The last vestiges of light faded beyond the mountains. A dark shadow swept across the land as a confetti of stars twinkled through the twilight sky. One moment, it had been as bright as day. The next, not so much. The formerly pleasant breeze shifted to a chilly wind, stinging against Alyssa’s face and neck.
She hadn’t intended to stay out after dark. Upon setting out, she had vowed to begin the trek back to her… ‘home’ or whatever that building was if it got too late. But seeing the city in the distance awoke an eager longing for things to return to normal.
It hadn’t looked so far away from atop the hill. She had thought she would make it by lunchtime and still have plenty of time to return afterward if she needed. It didn’t help matters that her cell phone said it was only seven thirty in the evening. There should have been plenty of time before dark at the very least.
Which just meant that she was further from home than she thought. Maybe in another time zone even.
Alyssa clasped her hands to her arms, rubbing them up and down in an attempt to keep warm. A few hand warmers would have been nice to have. Her mother liked to attend football games at the local college, many of which were in the winter. Alyssa knew they had both chemical warmers and the fancy rechargeable electronic ones. It would have been a simple matter to slip them into her bag.
She just hadn’t thought about it.
Two grievous errors and it hadn’t been a full day yet.
The only reason she hadn’t panicked yet was her ability to create fire. The hatchet and fire starting equipment in her backpack would work fine on plenty of the trees she had passed. Probably. Any wood she collected from the trees might be too green to ignite well. Still, there should be dead branches scattered on the ground around the trees.
“Besides,” she mumbled to herself as she breathed hot air onto her hands, “it isn’t that cold yet. The city can’t be far.” While she could see light over the top of the next hill, she couldn’t help but wonder how often those words were the last from the mouths of people who froze to death.
Just one more hill. If the city wasn’t over the top of it, she would… probably go on to the next hill. Spending the night outside did not appeal to her in the slightest. She hadn’t brought any kind of sleeping bag or tent.
And those ravens. Even in the barely-there light from the gray moon, Alyssa could see the beady little eyes watching her. Every tree she passed had a raven perched on the branches. She never saw them fly around and she never saw more than one at a time. Either they were everywhere, or one of them was sneaking around following her. Probably the latter. They all looked the same with their sleek black feathers and fiendish tuft beneath their beaks.
She could have turned on her flashlight and probably scared off the birds. However, if there were real predators around, the light might as well be a giant ‘all you can eat buffet’ sign. The moon had enough light. For now. If it dipped below the horizon as well, she would have no choice. But it wouldn’t for a while. The moon hung high in the sky, almost dead center. The rings were still present as well. She wasn’t sure how much light came off those, but a decent amount at least.
The more she walked, the more a scent tickled at her nose. A familiar scent, but one that she hadn’t been able to place until just now. Mint. Fields of fresh green mint. One of Alyssa’s favorite things about driving out on country roads. Of course, being in a car put a little space between her and the fields, even if she had the windows down. Actually walking through the knee-high plants was more akin to stuffing a bottle of mint extract up her nose. Far less pleasant, but she supposed there were worse smells around.
Roadkill skunk, the meatpacking plant, even the dairy farm constantly had a foul cloud of manure hanging about the place. In that respect, she much preferred the mint.
Reaching the top of the next hill, Alyssa froze in her tracks, all thoughts of smell vanished from her mind.
The city lay just at the bottom of the gentle slope. She had made it.
And yet… city just didn’t fit what she saw. Even town was too large of a word. Village? Maybe. Almost more of a commune. If it weren’t for the buildings being constructed from cobblestone halfway up then wood from there with slate tile roofs, she might have thought she had stumbled upon some sort of nomadic tribe. Most looked to be no larger than her parents’ bedroom. A few might have even been smaller. Two larger buildings sat to one side of the main village. They might have been barns with their large sides and angled roofs.
Black marble stretched high into the sky behind the village, towering over the tiny hovels. She had almost missed it with with how the silhouette blended into the night. Only recalling the structure from when she had first seen the village and seeing it block out the rings in the sky made her look close enough to see it. And it didn’t match the village at all. Even aside from its material, it stood at least six stories tall, three times the height of the highest barn. That wasn’t including its steeples. Sharp Gothic spires with toothed edges capped the four corners with a fifth in the very center, higher than the rest. Tall windows glinted in the darkness, each with sharp arches at the top.
Alyssa stood staring at the unsettling building. Maybe if it had some lights brightening the steeples and windows, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it didn’t. Only the moon lit its dark, angled surfaces.
