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A Torch in the Darkness

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A Torch in the Darkness

 

The Clockwork City. The Metal Giant. The Raised City. The Chosen of the Twelve. The City of Time. The Eighth City.

The flickering of massive furnaces and reaching spires of twisted metal mark what had once been the greatest of the Twelve Cities of the Enlightened Continent. Long ago, the city was surrounded by a fertile valley, but Time has passed on. Now a ring of dust and hard-packed ground spreads outwards from the industrial city like a growing blight. Once, gently waving grass had grown beneath the eaves of the cities floor, surrounding the graceful columns that held the entire city high above the landscape. The explanation for why the city was raised up off of the ground has been lost to Time but the denizens of the decaying city had found advantage to its structure by depositing their refuse and debris into the Below beneath them. Now, where grass once grew, gray sludge and mounds of discarded treasure oozed out beyond the boundaries of the city itself.

Even so, wealth and technology of ages past still hangs in the shadows of the twisting towers at the center of the city. There had been a time when the ever-turning gears that powered the cities buildings shone brightly in the sun, but now they creak and groan under the strain of use and lack of care. The great smiths and machinists of Eight had been legendary throughout the Enlightened Continent, attracting trade from cities as far away as Three. Inventions like the powerful Blackpowder and Autogarden spread like wildfire from their inception in the laboratories of The Clockwork City. Even he Reborn, outcast cults of the city Five, traveled to Eight. They came secretly but rumor suggests that it was with the intention of crafting some device that combined their mystic powers with the technology of Eight’s craftsmen.

Nine and Seven to the North and Southeast grew fat and prosperous on the travel and trade that passed through them on the way to Eight, and there was peace among them. The mines to the Northeast had seemed an inexhaustible source of coal and unrefined iron, the lifeblood of Eight. But the mines had run dry and the men who work them now are little more than slaves. Trade vanished, and hostilities passed between Eight and its neighbors. In the crowded markets of the Metal Giant, rumors of war with the Nine abound. Time has moved on, the people say woefully, and there is nothing one can do about it. Time has indeed moved on, and something more sinister has taken its place.

In the Outer City the edges of the slums and the affluence of the city mixed. There the famous Lamps of Eight once lined the streets in a steady march towards the Inner City. In their time, each one was a bright point of fire, shedding light on wide avenues where trees and carefully cultivated bushes bloomed in the night from their iron containers. The lamps of Eight, powered by a mysterious network of gas pipes, were one of the greatest wonders of the City of Time. Visiting engineers could only guess at their design. But so close to the slums the cultivated shrubbery and glittering lamplight on the curved streets had all but disappeared. Only a few lamps still flickered lifelessly while the rest were broken stumps, their craftsmanship destroyed so that the metal might be salvaged.

On one of these dark streets, where the working men of poor means make their homes, lives a boy. A boy with strange dreams.

His home was not far from the slums, a strange and crowded place. The slums were not originally in the design for the city instead, as the city grew more and more crowded, new structures were haphazardly welded onto the already sagging edges. A naturally vicious life awaits all who inhabit these teeming slums where a scrap of tin is more valuable than Time itself. Few there fear death. The threat of death is an old companion for those who were raised to the sound of popping rivets and groaning metal, signaling the eventual collapse of the metal beneath their feet and a fatal fall to the earth below. Superstition rules these ghettos, and garishly painted shamans rule the minds of the people. They wander the streets selling charms of human bone, claiming they are true wood from beyond the city’s great ramps.

A short walk from these teeming death traps the architecture changes dramatically from corrugated tin lean-to’s into identical grey box homes with a single floor and a thin steel door. These utilitarian homes had been built when massive complexes of stacked and spacious apartments were being constructed all over the Inner City. The builders had hoped the privacy of a single floor and distance from the political life of the Inner City would attract rich buyers. But the buyers never came; they had no interest in a home with only a single, narrow hallway that connected to a bare living room, cramped kitchen, and two small bedrooms. So they became homes to the soot-coated workers of the Bellows who saved hard earned money all their lives for a piece of the Inner City dream.

Before the fireplace in the living room of house 4762, the son of a soot-coated Bellows worker was sitting on a threadbare rug and thinking about his dream. It had been coming to him night after night and he was wondering what it could mean. He turned it over in his mind as if it were a physical object, examining every angle of it, studying its shape. He carefully looked over every piece and tried to see how it fit in the whole, striving to understand its function. Before him was a book filled with bright pastel illustrations of fire and a hard faced man with a white stripe through his hair. “Tinder: Hero of Flame,” the front proclaimed, “In this issue the Ice Ranger must face her greatest challenge yet to rescue the captured hero!”

