I am 31 years old, but I feel 100. I sit with my back against the wall in the hospital in Kandehar. Vincent sits next to me, and MacKenzie sits on his other side. Niall, Henry and Max are under the care of the doctors. Or will be once the doctors are done taking care of the soldiers who are in an even worse state than we are. It was quite a blow to finally come back, just to be told that Cassie was no longer here. She and Mrs Nick had gone away – back to Bretonia? I didn’t quite catch it – for Mrs Nick to have her baby. Apparently that got Mr Nick back to his work and the railway camp is once more all abustle with activity. But I am so sorry she isn’t here. I miss her. I feel out of sorts and get up to go outside. Just as I stand, Vincent says: “Doesn’t that doctor look familiar?”. He points at a tall doctor tending to a patient some beds down. Just at that moment the doctor apparently nicks himself with a scalpel, and with blood running down his arm he backs into a table behind him and knocks over some medical instruments that fall to the ground with a loud clatter. MacKenzie looks up. “Callum?” she says. And she gets up too, and calls out “Callum?!”. The doctor turns to look at us. Clutching a bandage to his arm he looks at MacKenzie with a slight frown. “MacKenzie?! Why are you so dirty?”
I leave before I hear MacKenzies reply. I am just too tired. I find a spot in the shade and sit down with my back against the wall of the hospital. I look down at myself. Dirty? We are more than dirty. Lacking cigarsmoke to chase away the mosquitoes we smeared mud on every inch of exposed skin. The journey has rendered my clothes, which were none to good to begin with, into mere rags. I put my hand in my pocket to fondle my stones, and calmer I lean back and fall asleep.
I dream. I dance with girls made of stone. Not stone that is hard and rigid, but stone flowing like water. The girls are graceful and giggling, and they swirl and leap to an intrigate rythm. A girl approaches me, and smiling she holds out a hand to me. Her eyes are stone, her lips and teeth and tongue are stone, but she is beautiful. She seems carved in granite. I reach out to take her hand, but startle at the sight of my own hands: I am also stone. But not granite like her. The skin on my arms are cobblestone, brick and marple – the stones of a city. I stare in wonder. I am stone, but do not feel cold or hard; I feel good. Alive. The girl grabs my hand and drags me into the dance and I find myself perfectly capable of following them. This is my kind of dance. These girls are my kind of people, and that thought terrifies me and delights me in equal measures. “Grace?”. A hand, a human hand, softly shakes my shoulder. I wake and find Vincent looking down on me. “I’ve got us a room” he says and gives me hand up.
Ah, to get a bath, be clean again! To get out of these rags and into something, well, at least cleaner. MacKenzie introduces me to the doctor who nicked himself: Callum Malloy, her boyfriend. I recall hearing about him, but have never met him until now. He seems very nice and friendly, and I’m sure we will get along fine. I am tattoing Vincent, when Callum later knocks on our door, and asks “Are you decent?”. Vincent has pants on and I am in my shift, so I say “Yes” and he comes in, takes a look at us, and backs back out with apologies. Apparently you need to wear even more clothes than we are to be considered ‘decent’. We call him back in, and he asks how we are and if we need any help, but we’re good for now. He returns to the room he shares with MacKenzie. Henry, Max and Niall each have a room down the hall. The doctors have dismissed them to finish healing on their own, now that they have been stitched up and bandaged.
The second time Vincent’s nightmares wakes me up that night, I decide to take Callum up on his offer to help. I tiptoe to his room and knock on the door. He look sleepy, when he answers the door, but becomes fully awake when I ask for his help. Does he have anything that might help Vincent sleep without dreams? Callum gives me a small bottle of laudenum and carefully describes how much to give to Vincent, and makes sure I know not to give him too much. We have tried laudenum before- it is the most effective help for Vincent’s nightmares, so I know to be careful. We just rarely have money to buy it. The laudenum gives us a few restfull nights.
On the third night something else entirely wakes me up: the sound of a kerfuffle and glass breaking from Nialls room. I run out into the hallway, just as MacKenzie comes running out of her room followed by Callum. But when we break down Niall door, he isn’t there. His window is broken, the room is in disarray, but he is gone. Callum runs to the window and can see figures running far off. A little bit of investigation shows that Niall has brought nothing with him, not even his clothes, so it is very doubtful that he has left us willingly. When we check on the others we find out that Henry is also missing. His window is broken too, but he has apparently offered no resistance.
I wake up Vincent, and we go outside to look for tracks of our friends. Vincent is still high as a kite from the laudenum, but I drag him outside hoping the fresh air will clear his head. We look and look, but find nothing. Finally Callum finds footprints of bare feet running in a certain direction and we try to follow them, but it is difficult in the dark. We run back to get our things, and then off we are in the dark. Vincent is sobering up, and finds tracks even though it is dark and we follow them. By the time the sun rises we are nearly at the edge of the savannah and have jungle ahead of us. The tracks are very clear now. It is clear that someone (I’m guessing Niall) is deliberately breaking twigs and straws and leaving other sorts of tracks for us to follow. Ever since we left Kandehar the track is leading us in a very distinct direction: towards the mountains. Have the mysterious blue people abducted our friends? But why? It makes no sense.
As the jungle gets denser, we take turns going in front and making way with our machetes. Every now and then we carve a sign into the trees we pass. I prefer carving x’s as they are easy to make, while MacKenzie favours the arrows that show where we came from. Suddenly Max cries “Stop! I hear something”. Something very big is making its way through the jungle towards us, and soon enough a large creature, looking like a bizarre mix of a pig and a large cat jumps at us. I swing my iron staff at it in just the right moment, and is practically runs into it head first. With something between a squeel and a mewl it runs back into the forrest.
