Blackwood Miscellany: Creation Myths of the Empire

Within the context of the Blackwood Empire series, the following tale originates in the region known as the Divide, and is widely told in the NorEastern Empire and the northern regions of the Monteddorian Empire.

At the time of the Blackwood Empire, the story holds little spiritual or religious meaning in the largely libertine NorEastern Empire. It is mainly told with a smirk, as an amusement at tea parties and meetings of Alchemists. It does, however, reflect the nation’s fascination with the human drive to create and understand the world around them.

For the people of Monteddor, however, the story still holds much cultural significance. Ultimately, however, its purpose is a dark one, and much emphasis is placed on the dangers of human curiosity. It is used by the powers that be as a means of control, to keep the citizenry in line and maintain the status quo.

In Crowndon, the story takes on a highly antagonistic tone with the idea of a higher Creator, to be told at a later date.

As Told in the northern reaches of Monteddor:

The Man awoke, surrounded by a bone dry desert under a sun baked sky. There was no sound, but for the soft whisper of a warming wind. He named them as he perceived them, but they were not new names. They were names that existed in some deep, locked away part of himself.

The Man sat up. His head ached for the span of a heart beat, and then the ache disappeared. His eyes grew accustomed to the light, and opened, focusing upon the world around him. The desert stretched far to the horizon in all directions, completely flat except for the rows of pillars to both sides of him, 12 a piece, that reached high into the air above him and curved inward.

The sun hung in the air directly overhead, and the pillars cast no shadow but for a tiny pool of darkness on the underside of each pillar’s curve. The Man stood and stared into these shadows, and knew darkness, which gave meaning to the light.

The Man began walking along the rows. He was strong, and full of energy. He felt no desire, except for the want of knowing what lay beyond the horizon. He turned to the left, and walked through the pillars.

As they fell behind him, the Man felt a deep hollow form in his chest, as though he were leaving behind something that was a crucial part of him. He knew emptiness. He fought the urge to go back, the compulsion to see and know greater than the pull of what was already known.

The world seemed to end. The Man found himself staring into the vast blue nothingness of the sky. Until he looked down, and saw that the world continued, rolling gently downward to another flat plane of desert below. And at the base of the rise, five more pillars reached up from the sand.

Four stood together, seemingly against the fifth, who stood alone. The Man felt something else. It was similar to the hollow he felt after leaving the first stand of pillars behind, but that hollow had filled. This came from somewhere else, somewhere deeper.

That fifth pillar, standing alone against the four. A chill went through the Man. He lifted his shaking left hand. Four fingers stood together. His thumb stood alone. The Man thought on this as he walked on, unsure how to feel about what he’d found. His curiosity had begun to wane. Once again, the hollow returned. The unknown stretched before him, and doubt had shadowed his mind.

Still, the Man persisted.

As he walked, his legs became heavy, and he knew gravity. His lungs burned, and he knew air. Sensation after sensation sprung up within him, like empty spaces he had not known were there until he became aware of them.

His mouth became dry, and the ache in his head returned. Soon, he could walk no more. First, he named what he felt.

Thirst.

The Man fell to his knees, then forward onto his face. He heard something new, and felt something new. He lifted his aching head, and found that where it had laid came forth a bubbling spring of water.

The Man dug deep with his hands, and the water flowed more freely. He scooped it into his palms and he drank. He dug deeper, and the spring became a torrent. It rose around him, touching his knees, his feet. It came up to his waist. And the water rolled away to his left, along the shape of the land and out of sight.

The Man continued his journey, following the flow of the water and drinking from it when needed. Soon it flowed into another stream, this one much larger, and along its banks the land changed. The endless white sand became green grass, and then bushes and trees.

The Tree bore strange orange orbs that smelled sweetly. His mouth watered and his stomach called out. Even as his thirst was quenched, he became aware of his hunger. He plucked an orange from a tree and bit into it, but the skin of the fruit was tough, and bitter. Disappointed, he nearly threw the fruit away, but for a single drop of sweetness on his tongue. Juice flowed from the point where he had bitten into the fruit. He dug into the mark with his thumbs and pulled the orange open, exposing the soft flesh inside.

