The Dark Side of Ur (Nanowrimo Story)



  • “The Ilmenskie Caverns? Anen’t those near the subway?”
    “Yes, in Eastern Approach there’s a subway there that connects to all the other major subways in the System. If you were at the beach here,” she pointed to a picture on the same page as the one I’d pointed out, “you must have been north of Ilmenskie.”
    She let that news sink in. If I’d gone south, then, I wouldn’t have even needed to take a boat. I could have gone straight home. It was a lot to process.
    You couldn’t have known that, my brain tried to comfort me. But I had been so close to getting home and I’d had no idea.
    “This is good news, though,” Tick said, shaking me out of my internal dialogue. “That means we can just take the subway to Eastern Approach and go north and we’ll run into this place. Then we can save Nick’s daughter, and if there’s anyone else there these people kidnapped. We can blow this whole thing wide open.” He was smiling at me, excited, and I tried to smile back.
    “They have guns,” I said. “Who knows what they’re willing to do? When I tried to leave, they shot at me. They didn’t want me back -- they wanted me dead. These people are dangerous!”
    Arvid, who had been quiet this whole time, finally spoke. “Those people? They’re the reason you were dying alone in the woods. What would have happened to you if we hadn’t found you? You’d be a frozen corpse. No, whether they’re dangerous or not, we have to stop them.”
    “I’m coming with you,” Lucas said, and Tick translated even though Lucas had been talking to Arvid.
    “I’ll help,” Ludmila said, “Just tell me what you need from me.”
  • “You can stay here,” Tick said, “I’ll need someone to work the computer while I’m gone.”
    I thanked Tick for translating, even though he was talking to someone else about something that wasn’t me -- he wanted to include me, and it had been a long time in my life since I’d felt that kind of inclusiveness around people. I wanted to thank him but didn’t know how to do it without sounding weird.
    “I’ll pack some things to take along with you,” Agnes said and left the room.
    “The closest subway station is in Bortola,” Arvid told me. “We’ll have to hike there, but we’re expecting a blizzard tonight. You’ll have to stay here for the night, and we’ll leave in the morning.”
    I nodded.
    Tick ran his fingers through his hair and looked worried. “I should call Mykalae,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be going anywhere so I left Spike by himself.”
    “Is Spike your dog?” I asked.
    “Spike’s my lizard.” Tick smiled. “My cousin Mykalae watches him for me when I go anywhere, if I’ll be gone for awhile.”
    A lizard! My brain shouted at me, We need to go pet it! Pet the lizard! No brain, settle down. “What kind of lizard?” I asked.
    “She’s a small girl. I rescued her from a pet shop a few weeks before they were closed down due to violations.” Tick smiled. “Her name is Spike. Wait I already told you that.”
    “Wait!” I realised my mom would be waiting by her phone, waiting for any sign I was alright. “I need to call my mom! Do you have a phone I could use please?”
    Arvid smiled. “Yes, it’s right there.” He pointed at a phone nailed to the wall over the kitchen sink.
    “Tack,” I said, and jumped from my chair.
    I didn’t even wait for her to say hello. “Mom?”
    “Baby!” She immediately started crying. “Miso is that you?”
    “Yeah Mom, it’s me.” I wanted not to but the tears started dropping despite myself. “Mom I’m okay.”
    “Where are you? Where have you been? What happened?” Her voice was squeaking and every question seemed more pressing than the one before it.
    “I was kidnapped,” I said, “but I’m okay.”
    “Who did it? Who was it?” She sounded ready to go kill someone.
    “I don’t know who it was, Mom,” I said, wanting to tell her to calm down but also knowing she wouldn’t, she’d just get angry. “They took me from Jethimadh. Are you okay?”
    “I’m happy now that I know you’re safe,” she said, crying. “Where are you now?”
    “I’m in Nottis. Some people found me in the woods. I’m safe now. I’m going to try to make my way home tomorrow, but it’s going to take me some time. Don’t worry okay?”
    “You know I’m going to worry,” she chided me.
    “Yeah, I know.” I laughed a little at that, tears still streaming down my face. “I’ll call you again as soon as I can.”
    “Okay. I love you.”
    “I love you too -- big as the whole sky.” It was something we’d said to one another when I was a little kid. I had to choke back another sob, hearing it from her here, now.
    “I love you too, Mom. I’ll talk to you soon.”
    I hung up the phone and rubbed my face.
    Arvid had left the room some time during the phone conversation, and Lucas and Ludmila were talking with Tick. I wiped my face on my sleeves and went over to them.
    “I was telling Ludmila what things I’d need her to be looking for while we’re gone,” Tick said.
    “Computer hacker stuff,” Ludmila filled in.
    “Anything I can help with?” I asked.
    They both laughed.
    “Don’t worry, they have that same response with me,” Lucas said. “I may be her twin, but Tick is her Twin if you know what I mean.” Tick laughed again as he translated what Lucas had said.
    I smiled. “Yeah, I understand.”
    Arvid came back into the room holding what looked like a travel guide, and he brought it over to where Tick, Lucas, Ludmila and I were. “This is a guide to all of the subway stops,” Arvid said.
    The subway in Ur connected all of the regions. It was a high-speed train that could take anyone anywhere very quickly. All public transit was paid for by the government; you just had to be a citizen of Ur to ride it. It only took a day at the Bureaucratic Office to get a pass. In the more isolated regions, like here, in Nottis, it took a lot of effort to get to a subway station, but once there, you were connected to everything.
    So that Arvid had a thick guide book to Ur wasn’t strange or out of place; someone who lived in a remote region like Nottis, who didn’t ride the transit daily for work or school, would need a guide to make sure they didn’t end up halfway across the globe and miss dinner.
    Arvid flipped it open. “We’re starting here, in Nottis,” he said, pointing. We’re going to need to hike down through Vantalu, from Vantalu to Aranna, from Aranna to Besara, Besara to Tamila and then Tamila to Bortola.” As he listed off each region, he flipped to a close, accompanying page and pointed at it.
    It was going to be a long journey.
    Arvid must have glanced my face, because he flipped back to the Vantalu page and pointed at the map again. “It’s only three Streets,” he said, “Look.” He traced them out with his finger. “Balleet Berm, Banya Banya, and Jameeda Meds. Short. They’ll be rocky, but it’ll be quick going.” He glanced up at me again, and I nodded at him absently. He went on, “And look, Aranna is the last of the rocky patches.” He pointed at the Aranna map. “See? We’ll be walking along the edge of the mountains the whole time, down near the base. It won’t be so cold there as it is here. And since we’ll be heading south, it will be getting warmer the whole time.”
    “Yeah, everyone knows that people in Shimla Mirch prefer the heat,” Lumilda said, giving her dad a look that screamed sarcasm. Although it was true: most of the people I knew, anyway, my neighbours and friends, all preferred the heat to cold. There were almost no exceptions -- in fact none, that I could think of. That’s why we lived in the fire bogs to begin with; it’s why we stayed there after we grew up. All of Ur was at our fingertips really, so why would we stay if we didn’t like the heat?
    “Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath.
    “So, what, we just cool our heels today while we wait for tonight’s storm to pass?” Lucas said, looking around at us like he was already tired.
    “We get a lot of sleep,” Agnes said, coming in with two large packs from the other room. “It’s going to be a long few days coming up.”
    I’d already slept more than I wanted to, though I didn’t say that out loud; my body was screaming for more sleep, but my brain was already demanding I move on, I do something, even if that something was just go home and hug my mom.
    “I know you’re probably impatient,” Agnes told me, and she looked like she wanted to hug me. Instead, she surprised me by walking over to her kids and wrapping her arms around them both. “May the Giants never take you from me,” she whispered, and as Tick was translating I realised that I’d already known what she said, just from the look in her eyes.
    Arvid cleared his throat. “When we get to Bortola we’re going to have to keep an eye out for Mallos Means - that’s where the subway station is. And like Ludmila said, Eastern Approach is the connection in Uralia. I’d prefer it if I didn’t have to have my nose in this book the whole time we’re out, so just remember those two things and we’ll make our way through decently.”
    “So now what?” I asked everyone.
    Lucas looked at Ludmila; Arvid and Agnes exchanged glances; Tick looked back and forth between them, one to the other.
    “I don’t know,” Agnes said.
    At the same moment, Tick said “We can start the preparation.” We all looked at him and he continued, “We’ll need some sort of information on these people who kidnapped you. We’re going to need everything you can remember about who took you, and what the place was like that they took you to. Other than all the blue scenery, what else can you tell us?”
    I exhaled slowly and then sat down. “This is going to take awhile,” I said.
    Everyone sat down at the table around me, and I began.

  • Ludmila finished typing everything and looked up. She had been typing everything I’d said for the last few hours. Her hands must be tired by now, I thought. I should have given her a break an hour ago.
    I looked at her, for the first time in the entire time thinking about something other than myself. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I should have stopped talking for awhile and let you take a break.”
    “It’s alright,” she said, and smiled at me brightly, “This is really interesting and --” She stopped for a moment with the look Agnes was giving her. “I mean, I’m really sorry this happened to you.”
    I smiled back at her. “I knew what you meant.”
    Agnes stood and stretched. “Is anybody hungry?” She was already walking to the refrigerator.
    “Yeah,” Tick said, and looked around at everyone nodding, “I think we all are!”
    I could use a smoke, badly. “Mind if I step outside for a few minutes?” I felt like Agnes was in charge, so directed the question at her.
    “What are you going to do outside?” she asked.
    “I ..” I felt a sudden urge to sit back down rather than tell her, “I need a smoke.”
    She tsk’ed. “You shouldn’t smoke,” she reprimanded me, “but go ahead. Take a coat, it’s cold. And here’s a hat,” she said, pulling one off the rack next to the fridge.
    “Tack,” I said, and put the hat on. It was snug and very warm. The yarn was knitted through with an intricate pattern I couldn’t imagine knitting myself. It was impressive.
    Ludmila showed me to the front door, and then waved as I opened it.
    When I stepped outside I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me. I walked a few steps forward and then turned back to look at the house. It was built into the side of a giant ice cave. Everything was sparkling white-blue. Through holes in the ice I could see stars, and a rippling of light in the sky. The aurora; I’d never seen it before. I’d heard of it, of course -- the sky magic of the northern regions -- but pictures didn’t even begin to do it justice.
    I stood and stared at it as I was smoking, trying to find a way to put it in words, wanting to tell everyone I knew about it. Wanting to show them.
    If the trip south went well, I wanted to come back, to return here and bring all of my closest friends to see this. The colours swirled and twisted around the stars and the snow was lit up by the half-moon hanging low in the sky. I’d heard that here in the north, the sky was always dark. There were stories of the creatures that lived here in the night, old myths about the Great Ones of the Snow. It was said that even the Giants never came this far north. One legend said that these regions weren’t even made by the Giants, but by some other Being, who was more ancient than time itself. There were stories telling of the speaking rocks and the singing trees here.
    I wondered how much of it Ludmila’s family believed. I realised I knew surprisingly little about this family, and they knew everything about me now.
    I went back inside, resolved to ask them about themselves. To learn about their life and culture.
  • As I walked inside, I noticed that in their main room, near the fireplace I’d woken up beside, was an altar to Lem, the Giant of exploration and discovery. I wondered if it was only Arvid and Agnes who were Adherents, or if the whole family, Ludmila and Lucas included, were also. Was Tick also faithful to Lem?
    Not that it mattered, I thought, walking slowly over to it and looking at the icon in the very center of the altar. People in all the regions had differing faiths. I knew a lot of Lemmites in college; I wouldn’t have expected any out here, so rural and far from any educational institutions. I guess that was really prejudiced though, even if I wasn’t saying it out loud.
    I could hear Tick talking with Lucas and Lumilda in the kitchen. It sounded like Arvid and Agnes were talking with each other, too, but I could only barely make out their voices behind the others’. There was the clinking of what sounded like a spoon in a metal pot, and some plates or bowls being set on the table, and something smelled delicious.
    On the altar, beside the icon on either side, were two tall white candles. Carved into the candles were some kind of sigil -- I didn’t know what it meant, and wondered if it was in the language they were speaking. Arranged around the candles and the icon were a metal cup that shined like silver, a tiny cauldron, an altar plate inscribed with more sigils, and various crystals and gems. There was also a knife laid out to the side and in front of the plate. It had an intricate, carved handle and I was fairly sure it was carved out of bone.
    It was all beautiful.
    I walked into the kitchen and smiled at everyone. “Can I help with anything?” I asked. Tick translated.
    Agnes shook her head. “No thank you dear. Just have a seat.” She smiled at me and went back to stirring the pot.
    “Look,” Ludmila said, and handed me a small tablet computer. “I found satellite images of Uralia. Does anywhere look familiar?”
    I took the tablet and zoomed in a little, moving the map around slowly and trying to get an idea of what I was looking at. I’d never been to Uralia before, and seeing anything in a satellite picture was a lot different than being there in real life.
    I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I can’t really tell.”
    “It’s okay. We’ll have time to figure it out,” Arvid said.
    We chatted a bit more and Agnes spooned out the casserole into bowls and handed them around. We all sat down to eat. There was hot, spiced coffee and the casserole -- some kind of pasta, mixed with cheese and chunks of meat -- and little rolls of bread with butter. It was all delicious.
    “Eat more,” Agnes said, not giving me a chance to answer as she added another spoonful of casserole onto my dish. “You look like you’re starving to death!”
    I looked down at myself, surprised. It’s true that my pants and shirt were already loose on me, but was I really losing that much weight? My mom would be terribly worried when she saw me. She was always telling me to eat, too, even when I was fat. It must be a mother thing.

