The future ain’t what it used to be…
Morley watched the old woman needlessly rearrange the boxes of confectionary on the storeroom shelf and tried her hardest to meet the crone’s beady-eyed stare. If the woman had a name, Morley didn’t know it; she was simply known as the Old Witch perhaps after the shop she ran which sat near the London street, Aldwych, above a hidden entrance to the London Underground. It was an entrance used only by people like Morley. It did not lead to any public station.
The Witch continued to stare at Morley whilst feebly sliding boxes about, her mouth slightly open in a fixed, rictus grin. Morley shifted uneasily under her gaze and alternately smoothed her black cloak and fiddled with her dark frizzy hair. From deep beneath their feet came the rumble of an Underground train.
Eventually the Witch broke the silence, her thoughts apparently finally sliding down as far as her mouth.
‘Found a new Line, have you? Think this might be the one? The doorway in the plague pit that the King has talked about for so long. The one he is so keen to find?’
‘Be quiet,’ snapped Morley, more harshly than she meant to. ‘It’s none of your business.’
The Witch laughed. No, not laughed, cackled, thought Morley.
‘He’s been looking for that Line for a very, very long time. And you think you’ve found it now? Only you can’t tell because your Presence isn’t strong enough to allow you to see where it leads.’ The Witch gave another crowing laugh and seized her walking stick which she waved as she shuffled off into the front part of the newsagent store. There were very rarely any customers and no-one was there now. The shop was a cover to allow those who served the Riven King access to the areas deep under London.
Morley called to her back. ‘Orders are to report new Lines, and not to use them.’
The Witch responded only with a hacking cough as she disappeared from sight.
Morley shifted nervously, now alone by the staircase which led down to the underbelly of London. It was annoying that the Witch was even partially right. Morley couldn’t tell where the Line led. But she was under strict orders. If you found a new Line to those on the records of the Riven, within or near a plague pit under London, then you were not to use it until someone more senior had been down to check it out. All Riven moving in and around London were told that the King was very interested in finding a particular Line. Its existence was whispered about in the halls of the Rivenrok Complex. The Blood Line they called it. It was said to be unique but no-one knew why. The King had been looking for it for a very long time and when it was found, and it would be found, only he was to use it. Anyone who found it would be rewarded handsomely. Morley wondered what riches or powers or status he might offer.
She continued to wait, nervous about what might happen at the Line. Life hadn’t always been like this. She’d had a husband and kids. Three daughters she thought, although it was hard to remember. Her mind was so often clouded. One day the Riven had found her and had revealed that she was capable of magic, that she had a Presence, although she had no idea what that had meant at the time. Anyway, the choice had been stark. Follow them or be killed and witness the death of her family too. She had gone with the Riven to protect those she had loved. She’d gone reluctantly at first, full of fear. But as time had gone on it had become easier and she had not been treated awfully. The Riven were cruel at times, but she had had much revealed to her, including her new abilities. She had been persuaded that there was a higher purpose to serve. She had seen the frailties of those without Presence, and the opportunity to shape a future which was in the interests of all to realise.
She couldn’t now remember much about her earlier life, other than brief flashes of her family. It was as though parts of her memory had been affected by the Presence which had enveloped her mind. She had had another name, a first name, and she thought that once upon a time she might have been an artist or something, And she remembered baking. Even now she felt sure she could have produced something impressive given time and the right ingredients. But how mundane given what she was capable of now with Presence and with the might of the Riven standing with her.
For years she had been kept close to the Rivenrok Complex, spending time with others like her, and with regular teachings from senior members of the Riven. A few times she had been taken into the Riven school, Scholomance, itself for lessons. The dark had scared her, as had the strange people who inhabited those shadowed corridors. She supposed she had proven herself trustworthy, in a way she hadn’t been aware of. She was now allowed to range more widely and lately she had been assigned to a group of Riven who roamed under London is ones and twos, looking for Lines. These were doorways were rare, and new ones were like hen’s teeth. But today she had found one, Sensed it’s energy. She’d hurried back here, excited by her news, but nervous about what would come next.
