The Bonesetter – Santiago Belluco

The Bonesetter – Santiago Belluco

Metaphorosis August 2016
August 2016

Nissil saw a disturbance within the mold brambles in the far distance and turned to the broad edge of her tissue-fitting terrace. Soldiers approached from the east. The narrow road they took was partially obscured by the tall mold that dominated her holdings, but Nissil counted six figures with ease. She expected the attack on her keep to be more subtle than this, and was unsure if such an obvious maneuver should be cause for relief or alarm.

Despite the looming threat, her work could not wait. The bones were already sun-primed and the strips of muscle pulsed quietly against the blasting wind, eager for attachment. It was piecemeal work, a mere six puppets to join the Peixin Count’s growing estate—bent coin thrown to a kneeling beggar.

Still, it was the only commission she had received in weeks, and Nissil was eager to work with a sense of purpose again, impending attack or no. This most current threat was strangely obvious: what had begun as a handful of her constructs being sabotaged at the Sirat warfront escalated to boneset puppets being destroyed closer and closer to her keep, all for unexplained reasons. It was less like a poisoned fingernail nicking the back of her elbow and more like a spear thrown at her chest. A curious approach, but even a minor attack would cost her dearly since she had barely enough puppets to thwart an infiltration, much less enough to break a siege. Greater houses than hers had been destroyed by a confluence of smaller problems.

Just in case she needed to assist her keep’s constructs in battle, Nissil placed the puppet’s spherulated brain back into its holding pen. The brain was barely a proper brain at all, merely the central ganglion of a lesser crustacean, but the cerebral reagent was still too expensive for an interruption to spoil.

Nissil sat on a stool at the center of her blood-stained terrace and turned slightly to the alarm claxons on the wall, waiting. Around her, each newly cultured bone hummed with soft, green light as its etched runes drank the harsh evening winds. The slowly layered muscles soaked up the glow, each instructive pattern seeping into the vibrant tissue, giving it skill and purpose. A wide bowl of bile sat near the edge of the terrace’s lip to simmer a spool of pale skin.

Nissil sensed a figure hovering behind the door on the far side of the jagged nail of a room, her servant’s telltale shyness touched by unusual urgency.

“What is it, Golhan?” Nissil shouted over the blasting wind.

The door opened a crack and the diminutive woman looked out, her young face shadowed by the glyphic radiance emanating from the terrace. “I’m sorry, Reticence, so sorry, but there are Core soldiers knocking at the front gate. They asked to come in but didn’t tell me why, so I didn’t let them.”

“Very well,” Nissil replied with a sigh as she got up. “I will deal with this.”

Golhan should have just rung her up from below but Nissil was not surprised at the minor incompetence. After all, the waning popularity of bonesetting had long ago cost her the position of Praxis Master, a title providing much power and deference, as well as proper servants. The proverbial trap of luxury, easy to get used to then difficult to live without.

Nissil covered the complex whorls of unattached muscle with a sheet of mimetic periostium and doused the protective cloth with additional serum. The broth would keep the unattached fibers healthy for a few extra hours. The soldiers seemed not to be poised to attack, since announcing yourself at the enemy’s doorstep was generally not sound strategy. Or this was some cunning plan she did not expect? Nissil hoped for the former, in which case a lengthy delay was unlikely—perhaps she could even return to her work before the spool of activated skin spoiled. Skin was still cheap, yet it had recently become harder to find a good spinner still making the preparation. She did not look forward to spooling the lesser construct herself. The old trap of luxury again.

Golhan opened the heavy door for her and bowed back. Nissil stepped into the transitional laboratory, its opalescent equipment shimmering in tight niches on the stone wall. The servant disappeared down a side door, careful not to touch anything in the room. Even in a constructed body bearing much of the vitality of youth, Golhan still sulked and shuffled as expected of an old woman plucked from her deathbed. Nissil did not begrudge the servant her former habits, for she was loyal and somewhat diligent, her self-discipline and obedience glyphs rarely triggered anymore.

