Chapter 4:

The Question

The Melancholy of a Whimsical Half-Elph

Lights flicker in a windowless room. Mold grew throughout its cracked walls with a diffusive putrid scent. A man with a wet potato sack was tied to a chair with twisted legs. His coughs and pants were muffled beneath the thick fabric. His body was covered with fresh cuts and bruises from hours of torture. His mind raced to the approaching footsteps and the now-familiar sinister chuckle. Janus leaned in, hearing the man’s hoarse breathing.

“Come on now,” Janus whispered. “By now, we should be familiars. Why do you still fear me after all our time together?”

The man whimpered when his captor placed his cold hands on his shoulder.

“I’d think you’d open up to me… Like old friends,” Janus added. Behind him, Crescendo observed. His superior reminded him of how unsettling he could be. The uncharacteristic friendliness against his enemy was all for show; A kiss of death he knew didn’t work. Janus merely gave a contrasting illusion without rhyme or reason. To the long-standing security chief, it was par for the course.

“Cressy,” he spoke. “Has he answered the question?”

“He hasn’t,” Crescendo replied. “But, I don’t think—”

“That’s unfortunate. I pity the young man. Such a great physique meant for battle, yet he sided with the wrong people. Tsk, tsk! If only he could answer the question.”

“I don’t think someone without the means could know it.”

“Then are you saying I’m unreasonable?”

“Eh, no…”

“Ah, for a second, I thought you had balls. The Crescendo I heard about was a wild dog that ripped apart his enemies. Yet, here he is, neutered and senile.”

Crescendo bit his lips but nodded along when his boss turned away. Janus leaned close to his captive with a wicked smile. He sang the question: “I wanna know if you’ve ever seen the rain coming down on a sunny day… Do you know who sang it?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” the prisoner yelled. His constraints rattled against the wood. Janus blinked, bemused by the response.

“Then you really don’t know? How unfortunate. Alas… I must be going. There is no need to keep you around. I’ll let Butch deal with the rest.”

“Hey! W—what? You didn’t ask me anything?”

“If you can’t answer a question that matters to me, what more do we need to speak on?”

After Janus made his way to the door, a man with a chainsaw entered. The man was heavy-set with a rubber apron and protective gear covering from head to toe. The ragged beard burst beneath the face shield. He pulled the string, firing up the chainsaw’s motor.

“Hey, don’t forget to record it,” Janus said. “I got a few folks in Neo-T’Rach that like to get their hands on this.”

The executioner silently acknowledged. Crescendo exited behind his boss as their captive panicked. The motor rumbled loudly once the door shut, competing with the young man’s screams.

“Was that necessary?” Crescendo questioned. Janus glanced over before putting on an earbud. “He could have important intel we can work with. Why… Did we ask him a question about who the singer was to a song?”

“Cressy,” Janus shook his head, popping in the other earbud. With his finger on the device, he asked: “What does it matter when you already have all the answers? You can ask whatever the hell you want and watch them squirm.”

“But what if they got something we don’t know?”

“Crescendo. Do you disagree with my methods?”

“Well, no—”

Janus closed the space between them. His empty eyes looked into Crescendos as though analyzing him. His subordinate couldn’t look back, but he flashed a toothy smile. The prisoner began screaming as bone crunched from the first cut. He said: “Then understand this, kid. I’ve done this for a living long before you became a wanderer and longer than you’ve been alive. I’ve seen it all. These rebels don’t do anything different. It’s like, uh, a formula… Predictable. Humans are predictable. They cling to hope in a very… naïve way. But that ain’t hope. No, no—”

The prisoner’s ear-piercing screams interrupted Janus’s train of thought. He let out a lowly chuckle when he looked toward the door. He concluded with a pat on Crescendo’s shoulder: “Real hope lies in understanding what comes next. Doubt consumes. Now, let me play my song.”

Janus pressed the button with a widening grimace. Crescendo walked beside him, glimpsing the subtle shifts in the movement. All the while, whimpering, screams, and a chainsaw filled the ambiance in Crescendo’s thoughts. They called this place, The House of Madness. Nothing needed to make sense when you were above the law. As the pair entered the next corridor, Janus moved his shoulders. Crescendo winced.

Is he—Dancing?