    The next morning, Agnes woke me up with an armful of clothing that she dumped on the cot at my feet. “Klä på sig! Det är kallt.”
    I looked toward Tick, who was sleeping in a blanket on the floor, covered with his fur coat.
    “...?” I looked at her questioningly.
    “Det är kallt. Klä på sig…” she repeated, and shook the clothes at me. “Klä…. på…. Sig.” She shook a heavy sweater toward me. “Det är kallt,” she said, and mimed shivering.
    “Kallt… It’s cold?” I guessed. She wanted me to get dressed warmly, I thought.
    She pointed at the clothes and then left the room sighing.
    It’s a mom thing, I thought. I separated the clothes and looked at it all. There was a pair of knit mittens; the thickest pair of overalls I’d ever seen, fur-lined and made with some kind of oily-looking leather on the outside; a thick sweater that looked hand-knitted, with an intricate pattern that looked like the one on the hat Agnes had let me wear yesterday; a long-sleeved cream-coloured undershirt; soft, plush green and yellow socks; a fur-lined jacket; and a hat with ear-flaps that, also, was lined with fur.
    Before I started dressing, I looked over at Tick again to make sure he was asleep. I dressed quickly and ran my hands through my hair a few times, pulling my fingers through the tangles as well as I could. My mom had always told me how beautiful my curls were, but to me they were just annoying.
    I could hear the family in the kitchen, talking together over the sound of pans and pots clinking together. Something smelled amazing. I left Tick asleep and went to join them.
    Lucas and Lumilda were sitting together working on something on a laptop in Lumilda’s lap. Agnes was at the stove, and Arvid was standing near her by the sink with a book open in his hands.
    “God morgen,” Arvid said, smiling at me and handing me a cup of coffee.
    “Tack,” I said. It was the only word I knew, besides “kallt.” Oh, and “Ät” -- “eat”.
    Agnes gestured to the food and said something, and I nodded even though I didn’t know what she was saying. “It smells delicious,” I told her, and smiled, even though she couldn’t understand me.
    “‘Delicious’?” Lumilda looked up at me.
    I touched my nose and then mimed eating and rubbed my belly, and then smacked my lips. “Delicious.”
    Lumilda nodded, and then went back to typing on her computer.
    “Tick?” Lucas asked me.
    I pointed toward the main room. “Asleep,” I said, and made a gesture with my hands beside my head and my eyes closed.
    He nodded.
    I sat down near them at the table and Lumilda pointed at the laptop. She turned it toward me so I could see the screen, and I felt my whole body go cold.
    “Dr. Jameson?” she asked, and tapped the picture on the screen.
    My mouth was too dry. I felt like I was going to throw up. I nodded.
    “Dr. Jameson…” Lucas said, and swirled his hand in the air with a questioning look.
    “Dr. Alexander Jameson,” I said, finding my way to words.
  • Lumilda nodded and started typing something. I couldn’t read any of the text on the screen -- it was in Nottisian, of course -- but it looked like she was tracing his history. There were documents that looked official, and a photograph of a university in the corner of the screen. I tapped it and looked at her, raising my eyebrows.
    “Ix,” Lumilda said, and pointed at the picture. “Högskola.”
    I really had no hope of understanding what she was saying, I thought. It would take me years. Nothing in Nottisian sounded anything like Common. I’d grown up hearing various languages spoken, and many of them had “cognates” - words that sounded similar to and had the same meaning as words in Common. I nodded at her though and she went back to typing, pulling up document after document, and occasionally saying something Lucas.
    Arvid and Agnes were chatting quietly about something, and Arvid was looking through the book and reading passages to Agnes while she cooked.
    After a little while, Tick came into the kitchen, looking only half-awake. “Good morning, everyone,” he said. He ruffled my hair as he walked over to the coffee pot. Why did everyone do that?
    “Good morning,” I said, trying not to be mad about my hair. Nick had done it too. It seemed like it was almost instinctive.
    “Hey, you’re a boy right?” Tick asked as he poured his coffee. He looked over his shoulder at me.
    I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. It was the simplest answer; it was the most basic answer I could give without launching into my life story.
    He smiled at me, and then said something to Agnes and Arvid. They both looked at me, and then Agnes’ face turned bright red. She said something to Tick and he translated for her: “She says she’s really very deeply sorry, this whole time she thought you were a girl.”
    I blushed. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m .. I get that a lot.”
    Lumilda laughed, and said something to Tick, which he laughed at but didn’t repeat.
    I looked at him, not knowing if I should press the issue.
    “It’s nothing bad,” Tick said, but didn’t translate.
    Lucas hit his sister on the arm, and she laughed harder, her face red.
    “So what’s for breakfast big momma?” Tick asked.
    “Potatoes, meat, fried bread, fruit and coffee,” Agnes said. “It’s almost ready!”
    “It smells amazing,” Tick said.
    “Delicious,” Lumilda said in Common, and Tick looked impressed.
    “Hey how’d you learn that?” Tick asked her.
    She pointed at me. “Miso said it.”
    I smiled at her, and she smiled back but had a strange look in her eyes and blushed again. Evn her blush was blushing. She looked quickly back down at the computer and started typing again.
    “Any success?” Tick asked her.
    “Yeah,” she said, “check this out. He went to the University at Ix. He practiced medicine and researched new forms of genetic cures, but got banned from his work when he started conducting unapproved animal tests. Then about a year ago, he disappeared. Nobody knows where he went, but there are rumors that -- get this! -- he has been conducting secret underground human tests.” Lumilda looked at me pointedly. “Does that sound like the Dr. Alexander Jameson that you saw?”
  • I swallowed hard. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s him.”
    “Is there anything else you remember, Miso?” Lucas asked.
    “Nick said that there were at least 70 other people there going through the same thing I was going through. He said it was underground -- literally underground, not just, underground as in secret.”
    Tick was nodding along as I talked. He had a look on his face like he was thinking through all of this, but that it was too much for his early-morning brain to handle. “Man this constant dark really messes with me,” he commented.
    “Yeah it takes a special kind of person to live up here,” Lucas said. “But we’ve talked about this before.”
    Tick nodded again and closed his eyes, taking a few long sips of his coffee.
    “Maten är klar,” Agnes said, and it took a moment before Tick translated. I was looking at him for several seconds before he realised he still needed to translate. Agnes had turned away from the stove and was setting out plates and bowls.
    “The food’s ready,” Tick finally said. He came over and sat down at the table next to Lucas. “I’m sorry guys, I’m just out of it this morning.”
    “It’s early even for us,” Arvid said, and sat down across from Tick.
    “What time is it?” I asked.
    “It’s about 0400,” Lumilda said.
    “Did you even sleep?” Agnes said, her tone one of motherly concern mixed with motherly annoyance.
    Lumilda gave her a sheepish look. “Nej,” she said. Tick didn’t need to translate the negative response for me. Agnes just shook her head and handed Lumilda food and then a cup of coffee. She sat down next to Arvid, who stood up and served the rest of us. I couldn’t help noticing that he gave me the largest portions of everyone.
    “Eat well, we have a long journey ahead of us,” he said as he laid down the dishes in front of me. “And you need food more than any of the rest of us. You look like you’re starving to death.”
    Maybe I was, I thought, the same worry that kept hitting me from time to time. I had no idea what the people at the facility had actually done to me. And what Lumilda said about the genetic tests -- had I been genetically modified? Was that even possible to do to people? I thought that was just something that could be done to embryos, and that had never been done to grown Glitchen.
    Lumilda ate quickly and then excused herself, rolling quickly away and down the hall. I watched her go, and then looked around. It seemed normal, but I had a feeling she would be coming back -- just a hunch, but moments later she returned with a lapful of tech gear.
    “Here,” she said, and started handing them out around the table, “I rigged these up with a satellite link so we can talk to each other the whole way. They run on [fuel cells?] so you don’t have to worry about battery life; as long as you keep moving they’ll keep charging.”
    I turned the headpiece around in my hand. It looked like a typical headband phone thing like what office workers use to take phone calls quickly.
    “They have a button near the earpiece,” Lumilda went on, “touch it once and it will turn on. If you need to turn it off for any reason, just touch the button again.”
    She put one on. “Try it!”
    I set mine on my head and adjusted it so the mouthpiece was in a comfortable spot, then tapped the button. “Lumilda?” I said into the microphone.
    “Loud and clear!” She smiled at me.
    “We should say ‘over’ at the end of each sentence,” Lucas suggested, and put his on. He hit the button and then shouted “THIS IS LUCAS. OVER.”
    “Ow!” I laughed and pulled the earpiece away from my ear. “Not so loud please.”
    And then I realised something: Tick hadn’t translated what Lucas had said. It had simply come through my speaker in Common. “How..?” I looked at Lumilda.
    She smiled again, her eyes twinkling. “I also included an auto-translate. That way, if you get separated or if something happens to Tick you don’t have to worry. It might have a few issues, things might not translate perfectly but you should be able to communicate sufficiently,” she said.
    I decided right then and there that Lumilda was a genius. I realised my mouth had popped open in surprise and admiration, and I shut it. Then told her, “You’re really cool.” I didn’t mean to say ‘you’re’ - I meant to say ‘that’s’ but the other thing just came out.
    She laughed. “Thanks,” she said, blushing.
    We finished eating breakfast and loaded up our things. I put my boots on, then snuggled up inside the big, warm jacket.
    “I’m staying here with Lumilda,” Agnes told us. “Someone needs to make sure she eats and gets sleep.”
    “You’re such a Mom,” Lucas told her, and they laughed together.
    I could tell Agnes was worried though. She wrapped her arms around Lucas, and then Arvid. “Be careful, everyone,” she said, and suddenly her eyes were wet and she brushed away a tear. “Please. Come home to me safely.”
    “I’ll take care of them,” Arvid said gently. “Do not worry about us.”
    We headed out and I adjusted my back across my back. Agnes had filled it with another change of clothes for when we hit the warmer regions, and bread and fruit and dried meat, and re-packed all of my other things I’d had before they found me in the woods. I patted my pockets until I found where I’d put my cigarettes and lighter.
    “Okay,” I said, turning to the others, “Which way do we go?”
    Arvid opened the guide and flipped it open to the map of Nottis. “Here, I’ve marked where we need to go,” he said, and pointed to the map. “We’re in Sickle Nappo right now,” he said. “The quickest route to Vantalu is through Lacier Landare.” He looked up and around, then pointed to the left. “That way. We’ll head south-south-east for a while, until we reach the end of the ice caves -- that’s when we reach Lacier Landare -- then we’ll go straight, southward. Everyone ready?”
    I looked around at the others nodding their heads, and I joined them, pulling on my mittens. “Let’s go,” I prompted.
    “I’m ready,” Tick said.
    “This is going to be so fun!” Lucas cried, his face full of joy.
  • I felt more of a sense of trepidation. I’d never hiked across that many regions before. My friends and I usually took our journeys by subway and then stayed in the accompanying regions. The farthest I’d ever gone was Shimla Mirch to Jethimadh, through Chakra Phool. Our path now was going to take us through five different regions on foot, then another one via the subway.
    “Scared?” Tick asked me.
    “Only a little,” I lied.
    We started walking, Arvid leading the way, and I kept staring out through the small holes in the ice cave walls at the stars sparkling on the other side.
    “Is it true that it’s always night here in Nottis?” I asked.
    “Yeah,” Lucas said. “The first time I ever went to one of the more southern regions, I was amazed. It was so yellow and bright!”
    “I prefer the blue-white of the ice myself,” Tick said.
    “Is that why you dyed your hair blue?” I asked him.
    “Naw it grows that way,” Lucas said, and Tick laughed. “Yeah so, Miso, when Lucas and I were kids I tried to convince him that my hair was naturally blue and that I just bleached it.”
    “His hair is naturally the whitest white you’ve ever seen,” Lucas explained. “When he got older he coloured it blue and then tried to tell me that that was his natural hair colour.”
    Tick laughed “Yeah but by then he was old enough to know better. It’s been a running joke since.”
    I smiled. I was remembering my friends back home. They were the only reason I felt so profoundly homesick. I knew I’d see my mom again, so for some reason I wasn’t really that worried about her; she was always there with me in my heart. But my heart hurt for my friends. Did they even know I was missing?
    I could see a shrine ahead, the grey-white stone blending in with the rocks and snow around it. When we got closer I could see the sigil inscribed on the front: Lem. I remembered the altar I’d seen in the family’s home, and wondered if we’d be stopping to [donate?] in the shrine.
    We stopped in front of the shrine and Arvid took off his mittens. “This will only take a moment,” he said.
    “Not long,” Lucas said. He, too, took off his mittens, sticking them in his back pocket. They stood up peeking out of the pocket like a rooster’s feathers.
    Arvid set his pack down in the snow and opened it, searching for something. Lucas knelt by him and helped. They pulled out six sticks of incense, and a thin cloth bag filled with fruit and herbs.
    I stood by respectfully with Tick, who was picking at the strings of yarn on his mittens and humming. I pushed my hands deep into my pockets and tried not to stare at Arvid and Lucas.
    They stuck the incense in a bowl of sand and snow that was at the front of the altar, then both bowed their heads and recited something in a language that was neither Common nor Notissian. The headsets that Lumilda had given us did not translate what they said, and Tick didn’t translate it either; I wondered if he knew what it was they’d said, but I didn’t want to pry if it was something special and unique to the followers of Lem.
    Arvid and Lucas placed the fruit and herbs carefully in the shrine’s altar bowl.
    When they were finished they dusted off their hands and put the mittens back on, and then put their packs on. Arvid stretched out his arm. “Thank you both for waiting. We can go now.”
  • “That’s Lem, right?” I asked.
    “Yeah, Lem’s our patron Giant,” Lucas explained. “He’s the Giant of exploration, discovery, and new knowledge.”
    “Lumilda’s our most devout follower,” Arvid said, “and she’d be disappointed if we didn’t leave an offering for Lem when we passed by here.”
    As we were walking, Lucas told me about how Lumilda was the smartest one in their family. She started studying geography as a very young girl, and when she discovered how to use a computer, she used them first for exploring the world. Since she was bound to her wheelchair and couldn’t hike, it was a way that she could expand the borders of her world. Hiking was so essential in Ur -- everyone I knew did it in some form or another -- that I couldn’t imagine what she must have gone through growing up not able to do it.
    I couldn’t imagine, either, what it must be like living so far north, away from any cities or subway stops.
    “How do you all get your supplies and food and everything?” I asked the group.
    “Usually ice-horses,” Tick said. “For me, I stock up once every few months.”
    “Our family has a pack of dogs that lead us on a sled,” Arvid said, “we borrow them from friends. But for the most part, like Tick, we share an ice-horse and take a cart with us south. Then we stock up about once a month. We also have community greenhouses, where we grow our fruit trees and vegetables. The greenhouses are outfitted with special lights so the plants grow, and we have giant heaters outside that melt the snow so we always have enough water.”
    It was all so complex, I thought. They were unbelievably hardy, these people. I’d never really thought about how people could live this far north, this surrounded by snow and darkness.
    “Does the absence of sunlight ever bother you?” I asked.
    “Me,” Tick said, “but I think that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the sunny regions. Even in Kloro and Roobrik, sunlight floods through the trees. Here, the only light we get is moonlight.”
    “I grew up here in Nottis,” Lucas said. “Lumilda and I both have. We’ve never known anything different. I mean, I’ve been on trips to Vantalu for supplies, but never anywhere brighter than that. The brightest place I ever spend my time is in the greenhouses.”
    “I grew up here too,” Arvid said. “Well, I was born in Drifa, and moved to Nottis as a young adult. I love it in the greenhouses, but I’m not a fan of real sunlight.”
    “What about Lumilda?” I asked. I blushed thinking about her and was thankful the light was so dim here in the caves.
    “Lumilda loves the greenhouses, too,” Lucas said. “She’s never been south, but she talks about the sunlight whenever she is studying the regions, which she does a lot. So she’s always talking about wanting to see the sun.”
    “I’ve offered to bring a cart and take her,” Tick said, “But she doesn’t trust my driving.”
    “Is it hard? Driving a cart?”
    “You’ve never done it?” Lucas asked, astonished.
    “No, never,” I said, “I get around on the subways, or just walk.”
    He shook his head, looking amazed. “I can’t imagine a life without my ice-horse and cart. What about horses?”
    I shook my head again. “No. Other people have fire-horses, near where I’m from, in the fire bogs. But they aren’t common. They’re more for recreation than for travel or work.”
  • Everyone was quiet for a while after that. I listened to the crunching of our boots in the snow, and found myself staring at a dot of light ahead of us.
    “What’s that glowing up there?” I asked.
    “That’s the exit of the ice caves,” Arvid said. “Lacier Landare. The light you see is from the sunrise. We’ll be out of the dark soon.”
    “This must bother you,” Tick commented.
    “What?” I asked.
    “This.” He gestured around at the steep walls of the cavern around us and the snow and rocks surrounding the path. “The dark, the cold. Being closed in instead of out in the open.”
    “Well, the cold bothers me more than the dark,” I admitted. I hated the cold. I couldn’t stand the idea of living here. It would kill me. “And the stars are pretty, what I can see of them through the cave walls.”
    “Did you see the aurora yesterday?” Lucas asked.
    “Yeah. It was amazing. I never knew something like that could exist,” I said.
    Tick took his hat off and scratched his hair, running his hands through it and then putting it back on. “I never really thought about it,” he said. “I grew up with it. I never knew it couldn’t exist, until I spent time in the other regions. I missed it.”
    Arvid nodded. “Me too. I cried the first time I realised I was far enough south that I couldn’t see the aurora. It was like some part of me had been torn out.”
    I had never thought about that, either. “That sounds like how I felt being away from the fire bogs,” I said. “All the bonfires that are constantly burning. The way the roots fall from the dirt ceilings underground. And the hanging lanterns. It’s all so warm and beautiful.”
    They all nodded, and we fell silent again.

