01 - The Feeding
Long ago, in a past so distant and fading that its light has nearly red-shifted beyond all hope of memory, the stars fell to the surface of First Home and became flesh, and thus the first men emerged into sapience. In those mythical days when men were new, most of them flamed daily. But a handful flamed not with the incandescence of light, but of life, and these were the Ashenfolk.
— The Book of Light, by Ba’rath’ma’oor.
Embra stared up the tunnel at the gates, two rusted iron doors that barred the tunnel and kept the Flamers penned within their warren.
Today, she was determined to witness a feeding. She could feel the hungry Darkers as dots of emptiness, like black holes pulling at her across the distance, approaching the gates from the other side.
She lurked behind a table that had been tipped over onto its side about twenty feet from the gates. This part of the Pen, being so near to the entrance of the Darkers, was not well-kept, and was littered with detritus such as the battered table that shielded her. Other junk was scattered nearby: two broken chairs; coiled bedsprings that perhaps were the remnants of a long-decayed mattress; the torn and soggy pages of a book, perhaps a bit of literature forbidden by the Darkers which they had discovered in someone’s possession and torn apart.
The metal walls of the tunnel were rusted and alive with green mold, with rivulets of oily, noxious liquids that leaked from between gaps in the plates. Liquids from cracked or burst pipes hidden in the infrastructure above, or that had trickled down from the surface through nooks and crannies. The liquid collected in stagnant puddles that dotted the tunnel floor. She could hear a rhythmic drip-drip-drip and a muffled trickling behind the walls as the slow flow continued unabated just as it had for the entire fifteen years of her life. Or at least as much of it as she could remember.
Her nostrils flared with nervousness at the creeping approach of the still-unseen Darkers, and she grew slightly dizzy from the familiar, ever-present stench of oil and mold and rusted iron.
The gas lamps, which hung at intervals along the walls casting their wan yellow light, flickered and went out one by one, as the gas feeding them was cut off at the source. Darkers did not like light. They could tolerate it if they had to, but she had heard that to them, it was like the most disgusting, offensive stench imaginable. All light except one particular type, that was.
She could hear them now, on the other side of the gates. A metallic click as a lock disengaged; a grinding of metal as a gear turned, and a thunk as a bolt retracted. A loud crack as a seal was broken, followed by a further grinding of metal as the gates swung slowly open.
In the darkness, she could not see them. But she could still sense them as points of emptiness, moving up the tunnel toward her. Her mother, now years dead, had once told her that her ability to sense when Darkers were near was unusual, and should not be spoken of openly. Just as the other thing she sensed constantly shouldn’t: something far above her. Not an emptiness like the Darkers, but rather an imminence, a potentiality, a sense of something waiting. Something that made small movements as though confined to a narrow location. Was it a thing, or was it a person? And another something, of the same sort, but larger, more powerful, further distant and moving at great speed, circling her as if tracing out a boundary to the world. Something that made a complete circle in an amount of time that corresponded exactly with the unchanging time period which those in the Pens called “a day.”
“Why do none of the others sense these things?” Embra had once asked her mother.
“Because you’re special, darling,” her mother had said as Embra scrubbed her back.
They were alone in the communal bath, a cavernous room with a huge pool of clean water which took up most of the space. Well, not entirely clean water: there was the ever-present mixture of liquids trickling down the moldy metal walls. Her people tried to keep the noxious streams from contaminating the pool, but a small amount inevitably made it through their makeshift dams.
“But don’t ever tell anyone why you’re special,” her mother had continued. “Such words would surely make their way to the ears of the Darkers, God damn their leathery hides, and our future would die.”
Mother reversed positions with Embra, and began scrubbing her daughter’s back. A cold, wet finger tapped the birthmark between Embra’s shoulder blades: long tongues of flame emanating from a star.
“And most especially don’t ever let anyone see this,” her mother had cautioned her. “One day everyone will see it, and know just how special you are. But for now, this mark means death for you.”
“But Mother,” Embra had said. “Why would I tell anyone I’m special when I don’t even know why those things make me special?”
“Exactly, precious,” her mother had said with a sad smile.
“Tell me,” Embra had insisted. “Why can I do these things? What is the meaning of my birthmark?”
“When it’s time,” Mother had replied.
