Calia’s lacklustre trail had shimmered away into nothing once Talens disappeared over the horizon. A few hours later the sun would return light to the landscape, but we wouldn’t see it. After driving through the night, we had finally reached our destination: an old minehead, abandoned and now well hidden. After kicking us all out, Feryon had inched the auto as far into the mine as possible, ensuring it was entirely invisible from outside.
I’d expected to just follow them inside, but Grellan and I were instead deputed to smooth over our tracks for the last mile or so. To do so, of course, we had to walk that mile first. I was dead on my feet. For all that I’d dozed on the way up, the constant jostling, and jabbing of irregular shapes stacked around us had conspired to keep wakefulness just a thin sliver of sleep away. Grellan seemed to be entirely awake, striding off ahead of me, his rifle measuredly waving from side to side. Not wanting to be alone, I hurried to catch up.
Once beside him, I had that brief sensation of a conversation about to begin – just the sound of parting lips, that slight intake of breath – but no, I found that what questions I had died in my throat, and he barely looked at me, let alone spoke. It was the same awkwardness I’d felt in meeting with someone with whom I should have had endless words to share. It was like that last conversation with Relyan. With everything decided, I had nothing left to say, just a thank you which rang hollow for her. With a shock, I wondered how she was now. I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea that I had returned from shettling, but others had never entered it. We were so sheltered in our circles, that even though I’d been granted the memories of my earlier lives, it was still a leap of logic to think others’ lives had continued. It gave me some more questions for Grellan at least.
I started to speak, realising inevitably that my throat was dry, squeaking out Grellan’s name and then choking, before beginning.
“Grellan – sorry – Grellan, do we um, do we need to be quiet, right now?”
“No. Safe as we’re going to get. No call for shouting and dancing though.”
I took that to be a joke, and continued.
“When Brisingham was attacked, after the, the –“ I realised I was lacking a word, “what do people call it? When the allforest was burned and the strangers came?”
“It’s had labels, as these things do. ‘The Attack’ was quite popular for a while, some went for drama: ‘The Day the World Changed’, but it’s rather overlong for conversation. The rest of us went simple, called it the End.”
“Oh, right. It just occurred to me that I didn’t know how to – say it, simply.”
He glanced at me, perhaps thinking I was mocking him. A very faint smile suggested he’d accepted what I’d said.
“After the… the End, is Brisingham still there?”
“It’s still there, bits missing, like I said before, but people still live there, life goes on. We haven’t collapsed into feudalism or anarchy. Those who can, have moved on, as best they can. Farms still need to grow food, laws to be enforced, shops to sell – it’s all there. Thinking of someone in particular?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “there are people from before, people I might know, who might know me.”
“Dissatisfied with your new circle?” he asked wryly, “we’d not have chosen to shettle together. But we’re your only family now, Jenn.”
I’d not thought I was so transparent, but these men, visibly aged to a state beyond any mothers or fathers I recalled, left me confused. Although I knew I’d lost none of my memories, had not had the reset of shettling, I felt like a child among them. Rescued, dressed, driven, told how it was. I’d lost a sense of agency in the world. It had all changed, and I may as well have been reborn for all that I Knew of what was real any more. A frightening sensation, and I’d none of the comforts that I would have expected to be able to turn to. I shared no bond with these strange archivists, no especial kinship beyond a feeling of obligation and gratitude which, the more I considered it, was flavoured with a resentment of my treatment and their presumption. Perhaps that was unreasonable, and perhaps it ought to have been more appropriately directed to those strangers who had brought the End upon us, and irrevocably changed my life, as well as everyone else’s. But rationality is not easily found in the early hours before dawn when exhausted, confused and frightened. If anything, it’s reasonable to not behave reasonably. We can only act as we feel we should. And my moral compass was exterminated sixty-four years previously.
We’d reached the end of our backtracking. How Grellan determined it was a mile, I didn’t know. I didn’t question it. That was a habit that I was having a hard time breaking. He tore a branch off a mehei tree by the side of the track. Before the End, the alltrees had overrun almost that entire species. With the allforest crippled and under attack, it looked like other species were making a comeback.
“And I’m grateful,” I lied, I half-lied – I did feel gratitude, but I had no sense of how much I truly owed. I took the mehei branch, with its fine needle leaves. In the light I’d have been able to see how one side was a different colour to the other, so they only had to twist around at night for the moon’s light instead of open whole new leaves like the alltrees. “I don’t know where I would be now if you hadn’t come for me in the allforest.”
“You’d have been taken before you stepped outside,” he said, quickly and surely, “if we’d not been there to come in and out under cover of darkness, some far worse fate than being crammed in an old auto.”