His unfocused eyes drifted over the illustration of a woman clothed in blue and crowned by ice as his thoughts floated down other streams. She was casting bright shards of merciless ice at goblin foes, her face aglow with battle lust. But the boy was not thinking about her heroics; rather, he was distracted by thoughts of a dream that always began the same way…

He watched with one eye; his other was closed, having been crushed into the dirt he had collapsed on. The man, wearing a neat vest and slacks, was moving away from him. The battle was over, and he had lost. His opponent was walking away. His ragged breath caused bursts of dust to fly into the air, clouding his eyes. The grainy sand felt rough on his teeth and he struggled to see.

Beyond the clouds of dust he watched the man stop and look intently at a pocket watch he had pulled from the vest. His shoulders slumped in despair and the pocket watch made a sharp snap as it was violently closed and stuffed back into the vest. An angry roar erupted from the man before he continued his steady tread away from the battleground.

He tried to lift his head from the ground to get a final glimpse of the man who had defeated him, but dizziness swooped upon him and a face swam before his eyes – her face. Suddenly, the mysterious man was gone from his consciousness. She was saying something, her beautiful features moving with compassion, but he could not make out the words. He had to know what she was saying. His ears filled with a rushing sound, as if the city above him was crashing down around his shoulders and he struggled desperately to hear her.

Images slashed across his vision – hallucinations – but as real to him as the dirt he lay on. A grave on a hill, his own bloody hand, and a pile of bones. A legacy he’d left behind, the monster he’d become. The bestial part of him that had ruled for so long laughed gleefully at the gruesome images as they sped past.

He dug his hands into the soil in rejection of all that he had become: The Sower, a night terror, a violent and ruthless fiend that haunted the Below. Waves of guilt cascaded against his fragile psyche and he howled, twisting and convulsing in the dirt. His tears made mud of the grime that covered his face.

He thrashed about, screaming wordlessly until a single syllable materialized, uttered again and again, “No, no, no, no…”

Her face flashed by again, and he watched as her lips moved, she seemed so sweet and soft, like the home he longed for, so different from the confusion wracking his brain. The exhaustion was overwhelming; he could feel the dream coming. He saw the familiar silver coin on the ground beside him and knew better than to try and grasp its ethereal presence. A deep groan built within him and he cried, “I can’t, I can’t! Look what I’ve done!”

He tried to point at the images and scenes as they flashed through his mind, driving home the misery he’d caused.

But her gentle yet insistent voice commanded his attention, and he finally heard what she had been repeating: “Sebastian, Sebastian, it’s ok, Sebastian.”

Yes. He had been called Sebastian. He remembered, with a strange sense of clarity, that a long time ago he had been called Sebastian.

And then the dream took him. The gray landscape of rolling hills and columns disappeared, day turned to night in an instant. A deafening scream erupted from the darkness around him as he hurtled down a bottomless tunnel. Red flames burst towards him, reaching out from the blackness to consume him. But he laughed and embraced the vengeful sound and the fire’s burning kiss. He knew the wraith that haunted his dreams would be furious with him. He felt his skin blister from the heat and he smiled, welcoming the pain, naming it as his penance.

He would awake then, sweating, his cheeks wet with tears, disoriented and confused. The feelings of despair and shame would linger with him for hours in the darkness of his room. For a long time afterwards he would lie awake, staring at the ceiling with wide eyes and sifting through the strange emotions that knotted his stomach.

He still had not told his parents. He didn’t want them to think he wasn’t grown up. He would be going to work with his father in the Bellows as soon as he had passed his examinations. If they knew he was having nightmares and crying in his sleep, they’d never let him go with the other boys his age to work in the city’s furnaces. So instead he silently pondered, awake in the dark of his room, who the face belonged to and why the desperation of the dream clung to him long after the dream had ended.

Firelight glinted off of his glassy eyes. He barely noticed the illustration of Tinder, with his white-striped hair flying about him as he battled goblins. Instead, he was trying to recall the soft features of the face that had appeared before him. He had just conjured up the barest image of a face surrounded by auburn hair when his mother’s voice broke through his reverie.

“Come Sebastian, it’s time for bed.”

Her words shook him from his reverie and brought him back to the thin rug before the fireplace in his living room. The steel walls glowed with the orange light of the fire, a smattering of furniture and a few shelves that supported a miniature library. He flipped the page of his picture novel to a new illustration and a block of text he hadn’t read yet.

“Aw Mom. I’m twelve now. Can’t I stay up later?”

“No honey, you’ve got a big day tomorrow. Or did you forget about your examination already?”

“But I’m practicing my reading.” The boy with his short brown hair and dark brown eyes gestured with the book, and it flapped haphazardly in his hands. “I’m almost at the best part.”

Mother shook her head, “Those silly picture novels don’t count. That’s what you should be reading.” She pointed to the shelves on the wall, filled with old books with dusty pages and complex sentences. The only purpose those books had ever served Sebastian was as emplacements for his tin soldiers, which were currently scattered about the room in battle positions. “How do you know it’s the best part if you’ve never read it before anyway?”

