So What’s Next?

So this brings us to the end of Book 1.  I really do want to thank you all for reading.  Seriously, just being able to share what I write means a lot to me, and if I’m really lucky then maybe it left some kind of an impression on you.

So what happens now?

Well, I’m currently waiting on the final cover-art for the book, so that I can put it up for sale on Amazon, Smashwords, and Lulu, for anyone to enjoy in print, or on their favourite e-reader.

I’m also going to be making digital copies of the book available for anyone to download, free of charge, and to share as much as they want.  That’s never going to change, and it’s never going to go away.  Every book in the Exiles series will available for free, for those that want it.

Once Book 1 is out the gate, I’m going to be sitting down to start work in earnest on the next book.  There’s obviously a lot of story still to tell.  I imagine most of you want to know what happens next for Rachael and Arsha, and where they go now that they have nowhere left to call home.  That’s where book 2 picks up, and I’m really excited to begin exploring some of the questions I left you with, and some of those hanging plot threads that I left unresolved.  I’m even more excited to get to spend more time with Rachael and Arsha, as we watch them grow up, and really begin to discover who they are.  I’ve been carrying these characters around in my head for years now, and there’s so much more of their story that I want to tell.

How I get there is the question.  Whatever happens, I want to keep telling this story.  I’ve got big plans for future books, and even bigger plans for the ending.  It’s going to be crazy epic awesome, and you’ll love it.  I’m hoping you guys will support me in getting there.

I want to be clear, I’m not a starving artist.  I work a 40 hour a week day job that pays the bills just fine (and I live in Canada, where we have wonderful things like free healthcare).  I’m not well off, but I don’t need to be, and I am able to look after myself, and I can afford a few nice toys every now and then.  But working an 8 hour day and then coming home to write for another 3 hours isn’t easy, and despite what anyone may tell you, writing is bloody hard work.  Yes, it’s satisfying, and fulfilling, and at times immensely enjoyable.  But it’s also a mind numbing grind that can suck the life out of you, and it’s not easy to squeeze that in around a full time job.  My biggest wish is that I would be able to make enough money from what I write that I can afford to quit my day job, or at least change to part-time work, and focus much more of my time and energy on telling these stories.  So every book you buy, or a friend buys because of your recommendation, helps me to do that.

If it sounds strange that I want to get paid for this, but also want to give my work away, believe me, it does make sense.  I want people to pay for this because they think it’s worth paying for.  But I don’t want to be a gatekeeper.  I want people to read my books, enjoy them, and share them, and it’s my hope that enough people will think that’s worth paying something back for that I’ll be able to make a living out of this.

I’m going to be approaching that end two different ways.  The first is offering my books for sale, for those who wish to pay for them.  It’s not necessary (unless you want a physical copy, because, obviously, those cost money to print and ship), but it is very much appreciated.  I’m also going to be setting up a Patreon account, where people who want to can support my work with a very small monthly donation.  Basically, Patreon is kind of like busking.  I share these stories with you, and if you like them you throw some change in the hat.  I think that’s a really cool idea.  For those who choose to support me on Patreon, I’m looking at offering some additional content in return.  I’d really like to put together some kind of “Director’s Commentary” style podcast where I go through the book chapter by chapter and explain my thoughts and my writing process.  I’ve always loved watching that kind of content for films and TV shows, and I think it might be really cool to do the same thing with a novel.

All of this is going to happening over the next few weeks, so for now just keep following this blog if you want all the latest on what’s happening with the Exiles series.  Book 2 will be coming, sooner or later.  Hopefully sooner.  Let’s see what happens.

I’m excited.  Nervous, but excited.  I am really am incredibly grateful to every one of you for deciding to join me on this.  Every like, every share, every reblog, reply or comment, it all makes a difference.  And even if you didn’t do any of those things, I don’t care, because just by reading this story you make a difference.  A story isn’t a story if there’s no one to tell it to.  So thank you for listening.

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Chapter 33 – Home

They caught up with the Triskelion a little way outside of the city. Ilona watched from the deck, the cold air numbing the tender flesh around her damaged eye. The Zephyr drifted in to settle gently on the deck. The ladder was lowered and Micah descended first to help the girls down.

Milima appeared as they reached the deck. With promises of hot showers, hot food and hot drinks she ushered the girls inside to see to their injuries.

Micah and Rishi set to stowing the Zephyr. Ilona tried to help, but she could already feel herself flagging. The ropes slipped from her hands, fingers feeling thick and clumsy. She could see that both men were trying their best not to say anything. They wouldn’t dare tell her to stop, but they were both thinking it.

She turned away, trying not to stumble as she made her way inside. In the silence of the corridor she paused to find her breath. Then she heard the door swing open again and sharp footsteps from behind. She turned to see Rishi standing a few feet away. His eyes fixed on hers, trembling with cold fury.

“I’m sorry Rishi. I truly am,” she said. “It was the only way to…”

“To what?” he snapped, cutting her off. “I just don’t understand it Ilona. Why would you try to keep me from saving my own daughter? What could you possibly…” he floundered, unable to find words large enough for all the force of his anger.

She looked at him in stunned silence.

“How can you even ask me a question like that?” she said at last.

“It seems to be the only question worth asking, right now.”

“Rishi, I didn’t try to keep you from Arsha, I kept you from killing yourself chasing something impossible. She’s alive, she’s unhurt, and so are you.”

“’Unhurt.’ You’d dare to try to call that ‘unhurt’?” he said, his voice little more than a cold hiss.

“I didn’t have a lot of good choices in front of me,” she said, feeling her hands shaking at her sides. “Maybe you could have done something. And maybe you would have just killed yourself trying. I couldn’t bear that, Rishi.”

She reached out to touch the swelling on his cheek, where her fist had struck him. The metal of her gauntlet had broken the skin, leaving a tiny crack, freshly scabbed.

He slapped her hand away.

“What could possibly make you think I’d care about my own life when my daughter was in danger?”

For a moment, all she could do was stare at him. The silence hung between them like a chasm. She felt a dizzying sensation of vertigo welling up inside, as if she was standing at the edge of that chasm, staring down. Before he could react, her hand slid around the nape of his neck and she leaned in to press her lips against his. Just for a moment, she was certain that he forgot to breathe.

She pulled away, with a feeling like electricity running through her fingertips.

“I didn’t do it for you,” she said.

She turned away, taking the steps down the lower deck as quickly as she dared, forcing herself not to break into a run. Even that small restraint left her as she dashed to her room and threw the door closed behind herself. She leaned back against the hard wood and pressed her hands against her eyes, tight enough to keep the tears locked in.

They were ushered into the mess hall, and Milima closed the door behind them. Arsha had to duck to keep her wings from catching in the doorway. Iron feathers brushed against the frame, leaving a cloud of red dust in her wake.

Her legs ached, and she wanted to sit, but there didn’t seem to be an easy way to do so in the cramped space. Not with the large protrusions that hung from her back. They were strangely light, at least. She was thankful for that.

Milima settled Rachael onto the edge of the long table and began prodding at the girl’s shoulder, just as Ilona had done.

“It doesn’t hurt much.” Rachael said, looking a little surprised.

“That’ll be the aneasthetic. Good,” Milima said, quietly. “Now…”

She turned her eyes to the iron gauntlet that encased Rachael’s left hand. Milima lifted the girl’s hand and gently turned it one way, then the other, peering between the hard plating to the raw flesh beneath.

“Do you know what it is?” Rachael said, her voice nearly a whisper.

Milima shook her head.

“How could I?” the woman said, softly.

As Milima stared at the gauntlet, Arsha found herself plucking at the edge of one wing, marvelling at the sensation as her fingers ran along the metal. It was like touching your own arm, that feeling of two points of sensation meeting. It seemed impossible.

She could fly. The thought echoed through her mind, seeming to reverberate over and over. She could still feel the sensation of the wind rushing through the thin metal leaves, the ripples in the air currents, the buoyant feeling of the thermals catching her body. The incredible lightness of it all. She had moved so fast. Her eyes closed, and she saw herself reaching out again, as Rachael plunged through the cold air, the ground rushing up towards them both. She felt the sickening twisting in her stomach once more, the tension that had seized every part of her body as she willed herself to move just a little faster. She had barely even known what she was doing. Or perhaps it was like she had always known. She couldn’t say.

“You OK?”

Her eyes snapped open and she saw Rachael looking at her. As Rachael studied her face for a moment, Arsha imagined she saw something behind the girl’s eyes. A look of understanding. Perhaps Rachael had guessed at what she was thinking about. Perhaps she didn’t need to.

“Yeah. I’m OK.”

She looked up at Milima. The woman was watching them both, with a doubtful expression.

“We’re both OK. Really,” she said, trying to sound reassuring.

“No, you’re not OK,” Milima said, with a shake of her head. “You will be, eventually. But not yet.”

Before either of them could think of anything to say, Milima turned away, and began to fill an iron kettle. Once the stove was lit and the pot heating she returned, drying her hands on a towel as the girls both watched her uncertainly.

“Alright, let’s set that shoulder. Arsha, love, you’ll need to hold her up.”

Milima nodded towards where Rachael was sitting. Feeling a little unsure of what she was doing, Arsha moved to stand behind her at the end of the long table. Gently, Milima laid the girl’s arm across her lap. Rachael looked just a little bit nervous as Milima reached into a medicine bag and produced a small knot of rope.

“Bite,” she said, holding it up to Rachael’s mouth.

“This is going to hurt, isn’t it,” Rachael said.

Milima nodded, her eyes sympathetic.

“OK,” Rachael said, and set her teeth around the bite guard. Arsha put her hands against Rachael’s back, supporting her as Milima began to slowly move Rachael’s arm away from her body, forcing the shoulder to rotate. She could see Rachael’s jaw tighten, as her eyes squeezed shut. She heard the knot of rope creaking as it was clamped ever tighter between Rachael’s teeth, and she felt the girl’s body trembling against her hands. Then there was a loud popping sound, and relief seemed to flood through her sister’s body. Gently, Milima removed the bite guard.

“Better?”

Rachael nodded. Tears had welled up in the corners of her eyes.

“We’ll get you cleaned up and then off to bed.”

“I couldn’t even try to sleep,” Rachael said.

“I know. We’ll see to that.”

After wrapping a fresh sling around Rachael’s arm, Milima stepped through into the kitchen, where a pot was bubbling gently on the stove. She poured a little of the liquid into a mug, adding honey and milk.

“Nightroot,” she said, as she returned. “Drink as much as you can.”

“What’s it do?” Rachael said.

“Helps you sleep. That’s all,” Milima smiled as she held the cup up to Rachael’s lips. “Trust me, sleep is what you both need right now.”

Rishi stumbled through the doorway into his room, and nearly fell into the chair by his desk. There was blood on his fingertips, grease under his nails, and the smell of gun-smoke in his clothes. His muscles burned, his head ached, and through it all he could still feel the ghost of Ilona’s kiss on his lips. He pressed his hands to his temples and tried to block out the pain.

It took him a moment to register the knock at the door. He didn’t even have the strength to answer. It opened anyway, and Abasi stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.

“Thank the Fates, you’re OK,” he said, running a hand across the thick grey stubble that crowned his head.

“OK. Is that what you call this?” Rishi said, staring up at the wall.

Abasi shook his head, gently.

“Alive’s a start.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

“I don’t suppose it does.”

After a moment, Rishi leaned forward just enough to prise open the bottom-most drawer of the desk, and fish out a half empty bottle of whisky. Trembling fingers fumbled at the cork, as the bottle nearly slipped from his hands. Then Abasi wrapped one hand around the neck of the bottle.

“Let me get that,” his friend said, easily prying the cork loose. Abasi took a long swig before passing the bottle back. Rishi almost smiled as he pressed the mouth of the bottle to his lips and felt the amber liquid burn its way down his throat.

“What happened in there Rishi? I got the bones of it from Micah, but…” Abasi paused for a moment. “You actually shot the old man?”

Rishi said nothing, but Abasi must have read something in his face as he took the bottle back.

“Fates, you really did. Bastard had it coming at that. Pity he lived,” Abasi added in a growl, before taking another swig.

“I imagine I’ll get in enough trouble just for that,” Rishi muttered.

“It sounds like Manindra has more trouble to worry about. I saw the Jyoti high-tail it out of here with at least three Guild ships in pursuit. Thank the Fates for that, or we’d never have slipped away in the chaos.”

Abasi held the bottle out for him, but Rishi just shook his head. He felt his shoulders begin to shake as he slumped forward over the desk, unable to hold himself up anymore. His head in his hands, he felt ragged breaths tearing at his chest.

“Fates, Abasi, I’ve really made a mess of this. I think she hates me.”

“You mean Arsha?” Abasi sighed, gently. “Of course she hates you. She’s your daughter and she’s fifteen. There isn’t a fifteen year old girl alive who doesn’t hate her father, as madly as she loves him.”

Rishi choked back a bitter laugh.

“No. This is different. All these years, she’s never really known who I am. Now she’s finally learning, and it’s going to break her. It’s going to break me.”

“You’re wrong, Rishi. Arsha knows, better than anyone, who you really are. I think she knows you better than you know yourself. You look at yourself and you see who you’ve been. But when she looks at you, she sees the man you are. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy for her to forgive your past. That… That might take some time. But she’ll never stop loving you. Never.”

Rishi said nothing. In silence, he stared at the wall. Calmly, Abasi sifted through the detritus of his desk to find a couple of empty glasses, into which he poured a generous measure each. Easing himself onto the edge of the desk, Abasi set one glass down in front of Rishi, and picked up the other, the swirling liquid throwing patterns of light across the walls.

“Don’t you have a ship to tend to?” Rishi muttered.

“She’ll wait,” Abasi said, and sipped his drink.

Arsha felt as if she was floating on a soft cloud. She was lying on the table, stripped to her underclothes, whilst Milima gently washed away the blood, muck and rust from her back. She had been given a dose of nightroot, milder than the one Milima mixed for Rachael. Arsha tried to recall her studies about the drug, but all she saw was the illustrated page, the words sliding into one another. She recalled that it caused light-headedness. She wondered when that would begin.

The cuts on her face had been closed with ointment, and her arms had been bandaged. They hurt, but the pain seemed distant now. She felt hypnotised by the sound of the cloth being submerged and squeezed out, the soft rippling noise of water falling on water, gentle and clear. The contents of the bowl had turned translucent red. Milima rinsed out the cloth once last time, before lifting the bowl and pouring it out into the sink. There was a soft clatter as she began to mix up another concoction.

Arsha closed her eyes and gently flexed her wings out. Feathers of beaten metal, each fading to rust at the edges, shimmered as they moved under the ghostlamps, and the gentle chiming of metal on metal filled the room. It was such an impossibly strange feeling. Like an extra pair of arms. She couldn’t even say where she ended and the wings began. Perhaps there was no difference.

She looked up and saw Milima watching her.

“They scare you. Don’t they?” Arsha said.

It was only for an instant that Milima looked away. Just an instant, but Arsha already knew what it meant.

