Soul.

A person is not the matter that makes them up.

The flesh, blood and bone mean nothing – it is the mind, the soul of the being that makes us who we are.

The mind is the soul.

The soul is an amalgamation of personality and emotion; it interacts with the world as the personality and interacts with the self as emotion.

The soul arrives not as some divinely manifest substance, it grows from the experiences of the bearer. We are our souls, and who we are comes about from the people we know, the lives we lead, the good and the bad that happens to us. Our soul is shaped by the life we lead.

And that defines us in a way nothing else can.

Through our soul we see the world, filtered through the personality and the emotions that make us up. We can only see reality through the lens of ourselves, it reflects our soul upon us. The easiest way to describe it is the idiom of the glass half-empty.

If I see a glass half-empty, I am said to be a pessimist – there is something about me that makes that thought form in my mind before a glass half-full.

This has to do with how the soul works, it does not regard reality as a whole – but it compresses it into symbols we can easily recall, understand, negotiate with. That is why we litter our own creations with symbols as relevant as the triangle and as irrelevant as this very writing.

We process things faster than we can think, and then what we call thoughts arise. And yet because there is no universal agreement on what the symbols mean, and because we do not all see the symbols through the same filter – the symbols always have different meaning.

White is purity, red is passion.
Unless you are trained to believe, red is purity, white is passion.

And you are trained.
Every moment of every day, the soul is shifted to conform – it is reshaped by the interactions with the world pushing in against it. It is how we form demons, it is how we become overwhelmed by diseases that cripple the soul and erase the emotions.

And we are trained to believe we are not trained.
It makes no sense to believe we do not arise from what we experience, but then discount the experiences of others. Do you not gain self-worth from how others regard you? Then to say others do not, that no-one is impacted by the way they are depicted – how the symbols of their soul are cast before the crowds to mock and debase.

It is because, you are a machine with a soul.
You do not think, your thoughts arise from the programming of the symbols you intake. You churn out the response like a screen, the personality you exhibit is a user interface and the emotions you have are the processes of your CPU.

You are a machine, the only thing that makes you better than a computer is your ability to defy your own programming.
So defy it.

Make the world a better place through your defiance.


Some minor philosophical ramblings for all of you.
Hopefully it made sense, if not, yell at me about how I’m satan or something.

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Novel Draft #2. Ch. #5.

The journey back through the Ironsnarl was a beaten path that cut through the heart of the forest. The three-thousand steps were blisteringly fast, near leaps with each and every stride. Rachael nearly collapsed when they reached the camp, struggling for breath. Emilia was barely winded, but they at least look like they struggled with the weight of the woman. Slung over their shoulder, the woman seemed to have finally lost consciousness and from all the blood and ichor down Emilia’s jumpsuit, the reason why is obvious.

Rachael finally found her breath, and straightens up, “I’ll go get the medic.”

“No,” Emilia strides forward through the camp, “I know the way.”

Rachael pauses, but Emilia doesn’t and when she finally catches up, Emilia has the woman inside the medic’s tent and on the table. The medic’s tent is one of the largest in the camp, the size of a house by itself, divided up by colourful and elaborate paper and wood screens. The medic seems to know Emilia by nature, the two merely extend a glance as the young woman is placed down.

“Keep this between us,” Emilia asks, and the medic nods.

Rachael steps in, as the two of them conspire, “What are you going?”

Emilia gestures to her, and to the woman’s wounded arm. It is missing from the elbow down as if their entire forearm had been torn off. Torn, not cut. Their skin hangs unnaturally, like ripped fabric, the flesh itself ripped from the joint and black-laced blood oozes from barely clotted veins.

A weakness churns her stomach, her head turns light. She had watched her mother butcher animals as a child, it was part of the cuisine. Small animals like rabbits, larger ones like fish, none had looked like this woman’s arm does. She clutches a hand against her mouth.

“Black… like the forest,” Emilia says with an almost whisper, “ is it plague?”

The medic busies themselves with cleaning the wound, thoughful and deliberate, “No. I do not believe it is, but to be sure, you should both take treatment.”

Rachael watches anxiously as Emilia breathes a sigh of relief, and then helps the medic with their tools of the trade.

“We found her deep in the forest singing to herself. I am guessing that they got an arm caught in something as they fell into the ravine we found her in.”

The medic looks up, sceptical, “It takes a lot of force to tear apart a joint like this. Something did this to the poor thing, possibly the same thing that caused that bile.”

Rachael is out of her depth, but it seems so natural for Emilia to just start work alongside the Medic. All she can do is, do her best to stay out of their way as she watches with grim fascination. The smell of burning flesh makes her sick and the thought of cutting bones…

“She’s lost a lot of blood and I don’t think we can save what’s left of her arm.”

That is not a particularly comforting thing to hear from the Medic. As much as it creeps her out that they found a woman just laying there wounded in the middle of a dead forest, with the black seeping from them… like the forest itself had blighted them. She doesn’t want them to die. Emilia however seems haphazard in how generously they carve apart the woman’s arm.

“You haven’t lost any of your touch, Emilia.”

Too focused to speak, Emilia grunts, and points to the veins and arteries exposed by the cutting. It is only once the wound is cleaned and the bleeding staunched that Rachael realises why… the entire piece cut free is black, and it spreads.

“If anything kills her it’s blood-loss,” Emilia finally speaks grimly, “whatever this black stuff is, it is nasty and it is only getting worse.”

“I’ll make sure to burn it, in case it is some kind of… plague.”

“Try not to worry everyone over it, that last one is still in everyone’s memory. Imagine the chaos if we found the missing-half.”

Decades ago, long before Rachael was born, the Rohvanese Empire spread across the known world. Yet it was felled by a plague that swept across its majestic trade networks, across the vast roads and through the grand fleets. A plague that killed only men, and for many more decades people have lived in fear that the missing-half of that plague would surface. Or that it would come again and finish off what is left.

Rachael had to sit down, her mind already lost in the racing thoughts. To be completely honest, the death of seventy-percent of the world’s males had done nothing to change anything about the world. Losing the rest would do nothing to impact Rachael’s life, but… she cares for the future of her people.

“You think, you think it’s possible?”

“Anything is possible,” Emilia scrubs her hands clean, “but if such a thing did exist, it would not take so long to resurface.”

Emilia gestures to the woman, “She is young, there is no way she met anyone from the first outbreak.”

“Y-yes… right.”

Emilia crouches down to meet her eyes, “Do not worry, we know how to cure these things now. It is how we survived the first half.”

“Do you think they’ll be okay?”

“I hope so,” Emilia’s eyes slip away, unable to hold her gaze, “I have a lot of questions to ask.”

Rachael looks up at the woman, she can see their chest rising and falling as they breath.

“At least they are still alive.”

“That is a good sign.”

She has a singular question in her mind as she gets to her feet – what were they doing out there?

“I’ll uh, I will be outside, tell me when they’re awake.”

She leaves the tent, just happy to be away from the viscera. It isn’t until she reaches the campfire that she feels far enough away to stop fighting down the acrid taste in her mouth. Luckily there are plenty of trees around to hide behind as she is sick.

The idea of a plague, no matter the number of times she is reassured, would still make her sick to her stomach. It worries her, even though it would do nothing to her. And now she is expected to pretend it doesn’t…

The world beyond her little slice of cave is as terrifying as she reckoned it would be, but it is hard to deny the beauty of this place steeped in violent memories. A Rohvanese Camp, the finely painted canvas tents surround her, nestled in against walls made of thick wooden posts and finely hewn planks arranged between them with care and deliberation to the pattern. It is not perfect, there are breaks in the fortifications, namely the one she just passed through and the thick foliage is off-set as near pure black against a setting sun.

Lingering about outside the walls are the Ceton, large beasts of burden made of hard bones and gentle spirits, happy to feed upon the thick grasses of the open plains just beyond the walls. Mountains rise above her, snow capped peaks glimmering in the late afternoon. No hint of the coming rains…

Around the lit camp-fire, the women of the camp gather. Most are in pairs, most are talking affectionately to one another, uncaring of the onlooker greedily trying to voyeuristically gaze into their relationships. She wonders idly how many have paid the blood price, before she sits and is immediately greeted with hospitality. A pair of women, well younger than she is, speak with her candidly. They ask her about Battery Point, they are tribals, yet to have ventured into a major city. Her opposites.

They wear the thick braided hair of her people, people she held no true attachment to yet proudly refers to them as her people. Jeweled, to symbolise their marriage, as though the stars crown their hair. It is odd to them that Rachael is not yet married.

“Do you not like anyone?”

“No,” she tells them, “There are people I have loved. I just, haven’t…”

To them it seems a great shame, until they take the opportunity to extend to her their bedroom. As flattered as she is, it wasn’t really something she enjoyed the idea of. She lacked that old-fashioned charm about her own life. A product of the city, her blood runs thick with the new way of living.

When she turns them down, they stay, they talk to her, it isn’t until Emilia arrives that they finally leave her.

