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Chapter 3: Threads

“Historians say that the People from Before were both kind and generous. It was the golden era for humanity, until the O’stari came.”

--Ford Deere, storyteller


“Smoke the star-eyed beast out,” an unfamiliar voice urged from outside, followed by laughter.

Thick, oily smoke filled Zanna’s room. She stumbled out of bed, slipped on her boots without tying them, then grabbed her dust veil before peeking out from below the privacy curtain. Another glass container shattered outside, spreading more burning oil over the side of their home. Keeping low, Zanna rushed out into the main room, searching for Temaar. He wasn’t in his room and the fire had already consumed part of the front wall of the house. More shouts reached her ears, her uncle’s voice among them. She hurriedly tied her boots and secured her veil before grabbing a poker from the fireplace and leaping through the flames.

The toe of one of Zanna’s boots caught on the edge of the hole in the wall, sending her sprawling on the ground outside. She rolled to put out any of her clothes that may have caught fire and quickly pushed up onto her feet, holding the iron poker ready. Temaar fought three men with a pitchfork while a fourth lay still on the ground near the chicken enclosure.

Another had his arm raised holding a bottle with a lit rag spilling from its mouth in his hand ready to throw at the house, but changed his target when he spotted Zanna. The bottle sailed past her head and through the burned hole in the side of the house as she dodged, shattering against the mud brick floor, its contents splashing and igniting the fragile old cloth that had served as a door since she was small. The flames quickly licked upward against the desiccated wooden support frame and compacted straw they had used for insulation.

Zanna charged him with her makeshift weapon raised, snarling. He started to raise a machete to block her strike but was too slow. Swinging wide as hard as she could, she felt the poker impact his head with a dull crunch. He hit the ground, but Zanna didn’t stop to check his condition. Instead she continued moving, knowing that Temaar wouldn’t be able to hold off the remaining attackers indefinitely.

One of them swiped low with a pitted blade across Temaar’s middle while Temaar thrust the pitchfork into his compatriot, then withdrew the sharp tines piercing the man’s chest as he gurgled his last breath. Screaming her fury, Zanna flung herself at the one that injured her uncle while Temaar smacked the other with the handle of the pitchfork, breaking his nose. Zanna swung the poker but missed as the man swayed backwards, apparently just now noticing that Zanna was awake. He held his blade defensively as he stepped back, glaring at her with pure hatred.

“Your invasion will fail, star-eyes,” he spat the slur at her. Deciding that the odds no longer favored him, he turned and ran. Zanna turned her attention to the last man being held at bay by Temaar’s pitchfork. Looking at them both with unbelieving wide-eyed fear, he stumbled backward, then turned and ran as well, following his friend. Temaar groaned and slumped down on the ground, clutching his belly. Zanna dropped the slightly bent poker and rushed to his side.

“Uncle, you have to get up,” she said, her tone desperate as she slung his arm over her shoulder and pulled. “We have to get to the temple.”

Temaar lifted his hand from the gaping wound, wincing as a spurt of blood seeped into his clothes. Having seen enough injuries like this, he knew it was hopeless.

“Listen to me, Zanna,” he said, grabbing her chin to get her attention. “I’m dying, there’s no way around it.”

“No, no,” she cried, “they’ll help you at the temple. It’s not that far away, just hold onto me.”

“There’s isn’t enough time, you know the same as I do. You have to let me go.”

He slid out of her bloody hands and hit the ground again with a grunt and a soft thud. Zanna sank to her knees beside him, her vision a watery blur.

“I wanted to tell you everything,” he said. “But you don’t have time. They’ll be back with friends and you… need to be gone.”

His voice became fainter. “Go to Shade’s Respite; everything you need… is there. Just put me on the fire so I can rejoin the Earth properly.”

Zanna held his hand until his breathing finally stilled. Sniffling and rubbing her face on the dirty sleeve of her sleeping shirt, she stood and walked to the lifeless attacker she had hit with the iron poker. The house was too far gone to risk trying to get anything from inside. She rolled the body over and removed the machete’s sheath, then searched his pockets for anything else of value. After searching the others, she lifted Temaar’s body up onto her shoulder and carefully placed him among the still burning wood and insulation. She left the other bodies where they lay; let the animals carry them off to the afterlife they’ve earned.

Before setting off, she opened the chicken house and set them free to fend for themselves. At least then they would have a chance. Fortunately, there were clothes still hanging to dry from the fence around the chicken yard-- she really didn’t want to strip the bodies for dirty clothes that were too small for her anyway. She grabbed a few garments as she walked by, never breaking her stride. She could change out of her sleeping clothes later when she had some distance between her and the house.

