Though Pinkie Pie didn't receive much feedback on Zelda Universe about her first novel, Drow, she finished it, and has begun work on her second, which she has tentatively titled Terra.
Without further ado:
When the scrawny man struggled, Elina Gray socked him in the jaw. His head twisted about before his body fell face first against the snow-covered road, blood oozing from his mouth where teeth had been shoved out of place. The crimson staining the snow beneath his face matched the hazy red of the sky above.
These were the Northlands, and the Northlands were cold.
Elina rifled through the man’s possessions, reaching first for his pockets, where she found six coins; two black, four silver, each engraved with the face of a stout man.
She was thin, small for a thief, and kept her face covered, revealing only the brown of her eyes. Outside of the many bundles of clothing the man wore to keep the cold out, he carried a leather satchel, too finely crafted for a courier of smugglers. Its surface was smooth to the touch, and far more flexible than other leather.
She undid the button and flipped open the satchel.
Inside, she found a book, larger in size than her head and hundreds of pages deep. The cover was glossy, but hard in form. Across the front was a picture of unnatural quality, of a blue and green sphere that looked to have been taken from the stars above. Though Elina did not recognize the language, she found pictures inside, of people and places she did not recognize, where buildings reached up to touch the sky.
She flipped ahead several pages.
A picture without color of a great cloud in the shape of a mushroom emerging from a landscape devoid of life.
Elina slammed the book shut.
A note slipped from its pages, a bit of stained parchment with a few words of thin black writing. Elina retrieved it and shoved it in one of her pockets, paying no heed to its condition.
She stared at the cover for many moments before moving it under her right arm.
As she moved again to the man, she bumped the satchel. Inside it, something jostled about the bag’s leather sides. A second time, Elina reached inside, finding an object of lesser weight and size: a translucent purple cube, no larger than the palm of her hand. Though the sun was muffled by clouds, the cube seemed to glow with a light all its own.
Elina held it up to the light and looked through the center, but there seemed nothing else remarkable about it. Even so, she shoved it into her pocket opposite the coins. After checking the breathing of the slimmer man, she stood, dusted away the snow building up on her shoulders, and moved in the opposite direction from before, down the road she’d pursued the first man along.
The city of Haven lay three miles to the east, but in the cold, the journey seemed longer. It was a messy place, its buildings protruding out in all directions, inconsistent in quality. A river ran straight through the city square, though it was frozen for the winter.
Before the duo of guard towers, Elina stopped. Many feet in the air, atop the first tower, a man armored by chainmail and fur, nodded and waved to her. Elina returned the gesture and continued forward, moving down a street that turned to stone as it entered the city.
Within the city limits, the streets grew narrow and populated. Crowds bustled about shops and stalls, and navigation was made more difficult by peddlers weaving about the crowds, lifting their arms in the air and shouting as they displayed and advertised their goods. But above all the noise came the smells. Though there were many, two stood out above all: the stench of leather left out to dry, and the scent of pastries wafting through the alleyways.
Even busy as she was, Elina stopped to absorb the smells. Beneath the grand layer of fabrics she wore to cover and warm her face, she smiled. The scents were so strong that they could almost be tasted. After a moment’s consideration, Elina’s direction changed. She followed the smell, guided through the city by a familiarity with its layout.
She found it further in, shoved away in a cul-de-sac alongside a blacksmith. Its exterior was humble; a ramshackle building one story in size, constructed from stone that only seemed half-finished in make. Atop the entrance, a worn sign that marked it as a bakery. Even in winter, the front door had been propped open, allowing the heat and scents to escape.
Inside, there was scarcely enough room for the customers to stand. Near the front was a wooden counter and a single stool. Atop the counter sat close to a dozen desserts, from tarts to pies to cakes. Behind the counter stood a larger, flustered woman, whose face was covered in sweat. At Elina’s entrance, she still managed to smile, and leaned forward against the counter, where she seemed to relax.
Elina took a moment to unwrap her face, for the heat of the kitchen was enough to make her sweat. From beneath the endless fabric emerged a thick head of long blonde hair, messy from having been laid down and shuffled about for so long.
“Afternoon,” the woman behind the counter said, though she stopped to fan herself with one hand. “Sorry, it’s a busy day.” She looked to Elina again. “Do you know what you want? Sorry, I don’t recognize your face.”
With a gloved hand, Elina pointed to a slice of cherry pie collapsing onto a wooden plate atop the counter.
“All right. You’ll have to wait.”
Elina shook her head and took the slice sitting on the counter.
The woman’s brow furrowed. “Really? I can bake one fresh in a minute.”
Elina shook her head a second time and set the pie down so she could reach into her pocket and extract the two black coins she’d collected earlier. With some force, she set them on the counter and took the pie.
“You don’t talk?” the woman behind the counter said, taking the coins and holding them up to her eye, examining each side of both.
Elina shook her head.
“Well, fine.” She paid less attention to Elina after that moment, and said nothing else.
Elina left the baker, dipping her head down to bit off the top of the pie as she moved down the steps in front of the shop. It left her face sticky in places, but the taste more than made up for it. She devoured the pie quickly enough and wiped away what flecks she could from the area around her mouth, and dropped the plate on the ground as she moved back among the crowd.
Her attentions then turned to the book, which weighed down her right arm.
Elina moved further into the city. The buildings grew in scale and stature as she went, and the streets grew less and less crowded. She moved past manors and yards, where the grass seemed green perpetually, until she came upon her goal: a more subdued house built from white stone with no lines separating individual blocks. It possessed grounds small in size, large enough for a pleasure walk, that separated it from the street. Around the manor’s perimeter was a fence, culminating in a gate at the front manned by two female soldiers, their sex was identifiable only by the curves of their waists.
Through the thin eye slits in their full helmets, the women evaluated Elina. At last, one said, “What’s your business with the Councilman?”
Elina pointed into her mouth.
The first guard stared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The second guard remove her hand from the hilt of her blade. “Wait. Are you the mute?”
To the first, the second guard said, “This is the one Councilman Galion was expecting.”
Though the first guard seemed to accept the answer, she pointed to the book carried beneath Elina’s arm. “What are you bringing with you?”
The second guard stepped forward and placed a hand on the shoulder of the first. “Councilman Galion ordered us to her allow her entry regardless of what she brought.”
“It’s our job to protect the Councilman. He can tolerate some caution.” Though the guard did not draw her sword, she reached a hand out to Elina and said, “Let me see what you have under your arm.”
Elina did not respond.
“Give it here.”
Slowly, Elina removed the book from under her arm and handed it to the guard, who paid little attention to the words and pictures, instead flipping through its many pages without a thought. She handed it back to Elina a moment later, seemingly satisfied that it contained no danger. “Councilor Malion is in the rear garden. I will take you to him.”
The other guard nodded and pushed open the metal gate, offering an opening just large enough for the first guard to slip through, followed by Elina. “Be safe, Elina Gray,” the firs guard said as Elina passed her by. The tone contained no ill will.
The second Elina passed onto the grounds, green even into winter, the temperature rose. Beneath the many layers of fabric she wore, she began to sweat. Even so, she did not shed them. Under her right arm, she held the book closer, as if afraid she might lose it. Ahead of her, the guard gestured for them to move on, past great rows of shrubbery that stood nearly ten feet tall, to a side passage along the manor that might easily have been overlooked from the outside.
It was a narrow passage, granting limited clearance between the stone of the manor and the cold metal of the fence still touched by winter. Passing through it, the warmth disappeared, and Elina could once again see her breath drift through the air. Soon enough, however, they passed through the barrier of cold and emerged again into warmth.
Ahead of them as a garden of a great number of colorful flowers clustered together by type, none of which should have lived through the colder season. One incomplete area of dirt was being tended to by a tanned young man dressed in dark clothes, who slaved over soil and seeds with a trowel in one hand, dirt beneath his fingernails.
Overseeing his progress was a man dressed most impractically. He was little older than Elina, closer in age to twenty-five, but had developed a full red beard, contrasting his dark brown hair. Even moving among a garden, he wore a great robe that dragged nearly a foot behind him, masking his feet as he walked. It was covered in many places with jewels of varying values, all of which reflected light into Elina’s eyes.
Though the man’s expression did not change much when he saw Elina, he moved away from the gardener, and slipped his hands behind his back.
“Elina Gray, to see you, as you commanded, Councilman Malion,” the guard said, removing her helmet, and falling to her knee as she approached the Councilman, revealing a woman close to the age of forty, her skin tough as leather.
With a wave of his hand, he bade for her to rise.
The guard did, and took her leave, retracing her steps back around the side of the manor.
“You’re back early,” the Councilman said. Though he tone revealed little emotion, it could not mask a hint of relief. “Your tracking went well I assume?” He bent over for a better look at the book Elina carried under her arm. “Have you brought something else?”
Elina offered him the book.
Councilman Malion took it, running a hand across the cover’s glossy surface as he examined it. Resting the spine against the palm of his right hand, he flipped through the pages, occasionally stopping to examine a picture, or a bit of text. “I do not recognize the language,” he said at last, though he continued to hold the book before him, as if unsure what else to do with it. “I’ll commission a linguist to compare it to known dialects.”
He moved the book beneath his arm as Elina had.
“Did he carry anything else on him?”
Elina reached into her pocket. Though her fingers wrapped around the translucent purple cube for a moment, she tucked it further into her pocket and chose not to remove it, withdrawing instead the crumpled parchment. She spent a moment smoothing it, only to give up when the task proved impossible.
Councilman Malion accepted the parchment, though he squinted to read the lettering across the uneven surface, mouthing the words at times. “This does not tell me who has been rerouting our medicine shipments,” he said. But after a pause: “However, you have fulfilled your end of the bargain, and I am a man of my word.”
Councilman Malion paused a second time.
“The man carried nothing else with him?”
Elina shook her head.
“Unfortunate.” He yawned. “Forgive me. The Council of the North has made this a priority, but the responsibility of rooting out the culprits has fallen to me. My nights lately have been long.” Councilman Malion looked over the note a second time. “The lieutenant by name of Aria will have your payment at the gate. You will have met her already.”
Councilman Malion bowed to her, though the gesture was slight. “Good day, Elina Gray. I will inquire about your services later, if something should arise.”
Elina met the bow with one of her own, though she bowed her head as she did so, before turning to leave. When the Councilman did not object to the action, she moved across the grounds unimpeded and unescorted, passing alongside the iron fence a second time, shivering as the cold air passed across her face. At the front gate, the guard Malion had identified as Aria waited with a small black bag held shut by a thin drawstring.
As Elina neared, the bag was tossed to her. She snatched it from the air as if operating on instinct.
The guard named Aria nodded to Elina, though her helmet masked her thoughts.
The moment Elina set foot outside the grounds, the cold bit as her skin. She wrapped her face again to protect against it, but by then, she’d lost the sensation of warmth in her cheeks, and her eyes stung from the bitter wind. Even the warmth of the city could not dissipate the pain of winter.
Elina reached inside her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the cube. Even through the fabric of her gloves, it was warm to the touch. She drew it from her pocket when she’d distanced herself from Councilman Malion’s estate, and rotated it, examining the cube’s every side. She tapped it several times, though it caused no change.
Her curiosity sated for the moment, Elina sought out a tavern.
* * *
The Moon’s Maiden was a building of three stories built as the dividing marker between the lower and of the city and the higher, and saw business from both as a result. Though its furnishings bore the mark of someone living well, from lavish sofas, to tables, to chairs, much of the crowd gathered within bore more in common with the less civilized, filling the hall with countless songs, each sung with a drunken slur.
Inside, Elina moved to the counter, gliding through the crowds of patrons, till she could rest both her hands on the counter, at last meeting the barkeep who stood on the other side, wiping mugs and shouting commands to a younger man who served the ale. The barkeep was an older man, clean sHaven around his face, but balding on his head, where only a few patches of black hair remained as proof of his youth.
Elina tapped the counter with her left index finger.
Though the noise was slight, the barkeep looked up from his task and smiled. “Elina Gray! It’s been awhile!”
Elina slid onto the last free stood and rested her feet against one of its stabilizing bars.
The barkeep disappeared behind his counter for a moment, returning with a mug of flat red liquid—a Cherry Popper. The alcohol content was small enough that t was near impossible to become intoxicated by it; so much of the flavor came from the aftertaste of cherries that accompanied the drink. Elina took the mug and downed half the drink, gasping as she came back up for air.
From her own collection of coins, she drew two of the black and placed them atop the counter, where the barkeep took them a moment later.
Elina tapped her right index finger against the counter.
The barkeep paused in his cleanings. “Cora? I think she’s in the back room. Ever since the incident last month, she hasn’t been one to do her business in public.” In a gesture subtler than the others, the barkeep reached beneath his counter, pulled a key as if from nowhere, and slide it across to Elina. In a hushed tone of voice, he said, “You can access the door from beneath the stairwell. Try not to let anyone else have the key.”
Elina smiled, and finished the rest of her drink before standing up and moving through the crowd, passing by the hearth as she made her way to the stairwell, hiding the key against the palm of her left hand. As the barkeep said, there was a locked door beneath the stairs, though its outline as so slight it would have been impossible to identify from a distance. On the right of the door, Elina found a keyhole.
She stood still for a moment and breathed deep.
Elina pulled open the door and slipped inside, her disappearance visible for only a moment, causing no stir in the crowds outside.
She found herself in a small stone room. There were no windows, and the room was illuminated only by three candles, two of which were attached to walls, one of which sat on a table, casting orange light over the gaunt woman who sat there. The woman—Cora leapt from her chair as Elina entered, her hand moving to her waist, where the hilt of a sword became visible in the light.
“Elina?” She let the blade slide back into its scabbard. In the light, Cora sighed and began to laugh. “You scared me for a moment, girl. I don’t get many visitors nowadays.
Elina moved closer and nodded.
Cora was many years her senior, and strands of premature gray hair grew from her head, but her face still held the spark of youth, and her face was yet free of most signs of aging. She again sat down at the table and propped her elbows against the wooden surface, resting her head atop her hands. “What brings you tome today?”
Elina sat down in the chair opposite of Cora and reached into her pocked, drawing the translucent purple cube. She placed it on the table and slid it to the other woman.
Cora grasped the cube between her thumb and index finger, holding it up to the candle light. “Interesting,” she said, though the tone of the word was soft, and it seemed only for her own benefit. “You found this while working with Malion?”
Elina nodded. In the candle light, her eyes were invisible, replaced by great patches of black.
“Huh.” From her coat, the woman drew a narrow blade, only a few inches in length, and poked at the surface of the cube. No matter the amount of pressure she applied, the blade would not cut into the purple material. Rather than frustrate her, however, Cora grew intrigued. Her face twisted up in concentration as she again held the cube up to the light. “This blade was imbued with corrosive acid,” she said. “It’s never not been able to cut through something.”
Cora slid the cube back across the table to Elina, who seemed hesitant to accept it.
“I can’t buy it from you, Elina. Sorry. You’re better off holding onto it until you can identify what it’s made of—or what it is. If I don’t know either of those things, I can’t resell it.”
Though Elina nodded, there was a grim expression behind it.
“However, I can provide you with work, if you’re willing. Your work with Malion went well enough that I’ve more work available.”
Again, Elina nodded.
Cora smiled. “Good. The other four members of the Council of the North have ordered for a shipment of weapons to be sent to the south to help repel the attacks by the Uncivilized. We’ve agreed to see them safe passage, if one of our own is allowed to make the trip with them—and compensated for doing so.”
From beneath the table, Cora pulled a sheet of parchment, before standing and moving to the opposite side of the room to retrieve an inkwell pen. She returned to her seat at the table and scratched out the written details of the job before rolling the parchment up and handing it to Elina. “Be in Croften six days from now. Bring a bow.”
Opposite of her, Cora did the same. She reached a hand out to Elina and said, “It was good to see you again.”
Elina took the hand and shook it.
Elina left the same way she’d entered, exiting into a raucous tavern of folks who didn’t notice as she emerged from a blank section of wall. As she left The Moon’s Maiden, she nodded to the barkeep on her way out, who looked up just in time to see and return the gesture.
When the scrawny man struggled, Elina Gray socked him in the jaw. His head twisted about before his body fell face first against the snow-covered road, blood oozing from his mouth where teeth had been shoved out of place. The crimson staining the snow beneath his face matched the hazy red of the sky above.
These were the Northlands, and the Northlands were cold. Hm, I'm not sure I like this, especially what comes after 'and.' It just seems forced compared to the preceding and succeeding paragraphs. I don't object to 'These were the Northlands.' because it helps convey that this is a deadly place in a powerful way, but everything after that just lessens the power of it. Find some way to include that the Northlands were cold while Elina's in there.
Elina rifled through the man’s possessions, reaching first for his pockets, where she found six coins; two black, four silver, each engraved with the face of a stout man.
She was thin, small for a thief, and kept her face covered, revealing only the brown of her eyes. Let the reader come to the conclusion that she's a thief by themselves. Outside of the many bundles of clothing the man wore to keep the cold out, he carried a leather satchel, too finely crafted for a courier of smugglers. Its surface was smooth to the touch, and far more flexible than other leather.
A note slipped from its pages, a bit of stained parchment with a few words of thin black writing. How is a note slipping if she just slammed it shut? Elina retrieved it and shoved it in one of her pockets, paying no heed to its condition.
The city of Haven lay three miles to the east, but in the cold, the journey seemed longer. It was a messy place, its buildings protruding out in all directions, inconsistent in quality. Hm, can't you describe this as Elina's walking through it. A river ran straight through the city square, though it was frozen for the winter.
Slowly, Elina removed the book from under her arm and handed it to the guard, who paid little attention to the words and pictures, instead flipping through its many pages without a thought. She handed it back to Elina a moment later, seemingly satisfied that it contained no danger. “Councilor Malion (Galion?) is in the rear garden. I will take you to him.”
The other guard nodded and pushed open the metal gate, offering an opening just large enough for the first guard to slip through, followed by Elina. “Be safe, Elina Gray,” the first guard said as Elina passed her by, his tone containing no ill will.
“Elina Gray, to see you, as you commanded, Councilman Malion (?),” the guard said, removing her helmet, and falling to her knee as she approached the Councilman, revealing a woman close to the age of forty, her skin tough as leather.
Inside, Elina moved to the counter, gliding through the crowds of patrons, till she could rest both her hands on the counter, at last meeting the barkeep who stood on the other side, wiping mugs and shouting commands to a younger man who served the ale. The barkeep was an older man, clean shaven around his face, but balding on his head, where only a few patches of black hair remained as proof of his youth.
She stood still for a moment and breathed deep. Is there a better way to describe this?
Elina pulled open the door and slipped inside, her disappearance visible for only a moment, causing no stir in the crowds outside.
She found herself in a small stone room. There were no windows, and the room was illuminated only by three candles, two of which were attached to walls, one of which sat on a table, casting orange light over the gaunt woman who sat there. The woman—Cora— (It should be included again as it's an interjection) leapt from her chair as Elina entered, her hand moving to her waist, where the hilt of a sword became visible in the light.
Well, overall, I enjoyed it. Your narrative is interesting, and it's certainly a fascinating choice on your part not to include any feelings the main character, instead opting to describe the Elina in relation to the external world. There are/were some minor spelling errors, so go back and fix those. Malion is named Galion the first two times he's mentioned. Some of the description can be awkward to read at times; I would reread the piece, look for this in mind, and rewrite the description that seems forced accordingly.
As advised, Elina Gray brought a bow with her to Croften—a wooden short bowed she’d carved and honed some years before. Along with it, she carried with her a quiver of two dozen steel tipped arrows, coated in fast acting poison that would shut down all primary bodily functions for two hours, rendering the target helpless. Such arrows were not a thing Elina had used before, but she brought them with the intention of testing the nature of the poison.
In her pocket, she continued to carry the translucent purple cube, occasionally reaching in to wrap her fingers around it, for the warmth it gave off was significant.
Croften, though often referred to as a town, was a collection foundries and smithies located over interweaving tunnels of ore, built with the production of cold weapons in mind. In the Northlands, they were the single largest manufacturer of weapons and armor in the region, and no one had yet risen up to compete with them.
Elina’s journey to the settlement had been a brief one. She’d begun the day after the meeting with Cora, and traveled slowly, for Croften was a mere three days from Haven.
The temperature was no more merciful in the mining town than it was in Haven.
Upon entering Croften, she passed a large inn with permanent residences for the workers, and a spare four rooms for travelers. Leaning against the frame of the door was a man as young man who appeared no older than herself. Though the winter wind bit as flesh, he stood with his face uncovered, revealing a clean-shaven face, a mat of blonde hair, and ears that turned red in the cold. Strapped to his belt was a long-sword, its pommel worn, buts its condition strong.
As Elina passed, the man looked up, down, and up again. He pushed himself off the wall and approached her. “You’re the mute? We received word that the guild ‘o thieves would be sending one of their own,” he said, the tone of his voice unrecognizable. For a moment, he sized her up. At last, his eyes lingered on the layers of fabric covering Elina’s face. “What’s the matter? Not used to the cold?”
At that, Elina tugged at the end of the fabric around her face and let it fall to her neck, revealing her the blonde of her hair and her fair complexion.
The man smiled. “It wasn’t a challenge, but okay. You’re Elina Gray, right? Richard.”
Elina offered a hand, but Richard did not take it.
His eyes lingered on her face. “Are you one of those mutes by choice, or did someone pour liquid iron down your throat?”
To both questions, Elina did not respond. Her gaze was neutral, but she remained tense.
“Fine. Stupid question, I guess.” He pointed over his shoulder. “The other three are inside, by the way. We’ve been waiting almost eight hours for the forge-master to finish… whatever. They don’t even have the courtesy to keep us updated. You want something to drink?”
To that, Elina did nod.
“Good. There’s only one other woman in the group and she’d cold as the ice. They’ll be glad for the extra company.” Though he turned and began to push the heavy wood front door open, Richard hesitated. “…bad choice of words. Sorry.” After those words, he pushed the door open and stepped inside, allowing for a rush of heat to escape into the outside world.
He held the door for Elina, a gesture for which she thanked him by nodding.
The inn’s interior was not a welcoming site. Though it bore all the necessities of a building open to travelers, the furnishings were minimal, offering a single table for visitors to sit, scarcely large enough for six people. On the far opposite side of the room, a heavyset woman paced behind the counter, paying no attention to the two who entered her inn.
In the middle of the room, a hearth roaring in the midst of winter.
At the table scarcely large enough for six sat four, three on one side, one on the other. The one was the woman mentioned by Richard, her expression a perpetual frown. As Richard was, she was no older than Elina, but her skin had a tougher look to it. Her brown hair fell loosely around her neck, cut so that it did not quite reach her shoulders.
On the opposite side of the table sat two men, one of whom kept his face covered, revealing none of his true features. The second was an older man, whose face was covered by a brown beard tinged in places with white. In spite of his age, he seemed no less capable, and was taller and broader in the shoulders than his companions.
At Elina’s entrance, he stood.
To the gesture, Elina nodded.
Richard stepped ahead of Elina and held his arms out as if to display her. “Elina Gray, the final member of our party.”
The woman at the table wrapped her fingers around her mug and lifted it, but said nothing. As she did, the sleeves of her clothes fell back, revealing lines of jagged metal that existed deep below her flesh, stretching out to the tips of her fingers. It was a trait Elina saw for only a moment, for the woman was quick enough to hide them.
During the silent exchange, the large bearded man did not sit down. He puffed out his chest and stepped over the bench of the table, moving over to Elina, to whom he offered his hand. “Lady Gray,” he said, but said no more, returning a moment later to his place at the table. He crossed his arms over his chest, then said, as an afterthought, “I am Sir Daren… the Bear.” The final word slipped from his lips only after Daren scowled at it.
At that, Richard whispered, “It’s our nickname for him.”
That earned him a glare from Sir Daren, who said nothing, but made his malice clear in his gaze.
The woman with the metal in her arm continued to hide behind her mug, while the man whose face remained cover sat in silence.
“The pretty thing is Alice,” said Richard, making a sweeping gesture towards the woman at the table, whose eyes flickered towards the man for a moment, before choosing to ignore him. At the silence, Richard seemed almost disappointed.
With less bravado, he gestured to the man whose face remained covered in wraps not unlike those Elina wore in the cold. “We call this one Lake, because he won’t tell us his name, and the bottom of a lake is where we found him. He’s taken to it well enough.”
Lake nodded once to Elina, who returned the gesture.
The introductions ended, Richard clapped his hands together and brought them in front of his face, though his gaze turned serious. “Now then, Elina Gray: were you told the details of this assignment.”
Though it followed hesitation, Elina shook her head, albeit slowly.
“The border into the Wastelands is breaking down, and the Council of the North has ordered a battalion of nine hundred soldiers be sent to reinforce the border and drive the Uncivilized back into their holes. These soldiers are being called up from the draft on short notice, so they haven’t been properly armed.”
At the incredulous look on Elina’s face, Richard shrugged.
“It’s stupid, I agree, but we’re being paid good money to reinforce the transport that’s meeting up with them twenty miles south of here. For that, I don’t question the nonsense.” He began to pace, enunciating words with him hands as he went. “The problem is that we’re behind schedule now. They’ve delayed weapons shipment for almost eight hours now, and we haven’t heard word of when they’ll be preparing for transport.”
“They are stalling for something,” Daren the Lion said, choosing that moment to stand.
Alice was casual in her objection, crossing one arm over her lap, while cupping her chin with the hand of the other. Across her face, a smirk. “Or perhaps they’re just incompetent. The Tales know it’s a trait so many people around here share.”
As Alice spoke, Richard smiled, despite the words. “That is a possibility, but the forge-master knows we’re on a tight schedule. If they don’t move the shipment out within the day, we won’t be able to meet up with the Northern battalion in time. And even if you’re right, who do you think is going to see part of that treason slapped on their heads?”
Elina lifted on eyebrow.
