Magnolias, Underground

FalcoVega

Chapter 1

"Over there," says the hawker at the pottery stall.  "Short guy in the sleeveless vest, spiky black hair.  Yup.  He's one of them."

Kelly sidles past a gaggle of grannies clucking over melons, and dodges behind the fruit stall's greased paper awning.  The bazaar is sparsely populated this morning, damn it.  The Forge is only thirty metres away, javelins standing at attention on their launchpads.  His interceptor's gritty paintjob beckons to him.  He speedwalks toward it, barely resisting the urge to break into a run.

They corner him mere steps from the platform.  Two strider engineers, with the ropy forearms and heavy tread that he once bore.  The gal says, "You Kelly Falco?  The Freelancer who silenced the Cataclysm?"

Kelly sets his teeth. Here we go again.  He says, "I'm not the only one who silenced the Heart of Rage."

They don't seem to hear.  Big grins, claps on his back.  The fellow pumps his hand, saying, "Freelancer, we wanna say thank you.  We -- being me, Darai, and Yorinda here, and the rest o' us crew of Strider B-eight-four-one alias Jitterbug Rooster, out of Fortuo.  Not to mention all our families and loved ones."

"We heard the news at a waypoint in the mountains, two days out," adds Yorinda.

Darai tsks.  "Na, earlier!  You remember when we crossed the pass, how Ferdows sat up in the middle of dinner?  Says something weird's happened, and she got all those pins and needles up her back.  I got 'em too, y'know.  You -- you laughed and said we were all just nervous crossing that ravine.  But really, we felt it when the Cataclysm was silenced."

Yorinda rolls her eyes.  "Still, the waypoint was broadcasting the news, that announcement from your very own governor.  And since we're stopping here before that last leg to Antium, we wanted to see the heroes who did the deed.  I know we're very late.  Wasn't sure if we'd find any o' youse, really.  Lucky that stallkeeper pointed you out!"

If only they pointed out some other Freelancer from Haluk's strike teams.  Kelly thinks of Mel Mossine, fellow squadmate.  Still recovering from the battering she and her Colossus endured as they passed through the Cataclysm, she nevertheless takes her crutches each morning and hobbles her body down the great strider ramps to spend all day in the tunnels inspecting the Fort's foundations.  No Freelancer has ever done these seismic tests so faithfully, day after day.  She is probably down there now, far away from the roving eyes of stallkeepers and this stifling, maddening adoration.

The two engineers are looking at him expectantly.  Kelly shrugs and says, "All in a day's work for a Freelancer."

Darai brays a laugh.  "So modest.  I hope y'all celebrated hard when you got back from that thing!"

Yorinda says, "Might be all in a day's work, but for us grunts on the ground, it's a miracle.  We can't thank you Freelancers enough."

You can thank me by stowing your handshakes and getting on with your lives, Kelly thinks.  The torrent of congratulations was already pouring in from all corners of Bastion when they wobbled back to Fort Tarsis with the ichor of the Monitor coating their javelins and the titanic chords of the Anthem still ringing in their ears.  A month on now and it shows no signs of stopping.

Aloud, Kelly says, "Thanks.  I got a contract waiting.  Can't stick around."

They step back, holding up hands like barricades.  "Of course.  'Lancers are busy.  Lotsa work to do, Shaper weirdness to silence.  Appreciate the time.  Just wanted to say thanks for everything. S'an honour to meet you, sir. 'Strong alone, stronger together,' right?  Have a good day!" they call at Kelly's back, as he mounts the platform to his patiently waiting javelin.

He shrugs out of vest and shoes, stows them into his locker next to the launch platform.  The interceptor embraces him into its core.  All systems check, clear.  His travelling backpack is already secured on the javelin frame.  He raises a hand to the Forge technician on launch duty.

The sky overhead is blue, speckled with white clouds.  The two strider engineers are still watching as Kelly leaps aloft.

On the other side of the great walls, he pauses on an external staging platform to power down his javelin's communications module.  His radio systems go mute and deaf.  Then he jumps off the platform and falls down the Fort's sheer flank.

For a breath, Kelly hangs suspended in space and time.  For an eternal moment, blessed silence.

His javelin gasps, then exhales propulsion in a breathy roar.  The flight jets ignite, flinging him toward the rapids that surge from the shining throne of Tarsis and leap down terraces to the jungle below.  Kelly kicks his heels, swivels his hips.  Spray plumes as he bottoms out just above the water surface.  The cliff edge rushes at him; he follows the water over, falls through the foaming curtains of the terraces, and shoots out again into clear air.

Northern Bastion sprawls before him in a tapestry of luscious jungle and proud granite cliffs.  Kelly points his head northeast and flies toward the Bowl.

Fort Tarsis and its uproar fall behind like waterfall spray.  At last.  Peace and quiet, at last.

Chapter 2

The Bowl is literally a bowl-shaped gorge bored into the surrounding peaks.  Years of erosion has done a decent job of coarsening this otherwise perfect hemisphere.  As he hovers above the rim of the Bowl, Kelly spies the beacon network hub, perched on one of the granite outcrops.  He lands next to it.

The hexagonal metal cylinder is dulled by the elements, but free from rust and mould.  Kelly opens it to reveal neatly wrapped cables, sparkling mainboards, and a freshly-charged ember ring.  The system purrs blithely along.  Even the broadcast antenna is gleaming.  The maintenance log declares one Dessa Tchang, Sentinel, serviced this hub and its network of beacons four days ago.

Kelly shrugs.  This is the early warning network closest to the Fort, of course it's in pristine shape.  This contract will take him farther afield, where maintenance is needed more.  Still, he's already here.  The twelve beacons tethered to this hub are scattered around the region: eight on the cliffs, four at lower elevations.  He checks them all, making a counterclockwise circuit.

A lake lies at the bottom of the Bowl.  The low-water season has reduced it to marshy dregs.  Lilies and weeds blanket the waters, obscuring the bottom; the air seethes with the buzzing of insects and amphibians.

Kelly balances on a tumble of rocks above the lake surface, tightening rivets that clamp the beacon to the cliff face.  Lily-pads crowd the water's edge.  They look big enough to sit a child and probably sturdy enough to bear that child's weight.  Kelly thinks about testing their strength.  But those lilies' underwater roots are thick as a man's calf and covered in hooks; if he ends up in the water, he might not get out again.

He flies east, skimming low over the sluggish waters.  Something splashes in them, and sinks unseen beneath the surface.

**

He is inside a cavern at Governor Springs, recalibrating a beacon, when the hairs rise at the base of his neck. He braces himself for incoming tinnitus.  It comes, phantom bells swelling then fading away in a perfect sine wave.

His radio is deaf, but that won't deter a cypher.  Some field cypher from Fort Tarsis is trying to raise him, breaching distance and space to touch his javelin's crown.  Probably to assist with his contract.  They'd be greeted by static.  They'd just slide off this psychic wall, continue to scan for his presence, and finally decide that he was uncontactable, maybe connected to another cypher already.

For the umpteenth time, Kelly is thankful for the mindjammer in his interceptor's crown. It seems distinct to his suit. No one seems aware of its existence; not Vonnie, the Regulator merchant who sold him the suit; not even meticulous Zoe has caught it in her maintenance checks.

He would've remained ignorant too, unaware that he can and is blocking cyphers from his mind, until Terry told him in one of her audio letters.  “Hmph -- you will not block me, Rath -- of course this is a threat, I'll hound your waking nightmares -- where did you get your javelin again? -- very subtle, it almost fooled me -- most cyphers won't notice they're being deliberately misled.”  But she wasn't fooled.

Of course Terry isn't.  His sister has a knack for finding him.

The mindjammer is his secret. He uses it sparingly. Like today, when he doesn't need or want a cypher rattling around in his head, tethering him to Fort Tarsis and all its inane congratulations. He doesn't think of where his interceptor came from and how it got this technology hard-wired into it.  He's learnt to not question provenance.

The tinnitus has gone.  Kelly finishes the calibration and clambers out of the cavern into the glare of sun-struck waters.  He flies across Governor Springs to the next beacon on the network.

No more cyphers bother him.  He isn't concerned about blocking out Terry.  She'll be on time for their meeting.

**

But Fort Tarsis is ever a lodestone, and his thoughts swing back toward civilization.  He thinks of his fellow Freelancers, all of them wrestling with this commotion that followed the silenced Cataclysm.  Mel, swathed in bandages, hobbling down the wearisome ramps every day. And the others, coping in their own isolated ways: at the bar, over the wall.