The ground gets soggier. Even the trees look like they are standing on tiptoe in the swamp. The trees are quite tall and are covered in moss and lianas. The swamp gets more and more difficult to walk in, so we start jumping from rootsystem to rootsystem of the trees. It cannot have been easy to travel here with to unwilling prisoners. Finally we take a break, and Vincent climbs one of the trees to see if he can see them from up there. There are a myriad of mosquitoes here, and Max and Callum light cigars to chase them away with smoke. I don’t know what is worse: the mosquitoes or the smoke. Vincent calls down that our prey have left tracks in the treetops. They have not fought their way down here, but up there. Vincent follow their tracks, and we follow Vincent from below. The going is hard, and Max starts to bicker again about his tool box. MacKenzie keeps snapping at Callum, who keeps snapping back. I am generally annoyed with all of them. Finally we give up trying to move forward down here. Vincent makes good time up above, so we decide (amazing we can decide on anything!) to climb up and join him. Max managed to build a sort of ladder (without his tool box, I might add…), that makes the climbing so much easier.
I don’t know what to think of our new route. We are way up high.The air is fresh, there are no mosquitoes, and the sky is clear above us. But we are really a high way up, and I don’t like it. I put my hand in my pocket to hold my stones, but in stead of the stones my hand close on a bigger object: the Apple that has escaped my handkerchief. Suddenly everything is not so bad. I take a deep breath and wellness just flows through me. Any inhibitions about travelling by treetop leaves me. MacKenzie is struggling to find her feet behind me. She curses in her native language. “Do you need a hand up?” I ask. She almost growls at me “Do I look like I need a hand?” she says. She does, so I say “Yes”. Then something really strange happens: MacKenzie gets to her feet and takes a swing at me, but she does so really slowly, like back when we were in the training hall, and she showed me where a punch should come from. I see her fist move slowly through the air towards me, and I step aside so she won’t hit me. Her punch continues a little, until she realizes that I am not where she expected me to be. I look at her curiously. What is she doing? Her other fist moves in from the other side, but again I have plenty of time to move away from her. Her face looks very perplexed. “What are you doing?” I ask and put up both my hands, letting the Apple stay in my pocket. She shakes her head as if to clear it. “I… I don’t know” she replies, her voice full of wonder “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into me”. We smile uneasily at eachother. I feel a little bit nauseus again, as my fear of heights return, so I curl my fingers around the apple again, and immidiately feel a lot better.
“Let’s get moving” Callum says, when we are all topside. I jump without reservation to the next tree in one fluent movement. This is not hard at all. In fact it is almost like dancing and I laugh out loud. Then I hear Callum call me “Grace?”. His voice is deeper than usual, but his tone is urgent, so I turn around. All the others are staring at me. Callum is practically gaping. He motions to me to come back “Grace” again the deep voice “Come back here”. I jump back to them again. Again with perfect ease. I smile at them. Callum steps towards me slowly and wraps his arms around me. What a strange thing to do. I feel a little bit uncomfortable to be honest. “I don’t think MacKenzie will appreciate you holding me like this” I say, and MacKenzie does in deed come up to us. But her face isn’t angry. She looks worried. Callum speaks to her in the language she usually swears in, and she swears back. My hand is still in my pocket holding the Apple. I look over at Vincent, and he stares at me too. I smile at him. MacKenzie puts a hand on Callums arm and looks at me. “What is in your pocket?” she asks. I take my hand out of my pocket and show her the Apple. It looks more like a stone, but we all know what it is; the Apple of Strife. “It’s the Apple” I say. “What apple?” Callum asks. “The Apple of Strife” I reply “The Society sent us to get it, before Lady Sybil’s people could”. He stares at me “You’ve kept the Apple of Strife in your pocket?!”. I shrug “I didn’t know where else to put it. I kept it in my handkerchief, but it must have fallen out”. “Ahem” MacKenzie says “Maybe it is not such a good idea to keep it in the same pocket as your stones, just saying”. That is actually a good point, so I rewrap the Apple and put it in my other pocket.
“This is not the end of it” Callum says “You’ve got some things to explain, like how did you do that?” Callum demands. I tilt my head “Do what?”. “How did you jump like that?” he asks “And how did you move so fast, when MacKenzie tried to hit you?”. I frown “I didn’t move fast. She moved slowly”. I smile at MacKenzie “It looked really funny. You moved mega slow”. She shakes her head, and Callums says “She didn’t. You moved freakishly fast! Like you were not even human!” I get angry. I offer him my bare arm.”Go ahead, doctor! Cut into my arm and tell me that is not human bone inside!” He frowns, and backs off the issue. “I’m not sure you should hold the stone” MacKenzie says “In fact, I think we should take turns holding in. It does strange things to you”. I suppose she is right. The Apple did make me feel different – even if all it did was make me feel better. But if they all saw me move strangly, then it must be true. A lot of things fall into place suddenly; all the bickering and bad moods might very well stem from the Apple. I myself have been more annoyed with the others than usually. I offer MacKenzie the wrapped up Apple, and she finds a cigar box to put it in, and then she stuffs it way down into her backpack. I feel a little bit relieved, until I remember I am high above the ground again. I put my hand in my pocket, and though the stones don’t make me freakishly fast, they do calm me a bit.
We begin to climb from tree to tree. It takes a bit of getting used to. The trick is to NOT look down. In one of the trees we encounter a group of small monkeys. They look super cute right up until the moment they attack us while screaming furiously at us. I guess this is their tree, and we are tresspassing. Several of the monkeys attack Callum, and MacKenzie take two of them and smash them together. They are both knocked out. Then a bunch of them goes after Vincent, and I take two of them by the tail and fling them away. The rest of the monkeys refrain from attacking after that and merely scream at us until we have left their tree.