“And before you say it,” Richard said, “yes, we’ve tried everything to get this moving. The problem is we’re being shut out of the process.”
“She can’t say anything,” came Alice’s interception. “She’s a mute.”
“Figuratively. She gets that same look in her eyes that you do.” He turned again to Elina, ignoring the furtive gaze Alice directed at him. “I suggest you have a drink, because we may be here for a while before anything gets moving.”
Though Richard turned away, he turned back to Elina again to say, “By the way, who sent you?”
Elina said nothing.
“Right. Forget I asked.” And before Alice could say a thing, Richard whirled around and pointed to her. “I know. Mute. It’s just odd working alongside someone who doesn’t talk.”
Again, he turned to Elina. “But you do understand everything we say, right?”
“Okay, good.” At that, he sighed, looked to the ground, and said, “Look, do you want a drink? I’ll buy, and the beer is crap anyhow, so you may just want something to cool your tongue.”
Daren the Lion was moving about the room, his arms crossed. He furrowed his brow as his blue eyes turned contemplative. He moved about the perimeter of the room, his steps slow and long. A moment later, he leaned against the wall, scratching at the base of his chin as he did so.
The darkness of the room seemed deeper just then, though diluted red light continued to stream in through the cracks in the shutters over the windows.
“Blasted winter,” Richard said under his breath. “I’m tired of this season already. Bring on the spring.”
Elina walked to the counter behind which the heavyset woman stood, though her presence there seemed only a courtesy to the party of five.
The woman behind the counter looked up from her cleaning of mugs, none of which seemed dirty in the first place, and said, “Beer?”
From across the room came Richard’s shout of, “Give her milk, Mora! We all know the beer is crap.”
The woman behind the counter ignored him disappeared into the back for several minutes, returning with a wooden mug full of a murky white liquid, a crude chunk of ice floating in the middle. She pushed it across the counter to Elina, forgetting it a moment later as she returned to her cleaning.
Elina sipped at the milk. Though it was watered down, in part by the ice melting rapidly into the liquid, the taste was strong, and Elina continued to drink, returning to the table at which the others sat.
Almost at once, Daren the Lion looked up from his thoughts, and said, “Lady Gray?”
Elina pulled away from her drink and nodded to the knight.
“You carry a bow with you in winter. How skilled are you with it?”
Elina could offer him only the sternness of her gaze.
After considering her for many moments, Darn the lion said, his voice resigned, “That is good. We have need of someone who can quell targets from a distance.”
At that, Elina sipped again at her milk.
Richard drew three black coins from his pockets, and seemed for a moment to consider throwing them, before reconsidering and walking over to place them on the counter. The woman behind the counter did not take them immediately, and turned to face him with a slow, grim expression on her face. Even so, Richard offered her a smile and a nod.
The woman disappeared into the back.
Elina’s eyes moved again to Alice’s wrists. Though the other woman made an attempt to cover them, the jagged metal lines ran up into the tips of her fingers, visible to them all. When the silence grew long, Alice stood, and left the inn without a word, slamming the front door shut behind her.
Elina said nothing, but her eyes flittered to the others, and remained on the one who covered his face.
For a moment, he met her gaze.
Richard coughed and smiled again, though expression seemed somehow weary. “Don’t mind Alice,” he said. “She… gets like this.”
Elina leaned against the counter and placed her mug atop it, crossing her arms over her chest. To Richard, she held up one of her hands, running its opposite along her wrist and upper arm.
“The lines on her arms?” He opened his mouth, only to change his words before he could speak them. “That’s her thing. I’d rather not say if she’s not ready to.”
Opposite of Elina, Daren the Lion continued to pace. He kept his arms across his chest while a great steel sword dangled from his waist, quivering as he walked. The expression on his face was one of unease, and his brow remained furrowed in discomfort. He looked to the door more than once, then to Richard, then to Elina, before he said, “I am tired of this waiting.”
Richard’s response caught in his throat as Lake rose from his place at the table. But standing, he remained behind the bench, his hands taught at his sides.
Recovering his voice, Richard said, “A-As am I.”
“Then I will do something about it.” He moved to the inn’s exit with newfound resolve, a hand moved to his sword. It lingered for a second before he realized himself, and drew his hand back to his side. “Lady Gray,” he said without facing her.
Elina did not wait to hear the rest of the request. She pushed herself away from the counter and followed. Behind her, she left Richard, whose voice abandoned him a second time.
Elina walked alongside Daren the Lion, who trudged so easily into the cold that it might have been a summer day. She followed him without knowing where he intended to go, but the knight seemed not to mind. They traveled further down the road into Croften, past a dozen smiths working their craft, warmed by the flames of their forges, producing weapons en masse.
Buried half deep in snow was a small metal building, the uneven upper half of a sphere built into the ground, windowless, and lacking any sort of obvious ventilation. Only the door seemed to have any thought put into it; a reinforced metal slab with a slat near the top, through which someone might observe outsiders.
But as they neared, Daren the Lion stopped, his left foot still lifted into the air as if he meant to continue walking. “I must ask,” he said, the tone of his voice dark. “Do you remain silent to spy on us, or are you truly deprived of speech?”
Elina opened her mouth and pointed down her throat.
He considered her. “I suppose I am not in a position to disagree.”
It began to snow just then. Flakes of white built up atop Elina’s hair, as they did in the knight’s.
Still, the pair did not continue on. Daren placed his hands at his waist and looked over Elina’s head. “You carry something in your pocket—a cube. May I see it?”
Elina narrowed her eyes.
“…the shape is more evident than you think. I mean no harm.”
Slowly, Elina reached into her pocket and withdrew the translucent purple cube, though her eyes never left the knight. Though he reached for it, Elina did not give it to him, holding to it with her fingers, but allowing Daren the Lion a view of its surface.
He said nothing, but his eyes grew wide with awe.
A moment later, the knight regained his composure. “Thank you, Lady Gray.” He cleared his throat, and they continued on.
Elina placed a hand on his arm to hold him back, and offered up the cube a second time.
“I do not know what it is, Lady Gray. I apologize.” Again, Daren the Lion pulled away, to which Elina offered no resistance. She was left standing in the snow before she moved to catch up with him. She was at his side again just as the knight beat on the thick metal door with his fist.
From inside, there was a scratching, heard even through the thick of the metal walls.
The slat on the door’s upper half slid open, only to close a second later.
After a creek, the door opened, revealing a balding man far older than the knight, whose wrinkles were apparent and whose body seemed in a state of entropy. He wore a smith’s apron, and held a hammer in his right hand. To the knight, he offered a gaze of irritated familiarity. When he turned to Elina—hesitation. His gaze softened for a moment.
He turned to Darn the Lion and said, “I’ve told your boy the shipment’s been delayed.”
The knight stood more than a head taller than the forge-master. “It cannot be delayed. The Uncivilized will be at our ankles.”
The forge-master narrowed his beady eyes, and, slowly, said, “They will cope.”
“Then we will take whatever arms you’ve forged and deliver them to the southern border.”
“You do not have the authority to order me. Your child already tried.”
For but a moment, anger flashed across the face of Daren the Lion. He grabbed the forge-master by the collar of his shirt and lifted him from the ground and threw him into the snow outside. The knight then drew his sword and placed its tip against the forge-master’s throat, pressing hard enough that the man’s aged flesh leaked blood.
“I am tired of this,” said Daren the Lion. “And I am tired of you. Richard does not have the strength to end your life, but I do.” He cast his sword aside and lifted the smaller man by his leg, dangling his head above the ground. “You will order the shipment out or—”
“We can’t get into the mines!” The forge-master flailed, struggling to wrench himself from the knight’s grasp. “We don’t have the materials!”
Daren the Lion dangled him still, but his gaze turned softer when Elina again placed her hand on his arm. With both arms, he righted the forge-master, placing his feet against the ground. The smaller man’s breathing was intense, but he remained alive, his eyes full of panic. “Our supply of iron was consumed.”
“Yes!” The man rested a hand against his chest, still having trouble breathing.
“Consumed by what?”
“I can’t convince any of my workers to enter the mine again. One of them was mangled by whatever took the ore.”
The knight’s gaze lingered on the forge-master. “How many weapons have you produced?”
“Less than half! We were forced to halt production almost twelve hours ago.”
Daren the Lion’s eyes widened. “Tw—” He grabbed the man’s collar again, and pulled him close, till his seething breaths ran into the forge-master’s eyes. “We must leave by tomorrow!”
“If—we had access to our materials, we could continue, but production on the Council’s weapons ceased.”
“Where is this mine?!”
“…behind the foundries to the east! It’s been barricaded off!”
The knight threw the man back to the snow and turned to Elina, unable to wipe the anger from his features. “Lady Gray,” he said, though the civility of his tone was pushed to its limits by circumstance. “Lady Gray. I am sorry that you must see me like this, but innocent people will be sent to battle unarmed if we do not act quickly.”
Though Elina’s response was slow, she nodded.
The snowfall increased in intensity.
Through growing drifts of white, they trudged. Daren the Lion did not go back to the inn, but moved to the east as the forge-master had specified, past a dozen smithies, all of whom looked to them as they passed. Some ways east, embedded in the side of a great hill, was a dark passageway barred by four thick slabs of wood, nailed to the frame of the entrance.
Through the gaps in the wood, lights could still be seen inside, cast from torches attached the walls of the mine.
With immense strength, Daren the Lion brought his boot up and shattered the lowest two pieces of wood, breaking through inches of wood as if nothing. Following the shattering of the second, he knelt down below the other two pieces and entered the mine. Elina followed.
Ahead of them, the tunnel was lit for some ways, as if without end.
Behind them, the wail of the snow was muffled.
The knight led the way ahead, Elina following close behind. There was little move to room in the narrow confines of the primary tunnel. At last, they came across a branch of the tunnel, splitting off into a single larger room, less illuminated than the mine proper.
Daren the Lion’s hand went to the hilt of his sword and drew it half from its sheath.
But in the first branch of the tunnel, they found nothing, so the blade was returned without incident. As they returned to the main tunnel, he said under his breath, “I’ve never heard of something that consumes iron.” He did not look to Elina for a response, and continued onward without so much as a pause.
They passed several more branches further in, but each revealed nothing more than an empty chamber, devoid of all signs that they might once have contained anything of value. All that remained of human influence was the torches.
Against Elina’s skin, the cube felt unnaturally warm.
They continued onward into darkness.
The knight’s pace increased, till he at time moved beyond the edge of Elina’s vision, and her own strides could not match his, so with each second, she fell further and further behind. At one point, he disappeared into the darkness. Even breaking into a run, Elina could not find him. She went further in, searching even for footprints, but all trace of the big man disappeared.
Silence, save for Elina’s breathing.
She screwed her eyes shout and pounded a fist against the tunnel wall. What noise it produced was muffled—useless. She turned around, only to find her path consumed by darkness. The light of the torches faded from view, till she could see nothing from behind.
There was only the way forward.
Against her flesh, the cube was warm.
Elina continued on through the darkness, where the ground leveled and the way ahead seemed to glow with faint light. Around her, colors flickered in and out of existence. Stopping, she found what appeared to be thin gems of every conceivable color buried deep within the walls of the tunnel. Even where there was no light, they glowed, reflecting a rainbow across the surface of the stone.
Ahead of her, there still lay no exit.
In Elina’s pocket, the cube heated to a point where it began to burn through the flesh of her coat. Yet when she glanced her fingers across it while pulling it away from her chest, it remained cool. She paused for a moment, hypnotized by the gentle warmth and the glow of the purple in the darkness, which served then to light her way.
In the darkness, something else scurried.
Elina froze in place, reaching for the knife she carried against her waist. But she did not draw it, for the scratching ceased the moment she tensed.
Daren the Lion was ahead of her once again, the look of concern in his eyes illuminated by the dim torch light. She looks for the multicolored stones in the walls, only to find that they’d disappeared. Behind them, light refracted across the walls, still providing a path to the entrance.
Elina massaged her temples.
“I apologize for leaving you behind,” he said. “The mine’s end some hundred feet ahead of us. There is no trace of any ore, nor what might have taken it.”
Elina nodded, though it was a numb gesture.
Daren the Lion’s fingers twisted around the pommel of his blade, so tight that the metal seemed on the brink of crumbling beneath his grip. Even so, he said, “We should return to the others and inform them that we will be departing soon.”
She looked past the knight again, as if she might find something else in the shadows.
She found only the glow of orange and the lacings of darkness.
Elina nodded again and turned around. The pair began the short journey out of the mine.
Outside the mine, they found Alice, who stood against the cold as if it did not affect her, her sleeves falling over her hands. Though she stood calf deep in snow, her skin was still a vivid pink. Her brown hair stayed still, even in the winter gusts. When Elina emerged, and before Daren the Lion could leave the mine completely, the woman approached them and said, “What did you find?”
The knight did not question Alice’s reappearance, nor did he seem curious as to what kept her so still in a shifting world. “The forge-master spoke truly. There is nothing left for the miners to work with—not in this one, at least.”
Alice’s brow furrowed. She cast a glare at Elina, only for it to fizzle a moment later. “Did the mute hold you back?”
“The Lady Gray has expressed nothing but courtesy. Perhaps you could learn from her.”
Alice cast another gaze to Elina, who lingered to the side as the confrontation between woman and lion took place. Elina met the woman’s gaze with one of her own—a nonchalant return. At last, Alice turned away and moved back in the direction of the inn without speaking a word.
Elina began to follow, hesitated, and allowed Daren the Lion to walk alongside her.
At the crude half-sphere, they found Richard speaking to the forge-master—or interrogating him. Though Richard offered no in the way of violence, the forge-master cringed at every movement, and his eyes only widened when the knight neared. He threw himself to his knees before Daren the Lion, but held his words for a moment as he collected air.
“We are preparing the shipment as fast as possible! We can spare only two men to accompany you.” After a moment, he pushed himself to his feet, though the man’s legs appeared uneasy.
In the background, Lake lingered, his face covered. His presence, however, was always felt.
The expression upon Richard’s face was not the same as the man-child who cavorted about the inn. Beneath the red sky, he took on a different air. His face was a twist of anger and impatience. With each second, his hand danced across the sword at his side, always on the brink of drawing it.
Richard bit down his final words before looking to Elina and the knight.
“You’re back!” he said, the expression upon his face lightening. His hand slipped away from his sword as he moved to Daren the Lion and placed his hands on the knight’s shoulders. “Did you find anything, lion?”
Daren the Lion ignored the use of his nickname and answered with an earnest look on his face. “The forge-master speaks the truth. All the ore has been taken from the mine.”
Richard drew back and cast one final look of disdain at the forge-master, who carried himself through the snow to rest against the doorframe of his workshop. “We—” He stopped to breathe. The man seemed older that moment, the hump on his back more prominent. “—hoped to receive word from one of our collaborators—but no message has come.”
Richard stepped forth, his hand again on his sword. “You—”
Elina grabbed him by the arm and threw Richard to the ground, though the fall was cushioned by snow.
The man’s eyes were filled with anger, but Elina countered with an agitated glare of her own, and Richard’s anger soon gave way to slow laughter, even as Elina’s gaze remained stern.
Pushing himself to his feet, Richard said, “Of course. Forgive me for my temper.”
Though Richard moved to speak again, it was Alice who spoke. “When can you have your current supply of arms ready to move south?”
The forge-master seemed more at ease when answering her. “Within the hour.” He staggered away after that, moving towards a cluster of forges, around which worked close to a dozen men, all wearing brown aprons of similar make to that of the forge-master.
Alice turned to Richard. “Have you lost your mind?”
“He was lying to us the whole time!”
“And that’s reason to gut him?” She turned her ire to Daren the Lion, lifting a finger with which to accuse. “And you—you deserve the name ‘lion’. You’re no better than the child! We are not bandits or thugs! We are supposed to have some semblance of decency!” The last word emerged almost as a scream.
She stopped, breathing hard, her hands at her sides.
“Why is it the two here who don’t speak are the only ones capable of courtesy!?” She threw her hands in the air and turned away from them, but did not leave. There was a long silence, during which Richard and the knight cast wary glances at one another, but said nothing.
Alice turned to face them again, but her eyes moved to Elina. She approached the other woman and placed a hand on her shoulder, a tight grip. As she did, her sleeves slid back, revealing the bare flesh of her hands and the jagged metal lines running beneath her flesh. At that moment, they seemed to pulsate, glowing blue with each passing second.
She offered Elina a curt nod, then withdrew.
They waited in tense silence, all while the snow deepened around them and the red sun moved across the cloudy sky.
At last, a noise disrupted them, the sound of wheels crunching snow and the steps of a great creature pulling it. The noise was followed by three like it. From the opposite side of the forge-master’s building came three flat bedded wagons, each pulled by two packhorses and commanded each by a driver, all six of which varied in color, but not in bulk. In each wagon, a covered load of weapons, offered slight protection from the elements by the cream colored tarps covering each load.
Beside the caravan, the forge-master walked, seeming stronger in that moment than during any confrontation with the party, though he did not approach them without some degree of hesitation, and he avoided the gazes of Richard and Daren the Lion. “This is all I can offer,” he said, and bowed his head. “I will deliver my apologies to the Council, and see that they are compensated for my mistake.” Out of the edge of his vision, he watched for the party’s reaction.
Richard crossed his arms and moved through the snow towards the wagons, but was held by the grip of Alice, he pulled with such force that he nearly stumbled back.
“No,” Alice said.
Two other men walked alongside the entourage, bundled for the winter and protected by armor of steel, though their faces remained uncovered. One carried an axe at his side, the other a sword. To the companions, they nodded, but did not speak.
Alice walked to one of the wagons and peered under the protective tarp. Inside, the swords were piled high, two of them glowing orange and fresh from the forge. She did not look too closely at them, however, and drew away a moment later, resting her hand on the edge of the wagon. “We will leave immediately,” she said, directing her gaze to the others. “We have a great deal of ground to make up.”
Her gaze lingered on Richard, who met it and nodded slowly before putting a smile back on his face. “We will.” He turned to Elina. “Gray, you’ll be watching the front. Keep your hands twitchy and your bow prepped. Lion, you’ll acc—”
“I will accompany the mute in front,” Alice said, taking a place alongside the first of the wagons before any objections could be made.
Richard’s smile lingered, but it was strained. “Alice, I believe you’re missing the point of adding Elina to our group—so we would have two members capable from a distance.” He gestured to the first wagon and said, “We keep one in front, and one in back.”
Alice met his words with a glare.
He lifted his arms in defeat. “Fine. You know what? How about we all die? I’m sure that’ll keep you nice and cozy while you’re in the ground.”
“Now go to the back.”
At that, Richard seemed to take offense. “You—”
Richard furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, but objected no further. He went to the third cart in the entourage and stood alongside it, facing away from the others while mumbling to himself.
It was the knight who spoke next. “Alice—”
“Do not start, lion.” Alice turned her ire to Daren the Lion. “If two of us must lead, let it be the ones capable of facing a disagreement with less than our bared teeth.”
The knight said nothing, but his expression remained one of neutrality. Without a word, from neither Alice, nor himself, he moved to the third wagon in line, near the rear, and rested one hand on the sword at his waist, which dangled and shook as he walked.
“Lake,” Alice said next.
Though the man whose face remained covered said nothing, he stood at attention.
“The middle. Keep an eye on the others and see to it that they don’t break anything.”
Lake bowed, and obeyed without question, moving to his place at the middle wagon, glancing once over his shoulder at the knight.
Alice then stood at the front and said, “We’re moving out!” loud enough that the others could hear her, and began moving south, down the snow under which the road laid. Behind her, the sound of horses being urged forward and the creaking of wheels and joints as the carts were jostled forward, rocking as they moved. Elina walked alongside the other woman, though she did so without meeting her gaze and without looking to the others.
Behind them, the Richard and the lion made conversation, just quiet enough that it could not be made out by those walking in the front.
For some ways, they traveled, putting Croften behind them. They moved southward, taking no particular path as they maintained a consistent direction. Alice sometimes looked back, watching Richard and Daren the Lion with great care.
Some ways later, she turned her gaze to Elina and said, “I did not introduce myself properly before.” She nodded to Elina. “I am Alice Heliah. I’ve begun to wonder if we are the only two members of this party with surnames.”
Elina offered her hand to Alice, who, after a moment’s hesitation, shook it. “The Taleers often wrote about groups of people who come together to save the world. It is a shame they did not detail the dynamics of working with such sycophants.”
After a moment of silence passed, Elina poked Alice on her shoulder and then gestured to her wrists.
Alice lifted her hands and allowed the sleeves to fall back. “These are something I was given when I was very young. It is easier to display their abilities than to describe them—” She paused and grinned. “—but I will wait for the opportunity.”
The passed again into silence.
“How have you survived so long without the ability to speak?”
Elina made a show of prodding Alice in the shoulder a second time, then making gestures with her hands, and expressions with her face.
“Oh. People underestimate the difficulty of such communication.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Elina reached into her pocket and withdrew the translucent purple cube, offering it to Alice. The other woman considered it for many moments, her pacing slowing for a moment as she did.
She looked to Elina and said, “Where did you find this?” The moment she did, however, she seemed to remember to whom she spoke, and turned her attention back to the cube, holding it up to the light and peering through the center. “I’ve seen material like this before, but never in a shape like this.”
Alice pressed the index finger of her opposite hand against the side of the cube. From her flesh leapt a spark, small enough that the unobservant eye would not have noticed. The cube glowed for a moment in reaction to the spark, and the material in the center seemed to shift—but the reaction lasted for only a moment, and the cube faded a moment later to its dormant state.
Alice glared at it, as if she might will it alive. “Do you know anything of fairies, Elina Gray?”
Elina shook her head.
“It is said they are made of glass, and that they come from rainbows. To us, their skin would look much like this.” Alice gestured with the cube to enunciate her tale. “But they grew tired of the fickleness of humanity, and went to the Wastelands to slumber for all eternity, safe in the knowledge that no human would corrupt them.”
Alice stared at the cube for many moments.
“I would dismiss it as a story, but The Tales have taught me it is unwise to dismiss such things.” At last, she handed it back to Elina. “I do not know what it is,” she said, “but keep it safe.”
Elina accepted the cube back and shoved it back into her pocket.
Alice glanced over her shoulder, though attempted to hide it, and looked to Richard and the knight, who conversed with each other in a low tone. Her gaze turned to a scowl, and she faced front again. “The Tales don’t prepare you,” she said under her breath. “Stupid, amoral ♥♥♥♥s.”
* * *
The entourage had come to a grinding halt, and moved to the side of the road, where the horses were unhitched from the wagons and allowed to rest. The wagons themselves were kept standing by wooden blocks, allowing for those who didn’t stand watch to rest against them. Against all odds, they’d located firewood and constructed a flame of moderate size in a makeshift pit, around which the wagons were gathered.
Richard kept watch, against the wishes of his female companion, who sat against the wagon to sleep, but never seemed to sleep. He paced a short distance from the others, the crunch of snow beneath his feet marking his location at all times. One hand was kept on the hilt of his sword, sweaty in spite of the cold.
Like Alice, Elina did not sleep. Though she tired, it did not come to her. She sat beside the other woman, keeping her bow in her lap, and opened her ears at all times. With wariness in her eyes, she watched Richard as Alice did, and, at one point, he returned her gaze, though she could not know its tone, for the darkness masked all but the blurriest of outlines.
From the darkness, Richard approached her. He seemed younger then.
“I’m sorry for what happened back there,” he said.
Elina stared at his knees.
Richard leaned against the wagon, but did not sit down. “I guess I’ve been reading too much into The Tales. All these stories about heroes and adventurers, and not once do they say anything about someone objecting to those people. They just wander about, taking what they want.” He fondled the hilt of his sword. “I think my parents named me after one. Richard… something.”
Around the wood of her bow, Elina’s fingers tensed.
Richard dropped his hands back to his sides. “Sorry.”
He walked back into the darkness and paced again, stopping at points to kneel against the ground, always keeping his body moving against the cold of winter.
Elina stood, her bow held in one hand. With the other, she slipped her hand back into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the cube. For a moment, she thought of the mine, and the long moments during which she’d been separated from Daren the Lion. The sights seemed so insignificant, but each time she cast her thoughts to them, her hand was drawn to the cube.
Elina walked along the wagons. Some of the other members of their caravan slept. Some remained awake, sharpening blades, or simply listening to the night, and all its silence.
Elina drew her hand from the cube and tensed as something leapt through the darkness, just out of the edge of her vision.
The scratching from the cave returned to her ears. She was filled with the desire to reach for the cube, but she resisted, and instead stood, drawing an arrow from her quiver and sliding it against the neck of her bow.
From across the snowy ground, Richard moved, his sword drawn and held with both hands. “Did you see that?” he said.
“I did,” came a response from Alice, who stood as if the lack of sleep meant nothing to her. She threw back her sleeves. The cords of metal that existed deep in her skin glowed blue. Then, over her shoulder, she said, “Everyone—up!”
The others woke, though the lion was the slowest to do so. It was only with assistance from the one who covered his face, Lake, that he was able to stand, his armor creaking as he did so. After adjusting himself, he drew his sword from his waist, a weapon that seemed all the larger when held in the hands of Daren the Lion, and stepped forward, standing alongside his companions.
For many moments, silence ensued.
The scratching noise came a second time, and only Elina seemed able to hear it. She resisted the impulse to drop her bow and reach for the cube, but with each passing second, the impulse grew stronger. Though it became painful, Elina furrowed her brow and tightened the grip of her fingers around her bow, pulling the drawstring back and bring the bow up next to her face.
Beside her, Richard sniffed.
At whatever he smelled, he seemed confused. “…do the rest of you smell that?”
No one was given the time to respond, for something leapt through the darkness, propelled through the air by powerful legs. Though it appeared male, its body was overblown and mutated, its skin black and rotted. One arm swelled large than the other, covered in puss and fat. What remained of its face was no longer recognizable, save for the eyes, which glowed a bright red.
