Sanctuary – Chris Cornetto

Sanctuary – Chris Cornetto

March 2021

The sentry’s voice carried from the tower, filling the courtyard below. “Someone’s coming! Open the gate!”

Abby dropped her basket and raced up snow-dusted stairs to the palisade catwalk. She leaned from the wall, bracing against the chill to peer into the storm. She wasn’t meant to be up here, but no one stopped her – a privilege of being the Patriarch’s favorite.

Beneath her feet, the wall shuddered from the rumble of unseen machinery. With a groan of protest, the gate yawned open. The wind lulled. In the distance, a shadow formed in the swirling white, a ghost drawn from the veil.

“It’s Orphiel,” someone shouted, and the cry spread from voice to voice. “Seeker Orphiel returns!”

A second form appeared behind the first, staggering through the knee-deep snow. “Look!” Abby called down to the crowd. “He’s not alone!”

Her heart raced. It was a Homecoming, the first in five years, the third in her life. Not only had Orphiel survived the wasteland, he had found lost kin among the savages – a new life for the city, with new blood for the revival of their race. It was cause for celebration, and, for one unfortunate, cause for despair.

But it wouldn’t be her. With her golden eyes and perfect silver hair, with the spurs of bone protruding from her back, she was necessary – not just to Father, but for the rebirth of the world. It was a humbling thought.

Below, the Patriarch waded through his eager flock, shining in his golden raiment like the sun among stars. “What are you waiting for?” he thundered. “Greet them.” At his command, the crowd dispersed to put on their finest clothes, to gather gifts for their new kin.

Abby came down from the wall and picked up her basket. She had no need to change, as all her clothes were fine, but they were hardly warm enough for standing on the palisade. She huddled in front of a thermal vent and hugged herself for warmth.

Salome came over to join her, likewise shivering. “You must be mad, going on the wall in your condition. It’s freezing out there.” Though her hair was more blonde than silver, her eyes were finest gold. She, too, had little reason to fear.

“My condition, nothing.” As if she couldn’t handle a little nausea. She wasn’t even showing yet. “I’ll be fine.”

Salome arched an eyebrow. “Say that to the Patriarch, why don’t you?”

Abby waved her off and joined the re-forming crowd. Her people lined the avenue, resplendent with their blazing torches and best attire. Though only a shadow of the seraphim hosts of old, the sight still made her ache with pride.

Sanctuary, the last spark of civilization in a shattered world. How nervous, how excited their new Returned must be.

Abby shut the door behind her. She bowed her head lower than humility required to hide the grinding of her teeth. “You sent for me, Father?”

She knew why she’d been summoned. In the week since Martina’s Homecoming, not a thing had gone right. The woman’s sulking had cast such a cloud over the festivities that Father ended them early – and because it was Abby’s task to make the newcomer welcome, she’d been dogged by the cruel smirks of those eager to see her fall. Being the favorite had its perks, but it painted a target on her back.

The Patriarch set his cup on the table. He rose and stretched his twisted wings, deformed but magnificent, before hiding them beneath his cloak. “I did, Abigail. Come here, child.”

Across from him, Seeker Orphiel remained seated, one hand on a bottle of sparkling blue glass. Abby tried not to stare, though she’d never seen its like.

The Patriarch inspected her. “You are well, I trust?” His pale blue eyes, a defect inherited from his mother, bored into her.

“Yes, Father. Thank you for asking.” She tried to pretend his concern was for her, but she knew better. She envied the child inside her; the Patriarch’s interest in her waned by the day. It was for that reason, to prove herself the dutiful daughter, she had volunteered to be Martina’s keeper.

What a mistake that had been.

He waved his hand. “Good. I need you to deal with Miriam again. She’s not adjusting well, and there is no place in Sanctuary for idleness.”

“She doesn’t like that name, Father. Perhaps if we let her keep–”

The Patriarch silenced her with a glare. “What, keep her old name? Invite the taint of the wasteland into our walls? Don’t be impertinent, girl.”

Abby trembled. She looked to Orphiel for support, but he refused to meet her gaze. Flush though he was with the Patriarch’s favor, that most precious currency, he wouldn’t squander any to help her. “I only thought–”

“No, you did not think. Question me again, and I’ll send you with her to clean the light-harvesters.” Though it was an idle threat, his cheeks flushed an angry crimson. “Now, can you manage this simple task before I give it to someone more capable?”

“Yes, Father,” Abby stammered. She retreated to the door, and all but ran to the women’s barracks. Why did she keep sticking up for the useless woman?

Barracks #6 was farthest from the Patriarch’s manor, and its residents furthest from his grace. Abby knocked only briefly before throwing open the door. “Miriam? Are you in?”

“Don’t call me that,” came a blanket-muffled voice. “I hate that name.”

Abby went to the woman’s bunk and peeled back the covers. “I know, I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening.” She sat on the bed and ran her fingers through Martina’s hair – its gleaming silver sheen left no doubt how the Seeker had found her. Despite the dark rings around her eyes, she was an attractive young woman, at most three years Abby’s elder.

Martina brushed Abby’s hand away and climbed back under the blanket. “Here to send me to sweep the snowfields? Or has the almighty Patriarch decided which of his stock I’m to be bred to?”

There’d be no reasoning with her in this mood, so Abby tried a different tack. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

Even in her warmest coat and scarf, Abby shivered. The light-harvesters needed constant sweeping, and it hadn’t been hard to find someone willing to trade duties with her. Most of the residents of Sanctuary dreaded leaving the safety of its walls, even the short distance to the solar field.

Abby kept a nervous eye on the wall. Those Seekers not scouring the waste acted as the Patriarch’s eyes – and the firm hand of his law. He would not be pleased to find the bearer of his child outside the walls.

For that matter, it didn’t please Abby to be there, either. She shivered and swept and waited for Martina to speak.