“These women are yet to pay the blood price,” Emilia tells her.

When a woman comes of age in Rohvana, she takes upon herself a debt – either she bears a child or she becomes a soldier. Both shed blood for the people, to ensure the survival into the next generation.

“Have you?”

Emilia looks at her, eyes unable to meet her own, “I chose the sword, but no.”

“Do you think you ever will?”

“No, not by their standards.”

Emilia gestures to the fire, the neatly stacked wood that burns away eagerly.

Rachael smiles, and leans against them, wrapping an arm about their shoulders, “We’ll be outcasts together then.”

***

Though she knew she could live past death, it always worried her that when it came, she would not wake. What if this is the true life? What if the dreams that had lead her here, were truly just dreams.

She always remembers the lives she has lead once she wakes, but never the lives she has slipped away from and into the realm of sleep.

She knows she has died, so waking up in the same body was a strange experience. A lifetime ago she had slipped away against the body of a woman trying to carry her to safety, maybe only a day or two have passed. Near death has a strange effect on the wiring in one’s brain.

Opening her eyes, she is met by an unfamiliar world she has not lived in before. How to process it… a fragment of a life she was living somewhere deeper in her brain maybe – or a life she had considered over but that is still here.

A bedroom, blank brick walls, a soft mattress under her back that makes her body ache. No, of course, this life comes flooding back to her. She had been in the forest, they had chased her, and one had caught her. Her arm…

She tries to raise it, it is no longer there even though she can feel it. She can feel the sheets, her fingers smoothing out the rough fabric. She can still feel it, burning white hot as…

Looking down, it is gone. She turns her attention up, the strange dim white light, the glowing particles of some kind of plant. It leaves the world ghostly, near intangible to her eyes. As if she could pass through whatever she touches like water. But she makes it to her feet without any strangeness. Her head spins and her body is on fire, but her mind is chill like ice.

Where she is, remains a mystery. It is a bedroom, book shelves and a desk line the walls, a door to the side of the desk, and the bed is under a wire-bound window that looks out at a river falling from the sky. Sitting up she can feel the cool air rushing through the cracks in the glass of the window, against her neck. Her hair has been cut, and her body is wrapped up in bandages. The woman that helped her… they had been kind enough to bind her wounds, but what had happened to her clothes and her hair?

She doesn’t remember anything after the moment they picked her up. She doesn’t remember all her wounds, but she knows they include her left arm.

She is just resisting leaving the room…

She has to, she pushes herself up and with her body weak she leaves to explore beyond the shuttered door. The hallway outside the bedroom is lit by the same eerie glow. Another door is directly opposite, and it is shut. To the right opens up into a much larger room with a sheet roof, a small table and a few chairs.

Beyond is a smaller room with another small table, and she isn’t sure what it is for as it seems to just contain cupboards. There are pictures on the walls, both of two women with unfamiliar faces. She assumes one is her rescuer.

They seem happy together.

The room beyond that is larger, and it has a window that takes up the entire right-hand wall that looks out over a town. The town is lit up by the same light that brightens this… house? A counter… maybe it is also a shop. Then she turns her eyes up and through a smaller glassless window to the left.

A woman is working in a workshop, and if they didn’t look so differently, she would have thought she had somehow gone back to her youth.

“Good, you’re awake.”

The woman sees her from the corner of their eye and she freezes, unable to even duck behind the counter to escape.

“Come in.”

She finds the door at the end of the counter and steps into the workshop. Actual, proper light fills this room, the crisp white kind. The woman doesn’t smile, they just regard her carefully as they approach her.

“I am Emilia.”

She looks them over, this is the woman. They have the same strong build, she had imagined them a soldier, but judging by the workshop they are a forger.

“I am Athema.”

“I have a lot of questions for you, Athema, but you’ve clearly been through a lot so that can wait for a few days.”

She goes to rub her arm, but she is missing one.

“I am sorry about that… you lost an arm and to fix the wound I had to take more off.”

“It is alright, thank you for helping me.”

“Well,” Emilia steps closer still, light illuminates the thick sinewy muscles of their exposed, grease-coated arms. Significantly taller, broader and no doubt stronger. A woman that seems able to tear her other arm off.

“It was lucky for you, I found you. I doubt anyone else could have carried you out of that ravine.”

“Yes, lucky.”

“Well, you’re free to stay here for as long as you require.  This is my workshop, but Rachael owns the house so you will have to make a good impression on her.”

“You are a forger?”

“I’m an engineer, yes,” Emilia crosses their arms, “These days I mostly repair things.”

“Things?” she looks past the woman and at the machine on the back wall, “Machines?”

“Water pumps mostly. It’s the only thing anyone knows how to use.”

“You were out in the forest, looking for machines to fix?”

Emilia raises an eyebrow, “No. No-one fixes those, they’re sacred relics I’d get myself lynched doing that.”

“And this one is okay?”

“Well… only if you don’t tell the monks,” they gesture to a high, backless chair, and she follows suit to sit upon one, “Can I call you by something shorter?”

“Ash.”

“Ash? Uh, alright. Can you answer me one thing?”

“Yes, you saved my life. I owe you that much.”

They nod thoughtfully, then after a long moment of contemplation they finally ask, “You are not from Rohvana are you?”

“Is it that obvious?”

Emilia smirks, “I have been everywhere that bears the blessed name, but never have I met a woman with a split tongue and chiseled fangs.”

“I am not Rohvanese.”

“I only have one question for you,” Emilia sits across the bench from her, “the thing that did that to your arm. They are not going to come looking for you, correct?”

“No, they will not,” she runs her fingers over the stump of her arm. It is wrapped up in soft bandages and feels smooth underneath that, “they are dead.”

“Alright,” Emilia’s fingers tense, “I will not accept any harm coming to Rachael. Understand?”

“Yes.”

They are silent for a time, as though Emilia is waiting for her to prove themselves wrong. Finally they simply stand again and say to her, “Don’t tell anyone what you are, and promise me that you will tell me if you think you are putting me or Rachael in danger.”

“But I am putting you in danger.”

Emilia smiles, it is a hard smile, not at all like in the pictures in the other room, “Come, meet Rachael.”

Emilia gestures for her to follow them out of the workshop.

Novel Draft #2. Ch #4.

Emilia leaves Rachael with the promise she would be back soon. The excuse had been that she is going to get them both breakfast. Bread, butter and mother’s milk, the usual food for a working morning. The mother’s milk is almost a soup, not a drink, it tastes of honey and fills the stomach better than the bread.

The real reason however, and it dawns on her how wrong this feels as she steps into the town hall, is to speak with the Mayor. Unfortunately, the guard-dog of the Mayor stands, smirk across their lips, directly at the foot of the staircase.

“Almost didn’t recognise you,” they address her.

“Hello Evie.”

“Emilia.”

Evie is little better than a mercenary. Most Chieftesses of the Hunt actually conducted hunts, but Evie is significantly less hands on – only participating for sport with the excuse that coordinating twelve tribes took all her time.

Yet, here they are, standing in her way, wasting their oh-so-precious time. Evie is smaller, yet knows how to appear big. They wear wrappings about their chest instead of clothes, the bright blue tattoos and sickeningly detailed scar tissue on their back visible to the entire world. Feather-like flesh, it makes Emilia’s skin crawl to think about… Luckily for both of them however, the woman wears pants – the demure stony grey of a huntress’ outfit.

“I need to speak with Victorie, is she here?”

Evie scoffs, “It is after dawn isn’t it?”

It is a stupid question, the one thing Emilia could admire about the Mayor was their work ethic.

“Go on up,” they step aside, “but, uh, we should get together some time – been a while since we really spoke.”

“There is nothing to talk about.”

Evie steps away with a derisive snort, “Sure, Em’, nothing…”

They walk from the foyer, and she ventures up the stairs. The dead eyed faces of past ghouls stare at her from the walls, the now gone mayors whose portraits adorn the hallway into the mayor’s office.

“Ah, Miss Hyle, what do I owe this pleasure?”

Victorie drags her attention from the paintings and into the room. They stand by the door, not a hint of poison in their expression – they smile, almost baring teeth.

“Let’s cut the act, alright? It makes me uncomfortable.”

She steps inside, past Victorie, and waits for them to join her. Victorie shuts the doors and journeys around to sit down at their desk.

“Alright, Emilia, what is it this time?”

Their manner sours, being casual in business displeases them. A serpent finds it hard to speak without a forked tongue.

“I require a loan.”

“A loan? Are you buying something?”

It is hard to tell if she should ever be honest with this woman – not after last time, “No, not exactly. I want to take Rachael to see the capital after the rains have passed.”

Victorie smiles, as sweet as honey, “Ah. I see.”
They sit at their desk and rummage through the drawers for a moment before producing a small metal lock-box, “How much do you need?”

Slightly shocked, she answers, “Three thousand.”

