As a weird comet descends upon the People of the Rail-Caves, they get ready to find either doom or treasure inside. Meanwhile, the comet’s own occupant gets ready to complete her mission…
They came out from every hole to watch the dead star fall.
The Elders had deemed it a bad omen and they had ordered three days of sacrifices.
The People had collected one tenth of all their rice, grown in the water-sleds inside their glass houses, and burned it on the outside to the Woman of the Forest, may She look otherwise.
When that did not work, they issued everyone to cover their faces with twigs and strings of hollow bones, so that the tinkling sound might scare the bad spirits away.
They had danced and howled around the burning furnace, rising their thunder staves to the ceiling of the rail-caves, where the paintings of the Old World could still be seen, those promising A Safe Voyage For Everyone and Trains On Time, Every Day.
But after that, all they got was burning a good chunk of their winter rations, and a lot of sore calves.
And on the seventh night, the dead star fell right besides them.
She had dreamed long.
Maybe she would never know how much. And she remembered part of it only because she was now waking up.
She had been standing in a hallway, pulling up her sleeve for the first round of injections. Her heart was beating so hard. So many things could go wrong.
But with the Forest advancing from every side, what else could mankind do?
So they had transferred the volunteers in space laboratories.
Even the arm of the Queen of Thorns couldn’t reach them up there.
She would get useful to the cause.
She dreamed of fire.
And now she woke up surrounded by it.
The Elders swung and clattered their hollow staves, pointing at the streak of fire as it cleaved the night in two. A rumble like a firebomb echoed through their hearts and their heads and a flash like the day reborn.
As the tremors subsided and darkness came back to rule over all, they pointed and marveled at the column of crimson fire rising up in the sky.
Some of the Elders wanted to leave the thing alone.
But others remembered that sometimes dead stars could be full of treasures. That the gods of Heaven found creative ways to gift believers.
And that any tool would be literal god-send for the Winter that approached.
Carrying their storm-staves with them, the People’s Guard, covered with recovered ceramic armor from the Old World, marked by sacred oils and carrying the precious horns and twigs blessed by the Elders, so that with their faces and visages they could scare the bad omen, proceeded towards the impact site. And their shadows seemed to dance behind them.
What was going on? She shrieked, trying to stand up as the capsule careened towards the ground. But the fire did not burn her even as it licked her skin and sparked around her. Blinking, she touched the white-hot potassium flames and her skin absorbed them, turning black like jet. A feeling like an injection of searing serum ran through her veins – as if they had been filled with lava. It had worked! The experiments, the trials, all the pain and procedures she had endured… they meant something! And now she was falling back onto the Earth.
She’d have to get back to work at once. Who knew how much the Fae forces had advanced in her absence?
The ground was getting closer and closer and clos-
The Elders waited and hollered on a nearby hill – the People’s Guard surrounded the crashing site from all sides, their storm-staves crackling in blue lightning. The impact had created a burning crater, a ring of vitrified ground from which something was bubbling back onto life.
It looked like a cracking egg. And something was coming out of it.
Not a good omen.
Oh, not one bit.
The Elders hollered and chanted harder.
The impact has been harder than she expected.
She could feel her broken bones. She looked down – through a patina of red mist – to see her arms hanging off her torso, her skin molten like glowing magma, black and red and burning bright.
She tried to talk and only a scream came out. Her vocal cords had gone lost in the impact. Her new powers seemed to have protected her, but they had also…
She growled, kicking against the capsule’s door.
She had to get out.
She had to get out and do what she had been made for.
She had but one purpose.
To burn the Forest to the ground.
That much was easy to recall.
The top of the egg blew off in a great bloom of flame and something poured out of it. It might have been human once, but its skin and flesh hung in rivulets, glowing crimson and brighter than the fumes, stark against the fires of the impact. The thing groaned and hissed and sparked like flame itself, and deep-set lamps were its eyes, and a furnace its mouth. It stood on two legs, making the ground sizzle and spurt in quick bursts of sparks.
The People’s Guard stood their ground. They did not flee before the Dark Ones that came from the forest in Winter, they would not flinch before the dead star.
The thing growled, and its burning eyes set onto their weapons – and their crowns, and their blessed jewels. It was evidently scared.
She did not recognize the targets. They looked like human beings, but human beings did not cover themselves in masks of straw and wood and did not go around with strings of bones and twigs wrapped around their heads.
That was what Fae did.
She knew what she had to do.
She roared and rose in a tall plume of flame and molten rock.
That night, the People’s Guard fought their most terrible enemy. The thing attacked viciously, launching bouts of flaming rock at them, whipping their bodies with fire and screaming so hard it made their ears bleed.
It tore through their defenses and it killed all the Elders, save those few that had remained in the rail-caves.
It dashed past the Guard, even though with each attack it lost a piece of itself, turning from a bitter and tall burning crest to a sludge barely as tall as a man. It did not stop even then, reaching almost the outer perimeter of the Caves.
The border patrols and the reservers had to come out and shoot at the thing until it bled every single drop of its cursed burning blood.
It never stopped screaming.
And that was the night when the People stopped going out.
Verna let go of the terrified old man, who stumbled back on his knees and began to pray in his mother tongue, a mixture of, she judged, Dalmatian dialects that had somehow survived the wreckage of the world. As he slipped through her grasp, she savored the last bits of the memories she had pilfered from his mind.
These people had found refuge in an ancient railway station. The old tunnels and galleries allowed them respite from the Tide and some manner of defense against the Forest.
But she did not come here for them.
She proceeded downhill, towards a spot where beneath the grass strange grey stones could still be seen.
She lifted her arms and rock fragments floated about. She turned a few of them around, searching for a sign. She found it at last in a deformed, molten skull.
“Hmmm,” she clicked her tongue, passing her finger over the burnt bone. The tale the Threads told her from the remains did align with the fantastical record of fear and pain from the sky she had just received, but put it under another light.
A failed attempt.
A scared survivor.
And a tragedy decided since the start.
She let go a long, tired sigh.
This was the most promising of the fourteen capsules she had tracked down so far.
None of them had contained anything even remotely useful.
But she knew it was just a matter of time.
She had Seen it.
A smile creased her face.
She just had to keep searching.
One of these cracked eggs contained the gift she craved.
Pic by D.ee
Author’s Notes: I just had another long and quite miserable day. I hope you still liked this short set in the Patina universe. Thanks for reading.