Irongate – Chapter Three

Tenley screamed. All her young life she’d taken care of herself and her mother. She tried to be strong as it seemed that’s what mother wanted, so screaming was not something she did often. But the moment she’d awoken in this place – a place she had no recollection of coming to – and placed her hands in the dirt to push herself up, she screamed. A million grains of sand scratched and burned, sticking to and into the skin of her palms, and she could feel every single one. As she scrambled back every stitch in her clothes – which again she had no memory of having dressed herself – rubbed roughly against her body.

Through all her wincing Tenley saw the glowing form of Titania sat at one end of a cavern upon a thorny throne, cheek resting on a fist as she regarded the child like a child regarded a bug – curiosity more than any other emotion. She was just waiting to see what the girl would do next. As in the forest, Tenley found it hard to look at Titania for very long, the way her skin throbbed and shifted, but nor could she focus on anything else. Around her were rocks and roots and mushrooms which also pulsed with their own inner light. And there were bugs – spiders whose skittering was like a thousand needles piercing Tenley’s skull. Fireflies whose beating wings were like a thousand drums. Tenley could do no more than curl up, covering her ears in a futile effort to block it all out.

Then a voice – again, much too loud, every syllable stabbing in her head. “Your strength is increasing a hundredfold,” it said. Tenley tried to listen to it, and only it. Kneeling close to her was the red-haired woman Titania called Lilian who at least seemed sympathetic. “But, you don’t want to crush everything you hold so your nervous system also needs,” Lilian paused, visibly searching for the right word, “recalibrating.”

Tenley jumped at another voice squawking, “I wager she breaks like the others.” The other young woman who had been with The Queen in the forest – Ella, pacing in circles around them.

Lilian ignored the blonde and continued trying to soothe Tenley. “Likewise, your hearing and other senses are many times what they were. Your mind needs to adjust – to apply new filters.”

Ella yawned, seeming to relish the pain each new and unexpected sound caused the girl as it reverberated inside her. “There’s still a chance it’ll mutate. What do you think she’ll turn into?”

Tenley could barely comprehend anything being said as each noise bled into every other. One word did stand out – filters. She needed to focus on something – anything. So long as it was just one thing. And so, despite every movement feeling like her body was being set on fire, she crawled and inched so that she was sat cross-legged, raised her arms horizontally, then with a thunderous clash her palms came together. Her mother had taught her when she had been spinning and eventually overcome by dizziness and nausea, the fastest way to recover was to focus on her finger. And so that’s what Tenley did, eyes narrowing with laser precision on just the tips of her fingers until they were all there was. The scratching, beating, skittering, all slowly faded into the background – unimportant details she currently had no reason to pay attention to.

Titania upon seeing the girl’s recovery stroked a thick root connected to her throne. “Not bad,” she cooed into it, “I daresay she’s your best work yet.” Lilian also looked pleased that Tenley seemed to be managing things, but Ella for reasons known only to herself had clearly already taken a strong dislike to the new girl.

Tenley remained in her meditative pose, in which there was only her finger. Her breath. Nothing else mattered; not pain, not Ella’s disdain, not even Titania rising from her throne to declare, “this one will not break. I chose her, after all. As I did the two of you.”

“Remember what it was like, Ella?” Lilian reminisced, “you were screaming for days.”

Screaming would have still hurt Tenley’s ears. That was why she’d stopped. Breaking her concentration now might bring it all flooding back, but that was of no concern to Ella whose lip quivered like that of an incensed animal before clamping her hands on Tenley’s shoulders. “Let’s see just how fast she adapts,” Ella snarled. No-one tried to stop her – even Titania just wearily sighed – as Ella threw Tenley into a pit. Tumbling through the darkness Tenley knew not to struggle, yet she fell such a distance reaching such speed that a rat would have been killed, a man broken, a horse’s innards splashed all across the ground she landed on. Yet Tenley was fine. Not unhurt, but she was no worse off than if she’d just fallen from a swing. She was alive. How long would it stay that way?

