Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
The Revenge-Taker drifts like a ghost between the crumbled old shells of buildings, roofs broken like vacated eggs, open to the air. There were streets once. Now, you would know them only by the spaces between the buildings, sometimes wider.
The Revenge-Taker has a face like a horror. It is oily-shiny, with huge, round, blank eyes above a drooping snout. Its face is covered in a furry film of fungal spores. The spores cling to the rigid skin of its waxy cheeks, to the glassy surface of its eyes. Intermittently, the Revenge-Taker will reach up and paw at its eyes to clear its vision.
It trudges along with measured steps, without a goal but with purpose. Sometimes it follows paths of made-up significance, or is steered by algorithms which it invents and then discards. Sometimes it wanders randomly, not thinking, letting its feet choose their own path.
Through air hazy with drifting spores, it sometimes looks up, beyond the buildings. The buildings and the spores and the overgrown streets and the other wanderers that the Revenge-Taker sometimes bumps into - these are demonstrably tangible, things it might reach out towards and brush with its fingers. The things it sees beyond the broken curves of the buildings' domes - these are fuzzy, somehow other, like the painted backdrop of a theater stage; real enough to serve as a background for the actors, but too false to hold up under close inspection.
When the Revenge-Taker looks up, perhaps seized by some half-understood longing, it can't be sure if the things it sees are real, but it has no reason to doubt them and no good suggestions for what ought otherwise to be there. It sees a huge, curving brown plane, and giant gray faces with dark gaping eyes and mouths. They always stare at the Revenge-Taker and always look as if they're shouting something. If they are, they are too far off for it to hear.
The Revenge-Taker has never seen the sky.
Sometimes it meets others, among the old buildings. They teeter on unsteady legs. A few are thick-skinned, with faces like the Revenge-Taker; some are human; others, other types of animal. When the Revenge-Taker comes face to face with them, it tilts its head inquisitively, and reaches back to flip a switch on the tank it carries on its back. The tank chug-chug-chugs to life, and if necessary, the Revenge-Taker lights the pilot light on the end of the slim metal muzzle it carries, which connects to the tank via a flexible tube.
The others that it meets are all stricken by the same unfortunate ailment. Bursting from their mouths, their throats, their chests and foreheads and eyes, are long stands of yellow fungus. The fungus clings greedily to their skin and works its way into the crevices of their joints, forming colonies in their armpits, the crooks of their elbows, the gaps between their toes. Their heads loll as if all this makes them very, very tired.
Fuel rushes down the tube and out of the firebreather's muzzle. With the press of a trigger, the Revenge-Taker takes its revenge.
These moments, when the firebreather wheezes a spout of greasy flame and the shambling others turn into half-seen silhouettes and burn to ash - these moments feel long, slow to pass. It is as if the fire hardens the oozing sap of days into chunks of solid amber, which the Revenge-Taker can hold in clumsy hands, and twist and turn and look at.
The fire is the diametric opposite to the spores and the gloom and the reaching stalks of fungus, which are all bad and dirty, and anyway, the Revenge-Taker knows, none of it is really real. The fire is real. The fire is clean.
The Revenge-Taker knows none of it is real because it can remember real things. It can remember sleep, for example, and dreams. Compared to sleep, waking life was sharply-defined, crystalline. The Revenge-Taker can remember both states so clearly that it is sure it experiences neither of them anymore. It doesn't sleep, because it is always walking, always moving. And it can't be awake, because wakefulness was never this fuzzy and strange. The Revenge-Taker thinks it might sometimes doze, but it's not sure, because it never seems to be awake when this happens.
It can remember words, too. It can remember language. Now, whenever it tries to speak, its voice sounds muffled, wrong. Anyway, it wouldn't know what to say. Anyway, there is nobody for it to speak to.
The dizzy wanderers that stagger out of the deeper tunnels or between the ruined houses don't recognize the Revenge-Taker. It can see this in their milky blind eyes. But sometimes the Revenge-Taker recognizes them.
The Revenge-Taker burns them up, but there's no malice to this. Revenge is not taken upon them, the unfortunate vessels.
Long ago, there were trenches which lined some of the wider streets, where water sprung from some hidden spring in the ground and turned the trenches into little moats. The trenches are impossible to see now, thickly choked with pale stalks of fungi which curl about one another. Sometimes the Revenge-Taker steps in these unseen trenches, and goes stumbling as the soft rubbery treacherous ground gives way.
The space between the houses is wide now, a big street once. The Revenge-Taker follows the street, watching the way its boots leave heavy prints in the spongy ground. The houses pull back as if frightened; the Revenge-Taker finds itself in an open space, with the collapsed houses at a distance, like a crowd huddled together and watching it and murmuring to one another. The Revenge-Taker tilts its head and listens to the silence. If the houses are speaking, it can't hear them.
Before it, a short distance away, is a pillar which stretches up as far as the Revenge-Taker can see, and the remains of a big house. In front of the house stands a figure.
The sight of it makes the Revenge-Taker's grip on its firebreather tighten expectantly. It steps forward, watching the figure with interest. The others it has seen have all lolled and staggered and twitched, but this one stands perfectly still. It might be human, but the Revenge-Taker cannot tell; it is so overgrown with fungi that its features are completely obscured.
The tank coughs and hacks, and shudders to life almost reluctantly. The Revenge-Taker hoists the muzzle of the firebreather. Its interest in the figure is short-lived; the stories of the vessels, the people they were before, is irrelevant. What matters is the cleansing fire, the stark moment of vengeance.
