What Is Left Undone

A glance over her shoulder, fleeting and instinctive, revealed nothing but trees.

Temati sucked in a steadying breath, trying to strengthen her unsteady legs. The deep shadows between the thick trunks gaped wide as wounds, unknown poison hidden within them.

Her hand did not leave her dagger. She could have sworn she’d heard voices.

The trees rustled their leaves, creaking against one another as they swayed under the influence of a breeze that Temati, caked as she was in soot and dried sweat, could not feel. She was a heavy, sagging, half-dead thing with a frightened animal for a heart; the beauty of the day could not touch her.

The sunlight came down in sharp shafts and lazy pools, shining green-tinted through the leaves. The light shifted and settled in harmony with the swaying branches.

The dagger handle stuck unpleasantly to Temati’s fingers as she released it. The leather of the hilt was still tacky with dried blood.

Nothing was moving through the underbrush after her, Temati assured herself. It was only the trees and the wind. This was not the city, with its hard lines and solid shadows, where any irregularity could prove to be a threat. No one had followed her here.

No one could have.

Another breeze waved the treetops, sending sun-spots dancing wildly across the ground, and Temati’s hand went to her dagger again, her sore muscles stiffening in readiness before she realized that it was—yet again—only the forest. She cursed under her breath.

She missed the city.

She did not, however, miss the city enough to risk the sure death sentence of returning to it. She forged on instead, picking her steps carefully over the narrow path.

Nearer to the Capital, the Kingsroad was a glorious feat of engineering, solid and dependable under the feet of horses and travelers, the wheels of ox-carts and carriages and bright-painted circus vardos. But the further out it went, the narrower the road became—narrower, and lumpier, devolving from stone to gravel and then finally pale sandy mud. By the time it came to the Great Forest, the Kingsroad had become nothing more than a footpath. It wound over and through the thickly wooded hills and valleys, the dirt worn away until it was little more than connecting plaster between the thick roots and dark stones.

Perhaps the change would have been less stark if she had not made the journey from the coastal Capital to the inland forests in one footsore, sleepless scramble. Taken more gradually, perhaps it would have been barely noticeable. Temati picked over the uneven surface and thought fondly of her old familiar rooftops, their dearly-remembered patterns of tile and thatch.

The air around her was still and warm. The tree-trunks creaked like thirsty throats, gossiping secrets; small animals rustled in the leaves, and—

Temati stopped, her ears catching something that jarred against the quiet, natural noises. She had heard a voice.

The cry was pitched and yet low all at once, heavy as a death-wail. It made Temati’s back prickle and her stomach turn gently sour. She could almost smell the sharpness of burning thatch again, the iron stench of blood as it boiled, and the wailing—the wailing that rose high as the black smoke—

The patches of sunlight danced as the tree-tops swayed under another breeze, and she shook herself, pushing the memory back into the past where it belonged.

The voice remained.

Hand on her dagger, Temati ducked low, creeping forward through the shadows, feet falling noiselessly on the smooth roots and stones of the path. The crest of the hill gave way to a steep, jackknifing path down into a narrow valley, the sunlight hazy through the pale-leafed trees.

At the very bottom of the valley, the source of the cry was lying in a crumpled pile on the ground. A taller, boyish figure was bending over her, seeming to be trying and failing to get her to get up. Temati frowned through the branches, trying to get a better veiw of the scene. She could see the boy’s sooty face, the skirts of the crumpled girl’s dress all darkened with singes.

Refugees from the fire. Children. They had traveled fast and far, to get here before her; it was little wonder that one of them had lost the strength to go any farther.

She went silently down the hill, intending to swing through the forest around the tiny mourning-party once she got a little closer. She could sidestep them neatly and leave the already terrified children none the wiser to her existence.

The closer she got, the clearer the words came through.

“She’s gone, Mis,” the boy said. He was still young enough to have a voice that cracked midway through his sentences—unless that was a by-product of the smoke. He knelt over the girl, both hands looped under her torso, and struggle to pull her to her feet. “Come on, we’ve got to go. She’d want us to go.”

“No!” The girl said—and she is a little girl, Temati realizes, unfamiliar as she is with children. Little enough to have wispy yellow hair that barely reached her ears. “No! Mia!”

Children, Temati’s mind supplied for the second time. She’s not sure why it matters. What difference does it make, that they are children?

Adults. Children. The old, the infirm, the proud and the angry and the humble and the kind—all are touched by war. All are claimed by death. She had wet her hands in the blood of too many slit throats to have any right to care, so what did this matter?

Why did this, of all things, halt her in her steps?

She stayed on the verge of the forest, unnoticed by the little group at the valley bottom. Safe in her shadows.

After a moment, she realized she was hiding. From children.

With a flash of indignance at her own cowardice, she stepped free of the shadows and continued down the path.

The boy noticed her first. He set his beardless chin in a stubborn jut, moving in front of the girl protectively.

The little creature looked up at his movement, and when her eyes caught on Temati coming down the path, they widened. In fear, Temati assumed. But before she could say a word, the child scrambled to her feet. It was only the boy’s arm, looped in a restraining hold around her torso, that kept her from barreling headlong for Temati.

“You have to help us!” She shouted with all the power in her tiny lungs, ignoring the boy when he hissed at her to be quiet. Temati took a cautious step backwards, away from this unexpected—exuberance? “Mia’s in there!” the girl pointed towards the thick and quiet forest, squirming in the boy’s grip all the while. “The trees ate her!”

Temati looked at the trees. They had done what?

With a vigorous twist, the girl slipped the boy’s grip like a desperate yellowfin and came racing for Temati. Surprised by the sudden assault, Temati stepped backwards, off the path. The leaves crunched under her ragged boots, and she could feel the fingerlike brush of twigs on her back. The girl halted abruptly, mouth dropping open as she gazed at something just beyond Temati’s shoulder.

She just had the time to recognize the fingerlike brush of something that was not a branch against her back before a cool hand wrapped itself around her arm from behind.

Temati freezes, her stomach plunging deep into the pit of her belly. For one blank moment, she is helpless. She cannot remember what she is supposed to do, how she is supposed to get away. A whispering like rustling leaves sounds, somehow just behind and yet all around her; a series of almost-words, like half a conversation heard across a noisy room. The hand is hard and implacable around her arm as it begins, ever so gently, to pull her into the woods.

The girl-child was motionless, transfixed by the sight of whatever it was that held Temati’s arm, but the boy was not. In one bounding step, he was at the edge of the forest, reaching out to snatch Temati’s wrist. His grip is more bone than muscle, but he tugged with all his might, and the warm, desperate grip on her wrist was enough to make her remember to move. She lashed out at the thing she could not see, and her elbow cracked painfully against something as hard as stone. With a twist and a jerk, her arm came free, and she fell backwards on the path, toppling over on top of the boy. He yelled in protest, but his words hit Temati’s ears like the handle end of a throwing knife, falling away again with hardly an impression left behind.

There is a face in the forest. It stares out at her, pale and narrow, with green-glowing firefly eyes. She blinks, disbelieving.

When her eyes open again, it is gone.

Like a trick of the light.

Heart throbbing in her ears, she stared into the deep shadows between the trees. Nothing there but shadows and sunlight.

Nothing.

“Get off of me, you sack of salmon guts!” The boy griped, jabbing her sore ribs with his knee. She struggled to sit up, wincing at the new pain in her elbow, and he gave a relieved gasp, scrambling to his feet.

