Book 2: Journey of the Lost

There was no time for talking. With Ellred there was always time for talking. But not today, not now. Ellred’s words were usually soft and tenuous, clouds of speech, a great deal of them amounting to very little. This news, however, was made for bludgeoning, a verbal hammer—small, but dense and powerful. As much as Vahn wanted to sit and recover, take a few moments to let things sink in, it was impossible. His mother was alive. Somehow.

The nightmares were always the same, the same sequence of events beginning with the first fragments of memories when he was a baby and ending when he found his father dead and his mother missing. All the memories were a single line of thought, a string of anguish with knots where each image appeared chronologically.

When the nightmares stayed away, his dreams were mundane by dream standards. It might have been a trip to the market, it might have been a show at the theater, or it might have been sitting in school naked—the specifics didn’t matter. Yet every so often a specter would appear in the dreams, a ghost haunting what would have otherwise been a banal trip through the subconscious. It was his father, alive, still living in his dreams, still living in pain. Even in his dreams he knew it was not possible and shouldn’t be happening. He was dead. His father was dead and there could be no doubting it. But in the dream realm he was a living spirit, visiting his present life, his adult life. If only the meetings between the living and the dead were pleasant. But alas, they were terrifying encounters. His father was still in agony, his life somehow prolonged and the pain extended year after year. Vahn saw the pain end some years ago and knew his father’s body and spirit were at peace. In the dreams, however, his father still ached, still suffered, still lived through what he had finally escaped in death. Worst of all, his dream-father could never die. Whenever Vahn closed his eyes there was always the chance that his father would live on, inserting his suffering into Vahn’s modern life.

His father was a ghost haunting his dreams, but his mother was different. Dreams with his mother were dreams of reality—the memories of what had happened, as it happened, not nightmares of what never could happen, like his father. Never once had she existed as a ghost in Vahn’s modern life or an anachronistic memory. Her memories were where they should be, as they should be, never more or less than that. So was it all that surprising that she was still alive? Had his dreams given it away, had they been whispering that she was still out there somewhere, that she wasn’t living on in his twisted subconscious because she had yet to actually die?

“You must leave immediately,” Ellred said. He had repeated it several times as Vahn sat in a hard chair in an austere room in an empty temple in a city consumed by violence. Vahn managed to ask how but Ellred only shook his head and repeated his motto. It was just as well—he had no idea what ‘how’ he wanted to know (how Ellred knew, how to leave the city, how it was possible she wasn’t dead). Duncan, sitting still beside Vahn, said nothing. “If you want her to live you will leave now.” Vahn inhaled sharply. “No, there is no time to visit your friend’s bar. And would you wander the streets again? Who knows what might impede your progress? No, we leave now or you don’t leave at all. The choice is yours.” It wasn’t, clearly. Ellred stood up and pushed his chair underneath the desk as though the insignificant formality of ushering them out brought reason and sense to the situation. “Are you ready?” How long had he sat there without answering, mute, dumb, perplexed? It might have been a full five minutes.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Duncan said. Ellred had walked around the bare table and was standing near the door.

“Out of the city—with you.”

“You know that’s not possible, yeah? Unless you can swim faster than a dolphin and jump over fallen bridges we’re absolutely done.”

“Yes, it is.” Ellred spoke without emotion or inflection.

“Then why are you loafing about? Shouldn’t you be out of the city if it’s so easy?” Even in his trance Vahn could hear Ellred grumble before answering.

“Because I must stay. I cannot leave, I must not leave, I will not leave. Though I may go for a short while to guide you, I cannot leave this temple or this city for good.” His words were sharp, quick, loud in the humming silence of the temple. Ellred walked out the door and to the right. “Follow me”. His words were already muffled by the distance. Duncan stood up and sighed but otherwise remained still. Vahn was still fastened to his chair, weighed down and secured by a combination of words that should never have been spoken together.

“If he can get us out of here we might as well go. We were trying to do it anyway.” Duncan placed a hand on Vahn’s shoulder and shook a bit. It was enough to bring Vahn’s focus back to the room. “We might be able to catch up to Sam if we’re quick.”

“Right.” Vahn stood and looked around the room hoping to bring his sense into the moment. Dull light snuck through the milky windows, a few motes of dust drifted by without any concern for the destruction beyond the temple. The hum and energy he felt earlier was gone, or at least it had dissipated. Other than their breathing everything was silent and as calm as still image.

“You made the right choice,” Ellred said as Vahn and Duncan exited the tiny office at the back of the temple. As soon as they pulled the door to the office shut the entire hallway was engulfed in darkness. Ellred was standing at the end of the long hallway halfway between the light and the dark, his expression and features split. “We don’t have any time to waste.” As the pair approached the end of the hallway Ellred turned and walked on. When Vahn turned the corner Ellred was standing near the doorway into the main chapel. “This way.” He pushed sturdy double doors open revealing another dark room. Ellred disappeared into the void leaving Vahn and Duncan standing in the threshold. “Just a second.” His voice echoed. Vahn could see the faint outline of pews just ahead but no farther. “There.” A single torch sprung to life at the far end of the chapel. Ellred was standing behind a pulpit resting on a tall dais at the head of the room. The torch was stuck to the back wall and positioned to the side of a cream-colored statue. “Back here.”

“You said we were getting out of the city?” Duncan said it as a question. Rich orange light painted the pulpit and dais. Beyond the tiny swathe light surrounding the dais were heavy shadows that refused to shrink away from the glow, pooling between pews and behind decorations and ceremonial torches positioned against the walls. The light ascended halfway up the marble statue before it was too weak to expose details. It was one Vahn recognized, the statute, one that was fairly common throughout the city. It was a half-man half-serpent rendering of Gent, his snakelike jaws open to devour the valley. But this one was immense, taller than any he had seen before, at least 40 feet tall and rising towards the top of the grand ceiling. Details vanished above the statue’s waist, devoured by the dark. There were likely orb lights throughout the chapel to fully illuminate the cavern. There was even another torch on the other side of the pale statue, the partner to the one Ellred lit. Nevertheless Ellred made certain the darkness won out the light. “Come this way.” He stood behind the pulpit and was looking down at something. The pair hurried along the aisle towards the front of the chapel, the path wide enough for them to walk side by side. Stairs led up to the pulpit from either side of the dais and the pair ascended them carefully in the dull light.

“Where are we going?” Vahn asked. He looked around the pulpit and saw nothing of any importance. A few dense tomes were piled on a low shelf near the statue, tall candelabra flanked either side of the pulpit, and as he guessed there were a few orb lights set into the floor beneath a layer of glass, none of which were lit. But that was it.

