There were many things which every child of the Pure had been taught to fear. The demons, which might undo all our labours without cause, and could kill without a care. Magic, that unseen and alluring force which corrupted mankind. Allegedly. Fire, which could set the world ablaze unless we took every imaginable effort to prevent its creation. The nightwalkers, who wielded magic and were said to direct the demons. And the darkness, where the Great Maker's light did not touch, the nightwalkers dwelt, and the unknown lurked.
On a normal night, a potted mushroom night-light would prevent complete darkness from taking hold as I slept in my comfortable bed. My journey through the realm of dreams would not be disturbed by the soft sounds of breathing or the occasional distant animal noise. Tonight, none of that was true. Tonight, I sat in complete darkness. Closing my eyes did not help, because I knew that opening them would reveal nothing. The darkness seemed thick, hiding possible unknown cargo and the enclosing walls. Instead of sharing a room with my sister, I was alone with the mage who was responsible for my predicament. The noise of wheels on rails was constant, masking the sound of our breaths. The semi-regular 'kerclunk-kerclunk' every time we passed over a joint made our terrifying speed obvious. My only comfort came from the thin fireproof blanket wrapped around my shoulders. At least I was safe from burning.
I repeatedly reminded myself that I was safe. Nothing in the railcar wanted to hurt me. Carlos had to know what he was doing. We would simply continue moving along this track for a while, and then the train would safely stop, and Skids and I would get out and walk... that was something to deal with later. I was fine. I was travelling further from home than I had ever been, faster than I had ever gone, and I could see nothing. But I was fine.
I had to think about something other than panicking. Something other than the family I might never see again. Something other than the hive full of mages I was hurtling ever closer to. Something other than the uncontrollable shakes which had taken over my body.
'When all else fails, there is the Great Maker, and the Codex.' That was another thing I had been taught from childhood. There were some sections which I did not want to consider right now, but there were plenty of innocuous parts full of exacting detail in which I could safely lose myself. Housing regulations. Land allotments. The sacred histories. The giving of tributes to the clerics and to the Great Maker. The injunction against war and associated concepts. The methods of sacred makings. Each of these I recited in my head, every sub-clause and every word. The thoughts raced through my head in time with the rhythm of the wheels.
I had no idea how much time had passed. Not enough. I was still huddled on the wooden floor of the utterly dark railcar. Skids was presumably still with me. I had no way of knowing. Had dro somehow abandoned me while I was deep in thought? No, that wasn't possible. Or could magic do that? Perhaps not. Magic seemed rather limited, or else Skids hadn't learned any truly powerful magic. Just moving a few metal things around. And that magical box. The scryer. That seemed powerful, but also utterly mundane in its practical application. Take away the magical way of forming the lights and it was just a map.
Of all the mages I might have met, it had to be one who hardly knew anything about magic. Here I was, presumably exiled for magic exposure and trapped with a mage who seemed to owe me. My only realistic options were actually visiting a mage hive, or dying from my injury. Of all potential situations that one of the Pure might face, this was the one in which learning more about magic seemed to be a reasonable choice. But no, I was stuck with a mage who was next to useless at the main thing Mages were known for.
I was annoyed that I could not learn magic, I realised. Perhaps after I no longer had to worry about dying, I could find a more useful mage. Both the healers and the educators were 'carer' mages, if I had understood Skids correctly. At the least, I should be able to learn something about how magical healing worked. But for now, I was stuck in the dark with a sleeping drone who only knew how to do manual labour.
I could not escape the realisation that I was impatient about learning magic. I wanted to learn magic. Though I was well aware of my desire to learn things regardless of whether I was allowed to — hence my occasional stealthy reading of my brothers' textbooks — magic was utterly forbidden to all the Pure. This was a new low. An attitude like mine was why we often called the mages traitors to humanity. Even without the accidental magic exposure, I deserved exile. I was not worthy to be counted among the Pure. I did not deserve to go home.
