In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.
The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.
Part 2: City of Light
The city of Vanrillion has been isolated since the Fall of Demira, its tunnels and halls delving ever deeper below the ground. The surface world is lost to them, and the once-great city is shrinking in on itself. Many within make a living of scavenging old technology and old magic. Sometimes they find things better left undisturbed.
“I don’t like the look of it,” Skye said. “It’s been shut too long.”
The door was encrusted with pearl moss, the globular structures that gave it its name gleaming wetly in the lantern light. Without the map they’d been following, it would have been impossible to tell there even was a door here. The corridor was dark apart from their lantern, even its emergency lighting long burned out. It was unpleasantly warm and humid, this far down into the city, and there were constant small noises in the dark, as creatures of the depths hurried away from the unexpected illumination that had entered their domain.
Linette reached out to touch the slimy coating. Skye winced, even though she knew the stuff was harmless. It was just so jelly-like and fibrous. She’d rather run her fingers through almost anything else.
“Not part of the last Retreat after all, then?” Linette said after a moment.
She began to dig her fingernails into the moss, pulling pieces of it away. Skye turned to inspect the rest of the tunnel, and told herself it was because she might find some clue there as to the door’s destination.
“Can’t have been. That stuff takes at least a century to get that thick.” Which probably meant Linette was committing some sort of ecological war crime by scraping it off the door, but Skye couldn’t pretend to be sorry. “The last Retreat was only thirty years ago.”
“So from one of the earlier ones then.”
“Maybe. But we’re higher up than you’d expect. They shouldn’t have been sealing anything off in this sector before the last Retreat.”
She looked back at the door. Linette had cleared away enough of the moss to reveal the handle. An old, rusty chain ran through it, anchored on either side of the door. Skye frowned, peered closer. There was something on the discoloured metal surface, markings…
Linette drew back from the door at once.
“What is it?”
“Something else I don’t like the look of.”
Much though she hated to do it, Skye stepped closer to the door. She could see the line of something, a place where paint or tape had once been. She reached for the small shovel that hung at her belt, then stopped, realising that she would scrape away the residue as easily as the moss. With a grimace, she prodded gingerly at the stuff with her free hand. Linette had created loose edges with her scratching. Skye was able to tug the slimy gunk away in long strips. It flopped coldly over her hand and she shuddered. But it was enough to confirm her suspicions. Especially when she went to where she knew the next part of the symbol should be, and pulled away the moss, and found the same traces there.
She snatched her hand back as if the door was hot, then grimaced at her own reaction.
“It’s a plague sector,” she said.
Linette recoiled half a step before she, too, controlled her reaction.
“It’s not on any of the maps.”
“It must be an old one. Maybe even from the First Epidemic.” Skye wiped her hand on her trousers, eyeing the door. Now her initial reaction had passed, she felt the beginnings of excitement stirring in her stomach. “Old enough that anything infectious will have long turned to dust. And there could be good things in there, if it was sealed off in a hurry.”
“They will have died badly,” Linette said quietly.
“You think we shouldn’t?”
Linette came back up to the door and laid her hand against it. She closed her eyes, even though it barely made any difference to her in this low light.
“No,” she said after a moment, “I think we should. Someone should. Who knows how long they’ve been in there?”
“Long enough that there won’t be anything left but bones,” Skye said, moving to inspect the chain that held the door in place.
“And ghosts,” Linette said. “Don’t forget the ghosts.”
Skye had never seen the stars, but she had some idea of what they looked like: bright points of light against a black backdrop. Her first impression when they shifted the last of the rubble blocking the passage was that she was looking at the night sky. She froze in instinctive terror, before rational thought caught up. They’d been digging on Level 184. There was no way they could have reached the surface, and even if they had, Skye knew that the stars had not been visible there for a long, long time.
“What is it?” Linette asked. “I can feel there’s open space…”
“A natural cave,” Skye said. “Wait here.”
She edged through the gap they’d created. The air in the cave was surprisingly cool and fresh for being so deep underground. There must be some distant egress to the surface, hopefully one far enough away that no storm taint could work its way down. Skye kept one hand on the rocky wall as she made her way to the nearest of the little lights that had so startled her. As its shape became clear to her, so too did the scale of the space they’d discovered.
“It’s huge,” she said. She bent to examine the small, cup-like growth on the wall, glowing a cold blue-white. “And it’s full of Heaven’s Tears.”
Linette made a startled sound.
“I thought they were rare–“
“They are.” Skye turned on the spot. “But they’re all over the walls here. Can you see?”
Linette clambered out into the cave, tilting her head up and then looking from side to side.
“No,” she said with audible disappointment. “Just a faint glow.”
