Aphelion Issue 247, Volume 24
February 2020
 
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Warm Blood in the Mirrors

by Jack Mellanby




Elegance leapt through the sandy hole into a world of glass and light. Sunlight, reflected on him from the mirrors coating the tunnel like scales, filled his body with a warmth stronger even than that of the desert. Every inch of him was bathed in its blaze, and he gave his tail an experimental twitch. It tore through the air like a sword. He smiled. In this light, nothing could harm him.

His mate Beauty followed, her lithe body streaming through the air before her claws clacked against the ground. She stumbled a little, then recovered, so fast her body blurred even in Elegance’s motion-acute vision.

“I heard grunting before I leapt,” she said, eyes flicking this way and that as if she expected enemies to leap from one of the multifaceted side-passages. “They’re not far behind us.”

Elegance, caressed her face with his long tail, gliding it across her smooth scales.

“They won’t catch us. We’re faster than they are.”

She nodded, and Elegance leaned forward into a sprint, the muscles of his legs rippling in rhythm beneath his skin. The sound of talons on glass echoed around the tunnel, and along the walls a thousand copies ran with him, and a thousand and one Beauties ran behind him. The mirrors reflected her long arms and legs, clean scales, needle sharp back spines, and sleek fang filled jaws without the slightest distortion.

The perfection of the mirrors, their flawless circularity and unblemished smoothness, was something beyond the current abilities of the True People -- Elegance’s people -- although they must have made it, for who else needed sunlight so badly? No one knew why it had been built either. But Elegance, drawing on long forgotten texts and ancient myths, had developed a conclusion. Beyond these mirrored corridors lay the Alterer, an artefact with the power to change one’s very metabolic nature.

A flash of movement into one of the side passages sent Elegance’s heart pounding. He stopped and stared, third eyelid blinking. Down the mirrored passage were reflections of a hand, but not the hand of a True Person. The hand of a savage, covered in hair, not scales, with fingers terminating in blunt nails. It slunk to the edge of every mirror and vanished.

“Curse it!” he hissed. “They got here before us.”

Beauty licked her eyes and hefted her gun from her belt, a nearly half-metre tube of iron with a flint mechanism above the trigger. The pinnacle of the True People’s technology.

“There must be more than one,” she said. “They’re scouted out all the side passages, I bet. They’re waiting for us to wander somewhere they can ambush us easily. The one you just saw must have been a scout.”

“No.” Elegance shook his head. “Not all the side-passages. There’ll be half a dozen at most, else we’d have seen their signs as we crossed the desert.”

Beauty frowned, scepticism clear. “Then what should we do? Should we chase down that one?”

Elegance rested his hand on the stock of his own gun, considering. If they hunted them down one by one, it would be safer than waiting to be ambushed by a group -- far safer. One the other hand, they didn't have much time.

“Let’s keep going,” he said, and flowed back into his sprint. He felt like a kite, one blown by the immense power of the sun in place of the wind. A power he had no control over.

And one whose light was failing his people.

The corridor twisted left, and the pair’s reflections elongated and blurred on the twisting mirrors. It widened into an enormous chamber, at the end of which a honeycomb of passages spread out before the pair, glittering stairs leading to each one like frosted spiderwebs.

“Hang on,” said Elegance, pulling a scroll of shiny paper from his belt. “According to my research...”

He ran a claw along the circles denoting the separate passages. Some were marked with a red cross -- death passages, according to ancient rumour. Others were marked with squares, denoting dead ends, and one, right in the centre of the wall was marked with green. He searched for it in the honeycomb. There. It was tight and unassuming, but he had no choice but to trust his map. If the pair walked through there, they would find the Alterer waiting for them.

And with its power, save their species.

“Savage!” yelped Beauty, and Elegance spun around to see where she waved her gun. On the wall, a the reflection of a Savage disappeared in slow motion. At the corner of his right eye, another movement appeared. Hot sunlight flooding through his arteries, Elegance drew his gun, aimed, fired. A cloud of stinging smoke enveloped him, and the honeycomb of mirrors flashed green. The savage’s hairy body fell from a hole near the ceiling, blood spraying in a wheel as it spun to the floor, where it thumped down dead.

“Let’s go!” shouted Beauty. “Which passage is it?”

