Valley of Ashes


Chapter Three


Anya made her way towards the temple overlooking the shrine, one hand trailing across the stones lining either side of the pathway. Darkness was advancing, the sky no longer bright and cheerful in the colors it displayed. The hues were shaded, the pinks bleeding in crimson. Blues turned navy, and only the trailing white clouds were a reminder of the lightness that had once been there. Below the heaven's vast domain, Vokana settled in for a cold and windy night.

She could see the lights below, torches flickering in the winds. Windows turned to darkness, the lights within blinking out one after another as thing trails of smoke wafted through the air. Anya saw their wispy tails from where she stood, the gray tendrils curling lazily through the sky like a silent prayer to the Great Spirits.

The first star of the night glowed, a brilliant diamond glimmering against the darkening night sky.

"Go to the temple, when the shrine settles," Anya watched the Keeper as he paced, his lined face hard and worn and too-old looking. The ravenette shifted her attention onto the woman in the room, eyeing Misa's downcast eyes as he continued, "I will wait for you there, before Invokana's Relief. Come under the cover of nightfall, where there will be few to see you."

The conversation rang clearly in her head still; she could smell the scented candles and incense in the room, hear the soft murmurs of sung prayer. She did what she always did, when night was soon to fall upon the world; she wondered Vokana's ancient hallways, silently walking through passages none walked any longer.

Crumbling parts of the shrine, they were numerous. The ground fragile, unforgiving in its long and difficult history. In those forgotten places, she could question what had happened and where the people who used to live there had gone. And now she climbed the countless stairs leading to the temple, robes trailing across the stones behind her in dark navies and underlining white.

The trip up the mountain was not a fast one, but it seemed to be as Anya arrived at the top. It was dark, the sky above a celestial reflection of the world and its endless wonders. The stone pathway leading to the temple's doors was rough, each rounded stepping stone jutting out of the ground a few, bare inches. The entrance to the temple was open, the doors seemingly absent as they rested flat against the walls of the scared building.

She entered without pause, silent as she made her way up the stairs. Within, only a few torches were lit. Two lines of them, a stone engraving of Invokana resting the wall. Framed by the fire, the light casting a single, holy trail to the mountain's sleeping Spirit. She paused in front of the first two lanterns, both swaying from where they hung from the ceiling.

The Keeper waited off to the side, sitting upon the ground with closed eyes. She knelt before him, hands resting in her lap as she waited. It was some time, before he opened his eyes. When he did, he held her gaze evenly. He did not look away, attention focused with a sort of clarity and steadfast determination she had not expected.

"It is time to claim what is your by blood and birth," he rose to his feet, making his way towards the two rows of hanging lights as he said, "I had not intended for you to leave so early, to venture where none have dared in centuries. Yet there is no other option."

"Why?" It was an honest question, one Anya wanted answered. The Keeper turned to her, his gaze shadowed as he answered, "Because peace, and harmony, cannot exist without turmoil. The time of peace you have known is ending, and I will not toss you into it without probable cause."

Anya shook her head. "What reasons could there be, Keeper-kova?"

"You are young. Innocent," he was walking towards Invokana's statue, hands folded in his sleeves as he continued, "I am to blame, truly. Many a times I have seen what occurs when something pure is tainted, the devastation that comes after. So I sheltered you, hid you from a world that knows only hardship, war and bloodshed.

"That is, perhaps, my greatest folly," She was not expecting a confession or for the rumbling groan of a floor opening up. She stumbled, eyes widening as he turned to face her. The floor before him, once solid and strong, was shifting. It was changing, sinking downward without pause. A tunnel that opened, encased by fire coiling from the stones above. "I did what I thought I must, to protect you and so many others who fought for you."

"Fought for me?"

"Matters not, at this point," The Keeper folded his arms across his chest, voice even as he said, "I fear I am the bearer of ill news. What is yours lies far beneath us, in caverns long concealed. It is there you will learn who you are and who you wish to be."

"Down there," Anya eyed the stairwell leading into the tunnel, and, somewhere down there, she heard the faint sound of dripping water. It's wet down there, Anya inched away, eyes wide as she stared into the darkness. Her gaze shifted back to the Keeper as she whispered, "You want me to go down there, Keeper-kova?"

"Yes."

She looked between him and the entrance, a sense of foreboding rising unbidden. She felt it curl around her, sensed the shift in energies as a low moan seemed to emit from somewhere deep within the mountain. He wants me to go into there. This is not a joke, but his truest wish. For me...to go down into the darkness, into the cold and wet shadows of the mountain's hidden chambers. She wanted to shrink away, but the firm grip on her shoulder would not let her retreat. His words less so, firm and commanding.

