The metal sang when Cyrus hit it, letting out a pure tone that hummed in the air for seconds.
When Maggie hit it, the sound was more of an angry ‘clang’.
“No, no,” Cyrus said, stepping forward to stop her from bringing the hammer down again. “You’re not getting it.”
“The metal is the right shape,” Maggie protested, looking down at the anvil. “It’s exactly like yours.”
Cyrus sighed, looking out at the river. The rooftop forge he’d put together in the East Bottoms had a great view of the ships coming through, a reminder of the trade that was booming through the city.
“It’s not just about the physical shape,” Cyrus said. “Any metal can take the shape of a knife, but only ours has the soul of one. Here, I’ll show you again.”
Reaching out, he waited until Maggie reluctantly passed him the hammer. Despite the flecks of grey in his hair, he was one of the strongest elves she’d ever known, and his muscles rippled as he lifted the tool and brought it down on the steel that was still glowing softly red.
It hummed, gently.
“You’ve done magic,” Cyrus said. “You know how to channel our nature. So, channel it into the steel.”
“How?” Maggie asked, feeling frustrated at the lack of specific instructions. “I’m concentrating. I’m trying. The energy won’t go. Do I force it?”
Cyrus shut his eyes, letting the gentle wind flow through his hair and savoring the cool breeze. “You’re not making the power go into the steel, you’re allowing it to flow through the steel,” he said. “It’s a river, not a reservoir.”
“Still, how?” Maggie demanded. “I don’t understand.”
“Picture a dream,” Cyrus said, looking out at the boats as he spoke. “The future of the blade. The world you want it to create. Your thoughts have to be in tune, same as your body, or you’ll just end up with dull metal.”
“A dream?” Maggie asked. He didn’t get what she was asking for, instructions. It was all vaguery and poetic language that told her nothing about how to make his steel. “So I’ll just fantasize about something while I hit the metal and that will do it?”
“When I make my swords, I’m not thinking about hitting the metal,” Cyrus said. “I’m thinking about the life that I’m building. The lineage of artists whose skills allowed me to make this steel, and the future I’m going to have here because of it. My swords—our swords—are going to build us a home here in the crossroads of the country. It’s what I want to happen, so I’m going to make it happen. Does that make sense?”
Maggie wasn’t sure, but she extended her hand anyways, asking for the hammer. Cyrus gave it to her.
What do I want to happen?
It was a hard question, especially given that this knife wasn’t going to be anything special. It was a practice blade to learn the fundamentals.
I want to learn, then. I want to grow and make a blade worthy of the lineage.
That seemed good, but Maggie still wasn’t certain. She looked up at Cyrus. The artisan who’d taken her in, offered to teach her the secrets of metalwork that nobody else knew.
I want to make my teacher proud.
When she hit the steel, it sang.
Using the side of her knife’s handle as a wedge, Maggie popped the cap off a beer bottle, took a long pull, and got to work on Levi’s order.
Setting the bottle in a spot where it’d be clear of any dust or hazardous debris, she strapped on a full-face respirator, elbow-length rubber gloves, and a long canvas apron. The ‘pepper spray’ she made for him was a slurry of dangerous chemicals and particulates held in a liquid medium. Iron powder for fae, silver powder for shifters, pickling salt for demons, capsaicin for mortals. Wolfsbane, garlic powder. Levi wouldn’t get any benefit from holy water, so she instead included a few drops of ink from a printing press.
The list of ingredients was substantial, and each one was just a tiny part of the cocktail. When it came to personal defense, she didn’t skimp, covering as wide a spectrum as she could, arranging all the various reagents and repellants that she could and setting them out on her work table before she even started mixing them together.
She heard the rumble of Levi’s motorcycle outside just as she finished setting it all out. She took off her facemask and went to unlock the door, pausing for a moment to survey his appearance. A bad scrape on his face, bloodshot eyes, clothes that were tattered and dirty, and based on his posture, he was limping.
“Levi, you look like crap.”
“I feel like crap,” he said. “Can I come in?”
“By all means.” Maggie stepped back, giving him the opportunity to walk over to the loveseat and slump down. “So, who’s trying to kill you? Errekin, or human?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Errrekin?”
“Monster,” Maggie clarified. “It’s… It means monster, basically.”
Levi stretched, shaking his head tiredly. “Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Sure.” Maggie stepped to the side to take a pull from her beer before dropping the mask back over her face and returning to work.
Levi rubbed at his eyes, sinking deeper into the couch. “I don’t have a lot of brain power for small talk.”
“Then don’t. I just enjoy the company.” She did a second count of her ingredients, ensuring it was all measured out accurately, that she wasn’t missing anything. Her actions were thorough and precise.
Levi, eventually, broke the silence, looking up from the loveseat. “What are you working on?”
“Your order,” she said. “Just double checking before I start to mix.”
He nodded, falling silent while she began to hand-grind a few components in a stone mortar and pestle.
As she finished that up and moved the powdered reagents into a measuring cup, he asked, “Are you still dealing with any trouble from the mess last summer?”
