"That's a hell of an arm you've got there." The man speaking was braver, or at least more desperate for conversation than the rest of the soldiers I was waiting with. I could hardly blame them, though. I was more disturbed than they were by far. After all, they only had to spend a few minutes near a man whose arm was a writhing, squirming, boneless grotesquerie that had to be practically tied in a knot and strapped down to avoid injuring someone. I was the one who had to spend the last two weeks without sleep unassisted by sedation, feeling betrayed by my own body. "Can I ask how you got it?"
"Cacostrophe exposure." I was in no mood to talk about it, at wouldn't be until the damned limb had been out of my sight for at least a month. I had been lucky it wasn't worse. The biomages had done their work fast, halting the advance of the mutagenic energy's effects, but not fast enough to save my arm from becoming what was practically a separate organism. They had tied it up and muzzled it to keep it from killing me or anyone after it bit the hand off a biomage. Afterward they had told me what I could do about it. A very kind sounding biomage had explained to me in terms a child could understand that I had the option of undergoing a year of antistrophic therapy, or I could get the limb amputated at a soulforge and replaced with an artificial limb and be back to my unit in less than a month. He had very condescendingly encouraged me to take the first option. After all, people with artificial limbs were freaks, the same as strophic mutants. I told him to shove it if he thought I was going to spend a year behind the lines teaching my arm to not eat my face while my friends died on the frontlines fighting hel-kin and necromorphs.
The other man winced sympathetically, but he didn't look so great himself. Neither did anyone else. We were all cripple, though I thought I took the crown, even above the poor bastard missing an eye and both legs. I might have been a little irritated that they all ostracized me, but I understood that. If I ran into myself on a regular day, the first thing I'd do would be to spin around and run away screaming. More important than any of that, all of us were here for the same reason: we refused to take the easy way out and let our mates down.
A forge attendant came out and called my name. He made an ostentatious show of making sure I could make it through the door myself, but I could tell he wanted to be as far away from the mutated freak as possible, as soon as possible.
The soulforge itself was like a cross between a factory and a hospital. Off to one side I could see an array of bottled blitzgeists, the mindless lightning spirits that were a favorite source of power for thaumaturges around the world. Most of the remaining space in the forge was taken up by thaumaturgical machinery and an operating table.
"So you're the freak of the week," the soulsmith said as he approached. He had an artificial leg and arm of his own. "Don't worry about it—we get people like you every day, and we always get them sorted out, same as everyone else."
"You're the first person I've met who hasn't scared shitless by it," I said, gesturing to my arm.
"Don't take it the wrong way, but that does scare me sideways," he said. "It's just that I see someone like you a couple times a week, and cacostrophic mutations never get old, but you learn to ignore them. Now, we're not quite ready to do you yet. Doc's got to finish sewing up the last guy before she can get up here. And they didn't tell us what kind of replacement you want, so you need to pick that out as well." He led me off to one side and showed me the options I had.
"You've got your old-fashioned stuff, like stone and clay, but those aren't too strong. I'd stay away from them. Thaumopolitan glass gives you something that's almost a strong as steel, but looks a little funny and saints help you if it does break—you'll have to cut off another limb to pay for the replacement. Really, I'd go with clockwork. It's the least trouble."
I shrugged. "If it means the least time away from the front, then that's what I'll do." The smith took a few measurements and moved off to tweak a clockwork limb lying on a work bench. It was a few more minutes before the forge's biomage finished with her previous patient and emerged to work on me. I ended up on the operating table, tied down and blacked out thanks to the biomage's painkilling thaumaturgy.
I woke up with a shoulder that hurt like hell, with the biomage and the soulsmith looking down on me.
"It's done," the biomage said. "Now we need to make sure it's working properly." I swung off the operating table and followed her to another room, full of exercise equipment, where she put me through a series of tests and exercises, probably to make sure my new arm didn't come off when I tried to pick something up. Half an hour of random tests and she was satisfied.
"Are we done here?" I said. The process was starting to get tedious.
"Yes. But you're not going anywhere for at least a day," she said. "I need to make sure the grafts are set properly."
The next day a steam-wagon showed up to cart me and the rest of the recovering cripples back to the front. The soulsmith intercepted me out front.
"Can I ask what unit you're from?" he said. "I'm just curious about where all my patients are from, and I didn't get a chance to ask yesterday."
"Second Grenadiers," I said. "You're a retired soldier yourself, aren't you?"
He nodded. "Twenty second dragoons." That made my eyes widen a bit. "Crippled and blinded at the battle of Saint's Ridge." He neglected to mention that he was one of the lucky ones. Saint's Ridge had nineteen survivors, the rest killed in unimaginably horrible ways by hel-kin thaumaturgy. "Take it from someone who knows. When you get back home, people are going to treat you differently. You're going to be a pariah. Fuck them."
"Thank you, sir." There wasn't much else to say. I started to climb up the back of the wagon when the soldier from yesterday offered me a hand.
"Your arm's looking a spot better," he said. The soldier who had been blind and legless before helped pull me up as well. "Now you've got to finish the fight."