After twenty or so minutes, Martina broke the silence. “Why are you here?” she snapped.

Because you’re a fool who doesn’t understand the bounty you’ve been given, Abby wanted to shout. Because you don’t see the glory of Father’s plan, or the honor of being part of it.

And because, when I make you see reason, Father will notice me again, her heart whispered. He’ll appreciate me for myself, and not just this child inside me.

But she said none of these things, and settled on a neutral remark. “Because the machinery needs light, to keep the city warm.”

The woman rolled her eyes and stopped sweeping. “That’s not what I mean. I’ve heard the rumors. You’re carrying the Patriarch’s child. There’s no way he sent you to freeze out here.”

Called out on her scheming, Abby flushed. “I… I thought you could use the company. I worry that you’re unhappy here.”

“Unhappy?” Martina snorted. “And you enjoy being cattle?”

Abby cocked her head. “Cattle?” It wasn’t a word she knew.

Martina gave an exasperated sigh. “Livestock. Animals kept and bred for their labor.”

So they were creatures from the wasteland? She’d always been fascinated by the outside world; as a child, she’d pestered old Seeker Malthus for stories of its terrors. “But is that so bad? To survive, we all must labor and breed.”

“It’s not that simple. I hate the way Old Hunchback orders everyone around like he’s some kind of god.”

“Don’t call him that!” Abby snapped. The woman’s endless sulking was bad enough, but she had no right to insult Father. “Besides, he’s not a hunchback.”

“Not a–”

Abby dropped her broom and took Miriam’s hands, guiding them beneath her coat to the spurs on her shoulders. To where, if the god was willing, her son would have wings. “Don’t you understand? He’s our Father, the greatest of us all. He’s the closest to a seraph the world has left!”

Martina’s eyes went wide. “You’re telling me seraphim are real?”

“Didn’t Orphiel explain why you’re special? Chosen?” How ignorant was she?

“I didn’t take him seriously! I get that my hair’s odd, but it’s just a quirk, isn’t it? I assumed the old man was eccentric, and fancied a certain look.” She paused and chewed her lip. “He really has wings?”

How could a woman of the blood, who had seen the wasteland with her own eyes, not understand the urgency of Father’s project? Only by the return of seraphim could the world be reborn from its ashes. “If you didn’t believe Orphiel, why did you come to Sanctuary?”

Martina looked at her feet. “It was a place to run away. My husband was killed by bandits, my home burned to the ground. I came because I had nothing left.”

Martina passed Abby another plate to dry. “Why do you call it the wasteland?” she whispered.

For several days, Abby had been swapping chores to keep Martina company – and so far, bless the god, the Patriarch hadn’t noticed. The two had arrived at something of an understanding, in which Martina tried to fit in so long as Abby didn’t rush her. Abby had even come to like the woman, a little, despite her irreverence toward Father. Their candid conversations had become her guilty pleasure.

“Because everything was destroyed in the Cataclysm. Wasn’t it?”

“Well, yeah, more or less. But that was hundreds of years ago.” Martina plunged her hands into the basin and scrubbed the next dish.

Abby wrung out her towel. She set it down and hoisted herself onto the counter. “So isn’t it terrible out there? Plagues and hunger, poverty and war?” She had heard all about it from the Seekers. “Didn’t you want to get away from it all?”

Martina stopped washing. “I… thought I did. But I was wrong. I miss my home.”

Abby’s jaw dropped. “Miss the wasteland?”

Martina chuckled, her mouth quirked in a hint of a smile. “Have you ever looked around you? This is the wasteland. Nothing but mountains and ice as far as the eye can see.” She paused a moment, looking thoughtful. “You’ve never been anywhere else?”

To her surprise, Abby felt stung. She knew as well as anyone there was nowhere worth going, but the way the woman spoke… “I’ve been to the lower village,” she blurted, though it made a poor boast. Most of her kin called it the Dungheap. “It’s… not a nice place.”

“I think I passed through it on the way here. Crude little village, tucked in a valley about a day’s walk down the mountain?”

Abby nodded. “That’s the one.” Crude was kind; it was where rejects were sent to huddle in stone huts, to scrape the dirt until they starved. “The people there don’t have much. When there’s a Departure, I sneak them some fruit from the greenhouse.”

“Departure?”

On the walls, the crystal-lights flickered and dimmed – a warning that curfew was approaching. Abby cursed and jumped from the counter, and the two began scrubbing at a furious pace. “It’s the rule,” she explained over the clatter of wet dishes. “Seven-score and four. That’s Sanctuary’s capacity. The seraphim built it as an outpost, not a city.”

“But what do you mean by ‘departure’?”

“Well, if the population grows, someone has to leave, right?” Abby shrugged and grabbed another dish. It was an uncomfortable topic. She didn’t worry for herself, but Martina… “There’ll be one soon.”

Martina stared at her. “What, so now that I’m here, someone gets kicked out of Sanctuary? Thrown away like trash? That’s awful.”

Abby winced. Departure was slow execution by hunger and cold, but it was also how things had to be. So why did she feel so defensive? “We hold a feast to thank them. And we walk them all the way down to the village.”

“Oh, how noble.” Her voice dripped bitter sarcasm “So who’s the lucky winner?”

While most departed were picked for their weak bloodline, some were chosen for holding… dissenting views. Despite Abby’s efforts, the current odds were two to one on Martina. “My guess is Michel, the engineer’s son.” It wasn’t quite a lie. With his thin blood, and without his mother’s aptitude, he was certainly at risk.

“But why not let me go home? Then Michel could stay…”

And let all my work go to waste? It was a selfish thought, but Abby couldn’t help it. Besides, without ample provisions, there was no way for Martina to survive the trip back to the wasteland.

The lights gave a final hum, dimmed, and went out. Abby struck flame to a lantern, and they put away the still-damp dishes. It was too late to finish drying them, but at least they were clean. “Help me with the basin?”

