Elsewhere Unknown

Chapter 1: Little Embers

Lenith Thaymen emerged through the flames, covered from head to toe in ash. She knew running into a fire was a poor choice to make, no matter how noble. The fire left nothing to salvage. The building was gone.

A crone pounded her wrinkled palms on the dry, black dirt. Lenith had returned with nothing.

The eldest surviving member of the Halibred family howled. A perfect microcosm of her lineage. Lenith never took the time to learn the crone’s name.

Instead, Lenith knelt and set a hand on an old, sunken shoulder. The crone swatted it away and barked about getting ashes on her blouse.

Men and women beat back the flames with timeworn towels. Others sacrificed water to douse the blaze. It was never enough. The fire forced them to give in.

Though no one celebrated, they should have felt lucky. The flames spared the other shops of the octagonal pedestrian mall known as Rugerbin.

Tireless hands had transformed the shops into places for the people to rest their heads at night. To lose one building was to lose three homes. Three homes perished today, the Thirty-sixth of Tiid.

The residents gathered around the mall’s central patio. Some sat around a fountain, gutted of frivolities, adapted into a cooking pit. Long gone were the days of bubbling waterfalls—scorched by hundreds of meals.

Other onlookers sat in the dirt, enduring the fire’s swelter.

The Halibred flock—lanky and clothed in dull hues of gray and brown—sat at wood dining tables. Their dreary faces contorted at their elder woman’s pleas, hypocritical as it might have been.

The fire was something new. Fresh. Not much happened at Rugerbin, insulated by the town of Bayona in a long forgotten forest.

The distinct sounds of gunfire and scatter-bombs hadn’t marred the peace in years. No loss of life or limb had occurred in cycles. Three enneads had passed since the last visit from another camp.

Lenith, with arms overlapped, stopped at the far end of the patio. She found her father Herielt at the backdoor of Rogdul’s Feasting Ground, away from everyone else. Their belongings hung over his shoulder. 

A statue of a man guarded the door from any unwarranted entries.

Tall, tan, and muscular, the statue wore a ruthless expression and unbuttoned pants. He clutched a quad-pronged circlet sword with both hands. Lenith knew its mysteries better than she knew most others. The feral soldier it intended to depict would have never held such an impractical weapon. It felt out of place with the blatant, primordial caricature.

Lenith scrunched her nose at the stench of melting, synthetic memories that clung to her skin. Pink lips contorted into a thin, ash-stained grimace. She imagined the statue might smell the same if caught aflame.

Herielt handed over Lenith’s black and red satchel.

“All that remains?” Lenith asked.

“All that remains.” 

An ember flittered from the smoldering remnants, carried by a temperamental breeze. It caught on Lenith’s shirt. She swatted at her stomach until a new flame had no chance of kindling.

Twisting and turning, Lenith pulled on the fabric to search for a mark or, even worse, a hole. She had always been fond of the shirt. The simple black-and-purple pattern happened to be her favorite—durable yet light. The sleeves bunched at her elbows. She had undone the top button to let the breeze kiss her collarbone.

“You okay, Leni-cakes?” Herielt asked.

Lenith creased her brows. Her hands flopped back to their sides. She said, “A little fire got on me. Did it get through? Please, tell me I don’t have to get it patched.”

“Let me see,” Herielt said. He inspected his daughter with keen attention. After a respectable pause, he pinched the knot where her nose had once broken.

The ember left a neat, unnoticeable mark on one of the black checkers before snuffing. “You got it. It looked like you were dancing.”

“Yeah, it’s a new craze. The fire-panic dance.” Lenith presented a toothy smile to her father.

She fixed the mess her auburn curls had turned into since dawn, when she had tied it in a tail. A curtain of fringe covered her forehead. She hadn’t the time to wash. It was disobedient over the soft, rounded features of her face.

She added, “With all the flames around here, it’ll spread fast.”

“You’re a bonob,” Herielt said.

“I’d hope so. One raised me.”

“Someone raised you behind my back?”

“For twenty-two years straight. Right under your nostrils, dad.” Lenith tapped the side of Herielt’s bulbous nose; a Thaymen feature she luckily hadn’t inherited.

“Hey, now, almost twenty-three. Your birthday’s right around the bend.”

Lenith did well to hide her sadness behind a constant smile, like a shield, when her father spoke. Memories liked leaking from the back of his head, polluting the present. He spoke to deceased friends at night. His daughter transformed into a toddler before him. He had no way of seeing through the lies his mind spread.

She asked, “Since when is five cycles around the bend?”