The Colossus flees, but not the Interceptor.  Takes everything in stride, does Kelly Falco.  He who survived, unscathed, both encounters with the Heart of Rage.  Look at Kelly Falco, coming back from silencing the Cataclysm, carrying on like it is business as usual.  What a trooper.  What a model Freelancer! Yarrow crowed proudly.

Maybe Kelly Falco does survive unscathed to get on with business as usual.  Maybe.  This contract was a lifeline to him.  Like a drowning man he took hold of it, and escaped into the Bastion wilds.

**

The contract is routine maintenance on the early warning grid that extends the Fort's senses across Northern Bastion.  The governor's office churns out these jobs like a Swarm Tyrant popping out eggs.  Finish one of them and the next day it is back on the contract board, with identical wording and pay. A continuous plea for a Freelancer to save our frail human technology from the jungle's relentless hunger, once again.

Long, solo jobs: always boring, frequently perilous to the lone Freelancer.  No one likes them.  Jani takes them occasionally, but most of the Enclave turn their noses up at this "rookie chow".  Kelly and Owen Corley had done their share of maintenance jobs, way back when.  Easy money, if hand-to-mouth.  Then Tassyn showed up with the contract that ended their diet of rookie chow.  Ironic how he has come full circle and is flying out on a maintenance job again.  But Owen has vanished to walk his own path of regret, and he is alone now.

Kelly prefers it this way.  A long solo contract, quiet and peaceful. He would disappear from the Fort and no one would miss him.

They didn't, the last time he slipped away several months ago. Assisting the engineers who were repairing the drainage system in First Refuge had been a simple job that had lasted all of a day.  On the return he took his time, wandering through Tarsis Forest.  The sunlight leaked through the upper canopies, pooled golden on the forest floor.  He stalked the sun beneath ginkgos and cycads that stood like the General's own Legionnaires, spreading their nets of leaves through the understorey.  The light dappled his javelin; the leaf litter muffled his passage.  He saw Fort Tarsis through a veil of trees, radiant as a dream.

When he finally flew over the wall and landed in the Forge, he was greeted by Zoe's quizzical face: "Oh.  You… came back.  You were away how long? I'm sorry, I... didn't notice."  No one else noticed, either.  Then he learnt he'd been gone for a week.  The jungle has a way of swallowing everything, including time and space.

Kelly zig-zags across the Valley of Tarsis.  Replaces degraded (and occasionally stolen) parts, straightens tangled cables, recharges ember rings, sweeps away debris, fills out logbooks.  Beacon maintenance are just hops on a circuit.  He has a more important destination to be.

Chapter 3

General Tarsis' haven at the Palisades of Idris is hidden only if you didn't know where to look. Kelly has been there once, and once was enough for him to find his way back to its entrance.

But the freehold settlement under the Palisades? That is a hard place to find. The original settlers who burrowed like saurians into the caverns behind the waterfalls concealed their home well.  Privacy, safety, and freedom from city jurisdiction was what they wanted, and built.  Compared to it, Tarsis' haven is practically common knowledge.

Kelly stands in front of the waterfall that masks the entrance to Tarsis' haven, and ponders the lake below.  He's never been inside the freehold. He only knows one entrance: at the base of the palisades, close to the lake surface. The lake is a deception. Those limpid, deep waters hide all kinds of nasty parasites and waterborne diseases, not to mention the occasional school of phiranix. But the falls of Idris flow fast enough to be safe for humans to drink.

Four times he'd visited the freehold entrance, and still he has to pause and recall where it was.  Steam rises from his jets, vanishing in the spray.  Finally he takes off, does several barrel rolls through the waterfalls, and then, in mid-roll, dodges behind one.

Bingo, here is the little cave.  Deep clefts score the back.  The walls weep endless trickles; the floor is carpeted in squishy moss, which glows faintly where he steps.  Kelly squats in the middle of the cave and watches the waterfall sheet down in an oblong of wavering light.  They'll know he is here.

He doesn't wait long.  Muffled footsteps pad behind him.  Kelly straightens and turns around.  A figure has materialized a reserved distance away.  A poncho drapes over the rangy, slightly-stooped build; the hood is pulled low, revealing only a brushy gray-flecked beard, and the faint glint of eyes.

The man speaks, and his voice is well familiar to Kelly. "You're early, son."

"On time at the latest," Kelly answers.  "That was my strider's motto.  Chigger, how could you forget."

"Nay, how could I forget that admirable work ethic of yourn," the hermit replies.  "Well?  Come to pay your respects to the Faithful of the Haven?"

Kelly holds up a data archive.  "Sure.  And bring a gift."  When Chigger crosses his arms, he continues, "Outlaw activity summaries.  Animal population counts and migration forecasts.  Sightings of ursix, mantikar, titans.  Striders arriving at Fort Tarsis over the next six months.  Latest almanac on Shaper activity and long-term weather projections.  Geological soundings from Antium Lock all the way to Skystone.  And the latest revisions to the Arcanist Concordance. --Anything helpful I could find in the Fort's public chronicles."

Chigger eyes the archive.  "Some gift, boy.  All information we can get ourselves.  Half of it's aired on radio!"

Kelly laughs to himself.  Chigger makes the same old objection every time.  It has become their ritual by now.  He says, "It's current as of two days ago."  When the man doesn't move, he adds, "If it doesn't help your people, then don't take it.  It's just a favour for an old friend."

Chigger sniffs, his beard rustling.  He holds out a gloved hand for the archive, then vanishes it into his poncho.  "So," he says.  "The Heart of Rage ain't raging no more.  Silenced by Fort Tarsis Freelancers.  We heard news."

Kelly sighs and braces himself for more congratulations.  "Yeah.  It's gone now."

"We all felt it, y'know," the hermit says.  "When it went.  Like a tension in the air had lifted.  Like the moment after a thunderstorm passes and the air is washed clean as grey-eyed Idris' gaze.  Who were the worthies who stilled the storm?  You know them?"

"Yeah.  I know them," Kelly mutters.  His old friend's eyes glint from beneath the hood, and he is glad the javelin masks his own expressions.

The older man sighs.  "Ten years we lived with it rumbling in the north, then one day Freelancers rise up to quell it.  Sundering the voice from the storm as Helena Tarsis did the titan Fulminous.  Poof!"  The poncho billows as he flourishes a hand.  "Silence reigns, and now we're bereft of another Shaper wonder."

"Not like anything has changed," Kelly says.  "There'll be another Cataclysm tomorrow.  Plenty of Shaper wonders to go around here."

A chuckle.  Chigger pulls out a small case from his cloak pocket and rummages in it. "Funny how things change and don't, eh?  If it warn't for that Heart of Rage, swirling about up there like a pot set on boil by the Shapers, you 'n I warn't be having this conversation, y'know."  He produces a cheroot, and lights it.

Not just that, Kelly thinks.  It wasn't just the Heart of Rage.

**

The accident, that was the beginning.  Muffled boom, and the colossal hand that grabbed the strider and gave it a hard shake.  He tumbling off his chair, the cupboards popping open, Mom's good crockery from Freemark smashing on the floor.  Shrieks from both human and animal throats, rising to horrific pitch, as the Everweald jungle shuddered after the explosion.  Air that flashed and sparked with vaporized ember, its taste on his tongue so profoundly bitter that he retched.  Dad thrusting his sister's convulsing body at him, before collapsing on the threshold of the strider's cargo bay, flesh frothing from his bones like overboiled milk.  Glittering smoke billowing from the Arcanists' field lab between the trees.  Glimpses of humanoid forms congealing into slagged earth as he threw tarps over them, and later, shovelled the poisoned soil over those.  He hadn't known which of those forms was Mom.

Then...  Then--

In the cave under the Palisades with the waterfall singing around him, Kelly tries to remember what happened after.  But he can only summon the usual phantoms.  His hands oily with engine lubricants, his flesh stinking of hot metal.  Terry's head lolling against his shoulder, her shoulders spasming against his chest.  Coaxing tepid broth cooked from tubers and grabbit bones, drop by drop, through her cracked lips.  The ache in his knuckles from clutching the control panels inside the rattling strider, as he stared through the cockpit window at the pure chaos frothing over the place where Freemark once stood.

He turned the strider around and fled back into the Everweald.