* * *

The wandering spark priest known locally only as Eleven stood in his workshop, sawing through the tough hip joint of the corpse on his worktable. The dancer wasn’t impressive on his own, but like a huge chessboard, removing a single lesser piece could have a massive effect. The right words spoken at an opportune moment, a piece of knowledge conveyed to the right person-- it was all that was needed to set his long awaited plan in motion.

Eleven had tried to comfort the man with the knowledge that his sacrifice meant that his child would grow up to be a great leader one day as he ripped out one fingernail at a time, but some people simply weren’t capable of perceiving anything beyond their own petty circumstances. The spark priest could see it all clearly though, like the patterns made by wind blowing across the sand. Someone needed to guide their collective fate, so he took action when necessary.

Rising to his full height, Eleven stretched from his hunched position when the final threads of connective tissue split apart. Sweat dripped down his face, but he hadn’t bothered to remove the brown leather mask adorned with colorful dye-print designs and a single panel dark lens through which he viewed the world; it was hot work dismembering bodies in the sacred garments of his order. The leather gloves he usually wore sat on another table nearby. No reason to soil them unnecessarily.

There was some blood dripping on the floor, but not as much as there might have been if he’d handled the body differently. He quickly wrapped the pieces in a large, thin cloth before placing them in a small cart with a potted evergreen sapling, a container of powder, and a shovel before pulling the cart out the door. A short distance from the workshop, Eleven came to a waist deep hole he’d dug earlier and unwrapped the body parts before dropping them in one at a time.

He wiped his hands on a relatively clean corner of the fabric then took the unlabeled powder container from the cart and sprinkled some in the hole before partially filling it in with dirt. He stepped down in the hole to compress the loose soil and discourage wildlife from digging the body up, then lovingly freed the little sapling from its pot and carefully placed it in the unmarked grave, gently pressing the dirt down around its roots.

As the sun sank lower on the horizon, Eleven took a moment to admire the shifting colors of the sky before heading back inside to clean up the remaining blood. That little tree might one day make the difference between the survival of this world and total extinction. He ran his hand over the back of his neck to remove some of the sweat tickling his skin as it soaked into his shirt and took in the sight of the small forest lazily spreading around his workshop.

* * *

Amarice studied the busy marketplace full of people making trades. She was still far from her destination, even after several days of travel. Finding someone with O’stari blood willing to go all the way to Shade’s Respite would be the hardest part of the job by her estimation. She could ask here, but it was probably better if she waited until she was closer still when it would be easier to convince someone to travel with her a shorter distance. Too bad it had to be fresh blood; getting a small sample and taking it with her would have been so much easier. She just hoped the locks at the compound at Shade’s Respite would be fine with blood from someone who was also half-human as all the O’stari had left Earth, leaving behind only the rare half breed.

Turning away from the last merchant she needed to visit to resupply, she caught sight of a young woman at another stall further down the dusty road. The girl easily stood a full head taller than anyone else in the market, maybe more. The lower half of her face was covered with a dust veil, which wasn’t unusual, but her dark wavy hair was uncovered in the harsh sun and she kept her eyes downcast like someone trying to hide. Amarice crept closer, intrigued. Though she’d never met one herself, Amarice had heard a few accounts of the half-O’stari-- many of them no doubt exaggerated their physical abilities, but one thing they all agreed on was that the O’stari and their half-human children were remarkably tall.

Amarice pretended to browse another merchant’s wares to remain inconspicuous. The girl paid for a thick cloth satchel (too much, Amarice noted) and left the stall, oblivious to her shadow. As she did, Amarice caught sight of her prominent cheekbones and bright eyes with distinctive pupils shaped like eight point stars. She looked strange, but it was an alien loveliness that made her exotically pretty rather than grotesque.

Following unobtrusively, Amarice waited for the right opportunity to introduce herself. It was always difficult to begin a conversation with a complete stranger when she needed something in the best circumstances and she was perfectly aware of how it would sound if she simply asked the girl to go with her away from a civilized town for the purpose of spilling her blood.

The half-O’stari girl stopped at a stall festooned with dust veils of all different colors and the elderly trader’s expression twisted in concern as she explained her situation and asked for directions to Shade’s Respite. Amarice couldn’t believe her good luck; she listened intently to the rest of their conversation, making note of their names, while her eyes casually wandered the square. Finally, the girl thanked the old lady and turned to the south, winding her way down twisting alleyways between low-set buildings. Amarice followed a short way, then made her move.

“Excuse me, did I overhear that you were looking for Shade’s Respite?” she asked, close enough for the girl to hear her.

The tall figure stopped and slowly turned around to face her. Good, she had her attention. Time to embellish a little.