“You’re already halfway. Four-hundred and ten days are flying by,” Herielt said with a swing of his hand.

Lenith sighed, relieved. He remembered after all. “I’m starting to think you did raise me.”

Herielt laughed. An infectious, deep chuckle he always had in stock as far back as her first memory. They had been visiting the Dartwo Pier in Juptos, along the northern shore. An entertainer in a vast, fleece costume meant to depict a lupsa jumped out from a registration kiosk. He slashed his long claws and gnashed sharp teeth at her. It scared Lenith so bad that she clung to her father’s leg. He chuckled all the way to the exit.

Few childhood memories left recognizable imprints. Those two did: her father’s laugh and the mask’s thoughtless, black eyes. Joy and pain.

Tendrils of heat whipped from the fire and returned her to reality. She struggled and failed to prevent a laugh of her own, provoked by the memory as much as the comment.

The victims that surrounded her were all too busy mourning to engage in jokes. Their communal attention befell the Thaymen family. Any joy at the mall needed destroyed during such a dire time.

Brawny, stern Usvild sauntered toward them. He adorned the only Korvilian Armed Forces suit at the mall. Gray stripes cut over his padded breastplate and loose, black pants. A sparse beard trickled from his chin. He tried so hard to grow something. Dirty blond hair clawed at his scalp, pulled back in a tail down to his shoulders.

A self-appointed officer of justice, Usvild’s word was law. His family founded Rugerbin Mall’s resurrection. The population spread around his orderly conduct. Lenith had always considered him beyond theatrics. Noting his hawkish scowl, he appeared ready to haul off on Herielt.

“Hello, Lenith. I’d like to talk with your dad for a moment alone, if you don’t mind.” A hidden urgency in Usvild’s voice hinted at a grim tale Lenith pined to hear.

“All right. I’ll tend the fire.” She couldn’t resist one last joke. Their home, after all, burned the same as the others.

Lenith managed three whole steps away before her legs turned to heavy stone. She listened.

 “You’re pretty close with Iggy, right?” Usvild asked.

“I wouldn’t say we’re close anymore. I’ve helped him out,” Herielt said.

“Of course. I ask because the fire started in his lot. I’ve reason to believe he was on photintra. Nena heard glass shattering, from her bed, on the other side of the wall. One of the Halibred kids said they heard something, too. Something along those lines, you know, makes it easy to start a blaze. Now, you don’t believe the Chimayri did this, do you? You’re the expert on these matters.”

Herielt crossed his arms, cupping his right elbow. “I don’t think it’d be them. The old Chimayri, yes, but the new breed enjoy shock and terror much more. All the same, keep an eye out. Bring it to light at the next Agglomeration. I’ll call major leaderships and warn them. I’d still chalk this one up to an addled, careless mind.”

He had so few mistakes left to make.

Lenith knew how outraged her father felt. His aggression hid behind a measured tone, but she had always seen through the ruse. His nostrils flared when he held in his anger. Cartilage was the one part of him he failed to control. That and his memories, but he forgot that, too.

A low, hot fragrance caught Lenith by surprise. The fire masked it well. Usvild was right. The subtle smell of acidic, condensed photintra traveled on the wind. She commanded her feet to move.

Herielt had spent so much of his time weaning Iggy off photintra. It was no easy task. The plant was a potent hallucinogenic, especially after modification. Iggy knew all the strongest concoctions. Any lifelong dwindler would attest to that. Nothing meant more to them than the pleasure.

If Herielt found Iggy, and the man was flying high, murder was a guarantee.

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Elsewhere Unknown

Chapter 2: The Invader's Meal

The sibling suns cut red shafts through the storefronts. The fire had snuffed itself.

With dusk, the mall plunged into full dark.

The dirt parking lot turned into a black labyrinth. Engineers had designed Korvilene’s vehicles for harsh weather, yet time judged all. A mix of compact and heavy cars congested the lot; a graveyard of the broken down and rusted.

Dreadmoss overwhelmed aerodynamic frames with black, needled veins. Some models were tall, and others short, obtuse, compact. They rarely had hard angles. The friction orbs that lined the bottom of every vehicle were sunken into the ground. Corrosion and build-up rendered their control sensors useless.

Someone had busted out most of their windows. One of Usvild’s daughters had dug into the mud for larvae on a warm dawning and returned home with glass shards gouging her fingertips. He had to sacrifice her hand to infection. From then, he prohibited access to the lot.

