None this chapter.
Amina felt such terrible melancholy when they left the bunker — left it behind, forever.
The cold stone hut was a poor excuse for a home, even a temporary one: the floor and walls were rough and grey, colourless and blank; every surface was rock hard, pitted, and scratchy; the air smelled of dust — not the clean dust of dry earth or fresh straw, but unnatural and heavy; the place was empty of anything except that little side-room full of corpses and rot. Amina decided she did not like concrete. It was a material fit only for building in hell.
But when the angel led the way out of the metal door, up the concrete ramp, and across the rotting black ribbon of the ancient road, Amina could not help but look back.
The bunker was like a little calcified stone wart, slick with slow-drying rain, sunk into the desiccated flesh of the world.
Amina understood that none of them were likely to ever see this place again.
They had left nothing behind except bloodstains and body heat; Pira had even wiped her diagram and map off the concrete wall, smearing the paint to illegibility with the cuff of her sleeve. While the others had gathered up their weapons and stuffed spare equipment into the backpacks and filled the two empty cannisters with water, Amina had felt a desire to scratch her name into the concrete wall. Low down, small, neat, where it might be seen in the future by another lost soul like herself. But she could not mark the concrete. Her nails were too soft. She would have to use the knife, but she did not wish to reveal her hidden claw.
Her demon’s whispers were very clear about that: keep the secret, for now.
The angel led them over the road and plunged into the buildings on the opposite side. Amina looked back, past Pira, who was acting as rearguard. She kept looking back until only a sliver of the bunker remained.
Amina offered a prayer — not to God, who was not here and did not care, and not to the angel, whose mind was on other desires, but to the bunker itself. An ugly little stone tumour, which had sheltered them in their hour of need.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Next to her, Ilyusha jerked round. Claws out, weapon bobbing, eyes up, her beautiful face framed by the dying brickwork of the buildings between which they slid. “Eh? Ami? Eh?”
“Nothing,” Amina whispered. “It’s nothing.”
She turned away from the bunker and concentrated on keeping her place in the group, keeping pace with Ilyusha, and keeping her head down.
Amina felt such terrible melancholy — but the fear was worse.
During the mad scramble for safety after the battle outside the tomb, Amina had not been able to absorb the details of the landscape through which they had fled; she had been too focused on the body of the angel in Pira’s arms, on Ilyusha’s clawed hand dragging at her own, at her pumping lungs and sweat-stained skin and the screaming fear in her belly. But now, as the group picked their way through the corpse-like ruins of eternity, the only thing she could do was observe.
After all, she was no use for anything else in this place.
Her demon disagreed. Her knife chafed against her ribs with every step.
The buildings were impossibly huge and impossibly rotten, an endless patchwork of crumbling brick, concrete stained and cracked, glass shattered and melted, steel twisted and warped and eaten by rust; some buildings were skeletal, empty, windblown corpses, while others were bloated with black rot and dark green growths, bulging and spreading into the streets and alleys. Corroded ribbons of metal hung in the air, swooping and dipping, leading off into the city. Strange humped metal creatures sat dead at intersections, like giant rust-caked caterpillars. Some of the structures were dizzyingly tall, the work of angels or demons or something else Amina could not imagine. She had to crane her neck all the way back to see their ragged tips scraping at the sky. On a few of those tallest fingers, giant bulbs of flesh stood out, fat and red, like parasitic plants soaking up non-existent sunlight.
Beyond those infected fingers, the sky was choked with motionless black. A faint red glow burned in one quarter, pretending to be the sun, trapped behind an infinity of smog. The light offered no heat, no comfort, but somehow Amina could still see well enough.
Her boots scuffed and dragged along paving slabs, on smooth black ‘asphalt’, fitted bricks, dull metal, shattered concrete, but only the occasional stretch of naked dirt, turned to mud by the night’s rain — and the dirt was not brown or black, but grey.
Even the soil was dead.
Horrible sounds echoed through the canyons formed by the buildings: far-off gunshots, the chatter of weapons, screams ripped away by the wind, feet tapping on dead ground, and worse noises, ones which Amina could not name or comprehend.
Amina’s only solace was in the other girls, in front and behind, in how close they moved, how tight their ‘formation’ — a word she had learned not from Ilyusha, but from the angel.
