There was absolute silence from the Tingions huddled around the motionless bodies. Only the wind rustling the leaves of the hedgetop could be heard. As it picked up strength, Marine could hear a gentle whistling of wind through branches. She shuddered and her eyes stung from tiredness and the tears building up behind them. Mortglade couldn’t be gone. She just couldn’t be.
Marine turned away in desolation and moved towards the hole in the hedge. She wanted to stand by the river and look at all the water rushing past and try not to think about who was to blame. She knew, deep down, she would decide it was herself. As she stepped towards the gap in the hedge a hand caught her arm. She looked up to see Briar looking sadly at her.
‘Don’t touch me,’ Marine snapped, shaking off Briar’s hand, ‘Let me go.’
Briar’s face hardened and Marine suddenly felt childish and petty. ‘We need to move the bodies.’ Briar said coldly, ‘Before they attract rats or bigger predators.’
‘Let someone else do it,’ Marine said faintly, her stomach had lurched at the thought of touching Mortglade and not having life pulse beneath the older Tingion’s skin. ‘I can’t do it.’ She was barely audible now, staring at the ground beneath her feet.
‘You have to,’ Briar said, more gently than before, ‘There aren’t enough of us to do it without you. Come on, it’s important. It’s for them as much as us.’
Marine sagged, and then turned on her heels to face her dead friends again. Ezria was still crouched by the still forms on the dry mud. Marine could see silent tears edging down her stony face as she stroked Eleff’s face. Even in death Eleff looked gentle.
Eengo and Joshish had prepared two stretchers from branches and springy twigs. They were lined with leaves and looked beautiful. Sadly beautiful. Marine moved towards the little huddle of Tingions.
‘We will wrap them in these oiled cloths,’ Sinfire explained, ‘It will cover their scent so they don’t attract anything that would pester them. Then it’s up to you, we can bury them, we can secure them up in the hedge until you can take them back below ground or we can send them down the river as is our custom.’
All eyes were on Ezria to decide. She looked down at her fallen comrades and then back up to Sinfire, ‘We will send them down river. They died in combat. Their families will not expect them home.’ Her voice was cracked and straining with a higher pitch than usual. Marine could feel the emotion bursting at Ezria’s seams.
‘Ok,’ Sinfire said gently, ‘We will start with Mortglade. Marine, Kurann, Mulling, gently lift this side of her so I can place the cloth underneath.’
The three Tingions crouched as commanded by the side of Mortglade. Marine was near her head and she placed her hands on Mortglade’s head and shoulder, ready to roll her gently as Mulling and Kurann moved her waist and legs. As Marine’s hands made contact with Mortglade’s head Marine let out a shudder and she saw Mulling and Kurann pull their hands off Mortglade as if they’d been burnt.
‘What is it?’ Asked Ezria, looking at Kurann.
‘I don’t know. It’s like, it’s like her skin snapped at me.’ Said Kurann, puzzled, looking down at Mortglade. Ezria’s eyes flicked to Marine.
‘Did you feel it too?’
Marine shook her head. She had felt a curious sucking, pulsing feeling from her fingers. She leant forward and reached for Mortglade again.
‘Careful!’ Half whispered Kurann, his eyes wide with fear. Marine ignored him and gently placed the palm of her hand on Mortglade’s cheek. She felt energy rushing through her skin and into Mortglade. Her head felt fizzy and cold, bigger than it should be for her skin and alive with energy. She watched as her hand seemed to turn a strange blueish hue. Her chest felt constricted and tight, and her vision shrunk until it was two tight pools of sight with a dark black, fuzzy frame around the edges.
Her head felt spikey and heavy, as if her skull had got harder and tighter around her brain. Just as Marine felt like she could take no more she saw Mortglade’s eyes snap open and a great gasping, raspy breath of air shot into her throat on its way to panicked lungs.
