They head out, much to Solanus’s dismay.
“What? We’re leaving already? But we just got here!” Solanus says. “I wanted to see some cool stuff!”
“You don’t have eyes,” Lucian says.
“You don’t have to rub it in,” Solanus says with an audible pout. “And you could at least tell me about it. I’ve always wanted to see Gold Valley.”
“I can tell you about it on the way to wherever we’re going,” Lucian says. “There’s a clearing downstream and something is supposed to happen when the moon’s at the highest. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work because the new moon was only a couple of days ago, so it’s not going to hit its peak while it’s still night, but we should probably take a look anyways.”
“A clearing? How the hell are you going to find the right one?”
“I’m hoping it’ll be obvious once we get there,” Lucian says, adjusting her bag. “Come on, Isla, let’s go.”
They head downstream. There’s no boats in the river now, having all pulled into the dock for the night. The sun dips just below the upper edge of the west cliff face, darkening the entire town under a large swathe of shadow, and one by one, people head back into their homes and lock the doors behind them. All the machines grind to a halt and the town falls into silence. Isla can’t see even a single lit window.
The path leading out of town is wide and well-trodden, and it’s clear that plenty of people pass through besides the ones living in town. If the well-stocked marketplace was any indication, this town has a lot of trade from the river and passing through the mountains.
Strange, then, that they would close everything down so abruptly at nightfall.
“I guess we really are far from the heart of the Empire,” Lucian says. “People aren’t usually this suspicious. It’s probably a good thing we’re getting out. This place creeps me out.”
Isla’s inclined to agree. Between the strangeness of the machines and the frosty reception of the townspeople, she’s not feeling great about this place, either.
They reach the edge of town just as night properly falls. There’s a stone curtain wall and a large set of iron gates, at least four times as tall as she is. A set of guards brusquely escort them through and slam the gates shut behind them.
“They didn’t have to be so rough with us,” Isla says. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I’m more worried about why they’ve got those gates to begin with,” Lucian says. “It can’t be easy to make something that bag. Makes you think they’re trying to keep something out, or in.”
Isla makes a face and keeps walking. She doesn’t like the sound of either possibility.
Out in the open, with only the thinnest glimmer of the crescent moon, it’s endlessly dark. Isla can barely the road in front of her, much less anything in the distance or where they’re going.
She moves to grab the lantern, but Lucian stops her. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves if there’s something dangerous out here.”
“I can’t see,” Isla protests.
“I can,” Lucian says. “Stay close to me. I’ll keep a lookout.”
Isla grumbles, but Lucian has a point. Out in the open in this darkness, a light would be visible for kilometers around, and a lantern under these conditions is much less useful for seeing than being seen. If there really is something lurking out here, she would much rather avoid it if at all possible.
They continue on in darkness with only the sound of crickets and water gurgling over rocks and their own footsteps on the path’s loose stones. Isla’s eyes adjust to the darkness enough to see silhouettes of bushes and rocks around her, but not much else.
The path diverges at a bend in the river–the wider branch leading away from it and a smaller dirt path hugging the riverbank. They take the dirt path.
As they keep walking, the craggy rocks thin out into flatter plains and shrubbery gives way to trees. The trees aren’t dense enough to be called a forest, but they’re plentiful enough to keep the environment from being bare.
“Do you think that guy was lying to us?” Isla asks, a few hours into their walk. She’s tired and her legs are sore from walking all day, but they still haven’t found whatever clearing the man was talking about. “He really didn’t want to talk to us.”
“Maybe,” Lucian says. “But he was scared, for sure. Everyone in that town was scared of something. You don’t build gates like that for fun, and they look like they’ve been there for a long time. There’s something out here, and whatever it is, it’s been around for a while.”
Isla sighs. “But we haven’t seen anything. Or heard anything. If there was some…I don’t know, big monster around here, we would have noticed some signs of it, right?”