Sebastian went back to reading and pretended he hadn’t heard her question.

She turned to address the tall man who lay splayed out in his gear chair, a rocking chair supported by a complex system of gears that was said to create the smoothest possible rocking experience. A piece of technology that complex was difficult to find now that the factories of Eight had shut down. Mother said it was a waste of money. Father said it was the best purchase he’d ever made.

At the moment, he was resting his eyes with a single-minded determination. His long legs reached out towards the crackling fire, revealing a frayed and scorched hem and small holes where hot ash had burnt the fabric away. His wrinkled white shirt possessed the same golden-black singe marks in abundance. It seemed that the only piece of clothing that had not come into contact with soot and embers was his vest, which gripped his thin waist tightly. Firelight glinted off of a small piece of metal resting in the pocket where a pocket watch would have been were he a richer man.

“You never should have bought him that thing so close to exam time.”

His eyes cracked open and he squinted down his chin at his wife and son. “Well it was his birthday. What was I supposed to do?”

“Wow, you’re actually awake, Dad. Normally you’ve fallen asleep by now.”

“Asleep? Never! I am the forever vigilant Tinder, Hero of Flame!”

“Oh no, please don’t, Dad!”

“I got my powers in a dream about a magical phoenix and since have been using my prodigious skills to battle the goblins. It is my destiny to someday confront The Sower, my arch nemesis and scourge of the world!”

Father had gotten up from his chair and stood before the fire, gesticulating wildly with every phrase. Sebastian turned back to his book to avoid watching him act like a fool. Mother had her face in her hands, hiding an embarrassed smile.

“Howard, sometimes I think you like those stories more than he does.”

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good story,” he said defensively, his previously animated arms now hanging limply by his sides. Now that he had stopped moving he looked more gaunt than ever.

“It is if you’re my age,” complained Sebastian.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s weird that I still read these books. Everyone else stopped reading them years ago, and if I mention it they just make fun of me. They’ll laugh at me if they find out I read kids’ books, especially in the Bellows.”

Sebastian nudged the book away, as if it was a contaminant that he was trying to avoid, but his eyes still followed it longingly.

“Sure you can! You’re going to be one of the best workers down in the Bellows, I’m sure of it. And I should know; I’ve worked there all my life. I’ve always loved stories like that, and look at me.”

“Ya, Head Coal Shoveler or whatever you are.”

Howard looked at his son, his eyebrows drawn down in a genuine look of hurt, but Sebastian was still staring at the pages of his book.

“‘Bastian, start cleaning up your things. It’s time for you to go to bed.”

Sebastian got slowly to his feet and grumbled under his breath. He was grateful for something to do other than think about his examination tomorrow or the Bellows in the near future. Wouldn’t it be nice, he caught himself thinking, if he could just be like Tinder and incinerate anything that bothered him. So many problems would go away.

“Howard, I need to talk to you about something.”

Howard paused in the middle of falling back into his gear chair. After seeing the look on his wife’s face, he righted himself and moved quickly to her side, speaking in soft tones.

“What is it Sara?” Sebastian heard his Father say, but he didn’t bother listening too closely. He was thinking about the dream again, wondering if it was some kind of sign. Perhaps someday he would be the man walking away, and the skinny man on the ground was a defeated enemy, repenting for his sins. He grew excited at the idea.

“It just doesn’t feel right. The last street lamp went out when I was on my way home today. Just puffed out without any warning.”

“I know, I know, you told me earlier. We put a request in; all we can do now is wait.”

“It’s not about the damn work request. I’m still so scared. You know they won’t stop trying to find us, especially now that everything is going back to the way it was. They don’t want any loose ends. They don’t want him to come back and stop them again.”

“They said they’d keep us safe. No one is going to know we were involved. You know the Protectorate’s word is good. They’ll do everything they can to keep us out of this.”

“I don’t doubt them. I just don’t know that it will be enough. You remember what it was like last time…”

“We’ll be okay. We did what we had to at the time, and we’re doing what we have to now for our son. We will be ok. Nothing is going to happen.”

Sara’s mouth opened as if to say something, but she stopped herself and smiled instead.

“That’s why I love you. So delusional and so sure of yourself. It makes me feel better all the same.”

She reached a hand up to touch his cheek and he smiled down at her.

“And would you get rid of this?” she said, scratching at the stubble dotting his chin. “You know I hate it.”

“I keep it just for you,” he replied, grinning.

But then her face got serious.

“Speaking of things you should get rid of, please take care of that,” she said, poking him in the vest where the silver medallion lay in his pocket.

“I will,” he said, glancing pensively at it, “It’s just hard to let it go. It seems… wrong to just throw it away.”

She considered him for a moment.

“I don’t think it will hurt to keep it for a little while longer. What’s the worst that could happen? But do it soon, and make sure no one can find it.”

He looked relieved and gave his wife a tight smile of thanks.

