“What if they’re right?”
“Right.” Percival chirped hoarsely. His mandibles clicked arrhythmically. “About?”
“About. What if it really is safer down here?”
“Does this look safe, Eli?”
Ellidina considered their surroundings. Percival – a sectum, a four-armed humanoid insect – stood in an identical stone cell opposite hers, separated by a clear material that wasn’t glass, with small holes so they could speak. Each room had an identical, seamless iron door. They had dim magical light five hours a day. This wasn’t one of them.
“Does this look like life? It was bad up there, it’s worse down here. If I don’t get a fix soon, I’m dead. If I’m dead, you’re lonely. Come on!”
“And if we try to escape, we’re both dead.”
“Definitely. But if we wait out our sentence, we’re golden. They’re delusional, but it really is terrible up there. This could be a new life. And you won’t die. You just miss the stingers.”
Footsteps outside. The guards were back. They switched to small talk, reminiscing about the surface, until they went to bed.
Ellidina didn’t sleep well that night, as she hadn’t the last several. Percival was clicking and puking and breathing strangely. He’d been a bit of a mess ever since they stopped giving him his drugs. He looked awful, too, even for an insect. She found herself longing for the hours when she could no longer see him.
For the brief time that sleep did find her, Ellidina did not dream. Not exactly. She remembered, because memories had become more valuable than dreams.
She remembered the day she was first brought to The Below. She remembered a white room that was bright without any light source. There was a table, and no door. She was unconscious when she entered and when she left. Across from her was an elf wearing the black and red armor of The Below guards. He was explaining why she was here – why she was being saved, and what she was being saved from. “Because she was lucky” and “The Void Lands,” respectively.
He told her that in time she would be allowed into First City, where she could live a life unlike anything on the surface. A life of purpose and security. He even showed her a painting of the city, a massive collection of towers and lights. He said that some days you don’t even remember you’re below the ground. Ellidina doubted that.
“But you won’t take me there now,” Ellidina said. “It’s just a big prison, that city. But you want to throw me in a smaller one first. Why?”
“You have indicated that you will resist assimilation,” the elf said patiently. “First City – all of our cities – they require a certain temperament.”
“Call it what you will. We’ve worked hard to ensure our stability, we will not allow it to be compromised. Additionally, you have harmed two of our guards, in clear violation of our laws. But we are forgiving here, when we afford it. You are sentenced only to a single year.”
“A year?! Do you know what a year is to my people? Of course you don’t, you’re an elf. You blink and a decade passes. For an avayla, a year passes and our parents have died, our children have matured, our friends have grown distant. You can’t do this.”
The elf shook his head. “You have my condolences. But we cannot change the rules based on an individual’s relationship with time. Perhaps if you’re well-behaved, you’ll see that your sentence is shortened.”
“Let me back up. Please. I won’t tell anyone what I saw here. I won’t. I just want my life back.”
“We’re protecting you, Ellidina. From an emptiness that threatens us all. You’ll come to recognize it eventually. Now, the sedatives should be kicking back in. Goodnight, Ellidina.”
Ellidina lunged across the table and grabbed the elf by the throat. His pale skin turned blue beneath her grip. She felt his life slip away beneath her hands, a sensation she wished she wasn’t familiar with. She took her own freedom into her hands, and she escaped.
No, she didn’t. She felt like she did. She urged herself with every muscle and neuron and ounce of will. But instead, she fell asleep.
When the guards knocked on the door, they had to go to the back wall, and place their arms and legs in the metal bracers attached to it, which locked shut of their own accord. They weren’t sure how the guards knew whether or not they’d done it, but they did.
Every day during their two meal times, the guards brought in a wooden frame on wheels. The top and bottom of the frame had similar metal bracers. One limb at a time, they were removed from the back wall and placed on the wheels. This all happened in complete silence.
Hanging from the contraption was painful, but it was a routine pain. One that had become almost pleasant, like the soreness that comes with a hard day’s work. They were wheeled in darkness and dimness through a number of tunnels, cell-blocks, and offices.
The mess hall, like the office where Ellidina was interviewed, had no doors. Her memory was always foggy between entering the final tunnel and standing in line for her meal, so she couldn’t say exactly how they got inside. There were exactly a hundred of them, and to The Below’s credit, the mess hall was spacious and accommodating. The food wasn’t bad, either.
Two days after their last escape conversation, Ellidina found Percival eating next to a halfling she didn’t recognize. They were playing some game of strategy using a blank paper and a large grid.
“Eli,” Percival said. “I’d like you to meet someone.”
“I’m Clint,” the man said. He had rough black skin, like a man who worked hard. His face was pleasant, but there was a despondent look in his dim eyes, just past the surface. Everyone had that look in The Below. “Clint Plunderton.”
Ellidina introduced herself.