Nissil removed her plain work tunic and wiggled into a more imposing silktooth robe as she descended to meet the soldiers. The smooth fabric rustled in her wake, its decorative eyes opening and closing with each step. Such clothing felt like a frivolous waste of time and skill by artisans that could be better occupied with more practical uses, but the robe always seemed to impress the uneducated. Perhaps they were impressed by the robe’s obvious cost.

A large hallway led to the compact bulwark of the keep’s first gate, the hallway’s alabaster floor and walls topped by a vaulted redstone ceiling. The redstone seeped into the alabaster where it was weakest, reinforcing the rock with bright crimson tendrils. Nissil thought the old style of red bleeding into white complemented her craft’s visceral aesthetic rather well—an entrance like the pried open junction of bone and flesh.

Several of her remaining puppets lined each wall, most humanoid but some mantis-forms among them. Each puppet was surrounded by an interlocking exoskeleton covering large swathes of bulging muscle quietly rising with each breath. They were full warrior-puppets untainted by aesthetic compromise, a tribute to the height of bonesetting, designs that reminded her of a time when she was still learning the glyphic arts within the Core military, a mere lens-carver’s daughter allowed to study the highest arts. While Master Hematolin had brought her to bonesetting, the Core had given her the skills, rigor and hope to pursue such ambitions. But the Core needed nothing of hers anymore.

Nissil retreated to the slightly elevated center of her hall, smoothed out her robe, and quietly placed her constructs on alert. She commanded one of the puppets to start working the door. Soldiers that couldn’t even mask their approach were unlikely to have had the skill and subtlety to sabotage her constructs at Sirat—these soldiers could be the first incursion or a feint posing as members of the Core, not yet the flying spear.

Close inspection by skillborn visionomists at the Sirat warfront had revealed small, precise attacks burrowing into the cerebral chamber of each attacked puppet, but no more. The lack of additional evidence was disconcerting, especially since the skillborn inspectors were faculty from the visionomist academy, not untrained whelps freshly discovering their talents. The puzzle was a worthy challenge after so many years, but why attack a master receiving barely one military order per season, and who hadn’t trained an apprentice in well over a decade? What could her attackers hope to gain?

When the gate finally snapped open, seven ragged soldiers lurched in, their spears unsheathed and tightly held. Their formation was sloppy and full of gaps, many soldiers looking around as if nervous and distractible. If this was an attack, it was the most underwhelming Nissil had ever witnessed.

The soldiers were a mix of human races and otherkin species characteristic of the Core’s capital. They wore black Charwood plate and carried sharpened Melora-ash weapons detailed with Peixin timber and Ceftel vine, but not a stitch of boneset equipment, much to Nissil’s chagrin. Among them, three hunched figures bound in frozen chains and purple cloth stumbled forward, pushed by angry spear shafts. The chains were triple-layered and the cloth pinched unusually tight against each prisoner’s torso and face.

A heavily armored soldier limped forward. “Reticence, we request shelter and use of your dungeons.”

The soldiers were more than just road weary; they held the hard, tight gaze of having fought and lost. Yet these were not green recruits out of their first bleeding. Old scars littered many faces and one even had grey streaks in his beard.

“Noble soldiers of our nation’s Core,” Nissil started in the traditional greeting, embarrassed of having thought so little of them earlier. “I am Nissil Tefari Pag, Weaver of this keep, and I welcome you to my holdings.”

“Thank you, Reticence.” The heavily armored leader, a Pack-Knell by her markings, bent forward in a short bow as she removed her helmet. The warrior’s fanged mouth did not look like a human mouth, resembling more a shallow cut that fully encircled her grey, bald head. A grimace crow, one of the Core’s most recent otherkin conquests. Quite surprising that the crows had been allowed such a quick rise within the military. Few new citizens assimilated so promptly.

