I remember rain.
A single drop spills from above, splashes against the cold metal that sits over my eyes. My teeth grit as light spills uncontrolled into my senses, bathing me in heat and ice-cold starshine, and I reach up to hurriedly swipe at it, brushing the liquid from the plate, as it all fades to the slow burn of the lantern against the midnight sky.
It must have fallen off while I wasn’t concentrating. I fumble at my side, and my fingers find purchase on the wide brim. I return it atop the ashen skin of my head. Good. No more risk of that happening again. The plate shudders, the bone at the bridge of my nose twitching at its touch. Something below me is screaming. I can smell it.
I look out over the tower’s precipice at the churchyard below. Cracked headstones and unkempt grass bursting through the pathways. There was a caretaker here once. Soleth, he was called. I remember him. He invited me and my family into his home when we stumbled into this village, lost and afraid. I remember the senses, I think. The taste of the rich tomato soup, the sight of the fresh bread, the laughter of his son and my daughter, the smell of his flesh as it bubbled and split open, consumed as he was by the sickness that devastated this place. Consumed as he was by rage and teeth and fear.
I remember fear, I think as I raise my weapon. I remember the screaming of my wife as she reached out for me before his claws raked across her back, of the confused terror of our daughter as she ran into her mother’s arms and met only that which was no longer her yet wore her smile. Of my moment too long, stood at the doorway, before they all spat something into my face that burned out my sight–
I squeeze the trigger and he falls quiet again. Goodbye, Soleth. You showed us mercy when we were at our most vulnerable. It is a grim favour to return, as it has been each and every one of these past few days. I hear nothing else. I think even the worms have long given up attempting to claim these things.
I see a twinge of pain in my abdomen, and briefly shudder as the metal that threads through me lies to my stomach again. It is my error, I think. I thought of that bread and soup. It is no matter; the metal is a skilled liar.
I am not hungry. My watch continues as the icy rain beats against the brim of my hat.
I remember cold. I remember sprinting up the mountain behind the town, panting and blubbering as the denizens spilled from their homes like pus from blisters. Uphill is my only recourse, I remember thinking. The high ground will be safer. And so I pushed my body, even as my blood soaked my mouth and dampened my clothes, running as fast and as far as I could muster, my hands searching for every upward incline and feeling the temperature drop lower and lower. I remember Art smiling as she told me it got colder the higher you got. One of her many stories mumbled before we sloughed off to peaceful sleep together.
I remember sleep.
Time has passed. I taste the creak of the wood behind me, the slight protests of leather gloves and boots as they climb. Not enough space to draw my rifle again so quickly. Need to relocate–
They are speaking. The metal across my face quivers, and I bite my tongue to stop myself from screaming in pain. It has not heard this before. It has no brain, so it is racking mine.
“-the hells is going on here?” Shanatan Dethek. He is speaking the old runes of the Shield Dwarves of the west. A dwarf, then, probably. The angle of the blade at my throat would indicate the same. “What’s going on here?”
I remember pleading. When they found me, Art and little Thena running out of the Underdark into the slums of Waterdeep. They called us freaks. Lolth-worshippers. Dark elves. Drow. They tried to slit our throats and take what little possessions we had. I hold my hands up, tears biting through the dirt on my face. Push Thena behind me. Take me. Take me and leave her.
“What? Just listen here, I’m not going to hurt you.”
His words crash against me like waves on coastal rocks. He is lying.
I am on the tower. He is still speaking. I lower my hands. “I…I am sorry.” I, too, am lying. My own voice stings and burns me. The knife has gone, at least.
“Is this it?” Every mouth movement is followed by a cacophony of beard bristles beneath. Definitely a dwarf. “Is this the Lab I’ve heard so much about?”
“It is not,” I say. “It is much further up the mountain.”
He stomps his feet on the ground as he utters words that the metal declines to translate for me. I reach forward and grip his shoulder.
“You must be quiet,” I say. “They will hear us.”
