New Friends

NEW FRIENDS

BY BENJAMIN

A hover-bike sped through the forest, weaving nimbly between trees. The bike was actually a modified motorcycle that had been fitted with advanced repulsors. Its pilot was a grinning teenager girl. Her multicolored hair, and long brown coat flew in the wind. Her combat boots scarcely reached the foot pegs. Goggles covered her eyes. Magnetically locked to the vehicle’s right flank was a macabre staff. Constructed from a combination of modern technology and the body parts of various outland creatures, the staff was able to channel and transform etheric energy into a variety of “spells.”

Lopping along several feet behind the girl was an enormous ginger hellhound. The hellhound didn’t lack for speed, but maneuverability was not her strong suite. An enormous oak tree several feet in diameter lay dead center in their path. Allison cackled wildly and pulled back on the throttle. The bike shot forward towards it at an alarming speed. The repulsors whined in protest. At the last second before collision the girl jumped upright and jerked the bike into a vertical position. The bike raced up the tree. The hellhound was not able to stop in time and collided with the oak, shaking the entire tree.

The bike climbed almost 50 feet before gravity regained control. Allison cut the repulsors and kicked the tree hard with her left leg. She managed to get the bike back into horizontal position and re-enabled the repulsors at full power. Her descent was slowed somewhat, and the bike came to rest about three feet from the ground with a jarring halt. Fire shot through her left shoulder, and she thought she heard a crunch. She shrugged off the pain, and slowly pulled up to where Banshee lay crumpled at the foot of the tree. The hellhound whimpered as she struggled to her feet.

Allison lifted her goggles. “Oh come on now, no one told you to run full speed at a tree.”

The hellhound gave a long growl followed by a bark.

“It is not cheating! Maybe you should use your eyes instead trusting that giant nose all the time.” Allison hopped of the bike and went over to console her sulking hellhound. Banshee whined as Allison stroked her fur.

“No, I’m sorry. You’re right. Your nose is exactly the right size.” Allison replied in a baby voice.

With the hellhound’s ego soothed, Allison walked back over to the bike and detached her staff. The biodiesel fuel tanks that made up the base of her staff had a large number 2 printed on them in neat handwriting. A recent fight with some demons had left Allison’s original creation in an irreparable state. At first, Allison had been a little depressed that her life’s work had been destroyed, but once she started work on Transmutation Cannon 2.0 she quickly forgot why she’d been so attached to that obsolete piece of junk. The new staff featured a sleek black casing. Inside was an incredible assortment of what Allison called “Ether Circuitry”, which was a fancy name for the ether-channeling body tissues of demons that she’d harvested and woven into wires. There were two handles that separated the staff into three sections. The lower handle had a trigger that had been repurposed from an old gas station pump. The trigger would allow ether to flow through the ether-circuitry, effectively casting whatever “spell” the staff had been configured for. Atop the staff, snug inside a makeshift cage of steel tipped Taurus-demon ribs, sat a pink ether crystal.

There was one new feature that Allison was particularly proud of. While the Transmutation Cannon still had familiar assortment of knobs, switches and buttons to allow for the manual configuration of the ether circuit; Allison had added a new voice-activated configuration system. She was now able to set a configuration manually, name it, and then speak the name to have the staff automatically reconfigure itself to that setting. Of course, the software had been locked to her vocal patterns. Security was important to Allison.

She pulled the ripcord for the diesel engines and the staff roared to life. The diesel powered ether-converter released a steady stream of power into the circuitry.

“Tracking: Big-Effing-Spike”, Allison spoke in a clear voice. She squeezed the trigger. The pink ether crystal began to flash in time to a slow humming beat. Allison’s tracking spell had an optional parameter. Big-Effing-Spike was the pre-set designation for a particularly strong ether signature she had picked up a few days ago. It was not long ago that Allison had scarcely survived an encounter with a humanoid demon that showed signs of intelligence. She was not taking any chances with ether anomalies.

She pointed the staff directly in front of her and began to rotate slowly. The light began flashing more quickly as she faced southwest, eventually flashing so fast that she could hardly count the beat. Allison released the trigger and the crystal dimmed.

She turned to the hellhound, who sat patiently by the tree. “Well, Banshee, me-hearty, we have heading.” Allison said in her best pirate voice.

The sound of a twig snapping caused both Allison and Banshee to wheel around. Allison leveled her staff in the direction of the noise. Banshee bared her fangs and let out a low, rumbling growl. A girl stepped out from behind a tree with her hands in the air. She was tall and thin. She looked to be the same age as Allison. The girl’s black hair fell past her shoulders. It struck Allison that the strange girl was not dressed for the outland forest at all. They were well beyond the edge of civilization, but this girl was wearing a navy blue sweater and a long brown skirt. She carried no weapons, only a basket filled with some weird green leaves.

“You human?” Allison asked bluntly.

The girl’s voice was shaking. “Um, What? Yes… I think?” She stuttered.

Allison cast a meaningful look at Banshee, who reluctantly stopped growling and slowly padded up to the terrified girl. The girl’s eyes darted between the hellhound and Allison’s gruesome staff, but she remained frozen in place. Banshee sniffed the strange girl, and gave a short bark.

Allison switched her staff off and rested it on the ground. “Ok, you check out. So what are you doing out here? Are you lost?”

The girl only stared wide-eyed at Banshee who was walking circles around the girl and sniffing enthusiastically.

“Oh don’t worry about Banshee. We don’t meet a lot of other people so she always gets a little excited around strangers. You can put your hands down now. I’m Allison. What’s your name?” Allison spoke a little too quickly. She also got a little excited around strangers.

“I’m Sarah. I live in the town nearby.” Sarah finally lowered her arms and pointed to the southwest. “I’ve never… ” She stared in amazement at Banshee. “What are you?”

Allison shrugged. “Eccentric genius slash space wizard. So you say there’s a settlement out here, eh? It isn’t on any of the maps or charts. You guys must be really new, and brave too, if you’re going to try to settle this far out.”

Sarah stared blankly as Allison rambled on.

“Are you guys out of Terminus, or something? There’s a big ether disturbance around here. Have you guys noticed anything weird? It’s been going on for days.”

Banshee was now sniffing the leaves in the girl’s basket. She instinctively pulled away. “I don’t think I understand half of what you’re saying. You must be from one of the Eden cities. I don’t know anything about any ‘disturbance’. ” Banshee kept her nose firmly in the basket.

Allison raised an eyebrow. “Banshee, leave the basket alone.” The hellhound whined, but obeyed. Allison’s near-constant smile had faded. The girl seemed harmless enough, but Allison was getting a very bad feeling.

Sarah forced a smile. “Your… uh… friend sure likes mint leaves.”

Allison realized that the silence had gone one too long, and had become uncomfortable. She quickly returned Sarah’s smile. “Banshee has always taken great pride in the freshness of her breath. How far away is your town?”

“About 5 miles… ” Sarah didn’t sound very excited.

“Cool, I’ll give you a ride.” Allison pointed a thumb at her hover-bike.

Sarah only stared blankly. Allison grabbed the girl by the hand and led her back to the bike. Allison sat Sarah on the back of the bike. Allison locked her staff onto the side, and jumped on the controls. She turned the engines on with the push of a button. The repulsors kicked on and the craft floated gently to a height of about 2 feet. Sara stared at the ground in horror. Allison lowered her goggles and pulled back on the throttle. The bike lurched forward. Sarah screamed and wrapped her arms around Allison.

