Chapter 11:

the wings

Aboard the Winnow

“Lili, I must admit, I am still quite curious about how you managed to draw an excess of ether to the point of…”Bookmark here

Auren’s eyes shift off to the side. He’s eyeing the shattered wings. It’s only been a hot minute since Lili’s woken from her slumber, and she’s felt like she’s been mixed around in a blender on the highest setting ever since. It’s not entirely his fault, but he’s bombarded her post-unconscious state with enough questions that she’s not entirely sure that he’s innocent anymore. She feels numb, and in dire need of a few extra hours of sleep. Bookmark here

“I just did what I had to do,” she answers simply. Bookmark here

The answer doesn’t impress Auren at all. He asks again, this time slower. Lili just gives the same reason. What else should she do? It's not like she's got an answer for him because she's just as confused as him, if not more.Bookmark here

Not that the memory of what had happened to her before blacking out has faded away into obscurity quite yet. She still remembers how the bright shock of pain had scattered throughout her entire body when the fuel tank decided that her best was not enough. It had felt like being crushed between two beds of microscopically-thin needles.Bookmark here

"Foreign ether knows no owner. I could only imagine the torment that was imposed on you."Bookmark here

She raises her head again. "I'm guessing I wasn't supposed to do that."Bookmark here

Auren doesn't respond, because he's already asked the same 'how?' question so many times that even he's starting to feel exhausted. He’s an endless vat of curiosity, and there’s nothing she can do to sate him.Bookmark here

He changes his method of attack. "Lili, perhaps we could both benefit from an afternoon stroll in the Hives. We could have you fitted with a new pair of wings. Perhaps a newer model might suit your needs.”Bookmark here

So she wholeheartedly agrees, because if there’s one thing she absolutely despises, it’s wasting away in Avett’s shadow. The bitter sting of shame from their first encounter isn’t as bad anymore, but it still plays and skirts along the corners of her mind, a mosquito she can’t quite stamp out. Bookmark here

Lili’s not sure what she’s expecting when they arrive in the Hive’s main shopping district, but it sure isn’t a square full of off-landers… and not a single Human in sight, which might actually be a good thing. Then she catches herself and straightens out her back. She can’t let Avett rub off on her like this, especially when it’s her own people that he’s referring to when he’s on one of his maddening rants about how dangerous the Hive’s third spire is to off-landers. Bookmark here

Even then, there’s a slight inkling of doubt in her head that’s telling her that somehow, these Hive Humans aren’t the same as the ones she’s been well-acquainted with before the fall of Earth. It’s in the way the Hive’s main square feels more industrialised than the Afflatus’ snug network of living spaces. Pipes are exposed, walkways are devoid of any natural plantation, and above each stall’s entrance is a thin string for slamming down iron shutters at a moment’s notice. Bookmark here

Lili bites the inside of her cheeks and breaks out into a gentle jog to keep up with Auren’s long stride. All of a sudden, her caster’s uniform feels like it could be iron-inforced armour, proof of her allegiance to the off-landers and not… them. “Did we ever find out why the radar stopped working mid-flight?”Bookmark here

“I did make sure to question the repairmen before they headed off for lunch.” His expression furrows; Lili’s stomach drops like a weight in response. “They found no abnormalities. I even examined the machinery myself, though the internal functions were incredibly delicate, so I was not able to draw any conclusions without promptly ripping the entire apparatus in half.”Bookmark here

She eyes his stubby fingers. To say that she’s wracked with guilt is an understatement. “There were two artifacts,” she mumbles. Bookmark here

Auren doesn’t answer at first. “And we only returned one,” he finishes. Bookmark here

It’s all downhill from there. She explains how they’d first assumed that the snow globe was the artifact the IRC had requested, how it had trapped them in a neverending version of the mall she knew and loved all those years ago. How she’d thought it was after Avett when in truth it was after her all along, and now it’s somehow following her, influencing the world around her for the worse. She doesn’t tell him about how she’d seen Avett’s gruesome past. She especially doesn’t tell him about the smouldering, burning thing that the globe had shown inside herself. What the globe had been truly after.Bookmark here