Together they lugged the washbin outside, careful not to slosh water on the ground. The outdoor vents shut off at night, and spilled water meant ice in the morning. They dumped the soapy water behind the building.

Abby went back inside for the lantern, though it was hardly necessary in the crisp starlight. She locked the mess hall behind her, already shivering in the biting cold. “Can I walk you back to your barracks?” she asked through chattering teeth.

Martina hugged herself and nodded. “Gods, I hate it here. So damned cold.”

Abby leaned close to Martina for warmth, frost crunching beneath their feet. “It’s not cold where you come from?” She’d always pictured the wasteland with a blanket of ice, its people huddled in rude huts to keep from freezing.

“Ha! I used to complain of the heat. Silly, right?”

Abby shook her head. Her scarf slipped loose, and the wind raked chill claws down her neck. “So there wasn’t much snow there?”

“In Sunhome?” Martina arched an eyebrow. “Never. We got enough rain for the crops, more or less, but that’s the worst of it. Most days, the skies were so clear you could see the cathedral from my parents’ vineyard.”

They reached Barracks #6, but curiosity made Abby linger. She squeezed her hands to coax warmth into numb fingers. “Cathedral?”

“Like a big temple. Imagine the Patriarch’s manor, but ten times bigger, and a hundred times more beautiful. My father would take me there when we brought our wine to market.”

Abby studied the woman’s face, but saw no hint she was teasing. Could a wonder like that exist in the wasteland? “And what’s wine?”

Martina paused, and, for the first time, actually laughed. “Gods, girl, don’t you know anything? It’s a drink, made from grapes, sunshine, and a little bit of heaven.”

Despite the cold, Abby flushed. Did she know anything?

Abby set the basket on the table. Steam rose as she peeled back the cloth, filling the room with the scent of fresh biscuits. She arranged the Patriarch’s breakfast on his platter, set out his fine cutlery, and stepped back to wait. The blue bottle sat on the table, corked and half empty.

Most days, Abby’s stomach would rumble in anticipation of her own breakfast; today it churned. She leaned against the wall, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Uncomfortable minutes passed, followed by more. Just before she caved in and ran outside to vomit, she heard the tread of the Patriarch descending the stairs – followed by another. She hurried to pull out his seat.

“I’ll get that,” Salome said, reaching it first. Her dress was disheveled, and her blonde hair in disarray.

What was she doing here?

The Patriarch tugged his robe over his shoulders, smoothing it as best his wings allowed. “That will be all, Salome. We appreciate your zeal to serve, but I must speak with daughter Abigail now.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and steered her toward the door.

Salome turned and dropped a neat curtsey. “As you will, Father. Goodbye, sister Abigail.” She gave a coy smile and waved, showing a flash of silver on her thumb – a new ring, in a pattern of woven vines. A treasure scavenged from the wasteland.

Abby gritted her teeth. She hadn’t merely lost Father’s affection. She’d been replaced.

The Patriarch ignored her while he ate. When finished, he wiped his mouth and waved her over. “Come, child. Let’s have a look at you.”

Though fuming inside, Abby obliged. He lifted her shirt to place a hand on her belly, as he often did, but today her flesh crawled at his touch. She thought of Martina’s favorite name for him – the old lecher. It had a nasty sound that fit all too well.

“My son is well?”

Abby nodded. Always his, as if she were a mere vessel.

The Patriarch furrowed his brow. “And you wouldn’t be risking him by staying out late? By going out in the cold after curfew?”

That traitor Salome must have whispered about her! Abby’s irritation twisted into fear; she prayed they didn’t know she’d been outside the wall. “I’ve been working on Mar… Miriam, as you asked, Father. I helped her wash up last night. I think she’s coming around.”

He arched an eyebrow, and his frown eased just a little. “Very well. But be more careful. This child is my triumph… maybe even my heir. Think how honored you’ll be as his mother – and how terrible it will be if anything happens to him.”

Abby tried to control her quaking knees; she knew precisely whom it would be terrible for. “Yes, Father. Will there be anything else?”

The Patriarch picked up his cup and gestured to the blue bottle. “A drink, if you would.”

Abby turned away to hide her fear. She wrangled the cork until it twisted loose with a pop. As she poured the ruby liquid, she caught an aroma of fruit and flowers. “What is this, Father?”

The Patriarch drank it down. He lowered the cup and wiped crimson from his lip. “A barbarian novelty, brought home by Orphiel. It would not interest you.”

“Yes, Father,” she agreed, though he was very wrong. She could guess what it was, and it interested her very much.

When he finished with his meal, the Patriarch rose from his seat and put on his gold-trimmed coat. “You may continue your work with Miriam, but I suggest you act quickly. I’ve put off this Departure long enough. It’s time her faith was tested.” Without waiting for a reply, he went outside.

Abby cleaned up from the meal, placing the dirty utensils in her basket. Still piqued about Salome, she also took the wine.

The greenhouse was the largest building in Sanctuary, and also the warmest. The citrus-scented air hummed with the drone of vents and honeybees. It was Abby’s favorite place in all her tiny world, and the best in which to shake a bitter mood.

Martina spread her arms and closed her eyes. “I can almost pretend I’m home.”

It had taken a few white lies to get Martina on greenhouse duty with her, but it was worth it. It was also less risky than leaving the walls with Salome snooping on them. “Is your home really so lovely?”

“All this and more. We have orchards that stretch as far as the eye can see, and the fruit… What I’d give to taste it again.”

After checking that no one saw her, Abby twisted an orange from the nearest tree. “So now we’re alone, will you tell me what’s bothering you?” She peeled the fruit hastily, hiding the rind in her basket.

Martina breathed a heavy sigh. “I’ve been trying to take your advice, trying to keep my head down and make myself useful. But I don’t know if I can go through with this.”

Abby handed her half of the orange. “Go through with what?”

