you come from,” he says softly. “I haven’t experienced it here. This is a dangerous yet quiet world, one where you survive with vigilance and cunning, not magic. Most people who believe your sister are like Ensign Kat, fully convinced. As for me, I believe her because she presents the greatest hope for our people, and hope is the most powerful tool for protecting those who are struggling for survival.”
While we continue talking, three soldiers approach the wall and begin using peculiar instruments to collect samples of blood and skin. Another soldier uses a device to record the image of the breach in the wall. Kat takes me over and shows me what the image looks like on a small glass sheet they call a screen. It shows the image that was taken, like the device is able to paint what it sees so that you can look at it again. In a world with this kind of technology, I don’t know why Brogan can’t believe what Kat and the others seem so able to.
As the soldiers continue working, Brogan and Kat tell me more about this area, and the details of just where we are headed. The fog that covers us will lift soon, and when it does, we will be able to see the center of the old city. They say that several of its buildings are over five hundred feet tall, something I can’t even fathom. Somewhere among these buildings is a stairway that leads to an underground tunnel system people once used to go from place to place. There are many such stairways, but we are going to this one because Brogan’s men have been able to determine that it is where the largest proportion of the creatures comes from each night as they spread out to stalk the land. That is their best guess as to where Helena might be, but we’ll have to wait until after sunset to begin our search, concealing ourselves in the buildings above the staircase until the creatures have exited the tunnels and hopefully cleared the area.
When the soldiers have finished, Brogan gets on his radio, a device that somehow lets people talk to those who are far away, telling his soldiers back at base about the wall.
“This is Brogan. We’ve discovered a new breach on the northern perimeter, but there are no hostiles in the area. My team has collected samples and is sending them to you now.”
One of the soldiers begins tapping his finger on a small screen he holds in his hand, which I presume is conveying the information back to base in the same manner that the radio is.
“Alright everyone,” Brogan then says, “we’ll need to double-time it to be in position by sundown. Let’s move.”
We march for twenty minutes, which I can now track using a watch Kat gave me, and reach a low-lying valley between two hills. There are many ruined buildings and broken roads along the way, too many to count. I can only imagine what horrible violence had to take place to leave such desolation in its wake. It seems so simple to say that this world fell into destruction, but it is hard to comprehend just how a place so densely populated could transform into a hushed necropolis.
This thought makes me think of the spirits of the dead, of what terrible memories must still linger here as ghosts wander aimlessly through these forested ruins. I am reminded once more of the catacombs beneath Kalepo. I wonder now just how many dark spirits live there, if maybe one of them had lured Mariam away and that is why she became what she did.
These thoughts and questions occupy my mind and enhance my troubled feelings concerning tonight. The fog only makes my doubts worse. We press through it, objects in the shadows just at the edge of visibility looking like people and creature staring at us. Then we begin the climb up another small hill.
As we near its top, the fog thins and eventually dissipates, temporarily relieving me from my fears as the embrace of the midday sun blankets me with warmth. That is when I first see it, the old broken city above the mist, some of its buildings collapsed while others reach high up into a dull, midday sky.
“You can enjoy the view when we’re coming back,” Brogan says to me, using his hand to lightly nudge me forward.
Our pace is quick and tiring, but I am able to keep up thanks to the lightness of the equipment we carry. Our clothing is made of a black, thin material, nothing like any armor I’ve ever seen, and according to Brogan, it’s stronger than metal. He said it can stop blades and even most bullets. But though light, it makes me sweat as the sun starts to beat down on us.
The numerous hills throughout the city don’t help as I become more and more exhausted. Its streets, which are filled with the broken remains of odd metal carriages and other rubble, go up, down, and around the uneven landscape seemingly at random. Some even push straight up steep inclines, broken buildings standing tall on both sides. We do our best to take the most passable routes, but even then the march has taken its toll by the time we reach flatter ground.
There is no time for rest, however, as we push our way closer to the center of the city, the buildings we pass growing taller and taller. What light chatter had taken place between the soldiers from time to time ceases at this point, per Brogan’s orders from the initial briefing back in the hills. From now until morning, we will be limited to hand gestures, some of which Kat taught me so that I could follow any commands.
