Aboard the Winnow
All initial intentions of keeping the house as they found it had gone out the window the moment Avett found himself face to face with a keyhole, as little as it mattered. But with the addition of each smashed nightstand, each punched-in cupboard—courtesy of Lili—all they managed to do was waste time. It’d taken the better half of the hour, but they’d ended up finding his phone in the infirmary cabinet, tucked between a bottle of expired pills and a pile of handmade bandages. No punching required, as Lili had soon realised. Her hands would be sore for days after anyway.
They’d been staring at the blank screen for far too long, expectant and nervous, when Avett brought up another problem; that it had to be charged.
Lili tries to hide the disappointment in her tone. It’s hard to even for her, with her flat tone and all. She poses one simple question: “How.”
“Bioelectricity conversion or something, I don’t know. Not my field of expertise. It’s why they advise you to sleep with it, as much of a privacy concern as it sounds.” Avett shakes his phone—sure enough, the screen goes from transparent to a matte black. “Look, it’s getting there. Give it a few minutes.”
“Minutes,” she echoes. “Surely it’ll charge faster if I hold it as well.”
He jerks it out of her reach, and for once, genuine fear flashes across his face. He composes himself a second later. “You’re not touching this.”
Standing up, he pats down his thighs and makes for the exit. “A man guards his GlassLink with his pride and life, Lilith. You wouldn’t get it. You haven’t had a phone in years.”
“I’m trying my best.” She steps over a stray wood chip.
“We’re getting you one of these,” he says, waving the piece of foreign technology in the air like it’s a flag, “the moment we’re done with this job.”
Lili snorts. If it’ll help her to understand exactly why Avett’s so antsy about his phone, then sure.
The trek to the village’s gates is—unsurprisingly—uneventful, attributed to the fact that the majority of the villagers are still enjoying their dinners, or at least partaking in the activities that come attached to every evening meal. For the odd outlier that they find patrolling around in the light, Avett and Lili duck into the safety of the shadows.
The gates aren’t far. They’re pressed against the wall of the outmost hut, waiting for that last villager to meander by with bated breath. Only a few more seconds now until he turns the corner, out of sight, out of mind. Between them and freedom lies a dusty dirty path, a hut, and—
Avett leans ever so slightly to the left, pressing his cheek into the bend of the hut. He could’ve sworn that he’d seen something in the corner of his eye in front of him—a wisp, a dark silhouette in the night.
Whoever it was, they’d been fast. The villager at least is nowhere to be seen, and with that Lili starts forward, her eyes scanning the immediate area.
Avett grabs her wrist. It’s too late; behind him, grass blades rustle against each other, disturbed. Someone else is hunting them, and it seems that they’re not too far off. But distance is distance—and knowing Avett, he’ll take any chance he gets.
Lili steals a glance at his GlassLink. There’s a white icon on his screen; a canister with one, bright red, blinking bar. Maybe minutes had been an understatement.
An arrow of pure energy whizzes past Lili’s ear, heating her skin as it goes. It strikes the hut, fizzles into a speck. She looks up and sees a familiar figure. Large enough to protect, but not large enough to intimidate. Mari.
“You elders always have to shoot on sight?” Avett growls.
Lili can’t see her expression in this lighting, but she catches the slightest bob in Mari’s head when she regards the two.
With a swallow, she says, “You know.”
Lili can’t help but straighten her back at that.
“Ok, thank fuck. Maybe we can talk this one out instead.” Avett steps forward—and stops short when Mari points a finger at him, her nails glistening with that ethereal glow.
“You have two options,” she continues, her voice shaky. “You either stay, give into the dragon—or we fight.”
Avett finds himself thumbing the globe at his side. Realisation settles in as Lili watches Mari shift her gaze to hers. Her, the outlier. The one who had remained defiant against the wrath of the storm. Fear and apprehension at the gear that ticked the wrong way.
They can talk her out of this. Lili holds both of her hands in the air. Mari wobbles backwards at the sudden movement, but keeps her breath steady.
"We're not fighting," Lili says. A knot of nausea tangles itself in her stomach, but she wills it down, smooths it out. "Mari, you need to explain exactly what you've done here."
"Only what I've been doing for the past six years," she spits.
"This village is a feeding ground for the Equaliser," Lili continues. "You've been nurturing it for years, and if you don't stop, you'll—"
"We have no other fucking choice!" She slams her fist into the wall. "You think we want to be here, feeding the enemy, so far removed from the world we used to know? I know what I've done. I know that I've fucked up, I know, I know."
Lili falters. Then she holds her head a little higher. "You're the ringleader. You're the one behind all of…" She gestures behind her. "This."
Mari sighs, letting her hand drop from the wall. "It's… it's not that simple. I spent ages trying on my own time, trying to amend the ways I'd messed up, but it's no use. We're powerless without it—and it's powerless without us. Pretty soon, I'd forgotten all about it. Accepted it, in a way."
Avett shakes his head. "This isn't your fault. You're a victim."
A hoarse laugh. The figure holds the sides of her arms. "Do victims kill their parents?"
The words knock the breath out of their lungs. For a second, no one knows what to say.
Killed on a Saturday, not a Friday.
She continues, facing away from the two. "I told you earlier that their bodies had been buried under rubble. I lied. Their bodies are right here, and yes." Mari fixes Lili with a stone-cold stare. "They died on a Saturday. When I bought them here, when I first struck my deal with the Equaliser out of fear, I came back to two bodies. An initial tithe I was forced to pay—two half-lives to sate its hunger. A gorging to predate the slow feast it would have to itself soon enough.
