One moon and two tens since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
They were snowed in. It was still freezing and to make matters worse a huge snowstorm had started the night Anna and Andrew reached their sanctuary. It had lasted for three days now. Most of the wood and refuse in the room they were staying in had been used up as fuel for the fire. Anna was slowly bringing in stuff from the other rooms.
Andrew tried to help, but was still weak enough that all he could do, was sit around and keep the fire going. His right arm was not entirely useless. As long as Andrew did not move his shoulder too much the pain was bearable. Anna had burned the wounds shut. She had used the flat side of a dagger she had been carrying with her. He had found out the following day as Andrew had been unconscious through the entire ordeal.
He was not sure if that had been a good idea or not. He would not bleed to death. Or would he? There was a lot Andrew wished he knew right now, about internal bleeding and such. It should have been all right. The bone spikes did not hit anything important. The shoulder should heal without too much trouble.
However, the wounds had been deeper than he thought. The spikes had small and narrow tips, almost twice the length of the bit that had not penetrated his skin. They reminded Andrew of syringes. And this lack of energy did not feel right. It was only three small holes, how had these affected him so? During the entire fight with the monstrosity, he had not suffered any other injuries, no broken bones, nothing. But an inexplicably strong fever had risen out of nowhere and his entire body was weak and tired.
At least they had fresh food once again. Anna had found the same chicken-like creatures that had lived in the gateway village. A small flock of them was hibernating somewhere deep inside the castle and there had to be others around the city. It had been a simple enough job of grabbing one and twisting its neck. The process of cleaning and gutting it was as gruesome as always. Except for the morning after, all this time, the two of them had been quiet. Andrew was feeling guilty, being injured, having someone take care of him. He did not like it.
Andrew tried exploring the castle, but was told to sit down and rest. He did feel nauseous and weak every time he stood up. But he felt just as bad constantly resting. Most of all, he felt restless. The blizzard kept them trapped. Although every time he reached out, he could feel the others still where they had been the day before. This offered little assurance about their situation because once again there were no signs of the horrors that pursued them. Resting, keeping the fire going and watching the snow pile up in the broken windows.
“Stop doing that.” Anna’s irritated voice broke silence and startled Andrew.
“Doing what?” He stammered.
“You keep sighing, it’s getting on my nerves.”
“I’m sorry.” Andrew looked away.
“And stop acting like that. Don’t turn away like a punished dog every time I say something or twitch when I make a sudden move!” What was he supposed to say to that? “Are you possessed? When we were on the river, there were times when you were like a normal person. Confident and ready to take action. Now you cover and hide behind a wall of apologies and silence again.”
Andrew stared into the fire. “You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, so what? I am not angry with you. This is ridiculous.” Andrew saw her expression change. As if she had realised something. “What I said after the fight, it wasn’t for you. Okay? I was shaken. And what Lenna said the day before.” She sighed. “It didn’t help. That is it. No one holds you responsible. There is no one that can be responsible for this situation. Everyone was tired. Tired of asking questions with no answers, tired of running, of the wilderness.”
“I hate being sick.” He retorted.
Anna simply nodded in response.
Andrew hesitated for a moment before carrying on. “I had this dream. About what happened to us, me before I woke up on that hill.”
“We all had the dream of darkness. Becca talked about hers in detail.” Anna clearly was not interested in the topic, but Andrew did not let it deter him.
“Only it was not really a dream. I kind of remembered what had happened, but it happened at the same time as I remembered that it had happened.” Anna stared at him for a few moments then stepped closer and put her hand on Andrew’s forehead. “I know damn it.” Andrew swore. The cool hand felt nice against his searing warm skin.
“Your fever is up.”
“I know. It doesn’t matter. I am not delirious. No, seriously. I mean it.” Andrew said as Anna looked concerned suddenly. “All I’m saying is that maybe Sten was on to something. Maybe I don’t remember all of it.” Andrew had an idea. “Tell me what you remember before waking up.”
“Nothing.” Anna sighed. “I was doing random things at home or at work. I can barely remember anything. There is this haze over everything. It feels like a hundred years ago now.”
“No. Tell me about the darkness. Was there anything else?”