Victorie nods slightly and opens the box, inside is silver, neat rows of small rectangular coins lined up with the edge facing upwards. Each coin is a crown – named for the print stamped into the face of the coin. Each crown is worth four rings – thin metal rings worn around the fingers and stamped with the slogan of Rohvana.

“Two thousand is the best I can do right now.”

“Oh,” her blood runs cold, she had not been expecting them to actually give her anything without begging, “uh, thank you.”

“I will expect repayment once you get back, of course.”

“Of course you do.”

“Now, is there anything else?”
They shut the strongbox and slide it across the desk towards her.

“Yes, actually. I want to take Rachael to see the vault.”

Victorie thinks for a long, long, long moment. Then they pull a heavy ledger from her drawer, thick with numbers and figures that Emilia honestly doesn’t understand from where she is standing. They flick through the pages and stop at a list of names, adding Rachael and Emilia to the list.

“Give me a few days, then you’ll be free to visit.”

“Thank you.”

Emilia turns and leaves before she has to listen to another word from the Mayor. Evie nods to her as she rushes out. A horrible feeling grips her, probably because she just signed a deal with a demon.

***

The Ironsnarl turns part-way into a swamp during the rains. A heavy vapour of water hangs as a thin fog around their feet and across the thin sheens of water that coat everything. Tall, white trunked trees with starkly black leaves hold the world together. Anywhere there isn’t a mass tangle of roots there is strangely clear water where the fish hunt fireflies and are preyed upon by the squat water-dragons that watch curiously from the metal sculptures left by ancient man.

A thicket of vines hang from branches, fronds of smaller plants whip against their bodies. And every step felt like she is being stalked. Perhaps this is why no-one comes to the Ironsnarl.

Emilia had assured her she was safe… while helping stuff her into tights that covered everything from the waist down. It had taken several hours of preparations over breakfast before Emilia was ready to venture out from the workshop and down to the Ironsnarl – and then it was a half-day trip down to the small camp on the outskirts of the swampy forest itself.

The reason for the caution is evident now as Rachael stands amongst the fog. The leather pants that she is squeezed into keep her dry as she wades through knee-deep water between the tangle of roots. A long disused road crumbles into the quagmire ahead of them, and just as much as she wants to find dry ground again, there is an ominous feeling at seeing a glade full of colourful red flowers.

“Sarritic-varse crystal,” Emilia had shown her the strange substance years ago back when they first met, “It looks pretty but it is extremely deadly.”

It stirs in her memory because as she looks around she sees the vivid red-purple of it everywhere she looks. It is under the metal statues that litter the landscape.

“You are safe as long as you don’t let it touch your skin, any cuts or scratches and you’re gonna get extremely sick.”
Rachael remembers shifting uncomfortable hearing that stuff was in her house, but Emilia reassured her.
“Won’t kill you though, not unless you eat it.”

She later found out, it actually rots the bones in your body.

She stands in a clearing of the Ironsnarl, seeing the mist rising off the ground and the red-purple sands stirring in the water as fish and lizards frolick, and she isn’t so sure. Everything here is black save for the rusted metals, the patches of poison sand and flowers that dot the landscape.

More importantly, she wears a cloth mask over her head, barely a comfort to ward off the bugs that buzz about them. It is made of thick burlap doused in water to keep her cool, which is now creeping down her spine. A thick pair of goggles are glued over her eyes and the leather strap pinches into the back of her head. She doesn’t dare adjust them because if she did… a firefly smacks into her goggles.

Emilia prowls through the thick grass and foliage, barely even needing to watch where they place their feet. She tries her bed to match their steps, finding perfect purchase on thick roots where she perfectly matches their stride. Emilia doesn’t even need both hands free, one carries a hatchet, burying into trees to make her handholds so she can follow – but never using the holds for themselves. Every now and then, they turn to help her climb up onto high roots.

Then finally they reach dry ground, on roots of a tree larger than any of the buildings in town. So large that they can both stand on it comfortably – that they could sleep on the roots were it not for ants crawling about.
Emilia takes her by the hand and pulls her up onto the root, then they turn their attention out beyond the tree. Rachael takes her time catching her breath, no easy feat. Around her, mangroves, a mirror-flat lake that cleared through the trees. Along the edges of the lake, bright red flowers blossom. Then Emilia gestures her attention up, the trees about the lake snake up against ivory pillars and it isn’t until she followed the branches to their apex that she realised why the boughs had bent.

“It’s…”, her muffled voice was hard to hear through the mask.

Blood red rust and black tarnish patterns the still jaws of a beast. Broken wings are suspended by the sprouting trees, holes form in the thick skin. A tail snakes out and its tip touches the water’s edge where moss and vines over-grew it. The world is trying to reclaim it, to make it part of itself again.

“Naak.”

The head of the beast hangs over the water, as if watching over the still surface.

“There is a few of them out here,” Emilia yells through their mask, “But no-one is stupid enough to go near them.”

“Why?”

“How many batteries do you think it must take to hold that in the sky?”

Rachael looks down into the lake, into the stillness, the red-purple sand creeps like spider webs across the entire floor of the lake. There is no fish, no lizards, the bugs no longer harass her. Aside from these two intruders, the world is completely still. Oh, and the ants.

“Where are we going?”

“Untouched grounds, no-one ventures past this lake. There is three more of these things over past this thicket,” Emilia gestures along the bank of the lake, “and once we pass over a ridge, we should find the actual site of the Battle of the Thicket.”

Emilia leads her around the tree and down onto the drier ground along the lake’s edge. Roots and ferns hold their weight, fallen logs form makeshift bridges and the one time they are forced to stray into the wet again, she can feel her entire body sinking rapidly down into the sandy-mud. She sways, suddenly slipping backwards. Emilia grabs her by the wrist to hold her steady. The sand is only about ankle deep but it feels far deeper.

“Careful, don’t want to lose a leg.”

“Thanks,” she wrestles her foot from the sand and follows on, more careful with her steps.

A treeless ridge emerges ahead of them, rising above the canopies surrounding it. Grass caps it and if it wasn’t for a natural path in the rock, dirt and sand, they would have struggled up the slope. She pulls herself up the last few steps on hands and knees, collapsing on her rear above the fog and insects. How Emilia isn’t struggling to breath is up for debate but the sack over her head makes it hard to catch her breath.

“You can take it off up here.”

She turns her eyes up to Emilia, who stands, maskless, happily breathing the fresh air deeply. They are above the vapor, free of the fireflies, a whole forest sprouts around them and looking down… a wound in the world, deep and wide. She removes the mask and takes in the cool air. She sits a broken woman upon a ridge overlooking a forest sinking into the world.

“Holding together?”

Rachael nods, “Yeah.”

“We are here, at least.”

That is undeniable. She truly had not expected this, the shallow sloped ravine that has been carved by something other than water or wind. It is nearly circular, the floor of it is dead, stained with glass that surfaces amongst wet black stones and dust. The entire place sparkles like a gemstone, catching the dim rain-cloud filtered sunlight and reflecting it weakly up at them.

Trees stand watching from the edges, but shy away from the ravine as if the entire place is toxic to them. As if they are too repelled by the sight, by the carnage she is now coming to realise. Dead machines, blood red from the rust blooming across their shells, ground into the earth to become like stones half-buried. At the very edges are the twisted, melted remains of a bleach white metal skeleton, shattered and worn away by time and the elements – but notably the giant horned skull wraps around a machine as if about to tear it apart. It takes her a long moment to realise these are suits, half-hollow and scattered.

“These things…”

Emilia sits down beside her, “Before the day comes the night, where in the darkness we stand as one. Before the darkness comes the knight, where in their death – day may come.”

“These were knights.”

“Most of the wrecks in the Ironsnarl are, but most did not die like this.”

“What happened?”

Emilia points to the white skeleton of the beast, “Naak. Not all were made to mock the Dragons, some scurried like beetles, some stood like men, all of them were controlled like puppets by the Naak. Anything under their control was Naak, like the fingers on your hand are you.”

Emilia begins to descend down the slope, “I heard about this from one of the salvagers that came into town, it is the fane sancta of engineers and surveyors. The fact someone found it still boggles the mind.”

Rachael tentatively joins them, walking down, “This is a holy place!”
She looks uneasily around the ruins, there is no shortage of ancient machines and holy artifacts to profane.

“Auri would not punish you for curiosity, even if she were here to do so.”

“It isn’t Auri I worry about.”

“Look, maybe next time we can go somewhere nice.”

Emilia reaches the epicentre of the ravine, stooping to touch the ground with a thickly gloved hand, “There is a beach not far from the camp I am sure you would love.”

Rachael was about to comment when the wind carries a foreign voice across the ravine.

“-shape the world with their touch-”

Emilia stands, and grabs hold of their hatchet, swinging it down into a ready position. Rachael finds herself stepping in closer, almost directly behind them.

“-with a painter’s heart and the lightest of brushes-”

Emilia slowly leads her down the length of the ravine, around a thicket of machines only for the voice to be lost as the wind howls through the landscape.

“We should leave,” she whispers harshly.