Elina loosed her arrow on instinct, and caught the creature midair, imbedding itself in the thing’s throat. The creature was thrown backwards, blood overflowing from the puncture in its neck, but four more emerged from the darkness to take its place. One turned its attention to Elina, whose hand fumbled as it reached for a second arrow.
Daren the Lion leapt forth, cleaving one of the creatures uncleanly in two with swing of his sword. Both halves of the thing were thrown from the battle by the force of the blow, spewing blood all across the white of the snow.
A bolt of lightning streaked through the air, visible only for an instant as it ripped through the stomach of third creature, which immediately keeled over, clutching its stomach as it sank into an agonizing death.
Elina traced the path of the lightning as the hairs on the back of her head stood on end. The mark of the light was still apparent in her eyesight. At its source was Alice, who shook her hands as if trying to disperse excess heat.
Though Elina’s gaze lingered for only a moment, it was long enough for Alice to notice, who smirked.
The fourth of the creatures was cut down by Richard, who beat the thing into the ground with his sword as it reached for his throat. The creature’s deformed fingers had only just wrapped around his neck when the thing died, its head beaten into a bloody pulp. With some effort, he pried the fingers from his neck, where they left a faint coat of blood, and turned to the others, his breathing rapid.
“Uncivilized,” he said in between pants, sheathing his sword without cleaning it.
Daren the Lion was silent, but kept his sword in hand, stabbing the tip into the ground and leaning against it. His breaths were as uneven as Richard’s. “They are far north of the border.”
It was only Elina who expressed any degree of disgust or surprise toward the creatures. With caution, she walked to one, and knelt beside its corpse. Even in death, its red eyes glowed almost as brightly as the red of the sun. Against the white of the snow, its black flesh stood in stark contrast. Though its face was not truly destroyed, it was twisted and swollen beyond recognition. Only its eyes resembled anything human.
Elina stood and backed away. Though the battlefield was quiet for a moment, she readied an arrow and drew back her bow. A moment later, however, she remembered the lightning, and whirled around to face Alice, her eyes wide with a mixture of accusation and surprised.
Alice smirked and lifted her hands up, allowing her sleeves to fall further down her arms, revealing the cords of metal that existed beneath her flesh. They’d fallen dormant again, and no longer glowed blue. “You were wondering what these were for. Now you know. I don’t carry a weapon, because I can put a bolt of lightning through the head of anything that attacks me.”
“And that’s all she can do,” said Richard, choosing then to approach. “Lightning. How useful do you think she is when it’s raining?”
Though Alice seemed to consider a snarky response, she clamped her mouth shut.
In an absentminded gesture, Elina nodded, though in response to Alice’s words, not Richard’s.
But then Richard spoke again, his tone turning serious. “I don’t think we can afford to stay here for the night. If we have a direction, we should keep moving. If the Uncivilized are here, then the border may already have broken down.”
“No,” Alice said.
Attention turned to her for a moment.
“If the border had broken down, we’d be swimming in the things. No, it means some of them are worming their way through.” She paused. “But for once, you’re right. We do need to move.”
Richard nodded. “Everyone! We’re moving again!
There was a mad scramble to prepare. The drivers reattached the horses to the wagons, calming them as the creatures turned away at the sight of the fallen uncivilized. The campfire remained up only as long as it took for everyone to stand and link up; afterwards Richard doused it with snow, and several stomps of his boot.
Above them, the red sky lit the way, granting only just enough light to see a few feet ahead.
All the while, Elina Gray kept her bow drawn, never relaxing. Her eyes lingered on the body of the Uncivilized, whose stomach had been ripped apart by lightning, leaving a searing blast mark on the flesh through which it had entered. She thought then of the red eyes staring lifelessly into the sky, and how much they matched the crimson light cast by the sun.
Some moments later, she was dragged away from the sight by Alice, who placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “You’ve never seen an Uncivilized before?”
Elina furrowed her brow and shook her head.
“You’ll need to get used to it. South of the border, that’s all that exists.”
Elina responded with a slow nod, continuing to stare at the corpse of the Uncivilized. Swollen and grotesque, with glowing red eyes.
Enjoying it so far; though phrasing gets awkward at times, and could be fixed. I like that the main character isn't actually given thoughts; instead they only react; it's a unique way of doing things.
One thing: If the fact that this supposed fantasy story actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic future is supposed to be a major twist; lines like this:
Across the front was a picture of unnatural quality, of a blue and green sphere that looked to have been taken from the stars above.
A picture without color of a great cloud in the shape of a mushroom emerging from a landscape devoid of life.
Make it WAY too obvious. Find a more subtle way of implying it.
Though Elina did not recognize the language, she found pictures inside, of people and places she did not recognize, where buildings reached up to touch the sky.
This line for example, does a better job. A description like this could easily apply to some fantasy setting as well. "Buildings that reach up to the sky" is vague; it could be modern skyscrapers, but it just as easily be some fantasy castle or something. Likewise "a language she did not recognize" could just as easily be some ancient fantasy language, rather than modern English. The reader doesn't see it and immediately think "Oh, nuclear bombs. This must be a post-apocalyptic setting".
Then again I'm assuming you mean this to be a twist. If it's not supposed to be a surprise to the reader, these passages work pretty good; it's pretty much how a person from a more primitive culture would describe stuff like that.
Enjoying it so far; though phrasing gets awkward at times, and could be fixed. I like that the main character isn't actually given thoughts; instead they only react; it's a unique way of doing things.
One thing: If the fact that this supposed fantasy story actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic future is supposed to be a major twist; lines like this:
Make it WAY too obvious. Find a more subtle way of implying it.
This line for example, does a better job. A description like this could easily apply to some fantasy setting as well. "Buildings that reach up to the sky" is vague; it could be modern skyscrapers, but it just as easily be some fantasy castle or something. Likewise "a language she did not recognize" could just as easily be some ancient fantasy language, rather than modern English. The reader doesn't see it and immediately think "Oh, nuclear bombs. This must be a post-apocalyptic setting".
Then again I'm assuming you mean this to be a twist. If it's not supposed to be a surprise to the reader, these passages work pretty good; it's pretty much how a person from a more primitive culture would describe stuff like that.
It isn't really meant to be a twist that the world of Terra is built on the ruins of Earth. It's indicated later that there is some awareness of the old world, and the plot deals mostly with the rediscovery of weapons of mass destruction in an environment too undeveloped to handle them responsibly.
The vague description is rather necessary for images and descriptions of the old world. The story is being written from the point of view of someone who knows only of a fantasy setting, so things from our world are given face value descriptions. That means that some things, like the nuclear wasteland, will be easier for the reader to identify, while some phrases force the reader to imagine what's being described. One of this descriptions actually crops up in the form of dialogue later on:
“The translated passages deal with explosives that dispense poison, dealing death and decay for hundreds of miles.”
But thank you for taking the time to read Terra! All feedback is appreciated!
There were no further attacks along the way, so their journey was a silent one. The soldiers the forge-master commanded accompany the part offered little in the way of conversation, and kept to themselves, talking in low tones and occasionally gesturing to the subjects of their words.
Many miles on, the snowy hills of the Northlands gave way to craggy cliffs and drops, where the snow seemed unwilling to stick. The roads grew rough, and the sky above them seemed to grow a deeper shade of red. Elina Gray seemed the only one of the party unfamiliar with the landscape, but took great pains to hide her curiosity.
At last, crossing over the final rise in the road, they were granted a view of the border.
The wall was a military emplacement, stretching on for miles in either direction, with no visible end. On the side of the Northlands stood thousands of soldiers and hundreds of siege weapons, the latter seeming out of place near a defensive structure. On the opposite side of the wall, the land bore no similarities to the land of the north.
Elina was reminded of the image she’d seen in the colored tome, of a barren land, occupied only by a great cloud in the shape of a mushroom, stretching up to the heavens. The soil was gray, almost glassy in appearance, and looked to have been deprived of water for centuries. There was no life, plant or animal. No clouds formed above it. As far as the eye could see, there was death.
The entourage continued to move in silence. They descended towards the military emplacement and were met some miles out by a group of six soldiers, four men, two women, all heavily armed, their weapons already drawn, held with the slightest paranoid twitch.
The caravan stopped many feet from the soldiers. Alice lifted her hands in submission. Elina did the same.
The first of the group, a male, called out from a distance, “Hold, and state your business.”
“We’re here escorting a mass weapons shipment from Croften,” Alice said, maintaining a cool tone. “We received approval from the Council of the Northlands to make this journey. If you’ll give me a moment, I can provide the necessary forms to prove our identities.”
The male soldier responded with a nod, but did not sheathe his weapon, a great broadsword held tightly with both hands.
Alice turned and walked to Richard, who continued to linger near the back of the group. “Richard, give me the form.”
Richard narrowed his eyes. “I’m meant to be leading this group.”
“Give me the form.”
“Give me the form.”
Though Richard’s face contorted with something less than anger, but greater than irritation, he reached into his coat and withdrew a sheet of parchment, folded into eighths, and deformed at some points by the touch of water. He handed it to Alice with a frown, who accepted the parchment without registering his emotions.
She unfolded it as she went, pausing for a moment to wait for the soldier to sheathe his sword to call her forward. When he did, Alice presented him with the form, taking a certain amount of displeasure from the way it had been manhandled by its previous owner. Everything Tale in which it had been written was tiny, almost illegible, but the signatures near the bottom were of each of the five members of the Council of the Northlands.
The soldier looked over it for several minutes. At one point, he consulted one of the female soldiers, and they shared a few words before he resumed reading, at last coming to the final words, and the five signatures. He held the paper of to the light; though the red sun helped little, before at last walking up to Alice, where he said, “This seems proper.”
“How many are in your party?”
“Five. The others were provided by the forge-master of Croften.”
The soldier’s gaze passed over Alice and found the wagons. “That doesn’t look like the complete order.”
“It isn’t. The forges at Croften were plagued by disappearing ore, and were unable to complete the order as requested. They have agreed to refund all payment and complete the shipment at a later date, free of charge.” A pause. “And no, we don’t know how an entire mine worth of ore ‘disappears’.”
Despite the nature of the situation, the soldier seemed to accept it, and nodded. “Your contract is complete. We’ll see to it that the weapons are distributed as needed.” He gestured for the wagon drivers to move forward, accompanied by the forge-master’s guards.
Alice’s own brow furrowed. “It was my understanding that a battalion was being organized to reinforce the border.”
“They were. Then almost one thousand men vanished.”
“…how is that possible?”
“Your guess is as good as ours. We’ve been delivering letters of condolence for days now. Largest simultaneous loss of life in recent history.”
“…may I speak to your commanding officer?”
“No.” The response came even before the final word left Alice’s mouth. “He’s seeing to important matters. If you have questions regarding the situation, petition the Council of the Northlands for information. They’ve been as unwilling to answer our questions as Commander Hohn is to answer yours.”
Alice’s face twisted up in thought. She turned back to the other members of her party, who remained behind while the wagons moved on ahead, escorted by the soldiers with the same wordless approach most of their journey had consisted of. As she walked, she was intercepted by Richard, who met her deep thought with an incredulous gaze.
“We’re not even coming along?” he said, raising his voice almost to a yell. One of the departing soldiers cast their gaze back for a moment to see who’d caused the brief commotion.
Alice’s expression turned cold. She crossed her arms and did not look to any of the others. “You overestimate our role in this.”
“We’re the heroes! We’re supposed to be involved! That’s how it works!”
“You’re putting too much faith in The Tales. How much heroism have you actually been responsible for?” She lifted her arms into an exaggerated shrug. “Do you know of any tyrants who need usurping? Or would you prefer a damsel? Stop trying to live up to The Tales. Those people aren’t real.”
Richard moved closer, standing almost face to face with Alice. “You’ll take that back.”
Neither Lake, nor Daren the Lion moved to intervene in the exchange.
To the side, Elina wrapped her fingers around the translucent purple cube, though it did not call to her as it had before. Around them, it began to snow again, if it had ever stopped, and the temperature seemed to fall. In the cold, the warmth of the cube was no less than the heat of a flame. And though the bitter winds bit at the flesh of Elina’s face, she did not move to cover it.
“And what are you then?” said Richard, making a sharp gesture to Alice’s wrists, where some of the metal that ran beneath her skin was exposed.
“I’m not magic like your heroes.” She lifted a hand, dismissed the argument, and turned away from Richard.
“We’re not done.”
“Yes, we are.” With a quick look to Elina, who did not notice it in time to reciprocate, Alice said, “And I’m growing tired of this. Of you and the knight. It’s like nannying children. If you aren’t watched, you’ll go and blow something up.”
At that, Richard seemed incapable of producing a response, and was forced to settle on, “I am not a child.”
“Then stop acting like one! Are you trying to impress her?” She made a sweeping gesture towards Elina, whose gaze returned to reality at last. “That would be like you. I doubt any woman would fall for a lunatic.”
She turned back to Richard and pressed her index finger against his chest, an action to which the man did not object.
“An amoral lunatic with no regard for the people around him, stumbling ass-first into success through his sheer thick-headedness.”
A second jab to the chest.
“And I am tired of it. You will calm your ridiculous impulses, or I will kill you myself to prevent you from creating an incident that pulls all of us in.” After a heave, Alice crisscrossed her fingers over her waist and inhaled. She turned from Richard and trudged through the snow in the direction opposite of the border.
Behind her, Richard did not speak. His face contorted into a twisted form of anger and sadness, and he seemed about to cry. It was a display of emotion he stifled, however, as he wiped at his eyes and stared down at the border for many moments, where the caravan of weapons they’d escorted were moved out of sight.
In a soft voice, almost childlike, he said, “What if we looked for the missing soldiers?”
Alice continued to walk.
“That’s simple enough. What if they wrote a Tale about that?” He looked to Elina, who met his gaze with a numb stare. In that lack of feeling, Richard lost the ability to speak. His brow furrowed, and he turned his gaze to the ground. For a moment, he was alone in the snow, before Daren the Lion walked to his side and placed a hand upon his shoulder. “You will be a part of The Tales, lad.”
The touch lingered for a moment, before it became apparent Richard would not return it. The knight pulled away, and followed Alice as she continued back up the snow-covered road, no direction in mind.
* * *
There were many long silences during their return to Haven, and no one seemed inclined to fill them. They trudged through the snow-covered Northlands in discontent. The knight spoke often with the boy, Richard, but never at such a volume that it could be heard by the others. And though their positions in the entourage had not been permanent, they were maintained, even during the return trip north. Alice lingered in front alongside Elina, while the others traveled to the rear.
Once Haven was in sight, even as distant as the city was, less than a smudge on the horizon some miles away, the magic-woman, Alice, moved closer to Elina and said in a hushed tone of voice, “You work with a guild of thieves, right?”
At the question, Elina furrowed her brow and provided no response.
“Even if it doesn’t call itself that, that’s who you work with, correct?”
Still, Elina did not respond, and for a moment, her expression turned more serious. She continued forward, trudging through snow that reached to her calves. With one hand, she felt for the translucent purple cube, the warmth of which kept at least one hand from freezing. Water was beginning to seep through leather of her boots.
At last, Elina nodded.
Alice seemed content for a moment with the response, but a moment later, said, “Would they have use of a mage?”
Elina paid Alice half a glance out of the corner of her eye.
“It’s silly to call myself that—” She lifted her hands and allowed her sleeves to fall back, revealing the jagged metal lines that ran beneath the flesh of her hands. Even in the bitter cold, Alice seemed unaffected. She moved with her face uncovered, dressed as if for a warmer day. “—but it’s the only term I can think of.”
Elina’s gaze was neutral, and she indicated nothing.
“I would like to leave my brother and his gang of misfits to their own devices. If none of them can be asked to remain sane, I don’t believe they will remain the best of company—so I was hoping I could come with you. You’re a thief. I’m a mage. If we find a drunk warrior, then our party is complete.”
Elina did not react to the suggestion, but neither did she object.
Alice seemed to take this as acceptance and turned to the others who followed, all of whom stopped before her. “I’m leaving,” she said, though the words seemed directed most at Richard, who furrowed his brow and twisted his expression into one of stubborn pride.
Lake said nothing and gave no indication that the words had been heard.
Though Daren the Lion’s expression shifted, it never ventured into the realm of anger, and at last he said, “If that is your will, Alice.”
To Richard, Alice offered a smile. Whatever its intention, it was their parting, and Alice soon returned to the front of the group, where Elina waited for her. They continued towards Haven as a group, but there was no further dialogue between them, and through the city’s gates, they parted ways. Daren the Lion offered Elina a gruff nod, and was the last to disappear into the crowd.
The city seemed colder, but Elina led the way as she had before, and found herself once again outside The Moon’s Maiden. Inside, thee bar was empty, and the customers were scarce. Those who had gathered in the living area seemed a paranoid bunch, and gripped their mugs with a nervous frenzy as they looked to see who next had entered.
Elina nodded to the barkeep, who returned the gesture before disappearing into the back room.
Elina pointed to Alice, then to the counter. The mage nodded and seemed to interpret the gesture correctly, and moved the counter a moment later, speaking the barkeep as Elina slipped into the door built into the side of the staircase. This time, the room was smoky, and smelled of a thick mixture of herbs. Though her eyes watered as she moved further into the room, Elina found her chair and sat down, resting her elbows atop square wooden table.
“And so it’s done,” Cora said, leaning forward into the light of the lamp resting atop the table. The woman’s voice was rougher than the time before, and she coughed once before speaking again. “I’m told you picked up a group of traveling companions.” Cora brought one hand to her mouth and inhaled. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets for a moment before rolling out again and focusing on Elina. “I also know that you brought one of them with you. Why?”
Elina lifted an arm and ran a finger up from her elbow to the tip of her index finger.
“A mage. And why is it she wants to work with us?”
“You are too trusting, little gray.”
Elina shrugged again, slower the second time.
“Bring her to me then.” Cora leaned back into the darkness as she spoke, leaving only the outline of her form visible.
Elina stood and left the dark room. She found Alice still at the bar, her legs curled around a stool as she drummed her fingers against the counter. Though Elina could not announce herself ,the mage seemed to recognize her approach and jumped from the stool, turning to face Elina with a look of great self-assurance on her face.
Elina pointed over her shoulder to the door beneath the staircase, then moved again to it. Alice followed, and was escorted into the black room by Elina, who shut the door behind them. As it shut, something clicked, and the door was sealed, unable to open no matter what pressure Elina placed on it.
Somewhere in the darkness, Alice coughed at the intensity of the herbs that permeated the room.
From the table, Cora’s voice: “So you are the mage.”
Elina found Alice again in the darkness, who was still struggling to find her way through the scent of herbs. She came at last to the table, walking into it and suffering its corner to her stomach as a result.
“Sit down,” Cora said.
After a moment, Alice found the chair.
“You are not used to shadows,” Cora said as she leaned into the light. Her visage seemed somehow more intimidating, and her expression offered no mercy. Gone was the coarseness of her voice as she inhaled the concoction of herbs. “It must first be said that I am nothing. If you came to this room expecting to kill me, know that my death would change nothing.”
Cora interlaced her fingers and leaned back into the darkness, where she lingered.
“Why is it you come to me?”
“Because I am tired of my brother.”
“So you seek to sever your bond with Richard.”
“…you know his name?”
“I knew you would come to me even before Elina told me of your intentions.” In the shadows, a casual flick of the wrist. “It is a refreshing change from those who usually find their way to me. Pure, unadulterated selfishness. Often I’ll hear some nonsense about noble intentions, or finding a better life for the family.”
There was a shift in Alice’s expression. The mage no longer seemed as composed.
“It’s better that you did not come to me with noble intentions. We are not murderers, but we have few qualms about those who contract us. That a Councilman of the North chose to conscript our services twice was coincidence. You are just as likely to end up with your hand in the pocket of some benevolent knight.”
“I understand,” Alice said.
“Do you? What if I told you we’d been paid to rob a man with a starving family? Would you understand then?”
“We will see what you understand when the time comes.” From the darkness, Cora tossed a chinking bag to Elina, who lifted her hands to catch it at the last second. “I nearly forgot. Payment for your role in the weapons shipment.” When Cora turned her attention again to Alice, she said, “But I will hold onto you for the moment because Elina has placed some degree of trust in you.”
For the first time, Cora rose from her chair, but remained in the light, placing both hands flat on the table and leaning over those who sat opposite of her.
“We’ve been tasked by a third party with investigating the disappearance of the four-hundred troops who were to be moved from the west to reinforce the border to the Wasteland. They disappeared thirty miles east while traveling along the Great Highway. The Council of the North has closed the highway and is stalling an official investigation in the hopes of discovering their fate and alleviating potential panic, but there are many who disagree with such inaction.”
From her coat, Cora withdrew a small journal, bound in black leather, and placed it upon the table.
“Elina was requested specifically for this task, but I will allow you to supplement her as a test of your abilities.” With one finger, Cora tapped the leather-bound book. “This journal contains all troop manifests and movements recorded prior to their disappearance. Two other groups vanished under similar circumstances, but we have been tasked with investigating the largest.”
Elina nodded and picked up the journal, taking a moment to browse the contents of the first page.
“Assume the soldiers are dead. Focus on discovering the circumstances of their deaths and, if possible, those responsible. Do not engage the culprits. Flag their location and return to me.”
In the darkness, Alice nodded, her lips tight. “Okay,” she said, her voice soft.
Cora sat back down in her chair.
Elina moved towards the door, and Alice followed, unspeaking as she did so. They left the must stench of herbs and returned to the musty stench of alcohol and sweat. Heaving a sigh of relief, Alice turned to Elina, smiled, and said, “That was less romantic than I expected.”
Though Elina twisted it into a frown to mask it, her expression flickered briefly to one of skepticism, and her left eyebrow lifted in tandem with such a notion.
“I suppose I sound like my brother when I say that. It’s silly to imagine an organization of thieves and cutthroats to be anything less than a group of thieves and cutthroats.”
Without exhibiting a response to the statement, Elina left the tavern, Alice in tow. They left through the west of the city, traveling west along the Great Highway, a freshly build road that lifted itself above the wintery landscape by way of towering pillars of granite. Atop it, the temperature rose, if only just enough that flesh was not immediately bombarded by frostbite.
My thoughts can be found here. This chapter definitely had the best pacing out of all of them, and I like that you're venturing into "deeper" territory while still developing your characters (slowly, but surely).
Despite the strength of its ply, the Great Highway crumbled the further from Haven it went, till at last there seemed little holding it up but hope. Holding in one hand the journal of information and movements, Elina stopped at the point marking the thirty mile distance from their point of origin. Though the rock beneath her feet was unstable, she knelt and ran a hand across the funeven material of a highway that was strangely devoid of snow.
Elina shoved the book into her coat and ran her finger along the stone of the ground, bringing bit of the crumbling material to her mouth, which she then suckled on with some degree of affection. With her other hand, she reached into her coat and fondled the translucent purple cube, which continued to act as a source of warmth against the bitter of the cold.
Alice, meanwhile, acted as muscle. Her face was worse for wear, and she suffered from sleep deprivation, but the metal that ran within the undersides of her arms seemed to stiffen and hold her upright, even when lacking energy. “Did you find something?” she said when Elina stood, only to kneel again and withdraw the book from her coat.
Elina shook her head as she read.
Again, she slammed the book shut and shoved it inside her coat before standing, pointing south across the wintered world to a region that grew hilly, covered in places with dormant trees.
“You know which direction they were taken?”
“…how does Cora… contend with your inability to speak?”
Elina shrugged. She pointed again to the horizon, then to the ten foot drop to the snow-covered landscape below. Little more than a moment later, Elina propelled herself over the edge, rolling as the hit the ground and collecting a great deal of snow in the underside of her coat as a result.
Above, Alice hesitated to repeat the maneuver, but did so. She leapt and rolled, but stumbled as she emerged from the somersault, righting herself and groaning as a ripple of pain shot up her legs from the impact. Only the snow softened the landing.
Elina lifted a hand to signal Alice’s stop before kneeling down again.
Defying the gesture, Alice approached her from behind and said, “Did you find something?”
Several feet in front of Elina were footfalls that had been nearly wiped away by an onslaught of blizzards. Only the slightest of indentations remained, too slight for the casual eye. At the question, Elina nodded, and pointed to the footprints.
Alice knelt beside her. “But there’s only one set. How does a legion of three hundred disappear and leave just one set of footprints?”
Elina shrugged and pointed again to the horizon. She stood and followed the footprints, retracing them almost exactly. The progress of such imitation was slow, and she hopped between steps with dutiful pacing.
South, over the hills, they found a lake, frozen over till it could support Elina’s weight. The footprints traveled across the ice, leaving flecks of black in their wake. As she examined the black, Elina’s steps slowed. They followed the trail till they came to a small cave that dipped into the ground, inside of which the temperature was greater.
Elina wiped at her brow and stared into the opening The indentation into the ground hardly worthy of being called a cave. Its end was visible, and near the bottom, a fire pit long abandoned, blown over with snow and ice. Beside it, a corpse, trapped in a state of near life by the winter, its eyes still and glossy. Though Elina was the first two examine it, it was Alice who said, “It isn’t Human.”
The corpse was too gangly to be Human. It was tall and lithe and female—a beautiful thing. Tall, pointed ears stretched to the top of its head. Its flesh was pale, almost gray in complexion, and it stared out at the world with eyes of red.
“It doesn’t… I’m not sure,” Alice said, kneeling beside the corpse and running a hand along one of the creature’s ears. “It’s not Human… but what else would it be? The Uncivilized never look like this. And a fire—I’ve never known one to prepare a fire.”
Alice looked back to the mouth of the cave.
“And the trail leads here. How could it? This body has been here for a long time—months, maybe. It couldn’t have been the one to intercept the troops. Even it was, how could it overwhelm three hundred men?”
