Things that Grow in the Dark

Award Category
Within a floating world where towers and treetops brush the sun, there is a mysterious island promising power and purpose for any young woman with the means to take it. Here, the paths of an unsure apprentice and a servant who is more than she seems intertwine in the shadow of a brutal murder.

Follow, follow into the hollow

Step once inside but never wander.

Oh cave, oh cave call us to your grave

Don’t look back or the rest go under.

— Evynwere children’s nursery rhyme, 1895

1. Parting the Mirror — Ophelie Sartora

Three bodies hang from the gallows erected at the edge of the lake, their reflections rippling across the surface of the dark water. Redborn—the councilors typically don’t host public hangings for lightbloods unless it’s over something spectacularly horrendous, but their worn work garments are a dead giveaway.

They won’t be up for long, likely disposed of by midday before the heat gets to them, readying the platform for the future condemned. For now, their figures swing visibly for all to see, an obvious warning to people like Ophelie.

Know your place. Don’t cause trouble.

Ophelie Sartora hugs her only pack tightly to her chest, knees and toes cramped painfully in the compact space.

At the opposite end, a plump young woman roughly her own age pushes as the oars, grinning with far too much enthusiasm and merriment for the earliness of the hour. Henriette is her name, as she’d promptly informed Ophelie the moment she laid eyes on her back at the rickety old dock. This was followed by a flurry of personal questions that were quickly overtaken by an enthusiastic recount of her own. She would ask a question only to relay another story or anecdote.

Over an hour and Ophelie has barely gotten a single word in.

As if conversation has ever been her strong point.

“It’s not so bad here, the instructors and headmistress will ignore you almost completely, but the food is to die for and wages are exceedingly generous.”

Ophelie nods. She could easily afford to send her family to the isles for holiday after a year or two working here. Something they sorely needed, once they were all back together. A relief, considering it would still take her mother more than a lifetime to ever scrape up enough coin to afford sending her to a place such as the Academy. And this is, of course, ignoring the prominent detail that she is redborn and therefore could never attend anyways.

“And the students?”

“Varies, but I find the local apprentices to be…far less agreeable than their foreign sisters.” Ophelie bites back a grimace. Young, wealthy snobs with far too much power and influence in their grasps. If only the lessons they learned here included tolerance or empathy.

A reflection of the perpetually shrouded mountain’s peak swallows them as they draw closer, the woods surrounding the lake growing dense. They round a bend to reveal the jagged rock face of a cliff, the entire stone estate that is Alegreza Academy protruding directly from the ridge.

A castle, really. A castle with supposedly the best and most brilliant lightblooded women in attendance, all looking to change Terreas for the better with their blessed gifts.

Ophelie has yet to meet a lightblooded woman whose presence she actually enjoyed being in, however, despite the self-declared praise. There’s only one girl she truly cares about, and that could very well put her at an unfortunate disadvantage to the work required here.

Henriette is still talking of the students, having veered off into the gossip surrounding the famous daughters of faraway dukes and other famous court royals she witnessed over the last few years. She steers the boat towards the base of the cliff where, inside a large recess within the rock, another dock awaits them. They disembark with the elder serving girl in front, Ophelie grateful for the relief. She leads her up a steep flight of natural steps in the stone, footsteps echoing against the cavern. Stalactites hang maw-like from above, dripping moisture onto their heads.

“The Empress’ daughter is expected to arrive next year, though she was set to enroll this year. There were some theatrics involving a young, unclothed lad escaping from her bedchamber balcony. The Empress was furious…this way,” they push through a heavy, bolted door amidst the chatter, stepping in the back entryway of the school kitchens.

“They request the serving staff use this entrance, and we are never to take the railcar to and from the estate.” Ophelie sidesteps cooks and kitchen maids, pouring out into the cold, narrow serving passages. A worker smacks into her shoulder in his haste, disappearing inside the maze of corridors without so much as an apology over his shoulder.

All around, chaos and havoc.

The castle has been in an upheaval for over a week—maids scurrying to and fro in scrambled efforts to set the last bed and prepare the classrooms, final placements undergoing inspection as the time drew close for the first students to begin arriving.

Against all odds, Ophelie managed to get hired only two days prior—apparently one of the other serving girls never showed up for duty. Not that she minds, she’s more than willing to take the job.

“Here we are.” Henriette stops at a plain door, disclosing a simple white space adorned with two cots, a single shared chest for their uniforms and other clothes, and a cupboard on the opposing wall. It's just large enough to hold the few personal effects she’d brought along with her.

Her room at home, now sitting forlorn and abandoned, is hardly an improvement but a sudden flicker of longing curls inside her and she can’t help but wish she were there instead. Return to the places she knew best. Mourn.

No, that would be counterproductive.

She didn’t take up work in the black, soul-devouring hole of the mountain because she enjoys mending fancy attire. This is her one and only chance to do what the island police could not. After months of fruitless investigating and searching, she’s finally uncovered a piece of information that indicated Rosine’s whereabouts—gone missing nearly one year already. And she isn’t the only one.