  • Sunlight was pouring into the cavern now, and I was beginning to be able to see the trees and rocks outside. Everything was sparkling and flecks of rainbows flew off of the snow. Even the air was glittering.
    “What is that?” I asked. “Those specks of light in the air?”
    Lucas laughed. “That’s snow!”
    We were close enough that I could see the sky. “I don’t understand. There aren’t any clouds.”
    “The air just freezes here,” Tick said.
    “Has Lumilda ever seen this?” I asked. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Her bright eyes, her smile. Her wild white-blonde hair. I hoped she had seen this. It was so beautiful -- like her. I blushed at that thought, again, and hoped the others couldn’t see.
    “I took her here once, as a child,” Arvid said. “We camped down here. I took a cart and let her lay in the back.”
    “I went with her,” Lucas said, “and I made snowballs and brought them to her to throw. We had so much fun.”
    We left the cave and stepped out into the light. Even though the light had been shining into the cave, it was nothing like standing in it now. It was freezing cold, but so bright. I squinted and looked around. The light coming off of the snow was blinding and the flakes of snow were stinging my skin. There was a light breeze blowing but it was like ice being thrown into my face. I was glad it wasn’t any brighter.
    “Welcome to Lacier Landare,” Arvid said to me.
    There were tall evergreen trees on either side of the path -- not a forest, they were much too sparse for that -- and the sky stretched out overhead, clear and a lighter blue than Tick’s hair. There was more snow on the ground here than there had been in the caves we just left, but there was a clear path going forward through it.
    “There’s not much light here,” Arvid said. “It’s bright now but in only a few hours it will be dark again. We’ll have to try to move quickly so we set up camp before it gets too cold.”
    It was already freezing. I wanted to crawl inside a tent, away from this wind. My face hurt from the cold.
    “Is it always like this here?” I asked.
    “You mean so bright?” Tick asked.
    “No, so cold. So windy,” I said.
    “Yeah, pretty much always,” Lucas answered.
    “There aren’t enough trees to block the wind,” Arvid explained.
    We all picked up our pace and charged down the path. Breathing was getting painful. Part of me knew I wanted to come back and visit Tick and Arvid’s family after I’d gotten settled back at home, and part of me, right then, never wanted to even think about this place ever again.
    None of us spoke as we walked quickly down the path.