Shivering heat and stifling shadows as he forced the strider through undergrowth. Terry wailing and wailing as she drowned each night in the Anthem of Creation.  Detective Hops Mysteries blaring throughout the cabin on loop.  Soil on his tongue, roots and roughage in his mouth, cloying perfume of hothouse orchids wafting around him.  His hands, nicked by grabbit claws as he wrestled those creatures out of the traps, clutched at their fragile bodies as if they could save him from falling into the abyss that was Terry's voice, Terry everywhere, clinging to his mind, hounding him into the very crevices of his being.  Rath.  Rath!  Help me, Kelrath.  Please!  I don't know where I am.

Chigger saved them.  He and that unnamed settlement deep in the Everweald.  Outlaws, Antium called them.  Freeholders, they called themselves. Pioneers, eccentrics, mavericks, hermits, reformed Regulators and children of Regulators -- a motley crowd bonded together by mutual need and a staunch determination to live on their own shared terms.  They'd built a little town into the walls of a sinkhole, sheltered by rainforest and karst outcrops.

The freeholders knew something about ember poisoning, about cypher awakening.  They took in the raving seventeen-year-old girl, her shell-shocked twelve-year-old brother, and their rickety strider.  Got them back onto their feet -- in Terry's case, literally, although she'd never walk without assistance again.

There they stayed for over two years.  Mom and Dad were gone, killed by that ember explosion along with three Arcanists whose experiment had gone so wrong.  Freemark was gone, devoured by the Heart of Rage.  They had nowhere else to go.

Chigger lived at the top of the sinkhole in a brick house he was perpetually building.  He helped Kelly repair Mom and Dad's strider, taught him how to make bricks, weld metal, and turn all kinds of salvage into useful resources.  Showed him how to forage for tubers in the jungle; recognize the spoor of gazick and mantikar; approach and neutralize a vesnid hive.

Kelly liked Chigger.  The man didn't talk much.  When he did, his voice was soothing to hear, and demanded no answer.  He was always around, smoking and tinkering on his house, or just smoking as he sat and contemplated.  Always there for the silent boy, near yet solitary, his presence like a benediction.

One day, he took Kelly to a small sinkhole half a day's trek from the town.  A cenote, he called it, then pointed out the black waters and the eerie white form submerged within.  Asleep, he said.  They’d camped there overnight, in a hollow just under the cliff.  They sat in silence and darkness, legs dangling over the hollow's edge, and watched the Shaper relic in the cenote pulse with serene light in an hour-long cycle.

It was also Chigger who helped him, much later, to track the time between his parents' death and the strider's arrival at the sinkhole.  He and Terry had been lost in the Everweald for five months.  He hadn't remembered any of it.  Just the phantoms.

The freehold was a refuge, but it couldn't last.  Kelly set his sights on Heliost.  As he drove Terry away from the sinkhole for the last time, he thought that was the end of it.  Yet here he is, standing in the Valley of Tarsis next to a shadow of Everweald.  Chigger never explained why he left his brick house on top of the sinkhole to come all this way to Northern Bastion.  Neither did Kelly.  In the jungle, no one asks trivial questions.

**

Kelly stirs and shuffles the pins and needles out of his feet.  The hermit has pushed his hood back to reveal his blunt profile. He is now puffing on the cheroot and contemplating the waterfall, in silence.

Chigger's profile tilts. Those crinkled eyes glint as he speaks the words that demand no answer. "You alright there, son?"

Kelly looks away.  He says, "Take care of yourself.  Let me know if your people need anything."

"Mmmph.  Likewise. And for what you’ve done for us, I thank you."  The freeholder lifts a hand as Kelly steps through the waterfall.

Chapter 4

The beacons stringing along the Lost Road are in woeful shape.  Mould colonizes struts and crevices; saurian bite-marks scar the cabling.  When Kelly attempts to calibrate the first beacon, it flashes an error light: the hub is offline.

The network hub sits in a hollow beneath a huge tree near the overgrown road.  It is dented and sports a star-shaped blast mark.  When Kelly touches the door, it falls off.  The contents of the hub are still in place, the ember ring powered.  But it's all dead.

He discovers why.  The cables are hollow rubber tubes; the mainboards are grooved with the ghostly imprints of vanished wiring.  Empty shells of fuses and capacitors litter the bottom of the hub where they'd fallen.  Something has surgically extracted all the metal bits within the hub while leaving the other materials completely undisturbed.

Baffling.  Shaper weirdness?  Kelly checks the maintenance log: the last entry is by Freelancer Griffin, two months ago, logging no incident.  This network wasn’t flagged when he claimed this contract. This problem seems recent.  Whatever caused this, Kelly thinks, he has his work cut out for him.

He has the hub wide open, cables spewed over the ground, when he hears pattering steps and a sucking gulp, and his javelin's hydraulics screech as all its systems respond to his reflexes and fling him to one side.  A tongue, thick as his thigh, whips past his face and smashes into the roots.  Spinning about, Kelly's hip slams through layers of ballistic cushioning to collide with the javelin inner shell.  He evades again.  A chitined leg stabs down, gouges the earth where he was standing.

The interceptor pivots, joints sparking.  Kelly's wristblade flashes out and arcs like a bolt of lightning through pure muscle, severing the flailing tongue in a geyser of ichor.  A black carapace, diamond-shaped and large as a door, rears back, widens a mouth lined with serrated tooth-ridges, and bellows.

Kelly's pistol is in his hand, already aimed.  One -- into that sick, gaping maw.  Two -- into the brainpan where the two halves of the carapace meet.

The anrisaur crumples before him, dead.  Ichor gouts from the bullet holes, spatters its juggernaut head.  The amputated length of tongue wriggles for a few more seconds, then subsides, curling in on itself.

The pistol is trembling from the death-grip on it.  Kelly loosens his hand.  His visor is all fogged up on the inside.  He throws it open, then stands there, gasping.

Pain is blossoming across his left hip; now his knees chime in with their own protest.  All that snug, ballistic cushioning inside the javelin couldn't save him from the impulse forces produced by its adaptive programming, massively amplified for swift response to his twitch reflexes.  His flank will sport a fine bruise tomorrow.

There is no further attack.  The anrisaur must’ve been a solitary, old male.  Shadows creep a fraction across the ground before Kelly gathers himself, heaves the anrisaur's cooling carcass into the bushes off the road, and resumes the work.

The hub is a goner.  No way to repair it except to scavenge.  Kelly cannibalizes parts from two beacons along the Lost Road, coaxes the hub into feeble life.  He tunes it to transmit a continuous signal to Fort Tarsis -- SIGNIFICANT DAMAGE, REPAIR ASAP -- and signs off with his name.  It would be weeks before the Fort will send one of its overworked field engineer teams to come out this way.

His backpack contains a folding knife, a small ember-burner lamp, a bedroll, his all-purpose maintenance toolkit, and a few more oddities.  The only thing he carries for no survival purpose is a strange mask.  Along with his wristblades and pistol, that is all.  Travelling light: no need for an air sled.  He knows how to live off the land, find the niches safe and edible for humans.

Anrisaur is inedible for humans.  Its flesh remains runny after cooking, and causes upset stomachs more often than not.  Kelly sets a few traps, catches a couple grabbits.  That night, he camps on top of a rock column.

Chewing on grabbit bones next to the little campfire, he thinks of who or what may have disappeared all the hub's metal like this.  No good theories come to mind.  Later, beneath the moons, he sleeps fitfully as his bruises go tender, then stiffen.

The days flow onward, bearing him deeper into the East Gate region, toward his next meeting.

Chapter 5

From the outside, the Necropolis looks like a normal, unassuming cave.

The cave mouth is small and overgrown with ferns, and darkness rapidly closes around Kelly as he enters.  The air is still and cool here.  Limestone columns hold up the tunnel's ceiling, etched all over into fluted patterns by centuries of patient mineral deposits.  A rivulet trickles from the cave mouth, descending the rocky terraces to disappear somewhere along the passage.

Kelly's eye is drawn to a shaft of sunlight pouring down from a skyhole in the tunnel roof.  Small ferns and even a yellow and pink orchid have colonized that patch of sunlit earth, creating a splash of colour in this sombre underground.

He gives himself a moment to admire the microcosm of life.  But he has an appointment to keep, and a far way to go.

Kelly leaves that shaft of light and walks deeper.  The tunnel is filled with soft darkness.  He is half expecting to stumble into an outlaw camp, so he's relieved to see no evidence of recent human passage.

