I find myself taking a step away from the gate before me. The spectacle on the other side of the door is far too familiar, far too nightmarish. My eyes dart around, I have not smelt anything in a long time, but I swear that place carries the smell and even the taste of rot.
In the dark, a single area is illuminated, a verdant hilltop. Sitting at the apex is a willow tree unmoving, unconcerned with being observed. The willow tree’s branches are barren, except from cords hang dozens upon dozens of bodies. Despite the horrid hilltop, this place I can feel it at the depths of my very being—Tenebrous Place. The gate leads to Tenebrous Place and somehow the hilltop from hundreds of years ago, the hilltop from which I hanged has found its place in that Hell.
I search for the source of light, discovering it dangling above the tree limbs. Squirming in the dark is an intertwined rope that sheds a soft radiance upon the grass-covered hillside and willow tree. I take another step away and notice some movement from the darkness.
My eyes dart to the trunk of the tree. There a person with cherry-red hair stands, their head tilted as if they are irritated by my faltering legs. She clutches a lantern in her left hand and raises her right, motioning for me to enter—her lantern swings as she does so.
‘Is this some sort of cruel jest!’ Without even realizing it, I have retreated from the gate room.
A purple wall appears.
Recommendation: Move through the gate, enter the pantry, take the next step toward true existence.
Glancing at the wall with a trembling gaze, I nearly hack it in half. ‘Nay, nevermore! Seal it, seal that door immediately; remove that nightmare realm from my sight! This instant; now!’ The doors begin to slide shut. When the woman in golden armour and the man in leather meet, their arms bend stiffly upward, and their swords cross, sealing the gate.
I spin around; I am leaving this cave forthwith. I cannot stop myself; I feel betrayed, utterly misguided, deliberately misled. If there was one thing I have made clear, it was that I would not return to that place. It was how all this began; my contempt for that place is part of what has kept me pushing onward despite the endless hardships and struggles.
Silently I walk, I can still hear Gen licking the inside of the pudding cup as I jab the brick from the cave entrance and leave the cave. Without a moment’s hesitation, I place one foot in front of the other; I do not know where I am going, and I do not care. All I know is, I do not wish to be near that gate.
Earl’s wall surfaces anew.
Recommendation: Return to the gate and enter.
‘Nay!’ The wall vanishes after I swing at it.
I move between trees, through thickets, snow-covered fields, and icy ponds until I happen upon a familiar place. Without realizing it, I have approached the noble’s castle with the strange blue, white, and red flag. I had avoided this area ever since I initially spotted it weeks ago now. Now that I am close, I am able to see it is more modest than I initially thought, and there is not even a proper living area for the noble and his family. There is a small building atop the castle’s bricked courtyard, yet through the windows, I can see it does not look lived in.
‘...’ I step unto the courtyard and toward the gray cobblestone railing that overlooks a frozen lake. In the distance, the mad city of New York is visible, towering above the humble winter trees. If I go much further north than this, the quarantine area ends, and I may stumble upon people.
Snowflakes drift to the earth as I swing my legs over the railing, taking a seat. ‘One. Two. Three. Four…’
I sit upon my perch for hours, counting to myself, as the sun curves across the sky.
A purple wall appears, but I shove it away.
Recommendation: Return to the gate and enter.
Despite Earl’s continued urging, I am not returning to that place.
‘Everything I have done is so that I never have to go back there, and now he is trying to tell me to go there willingly. What if the gate closes behind me? Worse yet, what if I go through the gate only to discover I never left? Frankly, that makes more sense than what has happened to me thus far. I have readily accepted things that I thought were impossible, just to avoid the thoughts of that place. Existence? I believe I would rather not exist at all than be confined to that place.’
Looking downwards, I stare at my hazy figure and kick my legs. The idea of even returning to the cave, not to mention Tenebrous Place, makes me want to vomit. Though, I am willing to go back to the cave to retrieve Gen at least.
The sounds of footsteps upon the crinkling snow echo from behind. “Long time no see,” a gentle voice whispers. “It was harder for me to find you. It seems your mana leakage is a bit more contained.”
I freeze. ‘Is it really her!?’
