CHAPTER TWELVE

This post contains the twelfth 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 across the space between us.

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

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

As we are shoved into a brisk-paced walk, I can’t escape the conclusions swirling around in my mind. Seen from Snow’s perspective, I don’t blame him for how he feels. I show up and his whole word burns to the ground. If our roles were reversed, I might land on the same conclusion. If he knew about the dreams, especially the ones that have been making a habit of forcing their way into my head while I’m awake, 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 blow to the head I earned when I called out to Snow and the others to make sure they were unhurt. The unseen captor that delivered the blow only snarled a couple terse words when she demanded my silence, but it was enough to tell that this was a second, distinct female voice. The voice of the first woman was silky but hard, like steel wrapped in velvet, 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 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 unwieldly pile of steel and oak somewhere in the silent column of bodies marching through the forest? I test the bonds around my wrists by attempting to twist my hands out of the prayer position they’ve been forced into. My hands will not move. I abandon any hope of slipping my bonds or 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 would succeed. I’d just end up freezing to death alone in this damn forest or sliced to screaming ribbons by Ghosts, Clockers, or worse.

All I can do is wait, walk, and do my best to learn what I can about these new players in the deadly game this place has forced us all to play.  They don’t make it easy. We’ve been walking for the better part of an hour and the only thing my sweet-voiced captor has suggested is that I keep my mouth shut. Whoever they are, they’re clearly practiced at working as a unit, 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 seemed to know me somehow. Had she called me “Dream Slicer”? What the hell does that mean? There is no way they could know about what’s happening in my head…could they? Even so, why would they care?

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 recall the flame-scorched memory of the Ghost I killed. It causes my stomach to knot and twist further as a rapid jumble of violent images flash through my head in a nauseating stream.

Blood splashed on snow in gruesome crimson fractals. My fist slick with an obscene crimson gauntlet of gore. Dead eyes wide and staring in silent accusation. Starring directly at me.

Could they have been a woman’s eyes? I shake the images from my head. It takes some effort and leaves me with a sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. The Ghosts could be anyone under those hoods; women, men, evil skeletons animated by dark magics. 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 and stories that sound as unbelievable as my own. Not to mention my imaginary friend Ghoul and her tendency to lend a hand in fist fights using my own body as a puppet.  

No matter how hard I try to 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. On the plus side, 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 does not say a word. Ahead of me, I hear Snow mutter a string of curses that could scorch the paint from a ship’s hull. A dull wet smack cuts his voice 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. It’s the woman that ambushed Snow and I outside the hut, I’m almost sure of it. The rest of our captors remain silent as unseen hands suddenly spring into action to execute her orders. I’m abruptly jerked to a walk by two pairs of hands that have clamped down on both of my arms. Some detached, analytical part of my mind is running on autopilot. It tries to estimate the number of enemies around me using the limited data available.

There are 6 of us left. If the rest of the boys are getting the same treatment, this enemy force is at least 12 strong. Possibly 13 if their commander 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, the odds seem damn near impossible. I may not remember much about myself, 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 the time being.

I feel the ground sloping downwards as I’m dragged forward by my silent captors. After another few paces, the sound of our footsteps gradually changes, and I can tell that we’re not walking on snow and frozen underbrush any longer. A few minutes later the sound of our footsteps shifts again, the flat slap of each step echoing against some hard surface that sounds like it’s all around us. Metal? No, it must be stone.

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

The sharp sound of our footfalls decay and overlap for what sounds like an eternity in the enclosed space, like the stone walls reflecting the sound are a long way off.

This place must be huge.

I strain against the stubborn 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 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.

As we walk further along – and down, I think – what feels like a smooth stone pathway, a new layer of sound bubbles up from somewhere ahead. The crackle and pop of flames swirl and mix with the murmur of voices and the sharp, rhythmic clang 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 of the scene in my mind, using the sounds and smells as building blocks. The result is a primal tableau of wood and steel and fire. I imagine a 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. I wonder absently where their meat came from and say a silent prayer that my companions and I aren’t the catch of the day destined for the waiting flames of those unseen fires.