Tenley lifted her head out of the crater she’d made. Still caves, but deeper, darker. She could see nothing down here. But the first part of her to change had been her eyes – like she’d grown second eyelids, but instead of blocking light they allowed her to see on wavelengths humans were normally blind to. Gray rocks, gray sand, stalagmites, tites, and nates; nothing unexpected. Except maybe she hadn’t been expecting the rocks to be looking back at her. Or to have teeth. Big, big teeth.

A bent stone column rose then fell, the earth quaking at its impact. Then another. With a low rumble the eyes and teeth rose, attached to a creature that stood hunched like a Gorilla. Ten feet tall at the shoulder – over twice Tenley’s height. With several guttural grunts it began to drag its heavy body toward her, shuffling on its knuckles, faster and faster, building momentum. A hand ground into a stony fist, rising over its head as it kept moving… moving – Move!

Tenley had been so enamored at the sight of rocks coming to life that she almost forgot to move, pushing herself away just in time to avoid the fist crashing down to embiggen the crater she’d been lying in. But she had very much misjudged the power and speed of her actions; instead of flipping and slipping gracefully away from the monster her back cracked on stone that had prior been fifteen feet above. Yet she did not break; she winced and bounced then scurried for the cover of the stalagmites, having to bury the pain as the grim stony visage of the creature sent shock-waves after her as it roared.

Was it as confused as Tenley? She seemed to not be fully in control of her own body, trying to run but with each stride she bounded and propelled herself clumsily forward, lucky not to trip. She was like an astronaut bouncing on the surface of the moon. Was that it? Titania’s promise, and had not Lilian said her strength was increasing a hundredfold so she was effectively operating in lower gravity than she was used to. Must not have just been her muscle, but bone as well – it was all going to take some getting used to. Of more immediate concern was the creature that with a swipe smashed apart the rock formations she was hoping would buy her a few more seconds at least. She continued to duck and roll to avoid being squashed. Tenley had no idea why it was so mad – not her fault she’d been thrown down here – but didn’t suppose it would be willing to talk over their differences. In her favor, this thing wasn’t that fast.

“Remember,” Lilian’s voice floated from some place high above, “force is mass times acceleration.”

Tenley didn’t have a lot of mass, and how could she possibly accelerate enough to do anything to a creature whose skin was stone? Even if she could, wouldn’t her own skin be destroyed in the process? How was that supposed to help!?

The distraction was costly as Tenley couldn’t avoid the creature’s next blow. It thrust its arm forward, Tenley instinctively crossing her arms to protect her head and chest as the heavy pillar drilled into her, pushing her back. Pushing – but not breaking. Tenley opened her eyes, seeing grooves her feet had just dug in the dirt as she was forced back. But she was alive. Above her, somewhere, Lilian and Ella and Titania were watching – Titania who had found her in the forest, chosen her – surely after all that they wouldn’t allow this if there were no hope of defeating this beast.

The creature retracted its arm, finding Tenley wearing a small smirk. “Alright Rocky,” she said as she clenched her fists, “let’s rumble.”

The recently dubbed ‘Rocky’ roared, rattling dirt, stone, and Tenley’s bones. But this time she stood her ground as it raised its fist and brought it crashing down on where she had been. She’d jumped straight up as the fist cratered the dirt, tiptoes landing on the column then shooting her along it at Rocky’s skull. Hooking on with her arm, Tenley did a full orbit of the head, building speed and momentum for her knee to smash into its stupid stone face.

Fighting was an art, Tenley’s mother had taught her. There were forms, Katas that could be beautiful when done well, but sometimes you just had to improvise. Life was an ever churning sea of chaos and you never knew what it would throw up next. To win your mind and body needed to be quick. Tenley dangled from the face of the now more furious Rocky trying to shake her off, needing more speed. She spied its huge hand rising to try and grab her, so straightened her arms then catapulted herself over so all it caught was its own head. Twisting in the air, her legs bowed as she touched the wall then launched her right back, Rocky’s jaw swinging sideways as she flew past like a bolt of lightning.