A hand brushes the snow from the railing next to me, and before I know it, a familiar person is sitting next to me.
“Though in actuality, it hasn’t been that long, has it? A lot has happened, so it feels like it has been months,” the voice says.
Raising my head, I turn toward the direction of the voice.
There I find my acquaintance with the long silver hair, smirking. She wears a more casual attire reminiscent of what I have seen other women of this era wearing. Her shirt is black and has a close-fitting collar that runs up her neck, hiding it like her gown did. Along with this, she wears a puffy jacket that hugs her figure, tight blue trousers that cover her legs, and a pair of boots that have the same fastener that the arc suit’s helmet has. Across her chest, a strap runs across her torso and links to a beige satchel. It all looks surprisingly lovely on her, although she still wears the veil, which does not blend well without the gown.
“I’ve kept up with all that’s happened and learned a lot in the process,” she says, a growing smile spreading across her face. “As for you, you have a knack for getting into trouble and causing a stir, but you also have a knack for slipping between the cracks, literally and figuratively. A survivor through and through.”
“...Terra?” I ask, peering into her deep green eyes.
With a click of the tongue, she points at herself. “The one and only. How have you been, Constance? Did you miss me?”
“Well… I…” I look away, crossing my arms, I respond, “Perhaps, I missed the conversation a tad.”
“Is something wrong?” She starts to kick her feet, matching the pace of my own legs. “Your haze just seems a bit, well, turbulent, I guess.”
“...It is nothing. Where hath thou been? What happened after thou left with that man?”
“‘Thou,’ not ‘thee’? You’ve never called me that before.”
I turn my chin up. “As punishment for leaving me in such a hurry, that is thy punishment,” I respond with a stern nod. “I shan’t be using the respectful pronoun for thou any longer.”
“Is that how it is?” Taking a small handful of soft snow, she tosses it lightly at my exposed feet. “Okay, I guess I’m willing to take my punishment with grace now.”
“As thou shouldst. Thou only has thyself to blame for this punishment! Now, I wish to hear what happened.”
She stares at the white snow beneath our swaying feet. Her lips purse and she gazes into my eyes. “There’s an order of explanations we need to follow before I can give you your answer. So before that, tell me, have you thought about my question? The one I asked before we separated? I want to know your thoughts on it.”
“The one regarding us being able to trust one another unconditionally?” I pause, reflecting on everything that has happened since I arrived: The Hex Church, the wretched rat, copepods, elderly rats, constant fleeing, the fopdoodle, exploring, learning, dinosaur, the Consortium, Gen, all of it has been… a lot for me to handle alone.
Placing my hands in my lap, my eyelids close halfway as I stare at the frozen lake and finally nod. “My time here has been difficult... really, really difficult. One of the most arduous struggles of my existence.”
Terra tilts her head, the orange sun shines on her silver hair. She waits for me to continue.
“A world I do not understand, a time I do not understand, people I do not understand, just everything, I understand very little of it all. I am constantly frightened and on edge; thank the lord, I cannot get headaches. But frankly, it is a miracle my ignorance has not resulted in my untimely demise. The only way I could describe my time here is like a bird being told to dig a pit.”
Collecting and rearranging my thoughts, I look at her and resume, “Certainly, a bird may dig, yet it is a Herculean task for a bird to dig a pit alone. A bird does not know the Earth, Terra, not like most creatures. There was a time I knew the Earth, except that was so long ago now both the Earth and I have forgotten one another. So, aye, possessing even a single reliable thread to tie myself to this world would be unbelievably comforting.”
Earl’s persistent wall emerges once again, my shoulders sink.
Recommendation: Return to the gate and enter.
‘Stop! Thou art not comforting, Earl! The opposite perhaps!’ I shout into my mind, glaring at the wall, I slap at it, and it then fades.
Hearing Terra clear her throat, I look over to see her watching me.
‘I am embarrassing myself. I believe I know where this conversation may be going, and I cannot allow myself to be made to look weak if negotiations commence.’
“I agree that having someone to lean on would be of great comfort.”
“Someone to lean on?”
“Yeah... “ She looks away a bit awkwardly. “Like, you can lean on me, and I’ll lean on you.”
