CHAPTER ELEVEN

This post contains the eleventh chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.

The last thing I see before the blindfold is roughly tied around my eyes is Snow’s smoldering glare as he scorches daggers at me across the space between us.

He’s going to blame me for this, I’m goddamn sure of it.

The worst part is, I think he may be right.

As we’re shoved into a brisk-paced walk, I can’t escape the conclusions swirling around in my mind. Seen from Snow’s perspective, I can’t blame him for how he feels. I show up, and then his whole word burns to the ground. I can’t say that I wouldn’t come to the same conclusion. If he knew about the dreams, especially the waking kind that forced it’s way into my head when the drone showed up, I’m afraid he might just remove that head to try and pry out whatever’s inside. I resolve again to keep the dreams to myself, at least for now. Besides, we appear to have more immediate problems.

We trudge along in silence. The rest of our disheveled band marches with us. I can hear their unsteady foot falls all around me. My head aches from the most recent blow to the head that I’d earned when I tried to call out to Snow and the other cadets to make sure they were unhurt. The unseen captor who’d delivered the blow had only snarled a couple of words when she demanded my silence, but it was enough for me to tell that it was a second, distinct female voice. The voice of the first woman was silky and firm, but this new voice is musical and high, making me think of a songbird – or a siren. What’s more, I can tell that the owner of the new voice is doing her best to fortify that melodious voice with a rigid confidence that sounds artificial and forced. I file the observation away for later, and I continue walking in silence.

They took the sword and scabbard off my back and bound my hands tight in front of me as soon as the blindfold was pulled tight around my eyes. Did they leave our weapons in a pile back near the stone hut, or is one of our captors lugging an unwieldy pile of weapons, somewhere near us as we trudge along in this forced march? I test the bonds around my wrists by trying to twist my hands out of the prayer position they’ve been forced into. My hands don’t move. I abandon any hope of slipping my bonds and escaping into the forest. Even if, by some miracle, I’m able to free my hands and yank off my blindfold, I doubt that there’s any escape plan that doesn’t end with my freezing to death alone in this damn forest or sliced to screaming ribbons by Ghosts, or Clockers, or worse.

All I can do is wait, walk, and do my best to learn whatever I can about these new players in the deadly game this place has forced me to play.  They don’t make it easy. We’ve been walking for the better part of an hour and they haven’t spoken a word, other than my sweet-voiced captor’s suggestion that I keep my mouth shut, of course. Whoever they are, they’re clearly practiced at working together, and I’m pretty sure our capture wasn’t a matter of chance. This is part of someone’s plan. They were looking for us, and the leader had called me “Dream Slicer.” What the hell could that mean? There’s no way they could know about what’s happening in my head…could they? Even so, what good am I to them?

A new thought expands in my head with an intensity that sends a wave of vertigo whipping around the inside of my skull like the shock front from a nuclear blast. Could our kidnappers be Ghosts? I replay the flame-scorched memory of the Ghost I killed, causing my stomach to knot and twist further as a rapid jumble of images flashes through my head.

Blood splashed over snow like violent crimson fractals. My fist slick with gore like an obscene crimson gauntlet. Dead eyes wide and staring in silent accusation. Starring at me.

Could they have been female eyes? I shake the images from my head and disregard the idea. The Ghosts could be anyone under those hoods; women, men, evil skeletons animated by black magic. I just don’t have enough to go on. Our captors could be anyone…including Ghosts. The whole of my knowledge about this violent place amounts to handful of shock-distorted memories from a single day, and a handful of stories that sound nearly as unbelievable as my own. And let’s not even try to quantify my apparently imaginary friend Ghoul and his urgent dream-messages.

No matter how hard I try and force the disparate fragments together in my head, the larger vista refuses to come into focus.  I curse the aching emptiness in my head for the hundredth time and turn my full attention to the harrowing task of walking while blindfolded. If I keep getting captured and blindfold at this rate, I’ll be an expert in no time.

Suddenly, a strong hand yanks me to a stop and the sound of boots crunching through overbrush abruptly evaporates all around me. The owner of the hand doesn’t say a word. Ahead of me in line, I hear Snow mutter a string of curses that could scorch the paint from a ship’s hull and then a dull wet smack cuts him off in the middle of a particularly obscene, female-specific expletive.

