There was a trend Nick recalled back on Earth, one that he held close to heart: The Femme Fatale. The woman who will lead you to ruin. Throughout history, it was recorded it was always the touch, the contact of a woman that lead so many to destruction and despair. Rome was the most prominent example, with even their own play showing the desolation of the polis if ever under control of women. Of course, Nick never took this wholeheartedly. Only a fool would take history and its writings at face value, since it was written by those with their own agendas and... preferences.
However, one truth was linked through all of it: Women made men weaker. Whether it was because of their influence or their very presence, but men became softer, fragile. That does not mean they were kinder, though. They were more likely to go into fits of emotion, be more hostile to even the most egregious dissent, as if trying their best to please them, to get their attention –an evolutionary response to attract a mate, no doubt. Men were programmed for centuries, millennium, to destroy themselves around women, to deprecate and lower themselves and reveal their weaknesses so that, come what may, it could be used to take them down. So, it wasn’t the idea of women being the source of hate but men, themselves, and their failures of not realizing this fact.
That was what femme fatale always meant to him: a warning, to look at yourself and stay true to yourself no matter who may come. Never lose your resolve; never lose who you were all for the sake of a chemical response. It was how he survived in college, how he survived before then at home, in Accident. Back then, he had a full head of hair and a gaggle of women always nipping at him, wanting him, but She was never like that. She was his friend since... since the Incident, all those years ago. Everybody else might have distanced themselves after that, but she continued to show up, day after day, week after week, checking on him and making sure he was okay, even though she was a recluse even then. She wasn’t even outside when It happened; She didn’t witness what happened to Danny.
Nick remembered... despising her. How could she have the gall to show her face and rub it in every single Goddamn day, for weeks- months! He couldn’t even go to school because of her, though no one expected him nor Micheal to be able after That. Valerie suffered the worst of it, though, crucified en social mass, the one to truly take all the blame for what transpired. Micheal shouldered the burden for her, but, at such a young age, it ate away at him to the point that, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, he took their father’s father’s keepsake and kissed it tenderly before pulling its trigger. It was a shock to everyone at the time, but Nick already knew it was inevitable. He had no one; he was always lonely. He was never alone, but he never held anyone closer than a yard away to his heart... He was always smiling, too. He always smiled, sparkling in his eyes, the brightest, hottest light in every room... Still sparkling through the fog that closed on them when Nick found him that fateful day.
But this wasn’t about him. This was about Her, about how She came off as an attention-grabbing piece of shit, how She wanted to worm Her way into Nick’s life. After four months of it, Nick finally felt the first flicker of fury and hate he ever had and told Her off. He tore into Her, called Her for what She seemed to be, wanting nothing more than for Her to look at Herself, reflected in his words, in his disgust and hatred (as much as he could at nine years old), a reflection of what She was trying to be... but She didn’t break down because of it. She looked into that mirror, tears welling in Her eyes, but She didn’t crack. She didn’t look away.
Instead, She hugged him.
“I know I wasn’t there,” She said, sniffling, Her words still so fresh, so sincere, kept in his heart of hearts. “But you were.”
He didn’t remember exactly what happened after, but the next scene the memory continued on was his mom waking him up and having him say goodbye to Her as She went home. It was dark outside, the air heavy with the scent of charcoal and ozone. It was cloudy, but he could see the moon, on its third face, hanging on high up in the sky, shining upon Her as She trudged away. She looked back at Her door, the moon catching those soft green eyes, making them seem to sparkle before She slipped away.
The next day, he went to see Her... Nick delved into the mine, chasing after the current femme fatale that decided to try to hook him. In truth, this was the most brazen attempt. Usually they played coy and tried to work their way in slowly, like snakes, so this change of pace was rather refreshing. However, it will end the same as all the others. He would not be swayed from who he was, would not give in to the temptation of companionship and ending the gnawing anger that was loneliness. He would never be lonely, not as long as She was in his heart... but that’s not true anymore, was it? His heart no longer beat. It, like Her, was gone, leaving him this shell of a person, this facade of a human being in an alien world. Ever since he awoke, he didn’t have a single, positive emotion that wasn’t derived from pain and suffering and fear and, of course, hate. Even his liaisons, his affiliations, were born from despair, from dread and seeing what he was capable of. His very existence ever since awakening has been to be a dark core, to cause nothing but pain and suffering to all he came across... and he felt nothing for it. Nothing bad, at least.
He huffed, lost to a grunt as he swung into the rock. The mine was set up very much like the other two he was exposed to, with the only difference being there was no ladder down to it. Instead, it was a rather pleasant three-mile walk to the work site, lit by the underlords, as to be expected. There were still the paths that circled up, that spiraled down, webbing out into hallways and chasms that clanked away, echoing into a dull drone.
