River.

Freezing waters that flow too quickly to solidify into ice. A line on a map and not much more to those preparing to cross. They clutch their rifles, make sure the canisters on their grenade launchers are loaded. The lieutenant barks orders, getting the men into position and making sure the ammunition is passed around. It’s a buffet to the newcomers, all the guns you could ever need and then some, handfuls of bullets plucked from the backs of trucks and shoved greedily into pockets and pouches. Smoke and chemical grenades line benches, the barricades at the edge of the river are heavy metal and backed by the cannons of the warmachines resting on the higher ground with perfect vantage points. The battle is about to begin, and in the enemy lines a man shouts and screams at the brave souls about ready to storm the beach. A shot rings out and everyone ducks for cover, then from down the river boats move up at a clip and breach on the sands. Grenades flash amongst the grounds of the enemy, and they fall and scatter. Those who were prepared still stand and wave their shields as the muzzles of the rifles light up the early morning and the cannons roar. Dozens down in an instant as the troops storm the beach, shields and sword, battering aside the defenders, rubber rounds smash bone and bloody organs. Tear gas burns lungs and throats. Freezing water blasts against the blankets and signs, but at least there is no dogs this time. Skulls crumble against the clubs, jackboots dig into ribs and bruise hearts. All for a little money, cents on the dollar, for the corporate profit. Until the earth reclaims them, until the river swells in anger and washes away the thugs and their shiny toys. Until the men in warpaint are swept away by the surging waters. Frozen river runs high and rapid and in the early hours of the morning the battle is over as they retreat. A small toll of a dozen lost, to the hundreds wounded and killed in the storming of the beach. Frozen souls that stand in the ice and hold up signs so the eyes of the nation can see their plight – while the world forgets about their sacrifice.

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Deserts.

Deserts tend to get a little dry. Soon enough we’ll all be drinking each other’s blood. When they come to take the last of the wells from us, don’t just stand aside. This is our land, they have no claim over it. Black-uniformed, jack-booted men come early in the morning. The barrels of rifles press into throats and the points of bayonets dig into immobile flesh. A woman screams, and is silenced. They’ve come to clear the ghetto, to drag out the slumdogs and pay the slumlords their thirty silver. In the streets we gather, mattresses and blankets, what little we have. The cudgels and shields of the Legionaries batter us, but do not break our lines. Walls of women and men, children hurling insults from behind their parents until they open fire. A sniper from a tower, inside a walled fortress a kilometre away, we have no response, no recourse but to scatter and leave our walls to crumble. The desert dirts drink, run red until the well is stained. The Legionaries do not care, as long as they crush us under boot. Children are dragged from screaming mothers, the fathers are broken by clubs. A brave handful rush the gunmen as they advance, the most radical, with nothing but stones to hurl against lead. And a young girl watches as her boyfriend dies, and an old man watches as his son is shot. They will pave over us for olive groves and settlements, for the living space they need to grow. We are just rats and mice to them, to be driven out and eaten by the eagles that swoop across the bloody earth. Let me tell you of the sorrows, of being driven from the sea. Of generations born to never see the ocean that once bore our name. Of a people who, despite their pride, was lost to the tides of a desert, thrust there by a monster that emerged from the waves. So that once the ashes have settled, we can stand again in the burning town and watch them drag the survivors away. This is our land, they have no claim over it. With a song, we raise our dead, bodies broken by the bullets and swords but spirits immune. We bring dark magic, we bring the swords of God and let it be the memory of the day – that here we stand, never to be pushed aside. The dead will be our shield, let the whole world know there are still some of us alive. And if it takes a thousand generations, we shall break the chains that bind.

Pike Point.