When Elina attempted to open the creature’s jaw, the mouth parted almost willingly, and granted her a view inside. The creature’s teeth were jagged, like those of a predator, but further back, its gullet was sleek and translucent, shimmering blue even with so little light.
Elina gestured for Alice to look inside, and when the mage did, she said, “A fairy, then? That would be… different. But I suppose to dismiss the option would be ignorant.”
Alice moved to search the creature’s belongings, all of which had been moved to the opposite side of the cave, stacked in a pile that remained organized in spite of the weather. Most were shapes and objects with seemingly no purpose, and so Alice pushed them aside, but beneath them, damaged and soaked by the snow, she found a tome bearing a glossy cover, across which was written a word in some forgotten language.
“Elina,” she said, and Elina came to her. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The cover was glossy, smooth to the touch, even hampered by the weather as it was. What pages remained intact bore great passages of characters, and images of places, things, and people that seemed real enough to touch. For a moment, Alice seemed in awe of the displays, but she regained herself a moment later. “I don’t recognize the language,” she said. “What about you?”
Elina took the book and walked about the cave with it for a minute, running her finger across the text, but paying more heed to the pictures. Many were similar to those found in the tome carried by the scrawny man, but she could find none that depicted the great cloud in the shape of the mushroom. One image was of the great metal structures reaching up to the sky.
At last, Elina shook her head and closed the book, moving it under her arm. With her opposite hand, she felt for the cube in her pocket.
Elina motioned to Alice, then pointed to the book, then to herself.
Alice stared without comprehension.
Elina opened the book again, pointed to herself, then moved a finger across the page as if reading.
“You’ve seen a book like this before?” Alice said.
Replacing the text under her arm, Elina punched a fist into an open palm, a gesture made awkward by the shape of the book under her right arm.
“Cora has it?”
Elina shook her head.
Alice nodded and turned her attention again to the corpse. “We should do something about… this. Or at least take a description of it to your boss. I don’t think we can do anything more with it.” In spite of her words, Alice again knelt beside the creature and peered into its mouth. “But the stuff in the back of its mouth—all I can think is that it’s Fey.”
“This reminds me of the bad adventure stories my brother would tell. A forgotten race, come back to the world of mortals.” Alice shook her head and looked almost wistful. “I’d recommend burying it, but I think it would be best to report back. The cold will hold it over until we return.”
To this, Elina nodded, and they made for the mouth of the cave.
It was at the mouth that an arrow ripped through the air, passing within inches of Elina’s head. She dropped the tome to the ground and flattened herself against the snow, risking a peek a second later just in time to roll out of the way of a second arrow.
To her right, Alice remained standing, ignored entirely by their attacker.
In the distance, a blurred form, dressed heavily, but lightly enough that a bow could still be drawn. Though the bulk of their form left them ambiguous, the shape of their body hinted at someone male.
Alice lifted one of her hands. From her wrist, lightning arced through the air, ripping towards the attacker in a fraction of a second, sizzling that snow it came in contact with.
Yet the figure moved as if expecting the strike, and ducked to avoid it. Even so, the heat of the lightning touched the scarf around their head enough that it caught fire, forcing them to rip it away and abandon in to the snow.
When Alice drew back her arm for a second burst, Elina rose, grabbing the mage’s arm and holding her back.
Elina broke into a sprint, her hood falling to her neck as she ran. The cold air nipped at her face and forced her to narrow her eyes, but she did not veer from the course of her attacker, whose speed did not equal hers, despite his previous show of agility.
When Elina neared the man and it became clear there would be no escape, he tossed the bow aside and whipped around, drawing a knife.
The curve of the blade came within inches of Elina’s chest, but she caught herself in the snow and avoided it by the breadth of a hair. She possessed no weapon, but went for the man’s arm, wrapping her arms around his weapon hand and snapping it at the elbow. The blow forced the man to drop the knife, but the pain did not seem to daunt him.
With his free hand, he threw a fist in Elina’s face, the force of which dislodged her from his arm threw her backwards into the snow.
His damaged arm hanging limp at his side, he threw himself at the felled Emile, who only just righted herself, reaching for the pocket in which the translucent purple cube was held—
—only to be snatched from the air by a bolt of lightning that arced across the cold and ripped through the man’s head, throwing him sideways into the snow, a charred stump of a neck where his head once was. Alice came forward soon after, shaking the hand that had discharged the bolt as if she meant to cool it.
Emile was on her feet, a little worse for wear. Following a short, irritated glance to Alice, she reached into the snow and retrieved the man’s dagger. The blade was a twisted mixture of black and crimson, and the pommel seemed to bleed shadow, writhing and twisting even as Elina held it.
“Are you all right?” Alice said.
Elina nodded, entranced for a moment by the dagger. She shoved it into her belt, kneeling down beside the man who’d attacked her. He was bedraggled, dressed in clothing that seemed constructed from rags, filthy and marred with soot around the wrists. Unwrapping his facial trappings revealed a swollen black face covered in deformities and blisters. His left eye sagged from its socket.
Alice brought a hand to her forehead and massaged her temples. “An Uncivilized—again. The number we see beyond the border these days, it’s an army of trained soldiers is incapable of holding a wall. But why up here?”
She gestured to the body.
“And it’s dressed. And it used a weapon. I’ve never seen an Uncivilized do anything less than throw itself at an opponent. And—” Alice turned again to the Uncivilized, her eyes focused. “—and its eyes aren’t red.”
She reached down and moved the Uncivlized’s head until both its eyes were in view—eyes that shone a bright green, rather than red. “That can’t be right. Uncivilized always have red eyes. That’s… how it’s always been.”
Elina reached into her pocket and drew forth the cube, holding itself up to the light.
“Is something wrong?”
Elina pointed to the corpse, then to the cube.
“…it did lunge at your pocket; I saw that.” Alice looked onward, past the flurry of footprints treaded by Elina’s brief confrontation with the Uncivilized. Footprints marked the path by which it had traveled. “We should follow its trail. If they already have a foothold in the north, we may be able to root them out before they can cause any real damage.”
“It may also have been the one to leave the prints leading away from the Great Highway.” Alice began to pace. “But just one set—and four-hundred people missing. It still doesn’t make any sense. Let’s just follow the tracks and see if we can find some answers.”
They did, and traveled some ways to the south. The tracks left by the Uncivilized during its trek to the north were fading, but still fresh enough to follow. The air seemed to grow colder as they moved further south, till at last they came across a hole in the ground—or rather, a crater. The area of land around it was devoid of snow, but where dormant plantlife should have been, the soil was hard and stony, and looked to have been dry for many years.
The crater itself was a pit of darkness, and oozed black in the same manner as the knife. The bottom could not be seen, and no amount of light peeled back the shadows.
Elina knelt beside it and peered in, narrowing her eyes against the darkness as if it were difficult to look at.
Beside her, Alice probed the darkness with one hand. As it passed into the shadows, it disappeared from view. Alice gasped and drew it back a second later, clutching the arm and shivering. “Well, something’s down there. Can’t say I enjoy the thought of being the one to look inside.”
Alice stood, pointed her hand at the crater, and unleashed a bolt of lightning into the darkness, where it was consumed by the shadow, leaving no sign of having ever existed.
“I don’t think we should touch it,” Alice said.
Elina rose, standing over the edge. In her pocket, the vibrations of the cube grew innumerous.
Alice caught her by the arm as she moved to step into the crater. The darkness licked at her boots, but did not reach up to claim her. Alice threw her back into the snow, where Elina drew the corrupted knife from her belt as if on instinct.
“Elina!” Alice said, lifting an open hand to the other woman. “You were about to throw yourself into that pit! When I put my arm in there, I couldn’t feel it anymore! What happens if that feeling spreads to your whole body? If that’s where the Uncivilized come from, then jumping into the pit is the last thing you want to do!”
In Elina’s pocket, the cube was calm again. She shoved the knife back into her belt and wiped the snow from her pant-legs.
“I don’t think you should keep that thing,” Alice said, lowering her guard and pointing to the knife.
Elina’s brow contorted in thought.
“…or I suppose we could bring it to Cora. But be careful with it—and don’t touch it for too long.”
“And stop fondling the cube.”
Despite Alice’s words, Elina drew the cube from her pocket yet again, holding it close to the pit. Near the tarry blackness, the cube’s vibrations grew with a fury till it became difficult for Elina to maintain her grip. As she turned from the crater, the darkness within it took form, and reached out for her with an inky black tendril.
Alice yelled and cast a bolt of lightning into the tendril, only to find the black unaffected.
When the tendril pulled, Elina was forced to the ground, her arms dragging along behind her as she was pulled into the pit.
* * *
Elina woke. The darkness was eternal, but she found that she could see. She pushed herself off a ground that was sticky and dry. Something echoes distantly in the background, but the noise was not clear. She looked above and found a mass of living black writhing in place on the ceiling above her—a low hanging ceiling, from which hung twisted pink masse.
The cube was near her feet, and in the darkness, it was a beacon.
Elina reached down to pick it up, holding it before her like a weapon. She edged forward, drying the twisted knife from her belt and held it in her opposite hand. The temperature of the place of darkness was warm like bated breathing, and she loosened the collar of her coat to try and compensate for the heat.
Behind her, something fell to the ground.
The form of Alice lay upon the floor, moving only in her breathing. She lay face up, and her body was coated in a transparent slime-like substance that wetted her hair against her forehead. In a weak voice, she said, “Elina?” but the word was muffled, and Alice’s breathing became forced.
Elina moved to her side and knelt there. The slime formed a bubble over Alice’s nose and mouth that stopped each breath she attempted to take. With a careful prick of the knife, Elina ruptured the bubble, and Alice broke into a fierce cough.
“…just need a minute,” Alice said. “I can’t… move anything.”
Elina propped Alice’s head up, and as she did, the mage seemed to regain some control of her limbs. She struggled into a standing position, but her legs trembled, and she supported herself against Elina.
“That was stupid,” Alice said. “And you’re fine—of course.” She lifted a head to look the blotch of darkness upon the ceiling, presumably through which they’d fallen. “Well, ♥♥♥♥. I guess we aren’t leaving that way.”
Elina held the cube forward, where it cast a purple glow some feet ahead. The world around them pulsated as if alive, twisting and bleeding like an open wound, but the way ahead was of the same inky blackness. They walked a ways into the darkness, then Alice stood on her own two feet and said, “I’m fine now.”
Elina nodded and they walked with a greater degree of wariness.
When nothing came from the darkness, their guard slipped and Alice said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. This place almost looks—” She reached out to touch the wall, only to reconsider. “’—alive. And if it’s alive, maybe it brought us—you—here.”
Some ways forward, a distant scratching.
The tunnels twisted and wound as if an intestinal track, the fleshy texture of their surface a constant. Outside of Elina and Alice, there seemed no other inhabitants. The further in they went, the blacker the surfaces became, even against the light of the cube. The tunnels grew narrower, and the warmth of the breath upon their faces grew heated.
At last, the flesh of the tunnels ended and they came upon a dome chamber of stone. The artificial darkness receded, and the glow of Elina’s cube stretched out to encompass the room. It was an empty room, save for an altar in the middle and the indentations in the ground where two dozen others must have been kneeling.
Upon the altar sat a clutter of papers and images. Some were of the mushroom shaped clouds stretching over the land, but others were unfamiliar. Tubes of metal, pointed at an end opposite to an end from which flames erupted, propelling the cylinders into the sky as if great metal javelins.
Alice was the first to look through the images. She sifted through them with haste, pausing only after she was done to say, “It looks like some sort of cult.”
Elina went to the pictures then, but her gaze lingered on the topmost one, an image identical to one seen many days before in the book she’d given to Malion. She tapped the picture, then pointed to her eyes, then held up two fingers.
“You’ve something like this before?”
Alice’s brow furrowed, and she stared at the pictures for many long moments, sifting them into a pile which she carried in one hand. “We should take these to Cora—or… someone. They may have something to do with the disappearance of all those soldiers. And if—” She paused. “That tome from before, you didn’t bring it with you, did you?”
Elina lifted her arms as if to enunciate that she carried nothing.
“Right. Then once we find a way out, we should go back for it. Whatever this—” Alice made a wide sweeping gesture to the room. “—is, we should make sure it’s investigated. Its proximity to the highway can’t be a coincidence. This could serve as a staging point—yet there’s no one here.” Alice brought a hand over her mouth to stifle a cough.
Elina nodded and lifted the cube again, though even held casually, its light spread to most of the room. Before leaving, she snatched up one of the pictures of the metal cylinders and shoved it into her pocket. A small side-passage opened opposite of the fleshy tunnel, and seemed devoid of the dark flesh that made up the tunnel through which they entered. The walls and floors looked once to have been part of some larger compound, but were decayed such much that they bore little difference to the natural earth.
In the background, the scratching noise. Elina stopped and listened.
“What’s wrong?” Alice said.
Elina pointed to her ear, then made a vague gesture to the rest of the cave.
“I don’t hear anything.”
Elina twisted her head to the side and focused her ear on the noise—but the scratching faded. Though Elina lingered, straining for several seconds for the noise, she frowned and gestured to Alice for them to move on.
Further in, the condition of the stonework improved, and the carvings upon the walls became legible, but unrecognizable. They were runes, inscribed in the walls and the ceilings, and stretched as far as the tunnel would reach. Even the light of the cube seemed to grow in their presence, and the thick of the darkness seemed to draw back.
Then Elina stumbled over a body.
She caught herself as she tripped, her hand flying to the pommel of the dagger even before she’d recovered. But the caution proved unnecessary, for whatever lay strewn across the floor had long ago died. Elina knelt beside it, and without a word, Alice did the same.
The thing was humanoid and its flesh black, but it was not deformed as the Uncivilized were. Its skin was smooth and flawless, save for the gaping wound through the creature’s stomach. Like the Uncivilized, however, its eyes were red, and stared up with the same unblinking fury, even in death.
Elina indicated nothing, and stood. Alice followed, but cast a gaze back in the darkness as the creature whose flesh was black faded into the shadows.
Ahead, light shined through cracks in the walls and ceilings, and a thick layer of snow barricaded the tunnel’s end. No longer requiring it, Elina shoved the cube back in her pocket and kicked at the snow, only to find it too dense.
“Let me,” Alice said as she stepped forth and threw her hand forward, launching from it a bolt of lightning that ripped through the snow, melting the core as it passed through. The barricade proved easy enough to demolish when softened, and they then broke through to the surface, where the sun was still high and the air cold.
The snow outside the entrance was black and dirtied, as if from the same darkness that claimed many of the tunnels behind them.
Alice lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Seems brighter than I remember,” she said, but allowed a short laugh and began to wipe away at the transparent layer of slime that still covered much of her body.
The tunnel exit loomed over the hills of the southern, but was hidden in such a way that it could not be seen from below. Amidst the wall, there was a surge of activity. More soldiers had been deployed along top, and many carried crossbows, pointing them down at some foe opposite the border, hidden from view.
Alice considered the border for a moment, then said, “We should travel north again to—” She coughed many times before she was able to continue. “—Haven. If something is wrong at the border, my brother will no doubt have thrown himself at it. It’s enough for the soldiers of the North to be getting on with.”
Upon their return to Haven, they were intercepted just inside the city, though the interception was not violent. A woman dressed in armor of superior make approached Elina while keeping a grip on her sword. She was young for a soldier, but appeared no less hardened for it. When she approached Elina, she bowed, and said, “Elina Gray. I was told to fetch you for Councilman Malion when you returned.”
Before Elina could respond, Alice said, “We have our own business, thanks.”
But the woman did not relent, and seemed nonplussed by the rejection. “Miss, the summons was for Elina Gray,” she said to Alice, then to Elina: “Councilman Malion wishes to speak to you immediately.”
After many moments’ pause, during which the bustle of the city continued around them, Elina nodded—but slowly. When
The woman offered a curt bow and was off. Though she did not order such, Elina began to follow, only to be held back by the arm of Alice, who said, “Elina. Is it wise to keep your guild representative waiting?”
Elina cocked an eyebrow at the use of the term and shrugged away from Alice’s hand, choosing to instead to follow the messenger. Left in the crowd, Alice was left with little choice but to follow, and they soon stood outside the estate in which there seemed to exist perpetual springtime. Even so, the estate appeared worse for wear, and hints of frost crept across the grass.
At the word of the messenger, the soldiers who stood guard allowed for the gate to be opened. It was the messenger who escorted them to the front door, which opened as if on its own. Inside, a spacious area with a table upon which letters had been left, and four stiff wooden chairs “You are to wait in the sitting room until Councilman Malion comes,” the messenger said, and disappeared up a flight of stairs further into the manor.
Alice rounded on Elina. “Would you mind telling me why we’re here, instead of finishing the job?” There was a hint of anxiety in her voice. “I’m not on the best of terms with Cora until this is finished.”
Elina drew the crumpled picture of the metal cylinder from her pocket, uncrumpled it, and held it up for Alice to see.
“Ah.” The words seemed answer enough for the moment, but behind Alice’s eyes, dissatisfaction. “And what does he have to do with a metal tube in the sky?”
Unable to find a way to express it without words, Elina shrugged and attempted to dismiss the subject with a wave of her hand. She did so just as someone else came down the elaborately crafted flight of stairs.
The Councilman Malion’s apparel was not so extravagant as it had been previously. His robes had been discarded for a blue jerkin of velvet insufficient for the cold of winter, but perfectly adequate for the warm of an artificial spring. In spite of the change of clothes, he appeared tired, and shadows lingered in the folds of his eyes. “Miss Gray,” he said, but at the sight of Alice, paused. “I did not expect you to bring another. This is a sensitive matter.”
Elina pointed to Alice, then to herself, and nodded.
Though Councilman Malion considered the mage for many moments, he chose in the end to continue. “I would prefer you come to my office.” He ascended the stairs again, disappearing into the second floor. Elina moved to follow, Alice behind her, the stairs groaned as they went.
Malion’s office was a small thing, and offered few frivolities. A slot had been built into the door, allowing for letters to be deposited. In the right corner rested wardrobe, though a growing covering of dust hinted that it had seen sporadic use. When Elina entered, Malion had placed himself behind a thick mahogany desk, though he did not sit, choosing instead to lean on the chair behind it.
“Several of my linguists have worked tirelessly translating portions of the book you brought us,” he said. “The language is called ‘English’. As you were the one to recover the book, I thought it wise to inform you.” He turned to face the glass window of his room, through which could be seen the contrast of winter and the artificial spring. “But what they have discovered is… disturbing. Though we have long known that an ancient civilization once existed on the land upon which our own now rests, we did not know how such a civilization could simply disappear.”
Malion turned once again to his desk and opened a drawer, drawing from it several loose sheets of parchment. Each bore thousands of words of handwriting, written in as small text as would remain legible. “Great weapons of fire,” Malion said. “That—”
Alice coughed again, fiercer this time.
Malion paused in his tale. “Is your friend alright, Miss Gray?”
Elina looked to Alice, who said, “I’m fine.”
Malion accepted the words and continued. “The translated passages deal with explosives that dispense poison, dealing death and decay for hundreds of miles while corrupting the land for untold years.” He pushed the parchment aside, revealing a more concisely written military report. “This would not be so disturbing, were it not for the appearances of groups that seem to idolize these weapons. Until now, we did not know what it was they worshipped, and gave them a wide birth because of it.”
Elina hesitated, but reached into the pocket containing the crumpled picture of the metal cylinder. Alice placed a hand on her arm, an action that gave Elina pause, but she withdrew them anyway, and Alice spoke in her place.
“We may have discovered a meeting place for one of these cults,” Alice said as the image was uncrumpled and handed to Malion, “but it was abandoned.”
Malion held the image in his left hand and stared at it. “What is this? It seems more than a drawing.”
Alice and Elina could only shrug.
“You found this at one of their sites? Where?”
But though it was from Alice that the answer might have come, Elina shook her head before she could speak.
“It may be important, Miss Gray.”
“We’re on business,” Alice said. “I guess.”
Malion’s gaze seemed less forthcoming then. He sighed and leaned against the desk, staring at the floor. “Then perhaps you should conclude whatever business you have and return to me. I apologize for waylaying you in the first place.”
Accepting those words as her cue to leave, Elina turned on the heel of her foot and left Malion’s office, moving back downstairs and out the front door without waiting for Alice. Outside, two guards waited, who paused as Alice emerged from the manor, and then escorted the two the short distance to the front gate. Both nodded to Elina.
Alice shivered and coughed again. When Elina looked to her, she said, “I’m fine. Falling through that pit didn’t do as much for my health.”
They went then to The Moon’s Maiden and entered the door beneath the stairwell. The darkness of the windowless room remained thick, and the stench of herbs lingered, thicker this time; thick enough that it caused Elina’s eyes to water. Inside, Cora stood behind the table, facing away from them. The silhouette of her form was enunciated by the oil lamp on the table.
“You spoke to Malion on your way here,” Cora said.
Elina nodded, though it seemed a fruitless gesture in the dark.
“It is understandable.” Cora faced them. Her skin was cleaner, and she seemed recently washed. “I would ask what you found, but by your visit with the councilman, I already know. A cult dedicated to the worship of forgotten weapons. But were they responsible for the disappearance of the troops?”
“I would say they were,” Alice said, and Elina threw her a sideways glance. “Perhaps not directly, but they could have arranged for a disappearance.”
Cora nodded, but her gaze did not leave Alice. “Possible. But bear in mind that these were not idle men with swords. Many have made a habit of underestimating the military of the North. To overcome such a four-hundred soldiers, you would need an army—but we have seen no word of such a force, and our eyes are many. It would require an army—or something more fearsome than a blade.”
Cora held a ground mixture of herbs in the palm of her hand, which she brought up to her nose and inhaled the scent of. At such a potent concoction, she coughed, and her next words were stifled for several seconds. “I’m told you disappeared from view south of the highway.”
“If you see everything, then why do you need us?” said Alice.
“Why do I need Elina Gray, you mean. I require Elina because the arms and the eyes are incapable of the same tasks.” Cora poured the rest of the herbal mixture from her hand to the table, where it spread out across the surface of the wood. “Would you trust your hand to digest your food?”
From the darkness, Cora drew a burlap bag and tossed it upon the table, where it slouched to its side and spilled a single coin of its contents. “I have no further work for you today, little gray. Since you have already entered into a working relationship with Malion, I suggest you return to him. He is no doubt eager to provide you with a task.”
Elina did not appear happy to do so, and she frowned as she turned to the door, reacting to the command as if on instinct. She placed a hand against the wood of the door and furrowed her brow before pushing it open and slipping out, bringing Alice in tow. Even outside the darkness, her mood did not change, and it lingered even as they left the tavern.
They returned to Malion’s estate, but it seemed a long walk.
Elina shoved her hands into her pockets, though the city was not as cold as the country, and it seemed an unnecessary gesture. When they stood before the estate again, before the two soldiers who stood watch, and who had seen them leave minutes before, Alice stopped in her tracks and said, “Are you alright?”
But Elina offered no gesture to affirm or deny. She directed her attention to one of the guards—female—and nodded. The gesture seemed enough for the guard, who nodded in turn and opened the gate a second time, allowing Elina to cross the threshold from winter to spring.
In the manor’s sitting room, Councilman Malion seemed to wait for them. He held the transcripts of the glossy tome Elina had recovered previously, and had nestled himself in the stiff confines of a wooden chair meant for those entering the house. When Elina entered, he looked to her without surprise in his expression. “You return,” he said. “Does that mean you are willing to cooperate with me a second time?”
Elina nodded, but the gesture was stiff.
A fit of doubt crossed Alice’s features in the form of her lower lip, which she nibbled on as she monitored Elina out of the corner of her eye.
“It is regarding the cultists mentioned before,” Malion said as he stood, making vain attempts to even the ends of his papers as she shuffled them into a stack, before placing them at his side. “If you truly discovered one of their meeting places, that grants you some familiarity with them—even if it is only slight.”
Malion held the parchment against his chest and massaged his brow with his opposite hand.
“I do not consider it my place to infringe upon the beliefs of others. Doing so would spark contempt and ill will. But it is not unlikely that a group worshiping such… weapons, would be harmful, not only to themselves, but to others. If the translations of the text you brought me are indeed accurate, then these people toy with weapons of gods. But I want them investigated and assessed before any action is taken—not that I could spark the council to take action, even if I wanted to.”
One of Elina’s hands roamed to the cube in her pocket, where she swallowed it into the palm of her hand.
“When I began to suspect the intentions of this group, I ordered an alleged member followed.” Malion bowed his head and said, in a lower tone, “However, my agent has vanished, and I’ve received no word for two days.”
“Who was your agent?” Alice said, coughing as she stepped forward and spoke.
“That is something I would rather not disclose. I can, however, provide you with his last known whereabouts.”
“Those whereabouts wouldn’t be near a black hole to the southwest of here, would they?”
“…no, they wouldn’t.”
Alice smirked, but brought her hand up to stifle another cough.
“Are you quite sure your friend is all right, Miss Gray?”
Elina turned a curious gaze to Alice, who nodded, dismissed the question, and said, “I’m right here. If you must ask how healthy I am, say it to me, not her.”
Malion accepted the answer and said, “Of course. The last known location of my agent was the second house in the sixteenth block of the city.”
“You lost track of someone when he was sitting right under you?”
Malion ignored the tone of the question. “The city is large, and is host to many secrets that are impossible to catalogue. I cannot send just anyone officially associated with Haven, so I am passing this task to one who has proven her worth twice now.” His gaze flickered to Elina.
“I can see to it that patrols in the sixteenth block are limited. Go at night, and do not engage anyone unless it is your only remaining option. If you are incriminated, I will disassociate myself from you and you will be left to the mercy of the city.”
Again, Elina nodded.
When Alice seemed about to speak further, Elina placed a hand on her shoulder, at which she fell silent and echoed Elina’s nod. “Good day, Councilman Malion,” she said in the stiffest of tones.
