Katla was on the verge of collapse when she spotted the farmhouse.
She could pitch her tent anywhere, so it wasn’t a matter of seeking shelter before nightfall. It was the potential of finding provisions—anything that hadn’t been picked over by the nine years of scavengers before her—that made her keep moving even as dusk descended and every muscle screamed at her to rest.
She was so tired of walking. And according to the ancient, crumbling road map she’d been using to follow the interstates north, she was only at her halfway point: Nebraska.
Her stomach sank as she drew closer to the house. It was clear that she wasn’t going to have much luck here; the door was hanging from the top hinge, vines snaking through every shattered window and up the peeling blue siding. The front yard was as untidy as the miles and miles of overgrown cornfields surrounding it, and in the backyard stood an equally decrepit barn with a single, enormous oak tree looming over its sagging roof.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly nature takes over. She pushed her glasses up her nose and tromped up the dusty driveway, adjusting the enormous camping pack on her shoulders. It’s been less than ten years, and soon it will be like we were never here at all.
She stepped onto the creaking front porch and moved the door aside, the single rusty hinge shrieking in protest, the heady smell of decay hitting her as soon as she crossed the threshold. The interior of the house was dense with moss, and ivy had pushed through the soggy wooden window frames. But as far as she could tell, there were no bodies. The place was empty save for the overturned furniture and several rodents’ nests, the latter of which were in plain sight.
The animals were much bolder now than they were before the Collapse. Not even mice were afraid anymore.
Katla was surprised that nothing bigger had taken over the house by now. Predators were the least of her worries these days, for prey abounded and she wasn’t worth the trouble by comparison. Nevertheless, she pulled her flashlight from the side pocket of her pack and headed for the kitchen. She found the pantry bare save for a small can of beans tucked into the back corner.
She immediately put the flashlight down and snatched up the camping tool from her belt, opened the can, and wolfed down the beans using the blade of her knife; when they were gone, her stomach growled for more. Most days she was so far beyond hunger that she didn’t even feel it. But she knew she needed to keep up her strength, even though any little bit of food made the emptiness unbearable for a while before it subsided again.
She shuffled out of the pantry and glanced through the busted kitchen window. The sun had nearly disappeared; it was time to pitch her tent. Katla had sworn to herself when this all began that she’d never stay in abandoned houses, for they contained the two things she hoped most to avoid: ghosts, and the bodies they left behind.
Ghosts, because the fact that she could see them was proof she was going mad. Bodies, because they could kill her.
As she headed for the front door, she heard a small voice say from behind her, “Um, ma’am? You should check the treehouse.”
Katla’s shoulders stiffened and she hung her head, but she didn’t turn around.
“Ma’am, did you hear me?” The voice sounded like a child’s, and Katla winced. It was so much harder when they were young.
“I heard you,” Katla mumbled, and turned.
The child couldn’t have been more than five or six when he passed, and he had the same hollow-eyed look as the rest of them—or at least she thought he did, before his eyebrows shot up beneath his bowl cut and he gave her a hopeful grin. His two front teeth were missing.
Katla felt a pang in her chest.
“There’s food up there, ma’am.” He moved toward her with an eerie grace, the outlines of his body drifting like wisps of smoke, and gestured with a small hand. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
She had no choice but to follow him out to the massive old oak in the backyard. The treehouse was almost entirely hidden by the branches and the ivy that wound its way up the tree’s immense trunk, hiding the rotting wooden ladder that led up to the platform.
As the child led them across the yard, Katla stopped short when she saw a dog leering at her from the tall grass between her and the tree. She’d grown wary of wild dogs on her journey—many had turned vicious with starvation—but this one she recognized.
This dog had been following her since Kansas City despite her best attempts to lose it. And it talked, which to Katla was more worrying than her suddenly being able to see ghosts.
“You,” she hissed. “Get lost, mutt.”
The dog looked smug. Gravel dust from the road coated its scraggly gray fur and pointed ears; one eye was a piercing blue, the other clouded and milky as if it belonged not to the creature but to some more ancient thing.