Mortglade’s eyes were looking about wildly, her arms starting to twitch and flail. Marine could feel more of her own energy pounding into Mortglade, and she willed Mortglade to sit up. Marine forced life and energy into Mortglade and laughed aloud as she saw Mortglade smile and a single tear escape from one eye.
Eventually, Marine pulled her hand away, feeling the blood pumping in her ears. She remembered the other Tingions in the hedge and looked up to see them all looking aghast from her to Mortglade and back again.
‘I guess I’m back.’ Mortglade said quietly, and a laughing sob escaped Marine’s lips.
‘What was that?’ Said Sinfire, suspiciously, but Marine wasn’t paying her any attention. She darted over to where Eleff lay on the floor and pressed a hand onto either side of Eleff’s cheeks. She could feel the sucking sensation but nowhere near the intensity it had been on Mortglade.
‘Come on,’ she muttered, ‘You have to want it too, Eleff. You have to want to come back. Come on.’ She forced the thoughts and words forward towards Eleff, willing her to hear them - pushing her to want to come back. The chill crept up her wrists and she felt the energy find it’s routes down her arm and out across the flat wide surface of her palms. She pushed with all her might, not feeling the same acceptance from Eleff’s body but not accepting the no she was offered. Marine willed and wheedled, pumping as hard she could through these veins of spirit she didn’t know she had.
Marine focused her eyes on Eleff’s, ‘See the stars again Eleff,’ she whispered, ‘If you just open your eyes again and see the night sky through the leaves you’ll remember all the things you loved and you’ll fight with me to get you back here.’
Eleff’s eyes flickered open and Marine felt the energy run out of her faster, a more regular, pumping now - leaching into Eleff. ‘Come on, come on.’ Marine could hear her voice saying as she felt sweat trickling down her face.
‘Marine stop.’ It was Briar’s voice, at her ear, ‘Marine! Marine stop!’
She could hear them as if they were far away but she ignored the call. She couldn’t stop now, she could see Eleff’s face twitching and moving and waking up. She could feel warmth developing beneath her fingers. If she stopped now, Eleff would slip away again - she wasn’t strong enough yet. Not to stay on her own.
‘Marine, can you hear us?’ Kurann’s voice now, worried and warm. Of course she could hear them, Marine thought irritably, she was right here - but she was busy. Could they not see what she was doing.
Marine looked back at Eleff’s face and then realised she couldn’t actually see it. She could see a faded, fluffy memory of Eleff’s face against a swirling black vortex. She blinked and tried to focus but there was nothing she could do to bring her eyes back to the real world. Marine tried to wrench her hand off Eleff’s face but it felt glued to its position, as if squelching sucking mud held it there.
She tried to focus on her knees on the mud, to keep herself grounded but she realised she couldn’t feel anythign around her except the contact of her hands on Eleff’s skin. She couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. Didn’t really want to think anyway. Marine’s hands fell to her side and she accepted this new state of nothing.
The City was too quiet. Vanweer had been expecting relative peace, she had chosen to sneak the 1st Battalion back in significantly before 1st Beats so that there wouldn’t be any Tingions out in the streets. This was even quieter than she had expected though, although it was hard to put one of her many fingers on exactly why. Silence was silence, wasn’t it? Well, not if you were seasoned in military and treachery. Not if you were used to reading every pause and silence in a conversation and learning how to turn them to your advantage. Vanweer was trained in exactly that. A lifetime of climbing and manipulating gave her instincts beyond most Tingion’s understanding.
The 1st Battalions’ boots crunched gently on the hardened, flattened pathways through the city. The centre of the City was laid out in obvious straight lines that crisscrossed each other in perfect order, making navigation easy and traffic unlikely on the small carts Tingions used when they couldn’t travel on foot. Vanweer tried to listen beyond the boots - tried to work out what it was that was leaving her unsettled.
She didn’t like feeling ill at ease in her own city. She had worked too hard to run it to feel like she could be in danger here. The boots crunched, the air lay gently, faint snores could be heard from residential homes. Everything was as it should be… and yet.