Skye moved to her side, took her by the arm, and led her over to the wall. Linette bent close to the Tear, squinting to improve her limited vision.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “How many more are there?”
“Tens of thousands.”
“Oh.” Linette sighed. “I wish I could see them.”
“Yeah,” Skye said, sadness seizing her in a way she seldom permitted. “I wish you could too.”
The tiny cries were faint with distance, but too piercing to be ignored. Skye followed them to a debris-strewn dead-end corridor, and found herself looking down at three pairs of wide, terrified eyes. Behind her, Linette made a soft noise of her own.
“Looks like it.” Skye moved to let Linette kneel beside the little creatures, scanning the area for danger. She couldn’t miss the trail of blood that led from the kittens’ nest. There was a lot of it, and it had had time to dry out. “I doubt their mother is coming back.”
“Oh no.” Linette was scooping the kittens into her arms, despite the tiny hisses and wildly waving paws. “Shh, it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
One of the kittens responded to that by biting her finger, but Linette just winced and put up with it. The trio of kittens were an assortment of colours: one tabby, one black, and one black and white. Two of them had already given up the fight, either too scared or too weak from hunger to do anything but accept their fate. The third, the black and white one, was making a spirited attempt at defending its siblings, but it was so shaky on its small legs, it was having trouble keeping its balance against Linette’s chest.
“We’d better get them some milk,” Linette said.
Skye had been pretty sure that was coming from the moment she’d realised what was making the noise, and had already resigned herself to losing the argument, so it seemed easier just not to have it. Besides, it might be useful to have a cat around to deal with their ongoing rodent problem. She wasn’t sure about three cats, but it would be unthinkably cruel to take just one kitten and leave the others behind to die.
Linette rose carefully to her feet. Skye looked down at the kittens in her arms, then tentatively stroked the head of the black and white one. She got another tiny hiss for her efforts, but it seemed less certain, and she was almost sure she could hear the beginnings of a purr from one of the others.
“Maybe Kiera would like one,” she said. “Come on, let’s get going. We might be able to get some fresh goat’s milk in the market. Otherwise it’ll have to be powder.”
The riot started on Level 137. Skye didn’t know what set it off. Maybe the city guards pushing someone around. Maybe a food shortage. Maybe nothing at all. The tension had been simmering for weeks. If anything, she was just surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. The lockdowns didn’t come quick enough to stop it spreading to nearby levels, or to prevent the violence that inevitably followed, but the trouble didn’t get as far as 143, and although Skye kept her emergency bag in sight at all times, they didn’t have to abandon their rez and take to the tunnels. Not this time, at least.
Afterwards, there were the usual Directorate announcements about the arrests and executions. The usual threat, and the usual arrogance, a message that was always the same no matter how it was packaged this time. Don’t even try. Just do as you’re told. Everything would be fine if you’d just do as you’re told.
Skye thought it was probably easy to believe that if you lived in the Uppers, with their cooler air and their clean wide passageways and their luxuries. But it was a little too much to choke down when you knew the Depths the way she did, when you saw the people wilting from overwork and the desperation in their faces and the way the gangs took everything they could and only looked out for themselves. When you saw what happened to the people who did as they were told: used up, discarded, and left to rot.
“They had to get the Keepers in,” the bartender told her when she stopped by to check for messages from any of her contacts. “The General himself, I hear.”
Skye scowled. “Mezan? Really?”
“Yeah, so they’re saying. They’re saying the Directorate’s pissed that the city guard keeps letting this stuff happened. Maybe we’re going to be seeing more of the Keepers in the Depths for a while.”
“I fucking hope not,” Skye muttered. The bartender snorted agreement and poured her a drink. “How bad was it on 137?”
The bartender looked away.
“Bad,” she said. “Real bad. The numbers they’ve put out, the executions… three times as many people died, I hear. Taken down during the riot. No patience for arresting folks, the Keepers. They didn’t stand a chance.”
Skye grimaced into her drink.
“They keep pushing people like this, it’s going to get worse.”
“Worse than 137?”
“Yeah. Worse than we’ve ever seen.” Skye sighed and pushed herself off from the bar. “Thanks for the drink. Take care.”
The air vent was a good spot to hide. Although Kiera was getting too tall to be able to stand up inside the hollow space where a giant fan had once been, she could still sit comfortably in the curve of the grate. The splintered light that fell through the slats was enough to read by if she squinted, or to work on some talismans if she was careful, and remembered what Linette had taught her about working with touch alone.