You can’t get rid of me that easily, Katla Brynjólfsdóttir, it said.
Katla started, for she’d never told the dog her name—any of them. She’d grown so used to being Kat Dawes here in America that hearing her given name pronounced correctly—along with her patronymic—gave her pause.
It’s official, she thought. I’m going mad.
“He looks like a good boy,” said the ghost-child. “Or…girl? I can’t tell.”
“Boy,” said Katla, for the timbre of the dog’s voice in her head was distinctly male. The problem was, of course, that it had a voice in the first place.
“Leave me alone,” Katla snapped, stomping forward menacingly in an attempt to scare it off. But the dog didn’t move, so she stared it down as she headed past it and toward the tree, placing a tentative boot on the bottom rung of the wooden ladder against the trunk. It seemed a solid foothold, so she made her way up carefully, step by step, testing her weight—and that of the camping pack strapped to her back—to make sure the decomposing wood wouldn’t crumble beneath her feet.
The ghost-child had followed her through the grass and now observed her ascent, looking wounded. “I’m just trying to help.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, kid,” Katla grunted as she climbed. A few of the rungs buckled beneath her weight, so she moved faster. Only a few feet to go.
“Who were you talking to, then?” the ghost-child called up to her with a sideways glance at the dog, who now of course wore the blank stare of a normal, witless animal.
Katla heaved herself up onto the platform and crawled into the treehouse. Once she pulled herself to a sitting position, she unclasped the pack’s straps from the front of her chest before flinging it off her shoulders and sagging with relief.
Fumbling for her flashlight in the gloom, she craned her head over the edge of the platform and saw the dog plop itself down at the base of the ladder. It stared up at her with patient disinterest, like it had all the time in the world and nothing better to do.
“You’re a creep,” she muttered, then yelped when she turned and saw that the ghost child had suddenly appeared in the corner. His body gave off a soft ethereal glow, which brightened with worry as Katla nearly dropped her flashlight.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you!” he cried, holding up his hands.
“It’s all right,” Katla said, regaining her composure. Before she shone the flashlight anywhere else, she said cautiously, “Your body isn’t up here, is it?” The remains of Plague victims were still contagious long after the affliction had taken their lives. And if the Plague had taken him…
“No.” He gave a nod toward the house. “It’s in my bedroom.”
Katla studied him. “Your parents just left it there?”
The child lowered his hands and looked away. “They left me here. When I got sick, they went for help, and they—they never came back. Not even after I was gone.”
“I see.” Her skin prickled with goosebumps. The Plague, then. It must’ve been in the early days. Back when we thought there was a cure.
Either that, or his parents had already known there was no hope and had no choice but to leave the child to die rather than risk catching the sickness themselves.
“Before the lights went out, they were saying on my daddy’s radio show that the world was coming to an end,” the child said, as if reading her thoughts. “Daddy has been collecting cans and water jugs since before I was born.” He deflated. “The looters took everything from the cellar.”
Katla felt a twinge more sympathy for the child’s parents. If they’d left all their supplies behind, they had probably meant to return.
Any number of things could have prevented them from doing so.
“But,” the child added, mistaking her expression for disappointment about the food situation, “I hid some of it up here before I got real sick.”
He scooted to the opposite corner, where a blue plastic tarp covered a lumpy pile the size of a small child. Katla was glad that they’d already established that his body wasn’t in the treehouse. She went to lift the tarp, careful not to touch the ghost-child’s form—for, as she’d learned the hard way, she very much could—and gasped.
“This is incredible,” she whispered. Tears pricked her eyes as she took it all in, her flashlight trembling in her hand. Along with water filters and several cans of soups she hadn’t tasted since before the Collapse, there were also at least a dozen boxes of protein bars stuffed into clear plastic bins to keep them safe from rodents and raccoons.
She waited another long moment before asking, “How can I ever repay you?”