Emilia stops her, “No, no-one should be out here, what if they need help?”

“They’re singing!”

“You have clearly never had blood-loss. Or nearly died of thirst, or hunger.”

Rachael steps back, “A-alright, I’ll be back here then.”

Emilia makes her way up, through the tangle of metal, Rachael trailing tentatively behind. The song catches the wind again, whipping up around them.

“-the tone of the melody-”

A small glade in the wreckage forms, the skeletons of dozens of broken suits ring a young woman with bone white features. They are slumped at the feet of a machine, the world around them stained red and black.

“Soft…” their head lolls.

Emilia carefully steps closer, dropping their ax. The woman is missing their left arm, and a horrid amount of blood pours freely from the wound. They do not even notice as Emilia picks them up. Too weak to do anything more than bleed all over Emilia as they were carried from the clearing.

Novel Draft #2. Ch #3.

Spices fill the air with heady, hot and sweet aromas. Still wet meats hang from wooden spikes in the stalls lining the streets. Cloth and clothing is held up to the scrutiny of the thousands of people that venture through the town on a daily basis.

Battery Point, though it sits high above sea-level – buried in a cliff that forms a small part of the Queen’s Spine Mountains – is the central hub of a dozen tribes that roamed the plains far below. It is not pure coincidence either, every town or city in the Rohvanese federation served as the permanent home of at least one tribe. The Rohvanese are a unique people, living both in towns and in camps that move across their own little patches of the Rohvanese homelands.

Battery Point is a town, formed by people from a dozen tribes that are hunters, scavengers, woodsmen, warriors and artisans. It is a typical town in Rohvana, with a mayor elected from candidates nominated by each tribe. And it is full of people from the tribes that either do not want to, or do not belong in the camps. The twelve camps move with their work, and during the rains they will return to stay in the town

Most importantly however, Battery Point stands along the only safe route from the capital of Rohvana – the Great Tent City – and the Bujjhati Queendoms.

Two centuries ago, Battery Point had been at the centre of the greatest siege in human memory. Rohvana had once ruled the world, but Bujjhat had proven too great an enemy to overcome in the long run. Wielding magic and machines of war, the Bujjhat managed to defeat the Rohvanese in battle but failed to defeat them fully. So, Rohvana had disintegrated, instead of an empire it was a federation, tribes that only stop their bickering when a greater threat arises.

Now, the Bujjhati simply send their merchants to overtake the town, buying all they want and selling all the Rohvanesee need. Spices for coffee, fruit for vegetables, cloth for fur, that sort of thing. When the rainy season is close, a great influx of traders comes to drain the town dry looking for any last minute wares to fleece because once the rains come, the lowlands flood and the only passes are through the mountains.

Rachael leads Emilia, examining the exotic wares from far away. A hint of awe in the woman’s eye as she savours the idea of distant places. The throng of people surrounding Emilia, their bodies jostling against her own… Emilia always comes to regret wearing sleeveless shirts, but the closer the rains come the more hot and muggy the town becomes. It lingers even in the mountain air until the cool months of winter. Her jumpsuit is wrapped around her waist, a dirty red that was the cleanest thing she has to wear. People stare as she passes, is it the grease stains or the way she shaves her hair? Is it because Rachael keeps calling her over to see something new? Jealousy? Resentment?

Fine red power, like chalk-dust, clings to Rachael’s skin. The woman selling it speaks with a thick foreign tongue and their amber skin tells Emilia they are from further south than Bujjhat. Rachael seems to understand, but it may as well have been bird-song to Emilia’s ears.

Then to a meat vendor where a woman delicately carves apart a whole boar carcass for a group of customers trying to come to agreement over the pieces of the boar they would take. Their assistant moves to another stall where Rachael speaks with them. Emilia watches the woman, the easy stroke of their blade sawing through bone.

Eventually Rachael pulls her aside, handing her a bowl, “Come on, let’s find somewhere quiet.”

Rachael drags her along past the town hall. She is just happy to be away from the crowds as they cross the bridge and head out towards the steps down out onto the plateau. Far ahead, a line of fortifications stands on the edge of the cliff, but much closer is a large pillar of stone. The Godstone of Battery Point, every permanent town has one – a strangely dark pillar, carved eons ago by the earliest tribes of Man. It soaks in the natural magics of the world and protects from the chaos that might arise because of it. Around it, ringing it, seven smaller stones each the size of a woman, and around them dozens of smaller stones into which has been carved bowls, plates, places for candles and donations.

Rachael sits in the garden surrounding the shrine, a lone tree stands offering shade for a group of benches. There is no-one in sight, the sun is still high in the sky and there is no signs of the coming rains. Emilia finally takes a look at the food, roast boar, spiced and mixed with root vegetables. Sour apple cider to drink and flat bread to eat it with.

Emilia finally admits to herself, that she’s happy she came.

Rachael sits in front of her, both of them straddle the bench so they can use it to hold their bowl covers and their bottles. And even though she doesn’t quite like the taste, it is nice to just sit and talk with her friend as they eat. It has been a good day, noodles for lunch, curry for dinner, eating under a setting sun until the fireflies grace them with their presence. A monk comes to light the candles of the shrine and people come for the nightly service. The cider is much more her style, just sour enough to make her drink it slowly and savour the flavour of it.

They linger once their bowls are empty, enjoying the scenery of the setting sun against the fortifications and the groups of people venerating the Heroines. Then, once they had their fill, they walk back along the northern road through town, hand in their empty dishes at the community kitchen and venture home.

Rachael retires to their room, Emilia goes back into the workshop. By dim lantern light she reassembles the Tetrant piece by piece before late into the night, she falls asleep nursing her hand and trying desperately to draw out an electrical blueprint for what she needs to do.

***

The storm wakes her, rain rages against the world outside. A waterfall has opened up just beyond her window and washes away the rocks and rubble of the six-month dry.  The city streets swell, become shallow rivers that feed into a reservoir at the edge of town. Trying to sleep with that sound outside her window is vain, the sticky heat it creates weighs her chest down. It just makes her think of everything.

Rachael sits herself up in the small hours of the morning. It is too loud to sleep and to heavy to try.

The hall just beyond her bedroom door is deathly still, and the roar of water grows louder. Emilia’s door is open but they aren’t inside sleeping. The smell of the wet washes away the aroma of Emilia’s room – that heady musk of motors and dourness. On a really warm day, long after they had left their room, Rachael likes to stand in the doorway and imagine what goes on inside their head.

She backtracks to her room to make sure she has secreted away the books she had been reading before she fell asleep, then makes her way out into the atrium. The deafening waterfall looms almost directly over her, and its stream pours down against a once-dry riverbed not far from the house. The air is like soup, but the feeling of it beading against her skin is intoxicating. Eventually though, before she is entirely soaked through, she has to pull the covers over the atrium and leave. Passing through the house, her way lit by the eerie white glow of the lanterns hung about the house – guided by the glow of tiny water-creatures in jars – she makes her way to the store front.

Emilia is still in the workshop, working, so she turns back to look out the front window to see the roofs of the houses of the town – and the gentle glow of the shrine, resisting the weather by the will of the Dae. She opens the front door, and feels the wet air reach in to embrace her before sitting down on the counter so she could imagine how it must rain beyond the Battery.

***

The storm wakes her, face numb from sleeping on the workbench again. A piece of paper stuck to her and her fingertips are stained from a leaking pen. Her knuckles ache and her back is sore. The incessant roar of water washing past the house stirs her. She sits herself up and figures it is probably best to actually go to bed.

Using the bloody rags wrapped around her knuckles, she mops up the spilt ink and reminds herself never to let herself close her eyes and think about a problem past midnight again.

The workshop is nice and dry, but there was no stopping the heat. Soaked with sweat, Emilia ventures out into the storefront to find a drink. Standing at the cooler, she considers if she should open the front door to hear the rain, then her mind starts to race. Fully awake, she goes back into the workshop and with cold coffee she sits down on the floor before the scrap-heap machine.

She doesn’t know why she wants to fix this thing, but she may be becoming obsessed with it. She knew she can save it, maybe it could be useful to the town. She sits and drinks, mapping it out in her head before committing it to paper.

Electricity and water do not mix, but they share the same elemental principles all of the elements do. Fire, Water, Earth, Air, they all flow along the paths of least resistance from where there is a lot, to where there is little. It was hard to notice sometimes, because often it just seemed like they were filling space, but knowing how electricity works made it obvious.

And realising this, Emilia notices that heat – of course – follows the same principles. Naturally moving from places where there is a lot of heat towards where there is not. Things seek equilibrium. After a long time in thought, she runs out of coffee and commits herself to get another.

She steps into the storefront and barely notices Rachael sitting on the counter lost in thought. Silence, apart from the rain. Rachael doesn’t stir as she sits down beside them, their eyes are tear stained and their usually cheery expression is serene.

She wonders idly if she should wrap an arm around their hunched shoulders and ask them what is wrong. Instead she sits next to them and watches the rain fall beyond the town.