Suddenly, my blindfold is yanked off roughly and I nearly laugh out loud when my eyes adjust.

We’re inside a massive, cathedral-like natural cavern. The huge space appears to be is a nearly perfect cylinder. The far wall is easily 100 meters away and the smooth expanse of stone stretches upwards out of sight to form a gently tapered tube that looks like it extends all the way to the surface. The floor of the massive cave is perfectly flat, so flat that it must have been carved by some equally massive machine. A small settlement of smooth black buildings hugs the walls as a ring of single-story structures with flat metallic roofs. Larger multi-story buildings poke out between the smaller structures. Three massive storage tanks that each look 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 single-story structures that look like they could house ten or more people easily. The black tendrils of smoke from what look like cooking fires twist and wind up the massive stone tube and disappear into the darkness above.

In the center of the ring of structures, 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 fountain of water rises from the outstretched hand of the female statue standing at its center, splashing down into a small circular pool at her carved stone feet. The pool is illuminated by lights that glow beneath the shimmering surface. Artificial light from a ring of tall metal poles interspersed between the buildings of the circular town fills the massive space with a warm orange glow.

The sight takes my breath away.

After I catch my breath, I notice that the plaza is filled with people. At least a hundred figures go about their business beneath the warm glow of the softly buzzing lights. They emerge from doorways and stroll across the brick plaza in groups of 2 and 3, most dressed in clean, midnight blue uniforms identical to my own. Another group appears to be clad in sleek, lightweight body armor that I don’t recognize. They train near the fountain with nonlethal practice weapons that look nearly identical to our single-handed swords. They look like pale beetles in their form-fitting white armor, and they move with fluid, practiced ease as they parry and thrust in circles on the rust red expanse of the plaza. Another group tends to a colorful tapestry of different crops growing in a wide ring of black soil that separates the paved street beneath the ring of buildings from the perfect brick circle of the central plaza.

I realize with amazement that 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 that is tied behind her back with several small leather thongs. The dark mane hangs down the spine 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 but 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.” She says coolly. I realized that I’m staring as my mind tries to process this unexpected turn of events. I search for something – anything – to say to this imposing girl, but my mind has gone blank in the presence of this strange, deadly creature.

            “Who the hell are you?” 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. “What do you want from us?”

            A group of female warriors surrounds our small party on all sides. There is at least 10 of them. Each girl (and they all appear to be teenage girls) wears a suit of intricately segmented white armor, a pair of swords slung in a threatening X on the back, and an expression that makes the pond I arrived in seem warm and inviting by comparison.

            Nyx fixes Snow with a withering glare. I notice a smear of blood caked to his temple and recall the stream of curses that earned him the wound. I flick my eyes to his and shake my head slightly, hoping that he will get the unspoken message and shut his mouth before one (or more) of the armored women shut it for him permanently. Snow shuts up and I breathe sigh of relief.

            We are standing at the top of a wide stone staircase that leads down to the floor of the massive cave. A broad cavern stretches out behind us. The path slopes gradually upwards as it winds back towards what 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 route down toward the city on the cavern floor. The rest stand shoulder to shoulder several steps above us, blocking in the mouth of the cave and any possible hope of escaping the way we came in. The rest of our party cowers behind Snow and me, doing everything they can to keep their wide, terrified eyes away from the 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. I meet each boy’s gaze with as reassuring an expression as I can muster, but I don’t think it has much effect. Being surrounded (and outnumbered) by an imposing group of heavily armed and armored captors tends to have that effect on a guy.

            “You should be thanking us, boy.” Snaps 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 and your boys for the screamers.”

            “What the hell is a screamer?” I hear Frog mutter quietly before Stretch glares him back into silence with a single, stony glance.

            “Enough, Rayna.” Nyx raises an armored hand, cutting Rayna off midsentence. “Go tell Fira that we found what we were looking for.” Rayna scowls bitterly in my direction, then turns and stomps down the stone staircase, the wall of martial women parting silently to let her pass. Nyx turns to study me with green eyes that sparkle with an intelligence as fierce and as cold as deep space. I fight the urge to squirm nervously, pouring all my effort into keeping the wafer-thin mask of confidence in place under the assault of her unwavering gaze. I feel like a specimen pinned to a slide beneath some terrifying microscope. It is not a pleasant feeling.