“It’s OK, if they scare you. I saw the way everyone was looking at me, when they thought I wouldn’t notice. Everyone’s a little scared. Even Daddy was scared.”

She paused for a moment, not really sure if she was talking to Milima anymore, or just to herself.

“I think… I think he was the most scared of all.”

Slowly, Milima set aside the small bowl she had been holding. She knelt down in front of the table, her face level with Arsha’s.

“They don’t scare me. Not exactly. But it’s not easy, Love, seeing how much you’ve been changed,” Milima said as she reached out a hand, fingers almost brushing the beaten metal. Almost, but not quite. “Not just this. You. I can see it in your eyes, Love. I know that look.”

“What look?” Arsha said.

Milima’s hand cupped Arsha’s cheek, as the woman’s strong face seemed to crumple. Tears welled up in the corner of Milima’s eyes as her hands settled on Arsha’s shoulders.

“Maybe they do scare me, a little. But they’re beautiful, just like you.”

As Milima stroked her hair back, Arsha couldn’t help noticing the faded line of a scar that ran down the woman’s arm. It was one of a few that she knew Milima carried.

“You got that a long time ago, didn’t you?”

Milima paused for a moment and glanced down at her arm. Then she smiled.

“If by ‘a long time’, you mean ‘before you were born’, then yes, but it’s not as if I like to admit it.”

Arsha looked down at the bandages around her arms.

“Does it still hurt?” she said.

“No. Not any more,” Milima replied.

Rachael drifted in and out of sleep. She was never awake for more than a few hours before Milima arrived with something to eat and drink, followed by another dose of nightroot. Sleep would help her heal she was told each time she protested.

She couldn’t really say how much time had passed. A few days, perhaps. She was lying in her narrow bed, staring at the ceiling, barely even sure how long she had been awake. The view through the porthole was pitch black. She supposed it must have been early in the morning.

Her shoulder ached, but the pain was duller now. She could feel a restless tingling running through her body. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gone so long without moving. She sat up slowly, muscles stiffly protesting. She was in her underclothes, skin prickling against the cool air. Her left arm had been bound up in a cloth. A strange feeling of frustration flared inside of her as she looked at it. Fumbling with her other hand, she got the wrappings loose, revealing the hard iron, rust still flaking off of the edges. Then she got to her feet and pulled a dressing gown from the closet. With her shoulder stiff and aching, and her other hand fumbling within the confines of the thick gauntlet, simply trying to pull the gown on became almost impossible. She twisted and contorted herself, pain flaring in her shoulder, until she finally had the gown over her shoulders. Even then it took three tries to tie the cord about her waist. Her shoulder burned with fresh pain after her exertion. With a resigned sigh, she picked up the sling that had been hung across the back of a chair and slipped it around her arm. Only then did she notice that the sleeve of the dressing had split around the iron gauntlet, torn by some sharp edge or other as she’d pulled it on. She muttered a curse under her breath.

Hinges whispered to her as she opened the cabin door. Padding down the carpeted hall, she emerged into the darkened expanse of the hold. Over the loft, a single light shone. The wooden steps creaked softly as she climbed. The ghostlamp swayed gently over the narrow space, casting flickering shadows as Rachael threw herself down into one of the battered armchairs.

“Hey.” Arsha said. The girl was sat across from her, feet tucked up on the old chesterfield. Her wings were pulled back, arcing up over the armrest of the chair. A bundle of cloth was resting in her lap. She appeared to be sewing something.

“What you got there?” Rachael said.

“It’s just something I started working on. I couldn’t sleep, so…”

Arsha held up what appeared to be a jacket, only most of the back was missing. “I figured if I can make the straps come down around the waist…”

It took Rachael a moment to see what she meant. The back of the jacket had been cut open, turned into a panel that could be secured by a pair of long straps. When fastened, they would leave two long slits running parallel down the back. Openings for her wings.

“Oh. That’s clever, that is.”

Arsha shrugged.

“I’m rubbish at sewing though. The seams are coming out all wonky.”

Arsha held up the jacket for her to see. Rachael made a show of examining the girl’s work, really not sure what she was supposed to be looking for. Glancing past the unfinished jacket, she noticed that even the shirt Arsha wore was really little more than a sheet with a hole cut for her head, tied about her chest and stomach with thin strips of cloth.

“Looks alright to me.” She said. “’Sides, you’ll get better, right?”

“You mean because I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life?”

“Yeah, I guess. I hadn’t really thought it like that.” Rachael glanced down at her torn sleeve. Suddenly she laughed. “You’ll be an old lady with wings and a walker. Flapping off down to the shops for a pint of milk and moaning how the wind keeps blowing your shawl all over.”

Arsha smiled, and then all of a sudden the girl was laughing too.

“Do you think we’ll get old together?” Arsha said. “Two little old ladies, sitting in a café somewhere, playing cards all day?”

Rachael’s throat felt dry.

“Maybe?” She swallowed. “I’ve never really thought about… Stuff like that. Getting old.”

As she paused again, Arsha set her sewing to one side.

“Rachael…”

“Did you talk to your dad?” Rachael said, cutting the girl off. “About your mum, I mean. About all that other stuff.”

Arsha turned to look out of the porthole. The sky was still pitch black.

“Not really. He’s had fifteen years to tell me. I guess if that wasn’t enough…” She paused, and shook her head. “Honestly, I haven’t really talked to anyone. The way they all look at me now… They don’t mean to, but I can see it. All of them. They’re waiting for something, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or say, or… I just don’t know. It used to be easy. I thought of calling Shani but… I couldn’t take it. Trying to explain, seeing her face… And then she tried to call me, and I couldn’t even pick up my stone. I just let it chime out. She left all these messages and I haven’t even listened to any of them. I feel so horrible. I know she’s only… She’s only trying to look out for me. Like she always does. She always tried to be like a big sister for me.”

Arsha’s hands twisted together in her lap, as the girl bit her lip.

“I’m such a coward. I wish I was strong like you,” she said.

“Don’t say that,” Rachael said. “Don’t act like I’m…”

“Like what?”

Rachael closed her eyes for a moment, letting out a heavy breath.

“Like I’m someone you should look up to. You keep thinking that I’m tough and all, that I know how to look after myself, that I’m all this stuff you want to be like, but I’m just a scared little girl, running away all the time. God, I run from everything. It’s all I know how to do.”

“You think I could ever believe that? Rachael, I’ve seen what you went through. Fates, I can barely even think about it, and you live with it every day. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met.”

Rachael shook her head.

“Living with a hole in your chest isn’t strong, Arsh. It’s just a slow way of dying,” she said, looking down at her hands.

There was a soft scraping sound, as Arsha lifted herself out of the chair. It took Rachael a moment to realise that it was the sound of Arsha’s wingtips brushing against the wall behind her.

Two steps covered the distance between their seats. Arsha’s eyes narrowed in concentration for a moment, as she tucked her wings in close, and settled herself on the arm of Rachael’s chair, their knees brushing together. Arms gently encircled her shoulders. With no strength to fight, Rachael let her head fall against Arsha’s side. She closed her eyes and felt the gentle rise and fall of her sister’s chest.

“I’m sorry,” Rachael whispered.

“Me too,” Arsha said.

“I just… I don’t know how this is supposed to work.”

“How what’s supposed to work?”

For a moment Rachael’s mouth felt too dry to even speak.

“Family,” she said, at last.

The sun was long past set and two full moons could be seen, one high in a sparsely clouded sky, the other a perfect reflection in the still mirror of the ocean.

They had pulled in at Westfall a few hours past sun-down on their seventh day of travelling. They had not even taken on supplies yet. Abasi had paid the docking fees and handled the paperwork whilst everyone else slouched off to their beds.

The remainder of the journey had been a quiet one. The crew all carried a weariness with them, emotionally and physically exhausted. Nobody spoke much, and people kept to themselves. Rachael and Arsha had been glad of the quiet, staying shut up in their rooms mostly, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It didn’t seem to matter. They were uncomfortable together, and just as uncomfortable alone.

After so many days of sleeping, she had found that she could barely close her eyes anymore. She began wishing for more nightroot as she lay on the covers each night, her aching muscles too warm in the still air, staring up at the ceiling.

So she had sat, and she had paced, and she had slipped out into the silence of the ship to wander its hallways and conceal herself in its quiet spaces, all the while feeling the thoughts tumbling over and over in her head. Trying to find the shape of the feelings that gnawed at her. She couldn’t even give voice to the question that seemed to lurk at the back of head, like a buzzing sound just on the edge of your hearing. Each night it had been the same, endless hours of pacing, waiting for a decision to come. When it did, finally, she found that she felt no lighter for it.

She stood on the deck, feeling the breeze in her hair. The ship swayed gently on its mooring ropes, bumping against the wooden dock that reached out precariously from the cliff. Timbers creaked with each impact, like ribs moving to exhale.

She had learned to love this ship. She was amazed at how it could seem so ancient, and yet so new. Everything about it was like something clumsily crafted from pieces of the past, but the way it moved was just incredible. This lumbering beast that took to the air with such improbable grace. She was enchanted by the crackle of the lightning around the float-stones, and the way the iron outrunners caught the dawn light. She loved the sound of her feet against the wooden deck, and the wind running through the rigging.

It almost felt like it could be home. But it was not home. Then again, neither was anywhere else.

The bag over her shoulder was all she had left of her own. London was a world away and impossibly changed. She had nothing to go back to, and she could not let herself stay here.

She looked again at the lights of the town below them. Merchants and travellers came here from all over. Boats and caravans that she could stow away on. She’d muddle through somehow, find a way to live life on her own again. She had to. Some part of her even imagined that Justin might find her again. No matter how much she wanted to hate him, part of her still longed for that. She had to remind herself that it was Arsha he had wanted all along. Arsha, not her. He could not possibly come back to her now, when he had never truly been looking for her at all.

Arsha. Her new-found sister. She felt a tugging regret at the thought of leaving her. She pushed it away, stamping down the bitter sadness that roiled inside of her. It was better this way. Better for both of them. Shouldering her pack, she walked slowly down towards the gang-plank. At the edge of the deck she paused one last time, but did not dare to look back. She didn’t think she could bear to.

She heard footsteps approaching. The soft steps could only be Arsha’s.

“How’s the arm?” Arsha said.

Rachael swallowed, her throat dry.

“Better,” she said.

“Did you plan on telling me you were leaving?”

“Sorry,” she said, eyes still fixed ahead. “It’s not you. It’s him. Your dad. What he did… I just can’t be near him. I don’t know how to deal with that.”

“I know,” Arsha said.

“But you want me to forgive him, don’t you? You want me to stay,” Rachael said, staring out at the lights of the town.

“Of course I do. But I don’t even think I can forgive him. So how am I supposed to ask you to?”

Hearing the catch in Arsha’s voice, Rachael turned to look at her. She was surprised to see a determined expression on Arsha’s face. There was a bag slung across her shoulder.

“You’re coming with me?”

Arsha nodded, not meeting Rachael’s eyes for a moment. For all the girl’s determination, she still looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment.

“What else am I supposed to do?” Arsha said, wretchedly.

Without a word, Rachael touched a hand to her sister’s shoulder.

“You don’t have to do this, Arsh’. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Yes, I do. I do have to do this. Because you’re right, and Daddy was wrong, and I love him so much that I can’t… I can’t be around him. Loving him and hating him and not knowing what way to feel, so my stomach just ends up spinning. I can’t…”

Arsha tailed off. The girl seemed scarcely able to breathe.

“You… You got everything?” Rachael said, trying to give her a reassuring smile.

Relieved, Arsha drew a shuddering breath.

“Yeah. You?” the girl said, gesturing at Rachael’s bag.

Rachael nodded.

“So, what happens now? I mean, Manindra and all that lot will still be after us. Me, I guess.” Arsha said, a little nervously. “Or maybe you. I don’t know. It’s all so confused.”

Rachael shrugged.

“We keep running. We look after each other. We see what happens next. It’s… It’s not all that bad a way to live.”

“I guess.”

“What about your dad?” Rachael said, nodding at the windows of the ship’s bridge. “He’s not going to try to come after us?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Arsha said. “I almost think he’s expecting it. Fates, it just makes it worse. I want him to be angry or something. But he just… he looks at me like he’s afraid. Like I’m going to punish him.”

“Aren’t you?” Rachael said, with a meaningful look at the heavy bag over Arsha’s shoulder.

“Fates, don’t say that Rach. How can I go if you say something like that?”

Rachael shook her head.

“I didn’t mean that. It’s not about him, it’s… It’s about you. However much you love him, it doesn’t mean you have to live with the things he’s done, right? And it doesn’t have to be forever. Maybe things’ll get better. Maybe we’ll come back, some day.”

“Yeah. I think I’d like that,” Arsha said, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Feeling like an idiot, Rachael shook her head and forced a smile.

“Come on. It’ll be an adventure. Or something.”

She hefted her pack and stepped down onto the gangplank, which creaked under her feet. A nervous smile passed between them as Rachael reached out to take her sister’s hand, and they set off towards the lights of the town.

End of Book 1


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License

Chapter 32 – Broken

The iron floor was rough and hot against her skin. Rachael was lying on the hard surface of the platform, aching all over. She could see sunlight, streaming in through the spaces left by two broken panes in the black glass ceiling above. She wondered what had broken them. The air had an acrid smell to it. A foul tasting slime coated the inside of her mouth. Her eyes felt raw, and each breath she drew was hoarse and ragged. Her arms and legs seemed to be too heavy to move.

A tremor ran through the platform. She heard the building groan around them as more cracks appeared in the black glass panes. She eased herself into a sitting position, knees curling to her chin. She saw that her left hand was still bound up in the heavy iron gauntlet, the plates moving clumsily as her fingers curled. For a moment she held the strange object up to the light, watching in curious fascination as she clenched and unclenched her fist. She could feel her heart pounding against her chest, and a sick feeling coiled up tight within her stomach. She had the curious sensation of being a passenger in her own head, watching everything with a strange detachment, despite the constant urge to fill her lungs and scream. Everything was too loud, and too hot. Whisps of smoke curled through the air, making her cough.

Arsha was lying beside her, sprawled out across the platform. Rachael wasn’t even sure if the girl was breathing. She forced herself to reach out a hand, pressing trembling fingertips to the girl’s neck. She imagined she should be searching for a pulse, but when she touched Arsha’s skin, she felt a breath drawing inward, throat swelling as the girl’s eyes flickered open. Arsha coughed, loudly, as Rachael jerked her hand away.

Arsha sat up and looked at her, blinking away tears.

“You’re OK?” Arsha gasped.

“Yeah,” Rachael managed. “Yeah, I’m…”

She tailed off, not sure what she was supposed to say. None of the words in her head seemed to fit. Then her sister’s arms were around her, her face buried in the girl’s hair as Arsha pulled her into an embrace so fierce and strong that it crushed the air out of her lungs. Without even meaning to, Rachael found her arms encircling her sister’s body, holding tight as if she were the only solid thing left in the world. She felt tears rolling down her cheeks, as her breath came in short gasps.

