The woods grew darker as the sun slipped behind the horizon. This meant that maybe the howling band that chased me would drift off in search of easier prey. But it also meant howling creatures of another kind were just starting to stir. Everything was howling and hungry these days, it seemed. There was a good chance I had sealed my fate running past the tree line, but I’d rather take my chances with wolves. They only ate your flesh.
I kept moving in the hopes of finding something I could set my back against. An empty cave would be perfect, but a tight crop of trees might work. I had learned as a child how to move swiftly over just about any terrain, so I dodged roots and bushes with ease. A patch of slick mud nearly took me down and I slammed a shoulder into a large trunk. I would feel that later.
A fresh howl broke out behind me. Far too close for comfort, the howl sent me pounding over roots and leaves once more, a fresh burst of terror giving me speed. I glanced over my throbbing shoulder and when I turned back, the trees had opened to a clearing. Voices. I heard someone talking! They didn’t seem to care who heard them. Were they fools? Moving too fast to skid to a halt, I braced myself for the burst of pain that came with a drop-and-roll behind a rusted-out car. The distant voices drew closer. I couldn’t let myself be seen. Not until I knew who they were. What they were. My gaze flicked around, frantic. This car wouldn’t hide me for long.
A neat row of decrepit houses stood a good dash away. They’d been bombed and looted, but one near the middle seemed to have survived. Most of the windows were unbroken. The front door hung by one hinge, which was a hinge more than the others. The house stood at least three floors high, with what looked like an attic. There was a chance it was inhabited, but if so, no one was moving around inside.
The voices grew louder. It was now or never. My shoulder twinged as I pushed off the rusty beast and ran, dust kicking up behind me. There was no help for that. I could only hope the people coming this way would not notice my footprints. Checking my pace, I ducked through the door and pressed against the first wall I found. It is a skill to keep from panting when you are scared and desperate for breath. You must breathe in slowly through your nose, out gently through your mouth. Slow the heart rate and the breath. Remain silent. Listen.
Nothing. Could this place truly be abandoned? Or were the inhabitants returning home even now?
As quickly and carefully as I knew how, I ran up all the stairs and I didn’t stop until I reached a solid looking door at the top. The layer of dust on the handle said it hadn’t been used in years. If anyone came after me, one glance at that knob and the smeared dirt would give me away. Still, it was a chance I had to take if I wanted to hide, even for a night. No sane soul dared go unsheltered at night.
Dim light came through the window as I opened the door, then closed it behind me. My eyes widened in wonder. Was that a bed? A real bed? It was small, as if meant for a child, but not so small that I couldn’t rest there. A dresser and a smaller desk with a great big mirror attached to it was nearby a cushioned seat. Shelf after shelf graced the walls, filled with toys. It was as if the war’s destruction had left this room entirely alone. As if the fallout didn’t matter, the bands of desperate people didn’t exist. As if I had stepped into a place forgotten by truth.
I sat on the bed and nearly wept. It would take a day or two, maybe more, to be sure this house wasn’t taken. But if my luck held out, I might have a new home!
A full moon rose slowly, glowing red as ever, but for the first time in a long time, I was not afraid. I was too intrigued. I no longer heard the voices and there seemed to be no movement at all in the house, so I wandered the room freely, picking up various objects and turning them over in my hand. The hairbrush didn’t do much for my short tangle, but it was still fun to use. After all, I hadn’t seen one in more than a decade. A delicate beaded bracelet fell apart in my hands when I picked it up, scattering tiny bits of colour across the wood floor and into the throw rugs. I trailed my fingers over the shelves, marveling that they still hung so straight and strong.
And that’s when I saw her. A pretty little doll, the size of a newborn babe. She had a blue and white checked dress and little blue shoes. There was even lace on her white socks. How had they stayed so clean? I was afraid to touch her and make her dirty, but her blond hair looked so soft, I couldn’t resist. I picked her up carefully and stroked that hair, playing with the curls. She was beautiful enough to move me to tears.
As I ran my fingers through the silken yellow, one caught on a plastic ring and I tried to yank my hand away. A cheerful voice filled the room, “Hello! I’m Cathy! What’s your name?”
I almost dropped her. What trickery was this? Was she a spy’s tool? A radio? Was there a camera in those little eyes? I shook her. I turned her over and over, looking for proof. Nothing.
My name. What was my name? I hadn’t thought of myself by a name in a very long time. And what if I answered her? Would she respond? I nibbled my cracked lip and took a chance, “I’m… I’m Sura. It’s nice to meet you, Cathy.”