Glancing at my shoulder, the haze spins about, and I shake my head. “I am not something someone should lean on; I am not built sturdy enough for such a thing.”
A long, drawn-out cloud of hot air escapes her lips. “I mean, we can rely on one another. I think we stand a better chance together than apart. We’ll be stronger and better prepared for any hardships to come.” Looking at my shoulder, she tilts her head. “That shoulder jewelry looks really good on you, by the way.”
“Aye! I appreciate the compliment, I think so too!” I respond, moving my hand to my shoulder and playing with the beads. “I still wish my shoulders were covered, but I rather like these beads as well. I have never had my own jewelry before! Well, except for a butterfly band for a few seconds, but I seemed to have misplaced it since then...”
“Your first piece of jewelry only lasted a few seconds?” She laughs before glancing at the sun and nodding. “So let me ask you, do you know what a contract is?”
I move my hand from my shoulder and place it beneath my chin. “Oh, Terra, I am not so ill-informed that I would not know about contracts!”
“Yeaaah, what I mean is do you know there are sp—”
“Special kinds of contracts?” Since I cannot laugh, I fake a giggle in my head, pretending to wipe some dust from my chest. “Of course, I do, the magically binding ones that spirit scribes can make. Since we last spoke, I have tirelessly searched for information regarding what thy words could have meant; how could I not know something so trivial.”
‘And by tirelessly, I mean I stole a book because it happened to be there.’
“Wow, impressive!” she replies with a laugh. “I guess I shouldn’t sell someone so well-informed short, huh?”
“I am certainly well-informed and not helplessly ignorant, that is for certain. Disregard my earlier statements about it being a miracle I am alive.”
“Relax, I’m not going to cheat you, assuming you’re interested in making a contract, and just so you know, I’m only interested in one type of contract, a lifetime reciprocal contract.”
“A lifetime reciprocal contract… but that is a lifetime contract. That’s a very long time.”
‘After I read the book, I had suspected it was this she was referring to. Still, I must put emphasis on it. Terra is young; whatever the condition, she has to live with them forever, assuming I somehow survive. After all, I suspect I do not age normally.’
“I’m aware. I have made an ‘upon fulfillment’ contract with someone else, stating that I would make a lifetime contract. If I don’t make the contract soon, then I’ll be forced to comply with the stipulations.”
“A contract with someone else?”
She nods and makes a short circular motion with her hand. “Yes, but it’ll be better if we circle back to that later; first, we need to know what each person wants from this contract.”
“Wants? Is it not merely a semblance of trust?”
“It certainly could be something as simple as, ‘We can’t lie to each other,’ but that doesn’t really give you someone to lean on. That just gives you someone you can’t lie to. What’s important is that our fates are tied together; only then can all doubt be removed.”
I pause, absorbing the implications of what she seems to be suggesting. ‘So I know I am someone who has never placed their trust in someone fully in literally ever, yet I am beginning to believe Terra might somehow be worse. It sounds like she wants to quite literally tie our lives together… I mean, that certainly guarantees trust, but it is also incredibly dubious, to say the least.’
“Then… then I shall go first…” Terra says something that seems somewhat disjointed from our line of conversation. Before I may question what she is on about, she blurts out, “My life is comparable to an active nuclear warhead drenched in gallons of gasoline.”
“Huh? I only understood some of that,” I reply, my eyelids forming their best questioning gaze.
She sighs, squeezing her fingers together. “Sorry, I kind of just jumped into it. I think before continuing and doing something irreversible, we should first really know what we’re getting into, for both our sakes. Then we can discuss what each person wants or more precisely what each person needs.”
“Uhm, thou art not about to offer me a ring, art thou?” I raise my hand. “Because I cannot wear jewelry as haze, I think.”
“No, that is not what this is!” She counters with a laugh.
Dropping my hand, I shrug my shoulders. “I know, I was just teasing thou. So thou wishes for us to confess our secrets, is that what is being implied?”
“Yes, although, I’ll admit, I already know a lot of the details about your race, the Kiln. They have been the talk of the underground for a couple of weeks now.”
My head recoils. “Thou knew what I was!?”
