Fresh air felt like honey to his dust-filled lungs.
After telling him he had been a captive, Poppy had wrapped a twitching arm around his shoulders and escorted him out of the door.
He stepped onto the cobbles in front of the door with bare feet- they were cold and damp from the fog that clung to the surfaces around them, making it impossible to see more than 10 foot ahead. Peering out of the fog to the right was the corner of another run-down building made of that strange grey stone.
To the left loomed the edge of a forest of pine trees; that was where Poppy steered him, constantly glancing around like she was afraid of being noticed.
Walking through the trees, Oleander made the sign for each plant and tree he recognised - pine, fir, cedar, hemlock - until Poppy smacked his hands and mumbled,
“There are people in here who we don’t want knowing that.” She glanced to her right, where a shadow flickered, and Oleander thought he heard a laugh fading into the distance.
Poppy changed their course so that they were heading away.
Eventually, they started to climb, and broke out of the trees at the summit of a small hill, where the fog was clear and they could look over the town and see the base buried in clouds.
It wasn’t so much a town, more like a towering city; it had grown onto a lush hill painted in greens and purples, pinks and yellows... every colour Oleander could imagine. At the very top was a grand building that towered at least 5 times the size and length of every other building he could see. It was made of the same strange grey stone as the buildings in the section now hidden in cloud, but even from here he could tell it was much smoother and cleaner. It was guarded by towering pillars and the statues of fierce-looking creatures. People the size of ants crawled here and there through the blooming rainbow gardens around it, converging on the building.
Below that was a spread-out arrangement of neat grey buildings, which slowly grew closer together and became more and more covered in strange patterns and shapes, which, even further down, became top-heavy wooden houses covered in grime that sank into the mist. Below that, Oleander assumed, at the very bottom, was a collection of the dirtiest, broken buildings.
The hill that held the city was bordered by a ranging collection of hills and valleys, like visions of purity. Oleander wanted to claim the image for himself.
Above everything, as Hellebore had whispered to the screaming Pennyroyal, the sky was blue, and eternal; he tried to follow it over the city, but the large building blocked his sight.
Filling his lungs with the fresh air surrounding him like an icy cushion, he turned around to try and see the sky stretch further.
His eyes greedily took in what he saw - a glaring plane of flat land, split by dry-stone walls into sections of different coloured grasses. To his left was the conifer forest; in the distance the trees dropped away into a dead land, riddled with the skeletons of starved tree-trunks. Around that area a riddle of blurred wriggling lines became apparent in the verdant landscape; there was a hint of something dark under all the grass, but he couldn’t quite make out the edges, just where they were heading: clinging to the horizon was a glaring mess of broken stone that may have once touched the clouds.
Oleander’s mouth dropped open.
“Oi.” Poppy broke into his consciousness with a snap, and turned him back to the town, dragging him back whenever he tried to turn around. Eventually, she took a firm grip on his shoulders to keep him stationary. “Look at the very top.”
He did, staring at the intimidatingly large building crowning the city.
“That’s the Gardeners’ building - The Chapel of Law, the building that the government uses for it’s meetings. Under that is where you were kept. Where Pennyroyal was kept, where her brother was kept. It’s a source of maniacs and corruption. It doesn’t have a name, ‘cause it ain’t supposed to be there. I’m telling you, sprout, if you get the chance...” She hesitated. “...no. Just stay away.”
She paused for a moment and took a heavy breath, like she knew something terrifying that was trying to push her to her knees.
Before Oleander could attempt to ask, she carried on, expression forcibly wild again.
“That pretty little place with all the snobby, big houses about it, just below the ‘Chapel of Law’,” She sneered as she said it, like the words were sour on her tongue, “That’s the Rose Garden, where the upper class live, the ‘Roses’. Don’t be fooled by the name, kiddo, it’s also where most of the gardener’s make their ugly little lives.”
She glanced around suspiciously.
Oleander studied the Rose Garden - many of the houses there had their own huge gardens, some with horses. At one, he could just about make out two figures tending the stables.
“Not the head gardener, though.” Poppy continued, “Nah, he lives right in that big building. Don’t know where, but he’s called Mandrake Solana. Just a kid. Claimed angels were talking to him. Naturally, the Gardeners ate that up - finally, a prophet. Tch. Prophet.” She lowered her voice, “There’s no such thing.”