“In here,” Ellred replied. He ran his hands along either side of the pulpit, patting it as searched for something. Finding what he was looking for, he plunged his fingers into two almost invisible holes on either side of the wood structure. From somewhere within the solid pulpit came the unmistakable sound of locks and latches unfastening. Before Vahn could ask what was happening Ellred pulled open two doors on the back side of the pulpit that swung outwards. “Here.” Ellred pointed to the opening.

“What is this?” Vahn asked. Ellred pulled a handheld orb light from his robes, turned it on, and shone the light in the opening. The pulpit was at least three feet tall, maybe four, and half as wide. What appeared solid from outside was in fact a hollow and rather flimsy wood structure concealing an uneven hole hewn out of bare stone. As Ellred moved the light, the orange beam reflected off of a dull metal object stuck in the temple’s stone foundation. “Here.” Ellred handed Vahn the light before removing his blue temple robes. Once the robes were off he wadded them into a ball and set them on the top of the pulpit. Vahn had never seen a priest disrobe and couldn’t have guessed what they wore underneath. When he saw Ellred wearing a plain white shirt and brown pants held in place by a belt he wasn’t sure whether that was what he expected or not. But right now, it didn’t matter—Ellred was descending the ladder and disappearing into the circular hole. “Follow close behind. Make sure you use the light; it’s a long drop if you fall.”

“At least we’ll have a soft landing,” Duncan whispered. Though he didn’t laugh, Vahn smiled, smiled because he was supposed to, not because he wanted to. “You go next and shine the light up as you go. I’ll follow behind, yeah?” By now Ellred had vanished into the darkness but his grunts and footfalls were still perceptible, trickling up and out of the hole like it was a bubbling cauldron. Ducking to get a better look, Vahn leaned over the hole and shone the light down. It was a circular hole dug straight down through the temple’s foundation and into the dirt below. Metal rungs were inserted into the foundation stone and dirt. Those in the dirt were uneven and anything but straight. The hole smelled of old, damp earth and mold. It was as though the narrow hole amplified and intensified the smell, the aroma wafting out like it was being shoved through a chimney.

As Vahn moved the light around, Ellred’s sweaty hair reflected the beams like a prism. He was already half a dozen feet down. Placing the light in his mouth Vahn reached out and grabbed the top rung and shook. It was cold and rough, but sturdy. He leaned back, sat down and dangled his legs into the hole and looked back at Duncan.

“Just like the arena,” Vahn said stoically. “Sliding into the darkness.”

“No smoke though,” Duncan answered. It was supposed to be a joke, but he couldn’t laugh at this one.

“Are you coming?” Ellred said. His voice was more distant and muffled now. Even if the light wasn’t stuck between his teeth he wouldn’t have answered. Vahn slid off the edge and placed his feet on a lower rung, grabbing the top rung immediately after. By twisting his head to the side and looking down he could aim the orb light with his mouth well enough to see where he was going, for at least a foot or two anyway. At once he began descending the narrow shaft, each rung and step just like the other. It smelled strongly of moldy dirt and faintly of sewage, or it could have been Vahn’s imagination (or Ellred, now that he thought about it). Once he had climbed at least six feet Duncan stepped overhead and grabbed the first wrung. “It’s not much farther.” Ellred’s voice was so muffled it sounded like a thought.

“It’s so damn tight!” Duncan’s voice was deadened but not as much. Vahn’s shoulders barely fit between the sides of the tunnel and judging by the amount of loose dirt falling on his head, Duncan was already a few feet down, his hips and shoulders rubbing the shaft’s sides.

“That’s it, come on.” Vahn took the rungs slowly but steadily. After descending a few more, a rush of cool and damp air swirled around him and the narrow walls opened. The rungs continued straight down, only now they were attached to the side of a flat wall in what looked like a large hollow. After that brief pause and spurred on by the debris Duncan was loosening Vahn continued. “Let me take that.” Ellred’s hand appeared near Vahn’s waist a moment later. Vahn held on with one hand, pressing his chest against the wall, and took the light from his mouth. Ellred took the light and stepped back far enough to shine the weak light over the rest of the rungs creating a spotlight around Vahn and the ladder.

“What is this place?” Vahn asked. He stepped off the last rung and moved away as Duncan finished his descent. Once Duncan was on the ground Vahn had only a moment to look around before Ellred swung the light in the opposite direction. The shaft connecting the temple dais to the cavern was a good seven or eight feet above them in the ceiling. It opened to a large cavern dug out of the dirt and reinforced with pieces of dry and gnarled wood placed vertically and in random locations, the ladder continuing down the side of the wall all the way to the floor. The entire expanse was probably fifteen feet in diameter and somewhere between square and circular. There was a tunnel just to the right of the “ladder” they climbed down that led into a wall of darkness as tangible as the walls of earth around them. It was just over six feet tall and just as wide. The opening was mostly circular and slightly uneven with chunks and streaks from the carver’s tools still visible. As Ellred swung the light away from the ladder and in the opposite direction the dim light fell over another opening opposite the one he had been staring into.

“We are going this way,” Ellred said. He spoke with both fear and eagerness, walking away from the pair in the process. “If you wish to stay in the city you can return to the temple or take that path; but I highly doubt that is your intent.”

“Hold up yeah? I can’t see a damn thing without that light.” Duncan grabbed Vahn by the arm then shoved him towards the vanishing light.

“That won’t be a problem for long.” Ellred pointed the light towards the ground in front of his feet. The light was completely lost within the massive cavern and only brightened a tiny area immediately ahead. Just as they reached the far tunnel Ellred stopped again. Before Vahn could ask what was going on a flash of light blinded him. “There we are.” There was an immediate flash and then dozens of individual balls of ghost lights lined his vision even when he closed his eyes. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust and the points of color to disappear.

Ellred stood in the entrance of the far tunnel, his hand on a switch. A row of small orb lights lined the right side of the tunnel and were fastened to the middle of the wall at shoulder height, each one connected to its neighbor by a thick black cable. Individually the blubs were no brighter than Ellred’s portable light, but spaced only a couple feet apart there were enough to make the cramped space seem like an open-air park at midday. The lights followed the gentle curve of the tunnel and eventually disappeared around a bend several hundred feet away.

“What is all this?” Vahn asked. With proper illumination it was easy to see the room was nothing more than a hand-dug cave with a few supports. The tunnels were exactly the same only smaller. He hadn’t noticed it before, but a narrow stream of water lay to their right, moseying along so gently that it made no sound. It exited from a semicircular opening in the wall to the right of the lit tunnel. It was only a couple of feet wide and lined with odd shaped stones. It traveled the length of the cavern and vanished into another stone archway dug into the wall on the near the ladder they descended.