The tunnel rounds a sharp corner and abruptly opens into a cavernous space. Kelly has been here before, but the sight still makes him stop there in his tracks.

A fortress wrought from light hangs suspended in the middle of darkness. Glowing lines converge and diverge with each other, forming polygons that merge and meld into fantastic shapes. The fractals of light expand until they fill the cavern, capturing the eye in their endlessly refining patterns, defying all sense of distance and definition.

This is the uppermost and smallest of the three caverns that make up the ruin known as the Necropolis. The ruin is Anzu. No humans could've imagined or built such an edifice.

The Arcanist who discovered the Necropolis dubbed this cavern the Upper Ramparts. As he enters it, Kelly thinks: that Arcanist didn’t see the underlying architecture before naming it. That, or they had a strange sense of poetry.

On a whim, he turns on his helmet's spotlight. It lances out into the darkness. The ghostly lines vanish, drowned out by the beam. Contorted shapes emerge now, trapped in the bright circle as he walks through the Ramparts.  Here rears a steeple, lofted up by a knot of flying buttresses.  There stands a tower resembling some hideous fungus: its lower walls shoot vertically from the ground, then sprout into clusters of cubic faces on the upper stories.  A wall humps past his right shoulder, scored with towers like cleavers.  Kelly places a hand on the wall.  His fingers slide down as if over oil, finding no purchase.  He looks about for the cavern's ceiling: his beam lances up, up, dissolving into the void.

These alien structures are heaped all about the cavern in a bewildering maze. Kelly turns off the spotlight. The structures disappear from sight, and the luminous fortress returns. The lines glow a little brighter. They are made from a mysterious light-capturing substance in the building surfaces, and his spotlight has recharged them.

He's standing in the midst of the Ramparts, inside a tapestry of light. For a moment, Kelly stares transfixed at the expanding web of shapes around him.  Then he wrenches his gaze away and shuts his eyes tight.

The light tapestries are just as deceptive as the buildings.  Their geometries confuse the eye, suggest impossible angles and spaces.  Look too long at them, and one starts to see passages and rooms that aren't there.  It is easy to get disoriented, even trapped.  These patterns were not made for humans to look at.

But the cavern floor is honest limestone and loam.  Kelly opens his eyes, casts his gaze down.  He follows the dark floor as it wends through the fortress.

Mist curls up from his whirring feet; moisture beads upon his metal-encased arms.  The cavern is frigid.  Though he is snug inside the climate-controlled javelin, chill still creeps along his spine, nibbles at knuckles and fingertips where the armour is thinnest.

He almost stumbles over a pile of debris.  The dim light reveals a campfire, ashes kicked out from its circle, with amorphous junk scattered around it.  It looks like it was abandoned sometime ago, and hastily.  Outlaws occasionally sheltered in the Ramparts, taking advantage of its maze-like layout.  But they didn't seem to stay long.  Kelly has heard anecdotes of Anzu ghost sightings in the Necropolis, though no two people agreed on what they looked like.  Ghosts or not, this ruin isn't a pleasant place to hide, didn't matter whether you brought spotlights or stayed in darkness.  It is a bastion of an extinct civilization, no place for present life.

A current of air tremors across the javelin's kinaesthetic sensors.  And again.  The cavern inhales, exhales, over the span of minutes.  Kelly moves on from the abandoned camp, quickly.  As he walks, he finds himself holding his breath.  The webs of light slowly pass by, but he keeps his eyes on the floor.

The Upper Ramparts stand at attention as Kelly passes through.

Stalactites press down from overhead. Radiant Anzu barricades give way to a face of deeply-clefted rock.  A rough semi-circle gapes in the face, beckoning.

He is through the first gauntlet.  The cavern path has led him true.  Heaving a sigh of relief, Kelly enters the tunnel.

**

It is now pitch black this far underground, and he turns on a dim spotlight beam again.  The tunnel is small but the ceiling is smooth and free of stalactites.

He walks more carefully than usual.  His bruises have passed the acute tender stage and and are now a dull yet familiar pain.  His left flank aches sullenly everytime he takes a step.

Somewhere ahead is running water.  He hears it long before the tunnel converges with a waterfall that shoots out from an unseen channel, falling a height of three stories.  Kelly jumps down the cascade, braking his fall with a burst from his flight jets.  On foot, he follows the gurgling subterranean river.  Somehow it feels disrespectful to fly in the Necropolis.  Best not to disturb the dead.

He surprises a tesilar pair on the stream bank.  They flee into a hole and lurk there, bristling with electricity.  Kelly hurries past them.  Thankfully, no electrical zap chases him.  He always finds tesilars in Anzu ruins; they seem to like it here.

The tunnel winds further, its roof gradually rising.  Another subterranean breeze picks up, blowing toward him.  A dull, cavernous roar sounds in the distance, and Kelly turns off his spotlight just before the tunnel straightens out.  Glowing lines appear at its other end, swelling in size and complexity as he heads toward it.  As the river cascades over the tunnel lip and into the cavern, he stands by the bank and gazes in wonder at the phantom city colonizing the air.

The Upper Ramparts is huge, but the Lower Ramparts easily swallows it up.  No light reaches this place, but the mysterious substance in the architecture glows steadfastly, as it probably did for epochs before.  Uncounted shining lines spiral out from multiple loci, distorting perspective and opening up imaginary spaces, until all melds into one giant, distorted city.  Kelly descends the side of the waterfall and heads toward it.

Pausing at a pyramid-shaped waymarker on the city limits, Kelly dims his visor to almost opaque, and tunes his javelin's stride to a fixed length.  Then he summons a mnemonic to mind, and begins walking.  From the waymarker, walk twenty paces, turn east.  Touch the wall to the south, and keep walking until you feel four deep grooves -- then head north until the path ends at a low wall ridged with arches.  Turn left and walk until the twentieth arch, when the road starts sloping downhill.  Head to the nearby cylindrical pillar with vertical grooves, then turn northwest.

And onwards.  Kelly follows the mnemonic, stopping now and again to visually confirm the landmarks.  Sight is not trustworthy in this labyrinth; memory and touch are the only sure ways to find the meeting point.  If he misses a turn, he'll have to fly back out, and start the whole process over.

He reaches an open plaza ringed by spires.  In the middle stands a lone ziggurat.  He's made it.

The ziggurat's top is flat and as large as his shoebox apartment in Fort Tarsis. Perched safely up there, Kelly unhooks his backpack and drops it to the floor.  Then he powers down the javelin systems one by one, releases the seals encasing him in the suit, and extracts himself.

Cold rushes in, sliding under his thin clothing like a long-lost lover.  The hairs prickle along his bare arms.  Shivering, Kelly breathes deep.  He closes his eyes as the sound of his breath and his sense of space recede and recede, until he is a pinprick of a heartbeat, suspended within the cavern and its ancient, inhuman city.

He could've stood here forever, savouring his tiny insignificance in the world the Shapers made.  But he reluctantly opens his eyes.  Terry will be here soon.

Kelly’s breath fogs in front of him like a ghost.  There is just enough light to see by. He sits down in the middle of the platform, reaches into his backpack and pulls out the strange mask.

It lies in his hands, heavy as responsibility.  In place of the eye-holes is a rectangular, opaque visor.  The mask would cover the top half of his face, block out eyes and ears.  There are straps to keep it on his head.

Kelly looks at it with distaste.  He places it face-down next to him, then gingerly stretches his bruised knees out and leans back on his hands.  The ziggurat's top is textured rough like stone, now warming up from his body heat. He looks up and out, at the constellations surrounding.

He waits. He is early. With his gaze, Kelly follows one of the shining lines. It draws him into alluring complexity: an Anzu puzzle waiting to be unravelled. If he follows these threads far enough, he may unlock a secret placed there by the Shapers. The glowing city hangs unwavering, outside time and space. He looks at the cityscape, forgets where he is.

Chapter 6

An odonapteryx lands next to him.  It chirps, fixes him with a faceted green eye, then begins to comb its feathers with its foreclaws.

The scent of magnolias wafts through the city: the buttery, intricate blooms from trees growing in Heliost.  Kelly tilts his head to look at the odonapteryx, standing in a beam of sunlight.  With a rustle of wings, the creature turns around to face him, glaring with its other eye.  Then it screeches, fans out its tail in a flourish of orange and black feathers, then takes off and flies into the sun.

Wait.

Kelly blinks into darkness. A dome of dim constellations surround him.  He takes a deep breath.  The air is very cold, laced with water and salt.

