If you gaze hard enough, the cavernous ceiling turns into a sky of gold when the orb comes to our level—that’s what Uncle Nate used to say. When the warm light rose to the next level, the golden sky disappeared and the cloak of choking darkness returned. It leaves…like everyone else. The light was her companion like Ally was—was.
Focus, Amalea flicked her skull. She extended the rusty telescope and searched the vast rooftops of the cramped city. Smoke rose from torn wooden and iron roofs and mild screams filled the metropolis; she bit her tongue. Keep looking…
Her eye found the hole of darkness, hiding amongst the outer edges of the city. It was surrounded by torches, like the rest of the outer edges —the Ring of Fire, Nate used to joke. The hole was a tunnel boarded up, a paranoid failsafe in case the twelve-inch thick steel doors couldn’t keep the toxic gas out—or the mutated. An echo of doubt crept into her mind but fell flat against the tightness in her gut. This was it.
The tunnel “protected” them, yet as Amalea left the telescope’s gaze and sucked in the darkness and absorbed glimmers of fires with makeshift lights across the land, she bit a piece of flesh inside her mouth: And I’m vegetarian.
Their trail led her to perch over a derelict rooftop that overlooked the rest of the bottom level, staring into the boarded-up gates of Tartarus. The enraged torches surrounding the hole reminded the girl of one thing: hell. It was the last place where all the girls were seen—the last place where Ally was seen.
It took some squeezing: the only way for someone to unroll their tongue was to offer clean water or scraps of food —but the water was runoff filled with fecal matter and the scraps were protein pudding long past its expiration date. Persuasion paid off: convincing folks of the realization that no matter how obediently they were, the Upper Heavens of Gollum would not investigate the disappearance of dreg girls. Amalea cursed the city. She veered into the telescope at the gated tunnel, letting her mind swim away. Gollum…
Uncle Nate recalled the world above: so clean, so refreshing, and wide that anybody could live anywhere, go anywhere. That the sun rose so high and bright that an entire part of the world could feel its warmth, its light. Warmer than the fires groups of bottom dwellers shared in stone carved alleys and brighter than the artificial sun Helios, that spread warmth to all levels of the underground city. The glass orb always fled after seeing just how far down the bottom level went. Stark buildings filled with gold and jewels suddenly descended into broken-down homes caked with blood and substances it was horrified to see. When it was done undeserving torment, it’d just fly back to the Upper Heavens, leaving the dregs to scrape for themselves.
A clank echoed across the roof, and Amalea jumped. She turned and a rat dashed across the roof, disappearing down a pipe. Ever since Gollum failed to reproduce sizable food for the population, the rodents infested the city, no matter the level. Maybe that’s why they are—were— Nate’s favorite creatures. No matter how hard you try, they will find a way into your world and shatter your comfort. She stared at the rat’s exit, a hand on her dagger, but after moments of silence, her eyes glazed back over to the tunnel. It was the closest to safe as she could get, high up, away from the thieves or ones tired of protein pudding.
Ghostly hands tickled the back of her neck; the wind was in the past, only the still hot air of sweat, rot, and mildew filled the stone-carved atmosphere. The sensation meant two things: either she didn’t get enough sleep in her tent in that soggy alley, or someone—something was following her.
Not enough sleep. I was too careful. Left no trace, she told herself, but the doubt in her mind grew. Ask enough questions and people start to notice—people desperate enough and who will do anything to shut you up. Her doubt grew more—the shadow she saw blur across a rooftop earlier turned into something else— how its green glimmer of light turned into eyes. Nothing was that fast, not a human and not even mutated. No one’s seen those things in years, not since The Golem Guard was founded. But—
The Guard can't search everywhere. They can’t search the tiny pockets and cracks of caves that can house things. Things that could be—
Amalea flicked her skull. Not enough sleep…definitely not enough sleep. Her eyes grew heavy, so heavy…
Red hair, green eyes, and a freckled smile…
“Ally!” she called out loud. Silence responded. Amalea’s grip tightened on the old souvenir. It's not too late…just hold on Ally. Amalea’s doubt scraped her brain.
Ally is careful. Nobody could have snuck up on her—if she wasn’t high. She was older, could fight—if she wasn't going through a relapse. She wouldn’t be stupid enough to trust anybody—unless they were a friend. A sister.
“Should have stayed at the orphanage,” Amalea whispered to the air. Should have done a lot of things…like warn Uncle Nate about his words and who could be listening. Maybe he’d still be walking, with his ears, tongue, and eyes still with him and not in some cannibal's belly. Blood swam in Amalea’s mouth as she bit down.