Again, nothing. No response. If she was a plant, she was a sneaky one. Or maybe whoever had set her up had long since left their post. What if she was meant to help? She might have clues about this place.
I pulled the string again.
“Please take me with you.”
I wasn’t expecting that. Not these words or the shift in tone. The cheerfulness was gone, replaced by need. The hairs on the back of my neck started to rise. In any other circumstance, I would have listened and gotten out of there. But I needed to know more before I left this potential haven.
I pulled the string again. The doll shuddered in my hands. “Run, Sura. Run NOW!”
I ran. Down the stairs and out the front door, for once not caring who heard me. Survival instinct of a more primal nature took over. It wasn’t until I was halfway between the rusted-out car and the tree line that I paused for a breath.
That was when I noticed the doll was still in my hands. I nearly threw her from me, but something made my hand tighten instead. More of that instinct. I turned to look at the house and dropped to my knees, cradling Cathy against me. Red eyes blinked from the top window. One pair. Then another. More and more until the glass was nearly full of crimson winking on and off. I’d never seen anything like it. But Cathy had lived with it. She lived with them. I knew then that she had saved me. Leaving her behind wasn’t going to be an option.
I shifted, holding her a little more gracefully. Night had fallen, leaving only the red moonglow. It didn’t look like the eyes were planning to come after us. That left other, more immediate concerns to tend. I hadn’t slept rough since my childhood and I didn’t want to dust those skills off now. Unfortunately, this was fairly new territory to me. I’d been through once or twice before, but never long enough to get a good feel for the lay of the land. The loss of the house still stung and oddly clouded my ability to consider other options. I wanted to go back and stretch out in that clean bed. More than anything, I wanted to recapture that fleeting sensation that everything was going to be okay. The truth threatened to drag me down and under.
On a whim, I tugged the doll’s cord, “Well? You got any bright ideas?”
My grip tightened, and I stared into her glass eyes, “What did you say?”
Silence. I cursed whoever designed this puzzle and pulled the string, harder this time as if that might power her for more than one answer.
“Ow! Auntie. We must find Auntie.”
My head filled with a tumble of questions, but there wasn’t time to ask any of them. The only idea worse than finding Auntie was staying out here much longer. The moon was reaching its peak, bringing with it the kind of night life best avoided. The howling started up again, far behind us. Not far enough if I could still hear it.
“Auntie. Tiny gods, doll, you do ask a lot.”
I tucked her under my arm and took off at a ground-eating lope, leaning forward just enough to let my weight give me speed. It was an old trick that left you more tired at the end of the journey, but it helped ensure you’d arrive at all. My people had learned many ways to survive. A few had even been passed down to me.
Getting to Auntie wasn’t the problem. Her lair was well-known, at the center of one of the permanent camps. A small town running on theft and barter had sprung up around her, paying homage in both cash and respect. No one knew where Auntie came from, but we all knew her role, even when we didn’t know our own. Getting in to see her was the real trouble. Especially for me.
“You. You’re banned, waif.”
I wheezed, gasping for air. The run had taken more out of me than anticipated.
The rather large man blocking the doorway chuckled, “Best go back the way you came before she catches your scent. You remember what she said about seeing your face again?”
I nodded. I wasn’t likely to forget so creative a death threat. One final wheeze and my voice crept back into my throat, “I have to risk it, Merry.”
He chortled and shook his head, then stepped aside, “There might be enough left of you to keep the shades from our door tonight. Got anything of worth I should strip from your corpse?”
I ignored him and stepped into the maze of tents. In most places, the cloth rose high enough to stand upright, but every now and then, I had to duck as I moved through the darkness. Muscle memory carried me to Auntie’s chamber. The delicate lick of incense rewarded my instinct and turned my stomach. This was going to be rough.
I moved out of darkness and into flickering light. There were enough candles in this cloth suite to read by, more than enough for Auntie to recognize me the instant I entered the room. I blinked, pretending light blindness and trying to buy myself a moment.
Auntie sat on a raised dais, lounging against a pile of silk and velvet pillows. There were enough to craft an impressive and cozy throne perched high to let long legs stretch and give her the air of a ruler. She was as close to royalty as the deadlands dared claim. I glanced at her, brushing my gaze quickly to drink in her mood. People lived and died by what Auntie was wearing on any given day. My stomach clenched.