“Please, have your soldiers follow my hall-bearers to your chambers.” Nissil gestured to four of her puppets. “I will have a suitable medic roused from the village and brought here with utmost haste. My bearers can take your prisoners down once—”

“If it pleases your Reticence,” the leader interrupted, “I’d rather see these prisoners to the dungeon immediately. The cells might need additional reinforcement.”

“Esteemed soldier of the Core,” Nissil replied, eyes narrowing, “My dungeons are grid obsidian grown within talons of searing poison. Multiple tessellated glyphs of holding, distance, fire and pain protect each of my thick walls. Your prisoners will be secure.”

The crow watched Nissil with care, her doubt painfully clear. The otherkin should know better than to question a Reticent—as minor as her contributions were to the army, that one title was still hers, the last thread of legitimacy upholding her art among the officially recognized skills of the Core. Nevertheless, something in the soldier’s bearing tempered Nissil’s indignation. As she looked at the exhausted soldier, she also realized that a Pack-Knell should be leading a larger unit than this and have at least two strains of skillborn among their numbers, usually a pyrogenist and empath.

“How many did you lose?” Nissil asked, lowering her voice. A heavy pause loomed between them.

“Twelve,” the crow muttered, pupils turning orange in shame. “We were sent for these deserters after a sixfold unit was lost tracking them. They attacked from the mold vines just within sight of your keep, leaping down over ten meters to strike. If I hadn’t smelled them coming down, we would have lost more.”

Nissil nodded and gestured to the side, where a broad hallway led to the dungeons. “I will take you to my deepest cells myself.”

“I also carry a missive for you, Reticence,” the crow said, as if remembering an issue of no real importance. She reached into her pack and drew out a black-paper scroll. Nissil gasped at the sight. A military communiqué from the Core army bursary itself.

The crow continued speaking but Nissil didn’t listen as she took the scroll and opened it with shaking hands. It was a simple form, the words “cessation” and “de-recognized” sharp against the page. Her art was listed as officially obsolete, all chances for future military contracts gone. Bonesetting was dead.

Nissil thought of her master, the great Hematolin Tefari Yidyll, and his cruel teachings, how at his deathbed many years ago he had rambled about the greatness Nissil would bring to the art, his dreams becoming wilder and more deranged as his mind faded. It had been painful to watch as his boneset body failed to keep him from falling apart. When he first started to fade, Hematolin’s body was almost a mirror to her own, bodies they built together with care bordering on obsession, and she had failed him, him and all the countless artisans and masters that for centuries had built up her art. Her keep would become a shadow of its former glory, yet another half-abandoned remnant of faded power. No further attack was needed; she was already broken.

Yet there were still soldiers standing before her, the grimace crow even looking at her in concern, and that would not do. Nissil collected herself and turned, gesturing for the soldiers to follow. One last service to the Core, and she would at least carry it out with dignity.

Steps of blue stone led into the depths of her mountain, the stairwell narrowing as it descended, forcing the soldiers into single file. Nissil ignored the many doorways leading to the more conventional holding cells, all empty except for the few exotic specimens she could still afford to purchase for study. With barely a glance, she opened one of her more advanced constructs, a pale white door set flush into the wall, the only mark on its surface an inscription in a dead language reading ‘you cannot enter, you cannot leave’. Nissil calculated that without maintenance, her lesser boneset puppets would last for decades and her final door at least a pair of centuries, but it would all inevitably fall into disrepair and fade away, living bone turned to brittle fossil, then dust.

An apparent eternity later, Nissil led the soldiers to the jagged stone opening at the bottom of the stairs. Beyond was an outcropping of rock suspended over a yawning chasm, five tenuous pathways jutting out from the outcropping, each holding at its end the stone bolus of a cell. A thick current of pale liquid sputtered from the high ceiling to encase each of the cells before cascading into the unseen depth below: the final layer of protection against the highest bonesetting art and the attacks of every known skillborn strain, a kiss from the frozen blood of the earth itself, an ancient death that spoke in geological absolutes. This at least would survive for as long as the churning mantle of the earth still flowed.

