Ashe didn't know how long she was pulled through the vacuum of the Chute, which stretched for miles under the rugged earth of the Great Expanse. It possessed an incredibly powerful suction, and could draw a passenger along at lightning speed. But between being sucked through an underground tube, and the frantic events above in the Olive Mall - of the impending Nightmare, and Lance's terrible last gaze still engraved in her mind - all of time was a blur.
She was gently ejected through the Chute's upright opening and onto her feet, where she was suddenly blinded by the bright morning sun. The Chute's safety-guard slid aside, and she collapsed unsteadily to her knees. A warm breeze whistled past her ears and wafted through her course, honeyed hair. Looking up, she saw the vastness of the Expanse stretching out in the distance - but from a height. She was no longer ground level. The tiny village stood situated atop a step-like outcrop high on the face of a rust-colored mountain, overlooking the rest of the reddened desert. Slowly and surely, she rose to her feet, taking in the new and unfamiliar settings around her. A whirligig weathervane spun and whirred above her, fitted with an iron silhouette of a serpent. Tiny cliff-swallows zipped erratically through the sky, their swift movements impossible to follow. Colorful terracotta-roofed houses and buildings crowded the upper cliffs behind her, a compacted cluster of oranges, reds, creams, and golden-yellows. A sparse collection of succulents, cacti, and trailing flora poked in and around the architecture and dotted the bluff, presenting an odd clash of textures in vibrant shades of green. But most notable of all was the ever-prevalent, dominant image of the snake, which was found on everything from signs to statues, and represented in stylized art. Even the Chutes themselves were designed in its likeness, the open ends inlaid with artificial scales and a pair of fierce eyes. Locals were out and about enjoying the mild warmth, and that was when Ashe remembered - somehow, amidst these strangers and surroundings she had never known, she had to find Sam.
She grasped the metal brace clamped to her arm in a meager attempt to hide it, and cautiously made her way towards the Locals. She had no idea if they might recognize her for what she was, or if perhaps it would turn into another terrible backlash. She remembered very well how she was received back at the lounge and by Gage, and she knew it was in her best interest to appear as unassuming and ordinary as possible. Asking around would be her only way of finding him.
“Excuse me, do any of you know someone by the name of Sam?”
The Locals paid little attention to her.
“I'm looking for someone named Sam, does anyone know where I can find him?”
They continued to pass her in ignorance, giving her little more than a glance. Ashe grew more annoyed and bolder by the moment.
“Please! I need to find him! It's urgent!” Her voice began to tinge with anguish. “Can someone please help me?!”
Ashe's desperate pleas fell on deaf ears, who saw her plight as none of their concern - or were perhaps too afraid themselves. She could only turn away, hopeless and weary, her shoulders fallen in despair as she clutched the brace tightly. A knot began to form in her throat as she sighed brokenly. But at that moment, standing before her was a young man, holding his hands behind him as he rocked back expectantly on his heels. His hair was a deep balsamic-brown - almost black - and as short and bristled as the desert grass. His chin bore a modest scruff of a goatee, neatly trimmed. It was his best effort to look sharp, pleasant and proper, though there was an air of sorrow in his dark, russet eyes that hinted at a life not always so. He squinted keenly at Ashe in the glaring sun, whose heart jumped with a flitter of hope.
“Do you ... know anyone named Sam?” she asked him quietly.
“This is he,” he replied with suspicion.
A weak smile of relief flashed across her face, and she took a step towards him. “Oh thank God. You don't know how happy I am to see you right now—”
“I can see that,” he stated plainly. “I just happened to see you from balc—”
He stopped in mid-sentence when he noticed Ashe's brace, its silvery sheen gleaming in the sunlight, and he cocked an eyebrow. Ashe was at first puzzled by his expression, but then quickly realized what it was he'd seen, and she promptly hid her arm round her back. This did not deter him though, not for a second.
“Nope, let me see,” he said as he drew nearer, holding out his hand.
Ashe was hesitant, afraid the brace might cause another episode just as it always had, without fail. But with reluctance, she brought it forth for Sam to see, who continued to keep his calm demeanor.
“An Otherworlder, I take it?”
She nodded lightly.
“And somehow you're still in one piece. How did this happen?”
He studied the brace gently in his hand with a furrowed brow, feeling along with his thumb over its raised embellishments and patterns.