A sliver of false hope remained alight beyond the Bayona Cherished Forest. The skyline of Sudbina glowed a foggy orange, rising higher under perpetual construction. Lenith only knew the city from horror stories her father told. The law forbade people like Nena Vonch or Usvild’s life mate and daughters from entering.

Herielt explained it as post-acceptance. Fearing external cultures, the new regime favored loathing and bloodshed.

In their youth, Lenith and her brother pretended to walk the city streets from Emeray Hill. They said sentient insects crawled within the colossal, orange particle shield.

There was no evidence for this claim, only youthful speculation. Everyone knew what those structures held. Creatures far more dangerous than insects, monsters, and nightmares. The Chimayri were humans. Kin. The same genetic components as Lenith.

She always felt particularly safe on that hill. It made her value being on the outside, in the Gray Area, despite the stench of broen stalks growing on the slope. Her father still had a strong mind. Her brother still slept in a bed across the room from her. What mattered most was always within reach. She was home.

All that remained. Memories.

Usvild had allowed the Thaymen remnants refuge there. They had called the kitchen provisions shop home before it burned to the ground. The fire had blackened cheerful walls. Thick soot clung to her shoes. She brought a sleeve to her mouth and maneuvered around melted shelves.

Lenith had slept on the cutlery display. Her bed looked more like a black sarcophagus, surrounded by a procession of coals and ash. Herielt’s bed was the same in the rear office, where mismanagement had not gone on for seventeen and a half years.

A decent haul of utensils still hid in an airtight supply vault under the floor. It was their special stock, hoarded and traded when necessary.

Lenith paced the supply closet. She dragged the ash and soot with her shoes, clearing the way to open the vault. The rubber handle was cool to the touch.

Knives, forks, plates, dining sets, glasses, tools, pots, pans, and a novelty plush. She scooped the last one out like a tragic survivor, holding it close. Her brother had adored the cute beast, despite not grasping the concept.

She danced the furry, fawn-colored plush back into place. Oversized, floppy ears and forking antlers stuck out from the top of its head. Two black buttons served as eyes and a gray gut contrasted the rest of its body, plump with stuffing.

The plush had started as a gift to Lenith. It transferred to her brother Rejund despite being six-years her senior.

“I dunno why you like that thing,” Rejund had said, ten years old at the time. “It’s silly. Looks nothing like a kisavil.”

“Of course it’s silly.” Lenith oscillated the ears with occupied amusement. “It’s a novelty.”

“I’ll believe your word.” Rejund gestured to bring it closer.

“It means, like, dumb but funny,” Lenith explained, handing the toy over. “Novelty. Novel.”

“Like a tome? That makes no sense,” Rejund said. He examined the stitching that held the creature together. He became quiet when he felt dumb, which seemed to be an increasing amount of the time.

His refuge in silence started around the time that Lenith began to learn. Abstract geopolitical quarrels like the Division of Kahli made sense to Lenith. She ascertained the roots of the Theological War long before Herielt mentioned it.

Meanwhile, Rejund struggled to grasp how the Chimayri had changed the names of the ten cycles of the year. He failed to remember that days were thirty hours long. The Thaymen family had misdealt minds.

Lanterns twinkled, bathing the cooking fountain and tables in sepia hues. The patio’s long boards shined under a full moon.

Of all the utensils stowed away, Lenith only brought a slaughter knife. The notched blade whistled as she swung it through the air. A curved point at the end cut the night.

Lenith avoided the cooking fountain. Unlike most of the camp, she detested the odd, rusted taste left in the meat. Something about preparing raw food under the open sky bothered her.

She was a pale woman, enhanced by the moon’s sallow radiance. A chill reddened her sloped nose. She pressed chill-numbed fingertips against her favorite shirt.

Two lovers tangled against each other next to the fountain. Their tongues waged a war to see who would choke first. A stalemate.

“A bit frigid for late Tiid,” Lenith said, passing by.

The couple slobbered on each other, not taking the time to recognize the woman. Despite her disgust, Lenith yearned for the passion the two shared for each other. It had been almost five years since she last felt someone else’s touch. Rooftop solar collectors droned, feeding the mall with unending life.

The Thaymen family had traveled the outskirts of Sudbina for years. Lenith cared less with every new band of courageous survivors they met. She waited for the day to leave each impoverished town, camp, or lodging.

The mall had lasted much longer than expected. Four years. She had little excuse to avoid conversation, but she did, and they could all live with it. On the wrong side of the particle shields, bonds were frail and fleeting, much like everything.