But Mother had died shortly after, leaving Embra with nothing but unanswered questions and a fear of discovery that bordered on paranoia.
Now, Embra could not only sense the Darkers, she could hear them as they passed her hiding place in the darkness. The rustle of their membranous wings, the clack of their clawed feet upon the metal floor.
She wondered if they could see her crouching behind the table as they passed. Did they have some other way of seeing than sight? Could they somehow sense her nearness as she could sense theirs? Maybe. Her people knew so little about them, and she knew even less, since she’d stayed on the fringes since her mother’s death. Partly by her own choice, since keeping to oneself made it less likely that others would discover that she was special, whatever sort of special she might be. And partly because since her mother’s death, as she had grown, it had become increasingly more difficult to conceal her growing abilities, and so they were slowly pushing her away, setting her apart. Everyone was gradually becoming aware that she was special, even if they didn’t openly acknowledge it.
It had become an unspoken secret. She couldn’t be certain the others knew, and they couldn’t be certain that she knew that they knew. That was the nature of secrets. So they all kept quiet about it.
The Darkers passed, a long stream of them. This particular Pen served a community of five hundred, and the morning feeding was usually the most crowded.
After two hundred had streamed past, the line thinned out. One of the stragglers stopped beside the table and sniffed. She heard its thin tongue licking its lipless slit of a mouth.
Embra tensed, preparing to flee.
She had never been this close to a Darker before. His emptiness, the only thing about him visible to her in the pitch blackness, sucked at her, tried to pull something from deep within her. He was a hole in the universe, a hunger, and she fought its instinctive attempt to consume her.
“Can’t you smell? She’s too young,” one of its friends said. Its voice, like all Darker voices, was harsh and grating, almost like the sound of the gates grinding open. “Hasn’t yet flamed. Now move on, or let me ahead of you. I’m hungry.”
So they couldn’t sense her like she could them. She filed that away for future reference. But they could smell her.
The one who had stopped moved away, heading toward the nearby Feeding Room.
Embra relaxed. She had figured they would leave her alone. Why bother with an immature Flamer that couldn’t yet nourish you? Most Darkers weren’t purposefully cruel; they didn’t play with their food.
But it had been a gamble, albeit a safe one. And she had won.
She waited a few minutes to make sure all the Darkers had had enough time to pass through into the Feeding Room. Then, feeling her way through the darkness, she moved up the tunnel and around the corner. Light spilled into the tunnel from an open hatch up ahead, so she no longer stumbled blindly in darkness.
She sidled up to the hatch. Two men stood guard, to keep out malcontents as well as those who weren’t yet old enough to provide for the Darkers.
People like her, on both counts.
But a few days ago she had approached these two guards outside of the Darker mealtimes. In exchange for a few kisses and some prolonged groping beneath her shirt, they had agreed to let her witness today’s morning feed. A few minutes earlier they had swept the tunnel near the gates, clearing out other lurkers, but letting her stay. So she knew the deal still stood.
She peered through the hatch.
The room was filled with light, for the feeding had already begun. And the gruesome scene laid bare by the light horrified her.
The Feeding Room was cavernous, and bare of any furnishing or decoration. During each feeding, thousands upon thousands of times over the years, the plating of the walls, floor and ceiling had been slagged to liquid only to cool and re-solidify, so that the boundary of the room was amorphous and changed by the day. The underlying pipes and ductwork of the infrastructure were exposed in various places, themselves half-melted and twisted out of shape.
The Feeding Room had obviously not been constructed with its present function in mind. Which begged the question: what was its original function? Did it even matter?
No, at that moment, it did not matter to Embra.
Her mother had died in this very room, after a Darker had fed too deeply upon her.
For her, the horror of the feeding overrode all other considerations. Her eyes roved from one point to another, the horror growing with each passing moment.
The room was occupied by a mixture of Darkers and Flamers. The Flamers were ordinary humans like Embra herself. Even though there were about five hundred in the Pen, there were only about ten of them present in the Feeding Room that morning, since they only flamed every two weeks like clockwork. But the Darkers…
They infused her with a sense of disgust every time she beheld them.
They were tall, far taller than Embra’s people. So tall that they would have to crouch to move through the tunnels. Which meant they didn’t belong here, Embra realized. The catacombs weren’t made for them.
