Harper drew herself into a ball. Tightening her robes around her battered body, she pleaded with her mind for rest without sleep – a hard ask on an impossibly cold bluff where blizzards buried everything warm, and a snooze could result in a frosty end. Definitely not a glorious way to complete her mission.
Falling back on childhood training, she whispered a calming mantra. ‘Strength in rest, no-win without recovery, strength in rest, no-win without…’
A sharp noise roused her. She squinted briefly against the gale. Seeing nobody, she lowered her hood and clenched her eyes to shut out the glare. After a life lived in darkness, the vast, bright skies of the last three years still made her uneasy. But lately, when the clouds parted, the sky was a sickening yellow as though someone had rubbed rotting cabbage across the horizon. Nothing looked natural anymore.
Harper slapped warmth into her thighs and continued her mantra, grinning a little despite her injuries. At least assignments like this gave her a chance to flex her survival skills.
A gust sprinkled cool white powder on her face. She buried her nose deeper into her robes and enjoyed a last moment of recuperation before she resumed her search for her mission partner, Sam. They were separated earlier in the day during a surging white-out, just before one of Pallas’ enforcers had attacked. Only a lucky break had saved her. A sudden flurry had temporarily blinded the brute, allowing her to escape.
Now, although she was black and blue, she was safe at least, lying in a shallow snow cave. Well, cave was putting a positive spin on it. It was not much more than a grey dint in the white field above the once-hospitable Sydney.
‘Strength in rest, no-win without recovery…’
Another scraping noise paused her mantra. It had to be unstable debris shifting beneath the snowline, she reasoned, the remains of the crumbling city that had been abandoned when the endless frosts set in. If Kohl was still alive, he was undoubtedly the last man living there. Everyone else had evacuated to either caverns or Melbourne – the last glittering bastion of Solaran civilisation.
‘You can do this,’ she whispered to herself, yet the pull of sleep was strong. ‘Maybe just a minute more. Strength in rest.’
Harper sat up, fully alert now. That didn’t sound natural at all. Aubergine shadows stretched before her, and she wondered if she’d drifted off. Perhaps she’d dreamed the noise. Another snap had her feeling the ground beneath her. In the mission briefing many weeks ago, they’d been warned of the possibility of an ice sheet under the snow, created by the city’s burst water mains. The pipes hadn’t been built for the rapidly changing climate. Was she perched on unstable ice?
The blow to her ribs spun her world. She rolled to one side by reflex, saving her skull as a scuffed boot crashed down next to her.
‘You!’ she screamed.
Harper frantically felt for something – anything – on the ground behind her. No possible weapons were within reach. Every natural object, every useful thing, was buried in white.
Her attacker lurched forwards. Harper shuffled backwards. He swung at her. She ducked, and then kicked up loose snow, aiming it at his face. Scrambling backwards like a drunken crab, she drew away from her assailant until one hand found thin air. Upside-down trees flashed overhead as she toppled off the cliff. But instead of falling, a meaty fist grabbed the front of her robe and she was yanked back to the clifftop.
It was the enforcer. Somehow, he had found her and was hoisting her up to his obscene height. There was a murderous rage in his bloodshot eyes. His putrid, oily breath stung her nose. Despite her training, she flinched.
‘No … more,’ he growled, in rare stilted syllables.
When he pulled her closer and moved his other mitt to her throat, Harper gagged. She pounded against his fists. Forged steel was easier to bend. He tightened his grip, leaving her gasping for air. As her surroundings started to blur, she thought she heard her name being called. It was hard to be sure in the keening wind, like a dream drifting out of reach.
Just as she expected to pass out, she felt, more than heard, the jolt and sizzle of a static whip hitting the enforcer’s hide. The brute, still holding her aloft, swivelled towards the noise. Her ribs shifted as he swung her around like a limp doll.
Another sizzle sounded, and the stench of scorched flesh filled her nose. The enforcer bellowed. His body shook. Then slowly, he loosened his grip, dropped her to the ground, and staggered backwards over the cliff.
‘Harper!’ the voice called again. She had heard it! Someone reached for her as she too teetered on the edge, dizzy and gasping for breath. Gentle hands supported her from behind and helped her sit down.
‘Kohl? Oh, thank you, thank you,’ she croaked, and leaned into the strong arms that held her tight against a broad chest.
‘Not exactly,’ a second voice said, this time from a distance.
Harper looked up to see Kohl Pallas standing a few metres away, too far from the danger to have assisted. The three years since their parting had not been good to him. His ginger beard was matted, the shabby coat he wore was too far gone even for beggars’ rags and, standing slightly hunched with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, she was certain few people would recognise the heir of the Solaran governor.