“Pleasure. Percival was telling me about you. Didn’t mention you were an avayla. Guessing they clipped your wings?”
She shook her head as she sat down. “Not them. Fine folks of the Castiron city guard did that years ago. I guess they don’t take kindly to thieving and conning.”
Clint nodded. “Percival mentioned you were extralegal types. No judgement here; I knew plenty fine fellows who could say the same. Not that any of that matters here. Not much does.” He lowered his voice. “So we’re getting out.”
Ellidina shot Percival a look. Clint went on. “I work on the wall sometimes. They said I’m First City material, but they keep all Skymoorians in here for a time on account of…something or other. So they keep me busy. Make me useful. Trust me a bit more. Anyway there’s a section of wall, ‘bout two miles out, where the magic got weak, and they need to replace it, rewrite runes or something. Point is there’s a hole. A small one.”
“Two miles is a long way. Nobody makes it out half that far without getting ‘dated or killed,” Ellidina said. “You seem to have it nice here, Clint, compared to the rest of us. You’re willing to risk dying?”
Now Percival shot Ellidina a look like he thought she was being rude. Or maybe his eyes were just funny from withdrawal.
“Of course,” Clint said. “I have a life up there. A wife and daughter. I would do anything to get back to them.”
“I know,” Percival said. “Forgive my friend. Our lifestyle instills mistrust.”
Clint waived it off. “It’s fine. We’re more alike than you think. Enough introduction. Let’s talk details.”
They passed the remainder of meal time scribbling notes on the paper grid. When it was over, memories blurred, and they were each wheeled back to their cells for a day of monotony, silence, and, today, scheming.
When the guards left for evening patrol, Ellidina spoke.
“Do you really trust Clint?”
“Sure,” Percival said. His mandibles clicked twice. “Who doesn’t want out?”
“We’ve never seen him before. We’ve seen everyone before.”
“Why are you – he’s from another section! They move people all the time. Sorry to raise my voice, but.”
“Withdrawals, I know. He’s too friendly. And he just happens to work on the wall. Have you ever met anyone who works on the wall?”
“How long have you known him?”
“Eli! Do you want this chance or not?”
“It might not even be a chance! We might just die.”
“Better there than here.”
They said little and, eventually, they went to sleep.
When Ellidina awoke, she was being wheeled down a tunnel. But this wasn’t the usual upright device; she was on her back, wings bound, each limb chained to another corner of a steel surface. Her head was locked in place, so she could only see the ceiling, which was dimly lit and bland.
It was cold.
Wheels on stone droned beneath her, sound and scenery unchanging for some time. Whether fact or madness she couldn’t say, but the sounds began to grow louder and louder until it overtook her thoughts and fears as the loudest sound in the tunnel, like audiovisual black noise.
Then, change. The tunnel brightened, and the patterns of stone became more colorful and ornate. Crystals made shapes on the stone ceiling like clouds in the sky – foreign at first, but with mounting familiarity. They were faces. A woman whose purse she stole at age ten. The son of some nobleman, who she’d held ransom. A butcher she killed for coin.
Their hateful glares scraped across her skin as she passed, leaving cuts and bruises beneath her hair and feathers. Then suddenly they were gone, and she felt the walls disappear around her.
It was hot.
Where once there was stone ceiling, now there was sheer blackness with orange afterglow licking at the edges. Then she heard it, the crackling of fire, overtaking the sound of the wheels. She thrashed against her chains helplessly, crying out for help. Pleading amnesty. Mercy. Swiftness. She lurched forward with all her might-
-and bolted upright with no resistance. She was awake. In her cell. Panting. Cold.
“Purse?” she croaked. No response. She couldn’t hear his irregular breathing. His nervous clicking. Was he gone? “Percival.”
She waited for him to return. Or rather, she tried. It was quiet for the first night in many days, and sleep found her like a hurricane after a drought.
The following day was one of their exercise days, where the prisoners were taken to the surface, almost. The prison was located beneath the crater that was left behind when Skymoore ascended. It had since been flattened and made smooth, and black slate walls covered in red runes had been erected around it.
The crater was many miles wide, but the exercise area was a small enclosure behind walls of clear material that was not glass. Neither the walls nor slate had ceilings – yet – so the prisoners got to enjoy the sun’s kiss as they ran, played ball, and sparred under close supervision.
Percival, Ellidina, and Clint were alternating between walking and jogging lightly as they prepared their escape, when Percival suddenly expressed doubt.
“What if they’re right?”
“Right,” Ellidina said. “About?”
“Everything.” Percival looked healthier today than he had in a while. The withdrawals seemed to be wearing off, physically. His eyes were clearer. He fidgeted less. “I just, I don’t know. We didn’t have a life out there, Eli. And Clint, well…if Asylum is successful, your family will be here one day. Why throw that all away?”
Clint put a hand on one of Percival’s four arms. “Pull it together, son. This was your idea.”