He ate, hollowing out the skin of the fruit. Finished, he looked once again at his hands, and at the thumb he’d used to pry the orange open. He remembered the pillars, the four standing against the one. He now knew the importance of the one. The importance of his thumb.

He shared the forest with other living things. He tried hunting monkeys. They were quick, and they had thumbs. They could climb. So he hunted deer. They had no thumbs.

Wolves hunted him, but he, like the monkeys, could climb trees. And he could build. He constructed shelters in the trees. He used them to sleep in, and to hunt deer from. He built long, sharp weapons to kill with.

The Man was crafty, and he survived, and built a life in the forest. Water and food were plenty, and his stomach was full. But still, that strange hollow he felt as he left the pillars behind remained. This hollow was not physical. It came from someplace else.

One day, he discovered a new plant with red berries unlike anything he’d seen before. He ate the berries while he hunted. But soon he felt weak, and he was unable to hunt. He weakened more, and was unable to climb. Instead he crawled into the roots of a tree, and shivered, hoping that wolves would not come.

He awoke to a strange sound. His vision was blurred, and his hearing muffled. The notion came upon him that the sound was directed at him. But it was not the growl of a wolf, or the protest of a dying deer, or the chattering of a monkey.

The Woman crouched before him. She held out her hand. Inside were naught but leaves. He had chewed them before, but they made him sick. Not as sick as he was now, but they made the food he ate come back up. The Woman insisted. The sounds she made were pitiful, worrisome…compassionate. Their tone compelled him to eat the leaves.

Sure enough, they brought his stomach up, and along with it the berries he had eaten. He felt better, afterward, but still weak. She brought him water in a deer skin. Lots of water, and she made him drink every last drop, even when he was no longer thirsty.

The Man slept a long time and when he awoke, the Woman remained. He saw her more clearly. She wore the skins of the deer, as he did. She had tools of wood, as he did. No…not like he did. She had tied rocks to them. Some of the rocks had been sharpened to points. He gestured to them and she held them out. He looked at them, admiringly. And he looked at her, the same way.

They stayed together. She showed him how to sharpen the rocks, and how to tie them to the sticks, and they hunted. When they discovered something new, they assigned a sound to it, so they could understand each other. Over time, the Man became aware that the hollow was gone.

They explored the forest by day, naming the world around them, and by night, they explored each other. They were much the same, but very different. Soon, they brought forth a little one like them, and more after that. The little ones grew, and they learned to hunt. Some of them left and never returned. Some went to sleep and never awakened.

They built a home on the ground, protected by felled trees. They grew smaller trees inside. The day came when more like them appeared. They showed them what they knew, and these people built a home beside them. More people came, and before long, they had conquered the forest and built homes made of stone.

Still others came after that, but these did not need to learn. In fact, they knew more. Some were willing to teach. Others…others only wanted to take. Over time, the spear and the arrow gave way to the sword and the gun. Over and over again the people fought. At first they fought over food and land. They fought over people. And then, they began to fight over words, and ideas. The fight over ideas were the most brutal; the ideas were stronger than any physical need. The ideas came from the same place as the Man’s strange emptiness that he could not fill. The ideas were nearly the end of them.

Until one day, a Man had an idea meant to save them. He built a colossus of iron and gears in his own image, which would hold their very being within and preserve it for eternity. He built the colossus, and in their desperation the people submitted to it. The Man was the last one inside.

And the Colossus walked across the surface of the empty world until the mountains fell and the forests turned to dust. When all life was gone, the Colossus remained. However, even it could not stand up to time. Eventually, the Colossus fell, too. It crumbled to pieces, exposing its skeletal frame, its ribs jutting up from the earth like two rows of pillars. And all was still.