She shrugged and shook her head.
“Nothing? Nothing at all? But you do remember the flow? As if a river was flowing around you or wind blowing right through you. What Becca talked about.”
Anna kept shaking her head.
“I remember nothing like that. I only remember the dripping darkness, a feeling of emptiness and then waking up.”
“There was a flow.” Andrew did not give up. “It ran through you and around you. It felt like an eternity. But I fell out. Like those moments when you feel like you fell back inside yourself when you are about to fall asleep.”
“But this was all a dream. Right?” Anna ventured.
“Was it? The more I think about it the more I doubt it. It might have happened.”
Anna shook her head and rubbed her eyes. “What happened then?”
“There were people all around me, all of them in tunnels of silk. But everything was dark. And the people were chained together. There were countless flows and chains and all of them headed to a... something in the middle of this all. I don’t know. Like a black sun. It was a sphere, but made of countless cubes. Then the sun shone, and it got really bright all of a sudden. It blinded me with dark light so I raised my hand in front of my face.” Andrew hesitated again. “I think.” He added after a moment as he stared into the fire.
“You think. What?” Anna looked weary.
“I don’t. I cannot remember. I am not sure. I mean.” Andrew buried his face in his hands. “Did I raise my hand towards the sphere and it started to shine or did I shield my eyes because it shone?”
“A dream then. If you can’t remember for sure, then it might have been a vivid dream.”
“When I remember a lucid dream, I don’t remember myself. I do not remember moving my hands or how my body felt at the time. It’s the idea of how it was supposed to be like. But when I remember something that happened there is that feeling of muscles flexing, your skin drawing taut or the surface you were standing on. In a dream, I do not remember those things. I remember standing on a solid surface, I remember my shoulder doing that little crunch it sometimes does. It was too vivid for a dream.” Anna giggled. “What?”
“Too much. I think it might have been a dream.”
“Then why did I remember that part as we first ran from those things?”
“I don’t know. People tend to think about weird things when they are under pressure.”
“But this.” Andrew raised his left arm. “This damned vine that has been growing on my arm? What we can suddenly do? A dream is too much?”
Anna sighed. “Every day here feels like a dream. It was not all that bad at first. There were no daily problems, no stupid co-workers, and no pestering neighbours. Once we got a fire going, it was warm enough and the fresh air, the stars in the night sky, it all made for an interesting experience. Food is a pain in the neck this time of the year, but I found a strange peace here.”
“It was nice to run away from it all.” Andrew ventured.
Andrew did not want to give up so easily. “But what about what Becca said, about not letting it out?”
“She is barely thirteen. She is a frightened child.”
“She has no idea what she is speaking of.”
“Exactly.” Anna nodded in earnest.
“I did not want to hear that answer.”
“There might be no answers. Maybe we ended up here just because. It would help a lot though.” Anna sighed and stared into the fire.
“Life happened, and we fell into another universe. Don’t let it get you down, other people have had it much worse. It’s life, deal with it.” Anna laughed at Andrew’s words.
“Did you have someone?” Anna suddenly continued their conversation.
“What?” Andrew was confused.
“I mean, who was left behind?”
“My family? Nothing much to say there, dad liked to drink one bottle too much sometimes, mum worked too much. I had one grandma left.”
“A girl?” Anna ventured.
Andrew snorted a laugh. “Yeah. I did.” All was quiet for a moment as Andrew considered the uncomfortable feelings about the past. It felt wrong to think about the past. It did not exist anymore in his mind. The shock of the first days and weeks in this world had wiped many feelings clean. “What about you?” Andrew asked in turn.
“About me what?”
“Your family? Did you have someone?”
“A family like any other I suppose. And a someone. Sure, a someone. Let’s go with that.” Andrew raised his eyebrow. She saw that and added. “It was complicated.”
Andrew chuckled. “Still, you were lucky, you have friends here.”
“Yeah, I guess. It helps to have Lenna around. But Robert is a massive idiot I sort of knew.” Andrew stood up and added wood into the fire.
“What about Sten?” Andrew had a thought all of a sudden.
“What about him?” Anna sounded alert suddenly. “I mean, he was with Eric and Sarah and the lot. I don’t really know him.”