Elpida led from the front, as Amina thought was right; she used hand signals and hisses to call for halts, or to wave Ilyusha forward, or to resume their slow, stop-start progress through the ruptured capillaries of this corpse-city. The angel carried the big gun — the ‘coilgun’ she had taken from the tomb. It looked heavy and bulky, but the angel was unstoppable, and she left the piece that did the shooting locked to the backpack part, keeping her hands free for other tasks.
Atyle stayed very close to the angel, which made Amina’s demon flutter with wet-red jealousy.
But Atyle also had the task of carrying the severed arm-gun which she and Pira had brought back from their quest; Amina did not envy that. Atyle also had the task of sometimes pointing the arm-gun at things — things which strayed too close or wouldn’t go away, things which were interested in their little group, things which did not show enough fear of the angel’s coilgun or her threatening words. Amina never saw those things, because she was always hunkered down while it happened, cowering behind a snatch of wall or Ilyusha’s ballistic shield, her arms wrapped around her own head, trying not to sob or whine, because prey-like noise might attract more predatory attention.
Atyle didn’t care. She stood tall, as if nothing could touch her; Amina understood that the angel had chosen Atyle for that task because of her near-suicidal fearlessness.
That happened five times on the first day; three of those times, the angel and Pira did a lot of shouting — not at each other, for which Amina was thankful, but at the things they were pointing the guns at.
Vicky and Kagami came next. Vicky’s arm was still recovering from its reattachment, wrapped in a sling made from a spare t-shirt. But she was confident on her feet and strong enough to support Kagami. Often she would turn and whisper a few words of encouragement to Amina; Amina liked Vicky a lot. Vicky was kind, and good, and meant what she said. Vicky was not a liar giving lip service. Vicky was a good person; Amina made sure to repeat that in her head, hammering that fact into her demon. Vicky spent all her time helping Kagami to walk, or steadying Kagami whenever Kagami had to use her magic seeing-glass, or helping Amina get into cover when they had to stop quickly because something bad was nearby.
Amina could tell that Vicky was used to this — moving from place to place, helping a small group of friends, sticking together. Amina liked that.
Kagami struggled. She still could not walk properly; her magic metal legs were disobedient. She panted for breath often, relishing every little stop. She said a lot of harsh words, some which even made Ilyusha snort and giggle, and one which made Vicky angry in return. But sometimes Kagami saw things that the others couldn’t, before Elpida or Atyle could spot them. Why did Atyle not spot them first, with her magic eye? Amina did not understand that. Perhaps it was the stress of carrying the arm-gun and watching the angel’s back.
Whenever that happened, Kagami called out to Elpida. The terror in her voice made Amina want to curl up into a ball and stop moving.
Behind Vicky and Kagami came herself and Ilyusha. But Illy could not stay at her side all the time.
Ilyusha had to go forward often, whenever the angel hissed for her help in warding off something that would not go away. Sometimes Ilyusha went forward just because she felt like it, scrambling over broken concrete so she could bump her head on the angel’s shoulder or snap her teeth at the angel’s fingers. She went backward too, looping around the rear of the group, worming her way through parallel alleys and streets until she would burst from some unexpected broken vein of brick and steel to rejoin them again. Claws clicking on concrete, tail lashing the air, Illy was beautiful. Illy was meant to be here. Illy had let her demon reshape her body so she could thrive in hell.
Was that what Amina had to do? Give her demon what it wanted? Change, like Illy had?
Her demon was silent on this subject.
Whenever Ilyusha left her side, Amina’s demon whispered suggestions: it told her to wriggle her hand up inside her clothes and wrap her fingers around the hilt of her knife. But she needed both hands for balance. Walking was hard, and tiring, and the ground was often uneven, and she never knew when they would all have to suddenly stop and hide.
And Pira might see.
Pira brought up the rear of the group. The flame-haired warrior was still recovering from the gunshot wound in her side, her movements a fraction slower and more stiff than before. Pira was also angry; Amina could tell that Pira did not agree with this course of action, this trek across hell’s putrefied hide. But Pira had been out-argued by the angel’s desire. Pira could not resist the angel any more than Amina could; Amina’s demon burbled with quiet jealousy over that, too.
Amina tried to look back as little as possible; she did not want to draw Pira’s attention. But whenever Pira went forward, Amina found herself at the rear of the group, alone and exposed. Better to have Pira at her back than nothing at all.
