From the Great Pits, Part 3
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379
Niccolo flagged her down, passed the letters into her hands. Vitória turned them over in her hands, confused as to their purpose until she realized they were not requisitions or supply tallies or even orders. No, it was just mail, delivered to her.
Did she feel excited for, or did she dread, opening the pair of letters that were sent to her? She looked at the hot-pressed paper of one, Serena’s handwriting across the front. The other, on heavier, coarser paper, had Tess’ familiar print and seal, and a redirection from Regario to Holberg.
This season had been quiet, not many letters coming to her; not that she was in much mood to write, or had many friends left to write to. One, early on, from Kahendrin, had been cathartic to reply to; thoughts and feelings simply dumped onto paper, with no thought to cohesion or clarity. Some from and to Balthazar, all talk of plans and commissions that they had started months ago. One from Gabrielle, replied to when emotions had calmed and she had been in Ennerlund a while, but she had still feared that the letter betrayed more of her struggles than she wanted to reveal.
Vitória turned back to Serena’s letter; it was missing a redirect, it had been sent here directly. So, her family must now know where she is. She tucked both letters inside her doublet, to be read later, when the work was over, when she could take a moment to rest.
She didn’t want to face them yet.
Not all the ghosts screamed. There were some who sobbed, and some who attacked, and some who drove foreign emotions into one’s soul in a desperate attempt to continue clinging to life. Each soul was telling a story, whether it was one of a torturous physical end, or a heartbreaking tale of family left behind, or ambitious plans left unfinished, or loyal friends perishing together, hand in hand. They wanted their story to be heard.
There was a moment, after every exorcism, where she needed someone to turn to, someone to turn to her, and ask one simple question. ‘Who are you?’
In that moment, the tales were recorded, remembered, passed on. ‘I was trying to break free, I had a feud with my brother, I was thrown to my death, I owed my neighbour two Crowns, my wife was expecting her firstborn, I couldn’t resist the poison, I was writing a play, I lived in Holmauer.’
‘Who are you?‘ helped Vitória identify the ghost emotions as foreign, but she was becoming increasingly aware that the only emotions she was truly feeling, unfeigned, were coming from spectres. When the exorcism was over, and their spirit gone to the Labyrinth, she was left empty, struggling with the question, ‘Who are you?’
“What are you doing, Vitória?”
The briar blinked, pen poised over the pristine paper, and raised her head to the voice.
“Writing a letter to my cousin.”
“I see. How’s that going for you?” Lyca smiled where she sat across the cave from her, sorting and counting bundles of herbs, looking over some marrowort oil vials in the brightly-lit triage area.
“Eh?” She blinked, shook her head slightly, and put the pen down, not realizing that the ink had long since dried on the nib. She forced her eyes to focus on the red and white robed cataphract.
“You’ve been staring at that piece of paper for the last half hour. You’ve not written a word.”
“It’s a… difficult letter.” She put the paper and ink away.
Her ears rang, nothing quite shutting out the screaming that echoed through the walls, through the head, through the soul.
Her head rang, as she felt the trickle of blood running through her hair. She tried to move, felt too heavy, and struggled to breathe deeply as she pushed against the rocks that held her down, pinned to the ground, crushed, her cheek pressing against fragments of rock and mithril.
She shook her head and forced her limbs to move, slowly gaining freedom from the rock slide. She crawled across the ground, her skin scraping painfully against the rough hewn stone and rubble. Her shoulder joint flared with each movement, her leg was dragging, strangely numb and burning. She reached down to feel a deep gash just above her knee, wrapping around her leg, and warm sticky blood coating her fingers, pulsing quickly. She struggled to remember what had happened.
There were shouts ahead, bold and defiant, trying to drown out the screaming, though the words she couldn’t make sense of. It brought to mind the colour red, and the taste of liao, but why that would be she couldn’t remember. A female voice, a male voice. And the screaming, the screaming that shook the soul.
She climbed to her feet, tried to walk, and hit the ground hard again as her leg collapsed from under her immediately. The pain sharpened her mind for a moment, reminding her to run her hands down her armour as she was shown, drawing a river to her leg. She screamed, sobbed as the magic within her Jack of Irons activated, as flesh reknit itself, pulled and sealed the wound, then the pain faded. Thoughts of her brother filled her mind, easily distracting her from the confusion, and her eyes shut for a moment, just a moment to rest and gather her thoughts.
Then, the sense of noise was louder, approaching Vitória, and she dragged herself up again, on working legs, and stumbled through the dark, following the voices and the sickly faint flickering light through the tunnel. The screams were following, too, getting louder, angrier, shouting how it wasn’t fair, raging against life. Her fingers were sticky but they clung to her flask of liao, her last dose; in the confusion she knew it was important, but why?
She nearly stumbled into Lyca’s back, catching herself with a hand to her shoulder pauldron. A brief glance distracted Lyca only a moment before the cataphract looked back to the angry phantom that was pressing them back out of the tunnel. Then her vision cleared, and Ozren stood there, too, at Lyca’s side, both their hands outstretched as if to bar the passage of the ghost, yet still the sickly tendrils of wisp-fire pushed them back.
The flames were spreading, licking through floor and walls to surround them, and when each burning tendril touched skin a new voice joined in, screaming around them, adding weight to the barrage of hate pressing upon their living souls; until it would be easy to give in to the weight, sink to the floor, and never rise again.
Lyca spoke, the words lost in the dark; her expression was resolute, but she took another step back. Ozren shouted something, but there was no sound, it made no sense to her. Though they stood in Pride, pushed their will forward, it was not enough; the pair could not push this spectre back, could not send it to rest. Vitória quickly swallowed her last dose, feeling the liao surge through her, and her bloodied hand pressed forward between the two Pride priests, adding a third hand outstretched to block the way.
Something must have happened, because she was swamped by the complete darkness and sudden silence, almost more disconcerting than the screaming. As Lyca struck a match to relight her lantern, Ozren’s lips were moving, his hand touching her injured shoulder. Then, it was Ozren’s arms that she slid into, and Lyca’s hands guiding her down, pressing something soft against the wound on her scalp that was bleeding profusely.
“Did it work?”
The reply seemed to be miles away, but Ozren was nodding, and Lyca was checking her over for injuries, and turning to shout something into the distance, towards the cave in. Vitória watched Ozren’s expression as he spoke. He knew what it meant. So did she.
She swallowed, felt grit stinging in her eyes. ‘What do I do? If I lost the path, what do I do?’
“I think it’s time to go home.”