There are a few things in life that strike me as strange or amazing. After all, the world we live in is fraught with perilous and wonderful effects. However, nothing came as strangely to me as the events which unfolded over the past few days. Listen closely to my words, for I fear that they will be the last you may hear. Much has changed and there is nothing you or I can do to make things as they were. Maybe that’s where we went wrong in the first place. Rather than taking the challenges that confronted us with the hopes of attaining something new, we struggled to recreate that thing we could never have. The solace of belonging to an established order or a set of traditions, to have a home to awaken to and family to guide our mistakes. We are on a new road now, one that I fear may lead us to our ultimate demise. But you know what they say. . . “Blood and Sacrifice.”
The River Dreamers met us at the river’s edge, their boats ready to transport us to Bazaar. Our plan was to contact Daryck in the hopes that he would shed some light on what was to come. We also had to tell him that there was a face behind the Clinic and its evil. A face that belonged to Cylix Seth’on!
The trip was uneventful and we maintained a certain silence. We were free of the dangers from the Yagan Flesher Assassin, at least for a little while. The manner in which she was dispatched still held me with awe, but I was more curious to learn of Raven than fear him, as I sensed the others did. By the time we reached the Sunken City, it was very dark and the city was shadowed under the moonless night.
There were more River Dreamers with us on this journey, than before. People we hadn’t met. There was a tall, gangly fellow and a shorter stalky one as well. We didn’t chat much, but they seemed nice enough. They offered us assistance in our duties, but as usual, we declined their offer. We parted ways: us on a secret visit with a member of the Watch, and them, on an innocent task of gathering supplies and trade goods. We didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t be parted for long.
We reached the fountain that was near the entrance to the underground tunnels. We had traveled it so many times before and foolishly felt comfortable in our wanderings. It is always unwise to expect things to be as they were when you were last there. If Dahlia left us with one lesson, it should have been that change is always occurring when you least expect it.
The hall was dark and we hadn’t brought with us any torches. Cinder made use of her Eminence of Shadow to consolidate the black ink into pools, leaving a faded light in its absence. Unfortunately, her Synthesis was weak and as the darkness regrouped and overlapped onto itself, we were left without any means with which to see. It was the opportune time for the beast to strike.
We heard it first, a slight hissing noise, followed by a dull clicking sound. We backed against each other, creating a defended circle. There was a deep resonating sound in my head as my blood ran at the pace of melting ice on a hot summers day. My breath was rasping in my throat and true fear grasped me with its unflinching hold. My knuckles turned white as I tightened my grip around my staff. Then, a flash as Cinder created an illusional flare that pervaded the hall.
I saw a glimpse of it as the light reflected off of its eyes. It was long and lithe., like a weasel or ferret. Except it was larger than a man and had a cunning look about it. One that held intelligence.
” The illusion won’t last, I can feel it waning,” said Cinder.
” Let’s get out of here, we are at a loss in the darkness!”
” No, we have to go on…”
” We don’t have a choice, we are ill prepared. Let’s turn back.”
” I hear it. Cinder! Bring back the light!”
I heard a rush as it struck at the air. Mana managed to glance her sword in the arc of its attack, deflecting a blow that was meant to sever life and limb. The River of Dream exploded in a flurry of activity as we all drew upon desperate means to save our lives. Chaos ensued as we stumbled in the darkness, undecided as to which direction led to safety and which direction led to our deaths.
There was a scream and Chigger was torn from my arms before I could secure my grip. Cinder cried out for her sister and ran off into the depths of the tunnel. Mana grabbed me and pulled me in the other direction. Bastion took a hold of my loose arm and we escaped from the beast that stalked us. Except now, we were short another member of our cell.
Cinder came back to us after Bastion retrieved her, a torch lighting his way. We sat in silence in the Emporium, trying not to think of what the beast was doing to our lost companion. Cinder was quiet.
” What should we do?”
” There is nothing we can do. It is at an advantage in the darkness. We can’t find it now. We have to leave.”
” We can’t just leave. We have to try. . .”
” We’ve risked ourselves before trying to rescue others of our group. Where has it gotten us? Remember what Mek said. . .”
” We went back for you, didn’t we?”
” You put me there!”