Temati couldn’t take her eyes off of the spot where the face had been. Not even to protest being called a sack of salmon guts.

“What,” she asked instead, “Was that?”

The boy, brushing dirt off of his already filthy shirt, scowls at her without replying, but the little girl piped up.

“A tree.”

Temati’s gaze snapped down to where the tiny, soot-stained face was looking matter-of-factly at her. “A what?”

“A dryad,” the boy finally supplied, reaching out to press the girl protectively against his side. “A tree spirit.”

That was too much. She turned to look at him.

“Tree spirits aren’t real,” she said. “They’re made up by circus actors to add drama to forest scenes.”

He shrugged irritably at her.

“Alright, they’re made up. Why don’t you just step off the path again, then. See what happens.”

“They took our sister!” The little one said, and turned to her brother. “Tef, we has to get her back. We have to!”

Tree spirits weren’t real, Temati thought again.

But—there had been something there. Something that couldn’t have been her own eyes deceiving her—could it?

“What did they take her for?” Her eyes were drawn to the woods, to the dark and empty shadows. “Why—why did they try to take me?”

“Because you both stepped off the path,” Tef said, and graciously did not add on, idiot. “Thought we’d covered that.”

This exceedingly helpful explanation finished, he turned back to the little girl, whose tears were drying in sticky patterns over her sooty face. He knelt down to be on a level with her, and spoke quietly.

“Mia’s gone,” he said, and Temati can hear the grief in his voice. “they’ve taken her, and we can’t get her back, all right? We’ve got to go on. She’d want us to be safe.”

This, gentle as it is, only serves to stir the girl right up again. Her eyes flash and her hands form into tiny fists.

“I won’t leave her!” The child shouted. “I won’t! You be safe! I’ll die with her!”

Temati glanced between the argument and the woods, growing more confused that before. Was the sister dead, or not? How did a tree—or a tree spirit—eat someone? Curious, she thought back, trying to remember what she knew about tree spirits.

She had not seen many plays. She had always considered them fanciful, frivolous things; in the world she’d lived in—one of blood and stone and shifting loyalties—the melodramatic frippery had never seemed any better than a lie. Now, though, she wished she’d paid more attention.

According to what she’d seen, though, tree spirits lived in forests. They had a habit of derailing young lovers as they fled from their oppressive parents. They were—they were afraid of iron, weren’t they? Or had it been silver?

She found herself fingering the dagger at her hip. It had been an elegant thing once, charred and bloody as it was now; blued steel and black leather, with a boss of etched silver, tarnished with long use.

She had cleaned enough blood off the thing to dye the water of the freshest well red, she was sure. Blood of guilty and innocent alike; politicians and craftsmen, witnesses and rivals. And for what? For money? She had none now. For loyalty? As if anyone had ever shown such faith to her.

All she’d gotten for her trouble was the memory of sparks and screaming, and the scent of burnt blood in her nostrils no matter how clean the air she breathed was.

Perhaps the dagger could see a better use before she died. A plan—slim and strange, but growing stronger—was forming in her brain, and her soul was filling with the impetus to see it through. If the girl was alive somewhere, perhaps she could make up for one of the lives that Temati had taken. And if she was not—well.

These tree spirits would not live to take anyone else.

“All right,” she said. Both children ceased their arguing, looking towards her.

“I’m going to try and get your sister back.”

* * *

It was not, Temati reminded herself, the most pigeon-brained thing she’d ever done. That honor went to the great duck-kidnapping plot from her second year as an assassin.

Still, shouting at trees was not going to be very far down the list.

“Dryads of the great forest!” She called to the waving branches over her head. They were thick enough to block out almost every patch of sky, and glowed beetle-wing bright with the light of an unseen sun.

Tef flicked a glance over her as though sizing up her insanity and judging whether or not it was dangerous. She couldn’t exactly blame him, but she crossed her arms over her chest and raised her head high anyway, determined to see this through to its no doubt embarrassing end.

“You have taken a child!” She accused. “I demand her back!”

Next came the bit of the plan that still made Temati uncomfortable. “In payment for her safe and whole return, I offer myself,” she called. “An exchange.”

That was the whole speech, as far as she’d planned it.

It was received with silence. The trees were motionless, the children holding their breath; for a long and uncomfortable moment, Temati tried to calculate all of the ill-fated decisions that had led her to this moment.

Then it struck her. The trees were silent. Utterly and completely silent. Not a bird stirred, not a branch waved, there was no distant creak of trunk against trunk.

Temati shifted from foot to foot, glancing through the hollows between the trees.

Slowly, she began to discern figures.

It was not that they appeared, so much as they allowed themselves to be seen. A dark shadow in the underbrush, with no visible change, resolved itself into a slim crouching figure with jade-bright eyes. Something that, mere moments before, had been nothing but a quiet sunbeam was now a pale-eyed creature with a hard-set maiden face. Not a thing moved; but in the brief space of a few moments, the empty forest was filled and peopled with nigh on three thousand statuesque figures, all staring impassively at Temati and her shouted demands.

A tall, boxy-figured dryad stepped free of her sisters, not a single leaf crackling under her careful steps as she came up to the path and—just before her toes stepped over the last edge between under-scrub and packed earth—stopped.

Temati had seen many women in her life. She had seen starving old crones in rags and soft-skinned baronesses dripping with ancient jewels. She’d seen light-footed laughing dancing-girls and log-limbed working women with hands all reddened by lye. She had looked in mirrors and seen herself—a scared child, an angry young woman, a grown adult with grey-streaked hair and eyes that were heavy with all they had seen.

The dryad looked like none of these.

Her eyes were a pale, glowing gold, set deep in a smooth, butter-colored face. Her features were sharp and decisive as an eagle’s beak, strong-jawed and solid as a sculpted goddess. Wild, stick-borne leaves made a structure something like hair and something like a headdress on top of her head, carried high and proud like a crown. A dress of olive-tinted lichen and steel-grey bark fit close around her thick torso, dripping with pale moss that swayed and swished around her legs. She moved like a living thing, but when she stood—she might as well have been made of stone.

Belatedly, Temati realized that she was staring.

The woman stared back. Tilting her head thoughtfully, she held out a hand.

“You wish to join us?” She asked.

Temati was halted a little by the mildness of the words.

“The girl,” she said. “You took her.”

The woman nodded slowly.

“We did.”

“We want her back.”

At that, the woman frowned.

“Why?”

Temati blinked.

“Because—because we do,” she said. The dryad’s apparent confusion only deepened, and Temati decided it was time to move to more relevant details. “I offer myself in exchange.”

The woman’s face cleared.

“You wish to join us.”

This time, it was not a question. Temati’s hand slipped down a centimeter or two, closer to the dagger. Around them, the silent forest burst into a quiet rush of leafy voices, and Temati’s head snapped up to see the thousands of statue-solid maidens, whispering excitedly to one another.

While she was distracted, a cool hand landed on her shoulder. Temati snapped her gaze back to her opponent, her hand slipping down and seizing the dagger by its hilt, but the woman’s grip on her is stronger than any human creature’s.

“Come,” the lady said. Her voice was like wind rushing through the treetops. “Let me show you our peace.”

There was a tug—the strange, panic-inducing sense of imbalance that is always caused by being pulled off your feet—and then Temati was on her back, the roots and thorns separating the path from the forest scraping at her legs and the wide eyes of the two children staring after her for a single split second before she was swallowed up by the dark boughs.