She was startled from her thoughts by the sound of a bell as someone entered the witch’s shop from the street. Morley heard an expression of surprise from the hag who said something indistinct in a respectful tone. Morley could not hear the other voice. Whoever it was, was speaking quietly. Morley felt her stomach lurch with nervousness again but she stood upright and put her shoulders back, trying to look confident. She had done the right thing.
That confidence pooled at her feet like warm icing when a black-cloaked man stepped into the room and give her a keen stare.
‘Herr Pech,’ stammered Morley remembering, even in her panic, to use his preferred title. ‘I…’
Pech spoke over her. ‘You’ve found a new Line?’
‘Near a plague pit?’
She nodded again.
‘Did you use it?’
Morley shook her head.
‘Very well,’ said Pech. ‘Lead on.’
Morley stepped over to the spiral staircase and began to descend, Pech’s footsteps soft and almost silent behind her. She wound down and down through the rumble of the underground trains passing nearby, acutely aware that the Riven who walked behind her was extremely dangerous. He was the adviser to the Riven King and said to be one of very few whom the King trusted. They spent a great deal of time together. It made her skin prickle to have him behind her. She was surprised to have someone of his status join her. New Lines were, she supposed, rare. It was easy to forget that when one used them fairly routinely.
Eventually, they reached the bottom. Morley swallowed a lump in her throat, turned on a torch and, with offered it to Pech.
‘It’s, um, it’s quite a way I’m afraid.’
Pech did not take the torch, but inclined his head and held out a hand towards the tunnel beyond. ‘Then we had better not delay,’ he said.
It took what felt like several hours to reach the Line that Morley had found. She was nervous every step of the way, worried that she would take a wrong turn and lead Pech astray. She had memorised the maze of subterranean passages carefully and took the path unfalteringly through parts of the Underground, parts of the Victorian sewer system, natural voids and spaces altogether strange and ancient. They did not talk for the entire journey and Pech made no sound, following with a silence which Morley found unnatural. She inwardly cursed herself for the audible sigh of relief she gave when eventually they approached the Line. She could feel the pull of it on her Presence as they neared it in a section of rough tunnels which might, for all she knew, have been carved a thousand years ago and never visited since.
Morley pointed to a blank space of wall. ‘I can feel it in there,’ she said. ‘Behind the dirt.’
Pech moved over to study the wall in the darkness as Morley shifted nervously in the pocket of stale, deathly cold air. Pech looked closely at the wall. Morley looked too, running the torch over the surface. She could clearly see bits of bone sticking from it, some teeth set in a jawbone here, a femur there. An ancient plague pit with a Line nearby, just as the Riven searched for. This could very well be it. The Blood Line. On the ground some bones had worked themselves free from the wall and Pech nudged them with his foot studying them in the dim glow from the light which Morley carried.
‘Very good,’ Pech said. ‘I can feel the energy of the Line. Dig it out.’
‘W.. w.. what with?’ stammered Morley.
‘I do not care,’ said Pech. ‘Presence. Your hands. It is your choice. But do it quickly or I will recommend that a bowl is made of your skull in order to do it.’
Morley hurried to the wall and began to use her weak Presence and her fingers to tear at the mud and stones and bones in an effort to reach the Line quickly. Before long her hands began to bleed, her nails torn by her efforts. The look Pech gave her when she held them up to the light to inspect them encouraged her not to stop again. By the time she had pulled away the dried mud to reach the edge of the Line, which was not far behind the wall, her hands were a mess and she almost sobbed with the pain. She could feel tears in her eyes which made the light of the torch sparkle in front of her. But eventually, the Line was accessible.
Pech withdrew a knife from within his cloak.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Use the Line and return here immediately.’
‘What? Me?’ said Morley in confusion. ‘But I thought this Line might be the one that is, you know, very powerful. Only for the King.’
‘It may be. In which case you should consider yourself very lucky,’ Pech lifted the knife and studied its edge. ‘If it is not the Line that the King seeks then return promptly. I will not wish to be kept waiting for long. The King is expecting my report.’