They were bone-thin, gaunt, emaciated. Flesh the color of old parchment sagged over the bumps of ribs, hips, bones, tendons, muscles. Cheekbones and chin were sharp points. The nose was just two holes in the skin of the flattened face. The mouths lipless, the teeth serrated and crooked, like bits of broken ceramic jammed into the jawbone. Their hands and feet were clawed, their long sharp nails chipped. Their membranous wings, enormous when fully extended, were kept folded behind their backs when inside the tunnels. Their small eyes were strange: lidless ovals, black near the nose holes, transitioning to flame red at the outer edge.
Like Embra’s people, they were a race divided into two sexes. The males each had a thin, rope-like organ dangling from naked loins, while the females were distinguished by flattened, dangling breasts like empty sacks of dried parchment.
For Embra, overlaying their repulsive visual appearance was that disconcerting sense of emptiness, of a hungry, sucking absence leading to some dark place outside the universe.
What Embra saw was repeated many times across the vast space of the Feeding Room: one of her people would suddenly jolt and throw their arms wide as if transfixed, and then burst into flame, swallowed within spheres of blinding light that wavered from red to blue to orange to white, cycling through the spectrum. Fiery streamers of intensely hot plasma licked across the surface of the small stars of which they had become the fleshly cores.
A few Darkers would step toward one of the flickering conflagrations, snakelike tongues hungrily licking the rims of their lipless mouths. As the Darkers approached, the surface streamers would erupt toward the Darkers as if drawn to them. The closer the Darkers got, the greater the amount of fiery plasma that would leap out and bathe them in white hot fire. The Darkers would eventually step fully into the fire and vanish from sight in the blinding whiteness. Gradually the light would begin to fade, revealing both the Darkers and the Flamer once more. Both races were now transfixed, the Darkers seeming to swell, invigorated, their faces beatific and gasping with joy as they drained and ingested the plasma fire through mouth, nostrils, and leathery skin itself. Correspondingly the Flamer would wither, sagging, skin paling and sinking down onto bone. Finally the Flamer would drop to his or her knees, the light flickering and finally dying, their pent up energy fully expended, at which point the Flamer collapsed face down onto the floor, unconscious, seemingly lifeless.
But Embra knew they weren’t lifeless, just considerably weakened. Other Flamers would step from where they had been waiting along the walls, collect the collapsed Flamer and drag him or her from the room, past Embra and the guards and onward, deeper into the Pen toward the recovery room.
Embra knew the flaming was an ordinary occurrence for her kind, part of the normal biological process. What was abnormal, and so horrifying to her, was the way the Darkers fed off such a beautiful part of the Flamer’s life, sucking it into that insatiably hungry emptiness within them that apparently only she out of all her people could see. This was sick. It was wrong, it was unnatural. She had, of course, heard about it before, but this was the first time she had witnessed it first hand.
And supposedly there were Feeding Rooms just like this, in other Pens throughout Darker territory. What she was witnessing was just a small fraction of the horror.
“No! This has to stop!” she screamed at the guards. Several nearby Darkers turned to look at her, and her habitual paranoia set in. She raced away from the Feeding Room.
02 - Flight
She ran blindly, careless of where she was going. She nearly collided with several people, who leapt out of her way at the last instant. They shook their fists after her, cursing her vigorously and admonishing her to slow down and look where she was going. The gas lamps away from the gates and the Feeding Room were never extinguished, so she couldn’t use darkness as an excuse for her carelessness.
Suddenly realizing that she was standing out, she heeded their words and slowed to a walk.
Behind her, she could sense spots of emptiness all clustered in one area: the Feeding Room. Breakfast was still in full swing.
But one spot had detached from the cluster, and seemed to be trailing her far in the distance. Following her? Had her shouted words caught more unwanted attention than she had thought? Enough that they would take her in for questioning?
Such a thing was not unheard of.
She almost panicked and broke into a run again. But she fought the urge. It was also not unheard of for Darkers to occasionally wander the tunnels of the Pen, looking for signs that any malcontents might be joining forces or arming themselves. Or they might wander for other reasons. Some of them actually had friends among the Flamers. Also, she just then realized that her random flight was taking her toward a Well Room. Perhaps the Darker behind her was a supervisor coming to check on the well.