Those long legs were encased in loose black pants that tightened as they climbed her form until they hugged high on her waist and gave way to a shirt more white than it had any right to be. It was a mystery of the lands how she managed to keep anything so pristine. I had a flash of the lace on the doll’s socks. That same white. Auntie’s pleated shirt vanished into a flowing black jacket with darted sleeves spilling over the wildly coloured pillows. An ominous claret scarf hung around her neck.
I dared to look up.
A top hat of respectable splendour rested on a waterfall of midnight blue hair. Had it been any other time, I would have clapped at the sight of such a perfect appearance. She looked phenomenal. Of course, I was ignoring the reason she wanted my head on a pike.
Auntie’s voice flowed toward me, the tone deep and masculine and knotted with menace, “I never took you for a Fool, waif. Daring, perhaps, but never foolish.”
Her voice froze what was left of hope. Auntie managed her world by never settling into one of anything. She was never entirely she, nor entirely he, though always She if you knew what was good for you. Only a cherished few knew exactly what lay beneath her elaborate costumes. As a gift to all of us, she used her appearance and persona as a warning of her moods. It would seem she had known I was coming. I wondered what method Merry used to inform her so swiftly.
She raised a filigree silver talon and stroked over the vicious scar that lived where an eye should. Puckered flesh was cut through with a red line that never seemed to lose its angry glow. I winced.
“Gives me a roguish air, does it not? Should I thank you, waif?”
“Ah! It speaks. Then perhaps it can explain why it hauled its infernal hide back into my presence?”
The pattern of her words never shifted, but I could hear the fury in each casual syllable. I wanted to throw myself at her feet and beg her forgiveness. But if it hadn’t worked when I accidentally took her eye, it certainly wouldn’t work now.
“I found something of interest.”
The silence stretched. She stared at me as if I had lost my mind. Nothing shy of another apocalypse should have brought me to her door and here I was, seemingly offering a tinker’s bobble.
She shifted and held out a hand. I eased forward and gave her the doll. Her voice rose several octaves as she gently took my prize. She cradled it to her chest and leaned back, eyes closed against powerful emotion. “Where did you find this?”
“In an abandoned house. The room at the very top. It was perfect, Auntie! I swear, time forgot to pass there.”
“Yes. It would. By the tiny gods, how did you manage to bring her to me?”
I shook my head, confused. “I just picked her up.”
“Did she speak to you?”
“She told me to run.”
Auntie rose and stepped down to glare at me. She was taller than I remembered. Or maybe I just felt terribly small.
“How? She only speaks to yetemeret’u .”
“The Chosen? Auntie! Is that… am I… am…” my voice stuck as the weight of that one word settled on my shoulders.
Auntie burst into laughter, the sound sinking into the cloth tent walls, “No, idiot. Yetemeret’u was born eight cycles ago. This doll was her protector.”
She folded herself onto the floor, legs crossed, and motioned for me to do the same. I obeyed, grateful I had seemingly done something right. I might survive this night after all. Merry was going to have to find another sacrifice for the shades.
“Guardian. What happened?” Auntie held the doll on her lap, looking into the blue glass eyes.
I reached for the plastic ring, “I had to pull this to make her talk.”
The slap rang loud and carried a sharp sting. I snatched my hand back, giving Auntie a wounded look.
“Foolish waif. Be silent and learn. Guardian. Will you speak with me?”
“Of course, Holy One.”
I found a spot on the rug to stare at, deliberately not responding outwardly to the honourific. I could feel Auntie staring at me, waiting for me to chew on my foot. The moment stretched out. Finally, Auntie turned her attention back to the doll.
“What happened to the child? What happened to your defenses?”
Cathy was silent for so long, I thought she’d shut down or was refusing to tell the tale. Her porcelain body shuddered and if she hadn’t been a doll, I would have said she sagged in Auntie’s grip. Her head lifted, and she turned to stare at the blank cloth wall.
The wall transformed from tent to stone. A bright room stretched further and wider than the current space. The marble fountain happily burbling was the same pristine white as the floors and walls. Matching columns broke the space up into a bathing area, an open closet, a play room, and a bedroom with a massive, raised bed. I could swim in that fluffy comforter and sleep like the dead against the silk pillows piled high. A young girl sat in the middle of the bed, stark and gorgeous. She was almost too thin, but it made her look ethereal rather than scrawny. She wore a silk froth of a dress, just as white as the rest of the room. Her hair fell in equally pale waves, pooling around her. When she moved, there was an abalone shimmer to the strands. Her skin, though, was the most glorious deep ebony, drinking in the light and tossing it back gently. Leaf green eyes, bright and nearly mythic in shade, danced as she chattered away to Cathy.