Today she didn’t feel like doing any of those things. She was staring at a mote of dust in a beam of light and thinking about the fact that she was almost sure it was her birthday. The uncertainty was like a big, aching creature gripping her heart in its claws. Was she still thirteen, or had she turned fourteen already? Maybe it didn’t matter, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. You were born at seven o’clock in the evening, Mikhal used to tell her. I remember because I was supposed to be in bed already, but I couldn’t sleep, because I wanted to meet you. No matter what else happened on her birthday, and no matter how their parents tried to push them apart, he was always there at the right time. Even the year she’d been so upset she’d screamed she hated him. Even the year she’d been so afraid of the voices she’d almost forgotten how to talk. Even the year they’d been separated by half a continent, he’d promised, somehow he’d be there, and she had believed him. She still believed him. If he’d ever had the chance, he would have been there.
But by the time that birthday came, Kiera had been in Vanrillion for over a month, and it had been such a mess of terror, confusion, and madness that she’d had no sense of time, no idea what day or date or season it was. By the time she was able to think about such things again, she could only guess at how the months in this dark city corresponded to the ones she was familiar with. There were no seasons in Vanrillion. Even day and night were governed only by the changing colour of the lights. Kiera thought she’d figured it out. But she couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t ever be sure.
Voices from the other side of the grate startled her. She tensed, but she knew she couldn’t be seen from the corridor outside. Some of Barr’s gang? No, it wasn’t anyone she recognised. Their footsteps were loud in a way that made her uneasy. Booted feet, she thought, not the lighter sandals and moccasins worn by most citizens of the Depths. The city guard? But this was an empty sector, away from the patrol routes. The guard didn’t come here except in large numbers, and she could only hear two people…
“I’m not seeing anything.” The voice was waspish with frustration. “If you’re wrong again, Raith…”
“I’m not wrong.”
“We’ve been walking for hours,” snapped the first speaker. “I’m starting to think we’re going in circles.”
“That’s the point.” It sounded like Raith, whoever he was, was running out of patience. “We’re moving in circles as I close in on the reading. If you’d been paying attention, you’d see we’ve been going down a level with each pass.”
“I’ve been paying attention just fine,” replied his bad-tempered companion. Their voices were closer now; they must be right underneath her. “I’m sweating like a pig and there’s nothing but trash down here and I don’t get why you’re so damned determined we’ll find an Arc anywhere in these levels. They’ve been picked clean. I’d be surprised if we even find scrap metal.”
“We’re standing right next to scrap metal, Venash,” Raith snapped back. “You want to start taking that vent apart? Be my guest.”
Kiera shrank back, but Venash’s snort of disdain made it clear that the suggestion hadn’t been a serious one.
“You know what I meant.”
“There’s something down here,” Raith went on insistently. “I’m getting energy spikes every time I look at the readings for these levels. If it’s not an Arc, it’s something else we need to worry about.”
“Oh good,” muttered Venash.
Kiera’s heart was in her mouth. Keepers. They’re Keepers. And there’s an Arc somewhere in this sector? I have to tell Skye. If she can get to it before they do…
They were moving on already, Venash still complaining. Kiera listened until they were out of earshot, hoping for some more information, but all she caught was Raith saying it should only be one or two more levels. She’d have to move fast. All other concerns forgotten, she clambered into the air vent passage as fast as she could.
When the ball hit the far wall of the Keepers’ rec room for the fiftieth time, Venash snapped.
“For fuck’s sake, Garren, do that one more time and I’m jamming it down your throat!”
Garren smirked at him, tossing the ball threateningly in her hand.
“I’d like to see you try, pipsqueak.”
She threw the ball into its fifty-first impact against the far wall. Venash was on his feet in a second, tossing aside the report he’d been reading. Tal sighed.
“Fine.” Garren stuffed the ball into a pocket. Tal made a mental note to find it and confiscate it later. “We’ll all just sit here and sulk, shall we?”
Venash snarled and Tal finally gave up trying to concentrate on her book.
“Because getting into a fight would be better?” She fixed Garren with a pointed look, which she then transferred to Venash. “It won’t get us out of here any quicker, that’s for sure. Sir,” she added, still looking at Venash. Sometimes reminding him he was supposed to be their commanding officer helped.
He clenched his fists like he was going to start something regardless, but after a moment threw himself back into his chair with a muttered expletive and buried himself in his report again. Tal eyed him for a moment, then shot Garren a silent glare. Garren rolled her eyes. Tal allowed her frown to deepen. Garren finally looked the smallest bit sheepish, and glanced away.
“Stop it,” Venash snapped from behind the folder he was glowering at. “I can hear you looking at each other. It’s disgusting. Why don’t you get married already?”
“We’re not the marrying types,” Garren declared cheerfully. “Too many good looking ladies, too little time, right, Tal?”