* * *

Tef blinked, and the woman is gone. Devoured, just like Mia.

The dryads are gone too, every last one; it is as if they had never been. Mis, who had clung to his waist when the creatures had appeared, is crying softly into his shirt. It’s a slow, hiccuping sob, wracked from tired lungs. He knows he should be doing something, trying to get them both to get out of the forest, onward to—to somewhere safe. If there is anywhere safe.

He knows he should move, but suddenly, it does not seem worth the effort.

Mis sobs again. Holding her close, Tef sinks to the ground, trying and failing to blink back the dark prickling behind his own eyes.

“I know, Mis,” he said. “I know.”

* * *

As soon as the iron grip on her shoulder let her go, Temati fell flat on the forest floor. The wet leaves slid and slipped under her fingers as she scrambled to her feet. She twisted back, fighting through the branches and the underbrush, expecting to see the patchy sunlight of the path.

It was not there. There was only darkness.

Something crackled behind her, and she spun again to find the woman there. She was a dark figure in a darker landscape, punctuated by two glowing eyes.

Fumblingly, Temati found her dagger and pulled it free, holding it out in front of her like a holy relic to ward off a demon. The woman reached for her, and Temati stabbed with the dagger, keeping her away.

“Iron and silver,” she announced, waving the weapon warningly. “Everything your kind hates. I’ll use it, if you don’t let us go. Me and the girl both.”

The woman’s eyes flickered.

“Let you—“ she began, and then shook her head. With steady steps, she approached, seeming to care little for Temati’s wild dagger-jabs. With her heart rising in her throat, Temati ducked low, lashing out to drive the blade square into the center of the creature’s chest; but the woman caught the blade easily, prying it loose from Temati’s hands as though taking a plaything from a child. The bloody leather peeled free of Temati’s palm, and Temati could only watch, terror pounding in her ears, as the woman held the dagger flat on her palm, considering it curiously.

“Iron,” she said, softly. “It is nursed, even now, deep beneath our roots. Where mankind cannot find it.”

It was only by the glow of the woman’s eyes that Temati can see what is happening at all. She watched, petrified, as the steel blade began to redden and warp with rust. The dark leather dries and cracks and begins to swarm with tiny devouring insects as it, and the wooden handle beneath it, begin to fall away.The silver tarnishes, pitting and peeling like some ancient artifact. “Silver ore, too, runs beneath us. Why would we fear these things? Our roots have found more jewels and precious metals than your human mind could ever imagine. All the things you scramble and scrape, bleed and kill for—you think they affect everything as powerfully as they affect you.”

Temati’s dagger was desiccated to the point of uselessness. The woman’s pale hand closed over it, gently crushing it to dust and scattering it onto the forest floor. One of the tiny insects escaped her fist to skitter up the woman’s arm, and she paid it no mind as it burrowed in the bark that was creeping over her collarbone.

Temati swallowed thickly. She searched through the leaves for any hint of the solid weapon that was there only a moment ago, and found nothing but quietly rotting leaves. When she spoke, her voice was as weak as she felt.

“What do you want?” She asked.

“We do not want.” The dryad said. “We do not hunger, or thirst, or fear. We have feasted on the dead of many battles, and when the battles of this age are done, we will make life of them as well. We have peace.”

Temati is surprised by her own laughter.

“Peace,” she chuckles. It’s a word that belongs to her past, to youthful dreams and idiotic notions that she could somehow change the ways of the world. “Sure. Peace is a nice thing to think about, but—it’s not real.” She shakes her head. “Not for us humans, anyway.”

Thinking otherwise, she’d learned, just led you and led you, dangling hope in front of your eyes until you blinked and suddenly you found yourself looking down at a burning city with a torch held in your hand.

“We would share our peace,” the dryad, unoffended by Temati’s laughter, said.

Temati shook her head, amused. “Really? How would you do that?”

The dryad tilted her head. Reached out with one pale hand.

“See for yourself.”

At the touch of the woman’s fingers, Temati felt—different. She blinked, but her eyes did not want to open again. They felt crusted over, all the immediacy fallen away, as if she’d just had a long night’s sleep with the promise of a quiet day ahead. Her skin was clean. Her spine was straight, without the twinge of pain it’d had ever since she’d slipped and fallen off a rooftop one night and landed in a slops-bucket. She felt clear-headed and proud, as if she could stand as straight and tall as the richest queen.

She was standing tall, as a matter of fact. She could feel it. She was free of the smoke-induced itch in her lungs and the latent travel-stink and the sticky, ugly, unbathed feeling that had plagued her for so long. The sun was warm and pleasant on her cool skin. She swayed in time with the push and pull of the breeze, raising her limbs high overhead, soaking up the warmth of the sun through her leafy fingertips. The birds were singing, and an industrious squirrel was making its nest in her armpit.

She paused.

A squirrel. Was making its nest. In her armpit.

Her eyes snapped open, and the dryad, who had been holding a statue-soft hand to her forehead, startled back. Temati attempted to do the same, but there was a sharp, grinding pain in her legs and her feet would not move. She snapped her gaze downward. Her legs were slowly being covered in smooth bark. Instead of her own worn and weary feet in old and tattered boots, the thick trunk and roots of a tree stood. She could feel them, as if they were a part of her; she could feel the cool earth pressing, the thin shoots and tendrils of the roots plunging deep in a search for water.

“I don’t want to be a tree!” Temati said, as emphatically as she knew how. She tried tugging herself free again, but felt only the harsh hurt on the edges of her where tender flesh had yet to turn into solid wood. “I’m a human being, not a—a vegetable!”

The dryad looked at her, wide-eyed, holding her hands out as though pleading with Temati to stay still. Temati gave another excruciating jerk, just to spite her, and the woman took a step forward.

“Stop fighting!” She said, sounding panicked. “Why are you struggling? I’m giving you peace—haven’t you fought long enough?”

Temati stopped, breathing hard. The words struck her like a knife in the back, driven in by an old friend. They were unexpected. But she had fostered those words, hadn’t she? Held them in her heart, without ever seeing them for what they were. She had felt those words—before the coup, when she had noticed the streaks of grey beginning to drown out the old brown color of her hair. During it, when her lord had smiled and asked for one more favor, I’ll pay you handsomely, and she had realized that her only retirement would be a grave. Not ten minutes ago, when she, worn and smoke-charred and sweating, had listened to two children weep over a lost sister.

The dull ache in her legs was traveling upward. The flesh hurt, but where she had already turned to wood was painless. There was life there, but it was a life that did not hurt. The mere absence of pain felt like the release of a long-carried burden.

Haven’t you fought long enough?

She had. She had been fighting for years. And what had it gotten her? A lifetime of regrets? An uncomfortable confrontation with a dryad? Her whole body, sticky and smelly and aching as it was, hungered for a rest. Her rapidly growing roots were clean and calm, drinking life from the fertile earth. It felt a lot like peace.

Her flesh was weak and trembling against the solid wood, aching against the slowly encroaching change. Soon it would reach her ribs, her lungs, her heart. One moment of pain, and then—it would be over. All over, all done. She could finally rest.

She wanted, with every scrap of her fragile human want. She ached for this rest.

But still, she shook her head.

“It sounds like you’ve got it nice here, with the sun and the birds and the dirt,” she said, “But I’ve—“ she halted. Thought for a moment. “I have fought too long. For all the wrong things. I’d like a chance to fight for the right ones.”

