I should have dressed warmer. Clear skies meant a colder than average night, and my breath came out in visible puffs. A light jacket tossed hastily over a plain shirt and trousers wasn’t nearly enough for early winter. My uncovered nose had gone numb, but I wasn’t going to turn back.
“Hey come on, Zach!” Abby tapped my shoulder as she ran past me, boots crunching on snow. “You’re cold right? Get moving and get that blood pumping!”
Abby (Abigail) Hunter was almost as tall as I was, with a lankier build. Her light brown hair stood out against the starlight, but almost blended into her tanned complexion. And she was currently giving me the same dopey, teasing smile she always used. Unlike me, she had the foresight to dress warm and wore a thick gray woolen cloak with sturdy boots sticking out from underneath it.
Outlined against her, the ruins of the old fort were an indistinct dark mass dusted in snow. Moonlight failed to reach the entrance; a black portal that gave me shivers. Sprawling out from the opening, crumbling walls stretched into the night. The gate itself and the stone arch above it had collapsed into a heap of rubble some years back.
I shuddered as I jogged to catch up to Abby. “Do you want to get us caught?”
My best friend smiled mischievously back at me. “Pfft! There’s no one out here tonight, and you know it. Besides, this was your idea anyway.”
“My idea? All I did was wonder what those Church folks were doing so far out here the other day. The rest was you!”
“Well, you agreed to it, yeah?”
I lightly punched Abby’s shoulder.
She blew me a raspberry.
I rolled my eyes and groaned. “You’re so immature. We’re both twenty!”
“Says the girl who snuck out of her house at midnight to go traipsing around some old rocks!”
“What about the girl who threw rocks at my window to wake me up for this nonsense?”
Despite that comment, I felt a flutter inside when Abby referred to me that way. I hadn’t said anything to my parents yet, or anyone else—just Abigail. I hadn’t even decided on a name and was still so nervous about everything. Abby, however, had totally leaned into it ever since I told her.
“Hey, are you even listening!” I jolted out of my reverie just in time to see her disappear into that dark portal. “It’s a lot warmer in here out of the wind,” she called out from inside.
Hearing that revelation, I hurried to follow her. I lifted the hood on my lantern once I crossed the threshold. Inside was the old gatehouse. Not much use anymore when most people could climb over the wreckage of the walls anyway.
Abby was already looking around intently, poking at stones. Ever since we were kids, she was the one who took us on adventures. Funny how she ended up apprenticed to a tailor and I to a blacksmith. Still, she seemed to enjoy it and has even promised to help me with clothes in a couple years if I can afford to get magical alteration in the capital. And I’d need it too: I was tall with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and other stuff I’d really rather not think about. Even thinking about how I had to shave and what I saw in the mirror formed a lump in my throat. Apparently, according to my mother, I’d be “very handsome” if I took care of my looks and cut my long black hair. Yuck.
I tried to think positively. Though I took after my mother, I had my father’s piercing blue eyes. I didn’t hate them. That… was it. I couldn’t think of anything else. Just barely, was able to force myself out of my own head and back into the decrepit room I was standing in.
“Nothing but a bunch of tracks in the dust.” Abby kicked at the remains of a small table, or maybe a chair.
“Really though, why do you think they were out here? Wasn’t the demon supposed to be hiding in Linthel proper and not a couple miles out of town?”
“No idea. Maybe they just wanted to explore. It’s a pretty cool place, but they normally have city guards watching it so people don’t get hurt.”
“I doubt they just wanted to explore.” I rolled my eyes at her.
“Maybe the demon was created from all the death and suffering here during the unification war, and they came here looking for clues about it.”
I frowned and took a second to gather my wits. “That’s morbid.”
Abby looked to be deep in thought as we walked across the courtyard to the main fortification. The yard was more forest than field. Bits of stone and uneven ground hinted at past structures. The main building loomed ahead of us; one wing collapsed. The central section and remaining wing were better off, but the upper floors were mostly gone and the structure sagged dangerously in some places.