Magnolias and an odonapteryx.  Terry has arrived, hailing in from Heliost, right on time.

For a long minute, Kelly sits there, savouring the tangy air that is and the perfume that isn't. He counts his breaths: twenty, thirty.  Then, picking up the mask, he summons a radio episode to his mind's eye.  Image and voice coalesce: Officer Quincy squawking with agitation; Detective Hops bopping and weaving; the hapless Sentinel chasing the grabbit around, around, and around.

Image firmly in mind, Kelly presses the mask to his forehead and tugs the straps around his head.  His senses submerge into a void more total than his javelin's helmet.

Radio static blooms in his mind, buzzing like tinnitus, then coalesces into a voice.  <Hello, Rath.  Put that stupid grabbit away.>

That nickname that Mom and Dad called him.  That hated nickname, screamed into his head during that nightmare summer in the Everweald.  Kelrath Falco, say the official documents at Fort Tarsis -- and no one else.  Only family is allowed that privilege.

Kelly says, "And a good day to you, Terry."

<It's Tergan,> she snaps back.  She loathes that nickname he started using when they first came to Heliost.  So they are even.  She says, <You're early.>

"You're on time.  What's new?"

<Hmph.  Please, for the love of our departed parents, enough with that Hops animal.  I can't believe you still remember those ridiculous early episodes.>

Kelly bares his teeth in a grin.  This is their ritual, old as their siblinghood.  "Sure I remember," he answers.  "Mom recorded everything that aired.  She played them for me like she did for you.  They were already awful then.  Now I pull them out so we can enjoy them together, y’know?"

<Put. The grabbit. Away.>

She was inescapable during that nightmare summer.  Her brain cracked open by a massive dose of ember from the explosion, Tergan Falco lay flayed open and seared to the core by the Anthem of Creation.  Her half-paralyzed body was chained to a bed but her unleashed mind rampaged through the strider.  In desperation, Kelly took refuge in the radio program, Detective Hops Mysteries.  He was twelve years old, and Terry was seventeen, no longer a girl but a woman, discovering the sophistication of the Dawnguard radio drama, turning her nose up at that kids' show with the stupid grabbit.

That stupid grabbit and his buffoonish Sentinel sidekick became his bolt-hole.  For months he played all of Mom's tape recordings on repeat throughout the strider.  The tapes had fallen apart but their scripts were etched on Kelly's mind, forged into psychic armour to keep his sister -- to keep everybody -- out.  He knew more cypher-deterring mental tricks now, but at their core was still the grabbit sleuth.

Since then, he's never missed an episode.  Thankfully, Detective Hops Mysteries is so much better these days.

Under the mask, Kelly rolls his eyes, knowing his sister miles away is doing the same thing at the same time.  In his mind's eye, he lets the Sentinel chase the grabbit until they both fall off a cliff, and fancies he hears Terry groan with relief.

He says, "You're feeling good today.  The odonapteryx did a little dance."  Usually Terry's arrival is like a slap upside the head, even if she announces it with magnolias.

<I'm in an amplifier.  Relker owed me a favour.  You remember him -- one of the show's expert advisors; appeared on some of our guest interview episodes.  I did a whole lot of data crunching for his research, so he got me a few hours in the chair.  I forget how a chair makes everything easier.  I should be able to walk home after this.>

"What, you're in Bronelyn Satomi?" Kelly asks.

<Fuck no!>  A rainbow of noise bursts in his head, the sound of distant machinery mixed with whirring fans and the murmur of a busy street beyond.  Lying on cushioning as soft as a bed of moss.  The smell of the amplifier's warm metal mingles oddly with a spicy meat aroma from someone's -- Relker's -- lunch.  For a moment the sensations linger like an afterburn on his senses, then vanish, and he's back underground amidst tangy air and the mutter of the distant subterranean river.

<I'm in one of the municipal communication exchanges,> Terry says stiffly.  <Relker and I are the only ones here presently.  I'll never set foot in Bronelyn, or any satomi.  Rath, you should know that by now.  And stop--> she adds, as his thoughts swerve in that direction, <--right there.  Just stop.  We always end up fighting over this.  I don't want to fight today, alright?>

"I don't either, but you started it," he mutters, then veers to a safer topic.  "You make any progress?  Did our last recording in Shadowmark help?"

Terry snorts, but her mental voice softens a fraction.  <A bit.  There are some patterns, but they're indirect.  I always have to simulate Mom and Dad's data so I can correlate their observations with mine.  But any simulation always relies on too many assumptions.  Damn it!> she huffs. <Their work is solid but they'll always be indirect. I just need direct observations from all the Anzu ruins they visited in the Everweald.  More data from Bastion will also provide a stronger baseline.>

Always more data from Bastion's various Anzu ruins: the Necropolis, the Sunken Gardens in Shadowmark, the Wedged Key; plus the minor ruins, every single one.  Of the major ruins, the Necropolis is the easiest to record at.  Predators or outlaw gangs seldom come this deep.

Kelly says, "Just get Ancient Anzu to fund a research expedition to the Everweald.  I'm sure they'll be eager to do that.  More fodder for radio episodes, right?  Then you can go poking around those ruins to your heart's content."

<'Poke in the ruins' -- pffft, speak for yourself,> Terry mutters.  <You know that’s impossible now. I'll slow everyone down.>

"Just stay in the strider.  Someone else can do the legwork."

<No. I hate the jungle.>

"Then don't go!  Stay in Heliost and link with them like this."

<I'll need a chair to stay in contact, which means I have to keep visiting comms exchanges. I can't ask so many favours from Relker. Besides, some actual cypher in the exchange is bound to discover me. And what about the expedition? There will be other people there. Sure, Ancient Anzu is discreet but someone is bound to give me away, out in the field. Forget it! I'm not taking the risk.>

Kelly says nothing.  There's no arguing with Terry when her mind is made up.  She was already stubborn when they were kids; cypher awakening has made her worse.  And she didn't hate the jungle, before.

Terry is still talking. <Besides, I'm not comfortable interfacing with anyone else. Rath, you're good enough.  I just... If only you went to the Everweald instead of Fort Tarsis after you left Heliost.>

"I did go back to the Everweald," Kelly says, very quietly.

<You didn't tell me.  I had to find you myself!  If only you'd--> She breaks off, as something in his silence rouses and turns hostile.  She armours herself in turn, says nothing.

He feels that rift between them, riven by wounds and unspoken grief.

Terry is the first to speak. <Alright. Never mind, that's all past and done.  We’re here.  Let's take some observations.  I have a theory I want to test, it might take a while.  --Only if you're alright with it,> she adds after a pause.  The stiffness is back in her mental voice.  <Ready?>

Never, Kelly thinks to himself.  "As ready as I'll ever be," he answers.

Chapter 7

Masked, he sits cross-legged on the ziggurat.  The scent of magnolias surround him: the lolling, massive blooms found in the Everweald that lulled one into perilous inattention.

A weight settled atop his head, as he sat there on the ground, surrounded by pebbles and rich, heady earth.  His big sister grabbed his shoulders in a hug, leaned her chin on his crown.  Eleven years old she is, much taller than him.  "Hey, Rath.  Daddy wants to show you something.  Nope, why should I tell you?  Bet'cha can't guess!  C'mon now."

His legs were cramping from sitting so long on the pebbly dirt.  He felt like standing up.

Kelly stands up.  The ziggurat is rough and cold under his bare feet.

His sister pointed.  His gaze followed her finger.  There was Dad, looming above them both, a slab of rock in his hands, which glistened oddly in the sunlight.  Something splayed across its surface, a form drawn in the rock as finely as one of Mom's pencil sketches.

Dad said, It's an odonapteryx.  Never seen one of these, eh, Rath?  No one has.  They're extinct, you know.  This one got stuck on this wood as it was preserved instantly. Sunlight haloed his head, but his face was in shadow.  Oh yes, a Cataclysm did this.  Wood petrifies over time, but it never vitrifies like this, not without some terrible Shaper catastrophe.  The Arcanists are digging for more fossils, over there.  What we've dug up so far, it's all vitrified.  Amazing, eh?  Here: look at it.

Terry's finger traced the outline of that long-dead creature.  Kelly watched her finger as it coaxed out the image from the rock.  Flesh erupted from the liberated skeleton, feathers and scales following.  The odonapteryx screeched and flapped off, a burst of black, orange and blue. Kelly turned about in place, face and gaze following its weaving flight through the rainforest trees.