Although Rocky tumbled and rolled like a huge boulder, Tenley wasn’t sure if she was winning. The beast was getting angrier, but she was panting a little while this thing might not pant or sweat at all. So new plan – she needed to improvise a weapon. The only readily available thing were the broken stalagmites. By now, she wasn’t too surprised that she, although an eleven-year-old girl, was able to lift one nearly as big as her with ease.

Another thing in her favor – Rocky wasn’t very smart. It just kept rushing at her, trying to smash and grab with its long arms. So Tenley waited for it to come at her again and its fist came down she raised the stalagmite so the point pierced Rocky’s palm. The creature recoiled, the tip of Tenley’s makeshift spear breaking off as it fell back. But she wasn’t done. With a run-up she kicked and drove the point further in, Rocky’s roar now a howl of agony. As the stone gorilla limped about on one knuckle, Tenley took another stalagmite as a club with which to take out its other support, bringing Rocky crashing down. All that was left then was to beat its head in.

But Tenley didn’t. She was going to. Rocky was certainly trying to kill her, right? So it made sense – it was her or it. If someone’s trying to kill you, you have the right to kill them back. And anyway, it was just a stupid rock monster. It wouldn’t be troubled by such thoughts were she the one lying helpless. Yet as she stood poised with her club ready to finish this battle, Rocky turned its head to look at her, a pained, plaintiff moan escaping its throat. Perhaps she thought she’d lain helpless after her mother’s brutal training. Perhaps she shouldn’t have given this stupid rock monster a name. In any case, the decision was then taken out of her hands by an arrow piercing Rocky’s skull, silencing the creature for good.

Titania stood on a huge leaf attached to a vine that slithered down the shaft Tenley had fallen down, handing a bow to Lilian and taking back the big red flower she seemed to love so much. “These creatures will not thank you for sparing them,” The Queen stated, “they only return in greater numbers.” The leaf touched the ground, Titania stepping off, twirling her flower-umbrella, skin pulsing and rippling as she approached Tenley. “You who seek justice – would you show mercy to your mother’s killers?”

Tenley dropped her club, eyes heavy even as the muscles in her tensed. “No,” it was very clear now. If an animal killed another that was survival, not murder. But for a human to do that, knowing the pain it caused and thinking they could get away with it – they could not be allowed to. “They’re monsters.”

Titania’s lips curled. Lilian stood at attention just behind her. “Suppose someone will have to clean up this mess,” Ella snorted as she inspected the fallen beast. Tenley tightened her fist. Ella… “Worthless sack of roc-”

Ella spun like a top, Tenley’s hand cracking across her jaw. The smaller girl then pounced, pinning Ella down. “Die a million deaths!” Tenley hissed as she rained fists, “I ought to rip out your dumb blonde hair and stuff it down your throat, then pull it out along with all your guts,” she launched into a litany of any nasty thing she could think to do, as Titania may have rolled her eyes (hard to tell since she had no whites), saying with a matronly sigh:

“Honestly. You girls…”

But Ella was only stunned. With a feral growl she shoved Tenley off, pushing the girl back across the cave, wincing again as she collided with the stone. As Tenley detached herself from the wall, collapsing to one knee, Ella wiped the spit from her lips and held out a palm facing up. With a snap of her fingers a ball of orange flame burst from Ella’s hand, turning blue as she pulled her arm back to charge at the girl. You never knew what life would throw up next. So now it was magic. A few days ago, Tenley might have been surprised. There was no point in that anymore, so instead she rushed forward to meet Ella half-way.

Before battle could be joined a wave of power rose between them, then split, extinguishing Ella’s flame and sweeping both her and Tenley back the way they’d come. “That is enough fighting for today,” Titania warned. She glared at Ella, “you should not have thrown her. And you,” she turned to Tenley as she picked herself up, “save your anger. My eyes and ears will have found your mother’s killers soon.”