Cannibals go for legs, arms, stomach but ignore things—like eyes. They also don’t leave a body to be found.
See no evil…hear no evil…
“Speak no evil,” Amalea recited her Uncle’s words on her lips. Amalea’s eyes swelled with tears. Through hot lips, she sneered up at the gaping hole of light slowly fading away as Helios disappeared to another layer of the cavern. Someday…someday someone will stand up—strong enough to tear through the Golem Guard. Someone smart enough to realize that putting an explosive on a reactor and sending it up to the Governor sounds good on paper but leads to a massive muck up.
She swallowed coppery spit. Fire isn't enough. Obliteration could be—like the ancestors before us, atom-splitting could work. Or gas. Amalea glared at the closed-off tunnel. But we’d be where we belong and where we’re stuck at: in the ground.
He’s coming…he’s coming…
Amalea shooed Nate’s words away. She flicked her skull until it stung like a hot needle on her skin. Ally was all that mattered, not some myth passed from old men to crazy people. There was no Defeater, just like there wasn’t a Buddha or Jesus—if there was, I wouldn’t be stuck hundreds of feet below the ground.
Amalea stared into the telescope and her heart bounced; a dark figure approached the tunnel and shed away the boards and chains that kept Tartarus closed. Blood rushed to her skin as the figure typed something on a keypad and the wide gates shuddered open. Amalea’s mouth fell—then the needle sunk into her neck.
Her body turned to jelly and before she could turn and grip her blade, pairs of beastly hands wrapped around her limbs. A demonic hand muffled her screams.
“Subject seems to be in acceptable condition,” a dark monotone voice shook her ears. Amalea was staring into blackness. Was she back at the alley, under her tent? Her ears searched the space: a light humming. Her skin scanned the air: no damp air of sweat and drunken laughter, and no stifling odor of sewer runoff from higher levels. She was shivering. A cold surface slapped her back and flung her eyes open. White light burned her sockets and she blinked away blurry vision to see a shape.
“Subject is no older than any of the previous ones. Late adolescence to early teens. Unlike other subjects, this one seems to be free of hallucinogens and any other debilitating variables. The subject seems to only be a victim of malnutrition and lack of sleep. Otherwise…” the voice trailed off. The figure turned and skulked towards her. It leaned forward and Amalea caught a whiff of scalding chemicals.
Her lungs seized and her nostrils whined. Her vision cleared and regretted its recovery; the man was porcelain-skinned with shriveled emaciated skin and what took the place of eyes were milky lenses sunk into eye sockets. A respirator-like mask was scalded to his face that clicked and ejected twin canisters that spewed out mist. He raised the recorder to his face. “She’s perfect.”
Amalea exploded upwards, but her limbs didn’t respond; she stared down at straps. A metallic hand glossed over her face. “Shhh!” the man said with a cold machine-like voice. His mask clicked and shifted gas. Amalea’s throat did a somersault as the smell riddled through her mind until a faint memory made it painfully to the surface.
Some people, when exposed to the toxic gas change… Nate’s voice rang in her mind as the man turned away.
“It has been 73,436 days since the cataclysm. Since the weapons were administered on civilians and the world has changed…”
Seventy—what? Amalea’s head swam, her focus gripping at a transparent string of memory. Some people could live longer…do things nobody else can...
“Nate? Nate!” Amalea called for the ghost.
The man turned around. “Subject could be experiencing some form of hallucinations, possibly due to the sedative. Note to decrease dosage prior to the examination,” he said.
Amalea was back in a run-down building, lightbulbs flickering as she ducked through a demolished door and then her world collapsed again. A cold body on a dirty floor —dried blood pooled where his ears were supposed to be. Nothing but a gaping mouth and crimson sockets.
Amalea sobbed, the past meeting her once again. Red hair, green eyes, a freckled smile…
“Where is she?” the girl twisted and yanked on the table. “WHERE IS SHE?” she screamed. Her shrilling crashed into the open air and Amalea pulled and pounded the table. She shrieked until her throat felt like pummeled meat and her muscles sunk in defeat. Heavy steps clattered closer, then the man hovered above her; he nodded. He tilted his head as soft clicking erupted from his mask. His shoulders bobbed and he patted his chest before taking a raspy breath then turned back to his recorder.
“Subject seems to be suffering from a temporary episode of distress,” The masked doctor said.
“Where’s Ally? “ Amalea pleaded through her raw throat. The man turned and stared down at her. Lifeless eyes searched her face until Amalea spat in his face. He calmly wiped away the saliva, then continued on with his recording.