Dad had been watching it too.  Now he started walking after the creature.  Let's go, Rath.  His hand beckoned.  Kelly looked up toward that blurred face, but beneath the brilliant sunlight, Dad was a mere shadow, ghosting through the trees in the wake of the odonapteryx.

Far away, his mind speaks.  Kelly.  This isn't real.  It's only a memory.  He stands blind and deaf in the middle of an alien city deep underground.  It is Terry who sees and hears through the opaque visor of the mask: patterns in the constellations, harmonies buzzing in those captive photons, the city breathing and speaking to her cypher-awakened senses in a voice older than human history.

A cypher trainer explained it to Kelly once, when he'd been a few months at Heliost's Freelancer Enclave, a fresh trainee learning how to use a javelin.  "Oh, no no, we can't read your thoughts!  Manipulate them? --Perish that thought! (Pun definitely intended.) But you don't need to be a mind-reader to have an idea of what people are thinking. It's like body language, and cyphers just happen to be able to see that from the inside.  And just like you respond to other people’s body language with your own body, we do the same."

Yet that same cypher had been astonished.  "Incredible.  You're young, Falco, but I'm just not getting the usual mental gag-reflex from you.  Lancers always get all wound up in knots when they first interface with a cypher.  Accustomed to privacy in your heads, not used to a fly observing on your shoulder.  But you are so relaxed, kid.  You've just skipped over months of training, right here!"

So relaxed: so docile.  So that cypher probably said to the other cyphers in the Enclave, about this quiet fifteen-year-old boy with the wry grin and opaque gaze, who took to javelins as easily as pulling on his own shirt.  So easily ridden.

Now, surrounded by the scent of magnolias underground, Kelly wonders if it was Terry, not he, who had driven the strider to Freemark and then into the Everweald, desperately seeking salvation.  The jungle was a maelstrom that devoured all.  There in that fraught summer, in the strider submerged in the Anthem of Creation, someone had drowned.

He knows what his sister is doing.  Owen, Faye, and all the satomi-trained cyphers of Fort Tarsis speak in a crystalline psychic lexicon that is as much a corral for the cypher's voice as clarity to the lancer's mind.  Terry has no satomi training.  She speaks in pictures, through their shared memories.  In the jungle she points, and he follows the odonapteryx, the faceless shade of Dad.  He watches himself follow her, and hates himself for it.  So docile and compliant.  What a model Freelancer.

**

The odonapteryx flits between trees.  A grabbit creeps out from the prickly undergrowth to watch.  Then it begins a funny bopping dance.

The forest folds up into darkness as Terry releases him.

Kelly yanks off the blinders.  The air is piercing cold over his tongue and lips.  The mask falls out of his fingers, and he follows it to the floor.  The stone holds him up, anchors him down.

Prone on the ziggurat, he fills his lungs, empties and fills them again, and thinks of nothing.

After who knows how long, he gropes for the mask and touches it against his forehead.  "You find what you want?" he asks the presence inside.

<Hmmm.> Terry muses.  Her voice is halting; clearly distracted by her number-crunching.  <Maybe.  That test seems to have worked. I still see the correlation between the Necropolis and the Wedged Key, and the effects on the surrounding habitats.  These Anzu structures definitely are responding to environmental changes in this East Gate region, although it's hard to pinpoint how.  But I'll have to do the comparative analysis with our previous data collections to be absolutely sure.  I think there are some parallels with Mom and Dad's observations in the Everweald, but again, I need to run the simulation.  Still, I think that's enough data.  We were at it for a while.>

Her voice has softened again, but something in that makes his hackles rise.  "Terry, why do we go through the same old story all the time?  Why do you use him?"

<Who?  Do you mean Dad?>

"Yeah, him.  And the fossil dig.  Why?"

<You loved that fossil,> she answers.  <Dad was very proud of digging it up.  You two spent all the time dreaming up ideas of how the animal looked.  Dad even took Mom's pencils to try and sketch it out.>

"That's when you lost interest and wandered off to watch the other Arcanists.  You didn't even look at Dad's drawing when I showed it to you.  So how do you know how the odonapteryx looks?"

<I don't,> Terry answers.  When he is silent, she says, <Rath, I can't read your mind.  I'm just picturing what I remember from that day, and you seem to remember along with me.  I know you liked the odonapteryx.  It's just a fossil to me.  All I'm doing is imagine it flying.  How else can I get you to help me make such precise recordings?>

Kelly is silent.  His sister huffs a sigh.  She says, <It's just a memory we both have, Rath.  That's all.>

Just a memory, where the creature is so vivid but Dad's face is gone.  Mom, she's never appeared in any of these memories.  They are gone and buried, given over to the ever-hungry jungle.  Only their research is left, made slowly and haphazardly over the years, in between long-term, Arcanist-contracted expeditions.  And of this remnant Terry has claimed it all: made it her life’s obsession, plumbing the depths of forgotten ruins in between producing episodes for the Ancient Anzu radio show, poring through the data as if in their numbers she can find the reason for the tragedy of her fate.  All that remained of their parents, she took, and left him nothing.  He only has memories, and even these are ghosts.

Thoughts crowd through Kelly’s head.  He senses Terry waiting.  He doesn’t know what he can say to her.

Terry sighs again, and says, <We're done here.>  Another pause, and when she speaks, her voice is soft.  <Rath -- Kelly.  Please take care of yourself.  I don't want--> She breaks off, then says, <Take care.  Alright?  And thanks for all that.>

"Take care of yourself," Kelly replies, as the magnolias fade into salt.

Chapter 8

Armoured again in his javelin, Kelly heads deeper into the Necropolis, following the subterranean river as it flows through the Lower Ramparts. There is still the third and deepest cavern in these ruins.  The Arcanists named it the Oubliette.

Kelly has never been to the Oubliette.  He's heard Yarrow's stories about the various attempts over the years to explore the cavern, all failed.  The careful expeditions went and returned empty-handed, saying that the cavern could not be mapped.  The brash ones went and never came back.  Look on the Wall here, and also here: see those figures against these dark patches?  These are the Freelancers who lost their lives supporting those Arcanist-led expeditions to the Necropolis.  Their bodies and javelins are lost, and their links.  No, we will not send other 'lancers to recover them.  The Oubliette is too dangerous, and you will not go there, you hear me?

It was Archie Thorne who told him the way.  The Storm lancer had turned serious, given Kelly a hard stare that sat awkwardly on his usually cheerful face, before matter-of-factly listing the directions.  "Just head westward, and follow the river through the Anzu tunnel.  When the floor gives out, go into the water.  That'll take you to the Oubliette.  And Kelly: stay in control of your javelin.  Unless you got a deathwish, don't let the water sweep you away.  Yarrow ain't wrong about the danger.  But I know you can prove that ol' man wrong, so don’t become another black patch on the wall, yeah?" And Archie had batted Kelly on the shoulder, now back in his good humour.  He did not explain how he knew all this.

That was more than a year ago. Since then Kelly came several times to the Necropolis to take observations for his sister, but he never acted on Archie's directions.

Now, he follows the river as it enters a perfectly square-shaped corridor.  It is clearly Anzu-built.  The river gurgles through a shallow channel sunk into the middle of the smooth, unmarred floor.  The walls glisten with an odd sheen like oil under his spotlight, and reflect the click of his javelin's feet in peculiar echoes.

The corridor runs due west and straight into darkness, farther than his spotlight can pierce.  There is no natural debris around: no sign that life, human or animal, has ever passed this way.

Kelly gradually becomes aware that the ceiling is sloping downwards, and the sound of water is changing.  The dead end manifests all at once: the roof falls in a steep angle to meet the floor, while the river, now growling in a resonant bass voice, pours through the now submerged tunnel.

Taking a deep breath, Kelly enters the channel.  His javelin's feet touch the floor, but his head barely clears the surface.  He'd have to go completely under.

He submerges, and lets the river carry him, feet-first, down into the tunnel.

Down -- swept under.  Utter blackness.  Water roars all around.  He must be in a narrow channel: he feels himself moving fast, but there is no light, no landmark, nothing at all around him but endless movement.  The compass and altitude orientations in his visor spin, unhinged.  He fires his jets, feels them flail against relentless pressure.  The river consumes the world.  The din becomes total.

Water funnels into the throat of the earth.  Kelly's pulse crashes against his ears, his breath batters at his ribcage.  He is sealed in the surge, entombed in metal.  The waters hurl him down, down.