“You came here before me, I was thinking if you maybe know him a little better?”
Andrew knelt down next to his backpack and pulled out the extra map. He rummaged through his pockets for the compass. “He gave me these one day, like that. And told me to keep them safe. Why?”
Anna slowly shook her head. “I thought there were only two sets of maps and compasses. Sarah has one and Sten and Eric share one.”
“So did I, but then out of the blue I got these, from Sten.”
“I don’t know anything. Lenna told me how Sarah and Jess had trouble with him or something. You would have to ask them.”
Andrew cast a look out of the window. “Damn it. Would this blizzard end already?”
“Speaking of them. How are the others?”
Andrew stared with a blank face for a moment, then realised. He sat down and closed his eyes.
Despite the blizzard a multitude of small embers were all around them. The number of them had increased. Did he have better control over how small a being he could sense? And a new question had risen. If all the animals held a spark similar to what ran through the group, then did the animals have some sort of power coursing through them as well?
But where were the others? He knew exactly where they had been. He had checked on them only this morning, yet now there was no sign of them, nothing human except for himself and Anna. Did they move? No. The others should not have been so far that they would have wandered out of Andrew’s range. At least he hoped that was the case. Unless there was a river. This was bad. He opened his eyes. “I can’t find them!”
They braved the blizzard. Andrew and Anna did not have much choice. After two sleepless nights in the boughs of ancient trees, they were now approaching another city as the blizzard was giving way. This city was much larger than the first one. Trees were sparse and young here, the forest, for the first time, had disappeared.
All around the area were large impact craters. Andrew and Anna had to navigate through a maze of uneven terrain. A shallower path of snow headed straight for the gate. It was closed. Damaged and bent in places, but the gate still stood where it was supposed to. At first glance, there was no obvious way in.
Andrew and Anna stopped at a small grove near the gate. Andrew knelt down and he could feel Anna’s concerned gaze on him.
“I’m fine.” He felt like death, but considering the situation, he had held up much better than he had thought he would. His arm was in a sling so he would not move his shoulder too much. The wounds were constantly throbbing with pain. There was no sign of them being infected. The fever and minor inflammation were the worst of the consequences for now.
“How do we get in?” Anna had squatted next to him and held her arm on his shoulder.
“In? I mean, maybe they were around here, maybe they didn’t go inside the city.” It did not seem a good idea to rush forward without being sure where the others had gone.
“Can’t you tell? And shouldn’t we find a place for the night?”
“I know where they were.” Andrew started angrily but halted.
He knew exactly where they had been. Anna had taken her arm off of his shoulder and was visibly offended. “I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and started looking around. No, this was wrong. He would not find them like this. He did not need to see what was here, but what had once been. Andrew opened his eyes and let his gaze wander all over the city wall. There was a pile of yarn all over the place. Small bits and pieces of different kinds of string littered the place. Woven into a huge mess that was impossible to untangle. Nevertheless, they were there too, bits of Eric and Jess and Becca and the others.
Andrew was not looking at the wall anymore. His vision had blurred and faint lights danced in front of his eyes. As soon as he realised that, he lost concentration. The pile of yarn still obvious in his mind, but a massive mess. A sudden flash of pain ran through his head and left arm.
“They were here.” He mumbled. He tried to concentrate once more on the small bits of Eric that he had found but the pain in his nape was unbearable. He tried to massage the back of his head. “They were right here. And they found a way inside, the entrance shouldn’t be too far from here.”
“Do you need to rest?” Anna was visibly shivering.
“No.” Andrew was surprised at his own answer. “I’m a little better. Somehow.” His face broke into a crooked smile.
“Good. I do not want to push you too hard, but I am cold as ice. Can we move, so we do not freeze to death here? At least the blizzard is stopping.”
“Let’s start by the gate. There was a piece of Eric there.” Despite his confidence, Andrew needed a moment to get going. As he stood up a wave of nausea and weakness ran through him.
