A peek into a later chapter: Chris wiped at the fogged up mirror. The dour face looking back at him showed very little improvement to before. His right eye was bloodshot, and a recently stitched together gash along his left temple and forehead had taken on an angry red tinge. He tapped gingerly at it. It stung right back.
'Doesn’t help not remembering where I got that either…' Or why he could hardly set his right leg down, or why his chest and left side were covered in blues and greens and why he had another gash the length of his palm stitched just below his right shoulder. Plus, not to forget the cut on his lower left leg. That one had been bleeding. His hand dropped to his jaw. At least the dirty vagrant’s beard was gone.
'That ought to count for something… Can’t do much about the rest.'
His head had stopped pounding too, and a long while spent under the hot water had rinsed off more than grime and dust. It had cleared some of the haze from his mind too, leaving him to remember bits and pieces of yesterday and the day before.
Most of those he’d spent wandering. He remembered a train and the confines of a carriage cart. Then walking, so much walking, until the city swallowed him. Though a lot of it he’d simple forgotten. Important things. Little things. Irrelevant details. Didn’t matter what it was, forgetting seemed to have become somewhat of a trend, one he’d found maddeningly difficult to shake.
There was, however, the overly curious set of light brown eyes, and the melodic accented voice badgering him while he tried to stay ahead of his fatigue. What still eluded him quite persistently though was how he’d gotten here.
'More walking, I’ll bet.'
The why was a more pressing concern anyway. Though for the most part… Chris picked up the black cotton sweater. It looked clean. Smelled clean. New, even. A much better alternative to his old one.
Yeah. For the most part things could probably be worse. He dragged the sweater over his head, ran a hand through his hair, and decided to go fill in some blanks.
A Valiant Remedy
(or: The Knight who said “What?”)
Part 1: How to kill a Keeper
“Shot,” Sadja tells me, matter-of-factly. “Or maybe stabbed.”
Her tongue clicks and she hums, shuffles her feet against the bare rock we stand on, a restless twitch to the lot of her that travels from her tense shoulders to her shifting heels.
“Beheading,” she continues, “Crushed by a gigantic boulder of sorts.”
I arch a brow at her, catch her bob her head in a curt imitation of a thoughtful nod. The tip of her tongue darts to taste her lips and she flinches, as if she’s set her mind to imagine herself being rolled over by a big, fat rock. A droll enough picture. If not for today — for her lips curling downwards, betraying a frown. My heart gives a squeeze, and I can’t imagine Sadja to have ever thought about her death much, not until it stands before her at any rate, arms spread wide and asking for that one last sweet embrace. And now? Now it's all she thinks about, and she’s being awfully chatty about it.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I always thought you’d get yourself strangled. You can be a cheeky little cunt.”
She smiles at that. Briefly, like she often does.
Ah. I forgot. Allow me to introduce myself before we go any further. Keeper Sinvik Shielding, at your service. Or rather not, if it’s all the same to you. The girl standing with me, the one shooting me a glare while her light brown eyes beg me to save her, her name is Sadja.
We both know this--this whole venture of looking for a way out--is nothing more than a last, desperate effort grasping at the coattail of hope. I wish from the bottom of my heart, wherever that might be hiding at this point, that there’s something I can do. Right here. Right now. Fix her. Cure her. Rip the sickness from her.
But I can’t. I’m left to watch her small, pale form as she fights The Fates tooth and nail, losing the battle with every beat of her heart. Can’t offer her much, either. So, I put on a reassuring smile and I am abysmal with reassuring gestures, do believe me. It’s a Shielding thing. We’re not altogether good at these sorts of things, but we’ve got a knack for making the world around us miserable, not to forget each other. Point in case standing here, rambling about how she’d have liked to die.
“I would have made a fabulous torch, getting burnt to cinders, and drowning wouldn’t have been too bad either.” Her head cocks back and she draws in a breath, winds herself up, and the words keep coming… blown from an airlock — run over by a horse — tumbling down a mountain — eaten alive by a Reaper.
Let’s let her ramble for a while, Reader. Back to the introduction. I’m Sare. Marked. And so is she. We share a lot more than that: we share our gifts, we share our curses, everything but the Marked Wasting slowly eating away at her.
You’re not familiar with that, are you? It’s good that you’re not, since it’s a terrible way to go and I wouldn't wish it upon you. She's got nothing good waiting for her at the end of it, after the sickness is done gnawing through her one bite at a time. It’ll go for her eyesight first. It always does. Then her hearing. Her sense of balance. Her sense of being. Then it turns inwards, until not even the beast chained to her heart can keep her alive any more and withers alongside her.
