There would be no moon tonight.
I shivered as I hugged the wall’s surface. The sound of footsteps came from the top of the wall. A dim orange glow outlined long shadows along the ground. The glow stepped away as the footsteps faded. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Sally gestured to the side with her head. I nodded and tiptoed over. Jerome and Elenor were already waiting for me. Ben appeared from the other side, signaling the coast was clear. Elenor kept gently tapping the wall while Jerome crouched to the ground and stroked the tiny skull embedded into the earth.
As he stroked the skull, the sand around it began to shift, before collapsing to reveal two holes on either side of the skull. If we removed the unnatural pedestal of earth the skull was stuck on, there would be enough space for us to crawl into the hole.
Jerome sighed. “It’s a lot smaller than I remembered.”
“Nah, it’s because we aren’t kids anymore,” said Sally in a hushed voice.
“Can’t we dig out the skull?” I asked.
“No,” said Sally and Jerome together.
“Taking it out will alert the kids at the orphanage, who’ll rat us out to the guards for some candy,” said Jerome.
Sally gave him a tired look. “They won’t tell the guards, this is their secret. However, if we dug out the skull, they wouldn’t let us stay the night.”
I pursed my lips. It would be hard finding an inn inside the city this late at night, and we didn’t want to stay in the Collar’s district outside the walls. These kids were Jerome and Sally’s acquaintances, and were the people we intended to stay with.
“Movement up top,” said Elenor.
I froze. Footsteps echoed, accompanied by an orange glow and long shadows. When the guard left, Elenor nodded. She was the only one who had moved when the guard approached, as she continued to tap her finger.
“Can’t we apologize to them and fix it on our way out?” I asked.
“Maybe… I have an idea, hold on,” said Jerome. He grasped the earth around the skull with one hand while clearing away the dirt beneath. He slowly lifted the patch of earth with the skull in it, and placed it to the side.
“At least her magic won’t light up immediately,” said Sally.
Jerome nodded. “She shouldn’t be that mad if we keep the skull buried. We should still head over and apologize.”
“Should we take it with us?” asked Ben.
“No, I’ll set it up again once we’re all inside,” said Jerome.
I opted to go first. I wore my mask to keep the dirt from getting on my face but I took off the robe because it would catch too much earth. I squeezed into the hole, felt my hair scrape against crumbling soil and the bottom of the wall, and pulled myself forward with my arms. The hole was tight, even with the skull out of the way. I wiggled my way forward until I smacked into a wall of dirt.
I breathed, particles of dust and soil getting into my nose despite the mask. I grunted. The soil above my head wasn’t as hard as before and it felt colder, like the other side was exposed directly to the air. I pushed up with the back of my head and soil crumbled past my cheeks. I blinked as the breeze pushed some of the loose soil onto my mask.
Someone prodded my leg. I shook the soil off my hair and pulled myself out. I shrank behind a box and dusted myself off while Sally emerged out of the hole. Ben came next, followed by Elenor. Jerome’s grunts came out of the hole. It was still too small for him, even without the skull.
When Jerome finally came out, breathing heavily and with his hair caked in dirt, he crouched and went back into the hole. After a while, he backed out again, and sat on the ground.
“Done,” he said, wiping the sweat and dirt from his brows.
“Remember to tell Camry to come fix it properly,” said Sally.
Jerome stood up, ruffled his coat, and nodded at Sally.
We were in the shadow of a large building, with trash piled up behind it. Sally led us to the back of another building, making sure to stay out of the light of the torches by the road. The roads were empty, the stores closed, and all the windows shuttered.
My eyes flickered from side to side. My heart skipped and I glared at the object that had moved.
Words entered my mind, “Cat. Stray. One year old.”
I blinked and the cat crumpled like paper. It was still breathing but I wanted to make sure it was alright. I was about to sneak over to it when a hand landed on my shoulder. If I hadn’t just paralyzed an innocent cat, I probably would have read Elenor too.
She shook her head. The others were already behind another building. I bit my lips, glanced at the cat, then followed Ben’s figure behind a corner. A guard appeared on top of the wall, walking towards us. I ducked behind a box and waited for him to leave.