“Most of this is from the old aqueduct and sewer system,” Ellred replied. “Most of this comes from the FreePort river; I’m sure you know about this since you live here, but underground rivers are quite common in the Valley. Some reconnect with the river later and others drain into the sea. It’s why there used to be so many wells in the area and why there are so many little streams just outside the city. Sometimes it’s easier to connect a well to the underwater rivers than it is to build an aqueduct from the river itself you know.” Vahn couldn’t tell if it was meant as a question or a statement. For a sewer system the smell was actually somewhat pleasant now that he was used to it. It was a rich and earthy smell, slightly moldy, but otherwise clean. “Enough history; hurry.” Ellred turned and sped down the hallway leaving Vahn and Duncan to catch up. The only sound in the tunnel came from the gentle hiss of the lights and the trio’s muffled footfalls.

“So what the hell is this place?” Duncan asked. “I get the river bit, but someone would have to be mental to dig all this when there’s that giant river to the north.” Before Ellred could answer Vahn interrupted.

“This must be what Jonas was talking about—the tunnel system. I’ve never been down here before.” He wasn’t asking anyone directly.

“Maybe?” Duncan said.

“Not all of this is part of the sewer and water system,” Ellred said, almost interrupting Duncan. “I told you already—some of these tunnels are for the wells and sewers because it’s easier to connect to something already underground than to divert the entire river.” Condescending, but not waiting for an answer. “Most of this is from something else entirely and it is older than that, much older. The tunnels just happened to connect with the major sewage and well access points.”

“Who built ‘em?” Duncan asked. Scars from shovels and picks still lined the walls, signatures and memories of the people who built it, signatures that would last for centuries. The pick and shovel marks were evidently ancient. But there were boot prints in the soft dirt, dozens of them going each and every way. They were so cluttered and overlapped so much that it was impossible to tell whether it was the work of a single person over the span of several weeks or dozens of people marching back and forth. Deep beneath the ground the soil was packed hard. It was a mixture of peaty dirt and sand, the result was easy to compress and wouldn’t reveal any secrets. Whether they were made yesterday or millennia ago, the footprints all looked the same.

“Do you know much about the city?” Ellred asked. His tone was neutral still, punctuated by deep breaths. He was almost jogging.

“Some, yes,” Vahn answered. Duncan was silent beyond his deep breathing.

“Do you know what happened here about 750 years ago?” The group rounded the gentle bend in the tunnel. Instead of another long corridor of tan-brown dirt and a string of lights, the path curved to the left at a near 90-degree angle. As the path turned it curved around the broad face of a huge boulder. The Valley of Gent was freckled by huge boulders and portions of exposed stone bedrock. Where the forests weren’t as dense as the bars on a jail cell it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing dozens of slabs jutting out of the dirt. That one was here and seemingly hidden until the diggers found it was no surprise. Not waiting for an answer Ellred continued. “There was a war between the lumber mills outside the city and the then-Count of FreePort because of an embargo. After a large battle the Count erected a wall around the city and continued the trade ban.” Ellred sped around the acute corner at the boulder’s tip. “He was despised by everyone inside the city and out. But I’m afraid our current count is going to be known for something much worse.” Ellred paused for a moment. “During the embargo a number of the men from the mills dug these tunnels as a way of getting in and out of the city without notice. Some of them are large enough to transport wood, others, like this one, are just big enough for a few people. They wanted a way to ship their goods despite the embargo and built tunnels to do just that. Some of the men knew where the aqueduct and sewer passages were and connected to those to save time I suppose. Seems foolish to connect to something the city is already using though—that’s just asking for disaster.”

“How did you find out about these?” Vahn asked, panting. Most kids learned about the tunnels below the city in school when kids would tell fanciful stories of monsters and murders hiding underneath. You were just as likely to hear a tall tale in a local pub as you were the schools, as most adults couldn’t help but add their own spin to the stories. But few people ever mentioned anything specific about them. And fewer of those stories seemed to hold any truth.

Meanwhile, Ellred’s pace increased and all three men were now jogging. Even without the accumulated fatigue from the past few days it would have been difficult to maintain a conversation at this rate. When Vahn changed a glance back at Duncan the man was usually holding his ribs with one hand. Still, Ellred gave it a good go.

“I’ve worked in the temple for many years, Vahn. I know everything there is to know about it and the city itself. Being a Private Guard and the head of a temple means I’m privileged to certain information, as you can imagine. Nobody on the outside knows about the temple access hatch, outside of the temple I mean. You two should consider yourselves lucky.” Once they rounded the stone the path straightened and continued following the line it had before the blockade. They were probably heading due north given the location of the pulpit and the direction of the first tunnel, but there was nothing to use as a reference down here. “The temple workers of the day did not agree with the former count’s policies and agreed to aid the mill workers. There are plenty of other exits throughout the city, some of which I’ve never discovered. The one in the temple was used quite often because of how secretive it is—not for shipping wood, mind you. Too small for that. We don’t use it much today; and frankly I don’t know how safe it is to be down here; those wood supports look like they’d be more at home in a fire pit.” The tunnel curved around yet another stone. For the next few moments the trio jogged in silence, gulping the stale air in the process. Before long the path opened into another room almost identical to the one they climbed down into. The trail of orb lights wound around the right side of the tunnel then stopped abruptly. Two more tunnels led elsewhere, one to their right the other to their left. Another pair of tunnels sat next to each other straight ahead. All of them were completely black, though a faint breeze blew from the tunnel to their left. “Just a moment.” Ellred walked into the darkness, fumbled with something metallic. A second later another string of lights burst to life and traveled down the one of the tunnels directly ahead.

“Who put these lights here?” Vahn asked, glad to have a moment to catch his breath. “Orb lights weren’t around 750 years ago.”

“I don’t know,” Ellred answered. Vahn and Duncan exchanged bewildered glances. “If you pay attention you can see that some of the lights are mounted to old torch brackets. They had to use torches back then, you know.”

“You don’t know?” Duncan snapped. “What does that mean?”

“It means someone installed them very recently. Only a couple strands of lights were here when I took my first job in the temple. Few of the priests knew about the tunnels and those that do never come down here. Back then the lights connected the pulpit to the park—why there I couldn’t guess. But then more started to appear recently. The last time I came down here was just before the festival last year. I always like to check the tunnels and make sure there won’t be any problems with the temple’s foundation. I’ve traveled these tunnels a fair bit over the past to make sure there weren’t any signs of danger and to do a bit of exploration. I fear these tunnels would be perfect for miscreants and deviants to idle their time and deal in illicit substances. When I came down here after the attacks I found all of these new strings.” Vahn inhaled sharply and held his breath, listening for something. It was so absolutely quiet in the cavern that each heartbeat was like a thundering drum. It was profound silence, complete and deep.