At sunset the breeze picks up. Max braids some lians into rope and we tie ourselves to the trees, so we can sleep without dropping to our death. It turns out that Max’s be all and end all is not his tool box after all; he is perfectly capable of thinking up things that does not require a screwdriver. Callum finds a sort of cloudberries, only ten times the size they are at home. They taste fine, and since none of us drop dead, they are not poisonous either.
In the afternoon the next day we suddenly see smoke up ahead. The smoke is not directly on our route, but very close by, so when we get closer Vincent and I climb down a bit, to see what it is. There is a clearing in the jungle with three huts built on poles – or rather what’s left of them: they have all been torched. On the ground we can see 6 humanoids lying, seemingly dead. When we reach them we can see that only 5 of the dead are in fact humans, four men and a woman, clearly locals, while the last one is a huge mix between an ape and a human. It’s fur is so black it seems blue – is this one of the mysterious blue men from the mountains? Is this what or who that have abducted Niall and Henry? There is no doubt that the creature – or creatures like it – caused the death of these people. The creature has claws, and all the dead humans have nasty scratchmarks all over their bodies.
The others join us, and we decide to cremate the poor people that have died. To send them along I draw invocations of a safe journey to the underworld on their forheads. It makes me feel good, when I do it. Like I do, when I tattoo Vincent. I can feel the good intentions flow out of me and into these poor people. I feel positively powerful, when I mark the last of them. The magic is almost tangible. Then I see the dead man’s fingers twitch. “Callum?” I call out”This man is moving”. Did Callum make a mistake declaring him dead? Or did I bring him back from the dead? Or was he nearly dead and I healed him somehow? Callum comes over to look at him. He is undoubtably moving, though he has those nasty scratches across his throat. Then the man rises, and the first thing he does is to throw himself at Vincent and tries to strangle him! As the traces of my own magic fades I can see him for what he is: a demon! Holy father of Artemis! Did I just summon a demon?! MacKenzie startes beating the demon away from Vincent, but it holds on and seem not to care about her. I pull out my iron staff and gives it a solid whack on the head. The scull caves in, but even that doesn’t stop the demon! Callum tries to pry it’s fingers loose from Vincent’s throat, and that seems like the best idea yet. Max swings his machete into the crowd that is us, and hits the demon in the arm, but it doesn’t care even though the machete lodges into the bone. Callum and I manage to break off it’s fingers, until Vincent can finally breathe again. He breathes in big gasps, and in between gasps tells us, that his demon spoke to it. It was definately a demon. And I did definately summon it, though I do not point this fact out to anybody. We throw the demon body onto the pyre with the others, to be completely rid of it.
We stay in the village for the night. The next morning Vincent climbs back up into the trees to find the track. The ground is solid enough now for the rest of us to walk on. I am troubled by thoughts all day. The summoning of the demon, my reaction to the Apple, my strange obsession with stone, the fact that I can move through stone! My dreams and everything is mixed up in my head, and I get more and more uneasy. In the afternoon Vincent calls down that he can see a little group of people up ahead. A group that could very well be 4-5 of the blue men and a couple of human hostages. We decide to wait with a confrontation until tomorrow, and tonight we all sleep on the ground.
I have trouble sleeping, so I take first watch. When everyone else is asleep I wake up Vincent. I get him to walk a little bit away from the others, so we can talk privately. Vincent is blinking sleep out of his eyes and smiles at me “What’s up?” he asks. And I tell him of all my worries “Vincent, I summoned that demon! Oh gods! I could have killed you!”. Vincent stares at me, then he smiles “It was an accident. You didn’t mean to”. “No, but I still did it!” I say, my voice breaking “Vincent, there is something wrong with me! You saw me, when I fell through the wall back home. You’ve seen me walk through rock. That is not normal! And now this!”. Vincent pulls me into his arms. “There is nothing wrong with you” he whispers into my hair “It’s true, that those things are not normal, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I should be the last to condemn anyone who is different”. He holds me out at arms length and looks me into the eyes “Grace, without you the demon inside me would have killed me and killed others long ago. You’ve saved me. Each night when I wake up from a nightmare, and I find you curled up next to me, I know things are going to be all right. You are certainly no ordinary human being, but you are good and kind, and there is nothing wrong with you, do you hear me?” He is very intense about it, so I nod. He echoes the nod and embraces me again, holding me tight until I calm down and relax into his arms. He kisses me on the hair, and I think that everything is going to be all right. And then I think: “Niall is going to kill me. If he finds out, he is going to kill me…”
We break camp early to see it we can catch up on the blue men. Vincent reports that we are getting closer. He says it looks like they are arguing. That certainly seem more human than animalistic. They settle down in the treetops, apparently they make camp, though it is still daylight. There are four of them, but they are big! We decide to lure them down, so we can free their hostages. Callum has a plan: someone, that ends up being me, should make a lot of noise with our pots and pans, and lure them down to us. Callum and MacKenzie lie in wait with the rifles, and Vincent borrows Nialls gun, that MacKenzie have brought along. “When they come down” Callum whispers “Wait for me to shoot first”. Vincent and MacKenzie nods, and we all get into position. I stand in the clearing and start yelling while I bang together Callums pot and pan. “Come on down here, you weirdos. Give us back our friends!”.
Soon we can hear bustle from above. Three of the creatures are coming down to check out where the noise comes from. They come closer and closer, looking curiously at me. They get so close that I can smell them, and then one of them reaches out for me. I hear the sound of a rifle going off from MacKenzie’s position, and a bullet sing past my ear and past the creature too. It startles. Vincent’s gun goes off as well, with pretty much the same affect. I hear Callum shout something in an angry tone of voice. The creature bares its teeth and I drop the pot and swing the pan with both hands and hits it right in the face. It tumbles backwards looking dazed, and the others make a sort of angry warcry. I think two things: Was this part of Callums plan? and then What was Callums plan really? I realize that I never heard the full plan, and now I have three giant creatures in front of me, looking ready to eat me alive. Doggonit!