“I’ve been assigned to Orphiel. I found out this morning.” She bit into the fruit and crinkled her nose. “Ugh, sour.”

Abby tasted her own half; it was the same as any orange she’d eaten. “What’s so bad about Orphiel? He’s passing handsome.” He didn’t have the best traits, of course, but a Seeker had to blend with the savages. He had also become quite influential, as his acquisition of Martina had placed him high in Father’s esteem.

“It’s not that.” Martina tossed the rest of her orange – a waste so extravagant, Abby couldn’t believe it.

“That’s fruit!” she whispered harshly. She picked it up and brushed off the dirt. “We shouldn’t even be eating it!”

“Huh. Sorry.” Martina gave a sheepish frown. “I guess I wasn’t thinking. Back home, a small, sour orange like that wouldn’t have sold for half a copper.”

The more Abby heard of the wasteland, the less it sounded like one. “So what’s the problem with Orphiel?”

“I don’t like him. Those weeks on the road, between Sunhome and here, he barely talked. Just watched me like a hungry wolf. I was almost surprised he didn’t try to… Well, I guess now’s his chance.”

“If you don’t like him, why’d you come with him?” She ate a segment of the dirty orange. There was no sense wasting it.

“I wasn’t thinking. My grief was so fresh, so intense, all I could think of was fleeing my ruined life. By the time I wanted to turn back, we were too far from the world I knew. I was afraid of him, but I was more afraid to cross the wilderness alone.”

Abby squeezed her friend’s arm; Martina’s troubles made her jealousy of Salome seem a petty thing. Thinking of her rival brought to mind her stolen prize. “Oh, I know what might cheer you! I brought you something.” She dug the blue bottle out from her basket and held it up triumphantly.

Martina’s eyes went wide. “And you told me you’d never heard of wine?”

Abby handed her the bottle. “I hadn’t. I sort of… borrowed it from the Patriarch. The Seekers bring him things from the wasteland. Orphiel must have given him this.”

As the woman looked the bottle over, her lips trembled. She closed her eyes.

Abby frowned, worried she’d done something wrong. “Don’t you like it? Is it bad wine?”

“No,” Martina said through gritted teeth. “It was a kind gesture, and it’s very good wine. It’s just… a painful memory. This is Sunhome wine, from the Vianello vineyards. Bertholo had been saving a bottle of the same vintage for when… for when…”

The woman broke into tears, and Abby hugged her close. “Oh, dear…” Not knowing what to do, she patted her back.

“I was going to be a mother,” Martina whispered through sobs, “but I lost the baby. I’m so sorry, Berto.”

Abby squeezed the woman. She could imagine the Patriarch’s wrath if she failed to carry her own child to term, and her muscles clenched in sympathetic terror. “I’m so sorry. Your Patriarch must have been furious.”

Martina stopped sniffling and looked up at her. “We don’t have a damned Patriarch,” she snapped.

Abby drew back, startled. “So there’s no one in charge? Everyone does whatever they want?”

“It’s not that.” Martina shook her head and rubbed her puffy eyes. “There are laws, sure, and the abbot expects his tithes, but it’s nothing like here. There’s no one controlling every detail of your life – telling you what to think and who to love.”

It still sounded like chaos to Abby. “Then who assigned you to have a child with Berto?”

Martina laughed through her tears, a sound absent of mirth. “What a pair we make. I should be the one to pity you. Don’t you know anything of love? Of family? I chose Berto.” She tugged at a leather thong around her neck. “We said our vows, traded rings, and pledged our lives to each other – not because we were ordered to by a nasty old fool, but because we loved each other.” At those words, the tears welling in her eyes again overflowed. “And now he’s gone.”

Abby had no idea what to say, so she held the woman’s hands in silence. She had never imagined any way other than the Patriarch’s. The idea of having no one to order her life was terrifying… but also strangely enticing.

“I can’t stay here,” Martina said at last. “I can endure the loneliness and drudgery, but I won’t be part of that filthy lecher’s breeding project. If the gods see fit to send me another child, it’ll be on my terms, to be raised with love. Not enslaved and bred for stock.” Her face twisted in disgust. “A child deserves better.”

Abby placed a protective hand over her belly. What did her child deserve? “What will you do?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter?” She threw her hands into the air. “I guess, next time I’m sent to the solar field, I’ll run off.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Abby gasped. It wasn’t a plan; it was a quick, icy death. “The Seekers would drag you back before you made it ten paces. And even if you could outrun them, you’d freeze after sundown!”

Martina slumped against a tree. “Why do you stay here? A woman can endure much, but what mother would wish this prison on her child?”

Again, Abby brought her hand to her belly; already it swelled with the life growing within. She took pride in her favored status, and her child would be greater still, but Martina wasn’t wrong. Beyond the cruel whispers and resentful glares, the price of that favor was the constant, gnawing fear it would be withdrawn. Her son’s life would be governed, from cradle to grave, by the whims of the Patriarch.

All her life, she’d drawn no distinction between servitude and survival; she assumed there was no other way. But what if she were wrong? If Martina spoke true, Sanctuary’s walls didn’t keep the wasteland out – they kept her people in, slaves to the Patriarch’s will. Yet somewhere beyond them, down the mountain and across leagues of trackless wilderness, people lived free.

Her head spun with the implications. She could hardly imagine what freedom was like, or what one did with it. What would she change about her life if she could choose?

There was one thing.

“Where you come from,” Abby whispered, “can mothers keep their children?” It was a guilty thought, unbecoming of her, but it tugged at her more with each passing week.

“You mean…” Martina’s eyes flashed with sudden anger, and she forced her words through gritted teeth. “That settles it. I’m leaving this place, and you’re coming with me.”

The Underworks rumbled like a sleeping beast, making Abby’s skin crawl. Even coming from the greenhouse, the heat of the dim, damp tunnel was unbearable. It was not a place she went by choice.