She couldn’t say how long they held each other, as she felt her sister’s chest rise and fall with each breath, her heart pounding through her ribcage as tears ran down her shoulder, mingling with her sweat.

“Thank you,” Arsha said. The words were a faint murmur, the girl’s face still pressed against her neck.

“For what?” Rachael said.

“For coming back.”

Arsha’s grip loosened a little, and the girl sat back to look at her with eyes red from crying. Arsha wiped a hand across her face, and her eyes settled on Rachael’s left hand, encased in iron.

“Oh Fates, Rachael, your hand. Is it OK?” the girl exclaimed, seizing the gauntlet with both hands.

“Uh… Yeah, I think,” Rachael said.

“Can you take it off?” Arsha said. Looking down at the strange device, Rachael could still see where parts of seemed to have emerged from within her arm, the skin parting around the blades of iron.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Does it hurt?”

She shook her head, as Arsha continued to stare in horror. Rachael shifted uncomfortably, and turned to look at their surroundings. They were both sitting at the foot of the plinth, just below where the gateway had been. The twisted remains of the bridge hung, creaking, from the far edge of the pit that surrounded the platform. Black shards of glass littered the platform, along with larger pieces of iron debris. The whole tower was swaying gently, the metal groaning as tremors ran up from below.

Arsha followed her gaze, noting the disarray with an expression that slowly shifted to alarm. As the girls took stock of their situation, the platform suddenly shook, and a thunderous roar echoed up from somewhere far below.

“We’re stuck here, aren’t we?” Arsha said, looking at the broken bridge.

Rachael gave her a gloomy look.

“Yeah, I think so. Serves you for coming after me, I guess.” She saw Arsha’s expression. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“We’re getting out of here. Somehow.” Arsha said, firmly.

“Your dad left us.”

“He must have thought we weren’t coming back. He wouldn’t have… he’s probably coming back with the ship,” Arsha said, her lower lip trembling slightly.

Another bellowing reverberation ran up the tower. Moments later they both heard a movement above them, a little like the crackling of ice-cubes in the glass. She looked up to see a maze of cracks slowly spreading across several of the black panes above them. Arsha let out a shriek as shards of black glass rained down towards them. They shielded their faces as broken splinters flew at them from every direction. Rachael felt the shrapnel biting at her skin, and she saw one shard draw a perfectly neat red line across Arsha’s forearm. As the black rain stopped they looked up at each other, blinking, breath coming in short gasps. Arsha clutched at the cut on her arm, blood oozing between her fingers. Another tremor ran through the chamber, and they both heard a groaning sound from up above.

“Oh Fates,” Arsha whimpered as she looked up. High above them, one of the long spars that formed the skeleton of the dome began to shudder and twist.

“Arsh, I think we’re in real trouble here,” Rachael said, touching her fingers to a cut on her face. Blood was already running down her cheek.

With a terrible moan the huge metal beam began to tear free, seeming to sag at first, until the end snapped loose and the whole beam began to fall directly towards them. It seemed to happen so slowly, so gently that at first Rachael didn’t even feel scared. It took a moment for the perspective to snap into place. The iron beam was huge, maybe a hundred feet from end to end and wider than two grown men, and it was hurtling down towards them.

“Rachael… Fates…” Arsha whispered hoarsely, scrabbling to her feet. They both took faltering steps backwards as the huge mass of iron hurtled towards them. The platform was barely twenty feet across in all, and they had no way off. They could only guess where the falling beam would land. Huddling close to each other they moved towards the edge of the platform, each of them whispering desperate prayers. Rachael reached out and took her sister’s hand, squeezing it tightly.

It was Arsha who saw that they had both guessed wrong. She threw herself forwards, tugging at Rachael’s hand, yanking her forcefully along as she dove past the gateway, throwing herself forwards onto the ground. Just behind them Rachael felt the colossal weight of the mass of iron as it passed just inches from their heels. The beam struck the platform like a sledgehammer. The whole building shook, and Rachael was thrown forwards on a wave of air that hit like a thunderclap. She slammed into the ground, skidding forwards on her elbows as the edge of the platform rushed towards her.

She couldn’t stop in time. As she was about to plunge over the edge she felt Arsha’s hand tighten around hers, and a moment later the whole of her weight seemed to focus itself like a solid blow against her shoulder. She dangled halfway over the lip of the platform, restrained only by Arsha’s tenuous grip on her arm. All the air seemed to have been sucked out of her, and no matter how she wished she could pull herself back, all she could seem to do was stare into the vast drop below. The pit seemed to go down forever, nothing but blackness below her.

She felt the platform shift underneath her body, and it took a moment to realise that it was Arsha pulling her clear of the edge, inch by inch.

Head spinning, she found a purchase and pulled herself away from the gap, the sharp tips of the gauntlet scraping against the iron of the platform.

“Thanks,” she gasped, blinking in confusion.

“Come on, we should go,” Arsha replied, gesturing towards the fallen beam. It took Rachael’s befuddled mind a moment to grasp what she meant. The beam had landed astride the chasm that surrounded the pillar, joining it to the rest of the chamber.

Beneath their feet the platform was shaking violently. The impact of the beam seemed to have cracked one of the supports, and the whole thing felt like it might collapse any second. Arsha quickly leapt up onto the beam, turning to help Rachael up as they both struggled to keep their footing.

They ran the length of the beam without even daring to look down at the fall below. Terrible shuddering groans emitted constantly from the entire chamber as their feet pounded against the body of the iron spar. It held just long enough for them to drop down onto the floor of the main chamber. As they fled the room, a sickening crunch resounded through the air as the platform gave way, crumbling down into the pit with the massive beam sliding in after it. Arsha turned back to watch, eyes wide, until Rachael grabbed at her sleeve.

“Come on, let’s go,” Rachael screamed over the constant groaning of the building. Another ceiling pane crazed with a spider web of cracks and began to disintegrate, raining black razor shards into the hall. They ran out of the sagging arched doors and into the dark corridor beyond.

Emerging at the far end of the arched tunnel, they found themselves blinking in the sunlight that streamed in through the shattered outer windows of the tower. As their sight returned, they looked out on the rusted city and saw a sea of crumbling towers beginning to sway and topple. Parts of the buildings were falling away, raining down into the dark mists below. Many of the towers seemed to be crowned in a glittering haze; thousands of falling shards of black glass glinting as they caught the light.

The tremors were nearly continuous now, the building shuddering and groaning beneath their feet. There was a gaping hole where the elevator had been. Daring to lean out a little over the edge, Rachael glimpsed the twisted remains of the platform, far below. From the look in her sister’s eyes, she could tell that her expression had said it all.

“There might be another way down, I guess,” Rachael said, not really feeling it. Arsha did not reply. Her attention had been drawn to something outside of the tower. As Rachael followed the girl’s eyes she found her gaze settling on a tiny but rapidly growing black dot, skimming over the rooftops. Arsha began waving frantically. At first nothing seemed to happen, but then Rachael saw that the dot was turning, coming closer. Soon enough, she recognised the shape of the Zephyr, blew light crackling around its floatstones as the propellers blurred. Arsha let out a whoop of joy.

“See? They’re coming for us. I told you they’d come,” she cried, punching the air in excitement.

The Zephyr closed the distance quickly, on a path that would take it right past the floor where they stood. She could see Micah standing at the wheel, whilst Ilona stood at the prow, watching them through some kind of lens. Arsha ran right up to the edge of the building, holding on to a window frame as she eagerly watched the vessel approach.

The building shifted again, beginning to slope forwards at an alarming angle. Tremors continued to shake the room, and Rachael was certain that she feel them growing in intensity. With nothing close to hold onto, she could barely keep her footing as the ground swayed underneath them, seeming to move further with each pendulum swing. An awful realisation settled on her.

“Arsh. He can’t stop. The building’s coming down Arsh. Nothing’s staying still. They can’t stop for long enough.”

Arsha turned to look at Rachael, eyes widening as this thought sunk in.

“Arsh, we have to jump,” Rachael said, voice trembling as she spoke the words.

“No. We can’t. No,” Arsha stammered, helplessly.

“We have to. It’s the only way out.”

Arsha looked out over the edge, and Rachael could see the fear in her eyes.

“Arsh, go. Go now.”

Arsha shook her head and backed away from the edge.

“Arsha, jump!” Rachael screamed in her ear, giving her a sudden shove. Off balance, the girl was forced to run down the sloping floor towards the edge as the entire building lurched forwards with them.

They jumped.

For a breathless moment the emptiness took them, and there was only the wind. The Zephyr seemed to slide beneath their feet, smooth and graceful. She saw the two figures on the deck looking up at them, faces aghast.

For a moment, everything seemed still.

Rachael came down hard on the back of the deck, her momentum carrying her into the back railing, pain exploding across her shoulders as she crashed into a heavy coil of rope.

Arsha missed the back of the deck by inches. Rachael watched in horror as she fell past the ship, her hand reaching out to grab at the railing which was just too far away. She saw Micah letting go of the wheel to reach out towards her, too late to try to catch Arsh’s open hand. She saw the look of hopeless and desperate terror in her sister’s eyes, fingertips outstretched to grasp at nothing. And then she looked down at the city below, the shape of the buildings hazy and indistinct. Distant, but inevitable.

Without a thought Rachael snatched up one end of the rope, heavy and rough against her palm, and in one smooth arc she dove straight over the edge of the deck.

She straightened her body out, pointing her toes like a diver, trying to gain as much speed as possible. The wind whipped her hair into her eyes and tore at her clothes, the sound of it roaring in her ears. Below her, Arsha’s expression was caught between terror and wild hope. Rachael plunged towards her, the heavy rope trailing out behind her in the freezing air.

With her free hand she reached out, the darkly gleaming metal fingers of the gauntlet outstretched as she slowly closed the distance. The drop below them was long, long enough that they could scarcely even see the ground, but the distance was growing shorter all the time, and Rachael wasn’t sure how much rope she had left. Arsha reached out her hand and their fingertips brushed, but could not quite catch. She reached out again, the distance closed a little more, and she got her hand around Arsha’s wrist, iron fingertips digging into the girl’s skin. Arsha grabbed her arm with both hands, squeezing tight. Even through the metal plating, Rachael could feel how tightly the girl was holding on. Barely a second later the rope ran out.

For a moment it seemed as if she felt nothing at all. There was sickening pop and then sudden, searing agony. Her hand had become a distant thing, something that didn’t belong to her anyore. The rope flew out of her grasp as her arm flopped uselessly, dislocated at the shoulder. For a moment all she could do was scream.

Eventually the pain subsided enough for her head to clear, and she realised what had just happened. She was falling to a certain death, and she had no way out. The sudden surge of adrenaline cleared her head a little, and in her terror she couldn’t even think of the pain. She looked at Arsha, who looked back at her with tears streaking her eyes.

“You shouldn’t have come after me,” Arsha yelled at her, over the wind. For a moment Rachael was stunned

“How can you even say that?” she yelled back. Arsha bit her lip, but didn’t reply. Then Rachael realised that what she saw in the girl’s eyes wasn’t just sadness, but gratitude.

Tears were welling up in her own eyes. She didn’t even dare to look down. She didn’t want to know how long they had left. For a moment, she felt a wild hope that they might just stay like this, forever. As she stared into her sister’s eyes, she felt her breath catch in her throat.

“Arsha,” she gasped. “Your face…”

Creeping up from Arsha’s neck, like frost on a windowpane, was a fine pattern of rust, as if the skin itself was corroding. She looked down at Arsha’s arm and saw the rust growing across her body, seeming to spread from where Arsha’s hand touched the rusted metal plating around Rachael’s fingers. Where their palms met she felt a burning heat, and whisps of dark smoke seeped from between their clasped hands. With her free hand Arsha touched her face and flakes of rust fell away, the skin a raw pink underneath, as if she had picked away a scab.

“The seed,” Rachael said, her voice hoarse, barely audible over the wind.

Arsha’s mouth opened in a gasp of pain, but no sound came out. The back of her shirt exploded.

Rachael watched as twin shapes tore free, like they were being carved out of the air. Leaves of iron, paper thin and nearly eaten through by rust, piled onto one another, layer upon layer, forming a long, sweeping pair of wings. As they thickened, taking on substance, they caught the wind and Arsha’s body jerked upwards with the sudden deceleration. Their hands slipped apart and the force of their separation sent Rachael spinning. Desperately she looked about, trying to control her fall, but Arsha had disappeared from her view. As she tumbled through the air, trying to catch sight of the girl, her eyes fixed on the ground rushing up towards her. She had barely seconds before she hit. All other thoughts left her mind, and she closed her eyes. For a moment, she wondered what it would feel like. For a moment, she thought she saw her mother’s face.

She felt something crash into her chest, knocking the wind out of her. It was a few seconds later that she opened her eyes again and saw the ground growing steadily more distant. She turned her face to one side, and looked directly into Arsha’s eyes.

She felt Arsha’s grip around her waist slipping, and flung her good arm around the girl’s neck, holding on for dear life. Wings of rusted metal, whispering like dead leaves, seemed to rip the air apart with every stroke, strong and fast. They gained speed, climbing higher, as Rachael looked around and let out an exultant shout of joy.

“Oh God, I love you so much,” she screamed, laughing in delight. Looking back over Arsha’s shoulder she saw the spire continuing its slow collapse, fragments of rusted metal and glass showering down in a thickening rain, shattering on the ground as it cracked and shifted, chunks of pavement upending, deep rifts forming around the base of the building as it toppled. The top of the tower crumpled and then exploded outwards in a spray of twisted metal, as a dark shape broke free. Wings spread wide enough to black out the sun, Justin wheeled in the sky far above them. Rachael’s breath caught in her throat as she watched him circling. She felt Arsha’s hands clutching her tighter, as the girl saw the shadow pass over them both. Then he was climbing higher and farther, his vast form growing small as he soared into the distance. Solemnly, Rachael watched him leave.

The Zephyr was descending in a sharp dive, levelling out as it passed below them. Looking down, Rachael could see all three figures on the deck staring up at them. Wings beating hard to slow them down, Arsha descended, visibly straining at the effort of holding them both aloft. At first she seemed to be coming in smoothly, until it became clear that she had no idea how to actually stop. They hit the deck and rolled, tumbling together across the wooden floor. Rachael’s arm smashed into the ground as they tumbled and the pain in her shoulder exploded, drowning out everything else.

“Rachael? Rachael, can you hear me?”

She supposed she must have blacked out for a moment. Ilona was staring down at her, half her face covered by bandages that were already showing dark stains. She could see blood matted in the woman’s hair.

“Yeah… Yeah, I’m here,” she mumbled. Ilona sighed in relief, and for a moment she swore that a smile crossed the woman’s face. Two fingers were pressed against Rachael’s throat, feeling her pulse. As Ilona counted silently, Rachael looked across the deck to where Arsha stood with her father, their bodies pressed close together. Her face was buried against his chest and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Her long wings trailed across the deck behind her, fluttering gently in the breeze. The back of Arsha’s shirt had been shredded, the tattered remains soaked with blood. Where the wings protruded from the girl’s back she could see the ragged edges of the torn flesh. It looked very painful.