“Actually, I was heading back there myself,” Amarice continued, flashing her warmest smile. “I’m Amarice. Maybe we could travel together. What’s your name?”

The girl’s tone was wary; the poor thing must have had bad experiences with people pretending to be friendly. Fortunately, Amarice looked innocuous to most people.

“Zanna,” she said.

Chapter 2: How Precious This Life


I pine for you as the once growing rock, now pallid in death, lies whispering of the red blush leached by its watery home.”

--Wall Xaco, Moonfall Song, verse 17


The figure in the distance was hazy, appearing to emerge from a carpet of golden dry grass, its colorful robe billowing in the breeze as it contemplated the remote black clouds interrupting the endless blue of the sky.

“Zanna,” it called out.

“Coming, Mommy,” the child responded, running across the field as fast as her short legs would allow. Somehow her mother was further away.

“Zanna, baby, you have to go inside. It will rain soon.”

The girl tried to run faster; if the rain was dangerous to her, it would be bad for Mommy, too. But her mother was still slipping even further away.

“Remember,” her mother said, at once a shout like thunder rolling in from far away and the tiniest whisper by her ear, “from the stars we arrived, to the stars we return.”


Zanna opened her eyes to the dusty gloom, lying in her own bed. Her star-shaped pupils set in overly large irises, courtesy of her half-O’stari heritage, adjusted faster to the semi-darkness of her room than those of a full-blooded human. She sat up and rubbed her face, thinking over the … dream? Memory deformed by sleep? She couldn’t be sure.

The smell of something delicious cooking tickled her nose as she yawned. Throwing the ragged, thin blanket off her lap, Zanna got out of bed, then groggily pulled on a pair of worn leather boots before pushing the privacy curtain to the side and wandering out into the main room. Her uncle Temaar was already dressed for the day and sitting on the rough wooden bench near the fire. He handed her a plate and flashed a smug grin.

Morning,” her uncle greeted her. “I knew some running bird would wake you up.”

She touched her forehead in the customary greeting usually given by children towards their parents, then took a slice of the rare dark meat from the pan by the fireplace.Thanks. I didn’t know we had any left.”

We didn’t,” his smile turned mischievous. “but it just so happens that Brary stopped by and he may have heard that it was your favorite.”

Zanna groaned. “You didn’t.”

“I might have mentioned it.” He said, running a hand through his graying hair. “He seems quite fascinated with you.”

“I know,” she grumbled, not wanting to think about the discomfort of the hunter’s gaze following her whenever he visited. “I prefer the quiet; he talks too much.”

Temaar shrugged. “It was worth a thought. I’m not going to be around forever, you know.”

They ate in silence, then Temaar banked the fire, the embers buried to be stirred to new life at a later time.

“I want you to buy some nails from Mart,” he said, pulling a handful of fochs out of his pocket and handing them to her. “Fifty more should be enough to finish the chicken house, but we’re almost out and I have some other work to do.”

She balked at the thought of going to the market alone. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Everyone looks at me like an animal.”

“Nonsense,” Temaar chided. “You’ll be fine. Just remember to keep your head down and no one will even notice you.”

Zanna regarded the assorted colorful disks in her hand thoughtfully.

“This would be too much if I were fully human,” she said in a glum tone.

Temaar wasn’t letting her get out of this. Unlike her, he was as human as anyone else likely to be at the market. “Sounds like a good opportunity to practice your bargaining skills then. If you have anything left over, get yourself a treat.”

* * *

Amarice sauntered into Taco Jack’s with the easy confidence of someone who had done this many times before. It was not the sort of establishment anyone bragged about associating with, not because of the type of entertainment on offer there, but because of the owner. Taco Jack was a remarkably small man for the size of his ego-- boastful, duplicitous, and yet she considered him a long time friend.

She removed her hood and the cloth from her face to reveal curly reddish-brown hair, freckles dusting her light caramel skin, and a turquoise mother’s mark adorning her right cheekbone. For a moment Amarice watched the mostly nude dancer on stage flip upside down on the vertical pole, brace with her arms, and hold a graceful straddle pose. Some of the audience cheered, but most were quietly lurking in their own sections of the dim room nursing their drinks as they pretended to be unaffected by the performance. Amarice had seen this scenario play out enough times to know that the dancer would probably get several private performance requests after that display of athleticism.

Noticing something amiss, she stopped one of the servers. “Where’s Valley?”

“He was scheduled today, but never came in,” the harried looking server replied. “We had to scramble a little to cover.”

“That’s weird,” Amarice commented, pondering. She had wanted to share the news of her good fortune after their last friendly debate regarding who had the most profitable and least dangerous job.