Separated from the mainland by a small strait – the kind that children can swim on a hot summer’s day as a small kind of adventure their parents aren’t overly worried about – there is an Island. On the southern shore that looks onto the main-land there is a beach that people like to visit because it is quieter. The soft virgin sand is starkly white, and the way that the cliff overlook that looks over it curls into the mountain of an island itself, is fuel for young minds. The dream of finding some kind of lost world to explore drags young teens to the shores every weekend, even during the rainy, winter seasons like today. They are always disappointed when they find the trail that leads from the south shore to the north where, nestled amongst the trees, is a town called Pike Point. Dozens of people live there, and most work on the sole ancestral farm of a rancher who has bred cattle for decades. A hands on kind of woman that inherited the town from her mother and her penchant for cattle from her mother’s grandfather. The first place most people stumble is the gift-shop. The path and the ferry dock both lead straight to it, and the colourful history of the town is displayed very carefully by a slightly pedantic woman who spins a tall tale about the land. Perhaps the second thing most people notice is that most of the islanders are women, and the town historian explains why in short detail – it’s just the quirkiness of the island’s people. Then the Historian spins a dark fantasy to scare off the young boys, about how the island is full of monsters that only eat boys. Most of them rush off, thinking it better not to risk it being true. In truth, by night, it is any other town with one exception. There is a community kitchen where everyone gathers. The four or five men do most of the cooking, they are fishers from the mainland that ventured over and never really left, and every once in a while a sixth or seventh man would arrive for a while, the new interest of one of the town’s women. And even the rancher comes to enjoy the company of the people of her town. Tomorrow the ferry will come and bring more tourists venturing to see the strange little town amongst the trees, and none will really understand why it is like it is. Tomorrow the ferry will leave and take the last of the day’s slaughter to the Rancher’s son in a small town on the coast. Though at least one woman here is hoping tomorrow doesn’t come, because sitting about with her friends as they talk about nothing and eat the day’s catch and slaughter, or whatever it is the island has to offer – crabs, clams, roots and nuts, is much more enjoyable than work. She spends her days spinning tales about a town she knows the very simple story of, and every day feels like changing it so it is more interesting or flamboyant. One day she’ll dream of man-eating tigers, or an outbreak of man-flu. Another day it is just the standard explanation of focused immigration and old school fundamentalism. And that is far less interesting to her than a fisherman who broke a woman’s heart and left her unable to ever trust another man again. About a woman who walked into the sea and found an island with one lonely woman and together they began a life as mother and daughter. About a town that grew around those two women, and a town home to a woman that, despite suffering like her own mother had, did not make the same mistake. And so the rancher sits and talks to the men as they cook, all the while thinking of the only priest the town has ever met. After dinner, she takes the historian on a walk down to see the southern beach, and every saturday as the moon rises over the bay, they light a fire and wait together until another fire is lit. In the light of the two fires, four people stand separated by the dark waters, but not alone. The historian sits down with her, leans in and holds her hand.

Uca Bluffs

Upon the misty shores, hidden in coves drenched in rainforest. Among the pines, among the shroud, the rivers from the east flow into the ocean and with it the trees are drowned and the land is covered in swamplands. There are those who live in swamps, but it is hard living because wet grounds don’t make for good plumbing or solid foundations. The town of Uca Bluffs, actually live on the rise that eventually falls into the lowland swamp, but under the surrounding cliffs that emerge from mountains. Most of them are fishers, the kinds of people that jump into the cold swamp waters to wrestle nets and cages onto small barges that are moored not far from the town at a place called the steps. Not all fish for actual fish, though the waters are rich with trout and pike. A group of women hunt for geoducks and oysters among the mangrove roots, while telling ribald tales inspired by their game. One of them regularly spends the weekends crabbing, and shares the catch with the rest. The Crabber doesn’t tell tales about the local men, her interests are squarely in her work, and it’s for the best because as much as she likes them as friends – they’re very close and very comfortable with each other. She likes being one of the girls, and she likes that they care enough to offer to set her up, but she likes to work. The salt of the sea blending into the fresh water has a calming effect. The only one in town that seems to think like she does, the young woman who runs the post-office, who is always there writing stories and sorting the few letters that pass through the town every day. They walk the streets, delivering the mail as they tell stories to the young boy that follows her around. They lack all interest in going out and being like the others. Because in truth, such a small town, the only men around are fishers and the elderly. A post office is the biggest luxury they have, the diner and the general store are the same building and a chapel is run out of the garage of a man who happens to be a priest from the east and fishes on the weekdays to earn his living. Some priest he is, came into town with one woman when she left him he quickly found another. Though she isn’t too quick to judge, as the woman he left didn’t seem too broken up about it. Maybe that is the way of things and that the Crabber doesn’t get. She likes crabs for a very specific reason, they get where they’re going by walking sideways. Why leave the comfort zone, when it is comfortable? Maybe she just doesn’t like change, she likes to be the same reliable, dependable person and every day after work she waits on her front porch to take the mail from the woman who delivers it and then for some reason instead of what she normally does – shut the door – she joins them for the last of their deliveries so they can talk about the sea and the trees and about everything other than fishing, crabs or mail.