“Why don’t you check the locks on the door and I’ll put Sebastian to bed.”

He nodded, “I’ll load the blackpowder before we go to bed too, just to be safe,” he added as he stepped down the hallway towards a door with several locks and a locking bar guarding it.

“Come on Sebastian.”

Having stretched the chore of cleaning up his toys to its limit, Sebastian had no choice but to follow his mother down the hall to his bedroom. Looking over his shoulder, he saw his Father’s back was moving slowly down the hall to the front door, where he carefully inspected each lock and gave the knob a hard tug to make sure it was secure.

When he was younger, Sebastian had hated going to bed. Almost every night he would put up a fight before his parents found a way to convince him to go quietly. They had reminded him that Tinder got his powers when a dream showed him how to capture a phoenix with clever words and a commanding voice. He could never dream of how to get his own super powers if he never slept, they had told him. And boys who don’t listen to their parents don’t get powers either, his father had added. After that he had gone willingly to bed every night.

What his parents didn’t know is that he had also said a silent prayer every time he walked down that dark hallway towards his room. “Please, please, let me have a dream tonight that will show me how to get my powers,” he would ask. Recently, he had abandoned that tradition, telling himself it was childish and foolish. Even so, he could not squash his desire to escape normalcy and so, against his will, he reprised that silent prayer as he followed his mother.

“Please, please, let me have a dream tonight that will show me how to get my powers.”

He repeated the phrase several times before deciding to revise it, “I don’t care what it is, just give me something so that I can have an adventure.”

He felt a strange sense of calm descend over him, and he wondered if it was because he was tired or this was an indication of portentous things to come. His recurring dream seemed to indicate that tonight might be the night he got his wish. A thrill of excitement hummed through his chest and he jumped into bed. He even let his mother ruffle his hair and kiss him on the cheek without his usual protestations.

“Would you like a glass of water before I go?”

Sebastian shook his head.

“Sleep well, make sure you’re rested for your examination tomorrow.”

“I will,” he responded impatiently, eager for the darkness that came when she closed the door so that he might imagine his future as a great adventurer in privacy.

Even as he tried to picture what it would be like to fly or control ice like the Ice Ranger, his thoughts were interrupted with worries about his first days in the Bellows.

Almost everyone went to work in the Bellows, the coal fired furnaces that powered the city. Everyone Sebastian knew would be going to work there just as their fathers had. It was a difficult job, one that drew a lot of pride and honor for those who could do it well. It required quick thinking, fast reflexes, and almost superhuman strength to be promoted to anything beyond a peon who took the most dangerous jobs. His friend Mathias was certain to be one of the Promoted almost instantly. He was fast and strong and incredibly smart. They had grown up together. He lived close by and they spent their days playing and going to lessons together. Their parents were close friends, which only solidified their relationship.

Mathias had loved the stories of Tinder as much as Sebastian when they were young. They had played out the scenes from the picture novels over and over with one of them imitating Tinder and the other posing as the wild haired, insane-but-brilliant villain, The Sower. But as they got older, Mathias had slowly left the picture novels behind, never offering much explanation other than, “They just aren’t as cool anymore.” They remained close friends, but more and more Sebastian sensed a growing divide between them. He stayed fascinated by Tinder while Mathias got closer to the older boys who were going to the Bellows. They talked about how quickly they could weld a line or how much cycles they could shovel unbroken. It was not that he didn’t want to do well in the Bellows as well; he was smart and fast. But it seemed no matter how fast he was he could never make up for the lack of strength in his scrawny arms.

He wasn’t much worried about the examination. He’d always done well on examinations without having to try too hard. But as he drifted to sleep, his imagination switched between fascinating visions of heroic acts and embarrassing scenes of his friends laughing at him as he desperately tried to lift an I-beam. Eventually his thoughts slowed, and he fell into the familiar patterns of troubled sleep.

Down the hall and past the kitchen, light spilled into the hallway from the cracks around a door. Inside was a small bedroom where a flickering kerosene lamp sat on a bedside table. Next to the table was a small leather bag filled with a dark powder and a jar of metal balls the size of marbles. There was a miniature fireplace to the side that lay dormant. All about the room, hammered into place on the walls, were paintings and illustrations. Some were carefully framed images of nature that no inhabitant of Eight had ever seen with their own eyes. Others were nailed into place, frameless, with their edges curling inwards. Above the bed was affixed a large piece of parchment illustrated with a depiction of life in the Clockwork City, done in dark charcoal. The edges were ragged, and it had an old but loved quality to it. In the corner it was signed simply, “-H”.

Howard was sitting on the bed, packing black powder from the nightstand into a contraption that lay at his feet. The contraption had a long, wide bore tube connected to a thick block of wood. The two were connected by a piece of interlocking machinery that led to a large iron lever, protruding slightly from the wooden stock.

“Have you ever fired the blackpowder before?” Sara asked as she watched her husband’s careful movements, alternately standing by him and pacing back and forth.