“It was at some kind of hotel or club, I'm not sure. I remember there being red, everywhere.”
“Sounds like the Red Rhombus.”
“It was a worker there.”
He shot a look of alarm at her. “What?”
“His name was ... 'Pax', I think?”
“And what did he tell you?”
“He just said it would help. That I'd feel better. I don't understand why.”
“You were in a panicked state. Otherworlders always are. It's as if they're not altogether there. They know the Nightmare is after them, but they have no real sense of idea or direction. So they run, aimless and disoriented. They never last very long.”
Sam continued to examine the brace intently, having only seen them in diagrams and photographs. He was quite disturbed to hear that it came from another Local, and not its usual source, and wondered how the incident even came to be. But when he noticed the girl had gone quiet, he raised his head to find Ashe looking at him expectantly. Suddenly, he realized then why she had sought him out.
“You know I can't take this off,” he told her dismally.
“But Lance told me you could!” Ashe was hit hard with a terrible feeling of dread, as if the very ground had opened up beneath her.
“Lance? Lance sent you to me? Why in the world would he do that?”
“He said you were a genius,” she said.
“A genius? Hardly. I'm well-versed in many things, but that doesn't mean I can remove a device not meant to be removed - except by those who made it. It's exactly how these were designed. It's Nightmaran technology. A terrible contraption of slavery and control. Normally, an Otherworlder will disappear back to their world - or wherever it is they come from - at any given moment. But not with this. It binds you here, hence the name.” He gingerly released Ashe's arm. “You're apart of Ender now, just like us.”
Ashe's mind and thoughts were swirling. She had envisioned Sam to be something like a wizard who could do anything and everything. Or at least, that's how Lance made him sound. But now, after an entire night of hard running from a Nightmare close on their heels, just to find Sam and finally rid herself of the brace for good - he had told her no. It was as though she'd slammed straight into a dead end. A dead end in a world she was now trapped in by doings not her own - and the only way out was by a brace that was permanently locked to her arm. The only fate that awaited her now was into the vicious jaws of the most dreaded beings in the land. All because of an idiot employee in a lounge. It wasn't her fault, and it wasn't fair.
“There must be something you can do,” Ashe pleaded him shakily as she verged on anger. “You're an Engineer, aren't you?”
This got Sam's attention, and her very mention of the word cut through him like ice.
“They call me the last Engineer, yes,” he replied in a soft and solemn tone.
“Then why can't you figure something out?!” If she could take the brace off herself, she would have thrown it at him. Sam stared back at her in disbelief.
“Well, aren't you a little bold for an Otherworlder?” he crowed in amusement. He was highly impressed by her vivid clarity of mind. Otherworlders are never this cognizant, and they certainly don't argue.
“You don't understand what I had to go through to get here!”
“Alright, well how about this. There is one way. But you won't like it. Give me a second, and I'll see if I've got a knife around here somewhere. A sharp one, mind you.”
“To cut off your arm, I mean what else? It's the only known method I'm aware of. You might die, of course. I may be an Engineer, but I'm no surgeon.”
Ashe clutched her arm protectively.
“Oh, so you're not a fan of that idea, then?” he said with a laugh. “Don't worry, I wasn't serious. Not too serious, anyway.”
Ashe revealed a faint smile, and decided to drop the subject of the brace entirely. At this point, there was literally nothing that she or Sam could possibly do, besides no longer having the energy or the nerve to fret about it. She would have to return to Treeful, and, with Lance, find another way to sort the situation out.
Sam made his way over to a railing overlooking the Great Expanse, and gazed out across the desert. Ashe joined him, leaning over the railing in her exhaustion. The sun's comforting warmth kissed and caressed the skin, joined by a gentle breeze that streamed softly against them. Not far away was the low and indiscernible chatter of nearby Locals. As Ashe tried to free her mind of her troubles, she began to notice the peace and serenity of life on the cliffs of Serpientes. High on the mountain, there seemed to be not a care in the world, as if all its dangers and worries were miles away, unable to reach them. She hoped that her running had finally reached an end, and she dared not imagine what might become of her now. Suddenly, Sam spoke and broke their silence.
“So, who is this Otherworlder I have the pleasure of speaking with?”
“It's Ashe. Ashe Brandser.”