“So other people know about these tunnels?” Vahn continued.

Someone would have to.” Ellred scoffed quietly. “Only two other people in the temple know anything about the entrance and neither of them have explored the tunnels like I have. So, who might know is anyone’s guess. I don’t imagine the drugged-up miscreants would have the wherewithal to complete something of this magnitude.”

“And I don’t see why the people who attacked the city would spend so much time down here if all they wanted to do was destroy the city.” Ellred nodded, or at least it looked that way from behind.

“Well someone sure as hell knows about this place,” Duncan said. “They put up some damn lights!” Vahn had to close his eyes to keep from seeing imaginary beasts in the shadows of the black corridors. While his eyes were closed he heard Ellred walking away.

“It doesn’t matter who put them here,” Ellred replied. “Let’s go.” Vahn and Duncan caught up and the three resumed their journey.

Vahn could argue that knowing who put the lights up did matter, and mattered quite a lot. But Ellred drove such a fierce pace that Vahn and Duncan could barely keep up.

The path continued straight for some time, snaked gently left and right, rounded a few boulders, and continued straight once more. For more than 20 minutes the group jogged through the serpentine path, none of them speaking, all of them choking on the dead air. During that time they passed through another open cavern with four more openings. Ellred lit the next row of lights without stopping and motioned for all of them to continue. Like the second room, the third was just a room, not part of the water system. None of them brought water or food and by now Vahn was beginning to crave water more than answers. After another 15 minutes they reached another open room. Ellred again lit the orb lights and went to continue down another path (this one to the left) when Duncan grabbed him.

“Not so fast man, not so fast!” Duncan was panting, wheezing as his lungs filled with heavy air.

“We don’t have time to wait!” Ellred’s face was red but he looked otherwise composed, his breathing quick but controlled.

“Why!? Why don’t we have time to wait?” Duncan bent forward, his shoulders heaving as he inhaled, wincing from the occasional stabbing pain.

“Dames is two weeks away at the least,” Vahn added. “Running now isn’t going to make any difference.” As much as he wanted to see his mother he knew a long journey still lay ahead. Once out of the tunnels he would still need to find a way north or south, find a boat to shuttle him around the cliffs, then hire a transportcart to take him the 500 plus miles to Dames. A bit of running now certainly wasn’t going to make a difference.

“No it’s not,” Ellred answered. “You aren’t two weeks away.”

“I don’t know if you really understand what happened out there, but the only way out of the Valley is by boat and the nearest port is miles to the north! Without a motorcart it’s going to be almost impossible to even make it to the port! What good is sprinting going to do us here?”

“You aren’t taking a boat; it’s too dangerous and will take too long.” Duncan was still holding Ellred though he was beginning to try and shake free.

“Then where are we going?”

“The Cliffs of Gent.” For a moment everything paused, even Vahn’s heart. The past few days provided him with combinations of words that should never have existed. This, the “Cliffs of Gent”, was another. It wasn’t logical; it was like saying they were taking a canoe to the moon. “You two are going to hike the Cliffs of Gent.”

Chapter 2

A boat sailed from Hales, a quiet port city on the edge of the wide peninsula north of Westlake. It was on its way to Limerock, one of the last major ports before passing the Cliffs of Gent and sailing along the Valley of Gent. Eventually that boat would ferry Sheyla to FreePort. But the boat was late. Of course it was late; what else should she have expected from a vessel still relying on the power of the wind?

Sheyla had been waiting at a seaside bar in Limerock since noon. The owner, a young man who opened the bar looking to add a touch of young, hip, flair to a salty old dock wound up jaded and bitter instead of rich and happy. He was pissed when she asked him to open the place early that morning and complained when Sheyla’s group stayed long after their drinks had run dry. She was here with one of her smaller squads, four men and four women, all of whom obeyed her without question. They were part of The Congregation. It went by many names, their religious cult—a band of degenerates, really. The Holy Mother, the head of their cabal, called it The Congregation of Dramon and the leaders she called The Council. Others called it The Order or Order of Dramos. To outsiders they were known as Dramonites. Dramon, the name of the anti-god, the king of Demigods, organizer of the Angels of Perdition. They were named after the very manifestation of darkness. The names of their group varied according to individual and circumstance—what didn’t vary were their goals or lack of morals.

Sheyla’s squad members, thanks to The Order’s training and teachings, obeyed her orders without question. When she said “we wait at the bar”, they waited at the bar. When she said “get a drink, it looks like it’s going to be a while”, they drank, even though she said it only as a friend might, more as a suggestion than a command. Still, they drank. And didn’t stop until the drink stopped them, not Sheyla.

Some of them gagged and choked back the various liquors on offer with difficulty, not quite enjoying their first experience with a triple distilled vodka the owner gave Sheyla’s naïve group as a cruel attempt at humor. Sheyla ordered a glass of wine, her favorite and the only thing she could stomach at lunchtime. By 2:00 in the afternoon, two hours and two glasses of wine after the boat was supposed to arrive, half of her squad was in the bathroom making noises most human bodies should have been incapable of producing.

The Council didn’t absolutely disallow drinking alcohol, but they frowned on doing so. Alcohol was not something to be enjoyed, they said, but a way to dull the spirit. And if alcohol was to be consumed there needed to be a good reason for it, and the drinks had to be light ales or white wine. As her squad took turns learning more about the inner parts of their bodies, Sheyla knew drinking was definitely necessary today.

The bar sat on the northern edge of the coast at the end of a well-rutted dirt road and was connected to a string of other restaurants and small markets that traveled inland along a wide road meant only for foot traffic. The northernmost length of Limerock’s coast was home to private and residential docks, places where locals and visitors would land. It was just as busy as the commercial docks to the south, though the crowds were a bit less transient and surly. The building itself was made of varnished wood, had an outdoor seating area, and was kept dark inside. The front of the building opened to the sea and offered a great view of the ships coming and going and the ocean clouds growing in the distance. A briny sea breeze wafted into the bar all day long bringing with it hints of whatever might be coming into port that moment.

For once it was nice to go unnoticed. Anyone coming or going anywhere in the Valley of Gent had to do so via a ship. And as the last southern waypoint before the capital city and before the Cliffs themselves, Limerock, attracted crowds as diverse and plentiful as anywhere on Disparia. As a result, the docks were full of people—young and old, fair skinned or dark, heavy or thin, rich and poor, noble and common.