“No, of course not.”

“Then how do you know it will work?”

“It’s a fairly simple piece of engineering, dear. You pull that up into the stock,” he indicated the lever, “it activates this gear mechanism, and that ignites the powder.”

“I know, I know. I could have built it myself had I known it was so simple. I just hate the waiting. I hate not knowing.” Sara pushed her hair back as she let out a frustrated sigh.

Howard continued his slow and methodical actions, now adding in the metal balls with extreme caution. He didn’t respond, but a persistent, worried frown creased the corners of his mouth.

“Where did they get the wood for that thing anyway? It must have cost them Time itself.”

Howard shook his head. “The Protectorate has strange connections. I hardly knew weapons like this existed before they offered it to us. Gretchen and Destin said they’d never heard of a family being given one before.”

They fell silent.

Howard paused at his task. “That reminds me, I was speaking to Destin yesterday. He said they were taking Mathias to Overwatch Tower tomorrow. They thought Sebastian might like to come along.”

“That sounds lovely. He’ll be so excited. It will be the perfect reward for finishing his exam.”

The conversation halted again, and Howard returned to his task. Having finished loading the Blackpowder, he leaned it gently against the nightstand. His shoulders slumped and he stared at a well-worn rivet in the floor.

“Sara. I don’t ever want to have to use that thing,” he said quietly.

She stopped pacing and turned to see her husband with his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking, and she felt a surge of compassion as she realized he was crying.

A quick step in the tiny room brought her to his side where she held him. He wrapped his arms around her and they held each other for a long time, letting the quiet creaks and moans of the house assuage their worries.

Down the hall Sebastian was interrupted in his fitful sleep by a strange heat all around him. Bright light pulsed garishly through his eyelids. He snapped his eyes open to find the room engulfed in fire. He cried out and pushed his body tightly against the backboard of his bed, trying to escape the heat. Impossibly, the flames shot out of the metal floor and licked at the ceiling. The heat was unbearable, and he could feel his skin start to blister and peel away.

A high-pitched scream erupted from his throat. He kicked his sheets away, and gathering his feet under him, tried to find a way to escape. He took short, panicked breaths and coughed violently against greasy smoke that poured into his lungs, carrying with it the taste of kerosene. His terrified cries rose above the crackle of the flames. Were he capable of forming a thought, he might have felt a brief moment of pity for Tinder’s burnt victims.

The door burst open, and as it did the flames and heat and smoke disappeared. His parents rushed in, their eyes darting in all directions. In his father’s hands was a tube that Sebastian had never seen before, and Mother held her hands before her like they were the claws of an under rat. Sebastian was surprised to find he was no longer scrunched against the headboard but instead lay comfortably beneath his sheets.

After a moment of panic, Mother ran to his side and scooped him into her arms, the sheets tearing off the bed with him.

“It’s ok, honey, it’s ok. It was only a dream.”

He cried into his Mother’s shoulder and tried to take a breath, but it seemed like all the air had left his lungs and wouldn’t come back.

He felt embarrassed at how he clung to his Mother, but he only held her closer as he tried to catch his breath.

“It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. You’re ok, you’re just fine. It was just a dream. Nothing is going to hurt you.”

The words comforted Sebastian enough to allow him to take deep, gasping breaths of air. They seemed to comfort Mother as well and she let out a giant sigh of relief. She sat him on the edge of the bed and stroked his hair. Father had left the room after determining the threat was only in his son’s dreams, and when he returned the tube was gone. Sebastian wondered if he had imagined it in the first place. Father sat on his other side, and they both held him and muttered comforting words. He nodded and thought about the pain of the fire all around him.

When the tears had finally dried from his cheeks and he had calmed enough, they tucked him back into bed, and he gave them both tight hugs.

“I’m fine,” he croaked out at last. He felt like a child with the way they were treating him.

Mother left the room calling out a soft “goodnight,” but at the door Father hesitated and looked back at Sebastian. After a moment he went back to his son’s bed and kneeled down beside him.

“What happened in your dream?”

Sebastian swallowed and closed his eyes against the memory.

“It’s ok, you don’t have to tell me about it,” said Father, seeing the reluctance in his son’s eyes. He patted Sebastian’s shoulder, “I don’t like to talk about my dreams either.”

Father reached into his pocket, “But I’ll tell you what.”

He pulled something out of his vest and held it with his hand closed so Sebastian couldn’t see it.

“You know how dangerous it can be in the Bellows. It’s not just the fire that will get you but the moving gears, the clanging levers, even the ill will of a friend, can mean death.”

Sebastian nodded slowly, he actually knew very little about what his father really did.

“Well as I get older I’m getting slower, and stupider,” he paused for a moment and smiled wryly, “but don’t tell your mother I said that. But even so I’ve never had an accident, and I never will. Do you want to know why?”

Sebastian shook his head.