Something stays the Revenge-Taker's finger on the trigger, though. It doesn't know quite what. Perhaps it is the eerie stillness of the vessel, as if waiting for something. As if waiting, maybe, for the fire to take it. The Revenge-Taker has the silly notion that maybe this one is tired of walking, that the fire has become a more attractive alternative. It's silly, because the walkers never get tired of walking. It is all they do.
Perhaps it physically cannot walk anymore. Even the worst infested ones have never been as overgrown as this one. The Revenge-Taker's trigger-finger itches at the thought of all that dirty bad fungus in its sights, stretching upwards as if to get away, but it can't get away, it's at the Revenge-Taker's mercy, and the Revenge-Taker doesn't deal in mercy, it deals in something else entirely.
The fire belches from the metal muzzle during one prolonged moment. Its greasy edges flicker crazily, but in the Revenge-Taker's mind the plume is still, a fixture. In the hazy darkness, lit only by the weak bioluminescence of the pale fungus, the fire burns stark white and holy and reflects in the Revenge-Taker's dead eyes.
In the moment of solid time like a prism, the Revenge-Taker sees reflections and refractions of other moments before this. It sees the tents of stiff leather they used to sleep in, sealed with glue and grease and a prayer that it would keep the spores out. It sees weak light, fading with each passing day but still so strong that they didn't know the fungus glowed. It sees another with a face like its own, except when they were safely indoors, when it would show its true face aching-beautiful. The Revenge-Taker sees - yes, it sees a long worry, a nine-month worry, interspersed with guilt and hope. It sees how those nine months ended.
Hope because it might not happen. Guilt because they both knew it would.
The spores. Contaminated air, people speculated, or maybe something in the water. It was horrifying; a pale, inert chunk of wasted flesh.
When the flame goes out, it leaves jagged afterimages dancing across the Revenge-Taker's field of vision, and a great confusion, because the Revenge-Taker still curls its black leathery finger tight on the trigger of the firebreather, but the tank just chugs dryly as it tries to spit more fuel out of an empty belly. The Revenge-Taker jostles the tank, twists the flexible rubber tube to see if the fuel is caught in a kink, but nothing helps.
Lifting its eyes, vision still flickering with the electric ghost of the fire, the Revenge-Taker finds itself looking into a face, soot-stained but otherwise untouched by the flames. A scar has been burned away out of the tangle of fungus, a black slash across the figure's face and throat and chest and stomach. The singed edges of the growth that escaped the conflagration make the face look like it has funny sideburns made out of pale glowing fungus.
This person is a person made of stone. The Revenge-Taker recognizes the statue's face. It is a face that had a name, once. The name is... the name is...
It is forgotten. But the sight of the carved features, the smiling lips worn almost away - it jogs memories in the Revenge-Taker's head. It knows other things, now, more things than it knew before. It remembers other names.
Another new knowledge weighs heavy on the Revenge-Taker's mind. The knowledge of the empty weight of the tank on its back, much lighter now than when it was full.
The Revenge-Taker stands there for a long time, thinking deeply, entirely immobile, a second statue face to face with the first. Then, its head moves almost imperceptibly, as if nodding in agreement with something; as if finally making a decision it has been putting off. It moves again, fiddles with the clasps and belts which hold the tank on its back. Its fingers are clumsy, so for the first time in a long time, it removes its stiff gloves and reveals pale soft hands. The clasps undo easier now, and the empty tank falls to the ground and makes hardly a sound on the spongy fungal undergrowth.
Because: it's empty and can make no more fire. She can make no more fire.
The Revenge-Taker leaves the statue behind and trudges back the way it came.
It reaches the rim of the open space, where the houses border the overgrown street, before it stops. Once again, it tilts its head, as if listening for something. Then it turns once again and walks back to the statue.
Because: where else would she go? Why?
The Revenge-Taker comes face-to-face with the overgrown statue once more. An empty tank means no more fire, and no more fire means no more revenge. Besides, it knows, she knows now what she'd somehow made herself forget: it's a useless revenge. It's ineffective. The plague won, and her acts of recalcitrant destruction won't undo the plague or eliminate its contagion. Face to face with the statue, the Revenge-Taker knows that every charred patch of ground she has left behind will grow over again within days. The statue as well - she's allowed it one more breath of the spore-infested air, but soon enough the growth will cover it again and it will choke.
The Revenge-Taker can't remember the name of the man who gave his likeness to this monument, but she can remember her own name. She wants to forget. She's tired of all this. She misses sleep.
She sits down and removes her stiff leather hood, and then her mask. She opens her mouth wide and takes a deep breath and invites the spores into the reaches of her untainted lungs where they will take root and feed on her body and grow up big and healthy. The spores tickle her throat and she coughs into the crook of her black-leather coat-sleeve.
She wonders if it will hurt.
The statue stares blandly into the middle distance, keeping her silent company. After she is gone, the fungus creeps back, covering lost ground, clinging to its eyes and its lips and stretching up from its noble brow, reaching for an unseen sky.
It was a warm day when Mara's mother was officially inducted into office, the light radiating from the pillars in visible, golden shafts. Standing on the outskirt of the crowd, Mara could see her mother up on the stage, in front of the ancient town hall. The statue of the Archon smiled beatifically down at Mara's mother; the old woman was wearing her best deerskin cloak, beaming with pride.
There were barely a thousand of them living in the village, and most of their lives played out like the lives of their ancestors, in well-familiar grooves of tradition. The fact that they even elected a new mayor every time the calendar turned was also a mere matter of tradition. Mara knew it, and she figured her mother must know it - but you wouldn't be able to tell from the way she was flouncing about up there. Mara sighed and turned away from the ceremony, instead letting her gaze sweep over the gathered townsfolk.
