In The Eye of The World
rating: +4+x

Chapter 6: In The Eye of The World

To their credit, Cedar thought. The Hand is better connected than I thought.

It was a silent admission they made to themself while lying in the bed of a private jet. It only took Ben four quarters and two phone calls to get one to fly them to Nepal. It was owned by some celebrity who was secretly a member of The Hand. Cedar guessed that the pilots were Hand too, or they weren’t paid enough to question why their boss was having them fly two nobodies to Everest. Cedar could feel the previous night catching up to them and they drifted into sleep.

Their dreamless slumber was ended by Ben shaking them awake, “Get up, we’re landing in a few hours.”

It was dark outside of the jet and Cedar could see stars shining over a desert that they assumed was Pakistan.

“How long was I out?” Cedar asked as they got up and followed Ben out of the bedroom.

“Little under sixteen hours,” Ben answered. “Not that I blame you.”

Ben sat in one of the leather seats and peered out the plane window. Cedar went to the minifridge in the cabin and pulled a bottle of water out of it. Their throat was dry as hell and there was a horrible taste in their mouth. They gulped nearly half of the bottle down and took a deep breath, “You get any sleep?”

“A little. These chairs aren’t all that comfortable. I’m rested enough, though.”

“Sorry, call dibs first next time,” Cedar joked as they sat down in the seat in front of him. “Or cuddle up next to me.”

Ben rolled his eyes, “Do you know how to find the lab once we’re there?”

“Knowing the Daeva, it’s hidden by magic. You’d probably know more about that than me,” Cedar answered before taking another swig of water.

“Kane’s taught me a few minor spells, nothing impressive. Certainly, nothing that could do anything against Daevite magic.”

“It’s probably in a cave or something, somewhere away from the public. The chronicle said it was at the base of the mountain, so I don’t think we’re gonna have to worry about climbing it.”

Ben perked up, remembering the book, “The chronicle’s in the bedroom, right?”

“Yeah, in the backpack,” Cedar answered, “Why?”

“I think we should burn it. If we don’t succeed, I don’t want it to fall into the Bookburners’ hands.”

Cedar laughed a bit, “First off, I hope you see the irony in that statement. Second, horrible idea. Remember, that book is still Library property. And you know what happens to people who damage the books.”

“Right,” Ben collected himself. His face looked paler than usual. “I just-”

“You're scared, I get it. Your first mission alone and you’re traveling across the world with the shadow government at your heels.” Cedar spoke too casually for Ben’s taste.

“And you aren’t scared?” Ben asked.

“Nah. Little confused, but not scared.”

Ben tilted his head, “Confused?”

“Yeah, I keep rolling it around in my head, and I can’t figure out why The Hand would send us on this,” Cedar started. “And I’m not trying to get into an argument about the ethics of The Hand again here, but if The Original is as important to you as Kane made it out to be, why is he sending a rookie and an above-average academic?”

Ben answered like he was reading from a textbook, “Kane said that your academic prowess and bravery were perfectly suited for this mission and that he was confident in my training.”

“Tell me you’re not that naive.”

“I’m not, but it’s a little too late to start having second thoughts.”

Cedar could respect the sentiment. Compartmentalization would get Ben far in a life like this. But the thought clawed at the back of their mind. The Hand was arrogant, but not stupid. This couldn’t have just been Cedar having a lead on the chronicle, they wouldn’t have needed them for this long if that was the case. And bravery? Their mother always said there was a thin line between brave and stupid. Maybe that was it, Cedar was a stupid adrenaline junkie that’d be perfect for doing dirty work. Suddenly, there was beeping from the cockpit.

“Something’s on our radar,” One of the pilots said. Before Cedar could process that information, a volley of bullets ripped through the plane, taking out one of its engines. They saw the engine burst into flames before the plane started losing altitude. Cedar sprang from their seat and started towards the cockpit, only for the plane to lurch back up, putting Cedar on their ass. The plane’s door was ripped open and a man in all black tactical gear pulled himself inside and unhooked the wire attached to him. Just as soon as Cedar saw him, they felt the butt of his rifle as he whipped it into their face.

The next few moments were a whirl as Cedar came in and out of consciousness. They saw more figures in black fly through the door, they heard cries from the cockpit, “We’re just pilots, we’re just-”

BANG BANG

And the cries ended. Then there was more shouting as they felt their body being turned over and their hands restrained. It was Ben shouting. What was he shouting? A name? My name?

BANG


When they came to, the hot smell of sweat was in the air. They forced their eyes open and saw a man with short white hair and sideburns looking down at them, “So you’re the one causing all this trouble.”

