Trapped in a city of shadows and nightmares, four teens bridge the barrier between their worlds
She stood, soaking wet, her blue-black hair not laid out in elegant curls, but tied back into two tangled bunches. She was not wearing the dress that she left the house in, but instead wearing that silly flax-weave shirt a set of brown breeches, both of which were sized for a much larger adult. She waved at me vigorously with both royal blue hands, hopping up and down with joy.
As soon as I noticed her she pointed to her friend, a large and splotchy puppy, similarly soaked to the bone. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted.
“Hey Melody! Whitepaw’s teaching me how to swim!” I heard her distantly cry. And, as if to show me, she took a running leap from the wall, grabbed her legs, and dropped into Purestream river. Well, at least she had the good sense to jump in the one not full of trash, but swimming at this time of day?!
It was a few heart-pounding seconds before she resurfaced, grinning and floating slowly down the stream towards me. I heard her distant laugh as her puppy friend splashed in the river beside her.
“One moment, madam,” I said calmly to the servant Dog. She halted, and turned back with the intent to ask me why. I wouldn’t need long, and there was no need to explain what was about to become clear shortly.
I slammed my hands on the guardrail, the bar ringing hollowly. I took a deep breath, and shouted, “VIOLET! WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT OF SCHOOL?!”
I heard a distant cry that I certainly hoped was not a swear word! Violet’s head dunked under the water. She resurfaced near the shore, quickly scurrying up the steps. I couldn’t see her face, but she began to run up the river and darting for an alley, her sopping-wet friend tromping after her.
“You had better be hurrying to class, young lady!” I shouted, “Get cleaned up and head directly there!”
The servant made a rouf-like sound, a Dog’s laugh. I turned back to her, folding my hands tightly in front of my skirt. For the first time, Spades’ tail was gently wagging, a small smile on her face.
“Pardon me, madam,” I said, offering the servant a small bow, “For my terrible show of force.”
Havoc rushed ahead, darting around the entrance to an alleyway. Ferrous sighed, and jogged after him. That guy had in in his head that his “team” would run around the streets all damn night, to cover more ground. Tripping three times in ten minutes put an end to that delusion. He still wistfully broke into jogs here and there, stopping only when he realized there was no way in hell I’d go faster than a brisk walk.
“Father above,” I grumbled to Crusher, “I swear, it’s every corner. He charges around like it’s got to be the one.”
Crusher nodded. “He’s convinced himself he can’t go back empty-handed.”
“He’s just setting himself up for disappointment. It’s almost morning. We found everything we were going to in the first couple hours,” I whispered, “We’ve wandered so far north, we’re practically in another hunting party’s territory. Yet there he goes!”
“He’s scared, Brynth,” Crusher said softly, “Aren’t you?”
“Sure I’m scared,” I said, “I’ve got a list of a dozen fears ordered from annoying to terrifying. Going back to the Castle empty handed? It’s above breaking a plate and beneath accidentally falling into a nasty puddle.”
Crusher’s face wrinkled. “Wow. I had no idea.”
“What, that falling into a puddle was on my top thirteen list of fears?”
“No,” he replied, “I had no idea that you get so mouthy when you’re bored.”
“I wouldn’t be bored if Mister Glorious Leader would let me paint an illusion or two!” I huffed, “I could put on a show! We could swap dumb jokes! It’d ease tensions! Just wandering around and letting Havoc get more and more scared is just winding the rest of us up!”
“So, let me do the math here,” Crusher said, lifting up his paw-like manfingers, and immediately began counting them down. “To the benefit of our mood, we should expend our portal master’s spare energy, confuse our night vision, hamper our hearing with laughter…”
We turned the corner into the alley, and I saw Havoc and Ferrous standing at the other end. Waiting for us, probably.
“Crusher,” I said flatly. “Crusher. Buddy. You’re supposed to be on my side. What happened to our us-versus-them team, huh? Aren’t we partners?”
“Well. Let me pull up my tally.” He unfolded his fingers once more, making to count them again. “How many times did you actually save me, versus the times you abandoned me to make a quick getaway?” He stared me flatly in the eye, dark making his face a glossy white. “Well? Do you have a guess as to which one is higher, Labyrinth?”
“Hopefully the former?” I asked, grinning.
