11: For a Father’s Approval
This time, Vesperia returned with a confident look on her face—not that Vesperia was one to show much emotion, but Astrid had known her long enough to recognise the subtle upturn in her frown and the way she held her friend’s gaze as she spoke. “There appears to be a sizable crack in the Scar a short climb from the wall,” she said.
“You make it sound easy,” said Elizabeth, refusing to let go of Astrid’s arm. “Princess, what’s say we stay here while Vespie has a quick look inside?”
Much to her handmaiden’s constant distress, however, Astrid was not one to change her mind on a whim. She gestured Vesperia to lead the way.
The Scar had consumed the border wall like some kind of invasive weed. Once the girls reached the battlements, they could see how the mysterious dome spilled over into the Fourth Circle, digging its roots into the dirt and leaving the land devoid of life for a good two-hundred feet or more. From their vantage point, they could also see the path the two witches had followed, winding its way up the unnatural hillside and ending at a darkened crevice.
It was an easy climb, despite Elizabeth’s complaints, and they soon stood by the hidden entrance. Astrid peered into the gloom, hoping to glimpse the town’s greatest secret, but the burgeoning eclipse was taking its toll on the daylight—though, for a place like the Scar, the unnatural dusk seemed eerily natural.
Vesperia was first inside, Seelie cellular at hand to light the way. Astrid followed her lead. For a moment, it looked as if Elizabeth would wait outside, but then she remembered her duty to Astrid and climbed after them.
The tunnel was shorter than Astrid had expected and, after a short crawl that left her arms grazed and her skirt torn, she caught her first glimpse of the hidden world awaiting them.
“What’s wrong, Princess?” asked Elizabeth from the tunnel behind her. “Should we turn back? Oh, please don’t tell me to turn back. I’ve already ripped my dress, and my knees are little better.”
A small sacrifice, thought Astrid as she pulled herself out of the tunnel. Below her, the Fourth Wall continued unabated. Vesperia was already by its battlements, her dark form blending into the shadows as she took in the scene below. Astrid climbed down to join her.
“I have heard many stories,” said Vesperia, “but I did not expect something like this.”
The dome rose around them, up to a cracked oculus at its centre, where eclipse-dimmed sunlight fell over forgotten streets and abandoned houses, perfectly preserved save for the carcasses of trees atop their roofs, their branches reaching towards the eye of light like hands clamouring for God’s restorative touch.
“What an awful place,” said Elizabeth, as she climbed down to the wall. The crawl had dishevelled the hair she spent so long styling, and the touch of the pale sunlight caused her skin to shine against the surrounding gloom. Astrid took her hand and pulled her into cover before anyone could spot her.
“Well, they do call it a tomb,” said Astrid. She turned to Vesperia, who was studying a nearby circle of houses cast in a mysterious blue light. “Do you really think Seelie did this?” she asked.
“It is hard to tell,” Vesperia replied. “But I am certain that these are no ordinary ruins.”
Elizabeth huffed. “I think that much is obvious,” she said, her voice echoing around the battlements. Vesperia shushed her with a sharp look, and she continued with a whisper, “This place is probably some sort of shrine to the—the”—she gulped—“the A—Agnoia.”
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Eclipses are not only more frequent, but tend to last longer.