There was one other difference, though, and that there was a solid, flat level kept tidy on the “ground” floor. Soil was kept in that stone basin... as well as rooted to the “ceiling” above it, both of which were growing those cave carrots. He wondered how they managed to keep it up there, as well as water it, but, as the mushrooms pulsed, he saw a faint shimmer across the dirt, bulking out a bit, making him more curious about what the membrane actually was.
But those questions and curiosities would simply be thrust back into the far reaches of his mind, toiling away on the rock, yielding the same results as the other two towns. With every strike, with each layer that was crumbled away, his hope for this village and desire to stay fell along with it. His mind was returned to those simpler times, to those philosophies, to simpler times, and, with one more huff, he was brought back to the present, to this mine and rock cracking before him.
“What’s your problem?” Bren grumbled, grunting as she cleaned up the debris. She was originally going to have him do that, but had another fit of trying to lunge and hold him that she decided it was for the best. Who was he to argue?
“Thinking of the past.” He stated, cracking another layer as he did. It always amazed him how, though it was solid freakin’ rock, how the proper pressure can make it break like an eggshell. It required a bit more force to remove it, much akin to a badly done hard-boiled egg, but nothing that a few more strikes couldn’t handle. “Thinking back to my kin, and my soul tender.”
“That’s surprising. You don’t strike me as the type to care about your kin, let alone to have a soul tender.”
“And you didn’t seem likely to have a young one. Guess we’re... eve...”
His voice faded, looking at the broken stone. And what laid beyond. His strikes became almost fevered, striking hard enough to both rend the wall and the pick until both were clear of that ashen stone they were made from. And the brownish, orange-spotted, grayish rock was revealed to him. He dropped to his knees, touching it, and felt more than heard the laughter come, bubbling and frothing deep within that expelled into the cave and made it rumble with his jubilant epiphany.
At last. After so long. He found iron... Sadly, neither his present company nor those that rushed to check understood why he was so ecstatic or euphoric... And, after Nick calmed, neither did he. They found iron, sure, but did they know how to smelt it? Because he didn’t. He never learned anything about metalworking. He had no idea how to refine it from its crude form into bars or anything after that. All he understood was that it needed a lot of heat... and then he realized he missed a few ages between stone and iron.
“Have any of you heard of copper, perhaps,” he asked, his voice already so weak, distraught from his own leaps of logic. He was so focused on finding iron, of advancing, that he forgot the other steps that lead to the rise of iron. “Bronze?”
He knew from their reactions, or lack thereof, and his own experience that it was as pointless to ask as it was a dog. All this work, all this time, and for what? His goal just out of his reach, sitting right in front of him, because of a few missteps... He rose to his feet and lumbered out of the mine, leaving behind the shambled tool he had used and abused to get his way. It had suffered enough; it did its job marvelously.
But what was his? What was he doing here? Why was he here? How did he get here? Again and again and again; these questions were asked so much he wasn’t even sure they were questions anymore. In fact, they started to feel like accusations, condemning him for his very existence. It wasn’t his fault; he never asked to be brought here. He never asked to be born; these were weak excuses, but the only answers he had.
No. It was worse than that.
No life. No home. No friends. Nobody. No hopes, no dreams, no aspirations; no future... He had nothing. He didn’t even have a heart, and once more he was brought back to that song, the one that ushered in his end.
“‘So if I could I’d wish it all away’,” he recited, tears streaming down his face. “‘If I thought tomorrow would take you away’.”
His steps faltered, staggered, until he came to a stop halfway up the path from the mine. Nick leaned against the wall, but that wasn’t enough to hold him up. He sobbed, loudly, a disgusting display of his own weakness that washed the stone in tears and bile. He lost everything else, so what was his pride and dignity now? Let them go. Let it all go; now, more than ever, he wished that spear did kill him, that the fall finished what it and his heart four years ago started. But of course it wouldn’t be that easy; It, God, Fate, whatever It wished to be called wasn’t done making him suffer.
It turned out, this whole time, he was in Hell. This world, this place, these people; it all made too much sense. This world was explicitly created to torment him, from its ideologies to its society, and he was placed there to squirm like a worm on a hook about to be cast in. He could struggle to free himself, but where would he be then?
However, there was another way to look at it. Instead of being his hell, maybe it was his actual heaven. In this world, everything he knew was being shown to be wrong, that there was a better way to live life. There was no need for violence nor deceit. Everybody could get along and work towards a better, brighter future.