  • There was a break in the path. Arvid stopped and we gathered around. I had been at the back, trying to catch up with the others; now, we all stood in a circle around Arvid.
    “We’ll go right,” Arvid said, “but tomorrow. Right now we should make camp.”
    Indeed, the sun was setting already and an even deeper chill was sinking in around us as the sun fell behind the trees.
    I realised I was shivering.
    The others put down their packs beside the path and I followed them. Arvid and Lucas had brought two heavy canvas tents. They were lined with something shiny on one side. “These are special,” Arvid told me when he caught me staring. “They’re lined on one side with insulating foil. The outside is thick canvas and in between those is a layer of insulating fluff.”
    “They’re the warmest camping tents you can find,” Lucas said. “Agnes traded armfuls of hand-knit blankets for them.”
    “Wait,” I said, something dawning on me, “did Agnes knit everything that’s... well, knit... that we’re wearing?”
    “Yeah,” Arvid said. He smiled proudly. “She’s amazing isn’t she?”
    “Yeah. Wow!” I ran my hands over one another, feeling the stitches in the mittens. Even if I live a hundred years, I thought, I could never have this much talent. The dexterity it must have taken to knit such fine, intricate details--!
    Lucas and Tick and I started gathering branches and sticks off the ground for a fire, and Arvid set up the tents. When we had piled enough on, I pulled out my lighter. Arvid took a tin from his bag and opened it. There was a pile of some kind of brown fluff inside. “A firestarter,” he said, and placed a small pile of it under some of the branches. I gave him the lighter and he flicked it open; the fluff caught instantly and sparks flew up from it. The branches lit quickly and the fire roared up.
    “Wow,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like that! What’s it made of?” I asked.
    “It’s just a firestarter,” Lucas said. “You’ve never seen that?”
    “No,” I said. “In the firebogs, everything just lights fast. We never have to worry about adding anything to the fires.”
    “That must be nice,” Arvid commented.
    We all sat down around the fire and pulled our food from the bags. I took out my small pot and poured some water in it. While it was heating, we traded bags of tea from our packs; I traded my green tea for Tick’s Roobrik blend, and Arvid traded some blossom tea for Lucas’ herb tea. We each had our own metal cups, and we got the tea steeping while we selected our dinners from the bags.
    The tea cooled despite only having been poured minutes before. By the time I was done drinking it, it was roughly the same temperature as the snow.
    “Time for sleep,” Lucas said after he’d finished eating. I was surprised -- I wasn’t feeling tired at all. But Arvid yawned too and they packed up their plates and cups.
    “I’m tucking in too,” Arvid said. They both crawled into one tent and silence fell rapidly.
    “You going to bed?” Tick asked.
    “No, I think I’m going to stay up awhile,” I said. “Have a smoke, look at the stars.”
    “Alright,” he said. “Don’t stay up too long. We have a very long walk ahead of us tomorrow, and it’s very cold even though we have a fire right here.”
    He packed up his things and ducked into our tent, tucking in the flap tightly.
    It was just me and the wind.
  • I tapped the button on my headset, swallowing hard. She hadn’t slept, so I didn’t want to wake her, but I wanted to talk to Ludmila. It was the reason I was staying up when the others had gone to bed -- not because I wasn’t tired, although I wasn’t, but because I wanted to get to know her more.
    “Hello?” I said, whispering into the microphone. “Hello, Ludmila? Are you there?”
    There was silence on the other end, then a burst of static. “You didn’t say over,” she said teasingly. “Over.”
    I laughed quietly. “How are you? … Over.”
    “Tired,” she admitted. “But otherwise good. I have just eaten a delicious supper. How was yours? How is the trip so far?” She didn’t end with ‘over’.
    Talking with her was so easy. “My dinner was good. The trip is going well, but it is very cold.”
    “Yes, I’ve heard that it gets windy outside of the caverns.”
    “What’s it like? Living in the caverns? Do you ever see the stars? Do you like watching the aurora?”
    “The aurora is beautiful,” she said, and I thought I could hear a smile in her voice. “To the west of our house, the ice caverns have large gaps in the ice at the top. You can see the aurora through them, and the stars and moon. The light shines through, and from the aurora there are waves of colour that light up the cavern floor. The ice sparkles in green and blue and purple. It’s beautiful.”
    “How do you get there?” I asked the question before I realised how rude it might sound. But she didn’t seem to mind.
    “I can get there myself. The cavern floor is smooth enough along the path. Travelers have worn it down well over the years. The snow piles up a little underneath the gaps in the ice, but the Glitchen [?] who live there shovel the snow and pack it down into the ice so within a day or so after a blizzard, it is smooth again.”
    “I’ve never been anywhere like the caves. It’s so strangely beautiful.”
    “I’ve never really been outside the caves,” she countered. “Only once that I can remember. We went just outside of the caves and camped there in a cart. The horse must have been so cold, but our ice horses, you know, they have very long hair to keep them warm.”
    “Do you have many other animals?”
    “There are the sled dogs. They have cute fluffy tails.”
    I smiled. “We have a lot of pigs and chickens.” The fire was beginning to die down so I threw a few more branches on it. “My favourite chicken is one named Cluck. For some reason, she always finds a pig to sit on and ride around like she’s a princess.”
    Lumilda laughed. The sound was like chimes -- beautiful and shining. It made my heart jump.
    “I wish I could see her,” she said.
    I wish you could too, I thought. But I didn’t know if it would be weird to say.
    “Do you have any animals of your own?” she asked.
    “My mom has chickens,” I said. “And when I was younger I had a couple of cats. I have some butterflies in my basement too; they sleep on my egg tree.”
    “Do you name them? The butterflies I mean.”
    “Sometimes, but it’s easy to forget their names. They all kind of look alike. There’s one though, I call him Samuel. For some reason? He likes to lay on a separate branch of the tree than the others. The other butterflies rest flat against the walls and on the trunk of the tree, but Samuel always rests on the eggs themselves.”
    She laughed again. “What colour are they?” she asked.
    “Blue,” I said. It seemed like a strange question; I’d never seen a butterfly that wasn’t blue. “I’ve heard that the batterflies in the Ilmenskie Deeps are black and grey though.”
    “I’ve read about them in my books. You’ve never been there?”
    “No, never. I mostly stay in the fire bogs.”
    “Yeah I guess only the dedicated miners go in the Caverns and the Deeps.”
    We were quiet for a moment. “If you could go anywhere,” I asked, “where would you like to go?”
    “Oh, I think I’d like to spend time in the fire bogs. Just to see what it’s like,” she said. “It seems so different from where I live.”
    “It is. If you’ve always lived in Nottis -- well, it would feel like a whole different world.” I was shivering again. I had left my cup of tea out, and it had a thin layer of ice on the top. Every part of me was in pain, but I didn’t want to go to bed, not yet.
    “You should go to bed,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. “It must be terribly cold out there. I’ve read that the wind in Lucier is awful.”
    “Yeah, it is,” I said. “And I should, probably. But I’m enjoying talking to you.” I blurted it out without thinking and immediately regretted it.
    I could hear her smiling though. She said, “We will talk again tomorrow I am sure. In fact I would like to. Will you call me in the morning?”
    “I … would really love that,” I said, my heart pounding.
    “Okay, it’s a deal,” she said. “Goodnight, Miso.”
    “Goodnight Ludmila.” I clicked the button and smiled into the fire.
    Friend, I told myself. Just a friend.

  • The inside of the tents were at least thirty degrees warmer than outside, and the thick walls blocked every ounce of wind. I woke up, still snuggled into my sleeping sack, and pulled it up around my neck. I didn’t want to get up, but I could hear hushed voices outside. Tick was already up and out; his sleeping sack was rolled up at the side of the tent.
    I sighed and got up, rolling up my own sack and smoothing down my sweater underneath the overalls. ‘Snow pants,’ Arvid had called them the day before.
    When I stepped outside, I saw that they had already prepared me a breakfast and set it aside. There was a pot with coffee in it to the side of the fire, keeping warm.
    “God morgen,” Arvid said. ‘Good morning’.
    “God morgen,” I replied, and filed that phrase along with the others I had learned. I realised that I had already resolved, in some part of my mind, to learn Nottisian.
    “Morning,” Tick said. He had his hat off and was ruffling his hair again. It was no wonder that it was so fluffy all the time. He was constantly playing with it, running his fingers through it and puffing it up at the top unconsciously. Wearing a hat must be killing him.
    The wind from the previous day had died down. It was blindingly bright again and sunny, the snow sparkling again with rainbows and shooting white sparks upward.
    “Where are we heading next?” I asked, sitting down to eat.
    “Next leg of our trip is Brylin Chelyn,” Arvid said. He pulled the book of maps out of the open bag next to him and flipped it open. “A short jaunt through there to Glatour Stooir, which is where we’ll find the short cave that leads to Vantalu. From what I remember of my travels, the snow should be easing off by the time we get to the next leg of our journey there. We’ll be heading into rocky territory though, so it’ll be slow going.”
    I took a sip of the coffee and stared into the fire. “All this time,” I said, a pain rising in my throat, “through all this, Nick and his daughter are suffering. Who knows what Dr. Jameson and Melanie have been doing to them this whole time?”
    “Even if we’re too late to save those two, we’ll still be able to save everyone else who’s been kidnapped,” Arvid said. He reached out and patted me on my hand. “It’s going to be okay.”
    I wanted to shake my head and tell him no, that it wasn’t going to be okay, that it already wasn’t okay. But I choked and said nothing.
    Tick got up and moved so he was sitting beside me. He took his hat off again and started pulling on his hair. “Listen,” he said after a moment, “when I was a kid, like starting when I was really little, my family always used to move around a lot. I never knew why, but I never was able to have any friends. And then when I was old enough I found out the truth. I had an uncle that had gone crazy. For some reason he was stalking my mom. He had this delusion -- he thought that she was possessed by some evil entity. He wouldn’t leave us alone, and he wanted her dead. So we moved, over and over, trying to avoid him.”
    When he paused again, I asked him why they never got the moderators - “police” in some Regions - involved.
    “He was tricky. They had a hard time finding him, since all of us, him included, were always on the move. Finally they did though. That’s when we settled up here in Nottis. My mom moved us all here once my uncle went to prison.”
    I didn’t know what to say. “I’m glad it worked out alright,” I said. I was being stupid though.
    “It didn’t,” he said. “He killed my dad, and my dog. That’s the only reason the cops found him. My uncle -- he was so broken up by the death of the dog that he just stayed there crying until the cops showed up. They took him in and…” Tick was crying now, and I took his hand and held it. “Listen, what I’m saying is, things may not be okay, but then, they end up okay in the end. It just takes awhile. So no matter what happens here,” he stopped and looked into my eyes, squeezing my hand. “No matter what happens here, in the end it’s going to be okay.”
    I nodded. I could feel the tears sliding down my face. We sat like that for some time, holding hands and watching the fire.
    When Tick had stopped crying, I let go of his hand and wiped my own face.
    “We should get going,” Lucas said quietly.
    We took down the tents and packed up our things.
  • When we finally reached the exit to Vantalu from Nottis, the sun had set and a deep chill had settled around us. The rocky ground was slippery with ice and there was a wind hitting us straight on.
    “It’s only a short climb through the cave tunnels here to Vantalu,” Arvid said. “We should make our way through here and set up camp on the other side.”
    I didn’t like the thought of going through a cave in the pitch dark, but he reassured us it would be fine.
    “There are torches in the packs,” Lucas said, “I made sure we packed them.”
    Arvid was already carrying one in his snow pants, and turned it on, shining it on the packs as we opened them and looked through them for ours.
    They were big, heavy black torches made of metal and what looked like real glass covering the lights. We turned them on and shined them at the cave.
    Aside from the wind, it was silent. I felt a terror grip me, seizing up my stomach and making me feel sick.
    I gulped hard. “Are you sure we want to do this tonight?”
    “The cave drops down steep before the climb back up and into Vantalu,” Arvid said. “It won’t be any brighter in there in the morning. We’re going to have to go through it in the dark no matter what, and if we set up camp here, on this side, the wind is just going to keep us awake. Even our tents aren’t warm enough to put up with this kind of cold.”
    I could tell he wasn’t wrong; my face was already stinging and my mouth was numb from the wind, and my fingers were freezing even inside the thick mittens.
    “Come on,” Lucas said. “Let’s stop burning time. The sooner we get through the sooner we can sleep.”
    Arvid and Lucas went first, Tick and I following behind. The cave was darker than I imagined from outside. It seemed to eat up the light, even with it reflecting in strange waves off of the ice on the cave floor. Like Arvid had said, the floor dipped down in a steep curve, and with the ice, it was difficult to keep our footing. I stayed close to the cave wall and braced myself against it to keep from falling.
    My heart was pounding. I regretted every second of my time in the cave, and doubted that it would be this dark in the cave during the day.
    It seemed to take forever. Every time I began to lose my footing, my chest would tighten in fear. I was shaking badly. My whole body ached and I couldn’t feel my face or my fingers. Nobody spoke as we made our way through the cave.
    Finally, the wind seemed to start dying off a little and Arvid half-turned. “We’re almost there,” he called.
    “Why is it so windy?” I called back.
    “The tunnels catch the wind from on top of the mountain overhead,” Arvid said, “it swirls down here and gets directed out back toward Nottis.”
    We fell silent again.
    Suddenly I could see Arvid’s light, which had been falling on the cave walls, suddenly drop off and fall on a path ahead: the end of the cave tunnel.
    We stepped out into the night. There was a gentle wind here but nothing like what there had been inside, and it felt significantly warmer here because of it.
    “We’ll set up camp here,” Arvid said. We walked forward a little way and set our packs down. Lucas and Arvid started setting up the tents while Tick and I went to gather firewood.
    “Those caves are wild,” Tick said, making conversation. “I used to go exploring in the ice caves in Nottis but there’s always ambient light in those. I’ve never spent any time in anywhere as pitch-black as that. It’s like a nightmare. You’re always waiting for something to come creeping out of the darkness.”
    “Phoo,” I said, “yeah, I thought I was the only one getting scared.”
    He laughed. “Naw you are absolutely not.”
    “So we’re in Vantalu now right?”
    “Yeah. We only have three Streets to go down I think, down the mountain to Besara.”
    “I don’t know much about geography,” I said as we walked back to dump the branches and get another armload. “I feel like I should have studied more. I’d be better prepared for this journey.”
    “Man it is a journey isn’t it?” Tick said. We dumped the branches and went back for more. “My mom always said life isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
    “I think in this case it’s about the destination.”
    “Yeah, I guess so.”
    “Hey what do you think Lumilda’s doing right now?” I asked. I immediately regretted asking because I could feel myself blushing.
    But Tick just laughed. “I hope she’s sleeping,” he said. “It’s late.”
    “Mmhmm,” I said.
    “She thinks you’re cute,” he went on.
    I blushed harder.
    “She told me that. Arvid and Agnes? They thought you were a girl. They were so embarrassed! But I think Lumilda liked you even before she knew you’re a boy.”
    I didn’t know what to say to that. My heart was pounding and this time, it wasn’t from the danger of the tunnels.
    Tick sniffled. “This cold sure is something isn’t it?” he asked, politely changing the subject. “Not as bad as Nottis, but I can’t wait to get inside those tents.”
    “Me too,” I said, relieved for the change in topic. “My whole body is sore.”
    “Mine too. We have to eat first.”
    “Hash I hope,” I said, thinking about what Agnes had packed.
    We dumped another armload of branches and sticks and went back for one more.
    “I’m going to have fruit for dessert.”
    “Fruit sounds good.”
    “Get some leaves,” Lucas shouted at us.
    “Yeah,” Tick shouted back. “You get those, I’ll get the branches,” he said to me.
    I scavenged around in the dirt and the sparse snow for burnable leaves and found some dry grass along with it, pulling up fistfuls and stuffing them in my pockets. I was holding the torch awkwardly in my left hand and scavenging with my right, but it kept slipping against my mittens. Finally I just set it down on the ground pointed at the grass and leaves and filled my pockets the rest of the way.
    Heading back to camp, I stopped and looked up at the sky. Stars stretched across the entire sky, from horizon to horizon. The entire sky was sparkling with starlight, like someone had spilled glitter upwards. The beauty of it was overwhelming.