Until one day, a Man awoke in a bone dry desert, under a sun baked sky…

Blackwood Miscellany: Creation Myths of the Empire

Blackwood Gazette #201: Adella Chatelaine Resigns from the Blackwood Gazette; Plans to Pursue Career as Independent Journalist (Lelina Horror, Conclusion)

By Adella Chatelaine, Investigative Reporter

10/11- It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that I will not be returning to the Blackwood Gazette as a full time correspondent. My time here has, mostly, been a great chapter of my life. However, there are things that I must turn my attention to now, that I would not be able to do under the auspices of such a well-regarded publication.

During my time in the colonies and subsequent captivity, I learned of forces at work in this world that most believe do not exist. These forces are protected by an almost institutionalized sense of denial, one that I can no longer be privy to. And because of that, I believe I am a target. I cannot in good conscience drag my fellow reporters and friends into such a mess.

So I will go on alone, as an independent journalist. I will search the dark corners of this earth to ferret out the secrets of this hidden cabal that I believe is pulling the strings of world industry and development. I know not what their plans are, these Cartographers. I have my doubts that many of them even know, and I cannot even begin to fathom the place in which the diabolical experiment that so many others and I were forced to endure fits into those machinations, but I vow to find out.

A lie, after all, is a construct. And like any construct it needs to be maintained. Given time, or the proper application of force, any lie will eventually crumble. And the truth therein revealed.

I would like to thank my fellow reporters at the Gazette for their support and guidance over the years, in particular Mister Maurice Merchant, who took a chance when he hired me on after the whole Bulloch award fiasco and never gave up hope that I would return home. I don’t know where I would be without you all and the Gazette.

Fare well.

 

 

Blackwood Gazette #201: Adella Chatelaine Resigns from the Blackwood Gazette; Plans to Pursue Career as Independent Journalist (Lelina Horror, Conclusion)

The Lelina Horror, Part 19

PIXIE (IX)

Vengeance is a pesky thing. It isn’t exactly justice, but the need for it can eat at a person. And unlike other emotions or whatever vengeance is, it doesn’t dampen with time. Revenge is a dish best served cold, as they say.

It’s also very rarely justified, but that doesn’t matter to the person searching for it. They just want closure. There’s a lot of things I could say about the feelings in the air that night as we escaped from the hospital, but I don’t think closure was one of them. At least not for Arufina Villanova.

I felt the cold steel of her gun barrel against my head, and then I heard the click of the hammer as it fell on a dud, of all things. With how many rounds were fired over that ten minutes or so, I guess at least one was bound to misfire. I don’t consider it fate, or even luck. Just…statistics, I guess.

I turned around and gave her an evil glare. There was no surprise on her face, just resignation as she lowered the gun and said, “Go.”

We made it back to Point Hammond by dawn, and luckily for us, not a Cartographer could be seen. The large group of malnourished people in ragged clothes did catch the attention of the local law, however, and we were all taken in for disturbing the peace. It took some explaining but once I was able to impart to the sheriff who we were and where we had come from, he contacted the nearby Marshal garrison and handed us off to them.

The Marshal’s fed us, treated Veronica’s wounds and had a doctor examine the people we’d rescued. None of them were in trouble physically. Psychologically, however, was a different story. After a few days we were cleared to leave. As I understand, several of the captives stayed. I don’t know their reasons.

As for Mister Bricklebrand McKay: I had assumed Arufina had killed him. Such was not the case, as he was already at the garrison when we arrive. He ran away, you see. I wish I could say that surprised me, but it doesn’t.

Veronica, Adella, Doctor Rothery and I chartered a ferry up the coast to the city of Bly, where they will board a train to New Crowndon in the morning. We traveled in relative silence. I considered asking Adella and Doctor Rothery for details, but decided against it. If Adella ever wishes to tell the story of what happened, I imagine she will do so in her own time.

By the time we arrived in Bly, the news had already hit the papers. A number of reporters and well-wishers greeted us. Adella and Rothery were in no mood to answer questions, so I stepped in as spokesperson, stressing the need to let them provide answers in their own time.