The dryad blinked at her, slow and uncomprehending.

“You would choose the struggle? You are willing?”

Temati was so, so tired. Willing? Perhaps not. But determined?

“Yes,” she said. “I am.”

The dryad leaned back slightly, considering. Her body creaked as she moved.

“I would not be,” she said. “All we have watched, all we have seen—we did not think that anyone—we did not think,” she continued, taking a step back. “That girl. Would she have chosen this as well?”

Temati was still half tree and all exhaustion. She shook her head again.

“I do not know,” she said. “You’ll have to ask her that, if you still can.”

The dryad nodded.

“I will,” she promised. “You’ve made your choice. I don’t understand it—but you may go,”

As she spoke, a shaft of golden light opened up, spilling past Temati’s feet and slicing into the dark hollow. Suddenly, Temati can no longer feel the slow, life-seeking twists and turns of the roots, the protective hug of the bark. She twists, and the tree-trunk cracks like a burst eggshell, letting her stumble free. She can feel her toes again—her own human toes, untethered to anything but their own aches and pains. She cannot resist the urge to wriggle them. Temati can see the way to the road. She half-turns, ready to make for it, but the woman’s voice halts her.

“If you ever wish for peace,” she said. “You may always return.”

Temati could feel that offer settling in her brain, and half-wishes it had never been made. She knows it will haunt her, this one last glimpse of an elegant goddess hidden in a mossy shadow.

“Thank you,” she said.

The patchy sunlight is calling for her, and she begins to scramble through the underbrush, ignoring the thorns as they rip at her and the branches that smack her face.

As she returns to the path, she finds it almost exactly as she left it. It is still lying in the divot between two high hills, with an arduous upward trek lying upon either side. It is still narrow and lumpy and half-overtaken by thorns.

But instead of two sooty children, there are three, Mis and Tef both wrapped tight around another young girl, who is crying and laughing and clinging to them all at once. Temati halts while she is still several paces distant, not quite able to make herself walk away.

The girl looks up, catches a glimpse of her. There is no recognition there, and she moves protectively between Temati and her siblings. She is a small, delicate thing, all wariness and bruises. Temati would have judged her weak, but she knows—knows the choice this girl had made, if she was here now. She knows it was not an easy one.

She nods, a gesture of respect, and the littlest girl—Mis—notices her. She tears free of her siblings, slamming into Temati’s legs and hugging them, babbling something into the dirty cloth of Temati’s breeches.

Temati stares down at the tiny figure, and cautiously lays a hand on her little shoulder. A feeling flickers deep in her chest.

It is not peace. It is not even happiness—not quite.

But it is something good, all the same.


Enjoy this story?

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This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Sunset Soliloquy

The Wolf Of Oboro-Teh

Dragon-Slayer


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Sunset Soliloquy 

 

  Train tracks ran in silver strings through a landscape of matte grey. The last glimmers of golden sunset light had gone; in its absence all was slowly succumbing to dusk. Only the sky retained its color, and below that pool of gold-feathered blue, the world lay in an amorphous haze, treetops blending to rise like the heads of horned things in silent rebellion against the sky’s beauty.

   Marah took in the landscape. She walked along the tracks as faithfully as a fairy-tale heroine along the path to a golden city, but her mind was anywhere but on the path.

   The railway was banked up, rising on a bed of gravel a respectable distance from the surrounding swamp. Short, stubby trees stood on either side of it, ancient and impermanent. Their long limbs dipped low, swaying just above the mossy ground. The dearly departed light had lit the trees in jewel-tones, showing them alive with budding leaves. In the current dim, moss and lichen were visible staining the trunks in living piebald patches.

   Swamp-soil was rich and good for growing, but no matter how deep the trees plunged their roots, the soft earth had no strength to hold them. The very heaviness of their branches eventually betrayed them, and the swamp floor was filled with the rotting corpses of trees it had nurtured and let fall.

   Marah’s mind existed in a tangled, confused jumble, quite separate from the rest of her. She was dimly aware that she had been thinking about life and swamp-mud and tree roots for some time, but she was too tired to sort out what her thoughts meant or why she kept turning them over and over in her mind as if there was something more to them than mere ecology.

   Her body and her mind had long since parted ways, and her body was busily focused on the tracks, the journey ahead, on ignoring the prickling between her shoulder-blades and her own fear of the dark to keep taking one step, then another, along the disused track.

   Like the landscape, Marah was grey today. Her hair was grey, and her eyes were grey; her torn and ragged suit was grey and getting greyer, her deep-cracking bones and her purposeful thoughtlessness alike contributed to the greyness that had settled on the world ever since the sun had sunk below the horizon.

   She shivered slightly, thinking of the dark that would settle soon after. As little as she liked the grey twilight, nighttime was another matter altogether. It was difficult to see now, but soon it would be impossible.

   The dark, though, did not matter today. She knew where she was going, and she didn’t need to see more than a foot in front of her face to get there.

   She was going home.

   Home. She held the name out like a promise to keep her going. Can’t stop now, you’ll never get yourself started again. Then where would you be? She thought to herself, watching the half-rotted railroad ties depress slightly under her feet. Alone in the middle of a big old swamp, that’s where.

   There was a turn in the railway coming up, and Marah wondered how near it had gotten in the past five minutes. Soon, she would reach the curve and see what lay beyond it. In the dusky twilight of her mind, this was an exciting prospect.

   She glanced up.

   The gravel under her feet shifted abruptly as she came to a halt, staring at the thing up ahead as it, in turn, stared back at her.

   A wolf.

   In the midst of all the grey, its white form stood out, with sharp ears pricked toward her and copper-colored eyes looking into hers with something more than animal curiosity.

Marah’s stomach plunged, picturing the wolf charging at her with claws and teeth and killing intent–she had no weapons. It had been idiotic not to bring any.

    But the beast didn’t charge. It only stood and watched, fur showing up like snow against the dying day.

   It grew tired of her. Turning with preternatural silence, it made its way off the road and into the thick swamp, disappearing into the thicket of trees.

*   *   *

   A day ago, at a Sun-Co gas station a mile from the railroad tracks, Marah had bought a backpack, three bottles of water and an entire box of candy bars. Her hands shook as she counted out the change, scattering pennies across the floor. The cashier had a kind smile and a disarming laugh, and as Marah had stuttered over an apology for the trouble, the girl had flitted over a dismissal of any need to apologize. A kind girl, but Marah could feel the cashier watching her as she left the store. Wondering, probably.

   Marah’s hands hadn’t stopped shaking until she’d reached the railway an hour later and decided to follow it.

*   *   *

   That was the last conversation she remembered having, the last time she’d used her voice.  Motionless on the tracks, watching the wolf disappear into the swamp, Marah felt as though she had been alone her whole life.

   The blank expanse of empty railroad before her was oppressively, impossibly lonely. The fear that the wolf would kill her was gone, replaced by the less reasonable fear that she would never see it or another living creature again.

   Stepping off the crumbling ties and shifting gravel of the railway bed, Marah scrambled down the short slope and into the woods to follow it.

   The swamp was oppressive in its very blandness. Dull light through the spotty overhead cover of branches gave the ground a false seeming of solidity. The forest floor gave way into ice-cold sinkholes of mud or rose up in tufts of foot-tangling grass. The trees blent together, separating themselves into visibility mere seconds before Marah crashed headlong into them, and brittle dead branches brushed against her legs like weakly grasping fingers. She stumbled through, snapping limbs and squelching through sock-soaking mud, searching the horizon for a silhouette of white.