As their long embrace ended, Arsha looked up and saw her watching. Then the girl was running towards her, stumbling as her wings dragged on the floor so that she half knelt, half fell at Rachael’s side, hands framing her face. Tears streaked through the patches of red rust that covered Arsha’s face, cracking around her smile.

Smiling, Rachael went to reach out towards Arsha with her one working hand, only to pause as she caught sight of angular metal plating that encased it. The gauntlet almost seemed like a part of her now. She could barely even feel it. She hesitated, hand half-raised towards her sister’s cheek. Then Arsha raised her own hand to clasp Rachael’s, palm to palm. Arsha squeezed her hand, the gesture barely felt through the metal.

The clouds enveloped them, a wall of grey suddenly closing around the tiny vessel like a fist, before tearing open again as a brilliant blue sky was revealed above them.

The moment the Zephyr was above the clouds and on an even keel, Micah left the tiller and ran the length of the deck in three long bounds. Arsha turned to meet him, shrieking as she was lifted off her feet and swung round in a crushing embrace. For a moment her wings flared out over them both like a canopy, bare metal gleaming in the sunlight. Micah set Arsha down again and took a step back, an expression of pure astonishment on his face. With one hand, he stroked at a wingtip. Soft metal leaves rustled, and Arsha giggled in surprise.

“That tickles,” she exclaimed.

“Really?” Micah’s eyes widened. He tried it again, smiling as Arsha giggled.

“That’s amazing,” he said.

Experimentally, Arsha spread her wings out and then pulled them in close. Even tucked in tight to her body, her wings still arched high over her head, the tips brushing the ground.

Looking around, Rachael could see that everyone was now staring at Arsha. Ilona’s expression was equal parts surprise and concern, but on Rishi’s face Rachael saw something else entirely… Something like fear.

“Alright, let me take a look at that shoulder,” Ilona said, suddenly breaking the silence as she turned towards Rachael. The woman quickly unbuttoned the top of Rachael’s blouse and pulled back the collar to examine the swelling, prodding at the bruise flesh with the tips of two fingers. A fire burned where she touched, as Rachael gritted her teeth, unable to keep from letting out a slight whimper.

“It’s dislocated. I’m going to give you something for the pain. We’ll set the joint back into place as soon as we’re landed,” Ilona said, calmly.

As Ilona disappeared into the hold and Micah returned to the helm, Arsha and her father slipped away to the other side of the deck. Rachael watched their hushed conversation with a vague curiosity. Arsha’s smile seemed to have faded, leaving a coldness in her expression. Something seemed to have emerged from within the girl, as the exuberance of their escape faded. For a moment the professor turned to look in Rachael’s direction, and beneath his apologetic eyes she saw that same coldness, anger lurking there like a movement in the darkness. Her fault, perhaps, that his daughter had risked so much to save her. The thought twisted like a knife in her stomach.

Then Ilona emerged from below, returning to Rachael’s side with a small black leather bag which opened to reveal gleaming rows of medical implements. Sifting through the contents, Ilona produced a glass bottle and a brass handled syringe.

“For the pain,” she said.

“No I’m… I’m OK. I don’t need nothin,” Rachael said, shaking her head quickly.

Ilona’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she continued to fill the syringe, tapping the side to check for air.

“I said I’m fine,” Rachael snapped, jerking away from the needle. The movement twisted her arm, and blinding pain seized her. It seemed to crash over her body in a wave that left her trembling and breathless. As her vision cleared, she saw Arsha kneeling at her side. Without a word, Arsha reached out for Rachael’s gauntlet covered hand. As Arsha wrapped her hands around the cold metal, Rachael met her eyes. The girl looked at her steadily, concerned, but without pity. Rachael saw only a calm assurance. Ilona was looking at them both with an expression that was equal parts curious and frustrated. Rachael could feel Micah and Rishi watching them as well, but Arsha ignored them all.

“I was there, remember?” Arsha said. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Rachael managed a faint nod. She winced as the needle pierced her arm, but her eyes stayed locked on her sister’s. As the needle slid free, she felt Arsha squeeze her hand, clasping it tight. She gave an answering squeeze as she let her head fall back against the railing. A heavy sigh passed her lips as she stared up at the clear blue sky.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License

Chapter 31 – Sisters

It was the feeling of cool grass against her skin that pulled her back to consciousness. Her face was pressed to the ground, and she breathed in the smell of the damp earth.

Peering through the grass, Arsha could make out a dark blue sky, half covered in cloud. The sun seemed to already have dipped below the rooftops. The air was chill and a breeze gently rippled through the greenery, whispering in the branches of the trees.

She sat up and took in her surroundings. She was in a park of sorts, surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence with the paint all peeled off. She was close to a path that ran across the park, from the gateway nearby to the distant fence, shrouded in darkness. Beyond the fence she saw rows of blocky grey towers, ugly shapes that clustered over the skyline.

There was noise, a constant, distant buzz of movement, the sound of great machines of some unknown purpose, but she could not see any of it. The sounds seemed to come to her from far away. Near to, all was still, save for the breeze.

Arsha stood and tried to brush off the marks of the muddy ground and the wet grass as best she could. She looked around uneasily, but could see no clear sign of where to go. There was no sign of movement or life. Eventually she picked a direction at random and set off down the path.

Ahead she could make out some lights burning with a yellow haze in the misty air. They illuminated a rough rectangle on the ground, edged with logs and covered in a carpet of woodchips, surrounding various pieces of play equipment. The designs were slightly unusual, but she could pick out familiar shapes. Swings, a climbing frame, a merry-go-round; all rusted and old, the brightly coloured paint peeling and flaking from the metal.

The playground seemed to be empty. Cautiously, she crossed the boundary of rough hewn logs and approached the swings. The chain jingled as she nudged the seat with one knee. In the fading sound of the chiming metal she felt certain that she heard another, like someone laughing. A little girl, maybe.

Then she heard the creaking of a metal axle turning. She wheeled around to see that the merry-go-round was moving. Though there was no one pushing it, the metal frame turned faster and faster. As she watched, a shimmer in the air seemed to form around it. She could make out the shape of two figures, ghostly and translucent. A fair skinned woman with long blonde hair tied back in a pony-tail, holding onto the bars with her feet resting on the lip, leaning back as far as she could go as the wheel span. She had her head flung back, eyes bright with laughter. The other figure was sitting in the centre of the merry-go-round, holding tight to the bars, and staring up the woman in wide eyed wonder. A young girl with a pretty face framed by that same bright blonde hair.

Then the image faded, and the rusted iron wheel began to slow to a creaking halt.

“She loved the merry-go-round. That was her favourite.”

Arsha turned at the sound of her voice. Rachael was sat on one of the swings, hands clasping the chains, rocking gently back and forth. She was looking at the empty merry-go-round as if seeing something else entirely.

“Swings was good too. She’d try to push me higher and higher. Kept saying that one day I’d go all the way over the top. But she loved the merry-go-round. She’d make me hold on tight, there in the middle, and push it as fast as she could. She’d be laughing so loud and everyone would stare at her, but she just didn’t care. All the other women, they’d be sat on the benches with them disapproving looks, like… Y’know, store thingies. Mannequins.”

For a moment Arsha couldn’t think of anything to say. It was all so strange and so perfectly ordinary at once. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she was a voyeur, seeing things that she had no right to.

“Rachael… Where are we?” she said.

“This is the park, where she always took me. When I was little. She was happy then. But it got worse, the more I got worse. And Mum and Dad kept arguing, fighting. It got so bad, I’d just get out the house. They wouldn’t even notice I were gone. I’d come out here for the quiet. Late at night I could be alone, a little.”

Looking out over the empty park, Arsha thought, for a moment, that she caught a glimpse of a girl of maybe ten years, sitting alone on one of the benches. A thin jacket pulled tight around her shoulders and a sketchbook on her lap. Then it was gone.

“But he left in the end. Didn’t he?” Arsha said, quietly.

Rachael nodded.

“Yeah. I remember, I actually told myself it was good. That things’d be better, with him gone. But I missed him so much. At nights I’d be lying in bed, thinking about the way he smelled when he came back in from work, all covered in oil and stuff from the garage. He’d come in late sometimes and kiss me goodnight. I couldn’t understand it, how I could miss him no matter how much I wanted to hate him.”

Arsha nodded, her mouth too dry to speak.

“But Mum… She fell apart. It wasn’t just the money, or looking after me. It was him. She hated him, and she missed him. Every day. It was…”

Rachael tailed off. Arsha noticed that the girl wasn’t looking at the playground anymore, but at something in the distance. One of the tall buildings that formed the skyline, a dark blocky shape eerily reminiscent of a tombstone.

“So then I’d come out here to be alone again. To be away from her. From that place. There were older kids that hung out round here. I started hanging out with them. They’d score ciders and forties. It wasn’t much, but I guess it didn’t take a lot to get me smashed. I liked it, because it helped me to forget about everything else. Some of the kids liked to run. They’d show me how to do flips and drops and stuff on the climbing frames. Taught me stuff about ‘parkour’ and all that. We’d get drunk and make each other do stupid dares and stuff. Sometimes, it was like things were all right.”

“Is that it?” Arsha said, looking across at the distant building. “The place where you lived?”

“McAllen Estate. It’s horrible there. Just four blocks of flats and a little square in the middle. I hated it.”

Arsha considered this for a moment, still feeling all too much like she was falling with no safety line.

“I… I think we should go there,” she said.

“I can’t go back there.”

Rachael shook her head firmly. “It’s not… I didn’t even close the door.”
“When?” Arsha said.
“Nothing. It don’t matter,” Rachael mumbled, her voice barely audible.

“Rach, you have to take me back there. I need to see.”

“No. You don’t. You think you want to, but you don’t. No one wants to see. They just look past you and pretend it’s not like it seems. Because it’s easier than knowing what really goes on around them.”

“So show me,” Arsha said, firmly. “You have to take me there. Please Rachael, you have to show me.”

“Says who?” the girl snapped back at her with a sudden fire. “I don’t have to take you nowhere. I don’t care. I don’t want you asking all these questions. I don’t want none of this.”

“Please, Rachael. You have to,” she said, hearing the desperation in her own voice.

“Why? Why should I?” Rachael shouted, leaping up from the swing to stand with her fists clenched at her side.

“Because I need to know,” Arsha said, the words catching in her throat. “Because I’m your sister and I need to know why you’re hurting like this. Because we made a promise.”

Rachael looked at her with cold, penetrating eyes. It was a vicious look, taking her measure, searching for some sign of motive. Of weakness.

“Yeah. Sure. Come on then, I’ll show you,” the girl snarled as she stalked away across the empty park.

Soon enough they moved from damp grass to tarred black roads with faded lines painted across their surfaces. Street signs clustered every corner, some twisted at odd angles or painted over with scrawled markings. Graffiti adorned almost every spare inch of wall. Here and there a withered husk of a tree or a bush grew, all showing signs of mistreatment.

At one intersection Arsha looked to the side to see a mangy looking dog wander across the road. It had a collar, but it could not have been fed properly in weeks.

They made a final turning and the cluster of tombstone buildings stood before them, four identical towers arranged in a square. As they approached Rachael’s footsteps slowed. Arsha saw that the girl’s hands were shaking. They stopped at the entrance to the courtyard at the centre of the four towers.

Everything was grey. The buildings were some sort of stone, formed seamlessly. From the centre of the courtyard she could see the tiered walkways rising up around them, lined with iron railings, the paint long since peeled. Stairs lead up on each side, all exposed to the open air. Along each walkway she saw a row of doors. Once they might have been blue, but the paint had long since faded away, or been covered by layers of graffiti.

Foul odours arose from blotchy stains on the floors and walls, some obviously recent. The freshest stains were the only thing that seemed new. Piles of shiny black bags overflowed a yellow container, their rotting contents spilling out where the black skin had split and peeled back.

“What kind of place is this?” Arsha said, looking around.

“Council flats. Hundreds like ’em, all over this city. They just sort of stamp ’em out, like machinery.”

“Why?”

“It’s where you live, if you ain’t got nothing else. If you ain’t lucky enough to have a good job, or good education, or whatever other bollocks it is they want from you. Right face, right clothes, all that.”

Arsha nodded. She’d seen places like this before in some of the larger cities she’d been to. Factory workers houses, built by the dozen in identical rows. Narrow, crowded buildings, sometimes holding a family on every floor, or so her dad had told her. She felt the sting of the memory, and pushed it aside.

“I hated it here,” Rachael said. “Next door was always drunk, and upstairs you could hear ’em shouting all hours. Some of the other kids were alright, but most of ’em were right horrible.”

She tailed off.

“Well it don’t matter. It’s not home now.”

Suddenly the girl turned, and began to walk away.

“Go see whatever you want to,” Rachael growled. “I’m outta here.”

As the girl swept past her, Arsha wondered if she only imagined that Rachael was holding back tears. She turned, reaching to grasp at the girl’s hand, and as she looked back the way they had come she saw something that seemed to turn her body to stone.

Where before there had been a city, stretching out into the far distance, now she saw only a wall of grey, almost like fog. Something deeply unnatural, utterly impossible. It was like staring at nothing at all. Where it met the street and the surrounding buildings there was only a ragged line, like a broken edge, as if whatever had been beyond that grey wall had simply been torn away in one swift motion.

Just ahead of her Rachael was also staring up at the endless grey wall. Where it touched touched the surface, the road was crumbling away, the fragments flying off into nothingness as if swept up by a violent wind. The buildings too were being eaten by the grey wall. Trees, street signs, all shredded into chaff, an inch at a time.

“What is it?” Rachael said, her voice trembling.

“I don’t know,” Arsha said. “But it’s getting closer.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I think it’s falling apart. This world. Rachael, you created this. Everything here, you made this when we went through the gateway. It’s the only thing that makes sense. This can’t be the real London… It doesn’t even look like this anymore. When you went through, you made this place.”

Rachael’s mouth pressed into a hard line.

“Alright smart-mouth, so where do we go now?” she growled.

“Inside, I think.” Arsha said.

“No. I ain’t going back in there. No way.”

“Rachael, we have to. It’s the only place left.”

“Why? Why do you keep… why can’t you just leave it alone?” Rachael said, her voice rising to a shriek as she rounded on Arsha angrily. “You keep asking all these stupid questions, keep pushing at stuff and it’s not right. You don’t belong here and you don’t have no right to… I never wanted to go back to any of this. I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to.”

Flexing her hands in agitation, Rachael began to pace in circles. She swung a vicious kick at a loose piece of stone, which sailed into the wall of empty grey, vanishing instantly.

Arsha said nothing. She just turned and began walking towards the nearest stairs.

“Hey. Where you going?” Rachael called after her.

“Inside,” Arsha said, with a sullen shrug. “Come along if you want to.”