“You’re mad,” hissed the engineer. “I should report you to the Patriarch.”

The threat held weight. It was what any sane person would do when asked to participate in rebellion, and what the Abby of a few weeks ago would have done in her shoes.

But Martina had changed her. Abby was sick of the endless jockeying for Father’s approval, of the bitter distrust it caused. It was a tense, lonely way to live. Only Martina seemed outside the game – which made her the only person in Sanctuary safe to call a friend. She couldn’t let Martina down.

“You won’t,” Abby told the engineer. “We hunger for his love and fear his wrath, but you hate him as much as I do.” She nearly shouted to be heard over the clank of metal, the whistling steam.

The engineer looked away but made no denial. “Perhaps I should report you anyway, just to see his pet fall from grace.”

Abby thought of Salome and her ring, and she flushed with anger. She placed a hand on her belly. “This is his pet. I’m just its husk.” She had never spoken those words aloud, as if her silence could deny them truth, but they were true, regardless. “So, will you help?”

The engineer looked at her, her ill-concealed hatred giving way to the sympathy of one outcast for another. Still she shook her head. “I can’t. As much as it would please me for the girl to escape his grasp, I can’t risk it.”

Abby wrung her hands. “But what about your son?”

“Michel will be fine. Everyone knows Father’s going to pick Miriam.” The woman’s brow wrinkled when she frowned, and her nut-brown hair was shot through with gray – the fast aging another sign of her thin blood. “If she wants out so badly, just wait for the Departure.”

“I can’t.” Abby mopped the streamers of sweat from her face. How did the woman stand it here? “We need to smuggle out supplies, a lot of them. We’re not staying at the lower village – we need them to reach the wasteland.”

The engineer arched an eyebrow. “We? You’re going with her?”

Abby nodded mutely. She didn’t belong in Sanctuary. The only thing keeping her here was fear of the outside world, but with Martina as a guide…

“You’re not mad, you’re suicidal. Where will you go? How will you survive?” She shook her head in disbelief. “There’s nothing out there.”

“But there is.” It wasn’t just Martina’s stories that convinced her – she had seen the evidence. “The Seekers bring home things we could never make here. There’s got to be more to the world than we’re told.”

The engineer shrugged. “Maybe, but what does it matter? You know he’ll hunt you, even to the edge of the world.”

“That’s why we need you to give us a head start. Think on it. Even if Miriam gets picked now, what happens when my son is born? Michel is still at risk.” Though she had little choice, it felt wrong to exploit the woman’s attachment to her son. She used to think it unnatural, but now, with a life growing inside her, she understood.

The engineer chewed her lip, hesitating. “I just need more time with him. Once he grasps the machines a little better, shows how useful he can be…”

It was Abby’s turn to shake her head. “And you’ll teach him in, what, a mere six months, what took you a lifetime of study?” She squeezed the woman’s calloused hands. The machinery was ancient, older than the Patriarch, and it took a rare genius to keep it thrumming – a genius Michel didn’t have. “Let me leave. More room in Sanctuary means more time for your son.”

“But your death–”

“Will not be on your conscience. I choose this.” She couldn’t explain the feelings rising inside her, how living only to serve the Patriarch would never be enough. Martina had opened her eyes, and there was no closing them again. For herself and her baby, she had to risk the wasteland.

The engineer slumped against the wall, defeated. “Fine, damn you. Second bell after sunrise, to give you as much daylight as I can. But you’d better reach the lower village by nightfall. Mark my words – a storm’s on the way.”

Maybe the woman did get it. It had been so long since anyone called the engineer by anything but her function, Abby didn’t even know her name.

In the distance behind them, the alarm bell clanged.

Abby and Martina dragged the sled onward, unable to see anything through the blinding fog. The damp air sapped the warmth from their skin and frosted their clothes.

As promised, at second bell the engineer had overheated the main boiler and jammed the manual shutdown. Crews spilled through the gate to drag sheets over the light-harvesters, cutting off power, while others scrambled to open the vents full-blast. Steam met snow, blanketing the mountain in the thickest fog Abby had ever seen.

It was through that fog that Abby stumbled. The deep snow grabbed at her legs, pulling her to the ground.

“Come on,” Martina shouted, hauling her to her feet.

Though there was little risk of being heard through the chaos, Abby still cringed. “Where’s the track? I don’t see it.”

“We’ve already lost it. Just keep the sun to your back until we clear the fog.”

Abby brushed herself off. She searched the sky for a hint of brightness, a smudge of silver amongst the white, but it was hard to be sure of anything. They took their best guess, and together they tugged the sled back into motion.

As the minutes stretched into hours, the bell grew fainter and eventually ceased. Abby trudged onward, each step an act of will. She ached with the effort, her muscles freezing through the heavy Seeker coat, but she didn’t dare rest. In the best weather, for one who knew the way, it was a day’s walk to the lower village. At their current pace, they’d never reach it by nightfall.

The fog followed them down the slope, but after another half hour it began to thin. A few minutes later, the sunlight cut through the haze. Martina, too weary to curse, pointed south and frowned.

Abby saw what she meant. From a different spur, divided from theirs by a deep ravine, the track snaked into a chasm. It was the only way down from the high plateau, and they’d have to backtrack to reach it. Uphill.

There was no use complaining. In this icy void, words were nothing but frozen mist, meaningless against the lonely silence of the mountain. They yoked themselves to the sled and trudged back the way they came, plodding one weary foot before the other until time ceased to have meaning.

When they reached the chasm, the sun had already passed its peak. Gray, billowy clouds scudded in from the horizon, devouring the sky ahead. The wind howled a warning of the storm to come.

And from behind rang the mournful note of a hunting horn.

Abby looked over her shoulder. Beneath the lifting fog was every Seeker in Sanctuary, racing down the slope in snow-gliding shoes. She froze like a hunted hare.

