The moment the “lunch warden” shouted, “Plates up!” the mess hall erupted into a clamor of rushing people. Tweedy showed them the way out and immediately took his place as the tour guide.
“There are several parts, or wards, of the Axon,” Tweedy said walking backwards. “This part of the Axon contains two parts, the military sect and the slums, and isn’t that large. The Sect, as we call it, is where we are now. There’re only the horse stables, the smithy, the leather tanner’s place, the weapons master, who isn’t my favorite much, and the tavern.
“The guards pretty much have taken the tavern over so there really isn’t a reason to go there. Unless you’re one looking to make trouble.” He made a turn leading them into another part of the garrison.
“Why would they want to go to the tavern anyway?” Swish asked ever so glumly.
“Maybe they just want to Swish. Is it such a crime?”
“It’s a dirty filthy place where people go to drown their sorrows away in booze.”
“That may be true, but the tavern just so happens to be a rectified building in this god forsaken place, and I did promise a tour so I will mention it. Besides, isn’t it wise that we warn the newcomers of any dangers they may chance upon here in this Axon?”
When Swish rolled her eyes, Tweedy continued , “Anyways, there are three garrisons, one for each commander. Commander Bastōn, Commander Stratuss, and Commander Ellison. Rules are that recruits under a certain commander stay within the garrison meant for that commander. Anyone caught within a garrison that is not their own will be severely punished.”
“I’d think you’d be a fool to try anyway,” Rebekka commented. She was studying the tall wall that stood beside the garrisons. It probably rose three persons high and there was no guessing its thickness.
“Yes, it would be a fool’s errand, but I heard there were a few who tried. Just through here is the square of announcements.” The five of them passed through the arched gates of the garrison into the square.
It was a lovely day to be outside. The blue skies were dotted with fat fluffy white clouds. The air was clear and warm, reminding Rebekka of the times there would be late summer harvests. That’s when a realization struck her. Why was it warm when they were in the lower midlinds? She came up with several possibilities but settled upon the conclusion that the Axon’s weather was magically altered.
“I’m pretty sure anyone who went to the orientation, which was everyone, would know that this is in fact the square of announcements,” Tweedy continued, “but I’ll tell you something you don’t know.” He looked around, most likely for dramatic purposes, and brought his voice down low. “They also hold executions here.”
“They do!” Mason exclaimed in surprised horror.
“It’s rumored.” Swish put in.
“Swish!!” Tweedy protested.
“You keep interrupting!”
“Fine, I’ll stop.” But then she muttered with a grin. “If you’re going to be such a baby about it.”
“Call me what you like. All that I’m saying is that it’s rude to interrupt.” Though he had said this casually, his ears had become red. “Anyway, up the way, past those archways, is the fountain.”
“There’s a fountain?” Mason asked.
“Yeah, I found that strange too. What would a fountain be doing in a place like this? There’s even someone to clean it every few days….”
“Is he always this way?” Rebekka asked Swish.
Swish sighed, and replied, “Yep. Always so optimistic about the here, now, and later. N-not that it’s a bad thing… It’s just that I wish he would sometimes see things for how they truly are. This is an Axon. We’re sure to die here soon.”
Beside her, Thumble grumbled.
“Well, what do you want me to say. It’s true.”
Thumble frowned down a disapproving eye at her.
“Alright so it’s not completely true but it’s a very probable outcome. I’m only saying that people should look at the real facts instead of relying on what-ifs.”
“Um, big sister,” Tweedy interjected with a lifted finger, “You are interrupting my tour once again.” Mason giggled at this and the two continued their conversation.
“Tour?? What tour?” Swish muttered steaming. “He isn’t even blabbing about this or that and that or this to anyone anymore. And we’ve stopped.”
It was true; Tweedy had stopped the tour by the fountain. At the moment he was showing Mason something about the fountain’s composition.
“It’s alright,” Rebekka replied. “I understand that this was his way of trying to get to know Mason.”
Swish’s permanent frown deepened. “It’s that obvious huh?”
“’tis the way of men and boys coming of age.”
“Well, I do have to admit, Mason is the first girl who’s actually shown interest in him.” This was so true even Thumble had to nod his agreement. “Eventually after a few minutes of talking to him, they end up running away.”
Mason burst out in a fit of laughter that Tweedy joined.
“Wonder why? He seems to be funny.”
Swish shrugged. “My little brother is strange in his own way. At one point he’s talking about a hunting trip, the next about how he heard a man get disfigured by eating a certain purple fungus and then that’ll lead to why he doesn’t where purple socks on a hunting mission.”
“Sounds like he’s a superstitious one to me.”
Swish stretched her hands out in front of her. “You have no idea.”
She crossed her arms again and sat on the fountain’s wall. In the square, there weren’t many people. Around the fountain there were even fewer, and those present were mainly guards loitering about. If Rebekka wouldn’t have known any better, she would’ve thought they were taking a small break in a pleasant, quiet centre of a well-guarded town.
“It all started when we were just kids,” Swish said causing Rebekka to turn her attention to her. “The superstitions.”