She saw many she knew well, and there was hardly a face in the crowd she didn't recognize. Not strange, considering there were so few of them. Mara's grandmother had loved to tell her the stories passed on to her by her own grandmother, of a distant time when the town's population had been seven or eight times greater than it was now, every one of the old houses inhabited. Mara believed it; after all, there must once have been a need for so many houses, or they wouldn't have been built.
Mara was so lost in thought that she didn't even notice Anton's presence until he tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around and was met by the boy's crooked grin. Well, she thought of him as a boy still, but he was a man now, and had been for a long time; still, there was something about his perpetual grin and that mischievous personality that made her always forget that. Anton was one of many; it was a popular name. There must be at least fifty Antons of all ages in the town.
"You must be so proud," Mara's Anton said, inclining his head towards the stage.
Mara chuckled. "Not as proud as she is, though, I'd wager."
"Aye." Anton ran a hand through the tight coils of his hair. Once it had been a practiced movement, a cocksure posturing; now, he'd been doing it for so long that it had become reflexive. "If she smiles any wider her cheeks are like to tear."
"Come to breakfast the nearest moon or so," Mara suggested. "That way you too can listen to her never shutting up about her duties." There was a time and place for banter, though, and she saw that this was not it - Anton's eyes burned with the light she'd come to know well over the years, the light that said that something supremely interesting was about to take place. "What is it?"
"Let's get out of here," Anton said eagerly, clearly pleased that she had asked. "There's something happening."
Mara grimaced, and glanced towards the stage again. While she had her opinions about today's proceedings, she knew how much it meant to her mother, and Mara didn't want her mother to gaze out into the crowd only to find her only daughter missing. "I don't know. The last time something was 'happening,' it was Ioakim telling Panya she was the love of his life, and we spent a half hour staring at her front door while she told him she was flattered, but she would prefer to wed someone who bathed."
"Aye, aye," said Anton impatiently, "but I promise you, Mara, this time it's something we have to see. On my honor."
"You have none, and your promises are as, um, as," Mara replied, "as eggshells. Empty, and with a wicked edge." But the day was warm, and the more she considered it, the more she thought her mother probably wouldn't miss her. She navigated between the few spectators on the edge of the crowd, and Anton followed her, grinning.
"Eggshells don't have wicked edges," he said.
"Shut up," Mara replied good-naturedly. When they'd turned the corner and the crowd was out of sight, she slipped her leather shoes off and stood in the soft moss with her feet bare. The sensation was wonderful, and she smiled to herself, squeezing the moss with her toes. "Eggshells are deadly. Could do a lot of damage with eggshells, if one but knew how to handle them."
Anton scoffed. "Are you about done? Come on, let's get going."
The moss carpeted the city, climbed on ancient stone houses, snaked secretly up the supports of newer pinewood lean-tos; the roads were little more than twin cartwheel-grooves worn in the patchwork vegetation. The curving domes of the stone houses, like the bald gray pates of giants, were mirrored above by the gargantuan ceiling of earth; along the earthen walls of the town, the carven stone pillars rose, casting golden light down on the town from their eyes and mouths. It was a beautiful day.
As they walked, Anton filled her in on the situation. "Vasily was watching the guards last night, and he saw a fawn slip past them. It should be coming up soon."
That was absolutely more interesting than Ioakim's love life. Mara stared at Anton, but there was no trace of guile in his face - well, no more than usual, at least, and she'd grown expert at judging his moods. "You're serious, ain't you?" She had heard the dark tales: it was true that anything alive that went down into the tunnels soon came back, everyone in town knew it; whether it came back alive was another thing.
But Mara had never actually ever seen anything returning. Now that Anton had brought it up, she wasn't entirely sure that she wanted to, either.
"I'm serious," Anton said, nodding. He didn't seem to notice her apprehension, and she was swept along in the wake of his long strides. She could remember a time when he had been fat and stubby-legged, before manhood came over him, took him by the feet and head and stretched him out into the handsome young man he was today. "We're meeting Vasily at his. Come along."
Vasily lived along one of the main thoroughfares of the city. The road was wider than most of the ways of the city, and free of moss. It was flanked by lanterns on poles, now unlit. Vasily lived with his parents and three siblings in a disproportionately small wooden cabin along the thoroughfare. Mara had often asked him how he managed it without going mad - she wouldn't have managed to stay sane sharing a space that size with her mother, let alone four others.
But Vasily was a serious-faced boy who apparently had infinite reserves of patience, and every time she asked he responded by shrugging wordlessly.
He was waiting in his yard, standing impassive next to one of the lampposts. Vasily was a champion waiter, which was a useful trait when you were friends with such an unpredictable person as Anton. Mara raised her hand to hail him when he caught sight of them, and Anton exclaimed his greeting.
"Hello," the boy said once they drew closer. In truth, he was on the cusp of adulthood, not quite a boy and not quite a man, and his voice was already deeper and more sonorous than Anton's. When they reached him, he set off walking along the thoroughfare, towards the edge of town, and the two of them followed.