She relaxed again. The odds that she was being pursued were slim.
But not nonexistent.
She passed the Well Room, intending to position herself further up the tunnel where she could watch the door and see whether the Darker behind her entered.
As she passed, she glanced into the room.
It was cylindrical, and cramped, no more than ten paces in diameter. But its height was…Well, Embra didn’t know what its height was, but it went all the way up to the surface.
There were no Darkers within, of course. Just her own kind. Just Flamers. Some of them were currently flaming, discharging their plasma into coils, which absorbed it and stored it for later consumption by the Darkers. Uncharged coils lay in a pile near the Flamers, ready for use. The coils were small, just three twists. Cool rods of metal forged by the ancients, twisted into their present shape. Impossible to make nowadays; the Flamers had lost the secret of their manufacture, and the Darkers had never possessed it.
Once a coil had been charged by a Flamer, the brightly glowing, white hot thing was placed into one of the buckets that had been lowered from the opening far above in the ceiling. The opening was not visible from down here, since there were no gas lamps that far up the sides of the cylindrical shaft. Neither was there any light from the surface, since the surface itself had been plunged into an eternal night long ago, when the Darkers had extinguished the Sun. Or so her spotty and perhaps unreliable knowledge of history said.
The constant noise of ratcheting gears and rattling chains as the buckets were raised and lowered was overpowering.
But as she glanced into the room, a full bucket was being sent up to someone far above. The bucket was alive with the light from the coil it contained, and lit the walls of the upper shaft as it ascended. Soon the opening was visible, a tiny oval of blackness in the surrounding rusted metal of the shaft. The bucket wobbled a bit, and then disappeared through the opening, where the coil it contained would eventually be discharged into the hungry emptiness of a Darker living on the surface, a Darker who didn’t have the convenience of a readily available Flamer as did the catacomb dwellers.
The surface! She had dreamed of it her whole life. Not much was known about it, for no one in the Pen had ever been there. Just rumors and bits of knowledge passed down through the ages. It was said there were people like herself living up there among the Darkers, people who lacked the Spark and the consequent need to flame. The Ashenfolk, they were called. Were they merely legends, or were they real? That imminence, that potentiality that she could always sense, that she was sensing even now, somewhere up there, within what felt like miles of the top of the well: might it perhaps be one of the Ashenfolk?
All this she took in with a glance as she passed the Well Room. She put the last question out of her mind. The proximity of the Darker was her concern at the moment.
She moved on up the tunnel to an intersection and positioned herself just around the corner, so that she could see back to the Well Room without herself being seen.
Moments later, the Darker turned a far corner and approached the Well Room.
He passed it by without sparing as much as a glance inside.
Panic lit her up again. He was after her!
She tensed, leaning forward onto her toes, preparing to flee. Her advantage was that she had lived in the Pen all her fifteen years of life. She knew these tunnels, every nook and cranny. Most of the Darkers only came here once or twice a day, and rarely strayed far from the Feeding Room.
But something held her back. She stayed at the corner, peering around it, watching the Darker. He was having difficulty seeing in the light of the widely-spaced gas lamps, shielding his eyes against it with one clawed hand. It was possible that in his half-blindness he wasn’t aware of her watching, and it was still possible that he was only coincidentally heading in her direction.
A hatch along the tunnel wall between Embra and the Darker suddenly opened. An old crone appeared, standing in the opening and peering into the tunnel. The grey-haired old woman stretched and yawned, apparently having just awakened.
Her name was Ieldra. Embra was familiar with her, as she was with most of the inhabitants of this Pen. After all, she had lived in close quarters with all of them for her entire life, and such closeness bred familiarity, if not friendship or intimacy.
Ieldra was a loon, always shuffling around in her threadbare, hole-ridden smock with her dirty wrinkled old legs exposed, and mumbling incoherently to herself and occasionally cackling like the mad woman everyone believed her to be.
The old crone smiled at the Darker as he passed…
…and then she burst into flame. A flame unlike any Embra had ever witnessed. Not that she had witnessed many: flaming was like sex, rarely done in front of children, and a great effort was done to shield them from it.