"What is yours is down there, waiting for you to reclaim it," she couldn't drag her eyes away from the tunnel and its gradual descent, his words distant and confusing. She sensed something, a force that nudged the edge of her awareness as something pulsed. It radiated, a steady rhythm that echoed with the beat of her heart as he continued, "You can sense it, Anya-ka. I see it in your eyes."

Anya-ka, how long has it been since he's called me that?

She stepped forward, one hand reaching out for the wall and then the lumpy surface of the tunnel's interior. He was right; she did sense something. She felt it as it echoed, a primal song pounding in the back of her mind and behind her ribs. Thum-thum-thump. Over and over again, a heartbeat of a mountain older and wiser than any man could ever hope, or dare, to be.

Anya screamed, thrusting herself backwards against the gate. Her cheek stung, a bead of red welling up along a thin, crimson line blooming on her cheek. Across from her, from the shadows where the sword's glint had appeared, something ambled forward. It clattered in a way that reminded her of wooden chimes hitting. What stepped forward was not wood, but pale white bone.

Skeleton, her eyes were wide, uncomprehending. It was swaying, blade at its side. Though it had no eyes, it seemed to be staring at her. She felt its gaze upon her, biting into her flesh as easily as its blade had cut her skin. There is a skeleton, in this place. It attacked me. A skeleton.

It was unrealistic, but happening. Dreadful, but oddly entertaining. Anya edged to the side, her gaze zoned in on the creature as a second, then a third, emerged from the shadows. It wasn't all that funny, then. When it lunged forward, blade thrusting in a straight line for her chest, Anya leapt out of the way. She hit the ground, shoulder first.

Then she rolled, body flipping, down an incline. She scrambled to her feet once she hit the bottom, sides burning and chest heaving as she ran from the pursuing oddities. Bare feet stung, small sparks of pain curling through her legs. She slammed into another gate, shouldering her way through as the dead came clattering through closed walls after her.

The room beyond was large, and, at the center, was a massive rock. A boulder, really. Huge, and so very tall. Around it, the dead stirred. Anya shot for the imposing formation, hands slipping against wet stone under she managed to grasp a thick vine draping down the side. She climbed her way to the top, feet flat against the stone.

Grazing her arch, a blade screamed. She was at the peak in moments, pale and shaking upon the flat top. She tucked her feet close to her body, toes curling as she scanned her surroundings. The dead were coming from all sides, in vast numbers as they scurried across the ground like pesky rodents. They all wore tunics of a sort, frayed sashes hanging from bony hips. Their blades were sharp, but rusty – many were an orange-red, the broken pieces an unpleasant sight.

Only one stood out, its approach slow and focused. It wore robes, but these were not like the others. There was a sash, much like the rest, but the sleeves were billowing. It carried a thick, long pole of a sort in one hand – oh, Merciful Divine, please don't let that thing try to whack me off my new perch – that hit the ground with each step. There were colors, too. Rich and earthy, shifting from one hue to another with an underlining sense of intrigue. The sharpness of its emotions, so clear compared to the muted hues of those around it, was impossible to miss.

And she saw, for it leapt. It was advancing, using the other skeletons as stepping stones to rise to her level while the others scrambled and fell. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do, but, when its staff came in range, only one thought passed through her mind:

That staff is mine!

She reached out, and grabbed onto it. It was almost as if the world froze, in that one moment. Anya's fingers closed around the head of the staff, her other hand pressed against the hard stone she rested upon. The skeleton before her stilled, its head slowly turning until it was tilted back with its eyeless face staring directly at her. It was unnerving, feeling a gaze upon her that was entirely inhuman.

It was as if she had committed the greatest of sins, and a silent accusation was being tossed her way. Anya was still for a moment, her hands wrapped around one end and the skeleton's around the other. Then he pulled, and she staggered from the sharp tug. A part of her reared back, and she was digging her bare heels into the stone.

Skin scraped against rock, sharp pains sparking up her calves. "Give me the staff!"

She tugged, hard. The skeleton did not relent, using the skinless face under its feet as purchase. It rose, stepping upward with clanking, snapping jaws. A part of her screamed, as part of its body rose above the top of the boulder. It was at a distance, one foot braced against the wall of the massive rock she stood upon, pulling on its weapon she clutched with a white-knuckled grip. It did not want to release its staff, in any manner.

Anya grit her teeth, huffing as she said, "Please, Skeleton-ba? I promise I'll return it, once I'm done."

It yanked harder, as if to say it did not agree to those terms. Anya felt her hands slipping, her palms and fingers damp from sweat. Her feet slid as the skeleton yanked on its staff, nearly forcing her to lose her footing. She glared. "What do you need a staff for anyway? You're dead!"