Usually, we would have tried to blend in with crowds of pedestrians or walked down the streets with our heads down, but the streets were too empty. Even this late at night, there should have been drunkards going bar crawling, prostitutes doing house calls, or unsavory hooded figures stalking people from the shadows.
We assembled behind a single storied, red-bricked building whose bricks weren’t aligned properly and had too much cement between them. The windows were tinted green, and the curtains had fist-sized holes in them. I tried to peek through the holes in the curtains but there weren’t any lights on inside.
“You do it,” whispered Jerome.
“They were always closer to you,” replied Sally.
“I’ll do it,” said Ben.
“No,” said Sally.
“They don’t know you yet,” said Jerome.
“You can be their big brother later,” said Sally.
“I don’t want to be anyone’s big brother, I just want to get inside before we get caught!” said Ben.
“Fine,” said Jerome. “I’ll do it.”
He approached the center of the wall and knocked on the bricks. It sounded like he was knocking on wood. Jerome closed one eye and pressed the other one against a hole between the bricks.
“Maybe they’re out,” he whispered as he moved his head back.
The brick wall opened like a wooden door, revealing a dark doorway and a shadowy figure. The figure pressed their fingers to their lips and shushed, then beckoned us inside.
The floorboards creaked as I walked on them. The door shut, engulfing us in the darkness, but a hand – which I recognized to be Ben’s – guided me forward.
“Stairs,” hissed an unfamiliar voice.
I kept walking until Ben’s hand lowered slightly, indicating I was at the stairs. I felt ahead with my feet and took a step down. As I kept descending, an orange glow appeared inside a doorway at the bottom. A brown-haired head went into the doorway, followed by Sally and the others.
“Why aren’t the kids asleep?” asked Sally, as I entered the room.
Lanterns hung in the corners, shedding light on the muddy ground and wooden furniture. The room was small, with four beds lined up against the back wall, and a table in the middle. A black-haired boy, who looked around thirteen years old, sat on one of the chairs around the table. An even younger black-haired boy stood next to him, his face just like the older one’s except for a scar on his forehead. They both had triangles on their cheeks, the signs of Bass that Ben had said were supposed to be mountains.
“Why aren’t they asleep?” said the brown-haired girl who had led us in. Even though she was shorter than the boys, the look in her eyes, and the way she carried herself made me think she was older. “The whole city’s on a knife’s edge and you’re asking me why they can’t sleep?”
“Betsy’s asleep though,” said Jerome, gesturing at the head of blonde hair peeking out of the sheets in the furthest bed.
“Betsy’s eight,” said the brown-haired girl through gritted teeth.
Jerome chuckled. “You haven’t changed a bit, Camry.”
“Neither have you, old man,” said the brown-haired Camry.
“Yeah, he has,” said the older black-haired boy. “You have a new knee, Jerome?”
“Yes, I do!”
“Did Sally break the last one?”
Sally glared at Jerome. “Don’t make them so easy to break, then.”
“If I make them too tough, it’s hard to walk,” said Jerome.
“Have a seat,” said Camry.
The younger boy offered me his seat but I declined. Ben stood next to me, casting lazy glances around the room. I stood behind Elenor and grabbed The Tempest off the shelf in my mind. I played Ben’s character and imitated the way he was analyzing the dimly lit brick walls.
The room was stocked with food and water, and there were a couple of doors in the back. The bricks were old, the lanterns well used, and the ground had piles of dust on it. The room was older than the kids, so either every house in Bass had a panic room, or these kids had incredibly paranoid parents.
“We have to apologize for using Corin’s tunnel,” said Sally.
“I felt like someone touched it,” said Camry. “I might have gone and checked if it wasn’t so late.”
“We kept him in the ground,” said Jerome, in a low voice.
Camry nodded, her eyes on the ground. The boys didn’t meet our gaze either. We stayed in silence for a while.
“So why are you here?” asked Camry, finally breaking the tension as she poured Elenor a glass of water. The boys offered Jerome and Sally some snacks, while Camry poured me a glass of water too.
“We’re on an escort mission to Bendeck,” said Sally.
“And these must be your clients?” asked Camry.
“Yes,” said Jerome.
