(Go back to Part 2)
“For in the dead of the night, as the Ancients labored in vain to create the Elixir of Life, Death’s servants had come and whispered secrets in the ears of their sages.
He had given them the final knowledge and made the Elixir whole. And so they were deceived; The Elixir of Life was actually the Elixir of Death.
And so Death looked upon the plans of the Ancients to overthrow him, and laughed. And then he punished them for their arrogance.”
–The Lexicon, Leviathans 3:8
The ruins were not easy to get to. Alex took a narrow farmer’s track as far as she could, then crossed a half-dozen fields to reach the edge of the forest. She tied Brutus to a tree just inside the woods, hopefully out of sight of any prying eyes, before plunging into the deep brush. A deer track led her deeper into the forest, stray vines clinging to the end of her scabbard as the sword swung on her hip. It was there, just in case, although a sword would be little help against the Ancients.
The deer track reared and plunged for a mile or two before finally spilling out into a gravel depression with a trickle of water running down the center of it. Dalia said this was the old river bed, and before the Plague, the ruins had been beside the river that now flowed through Goodhollow. When the Ancients fought the Plague, their weapons had changed the shape of the land, rerouting the river to the West.
Or at least, that’s what Dalia had told her. Alex didn’t know how that could be possible, and she privately doubted her friend’s theory. If the Ancients had been that powerful, how could they have been defeated by the Plague? It didn’t make sense to her.
Regardless, the easiest way into the ruins was along the old riverbed, tangled and choked with brush as it was. Alex found signs of their passing from the day before, and sticking to the rough trail carved the day before made the going a little easier.
She paused after an hour, her heart pounding. It wasn’t the physical exertion that had her breaking out into a cold sweat; she was nervous about approaching the ruins. She’d been excited and slightly scared the day before, but not like this. What was wrong with her?
“It’s because yesterday Dalia was here, telling you that she knew exactly what to be afraid of,” said Alex out loud, just to hear the sound of her own voice. The forest had no reply besides the continued chatter of birds above her in the foliage. “And now she’s, well . . .”
Alex was not reassured.
She pushed on. The season’s first layer of fallen leaves crunched underfoot; most of the trees were turning bright shades of flame by now. Another few minutes passed before she reached the bridge.
And then, there it was, materializing out of the trees in front of her. She’d reached the ruins.
The bridge loomed over the riverbed, wider and flatter than any of the bridges on the new road through Goodhollow. The huge steel beams were the color of dried blood, scaly with rust and twisted by time, but they still held their position atop a trio of cracked concrete piers. The roadway was nearly gone, crumbling to nothing between the supports and heaped below in piles of rough gray rubble. A trickle of water seeped through the blockage; Alex remembered from the day before that it was backed up in a scum-covered pool on the other side.
She stopped and listened for a moment. Although Alex knew that this would give her fear another chance to get the better of her, it was foolish to barge into the ruins without at least taking a moment to make sure she was alone. She listened, but there was nothing. Even the birds were silent; all she could hear was the soft rush of the breeze through the turning leaves.
Alex shook herself and pushed her fear back down in her gut where it belonged. It was a steep climb up the riverbank, and she clambered up on all fours to street level.
Cracked, ruined blacktop ran back form the bridge, giving her a clear line of vision through the entire cluster of buildings. The road split on the far side before disappearing entirely into the darkness of the forest. Brick buildings lined either side, empty windows and doors gaping with shards of broken glass. Most of the roofs were collapsed inward, while vines and creepers covered the walls of the buildings that hadn’t been split apart by the probing roots of young trees. Only a few of the structures were anything more than wrecks.
Alex paused in front of one of the relatively intact buildings. Dalia pointed it out the day before; it was a shop, she said. Through the empty window they could see artifacts buried beneath collapsed shelving units. They didn’t go inside, but Dalia had pointed out a few artifacts that she recognized from her reading.
“That one,” she said, “that’s for cooking. It toasts bread.”
“Really?” asked Alex.
“Yeah, you cut bread up really thin, and then you stick it in the slots and it cooks it.”