One of the big apes hits me in the torso and I am flung to the ground, panting for breath. It tries to bite me, but I get the pan in the way, and it makes bitemarks in Callums pan. The other two apes attacks MacKenzie, and having fired her rifle her only defence is to hit them with the rifle. Callum starts yelling at us not to kill the apes. How weird is that? I am trying not to get killed by giant apes, and I’m not supposed to hurt them? Vincent comes to my rescue and hits the ape with his canestick, and I hit it over the feet with the pan. Out of the corner of my eye I see an ape pick up MacKenzie and fling her into a tree. She is all limp and I am scared for her. The other ape is now attacking Callum and he fires his rifle at it (I guess the thing about not hurting the apes no longer applies). Unfortunately the ape fall on him and knocks him out. The other ape runs to the heap of man and ape, and grab Callums leg. MacKenzie is on her feet again, and runs to help Callum, and Vincent does to, when I hear Max call out “Out of the way, please!” and I hear the buzz of his gadget. I grab Vincent by his shirt and pulls him away, and run to tackle MacKenzie. She accidently hits me in the face with an elbow and I see stars. Soon we all see stars, as Max discharges is electric device into two apes and a man. The last ape standing runs away up into the tree tops.
Vincent follows and calls down, that they apes are panicking and that they are throwing some of their packs away. I think that now is the time to move fast, so I look for the Apple of Strife to give me extra speed. I find it in Max’s pack. As soon as my fingers close around it, a surge of power and wellbeing runs through me. My bruises no longer hurt, and I am just full of energy. I take a deep breath and smile. In no time I am topside. I pass by Vincent on the way and smile at him, and I say “Everything is going to be all right”. Vincent gives me a funny looking wide smile – he looks great too. I run after the apes and I manage to tackle the closest one. It carries to large sacks, and when I tackle it we fall through the trees – me and the ape and the sacks. I am not afraid. We hit the ground, but it doesn’t hurt at all. I am just mildly annoyed, when I stand up and dust myself off. Max comes over and starts babbling about an update to his zap thingy, something about making it more powerful. Vincent comes down from the trees. He stares at me with wide eyes.
“Grace” he says “Give the apple to Max”. He then looks at Max and holds up his hands to stop me “No! Wait!”. He half turns without taking his eyes off me “MacKenzie?! You better come over! Grace’s skin looks like stone and Max is acting weird”. I touch my cheek. It feels rough and soft at the same time. I remember my dream – my skin felt just like it had in my dream. MacKenzie comes over, and looks at me strangely. She holds out her backpack. “Better put it in” she says, and I let the apple drop into her backpack.
All the wellness seep out of me. My bruises hurt again, and I bend over in pain. I see that I stand in a humanshaped hollow in the ground. It is exactly my size. I look at Vincent. He nods at me: I landed there, and was completely unharmed. I look around and see the ape lying motionless next to us, as well as two bundles with feet sticking out. I feel like I am punched in the gut. Vincent and I unpack the bundles and it is two women… They died in the fall. The fall that I caused in my apple induced craze. I start to gasp for breath. I hyperventilate. Vincent tries to hug me, but I am devastated! I killed these women! In my stupid, stupid mind I thought I could get the Apple to help me, but this is what it did! It killed them! MacKenzie finds another sack – one of the sacks the apes threw, when they ran: there is another women in there. She is badly hurt. Vincent finds two more sacks: one with a woman and one with two small children in. They are unharmed, but scared and in shock. The woman that is unharmed hurries to help the wounded woman. The children cling to Vincent. MacKenzie sinks to her knees. She looks pale, as she looks back a Callum, who still lies unconscious, and at the dead women behind us. She looks as terrible as I feel.
Max touches my shoulder “Are you all right, Grace?”, he asks. I start bawling. All right?! I am anything but all right! I killed those two women! Tears and snot runs down my face, as I howl in grief. Vincent comes over, still one child clinging to each leg, and hugs me. The children grab hold of my legs as well. Every time I have calmed down a little bit, I glance over at the dead women and start all over again. When Vincent finally get me to sleep, I am all curled up with him and two small children.
The next morning I wake up feeling empty and puffed up from all the crying. Callum is gaining consciousness, but he is in great pain. Fortunately as a doctor he knows just what drugs to take to feel better. We are eating breakfast, when we hear a strange sound, coming from the dead women. It sounds like pigs eating. Vincent jumps up and draws his sword, and before I can stop him he attacks the creatures. They are not pigs, though, but a curious sort of sabletoothed hamsters the size of dogs. Vincent is beating them, but they don’t seem to care. There are seven of them, and we are very outmatched. I try to pull Vincent away. “You can’t help them” I say “There are too many hamsters”. But Vincent is furious. “We should have burned them properlike yesterday! We should have sent them to Hades straight away! Now they will arrive in the afterlife in pieces!”. I see his point, but the hamsters don’t care about us. They don’t react to shouting, they and don’t react to getting hit with swords.