Veronica, Adella and I just had a goodbye dinner, where we spoke of things other than Point Hammond and Lelina. I told them of some of my lighter exploits since the end of the war, and Veronica told of her dig in Pharassus. Adella didn’t share much, but she seemed in high spirits. I have hopes that she will carry on.

I will not be joining them on the train to New Crowndon. No sooner than I returned to my room at the hotel did my handler with the Society send me details on my next job. The Triumvirate Authority is worried about whatever Alejandro Julianos is looking for down south, and since I’m in the area, the task falls to me.

And so, as one task ends, another begins.

The Lelina Horror, Part 19

The Lelina Horror, Part 18

ADELLA (X)

She asked me if I remembered her, and despite the trauma of my captivity and the long years since I’d last seen her, I did.

Pixie Sinclaire. Spy. Saboteur. A decorated hero of the Nor Easter-Crowndon war. And, once upon a time, a fellow student and friend.

We’d studied together at the University of Oeil de Fleur. She only spent a semester there before joining the military and going on to a career of death-defying derring-do. Even in that short time, however, I knew that Pixie Sinclaire was someone I wanted to be.

She was the one who pushed me towards investigative journalism when everyone, from my parents to my professors, pushed me towards straight on reporting. Where they told me to find a nice paper to work for in a nice, comfortable city, Pixie was the one who told me that finding the truth of a story was nearly more important than merely stating the facts.

After she left, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for years. And yet here she was, in this hellish place, trying to save me. To save us, even though I doubt we deserved it. Not only that, but she had refused to turn over a person who wanted her dead for a quick and easy out. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at that.

I told her that I did, indeed, remember her, and she asked me if I was ready to leave. When she asked me that I felt like myself for the first time in a long time. She smiled and said,

“Let’s go, then.”

A few moments later, the people who’d brought us to this place and put us through hell came through the only door in the room, and the guns that Doctor Trenum, Pixie, and the assassin Arufina Villanova thundered in the small space. The bodies fell and tumbled down the stairs. I didn’t feel anything as I watched it happen. Not horror, nor relief as Pixie led us up the stairwell and into the decrepit hospital.

More people, all wearing blue, like the others, waited for us in the corridors above. I think I recognized one of them as Shelby as I passed his body. It was kind of hard to tell, with half his face off.

Pixie led us first into a dark room off of one of the corridors, a room filled with broken beds and horrific machines. She said that they had entered through there, but the window had been boarded up. Metal bars covered the others. With their original point of ingress now closed, we had no choice but to storm the front.

A small group of men waited for us there. Not very many, eight, but just enough to stop us. Pixie was out of bullets, and Veronica had taken a hit. Arufina had four shots left. Even if she managed one bullet per man, that left four with six shots a piece. Going back to scrounge for more from one of the bodies was an option, but Pixie offered another solution.

“I still have one of my little pills left,” she said. “I can take out that cluster of five or so by the door. The others will be your problem.”

Arufina nodded. Pixie tossed her bomb, and the assassin swept the room, fanning the hammer on her revolver and taking out the other three with one bullet to spare. It was easy. Looking back, it was sort of scary just how easy it was.

We walked out of the hospital. I half expected more of the men in blue uniforms to be outside, waiting for us, but there weren’t any. Just a cool, clear autumn night. We were safe. We’d made it out.

And then Arufina raised her gun, put it against the back of Pixie’s head, and pulled the trigger.

The Lelina Horror, Part 18

The Lelina Horror, Part 17

PIXIE (VIII)

I’m not even sure how to begin describing the scene that lay before us as the Cartographer opened the door to the room where Adella, Rothery, and several others were being kept. I can say that the smell is what hit me first. The worst thing I’d ever smelled up to that point had been bodies burning in a derailed train car during the war. This was far worse, a lingering smell of decay and filth.