Both ways were asinine, and still did nothing to relieve him of his pain. It didn’t matter what they were. Nick was still trapped. He had no guidance, no aim, no goal. Everything that made him who he was back at home into the man he became... gone.
What was he to do now, though? He couldn’t exactly stay and wallow in self-pity for the rest of his days. Not because he wasn’t able to but because he doubted the inhabitants would exactly be thrilled with him clogging up their path. It would be such a nuisance to have to step over him all the time or, worse, go around him. If there was one thing Nick despised above all else it was being a burden, but what more could he do? Settle down? Accept his fate?
No. That was quitter talk. He never settled for “good enough” back on Earth, so why would he do so here? The iron was right there, as clear as the photos he remembered seeing in that geology class he accidentally took. There was a mix up in scheduling, and he didn’t have the time to go back and fix it. Besides, free credit towards another diploma if ever went back; who knew he would actually get practical use out of hindsight.
Think, Nick, you dumbass. Think! What else were you taught in that class specifically about iron?
It was during his freshman year, 8AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He, also, had four other classes lined up pretty right after each day, then a break for lunch, then another four before he went home, took a nap, studied, then went to work as a night guard. In other words, he had plenty of time study even more and write his papers, but that was not important. None of that was, aside what he could extract from his time in that class –which he remembered that iron, on its own, is very soft. It is kept in other rock and, once exposed to the air, rusts fast. But it was being exposed that was the problem child; how did one expose it? How did one free the r-
“Nick?” Bren said, touching his shoulder.
“Not right now,” he grumbled, trying to get his mind back on track- but she wouldn’t allow it. She kept insisting, demanding him to speak, to stand up, going so far as pulling him. At last he rose of his own volition, and rounded on her, bearing down on her. “Didn’t you hear me? Leave me alone!”
It’s been awhile since he heard his voice thunder. It was even longer since he felt that angry. Not even during his final day did he feel that much rage and vitriol, nor felt the intent behind it. Though he was hot, the air around had gotten cold, cool enough to see his breath. It was as if the very notion of what his voice desired, above all else, slaughtered the air holding it, leaving it a desolate, frigid corpse that was sent adrift through the caverns. But it wasn’t the murderous intent that sent a chill down his spine but the truth behind it. He wanted nothing more than to be left alone... and he got his wish.
He looked at Bren, watched as she recoiled from the force of his words... shook from the hate and despair behind them. The woman who plunged a spear into his chest, yet she looked closer to death than he ever did. Her skin blanched white, her lips blue, quaking as she fought to stay upright. It seemed all it would take was one strong wind to crumple her, but she still stood, determined.
“What was that stone?” She finally said, voice crackling, fighting to stay even. “Why were you so happy to see it... and why now are you upset because of it?”
“It’s... hard to explain.”
“Then explain. Tell us why such a stone would make someone like you so renashu.”
“It... It doesn’t matter. I don’t know how to work it and none of you even have experience with copper, tin, or bronze. It was... a fool’s hope.”
She growled... and punched him. Square in the jaw.
“Doshu nost! Tra gala!” She screamed, punching him again. This one was a lot softer, landed easier, as did the third and fourth. “Of all people, I never thought you one to give up so easily!”
“You don’t even really know me. I’ve only been here... three days? I think?”
“Long enough to see how driven you are when in pursuit of something. Look at what you did to my sorrel, of what you put dex through.”
“I mean, if you want to count that as a good thing. You, of all people.”
“I’m not going to lerus. I was livid when I heard what you did to dex, the state you left dex in, but dex swore by you. dex said you made sure sty was never in any danger nor pain during. If you were a monster like the dregsao, you wouldn’t have bothered to make sure dex was comfortable. You would have simply killed dex after.”
“I mean, let’s not rule that one out-”
“You didn’t. In fact, you helped dex after. You could have left dex in that state, left dex to die, but you didn’t! No matter the reason, you didn’t leave dex... You didn’t leave us.” The way she said it, Nick could tell that part wasn’t for st- him! HIM! She took a deep breath, clutching her chest with her left hand while her right was still on HIS shoulder. “Have faith in us, Nick. Let us know what you intended to do, and we will find a way to make it work.”
He sighed, as well, shaking his head as he ran a hand along the top of his head.
“Back on Earth, there was a material that could be adapted to just about everything. Weapons, tools, transportation, luxuries; it could be modeled and crafted into just about anything. We called it ‘metal’, which the most common kind is iron. Which is found in that rock below... The problem is that’s all I know. I don’t know how to refine it. I don’t know how to get it out or mold it... All I know is, if we can, it’ll give whoever does a significant advantage over the others of this world. To the point the others would have to listen and obey their will.”