Evynwere officers may not give a damn about redborn children, but Ophelie does. These kids have no one but her willing to even acknowledge their existence. They need her.

Her sister needs her.

2. Eye of the Mountain — Galilea Geroux

“Sola emerges from the great abyss, victorious, bringing forth the light and the world with her. From her first dawn, the Holy Mother’s rays sew the beginning seeds of life. Trees with vast branches reach for the heavens across the far west. Icy, mountainous wilds erupt into the north while islands like teeth glittering with a thousand waterfalls arise from the east. The dusklands form last for in the south, the sun never quite sets—and thus the children of Terreas were born.

To guide them, Sola sends the Brights—creations of her own divine making, formed of burning celestial light. For a time, there is peace, there is prosperity across the land. But as with any power, the guardians fall prey to darkness and corruption. Ravenous and greedy for the one gift they were not given: true immortality, the everlasting.

Once great protectors and teachers become ruthless masters whose appetites know no bounds. Constrained to the realm of stars, Sola and Nox are powerless to stop her mutations as they tear Terreas asunder.

Under a millennia of shadow and disparity, a new kind of people emerge—children of the Brights. Armed with the blood of light, they amass as one, slaying their own parents in a bid for freedom. Sola rejoices and from the ashes of a destroyed world, a golden era grows anew” — revised and translated passage from the original Divine Scripts, possession of St. Helios’s Temple

Hot air sweeps through the aeroship’s cabin, flipping the pages to Gally’s book before she can stop them. A series of bells ring out above her head as the ferry slowly pulls into port. She glances up, once again catching the eye of the girl sitting directly across her.

In the two hour flight from the Irisaran mainland, neither had been able to speak an actual word to one another due to the crowded seats and rush of noise. They resorted instead to head tilts and expressions that bordered on ridiculous to converse.

Heading to the Academy?” The other girl nudges her chin towards the pale blue tag tied around Gally’s satchel, a golden double-A emblem flashing in the sun.

Alegreza Academy for Gifted Ladies—the finest, lightblooded women’s university in the country, arguably the world. Duchesses from every court, noblewomen of every country, and even an empress or two have crowed their attendance, proclaiming its impressive capabilities through their obvious, opulent success. It will also become her home for the next year, a fact that if dwelled upon long enough, is downright terrifying.

She was about to step into the footprints of so many powerful, important women who came before her—at only her twentieth year of life, how can she even dream of coming close? Who is she compared to them?

Gally shoves the thought down and flashes the girl a nervous smile, who responds with an assuring one in return. She gestures with her left knee and Gally suddenly notices the fine leather bag tucked behind her feet. A similar pastel tag peeks out from the folds. There is a vague comfort in knowing she won’t be making the last bit of the trip to the school completely on her own.

Beside her, an elderly man with deep wrinkles and eyes milky blue with blindness snorts loudly and spits a blackened glob at the deck. One clawed, three-fingered hand clings to a tall wooden pole, a birdcage swinging from the hook at the top. Inside lays a fat, black stoat, his beady eyes boring a hole through the top of Gally’s skull.

She detects the push of the wind against the silver aeroship’s exterior as it lands, the doors finally releasing from their locks and swinging open with a high-pitched whine. She bolts to her feet, eager for some fresh air and personal space. The book brought along for the journey, a tattered ivory tome narrating the exploits of old gods and monsters, lays forgotten at her feet.

Academy girl snatches it up before it can be trampled and delivers it back to Gally’s waiting hands. “I’m Ada Hargrave, of Oxleigh,” she says over the commotion, her accent soft and posh, offering out her own hand and the two shake amongst the moving masses. A curl of snow white hair slips from its pin, brushing against her pink, freckled cheeks. Her eyes remind Gally of a baby bird’s—large and round, bright with the green of spring leaves. Closer now, Gally notices a radiating warmth emitting from her form. She isn’t sure if that’s due to the overwhelming heat and closeness of other bodies, or the other girl’s visible excitement.

She thanks her. “Gally Geroux.” She doesn’t miss the quirk in Ada’s lips the moment she speaks. Once upon a time—barely even a hundred years ago—they would have been from the same country. “I’m from Noralind.”

They manage to push their way to the front and from there, Gally spots the sleek metal edges of other airships on the landing field, beyond them the bold scarlets and indigos of giant blimps and balloons. The wind and waves snap devilishly against the port, carrying a smothering heat with it despite the early onset of autumn. There is something truly wondrous about the rippling of flight sails against the clouds.

Further past them, the sprawling canal city of Evynwere bustles and rings.

“All passengers must vacate the ferry! Luggage will be brought out to you…” an attendant passes through the isles urging people forward. Gally hugs the worn novel to her chest, discomfort crawling over her skin as hands and elbows shove at her. How she hated being in public. As far as she’s concerned, there is only one reason to go outside and interact with strangers, and that’s to get to other places. Preferably indoors, someplace with a nice library or study.