Progress was slow torture. Amina was not used to travelling long distances, but even she could tell that they were not making good time. The city was a tangle of corpses piled atop each other, necessitating constant detours around impassable areas — craters of rubble, infested buildings bubbling with black rot, strange creatures and machines motionless amid the ruins.
And worst of all, other revenants.
Haunted voices called out from the ruins — not to Amina and her companions, but locked in unseen congress. Great and terrible damned slid away into the dark, or lumbered past the ends of streets, or stood and watched from silent vantage points. More than once, pot-shots rang out through the air, until warded off by the angel and Atyle waving their weapons.
But progress they did, one step at a time; they went north, toward the plume of smoke in the far distance, the thinning marker of the angel’s desire.
Other than that finger of smoke, the only constant landmark was the grey mountain range always to their left: the giant machine-worm, the ‘graveworm’.
Amina tried not to think about that creature. It was too big. A leviathan cast out of the world and into hell, where it belonged.
After the first few hours, Amina found her thoughts turning to nothing. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, until her feet blurred together, through stagnant puddles and sticky mud and solid rot. She concentrated on listening for the hiss of the angel’s voice calling for a halt, calling for them to duck, to scurry into cover like rats. She felt like a rat, or a mouse, or a rabbit diving for a hole.
Eventually, after many hours but few miles, the red smear in the sky grew dim. Amina and the others could still see easily enough — she did not understand how — but her body demanded rest.
That night there was no bunker, no thick walls, no one door in or out. They slept in a huge metal barn; Vicky and Ilyusha both called it a ‘hangar’.
The barn was full of strange dark rusting shapes, metal monsters of sharp angles and long blades and collapsed wheels. The dead monsters seemed to make Ilyusha sad; she stared at them for a long time and wouldn’t — or couldn’t — explain why. But exhaustion and sleep carried away any melancholy.
They bedded down wedged into a corner of the hangar, burrowing into coats and wrapping themselves in spare layers. The structure was set in the middle of a wide open space of blank concrete, with huge archways opening in two directions. The angel said something about ‘good lines of sight’. But Amina would have preferred to hide and build a fire. She felt very cold.
But there was nothing to burn. Only metal and concrete. Did concrete burn? Amina doubted that.
Another difference to the few days in the bunker: they did not all sleep at the same time.
The others took turns to sit up, stay awake, and watch the vast, dark entrances to the hangar, the wide flat concrete plain outdoors, and the jagged horizon beyond. Amina was not included in this process. Pira was offered an exemption, but refused. Ilyusha was passed over for responsibility.
But again, Amina could not sleep.
She was exhausted. Her legs ached. Her mind was stretched thin by the stop-start motion of the day, by the terror of cowering from things unseen, by the dizzying reality of this city in hell. She could not have prayed, even if she had been inclined to do so. She should have slipped into merciful sleep. But beneath a pile of coats, propped against the very corner of the hangar walls, with Ilyusha snuggled up and chewing on her arm, all Amina could do was grip her knife.
The corpse-city loomed outdoors. Full of dead things, hell-bound things, just like her.
A knife was safety. A knife was security. A knife was the demon’s way. And hell was full of demons.
Elpida had taken the first watch. She sat a little way out from the rest of the group, a little further out from the corner, facing toward the horizon, sitting on a metal box which she and Atyle had dragged over from beneath one of the ruined metal machines. Amina stared at Elpida’s back for a very long time, at her shoulders beneath the heavy coat, at the faint hint of her brilliant white hair silhouetted against the distant red horizon-glow.
The angel would protect her — but only until she revealed her demon.
Amina’s demon was already whispering a suggestion: get up, walk over, pull out the knife. The angel would hear her coming. Get it over with. Stop hiding what you are. Stop hiding. Stop.
But Amina was snuggled up with Ilyusha. Illy would wake up, and be grumpy. The others might hear her.
She wanted the angel, and only the angel, to do it.
So Amina watched.
And in the dark, with distant howling caught on the wind, Amina heard Elpida whisper a single word.
Two or three hours later — she wasn’t sure, because she may have fallen asleep — Amina realised she wasn’t the only one watching the angel’s back.
Pira was awake, sitting up. Amina had not seen her move. She was staring at Elpida across the dark cavern of the hangar.
Pira’s watch was next, but she didn’t stand up or walk over to Elpida; she just watched — and listened, Amina assumed, because the angel was whispering her litany of names. Her private prayer of twenty four. Amina strained to memorise all those names — Ipeka, Kit, Third, Howl. Those names were important to the angel. The angel was praying to them, in a way that Amina understood. Perhaps they were the names of other angels, left behind, or betrayed, or loved? Perhaps Amina could pray to those names as well. Inside her chest, her demon retreated a little at that notion.