I spotted Adella sitting on the far wall. While she was obviously malnourished, she wasn’t horrifically so. It was more the look in her eyes that frightened me. Gone was the enlightened, inquisitive spark I’d seen in the young journalism student I’d traveled with all those years ago. In its place was a vacant stare, bordering on feral. I scanned the room and saw the same look in the eyes of the others. And judging from the fact that several bodies lay on the floor, I’d say that they were one provocation away from ripping each other apart.

“There she is, Miss Sinclaire,” the Cartrographer said, pointing to Adella. “The woman you came looking for. Or is it? Take a look around. See those bodies laying on the ground? That one there, he was a captive, just like them. And he was killed by them, based on the suspicion that he’d taken a single bite out of someone else’s food ration. This is what happens when people are pushed enough. In the end, we are just base animals.

“Well, almost. Your friend Adella…she never broke. Never lifted a finger. I know because I watched. She won’t admit that, though. She’s taken on the responsibility along with the others, but her hands are rather clean. Metaphorically speaking. Physically, they’re quite filthy.”

I whirled around on him and grabbed him by the neck, forcing him back against the wall. His men hefted their weapons but he stopped them.

“Now, Miss Sinclaire, let us try to remain civil. I’ve brought you here for a reason. I’m planning to let you, and Doctor Trenum, leave along with your companion.”

“And what’s the catch?”

“A choice. You can take a look around, take in what you see, and decide whether anyone in this room is worth saving. If not, just walk away, along with Miss Villanova here. Or, you can let us have Miss Villanova, and take Miss Chatelaine.”

I looked over at Villanova. She was staring at me fit to kill. It was any easy choice. This woman had been dogging me since Docryville, trying to put a bullet through my skull. It was an opportunity to both get rid of her, and save Adella.

“No,” I said.

“No? No what?”

“I don’t accept either set of terms. They’re stacked, you see. Meant to re-enforce whatever twisted world view you’re trying to illustrate here. You don’t think I know what you’re doing, with this little experiment? It’s all very misanthropic, but I’m not biting. I leave them to rot, it shows how quickly our faith in people can crumble. If I trade one person who’s a problem for me for another I’m trying to save, then I’m just an opportunist.”

“And if you resist, then you’re a fool. What will it be?”

I looked at Veronica, then at Arufina. Anything I chose, I was choosing for everyone. There was no debate about that. But then, the three of us had chosen to come here on our own.

Time to face the consequences.

“Foolishness suits me just fine.”

I brought my knee up, driving it into his stomach and knocking the breath out of him. He folded over and I threw his limp body toward his men, who had all idiotically bunched together in the entry way. They fell back, giving me enough time to pop one of the sleeping pills and toss it into the entryway.

“Veronica, back up from there,” I said as the smoke filled the entryway. I pulled my dagger and turned to Arufina. “Easy big girl. I’m just going to cut you free.”

“You are a fool, if you think this changes anything. I still plan to kill you.”

“Then do it after we get out of here. For now, grab a couple of those guns and get ready to fight. Or are you willing to just leave these people behind?”

She looked at the room. “Poor wretches. Why should I give a damn what happens to them?”

“Because you’re the kind of person who would track a world famous spy half way across the world to make her answer for the death of your friend. You want justice for Osyn? Help me get these people out of here.”

My saying the name of the girl I killed struck a chord with her. I could see it in her face, a temporary moment of surprise. I think that letting her know that I hadn’t forgotten Osyn’s name helped temper whatever rage was inside of her.

“Alright then. I’ll help.”

“Pixie, are you sure about this?” Veronica asked. She’d picked up a gun and was holding it on the entrance. From up the stairs I could hear voices.

“I’m trained for subterfuge, and no offense, Ronnie, but I’ve seen you shoot. Arufina is a trained gun-fighter, and we’re about to fight an army of the same. Yeah. We need her.”

“Do you have any more of those annoying things?” Arufina asked as she found the keys to her shackles and unlocked herself. I supposed she meant my sleep bombs.

“Just one.”

“Use it wisely, then,” she said, then proceeded to undo the gun belts of the five unconscious Cartographers. She handed one to Veronica and another to me, then slid the others over her shoulders like bandoliers, and checked each of the four guns. I reloaded my gun, holstered it, and turned to the captives.