In their idiotic traveling gear, a white uniform that consisted of white pants, white leather boots, a white long sleeve shirt and a white riding vest, all topped off with either white gloves, gold buttons, or a silver necklace (each member wore their own unique accessories), all of which attracted stains like a seaside wench attracted the wrong type of men, Sheyla and her squad stood out everywhere on Atla except the docks of major ports. Adding that it was only 2:00 and most of her squad was so drunk they couldn’t open their eyes, passersby went out of their way to avoid looking Sheyla or her squad in the eyes if they noticed them at all, figuring the group a bunch of young degenerates pissing away mommy and daddy’s money on alcohol. And that’s exactly how she wanted it to be. The less she was noticed the better, because they really were degenerates, all of them, herself included.

She glanced down the length of the bar, looking at the three members who had the stomachs to stick around. All of them were holding their heads in their hands or had their faces down on the shined and polished wooden bar, unaware of anything around them. The less coherent they were the better. It was hard keeping up appearances. It was hard lying all the time. It was hard leading people she hated, absolutely hated. But she had to do it. And if she had to do it, alcohol made it so much easier.

Sheyla paid the barkeep. He took the money and offered her change and a few colorful expletives in return. Why wasn’t he a member of her group? Most of the Congregation’s lower ranks were overly-idealistic youths with more heart and passion than brains, kids who ended up using their ideals to make life worse for everyone else. Not everyone was forced into servitude—not everyone was forced into service; some were given the option and some people were dumb enough to ask for it, the ones who thought they were right and the world was wrong and these people were the only ones that knew that. He would fit right in; he’d be perfect to send off somewhere to do something stupid. They were all good at making a scene without actually doing anything. And for a while Sheyla was part of asinine missions as well. Now that she had some real authority and the situation in Atla had become dire, missions weren’t so casual or asinine.

The barkeep, Nick according to the license framed and fastened to the rear wall and hanging ever so slightly to the left, would fit right in. Anger, a lack of fear, and an almost militant focus on not being a sheep of society that actually masked deep rooted prejudice and an unwillingness to compromise. A perfect combination of qualities for a recruit. Isn’t it ironic, she thought? It’s always the strong idealists that are easiest to manipulate. It’s always the ones who tell you to wake up and see the truth who wind up blindly following someone and ignoring any facts that don’t align with their views. That stubbornness isn’t a sign of strength, it’s a sign of mental deficiency and a refusal to accept logic. Those traits were perfect for members of The Congregation of Dramon. They were all the type that wanted to believe so strongly that seeing proof of the contrary only made them dig their ideological bunker deeper. And that is why they were so perfect. They wouldn’t accept truth beyond what they thought was true; and what they thought was true they were willing to do anything for. Sheyla stopped herself mid-thought. Too often now she looked at “outsiders” as a number—the number of hours, days, or months they would survive the Order. She was doing it again, this time to Nick.

Unfortunately, her next mission was no mere pantomimic show, no farcical display of smoke and mirrors where the idiots would do just fine. This one was real and it was only the beginning of what members of the Congregation of Dramon were calling “The Change”.

Several years ago, a dramatic revelation swept through the highest ranks of The Council. The Holy Mother along with the Watchers, as they were known, said that the balance in Disparia had shifted irreversibly. The Watchers had been observing the people of Atla and those beyond its borders; they had been watching the Half World Effect, they had been watching the land itself. Change was coming—change had been constant and rapid, but it was the wrong type of change. For a while Disparia was in a state of balance, or it was breaking but had not yet broken. But a few years ago, a line was crossed. Everyone in The Council knew how the world would eventually end, but not when. That’s what they were watching for. Now they knew the when. The gods had called them to their positions and given them a great responsibility to watch, prepare, wait, then act. Watching, preparing, and waiting were over; now it was time to act, to bring about the change.

Sheyla had been working with the Captains, Generals, High Priestesses, and Adjudicators of the Congregation of Dramon for several years now, since her ordination as a Captain. Each leader had her own role in bringing about the prophecies, and those tasks stretched far beyond the borders of Atla and reached years into the distant future. Her job was less ambiguous. Since becoming a Captain she had been part of one mission—destroy FreePort.

FreePort was just the beginning, a small step towards something much larger. The Council was planning to undo the fabric of society, tear it apart thread by threat, and sew a new world after discarding the old. What that new world would be she didn’t know, nor did she know how it would be achieved. She planned according to her rank and station. More esoteric or distant plans were not her business, according to Telana, her superior. Like her squad, people who did what she asked not understanding why, she too was kept ignorant, obeying superiors without questioning how a specific mission fit the larger goals.

Followers were to obey without question, but they were also supposed to point out any infractions they witnessed at any level. Snitches were praised and rewarded for reporting anyone breaking the rules, and those who broke the rules were severely punished. As a result, paranoia was widespread. So what was the best way to reduce some of that paranoia? At the moment, Alcohol.

It was Friday the 13th of Vos and a cool, windy day. Patchy clouds covered most of the deep blue sky and their shadows were black beasts swimming across the surface of the ocean. It was a couple of weeks and a few days before FreePort City’s biggest event, the Solstice Festival, and even here the excitement was tangible. Most of the merchants were either loading up ships with goods to peddle in the city or setting off for FreePort. Some schools had already ended for the summer which meant the docks were also busy with families preparing for their vacations in FreePort. Dozens of boats left every hour, from dinghies to cruise ships. Every vacant spot along the port was filled almost immediately, mooring ropes being hurled to and fro, tied and untied so often that they looked like giant coiled snakes striking at an endless source of prey. Of course, she couldn’t take any of those, the ships that were new, comfortable, fast, and inexpensive. No, she and her squad were waiting for something that was no longer classified as a standard seagoing vessel, but instead something to use when one wanted to get a “taste of the past”, as the sailing service’s motto said.

“Alright everybody, let’s go,” Sheyla said. Their boat, Rickets, had moseyed its way into port around a quarter after two and squeezed itself between a pair of larger yachts. She had been sitting on the bar’s covered patio watching the boats and travelers come and go after staring at Nick and her drunken squad had become too depressing.

It took some doing to get all eight members of her squad up and going. Nick wasn’t any help and had the nerve to snigger and watch as she dragged a few of the members out of the bathrooms or off of the stools, pulling them across the floor by their shoulders.

“Sister Sheyla, it is good to see you,” an older woman said. Sheyla was stacking her pile of bodies just outside of the patio. The woman glanced down at Sheyla’s handiwork for a moment then looked her in the eyes. Sheyla set the last man down and gulped air for a minute before responding.