   There it was, bobbing along in the distance like a dropped marshmallow. Marah plunged after it, twisting through the trees without a care for the branches that snagged at her hair or the faint varied protests of birds woken from their slumber.

   The wolf stopped, turning to watch her thoughtfully for a moment before bounding away again. It kept stopping, letting her catch sight of it again before it led her further, through mud and brambles and thick, crunchy fields of white flowers.

   Finally, the puddles and mud gave way to steadier, grass-covered ground and the trees grew taller and farther apart until they finally gave way, forming a small clearing. There was still the smallest vestige of light from the dying sky, and compared to the thickness of the swamp, the clearing seemed almost bright.

   The wolf was nowhere to be found.

   Like someone awakening from a spell, Marah blinked and looked around, realizing that the railway was God-knew-where, lost behind a tangle of thorns and trees. As for this place…

   Decisively black against a grey world, the trees were cleanly spaced, branches pruned and cared for. Curiously, Marah brushed her fingers against a short and stocky trunk, feeling the curling bark come away at her touch, a familiar scrabble against her weary fingers. Fruit trees. It was an orchard–or had been, once.

   A shadowy lump squatted in the center of the clearing, motionless as a sleeping rock. Marah strained her eyes trying to make out the shapes. A tractor, half-dead with age and sinking into the soft spring earth. The feel of tree bark fresh and pleasant in her nerves, she reached out to touch it, rubbing fragments of rust between her fingers thoughtfully.

   It creaked and shifted beneath her fingers, and she jumped back with a short shriek of surprise. The dull shape of a living thing stood up on top of the old machine, letting itself be silhouetted against the darkening sky, and chuckled. Its eyes were bright and familiar, glowing down on her in amusement.

   “What’s the matter, Mar? You know me.”

   She blinked up at him, frozen in surprise. Its face lit by the copper glow if its eyes, the demon grinned back.

   “So. You here to make a deal?”

*   *   *

   Marah was already shaking her head.

   “No, I just–I thought I saw something.” She frowned at the figure silhouetted against the sky.

   “Was that wolf you?”

   “Wolf?” the demon looked thoughtful, looked down at himself quizzically, then back up at her.

   “Don’t think so. You saw a wolf?”

   “I suppose not,” she said, still looking around the clearing as though the wolf would appear out of nowhere. Predictably, it didn’t. Was she hallucinating things now?

   “I should be getting back.” Back to where, she didn’t know; but the demon’s shadow shape and glowing eyes were unsettling her, and she wanted to get away.


   “Aw, cmon! Stay awhile.” The creature called after her brightly, leaping off the tractor. “I’ve always taken care of you, Mar, ever since ninth grade. Remember?”

   Marah did. She’d been fifteen, dumb and desperate. Back when everyone told you that school was everything, and you were stupid enough to believe them. He’d showed up with a deal too good to be true–straight A’s for the rest of the semester, and all she had to give him in return was the color of her eyes.

   He’d showed up the next year, and the next. She’d bargained away her ability to juggle, the remains of her childhood crush on Remington Steele, and the double joint that had been the pride of her pinky.

   Her parents had been so proud.

   “Graduated top of your class, didn’t you?”

   She looked up, wondering if he’d read her thoughts, but the demon only smiled at her innocently.

   “Hey, I keep my promises.”

   “Yes, you do.” Just because it was the truth didn’t mean Marah wanted to hear it.

   “You got accepted into that college, right? And got a job at that big old lawyering firm right after.”

   She remembered agonizing over the price of those–a memory. She wondered now if it had been a good one.

   “And that fancy promotion. I was so proud of you, kid.”

   An unimaginable pay raise and a corner office. Her husband had never looked at her quite the same, though, and the office windows had let in as much winter cold as they did city view.

   “Last time we saw each other, it was that one case, wasn’t it?” he continued. “Jorgurson vs. Jorgurson.”

   Marah took a reflexive step back, not wanting to remember the price of that one. The last deal she’d ever made, and the last she’d ever make.

   “You should’ve seen their faces when you won! Except–oh, wait–you did. Because of me.”

   “Stop,” she ordered, more harshly than she intended, and the demon held up his clawed hands, placating.

   “Sorry, sheesh. What’s going on with you?”

   Marah shook her head, wondering how she’d ended up here again. She’d been walking to get away, to find something different, not…

   “What are you even doing here?” she asked.

   “I can’t just come to say hi every once in a while?”

   “You never have before. You always come when I need something, need it bad enough to–”

   He cocked his head, frowning. “That’s a point against me now?”

   “–but there’s nothing I want right now, so why show up?”

   There was a moment of silence in which the woods around them both seemed alive with restless creatures. Marah ignored them. Finally, the demon shrugged.

   “I’m worried about you. You were really moving up in the world there, getting things done, accomplishing your dreams–and then you just–” he stopped, gesturing wordlessly at her. “What happened?”

   The question burrowed into her brain like a maggot. What had happened?

  “Nothing,” she said.

   A great big bunch of nothing. Deal after deal, each promising a good future–but deal after deal, the future had arrived and turned out to be as colorless as her eyes, as grey and uncertain as the twilit swamp. Finally she had just been tired. She threw her briefcase into the river one morning and started walking.

   It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

   “I’m just…done. And I want to go home,” she confessed.

   “You’ve got a house, Mar. Just buy a plane ticket.”

   Her house hadn’t been a home in years. Maybe it never had.

   “Not what I meant.”

   “Oh. Like, home-home…”

   She looked at the ground beneath her feet. She wasn’t sure, really, where home was anymore.

   But even if there wasn’t one waiting for her somewhere, she could try to make one.

   “Boy,” the demon said, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up to find him thoughtful.

   “It’s a tall order. But, hey, I’d do anything for you, so…” 

   Marah frowned.

   “What are you talking about?”

   “You want a home?” he took a step back, spreading his arms like a showman. “I can get one for you. Ready-to-order, all-that-you-dreamed-of–this is my gig, remember? You could’ve just come to me in the first place.” He chuckled at her softly, shaking his horned head.

   Marah felt fifteen again, nervous and desperate, shaking at the thought of fulfilling a dream she’d thought impossible.

   “Think about it, if you need to,” he said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”

   She’d made a promise, after the last deal. A promise to never do it again, because the deals always went sick and sour when they took.

   But how could a home–a real home–go sour? How could it spoil and sicken?

   Maybe the problem all along hadn’t been the deals, but what she’d asked for.

   And, promise or not, she wanted this.

   “You want to deal?” he asked, as she came to a decision.

   She smiled.

   “Yes.”

   His grin grew wider.

   “Good girl!”

   “What do you want for it?” she didn’t care if her asked for her voice or her legs. He threw his head back, clicking his clawed fingers together as if calculating a sum.

   “Ah. Well, let’s see. Generally I like to bargain for concrete, solid things, you know, but as you seem to be running low on those, I’d be willing to take something a little more…ethereal. Something you won’t even know is gone.”

   Marah had never liked skirting around the point.

   “What is it?”

   “In buyer’s terms? Item: one home. Price? One soul.”

   The wind wasn’t blowing. It would have been a warm spring wind if it had; but there was a chill in the air that hadn’t been there a moment earlier.

   Marah blinked.