The bike flew through the trees. Allison scanned back and forth looking for some sign of civilization. Sarah screamed as Allison banked to the left to avoid a tree. Allison couldn’t help but smile. Ahead, she saw a break in the tree line. The bike emerged from the forest into a huge clearing. Allison’s jaw dropped. The clearing was huge, at least 10 miles in diameter. They were quickly approaching the town. The town was a collection of approximately 50 buildings, most constructed of wood. In the center there was a large concrete building. It stood several stories taller than the wooden constructs, and was topped by a clock tower. Allison could have sworn she was looking at something out of a history book. In the distance, there were acres of farmland. Allison even spotted cattle and horses. Where were the defenses? The town had no walls, no fences, not even an armed guard. Even if Allison hadn’t detected a surge in ether activity, this far west an undefended town would have been completely overrun.

She turned to her cringing passenger. “How… ”

Sarah pointed and shrieked. “Stop!”

Allison grabbed the breaks and skidded sideways to a halt. She looked around for the source of the girls panic. Sarah was hyperventilating. Banshee finally caught up to the bike and sniffed curiously in the direction the girl had pointed. As the hellhound approached the town, Sarah attempted to repeat her warning but only managed a wheeze. The air in front of Banshee shimmered, but the hellhound took no notice. Banshee’s snout crossed the invisible barrier. There was a blinding flash of light and the sound of thunder. The enormous wolf was thrown backwards and the smell of burnt hair filled the air. Banshee flew several feet before coming to a rolling stop.

Allison’s heart skipped a beat. Her hand went for the staff, but before she could grab it Banshee jumped to her feet and barked furiously at the town.

Sarah had recovered. “I’m sorry. I tried to tell you about the wards.” She gestured to the ground that Banshee had been investigating. Half buried in the ground was a large metal disc. An intricate geometric design had been carved into the disc. Allison jumped off the bike, nearly sending Sarah crashing to the ground in the process.

“This design... is this an ether circuit?” Allison rested her face on the ground and examined the ward sideways. “But where is your power source, is it underground? How long before it needs recharged?”

Sarah stepped cautiously from the vehicle, eyeing it suspiciously as if it might go flying forward at any second. The bike’s automated shut-off kicked in once all passengers had disembarked and the repulsor’s gently lowered the vehicle to the ground.

“The wards are constructed in accordance with the scripture….” Sarah’s voice trailed off as she noticed a group of villagers running towards them.

Allison took no notice of the approaching mob. “Scripture?” She asked, incredulous. “You must have a way better bible than I do.”

“Sarah!” A voice rang out from behind the ward. “Don’t make any sudden movements, there are beasts behind you!” The voice belonged to a particularly large woman in the crowd.

Allison jumped up and looked around. “Where? Banshee shut up, there’s monsters around.”

The wolf stopped barking, and walked over to Allison.

The large woman shrieked in horror. “It commands the beast! Sarah, what have you brought down upon us?”

Allison pointed at herself and looked shocked. “Wow, lady, rude much?”

“Ms. Turner, this is Allison she’s from the shield cities.” Sarah looked at Banshee, and then at the ground. “… and this is Allison’s pet-“

Allison cringed, and Banshee gave a sharp bark. “Allison’s friend.” Sarah corrected herself, “I found them in the forest, and they brought me back here. She says she’s looking for something called an…”

“Ether disturbance.” Allison added.

Ms. Turner’s face flushed beat red. “Stupid child! How many times do we have to tell you that the shield dwellers are not to be-“ Her rant was interrupted by a hand resting on her shoulder. Ms. Turner glared back at the hand, but the anger fell from her face when she saw to whom the hand belonged. The man walked toward Allison and Sarah without crossing the ward. His gaze went to the staff still locked to Allison’s hover-bike, then to Banshee, and finally rested on Allison.

“You’ll have to excuse my companions, miss. We don’t get many people from the shield cities out this way.” The man’s voice was deep and gravely. He was easily in his 50’s. His short brown hair had begun to go gray around the temples. He wore jeans, and a leather jacket. Despite his casual appearance he seemed to be in a position of authority around here. “You don’t look like a soldier.” The man concluded after some time.

“That’s because I’m a scientist. Say, have you noticed any weird stuff going on out this way? Well weirder than a bunch of people living in the middle of demon infested country with home-brewed ether shields… hmmm. Wait a sec.” Allison ran back to the bike and grabbed her staff. She pulled the ripcord. The sound of the engines shocked the crowd. Many of the mob shrank back, though their middle-aged representative only seemed curious.

Allison returned to the ward and pulled the trigger. The crystal at the top of her staff flashed several times but the rhythm was still too slow, indicating that the source of the ether disturbance was beyond the village. “Ok you guys check out. So have you noticed anything significantly weirder than yourselves out here lately? By the way, you have got to tell me how that ward thing works.”

“Sarah, why don’t you show her how it works?” The man said with a smile. A murmur rose from the crowd, but the man silenced them with a look.

“Yes, Father Thomas.” Sarah replied dutifully. She reached into her basket and removed a knife. Allison’s eyebrows went up and she took a slow step backwards. Sarah pricked her thumb with the knife. A small drop of blood flowed from the wound. Sarah touched her thumb to the tip of each finger. She walked over to the metal disk and pressed her hand to it. The geometric pattern lit up with a red glow. Allison watched the air shimmer in front of Sarah the way it had before Banshee was thrown. The shimmer intensified until the air looked almost solid. A hole opened in the wall, and grew until it was large enough even for Banshee to walk through.

Sarah stood up. Her blood smeared across the disc. She motioned to Banshee and Allison to step through. Allison wondered if that trick would work for anyone who touched the ward or if it was just for the townspeople. She checked the fuel gauges on her staff. She had enough juice left to get some townspeople blood if she needed it. “C’mon Banshee,” she called as she walked through. The hellhound followed reluctantly. After Sarah walked through, the hole closed and air returned to normal.

Father Thomas offered his hand to Allison. She shook it. “If you’ll follow me.” He said. The crowd lagged behind, Sarah attempted to hide among them, but Father Thomas caught her. “You too, Sarah.” They walked through the fields and made their way into the village. As Allison and Banshee walked by people stopped what they were doing and stared. Upon seeing Banshee their jaws would drop. A woman grabbed her child and ran inside. Father Thomas seemed unconcerned by his flock’s reaction. He led Sarah, Allison and Banshee into the large concrete building.

The building was actually much larger up close than Allison had suspected. She climbed the stairs and passed between the massive columns that shielded the entrance. On the side of the building the number “1892” had been stamped into a concrete plaque. The interior of the building was a large open area with two staircases that lead to an upper level. Allison was able to spot shelf after shelf filled with books at the top of the staircase. She desperately wanted a look at that library. Unfortunately she was guided even further into the building. Banshee’s claws clicked on the tile floor.

The walls were decorated with paintings. One depicted a group of villagers with some old fashioned guns attacking a Salamander that had burned their crops. Another was a winter landscape of the village and the surrounding area. As they walked farther the paintings seemed to capture earlier and earlier events. Allison saw a picture of a man in stockings and a ridiculous wig angrily lecturing to a room full of equally ridiculously dressed men and women. Finally they arrived at an office. Father Thomas removed a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. He held the door and the girls entered, including Banshee. In the center of the room was a large desk, behind which sat several bookshelves. Opposite the desk there were chairs for visitors, and against the wall there was a leather couch.

Sarah sat respectfully in one of the chairs opposite the desk. Allison sprawled against one corner of the couch. Banshee leapt up next to Allison. The hellhound didn’t seem to realize that she was far too large for the couch and her back legs dangled over the edge as she rested her head in Allison’s lap. Father Thomas shrugged and took his seat behind the desk.

Father Thomas locked his fingers together and leaned over the desk. “Allison was it? I’m afraid I have to ask a blunt question. What is your connection to Eden?”

“Haven’t got one.” Allison said with a shrug.

Thomas didn’t seem satisfied. “You’re from one of the shield cities.”