The others come running. MacKenzie draws her club, but before she can do anything with it, Callum starts kissing her. That’s a curious time and place for making out, but MacKenzie seems happy with it, and Callum sure can kiss thouroughly. He then turns to Vincent and yells “Hurry Vincent! Grace is in danger!”. I am standing right here, and Vincent looks at me, and I shrug. “Come on!” Callum cries “She’s in danger. Let’s go!”. Right then one of the hamsters bite down on my leg, so I guess he was right. It bites down so hard that it’s teeth gets stuck in my leg. Gawds, it hurts! So I take out my iron staff and whacks it on the head. Its scull breaks and it drops dead on the ground. My leg is bleeding and hurts like Tartaros. Max fires a gun, and that makes the hamsters scatter. Vincent grabs my arm “Are you ok?”. Callum comes over “I’ll help her” he says and looks very sternly at me. He looks angry, and I wonder what I did to make him so angry. He pulls me aside, and while he tends to my leg, he scolds me. “What is it with you, Grace? Ever since I met you, you always seem to use violence to solve problems!” I frown. That seems a bit unfair, I think. “Trouble comes along, and you grab your iron stick as the first thing!” I think about it – when have I drawn the iron stick in front of Callum? The pigcat got a good whack. It didn’t die, but ran away squeeling, and none of my friends got hurt. The small monkeys I grabbed by the tails. I didn’t hurt them, just flung them away. It’s true I used the iron stick to kill the demon, but if there is another way of killing demons, I don’t know it. I didn’t hit the blue ape with my iron stick, but with the frying pan, and it didn’t kill it. I did kill the hamster, but it attacked me, and honestly my leg look a mess, so I think it had it coming. Fortunately I heal well, and Callums administrations seems to work. I try to defend myself “I am just used to fighting demons” I say in a timid voice “If I don’t hit them first, they will hit me, and likely kill me”. Callum shakes his head “But you can’t go around and hit everything else! If you hurt someone, you can’t fix it! You damage someone, you can’t make it right!”. That silences me. He is right. I can’t. He finished binding up my leg “You sure heal fast” he says and looks at me funny, like I am also wrong to heal. I feel like when I was a little girl, and I got beaten for doing something that foster Papa reckonned was wrong. He leaves me, looking back at me accusingly. I sit and think: he is right. I do solve problems with violence. I just don’t know how to solve problems like being attacked by pigcats, sabletoothed hamsters, demons and blue apes, without using violence. But I can try. I can’t fix broken skulls, but I can quit breaking them. I wonder if he will yell at MacKenzie as well. We tend to use the same troubleshooting maneuvres. But for her sake I will try and do as he says. I don’t want to make an enemy of my friend’s boyfriend.
When I join the others Callum is yelling at Vincent, who is yelling back. Vincent is trying to build a funeral pyre for the dead women, but stops every once in a while to wave his arms about and yell retorts at Callum. I wonder why Callum has such a beef with violence. Max doesn’t like violence either, but he spends all his time building weapons. Cassie doesn’t use violence; she uses her brain. And when the brain is not enough, she uses me to be violent. That is why we are such a good team. I miss Cassie. I really do.
Max and MacKenzie approaches me with the cigarbox with the Apple in it. “Grace” MacKenzie says “We were wondering if you could make magical markings on the cigarbox? Like the ones the orceologists had on their box? Max says he can remember what they looked like”. She glances over at Callum and Vincent who are still arguing. I think maybe the Apple is causing them to fight. “I can try” I say. Max begins to describe the signs to me, but they make little sense to me. I know the signs, but how they should contain the magic of the Apple is beyond me as one of them is quite volatile. But I try anyway. It’s a non violent solution. I can’t really get the magic flowing though, and though I make the signs, I don’t think they have any effect.
Callum turns away from Vincent, who keep building the pyre with the help of the women we saved. Callum looks strictly at all of us “I sure hope we have reached an end to all this violence!” he says in a very mature sort of voice. I slink over to help Vincent. I start weeping silently. Had I not chosen to attack the ape yesterday, we would not have fallen, and they would not have died. When the pyre is ablaze, Vincent puts his arm around me, and I find comfort in it. I cannot give these two women their lives back. And I can only send them damaged to Hades. It makes me very sad.
We walk, or rather limp along. My leg feels a lot better, but it’s still sore. Callum looks terrible, and takes painkillers every now and then. MacKenzie seems subdued and sad. If I was Cassie I would have know what to do, but I can’t think how I can help her. We make camp early, and Vincent and I use the evening to make two more tattoos on him. We are still a few tattoos short before we are done, but we are getting there. I can almost feel the demon inside him hissing, as I prick ink into Vincent’s skin.
While we are tattooing, MacKenzie comes over. She, Callum and Max have discussed something in private. “We think it would be best, if we keep the Apple somewhere where the two of you don’t know where it is” she says. Vincent and I both nod “That’s a good idea” I say and Vincent concurs. Neither Vincent nor I ever want to see that Apple again! I liked how it made me feel powerful, but I don’t the things I can do with that power, and I like least of all the looks the others give me, when I am under its influence. MacKenzie seems surprised that we agree so wholeheartedly. She and the others move away a bit, and huddle while they hide the Apple. Vincent and I sit close to eachother with our backs turned. I truly have no desire to ever hold that Apple again!
Callum comes over to us, and asks us what the Apple makes us feel. Vincent explains how the demon tries to make him take it. The demon is worse when the Apple is near, and worse still when I hold it. It basks in the Apples power, and Vincent knows that if he were to get the Apple, the demon would take over and likely destroy us all. I explain how it makes me feel powerful and alive. How it gives me a sense of finally truly being myself. This makes Callum give me one of those looks – full of suspicion and dislike. I fall silent. The Apple makes Max and Mackenzie, and Callum too, cross and angry. It affects them differently than it does me. I lean into Vincent, and he puts his arm around me. He knows I am different, and he doesn’t care.