Nissil parted the molten ice with an elaborate glyph etched into her only ring and the first cell slid open. Its inner walls glistened with a thousand eager blades, each slick edge reaching out with the subtle thirst of sentience. One of her greatest, cruelest constructs, and she was glad to have one last chance to use it.

The first prisoner was still dazed by the cloth’s glyphs when his restraints were removed and so was easily corralled into the cell. The second, a large, strongly built woman, tried to struggle with slow punches but a solid push threw her into her cell. The blades to either side of the opening almost reached her as she stumbled in.

The last prisoner smiled as his cloak slid off. He stepped into the third cell on his own volition, turning just beyond the reach of the closing knifes to look back at Nissil. He was filthy and badly bruised, but carried himself with confidence, even poise.

“I have a secret for you,” he whispered before the cell sealed shut and the iceflow reclaimed the lonely rock. The crow ignored the man, or perhaps did not hear him.

“How did your prisoners resist the effects of a submission cloak?” Nissil asked the Pack-Knell as they began the climb back up, her curiosity tugging against her grief.

“I don’t know, but that’s the least of their surprises, especially that last one. I’m glad to see them under your blades. I need to contact my Core superiors. May I use one of your runners?”

“Of course,” Nissil replied, half-listening, thinking of the prisoners instead, the broad outline of a plan slowly forming in her mind.

Upon reaching the upper steps, Nissil sent off the required runner and saw that the soldiers were suitably housed. Then she gathered a large contingent of her best puppet-warriors and started back down the steps to her lowest prison. Tampering with a Core prisoner was an unforgivable offense and punishable by complete asset seizure. Military prisoners were an even more serious affair, intervention being punished by death. Still the risk was worthwhile.

Centuries had passed since the last discovery of a new strain of skillborn, human or otherkin. Finding a new one could prove to be a career-making find, revolutionary, even. And here were three samples of what looked very much like a new skillborn strain, delivered right to her doorstep. If she was right, her punishment would be deferred. Maybe. As she crossed the threshold of her white door again, its wide, flowing script seemed to leer at her.

Nissil matched the third prisoner’s smile as she reopened his cage. He was standing exactly where she had left him, as if expecting her return. While the Core soldiers were most likely not behind the attacks on her constructs, perhaps these prisoners could have been. The timing of their appearance was consistent, as could be their skill, if the Pack-knell’s account was to be trusted. Yet why would renegade soldiers want to attack her? And why goad her now that their attack had been thwarted by capture? Nissil would ordinarily have reveled in the delicious puzzle, savoring its many angles with proper contemplation, but too much was at stake, and she needed to act now.

“So what is your secret?” she asked.

“My secrets are my own,” The man replied with deliberate stillness. His skin was smooth beneath the grime of battle, too young for the threat he exuded. “But I have something else for you, buried in my flesh, waiting to be dug out.”

“My thoughts exactly.” With a twist of her wrist and precise command bends from her fingers, Nissil ordered her puppets to clasp the man and carry him upwards, past the jail cells, past the abandoned feast halls leading to decrepit dancing parlors, past the long-empty family quarters and dusty viewing rooms devoid of artwork.

They slowed down at the top levels of the Keep, turning to the rooms Nissil set aside for surgery and study. She guided her puppets to her central spherulation chamber. The room’s walls, floor and ceiling were whitened with mortared chalk and a thin layer of translucent nacre that radiated a soft antiseptic glow. The nacre was worn down every time the room was activated, so using it for mere exploratory surgery was beyond wasteful, especially since Nissil couldn’t afford the cost of reseeding it. If she was right, however, a new skillborn strain would require her most refined tools to properly characterize.

Nissil commanded her puppets to strap the prisoner to the dissection apparatus at the room’s center as she rearranged her tools and tinctures on the slender tables around her, suspending the heavier saws on thick hooks hanging from the ceiling.

The prisoner smirked as she pierced his arm with an anaesthetic barb. “I’d rather be awake for this, if you don’t mind.”