When she finishes, they’re already standing in front of the shop’s entrance. The interior is a deep blue, a stark contrast to the world of porcelain-white tiles they’d been subjected to while walking over. Bookmark here

“It seems that you have made a new friend, Lili,” Auren responds. Bookmark here

Her reply is curt and serious. “I have reason to believe that it’s what caused our radar to stop working.” Bookmark here

The inside of the store smells like an office—stale, with freshly printed papers, and a hint of laundry paste that’s wafted from the workers' primly-kept suits. Crystalline ornaments line the walls like she’s in an antique store, and as always: no Humans. She should probably stop looking for them at this point.Bookmark here

“What would you like to do about it?” Auren asks. The shopkeepers give him a puzzled glance as they stroll past a glass case containing what seems to be incredibly expensive wings. Bookmark here

“Preferably get rid of it.” Bookmark here

Auren stops in front of a particular line of wings. These are noticeably less sophisticated than the one Lili had seen in the glass case. The ‘crystals’ aren’t multi-faceted gems that have been shaped into teardrops but are instead flattened, glassy plates. They fan out from the middle, and they look more like upside-down maple leaves than actual wings; a far stretch from the ones she had before. Bookmark here

She turns to Auren. “I can handle bigger wings.”Bookmark here

“Bigger is not better.” Bookmark here

It’s hard to stop herself from scanning the store. The section that they’re in only makes up a tiny fraction of the establishment; the rest of the walls are covered in real wings, wings that drip heavily with gemstones and still manage to look elegant rather than gaudy. “What’s wrong with those ones?” she asks.Bookmark here

“A frontline caster’s needs are vastly different from those of a backline caster’s.” He detaches the wings in front of him from the wall and holds it out from the straps. “You do not have the luxury of going bigger over functionality.” Bookmark here

She presses her lips together. Then she takes off her cape and sides her arms through the straps. The feathers of the wings tinkle against each other as they fall back into a resting position.Bookmark here

Oh, god, she can hear the hushed snickers from behind the counter already. Dread drips through her, and for a moment, she feels just as heavy as the other wings in the store. At least she has her license on hand today.Bookmark here

If Auren had heard them, he makes no indication of it. “Channel your power. See if they fit you.”Bookmark here

She shuts her eyes and braces herself against the walls with both arms. She imagines dipping her hands into the pools of ether around her, lowering her head underneath that deep, neverending, silent abyss—Bookmark here

With a gasp, she snaps her eyes open. It’s cold. Chilly. The absence of power in her veins feels just as oppressive as the abundance of it.Bookmark here

“Lili?” Auren moves to block the shopkeepers from her view. Bookmark here

Her eyes slam shut again. This can’t be happening to her. She needs something simple. Something to prove these off-landers wrong, that she’s not just some deadbeat Human who lucked out and managed to score a side job as a leecher aboard a mercenary ship. Bookmark here

And yet, no matter how hard she tries, all she can manage right now is to teeter at the edge of the void, like she’s looking at the Mariana Trench through a glass-bottom boat. Bookmark here

Her hands fall back from the wall. Confusion makes her furrow her eyebrows; anger makes her grind her teeth together. Bookmark here

“Lili.” Auren bends over to meet her gaze. “Is something the matter?”Bookmark here

“Everything’s fine. These wings are great.” She slides them off her back and folds them right back up before offering Auren a tender smile. “I’ll take these. And we’ll meet outside, is that ok?”Bookmark here

She hands off the wings to Auren and leaves the store as quickly as she had entered it. Waiting for him, the ever-capable caster and Gallian, to finish up his payments and take her back to the ship.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