“Well, since you mentioned it, ma’am…” The child leaned back against the wall. “I wonder if before you go, could you—could you bury me?”
“We buried Grandpop even when we couldn’t afford it because Mommy said if he didn’t have a proper Christian burial he wouldn’t go to Heaven,” the child continued, a tremor in his voice. “So if it isn’t too much trouble…?”
Katla didn’t believe that burying a body in the ground had anything to do with Heaven, but then again, she didn’t know for sure. What if I say no and I end up being the reason this kid never sees his family again?
“Of course,” she whispered as she replaced the tarp with reverence. She would sort through the food and deal with the consequences of her promise tomorrow. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ll do it first thing in the morning, and then I’ll need to be on my way.”
Even as the words left her lips, a chill ran through her at the thought of being so close to a Plague-stricken body. At the needless danger she was putting herself in, just to help a stranger maybe get where he was supposed to go.
“Where are you headed, anyway?” he asked as she unrolled her sleeping bag. The treehouse was spacious enough for even a woman as tall as Katla to spread out comfortably.
“My mother’s cabin near Lake Winnipeg. Just outside the town of Gimli.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“But that’s a long way, ma’am! Can’t you drive?”
Katla grimaced. She’d set out in her SUV, but found it attracted too much attention from scavenger gangs and gas was hard to come by, so she’d abandoned it before she’d even made it out of Texas.
She felt safer on foot, anyway.
“Not really,” she said. “Too dangerous.”
“Oh. Is your mom expecting you?”
Katla zipped the sleeping bag around her and rested her head on her grimy pack. Closed her eyes. Told herself for the millionth time that she wasn’t crazy, that she wasn’t on a fool’s errand, that this was all a bad dream and she would wake up and it would be ten years ago and she’d be snuggled up in her bed with her husband and daughter and the world would be as it was before the floods and the famines. Before the wars and the Plague. Before the last space shuttles left, never to return.
Before she was more or less the last woman on Earth.
“Yes,” Katla said finally, though her mother was almost certainly dead. “I believe she is.”
Katla no longer dreamed, and that night—as every night—she thought of her mother and father, and her husband and Brynn.
She was ten when her parents took her and left Iceland, just as their peers in the scientific community started focusing all their attention inward. Iceland was on its way to total self-sufficiency well before the first signs of the Collapse, and efforts only doubled to insulate the island once all the signs pointed toward imminent doom.
Iceland might even still exist, though Katla had no way of knowing.
Her parents disagreed with their colleagues’ attitudes and moved to the States, where they felt they could make a difference. They wanted to share what they knew, even though the world wouldn’t listen, hadn’t listened for decades. They believed the fate of all mankind was tied to their work.
They were right, but they paid dearly for it.
Just after Katla married Peter and moved with him to his home in Texas, her father died in one of the first floods—died believing there was still hope for humanity, even as those who could afford it boarded shuttles and fled for the safety of outer space—and then, just before Brynn was born, Katla’s mother gave up and retired to their summer cabin in Manitoba, where the climate was just a little more temperate than the scorching, cloying heat of the American South.
Then the rest of the ice caps melted and the crops failed and the wars broke out, and the Plague hit the remaining land masses as the icing on the metaphorical cake.
Katla had not heard from her mother since before the lights went out.
Not directly, anyway.
More than half the world had perished by that point. Peter had already died in the wars, and Katla and her daughter had done what they could to survive in their home in the countryside, where they banded together with their neighbors and helped each other defend against the wildfires and the tide of hungry, sick people fleeing Houston’s floods.
Then the last wave of the Plague passed through their small town, and it took Brynn with it.
Katla didn’t leave her bed for weeks after that. In her absence, the rest of the town either died or realized they had to move on, and she was nearly dead herself when Brynn’s ghost came to her, kneeling at the edge of the bed.
“You have to go, Mamma,” the girl’s spirit said softly. “You’ll die if you stay here. Amma says to go to Gimli. She says to find her there.”