The mall once flourished. Commerce had fueled the heart of Korvilene. Back then, the people fought against unforgiving seasons. Repairing any stray damage during a harsh year was part and parcel.

Nothing too severe. Far from the worries of a civil war.

Against untended time, rot softened and sank the structures. Scraps of advertisements clung to the last of their adhesive on eastward walls. Silhouettes of men and women in the middle of dancing or in peril, depending on what the poster sought to evoke. Faded images of high quality jewelry still advertised grandeur. These servants reminding her of a decent, comfortable, and unachievable past.

She tapped Rogdul’s hulking chest at the back door. She knew he was the Rogdul in the Feasting Grounds. The word meant ‘Invader’ in Roldre, the language of Wyloworth.

Uncomplicated fearmongering.

Lenith thought her father might have taken her to one of these eateries, when she was no older than three or four. Memories failed to stick at such a young age.

“You’ve stood out here all night, and for what?” she asked her statuesque friend. “I sure hope they pay you mass phinnies.”

Inside, a single lamp hung from the ceiling. It struggled to click on. Once awoken, it bathed the kitchen in a nauseating, anemic light. The residual stench of a million old meals greeted Lenith inside. She set the slaughter knife on the central preparation island.

Vigorous cleaning and frequent maintenance kept the last oven alive. A whole section in the utility closet brimmed with stove parts.

Three other ovens had once taken up the wall, side-by-side in cooking camaraderie. It took four able-bodied adults to dump their remains in the parking lot, to rust with the abandoned cars. Blackened outlines remained on the white walls.

She rummaged through the overhead cabinets. Communal pots, pans, and utensils dangled above seasoning jars and oil bottles. Lenith preferred to use her own. She despised borrowing other people’s things. It felt like an invasion. She laughed at the thought, remembering where she was. A door was all that kept her from Invader’s Feasting Ground, an atrocity of décor.

She set out the pots and headed to the dining room. The lights needed waking. Her father would arrive, as he always did, about five minutes late.

A horrific depiction of Wyloworth swallowed her. Fake trees and plants choked the booth dividers. Branches arched over the tables. Unrealistic vines swooped from the ceiling. Blue skies drifted along the walls. The right wall even had the suns rising together.

Tree trunks held tables and chairs. Thick, blue leaves of synthetic material covered the seats.

More brown-skinned statues with ugly faces guarded aisles and the unisex restroom. Korvilians taught their children that these fiends yearned to steal their food. Despite knowing the lie, Lenith felt a shiver when approaching one. She was an instrument programmed to fear the dark, no matter its nationality.

Lenith had only seen pictures of the real Wyloworth in history tomes. Framed and annotated chaos, with Wylos shredded and obliterated by Korvilian firepower. So much blood, spilled in a faraway land, for a fruitless war.

Still, there was something attractive about the tragic archipelago. Those brief glimpses of silent crags, peaks, and plateaus provided years of imagination. Trees were scarce. No vines swung down. No brutes in sight. Neighborhoods carved from stone. The Wylos were normal people in abnormal circumstances.

As Lenith entered the dining room, the lights were already on. The man responsible sat at the far end of the booths. Smoke swirled out from a long Red Meopa stick burning between his puffy lips. He was a plump man with a childish, black Mohawk sticking out from atop a round face. They called him Iggy, short for Ignacious, and he had set a fire.

 
 

Elsewhere Unknown

Chapter 3: Iggy, Part 1

“My dad would kill you if he saw this,” Lenith said.

“Too bad he doesn’t have a marsh to dump me in.”

The sting of the Meopa smoke compelled Lenith forward. She sat across from Iggy, in the same booth, forced to suck in more of the fumes he exhaled. Stuffing jutted through the torn leaves of her seat. Someone had gotten bored and taken a knife to the cushions. A comfortable position proved hard to find.

Ignacious Heln was harmless when sedated. The Meopa calmed him, she supposed. His stained, striped shirt burst at the seams. A stretched gut hung underneath. How he managed to stay so fat was a mystery.

“He was planning a talk with you. Where is he, Iggy?”

“Said he was going off with Usvild-boy like an hour back, considered calling for support. Hope the Chimayri didn’t get him already,” Iggy said. The stick bobbed with every word. Ashes canvassed the map that decorated the table. “I earned a smoke.”

“So, burning down a building wasn’t enough? Aiming for two?” Lenith asked.

“Ha. Your fa-ther came in here, shouting up his cause, saying he knew what I did. Up to my old ways. Boy’s being a fool, kid. This—” Iggy finally took the stick from his corroded mouth and held it out to Lenith. Its wide, dry veins smoldered. “This didn’t start no fire. And it wasn’t fucking photintra like Usvild-boy’s saying. A lantern broke and caught my bed. That’s all.”

