Word count: 1800 (5 to 15 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Into My Shadow | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting
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Sun’s Tears of Year 1: Shrouded Era
Next to Garres, this farming town was small. Central buildings were stone or brick, but most homes were logs or timber beaten down by rain. It was a matter of resources, and Noyo knew that before crossing the fence bordering the town with smoke and nightmares not far behind. One pressing in closer than the other. Chaos filled in the size difference, spreading through the group of survivors from the capital like an illness. They’d felt the danger had passed as they made beds and chairs out of anything that would work in this makeshift medical space. It was alright to panic now, at least in their minds.
That was never true.
Still, some people cried while others called for people they couldn’t find and may never again. Noyo guessed it was some kind of closure to know there was no reason to look for the people they’d lost.
“Hey,” a tanned man interrupted their thoughts. Stout and built under a layer of padding from age rather than a lack of activity, they guessed he was the kind who built places like the hall they were in. He was certainly old enough to be their father despite their starkly different lifespans. His dark, fine hair was cut close, excluding his long stubble, and his deep-set eyes seemed weary despite their sharpness. From Noyo’s place on the bench against the wall, he looked taller than he truly was. “Fekhi’s ready to see you.”
Standing, they were at eye level with him. He led the way to a hall on his left and presumably toward Fekhi, their impromptu mayor. Leaders manifested in a crisis, often without even trying. Who knew what Fekhi was before? Now she was overseeing a town and more people than they likely ever had as guests. So far, she was managing. The lanterns dotting the halls showed the place was well-kept, if worn, and the occasional vase or landscape painting added some life to it. Before people fled to their village, it would be quaint. But they acted fast and on good advice. That was a promising sign that Noyo stood a chance of being listened to.
“I’m Enis,” he started, polite but clearly leading towards something. He turned a corner and held close to the wall while two mages passed in a hurry. Probably more survivors. The town was sizable to some, that was true. But they were running low on space as it was, and crowding would lead to desperation.
“Noyo,” they offered all the same. There was only one thing he could want from them, and it would be painful to mention no matter how they went about it. Given the choice, Noyo preferred the faster route. “You know someone in the capital?”
He looked away, focused on the path ahead with shoulders squared. “My son. Haven’t seen him among the survivors.”
“I’m sorry.” What else was there to say? If he wanted answers, he would ask for them and give a description. Approaching a plain oak door with a carved flower mounted in the center, he did exactly none of that.
“So am I.” With two knuckles, he rapped on the office door and nodded for Noyo to enter. “Head on in.”
Turning the doorknob and stepping inside, Noyo was instantly crowded out by crates, bags, and stacks of supplies piled wherever they would fit. A tower of bins leaned ominously against the wall beyond the open door and they had toe a tied off bag aside on the way to the burdened desk where Fekhi stood staunch. Making a casual, sweeping gesture past piles of parchment and a half-filled tankard, the dwarven woman in charge extended her invitation.
“Take a seat if you can find one.”
A rich auburn braid threaded with grey hairs hung over her shoulder, and she offered a tired smile with her hospitality.
“Suit yourself.” Having a long drink to polish off the tankard, she sighed and stared out a window Noyo couldn’t fully see through past a different stack of crates. Not that there was much to see but watching the horizon get swallowed up in the spreading shroud, hour by hour. Days away from this place, which was not much of a comfort.
“Damn it all. Just about every soul that fled Garres is half out of their wits,” she said, as if that much wasn’t clear already, “So it all comes down to you.” Setting down the tankard with a hearty clank, Fekhi got to the point. “What happened?”
“I’m not certain on the details,” Noyo admitted. Honesty would get them further than fabrication, and they needed her trust. Sometimes, that meant delivering bad news. “I came across a Union member before that smoke reached us, and he gave me the equipment your people took from me.”
“And you’ll get your mask back when our Union is done figuring it out.”
A flat stare and slight tilt of their head said all Noyo had to. Anything that was taken in secret while they were treated by healers wasn’t likely to come back, and they both knew better.
“You’re with the Mages’ Union, I take it?”
Strange, to ask a question so pointless. Even if Noyo hadn’t been, any mage outside the Union would never be so reckless as to confess to it. “I am.”