“Hey. Hey don’t go. Don’t leave me out here,” Rachael called after her. At first, Arsha kept on walking. Then at the bottom of the stairs she turned and looked back.

Rachael was on her knees, her hands tangled in her hair, face twisted in a look of torment. The girl seemed to be frozen against the hard ground like some awful statue. Her stomach twisting, Arsha knelt down in front of the girl.

“I don’t know why you’re doing this. I didn’t want you here,” Rachael whispered, her voice hoarse.

“I think you did,” Arsha said, gently.

“Why do you keep saying that. Why do you keep acting like I planned all this. Like I ever wanted any of this?”

“I didn’t mean that. Rachael, I…”

Arsha looked down at the paving stones.

“I know you didn’t want this. I didn’t either. Fates, Rachael… When I think about what happened back there. About those people getting killed. About those men that were after you. About Dad… What he did. It’s like my heart’s going to collapse, like it’ll just crumple in on itself completely. And I can’t do anything to stop it. I’m here with you, and I’m trying to make sense of all this. And I need you. I need you to help me find a way for us to get out of here.”

Rachael looked up, just enough for Arsha to see her eyes under the tangle of her hair.

“What makes you think I want to get out of here?” the girl whispered.

For a moment, Arsha couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I mean really,” Rachael continued, “where else am I supposed to go? I tried being part of Justin’s world, but I never belonged there. I tried being part of your world, and all I did was make things worse for you. So where else am I supposed to go?”

“You know what? I don’t know. I’m just… Just some stupid little kid who’s spent her whole life hanging off her daddy’s arm. So I don’t know what comes after this. Fates, Rachael, I just found out that I’m not even human. How am I supposed to answer something like that, when I don’t even know where I belong anymore? But I’m going to find out. And you’re coming with me.”

Rachael looked up at her, eyes wide with fear. The girl didn’t say a word, but when Arsha stood and offered her hand, Rachael took it. They turned and walked together towards the stairs. Rachael lead them up to the third floor. A long row of doorways stretched out ahead of them. At the end of the row, one door stood ever so slightly ajar.

The crack was wide enough to reveal a glimpse of a filthy beige carpet and a few scattered cigarette ends. As they approached she caught a breath of foul air that slipped through.

“I can’t,” Rachael said, her voice choking off into a whimper.

Arsha said nothing. She just took her sister’s hand in her own, and with the other she pushed at the door, swinging it wide open to reveal the room beyond.

The apartment was vile. The carpet bore innumerable stains. Tiny brown and black circles dotted the fabric, each tailed by a little streak of grey ash like shooting stars. The furnishings were similarly pitted and scarred. A battered couch with threadbare cushions faced a flashing box full of colours and light and noise. A clock ticked away on a mantelpiece, next to a framed photograph with cracked glass. The photograph showed a woman and a girl. Rachael and her mother, just as they had been when she glimpsed them on the merry-go-round. There was a man with them, his blonde hair cut razor short, a smile on his face. The frame was nearly concealed by a dozen empty cans, each reeking of sour beer. More empty cans littered every surface, and more still were strewn across the floor. Layers of peeling wallpaper covered the walls. In some places the paper had been scratched or worn right through to the plaster.

The woman lay sprawled across the threadbare couch. One arm trailed to the floor, knuckles brushing the carpet. Between the fingers a cigarette had burned to a stub, leaving tiny red marks on her pale skin. The tips of her fingers were stained a dirty yellow. She wore a green sweater, one sleeve rolled up. Her arm was pitted with a thousand tiny scars, and a fresh scab seemed to have formed there just recently. Her mouth hung slightly open, yellowed teeth as uneven as the buildings outside. The lips were painted a deep crimson. Blonde hair, long and matted, sprayed out across the arm of the couch in a shower of gold.

The woman’s eyelids were open but the eyes were rolled back, showing only a ghastly white. In spite of how monstrously transformed it all was, Arsha still recognised the face of the woman in the photograph. It was older and harder, but the same shape still lurked beneath the layers of decay.

On the table lay the contents of a small cloth bag. A length of clear tubing, a metal spoon with its neck bent at a sharp angle, a tiny packet of white powder and a clear glass syringe.

She felt Rachael’s hand tighten around hers. Nails dug into her skin, and a second later Rachael was doubled over, violently expelling the contents of her stomach onto the pitted carpet. Horrified, Arsha could only stare at the scene in front of her. She could scarcely understand what had happened. She had only the vaguest sense, things half overheard, pieces that gathered together, buzzing at the back of her head like angry wasps that she desperately wished to ignore. She did not want to know, did not want to understand. Everything before her was simply too horrible, too nightmarish to be allowed to be real. She wanted to shut it out, to step back from the room, slam the door and run away from it forever.

Rachael continued to cough and retch. Arsha watched with horrified fascination as the puddle of vomit inched towards her boots.

“Rachael… Oh Fates, Rachael… What happened?” she said, as the girl drew ragged breaths.

“I did. It was all because of me. Dad never sticking around, and everything that happened after. It was me.”

Eyes swelling with tears, Arsha fell to her knees, heedless of the vile liquid that squelched into her trousers. Still holding Rachael’s hand in hers, she put her other hand to her sister’s shoulder and pulled her close, their heads resting together.

“Rachael, you can’t blame yourself for this. Not for this.”

“There’s no one else,” Rachael said, her voice cracking. For a moment Arsha could only stare at her, head swimming.

“There’s me,” she said, at last. “If this really happened just because of you, because you were different, then it wasn’t really you at all. It was me. My Fate. My fault. I’m the one to blame for everything that happened. Rachael you know it’s true. If you have to hate someone, hate me. Not yourself.”

“No. No, it can’t be your fault.”

Rachael shook her head, her eyes squeezed shut.

“Why not? You said it yourself. If this is all because of what my dad had to do to protect me, then I’m the one who should be responsible.”

“But you can’t be. It has to be me.”

“Why? Why does it have to be you? Rachael, this doesn’t make any sense.”

Rachael drew a shuddering breath.

“Because I wanted this. Because I wanted her to die. I hated her so much. For what she did. For what she was.”

Rachael looked up at her with eyes overflowing with tears.

“It was like she was hardly ever here sometimes. She’d come home, three or four in the morning. I’d hear her screaming and crying and throwing things around. She’d drink and drink and fall over on the couch. Most nights I’d wait until it was quiet… ’til I knew she’d gone to sleep. I’d come out and put a blanket on her. Try to clean up some. She pissed herself sometimes. If I could manage it, I’d leave her skirt and stuff in the tub, run some water to rinse it. But she never said thank you. Not even once. Like, it didn’t matter. She didn’t even care. Or like it was just something I was supposed to do. And then she’d bring these guys home… and they were always horrible. I just hid mostly, stayed in my room. I… I crawled under the bed with my pillows so I wouldn’t have to hear. And then she started bringing the needles home instead. And I knew what it was cos the kids at school all talked about it, talked like they all knew about her. There were stuff they called her… it made me so mad. I’d fight ’em for saying it, kick the lot of ’em in the faces. Got in so many fights. But it just made me hate her even more, because it was true. All the stuff they said about her, the names, it was all true.”

Rachael sat back on her haunches and looked up at the body on the couch.

“When I found her… I didn’t know what to do. I just… I packed a few things and walked out the door. Didn’t even close it after me. I just left her lying there. I just left her.”

There was blood on the back of Arsha’s hand where Rachael’s fingers had squeezed tight enough to break the skin. A darkly glistening red film joined the places where their hands met, the blood slowly thickening, sealing them together as it dried.

“When I found her… when I found her, I thought ‘Thank God.’ I felt… happy. Cos it was over. Cos it was…”

Tears rolled down the girl’s cheeks as the words spilled out in a wretched gasp.

“I was happy. I was happy that she was dead, because I wouldn’t have to hate her any more.”

Scarcely able to breath, Arsha pulled her sister into a tight embrace, feeling the girl’s body shudder in her arms as she gasped and sobbed. Around them the wallpaper peeled and rotted, falling away in damp chunks. The carpet withered back to the concrete floor, which slowly crumbled away. Furniture collapsed into worm-ridden piles. On the couch the woman’s body shrivelled, the skin and flesh rotting away until only bones remained, as the cloth of the couch fluttered away on a foul wind that burst in through the crumbling walls. The winds tore the ceiling away, and Arsha saw that the whole building was gone, only the room remaining, falling to pieces around them as the world collapsed into endless grey.

“Sometimes… sometimes I’d come home and find she’d left dinner out. It was just sausages or something with canned spaghetti and stuff. She’d put it all in a bowl with cling-film on. And she’d leave a glass of juice out. Like she was still trying to be a mother.” Rachael choked back a sob. “She was trying. She just… She just didn’t know how.”

Arsha pressed her sister’s body closer.

“Rachael… Rachael, I’m so sorry. Fates, I just… I wish there was something I could say. As if there was anything I could say. I just… I’m here. I’m here for you,” she whispered, lips pressed closed to her sister’s ear. In answer, Rachael shook her head and pushed her away.

“No,” she said, her voice little more than a wet gasp. “No, you have to go. It’s all coming apart. You can’t stay here, Arsh.”

“I can’t leave you here,” she said.

“Yes you can. It’s still here, the Seed. It’s still inside me. I can… I can send you back.”

“I don’t care,” Arsha said, her voice rising. “I’m not leaving without you. You’re coming back with me, Rachael.”

“I can’t,” Rachael sobbed. “Don’t you get it? I belong here. You were right. This is where I was meant to be. I tried. I tried so hard to get away. To be somewhere else. Be someone else. But it weren’t real. I kept trying to escape, but I just kept bringing myself back here. ‘Cause I deserve it. All of this. This place. This life. This fucking city. I was so stupid thinking I could ever have anything else.”

Rachael wiped a hand across her face, blinking back her tears as a trail of snot ran down her chin. Her eyes turned to the grey wall, where the motionless form on the couch had been.

“It’s not like no one’ll miss me none. And it’ll be better for you, with me gone. All I ever did was make things worse.”

Rachael turned to look at her again, a twisted portrait of a grateful smile spreading across her face.

“It’s OK,” she said. “You don’t gotta pretend you understand. You’re lucky, not understanding. Not knowing. You shouldn’t have had to…”

Rachael trailed off, the smile fading.

“You never shoulda had to see this. You never shoulda cared about me. I didn’t deserve that.”

Half choked by tears, Arsha’s voice came like a whip-crack, like something sharp and hard tearing out of her chest.

“Shut up. Shut the hell up,” she snapped, as her hands tightened around Rachael’s shoulders. “Of course I don’t understand. I can’t… I can’t even try to understand. It’s too big. It’s too awful. It’s like it won’t fit inside my head. I can’t…”

She gasped for breath, her body shaking as tears streamed down her face, the grey wall hovering at the edges of her vision.

“…I can’t ever pretend to know what it was like for you…”

Her hands moved to frame her sister’s face, tears running slick between her trembling fingers as she set her eyes on Rachael’s and did not blink.

“…But I know that I’m not leaving you. Not now, not ever. And don’t you dare tell me no one would miss you, because just thinking about losing you is worse than anything I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I don’t care what you think, I’m not leaving you behind. You’re my sister and I love you,” she gasped. “So please, please… Come home.”

Rachael looked up at her, eyes wide with fear and doubt, and just for a moment Arsha saw the briefest hint of a nod. Then everything fell away, and nothingness swallowed them completely.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Chapter 30 – Howl

It was Arsha who moved first, dashing out onto the narrow bridge, barely a few yards from Rachael’s heels. Justin tried to follow her, but as he reached the bridge it was already falling away. As the surface collapsed beneath Arsha’s feet she threw herself forward, barely landing on the edge of the platform. The gateway rippled with a blaze of burning light as Rachael passed into the shimmering haze and disappeared. Arsha rolled to her feet and threw herself towards the gateway without any hesitation, as it began to shrink in on itself. Justin felt a howl of rage explode from inside of him as Arsha’s outstretched fingertips connected with the haze, and then she too vanished. From across the chasm he could only watch the empty space in the air where the gateway had been.

He was only dimly aware of what was happening around him. He turned to watch as Rakesh sprang to his feet, catching Micah across the jaw with a solid blow that dropped the man to his knees. He saw the professor turn to level his pistol, even as one of Manindra’s guards took aim at him. The man’s finger had barely touched the trigger when a bolt of lightning arced out from Ilona’s hand. The guard staggered back, even as his companion smashed the butt of a rifle hard into the woman’s guts.

It all seemed so distant. So empty. He couldn’t understand it, how they could be so focused on their own pathetic squabbles in the midst of all this. The anger began to rise in him. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears. He could feel the wolf in the back of his mind, snarling, howling to be let loose. He felt it strain against the binding, like chains wrapped tight around him.

Then he remembered. High halls, a roof of woven branches. A mask of leaves, hiding a beautiful face. A delicate touch, one finger caressing his cheek. The smell of her, like the freshness after the rain. The change. The way that it had first come over him, how he breathed in as a man and breathed out as a creature. How he had first seen the world through different eyes. How he had known, truly known every cadence of the wolf’s cry. How the scent, the deep, true scent of everything had opened up for him. But most of all he remembered the overpowering hunger. The urge to hunt and kill. The savage power of it, the way the smell of blood made the stomach growl with expectation. He felt the bindings strain ever tighter, but in that moment there was only the howling of the wolf as the memory overcame him. It tore through the binding, snarling and howling. He changed without a thought. The distance to the first of the guards vanished in the blink of an eye. Then there was only the smell of fear, the sound of a scream and the taste of blood splashing across his tongue as his teeth sank into the flesh and cartilage of the man’s throat. Too soon, too quickly the man’s body fell limp. The second guard bringing his weapon to bear, at his master’s insistent urgings. Too late, too slow… Too human. The thunder, the acrid smell of burning, the ripple in the air as the bullet passed over him and then the soft meat of the man’s thigh, parting so easily around his fangs. The clatter of a fallen weapon and another scream of pain. It was all so easy.

A flash of light as the lightning passed inches from his face. The change came quickly, his thoughts flowing so effortlessly from the wolf to the hawk. Small, swift, sharp. The air rippling around his wings. The lightning streaking past, too slow, too slow. Then the woman’s face before him, the perfect moment when her eyes widened with fear. Her eyes, so pretty, so sweet. He let talons flick out, scoring soft skin. Saw her reel back as he beat the air. One eye was a river of blood.

The smell of it brought the wolf out once more. He felt the cold iron of the floor beneath his feet. The man in the red coat darting forwards with bright steel in his hands. The ringing sound as the blade cut the air, passing through the space where he had been barely an instant before. Springing to one side, darting, circling. From the corner of his eye he caught the shape of the gun as the professor brought it to bare. Another side-step, fast and low. The thunder rang out but he was too swift, and the man in red made an easy shield to put between himself and the professor’s gun.