Titania’s skin had ceased pulsing, Tenley’s rage subsiding with it. A little. Enough that she could stand on the leaf with The Queen, Lilian, and Ella, with no further incident. “A Changeling without dignity is never pretty,” Titania mused as the vine lifted them. “Chin-up, both of you. Smile. I shan’t be sending any of you into the world if you’re going to make a show of us.” The leaf deposited them – not in the throne room, but another corridor partially illuminated by the iridescent mushrooms. “For now we have time to kill. Feel free to explore, but don’t go beyond any red crystals. Everything past those points will eat you – and I do mean everything. I shall summon you when I have news.”

Tenley watched the other three walk away before surveying her own options. In front of her was a long dark corridor. To her right was a long dark corridor. Guess what was to her left? Was it a lute? She’d only ever heard them in video games, but yes – that sounded like a lute echoing down a long dark corridor. That way then.

There was a tree in the room at the end, and on one thick branch lay a man. He wore several layers of dirty patched coats, a frayed scarf, and had white hair with a beard curling from his chin. If a goat were magically transformed into a man, it would look like him. For all Tenley knew that’s exactly what happened. “Who are you?” She asked.

The goat-man stopped his lute playing to peer at her a moment before putting the instrument aside to hop down. “Well you’re new,” he said, holding a monocle to his eye like examining some antique or other curiosity. “And, you are still you, aren’t you?”

Tenley peered back, “who else would I be?”

“Some of the others, when they start to feel everything they don’t stop screaming. So Titania gets in their heads and makes it so they can’t feel anything. She always gets in your head, one way or another.”

He sounded slightly German, Tenley thought, although it was again something she’d only ever heard in games and movies. She had no difficulty understanding his words but still wasn’t sure what he was saying. “What are you talking about?” She asked.

“You’ll figure it out, You,” he said, straightening his back while pocketing the monocle.

“Tenley. And you didn’t say your name.”

“Ah! Forgive me, lady,” goat-man then said with a flourish and bow, “Klaus. Sir Klaus Ragin. Scholar, Bard, and Knight of the Realm.”

Tenley couldn’t help but smirk a little, “you’re a knight?”

“Of course I’m a knight! Look! I have a sword and everything,” he skipped around the tree trunk, returning with a longsword in hand. “See? A sword doesn’t lie.” He presented it to her with another flourish.

“A sword doesn’t tell the truth either,” Tenley gently with one finger made sure the blade pointed away from her. “A sword is just a sword.”

“Just a sword!?” Klaus gasped in mock-horror, plunging the tip of the sword in the ground so it stood upright on its own. “No such thing as just a sword. A sword is a symbol of courage, justice, and honor.”

“Yeah, well, I never like games where the sword talks. It’s too cruel – giving feelings to something that only exists to kill. It would go mad in a prison like that.”

“A sword can save lives. Defend as well as attack,” Klaus folded his arms and lent on the tree trunk, scrutinizing the dark haired girl before him. “The question is, young Tenley, what kind of sword are you?”

Tenley squinted with one eye while raising the opposite black eyebrow. “Are you okay? You can see I’m a girl, right? Not a sword.”

“The other girls here – they’re all tools or weapons. Lilian is a loyal puppy. Ella is – well, Ella is a bully, but useful if pointed in the right direction I suppose. So why did she bring you here?”

The bit about Ella was certainly true. ‘She’ was obviously Titania, and Tenley really didn’t care what her reasons were – what mattered was she strong now. Stronger than Phaedra could ever have dreamed. Tenley explained, “she promised me my mother’s killers.”

“Oh,” there was a long pause, during which Klaus produced a whiskey flask, Tenley’s nose instinctively flinching in revulsion of the unmistakable whiff of alcohol. That was much stronger as well – another thing she’d have to get used to. “I had a mother once,” Klaus said, “So long ago. It’s hard to remember…” His face scrunched from the effort, then gave up. “But, you must have loved yours very much.”

“I-I…” Tenley shuffled and fidgeted guiltily. She did. Of course she did. She was her mother. But it was complicated.