A door to the right opened and several men burst into the room. They were covered head to toe in deep crimson cloth, only their eyes showing. The tallest grabbed the child and clamped a hand over her mouth. She thrashed and clawed at him, but he simply tucked her under his arm like a sack.
“Disable that thing!”
Another man aimed a hand at Cathy. His palm glowed then flared with an overly-bright blue flash. The vision shivered and began to fade. Before it winked out completely, I hear the tall man snarl again, “Bring it along. It’s more obvious left behind.”
I started to ask what happened after that when the image returned. My words shifted on their way up my throat, “That’s the room! That’s where I found Cathy!”
Another slap, this time to the back of my head. But it was true. The same skinny bed, the same dresser, the same desk and mirror. And the same shelves. Both the child and the doll sat on the bed, but the girl wasn’t chattering. She was staring out of the window, her leaf green eyes dull and saddened. I wanted to step into the scene and wrap her up in a warm embrace.
Cathy didn’t look right, either. She wasn’t speaking or moving at all. Her eyes were locked and vacant. Clearly she was recording, but whatever her other skills, she couldn’t access them. She was as helpless to protect the child as I was.
I tensed as the door opened, quietly this time. The men had returned. My hands curled into fists and I willed myself to stay still and silent. There was nothing I could do but bear witness. And so I would, in every detail.
They wore the same crimson uniforms. Only the tall man stood out as different from the others. Both his height and body shape marked him, and I vowed I would never forget him. I had nowhere to go with my ferocity, but it would help keep me warm.
The tall man lifted the child again. She didn’t fight this time. She hung limp when he tossed her over his shoulder.
“Straighten up in here. Make it look like it’s been empty. Leave the doll. No one who finds it will know what it is. Damn thing will explode if we cause it too much harm. Last one took out two units.”
He left with the child. His men smoothed the bed and tucked Cathy onto a shelf where she sat, still unmoving. Once again, the vision faded. Nothing followed.
Auntie straightened, “Well then. I don’t suppose you learned anything while you sat there in limbo?”
Cathy chuckled and it was an odd sound. Part grating, part liquid, and part actual amusement. As if she had either been inhaling fog years or had forgotten how to laugh.
“I did, actually. There are creatures hunting her. They came sniffing around after dark. I could not make out much more than red eyes.”
Auntie nodded and rose, lifting the doll. She set Cathy on a table beside her pillow throne, “I don’t know what those are, but I know your crimson-clad thieves. And I know what that bright flash was. I can protect you against it.”
Cathy was silent and I had to bite my lip. All this was going far too slow. I wanted action. I wanted to save the child and be the hero! If I wasn’t yetemeret’u, I could rescue her. They would sing songs of me around campfires and I would be welcome at every outpost. I sighed into the vision and earned another slap to the back of my head.
“You should be listening instead of dreaming, waif.”
I didn’t bother wondering how she knew. Auntie always knew. I refocused half-way through a sentence.
“…where we can find a former Kith. He may even know what the creatures are or where they came from. He’s deep in hiding. No one leaves the Kith. But I have a chit I can call in. I assume you’ll travel with my people to speak with him?”
“I would prefer to, yes.”
My mouth got away from me, “I want to go, too!”
I ducked just in time.
Auntie actually laughed, “You truly are a Fool. No, waif, you’re going to the training camps.”
My heart fluttered and hope, that thing I had been squashing for so many years, stirred in my ribs, “I am?”
Auntie smiled. She reached up to the horrible scar covering her missing eye. Guilt lashed at me again. Her filigree talon stroked the puckered flesh. She watched me for a long moment, silent, then slipped that talon under her skin and peeled it away. I clamped both hands over my mouth to smother a scream. Auntie laughed again, but kept pulling until the scarred, ugly, and apparently fake, flesh tore away. I was expecting to see blood and tissue and a gaping hole. Instead, her skin was smooth and perfect and both eyes blinked at me.
“You had the courage to come after me when you thought I had wronged you. You stood your ground when you thought you’d blinded me. Then you had the courage to come back, knowing the price you would pay. You have spirit, girl. If we can beat some sense into you, we might make some use of you. If you’re willing, Merry will take you to the training camps and we’ll see.”
I wanted to argue and beg to accompany Cathy. I had found her, after all. Surely I had a right to see this through. What about the campfire songs? But sense rose to cover all the whining.
“Thank you, Auntie. I won’t let you down.”
And that, waifs, is how I came to be here. Now, what’s your story?