It yanked harder than before, its own jaw clenched shut. The staff came free, and the skeleton, it did not fall. It flipped, body twisting through the air before landing soundly on two feet with knees bent. Anya hit the hard stones, sprawled across the boulder's top, and all she could do was watch as the staff-wielding skeleton drove its staff through the spine of the nearest skeleton. Bones flew, clattering noisily across the damp, stone floor.

It was over, quickly. It turned its face in her direction, slamming the butt of its weapon against the ground. Rising onto her forearms, she peered down the boulder to the scattered bones cast upon the earth. Not a one moved, the silence brushing over the area thick and heavy. When the last-standing skeleton did not move, its staff held firmly in one hand, Anya knew the unspoken command.

Come down.

She eased towards the edge, sliding down the ivy-thick rock. She landed awkwardly, tripping and falling with a sharp hiss that was far from graceful. Cheek mashed against the hard, damp floor, Anya exhaled. Slow and steady, air exiting her body as she gathered her mind. When she looked up, the nameless skeleton was looking at her.

Which should be impossible. It was the only rational thing, truly. Anya rose to her feet, knees red and skinned and dotted with beads of bright red liquid. Her hands were worse, heels bleeding and fingers slick. She stepped back, flat against the boulder she gracelessly came off of, as the lone undead being advanced on her. It moved quickly, hand flying out and snagging her wrist. She yelped, when it pulled her away from the stone behind her and around towards a dark, watery tunnel thick with mist.

"Nope," Anya pulled on her wrist, glancing over her shoulder towards the gate she had come through earlier. "I'm going back up towards the surface. Not doing this, I'm not."

The skeleton did not stop. Anya tugged on her wrist a second time. "I'm sorry, Skeleton-ba. If I disturbed your rest, then I shall find a way to make amends. After I'm gone, I assure you. It shan't happen a second time!"

No response. Anya bit into her lip, tugging a third time. Useless, as before. Thin, bone fingers were wrapped around her wrist. There weren't joints, from what she could see, yet they still held together. Odd. She looked towards the arm, its thin form hidden within the billowing sleeves this creature wore.

Why is it dressed differently than the rest, Anya saw the tunnel nearing, and nearly screamed when her thighs were suddenly submerged in cold, icy water. She slammed into the skeleton's back, one hand clasping the hard, cloth-laden shoulder. This did stop the undead being, and it held still as she struggled against the water and heavy folds of her robes. It was cold, and something sharp slashed into the bottom of her foot. Hot pain radiated through her as she pulled the assaulted limb closer to her body, knee bent and eyes stinging as she held onto her unexpected, silent companion. Different or not, he's still dead! Misa-ni, I wish you were here.

Then the skeleton was shifting. There was a sharp sound, like cloth ripping -

My robes! Anya watched, eyes wide in horror, as much of her thighs and down were exposed. The folds of her torn robes, gone from her attire, hung wet and sad in the undead nightmare's grip. Anya stared, looking between the pale flesh of her legs towards the cloth this being held. Skeleton-ba just tore my robes. And now I'm half-naked, wet and hurt. Lovely.

She did not shake it off, when its arm wound around her back. She limped along, gaze on the water. It was impossible to see through the white haze, but she stepped where the skeleton did. Or limped, in her case. Soon they were going upwards, the water sliding away. Anya's grip was limp, and, upon reaching the top, they paused to rest on some old, empty chest made of some old, forgotten wood.

Her foot rested on the skeleton's leg, once it kneeled down. Thin, hard fingers grazed the sides of the injury. How bad is it, she wanted to ask. When it took the torn folds of her robes, binding thin strips around the injury, Anya knew it was bad enough to warrant a wrap. It was easy to overlook the surrounding area and the massive, glowing body of water. It was easy to overlook the silent beast watching them, half transparent bone and half alive.

She would have ignored it, had the skeleton not looked in that general direction. On instinct alone, Anya followed that sightless gaze towards the monstrous form lurking, silently, just before the lake and the island nestled within it. And only when both had turned their attention upon it, two gazes resting upon something dead but not quite, did the creature rise up to its full height.

Then Anya realized one thing: the true test had only just begun.


Author's Note

I'm in VOA mode, and these pages are coming out quickly. The original document is a little over forty chapters long; and in front of you is Chapter Three. We've already went further than ten-thousand words (10k), which will make this story the biggest I have on my profile. Which is something, I must admit. Five Nights is still in the works, the newest chapter proving to be a bit of a nightmare to write. That entire story is a nightmare to write, difficult to drag out when I am more invested in this story.

However I intend to finish it, given it's only five more freaking chapters. Surely I can do that much. And I'm ranting. I must apologize. However, there is a song I listen to now that helps when I want to rip my hair out: It's Gonna Be Okay by The Piano Guys (it's a cover and it's amazing). So if any of you are having a hard time, listen to that song.

Good Day, Goodnight, And Don't Forget To Write (A Review!)