Eagle Perfect: Legend of the First is a parody of dystopian young adult novels, in which two ‘chosen ones’ vie for the status of world-saving protagonist. New readers should start at Chapter 1, or you can consult the Table of Contents.
Chapter Eight: The Railweb
“Why am I making a terrible mistake?” Legend asked, again. He had worked his way through seventeen variations of this same question, each yielding nothing but silence, and was now back to where he’d started.
“You asked for someone who knew the way to the Lyceum and could get you there safely,” said Eleanora, leading the way a few paces ahead of him. “Nothing more.”
“That’s true,” said Legend, encouraged by even a discouraging response. “But I was hoping you might also serve as a mentor figure, you know, guide me on the right path, answer some of the questions that have been building up. I’ve seen a lot of things lately that I don’t understand, and I’m also able to control these two Guardsmen with my mind. It’s fair to say I have a few lines of enquiry ready to go.”
She stopped and turned, her face calm but her eyes as sharp as the sharpest sheet of invoice paper.
“Do you even know what the Lyceum is?”
“Not really,” said Legend, “that’s my first line of enquiry.”
“It’s a barbaric place where children are forced to fight for the entertainment of a few sick Magic Knights. The only way out is to lose so many fights that you’re no longer interesting.”
Legend stumbled for an appropriate response.
“That’s a metaphor, of course,” said Eleanora. “But it’s not far off.”
“I don’t understand,” said Legend. “Do they or do they not make children fight each other for entertainment?”
“Have you ever heard of a ‘test’?”
Legend shook his head.
“No, of course not. Well, at the Lyceum, they have tests. They ask you questions, and the questions have right answers and wrong answers, and you score points if you choose the right answer.”
“That makes no sense. If I answered a lot of questions correctly, I could end up with more points than someone else. Wouldn’t they feel bad?”
“Yes, they would.”
Legend felt a knot begin to form in his stomach.
“And if I had fewer points, wouldn’t I feel bad? And less intelligent?”
“Would I actually be less intelligent?”
“That’s not important. What’s important is how it makes you feel. Let me ask you a question. When are you most happiest?”
“When I accomplish something challenging and worthwhile, like invoicing a guest for a multi-night stay with a split room and rotating minibar.”
“Now, what if hypothetically—and I’m not saying this is in any way the truth—but what if invoicing was actually easy, and something anyone could do? And what if there were other things out there that were more challenging, more meaningful, and more useful?”
“That’s clearly impossible.”
“Right. But what if?”
“Then I suppose I’d want to do those other things that are more challenging, more meaningful, and more useful.”
“Only natural, isn’t it? But now, what if I told you that you weren’t good enough to do those things?”
“I don’t understand. Everyone is good enough to do anything.”
“Yes, of course. Let me...”
She looked around and spotted a dovehen scratching in the dirt.
“See that dovehen? Can it fly?”
“No, of course not,” Eleanora continued, “but some birds can fly.”
“I don’t think I like where this is headed.”
“That’s why you’re making a terrible mistake.”
Legend sank to all fours, his head spinning, his stomach churning. What had he gotten himself into? Breathe. He did, and it helped. Slowly, the world returned to focus. He had no choice, he reminded himself. The Administration wanted him dead. If he wanted to survive, he would have to go to this inhumane place where people were judged on their ability, no different to animals. He wished there was a word for being afraid of something but doing it anyway, because such a word would have perfectly described what he needed to do right now.
He returned to his feet, brushed the dirt from his knees, and tried to look like that non-existent word.
“The Lyceum must have some positive features?”
“A few,” said Eleanora. “They will teach you magic. And how to control your powers, so you can operate your Guardsmen independently. And if you’re lucky, you might turn out to be the Chosen One. But remember that every other student also wants to be the Chosen One, and every teacher is a former student who found out the hard way that they are not the Chosen One. Except for Sir Barrett and Sir Barrett, of course. They despise all manifestations of ego. But they live outside the school walls, so what does that tell you?”
“But I have the same chance as anyone else of being the Chosen One, do I not?”
“No, you have less chance, because you think you have the same chance. In order to have the same chance, you have to think you have more of a chance. That’s how things work there.”
Legend felt more confused now than when he’d had no mentor figure at all. Eleanora placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Look,” she said. “The Lyceum is more than three hundred years old. Every year, fifty new students enrol. Over fifteen thousand students have passed through its doors. Can you guess how many of them turned out to be the Chosen One?”
“No, three. But those aren’t great odds.”
Legend began to think it over, then remembered he still had no alternative.
“Just to clarify,” he said, “there is no actual requirement for children to fight each other?”
“It depends on your electives.”
* * *
They walked for another hour, through suburbs Legend had never seen before, always twisting, turning, and doubling back on themselves. At one point they tripled forwards, but Legend suspected this was just Eleanora showing off. They passed fewer and fewer inns, and more and more taverns, and Legend was struck by a sense of cosmic possibility. If one sector could contain so much variety, imagine what two sectors could contain.
Eventually, they arrived at an iron gate set into the side of a hotel, overgrown with moss and strangling vines.
“I don’t imagine this complies with the Sector Code,” said Legend.
“It doesn’t have to. This is the Railweb."
The colour fled Legend’s face as he and his two Guardsmen froze with fear.
“But the Railweb is suicide... or worse!”
“It’s not that bad,” said Eleanora, “it’s worse.”
Legend wondered what could possibly be worse than ‘or worse’.
“It’s not too late to turn back,” said Eleanora.
“Where else can I go? The Administration wants me dead.”
“You could trade them information, get yourself branmarked, and return to your old job.”
“I already told them everything I know. But I forgot to state my terms before the commencement of the exchange.”
“In that case,” she said, “it’s too late to turn back.”
She placed one hand on the iron gate, muttered something incomprehensible under her breath, then stepped back. The gate swung slowly inwards, guided by an unseen force, unconcerned by the vines that tugged and pulled in desperate preservation of the status quo.
Beyond the gate was a tunnel, light enough that vague shapes could be discerned, but dark enough to give the imagination free reign.
Eleanora led the way, with Legend tiptoeing in her wake. Shadows formed into hideous beasts then dissolved into nothing. Garish faces smiled at him from posters on the walls, baring symmetrical rows of identical teeth. Those surfaces not devoted to leering visages were covered in tessellations of small geometric pottery, an opulence like nothing Legend had even seen.
They turned a corner and made their way down a vast staircase. A sensation of pure cold emanated from below. While it was different to wind, Legend could feel it moving; and although they were heading down, away from the entrance, the tunnel was somehow getting lighter.
The staircase opened up onto a chamber, a hundred feet long and thirty feet wide. Running through the middle of it, arriving and departing via cylindrical openings at either end, was a river of pure white. It looked to Legend like a fast-flowing cloud, but it radiated such a light that the potteried walls sparkled like polished diamonds.
“Before The Event,” said Eleanora, “people would travel from sector to sector using a sort of underground motor carriage. On the day It happened, everyone who was down here died instantly.”
Legend approached the banks of the river, entranced by its graceful progress.
“Their ghosts have been trapped in these tunnels ever since, unable to return to the earth, endlessly searching for more souls to drag into eternal unrest.”
Legend bent down and examined the river more closely, then jumped back in terror.
“There’s someone in there!”
Eleanora laughed. Legend looked at the person, deathly white, flailing about in the unnatural river. Then he noticed a second person, and then a third, and then he realised that the entire river was one gargantuan torrent of undead spirits.
“Don’t worry, they’re all dead. But if one of them touches you, you will die too.”
Legend took a step back.
“How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?”
“We don’t. That’s how the Railweb works.”