The gate was huge. Far larger than what Andrew had seen back home. There was no way that thing could open. There had to be a smaller gate inside it and the rest was decoration. Then again. Andrew thought back on the tunnels and the vast scale of construction that had been used there. Two massive doors stood in their way. Someone had carved ornate decorations and pictures deep into the odd metal. Here and there, bits of pigment were still visible on the vaguely green surface that was not covered by the snow or dented.
The closer they got to the gate the more Andrew was awestruck by the scale of it. He even forgot the pain in his shoulder for a moment and made his arm twitch. Burning pain made him curse out loud and without holding back.
“Seriously.” Anna had stopped and turned around, looking at Andrew disapprovingly.
“I forgot. Damn it.” He noticed Anna had her arms around her and she was treading ground where she stood. “You okay?”
“It’s cold. It’s really cold right now. How are you not cold right now? It is seriously fucking cold.”
“It sometimes gets colder after the snowfall stops. It’s warmer when snow falls.”
She rolled her eyes. “How are you not cold?”
“I am cold. My toes hurt and my ears feel like they are about to fall off.”
“Why am I shivering this much? Is there something coming? Last time I felt this antsy was up in that fort when those things attacked us.”
Andrew closed his eyes and quickly searched the area. Nothing but animals and tiny, hidden sparks. Far to the east, he could still feel the murky and vague edge of oil but nothing else caught his attention. He felt dizzy and opened his eyes. The sudden change in bearing made Andrew stumble towards the gate a few steps.
A thundering groan shattered the silence and rocked the ground where Anna and Andrew stood. He barely heard Anna scream before he fell on all fours. He quickly forgot the pain and swearing as Andrew stumbled to his feet and stared in awe at the massive gates opening by themselves. The groaning and rumbling lasted for what felt like an eternity. When the gates were finally open, the air was filled with the sounds of birds nearby taking flight. All sounds after that were that much louder.
Andrew caught Anna looking at him out of the corner of his eye. “Should we enter?”
Andrew felt his world slip for a moment, the pile of yarn slowly untangling. There were no bits of Eric or anyone on the other side of this gate. Further inside the city, but not here. The others did not enter from here.
Andrew hesitated, but before he could say anything an unmistakable shriek and a cacophony of howling sounded from the distance. It was impossible to tell where or how far they were. Terror made Andrew’s legs move instantly. “I hope we are safer in there.” Andrew mumbled. Anna did not wait, but quickly followed him.
As they passed through the gate, it closed as suddenly as it had opened. Rumbling and shaking filled the world. They had to jog a little to not be caught between the giant metal gates. Silence filled the world all too quickly. Andrew and Anna were walking down a wide street into the city. Slowly Andrew noticed something horribly out of place. Despite the piles of snow, this city was untouched. No overgrown trees or remains of vines, no houses torn asunder, no craters in the streets. The city was surrounded by destruction, how had it not reached here?
“Wait.” Anna had left Andrew behind a little.
“What? You okay?”
“The buildings.” Andrew approached a two-storey brick house with a small shelter outside. He tried the door. It was locked tight. He spun around looking at the gates. He was almost expecting to see someone standing there.
“This place is a mess.” Andrew turned around to see Anna peeking in one of the windows.
“A mess?” The comment made no sense to him.
“Yeah. I can see the dust covering everything from outside here.” Andrew stared at her for a few moments. “I am sorry. I hoped that. Just a joke. Never mind.” She sighed and her crooked smile faded. “No one has been in there for a long time. But everything is in such good shape.”
“Everything is untouched.” Andrew squatted and wiped snow away to reveal the street. Neat stone slabs and cobblestone lay under the layers of snow, no grass or moss grew in between them.
“Look at this.” Anna had found a small cart, with lavish carvings and decorations, hidden under a pile of snow. Andrew stepped closer to examine it. The wood was smooth and what little metal was used to build it was untouched by rust. Only the paint had faded.
“Think we should take it along?” Andrew ventured but Anna only shook her head.
Andrew turned to look at the gates once more. Looking closer, he realised what was missing. There were no winches or gatehouses to operate the gate. Two massive doors were hinged to the city wall and huge piles snow had formed where the gates had stopped.
“There has to be someone here. The others?” Anna asked.
“There was no one. Only small embers. There was nothing human here.”
“Maybe you missed it! You are wounded.”
