Michelle stared out the window, unable to know what to think or feel. People had gathered in their family – no, now just her father’s – home overnight. She knew this was proper for mourning. But the Ruling Caste didn’t even tell them how her mom had died. Only not to expect her back, and that it would be “proper” to mourn her.
So here they were, gathered in mourning over Mom. None of them had seen a body, or a grave site, but the Ruling Caste had declared, so they obeyed. But Michelle didn’t want the comfort of family or friends, or stories about how sweet Mom had been. She knew all that. She wanted answers. But it was clear she wasn’t going to get them.
“Michelle?” The sorrow in her dad’s voice behind her was weirdly juxtaposed by a laugh in the other room.
“What is it, Dad?” She didn’t want to talk to him, to any of them. He most of all just accepted the Ruling Caste’s words, and had always impressed on her the importance of following his lead.
His answer to her question was firmer, less like the dad she knew. “Do you remember Gabriel?”
Her brother? “No.” He had died when she was little. She felt some sort of lesson coming on, and almost didn’t’ ask her next question because of it. But what was the point in holding back, really? “What about him?”
“He was younger than you are now.” Michelle felt her dad grab portions of her hair affectionately and start to braid it, like he had when she was little. She let him – for now.
“That was – what – ten years ago?” She had been six at the time.
“Next week.” Michelle felt the weight behind his words, and it took her a moment to understand why. Ten years was the mourning period assigned. After then, one person may choose to enter the records office and learn the truth.
“Why are you telling me this?”
She felt the gentle tug on her braid as Dad worked, then the soft drop as it landed between her shoulder blades and immediately began unraveling. “Your mother didn’t want me to say anything.” He took his time, and Michelle let him. “But you’re Gabriel’s next of kin.”
What? “No, you are.”
Dad stepped into her line of sight. She could see now he had kept behind her to hide his red and puffy eyes. “He was as good as a son to me, but they don’t see it that way.”
What was Dad trying to tell her? That Gabriel wasn’t his son? “What –” Michelle had to ask – “what about me?”
Dad’s warm palms found her shoulders for only a moment. Then, without another word, they slipped past her, puling her into an assertive but comforting embrace. “You’re all mine.” His whisper in her ear sent her stray hair into a puff.
It took every vertebrae working together for her not to melt at the words. With so many secrets – so many lies – being laid plain so abruptly, she needed to hear her dad say that, and for it to be true.
When he pulled away again, he looked somehow stronger than before. “When he died, they told us the same thing they told us about your mom.” Nothing at all. “In fact, their records are probably right next to each other.” Michelle felt her dad watching her, as if the words he had spoken had more value than his casual tone let on.
It took her too long to understand. Dad wanted her to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about her brother’s death to sneak a peek at her mother’s records, too. He, of course, couldn’t say this aloud, as the Ruling Caste had the ability to listen in on their conversations at any time.
He was asking her to break the Law. Just the thought turned her kneecaps to oatmeal, so she had to catch herself on the dusty piano just to stay upright. “Really?” she managed to ask.
“Well, with the same last name, it would make sense.”
Michelle didn’t follow. “What?”
Dad embraced her again, but this time it was entirely one-sided. She was left staring at the moist hand print in the dust on the white piano. “I love you,” her dad spoke this time, weirdly loud in her ear despite the ongoing conversations in the next room over. “Your mom would want you to know the truth.” Of what had happened to her, not just Gabriel.
Michelle wanted to know too.
Lauren could only watch in terror as the curved knife of the man who had taken her drew closer. That man, along with several others, were all watching her closely, almost hungrily, but it was Hannah who did all the talking to her.
“The key,” she demanded again.
Lauren couldn’t. She refused to give Gabriel up, especially to those villains. “No.” The word came out weaker than she wanted it to be.
With a nod from Hannah, the thug turned back to Lauren, choosing her left side first. She couldn’t quite tell what he was doing until she felt the tug on her sleeve. His hooked blade had found the hole in her t-shirt meant for her arm. The point bit the tender flesh of Lauren’s ‘armpit like a large bug, but she couldn’t escape it, not pinned to the tree like she was. Slowly, like a domesticated cat mid-stretch, the metal claw dragged down her side, opening up the side of her shirt and leaving a river of pain in its wake. Surely the skin, now exposed to the cold night, was bleeding, but her nerves were too focused on the pain to tell a temperature difference.
“The key,” Hannah repeated.
Words tried to escape Lauren in a feeble attempt to get them to leave her alone, but she was able to catch the confession at the last moment and swallow the truth again. “No,” she reiterated. A wild thought told her she should be grateful for the metal wire digging into her wrists as it was. This way her elbows could keep the errant cloth pinned to her body and not flapping freely in the wind, as it would be were her wrists behind the tree like any sane kidnappers. Plus, she thought the easier escape was the best part of her awkward position. Now she’d have to wait until they fell asleep to figure this out.