The server shrugged, unconcerned with the dancer’s absence. Amarice turned her gaze upward, looking for the light signifying that Taco was in his office above the main floor and was not disappointed. Making her way up the stairs, she nodded to the doorman before knocking tentatively.

“Come in,” a falsely low-pitched voice called from within. Amarice opened the door to a room better lit with lanterns than the common room downstairs. She ignored the trinkets adorning the office, all mementos of Taco’s past exploits: a hand-written note from a town mayor behind the desk, a painting of him standing triumphantly over the carcass of a bear by the door, a small statue, and many others that she hadn’t ever bothered to look at carefully.

“Ah, Amarice. What have you brought me today?” the small man with thinning hair behind the desk asked.

Smiling inwardly to herself at the thick wire-framed glasses perched on his head, Amarice presented her own treasure with a flourish. “Only some excellent quality Before-crafted dark glasses.”

She placed them on the desk for him to inspect and took a seat, ready to haggle. Taco frowned as he lifted the glasses. The lenses had that iridescent shine characteristic of many of the samples from Before, something no craftsman that he’d ever heard of had successfully replicated, never mind manufacturing plastic. Taco’s mind drifted to the possibilities while he pretended to look over the sunglasses for minute flaws. If anyone ever discovered the secret of plastic, they could become unimaginably rich.

“I’ll give you thirty for them,” he said flatly.

Amarice almost reacted visibly; it was more than she expected. But she was well practiced at this game and knew from hard experience that Taco Jack never opened with his best offer.

“Oh, come on now,” she countered, “you know you’ll be able to sell them for at least fifty-five. But I understand you need to make a profit, so let’s say fifty.”

“Do you see this box on the side?” he asked as he pointed to the squarish gunmetal colored “O” at each of the temples. “The corners are rounded, not squared. It’s not the most precise work from Before. But I like you, so I’ll go to forty. Best offer.”

Amarice gave an exaggerated pout. “But it’s got those thick sides, lots of material, very sturdy. Forty-five?”

“You’re bleeding me dry,” Taco complained, relenting. He counted out the plastic chips and placed them in Amarice’s greedy hands.

“Thank you, Taco Jack,” she purred, using his full name to sooth the sting of defeat. It was very auspicious to be twice named for something important from Before and it cost her nothing when he so loved the sound of it. “My son thanks you, too.”

“Never let it be said that I don’t help those in need,” he said, puffing up slightly. “I have another job for you if you’re willing to travel. This is a hot one, though, so I can only give you a couple days lead time before I give the information to someone else. Can’t have favorites, you know.”

“I might be. How much does it pay?”

“A spark priest came by while you were out. Said his temple needed an O’stari power cell, but the nearest intact O’stari compound is at Shade’s Respite.”

Amarice grimaced. “That’s an unusual request, and a long distance.”

“I know. That’s why I told him 1600 fochs and he agreed to it.” He gave her a stern look. “Of which, you will receive 1200.”

She chewed her lip pensively. It was more money than she had ever had at once before. Her thoughts drifted again to her son.

“And you’ll need a drop of fresh O’stari blood,” he added as an afterthought. “Something to do with opening the locks. Your usual picks won’t work.”

Amarice groaned. It certainly made the prospect a little more daunting. Still that much money might be enough to get her son a complete set of tattoos from the Twisted Snake temple not far from the trading outpost. For him, it could mean the difference between a long healthy life and dying young from sickness.
“I’ll do it.”

“Good. Like I said, two days. And I’ll only tell if someone asks me what’s on the table.”

Business concluded, Amarice stood and walked out the door with purpose. She was so focused on the coming task that she didn’t notice Taco making a note in the ledger estimating the selling price of the sunglasses at eighty-five fochs.

* * *

Zanna politely thanked the unsmiling blacksmith, and placed the iron nails in her satchel before turning away from his stall in the marketplace. Only three fochs left. She was pleased to have gotten as good a deal as she did, but the leftover money was probably better saved than spent on some frivolous thing. Zanna and her uncle had always lived frugally and as self sufficiently as possible, though others might consider them poor. Now that she was grown, she wondered if it was by choice or necessity. But it wouldn’t hurt to at least look at the goods in the market.

A flash of color caught her eye, drawing her closer to a stall where an elderly woman was selling dust veils. Remembering Temaar’s advice, Zanna kept her eyes downcast as she admired the pleasant texture of the fabrics and the harmonious combinations of color. They were soft to the touch, woven finer than the one she was already wearing, though not as light as the ones worn by the wealthy. As she ran her hands down a particularly vibrant strip in the fabric, the merchant spoke, interrupting her thoughts.

“You can see it, can’t you?” she asked.

Startled, Zanna looked up. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You can see the colors,” the old woman smiled knowingly, eyes bright in her wrinkled face. “Not everyone can. What’s your name?”
Zanna hesitated before answering, wary of strangers.