Andrew sighed. “I can reach out fine, the pain is bearable. I am tired, but I can manage.”
“Then, can you try again? Please. I am shivering like never before. Maybe there is something here, not human, but something else.”
“But you can’t even... You’re not...” There was a thought in Andrew’s mind but he was not sure how to say it out loud.
“Can’t do what? I know I do not have magical powers like you!”
“Yeah. So what makes you think because you’re a little cold, that something is wrong here?”
“It’s my gut, okay! Only a feeling. Just because I can’t do what you can, does not mean I am dead wrong about everything in this world! Or that you and Becca know what is right or happening all the time.”
That struck a nerve. He knew what was happening. It was there, all around them. The truth of what had happened. He could not grasp the hidden knowledge as easily as Becca did but he had found a way closer to the truth. That was it. He stared at Anna with anger in his eyes. Reluctantly Andrew leaned his back on the wall of the building and closed his eyes. He was tired of having to play human-radar constantly.
Once again, little embers, animals. Nothing human besides the two of them. There was a whole pack of something weak not too far from them. Andrew felt himself slipping to the side and opened his eyes. For some reason, the thought of bones had come to his mind.
“Nothing. And before you start, yes, I am sure.”
“I said nothing!”
“Good.” Andrew gathered himself for a moment, then followed Anna who had slowly made her way further down the street.
The buildings were all made of stone bricks and lavishly carved wooden struts and pillars. Some had balconies or small shelters next to them. All of them were once painted. You could make out small patches where the paint had not fully faded. It all looked familiar. But it did not bring any memories or a joyous reminder of their old world. The houses were strict, minimal. Andrew was not sure how to call that style. There were no rounded edges or domes. The carvings and wooden parts were intricate, but had a practical purpose in the structure of the house. There were no decorations added for the sake of decorating.
“There are signs.” Anna called. She had stopped and was pointing to a way sign at a corner. There were faint letters on them. “Is that? What language is this?”
“I can’t tell at all.”
“It does not look like the alphabet.”
Andrew and Anna tried to decipher the unknown letters a little before giving up and wandering deeper into the city. This place was huge. They had passed by several plazas, parks and marketplaces. Everywhere they encountered hastily constructed barricades and makeshift garrisons. Near the barricades were several racks full of spears, bows, shields. If you were looking for any ancient weaponry, it was probably all in there.
Looking closer at what once had most likely been a shop, Andrew had noticed a few cogs and springs among other odd merchandise, but they all looked rough in shape. The deeper they ventured into the city, the shakier Anna got. Andrew did not dare say anything. He kept thinking about the howling before they had entered the city. If the entire place was this well preserved then maybe those things did not have a way in? But Eric and the others must have found a way.
A loud crash came from ahead. Anna had wandered off on her own, leaving Andrew behind again. She had hit a door out of frustration. “Let us in damn it! I am freezing!”
“Are all of them locked?” Andrew asked incredulously.
“Yes! All of them. Every door I’ve tried is locked tight. The handles do not move at all and the doors are rock solid. And how in hell is this locked? There is no place to put the key in.”
“Maybe they don’t need keys?” Andrew ventured.
Anna stared at him as if she wanted to hurt him. “Stop admiring every weapon deposit you find and let’s get going. We need shelter for the night, even if the others are gone.”
“I am thinking. We might need some better weapons. In case. Maybe a shield for you.”
Anna ignored what he had said and carried on.
They crossed a series of canals and a river. Anna kept attacking doors they came across. Up ahead a larger clearing was in sight once again. Light snow was still falling, making it difficult to see what exactly was further down the street. For a moment, Andrew thought he saw human figures up ahead, but he brushed the thought aside. It was probably the snow adding to his hallucinations again.
“Come on, damn it!” Anna kicked a door and then slammed against it with her shoulder. She slipped and fell when a little snow fell off the rafters onto her.
“We could try the windows.” Andrew pulled a sword from a nearby rack and aimed at a window with the hilt. A dull clink. He tried again, with more force but to no effect. This time a series of frantic swings with the blade hit the window. “Are you kidding me?” He stared at the window. The sword had caused no damage at all, not even to the wood. Behind him, he could hear Anna brushing snow off herself. Without warning, she let out a sharp gasp.