“Yeah you guys keep saying that. I mean I guess I’m technically from a seed, but I live in the outland, same as you guys. Well, I don’t have any fancy blood-activated ward-thingys. Those are definitely going on my list of things to get. My parents hated Eden. We left the seed when I was a little kid.”

“How do you know about ‘ether disturbances’ and how did you come by that.” He gestured to Allison’s staff, leaning against the wall.

“I told you. I’m a scientist. Besides you guys seem to know your way around some ether tech. It doesn’t take an Eden engineer to figure out. What’s the deal with you guys anyway?”

“Our town predates the seeds, and most settlements. Eden is not aware of us and we would prefer to keep it that way. The ‘ether tech’ you refer to was put into place shortly after the catastrophe. Our ancestors were among those abandoned to the ravages of the apocalypse. We believe that the knowledge to create wards was given to us by God, in answer to the prayers of the townspeople.”

Allison must have been making a face. Father Thomas followed up with, “You don’t seem convinced?”

Allison shrugged, “You’re not the only town to have turned to religion during the apocalypse, or after for that matter. Yet you’re the only one that wound up with magic wards.” Allison rested a finger on her chin in an expression of mock-puzzlement. “You know it occurs to me that impressive as your wards are, Eden’s shields are an order of magnitude more powerful. I wonder if God just liked Eden more than you?”

Father Thomas shrugged and shook his head. “When I was young I thought like you did and questioned everything. A little faith goes a long way, Allison.”

Allison smiled, “It so does. So why don’t you have a little faith that I’m not here to rat you guys out to Eden? Full disclosure, a friend of mine showed up at my house with some very unusual ether crystals. Shortly after that we were attacked by an unusually organized mob of demons. Ever since I’ve been monitoring ambient ether levels.” She pointed a thumb at her staff. “I can’t claim divine inspiration, but it gets the job done.”

“Where is your friend now?” Father Thomas asked.

“Dead.” Allison replied as she were discussing the weather.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Father Thomas swallowed hard. “What I’m about to tell you is not public knowledge. Do not tell the other villagers about this.”

“Yeah… I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.” Allison chimed in.

“Beneath the city there is a large crystal that serves to focus and channel what you would call ‘ether’ to the wards, and various other technologies of the city-”

Allison cut Father Thomas off midsentence, and began speaking very excitedly. “I have a similar crystal on my staff, but where do you guys get the raw ethereal energy? I had to reverse engineer one of Eden’s converters from my dad’s old car…” Allison became aware of Father Thomas’s slightly irritated glare, and Sarah’s wide-eyed disbelief. She looked to Banshee for support. Banshee was asleep on the floor. “Sorry, please continue.” Allison said half-heartedly.

“Several weeks ago our focusing crystal shattered. As you may understand, a very powerful crystal is required to channel the energies that power our village’s wards. We have installed spares but they are quickly overloaded and begin to break down. At our current rate, the wards will fail within the week.” Thomas stated plainly.

Sarah gasped.

“Any idea where they got the original crystal? Crystals tend to develop around rock formations in areas with high levels of ambient ether. The disturbance might have some nifty looking crystals around it, provided the right sort of rocks were around for the ether to bond with.” Allison thought aloud.

“You’re wise beyond your years. This is not the first time that a focusing crystal has become damaged. There is a cave not far from here. It is considered to be a holy place, forbidden to most. Powerful crystals exist there in abundance.” As Thomas spoke, Allison glanced at her staff. A new crystal might not be such a bad idea. Thomas continued, oblivious to Allison’s lapse in attention. “We sent men to retrieve another crystal. The few that survive the mission have informed us that the cave is overrun. Creatures, ‘demons’ as you call them, of every kind have swarmed to the cave en masse. Allison, I believe that you and I are seeking the same thing. You seem to have some power. If you are determined to investigate this ether disturbance then do so with our blessing. If you should happen to survive and to return with the crystal we require then we would be forever in your debt.”

Allison didn’t really care much about the man’s blessing. “I’ll check out the cave. If I find any especially interesting crystals I suppose I could bring one back for you guys, but I want details on how the wards work.”

“Excellent.” Father Thomas clapped his hands together and then gestured to Sarah. “Sarah will accompany you.”

“What?!” Allison and Sarah both exclaimed in unison.

“Father Thomas, please. There are better fighters… which is to say that there are fighters. I’ve never even killed an animal.” Sarah begged.

Allison stood up and nudged Banshee awake. “Tom, the girl’s a total mouse. She barely survived the ride over here.” Allison looked at Sarah. “No offense.”

“None taken.” The girl replied. “I have many mouse-like qualities that make me the wrong person for this.”

Allison nodded, “It’s the ears.”

Sarah scowled.

Father Thomas called out. “Jonathon, would you please come in here.”

A moment later a tall bald man entered the room. Father Thomas smiled and gestured to Allison. The bald man’s eyes went wide when he saw the hellhound seated next to the girl. “Our new friend is very anxious to learn more about our ways. Please show Allison the scriptures regarding ward construction.”

Allison’s face lit up. She grabbed her staff and turned to Jonathon. “Come on, Jonny let’s go! This may be the only book on ether that knows something I don’t.” Sarah looked at Allison desperately. Allison smiled weakly. “Don’t worry, Sarah, I’m sure you’ll make an excellent guide or whatever. Banshee and I will protect you won’t we?” Banshee looked up at Allison and whimpered quietly. “That’s an exaggeration, we know several people who aren’t dead.”

Jonathon, who could not match Allison’s enthusiasm, had already started walking down the hall. Allison waved quickly to Sarah and ran after the man. Banshee followed at Allison’s heels.

 

The door closed, and Sarah could feel her heart beat in her throat. “Father-” she started, but Father Thomas held up his hand to signal for quiet.

“You’re doing so well, Sarah.” He said.

Tears were welling up in Sarah’s eyes. She didn’t want to cry, not in front of Father Thomas. “But, I can’t do this. If what you say about the caves is true then you’re sending me out there to die.”

Father Thomas walked around the desk and knelt before Sarah. He took her hand. “Sarah, he chose you for a reason. Don’t abandon your faith now.”

“You told me that I would find a powerful witch, and to bring her here.” Sarah began.

“And you did,” Father Thomas agreed.

“Did I? Allison doesn’t seem like a powerful witch. I don’t mean to doubt, but I don’t see how she could succeed where the rangers failed. Even her wolf wouldn’t stand a chance alone.” Sarah couldn’t bring herself to look Father Thomas in the eye. She was a true believer, and she would never forget the pride in her father’s eyes when she had been chosen. How could she ever tell them how terrified she was? She could hardly admit it to herself.

Father Thomas sat on the edge of his desk. “Unfortunately, you are going to have to grow up very fast. You will find that power comes in all shapes and sizes. While that girl may play the fool, I promise you that behind the façade she is fiercely intelligent. She will succeed and you will bear witness to her abilities. That is how it must be. That is God’s will.”

“How do you know what God’s will is?” Sarah whispered. The words had come rushing out before she could stop her self. It was blasphemy, treason, to question the clergy on matters of faith. Her face flushed red.

“Excuse me?” asked Father Thomas.

Sarah’s heart was pounding. She would apologize. She would beg his forgiveness for her heresy. When she opened her mouth to speak she hesitated. A sudden calmness washed over her, and a strange thought occurred: What can this man do to you that the monsters outside cannot? She looked into Thomas’s eyes and repeated the question louder. “How do you know what God’s will is?”

Father Thomas narrowed his eyes, but remained quiet. Sarah met his gaze with a confidence she wasn’t sure was hers. At length he spoke. “He sends me visions.”

“Do all the clergy have visions?” She asked.

“Only a few.” He replied. His voice was quiet.

“What do you see?” Sarah’s curiosity was peaked.

