Lantern Bearer

rating: +15+x

Free Port 05, more commonly known as The Pillars, sports several unique and peculiar jobs. Scrambler hound riders are responsible for neurally interfacing with large, multi-limbed creatures that are used as a mode of public transportation. Even construction work isn't boring in The Pillars, because as the city expands, construction workers are required to go to uninhabited heights of a pillar, with simple climbing equipment as the only thing separating safety from free-fall into the smoky abyss, to build more room for the city to expand.

However, of all the peculiar jobs in The Pillars, the most essential of all is that of the lantern bearers. The light of the lanterns you see, doesn't just provide well-appreciated visibility in the foggy streets of The Pillars, but it also keeps at bay The-Shapes-In-The-Fog. Every citizen of The Pillars knows about the large, indistinct beings lurking nearby, silently swimming through the gaseous expanse.

Henrick, a lantern bearer on duty, watches one of the blurry beasts swim past in the distance, as he leans against the railing of one of the numerous streets built into the sides of the humongous pillars of black stone, lantern in hand. He sighs and moves on, as the thorny tentacles recede back into the thick fog.

Lantern bearing is tough work, because it means that you have to sleep during the day in order to gather the energy required to walk for miles during the night. Granted, there is not much difference between day and night in The Pillars, as there are no celestial bodies on the sky, since there is no sky at all. The fog seems to have an illuminating quality to it, ensuring that there is always light. Day and night are simply arbitrary terms used to indicate the time periods during which people are out and about and when they are sleeping. It is also just convenient for the people to be tucked inside when the lanterns go out, allowing the bearers to relight them in peace, without fear that someone would be caught in an unprotected area and end up getting snatched by A-Shape-In-The-Fog. This still happens from time to time, as there are still always people out and about, Pillars has a nightlife just as any other city, but it is rare.

Regardless, this kind of schedule means that lantern bearers rarely see or interact with people, aside from other lantern bearers. For outsiders, this facet of their nature brings an air of mystery around the profession. Henrick, however, prefers the silence. The serenity that looms over the usually hectic streets of the The Pillars during these nights is peaceful for him, comforting, even, as long as he forgets why the torches need to be lit in the first place. This is why he feels almost annoyed when he is approached by another lantern bearer, while standing on Callifer Bridge and watching motes of light jump out of his lantern and dance through the air into the torches on the sides, breathing brilliant life into the previously snuffed sources of warm, orange light.

"How's the route going?" he shouts from across the bridge. Henrick has met the man before, though briefly. His name is Kieran, but that's all Henrick knows.

"Same as every night," he responds.

"Seen a lot Shapes?" Kieran asks. Henrick doesn't know why.

"One, just a few minutes ago. It swam away though."

"Got it. I myself saw a big one. You do the upper layers of this pillar right?" he asks and points back at the pillar he just came from. Henrick confirms.

"Yeah, might wanna be careful then. I saw it drifting upwards. Seemed pretty ballsy too, it came unusually close." Henricks interest is piqued.

"Oh yeah? How close?" he asks.

"Like, maybe 30-40 feet off the side. Close enough that I could make out some details on its hide. Scary shit." Kierans face goes paler as he recalls his experience. Henrick decides to make a mental note of the story. He nods.

"Thanks for letting me know. I'll keep it in mind," he says as he walks past the man to break free from the unsolicited small talk.

"Yeah, no problem. Stay safe out there!" Kieran shouts from behind.

"Yeah, you too!" Henrick responds, picking up the pace.

Henrick exits Callifer Bridge and enters the streets of Arwen's Pillar, which has already been lit on this level. He looks up at the upper layers, their bottoms slightly obscured by fog, and sighs as he begins to ascend the winding, wide staircase around the mysterious monolith.

There are a lot of things one could hate about The Pillars. The air is always humid and chilly, eldritch horrors lurk just out of sight, and the bottomless void that surrounds everything is a nightmare for acrophobes. However, one of the things that most often comes up when discussing the cons of the city, is the amount of stairs it has. These are a necessity, as the city has been segmented into multiple vertical layers, and people frequently travel from one layer to another within the same pillar. Of course, there are other methods of vertical movement, but not everyone can afford continuous rides on a scrambler hound, and on a busy day a long line can easily form in front of the elevators. Those who are magically inclined also have the choice of using teleportation, but lantern bearers don't have the permission to use any of these methods while on duty. They are required to use stairs, as any more direct way of travelling from one layer to another could mean missing an unlit lantern. At least it's a good leg exercise, Henrick figures.