Steel flashed as he darted forwards, jaws snapping at empty air as the man in red stepped back in a sliding motion. He felt the cold sensation of the blade as it bit into his flank, pain flowering along the length of the wound. Not deep, a scratch, too little to slow him down. Another side-step, darting in to snap at the man’s heel. Again the blade flashed, but this time he was expecting it. The slightest twist of the neck to close his jaw around the hand that gripped the blade. The man’s cry of pain, overtaken by the ringing of the steel as it bounced across the iron floor and span off into the emptiness at the centre of the chamber.

Once more the thunder rang out. He felt the bullet pass, close enough to tear a ripple of fur in its wake. In an instant he turned towards the sound. The professor. He could smell the man, a smell that made his stomach churn in anger, in hatred. The man had one eye closed, sighting down the barrel of his gun. Too slow. Hind legs coiled and sprang, the air flowing so easily around him. Jaws wide, longing to taste the man’s flesh.

He felt the moment when it all changed. Felt the hate peel back, unveiling the senses it had clouded, to reveal the professor’s faithful companion hurling his body into the way. With one hand Micah threw the professor back, as his other arm darted into the space where the hated man’s tender throat should have been. Jaws closed around cloth and skin, teeth sank into the flesh beneath and a cry of pain rang through his ears. Muscles tightened as he sank his teeth deeper. If he couldn’t have the professor he would take this instead, would make the man suffer for stealing his prey. He could smell the adrenaline rushing off the man in waves, hear the cries of pain as he twisted his head back and forth, rending the flesh caught in his jaws.

When the thunder rang out once more, it seemed as if the whole world rang like a bell. For a moment everything seemed to stop. Then the fire exploded through him, the searing bursts of pain as each shot tore into his body. He tried to run, tried to change, tried will some movement into his own limbs, but his body did seem to be under his control. It was as if all his strings had been cut. The floor was hard and cold as it came up to meet him. He slid, rolled, and for the briefest of moments he was aware of the edge of the chasm. Then, spinning, tumbling down. The gentle lightness of freefall embraced him, as the world began to fade into blackness.

Half glimpsed through one eye, Ilona saw the wolf crumple as the first shots struck true. Even as the body hit the ground, Rishi did not stop firing until the impact of the last shot had sent the bloodied grey form tumbling over the edge of the chasm.

Rishi lowered the revolver, a cloud of gun smoke slowly parting around him as he moved towards the edge of the chasm, every muscle tense with caution.

She could feel the coldness of the metal beneath her cheek. She felt the ground shudder, as a tremor ran through the building. One side of her face burned as if it had been set alight. She reached up with fumbling fingers to wipe the blood from her eyes, but as her fingertips brushed her face she felt the loose edge of the skin and the surging fire seemed to explode across her body.

Dimly, she heard Micah’s voice. His strong hands were lifting her upright. She caught a glimpse of his face. There was something comforting about his look of distraught confusion.

“Come on now, let me see,” he said gently, though his voice shook too much for his affected calmness. Carefully he pried her hands away from the side of her face and studied the damage.

She could feel her breath returning. Her heart no longer seemed as if it was trying to rip itself out of her chest. As she waited for Micah to examine her, another tremor ran through the building. She could hear the sound of cracking glass.

Micah’s shoulders slumped as a sigh of relief escaped him.

“You’re OK. The eye’s intact. Oh Fates, but there’s so much blood.”

“It’s alright,” she said, though her breathing was heavy. “Head wounds… Always bleed a lot.”

Micah nodded as he shrugged of his coat and snapped off the buttons of his shirt. The cloth tangled around his shoulders as he struggled to pull it loose, and he yanked harder until it tore. She wondered if she should buy him another. Bundling up the fabric, he pressed it to the wound. She let out a gasp of pain as the fire exploded into life once more. It was only a moment, however. She forced herself to draw slow, even breaths. She took the pain and locked it away inside. Hands shaking, she took hold of the cloth and forced it against the gash.

“Thank you,” she said, still breathless. Then she noticed his arm, teeth marks scored deeply into the flesh. There was blood, but it seemed as if he hadn’t noticed any pain at all. Like a curious child, Micah reached out to poke at the wound. Immediately his face crumpled, and she saw him bite his lip.

“It’s OK,” he said after a moment, though his breathing was strained. “I mean, it’s not too deep. I can still use the arm. Nothing Milima can’t bandage up.”

“You’re sure?” she said, her expression doubtful.

“I’ll be fine,” Micah said, with a grimace.

“OK. See what you can do for him,” she said, nodding at one of the fallen guards. It was obvious from the briefest glance that there was nothing to be done for the other. The sea of blood around his fallen body told it all. Already it was beginning to drip over the edge, into the empty expanse in the centre of the tower. “And hurry,” she added. “I think something is wrong with this place.”

The guard’s leg was bleeding badly. She watched as Micah did his best to put pressure on the wound, stripping off the man’s tunic to use as a tourniquet. It was enough for now, but Ilona could see that he would need a surgeon, and soon. The man’s face was pale, his breathing shallow and hurried. Micah caught his eye, clearly trying to keep his expression reassuring.

“What’s your name?” Micah said, somehow forcing his usual cheerfulness to show through.

“Wrel,” the man gasped. Though his voice was weak, his accent was no less distinctive.

“You’re a Kalvari?” Micah asked. Wrel just nodded weakly.

“Beautiful place. My father took me there once. Come on, let’s get you on your feet. It was a business trip. We were settling some sort of legal dispute in Varashen… Or was it Rannar?”

As Micah talked calmly, keeping the man distracted, Ilona forced herself to her feet and looked around. Rishi was standing by the edge of the chasm, looking down at where Justin had fallen. Rakesh was kneeling over his father, checking the wound on Manindra’s leg.

Then Rishi turned and gestured at Rakesh with the still smoking revolver.

“Get him up. You’re leaving. Micah, help the other one. He can go with them.”

“Professor, I don’t know if we should move him yet. Maybe we can sort out a stretcher, or…”

“Get him up,” Rishi growled sharply, cutting Micah off. The younger man scowled, but let it be. Rakesh said nothing. His eyes surveyed them all, cold and sharp, but he wasn’t about to argue. Instead he turned to his father again.

“Father? Can you stand?”

With a grunt, the elder Bhandari rose halfway to his feet before pushing his son aside. For a moment it seemed as if the old man would fall, but he regained his balance and stood tall.

“I’ll tear down the sky before I hand him what’s mine.” Manindra snarled, glaring at Rishi. The professor didn’t even bother to meet the old man’s gaze.

“Rakesh,” Rishi said, levelly, “I’m giving you a chance. Take your father home.”

Rakesh didn’t say a word. He just nodded and began walking, forcing Manindra to move with him. The old man didn’t seem to have the strength left to struggle. Manindra’s eyes burned with hate, but he didn’t say another word.

Ilona stepped closer, laying a hand on the professor’s shoulder. She heard a rumbling from far below, and the floor shook beneath them. She was sure the tremors were getting stronger. She heard a sound above them, like thick ice cracking.

“Rishi, we should be going as well.”

He shook his head.

“Rishi, you can’t stay. This place is falling apart,” she said, sternly.

He looked around, and her eyes met his properly for the first time since the fighting. There was something wild and desperate that had awakened inside of him. Something terrifying.

“Can’t I?” he snapped. For a moment she thought of the sound of the wolf’s jaws closing. “My daughter is in there. I’m not leaving until I get her free.”

“Rishi, we can’t.”

“Yes we can. I’ll find a way,” he snarled, stalking towards the pit. “Go on. Get everyone clear.”

“Rishi, please.”

Even as the words left her mouth she knew how they sounded. Cold. Disdainful. She had never known how to beg, even when she needed to.

He ignored her, walking towards the pit and the lectern. One hand traced the hard metal around the indentation where the Seed had lain. He barely seemed to notice as the tower shuddered once more. He ignored her even as she approached, standing at his shoulder. Finally she laid a gentle hand on his arm. Another rumbling sound filled the chamber.

“Rishi,” she whispered in the silence that followed.

He turned, fury flashing in his eyes, an outraged “What?” forming on his lips.

There was a loud crack as her gauntleted fist struck him across the jaw. Rishi swayed for a second, and then his whole body simply went limp. Moving quickly, Ilona caught him as he fell, struggling under his weight. She pulled the professor’s arm across her shoulders and held him about the waist.

“Fates, ‘Lona, are you crazy?” Micah yelled at her.

“No,” she said. “But he might be. You know we can’t stop this. We don’t even know where to start.”

Micah didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He looked at the platform, at the empty air where the gateway had been. As they both watched, another tremor ran through the building. Sadly, he shook his head.

“Be safe. Both of you,” he muttered, wretchedly.

“Fates willing,” Ilona said. “Come on.”

To his credit, Micah didn’t waste time. He hauled the injured guard to his feet and made for the exit at good speed.

At the archway she turned and looked back one last time at the empty air over the platform. Once again she heard the rumbling from below.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to the empty air, as she turned and walked away.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Chapter 29 – Fire

They were loaded onto one of the slim white skiffs, like the one they had used in their flight from Manindra’s estate, and Rakesh took the controls. Two guards went with them, but Korban remained aboard the Jyoti. Rachael was grateful for that much at least. She was less happy to see Justin setting himself down across from where she and Arsha sat.

The little skiff lifted off from the side of the larger vessel, and they began to descend towards the tower. She wondered if anything of the Shard remained. Far below, she could see that the tower of rusted iron seemed to have pushed the buildings aside, pushed up through the ground itself. It was like something that had grown. Whatever stood there before, it must have been completely destroyed. She wondered if this was the Seed they all talked about. Or maybe it was what grew from the seed. It was all so confusing.

Perhaps two-thirds of the way towards the top of the tower she saw vast archways that lead within. The mouth of each archway was easily large enough to accommodate their tiny vessel, but further in the passageway narrowed sharply. Rakesh set them down on the platform below and they disembarked. Manindra took the lead, as the guards flanked them on either side. Somehow Justin ended up between herself and Arsha, as Rakesh brought up the rear.

The narrow passageway ended in a round chamber, maybe twenty feet across, with no apparent exits. The only other opening was above them, the chamber stretching upwards into the distance, the ceiling so high that she couldn’t even make it out at all.

She wondered what the point of this place was. It seemed to be nothing more than a large and empty alcove. Then she noticed the tracks running up both sides of the chamber, their insides line with teeth, like gears. A moment later she felt the room shudder, and the ground shifted slightly. Then, with the sound of heavy machinery lurching into motion, they began to rise.

As the platform gained speed, she felt Justin move closer to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice kept low enough that only she would hear it over the clattering of the gears. “If I’d known, Rachael… I would have told you, I swear. But I’m going to get you out of this. That’s the deal I made with Manindra. We help him, he lets you go.”

“And Arsha?” she said, her voice a sharp hiss.

“She goes with him. To her mother. She’ll be safe, I promise.”

“If you gave a damn about either of us, you wouldn’t have let none of this happen,” she said.

“Rachael, there’s nothing else I can do. The Guild men… They put a binding on me. I can’t change. There’s nothing I can do to help. Look, just… Just do as he says. You’ll be OK. We’ll all be OK.”

Rachael said nothing. Moments later, the platform rattled to a halt. A corridor seemed to encircle the tower in either direction, light streaming in through tall windows that lined every inch of the outer wall. Ahead of them stood a grand archway and a darkened tunnel that she imagined lead toward the centre of the tower. Inevitably, it seemed, that was where they would be going.

Manindra lead them into the darkness, their footsteps echoing off the walls as they proceeded together. The way was only barely lit by the lantern that Rakesh carried. Finally, the tunnel came to an end. The chamber they entered was vast, an open circular space that was wide enough to hold a cathedral, and rose up into a high domed ceiling formed from curved spars of iron. Between the ribs of the dome it was filled with a smoky black glass that barely let any light in, save for where it had chipped and cracked away, allowing shafts of brilliant sunlight to punch through into the dark of the chamber. The floor was hard sheet iron. Everything was covered in a fine patina of rust.

At the centre of the room lay a vast pit that seemed to descend into the depths of the tower. In the middle of the pit stood a pillar, connected to the chamber by a single footbridge without railings or handholds. No guardrails lined the pit either. Just a sharp edge and a sheer drop. The pillar rose up in its centre to form a plinth, as if a statue might stand there. However the plinth was empty. There was only a shimmering in the air above it, like a heat haze.

“Is that it?” She said, unable to keep the question to herself.

“That’s the gateway,” Justin affirmed. “But it’s not open yet. It doesn’t have a destination.”

“So where does it go?” she said.

“I don’t know. Nowhere, I guess,” he said.

Closer to, just between themselves and the bridge, was a smaller platform, more like a lectern. Like everything else it was made of rusted iron, seeming less like something crafted and more like it had grown from the floor. The top spread out like the branches of a tree, and the base melded into the floor just like roots. At the centre was a crystal, small enough to hold inside your palm, every facet a deep black.

“Gods but isn’t it beautiful?” Manindra said, spreading his arms out to encompass the whole chamber as he strode towards the centre.

For a moment, the old man seemed content to simply revel in the magnificent decay that surrounded him. Then his eyes settled on Justin.

“Well my boy, shall we begin?” he said, smiling broadly.

Justin nodded. Rachael found herself wondering if she only imagined his apparent uneasiness.

“You’re going with her, aren’t you?” Rachael said, as Justin turned towards her. “To your Lady… To her mother.”

Again that silent nod.

Arsha looked at them both with a frightened expression.

“I don’t want to go, Rachael. Not without you.”

“It’s OK, Arsh. You’re going to be OK. He’ll look after you.” She turned to give Justin a cold glare. “He promised.”

“Children, my patience has its limits,” Manindra said.

“Sure. Whatever,” Rachael snarled. She turned back to Justin. “So what do we do?”

“The Seed,” Justin said, nodding in the direction of the lectern like shape. “It’s waiting for you.”

Slowly, she approached the lectern, looking down into the heart of the black stone as she set her hands to either side of it. He was right, she could feel something inside it. A sense of something, vivid and powerful. Like a heartbeat.

Manindra turned to look out across the narrow gap. His back was turned to her, and his hands moved in front of his chest. It took Rachael a moment to realise that he was unbuttoning his coat. Rakesh stepped forward to take the long garment. Calmly, without any sign of apprehension, Manindra continued to unbutton and then remove his shirt.

As the garment fell away, Rachael’s breath caught in her throat. The whole of Manindra’s back had been covered by a single massive scar. It was a circle, bisected by a single line. The flesh of the scar was an angry red, and she was sure that the pattern must have been burned in. She wondered how it could possibly have happened, how painful it must have been. The shape could only have been deliberate.

“Thank you, son,” Manindra said, gently patting Rakesh’s arm as the younger man stepped to one side.

Sensing that it was her cue, she tore her eyes away from Manindra’s mutilated skin and looked down at the stone again.

“Alright,” she whispered, “let’s see if you’re listening.”

Almost instantly she could feel the pulsing energy within the stone respond, seeming to reach out to her. She pictured a doorway opening. A flicker of light appeared over the platform in the centre of the pit. It was only for an instant before it vanished again. Even that tiny flicker seemed to draw something out of her. Suddenly her whole body felt numbed with cold.