Indeed, Janus was dancing down the hall before reaching the entrance. He shoved the doors open, revealing the vast base. To his right was a hangar that housed aircraft and ground vehicles. There was another hangar full of ammo and hover bikes ready for deployment to his left. Janus looked to the sky with his arms stretched out. The rain drizzled upon him under parting skies. The sun peaked through the dark clouds, marking the end of a passing storm.

Janus’s song finished. He turned to Crescendo, who did well to hide his confusion. Janus said: “Let me show you the ace in the hole.”

Beneath one of the hangars, they walked through a pristine hall that stretched further from the base. Crescendo didn’t ask questions. He wondered what an ace in the hole meant in the context of their visit today. The rebels were on edge and couldn’t compete with Janus’s forces, let alone deal with the Ethoxians. The answer lay beyond the giant doors at the end of the hall.

“And here we are,” Janus gestured at the door. “The only thing that really matters.”

They entered a large room with consoles and screens filling the right side of the room. Across from it was a glass window that stretched the entire wall, and behind it were bodies. Crescendo inched over, examining the details. Though they seemed human, their skin texture lacked the organic quality of a normal human. Their vessels shone beneath the lighting devoid of clothes as they were connected to wires behind them. Janus strolled next to his subordinate, drawing his glance.

“Wait, there are—” Crescendo winced.

“Our deterrence,” Janus replied. The wanderer narrowed his eyes. “I know it hits close to home since you worked with her closely.”

“Deterrence? For… What? Nuri is dead!”

“But we have Cire, which the Ethoxian government fears. But Cire is far too powerful to control, especially since she’s steadily gaining influence on the younger generation. They want to end the occupation, but securing peace also means preparing for war. And now we have Enne, who clearly takes after Nuri, but in what capacity—”

“Are they human?”

“No, but they are fueled by mana, so sentience is a debate amongst many.”

“Mana? We’re using spirits to fill these vessels?”

“They’re the first of their kind. What’s the problem?”

“What’s the problem? Seriously?”

“Since when have you become so concerned with ethics? Look around us! We have unlimited resources with the forest spirits just miles away. So what if we use the dead to fight our wars? I mean, why not? We let the past hold us back in every other aspect through culture and ideology. We hold these things a little too… sacred. Yet we can’t use it to our advantage in practical means? Seems silly, wouldn’t you agree?”

Crescendo feigned his silence while examining the synthetic beings. The memories of a time long past repeated. Their glazed-over eyes gazed back., devoid of life and self-awareness. The wanderer glanced at his boss, who smiled at the death machines.

“Don’t give me that, Crescendo,” Janus said. “It’s not like Nuri was a saint herself.”

“No—” he nodded. “She wasn’t.”

Crescendo pondered as feelings of sadness crept. Janus brandished an object from his pocket. The wanderer glimpsed an obsidian bullet through the clear glass reflection and the menacing grimace on Janus’s face.

“Androids aren’t the only things we got,” Janus said.

“That’s—Draco-glass?” Crescendo’s voice quivered, though maintaining his typical tone. “We were ready for this.

“We knew Enne would come at some point. Eh, but let’s not worry about her. These things are on standby, just not tested. These bullets and resilience aren’t her only concern.”

“You expect her to… Fight?”

“She’s a Bouvire,” Janus reminded. “All they do is look for a fight!”

Meanwhile, Enne walked by the small shop a few blocks from where she stayed. Its simple, dull trinkets were enough to draw her in. It reminded her of the market back home. She wondered how things were, staring blankly at the wares. Her eyes shifted away when she felt the shopkeeper’s gaze. Enne knew he noticed her elven traits. As she passed through the tourist district, she felt a strange sensation. Spiked buzzing with measured footsteps to match; No matter where she was, they were never too far, and her pursuers were coordinated. Even with those further along the line, she wondered how they could synchronize.

Could it be? No way! She thought.

She reached the library to the west, which stood by a large pond where the reservoir once stood. Flooding had submerged the areas centuries ago. The library had overgrowth throughout the sidewalk and entrance. Its architecture had minor signs of upkeep and seemed abandoned. That impression was quickly done away when Enne got closer. The double doors slid open, revealing a grand hall that contrasted the aging building as she strolled in. The sun shined through the upper glass ceiling. Its warm glow brought out the dull marble floors. At its center, she found a familiar face. A set of blue eyes narrowed from behind the desk.

“Never took you for a morning person,” Enne said. She walked over with confident strides.