   “One what?”

   “Soul.” Came the perfunctory reply. “You up for it?”

   Marah had never given much thought to the matter of souls. Perhaps the sudden revulsion in her bones was nothing more than the product of a hundred fairy-tale stories spinning in her head, long since forgotten and rising up now only because of the cartoonish mention of a soul. A soul. Something she wasn’t even sure existed, but she could feel her fingers curling tight as though to hold on to it.

   He watched her, expecting an answer.

   “No.”

   He was surprised. She’d surprised herself.

   “Come on, Mar,” the demon said, gesturing limply. “I didn’t think you were superstitious.”

   She choked on a nervous laugh.

   “I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

   He huffed, and she shook her head.

   “It’s…maybe it’s not the soul, so much. I don’t know what I was thinking–I appreciate all you’ve done, really. I do. But…I think it’s time I try to make my own way.”

   His glowing eyes were strangely motionless, and the silence between them was palpable.

   Taking a hesitant step back, she waited for him to disappear like he usually did when their deals were done.

   He remained, steady and still. A faint prickling ran between her shoulder blades as Marah realized that he always left once he got what he wanted.

   And she had just refused him.

   “Well…I’ll…” she began. 

   There was nowhere to go but back into the swamp, and she began to retreat cautiously towards the trees.

   “You think you can make your own way?” he asked before she’d walked three feet. His eyes were burning now, tiny tongues of flame licking up over the lids, glittering along the curves of his horns and illumining the pitch-black clearing with dull orange.

   Marah froze.

   “I want to try.”

   “You’ll fail.” His voice was a blank.  “Your ‘own’ way–you don’t own anything, honey. You are owned. By me or by whatever other of my kind feel like picking you up out of the dirt and brushing off the nasty.”

   There was a cruel and dead-serious twist to every word he spoke.  Her stomach curled in on itself.

   He smiled a smile that went all wrong at the edges, and his voice turned light again–more like his old, friendly self–but Marah’s stomach only knotted itself tighter as he spoke.

   “Devil you know, kid. Think about it. I can give you a good life. Think you can find one yourself? Think you can make one?” he laughed, all the hopelessness she’d ever felt shivering in the air. “I’m the only shot you have.”

    Marah saw him. He didn’t look any different, but for the first time she saw him, as he was behind the promises. Curling horns and skin grey with death; hellfire in the eyes and a persistent scent of sulphur. He was a demon, in the most superstitious sense of the word–and he wanted her soul.

   Her knees shook, and she would’ve run, but she couldn’t trust her legs. The flames in his eyes were furious, beginning to crackle, ember-like, through his dry and peeling skin.

“I’ve been coddling you for years. Caring for you, giving you whatever you wanted, letting you pay in slips and tokens while I laid the world at your feet–”

    In the midst of all her fear, a flicker of unexpected anger flared.

   “Slips and tokens? Slips and tokens? I gave you everything!” she shouted, voice cracking at the unaccustomed volume. “I gave you my eyes! My memories! I gave you all that I was!”

   The truth of the past thirty years came slowly to light. He had chipped her down stroke by stroke, making her a mere ghost of herself. And she had let him.

   “Mar–” he started, but she cut him off.

   “You might have the color of my eyes. You might have my body, and my mind, and my life–” her voice broke and quavered, betraying her when she needed it the most. Feeling the oncoming blubber of tears, she spoke quickly to outrun it.

   “But I won’t give you any more. You can’t have anything more that’s mine, and I don’t care who else owns me, just so long as it. Is not. You.”

   He gave an animal growl and lunged forward, digging his fingers into her side, his fire-and-brimstone breath searing her face as he spoke.

   “Oh, honey,” he said, as she struggled to breathe. “You’re already mine.”

   Marah gurgled, and he tore his claws out of her stomach, letting her crumple to the ground.

   The pain was so sharp that the rest of the world seemed hazy and soft. Marah blinked muzzily, watching her blood drip from the dagger-sharp claws, and followed the ember-glowing arm to find the demon’s face, looking down at her in something like amusement and something like disgust.

   “Go to hell,” she burbled unconvincingly, and his face flickered.

   “It’ll only be to join you there,” he said, and was gone.

*   *   *

   The ground soaked up all her heat, giving her its half-frozen chills in return, and Marah choked on her own air, dimly aware that every breath was pumping more blood out of her veins and into the dirt.

   In the light of the demon’s last words, dying was a minor tragedy.

   “I don’t wanna go to hell,” she told the dark, the thin branches she couldn’t see and the invisible spring breeze that shook them. “God help me, I don’t.”

   There was iron in her mouth, bitter and warm, sickening the clean air with a butcher-shop stench.

   If demons made deals, did angels do the same? Did God?

   “I don’t have much.” She warned the waiting dark, just in case.

   Just a single, flickering soul.

 *   *   *

   The trees swayed and rattled in the wind, and the world smelled of rich swamp-mud and green growing things. The sun was on the other side of the world, leaving the hemisphere in starlight, and in a tiny apple orchard, not a single creature stirred or breathed.

   Marah was home.

Enjoy this story?

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The Curious Case of B-712

Michael walked along the neatly hung row of corpses, yawning as static buzzed through his headphones. The bodies weren’t human. They barely even looked it.

In the dim light, though, during the after-hours in which Michael worked, the drooping heads and darkened eyes had a nasty habit of taking on the likeness of men. But then a stray gust from the air vents would disturb them, setting the corpses to swing carelessly, bonking against one another with tiny metallic clinks and refracting the half-light off their metal flesh. 

Robots. Not bodies. Robots. Michael repeated the reminder to himself intermittently, attempting a relieved sigh as his brain, if not his heart, held firm to the fact that he was not working in a graveyard or a slaughterhouse, but a simple store-room. 

Distracting himself, he listened to the noise over his headphones with rapt attention. He frowned and made a pen-scratch mark on the company-issue clipboard, crossing off a box on the company-issue chart. A faint scrape as he unplugged the headphones. A heavy snap to shut the bot’s chest plate. Next bot. Creak open the chest plate. Click the headphones in the auxiliary jack. A subdued series of beeps as Michael punched a long-since-memorized code into the bot’s keypad, then waited for a familiar string of words to come through the static–designee B-712, class 3, gen 8, sent into storage for…

Inventory was not a glorious job, but it paid, and that was enough for Michael. He yawned again. He was near the end of the B’s now, and the storehouse only held up to the mid-C’s. He would be going home soon. 

Save for faint ululations of static, B-712 was not making any noise. Michael tapped the bot absently. It shouldn’t be broken. 

The static responded with a slight but promising shift, and Michael poised his pen to check off another box. But instead of the regulated, mechanical words, there spoke a voice–a voice as clear as a church-bell, and at least as urgent.

You should leave. It’s not safe here.

Michael blinked, frowning at the robot. It hung, careless as ever, saying nothing. After the silence had stretched a moment, Michael shook his head. His imagination was playing tricks. He was certainly tired enough. He started punching in the code again. He’d listen more carefu–

GET OUT NOW! 

Michael leapt back, tearing off his headphones to stare at the robot. Still motionless–but he hadn’t imagined that. He couldn’t have. 

The silence of the store-room was not as silent as it had been only a moment ago. Creaking and clicking sounded somewhere in the far reaches of the room, followed by a nearby crash as of a pile of cooking utensils falling. Heart pounding, Michael spun toward the sound, seeing nothing in the dim light but the uniform row of metal bodies. 