Kohl held her stare, instantly taking her back to their happy time together in Coober Pedy, before shrugging it off and nodding towards her true emancipator.
Only then did Harper turn around to see that it was Sam who cradled her on the ground. A Damaran weapon lay discarded a short distance away, still steaming.
‘Sure,’ Sam said, blushing despite the cold. Then he seemed to become aware of his arms around her and awkwardly snatched them from her waist.
The wind picked up. Harper blinked back snowflakes. Time to go. A quick body scan told her standing might be an issue. Her back was a mass of aches and her legs trembled. When she moved her neck, it felt like the enforcer still gripped her. It was going to take a lot of self-talk to get her standing.
Harper cleared her throat. ‘I can do this.’
Thankfully Sam was already on his feet, offering her a hand. As she stood, she noticed the men exchange a troubled glance.
‘Well?’ said Sam, holding Harper’s hand longer than needed.
Kohl turned his back and ambled away. ‘C’mon, Harper. The storm’s getting worse. You’ll need more than a warm hand in this weather.’
* * *
Kohl squatted, scowling at the pile of rocks he’d fashioned into a crude fire pit. Harper and Sam watched in silence as he made a second attempt at igniting the fire, blowing on an ember and cussing when it didn’t grow. There didn’t seem to be enough fuel, and the damp air wasn’t helping.
He pulled some more kindling from a stack of wood covered in spider webs. The chipped paint on the shards of wood made Harper wonder whose dining room chairs had been repurposed. A third strike of the flint and, at last, a spark of yellow erupted.
Sam grew restless. As Kohl coaxed the fire, he strolled around the small room, stopping to examine a piece of painted dowel. ‘Like what he’s done with the place,’ he said, waving the wood at Harper before tossing it onto the floor.
Kohl barely looked up. ‘Obviously, you’re lost. You can stay till morning. Once you get your bearings, I’ll need you to leave. I’m busy.’
Looking around, two things were crystal clear. All pretense of nobility had been abandoned, and ‘busy’ was definitely not his most pressing problem. To call the shelter a home was ambitious. He was squatting in an old utility shed not much bigger than the standard Solaran maid’s quarters. There was hardly enough room for one person to stretch out, let alone three.
Opposite the door, a small camp bed was covered with tattered blankets. A tiny, barred window near the ceiling delivered hardly any light at all, and the other two walls were lined with shelves of canned food and an assortment of hardware.
‘We’re not lost. Aggy sent us.’ Harper knelt down next to Kohl and allowed her shoulder to brush against his, then stretched out her hands to warm them. Her intention was to be non-confrontational, but he rose and busied himself at the shelves.
‘Aggy wants to go back down to the core. She reckons that if all the manifestations are there together, we might be granted access to the global controls.’
‘It’s our only chance.’
When Sam opened his mouth to speak, Harper gave him a stern look, and he closed it again.
‘People are going to die. Probably all of us unless we can figure out a way to stabilise the climate.’
‘Or run away,’ Sam snapped. ‘That’s your speciality, isn’t it, Kohl?’
Harper rolled her eyes at Sam. It was impressive to see him exercising his newfound confidence, but his timing was lousy. They had worked too hard to find Kohl to push him away with youthful machismo.
The weather outside grumbled. A flash of lightning brightened the room. She waited for the echo that followed a few seconds later. More than once on their trek, when nature had been their only companion, Harper had fancied the whispering winds were actually voices.
‘Give up’, the wind had demanded with howling, elongated vowels that whirled around her shoulders, tempting her resolve. It was a game she played with herself over and over, knowing she would never turn back.
Now, as the thin walls trembled with each gust, she cocked her head and listened. No distracting words on the breeze. No more light flashes through the window either. It was growing dark outside. Time was running out. She had to get Kohl on-side.
‘C’mon, Harper. It’s hopeless,’ Sam protested. ‘I knew the traitor wouldn’t do anythin’ useful. His kind have been killin’ my kind for years. What does ’is lordship care if a few more of us die? Let’s go. Rather take me chances with Spectra.’
Harper winced. Spectra was the target of their next, and possibly most dangerous, mission. ‘Of course he cares, Sam.’
She gestured around the meagre shelter. ‘Kohl, how long do you think you can go on? You can’t live topside like this anymore. None of us can. Please, just hear what Aggy has to say. At the very least, you can take a break. It’s much warmer in the caverns, you know.’
Kohl slowly shook his head.
‘We need you, Kohl. I need you.’ She stretched out to touch the back of his hand. At least he didn’t flinch away from her touch, a positive sign Sam must have missed.