They had long since stood up and gathered in the center of the room. In front of them stood Adella.

“Alright, people, listen up,” I said. “We’re going to get you all out of here…”

“But where are we going to go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know. Back to your homes.”

The man who asked the question started sobbing. I thought about going on with trying to rally them, took one look at the others, and knew it wouldn’t do any good. The only thing to do know was to focus on fighting our way out of there and worry about these people then. I turned my attention to Adella.

“Adella,” I said, and she flinched at the name, then looked up at me. “Adella, do you remember me?”

The Lelina Horror, Part 17

The Lelina Horror, Part 16

ADELLA (IX)
6th of 11 Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

In recent days, I have found myself going around in circles about where to begin in recalling the events surrounding my capture in the swamps around Lelina. My memory is all too muddled by the stress of our situation and the horrors my compatriots and I were forced to endure. They tell me I was gone only for one year, but that one year seemed like an eternity.

Time is hard to measure when you’re in captivity. When every moment could potentially be your last, time becomes simultaneously priceless and worthless. I’m not sure how to describe it, exactly. Your mind fades between hopefulness and despair. Your worst enemy is your own mind. Eventually you learn to shut it down, and everything becomes a blur.

I had no idea where I was when I came to in what, I’ve been told, was an abandoned hospital in the wilds outside of Point Hammond. All I remember is that Rothery and Meriam were there. In the beginning, that was some sort of, I suppose selfish, comfort. There were others as well, in the beginning. About twenty five or thirty. They’d all been there longer than us, and the realities of their situation had long since set in. From time to time one would be taken away, seemingly at random. Others would be brought. From the whispers of our fellow captives, no one was ever brought back after they’d left. Everyone who entered the room did so for the first time. Everyone who left did so for the last.

For the longest time we were left alone together. Our captors, whoever they were, bothered us not. They did not taunt nor torture us, nor did they provide anything other than food or water. We were kept alive, but in squalor. The stench was unbearable. I never got used to it and even now I can taste the air of that place in the back of my throat.

From time to time I could see shadows behind the frosted glass panes overlooking the room. The shadows would stand there, still as statues until turning away and disappearing. It was almost always just an individual. Every now and again it would be a group. At first I thought I might discern a pattern, and be able to count the passage of time based on when it was a single shadow, or multiple. I soon learned that it was completely random.

I slept 40 times before the ‘scenarios’ began. The ‘scenarios’ were what turned our imprisonment from an atrocious situation to a living hell.

They began secretly giving messages to us. At first the messages would be some innocuous thing, like what day of the week it was. These we shared when they started coming. And it was through this sharing that the various groups within the room started to finally intermingle. I suppose that was the point.

I slept fifteen more times when I began to notice a change, however. People seemed to be keeping secrets, and the number of messages we shared began to dwindle. The messages had changed, but to what, I wondered?

One day I bit into a piece of bread to find a piece of paper stashed inside, along with a nail file.

It read: ‘Someone plans to kill you. They believe you plan to kill someone close to them.’
I stood up and went to the center of the room and I told everyone what I found, placing the nail file on the floor. I said that I had no intentions of hurting anyone, and if anyone had received a similar message, it was likely a manipulation.

I left the file and turned to head back to Rothery and Meriam. I only made it a few steps when I heard rushed footsteps behind me. I turned to see one of the other captives, a woman whose name I cannot remember, rushing toward the file. She picked it up and dashed to the other side of the room, straight toward a man standing against the wall.

There was no hesitation, no warning. She just drove the nail file into the man’s neck and killed him. When the others stood up in outrage, she tried to explain.

‘I have a sick son!’ she said. ‘They said they’d get him medicine if I did it! I’m sorry!’

No one listened. They all turned their back on her. I turned my back on her.

A few sleeps later and one of the men, whose name I do remember, Shelby, began to suggest we organize. If we were going to keep our sanity, he said, we should instill order. Our own order. None of us were a threat to each other, he said. It was us versus the bastards who put us in here.