“The past, the present, and the future. It’s difficult to describe. It’s like a dream. I’ve seen you and the witch, Allison, at the mouth of the cave. I know this thing must be.” Thomas’s eyes gazed passed Sarah at something she couldn’t see. He exhaled and his eyes focused on her once more. “Even I have my moments of doubt, Sarah.” He continued. “In the dream I wondered why the chosen one should consort with an outsider and a witch at that. I thought that I must be misunderstanding the vision, or perhaps this is false. We don’t like to talk about it, but members of the clergy have been known to confuse their own dreams and ambitions with that of the lord. God is good; however and grants me a sign that my initial understanding was correct.”

“What sign?” Sarah felt some of her fear returning.

“Pain. For a moment it is as if every nerve in my body is set aflame, only when all doubt has been burned from my mind does the pain relent. I don’t know why this thing must be. It is not my place to ask, nor is it yours. We are his servants, Sarah.”

There was a resignation in his voice that surprised Sarah. She had not been the chosen one for very long. Until a few short weeks ago she had just been an ordinary girl. She had a crush on a boy who lived down the road. Her friends had assured her that he felt the same way. She was almost old enough for marriage, and she’d dreamed of a house on a farm. If she was honest with herself, the church had always made her uncomfortable. The day that Father Thomas announced that a new vessel had been chosen her world shattered. Sarah’s mother and father had beamed with pride. It was an enormous honor to have a child chosen by the faith. To be selected as the vessel is the highest honor. For Sarah, it was as if her entire world had been shattered. She wondered if the man who sat beside her now had felt the same way.

Father Thomas broke the silence. “If we don’t get the crystal the village is done. The wards are already weakening. You are part of this church now, and I’m truly sorry that you haven’t had more time to learn what that means. You will have to trust me when I say that if you turn your back on this then our entire way of life is over.”

 

Thomas and Sarah found Allison in the second story library. These books were typically off limits to anyone but the church. Allison had several books and numerous loose sheets of paper spread across a desk. Banshee curled up by her feet. Brother Jonathon was carrying stacks of books took the table where Allison sat.

“Jonathon, I told you to show her the ward scriptures.” Thomas let his frustration show.

Brother Jonathon jumped at the sound of Thomas’s voice, almost spilling the books.

Allison didn’t look up. “Yeah, we started with that, but they don’t make a lot of sense by themselves. I’ve glossed over your schematics. I’m beginning to piece together your focusing crystal problem. You guys are drawing massive amounts of power, and you’ve left yourself plenty of outlets for expansion. I’d estimate you’re pulling the equivalent of the entire fuel capacity of my Transmutation Cannon, trademark, times 100 every minute. That’s just to power the ward network.”

“Those documents are restricted to members of the clergy.” Thomas replied flatly.

“Yeah, that’s what Jonny said.” Allison nudged Banshee with a booted foot. The hellhound looked up, startled. Allison pointed to Brother Jonathon. The hellhounds iris’s glowed red and the hair stood up on its back. A low snarl escaped its mouth that sent Jonathon scampering back into the nearest corner. Banshee, seeming satisfied, promptly fell back asleep. Allison continued on, “but I still don’t understand how you’re catalyzing the ether or where the ether is even coming from. What you’re doing here is on par with some of Eden’s best industrial generators, but I can’t find any references to raw material consumption. My Transmutation Cannon, seriously it is trademarked, eats through ether crystals. You guys should have mined this area clean in the first 10 years of operation.”

“Our holy tomes and relics are not textbooks and laboratory equipment. It’s possible that the ingredient you’re missing is faith, child.” Thomas was regaining some of his composure, or perhaps he shared Brother Jonathon’s respect for the witch’s wolf.

“It’s possible,” Allison agreed. She closed her book, stood up and stretched. She swung her arms several times. She grabbed her staff and turned back to Father Thomas. “It’s also technically possible that you could pray yourself up a giant crystal to run the whole thing. If you could pray up two it would sure save me some trouble. Oh or better yet, how about we pray real hard that all the demons just go away and that everything stops trying to kill us.”

Father Thomas’s jaw clenched. Allison smiled wider. She gestured back to the bookshelves. “Do you actually believe the things your saying? Is that what this library is full of? Shelf after shelf of restricted ‘faith’, come on, Tom.”

Sarah looked from the smirking witch back to Father Thomas. His face had flushed bright red. For the first time in her life Sarah allowed herself to wonder what secrets were held in clergy’s library, and why they were secrets. How had she never noticed how large the library was before? As far as she cold see shelves stacked high with forbidden knowledge lay before her. The truth sunk in. Faith and prayer weren’t enough.

 

The silence had become uncomfortable. Allison laughed. “You have the cutest angry face. Don’t worry, Banshee and I will go and bring you back a crystal.”

Father Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but Sarah beat him to it. Her voice cracked as she spoke. “I’m coming with you.”

Father Thomas and Allison both turned and stared. Allison finally shrugged. “If you want. So where’s the cave exactly?”

“About 20 miles to the South East. I imagine you won’t get lost.” Said Father Thomas, gesturing to Allison’s staff. “It’s too far to walk before nightfall. You may stay here for the night there are-”

“No time like the present, Tom. Besides, we’re not walking. With any luck we’ll have your crystal by morning.” Allison interrupted. Sarah felt her stomach tighten at the thought of another hover-bike ride. Allison seemed to notice Sarah’s discomfort and turned back to Father Thomas. “This one’s going to need a weapon of some kind.”

Father Thomas nodded his agreement. “Brother Jonathon.”

Brother Jonathan jumped at the mention of his name. He gave an involuntary glance at Allison before moving. Allison motioned for Jonathon to obey. Father Thomas’s growl rivaled anything Sarah had heard from Banshee. Allison looked very pleased with herself.

Brother Jonathon returned shortly with a large wooden box. He set it down on the table facing towards Sarah and opened the box. Contained within were an ether powered assault rifle and a suit of Eden body armor, clearly designed for a female.

Allison whistled. “Now where in the world did you get those?”

“Eden patrols have been coming closer and closer to the village in recent months. The previous owner of these ventured a little too close.” Father Thomas replied.

“You killed her?” Allison asked. For the first time since Sarah had met her Allison’s words were absent of any humor or sarcasm. Like everyone in her village, Sarah knew that Eden was the ultimate evil. She didn’t blame the church for executing one of Eden’s agents. In spite of that, the thought of wearing the dead woman’s clothes filled her with absolute dread.

“We did. Sarah, get changed, there’s a room in the back you can use.” There was no hint of remorse in father Thomas’s voice.

Sarah didn’t move.

“Don’t worry you’re going to look adorable. I didn’t want to say it, but the long skirt isn’t very flattering. Also, you’re gonna need it.” Allison’s smile was back.

 

Reluctantly, Sarah grabbed the body armor. Beneath it there were a pair of black combat boots. She grabbed those as well. Her footsteps echoed as she walked. She wondered if anyone else was here. She walked past what must have been thousands of books until she reached the back room that Father Thomas had mentioned.

The room was a small windowless office. She locked the door behind her. There was nothing but a desk and a chair within. She laid out the body armor on the desk. Sarah failed to see how this could possibly be armor. It was a one-piece white suit that zipped up the front. Sarah was unsure what material it was made from, it wasn’t quite leather and it wasn’t quite cloth. She blushed just looking at it. The chest and abdomen were covered with some kind of thin black metallic substance. There were red metal bars running down the arms and legs. Strange gears were built into the bars at the elbows, knees, shoulders and hips. She removed her sweater, and quickly covered her breasts with her hands and turned around quickly to make sure she was still alone. Swallowing hard she worked up the nerve to remove her skirt. Her heart was racing. What was she doing here? She grabbed the suit and shoved one leg in and then the other, she pulled her arms through and quickly zipped up. Only her hands and feet were left uncovered. The suit was clearly meant to be form fitting, but Sarah found it was baggy in the chest and hips.

