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Infernal machine! Komae thought as her butt ached. What was the point of getting anywhere this fast? Walking was natural. You could experience your surroundings, sense the forest, the birds, the plants. This…this had…no life.

Alethea had been different than she’d imagined, more personal. Of course, she realized, Alethea was anything she wanted to be, and the last time she’d fought in the Battle of the Ancients she was a holy terror. Curse my memory. She tried to ignore her thoughts away like she was trying to disregard the dust on her face and the taste of earth in her teeth.

She followed the others, the odd couple ahead, as they kicked up dust for a half mile behind them. Quickly, she’d dropped far enough behind to miss most of it, but the wind had died down this afternoon, so the cloud of fine particles didn’t blow to one side or the other, but waited patiently for her to ride through it.

Grit between her teeth

It was the first time she’d been out of the forest in a thousand years. The lack of green made her feel naked, exposed, uneasy. The lay of the scarred land brought back all the memories she’d tried so hard to forget. The lifeless machine under her roared and rattled, feeling like it would fly apart at any moment. Whoever thought containing explosions within moving metal was a good idea?

A machine, a Hader holding on tight to her waist? What next? Ugh…the grit between her teeth was getting worse.

She realized, though, that all her uneasiness added up to dread, knowing where she was headed. The landscape was unrecognizable except for the general outline of the terrain. Once this had all been lush, ancient forests, the lowlands leading to the great oceans beyond Nilfheim. She used to wander these forests, touching the trees, listening to their stories, naming them. They had been her friends. She didn’t remember when she had started naming the ancients, but it seemed like the thing to do, and she remembered thousands as personal friends.

Though generally the same within the species, each individual tree had a resonance all their own. Komae’s own theory was that they sang, in their own way, a part of the song of creation, like a person might do in a large choir, each individual adding to the whole to create a beautiful medley. Some grew straight and tall, reaching for the sky, while others branched out in profusion, like they reveled in catching as much sunlight as possible. Great, broad leaves provided shade for all those who stopped from time to time to rest beneath.

An absence of disgust

Her bike jarred underneath her. An unexpected dip in the road, water erosion. Skidding to a stop, feet down, Komae thought, I’m tired of this. She turned the bike off. She felt Meha stiffly unwrap herself from behind. Komae lifted her goggles to her forehead, realizing clearly where she was. The Valley of Pillars.

She took her water flask from around her shoulder, opened it and offered it to Meha. The Hadite drank greedily. No matter, we are almost to the port. She knew the river, if they needed, ran parallel to the road just beyond those low hills to the side.

Meha returned the flask, saying thank you. Komae, pointed ears exposed, upended it to her lips, drinking, realizing this was the last forest water she’d drink for some time. The water in Nilfhiem was bitter by comparison.

Her captive sat down on the ground in the meager shade of the bike. Captive is not right, Komae thought, passenger is more appropriate. She certainly wasn’t a friend, though. She wondered at the absence of disgust in her heart for this woman. It had always been easy to abhore Haders from a distance. Once, she’d eagerly hunted them down in the forests for what they’d done to her world. But up close, it was…difficult.

Meha was smaller than Halans, short hair, rounder face. That scar marred her looks, too, which, if she’d simply wash might have been pleasing enough. She just didn’t seem the demon that Komae knew she was, the killer of planets, part of the hordes of Hades come to destroy everything that was good.

I’d rather walk, she thought, loathing the thought of riding into port on this infernal thing.

Do not follow

She looked around, unable to ignore it any longer, saying to her fellow traveler, “Wait here. I will be back.” She left the flask. “Do not follow.”

Trembling inside, Komae looked to the left, something she’d avoided until now. The pillars, rough hued stone standing upright on the broad valley, lined each side of the road where they’d stopped. Komae knew hundreds of thousands of these stone memorials stood as silent sentinels to the slaughter. After the Great Rebellion was put down, it took many years to complete them, yet no one would stop until all were remembered. Those who lost loved ones converged on this place, working tirelessly to remember their fallen comrades in arms.

The pillar

Ever since they’d descended the escarpment to the waste lands below, Komae had hoped she could ride right by, passing through her painful memory without stopping. Yet, she could not. Now, she walked steadily towards the stone she’d worked so hard to erect, seeing it in the distance, the only thing left of the love of her life.

Her heart grew heavy as the pillar drew nearer, the one she had selected after months looking in the surrounding hills. She and others worked to drag it down to the plain, where they lifted it into the hole she’d dug, the necklace her lover had given her at the bottom.

His name, on the tip of her tongue, could not be spoken as she touched the stone. One of the horrid consequences of the Dark Tech was that there were no bodies, people were simply erased from existence.

Falling to her knees, placing her palms on the cold stone, she wept.

Shadows lengthened, binary suns set, the air grew cool.

I’m sorry

“I’m sorry,” came the unexpected words from behind her.

In a flash, Komae twisted around and up, curved knife flashing in the sunset, sweeping the woman’s feet with her own, throwing her hard against the earth, blade at her throat.

Meha didn’t fight or struggle at all, other than to catch her breath. Komae clearly saw fear in her eyes, yet she said again, quietly, “I am so sorry.”

“You should be dead!” Komae growled. “He died because of you!” Controlling her anger, she withdrew her blade.

Part of her still wanted to slit this Hader’s throat, watch her bleed out, choking on her own blood. But she looked up at the pillar, then down again, realizing the truth.

It was time to stop. It was time to stop everything.