On the eve of his 20th birthday, Capitulum entered the cave, alone.

* * *

On the morning of his 72nd birthday, Capitulum stumbled out of the cave. He had grown a long grey beard that complimented his ancient robes. His wrinkled face was twisted into anguish as his labored breathing pierced the crisp air. As he slowly climbed the hill towards the grotto of his homestead, he assumed his father’s cottage was no longer standing. Sure enough, all that remained of his childhood was a jumbled ring of broken stones in a dead clearing.

Capitulum leaned on his staff—a slender piece of white wood, smoothed from years of use. As the old wizard gazed upon the familiar surroundings, he felt his legs give way. Gripping the staff, he slowly sank to his knees, feeling the prickly brown grass pressing into his shins through his threadbare robe. Letting the last of his strength dissipate, he fell rigidly onto his hands, grasping at the old nostalgic world and peeling large tufts of grass and dirt away from it. Makeshift parchment and letters spilled from an aged pouch he had strapped across his chest. He stared at the countless memoirs he had written, now fanned out before him, as they danced in the eastern wind. Once a valuable necessity of survival in the underworld, he let his written records scatter away, worthless.


Capitulum stood. To the east lay a town, that he prayed still existed. The sun was just now rising bleakly behind gray clouds, in that direction. Oh how he yearned to see daylight again. Though he had finally emerged from the Long Darkness relatively unscathed, it seemed the warmth of the sun would have to wait, as the land became overcast in a stiff and shadowless clarity.

Surrounding him on every side was a dense forest of evergreens, mature in size, but strangely unfamiliar to the wizard. Their seeds must have sprouted and grown old just as he did during his own mortal sequestration under the earth. Between the knotted boles, he spotted the road that led east. He donned his hood and gathered his windswept belongings.

As he wandered, the dim sun began to bleed through the canopy, blinking in and out behind obscuring leaves. Capitulum steadily followed the underused road, as it twisted and turned, threatening to vanish beneath the overgrowth. The surfaces of the rocks and trees around him began to slicken into a vivid green moss, as he neared the audible source of their flourishing.

This was the river that split the forest in two—the river his father had ferried him across a lifetime ago. Capitulum had stood on this spot a thousand times, waving to his father whenever he left for business in town. Capitulum had only crossed the river twice when he was twelve, to visit and return from Rookstone. While there, on a whim, his father had given him his first book, a manuscript of seafaring principles and boating techniques, to keep his young son occupied while he tended to matters behind closed doors. The book, which currently resided in his pouch, was lushly illustrated with diagrams and schematics—by a talented scribe, no doubt—with each page painstakingly reproduced from a master copy, he assumed. Ironic that the only watercraft steered within leagues of Rookstone was a shoddy raft his father used weekly to ferry himself across this river.

The boat was nowhere to be seen.

The river was much fuller than Capitulum remembered, spanning an incredible width. Its waters were tumultuous and much too dangerous for an old man like himself to enter, and it was unlikely that it narrowed within a convenient distance. Regardless, Capitulum was determined to cross.

All along the banks of the river stood giant fir trees, centuries old, thriving off the dampened environment. Their height was more than sufficient to lay across the river, had they been felled. Capitulum possessed no tools, but nevertheless he approached a particularly wondrous giant of a tree near the shore. He placed his hand upon the bark to steady himself, and set the end of his staff onto an exposed mangling of roots.

“I’m sorry, old one. This is not the fate you deserve,” Capitulum spoke, “but I must cross this river.”

Closing his eyes, the wizard concentrated, channeling his desire. Moments passed, and the sound of the rushing river slowly fizzled into nothingness. Birds no longer called their morning song, and the tree leaves swayed in unnatural silence.

With a tremendous crack, the sounds of the forest returned, nearly deafening Capitulum’s ears. Easing slowly, the massive tree—now broken at its base—began to teeter off balance. As gravity overtook it, the great tree slumped downward in a fury of splintering despair, and in an earth shaking boom, it crashed…


Startled birds flocked to the sky. Capitulum blinked.

“Fool!” the wizard cursed at himself. Hot in the face, he traipsed away from his blunder, swearing. The birds cawed overhead, as if to mock the error. With hesitation, he chose another, less mighty fir.

* * *

An hour passed and Capitulum shamefully crossed the river on a gnarled husk. He dared not look back at the multitude of his failed attempts behind him. It seemed his iron will was not as honed as it was in the perilous Underworld.



The dropship hurdled away through the poisonous atmosphere. The mesa beneath them lay shrouded in green fog, dwindling in size as the ship gained altitude. There was no more movement on the damned toxic planet.

The frigate Derecho was waiting for them in orbit. The dropship cleared the airlock and as it landed, its pressurized hatch hissed and sprung open. John did not wait for the door to fully extend to the hangar floor and leapt to the deck with a heavy thud—still clutching Casey in his mechanically-assisted arms. She was limp, but despite the vac-suits separating them, he swore he could sense her breathing. From the far end of the hangar, Chief Doctor Theo arrived in a vac-suit of her own, with a pair of similarly dressed security personnel at her heels. They hurried to keep up as John swiftly exited the bay towards the infirmary.

