The fourth part has come.
Guys. I’m so jazzed about this!
If you need to get caught up, hop over to the Flickering Lights page to read previous installments!
Marcus’s lungs felt like they had caught fire, and his body quailed for lack of oxygen. His steps slowed, and his aching frame bent. His breath came in frosty puffs. “We’ll rest for a minute.”
Penelope dropped to the ground before the words were out of his mouth. She groaned and gasped for breath. Marcus unzipped his pack and pulled out the oxygen tank. His back shielded the tank from her view. It took all of his self-control to only take four breaths. The oxygen charged through his body. Relief. Such relief.
He glanced back. She lay on her side, clutching her throat, trying to find oxygen. He chewed his lip and glanced down at the tank in his hands. The oxygen was so sparse out here in the barren murklands that she probably wouldn’t make it much longer before she started showing even more severe signs of low blood oxygen. He sighed. “Here.” He sat down as carefully as he could, but the rocky murklands landscape still plunged and swirled. He held out the tank and pressed a hand to his head.
Once she saw it, she lurched forward, ripping it from his hands. She gulped down almost six breaths before Marcus snatched it away.
“Hey!” She rubbed her throat with one hand and reached for the tank with the other. “Marcus! Give it back!”
“No.” He checked the tank’s meter. 432 out of 500 liters of oxygen left. “We need to save some for the return trip with Hermes.”
“Hermes. Is that the other beacon?”
“Yep.” He stashed the tank back in his pack.
Penelope huffed and rolled over.
Marcus eyed her for a moment. “Is throwing yourself to the ground all you know how to do?”
“Oh. Ha-ha. Aren’t you the funny one.”
“It’s a legitimate question.”
“Oh, just shut up.”
Whatever you say. He stood and surveyed their surroundings. The murklands were a wasteland, replete with caves and rocks ranging from pebbles to boulders in size. The ground was uneven and lifeless. He adjusted his nocturnals and tried to not to wish too badly for Winston’s cheery glow. He heard a scraping sound and turned around to find Penelope rifling through her backpack while she muttered to herself. He sighed and readjusted his nocturnals, hoping to catch a glimpse of Hermes’s light. Nothing. He swayed for a moment and settled back to the ground. Pulling his nocturnals off, he pressed his hands to his eyes. The crash was such a chaotic blur. He moaned. “Do you remember what happened?”
“The crash. Do you remember what happened?” He looked up.
She ran her hands through her hair, her fingers catching on tangles in her shoulder-length waves. “How am I supposed to know? I know just about as much as everyone else does, probably less.”
Marcus rubbed his head, careful to avoid the lump that bulged on the left side. “I was knocked unconscious, Penelope. Anything you know could be helpful.”
She started braiding her hair down the back of her head, the same way Marietta had always liked to wear it. “Well, here’s what I know: I was sitting on the rail, minding my own business when the rail car in front of mine exploded. I don’t know if it was a rocket or a bomb or what, but the next thing I know, my car is flying through the air.” She smoothed a strand of hair back into place. “Most people died during the crash itself, I think. I didn’t have the luck of falling unconscious. The beacon-”
“Yes, Hermes started organizing people. He sent some for water from the Kindle Slip, he broke us up into camps around aqua-lanterns, and he started passing out pills for all the really injured people. It was about, eh, three hours after the crash when the pale ones came. I don’t know if they blew up the rail or if it was the terrorists, but I think they saw the explosion and the light from the beacon-“
“Yeah, Hermes. Anyway, I didn’t see them myself, but from I hear, they wanted Hermes, and apparently, he offered himself up without a fuss.” She tied her hair off and pulled the hat back on. “You showed up a couple hours later. That’s all I know.”
He rubbed his hands together and breathed into them. “Hm. Any idea how far we are from the Kindle Waystation?”
“Do I look like a geography buff to you?”
“Nope.” Marcus stood. “Time to go. We’ve had enough rest.”
She made a sound somewhere between a whine and a groan as she rose. Marcus’s legs were stiff, and he couldn’t feel his feet in his boots. He started off at a jog, but his lungs felt as if they were wreathed in burning, oxygen-consuming fire. He was aware of Penelope running beside him, but it was hard to think of anything else besides the soreness that gripped his body.
He wasn’t sure how long they trekked across the murklands, but he guessed it had to be a few hours before a flash of light flared in the distance. He skidded to a stop and grabbed Penelope’s arm, dragging her behind the nearest boulder.
“Wha-!” but he clamped his hand over her mouth.
“I saw light,” he hissed in her ear.
She stilled, and he paused before peeking out. The light was there again. It had to be Hermes. “We’re close.” He pulled the hat low on her head and fluffed her collar. “You ready?”
“Nope. I’m trying to decide if my digits are worth this.”
He turned and crouched low beside the boulder. “Well, I’m not sure you can find your way back to the rail wreck on your own. You either stick with me or suffocate.” He glanced back at her. She clenched her jaw and straightened her spectacles-style nocturnals.