“Because I have this.” Father opened his hand and to show him a tarnished silver medallion. He turned it so it would catch the light from the door, and Sebastian saw engraved on it the image of an eclipsed sun and a complex hourglass balanced on a scale made of a crescent moon.

“You can have it tonight. It will protect you from fire and the dark and anything else that might threaten you. In the morning, I’ll explain where it came from.”

He placed the medallion in Sebastian’s hand and gave him a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder. Then he stepped away from the bed and moved to the door.

“Goodnight son,” he said as the door closed behind him, and Sebastian was left in the darkness once again.

He had expected it would take him a long time to fall asleep after his nightmare, but clutching his father’s medallion, he found himself quickly drifting off.

This time he knew he was dreaming, and the medallion must have worked because it was a pleasant dream. He was walking slowly down the street in thick boots. Above him he could see the sky between the tall spires and crisscrossing wires of Outer City’s skyline. Despite the weight of his boots, they tread quietly on the welded walkway. Around his shoulders hung a heavy cloak that felt like one of his down comforters. The stars were blocked by the clouds and smog that hung over the city, but a diffused patch of white in the sky told him the moon was almost full risen. In the peace of the night it took him a moment to realize he had companions.

His head shifted to the side to look at the hooded figure next to him. Nothing seemed out of place until his companion turned towards him. Where a face should have been was instead a swirling vortex of darkness. Sebastian tried to recoil, to turn and run away, but instead he kept walking alongside the others as though his body expected the sight that his mind was rejecting.

He began to panic and glance about, trying to find a way to escape, to stop dreaming, to wake up. When they passed a street lamp he saw his reflection in the rat catcher’s window. He too, had only swirling darkness where his face should have been. He felt terror rise up within him and tried to call out for help to the dark storefront.

The rat catcher had always been friendly to him and had showed him how to lure rats into a trap with just the sound of his voice. But his voice stuck in his throat and they passed silently on by.

Now they passed the butchers. It was dark now but he was reminded of the wet sounds the machines would make as they sliced the meat. “Always be on good terms with your butcher,” Father would say, “or you’ll end up buying your meat from the rat catcher.” He always chuckled at his own joke.

As they passed the barber he visited once a month, he realized where they were going. They were coming to him. Soon they would pass number 4724, where Mathias lived. He knew with a strange certainty that these men were going to his house and that it was with evil intent. He glanced again at the men that accompanied him, this time with worry and fear creasing his thoughts. He saw, as their cloaks swept backwards, a set of wicked knives and tubes like the one his father had been carrying nestled in each of their belts. One hefted a sack that clinked softly in the night. He checked his own belt to find himself similarly armed. Terror seized him and his breath came in short gulps. He tried to run, call for help, scream, but he awoke in his bed, safe at home. Somehow, though, he could still hear the soft tread of boots on cold metal.

Fear swept through him and he leapt out of bed, crashing into walls as he rushed to his parents’ room. He found his parents awake and talking in hushed voices when he burst through the doorway. They were startled but recovered fast enough that by the time Sebastian reached him, Father swept him into his arms, giving Mother a worried glance as he did so.

“It’s ok-”

“Dad! Dad!” He tried to yell. He tried to tell him that they were in danger but only produced a weak sob.

“Shh. Shh. It’s ok.” Father comforted him.

Sebastian could only watch, his throat numb with fear, as they moved to the kitchen and he was placed into a chair, all the while his fingers moved frantically over his Father’s medallion as if it were a shaman’s charm. Father began warming some milk on their coal heated stove. He opened the iron door to wake the embers that sat in the stove’s belly. Mother felt his forehead and stroked his knee. From one of the high cabinets that ringed the kitchen, Father took out a crystal decanter. He poured a few drops of a brownish liquid into the milk as it warmed. He went to put the crystal back but hesitated and then poured himself a splash in a clear glass.

Sebastian tried to get the words out. Tried to move, tell them somehow, but he could only sit and stare with wide eyes at his father’s slow movements. His mother’s voice seemed to come from far away.

“Howard…”

“What? It’s just a small glass.”

“Not you, him.”

“It’s ok, dear. It’ll help him relax. He’ll sleep better.”

Mother gave Father a stern look but finally nodded.

Father poured the pan of milk into a glass and while Mother wasn’t looking added a few more drops of the brownish liquid to it. He handed the glass to Sebastian and took a short sip from his own.

They watched carefully as Sebastian gulped the warm milk down.

“Slow down honey. You don’t want to get stomach pains do you?”

But he didn’t stop until the glass was empty. It seemed like there was a small sun in his stomach as he felt the heat radiate out from his chest. His throat burned slightly, and he gave a dry cough as he placed the glass on the table.

“We have to go,” he croaked, jumping out of the chair and looking wildly from his mother to father.

“Bad men are coming. They have knives and a tube like Dad’s. I saw them, they’re coming here!”

