The ground trembled in his pursuer’s wake. Dirt fell as Maelys ran, and all around him trees uprooted and fell against one another as their once sturdy foundation sunk and swam. Twice Maelys tripped, but his momentum carried him through and he managed to keep his feet beneath him. The monster roared behind him, and the blaring of the horn made the leaves shudder with terror. He wasn’t even sure if it was gaining on him, but he dared not look back.
“Rozire!” he called into the forest. He hadn’t seen his mentor since the thunderous footsteps began.
“Calm down, I’m here, I’m here!” came a familiar voice. Maelys stopped and turned around to see Rozire pacing up behind him. “No, don’t stop, you fool, we keep running!” Pushing on the boy’s shoulder, he sprang into motion once again.
“I was worried you had died!” Maelys choked. “After I fell, and that swordsman appeared, I–”
“I’m alright. We need to focus on getting away from that thing.”
“What about the swordsman?”
Rozire glanced at his pupil and winked. “I told you I’d protect you.”
“Funny,” Maelys grinned as he leaped over a particularly large root. “I don’t feel very safe at the moment.”
“Imminent death at your heals adds a spice to life, wouldn’t you say?”
The forest quaked when the creature stomped on the ground once more, and the ground before the two of them climbed upwards, defying gravity as it rose to their heads and then some, halting them immediately.
“Hallowed One’s curse,” Rozire muttered. “This way.” He shoved Rozire to the side, parallel of the dirt wall, and they took off once again.
“What is going on? Did that thing just do that?” Maelys said as he followed orders. He tried to swallow the fear, but with his chest heaving from the exertion it became a cough.
“It’s called a constructor,” Rozire nodded. “They can mold the elements around them to suit their needs. That means it can shape the dirt however it wants, and it can also create water to boot. Those things are the keepers of the Meadows. They make sure it looks pretty for the folks in the upper city while they keep it treacherous to discourage the less fortunate. Not to mention the creature itself can kill us in lots of creative ways.”
“So it’s not a man, but it’s intelligent?”
“They do have some intelligence, but I’m not convinced it’s a living, breathing animal, actually. Nobody’s sure. The constructors have been around as long as the cities they guard have, though. Lots of speculation, but nobody is stupid enough to get close to one on purpose.”
“You keep saying ‘they’,” Maelys trailed off.
“Yeah. There are over a dozen of these things in the Meadows.”
“What if we run into another one?”
Rozire chuckled a bit, though he was clearly starting to lose his breath. “Can’t get any more dead than we will be if this one catches up to us.”
The deep, horn blaring roar shook the woods once more. Again, the ground ahead of them lurched upwards. Before they could change course, the two adjacent sides walled them off as well. There was nowhere to run but back towards certain death.
Rozire clutched his staff and let out a long breath. “Looks like we have no choice.”
“What?” Maelys cried. “You want us to run towards that thing?”
“No. We’re going with ‘Plan B’.” Rozire was calm, but serious.
“What’s ‘Plan B’?”
His mentor looked up at the sky, where the outline of Eranos was only barely visible through the cover of the trees. “Remember when I got to your little town? So far away that the sister-planet looks nothing more than a distant hill in the horizon?”
Dread sank into the back of Maelys’ throat.
“I told you I was looking for an apprentice in cartography. A young man with a thirst for adventure and a willingness to get into trouble.”
The deep thunder of approaching death was getting louder, but something about Rozire’s demeanor calmed him. “You never really taught me anything about map-making.”
“Yes, well. Here’s the truth. I am a cartographer, as surprising as that may be to you, but it’s the least of many occupations of which I may claim. I wasn’t looking for an apprentice.”
Maelys frowned as his mentor turned to face him. “I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you could even if I told you everything here and now. But I’ll tell you some, to get you started. You see, I was looking for your mother.”
His breath caught in his throat, eyes widening. “My… mother…?”
“She’s always been the elusive type. I’ve been looking for her ever since she left Upper Terrace. When I found you I knew I was on the right track, only to find out the trail had gone cold when I learned that you had never known her.”
Another thunderous boom, beating in sync with Maelys’ own heartbeat.
“I wish I could tell you we were going to Upper Terrace because that’s where she is, but the chances of that are slim at best. I gave up my search, and instead I was going to finish my true task. I brought you along because,” he paused at that. “Well, never mind that for now. What’s important is that you make it out of here alive.”
He pulled out the vial of Red Teeth.
Maelys snapped out of his stupor. “What? What are you doing with that?”
“When we were separated, I tried to use it on the constructor,” Rozire explained. “It had no effect, as I feared. Things can never be too easy, I suppose. Here.” He offered the bottle to his pupil, who took it with quivering arms.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way, leaving you with so many questions, but I can’t say anymore. Do you trust me?”
Rozire had asked that question dozens, if not hundreds of times over the past few months. It had become a catchphrase of sorts. But now, there was no joviality in his tone.
His mentor’s face was grim. “I need you to drink that. All of it. Constructors have some way to detect the presence of life around them, and it targets the biggest threats first. If you drink that, you will be effectively invisible.”
Trees exploded and fell. Through the thinning foliage, Maelys glimpsed gold.
“Once you get to Upper Terrace, they’ll take you to an infirmary. Unless the city has drastically changed since I left, the worst they will do is kick you out of the city when you’re better. Go there, and find Varra. You can trust her. Now drink.”
Maelys took a deep breath and exhaled. His hands were still trembling, but he managed to pull the cork off and, before he allowed himself to hesitate, drank the bottle.
The liquid was cold, but as soon as it fell down his throat, he felt as though he had been thrust into an inferno. His vision darkened, and he could feel the hard slam of dirt against his knees. He heard his mentor’s words swim in and out as he lost consciousness.
“…st of luck, Maelys… Aeni… your path…”