“What?” Andrew turned around.
She was pointing down the street towards the clearing ahead. “I thought I saw someone.”
“It’s the snow.” Andrew turned his attention to the window. Maybe if he tried to pry the window open with the sharp edge of the sword?
“No. It is not. There is someone there.” She said slowly. Andrew looked over and saw she was now moving towards the clearing. “There is definitely someone there!” She broke into a jog. Andrew threw the sword away. She was now running and Andrew had his hands full trying to jog after her without causing excruciating pain with every step. There was no one in this city damn it. He swore under his breath. This had to be the snow or pain induced hallucinations. He was seeing the people too. Many people. Too many people. Andrew finally caught up with Anna at the edge of an enormous plaza. In the background, there were multiple towers and spires. A grand castle lie beyond this plaza and park.
Humans! An entire crowd had gathered onto the massive plaza. Maybe thousands of people standing there, staring at something in the middle of this all. Some held their hands as if praying, others had opened their arms wide, as if trying to embrace the air. Not even one of them was moving or showing any signs of life. Yet there they stood. The only sounds that could be heard were Anna and Andrew’s heavy breaths.
The snow had stopped. No, that was not right, the snow did not reach the ground where the people stood. It vanished before it even reached the people. Someone had drawn odd circles, squares and lines on the ground underneath the group of people. Why had Andrew not sensed this? He closed his eyes.
There were countless embers before him. So small and frail. He remembered now, he had sensed these before, at the gates. But he had dismissed them as animals. There was barely any substance to them. The number of embers did not match the number of people here, but now, he could see a pattern and in the middle of it the faintest presence of them all. He reached out to it. It vanished without a trace once he reached it. Where had it gone?
Suddenly his inner world exploded with colour. Andrew felt as if he was falling through something. The hollow feeling in his stomach forced him to open his eyes. It took him a moment to understand what exactly was going on. He was on all fours again and his eyes kept darting all around the place. He saw Anna approaching the edge where the snow disappeared.
Do not let her cross that boundary! Andrew bolted from the spot and caught Anna at the last moment. She looked at him and then she looked at his arm. Andrew’s attention was drawn to it as well. His right arm. There was no pain at all. He had torn it out of its sling, the piece of cloth now hanging limp in the wind.
“What are you doing?” Anna demanded. The next moment she seemed to be aware of what was going again and she hesitated. “What was I doing?” Andrew felt her twitching and shivering.
“It is not a good idea, to disturb them. Not like this.”
“I wanted to see if they are real. I blacked out for a moment. What is this?”
Understanding had bubbled up from deep within Andrew. Where had it come from, he did not understand. But he knew. He might not be able to explain it to the fullest, but he knew. “They sought shelter, a way to escape to their inevitable demise. It all happened a long time ago. And none of it worked out like they had hoped it would.” This scene was an echo, a reflection of the truth that Andrew had witnessed before waking in this world. Knowledge burned inside his mind.
“They look like statues. Are they even alive?”
“They are alive, most of them are. Come on, I think we can get closer to the centre.” The pain was slowly returning, but it did not bother Andrew that much. He grabbed Anna firmly with his left hand and led her away from the border. She was still twitching and shivering. “What do you feel?” Andrew asked out of curiosity.
“Cold. I feel cold.” Andrew took off his gloves and placed the back of his hand on Anna’s forehead. There was a fever. He made sure Anna did not wander away from him. The unwelcoming presence she felt was affecting her in a bad way. Andrew was not feeling all too good either. His mind was trying to split in half. Like a dream. This time it really was like in a dream. He knew, but the knowledge did not give him any understanding. How did he know what he knew? Was this how Becca felt all the time?
All he knew for certain, that there was one last in the way, waiting for someone to release them all. They walked alongside the mass of people. They looked so familiar. Old and young, man and woman, child and adult. All of them had come here out of desperation. The clothes they wore looked unusual, nothing Andrew was used to. He kept thinking of a painting he had once seen in an art gallery and the people depicted in that busy street. Someone had drawn it in Visegrad at the beginning of the 18th century. The clothes in that painting were as unusual as those worn by the unfortunate souls here. Yet, there was something comforting seeing the faces of other human beings.