I... I had left so many things at home undone. My new curtains were unfinished. I had never told Mother my favourite pasta recipe. My personal bottles of shampoo and conditioner would never be finished, as Chastity and Chynella disliked the scent I preferred. Chalice probably did not like it either, but she was strangely averse to any discussions about hair care.
Those were some odd places my mind jumped to. I was grabbing at leaves as the wind blew them through my mind.
Chalice had been right when she implied that I was rebellious. If she could see me now... If only I could see me now. Or anything.
Maybe I should wake up Skids. At least then I wouldn't be alone with my thoughts. Or I could poke Skids. Just to make sure dro was really still here.
'Dro'. How odd was it that I was thinking in mage words? For all my complaints about Skids being useless, I had still learned a lot more about mages than I had ever expected to know. I had also learned that there was something called 'aether' and that the weapon used to crash the log wagon, bend the rails, and open the bakery door was called an 'aether-boosted artificial magestone'. Magestones could be used by anyone to sense and manipulate magic. And whatever aether was, it could be stored in bottles. That was a starting point.
Further speculation was pointless, and I did not want to think about the codex any more if I could help it, so I turned my mind to mathematics. For a time, there was only numbers and the relations between them. Rules with no judgement, only logic. From memory, I plotted solar trajectories and derived the timing of stellar events. With my head full of arcs and numbers, I was barely aware of the rhythm of the rails and the minor changes in direction and grade. I was in the process of reminding myself how the morning star's motion operated when the train began to noticeably reduce its speed.
"Skids? We are stopping. Are you there? Hello?" After the mage repeatedly failed to respond to my calls, I started feeling around in the dark. I was no longer sure what direction dro was in relation to me. I moved carefully, so I did not hurt myself on a wall. I did find something solid, but it was curved rather than flat. Skids' helmet. I tapped on it.
"Huh-wha? Oh, Sharidy," Skids muttered. "We're there?"
"I hope so."
Skids took several seconds to respond. "Hello? Did you hear... Oh, sorry. Just a moment. There, I can hear you now. Whoops."
"I said I hope we are there. Uh, what did you just do?"
"There was no way I could sleep with all the train noise, so I, um... My helmet can alter what I hear."
With a few final clunks and creaks, the train stopped entirely. Silence joined the darkness.
"I guess we have to feel for the door," I said.
A pure white light momentarily blinded me. "Whoops, that's a bit much," Skids said. "That's better. Tada! Mage light."
I opened my eyes and saw much of the interior of the railcar was illuminated by a less overpowering light, which issued forth from Skids' hand. "Now that will be very useful," I said, pleased.
We quickly unlatched the door and slid it open so we could clamber down to the immobile ground. The chilly wind whipped me into complete wakefulness. Skids closed the door securely and flashed the light in the direction of the engine to signal Carlos. We stepped off the gravel rail-bed, and the train proceeded on without us.
"Here we are," I said, for want of anything better.
Skids examined dro's scryer. "Yeah, this is the right spot. From here, it's approximately east to Yiwarra. And south-ish to where Nearton's Bend was."
I was glad our route did not include going all the way to the end of the rails. I had heard that the rails had been cut clean across by the demons that had erased the city. Now there was just flat, empty ground for a few kilometres, and on the other side of the former city, rails from nowhere to Miranda. "Carlos is likely delivering something to the depot," I said. "It will be taken across the gap with other goods by horse wagon some time tomorrow morning, and from there out to Miranda by another train."
"What's the depot?" Skids asked, as we began climbing the embankment on the east side of the rails.
"It is simply a makeshift shelter built over the last part of the tracks. Because it is within the safe building corridor of the railway, the demons ignore it."
"Ah. So... I'm not sure how to ask this, but what's up with the whole 'demons wiping out a whole city' thing? I mean, what happened to the safe zone?"