Somewhere, a lurid twilight blooms.  He is falling toward it.

A primal instinct convulses Kelly.  In his javelin he invokes emergency override, cuts off all primary and secondary systems from their ember rings, and shunts every last drop of power to his flight jets.

Not a moment too soon.

The channel vomits him into open void.  Freed from crushing pressure, water blasts out and explodes into a million droplets around him, vaporized by immense space.  Kelly falls -- then yanks to a stop, saved by his screaming jets.  Hanging in the air just under the mouth of the channel, he balances between the surge and gravity.

He stares down into a labyrinth.  The third cavern is vast beyond imagination.

In the Oubliette, there is no length or width or depth, no dimension or boundary, only the Anzu lines of light spreading out in a bottomless, boundless abyss, impossible geometries multiplying and fractalizing and sheeting out in every direction, on and on, beyond even the horizon, then refracting, recursing, spiralling inwards to convergence, to unity: space uncoiling within and without, a mausoleum where light went to shine forever.

Stay in control of your javelin, Kelly, says Archie Thorne.  Don't let the water sweep you away.  Unless you got a deathwish.

Suspended in space and time, Kelly stares into the abyss.  For an eternal moment, blessed silence.

Then sheer animal terror crushes his innards and he flees up the water funnel, jets howling, away from the true necropolis of the ruin.  For the Anzu protect their dead -- all the dead that ever lived and died on the earth.  If he didn't arrest his fall right here, at the tiny water funnel in the vast underbelly of the world, he would join them below.

Away from the face of infinity Kelly Falco flees, just as he fled from the Heart of Rage.  He does not know how he fought his way up the water funnel.  Bursting out of the river into the square corridor, he keeps flying, ever eastwards, through the Lower Ramparts.

He has disturbed the ghosts, and now they are on his heels.  Haluk's curses hound him again, his impotent anguish batter his ears as he flees -- as he fled from the Cataclysm's nexus, and again from that strider of despair.  Coward. Coward! Kelly Falco, you fear to face death!

Twice he'd seen the Heart of Rage: in the strider, and again in the javelin.  Both times he'd turned and run to the only refuge he knew.

He and his sister had been lost in the Everweald, five months that nightmare summer.  Submerged in Terry's need and agony, his consciousness had been crushed and distilled down into one primal goal: to live.  If not for that, the jungle would have devoured them both.

Kelly runs, through the Lower Ramparts and the Upper.  Traps and webs close about him, but he evades them all.  Sunlight shines in the distance: he arrows toward it.  He bursts out of the cave entrance and keeps flying, low over the ground, away from that house of death.  Dust churns in his wake: rocks give way to grass give way to water.  His javelin swallows up distance.

At Lovers' Spring he finally stops, crashing into one of the pools in an arc of spray.  Warning lights and sounds clamour inside his suit: the interceptor crying out under the muzzle of emergency override, all system safety thresholds exceeded.  Kelly releases the seals and falls out of the steaming javelin into the water.

A little cascade is nearby, pouring serenely into the pool.  He stumbles toward it and, falling to hands and knees, thrusts his head under it.  The water laves his parched throat, cools his burning mind.  He leans his forehead against the hard black ledge and stares at his hands submerged in the pool, clutching at the dark pebbly bottom as if the rocks can save him from himself.

Haluk was wrong.  This Freelancer saw the Heart of Rage for the third time, and it did not defeat him.  Yarrow is wrong.  A Freelancer came back from the Necropolis.  Kelly Falco, he's a survivor.  He always comes back.

Water runs down Kelly's face.  Kneeling under the cascade, he doesn't know if they are tears.

Chapter 9

His hip is not getting better. The bruises are gone but the pain is increasing, making him favour his left leg. If he pays attention, he can feel something scraping against something else. That anrisaur attack has chipped a bone, and that time in the Necropolis must have exacerbated it.

The pain goes away when the weight is off his foot. Flying helps a lot.

Northward, Kelly flies.  Like a spectre, he passes through the Skystone region, undisturbed.  The maintenance contract is almost over.  One more beacon network to go.

Chapter 10

No breeze blows in the Emerald Abyss this early afternoon.  The air vibrates with heat and humidity.  The Sanctuary at Dunar lies beneath clear skies, dreaming of past glories.

Kelly hobbles through Dunar's silent halls.  Centuries of decay has dissolved all signs of civilization, erased any adornments on the walls, until all that is left are the basic forms of architecture. Even the floors are worn smooth, any debris turned into the dust that veils all the interior spaces.

Grand and desolate.  No life stirs in these human ruins. Kelly tunes his audio and motion sensors up, but all that registers is the soft whirr of his interceptor.  He is the only living thing here.

Strange, and a bit eerie. But also profoundly peaceful.

The beacons are covered in a layer of fine dust.  Probably from Freemark: strong winds have gusted out from the northwest this whole month, as the climate and weather system readjust to the gap left by the silenced Cataclysm.

Kelly repairs the network, the first person to do so in half a year.  He wipes off the dust, scrapes down the corrosion.  Tomorrow the beacons will be coated again.  But today, they glisten in the sun.

Dunar is the farthest and final beacon network on this circuit of Fort Tarsis' early warning grid.  He has finished the contract.

Fish and river grasses teem in the waterways surrounding Dunar.  The Arcanists who lived here centuries ago bred animals and flora that were edible for humans, to support their community.  Kelly builds a simple fish trap from reeds.  That evening, he camps a distance from the Sanctuary proper, on some high ground overlooking the lake.

Surrounded by the skeletons of walls and arches, he grills his catch on a campfire, boils water collected from the lake to drink.  His left side throbs unceasingly; he ignores it.  The setting sun riots in the sky in gold and crimson, and crowns the ruins for a moment with its former glory.

It is almost idyllic.  Kelly thinks, he could live here.  There is food in the waterways, shelter in these peripheral ruins or in caves that surely dotted the nearby mountains.  There would be nuisances like wolven, and Dominion scouts sniffing about, but he knows how to take care of himself.  This as close to a refuge as he can get in the Bastion wilds.

Maybe that's what Liatrelle and Midderon did -- the real historical people, not the legends peddled by the Bard.  Surely Legionnaires, too, got so weary of the weight of glory and expectation that they shed their javelins and disappeared into the wilderness to live out their days in peaceful anonymity.  Heck, General Tarsis might've done the same.  Maybe she faked her death at the battle at Antium Gates.  Maybe her grave wasn't at the Haven but in some forgotten corner of Bastion that no one would hallow.

Perhaps he would join the real Legionnaires, one day.  Vanish into the jungle, go radio- and mind-silent for good.

**

He has done it, before.  After the first disastrous attempt to silence the Heart of Rage, right after his appalling fight with Haluk and Faye.  Kelly had taken his storm-warped javelin and fled, this time ridden by the rage of Haluk, whose furious words hit home truer than anyone could imagine.

The jungle swallowed him up.  He survived, somehow.  Maybe hunting and subsisting in that javelin; perhaps working on a strider's crew in anonymous oblivion. In the heat, the days melted into one another. He barely remembered them.

It was Terry who found him.  Of course.  She always had that knack.

She'd done it without an amplifier.  She'd been that anxious.  Her brother had vanished, no one knew where.  So she went searching, stepping through the trackless currents of the Anthem, and found him lost, for a second time, in the Everweald.

That reunion he would not forget.  Five sleepless nights amidst the stifling aroma of magnolias plagued him, until at last he roused as if from a long stupor and stuck his head into the old javelin's helm to hear the words: Rath.  I don't know where you are.  Come home soon, alright?

So he did, beating his way out of the jungle that fought to hold him in, hitchhiking back to Heliost to arrive at Terry's bedside, where she was still recovering, half-paralyzed by the psychic energy she tore from herself and spent in order to find him.

He'd been in the Everweald for a year.

**

Something splashes in the distant lake, followed by a burst of avian chatter and a battering of wings.  Just a brief interruption: the noises quickly fade into the distance, and the murmuring night closes over them.

The peace of the world seeps into Kelly's bones.  He stretches out his legs carefully, and sets his jaw against the pain sinking its fangs into his hip.  But it lets him go, eventually.  He lies down and looks up at the night.

