“Why did you agree?” Lucretia asked while studying Alta very carefully.
Alta sat very still at the table in the Foyer of the Bounty Estate. She had been silent and morose ever since the group had managed to get out of the First Land. After a brief conversation with the members of the Council of Fate, everyone had agreed the expedition was a failure. The door in the first land was closed to them, no matter what they tried.
They were, however, offered seats on the Council. Both a little shellshocked from the images they had seen in that upper land, Lucretia and Alta had mutely nodded. Everything was too fresh in her mind. The decisions could wait until later.
It had been six months since they had returned from the first land, and the world was in flux. Great rifts had opened in every land where fire poured upward. At the same time, verdant, hyperdense jungles sprung up in strange places. For the first time in generations, there was a surge of hardline religious factions as that strange phenomenon drove people toward an explanation.
All the while, Alta remained introspective, refusing to speak. It had made running the company difficult, but Lucretia had trained for this all of this life; she was capable enough in short spurts to keep the furnace running until they figured out there next move.
And Lucretia didn’t want to rush Alta through whatever she had seen. Knowing that what was up in that Land were Randidly’s memories… Alta could have seen a lot to shock her system. So Lucretia waited. After all, there weren’t any changes in the grey flowers with black thorns in Alta’s chest. So she assumed she had time.
That was until today when an emissary from the Council of Fates turned up and asked the two of them to join the Council in leading a party to the door in the lowest land. And not just a party, caravan. Thousands of people. An expedition to the outer world.
What they would need from Alta was a power source like none the world had ever seen. The Council believed that they understood enough of the runes to pry open the door with brute force. For that force, they needed Alta.
Alta said yes. But that wasn’t what threw Lucretia.
What threw Lucretia was she could tell that Alta meant it.
Alta laughed softly before speaking. “Maybe I’m tired. Tired of all this. The constant need for vengeance. Maybe this is me… letting go.”
Lucretia gave Alta a sour look.
Chuckling, Alta shrugged. “Who knows. I might reach that point someday. But you are right, not yet. Maybe… I don’t know how to explain. What did you see in that land, Lucretia?”
Back and forth Lucretia had gone in the previous weeks over whether to lie. But ultimately, Lucretia realized that it didn’t matter. Alta’s bindings to both her and Randidly were too tight for mere words to throw anything off. “I saw… myself. The way that I was tricked. The way I was played by my own game… and just like everyone else, I wanted it, by the end.”
Pursing her lips, Alta said. “Strange. I saw… a portion of the Progenitor’s life. It was a hell of a sort. Maybe part of the reason that I agreed to help is that I have a suspicion that if the world outside of the World Tree is anything like that, going there would be the best sort of vengeance…”
After trailing off, Alta’s eyes unfocused. Lucretia waited. But as she did so, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. This empty and listless Alta was the scariest version of her mistress that she ever encountered. It was so casual, so matter of fact.
“... more than that though, I can understand why the Progenitor created the world the way he did. I understand him.” Alta looked up toward the ceiling, as though she could peer straight upwards into Randidly’s soul from here. “He fought for every bit of what he earned, I see that now. That is what this place is. A ladder with nothing at the top. Because the point is only to climb and control and devour. So if they want me to open a door…”
Alta’s smile was crooked and broken. “I’ll open a door for them. An unforgettable door that will never close. Why not let everything be washed away into oblivion?”
Lucretia’s hands tightened. “The Abyssal Sea? To break that barrier keeping it back… you’d need to hurt the World Tree in a big way. If you do that, it is unclear whether this world would survive.”
Alta just smiled. “Would you tell me no?”
“I’d ask you if you thought it through.” Lucretia countered.
Alta shrugged. “Creta, the world is falling to pieces. The World Tree is the battlefield of two forces that are doing just as much damage as I could. Soon, the Lands might separate into dozens of smaller protrusions. The world as we know it will have ended. Beckoning that doom closer hardly seems sinister. It’s just efficient.”
“You know just as well as I that those energies are balancing out,” Lucretia said quietly. “That new energy… even you have to admit that the applications for power and mechs are endless. THAT is the energy source you’ve been waiting for. The Genesis mech frames… all the plans-”
Alta’s sharp glance cut Lucretia short. “Are you truly thinking of preventing me from following this Path? Here and now? After all we’ve been through?”
“Never,” Lucretia’s voice was just a breath. “I’ll follow you to the end. But I won’t let you walk coyly into the darkness. Stride boldly as you make to burn the world down, Alta. Or I will twist your arm until it breaks.”
There was a tremor in the grey flowers at Alta’s core. The fragile plants seemed to breathe. The petals spread outward. Slowly, the blackthorns that dotted the stalks grew larger and more sharpened. Alta’s eyes flickered, that twisted smile hanging on the corner of her mouth.
“Fine,” Alta said with a sigh. “Creta, we have been given the keys to the world. With that energy, I can make technologies that would be the foundation of a utopia. But this world doesn’t deserve it. This world doesn’t deserve your clear eyes or the Council’s escape to a better realm… no. This world deserves… me.”
Alta pressed her hands to the table. “And I’m going to blow it up. This is a toy I can break, and I’m going to because I can. That is power.”
“Then let’s plan,” Lucretia said lightly. But Alta shook her head.
“Not now, not yet. I’m still figuring things out. For now… send Danz to my quarters.” Alta turned to go.
Now, Lucretia’s frown deepened. As if sensing it, Alta stopped and gave Lucretia an amused glance. “What? Just because you remain a virgin doesn’t mean I need to be. Besides, he enjoys it just as much as I do.”
“If he really enjoyed it so much, why-” Lucretia began, but then she stopped herself.
Laughing, Alta waved her hand and walked away. Lucretia made a mental note to send for some healing potions so that Danz’s injuries would be quickly healed. That helped, somewhat, to shake the funk that always seemed to hang around him after Alta spent a night with him. Getting rid of the bruises helped shake some of the reminders.
But it didn’t fix the internal wounds.
Lucretia walked over to to the table and lightly touched the spot where Alta had pressed her hands against the table. Some of the wood had worn away, leaving an ashy powder. Sighing, Lucretia wiped it away and left the room to find Danz. It was a small thing, but Lucretia always preferred to do these sort of tasks herself. Just like she insisted with Alta, she would not look away from the horrors she committed.
She found him in the workshop, as usual. Just like Alta, Danz realized the potential of this strange emerald form of energy that emerged. It was related to the original life force in the World Tree, but this energy… it was electrifying. It behaved so curiously that all the tech people who had noticed it were full of ideas.
When she stopped next to him, Danz looked up with an annoyed glance. It only took one look for him to realize what was happening.
It wasn’t quite Alta’s beauty that made him always acquiesce, but that was part of it. It wasn’t the crush he had nurtured for almost thirty years, that heady and sick allure that only the broken people can have. It wasn’t the precarious nature of his job, nor the looming threat of silencing that had become increasingly apparent to him as he witnessed Alta’s meteoric rise to power.
It was all of these things and none of them.
It was also, Lucretia forced herself to admit, because Danz trusted her. And as long as she asked, he would go.
“I’ll finish up in a minute,” Danz said shortly. And true to his word, he quickly finished his tinkering and began to wash his hands.
As the water rushed out, Danz let out a whisper so quiet that the sound of water covered it up. “Do you think… she could find it in herself to love me?”
Lucretia didn’t answer.