What beast you ask? Don’t be impatient. We’ll get to that later. Maybe.
The Wasting is our worst nightmare. A Sare’s worst possible end. It comes quick when it takes hold, seats itself against your soul, and it rots. No one’s found a way to cure it. To hold it at bay. All there ever is is wait— at times a long wait, with Sare living for years before it finally decides to take them. They are terrible years, years spent blind and deaf or halfway there. But all die, succumb to a slow and particularly dull death.
I leave her be as Sadja falls silent, don’t impose myself on her, and she turns her chin down to take great interest in the tips of her boots.
We haven’t even said goodbye yet.
I look up at the Cataract pouring through the air in front of us. It holds a smooth, silver colour, its surface a sheet of brilliant light. I’d love to tell you more about it, but I think you’d find the technicalities a little bit boring. So let’s keep this short and simple: Your reality is a finicky thing. It may be all you know, but it is not all there is. Truth be told, no one knows just how many there are. I certainly don’t, and I’ve been a Keeper for close to sixty years. We Keepers— or at times, we Arec’tel T'Echo if you want to be all proper about it — we serve the Cataract, a thing we do not understand. It allows us passage into worlds that are not ours. There we carry out its bidding, fix a tear here and there, fetch something that bled through and then return, leaving a world that needed us to continue doing its thing.
Never do we interfere. Never do we ask for favours. In all my years serving that bloody thing, I never once asked for anything.
Except today. Today I do, because that fledging Keeper by my side? That girl with the weight of Markings that had torn her down for more than thirty years? I don’t want her to die. I can’t have her die. It’s not how this is supposed to play out. She deserves better, we both do, but where I’ve got no choice, she does.
“Ready?” My eyes cut to her.
“Mh—” Another curt nod.
I know she’s lying, no one is ready for this, but this tiny lie will do. A shaky breath later, and a whole lot of shame since I’m the one showing more wear and tear around the edges of my soul than she does, and I stare at the Cataract in all its infuriating indifference.
Not a bloody twitch on it…
The Cataract will, whenever it deems fit, bare a lock for us. It is a lock that anyone can feel if they’re close enough, an emotion forced on you. A guide. And a Keeper, such as we are, we’ll be able to provide the matching key.
First I go in search of the lock, place my hand against the liquid light, and quest for a hint of unbidden emotion. Much to my surprise, and relief, Sadja is the first to draw a sharp breath. Startled. Confused. Hurt. Tears well in her eyes and she makes an effort to blink them away, then tucks her shoulder up to rub at her face. It takes another heartbeat for the ripple of regret to sink its ugly fangs into me, work its way to my core, and I feel what she feels.
A good a lock as any, I think and watch Sadja set her spine straight and move towards me, lifting a gloved hand to place it gently against the wavering sheet of light next to mine. Her tender touch stirs the surface, and I feel my heart stall. It doesn’t need me. It wants her. A good sign, maybe. Or just another cruel play of fate.
Liquid dust separates from the smooth surface. The particles glint silver as they tease the tips of her fingers and dance around her wrist. The Cataract has gotten cold to the touch. Very cold. It chills the air around it, and our breath escapes in misty puffs.
“You’re not dressed for that.”
She’s not, and I glance at her short sleeved, fitted shirt dyed a bright red. The light fabric is made for the damp hot weather of the Southern Gates, leaves her shoulders exposed to the elements, and doesn’t lend itself for down North. Or up North. Or wherever North might be where she’s headed. Her thin soled boots aren’t much better. They’re soft and quiet, but lack wool lining. I pity her toes already. And the simple pair of dark brown slacks with their pockets (which she’s currently digging her hands into) aren’t going to keep her warm either.
But there won’t be time for a change of clothes, we know that. She’ll just have to make due, and I’ve got no doubt she’ll manage. I’ve taught her well after all (Oh come on, don’t look at me like that, I’m allowed to be proud sometimes).
Sadja pulls a thin, leather-bound journal from a thigh pocket. It’s held shut with a leather strap wrapped around it, and a pencil is tucked into the side. She unwinds the strap quickly, opens to a blank page, and begins writing whilst stood in front of the Cataract.
With the lock bared, all she’s got left to do is find the bloody key.
So my fledgling Keeper writes.