Mother and Father exchanged a look.

“Honey, it was just a dream…” She began, but then there was a quiet thump from outside and they all fell silent.

“I’m getting the blackpowder,” Mother whispered, her hands were shaking, “Just like we practiced,” she added, looking at Father. She left the kitchen.

“Come here Sebastian,” his Father whispered.

He stepped to the wall of the kitchen that held a cylindrical cover, about the size of a man’s torso. It was their depository for the Tunnel System where all of the garbage for the city began its journey into the Below, the massive area beneath the city that contained all of the waste and discarded treasures of the Eighth City. Once opened, it led into a tunnel that connected with hundreds of others from houses and deposit centers in the neighborhood and finally exited beneath the city. There were muffled sounds from outside. He hurried over.

Father silently opened the lid of the chute and motioned for Sebastian to get inside. He clambered in without question and laid down on the part that lay flat before dropping off into the darkness. The faint smell of decay drifted out into the kitchen.

“Hold onto this,” Father said, indicating a handle on the side of the chute. He grabbed the handle with one hand. The other clutched the medallion close to his chest. “I’m going to close the door ok Sebastian?”

He nodded, trying to be brave, but tears slipped from his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. He gripped the handle tightly. He didn’t understand what was happening. He wanted to know what was going on. He found himself wondering if this was his fault, if his desire for adventure was being fulfilled in the most twisted way possible.

Father frowned. His eyes were wide with fear but his eyebrows drooped in despair.

“You are a brave boy, you know that right?” He said, cupping Sebastian’s cheek in his hand. He nodded again.

“If anyone but me or Mom opens this chute you go down ok?”

Sebastian was lying on his stomach and he could feel the chute sloping downwards at his knees and his shins hung over a sharp precipice.

“You go down ok?” Father said again, more forcefully this time.

Sebastian gave him one curt, determined nod.

“Everything is going to be ok. But if anyone opens this door you go down. You’ll be like a hero, sliding down the chute making me proud. But if you go down, do not tell anyone your name. Do you hear me? Do not tell anyone your name.”

But Sebastian’s resolve finally broke. He fell into uncontrollable sobs. He let go of the handle and reached out for his Father.

“Please! Dad! Don’t go! I don’t want you to go! I don’t want to be a hero! I just want to be safe with you. We’ll work together in the Bellows. I promise I’ll be Promoted!”

Guilt and sorrow crashed overs Father’s face and he began to speak but at that moment Mother rushed into the room, carrying the Blackpowder as if she meant to use it.

“Howard! They’re coming!”

With a determined frown Father pushed Sebastian’s hands away, back towards the handle, but Sebastian wouldn’t hold on. He began to crawl out of the chute. Father pushed him back roughly and slammed the cover down before he could recover. The sound of the latch clicking into place echoed through the tunnel and he found himself alone in the darkness with only the sound of his sobs.

“Be strong Sebastian.”

“Is he safe?” He heard his Mother say. Her voice broke on the last word.

“He’s safe.”

“We love you, Sebastian.” She called towards the chute. This time her voice didn’t shake.

“Remember son, no matter who it is who opens that door if it isn’t us, go down.”

“DAD!” he screamed. “DAD!”

But his voice was drowned out but the crash of the front door as it was kicked from its hinges by the soft treading boots of the men in cloaks.

There was a tremendous boom from the kitchen and he heard his mother scream, “There’s more where that came from you sons of whores!”

Booms and crashes echoed through the house, making Sebastian jump. Suddenly, Mother cried out and he could hear Father shout, “Sara! No!”

Sebastian closed his eyes and bit his shoulder as he moaned and cried. His hand clenched so hard it turned white and the image of the scale on the medallion dug into his palm.

When he finally opened his eyes to the pitch darkness, an eerie silence had settled over the house. He listened intently but heard nothing.

In the quiet a smooth and placating voice called out, “Sebastian, oh Sebastian, where are you?”

He was so startled he shouted, “Here! I’m in the garbage chute!”

He immediately clapped his mouth shut so fast that he bit his tongue.

“Found the bastard.” There was a grunt and he could hear a screech of metal on metal as the latch was undone. Fear took hold as he imagined the cover being lifted to reveal the faceless men staring at him as darkness swirled beneath their hoods. He shut his eyes until a familiar voice said, “There you are. Come on out now. It’s me, Mr. Tobin, you remember me, right?”

Sebastian opened his eyes to see Mr. Tobin’s round face staring at him from the circle of light that formed the opening of the chute. Father had always said that if he was ever in trouble or needed help he could go to Mr. Tobin. He was the constable and would always protect him; he was one of the few strangers in the city he was allowed to talk to.

Relief flooded through him and he let go of the handle, beginning to crawl forward. He was close to the edge of the chute, almost able to step out, when he saw his parent’s bodies on the floor. Father lay over Mother, a knife clutched weakly in his hand. His eyes were closed and blood spread slowly across the cold blue steel of the floor.