“Get them inside.” Says a cold female voice that I recognize immediately from the moment of our capture. The voice is so low that it could be described a sultry purr, if the circumstances were different. It’s the woman that ambushed Snow and I outside the hut, I’m almost sure of it. There’s no reply from the rest of our captors but unseen hands suddenly spring into action, executing Sultry Voice’s orders. I’m suddenly jerked to a walk again by two pairs of hands that clamp down on both of my arms. I try and estimate the number of enemies around me, using my captors as a starting point.

There’s 7 of us left. If the rest of the boys are getting the same treatment, this enemy force is at least 14 strong. Possibly 15, if Sultry Voice is the kind of leader that doesn’t like to get her hands dirty. Sounds like crappy odds on even the most level playing field. But, bound, blindfolded, and relieved of our weapons, those odds become damn near impossible. I may not remember much, but I get a strong sense I’m not the kind of guy that defies the odds when other (less suicidal) options are available. If that makes me a coward, at least it’ll make me a coward that’s still breathing…for now.

I can feel the ground grading down and away along the path as I’m dragged forward by my silent captors. After another few steps, the sound of our footsteps changes dramatically and I can tell that we’re not walking on the snow and frozen underbrush of the forest floor anymore. A few minutes later, the sound of our footsteps changes again, the flat slap of each step echoing against hard surfaces that sound like they’re all around us. Metal? No, I think it must be stone.

I think we’re being led into a cave. Another. God damn. Cave.

The sharp sounds of our footfalls decay and overlap for what sounds like forever in the enclosed space, like the stone walls reflecting the sounds are a long way off. This place must be huge. I strain against the impossible blackness of my blindfold, trying to catch any small detail I can about our new surroundings, without any luck. Apparently, our captors were in the same blindfolding 101 class that Dex and Hawk clearly attended. I make a silent promise to myself to do whatever it takes to avoid the blindfold, next time.

Next time…when did I become such an optimist? For all I know, I’m being marched to my grave.

I start to make out a new layer of sounds bubbling up somewhere ahead. The crackle and pop of open flames swirls and mixes with the murmur of voices and the sharp clink of metal on metal. The smell of smoke and cooking meat drifts towards us, mixing with the earthy, organic tang of disturbed soil and cave damp. I start to form a rough picture in my mind, using the sounds and smells as building blocks, and the result is a primal scene of wood and steel and fire. I imagine a primitive tribe of feral female warriors cooking ragged chunks of meat over roaring cave fires, their blades slick with blood and faces smeared with gore and animal fat. A say a silent prayer that my companions and I aren’t the next batch of meat for those fires.

Suddenly, my blindfold is yanked off roughly and I nearly laugh out loud at how far off the mark my internal visualization had been.

We’re inside a truly massive natural cavern. The massive space in front us of is a nearly perfect cylinder. The far wall is easily 100 meters distant, and the walls stretch upwards out of sight to form a slightly tapered tube that looks like it might extend all the way to the surface above. The floor of the cave is perfectly flat, so flat that it must have been carved by some appropriately massive machine. A small settlement of smooth black buildings hugs the walls in a ring of single-story buildings with flat metallic roofs. Larger multi-story structures poke out between the smaller buildings and three massive storage tanks, that look to be at least 4 stories tall, cling to the rightmost wall of the cavern like massive cylindrical sentinels. Smoke drifts and curls upwards from a handful of small fire pits, each sunken into the ground in front of buildings that look like houses. The black tendrils twist and wind up the massive stone tube to disappear into the darkness above.

In the center of the ring, there is a large circular plaza paved with rust colored bricks. In the center of the plaza a squat decorative fountain gurgles softly as a column of water rises up from the outstretched hand of some unknown female figure at its center, then falls back down to fill a small circular pool. The pool is illuminated from unseen lights that glow from somewhere below the softly shimmering water. Artificial light from a ring of tall metal light poles, each interspersed between the buildings of the circular town, fills the massive space with a warm, orange glow.

The sight takes my breath away.

The town and the plaza are filled with people. At least a hundred figures go about their business beneath the warm glow of the electric lights. They emerge from doorways and stroll across the brick plaza in groups of 2 and 3, many dressed in clean, modern looking jumpsuits that come in a variety of colors. Another group clad in sleek, lightweight body armor that I don’t recognize train near the fountain with nonlethal practice weapons that resemble single-handed swords. The figures look like beetles in the tight-fitting white armor, but move with fluid, practiced ease as they parry and thrust in circles on the rust red expanse of the plaza. Another group tends a colorful tapestry of different crops that grow in a wide ring of black soil separating the paved street beneath the ring of buildings from the perfect brick circle of the central plaza.