  • The going was rocky after that. All of Vantalu was one slow rock-climb downward. As we made our way down the rocky cliffs -- one after another, seemingly never-ending -- Arvid and Lucas taught me some basic Nottisian. Hello, Goodbye, How are you, and so on. Additionally: Where’s the bathroom? Because it was the first thing I’d asked them when I was able to communicate. All of us laughed at that.
    It was when we’d almost reached Aranna that I began to feel sick. My body began hurting worse than it had from just the hike, and I could feel my skin getting hot again.
    Finally, I had to stop.
    We had just reached the Street leading into Aranna -- Khubbani Siggara -- a beautiful rocky place lined with cherry trees and a small shrine to Ti -- when I had to stop. “Guys,” I called to them. I had begun dragging behind, and they stopped now and came back to me.
    “What’s wrong?” Arvid ask. His voice was full of concern.
    Lucas and Tick, too, could see something was wrong with me, and their brows were furrowed.
    “You look sick,” Tick said.
    “Listen,” I said, “I never told you how I got lost in Nottis.”
    “It’s alright man,” Lucas said.
    Arvid glanced at him and then back at me. “Go ahead,” he said gently.
    “Ever since the people at the facility where I’d been taken, ever since they started experimenting on me I’ve had these fevers. I never know how long they’re going to last but they knock me out. I get delirious. I have medicine for it but it doesn’t seem to help all that much.” I said that, but I had a feeling the medicine was the only thing standing between me and death.
    “Do you have more of this medicine with you?” Arvid asked.
    “It’s in my pack.”
    “You say you’ve been getting delirious?” Tick asked.
    Lucas stood there looking concerned.
    “Yes. I .. kind of blackout. Then I wake up and time has passed.” I shrugged. “I can’t really explain it better than that.” The headache was already starting to set in. “I don’t think I have much time before it hits me now.”
    “We’ll pitch the tents. Sit down,” Arvid said. He motioned to the side of the road. There was an outcropping of smooth stone next to the shrine, and I laid down on it, resting my head on my hands.
    Lucas brought me my pack, and I fished through it for the medicine. Arvid quickly set up a tent near me, and Tick brought me a bottle of water.
    My head was pounding sickeningly by the time the tent was set up. This fever seemed to be hitting more quickly than the last few. I wondered if it was all the hiking. Not much time had passed since the last one.
    The three of them started talking quietly among themselves while I crawled into the tent and laid down. I was half-asleep, half-dreaming but awake, when Tick came in and crouched next to me. “I’m going to go find you a doctor,” he said. “Lucas and Arvid are going to stay here and look after you. I’ll leave your headset with you so you can communicate with them while I’m gone. Rest. Drink water. You’re going to be okay.”
    The last of his words swirled into my encroaching darkness, though, and I slipped into blackness as he was leaving my tent.

  • Hands were shaking me awake. I sat up groggily and felt a bottle of water pressed to my lips. I drank.
    The same hands that had shook me awake began feeling my throat and neck and head. They pressed fingertips to my temples and I could feel a thermometer sweep across my forehead.
    At some point, I must have taken off my sweater because the person handling me now slipped a blood pressure cuff around my arm. I still had my eyes closed; I couldn’t seem to open them.
    I also couldn’t stay sitting up. I fell back down and began to drift into sleep.
    Tick and the other person were speaking quietly somewhere near me.
    “I think she’s going to be alright,” the man’s voice said.
    “He,” Tick corrected automatically. “How bad is it?”
    “Honestly? I don’t know,” the voice admitted.
    “What can we do for him doctor?” Arvid asked; Tick translated.
    “Just let him rest for now. Make sure he drinks water, and give him the pills for his fever. You’re not far from Besara at this point. You made the right decision to keep going and carry her so you’d be closer to somewhere she--sorry, he--can get help.”
    “And the nearest hospital is in Besara right?” Arvid asked.
    “Well, I wouldn’t call it a hospital. More like just a few homes rigged to provide services for the sick. Since everyone north of there is so far from a hospital, there have been outreach services for people up there. We’ve been trying to get more doctors up north, but the cold and the distance make it difficult.”
    “Well, thank you for coming, doc,” Tick said.
    When they fell silent, and I could hear the footfalls on the stone ground getting farther away, I slept.

  • I woke up sweating. My throat felt sticky with thirst. I sat up and rubbed my face. “Ew,” I said to myself. My hands were now wet with sweat, too. I wiped them on my pants and climbed out of the tent.
    The day was bright and warm. I could hear the sounds of a market or bazaar somewhere nearby. Lucas, Arvid and Tick were sitting on the ground by the side of the road in a small circle. There was the smell of something fried, and fruit. I walked over to them. The sun felt delicious.
    “Hey guys,” I said. “God morgen.”
    “Miso!” Tick jumped up and hugged me.
    I was almost knocked down with surprise. “Hey, hi, yeah you too,” I said. I patted him on the back awkwardly and he stepped back.
    Lucas and Arvid, too, were standing. “How are you feeling?” Arvid asked.
    “Here, you need water,” Lucas said.
    “We have food,” Tick said.
    I smiled. “Thanks guys. I’m feeling okay,” I said to Arvid. “Yeah I’m thirsty. And hungry. What are we having?” I gestured at the food.
    “Fried vegetables and fruit,” Lucas said. He handed me a bottle of water. Arvid walked over and began preparing a plate. I noticed there were new plates, and wondered how long I had been out for this time.
    “Where are we?” I asked, looking around.
    “Tejj Trades,” Arvid said. He handed me a plate. “Tamila.”
    “Tamila? How did I sleep all the way through Besara? How did I even get here?”
    “Arvid carried you,” Lucas said, shrugging.
    “The whole way?” I was astonished.
    “You are not heavy, Miso,” Arvid said by way of explanation.
    I shook my head. My clothes did feel looser on me, and it was true that Arvid was somewhat of a giant, but -- through an entire region? “Wow.”
    I sat down with the others and took in the surroundings as I ate. There seemed to be meadows everywhere in between sparse forest, with cute short trees lining the road. We actually had a real road to walk on now, not just stone or dirt or ice paths.
    “This is amazing,” I commented, my mouth still full of the fried vegetables.
    “I picked it up at the market,” Lucas told me. He picked up a long fried bean and stuck it whole into his mouth.
    They were telling me what had happened during the hike down while I’d been delirious with fever, when a horse and cart approached and drew to a stop by us.
    “Hello fellow travelers!” the driver called out. He hopped down from the cart and came to join us.
    “Hey there,” Tick said. “What’s your name?”
    “I am the Great and Wise Everfawn!” The man made a lofty gesture with his arms. “May I tell your fortune?”
    “No,” Arvid said.
    Tick ignored him. “What’s your price, man?”
    “Ah! A curious one! I charge only a meal. If I may share your food, I will read your future!” Everfawn the Great and Wise gestured again wildly with his arms.
    “Tell you what,” Lucas said, filling a plate with food, “if you can tell us accurately where we’re headed and what we need to do, I’ll throw in three thousand quoin.” He handed the plate to the man and pulled out a small pack of quoin.
    The man’s eyes widened. “Oh! Yes, yes of course!” He pulled a pouch from his bag and sat down beside us.
    “Can I just call you Everfawn?” I asked.
    Arvid scoffed, but stayed quiet.
    “Yes my dear,” he said. Up close, I could tell his face was lined with wrinkles but the most prominent were his smile lines. His milky eyes were old but clear, and his silver hair shimmered in the sun.
    Everfawn set his plate on the ground beside him and opened the pouch, withdrawing a handful of round cards. “By the cards I will tell your present past and future!” He shuffled the cards and closed his eyes, humming. “You wish to know where you are heading, and what is your current quest?”
    “Yeah,” Lucas said. He stuck another bean in his mouth.
    Everfawn laid down the cards face-down in a pattern on the ground and one by one flipped them right-side up, humming and hawing as he did so. Finally, he let out a long sigh and looked at me. “It is your journey, special one,” he said to me, ignoring the others. “You have just come through a period of trouble, trials if you will, and they are not yet all the way done. You must travel a long distance, and,” he pointed to one of the cards and tapped it, “you must find an old man, a man who means you nothing but harm. You must defeat him, and then you will be free.”
    My mouth ran dry. I never believed in things like this and tended to stay away from fortune-tellers and psychics back in the firebogs, but what this man said seemed like the truth. I turned to Lucas. “Well?”
    Lucas nodded. “Alright. How can we succeed?”
    The old man stared down at the cards for a few moments, tapping them and humming some more, and then flipped one back upside-down and considered the others. “Approach from the south,” he said, “wherever it is you must go. The Giants, they say you must make your way north, through a barrier of some kind.” He looked at me again. “And you, little poppet. At the end of all of this, there is bright, and happiness.”
    My heart was racing.
    “Thanks,” Lucas said, and handed the man the bag of quoin. “Where are you headed?”
    “Oh, I go where the Giants lead me,” Everfawn said.
    “Think you could take us south?” Tick asked.
    “I will take you where I must,” the man said. “Climb in!” He stood and took his plate to the cart. “Let us finish eating, and then we will go.”
    “We’re going to Mallos Means, in Bortola,” Lucas said.
    We began picking up our things and putting away the tents. I ate as I stuffed things in my pack.
    Arvid made another snort and packed quickly. “Why couldn’t the Giants send you to us sooner,” he grumbled, and Tick whispered the translation to me where Everfawn wouldn’t hear.
    “Mallos Means!” Everfawn exclaimed. “I have been there many times. Do you, by chance, head for the subway?”
    “Yeah,” I said.
    “If I may be so bold, do you think I might join you on this journey?” Everfawn was indeed being bold.
    But was it a good idea? We all looked to Arvid. He rolled his eyes and sighed. “How about we talk, and we’ll see when we get there?” Arvid replied.
    “Ah, fair enough fair enough,” Everfawn said, and climbed up onto the cart, eating the rest of his food.
    Lucas and I climbed into the back of the cart; Arvid and Tick sat up front, Tick between Everfawn and Arvid. We started onto the last leg of our journey -- six more streets and we’d be at the subway.
    I could hear Arvid begin to make conversation with Everfawn, and put on my headset so I could talk with Lucas.
    And in that way, we made our way to Mallos Means.