But Ieldra flamed, a hot, wild, controlled conflagration that reached out like the arm of some brutal monster and engulfed the Darker. It screamed, a shrill, high-pitched shriek of terror so unlike its normal metal-grinding-metal tone. And then it too burst into flame. Rather than consuming the fiery plasma as when it fed, the Darker was itself consumed, flash-burned into molten ash which splattered onto the tunnel wall opposite Ieldra’s door and melted into the metal, leaving a black shadow in the outline of the Darker.
Ieldra’s flame extinguished. She sagged against the jamb of her hatch, wheezing and gasping for breath.
In the sudden silence, hatches all along the tunnel were opening, and people peered forth to see what the commotion was about. Some of them looked weak and pale; these were the ones who had so recently fed Darkers back in the Feeding Room.
Ieldra straightened, mustering what little strength her frail old body had left in it. “Come,” she said to Embra, who had been stunned into immobility by the unexpectedness of the shocking event. She took the young girl’s wrist and pulled her into the living space at her back, and closed the hatch upon the curious faces timidly inching closer.
The room was tiny. The only furnishings were an uncomfortable-looking cot in one corner, a rickety table in the center of the room, and along another wall, a second table with a dented steel pitcher and a warped steel plate on the top.
“It’s time for you to leave,” Ieldra said without preamble.
“What did you do out there?” Embra said.
“What I had to do,” Ieldra said. “I saved you. I wound the clock of Destiny, set it to counting down.” She began pacing around the room, muttering. “It could have been me, when I was your age. But I was too afraid! I had no one to push me. But you have me, thank all the stars in the sky!”
“What are you talking about?” Embra asked. “What stars? What is ‘sky’?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Ieldra went to the corner of the room opposite the hatch and pulled a section of metal plating from the wall. A dark, rectangular opening stood revealed. “You must leave now. They know what I’ve done, and they’re coming. You can feel them, I know you can.”
Embra suddenly became aware of the approach of a multitude of those empty spots, those empty, hungry spots that told her where Darkers were even when she couldn’t see them. They had left the Feeding Room and were hurrying this way.
Embra’s heart leapt into her throat. “I don’t understand any of this! Why did you kill that Darker? You crazy old woman!”
Saying nothing, Ieldra doffed her smock, revealing her wrinkled, pale old flesh, her sagging dugs. She presented her backside to Embra, whose eyes were instantly drawn to the birthmark between the old woman’s shoulder blades: wavering flames emanating from a star. “I show you this, which is like your own, so you’ll know that you can trust me.”
Realization sank in. “You’re special like me,” Embra said.
“Once, I was,” Ieldra replied, putting her smock back on. “Now, no longer. Nature provides a potentially special person once per generation. Once, long ago, that was me. But I didn’t fulfill my potential. Now, it is you, and I have lived long enough to make sure you fulfill yours. Perhaps that was my destiny all along.”
She thrust Embra toward the dark opening in the wall. “Now go! Hurry! They’re almost upon us. Find your way to the surface, and then seek out the Bridge Keeper.”
“But why?” Embra said plaintively, refusing to be pushed away. “I don’t understand. How did you know about my birthmark? Why are we special?”
“No time!” Ieldra shrieked.
She shoved Embra, this time with a forcefulness that belied her advanced age. Taken off guard and unable to resist, Embra found herself half falling, half scrambling into the opening.
“But I can’t just leave!” Embra protested. “At least let me gather a few things from my room.” Her room. Her bare, lonely room that wasn’t much different from Ieldra’s. A room she had once shared with her mother, and earlier still, her father. Both dead now. She really had nothing to go home to, nothing to get. That was just an excuse to avoid leaving the only world she had ever known.
But the Darkers were out in the tunnel now, right outside the hatch.
What am I so afraid of? she wondered to herself. The old woman had killed the Darker, not her.
But despite this, fear and paranoia pushed her deeper into the darkness. She crawled forward on her hands and knees, deeper into some sort of narrow ductwork behind the tunnel walls.
Behind her, Ieldra put the panel back onto the wall, cutting off the gas light, and Embra heard screws turning in the sudden pitch blackness.
And forward she crawled, fleeing the Darkers behind her, not knowing where the ductwork led, unable to see anything at all. No food or water, nothing in her possession other than the clothing she wore, and no idea how to exit the ductwork.
The surface, she thought. How do I get to the surface? And where do I go once I’m there?
She began sobbing as she crawled.