“And to you.”
They left after those words, passing through the artificial spring and into gritty winter of Haven. When they’d wandered some ways into the crowded byways of the city, filled with stenches of varying sorts, Alice sighed and slumped her shoulders, bringing a hand up to stifle another pained cough.
Again, Elina placed a hand upon Alice’s shoulder.
“I’m fine,” Alice said as she shrugged away from the hand. “It’s just something about that black sick we passed through. It’ll wear off eventually.” However, her voice sounded less confident in that statement than her previous assurances of health.
Even so, Elina nodded.
“I want a drink,” Alice said. “If my brother were here, he’d say this is the part where the heroic band lingers in a tavern for a few days, discussing war stories, and developing romantic tension.” She smiled, though the expression was passing. “It’s funny. We’ve been apart for only a week, yet I find myself missing him. He’s still an ass, but I think I could do with seeing him.”
They shuffled along the busy city street until they found a patch of empty space large enough to stand on without jostling too many shoulders. The dark of the city loomed all around them, but for a moment, it seemed less prominent. In the shadows, Elina again nodded, as if affirming some private thought.
“Do you often do the dirty work of the council?” Alice said.
Elina held up three fingers.
“Take one more job and maybe they’ll let you join their ranks.” Alice shivered and coughed.
* * *
The sixteenth block of Haven bore little to differentiate it from the others. Its streets were a maze of alleys and lanes, dozens of which ran in between houses and hovels, creating many paths down which an outsider might travel down in the dead of night. It was in those byways that Elina lingered, at home in the dark. She minimized her form and moved without a sound, hugging close to the shadows. Though Alice followed, she did so without the same grace.
The lamps littered about the street provided minimal cover, though there were few enough guards on patrol to justify such caution, as Councilman Malion had promised. Though Elina was not criminal in her trespassing of the night, she remained silent anyway; flickering in and out of existence as she leapt from shadow to shadow, the glint of her brown eyes the only thing marking her as she passed in and out of the light.
At some point, Alice said, “Is this necessary?” Despite the words, she spoke in a hushed tone, loud enough only for Elina.
Elina nodded almost casually, as if the question were worth little more than acknowledgement.
In the darkness, Alice might have shrugged, but it was a gesture unseen.
They waited, hidden among the trash and the refuse, during which all was silent. The city itself slept, and only the wind recalled any signs of life. Above them, the moon glowed, colored red by the ever present tint of the sky. Time passed slowly, and Alice seemed to tire as she crouched in the darkness. Beside her, however, Elina did not. Elina Gray remained a statue in the dark, her eyes wide and aware, never tiring as night crept up to meet them.
When nothing came in the night, Elina at last slumped against the hard gray stonework of the nearest building, the cold of the stone providing some relief to the stiffness of her back. She sighed openly and looked to the sky.
Alice did not follow suit. She knelt beside Elina and rested a hand against the wall, but remained crouched and standing, aware even as the shadows moved beneath her eyes. “Maybe you need to sleep. It seems like neither of us is getting enough.”
But Elina shook her head and stood again, though less steady than before.
As if sensing her readiness, something crept through the dark. The noise did not pass through the byways, but through the main thoroughfare, and it grew till it was the sound of at least three sets of boots treading across trampled snow. Those wearing the boots chatted contently, but with some degree of paranoia, for their words were never great in tone.
From the darkness, Elina could not see them. She slipped from the shadows and eased her gaze out of the alleyways and out of the darkness. In the sixteenth block of Haven, she saw the woman from the bakery, along with a young girl no older than twenty, and a man who looked to be closer to thirty in years. They walked close together, but never close enough to rub shoulders.
From such a distance, Elina could not hear what they said. The trio moved to the entryway of one of the richer houses of the block and rapped upon the thick front door once, three times, twice, then three times again. Several moments later, the door was opened, and they were allowed to enter without questioning. In the brief moment before the door had closed again, light could be glimpsed.
Elina stood and moved from the darkness.
“That simple?” Alice said as she followed, more to herself than to Elina.
Elina shrugged, fondling the translucent purple cube in a moment of habit before she could stop herself. They approached the door and wrapped upon it once, thrice, twice, and thrice. Again, there was a moment’s pause. A man opened the door. He was not unpleasant in nature, and nodded to them. “Welcome,” he said, and his tone seemed kindly enough.
Elina nodded to him, and Alice performed a slight bow as she entered.
Where there should have been an entryway, there was only a set of stairs leading deep underground. The space upon which the doorman stood was the only level ground in the room, for there were no other doors and no other places to walk.
“And we just keep going underground,” said Alice. “I feel we’re falling into a routine.”
As they entered, the door shut behind them. Their their way forward was illuminated by a series of sconces attached to the stone of the wall that seemed to carry on endlessly. Elina and Alice fell into a quiet pace, the echoes of their footsteps accompanying each step of the journey. It was wordless, and carried on for what seemed like an eternity as the air around them chilled beyond the temperature of the world outside.
Elina pressed the fabric of her head wrap to her face, but she did not possess the time or the patience to do it up as she walked.
Deeper in, words traveled up the stairs, some echo of a speech given further in. Twisted by the make of the stone and the echo of the hall, they were incomprehensible, but Alice stopped anyway to listen for a moment. She opened her mouth as if she meant to speak, but reconsidered, and fell in line again behind Elina, who’d spared the echoes not a moment’s hesitation.
At last, they reached a bottom, and the narrow staircase leveled out, expanding into a rectangular stone room cast partly in shadow. To the left, another door, covered by thick red curtains, and another doorman. This one was less pleasant in his appearance—a taller man, darker in the tone of his flesh—but he nodded to Elina and Alice as they entered the room. As they approached the door, he placed a hand upon each of their shoulders in turn and said, “Welcome. I have not seen you before.”
But the man took his place beside the door and placed no accusations. His expression was welcoming, if not his form, and after the brief moment of physical contact, he made no move to stop them from entering.
The third room was the largest, and the most active. Through the red curtains was a wide, circular room. Lanterns had been placed in an octagonal shape around the center, casting light enough to illuminate the entire room—and the crowd that stood within. In number, there were close to one-hundred people gathered inside the circular room. Though they varied in age and sex, most were older, closer to their sixth decade. They appeared normal, and did not sport the trappings of a violent cult.
In the middle, a middle-aged man, square in his build. His hair was thick, brown, and untrimmed, though what remained of his beard was finely groomed. In his left hand, he held a disheveled collection of papers. With his right, he made wide gestures to the audience. But as Elina and Alice entered, he ceased in his speaking and turned his attention to the pair.
“It seems we welcome yet more to our ranks today,” he said in a voice that seemed almost fatherly. As he stepped into the crowd, holding his papers to his chest as he went, the people parted for him, splitting in two till a path was formed to Elina and Alice. When he stood before them, he bowed, his papers drooping as he did as if wet. “Welcome, sisters. Would it be impertinent to ask your names?”
Though the question was directed at them both, it was to Elina that he looked first.
“My friend can’t speak,” Alice was quick to say, and the man’s attention turned to her.
“Ah, my apologies, miss.” He bowed again. “May I ask you your names then?”
“I am Aura,” Alice said, before gesturing to Elina, “and this is Katherine.”
“A pleasure then, Aura and Katherine.”
As if it were a practiced response, the whole of the gathered crowd fell to one knee, and the man lifted a hand above the heads of both Elina and Alice. “Let the gods of old accept you from the fog of ignorance. Let their cleansing light purify you in the presence of an ignorant future. Let your understanding of all be changed so that you might know the truth. Let words established quake as they are brought down.”
The crowd nodded collectively, as did the man who administered the prayer.
“I am Speaker Kertan,” the man said. “Welcome to our temple. This is where we congregate, masking ourselves from the influences of a world that has forsaken its gods. It does not matter how you came to us, only that you are here, and that you come to understand the intent of those who came before.” He returned to the center of the octagonal formation of lanterns, the crowd parting for him as he moved. “Because there are two new to our number, I will begin with the basis for all that we are.”
At the center, there was a clumsy elegance to the way he lifted one of the papers from his chest, rotating it till all the room had seen. Despite the dimmer light and flickering shadows, its contents were clear. Like the images from the tome and those found within the mutated cave, it was glossy, and seemed to capture a single moment of the world.
Capture in the frame was an image of the metal cylinder, pointed at one end, spewing flame from the other.
“This is the vessel of the gods of old!” he said, his voice powerful beyond measure. “It is our foundation. Contained within this vessel is the essence of the gods. Unleashed, it purifies. It washes away blemishes and replaces them with perfection. Upon the essence, all life grows stronger. The old gods were not hasty in their efforts, and they sought to purify only those of sufficient advancement.”
He lowered his voice.
“Many were unworthy. The essence festered within their husks and created a cancer that consumed them from the inside—but those who endured the essence became strong! It was in the centuries that followed that the old gods purified the world upon which we now live! The old gods created what is now called a wasteland, from which a perfect life might rise.”
In Elina’s pocket, the cube shook, but she did not take notice of it.
“But the influence of the old gods has faded, my friends—” Speaker Kertan made a slow sweeping gesture towards his listeners. “—and so it is we who must spur the creation of this perfect life. The first steps have already been taken, and they are glorious!”
Again, Speaker Kertan twisted about in a wide gesture, pointing to the curtained door through which Elina had entered.
Someone—something pushed through the curtains. A humanoid creature of black with eyes of red entered, whose form was pulsated and deformed. Its veins glowing along the undersides of its arms, even through the fabric of its clothing. On the left of its head, burned flesh of a lighter shade of gray.
In walked the Uncivilized whose head Alice had removed from its shoulders.
The creature moved slowly, its bloodshot red eyes flickering about the room. A scowl seemed permanently affixed to its face.
Though there had been silence in the face of Speaker Kertan’s words, nothing reflected the silence that entered alongside the creature of black. A deathly hush fell over the crowd, and no one blinked. When the creature walked into the crowd, people parted, and a path was created. No one seemed eager to touch it, and those who came close to brushing it recoiled as if struck.
Upon seeing the creature, Elina wrapped a protective hand around Alice’s arm and seemed on the brink of retreating from the room. But when the Corrupted passed its gaze over them, it registered them no longer than it did those who cowered. Alice allowed a sigh of relief as the creature ignored her. She was not the first of those gathered to do so.
At last, the creature stood beside Speaker Kertan, the only one present who did not seem to fear the Corrupted. He smiled at its approach, and when it stood beside him, he rested a hand across its back as if greeting an old friend. “This is our largest step towards perfection,” he said. There was a hint of contained excitement to his voice, and his eyes flickered to the Corrupted constantly, even as he struggled to maintain eye contact with the crowd.
“Fear is a natural reaction, do not worry. The gods of old did not value beauty so much as they valued strength. They sent us the beginnings of perfection to urge us to better ourselves, but the ignorant would seal them away and deny us euphoria.” Speaker Kertan encircled the Corrupted, and seemed enamored by it, for it delayed his words. “…but… this is but a piece of perfection, my friends! This is a beginning—a canvas upon which to paint.”
He stepped into the crowd and pointed a hand into the air.
“I was given a vision!” he said, “I know where it is we must go to find the paint! The tools of perfection are gifts as old as the vessels through which the influence of the old gods trav—”
Alice coughed, fiercer this time than ever before. It took her many moments to recover.
Speaker Kertan’s pause was momentary, and there seemed an appreciative glint in his eye as his gaze lingered for a moment upon Alice. “—traveled. Tomorrow, we will return to the sanctuary in the south, and travel into the land of perfection! There we will find the paint to our canvas. There—”
A darker tone to the final words.
“—there we will find rapture.” Speaker Kertan drew in a deep breath, before allowing the passion to fade from his voice. In spite of the confidence of his tone, his legs quaked, and he struggled to hide the trembling in his arms made evident by the rustle of the parchment. “Tomorrow, my friends,” he said, his tone softer. “Go now. Prepare yourselves for travel.”
The crowd departed the room in silence. There were no words of idle gossip. Only the scrabble of shoe against stone marked any sort exodus.
The Corrupted remained at Speaker Kertan’s side, unmoving.
Elina and Alice lingered, and it was Alice who approached Speaker Kertan.
Elina’s gaze never left the Corrupted.
“You stayed,” he said, laying his parchment on the table serving as his makeshift altar. “You impress. There are those who come, only to be lost in the sacrifice that is necessary. Your friend cannot speak, so I will ask you: what did you think of the words of old?”
Alice searched for something. “…brief.”
Speaker Kertan laughed, and seemed to take no offense at the judgment. “Ha! Had you come before today, you would have received a sermon of greater length. It is not my place to dictate the length of my words. They come to me the day before, and my role is only to recite them.”
Noting Elina’s attention to the Corrupted, Speaker Kertan said to her, “You seem unnerved by the canvas of perfection. Do not be. The faithful are protected. The canvas harms only those who would add further imperfection to the world.”
“But in the north, they call them the Corrupted,” Alice said.
Speaker Kertan dismissed the words with a casual wave of his hand. “A label given to them by men who did not heed the call of the old gods. They act as tools of the old gods. It is our denial of them that creates the anger, that fuels the beings called ‘Corrupted’. To us—to those of faith—they are guardians.” Speaker Kertan bowed to the pair and turned to the table, where he began to sift through the images. “But now you must go. I have preparations to make.”
“How will we know where to come for the journey south?”
Again, Speaker Kertan laughed. “You will come here, of course. There are ways of travel in this world only the faithful may know—but you distract me. It is time for you and your friend to go.”
Elina and Alice did go, exiting through the curtain. But as they went, the Corrupted watched them through wide red eyes. It did not act, but neither did it release them from its gaze.
They moved up the endless staircase. The sconces had gone dark, but the pair made their way quickly enough. At the top, at the entrance to the house that disguised the staircase, they found the doorman missing. As they both stepped into the winter of the sixteenth block, the door behind them slammed shut.
Alice twisted around and threw the door open again, only to find the staircase gone, replaced with a drawing room that seemed unremarkable by any stretch of the word. Alice closed the door, a grim expression spreading across her features.
They did not speak till they were some distance from the house, safe in the shadows of an alleyway where only the trash listened.
“♥♥♥♥,” Alice said to the gray stone wall of the byway, before she pressed a hand against her forehead and turned to Elina. In spite of the cold, Alice sweated, fresh drops running down her forehead. She was paler than usual, and her gait flimsier. “Corrupted. A cult of weapon-worshiping sycophants who can control an army of supermen. I think that deserves a ‘♥♥♥♥’.”
Alice walked into the street. Above, the light of morning spread, though the sun could not be seen over the walls of the city.
“Already?” Alice said, narrowing her eyes. “We were only down there for a few minutes. It must have been, what, midnight when we left.” She slammed her eyes shut and began to pace, interlocking her fingers beneath her chin as she thought. “I didn’t expect that. We should go back to Malion, tell him we didn’t find his ‘agent’, and that he should send soldiers in to butcher the lot.”
Elina, too, was in thought, crossed arms and furrowed brows, but she emerged from her musings as Alice made her suggestion. She shook her head, though her eyes were unfocused as she did so.
“No? Then what? Why not?”
For several more seconds, Elina was silent in her gestures. She offered no ideas, nor any indication of her intentions. In an almost random movement, she extracted the crumpled picture from her pocket—the one of the metal cylinder—and flashed it before Alice again.
“I know, the ‘vessel of the old gods’.”
Elina shook her head. She shoved the picture back into her pocket and brought both hands together as fists. Then she expanded both, opening her mouth into an ‘O’ shape as she did.
Elina repeated the gesture.
“Then it’s a bomb? So what? I’ve seen explosives before. More often than not, they blow up in the face of someone who thinks they know how to use them.”
Elina shook her head and repeated the gesture a third time, expanding the movement of her hands further, till the implied explosion grew in size.
“…how do you know that, Elina?”
To that, Elina said nothing.
“How do you know? Are you part of their cult?” Alice took a cautious step away from Elina and lifted a hand, a hand down which sparks of lightning leapt, drawn to the tip of her index finger.
All Elina offered was a shake of the head. She repeated the gesture a fourth time, excluding the ‘O’ of her mouth. Her expression was grimmer.
Though she maintained the heightened caution for several more seconds, Alice ultimately lowered her arm and sighed. She turned away from Elina, but did not move away, and inhaled, only to sigh a second time. “Okay. A big explosive.” She turned again to Elina. “Do you know how big?”
Elina’s stare was solemn—and response enough.
“Big,” Alice said in a voice meant more for herself than for others. “But that doesn’t tell me how you know anything about this. My brother is obsessed with the Tales, yet he never mentioned anything about an explosive that could—” Alice searched for a word, before deciding at last to mimic Elina’s gesture. “And I don’t care if you can’t speak. Mime the bloody explanation if you have to.”
Elina opened her mouth as if she meant to speak—as if she’d suddenly developed the ability to—but closed it just as quickly, and offered a dismissive wave of the hand, before she turned from Alice, a slump in her shoulders.
“No—No!” Alice stepped forward and placed a forceful hand on Elina’s shoulder, pulling her back.
Elina spun around and twisted Alice’s arms till she held the mage against the ground, one arm locked behind her back. But as she performed the move, there was a hurt look on Elina’s face. Her mouth twisted up into painful silence, and she released Alice from the hold.
Against rationality, Alice did not back away. She stared at Elina with a mixture of curiosity and pity—but without anger. “Is this why you can’t speak? Are you somehow connected to those ‘vessels’ they want to use in the name of their old gods?”
Elina shook her head.
“…are you silent by choice, or by birth?”
To those words, Elina offered nothing.
Alice waved her hand as if to dismiss the exchange and wandered further into the alleys of Haven’s sixteenth block. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. I feel like I could use a drink. Maybe seven. Maybe I’ll find my brother in a tavern somewhere, where he’ll have suddenly grown a brain, common sense, and better parentage.”
Elina moved ahead of Alice and planted herself in the other woman’s path. She made sure Alice saw her eyes and the expression that lingered there, an expression wide and suppliant.
Alice managed a smile. “Don’t worry, little gray,” she said, though Cora’s nickname sounded alien as it rolled across her tongue. “I suppose we’ll be coming back tomorrow night for the exodus to the south. If you’d like, I’ll buy you a drink. It seems like we’re both going to need one sooner or later.”
So they wandered through the wee hours of the morning, when people were scarce, even those who performed jobs of menial labor, and were often called upon to wake earlier than others. The pair found a tavern, nestled into the fourteenth block of Haven. Its sign had long since been worn away, but the stink of alcohol and the quiet grumble of patrons served as label enough.
The barkeeper—a tough old woman with leathery skin, but soft eyes—didn’t question them, and offered a silent choice between the alcohols offered.
“Beer,” said Alice, and offered little else in the way of specificity. When her beverage of choice came before her in a wooden tankard, she swallowed it, coughed, and laid her head against the counter. “I don’t think I’ve slept in two days.”
After paying for the drink, Alice stood, less stable than before the beverage, and walked out the door, holding her hands aloft at her sides as if to balance herself. She cast a glance over her shoulder to see if Elina followed, then said, “Can you write, Elina?”
Beneath their feet, the crunch of fresh snow, for clumps of white tumbled forth from the red sky.
Though it seemed a hesitant gesture, Elina nodded.
Alice stopped and spun on her heel in the snow. Opposite each other, the slight difference in their heights was enunciated, Alice standing but a hair taller than Elina. “Then would you be willing to write down who you are—or at least how you know about the bo—” Almost as an afterthought, Alice lowered her voice to a near whisper. “—bomb?”
Elina furrowed her brow and did not meet Alice’s gaze.
“If I told you about me, would you tell me about you? I’m sure we can find some parchment somewhere.”
To the request, Elina did not respond. She took slow steps forward, passing Alice in the street, but doing it at such a pace that the other woman could turn and keep step with her. Still, Elina’s expression did not change. She stared at the ground and walked as if guided by instinct rather than sight. The streets were empty at such early hours, so the journey went unimpeded.
Still, Alice persisted. She moved beside Elina and lowered herself the few inches difference that separated their heights. “Would you, little gra—”
Elina stopped and gripped Alice around the arm. It was a forceful, controlling gesture, and there was no level of affection in Elina’s gaze as the alias died halfway across Alice’s lips. The two held a brief, wordless exchange, and when it ended, Alice did not speak the alias.
“—Elina,” Alice said instead. “Would you tell me about yourself if I told you first?”
They found themselves at the city’s edge, near one of the smaller gates. Four guards manned it in spite of the hour, and all four seemed as prepared ever. Half a minute later, the gate was cranked open, and one of the guards nodded to Elina as she passed, a gesture she returned.
Though no answer had been given, Alice continued anyways.
They did not venture far from the city of Haven, walking along its outer wall instead, where the snow turned to mud against its surface, against the grim and the dirt and the stone.
Elina had distanced herself a foot from Alice.
“I suppose I should start with my brother,” Alice said, and her tone turned nostalgic. “He wasn’t always… ‘heroic’. There was a time when he was a great deal more rational. He knew that Tales were Tales and that the heroes of Tales accomplished impossible things. I don’t know truly where the change began, but I believe it was during his schooling.
“He was intelligent enough, but he could not muster the focus for education. Something about it eluded him. He would return home each day, his face glum, and I knew that each glum face meant he’d failed an examination of some sort. The more he failed, the more he withdrew. The more he withdrew, the more he failed.”
An expression of regret spread across Alice’s features. “One day, he came back… like a child. The child who would go to bed and insist upon hearing a Tale of Elves and Fairies and heroes. He never grew out of it, and there was nothing my parents or I could do to dissuade him from his attitude. It was he who founded the group of misfits you met in Croften. I was just there to make sure he didn’t do anything stupider.”
Alice sighed, but smiled in spite of it.
“Very rarely does he mean ill, but he is an ass.” She opened her mouth as if meaning to speak more, but hesitated, looked to Elina, and said, “Why does Cora call you ‘little gray’?”
Elina did not respond to the question, though she managed to shift in her boots as she walked, and were the winter weather not already flushing her cheeks, she might have been blushing. Unable to hide all the signs, Elina twisted her gaze away, even as a small part of her twitched into a smile.
There was a long silence for a while.
“Will you tell me about yourself now? Or at least how you knew about the bomb? We have until tomo—tonight, it seems.”
At last, Elina seemed to consider the request. She paused in her walking and made a slight gesture to Alice, motioning for them to move back into the city. The guards allowed them in as easily as they had allowed them out. Elina did not search for a place to purchase parchment, however, and chose instead to return to the alleys, picking up a black fragment of stone from the rode as she went.
With the stone’s jagged tip, she scraped words onto the stone wall. Though the black of the stone against the gray of the wall made reading difficult, the words themselves were clearer.
‘Refugee,’ they read.
Alice’s gaze flickered to Elina, as if expecting the other woman to write something more. When Elina did not, Alice’s gaze lingered on the three words. She brought a hand up to stroke the chilled flesh of her chin as she read. “You’re a refugee? From where?” Alice said.
Elina shook her head and pointed to each of the words in turn.
“…you are refugee? Refugee is a title?”
To that, Elina did not respond.
“Well, it’s something,” Alice said, though her tone was neutral, betraying no expectations. Moments later, she smiled and placed a hand upon Elina’s shoulder. “Whatever the words truly mean, thank you for trusting me to some small extent. They don’t tell me much, but thank you for… it.”
Elina, too, smiled.
“When you’re in Haven, where do you sleep—?”
The smile flickered.
“—since you didn’t go anywhere before to rest. Where do you keep your belongings?”
But Elina was silent. She shoved her hands into her pockets and exhaled into the winter air as she ventured out of the alleyway. She traced a familiar path and found herself at The Moon’s Maiden, where the tavern was devoid of patrons. Even the barkeep was absent, leaving nothing but a cold hearth to those who entered.
She found the door beneath the staircase and slipped inside, Alice in tow.
The air was remained thick with the stink of incense. Though the lantern atop Cora’s table remained ever -lit, Cora was not present.
Further into the darkness, beyond that which Alice had ventured into before, sat a cluster of bags and belongings, shoved against the wall beside a sleeping mat wide enough for two. Standing next to them was Elina’s bow, alongside a longsword of plain make.
“You live in here?” Alice said, twisting around as if she might see more in the darkness.
Elina did not answer. She reached for the sword.
“If you bring weapons, that Speaker may begin to suspect.”
Elina hesitated, at last staying her hand.
“Don’t worry. I shoot lightning out of my hands. We’ll be fine. If something does go wrong, just punch it in the face.”
Yet Elina’s expression did not change. Even in darkness, it remained discontent. Moving from her weapons, she rummaged through her packs and found alternate changes of clothes. Like her namesake, they were gray, and provided some degree of camouflage in the winter months.
She turned to Alice and gestured for her to turn around.
The demand seemed to amuse Alice, whose lips tightened with hints of a smile. Nevertheless, she complied, and turned away from Elina, taking several steps forward to enunciate the gap.
Elina stripped off clothes that for the first time seemed wet. Though she’d bundled herself in leather and many layers of fabric, each layer seemed old and dank, and even the leather carried with it a stink. In her underthings, she paused a moment to savor the freedom of movement, even as the cold of outside crept in through the cracks and nipped at her skin.
The rest of her flesh was pale, near white. In winter, such a complexion was not uncommon.
Elina dressed herself quickly and collected a knife from her bag, which she stowed into the fabric around her left calf. Almost as an afterthought, she reached into the pocket of her previous coat and extracted the cube and the crumpled picture, shoving them with equal haste into her current pockets.
Her fingers lingered atop the translucent purple cube, the surface of which remained warm.
She turned to Alice, who had forgone modesty and turned back to Elina prior. Her face revealed nothing, save for the persistent smirk that tugged at the edges of her lips. “You live here?” she said again.
Elina’s response was delayed, but at last she nodded.
“In the dark? Always in the dark?”
“There’s only one bed.”
Elina indicated nothing. She moved to the door in the darkness.
“Elina,” Alice said.
