would have been useful now; the people in the town he was wandering through—small city, really—were giving Marcu distinctly hostile looks, and he had no idea what for. It was the sort of hostility that said they had a reason, they weren’t just unfond of constructs—although they probably were that, too, Marcu had hardly seen any. Could they recognize a jäger? Marcu looked pretty standard, apart from his skin being gray instead of green, and how some of his teeth still hadn’t been replaced by proper fangs. Probably never would be, although he’d gotten one new one a few years ago.
Marcu couldn’t understand enough of the language to guess, and didn’t really care, why exactly he was getting hostile looks. He was more curious about the speculative ones; those were rare, especially since they were coming from far too many people to just be sparks, and both too common and too unfriendly to be attraction. Very strange.
But even in the middle of a language Marcu only knew a few words of, and in a strange accent, Marcu would recognize the name Heterodyne.
He froze, then spun to search for the person who’d said it. A middle-aged man looked startled, and nervous as soon as Marcu’s eyes landed on him. He and the woman he was with tried to back away when Marcy leapt toward them; Marcu ignored the woman, but hauled the man back by his arm. “Hyu sed Heterodyne. Vot about de Heterodynes?”
It probably only meant that this town did know what jägers were. That was far more likely than—anything else. But—
The man smelled terrified, and yelped something that Marcu still couldn’t understand. Urgh. He frowned, and ignored the man’s attempts to pull his arm away. What language might these people know? He could just haul the man around until he found someone to translate, but that was also a pretty good way to start a mob, and then he wouldn’t get any information. Maybe Russian? Marcu wasn’t great with Russian, he’s mostly learned it for the swearing, but it might be a better bet than German, and definitely better than Spanish. “Vot Heterodyne?”
The man still stared at him in blank terror, but there was a gasp from nearby. The woman, when Marcu looked, hadn’t gone far; she was nearly in arms reach, had he not been holding the man with that arm. Marcu thought her Russian was accented too, but it had been a long time since he’d heard the real thing. At least he could understand her. “Let my brother go, I will tell you—what do you want to know?”
Marcu did not let the man go, but he ignored him. “He sed Heterodyne. Vy?”
“We just—you are a jäger, aren’t you?” Marcu nodded sharply and she continued. “We wondered why you were here. The stories say jägers are never alone, and no one has heard of the new Heterodyne starting wars, and—”
Marcu dropped the man, and grabbed the woman. She squeaked in surprise, but didn’t fight him even though he leaned right into her face. “Vot new Heterodyne?” She stared at him blankly, and he snarled and repeated himself in Russian. “Vot new Heterodyne?”
“I—we don’t know much, just there was a new one, a few—four years ago, the Baron’s empire fell apart fighting her, she’s supporting him and another King rebuilding empires now, that’s all we know,” the woman babbled, almost too fast for Marcu to understand.
But he could. It was confusing, he couldn’t guess what had really happened, except that some sort of war and destroying an empire was very typical of a true Heterodyne even if supporting the rebuilding of it was strange. There was a Heterodyne, or an imposter pretending to be a Heterodyne, and either way Marcu needed to get home right now.
“Vot her name?” he demanded.
“Agatha—Agatha Heterodyne,” the woman said quickly.
Marcu dropped her and bolted.
He had to slow down, after the first several hours of running; he could run for days, but not at top speed. He still exhausted himself and had to stop and rest, climbing a carefully inspected tree and laying still for several hours. He didn’t sleep; it was almost as hard to sleep as to slow down when home was ahead.
By the third day he’d slowed down enough to be much better at pacing himself and a little more cautious, mostly because he’d been ambushed by a flock of flying fish with sharp teeth (or maybe very small sharks?) and was still healing from the bites they’d taken out of him. It wasn’t very bad, they’d been small, but it had been a rather pointed lesson. Expanding from that, Marcu stopped to eat too; he wouldn’t do the Heterodynes any good if he arrived so exhausted that he needed to do nothing but eat for a week when he got back.
He started crying when he noticed the forests had started to smell familiar, but no one was around to see him, so it was okay. (He might not even have minded if someone had seen.)
Clearly he wasn’t paying that much attention though, or else he had stopped in the days since the fish attack, because he didn’t realize anyone was nearby until after he heard them shout.