Abby walked up to the rusted iron door that stood partially open. “Yeah, but have you ever thought really hard about where demons come from?”
“No, it’s just hell. You can’t believe everything your nan says about things like this. The Church folk wouldn’t be happy to hear you suggest otherwise.” I looked up at the empty holes of the old windows and followed her inside.
“Pfft, don’t believe her? She’s pretty much your nan too and I know you’ve asked her to teach you some of the tricks she knows.”
“Well yeah, but magic isn’t technically illegal.” I looked down at my feet.
“And speaking against the Church is?” She stopped and planted her hands on her hips. “Last I checked the Church doesn’t run Ordia, the Empress does. Just because Lord Carvalon is sucking up to them doesn’t mean we all have to.”
“Yeah, that’s probably for the best they don’t run things,” I couldn’t help but agree. “Their robes suck anyway.”
I looked up to see her smiling. “Good! Now let’s go see if there’s a skeleton in the dungeon or something.”
Together we moved through the rooms of the old fort. Some of the furniture and doors were intact, but most of the place was a ruin. To her credit, Abby seemed to take this at least somewhat seriously and didn’t catch me with a jump scare even with ample opportunity. She constantly ran ahead and doubled back, seemingly sticking her head into each and every empty room. Still, the atmosphere in this place pressed down on the both of us, stifling conversation. That is, until we found the armory and with it a very old forge.
“Wow! Look at the size of this. Bourick’s workshop has nothing on this furnace.” I inspected it from the inside, revealing decades of soot still stuck firm to the walls of the chamber.
Without any warning, Abby stuck her head into the forge next to mine. “Echo!”
Her voice echoed around the old furnace chamber and despite my surprise we both laughed, kicking up looser bits of the ancient soot and forcing us to pull our heads out.
“Keep up like you’re doing and I’m sure you’ll get to work with something like this in no time.” Abby smiled, shaking soot out of her hair.
“Yeah,” I did the same and looked back at the antiquated forge, “But maybe one a bit more modern.”
While I continued to admire the old ironworks, Abby wandered the empty weapon racks, tracing a finger along the top. “I’m sure Bourick will accept you, you know.”
Her words caused me to stop. “You mean even if I’m a girl?”
“Yeah. Just because he hasn’t taken a female apprentice doesn’t mean he won’t and he seems like a nice guy.”
“What about my family?” I sat down on a dusty stone workbench and leaned back against the cool wall.
Abby paused and then came to sit down next to me, wrapping her arm around my shoulders. She was the only one I felt comfortable having physical contact with, except maybe my little sister. Abby knew this too and I swear she exploited it.
As if reading my thoughts, she finally replied, “I think your sister already knows.”
Kartania, my little sister, and I have always been close, despite her being seven years younger than me.
Come to think of it, she wasn’t so little any more, was she?
Tania almost always wanted to come along on our adventures, and I’d try to include her when Abby dragged me off to some exciting place or another. My sister had school tomorrow morning, or she’d maybe be here with us now.
Abby spoke up, “She asked about what to give you for your birthday this spring when you finish your apprenticeship. She was trying to decide between several types of hair accessories. She wanted something to go with your eyes and hair. And maybe match hers.”
“Really?” My sister got the same mix of features I did. We’d probably look like twins if not for the age difference.
“Would she really want you to be telling me what she’s getting for me?” My tone was fragile, but the smile that spread across my face was genuine.
“I didn’t tell you exactly what she picked now did I.” She booped my nose lightly.
“Tania…” was all I could say, lost in thought.
“Too bad they didn’t leave an old sword or something lying around.” Abby’s voice made me sit back up with a start.
I hadn’t even noticed Abby get up, but she had crouched down and was now looking under a weapon rack while holding my lantern. The absence of light from it was something I’d hardly noticed. I could tell that Abby wanted to keep going and keep me from drawing back into my own thoughts, but it was hard not to. My sister and I were both close to our parents, but both mom and dad had such staunch views on gender roles I was afraid to tell them.
