I hastily slapped at the burning paper sticking to my boots and legs for fear I’d go up with it. Since I clutched an extremely flammable paper folder in the other hand I figured I should at least stuff it inside my jacket for protection. All of the other files and archives were going to be lost. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives turning black and fluttering away before my eyes. Already the cavern was intensely hot, but I stuck to the wall farthest away from the gunman’s entrance. At least the mud floor was unlikely to ignite. It was more likely I’d succumb to the smoke now rolling around the space, made up of burnt paper and plastic, it was thick and left an oily residue on whatever it touched. After the fire had broken out there were no more bullets flying, which was some relief. I still had no idea how I would be able to get out. I could always run back up my violet-lit tunnel, but then I’d just be trapped at the bottom of the mineshaft, and would be perfectly highlighted for whoever came in after me. It wasn’t a good feeling, and I growing rather tired of my situation always seeming to get worse. Even my new clothes would now reek of smoke. It was pleasantly distracting to focus on such trivia, since I had little chance to deal with anything else.
Carefully, I tried to watch the other entrance through the flames, wondering who had come to kill the archivists, and presumably me. I couldn’t see anyone standing there, but that was no surprise since the fire and smoke obscured most of the view. I guessed that it must be the strangers, who had successfully tracked our auto up the winding paths through the hills and had come down here to exact vengeance for their fallen airship. I made myself as small as possible against the wall. The smoke was getting denser by the roof – filling that space up before it got low enough to escape through the two exits. As long as I stayed low I should still be able to breathe, unless the fire managed to use all up the air available down in the mine. I’d no idea if that was possible, but with the flames dancing in my face it felt terribly likely.
I’d been looking in the wrong direction. I felt, as much as saw out of the corner of my eye, a figure approaching from my rear. They had done the simple and obvious thing of sticking close to the wall, just as I had. I flung myself forward, barely avoiding the fire, anything to evade their murderous grip. The black-clad figure lunged for me, snatching hold of my arm and hauling me up, away from the flames. I used the sudden motion to lash out, catching them across the face with the back of my fist, causing them to lose their grip. I continued into the wall, slightly stunned by the impact. I was far less ready for a fight than my opponent, who slammed into my shoulders, banging my head hard against the wall. I put my elbows and heels to good use, preventing my attacker from getting a hold of me. I extracted muttered curses from them, and a pained shout as I jerked my head back, cracking them in the face. Now my head hurt, front and back. The force of my headbutt, knocked my hood down around my neck, revealing my weirdly scarred and twisted head. That seemed to earn me a moment’s grace – just enough to get a boot up on the wall, and push off. Even as we staggered away from the side of the cavern, they managed to snaked an arm around my throat, jerking and hauling my head backwards. I got a foot caught between theirs and we went falling into the fire.
I’d been on fire before, and the memory of it crashed into me as hard as I hit the floor. It knocked the breath out of us both, but I was kicking and scrambling free as soon as I felt the first lick of flame across my arm. In my panic I managed to get free of their grip, rolling up and away from the fire, once more banging the back of my head on the wall. Slapping at my smoking arm I almost forgot there was someone else there at all, until they began shrieking because the fire had caught on their clothes. For all my fear and confusion, I couldn’t watch someone else burn to death. Muffling my hands in my sleeves, I grabbed them by the ankles and yanked them free of the fire. I tore off my jacket and beat out the fire that was taking hold of their back and arms. They seemed to be just smoking, but I threw in a few extra poundings of the jacket, just for good measure. I was breathing hard, in an environment which it was growing ever harder to breath in, coughing more than exhaling. The fire had burned fast and bright, with the fuel from the heater egging it on, but now that its resource of oxygen was running out, it was dropping lower and lower, leaving us breathing smoke and plastic fumes.
My would-be killer, and recipient of my contrary life-saving effort was still slapping at their now only-smoking arms. I could finally get a look at them. A black balaclava completed their scary black-on-black get up. No wonder they had been able to sneak down through the tunnels after Feryon and Hevalan. They could even have been waiting for us, and killed them both before Grellan and I even entered the mine. Choking, their eyes running with soot-clogged tears, they pulled that balaclava off, and we stared at each other.
It was impossible, but the man under the balaclava was Miqual, and if not, then was the twin I never knew had. Given the organisation and administration of shettling, I supposed that was possible, but still seemed absurd. I watched his eyes track over my scarred face and head, down to my red-lined hands, with a look of horror and compassion in his eyes. It was Miqual, a few years older than I last saw him, though not as aged as the archivists had been. But the Miqual I knew had surely burned, trapped in the alltree’s roots as the End shattered our night sky.
“Jenn,” he croaked, “I’m sorry – didn’t know it was you. I thought, I thought you were dead.”
“I thought you were dead too. I saw you on fire.”
“More than once,” somehow he managed to chuckle about that, “thanks for putting me out.”
He reached out for me, one soot-tinged hand seeking another. Initially I felt myself moving forward, but as his fingers touched mine, I flinched back away from him. He had been trying to kill me, and I was way too confused to start placing trust in someone who was dead. His eyes turned hard. I’d forgotten they could do that, I’d forgotten Miqual could flick between affection and anger in a heartbeat. Instead of withdrawing his hand, he moved faster, and grabbed my wrist.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“Let go Miqual, you’re hurting me,” I said, trying to twist away from his tight grip.
