They Did Depart
A LAND THE OLD GODS ABANDONED
Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2016 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
CHAPTER 1 – FALL OF MAN
CHAPTER 2 – TOMB OF THE GODS
CHAPTER 3 – MEAGER SCRAPS
CHAPTER 4 – FACING THE WILDS
Amala of Ich’tal leapt over a fallen tree trunk as she raced through dying woods with aching old trees and fluttering orange leaves. The miasma had wrinkled their twisting branches and gnarled forms until they leaked their green putrid stained souls into the soil, contaminating the waters that flowed below the ground. She ducked as a stray branch swiped through her auburn hair and scratched past her already irritated reddened neck. She pulled her collar up over the reddened portion.
Three months out of the year, the woods looked as it did in the old library pictures, but this was not one of those months. Summer had drawn to a close and what few leaves remained attached to the winding structures had grown into a muck filled yellow to match the color of the miasma that flowed around her like a curling serpent with no head. Amala wore a mask with a specialized filter, one that she took off only briefly to eat and drink food that her ancestors had blessed, and even then, there was a risk to it.
A branch snapped some distance away, and Amala froze, ducking behind a tree. She cautiously crept up over the shrubbery and drew her knife. She stared out into the midday sun for a minute, heaving a heavy sigh as she sheathed her knife. Wildlings wouldn’t stray this far from their camps. She paused in thought. Unless there was an encampment her people hadn’t yet observed. Wildlings were if nothing else, predictable. They stalked full-blooded humans for food but not sport, and the poor creatures knew no such thing as deceit.
The crash echoed through the woods and clear across to her settlement, Ich’tal, hours ago. The noise alone would have frightened off what little wildlife still lingered around for a day or two, wildlings included. She brushed a branch to her side and proceeded with a less hurried pace. She’d almost reached the spot. Amala had a good sense of distance and direction, though it didn’t take a sage charting the heavens to hear something like that.
She pushed ahead and dodged winding branches as she continued, climbing across the odd log, covered with moss and milky green rot. The air around her stung her face and made her eyes water, but she’d grown accustomed to it. Unlike the settlement dwellers, who might complain at the slightest whiff of the miasma, she’d practically been born in it. Raised in a climate that put forth every ounce of its energy to reject her body, to say she did not belong in this world. At times, she might have believed it, but with the Old Gods in her sights, she pushed back her doubt and climbed into the aftermath.
Amala stepped into a woodland clearing made manifest by the towering structure of black steel and glass that carved a crater through the soil and snapped two rows of trees in half. She glanced around the created ravine, noting that the area stretched some two hundred meters across in either direction. Near the edge of the ravine, she spotted the spire, the metal construct that stretched up past the miasma.
“Throne of the old Gods,” she said. “It fell to earth.” She paused, biting her lip. “Does that mean one died?”
Amala shook her head and clutched her knife. Gods did not die, but a fallen throne might mean something else. She eyed the structure, rectangular and the size of one of the living quarters in her settlement, except much more finely furnished and not covered with rust like the sparse buildings in Ich’tal.
Through the glass, she spotted some more intricate decorations, ancient tools she hardly recognized. Maybe she could salvage something, if she even understood how to operate the tools. Should she in the first place though? A lifetime of reinforcement told her to turn away and let it be. It may have been trash, but it was a God’s trash, too good for her or her people. Common sense told her to forget it. Amala paused briefly and turned to head back. She parted a shrub and took a step into it before a striking thought sneakily crawled its way into her mind.
“What if this is a gift?”
Amala jumped down through a crack in the glass window of the fallen apartment and fished out her pocket flashlight, an old device fitted to run on solar power. It should last at least an hour, even with the battery as waterlogged as it was. She’d have replaced the thing summers ago, but good tools were hard to come by, and the artificer saw fit to ration most of the well-preserved tools to the settlement’s defenders. Heaven forbid she be allotted weaponry more deadly than a hunter’s knife.
Each settlement held its own set of codes, though most strayed from direct contact. However, in Ich’tal, explorer castes like Amala didn’t face threats directly. At most times, she would fly faster than a Wildling to evade capture from her foes, but today, she’d rather have stolen something handy on her way out. She pointed the flashlight down toward a countertop and switched it on. The tool flickered on and off a bit before it stuck on a dim setting, casting forth a more or less steady beam of light at the apparatus.