They were in the back of a small cargo plane and one look at the blue emblem on the man’s armor told them exactly whose plane it was. There were ten soldiers in there, and most of them were seated on the bench opposite Cedar. They felt a weight on their right shoulder. It was Ben. He was leaning against Cedar as a GOC medic bandaged his bleeding abdomen. He was barely conscious.

“Captain,” a familiar French accent came from behind the man. “I still don’t understand the point of capturing these two.”

The white-haired man turned, revealing Beau. He wasn’t dressed in the suit Cedar had started to associate him with. Now, he had donned a black turtle neck and cargo pants.

“No loose ends, Mr. Francois,” said the white-haired captain.

“Very well,” Beau sighed. “Then execute them now and be done with it.”

Beau’s casualness offended Cedar. They were about to swear at him when the captain spoke, “No. They might have useful information. The council will decide what to do with them.”

The statement left a dissatisfied look on Beau’s face.

“Sir,” another soldier said as he walked up to the captain with the chronicle in hand. “It was in the backpack.

The captain took the book and quickly handed it to Beau, who got to work digging into the spine, “Anything else?”

“Just a shoebox, sir.”

Beau pulled out a small device with a blinking red light from the chronicle’s spine. The captain caught Cedar’s confused expression and smiled, “MC&D tracks all of their acquisitions.” He leaned over Cedar again, “Neither of you look like you’re Hand. What’s your name?”

Cedar huffed, “Johnny Bravo.”

The captain laughed, “I hope you’re nicer to the council, 'cause Lord knows they ain’t gonna be as nice as me.”

Cedar became acutely aware of the flex cuffs restraining their wrists. They looked over to Ben and saw that his were restrained too. The medic had finished bandaging him just as he started to wake up.

“Cedar?” Ben murmured as he looked around the plane. He turned to Cedar, eyes wide as the situation became clear to him.

“Working on it,” Cedar whispered to him as they scanned the cargo hold for solutions.

“Five minutes ‘til drop, sir!” One of the pilots shouted. Cedar could see into the cockpit.

“Copy,” the captain shouted back. “On your feet, ladies!”

The soldiers jumped off of the bench and formed a line. Beau crossed his legs as they did.

“Johnson!” The captain called.

“Yes, sir?” A soldier at the back of the line answered. He was perfectly robotic, they all were.

“You stay back and watch the prisoners.”

“Understood.” Johnson sat back down on the bench.

Four minutes passed with the only sound being the roar of the plane’s engines. Then, the rear door began to lower, and the icy wind rushed into the hold. Cedar saw Everest below them, illuminated by a Nepalese sky. The eye of the Emtopem, the soul of the world.

“We get this done in under an hour and the first round’s on me,” the captain said as he moved to the side of the hull. He checked his watch, “Dropping in five… four… three… two… one… Go! Go! Go!”

The nine soldiers rushed down the hold and leaped from the plane, the captain jumping with the last of them. The door slowly closed, leaving them alone in the hold with the low hum of the engines. Johnson got up from the bench and walked up and down the hold before going into the cockpit. Once they heard him chatting with the pilots, Beau leaned forward to Cedar and whispered, “I have another proposal.”

“What?” Cedar responded not fully registering what he said.

“Marshal, Carter & Dark would prefer that the GOC doesn’t know too much. So, I’d like to help you escape,” Beau looked back toward the cockpit as he finished the sentence.

“Didn’t you just say he should execute us?” Cedar hissed at him.

“Yes, because you can’t be interrogated by the council if you’re dead, or if you’re free.”

“Alright, we go free. What do you get?” Cedar asked.

“It’s simple, really. You go free, stop them from taking The Original, should you wish to, and I keep the chronicle,” he explained as if he were pitching a business idea. Cedar turned to Ben. He was looking down at the floor, considering the deal. Then, he looked back at Cedar.

“I don’t like it,” he said to them, “but our mission is to retrieve The Original, not the chronicle.”

Johnson came back into the hold. Beau leaned back on the bench, folding his hands behind his head and crossing his legs again. Johnson walked down the length of the hold, making sure to slow down for just a little too long as he passed Cedar and Ben. When he reached the end of the aisle, he sat down on a bench and began cleaning his rifle. Cedar looked out the window and saw the roaring propellor on the plane’s wing. They could feel its vibrations as they reverberated throughout the hull. A marvel of human engineering, hard steel, pure metal. Cedar nudged Ben with their shoulder and tilted their head toward the engine.

“W-what?” Ben stammered.

A look of urgency grew on Cedar’s face. “The engine.”

“The eng…” Ben looked out the window and saw it. Putting together Cedar’s plan, he looked down at his wound. “No. No, I can’t. Too weak.”