“You didn’t like her?” Klaus answered for her, Tenley’s eyes flashing angrily at him but then lowering in acceptance. “I could speak seven languages once as well, including sad child. And you’re one of the saddest I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t think she liked me,” Tenley admitted. “Mother was never kind, or loving. Some days she would fill my backpack with bricks and make me run through obstacles while firing paint-balls at me. But she was… she was mine.”

“We don’t get to choose our parents. But are you sure she was never kind?” Klaus asked, Tenley responding just by arching an eyebrow so along with her nose and mouth it formed a question mark. “I mean, how often did the paint-balls hit?”

Not too often, Tenley supposed. Certainly her mother’s aim had been a lot better when shooting other targets. But it didn’t matter now, did it? She didn’t know why she was bothering to talk about it. “What about you?” She switched. “Why are you here?”

“Well – I lied,” Klaus confessed, “I’ve never been knighted. I dreamed about it; knights and castles and machicolations. All I dreamed about as a boy. Then, once upon a time, there was a princess in a dungeon. So of course, I had to try and rescue her. Now the princess is a queen and I’m the one that’s trapped.” Klaus shook his little flask, amber liquid sloshing inside as he proffered it to Tenley. “Drink?” He asked. He was obviously mad. “I realize you’re a little young, but it doesn’t actually affect us anyway,” he explained, taking a swig. “It’s a pity.”

“I tried some of mother’s drink once. It tasted terrible. I don’t get why adults are so obsessed with that stuff.”

“True – we don’t really drink for the taste.”

*****

Tenley forged ahead on her path unaware and uncaring of the true nature of her benefactors, incredulous of the fact that elsewhere threads continued to be woven that might one day cross hers.

In the shadow of Stag Corp’s metal tower that now stood waiting for its time to shine, there were still those demanding that it never should. They had made a camp of fold out tents nestled among the trees they sought to protect. Although they had never elected a leader there was one among them brasher than the rest, who the less forceful personalities fell behind and looked to whenever questions were asked. His name was Hiroki, and the ones asking questions were Sergeants Francis Daramy and Chauncey Delainy.

“How’d you get a stupid name like that anyway?” Hiroki stomped his muddy boots as he led the officers through his domain, around them his followers busying themselves cooking, singing, or painting signs.

“I don’t know. It’s french, or old english, or-” Chance answered, then remembered, “actually, that’s not why we’re here.”

“So, what is it?” Hiroki turned, scowling and circling as he interrogated. “Your corporate overlords send you to find a reason to move us on? Maybe plant some evidence, hm?”

“We both know if we searched the camp we’d find plenty of illicit substances. But that’s not why we’re here.”

Hiroki responded with an unimpressed harrumph before asking, “how do you like the river?”

Chance saw only leaves and mud and stone. “What river?”

“Exactly! There was a stream here once. Schools of fishes lived by its currents, and the birds and dragonflies around lived by them. But now, between climate change and the town, all the schools of little fishes are-” Hiroki’s face grimaced, eyes bulging in horror at the sight before him – one of the members of his camp tucking into her soup. “Is that a plastic spoon!?” He snarled, jumping over a small campfire, scattering bowls, chairs, and people to grab the offensive item, throw it down, and furiously stamp it into the dirt.

The sudden outburst took the officers by surprise, but beyond Hiroki forgetting to recycle it didn’t seem like any harm was done.

“I have a question,” Francis politely raised a hand. “Isn’t the point of the tower to stop all the climate change?”

“So they say,” Hiroki said with a tug of his dark green raincoat. “But they’re using some lab-grown bacteria that could do gods know what if it got out. You think they’re helping? They’re just buying themselves more time to keep raping the planet. What nature needs is for mankind to step back – allow her to heal on her own.”

“Look,” Chance sighed, “we’re not here to save the planet. We’ve another job to do right now.”

But Hiroki was nothing if not persistent, and a consequence of his outburst had been a small audience gathering around them. “You think because justice is blind then so must we be? Is it really justice you serve, or ‘just us’? Just your masters lounging around their pools while beyond their gates the world’s children all burn? Like we told the rangers who were here – they won’t pay a pension to your souls.” Hiroki strutted around his group, inspecting them like a general inspecting his troops. He paused, disdainful eyes falling to the feet of one as he hardened his jaw. “Are those Nikes!?”