"Hello, Vasily," Mara said. Anton was getting excited, she could see, and he began asking question after question - since Vasily was the sort of person out of whom every word must be coaxed. Pieced together from his laconic answers, what had happened was this:
Vasily had, in spite of his parents' repeatedly expressed wishes, been at the very edge of town. There, between the looming gray pillars, were irregularly spaced entrances into the network of tunnels below; stationed at every one of them, by night lit by lanternlight, were the guards. Vasily was fascinated by the guards, as was everyone their age, and (so Mara suspected) everyone of all other ages as well. The grown-ups said the tunnel guards were people. When the grown-ups couldn't hear, the children told the stories they knew to be true: the tunnel guards were monsters, and if you ventured too close they would grab you and drag you into the dark tunnels with them. If you took off a tunnel guard's clothes, you would find only emptiness underneath. They weren't people, or they had been, and they weren't anymore.
But Mara was a grown-up now herself, no matter how she felt about it, and she knew the truth: the tunnel guards were people, even though you couldn't tell from looking at them. She knew people whose relatives had joined the guards. And they rarely ventured into town - once someone was summoned to join the tunnel guards, that person for all intents and purposes left the life as a citizen behind.
The guards didn't like being watched, which made the night-time the perfect time. Hidden in the blackness of the ruined houses while they worked in their ring of firelight, Vasily had been able to see their every move, and provided he stayed quiet enough, there had been no way for the guards to detect his presence.
Then, with hardly a warning whatsoever, the fawn had darted out of the shadows. It was very small, probably lost, and obviously terrified. Likely it had been drawn by the firelight but was now frightened of the guards, who reacted too slowly to stop it - its size and the nimbleness granted by fear helped it weave between their legs and disappear down into the tunnels, and by the time the first guard had their hands on their firebreather and belched a plume of oily flame down the mouth of the tunnel, it was too late.
The opportunity to see one of the guards using their firebreather was a thrilling one, clearly, but the greatest spectacle was still to come. After all, anything that went down into the tunnels soon came up again. However, a question of a practical nature loomed large in Mara's apprehensive mind: "But last night you had darkness on your side. How do you propose we hide in daylight?"
Vasily nodded sagely, as if the thought had struck him already. "Aye. It's a risk, to be sure. I have a plan, though."
That calmed her more than it would have if, say, Anton had been the one saying it, but Mara still couldn't shake her feeling of gnawing worry. They were reaching the outskirts of the city now - no-one lived in these houses; no lanterns or torches lit them at night, and they were crumbling in on themselves, their domed shapes in places cracked and shattered like... well, like eggshells. Further out, the houses would give way entirely, to the moss-choked rim where only the tunnel guards trod in their heavy boots.
Mara was feeling more and more on edge; she was aware that her heart was racing in her chest. "Anyway, the tunnels are all connected, aren't they?" she asked, mostly because she couldn't quite stay quiet. "There's no way of knowing that it'll actually come up the way it slipped down, is there?"
In response, all Vasily did was shrug. "Now hush, and follow me." He struck off the overgrown path and into the shade between two of the ancient buildings, slipping along the moss-claimed wall of one of them until he came to the gaping hole of a glassless window; there, he climbed through, disappearing into the shade within.
Mara and Anton followed him as he led them through the house and out of a back door, into the quiet back yard. The moss underfoot muffled their steps as they followed the clandestine path Vasily led them along. Without speaking, they slowly but surely made their way outward, towards the looming earthen wall of the city.
Finally, they ended up inside the empty shell of another old building. Vasily held up a finger to his lips and inclined his head towards a gaping window-hole: out there, the gesture said. In the shade of the house, the moss was damp and chilly; Mara shivered and crouched down, while Anton crept up to the window to peek out.
He only raised his head for a few short seconds before ducking down again, and as he turned to face the two of them, his shoulders against the stone, Mara could tell from his face that he was afraid. As afraid as she, or perhaps more; excited too, yes, but afraid. The thrall of the tunnel guards was obvious.
Vasily crouched down too, and gestured for them to come closer. When he spoke, his voice was nearly inaudible, a bass thrum. Mara strained to make out his words. "They'll be focused on the tunnel for now. As long as we stay quiet, we should be fine." With that, he crawled on all fours over to the window-hole, and with infinite slowness raised his head.
Mara met Anton's gaze, but they had come too far to back out now. Slowly, slowly, the two of them crept to the window-hole to join Vasily. They lifted their heads over the edge of the hole and looked out at the scene at the tunnel mouth.
About fifty feet away, across an empty expanse of moss of a variety of shifting shades, the wall rose abruptly out of the ground. It stretched upward out of sight, its enormous expanse of rock-hard soil dotted with enormous gray boulders. In the wall, across from the three of them, was the gaping entrance into the tunnels below. Once, you would have passed through it under a carven stone arch, curved to match the domes of the houses, but the arch had fallen into disrepair and all that remained was now a ragged hole.
Before the hole, in a rough semicircle, the moss was scorched and dead. There stood the guards, facing away from Mara and her friends, all covered in stiff leather and as still as statues. They gazed silently down into the tunnel, their firebreathers at the ready; slung over their shoulders they carried their containers of igniferous fuel. The heavy tanks made them look weirdly crooked, as if their backs were grotesquely humped.
The tableau was as still and silent as if time had somehow stopped; Mara barely dared to draw breath, as if the guards would hear her even fifty feet away and wearing their heavy fire-resistant cowls. Her heart raced in her chest as the silence stretched out, interminably, unbearably.
And then... something happened. Mara spotted it when the guards did; she could see them tense up at the same time as she. Something was moving in the gloom of the tunnel, barely visible. The fawn. The guards raised the muzzles of their firebreathers slightly, training them at the shape as it emerged into the daylight - slowly, slowly, on uncertain legs.