“You have to,” Cedar whispered. “We have to get to that cat before them.”

“We can find a way to do it without crashing a goddamn plane.”

“When you figure out how, let me know,” Cedar said sternly. “Look, I know I give you shit, but you know what’s at stake here, maybe more than I do. Sure, I love the Library with all my heart, but at the end of the day, I’m a pariah and a nomad at heart. If something should happen to the Library, I could leave it. I’d be heartbroken, but I’d survive. But you? You’re Hand. You live and breathe it. You’re sworn to protect it. You do have a gift, Ben. So use it.”

Ben was silent. He knew that Cedar could have just been saying all that, but the words rang true to him. He stared at the engine as he remembered his vowel to protect the Wanderers’ Library from all threats. He focused all of his energy into the engine. A blood vessel burst in his eye but he ignored it, not moving his eyes from the engine until he felt the pulse.

BOOOOM

The explosion was so loud that it cracked the windows, fire and black smoke erupting from the engine. Ben passed out and slumped onto the bench. Beau’s eyes grew wide in shock as Johnson jumped from the bench and started running towards the cockpit. Cedar stuck their leg out and kicked Johnson in the shins, sending them to the floor. Beau caught on and kicked Johnson in the back of the head. The plane was losing altitude already. Cedar heard the pilots swear as they struggled to keep the plane level.

“Get his knife,” Cedar said to Beau as they turned around so he could see the cuffs. Beau quickly grabbed the combat knife from Johnson’s belt and cut off the plexicuffs. Cedar turned around and took the knife from Beau. They got over the half-conscious Johnson and raised the knife over their head. They picked out a spot on the back of his neck to stab the blade into. They were about to bring the knife down when the plane fell into a tailspin.

They were all thrown around the hold like ragdolls. Cedar’s back hit the ceiling hard enough to take the wind out of them. Beau managed to latch onto the bench before it hit him in the teeth. Johnson came to his senses and managed to find a grip on the ceiling. Cedar watched Ben hit the wall and swiftly launched themself from the ceiling, caught him, and used their body to lessen the impact as they hit the floor again. He was still out like a light. They wrapped an arm around Ben’s waist and used their free hand to hold on to the other bench. Johnson struggled to wrap his fingers around the handle of his pistol, death stare held on Cedar.

The plane spun wildly through the night air, black smoke spiraling behind it. Those preparing for sleep in the mountain’s sixth camp heard the roar of its failing engines overhead. The wing with a good engine smashed into the summit, tearing it off. The plane completed one more full rotation before its underside landed and it started sliding down the side of the mountain like a metal avalanche.

Everyone in the hold hit the floor at once. As they were all struggling to their feet, Ben began to stir. Cedar put their fingers to the side of his neck and checked his pulse. He’s steady, at least for now.

Johnson forced himself to his feet, struggling to keep his balance against the massive steel sled he was now in. Keeping his eye on Cedar, he reached for his gun only to find the holster empty. He quickly glanced around the hold and saw it at the very back of the plane, with Cedar blocking his path. Before he could even think about making a run for it, Cedar uppercutted him so hard he bit through his tongue.

“Ah! You thon of a bith!” Johnson screamed, clutching his jaw as blood spilled from his mouth. Cedar only responded by kicking him in the chest, putting him on his back. Cedar saw their backpack lying on the floor next to the cockpit entrance and was suddenly reminded of the 1911 within it. They tried to jump over Johnson, be he caught them by the ankles, and Cedar cracked their forehead off the floor as they hit it face first. Johnson managed to punch them in the shins a few times before Cedar pulled a leg free and crushed his nose with their heel.

“Jackass,” Cedar spat before getting up and booking it down the hold. Johnson took the chance to go for his pistol. Jumping to his feet, he shoved Beau to the side and ran to his gun at the end of the hold. Cedar dove for the backpack and practically tore it open. They reached past the empty shoebox in it and grabbed their Colt from the bottom. Yanking it from the backpack, they pointed it down the hold and found the iron sights level with Beau’s chest. Johnson had him in a chokehold with the gun pressed to his temple. Beau looked mildly inconvenienced more than anything else.

One of the pilots realized that there was a drop-off dead ahead. The plane was hurtling towards a cliff and fast. He hit a release switch and a massive parachute shot out of the back of the plane, slowing its descent.

