Aaro and I step foot just outside the Chamber of Council, a large portion of the crowd still crashing around us in a massive tide. We run towards the sheer stone wall that opens up towards the main town, screams still crawling their way out behind us. Aaro grabs my arm.
“Wait… this isn’t enough.”
I hear her, turning my gaze back toward the audience. “What?!”
“There aren’t enough people. Why are so many still inside?”
I ignore the basis of her statement, and instead think of my father and Liet. Nobody was prepared for this, so any emberstrand in the chamber would have had to run to headquarters to equip themselves. They aren’t used to moving in a mass operation- they’ll be longer still.
“Aaro. Are you alright?"
Of course she isn't. I just need to double check that she's not heavily injured first. Her eyes dot around the area before settling back on mine. She nods. I give her shoulder a reaffirming squeeze.
"Wait here for Sekra, and take him into the town center. I’ll be back soon.”
She looks to me as I turn. She's still tense, but it appears that her fear has hardened into focus. It reminds me of myself six years ago. I run before she can protest, squeezing my way through the crowd. I’m not in my armor, I’m unarmed, unready- yet I have to do something. I can't let my father suffer the same way the the others did.
I climb the steps, feeling the gravity of the world around me weighing on my center, dragging me below the surface of comprehension. I try to find anything on my person, anything even close to resembling an actual weapon. I tear off a portion of my cloak’s sleeve, thread the material through the central slot of each of the cino coins in my pocket, and wrap it around my fist, settling thin dull metal edges between my fingers.
It takes me a surprisingly minimal time to ascend the stairs. It's truly surprising how stress can extend a moment of time indefinitely.
Liet and my father are together in the arena below, staring down at a disembowled, heavily armored man below. A haunting sound echoes up to me- my father is laughing, or sobbing, or something of both. One of the armored men stands tall, looking strong even without his helmet. He watches, haunted. An eidelion is chained to him. I grip my makeshift weapon tight, angry at the easy dominance of our predators. How has it not broken the chain yet? He should be half a corpse by now. I hear commotion to my left. I watch as a small family grieves over the leftover matter of a loved one. They are watched over by the armor-clad man standing stoic near them, his hand still on his blade hilt. The mother turns to face him, tears streaming down her face.
“Why? You came to us for a reason. Why would you take him?”
He carefully relinquishes his grip on the blade, reaches behind him to the back of the helmet, and slides a lever. Steam hisses from beneath the mask as he lifts it. He can’t be older than nineteen. His short blonde hair is pressed flat against his head from the tight fit of the helmet. His expression is haunted, his eyes locked with hers. It takes him a moment to formulate words- our tongue.
“They told me to dig.”
“Edom, please, calm yourself.”
Liet. Of course it’s Liet. Commander of the emberstrand, blade of ascension, Ranger of the Black Maw. The one blessed with stone-cold determination, a complete lack of moral quandaries, the steady hand guiding every fucking operation. Now she tells me to be calm. She forgets that I'm half as strong as she.
I stop, my breathing ragged. “Calm myself? How? HOW, LIET?” I look from her, to the soldier, then back to her. That's it- she- she's toying with me. Throwing me off the matter at hand.
“Were you in contact with him?”
She backs up slowly. I can see her grip the sword tighter.
“For the last time, Edom, I don’t know anything.”
I point a finger. “Lies. You were the one who read the signature. You would have seen the outline of the machinery on the magnet screen. It must be massive. You knew, Liet. It was YOUR responsibility to tell us.”
She shakes her head. No. Of course she says no.
“The council was going to be our gathering to inform the public of the incoming threat, so we could all plan and organize together.”
“But you knew it was a much bigger threat than even the one we encountered this morning. You could have thrown the town into crisis protocol. We have plans in place.”
“I did, true. But what would we have done? Thrown the populace to the surface, risk them going into the Maw, scrambled together an unorganized plan, trained them to fight without any previous experience? Staying here was the best choice.”
I shake my head. “Your best choice led them to us and our people to death.”
She smirks. “You know that’s unfair, Edom. Why don’t you just walk our people into the Maw? That’d be leading them to hell instead.”
I turn to the soldier. He still has his hand readied over his weapon. I can't do this. Not now. I put my suspicions elsewhere.
“You. I'm assuming you didn’t send scouts further ahead? They would have seen the gates and been welcomed before then.”
He nods. “As stated, we simply assumed there were no others in the Forest of Lost Souls. We’ve known that for so long." He turns to gather his immediate surroundings. "This structure must be a fair distance from the gate.”