He motioned ahead. “You go first.”
She glared at him, her light dim. She muttered something under her breath before shoving off from the rock. She scurried along, keeping low the ground, and Marcus scrambled to keep up.
His head throbbed, and his vision did interesting dip-spin things that probably should have concerned him. But he didn’t pay any attention to the headache that beat in his skull or the weird spots on his eyes.
She moved fast. Faster than he had expected. He kept the light in his sights as they zigzagged across the craggy plain. He didn’t like being out in the open. The cold wind brushed by, careless and cruel. The darkness seemed to be folding in around them, but the light ahead was piercing and hopeful. It had to be Hermes.
Then the light winked out.
Penelope pulled up short, breathless. “What happened?”
“I don’t know! You tell me!”
“I’ve never seen light go out like that unless the beacon is dead!”
Marcus’s body clenched. “They must have taken him underground.”
“Oh, and how do you figure that?”
“They want his light.”
“Yeah.” Penelope’s tone was low and furious. “And have you heard some of the latest news about what the pale ones do to beacons when they find them?”
“Their new thing is to dissect beacons, looking for the source of their light so that they can steal it, like we did back in the early days of darkness, back before science proved a beacon’s light has no physical explanation. But, apparently, the pale ones haven’t gotten the memo.”
Marcus jolted forward, but Penelope caught him by the back of his collar and somehow managed to pull him back.
“Easy, Marcus!” She jabbed his chest. “You’re no good to anyone—especially Hermes—dead, which is what you will be if you go rushing in there like a madman.”
He drew a hand across his forehead. “You’re right.”
“I know.” She peered around for a moment before grabbing Marcus’s sleeve and pulling him after her. She continued the same zigzag pattern until they came to the mouth of a cave.
Sweat beaded on Marcus’s forehead despite the frost in the air. “This is where they must have taken him.”
“Yeah. Creepy cave, sounds about right.” She held her stomach and cowered away from the entrance.
“Lighten up, Penelope.”
“Is that supposed to be a joke? It’s not funny, Marcus.”
He almost grinned. “I’ll go first this time.”
“Yeah, I’m game for that.”
He wasn’t sure if he heard a tremor in her voice, but he didn’t take the time to think about it. His heart raced in his head, and his palms began to sweat. He shook his head. No time for fear.
He crept along as slowly and quietly as he could. After several minutes, he realized that Penelope was clinging to the back of his jacket. He decided not to mention it.
Her light was brighter than it had been, and he heard her whispering something under her breath about protection and making faith real. They came to a fork and paused. He could hear her sniffing. Was she crying? Great. Just great. A crying woman on top of all his other problems right now. He followed the left fork. His eyes burned as he strained to tell if he saw light in the distance.
The tunnel filled with noise as footsteps pounded towards them. Black terror clamped down on Marcus’s throat, and a curse cut through the air.
He frantically groped along the wall. His heart battered his sternum faster than he could count.
The cave wall dipped into a small cubby. He shoved Penelope into the cubby, shielding her shining body with his own.
She was, indeed, crying. “And just please hide us. I’m begging You to hide us.” She broke down to sniffles. He pressed closer, until her face was pressed into his shoulder, muffling the painfully loud sound. He didn’t risk the noise of asking her who she was talking to.
The footsteps grew louder until a group of men jogged past.
Marcus couldn’t breathe. We’re going to be found. We’re going to be found. Fear engulfed him.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Then the men were gone. Marcus let out a sigh and sagged with relief. He peeled himself away from the wall, and Penelope folded to the ground.
He held out a hand. “Come on!”
She shook her head, her whole body shuddering.
He crouched down beside her. “Come on, Penelope. We have to keep moving.”
She squirmed against the wall, her light pulsing as she whimpered. “Please, help me. Please, help me.”
“I don’t know how to help you!”
She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes with shaking hands. “I wasn’t talking to you.” She rubbed her face with her sleeve and pulled herself up. She inhaled and exhaled a few times before shoving her nocturnals back on and facing Marcus. “Let’s find Hermes.”
Marcus blinked. Beacons could be so weird. He began feeling along the wall again. Penelope still clutched the back of his jacket, and a cold sweat crawled down his spine. Then a snatch of light appeared as they rounded a corner, and Marcus surged forward. He paused just around the corner of the light while Penelope peeked around him and the corner.
“Whoa!” She ducked back behind Marcus. “That’s Hermes? He is appealing!”
“What?” Marcus looked around the corner to see Hermes strapped to a table, as bright as ever. “Did you say you think he’s appealing? This is not the time!”
“Marcus.” She clutched his shoulder as they both leaned around the corner once more. “I didn’t say ‘I think’ because I don’t just think he’s appealing, he is appealing. It’s a fact of life.”
“How about you keep the facts of life to yourself? Hm? How about that?” Marcus listened for a moment, but he didn’t hear any footsteps and Hermes looked alone. “Let’s go.”
He rounded the corner and dashed to Hermes’s side.