“It’s just like the ones at home,” she said. “Only better.”
The lodging seemed to lay on its side, a towering piece of architecture that far outstretched any of the buildings in Ich’tal or any other settlement for that matter. Dozens of pots, pans and sundries had fallen against the wall on which she currently stood. For now, she’d call it the floor, since it made more sense from her orientation. Dried piles of mold sprayed from their containers in a variety of colors, from green sludge to brown and red beads to white webbing. She covered her mouth to hold in her breakfast and searched elsewhere.
The table, laid on its side, had been fashioned from old oak, the same as the trees, except pristine and soft to the touch. She ran her fingers along the outer width and down to her feet, expecting putrid sludge to seep onto her fingers from the grains, but she lifted them to find little more than particles of stagnant dust. She wiped her fingers dry on her jacket and pulled open a drawer by the knob on the side of the table.
Amala cautiously pulled the drawer open and peeked inside to see papers and ledgers, the same as those in the archives. She pulled out a pile and spread the pieces out on the floor beside the table, carefully scanning them with her flashlight. The colors and imagery had aged beyond recognition, but some of the text was legible. She had to imagine the blank spaces and mentally complete half-formed letters after she wiped off the webbing and mold that stripped off most of the ink.
“Paradise Colony,” she said, reading the brochure heading. “Is that up in the sky somewhere, or farther than that?”
She glanced up toward the clouds of Miasma looming overhead. She saw where the spire faded into the atmosphere a few hundred meters high, leaving her primary question more or less answered and her ultimate more or less not. Whoever lived here, god or man, no longer did so, but the cage itself seemed so mortal, like the relics she’d heard of in the surviving literature.
“Excuse me, Madame?” someone said.
Amala jumped like a hare and rushed into hiding. Her instincts took over, and she drew her knife before she peered around a broken countertop. She gained a slight bead of vision, and her eyes fixated on an old suit-wearing gentleman with a bowler hat. He wore a suit of impeccable quality for the era with a moustache neatly trimmed. Something seemed off, though. Amala glanced over his shoulder and noted a flashlight of some kind projecting a soft beam toward the back of his body.
“Are you a guest of Mr. Adamson?” the man asked.
“You speak my language?” Amala asked.
“Anglo, of course,” he said, taking a bow. “Forgive me, but I overheard you speaking the words earlier. I should ask again, Madame.” He paused. “Are you a guest of Mr. Adamson?”
“I don’t know who that is,” Amala admitted. “Is he the God of this region?”
“I’m not sure I understand the nuances of your dialect,” the man said. “But yes, he does preside over this region of the world, and he is of noble blood. I take it that was what you meant?”
“Are you his defender?” Amala said, slowly easing up on her grip. “Should I fear you?”
The man chuckled and dabbed his forehead with a cloth. “By no means, Madame. I am Mr. Adamson’s personal assistant. I help with his financial matters and cater to his needs. You may call me Winston.” He paused and rubbed his chin.
Amala sheathed her knife and examined elsewhere. “I’m not giving you my name.”
She crawled over broken glass and some spilt mold to another section of the dwelling in search of some tools. She kicked open a sideways door and broke it in two with one swift blow from her boot. Amala eased inside through the opening, and a bright light beamed in her face moments before the gentleman appeared again.
“Can I help you with something, Madame? You look as if you are searching for something.”
Amala paused and examined Winston again. This time, he stood within arm’s length, so she reached forward to touch him, instead waving her hand through his body. She wasn’t ready for the ease of the transition and lost her balance for a brief period before she regained her footing. She shot a stare behind him and caught on enough to assume two things. First, he wasn’t really standing in front of her. Second, whatever allowed him to exist in his transient form projected from those specialized projectors. Amala frowned.
“I’m looking for something powerful,” she said. “Something to help defend my settlement.” She paused and smirked at Winston. “You wouldn’t happen to have a gun or a bomb hidden here, would you?”
Winston drew back and dabbed his forehead again. “I must say, Madame. For whom do you take me? Mr. Adamson owned no weapons of any sort, and even if he did, I certainly wouldn’t bestow them to a guest.”
Amala frowned. “That’s disappointing. He’s not very powerful for a God, then. Are there other dwellings such as this one?”
“Thousands, I think,” Winston replied. He paused, stroking his moustache with an aggravated expression. “Much of my knowledge seems to be missing on various subjects, but I haven’t received communication from any nearby for a time.”