“Sister Telana,” Sheyla said, bowing. “It’s good to see you.” Telana was about five feet eight inches tall though several feet taller in her own eyes. Older than Sheyla by 10 years at least, she carried her thin and agile body with the determination of a younger woman, though her weathered face marked by deep wrinkles and scars couldn’t lie like her posture did. Her face was a wedge, starting wider at the top (made more so with her slightly puffed hair that seemed to erupt from her head and then spill down the sides like some sort of pyroclastic flow) and progressively narrowed to a sharp and pointed chin at the bottom. Nothing stood out about her features besides her eyes. They were a pair of dull, empty orbs placed too far back into her head, ringed by darkness and set under bushy, linear eyebrows. Those eyes were alert and always searching, but they were empty inside, all life having died away decades, possibly centuries ago.

“The boat was late,” Telana said with absolute stoicism. “It seems there was a problem that wasn’t noticed until the last minute. They don’t deserve to be paid for their services, the wretches.” She smiled, the type of overdramatic smile that takes genuine effort and usually leaves you with a sore mouth. Sheyla wanted to slap her across the face and see what happened to the smile. But there couldn’t be any of that now, could there? Keeping up appearances and all that. Telana regarded the pile of Sheyla’s squad curiously. “Is this how we conduct ourselves in public now?”

“No, ma’am,” Sheyla replied.

“You were given a great opportunity when you became a Captain. If you are having trouble with a single squad I can make the arrangements to place you back in…”

“No! Ma’am!” Sheyla snapped to attention and gave The Order’s salute—the right arm to the chest, hand in a fist, with the index finger pointing upwards towards the sky.

“Ah ah ah, now, now; what have we learned about interrupting our superiors?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, it won’t happen again.” Sheyla bowed, bending at the waist. She held the position until Telana said to arise. “I am not having any trouble; we took the opportunity to catch our breath in the bar while we waited. The local brewer gave the units something a bit stronger than they anticipated.”

“Oh? But you’re still standing?” Telana smiled wryly.

“I had a single glass of wine, ma’am.”

“I fail to see how your inebriation is of value.” She dismissed the statement with a flick of her wrist. “If you and your squad are done wasting your time with the locals you would do well to hurry. You know how the Holy Mother feels about delays; we only have two weeks before the festival begins—you wouldn’t want to be responsible for causing a delay now, would you?” Telana’s voice was somewhere between the borders of patronizing and disgusted, a mood and demeanor Sheyla had (privately) named disgustrinizing—a word that made her smile and hold back a laugh every time she thought it. And when dealing with someone as constantly condescending as Telana, she was glad to have any reason to smile. “I will be onboard waiting for you; do hurry, and try not to make any more of a scene.” Telana looked down at the pile of Sheyla’s squad, nudging one of the men with the toe of her white boot. She shook her head slowly, rolled her eyes, and walked towards the boat.

“Can you send some of the men to help me get the squad aboard?” Sheyla asked. Telana was no more than 10 feet away when she asked but she acted as though she couldn’t hear. Sheyla rolled her eyes and looked down at the men and women lying on the ground, moaning and clutching their stomachs. “Guess it’s just me—again.”

Cool and steady winds out of the northwest made sailing north difficult. The crew of Rickets worked diligently to keep the close-hauled shipping moving up the coast at a steady pace. Rickets’ crew was a hired group and had no loyalty to Sheyla, Telana, or the Congregation beyond doing what was stipulated in their contract. The ship itself was property of a tourism company that Telana chartered, only after demanding the company’s crew be replaced by independent sailors, which meant not even the crew were loyal to the vessel they sailed.

Sheyla waited on the deck as long as she could, standing near the prow and watching the gray water disappear underneath the ship’s small figurehead. Before long Telana would walk up from the cabin area, screaming and shouting like a cursed undead, demanding Sheyla’s presence. They had a meeting scheduled, one that was supposed to have taken place at 1:00, and one that could not be missed. Clocks would strike 3:00 within a few seconds.

Telana wanted to perform a mock interview with Sheyla, simulating her upcoming interview with Count Iseman. Sheyla had been assigned her role in FreePort’s demise more than three years ago and had spent almost all of her waking hours planning or doing things relating to that task. When they learned about the Count’s desire to work with the Balder of Dames to construct a railline in the valley about two years ago, she was chosen to be the one to meet with Iseman and learn the full extent of his plans. Since then almost all she did was practice the interview. Nobody quite knew what to expect from someone as capricious as the “Two-Faced” Count Iseman, as he was known. Thanks to that uncertainty and Telana’s paranoia, Count Iseman could ask Sheyla to marry him and she’d already have a response. Still, Telana seemed to find more than a year of practice inadequate and wanted another rehearsal.

As members of The Congregation of Dramon acquired new information regarding Iseman, Dames, and the railline over the past months and years, those plans turned from nebulous ideas into concrete lists and details, slowly coalescing each month until they became the solid facts they were today. As they developed Sheyla’s role became more and more important—no, she made herself more important by offering information that was too valuable to ignore.

Sheyla was given perhaps more responsibility than she was ready for or had earned by normal Order standards. But The Holy Mother saw something in her, saw something besides her raw knowledge of the city, and as a result she worked directly with Adjudicators and other Captains to plan the attack.

Everyone in The Congregation of Dramon (almost everyone) saw Sheyla as a rising star in their dark, endless night sky. The Congregation of Dramon divided every member according to rank and role. Recruits were the lowest of the low and those fresh from initiation. They were more like slaves or low-wage help and took care of the most menial tasks including laundry and maintenance within bases. Recruits who proved themselves valuable became Initiates, actual members of The Congregation of Dramon with actual responsibilities. Their situation was hardly an improvement from the Recruits, as they kept many of the responsibilities of the Recruits as well as their own duties to arrange schedules and prepare equipment for missions. Initiates could eventually become Members, a term both general in that they were literally members, and specific in that it was their actual title. Members could then become Officers. Members were the workforce of The Congregation of Dramon and most individuals stopped advancing at that point. Squads were primarily built around groups of Members and a few Officers. But Sheyla didn’t stop there. Now she was a Captain. Few people in The Congregation of Dramon ever became Captains, as it wasn’t just a rank advancement but considered a spiritual calling. It marked the point in The Congregation of Dramon between the dross and the alloys, between the expendable and the chosen, between just following orders and being worthy of commanding troops.

Knowing that becoming a Captain was the only way she could ever escape, Sheyla did everything they asked with an almost inhuman stoicism. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the people she hurt, but that she mentally stepped away from the moment and lived within a memory or a dream, a dream that one day things would be better. This stoicism and willingness to do anything was unique among The Congregation. Most other recruits went through a “breaking-in” period, where their old morals, values, or desires had to be purged before they were effective. Sheyla ignored the transition and immediately took to their commands with gusto. She wasn’t a member to waste, they realized. Rather, she was one worth retaining and training. And so she began her advancement from lowly Recruit towards her position as captain.