“I’m Zanna,” she said timidly.

“Kyoto Lo Palma. It’s nice to meet you.”

Zanna browsed the scraps of fabric before settling on one reminiscent of the sky. It was softer and more colorful than any garment she already owned. “How much for this one?”

“Five fochs.”

Zanna let go of the veil as her face fell in disappointment. “I’m sorry; I only have three.”

Kyoto pondered for a moment. “How about I make you a deal? Those beads in your hair-- did you make them? I’ll trade you that veil for two fochs and a bead, art for art.”

It was an easy choice to make; all the wood and bone beads decorating her dark brown waves had really cost her was time. Zanna removed the beads from her hair to let Kyoto choose one, then handed over the plastic chips from her pocket.

“Thank you,” Kyoto said as Zanna tied the showy cloth to cover the lower half of her face. “I hope it brings you good luck and keeps the dust out in your travels.”

Zanna hurried out of the market, eager to show her uncle the new veil. In her excitement she forgot to keep her gaze low until she noticed some of the disparaging looks cast her way. It somehow wasn’t as bad as the looks she remembered Temaar getting when she was a child coming to market with him. They were always distrustful at best, pitying at worst. But today nothing could dampen her mood; she smiled all the way home, thinking about the kindness of a stranger in the market.


* * *

Amarice approached a small dwelling nestled in a wide crevice in a rock wall next to a large ditch, a riverbed long dried up like the bones of a snake left out in the sun and wind. She could hear childish laughter within. Taking one last look at the multitude of colors painting the evening sky, she opened the door and went inside.

“Momma!” The small boy with shining dark eyes and a mop of black curls spotted her immediately, slamming into her legs.

“Hey, Stinker,” she said as she picked him up. Amarice tried not to react as the boy’s happy squirming seemed to find every bruise on her ribs. Another woman with a duel-tone mother’s mark tattooed on her cheek turned away from stirring a pot over the fire to regard the pair. Amarice touched her forehead in greeting.

“You’re just in time for dinner,” Constru Shear flashed an amused smile at her daughter. “Your trip was profitable then?”

She grinned in return, reaching into her pocket to produce a handful of the colorful pieces of plastic. “I got forty-five fochs, and another job. One that will pay much, much more.”

Constru’s expression darkened. “What will this one cost you? Stinker misses you when you’re gone.”

Amarice sighed; she had anticipated this line of questioning. “This will be a long journey. I’ll have to go to Shade’s Respite, but the pay should be enough to get him a full set of tattoos.”

The boy in question, being old enough to understand that his mother was leaving again, tightened his grip on her neck and let out a wailing plea for her to stay. As much as the sound tugged at her heart, Amarice had to do what was best for him, even if he didn’t like it in the moment. Even if it meant losing some of the precious time she had with him before he would be old enough to leave her side and go to the other side of the village to learn to be a man.

She spent the evening holding him while they ate dinner, then reluctantly putting him to bed before settling into her own uncomfortable sleep.

* * *

Zanna sat in her bed holding her new dust veil. When she showed it to Temaar, he had just rolled his eyes and muttered “I told you so.” She was very happy with her purchase, laying it at the foot of the bed so she could see it when she woke up. The sky blue shades seemed to shift subtly as she relaxed in preparation to sleep, and she thought once more about the previous night. She had lived with Temaar since she was a small child and didn’t really remember her parents, but maybe there was some memories buried deep that only rose to the surface as she lay dreaming. As hollow as it may be, she hoped get a glimpse of her mother again.

Turning on her side, Zanna blew out the small lantern by her bed and curled up with her old, worn blanket to keep away the night’s chill.

Just as she was about to drift off, she heard the sound of glass breaking followed by shouting outside.

Chapter 1: Graveyard of Towers


Some are born lucky, yes, but some are named doubly so.”

--Taco Jack, gentleman adventurer


In the vast emptiness of the arid plain, the remains of the overgrown city lounged like a dark cat soaking up the sun. A lone figure slipped quietly across the broken asphalt and between the twisted piles of metal and cracked cement, her cloth covered face turning to cautiously scan the area. Amarice knew that a bandit gang had claimed this ruin as their own, despite the dangers. Not only were the decaying cities prone to collapse, but opening sealed rooms in pursuit of valuables could release a cloud of poison at any moment, even so many years after the last of the O’stari ships vanished from the sky.
As an experienced scrounger, Amarice had an intuitive understanding of the buildings from Before and their layouts, though she couldn’t say for certain what the exact purpose of each style had been. Some were massive towers of twisted metal slowly fading into dust. Others sat between them like squat toads on large pads of that ubiquitous gray stone the People from Before seemingly used for everything.