“Not everything that can hurt us is something we can see or hear,” Lucian says. “Just because people are scared of it doesn’t mean it’s some kind of big monster. It’s something that can be stopped by a gate, that’s all.”
“That’s…not comforting, Lucian.”
“No, I guess it’s not,” Lucian says. “Come on, we need to keep going. The moon probably won’t hit its highest point until sometime after sunrise, but we have to find wherever this clearing is, first.”
Isla makes a face. She’s not sure how much further they’ll have to walk to find something as vague as ‘a clearing’, but waiting around won’t get them any closer. She keeps walking.
They continue onwards, and the woods become more dense as the air starts to chill. Isla pulls her jacket tightly around her, but even that doesn’t seem to fend off the unseasonable cold.
“This isn’t normal, is it?” she asks. Her breath makes the slightest puff of mist.
“What?” Lucian asks.
“The cold,” Isla says. “It’s getting…really cold.”
Lucian takes a second to think about that, then says, “I don’t know. I can’t feel it, but if it’s colder, then maybe that’s a sign we’re close.”
Isla rubs her arms. “I hope so. I don’t want to walk like this much–”
Lucian stops abruptly, cutting Isla off. Isla leans to look, and the tree line suddenly comes to a complete stop, along with everything else. The only thing she can make out is an unnaturally circular area of seemingly smooth hard-packed dirt, several meters across, without even grass or loose stones.
“This must be it. Whatever is going to happen, it’ll happen here,” Lucian says. She pulls her knife out and slowly walks towards the center of the clearing. “I don’t like this.” She swipes at something on the ground with her foot. “And what the hell is this stuff?”
Isla squints. “What stuff?”
Lucian kicks the ground again. “You know, all this–”
She’s cut off by the sound of howling wolves all around them.
Isla whirls around. “Where is that coming from?”
“Nearby,” Lucian says, holding her knife up. “It doesn’t sound good.”
Isla takes a few steps back until she’s nearly back-to-back with Lucian and she pulls out her own knife, as if a short utility knife will be able to do anything to whatever is making that noise. It’s better than nothing.
More voices join in the howling, blending into a discordant force of sound all around them that sets Isla’s teeth on edge. Slowly, one by one, they walk out of the tree line.
They’re not normal wolves. They’re silver with the sharp blue glow of artifice inscription running down their spines and trailing into their limbs. Their fur isn’t so much fur as overlapping plates of metal that shine with unnatural magical light.
Isla exhales and her breath crystallizes in front of her. The cold bites her skin, freezing her fingers stiff around the hilt of her knife. She swallows nervously. She doesn’t like her chances right now at all.
The wolves approach slowly, circling in closer and closer with intelligent eyes that glow bright blue in the darkness and bared silver teeth. As they step closer, Isla can make out the outlines of brass gears turning between the plates of their fur and hear the click of twisting escapements and clockwork. She tries to take another step back, but there’s nowhere for her to escape to.
“We-We’re looking for something,” she says shakily. “A magic object, uh, and one of the townspeople told us to come out here.”
The wolves, as expected, do not react.
“It was worth a shot,” Isla says, tightening her grip on her knife.
“Yeah? Maybe try something else,” Lucian says. “Magic might work better.”
Isla nods urgently, not daring to look away from the approaching wolves. Magic would be useful here, if only she could remember how to use it. Illegal or not, she’s regretting not having practiced right about now, and all of her notes were washed away in that lake.
She raises her free hand. “Stay back. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will.”
“They’re automata. I don’t think they feel pain,” Lucian says through clenched teeth.
That isn’t the point, but Isla can’t say so because just then, the wolves launch at them, flashing razor-sharp teeth and claws.
“Get back!” Isla screams, flinging out her hand. There’s a blinding pink light, and a mass of jagged metal throws her to the ground, pinning her with ice-cold claws. There’s snarling in her ears and blades against her neck, claws ripping through her clothes and biting into her chest and stomach, and–
A red flash fills her vision and everything is blocked out by a sudden rushing sound.
Then there’s nothing at all.