Had she not become a Captain her life would have been meaningless (and likely over by now). Had she not made it her goal to do everything in her power to rise through the ranks she would not have impressed her superiors. And without their respect she would not have had a role in shaping FreePort’s future. And as she learned over the years, FreePort was her only way out.

With The Council’s respect she could make changes to the plans, and those changes would hopefully lead to her freedom. Too bad that meant embracing everything they preached. And “Preach”, in The Order, was a synonym for murder.

There was only one way to gain their respect. The first time was the hardest. She didn’t know the man, but did that matter? He was a nobody, someone who happened to work in a field that made him a target. He was “part of the problem” they said.

All she had to do was watch, watch as he was given the same options she was, watch as he refused the option she accepted. She accepted the offer almost immediately knowing that surviving was the only way to get her old life back. He had no such motivation, or if he did he hid it well.

The man was beaten, injected, abducted, and taken to the depths of the forest, far from his hometown. There, he was beaten again and given two choices. Only, he never had the chance to answer. When the members repeated the man’s choices, they spoke to a lifeless corpse. Some people would look drunk and become easy to manipulate after their injection and abduction. Others would become peaceful, calm, and easygoing. Others didn’t need the drug and asked to join The Order. There were a few who would convulse, spasm, vomit, and die a slow death. Based on the foam bubbling from the man’s mouth, it wasn’t the assault or fright that killed him.

Difficult as it was, she did it. And whether Telana liked it or not, Sheyla was now integral to the operation. Instead of outwardly despising Sheyla’s responsibility and opportunities by yelling, shouting, or even passively-aggressively ignoring her, Telana went to the opposite extreme and tried to crush Sheyla under the weight of her position.

Sheyla had direct control of a regiment of 2,000 troops comprised of Members and Officers and divided into squads of eight to 25 members. She and her current squad had traveled from their Temple in the Mountains, their austere headquarters carved into the face of a Cliff near the Morrid Mountains, to White Falls, to another pair of cities on the western foothills of the Alpine Mountains where there were major rail stations, then all the way to Limerock over the past three weeks. The first and most important part of that trip was the stop in Dames to meet the woman, Francesca, heading the assault on that city. That attack would take place not long after the one on FreePort but was currently of secondary importance. Francesca was the one who first learned about the Count and Balder’s collaboration a few years ago. Since then she had been stationed in Dames almost permanently, hoping to learn not only what the Balder wanted with the High Speed railline, but what Iseman was planning in The Valley. When it became clear not even the Balder knew the extent of what Iseman was planning The Council decided it was time to meet with Iseman in person—and Sheyla was the one who would do it just before the Festival and assault.

Telana had parted company with Sheyla when they both left the Temple in the Mountains and had not been seen since. She had her own business to attend to during that time and eventually met Sheyla at the docks. Were it not for the time away from Telana, Sheyla might very well have buckled under the stress of the woman’s intensity. Telana’s presence was physically demanding. Her harsh features, personality devoid of all emotions other than focused intensity, and constant micromanagement were useful to The Holy Mother but made life miserable for everyone beneath her.

Now that Sheyla and Telana has been reunited they were ready to travel to FreePort. Limerock wasn’t a destination so much as a waypoint. The only reason Sheyla traveled to Limerock was convenience—there was no quicker way into FreePort from the lower half of the Province.

Other than the fleet of ships and the actual warriors aboard, which would arrive the night before the Festival’s opening ceremonies, Sheyla and her squad would be the last to arrive in FreePort. Telana, High Priestess in charge of half a dozen generals and their captains, which included Sheyla, spent the last weeks traveling the western half of Atla ensuring all other Captains were performing their duties, as sort of a sadistic inspector. If she couldn’t advance her rank through quality leadership she would do so by pointing out the flaws in her subordinates.

Her last job before leading the assault was to see Sheyla back to FreePort and prepare her for her meeting with the Count. It was fruitless, her being here, as Sheyla couldn’t be readier if she practiced for 1,000 years. Were Telana not so gifted at convincing the Holy Mother and other members of The Council that her presence and “guidance” were necessary they would have realized Telana was, in fact, wasting time meeting with Sheyla when she could have been keeping better track of the people responsible for abducting the Count. Telana, though, was glad to have another opportunity to wield her authority with depraved gratification.

Sheyla didn’t mind loafing about on the deck, enjoying the bit of peace before facing Telana. While the meeting with the Count was important, and if she didn’t learn something of actual importance her own plans might come to naught, whatever Telana had to say was as useless as her drunken squad members moanings.

Though integral during the planning phase and indispensable for meeting with Iseman, Sheyla’s role the day of the assault was minor. It wasn’t by chance, either. Between today and the attack she had two jobs—to meet with the Count of FreePort to learn more about his plans for the railline, and on the day of the attack she was to stay near the arena posing as a booth operator, staying close in case she was needed. That was it. To wait and watch and lend aid if necessary—aid The Congregation, not the citizens. That carefully constructed role was her way out, out of The Congregation and back to her old life. The past years, however, were another matter.

Attacking FreePort City was a monumental task, especially considering it was being done without anyone outside The Congregation knowing about it. This was no military maneuver, no declaration of war; it was a terrorist attack. And it had all been planned in secret.

It was pure darkness. They were demons, demigods, outcasts and deniers of Faith. They did what no humans should have been able to do, and they were going to use those powers against FreePort, Atla, and eventually Disparia. Strike fast, show no remorse, leave nothing standing, meet all objectives—the Holy Mother expected nothing less. It was to set the standard, create a precedent, prime the nation and Disparia for what was to come. They had been preparing for “The Change” for decades, but planning without a specific target meant training troops, growing their numbers, and strengthening their network of communications. It wasn’t until roughly five or six years ago that Dames and the railline became targets. FreePort became the main focus about three years after that and Sheyla was brought on as the “expert”. Now, it wasn’t just part of their plans, but the beginning of their new era, an era without the magi, without technology, without choice.

While not all plans beyond FreePort and Dames were realized and she wasn’t privileged to know more than what her station allowed, it was easy to understand from the way The Holy Mother and others discussed the coming decades with near psychotic optimism, nearly foaming at the mouth with anticipation and glee when mentioning the future, that even an assault on a capital was tiny compared to what they hoped to achieve.

Whatever they had planned later was irrelevant; she was part of the attack, a vital cog in an insidious human machine that would destroy FreePort. Because, with any luck, there wouldn’t be an after—she would be out of The Congregation for good.