“Fuck off,” Salem replied. Her voice was hoarse from a night of drinking. “You must be lost. The bars have menus you can read.”

“Oh, but I prefer big words!”

“Big words? Okay… Seriously? What are you doing here? Nobody, I mean, nobody ever comes here!”

“My… curiosity brought me here. I overheard there was a library by the pond.”

Salem sighed as she stood.

What she wore wasn’t any different from usual. The outfit framed her frail physique, and her purple hair was tied into a messy bun. Her tired eyes seemed listless from a long night. Throughout the entire ordeal, Salem couldn’t look Enne in the eyes. Enne found her sudden disposition unusual.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Salem replied. “Where’s your—significant other?”

“Significant other? You still don’t believe him, and I are together?”

“He looks like he’s way older than you.”

Well, eh… There’s a reason for that. But, we got back pretty late.”

“Hm? What happened?”

“Perhaps we can have a walk through the city’s historical segment.”

Salem looked up to find the glint in Enne’s lilac eye. Enne found Salem’s reaction akin to Alejandro.

“Why—Do you smell like fish?” Salem asked. Enne sniffed her hood.

Crap, I shoulda washed my hair out before I left, Enne thought.

Their footsteps echoed throughout the chamber before reaching the door. They entered a room; Its design was minimalistic, with a console at its center. Salem wondered why Enne suddenly appeared and why she was curious about the city’s history. Salem stepped in front of it, tapping it gently to activate a faint screen. Enne leaned in close, in awe.

“This is—” she uttered.

“This console contains everything you need to know about Frederick,” Salem answered, hearing a gasp escaping her lips. Enne was fixated on the projection. “So, you gonna tell me what you’re doing here?”

“The truth,” Enne replied. Enne turned to her slightly.

“The truth? Come on. There’s nothing here of note—”

“What do you know about the forest north of—Brunswick, I believe?”

Salem shuddered, narrowing her eyes before she answered. Enne skimmed the contents of the main screen, tapping intuitively at the closest thing to what she was looking for. Salem soon met Enne’s eyes. Something was amiss within the archives.

“What did you see out there?” Salem questioned.

“Things that don’t quite belong,” she teased.

“Speak clearly, elf! Don’t come here to insult my intelligence.”

“That, I’m not. I’m merely teasing you.”


“But I feel what we’ll find isn’t in this.”

Enne strolled toward the other door. Salem followed. The next room they entered contrasted the other with its antiquated feel. Enne’s fingertips skimmed along the rigid book spines while passing the bookshelf. She looked over her shoulder to find a familiar set of eyes gazing back, the silent scrutiny of being Undermined, although it wasn’t her intent.

“You remind me a lot of myself,” Enne said. Salem rolled her eyes as she shut the door. “Back in my youth.”

“And how is that?” she asked. “Aren’t you like… 27 or something?”

“Try a little over 320, but after 200, who really keeps track? Allie is about 300.”

“No way.”

Enne shrugged, slowly shifting herself toward Salem’s direction.

“I… Never joked around much. Everyone… looked at me differently since I was a half-elf.”

“You… Look like any other human woman, barring the ears.”

“It wasn’t always like that, especially at home. I had to steel myself from everything they said, no matter how hurtful.”

“Then what did you do?”

Enne looked out the window and smiled. She watched the creek’s gentle flow. Salem wondered what she was like. How did she come to the person she became? She walked next to Enne, sensing peculiar energy. Enne chuckled as she looked at Salem’s reflection. She continued: “Let’s just say there were things I needed to figure out.”

“Truth?” Salem reiterated. Enne nodded along.

“My truth nestled within the past... And the future. Should I go on being angry at the world or embrace the beautiful things within it? What good does hate bring? That was a question my mother once posed to me. At first, I couldn’t understand. I was ever-powerful; I carried out my duties to a community that feared me. I was a product of impossible love between a human woman and an elven father.”

Salem cast her narrowing gaze aside. Her words had reached a part of Salem she thought she’d done away with. She realized Enne was far different than what she imagined.

“We—Should get back to it. You needed to know about Frederick’s history. I hate to disappoint, but there isn’t much to go on, especially what you’re asking for. We still have some documents on its founding, but the rest were destroyed in the flood decades ago. Other than that, everything isn’t quite verified through the console.”

“That should do.”