The Forest of Lost Souls. He makes it sound so poetic. Just another fanciful landscape to trample. I refuse to answer his question. The geography makes me think for a moment, realizing the catastrophe that would occur had they hit the guild’s headquarters. There would’ve been nobody to guide, nobody to help.
He takes a deep breath. “I’m stunned to see others here. Where did you come from? Are you civilian vagrants from one of the Pillars?”
I get closer to him, flicking my wrist and sending his ally's blood flying from the rookclaw. His soldiers draw their weapons, but he motions for them to stand down. I resume the threat. “Do we look like fucking vagrants? I’m not sure if you noticed, but we've built an entire world underground to survive. I’m not telling you anything more. We ask the questions. You answer.”
He nods. “Very well.”
I begin. “What do you mean by Pillars?”
He thinks for a moment, trying to find the best way to explain. “We have been organized into a central organizational system known as the Pillars of Cistria. Although we overall work together under the same system, it is made up of seven Pillars total. We are from Centralis, the furthest established pillar inland. That’s why we were exploring further- we want to expand and establish new research stations.”
I try to formulate my thoughts as he speaks, the whirring sound of their armored suits echoing around in my head. This is all I've wanted to know, the grand answer, and yet all I feel is dread. This will either reinforce my faith or destroy it entirely. “How many humans are there, outside of the Pillars? Groups like us?”
He shakes his head. “None. Just the pillars and, as far as we know, you.”
He pauses after Liet stops him, mid-explanation. “Edom. I know you are the most curious of us all, but we can’t trust them. He could be lying, for all we know. This could have been a directed attack.” She looks at the creature chained to his hand. “They do possess eidelion.”
She's right. Despite him giving me information, it could all be a ruse- simply a way to keep me from breaking his neck. It could be a lie. And yet, for the moment, I have been given an answer. There are other humans. It's just that they may be just as cruel as the gods from the stories we were raised on. It will have to be enough.
I lend him my focus. “Listen. Our entire goal as a guild is to search for solutions to the questions of the world around us. If this was an action of malice, then I will gut you where you stand. If this truly was just a needless incident, then I will let you be the answer. Your men will pay in some way regardless- trust me. If you follow our orders, however, that punishment may just be a permanent exile from Ios. I need your word.”
He stares through me, incredibly tense. The thundering sound of footsteps comes into focus, drawing close. The gate to our right is unlocked, the doors loudly thrown aside as a group of emberstrand enter, all clad in the standard uniform, their hoods up. The front line, a collection of six coremag riflemen, take aim and kneel. The lieutenant calls, her voice booming around the chamber.
“Commander Liet, we just need your command."
Liet raises her hand. “Pathetically late for being emberstrand, all of you. Please, stand down.” She turns to the leader in front of us. “What is your name, invader?”
He responds, incredibly calm for being nearly shredded by probelled metal. “I am Gierant, Destine Commander of the eighth expedition lance of Centralis." He pauses, smirking. "Ios. Is that this city, or your people?"
I ignore the title- and his sly remark. “Gierant. Hmm.” I wipe the roockclaws on my armor, the blood running from them. “I am Edom, head expedition leader and second in command. And this is Liet, head commander of the emberstrand. You’re going to get the excellent opportunity to become very, very familiar with us, whether you’re here to help or slaughter.” I lean closer to him. “And so far, you’re treading far closer to the latter."
I can feel the uneasy energy radiating from the emberstrand to our side. They still have their weapons leveled, waiting for any sign of conflict. It would be one thing for them to be protecting their second in command, but they have an undeservedly raised level of appreciation for me after my actions years ago. Nearly equal with Liet, they see me as a hero. I wish they knew how much of a lie that was.
“Gierant. I want you to contact the others in your command. Tell them to move forward until they reach the gate. You, your men, and most of our emberstrand will go to the surface. There we will determine your true intention, away from our civilians.”
Gierant bows. “Of course. I intend to follow your every word- the only thing I wish to do is pay back the lives that we’ve taken.”
It sounds vain, false to me, though I certainly have reasons to be suspicious. He carries on. “I do have one simple request, however.”
Liet snarls. “You are in no place to make requests!”
He levels his hand. “All I ask is that I can give Briya a proper burning.”
It takes me a moment to recognize what he’s talking about. My eyes settle on the soldier I’ve killed, his helmet partially shattered, melded with the gory mess I made. His body lies limp in an unnatural position, as if he is a doll casually tossed aside like a child. I feel a grim sense of justice wash over me. I despise it. For a moment I imagine Ariei in a similar position, as if it was she who died in place of braham.
