| “That…” Xan pointed through fingerless gloves, |
across a barren wasteland. “…is the City.”
“The city is a bleak place.” Xan passed out rectangular medical masks as he spoke. “Only the richest go without these, but they’ll help disguise you as a side-benefit.”
Some of the humans on this jaunt were now becoming familiar faces. Compared to the small frames of the Willow and Gwydd, one guy they came to know as Kif seemed of gigantic proportions. Tall and rough, maybe not the coldest birch-beer in the pack, but he had a big heart and was loyal to the death.
Then there was the lean Nickel. When she wasn’t exercising, sharpening a blade, polishing boots or checking gear was just as well. “We’re going to show you guys how we get there, and mill the streets. Maybe you’ll see something we don’t.”
For the first time since fording the subterranean world of the humans, the group broke surface ground, hidden behind pikes of eroded rock. Nickel handed over a pair of binoculars to Gwydd, sensing a certain likeness of purpose between them.
“That…” Xan pointed through fingerless gloves, across a barren wasteland. “…is the City.”
Gwydd was already irritated with the medical mask. It felt so closed in with every breath that she took, but she centered herself, as much as she could, to calm. She was finding herself a kinship with some of these Humans.
Nickel seemed to be the Human version of herself. Kif reminded her of the silent Giants that once came to the old revelries of the Fae. They have long since been slumbering in the earth. Now was not the time for reminiscing, though. They broke to the surface, which caused Gwydd and Willow to gasp. It was beyond tragic.
They remembered when this now barren waste was Trees as far as any could see. Willow almost fell to her knees with tears running down her face. Gwydd stood there, feeling her heart cracking. With shaking hands, she accepted the binoculars from Nickel and looked through. The City seemed a horrific plague here. Smoke rose up and hung in such a thick cloud that it was difficult to tell how big the City actually was.
Willow moved to Xan, Kif taking her arm to make sure that she did without falling. "How can anyone live like this?"
Gwydd stepped aside from the group as Willow spoke to the Human leader. The pretty blonde found a patch of barren soil and knelt to touch the parched soil. Magick flowed from the hands of the Weaver, she was a creature of nature and if she could, she would help where she would.
Willow moved her hand, a minute speck of emerald was there. It wasn't much, but it was a start. She hoped that by the time they returned, the moss would have spread some. It wasn't probable, but she had hope. If Hadron could maintain the Greenhouse, she could manage a patch of moss out here.
Rejoining the group, Willow turned a questioning eye to the Pixie, "Shall we?"
Gwydd waved off the question staring over her companion’s shoulder. The Weaver was wrong. Willow looked back at her little thatch, withering before their eyes. Green drained into the bleak surface, bleeding out the color of life. Kif squeezed Willow’s shoulder sympathetically.
“Don’t worry little lady, they don’t call it the Deadzone for no reason.” he reassured her with a gentle manner that belied his strength. Reaching in his vest pocket, Kif offered sprigs of mint to the fae, tiny between his large fingers. “Chew these, put ‘em in yer mask. It’ll help with the smell.”
Willow took the mint gratefully. Slipping it into her mouth she closed her eyes allowing the familiar flavour to transport her for a moment back to her grove and reunite her with nature’s spirit. Squaring her shoulders she forced a smile to show she was ready. So much was at stake here, she could feel the barren earth calling for help, its tears seeding the grey sky above them.
|Scavenger rats dug up the choicest|
leftovers and picked the bones clean.
The uninitiated soon discovered why the humans called this stretch of cracked mud the Deadzone: it was littered with the slowly tanning flesh and upturned remains of countless dead. It wasn’t a body-dump, so much as a graveyard exposed through mass erosion. As the land dried up and recoiled like diseased gums from teeth, where once people lie in hallowed ground, the dirt sifted and blew away. Carrion birds were constantly embattled with scavenging rats to dig up the choicest leftovers and pick the bones clean.
What was left, lie in the sun creating a pallor of putrid rot that sunk back into the earth. Even below ground, where the group traveled in shallow tunnels, the stench settled in the dirt. Regardless of the mint, the odor was revolting.
“Little lady, you alright?” Kif touched Willow’s elbow. The fairy woman’s complexion nearly matched her pale hair.
Willow nodded, reaching out to steady herself. Her delicate hand touched the earthen wall with a static-electric shock of nausea that caused her to suddenly double over. She had barely clawed her mask off before a horrible retching seized her violently.
Xan paused and dug around in a thigh pocket on his cargo pants. “Give her this.” He passed back a honey-colored chew, that bore the sharp spice of ginger. “We’re almost there, just a little further.”
Willow shook her head. "I simply can't" She said weakly.
Xan sighed softly "It really isn't much farther, the smell will fade”.
“The smell?" She looked up at him her body trembling. Colour flashed in her cheeks, a stark contrast to her otherwise sickly pallor. "You really think it's just the smell? How can you not feel the…the death – the loose threads not just of human life but of this world? You walk through it as an obstacle to overcome, you pay no mind the shards of your own kind that lay around you. Have you ever paused to apologize to them, to acknowledge the souls that lay trapped within your hell?" She began to cry softly turning away from them all.
Despite her delicate frame, everyone in the party drew back as if Willow were suddenly a cobra, head raised and ready to strike. Kif was the first one to shake off surprise and slip his burly arm around the soul-wounded fae. Her sobs were absorbed in the crook of his elbow as he tried to console her.
“You should show her, Xan.” Nickel interjected, breaking the silence.
Xan cast his partner a glance and Kif half-shrugged and nodded.
“Show us what?” Gwydd asked, a surge of protectiveness for her fellow kin bristling up.
Holding up his forearm, Xan angled it toward the end of the hall and clicked a button. The solar light mounted on his bracer was just strong enough for the group to make out the alcove near the end of the catacomb.
Even Gwydd’s blood drained from her face. “What is that??”
“The Shrine.” Answered Xan simply. Nickel and Kif both lowered their eyes in silence. “We don’t know who originally built it but we give it a nod every time we go by, sometimes offerings. Its purpose seems clear enough.”Nickel’s mask suctioned against her face as she drew a tight breath. “We can’t bring back the dead, but they do live on in our memory.” Her expression hardened, steel eyes roving like the sharp edge of a blade, from weaver to pixie. “Let’s move. We want to break surface before the sun rises.”