I shrugged awkwardly as I crawled up the rocky slope, then realised that Skids could not actually see me, as the magelight was pointed in front of us. "No one knows. One day they just decided there was no safe zone around Nearton's Bend and started eating buildings. Some foolish people tried fighting them. They damaged a few and nearly destroyed one. That just brought more and stronger ones."
"Yeah, from what I've heard from the casters, attacking a demon is a really bad idea unless you can kill it instantly. Even that isn't always enough to stop it from summoning help. ABAMs are said to knock out the small ones though."
"You mean they attack mages too? I thought..." I had been led to believe that the mages dwelt among demons.
"You thought we controlled them? Yeah I heard stories that the 'sun-wits' believe that, but it isn't true. Mostly."
"Mostly?" Terrible images of imagined horrors filled my mind, and I stopped in place. We had reached the top of the embankment. We were now officially off the tracks and in unsafe territory. I could not see very far, but what I could see was fairly flat grassland, with a few distant trees looming in the darkness.
"Er... I suppose there's no harm in telling you. Over at Ganayanda hive the seers have a bunch of projects related to demon research, and that includes controlling them. But I'm sure they'd never mess with the safe zones! If that was possible. I'm sure we have nothing to do with Nearton's Bend."
"As far as I know. I'm not an expert. But I'm sure you can find someone to explain it to you when you're not dying. Or freezing. Come on, we'll warm up if we get moving."
"Do you... Are there... Will I see..." I stumbled over the question. I should have thought about the possibility of facing demons before I was standing in the cold darkness in the middle of nowhere.
"Come on, Charity, there's nothing to worry about." Skids held up the rectangular scryer, which was visible due to its internal green glow. "This has demon bits in it. It won't hurt you."
"Uh..." I considered letting myself slide back down the embankment and taking the night train away from here. If I turned myself in I would soon be dead, but I would be away from the demons.
"You'll be fine. I promise." Skids stowed away the scryer and took my hand. "I won't let anything hurt you, alright? I'm not going to let this trip go to waste." The strong hand released my smaller one, and powerful legs began taking drome away from me.
I had to know, so I hurried to catch up. "What do you mean by that?"
"Hmm? Oh, I asked your Timothy about the missing person I'm trying to backtrack. As someone who provides people with food jur — sorry, I mean 'he' — would likely have heard about what I'm trying to find, but he hadn't. And the more I learn about your people, the more I doubt that I... that I'll find what I'm looking for among the sunwalkers. So instead, I'll make sure you get to safety."
"Oh. Thank you. I think?"
We walked on in silence for a few minutes. I did not feel any warmer, though it was possible that I noticed the cold a little less. For all its thinness, the blanket helped a lot in keeping the wind off me.
"So... you mentioned Ganayanda hive. I suppose that is not near here, right?"
"Nearer than some, but it's pretty far. East of the next of your cities past Nearton's Gap. Miranda, was it?"
"Yes. Miranda of the Universal Peace, if you want its full name."
"I would say that's a bit of a mouthful, but I live in 'Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts'. Yes, that's all part of the official name."
I remembered Skids had said that to Timothy. "Forrester's Crossing is just that. But our largest city is called 'The Empyreal Miracle of The Great Maker', though mostly we just call it 'Empyreal' or sometimes 'Mirror City'. That's where the chief clerics live. Um, do you call your city 'Wonambi' or do you always say the whole thing?"
"I always say it all. It's fun."
"Oh. So, about the mage hives. Are they all similar, or..?"
"In some ways, but each has its own focus. Well not Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts. It's just the largest, with a bit of everything."
"What's Yiwarra's focus? Since we are on our way there."
"They study the stars. Mainly the fast stars."
That was odd. "Really, the stars? What do mages care about the stars? I know they are only out at night, but what use are they to you? You have your scryer, so you do not need the stars for navigation."
Skids chuckled. "The fast stars sing to us magically."