Lenith swatted the stick from Iggy’s hand. He followed the trail of smoke and plucked it back up.

“Keep your death away from me,” Lenith said.

“Oh right, right. Got Retna’s blood inside ya.” Iggy settled the burning twig between his lips. He inhaled until his lungs topped off and blew it all away. “Wouldn’t wanta spill it.”

Lenith cringed but she knew better than to give him ground. She wanted to slap him. Wouldn’t that feel nice? Her hand stayed, clutching a torn leaf. “I know there’s something more to this, Iggy. You’re not good enough at lying.”

Iggy huffed the bitter smoke into her rust brown, almond-shaped eyes with a laugh. It scratched her pupils—made them itch and water. The infectious flavor snuck past her lips, gave a little kiss. She coughed and bowed her head, rubbing at the burn. A tiny blue bug skittered under the table, past the toes of her shoes.

The large man grinned his rotted teeth like he was the smartest boy in town and said “I didn’t lie. Told your fa-ther the truth. Not my fault he forgot it, so I got creative.”

“My dad wasted years on you, you muntk,” Lenith said. “Do you know how many nights his children were stuck alone so he could help you? You, this creature begging my dad to take you in and save your pathetic life.”

“Your fa-ther thought he could change me like he tried with your mo-ther. He’s right. I can change. I changed my shirt today. Pants, too. I can change my hair if I want. But it’s still a shirt. Still pants. It’s still—” His left hand ran through the grim, black horns of hair. “You can change a dwindler but he’s still a dwindler.”

“You didn’t have to start again.”

Iggy shifted in his seat. His gut struck the table. “You’ll dwindle someday, too. Not for powders. I bet for sex. Ya look like a girl that craves a good drubbing. Eby must’ve taught ya good.”

“We bled together.”

“A natural gift then. It’s hard to stop once ya get going. Even harder to keep stopped.” The look in his eyes felt familiar, violating.

“And you’re a shining example, Iggy. You put the whole camp at risk and destroyed everything my dad accomplished. You’ve endangered everyone.”

“He destroyed it first. His legacy got drubbed a long time ago. Worried about the Chimayri, huh? Fa-ther’s got ya all worked up like him. Good boy. They’ll be coming. You’ll leave at dawn, I suppose.”

Lenith presented her teeth. “He can still snap you in two.”

“Hush now, ya stupid pihnt. Hush before I break something ya can’t fix.”

“It’d be best if you left.” Lenith’s hands pressed to her lap.

“Why?” Iggy’s mighty girth rammed the table. Its trunk legs rocked and settled. “Ya forget I was here first?”

“I have to make dinner.” Lenith scooted closer to the end of the booth. “Go sleep in the lot, where you can’t burn something else down.”

The table slammed forward. A sharp pain shot from Lenith’s stomach to her mouth. She let out a strained cry, pinned. She pushed back and crammed the table’s edge into his belly. It gave her enough time to gasp in air. The table leapt back, stabbed against her ribs. The pain spread deeper.

“With a mouth like that, you’re gonna get in lots of trouble. Remember that next place ya go run to. You’re not a kid anymore. I got no reason to yield to ya,” Iggy said and took a cumbersome, victorious stand. “Tell your fa-ther it’s time to leave Rugerbin. Leave it quick, too, if he wants to live.”

Lenith slumped forward. The table’s cool surface felt nice against her head. The door slammed shut and Iggy was gone.

She crawled to the edge of the booth and lifted her shirt. Blood vessels had ruptured in a thick, reddened line across her abdomen. It would leave a heinous bruise. She was sure of it.

Making dinner was twice the chore it should have been. Lenith endured. She cooked enough food for a family, to be safe. Her unwieldy appetite came straight from her father.

She found the largest pan in the cabinet.

The residents of Rugerbin had learned to cherish their pots and pans because too many eating utensils had rusted away. Plates and bowls broke over time, until none remained.

The woodworkers of Town Ahnhilt had whittled new forks and spoons for the mall. Their patient hands carved out bowls and square plates from stumps. At last, they dipped the finished products in lacquer and sent them north to the camp.

The pan sizzled with Lenith’s original mixture of zests and base oil. Bits of dark kisavil meat, chopped hordig for foliage and color, and thick cuts of haller. Haller was an enduring, virile red root. Almost always guaranteed to hide underground wherever grass grew.