Under her left wrist there was a red flashing dot. Sarah instinctively touched a finger to it. The suit immediately tightened to fit her body. The gears on the red bars spun into life with a quiet whirring noise. Sarah stood still, afraid to move, as the gears spun. After a few seconds they stopped and reversed direction. That process was repeated several times. Eventually it stopped and Sarah decided to risk moving. She looked down at herself, she didn’t think it was possible to be any more embarrassed but somehow her face found a way to turn a deeper shade of red. She couldn’t go out in public looking like this. Was this how all the city women dressed? She quickly strapped on the boots. She looked down at herself again. Mercifully, the metallic layer on the chest and back covered some of her shame. She tied her sweater around her waist, and carried her skirt in front of her. She felt so nervous her hand shook as she reached out to grab the doorknob. When she pulled on the door she heard the gear at her elbow whirr and her arm jerked backward, ripping the door off of its hinge. She squealed and stumbled backwards into the room.

She heard the sound of footsteps racing towards her. Allison, Brother Jonathon and Father Thomas appeared in the doorway. Banshee scrambled to get her head in beside Allison. Sarah’s face was bright red and she could feel the heat coming off of her cheeks. She couldn’t bring herself to meet Father Thomas’s gaze. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Brother Jonathon staring at her. She attempted to cover herself. She was ready die.

Allison whistled. “Dayum girl, I told you that was gonna look good on you. Isn’t that right?” The witch nudged her wolf. Banshee barked in agreement. Allison’s eyes moved to the broken door and then back to Sarah balled up on the floor. Allison stepped into the room between Sarah and the clergymen. “Hey boys, how about you go get her a travel... cloak… or something. Do you have cloaks? You look like cloak people.” Allison raised her hands defensively. “Oh God, I hope that didn’t sound racist. We just need a little girl time.”

Neither of the men moved. Allison made a shoeing motion. “Go on now.” Banshee growled behind the men.

Father Thomas grabbed Jonathon by the arm and dragged him out of the room. “We’ll be right back.” He said.

Allison knelt down next to Sarah and put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey kiddo, just try to relax.”

Sarah put her face in her hands. Allison jumped backwards. Sarah looked up at her confused.

Allison let out a deep breath. “Ok, so, you need to calm down. Probably should have told you this up front, but what you’re wearing isn’t just armor in the ‘absorbs damage’ sense. There’s an exoskeleton built into the suit that responds to your body. Unfortunately, the suit isn’t smart enough to know that you’re just really shy. By the way, you’re totally crazy; you got a whole superhero cosplay thing going on right now. Regardless, the suit thinks you’re in danger and so it’s giving you a little extra strength, hence why you killed the door.”

Sarah looked up at Allison. “I didn’t understand most of those words, but thank you.” Sarah buried her face in Allison’s shoulder.

“Aw, honey, you really need to read a book that isn’t your weird cult bible.” Allison patted Sarah on the head.

A few moments later Father Thomas returned without Brother Jonathon. The clergyman handed Sarah a brown hooded cloak that she promptly wrapped around herself.

Allison giggled. “Oh my God, you actually have cloaks. Can I have one too?”

“No.” Father Thomas replied flatly.

“I get it, cloaks are only for members.” Allison said with her hands in the air. She turned to Sarah. “Now, let’s grab your gun and get out of here.”

The trek back to the library entrance passed in uncomfortable silence. Allison handed Sarah the rifle. The witch showed her where the safety was, and the screen that would tell her how much ammunition she had left.

“I don’t see any extra clips in here, so try to conserve energy.” Allison said helpfully.

“I’ve never fired a gun before” Sarah said.

Allison smiled. “It’s pretty simple. You point that end at the thing you want to die, then you squeeze the trigger. Ether rifles don’t have much of a kick, so no need to worry about that. Also, Eden can be pretty clever when they want to be. The suit will help you hold the gun steady when firing. Ordinarily there would be a helmet that goes with this gear to help you aim and give you night vision and all that junk. I’m guessing that since we have a fully functioning suit and no helmet that the previous owner was shot in the head.”

Sarah slung the rifle over her back and walked with Allison, Father Thomas and Banshee to Allison’s vehicle. Sarah opened the ward and let Allison and Banshee through. The witch and her wolf ran over to the bike.

Father Thomas’s eyes were locked on Allison, though he spoke only to Sarah. “Be careful around that one.” He whispered.

Allison pushed the ignition button, and the engine roared. The repulsors lifted the bike to its standard hovering height of 3 feet. She watched Tom saying something to Sarah. Allison wasn’t sure what game the man was playing. From what little she’d been able to glean from their religious texts before he’d interrupted her, the village had seen some truly dark times following the catastrophe. The church’s ability to harness ether had been all that saved them from total annihilation. Judging by the villager’s reactions to “Father” Thomas, the church held unquestionable authority here. They were a ruling elite who maintained power by jealously guarding secret technology that was key to the village’s survival. It was no wonder that they didn’t get along with Eden. Allison rolled her eyes at the thought.

Sarah walked over to the hover-bike. The noise of the engine clearly hurt her ears. Allison could only guess what this girl’s role in the church was. It occurred to Allison that Sarah’s shyness could all have been an act meant to lull her into a false sense of security. Perhaps after Allison retrieved the crystal Sarah would shoot her in the back?

The mousey girl climbed onto the bike behind Allison. Allison turned the bike to move around the village’s wards. Sarah’s arms wrapped around Allison tighter than should have been possible. Allison could barely breathe.

“Exoskeleton.” Allison managed to cough.

Startled, Sarah relaxed her grip slightly. Allison could breathe freely once more. She put on a burst of speed and the bike rocketed forward. Whatever Sarah’s role in all this was, her nervousness was not an act. The Eden suit she was wearing was better than a lie detector.

The two girls circled around the village, and headed off to the southwest with Banshee running behind. The sun was low in the sky. Allison weaved through the trees, lost in thought. The hover-bike’s headlight came on automatically as the light faded. Once or twice Allison thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, Banshee seemed to share Allison’s agitation.

If Tom could be believed they were now approximately 10 miles from their destination. Allison became uncomfortably aware of a rustling in the trees above. With a practiced motion, Allison removed a long hunting knife from her jacket pocket.

She had to shout over the roar of the engines. “You’re going to want this.” She passed the knife to Sarah handle first. The girl accepted with a puzzled look on her face. Allison would have preferred to out run the creatures, but the forest was too dense. The sun was very low now. Allison couldn’t make out the dark shapes that rained down from the treetops until one landed on her handlebars. Gremlins looked like a bizarre cross between a reptile and a primate. They had large yellow eyes with vertical slit pupils. Pug noses jutted out over a round jaw filled with razor sharp teeth. Large pointed ears waved in the wind as the gremlin clung to the hover-bike. Its hands were comprised of two clawed fingers and a thumb. The gremlins reverse articulated legs ended in a three-toed foot, one of which was presently engaged in kicking Allison’s headlight. The gremlin also possessed a short spiked tail that whipped at Allison’s fingers.

Allison grabbed the creature by the throat and ripped it from the handlebar. She heard a snap as its tiny wrist fractured. “Should have let go.” She thought as she threw the creature back to Banshee. The hellhound barely broke stride as she chomped the unfortunate creature. The hover-bike began to rock back and forth. Allison slowed the bike and turned to find Sarah struggling with a gremlin that had become tangled in her hair. She was flailing randomly with the knife still in her hand. Banshee appeared to be having the time of her life. The hellhound had one gremlin pinned beneath an enormous paw as it tossed another in the air then caught it with a final crunch.

There was no choice. Allison slowed the bike to a stop. She grabbed the gremlin by the throat and pulled it from Sarah’s hair. Much of the hair still remained clenched in the gremlin’s fists. Allison offered an apologetic expression to Sarah as she twisted the gremlin’s neck like a bottle cap and tossed it aside.