It wasn’t the planning the attack that was difficult—she and dozens of others birthed plans over the past years so it’s not as though she worked alone. No, the difficulty lay in planning her own escape, that moment of freedom during the attack itself, while simultaneously altering their plans just enough to minimize the overall destruction.

Misinformation. Misinformation was her best and only weapon against their plans. She lived in FreePort before she was forced into their ranks and knew the city better than anyone at her level or above. There might have been underlings that lived in the city or at one time knew about it, but any of that had been erased as their bodies and minds were prepared for transference or they died during a mission. That made Sheyla the expert by default. And as the acting expert her peers were ready to believe what she said.

Why didn’t she run sooner, why wait until this attack? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to run and never come back instead of working her way up their ranks and trying to change the plans? What about those mission that took her far from the eyes of Telana? Why didn’t she just walk away?

Oh how she wanted to leave, wanted to leave every second of every day. But chances to do so were nonexistent. It wasn’t until she became a Captain and began planning the FreePort assault that she realized there would be a way to plausibly fake her own death. Because her death had to be believable. If it wasn’t, they would find her—they would always find her. High Priestesses and those above her ranks called it The Seeing. And if they High Priestesses felt the need to use The Seeing you were effectively dead before they found you. And death meant and end to her family. Staying, becoming one of them meant a chance at freedom—eventually. And freedom meant saving herself, her family, and others.

Though her end goal was to save lives, especially her own, Sheyla was responsible for the deaths of dozens, maybe hundreds of people. And thousands more would follow within a couple of weeks. Had she taken the other options, to bow out and give up or to run, she would be dead by now. And if she were dead she wouldn’t be part of a plan to murder thousands. But if she died the plan would move on without her, only deadlier than ever. In a distorted sense, her helping with the attack meant she was the city’s dark angel, watching over it and subverting The Congregation’s plans to make sure what was inevitable, what would happen with or without her, was not as bad as it could be. In helping plan she could also save lives. So she would sacrifice her peace and the lives of a few to ensure FreePort’s demise was anything but complete. It was a sacrifice—sacrifice her conscience and a few lives to save more. That made it worth it in the end, didn’t?

Or was that The Congregation of Dramon speaking through her? Had she been with them so long that she adopted their philosophies or was she already losing her own mind? Sometimes she didn’t know when she was thinking or they were thinking for her.

Their prime directive was simple in its twisted logic—humans don’t deserve agency, aren’t worthy of it. Agency means choice, and when humans get to choose, their choices are selfish. And selfishness brings pain for others. Therefore, according to them, agency is a lie, a sin, and evil. Though a man or woman might choose the right on occasion, overall humans are selfish. They are polluting Disparia, damaging the very land for the few righteous, the few followers of Dramon. Their mission, then, is to protect the sacred land from the ignorant and evil choices of the masses. And sometimes protecting a home means exterminating vermin and pests.

As spiritual outcasts they have no home in the heavens when they die. Disparia, then, has become their life and afterlife. But in seeing this life as their version of the afterlife everyone who was not loyal to Dramon was evil, polluted, and tainting their eternity. As Technology, growth, industry, and progress all lead to one end—overpopulation. To keep Disparia pure they must keep agency away from the masses. And to keep agency away from the masses there mustn’t be more people than they can control. To keep the population under control they must protect the world from technology. A deadly cycle, the cycle The Watchers spent their lives studying, tracking, understanding. Only so many people can fit on this planet, and as it reaches the tipping point The Congregation of Dramon steps out of the darkness to act. It had happened before and it was happening again. Only this time it was different, it was worse, it was greater. It wasn’t just another cleanse, it was the final cleanse, the beginning of Disparia’s true awakening as a land for The Congregation of Dramon. And she was a part of it.

The Congregation’s job had been to maintain the balance, to ultimately ensure the people on Disparia could live peaceful, honest, spiritual lives as followers of Dramon. Only by following Dramon would a man or woman choose that which is right and be worthy of living in a world they considered what the average person thought of as the afterlife. There was nothing beyond this sphere for them—therefore it was their highest and holiest reward. It could not be shared with others. His influence and teaching would purge the desire to act selfishly and choose pain for others. Those who didn’t follow Dramon were not humans but viruses that could be eliminated without anguish, remorse, or grief. If five had to be killed now to save 50 from suffering later, according to their maths, it all worked out. That math is what left them without emotion or concern for their action—when numbers and logic can’t lie and the equation comes out with a positive number on one side, there is no need for emotion. It’s apathetic, disconnected, unfeeling fact. And now here she was using the same terrible formula to derive her own whole number answer, that somehow staying with The Congregation and being part of the attack would net a positive result.

Some nights Sheyla cried herself to sleep, sickened by what she had done, learned, or said during the day. The logic of the math was sickening. Whether in the Temple or abroad, nights were nothing more than a time to relive the horror. Even those days she had a positive effect on what would happen the reality of weighing the value of one life over another was beyond her ability to tolerate. And so, most nights she lay in bed, sweating, never sleeping, imagining what was to come.

Yet, other nights she would find herself remembering what she had done and feeling pleased about it, excited. She would have memories and flashbacks of events she remembered but didn’t know of herself, as though they were images slipped into her mind from someone else’s head.

The memories weren’t sudden flashes of thought, like a passing idea that never coalesces into a true shape. They weren’t dreamlike and surreal. The memories were concrete. Her hands, feet, stomach, head—every part of her body felt the memory as though she had lived it and was remembering the sensations. She could feel the cold on her neck as she walked through the snow of an isle in the Western Reach. She could see a victim’s eyes roll back in his head as her hands, massive and powerful hands, squeezed his throat until his life was gone. She could see sprawling cities and the faces of Congregation members she recognized, but didn’t know. Then, as suddenly as they came, another memory would fill her head, one she was more certain belonged to her.

Were they real memories, ones that felt distant and unreal because she didn’t want them to be true? Were the false memories she made up, hallucinations born out of paranoia? Were they the memories of others, somehow slipping into her conscious and subconscious in the guise of her own thoughts?

The false memories began appearing when she was advanced to the rank of Captain. She underwent an ordination of sorts, to become a Captain. When she became a Captain the false memories or visions began. But between those visions, those nightmares, she could see her own memories and feel her own thoughts, the ones she knew were there from before her ordination. Not everything she saw now was hers, or at least she wasn’t certain. Still, she had some absolutes to hold onto. And it was those memories, those hopes, those dreams that not only saw her through the fears felt at night but also as she planned the death of thousands. Without the few thoughts of her own and the hope that she could make a difference, Sheyla would be dead—either literally or figuratively.

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