I do not see Eo in death. My kin believe we see our loved ones when we pass on. They wait for us in a green vale where woodfire smoke and the scent of stews thicken the air. There is an Old Man with dew on his cap who makes safe the vale, and he stands with our kin waiting for us along a stone road beside which sheep graze. They say the mist there is fresh and the flowers sweet, and those who are buried pass along the stone road faster.
But I do not see my love. I do not see the vale. I see nothing but phantom lights in darkness. I feel pressure, and I know, as would any miner, that I am buried beneath the earth. I loose a soundless scream. Dirt enters my mouth. Panic fills me. I cannot breathe, cannot move. The earth hugs me till finally I claw my way free, feel air, gasp oxygen, pant and spit dirt.
It is minutes before I look up from my knees. I crouch in an abandoned mine, an old tunnel long deserted but still connected to the ventilation system. It smells of dirt. A single flare burns beside my grave, splaying weird shadows over the walls. It singes my sight like the sun did as it rose over Eo’s grave.
I’m not dead.
The realization takes longer in coming than one might have thought. But there’s a bloody wound around my neck where the rope cut the skin. There’s dirt in the lashes on my back.
Still, I’m not dead.
Uncle Narol didn’t pull my feet hard enough. But surely the Tinpots would have checked, unless they were lazy. Not a stretch to think that, but something else is at play. I was too woozy when I walked to the gallows. I feel something in my veins even now, a lethargy as though I’ve been drugged. Narol did this. He drugged me. He buried me. But why? And how would he escape being caught when he pulled my body down?
When a low rumbling comes from the darkness beyond the flare, I know I will have answers. A tumbler, like a metal beetle on six wheels, crawls over the crest of a long tunnel. Its front grille hisses steam as it comes to a stop in front of me. Eighteen lights singe my vision; shapes exit the sides of the vehicle, cutting across the glare of the headlights to grab me. I’m too stunned to resist. Their hands are callused like miners’ and their faces are covered with Octobernacht demon masks. Yet they move me gently, guiding instead of forcing me into the tumbler’s hatch.
Inside the tumbler, the globe light is red and bloody. I sit in a worn metal bucket seat across from the two figures that fetched me from my grave. The female’s mask is pale white and gold, horned like a cacodemon. Her eyes glitter darkly out from the eyeholes. The other figure is a timid man. He’s willowy and quiet, seemingly frightened of me. His snarling batface mask can’t conceal his shy glances or the way in which he hides his hands—a trait of the frightened, as Uncle Narol always claimed when he taught me to dance.
“You’re Sons of Ares, aren’t you?” I guess.
The weakling flinches, while the woman’s eyes are mocking.
“And you’re Lazarus,” she says. I find her voice cold, lazy; it plays with the ears as a cat plays with a caught mouse.
“I am Darrow.”
“Oh, we know who you are.”
“Don’t tell him anything, Harmony!” the weakling gibbers. “Dancer didn’t tell us to discuss anything with him till we get home.”
“Thank you, Ralph.” Harmony sighs at the weakling and shakes her head.
After realizing his error, the weakling shifts uncomfortably in his bucket seat, but I’ve stopped paying him any mind. Here, the woman is king. Unlike the weakling’s, her mask is like that of an old crone, one of the witches of Earth’s fallen cities who made soup from the marrow of
“You’re a mess.” Harmony reaches to touch my neck. I grab her hand and squeeze. Her bones are brittle as hollow plastic in a Helldiver’s hand. The weakling reaches for his thumper, but Harmony motions him to calm down.
“Why am I not dead?” I ask. After the hanging, my voice is like gravel dragged over metal.
“Because Ares has a mission for you, little Helldiver.” She winces as I squeeze her hand.
“Ares …” My mind flashes to images of bomb blasts, disembodied limbs, chaos. Ares. I know what sort of mission he’ll want. I’m too numb to even know what I’ll say when he asks. My mind is on Eo, not this life. I am a shell. Why could I not have stayed in the ground?
“May I have my hand back now?” Harmony asks.
“If you take off your mask. Otherwise, I’m keeping it.”
She laughs and strips away her mask. Her face is day and night—the right side a ragged and distended mess of skin running and folding together in smooth scar rivers. A steam burn. A familiar sight, but not on women. Rare for a woman to be on a drillteam.
Yet it is the unburned side of her face that startles. She is beautiful, more beautiful even than Eo. Skin soft, pale as milk, bones prominent and delicate. Yet she looks so cold, so angry and cruel. Her bottom teeth are uneven and her nails poorly maintained. She has knives in her boots. I can tell by the way she flinched down when I grabbed her hand.
The weakling, Ralph, is unremarkably ugly—dark face like a hatchet, teeth all ajar and grimy. He stares out the tumbler’s window hatch as we drive through abandoned tunnels till we reach lit paved tunnelroads meant for fast moving. I do not know these Reds, and though they have the Red Sigil emblazoned on their hands, I do not trust them. They are not of Lambda or Lykos. Might as well be Silvers.
Eventually I glimpse other utility vehicles and tumblers out the hatch. I don’t know where we are, yet that bothers me less than the swelling sadness in my chest. The farther we ride and the more time I’m given to my thoughts, the worse the pain becomes. I finger my wedding band. Eo is still dead. She’s not waiting for me at the end of this ride. Why did I survive when she did not? Why did I pull her feet so hard? Could she have lived too? My guts feel like a black hole. A terrible weight
compresses my chest, and I ache to just jump from the tumbler into the path of a utility vehicle. Death is easy when you’ve already tried to find it.
But I don’t jump; I sit with Harmony and Ralph. Eo wanted more for me. I clench the scarlet headband in my fist.
The tunnelroad widens slightly when we come to a checkpoint manned by dirty Tinpots in worndown gear. The electric gate isn’t even charged. They let the tumbler ahead of us through after scanning a panel on its side. Then it’s our turn and I’m shifting uncomfortably in my seat right along with Ralph. Harmony chuckles disdainfully as the grey-haired Tinpot scans the side of the tumbler and waves us through the gate.
“We have a passcode. No brains in slaves. Mine Tinpots are idiots. It’s the Grey elites, or the Obsidian monsters you watch out for. But they don’t waste their time down here.”
I am trying to convince myself that this all is not some Gold trick, that Harmony and Ralph are not enemies, when we pull off the main tunnelroad into a cul-de-sac of utility warehouses not much larger than the Common. Harsh sulfur lights hang down from utility fixtures. Half the bulbs are burned out. One flickers on and off above a garage near a warehouse marked with a queer symbol done in strange paint. We steer into the garage. The door closes and Harmony motions for me to get out of the tumbler.
“Home sweet home,” she says. “Now time to meet Dancer.”