Liet’s voice wanders through the air. “Edom, are you all right?”
I look from her to Gierant. Both are showing concerned expressions. I hadn’t realized how rigid, tense I became.
“Yes. We will carry him to the surface. You will be able to have your ceremony However, you will be under the watching eyes of our emberstrand during. Understood?”
He nods. “Of course.”
We parade our way through the main city, the invaders of Centralis huddled together in the center of a ring of emberstrand. The civilians can’t quite make out what to think- some view us as heroes, while others are traumatized, angry at our uselessness at protecting them. Others are evangelical for the Centralians, viewing our capturing of them as sinful, as us taking control over our own gods. Every single person with medical knowledge we have is busy at the medical ward, the outside crowded with wounded civilians and their families, fighting to be the next to receive care. I want to express this to the invaders, to use it as an expression of the pain they’ve caused. But, deep down, I acknowledge the potential concept of all of this being a cruel twist of fate- our own existence is one, after all.
Regardless, they bombard us equally with questions and fuming anger, just the same as they did hours before when Ariei and I descended. For the first time in my life, I feel true, utter contempt for them- not because I view them as antagonists, but because, in this moment, they are the overbearing noise that fills my head, combining to make a terrible mental miasma with the doubt and wonder and rage and hate and-
“What is it?”
She thinks her response over. “Are you alright?”
We’re nearing the lift now. I can’t wait to leave this oppressive hole. I hadn't realized, but I'd delivered my last response in a harsh tone. “...Yes. Are you? What about your friends?”
“I’m fine. Sekra and Aaro, too. Although Aaro is… struggling, mentally.”
I nod. “That’s understandable, the poor girl. She couldn't have expected what happened tonight. None of us did.”
She continues. “Father, I- I'm sorry to say it, but Visia is dead. She was crushed.”
I stop in my tracks, one of the soldiers behind me almost colliding with me. I apologize, and keep moving. I can’t add this to my current stress. I have to compartmentalize.
“I’m sorry you had to see it firsthand, Ariei.”
She looks at me. “That’s it?”
“That’s your only reaction? I thought it would affect you more. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
I try to formulate the best way to express my thought process. “A lot is changing right before us, Ariei. We’ll discuss it later.”
She changes the subject. “What do you know, father?”
“It’s not the gods, Ariei. You were right for doubting. They don’t exist.”
We near the excursion point, the sky darkening to a grim red. Emerit is the first to greet us. He rushes forward. His grand composure has crumbled away, replaced with the hunger for knowledge we have all been consumed by. He sees the Centralians behind us and pauses, awestruck. His eyes settle on their armor.
“Edom. The mechanisms-”
I stare through the eye slits in his mask. “Now is not the time, Emerit.”
“Alright. Alright… Edom, I’ve heard things I've never heard before. Thunderous crashes, as though a hundred trees have collapsed over the course of fifteen minutes.”
I can’t imagine what he’s referring to. It must be moving closer at this point. I turn to Gierant. “What is it? Your transportation structure?”
He nods. “Indeed, although you may want to rephrase. It is only partially a structure.”
Emerit rushes towards the control panel, quickly lowering the main bridge. What I see a fair distance away is such a shock that it manages to finally silence every other conflicting idea and thought that bounces around in my head, focusing me entirely on a sight constructed equally of flesh and machinery. A colossal eidelion- unlike any species I've seen- stands tall ahead of us, towering far above the treeline. It rests on four massive, tree-thick legs that pummel the ground with earth-shaking impacts. It is wrapped in thick, coarse bioluminescent green skin, its head massive, its face flat and nearly rectangular, the eidelion’s sigil glowing at the front.
A group of twenty more Centralians march alongside it, carrying themselves with pride, nary a sign of exhaustion visible from their movements. The beast is covered in a massive structure, a mobile city. It has been built onto the eidelion from the start. It is roughly rectangular in shape, blocks of buildings varying in height erupting into taller cylinders at each corner. The transport drills that struck us hang below the rim of the structure in an organized manner, ready to descend again. A blue flag displaying the Centralis sigil waves high above us- further bolstered by hanging banners along each side- and strange lengthy weapons that slightly resemble coremag rifles are equipped in a circular formation around the rim. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of people aboard.
Emerit is frozen in place. Ariei’s breath quickens as she looks ahead. I squeeze her shoulder, trying to comfort her in any way I can.
“Here they are.” Gierant sounds equally happy to see his comrades, and terrified of telling them of the atrocity they performed. “The brave soldiers of Centralis.”