“Come now,” Hannah insisted diplomatically. “I ordered them to be gentle. But I think you know they don’t want to.” The squatting woman’s hair seemed to have half a mind of its own, shaking in agreement to Hannah’s statement.
Lauren gulped, but tried to cover it with a brave face. “Listen here, Medusa. You need to let me go. Like, before they notice I’m gone. You’ve entered the mountains of madness now. Best leave while you can.” Lauren was mixing stories, but whatever. Her point still made it across, at least in her opinion.
“Mountains? Hills, maybe.” Okay, Hannah had her there. Foothills. “I don’t know if you noticed, but you don’t rule this place. Not anymore. It’s mine.” At that, she gave another nod, this time to a different goon. He was just as eager to obey as his cohort, swiftly slicing his blade down her right side to match the left.
One wrong move, and Lauren would lose the cloth covering her entirely. She hated the thought, but hated herself for being in the situation to have it. Hannah seemed to be enjoying herself, anyway. After the blade finished its work, it found a home where Lauren’s chin met her throat. All it took now was a sneeze at the wrong moment, and she’d be spilling blood instead of secrets.
Lauren held her breath. Not only did it help her maintain silence, but it stopped her shaking. Some.
She didn’t even see her next attacker just a broad plank of wood as it swung into her line of sight, landing straight between her elbows and into her gut. The blow forced all the air she’d been holding out again. As if in answer, the blade at her throat slipped. Pain followed, then the sure warmth of her blood on her skin.
“Do you really doubt who’s in charge?” No.
The man traded his plank for a thin log in the fire. When he turned back to Lauren, he was licking his lips absently. She wanted to kick, or scream, but couldn’t collect enough of her scattered energy. The black tip of the log glowed with coals. Its heat cut through the night as he pushed it closer to her face.
Hannah’s icy voice juxtaposed the log so close to Lauren’s face. “How much do you like your eye?” A lot. She read with her eyes.
It was now so close, Lauren couldn’t keep it clear in her vision. The log was going to burn off her eyelashes first.
Lauren had to say something. “The Red Ghost has it!” Lauren didn’t comprehend her own words until they were out. Relief came twofold: first that the words pushed the threat away, and second that she hadn’t said Gabriel’s name.
When the glowing coals receded from her vision, Hannah had one finger lifted, but otherwise hadn’t moved. “Red Ghost?”
Lauren wasn’t about to explain the phrase, especially because it would reveal she’d been lying. “He haunts these woods,” she forced herself to insist. More. She nodded too.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“There’s no such thing as monsters,” Lauren countered. “Yet I saw the ghost kill one this morning. The kind that knocks down trees.” A fog started to roll in to the fringes of the camp, making the scene suddenly quite small. It lent her some comfort, though, because it meant water was nearby. If she could find it, then she could find her way back to camp.
“I saw the corpse,” one of the thugs chimed in. “That way.” Good to know.
“No human can kill one of those things,” another argued.
Lauren had to hide her pride at the statement. “I didn’t say a human did.”
“Okay,” Hannah interrupted. “Pretending for the moment this ghost is real – how do I find him?”
Lauren wasn’t about to point this horde to Gabriel or their campsite. “You don’t. He finds you.”
On Hannah’s whim, the goons and their weapons started closing in on Lauren again.
“I don’t know! That’s all I remember, I swear!”
Lauren could feel the glow of the ashen stick as it threatened her cheek and eye again. “Wait!” Think! “I might be able to summon him.” She had no plan beyond delaying the inevitable. What she needed was time enough to escape when they weren’t looking. “He’ll only come to me, though.”
A deep chill ran through her, and the camp, though no breeze rustled even a leaf. The campfire could no longer keep the fog at bay. It settled between them like the dredges of a stew, with hunched brigands sticking out above the goop instead of potatoes.
“What makes you so special?” Hannah asked after a moment.
Lauren didn’t know how to answer, and couldn’t think of a lie fast enough. Fortunately, she didn’t have to.
A yelp interrupted the interrogation, coming from the far side of the fire but outside the view of the campsite. Every head, including Lauren’s, turned that way, but the fire was too bright and the growing fog too thick. She couldn’t see anything.
Not that Lauren minded. It wasn’t exactly like she had any allies around. Gabriel had made it clear that if she ever ended up in a situation like this, it’d be up to her to get out of it. Apparently Hannah and her raiding party had their enemies, too.
For a long moment nothing happened. Then, slowly Hannah stood – awkwardly tall now that Lauren could see her at full height – waving with her left to a few of her mend to follow even as she put a palm on the chest of the man closest to her. Her orders were clear without voicing a word. Stay. Hannah made eye contact with the muscular human, waving two fingers from her own face to Lauren’s. Watch her.