Stag Hide

The spines of the world, a towering wall of stone that disappears underfoot. Take a drive down the highway from sea to sea and you pass over it, and watch it vanish as you yourself ascend. There are towns in such places, the homes to hunters and fishers that venture down along the rivers, through the wooded slopes, congregating at the end of a long day or week to the town of Stag Hide. Each and every man in a mile comes on the weekend for the markets. Hipsters and day-trippers from the coast sip coffee in the cafe and buy venison and foraged mushrooms from the hard-workers who spent a week tracking that deer or a lifetime training that hound to sniff out a truffle from a clump of sod. One such mushroom hunter tends to find herself the centre of attention for two boys who fawn over her produce. Kelly, a young Chinese-American, happily living with her boyfriend, and yet every week she flirts to get the two young men to buy more. Her boyfriend finds it all hilarious, and gets a little jealous he can’t draw the same attention to his own stall in the market. It’s all in good fun, and as the sun sets, only Kelly’s boyfriend has anything left – probably because venison is an acquired taste and a lot of the day-trippers are vegans. He takes the left-overs to the rest of the town, hand delivers them free of charge. He smokes the rest to keep it fresh and heads home to find Kelly still cooking dinner. Their roommate Ciara has a girlfriend over and the three of them are talking about some movie. Across the road where the girlfriend lives, the overprotective father is looking for them, and in the house neighbouring them on the pristine little wooded street, an elderly couple sits down to dinner and talks about the mortgage, they’ve finally paid it off thanks to their daughter’s husband who lives off on the coast. A big fisher who moved from out east and had made their daughter so happy. Such a good man with a troubled past, yet even they continue to have their doubts as they talk. And the cafe they own could have paid for their bills, but now it looks more likely the young woman running the storefront could take over indefinitely. She, even now, is working with her fiance behind the counter serving up coffee and late meals to the few remaining day-trippers and hipsters still lingering about. Her best friend Kelly had told her about the beaches out west, and she definitely needs a vacation and a summer wedding. She can’t do it until the old codgers running the place give her a raise and some vacation time. Or maybe she should go with Kelly into the woods and pick some truffles to sell. She shuts up the shop a bit after dinner so she can go home and play with the new toys she bought off of amazon, while feeling guilty about it. After all, who complains about having no money then spends it all on toys to keep herself sane. Her fiance feels the same, at least until they get to sit on the couch and watch netflix on the brand new flat-screen.

Crow’s Crook

Monocultures are unique sights to behold. Nothing but the gold of wheat-plains as far as the eye can see. The little town of Crow’s Crook, sits in the sea of wheat between the mountain ranges on the seaboards and is home to as many crows as people. The birds like to sit on the steeples of the local church and caw at the people passing by, but never venture into the fields. A few decorative trees roost dozens, while the steeple itself is home to the King Crow that surveys the landscape and ventures down of a morning to sit on the bench reserved just for him. There a young woman throws him scraps and thinks nothing of the old folk and their tall tales. She just sees a lover in the bird’s eyes, and she is not wrong. While the rest squabble for scraps, King Crow basks in the morning sun until his coven convenes and the flies off to leave the young woman to her daily grind. Even out in the wheat-sea the people like their coffee, and the only diner in town serves a mean cup of joe. Pair it with the fresh baked croissants and you have the perfect breakfast, lunch or dinner. The chef at one time had a restaurant in a foreign land before he met the barista who feeds the crows. There is something far more comfortable just cooking up burgers in a town no-one knows of, and getting local produce from a few miles down the highway where tourist traps abound. Crow’s Crook is the type of place where everyone knows each other by name and sits together in church. It has one phone tower and high speed internet thanks to a rich man who bought a farm and even now the young son of the Barista and the Chef is working on becoming a professional gamer. His best friend wants to be an actress, they’ve already talked about eloping without realising what it means. She read trashy books about vampires once, so now he tries to wear black and be broody to impress her. Her mother is single, though it’s slightly complicated. Some have spread rumours about the father, from the local preacher to the local cook, to the rich man who bought the town the internet. Truth was, he was just some guy from up north that blew into town for a few months before she decided she didn’t like him all that much. It doesn’t matter much, the church crowd like to gossip and in a town where nothing happens, you take any story you can and spin it out. The spiders do the spinning, trying to catch the crows in their webs but only land flies – then once in a while they’ll go fishing and forget all the fuss. They’ll bring their catch to the diner, catfish or trout, and after all the good bits are taken the Barista goes out to talk with King Crow. He watches it all from up in his steeple, and visits his daughter at night to guard her from bad dreams as she sleeps.