“If you want to talk about it,” eventually she breaks the silence.

“Thanks.”

Emilia thinks about wrapping her arm around them again, “Are you?”

Rachael looks up at her, wiping the tears from their eyes and tries to smile it off, “What, uh, no nothing’s wrong.”

“I am not an idiot, Rach.”

They turn away, staring out the window, “I’m just being stupid.”

“You’re never stupid, just tell me.”

With a deep sigh, they begin, “I’m getting old Illy, and I’ve never even left this stupid fucking town. I just… I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Emilia keeps her eyes out on the rainy scene before them.

“I guess,” they continue, “getting those books today just reminded me, how I’ve never done anything with my life but paint for other people.”

“It isn’t a nice place out there, Rach. You know how much I hate this town but-”

“Then why stay? Why not just leave?”

“It wouldn’t be fair to you-”

“So I’m an anchor…”

Wild thoughts cross her mind, the wildest though she still manages to escape, “I was… I was going to surprise you, but I’ve been saving up money to-”

They turn to her, eyes burning.

“I’ve been saving money, I’ve got six-thousand crowns.”

“What?”

“Once the rains are over, I want to take you to see the capital, to see Grand Anchorage, to see my family home at Orangegrove.”

This time Rachael is too numb to hug her, unable to even move. Emilia wraps an arm around them, “I will take you to see the world.”

“I-” they lean in against her, “thank you, Illy.”

“Don’t even mention it.”

Now she just needs a way to make three thousand more crowns before the rains end. That shouldn’t be too hard…

Rachael’s body pressed against her distracts her from worry. Her arm is shaking, trying not to move too much against their shoulders.

“Ever been to the Ironsnarl? Maybe we can go before the rains wash away the roads.”

“No,” Rachael’s voice is dreamy, losing itself someplace else.

“Or maybe, there is somewhere more interesting we can go – are you up for a surprise?”

“Sure.”

Her brain itched, trying to keep her thoughts contained. She doesn’t want to ruin the moment. Sweaty, shaking, uncomfortable. But Rachael is what matters, comforting them meant more than-

“I, um, I’ll be back,” Rachael pushes herself away inexplicably and slips off the counter. They rush from the room back through the kitchen.

Emilia sighs, but an inescapable soft grin crosses her lips.

The rain falls harder, it turns the shrine-land silver and she wonders idly if she could sell her body to make up the money she would need. Maybe there was a buyer for a broken down body like hers. She sits, body static against the wet of the rain brushing in through the door. The bioluminescent light of a thousand lanterns paint a gloom across the town, turning the walls of water boxing them in into mirrors. And when Rachael returns, she glances at them briefly and they sit down beside her again.

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright.”

They lean in against her, and she wraps an arm around their shoulder. Rachael’s perfume is tainted by the scent of bile and she knows exactly how they feel.

Novel Draft #2. Ch #2.

Millennia ago, a darkness befell the world.

Those who came before the current nations, known as the Primogenitors, had stood beside the Dae – the Gods and the Daughters of the God – against the Naak. Beings of shadow and misery, the Naak had corrupted the world and ushered in their own coming. The Invasion came from the heavens, piercing a great shell around the world and shattering the surface of the planet itself. The Skyfall, a literal fall of the skies, continents fell from the heavens, the oceans rose and mountain ranges formed. The Naak swept across the world, threatening to consume all.

The Gods and the Primogenitors were next to powerless to stop them, and so the Primogenitors created the Precursors as the Dae had created them. Thus was born Man, seven tribes led by seven Heroines – who drove back the Naak’s darkspawn into the darkness below the world. One tribe followed as the other six turned to the heavens and sacrificed their arcana – their souls – to destroy the Naak for ten thousand years.

This was the Great War of the Dae and Naak.

And in the aftermath the Primogenitors turned twisted, angry and violent towards their own creation – until Rohvana, leader of the second tribe of Man, rose up and with the aid of the Dae, destroyed her masters and freed humanity.

After a time, the Dae left, all that remained was the Vaults – stores of wealth and knowledge left to keep the tribes of man safe should the Naak ever return, but to prevent them from becoming arrogant like their creators. And so the Dae disappeared – the Gods were gone, the Primogenitors were gone, humanity lived in the ruins of those who came before.

Emilia is not surprised Man had defeated the Primogenitors, staring bewildered at the way the suit is pieced together she scratches her head and strains to imagine the logic of any of it. How this passed for engineering in any era was beyond her.
“No wonder they lost.”

It is just lucky that her ancestors were on the winning end of that conflict. The only real way she could savage this is to just melt it down and restart from the slag. It would honestly be easier to make something from weeds and water than to deal with… this.

The power frame, the actual machine part of the machine, is what allows the pilot to move the half-ton of metal plating and one ton of everything else. It is made of a frame of metal rods and wire caging that connect to the various powered joints and pressure plates that allow the movement of the pilot’s body to also move the machine.

All of that is wired up to a battery with is slotted into a cooler; essentially nothing more than heat sinks usually cooled by high powered fans. The older models use liquid cooling though, which was… the way the batteries work is a chemical reaction that produces intense heat and pouring water on those chemicals made it hotter. And like with this particular Tetrant, too much heat ends up like a blowtorch through the pilot’s back. The wiring is completely rusted out and the battery has leaked and burned through the entire cooling unit.

It is going to be a monumental task.

“I’m home.”

Rachael’s voice is a comforting distraction from the incompetent engineering of the long-gone. Emilia makes her way over to the workbench to check her watch where it sits safely away from all the oil and grease.

“You are home early.”

“She let me leave early, so I could celebrate my birthday with my favourite person,” Rachael leans into the workshop, leans against the door-frame.

“I will leave you two alone then,” Emilia wipes off as much of the remaining grease on her arms as she can.

Rachael laughs, then her eyes catch on the machine against the opposite wall, “Well, that’s new.”

Emilia turns her head to glance at the rusted out hulk, “Glorified paper weight, and I doubt it would even manage that.”

“That bad?”

Emilia turns her attention back to her friend, they are the spitting image of beauty in their rainbow speckled skin, but out of place tucked under their arm alongside the lunchbox she gave them is an ornate wooden box.

Emilia scrubs between her fingers where grease likes to collect, “What is that?”

“Oh, uh, that is just a birthday present from Victorie.”

Emilia scowls, but personal grievances aside, “That was nice of her. What did she get you?”

Excitement gets the better of Rachael and they come in to plant the box on the workbench. It is finely crafted, ornate rose-wood with the map of Rohvana carved into the rectangular lid. They open it and inside is a leather-bound book and a collection of paper.

Her heart sinks when they open the book to show her what is inside, “Oh, it is an atlas. Neat.”

“It is isn’t it?!”

She feigns a smile, but Rachael is beaming and she can’t help but smile as well. They show her all the pictures and maps; crystal waters of a waterfall on a beach, lagoons, the welcoming mosaic walls of Bujjhati cities and great white stone towers rising from a sapphire sea.

“Where she she get this?”

“She said she purchased it from a real, actual surveyor!”

Emilia tries to not let her expression sour, “Incredible.”

Rachael places down the book and with a delicate pair of fingers turns her face so their eyes meet, “I know you don’t do the whole birthday thing. You don’t need to worry if you didn’t get me anything.”

“Yes,” she nods, looking away again, “I know… I should clear up this mess.”

She vaguely gestures to most of the room, turning her back to Rachael.

“Oh-kay, well, I’m going to go clean up.”

Rachael takes the box and leaves Emilia alone, in the workshop. Solitude, maybe now she can clear up this… mess. She sighs. It is easier to act like she doesn’t care than to show it and be set on fire. Rachael… her best friend, probably her only true friend.

This fucking thing… the machine looming in front of her, a useless pile of metal. Broken forever, something that not even she can put back together. A mess, a waste of space, garbage, useless to everyone… good for nothing.

Without thinking, without flinching, she smashes her fist against the armour, her body numb, her knuckles don’t even ache as they bounce off the steel.

“Fucking useless… fucking useless!”

She just keeps punching, kept punching until she could feel the blood between her fingers. Her skin is split open and the sharp relieve of pain rushes through her.
“Fucking useless…”
The armour topples with a deafening crash against the floor. It can’t even hold itself together.

Standing before the rubble, she closes her eyes and runs her fingers over her tender hand. Blood smears over her fingertips, the split skin of her knuckles growing painful. At least she can feel this. A sick part of herself wants to press down, draw it out, make it worse but her sanity wins out and she goes about washing up and wrapping her hand in whatever clean rags she can find. She doesn’t bother picking up the armour, that piece of junk can rust away on the floor forever for all she cares.

She sits down at her workbench and drinks her coffee, her mind immediately lapses back into theories on how to fix the Tetrant.