The sun stares down at Gally as her feet touch solid ground for what feels like the first time in a week. The last port hardly counted. It had been little more than a few boards nailed together, jutting out over the land’s edge like an old shelf pulling at its joints from years and weight.

Her legs are confused by the change of stability at first, making movements slow and awkward. She turns to inspect the other side of the dock, attempting to regain her bearings.

The platform continues onward for another few meters before being cut off by a low stone wall. The ground gives way past that, a steep cliff that runs up the entire curling, eastern coast of the island. Gally can’t help but approach, smoothing her fingers over the warm rock of the parapet as she leans over, torso barely long enough for her to catch a glimpse of the cotton pink and orange clouds swirling lazily below.

Before now, she’d never dreamed of traveling so far from home on her own before, nor ever sailed through the expansive, unending Terreasan sky, cloud formations so enormous they could envelop a city. Her eyes were trained on the windows for the entirety of the journey, unable to tear her gaze away.

There was a moment sometime after midnight where she could have sworn she’d caught a glimpse of a silvered wing gliding through the murk. Sky serpents aren't a common sight anymore, having been hunted to near extinction ages ago, but she likes to believe it was more than a vivid dream brought on by nerves.

Gally pulls back and closes her eyes, inhaling deeply. Even the air here smells different. Smokey, salted air. But underneath that, the deep scent of rich pine and earth.

Her home in Noralind, Elysius, surrounded by emerald green hills dotted with lakes and apple trees, always smelled fresh, the taste of sugar in the breeze come every spring. While once a source of home and familiarity, it had recently delved into something more tumultuous and vexing. Even still, it’s hard to let go of the things that give the most comfort. She doesn’t know what she’ll do without her favorite tea—nutmeg and oranges plucked right from her mother’s precious garden—or her baby sister’s ridiculous temper tantrums spent over any and everything. She misses her room, her father’s study…

Gally’s chest restricts with a sudden pang of homesickness as she and Ada gather their luggage from the cart, shoulders sagging under the weight. They follow the flood towards the station platform. She starts to wonder who to ask for help when Ada spots someone and waves her hand in greeting, dragging Gally along behind her.

They approach a pair of girls their age huddled in a close circle, a thin man in a gray suit standing nearby with a sign clasped in hands that read: ALEGREZA ACADEMY. The attendant notices them, promptly grabbing their things from tired fingers and placing them onto another trolley.

“Gally, let’s meet the others,” Ada encourages, joining the girls. One is willowy and proud, a crystallized, cerulean butterfly sweeping the long sheet of inky black hair away from her handsome face. The other appears almost a purposeful opposite with frizzy blonde curls that frame her round, ebony face like a soft cloud. A blue patterned piece of cloth that matches her silken gloves wraps around her head, obscuring her hairline.

“Hello first-years! I am Lourdes, this is Pearl, a fellow student and dear friend of mine,” the girl with the head scarf says jovially. Pearl, the owner of the butterfly clip, gives a quick, prim nod and holds out her hand with an air of authority. Her steely gaze pins Gally into place, raking over her appearance and posture like an especially critical etiquette tutor. Her own mother would be impressed.

She doesn’t seem to completely dislike what she sees because her shoulders visibly relax a moment later.

“Pearl Egremont-Tremaine, a pleasure, " she speaks through fine, straight teeth, though the way she says it makes Gally vaguely question the sincerity. Already it looks as if she’s stepped on someone else’s toes. “And this is Katherine Howell,” Pearl trails off, turning.

It is only then that Gally realizes there are actually three girls standing with them, not two.

She is a timid little thing with thick spectacles, standing off to the side, her startled gaze flickering up briefly to Pearl and then Gally’s own.

“It’s just Kitty,” she finishes for Pearl quietly, her voice far more sweet and melodic than Gally would have initially assumed.

“Yes. Remind us, where did you say you were from?”

Kitty pauses, knowing she’s walking into a setup if she answers. She carefully pushes her spectacles further up her nose. “Southwestern Elysius. Fort Swansea.” Gally’s heart jumps at the mention of the capital of her home country.

She is so very, very far away.

“Of course. Elysius.” Pearl says the word like it's something distasteful. To most nobility across the Irisaran Empire, Elysius is full of savage, ungovernable cretins looking to overthrow their precious empress. They weren’t — looking to overthrow the monarchy, that is — but that didn’t matter.

Before Gally can make a remark of protest, a railcar sounds its horn, pulling up alongside them on the track.

One missed step could make for a deadly shock.

The doors push out automatically and the five of them clamber inside. Gally finds herself squashed between Lourdes and the furthest door with Ada across from her once again. She flashes her an excited smile, which Gally returns.

Their things are placed into the storage trunk as the driver hauls himself into the front and pulls deftly at the levers on the panel without looking, as if committed to memory. Electricity hums to life beneath their feet and sparks fly as the car jolts forward, speeding over the rails.


Holly Davis Sun, 19/06/2022 - 04:26

Wow, what a way to start off a story! That opening scene drew me in. Excellent descriptions, use of the senses, and inner thoughts to connect us to Gally. Well done!