Tal rolled her eyes and picked up her book again. It wasn’t hard to hide the jab of pain that went through her. She’d been doing it for so long now it almost felt normal.
“Like you discriminate based on looks,” was all she said, after a moment. “Or at all, for that matter.”
“Hey! I resent that!”
“The word you’re looking for is ‘resemble’.”
“Shut up, or I’m stealing your underwear and leaving it on level 32. Right by that really big rot vermin nest. They can use it for bedding.”
“Try it and you’ll find your shoes full of slime mold again.”
“Oh yeah? I–“
The door crashed open.
“Venash,” Mezan snapped. “Get your team ready to move out within the hour.”
He swept his glance over the rec room.
“Where is Raith?”
“He’ll be ready with the rest of us,” Venash replied, barely looking up from his report. “Anything else? You want a coffee while we’re up there?”
“Just be at the elevator shaft on time.”
Mezan paused as if waiting for Venash to get to his feet. Venash pointedly ignored him. Mezan scowled, turned on his heel, and left the room like a gathering storm. The second the door had shut behind him, Venash lost the dismissive attitude and leapt to his feet.
“I’ll get Raith, you get geared up, do not take more than thirty minutes, and I swear, Garren, if you bring that fucking ball with you I’m leaving you for the lizards.”
He was gone with a haste that could almost be called running to obey orders. Tal wondered, as she often did, just how thoroughly Mezan saw through the insubordinate attitude. She figured he had to have at least some inkling that it was largely for show, or he wouldn’t have been willing to promote a brat like Venash, let alone make him second-in-command.
“Who’s married to who again?” Garren muttered as they gathered their belongings and headed for the door.
Tal half-laughed, then grimaced. “Don’t say that where Raith might hear.”
Garren sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Come on, let’s go kill something.”
Skye wasn’t immediately concerned when the light went out. It happened sometimes; the spellwork on the lantern was old and frayed at the seams. She pulled a roll of matches from one of her belt pouches and struck on against the nearby wall.
She heard and felt it catch, smelled the puff of smoke, but not even a single spark broke the darkness that had fallen over them.
Linette’s hand closed on her arm, the tightness of her grip forcing Skye into immediate silence. The darkness was absolute, seeming to press against her eyes like solid rock. It was hard not to panic, even with all her experience of the deep tunnels. Linette moved her fingers in a quick succession of pressure points; Skye swallowed hard. It was a signal they seldom used, and one she dreaded more than any other.
She allowed Linette to lead her, slowly moving back the way they’d come. She thought she could hear something now. A faint sound like silk brushing over stone. She struggled to keep her breathing steady and quiet as she visualised the corridor ahead of them. It had to be close, to be able to snuff out the lantern, but it couldn’t be in the tunnel up ahead, or it would have seen them by now. Or… whatever it was that passed for sight, at least.
So it was in one of the two passages she’d seen leading from the intersection ahead, and it could come around the corner at any moment. She tried desperately to remember how far back the last turning was, even as she kept her footsteps slow and sliding, trusted Linette to navigate her around any obstacles that would make undue noise.
She could hear something else now. A faint rise and fall, like whispering voices too far away to be properly heard. Her skin crawled as her eyes strained uselessly against the darkness. What if it had come out from the intersection after all? What if it was toying with them? Could anyone really say for sure how a shadow dae behaved with its prey? Stories from survivors were few and based only on the sketchiest of impressions…
Linette’s finger’s tapped another signal. Left, five more paces.
It felt like five kilometres. Almost as soon as they were around the corner, Linette ducked down, guiding Skye silently after her into a small crawlspace or cubbyhole of some kind. It was clear that there was no other exit; Linette crouched still as soon as they were both inside, her breathing rapid but barely audible.
Skye brushed away the sweat trickling into her eyes. Slowly, carefully, she inched her sword out of its sheath. If it found them, their chances of survival were slim, even with the bright Sunbeam Arc she’d fitted into the sword’s hilt before they set out. But if it were a choice between going out fighting or otherwise…
They waited in silence. The silken sound continued, as if someone were gliding along the corridor wearing a long robe or heavy dress. The whispering grew louder, though it never crossed the threshold into true hearing. And finally, Skye heard something that was almost like breathing, except it was too ragged, each exhalation too long, the gaps between too wide, and its whole rhythm so inhumanly irregular it maddened the mind to try and follow it…
And then it passed them by. For a moment, just a moment, Skye wanted to leap out of their hiding place and attack it from behind. She’d heard that you stood a chance of killing them that way. But Linette’s hand tightened on her arm, no fingertip signal there, just a silent warning.
Skye sighed, and sheathed her sword. Not today, then. Today, they’d have to slink away like rodents, and leave the Depths in the grip of the shadows.