Every person in the scene below has one thing in common – every single one of them is female.

            “My name is Nyx.” Says a tall lithe girl that looks about my age. Her raven-black hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, tied tight with small leather thongs. It hangs down the center of her bone white armor like a thick length of dark rope. Striking green eyes smolder back at me from a porcelain face that’s all high cheekbones and sharp symmetries. Her gaze is cool and calculating, like the unblinking lens of some beautiful and lethal machine. Her perfectly sculpted eyebrows are two slices of midnight against her smooth pale skin, and her full lips are the color of wine. “Welcome to Helios.”

            “Who the hell are you people?” Snow’s voice trembles as he strains against his bonds. A pair of armor-clad female warriors tighten their grip on his arms and hold him in place. I can’t tell if it’s indignation from our capture, or lingering cold from our march through the woods, but the tremor in his voice catches me off guard. “What do you want from us?”

            We’re surrounded by a group of at least 10 female warriors. Each wears a suit of segmented white armor, and none looks older than 18. I wonder silently if they’re also wearing cadet uniforms under those thin interlocking plates, but I keep the question to myself.

            Nyx fixes Snow with a withering glare. I notice a smear of dried blood caked around his temple and think back to the stream of curses that earned him the wound. I flick my eyes to his and shake my head slowly, hoping that he’ll get the message and shut his mouth before one of the armored women shuts it for him, perhaps permanently. Snow shuts up and I breathe sigh of relief.

            We’re standing at the top of a wide stone staircase that leads down to the floor of the massive cave. A broad tube-shaped cavern stretches out behind us, the path sloping up gradually as it winds back towards what I assume must be a hidden entrance in the forest above. A sheer 30-meter drop yawns on either side of the broad steps. There is no railing.

Half of our captors stand several steps below us, blocking the only route down to the city on the cavern floor. The rest stand shoulder to shoulder in the mouth of the cave to block any escape back the way we came. The rest of our party cowers behind the spot where Snow and I stand, doing everything they can to keep their wide, terrified eyes away from these stone-faced girls in bone-white combat armor. Their eyes flick between my face and Snow’s, silently begging us to get them out of this alive. A pang of guilt runs through me as I realize that I don’t know any of their names. I’d been so focused on keeping myself alive that I’d almost forgotten they were there.

            “You should be thanking us, boy.” Says a dark-skinned girl standing next to Nyx. Her hair is cut close to her skull and a jagged pink scar runs down the left side of her face. “We should have left you for the screamers.”

            “Enough, Rayna.” Nyx raises a white armored hand, cutting Rayna off mid sentence. “Go tell Fira that we found him.” Rayna scowls in my direction then turns and hurries down the stone staircase, the wall of martial women parting to let her pass. Nyx turns to study me with green eyes that sparkle with a fierce, cold intelligence. I fight the urge to squirm nervously and I pour all of my effort into crafting a wafer-thin mask of fearless confidence. I feel like a specimen under a microscope. It isn’t a pleasant feeling.

            I clear my throat and meet her gaze with my own. “My name is Asher. This is…” I start to say, halfway into a gesture introducing Snow and the rest of our group. She cuts me off sharply before I can continue.

            “No…it isn’t.” Nyx says. Her eyes never leave mine.

            “It isn’t…what? Wait…what’s happening here?” I say, chancing a sideways glance at Snow in the hope that he might have some idea of what Nyx is talking about. He gives me a slight shrug, and I’m almost sure the corner of his mouth twitches towards the beginning of an amused smile.

            “Your name. It isn’t…Asher.” She replies. Nyx scowls like my name is an unpleasant taste in her mouth that she was forced to spit out. Several of her warriors glance back and forth in confusion. Whatever this is, I don’t think it’s going the way they thought it would. Nyx’s face is stone, but for a second I think I see her mask slip as a flicker of something like doubt flares in her eyes momentarily, barely visible through the hairline crack in her façade of control. “Don’t lie to me, slicer. I know Asher isn’t your name.” She takes a step towards me and I flinch backwards instinctively, eliciting a soft snort of laughter from one of her soldiers. Nyx regards me with a mixture of surprise and disgust that makes my cheeks burn with a depth of shame that catches me off guard. Why the hell do I care what this pale amazon thinks?