“Subject 337 could be referencing Subject 336. A reminder to implore the hired help to expand the field of search for subjects.”
336? 336 subjects. 336 girls? But only twelve were reported!
Girls…like me? Like Ally?
“Where’s subject 336?” Amalea asked staring murder into the doctor. She viewed her surroundings: a clean, chrome room with strange instruments scattered around the space, including a work table with glinting objects idly waiting. Amalea’s eyes widened: a few were small, with sharp tips, and another was a scalpel, small enough to hide in her boot in case any cannibals roamed around the alley.
The man turned and walked over to her. “Subject 336 showed no results to the dosage and was concluded as unsuccessful,” he responded then continued back to his machine. “I improved the dosage, increasing the antibodies. After examining Subject 337’s DNA I have found a remarkable discovery. Due to the conditions of Subject 337, I am optimistic about the results. Perhaps finally…after all this time a cure can be revealed!”
Information rang in Amalea’s mind. An old book Uncle Nate gifted her—one from long before the war and the toxic clouds invaded the surface—a page… Antibodies…proteins used by the immune system to find infection and other foreign objects.
Like a virus.
The lifeless scientist carted the work table over and pressed a cold hand over Amalea’s arm. She struggled against the man, but he pressed down and her muscles froze. He searched her arm, flicking and tapping until he found a vein. He wiped the vein, then searched the table of instruments until he found his tool. Amalea’s blood turned to ice: the needle glinted under the light.
“Do not worry subject. Your contributions will vastly provide a benefit to humanity than the others.” The man raised the needle to Amalea’s forearm. She struggled but he had an abnormal grip, not calloused greasy hands like the traitors that took her or smooth like the straps binding her, but cold, lacking in humanity, —monstrous. Etchings of pain erupted on the surface of her skin.
Then the room went dark. Was she back in the city, under the rocky ceiling that entrapped her? No, the cold hand of the doctor was wrapped around her frail arm. His chilling breath stopped. The light returned, blinking in and out, undecided—a cry cut outside the room.
The doctor turned, then pounced towards the double doors; Amalea was alone. Howls of agony alongside miniature explosions—gunshots— shook the room. Chaos drew closer: Amalea’s skin tingled.
Amalea twisted against her straps until the doctor blasted through the doors, his white coat stained with red. He gasped for air, scurrying across the room looking for something until he pulled out a pistol then aimed it towards the door. Amalea contorted her head towards the doors.
The lights died; raspy mechanical breathing stuttered unintelligible words. Icy feathers ran up the girl’s legs. She twisted her neck and a glint of green escaped her eyes. The shrouding darkness morphed into a memory: A blur of green glinting over a rooftop. The imaginings of sleep deprivation?
He’s coming…he’s coming…
“You won’t get that hand back,” the darkness said. Amalea froze.
The doctor’s voice quivered. “I was— I was only saving us! ALL OF US,” he roared as a cold breeze entered; Amalea’s nose burned. The scent of harsh chemicals drifted with the wind; cold air ran over Amalea’s legs, then her arms. Her restraints fell to the ground.
“You had your chance. All of you did.”
She searched the darkness, following the breeze, tracing the smell and voice. When exposed to the gas, change…
The incandescent lights flickered and the doctor screamed. A gunshot cracked the darkness. The air hissed, and something clattered to the floor. Light blanketed the room and when Amalea turned, her world shifted.
A towering hooded figure stood over the doctor. The doctor’s milky eyes widened as he clenched his missing limb. Dark liquid dripped off a blade; the figure turned and his glowing emerald eyes shifted into the young girl. He turned back to the doctor. Amalea’s thoughts were a tornado, nerves told her to flee but her legs became stone.
“I was only…trying to…,” the doctor trailed off. “You have no comprehension of what you’re doing! They’ll be waiting for you! You’ll never get to The Upper-” the doctor said before the blade sunk into his chest.
The tunnel door opened to a world outlined by fire. The ring of torches outlining Gollum hid The Defeater in shadow, as he nudged the girl forward; Amalea stood motionless and she searched the deep shadows until she found twin jade orbs glinting at her.
“You came,” she whispered.
“No. Not yet,” the disembodied voice said. A metallic hand clattered in front of her. “I have your scent. Watch…listen…then I will find you…tell them.”
Amalea clasped the amputated hand; his jade eyes faded away.
“Tell them what?” she asked searching into blackness, but empty air remained.
Amalea turned and stared up at the city. In the distance, towards the center, where carved rock led to the heaven so many other bottom dwellers dreamed of seeing shimmered. Helios was coming—something else too.
He’s coming…The Defeater is coming.