“Marcus!” Hermes strained against his bonds, smiling broadly as his light throbbed brighter. “You shouldn’t be here!”
“Well, I can’t let you get dissected, can I?”
“Shhh!” Penelope smacked them both on the shoulder. “Do you want us to get caught?” She yanked on the straps that held Hermes to the table.
“Let me.” Marcus gave the strap a solid pull, and it loosened. He jerked the straps free, and Hermes wiggled out.
“I’m so glad to see you up, Marcus!” Hermes swung off the table. “How’s your head?”
“Working for now.” Marcus grabbed Hermes’s arm and dragged him out of the room with Penelope in close pursuit.
“That’s fantastic! I was so worried! You were fading in and out and there was some blood.”
Voices echoed down the tunnel. Marcus froze for a split second. “Hide!” He shoved Hermes and Penelope against the wall. There was no way in the deeps he could blot out Hermes’s light.
Hermes craned his neck. “What’s the plan?”
Penelope sighed. “He doesn’t have one.”
Marcus slashed a hand through the air, shushing them both. The voices began to fade, and he relaxed.
“This way.” He darted through the tunnel, and the scrabbling sound of Hermes and Penelope following echoed off the walls. He flinched at the loudness, but he didn’t dare slow. Fresh air glanced off of his face, and he charged forward. They burst out into the open murklands.
“How do we keep them from following us back to the wreck?” Marcus gulped down the cold air.
“I don’t know.” Penelope doubled over.
Hermes looked back at the cave. “We pray.”
Penelope glanced up, and Marcus stiffened. He shook his head. “We need to move!”
“I’m going to pray first.” Hermes planted his feet. He turned his face to the sky, the inky blackness. His hands came together, and his eyes closed as he dropped to his knees.
Marcus backed away. Something recoiled within him. Praying. Something told him that Hermes didn’t pray the way that other beacons did, and something told him that something would actually happen when Hermes prayed. And it scared him.
“Stay.” Penelope dropped her pack and assumed a pose similar to Hermes. Before she closed her eyes, she glanced back at Marcus. “Please, stay.”
Run. He shivered. Run. But he couldn’t move. All he could see were the two beacons on their knees. Penelope, still dim, but growing stronger. Hermes, brilliant and bright, becoming almost blinding to behold.
Away. Run away. He could feel the air crackling. He could hear the wind quieting. And he could hear Hermes praying.
“El Roi. You are so, so high, yet You think of us here on Murk. You think of me. You love me despite my darkness, the wrongs I’ve done. You chose to fill me with light so that I can see.”
Marcus stood transfixed. Hermes’s voice grew louder as he became more earnest.
“I-I don’t want to come here flippantly. I don’t want to take this privilege for granted, but I have to hurry and ask that You would reveal Yourself in a mighty way. I know that You can save us, El Roi. You’ve saved me so many times before, and—if I may be so bold—please do it again. Show Your power here. Let there be no doubt or denying that You Are.” Hermes fell silent for a moment. “Show us that You see.”
Shouts echoed across the barren plain, and Marcus tore his eyes away from Hermes. The pale ones charged out of the cave, guns leveled at the trio.
“Penelope! Hermes! Run!” Marcus tried to drag them back. Penelope staggered to her feet, but Hermes bowed his head.
“El Roi,” he whispered.
The ground began to quake, throwing Marcus onto his stomach beside Hermes. Suddenly, the air was heavy with moisture, and the sky split with lightning. Thunder pounded in Marcus’s chest.
Rain began to pelt the shaking ground. Marcus heard shouts from the pale ones, and he saw the flash of gunfire.
The rain became a downpour, beating the ground.
A hand latched onto his, and he half turned to see Penelope. Her hand began to slide out of his, but he gripped it hard. Where was Hermes? He turned his head. Hermes’s light bounced and flashed, and then a hand reached out from the blurring light to grasp Marcus’s shoulder.
Lightning ignited the night again, and it struck the ground between Marcus and the entrance of the cave. An earsplitting crack resounded through the air, and then the ground stilled.
The rain receded to a sprinkle.
For several moments, no one moved until Hermes stood and offered Marcus his hand. Marcus took it and pulled Penelope up. Hermes’s light illuminated a crack in the ground.
No. Not a crack. A small canyon. It sliced through the earth between them and the pale ones. The pale ones began to flee back into their cave.
Marcus tried to wipe the mud off his face. “What did you do, Hermes?”
“I didn’t do this!” Hermes leaned over the edge of the canyon, and Marcus could swear he heard a smile in the beacon’s voice.
Penelope was crying. Again. But this time it was shoulder-shaking sobs. Hermes pulled a wet square of fabric out of his pocket and offered it to her.
He glanced at the sky. “El Roi did this.”
You can read the next installment, Flickering Lights 5: Boarding Call, here.
So that’s that.
Thoughts, my dears?
What was it like not having Winston around? What’s up with this Penelope person? And Hermes, what was that?
As always, I want to know what you guys think. Are you liking it, not liking it, why, etc. :)