She lets the lingering grief and guilt drive the words from her. Familiar words, painful words. The names of those that stand (or stood) closest to her regrets are the hardest, I guess. But she keeps going, even if she sometimes pauses to rub at stinging, glistening eyes. One page. One page and a half. Soon her thoughts turn to a different loss; the loss of her own life as the Wasting eats at it. The loss of things she would never live to see. Never live to have.
And as her words turn to those of goodbye, they trail off. Become one. Repeat. She jots it down five times before she stops.
Tenacity, I read as her fingers cramp around the pencil.
Tenacity. A promising word, in theory. You can’t argue that a certain stick-to-it-iveness is a good thing to have. Though of course it’s another riddle, much like any other key. The Cataract might be telling her about a determined medica of sorts, chomping at the bit to lift the Wasting off her, just as much as it might be hinting at the unwavering determination of the sickness itself.
No matter. Only one way to find out.
Pencil and journal are wrapped tightly once more and promptly slide back into their pocket. There’s no need to say the word out loud. To hold it in her mind is sufficient. Though she’s a little like me, and we both thought that it made for better theatrics if you murmur it to yourself as you step from your slice of reality into someone else’s.
I let my hand fall away from the bitter cold and place it gently against her elbow.
“Good luck,” I tell her while I work my barr off my neck. The scarf is old. Scratchy. Valuable. She looks at it, furrows her brows at the treasure I offer up to her as I drape it loosely around her neck, not tying the binding just yet.
“Try to come back,” I add, and place a gentle kiss against the top of her head before pushing her forward.
The Cataract’s silver glow winks out. A dirty rust colour replaces it, shifting and rippling lividly around Sadja. It shudders. The quiver lifts more liquid dust from its roiling surface, sends it whirling like her own private snowstorm made of rust and sooty black flakes. It wraps around her hands, flits between her legs, nestles itself into her neck. Icy cold, and ready to grant her entry and to welcome her in.
The key fit.
And just like that she’s gone.
* * *
It was cold first.
Who would have thought?
Second, it was really cold.
Sadja tripped ahead, disoriented by her passage through the nothing that was the slithering, liquid void beyond. You didn’t easily get used to how it carried you, pulled along by a momentum that wasn’t really there. Like you were being yanked forwards and backwards at the same time—and all of it into every direction you hadn't even known your body could move. And yet you were kept tightly rooted too, not budging a centimeter.
Sadja tried to stop herself from being swept along with the momentum that was, and yet wasn’t, but her success was marginal at best. Didn’t help that she couldn’t see a thing to boot. Bright daylight had blinded her the moment she’d waltzed through with her eyes wide open. So, she ducked her head, tucked her shoulders in, and wished for the best as she tottered on until her outstretched hands found a solid surface. Which was, incidentally, cold too.
She followed the Wall? with eyes squeezed shut until she found an opening. Inside she went, and once gloom settled she gave the whole looking thing another try.
A dim corridor spread in front of her. Plaster walls. Plain. Dirty. Another step, and she almost lost her footing as the ground wobbled and creaked. The door that should have covered the entryway she had come through lay at her feet, blown straight off its hinges.
“Terrific,” she muttered, and moved into the corridor. “Green grass. Rainbows. Fluffy white clouds.” The cold air stung against her bare arms. “Sunshine. White beaches. Coconuts. Why couldn’t you pop me in somewhere bonny?” Sadja wrapped her arms around herself and allowed her teeth a few quick chatters. She passed two more doors. They were still nicely tucked into their frames where they belonged, but the rest of the corridor had obviously seen better days. Depressed little bulbs shed dirty light around her. It wasn’t like the place was in disrepair, or weathered by years of neglect. The damage to the cracked, yellowed plaster was recent, violent. A row of bullet holes traced an irregular arch along the wall and ended halfway across the roof above her.
“Right,” Sadja sighed. “No gentle retreats for me. We’ll stick to disasters. So, what’s it this time?”
A shuffle. A creak. Just around the corner. Harsh breathing and the rustle of cloth.
< Filthy. Dead. Gnawing. Rending. > The distressed beast coiled around her heart. She could feel it too; something entirely wrong was lurking just out of sight. Sadja stopped in her tracks, tilted her head, and allowed herself a tentative tug to the Verge. The response was… disheartening. No brush of familiarity and acceptance came to meet her. Instead, harsh whispers filled a murky, cold void. Chaos skulked at the edge of her awareness, all torn and broken and scared and filthy and…
Sadja wished she had feathers like Sai, so she could ruffle them, and rounded the corner.