Amala paused. “How much time?”
The old man paused, as if in thought for a time to seem less spirit and more human. She’d scarcely heard of any tools that could summon a sentient creature, let alone a respectably intelligent one. She watched as he thought and found her attention wandering around the refuge. She was beginning to question her intuition on her former assessment of the fear in lesser life forms that the crash would have caused. Part of it was the fact that she couldn’t keep a close eye on ruffling leaves or hear the snapping of twigs from inside soundproof walls.
Winston broke his state of pondering. “Mr. Adamson has not logged in for seven hundred years, six months and twenty-three days. I have a back log of communications for three days following his more recent login but nothing else.”
“So they all left?” Amala asked.
“I apologize, Madame,” Winston replied. “I do not possess the proper faculties for extrapolation. There is insufficient information.”
“I take back what I thought about you,” Amala said. “You’re useless, and I’m done here.”
Amala crawled back through the shattered doorway and rose up to climb through the broken window overhead. She reached up and winced back from a slicing pain. She crouched down and cradled her hand, realizing quickly that she’d cut her palm. She plucked out the glass shard and examined the wound. It wasn’t too deep, but she’d need to be careful. Too much exposure might lead to blood poisoning from the Miasma.
Still, a quick bolt back to the settlement wouldn’t be nearly enough to affect her health if she kept it well covered. She ripped off a piece of fabric from her left pants leg and wrapped it around the wound twice before tying it off. A bit of the yellow mist leaked in and stung her cut without mercy. She liked those pants, but at least she could use it as an excuse to procure some new clothes.
Amala climbed out and stood up high on the outer surface of the derelict dwelling. She’d have taken another step, but the winds that blew by her face smelled unusually fowl. She caught brief glimpses of movement through the shrubbery around the clearing, and it didn’t take much more for her instinct to kick in. Amala drew her knife in time to sway to the left and knock back an incoming spear thrown at her from across the ravine ahead. Wildlings, fowl creatures once human, but now transformed by the acidic miasma.
Thoughts raced through her head as the world slowed down to a halt and her life drew to a certain close. She had no idea how many of them there were and no time to count. She could run, but a swift team would catch her without much effort. Oh, she’d give them a chase all right, but normal people would eventually tire. The wildlings, they thrived off the miasma. It drove them mad but gave them a kind of strength she could never muster. Amala did what felt like the best possible course of action and jumped back inside the Old God’s dwelling.
Frantically, she ducked down as soon as her feet hit the floor and dove through the crawlspace, formerly doorway if it were upright. Amala took care not to cut herself any deeper as she slid through the debris she created from her kick, but she did pluck out a piece of board from the old oak. It would do nice as an off-hand shiv in case she lost her knife. The latter she clenched tightly in her right hand.
She found a spot inside the second room where the wildlings couldn’t spot her from the outside. They’d investigate for certain, their hands crawling over the structure, though the threat of unknown would hold them back only so long.
“Winston,” Amala whispered softly. “Can you hear me?”
She fell back as the light from a nearby projector flickered on, and the mustached gentleman materialized inches before her.
“Back so soon?” he asked. “I’m afraid Mr. Adamson isn’t present as of this hour. Might I take a message?”
Amala ducked beside a hard wood cabinet and gestured a hushing motion with a single finger across her lips. Winston issued a perplexed expression, but after a moment of analyzing her gesture, he appeared to have caught on.
Winston knelt down to her level and spoke softly. “Why are we keeping our voices so low, Madame?”
Amala crept her eyes over the edge of the cabinet and peered out through a cracked glass window. Two wildlings had crawled out from the thickets, their gnarled orange skin reminiscent of their former human selves. Wildlings didn’t bear children. They reigned in fresh meat from abduction and in typical fashion, she spotted freshly made marks across the wrists and neck of the left-most young man.
She surmised the boy had wandered off and the tribe’s scouts had captured him no more than a week prior. The transformation took place quickly, starting with blood poisoning. Slice deep cuts across the body and give birth to a fresh wildling in days. Accompanying him was a taller and much more muscular brute who wore loose skins over his shoulders in addition to the typical loincloth around his waist. This wasn’t an ordinary hunting expedition. This was a proving ground.
“Winston, those creatures out there want to kill me. Please tell me there’s something you can do to fend them off.”