The latter was what she was looking for this time. Often dismissed by those in her profession who were less skilled with picking locks, this type of building might contain security boxes and other unclaimed goods for someone who knew where to look. Amarice crouched between two piles of rusted scrap, checking for the sounds of anyone hostile before proceeding to her destination. As she crossed the concrete pad, she passed under a damaged, half hanging sign with some of the letters missing. Amarice could only guess that “gasoline”, whatever it was, had been very important to the People from Before. It must have been as valuable as water, judging by how common the stores housing it were.

The expansive front windows had long been shattered, leaving behind shards glittering in the merciless sunlight. A shock of green leaves crowned with vibrant red flowers curled around the door frame, slowly devouring the soggy wood and crumbling bricks. Amarice left it undisturbed and crept around to the side of the building where she suspected another entrance waited.

A large rust-streaked metal bin lay on its side between the buildings but its contents had long been collected or scattered. Amarice had seen many of these bins in her forays into other ruins. Sometimes they were useful to smiths, who would pay good fochs for them. She dismissed it as too large, too noisy, for her needs before proceeding into the empty hole in the side of the “gasoline” store where a door had once been.

Keeping her ears open for the sounds of something dangerous, she let her eyes adjust to the gloom and inhaled the uncommon scents of green vegetation. Not all of the ruins she scavenged were as thoroughly invaded by the alien greenery as this place. She stepped further into the room, admiring the dance of dust motes in the shafts of light filtering through the branches. Something under her foot snapped, prompting the fluttering beat of diminutive wings and she froze. The O’stari hybrid sparrow glared at her from a creeping perch at the broken front window, blinking two of its four dark eyes before flying out. When Amarice could breathe again, she examined the room, carefully staying out of view of the storefront.

Passing the remnants of deserted shelves decorated with tiny perfect diamond cutouts, a silent display of the skillful craftsmanship of the People from Before, Amarice came to a counter top devoid of anything but dust and the smashed form of a drawer-machine. Nothing inside. No matter, it wasn’t what she came for anyway.

She ducked behind the counter and knelt in a small pile of debris. Opening the drawers as quietly as possible, she hunted for something portable. Her nimble fingers searched the mostly empty drawers, tentative to prevent cuts. Sometimes one could get lucky and find something valuable, a gem forgotten or overlooked amid the dirt and decay. Her hand brushed something firm, but light. Withdrawing from the drawer, she pulled the treasure out and examined its condition for a moment before tucking it away in her clothes, grinning wide behind the coarse rag covering her face.

Amarice turned her attention to a compartment door to her left. Noticing the telltale cutout and the simple lock holding it closed, she pulled a small pouch from the folds of her clothes and opened it to reveal a collection of her own handmade lock picks inside. After a moment of concentration and wiggling the flat bladed pick from her pouch, she felt the small amount of rust break away and the latch turned. The door opened with a low squeal, exposing another locked door behind it. This one was made of pitted black metal and had a dial above a lever built into its face.

Smiling in anticipation, Amarice pulled a small funnel salvaged from one of her previous excursions out of a small pouch on her hip. She wedged it between the cutoff fingers of her worn brown gloves and pressed its wide mouth to the front of the security box, allowing her bare finger pads to rest against the door. Then she leaned down to listen at the narrow end of the funnel as she slowly turned the dial. Some of the old security boxes had false tumblers inside, but Amarice practiced often enough with opening them to hear the difference. This one was of a lesser quality, though still more challenging than many scavengers were capable of opening. After a couple minutes of concentration, the lever rotated easily. The bars slid into the door with an audible click, disturbing a swirling cloud of dust from the top.

Taking a flask of oil from her pouch, Amarice poured some out onto the hinges and swung it open slowly. The smell of the blended animal fat and seed oil might draw predators, but she’d be long gone before anything too dangerous showed up. Inside she found two zippered bags. She opened the first one and found only a bundle of small fliers printed on something more like cloth than paper. She held them up to the light to examine them.

Some of the fliers were crinkled with well defined folds while others appeared fresh from the printing press even after so many years. There were a lot of copies of two of the designs and a few of a third. Amarice could read the words printed on each, but didn’t fully understand what they meant. She guessed that the words “In God We Trust” indicated that they were some sort of religious artifact. Such things usually had no value except to collectors and historians unless they were rare, so she ignored most of them, selecting only one that was in particularly good condition to keep.

“George Washington,” she murmured, reading the bizarre name beneath the face. “I don’t know who you were, but you have a nice expression.” She tucked the note into her hip pouch.

