Surikka crawled through the jagged hole in the sagging wall. She checked the trip-wire on her slam-spikes. The trap was still armed. Cautiously, delicately, she slid under the false wire, meant to fool anyone looking for a trap, and then stood up. Reached over her head. The old ladder was still there. Tug. It seemed secure. She grabbed hold and pulled herself up. One rung at a time. Careful not to let her legs flail about. That would trigger another trap. A Forager could never be too paranoid. Most died horribly because they weren't paranoid enough. Surikka was methodical, which was not quite as good as being full-out paranoid, but it had worked so far. She was still alive. Several of her former class-mates weren't. It was a harsh lesson. She intended to graduate alive and intact. Her few friends called her ambitious. Everyone else called her a stuck-up bitch. She wasn't even sure what that was supposed to mean. Jealousy? Insecurity? Racism? Probably. It wasn't her fault. The pheromones just came with the onset of puberty. It wasn't easy having a mostly Eloi metabolism.
Top of the ladder. Deep breath. Steady. Surikka extended her left hand until she could feel the one gritty old rug that was nailed down. All the others were loose and would start sliding as soon as anyone grabbed onto them. Then they'd start fraying. She smirked. One of her first cantrips was a way to make woven goods unravel. She'd worked that into a simple, but effective spell that she had imprinted on the rugs. One tug and they'd fall into a mess of threads and dust. Anyone trying to climb up here who reached wrong would fall. They'd also find out about the half-buried spikes set beneath the trash strewn about the cellar floor. The hard way.
Tug. The rug stayed put. Like it was supposed to. She pulled herself across and up onto the creaking floorboards. Her pack only just cleared the pointy-bits. More crawling. Across the dirty floor. Past the curtain of barbed wire and the deadfall. Her fingers touched something smooth and crumbly. Not dust. Chalk. Pink Chalk. The safe spot. She gathered herself up. Kneeled in the dim light trickling through the filthy windows. Waited. Rested. Quieted her own breathing. Listened. No one seemed to be following her. This time. Maybe they'd learned their lesson. Maybe.
Fungi protruded profusely from the bulging wall. Orange-speckled things shaped like deformed scrotums and brains. The place reeked of sweet, oily rot. Garishly colored fluids dribbled down the peeling wallpaper, saturating the cracked plaster underneath, deforming the lathe-work. She counted the rat skulls poking out of the yellow-orange goop that had dried into a scabby crust along the warped mop board. Three. Still only three. So the stuff wasn't too terribly active. Not yet.
She pulled out her trowel and jabbed it into the floor. The point and right-edge were sharpened and made an awkward, but serviceable knife. Two small jars. She checked the seals of the lids. Marked each one with the date, 'Attic-B,' and her personal sigil with a grease pencil. Procedure. She gathered-up some fresh samples. Closed the jars tightly. Wrapped them in rags and loaded them into her sample-bag. The sporemongers paid pretty well for new strains. This stuff wasn't like anything she'd learned about in class. It might be invasive. Which could draw the attention of the Red Watch. If she went through proper channels. Which she had no intention of doing.
Autumn was fast approaching. She wasn't going to spend another winter out on the streets. Not ever again. She had passed her Entrance Exams. She had earned a spot at the Academy. But her scholarship didn't cover everything. Her first room-mate introduced her to some Foragers. It sounded almost romantic, at first. Ha. It was a filthy business. Not as bad as the Corruption Trade, but bad enough in it's own right. Dangerous too. Few students stuck with it longer than one or two seasons. Just long enough to earn what they needed, then they were done. This was Surikka's third season. Considering the way things had been going, it might not be her last. If she remained vigilant and had any luck. Not that luck amounted to very much these days.
She shifted her pack. Knee-walked over to the side. Staying in the dim light as much as possible. The old burlap was still in-place. No fungi on it. Yet. Better get some gloves for the next time. She pulled the make-shift curtain out of the way and shuffled through the cut-out section of the wall. Pulled the burlap back into place behind her. Paused to let her eyes adjust.