“That- that was just the withdrawals talking!”
“This is the withdrawals talking, Purse,” Ellidina said. “Now come on. We have to go.”
They were coming up on the door between the glass enclosure and the rest of the crater. It was opened by small featureless cubes that were placed in a slot beside them. Clint occasionally handled these cubes on the job, and smuggled one out. “You don’t want to know,” he’d said when Ellidina asked how he’d managed that. More suspicion.
Ellidina had promised half her meals for a week to two minotaur if they got violent during a fight. It worked like a charm, and so did the cube. The guards ran to check on the fight, the glass slid aside smoothly and silently. Ellidina and Clint pulled Percival through.
A sound like a banshee’s wail came from everywhere at once, and for a moment, the crater was still. Still, that is, save for the three escapees seizing their fleeting head start.
There were no walls in the middle of the crater. No shrubbery. Not a single thing to climb over or hide behind. Only the dozens of red-and-black golems that patrolled the open field. The bulky constructs’ heads pivoted toward the sound of the scream at once, sparks of electricity and magic dancing beneath their eyes skin, and began marching toward the enclosure.
From here there was no strategy, no skill, no planning. Only running, and luck. Unfortunately avayla weren’t the most physically adept creatures – even Clint with his small legs was outpacing her – so she would have to rely on the latter.
Two miles suddenly seemed so long. Her lungs were already begging for reprieve, and she could only just make out the destination. Then the air crackled and whooshed and the ground exploded before her, sending tiny stones every which way, and for a moment the air was gone from her entirely, and she stopped.
See, the golems would never catch them, but they could still kill them. Their single, lifeless eyes could fire beams of raw arcane energy over great distances. Avoiding them was their only hope.
“KEEP MOVING,” Clint roared.
Flurries of lasers soared past them, burning the air and the ground alike, but they pushed on. Their lives could have ended any moment, but still something was amiss, still this all felt too easy. Why had she never heard of someone attempting this before?
As they passed the halfway point, Ellidina’s vision began to blur, but she shook her head into focus just in time to see Clint up ahead, reaching into his the pocket of the rags they had for clothes. A well of energy sprung up within her and she closed the gap between them, preparing to subdue the halfling, when a sudden force slammed into her side and sent her sprawling to the ground. She couldn’t move.
Fortunately Percival finished the job for her, tackling Clint to the ground just as he withdrew…whatever it was. Beneath the insects’ four limbs, the halfling was helpless. But they still had the golems to worry about, except…no. It was silent, save for the sound of footsteps.
“Thank you, Percival,” one of the guards said. Ellidina could only see the sky, but she recognized the voice. A human woman with spiked, blood-red hair.
“Get off me!” Clint screamed. “What in the hells are you doing, Percival?”
“Saving your life,” the guard said. “We had a feeling you were thinking about making a break for it, Clint, so we gave this junkie a fix in exchange for some cooperation. He only asked that we spare you.”
“And you will?” Percival asked, getting up off of Clint. “You will.”
“I will,” the guard agreed, stepping on the halfling’s back. “They will be…punished. But they will be alive.”
Ellidina’s motor functions returned, gradually. But they were fuzzy, like every muscle was asleep. She could see that the guard was alone, but more were approaching, as were the golems. She did her best to glare at Percival. “You…you rat. Frosty damnation, you miserable insect!”
“I’m saving you,” the sectum replied, with little conviction. “We would have…we would have died, and you know it.”
Suddenly the guard howled in pain and fell to her knees. Clint pulled out the jagged piece of metal he’d stabbed into her leg and held it to her throat. “Call them off,” he said to her.
The guard looked at Percival pleadingly, but he was too overwhelmed by confusion and guilt to respond. She shouted an eldritch word, and the golems halted their march. Clint kicked her onto her back. The additional guards were almost upon them. “Come on, Ellidina,” Clint said. “We’ll have to fight them.”
But Ellidina was already yards away. Fuzzy or no, she wasn’t stopping there. Traitor or no, she wasn’t dying for Clint. The halfling called after her, Percival watched helplessly, and Ellidina left the both of them to their fates.
Just as Clint had said, there was a rope hanging down from the opening in the wall when she got there. At the top, a bulky human man waited for her in a horse-drawn cart.
“Just you?” he asked. “Where’s Clint?”
Ellidina shook her head as she caught her breath. The man helped her into the cart. “Sacrificed,” she breathed. “Good man.”
The man nodded as the horses broke into a run. “What they do down there. It ain’t right.”
“No,” she agreed. “It ain’t.”
The road was quiet save for hooves on dirt, and their idle chatter. Nobody even tried to pursue. All the same, Ellidina made note of the distance as they went. Two miles. Two miles. Two miles. A short distance, all things considered, but she felt safer every time she acknowledged it.
Safe. She was safe.
Now all that was left was living with it.