The Nothing is not friendly. I can tell. More to the point, Jeffrey can tell.
As with the Dauphine, everyone here has a role. We just kinda settled into them upon entering the city, and no one argued over who does what. Logan's the scout when we need speed; Celine's the scout when we want stealth; Grylock handles tracking; I make final decisions; Jeffrey's the idea man.
Jeffrey's no leader. I've seen as much in the past. When you give him people to command, he tends to go a bit... wacky. One might even call it moderately tyrannical. I once caught Jeffrey ordering other crewmembers to clean his cabin first when I put him in charge of cleaning detail, and there was a gleam in his eye I didn't like. He looked much more comfortable after I removed him from duty and put Ed in charge instead.
Let Jeffrey handle the brain work, though, and he's wonderful. He concocts creative solutions to worrying problems with such zeal that even Libby would be impressed. I got a chance to see that in action earlier today, and though his conclusions were not to my liking, I can't complain with his methods at all.
Below is, in its way, as much of a wasteland as the desert above our heads. Given the number of surviving buildings you might think it's chock-full of goodies, but there's very little of value remaining in this place once you go looking. Furniture has rotted away; fabrics are little more than useless scraps, if they exist at all; food is practically fossilized. I found what I think used to be an apple buried in my sand bed this morning, and it was harder than most swords I've handled.
... which would be no swords. They sorta drop out of my hands, like all weapons. I've at least touched one, so I know how hard swords are. Can I get on with my story, please? Thanks.
Despite the distinct lack of anything besides stone in most buildings, we have come across the occasional remnants of whatever society once lived here. Usually we find things while hunting through the back rooms of residential buildings: a chest here, a cupboard there, the occasional hidden niche that Logan uncovers with his nose for secrets. All told we've discovered the following in Below:
- Three scarfs
- Twelve shirts, all blue
- A torn dress
- Five leather pouches
- A dozen wooden poles - Jeffrey suspects they were used for steering boats
- Seven potions of various colours, none of which even Grylock can identify
- A book, though only the cover remains - the pages appear to have been torn out
- A baby's rattle
- A bundle of copper coins
- An urn
- A set of dried paints
Most of the above is useless to us. I decreed all of the above to be useless to us, truth be told, but Jeffrey quickly took to assembling a few of the items into a sort of pet project whenever we took a break. By this afternoon he explained what he had in mind.
"This," he said, holding an extremely crude wood-and-sandbag dummy up for us all to see, "is a person. Do you agree?"
No one said anything at first. Grylock was too tired to talk, and the rest of us seemed cautious of hurting Jeffrey's feelings. Eventually I said "Uh, sure, Jeffrey. A... person."
Rolling his eyes, Jeffrey set the dummy down on its base. It wobbled, the broken poles shifting a little under their ripped shirt bindings, but the thing stayed together. He pointed at the leather sandbag drooping atop the dummy's body. "Head. Arms. Trunk. Legs. It's a person. Can you see as much?"
Logan, crouched beside me and only half watching Jeffrey's presentation, nodded. "Yes, dad. Person. Close enough. What of it?"
Jeffrey turned to Celine. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring at the dummy with glazed eyes. "Could you set this up somewhere high and visible? Without being seen yourself?"
Celine nodded. "I believe so. Father, do you have a thing for mannequins? If I recall correctly you kept one in your bedroom back home - "
Jeffrey clapped a hand over her mouth, grinning sheepishly at the rest of us. I don't know why he bothered - the rest of us found his freaking wife mannequin back when we were still living in the castle. "Eheh! Anyway. Just nod. Can you get it close to... er... the Nothing? But somewhere we can all watch from safety?"
Celine nodded. Then she bit her father's hand. After he jumped away, she picked up the mannequin and darted out of the room. Logan followed after her at a distance as discrete backup, though he needn't have bothered. Celine returned twenty minutes later with a little salute.
Following her, noting the pounding steps of the Nothing as it lumbered slowly through a distant section of the city, we made our way back to the park where we'd first encountered the Nothing. Where once the sphere had lain was a crater, much bigger than I'd originally expected, with ample signs of struggle. Apparently the Nothing had fought hard to escape its sand-and-stone half-prison.
Celine had placed the dummy atop one of the surrounding buildings, possibly a former market. Ghostly rats swished around and through the thing, not paying it any mind. We hid in a building down the street from the park, within sight of the dummy, and looked to Jeffrey for further instruction.
"Okay. Stay here." Taking a breath, he sneaked out of the store, down the street, and onto the fringe of the park. He disappeared from sight after a minute, and we heard nothing for a few minutes more -
- until Jeffrey abruptly barked "HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!", his call echoing loudly through the empty streets of Below.
We tensed, hunkering instinctively lower. About a minute later Jeffrey came speeding towards us, running faster than I've ever seen him move. He slid in beside me and, breathing hard, turned to watch the park. We waited.
The methodical walking in the distance stopped. A thoughtful silence descended upon Below. Then, taking two steps to reorient itself, the Nothing began pounding towards the park at a greater-than-normal pace. I imagined its titanic legs punching hard into the ground, driving up stone and street alike. Buildings crumbled in its wake, and maybe three minutes later the building on the opposite side of the park collapsed into the crater, scattering thousands of ghostly rats to the edge of the park.
The Nothing stepped through the rubble. Celine's name is so apt. It's a big black ball of nothing, tottering along on two thick, rusty legs. It's nightmarishly huge, as large as the meeting chamber that used to rest atop Rodentia's palace, and now that it's in motion... I only saw it from a distance, but I swear the Nothing's black metal hull seems to move. It warps and twists and bends, as though made out of oil, yet it never seems to reflect light.
Straddling the crater it had left behind, its legs splayed wide to avoid falling, the Nothing paused in front of Jeffrey's dummy. I don't know if it was actively thinking about the dummy or simply preparing to attack, but the Nothing hovered in place for almost a full minute before it did anything else. The dummy looked pathetically small in front of the Nothing, little more than a speck.
I understood Jeffrey's plan. He wanted to see how the Nothing would react to a 'person'. With the flurry of ghost rat activity surrounding the park and the lack of proper light I was worried we might miss anything he'd wanted to see. I needn't have fretted, as the Nothing's attack was visually spectacular.
A dozen black tendrils exploded out of the front of the sphere, each seeming to screech as it flew from the Nothing's rounded surface and hit the air. The tendrils skewered the dummy with pinpoint accuracy, shredding the wooden trunk, ripping through its sandbag head, separating base from body and removing its legs and arms. The dummy collapsed in an instant, leaving behind a faint puff of sand as the tendrils slid back into the Nothing's body.
Apparently content, the Nothing began to ramble again. Its path brought it unnervingly close to our hiding spot, so we fled down alleyways. It didn't find us.
So... that answers that, I guess. Stay the hell away from the Nothing.
Dragomir the Wanderer