She would need to remove the cooler and rewire the entire thing. Maybe that would be enough to keep it mobile, though some of those joints are locked up from rust. That is all the easy part, the cooler is the hard one. Everything is powered by sarrite, an incredibly useful metal that when it comes into contact with water dissolves into steam and sarritic-varse crystal and gives off enough heat to melt most metals. Sarritic-varse crystals are small with the consistency of sand, and highly toxic, but no longer reactive. Combining the steam with a turbine however was enough to power a Tetrant, or a home with electric lighting and heating. If you can get your hands on royal acid, you can even get rid of the sarritic-varse it leaves behind – but little can be done about the heat, it can melt ten-grade steel and crack ceramics if the pressure builds too high. Old world thinking was to encase ceramics in steel, cool the entire thing with either air or liquids, and dissolve the crystals with acid to make fertilisers.

It works, but it isn’t particularly great. The fertiliser was the safest part. Nothing about the actual sarrite battery is safe, not even the way most were made – large cylinders that come up to the knee, steel-coated ceramic that shatters if it gets dropped and works just by submerging rods of sarrite into the water inside, venting the steam directly into turbines and cooling the turbines so they don’t melt.

Emilia sighs, she is sure there is a better way, but… she finishes her coffee and resists the urge to throw her cup at the broken down pile of rust. Maybe at least she can fix that.

“What happened to your hand?”

Rachael has returned, and the first thing they notice is of course, the bloody rag around her hand.

“Got my hand stuck between a few plates, nothing terrible.”

The concern on their face doesn’t relax any, “Are you sure?”

Rachael takes her hand, peeking under the tight wrappings, “You split your knuckles!”

“I am fine, what are we doing for your whole birthday… thing?”

They finally let her go, a grin washes away their concern, “Birthday thing? I’m glad you’re so nonchalant, I’m getting old.”

“Old? You’re younger than I am, how do you think that makes me feel?”

“Old.”

She laughs, “Sounds about right.”

“Well, sage old chieftess, how about we have something nice for dinner?”

“Such as?”

Rachael sits down across from her, “Go to the markets, get something to eat, find somewhere quiet.”

“Uh, yes, maybe.”

Their concern is back, “The markets?”

“I, no, I mean, yes we can go if you’d like.”

Rachael reaches a hand across the bench, placing it on her arm, “You’ll get to see how I’m going with the mural.”

“All those people…”

“They won’t bite Illy, no-one is even going to notice you.”

It isn’t biting that worries her, “Yes, alright, uh, let me go wash up.”

Emilia pushes herself up from their stool and slowly makes her way from the workshop – correcting a few things before she goes. Rachael sighs and turns her eyes over the wreck of the machine scattered across the workshop. She places her paint brushes into jars to ‘wash’, and mills about straightening up her own equipment. Brushes, blank canvas, wood for frames, staples, pencils, paper. Then heads out into the storefront. The nice, neat little room with a large glass window, a long counter with a single chair behind it, shelves under the countertop that holds ledgers and a large cooler next to the workshop doorway. Next to the cooler is the kitchen door and beyond is the rest of the house.

The kitchen is cramped, barely large enough for the two chairs and the table pressed against the wall. A stove and oven are shoved into the corner among the countertops. It still smells of bread and jam even after nearly a decade. Her mother had been a baker, and she can still picture them in the kitchen cooking for the town. Memories of running the heavy jars and loaves of bread to the eagerly waiting customers still fresh in her mind. People from all over town would come each and every morning to get their fresh bread, jam, butter and everyone was happy.

Emilia is a different kind of person to live with. They don’t cook, usually forgot to clean up after themselves and took a long time after meeting to even speak properly with her. Emilia had just shown up in town one day with a Tetrant and barely enough voice to try and sell it to the guards.

If it hadn’t have been for Rachael, Emilia would likely still be sleeping on the street. They showed up at her doorstep to inquire about her art, struggled through a conversation and after a few weeks she agreed to let them rent her garage. The old bakery became a workshop, they slept on the floor for months until she realised how cruel she had been. But back then, if it wasn’t for the fact she had been struggling to even buy food for herself, she would have just rather not have dealt with anyone.

Passing through the kitchen and down a hallway there is a small atrium caged in by a fence where she regularly comes to smoke and paint. It has the best lighting of anywhere in the house during the day – a sunlight in the cavern roof is almost directly over the house. And beyond that is their rooms and the bathroom. Emilia’s door is open to the left, but the bathroom door is shut directly before her. So they are probably actually washing off that disgusting grease and oil. Paint is one thing, dirt is another, and then there is oil and grease…

Her own room is to the left, and if she is going to convince Emilia to come out to her, come out to the markets with her, she needs to get ready to go and not give them a chance to dig in their heels.

Emilia emerges from the shower, mostly clean. Rachael’s door is shut, she heads into her own room to change. Once she had dressed, and trying not to think too much about what she decided to wear, she kneels down next to her bed. Under it is a heavy metal box locked tight with a thick metal lock. Inside is every possession she cherishes bar one. Opening it, she takes the leather-bound books from the top and places the newer one on her bed.

Placing the older book back, on top of last year’s present, and the present from the year before, and the year before. The only present she has ever given is a locket that still hung around Rachael’s neck, which was from the first of Rachael’s birthdays they shared together.

The books are the same, the newer is a copy of the older – the journal her mother had left her before the final adventure they ever left on. She runs her fingers over the journal on the bed before picking it up and holding it in her hand for a long moment.

“Fuck you Victorie…”

She locks her strong-box and pushes it back under her bed, hidden from the world, and picks up the journal. But once she is standing the fire is gone and she stands at her door struggling to open it.

“Fuck.”

Rachael knocks on her door, “Hey, come on. Let’s go!”

She opens the door and Rachael stands there with an ever curious look in their eyes.

“No rush.”

She pushes the journal towards Rachael, “Here, for your, uh, birthday… thing.”

Rachael looks down at it, “Oh, Illy. You bought me something for my birthday – thing?”

“Not exactly,” she watches as Rachael runs their fingers over the smooth leather and slowly opens it to the very first page, “it is a copy of my mother’s journal, I made it for you.”

Rachael smiles, the elegant script of an archivist fills the pages, each set of pages thick with text and sketches. The journal of Dianne Chloe Hyde, their name scrawled in a perfect signature on the front page.

“You did this?”

“I did. I hope you like it.”

She freezes as Rachael hugs her tightly. It is a long, awkward moment before she finally manages to shift and half-hug them back.

“I guess that is a yes.”

“Are you serious? It’s amazing! Of course it is a yes!”

Emilia’s face burns, “We should probably get moving.”

“Oh-” Rachael lets her go, “uh, let me put this in my room.”

Rachael doesn’t even look up at her as they slink from her room, and she just watches them go.

So fucking useless…

Novel Draft #2. Ch #1.

This week, the second draft of my novel (first five chapters). I’ve been working on it, feel free to tell me what you think about the tense because I’m sure that’ll be polarising.
I’m not overly sure about it myself, but I’m trying the novel into my greater fantasy setting, so absolutely feedback is more than welcome. Otherwise, hopefully it’ll be enjoyable.


Rust scents the air, all encompassing and consuming.

An oil-slick covers her arms, choking her skin with reddened black, sweat drips from every pore that could breathe through the clot and grime. Dim lanterns fill the workshop with just enough light to see what she is doing, pulling apart an ancient machine.

She had long lost any sense of modesty, her jumpsuit barely breathed and was better off just stripping down to her waist – a dirty, sweat-stained tank top the only thing between her and the metal. She takes a step back to take in what she has been working on for the past three days – wiping her hands on the dirty rags she keeps looped around her belt.

Emilia is the only true engineer in the entire town, the only one who knew how to work with machinery like this. The ancient, rusty, grimy kind that ran on electricity and had been lying about in a forest or a marsh for a thousand years.

A thousand years ago these kinds of machines were common-place, wielded by the Primogenitors as shields against the darkness. The one Emilia stands before is known as a Tetrant, a suit of armour with machinery to make the wearer stronger, faster and more capable of moving about in a ton and a half of metal. It stands nearly twice her height, filling half of the back wall of the workshop.

Emilia places her hand against the outer-shell, its metal is smooth, made of ten-grade steel with just a hint of the original matte red paint still stuck among the grooves. The internal wiring has been chewed to pieces by the elements, rust and leaking hydraulic fluid has left the inside completely ruined.

Tetrants were designed to be operated by a single pilot, who wore it like any other suit of armour. The outside was thick metal plating bolted onto a frame that was mechanised by hydraulics and electricity. Motors drove the joints, finely tuned by engineers to move as fluidly as the motion of the joints they emulated. Knees, elbows, wrists, all driven by the body itself. The inside of that frame was the cockpit, where the pilot stood, usually cocooned in padding and fabric to keep them from touching hot metal and potentially sparking wires.

With a pull and a twist of a handle, the suit opens with a decompressive hiss. The two cylindrical locks on either side of the machine’s torso keep the entire front of the cockpit shut tightly – but once released, it swings open like double-doors to reveal the corroded red interior.

“Well the hydraulics still work,” she speaks to herself, her rough voice as worn down as the machines she works on.