As he watched the two figures, one started to scout around the edge of the stables-area; the other started to follow, but then stopped. The one that was creeping around climbed the fence and headed to the lower parts.
Poppy caught his gaze.
She whistled and laughed, “That’s an Astera kid. I bet it’s Wormwood, the older girl. You hear rumours, around the lower parts, that she’s into women, and spends a lot of time in the slums, in the brothels, and good on her, I say. I’d be a friend of anyone managing to defy the head of that family. Word never travels up to the Rose Garden - what happens in the slums stays in the slums, and all that. Plus the Weeds - the slum-rats - are all terrified of the power the Astera family has in government.” She cackled, like the thought of a high-class figure indulging in ‘low-class’ activities was the best thing she’d ever heard.
Irritated, and longing to turn around, Oleander pointed at the middle section.
“Follow the Astera girl.” Poppy demanded, “She’s just entered the middle section - that the main part of the Garden, where the Herbs live, the ones the Gardeners say are useful. They’re good enough, hard-working, merchants mostly.” They waited a couple of minutes, tracing the winding route of the figure, who soon disappeared below the mist, quickened by the angle of the cobble roads.
“Down there is where my house is, and where the brothels are, and the hidden labs, and the thieves guild-”
Oleander yelped; that made his head throb. He buried his fingers in his hair and groaned.
Where is the thieves guild?! Rang through his head, Tell me, or I’ll bring you back more than your parents’ fingers!
“My parents!” He tried to cry, but it just came out as an unintelligible exclamation.
Poppy rubbed his head.
“Alright, kid. Alright.” She said softly. “Let’s get back.” She raised her voice a little, trying to sound upbeat, but she just sounded crazy, “Never know what psychos’ll get you around here!”
They struggled slowly down the hill, and made their way back through the forest.
By the time Poppy’s house was in view, his headache had subsided, but his stomach had started to turn. What did ‘the thieves guild’ mean to him, and who had yelled about his parents?
His parents... their fingers...
His heart clenched, threatening to squeeze tears from his eyes, but the quiet sound of crunching grass made him blank with fear.
There was a large, dark presence looming behind him; he looked to Poppy in panic for some guidance, but her whole body was shaking- she seemed more terrified than him.
His lungs were aching as he struggled to start breathing again, but the force seemed to drag all the air away. Time seemed to be slow when he attempted movement, turning his head to feed his curiosity.
The forest had been smothered in black, and all around were trees that hadn’t been there before. Yew trees. Pennyroyal had almost grimaced when she told him they were an omen of death.
“It is a pity,” She’d sighed, “They have such interesting roots, you know. And pretty berries.”
These yew trees, however, were more frightening than pretty.
The berries that did grow on them were shrivelled, brown and dead. The roots were winding and wrapped around their hosts - hundreds of corpses, mottled green and blue and black, their eyes replaced by twisted tentacles.
“You should not mention such things in such an open space.” A voice rasped; it was neither female nor male, and seemed to come from the darkness, rather than the figure than stood within it...
The figure was strange - he would have mistaken it for a human had it’s skin not been as dark as the night, and it’s skeleton glowing pale, eerily visible.
It wore no clothes - it had nothing to hide, and no shame or doubt of it’s power here, Oleander could feel that.
“The immortals are watching.” It wheezed. Oleander thought it looked closer, and yet at the same time seemed smaller, it’s outline blurred.
As quickly as it had come, it was gone, and the two collapsed to their knees.
Poppy was breathing deeply and quickly, muttering under her breath.
“One, two, three, four.” It was having no affect. “One, two, three, four.”
And then she jumped to her feet and ran.
“No such thing!” She yelled, “I have not seen Death! Death does not know me! One! Two! Three! Four!”
She was gone, sucked into the mist, and Oleander was alone, memory of the figure fresh in his mind.
I can’t move, he though desperately, I can’t move.
“Help me.” He tried to yell, but his voice was weak, and he couldn’t even attempt to annunciate each syllable.
“Oleander!” A woman’s voice cried, and Hellebore rushed into view before him. Her hair was hanging loose in many places, “Thank the God of the Garden! I was so worried, you and Poppy just disappeared!”
She wrapped her arms around him and guided him inside.
Around the corner of the closest building, a small figure with white hair disappeared.