Maybe I was just being paranoid. All sorts of folks didn’t match up with what the god(s), or “Dhias” according to the church, gave them. While the church didn’t approve, it wasn’t like my parents were super devout, and even then, people got magic work done all the time if they could afford it.
Abby’s concerned green eyes boring into mine allowed me to get my focus back and I managed a reply after another second. “This place has been abandoned since the unification war. Why would anything of value that could be carried out still be here after a century?”
“I dunno. Would be cool though.” Just like that Abby was back to being playful.
“Hey, did you manage to convince your dad to let you practice swordsmanship?” I asked her, getting up and dusting off the back of my trousers.
“No. Something about it being dangerous and not useful for tailors. What if I wanted some kind of monstrous leather for an accent piece or some rare fibers from a dangerous forest?”
“Tailor-swordswoman hybrids are underrated,” I smiled back. “Meanwhile I’ve still had no development in my magical affinity.”
Abby stood and moved back toward the hallway. “Yeah, but doesn’t that usually stop developing before you turn eighteen?”
“A gu-girl can dream right?”
“Right! Besides, being able to start a fire anywhere is wicked useful. What if the lantern went out right now or you got stuck in the wild some day?”
“You got me there I guess, but I don’t have any combat ability.”
“No magesmiths then?” She paused and then turned back to me with a mock pout, “Hey, why is your hybrid career name so much cooler than mine?”
“Nerd. I want a do-over!”
Laughter echoed down the hall. I wished I had real magic potential, but not for combat. I want to use it to help with forging like how Bourick uses his own fire affinity. I don’t want to fight dangerous monsters around the edges of the wilds, or go adventuring to ancient ruins, or anything like that. Well, maybe the ruins a little.
We continued walking and talking for another minute or two and passed several other empty rooms before the hall ended in another dark stone box. This room, however, had a heavy iron door in the corner, pulled open barely enough to walk through. A dark stairwell was just visible descending into blackness.
Abby pointed down into the abyss. “They looked in there. Check the marks on the floor.”
My gaze followed Abby’s outstretched finger and I saw fresh scratches on the stone floor. “Maybe we should go home?” I ventured. No way I wanted to go down there.
“Afraid of undead? Come on Zach, you know as well as I do that this place doesn’t have that kind of lingering magic. Plus, the Church just came through here.”
“R-right. Not like they’d leave anything dangerous behind.”
“We can go home if you want.” Her eyes were kind, but I could see from her expression that she really, really wanted to look around more.
I shook my head, “No, we can look around more. This was my idea after all!” I gave a smirk and lightly punched her shoulder.
She turned to me and did the same; her laughter echoing around the room. Gathering my courage, I followed her down the dark stairwell into what I both hoped and dreaded was the dungeon.
Abby kept the lantern steady as we descended the steps. It was warmer down here than up above, but only just. The first snow did little to freeze this deep, and moisture gathered in rivulets between the stones of the walls and in puddles on the steps. Echoes of dripping water reached our ears and broke the oppressive silence. And then Abby broke it more.
“I wonder if there’s a secret room down here?”
I gathered up some courage to speak in the musty air. I probably got it from Abby radiating her own infinite supply. “Wouldn’t the church have found it? Inquisitor Finley seemed like he could notice anything when he talked to me.”
“Wait? When did you get a chance to talk to him? I only saw him, his retinue, and his funny looking hat at a distance.”
“Yeah, he came by and talked to me and my family. Didn’t he talk to every family in the neighborhood?”
“Now that you mention it, Nan had told me to stay away from him the other day and she seemed pretty worried. I was probably with Miss Meissner at my apprenticeship when he stopped by.”
“And you’re only bringing this up now!?” I exclaimed as we hit the bottom of the steps. We faced a small ruined alcove ahead of a row of cells leading into darkness.
“Well yeah. Not like he’d stick around here.” Abby stomped in a puddle. “He’d get his robes wet.”
I looked around half expecting him to walk out of the shadows. “Do you think Nan’s going to get in trouble for heresy?”
“Nah, she’s craftier than anyone I know.”