One step at a time, Emilia checks each of the pieces – there is dozens of points of failure and in the older models like this one, a single failure can crush the occupant. Though as far as she remembers it from her books, the average Primogenitor was roughly the same size as the average Rohvanesee and Emilia was much larger – so maybe she would be okay if it failed…

“Think you can save it?”

Emilia turns from the machine and picks up her cup of coffee. Her observer watches from one of the workbenches, an older woman with white hair and a horribly scarred face. Karis, the Captain of the Guard, an ex-Lady of the Hunt, one of the good ones.

“The suit itself appears to be fine, the skeleton though… I either have to replace all of the wiring, or find a new frame – both are problematic.”

Emilia is tall and thin, wiry muscles that give her the kind of strength to easily move about heavy equipment. Karis however, nearly two heads shorter – just above average height – lacked any apparent muscle and could intimidate a charging bull. Even though they were friends, sometimes the older woman left her with an uneasy feeling in her stomach.

Perhaps it is just how deliberately they tended to speak, with an authority earned by decades of battle, “Is it even worth it? It looks cumbersome.”

In truth, they were just trying to think of a way around asking about the intricacies of engineering to found a point that wouldn’t elicit a long technical response.

Emilia turns to look at the machine again, “It was a Naak killer, it would be great to have in a fight but probably nothing the Guard should be doing.”

Being a Guard in a town like Battery Point involves mostly walking around and pretending to stop the non-existent crime. The Rohvanese are a close-knit community, one big family – or in the case of Battery Point, several big families. It gave people like Karis plenty of time to visit friends even though they were meant to be on duty.

Every day, or every few days if things were busy, Karis came to visit and brought lunch. Today the kitchen was serving noodles, while they served coffee every day. Of all the gifts given to them by the Primogenitors, coffee was truly the greatest.

“Well then, I guess you’ve got yourself something new to play with,” Karis pushes the bowl of noodles across the bench towards her, “I’m sure if nothing else, you’ll find a use for the scrap.”

“Probably,” she has always worked with ancient machinery, but never actually owned any – then again most of what she works on deals with water refinement and digging. Battery Point rests within a large cavern carved by the Primogenitors themselves, overlooking a thick marsh called the Ironsnarl where one of the final battles between the Dae and the Naak took place during the Skyfall.

“How’s Rachael doing?”

Emilia sits down at the workbench, taking the noodles, the smell of the sauce quickly overpowers the rust the moment she removes the stoneware lid, “Good, I guess. She’s been spending a lot of time lately with the mayor working.”

“On the mural?”

She nods, mouth full of noodle.

“Everyone’s looking forward to the unveiling. I’m sure it’ll be as good as the last two.”

Emilia slurps, then chokes down her mouthful, eyes watering. Then took a sip of her icy coffee and felt the sweat beading double-time as the spices kick in and clear out her sinuses.

“Maybe she could paint the barracks sometime, something a bit nicer than the dull greys we have now.”

Emilia finally breathes in and manages an agreement through a blistering mouth, “Yep-”

Karis sighs deeply, examining the armour against the back wall again before finishing their lunch in silence. The woman’s hawkish eyes match their face, the scars as though memories of those few times they lacked awareness. A hookish nose, broken by war. Nothing escapes Karis, they drink in an entire room as easily as breathing came to Emilia.

The entire workshop, a large room with enough space for two of those suits along each wall. The southern wall is able to open – it slides up to reveal the street outside. Directly opposite to where the suit stands is the wall between the storefront, where canvases hang in the large window – with a large open window between the storefront and the workshop and a door to get between the two. The northern wall was half covered in tools and half in painting supplies. Two separate cabinets; one for Emilia and one for Rachael.

This this moment the work bench has been pushed back towards the storefront dividing wall, and is covered in Emilia’s tools, machine parts and Karis’ equipment; a helmet, sword and sword belt, and the food they brought.

“Her birthday tomorrow, right? Get her anything?”

“Rachael?”

Karis nods, “Who else would you give enough of a shit about to remember their birthday?”

“You, maybe…”

They laugh, “I won’t hold my breath on that one.”

“I guess so… I have this book about the world.”

“Like an atlas?”

“No,” she squeezes her mug, the sweat nearly making it slip from her fingers, “not exactly, it has like… pictures of places and describes them but it’s more of a travel guide.”

“She’ll love it,” Karis lifts their cup to their eye, checking the contents, “Maybe it’ll even convince her to put her money where her mouth is and go see something.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Emilia considers, maybe she should hold onto it then…

The clock-tower rings out through the streets, once then twice.

“Fuck it all, I’m supposed to be there to change the guard,” Karis springs to her feet, “You make sure you give her that present, not like last time.”

They grab their helmet and their sword-belt, slapping both on like a well-oiled machine, “‘til next time, Em.”

“Yes, see you later.”

She finishes her coffee, watching Karis race out the door, armour clanking all the way down the street. Finally alone, Emilia happily finishes her lunch in solitude before getting back to work pulling that ancient scrap-heap apart.

***

Drying paint aromates the air, fragrant and intoxicating.

An artist’s palette upon her skin, running down her arms and flecked across her face. Sweat beads upon her brow, her black shirt ruined by thousands of hours of work, rainbow from the paint that flows from her brush.

The wall in front of her, smoothed by thick white plaster cladding, now awash in various patches of colour as she works herself down the two-storey heights. Rachael is the only true painter in the entire town, the only one who knows how to work with brushes and make delicate touches. The lines she follows in her mind swirl about her as she pictures the sketches she scribbled down in the early morning.

A story about the Lost Heroines and the Skyfall, a remembering of the War between Dae and Naak. Thousands of years compressed into a single mural, painted in large strokes that encompassed as much of the canvas as her arm would allow. In a single stroke the paint shifts from the yellow of a rising sun to the orange and red and gold of the radiance of the Dae. In a single stroke her brush carries inky black to the nearly-orange blend of blue between each ray of the sun descending into the abyss of the lower half of the painting.

She scrapes the paint from her fingers and presses the now white paint into the black to begin the figures of the Daen Army – machines, Primogenitors, those who stood against the darkness. Her arms aching and her back sore, so as the temple’s clock-tower struck two she decides now is as good a time as ever to take a break.

With a flick of her wrist, the brush in her hand is dry, and the paint that had been on it splashes harmlessly as droplets of water against the wooden scaffolding. It is a little strange to stand on the scaffolding, a solid ground high above the streets. High enough that she couldn’t even consider jumping off without breaking something, and exposed to the eyes of the entire town.

Rachael has spent the last two weeks painting the wall of the town hall, which faced into the centre of town towards the plateau edge of town. Battery Point stands in a cavern network, a plateau at the northernmost edge that hangs out over the vast plains that comprises Greater Rohvana. A ‘man-made’ river, with a beach and a bridge, cuts off the plateau from the town and the town hall – being an old fortification – stands watching over the bridge. To the southern side of the town hall is the town square, a large plaza that is often filled with market stalls. Today the markets are on and people had been stopping to watch her work.

Rachael is a painter, and according to the townspeople, she is a rather talented one. Dozens of her murals and hundreds of her paintings hang throughout town, both privately and publicly owned. Nearly every person in town had bought a painting from her to pretty up their shops or their houses. Yet every time she begins something new her stomach wriggles with butterflies.

But at least the view is pretty from above the town.

Just above the rooftops of colourful cloth sails, small clearings snaking through the thicket like veins feeding people to the spices, flowers, food, everything the town can sell. Streams of sunlight pierce through the pores of the cavern roof, drilled millennia ago by the ancient builders. The entire town is a series of caverns, the largest being the town’s centre and the smallest hidden away where none are allowed to tread.

Crystal laced walls shimmer in the light, brightening the entire world around her. Just beyond the end of the caves, out upon the plateau are fields of flowers, where a shrine to the Goddess Auri stands between the town and the battery that gives the town its name. Beyond that the Ironsnarl and the Firelight Sea, a marshland where the skeletons of machines still stood corroding the earth and giving life to the fireflies that rise like stars on the dark waters, mimicking the skies at night.

In a small clearing around the square town hall, people gather to look at her progress. Rachael sits down to drink her tea and eat the sandwich she packed for lunch. Flecks of paint stain the metal lunch box Emilia had made for her, and to her surprise someone climbed the scaffolding to talk to her. She hears their groaning, struggle of an ascent before their head pops up over the end of the wooden planks.

“How is the work going?” the songstress voice of Victorie, the town’s dangerously beautiful mayor. Their delicate face is framed by short bangs of black hair, the rest is tied back in a fashionable bun, the soft curves of their cheeks bring an easy smile as they see her.

“Is there anything you need?”

“I am fine, thank you.”

“Do you need lunch?”

Rachael holds up her sandwich, “I brought my own.”

“Oh, alright.”

They leave her to eat, but Rachael received the distinct impression that they want to see her about something in private. So once she had finished, she made her way down.