Martina shook her by the shoulders. “Snap out of it! We have to run!”

Abby nodded, and they tugged the sled into the ravine.

The winding track slowed their progress to a crawl. In some places, drifts piled so high they had to dig their way past; in others, rocks jutted through the snow to trip feet and snag the sled’s runners. They couldn’t see their pursuers, but each blast of the horn drew closer than the last.

As they struggled on, the first flurries danced through the air like mocking sprites. The flakes clung to Abby’s coat until it was white as a burial shroud. The storm had come early.

With so many miles left, trapped between one doom and another, there could be no escape. If they weren’t captured, dragged back to the city in shame, they would freeze to death in the snow. At the thought of her warm bed, tucked snug in the embrace of Sanctuary’s walls, Abby sank to her knees and cried. “I can’t. We never should have run away.”

Martina slapped her, hard. “What, you thought this would be easy? Pity yourself later. Now get to your feet and pull!”

The vicious sting brought a flush of warmth to Abby’s frozen cheek. She rose mechanically and picked up the tether, pulling the sled with flagging strength while Martina pushed from behind. Each step became a stumble until she pulled on all fours, head down like a beast of burden.

Though Martina huffed for breath, the woman kept her focused with constant chatter. Abby closed her eyes and fled her body, lost in stories of bustling markets and shining palaces. Of a cathedral, light gleaming from glass of every color, towering above a sprawling city. Of acres of fruit trees, not trapped in a greenhouse, but spread across the hills, warm in the generous sun.

Could it all be true? Had the world, once fallen into ruin, grown back without the seraphim? And if so, why did the Patriarch keep them in ignorance? She was too weary to process it all.

After a time, the sled halted. When Abby looked up, her heart caught in her chest. Before her, the canyon opened to a panorama of the slopes below. Though the sky was now full gray, painting the snow to match, there was another color far, far in the distance.

In a little valley, sheltered from the weather and biting wind, was the brownish-green of grassy fields.

Behind her, Martina cried out in alarm.

Abby whirled around to see her grappling with a Seeker, trying to writhe free of his grasp. They fell, skidding down the slope, and the heavy sled careened after them.

Too late, Abby noticed the harness tangled about her shoulders. It jerked taut, ripping her from her feet and dragging her with it. She clawed at the ground, but the icy scree gave no purchase. The attempt sent her into a spin, tangling her worse in the grasping cord. She skidded along with no sense of direction, curled instinctively into a ball to protect her belly.

A rock caught her foot and whirled her about; another struck her head with the force of a hammer. Stars exploded across her vision, and the world went black.

Abby drifted from one nightmare to the next, until she found herself lying on her back in a dark and frozen hell. Large, feathery snowflakes settled on a face barely warm enough to melt them. Only the pain in her head suggested she was alive.

She couldn’t see through the blackness, but felt the sled rumble beneath her, heard it hiss along the snow behind the crunch of footsteps. How much time had passed?

She tried to move, and panicked when she couldn’t. She thrashed harder, felt her body shift. Thank the god – she wasn’t paralyzed. As sensation returned to her numb limbs, she felt the cords binding her to the sled.

So that was it, the abrupt end to her ill-fated plan. She was captured, dragged home to face her people’s scorn, her Father’s wrath. As battered and helpless as she felt, it was almost a relief. Of course, whatever happened to her, it would be so much worse for…

“Where’s Martina?” Abby gasped.

“Hush. The Seekers are close on our trail.”

Martina?

Abby slipped in and out of delirium until she couldn’t tell the waking world from dream. Had she and Martina really escaped? Where were they, even? She caught a slight gleam in the sky as the moon tried and failed to pierce the thick, gray clouds. The world was nothing but snow.

Some time later, the sled ground to a halt. The air held a hint of smoke, but how could that be?

“I’m sorry,” Martina rasped. “This is as far as I can take you.”

The cords holding Abby went slack, and she felt the woman’s arms around her torso, hoisting her. Her head throbbed as if it would burst.

Something creaked, and a foul draft wafted over Abby. A deeper darkness swelled around her, but it was warmer now, and out of the snow.

Martina lowered her onto a soft, prickly floor. “I’m going to lead them away from here. I’m sorry there’s no food to leave you. When your child comes, give him my love.”

Footsteps rustled. Something creaked again, and the darkness grew complete.

Abby woke in the dark to a throbbing head. She itched all over, but when she moved to scratch, lightning shot through her aching skull. She gave up and clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the crawling sensation she could do nothing about.

She was in a dark, reeking room that stank hardly less than the composter. She was cold, too, but not frozen – which came as a surprise as the memories trickled back. Where was she? Where was Martina? Her brain said to panic, but her body was too sore and weary to comply. She shut her eyes, useless anyway in the black, and slipped into a fitful sleep.

The next time she woke, a faint seam of light traced the outline of a crude but heavy door. The wind whistled an eerie tune through the cracks. She fought through the pain and eased herself upright. “Martina?” she whispered.

Something rustled in the darkness.

Abby strained her eyes until the room slowly came into view. The walls were unmortared stone, piled thick, and the floor was heaped with chaff. The shadow in the corner shifted again.

“Martina,” she croaked through a parched and swollen throat. “Wake up.”

The shadow crept closer, accompanied by the dull clank of an iron bell. It stepped into the streamer of light that trickled through the door, and Abby recoiled in horror.

It was a four-legged demon from some nether hell, with curving horns, a tuft of beard, and soulless yellow eyes. She scuttled away until her back pressed against the far wall.

Hot breath puffed against Abby’s neck, making her skin crawl. Slowly she turned, barely daring to look, dreading what she might see.

There she was, face to face with a second demon, with nowhere to flee. Abby crumpled to the floor, overcome with terror.

She didn’t realize she was screaming until the door burst open.

A man barged in and leveled a hayfork at her chest. He had silver-white hair and a thick beard. In Sanctuary, few could grow beards, and none did willingly – save a Seeker on assignment.