She remembered reaching for Brynn in disbelief, expecting her hand to pass right through the girl’s shoulder—but then her fingers touched Brynn’s ghost as though it were cold and solid, and Katla’s eyes widened in horror.
At her touch, her daughter’s form brightened, shifted, then began to break apart. She remembered the look of relief on Brynn’s face as she disappeared, but again it was Katla’s own fault she was gone.
“No, no!” Katla sobbed, sitting upright, grasping for anything that remained of her daughter’s ghost. “Brynn, come back! Brynn!”
After, she cried until she couldn’t move. Then she dragged herself out of bed, forced down some food and let it settle, and remembered her daughter’s words, Brynn’s message from a grandmother she’d never even met.
Brynn says to go to Gimli.
So Katla went.
“I’m sorry to wake you, ma’am, but is that a book?”
Katla wormed her arms up through her tight sleeping bag and nudged her glasses aside to rub her eyes. The ghost-child was pointing to her half-open camping pack, where the worn corner of her daughter’s favorite picture book was just visible in the bright moonlight.
“Mmm, yeah, it’s a book,” Katla said, sitting up and adjusting her glasses. They were never far from her, since she’d never get another pair. She wished now more than ever that she’d gotten laser eye surgery while she still could.
“They stopped making those before I was born,” the child said.
“It’s from when my mom was a kid.” Katla pulled the book out and held it in her lap, ran a callused hand over the worn cover. “She passed it down to me, and I passed it down to my daughter. It was her favorite. My kid’s, I mean. My mom’s, too, I guess.”
She leaned heavily against the wall, drawing her knees up and resting the book atop her thighs and grubby shorts as the child crept from the corner and sat down on the sleeping bag next to her. The first sunbeams sneaking in from the eastern window cast his spectral form in an eerie orange glow.
“What’s it called?” he asked, staring blankly at the words on the cover.
“This—it’s a book from my homeland, across the ocean. A book of Norse myths.”
“Myths,” the boy echoed, confused.
“Yep. They’re very old stories about the gods and goddesses that people used to believe in.” People like my parents. Her father, the climatologist who’d lit candles and made offerings to Odin and Thor and Frey; her mother, the biochemist who’d left out offerings for the land spirits. “Would you like me to read them to you?”
The boy nodded. Katla had to wonder if he had any concept at all of what she was talking about, but he asked no more questions, so Katla cracked open the dusty spine and began. The book contained simple retellings of the myths, the crude and gruesome bits—all the good parts, all the important parts—cleaned up and packaged nicely for children. She gestured at the illustrations as she read the stories of the Nine Worlds, of the gods: one-eyed Odin and his magic spear and his many names; beautiful Freyja and her golden necklace and her falcon cloak; and cunning Loki, mighty Thor, and all the rest.
She read all the way up to Ragnarök, their end. The sun had almost risen by then.
“Rag-na-rook?” the boy repeated after her, frowning. “It almost sounds like what happened to us, doesn’t it? To our world?”
Katla said nothing. She’d read the book so many times that she could see the illustration in her mind before she turned the page. It showed the young gods, the ones who’d survived Ragnarök, pulling their ancestors’ possessions from the ashes as the world renewed around them, green and thriving where the gods’ halls in Asgard once stood.
Through the window Katla caught a glimpse of something shooting across the brightening sky: the tiny speck of Space Station Earth, containing some of the world’s brightest scientists, but also those who had the money to buy salvation. The ones whose wealth and power had caused all of this in the first place, saved; the rest of humanity, the victims of their greed, left behind to die.
The last thing Katla heard before the lights went out was that the scientists aboard the station were eventually planning to terraform and colonize Mars, a rumor that had been going around for years before the Collapse. Except now, instead of being the hope of all mankind, Mars would be a planet inhabited only by the rich and the super-intelligent.
I wonder if they’ll come back one day and dig up what’s left of us, she thought darkly. I wonder if we’ll be artifacts in a Martian museum.