Allison didn’t see any more motion in the trees. A number of gremlins had dug their claws into Banshee and were making a futile attempt to bite through the hellhounds thick hide. Allison took the knife from Sarah and hopped down off of the bike. She walked over to Banshee and began methodically slitting the throats of every Gremlin that refused to let go of the wolf. Banshee was gnawing happily on one of the creatures, and hardly seemed to notice Allison’s grooming exercise.

Allison walked over the gremlin corpses, handed the bloody knife back to a stunned Sara and kicked the bike into gear. Banshee dropped her prize and bounded after them. They passed several carcasses belonging to a variety of demon species. An enormous carrion vulture stared at them, but did not move from the naga it was feasting on. Allison carefully wove through broken trees. There had evidently been some great fight here. Banshee was becoming increasingly irritable. The corpses went on for miles. Eventually Allison stopped the hover-bike and dismounted, motioning for Sarah to do the same.

Allison detached the staff, and pulled the rip chord. “Tracking: Big-Effing-Spike.” She whispered the words into the staff’s receiver. She had a feeling that it would be unwise to speak too loudly here. She pressed down on the trigger and the crystal on her staff flashed so quickly that Allison couldn’t even count the beats. There was a gentle hum that was emitting from the crystal now as well.

“Well,” she whispered to Sarah. “I believe we’re clos-“ Allison’s feet were yanked from under here before she could finish the sentence. The staff fell from her grasp and her head slammed into the ground. The tail of one of the dead naga was coiled around Allison’s legs. The snake-man dragged her in close, its jaws snapped hungrily. Banshee charged the naga. The creature’s grip loosened and Allison clawed her way back to her staff and scrambled to her feet. Banshee clamped down hard onto the creatures neck, but the naga hardly seemed to notice. It took all of the hellhound’s strength just to keep the creature pinned.

Allison turned to aid Banshee, but before she could reset the staff’s configuration Sarah screamed. The scream was punctuated by the unmistakable sound of an automatic ether rifle. To Sarah’s credit, most of the plasma bolts sank into the wendigo’s flesh, but still the demon corpse shuffled towards her. Wendigo’s were intimidating creatures. The corpse stood seven feet tall and was skeletally thin even before it died. Its overlong forearms dragged against the ground as it walked. Milk white eyes stared from sunken sockets in its noseless face.

“Flamethrower.” Allison whispered to her staff. She felt the wiring shift in preparation for the spell. Once everything had locked into place Allison squeezed the trigger. A 6-foot long column of flame shot from the crystal on Allison’s staff and engulfed the demon. The creature continued its march even as its body burned. Finally the flames seared through ligament and sinew. The corpse collapsed under it’s own weight. Sarah continued to fire pointlessly even after it had ceased all movement.

Allison wheeled around to face the other corpses they had passed. As far as she could tell they remained dead. Banshee was tearing the naga apart. A few of the snake demon’s limbs still twitched, but it was otherwise harmless.

“Alright, girl, you got him.” Banshee ignored Allison. “Banshee, enough.” Allison grabbed the wolf by the fur. She was on the ground before she’d even realized Banshee moved. The hellhound stood over her. Banshee’s eyes burned red and soulless. Allison saw no trace of her friend there. The hellhound was so close now that Allison could feel its breath. From the corner of her eye Allison could see Sarah leveling the rifle on Banshee. Sarah’s hands were shaking.

Allison glared, and with all the strength she could muster, she slapped the enormous wolf across the snout. Banshee’s head moved ever so slightly to the side. A look of surprise replaced the dead rage in the hellhound’s eyes.

“What the fuck, Banshee!?” Allison shouted. She’d intended to sound angry but her voice betrayed her. She swallowed hard and tried desperately not to cry. Allison’s hand balled into a fist. Her punch managed to move the hellhound’s head a full 3 inches. Allison was on her feet now. “Wake the fuck up.” Allison raised her fist to strike Banshee again, but the hellhound shook its head. When Banshee opened her eyes again they were a familiar brown. Banshee whined and nuzzled Allison. Allison’s raised fist unclenched and she scratched Banshee behind the ears. Sarah lowered the rifle, clearly relieved.

Allison grabbed her staff. She lowered her goggles and pulled a small cable from the side. The cable plugged into an outlet on the staff. “Scan.” She said. She pointed the staff at Banshee. The levels of ether around Banshee were significantly stronger than the levels of the surrounding area. The same was true of the two corpses that had recently attacked them, though the ether was slowly seeping out of the corpses back into the environment.

“What do you see?” Sarah’s voice asked.

“The ambient ether is acting strangely as we near the source of the disturbance. It’s drawn to Banshee and other mutated creatures. Seems even dead tissue is attracting it. It’s like lightning trying to find ground.” Allison pointed her staff in the direction of the disturbance. “The amount of ether increases exponentially as we near the disturbance, and it’s spreading outward. Incredible.” Excitement crept into Allison’s voice.

“That’s good then?” Sarah’s question was genuine.

“Yes. Well, no, not really. I mean, I guess it depends on your point of view. Where we stand ambient ether levels are high enough to reanimate corpses. Banshee’s more sensitive to ether than we are, and it seems to be amplifying her mutations. Even a few hundred feet down the road ether levels are several times what they are here. Which sounds bad, and it is if your goal is to stay alive.” Allison’s words came quickly.

“It sounds bad to me.” Sarah looked from side to side. She was suddenly very aware of all of the corpses around her.

“From a scientific perspective though. These woods are more or less a scale model of what scientists theorize that The Catastrophe was like. Whatever happened all those centuries ago that nearly wiped out humanity and released ether into the world, something very similar is happening here on a smaller scale. Do you know how many Eden scientists would kill to get their hands on a site like this?” Allison turned to Banshee. “I think you’d better stay with the bike, girl.”

The hellhound cocked her head to the side and barked in disagreement.

Allison unplugged the goggles and shook her head. “No. You stay, and if you start to feel strange I want you to run back towards the village.” Allison started to walk towards the disturbance. Banshee barked, but didn’t follow. Reluctantly Sarah chased after Allison.

The two girls walked in silence for a time. Sarah spoke first, in a hushed whisper. “Is it safe for us to be out here? Will it be able to affect us like it affected Banshee?”

Allison shook her head, she hadn’t removed the goggles and he staff still thrummed at her side. “Humans are resistant to ether poisoning, at least while they’re alive. Ether does love to bond to human corpses though. You should be fine if you don’t die.”

The ground grew rockier and the trees began to thin. A hill rose in front of them. Using her goggles to zoom in Allison spotted a cave in the distance. Even from here she could see ether crystals. The cave was a veritable mine. The ground shook. Sarah’s head darted from side to side. Allison checked the gauge on her staff. When the creature came into view Allison removed her goggles and stared wide eyed. “Stealth,” she whispered. The innards of the staff began to shift. The ground shook harder. Allison grabbed Sarah by the arm and told her “Shhh,” then pulled the trigger. The two girls vanished from sight. Allison could no longer hear her staff. She held Sarah’s arm tightly.

Trees shook and fell to the ground, crushed beneath an enormous webbed foot. A horrifying froglike creature rose to its full height, nearly 100 feet tall. The creature sniffed the air. It had a flat, slimy head topped with white eyes. Its arms were long and powerful. They reached out and swept through the trees. Leaves, dirt and splintered wood scattered through the air. When the dust cleared, Allison saw a Taurus demon struggling in the creature’s three-fingered fist. The creature swallowed the Taurus demon in one gulp, and sank back into the forest.