We listened to him. That was a mistake.

Shelby did instill order, but it was an unfair one. He elected himself as the leader. No, that’s a lie. We all looked to him. He seemed the most capable. But he wasn’t what he seemed.

As we eventually learned, he was one of Them. And two of the four others he appointed as his lieutenants were Them, as well. Eventually they just became a new form of messengers. Only now the messages were coming from people we thought were trustworthy.

It didn’t take long before we were at each others throats, accusing each other of stealing food or plotting against each other. We all began to fight. Shelby would swoop in and break it up sometimes. Other times he seemed resigned to watch. To observe. That was my first clue.

Then they started offering people respite. For those who did what They wanted, they were promised extra meals, or a bath. They promised tiny things, things most of us would take for granted. But they seemed like such huge prizes in the dark.

Then, the Worst Day happened. I’m not sure on the details. It started with an errant accusation, or an insult. It doesn’t matter. Five of us died that day. Meriam was one of them. She’d just gotten caught in the middle.

New people were brought in. This was after Shelby and his two cohorts were revealed to be Them. So these new people, they never stood a chance. Their every move was watched. The slightest misstep either got them beaten or killed. Not by Them. But by Us. They weren’t even sending us messages any more at that point. They didn’t need to. When we started treating the new captives as our own captives, I realized, there was no Them anymore.

I started to think none of this would end. But then it did. Agent Pixie Sinclaire and Professor Veronica Trenum. One day they just entered the room on their own volition, unbound, with several men in blue at their backs and a third, giant woman in shackles with them. They took one look around, and the horror on their faces really drove home what we had done.

How dare they, I thought, looking at the judgement in their eyes. How dare they judge?

And then one of the men in Blue pointed at me, and made Pixie Sinclaire an offer.

The Lelina Horror, Part 16

The Lelina Horror, Part 15

PIXIE (VII)

“Let’s get moving,” I said, mainly to call Ronnie’s attention away from her surroundings. In all the years I’ve known her, I’d never seen her as shaken up as she was then. This was someone who once ran through four miles of a forest full of cannibals with an injured porter on her shoulder. Another time, she’d been trapped alone in a cave for a month after a shell from a nearby battle caused a cave in, surviving off ground water and grubs before the rest of her expedition dug her out.

“Ronnie,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Right,” she said. “Yes. If Adella is here, she won’t spend another second here due to my own inaction. Let’s find her.”

We exited the room and entered a long corridor that ran the length of the building. The paint peeled from the walls in long strips, and discarded medical debris and other detritus littered the floors. The dense odor of mildew filled the space, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. We pushed forward.

I kept one ear open as we walked, but the only sound to be heard was dead silence and our tiny footsteps crunching against a layer of dirt that covered the floor. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for other signs of passage. Surely any occupants would have left a trail.

It wasn’t footsteps I found, but an adjacent corridor that had been swept clean, coupled with wall sconces that emitted a small gaslight. Not enough light to draw attention from outside, but just enough to see. We walked the length of the corridor. A second hallway similar to the one we’d started in ran the length of the building’s far side. It showed no signs of passage.

“Hmm,” I said, turning back. “I wonder, is this the hallway we’re looking for? Or is it lit precisely to draw our attention?”

I made the choice to walk back down the lit hallway. There were spaces where doors might have been, but they were bricked over. On a hunch I reached up and pulled one of the sconces as we passed it. Nothing happened, so I tried to turn it. Nothing. I repeated the process with the other sconces, hoping one of them might open a secret passage or some such. Nothing happened. I was stumped.

“Pixie, look.” Ronnie pointed at the ground ten feet in front of us. There was a threadbare rug, completely unremarkable, laying askew on the floor. I walked over to it and pulled it back. There was nothing underneath.

“Well, I’m out of ideas,” Ronnie said.

“There has to be something. A lever, or a trapdoor. Something.”

“Kill your light.”