“Yes. That’s it,” Manindra said, the excitement in his voice breaking through her concentration.

“I don’t know where it should go,” she gasped, her breath seizing in her throat. She could feel herself shivering, the iron lectern under her hands barely keeping her upright as her knees shook.

“You know the place,” Justin said. “Imagine it, just like I told you.”

Her hands still shaking against the lectern, she closed her eyes and pictured the place he had described to her when they had sheltered in that burned out building, what seemed like years ago. Open fields, leaves turning golden. High mountain-tops in the distance. She pictured a white horse running through the forest. She could almost hear the hoof-beats.

Her eyes flicked open as the sound suddenly became all too real. Over the platform the shimmering haze had become a swirling storm of fallen leaves that burst apart as the head and shoulders of a sleek white stallion burst through. Manindra threw himself to one side as the horse cantered across the narrow iron bridge, which shook under the creature’s hooves. It ran a circle around the chamber as everyone stared, aghast. Nearing them once more, the creature raised its head and whinnied as its body burst into a swirling cloud of dead-leaves that scattered across the chamber floor.

She looked around and saw that the light in the chamber had taken on a faintly golden hue. The black glass above them seemed to flicker with light. She saw wisps of smoke rising up from deep within the chasm.

Eyes bright with a kind of awe-struck wonder, Manindra took one hesitant step towards the bridge. She saw that the old man was trembling with excitement.

“Gods… How long have I waited for this?” he whispered. He almost seemed to forgotten that he was not alone. Rachael wondered if she only imagined the uneasiness on the faces of his guards.

“Come on Arsha. Your mother is waiting for you,” Justin said, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. When she pulled it away, he caught her by the arm instead. Rachael could see how tight his grip was as he walked her towards the portal. Suddenly Rakesh turned, drawing his sword in one smooth motion that ended with the tip of the blade hovering at Justin’s throat.

For a moment Justin just stared at the two men, aghast.

“You were going somewhere?” Rakesh said, raising an eyebrow. The old man didn’t even turn to look.

“Manindra, we had a deal,” Justin snarled, veins standing out in his neck.

For a moment the old man said nothing, as his son regarded Justin with a cold and contemptuous glare. Then Manindra spoke with an eerie calm.

“Wait until my son and I are through the gateway, then kill them all. Leave the bodies for Rishi to find when he gets here. Return to the Jyoti and inform Commander Korban that his work is done for now. He is to rejoin with the rest of his forces and wait for contact from Dayaram.”

An unearthly silence followed. Even the two guards seemed subdued as they acknowledged their orders, a grim silence settling on them both. Rachael felt as if her head was swimming. It was like someone had kicked out a stool from under her feet, and she was just waiting to hit the ground. Then Justin broke the silence.

“You crooked old bastard. You swore yourself to her service. We had a deal,” Justin roared. Arsha recoiled, but his grip on her arm didn’t falter.

Manindra whirled to face him.

“A deal? What kind of deal did you imagine that was then? What made you think that you could dictate terms to me, boy?” the old man bellowed at him, a colour rising in his face.

“What will you do? Kneel before my Lady with her daughter’s blood on your hands?” Justin spat back at the man.

“Which one, my boy? The bastard spawn, or the poor imitation you so nobly tried to protect? Which of these two broken creatures should I cast at her feet as my offering? I do not mean to return to her court a servant. I mean to be her king. And I will not walk into her castle with the child of her false lover at my side,” Manindra roared, his face crimson.

“That’s what this is?” Rachael gasped. “This… All this… It’s because you got turned down? Because she chose him instead of you?”

His eyes flashed livid fury as he turned to stalk towards her. She took a step back, only to feel a hand clamp down on her arm, as the nearest of the guards caught her in a steely grip. Then Manindra was upon her. Barely seeming aware of what he was doing, the old man snatched the pistol from the holster at the guard’s hip, gripping the weapon by the barrel as he smashed it into her face.

She reeled back, the whole room spinning end over end as red flashes of pain blurred her sight. She felt something wet on her cheek. Her arm felt numb, where the guard held her tight, not letting her fall. Through the one eye that was not covered by a stream of blood, she saw the old man raise the pistol again.

Arsha appeared from nowhere. She caught Manindra’s arm with both hands. Then he struck her across the face with his free hand and she fell to the ground. Justin barely caught her in time. He dropped to one knee, easing her weight down with him, a look of outrage on his face.

“Do you have any idea, any idea what that man has cost me? What he stole from me?” Manindra bellowed, spitting out his fury as he looked over the three of them. “Can you possibly imagine what it is, to stand before the realisation of all your dreams… To stare upon the face of a goddess, to feel her loving touch, to see her eyes as she looks upon you… And then… And then to have all of that snatched away? I watched from the shadows as she took him in, as she let my own adopted son lay his hands upon her perfect form, as she gave herself to him, utterly deceived by his liar’s tongue. I saw the boy I had raised over my own blood steal from me everything I had dreamed of. And then, when that was not enough, when even to be allowed to stand in the shadow of perfection was more than I could ask for, he tires of her love, of her perfect devotion and we are forced to flee her courts. The most divine place you can imagine, and I was torn from it by Rishi Chandra’s hands. And after all is done that man has the gall to tell me that he has ‘rescued’ me. That I should be grateful to him. Grateful for crushing everything I have struggled for. And you… You mewling infant, you wonder why I hate him?”

The sound of hard footsteps on the iron floors caught everyone’s attention. Eyes flickered towards the arched entrance-way, and in the shadows of the darkened tunnel three figures could be made out, approaching with swift strides. Though barely visible in the gloom, there was enough to make out the professor’s long step, Micah’s pony-tail flicking out, and the shape of Ilona’s cloak.

Manindra’s guards turned to raise their rifles, but before any of them could bring a weapon to bear a shot rang out and a blinding flash filled the darkened tunnel. Manindra’s cry of pain was loud and sharp as a crimson spray erupted from his leg. He fell forwards and his son barely caught his arm in time to support the old man. Rakesh looked up, furious, as Rishi stormed towards them with a smoking revolver clutched in one outstretched hand.

“You will never touch my daughter again!” Rishi roared, face twisted in fury as his voice echoed through the chamber. Already Manindra’s men had their weapons trained on him, but they were being watched in turn. Micah held the lightning ballista tight, the stock tucked into the crook of his shoulder, one eye closed as he kept the weapon levelled. Ilona had the other man covered, her gauntleted hand outstretched in what seemed like an almost contemptuous gesture. But looking closely, Rachael could see the strain on their faces. There was sweat on their brows and a nervousness in their eyes.

Gasping for breath, Manindra’s face twisted into a crooked mockery of a smile.

“My lost son returns to me.”

Rishi ignored him as he went to help his daughter up, but Arsha fixed him with a furious glare. He stopped, all his assuredness vanishing in the face of his daughter’s accusing eyes. She stood up, a little unsteady.

“He told us what you did,” Arsha said. “He told us everything. About my mother. About how you used Rachael to protect me. Is it… Is it true?”

He was silent. It took him a moment to meet her gaze, and when he did Rachael saw a sadness in his eyes that seemed as if it had been there for many years. Like an old wound, scarred over now, but still there underneath it all.

“Yes,” he said, heavily. “It’s true.”

Rachael heard the coldness in her own voice when she spoke.

“Why me?” Why did it have to be me?”

“It was chance. Just chance. I took Arsha to a Fateworker I knew… Not one of the Order, a shaman, from the Skivir tribes. I knew there was a way to take Arsha’s Fate and bind it to another. One other person, alike enough to fool the weave of Fate, but entirely unconnected to my daughter. What would you have done in my place? To know that all this misery would fall upon the one person you loved more than any other… And that you had the power to take that misery away, if only you would give it to someone you had never known in your life, and never would.”

“You ruined my life to keep her safe,” Rachael hissed through clenched teeth, climbing to her feet.

“Yes. To keep my daughter safe. How could I have chosen any differently?”

“It wasn’t right,” she said, taking a step back, bringing herself closer to the pedestal, and the bridge beyond.

“Of course it wasn’t right,” he cried, his voice somewhere between a shout and a sob. “Do you think I ever imagined, for even an instant, that it was right? I am not a good man, Rachael. I will spend my whole life bearing the weight of my sins. Why do you think I came for you? Why do you think I went through all of this, trying to keep you safe? This blood is on my hands. It’s all that I can do.”

She could see the pain there, plainly written on his face, but she didn’t care. It was his pain, his way of pretending to be righteous, and she couldn’t feel any sympathy for that.

“It’s not enough. You don’t get to just… Just buy it off. Like it’s something you can put right, like there’s some way back. My dad walking out, because he couldn’t stand that his daughter was crazy? My mum trying to care for me alone, with everything falling apart? And all of it just… Just because of what you done. You think you can fix any of that? You can think you can make that up to me?”

For a moment there was silence. She saw the looks in their eyes as they watched her with horrified expressions.

“I can’t change those things, Rachael,” he said, his voice heavy. “I can’t ever undo them. But I can try to make it better for you, if you’ll let me.”

“Because you feel bad,” she screamed. “Because this is the way you tell yourself you’re OK. It’s not about me. It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s just about telling yourself that you’re trying to make it better.”

She took another step back, brushing the edge of the pedestal. As she steadied herself with one hand, she felt the hard black crystal of the Seed. As soon as she touched it, she felt the warmth within. The pulsing heartbeat. It seemed so easy. Like she’d done it before. She felt the Seed answer, as she reached out to it. There was a warm, tingling sensation in her arm. A feeling of something moving under her skin.

She saw their expressions first, the surprise and the fear as the swirling leaves that surrounded the gateway slowly turned to dust. Only a shimmer remained in the air. The link had been broken. When she raised her hand, she saw only a thin covering of rust on her palm, but where the black crystal had nestled on the pedestal there was only an empty niche. She saw the horrified look in the professor’s eyes.

“Rachael… What have you done?” he said, his tone hushed and fearful.

“Manindra was right,” she said, scarcely bothering to look at any of them. “I’m nothing. I was just… Unlucky. The rest of you were always telling me I was special, that I had some kind of… Destiny. He was the only one who told me the truth. I never mattered to anyone. I was just… Useful.”

The edge of the chasm was barely a few feet away. Past that, the plinth and the gateway. She could feel a connection to it, beating inside of her. It was like a hole in the world, reaching out to nothing. A road with no destination.

Slowly, Arsha took a step towards her. Justin moved with her, hovering like the faithful protector that he was. It was so strange, seeing that devotion turned towards someone else. She felt it twisting inside, desperately longing to be the one person he wanted to care for. But some part of her saw now what a lie it had all been. It had never mattered who stood in that girl’s place. To Justin, it had never been about her. He just needed someone, anyone to protect.

“You’re wrong,” Arsha said, looking her in the eyes. “You do matter. You matter to me.”

Rachael shook her head.

“You think that, but it’s not true. I never gave you anything that someone else couldn’t have. I was just convenient. For both of you, that’s all it ever was.”

She took another step away, and Arsha’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Rachael… Your hand.”

The change was as sudden as it was natural. She felt the pulse of the Seed quickening inside of her. It was like something drawing breath. She no pain at all, even as the blades burst through her skin. Just a sensation of coldness as the rusted iron gauntlet formed itself around her hand, the Seed pulsing red at its heart. She held it up to the light, flexing her fingers, surprised at how easily it moved. Set in the palm was the glistening black crystal, seeming to glow from deep within. Somewhere in those inky depths, she could feel the Seed pulsing with life.

“Rachael, please. You don’t know what it is you’re playing with,” the professor said.

“Yes I do,” she said, the words coming as a surprise, even to herself. It was so easy. Almost as if she had done it before. She touched the ground lightly, the tip of one gauntleted finger brushing against the metal. Where she had touched, the rust began spreading like fire. She turned to run. The bridge was ahead of her, and then the gateway. She ran, feeling the iron grating of the bridge twist and moan as the rust consumed it. She could hear other footsteps, shouted cries as someone gave chase, but she did not look back. With a terrible sound of crumpling metal the bridge fell away behind her. The heat haze of the gate erupted around her, growing wider, opening up to take her in. She reached out a hand and felt a ripple in the air.

And then she was gone.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Chapter 28 – Iron

True to Reuben’s word the guards came for them within the hour, watching with impassive stares as they were herded out of the room. They were lead through the hallways of the tower, up and up, to a room that was lined with windows from floor to ceiling. They could see the city spread out below them, so neat and orderly that it looked less like a city and more like a piece of clockwork. Like a watch, made all of glass.

Jutting out from the side of the tower was a long pier, to which a ship had been moored. They immediately recognised the slender shape, black with green and silver trim.

A pair of large doors lead out onto the pier, and they were marched out towards where Reuben stood waiting on the deck. He gave the guards a satisfied nod and gestured for them to head inside. Dock hands untied ropes and adjusted parts of the rigging as the ship made ready to sail.

Inside, the vessel was every bit as polished and precise as without. The soft grey walls and white oak floors were a stark contrast to the weatherbeaten look of the Triskelion, yet it did not feel the slightest bit welcoming. They were guided to a spacious guest room, which they were clearly meant to share. The guards who escorted them remained outside of their door, and Rachael heard the clear sound of the lock turning as the door was closed.

Tired and frustrated, she dropped down onto one of the beds. It all felt so familiar, despite how strange it should be. Another cage, as beautifully gilded as the last.

Arsha stood by the door looking nervous and confused. Rachael couldn’t bring herself to say anything. She just lay back and closed her eyes, as the ship swayed into motion.

The journey was an empty succession of silent hours spent staring at the same four walls. Their meals were brought to their room by the guards. Their plates were collected an hour later. They were permitted to use the bathroom, one at a time, always accompanied. They woke up, ate in silence, passed empty hours, and slept. They said little, none of it meaningful. Sometimes they invented games or read some of the books that lined the room, but neither of them found the slightest joy in any of it.

Rachael began to relish sleeping. It was an escape from the agonising greyness that filled each day. In her dreams she would catch glimpses of Justin’s face, the smell of his body, his hair, the feel of his hands on her skin, the touch of his lips against hers. Always she woke with an aching feeling, as if reaching for something distant. Sometimes she dreamed of London, but those dreams were brief, flashes of fire and crumbling towers of rusted iron, black smoke blinding her, filling her lungs until she fell to her knees, gasping for breath. Then the dream would pass, and she would wake to sheets soaked with sweat, white lines scored into her palms where her nails had dug in.

It might have been the seventh or eighth day when something else woke her. She sat up in her bed, in a room dimly lit by a single slumbering ghostlight. She could hear the sound of the engines humming through the walls, a softer note than the Triskelion’s, but nothing seemed amiss. Then she heard other sounds. A muted shout. A sudden thump. Footsteps on wooden floors, hard and heavy. Glancing at the other bed she saw that Arsha was also awake. Just the girl’s face could be seen, peering out from under her sheets, looking at Rachael as if waiting for directions.

Then the sound of a gunshot rang out clear and sharp, careening off the walls to reverberate through her bones. Two more followed, in quick succession.