The ducts were narrow and constricting. The only way she could move was to wriggle forward like one of the pale worms that sometimes infested the fruits and vegetables her people grew in the water gardens of the Pen. Too much movement and she would hit her head, or bang her elbows or knees. She did that often, each strike a dull thumping sound as the metal yielded and crumpled beneath her.
There was not enough room to turn around even if she had wanted to. And with each passing minute, she increasingly wanted to, which made her sob even harder, because she knew that route was closed to her. She couldn’t go back. She was a fugitive.
Several times as she crawled, she scraped over nails or screws, or tacks, or whatever they were; in the darkness she couldn’t tell. But the feel of the things cutting her flesh made her scream, and her tears increased. Even though she couldn’t see in the darkness, she just knew they were cutting her rather than merely scratching. And the sharp things were caked with ancient rust, the threads clogged with mold, mold which discharged spores into her poor young blood with each cut. She was sure of it.
Eventually she simply stopped. She couldn’t go on like this, crawling away into the pitch blackness with no idea where she was going, having her flesh shredded bit by bit, death by a thousand cuts. Each inch forward a gamble that she wouldn’t crawl over the edge of a precipice.
She stopped, and lay there sobbing. Suddenly realizing how hot it was in the ducts. Sweat soaked her clothing, and stinging rivulets of it ran into her eyes. She continually blinked it away, and kept on blinking, trying to blink away the darkness. But she couldn’t.
She couldn’t go on, with only a vague idea where she was going.
But the surface was up, and so far she had not gone up a single inch.
Her mind cleared, her sobbing stopped.
Thinking was good, she told herself. Think your way out of this. Think your way upward.
And then she realized that she knew precisely where to go. She could sense it even now, like a beacon: that spot of potential far above her, that spot of imminence that had called to her throughout her entire life. If there’d been enough room to lift her arm, she could have pointed straight at it, followed its small movements with her pointing finger. She had always assumed it was on the surface. She would let it be her guide, her beacon.
As soon as she had resolved herself to that course of action, she had an epiphany: the reason she’d always felt that that spot represented potentiality, or imminence, was because it was her destiny. It was waiting on her. Once she reached it, the potential would be actualized; the imminent would enter the present.
Buttressed by her newfound purpose, she started forward once again, free of tears, and carefully this time, feeling her way along, avoiding the nails and screws. Feeling the ceiling of the duct.
And soon she found a square hole in the ceiling. She wriggled her way upward into another duct, one that slanted slightly upward. And then she found another hole in the ceiling, and climbed again.
Of course, she found grilles in the duct as well, grilles which she could have lifted and crawled through. But these were always on the floor of the duct, and were too small for her to fit through. She didn’t want to fit through them anyway, since they led downward, and downward meant away from the surface. And most likely they let into tunnels. She was certainly beyond the tunnels of her pen by now, so any tunnels beyond the grilles would be infested with Darkers. As if in confirmation, a slight breeze wafted up through each grille she passed, carrying with it the strong, acrid, necrotic stench of the Darkers.
So she kept to the ducts, and went upward at each opportunity.
In that way, she slowly but surely made her way toward the surface. The imminence, her destiny, grew ever larger within the field of her sight beyond sight.
Then — what must have only been hours after she had fled the pen, for she was only then beginning to grow hungry — the duct she was wriggling through came to an abrupt end.
She felt around her in the darkness: walls all around except in the direction from which she had come.
“No!” she screamed.
She was just below the surface, she was certain of it. She was practically on the same level as the beacon that had been guiding her. Perhaps only a thin barrier of metal separated her from that mysterious world she had never known: the surface!
She lay on her back and relaxed. She stilled her thoughts, and used the one other ability that set her apart from everyone else she had known: she felt the metal around her. She felt the tiny little things of which it was made. The impossibly small things, in numbers beyond her ability to count, that combined to make the metal.
And she pushed those in the metal above her. She told them to move away.
Slowly, a corner of the ductwork sheet above her peeled back. And then she encountered a piece of metal beyond that, a big, heavy piece, thick steel, like the wall section which Ieldra had earlier removed from the wall of her room. That piece too peeled back, and a breeze blew through the narrow opening.
Beyond, she felt a large open space.
The surface beckoned to her, and she pulled herself up and out from the duct.