Elina did not stop.
“Elina, you don’t have to answer—” Elina’s pace was rapid, and for a moment, Alice experienced difficulty keeping pace. She coughed as she stepped down the stairs leading out of The Moon’s Maiden. “—but I’d like some acknowledgement that you heard me.”
Elina stopped. She waved her hand over her shoulder.
“Okay,” Alice said as she placed a hand atop Elina’s arm. “Then why don’t you sleep? You’ll need the energy more than me. The lightning doesn’t just run through me—it helps keep me awake. You sleep, I’ll keep watch.”
Though Elina did not turn to Alice, even in the shadows, she nodded.
Night came quickly.
When Elina woke later, she found her hand in her pocket, fondling the purple cube, and Alice asleep against the wall, still half-standing. Though the room remained Cora’s, Cora did not appear, and the darkness remained silent.
Elina slept in her fresh clothes, and they remained fresh enough to continue to wear. She stood, reached for her sword as if on instinct, then hesitated. She placed a hand on the bulge of fabric that concealed her knife before reaching over to poke Alice, who resisted the gesture at first. When the mage came too at last, she moved with grogginess and fatigue.
Alice yawned. “Ow,” she said, before yawning again. Though she stood upright, the stability of her gait did not return for near a minute, and even then, her reflexes seemed dulled. “I guess night came a lot sooner than I thought it would.” But as she looked around, she said, “It is night, right? It’s hard to tell when you live in a stone box.”
At that, Elina smirked and nodded.
She moved back into the tavern proper, where the barkeeper greeted her with a nod, a gesture he gave also to Alice. Both women returned it.
Though the streets were no longer empty, they were not crowded. Above them, the moon carved a beacon through the red of the sky. Snowflakes drifted through the air in perpetual fall. Elina and Alice moved to block sixteen, a journey spent in silence, if only because of the lingering fatigue of sleep.
Elina’s hand remained in her pocket, holding the cube.
The narrow house of block sixteen in which the cult last met stood above the rest, though it was built no higher. It gave off an aura, and called out like a beacon. Unlike the previous night, there stood no doorman, and no one entered from the outside.
“I hope we’re not being led on,” Alice said as she reached for the knocker. But as she lifted it to signal their arrival, she hesitated. “Do you suppose the Speaker already knows who we are? He didn’t question our arrival, or how we found his group.”
Elina’s brow furrowed.
“…we should assume that he knows. Better safe than sorry.”
Alice knocked on the door three times.
They wait for nearly a minute, during which no one answered. Even after knocking again, no one came to the door. At last, Alice pushed it open, finding the endless stairs that marked the entryway. Without acknowledging Elina, she walked into the darkness.
The endless nature of the staircase did not seem as infinite as it had before. They passed in a minute, and Elina and Alice came to the subterranean room a short time later. There were no guards, and the air inside seemed staler, stuffier than the first meeting, while the curtain that separated the entryway from the circular room had been torn away.
The half-sphere room was no longer the place a stone and worship.
The walls had twisted and pulsated, mutating into twitching walls of crimson flesh that moved and twisted and breathed with all the energy of something mobile. A thick, transparent slime covered the room, from the walls to the ceiling to the floor. Each step forward became a challenge, for whatever material coated the floor clung to the soles of Elina and Alice’s boots like an adhesive.
Though Speaker Kertan stood in the center of the half-sphere room, he was not surrounded by the near-hundred disciples of the previous night. Those who came to him were closer in number to one dozen. Of those who came before, those gathered currently were the youngest of the cult.
Speaker Kertan held the pictures of mushroom clouds and metal cylinders in one hand, lifting them into the air as he spoke, but when Elina and Alice entered the room, his words faded, and his attention turned to them.
“Our newest,” he said, stepping forward and making a wide gesture with both arms as if he meant to physically direct the flow of attention to his guests. Across his face, a smile of ambiguous intent. His expression offered just as little. “Welcome. You have chosen to join us on our pilgrimage to find the agents of the old gods.”
“Do you know where to go—once we’re in the Wasteland?”
“We are instruments of the old ones. They will guide our steps.”
Alice bit her lip.
A twitch of Speaker Kertan’s lips. He seemed about to laugh. “I see the nature of the room surprises you.”
“It… looks like the flesh of the—of the perfect imperfections.”
Speaker Kertan placed his hands upon his hips and looked to the ceiling. The smile on his face grew till it was broad and laughing. “It is not only the living who will feel the touch of perfection when our work is complete. Terra will be shaken to the core. The very soil upon which we now live will change, growing till it matches the vision set forth by the old gods.”
He looked to the weapon bulge at Elina’s hip.
“You fear for your life, Katherine?”
“She carries one out of habit,” Alice said.
Elina rested her hand across the lump that held the knife.
Again, Speaker Kertan seemed close to laughter, though it was more subdued. “I hope in time that she will come to forget such paranoia. It is admirable, but unnecessary while under the protection of the old gods.” He moved back to the center of the room, standing in the center of the octagon of torched. The pictures slipped from his arms, carried along by some impossible breeze, as he lifted his hands from his sides, raising them into the air.
He closed his eyes.
The earth beneath their feet shook, jarring everyone from their feet but Speaker Kertan, who stood as if he’d not felt the sudden quake.
He opened his eyes.
“We are among the gods of old,” he said. His voice was weaker and he seemed out of breath. He walked forth towards the exit, his feet shuffling across the stone of the ground. “We are among the gods of old.”
Those disciples who traveled with Speaker Kertan seemed nonplussed, even jarred from their feet and thrown to the ground. They righted themselves without a word, revealing no emotion or hint of pain. When their leader moved to the exit, they followed.
The once-curtained gateway that should have led to the infinite stairs did not.
It stared instead at a wasteland, a vast landscape of glassy black that stretched out for miles in all directions. The temperature rose beyond that of any northern winter, and Elina began to sweat beneath her many layers of clothing, enough so that she tugged at the fabric to keep it from touching her skin
But it was Alice who drew the most attention, for when she took her first step into the wasteland, she fell to her knees and began to die.
“Elina—!” Alice clutched at the fabric of Elina’s shirt as she fell to her knees, gasping for breaths that would not come. To everyone but Elina, reactions came slowly. It seemed only Elina who noticed when Alice keeled over, clutching at her throat, eyes wide. She fell to the mage’s side, only to find she could do nothing.
Alice looked to her with a final desperate gaze before falling back, slipping through Elina’s arms to the ground where she ceased to move.
Elina’s reaction was trained and seemed more an operation of instinct than any cognitive response. She crossed one hand over the other and pressed against Alice’s chest. Seven hard, fast presses. After each set, she would tilt Alice’s head back and press her mouth to the mage’s to breathe for her, though the breaths accomplished little, for Alice did not return to life.
In spite of the death, Elina continued to offer what breaths she could.
At last, Speaker Kertan turned to her. His expression was slow and solemn, and the emotion seemed gone from his face. “Your friend was imperfect,” he said. “Even in perfection that welcomes imperfection, she was deemed unworthy. Learn from her death and leave her, lest she taint you with imperfection of imperfection.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Elina threw Speaker Kertan a venomous gaze.
But no matter what she did, Alice would not rise. The mage’s eyes stared into the red of the night sky.
Elina checked Alice’s pulse.
She checked it again.
She forced more breaths upon Alice.
Two of the dozen disciples who had accompanied Speaker Kertan grabbed Elina by the arms and forced her away from Alice and to her knees, pressing her face against the warm, glassy surface of the Wasteland.
“Your friend was imperfect,” Speaker Kertan said again. He knelt beside Elina, his tone and posture almost friendly. In his left hand, he continued to cling to the many glossy images of detonations and metal cylinders. “Take solace in knowing she found peace, even if it came during a moment of weakness. She has ascended beyond us.”
He stood and gestured to the others.
“Stand, Elina Gray.”
Elian displayed no surprise at the acknowledgement of her name, but she did not stand. She tore herself from the grip of her captors and broke the nose of the first—a younger woman no more than a year her junior—before being subdued by two more of the disciples, who pinned Elina to the ground completely.
“The faithful have nothing to fear from thugs and sycophants,” said Speaker Kertan as he turned to look upon the leached horizon. Though the sun shone red over the Wasteland as it did over everything else, the red was muted and dominated by the sharp blacks and whites of the vicious landscape.
He lifted a hand and signaled to the others.
The woman whose nose Elina broke returned the blow in force, cracking Elina upside the head with the side of her hardened leather gauntlet. Though the blow did not render Elina unconscious, it eliminated her focus. Images bled into one another till the world around her blurred into a mess of grays. In her ears, an incessant ringing.
Kertan spoke, but Elina could not hear him.
She was forced to her feet, but her hands were bound behind her back by a rope that cut into her skin. The same had been done for her feet, preventing Elina from managing any sort of step beyond the hobble of an infant. A moment later, she was forced again to her knees, held there by two of the disciples.
Speaker Kertan’s words grew clear at last.
“—you to be the guide, for it was said the guide would come from elsewhere, but you are not her,” he said, waving a hand and turning from her. “It was foolish of me to raise my hopes to such extremes, for the old gods have never offered anything in such haste.”
He placed a hand beneath Elina’s chin, scrutinizing her.
“But perhaps you will be enough for the agents of old. I will bring you to them, and perhaps we will see if you are capable.” As Kertan paused, he looked to the corpse of Alice, whose paler form contrasted the black of the earth. “I do not know what manner of imperfection your friend consumed to warrant such a meaningless death. It is a shame she could not accompany us on our pilgrimage.”
He moved to Alice’s body and knelt beside it to examine her.
“The pressure against her chest—the breathing,” Kertan said, stroking his beard. “What is it you hoped to accomplish by violating her death as you did? Was your respect for her so insignificant that you would whore yourself to her corpse?”
He shoved Elina to the ground next to Alice, her head resting perpendicular to the mage’s.
“Say your goodbyes to her, Elina Gray. I will take you to the agents of old, even if you do not deserve it. Perhaps you are the guide after all. They will decide.”
Elina twisted herself over till she could see Alice.
The mage seemed alive still. Her flesh still held color, and her hair twisted in the wind, blowing over her eyes. Were her hands not bound, Elina might have reached out to touch her in a final parting gesture for a death so unworthy.
From her pocket, the cube slipped.
It bounced twice across the hard of the ground, rolling towards the sleeve of Alice’s shoulder as if possessing a mind of its own. It fell against the mage, but as it met the fabric, it passed from existence, disappearing into Alice.
Though Elina’s featured gaped in surprise for a moment, it was a change in expression she suppressed as best she could, for two of the disciples dragged her to her feet once again.
A scream pierced the air.
The collective attention shifted.
Alice’s corpse twisted and writhed, and she moved as if alive again. She grabbed at her shoulder, screams turning to stifled cries of pain. When she tore at the fabric, it came away as if little more than paper, revealing the flesh of her shoulder—flesh that was no longer pale.
Jagged purple lines stretched from the point the cube had passed into Alice’s body, lines that covered her shoulder one second and the rest of her body the next. The more the lines grew, the less Alice cried out. But as the purple passed through her flesh, the tint of her skin changed, deepening from the pale of fairer flesh to a dark gray.
Alice shot upright, suddenly standing.
She grabbed at her chest and gasped with lungs that could once again breathe. When her gaze whirled around, taking in Kertan, his disciples, and Elina in a single moment, her eyes were no longer their natural blue. One had turned red, the other green.
Along the undersides of her arms, the metal cables running beneath her skin had been forced to the surface, running overtop her flesh. They glowed blue as lightning arced up and down their lengths.
When one of the male disciples stepped towards Alice—a single step—she lifted an arm as if on impulse and ripped through him with an arc of lightning. The blast continued for many seconds, during which Alice herself struggled to control it, grabbing her arm and forcing the lightning into the ground till the flow ceased.
Several of the other disciples stepped forward, but Kertan held up a hand. At the gesture, they fell docile once again.
Alice spoke. “I—I—I—can’t—” The voice was hers, yet not. Something echoed over her words, something genderless and deep. With each stammered word, the genderless voice overrode Alice’s overtaking and encompassing it till a hybridized voice remained; a voice inhuman, high-pitched, and female. That voice continued to stammer. “I—I—I—I—”
Alice stumbled forward.
The disciples stepped back. Their hands went to the crude assortment of knives and maces tied to their waists.
Alice looked to Elina for a moment, her eyes wide with panic. “Elina—I—” She keeled over, still clutching at her chest. The force of her grip tore her fabric, opening a whole that revealed the upper portion of her chest. What remained of her fair flesh was consumed by the gray of the cube, a change that stretched to her head, dyeing her hair white.
When Alice twisted her gaze around a second time, it underwent a change. Its expression was cooler—relaxed, in spite of the twists and spasms of her body. Her breathing slowed. “Elina Gray,” she said. “Alice Heliah. Richard Heliah.” She brought a hand to her forehead and slammed her eyes shut. When she opened them next, both shone red. “I am called… I am… called…”
She opened her eyes turned again to Elina, whose expression had fallen into gaping shock.
“I… am…” Her brow furrowed. “…Seiq. I am to be called Seiq.” Alice repeated the name, stretching the first syllable.
Speaker Kertan seemed at last satisfied with the display. He lifted a hand and made a casual gesture to his disciples. Without a word, they advanced on Alice. The same whom whose nose Elina had broken brought the hilt of her blade against Alice’s forehead.
The blow staggered Alice, but not greatly. She lifted a hand as if to retaliate, but was struck again. The second blow sent her into a blurred stumble before rendering her unconscious. Blood eked through matted white hair as she fell to the ground.
Kertan opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. His eyes were wide, and he stared at Alice without blinking, at the gray of her flesh and the white of her hair. “…bring… bring them both—the guide and the im—and the perfect one. The agent of the old called to them. He will know what is to be done.”
He turned and led his disciples further into the glassy black wastes, but cast his gaze back over his shoulder, lingering on Alice.
Elina walked when it was possible, but could not keep pace when bound at the legs. Two of the disciples dragged her from a distance. The ground was smoother than that of the Northlands and a great deal more forgiving, but even near-featureless glass of the Wasteland nicked and cut through the fabric of her coat. She would close her eyes to sleep, only to be jarred by movement.
Alice was given a greater level of care, though the name seemed an inaccurate one given her transformation. The two disciples who carried her did so with great care, and the pace seemed defined by their steps, rather than those taken by Speaker Kertan. In spite of the care, she was subdued whenever she appeared to be regaining consciousness.
Kertan always presided over the submissions.
During each, his face would pale, and he would bring a hand up to cover his mouth. With each blow to Alice, he seemed on the verge of tears. He would always leave the task to those who followed him, and before each strike, he would look away.
The Wasteland was bare—almost lifeless. Few plants could grow in such an environment, and those that did twisted and changed beyond recognition till they were black husks of their former selves, stretching up to the sky like the jagged teeth of some feral beast. There was no food to be found, and what the Kertan and his disciples ate and drank, they took from their packs. Little of it was offered to the prisoners.
Days later, they stopped.
Elina and Alice both were secured to opposite sides of a tall wooden stake driven into the ground. Elina was awake during the movement, but Alice remained subdued. As the stake was driven into the ground, the earth cracked, as if it had not seen water in centuries. Even so, driven deep enough, it seemed to find hold.
Elina bit her lip and ignored the aching in her joints.
Sometime later, Alice awoke. She groaned, leaning her head to the left. The registration of her predicament came slowly. She blinked at a sluggish pace, twisting her head around to take in her surroundings. “Elina Gray,” she said.
Elina shifted as best she could, pushing against the stake. Her binds bit into her skin, leaving deep red welts that stung at the slightest movement. The skin of her arm brushed against the fabric of Alice’s.
“You are Elina Gray,” Alice said. “…there are… memories of you. They are brief, but … content.”
Elina ceased her jostling.
Four disciples remained awake, but seemed too fatigued to pay much fatigue to the conversation. Speaker Kertan had busied himself with sleeping, so no authority struck down the exchange.
Elina glared at Alice as best she could over her shoulder, but Alice did not face her, so its effect was lost.
“I am called Seiq,” Alice said. “That is what I will be called. You are Elina Gray. The one who came before is Alice Heliah.” There was calm to the manner in which the words were spoken. “Elina Gray. I remember your touch. The warmth of your heartbeat. You plucked me from another and paid me greater care than him.”
Alice looked to the red sky.
“I am Alice Heliah, but less. There will be Seiq now.” Her gaze twisted, becoming frantic, as she realize for the first time the brevity of the situation. “Speaker Kertan. A cult. We were pursuing them and have been captured.”
Though Elina’s struggles produced nothing, as Alice—as Seiq—tried to stand, the manacles around her wrists and legs bent loose. The stake that held them to the ground began to rise.
Elina struggled to communicate the need to stop.
Though Seiq did not see it, she seemed to sense it, and relaxed. In a softer tone of voice, a whisper just loud enough for Elina, she said, “You intend them to take you to their place of origin—to the agent of the ancients.”
Elina nodded. It was a cold, stiff gesture.
“I cannot explain all, Elina Gray, but know that I have chosen to linger with you. I stayed close to you in the cold and provided you warmth. I am Alice Heliah. I am known as Seiq. I am that which you carried with you. I maintain all the power she possessed—possesses. Her thoughts are my own. I know of all the things she knew, and all the things I have forgotten.”
Seiq took in a sharp breath.
“I am Seiq. You are called the guide. What is the guide?”
Elina said nothing.
“Do you not know or do you refuse to say?”
Elina said nothing.
Speaker Kertan woke some hours later and forced them to march. Alice—Seiq—was beaten till whatever power she commanded became too distorted to use. No violence came to Elina, for her hands and legs were bound and she could do little more than drag behind her captors.
As they walked, things watched them from a distance. They were creatures near indiscernible from the landscape upon which they stood. Grotesque creatures of black whose bodies pulsated and writhed, their veins visible even from a distance, pumping blood violently throughout their bodies. The only constant of their form was the red of their eyes.
Though Seiq remained at all times addled, during the periods of rest when the disciples would change guards and Speaker Kertan would rest, she would watch the Uncivilized through wide, curious eyes. She bent her neck and peered down at the gray flesh displayed through the rip in the front of her shirt. Though her flesh was gray, rather than black, the red of her eyes marked her as similar.
That night when Elina and Seiq were again staked to the ground and positioned a distance from those who slept, but not so far away as to be left out of sight, Kertan came to them, flanked by two of the disciples. He paced before them and considered each, though his gaze remained focused on Elina much of the time.
He stopped at last and brought a hand to his chin, closing his eyes as he stroked a beard that grew more unkempt with each passing today. In a hushed tone, he said, “I am a man of great faith and little doubt. I know there are certainties and I know what those certainties are.”
He knelt beside Elina, for she remained the focus of his gaze.
“But I cannot dispel all doubt. The ancient one trusts me with his ways, but not with his plans. He does not entrust me with the fate of the north. But you are the guide—you must know some portion of the great plan. You must know something I do not.” He grabbed Elina by the collar of her shirt and pulled her close, though his expression was wide and desperate as he did so. “Tell me, Elina Gray! What does the guide know of the plan! I am the speaker! I must know!”
Kertan seemed to realize many seconds later that Elina could not answer the question, for he pushed her aside and stood. He called his disciples to him—even those who slept—and spoke to them in a hushed voice, such that neither Elina nor Seiq could hear.
He moved then to Seiq, his expression more of awe than anything else as he knelt before her. “You speak the language of mortal, yet bear the marks of perfection.” But he said nothing else, standing and retreating to his sleeping mat, where he laid down and said nothing more.
In the Wasteland, day melted into night. There was no telling the time, for the red light of the sun seemed ever-present, and the sun’s state could not be made out through the clouds. They may have walked for hours, or they may have walked for weeks.
On a black glossy flat of land a hundred miles from the border north, Elina and Seiq were released. Before that release, Kertan said to her, “This is where I am to let you wander, guide. This is where you will find your way to the old gods on your own.”
Elina was given an injection that rendered her unconscious. When she awoke, she was beside Seiq, upon whom the same injection must not have worked, for her head bore the bruising of fresh violence. Even so, Seiq recovered as a quicker pace, and was standing straight amidst the waste by the time Elina was regaining her bearings.
They had been left nowhere, for there were no landmarks of significance in any direction. To every horizon, the same black, glassy landscape. Occasionally, a jagged tree or charred boulder that marked distance, but beyond such innocuous things, nothing.
Elina was twisting her left arm in a circle to check its flexibility when Seiq spoke.
“You are the guide,” Seiq said, and turned to Elina.
For the first time, Elina looked upon the one called Seiq—the one who had stolen in death the body of Alice Heliah. Elina offered Seiq no compassionate gaze. There was no offer of understanding in her eyes. With one instinctive hand, Elina reached into her pocket for the translucent purple cube, only to find it missing, and be reminded of its new role.
“I do not require hydration, so I will speak,” Seiq said. “I was asleep until you found me. I know that your touch awoke me, and that the touch of the one who carried me before could not. I called out to you, but we could not join. I tried many times, but was unable to provoke the correct response.
“I do not recall what I am.” Seiq lifted a hand and curled it into a fist before her. The wiring running beneath arms that had once been Alice’s had turned to veins, thick and purple, pushed close enough to the surface of her underarms that they could be seen clearly. “Alice Heliah called me Fae. I do not know if that is correct.”
Still, Elina offered nothing beyond the cold of her gaze.
“This is the form of your friend. I understand. In desperation, I stole her body—but it was not I who killed her. She is as preserved as much as possible. Her thoughts persist, even as her body dies.” Seiq paused and turned away, looking to the Uncivilized who watched them from the distant horizon. All their gazes lingered upon Seiq. “Her words are captured within my own. Her voice has become mine.”
But Elina’s eyes did not soften. Her body was tense and she seemed prepared for combat, even deprived of her only weapon. Without a gesture, she turned and walked away from Seiq.
“Elina Gray,” Seiq said. She followed. “Where do you go, Elina Gray? The Wasteland is endless. Do you seek out the one who means to capture you?”
Elina continued to walk.
Elina twisted around and pushed Seiq to the ground by the collar of her neck, placing an arm across the mage’s throat. Though Elina could not speak, the anger of her expression provided the words. She seethed. From the heat of the Wasteland, sweat soaked through the many layers of clothing meant for winter.
But she drew away and left Seiq without further action, walking directionless across the blackened landscape.
Seiq stood. “I cannot return her to you, Elina Gray. If such a thing were within my power, I would do so. I was not quick enough to save Alice Heliah—only a portion of her. Her soul remains, though it is no longer capable of thought. I will be the avatar of her voice.” She lifted her arms from her sides in a gesture of surrender. “Or you may slay once again, if you believe that would satisfy her.”
Elina stopped. She twisted her head and cast one final gaze over her shoulder, a sideways glance at Seiq. The hostility remained, and for a moment, Elina Gray seemed to consider the option, but in the end, she suppressed the desire.
Seiq seemed to accept that as tolerance, and moved to Elina’s side.
“You move as if you know the way,” Seiq said. “Do you know the agent you were meant to be brought to?”
Elina shook her head, though the gesture was stiff and slight.
Even amidst the wastes there existed brief bastions of life. Though the life they harbored grew little beyond the gnarled black trees common to the glassy landscape, such trees grew more numerous in places where water gathered. It was at such an oasis that Elina and Seiq stopped. A small pond fed and circulated by an underground spring.
The remained clear in spite of the black, soot-like texture of the dirt. Elina waded knee-deep into the pond and cupped water in her hands, splashing it against her face. In her reflection, she found a woman in need of a wash, whose hair and face and clothes were unkempt and dirty. At the sight, she splashed again and brought more water to her face.
Further in, beyond wading depth, were glimmers of light from beneath the water; flickers of gemstones from the deep. Elina moved towards the lights, only to be held back by Seiq, who placed a firm but open hand upon her shoulder and said, “They are Fae, Elina Gray. I know little, but I know it was their choice to fall dormant. They wish to sleep the endless sleep. It would be unwise to disturb them.”
Elina shrugged away from Seiq’s grip, but heeded the warning. She left the pool, for she had no waterskins to fill. As the water soaked into the legs of her clothing weighed her down, Elina began to shed layers of her coat. She peeled back cloth till only a thin covering remained beneath. Visible beneath were the bandages securing her breasts in place.
Seiq shed nothing. She seemed unaffected by the heat, revealing not a single drop of sweat, even as the temperature increased in short hours. “You will dehydrate,” she said. “If you know where this agent of the ancients is, you must find them before you die of thirst.”
The gaze Elina directed at Seiq was less unkind than the previous.
“There is nothing to hunt in the Wasteland. What will you eat?”
Elina did not concern herself with the question. She waved a hand as if to dismiss it.
“Did the physical death of Alice Heliah affect you so greatly that you would throw your life away given the slightest chance?”
Elina did not face Seiq. She had since turned away from the mage, water running down her legs.
“Alice Heliah gave her memories to me in death. I know all of what was spoken in the city of Haven.” Despite the declaration, Seiq seemed to experience difficulty recalling the memories, for her brow furrowed in concentration. “…you called yourself refugee. You used the word as if it were a title. Is that why you seek the agent of the ancients? Because you are refugee?”
Elina indicated nothing.
“You were prepared to trust Alice Heliah with your secrets. You guard ‘refugee’ so closely that it must hold meaning to you. I will not ask you to place in me the same trust you were prepared to place in her, but there must be some openness if we are to work together.”
Elina stopped and knelt close to the ground, running two fingers over the black glassy soil. The layer she picked up was thin, less dirt than a layer of dust built up atop the earth, but nonetheless, she brought it to her nose, sniffed, then tasted it, her eyes narrowing as she considered scent and flavor.
She stood, again pausing in thought.
Elina pointed to the southeast.
“Do you know where it is you go, Elina Gray?”