Elegance glanced at the map again before stuffing it back in his belt. “That one!” he cried, jerking a claw at it. They darted up the steps, as scratching and grunting sounds poured down from the ceiling. Hairy heads poked out of holes and mirrors reflected a dozen beast-faces around the cavern, each one with fangs peeled back in slight variations of the same snarl. Elegance resisted flicking a couple shots back; he didn't have bullets to waste.

The passage approached, ringed by sunlight and twisted reflections, then disappeared.

“Wha--” began Elegance, and turned his head sideways. Beauty was gone. Everything was. The world was black.

Then Beauty’s arms were around his waist and throwing him to the ground as a dozen spears whizzed overhead and clattered off glass.

“They’ve blocked the passage with some sort of sheet!” she yelled, dragging him down the steps and firing off a shot that shattered a mirror in the distance.

Elegance’s pupils dilated and the black world turned to dark grey. An enormous fabric hung over the passage they’d come through, with only the faintest glow penetrating its folds.

How had the savages woven it? As far as he knew, the only thing they could make were spears and axes. Clothes were beyond them -- not that they needed them with their thick hair. They had advanced then, perhaps copying from the settlements of sluggish, sun-robbed God’s People they’d overrun as the climate cooled.

Now it was the tunnel that cooled, and Elegance could feel the heat leak from his muscles. Without the energy of the sun, his body would soon shut down as if for the night.

A dozen roars echoed, along with the clattering of spears being drawn and doubtless aimed.

“Quickly!” shouted Beauty, firing another shot before ducking under the delicate staircase to reload. “We’ll take turns firing.”

Mind spinning with implications, Elegance drew his own gun and aimed, but his muscles didn't respond properly. He was used to acting with radiant energy filling his every cell, not pouring out his pores like water from a punctured skin, and the lead ball snapped past a hairy head instead of into it.

“Damn!” he shouted. He jabbed at the reload lever -- stiffer than he remembered. Another spear smacked into a mirror beside him, right between one of his dim reflection’s eyes.

“They can't tell the reflections from the real,” he mumbled. “They can't tell!” He fired his shot, this time through a savage’s heart, then grabbed Beauty's forearm. “Get up the stairs, while we still have time!”

Her fanged mouth hung open for a second in surprise, then she nodded. They rushed up the stairs, Elegance's legs protesting for the first time in three months, and through the tunnel. Angry shouts and the dark blurs of reflections followed them.

Elegance didn’t let go of his mate's arm as they ran. He did not want to lose her.. Out of all the seasonal females he'd been with, Beauty was the most intelligent and fierce. He'd be sad when the passions died and they left each other.

“How far to go?” she asked.

“Best not to think about that. We'll make it to the Alterer, don't worry.”

He could feel her pull on his arm getting heavier, and felt his own body failing too. Black drowsiness cloaked the top of his eyes as his body decided night had fallen.

“Not far,” he whispered to himself, although he had no idea if that was true. The grunts of the savages, sounding almost like language, grew closer by the minute.

A faint glow appeared, and the tunnel blossomed into a sphere, a glass scaled bubble a hundred metres across. Elegance watched himself in each mirror, bent over and chest expanding and contracting as he puffed.

“We made it,” said Elegance. A grunting shout echoed past them. “Come on!”

Sluggishness eating through his limbs and into his chest, he forced himself forward to the faintly pulsing light. The air chilled as it flowed over his skin, and the shouts of the savages sent waves of fear and nausea right through his body.

“There it is,” said Beauty, her voice a quiet hiss. Elegance licked his eyes.

The Alterer was a sphere of red and gold, pulsing like the heart of the sun. Within it lay the same power the savages had -- the power for a being to create its own heat, its own energy. If Elegance could seize it, and spread its power to all the True People, no longer would they have cause to fear the lengthening winters and the cold, light-stealing clouds that came with them.

A gentle push came at his shoulder, and a hiss with it.

“Go on,” said Beauty. “You must take it. They’re almost on us!”

A roar came from the entrance to the sphere, and a hundred images of the savages followed it. Elegance could almost feel their foul breath gather from the reflections and he gagged, head lightening.

No! He shook his drowsy head. Towards the Alterer! The whistle of spears came, and he summoned the last dregs of strength in his legs to leap. The Alterer expanded in his vision as Beauty screamed agony, and he took the artefact in both hands.

Heat and life and pure energy flooded into every capillary as he leapt through it. Then he was on the ground, and Alterer lay inside his chest, a red glow illuminating the flesh and ribs around his heart. He touched his hand there and for the first time in history, warmth came from within a True Person’s own blood. He had done it.