“Ashe Brandser? Oh, you certainly are an Otherworlder. Names are everything here in Ender. You'll see that soon enough. And I take it Lance told you about me?”
“He did,” she said.
“I think we met your sister,” she told him eagerly. “Lance said she designed all of Treeful.”
“She did, secretly. Though Tess's designing days are mostly done. She plans and sketches, but they're ideas that never make it off the paper. Treeful was her contribution. And Serpientes was mine.”
“You made all of this?”
He nodded humbly. “I hired the contractors, planned the concept, the layout, the alterations on the cliff, the design of every structure and Chute—”
“You created the Chutes? You invented them?”
“Something needed to replace the Vehicles. They were banned. Banned and destroyed long ago. The Chutes will never equate to the versatility of the Vehicle. They're quite crude. Quirky, even. But they'll at least get you from a point A to a point B. It's more than what a person's own two feet can accomplish. Though, I imagine if the Chutes were ever discovered by the 'powers-that-be', they might be destroyed as well. It's hard to say.”
They continued to look out across the rugged landscape, the high-pitched cries of the birds filling the air as they darted through a pale sky.
“So what else did Lance tell you?” Sam inquired again, curiously.
“What, about the Engineers? Not very much. He just said they were gone, except for you.”
“And did he tell you how they met their end?”
His reply surprised her. “No ... he didn't.” Ashe understood they no longer existed, but never considered the possibility that it was of anything vile.
“They were wiped out. Hunted and destroyed by the Nightmares. Those few who managed to escape the persecution, fled far and wide to every corner. Most of the survivors denounced their titles, for fear of their lives. Some of them still tried to carry on their work, in secret. Starting over and building a new life in wherever it was they were forced to call home. But that was short-lived. Some of them changed forever, mentally scarred and tormented by their experience. And some simply forgot who they were entirely, the damage done to them too great. And now, most of Ender deteriorates and crumbles away, its grand inventions and vast structures that once defied imagination left to rot. Entire districts and cities were abandoned during this genocide, and not a soul returned. A few pockets still stand - the last remaining testaments of the Engineers - but these are populated with just your average Locals, nothing more. You may have heard of Percidon, Enders's largest surviving city - well really, its only city. Percidon is one of the last marvels. Though that one's way out east. It would take days to get there by foot, and I certainly don't have Chutes reaching it either. It's simply too far.”
There was a moment's pause between them. Ashe was finding herself intrigued by his subtle charm and unusual intellect, but was taken most of all by his bizarre tale the likes of which she had never seen nor heard. Sam brought his arms casually over his head and entwined them in a much-needed stretch.
“But, aren't you afraid they'll find you?” she asked him.
“Afraid? If I was still afraid, I wouldn't be calling myself an Engineer, now would I? Although, they say the Nightmares look for them from time to time. These days, it's all about 'capturing' and 'imprisoning' and 'adding to their collection'. They're quite curious, the Nightmares are. Inquisitive and hungry for knowledge, aside from fear, at least. Of course, they've switched their focus almost exclusively to Otherworlders now. It's been that way for centuries. But would they capture me? Well, I'd like to see them try.”
There was a hint of a smirk across Sam's face, though it was brief. But then Ashe asked him a different question, one he never expected.
“What are they, exactly?”
“What are 'what'?”
Sam stared at her for a moment with a look of concern. “You want to know about Nightmares?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied with certainty. “I mean, besides the fact they're a bunch of men in little coats out to get everyone.”
Her last comment sent Sam reeling with laughter. "Oh, they're more than just 'men in little coats', sweetheart.” He stretched again with a few snaps and pops of his shoulders, then alternated his stance as he leaned his back against the railing. “First and foremost, Nightmares are the bane of this world. They are my enemy just as much as they are now your enemy. A 'balance' of a sort exists between Nightmarekind and Otherkind. As long as there is a steady flow of Otherworlders, the Nightmares always have their needs met. They could care less about Locals, or anyone else for that matter. Unless of course, they get in the way.”
“Like predator and prey?”
“Yes, exactly. And that's why Otherworlders are so feared and hated, if you haven't noticed. Wherever there is an Otherworlder, a Nightmare can never be far away. Over the ages, the Nightmares have become so attuned to Otherworlders, they can almost sense when they appear, and they hunt them down, like hounds on a scent. If one is brave enough, you can sometimes spot a Nightmare or two lingering around Ferryman's Crossing—”
“Ferryman's Crossing?” interrupted Ashe. She had heard of this place before. Lance had spoken of it.