Johnson fell forward onto Beau, Cedar fell backward into the cockpit. Before they could regain their bearings, they caught eyes with the co-pilot who had noticed them on the floor. Cedar raised their pistol, only for the pilot to dive on them and lock them both in a struggle for the weapon. The pilot gripped the barrel of the gun and made sure it was pointed away from him. Cedar tried to knee him in the ribs, but they couldn’t get enough leverage. Johnson slowly rose to his feet, seeing the struggle in the cockpit. He started to carefully make his way down the aisle, being sure to kick Beau in the back of the head as he stepped over him, who only cursed in French and rubbed the sore spot. Johnson held his pistol at the ready as he walked, waiting for the moment he could get a clear shot on Cedar. Beau wrapped his arm around Ben’s and held on to the bench again.

The cliff's edge was still quickly approaching. The lone pilot realized there was no way of halting the plane and crossed himself. On the floor, Cedar and the co-pilot’s struggle over the gun had become a war of attrition. Cedar finally sacrificed what little control over the pistol they had and beat him in the face until he finally let go. Immediately, Cedar and Johnson aimed their guns at each other and fired. Then, the plane went over the cliff.

The inside of the plane lost all sense of gravity as everyone inside was tossed around again. Beau kept himself and Ben in place as best he could. The plane fell thirty feet before the parachute wrapped around a rock protruding from the cliff side. Cedar and the co-pilot landed on top of the pilot, who was already pressed against the windshield. Just as they felt it starting to give beneath their weight, Johnson landed on top of them. Cedar felt the glass cracking. It was going to shatter at any second. They could still feel their gun in their hand. Gripping it tightly, they shoved Johnson off of them, jumped up, and grabbed ahold of the restraints on the empty pilot seat. From this angle, they could see that their shot took off Johnson’s ear and, more pressingly, they could see that Johnson’s shot hit them in the thigh. They couldn’t feel it yet. They decided they’d worry when they could. They aimed their pistol at the windshield. Johnson screamed and reached out for the gun, but it was too late. Cedar fired a round into the windshield and watched as it shattered under the weight of Johnson and the pilots.

CRAAASH

They fell into the dark abyss below them. Cedar held onto the restraints tightly as they hung above it, watching the men disappear into the darkness. Their screams continued until Cedar heard a sickening thud. Looking through the shattered windshield, Cedar realized three things. First, this wasn’t just a cliff, moonlight should’ve been shining on the bottom of it, but there wasn’t, just pitch black. This was a cavern, a giant fucking hole in the side of the mountain that had somehow never been discovered. Perhaps it could only be found if you needed it. Second, judging by how long it took Johnson and his companions to hit the bottom, it was about a thousand feet deep. Lastly, there was no rush of cold air coming in through the windshield, quite the opposite, it was warm.

“Are you still alive, Bardot?” Cedar heard Beau’s voice call from above them.

“Yeah,” Cedar answered while putting the pistol in their jacket. “How’s Ben?”

“I… I’m fine. Jus… Just need to rest… a bit,” stammered Ben.

Cedar pulled themself past the pilot seat and climbed out of the cockpit. They sat on a wall next to the cockpit’s doorway, letting their legs dangle into the cockpit itself, as Beau lowered himself and Ben onto the opposite wall.

“Well, you’ve successfully crashed this plane,” Beau said pulling a pocket knife from his cargo pants and cutting Ben’s cuffs. “What now?”

“You had that the whole time?” Cedar asked, nodding at the knife.

“I wasn’t exactly given the chance to use it, with you yelling at me to grab the guard's and all. I must say, Mx. Bardot, you have quite the flare for the dramatic. I had a much more subtle escape plan in mind.”

Cedar ignored his snide comment and returned to his original question, “We have to go further down.”

“Further down?” Beau questioned.

Cedar twisted around and pushed aside their backpack to grab a first aid kit that was on the wall. They began digging through it, “Yeah, further down. We’re in a cavern right in the middle of Everest right now. Either of you ever heard of that?” Ben murmured out a negative and Beau shook his head. Cedar pulled a bandage and rubbing alcohol from the first aid kit. “That’s what I thought. Which probably means we’re not meant to know about it.”

“So you think it leads to the lab,” Beau finished Cedar’s thought.

Cedar undid their belt and shoved their jeans down to their knees. Beau politely looked away while Ben only waited to hear the next part of the plan. Cedar winced as they poured the rubbing alcohol over their wound. Tossing the bottle to the side, they began wrapping the bandage around their thigh, “Ok, good, I think it missed the bone.” They pulled up their jeans and stood up on the wall. “There were three of them left, so I’m assuming…”

They spotted three parachutes, one lying under the control panel in the cockpit and two lying at Beau’s feet next to Ben. Cedar picked up their backpack and strapped it to the front of their chest, “Gonna parachute down.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Ben stopped them before they could jump back down into the cockpit, “How- Ouch. How do you know that warmth isn’t… Isn’t uh, magma?”