Mara could hear Anton's breath catch in his throat. She wanted to look away, but found that she couldn't. The sight of the fawn was transfixing. Its fine, downy pelt was almost white, as if it were covered in a layer of dust. It staggered drunkenly, legs splaying in all directions - perpetually almost keeling over but never quite losing its footing. Even at this distance, Mara could tell that its eyes were milky white with cataracts, unseeing and unfocused, but that was far from the worst part.
The worst part was that its forehead was split, as if by an axe blow. From the gash between its eyes sprouted alien stands of pale fungus. Even now, they seemed to reach upward, straining for the tops of the pillars. As every detail of the grotesque sight etched itself in Mara's memory, she could tell that even more of the deathly pale things had erupted from its ribcage.
She understood that the coating on its pelt was not dust, but spores, the deadly spores of the fungal infestation that had claimed the tunnels below the city.
With endless slowness, step by uncertain step, the horror drew closer to the guards. It didn't seem to register their presence; its milky eyes did not fixate upon them; it merely tottered with single-minded purpose, closer and closer, and still the guards stood as still as if they had been hewn from stone along with the pillars which loomed over them, until Mara wanted to scream at them to burn it up, for pity's sake, please!
And then they did. At some unseen signal, they each triggered their firebreathers in rapid succession. Nigh-invisible plumes of flame spouted from their muzzles and enveloped the fawn. It died silently, obscured by the fire, and the tunnel guards kept firing at it for long minutes, until they were sure that the creature, the fungi and the spores had all been entirely consumed.
The entire grotesque display happened in silence, and once it was over, only the soft crackle of small fading fires remained. Still, Mara and her two friends remained in place, transfixed by what they had witnessed, until one of the guards turned away from the tunnel mouth and faced them.
That was all it took to break the enchantment. With the round lenses of smoked glass inset in their masks, it was impossible to tell exactly where the guards were looking, but Mara was suddenly certain that this particular one was staring right at them with its round dead eyes. Her skin crawled with terror, and she and the others jerked away from the window-hole in unison and scrambled to escape the way they had come.
No-one followed them, and they returned, unspeaking, to the installation ceremony underneath the central pillar.
The ceremony was wrapping up when they returned. The crowd that had gathered for the installation began fraying at the edges now that the ceremony was through; many of them still remained, though, standing in little clusters, talking to friends and acquaintances. It followed naturally in a community that was so small and tight-knit that even the most formal affairs were rather informal. Now that the ceremony was through, the officiants simply stepped down from the stage and started chatting with the onlookers.
Mara said demure goodbyes to Anton and Vasily, then penetrated the crowd, weaving between familiar faces towards the stage. There, she saw her mother, in her deerskin cloak, speaking to their next-door neighbor Yulia.
"Oh, Masha," her mother beamed, and the normalcy of her presence was so comforting that Mara began to feel better already. "Did you see me up there?"
"Yes, mother. Everyone saw you," Mara replied, sharing a smile with Yulia at her mother's pride. It was painfully obvious that she was doing her best not to preen - pride is an ugly thing, she often told Mara, so keep it on the inside where it belongs. "You're smug, mother," Mara needled. "Do you think you're better than us others, now you're mayor?"
"Listen to her! My own child," Mara's mother cried, mock-offended. Yulia smiled, but blandly. Everyone was kind to Yulia, Mara knew, because she'd had a difficult pregnancy and ended up losing the child. It had grayed her like a ghost, made her frail and insubstantial. Mara thought the mental toll must have been greater than the physical.
"I'm joking, you know," Mara told her mother, later, when Yulia had said her goodbyes and drifted off towards her home. "I really am proud of you."
"I know, Masha," said Mara's mother, and wrapped her arms around her. Mara returned the hug. Over her mother's shoulder she saw the statue of Anton, and she had the old familiar urge to return his smile.
Anton was the Archon, which was an old word for a ruler or a king. He was dead now, of course, but he had been the first ruler of the town, back when it was much bigger. He had laid the first stone with his own two hands. It was to him they owed the ordered safety of their existence. Before him, it was said, there was only a howling void overhead, a huge and empty sky, but in his wisdom, Anton built the dome of earth above his subjects' heads to protect them.
When she was a child, Mara had believed it with all her heart. Now she knew better. It was just a silly old tale. Things like the "sky" only existed in stories.
Later, the light faded from the pillars, and candles and torches made the center of town glow like a fire-pit keeping a sea of darkness at bay. Mara sat in the house she and her mother shared, watching the old woman darn a pair of socks with practiced hands.
Mara worried. Ever since her father had died, her mother had had nobody else to worry for her, so Mara felt it was her responsibility. Especially now, with her mother elected mayor for the town.
Because Yulia wasn't the only one.
Far from it. That so few healthy babies were being born was the whole reason why the town's population had dwindled so. It was something in the water, people said, that made the young come out of the womb already dead. But what could they do? It was the only water they had. With the tunnels so infested, there was nowhere to go. There was nowhere else.
That made her think of the ghastly fawn and the black-leather guards, and she opened her mouth, black in the flickering firelight like the mouth of the tunnel. She hesitated, on the verge of telling her mother everything she'd seen that afternoon. But the silence stretched out, and she didn't dare break it, and after a moment she thought better of it anyway.
She didn't want her mother to worry.
Neva's house had always been a bustle of ever-changing faces. The constant was Neva's immediate family, her parents and siblings; then there were aunts and uncles, on her father's and her mother's sides both, who were well-known; their children, Neva's cousins, almost too many to keep straight; and a horde of others, grand-aunts and grand-uncles and second cousins and cousins thrice removed and more.