Later we discuss the ape men and what they must be trying to accomplice with our friends and the native women and children. “How do we even know they are ape MEN?” I ask. “Easy” Vincent says “You can tell by the balls”. I look at him, and he continues “You see, apes – well, all monkeys really – have large balls and small penises. Except when they are going to mate, then their penises can get quite long. Human males tend to have smaller testicles and larger penises by comparison. Male apes and monkeys need to mate with many females in the short period of time they are in heat, so they need really big balls with lots of semen in them. Also, since apes and monkeys climb in trees and walk on all fours it makes sense for them to have smaller penises, so they don’t get caught in branches and stuff”. We all stare at him “Wow! How do you know so much about penises?” I ask. He shrugs “My mentor used to take me to public lectures. It’s easier to pick pockets, when people are distracted. I picked up a bit of knowledge in the process, I suppose”. He gives me a crocked smile, while Callum says “Wait, what? Pick pockets?”. Mackenzie takes Callums hand and look him into his eyes, and he seems to forget about it again. “So…” I begin “Human penises can be bigger, because you stand up, and they don’t get in the way as much? And you don’t need to mate with many women at one time, so you have smaller balls?”. “Exactly” Vincent says. I try to peek at Max’s crotch, but he covers it fast with his hands. I turn to look at Callums, but MacKenzie gives me a look that dares me not to, so I don’t. I am curious if they were differently sized than Vincent, who has the only penis I’ve ever seen. “I wonder…” Callum begins, his voice a little unsteady “If it has any other consequences to their mating?”. Vincent shrugs “I don’t know. I mean, storks bring human babies, but monkey babies? I just don’t know. Maybe they have different birds here?”. “I saw storks on the savannah” I say helpfully, and Vincent nods “True”. Callum shakes his head with an exasperated look. MacKenzie puts her head on his shoulder, and he leans down to whisper something in her ear. She blushes, smiles and nods. “We are going for a walk” Callum declares, and he drags a smiling MacKenzie with him. Max coughs and smiles, and Vincent and I discuss which birds might carry elephant babies.
The next day Callum seems very cheerful. He says things like “Just a little while longer, and we’ll be there” and “We are setting a good pace” and “We will have this whole thing over with in no time”. If it wasn’t for my resolution to be non violent, I might punch him. MacKenzie is still not quite herself, and I walk next to her for a while, but can’t think of a single thing to say. At some point she takes my hand. Somehow that makes me feel that things are going to be ok. I squeeze her hand, and she smiles at me. After about an hour she says to me “I’ve been thinking. I would like for you to come with me to Strathclyde once we get home. You’ve never been, and I think you’d like it. Lots of rocks. Nothing but rocks, really”. I smile “I would love to go” I say “It sounds wonderful”. Mackenzie goes on telling me about the mountains and lakes of Strathclyde. About the place she grew up and the places she’s been. I think it sound absolutely wonderful! Then we walk on for a while without talking, contemplating the fun we will have, when we get there.
My thoughts turn to Callum and what he said about me being violent. “MacKenzie? Am I violent, do you think?” I ask. “What? Violent, you?” she says surprised “No! Why would you say that?”. I shrug. “Callum said I was very violent, and that I should consider other ways of solving problems”. MacKenzie sputters “You are certainly no more violent than I am!” I squeeze her hand. “I was thinking” I say “That he maybe was right. I will try to solve problems without hitting things. You know, to see if I can”. MacKenzie thinks for a while. Then she nods “I will too. At least we can try! We are not violent, you and I. Violent things happens to us all the time, but we can certainly be non violent”. We nod to eachother. It’s easier when we are two. Helping eachother not to be violent. I don’t know exactly how, but it will come to us. I’m sure!
We walk all day. Late in the day we find an ape turd with a piece of glass in it. We interpret it to mean that the apes were here, and Niall (or Henry) has put the glass in the turd as a sign to us. We are in deed getting close, and we set up camp and start planning. This time we will make a plan that we all know the full extend of, and we will make a net. Nets are better than iron sticks. Nets don’t break sculls..
We never get around to the net making. The next morning both Max and Vincent are a bit under the weather, bad indigestion or something, so we reluctantly leave them behind, leaving them the gun for protection. Max is given leave beforehand to use the zappy gadget if needs be.
We have not walked far when we see a sack hanging way up in a tree. It looks just like the sacks the women and children were in, and when we call to it, it begins to wiggle. With some difficulty I climb up in the tree and cut open the sack. It is Henry! I am so happy to see him! He looks pale and a bit worse for wear, but is otherwise allright. He smells foul, and he is wearing only the pyjamas and a single slipper that the hospital had given him. He’s been fed, he says, so at least he has not starved this past week. He washes and Callum tends to his cut – I accidently nicked him while cutting open the sack.
He tells us of his experiences this past week. How he woke up being put into a sack in his room, how he has been dragged along on the back of a smelly ape, how the apes forcefed him and the others. He has not been able to talk to Niall, since the apes strongly discouraged any conversation – once slapped by an apehand the size of a shovel, you learn to shut up. He also told us that the apes had a sort of ritual each night before they settled in for the night, a ritual that involved a strange sort of religious circular symbol that seemed oddly familiar to him. He thinks it may be some sort of apecult.
In turn we tell him about how the apple had affected us. I am curious about his insights, if he has read anything about it. He says that the Apple supposedly holds the essense of strife and war. No wonder it makes us irritable! He seems unsurprised about the stone affecting me differently than the others, as if he expected it. I must talk more about it with him later.
We take turns finding the way. It’s not hard – the trail goes straight towards the mountains, so it is really just keeping to the right direction. I find a bloodtrail at some point – not much blood, just what might have been a bloodied nose that has been stopped again. I worry that Niall has been hurt, but hopefully it is just that: a bloodied nose. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t occasionally contemplated slugging him myself. But I wouldn’t really. He is MacKenzies brother, and I would never hurt him. Unless he attacked. Callum says it is allright for me to fight, if I am attacked. And that mostly is the only time I fight anyway.