” What are you guys doing here?”
It was Meg and the River Dreamers.
” Nothing, we’re fine.”
” Where’s Chigger? Are you okay, Cinder?”
What were we to do. I felt that Eshlazi was toying with us again. He had likely sent a chained to gather and kidnap us again, so he could place new tethers upon us. What if the River Dreamers began to suspect our dealings. We would be as good as dead.
” She’s gone. We’re okay.”
” What do you mean she’s gone? Where did she go?”
” We encountered something in the tunnels. It took her.”
” Well we have to get her back. Time’s running out. Let’s go, what are you guys waiting for. . .she’s one of your own!”
” We can’t. . .take you with us. There are things you would be better not to know. We’ll go, but we go alone. I can’t say anything more than that. She’s my sister, and we’ll do what needs to be done. Thank you…”
” Let us go. We have done what we can. There are unseen and mysterious things taking place here. Let us go.”
They left and I blamed myself. They should have helped us. We were more willing to accommodate a son of a Jo’Han than those with a more noble purpose. They would never trust us as they did. We had made a grave error at that moment in not accepting their offer to help save Chigger. An error I was destined to rectify.
The voice that spoke to Cinder was enticing. It told us where her sister was in the endless catacombs. We were guided right to her. Whoever it was that spoke to Cinder never showed themselves, but I had my suspicions. Were we going to walk blindly into a debt to further the evil that stalked us? We were playing a grand and dangerous game in which we were the pieces and the foul demons the players. My rope was wearing thin. I wasn’t going to use it to tie my own noose.
Chigger was in good health. The beast apparently let her go after trapping her in its lair. She made up some wild stories about how she used flames to scare it away and how she chased it down a tight hole leading from its feeding grounds. The lies were steep and covered in half-truths and self delusion. I pitied her.
We went to a small merchants booth, as it was early morning, and managed to bribe some food and drink from his stall. The meeting wasn’t going to take place and with Chigger safe and partially sound, it was time for some rest. As we sat and discussed certain matters, I questioned Cinder about the voice that guided her towards helping us find her sister.
” It’s still with us.”
” It helped save her. That’s good enough.”
” It’s not. We are toying with something that’s beyond our contro
l. When will we be self reliant? When will we be able to function without it?”
” It saved me, whatever it was. You better not forget that.”
” Saved you from a situation it placed you in.”
” But saved me none the less. We should reconsider seeing if it will help us. . .”
” No! Never!”
” Listen to yourself, Juniper! You’re scared of what it may do, that it may permanently harm you. But we saw things. It wants to help and it may be the only thing we have that can stop the evil that’s taking place in the Tribes. Crimes against our people and our freedom. We may be making the biggest mistake at presuming it will help us at little cost to ourselves, but what else do we have? What else can we lose before it’s too late?”
” Everything! Our souls, our lives, our minds, our freedom, everything! You want to take all of your chances and throw them away to some creature that cares little if you live or die. You would turn away the only friends we have in the hopes of covering up some scheme that involves the beast we hate, and with good reason to do so. There are so many ways for us to resolve our difficulties but, an alliance with the minion of the seed. . .that is something I cannot do”
” Face it, you can’t believe that it loved Bastion. . .”
” That’s another issue entirely . . .”
” No, it’s not. You hate Bastion. Look at yourself. It’s in your eyes, even as you say you don’t. You hated him from the day you found out and you hate him still. He will never be forgiven in your eyes, even if you say you do. He is guilty for what he is, just as you think Eshlazi is to be punished for what he cannot change. Look at us. People persecute us for what we are, yet we know we are different than what they perceive. We aren’t evil, Juniper. We’re real, with feelings and hopes and mistakes and. . .”
” Aren’t we. . .evil, that is? We who discuss making terms with the devil. I’ll hear not another word. If you risk your soul, you do it on your own.”
I rose from my chair and waited to see who would stand with me. Mana rose from her chair and I looked at her.
” Fine! Fuck off, Juniper! Fuck off, all of you! You’re all cowards and unworthy of leading us out of the hell we call home. Get out, I don’t want to see your faces anymore. Get out!”
Mana and I left for the last time. I’ll never forget the look of anger on Chigger’s face that day. Poor child.