Camry put away the metallic water-jug, faced me and Elenor, and smiled. “My name’s Bo Camry Kemp, but you can call me Camry.”
I smiled back but then I remembered I was wearing my mask, so I nodded too. “Jean Valkyrie Forster, but please call me Val.”
Elenor tapped a finger on the table. “I’m Elenor.”
“And these are my brothers,” said Camry, pointing at the boys.
The older one met my gaze. “Idel.”
“Olive,” said the younger boy.
Sally put down her cup. “Now that introductions are out of the way, mind telling us why you’re hiding in the basement?”
Camry shook her head. “You really don’t know, after all. No wonder you haven’t abandoned your mission yet.”
I frowned. She wanted Sally and Jerome to cancel their guild assignment. They’d get a huge fine if they did that, and they’d lose a lot of prestige. Besides, they weren’t the kind of people who’d break their promises, and if this girl knew them nearly as well as I did, she wouldn’t even suggest something like this.
Not unless the situation was astronomically terrible. Like if the sky was falling.
“What happened?” asked Jerome, leaning forward. “We were in Devel just a few days ago. Things couldn’t have gotten that bad so quickly.”
“The cities are in lockdown. All of them.”
“All of them?” repeated Sally.
Camry nodded. “As far as I know, yes. The Official himself gave the order. I’m not sure if there’s resistance in Sett or Chart, but I know nobody’s been in or out of Bass in two days. Even the secret entrances are being blocked by the guards.”
Sally swore under her breath. Jerome narrowed his eyes. The older boy, Idel, refilled Sally’s glass.
“And the capital?” asked Jerome.
“All roads to the capital are closed. The army’s been mobilized near the first rest-stop, but that’s all I know. Even the Headers in Bass have no idea what’s going on in Bendeck.”
“Wait, they’re not letting Headers pass either?” interjected Elenor.
“Yes,” said Camry. “Some of them protested at the Front Party offices but they were greeted by members of Inline. Most of them hightailed it back to their mansions but the head of the Rand family wouldn’t budge.” Camry paused, then continued in a quieter voice, “Nobody knows where he is.”
Sally’s eyes widened. “They arrested a Header?”
In the corner of my eye, I saw the frown on Ben’s face. It was more intense than mine, as if he had seen something I hadn’t. I followed his gaze to the younger boy, Olive.
Olive’s black hair fell on his face, hiding one of his brown eyes. However, his other eye was welling up under the orange torchlight. His lips were pursed and his fists were clenched tight. He wouldn’t be that tense for the head of a Header family.
“I’ve never heard of a Header getting scolded, let alone arrested,” whispered Jerome.
I recalled the chaotic rally in Chart. The leader of the Side Party, that crazy Gecko Ross, had said he could do whatever he wanted because he was born a Header. He’d incited a riot, confident he wouldn’t face any repercussions for it.
“What about the guilds?” asked Sally. “You said we should abandon the mission, are the guilds not allowed to send people outside either?”
“Yes,” said Idel.
Sally sighed. “I feel like I didn’t really need to ask that question.”
“That’s not all,” said Camry. I met her eyes with my own. She looked away. “The Official ordered the guilds to cease all operations immediately.”
“What?” cried Sally.
“He can’t do that,” said Jerome. “He doesn’t have the authority. The Orange Hats would revolt!”
“That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.” Camry stared at Jerome. “You really don’t know what happened?”
“No, we don’t,” said Jerome.
“The notices are all over the rest-stops. Anyone outside the cities is probably trying their hardest to stay out, yet you snuck in.”
“We didn’t go inside any stops.”
“Alright, then I’ll explain everything from the start. A few days ago, something happened at the capital, and the Official sent out orders to close all the cities and guilds, and assure the people that these emergency measures were only temporary. He also ordered everyone to comply with the FAF soldiers, and Inline, so they could resolve the issue quickly.”
“What happened at the capital?” asked Sally.
“I’m not sure. The Official’s notices said there was a terrorist incident but I’ve heard some people who work in the inner city say that wasn’t all of it. There was a terrorist incident, most probably Project Poppy again but…”
“Project Poppy?” interjected Jerome. “They’ve been dead for years.”