Even more ominous, a graveyard stretched out just behind it. She could see thousands of tiny tombstones, all in the same upright style with a pointed, triangular top. It had to be at least the size of the village. Maybe larger. And its inhabitants were packed in far denser than those of the small homes.
A gust of cold wind kicked up, forcing Alyssa into motion. Even if it was the scariest building she had ever seen complete with a giant graveyard next to it, she couldn’t stand around all night on the top of a hill.
Despite the apparently late hour, the city hadn’t fallen to sleep in the slightest. A bonfire raged in the center of the city with flames licking almost as high as the barns. People danced and partied around it. She could see their tiny figures rhythmically moving around the bonfire, occasionally dipping down all at once only to raise their hands above their heads in the next step.
Making her way down, Alyssa found her elation dying as she noticed more details about the village. Or rather, its people. As she made her way through the dirt streets, she passed by people gathered in groups. Everyone drank and laughed, several waved and smiled to her. A friendly bunch by all appearances. But their clothes had Alyssa feeling uncomfortable just looking at them. The cloth looked rough and shoddy. Perhaps not shoddy, but handmade. Entirely. As if not a single modern machine had been involved at any point during the construction of their outfits.
The men all wore long sleeve shirts with some kind of vest on top. The colors varied between black and brown for the vest, white and brown for the shirt. The women all wore long dresses that just barely didn’t drag on the ground. Both styles of clothes included a healthy coating of dirt. Some of the brown shirts might have been white at some point in time. Everyone without exception had some sort of hat covering the top of their heads.
Alyssa jolted, realizing that one of them was speaking to her.
An older gentleman who, like most of the men around, had a full beard of scraggly hairs hanging from his chin. One hand loosely held the reins for a donkey that trailed just behind him, hauling a wagon filled with barrels that made a rickety squeak every few steps. He approached with a kind smile hidden behind his beard.
“Can I offer you a drink?” he asked, moving around to the side of his wagon and pulling a thick wooden mug from the back.
“No!” she said before he could start filling it from one of the kegs. Realizing how her outburst might have sounded and not wanting to offend the man while she needed help, she quickly added, “I mean, no thank you. Perhaps later. Actually, I need… I was hoping…” Alyssa trailed off, glancing around at the people, their clothes, the buildings, and finally the strange moon and rings in the sky. With a sigh, she looked back at the man. “I don’t suppose you know where America is?”
“America,” he repeated, running his meaty fingers through his beard. “Can’t say I know anyone with that name. Traveling companion of yours?”
“Something like that,” Alyssa said, shoulders slumping. That had been roughly what she had expected. Between the sky, how and where she woke, and this village, she had the distinct feeling that she wasn’t on Earth anymore. This all but confirmed it.
Apparently sensing her dejection, the man clasped a hand on her shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze. “Don’t worry. You’ll want to check in with Yzhemal at the inn. Not a soul stops in town without him knowing.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” she mumbled just as a sharp whistle split the air. Alyssa jumped, looking around until she noticed the trail of sparks in the sky over the bonfire. With a sharp crack, the air filled with colorful sparks. Several more whistles went off, each one accompanied by a crack and then lights in the sky.
The man, who had turned to watch the fireworks, clapped his hands together twice and bowed his head.
Once he finally lifted his head—Alyssa hadn’t wanted to interrupt him—she cleared her throat and said, “Some kind of festival going on?”
“You don’t know?” He turned back, still smiling but it no longer reached his dark eyes. “I’m sorry. I had assumed you were here on pilgrimage. Many take pilgrimage to participate in Messis Vespere.” Apparently seeing the blank look in her eyes, he continued. “For three days, we celebrate the beauty and grace of the divine Tenebrael with a grand closing ceremony in front of her temple at nightfall on the third day.”
“T-Tenebrael, I see,” Alyssa said, forcing herself to smile despite her increasingly dour mood. Figures, she would wind up in a town full of sycophants to that sadistic angel.
“You’ve heard of Her? Good, good!” Once again, his smile reached his eyes.
“You could say that.”
“Then come! Drink! Make merry! For the night is young and we have only just begun!”
The others in the street all raised their glasses and cheered out a joyous holler.
Alyssa felt her smile grow ever more strained. She had no desire to offend them. Especially not with anything that might be considered heresy against their ‘divine Tenebrael.’ Facing a lynch mob didn’t seem too healthy. At the same time, she had no desire to participate in celebrating such a terrible being.
“Actually, if you don’t mind, would you direct me to that inn? I fear my travels have made me quite weary.”
His face fell, but only for a moment. “Certainly,” he said. “Perhaps you might celebrate on the morrow.”
“Yeah. That sounds wonderful,” she said, hoping her flat voice was convincing enough.