She waited for the anaesthetic to take effect nonetheless, yet he didn’t doze off. An extra dose, and still he kept staring at her, unblinking. After a few minutes she decided to ignore his peculiar resistance to anesthesia, hoping the barb’s local numbing agents would suffice.

Nissil began with a small and reversible intervention, not wishing to spoil her specimen too quickly. The right forearm opened neatly in response to her wood-tipped scalpel, barely any blood flowing; vessels and arteries sealed just as they were severed. Nissil’s excitement mounted with the observation. Even the ability to halt bleeding alone would be quite useful when replicated. The prisoner looked down at her work as if deigning to show polite interest.

She pulled the skin aside to reveal the muscle beneath. She paused at the unexpected tangle of damage. Irreversible fatigue permeated each fiber, cells burst and ligaments inflamed. This was not mere battle-damage; no cut or bash could cause such thorough hyperextension. It was more like the work of a flesh-consuming disease than anything else.

She delved in with care, her finest forceps and pliers dancing among the morass, searching for some thread of logic connecting the skillborn’s extraordinary properties with the mess it had made of the body. Such tissue damage would severely limit the usefulness of this strain of skillborn and render it but a curiosity, not a trait suitable for the prolonged rigors of Core service, military or otherwise. Nissil clenched her teeth at the thought of her dangerous gamble not paying off.

Her hands almost shook as she cut a large swatch of swollen muscle and noticed small purple filaments infiltrating the tissue. She overlooked them at first, mistaking them for displaced nerve fibers or necrotic blood vessels. Yet they seemed to carry no blood and conducted no electrical impulse.

“Ah,” her specimen beamed, “you’re finally getting to it.”

Nissil straightened up from the partially dissected arm to look at him. This was not a novel strain of skillborn human.

“What is your name?”

“Really?” he replied, taken aback. “That is what you choose to ask? Such an irrelevant detail.”

“I did not mean the name of the soldier you control. I want your name, parasite.”

“Ah, yes,” he cooed, relaxing into his shackles. “We have no name in your voice language, we speak to each other in scent. Much of our nature is very different from your own. I came here to show it to you, to make you an offer.”

Nissil idly thought of some of the parasitic species she studied, many first-hand: The worm that burrowed into the human male penis to induce hypersexuality and thus spread its progeny to the man’s sexual partners, the mold which could live undetected for years under the carapace of Core transport crabs, the small birds that would charge headlong into a Yllian panther’s mouth to lay eggs in its stomach. Nissil suddenly felt like the panther, so smug at getting a meal so easily, so unaware that many months later her gut would burst open when the bird’s hatchlings started to peck their way out.

“Is that so?” Nissil sat back, ready to listen since the parasite seemed so eager to speak, hoping it would reveal how thoroughly their infection had spread among the Core. This attack could be targeting more than just her own keep. A disappointment, since this find would likely stay her execution but would bring her no real glory or riches. “Why are you so confident that I will listen to you and not immediately report your existence to the military?”

“Because even at the growing edge of the Core I have heard of bonesetting’s diminishing prestige, how your family in particular is but a shadow of what it once was. You of all people should be interested in what I have to say, an offer that will benefit us both.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“We have lived for longer than memory allows within the hornets of the Sirat plains. We have adapted to each other, they specializing in strength, we in guile. Yet now your people capture the hornets to subjugate them into mere mounts. Thus our skills lie fallow, our children dull from the constrictions you inflict upon our hosts.”

“So you have attempted to infect humans instead.”

“Yes. But the transition has been difficult and it is now obvious it will take many generations for our kind to adapt to yours, to merge as seamlessly as we have with the hornets.”

“Before which, your kind will surely be discovered. Then eradicated.” Nissil always found it strange how easy it was to prod people into talking more about themselves, often to their detriment. It seemed like this creature was no different. Parasitic infection was often covert, relative to other diseases, but slow to spread, so this parasite should not be much of an issue to the Core. Yet the parasite should know that as well, so why the confidence? Nissil remembered the Yllian panther again.