He plants his hand on my forearm and forces it away, keeping a tight grip. “You’ve been, haven’t you? You’ve been to the Laboratory?”
I remember the Laboratory.
I remember reaching the top of the mountain. Falling to my knees at the great cast iron gates. The heat bursting from above, from what I now know were chimneys.
“Demeter Poe, I presume.” I remember her voice. A scratchy contralto, cut with the fiery sulphur of brimstone. A tiefling. “What brings a woman such as you here to the Laboratory?”
I remember my tears, from eyes that were no longer there. My voice choking in my windpipe as I told her the story of what had happened to Art, to Thena, to the town below. About how I never should have let them out of my sight.
“Oh. Oh dear.” She had taken my hand and led me forwards. “Stand now, that’s it. Come into the warm with me now, we have a lot to talk about. I want to help you. Do you want me to help you?”
I remember accepting, and feeling the slice of a blade between what were my eyes, feeling the cables burrowing through my sinuses, knitting around my eardrums.
“I will find a way to help your family, Demeter Poe,” said the voice. “And fear not. Your watch will never end.”
The dwarf is attempting to pry off the device attached to my left arm. He is muttering to himself.
“Give it here, you stupid bitch! I need this!”
He reaches over his shoulder and swings with a handaxe. He is aiming for my neck.
I leap backwards from the tower precipice, a reel of cable spooling out at my side and connecting me to its wooden frame as I descended onto the church’s roof below. A single drop of rainwater spills from the brim of my hat onto the metal over my eyes; a momentary flash of light. I fall without a sound onto the tiles, and I raise my face upwards to look at him.
He is roaring, and leaping through the air towards me, an axe in each hand.
I remember folly.
We burst through the soft tiles of the roof and tumble towards the pews below. I twist at my waist and the cable disconnects from the bell tower’s railing, following us on the way down. The axes fall from his grip as he slices at my black coat, at the fabric around my neck.
I hit the ground beneath him. I should have been knocked out on contact. Perhaps even died. But I feel the metal tighten around the base of my skull, my lungs held steady. My watch continues.
The dwarf’s leg is dislocated. I can hear his pain. He stands regardless. His fury outweighs the damage. I empathise.
I remember fury.
He looks past me and his roar gives way to a scream.
“What…what have you…what is that?!“
I turn to track his gaze. I seem, chained to the pews at their necks and what limbs remain. They shriek and moan, as they have for weeks before this.
I turn back to the dwarf, who is now hobbling a sprint toward me, axe at the ready.
I raise my left hand, and the device on my forearm hums into life. He glances at it briefly, and his eyes roll back into his head as he falls backwards. I am told that he will have seen thousands of metres of rope bursting toward him from it. In reality, of course, he just thinks as much. He lies, hyperventilating, on the ground before me.
I kneel down beside his ankles.
“Others have gone before you,” I say, “to fix what has been broken here. They were the last I allowed through here. You will leave this town and never return.”
“What makes you think I’ll listen to you, you dumb drow who-AAAARRGGHHHHH!”
I remember insults. I have instead seen to the injury. The dwarf’s leg is mended.
I produce the rifle from my back and aim it at him. “I will not repeat the instruction.”
He is panting. He is scrambling to his feet. “I’ll be back! And….and I’ll bring more!”
I fire a single shot into the ground beside him. There is no sound, I think, but the wood splinters and ruptures as he whimpers.
I lower my head. “You will not.”
He is gone. Dissolved into the night. He slams the doors of the church behind him.
I turn to the great shackled creatures. The larger of the two breathes softly, and I allow myself a smile. The metal twinges above it, and I taste hot soup, smell fresh bread, feel strife, know suffering and–
“Artemis. Athena. I will find a cure for yo-“
The larger one is smiling back.
“Demeter? Is that you?”
The smaller breathes with new lungs.
I falter. Light bursts into a thousand colours and the heat of the coast as a single tear falls from behind my visor.
Love. I remember love.
Special thanks to Gavin D. Pak for consultation!