Her parents knew and loved them all. The family tree was more like a thicket, but Neva's parents knew it by heart, and made space in their home for everyone who visited, no matter how distantly related. To Neva, most of the visitors were strangers in everything but blood. She was polite to them, but never bothered to memorize their names.
Of course, there were exceptions. Like Pavel.
Pavel was a relative of some description, that much was clear. Neva had once asked her mother how exactly they were related, and had tried to understand the explanation to no avail.
Once, he had been just another vaguely familiar stranger to her. Older than her, but not quite a grown-up. Stringy blonde hair and a well-meaning expression. A part of the scenery. That is, until he became a guard.
That was a year ago. And now Pavel was returning home.
Neva's family lived in one of the old domed stone houses: a central communal living space and kitchen, surrounded by cubbies and alcoves to which the family scattered to sleep. Her father had been cleaning since first light, meticulously sweeping the floor and swabbing the counters and the sills with a wet rag. Her mother had been cooking since yesterday, a feast of the kind they only ever had when they were visited by some particularly celebrated relative. Neva got in her parents' way and pestered them with questions: when was Pavel coming? How had they known he was coming? Would he stay long? Where would he sleep? Their answers were perfunctory: sometime today. Part of his detail arrived yesterday with the news. That is up to his commander. We will find someplace to quarter him. Eventually their patience ran out, and they didn't answer her questions, but simply said her name in the warning tone that she had (already, at her young age) begun to ignore.
If these diligent preparations had been for anyone else's arrival, Neva would have left the house and foraged off on her own, retreating to one of her hiding spots to dream up her stories. But not today. She didn't want to risk missing Pavel. She imagined him in his black uniform: the long coat, the gloves.
Time passed at a snail's crawl. Neva sat at the table, on one of the wooden chairs, swinging her legs in despondent boredom. Her mother was standing at the stove, fussing over some inconsequential part of the meal. Neva's stomach rumbled, but she knew better than to ask when they would eat. Dinner would be served when Pavel arrived, and not a minute before.
More time passed.
Until, suddenly, Neva's older sister Lena screamed shrilly. Everyone's eyes were directed towards a point just behind Neva's back, above her head. Her neck prickled. She looked over her shoulder, and her heart jumped into her throat at the sight: a towering figure stood on the doorstep, a monster with waxy black skin and huge round eyes.
Neva's mother shot up from her seat.
Neva felt a gray fear which made her limbs heavy. She couldn't understand what her mother was doing, rounding the table and approaching the thing. Her father was rising from his seat as well. Neva wanted to shout at them to keep away.
Then the color bled back into the world and the slow frozen seconds picked up their pace again. Neva drew a shaky breath of relief - she saw now that it wasn't a monster, just a person. Then, a thrill: not monster-skin, but a guard's uniform of stiff black leather.
Neva's brother Anton, who was never very quick on the uptake, broke out in a keening wail of fear. "Oh, now," their father said, and began fussing about the boy. The figure on the doorstep lifted its hands to its face-its mask-and pulled it off. Below was Pavel, wearing an expression of awkward concern.
"Don't be scared," he tried, weakly.
And, Neva's mother: "Oh, Anton, it's only a mask, see?"
Eventually they managed to calm Anton down, and Pavel (with his strange mask buried deep in his satchel) gratefully seated himself at the table. Neva's parents served dinner in bowls and baskets, and they all dug in, and bombarded Pavel with questions. He told them about his detail, and the job, and the city to which he had been assigned (nearly identical, of course, to the one they lived in). He told them about his mask, how it helped him breathe when he needed it, and how he had only meant to surprise them by showing up in full uniform. He said this with an apologetic glance at Anton, who was watching him with big, owlish eyes.
Neva sat quietly, listening to the comforting buzz of conversation. She had never been a very talkative child. Why talk, when you learn so much more when you listen?
Grown-ups were skittish creatures, she knew, like the deer which sometimes grazed on the moss between the city's houses. Sometimes, at dinner, Neva's mother would drop her voice and mention to Neva's father things she had heard at the marketplace or from the neighbors, things like "They say Oleg's new betrothed is twenty years younger than him," or "Katya told me that Olga lost another one - after only five months this time." These were things that Neva vaguely understood were suffused with secret complex meanings, but she knew that if she asked about it, her mother would be spooked and tell her to never mind all that. The next time, she would be much more careful about what she said around Neva. So Neva simply listened, and observed.
She observed one thing during the meal: even though it had only been a year since she last saw him, Pavel seemed much older. His eyes in particular were somehow dull, as if he was very tired.
That night, Neva lay awake long after her father had put her to bed. Lying perfectly still, trying not to breathe, she waited for something. She didn't know what.
She was struggling not to drift off by the time she heard footsteps, voices, the soft scrape of the kitchen chairs. Neva imagined the three of them, sitting around the table, Mother and Father and Pavel. She didn't dare turn around and take a peek, in case they realized she was awake. Instead, she just listened.
They were speaking very quietly, though, and no matter how much she strained her ears, she couldn't make out more than a few words: "tunnels," "lost contact," "one month." It was even a little hard to make out who was saying what - her father's soft bass thrum was instantly recognizable, but speaking so softly, her mother's deep feminine voice and Pavel's youthful tenor sounded almost the same.
Neva could hear how they were speaking, though. Their words were mostly unintelligible, but the tone of voice in which they said them was as clear as day.
Bad news, Neva thought.