  • The cart slowed and pulled into a side street, drawing to a stop in front of a house.
    I peeked out of the back of the cart and then glanced at Lucas.
    “Where are we?” I asked dumbly.
    “I don’t know,” he said, a frown creasing his brow.
    We both jumped down from the back and walked around to the driver.
    Tick was standing up, waiting for us. He looked at me.
    “Tick, where are we?” I asked.
    “Listen, don’t be mad,” he started, and reflexively I got mad, “We’re at a doctor’s office. We want them to have a look at you before we go on the next leg of our journey.”
    “A doctor?” I fumed, “We don’t have time for a doctor!”
    “This will only take a moment my dear boy,” Everfawn said.
    They climbed down off of the cart and Everfawn hitched the horse to a post outside, giving in a few pets and kisses and reassuring it that we’d be back quickly.
    “We’ll wait outside,” the others said, but Arvid came and stood by me. “I’m coming in with you,” he said.
    “You don’t speak Common,” I said.
    “Then Tick will come too.”
    Great, it would be a right party. I sighed and they led me inside.
    The lady at the counter stood. “You must be George,” she began, “And your friends are here too? Good. I’ll let the doctor know you’re here, we’ve been expecting you.”
    “Expecting?” I asked.
    “Julian -- the doctor who came to you when you were in Besara, he came and updated us on your condition. I’ll be just a moment.” She left the room and knocked on a door. The door immediately flung open and a wild-haired woman stepped out. Her eyes were huge behind giant round glasses.
    “Ah!” She exclaimed, walking toward me. “George! Please, come in, come in.” She ushered us into an exam room and patted a table. “Please, make yourself comfortable. Tell me about these fevers.”
    As I tried to explain the situation, she poked and prodded, around the base of my chin and under my armpits, and then made me breathe and in and out while she listened. She kept interrupting me with more questions while she took my blood pressure and pulse. “Hmm” she kept saying, “Hmm okay, okay, hmmmm.” Finally she patted me on the hand and said she’d return in a moment.
    When she did come back, she was holding a small needled. “I need to get some blood,” she said. “You’re deathly thin and I need to check your nutrient levels and see if I can figure out what’s going on.”
    “Listen,” I finally spoke up, “We don’t have time for this!”
    “Oh trust me dear, it’s better to take some time here than have you collapse mid-way into your journey isn’t it?”
    I couldn’t argue with that.
    “Put your arm out please.”
    I did what she told me and she drew a vialful of blood, than left the room and shut the door behind herself.
    “We won’t be here long,” Tick reassured me.
    “It’s what Agnes would be having us do anyway,” Arvid commented. But I could tell something was bothering him.
    “Do you trust her?” I asked quietly.
    “Who, Agnes? I trust her with my life!” Arvid looked affronted.
    “No,” I corrected, “this doctor. Do you trust her?”
    “Mmm,” Tick said, “I don’t trust many doctors, but this one seems thorough. I think she’ll be able to figure out what’s wrong with you.”
    We waited in there long enough that we had a long conversation, and I wondered what the others were up to.
  • Finally the doctor came back. “Your test results are.. Interesting.. To say the least,” she began. She was holding a small sheaf of papers and sat down now next to me on the low exam table. “Here,” she said, handing me one. “This one shows that you are not getting nearly enough to eat. I mean, you can see that you just looking at you can’t you.” She pinched my wrist and frowned. “You need much more nutrients, iron and minerals.” She handed me another page. “And this one shows that you have an illness. I can’t tell what kind of illness - looks to be something viral - but my guess is that this is what’s been eating at you. Literally,” she said, “It’s literally eating you. That’s why you’re so skinny. It’s going to take a lot of time to fix this and more tests to find out what exactly it is.”
    I humphed. “We don’t have time,” I said, handing her back the papers. “What can we do right now, so that I can get on with my journey?”
    “Take these,” she said, walking over to a cupboard and pulling out a bottle of pills. “These are strong and will prevent fevers. As soon as you get back from your travels, come see me again. We will get to the root of what’s going on with you.”
    “Thank you doctor,” Arvid said through Tick.
    She nodded at all of us and left the room.
    I rolled the bottle around in my head. These pills were tiny round white things, little shiny balls, and I wondered what was in them.
    “Ah, zees are maaagic,” Tick said in a face accent.
    I laughed and hit him on the arm.
    “Let’s go,” I said.
    Before I climbed into the cart, I took two of the white pills and we set off again.
  • It wasn’t long until we reached Mallos Means. It was an otherwise bare street, lined with a few small fruit trees and a few large evergreens. There was a rocky outcropping next to the subway entrance. Behind the rocks was a small stable.
    “This will only be a moment,” Everfawn said, and stabled his horse.
    When he came back, he looked like had tears in his eyes. “Oh I hate leaving her,” he said by way of explanation.
    Arvid patted him on the shoulder and we walked down into the subway.
    Not much longer, I thought. We’re almost there.

    The subway to Uralia took us underwater for part of the journey and we sat in the observation car, staring upward at the light shining through the water. Fish swam lazily around the roof of the tunnel, and we saw a few large creatures, too. It felt magical.
    It was the longest trip underwater I’d been on in my life and it didn’t disappoint.
    A tray came by with food and we at. It wasn’t anything spectacular -- just burgers and fries -- and we drank coffee and talked about our plan of attack.
    It wasn’t long until we reached Eastern Approach. As we climbed out of the subway station, we put on our headsets. We didn’t have an extra one, so Everfawn simply followed me and I relayed what he needed to know. Otherwise, he stayed quiet.
    ‘So we go north from here, yes?” Lucas said.
  • I realised they were all looking at me for directions, but I felt as lost as they did. I looked around and then tapped the button my headset.
    “Lumilda? You there?”
    “Present and accounted for,” she said. I smiled.
    “Lumilda, we’re going to need directions to where the Facility is.”
    “Well you’re in luck” she said, and I could hear keys tapping on her end. “I was able to isolate satellite imagery. Go north from Eastern Approach, start behind the subway entrance. You might have a jump a few fences to get back there. Then there’s a hill and a large electric fence. I can get you past that, don’t worry.”
    “An electric fence?” I asked. I in fact was worrying.
    “Electric fence,” Everfawn echoed, looking at the rest of us.
    “It’s nothing,” I reassured them.
    Lumilda continued. “Once you’re past the fence it’s a short hike upward to the Facility.”
    “Alright, just lead us to the fence.” I strapped my bag tightly across my chest and prepared to hike.
    We went upward, past two other fences behind the subway station -- those had gates, we didn’t have to jump any fences -- and eventually found our way to a tall electrified fence.
    “This has to be what Lumilda was talking about,” Lucas said, pointing.
    “Lumilda, you there?” I asked.
    “Yeah, I’m here. Give me a minute. I have to disable the cameras and then cut the power.” More clicking at her end.
    I was itching to run in; waiting was killing me. I heard a series of clicks overhead, and then the hum of electricity that I’d been hardly even aware of died out. Now the only sounds were our breathing and the breeze over the tall blue grass.
    “Dark Uralia,” Everfawn commented. I looked at him and he had a face like he was joking.
    “This is serious,” I said.
    His face fell. “Yes, yes of course, I know.”
    “Lumilda. Any idea what we’re walking into?” Lucas asked.
    “You’re going to go past this fence and up the hill to the nearest elevator exist. I’ll bypass the security and get you guys in. After that, go four floors down. That’s where it looks like the prisoners are being held. By the time you get there I should have figured out how to cut the power to their doors so you can let them out.”
    “Guards?” I asked.
    “Strangely, I cannot see any,” she said slowly. “But be careful. If there are any, they are already hidden.”
    I got the terrible feeling that they might know we’re coming.
    “I’ve co-opted the video feeds,” Lumilda continued, “so they won’t see you coming. But I’ll still be able to see the original feeds, so I can let you know if you’re in danger. Right now, you’re clear. Go!”
    We cut a hole in the fence and walked quickly up the hill. I saw one of the boxy elevator shafts sticking up from the ground, and ran to it.
    “Lumilda?” I said. “A little help?”
    The elevator beeped and the doors slid open. We grabbed our knives from the packs and left the packs outside of the elevator doors, to the side in the grass. “Let’s get this party started,” I mumbled.
    Lucas gave me an odd look, and Everfawn rolled his eyes. Arvid remained silent, taking in the surroundings.
    We moved together into the elevator and pressed a button to go downward.
    “Be careful guys,” Lumilda warned, “It looks like there are three guards down the hallway from where this opens-- wait, they’re leaving. I don’t know where they’re going.”
    “Noted,” I said. I tightened my grip on the knife and the doors slide open.
    The hallway was long end empty, lined with doors on both sides. I tried a few handles; they were all locked.
    “Okay, listen, you guys are going to need to find the power,” Lumilda said. “There should be a sort of outlet on the wall.. Like a box. Inside it should be a lever. Pull that and it should cut power to all the doors, automatically unlocking them.”
    I found the box easily on the wall and ran my fingers over it. There was a small metal lock on it and I grabbed a loose wire from my pocket - part of the slinky I had disemboweled. I was starting to pick the lock when Arvid walked over and grabbed me gently on the shoulder.
    “Allow me,” he said, and punched the box. I stepped back.
    He punched it again and then grabbed it, tearing it from it’s hinges.
    My mouth was hanging open.
    “The lever,” he said, “this one?
    There was silence for a moment, and then Lumilda gulped, “Yes, that one father. Nice work.”
  • “Thank you,” he said, and pulled the lever downward.
    There was a rapid series of clicks behind us as the doors all unlocked. I stood ready, waiting for whatever might be coming through those doors.
    The first one opened, and an older lady skinnier than me hobbled out. “What..” she asked, her voice cracking, “Where…?”
    “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “We’re here to help. Can you help us get the rest of these doors open?”
    Lucas looked down the hallway. “You think there are people in all of these?”
    “Yeah, no doubt,” I said. I was patient number 71; that meant there were at least 70 other patients here. I think this hallway holds all of them.”
    The doors began opening quickly, all the patients congregating in the middle of the hall.
    “I’ll lead them out and down to Eastern Approach,” Lucas said, beginning to usher than all toward the elevator we’d come in. “Come on,” he urged them, “quickly.”
    They began following him, and the rest of us moved forward into the hallway.
    “Where do you think they’re keeping Nick?” I asked. “And his daughter - he said they’d had his daughter held hostage.”
    “Miso,” Lumilda said, “Your friend Nick? What’s he look like?’
    “Big fellow, dark, long locs. Muscular guy, tall. Why?”
    “I think I see him on one of the cameras. He’s on the floor below you guys. You’re going to need to take an elevator one floor down. He’s at the end, in a locked room.”
    “Let’s go,” I said. But as we turned around to reach the elevator, a man climbed out of it and faced us. He was holding a gun at hip-height.
    “Oh, I don’t think you’re going anywhere Georgey Porgey,” he said.
    Dr. Jameson. My stomach knotted.
    But Arvid walked straight forward, until he was nearly touching the gun.
    The doctor took a step back. “Now.. now just stop right there.. Or I’ll shoot…” he said, but he was floundering, his hand shaking.
    Arvid punched Jameson in the face and the doctor flew backward a few feet. Arvid picked up the gun and, making sure the safety was on, stashed it in his pocket. “No guns,” he said grumpily.
    “Yeah, Arvid doesn’t like guns,” Tick explained.
    Dr. Jameson just laid there whimpering.
    Arvid reached over and slung Jameson ever his shoulder like a sack of rice, and then nodded at us. “Where do we go, Lumilda?”
    “Into the elevator. Take the good doctor,” she spat the word out, “with you.”
    All of us squished into the elevator and Dr Jameson began kicking. Arvid “accidentally” rammbed the doctor’s head into the wall. He calmed down after that.
    The elevator doors opened on a different kind of hallway. The corridor here was a beige-brown, with doors standing open here and there.
    “Go to the end,” Lumilda guided us, “there’s a locked door. I’m working on bypassing the security right now.”
    I started heading forward and then glanced behind myself. “We’ll be right there,” Everfawn called out, and then followed Tick and Arvid into a black room. I sighed, and went to see what they were doing.
    They’d bound Dr Jameson to a chair, and bound the chair to a desk. “He’s not going anywhere,” TIck said happily.
    “I’ll stay here with him and make sure he doesn’t escape,” Everfawn said, wiping his hands on his pants. “If he tries to escape, I will holler, like this,” he said, and then hollered loudly.
    “You do you big guy,” Tick said, slapping Everfawn on the arm and leaving. Arvid shook a finger in the doctor’s face but said nothing, and they all came and joined me in the hallway.
    “Lumilda says there a locked room, right there,” I said, pointing to the room at the end of the hallway. “Nick and his daughter should be in there.”
    “Do we need a key?” Arvid asked, flexing his fingers.
    “Um, no,” I said, eyeing his hands, “Lumilda’s unlocking it from her side.”
  • A moment later, a lock clicked and I tried the door. It swung open.
    A familiar voice greeted us: “I told you, I’m not going to---” Nick stood up and realised we weren’t who he had obviously been expecting.
    “Miso?!” He ran over to me with his arms open.
    “Told you I’d come back big guy,” I said, smiling.
    He gave me a hug that could squish Arvid, and lifted me part-way into the air. “Little Buddy! I had no idea.. I thought you’d run and just put all this behind you!”
    “No way man.” I took a step back, smiling at him. “Hey, is this your daughter?”
    A tiny girl, no more than three years old, had stood and was peeking out from behind one of Nick’s legs.
    “Yeah, yeah this is Jaylee. Jaylee can you say hi to Miso and his friends?”
    She gave a shy wave as introduction and went back to hiding. Nick laughed. “She’s at that age where everyone scares her.” Then his voice dropped and he added, “of course, being locked into a room for a month doesn’t help things.”
    “Come on, let’s get her out of here,” I said, and he picked her up as we all walked back into the hallway.
    “There’s one more place we need to hit,” I said.
    “Where’s that?” Tick said. It was clear I was in charge.
    “The control room. We need to shut this place down. Lumilda?”
    She gave us directions one floor up and to another corridor, and we found the room easily. When we found it, we kicked the door in and found a huddled mass of scientists all pleading for their lives.
    “Please don’t hurt us!”
    “We were only doing what --”
    “They said if we didn’t they’d--”
    “Oh shut your face holes,” Tick grumbled, and pushed them aside to get to the control panel. He tapped his earbud to make sure it was on. “Lumilda, what am I doing here?”
    “See that row of red lights?” she asked.
    “Click them all until they turn black.”
  • He did what she told him to and at the last one, bars over the windows fell and the whole facility was filled with a grinding noise.
    “Get up,” I growled at the scientists, and Arvid led them out into the hallway.
    “Time to go,” one of them said, laughing maniacally. “You just hit the self-destruct sequence!”
    “Shit.” I turned and, on Lumilda’s instructions, dragged the others out with us into the nearest corridor leading outside.
    “We got everyone?” I called back over my shoulder.
    “Yeah, I think we got all the stragglers. What to do about the doctor, Miso?”
    Leave him there, is what I wanted to say. “Grab him, wheel him with us,” I called. Arvid grabbed Everfawn and the doctor and together we made our way outside.
    Just as we got outside, the facility went up in flames.