Andrew shook his head, attempting to focus on the current moment. Again, it did not feel right bringing the past here. His gaze fell on Anna, who looked at him with a pleading look on her face. “I feel like throwing up.”
“I can get rid of that feeling soon. Hold on. See, we can get to the centre from here.” Andrew pointed to his right, a path of snow ran through the crowd. Up ahead a dark, twisted stone monolith stood in wait, it reminded of a rough fang piercing the skies with the snowfall in the background. “Make sure you do not step off of the snow.” Andrew pushed Anna to walk in front. The path was narrow.
The monolith was huge, maybe four times Andrew’s height. It was hovering above something resembling a huge crown. The path of snow stopped a good way before the pitch-black fang. Small lines of snow still connected to a larger path circling the entire construct.
“You know. You could have left me sitting somewhere further away from... this.” Anna had slumped down on her knees and was breathing heavily. “I will not be moving from this spot. Unless you do something.”
“I need you somewhere in my sight.”
“How are you not cold? How are you standing upright? What the hell is that thing?”
“A reflection. They wanted to create something that would mirror the original, they succeeded and made something beyond what they expected. I imagine they did not know what they had achieved.”
“And they.” Anna nodded in the general direction of the monolith. “They made this thing?”
Six warriors surrounded the monolith, facing the crowd. “They gave themselves to buy salvation for the others. They failed. But this... construct. Others made this. Others, long before them.”
“This is a dream, right? Andrew? None of this is real, right?”
“My head is burning. I know what happened here. They tried to create a bridge. They...” Andrew pointed towards the warriors. “They thought their power would be enough. They made a trap for themselves, they did not know what that reflection truly is, and they abandoned all caution and drew power from it. In a sense they succeeded, this city remained safe and intact. But they almost gave it all to the clattering bones.” Andrew realised he was looking through all this, at the tangled pile of yarn and thread.
It was slowly unravelling. “It trapped them, they created a bridge between it and themselves, they bound themselves to it. The only way to save them now, is to end their suffering.” Andrew blinked tears. “I know all this, I can see how it all had happened. I am tired, I am not sure what will happen now, but right now I am going to give in.” Whether Anna was even listening anymore did not matter, Andrew realised he did not care about her attention. It was important that he himself had understood.
Andrew looked towards the warriors. They were shattered, their weapons a reflection of what was happening to them. All but one were slowly being torn apart, pieces of them flying away, like ash being carried away on the wind. The last one was close to giving in too.
At the last moment, the warriors had realised their mistake. They had attempted to put themselves in between the monolith’s will and the people. They had barely stopped the monolith from devouring the people and the lands under this city. Holding on for all this time, the warriors were doomed, they knew they were doomed, but for the people, release was still a possible outcome.
Andrew locked eyes with the last warrior, a woman. Even from this far away, her eyes showed the spark of life, a look of hope and defiance against all odds. Her eyes kept darting between Andrew and her sword, hovering before her. Andrew looked briefly at Anna, who was sitting on the ground, staring blankly into the air in front of her. He looked back towards the monolith and concentrated on the sword. Small pieces around its edge were slowly crumbling, but the core held. As long as the core held, it would recover.
Andrew stepped to the edge of the path. He knew he was searching for something on the ground. Circles, squares, triangles, straight lines and curves, the entire ground free from the snow was covered in an incredibly complicated pattern. It looked like a mess, but he knew each line and symbol on the ground held an important purpose. He found what he was looking for. Five dots on the ground, the size of one’s fingertips, his left hand would fit on them.
Andrew placed his hand on the markings and immediately a surge ran through his entire body. Wind rose around him and drove away the crushing silence that had lasted this eternity. A frenzy of power enveloped the entire plaza. The only thing that remained was the monolith in front of his eyes and inside his mind.
His left arm was burning already. This time he could not allow the flow to carry him away. Grab hold of it, he told himself. This power coursing through him was fighting against his will. Andrew gritted his teeth and pulled his hand off the ground. He was holding nothing, yet the sensation of weight was as real as it got. He could feel it throughout his body, down to the legs. Andrew barely noticed the flower blossom on the back of his hand open.