“Taken?” I asked, “I didn’t know people were taken?”
“Some who wandered into the allforest disappeared,” he answered, “most are given warning shots.”
He returned to lightly sweeping the road free of tyre tracks and our footprints. I mirrored his actions, erasing the other half of the road.
“I suppose it was just the shettles then, who were the target,” I said, feeling as if there were some better question, and some more complex, more complete answer drifting through my mind, unwilling to land on my tongue.
“It’s hard to know for sure. We saw the aftermath of the allforest, and the institutes. There was only so close we could get afterwards, safely. There was no going into the allforest at all, at first, and then only at night when we could avoid being seen. Ironic that destroying Calia made us harder to see.”
“So I suppose there must have been times when no one was in the allforest at all,” I mused, brushing away the imprints of my shoes.
“Scarcely worth thinking about. You’ll drive yourself mad pondering what-ifs and could-have-beens. All we’ve got is the now, and each other. You’re important, Jenn, and we’ll keep you safe.”
Our conversation petered out there, and we swept the track in silence until we finally reached the adit leading into the mine. I was relieved to discard my branch – the fifth that I’d worn through on mile back – and my shoulders were aching from being hunched over. Feryon and Hevalan were nowhere to be seen. The mine entrance waited, dark and empty, terribly like a mouth in the early morning twilight. For all Grellan’s talk of safety, their absence struck me as ominous. He must have noted my stiff caution, as he clapped me on the back, and pushed me in to the darkness.
Pitch black consumed me again. With his hand on my shoulder, Grellan walked me forwards into the mine. He seemed to know where he was going, or had ridiculously good eyesight, because he barely changed his stride from being outside. I held my fingertips outstretched, feeling for any hint of what I was convinced would be the many obstacles and odd jutting beams. All I felt was the smooth side of the auto. I soon lost track of how far we’d come, glancing behind me the mine opening was a receding grey square. As soon as that square was small enough for me to cover with my hand, Grellan produced a tiny flashlight, which he directed only at the ground in a sharp circle several feet ahead of us. The adit led us up a very slight incline, underfoot the earth was damp, but well packed down. We would leave footprints in here, but I guessed that if anyone had managed to follow this far, it would be obvious we’d entered the mines. Grellan finally started talking again, telling me that the tunnel we followed branched off into dozens of vertical mineshafts, and that the network extended throughout the hills. Following them would eventually lead us out the other side of the range, placing our pursuers (if we had any) far behind, and offering us constant cover. The mines had been abandoned long before the End, having been exhausted of the metals and minerals the miners had culled from the heart of the earth. Since then, people like the three archivists had found them useful in travelling without being seen, as well as a place to store, save and protect their records, or select individuals.
Ten minutes into our walk into the darkness, my eyes had adjusted to being blind except for that patch on the floor, in that my sight began to go wild with flashing lights and lines that I thought I could see. Vast etched shapes emerged from the abyss, huge tessellating patterns of rotating shards – the moon beneath the earth. Those visual hallucinations were a welcome diversion from the dark, and weight of the ground above us that I was ever more aware of. The air tasted dry, with the promise of water some way off; a faint breeze blew around our legs, presumably from mine shafts that depended from the hint of passageways leading off the gallery. I suppose a mine in which people simply asphyxiated wouldn’t be very productive. If it weren’t for the tiny circle of light I followed, I could easily have believed I was being dragged back down by the alltree’s roots, trapped once more in what was neither dream or nightmare but a sixty-four year-long burial. I tried to keep my thoughts away from that, but the cold was growing oppressive, and the darkness unrelenting. Sweat had broken out all over, and my hands shook. It was all invisible in the mine. The more I avoided thinking about being crushed by the weight of the soil and rock above us, the more it gripped me until I could feel its pressure on my skin, dank and hard, felt it choking off my airwaves.
Panic rose up, from some deep well inside me, setting my nerves on edge. My laboured breathing was finally noticed by Grellan, who flicked the torch questioningly at my face. Even as he spoke, asking if I was alright, his words were mangled into nonsense by my anxious mind. As the torch light hit my face I was fully dazzled: great arching roots of light streamed across the world, twisting and reaching for me. I don’t know if I even managed to scream before I spun away from him, and dashed off, blind, except for the wild writhing tentacles of colour. Grellan shouted for me to stop, but my heart was hammering hard enough to shatter my ribs, if the mountain of earth resting atop me didn’t do it first. Those tendrils of alltree were clawing at me, in every direction I faced. I ran back down the slight slope, aiming for a straight line with the fragments of mind capable of thinking about such things. A beam of light passed through the blackness, blinding me further – Grellan in pursuit – but I kept on, until, inevitably I stumbled, and fell.