This is because any loud noise could compromise our mission. The only way we will be able to get underground safely is if our presence goes completely unnoticed. Although the creatures below can’t spy on us during the daytime, they can hear things. Brogan has noticed that voices in particular seem to attract their attention. We will have to make an impossible sprint back to the hills if they are able to discern just where we are hiding when the night begins.
My eyes bounce up to the buildings that begin towering over us, and everything all around. Signs and posts are everywhere to be seen, but their words and images have for the most part faded away. But here and there, I catch a glimpse of a letter, a word, a picture so lifelike that I wonder if it wasn’t taken by the same sort of devices that the soldier was using earlier.
I notice stairs now and again, ones that descend down into the ground. I don’t know if they all lead to the tunnels we are looking for since some seem to head directly into the cellars of the taller buildings, but the sight of each set brings an overwhelming feeling of darkness. It’s not just of fear, but of constraint, like I’m being drawn below by the creatures. It makes me wonder if they sense me, if I shouldn’t be here.
But it’s too late for such thoughts. I am here, and I need to trust that what I felt earlier about needing to come on this mission was right. What I’m feeling now is just jitters, at least that’s what I try to tell myself. Everything will be okay if I can keep myself together. Then when we return to the hills, I will be able to rest my mind knowing both of my sisters are safe.
Yet even then, I worry things won’t be the same. Helena has been a prisoner for years now. I wonder just what they have done to her in that time, and why. Cassandra alluded to her possessing some power that would persuade Lionel to believe what Cassandra has been saying. Maybe that power is what drew the creatures to take her prisoner the night she arrived.
It must be something like what the Necromancer has, since Cassandra said that Helena was the one who used the world stone they had with them to cross into this world, something the creatures also stole that first night. Maybe that’s what drew them, and not Helena’s power. Perhaps they want her to open the way back to our world, and that’s why they have been holding her prisoner for so long. This is just a guess, of course, but one that makes sense considering the Necromancer’s urgency in sending us here. If it’s true, I hope it doesn’t mean that they are getting close to breaking her.
I wish I’d been given a moment alone with Cassandra to get her thoughts so that I wouldn’t be left on my own to guess what’s going on. Then maybe we could be going into this with the right understanding of what to expect. But Astor’s little lie made me hesitate, so now I’m stuck with an incomplete story.
Once Astor said what he did and Brogan had started leading us back to the hills from the windmill, Brogan radioed in that I’d been found. By the time we ran into Kat, they were ready to pull me in for registration. I was h
ardly given the chance to recover from all the needles and testing after that as they immediately rushed me into a crowded hall for a quick meal and then into the first mission briefing with Brogan’s men.
The more I think about my father’s deception and Astor’s lie, the more frustrated I become. It makes me feel like no one is truly on my side. It was Julianne, after all, who seemed so genuine yet concealed just how much she knew about Eliana and her true identity. Even after travelling so far with me, Astor didn’t enlighten me the slightest bit despite Cassandra immediately recognizing him at the windmill. When this night is done, my sisters and I will need to get together, just the three of us, and figure out what to do next and who we will trust moving forward.
A loud crashing of glass in a building above us brings my mind back to the present. Brogan raises his hand, and we all stop and crouch down. The soldiers draw their weapons, larger guns held with two hands and strapped to their shoulders, and point them up or off in different directions. I don’t have a gun like that, instead drawing a handgun Brogan gave me, the only weapon they had that I felt I could comfortably handle.
Brogan then gestures to Kat, pointing toward the other
side of the street. She takes a unit of four soldiers with her, and we start moving again. Her unit mirrors ours as we continue down the street, now more cautiously with weapons at the ready. I watch her as she leads the soldiers behind her, admiring the confidence in her movement with each step.
Although Kalepo has for much of its history been led almost exclusively by women, its soldiers are mostly male. It never really bothered me at the time since men are generally larger and stronger than women, but seeing Kat now makes me feel like she was made for this. It makes me feel stronger myself, something I need right now as we reach the stairway.