‘Told ya it’s useless. Let’s go.’ Sam opened the door a crack, and was pushed backwards by a cold blast that shoved the door fully open. Sleet blustered into the room, extinguishing the fire.
‘Sam!’ Harper reprimanded him.
‘Shit, kid, the fire’s out! You want us all dead tonight?’ Kohl pushed past Sam and slammed a heavy drum up against the door to keep it closed.
Standing side by side, Harper noticed that Sam had eclipsed Kohl’s height. Or was the difference all in Kohl’s defeated posture? Hard to tell. He looked so bitter and broken.
‘So-sorry, I’ll reli-light it.’ Sam sounded like a little boy again. His confidence had ebbed away with the flames.
Kohl studied the rising smoke that had been their fire and shook his head. He pushed past Sam to get to the shelves. ‘I’ve got some ignition fluid here somewhere. That should get it going again.’
‘I’ll whack on some dry paper an’ see if the spark’ll take,’ said Sam.
Harper was pleased they were finally cooperating. If she played it right, she might be able to resurrect the mission after all.
‘Can’t have been easy here by yourself,’ she said, moving to Kohl’s side. ‘Stop punishing yourself. Charles manipulated you into helping him escape. He used everyone in his war with Illustria. You must know that. His disabled underclasses, his manufactured religions, and the rationing of light… Charles was a sociopath. Why do you think he was jailed in the core of this world? Can you imagine how bad his crimes must have been for them to lock him away here for hundreds of years?
‘Hell, even Bess was duped into working for him as a double agent. We were the experts in espionage, Bess and I, spying on your family for Illustria, but I didn’t even pick it. I had no idea Charles had her twisted into his mania as well.’
The mention of Kohl’s sister softened his shoulders, and Harper instantly regretted her words. He had waited a lifetime to be reunited with his missing sister, only to be betrayed by her.
‘It’s time to move on, Kohl. Did you know that after Charles left, Aggy declared a truce? The Damarans welcomed everyone because it will take all of us working together to rebuild.’
Wedged between the shelves and Sam, who took up a good portion of the floor hunched over the dwindling embers, Kohl had to twist his upper body sideways to look directly at Harper. ‘I don’t think I can ever move on.’
Harper reached out and gently stroked his cheek. She wished there was room for greater physical connection. ‘Remember, it took all five of Illustria’s manifestations to access the core last time, including you.’
Sam stared intently at the growing fire while Harper and Kohl studied each other. It was a comfortable quiet, and she was thinking Kohl might relent when a powerful gust hammered the shack, shoving the door open again. The screech of metal on the stone floor startled them all.
‘Wait, I’ll get it…’ Sam didn’t finish his sentence.
Kohl twisted to see what caused the sound. Making a play for the door, he lifted a leg over Sam just as Sam started to stand. His foot caught on Sam’s rising ankle, and he fell sideways, pushing Sam forwards.
Too late, Harper grabbed at Kohl, but the bottle had already slipped from his hands. Ignition fluid splashed into the fire. Flames erupted, licking the wooden surfaces and grabbing at their clothes. The remaining kindling was activated, the bed lit up, and a riot of noise and choking smoke quickly filled the room.
Kohl made it to the door first. ‘Get out,’ he yelled, and launched out of the door to roll on the ground beyond.
Harper was next, slapping at her singed hair.
Sam was the last to exit. When he joined them, he fell to his knees, weeping uncontrollably as he gripped his face.
‘Sam!’ Harper stumbled through the snow to reach him.
‘What’s wrong?’ Kohl called out.
‘C’mon, Sam. It’ll be okay. Let me see what’s happened.’ She gently placed an arm over Sam’s shoulders and used the other to apply soft snow to his scorched knuckles. It melted quickly. She replaced one handful after another until his weeping subsided to jagged breaths. It was only then she managed to pry his hands away from his face.
She gasped in horror.
Sam’s once-handsome face was a burned mess.
‘Look at me, Sam,’ she implored. ‘We’ll get you to doctors. It’ll be all right, do you hear me? You’ll be all right!’
Sam didn’t seem to be hearing anything. A fierce tremor took hold of his body as he stared at the burning building. It was impossible to tell whether he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, blink.
Taking his silence for shock, Harper persisted. ‘Kohl can make a stretcher. We’ll get you help, Sam.’
The shed crackled and groaned as it collapsed under its flaming weight.
‘Look at me!’
Sam finally turned his face in her direction.
‘Harper,’ he said quietly. ‘I can’t see.’
-Continued in Missals from the Dark available for pre-order now on Amazon.