“I’m sorry, Madame,” Winston said. “Mr. Adamson installed no sort of weaponry. If there is a threat to this homestead or its occupants, I am authorized to contact regional security.”
“Can you keep them out at least?” Amala asked.
“I apologize,” Winston whispered. “Only Mr. Adamson or a noble within his circle can issue a lock down.”
Amala grimaced and peered outside. The figures had vanished, but she knew better. She paused in deep thought at what she could say to make the puppet listen, but it was like speaking to a blade of grass, technically alive but by no means present. Her thoughts abruptly ended, however, at the resounding thud of a several feet slamming against the outer wall above her. Her heartbeat drove skyward and sent chills through her nerves at the coarse sound of labored breathing from gross nostrils above her.
“Winston,” Amala whispered. “What about Mr. Adamson’s daughter?”
Winston stroked his mustache. “Yes, I do believe an immediate family member would qualify for access to my basic commands.”
“Then I’m her.”
Winston drew back. “I don’t recall Mr. Adamson ever having a daughter.”
“You said yourself some of your knowledge is missing,” Amala stammered. “How would you know the difference?”
“I …” Winston said with a pause. “I wouldn’t, but I lack the necessary faculties to extrapolate.”
The footsteps thumped overhead as the creatures lurched over the entrance she’d used earlier. Amala hurriedly scanned her surroundings. If this Adamson fellow were a man, he’d have a family. She drummed up imagery from the few preserved picture books as she searched for the artifact that could aid her case.
Amala’s eyes opened wide, and she snatched up a mold-covered picture frame from the floor and carefully wiped off a section of the glass. The imagery had faded, but well enough remained to case a silhouette on a family portrait, a surprisingly well-preserved relic from the days before the miasma fell upon her ancestors.
“You see her, don’t you?” Amala said, holding up the image. “I’m here, in this picture.”
Winston peered cautiously into the image held within the glass. He focused his pupils or whatever mechanic allowed him to see. He drew back, an unsatisfied, albeit perplexed look on his face. Amala read his expression and pressed the point.
“Let me ask you this,” Amala said. “You accept the possibility that I could be Mr. Adamson’s daughter, correct?”
“Yes,” Winston replied. “The possibility does exist.”
“Then would you risk the life of your master’s daughter because you couldn’t come to a clear decision in regards to her identity?”
Winston glared at her in a fit of frustration but calmly rose to his feet. “Please clear your hands and feet from open windows and doors. Lock down will commence in ten seconds and counting.”
Amala huddled into the corner of the room as a loud buzzing sound emitted from throughout the dwelling. The two wildlings landed on the floor in the room behind her, the second larger one hitting the bits of glass and shrieking in gritty angst. She gripped her knife and crouched, watching for one of them to reach through. The young one would come through first. Wildlings were predictable if nothing else.
Amala focused on the scratching noises of calloused footsteps drudging through glass shards and moldy residue until she stared into the creature’s eyes. The young man cocked his head and met her gaze for a moment. He still had some hair. Despite the orange, gnarled skin and bloodshot eyes, he seemed almost human.
However, that thought purged itself from her mind as the wildling lunged for her throat with grasping hands. Amala thrust her knife into the creature’s belly as it cried out. Tainted blood trickled down her hands and black steel barriers slid across the doorway and the windows, sealing the bigger one in the other room. She stuck her knife deeper into its belly and pushed it back as the other pounded and screamed curses in a tongue devoid of sophisticated expression, more grunts than words.
Amala ripped out her knife and as the poor boy lurched back, she pushed forward and sliced it open across the neck. Sprays of blood dripped out and ran their course across the floor until it bled out. She huffed and heaved, falling back to rest her shoulders against the cabinet while Winston observed her with her arms crossed. It was as if he’d never seen death before or at least couldn’t process the idea. For her, it hadn’t gotten any easier, so she shouldn’t be one to judge.
“I need to return to my settlement by sundown,” Amala spoke through labored breaths. She rested her knife beside her. “Is there any chance you can let me out … just me?”
Winston smiled and tipped his bowler hat, gesturing to a hatch across the room she hadn’t noticed before. Then again, the letters hanging beside it hadn’t been glowing bright red prior to the lock down. She’d glossed over the details previously as broken debris, but they spelled two words. Escape Hatch.