The following day, Neva found Pavel outside, sitting on the low moss-covered wall which lined the street. He looked strange in ordinary clothes, and he was smoking a foul-smelling cigarette. She wrinkled up her nose and made a disgusted noise. "Why do you smoke those?"
Pavel looked at her with those new tired eyes, unsmiling but vaguely amused. "Don't like the smell?"
Neva shook her head. Pavel tilted his head a little, like a curious dog, appraising her. Then he nodded, and took another drag on the cigarette, and looked up the empty street.
"You're a smart kid," he said absently. He turned back, and fixed her with that stare again. "Aren't you? You were listening last night, when me and your parents talked. Weren't you?"
Neva shrank back in alarm. All of a sudden, her heart was thudding loudly in her chest. How had he known?
But Pavel shook his head. "Don't worry, I won't tell them. That wasn't a conversation meant for children, but - you've got an inquisitive mind. That's good. Good for a kid your age." Neva gawked at him as he took another drag. He continued: "Did you hear anything we said?"
"No," Neva lied. "Just how your voices sounded."
Pavel nodded grimly. "It says a great deal about what a person is saying, the way they say it." (Neva was going to remember that, she decided.) He took a final drag on the cigarette, and then stood up and ground the butt into the moss with his heel. "Come on," he said. "Go for a walk with me."
They walked in silence, away from the house and the low wall and towards the center of town. The streets were nearly empty. The sun-pillars radiated only weak light, which gave the day a bland, shadowless quality.
Outside the town hall, there was a statue. It was a statue of a man. She knew his expression was supposed to be one of benevolent wisdom, but to Neva he always looked a little bemused, as if he wasn't quite sure what he was doing standing there. There was a plaque near the statue's feet. It had been damaged at some point in the past, so now only a portion of it was readable:
Neva remembered the thrill of being able to sound out the letters for the first time, back when she had been learning to read. ANTON, that was a name, like her younger brother, then an infant. ARCH, that was harder, because it was only part of a word; her parents had explained to her that it was short for "architect," which meant someone who designed structures. Anton was the man who had once designed the complex of cities in which they lived, deep underground, away from the surface.
Neva had pestered her parents endlessly about the surface world, but they were unwilling to talk about it. They simply told her to go play, which she hated. She was almost ten, practically a grown-up. She shouldn't have to go play just because they didn't know the answers to her questions, or were too afraid to answer (which only served to pique her curiosity more, of course).
"It's medicinal," Pavel said, seemingly apropos of nothing. Neva looked up at him, waiting for him to continue, to clarify. "It's recommended that we smoke. The guards, I mean."
"It can be a dangerous job," he said. "Mostly it's not. Mostly it's finding out who stole from who or detaining the drunk and disorderly. That part of the job's not so bad. But sometimes..."
"What? What?" Neva prodded, darkly curious.
Pavel shrugged. "Sometimes we go to dangerous places. Places where the air is bad. You've seen my mask - we wear them so we can breathe safely."
Neva imagined a group of people, each as tall as Pavel, all wearing the same black leather uniforms which made them look like bug-eyed monsters, trudging through a poison fog. She relished the horror she felt at the image. "But if you can breathe in the masks, why do you need to smoke?"
"It's to be on the safe side," Pavel replied. "If our air filters malfunction - that is, if they stop working - or if we somehow get dirty air in our lungs, the smoke helps."
Neva stared down at her feet, considering this. It made sense, she decided. Two different kinds of poison might very well make clean air when you mixed them together. Then she lifted her head, looking up at him. "What happened on the surface?"
In her mind, it was a word with one monolithic meaning, a proper noun: The Surface, a vast unknown antithesis to her safe and familiar existence underground.
Pavel was quiet for a moment before responding. Then he said, simply: "I don't know."
Neva tilted her head quizzically, caught so off-guard by an adult so readily admitting ignorance of something that she didn't even consider that he might be lying.
"Nobody does," Pavel continued, not looking at her. He was staring up at the dome of packed earth‚ as if he could see past it to the surface. "All we know is that something bad happened, and now the surface isn't a fit place to live anymore."
Neva felt the old familiar mix of emotions: frustration at the surface's unsolvable mystery, and horrified fascination at what little she knew. "Is that what made the air dirty?"
"Maybe," Pavel said. "We don't know."
Neva pondered. Then, she spoke up again. "I want to see the sky."
Pavel glanced at her. After a moment, his lips curled into a smile. A little bemused, like Anton the Architect. "I do, too. But it's not so easy. The surface is an unfit place for people now, like I said."
"But only for a moment, it might be alright," Neva wheedled. "Just for a look? If I wore your uniform and your mask? I'd even smoke one of those nasty cigarettes!"
Pavel burst out into dry laughter. He reached into his pocket and hauled out a little bundle of hand-rolled cigarettes, and a matchbox. "I wouldn't wish these on anyone but myself. Least of all a child like you, little Neva." He lit the cigarette and exhaled a puff of foul-smelling smoke. "Besides, it's not so easy that you can just put on your boots and walk up to the surface."
"But why not?" Neva demanded.
Pavel took a long drag on his cigarette, then another, before responding. "We - the guards, that is - we think we know where the way to the surface might've been, once. But it's blocked, now. Blocked by a giant metal door. It must date back to Anton's days, or even before. It's huge. I didn't think that much metal existed."
"What's metal?" Neva asked, wide-eyed.
"It's a rare material that they used to make things out of," Pavel said. He wasn't looking at her. He seemed off in his own world. "Hard, harder even than stone. But nobody knows how to make metal anymore, so we only know it from old tools. Old things. The guards, we use some metal things. We have tubes that breathe fire, for when we..."