“Yes, a patch of snow-forest just west of Treeful, where Otherworlders like to make their appearance. It's a strange phenomenon that not many understand, along with that poor soul known as 'the Ferryman', driving the only known Vehicle in perhaps all of Ender. In fact, some say the forest wasn't always cold and snow-covered like it is today, that it was the constant presence of Nightmares that slowly made it what it is. They say a Nightmare can chill the air and send a shiver down the spine? The Nightmares can do that at will, you know. Well, imagine what that can do to just a single spot of forest after so long.”
For reasons Ashe couldn't understand, there were feelings of déja vu each time she heard talk of Ferryman's Crossing and the forest of snow. Especially the snow. They were just fragments in her mind. Images of snowflakes and whiteness, and the feeling of crisp, icy air. A tiny window clouded with warm puffs of her breath. But they were all suddenly lost at Sam's mention of Nightmares hunting Otherworlders. This directly concerned her, and she couldn't stop thinking about it. She was being pursued, and she had to know why.
“So what do the Nightmares want with Otherworlders? What do they want with me?” She didn't want to think of them hunting her. Hunting her like an animal. Maybe they simply wanted something. But there was no fooling herself.
“Well, to be fair, it's not just Otherworlders. Locals are by no means exempt, I promise you. It's just that Nightmares happen to find Otherworlders more interesting.” He stopped then, his gaze drifting up to the tiled rooftops of candy-colored homes and shops.
“And?” asked Ashe anxiously, her question still unanswered.
“What do they want?” she asked again.
“I thought it was obvious.” Sam's eyebrows furrowed again.
“Obvious? How would I even know to start with?”
“Tell me, Ashe. Do you turn afraid when you see a Nightmare?”
She remembered the paralyzed sensation of terror she felt back at the mall, the first time she laid eyes on one, silhouetted against the early dawn. She shivered at the thought.
“I ... suppose. Maybe. Yes.” She hated admitting to being afraid of anything. But there was no hiding it now.
“Has that ever occurred to you why that is?”
He waited for her to answer, but she could only give him a puzzled look, waiting for his.
“It's because they feed off of fear. They thrive on and need it, much like air. They emanate fear, yes. But only as a means to make you produce the fear-hormones they so crave. Epinephrine, noepinephrine, corticotropin, there's dozens of others. You may know it as adrenaline.”
“So then it's just a matter of fear, right?” asked Ashe. “What if you're strong and you stand against them? What if you're not afraid?”
“Oh sweetheart, if it were that easy, they wouldn't be the threat that they are - there'd be none. No amount of courage or bravery or strength of mind will save you. They have ways of pulling that fear out of you. Of crippling you with it. It doesn't matter how strong you are.”
“Then what is this for?” she asked him as she gestured to the brace on her arm, a slight tinge of anger in her voice.
“Well, that's where the prisons and the Bind Brace come in. Over the many ages, the Nightmares have refined and perfected their methods of extracting fear into an absolute art. With captive Otherworlders on hand, they always have a ready supply of fear available to them, if ever and whenever they want it. Otherworlders disappear, of course. It doesn't matter how tightly one is locked away. So the Nightmares devised an anchor to hold them down. Their 'ball and chain', so to speak. And the Nightmares themselves, the only key. They're master inventors. Masters of influence and experts on the inner-workings of the mind - but also quite inventive, and scientific. Captive Otherworlders are always expendable as experiments of research. The proverbial guinea pigs of each invention and creation. It's commonly believed that was why the Engineers met their end. A rivaled jealousy, perhaps? Or a potential threat. But some go so far as to say that's why the Nightmares know what they know.” He looked way towards the desert then, his voice beginning to break. “By having taken them - the Engineers, the ones who never escaped - where they ripped into their minds for their skills and knowledge.”