“Hoy budder, hallo—yeow!”
Something slammed into Marcu from the side, and he didn’t notice the accent until after he’d shocked him. Oops. They both landed on the ground , and Marcu rolled carefully away before peering over from his hands and knees. Then he grinned, because this was a jäger and he didn’t really care that he’d only ever interacted with Ognian before by happening to be in the same room while doing different things. He rolled back to his feet and offered Ognian a hand up, as apology for electrocuting him. He couldn’t stop grinning. “Hy iz going home!”
Ognian took the hand, grinning back, and apparently already having forgotten about being shocked. “Yah, ve guessed! Hyu finally heard about Miz Agatha?”
“Yah, last veek—she’s real?” Marcu asked. “Iz not meny girl Heterodynes, und Hy only hear de name, Hy vos not sure if she vos fake.”
Ognian shook his head. “Miz Agatha iz real, iz Master Bill’s keed,” he said. “Dere vos a fake vun too, bot Miz Agatha kill her… lest year, Hy tink?”
There was a real Heterodyne and Marcu was going home. He wanted to start running again, but—“vhy iz hyu here?”
“Ve vos looking for hyu!” Marcu stared, and Ognian explained. “Vell, all de jägers dot vere not home yet, ve found Eugen a few veeks ago, und Miz Agatha vos looking at her jäger-finding ting und sey hoy, sumvun is running et Mechanicsburg, vhy dun ve go meet him, und she deed tings vith numbers und plans vhere to go, bot den vun ov de vagons breaks so ve run ahead so ve dun miss you.”
Marku blinked, and attempted to absorb all of the information at once. There was a real, new Heterodyne, and she was nearby, and probably other jägers were nearby, and—“Ve?”
“Hallo Marcu!” came from a nearby tree. “Hyu iz not paying moch attenshon et all, huh?”
…Alina. Who’d been changed with him, who hadn’t been detached, but he’d worried anyway because he’d learned what risks not to take mostly by watching her take them, but she was fine, and grinning down at him from halfway up a tree. Marcu stared, and then deliberately climbed up it to her branch, and hugged her, and she laughed at him for it, so his plan to electrocute her was completely justified.
They got into a scuffle right there on the road, and once it finished they led him toward the Heterodyne, one on either side and so close he bumped into one or the other almost every step.
The place they led him to wasn’t on a road, or in a clearing; it wasn’t special at all, except for how thirty jägers were lounging around the area and heterodyning was coming from underneath one of the clank wagons that were stopped in a line. Marcu ignored the other jägers (“Hallo!” “Hoy, brudder!”), even General Gkika (“Marcu vhy iz dere a hole in hyu arm?”), to go to the wagon, lay down next to it, and look underneath.
There were two people under it; a blond girl who was heterodyning and focused on the wagon her hands were buried in up to the elbows, and a middle-aged woman with gray and brown hair, who looked up at Marcu and elbowed the Heterodyne. The Heterodyning stopped. “I’m not done yet, it’ll only be a few minutes but I need to put this back in the—”
“Jäger, Miss Agatha,” the woman said.
“Iz hokay, Hy dun vant to interrupt,” Marcu started to say.
“Eh?” The Heterodyne craned her head until Marcu could see her face. She didn’t look especially like Master Bill or Lucrezia, but it didn’t matter. She smelled right. “Oh, they found you! Okay, good, I’ll be out in a few minutes, I just need to finish this first. What’s your name?”
“Uh—Marcu.” He had no idea how to deal with this; he wanted to crawl under the wagon with her, but he would definitely be no help and suspected he might get in the way. “Iz hokay, Hy dun need ennyting now, Hy—hoy!”
Something lifted him by the back of his shirt, and Marcu kicked. “Dun hyu tink ov eet,” General Gkika’s voice said, and he stopped.
She carried him over to a rock, and made him explain the flying fish attack (which got him laughed at, which was mostly annoying because he couldn’t go punch anyone laughing just then) and then strip so she could check for additional fish bites (which was unfair and unnecessary, even if she was technically correct that he hadn’t been telling her about all of them), and then sit still while she put medicine and bandages on them.
He had no excuse for the crying, really. He barely had an explanation. He was home.