“I doubt it,” Cedar said as they carefully climbed down. “If it was magma we’d be able to see a glow from here. And no one’s ever described Everest as a volcano. I’ll yell back up once I’m sure it’s safe.” They lowered themself into the cockpit until they could reach under the control panel. Quickly, they fastened the parachute to their back, tightening the straps under the backpack and around their torso. They looked back up at Ben and Beau one last time. Beau turned away and began putting on one of the parachutes. Cedar gave Ben a thumbs up. He gave one back. Looking back into the pit, Cedar took a deep breath and jumped.

Warm air rushed through their hair as they fell. Nearly fully encompassed by darkness, they yanked the cord and was jerked up by the sudden deceleration. Their descent was slow and nearly peaceful, but as they got closer to the bottom of the cavern, they noticed a shift in the air. There was a strange, faint smell of chemicals in the air, mixed with another smell that can only be described as old.

It was pitch black as they landed at the bottom of the cavern. The parachute coming down on top of them forced Cedar to the ground. A new smell hit their nose, coppery. It didn’t take Cedar long to realize they were kneeling in the blood of the former flight crew. Feeling around the dirt and rock, they found one of the bodies, a pilot. They pulled his knife from his belt and sliced a long hole in the parachute above them. It wasn’t as dark as they had thought. Distantly in the cave, there was a light flickering. It was faint, just barely perceptible, a dim spec of light in the darkness.

“I made it!” Cedar called. “I see some light deeper in. I’m going to keep moving.”

“Understood, Bardot,” Beau yelled back. “We’re right behind you.”

Cedar threw off the parachute and switched their backpack around. The cave closed in on them as they moved toward the spec. Before they knew it, they were crawling on their hands and knees, and then they couldn’t fit with the backpack on. Shoving it in front of them, Cedar continued on their stomach. Their back pressed against the ceiling and they were finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. They could feel their heart beating against the cave floor. The light loomed in front of them, somehow closer and further away. The chemical smell was more pervasive than ever. They had to turn their head to keep going forward. Their cheek scraping the jagged rock, they felt the demon on top of them for a moment, its hot breath gagging them. They shoved the backpack forward again and off the edge. Cedar craned their neck to look in front of them. The light was there, right in from of them, shining through a hole that they could barely fit their shoulders through. Pulling themself through the hole, Cedar found themself in a tunnel dug into a mountain. It stretched either way endlessly with the occasional torch mounted on the wall. Cedar examined the flickering flame of the torch, Who else is here?

They picked up their backpack and pulled the Colt from it. Throwing the backpack on, they identified which direction the chemical smell was coming from. They decided it was the best lead they had, picked up a rock, and scraped an arrow on the wall pointing toward the smell. Cedar held their gun at the ready as they carefully walked through the tunnel, keeping their footsteps as quiet as they could.

Cedar’s jaw dropped as the tunnel opened up into a room the size of a church. Bookshelves and wooden tables were covered with dusty pages, equipment, and dissected animals. Cedar picked up a sheet of paper and blew a cloud of dust off of it. The torches in the room were just barely bright enough to make out anything on the sheet. Letters from some ancient language were scribbled onto it. Daevite. Cedar had to stop themself from trying to translate it. There was no time, the GOC couldn’t be far behind. Scanning the dead animals and searching through boxes, Cedar hurriedly searched for any remnants of a magical cat. They were close, they knew it. Where would an alchemist keep a dead cat?

A large, stone, ornate door suddenly caught Cedar’s eye. The torchlight caused its carvings to cast intricate and strange shadows onto itself. Cedar placed their hand on the door, traced the grooves, and admired the masterful craftsmanship of it. With all their might they pushed against the door. It didn’t budge. They scratched their chin and looked down at their feet, noticing shadows stretching out from under the door. Placing their ear against the door, they listened closely and heard a voice, “Charge planted. Breaching.”

Cedar’s eyes widened and they dove under a table.

BOOOM

A breaching charge blew the door open, destroying most of it. Debris rained down around Cedar as the captain came into the room with his shotgun raised. Cedar crawled deeper into the shadows as the GOC squad started clearing the room. The captain was the last to enter. Holding his shotgun in a relaxed position, he seemed to think that the danger was behind him.

“Clear!” One of the soldiers shouted.

“Alright,” the captain replied as he pulled a tin of chewing tobacco out of a vest pouch. He twisted off the cap and packed a clump of the stuff behind his lip. “Fan out and find this damn cat.”