“Gosh.” The ghost-child ran his hand over the illustration of Thor’s redheaded twins unearthing his famous hammer, Mjölnir. His fingers were dangerously close to brushing her hand.
Katla twitched away from him and closed the book. Stuffed it back in her pack. Zipped up her sleeping bag. All without looking at him.
“I need to get moving,” she said. The ghost-child watched wordlessly as she ripped aside the tarp and stuffed as much of the food as she possibly could into her pack. The rest of it she wrapped up in the tarp itself, which she lowered from the platform with a rope, sharp eyes scanning the farm for other scavengers.
No sign of the one-eyed dog. Good.
Katla took out another rope and lowered her pack next. She knew that the rotting ladder had been ready to give out on her way up, and she worried that the new weight of the bulging pack might be too much if attached to her person.
Her supplies safely on the ground, Katla turned and carefully picked her way down the ladder, praying it would hold. Before the Collapse she hadn’t exactly been a small woman—her love of sweets, her desk job in accounting, and the birth of her daughter had seen to that—but by the time she’d left Houston after years of surviving on the town’s small rations, which had quickly turned to fending for herself and Brynn, all of Katla’s clothes had been too large and unbearable in the heat. She’d been fortunate enough to scavenge new shorts from a half-wrecked sporting goods store on her journey, and a new pair of hiking boots since the pair she’d left Texas with had been almost worn through by that point.
At least I’ll never need winter clothes again, she thought grimly as she descended. Even in February in Manitoba. Nowhere in the world has winter anymore.
She was thankful for the new boots. They helped her keep her footing now. Just a little further and—
The next thing Katla knew she was falling, and then her tailbone exploded in pain. She swore in several different languages before she heard a chuckle from the grass to her right and turned to see the one-eyed dog watching, amused.
I’m surprised you made it down in one piece, it said.
“Shut up,” Katla sneered, tossing her thin, grimy blonde braid over her shoulder as she struggled to her feet. “How many times do I have to ask you to leave me alone?”
At least once more, the dog replied seriously.
As if on cue, a sparrow appeared from nowhere and attempted to sink its tiny talons into the dog’s muzzle, flapping and chirping with annoyance. The dog made an irritated sound and shook its head as if shaking off a fly, and the sparrow subsided and landed on the hound’s back.
Will you stop heckling the girl? said the sparrow haughtily, in a woman’s voice. The dog turned over its shoulder and leered, but the sparrow remained unruffled. She’s come this far. Leave the child be.
Katla blinked. She guessed that by now she was closer to forty than thirty, and anyway did not remember the last time she was called “child.” Besides, the bird looked vaguely familiar, and its eyes were an unnatural golden color.
“Look, I don’t know who you two are, but I need you to fuck off,” she said to them. “I’ve got enough to worry about without hearing animals’ voices in my head.”
Before either could say another word, Katla turned to the ghost-child—who had appeared on her left—and said, “Sorry. Don’t say the f-word.”
The spirit seemed concerned. “Ma’am, who…were you talking to?”
Instead of trying to deny it, Katla’s shoulders sagged and she gestured vaguely to her right. “Just that mutt and his bird friend. Don’t worry about it.”
The child looked past her to the now-empty spot of grass. His brow furrowed.
Katla followed his gaze and saw that her irksome companions had disappeared, and she sighed.
“All right, kid. Where do you want to be buried?”
He chose the shadow of the oak tree.
Katla grabbed a shovel from the empty barn and dug for most of the morning. Then she allowed herself to be escorted upstairs to a room at the end of the hall, where the boy gestured silently at the skeletal corpse on the bed, which cemented Katla’s initial assumption that he was one of the Plague’s first victims.
She pulled the collar of her tank top over her nose and entered the room, wishing she had a mask and gloves as she gathered the bedsheets around the remains. Rumors had gone around that touch was the way to transmit the Plague; still others had said that it was airborne. What she knew for sure was that it could incubate on any piece of flesh still attached to a body, waiting for another host.