A Savage yelled in triumph and Elegance whipped his head around to see Beauty lying on the floor, a spear through her lower leg. Half a dozen scavengers ran towards her, crude clubs and axes raised high. They did not feel the cold, not were their muscles hampered from lack of sunlight and warmth.

“No!” screamed Elegance, and he drew his gun.

A crack echoed in the chamber as he pulled the trigger, and a savage’s chest exploded. He pulled it again, and killed another. The hairy beasts faltered, brows narrowing in almost comical confusion.

“That’s right!” yelled Elegance. “Your stupid trick won’t work anymore! Idiots! Do you have any idea what we sought down here? The same miserable power that resides in you, that’s what!”

The savages bared thick teeth and charged. There was no time to reload, so Elegance wielded the gun like a club and smashed the arms of the nearest savage before splitting its skull in half. Grey and red sludge splashed out, some splatting Elegance’s face. He blinked it away, and a stone blade came to the corner of his vision -- death ten centimetres from his eyes. He ducked and smashed the savage between the legs. It howled; that part of biology was the same for both species. He felled another, the blow sending a shiver up his arms. The remaining savages backed away, eyes portals into their terror-struck souls.

“Elegance...” said Beauty, her voice thick like someone on the edge of sleep or death. No! Not death, the spear was only through her leg. Elegance knelt beside her, and lay his hand on her face. Like rushing water from an eternal spring, the gift of the Alterer flowed into her, and her eyelids peeled back.

“Wake up,” he said.

A brown blur sped at Elegance’s face, and green flash and a crack knocked it from the sky. Beauty stood up, acrid smoke pouring from her gun. The savage who’d thrown the spear backed away with his eyes wide in awe. Another flash, another boom, and its guts were exploded from its belly.

“Run away!” shouted Elegance. “Your species has lost! We have your power now!”

Without understanding his words, they spun around. Their footsteps disappeared back through the tunnel, along with their thousand reflections.

Beauty extracted the spear from her leg, pale meat pouring blood before she wrapped a bandage tight around it.

“Are you alright?” asked Elegance.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Though I might need some help getting back.”

Elegance put an arm around her shoulder and they walked. Her shoulders felt warm -- not the burning warmth of the sun, but a softer warmth that soothed his beating heart and buzzing fingertips. Sleep fell from his eyes.

They left the chamber, went through the passage in the hall of stairs and approached the savages’ sheet. Hints of light jabbing through gaps like tiny needles, forcing the pair to blink.

Elegance frowned. “The light... it’s different.”

“No. I think we’re different,” replied Beauty.

She took his hand from her shoulder and gently pushed him forward.

“You reloaded your gun, didn't you?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think I’ll need it,” he said, but checked it anyway, then brushed past the sheet.

Its rough hair was coarse against his scales, and the smell of dead animal washed over him. He stepped past, and burning light spread across his skin, white like a flame, subsuming his body. He snapped his eyes shut and cried out. He needed to breath, but even the air was hot. It was like being wrapped so that nothing could leave through his skin, only enter it. His knees smacked against the floor before he even realised he was kneeling, and he cried out.

“Elegance?” came the voice of his mate. She brushed through the sheet and gave her own shout. “God above!”

Elegance forced himself to stand, his legs heavy and head spinning.

“I suppose we knew this would happen, didn't we?” he said, wincing as he sucked in burning air. “Now we’ve thrown away our need of the sun, it won’t be our ally anymore.”

“Not all will accept the gift we are bringing back,” said Beauty, shading her eyes.

“Perhaps not. But many will, and it will be those ones who will lead the True People to victory. Our world is changing, and we must change with it. Our ancestors knew this, and it is our job to trust them. And make sure others trust them.”

Beauty snaked her arm around him and squeezed. It felt hot and sticky, but at the same time, very pleasant. “Yes,” she said. “But you are thinking too far ahead. First we have to get back.”

Elegance smiled. It would be a long, hard journey. But as he looked at the two of them, standing strong in the mirrors all around, he knew they would succeed.

They would spread the gift and save their people.



THE END


2020 Jack Mellanby

Bio: Jack Mellanby is a young writer from New Zealand currently residing in Japan, and has been obsessed with fantasy ever since his father read him The Hobbit at age three.

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