The soldiers all moved through the room, carelessly tossing aside artifacts in a rushed search for The Original. Cedar cringed from the shadows as they watched one shatter a vase in his combing of a table. Running out of time, Cedar thought. These maniacs could find Marw any minute. Cupping their hands around their mouth, Cedar spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, “Hey.”

The soldier whipped around and tried to look into the darkness. Putting his hand on his sidearm, he took a step closer, and then another, and then another. Cedar could smell his sweat, sour and salty. Not wasting another second, Cedar lurched forward, wrapped their arm around the man’s throat, and forced him into a chokehold. He didn’t have time to get a word out, airways blocked off. He tried to go for his pistol again, but Cedar pulled back and put more pressure on his esophagus. Cedar prayed that none of the soldiers would notice the quiet struggle happening in the dark. The low grunts seemed like the loudest thing in the world to them, but after a minute, the man in their arms had fallen limp and they only heard the rest of the men sweeping through shelves. Cedar hooked their arms under his armpits and pulled him deeper into the shadows. They stashed their backpack and jacket there, then they pulled off the soldier’s helmet, vest, and shirt. The shirt was far too big for Cedar, but the vest hid that somewhat. They put the helmet on, tightened the chin strap, and pulled the visor down. They looked nothing like a GOC soldier, their jeans didn’t match the uniform at all. Cedar was putting their faith into the rooms low-light. All the soldiers needed to see was a shape similar to them moving around. Finally, Cedar strapped on the man’s thigh-holster and shoved their 1911 into it. Ok. Gotta move.

Stepping out of the darkness, Cedar quickly got to work searching through the tables and shelves, much more careful than the soldiers, though. They heard one swiftly approaching them. Cedar held their breath.

“I already searched that shelf,” the man said as he passed Cedar. They only nodded and moved to another one. The chamber was growing hot. A bead of sweat was forming on Cedar’s forehead, but they weren’t sure if it was because of the heat or their nerves. They watched a soldier pick up of piece of parchment and barely scan it before crumbling it up and tossing it on the floor. Cedar picked up the piece of parchment and tried their best to flatten it out. It took them a moment to realize that it was a diagram, specifically one of some plant they didn’t recognize. The table it had been dropped from was all plants, in fact. There was a dead flower in a jar and dozens of sketches of plants with scribbled notations next to them. This room wasn’t some disorganized storage unit, it was an archive. There was a method to its madness. Suddenly it had become so familiar to Cedar. Like they were standing in a miniature version of the Library. They moved quickly. From the plants, it was easy to find the reptile section. Assuming that animals were all sorted into one general part, Cedar kept moving past the lizards until they started seeing fur. They glanced at pieces of parchment lying next to specimens, recalling the rough translations of the animal kingdoms, Rodents… Canines… Felines.

Cedar grabbed a wicker basket and threw the lid off, only to find the paw of a cougar inside. Not it. They cracked a jar open, it was lion’s rotting fetus. No. C’mon… c’mon. They snatched another wicker case off of a shelf and peeked in. It was grotesque, limbs protruded from its back, it had far too many eyes, its fur seemed to be shifting around somehow, and it was the only specimen that wasn’t rotting. Much like the book that had started this entire journey, The Original was lying unceremoniously on a dusty shelf. There was a multitude of things that came to Cedar’s mind, the incredible magic that the thing's body must have been filled with, the unimaginable torture the poor creature must have gone through, and how excited they were to tell The Library Cat how ugly her ancestor is.

“Soldier!” Cedar heard the captain yell as footsteps quickly approached them. They shoved the lid back onto the basket and turned around. The captain was swiftly marching up to them. He spat out a glob of tobacco-stained saliva before speaking. “You find anything?”

Cedar kept as rigidly still as possible, “No, captain.”

“Hmm,” The captain grunted, looking Cedar up and down. “Where’s your rifle, private?”

“I put it down so it’d be easier to search the room, captain,” Cedar answered quickly.

“Well go fuckin’ get it, private!” The captain yelled. “Fuck do you think you’re doing? We’re still in hostile territory you-”

The captain stopped chewing them out as his eyes met Cedar’s jeans and sneakers. His gaze slowly rose to the dark visor as he realized he wasn’t talking to one of his men. Realizing they’d been found out, Cedar swiftly kicked the captain in the groin and bolted deeper into the chamber.

“Fuck!” The captain screamed as he doubled over. “Contact! Contact! One of them beat us here! They’re disguised!”

Sprinting through the aisles, Cedar barreled through a soldier as he struggled to turn the safety on his rifle off. They turned a corner and met three more. Cedar dove under a table, narrowly dodging a shot from one of them. Hugging the wicker box to their chest, Cedar disappeared into the darkness, searching for their stash.