“No, no, I originally thought you were a spirit and only found out after we last spoke what you actually are. Lately, I have been whispering into a lot of ears, and people have been extra talkative of late.” Terra straightens her back, and her brows furrow. “Which leads me to my first confession, though, I’m uncertain how shocking someone unfamiliar with the city will find it.”
Terra’s serious expression prompts me to straighten my back and wring my hands together. My mind is still reeling from the gate earlier. “May I ask how many confessions thou art about to tell me?”
“Two, maybe three, then we’ll discuss something else. Anyway, Constance, y’know I never did tell you my last name.”
“Thy family name? I never told thou mine, so I never thought it pertinent.”
“That’s right, but to be honest, my last name is what most people know me by; very few know me by my first name. Most know me by the name Galtry.”
My mind blanks, Galtry, the person I have heard many people say is among the worst people in this city. Their name is mentioned alongside the Hex Church, Espositos, and other such ilk nearly every time. On some occasions, they act as if Galtry is the worst among them. Jessica even said Galtry ran this part of the city after running out the Espositos, allowing the Hex Church to have free reign over the area.
When I escaped the chamber pot tunnels, people were yelling and chanting outside of the Hex Church, and the person speaking denied any connection to Galtry. Even the Hex Church wished to distance themselves from such a person. I have promised myself not to get involved with such a supposedly wicked person on various occasions.
I gaze at Terra, striving to see a crack develop in their demeanor, but one never surfaces. Raising my guard, I search the area for any signs of movement. “—the chances. Why does conflict seem to follow me so closely?” I ask.
“Quite high in this case because, well, I tracked you down intentionally. The night we met, it wasn’t by chance; I knew you were hiding somewhere in the park. I would never attend a wedding like that one ordinarily. Someone such as myself is perpetually maintaining their image, and a wedding like that one is considered too middlebrow. Sending me an invitation to events like that is more out of politeness and respect than an expectation of my actual attendance. It took a lot of convincing to be allowed to attend without garnering suspicion.”
“But why pursue me and how? Especially, at that time, how would anyone know of my presence?”
Terre frowns, she stares out over the frozen lake. “This piece of the city carries my name. If anything happens here, I know about it because, again, I need to be notified for appearance’s sake. If someone tries to discuss it with me, I have to know what’s happening. I was told to not interfere, so that’s why I did it via the wedding and telepathy. As for why we’ll discuss that more later... But, with all that said, I’m a sham.”
“A sham? What does that mean?”
“A figurehead, the frontman, a scapegoat, or more specifically, a captive of my name and reputation. I have no real authority; I make none of the actual decisions that people know the person Galtry for. The assassinations, murders, trafficking, bribery, all of it happens under that name, but all of it is ordered by my jailor. In the end, Galtry is just a cover for the Hex Church’s illicit activities. Still, the name and face demand respect, so I have gotten pretty good at finding backdoors to get some things I need to get done, mostly information, moving money, and procuring things I may need in secret.”
“But would people really believe a person as young as thyself could be doing all those things?”
“Good question and the answer is no. They think I ‘usurped’ the original Galtry and took their place. All lies, all convenient explanations that people have romanticized in their heads. Of course, some people question or don’t believe it, but it doesn’t matter. Explanations only need to endure long enough for the beta to end; the long-term hardly matters anymore.”
I shake my head, reflecting on the times we have met. There have been times I have had to hide while people passed by. They all looked at Terra, but none of them reacted strangely. “How can a face demand respect, but at the same time, people do not know it? Many have seen thou while in the park, I have not seen anyone react oddly… Save for some men, but that is to be expected.”
She reaches for her headband. The veil drifts downwards in her grasp. As she pulls it away, a face that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time is revealed. With half-closed eye’s the face watches me, awaiting my reaction. The left side is as it always has been, with beautiful unblemished skin and a bright green eye. However, the right is different; instead of green, her eye is silver with a set of dark rings around the iris. As for the skin, starting around the forehead, sown on gray fabric runs at an arc to the bridge of her nose and down a portion of her cheek and neck. It runs into the collar of her clothing, hiding the extent to which her skin has been sown and replaced with this fabric.
“Terra…” My eyes cannot separate themselves from the fabric.