“Yes,” Crusher said, “Let’s hope.”
One city, where none can leave
I quietly poured Azure, then myself some tea. He thanked me and collected his cup. Outside, the rain had come again. I could hear the gentle patter of raindrops against the large window. The only sound inside the hall was the shifting of our clothes, and the quiet creak of the wooden chairs.
I looked out the large window and sipped my tea, finding it surprisingly peaceful to watch the rain dribble down the panes, distorting the potted gardens beyond.
“So,” Azure finally said, “I’m sure you know why I’ve brought you here today.”
“Oh, perhaps to have a nice chat?” I said. “Talk about the state of affairs in this fine city of Helleborus?”
“’Fine city’ indeed,” Azure scoffed. “I don’t know whether I should be offended or relieved to know some people can find peace of mind trapped in this hole.”
I nodded sagely, “I suppose you’re among those who find the city troubling?”
“Troubling, yes… but also exceedingly dull.” He gazed into the steaming cup in his fingers. “No matter how perfectly crafted the reason, there is not a soul alive who can convince the griffons to let us mind our own business beyond the walls…”
“I take it you’ve tried?” I asked.
“We all have,” he said. He held up fist, and began forcefully counting off fingers as he spoke. “Every family on the Council of Twelve. Every merchant primarily concerned with imports. The wardens, the church, more besides. It’s frustrating to be… handled like this. To have even domestic trade be managed by some foreign birds!
“And besides that,” he continued, hand lowering. “I’d like to at least see more of the country! Virtue Kindness has his reasons for keeping us here, I’m sure. But…”
He took a quiet sip of his tea, staring out the window in a distant, almost dreamy look. I didn’t know if he held his expression truthfully, or, much like myself, was just trying to be dramatic.
Then, rather suddenly, he scowled.
“That is not what I wanted to discuss today,” he grumbled.
I smiled politely. Darn it all! There goes a fine opportunity to pad out the conversation for an hour or two. I mean, who doesn’t like complaining about their petty gripes? Oh well. I’ll have other chances.
And killers stalk the night
The woman spun on her heel and punched straight forward. Her fist clipped Ferrous’ shoulder. He cried out, and barely was able to slap a hand on him arm when she punched again, directly at his chest. He toppled backward, breath lost. He smacked into the wall and crumpled to his knees.
Ferrous was gasping for breath, knife clicking off the cobblestone as his grip shivered. The woman still stood firm, taking a practiced step forward as she stared dead ahead, into the dark. Her arms tightened against her body. In a moment more, she’d find Ferrous, and beat him into a pulp. Maybe even kill him.
I winced. While it would be nice to lose one half of the beat-em-up dream team, I really didn’t want to watch that… and Havoc would probably kill me out of spite. He was struggling to his feet about then, already working himself up to shout and scream profanities at her.
So, before that happened… I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and tried something desperate.
“Please, stop!” I cried, “For the love of all things decent, don’t take us away! We’ll do anything! Just let us live!”
The woman inhaled sharply. Her fists dropped slightly, stance relaxing. Her aura was dimming considerably, wisps of light steam twisting away into the dark. I could see clearly now as the bright shadows of her eyes widened in shock.
“O-oh,” she said, “I’m sorry! I thought…”
Ruin took one step forward, and smashed his massive fist across her jaw. He was nowhere as big or strong as some of the other adults, but it still sent the woman reeling. She fell to the ground, collapsing into a limp pile.
Havoc squealed, “G-Got her!” and jumped to his feet, punching the air. “Brynth! Now!” He coughed a few times, then shouted, “Do it! Drop a portal while I prep, quick! … Uh, Brynth?”
Wordlessly, Ruin stepped forward, and begun to prepare a portal under the woman’s body. Havoc stared at the adult, at Ferrous struggling to his feet, then let out a low howl.
“That slippery little snake!” Havoc yowled, “This night was important, Brynth! The one time I trust you to do what you’re told, and you run off on us?! You’re dead, Brynth! DEAD, YOU HEAR?!”
“No, he can’t hear,” I mumbled under my breath, “That’s kind of the point.”
“Havoc. Ferrous. Crusher,” Ruin said, “The portal is ready. Hurry and do her final preparations.”