It was darker in here. Cooler. Also roomier. She rose up from her knees. Unstrapped her pack. Set it down beside the nightstand. Stretched out her arms, back. Did a few squats to get the blood pumping and to wake up her legs. All that crawling about on her knees was uncomfortable, but it was the only way into this place. For someone her size. One of the local kids could probably breeze right through the place, if it weren't for the traps, the fungi and their pretended disregard for her. They knew she wasn't interested in them. Wasn't any threat to their 'territory.' But she would defend herself. One of the other variants of her unraveling spell reduced a victim's lungs to a bloody soup of undifferentiated cells. She'd only needed to use it twice. The kids left her well enough alone.
The collapsed old bed frame jutted out from under a mound of stale feathers and rotted fabric. She poked at it with a stick left there just for this purpose. Nothing moved in response to the ungentle prodding. Good. She'd almost gotten stung by some green-werms when she'd first discovered this place. Those that she didn't collect in sample-jars, she crushed into a paste and then poured acid onto the paste. It had stunk terribly. But it seemed to work. Sometimes it paid to stay awake in class. Especially when there was a lecture by old Gnosiomandus. He had recommended using acid on green-werms. She always took notes when he addressed her class. She had read two of his books, both of them twice. Her hopes of becoming one of his apprentices were dashed a few weeks ago, when that half-human kid showed up from out of nowhere. That had really made her angry. It wasn't fair. not after everything she had done, all the hard work, the highest grades, the essays, the maps, the samples. she had been top of her class. The apprenticeship ought to have been hers. But she was expected to wait one more term. that meant one more season of Foraging to cover her costs.
She still carried the letter from Gnosiomandus, at least it had been signed by him. Carried his seal. Official stationary. Very proper.
She'd cried for the first time in three years when she read that damned thing.
It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. It was the way things were.
She had been hurt. Felt betrayed. Got angry. Wrote a dozen rebuttals, pleas for reconsideration, scathing criticisms. Burned each and every one. Such things were pointless. Useless. No one cared. No one was ever going to care about her feelings, or her hopes, or her dreams. She had to look out for herself. Like her parents had taught her. Before they had to send her off to this place. Before the things in the soil rendered her sterile. Or worse. Like Jurim. Her brother. Warped, deformed, not quite human any more. He probably still prowled the fringes of the Red Forest along the marshes where the Ertish River wound back through the Low Lands. She said a little prayer for her brother. Addressing it to whomever it might concern. There were too many heresies, cults and creeds competing for what little faith anyone had left to spare in Wermspittle. No sense inadvertently insulting some obscure power or incurring the wrath of some nameless demon just because you called on the wrong saint or used an incorrect form, or whatever. Assuming any of them even gave a damn about her brother, her family, or her. Having grown up around farmers and hunters, trapped behind their enclave's walls every winter, besieged by the restless things out in the darkness and the unquiet dead, she just didn't have the temperament to be any too religious. To her blasphemies and abominations were real, very real, very material things, not abstractions or accusations. There wasn't anything theoretical about the things she had witnessed as a small child.
She wasn't a child anymore.
She had no intention of crying any more.
She didn't need the approval of spurious spirits, nor of fickle academics.
She had found something that promised to make things much better.
A Weak Point. Right there. On the other side of the broken old bed. Her own personal opening to some Adjacent World. Someplace else. Other than here.
Surikka hefted her pack. Slung it over one shoulder. Walked over to the faintly shimmering discoloration in the dimness. It was still here. Waiting.
There were weeds growing over there. On the other side. Pale grasses. But it was dark. Very dark. Perhaps this other place had longer nights than what she was used to--she'd read about places that experienced days and nights that were years long. Something about the rotation of the world on it's axis. Or clouds. Yes. Some places talked about in her text-books had the same rotation and all that, but were wrapped-up in heavy, dark clouds. Sometimes that locked these places in a perpetual winter. Sometimes it was due to ashes and gasses, hot and acidic places. But not this one. This place reminded her of some lonely field or pasture at night. Under some kind of aurora. The blues and greens shimmered and flowed through the darkness. It was pretty there.
And it was hers to explore.
She stepped through the Weak Point.