“They were probably laying low for a bit,” suggested Sally.
“No,” insisted Jerome. “The entire organization fell apart years ago when they lost all their core members. They couldn’t have recovered this quickly. It’s probably an imposter. They used to inspire a lot of imitators.”
The Tempest fluttered in the back of my mind. I recalled old man Ather from Sett, he didn’t seem dead, at least not yet, although his eyes didn’t have a lot of hope in them. I also noted how much Jerome knew about the Project.
“I don’t understand,” said Elenor. “Even if there was an incident in the capital, that’s not enough of a reason to shut down the entire country.”
“Exactly,” said Camry. “They weren’t telling us everything. The Headers know a little more than we do, but not much. Apparently, the incident happened at the parliament, and several members of the Front Party and the Down Party, were killed. Nobody from the Side or Middle parties got hurt at all.”
“That does sound like something the Project would do,” admitted Jerome.
Olive stood up.
“Olive?” said Jerome.
The little boy didn’t respond. He went to a table on the side.
“The F3 Gazette was shut down too,” continued Camry without glancing at her brother. “Only the Official Press and the Daily Scribbler are allowed to print, but they don’t say anything useful.”
“At least that hasn’t changed,” said Sally with a chortle. “Where are all the guild members?”
“Nobody knows for sure, but they’re probably at Inline’s outpost. There are rumors going around, saying Inline raided the guilds before the Official’s orders were announced.”
“By Bit,” swore Sally. “What hell is going on?”
Olive returned with a faded piece of parchment in his hand. He handed it to Camry.
“Idel found this yesterday, it was pasted on the inside of our house. As soon as I read it, I made everyone come down here and locked all the doors.” Camry put the parchment on the table.
I couldn’t see what was written on it. The light was too dim and I was standing too far away. However, I noticed Jerome’s eyes widen and his breath pause. Sally squinted, trying to read it. Elenor tapped her finger but her expression didn’t change.
“That’s a card,” whispered Jerome. “A Poppy Card.”
I focused on the parchment and saw the flower printed in the corner. It looked exactly like the sign on old man Ather’s cheek.
“What does it say?” asked Elenor.
I leaned forward but still couldn’t make out the words.
“I’ll pass it around and you can read it for yourselves, but the gist of it is: Project Poppy is declaring war on the government, pledging to continue fighting until their demands are met,” said Camry.
“They’re holding the country hostage,” said Jerome, in an angry voice.
“No, their demands are on the back.” Camry flipped the card. “They want to abolish the extra votes given to government officials, since all of them are members of the Front Party. They also want Inline to disband, the FAF to pledge neutrality in their conflict, and the Orange Hats to be released. The guilds must be allowed to operate again, and no more fear, intimidation, or force must be used to resolve political disagreements.”
Jerome snorted. “A little hypocritical, I’d say.”
Camry ignored him. “They also demand the release of all political prisoners, the confirmed neutrality of the papers, and they want the Official to order a new election, one where he is not allowed to participate.”
“They’re not even trying to get them to agree to their demands,” said Jerome. “This is an obvious ploy to justify their actions, the Project is well known for its deviousness.”
Camry shook her head. “No.”
“No?” asked Jerome. “What do you mean, kid? You think you know the Project better than I do?”
“No, I meant this isn’t their justification for their actions.”
Sally frowned. “Is there something else?”
Camry didn’t respond, choosing to pass the card around instead. Olive stared blankly at the bottom of the card as it passed from Camry’s hand to Sally’s.
Sally took in a sharp breath. “By Bit…”
Jerome leaned over and his eyes went wide. “This can’t be real…”
Elenor reached forward and yanked the card from their hands. Then she passed it to me.
“Read this for me, would you?” she asked, her voice serious but annoyed.
I grabbed the card and confirmed what Camry had told us. Then my eyes drifted to the bottom and I read aloud:
“We fight in the name of our friend and ally, the late Sir Maximilian Gecko Ross, who was martyred by the vicious hands of the government’s dishonorable assassins, on the sixteenth day of June 1666 A.B. May you rest in peace, comrade.”
Apologies for the massive delay. There was a bit of a medical emergency, but it has now been resolved. Please expect a daily release from now on!