“Watch the fire!” A soldier yelled. “We want them alive, don’t we, captain!”

“I don’t care if they’re alive or dead!” The captain called back. “Just get that damned cat!”

Cedar was ducked behind a shelf, waiting for a group of them to pass. Hearing their footsteps grow more distant, Cedar took off the helmet and threw it as far as they could before sneaking off in the opposite direction. The soldiers hurried off the sound of the impact while Cedar tried their best to remember their way around the place. Each aisle looked less familiar than the last and the lighting certainly didn’t help. Cedar found themself squinting down corridors and mistaking shadows cast by torches for soldiers. They reached out to feel around, only to knock a pile of scrolls off of a table.

“Over there!” One shouted. A storm of bullets flew over Cedar as they hit the floor. The wooden shelves and tables above them exploded into a thousand splinters, pots, scrolls, jars, and anything else in the line of fire was torn to shreds. Cedar feverishly scampered across the floor. The guns suddenly stopped, and Cedar heard the dry sound of a shotgun cocking, followed by swift footsteps and then a sudden shot, blowing a hole through a shelf. The shotgun cocked again.

“Determined little fucker, aren’t you?” The captain’s voice echoed. It was distant, but not distant enough. “I don’t know who you are, or how you got off that plane, but you’re clearly a problem.” The captain kicked over a shelf, causing a domino effect with a few others. He climbed onto the pile and looked over the chamber. “You can still surrender, you know. We treat our prisoners pretty well. Certainly better than the Foundation.”

Cedar could see the top of his head, white hair shining in the firelight. Slowly, they reached for their pistol. Their breathing sounded like a bull and sweat started stinging their eyes. Squinting through the iron sights, they aimed for the white tuft of hair peeking out from the top of the shelves. Suddenly, the captain turned and started firing wildly into the shelves.

“Get out here you little shit!”

BOOM

“Testing my goddamn-”

BOOM

“Paitence!”

BOOM BOOM BOOM

Cedar rushed under another table as the captain climbed on top of a taller shelf and fired into the air, screaming.

“Do you have any idea what you’re interrupting!”

BOOM

“How hard I worked to get here!”

BOOM

The captain stopped to frantically shove shells into his gun as Cedar turned a corner and finally saw their stash tucked into the corner. They put the box next to their backpack and started feeling around for the rifle. They heard soldiers running around them in the dark. They weren’t sure how they were gonna deal with them yet, but they just needed a rifle, if they could just find that rifle, they’d have a chance. Cedar heard a footstep behind them. They spun around with the 1911 at the ready, only for it to be forcefully kicked out of their hand. A soldier stood in front of them, barrel pointed right at Cedar’s head. “Hands up.”

BOOM

Another shot echoed through the chamber. “Get out here!” the captain screamed.

“Captain!” The soldier in front of Cedar called out.

BOOM

“Captain, I-”

BOOM

“Cap-”

BOOM

The sound of a shotgun clattering to the ground was heard by all in the room. They all looked up to see some nine-foot-tall, horned figure lifting the captain by the arm.

“Warriors,” the voice was soft, yet filled with disgust. It seemed to come from everywhere. “Warriors are banned from entering my laboratory.”

The captain wasn’t given a chance to scream as the figure seized his other arm and tore him in half in the blink of an eye. The rest of the soldiers turned and opened fire on the being, but bullets had no effect on it. The thing raised its arms, and something evil shot from its hands. Cedar covered their face and ducked. Huddled in the dark, the smell of ozone pierced their nostrils and the screams of soldiers filled their ears. Then everything went deadly quiet. Cedar waited to get hit by whatever hit the soldiers, but they were unharmed. They took control of their breathing and started to get up.

It was a woman, or it was from what Cedar could tell, at least. Tall and horned, she was dressed in long, red robes typical of a Daevite priestess. She stood above them, tilting her head, “Are you a warrior?”

Cedar swallowed hard, hoping that she didn’t realize that was a dumb question, considering what she’d just done. They got down on a knee and bowed their head, “I-I’m a scholar.”

She was silent for a long time. Cedar wondered if their next breath would be their last. “You are neither.” Her soft voice spoke with no inflection. “Closer to a thief, perhaps. But what thief steals a long-dead experiment?"

Cedar didn’t answer, they only stared at the furry toes poking out from beneath the robe.

“Ah, yes,” Cedar could hear the smile in her voice and they thought she giggled. “A hired thief. Quit bowing, thief. You do not hold the honor to bow, nor do I hold the honor to be bowed to. Yes, there you are, on your feet. Tell me, why this one specifically?”