She dusted a thin layer of spice over the concoction.

Oil spat from the pan. The haller lost its color. Stirring every two minutes thickened the combined juices into a sauce. She was always watchful to avoid scorching.

One night, she had cooked for a stranger at Chesinek Camp to the west. The patron was a wiry, older man who looked ready to keel over from starvation. He reeked of body odor. She had had a pan, a fire pit, and a few basic herbs slathered across a slice of dovil thigh. Making something worthwhile had little to do with ingredients. The man laced his compliments with hyperbole. It had inflated her ego.

Yet, she would lay in bed at night, quiet, and think on his words. “The greatest cook of all time.” Her food was “the pinnacle of perfection.” It angered her that she had let the starving man’s praises cloud her head. It was at a time when compliments were rare, like treats tossed to starving orphans.

‘Middling’ came to her in the silent moments before sleep. She accepted mediocrity before dreams washed over her.

The front door rattled. Her body stiffened. Memories could wait. The fear of Iggy’s return took center stage. She waited to hear him barrel into the kitchen, vacant eyes fixating on harassing her more. Whatever trifled with the handle gave up.

Lenith crept over and peered into the dining room. The serrated slaughter knife trembled at her side. She saw nothing through the glass wall at the front of the restaurant.

Much to her heart’s dismay, the back door rattled along its rails. She leapt and swung, putting the knife between her and whatever pushed through.

 

Elsewhere Unknown

Chapter 3: Iggy, Part 2

From the night came Herielt, bundled in a thin and unwinding coat.

“Did you know the front door’s locked?” he asked.

The monstrous pressure lifted from her chest. “I locked it. I thought you’d come through the back.”

“I guess I should’ve, all things considered, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise of what you were cooking.” He shrugged.

“No surprises tonight,” Lenith said. She tried to hide how hard her chest beat, pointing over to the pan of growling oil as a distraction. “Almost done. It’s only frykis.”

Herielt went to the pan. He fanned the kisavil meat’s seasoned, heated aroma. The third button down on his shirt was missing.

“Just frykis?” Herielt said. “You know frykis is my favorite. There’s nothing just about it.”

They took their full plates into the dining room. Lenith made sure to avoid where her confrontation with Iggy took place. She settled under a row of false, bushy trees.

An imaginary version of Wyloworth’s map sprawled over the table. Cute alliterations marked fictional locations on what was a very real continent. Beast Banner’s Burrow. Savage’s Slave Settlement.

Lenith’s depressing favorite: Worth’s Worthy Wilds. She wondered how much compensation the artist received. At least enough to justify such a blatant violation. She set her plate over the inaccurate map.

“Was Iggy in here?” Herielt sniffed the air with his oversized nose.

After a slight pause, Lenith said. “He was smoking like he earned it.”

The pain in her abdomen radiated like an unwelcome reminder.

“He thinks he’s clever because I let him off but we know, don’t we?”

Lenith replied with an agreeable smile. She pointed to her father’s untidy shirt. “I see you’ve lost another button.”

“I didn’t want to say it. I know how much you loathe the Halibreds.”

“I do, don’t I?”

“I need you to try, next place we go. We all needs friends.” Herielt scarfed down a slice of haller. “And trust your friends. Other than family, they’re all that exists.”

Her fork stirred the frykis into swirls. “Iggy made it sound like we’re leaving.”

“Likely.”

Herielt reclined. His calloused hands flattened out the wrinkles along his shirt. Deeper problems plagued his indolent head, buried beneath the surface. His daughter was keen at seeing through the waves.

He added, in a snapping decision, “We’re leaving at dawn. The Chimayri no doubt saw that smoke all the way in Juptos.”

A funny change happened, in that it was not funny at all. Lenith always dreaded the shift. Tallying how many times it had happened failed to reveal a pattern or trigger.

The signs presented. Her father’s eyes glazed. Thoughtful, furrowed brows trailed upward to wrinkle his clean scalp. Surprise and confusion stole his expression. He was grasping for a thought, a memory, searching the room.

He found something.

In false clarity, Herielt said, “Can’t believe no one came for your birthday, Leni-cakes.”

Lenith took in a deep, sad breath and succumbed to the decay. It was easier that way. “I don’t need friends when I have family, dad.”

“Well, not even your brother’s here. What family’s that? Where is he?” Herielt moved to stand. Lenith caught his arm. He called “Rejund, where are you?”

So, her brother still lived with them in this episode of memory traversal. At least these episodes provided puzzles to numb the anxiety that collared Lenith. She watched her father, yes, but she also saw herself in twenty years. In thirty years. In forty, whenever the disease struck.