Damn you and your conscience, Kat, Peter would say if he were there. Just get that kid in the ground as quickly as you can. You need to learn how to say no.
It was nearly noon when the body was buried and the hole filled, and Katla set the last stone on the cairn she’d piled atop the grave.
“Thank you,” said the ghost-child. He closed his eyes and stood beside her for a moment as if waiting for something to happen. Katla knew exactly what, and stood beside him in silence.
I did the right thing, she told herself. He and his supplies have saved my life, so I gave a dead boy his last wish.
Several minutes passed before he opened his eyes and cast them down at the cairn. He could barely manage the words, “Why am I still here?”
Kat pulled on her pack and strapped it across her chest, and slung the tarp sack of food over her shoulder. Then she crouched down and summoned every ounce of motherly kindness left within her, which seemed unnatural even after all these years. Gods, she’d never wanted to be a mother, and never would’ve been if not for her love of Peter, even as the world fell apart around them. But she was lucky that she still had Brynn after Peter was gone, if only for a time.
“You know, I just realized,” Katla said in her best mom voice, “that I never asked your name.”
“Tommy, ma’am,” he said, looking at her in surprise. “What’s yours, if you don’t mind?”
“You can call me Kat,” she replied. “I’ve got to be on my way, though. Will you walk with me, Tommy?”
“Of course, ma—I mean, Kat. But I can only go as far as the property line.”
Katla nodded. Ghosts were tethered to their remains. “Then walk me as far as that, and then we’ll say our goodbyes, okay, Tommy?”
Tommy nodded and gave her his winning, missing-toothed smile. “Okay, Kat.”
A short time later, with the barn and the oak and the farmhouse far in the distance, Tommy stopped at a gravel road and said, “This is as far as I can go.”
Katla stopped beside him and lowered herself into a crouch once more. “Tommy, thank you for everything. I’m so glad I met you.” She propped her elbow on her knee and offered him her hand.
“I’m glad to have met you, too. But I’ll just pass right through you, you know.”
The ghost-child looked uncertain, but his small hand crept toward her outstretched palm. As their skin touched and her fingers closed around his, his form began to glow, and his grin spread wide.
“Thank you,” he whispered just before he disappeared.
And Katla stood, hand still outstretched for a moment or two before it dropped to her side as she inhaled sharply, shakily, drawing back a sob.
“I hope you get where you’re going, kid,” she whispered to the empty air.
Katla Brynjólfsdóttir, deliverer of lost souls, said a derisive voice from behind her. Did you ever dream that this would be your life, back when you were doing taxes for a living?
“None of this is even real,” Katla said under her breath, staring at her palm where she’d touched the boy. She didn’t have to see the one-eyed dog to know that it was watching her from the overgrown cornfield. “The world ended and I have magic powers. It’s preposterous.”
That’s not what your witch of a mother would have said.
“My mother was a woman of science. She was no witch.”
You speak of her as if she were dead. As if she hadn’t sent your daughter to summon you to her.
“Oh, what do you know?” Katla snapped. The bigger question on her mind was how he knew it, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of asking.
Oh, please. The dog rolled its one good eye. Humans have been trying to reconcile science and faith since before you were even a thought. You think your parents were any different?
He does have a point, child. The sparrow landed on a post in front of her. Civilization as you know it has ceased to exist. Is it so hard to believe that a little magic is creeping its way back into the world?
“You’re wrong. My parents did what they could to help, and I can guarantee you it didn’t involve magic.” She spat the word as if it were as foul as the Plague itself.
How can you be sure about that? asked the dog. They both followed the old gods.
Katla cast a menacing glance at the sky and thought of Space Station Earth, thought of that drawing in her picture book, of the remains of Asgard.
“Then the old gods were useless, too,” she said, and set off down the gravel road toward Gimli.
She hiked through the rest of Nebraska and the Dakotas, resting where she could and trying to keep up her strength, for she had started feeling a bit weak even with her extra provisions. She’d been walking parallel to the interstates her entire trip; she wished for a forest, for the cover of trees, but the plains never seemed to end.