"I couldn't stand being alone, and I knew it would kill me soon if I didn't bring more cattle to feed from. So I lured the lost with lanterns, kept them fed, taught them how to use the dragon's magic as it taught me. The villagers had no reason to leave—I don't know if you know this already, Lili, but there isn't a world for us out there anymore. But here, we're Humans. Not refugees, not survivors—Humans. We could fight back if we wanted to. Even if we could, why would we leave?"
Lili's hands shake at her sides. "Because the Equaliser gets stronger by the day, and soon, it'll be a problem for all of us."
"You think I don't know that? With the increase in mercenaries over the past months, they've all said the same thing. They come to eliminate the problem at the root, to free us from the dragon without killing us—" She takes in a shuddering breath. "—and then Will makes it violent."
Mari doubles over, practically coiling herself in a tight ball. She looks like a woman who's already imploded a thousand times before this night. Lili gets it; it's hard to seperate the catalyst from the cause sometimes, even harder to look upon your failures without loathing yourself.
With clear, steady affirmation, she says, "We're hunting down the Equaliser tonight."
Mari chokes. "You can't. So long as it feeds from us, you can't."
"Then sever your bond with the dragon." Lili keeps looking up, her chin tilted towards the stars. "You're a Human. You're strong enough on your own. So act like it."
The two don't move, don't flinch as they stare each other down, eyes meeting eyes, Human meeting Human. For a second, she thinks she might actually be getting through to her.
Until Mari yells, lunges, and swings her fist straight into Lili's face.
Her back hits the ground, the skin on her shoulders burning as fabric and dirt rubs her body raw. She lands face down, her bones aching, her jaw stiff with the bitter sting of iron and pain. When she pulls herself up again, she sees Avett standing in front of her. As she had done for him back in the warehouse.
However, unlike Will, it seems that Mari is entirely prepared to fight past Avett to get to Lili.
“You don’t understand,” she whispers. “We would be nothing without this power—nothing.”
Desperation flickers in Avett’s stance, and he pulls up his blaster. The chamber is dull, unlit—empty. He curses before flipping his grip over to the barrel, brandishing it like a makeshift club again.
Fighting back a groan, Lili squints up at their adversary, calling her name, calling it over and over like it's a two-syllable mantra. She has to get through to her. If she can’t, who will? If she can’t, what would that make her? Where would this all leave her?
Mari only bares her teeth, her hands blazing with black fire. “Avett. Move.”
Her partner’s response is muffled. They’re no match for Mari, not together, certainly not apart, and most definitely not in the current state that Avett is in. Mari whirls, her fists coated in an inky darkness that would burn through even the lightest of days. Her flame licks up Avett’s side, and he screams, frozen—before she drives her fist into his stomach and sends him careening into the wall. The globe tumbles from his pocket as he slides to the earth, hardly conscious.
Then she’s in front of her, her eyes unblinking, stoic. Fire crawls through and up and over her limbs, but it doesn’t burn her.
Lili finds that her mouth is dry. So, so dry. Her tongue moves slowly, as if she’s holding a wad of cotton between her teeth and she has to speak around it.
But when she tries, she finds that she’s stuck between begging for her life and begging for Mari to regain her senses. Neither proposal makes it out of her mouth.
Mari takes fistfuls of her collar, lifting her to her knees. Her hands are unbearably hot. She doesn’t say anything—her glassy orbs regard Lili in earnest curiosity instead. Watching. Waiting. A mountain god observing an anthill.
The globe prods into her thigh. It pulsates like a torn-out heart. Ideas and possibilities expand and contract in the blink of an eye, her inspiration unbridled, her vision becoming undone like a gift unwrapped on the brink of Christmas Eve. All she has to do is grab it.
Mustering the rest of her strength, she scrabbles over her attacker’s hands, her wrists. Her fingers claw into Mari’s skin, but it’s no use; the Equaliser’s power proves to be far too strong for her to handle, and her ether just isn’t enough—she isn’t enough.
And then she falls onto her side.
Lili blinks. The grass spears into her cheeks, the dust settles like fine film against her skin. It takes a moment for her to realise that she’s still alive. It takes another for her to realise that Mari is screeching and clawing at her face, holding her palms to her bones like she’s been hit with a cold front. When she moves out of the way, Lili’s face nearly lights up at the sight of him.
Auren stands in the forest, his arms pointed at Mari like he’s drawing back a bowstring. How he'd found them, and why he was here, she has no idea. Lili takes this sweet opportunity to reach for the globe. She savours the hot touch of skin on soul and the cool bite of glass against her cheek.
Then she places it down, holds its base against the earth.
One dragon for another. Another aura for another.
The globe's light blossoms upwards, unfolding itself like an umbrella over the village. When Lili cranes her neck to see the spectacle, she catches a glimmer of blue streak across the sky, its line tracing along the edges of various geometrical shapes. Snow falls from the skies and fades before it hits the ground.
She's freed them, but not for long. The globe quivers in the ground, as if it might explode at any given moment. Mari lies against the earth, her fire extinguished, her grunts becoming feral.
Lili picks herself up. The snow is whirling, whirling—demanding her to leave, to act. She grits her teeth. Mari is dragging herself towards her, her nails stabbing into the dirt.
“Please don’t take it away,” she pleads. “Please—it’s our only leverage against this bitch of a world, please, please—”
Throwing Avett over her shoulder, Lili swallows, her mouth suddenly dry. She could teach them, show them how to harness ether, but Auren is rushing to her side and taking Avett’s other arm already. The Equaliser has been primed for the kill. She has to take this opportunity before it passes for good.
So she does what she does best. She apologises.
Over and over, until the words crumble like dried spice in her hands.