“Why are you back, now, of all times? And with these… archivists?” he gave their title with a sneer. He didn’t let me go.
“Miqual, I don’t understand. The alltree brought me back, finally, but – but it couldn’t heal me. Hevalan and the others – they rescued me. Don’t you remember him, Miqual? Hevalan – he was the man at the archive on the eve of shettling.”
“Of course I remember him, why do you think I’m down here with a gun?” his face was so cold it frightened me. I felt glad that he didn’t have his gun any more, he must have lost it somewhere during our struggle. Maybe it had fallen into the flames. With the look on his face, I certainly didn’t want him holding it again. There would be at least one more weapon in this cave though: the rifle Grellan had carried.
“What? Miqual, I don’t, I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You’re a murderer now? What’s going on?”
I felt pathetic, and scared – still. All I had open to me were questions, and potentially distraction until I could get away from Miqual. For all that he looked like my Miqual he wasn’t the same person. He might have been angry back at the archives, all those long years ago, but I’d never have thought him a killer. It was insane. But my head was full of jumbled memories, and Miqual throwing me at the auto outside the archive wasn’t the only time he’d been violent; I had just forgotten them.
“These people,” he gestured around at the smouldering mass in the centre of the cavern, “they’re extremists. Dangerous. You really think the allforest could bring you back, decades after you were burned alive?”
“That’s not what happened Miqual – I was dragged under – I watched you die–”
“You saw me burn, and it was awful,” a flicker of some other feeling passed across his face, “but I was saved, and healed. You vanished into the soil, never to be seen again. When I woke up, I discovered we were at war, with people who destroyed our way of life, everything we have. They burned half the allforest, Jenn.”
“That’s what Hevalan told me, that the strangers came–“
“Strangers? That’s what they told you?” he scrutinised me with those cold eyes, looking for something. I didn’t know what, “what else did they tell you?”
“That we’d been attacked by the strangers. That we don’t know who they are. Hevalan and the others had been waiting for me, for someone like me, who hadn’t come back from the shettling. They thought there was a chance that the alltrees had saved some of us who shettled that day. But… you had already come back. The alltrees kept me, for so long. Why Miqual, why would they heal you, but not me?”
Miqual got to his feet, hacking and spitting the soot from his lungs and mouth. He looked undecided, eyes sweeping back and forth around him.
“We need to go – there’s not much good air left down here, Miqual. The fire’s taken it all. Miqual?”
I realised he was looking for his gun. The sense of betrayal was appalling, like ice dug under my skin, carving around my bones. I pushed myself up the wall to reach my feet, and began edging away from him.
“I’m sorry Jenn, but you’re not going anywhere,” his tone transfixed me. This wasn’t the sharply angry Miqual I’d known, there was no gentleness here. We weren’t in a circle any more and I didn’t know who he was. “Don’t you realise how they got you out of the earth? They’re extremists – they want the allforest back, and they’ll do anything to get it. They’ve been electrifying the earth, shocking what’s left of the alltrees back into life. That’s how they got you back out. They’ve tried it before, and all they’ve managed is to make the trees vomit up mangled, braindead people. The electricity created zombie tree networks, but they didn’t know what they were doing, just triggered their basest functions. But you… You… don’t know who you are, do you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Miqual, you’re scaring me,” I felt my only hope was to hide, to pretend I was still the Miqual he’d known, but he was also making me angry, “all I know is our circle, and what I’ve been told since by the men you killed.” Steadily, I began walking backwards, around the edge of the room away from him. “Miqual, I don’t understand what you’re doing here, but the MIqual I remember was a good man. You weren’t a coldblooded killer. I think I even loved you, once.”
“Everything changes after shettling, Jenn. The allforest is dead, or will be soon enough. The old ways are gone, and this is the only life we get now. Your ‘strangers’ have made sure of that, and they’re the ones with power now – not the archive, not the institute, and not the alltrees. They’ve– they’ve made me a better offer. I can escape from all this. But to do that, I’m afraid, Jenn, that you and everyone like you is going to have to die. You haven’t known me for a very long time, but I know exactly who you are, and who you used to be.”
I started to run. What choice did I have – stay, and be killed by someone I thought was my friend? Whatever relationship we’d once had, it was over now. Miqual must have run the other way round the fading fire, because he reached Grellan’s body before me, tearing the rifle by its strap from over his head and shoulder. As he brought it up, and pointed it at me, the walls fluoresced with violet fire. A low rumbling penetrated the chamber, shaking rocks and dirt down from the ceiling, the ground vibrating under our feet.
“You might not remember who you were Jenn, but they do,” said Miqual, pulling the trigger, even as the floor ruptured underneath him, throwing him up in the air. Bolts of energy slammed into the ceiling, vaporising earth and igniting that vapour. Tiny tendril roots erupted from the ground and walls near me, writhing into a cocoon that enveloped me. My last sight before the cocoon was complete was of Miqual firing Grellan’s rifle as he fell back into the tunnel he’d emerged from. With a titanic groan, my enwrapping roots twisted, and dragged me back underground.
All content copyright Captain Pigheart 2023