“What happened?” Rebekka asked.
“If you asked him, he wouldn’t want to talk about it. And if I were him, I wouldn’t either, but that’s the difference between us. I talk about the bad and he talks about the good.”
“If it is sad, you do not have to tell me.”
“It is sad, but if acquaintances are made I think you should at least know how we got here. It is better to know a person by both the good and the bad they have come across.”
“Well said.” Rebekka dipped her head in a nod to continue.
“We were separated from our parents in the village we lived in. It was his first day of school and I was going to show him around and tell him the rules. But a fire started somewhere, and the village chief had to evacuate. Tweedy and I got on a ferry and sailed to another neighboring village. More ferries were sent out, but our parents weren’t on any of them.
“A few days later, the village was attacked. Our providence was at war with two others. None of us knew this, but we suffered all the same. The people of our village and so many like ours fled and escaped out into other more peaceful providences, but we never found our parents among them. We searched for years after that, met Thumble along the way, and then the Invasion happened. Out of one war into another, but this time we happened to get caught up in it all….”
She moved her gaze to the shimmering water of the fountain.
“Tweedy believes in luck, but I know luck only gets you so far. Eventually you have to face what hardships life throws at you. I just hope we don’t find all of that hardship here, where they are the worst.”
“Was it luck or was it hope?” Rebekka asked. “Is it superstition or expectation? Often we use the good to combat the dark and evil that lurks in the world and in our minds, whether we can physically hold that good or if it comes from inside us. Often we do this, but in ways we cannot interpret or perceive.”
Swish thought about Rebekka’s words for several moments.
“You know,” she finally said, “you’re not bad for an older person.”
“Older person? I’m not too much older than you are.”
“But it’s noticeable.”
Again, Thumble grumbled. Swish’s head snapped to him.
“What? Not true.”
Thumble grumbled a response which made Swish turn her nose up at him.
“Still doesn’t make it true,” she said and saw Rebekka watching the interaction.
“He said that I’ve made a new friend and it’s surprising because I only do that almost never. He’s exaggerating. I have lots of friends… or used to years ago….” Thumble cleared his throat expectantly. “Okay so I’m not the friendliest person in the world! It’s not my fault that Tweedy’s the outgoing one and I’m not.”
If Swish was going to say something more, it was interrupted by a bellowing horn-like roar. It wasn’t like anything Rebekka heard before, but she felt that it was familiar. After the roar had ended, the air was still with silence.
“What was that?” Tweedy asked.
Without warning, Rebekka felt a sharp pain in her left shoulder, the shoulder she was bitten on by Acidine. Right then she knew why that roar had sounded familiar.
“Acidine,” she whispered and bolted into a run.
“Rebekka! Wait where are you going!” she heard Mason call after her.
She couldn’t tell where her legs were taking her or why her mind was driving her the way it was. She was just… running. She ran past a large horse stable, through the gate of a crumbling wall, then down some alleys, past groups of clustered people, skipped past guards and weaved through gridlocked roads. Tweedy was right. The Sect wasn’t very large. However, the slums were the opposite. She probably ran for another fifteen minutes before she came to a full stop.
“Halt!” the guard before her ordered. “You have no business here. Return to your quarters or risk being detained.”
Mason and the others came running up behind her, panting and out of breath. Rebekka paid no heed to the guard or his warning. Instead she stared behind him.
A monstrously large building towered before them, dark and boding enough evil to make any shiver. Several smokestacks belched thick black smoke into the otherwise perfect sky. The cacophony of hammer pings and shouts intermingled perfectly with the foreboding aura of the place. So that is where they had taken Acidine.
A shove knocked Rebekka out of her thoughts and she landed on her back on the damp ground with an oof!
“I said back to your quarters,” the guard growled.
“Are you alright?” Mason asked helping her get to her feet.
“I’m fine.” Rebekka replied. The guard was still watching, tense with anticipation. Not that it meant anything. Rebekka wasn’t one to go about causing trouble.
“Come on,” she said turning her back on the guard. “Let’s go.”
A few blocks away, Tweedy asked, “What was that about?”
Rebekka didn’t answer right away because she was still in her own thoughts. It wasn’t until Mason asked “Rebekka?” did she snap back into reality.
“Oh… uh, I thought, I… I heard something,” she replied still a little absentminded.
“Heard something?” Tweedy repeated with a halfhearted chuckle. “So you heard something that led you straight to the Alchemist’s factory?? The most feared and reviled building here. Without directions.”
“Tweedy quiet already.” Swish snapped. “Don’t you see this isn’t something to be joking about.”
“I’m not joking. This isn’t natural. She hasn’t even been here a day and she’s strangely called straight to the Alchemist’s factory?”
“And your point is?”
“She should be careful. The Alchemist’s factory isn’t a place of joy and good fortune. Evil mysterious stuff happens there. People go missing and are never found. And these aren’t rumors.”
Rebekka looked back over her shoulder. What were they doing in there, and worse, what were they doing to Acidine?
(to be continued…)
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