Theo ran ahead and motioned him to the sterilization chamber. “Decontamination, John! Decontamination!”

She dismissed the guards, who hesitantly departed, and the three of them entered as the chamber sealed. The room pulsed red and they were bathed in a mist of quick-acting decontaminants. Dr. Theo hovered above Casey with a pocket light, examining her. Casey muttered something unintelligible under her breath and John looked down at her contorted expression. As the pocket light passed over her face, her limp body began to shudder with convulsions. “This is insane,” Theo mused.

As soon as the decontamination procedure was complete, John rushed into the medical bay. Maneuvering his suit’s protruding exterior around the various instrument covered carts and startled medical personnel, he arrived at the containment cell in the back. He kicked the control panel, releasing the door to the cell with a spark. Gingerly, he placed Casey’s body within the tube located in the center of the room. Theo arrived with a sheet and draped it over her mangled vac-suit. She thumbed the console and the glass lid hissed shut as the apparatus whirred, pumping oxygen into the tube.

John stared down at Casey’s thin frame behind the glass and sheet. Even garbed in her bulky vac-suit, she was smaller than others. Her eyes were still shut, and her exposed hands were pinched tightly into fists, fighting off whatever pain she felt with every ragged breath. Behind him, the onboard medical staff swarmed, awaiting the Chief Doctor’s directions. Theo began directing them towards various parts of the wing. A medical officer entered the cell and attached a device to the side of the tube. A needle stabbed into Casey’s shoulder and withdrew a brown liquid. The officer withdrew.

“Dr. Theo,” John called, pulling her attention away from the group.

“I’m having them prepare for any potential invasive medical procedures. We will operate once the rudimentary tests have concluded, that is.” She glanced at John. His gaze had not moved away from Casey Sendak.

“When will we know?” John asked, as he kneeled down beside Casey.

“Her pulse is erratic,” Theo spoke, unfastening and removing her helmet as she analyzed the readout on the nearby monitor. John followed suit and removed his as well as Dr. Theo continued, “Her heart rate is well above what an average human heart is capable of. Her body is in shock. Magnification shows massive disorder within her skin cells. We’ll need that blood and skin sample…” She paused, squinting from behind her glasses. The medical officer returned, transferring data onto Theo’s handheld data pad.  “Thank you. Her skin mass density is plummeting dramatically. There are mutated skin cells being absorbed into her circulatory system, and dead microbial matter is being ejected outwards into the air around her. It’s like she’s shedding.”

“Is she still human, doc?” John asked, his voice quiet. “The way she… attacked us. No human is capable of what she did.”

“It’s hard to tell. Her metabolism is fluctuating at a very high and abnormal rate—on par with what I’ve observed from our limited collection of samples.” Theo removed her glasses. “Her body has gone through a traumatic mutation because of that creature, that.. thing you tore off of her neck. She was on that planet, alone and exposed, for approximately 146 hours. Nobody has seen anything like this before.”

John stood, bracing himself against the bulkhead. He hovered above the stasis cell, teetering on the edge of weariness. Casey still lay shaking, with the occasional incoherent word escaping her lips. The surface of her skin still appeared rough and broken, with several dark blue tendril-like veins tracing up her neck and jaw towards her eyes and ears. Her pupils moved sporadically beneath her eyelids and her breathing was fragile and irregular.

Medical staff began to flurry around John in his large vac-suit, which was taking up most of the already cramped space in the cell. The movement and noise surrounding him seemed distant and muffled, as visions of what had transpired on the planet flashed in his memories…

And as fatigue settled in, he could hear her voice screaming and pleading for them to come back, to not abandon her down there—even as they fled from her as she killed another one of them.

John, come back, she had screamed. John!


He jolted out of his stupor and instinctively leaned towards Casey, half expecting her to be awake.

“John,” the voice said again, this time more recognizable. John’s wits slowly returned to him as he saw Isaac’s darkened reflection in the glass, standing behind him in the doorway. “We finally managed to get Chen patched in on the bridge. He wants to speak with you.”

John closed his eyes, his back still to Isaac. “Can it wait? I need to see this through.”

“Whatever happened down there on the planet… we’ve gotten reports from the others. Four dead, and one of them…” Isaac nervously looked around the room. The room was bustling, and the assisting medical staff seemed distracted, but he dropped his volume anyway. “He knows about Ethan, John,” he whispered, “I’ve managed to convince Chen to hear your explanation, but you need to speak to him at once, to explain to him this whole situation. They want to arrest you.”