As soon as her hand touched the second antique bag, she could feel the heft of it. Amarice ripped it open easily, dropping four paper wrapped rolls of coins into the dirt on the floor with soft thuds. She hastily stooped to pick them up and shove them into her pouch. Finding a stash of coins wasn’t as good as finding plastic fochs since their value was more fluid, but most merchants would accept them anyway. She would just have to haggle carefully.

The sound of a low growl and voices coming from outside the storefront interrupted her avaricious daydreams. She looked up sharply and moved quietly towards the destroyed front window so she could peer through the tangle of branches to get a glimpse at the coming danger.

A large canine, bigger than anything strictly native to Earth strained against a leash held by a man in the tattered mismatched garb of the local gang inhabiting the tower graveyard near the far edge of the ruined street outside. Two other gang members trailed behind, laughing at their compatriot. The beast sniffed the ground, its coarse, mottled fur standing on end. It pulled at the leash hard enough towards where Amarice was hidden that the bandit struggled to hold on.

Amarice cursed under her breath and backed away from the open front of the store in disbelief, trying to reach the back door without being spotted. She’d always heard that it was impossible to train an O’stari wolf-dog, and yet she couldn’t deny the evidence in front of her eyes. Hiding wasn’t much use, they already knew she was in the area, it was just a matter of time before the monstrous hybrid pinpointed her location. She had to think fast; the only advantage she had was a head start.

Slinking up to the opening in the side of the building, Amarice risked a glance outside. She hadn’t been spotted yet, but she couldn’t go back the way she came. Which meant taking an unfamiliar path and potentially trapping herself. She ducked behind the overturned metal bin. There was an open path in two directions and either would give her away in moments as soon as that bandit and his hound cleared the corner of the building. Remembering the size of the jaws on that beast, she took a deep breath and ran directly away from the pair, heedless of the noise.

The animal howled. Its call reverberated off the buildings eerily, starting low then rising in pitch and volume, announcing the start of the chase for all to hear.

Amarice pumped her legs as fast as she could, knowing that the wolf-dog could easily beat her for speed. She just hoped to get to a safe place before that happened. For a moment, Amarice cursed the People from Before and their penchant for large buildings built so far apart. She didn’t dare look behind herself, but she could hear the beast’s claws scraping the pavement getting closer; the bandits were further behind. Good. That left fewer enemies to evade. Out running the gang was no problem; she just needed to find someplace where the wolf-dog couldn’t follow.

If she had to choose between being killed by that hybrid abomination or being captured alive by the bandits, she would prefer the former. Many bandit gangs were content to simply rob travelers on the roads, but Amarice had heard stories of people who had been captured in the gangs’ territories, never to be heard from again. There was no consensus between storytellers; sometimes the unlucky victims were used as pleasure slaves. Sometimes they were eaten. In either case, Amarice didn’t want to find out if the stories were true.

Turning sharply to her left, Amarice flew up a flight of stairs towards the open lobby of a massive tower leaning into one of its neighbors. Broken shards crunched under her boots as she skipped sideways through the dilapidated frame of the glass door. Not stopping to admire the stonework of the lobby floor, she found an open stairwell and ran upwards, taking three steps at a time. She heard the wolf-dog scrabbling behind her, apparently struggling to find purchase on the still smooth tiles. Amarice filed that information away for later.

The stairs were entirely made from metal with small cut sections twisted to provide grip, leaving rough diamond shaped holes. Amarice resisted the temptation to look down through the hollow steps, determined not to think about all the rust she was seeing or how much the stairs were shaking under her pounding footfalls. The wolf-dog seemingly had no such fears, its growling and scraping claws echoing loudly under her in the stairwell.

Four more floors up the stairs simply ended. Amarice turned to pass through an open door frame, then the floor tilted unexpectedly under her feet. She went sliding wildly down at an angle as her hands scrambled and failed to hold onto something, then flailed as she tumbled across a void and down into a lower floor in the adjacent building that was supporting part of its neighbor’s weight. After rolling to a stop in a tangle of vines and leaves at the far edge of the room, Amarice coughed, gulping the air as if she were drowning. She rose up on shaking arms and leaned into the solid wall covered in twisting plant life as she limped towards another rotted out doorway. Her nose was assaulted with a malodorous fungal scent rising from the remains of the carpeted floor. She noted the variegated jewel-like colors of the flowers dotting the hallway she was currently standing in, the alien O’stari flora thriving in the bones of the native building from Before.

She caught sight of the wolf-dog through the gaps in the tangled vines. It hesitated at the slanted floor, its nose working furiously to catch her scent again. It growled low as it stared down at her, but seemed unwilling to risk the slide and the jump. She could hear the shouts of the wolf-dog’s trainer in the distance. She continued moving to avoid getting cornered, gingerly picking her way through the oxidized reinforcement bars protruding from the broken chunks of the building and the musty refuse littering her path while she held her bruised side.