Allison dragged Sarah towards the cave at a sprint. The stealth spell somewhat muffled their footsteps. As they reached the edge of the cave, Allison spotted the frog-creature’s legs and a slimy spiked tail. It seemed to be lying down. Once the two had made it safely into the cave Allison released the trigger on her staff and she and Sarah were once again visible. The staff’s engines hummed quietly.

“First time I’ve ever seen one of those.” Allison said between heavy breaths.

“I think it’s a bog devil.” Sarah responded.

Allison stared blankly.

“In the time before the world ended the ocean used be farther south. When the waters rose whole cities were flooded. They say that millions of people were killed. Bog devils are fish-like monsters that fed on the human corpses floating in the drowned cities. The bog devils grew incredibly large and powerful. For the most part they live in the salt marshes, but the elders tell children that every 100 years the bog devils come seeking fresh human corpses to eat.” Sarah seemed proud to know something that Allison did not.

“Interesting.” Allison made a mental note to add bog devils to her notes, minus the 100 years garbage. She looked around and saw that the cave was filled with enormous black ether crystals. The area was lit by a strange purple glow, but Allison could not spot the source of the light.

Sarah was attempting to pull one of the crystals from the ground. “Come on, help me. Let’s grab this and get out of here.”

Allison laughed. “Oh come on, haven’t you ever played a video game? You don’t go into a dungeon and not explore it.”

Sarah stared at her.

“Sorry.” Allison said, “I forget that you’re you sometimes. Point is, ether levels are off the charts in this area and the source of that ether would seem to be in this cave. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m not leaving until I find out what’s going on.”

Sarah abandoned her crystal and followed Allison. Allison held her staff defensively, but after 10 minutes of walking they still hadn’t encountered a single creature. The cave was suspiciously deserted. Crystals grew larger the deeper they went into the cave. Strange purple lichen covered the walls, the source of the glow Allison had noticed earlier. Finally they arrived in an enormous chamber. Ether Crystals grew as tall as Allison here. The ground was cracked. Enormous rocks were scattered everywhere, as if there had been an explosion. In the center of the room there was an enormous crevice.

Almost unbelievably, a man knelt before the crevice. His back was to Allison and Sarah, but he appeared to be staring intently down into the Abyss. Allison approached cautiously with her staff in hand. Before Allison could call out to the man an arm wrapped around her throat and yanked her off her feet. Allison kicked feebly at the air, but she was able to hang on to her staff. She jammed the crystal end of her staff towards the area where she hoped her attacker’s face would be. The staff connected with something. Allison heard cartilage crunch and a man scream. The arm released and she fell to the ground. Allison turned to find a man dressed in Eden military fatigues holding his nose and staggering backwards. Sarah shoved the man as he stumbled into her. The girl was not a born fighter, but with her strength amplified by the suit the man went flying forward. He lost his footing and fell into the crevice, screams echoed throughout the cave.

The kneeling man finally seemed to wake up. He rose slowly. He was also dressed in an Eden uniform. He looked at Allison with his head cocked slightly to the side. The man’s eyes were glassy and feverish. “T-Tide,” he croaked. His lips moved with great effort. It was as if he’d forgotten how to speak and was trying to remember.

Suddenly the man crumpled and howled in pain. The scream was primal, almost animalistic. It shook Allison. She lowered her staff slightly, not sure if she should help the man or run for her life. As suddenly as the screaming had started it stopped. The man rose to his feet once more. He looked at the ground for a few moments before bursting into a run. He was on top of Allison before she could react. He hammered at Allison with his fists. There was no form or technique behind the blows. The man fought like a wild ape. Allison barely managed to move her head out of the way in time to avoid a lethal hammer fist. The man’s hand pounded the stone floor with a wet crunch. He seemed to be beyond pain now. Allison managed to get her staff up to block the next blow, but he was stronger and her bad arm gave out.

Sarah kicked the man in the chest with a booted foot. He landed on his back several feet away. Allison recovered and stood up. A kick from Sarah’s exoskeleton should have caved-in the man’s chest. Allison turned to ask Sarah if she was ok, when she saw the girl’s eyes go wide. The man seemed utterly unfazed. Sarah leveled the rifle and fired. Her first salvo seared through what remained of the man’s torso. Still he came forward, powered by sheer adrenaline. Her second salvo caught the man in the head. This time he stayed down. The smell of burnt flesh filled the cave. Allison prayed that it didn’t attract anything. Sarah stood there still holding the rifle, too traumatized to move.

Allison rested a hand gently on Sarah’s gun and lowered it. Tears were streaming down Sarah’s face. Neither girl said a word. Together, they walked over to the crevice. Allison could feel the crystal of her staff reacting even though no spell had been cast. When she looked down into the crevice she saw nothing. Absolute nothing. It wasn’t just dark, it was a place that light rejected. Allison heard whispers. She looked around for the source, she feared there were more Eden troops lurking around the corner. She saw nothing. Allison listened harder; she could barely make out the whispers. Allison wondered if she was imagining the sounds. Sarah was still gazing down that the abyss. The tears continued to flow, and they fell into that nothingness.

“Sarah-” Allison launched into a coughing fit. She could still feel that soldiers arm around her throat. When she recovered, Allison realized that Sarah’s eyes were unfocused. Slowly Sarah’s lips began to move, mouthing words that Allison couldn’t make out.

“Sarah, I think we should-”

“Tidal Pool.” Sarah spoke in a clear, dead monotone. “You go to… I go too… No.” Sarah’s lip quivered and her eyes opened wide, though they still stared into the abyss. She shrieked now. “Oh God, No. No! No! No!” Sarah jumped back from the crevice. She buried her face in her hands and screamed. It was the same primal scream that the Eden scout had let out. Sarah dug her nails into her face and began clawing. Blood flowed from the scratches.

“Sarah, stop.” Allison said taking a step forward.

Sarah scrambled back giving no indication that she could hear Allison. “No, no, no. Please, God.” She howled in agony. The howl turned into a guttural sob.

She was still moaning as Allison spoke into the staff. “Somnia.” Allison pointed the staff at Sarah and pulled the trigger. Sarah collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

Allison looked into the crevice one more time, a part of her deeply wanted to study this. The true source of ether was the discovery of the millennia. This cave was the key to understanding everything. She thought she heard the whispers a little more clearly now. She was beginning to understand how Banshee had felt back in the woods. It broke her heart, but there was only one thing to do.

“Laser.” She instructed the staff.

She pulled the trigger and a beam of orange-red light shot out. She sliced off the largest ether crystal she thought she could carry, and then she sliced off a smaller crystal.

With the flick of a switch she killed the engines on her staff. Another button released the pink crystal from the staff’s claw. The pink crystal fell to the ground with a small ping. In it’s place she secured the smaller of the two black crystals. She pulled the rip chord. The rebooted staff hummed.

“Boom.” The internal components shifted again. Allison pointed the staff at the ceiling. And an explosion rocked the cave. Rocks crumbled from the ceiling into the crevice. She pulled the trigger again. Larger rocks fell. The new crystal was everything Tom had said it would be. Soon the crevice was completely covered. Allison dragged Sarah and the large crystal out of the chamber; the girl was too heavy to carry. At the entrance to the chamber she cast Boom again, this time she aimed for the ground. With greater effort she dragged the Eden soldier into the hole that she’d created. She missed Banshee.

Allison stared at the dead man lying there. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” Allison had figured it out in the woods, the mystery of the village’s missing power source. She laughed. It was so simple. All the pieces were there she’d just been too stupid or too naïve to put them together. Ambient ether was naturally attracted to matter. Certain kinds of matter attracted ether more easily than others. She wondered how many corpses lay beneath Sarah’s village. She wondered if they’d known what they were dying for and sacrificed themselves voluntarily. Probably not she decided, otherwise it wouldn’t be such a big secret. Allison broke off one of the smaller crystals from the cave wall and jammed it through the dead man’s heart.

