Chapter 41: Traced to the Source
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Previously: After learning the location of one of the Terraforming spell’s crystals, Madnes and friends entered the forest and found the crowv village where it’s hiding. But in the midst of investigating, a new mystery arose: a mysterious illness that has been following crowv villages for years. They call it “bad luck” if you venture outside the village perimeters where it lurks. But what is it really? Madnes and Prince Oz sought to find out. But they fell through a sinkhole and into a man-made tunnel, where the former friends then argued and Madnes learned Oz’s true intentions. He races ahead, and Oz grudgingly hurries after, to discover where the eerie tunnel leads…
Oz let his night vision pierce through the dark as he pursued Madnes, who had raced ahead. The energetic redhead was nowhere in sight, now. When the tunnel’s dust-encrusted surface came to a dead end, Oz’s boots slipped to a stop. Before him stood a metal contraption of a door—bolts, locks and gears holding it tight.
How could it be opened? Where had that Madnes gone off to? He was sure there were no other tunnels but this one. So where was he?
Oz got close, inspecting the door mechanisms: No trace of a keyhole to be found; it must open some other way…
A gear turned. Locks and bolts released. It was suddenly opening.
Chest thumping panic, Oz ducked to the left, pressing his body flat against the tunnel wall.
“Oz, psst! What are you doing?” Oz blinked as a redhead peeked around the now-open metal door, flashing a smug grin before disappearing.
He’d already gotten inside? How did he unlock the…? Oz growled, and slipped in after him. The Madness Solver’s knowledge must have helped the human.
Stepping within, a cool gust blew hair back from his temples. A hazy glow from dim rods of light spaced along the walk and ceiling cast the area in a green, yellow atmosphere. A grated floor scuffed under his boots, and a musty scent hung in the air, with traces of something bitter.
Oz let his eyes scan the area and its branching paths. Equipment lay everywhere. Conduits laced the walls like tree roots, with beeping glass boxes bulging out the wallwork. He drew close to one of the luminous green boxes. He bent to the glass: a sponge-like substance grew inside, like green fungus, and particles covered it like powder—a dusty, glowing powder in the dim atmosphere.
“There’s the source of your illness.”
Oz whipped his head back toward the voice, and Madnes stepped up, hands in pockets. “I wasn’t sure at first, but getting a good look at it, I’m certain it’s this dusty powder that’s been making crowv ill,” said Madnes.
Oz turned to it once more. “What makes you so sure?”
“I spotted this fungus growing on rocks and tree bark, back when we made our way down to the river,” Madnes explained, the glow casting green shadows across his features. “Some had this yellow dust—but it doesn’t look natural, if you ask me.”
“The Madness Solver telling you that?”
He shrugged. “If a crowv brushes against it, they catch ill. That’s what I think.”
“Why would something like this be cultivated and planted in the forest? It’s as if someone wants the crowv to die out.” Oz vented, not expecting an answer. He pulled back from the glass, and continued down the grated path. Madnes hesitated before following.
The path led to an open, circular doorway, and Oz didn’t pause to step through. But the sight beyond hit him like a wall of bricks, his built up anger draining pale: A cavernous space stretched before them, and lined in neat rows throughout it were glass caskets. Conduits ran to them, and little lights lit up a face inside each one.
Oz stumbled back a step before falling to his knees, numb pricking every inch of him. It was Madnes who went to the nearest casket and peered through the glass. “Ah…” Oz could hear the heaviness in Madnes’ chest, “Now it all makes sense.”
Gritting his jaw till it ached, Oz forced himself up and went to where the human stood. Inside the casket was what he feared to see—what was inside each of these caskets, countless rows of them. A face, its eyes closed in death, with the hum of conduits surrounding its crowv body.
“Those black patches,” Madnes pointed out on the body’s skin, “They match what we saw on the bones by the riverbed.”
“What,” it was an effort to speak, “are they doing to my people?” Oz growled. “Who is doing this?”
Madnes bent down, tapping cords and conduits on the underside of the raised casket. “These are syphoning something from the body. Tell me, do crowv have special powers or something like magic in them?”
Oz took a moment before he could think. “Yes. It’s not magic, like what you’re thinking, but a power in our genes. It’s what makes us crowv, and able to transform. Why? You think it’s being syphoned out?”
“Yes.” Madnes straightened. “I’m thinking the illness is a clever ploy to get crowv for whatever work is going on here. Think about it,” he faced him. “When a crowv falls ill, they leave the village so as not to spread the illness to anyone else. They leave to die, most likely coming down to the riverbed for water and comfort. They’re weak and alone, and that’s when they get captured and brought in here. It’s like the perfect crime. No one expects them to come back, so no one ever goes looking or discovers the truth.”
Oz felt his jaw go slack, staring at his former friend. “And that’s how the illness can follow a village, even after it moves. The people running this laboratory can plant the illness wherever they like and scare the crowv into thinking their surroundings are cursed!” He stepped back from the casket, his vision taking in the many rows filling the cavernous hall. “They were killed for their power… How many years has this gone on? How much power? And for what?” His chest and face burned. “When I find the one responsible for this…”
“A Terraforming Spell’s crystal is nearby,” Madnes seemed to hesitate, hand scrubbing bangs back. “This…could be connected to it.”
Oz looked at him sharply. “Are you saying this was all to generate those crystals?”
“…I’m afraid so. Gathering up power over the course of however-many-years to create seven of them.” His eyelids shut, pained. “I guess they’re gathering back-up power now; not much other reason to keep running this place.”
Oz bit his lips so hard they bled. Father wanted the Terraforming Spell—Did he know at what cost it was made? Did he really knowingly use Oz’s people—his mother’s people—to do this? Did the crowv mean nothing to him but a source of power to be used?
‘Mother…where are you?’ Hot tears stung his eyes.
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