Suddenly, a strange sense of calm flooded through him and he felt his eyes droop. He was staring at his father’s face now, flecks of blood drying in his whiskers. His lips were moving, saying “Go down, go down.”

“What. Did he fall asleep?” A voice asked from somewhere in the kitchen.

“Just closed his eyes and started shaking,” came another, “there’s something wrong with that kid.”

Sebastian didn’t wait to hear the rest; he had already begun scrambling further back into the tunnel on his hands and knees, skinning them on the unforgiving steel. These men were killers. They had murdered his parents. He heeded his father’s advice without thinking, pushing himself towards where the tunnel tilted down into dark nothingness, barely acknowledging the fact that he had just seen his parent’s lifeless bodies.

“Someone grab him, he’s going down!”

“Damnit!” Tobin yelled, and dove into the narrow opening, his gloved hand reaching for Sebastian. As he did Sebastian saw that Mr. Tobin was dressed in the same black and hooded robes as the men from his dream.

Finger’s struck Sebastian’s face a moment before the ground gave way behind him and suddenly he was twisting and falling down the chute, his arms flailing and feet outstretched. He fell and fell and fell, tumbling head over heels until the slope evened out and he was able to catch himself on the curved walls. He had slid into a pile of garbage that had collected where several chutes came together. In the middle was another was a large hole, and indication of another chute that continued down towards the Below.

The faint smell he had caught from above was overwhelming here. He retched uncontrollably, the sound of his pathetic heaves echoing through the chamber. He was covered in slime and grit, all around lay detritus and refuse. His breaths came in huge gasps and it was several moments before he could steady himself.

He lay on his side, his face crushed into foul smelling garbage and his back to the cruel events above. The image of his parent’s mutilated bodies flashed before his eyes and another round of dry heaves wracked his thin body. This was all his fault, he thought, this is what he got for wishing for adventure. How could he have ever thought his life was boring?

The dry heaves turned into great, shaking sobs as the realization of what had happened settled in. He let the grief wash over him while the sound of rough voices bounced down the tunnel from above.

“Darkness take that brat. What are we supposed to do now?”

“That’s what the kerosene is for you dolt.”

“C’mon then, pour it down!”

Sebastian was curled on the ground, hugging his knees with his back to the voices when he began to feel a viscous liquid slide along his spine and pool around his shoulders. He sniffled and a new sickly sweet scent overpowered the smell of decay and caused him to gag again. He stood on shaky legs and watched the amber liquid spread among the garbage.

“Light ‘er up!” Came the command from above. Sebastian knew what was going to happen. He had smelled that sickly sweet scent many times before when he helped his father refill the lamps around the house, dousing the wicks of each one before refilling the reservoir.

With the smell of kerosene and the threat of fire imminent, his first dream seemed to spring to life and he could feel the tremendous heat all around him and the smoke choking his lungs. Without a moment’s thought he leapt into the chute that led farther down and as he did so, bright orange fire came racing down the tunnel to meet him.

After a second violent tumble through the chute he reached another chamber. There his father’s voice materialized clearly out of his racing thoughts, “You’ll be like a hero, sliding down the chute making me proud.” Without hesitation he leapt to his feet, searching for another exit. As soon as he caught sight of the hole at the center of the chamber he threw himself down, his father’s voice following him, “Be strong Sebastian”

He accelerated quicker and quicker, taking violent turns as the chute curved, cutting his arms and back. But it wasn’t fast enough. The flames caught up to him, igniting the kerosene that had soaked his back and spreading rapidly over his body. He cried out and thrashed violently in the tight confines of the tunnel as he tumbled farther and farther, going down, and still further down, just like his father had said. Amid the pain of the fire and the sharp impacts against the metal walls about, he found one part of him wishing he had taken that glass of water from his mother.

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7 Comments
  1. Really enjoyed this! Can’t wait to read the next part, I’m very intrigued!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! We’ll keep ’em coming! Next one will be out on June 20th, feel free to offer any feedback and thanks for the read!

      • I think it’s a great read so far! I would probably just suggest having it proofread again, as there were a couple things that should probably be fixed.

        The only other issue I had was the line, “Someone grab him, he’s making a break for it!” seemed out of place to me as a very cliche line. It kind of interrupted my suspension of disbelief and made me pause for a moment before moving on. I think it’s probably just personal preference though. “Someone grab him, he’s getting away.” or “Someone grab him, he’s trying to run!” anything other than “he’s making a break for it!” (I guess it just sounds kind of cheesy to me, in an otherwise very interesting and well put together read.)

      • Thanks! We’re definitely in a continuous process of fixing any small errors so we’ll get right on that! I think that’s a really good comment, I’ll try and adjust that line for future readers and I’ll keep that in mind when writing dialogue for the upcoming stories!

        Thanks again!

        R.C.

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