When the angel had finished whispering, Pira stood and walked over. Her hair was a smouldering ember of red in the dark.
She sat down on the other end of the metal box, as far from Elpida as she could get. Both of them were facing away from Amina, into the night.
Amina stayed very still. She held her breath.
“Pira,” the angel whispered. “Rest well? How are you holding up? How’s the wound feel?”
Pira answered in an even softer whisper. She didn’t look at Elpida. Amina had to strain to hear the words.
Elpida said: “Doing good so far.”
Pira exhaled hard through her nose. “I know you’re still wounded. Can see it in how you move. Your whole stomach is seized up. Internal bleeding making your muscles and organs stiff. We should have waited another day.”
Pira’s head turned toward the angel, just a little. “Having any regrets, yet?”
Elpida didn’t answer for a moment, then whispered: “We made it through one day.”
“We almost didn’t. Several times.” Pira sounded angry.
“But we did.”
Elpida’s whisper was calm and collected, but there was something dead about her voice. “Those two in the powered armour, they ran from us when we showed them the coilgun. The revenant with the scythe, she only left when you shouted at her. Good job, Pira. The group with the … mirrors? They saw us, yes, that was risky. But they gave us a wide berth. We did it. We can do it again.”
Pira stared at Elpida for a few moments, then turned back to the horizon. “This group is half dead weight.”
Minutes passed. Amina didn’t understand why Elpida was still sitting there. It was Pira’s turn to watch. Elpida deserved sleep.
Then, Elpida whispered: “That large group we had to go around, the ones inside that fortress complex, there must have been two, maybe three dozen of them. And the noises, the … ”
“They were eating each other,” Pira supplied.
“Yes.” Elpida straightened up, her dark silhouette rising. “Was that normal?”
Pira’s lips clicked. She whispered, “Sometimes. Sometimes not. Revenants collaborate and split based on a million pressures and variations, but the smartest and least volatile will be bunkered down, waiting for the worm to move. The best spots will be occupied by the strongest, or the most well organized; they’ll hold those spots in case the worm isn’t moving for weeks, or months. The cannibal pack we saw were in the open. Exposed. Disorganised. The only ones moving around so openly are those who can’t do otherwise. The lost. The mad. Predators. Us.”
Elpida breathed a tiny laugh. “Point taken.”
But Pira carried on. “Other groups will be preying where they can. Others still will have agendas of their own, beliefs, creeds. It’s rare, but sometimes revenants from similar eras find each other, find commonality in their ideology. Those groups are often well-organized. Can be very dangerous.”
Pira trailed off. Elpida whispered: “Like the Death’s Heads?”
Pira glanced toward Elpida again. “The what?”
“The people back at the tomb, with the megaphone and the human-skin flag, with the skull painted on it. The one in powered armour who I killed with the coilgun, it — she, I suppose — had a black skull on her armour, too. And Serin, the sniper, she had black skulls crossed out on her arm. Kill counting. She called them ‘the death cult’, but when we were leaving the tomb, the trio we were with, they shouted ‘death’s head’, like a warning that we should recognise.” Elpida turned more fully to look at Pira, two dark outlines against the jagged horizon. “Back at the tomb, when that flag got ripped down, a cheer went up. I heard it. Other revenants, some who’d been fighting each other, they cheered. I haven’t forgotten that. Pira, who are those people?”
Pira sighed. She seemed to be thinking, but Amina couldn’t quite tell, not with Pira all in shadow.
Eventually, Pira whispered, “Groups like that appear from time to time. Omnicidal, aggressive, selective. Skulls crop up a lot in their symbolism. I’ve never had a personal close encounter with them though. I couldn’t tell you what they believe.”
“From time to time? The whole time you’ve been doing this?”
Pira shrugged. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen things like them before. That’s all.”
Pira was lying to the angel; Amina’s demon told her so. Her fingers creaked on the handle of her knife. She tried not to breathe.
Elpida was whispering: “Serin didn’t kill us. I know you think we let her go, but it’s the other way around: she let us go. She was unstable, and violent, and mistaken. But she let us go. Ilyusha and she shared some kind of allegiance, against the Death’s Heads. Isn’t that a start?”