They continued further into the depository. Enne summoned an orb that lit their surroundings. Its soft green energy cast shadows throughout. Salem was awed. She sensed immense energy exude from the tiny object Enne held. Enne glimpsed each book spine, wincing and commenting when she found something interesting. Salem pointed her in the right direction at the end of the room. Enne found it strange the city’s records were locked away in a dark room. While she pondered, Salem pulled a withered book. Dust fell from its top as she handed it over.

“You keep the city’s history in a room like this?” Enne asked.

“Few see it as important,” she replied. She could see her frown before turning away. No one advocates for it either, unfortunately.”

“The past is just as important as our reservations about the future. Sometimes, it can provide a little hope.”

“And insight?”

“Not always.”

Enne opened the book. Her black-tipped finger trailed the old pages. It was a few pages where she discovered something that stood out to her, like a strange pop-culture reference. The image associated further confirmed what she saw last night as her finger hovered over it. Her interest raised at its dragon-like body and tentacles protruding from its mouth.

“Snallygaster,” she whispered. Salem looked from around her shoulder.

“That—old thing?” Salem asked. “That was nothing but a tall tale from the settlers.”

“This is what we saw last night.”

“Eh? How much did you have to drink last night?”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury. We found… strange happenings at the station. Everyone—”


Enne slowly turned to her. The orb revealed Salem’s curious gaze. Perhaps the answers weren’t necessarily in the books Enne sought.

“How did you know?”

“Utterances mostly, but you just confirmed it. The bandits here have a hard time keeping things under wrap. They’re saying the rebels abducted them, but the Mountain is home to many secrets.”

“The Mountain? You mean the area around Brunswick?”

“It’s part of the Appalachians. South Mountain was what they called it before the Collapse. The thing is, these disappearances were already under-reported. That Snallygaster may have nothing to do with it… maybe. These portals are unlike the ones from long ago.”


“It was claimed from the indigenous that the entire land was cursed. They were too afraid to step foot in those parts.”

“You realize how… out there, that sounds, right?”

“Coming from someone who seems pretty open? This is surprising.”

“What are they trying to hide?”

“With Janus in charge, anything and everything. His bandit network apparently works close to those dirty Elves.”

Enne exchanged a cold glance toward the seer.

“Shit, my bad,” Salem said. Enne returned to the topic.

“Then… Something doesn’t seem right. Why were they so on edge if this was a regular occurrence?”

“Like I said, it’s their way of hiding things. The rebels… Have gained ground. The Elves and the bandits they employ are nervous. It would say a lot if they have to send their mechs to fight. They just want to arm them with the cheaper stuff.”

“How do you know that?”

“Eh, I know some people who’re close to the source.

“Is that so?” What’s so important about this area?”

“Resources, of course. Neo-T’Rach is just up the road and home to the region’s biggest mining site. The portals seem to be an inconvenience. Imagine word that the bandits can’t maintain their hold?”

Salem saw Enne’s frozen expression as the orb hovered off her hand. Something jogged her memory as she leaned against the dusty desk. Her scaley fingertips stroked her chin. The portals allowed in many creatures from her father’s home world. Could the beast have been here several centuries before the Collapse? Enne finally looked up.

“What? Salem asked. “You… okay?”

“Perhaps I should pay them a visit,” Enne said. Salem’s mouth gaped slightly.

“Are you out your fucking mind?”

“I’m a half-elf. I can handle myself!”

“Exactly how does reaching them resolve this issue?”

“What do you mean? It clears the confusion… And it’ll give me a better understanding of what’s going on. Things aren’t as they seem.”

“You realize Janus is going to be watching you?”

“You don’t think he’s already doing that? He knows something about my history that I don’t know.”

“Then what the hell are you doing?”

“Stirring the pot.”

Salem sighed. She set down a map of the region, pointing south of Burkittsville. Enne followed, recognizing Brunswick immediately. Her eyes traced the roads and the land’s subtleties from the old map. Salem looked over, discovering Enne’s insatiable curiosity. Tapping her finger twice on the map, she said: “You’ll find them around here. The bandits have a weak influence in the area.”

“Who will I be looking for?” Enne asked.

“You might not need to look too far. The rebels will be watching.”

Enne returned a smile.

This was... Certainly a more loaded chapter. Both narratively and thematically. Enne is slowly driving the plot along with her curious nature. She's practically a curious cat. Part of me should've made her a cat girl, but... I digress. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment and a like. I'd so appreciate it!

Harmonica Writes