“I only caught a bit of that, and even in that I find it... why would it hold such power? Is mietle really that strong? We’ve been throwing that rock away. It was crude and crumpled easily.”
“In its base form, yeah. It might not be as strong as steel or others that come after, but it’s a building block. Much like copper, tin, and bronze... We at least have iron.”
“And you are certain that is ear ron below?”
“I would bet my li- my word on it.”
She stared into his eyes, neither blinking for what felt like hours, even as others approached. They mumbled, noted the bile puddle behind Nick, moved to clean it while not bumping into the two, until, at last, she nodded.
“Very well. We shall start mining it. We can figure out what to do from there.” She looked away, to the gathering, and explained what Nick (mostly) said, focusing heavily on the final statement. “At last, those weak mound-dwellers will have to consider change. They will learn to fight, and then we can take the fight to the dregsao!”
This was met with thunderous cheer, thundering louder than his voice and returning the heat back to those halls. Their feet quaked the very bedrock as they turned and rushed back to the iron vein, picks cracking away for the rest of the day. For Nick, though, he couldn’t find the strength. He was completely sapped that day. Instead, he and Bren headed out to the village, to the kitchen and stands and simply walked, enjoying the sunshine as long as they could.
The white sun slipped away, leaving the red sun to warm the final hours, and that’s when they finally stopped. They were at the edge of the village, just before the rise, looking down upon the shimmering lake and membrane. Miners were coming out, four at a time, heaving heavy wagons full of iron. He could hear the others, the farmers and fishers and cooks, asking what it was, and them excitedly answering, voices so loud, so... alive, with such fire.
“Fvros Ballign,” Bren said.
“You asked who my soul tender was this morning... Though that felt like a yarro ago, Fvros’s absence has felt like a lifetime. dex never even saw dex sorrel.” She turned her back to him, and this was the first time he ever paid attention to it. Or any of them, in truth. However, he doubted they had the same dark red gnash almost centered between her shoulder blades. It was so jagged, so uneven from the rest that the rocky scales that tried to regrow were splintered and jagged. It looked like a small, red lotus growing on her back, but he bet it was as prickly as a thorn to touch or lay on... Or stretch. “dex was always a veronstrog, a thinker. dex ideas were... out there. dex thought the best way to end our gostnah with the dregsao would be to befriend them, to learn their ways. Sometimes dex would sneak out, just before the dawn. I never learned why, but it was always followed by a dregsao sighting... During a raish, we were preparing to fight. I had my bow, aimed, ready to take down the first to scale down the mountain... That’s when dex did this.”
“Your own soul tender stabbed you in the back? That’s... deliciously ironic.”
“Because of dex, I can never use a bow again, but, worse than that, I was alone. Forever... My sorrel is all I have left, but, some days, I want nothing more than to jugros dex... I want to kill my own sorrel because dex reminds me so much of the one who left me to this fate.” She gulped, turned back around, and her eyes were alight again. “But it was you who shamed me the most. You arrive, tell me this frensifai drivel about a faraway land and how you don’t need sleep- and then, when I decide to try to kill you, it turns out you can’t die. You force me to my knees, treat me as a dispon, and then keep me around as a reminder of my failings.”
Her breathing had gotten raspy during, her body shaking, fighting to get close to him. Her hand gripped his shoulder hard, those three dagger-like tips wavering between the line of digging right in and just grazing it, reminding him of a razor just before it was run across.
“I brugsaik you!” She declared at last, gulping and panting hard. “I want nothing more than to rip you apart... yet... I want you. These feelings, this emotion... I haven’t felt this way since Fvros... I want you to go away, be far away... but I also never want to let you go.” She looked down to her feet, and finally let his shoulder go, hugging herself. “What sartamel have you done to me? What power is this? Is this a part of that ‘Dark Pact’ you mentioned?”
“I can’t say it is, but, hey, we can talk about this more later. It’s almost night and you haven’t ate.”
She blinked, and looked up at the sky.
“So it is... I’ll head back before you.”
She scoffed... but found it hard to leave. She hugged herself to the point of wheezing, coughing and gasping for breath as she passed, her legs fighting every step, wanting to turn back. Nick simply watched after, shaking his head at arguably the most crazy woman he had ever met- no. Not the most crazy. Crazy, itself, was the wrong word. She was broken, damaged irreparably by the one she loved and trusted most. They literally stabbed her in the back, and left her high and dry in a society that condemned her for what she is because of his choices.
He might not appreciate the... affection she desires from him, but he at least has her re-