“On your feet,” he ordered. “Come where I can see you.”

Abby’s blood ran cold. “Where’s Martina? What did you do with her?”

The hayfork dipped, and the man squinted into the shadows. “You okay there, girl? Looks like you took quite a knock to the head.”

“You’re not a Seeker?” Abby brushed her scalp and found it tender to the touch. Flecks of dried blood clung to her fingertips. “Where am I?”

The man stuck his fork into a pile of hay. He gave a low whistle. “I’ll be. No wonder I didn’t recognize you. You’re from up the mountain.” He nudged the snuffling demon back from her, and it fell to munching dry grass. “Let’s get you into the house.”

Suddenly, realization dawned. The beasts, the beard, the crude stone hut… She had reached the lower village. But how? The dim gray light caused her head to throb, making it hard to think.

The man held out a hand. “Come on. Breakfast is still in the pot. Warm up, eat, and then we’ll talk.”

Abby let the man help her to her feet. She followed, her legs trembling beneath her.

“So how far along are you?” the woman asked. Brown-eyed and raven-tressed, she hardly showed the blood at all. She bounced a child on her knee, a dark-haired baby boy.

Dressed in her shift and a borrowed coat, Abby dug into her second bowl of thin barley gruel. It had little flavor, and, if there was any scent, she couldn’t smell it over the burning peat. Above the firepit, the kettle had been set aside to make room for her drying clothes. “Three months, I think. Is it so obvious?”

“A mother knows these things,” she said with a wink.

A mother. In Sanctuary, her son would have been taken from her, her purpose served once he was born. But here in the wasteland…

“Another bowl?” offered the woman. Her face was lean with hunger.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Abby protested. She could, but the woman hadn’t eaten, and the pot was near empty. She nodded to the baby. “Is he your first?”

“Second,” she said, but her lips drew tight. “Second to live, at least. My eldest, Tiri, is taking the goats to pasture.” The baby drowsed, and she set him in the cradle.

Abby looked around the little cottage, with its dirt floor, its walls of mud-daubed stone. Wind gusted through the chinks, stirring the smoky air. “It must be a hard life here.”

“It is,” admitted the woman, “but we make the most of it. We have each other.”

The door opened, admitting the chill air of a crisp morning. The man came in, shook the snow from his coat, and wrapped his arms around the woman.

“He’s your… husband?” Abby asked, recalling Martina’s word for Bertholo.

“Aye,” she said, “and I his wife. I hear they do things differently up the mountain?”

Abby nodded.

The woman took her husband’s coat and hung it by the fire. “It must be a hard life there, too.”

Abby had pitied the lower villagers for so long, the woman’s sympathy caught her off guard. “In a different way, perhaps. But yes.”

“It must be,” the man said, “for you to have run away. Feel any better?”

“I do, thank you. But I came here with a friend. Have you seen her?”

The man and woman looked at each other, concern etched on their faces. It was the man who spoke. “A party from up the mountain passed through here during the night, and returned not long before dawn. I don’t know if they caught her or gave up in the storm.”

He didn’t add the third possibility – that they had found Martina in no state to bring home. Abby prayed to the god that she was somehow safe, somehow still alive, but the prospects were bleak. “What if she’s hurt? I need to find her!” Or at least find what happened to her.

The woman turned to her husband. “You’d best go with the lass. Let me worry about the fields until you’re back.”

The man nodded and draped his still-damp coat over his shoulders. “Alright, just don’t overdo it. I’ll hurry back.”

Abby wrung her hands. “I could never ask that of you…”

The woman smiled, her eyes sparkling with tiny flecks of gold. “There’s no need to ask.”

There was no thought, no hesitation. Their generosity shamed her. “How do I thank you?” she whispered, trying not to cry. “I don’t even know your names.”

“I’m Davyn,” the man said, “and the wife’s Tarah. And think nothing of it.”

But she couldn’t. Overwhelmed by their kindness, Abby did cry. They had taken her in, given her food they couldn’t spare, even though they had nothing.

No, not nothing, she realized. Abby saw with envy how the woman leaned against her husband, their child squirming in the cradle. They had something worth more than the safety of Sanctuary’s thick walls and steady rations. They had a family.

Despite the snowfall, it wasn’t hard to follow the Seekers’ tracks. There had been eight, maybe ten of them in the group. It wouldn’t surprise Abby if Father had emptied the city of Seekers to hunt her down.

As the sun rose, lighting the sky like frozen fire, Abby paused to lean against a stunted tree. She fumbled with the pouch of dried leaves Tarah had given her – featherfoil, the woman had called it. She didn’t like the herb’s bitter taste, and wondered if her nausea wasn’t a little worse this morning, but at least it took the edge off her aches.

Davyn climbed a rock to peer above the thicket, searching the landscape with a frown. “It can’t be far now. Not if they went this way.”

When, a few minutes later, they broke free of the short, scrubby brush, Abby saw what he meant. The land fell away in a cliff so sudden it made her stomach lurch.

“Careful. It gets slick here.” Davyn caught her elbow and steered her away from the edge. “Looks like they turned right, toward Giant’s Nose.”

A sudden gust tugged at Abby, yanking her coat and scarf, and she clung to the man who, a few hours ago, had been a stranger. Even in daylight, the track along the rim was daunting; she could hardly imagine how terrible it had been for Martina, alone in the dark. Where had her friend gone? “Is there a path down, ahead?” she shouted over the wind.

Davyn didn’t answer. They marched on, crunching the snow’s icy crust beneath their feet. A hawk wheeled and screamed; from far away, another returned the cry.

The path came to a headland, jutting over the valley below. The tracks formed a cul-de-sac in the snow, where the group had milled around before turning back. There was no way down – none that a person could survive. Had they cornered Martina here and captured her? Or…

Abby crept to the edge and peered over, her heart thudding in her chest. A cry escaped her lips.