“Yeah, but Inquisitor Finley is really scary. It’s like he has this sort of presence around him and I could swear he was peeking into my head or something.”
“Probably his face and his hat. You could use that guy’s cheekbones to butcher a chicken. I bet he’s got nothing on Nan.” She took the lead and we started to walk down the hallway, looking past rusted bars into empty cell after empty cell.
I actually had to hold back a laugh at the idea of our big local butcher, Harvald, lifting the reedy Inquisitor and using his face to cut meat. “I guess he’s just creepy looking.”
“Yeah, and Lord Carvalon proves you don’t have to look like a creep to be one,” Abby giggled. “Have you seen the other girls fawning over his slimy blond pretty-boy ass?”
“Weren’t his family old enemies of the church? I guess you’d really have to be some kind of suck up to act like he does.”
“Yeah, I wonder who really calls the shots in Linthel. Heck what about all of Edath? We may be part of the Empire since the unification war, but I’d wager that the Church—“ Abby cut off suddenly.
A loud crash came from the end of the hallway and both of us froze. I turned to run, but Abby put a hand on my shoulder. “Look!”
I followed the lantern’s light and saw a collapse at the back of one of the cells. Inside I could barely make out a room of some sort.
“O-okay, but w-what made the wall collapse?”
“Maybe the church people searched all the walls and knocked something loose? This place is soaked through and old as dirt, anyway.” Abby kicked a cell bar and it disintegrated into rust fragments. Despite her conviction, her voice wavered and her hand holding the lantern shook.
“W-we can check it out. If something was down here and wanted to get out, it’d be on us already.” My voice was worse than hers, but I managed to steady her hand with mine.
Abby grasped my other hand and wordlessly pulled me close. “Thanks, Zach.” After a moment she added, “We really have to figure out your real name.”
Abby’s face was close to mine. Her beautiful green eyes were still wide with fear and my heart thumped in my chest. I didn’t know how to feel about Abby. It’s not like I didn’t like her like that, but she was always just a friend. Also, I knew she liked girls, but I couldn’t—wouldn’t—wasn’t—
She wordlessly leaned forward and up toward me, and without thinking I leaned down and in toward her. Our lips met in a kiss. My first. For perhaps a second, we held together, before we both pulled quickly back.
“Zach, I-I’m sorry, I just…“ Abby looked at me pleadingly and trailed off.
I gently touched my lips with a finger. I felt tears forming. Abby looked back at me, her expression twisting to fear, as her own tears started to form.
“No, I—you—we—it’s…” I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “Abigail Hunter!” I shouted and she snapped to attention. “It’s okay. I like you. A lot. But I’m—and you’re—and…” Just like that, my bravado dissipated.
“And you’re the girl I think I’m falling in love with, Zacharias Miller.” Abigail had tears in her eyes, but she looked at me with surety in those green pools. Somehow their color seemed to come through even in the dark.
For a long moment we just stared into each other’s eyes, still in a half embrace with the lantern pointing its light away from us.
“I still don’t know what my name is,” I whispered.
“It’s okay, we have plenty of time.”
“No buts. I like you and that’s that.” Abby shook her head and cleared the tears from her eyes. “We, uh, should go check out this cool secret room.”
“Okay,” I nodded. I was happy. A bit numb, but a happy kind of numb, like a weight I’d never noticed was gone from my shoulders and I didn’t quite know how to live without it.
We somehow made it into the room behind the collapsed wall. I’d imagine by ducking and walking in, but my mind wasn’t really all there at the moment. The room inside was disappointingly bare and small, although some part of me was relieved that it was mostly empty. The walls were rough-hewn stone and mortar, wet with condensation, and there seemed to be no doors. A single pedestal sat in the middle of the small space, on top of which was the rusted out remains of an ornate metal cage. Inside was a small wooden box, largely rotten and with rusted hinges. I’m glad it wasn’t a cell of some sort since I doubted I could handle human remains right now.
Before I could say anything, Abby reached in and took the box from the cage. Nothing happened.
“Whoa. I wonder why they kept this here. What do you think the cage was for? It has all these symbols on it.” Abby held the box unopened and examined the cage.