  • I could see, down by the gate we’d come in, there was a mass of people in hospital gowns just standing there watching, and then once they realised what had happened, they burst into applause and cheers.
    I raised a hand to them and smiled.
    It was over.

    I collapsed.

    When I woke up I was in a hospital bed. I panicked immediately, sitting up and yanking the tubes out of my arms. I ran to the door and swung it open. But it was just a hospital; I wasn’t back at the facility.
    Memories came flooding back: the rescue, the explosion. My friends. Lumilda.
    My mom came running up the hallway. “George!” She put her arms around me and hugged me tightly.
    “Where am I?” I was groggy and was slurring my words.
    “You’re at the hospital in Jethimadh. How are you feeling?” She was patting me on my shoulders and arms as though she expected me to disappear at any moment.
    “Hungry,” I answered honestly.
    “We’ll get you something to eat. Come lay back down,” she said, and led me back to the room.
    A nurse -- not Nick -- followed her in and took my vitals. She held up the IV tube. “What happened here?” she asked.
    “Oh, um, I…” I didn’t really know what to say. “I panicked a little.”
    “Well, ok that’s…” She trailed off, holding the tube dangling. “I think we were done with it anyway!” She set it aside and took my pulse. “You said you’re hungry? Is there anything in particular you’d like?”
    “Hash,” I said, not knowing what I was about to say before it had come out of my mouth. I was thinking of the has Agnes had packed. I was thinking of the trip on the road and the new friends I’d made, and wondering if I’d see any of them again.
    I didn’t have to wonder long.
    There was a knock at the door and Nick walked in. “Hey Miso!” He smiled brightly.
    “Nick!” I almost jumped out of my bed again.
    “Jaylee’s in day care right now but she sends her love,” he said, and handed me a small, hand-made card that said “Happy Miso” in kid’s handwriting. On the inside in said “JAYLEE”. I smiled.
    I imagined that the rest of them -- Arvid, Lucas, and Tick -- had already gone back to Nottis. My heart sank a little.
    Everfawn popped his head in through the open door. “Room for one more?” He asked. He raised his eyebrows and smiled a little.
    “Everfawn! We wouldn’t have been able to do it all without you.” I said, “Come in, come in!”
    He came and stood at the foot of the bed near my mom. He was holding a strange-looking bouquet of flowers, all swirly and black and orange. He handed them to me. “I traded for them in Ix,” he explained. “I do not recommend smelling them.”
    Of course I smelled them. They smelled like spice and darkness. “They’re lovely. Thank you Everfawn.”
    “This is why they call me great as well as wise,” he explained to nobody in particular.
    “We should let George rest,” my mom said. “I’ll be just down the hallway if you need me.”
    Everfawn and my mom left the room and I caught just a snippet of their conversation as they left: “Laurelie he looks just like you.. All that hair!” “I’ve always heard that. Now tell me more about how you learned fortune-telling?”
    And then nurse left, assuring me she’d find some something like hash to eat, and it was just me and Nick left in the room. He sat on the edge of my bed and patted my ankle.
    “Wild ride, huh kid.”
    “The wildest.”
    “I suspect it’s not quite over yet for you.”
    “What do you mean?” my heart immediately jumped into my throat.
    “Oh, the friends you’ve made, the illness you’re battling.. It’s going to be a long road.”
    I calmed down as he was talking. All of those were good points.
    “We’ll get through it,” I said after a moment.
    “That we will my small friend.” He ruffled my hair and left so I could rest a while.

  • edited November 2017
    (1 year later)
    “We’re almost done with the Infusions, Miso. How’re you feeling?”
    Nick was smiling down at me like always. I smiled back, but I was crushingly tired. I could just fall asleep right here in the chair.
    Lumilda was holding my hand. Now that, that made me smile. She ran a hand through my hair and laughed. “I think he’s about ready for a nap, Nick.”
    “He’s been napping!” Nick exclaimed.
    I took a long look around the office. It had been one heck of a year.
    After we’d freed all the prisoners, my friends had taken me back to see a doctor. It turned out that the drugs they’d given me had caused some kind of autoimmune illness -- fixable, but with a lot of effort. I was doing better now: no more fevers, no more dizzy spells, and my weight was at a reasonable level for my height, if still a little on the low side. I was mitigating that part of it just by eating. Eating a lot.
    Lumilda had come down to live with me in Shimla Mirch. She said she’s always hated the cold, and she loved it in the firebogs.
    A taxi-cart took us home and I dozed, staring out the window, thinking about the past year.
    When I’d first gotten back to Shimla Mirch, I was convinced I’d never see Lumilda, or my other new friends again. Except for Everfawn, which for some reason stayed -- after he’d gotten his horse back, that is.
    It turned out that his horse’s name was Pretty Lady. She was a hybrid fire-ice horse, and I use the term “horse” loosely; as it happens, she was more dragon than horse, which explained her great size. The Great And Wise Everfawn was now touring through the firebogs, reading fortunes for passerby and taking classes at night on how to read. Apparently that was one skill he’d never been able to teach himself; he could speak four languages and interpret the cards he drew based on intuition and what he would call magick, but he couldn’t actually read any of it.
    Nick immediately found a position as a nurse at the Jethimadh hospital. They had a free employee daycare on the base level, and Jaylee was happy there. Instead of quoin, as prizes they handed out small coins for “imagination” which, when collected, allowed the kids to make whatever they wanted. It was a pretty amazing system.
    The cart jolted and my head slammed against the glass. “You okay?” Lumilda asked, patting my hand.
  • I mumbled something and felt my eyes half close as I smiled at her and then went back to staring out the window.
    Arvid and Lucas and Tick had gone back to Nottis, but only for a little while. Agnes and Arvid stayed, but, unknown to me, Lumilda and Tick were planning to make their way down to the firebogs. Two months after my arrival back in Shimla Mirch, the day, in fact, that I was set to start my infusions to help mitigate the autoimmune illness, they had shown up at my door. I opened it…
    “What?” I stood there like an idiot, staring at Lumilda with the brightest smile in the history of smiles.
    “Come here dolt,” she said in Common -- she’d been practicing, apparently -- and she grabbed me by the front of the shirt and kissed me.
    What did I do? What do you think I did? I kissed her back.
    That first infusion set the stage for the others. Tick stayed and talked with my mom over coffee so she wouldn’t be scared, or at least, wouldn’t be as scared, and Lumilda went with me into the infusion room.
    I suppose I would have been much more terrified, being back in a hospital situation, but this was the hospital at Jethimadh, and the walls were all firebog brown, with beautiful dangling fruits and vegetables drying at the corners of the rooms. The shelves were the sweet dark green so common to home. I relaxed on the stools and watched the strange fish inside their bowls.
    When I went for the infusion, Lumilda rolled in right behind me, daring anybody who looked at her to challenge her right to be with me -- nobody did. Instead, they seated me near the corner of the room where Lumilda could sit next to me in her chair.
    The first nurse to start my infusion was half-way through mixing it when Nick showed up. “I’ll take over,” he said, smiling and taking the medicine and IV bag from the nurse. She shrugged and smiled, patted him on the arm, and walked out.
    “How you feeling Miso?”
    “My whole body hurts.”
    “We can fix that.” Nick put a few drops of something blue into the IV bag, and then injected the bag with what, to me, seemed to be a huge dose of the medicine for my auoimmune illness.
    “What is it?” I asked.
    “Here, take this,” he said, not answering. “This is allergy medicine. We give it to all of our patients, just to help in case you have a reaction.”
    Lumilda looked at me, worried.
    I shrugged. I’d been through worse. I tossed the tiny flat tablet into my mouth.
    “Let it dissolve on your tongue,” Nick said, and got the IV line set into my arm.
    “Owww,” I said, half-joking. “That really pinches.”
    “Oh get over yourself,” he joked. We laughed.
    As soon as the fluid hit me, my pain disappeared and my head felt like it was filled with cotton. I slept.
    “What did you give me?” I slurred.
    “Pain medicine mixed with your infusion.”
    “What is the infusion? What is this?”
    “Magick,” Nick said, mimicking Everfawn and wiggling his fingers in the air. We all laughed -- though mine was a sleepy laugh -- and Nick went on, “Naw, the infusion? It works by docking your immune system, so it stops eating you so much.”
    “I feel sick.”
    “That’s normal.” He pulled a trash can close to me. “If you have to lose your cookies, do it in here.”
    But all I did was lay my head back and slept for the duration of the infusion.
    Those first few infusions were the hardest. I couldn’t eat hardly anything afterward, my body hurt so badly. Everfawn visited regularly and waved incense over me and played cards with Lumilda and me. Lumilda told me stories from different regions -- she’d studied every region in Ur, extensively -- and I learned that one day she hoped to visit all of them.
    I became increasingly impressed with my friends.
    My former friends - the ones I’d known since before my kidnapping - joined us often, plying us with questions and --
    “We’re here,” the driver called.
    I must have drift off to sleep a few times.
    I waited as Lumilda climbed out first and got settled in her chair, and then she motioned for me to hop out. I followed her out. But -- this wasn’t home. I looked around, suddenly frantic.
    “Don’t be a goober,” Lumilda laughed, and took my hand, pointing behind me. “Look.”
    Heart racing, I turned around. We were at the far end of the Herb Gardens. All of my friends were there -- new and old -- and they shouted “Surprise!” I was almost knocked backward, laughing.
    “It’s been a year!” My friend Medds came running to me and wrapped his arms around me.
    “Uf!” I hugged him back and everyone gathered around me. “What is all this?”
    “You’ve been back for a year! We thought we should celebrate!”
    There was a table full of food, and the smells mixed with the scent of all the flowers and herbs. My senses were overwhelmed.
    (NOTE! * more to come! 10'000 more words or so that is! lol.. this is all I've got so far though, enjoy! ^_^)
  • I threw up.