Vanweer held up a hand at the front of the column and they stopped in unison. She allowed herself a grin at the formidable obedience. Their prisoners were bound and gagged and being carried aloft by the 1st so that they couldn’t even stamp their feet in protest and attract the attention of the civilians. Not that it would have mattered if they had, Vanweer grinned, she would simply explain that they were Topsiders - evil Topsiders coming below to infiltrate the City now that they’d finally come to their senses and realised that life above was too hard.
Vanweer paused, sensing the air - listening for anything that might explain her sense of unease. There was nothing. She signalled the 1st batallion to proceed with a small wave of her hand and they began to trot forward again. They were heading back to Vanweer’s office - her message should have got back to Talaglashi by now, and with any luck they were already plunging headlong down below ground to retrieve their stolen allies. When they came below, Vanweer would be ready and the stone would be returned.
She thought of the stones she had already retrieved - stored as they were deep, deep below the city in the coldest mud. One by one she had spirited them away - always using a different Captain, a different troupe and always disposing carefully of the Captains after they had completed their tasks. Then it was no trouble to pretend the stones hadn’t been what they needed after all and have them swiftly removed to her secret storage facility.
She didn’t know how exactly to make them do what she wanted - but she could sense their power. She had heard the stories and seen the might of the Topsiders and the stones were connected. They pulsed with life, with enthusiasm for power. Vanweer wanted them. Once she had them all safely stowed it wouldn’t matter if it took her entire lifetime to work them out; they would be hers. She could take her time, safe in the knowledge that no Tingion under the earth knew she had them, and without the stones anywhere else there was barely a chance anyone else could be powerful enough to take them from her.
They were nearing her office now, and she began to relax slightly as the usual guards nodded their hellos to her. In and out before most of the City even knew she had gone.
“In the holding cells.” Vanweer nodded curtly to the 1st Battalion Captain, who understood her instruction perfectly and led the line of soldiers, still carrying their captives, round the side of the building and towards the training door. Vanweer continued along the silent street towards the front of the building and the main door.
As she neared it, she saw a lone figure outside the door. Vanweer squinted, wishing her eyes were a few ages earlier than they were. She couldn’t make it out, but a sigh of disgust escaped her lips as she noticed the figure was hopping from foot to foot nervously and could therefore only be Mavis. Vanweer straightened herself, ready to reduce her mini assistant to tears with a scathing rebuke for being out before First Beats and wasting time dancing about in the streets when there was work to be done.
Why was Mavis in the street? Vanweer asked herself. Suddenly the alarms clamouring in her nerves had a focal point. This wasn’t right. Vanweer looked about her, from left to right and suddenly there was a shout.
Soldiers burst out of doors in front of her to her left and right, but, she realised with lightning speed, she had obviously began to look suspicious slightly too early for the trap laid for her and she wasn’t surrounded. Soldiers were pouring onto the street ahead of her and she turned and fled - slipping down a street to the right and diving left and right on subsequent turns leaving no indication for her pursuers where she was going.
Mavis had turned! Vanweer thought angrily, imagining squashing the impudent Tingion’s skull beneath her boot. There would be hell to pay for her insubordination, Vanweer swore. She ran hard and purposefully - aiming for the outskirts of the City where the streets became twistier and windier and she had more chance of finding an alleyway or a rat run to slip down and hide in. She could hear booted footsteps behind her and she cursed her own arrogance at letting the 1st Battalion leave her side before she knew she was entirely safe.
She looked up, trying to take in her surroundings and then realised she was on the street from where she had personally taken custody of Skylorn’s family. Perfect, she thought through a burning breath, she would hide in their house. As they weren’t using it.
Do Aysmar and Mavis…
- Seal off the City
- Immediately go above ground
- Search the houses for Vanweer
- Send a messenger up to the Topsiders but stay firm