Pira just said: “She’s following us.”
Elpida sighed a little. “I noticed.”
Pira glanced at her. “You did?”
Elpida nodded. “Mmhmm.”
Pira shook her head and looked away.
Elpida said, “She’s highly modified. Is she the kind of person you were talking about, when you mentioned revenants who can live beyond the graveworm line?”
“Not even close.”
Elpida and Pira sat side by side in the dark, watching the horizon. Amina’s demon stirred her heart with jealousy. But she could never speak to the angel in the manner which Pira did. She could never sit up there, side by side with divinity, with this demon in her chest.
Eventually, Elpida whispered: “Pira, where are you from? In life, where did you come from?”
Pira said nothing. She stared forward.
But Amina saw her shoulders tighten. Even as shadows, she recognised the temper of raw nerves.
Elpida waited a moment, then said, “I know it’s an intimate question, but all we have here is each other. You saved me. I trust you. I want to know more about you. If you don’t want to answer, that’s okay. But if you ever feel ready, please—”
“I hate you.”
Pira whispered it so softly, Amina almost didn’t catch the words.
“I hate you,” Pira repeated. She whispered to the dark skies beyond the hangar. “All of you. You did this. You. Them. All your shining cities — your Telokopolis, too, yes. All of you are descendants of the culture which murdered mine. You want to know where I come from?” Pira gestured out — at the corpse-city. “This. This is my life. What came before is barely a memory. The womb. Oblivion.”
A long time passed. Whole minutes in silence. Was Pira crying? Amina could not tell. Elpida did not touch her.
Then, eventually, Elpida said: “Why are you staying with us, then?”
“I don’t know.” Pira’s whisper was clear, her emotions shuttered once more. “Maybe you’ll lead us into the graveworm, and then out again, beyond. Or maybe we’ll all die tomorrow and I’ll wake up twelve years from now, and never see you again. I don’t know if it matters anymore.”
Elpida nodded. “I can’t promise much, Pira. I don’t even know what I’m doing. But—”
“Then don’t promise anything.”
“Can’t do that,” Elpida whispered. “I promise I won’t leave you behind, even if you hate me. Hate me as much as you want. I can take it.”
Elpida stood up. As she ended her watch, she reached for Pira’s shoulder. But Pira swatted her hand away. Amina flinched in the darkness, then wriggled down and pretended to be asleep.
Her demon’s hand was hot and sweaty on her knife. The angel was so forgiving, so perfect, so loving.
She knew what she had to do: use the knife, then ask forgiveness.
Walking the ashen city at the end of civilization isn’t as easy as it sounds, and it also doesn’t sound very easy. But Amina is good at keeping her head down and listening to other people’s conversations. I wonder how different this sequence would have seemed through Elpida’s eyes? We’ll all see, soon enough.
If you want more Necroepilogos right away, there is a tier for it on my patreon:
Right now this only offers a single chapter ahead, about 4k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my little story. I’m enjoying Necroepilogos a great deal, and I hope you are too! Next week might be the last chapter of this arc, or maybe second to last, depending on how quickly Elpida can move …
Excited for Amina to like, *do* something, have a direct effect on the story, tbh!
I completely understand. Amina is a very passive observer type, by nature, so the focus is still on the other characters even though this is currently in her POV. But she’s building up her courage to take action. She knows exactly what she wants to do. And she’s got her knife!
Hopefully this section is still enjoyable. We will be going back to Elpida, sooner or later.
Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake but is Pira saying she comes from this hellish timeline or just before it?
This story is great.
Thank you for the chapter.
Pira is being poetic and metaphorical. Her words are meant to imply two things: one, that she comes from a time long, long, long before anybody else in the group, or at least thinks she does; and two, that her life before this was not very long compared to the number of years she has spent in this afterlife wasteland. Perhaps she only lived until 19 or 20 years old in life, but then she’s spent hundreds of years out here, dying and being reborn, and her life is nothing but a faded memory.
And thank you! I’m really glad you’re enjoying this, thanks so much. And you are very welcome for the chapter!
Thank you for the explanation and for replying.
You’re always very welcome!
I haven’t said it enough, but damn, I absolutely love the descriptive style for this story, how it paints a good picture while keeping with the theme. Anyway, thanks for the chapter!
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You’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter! And thank you so much for complimenting the descriptive work; I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to get it just right, to evoke this setting, and I’m so glad it’s paying off.