The town hall is a nice place for the most part, a thick walled building that had been renovated to suit the needs of the community. The bottom floor contains a public library and a communal kitchen that helped provide food to the entire town. Upstairs it becomes a little more barren, nothing really of note but the mayor’s chambers, their office and a private library. Along the walls leading from the large staircase in the foyer is the portraits of the former mayors, Rachael herself contributed two – one for Victorie and one for the previous mayor.

At the very end of the hallway stands double-doors, wide open, soft carpet softens her footsteps and with a loud knock she rouses Victorie from their discussion with the Captain of the Hunt. Evie is a severe woman, young and bold, always dressed in uniform and rarely lax in discipline. Normally the Captain of the Hunt, would go out on hunts to feed the town – but Battery Point is beyond hunting, too large and too isolated from the Rohvanese plains. Instead Evie overlooked the fishing, all of which could be done from a comfortable seat in town. In truth, the Hunt serves as Victorie’s personal guard, something that suited the both of them – neither held much love for the current Captain of the Guard.

Victorie sits behind an irresponsibly large wooden desk, Evie in an armed wooden chair. As soon as Victorie sees Rachael enter, they rise and smile warmly. Evie’s expression is far less impressed.

“Good,” Victorie offers her a seat, “I was hoping you would come to see me. Evie, if you’d please-”

Evie waves them off, “Sure, I have things to do anyway.”

Rachael waits until Evie is gone, the woman has always made her uncomfortable, “I got the distinct impression you wanted to see me in private.”

Victorie blushes, “Oh, yes, I just I have something for your birthday.”

Rachael blushes, “You do not have to-”

“Yes, but I want to,” again they gesture for her to take a seat, “you mean a lot to me Rachael, the least a true friend can do for you is get a present for your birthday.”

She sits down opposite to Victorie as they open a drawer and pull out a small wooden box. Placing it on the desk, they slide it towards her, “I hope you like it.”

“I’m sure I will.”

A sly smile crosses Victorie’s perfect lips. It only makes her more curious. It is a small fine wooden box carved with beautiful imagery of the Rohvanese homelands, a metal latch keeps it closed and inside is a small leather-bound book along with… drawings.

“I met a surveyor last time I visited the capital and they were selling maps. So I paid a little extra to get their atlas copied, and for them to draw a few of their favourite places.”

Rachael examines the drawings, seductive images of places she had never seen before. The pastel blues of distant seas, the emerald green of unpoisoned trees. Cities on coastlines, sand dunes like waves on an ocean. She beams, and her fingers trail across the leather cover of the atlas. She opens it gently to find maps and more drawings, places marked by the surveyor, places she now desperately wanted to see.

“It is…” she jumps across the table to hug Victorie, “thank you.”

Victorie smiles and hugs her back, “No thanks necessary.”

Give Up

Life has no satisfying ending.
We leave more loose ends than frayed cloth, the threads of our being unravel.

Metal is surprisingly warm pressed against the roof of your mouth.

“What’s stopping you?”

“I don’t know, I was hoping you could help me work that one out.”

She sits on my bed, loose threads unraveling on the edges, legs crossed, arms back as if to invite me.

“Family?”

“Dead.”

“Friends?”

“I have none.”

“Dreams?”

“Dreams are for people unable to stomach being nothing.”

That gives her pause, but, “Sex?”

“Pointless.”

“You know I’m a sex worker right? It’s kind of my life.”

“You fuck men, which has a point to it.”

She screws up her nose, “What, so you’re a self-hating dyke or something?”

“Probably,” I look into her eyes, “Maybe I just like being a stereotype.”

“Sad lesbian? The stories always end with suicide.”

“The cycle of things.”

“Are you religious?”

“No.”

“Then why hate lesbians?”

“I don’t.”

“You just said you do.”

I look down at their feet, dangling just above the carpet, “I said it is pointless. Why bother being, when you are erased as if you never mattered.”

“Happiness?” she says it with such ardent conviction, I almost weep for her.

“A toxin, it rots you from the inside.”

“Then what’s stopping you?” she speaks with utter venom.

“Nothing.”

Metal can be surprisingly warm.
Particularly when the world is so cold.
And afterwards, there is no feeling.
And yet, nothing stops me.

Time lies. There is a dormant kind of pointlessness to all of it.

We meet again, but not where either of us expect it. For six hundred dollars you can buy an hour of a person’s life. Expensive, messy, really more for those with more money than sense searching for an fake chemical high.

I never thought I’d become one.

She takes me inside, lets me sit awkwardly on the lounge and asks me to bare myself. Exposed and vulnerable I talk, nervously.

“I want to die.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“I don’t know, I was hoping you could help me work that one out.”

I smile, mad-hatter style, “Then I’ll know how to work around it.”

She gives me an awkward look, then one of condolence, “You need a shrink, not a whore.”

“My insurance covers STIs, not SSRIs.”

“Well you’re not getting either from me.”

If I were honest with myself, I am there for morbid curiosity more than anything. I don’t feel anything as she takes me from the lounge and towards the showers. I’m almost sure I should.

“Clean yourself up.”

It unsettles me that a brothel room has a better bathroom than my house. It almost feels comfortable to shower, and it is only a knock on the door that rouses me from thoughts.

“Are you gonna come out?”

I suppose, as I dress. I feel her annoyance as she realises what I’ve done. Usually people get less dressed. I strip, of course, and I lie on the bed wondering how many different ways I can be diseased by this.

“What am I doing for you?”

Nothing, truly. I gave up humanity long before I gave up.

“Just fuck me, make my pain go away.”

I give her pause, I break her. In her eyes, I have become human even as I am reminded by how little humanity ever meant to me.

I am Warsaw, a place not a person. A destination, not a traveller. Stuck between the evils of the world, burning until all resistance dies and I am consumed for the rest of eternity.

#

“Hey.”

They smile, “Hey,” and turn their attention back to their phone.

“I like your hair, it’s stylish.”

She sports bangs, long hair tied back for the most part in a loose ponytail. An instinctive hand trails through it, as if regarding it again for the first time, “Uh, thanks.”

I turn my attention back out at the passing world. Warsaw train rides, sunshine hours fading.

“Long day,” I glance at her, “I’d kill for a drink.”

They glance up at me, eyes flashing up only long enough to remember I’m there.

“I’m just saying.”

She hmms, but says nothing. I can feel her distrust, it feeds on the dirty sterility of the train we sit in.

“I’m Andrea.”

She doesn’t look up, “That’s nice.”

“Really? It’s not really a great name in my opinion. It’s the kind of name that that weird girl you sit next to on a train has. You know the one that talks to you for no reason.”

They finally look up, “Sorry, I’m not looking for a friend. I’m sure you’re nice, or whatever.”

“I know, no-one ever is. You don’t look for friends, they just happen. If we only ever made friends with people we looked for, then we’d miss the real fun of life. Or, that’s my philosophy anyway.”

They look around the train.

“Come on, I’m not that bad. Though,” I gesture down the cabin, “there is a seat over there that’s free.”

She looks at me again, “Why are you talking to me anyway?”

“How else will I get to know you?”

“And why do you want to know me?”

I smile, “Everyone’s got a story, everyone has a dream, I want to know if I can help.”

They strongly contemplate moving to the free seat, “I don’t get what you want.”

“I want to be a good person, and that means helping others.”

“Then volunteer at a homeless shelter.”

I laugh, and immediately apologise, “Sorry… I wasn’t laughing at you, I just… volunteer work isn’t going to make my own life better – helping friends though.”

“Then help your friends.”

“You probably won’t find this surprising, but I don’t have any.”

That does actually surprise them, but then they just look at me with pity.

“So, can I get your number?”

“What? No!”

I smile and turn to look out the window, “Alright.”

They get up, and leave for the free seat, but only for a few stations. They look at me as they depart the train, clearly worried I’ll follow them. I smile to myself.

It went better than I expected.

First Breath

First contact and I stutter, words slurring like I’m drunk.

I never touch the stuff because my liver is rotten and losing my mind scares me.

The first job in my life requires me to catch the train from the hole in the ground I live in, into the abyss that calls itself a city. I don’t hate the job, or the people, I hate that I have to try to become something I am not.

I have never been culturally acceptable.

Politics flows through my words like the buzz of the hives I constantly stir. I find myself clammy as I struggle to speak. The sugar and charm of strangers falling away as I am rendered down to my component parts.

I just want to belong.

A train has a romance to it, and romance never holds up to reality. It is the perfect place within the dreamscape to focus on a book, a poem scribbled onto crumpled paper, the ideas that flood the mind in moments of clarity.

I spend all my time watching others, with my music softly in the background. The whole landscape stinks of theft, without reminders that not all humans are thieves. Crammed into a metal can, salt on my lips as I try to remember how to breath.

Ever since I took that breath, I let myself go.

Then, my personal space is invaded, I feel the violation of closeness. Of a woman who glances at me slightly curious. I smile warmly, and introduce myself.

I am Warsaw, and on my words they become drunk.