I stuffed the glow-tube in a pocket while Ronnie went down the hall, cutting off the gaslights. Once they were all off, we were in complete darkness. After a minute of trying to fight off my imagination, my eyes adjusted. There, in the middle of the hall, from underneath one of the bricked over doors, was a thin strip of light.

“Do you think that’s it?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t hurt to check,” Ronnie said. I pulled the glow tube out of my pocket. Ronnie stood in front of the door, smiling warily. It was a short lived smile as her eyes shifted to something behind me.

“Pixie, look out!” she shouted, but I was already throwing myself forward. I felt a rush of air over the top of my head as I rolled forward and turned, my hand reaching for my dagger. There stood the mad woman. She still had her rifle, but was using it as a club.

“Out of bullets?” I asked.

“I don’t need bullets. You sure as hell didn’t.”

“So, you can talk. Mind telling me what this is about?”

My not knowing pissed her off to no end. Normally, someone her size barreling at me like a charging elephant would be cause for alarm, and it certainly was, but rage makes people stupid, and stupid people are predictable. She brought the rifle butt up and down in a wide arc. I sidestepped the blow, dropped low, and put all of my weight behind throwing myself into her broadside. If she’d been standing ready, I’ve no doubt I would have just bounced off of her, but she was off balance and off guard.

The mad woman fell to the right, striking the bricked over door. The bricks didn’t fall away, but I did hear them shift. I waited for her to begin to stand.

“Ronnie, with me!” I said, and pushed forward again. Together, Ronnie and I crashed into the woman and pushed her back through the loosened bricks into a stairwell beyond. The three of us tumbled down the steps, the edge of every one a threat to life and limb. We made it to the bottom in a nice little pile, with me landing on top of the mad woman and Ronnie landing on top of me.

The landing knocked the breath out of me, but Ronnie seemed alright, if a little dazed. She stood first and helped me up. As I stood catching my breath, the mad woman started to stir. I was trying to decide what we should do with her when Ronnie tapped me on the shoulder.

“What is it now—oh.”

Five cartographers stood behind us, guns raised.

“Ah, hell,” I said, raising my hands. I was too damned tired after that fall. And besides, if they took us alive, maybe they’d just take us to wherever Adella and the others were being held.

“Agent Sinclaire?”

The voice didn’t come from the five men in front of us, but from a sixth man farther down the hall.

“That’s me.”

He stepped out from around a corner, holding his hands behind his back, his hair slicked back and a know-it-all smirk on his face. I disliked him immediately.

“Lower your weapons,” he told his people, and they did. “Let Miss Sinclaire and her companion through. As for the Circle assassin, restrain her and bring her with us.”

Circle assassin? I turned to look at the mad woman, still laying on the ground but otherwise fully recovered. She was watching me with a keen eye. And I remembered who she was.

Arufina Villanova, a member of the Scarlet Circle. I’d had a run in with them a few years before. She’d led a group of her compatriots in an attack on an arms dealer I’d been sent to negotiate with. The whole affair had led to the discovery of a Pre-Rift vault, just like the one at Lelina. And just like Lelina, the vault had contained automatons like the Mistwalker described by Veronica.

Over the course of events, I was directly responsible for the death of one of Villanova’s team, a young woman named Osyn, if I correctly recall. I supposed that’s why Villanova had been hunting me, to exact some sort of vengeance.

The Cartographers picked her up off the ground and placed her in shackles, then wrapped her upper body with a heavy rope.

“Isn’t that a bit excessive?” Ronnie asked.

“No,” said the man. “Wouldn’t you agree, Agent Sinclaire?”

Five minutes ago I would have agreed vehemently, but now that I knew the woman’s identity and an idea of why she wanted me dead, I found it hard to feel much animosity toward her. Don’t get me wrong…I didn’t appreciate her trying to kill me, but I could sympathize with her position. I’m not a monster.

“Come this way, then,” the man said. “I have someone who’s been waiting to see you for a very long time.”

The Lelina Horror, Part 15