Mamma Gkika didn’t seem surprised; she just looked at him and went back to wrapping unneeded bandages around his arm. (Some of his brothers laughed at him, but Maxim went and punched them for Marcu, and he decided Maxim was a very nice brother to have even if he looked far too pretty.)
Dimo was less nice. He wasn’t wrong, and Marcu would forgive him eventually, but for now he was standing behind Gkika and asking “ennyting hyu need to tell os?” like he was just a little curious, like there could be a good answer to that question.
But it was important. Especially if they were looking for all the jägers. “…Maria und Mircea iz dead,” Marcu muttered, and pretended that staring at the ground would make him stop crying. Someone on the edge of the group made a hurt sound as the rest went quiet. “Hy… dun haff either ov dere hats. Hy dun tink ennyting else….”
“Ve gots Maria’s hat,” Mamma Gkika said calmly. “Bot how hyu know Mircea iz dead?”
“Haz been tree years since I see him, und… iz Mircea,” Marcu said. Did she really need to know? Well, yes, if she was asking, and no one else could tell her, but he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Mircea iz not schtupid!” came from the back of the group.
“Iz bad et fightink, iz de problem,” Marcu said.
“I thought all jägers were good at fighting,” the Heterodyne’s voice said. Marcu looked up.
She was walking over, hair gleaming as she passed under light that broke through the trees and absently wiped oil off of her hands onto a towel. He hoped, almost, that she would make this conversation hurt less, but no; seeing her only made him feel relieved and happy as well as hurt and guilty, because apparently dealing with this was too easy unless it was complicated too.
“For a human, yez,” Mamma Gkika said. “Bot among jägers, dere haz to be sumvon dot iz de vorst.”
“He vos verra good et de shootink tings,” Marcu said. Because that was fighting, and it should be remembered too, even if it hadn’t helped him. It had helped Marcu plenty of times; he’d have been dead instead if Mircea weren’t good at shooting things.
“Bot not de rest,” Dimo added.
The Heterodyne frowned, the way that often led to inventions. “Well, there are six jägers left missing that I can find, and—Gkika?”
“Dere iz six missink now, includink Mircea,” Mamma Gkika said. “So if he iz dead, Hy dun know vot de sixth iz.”
(Hope. Marcu didn’t need hope now, hope hurt. If Mircea was still alive, if Marcu had given up too soon and he hadn’t had to be alone—)
“There is one dot—I showed you the fuzzy one, right?” the Heterodyne said. “I’ve been counting it as two, I suppose it could be one but I’m not sure what could be producing that effect otherwise…. I wish I could identify specific jägers with this, I might be able to improve it but I’d have to have met them already so that wouldn’t help....”
“Ve vill see ven ve find dem all,” Mamma Gkika said, in the way that ended conversations.
The Heterodyne sat on the ground near Marcu. She didn’t talk to him much, everyone was talking to her and he couldn’t think of anything to say to her, but he could smell her easily from that close, and after a while he was able to focus on home again.
They stayed there for the rest of the day, even though the wagon was fixed, because the Heterodyne said it was almost evening anyway and they weren’t in a rush. Marcu got into another scuffle with Dimo, only a little bit for asking annoying questions, almost as soon as Mamma Gkika finished with the fish bites and let him get dressed again.
The Heterodyne drifted away, and Marcu could only barely smell her, but he could hear her heterodyning in one of the wagons, which was just as good. She was probably building death rays, Maxim said.
“Or bombs!” Dimo said.
“Hyu iz havink vay too moch fun vit de blowink tings op from far avay—hoy Marcu, deed hyu hear Dimo iz a General now?”
“Hy iz not vun yet!”
“Hyu iz, hyu vos for tree years, remember—”
That started another scuffle, of course, which General Dimo did not win.
The entire evening there was a jäger everywhere Marcu was, not always as close as Ognian and Alina had stuck while they were running, but always within reach. While they were fighting, of course, but someone always happened to sit next to him when they weren’t fighting too, and once it was night and everyone (who wasn’t supposed to be keeping watch) started falling asleep Alina dropped down halfway on him, and then Eugen next to him, and then more until Marcu was in the middle of a tangled pile of fifteen jägers, and he didn’t even have to promise not to shock any of them first.