A man sat slumped against the wall. A human man. One head, two legs and two arms. He was dressed in a thick grey jacket and dark trousers, and his head was covered mostly by a wooly looking hat pulled over his ears. That, at least, was a good enough sign. Human she could do. Humans were humans, no matter where one looked. Though, this one didn’t seem to be doing too well.
His shoulders heaved with each breath and his lungs rattled as if they had been scrambled. Sadja sniffed the air. A pungent odour hit her; not-quite-death, but getting there. She crinkled her nose.
“Are you alright?”
She stepped gingerly around the man. A violent shudder jerked his chin up, allowing Sadja a brief look at his face. There was definitely something wrong about it.
“No. Got it. Need help?”
Another shudder. And then a lunge. His hands reached for her legs, distorted fingers stretching and clawing at the air where she’d just stood. Sadja weaved out of the way. The motion sent her head spinning. Too soon still after the transition…
< Careful >
He lunged again, gurgling (or growling, she couldn’t quite tell) with what might have been frustration.
“No hugs,” she chided, clicking her tongue.
He didn’t listen, but before he could grope for her again, Sadja kicked at him. Her booted foot connected with his chin, and his head snapped back. Sadja’s stomach turned with the quick movement, and she felt her balance waver. A hesitant step to the side gave him enough time to grab at her and tighten his fingers around her ankle. She caught herself against the wall, kicked at him again— and again—and again, but the vice like grasp didn’t loosen.. He started snapping at her, as if he wanted to take a chunk out of her leg.
She was dragged from the wall and fell. He lunged up, teeth clicking greedily.
“Get—!” Sadja grabbed for his head and snatched a fistful of hair “—the fuck—“ A hard yank to the right. Knee up, driven right into his stomach. Once. Then twice. “—off me!” He rolled over, finally, and Sadja broke from his grip to back away quick as her wobbly legs allowed. He followed. Oh bugger. Bugger. This was beginning to turn out entirely unpleasant. Even more so now that she’d gotten a good look at the ruined face. It was marred, bruised. Popped. If she hadn’t known better, she could have sworn he even had a second set of eyes. Putrid, bulging eyes.
When he went for her again, Sadja barely managed to weave past, but she did manage to grab the side of his head and drive it into the wall. Like cracking an egg. A tough egg, but it cracked just fine. He slumped to the floor — and stayed there.
For a heartbeat, or maybe two, she watched him twitch and kick, a few quick spasms of his legs, before even those stopped and he lay still. Dead then. Good enough.
Least he wouldn’t need his jacket anymore.
She dragged it off his torso. The thing was sturdy, made of thick fabric lined with wool. Blood had soaked into the collar, matching the red badge that adorned the shoulders, but Sadja couldn’t care less even if she’d tried. It was warm and warm was good. Too bad she had to ruin the cozy looking hat though. It would have gone well with her cold ears.
The fledgling Keeper rolled the long sleeves up to her wrists, folded up the collar to cover her neck, and then hunkered down next to the dead man.
“I’m sorry. I really am. See, if it was up to me I wouldn’t be doing this. But it’s not. So water under the bridge and all that, right? Though—” She leaned across the body and peered at the ruined, slack-jawed face. Three eyes, wide open, bloodshot and swollen. Cracked, leaking skin. Yuck. “—I’ll be honest, I think I did you a favour. Now let’s see if you have anything else…”
She rifled through pockets and checked his belt. Nothing, except useless bibs and bobs.
“… guess not.”
Once back on her feet— Ohwahow, not too fast, head spinning —Sadja allowed herself a moment to sort through her scattered thoughts.
The Cataract was expected to bring her close to wherever she had to be. Admittedly, her first hand experience was limited to a whopping twice. So close might be up for debate. Come to think of it, all the writings and records on the Keepers of old, pinpointing their charges with great accuracy might be generally full of shit too. She grimaced. Sinvik would have known, of course. She always did. Sort of. She’d have marched them right to their goal, and then right back by dinner time. Maybe this had been a bad idea. Maybe she should have locked herself away somewhere and waited it all out. Or antagonised a Reaper until it bit her head off.
Hindsight was a bitch.
Nothing to be done about that now though. Until the time was right she wouldn’t be allowed to leave - so she might as well make the best of it and see if the Cataract had decided to grant her a boon like Sinvik had hoped it would.
She doubted it.
/// (Edit ongoing, Updated 27th Sep 16 - Sinvik introduction POV changed to 1st Person Present)