He broke off, and looked at her as if only now realizing she was there. He seemed dismayed for some reason.
"We ought to be getting back," he said, and started back the way they came.
Neva followed after him. "Tell me more about the door," she asked breathlessly, but Pavel didn't respond. It was no use, she knew that. She had spooked him, like a deer, or he had spooked himself, and she would extract no more information out of him this time.
Two days later, Pavel and his detail left again. He hugged Neva's mother and father each in turn, and waved goodbye to the children. He was wearing his black-leather uniform again, but his mask had been hidden away in the satchel he carried slung over his shoulder, so as not to distress Anton any more.
Neva watched him go. He and his detail had a long journey ahead of them, walking on foot through the darkness of the tunnels. Neva's father had once told her about how, when he was young, the guards had made their rounds on big animals called horses, or riding in carts drawn by them. Now, the horses could no longer be bred. They grew up sickly, when they survived long enough to even grow up at all.
When Pavel had passed out of sight, Neva headed in the opposite direction, to the town square. She wandered around the town hall and the central pillar, in counterclockwise circles, following a pattern that was clear in her mind.
She was alone. She often was. Aside from her siblings sometimes, Neva didn't really play with other children. None of the other children interested her as much as the things she saw in her own head.
She imagined she was a masked horror, breathing heavy, trudging through toxic fog in a landscape riddled with bones. The bones of horses, she decided, sad and sickly and now dead. In this bleak place, there was nowhere to go but on, and up, until the dirty greenish fog parted like curtains and revealed a giant door, which stretched up into the darkness and concealed the myriad wonders of The Surface.
Excerpts from the journal of Anton Nuriyev, retrieved from the contaminated lower tunnels by an exploratory guard contingent. The journal is badly damaged, and many of the pages have been torn out.
[...] went up to watch the men work today again. There were armed guards as well, of course. There are armed guards everywhere. They watched me suspiciously. I tried not to acknowledge their stares, but soon enough, one approached and offered to escort me to my quarters.
I thought about protesting, telling him that I was not causing a disturbance. But he had a gun and I did not, and his tone brooked no argument.
I am no longer free to go.
Svalov has said he will erect a statue of me, in the center of one of the communes. He is mocking me. The bastard does not even pretend to be civil any more. He leers at me whenever he sees me.
Svalov is a swine and a madman. What's more, he works for the military's research division. Knowing this, I should've suspected something. Of course the military would not finance a simple archaeological expedition such as this if they didn't stand to gain something from it. I should have known that getting past Moscow's red tape so easily would come with a cost. I should have suspected an ulterior motive from the beginning. But I was blinded by my curiosity, and my ambition.
They came in droves yesterday and the day before, herded down below ground by armed guards. Dirty faces and shabby clothes. This is a prison. Svalov calls it "resettlement," but he grins when he says it. These people are prisoners, not volunteers. Killers and thieves, as well as political undesirables [...]
[...] It will be huge, huge enough to block even the vast main entryway of this place. I have gone up there again to watch them do their welding and their hammering and their bolting. They work without speaking, because their work is too loud to speak during; this quiet efficiency makes them seem mechanical. Almost as artificial as the thing they are building. The prison gate, all looming cold steel. It is out of place here, in this place of carved stone.
I continue my work, despite everything [...]
[...] lived in communes of around two thousand households, underneath vast domed ceilings of packed earth. I cannot imagine what method of construction an ancient civilization could have used to build this place, or indeed what civilization might have done so. Certainly, their aesthetics of architecture do not match those of any cultures I have studied.
I have included here a sketch of one of the "sun-pillars," which employ a series of mirrors to supply the subterranean communes with sunlight from above. Such genius construction! Who [...]
[...] told me that on the surface today, the season's first snow fell. Earlier than I thought. This is a real problem. There is no chance that I could survive the trek back to civilization in Siberian winter conditions. That means that even if I did find another exit, I will have to wait until spring before I attempt an escape.
[...] prisoners are mostly settled in now, if one can ever truly settle into living in barbaric conditions such as this.
Some semblance of life has returned to this ruined place. It is a mockery of civilized life, but it is a life nonetheless. In the night-time, when the sunlight fades from the mirrored pillars, the houses of the camps are lit by electrical lanterns. A social order is establishing itself already. The political convicts, the ones who have never before been on the wrong side of the law; these are cowed, gray-faced. The horrible ones, the tattooed murderers and thugs, terrorize them every chance they get.
I have heard of prison camps where the guards have no real authority. In such camps, a hierarchy of convicts rules. Perhaps Svalov wishes to avoid such a situation here. Already I have seen a guard savagely beat a man for a minor infraction. There have been other such beatings. I have heard a rumor that one man died from his injuries [...]
The uniforms help. The guards do not wear fatigues of ordinary military issue, but gloves and long coats of black leather. It makes them look less like guards and more like executioners.
I spend much of my time in the lower levels, away from the prisoners. I wish I could be alone, but Svalov has assigned a guard who follows me everywhere I go. He must realize as well as I do that escape would be suicide, so I can only conclude that he has done it to spite me, to assert his power over me.
Down in the lower levels, it is dark and quiet. Even with the impassive shadow of the guard looming over my shoulder, I feel at ease. And there are so many fascinating things to study. I have found what appears to be a library, a repository of carved stone tablets. I do not recognize the alphabet in which they are written, but I feel certain that, given time, I will crack the code.
I wonder how big this place is.
I wonder how deep it goes.