    My friends kicked dirt over my vomit and helped me over to a picnic blanket they had laid down on the ground. Lumilda wheeled over and took my hand. I rested my head in her lap.
    “I’m so sorry guys,” I mumbled.
    “It’s okay, it’s okay,” they reassured me, petting my head and offering me water.
    “It was just too much,” I continued.
    “We should have thought about how the smells would affect you,” they said. “I’m sorry.”
    Everyone was apologising profusely but the only thing I could think of was how embarrassed I was. They apologised, I apologised, and we went through that a few times before Lumilda spoke up.
    “That’s enough everyone, give Miso some space,” she said, and they backed off some.
    Medds brought me a cup of watered-down lemonade, and his little sister Josefine -- there was only a difference of a year, but she was tiny compared to him -- brought me some plain flat bread to nibble on.
    Argon sat down next to Lumilda and me on the blanket and broke off a little flat bread for himself, chewing quietly and slowly. “You know, these infusions you get? They’re like the ones my mom had when she had cancer. Smells and even things like lights and sounds sometimes set her off. And sometimes it was nothing. She’d be fine one minute and then be chucking the next. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
    “Yeah, thanks,” I said, “me too.” I laughed at my own joke -- it wasn’t very funny but it was the best I could do at the moment -- and thanked everyone for their kindness.
    “So it’s been a year hunh?” I shook my head in amazement.
    “Do you ever think…” Medds trailed off.
    “Think what?” I closed my eyes for a moment, still laying on Lumilda’s lap. She was stroking my hair so tenderly and gently that I almost fell asleep right there in the Gardens.
    “Well, do you ever think that anyone is still out there? That there are people still out there, right now, conducting more secret tests?” It wasn’ Medds that said that, it was Alexx, but it was what they all were thinking.
    “Alexx, I don’t know,” I said, opening my eyes again and looking straight at him. “I guess I just try not to think about it.”
    “But you’ll be better now, right?” That was Josefine.
    “Yeah, the doctor said about a year infusion-free, and then we get to go through this whole circus again. For the rest of my life.”
    “Why?” Medds was frowning. “I know you’ve told me but.. I don’t remember…”
    “It’s just to keep my immune system from killing me. Whatever They did to me, it messed up my immune system pretty badly. So these infusions protect my system from just going all kamikaze.” I sighed and closed my eyes again. “I’ll be happy when the side effects wear off.”
    “Is there anything we can do?” Medds asked.
    Everfawn was walking over to me holding a plate with a little food on it. “You should try to eat. Protein will help,” he said, handing me the plate. It had a chunk of cheese, some beans, and a small slab of meat on it.
    I sat up and thanked him. “You’re right, protein does usually help. How’s your mom doing these days, Argon?” I asked.
    “All better,” he said, smiling.
    “That’s good,” I said. I knew my conversational skills were lacking and hoped my friends understood.
    Lumilda wheeled herself over to the makeshift table and loaded up a plate for herself, coming back over to sit near me on the picnic blanket. “These spells don’t usually last too long,” she explained to the others. “Miso just usually needs to rest, and then he’s better soon.”
    I nodded.
    I saw Jaylee before I saw Nick; she came running up through the garden, in between the plots of herbs. Nick was just a little distance behind her, smiling and holding a bouquet of flowers.
    “Hey Miso,” he called. We all waved, and Jaylee ran over straight onto the picnic blanket and flopped down on her belly.
    “Cheese?” she asked.
    “What do we say?” Nick gently admonished her.
    “Please? Cheese?”
    I laughed and gave her the cheese off of my plate. Before I could do anything else, Everfawn had already replaced my chunk of cheese and placed a fresh one on my plate. I laughed again. “Thanks, I’m okay,” I said.
    Everfawn shook his head. “Listen Miso, may I please speak with you? In private?”
    I nodded, picking up on his suddenly serious tone, and followed him away from the group.
    “I fear that your hardships are not yet at an end,” he said, withdrawing his strange round cards from a pocket.
    I frowned. “Everfawn, they’re already not over. I feel miserable, and I have to go through all of this again in a year.”
    “No,” he said, “I mean, I think there is another journey you must take. And I fear you may want to go this one alone, but you must not.” His voice was urgent, and his hands were shaking.
  • “What journey?” I asked.
    “The cards have not yet told me. But please, Miso. Please be careful.”
    “I will, man,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Now come on, let’s eat before the beans get cold.”

    Ever since I’d come back, everyone had been trying to feed me, and I couldn’t say it bothered me. There was something unnerving about being so skinny and yet eating everything in sight, so I just let everyone feed me, within reason, and tried to keep my weight normal.
    The doctors said that whatever virus I had in me -- and it was permanent, there was no cure -- that it was continuing to eat my body fat. And if I didn’t have enough body fat in me, it would begin to eat my organs and bones, too. That was partly what the infusions were for.
    Honestly, it was a terrifying prospect.
    And should I take any heed to what Everfawn had said?

    That night, I curled up with Lumilda in my arms. She told me a story from her childhood, something about a princess and a cat. I didn’t listen so much to the story as just to the music of her voice. I ran my hands through her soft hair and thought about how blessed I was to have found her. In all of Ur, I could never have imagined finding someone so smart, talented, funny and beautiful. And for some inexplicable reason, she wanted me to be hers.
    She had begun teaching Nottisian lessons at the college in Jethimadh,
    I’d been so caught up in my health I hadn’t done much of anything, except outreach to the other people affected by the medical experiments we’d undergone. It was a club of sorts -- albeit a dark, twisted sort of club, based on shared misery -- where we’d get together for infusions and then coffee afterward. My favourite person I’d met there was an older lady named Nane. She had spent a lot of time in the mines in Ilmenskie -- that’s where she’d been kidnapped from -- and had made friends with the batterflies there, which I didn’t know it was possible to do.
    Her grandkids used to play hide and seek in the small tunnels there while she mined. Her husband, Telkot, would bring her lunches and they’d sit on the smooth rocks and eat together.
    There was also Julian, with his shock of black hair and his long goatee, whose tall legs were the source of endless amusement for children. Kids always assumed for some reason that he was wearing stilts.
    There was Armindo, a big construction worker from Groddle; Julia, a mother of five from Kloro; Kennes, a plumber, also from Groddle; Searah, Sophie, Emro… I got to know all of them. We were like a family.
    If we didn’t have each other, it would have seemed like we’d just been through a waking nightmare.
    I didn’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my support group. We talked often about what it was like being stuck in a room with nothing to do. So many of them had begun talking to themselves, and then never stopped the habit back in the ‘real’ world. Emro confided in me once that he was in the market and had started talking to himself out loud; it drew a ton of weird stares and some rude comments, but he didn’t feel like he could stop it.
    It was just a defense mechanism -- and we’d all done it at one point or another.
    Lumilda drifted off to sleep in my arms but I laid awake, just holding her, thinking about what Everfawn had said.
    What if this whole thing had been for nothing? What if there really was more to come?
    Were there more people, right now, as I laid there comfortably in my bed, out there being kidnapped and held against their will? Nothing like this had ever happened before in Ur. Especially not in Uralia, which was lauded as one of the safest places. That’s why people flocked to the Ilmenskie Caverns to mine, rather than Pollokoo or any of the other northern mines. Uralia and Ilmenskie were beautiful, and safe. You could spend a day leisurely strolling through the Caverns, looking for gems, talking with vendors, just exploring and climbing and feeding batterflies, and not have to worry. But I’d been held just hours away from there. What other secrets was Ur hiding?

    I drifted into a fitful sleep.
  • When I woke up, Lumilda was already in the kitchen reading the daily newspaper. I walked over to her, running my hands through my hair, and kissed her on the forehead.
    “Hey Miso,” she said, smiling up at me. But there was something behind her smile.
    “Good morning beautiful. Everything okay?” I sat down across from her at the table.
    She set the paper down and smoothed it out. “People have been going missing,” she said, no longer smiling.
    “It says here, this is the tenth person so far. The Moderators have been called in to investigate.”
    “Do they think it’s…” I trailed off, not wanting to say it.
    “They’re still holding Doctor Jameson,” she said, “so I can’t imagine it’s him.”
    “So it’s nothing then.” I didn’t want to think about it.
    “Not nothing. Miso, what if…”
    “What if what? If ‘they’ are out there kidnapping again… how would we even know where to start? This isn’t our job. It’s not my job. I’m done with that. I only just finished my infusions and I still feel terrible. What am I supposed to do?”
    “All I’m saying is, nobody really knows what went on there except you and the others who were taken. Maybe you’d be a resource.”
    “A resource?” The word left a bad taste in my mouth.
    “You know what I mean. Maybe if you got together with the others, you could go to the Moderators and see…”
    “See what? How could we possibly help? We don’t even know if that’s what this is.”
    “I just think it’s worth talking with them.”
    “Yeah, okay,” I said. But I didn’t mean it, not really. All I wanted to do was live my life, and I had all of this drama dropped into my lap. But if I was the one to do it, shouldn’t I stand up and be brave? I was terrified, that was the truth of it. Just blindly, cripplingly terrified. I wanted to run from just the thought of being imprisoned again. And it wasn’t even that bad for me. Listening to the other people who had been kidnapped, some of them had it much worse. There weren’t just experiments being run for pharmaceuticals, but some of them had horrific physiological experiments done too. There was no precedent in the history of Ur for the things they went through.
    That’s why Dr. Jameson was still locked up, and wasn’t ever going to be let free.
    But what if Lumilda was right? What if there were other people like him out there? Or what if…
    “Didn’t you say there was someone else at the Facility?” Lumilda asked.
    “Yeah, another nurse.” I couldn’t say I hadn’t thought about her since everything happened. If there was someone out there kidnapping people, it might well be her. “I don’t want to think about that right now,” I said, trying to be honest. If there was one person in Ur I could be honest with about everything, it was Lumilda.
    She kindly dropped the subject.

    It was later that I got the call. Emro was in the hospital.
    Nick got there before me.
    “What’s going on?” I asked him.
    “We don’t know. Emro’s sick.”
    I walked with Nick into Emro’s hospital room. He was laying there weakly staring at the ceiling. It didn’t look like he was all the way awake. There was an IV line in his arm and a blood pressure cuff on his other arm, and electrodes measuring heart rate and brain waves connected every which where on him. I went close to him and took his hand. “Emro?”
    He looked at me, but he was staring right through me.
    “Emro it’s Miso. How are you feeling?” I asked gently.
    “Terrible,” he mumbled. “It started last night. I thought it was just side effects from the infusions but then the pain got worse. I came in here and…” he trailed off, a tear trickling down his face.
    I turned to Nick, questioning.
    “His organs are failing,” Nick said quietly. “The doctors don’t know how to stop it. It’s all of them, liver, kidneys, everything.”
    My chest seized. If this was happening to Emro… “How are the others?” I asked, referring to all the others from the Facility.
    “We don’t know yet. I tried to call Nane but I didn’t get an answer.”
    “I’ll call her,” I said, and went out into the hallway to find a phone.
    The phone was ringing but before she answered, I heard shouting from Emro’s room. I hung up and ran back, on the heels of several other nurses running into there too. By the time I got there, Emro was dead.
    “What happened?” I screamed.
    Nick grabbed me and pulled me aside so the other nurses could work. “I don’t know. He just.. He was laughing there and then patted my hand and closed his eyes and, that was it. He was just… gone.”
    I was sobbing, and Nick led me outside.

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