Wolf’s Run

In the sleepy town of Wolf’s Run, a thousand kilometres from anywhere and anything of any note to anyone of any importance and any standing in any society, there is a cliff rising above the forested surroundings. A very literally named place, the wolves that gather nearby can often be seen jogging up the hills to to stand on the cliff and howl at the moon. Ask anyone of any repute in the town however and they will tell you that the name is from the river that flows not far from the edge of the tavern where everyone and anyone gathers of a night to listen to the television blaring on about a sports game of any kind that is showing on the one channel that gets reception. A dozen men and three women, all of them lumberjacks, and the four teenagers to the one sinister old matriarch who owns everything. The general store, attached to the tavern, the post-office attached to the general store and the chapel attached the the post-office. All run by the same four sisters, who should be getting schooled by the only teacher – their grandmother – but the schoolhouse burned down. The only police officer travels for two hours every few days just to check in on them, not that anything ever happens but a few dead wolves hit by trucks tearing down through the pine-lined roads. There is a trapper who comes to collect the bodies and sells the pelt and the meats to the town, she doesn’t say much but likes the attention from the local boys and Judy. Meanwhile every sunday the only ordained man in the county comes from his mission beyond the mountains to give sunday afternoon mass and stays the night to avoid the inevitable rain. He waits until after work so that he can give service in Baptist, Protestant and Christian, then meditates with the eldest of the Matriarch’s grandchildren and has started learning Buddhism to cater to her needs. No-one bats an eyelash when he tells them he’s going to start offering Muslim services when the new girl arrives in town, except for her – she’s lapsed and just wants a job at the general store away from her ex-boyfriend and has become fast friends with Judy. The busiest the town has ever been was today, when a tourist family stopped on their way through the state and ate at the tavern but called it a diner before leaving. They were nice, and it reminded the youngest girls that there is a world beyond the trees. Maybe in a few years time one of them would head out and follow their dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping people. Though the smart money is on the town growing as the forestry industry needs more wood to feed the industrial fires down south. Shame, because roadkill is becoming more and more common these days, and there isn’t much sense calling the town Wolf’s Run if there isn’t any wolves left to run it.

positive

“I guess I’m just trying to be more positive about things.”

“Why?”

“Someone told me that if you want to make friends, you need to be positive.”

A skeptical look.

“I mean think about it, you don’t want to be around someone who always says negative shit about everything.”

A shrug, “You’re not wrong, I’m just trying to imagine you being positive.”

“See, that kind of thing makes me want to not be your friend.”

“We’re not friends.”

“Alright.”

“Nothing?”

“Nope, you can be friends with whomever you want.”

A puff on a cigarette, “How do you go from being a negative, toxic human being, to a positive, cheery one?”

“Hard work. Gotta rewrite a lot of what you do.”

“Example.”

A soft-drink can for demonstration, “The old me would say, this shit will kill me. The new me would say, enjoy in moderation.”

“So, you’re becoming a spin-artist?”

“I’d finally be an artist as something.”

“That,” a soft-drink can knocked from a hand, “was negative of you. You need to work on your newspeak comrade.”

“Doubleplustrue, but you know I’m right.”

“Alright Kurt, be more toxic. How about you take one look at the world and tell me you’re still fine with pretending you’re fine with this shit.”

“I take one look at this world and think, we can fix it.”

“Go on then.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Then go outside, make some new friends, talk to the pretty girls with long black hair.”

A nod in agreement, “I really should shouldn’t I?”

“Yeah, but that would require you to leave this place.”

A pained smile, “It’s hard leaving pieces of yourself behind.”

“You leave a trail so you can find your way back.”

“Maybe that’s what I want to erase… not my past, but the trail I leave behind. If I carry you with me, I won’t leave pieces of myself behind – I’ll shed light on the darkness, and there will be no darkness to run back to.”

A person alone on a train.

“Be positive, I guess.”

Talking to themselves.

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.