            I clear my throat and meet her gaze with my own. “My name is Crash. This is…” I start to say, halfway into an awkward gesture intended to introduce Snow and the rest of our small group. Nyx cuts me off before I can continue.

            “Crash.” Nyx says dreamily, like the word is foreign and new on her lips. Her eyes never leave mine. “How appropriate.”

            “Appropriate? Wait…what’s happening here?” I stammer, chancing a sideways glance at Snow in the hopes that he might have some clue of what Nyx is talking about. He gives

me a slight shrug, and I can tell from his expression that he’s just as lost as I am.

            “Your name…. Crash.” She replies, a slight tinge of unease creeping into her tone as she watches me carefully. “For whom…for what you are. Let’s just say that the name just seems well chosen. Don’t you agree, Slicer?”

            “Slicer?” I say weakly. “I don’t know who you think I am, but you’re mistaken.”

            “That remains to be seen.” Nyx replies. Her voice drips with so much disgust that I’m surprised it isn’t running down the front of her armor 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. When she finally turns 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. “Tell me about yourself, Crash. How long have you been here? Do you remember anything from the before?”

            “I’m not sure.” I say, caught off guard by the abrupt shift in tactics. “A couple of days. 3 at the most.” A smile creeps onto Nyx’s face like my answer was expected somehow. I 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 glance at the halo of dried blood on Snow’s battered face and bite my tongue.

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

            “The before?” I snap back. My hands are balled into tight fists in front of me, and for a moment I’m glad my hands are still tied. “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. Her face remains calm, if slightly amused. The tide of my anger crashes against her like surf against a cliff, only to fall away impotently, leaving the stern rocks of her emotionless face unscathed.

            “Then you do remember something.” Nyx purrs in her infuriatingly silken voice. “Come, there is much you need to see.” 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 settlement 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. 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 menacingly 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. It’s 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. She stops periodically to talk with members of her tribe as we cut across the center of the huge plaza towards the brooding white dome of the central building. I walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Snow and, to my surprise, our guards maintain a respectful distance in front of and behind our small group. From the surprised faces and wide eyes peering out from small groups 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 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 intended. 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. “I’m the new guy, remember? I figured you’d know.”

            We walk in silence as we cross the rusty expanse of the red brick plaza. Finally, the broad marble steps of the 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 is a matching door somewhere in this cave as well.

            “These two are coming with me. Take the others and give them food, clean clothes, whatever they need.” Nyx says as she gestures towards Snow and me. She waves her retinue of guards towards a set of buildings with a honeycomb of recessed cooking pits and large circular tables out front. 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. To my surprise, they seem to collectively relax as Nyx’s bodyguards remove the bindings from their hands.

            The double doors at the top of the stairs creak open slowly to reveal Rayna, still scowling. Her frown deepens as she looks in our direction. I favor her with my most winning smile as I follow Nyx up the marble stairs towards the open rectangular doorway. Rayna rolls her eyes and stomps inside with an exasperated sigh. We follow the dark-skinned girl and our raven-haired guide through the door and into the massive 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 catches my eye as I pass and shoots me a concerned glance, 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 by the warm orange glow of electric lights.

            A large rectangular table made of a wood so dark it is almost black fills up the center of the room. The table and a ring of wooden chairs arranged around its razor-straight edges anchor a massive circular rug to the stone floor beneath a forest of wooden legs. 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 supernova of woven fabric, frozen moments after a star has gone critical in a sky of smooth white stones. Nyx slides gracefully into the large 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’m afraid I may be unable 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 of a war I cannot recognize. Two opposing tides of finely carved combatants are frozen mid-charge, forever surging towards each other with a frightening array of weapons clutched in their 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 looming 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 much to discuss.” She purrs. “Don’t you agree?”

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