“Where’s the fire?”
Dalia laughed at her. “The Ancients didn’t need fire for that!”
“That sounds practical. Can we use it?”
“Doesn’t work now.”
The largest building in the ruins was at the end of the street, fit into the gap where the road split. It was three stories tall and made of finer brick than the other buildings, but the third story had collapsed down into the second one. The doors and windows were missing, and thick green leaves spread from the vines that snaked out of the openings to bask in the early autumn sunlight. Alex pushed the branches of a young sapling aside and slipped inside the building.
It was dark inside. A few holes in the floor above allowed for a bit of illumination, but it wasn’t really enough to show the space. Alex picked her way through rusted bed frames and overturned vending machines to the back where the stairs were.
This is where Alex remembered Dalia falling. It was on the way down, so Alex climbed the concrete stairs to the second floor and tried to picture what had happened.
The first floor was an impenetrable black void from the top of the stairs. Alex closed her eyes, remembering. It must’ve been the third or fourth step—Dalia had been front of her, going back down after finding nothing of value on the second floor. She’d slipped as the lip of the stair crumbled underfoot, and Alex had caught her by the arm before she slid all the way down.
Her other arm, though . . . that must be the one that Joseph was talking about. Maybe Dalia had landed on it, trying to break her fall. Alex crouched down and began scanning the steps.
They were clean. Not free of debris, of course, but it was all loose stones and dirt—nothing sharp. Alex put on the leather glove and sorted through the debris on the first step. She found nothing, and went on to the second, the third, the fourth . . . she went as far down as she could go before it got too dark to see.
Alex looked back up the steps from the darkness of the first floor. There was no way Dalia had hit anything this far down.
She retraced her steps, examining in reverse this time, but still not finding anything sharper than a few rough hunks of concrete. She checked the walls, the vertical sides of the steps, and sifted the debris again.
Finally she stood up, back sore from stooping for so long, and examined a jagged piece of concrete in the palm of her glove. It was the only possible thing that Dalia could’ve scraped herself on . . . she couldn’t imagine how something so innocuous could make her friend so sick, but that was for Joseph to figure out. Alex put it in the bag and closed the zipper.
The single, sharp shriek of a raven overhead nearly made Alex jump out of her skin in terror. It shattered the still afternoon with a single cry, and then was silent. Cursing her frayed nerves, Alex dropped down and tucked the bag in her pocket. She eased down the stairs, slowly, and worked her way around the inside of the first floor until she was near the front of the building. She eased her head up over the window ledge, remaining as hidden in shadow as possible, checking for movement outside.
The ruins were still deserted. Not a single living creature moved as far as she could see. Even the bird that had spooked her was gone. She took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall.
“Goddammit, Alex, get it together already!”
Alex left the way she came in, down the street to the bridge, one hand on the hilt of her sword the whole time. No more noisy birds broke the dead hush of the ruins. All she heard was the breeze whistling through the empty windows and cracked glass storefronts.
At the foot of the bridge, a fragment of memory stopped her cold.
Dalia had slipped here, too, on her way down the steep slope into the riverbed. She hadn’t said anything to Alex about it, and it was only a momentary stumble, but the image flashed through Alex’s head clear as day. She paused and bent down.
Jammed between loose stones and the edge of the bridge abutment, something poked up a few inches from the soil. It looked like a branch, stripped of bark and shattered in a nasty break, although it hadn’t splintered like wood usually did. Alex crouched and started to dig around it.
Soon it was loose. Heeding Joseph’s advice, Alex slipped the glove back on and grasped the branch with one hand. She tugged once—it was still stuck. She wiggled it back and forth a few times, and then tugged again. It came loose.
“Goddamn,” she whispered to herself.
Alex was not holding on to a branch. She was holding on to the top half of a human femur, cracked and splintered in the center as though its owner’s thigh had been torn in half. The socket and ball joint was still whole, dirty and yellowed but obviously human. She felt strangely calm despite the grisly find.
Alex put the bone into the bag with the chips of concrete. Hopefully Joseph would know what to do with it.
(Continue: Part 4)