Elina nodded, casting wary glances to the Corrupted who watched them from a distance. The creatures made no hostile moves, but their presence hostility enough. The eagerness of their eyes and the twisted predatorial nature of their forms indicated a desire for violence—yet always Seiq’s presence seemed to ward them off.
They walked for some ways, but did not speak. Elina at last came across a tree whose form had not been withered and twisted by the glass of the land, a speck of green amidst a deep sea of grays and blacks. It bore fruit—apples. And though they were not quite ripe, Elina picked four, stowing three in her pockets while biting into the fourth.
Elina stepped away from the tree, hesitated, and turned to offer the apple to Seiq.
Seiq seemed surprised by the gesture, for she opened her mouth as if meaning to speak. Her red eyes widened. At last, she took the apple and bit through its outer skin. The movement seemed alien and clunky, and she chewed as if having never done it before. “This is not ripe,” she said, but bit into it a second time, before handing the apple back to Elina.
Both arms free, Seiq placed a hand over her stomach.
“Alice Heliah’s body lived enough that it can still process food and drink.” Seiq’s brow furrowed and her mouth twisted up in some uncomfortable thought. “…I have never consumed food. I… can feel it moving. I know it begins to break apart, and I feel the beginnings of…” She trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished. “Thank you, Elina Gray,” she said.
The air between them grew less hostile.
Elina continued to lead the journey southeast. She moved with familiarity, despite unfamiliar surroundings. The Corrupted maintained their distance, but they grew in number. Soon a crowd of twelve gathered, moving along with Elina and Seiq, watching them from a distance, but never moving closer.
The expression upon Seiq’s face as she watched the Corrupted was unreadable. Though her narrowed eyes indicated consideration, her thoughts could not be discerned.
The sky grew darker as they moved, though they’d traveled for mere hours. Their pace slowed as Elina dictated, and she grew more interested in the ground. She lowered herself to the glassy soil and leveled her gaze with it, closing one eye as she peered across the black surface. Seiq watched her with an unspoken curiosity.
When the red sun hovered near the edge of nightfall, they stopped. Elina found a tree to lean against, though this one did not possess such life as the apple tree. It twisted and gnarled as the others had, displaying only hints of brown and green in its bark. With the tip of the corrupted knife, Elina cut a slight indentation into one of the branches, where she discovered that the inner wood was still green.
Elina slid to the ground against the tree and sighed, wiping at tired eyes.
Seiq did not rest. She remained standing, looming over Elina like a statue. She lingered near the tree, watching the Corrupted who watched them from afar.
“The Speaker Kertan seemed confident that we would lead ourselves to his agent of the old gods,” Seiq said. “Did you plan on searching for this agent on your own, Elina Gray? What is it you believe you will find?”
But Elina’s gaze had grown distant. Though she did not appear tired, she stared off into the distance, her eyes as glassy as the land upon which she rested.
“You could return to the north—to Haven and your guild liaison. Why don’t you?”
Elina’s shoulders sagged and she seemed for a moment not to be listening. In that moment, she appeared older, the shadows beneath her eyes more prominent. At last, she shrugged, though the delayed response did not answer Seiq’s question.
Seiq knelt beside her. “I am Seiq and Alice Heliah. From the perspective of Alice Heliah, I know you as you are in public. As Seiq, I have hugged close to your flesh. I know what your thoughts are. In darkness and in isolation, I have watched, even if I did not intend myself an audience. I know that you seek something here.”
Elina looked to Seiq then. Her expression was softer, bearing little of the unfettered rage of before.
“May I sit beside you, Elina Gray?”
Elina nodded—slow and stiff.
Seiq sat against the tree, though she leaned some of her weight onto Elina.
Elina did not lean away from the touch.
“Alice Heliah told you the story of her brother,” Seiq said. “It seems somehow fitting that I provided what I remember of my life before I came to be Seiq and Alice Heliah.” Seiq inhaled. Her eyes grew narrow and unfocused. “I know myself as Seiq. It is all that is known for certain. A time ago, I was buried beneath snow and ice. I slept among the Fae, and I do not remember what it is I dreamt of. Later, I awoke. I did not like that the Fae slept, so I fled. How I became confined to the cube after fleeing, I do not know—nor do I know how I came to be in the possession of a smuggler.”
“That is all I know of myself, Elina Gray. Soon after, the warmth of your touch. You called me from the sleep.” Seiq’s eyes focused on the Corrupted who lingered in the distance, ever watching and ever awake. “They stay away because I am Seiq,” she said. “Or because Alice Heliah passed through the darkness, a protection that may also have killed her.”
Elina nodded absently in acknowledgement of the story’s conclusion.
Seiq reached up and touched Elina’s head. “Would you allow me to glimpse your memories, Elina Gray? I am capable of ob—”
But Elina snatched herself away. Though she did not move from the touch of Seiq’s shoulder, she moved herself from Seiq’s hand, and there was a pause of silence between them.
“…yes. I apologize, Elina Gray. That was impetuous of me.” Seiq withdrew her hand, though her shoulders sank and she seemed disheartened by the refusal. “But if you ever believe you can trust me, I am here. The ability is always available to you.”
In that moment, one of the Corrupted stumbled towards them. It lurched forward, a hump protruding from the naked black flesh of its back. Though its left leg twisted sideways unnaturally, it managed a steady pace. On its face, an expression more of curiosity than rage, the natural anger of the Corrupted blotted out.
Elina and Seiq rose simultaneously, Elina reaching for her bow, only to be reminded of its absence.
Seiq lifted a hand towards the Corrupted, and blue sparks danced across the tips of her fingers, but she hesitated. The creature did not rush, and its movements were not hostile. As it neared and Elina recoiled, it reached out a hand to Seiq, brushing curious fingers against the gray skin of her hand.
Seiq’s eyes widened. She drew away her hand.
It was the Corrupted that seemed most surprised, for as Seiq drew away, it leapt backwards, crying out as if struck and bringing its hands up to protect its face. “…they… fear me,” Seiq said. “But I am Seiq. I am not them.” She stared at the gray flesh of her fingers. “My flesh is not black as theirs is.”
Elina had drawn the twisted black knife and begun sidling away, keeping the blade trained on the Corrupted who had approached Seiq. With her other hand, she gestured for the mage to follow. They continued their trek to the southeast. In the moment of curiosity experienced by one, the Corrupted retreated from the horizon, and could no longer be seen watching Seiq.
Seiq herself was lost in thought. Her movements were less rigid and she responded to Elina’s prompts with increased delays. It was only when they again stopped that Seiq seemed to regain awareness enough to say, “…I apologize again, Elina Gray. I do not know why the Corrupted trouble me. They are not Fae.”
But Elina was paying no heed to her words. She kneeled, searching for something in the glassy dirt with the tip of her knife. She ran the blade through the hard soil almost as random; stabbing the ground in many places till the dull thud of dirt was replaced by the muffled clang of metal meeting metal. It was after finding that sound that she dug the knife further into the ground, finding a groove that it could slide along. She traced the tip along a square outline, carving out the shape of a small square door.
“Elina Gray,” Seiq said, but said nothing else.
The outline in the ground complete, Elina stood and began stomping on it. After two such stomps, the ground cracked. Several more later, it splintered, jutting up at such an angle that Elina could pull the pieces out, revealing a rusted metal door beneath.
“Elina Gray,” Seiq said again. “How did you know this was here?”
But Elina did not respond. Still using her knife, she pried the door open. Dust and dirt crumbled into the opening. Beneath the square metal door, darkness, only the edges of which dissipated beneath the red of the sun. Leading into the hole was a ladder with several missing rungs. At Elina’s touch, it seemed prone to collapse, but held, even as she cast caution aside and began to scale it.
“Elina Gray!” Seiq’s voice carried with it a degree of urgency, but the words remained lost on Elina, who disappeared into the darkness. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed Elina into the darkness below.
Beneath, Elina Gray groped around the shadows, at last finding a wall to position herself against. The darkness remained impenetrable, and she could find no light source.
Seiq touched her shoulder.
Elina turned to find the mage cast partially in the red light.
“I can see, Elina Gray. It is one ability of Fae: to see where the darkness is at its most corrosive.” She stepped into the darkness, wrapping a protective hand around Elina’s shoulder and pulling her along.
When the method of walking proved awkward, Elina pulled away from Seiq and redirected the mage’s grip. Instead, they held hands. Their steps through the darkness were short and clumsy. At first, Seiq offered no words of guidance. She clung to Elina’s hand as if afraid it might slip away.
“This place is of metal,” Seiq said, her voice slow, awed. “The room. Metal and glass.”
They moved forward. It was many steps before Seiq spoke again.
Elina’s movements became an agitated mixture of calm and anxiety. She moved with a degree of familiarity, but the darkness crippled her. Her heartbeat grew rapid.
“…perhaps there is a light,” Seiq said.
Elina was dragged about the room as Seiq searched, though Elina heard only the sounds. She heard Seiq scrape and press metal, the gentle squeeze as she pressed something in the darkness.
Above them, lights flickered on, then off.
Whatever Seiq had done to conjure the light, she repeated it.
The light flickered on a second time and remained.
Whatever room of metal and glass they stood in before when Seiq had provided her brief description, they no longer lingered in. They stood on a short bridge of steel, below which was an endless chasm of darkness where the slightest noise echoed without end. On either side of the bridge, stout metal doorways, where light flickered on further in.
Dangling above them was a sphere of glass hanging from the ceiling by a smooth, white material. In its center, a golden light that it seemed to produce without fuel or energy. It was a light Elina lifted her hand to her face to protect her eyes from, but from which Seiq did not avert her gaze.
Seiq stared, her jaw falling half-open. “It’s…” She turned to Elina. “Elina Gray,” she said. “This light. I remember such a light. I have seen a light like this before.” With her left hand, she reached up to touch the bulb, recoiling at the heat of the glass’s surface. “It is familiar.”
It was at that moment that Seiq released Elina’s hand, moving into the next room ahead of her. Around them, metal panels covered in lights and switches. Flat panes of glass bore square, angular text Elina could not read. She approached one—a small pane at eye level built into one of the steel walls—and placed her hand against it, furrowing her brow in thought.
Seiq did not linger long enough to take in her surroundings. She moved through each room and hallway with few pauses in between, stopping only to wait for Elina, or to examine one of the many flickering lights or walls of steel.
Elina Gray’s walk was one of quiet familiarity. She passed her hand overtop the cold metal of the walls and the warmth of the glass panes. She would pause and stare, her eyes losing their focus, before following Seiq.
“I remember metal,” Seiq said. She had stopped, standing rigid on another of the short metal bridges. A wind came from nowhere and whipped her white hair against the side of her head. “…before your touch. There was something metal—I was kept inside it. There were…” She brought a hand to her forehead. “…many noises.”
Seiq’s legs grew unsteady, so she anchored herself against the railing. Beneath her fingers, the metal bent and contorted.
“…noises. A… scratching, I think.”
Seiq moved forward.
The flickering lights grew few and far between, while the hum of the panes grew more dominant. The noise became a constant, overriding even the footsteps.
When the darkness became so thick that Elina could no longer see, Seiq grasped her hand a second time and pulled her with more force than necessary, guiding Elina along like a child. Even so, Elina did not resist, for her expression was vacant. Even when the careless pace bumped her against the metal of the wall of the edge of a desk, she took no notice.
“Here,” Seiq said, and there came the sound of metal bending, followed by the squeaky grind of old hinges. “I remember below. There is no light there. Darkness and scratching and—”
Seiq’s hand slipped away.
There came a sharp intake of breath from Seiq.
“The Speaker of the cult who worship this weapon. He brought us here. It may have been his intention that we enter this place. If we enter further, we may fall into a trap that we were aware of from the start.” Seiq’s hand found Elina’s a second time, guiding it to the edge of doorway. “There are stairs here, Elina Gray. You must be careful.”
Elina nodded, though it meant little in the darkness.
Seiq led her down the stairs, always guiding her by hand. With her other, Elina grasped the railing. Though she could not see, there was openness to the air she breathed, and the space around them echoed with the same distant quality as the chasms. Stale wind blew across Elina’s face.
The stairs came to an end after what seemed an eternity. The echo of the steps disappeared into the open air as they entered again into the narrow confines of a hall. In that hall, Elina found herself able to see, for dim spectrum of lights glowed from all around, providing her with light faint enough to move by.
The area they stood in then was not metal, but stone. Its walls and edges were cut with less care than the sleek curves and glass of the upper level. Even so, several of the glass panes had been built into the wall stone of the wall, though they were cracked and nonfunctional. The rainbow spectrum had grown to dominate the room.
“Caretaker,” Seiq said again. She moved to one of the lights—green—imbedded in the stone and pressed her hand against it. At her touch, the light intensified, then faded.
A spark crackled from one of the broken panes.
“Do you remember this, Elina Gray?” Seiq said, twisting around to face Elina. The expression upon her face—unreadable in the dark.
Elina indicated nothing.
“The mines of Croften. The lights in the darkness. I saw and heard it as you did. We were one in that moment.” Seiq turned again to the green light, which she caressed with one hand, though the gesture was made awkward by the wall. “Alice Heliah told you a tale of Fae. Her memories tell me nothing of what else your world believes of my kind, but there is truth to her tales.”
Seiq drew her hand away from the stone. “The lights are like memories of Fae—places that we have touched.” She placed her hand against the plain stone of the wall. “I do not experience it, for Alice Heliah and I are one. My touch is no longer the pure Fae.” As Seiq spoke, sadness welled up in her tone.
Elina placed a hand upon Seiq’s shoulder.
Seiq’s gaze followed the arm, meeting Elina’s eyes for a moment.
A scratching noise.
They separated and turned towards the source of the noise: the shadows further within. The scratching continued, but louder, like claws raking against the wall. It turned from a scratching to high whine as the pitch increased.
Hm, the narrative has been getting very interesting in the past few chapters. The plot's moving along at a better pace, and I liked how you handled Alice's death.
A few parts that stuck out of the rest of the piece in the latest chapter:
It was at that moment that Seiq released Elina’s hand, moving into the next room ahead of her. Around them, metal panels covered in lights and switches.
I'd break that up into two sentences because it's rather rushed and 'foggy' on the details. If you gave it two sentences, you could transition the change a lot more effectively.
The expression upon Seiq’s face as she watched the Corrupted was unreadable. Though her narrowed eyes indicated consideration, her thoughts could not be discerned.
I'd also rewrite this. Maybe try to condense it into one sentence? Or you could expand upon the parts. The bolded part is redundant of 'was unreadable,' and the underlined part isn't very interesting. Maybe display the ambiguity by describing more of her expression?
The scratching continued, but louder, like claws raking against the wall. It turned from a scratching to high whine as the pitch increased.
I'd describe more of their reactions to the scratching increasing in volume. Giving an indication of what they're feeling would help make the part stronger and give it more emotion.
The creature’s neck stretched from its body like a twisted mechanical arm, craning its triangular head. The rest of its body moved with uneven rigidness, twitching forward. Much of its form lay hidden beneath the folds of a decayed black robe, but its hands remained visible: elongated claws, black and jagged, that stretched out and raked across the wall.
Its left eye appeared human, and was grafted to the creature’s face, along with a decayed layer of flesh. Though the flesh was rotten and decayed, the eye whirled in its socket, consuming the visage of Elina and Seiq.
As the creature opened its mouth, its jaw parted in four places, revealing countless layers of jagged teeth that glistened yellow, even in the mixed spectrum of colors. It emitted a foul noise—a guttural moan twisted with a long hiss.
Elina drew the pulsating knife from her belt.
The creature ignored them. It moved across the room without a sound, stretching out long, jagged arms to scratch at one of the lights imbedded within the wall. The Human eye sewn onto its head blinked.
“No!” Seiq whispered, placing a hand upon Elina’s arm, forcing her to lower the blade. “The Caretaker. You must… not harm the Caretaker.”
Elina’s face had grown pale. Her eyes were wide and panic-filled and her body trembled with a fury. Each breath she took sapped at her energy. Even the blade would have fallen from her hands, had Seiq not steadied her arm.
The creature—the one Seiq called the Caretaker—moved from light to light, its Human eye spinning about in its socket. Despite the nature of its claws, it caressed each light almost with affection. There were nearly two dozen such lights, but the Caretaker moved to each, clawing—caressing them through the wall. Not once did it seem to see Elina or Seiq.
Satisfied, it moved to the rear of the room, passing into a stone hall that seemed to have appeared at its command.
Seiq grabbed Elina by the arm and tried to pull her forward. “We must follow,” Seiq said.
When she looked to Elina, she found a wide, frantic expression of shock. Elina’s lips were parted as if she meant to speak. As her legs grew shaky, she placed a hand upon Seiq’s shoulder to brace herself.
“Elina Gray?” For a moment, the urgency was lost, and they were alone.
Elina nodded, though the gesture seemed to mean nothing. She nodded and gripped till the color returned to her face and the strength to her limbs. She pushed herself away from Seiq and stared down the passageway the Caretaker had lurked down. Its form was visible even form a distance; hulking, twisted, and elongated.
“We must follow,” Seiq said again. “I must go to the Caretaker and see that I am not the only Fae who still lives.”
Elina made a wide gesture to the lights imbedded within the stone walls, though their glow had faded considerably.
“The lights are only memories of Fae. Where Fae touch, they leave a piece of themselves. Asleep, we are small, though our shapes vary.” Seiq smiled. “I was the cube. I was asleep when you found me, and it was at your touch that I awoke.”
Beneath their feet, the ground shook. The way ahead grew less focused, and the Caretaker’s form reduced to a blur of shadows in the distance.
“We cannot dawdle!” Seiq said, grabbing Elina by the arm to pull her along.
Elina drew away from Seiq’s grip and followed the mage of her own accord. As they ran, the floor vanished beneath their feet, turning to shadow even as they passed over it. A glance over Elina’s shoulder revealed the way behind to be nothing but darkness. In the walls and ceiling around them, the spectrum of lights illuminated the way ahead, though even the light seemed to fade in the approaching darkness.
Seiq’s legs carried her faster. As the gap between herself and Elina increased, she grabbed Elina by the shoulder and wrenched her forward, drawing her from the grip of darkness and throwing her ahead to stable ground.
The shadows stopped their advance after what seemed an eternity. Their fleeing brought them to an area much changed from the cruder stone cave of before. The stonework was intricate. Each wall bore a hundred symbols—characters of some alien language. The stone bore none of the lights, yet seemed to radiate a dim blue light.
The Caretaker was nowhere to be seen.
Though the sprint had winded Elina, Seiq stood straight, her breathing no faster than normal. In the darkness, her red eyes glowed. “Stone,” she said. “There was stone first. I remember touching the stone before the metal.”
She looked back to Elina.
“Are you well, Elina Gray?”
Elina nodded. The twisted black knife remained in her hand, where the sweat of her palm had turned its hilt slick.
“You cannot harm the Caretaker,” Seiq said, though there seemed less effort put into the words than her previous assertion.
The passageways ahead were wide and could have accommodated for at least ten more people walking side by side, while the stone floor upon which they walked was well-treaded. Ancient indentations could be seen in the stone where something much larger had once walked.
In the background, the scratching.
Even when Elina tried to lead, Seiq usurped her position, pushing Elina back with a gentle hand. “I know this place,” she said. “I will lead.”
There was silence and shadow for a time, but light came further in, along with the familiar scrapings of the Caretaker’s claws. A second hall split off in a tangent from the first—leading through a narrower gateway. In that hall, true light, orange and bright, refracted off the walls, casting the Caretaker in a long shadow that stretched its features further, though the creature itself was hidden by a corner.
The room was smaller than the others. Unlike the refined and crafted walls of the previous hall and entryway, a single side of the room had been left in its natural state, the crude brown of the stone contrasting the subdued refinement of the gray carvings.
Imbedded in the wall were stones. Though they glowed like the memories of the Fae, they possessed true substance. The protruded from the wall at odd angles, but each existed as a geometric shape. Cubes, triangles, and spheres, all of different colors. Each rose and faded in the intensity of its light.
“This,” Seiq said. “A nursery. The Fae are…” She paused, her eyes screwing shut in thought. “…they… are…” But the thought was left unfinished.
The Caretaker turned to face them, though it did not seem to see Elina. Its eyes lingered only on Seiq.
The creature drew close.
Elina grip on her knife tightened, though she could not bring herself to draw it.
The Caretaker lifted a jagged claw and pressed it to Seiq’s chest. The gesture was not forceful and drew no blood. Rather, it seemed a silent acknowledgement. The guttural cry of before came out as a subdued purr—and then the Caretaker drew away. The creature’s single Human eye lolled in its socket, rolling momentarily across Seiq.
Again, the Caretaker ignored them. It moved from the room, disappearing into the shadows. An exit manifested at the point where it entered the darkness, creating a new room connected first by a passage of same inky black tendrils that writhed and twisted apart to provide opening.
Though Seiq was quick enough to attempt to follow, Elina held her back.
“We must follow the Caretaker!” Seiq said, and attempted to pull away.
The strength of Seiq’s movement wrenched Elina forward, but she regained her footing and held the mage back, drawing her arm away just long enough to gesture to the geometric shapes imbedded in the wall. At the sight of those shapes, the urgency of Seiq’s stance faded, though the change was marginal.
“Yes,” Seiq said, stretching the word as if lacking for breath. She blinked slowly. “The Fae. They are dormant—asleep. They all wait for someone to claim them.” Seiq again moved to follow the Caretaker and was again held back.
Seiq whirled around. “What do you want, Elina Gray?!”
Elina’s only reaction to the hostility of the words was a flinch—small and unnoticeable. She pressed a finger to Seiq’s chest, then pointed to the wall in which the multicolored shapes remained.
Seiq’s eyes narrowed in thought. “I… was…” She turned away from Elina, but did not move to follow the Caretaker. “…what of you, Elina Gray? You knew of this place, even if you did not know Fae slumbered in its foundations. Why is it you are here?”
But Elina could not answer.
Seiq did not seem to expect one. “I was… stolen from this place, but did not awake. The one who stole me was not the one who claimed me. It is strange. From the tales of Alice Heliah, Humans have long thought Fae to steal children from young mothers—yet it is we who are bound to the stone until we are found.” She placed a hand upon one of the shapes jutting out of the wall—a green triangle. At her touch, it loosened, falling from the stone into her hand. “We are orphans.”
In a reflection of Elina, Seiq placed the green triangle into pocket beneath the folds of her winter wear, the heat of which still did not seem to affect her. When Seiq turned again to Elina, there was a nostalgia quality to her features. “I do not know what it is the Caretaker will lead us to,” she said. “I only know that we must follow him. It is… a compulsion.”
Elina seemed more accepting of that answer. She no longer stood tense and no longer reached out to stop Seiq when she moved to the doorway of black tendrils. The shadows did not seem to dare touch her, but as Elina passed through the same doorway, the tendrils reached out, brushing against her skin like cold knives. Though the sensation lasted only a second, it left Elina shivering.
The next room was a mixture of metal and stone. Where the two materials meshed, they seemed to be wrestling for control of the room. Along the middle, creating a divide, was the jagged line where stone ended and the dull gray of metal began. Other than that divide, the room was featureless. There were no carvings or doors or gateways. It stood as little more than a box of stone and steel.
Within, the Caretaker. At last, the creature faced them. At last, its single eye seemed to register Elina. “Seiq Heliah Elina Gray,” the creature said through twisted mandibles, slurring each word with its lack of cheeks till they bore little resemblance to what they identified.
Elina tensed. Though she’d sheathed the knife during her exchange with Seiq, her hand rested upon its hilt once again.
“Seiq Heliah Elina Gray,” the Caretaker said again.
Seiq seemed enthralled by the creature and did not move as it inched towards her, moving across the stone with twisted legs of black. Each step it took was uneven and short, so the journey seemed long and arduous.
“Seiq Heliah Elina Gray.”
Elina’s gaze went from the Caretaker to Seiq, who had still not moved—who refused even to lift a hand to defend herself.
“Seiq Heliah Elina Gray.”
Elina stepped between them as the Caretaker’s jagged claws reached forth. Though they’d not harmed Seiq before, the force behind them seemed to carry a great deal of malice, and the bladed fingers twitched with eagerness at the prospect of touch.
The creature was a hair’s length away when it seemed to realize Elina stood before it instead of Seiq. It unleashed that sound—the same guttural screech—dark spittle flying from its mouth and spattering across Elina’s face. She recoiled at the noise and the breath.
In that single moment of weakness, the creature reached forth with a jagged hand and wrapped its fingers around Elina’s neck. The blades somehow managed to avoid decapitating her, but left cuts along the flesh of her neck that began to bleed regardless.
“Seiq Heliah Elina Gray!” the Caretaker said
In Elina’s eyes, pain and shock. She scrambled against the creature’s hand, but the strength behind it was beyond Human. At her flailing, the Caretaker did not so much as flinch. Its grafted eye whirled about and focused on her. The white of the eye had long since faded to yellow, plagued in places by black. The pupil remained perpetually large.
“Elina Gray,” the Caretaker said, its voice calmer.
Elina’s flails grew weak. Her eyes began to close. Below, her feet twitched with final spasms of life as she struggled to draw in air that would not come.
Then the lightning came.
The distance it traveled was short, so the flash lasted for only the smallest fraction of a second, but when it came, it illuminated the room like a sun, ripping through the Caretaker’s torso. Chunks of dead flesh were thrown back, as was the Caretaker itself, but the creature did not die. With clawed hands, it scrambled to its feet, though it could find no even place to stand, and kept slipping to the floor.
“Seiq Heliah Elina Gray,” it said.
Seiq loosed a second streak of lightning that blew the Caretaker’s head apart. Its body twitched for a second before falling limp, a jet black liquid oozing from the stump of its neck like syrup.
“I was not to harm the Caretaker,” Seiq said, her eyes wide and her voice small. Unlike Alice, she did not attempt to cool her hands. They hung limp and her sides, a gentle stream of smoke rising from the fingertips of her left.