“Why did you take the box out? What if the cage was keeping it in there?”
“Like it’s some kind of dangerous magical artifact?” Abby’s tone was mirthful, but she held the box a bit more carefully. “I doubt that rusted pile has held magic in a long time.”
I gave her a serious look and pointed to where the box had been sitting. “Yeah, okay sure. The box was in a cage that maybe had runic magic, and we’re in the basement of a fort from when Edath was a heathen nation. A heathen nation known to practice dark magics and consort with demons. And that box clearly wasn’t contained before we walked in. All that doesn’t exactly make me feel safe.”
“You know that’s Church propaganda, right?”
“Okay, but how much of it is propaganda? Your nan’s always been tight-lipped about how the old rituals worked. And she hasn’t ever talked about working with demons.”
Abby opened the box. “See, it’s fine!” She reached inside and lifted up an ornate amulet depicting some strange symbol. The amulet and chain were made of a metal that looked not quite like tarnished silver.
“What? Okay, fine. It does look kinda creepy.”
“No shit. It looks demonic.”
“Demonic how? What do you think it represents?” she held it closer to me.
“Wait, what do you mean ‘represents’?”
“You know! Nan’s told us that demons are held together by a bad emotion and can feed on it, remember? Like a spirit of the land is by a place. They’re not always like people, but the ones that are, aren’t always driven by the sins that made them. Do you think it looks like some kind of bad emotion?”
I didn’t know what to think, so I didn’t reply. Despite my misgivings I took a closer look at what she held. The amulet was a finely filigreed starburst pattern of six points with concentric symmetry whirling out from its center like a vortex.
“I don’t know what it looks like,” I answered honestly.
“Me neither, but it’s really pretty, isn’t it?”
“But what if it’s demonic?”
“What if it is? I doubt there’s a demon in here. Mr. Sharpface would’ve sensed it through the wall. Probably.”
“Okay, so what do we do with it?” I asked Abby.
“Put it on?”
“I think it’d look pretty on you if it got cleaned up.” Abby’s look held honesty in it, “But you’re probably right to get it checked out. Why don’t we take it to Nan and have her look at it?”
“Sure, I guess. We can go before I head to my apprenticeship tomorrow morning.”
“That’s crazy early!”
“Well, I want to know if it’s safe. What if it’s slowly corrupting us?” I gave the amulet a hard stare.
“Nan might still be up actually,” Abby replied. “She said she had something she wanted to work on tonight.”
“What? If I told you, you would worry. And I don’t think she wants to be interrupted.”
“Fine,” I sighed.
“Seriously though! We found a real secret room and a real artifact! It was totally worth coming out here!”
“Yeah, I guess it was.” I smiled, but I suspected the artifact wasn’t what made this trip special for either of us.
“Let’s get back and talk to my nan then.” Abby held out the necklace toward me. “At least try holding it; it doesn’t feel cursed or anything.”
I took the amulet after a moment of hesitation. It was heavy, but nothing felt off about it. “You want me to have this don’t you?” I asked.
“Yeah! Silver would look really good with your eyes and hair. Think of it as my gift for your next birthday!”
I looked down at Abby’s honest, happy expression and felt a smile grow unbidden across my face. “I will.”
She looked at me expectantly, so I continued, “But I’m not wearing it until your nan confirms that it’s safe.”
“Good enough for me!” Abby’s smile was at least as big as my own.
Our trip out of the ruins was free of the oppressive atmosphere the stones seemed to have only an hour ago. We chatted about finishing our apprenticeships and about what we could do to help with my transition. Abby even insisted that she wanted be there for support when I told my parents, and I was relieved and readily agreed. Before then, I needed a name, but so far, we hadn’t been able to think of a name between the two of us. I wanted it to start with “Z” and Abby agreed, but we just couldn’t come up with something.
Our conversation was fading as we exited the ruins, stepping back into the cold night air. Over the trees, back in the direction of Linthel, we saw a bright orange glow suffusing the horizon.