Far, far below was the sled, dashed to pieces on the cruel rocks. Beside it were two bodies. Except for the blood, they looked like broken dolls, discarded by a careless child. She drew back in horror.

Davyn closed his eyes. His jaw clenched, and he swallowed hard. “I’m sorry for your friend. I’d feared the worst, but it’s something else to know.”

Abby sunk to the ground, numb with shock. The bitter wind pulled back her hood, teased her hair into streamers, but she barely felt it. She had abandoned her people and failed her only friend. Save the child in her belly, she was utterly alone.

Davyn took off his hat and twisted it in his hands. “Listen… Why don’t you come back to the house? We can–”

“I have to see her.” She wasn’t sure why, but she did. She wanted to say farewell, maybe build a cairn. Martina deserved better than to be left for the carrion beasts. “How do I get down?”

The man gave a heavy sigh. “There’s a rope we use to haul up peat from the valley, but it’s not safe for a person. The wind could dash you against the cliff.”

She’d given up safety when she left the stout walls of Sanctuary. She could skulk home once Martina was buried, but not before. “I’ll risk it.”

They backtracked half a mile, to where a rope was coiled beneath the snow – one end secured to a boulder, the other tied to a wooden basin. Abby stood in the bucket and gripped the rope for dear life as the man lowered her down. Though it swayed and rocked with every gust, she reached the bottom without disaster.

From there, she followed the cliff wall, climbing across shifting piles of scree. She nearly stumbled over the bodies before she saw them.

Up close, she recognized the other corpse. Joriel. He was the youngest Seeker, barely more than a boy, and eager to prove himself. She realized he was the one who’d caught them on the mountain slope, and the puzzle pieces shifted into place.

For a second time, Joriel must have rushed ahead of the pack. He’d caught Martina at the ledge, and, rather than be dragged back to Sanctuary, she’d flung them both to their death.

Had the other Seekers, mistaking Joriel for her, given her up for dead? What if that were why they’d turned around? It could take them a day or more to recognize their error, time she could use to get a head start… But to where? She had lost her friend, her guide. How would she survive the wilderness alone? Abby knelt beside Martina’s broken body and wept, sobbing useless apologies.

Through her tears, she noticed something clutched in the dead woman’s hand. It was a leather thong, torn from around her neck. Abby pulled it free of her grip, and stared at the mystery dangling from the cord – a silver ring, in a pattern of woven vines. Salome’s ring.

Why would Martina have stolen it? When had she even had the chance?

Abby held the ring up to the light, awed by the workmanship. It had to be from the wasteland. The smiths of Sanctuary were adept at forging tools, but they brought no art, no beauty to their work.

It was also smaller than she expected.

On a hunch, she tried it on for size. Though Salome had worn the ring on her thumb, it was too tight for Abby’s. She found it snug on her third finger.

There was no way Salome’s hands were so tiny; the ring wasn’t hers, but its twin. So what did it mean that there were two? What was she missing?

As Abby studied Martina’s face, almost peaceful in death, her friend’s words came back like an echo. We said our vows, traded rings, and pledged our lives to each other. Understanding struck her like a bolt from the sky.

It was no coincidence that Orphiel had found Martina just as her life had been destroyed. To persuade her to come to Sanctuary, he had first needed to isolate her. Bertholo’s ring, the bottle of wine – they were a boast, grim trophies of the hunt.

Orphiel had killed a man, and for what?

She knew the answer. It was the same thing that drove all her people, had driven her. Father’s approval.

Abby turned aside and retched.

Even in service of the cause, how could a Seeker do such evil? Did Father know the cost of his prize?

Deep, deep down, beneath the thoughts she allowed herself to think, she knew the answer. The great cause justified anything, even atrocity. Father would stop at nothing to breed seraphim back into this ruined world, because that was the only way to save it. The Seekers, as extensions of his will, would do the same.

Martina, her, her son… they were nothing but tools to be used and discarded. But what if the Patriarch were wrong? What if the world didn’t need seraphim? What if all his plans, all his schemes, were nothing but the crazed obsession of a wicked old man?

There was only one way to learn the truth.

They left the next day, in the pale gray before dawn. Davyn led a goat laden with supplies gathered from around the village, while Abby followed. Everyone had chipped in.

Abby didn’t question the villagers’ kindness anymore. It made sense now. For people with nothing but each other, working together was a matter of survival, a way of life.

Together they cut through a small, scrubby forest, more brush than trees, until the village disappeared from sight. The wind was fresh, and the sky brightened to liquid gold.

Some time after noon, footsore and hungry, they stopped for a quick rest. “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to stay with us until the child comes?” Davyn offered. “Space is tight, but we’d make the room.”

Abby scratched the goat’s wooly beard. “I know you would. You’ve already done too much for me.” She cringed to think what would happen if Father found them hiding her. And besides, she’d find no answers in the little village.

His mouth cocked into a half-grin. “Tarah made me promise to try.”

By evening, they came to a jutting outcrop of rock. Davyn left the goat and scrambled to the top. “This is it,” he called down to her. “The farthest I’ve been. It’s guesswork from here.”

Abby climbed up behind him and took in the view. The landscape rippled with shadow-dappled hills, endless steppe – and beyond that, who knew? She felt the walls of her tiny world expanding, giving her room to breathe. She sucked in the frosty air.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” she agreed. The vast expanse, full of danger and possibility, thrilled her. She was done being told how to live, what to believe. Never again would she be the Patriarch’s creature – and god willing, her son never would be. Their choices, right or wrong, would be their own.

Abby closed her eyes and pictured Martina scaling the slope those few brief weeks ago – from freedom to prison, from life to death. She imagined herself treading those very steps in reverse, each footprint a guide and a gift.

“Thank you, Martina,” she whispered to her absent friend. The words would never be enough.

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