Sam fell silent, the deep wounds of whatever memory it was he replayed in his mind too painful and difficult for him to continue. But he started again, this time his voice low and deep. “Now, the world is in a state of abandoned shambles, and all its people clenched in the cold, iron grip of fear and oppression - and it's because of Nightmares. I think I've covered just about all I can for you. Welcome to Ender.” There was the hint of a cynical laugh in his last remark. Ashe didn't say a word, her sights now focused on the spinning weathervane not far away. She didn't want to think of Ender. She didn't want to think of Nightmares, Otherworlders, or Bind Braces. For a moment, all she wanted was to simply believe that she was awake and alive. That this was normal. That she was back home - on an exotic getaway perhaps - but home, more or less. And that everything was okay.
The weathervane continued to idly spin, but it quickly started to gather speed, and it began to circulate more fiercely. Ashe's face was suddenly hit with a cold, north wind, and it whipped up her hair in all directions. Sam also felt it.
“Hm. Well that's oddly refreshing, it's not like Serpientes to get a cool breeze—”
And then it hit him, like a hard punch in the gut.
“The Bind Brace! It's their beacon! Their signal! How could I be so blind?!”
He paced frantically to-and-fro, trying to stifle the panic that now swarmed his mind.
“I'm sorry!” Ashe blurted aloud, almost by impulse. Afraid she was now the cause of every past onset of terror.
“No, no don't be sorry. It's not you, this is not your doing.” Sam ran his hand forcibly through his wiry hair, his heart pounding heavy in his chest as he strained to focus. He took a breath to maintain his calm. “Was there a Nightmare after you?”
“It chased us down through the mall—”
“Just one,” said Ashe. “We only saw one.”
“We?” he asked her, puzzled.
“Me and Lance.”
“And where's Lance?”
“I-I don't know. He stayed behind.”
Sam could only look at Ashe with dread in his eyes and a parted jaw as he turned a sickly pale. “My dear Ashe,” he started again, wiping away beads of sweat that began to surface on his forehead. “That Bind Brace has every Nightmare alerted to where you are. It's like a tracking device. They're looking for you. The drop in temperature, do you remember what I told you? It's one of their telltale signs. It means they're on their way. It means you don't have much time.”
Ashe's strength had held fast thus far, but now it began to buckle and bend as she started to truly understand what was happening. She felt sick now, almost nauseated. Her throat ached, and her eyes stung with the welling of tears as she tried to hold them in by looking sky-ward. Her knees began to quiver and shake, and her legs felt as if they might give way altogether. Sam watched her closely. He had never known Otherworlders. He had never walked with one, laughed with one, or shared stories of personal traumatic moments in his life that were essentially wounds. Old wounds that remained terribly deep, and he opened them all, one by one - just so she might have a better understanding of his world. He didn't have to do it. And, to be honest, he didn't know why he did it, but he did. And he did not regret it. Sam watched Ashe as her heart, hopes, and strength began to shatter, and he could almost feel it within himself.
And that was when he was stirred to a sudden reckless, daring, and terrible plan.
“Come with me!”
“What? Where?!” Ashe was abruptly brought back to her senses.
“It might be too late - but we're going to try! I can at least buy you more time!”
Sam had made some rash decisions in his time, but none quite as foolhardy and impulsed as this. He motioned for Ashe to follow. “I have a Chute leading to Shoolum. It's not officially ready yet, so right now you're the only other one who knows about it. Once you get there, you'll be on your own, and everything you decide to do next will be up to you.”
“Won't it just follow me there like it did here?!”
“Most likely. But you're welcome to wait right here for it if that's what you'd rather do—”
“No-no it's okay - Shoolum sounds great!”
“I can only help you delay the inevitable, Ashe. I can't stop it. You won't be able to keep running like this, they'll catch up to you before you know it. But this time you'll be completely on your own. Are you sure you're up to that?”
“I'm not gonna stand here and just give myself over. I can't do it. If they want to catch me while I'm on the run and I least expect it, then fine. But I won't stand here and wait for them.”
“It's alright, I understand,” he told her. “This way then!”
In an all-too familiar scene, Ashe followed after Sam as they raced through the village's narrow, twisting streets and alleys, making their way to the base of the upper cliffs that towered over Serpientes. The sky had grown alarmingly dark and overcast, and the once warm breeze reduced to a furious, chilling wind. The two arrived at an obscure pair of doors set into reddened stone, a wall of jagged rock looming high above them. Taking a batch of keys from his pocket, Sam flipped through them hurriedly until he found the one he wanted, unlocked a door and ushered her inside.