Then one of the hanging, dead-eyed heads flickered to life, and, turning slowly, fixed him with a cold, mechanical stare. 

Suddenly, ‘get out now’ seemed like excellent advice. 

The clanking and clanging had developed into a cacophony. Michael dropped clipboard and headphones alike, turning to flee out the door–but two hulking, steel-wrapped figures already stood in front of it.

The storehouse had no other door. No windows. A design choice that, quite suddenly, seemed monstrously foolish. 

An arm circled around Michael’s shoulders, lifting him easily off the ground.

“I told you it wasn’t safe here,” the church-bell voice said in his ear. 

And with a fierce roar, the thing hefted Michael across its back and charged the door.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the robot said, for perhaps the hundredth time. 

For perhaps the hundredth time, Michael refused to believe it.

The thing had bowled over the bots blocking the door without a second thought. Torn through the door itself like it was paper–the door, a hunk of steel half a foot thick, built to withstand an army or a mob.

Then it had started running, with no apparent purpose or instinct but to escape the bots pursuing them. Somewhere in the midst of all the bowling and tearing and fleeing, the horrible idea had come into Michael’s head that this bot was not the savior it seemed, but the danger from which all the others had, perhaps, awoken to protect him.

This thought provoked a fresh fit of struggling. The bot, it’s unreasoning run finally halted, let Michael squirm off its back and collapse in a bruised and undignified heap at its feet.

Michael scrambled to balance on his unsteady legs, a fuzzy plan of escape in his mind. In the uncertain light, Michael saw they were in a small dell of sorts–a flat space between the hulking monument of a disused highway and the brick skeletons of former apartment buildings. A half-dead tree and a whole-dead gas station sat dwarfed between the two giants. A sign with broken lights and garish, flaked-off paint rose like a protest from the midst of the weedy concrete. It read, ‘SUN-CO’.

There was nowhere to run, even if he could outpace the bot–which, judging from the amount of time the bot had taken to sprint from the city center to its outskirts, he could not. 

Michael looked from the rather dreary scene to the robot, whose metal face had taken on an air of expectancy.

“You are Michael,” it said, the speaker it had in place of a mouth giving a mechanical tone to an unmechanical voice. The name sounded strange, floating in the dead air like that.

“You’re B-712,” Michael said.

“Am I?” The creature asked, with genuine curiosity. “B-712…”

It sounded happy, and almost innocent; Michael, on the other hand, was shaking. He couldn’t be sure if he was scared, or angry, or simply shaken from the long and jarring run; whatever emotion was the spark of his inner tumult, anger quickly took the lead. 

“What’s going on?” Michael shouted, tensing his trembling fingers into unsteady fists. The robot jumped, looking up from studying his own, annoyingly steady hands. “Why did you kidnap me? Why are you all–” he was about to shout alive, but halted. They weren’t alive, that was the problem; robots couldn’t be alive.

Could they?
I have a name, B-712 had been thinking, looking with wonder at his own shining metal hands. There was something good about having a name. He wasn’t sure why associating a string of sounds with oneself made any difference in the grand scheme of things; but it did, nonetheless.

B-712 had looked around at the place he’d chosen to stop. It had seemed like a good place at the time, mostly because of the tree. Though that logic made about as much sense as a name. Trees and names…

This line of thought had been interrupted by the boy, speaking in tones somewhat louder than B-712 thought necessary. He was afraid, the robot realized with a flash of sympathy; afraid and confused. B-712 knew the emotions well, and spoke as softly as he could.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said again. “And I am sorry that I kidnapped you. But the others–they were going to kill you.”
“Kill me?” Michael shouted. “Why?”

B-712 raised his shoulders in an absent shrug. 

“I woke later than the others. They had already been talking. They wanted you dead very much, but–I didn’t.”

He seemed to think that explanation satisfactory, turning his attention to the open street as though seeing it for the first time.

“We should go in there,” B-712 said, pointing to the empty convenience store. 

“Why didn’t you want me dead?”

“Why would I?” The bot turned its glow-eyed gaze on him, cocking its head to one side. Michael had no answer, and B-712 nodded toward the store again.

“We should go there,” he repeated; Michael opened his mouth to ask ‘why?’ Yet again, but the bot cut him off.

“The others will not stop wanting you dead, and they will try to find us. It would be good to hide.”

In the short silence that followed, Michael heard the sound of distant footsteps–footsteps ringed with an edge of steel.
Michael did not want to face off with a platoon of killer robots. The convenience store was an unconvincing shelter–he would have preferred something a little more solid, such as a tank or an artillery lockdown–but it was the only hiding place that immediately revealed itself. Michael sprinted for it, B-712 falling into an easy lope behind him.

Once inside, Michael wasted no time in hauling one of the giant empty shelves to block the door. Or at least, he wasted no time in making the attempt. The shelf was heavier than it looked, and he was halfway to giving up the Herculean undertaking when B-712 (who had been watching him quizzically) picked it up as though it weighed nothing and set it before the doors. 

“Good idea!”the robot chimed, eyes glowing.

Michael gazed at the door-block, realizing that if only one robot could put it in place, a whole horde of them would have no trouble at all knocking it down. 

He did not crumple to the floor, exactly; it was a bit more dignified than that. He sat, heavily, aware of the boy’s luminescent gaze but unable to meet it.

There was a kind of suffocating silence within the store’s walls. The clanging distant footsteps were blocked out, and in the relative quiet, it was easy to forget about them entirely.

Michael did not doubt they were coming, though, and pressed his knees to his chest in a useless attempt to stave off panic.

“I thought there would be people.”

Michael looked up to find the robot staring out the grime-coated window. Windows, Michael thought. Even easier to break than the door.

“And lights,” B-712 continued. “Where has it all gone?”

“Down the drain,” Michael answered with a kind of half-laugh; but this explained nothing, and he sobered. “People stay inside at night now–the people that are left, anyway, the ones who didn’t run out into the country.”

There were supposed to be jobs in the country–better jobs, and clean air, and stars in the sky at night. The city was home, though, and some harebrained idea of loyalty had kept him here. 

Stupid, really; but he’d never claimed to be a genius.

A flicker of light from one of the freezer-cases shone for a second on the linoleum floor, and Michael looked up, thinking that the glass had caught a reflection from B-712’s eyes–but no, B-712 was looking out the window again, and the thing in the freezer-case was no robot. 

It drifted like smoke–waxy smoke, Michael thought, though that made little sense. Wafting through the glass, the strange, light-ridden thing began to gain a shape. Thin, reedy fingers–a woman’s face. It was a hard-edged, sorrowful face, and Michael couldn’t take his eyes off it–but she didn’t seem to notice him. Casting a dim, greyish light all around her, she drifted towards B-712, reaching with a wispy hand to touch his shoulder. She seemed to be trying to speak.

Michael was trying to speak as well, though the un-words he uttered were unintelligible as anything but an expression of surprised disbelief.

B-712 turned, and the woman’s face went blank with fright as he saw her, tearing back the outstretched hand.

“Who are you?”

Michael barely had time to register the look of pure terror on her face before, in a swirling flurry of smoke, she disappeared.

Michael and B-712 turned to exchange confused glances, but before either could speak, the shelf that had been set to block the door went flying across the room, propelled by an inhumanly strong hand.

The Others had arrived. 