Finally we reach the edge of the jungle. Ahead of us are two mountains and a road leading in between them. A proper road! Well, as proper as a road can be out here in the wilderness. We camp right at the edge of the jungle. None of us want to go into the mountains in the dark. MacKenzie reports in the morning that there was the light from a great fire between the mountains in the night. And torches moving from the mountains to the bonfire. As if many people (or apes) are gathering there for some purpose or other. We discuss what might be going on. I suggest that maybe they will make Niall their king, and he will be safe, and we won’t have to save him after all. Others discuss that he might be a sacrifice of some sort. And until we don’t know if it is one or the other, we had better press on.
The road really had been worked on. It is not just an animal trail, but one that is deliberately cleared and built. Several large rocks have been split to make the road passable. When I touch the stone I can feel the work that had been put into it. I cannot tell if it is the apes or some ancient people that has worked it, but I can feel the toil, the pain and the satisfaction of having done a good job. Henry says he thinks the road is Titan built, but I sense no evil in these rocks. Not like in the hidden city. I tell the others, and forget that Callum is not as comfortable as the other regarding my magic sense. The others are used to it by now, but he looks at me funny – sort of like how Niall looks at me sometimes – and I decide not to say so much to him about my extra sense.
After having walked most of a day we can finally see where we were heading: between the mountains is a valley and in the mouth of the valley there is a pyramid-like temple. Smoke rises from the top of the pyramid, and we can hear drumming. As the darkness falls we can see that a pyre is relit on the top of the pyramid and the drums sound louder and more steady. There is a gate leading into the darkness of the temple – one side of the gate is hanging off its hinges, and the other is lying one the ground, and looks like it has been lying there for years. There is a circular sign over the door, and Henry points it out to us: this is an ancient temple for Athena! The sign is her shield. But how curious is that? A temple way out here in the wilderness, and apes that worship Athena. It is all very strange!
We enter the temple, and find ourselves in a completely dark, and very big room. It is like a shell, and I can almost feel how high above us the ceiling is. How can we ever get to the top of the pyramid? As the fire is there, we are guessing that Niall might be there too. Henry and I slowly cross to the other side of the temple. He whispers to us that if this temple follows the general rules of templebuilding there will be a gate opposite the one we came in of. And there ought to be stairs both inside and outside of the temple leading to the top. But as it is completely dark in here, we can’t know it. And if we do light a fire, we might alarm the apes, and we really don’t want to do that!
Hold that thought… Callum is making sparks with his tinderbox, and I hear MacKenzie say “No! Don’t…” just as he lights a fire in a metal bowl. It lights up the area it stands in. Henry and I race for the shadows. We can see bundles lying along the walls. Some of the bundles are sleeping apes, and some of them starts grunting and waking up. I see MacKenzie moving to the fire in a hurry and she puts it out, and darkness falls once again. But only for a little while, because now large figures with torches enter the room. Their light shows us, what we couldn’t see before: doorways that shows stairs going up. Henry and I run to the one nearest us, and MacKenzie and Callum run to another.
We seem to be climbing the stairs forever. When we are near the top, I spot MacKenzie and Callum climbing towards the same platform we are heading for. I wave at MacKenzie, and Callum reacts by grabbing his rifle and aiming at us. For a peaceful guy opposed to violence he certainly has odd first reactions. Suddenly he slips and if it wasn’t for MacKenzie’s quick reflexes he would certainly have dropped to his death deep below! Henry graps me with one hand while the other hand clutches at his heart. I spend a minute calming him. We continue to the top hand in hand. We meet the others on the platform, and find a way up to the top of the pyramid. We can hear the sound of the drums very loudly, so it’s a good bet, that the apes are right up here. But will Niall be there too?
I sneak up, and I can see apes working to keep the bonfire going, and three large apes each banging a drum. They all seem completely engrossed in performing their tasks. We climb up on the opposite side. I can’t see Niall. The others join me, and from up here we can see that the temple is just a gateway to a circular valley. In the center of the valley there is a round hollow in the ground. It looks a bit like a lake, but there is no glint of water. Maybe it is just a big hole in the ground. We can see figures laden with things enter the pyramid from the outside, putting out their torches as they enter the temple, just to exit the pyramid and enter the valley with slightly fewer things, and relight their torches. They all seem to head towards the center of the valley. There are a lot of apes here! And their behavior is very much like our own, when we enter temples at home: no one enter a temple carrying fire at home either.
It is obvious that Niall is not up here. As is seems like all the apes are moving through the temple and further into the valley, it is a good guess that he is further in as well. The traffic through the pyramid now makes it a poor idea to go down again via the inside stairs, so we begin to climb down on the outside. The steps are larger and steeper, and the going down is slower and more strenous than the going up. Henry steps on a dry branch on the way and make enough noise to alert the apes. They get agitated, making loud noises and hopping about. We hide in cover of the stone steps. MacKenzie takes Callums dented pan and throws it to the other side of the pyramid to distract them, and it works. We hurry down.
We sneak through the darkness towards the center of the valley, where all the apes are. As we get closer I trip over something. A wire of some sort. I touch it and it burns! This is something more irony that iron! More metalic than any other metal! It looks like rope, made of many smaller ropes, but metal. I have never seen anything like this before! Callum says it is not manmade, and I believe him. It is not exactly titan, but it hurts me more than any metal I have ever encountered before. One end is attached to the cliff, while the other end seems to lead into the hole in the center. We follow the wire to the center. We lie on a bluff and can peek down to see what is going on. The apes approach the hole in turn and throw things into the hole while they chant. Callum makes a move to jump into the hole, but we stop him. If we do anything now, we are doomed. The apes will discover us, and even if we get Niall and the other people out of the net, we will never get out of the valley. We have to wait.