"Well, not exactly. Some of the seers get poetic about naming things. Anyhow, the scryer somehow knows where it is by star songs. The demons do too, I'm told. I think thats why we use demon bits in the scryers. Maybe? The main thing is that the seers at Yiwarra are known for doing a lot of star song research. Hexers too."
"You shorten 'hexmages' but you say the full name of 'Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts'?"
"Yeah, so? Is that a problem?"
"I..." It was actually sort of funny, and that was a welcome distraction right now. "No."
"Good job remembering the whole thing, by the way," Skids said with more than a hint of awe.
"Thanks, I have a good memory."
"Good to hear. I might ask you to remember some things for me. I would forget my hands if they weren't attached to my arms."
"It is a blessing that you are not a butcher," I said, thinking of Timothy.
"Yeah, well if it wasn't for my scryer, I'd have no hope of getting my work done. So many very specific details that I'd have no hope of learning."
I thought back to what I had seen of the scryer. "Oh, right, it does more than just maps, right?"
"It sure does," Skids said, sounding proud of it. "But I'm not gonna show you while we're talking, or we'll walk into a tree or a hole."
Our conversation trailed off as we came to a hill and kept a quick pace up it. As we climbed, the trees grew closer together. This meant more shadows from the magelight, and we could not avoid passing close by the trees. Some had small animals living in them, though we could only see their eyes. They probably weren't demons.
Going down the other side of the hill was almost as much work as walking up had been. I came very close to falling over a few times, saved only by Skids grabbing my shoulder to steady me. Once we were back on flat ground we found a fallen tree to sit on and catch our breath while Skids consulted dro's scryer. "The entrance should be in that direction," dro said, pointing slightly north of our general trajectory. "Should be only another twenty minutes of walking."
"Fine," I said. All this was feeling like a strange dream or nightmare to me now. Walking ever onward through the darkness with nothing to protect me but a thin blanket and a semi-useful mage who I was only trusting out of curiosity and a lack of other viable options. My brain was half asleep and I had resigned myself to thoughtlessly following and hoping all this would be over soon.
Onward we walked. At some point I started counting my steps without any clear purpose in mind. My head did not seem to be aching so much, but my shivering was worrisome. I lost count of my steps and found myself counting again with no clear memory of any number before thirty.
"Are you aright there, Charity?" Skids asked. "You just about walked into a tree."
"Huh?" What was happening?
"I'm not going to carry you unless I absolutely have to. Not when I also have to keep pointing my magelight forward. Come on, we're almost there."
The walking continued for possibly another minute. Or five. It all felt about the same. At some point I realised we were stopped and Skids was rummaging around in dro's backpack again. "Here, put this on."
My bonnet was snatched away and I realised I was holding something fuzzy. The light shone on me and I saw that it was a blue wig. "What's this for?"
"So you don't stand out so much. Keep the blanket on too. You'll be fine." I eased the wig onto my head. It was rather uncomfortable over my actual hair.
"I should have put this on ages ago. It's warmer than my helmet," Skids complained to no one while adjusting dro's own orange wig.
I was just awake enough to evaluate what was going on. "That tells other mages you're a drone. And I'm pretending to be a seer?"
"Yeah, cos that's what I've got. Doesn't really matter though, but you would stand out with your hairstyle and no colour markings. We'll blend in well enough like this.
Something seemed out of place. "You have no tattoos, no orange clothes, and you can take off your orange wig. You don't seem very attached to being a drone." Wasn't that meant to be a primary part of mages' identity?
"Wow, observant, aren't you? Yeah, I'm fairly new to being a drone. Less than three years. I'm still... trying it out."
"What were you before?" I was prying, but I was too curious and sleepy to care.
"That's a story for another day," Skids said abruptly. "Let's get in out of the cold." Dro waved dro's arms around in a dramatic yet precise fashion. Magic, I realised.
A sound like grinding mixed with buzzing began somewhere beneath my feet. The earth pulsated, then began to tear open.
"Oh good, we're in the right place and it works. I've never done that before," Skids said. "Welcome to the hive."