Before Hiroki could reprimand the frightened man or give another speech, Chance stepped in. “Could you repeat what you just said?”

“What? Souls?”

“Before that.”

“Just us?”

“After.”

“Masters?”

“No.”

“Rangers?”

“Yes! That’s it! That’s why we’re here,” Chance was overjoyed to finally be back on a track he understood. “Two rangers didn’t check-in. We know they came here to inspect your camp, but they haven’t been heard from since.”

“They were here a night ago,” Hiroki recalled, “as if we would start a forest fire – we’re very careful. They saw that, then they left. You don’t think we did anything to them?”

“My job’s to find out what happened – I’m not accusing anyone yet. Do you know where they went?”

Hiroki shrugged, seeming to have no idea, but another young man in the camp spoke up. “They went with Stacey to check out that abandoned cabin. She said she heard noises from it.”

“Stacey?” Hiroki looked around at all the faces surrounding them. “Where is she?”

“She didn’t come back either.”

Now they were getting somewhere, Chance thought. “Where is this cabin?”

“About a mile or so that way,” the young man vaguely gestured.

“I will show you,” Hiroki sniffed, pulling up his hood. “Need to see my people are safe as well after all. You!” He pointed at the man’s feet, “take those damn things off.”

By the time they reached the cabin golden slivers clung to the edges of clouds as the sun set behind them. Hiroki repeatedly mocked the officers for their city clothes as they crossed dried streams and fallen branches, mud squelching and seeping into their shoes. But they slogged through and made it. The cabin was a simple one-room affair that had fallen into disrepair, mossy planks fallen loose leaving holes in all four walls. Maybe built out here by a person or persons looking to escape, but now they were long gone. Chance was only concerned with the missing rangers and eco-warrior, but there wasn’t immediately any sign. Inside the cabin was empty – just some broken utensils and furniture all in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

“Over here!” Hiroki called. “Look!”

Behind the cabin a bolt-action hunting rifle had been dropped in the grass. Not hidden – dropped, a cartridge discarded nearby. By the condition of the weapon, it hadn’t been here that long. Even more curiously, Daramy then found a crumpled bullet, again simply lying out in the open.

“What?” Hiroki asked, noting the officer’s confusion. “What is it?”

“It looks like someone fired,” Chance explained, “and the bullet just stopped in mid-air.” Not to mention, why would the shooter have dropped their gun, unless whatever they were shooting at got to them? Yet there was no blood or tracks that Chance could see. “Shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” he muttered. “We’ll have to confirm that bullet came from this rifle.”

“I think,” Hiroki studied the ground, “someone went in that direction.” Chance didn’t bother to ask how he knew – at this point he would follow any possible lead to find answers. But they were barely into the woods when Hiroki lost whatever he was tracking, just pacing and kicking the ground in frustration.

“Best check-in,” Daramy said, reaching into his long coat for his radio. A drop fell from the sky and he froze, staring at his sleeve. More drops fell on all of them, and from the color of the stains they left, it wasn’t rain.

Hiroki shielded his brow as he looked up, and something bigger fell from the branches above. He jumped and scurried backwards, finding himself face to face with Stacey hanging upside down by her ankle – Chance guessed it was Stacey since the two rangers were also hanging over them. She and Hiroki were face to face, but not eye to eye – there was a centipede crawling out of the hole where her eye had been. Hiroki’s cheeks puffed several times before he could contain his repulsion and revulsion no more, vomiting while Chance placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.

The rangers had been likewise blinded, their eyes scooped from their skulls. Chance thought he heard distant, childish laughter, but couldn’t identify a source or if any of his companions heard it too. All of those who had eyes were flitting them between any sound or irregularity in the darkening forest, of which there were many, until Chance and Daramy’s met. “Call it in.”

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