After too many steps, Henrick's legs land on the cobblestone street of Arwen's Pillar, Fifth Layer. He takes a moment to steady his breath, as he looks around. The buildings here are larger, their details more intricate, than the ones down below. That is usually how it goes in The Pillars. The higher you are, the better your living conditions are. Those on the highest layers, from the 8th to the 9th, live in abundance and luxury. Those on the 1st and 2nd layers can't afford more than a dingy apartment, if even that. The only exception to this system is The Three, the largest layer, which is built around and within three pillars. A sort of city central, though big enough to be a small city all on its own. Henrick wishes his pay was high enough that he could afford a house on the Fifth or Sixth Layer, but alas, lantern bearers are criminally underpaid for providing such an essential service.

Henrick goes to move on, but something catches his eye. The light of another lantern pierces the fog, but it isn't bright enough to belong to a bearer. Behind the dim point of light, the silhouette of a lumbering form shifts.

"Ey! Who goes there?" Henrick shouts as he approaches.

"Oh, don't mind me, bearer," a voice calls out. "My old girl couldn't sleep so I decided to take her on a little midnight stroll."

Henrick comes closer, the light of his lantern revealing a stout old man, and the scrambler hound stomping next to it. The dozens of powerful hands sticking out of its grey back twitch warily, as it senses the scent of a stranger, its four-segmented snout sniffing the air.

"Be careful if you come any closer. Her sight isn't what it used to be back in her working days. You don't want to spook her," the man chuckles. Henrick looks at the 300-pound animal's six legs, each as thick as a tree trunk and tipped with five sharp claws, and comes to the same conclusion.

"Well, don't stay out for too long. This area is unlit, and I've heard that there's a large Shape lurking somewhere nearby," he says. The old man gulps. The scrambler hound senses its handler get nervous, and shifts uncomfortably.

"Noted. C'mon Gretchen, let's go back home," he says and pats the animal on the shoulder. "You have a good night young man!"

"You as well," Henrick says and lifts his lantern to bring safety to the streets.

A good while passes by uninterestingly, with Henrick fulfilling his duties and slowly forgetting about his colleagues warnings, sinking back into that comforting silence of inaction. That's when he feels the fog around him suddenly move, as he notices something approaching him fast from the corner of his eye.

Henrick goes to dodge, but he's too late, as a wooden cart is launched out of the fog, colliding with him and sending him sprawling and his lantern flying.

As he crawls out of the pile of wooden wreckage, dry heaving due to the sensation of something twisting and pushing against his lungs, a series of thick appendages slither out of the white, snaking their way through the air towards Henrick. He lifts his face and his eyes lock with three brilliant points of white light in the middle of a large, dark mass, and above a jagged, slowly opening maw. He screams, but The-Shape-In-The-Fog is silent.

One of the tentacles shoots out, wrapping itself around his leg, its thorns puncturing his skin. He chokes on his own scream as he frantically attempts to take a hold of something, but his fingers find no purchase in the slick stones that line the street. His eyes roll wildly in their sockets, trying to locate the only thing he knows can save him from an unknown end, the lantern.

A beautiful ray of hope glimmers from behind pieces of twisted wood and metal, but the light dims and Henrick's stomach drops, as he realizes that there is no way he can reach it. Another tentacle grabs at him, as he is dragged closer to the edge, the ground pushing something deeper into his lung. Henrick's lashes stick together, as he closes his eyes and prepares for the end.

The darkness behind his lids brightens, as he gets pulled out of the stony safety into the white infinity… except, he can still feel the ground beneath him. In confusion, Henrick opens his eyes and there above him, stands the old man from before, with a lantern in hand. The Shape recoils, letting go of Henrick. It pulls its appendages back to shield its skin and eyes from the searing light, as it retreats back into the fog.

Henrick attempts to get up, but his body disagrees, as the pain in his side makes him press back against the ground. "How did you…" he stammers.

"I dropped my pocket watch on my walk before, and came back to look for it. That's when I heard your screams and came to see what the fuss was about. I noticed the lantern in that pile over there and snatched before the beast even noticed I was there!"

"That was… very brave of you," Henrick says, pushing through the pain. "I owe my life to you."

The old man waves his hand dismissively. "Don't mention it. C'mon, lets get you to a healer," he says and goes to help Henrick get up.

Off the side, obscured by the unending cloud, a tentacled being looks at the limping pair.

One day, the lights will be quenched and then, we take back what's ours.

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