Not knowing if the new presence was an ally or an even worse enemy, Lauren was contented to keep her mouth shut and sit this one out. Any attempt at escape would mean losing her shirt, something she’d rather avoid until they were asleep. Or dead, as the case may be. Either way, not now.
Hannah and her thugs were stalking closer to the sound when suddenly one stopped in his tracks. Two, then the whole group. Lauren couldn’t see it, but her babysitter could. His eyes grew slowly, staring at that patch of trees and fog until he breathed a swear word. It was so quiet Lauren almost missed it, if not for the near-silence of their environment.
“The Red Ghost.”
As surprised at the words as the man’s conclusion, Lauren looked closer to that patch of forest, half expecting to see a camel with a corpse strapped to its back.
The figure that stepped from the fog to the firelight was dramatically smaller but far more terrifying for Lauren’s companions.
His face was flush with fury, each arm low by his side, dripping blood and holding a weapon. His machete was practically dunked in the liquid, but her axe was clean as of yet, gleaming in the firelight and choked just below the heavy head of the weapon. His shirt boasted a fresh line of blood across the chest on top of the caked and dried layers along his torso and under his swollen and blistering arm. Gabriel looked every bit worthy of the terror on her captor’s faces.
The only movement in the camp was his mighty chest heaving, though with rage this time, not exertion like she’d seen on him before. Finally his gaze made its way to Lauren, and he offered what he must have meant to be a comforting smile. He slackened his axe hand briefly, and her weapon sank like a failed hot air balloon, stopping short of leaving him entirely. It was just enough to make any swing with her weapon at its most powerful.
“Close your eyes, Lauren.”
She couldn’t explain why, but his words slicing through the silence – punctuated only by a log breaking in the fire – came as a shock to her. It took an extra second to accept, then obey.
A small whoosh preceded the sounds of screaming.
Lauren hated when they had to kill humans – it was so pointless that they’d be fighting each other when the real monsters were out there – but the act came as naturally to Gabriel as sleeping. Almost immediately a war cry from one of the thugs was cut short, quickly followed by stomping approaching her. Lauren didn’t know if they intended to to use her as a hostage or bargaining chip to bribe him into sparing their lives, only that she’d refuse the first and her friend would surely refuse the second.
But the hurried steps didn’t stop at the tree. Rather, they ran past without any evidence of slowing, instead diverting around the tree and headed back to the fray by the fire. The feet remained steady even when a sudden and resounding thud shook the tree she was pinned to. The next moment the tension in the wire around her wrists slackened. Tingling greeted her fingertips, followed by a wholesome warmth not very different from a bonfire. The run-by culprit had freed her, and must’ve only come from Gabriel.
Lauren considered pulling her axe free of the tree and fighting – or at least running – but as she listened to the melee, she decided staying here with her reluctant protector was a better idea. Feral and silent griffons stalked these woods when the fog rolled in. She could at least hold off until this battle was determined.
She didn’t have to wait long. The night’s former silence came back in a rush, like a tsunami bent on drowning them all. Only the fire and Gabriel’s labored breathing broke it.
Lauren peeked with one eye, then, seeing Gabriel was the only one standing, opened the other. A bitter rage painted the man’s face as much as the blood of her captors. Keeping her arms – and modesty – close to herself, Lauren managed to standing, searching what was left of the faces on the ground. Four of them, all male. Hannah wasn’t there.
“She escaped,” Gabriel broke the silence first, following Lauren’s train of thought. When she glanced to him, he was dragging a rag along the flat of his machete without much result, but his eyes were scanning the tall pines.
“And one more.” Including the one Gabriel had found first, her count before his grand entrance told her one was still missing. Scanning the faces, Lauren didn’t see the sneering man who had initially nearly choked her to death outside of camp.
Gabriel seemed wholly unbothered by the slaughter he had wrought on the camp. “I got him first,” he answered after a moment.
“Hannah had six with her.” Lauren realized too late that she was out of line to argue with her rescuer. She just wanted to get the facts straight.
“Hannah?” It wasn’t a familiarity that stained his features. More like surprise, as if he had forgotten these people could have names. “Two escaped, then.”
Lauren did her best to smile her thanks at him, careful not to move her arms even to pat him on the back or free her weapon. “I don’t think they’ll return. Not anytime soon, anyway.”
Gabriel’s eyes left the trees for her, lingering only a moment before returning to the soupy horizon. “You hurt?”
“No,” she responded hurriedly, though she didn’t fully know why. It wasn’t like their only audience could get any more dead if Gabriel got angrier. “They just tore up my shirt.”
Her words did nothing to placate him. “That’s all, though? Nothing more?”
She was doubly grateful for the honest answer she was able to give. “Nothing more.”
Gabriel merely nodded slowly. “Okay.” Then, all of a sudden, he visibly snapped out of that blood lust, back to her friend and companion. “That Hannah must’ve had a spare she left behind. Maybe some rope too, if we’re lucky. I’ll start here and see what else these guys had on them.”