Rachael didn’t waste a moment. Rolling out from the covers, she hit the floor and immediately ducked under the bed, gesturing for Arsha to do the same.

“Rachael…” Arsha hissed. Before the girl could say more, Rachael turned and pressed a finger to her lips. Arsha swallowed and bit back whatever she had been about to say.

The sound of shouting grew closer, before they heard something heavy slam into the wall from outside. Another pair of gunshots rang out, deafeningly loud. Then the lock clicked open. The door swung wide, as the light from the hallway framed a figure in silhouette. Rachael slid back deeper beneath the bedframe, already beginning to realise what a futile gesture it was.

Footsteps, slow and measured as the man crossed the room. A swaying pool of light accompanied him. He wore heavy looking boots and his trousers were patched and grease-stained. Standing between the beds, the man dropped to one knee and set the ghostlamp he carried down on the floor as he glanced to the left and the right.

Rachael recognised Korban’s face immediately. His eye almost seemed to slide over her, fixing on her face only long enough for her to be sure that she had been found. Then he rose to his feet and turned to survey the room again, as if they were little more than incidental details.

“That’s both of them. Bring them to the bridge,” he barked to the men outside the door. Then he turned and stalked out of the room.

More men entered, and rough hands pulled them out from their hiding places. Between the two broad shouldered thugs she could see Korban talking to someone, his voice too low for her to make out clearly. Then Korban stepped aside and her breath caught in her throat.

Justin’s eyes were cold and impassive as he nodded silently in Korban’s direction. His hands were folded behind his back, as if he was a soldier standing at ease. It was only as Korban turned away that she caught a glimmer of anger in Justin’s expression. As she met his eyes he glanced away immediately.

She called out his name, but he didn’t seem to be listening, and as she tried to run to him one of the guards caught her shoulder. Holding her put, the man thrust a dressing gown into her hands.

“Let’s have you decent first,” he growled.

Feeling her cheeks burning, Rachael slipped the dressing gown on as the men watched impassively. A semblance of dignity observed, the men proceeded to march them both out of the cabin.

The blood splattered walls were the first thing she set eyes on as they stepped through into the corridor. Two crumpled heaps of cloth turned out to be a pair of dead men, their clothes soaked through with blood, faces ashen and still. She couldn’t even make out where they had been shot. The blood had drenched everything, splashing onto the walls and spilling out over the ground. Someone had taken the time to throw a couple of sheets down.

Arsha doubled over, heaving out what remained of their dinner from last night. The sound of the girl retching seemed to come to her from a long way off. The walls were spinning. Rachael reached out a hand to steady herself, and when she brought it away she saw that her fingers were smeared with red. There was an acrid smell in the air. She supposed it was gunsmoke.

“Why? Why did you have to kill them?” Arsha sobbed, barely able to get the words out. Rachael turned to see Justin watching them both with those same cold eyes.

“What the hell is this? What did they do?” she snarled.

“What we had to. You should be happy, Rachael. I promised I would come for you, and I did.”

He knelt down and tore a clean strip of cloth from the clothing of one of the dead men. Then he went to Arsha’s side, gently lifting the girl’s chin to wipe the spittle from her lips. Rachael watched, scarcely able to believe it was really him.

Arsha’s eyes focused on his and she recoiled, slapping his hand away. Rachael saw the hurt expression on his face, but she couldn’t even say why it mattered to him.

“What is this Justin? Why are you with these guys? They tried to kill you, remember?”

He looked up at her, sadly.

“They’re not what we thought, Rachael. Manindra saved me from their prison. He showed me what he really is. We were wrong about him, this whole time.”

She couldn’t even understand what he was saying any more. She stared at him, feeling like she was falling, spinning through the air. One of Korban’s men gave them a hard look.

“That’s enough talk. Get moving,” he growled.

They were marched towards the stairs at the end of the hallway. Half-stumbling, unsteady on their feet, they were forced to ascend until they emerged onto the bridge of The Dawning Light.

Like everything on the ship it was a study in clean white lines and silvered edges, now smeared with blood, riddled with bullet holes and scorch marks. Strewn as the floor were the shattered remains of Reuben’s automs. She couldn’t say what had been used to destroy them, but Korban’s men had certainly been thorough about it.

Reuben Ben Mahir was sitting in the captain’s chair, but it was clear that he wasn’t the one giving orders anymore. Manindra stood with his hands clasped at his back, Korban standing to his left and Rakesh on his right. More of Korban’s men were standing around the edges of the room, their weapons held loosely but with obvious menace.

In the stillness Manindra sighed.

“I am deeply sorry that it came to this, Reuben. Your father was a great man. This will sadden him greatly.”

“Are you insane?” Reuben said, almost seeming to spit the words out. He leaned forward in his chair, red faced with anger. “This is open war. The whole Guild will be after you for this. My family will see you dragged before the Inquisition in chains.”

“Yes, I am quite sure they will try. However it’s rather too late for that now, don’t you think?”

Manindra spoke with an icy calm, and Rachael saw how Reuben shrank back a little, his confidence already waning.

“Fates, Manindra, what can you possibly hope to gain from this now? The Seed is awake, whether you like or not, and it’s tearing open the Veil around it. Whatever secrets you meant to unlock from the thing, they are buried under a sea of rust. The whole city is contaminated,” Reuben stammered, his hands tightening around the arms of his chair. “If we don’t put a stop to it now, the Hearth will descend into chaos.”

“You think I mean to study it?” Manindra said, incredulously. “To put an ancient wonder in a box and poke at it until it reveals some meagre insight? If I give my son a sword, I do not mean for him to study it, I mean for him to use it.”

“Use it? Manindra, you can’t actually be planning to open a gateway in the middle of the city. The Dream will coming flooding through, the damage will be irreversible.”

“A regrettable outcome. If we had been able to secure the Seed and the girl we might have forged our gateway somewhere safely secluded. Alas, Rishi’s meddling put an end to that.”

Reuben’s eyes seemed to grow even wider as he stared up at the old man in disbelief.

“But why? What could you possibly hope to find out there that was worth condemning an entire city to die?”

“Our salvation, my boy. There is a darkness coming, and she is the only thing tat can stand in its way.”

“She…?”

Reuben looked perplexed, but Rachael had the uncomfortable feeling that she already knew what Manindra meant. Then Reuben’s eyes narrowed, as if a piece of a puzzle had just fallen into place.

“So that’s what you were doing at Fallen Peak. Searching for one of the Dreamwalkers.”

Manindra gave him a measuring look.

“Seven years, and you really think that all we did was try?” he said, pausing for a moment as if to let the words sink in. “The gateway was destroyed during our return, unfortunately. One of Rishi’s little parting gifts. I have been forced to wait a very long time for a chance like this.”

“You told me they was dead,” Rachael exclaimed, unable to restrain herself any longer. “All of them.”

Manindra’s eyes flashed with cold anger as he turned to look at her.

“Yes. I lied. Never give the truth when a lie will suffice.”

“So I am connected to them,” she said.

“Unfortunately for you, my dear, there was a great deal of truth in what I told you. Yes, the Lady of The Falling Leaves still lives… But you are not her daughter.”

“Right. Cos I’m just an echo,” Rachael said, her lip curling in a sneer.

“No, I’m afraid you are barely even that. A cheap copy, perhaps. A sacrifice play.”

“Only you just said yourself that you’re nothing but a lying bastard,” Rachael spat. “Tell him, Justin. Tell him it’s not true.”

As she caught Justin’s eye, his gaze remained cold, but only for a moment.

“Rachael…”

He shook his head, sadly.

“I can’t. I’m sorry, he’s right. You’re not her daughter.”

For a moment her breath caught. She almost felt as if she had been struck. It was strange that, even after everything that had just happened, she could still feel betrayed.

“But you told me…”

“Rachael, I promise I didn’t know. I was tricked, just like you were.”

“Tricked…”

She stared at him, coldly.

“By Chandra,” he said.

“For what it’s worth my dear, you companion truly was deceived,” Manindra said, with a barely concealed smile. “Chandra’s plan was most resourceful. It took me years to puzzle out precisely what he’d done. After our return from the Deep Wild, he knew that his daughter could not be safe within Guild lands. And of the great houses would be eager to lay their hands on the child of a Dreamwalker, even if interested parties in the Guild didn’t snatch her up first.”

As Manindra spoke, he turned to look at Arsha. The girl took a step back, seeming to shrink under the man’s commanding gaze.

“His daughter…” she said, her voice seeming quite small. “What do you mean?”

It almost made her angry, the way the girl could seem so genuinely perplexed. She could feel the last pieces falling into place, as a cold certainty clenched at her stomach. Arsha turned to look at her, eyes wide and frightened.

“What does he mean, Rach?”

When Rachael spoke, it was almost like she was hearing the words from a far distance. She felt numb. Disconnected. Like a passenger in her own body.

“He means you, Arsh. It was you all along.”

“But how?”

“That was the question that tore at my mind for many years,” Manindra said smoothly. “At first I suspected a warding, but no ward could ever have been that effective. Besides, a warding might have kept you safe from the rest of the Guild, but I knew the truth. No, he needed something more permanent.”

“He traded your fates,” Justin said, his voice hollow. “That’s what lead me to you, in London. That’s why the Seed called out to you.”

Manindra nodded.

“A very old piece of Fatework. One that I had almost forgotten existed. He took all of your mother’s power from you, and gave it to your ersatz sister here. Severed from your legacy, you were of no more use to me, and concealed beyond the Veil the recipient of your power would have been almost impossible to find. It wasn’t until my spies in the Chamber of Foresight picked up word of the Seed that we were able to narrow our search.”

“You mean your daughter told you,” Rachael said, coldly.

“Not wittingly,” Manindra replied, with a sharp gleam in his eye. For a moment no one spoke, as Manindra turned to look over at Reuben again.

“Ironically,” he continued, “in your attempt to stymie young master Ben Mahir, your blood rite undid your father’s hard work, returning to you the Fate which you had been so cruelly denied.”

He turned to look back at Rachael, lip twisting cruelly.

“In that, at least,” he said, “your worthless vagabond proved to have some value after all.”

A haunting silence fell across the room. Rachael could feel her hands clenching at her sides. Part of her wanted to scream. Part of her wanted to launch herself at the man, to tear him to pieces with her bare hands. And yet, she did nothing. That cold, numb feeling had seeped into every part of her body. She seemed to no longer be in control. She felt powerless, immobile.

When Reuben spoke, his voice was soft, almost pleading.

“Manindra… Lord Bhandari… If this is true, if one of the Dreamwalkers still lives, then we must proceed with caution. That kind of power could be incredibly dangerous. Please, let me bring this to the Inquisition. They have resources that could help you. This is a matter for the entire Guild.”

Manindra turned to look at him, and shook his head, sadly.

“But as you pointed out mere moments ago, my boy, I am rather beyond reasoning with the Guild. For your father’s sake I had hoped that you at least might be saved, but I think that has proven a forlorn hope.”

He sighed, and turned to his son.

“Rakesh.”

“Sir,” Rakesh nodded.

“Make it clean.”

“As you wish,” Rakesh replied. At his gesture, two of Korban’s men stepped forward as Reuben began to rise from the chair, a panicked expression on his face. The men caught him by the shoulders and began to force him from the bridge, in spite of his struggling.

Manindra turned to Korban and continued to speak, over the sound of Reuben’s terrified pleading. “Get everyone back aboard the Jyoti, then scuttle this vessel. Be thorough. Nothing may remain.”

As Reuben struggled, one of the guards calmly smashed the man’s nose in. A fountain of blood came gushing down Reuben’s shirt, spilling down onto the floor. Manindra turned to look with a disapproving glare. Then they were gone, and Rakesh calmly followed them out.

“We’ll lay whitefire charges from bow to stern. She’ll burn to cinders before she touches the ground,” Korban said, barely seeming to have noticed the interruption. A moment later one of his men spoke up.

“Commander, we just received a message from the Jyoti. The Triskelion set sail from the Citadel, not long after we did. Looks like they’ve been following us.”

“Good,” Manindra said. “I’d hate for young Rishi to miss out on all of this. Just keep us far enough ahead of them, Commander.”

Rachael felt Arsha clutch at her arm unsteadily, looking as if she might be about to throw up again. Even Justin, despite his outward calm, was clearly uneasy. She could see it in his eyes.

An awful silence settled over the bridge. Then Manindra turned to look them over with an imperious gaze.

“Make haste, gentlemen. London awaits us.”

They were lead out onto the deck. Drifting close by, matching speed with the The Dawning Light, was a sleek white vessel with a stripe of crimson across its flank. The name ‘Jyoti’ was painted on the prow in letters of gold.

A rope bridge connected the decks. They were lead across, empty sky beneath their feet as the bridge swayed and clattered. Once inside they were shown to separate rooms. Rachael was thankful for that. As the door closed and the lock clicked shut, she fell down on her knees by the narrow bed, pressing her face into the sheets. The soft linen grew wet with her tears as she screamed until her throat was raw.

Three more days passed. She did not bother to dress. She refused showers. She ate when she was told to. In the empty hours she sat and stared at the far wall, as everything around her seemed to turn to grey.

After three days, they came for her. Clothes were pressed into her hands, and she put them on without any thought. Then they brought her out onto the deck. The ship was still, hanging over a familiar landscape. Manindra stood at the prow with his son at his side. Justin and Arsha were already waiting. She walked towards the railing, her movements wooden and lifeless, and looked out at the city below.

London was not the same. Somehow, she had held in her mind the idea that this one thing would not betray her. The streets that she had known so well could not possibly be reinvented like this.

What she saw was a kind of elegant, impossible chaos. The entire skyline had been overwhelmed by a forest of rust red towers that stretched into the sky like frail and gnarled fingers, desperately reaching for the clouds above.

One needle of twisted metal towered above all the others, a slender spike of iron that seemed to pierce the sky. It was impossibly tall, the highest towers of Southbank seeming like dots beside it. It took her a moment to recognise a shape in the water, at the tower’s base. The twisted remains of Tower Bridge, half sunken in the Thames. The tower had grown from the spot where the Shard once stood. Nothing of that fine sliver of glass remained.

“Did we do all this?” she said, looking over at Justin. Immediately she wished she hadn’t spoken. In the shock of it all, she had forgotten that he wasn’t hers anymore.

She was surprised to see him turn to her and nod.

“God… It’s horrible,” she said.

“No. It’s beautiful,” he said, his eyes shining with earnest intensity. “We’ve changed the world. Everywhere, everyone will know about this. They can’t hide, they can’t forget about it. It’s too big, too strange. It’s… Impossible.”

“Why would you want that?” she said.

“Think about it Rachael. No one will ever suffer the way we did. They’ll finally understand. They’ll see the world as it is.”

She said nothing. She had nothing to say. She just stared at her city, so monstrously transformed, not sure if she was astonished or appalled.

She noticed the sound of the ships engines rising in pitch. They were were descending, the prow beginning to gently incline towards the tallest of the spires. Towards the Seed.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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