“Where’s your gift? I can’t seem to find it. I know—” He rifled his pockets and crawled under the table. “It must be around here somewhere.”

Herielt craned his neck around. He saw his surroundings and stopped. His shoulders slumped. Lenith’s hand fell to hold his arm.

He smiled without joy, filled with some stigmatic sense of regret, and she pressed to smile back. This lapse was not too bad. Sometimes he forgot everything, altogether, for much longer. He had lost himself for an ennead a year back.

Safe in the booth, a seldom-seen appreciation removed the glaze from Herielt’s eyes. He stuffed his mouth with frykis to keep words at bay. It brought Lenith enough reassurance to keep going.

He veered away from the episode. “So, what did Iggy have to say then?”

“I don’t know,” Lenith said. “He talked about mother.”

Herielt set his fork aside. His oval face turned a dark red. “What did he say?”

Lenith stirred her food. She became lost in its swirl. “Nothing special. He said I was going to be like her.”

Herielt leaned over. “He’s got nothing left in life except dark fantasy.”

“You don’t think I will? I won’t be her?”

Herielt gave her a hard look. His lips thinned.

“Leni-cakes. Twenty-two years old. If you’re not her yet, you never will. That’s that. I’ve raised you with different principles. You know how to control yourself. You know when and how to fight.”

The frykis was Lenith’s sanctuary. When she had another urge to speak, she shoveled more into her mouth. It did not take long for her to devour everything on the plate and the safety it brought was gone.

Her eye caught a shadow moving in the dark outside, past the glass. She put it out of her mind.

Herielt’s plate slid closer across the tabletop. The scraping retrained Lenith’s attention. She figured he had lost his appetite. She was wrong. He moved to her side of the booth, closing the gap. It was his way of warning he had something important to say without being obtuse about the delivery.

“You’re allowed to be what you want, no matter what it is. The world’s made of lovers and fighters, and all the hues between. I didn’t educate you to live in doubt. You only become your mother if you choose to. You’ll make mistakes. You grow from them.”

“Was Eby Belinger my mistake?” Lenith asked.

“Thaymen have always had soft cores,” Herielt said with a smile. “It brings us headaches. Belinger was a victim, and so were you. If anything, I blame myself for leaving her behind. Dreams still come to me, of that day. It haunts me. It wasn’t your fault. Nothing that happened at Hidden Ash was your fault. Nothing. You can’t keep punishing yourself with loneliness.”

Lenith remained at the table while Herielt cleaned dishes. She became lost in thought to the shuffle and splash of plates in the sink. Her father hummed a tune made on the spot, or a song lost to time and war. She figured it was impossible for two people in the same family to become as wrecked as Retna Thaymen had been.

The humming stopped. Was Herielt back in that other world? Did he think he was washing away birthday treats? He had given her aubirt-straw dolls for her seventh year. Her brother was gone the following year.

Something teetered inside. She was not sure what.

The sink sputtered. The sound of Herielt smacking the arching, silver spout cleared the air pockets. Water poured out in droves. He chuckled. The humming returned.

A smudge on the table caught Lenith’s eye. She set her hand on the bumpy surface of an illustrated mountain under the flat laminate. She scratched the smudge with chipped nails.

The smudge persevered, marking a spot on the map labeled the Great Worth. It was a real, honest place even if the mountain the artist put it on was not. A rare, peaceful place in Wyloworth.

She could not stop digging. The mark needed to go. It refused to budge.

 
 

Elsewhere Unknown

Chapter 4: No Room for Surprises

The world had bloomed. The many delicate lips of qaling flowers peeled open to reveal pointed stigmas. The Bayona Cherished Forest flanked the eastern walls of Rugerbin Mall. Leaves grew fat and verdant. Grass and moss strived over unnatural wreckage. Dreadmoss swallowed the shingles of sunken roofs in nearby neighborhoods.

Gaunt, bipedal bastards called dapies cried under moldy beds and shadowed corners. Black, saucer eyes scanned for predators. Green fur clumped with mildew and parasites. They despised the suns. Legends claimed that their love for only one mate manifested in hate for all else.

Dawning heat and the cold of night mixed to form dew in the most peculiar of places.

Most of the guardian gates throughout Rugerbin were down. Blankets hung over storefront windows, collecting precipitation.

Lenith heard someone crying from behind the blue door of the ‘Homemade’ shop. Its guardian gate was already pried open. She peeked inside to see a row of bare shelving units under a dim lamp.

