The raven flies for about one hour, leaving the shore and its ancient ships behind, together with their broken dreams and promises. On the upside, it’s leaving behind the murderous seagulls and the dangerous arrows as well. As luck would have it, ravens are far more common on the interior of the land, so it will meet with far fewer prying eyes.
In fact, the spot it is now encroaching does seem bereft of any form of life, the trees slowly giving way to shrubs, the shrub to grass, the grass to grey dust. The air smells foul – a sort of acrid taste that makes the raven hesitate. Its wings flutter against the coming wing, and it starts to fly in a wide circle, giving the black structure rising from the sand a wide berth.
There lay a black vastness of what might look to it like black rock, but the will guiding its flight knows it is something else, something just as ancient as the stoneships, and much more dangerous. From the sand short towers rise, looming drunken over the twisters of dust, their surfaces smooth and glinting with the remains of sunlight.
No one and no body and no thing comes here.
The fumes and the smell feel stronger and stronger now, to the point that the raven’s wings feel tired now. Its throat burns, and there’s an unpleasant feeling in its stomach.
The will pushes it forward – flying closer to the edge of the black structure. It’s filled with holes and mouths and broken bubbles of material that burst into the open air. Rackets of metal and stone, the old-fashioned grey kind rise from its surface, spindly and silver like trees caught in a lava flow.
The raven falls from the air.
It flaps its wings, uselessly. Its mind swims, unable to gain purchase.
Once more, its pupils flash white and the will takes over its wings, making them flap against the foul, searing winds coming from the immobile, black carcass. The raven glides, stupefied, lower and lower, away from whatever it is making its heart bump so fast it is about to burst. Quick and away, lower and lower, until it touches the sand, stumbles, stops belly-up, the wings open as if in prayer.
The will leaves it alone, but it does not rise, laying in the sand as it tries to gather a modicum of strength.
Meanwhile, the intelligence behind it wonders what might have caused such an effect. She expected it wouldn’t be easy, but to lose control like that and so suddenly…
No. She will have to find another way, if she ever wants to find answers.
For the time being, she looks at the structure. It looks like it is slowly melting from the inside. As it burns, it releases some kind of noxious fumes into the air, and that has caused the raven to fall ill. She can clearly see the long-term effects of living close to the burning corpse.
There exist only faint legends of what it might have looked like once, shortly before the Capsizing, when the people from the Land Beneath The Tide, whose descendants the raven has just escaped from. A giant of lost materials and craftmanship, the last facility that could birth living dolls that could pass as human.
The ruins of the last Hearthwomb.
The raven caws, feeling its strength come back to its tortured body. It slowly stands up one leg, taking a few jumpy steps away from the colossal ever-burning corpse behind it. Then it flaps its wings and it is airborne once again, flying up and away, from the monstrosity that lays there in a desert of its own making.
From up there, and now that both its eyes and those of the intelligence behind it have understood the danger this structure poses, it flies in a slow circle, noticing more remains of a civilization that has long-since moved, littering its houses and streets and towers as they puncture the desert. Fragments of walls and masonry baked by the sun and the unerring foul glow that comes from the Hearthwomb. White bones peeking from the sand: birds and predators and human beings, perhaps struck by fancy of discovery, like her. Or maybe just unlucky. They now cover the ground and there is not a thing that can pick them, save for the wind – but even the wind seems to be afraid of reaching for the Hearthwomb.
It seems like it did not go bad all at once. Maybe the mysterious innards that are now busy burning up held up for a time. Or maybe Anthilians tried to make it work again, or to repair it, even though the knowledge and tools were now a pale shadow of what they used to be – and they made it worse.
The will does not know which of these might be the better hypothesis.
At any rate, the raven feels better. It does also look better.
She can feel the beginning of hidden tumoral growth from inside its bloodstream, but that is dark fruit that will take years to ripen, and she does not have need of the raven for years.
It just has to be able to fly back and give her everything it sees – just one report after another.
It managed to reach the stoneships and she has seen them for the first time. Maybe, if her plan works as intended, one day she will be able to see them with her very eyes.
But for the time being, she has a lot more things to see. Her mind moves now to the shores of the Black Lake, where the capital of the Anthilians rests. She now understands why the legends of dark-skinned living dolls who could jump to the height of a tower, learn a library’s content in one day or bind everyone’s heart to one cause are just stories strung along by hope and memory.
The raven lets out one final shrill caw in defiance to the burning corpse of the Hearthwomb, and to all its secrets, forever buried inside its foul innards.
And she can rest a little easier, knowing at least another piece of her puzzle fell into place.
Author’s Notes: thanks for reading.