There was the Way and only the Way.
It was endless desert around the Way. Above her, stars shone in thousands, in millions, in quadrillions, even, but she saw only a handful, compared to the real vastness of space.
As any child, she knew they were there. That was what mattered.
She walked, picking through the markers left from earlier expeditions. They showed her the Way the same as they did for centuries before her time: for no real, solid road would've survived the Land of Always Night for long.
They were there to the practiced eye, shining dimly under the particular spectrum of light her visor gave: too dim to disturb the night, but not enough that she could not see it.
It was required of every young girl from the Dusklands, at a certain age, to travel the Way; and so, she walked it as her mother before her and their mother before them.
There was no purpose in the journey, no reason.
They did so anyway.
If the purpose of the Way was all but forgotten, the wisdom on how to travel it was not: what must have served a practical purpose once had simply become ritual, tradition and then simply habit.
No girl ever refused walking the Way; no girl ever had reason to. What they found on the Way, well, only the mothers and grandmothers, the aunts, the sisters, great-grandmothers, lovers friends and companions, knew.
If they found anything at all. This was not said; this was not shared. Some brought trinkets, clever stones, tubes of dust, the shell or the bone of a dead animal found on the sidelines of the way, to show as mementos of their journey.
Many markers were destroyed or otherwise severely damaged. They sang a siren song for the tracer melded into her suit. The suit itself would guide her steps by sudden pressure toward the correct direction, like a muscle bunching, a light push back into the Way, if she ever strayed.
Of course, she could choose directions; she could even ignore the push and pull of the suit. The farther she went from them, however, the harder it would become to resist, and she had no reason or wish to stray from it, not really.
There was nothing out there but endless darkness, endless cold; endless gaping maws with endless hunger.
She sucked on the straw placed near her mouth, sipped the fluid within the flask built into her suit. The drink sent a sharp, sickly-sweet warmth to her body.
She went on.
Something shifted somewhere to the side. She felt it more than saw it, just trace movement in the dismal cold, but was untroubled: she carried a spear on her left hand, at the ready. She hit the ground with it, tok, tok, tok, in rhythmic intervals, sharp as a metronome, as she walked. If necessary the spearhead would deliver a sharp shock to the creature, enough to jolt a sizable heart - if the creature had any, of course. Some didn’t; those were the hardest to drive away.
If the shock didn’t work, well, the sharpened end would do the trick.
She hoped so, anyway.
There was no risk, though. No dark-wights ever came into the Way, crossed its path or harmed its walkers. Not even the flying ones went over it. The reason why was another piece of forgotten lore.
She mused on those things as she walked.
The Way was not singular. It was not a straight line. It spread, writhed and forked across the Land of Always Night, like veins and arteries on a living thing. The trick was to pick one’s route in such a manner it would loop back on itself and bring the walker back to the Dusklands.
Some girls never returned: those were few, but they did exist.
It was said they still wandered the Land of Always Night, following the Way, or strayed from it against the better judgment of their suits, and were eaten by its inhabitants.
There were no corpses by the edge of the Way, not, at least, that she saw.
She turned when the Way turned and almost did not notice when the ground turned into a large crater, the slope was so gentle; not until she saw pockmarked ground and uneven lips in the distance.
The markers were all but obliterated here, but she could feel the next one on the farther side, far from her last marker but still there. She followed with more caution this time; here, without the protection of the Way, there may be danger.
It was not danger she found, however, in the crater-within-a-crater. There was a depression in the middle - not the exact middle, of course, but close enough.
The light of her visor caught something.
Against her better judgment, she went to it.
She could see a shape in the darkness, indistinct but unmistakably different from the rest, faint against the starlight. It could be just a rock, an anomaly on the ground, part of this alien landscape; it could be something alive that would eat her if she got closer.
It could be something else altogether.
It could be what she was supposed to find: the meaning of her walk through the Way, if there was any meaning at all other than the journey itself. She had not walked long; she was not even tired. Her provisions would hold.
She crept closer.
The thing did not move. It looked like an egg, but it was too large, certainly larger than any creature she’d ever seen or knew about, even for the Land of Always Night, even for the dark-wights. She crept closer still. The sensors in her suit still tugged her to the next marker, but she was too far and the pull was not strong enough to hurt her.
The object was solid and smooth like metal. In fact, it was metal, she realized, but rough, as if it had cooled slowly after overheating. It looked misshapen, melted and dented here and there, but still held its shape, half-buried into the ground.
By itself the object would be curious enough, but it was the faint drone coming from it that made her pause. It cracked almost through the middle, vertically, in such a manner that she could tell it was hollow, though she could not see what was within.
A dent here, a faint whir of machinery there, as ancient as it was familiar; like and unlike anything she’d ever heard, seen or known.
It felt like a primal memory. A racial memory, an old shiver along the surface of her brain.
There was something alive in there. She knew this as well as she knew herself, her hands, her history, though she could neither see, hear or smell anything. She was certain of it.
It was no dark-wight, either.
She took a step closer. Another.
Her fingers found a depression along the surface - it felt cooler than she imagined - and tugged.
The egg split open with a deep shhhh. It wasn’t air being left out; it was air being sucked in. That it would break on a tug was a wonder: the thing looked and felt as solid and resilient as the mountains and the ground themselves.
Everything, she thought, has flaws. Goodness knew what sort of pressure and pain this thing had been through.
It whirred and jammed and hummed and then it fell open, just like that.
She smiled. Then laughed.“So you are what I was looking for!”