The little campfire crackles blissfully nearby.  He sees the helm of his journey-worn interceptor from the corner of his eye.  The moons are dark tonight, and the stars are free to show off their glittering glory.  Nocturnal sounds of animals and insects surround him.  All is at peace within a strangely quiescent Emerald Abyss, for once not coughing up chimaeras and Shaper weirdness.

This contract is finished.  There are others: one maintenance circuit runs through Great Falls Canyon and joins up with the southern half of the High Road.  He can pick that one up, work his way back to the Fort.

Back to Fort Tarsis and its trivialities.

Kelly thinks again of the Legionnaires of Dawn.  Midderon, who lingered at the Fortress, surrounded by ghosts of the past, until he became one of them.  Liatrelle, who walked out of Antium, her last mission for General Tarsis completed.  Against Haluk's hot scorn and Faye's cool skepticism and his own unspoken fears, he had silenced the Heart of Rage.  His mission is completed.

He could go to the freehold hidden beneath the palisades of Idris, stand again inside the mossy cave, and ask Chigger if he could become one of them.  He could give himself to the jungle, and forget.

But there is Fort Tarsis.  Friendship, camaraderie.  Sayrna's bubbling laugh as she banters with a customer at her stall.  Prickly Haluk shoving an olive branch at him, inviting him to contribute funds and maybe some elbow grease to that new colossus he was secretly building for Mel Mossine.  Zoe giving him the stink-eye when he lands his battered interceptor on her platform, handing him her meticulously-itemized quote for repairs -- while saying nothing about the little touch-ups she adds, free of charge.  Max nodding to him as she stalks about her bar, watching her patrons with a hawk's eye and hawk's silence.  (She was one of the few in Fort Tarsis who never brought up the Cataclysm, and for that he was forever grateful.)  Yarrow, standing at the Freelancers' Wall, touching every image as he prays them along the Great Wheel, his prayers themselves an endless cycle.

The jungle devours all.  But in Fort Tarsis, there is life and warmth.  He finds himself thinking of its white tower rising above the blue and green, the shining lodestone that draws him home.

He is weary.  Kelly closes his eyes.  Beneath the wheeling stars, he sleeps.

Epilogue

They wave at him from across the central courtyard, two fellow Freelancers.  His left hip and thigh are wrapped in restrictive bandages and encased in a brace, all but immobilizing his leg.  He limps toward them.

By the time he makes it across the courtyard, only Jules Griffin is there, waiting.  She gives Kelly her trademark wave, hand bobbing back and forth.  "We found a spot," she says.  "It's nice and quiet and has a great view.  It's a long walk though, sorry about that."

Kelly shrugs.  "If it's quiet, I don't mind the walk."

The crinkles on Griffin's forehead smooth out.  "Oh, good.  I was worried.  But yes, it’s quiet and really pretty, I hope you like it.  Archie's gone to get drinks, he'll meet us there."

They make their slow way through narrow alleys in Fort Tarsis' southern quarter.  Buildings loom above, shielding them from the glare of afternoon sun.  They walk single-file: the alley is barely wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other sideways.  At least the walls are arm-span apart, and Kelly leans against them to take the weight off his leg.

They reach a tiny diamond-shaped courtyard on the edge of the Fort.  It's in shocking disrepair: Pirndel Blatch is clearly ignorant of its existence.  The pavers are cracked and pulled up in many places, and one apex of the diamond has crumbled into mere concrete.  Sections of the railing are rusted and disintegrating, and the apartment walls backing onto the courtyard are stained by years of water and acidity.  But they are at the very edge of Fort Tarsis, and there's an unbroken view of pristine jungle, all the way to the horizon.

Three sling-chairs are already set up on the intact pavers.  Griffin settles into the chair on the right, while Kelly eases into the leftmost one.  After that not-so-long walk it's a relief to sit down.

Archie appears moments later, carrying a basket and chuckling to himself.  He opens it with a flourish, revealing bottles of beverage and a rainbow of small cartons.  "I caught the fruit stalls giving away their last bits of produce for the day.  Free lychees, guys!"

In no time they are all sunk into their chairs, laps full of lychees and rambutans and rose-apples, dropping husks and seeds into the empty cartons, their fingers sticky with delicious fruit juices.

Archie finally leans back and sighs contentedly.  "What d’you think of the view, Kelly?"

Kelly shifts his feet, now propped up on the overturned basket.  He looks out across the jungle.  "I thought you could get this view only from higher up.  It's like we're on a staging platform."  The sight is heart-achingly beautiful.

"Jules found the spot.  Isn’t it gorgeous?"

Griffin ducks her head as Kelly gives her a thumbs-up.  She says, "I was thinking, if you like it here, maybe we could move your cot over.  Then you don't have to sleep in that stuffy courtyard.  It's so noisy: there's people everywhere and drunks out late at night."

The doctor immobilized Kelly and then forebade him to climb unnecessary stairs.  These two plus Lucky Jak had hauled the cot from his tiny apartment down six flights of stairs.  For now, he sleeps in the sheltered area next to the apartment entrance, makeshift curtains giving him some privacy.

"Thanks, Jules," Kelly says, "but I'm fine there.  I can sleep anywhere."  Anywhere without Terry is quiet enough.  Besides, he suspects this is one of Griffin's bolt-holes that she hides in when she doesn't want to be bothered by people.

He knows what that's like.  Everyone needs a refuge from the world. Anyhow, she looks relieved by his answer.

Archie offers him a bottle.  Fortuo Brew.  Kelly eyes it.  He doesn't feel like beer now, but he takes it anyway.

Archie opens his bottle: it makes a delectable pop.  "Glad to have you back, Kelly.  You know, we were worried about you."

"Really?"

"Yeah.  You left and didn't tell anyone.  Mel was the one who brought it up, that she hadn't seen you for a while.  Then we got that message from the Lost Road beacon, about ten days after you left the Fort -- well, after you accepted the contract.  We checked the dates."  Archie pauses to take a swig. "After that, nothing.  The cyphers couldn't raise you at all.  No news until you came back over the wall."

Kelly rotates the bottle in his hands.  "It's a long round-trip to Dunar and back."

Griffin snorts.  "Two weeks at most!  Kelly, you were gone for a month.  We weren't sure if you were still alive."

"Oh."  A month.  He hadn't been aware of time passing.  Kelly said, "It's just a maintenance contract.  Those things are easy."

"Says the Freelancer about to be jumped by an anrisaur," Archie scoffs.  "Went off the beaten track, did you?  Where did you go?"

Kelly sighs.  "I was at the Haven.  And the Necropolis."

Griffin nearly chokes on her drink. "What!?  The Necr--? What business do you have, poking around in that Anzu funhouse?"

Kelly looks at his hands.  "Had to do a bit of research."  Griffin makes a sound that's half a laugh, half a groan.

He feels Archie's eyes on him, and finally glances over.  The Storm lancer is no longer smiling.  Kelly returns the hard stare, matches it for a long moment, then looks away.

He pops the cap off his bottle and takes a long pull.  The Fortuo Brew tastes awful.  He does not feel like drinking today.

A snarl bursts from Archie’s lips. He throws his head back against the chair.  "Shit.  I should not have said that," he mutters to the sky.

"No kidding.  The Necropolis!" Griffin adds, completely misunderstanding.

Kelly puts the opened beer bottle on the ground and sinks into the chair.  His flank aches.  "Well, I'm back now."

"Yeah, I'm beyond glad you're back," Archie says.  Then, lower, "Falco."

Kelly shakes his head.  "Thorne.  Leave it.  It's done now."  He stares at the jungle, and is thankful when Archie holds his peace.

Silence steals in and settles down, followed by calm.  Griffin produces a notebook and pencil from somewhere, and curls up in her chair.  Archie stretches back and pillows his head on his arms.

That swig of beer has loosened his limbs and quietened the pain.  Kelly feels himself relaxing, at last.  Below them, the jungle shifts like a chamaeleon, colours morphing between green and green, under the passage of the sun.  He looks at the view, loses himself in the beauty.

Elsewhere, he remembers the Oubliette, concealed deep in the Necropolis, and the glimpse of that inverted, lethal world.  One day, perhaps, he will go back there.  But not today.

Griffin continues to scratch away at her notebook.  A snore arises from Archie.  Their silence is a gift.

The sun peeks over the buildings of Fort Tarsis.  Kelly closes his eyes and turns his face to the warmth.

==== THE END ====

FalcoVega
Vega (aka @FalcoVega) mains an Interceptor, moonlights as a Chronicler of in-game lore, and makes fan-art and fan-fiction.