Cedar couldn’t believe how tall she was. They were used to looking up at people, but they had to crane their neck just to see her face, what little of it they could in the torchlight. “My… The man who hired me didn’t want the men you killed to have Marw.”

“Marw? Oh, Marw! I see.” She looked down at the wicker casket of The Original. “I had forgotten that I named it. Hmm. Take it. We’ve long since left this world, our magik should live on, at the very least. There’s a portal at the end of the passage you came in through, it’ll take you anywhere you must go.” She turned and began to walk into the shelves.

“Omotana?” Cedar stopped her. “That is your name, isn’t it? Royal Alchemist?”

She didn’t turn back to face Cedar, “Well done, little thief. Maybe you will be a scholar one day.” Silently, she disappeared into the shelves. They never heard a footstep. Cedar picked up their backpack and went to put the wicker box in it when the shoebox fell out of it. They looked at the shoebox and then back at the wicker one, a paranoid sense scratching at them.


They were sweating and out of breath as they walked back through the tunnel. Cedar felt like they could sleep for a week. But it was over now, they had The Original in their backpack and the way home in front of them. All they needed now was, “Ben?”

The redhead shuffled towards them, out from the darkness of the tunnel. His clothes were all torn up and his face was dirty and he was holding the wall for support, but he was upright, “D-do you have it?”

“Yeah,” Cedar answered. “You missed the fun part.”

“Good.” Beau emerged behind Ben. “Now, how are we to get out of here?”

Cedar pointed behind them. “She said there was a portal down that way.”

“She?” Ben tilted his head.

“Omotana.”

Beau laughed. “Of course. Well, looks like our mission is complete, we just have one more deal to make.”

Beau swiftly put Ben in a headlock as he pulled a knife from his pocket. Ben was too weak to fight him, and before he could understand what was happening, Beau had the knife to his throat. “The cat, please.”

Cedar stood still, not giving Beau any insight into their thoughts. “I thought the deal was you take the book we keep the cat.”

“I’ll get paid enough for the chronicle,” Beau smiled. “But I’ll get paid more for Marw.”

“Don’t give it to-” Ben desperately stammered out. Cedar was calm, after everything that happened, this didn’t seem all that surprising. They wondered if they had a clear shot on Beau, then decided they didn’t.

“Think of it this way, it will still be out of GOC’s hands,” said Beau.

“Unless they buy it from you,” Cedar retorted. Beau laughed again.

“Oh, trust me, they won’t be able to afford it. Now, hand it over.”

Cedar looked at Ben, who feverishly shook his head, and then slowly took a backpack strap off of their shoulder.

“No! No! Don-” Beau pulled his arm tighter around Ben’s throat.

“Shut up!”

Cedar put the backpack on the ground and unzipped it. Ben thrashed against Beau but quickly wore himself out. Cedar pulled the wicker box out of the pack and tossed it to Beau’s feet. It hit the ground with a soft thud that bounced off the walls of the tunnel. Cedar put their hand on their holster and waited for Beau’s next move. Keeping his hold on Ben, Beau dropped his knife back into his pocket, forced Ben to kneel down with him, and picked up the box. He looked at Cedar’s gun, then back at Cedar, a wicked smile coming across his face. He stood himself and Ben up and started walking backward into the tunnel. He and Cedar never broke eye contact, not until he was nearly twenty feet away.

“Au revoir, Mx. Bardot!” Beau yelled before kicking Ben in the back and sprinting down the tunnel. Cedar drew their pistol and fired down the tunnel, but the shots didn’t hit. They weren’t meant to. Cedar picked up the backpack and walked over to Ben, who was coughing as he struggled to get up.

“Goddammit! You stupid fuck- cough fucking asshole!” Ben yelled. “Why did- why would you-”

“Relax,” Cedar told him as they helped him up.

“Relax? Relax after you just threw away the thing we went an entire fucking journey to get?” Cedar could tell he wanted to hit them. They reached into the backpack and pulled out the shoebox.

“Relax because we just won, asshole.” Cedar handed Ben the box. He opened it and saw the writhing corpse of Marw resting inside. “All he’s carrying is rocks and a few other dead guinea pigs I found.”

Ben paused for a few moments, “How’d you know?”

“I know better than to trust a capitalist. Or a Frenchman,” Cedar took the box from Ben, put it in the backpack, they hoisted it over their shoulder. “You ready to get the hell out of here?”

Ben nodded and put his arm around Cedar for support. They both started walking down the tunnel.

“You know Cedar, for as much as you don’t like us, you’d make a great Hand.”

Cedar smiled, “I doubt it, I’m not nearly brave enough.”

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