            “Slicer? I think you have me confused with someone else, lady. I’m not who you think I am.” I stammer.

            “Clearly.” Nyx replies. Her voice drips with so much disgust that I’m surprised it isn’t running down the front of her armor and onto the stone stairway like a bitter river. She turns away in frustration, gazing down at the busy settlement on the cavern floor for a long moment. I think I catch her muttering to herself angrily, but I can’t make out any of the words. When she spins back to face me, the doubt has drained from her eyes. Her mask is firmly back in place over the sharp, features of her pale face. “How long have you been here? Do you remember anything from before?”

            “I’m not sure.” I say, caught off guard by the abrupt shift in tactics. “A couple of days, maybe? 3 at the most?” A smile creeps onto Nyx’s face like my answer was exactly what she was expecting. I can feel a wave of frustration bubble up inside me as she nods knowingly, clearly pleased that the conversation has returned to a realm she seems to understand. I grit my teeth until my molars creak and strain against an irrational desire to lash out at this self-satisfied girl with an incandescent stream of obscenities. I remember the halo of dried blood on Snow’s face and decide to bite my tongue.

            “And your memories? Do you remember anything…different?” Nyx says, indiffernt to the typhoon of rage spiraling behind my teeth like a laser drill.

            “Different from what?” I snap at her. My hands are balled into tight fists in front of me, and for a moment I’m glad my hands are still tied since I’m pretty sure my bonds are the only thing keeping my hands away from her long, pale neck. “I don’t know what I remember! I don’t even know if the shit in my head is real!” My voice cracks with anger but her face remains calm, if slightly amused. The tide of my anger crashes against her like surf against a cliff, falling away impotently and leaving the stern rocks unscathed.

            “But you do remember something.” Nyx purrs in her infuriating, silken voice. “When you’re ready, I think you’ll remember your name too. Come on, I need to show you something.” I open my mouth to respond, but before I can speak, Nyx turns her back and begins barking orders at her assembled sisters. A powerful looking blonde amazon grabs me by the arm, and with an infuriating smirk (they must make that part of the training here), leads me down the stairs towards the waiting town below.

Nyx and her bodyguards march us through the town to the wide-eyed stares of her all-female population. The settlement was impressive from a distance, but up close, it takes my breath away. I catch myself staring, slack-jawed, at the towering ring of multistory buildings set into the smooth cavern walls. Three massive storage tanks huddle against the far wall, easily as tall as the tallest structures and secured to the walls with bolts the size of my head, each one set into massive black girders that seem to protrude from the cave walls like skeletal arms. A statue of a robed woman towers above the large circular pool at the center of the red brick plaza. Water cascades down from her outstretched right hand and into the pool below. Her left hand clutches the hilt of a sword that hangs in a scabbard at her hip, the weapon nearly invisible beneath her ankle-length granite robe.

            We walk towards a large domed building that stands higher than any of the other structures and is built into the cavern wall directly across from the entrance tunnel. The walls of the important-looking structure are bone white and tall scalloped columns, each twice as thick as a man, are spaced evenly along the façade of the structure facing the open space of the central plaza. As we get closer, I notice that long black banners hang stiffly from a flat white slab that tops the forest of cyclopean pale columns. The banners are blank, the cloth as black as a moonless night.

            Nyx walks several paces in front of the larger group, stopping periodically to talk with members of her tribe as we cut across the center of the huge flat plaza towards the brooding white dome of the central building. I walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Snow and, to my surprise, our guards keep a respectful distance in front of and behind our small group. From the surprised faces and wide eyes peering out from clumps of whispering teenage girls scattered around the plaza, I guess that we may be the first boys allowed to enter their secret underground base. I half expect to see handmade “No Boys Allowed!” signs nailed onto the exterior walls of the ring-shaped town, but Helios appears to be a sign free zone. The air is filled with a warm, organic mix of smells – The earthy tang of freshly tilled soil, the smell of wood fires and roasting meat, even the slight hint of sweat as we pass the area where the warriors of Helios stomp and twirl around each other with worn wooden swords.

            “Do you have any clue where we’re at, or who the hell these people are?” Snow whispers, leaning close to hiss in a conspiratorial whisper.