Usvild stood past the shelves. He shoved a fistful of clothes into a gunnysack. His life mate lay on a cot with her face to the wall. She was weeping.

“Hey, Usvild,” Lenith said. She forced the door deeper into the wall. “Have you seen my dad? He’s been gone—”

“I have troubles to worry over,” Usvild said, tossing a pair of pants on top of the sack. “Go on and leave me to it.”

“It’s a simple question.”

“Your dad hasn’t lost his head yet. Search the woodlands. Check all the pitfalls and traps. Now, go on.”

On her way out, Lenith caught the life mate muttering “All lies. It’s all over.”

ΞΞΞ

Lenith pressed her back to the doorframe of another, half-opened guardian gate. She turned her head to avoid snagging her ponytail. It left enough room for her to fit. The buttons of her favorite shirt scraped the intricate iron as she slid through.

The former jewelry shop now belonged to Hegrib Shovur Aber. He first arrived at the camp two years after Lenith and her family.

Hegrib mitigated the risk of danger and disaster wherever he stayed. A heart condition kept him sequestered most days. Blankets and soft cushions replaced every jewelry case and glass shelf. His belongings lined the tile floor. Long-lasting, ultra-bright light bulbs defused through the shades of tall lamps. Usvild had bolted the lamps to the floor.

The withered man had no way of gauging his condition. Whether worsening or improving, he nullified the risk either way. The slightest scare could kill him. No one had an issue meeting his demands because, of the few demands he made, they were all too reasonable.

Lenith found Hegrib nestled across a collection of blankets and pillows at the back of the room. Skeletal fingers danced over a digital tome.

"Halfway through."

Hegrib glanced her. A smooth, fleshy divot covered where his left eye should have been; a birth defect adding insult to a weak heart. In retaliation, he had surgery to cover the socket.

Lenith gave a hip-high wave. An abomination, clad in an oversized, striped sweater, was the most pleasant resident to talk with. One of the few she went out of her way to see.

“It’s early for dawnfeast,” Hegrib said.

He set the screen down, settled onto his knees, and rose with both hands ready to catch a fall.

“You don’t have to stand.”

“It’s fine. I need my powders anyway.” Hegrib shuffled over to a pyramid of red boxes made from the durable material philok. He took a powder capsule from the top case and tossed down the hatch. He swallowed dry.

“So, it’s not an early dawnfeast?”

“Afraid not. How’s your heart?”

Hegrib tapped the top of the pyramid. “These keep me in shape. Oh, you mean after all the fire and smoke. Good. Nothing sneaks in once I lock that guardian gate. Not smoke, not fire, not nerves.”

His voice was much softer than the visage it came from. Soft, cautious, thoughtful. He went from touching the pyramid to drumming along the groove of his bald scalp. “What has brought you here then?”

Caught by surprise, Lenith had no answer. She lacked an absolute reason to be there other than to check in. She could have asked if her father had stopped by but it was an absolute lie. Herielt had spent as little time with Hegrib as Lenith spent with the Halibred children.

“I… I only wanted to say hello,” Lenith said.

“Ah. Oh, I wanted to show you something. That history chunk you lent me, I came upon something of interest within.”

Hegrib wandered to a portable screen among his piled belongings. It was flat and scuffed at the edges. A hairline crack ran down the screen at a slant. He took a compact controller adhered to the thick, black bezel and pressed a button at the bottom. Something in the screen thumped and a blurry video played.

Lenith could not tell what she saw. Hegrib scoffed and stuck the controller back on the frame. His defeat spoke. “Never mind. Another vid chunk worn down. I apologize. It was working yesterday.”

“It’s fine. I have plenty more.”

Hegrib’s optimism sunk. He ejected the vid chunk from the display and set it on the sill of a cemented window.

“I guess now I’m wondering if you plan to move out. It looks like Usvild and his family plan to and we are, too. Fire attracts predators, after all.”

Lenith received the exact response she expected.

“I’ll remain. We’re not all afforded the teachings of Herielt Thaymen. I lack the knowledge of shooting, hunting, or fighting. This frail body serves no one. But I grant your family luck.”

“If you change your mind, my dad will make accommodations. You can come with us. You don’t need to serve anyone. Surviving is its own service.”

A flash of resignation showed in Hegrib’s eye. He either had not taken the time to consider leaving, or it was sinking in how alone he was about to become.

To most, Hegrib was a burden that no one seemed to want and no one seemed to mind. He was the closest Lenith had to a friend.

He said, “I’m fine.”