The moment she’s back in the ship, she’s facing her distraught self in the form of a glassy reflection with the bathroom door shut firmly behind her. Her knuckles—white. Her face—as white as her bronze skin will allow it. The abyss had not merely gazed back. It had engulfed her, bones and all, like she was nothing. In the state that she is now, she might as well be nothing.Bookmark here

“Close your eyes, Lili.” Her voice breaks. She goes through all of her emotional triggers for ether: happiness, joy, euphoria, pride—and when that doesn’t work, she turns to anger. Raw, boiling, guttural rage. And when that doesn’t work, she drives her fist into the wall below the mirror.Bookmark here

The plaster doesn’t crack. Her hand draws back bloodied. Bookmark here

She stares at it, her lungs heaving. It’s all dripping over her hands, staining her pants, pooling onto the floor. Her affinity is hers—her ether is hers. It should come naturally to her, as simple as manipulating a muscle, as shaking out a knot in her leg. That’s what Auren told her. So why isn’t it working?Bookmark here

A whimper comes out of her mouth as she clenches her hand and runs it underneath the tap. All of this, and she still needs to tell Auren about the artifact, except he doesn’t seem to care. She wonders briefly if it’s just the artifact’s presence that’s been throwing her off, but the occasional flashing memory of the ethereal abyss serves to correct her. Bookmark here

Useless. She’s useless. An effigy of her former self, constructed from straw bundles and yesterday’s newspapers. Bookmark here

“Aaand here you are.” Bookmark here

Lili stretches her face in incredulity. Of all the people— Bookmark here

Avett closes the distance between them in two, easy strides. His eyes fall onto her hand, then onto her face. Bookmark here

“Impromptu training,” she says. Bookmark here

“Like hell it is.” In seconds, he’s got her by the wrist in an iron-firm grip as he leads her toward the counter that’s underneath the medicine cabinet. It’s scary how strong he is when she doesn’t have her affinity to cover her weaknesses. When she tries to shake him off, all she succeeds in doing is mildly inconveniencing him. Bookmark here

So she doesn’t fight back. “Thanks,” she mumbles. Bookmark here

His nose crumples, just slightly. Then he answers, “You’re a handful, you know that?”Bookmark here

She winces. And it’s not just because Avett is shoving a ball of alcohol-soaked cotton into her open wounds. If only he knew the gravity of the situation. No, bad idea. She doesn’t want that.Bookmark here

“So what brought this one on, Lilith? Haven’t seen you this angry since…” He makes a revolving motion with his other hand. “You know.”Bookmark here

His seemingly innocuous question throws her off guard. She opens her mouth, shuts it again, then reopens it like she’s a fish gasping for air. Avett is the last person she should be saying anything to. Bookmark here

“Nothing,” she says.Bookmark here

“You know, that just so happens to be the exact same thing—word for word—that I told Ysh’vanna when she wanted to know about our little artifact encounter. I know you’ve tons to say—especially after that little stunt you pulled with our engines.” He’s wrapping the bandage around her hand again. She’s always injuring herself, and he’s always there, standing at the ready to mop up her shit.Bookmark here

“It’s nothing,” she says again. Bookmark here

Even after he’s done with the bandages, he’s still holding onto her hand. “Nothing,” he says, meeting her eyes, “is the word people go to when they’ve got plenty to say, but can’t find the resolve to just spit it out.”Bookmark here

“That’s crazy, because I’ve actually got nothing.”Bookmark here

He lets her go. And thank god he does, because she swears that she’s never going to get used to this genuine intimacy thing. She’s gotten hugs from Ava, though those had only served to make her uncomfortably vulnerable. Her mother and father were two entirely different matters altogether. Hugs were currency with them, given to her when she aced a test or acted in line with their ever-increasing demands. Bookmark here

She likes to think that she’d received one from Avett as a reward for listening to him, but as the tender minutes roll by, she’s not so sure about that anymore.Bookmark here