A light blinked on automatically as they entered, revealing a cramped, dusty entryway stacked with crates, building materials, and the spare tubing of incomplete Chutes. The smell of old metal hung in the air. Sam made a quick glance back to the doors before heading forward.
“Aren't you going to lock it?” Ashe asked him anxiously.
“There's no time for it,” he said as he hastened on, returning the keys to his pocket. “And no amount of locked doors is going to help you. The sooner I can get you to the Chute, the more distance that puts between it and you.”
They turned a corner and came to a long, tiled hallway stretching ahead of them, evidently carved into the rock itself, and dimly lit by the few working halogen bulbs it had. Together, they rushed at the pace of a brisk run, but stopped dead in their tracks at a sudden, low-frequency rumble. It grew in intensity and volume, and echoed and thundered down the corridor, sending the lights into a flickering fit before they went out entirely.
And they were plunged in total darkness.
Ashe couldn't see an inch in front of her. Not even her own hands.
At that moment, she was abruptly grabbed by the shoulder, followed by the sudden illumination of a beam of light.
“Would you keep your voice down?!” demanded Sam in a harsh whisper, a personal flashlight grasped in his hand. The beam jittered and shook with his own fear.
Boldly, he aimed the light in all directions. Nothing but a pitch blackness lay before them. He turned back towards the way they came. A blur of something dark dashed briefly into the shadows and disappeared.
“RUN!!” Sam grabbed Ashe's arm so fiercely, that it hurt.
They bolted down the abyss of the hallway, the miniscule light of Sam's torch moving wildly with him. By now, Sam had released Ashe's arm, trusting that she was keeping up with him well enough, and pulling her alongside was more a hindrance to them both. The intense fear that coursed through them was enough to push them beyond their physical means, and Ashe had no problem keeping close behind.
At least until her pace began to slow.
It was as though she were running through high water, and it became harder and harder to move each leg. Then, as though something had caught and tangled them altogether, she stumbled and fell hard. All that could be seen of Sam was a flailing light trailing off into the blackness.
Ashe tried to force herself up, but every part of her felt as though it weighed 1000 lbs. With every ounce of her strength, she managed to at least right herself on her hands and knees, and off the floor, but the unseen weight continued to bear itself on her with tremendous force. Desperately, she cried out to Sam, but it was a silent, inaudible cry, as if her own voice had been ripped out of her.
Then all at once she felt a deep, slamming pain in her back. Like a red-hot branding iron that had been rammed through her chest, and her insides burned like fire. Her breath stammered from the shock and searing pain in her lungs. She wanted to scream, but was still without a voice. The warm, metallic taste of blood began to swell in her mouth. She was paralyzed, unable to move, as if no part of her existed at all - except for pain. An agonizing, engulfing pain that threatened to tear her apart. She could feel a sensation like ice-cold metal coursing through her ribs. Peering down at herself, she could see the end of a long, black rod, wickedly sharp, protruding out of her, glazed in blood. But from the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a pair of dull, black boots, partially covered by a tapering, black leather cloak. His boots shifted ever so slightly, causing the instrument through her chest to budge with him. Her mind screamed.
Sam, who suddenly realized Ashe was not with him, halted and shot his flashlight towards the other way, only to be met with a horrid sight. The flashlight dropped from his unsteady grip with a clack. Down the center of the passage was a shadowy, hooded form, standing nearly motionless, with the crumpled figure of Ashe at his feet. Casually clenched in his hand was a javelin, and it fixed Ashe to the ground like a wilted and broken butterfly on a pin.
Sam's desperate cry of her name was more of a shriek and a scream, and it scared even himself. Never in all his life would he run in the direction of a Nightmare. No Local in the entire world would ever do something so brainless and suicidal. And yet he sprinted towards the Nightmare without a second thought. It was simply instinct.
At Sam's approach, the Nightmare acted quickly. The ground where Ashe had fallen grew as dark as an encroaching shadow, and it began to ripple as if it were water. Suddenly, the liquidized floor surged over and around them as a wave, consuming both Nightmare and Otherworlder entirely. The murky water then dissipated back into the floor, just as Sam managed to reach them, but they were gone.
Only Sam was left in the empty shaft of the corridor, bewildered and terrified as he cried out Ashe's name through the darkness.