He held the power for a few moments, letting it struggle and gathering strength himself. With an effort, he drew his arm upwards and crushed his hand into a fist. Five of the warriors and their weapons shattered and turned to ash on the wind. The last one shrieked, but her voice was weak. A heavy sigh of relief reached Andrew when chains sprouted from the ground and wrapped around the last warrior and her sword.
Her will struggled for a moment more, but she was no match for the other two forces clashing over dominance. After a moment, the blood red sword burst out of the chains, tearing them to pieces and flew towards Andrew. Cold sweat poured over Andrew, he was certain the sword would pierce him. It slowed down at the last moment and began circling him.
He kept the surge of power chained to his will and his left hand clenched into a fist; he opened his right hand and caught the sword. He took a step forward. And another one. He caught his breath and took two more steps. The power opposing him was relentless, uncaring. A strong surge caught him by surprise and Andrew slid backwards several steps.
Do not let the power carry you away, take control, let it fill every piece of your being and then devour its will. He advanced on the dark monolith. Step after step after step he trudged towards the ruthless power that tried to push him away at all costs. It did not acknowledge a master; it did not want the idea.
One more step, and another one, keep moving, Andrew thought. He was standing within reach of the monolith. From close up its surface looked like glass shards, but he knew nothing could break it. From the distance, it had looked pristine and smooth, up close it was rough and coarse. The surface was constantly shifting and changing, the power within trying to escape its shell at all costs.
Andrew’s arm was numb now, but one last effort was needed to undo this folly. He forced his hand onto the surface of the monolith and saw a red trickle appear underneath his hand. He had cut his hand, but he felt no pain there. The mind-numbing waves of agony that coursed through the rest of his body smothered all other senses and forced him to gasp for air. He felt he could not last any longer. Andrew fell to his knees, his hand somehow glued against the surface of the monolith. He could not move at all, all strength had left his body.
Andrew was gasping for air and looking into the darkness of the curious stone. He saw nothing else, was darkness swallowing his mind? Was he about to black out? He still felt the rush of wind around him and the flow of violent power coursing through his veins. Andrew’s right arm was twitching, jerking. He felt the sword’s blade scratch the ground and then felt it sink through the surface. For a moment that lasted an eternity inside Andrew’s mind, his entire body was full of electricity. Every muscle was taut and cramping. He felt the surge of power release into the world.
The next moment it was all over and he was still gasping for air on all fours. His arm buckled, and he fell face first on the ground. His right shoulder was in excruciating pain and his left arm was burning all over. His entire body was covered in pins and needles, a constant prickling sensation covering him from head to toe.
Was Anna safe? The thought came out of nowhere, causing Andrew to lift his head and forcing himself into a sitting position. She was where she had been, sitting, staring blankly into the air. The people were gone. They were gone, but they were free. Not all of them, but the vast majority of them had been granted the peace of death. They had escaped the will of this brutal entity. And gone were most of the houses and buildings that had lined this plaza.
The last warrior had disappeared like everyone else and Andrew could not recall when or how it had happened. It was impossible to tell how long this ordeal had lasted. Darkness was once again claiming the world. The stone was still hovering next to Andrew, its surface ever-changing, but the torrent of power within had calmed. Andrew took a deep breath and stood up. He looked at the hilt of the sword, stuck in the ground. Before he could think about if he could pull it free, the sword slowly rose from the ground and hovered in front of him. Hesitant, he grabbed hold of it and inspected the blood-red blade. Something was engraved into the hilt. The same foreign language on the signs throughout this city.
He lifted his gaze and looked at the destruction that had happened. It had reached far, much further than he first thought. The palace would be their best bet to find shelter. Andrew turned his attention to Anna, and he pulled her shoulder.
“Whasat.” She mumbled.
“You there still. Are you okay?”
“What happened? What happened to the houses?”
“Accident. Come on. It’s getting dark, we need shelter.”
“That’s what I have been trying to do all this time, but these fucking doors are locked. It’s like a bad dream I once had. Where are we right now? The signs might give us an idea.”