Finally, he leans back onto his hands. “I spilled my guts out to you in that ship. Wouldn’t mind if you did the same to me.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, well.” She stands back up, her focus trained onto the multiple reflections of herself on the bathroom tiling. “I’ll mind.”Bookmark here

Hurt flashes over his eyes. Bookmark here

A muscle in her heart twists painfully. She's been drafting her farewell speech for the possibility of when Auren finds out that she’s dead weight and outs her current predicament to Ysh’vanna, whereupon they’ll drop her off at one of the Hive’s other, less cordial spires, but at the end of the day it’s not like she’s actually ready to hand in her license and uniform. At the very least, by keeping it all to herself, she’ll be able to stay on board for longer. Long enough to hopefully regain her composure and her abilities. She’s staying pessimistically hopeful. Bookmark here

Thankfully, Avett changes the subject. “You heard about our next job?”Bookmark here

She shakes her head. Bookmark here

“You’ll like this one.” He’s grinning up a storm, his prior vulnerabilities having now dissolved into gentle mischief, which just fills Lili with optimism. “We get to go after a B rank.” Bookmark here

Shit. Bookmark here

She covers her mouth with the back of her hand and coughs. “What kind?”Bookmark here

“B5. Would you look at that. An Equaliser.” He flips through his GlassLink and shows her an image of something that looks like it should really belong in a compendium of supernatural occurrences. It carries itself around from underneath a gossamer mist that falls over its hunched, four-legged body like a cloak. Its head is a long tube that protrudes out of one end like a misplaced straw. But the thing that truly arrests Lili’s attention is its eyes—staring directly at her, so keenly that she swears she can almost make out her own stupefied face in those animalistic, glassy beads. Lili’s not even entirely sure if the photographer’s even alive anymore. Bookmark here

Avett pulls the phone back. “Scared of ghosts?”Bookmark here

She clenches her fists. She must’ve looked a little too shaken by the dragon’s appearance. “Hardly. It looks like what you’d get when you ask a kid to draw a giraffe.”Bookmark here

He freezes, blinks—then laughs. “Stars, that’s aptly put. Wish it just stayed in that kid’s head. Environmental workers around the area reported multiple headaches, then vivid nightmares, then their ethereal equipment just stopped working. They left before the hallucinations started hitting them, and for good reason too; I hear they hurt like a bitch.”Bookmark here

A weak aura. Still an aura nonetheless. The image of the blood splatter on the wall is still fresh in her mind, fresh even to make her cringe inwardly. She can’t possibly comprehend how Avett feels about this. “So we’ll just be… walking in? Going insane?”Bookmark here

He shrugs. “Yeah, pretty much.”Bookmark here

A choke catches in her throat. “That’s—”Bookmark here

“I’m not worried.” His hands ball into fists as he leans against the wall of the bathroom. “It took a week for the workers to even register that something was up, and by then all their equipment had crapped out on them. We won’t even be in the area for any longer than three days, and maybe we’ll even finish the job in an afternoon.”Bookmark here

For the first time that day, she willingly meets his eyes.Bookmark here

“What?” He shrugs again. “I’m just not worried. There’s risk, and then there’s perceived risk. If we play our cards right, if we do our job as mercenaries, we’ll be fine.”Bookmark here

Then he stretches out his hand in front of her, his palm outstretched. A handshake. Presumably to ease her nerves.Bookmark here

Lili is silent at first. His flippant attitude is an easy outlook for her to subscribe to, even considering her current circumstances. Avett is incredibly capable on the field, even while working on his lonesome. In fact, he prefers it. Maybe her loss was predestined.Bookmark here

For a moment, she thinks about telling him. But then she locks it away behind all of those endless walls and bars and padlocks. He’ll be able to handle himself out there. He never needed her anyway. Bookmark here

She takes his hand in hers and squeezes it with all the strength she can muster. “Our job as mercenaries,” she repeats.Bookmark here

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