She rolled an enormous rock over the hole that served as the man’s resting place. Using her laser spell she carved the symbol she’d seen in the village onto the rock. The dead man would serve as an ether battery. As the ether from the cave attempted to revive him it would be focused through the crystal in his heart into the circuit Allison had carved. All that remained was the wiring. She grabbed her knife from Sarah’s unconscious form. Allison ran the blade along her own palm, and let the blood flow down into the circuit she’d created. She was afraid that it wouldn’t work, but after a few minutes the blood glowed and the air around the rock shimmered.

Allison scanned the area with her staff. Huge quantities of ether were still present, but the leak seemed to be plugged for now. She’d successfully created a ward. It was weaker than the ones in the village, only one body to work with after all.

 

Sarah awoke on the cold ground. Her neck was incredibly stiff, and her face felt like it was on fire. She touched a hand to her check and felt deep scratches. Blood was still oozing from them. She found Allison asleep against the cave wall, cuddled up with her staff.

“Allison?”

The witch woke with a start. When she saw Sarah, a smile crept across the witch’s face. “Oh good, you’re up. I was afraid I was going to have to try to carry you out of here. You’re a lot heavier than you look.”

Sarah looked around. “We’re still in the cave?” Sarah didn’t remember falling asleep. The last thing she remembered was firing her rifle. She felt sick. She turned back, afraid she would see the body, but instead she saw a rock with the warding symbol carved into it. She reached out to touch it.

“I wouldn’t.” Allison said. “There was some bad stuff in that room. Drove those Eden guys nuts. Figured I’d better make a ward to keep it from getting out of that room.”

Sarah stared in astonishment. “You… you made a ward?”

Allison stood up and stretched. “Yeah, figured it out. It really isn’t all that hard; I’m surprised everyone doesn’t do it. So what do you say we hike back out of here? I grabbed you a crystal while I was in there. Old Tom ought to name you village champion or whatever.”

Sarah grabbed the crystal. It looked heavy, but she had no trouble lifting it. She allowed herself a smile.

Allison made a grumpy face. “It’s the suit. It enhances your strength.” For the first time Sarah appreciated just how short Allison was. The witch seemed very small, almost incomplete without her hellhound next to her.

The two walked cautiously out of the cave. It was morning now, and there was no sign of the bog devil. They sprinted to the tree line all the same. When they arrived back at the hover-bike they found Banshee sitting patiently. She hadn’t moved an inch from where Allison had left her.

Allison collapsed into the hellhound and wrapped her arms around it. Banshee licked the witch’s face excitedly. Sarah couldn’t help but smile. She was confused though, when Allison finally stood up Sarah could swear she saw a tear in the other girl’s eye. Allison jumped on the hover-bike and fired the engines. Sarah cringed, but she had to admit it was better than a 20-mile walk. Allison laughed as Sarah climbed on without argument.

“Well, well, Ms. Sarah. Maybe you aren’t so hopeless after all.” Allison teased.

Sarah rode with one arm around Allison’s waist and the other around the crystal. They drove through the woods without incident. It seemed to Sarah as if the forest was happy to let them go. Maybe this had all just been some ridiculous test and God was finally showing her some mercy. Sarah blinked at the thought. Some might have construed that as heresy. She never used to let herself think that way.

It hardly seemed like any time at all before they spotted the village wards. Allison pulled around to the ward closest to the church hall. She stopped the bike. “Well, this is your stop, I believe.” Allison said cheerfully.

Sarah stared. “You’re not coming in?”

Allison’s face clouded for a moment. Then her smile returned. Though it didn’t seem as genuine to Sarah now. “No, not this time. I actually have another appointment. There’s something I need to look into in Tidal Pool. Besides an upstanding member of the church like you can’t be seen in the company of a witch.”

Sarah hugged Allison. “I’ll miss you.” Sarah told her.

Allison handed Sarah a folded piece of paper. “It’s a map.” The witch explained. “If for any reason you ever feel like you need to get out of here for a while. You’ll find me there. The few people that know about that place think it’s haunted, so we don’t get a lot of visitors. I’ll come check on you as soon as I’m done in Tidal Pool.”

Banshee barked and ran up to Sarah. The hellhound jumped up and rested her forepaws on Sarah’s shoulders. Then proceeded to lick the girl all over her face. It was disgusting, but Sarah appreciated the gesture and hugged the wolf in return. “I’ll miss you too, Banshee.”

 

Sarah greeted Father Thomas in his office, crystal in hand. The man’s face lit up when he saw the crystal. “Incredible!” He exclaimed. Then he looked at Sarah’s face. “My God, what happened?”

Sarah struggled, but still couldn’t remember exactly what had happened. “There was a fight in the cave.” She said by way of explanation.

Father Thomas nodded. “Come with me. We need to get this installed immediately.”

Sarah followed Father Thomas through the church. They encountered Brother Jonathon along the way. The brother made a not-so-subtle attempt to peak beneath Sarah’s cloak. She could feel her face reddening. Thomas led her down a winding corridor that she had never seen before. They descended a long staircase. It opened into a room with stonewalls. Along the walls were a number of bookshelves, and in the middle of the room was an altar. Atop the altar there was an apparatus similar to the top of Allison’s staff. It held a tiny ether crystal that was vibrating dangerously within its mount. The room felt familiar. She’d never been here before, but she had the strangest sense of déjà vu

“You should do the honors.” Father Thomas said.

Sarah walked up to the altar, when she touched the crystal that was currently held there it crumbled to dust. Her heart was beating fast; she wasn’t sure why she felt nervous. This was by far the easiest thing she’d done in the last two days. She placed the new crystal in the altar. Symbols began to light up on the altar; her eyes followed them all the way down to the floor. Purple bolts of electricity formed a circle around her. She backed down from the altar and into one of the bolts. The shock sent her crashing to the ground. Her hand went to her cheek, and traced the line of the scratch. Realization dawned on her.

“Oh no… ” her voice shook as the memories came back. Tears flooded down her cheeks. She turned back to see Father Thomas smiling. She’d seen that smile in the cave. She smashed her fists against the lightning until her hands were burned beyond recognition. “No!” she screamed. Ethereal black tendrils emerged from the crystal behind her. Father Thomas’s smile grew wider. Sarah looked up just in time to see the tendrils rush into her eyes, nose and mouth. She fell back to the floor, cracking her skull against the altar. Her body contorted and seized wildly. Her screams filled the chamber. Images rushed into her head. She saw Father Thomas standing in the doorway, but he was younger, younger than she’d ever seen him before. Every nerve in her body was on fire, her muscles twitched and convulsed. The pain intensified. She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in pain. Her senses were gone. Another image burned into her brain, smashing through her neural pathways and coming to the surface. It was Allison. The witch was standing at the center of a swirling inferno. Allison’s arm hung uselessly from her side. Sarah begged her to help. “P-please! Oh God, Allison, it hurts!”

The witch raised her staff and pulled the trigger. A white light crashed into her. Sarah screamed so loud she thought her vocal cords might tear. When she finally ran out of air, the scream turned into a wailing sob. The tendrils surged into Sarah’s eyes with renewed force. The sounds Sarah made were no longer human. Blood poured from her eyes, ears and nose. Even Father Thomas had to cover his ears. Slowly the screams changed into a kind of rasp. The rasps shook Sarah’s entire body. They came more frequently. The tendrils returned to the crystal, but Sarah’s eyes remained blacker than black. They were pits that swallowed the light. Gradually a smile spread across her face, made gruesome by the blood that ran like tears down her cheeks and between her teeth. Sarah rose to her feet, swaying as she coughed and rasped. She raised a ruined hand and swiped wildly at the barrier. The lightning disintegrated from her strike. The rasps became a cackle.

 

It occurred to Father Thomas that the creature before him was laughing.