It was a reference to some other trouble he’d gotten her roped into. She’d run afoul of human wizards during the chaos, which was mostly his fault, though she couldn’t blame him. “Not really. Business has been slow and I think they’ve put me on a blacklist somewhere telling people not to buy from me, but that’s as far as they dare to go. Even if they tried, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on since they aren’t allowed to regulate my shop.”
“They’re not?” He tilted his head, which looked a bit odd from her perspective since he was leaning it on the armrest of the couch. “Why not?”
“Fae. We’ve been doing magic way longer than any of you,” she pointed out, getting out a large ceramic mixing bowl with a pour spout on one side. “When your commonwealth got started, they tried to make us join, but we were here first. Eventually, they agreed we would be sovereign—we don’t mess with you, you don’t mess with us.”
“That sounds like a good deal for everyone,” Levi said.
Maggie hesitated. “Eh… It had its downsides. You know the stereotype of fae as greedy tricksters?”
He bobbed his head in a little nod.
“Humans made that up, pretty much out of whole cloth. Any human who knew about the Commonwealth of Wizards thought that they’d be able to get wizards to bail them out of magical trouble, so they’d make deals they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow through on, only to find out later that the wizards wouldn’t lift a finger to help them renege on their deals. We took what we were owed, the humans cried about it. It was ‘how can I afford to feed my children when the fae are taking all my money?’, at first, and then, ‘The fae are killing my children’, and it just got more outlandish from there.” She paused, trying not to sound mad. “They were trying to cheat us, and they failed, but somehow that makes us the bad guy.”
Maggie was generations removed from the times when the Commonwealth—or the fae nations, for that matter—were known about by regular mortals, but the frustration lingered in her thoughts, especially as she fought against the reputation for being a con artist or trickster whenever she dealt with humans. “It was never us who were unreliable in a deal. It was always you.”
“Not me, personally,” Levi objected.
Maggie paused, leaning over to glance at him and to make sure he saw her do it. “How many crystals did you pilfer from my shop?”
He smiled, sheepishly, and sank deeper into the couch. “I paid you back for that.”
Maggie chuckled. “Take your shoes off, if you’re going to put your feet up.”
He did, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. “Still, I get your point. It’s us humans who rip each other off and stab each other in the back, while you’re just trying to get by.”
“We don’t touch humans unless they come at us first,” Maggie confirmed. “Once we have a deal, we keep that deal as long as you keep the deal. You’ve got more to worry about from your friends than from the fae.”
It was strictly true, though she left out some context. Maggie wanted to be able to say that her people were always above board in their dealings, but that was idealism that she knew wasn’t really true.
Even so, she wouldn’t stand for being called a con artist any time someone saw the tips of her ears.
Levi didn’t respond, and they fell into another comfortable silence while Maggie worked. After a while, Maggie heard him start to snore.
Dang. She looked up from her work bench at him. If he can fall asleep on one of those couches, he really is exhausted.
She was tired, too, but she wasn’t sleepy. Noting that fatigue was setting in, though, she responded with more care, ensuring that she wouldn’t make any avoidable mistakes as she poured a set amount of the toxic slurry into four canisters, and then loaded those canisters into pressurized spray cans, each about three inches long and a little wider than her thumb.
Three for Levi, and one for herself. It wouldn’t kill one of those creatures in the tunnels, but it would fit on a keychain, and it would probably hold something back like that if she found herself in another desperate survival situation.
She wouldn’t be going around without a way to defend herself again.
Eventually, though, her work was done. She grabbed a cleansing crystal from the back room to complete Levi’s order, set it all out, and pulled a blanket from her closet to drape over him as well. No need to interrupt the rest he so clearly needed.
The conversation was still bouncing around in the back of her head. She hated the reputation that she got stuck with, and she hated that people like Mich were so willing to play into it. Putting other people’s lives and livelihoods at risk for a bit of profit wasn’t supposed to be something her people did.
Ensuring that Mich didn’t see any gains didn’t seem strong enough of a retribution, and the repayment for her truck wasn’t enough of a balm. She wanted to burn him, figuratively or literally.
She’d almost died. She’d looked death right in the eye, and been ready for it, and it had all been part of a cheap trick to steal a sword or two from her inventory.
That’s not how we do things, she thought, marching back to her forge. She slammed the door, then winced, opening it a crack and glancing back. Levi didn’t stir, so she shut the door again, walking up to the forge.
She couldn’t make a new blade in an evening, but it was possible she could do something small. The preparation of the steel took more time than anything, and she had a half ingot left over from another project. Whatever she made wouldn’t be attuned or blessed under a solstice moon, but that could wait. The monsters in the tunnels didn’t strike her as infernal, so the blessing would be of limited use.
Not enough for a sword, and she didn’t need a knife. Against those creatures, she wanted speed and power, but she also wanted reach, to keep those claws as far as possible from her skin. There was one weapon she had in mind that could work perfectly.
She fired up the forge and got to work.
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