“Then trust them if you can’t trust me.” In that short sentence, it was clear why her people did trust her. Willingness to meet Noyo in the middle, or what she thought was the middle, was an impressive gesture considering Noyo wasn’t one of her own. “You know that was the only thing protecting you from whatever’s out there. We need to find out how it works to make more.”
“You’ve got barriers,” Noyo observed, not prepared to yield regardless. This conversation would uncover where Fekhi’s limits were for patience. A promising start meant nothing for the future. “It’s only those, but smaller.”
“That’s not the point.” Exasperation bled into her voice with a breathy hiss, and Noyo expected that small shake of her head would be the end of it. “Listen,” Fekhi began, working her way around the desk to plant herself in front of Noyo with only some difficulty. “I promise you’ll get it back. First, here and now, you need to tell me what’s out there.”
Tilting her head back to make eye contact took away some of the effect, but Fekhi deserved credit for crossing her arms and continuing anyway. And Noyo did find themselves believing in her integrity. Taking a seat on a crate after all, they nodded.
Quirking a brighter smile, she nodded back to Noyo. Some of her bangs fell loose from the braid, a fact that went ignored. “Good.”
“The smoke is changing people. Some faster than others.” That was putting it lightly. Some people preferred that to the gruesome reality, although they’d all find out soon enough what Noyo meant. Still, they had to begin somewhere.
“Changing them how?”
“Their skin looks badly bruised at first. They get scared, and it gets worse. Then they get violent.” Another understatement. It would do. “Some get sick too, and their body changes. Claws, horns, fangs…” Tapering off, Noyo took a moment to close their eyes and gather their thoughts. The danger hadn’t passed yet. Now was not the time to get lost in unimportant details. Fekhi waited in silence while they took a slow, steadying breath and opened their eyes again. “It’s not consistent. It’s like magic, but nothing I’ve found in my studies.”
Muttering some harsh dwarven phrase, Fekhi flicked the braid over her shoulder and set her hands on her hips. “Will the fences hold?”
“No.” It was only the truth of the matter, and part of the whole reason Noyo asked to speak to Fekhi to start with. “But the foundation is there for something that will.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said through a chuckle and wagging her finger like Noyo was an errant child. As a fraction of Fekhi’s age, Noyo supposed they were little more than that to the mayor. “You’re barely an adult by elven standards; you leave this to us.”
“Building it up will take days. You’ll need help.”
Brushing that off with her whole hand this time, Fekhi got more insistent rather than less. “We’ve got the barrier—”
“To keep smoke out, not those who transformed.” The implication weighed heavy between the two of them, between the violence and the distortions made for tearing, biting, and piercing. Even as a mage, Noyo knew there was a limit to what magic alone could achieve.
“I know that.”
“Then you know there’s no time to argue,” they offered in agreement. Fekhi had centuries of knowledge and an effortless command, and Noyo was one of few survivors with a clear mind thanks to that mask. Together, they could turn Brook Mills into a haven and an example for other settlements to follow.
Fekhi rubbed her chin and weighed the options she had, which were not many with no guarantees among them. Clicking her tongue, she made her decision. “Tell me your plans, and we’ll bring it to the Union, see how it works with the barriers.”
Noyo frowned, casting yellow eyes to the worn floor. The Union shouldn’t be trusted just yet. Why did they have barriers ready to activate before the smog even appeared in Brook Mills? How did they have that so soon, but claimed not to know about the protective masks from the capital? Too many questions, and never enough answers. Anywhere it went, the Mages’ Union never looked kindly upon people asking questions.
“What is it?”
Looking to her again, Noyo studied Fekhi for a moment. And again, she was patient. Noyo’s options outside of the mayor didn’t amount to much either. In a way, that made them the best choice for each other to achieve what they wanted. “We should meet with them now.”
Fekhi barked a laugh, clapping a hand against her chest. “You’ve got initiative, I’ll give you that.” Snatching up her tankard and a stack of papers, the mayor marched back to the hall ahead of Noyo. “You got a name, miss? Sir?”
“Noyo,” they introduced themselves, quietly glad Fekhi asked at the end once the business side of their discussion was handled. They didn’t have much reason for happiness after the people they lost in Garres, so it was nice to have what little they could. “I don’t go by miss. Or sir. Just Noyo.”
Dark elven culture allowed for a spectrum of genders, but not everyone had the same concepts in their upbringing. Yet Fekhi just shrugged and took a left out of the room, walking deeper into the building. “Noyo it is.”
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