Chapter 10 Episode 2 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
The western road out of town ran straight and geometrical, like all the remnants of the old city. Its surface was the same as the Risenton Road splitting the island into east and west, and the Great Road ringing the island. The further Adewole got from the City, the more suspicious-looking stone foundations appeared on the cob houses alongside the road even as cobbles disappeared from the road itself, until the paving petered out into a dirt track.
Adewole kept walking. The sun crested the island’s edge at his back, though clouds and mist diffused its light. Few people shared the road today; he’d seen a bare handful of couriers and not a single barrowman. The couriers made almost no sound and came in and out of the mist most disconcertingly. “Why is no one out and about today?” said Adewole.
“First rain of the season yesterday,” said Ofira. “T’unfeathered ‘uns will be sick of that soon enow, but the first time’s allus a holiday. Nowt much out this way any road—we walk toward the Forest.”
“Which forest?” said Adewole.
“On’y the one, learnèd ‘un.” Ofira clacked her beak. “Red voles live here—my favorite. Soon as we get that you’ve come for, I hunt.”
“Very well,” he said, though he didn’t entirely know what they’d come for.
Houses disappeared. Dark shapes in the mist resolved into beech trees, aspens, evergreens—sparse at first along the sides of the track. Signs of harvesting were evident; the underbrush looked almost groomed, no fallen limbs littered the ground, and the younger trees grew in tidy rows. The mist hung low to the ground among the trees even as they grew closer together. “Soon,” said Ofira. Suddenly she turned and took a run at a smaller bird flying at a distance behind them. “Starling’s annoyed me all the day. Told her I’d eat ‘er if she didn’t push off.”
Adewole walked up what passed for a hill on Risenton, a slight incline ending at a small, rocky, abrupt outcropping. Vines half-shrouded a natural opening in the rock; a rusted grille kept a sagging, futile guard. “If this is not the Ossuary, it is something at least as haunted,” he said.
“The Ossuary is haunted enough,” said the owl from where she hovered nearby. “Nowt that speaks comes here. On’y voles.” She stooped, snatched a wriggling rodent from among the rocks, and perched nearby. “I see a red vole, I mun eat a red vole,” she said, and she swallowed the stunned little creature whole. Adewole stared at her aghast; though he had seen her eat several dozen times, he never seen her eat something still wiggling. Ofira puffed her feathers out to twice her size. “I hunt for my meat. You eat another’s killing.”
Adewole turned his head away and focused on the door in the rock. “No judgment here, friend.”
“Agreed, learnèd ‘un, you’ve no judgment at all,” she snapped. “Owls get notions, and mine is to save my feathers. I’d save yours do you have any, but no feathers and no judgment—thass that we have here in you. Do you go in there, you go alone.” She shifted from foot to foot in agitation. “But I will wait.”
“I thank you, truly,” said Adewole. “If I do not come out before nightfall, fly to Major Berger or Professor Deviatka and tell him where I am. Will you do this?” She blinked her eyes once, slow and firm, before she closed them and tucked into herself as if to sleep.
Adewole’s hand trembled as he lit the little lantern. Though he had insisted to himself and Ofira—and did his best to believe—he wasn’t scared, a voice as insubstantial as the mist whispered at his ear, and his neck prickled. Words formed in his mind in a thin, piteous wail: Go away, take it away, please go away... “Ofira, do you hear something?”
“Do the learnèd ‘un got notions?” mumbled Ofira as if in her sleep, though Adewole knew she was quite awake. He shook his head and walked up the short, rocky path to the cave mouth. The grille had been opened recently, its rusted red, fragile chain snapped in two. When he pushed against the grille, it creaked and crumbled beneath his hand, staining his leather glove orange. Lifting the little lantern, he slipped past the gate’s spiky remains. Dust and cold air struck him, as if the Ossuary breathed.
He crept along, lantern raised as high as possible in the low-ceilinged chamber. Smooth, closely fitted stone lined the floor and walls. The light fell on neat piles of bones, separated by type. Femurs were stacked like logs; ribs woven in basket patterns contained pyramids of skulls. The main chamber opened into many coves; some were mere niches in the wall, but others were larger than the cave in which he stood. He didn’t dare enter them for fear of losing his way, choosing instead to stand at each opening and peer inside.
All the while, he listened for the voice. Following it made sense in a way, though his instinct said turn and run. In a search for something magical, he reasoned, best follow the magic, and he had to assume the Machine God spoke to him. Unless the Ossuary was truly haunted, there was no other explanation. Adewole had collected many ghost stories in his career, but never a ghost.