In the tube, Casey muttered something again, and began to shake violently. At Dr. Theo’s command, the staff injected a strange liquid into another port on the side of the container. The atmosphere within the tube transformed into a hazy blue mist. Her seizures diminished, but her frail arms and legs still convulsed under the sheet, as if in unbearable pain. John turned away, unable to look any more, and noticed the same two security personnel from earlier standing just outside the containment cell. As he began to leave, Isaac caught John’s arm, stopping him.

“Wait. There’s one more thing you need to know.” Isaac cleared his throat to address the staff, and the room became quiet. “Per Chen’s orders, if she awakes and there is even the slightest perceivable chance of danger to our onboard personnel…” Isaac’s attention turned towards Dr. Theo, “kill her.”

“What!” John grabbed Isaac by the shoulders in rage, and slammed him into the wall with the assisted strength of his vac-suit. Isaac’s feet dangled inches off the ground. The guards raised their weapons as John shouted “After what we went through to get her back!”

“Release the Captain!” a guard commanded, his gun aimed at John’s head.

Isaac exhaled and raised his hand to quell the guards. Their stance dropped slightly. The room remained silent, except for the hum of machinery and the quiet rattle of Casey’s constricted breathing. Beads of sweat streaked down John’s forehead.

“How many times has she saved our lives, Isaac? And you’re just gonna let him kill her!? If you lay a hand on her, I’ll—”

“John!” Isaac yelled, and John paused. Isaac continued, “I know. Trust me, I do. We owe her our lives. But attacking me isn’t going to change anything. If you want to fix things, then you need to speak to Chen. I’m trying to help you, but… this is out of my control. He’s the one you need to convince.”

After a moment, John’s grip subsided. Once Isaac was free, the soldiers lowered their weapons.

Seeing the pain in John’s face, and his reluctance to leave, Isaac said softly, “Don’t worry about her John. I’ll watch after her.”

“Thank you,” John said, and walking through the door he added, “I’m sorry, Ike.”

“ I understand.” Isaac looked at the shivering pale form under the misted glass. “She’s fighting for you, John. You went to hell and back for her, and I think she knows it.”



A huge man sauntered past her table. She noticed he was clad in mismatched leather pelts, and on his hip was a curved saber. As he disappeared behind her, she could feel his eyes staring at her. He heard him stop abruptly, but she did not turn look. Her attention was on the cup between her hands.

After a spell, he prodded his foot under the table, dragging the chair out from underneath. As he sat, he leaned towards her and she could feel his body heat radiating around him. The shine of his beady eyes glinted in her periphery, but still she maintained her glare dead forward as she drank from her cup.

“What are you doing here, kid?” His deep voice pushed through his bushy goatee. His breath was potent and unpleasant.

“None of your business,” she mumbled, putting the cup down.

“Well when someone comes in here dressed like some sort of fancy warrior princess, bringing all sorts of attention to herself, I tend to make it my business, do you understand? Do you know where you are? Do you even know who I am?”


The man stood up, the chair screeching away. He signaled to a man behind him.

In that instant, while his head was turned, her hand darted up and jerked his head down violently, slamming his face into the table. As Lucy stabilized her grip in his hair, she brought her dagger into view and pressed it tentatively into his twitching neck. Several tavern patrons around her began to stand and fumble at their belts for their weapons.

“Stay back!” she commanded. The room became still.

She counted three men behind her with a club and swords, and two in front, also with swords. The rest of the tavern only seemed interested in the spectacle, and the barkeep had gone out back, wanting nothing to do with it, probably. All sets of eyes but one were fixed on her—all except the younger man she had noticed when she had walked in, sitting in the alcove. He was squaring up the men around her, his hand on his hilt. If worse came to worst, the two of them could take them, she thought, or at least escape.

He caught her eye, and he smirked.

The man she held captive snapped out of his momentary daze and fumbled for the hand that held his hair. Lucy twisted his head sideways and pressed the dagger harder against his neck. The man winced and relented. A bead of blood dribbled down his throat.

“You want to know what I’m doing here so badly? Well now you know. It’s cleaning up the mess I’m going to make of you if you take this any further. Tell your friends you made a mistake and to sit down, and I’ll let you go back to not knowing my business.”

The man caught his breath and for a moment pondered his circumstances. At last he said “Y-you heard her, all. Everything is fine. My mistake.”

“Now when I let go of you, I want you to go about your way, leaving me the hell alone. I don’t want to kill you, but if you make things difficult for me, I will. Do you understand?” The man whimpered, slightly. “Answer,” she snapped.

“Yes, ma’am. Apologies, ma’am. I’ll be going about my way now.”

“Good.” She relinquished her grip of hair and the man fell backwards onto the ground beside her. He quickly oriented himself and hobbled away, as the quiet bustle of the tavern resumed. Wary of retaliation, she stood and approached the younger man in the corner.

“That was all rather… unexpected,” he said, as she settled in the seat near him.

“Unfortunately, not for me. Being a woman in this line of work often places me into dangerous situations. “

“Dangerous for whom?” the man mused.