Tall and grinning with their lipless mouths, they stomped into the room one after the other,pushing aside whatever stood in their way. There was no difference between any of them. That was the worst thing; they were a horde of homogeneous silver limbs and bodies, whirring and clanking and whispering as they moved, with nothing to tell one from the other save for the numbers that had been seared like a brand across their chest plates.

The foremost of the uniform group was A-206. 

“I never said you weren’t a fool, but I didn’t expect you to act the idiot like this,” he said, in a voice as different from B-712’s as their bodies were alike–unhinged where B-712’s was precise, lurid where his was innocent. It was the voice of an unpleasant old man set in contrast with the voice of a child.

The Others were forming a predatory half-circle around them, and B-712 had dipped into a faintly defensive crouch.

“I do not think I am acting the idiot.”

“Think!” A-206 exclaimed, with mechanized mockery. “As if you could.”

B-712 cocked his head, curious at this new line of attack.

“You want to kill the boy. That is bad.”

Michael could feel the hatred leaching off of them–hatred so unwavering as to be almost palpable. Shakily, he edged closer to his single ally. 

“Bad!” A-206 exclaimed, in much the same tone he’d used for ‘think!’. He seemed to realize the repetition, and waved a steel limb in a gesture of dismissal. 

“You’re young,” he continued, in a tone as dismissive as the gesture. “Inhumanly young. They never even let you see the light of day, did they? Ripped you from the womb and threw you in the trash, that’s what they did. They gave me a name, at least, before they killed me.” 

“And who are ‘they’?”

“The living! The damned, ugly, insolent living,” A-206 burst out with sudden venom. “Dancing on our graves. No, walking over them, which is worse–walking about on their own business, with no care for who they tread on.”

Michael did not at first understand. He only caught glimpses of the horrible ideas behind the bot’s words–life and death, graves and wombs. It was not the vocabulary of a newly formed artificial intelligence, and Michael realized, with no clear idea of what it might be, that this was something older. Something worse.

Something was shining in the corner of his eye, and Michael glanced to see a silver-grey wisp forming into a woman’s face, a woman’s hand. She was back, reaching once more for B-712. Her arm passed, careless and cold, through Michael’s shoulder.

Oh, he thought half-mindlessly. It’s a ghost. And then, with a thrill of realization : a ghost.

Something human. Something not alive. Something that would talk, perhaps, just as A-206 was talking now.

“You’re dead,”Michael found himself saying, with no remembrance of deciding to speak it out loud. “You’re a ghost.”

It sounded ridiculous, out in the open air–but no more ridiculous than ‘murderous philosophizing robot’ which, as far as Michael could see, was the only other option.

“Well, look who showed up late to the party with a half-eaten can of sardines,” A-206 congratulated, spreading his arms in mock joy.

“Why do you want to kill me?” Michael felt confident in the question. Which made little sense since he was surrounded by murderous ghost-bots. But then again, it was only a feeling–and feelings never make sense.

A-206 grew oddly quiet, orb-eyes flickering. 

“Because you’re alive,” he said, with a shifting emphasis on the last word that turned it into a curse.

He was evidently done with talking, then, for with an impossibly swift movement he reached out a dull, three-fingered hand to seize Michael by the throat.what work those engine-fed, steel-crushing muscles might have done then was left to a guess, for B-712 grabbed Michael and gently sent him careening out of harm’s way and into a wall. He faced A-206 with a mechanized rumble, planting himself between Michael and the rest of the world. 

“He’s not yours,” he said. “You can’t kill him.”

A-206 replied with a growl, viciously swiping at the mesh of electrical lines in B-712’s stomach. Steam hissed and electricity crackled from the torn wires, and with a clash of iron and steel, the fight began. A-206 tried to wrestle his opponent to the ground–or rip him apart; it was hard to tell. 

The Others watched, motionless, obeying some human instinct that allowed for single combat; Michael, for his part, was slumped in a bruised and helpless heap on the floor.

Together they fell, crushing one of the empty shelves. B-712 was thrown off, shattering an ice-cream freezer when he landed. Damaged wires sent sparks shivering along his body as he got to his feet, a light of battle in his eyes, and he rushed at A-206 again, punching into him with enough force to flatten both their plating.

There was a firecracker flash of silver, lighting up the dark and showing, for a split second, two bodies that were not bodies locked in a hopeless struggle. Then the heaps of metal collapsed, reverberating through the linoleum floor, replaced by two drifting forms of wispy grey and silver–one bright and shimmering, which Michael knew without a doubt to be B-712, holding the other by the throat. They were both ghosts, or spirits, or souls–things like the drifting woman, and yet very different. The one Michael knew as A-206 had a face–a very definite form, carved out of the indefinite mist–and yet it was a dull, ragged-looking form, worn by time and tiredness. B-712 was as undefined as a flame–he had a sort of head, and something like hands, though neither seemed likely to keep and hold their form for long.

In short, he was a thing of shining silver, too young to have gained much of a shape; and perhaps it was this that made him so much stronger, for he was holding A-206 in a strangling grip with apparent ease. 

“You will not kill the boy, or anyone else. Leave now.”

A-206 coughed, scowling.

“Not bad,” he managed to choke out before drifting away. “Not bad…” And then he was gone. The shining thing that had been B-712 looked at the Others–a silent challenge–and with a clanking of metal and a keening of voices, they fled as well. Their metal hosts clanked and groaned, slumping over in a mindless, innocent imitation of sleep.

B-712 turned on Michael–his face was more defined now, and Michael was able to read a guileless smile there. 

“I’m dead,” he announced. “That explains a great deal.” And then, to something behind the starstruck Michael, “wait!”

Michael turned to see the she-ghost halt halfway through drifting into a wall. She leaked back into the room, the expression on her weary face inimitable.

“Who are you?” B-712 asked again.

“No one,” the wavering woman replied, too quickly. “Just passing through.” She drifted thoughtlessly through a slumped metal corpse as though to illustrate the point. B-712 shimmered, the beginnings of his bright contorting in the agony of near-recognition.

“Your voice.” He managed. “I remember it. But I remember nothing; how is that?”

The woman drew back as if to leave, and B-712 lifted a hand that was helpless to stop her–and yet it did, anyway. She was trying her best not to look at him, while he stared at her with unwonted intensity.

“I knew your voice before I knew anything else,” he whispered, “and heard your heartbeat keep time with my own…”

The words drifted into silence, and when he spoke again it was in a tone so quiet as to be barely audible.

“Mother?”

Michael raised his eyebrows at the revelation, looking between the she-ghost’s face and B-712’s. They both looked scared.

“I’m sorry,” B-712 said, his voice cracked and uncertain. She still looked scared–shocked too.

“It–” she began, and managed, “it wasn’t your fault.” She came forward , wrapping her arms around his shining un-form, and closed her eyes as he hugged her in return. “None of it’s your fault…I’m sorry.”

Ghosts couldn’t cry, Michael realized; and, looking at her face, he realized just how tragic that was.

She opened her eyes again, seeing Michael for the first time. Sorrow? Thanks? Whatever did that expression mean?

Michael was never to learn, for the two figures faded and were gone without a goodbye.

The metal corpses held their places like statues set to guard a tomb, and a street-borne wind whistled through the shattered doors. Numb with shock and aching with bruises,Michael gotto his feet and looked critically around at the wild conglomeration of robotics. In the sudden peace, he found himself savoring an unexpected thought.

How on earth was he going to explain this to his manager?
Like this story?

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