The Plague fully came upon her a few miles into Canada. She knew she must’ve caught it from the boy’s corpse. The symptoms sometimes took weeks to manifest.
But she did not stop.
She shivered with fever despite the heat. Her limbs felt like they weighed a thousand pounds and it was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other. There were times when her progress slowed to a literal crawl, when she took shelter in empty houses—against her vow to avoid them, and the ghosts within—because she was too weak to pitch her tent.
The road signs said she was skirting Winnipeg proper. Closer. Getting closer.
“I did not come all this way,” she huffed as she dragged herself along, her cold skin slick with sweat, “to die by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.”
That’s the spirit, kid, said the one-eyed dog, trotting along beside her.
It occurred to her, then, that the dog and the sparrow had been speaking to her in Icelandic this entire time—Icelandic, but not quite—and her brain had understood.
“Maybe we’ll find a sled and you can make yourself useful and drag me to Gimli,” she said, and thought the dog replied that it was against the rules, but Katla didn’t have the strength to ask.
It was getting dark.
Relief settled over her when she caught sight of the sign marking the city limits, and she veered west into the woods. She was so close. She knew the forest well, having explored it as a preteen and teenager. She’d wanted to take Brynn to see her grandmother and play here, but they never managed the trip, not with Brynn being born right at the beginning of the Collapse. Not with the threat of war, and the Plague…
Voices up ahead, lights in the clearing where she knew her mother’s cabin to be. Her vision blurred, her steps faltered. She pitched herself forward and began to crawl, her glasses askew from the fall. She couldn’t so much as make a sound.
The lights danced in front of her eyes, and the din of voices grew louder. Who’s there? It sounded like so many people. Too many people. She could make them out, but in the moonlight she couldn’t tell if the figures were ghosts or living, breathing humans.
Finally the last of her strength gave out and she rolled onto her back, staring up at the moon shining down between the tree branches.
Just a moment. I’ll just rest a moment. I’m almost there.
The next time she opened her eyes, she couldn’t move her body, and her mother was kneeling above her, gray hair a halo around her head, the outline of her body silver in the moonlight. Is she a ghost?
Katla was in the clearing now. There were more faces beyond her mother’s, within her line of vision. And a cabin just beyond them, the clearing full of tents.
Am I dead? Katla felt someone take her hand and knew it was her mother. She wanted to scream at them not to touch her because she had the Plague, or not to touch her or they would disappear—her mother’s skin was cold just like the ghost-child’s had been, and she couldn’t exorcise her own mother, not after losing Brynn—but she couldn’t speak.
“My brave daughter,” said that warm voice from her childhood, just before the people around her flickered and glowed and everything faded to black. “It’s finally time to rest.”
The one-eyed dog and the sparrow looked on from beyond the clearing. If anyone had noticed them at that exact moment and seen them from just the right angle, they might not have seen two creatures but a man in a broad-brimmed hat and tattered traveling cloak, using a spear as a walking stick, and a woman in a rich red mantle with a feathered cape draped over one arm and a golden necklace gleaming at her collar.
“It doesn’t count if she dies,” the man grunted to his companion.
“She won’t,” the woman said serenely. “Her mother has the cure.”
A beat passed as the man stared at her. “You knew this when you chose her, didn’t you? That her parents followed the old path. That her mother came up with—”
“Fair’s fair.” The woman’s expression betrayed nothing. “She made it here, and I chose her. That’s a point for me, and now I’m in the lead.”
“Hmm.” He shifted, grumping. “The girl has magic in her. You’re a cheater.”
“It takes one to know one.”
He had nothing to say to that besides, “Well, on to choose the next foundling. We have many more lost souls to guide. Let’s make haste,” and he turned to leave.
“Of course,” replied the woman with a catlike grin as she followed him into the darkness. “This new world won’t build itself, after all.”