            “You’re asking me?” I reply, surprise lending my voice more volume than I’d intended to employ. I’d just assumed that the boys from The Falls must have crossed paths with Nyx’s girls before. My brows furrow at this revelation. The scope of the mystery surrounding this place feels like it gets deeper every time I turn around. “Jesus, I’m the new guy, remember? I figured you’d know.”

            We walk in silence the rest of the way, crossing the rusty expanse of the red brick plaza until the broad marble steps of an impressive domed building spread out in front of us like a mountain of carved stone. The huge black banners hang motionless in the still cavern air, spilling down from the marble roof in the spaces between the tall pristine columns. At the top of the wide stairway, a massive set of wooden double-doors are set into the smooth white face of the building like a giant rectangular mouth. My mind flashes back to the impossible door waiting in another large cave and a chill runs down my spine as I wonder if there’s a matching door in this cave too.

            “These two are coming with me. Take the others and give them food, clean clothes, whatever they need.” Nyx says as she points to Snow and me, then waves her retinue of guards towards a set of buildings with a honeycomb of recessed cooking pits and large circular tables. Snow nods to the group of frightened cadets, doing his best to extend his calm, confident aura to the ashen group of disheveled boys. Their eyes flit between Snow and the imposing leader of this cavern city, and for a moment I’m worried they might try and bolt across the plaza towards the mouth of the exit tunnel, but they seem to collectively relax as Nyx’s bodyguards remove the bindings from their hands with mildly apologetic smiles.

            The double doors at the top of the stairs creak open slowly to reveal Rayna, still scowling. Her scowl deepens when she looks in our direction. I hit her with my most winning smile as I follow Nyx up the marble stairs towards the open rectangular portal. Rayna rolls her eyes and walks inside with an exasperated sigh. I make a show of shrugging my shoulders when I notice Snow chuckling silently, then follow our raven-haired guide through the door and into the large white building.

            I step into a long rectangular hallway that stretches off into the distance. The walls are made of the same pale stone as the building exterior, but the floor is as black as obsidian and polished to a mirror shine. I’m suddenly worried about the state of my boots as I look at the immaculately clean floor stretching down the hall towards another set of large wooden doors. I brush the ludicrous impulse aside. I have bigger concerns than scuffing some Valkyrie queen’s floor.

            Nyx pauses to remove the bindings from Snow’s hands, and then from mine. I massage my wrists and follow her as she turns and strides down the long corridor without a word. Snow looks at me incredulously, frowns, then abandons his silent protest and follows, grumbling softly as he stomps along behind me. Our guide pushes the dark wooden doors open at the end of the hall and leads the way into a large circular room lit with the warm orange glow of electric lamps.

            A large rectangular table made of wood so dark it’s almost black, fills up the center of the room. The table, along with the ring of wooden chairs arranged around its arrow-straight edges, anchor a massive circular rug to the stone floor beneath a forest of wooden legs of various sizes. The rug is an ornate explosion of blood red hues, swirling gold accents, and a riot of other colors too numerous to count. It looks like a fabric supernova, frozen moments after a star has gone critical in a sky of smooth white stones. Nyx slides gracefully into a chair at the head of the table and motions for us to follow suit.

            I select a chair directly across the table from Nyx, who I notice is still wearing her bone-white armor, and I drop into it with an exhausted sigh. She regards me silently, watching my every move as I settle into my seat as casually as I can manage in the war room of my warrior-maiden kidnapper’s secret underground fortress. I struggle to swat away a manic burst of laughter that, if escapes my mouth, I may not be able to stop.

            A high marble dome rises above the polished black slab of the table like the interior of a massive stone egg. A stone relief carving depicting hundreds of human figures wraps around the base of the dome in a long unbroken tableau from a war I don’t recognize. Two opposing tides of finely carved combatants are frozen mid-charge, forever surging towards each other with all manner of weapons clutched in armored hands. They crash together in a chaotic battle on the far side of the dome and my heart nearly stops in my chest when my eyes reach the focal point of the stone battle raging above me. I’ve seen this thing before. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

            The bizarre stone battle rages around an imposing but familiar shape – a massive black door.

            When I’m finally able to tear my eyes away from the intricately carved nightmare that looms above my head, I look across the table to find another satisfied smile spreading across the smooth porcelain expanse of Nyx’s face. “As you can see…we have some things to discuss.” She purrs. “Don’t you agree?”

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