“Your kind is clever,” the parasite said, “your brains hideously complex. Indeed it is unlikely we will ever control you as well as we can the hornets. It would always be a battle between us.”

“Looks like you did just fine with this one.”

“No, this is where much of the damage came from, his defiance. We can control your tissue so much better than your instincts drive you to, yet you still fight back. It is exhausting and very unpleasant.”

“I am yet to see why you would tell me all this. It makes me no more likely to help you.”

“I want you to build us a body.”

Nissil’s eyes widened at the elegance of the idea. Of course. A parasite so efficient at host manipulation could very well complement the inherent inflexibility of bonesetting. She would no longer need a complex array of instructional glyphs or even a spherulated brain tethered to glyphic restraints; her craft’s greatest weakness would be simply brushed aside.

“I see,” she replied, regaining her composure. “I presume you saw a few puppets at the Sirat border and thought those would be easier to control, perhaps even tried to infect a few, but were unsuccessful. Is that so?”

“Yes, as many spores as we saturated the puppets with, we could not take root, no matter the number of constructs we destroyed trying to infect, even striking right to their brain. But I think this can be altered. Together, both our peoples can be great again, with you and your fellow bonesetters at the helm.”

Nissil was distracted by imagining the simpler, more powerful glyphs long thought to be too difficult to control, then wondered if these parasites would have any difficulty integrating with spherulation tissue, since most parasites could not easily infect unfamiliar hosts. This central issue would have to be one of her first tests.

With a snap, Nissil understood what the parasite was really proposing; that she should conquer the Core with his people at her side. For a brief moment the option seems glorious beyond imagining, a height she never expected to reach and thus all the sweeter. But that would mean she should give these creatures the means to subjugate her entire civilization. A ludicrous, insane risk. No, this exchange would be on her terms. The Core’s terms.

“I think you are mistaken about the details of how my constructs operate, parasite. If you become a puppet, I can impress anything upon you, from taboo actions or thoughts to abstract concepts such as courage or obedience. Few volunteer for such a fate, even among the desperate. Do you truly want such a body?”

“Certainly not.” The parasite’s avatar smiled, too broadly this time, his eyes pinching with unnatural curvature, “I was just stalling. This room is now saturated with my spores. My bretheren and I have been saving them for months to use on you, and now my sacks are emptied. I thought all was lost when we were captured, but here we are, and my strongest, fastest children are now coursing through your veins. You should be feeling the paralysis any moment now, and when you move again you will build an army as one of us.”

Nissil tightened her jaw in a flash of panic. Her precious body had been tainted, perhaps corrupted beyond repair. Suddenly she wanted to peel off her skin with her sharp nails, rub and tear the contamination away. But then she took a deep breath and sat perfectly still, relaxing her body, turning the full scope of her attention to herself. This was a battle now, a time for calm and precision.

She checked each of her body’s systems, first the blood, then lymphatic fluid, then each organ in turn, ending in her spherulated brain. At the brain her touch lingered, Hematolin’s presence heavy on the multifold, winding glyphs of its spherulation casing. She detected nothing except additional microscopic debris on the filters of her nostrils and the back of her mouth. That her body hadn’t warned her of danger could mean that it was too subtle for her art to find. From a distant part of her mind she realized that if infection was this covert and rapid then the parasites were a greater threat than she could have imagined, likely the greatest threat to the Core in over a century.

Nissil turned a large lever next to her station and ventilation glyphs in the ceiling started to drive the room’s tainted air to an incinerator and pump in filtered air from beyond the keep. Nissil then lay on the floor and touched her left wrist, with a turn and release activating the glyph to heat her bones and muscle, sensitizing her immune system and hopefully cooking any of the offending spores. The strong air current howled as the soldier laughed, Nissil growing dizzy with induced fever.