“Right,” Havoc said, jogging over. “Right...”
The two stumbled forward, Ferrous especially, still shivering from the blow to his chest. I knew exactly how things would go from here. After the woman was through, Havoc would continue to run around shouting at the heavens, only stopping occasionally to make sure Ferrous was okay. Then after he got all that out of his system, the pair of them would flank me on either side, and start taking digs at me for Brynth’s misbehavior. Most of them would be verbal digs, but if they pulled me far enough away from Ruin, then a lot of them would be physical digs too.
Best to cut that option off early. I strode closer to my Elder Brother, watching Havoc and the slightly woozy Ferrous as they vehemently cut slices into the woman’s fingers.
With soceity on the brink of collapse
Snap cleared his throat, and stood a little taller. His eyes locked with the ceiling, as his voice crept louder.
“If I may continue to clarify how this meeting will proceed,” he drawled. “Your Elders are here to shed some light on a particular, very pressing issue. We will make clear the few changes in policy already decided, and there will be a brief discussion about additional changes. The fourteen-year youngers may contribute to this discussion, but as I said earlier, there will be no vote, and if you continue to interject haphazardly, there will be no discussion either.”
Snap took a deep breath, and looked back behind him, to the corridor leading to storage, and the nursery. He turned back to us, and I saw, for just a moment, him and Ruin lock eyes.
My eyes watched Snap carefully fold his long, thick fingers into a little triangle, resting over his heart.
“As many of you are aware,” he declared, “We are facing a very severe food shortage.”
“Lunge still is not—“
“When this city was fully founded, and enclosed by Father’s great walls,” Snap continued, almost shouting, “Back then, it was estimated there were around twenty thousand prey of good size, perhaps thirty thousand when including vermin. Kinds often tested the night, and while our work was dangerous, the hunt was easy. Prey could be found on nearly every street we turned to.
“But now, with the grain records provided by the griffins, there may be little more than ten thousand left within these walls, with maybe half being those kinds one could hardly classify as morsels.
“This loss,” Snap said solemnly, “is no fault of ours.
“Only the oldest among you may remember The Hands of Hatred, a great plague ten years back. We were protected by our Father's strength, and the cleansing power of our cells. But the city above us was afforded no such protection, and hunts in those terrible months found dead and rotting littering the streets, and clogging the river. Many of you... No, all of you must be old enough to remember that flood six years ago. It has affected out kind, not as severely in lives, but in property. While it became easy to hunt our displaced prey, our homes and stores were washed away.”
There was a shuffling and nodding around the room, the eldest youngers mumbling among themselves. Ruin stayed quiet, still staring daggers into the back of Snap’s head.
“Due to these factors, our resources has become scarce. And those left in the city above have become cautious. Hunting has turned up less and less food, even though we have more hands than ever combing the streets.”
Snap took a deep breath, and his voice lightened. He didn’t sound somber any more. Only businesslike.
“For these reasons, your Elders have been discussing a number of changes to the policies surrounding rationing, and the hunt.”
What can just four teens do?
“Well Brynth?” I sighed heavily, “My sister is set on boiling her insides over this prank. This is the perfect time to laugh the whole situation off, is it not? You wouldn’t want the joke to go too far, would you?”
He frowned down at the golden gemstone in his open palm, quietly shifting the beads with his long fingers.
“Yeah. I guess I’d normally give up and laugh this all off,” he said, “Who cares if you believe me? I know what it is, and that’s all that matters. But…” He cupped the necklace in his hands, face solemn. “Say you had a ton of power, all of a sudden, right in the middle of your messed-up life. What would you do with it?”
“Well! Ah…” Thrown a little by the question, I just stammered, “I guess… I’d find a way for us to live comfortably? Maybe weave some product that’s hard to come by in this city…”
Wow. That was a pathetic answer, Melody. Live comfortably? Your dreams really have grown small these days.
I tried to move past the thought, saying, “That’s all hypothetical, though. I’m not certain exactly what I’d do.”
Brynth nodded vigorously, still staring down at his cupped hands. “Same here, Mel. I don’t know what to do. I gotta talk about this. I gotta sort this all out, and figure out what I want to do. You’re both smart. You both helped me out of some bad situations. So if you can’t believe me, can you at least help me out here too?”
To be continued...