Burning grass fills Saladin's nostrils like smelling salts. He stirs from the abyss into a new life, back pressed against a towering pine that smolders with heat. Saladin blinks blurriness from his eyes to see the crater on the cliff where his rocket struck. Good, he thinks, picking fragments of metal from his plate. Isirah sinks through the smoke just overhead and levitates in front of his face, Light still coursing through her frame.
"Welcome back. You lost," Isirah says, her voice smooth as verglas.
"It was a draw." Saladin stands and fumbles with a talisman hanging from his neck. He tucks the stamped iron insignia into the gorget of his armor. "They're dead, aren't they?"
"There are a million raiders and one of you," Isirah snaps. She drifts into his eyeline. "A draw is a loss. We need to do better than that."
"We?" Saladin narrows his eyes and yanks his stuck axe from the scorched trunk and slings it.
"Fix what you break." Isirah had imparted this lesson many times. "You should have opened fire on the road without hesitation. I warned you they were bait."
"How long are you going to rest your laurels on that prediction?" Saladin groans.
Isirah's shell tightens like a coiling viper. "Do you have a plan from here?"
"Continue sweeping east. The broadcast code might have been Golden Age, but the signal was weak when we caught it. Can't be far, and our patrol can wait until we clear this up."
"Fine observation. I agree," the Ghost says curtly, floating off ahead.
Saladin looks to the burning pine and uncuffs his gauntlet. Strands of ruddy leather stick beneath his nails as he removes the glove and presses his hand to bark. This tree had likely stood for centuries, roots deep in the soil, branches carving territory into the greater forest. So it was for many other trees. They all had their space—a crown shyness shared by old things. One born in this forest might assume this tree had always been.
He feels the warmth radiating from the roasting heartwood above; Light still crackles in the ember-split wood. His Light. Left alone, it would destroy this old pine, consume it from the inside out. Saladin anchors the Light to his core and commands it to return, dousing the burn. The tree will heal, and today's wound will fade. This gouge marks a point of struggle surpassed, and given enough time, will fade into familiarity.
"Someone is coming," Isirah reports in a quiet voice.
"Are they armed?" Saladin whispers, hand slowly drifting to the haft of his slung axe.
Before Isirah can answer, a thin man in coarse linen fumbles into view. Terror paints his face as his eyes fall on Saladin.
"I—I have no weapon," the man says with a thick local accent. He eyes Saladin's equipment. "You… are Iron Lord?" Awe washes over the man's face.
Isirah zips between him and Saladin. "Did you not hear the explosions? What do they teach you people out here?"
"Many stray dogs fight here." The man's gaze drops to the ground. "Sometimes scraps are left after. Weapons—"
"Like a buzzard," Saladin accuses.
"No!" The man throws his hands in the air. "Others steal from village. We find weapons to fight back."
"I see." Saladin nods.
"Do you or your people have a radio?" Isirah asks.
The man lets out a curt laugh before realizing the Ghost is serious. "Oh. Uh, no?"
"Then this is a waste of our time," Isirah whispers to Saladin.
The man steps forward. "Please, wait, find mercy in your heart." He braces a hand on his thigh and takes a slow knee. "Iron Lords protect people. You kill monsters." His eyes dart between man and Ghost. "You want payment?"
Saladin sighs. "We're not mercenaries."
"Food, then? Better than what can be foraged here," he says, offering a blackened crust of bread from a twine rucksack. "Cleaned armor and clothes? Blankets, clean water, and… and good company by warm fire." The man nods eagerly.
Saladin turns the meager portion of stale bread in his hand. Between winter and latent radiation, reliable food is scarce here, making thievery into a grave offense. He knows the man is lying about their resources, but only out of desperation. The kind that sends you running toward explosions. "What is your name?"
"Ah! Kepre. I am Kepre."
"You said you were being stolen from, Kepre?"
"More than can be replaced. Last thieves came, the village lost Elmi," Kepre says, holding back tears. "We will starve if thieves are not stopped."
The man leads them down a lightly trafficked footpath marked by hand-driven stakes bearing illegibly worn highway signs. Southeast, until the trees thin and the smell of mudded livestock and wheat overtakes the pine. Isirah and Saladin hang several steps behind Kepre on approach to a small and lightly fenced swine enclosure with a pathway bisecting it. Saladin notes the fence itself serves more to stop the three pigs from wandering off than to keep anything out. He quickly surveys a handful of rusty corrugated metal dwellings that wind out from the swine run and encircle a better maintained storage structure and longhouse. Beside the longhouse lies a humble stable for a goat that chews at Saladin's sleeves when he passes by.
The handful of families living here stand and stare as Saladin sloshes through the muddy entrance, Isirah floating close behind. Kepre heralds the duo as saviors. The words feel coarse in Saladin's ears, but he graciously shakes the people's hands and takes their stories as evidence toward finding their thieves. There's a prideful nature to their expressions, and the meager gifts they offer. The kind that comes from starting with nothing and arriving at something. Saladin couldn't help but smile at their perseverance.
"They took Elmi from pen," Kepre says. "Scared our goat. My son and I chased them, but they made off with her, along with half the dried meat stores." He wrings his hands.
"Elmi is a pig," Saladin says flatly.
Kepre nods, teary-eyed. "Only girl hog. Without her… without her, we starve."
Isirah flitters close to Saladin as she emits a wide sweeping scan from her shell. "Forge, I doubt they're aware, but that Golden Age transmission is receiving a signal from the longhouse."