We can see more metal ropes – 12 or 14 – leading into the hole. Henry asks me quietly if I would be able to get the wire out of the cliff, and I consider it. If I can move inside the cliff, I could probably loosen the wire. I have never done anything like it, and have no idea if I can. But I am willing to try if it serves our purpose. But so far we don’t know what the wires are for. I wish Max was here – he might have figured it out.
The apes begin to move away from the hole, and when they are all gone, we approach it. It is a perfect circle and like the road it is obviously man made. Nothing would be so perfectly round if time and nature had made it. We can also see what the wires are for: it is a net! All the sacrifices have been thrown into the net over the hole and lie there in great piles. Several sacks in the pile are moving, and with horror we realize that they must be people, and that Niall must be one of them!
Along the edge on the inside of the hole there is ancient writing. Henry tries to decypher it. He read aloud with horror in his voice: “The flowing metal of Athena washes the gifts away…” From deep below we can hear a gentle gurgle. Some metalic liquid is slowly rising and will wash all the sacrifices down into the hole! I cannot touch the metal, but we tie ropes made of torn blankets around Callum and we lower him onto the net. He frantically checks the sacks large enough to hold humans and slash them open. In the first one there is a light skinned native woman. She is too chocked to heed us, when we call out to her. But finally she finds her way over to us, and we pull her out. As soon as she reaches the solid ground she runs away as fast as she can. The sound of liquid from the hole is increasing and a silvery shimmer can be see far, far below. We must hurry! Callum calls out for Niall, and tosses aside sacks with cloth, gold, fruit and whatnot. He reaches another wiggling sack and cuts it open. Niall spills out! He seems confused and weak. A week in a sack has not improved his health at all.
We get him out, as the metal reaches higher. Callum keeps going from sack to sack, desperately looking for more people. Several sacks are moving in the pile. The vapors from the metal makes me dizzy, and Henry calls to us to cover out mouths and noses – the fumes from the metal is toxic. Callum keeps going, and we are all calling to him now to get out of there, before the metal traps him. He looks at all the sacks around him and reluctantly comes over to us, and we drag him to safety. MacKenzie holds on to him, but he wants to go back and save more. He keeps saying that there are more people, and that we must save them. I understand him, but the metal might as well be lava. We cannot go near it. The metal burns and pricks in my throat and in my lungs, and I feel like I have breathed it.
The liquid is lapping over the sacks now, but Henry manages to reach out and pull out a sack near the edge. He cuts it open, and I help him help out a young white man wearing what is left of a uniform. Henry pulls off the soldier’s clothes and shakes it. Drops of metal falls from it. “It is mercury” he says “We have to get it out of his clothes”. I help him. The young man is badly wounded. He has wounds from spear and arrow several places on his body and they are festering. I call out for Callum, but he is arguing with MacKenzie. He is angry with her that she prevented him from saving more people, while MacKenzie cries that she will not watch another person she loves die! “I could have saved more!” he keeps saying. “You can help save this one” I say and point to the soldier “The others are lost by now”. It is true. The mercury has washed over the entire net, and the sacks are flowing to the sides and retreat down with the mercury as it retreats. None of the sacks are moving now. Callum takes a deep breath and sets to work on the soldier.
The horizon is turning purple and we haven’t got long before the sun rises. We hurry through the valley, taking the difficult way around the pyramid in stead of through it, where the apes are probably sleeping by now. In the dawning light we can see that the temple is painted with murals of apes worshipping all the gods we know – Athena being the prominent one. I can tell by Henry’s look that if it wasn’t for the apes he would have loved to stay here and study the place. And I would gladly have kept him company. We do not rest until we have reached the edge of the forrest. Both Niall and the soldier needs the rest, and we have still a long way to go. When night falls we can see the great pyre again, and the rows of torches moving down from the mountains towards the temple and the lake of mercury. The sacrifices are not yet done. But we cannot stay.
In the camp everyone seems a little on edge. There is bickering and complaints. My clothes is itching and I take it off several times to try and shake out the mercury, but there is none. I wish I could just go naked. Everything that touches my skin at the moment makes me itch. But I must endure it. I am not in a company where I can be myself.
The next day we move further into the jungle. Once we find Max and Vincent again we can move faster. I take turns with carrying the soldier. I leave Niall to the others. I feel so odd that I am sure that he can see it. My clothes still itch, and my dreams are full of stone women dancing. I look forward to home and to be far away from the Apple of Strife!
Finally we are back in Kandehar, and Niall and the soldier are tended to in the hospital. I ask Henry for a private talk. I trust him as much as I trust Vincent and Cassie and MacKenzie, and I tell him about my suspicions: that I am not wholly human. He does not seem surprised at all. He has been watching me, and what I tell him only add to his theory that I am probably a descendant of nature spirits. He tells me of spirits of air and water, and when I tell him of my preference for rocks, he says that there are rock spirits too: oneads. Rare, but real. Or they once were real – now as most other mythical creatures they are mostly just stories. He tells me that the Society has always – more or less intentionally – collected or attracted people like me. And in his opinion the Society must soon face a schism and realize that not all magic is evil. Henry has known me since I entered the Society, and has taught me all the theory I know about demons, and he knows that I am not evil. He says that I must know that I have people on my side, and what ever problems I may one day face concerning my nature, I am not alone. The Society that Niall represents is not necessarily the Society that will prevail. And maybe together we can one day change the Society – and Niall’s – mind about magic. I am scared and encouraged both. I am coming to terms with not being entirely human – it certainly does explain a lot – and I know that I have people who love me no matter what. But I fear Niall still. I fear what the Society might do to me. They may not be as sensible or forgiving as Henry think they are. But it may be a chance I will have to take. I must know who and what I am. And I am not alone.
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