Beneath the black folds of the Caretaker’s robes were visible several of the geometric shapes. Peeling back the decaying cloth, Seiq found the objects imbedded within the creature’s flesh, where the rotted texture of the Caretaker’s gray flesh began assimilating the shapes into its body.
Seiq tightened her lips. “…I was not to harm the Caretaker.”
Elina placed a hand upon her shoulder.
“…we should move on. I… know enough of this place.” Seiq moved on without acknowledging Elina’s touch. Her words were small and numb, and she did not seem completely aware of her surroundings. She moved to the shadowy edge of the room, where the darkness recoiled into tendrils, revealing a jagged way forward.
The room ahead was larger and better lit. Inside, the air was fresher and tasted of water. The ceiling stood hundreds of feet above, invisible to the naked eye. Pillars of metal stretched up to reinforce it. The texture of the walls was a twisted hybrid of stone and metal, lacking the formal hieroglyphics.
And across the room sat hundreds of stone slabs, upon each was strapped a soldier wearing the blue surcoats of Northland soldiers. Most were unconscious, but some struggles against their binds, flailing and screaming—at least, they tried to scream. No matter how much they twisted and writhed, they could not scream.
A Corrupted tended to each of the bound soldiers, though its form and trappings were less deteriorated than its ilk that lived upon the surface. Only upon its face were any deformities evident. One of its red eyes had swollen shut with black flesh. When it looked to Seiq with a tired, uncaring gaze, it did so with a single enlarged eye.
The man it tended to at present was unconscious. He bore no trappings of an army, yet was as armored as all the rest. He was younger—
“Richard Heliah!” Seiq said. An expression of shock lingered on her features for a moment, an expression that turned just as quickly to anger. Blind rage twisted her features as she unleashed a bolt of lightning that ripped through the Corrupted’s chest with such force that the creature was sent flying back, its blood smearing across the floor.
Seiq rushed to Richard’s side, ripping away the metal binds as if they were paper. “Richard Heliah,” she said again, her voice softer. Her hand brushed against Richard’s face. She lifted her brother, despite his superior size, and righted him, holding Richard in a sitting position as he regained consciousness.
He did not awaken for near a minute, a minute that was spent slurring words and half-opening his eyes, only to close them again. When he at last came to, his eyes lingered on Elina first, during which he said, “Gray?” before turning to Seiq. “Sis?”
Richard blinked himself awake.
“…Alice, what—” He looked over Seiq. His expression turned to panic at rage, but not a rage to be directed at Seiq. Richard tore himself away from his sister and threw all his force towards Elina, grabbing and pinning her to one of the stone slabs. “What did you do to my sister!?” he screamed at Elina, spittle flying from his lips.
“That is not my sister!”
Seiq began to pull Richard away, though the force in the gesture was halfhearted. Even as she did so, Elina was reversing the hold Richard had on her, twisting out of his grip and forcing both his arms behind his back before pinning him to the table, pressing his face against the torso of the unconscious soldier bound to it.
Seiq lowered herself till she was eye level with the subdued Richard. “I am Alice Heliah—”
“I know what you are!” Richard said, even as his face was mashed against stone. He no longer struggled against Elina’s grip. “I’ve seen them infect us with your kind! I know what kind of parasite you are!” Richard made one final attempt to wrench himself from Elina, an effort that went wasted as he was pressed against the stone a second time.
Seiq drew away. She crossed her arms over her chest as if she meant to hug herself out of existence. For the first time since her death, Alice’s face looked Human. It contorted in Human sadness, and refused to look at Richard. “I am… I have all of her memories.”
Elina allowed Richard to rise.
He pulled away, his face still a mixture of panic and anger. “I let her go with you,” he said to Elina. “I let her go with you.” Richard reached for a sword, but found that his belt had been stripped away. “You ♥♥♥♥♥. You ♥♥♥♥♥—” Tears ran down his cheeks. His eyes moved about the room, searching for a way out. He pushed past Elina, who did not attempt to stop him.
“Richard Heliah!” Seiq said as he passed, but her call went unanswered. Richard Heliah disappeared into the darkness through which they’d entered. From then on, the shadows muffled the sounds of whatever progress he made. Seiq stared at her hands, her eyes wide. She stared at the metal cables running along the undersides of her arms.
She stared with great red eyes.
“I am Seiq,” she said in a voice so small it could scarcely be heard. “I am Seiq.”
Seiq curled her hands into fists, a gesture that might have appeared strengthening, but seemed only to speed the flow of tears from her eyes. She leaned against the stone slab from which she’d released Richard, paying no attention to the hundred others that occupied the room.
Her gaze twisted abruptly to Elina.
“Who am I, Elina Gray?” Seiq stared at her hands—at the metal running beneath her flesh. She blinked away tears and wiped the rest away with her sleeve. On the face built from both Seiq and Alice Heliah, the tears seemed an unnatural display. “We should help the others,” she said as she turned to the nearest stone slab.
The soldier bound to it was fully armored, decked in a heavy suit of plate unsuitable for winter. In place, metal had been peeled away, revealing areas of flesh encrusted with blood. Beneath his lightless full helmet, the soldier’s breaths were heavy and hoarse. If he could see Seiq—if he were even awake—he showed no sign of it.
But when Seiq tried to free him from the slab, she found she could not. The manacles that held the knight to the stone were stronger than those that held Richard Heliah. The metal from which they’d been constructed was black, and did not bend or break even to the superior strength of Seiq’s touch. Even propping herself against the stone and attempting to rip the metal from the stone accomplished nothing.
Seiq displayed no frustration. She knelt beside the soldier and whispered, “I am here to help you, sir, but you must tell me what did this to you.”
The soldier inhaled as if he meant to speak, but he neither spoke nor acknowledged Seiq in any way.
Seiq placed a hand upon the shoulder of his armor. “Sir?”
The soldier’s breathing grew harried. He began to twist against his metal binds, bending even against the crux of his armor, bending the suit with his movements. He cried out, his voice beginning as that of a gruff Human before twisting and merging with something high pitched and inhuman. Almost as quickly as the screaming began, it ended, and the soldier’s breathing calmed.
Still he took no notice of those around him.
Seiq moved to another of the slabs, where a woman lay bound in similar manner. Her injuries were more severe. Her left arm had been cleaved nearly from the shoulder, and the tendons still connecting it to her torso were bare and reddened. Even exposed as her body was, however, the woman did not bleed. The raw of mangled arm twitched and throbbed, still clinging to some semblance of life.
Seiq knelt beside the woman, reaching out to touch her good arm.
At the touch, the woman soldier spasmed. Her back arched and she began to bleed. Crimson flowed from the gap between her left arm and her shoulder, draining in a puddle beneath her and on the floor beneath the slab. She screamed, her voice twisting and merging with something artificial just as the other soldier’s had.
Seiq drew away, recoiling as if struck.
The woman’s eyes slammed shut, tears running down the sides of her cheeks, then opened with renewed life. Whatever color they might have been before, they were no longer. They glowed a bright red that pierced even the darkness of the underground. Like the other soldier, her breathing fell into routine. Even bleeding out against the stone, the woman offered no further cries of pain or fatigue.
Then her arm began to knit itself together.
The flesh and bone of the woman’s mangled arm stretched out to reconnect with her torso, moving and twisting as if in possession of their own will. Within a minute, the flesh had healed itself, leaving no evidence of a wound outside of a faint scar of black flesh.
Seiq placed a hand upon the woman’s arm and said, “Are… you alright?”
The woman did not respond.
Again, Seiq tried to break the black metal manacles. She gave up, bringing a hand to her forehead. Though her flesh produced no sweat, she wiped away imaginary drops. When she faced Elina, she did not meet her gaze. “The red eyes,” she said. “The way… they heal themselves. They are like the Corrupted… and like Fae.” She placed her hand upon the woman’s arm again. “I suppose these are the remnants of the soldiers who disappeared west of Haven. It… still not make sense how such a large number could disappear without a trace.”
She met Elina’s gaze.
“Alice Heliah asked the question once. I must ask it again because it has become relevant. You are free to lie, but I will know.” Seiq’s eyes narrowed. “I will know, Elina Gray. You are mute. Are you mute by choice, or by birth?”
Elina did not answer. Her gaze turned cold.
“Then why are you mute, Elina Gray?” Seiq made a wide gesture to the dim setting around them. “Is it because of this? What connection do you have to such death that you would hide even to those closest to you? Or will that remain the difference between us; that I am a stranger to my past by circumstance. You use yours as a shield of silence.”
Seiq whipped around, the tail of her coat billowing out behind her. She said nothing else to Elina, and there was briskness to her pace. As before, the shadows parted ahead, revealing the path further in. Unlike before, the shadows created the walls, expanding and contracting to force Seiq and Elina to move along a constrained path.
That path took them upwards, up endless flights of metal stairs with nothing on either side but abyssal darkness. As they ascended, the shadows faded, replaced by pulsating walls of pink flesh that seemed to bleed perpetually, lifeblood dripping down the stairs in a slow waterfall.
A gap of several feet separated Elina and Seiq, a gap they filled with silence.
All around them, the sound of breathing. Long, moist, and echoing. It grew with intensity the further it went, till at last it was a seizure of inhalation.
The stairs ended in what seemed a throne room. It was long, empty, and red with the unnatural flesh that made up its walls. At the end of the room, a man—though the creature imbedded and growing within the wall opposite of them could no longer be said to resemble anything Human. It opened its eyes, revealing twisted yellow irises long dead and bloodshot, filled with black remnants of decay and bacteria. Though its form was visible, it had been consumed so by the wall hat it was left immobile.
From each wall—even the ceilings and floors—cables stretched across the stone, all converging inside what must once have been the creature’s stomach.
The creature opened its eyes as if awakening from a deep sleep and yawned, though it emitted no air and the gesture seemed more for show. Even awake, its gaze was tired and fatigued, and it looked out to Elina and Seiq with only a shred of interest.
Instinctively, Elina placed a hand on Seiq’s shoulder, prepared to hold her back.
“So long,” the creature said. Beneath the fleshy black cast that held its body inside the wall, it squirmed, stretching from a long sleep. “So long—but there could never be any doubt. There could never be any doubt that what had already been recorded would occur.” Its deadened gaze moved to Elina. “History… dictates.”
Elina’s grip on Seiq’s shoulder grew stronger.
It was Seiq remained speechless. Though her face displayed little beyond minimal surprise, her mouth hung open. “…what… are you?”
But the creature ignored her. “The guide comes to me—she comes.” Beneath the fleshy black of the wall, the creature lifted its arms.
There was an echoing moan. Behind Elina and Seiq, the way shut, closing itself like a scab over a wound. Whatever provided illumination, it was not visible. The blue clashed with the red and black of the flesh, miring everything in a mixture describable only as garbage.
Elina acknowledged the closure for a second before drawing the corrupted knife from her belt. Beside her, Seiq’s stance widened as she lifted her hands, sparks of light dancing across the tips of her fingers.
The creature cocked its head to the side. Along its neck, metal veins could be seen running up the side of its neck, glowing a blue not unlike Seiq’s. “And she musters perfection. A shame that the first died so pitifully—alone and frozen in an alien wasteland.”
The creature paused.
“Indulge me. I have waited so long—so long—and I wish a confrontation before events play out as they were always meant to. Before long you will know how much everything hinges upon history—upon the guide.” The creature lifted an arm through the fleshy body cast.
Seiq loosed an arc of lightning on impulse. In the fraction of a second where it was visible, it streaked towards the creature, only to be deflected by some invisible barrier and jammed into the wall to the left.
“I said indulge me!” When the creature roared, it echoed. Even in a single chamber, the words carried without end.
Elina brought her hands over her ears as the scream grew in pitch, scratching at her thoughts like nailed.
Seiq did the same, though her reaction was delayed. She thrust her hand forward as if meaning to unleash another bolt of lightning, but as the sparks danced across her fingertips, they fizzled, and no matter what movement she made, she could no longer conjure them.
Elina grabbed Seiq around the shoulder and pulled her back, stepping between the creature and the mage.
“The guide,” the creature said, suddenly calm. The endless echoes ceased. “Familiar, yet so different. Do you—” Its eyes flickered to Seiq. “…but of course. The perfect creature—the ones Terra calls ‘ Corrupted’. It is fitting that you bring one with you. Even without meaning to, you step further into history, cementing your actions with every step.”
The creature paused and grunted. With great effort, it tore itself free of the wall, peeling itself away from the black flesh. Beneath, it was naked and raw, its skin transparent. Dead organs and muscles could be seen everywhere except for the head, which remained opaque. Even severed from the wall, the cables continued to run into the creature’s stomach.
“…I… have forgotten the name I once knew,” the creature said, bringing a hand to its head. “I have taken another—from a world where a primitive is sent to a world more advanced than his own, only to find it just as pathetic as the one he left behind.” Though the creature’s lungs could no longer draw breath, it made a show of doing so. “I am John Carter of Earth, and I have come to rectify the misdeeds of Terra—of Mars.”
As the one that called itself John Carter finished speaking, Seiq keeled over and screamed, the electricity flowing in uncontrolled bursts along her arms.
Elina’s gaze was divided, and she seemed unsure if it best to aid Seiq or stand her ground against the creature. At last, she knelt beside Seiq and helped her to her feet, though it was not done without a supportive shoulder.
“I control everything here,” John Carter said. “—every—everything. I control the Corrupted. I control the Caretakers. I control the walls and floors and ceilings and every living thing that has felt the touch of end times.” John Carter pointed to Elina. “Except you, refugee. I do not yet control you.”
In slow, stilted steps, the creature walked. It paced, dragging the mass of steel cables beyond it like a wedding gown.
“You passed through a complex to come here,” John Carter said. “Let us return there.” The creature lifted a hand and conjured a doorway of black tendrils in the fleshy wall. When Elina did not follow, he turned to her and said, “You will obey me, refugee, or I will have my world consume your Fae. You have changed since you came to Terra—” A satisfied smirk, though on John Carter’s dead features, the full extent of the gesture did not come through. “—but not enough.”
Elina stayed beside Seiq. Though her gaze never moved from the deformed creature that dragged cables beneath its legs like fallen intestines, she watched Seiq out of the corner of her eye.
The mage—the Fae was no longer breathing correctly. Each inhale seemed agonized and she rested a hand over her chest as if her heart might stop at any moment. The blue glow that once had been a constant along the metal running under her arms had faded; leaving the cables invisible, save for the areas of bulging skin that marked their presence.
Moments later, Seiq regained her bearings, and the weakness passed just enough for her to walk. She did so mostly on her own accord, though her legs weakened almost at random, forcing her to keep a hand on Elina’s shoulder for support. Together, they walked forward at John Carter’s behest, moving through the jagged doorway of tendrils leading to a metal chamber that should have rested near one hundred feet above them.
The taste of water in the air lessened.
The cables followed John Carter, peeling from the walls seemingly without end. His corpse body was weak in form, yet it always bore an arrogant smirk. Beneath his flesh, rot and decay was visible along his bones. Only his skull remained truly intact. “There is… beauty to this place,” he said, making a slight sweeping gesture with his hand.
In the walls, lights began to flicker on, revealing the length of the chamber. There were two layers of metal chairs facing the room’s front, where a large glass window overlooked darkness. On all sides of the room, metal columns with glass panes where words flickered across in bitter green text.
“Even when one comes to Mars from Earth, one must find beauty.”
John Carter turned to them, an act that tangled the cables around his ankles. He took no notice.
“You see it too, guide. You know what it is to come to Mars and see nothing but barren primitives with no understanding of what they control. They could have become perfection—they forget what they—” John Carter’s features twisted into a smirk. “But they will change. They will embrace the change as they embraced it long ago.”
He laid a hand over top one of the metal columns to his left, caressing it like a child.
“They will know it again, for I now have the tools to bring forth what we were too weak to give.” Again, John Carter’s attention turned to Elina. “It is you, refugee. You came to me in my hour of need—just as you were supposed to.” With a broken, rotting finger, he pressed one of the many buttons on the metal column.
At first, nothing.
Then the lights flickered on in the darkness behind the glass pane—but it was not a pane. It was a window. The seats stood ready to hold an audience.
Beyond the glass stood one of the great metal cylinders.
From where Elina stood, she could not see its entirety. It stretched below and above the view of the window, colored gray and red, gleaming in what little light was offered. Along its length, three characters from the language of the tomes found in the snow.
“You can no longer speak, but you have not forgotten your place,” John Carter said, turning to the grand cylinder and lifting his arms from his sides as if he meant to embrace it through the thick glass. “This is perfection. Did you know our people thought to protect us from the influence of their vessels? When the first two were released, a poison came upon many; a poison that lingered for millions of years.”
John Carter lowered his arms.
“That is why you are able to cross the Wasteland without affliction. That is why the species of Humanity stagnates. They were immunized to perfection, protected from something they could not bring themselves to embrace. They neutered themselves.”
He turned and gestured to Elina.
“Come to me, refugee,” John Carter said.
Elina did not.
“Come to me or the Fae’s heart will cease to beat.”
But as she did, Seiq’s fingers dug into her arm to hold her back. On her own feet, Seiq remained unstable. She tried to speak, but could only mouth, and the words came out garbled, tired, and trembling. The expression in her eyes, however, was clear. It spoke of fear and concern.
Elina drew away from her.
Seiq did not attempt to hold Elina back again. Her right hand twitched as she struggled to conjure the lightning, only for the energy to fizzle at her fingertips.
Although Elina approached John Carter, her features carried anger—malice, rage, and a tightlipped fury.
“You hate me,” John Carter said, placing one his decayed hands on the back of Elina’s neck. “You hate me from the misguided standpoint of someone who can do nothing but hate. You were raised among ants and have taken to them. Do not worry, refugee. I will find a place for you. We come from the same womb. There need not be hatred.”
And then two of his fingers dug into the flesh of Elina’s neck.
She gasped and screamed.
Seiq lunged forward, carried by legs that were suddenly strong, but was propelled back by a cluster of the inky black tendrils that burst forth from John Carter’s body.
Blood flowed from the hole in Elina’s neck like a waterfall. She trembled—worse than any of Seiq’s shaking—and groped for the hole, stumbling to her feet as she did.
In his hand, John Carter held a small green square dotted in places with smaller squares of black and metal. He held it up to the light, examining it through the thick coating of Elina’s blood that still clung to its surface. “So crude,” he said, “yet effective. The perfect method of control to supplement a perfect being.”
He placed the square against the metal column, where smaller steel prongs reached out and held it in place. It lit up—the column and the square both—and then the ground shook. Something beneath their feet ground and twisted, but John Carter could do naught but smile.
“The ones you call Corrupted will adapt to anything,” he said. “They will heal and adapt in the face of weapons and tools and explosives. The Humans believe they will be held back by a barrier of stone, but for how long? How long can perfection be held in the face of mortality?”
Seiq continued to fumble for a shred of power.
Elina placed a hand over the back of her neck, unable to stem the flow of blood.
John Carter’s gaze turned to Elina again. There was something deep in his eyes—pity, perhaps—and he placed a hand upon Elina’s shoulder. “Do not fret, refugee.”
Something moved from the tip of his finger and filled the hole.
Elina cried out again, her eyes snapping open when once they had been closed in an attempt to suppress the pain. She lashed out at John Carter with a closed fist and struck him across the jaw, but the blow did not so much as stagger him. He smiled as bits of dead flesh were beaten away, leaving visible the bone of his jaw.
The metal cylinder rumbled. As it did, the shaking of the entire complex multiplied tenfold. Even John Carter’s feet seemed unstable. He anchored himself on the wall, gazing at the cylinder. “What will happen to your wall when it is faced with something that cannot be held back by stone and knives?”
Throughout the room, words in a stilted language boomed.
At last, Seiq secured a sliver of energy. She lifted her hand, drawing the lightning forth and hurling it at John Carter.
At first, he seemed to deflect it with the same casual flair as before. The tendrils lashed out to push it aside—only for the lightning to cut through the tendrils like paper. John Carter’s expression shifted to surprise for a single instant of surprise before the lightning ripped through his chest, propelling him backwards across the room. Midair, the cables disconnected from his chest, spraying an inky black fluid across the walls.
The success of the attack seemed to surprise even Seiq, for she stood, wide-eyed for several moments before regaining her bearings and moving to Elina, who, too, had righted herself, still massaging the bloodied section of her neck where something silver had moved to fill the hole.
“Elina Gray,” Seiq said, placing a hand upon her shoulder. “You are injured.”
But Elina swatted the touch away. She looked to Seiq, opened her mouth, and spoke.
“We need to go,” Elina said. The tone of her voice shifted unevenly and the words came out hoarse and stilted, but they came out. Elina spoke.
Seiq was shocked again into silence.
“Seiq,” Elina said, and there was softness to her newfound voice, even as urgency fought its way to the surface. “We have to go.”
The room shook.
Seiq was jarred from her shock.
“We have to go now!” Elina said, at last applying force to the words. She staggered to the metal column and ripped the green square away from it, but the shaking did not cease. Instead, Elina turned and ran from the room without a further word, sprinting not through the shadows created by John Carter, but through the mazes of halls they’d traversed before in the darkness. Elina moved with familiarity, turning at junctions that presented sometimes too many directions to comprehend.
Only once did she look back to make sure Seiq followed.
Lights flickered on as they moved through each room, as if sensing occupants. The glass panels acted in a similar manner, but they no longer lingered in the dim green of before. Now they flashed red, bearing words of the stilted language. But neither Elina nor Seiq stopped long enough to look at the screens, and registered them only in passing.
“Elina Gray!” Seiq said at some point, but the words were drowned out by the clack of shoe against metal.
They passed over a dozen of the bridges, through a hundred rooms, and during it all, a voice blared throughout each room, still speaking in a language that could not be recognized. But as the seconds passed, the voice seemed to grow in urgency and increase in pitch.
They came to the ladder.
Elina leapt at it, catching, stumbling, and climbing up the rungs. Above them, the door in the ground remained open, letting sunlight shine into the whole alongside the cold. As Elina pulled herself into the blackened Wasteland, she felt the ground shake. Seiq exited the hole behind her, but all the energy in Elina’s movements disappeared. Her shoulders sagged.
“Elina Gray!” came Seiq’s voice again. The Fae stood beside her, not winded in the slightest. “Elina Gray! You spoke—what’s happening? John Carter, what did he—”
Thousands of feet ahead, the ground peeled open. It parted like a door, cracking and twisting the glassy landscape till it shattered like the material with which it shared to many similarities. Then something emerged from the hole, something terrifying and grand. The metal cylinder propelled itself out of the ground with flames, its tip pointed.
“Get down!” Elina cried as she threw herself against the soil, pulling Seiq alongside her.
Even the change in position was not enough to muffle the blast of heat that came a split second later, billowing back every hair on Elina’s head. She hugged herself to the ground, even as Seiq remained upright, seemingly unharmed.
When the heat had passed, Elina pushed herself to her feet, wincing as the twisted the plugged injury in the back of her neck. She looked to the cylinder as it flew into the sky, an abomination of metal lifting itself above the clouds.
“No.” The only voice Elina could manage was of a scared little girl.
“Elina Gray,” came Seiq’s voice again. “That is the bomb? The Wasteland house them?”
But Elina could not be drawn from her stupor. She stared after the cylinder
“We must stop it!”
“Yes… Yes—” She whirled around to Seiq. “You need to shoot it down! Aim for the tip!”
“But the bomb will de—”
“We’re immune to the radiation! If you hit it in the air, the blast won’t be enough to affect anything Human! If it hits the ground, whatever it reaches will be vaporized!”
Seiq said nothing else. She lifted one arm and aimed, using its opposite to steady herself. She breathed, focused, and loosed. The lightning traveled in a fraction of a second, but missed by a fraction of a foot. The arc whirled past the cylinder, striking nothing.
“Again!” came Elina’s voice.
The cylinder already risen many thousands of feet into the sky, propelled by the fire that flew from its rear. In sight, it was only sliver of what it had once been, and the aim proved impossible. Then the cylinder’s trajectory changed; its ascent angled. It moved to the north.
“SHOOT IT NOW!”
Seiq did. At last, lightning struck. Even from such a height, she could see the impact as sparks traveled across the surface. Whatever produced the flames that carried the cylinder ceased—yet it continued to fly. The momentum carried it forth, even as it skewed in its ascent. And even when it began to fall, it fell in line with its previous aim.
Elina’s shoulders went slack again. “No,” she said, her voice weaker even than when she’d first spoken. The word came out as a plea. “No, no, no!” She paced for a second, her hands running through her hair with such fury that her nailed scratching into her scalp. “I have to—I have to—”
In her hand, she still held the green square.
In a fury, she pressed it against the back of her neck, pushing through whatever stoppered the blood. Though the pain was great, she forced the square back into place inside her neck and turned to Seiq before the blood loss could overcome her. “I need you to read my thoughts,” she said, placing both hands upon Seiq’s shoulders. “I know you can. You wanted to before. I need you to read my thoughts now and find one thing!”
Seiq was silent, but her eyes showed recognition.
“An emergency command phrase. Search for it. I need you to touch my thoughts and speak it for me.”
Seiq placed a hand upon Elina’s forehead, but hesitated.
“But will you be all right?”
“I'm... fine. Just do it!”
Seiq did. She pressed her fingers against Elina’s forehead and closed her eyes. For many moments, there was silence, even as the great metal cylinder tumbled to the earth, falling towards a portion of the long tack of stone and steel that made up the barrier against the Wasteland.
When Seiq spoke next, Elina echoed the words a quarter of a second behind. The words came as if from a trance.
“Emergency Return Zero Alpha One Nine Three Alpha Alpha One Four Three—”
And then Elina was gone without a trace. There was no sound or light or acknowledgement of the disappearance—she simply ceased to exist. Seiq fell forward, left without anything to support the shift of her weight.
“Elina Gray!” she called.
She looked up.
The cylinder—the missile—had vanished as surely as Elina.