Morley turned to the Line and opened it clumsily with her Presence. She dropped the doorway once before managing to hold it open. Taking a deep breath, she stepped though and vanished.
In a couple of minutes, she was back. She could see that Herr Pech was waiting impatiently, but at least he had put away his knife. She could tell by his demeanour that she had not found the Blood Line. In a sudden moment of insight, she realised that she would have been killed if she had found the Line. If it really had been powerful, and for the Riven King’s own use, then it’s location would have been a closely guarded secret. How had she not realised that before? The Blood Line was the Line that the Riven King craved beyond all others. He had been searching for it for ever. If she had found it she would not have been allowed to stay alive to reveal the location to anyone else. Morley gave herself a mental telling off. She constantly underestimated the determination of the Riven. She quickly decided to play dumb.
‘Um, I don’t think I feel any different,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what the Line is supposed to do, but I feel the same as before.’
‘This is not the Line,’ said Pech. ‘But well done for bringing it to our attention. Keep searching,’ and with that he strode off into the darkness. Before he disappeared from sight he turned back briefly to her. She stood immobile with her back to the Line.
‘Just out of interest,’ Pech said. ‘Where did the Line lead?’
‘Into one of the cells under the Rivenrok Complex,’ said the woman. ‘I spoke to one of the prisoners.’
‘Hmm,’ said Pech and turned on his heel and strode away. His voice echoed back from the gloom. ‘I will send someone to guard this Line so that we do not have any escape from the cells. Do not move from here, then when someone comes, you may leave and continue looking for the Blood Line or whatever it is that you are supposed to be doing.’
Morley, in a moment of madness, answered back. Before she knew what she was doing she had called after him. ‘It’s okay. He didn’t have any Presence, the prisoner. He couldn’t get out anyway. You don’t need to guard him.’
Pech stopped and Morley saw his head turn a fraction. She froze, realising she had crossed some invisible boundary.
Pech turned and in a few strides he was back. Morley was shaking before he got to her.
‘I.. I…I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to question you.’
Pech stood very close to her, so close she could not see whether he had retrieved his knife from the folds of his cloak. His eyes bored into hers and she quickly dropped her gaze to the floor. He leant forward slowly so that his mouth was next to her ear.
‘May I remind you that I am the King’s representative. Disrespect to me, is disrespect to him. If you ever speak back to me like that again,’ he whispered, ‘I will personally feed you to Shuk. Can you see the future? Do you have any idea what might happen if a slave escaped? The King needs each of those at his command, in those cells, to find every last piece of the crystal under the Complex. And what if this person was important for some reason? What if this slave had some purpose which we could only guess at? I recommend that you don’t ever question me again.’
Morley trembled and managed a quick nod keeping her head down. And then his feet disappeared from the torch’s pool of light. Pech was gone.
Once Morley was sure he had gone she took a deep breath and composed herself, her hands still shaking from the adrenaline. How dare he scare her like that? She hadn’t done anything wrong. He was just a bully. He only had power because of his proximity to the King. It would serve them both right if she did open the Line and let the young man escape from the cell. The thought terrified her. But, Morley remembered, she used to be someone. A mother. A wife. A good person. And somehow the Riven had taken that from her. They’d messed with her mind. They’d robbed her of everything.
Suddenly, she made a decision. She turned and opened the Line. A moment later the youth appeared looking cautiously around from under brown hair which fell across his eyes. He looked at Morley suspiciously.
She smiled. She hadn’t smiled in a long time. It felt good.
‘It’s okay,’ she said to the young man. ‘I’m letting you go.’
‘Why?’ he asked. ‘No-one has ever gotten out of those mines alive. Why help me? You don’t know me from Adam.’
‘I’m not going to be bullied by the Riven any more. Now run.’
The youth didn’t need to be told twice. He gave a nod of gratitude and then he was gone. Morley waited a minute and then, choosing a route which neither the youth nor Pech had taken she ran too, both horrified and excited at what she had done. And if that young man turned out to be important in some way, well, so much the better. Perhaps her small act of kindness and defiance would be worth something. She hoped so. She had risked everything to do it.