What felt like hours passed as Nissil grappled with the pain and disorientation, but she knew her brain was protected from the worst effects of the unnaturally high temperature by her spherulation casing. Then she drew the temperature even higher, daring to spike it almost high enough to boil water. Finally the glyph on her wrist indicated that any further temperature shock would likely harm her brain, so she let her body cool down.

She opened her eyes and saw the soldier thrashing desperately against the restraints, his intact arm almost free. Nissil took his alarm as some confirmation that his infection was thwarted, his spores heat-inactivated. She turned back to herself and found that the debris on her throat’s filter was still intact, not as touched by the heat she had inflicted upon her body. She struggled to reach her lowest table, her legs weak, and picked up a sample containment sac. She carefully spat out her filter, the retching motion a relief, as if her body knew it was expelling something vile. The filter fell into the sac and she closed it with a tight snap. The sac was revolting to hold, and she wanted to throw it as far away from herself as possible. The soldier stopped struggling and looked at the container in her hand.

“Well played, parasite,” Nissil admitted. “However, your plan did not succeed. I exchanged my body for a boneset construct many years ago. Self-spherulation into a modified human body is the secret pinnacle of bonesetting, which master Hematolin and I developed well within the peak of our skill. Few people know of it and even fewer care anymore, so I am unsurprised you failed to discover this while devising your ultimately flawed strategy.”

The soldier’s face was frozen into a neutral, empty stare. Nissil looked at her filter, her disgust overwhelmed by the realization that she likely held the most powerful weapon in the Core. With those few remaining spores she could begin building new boneset constructs with the young parasites right away, marshalling her newfound strength in secret for a triumphant return of bonesetting. More than that, this might indeed be enough to conquer the Core under the yoke of her skill. Yet in that time the parasite would run rampant among her people, likely causing untold devastation.

Old Hematolin would have reveled in such a situation, a weakened Core being a further chance to empower the art. Not for the first time Nissil missed the desperate fervor of their years working together, first as teacher and apprentice, then as equals. Perhaps the original bone-weavers had faced similarly split allegiances when they were assimilated into the Core. Nissil wondered if the Core felt parasitic to the people they conquered, a violation—any chances to rise within the Core but a shift from being the panther to being the bird.

Nissil activated a communication glyph at her desk. “Golhan, fetch the Pack-Knell, have her meet me at the anteroom to the spherulation chamber.”

“Yes, Reticent,” the servant replied through the glyph.

The parasite looked up at her, his face thick with panic. “Wait! Don’t report me to the Core just yet, they will kill us all. We will live on as your slaves, tie us to your glyphs if you must, but don’t do this!”

Nissil smiled as she sat down onto her stool, her boneset body slowly recovering from the temperature shock. “Tempting, but I decline your offer. These spores will be sent out to the visionomist academy so they may come to understand how your kind spread, and develop a countermeasure.”

The parasite looked down, and for a moment he seemed very much like a regular young boy starting his service to the Core. Nissil wondered if this was a tactic by the parasite to garner sympathy or an involuntary slip in its control, the young soldier briefly allowed to exist again within his ruined body.

“What will become of me?” the parasite asked, his face tight again.

“I will explain the situation to the Pack-Knell in full and suggest that she take the other prisoners to the academy and leave you here. This is a military matter, and thus the decision will be hers.” Nissil hoped that the Pack-Knell would indeed grant her a stay in execution and even allow her to continue experimenting on the parasite. Perhaps she could find an easy means of detecting the infection, to help stop the parasite’s spread as soon as possible. More than that, however, she hoped the parasites would be properly subjugated instead of exterminated; their unique nature could add much to the Core.

The soldier resumed his senseless thrashing, yelling and spitting. Nissil tightened his restraints and left the room, careful to sterilize herself first. The Pack-Knell was already waiting outside, fully armored and weapon in hand. Nissil knew her chances of avoiding execution were now slim and rested entirely on the judgment of the newly elevated grimace crow. Yet she was glad, for even if bonesetting died with her, the Core would live on, unencumbered by the frail bones of an old art but dense with living, flowing tissue, powerful and cunning.

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