Amarice found a gap in the floor around the intruding main trunk of the vines. Wider than both of her hands stretched out, she was pretty sure it could support her weight. Her appraising gaze drifted over the length of the alien vegetation. Realizing that the plants were doing more to support the building than its own durable construction, she placed a firm grip on the vines and began making her way down.

The thick vines were surprisingly easy to climb, though she felt every bruise and scrape from her fall. She considered that she might be getting too old for this kind of excitement, that maybe settling down and doing some normal, secure work might better serve her needs. Farming like her mother, perhaps. Amarice quickly dismissed the thought; boredom would probably kill her faster.

After finally reaching the ground, Amarice patted her clothes to reassure herself that she still held the prize that would make the whole trip worthwhile, then she continued limping away from the sun, towards a town beyond the horizon.

Chapter 3: Threads

“Historians say that the People from Before were both kind and generous. It was the golden era for humanity, until the O’stari came.”

--Ford Deere, storyteller


“Smoke the star-eyed beast out,” an unfamiliar voice urged from outside, followed by laughter.

Thick, oily smoke filled Zanna’s room. She stumbled out of bed, slipped on her boots without tying them, then grabbed her dust veil before peeking out from below the privacy curtain. Another glass container shattered outside, spreading more burning oil over the side of their home. Keeping low, Zanna rushed out into the main room, searching for Temaar. He wasn’t in his room and the fire had already consumed part of the front wall of the house. More shouts reached her ears, her uncle’s voice among them. She hurriedly tied her boots and secured her veil before grabbing a poker from the fireplace and leaping through the flames.

The toe of one of Zanna’s boots caught on the edge of the hole in the wall, sending her sprawling on the ground outside. She rolled to put out any of her clothes that may have caught fire and quickly pushed up onto her feet, holding the iron poker ready. Temaar fought three men with a pitchfork while a fourth lay still on the ground near the chicken enclosure.

Another had his arm raised holding a bottle with a lit rag spilling from its mouth in his hand ready to throw at the house, but changed his target when he spotted Zanna. The bottle sailed past her head and through the burned hole in the side of the house as she dodged, shattering against the mud brick floor, its contents splashing and igniting the fragile old cloth that had served as a door since she was small. The flames quickly licked upward against the desiccated wooden support frame and compacted straw they had used for insulation.

Zanna charged him with her makeshift weapon raised, snarling. He started to raise a machete to block her strike but was too slow. Swinging wide as hard as she could, she felt the poker impact his head with a dull crunch. He hit the ground, but Zanna didn’t stop to check his condition. Instead she continued moving, knowing that Temaar wouldn’t be able to hold off the remaining attackers indefinitely.

One of them swiped low with a pitted blade across Temaar’s middle while Temaar thrust the pitchfork into his compatriot, then withdrew the sharp tines piercing the man’s chest as he gurgled his last breath. Screaming her fury, Zanna flung herself at the one that injured her uncle while Temaar smacked the other with the handle of the pitchfork, breaking his nose. Zanna swung the poker but missed as the man swayed backwards, apparently just now noticing that Zanna was awake. He held his blade defensively as he stepped back, glaring at her with pure hatred.

“Your invasion will fail, star-eyes,” he spat the slur at her. Deciding that the odds no longer favored him, he turned and ran. Zanna turned her attention to the last man being held at bay by Temaar’s pitchfork. Looking at them both with unbelieving wide-eyed fear, he stumbled backward, then turned and ran as well, following his friend. Temaar groaned and slumped down on the ground, clutching his belly. Zanna dropped the slightly bent poker and rushed to his side.

“Uncle, you have to get up,” she said, her tone desperate as she slung his arm over her shoulder and pulled. “We have to get to the temple.”

Temaar lifted his hand from the gaping wound, wincing as a spurt of blood seeped into his clothes. Having seen enough injuries like this, he knew it was hopeless.

“Listen to me, Zanna,” he said, grabbing her chin to get her attention. “I’m dying, there’s no way around it.”

“No, no,” she cried, “they’ll help you at the temple. It’s not that far away, just hold onto me.”

“There’s isn’t enough time, you know the same as I do. You have to let me go.”

He slid out of her bloody hands and hit the ground again with a grunt and a soft thud. Zanna sank to her knees beside him, her vision a watery blur.

“I wanted to tell you everything,” he said. “But you don’t have time. They’ll be back with friends and you… need to be gone.”

His voice became fainter. “Go to Shade’s Respite; everything you need… is there. Just put me on the fire so I can rejoin the Earth properly.”

Zanna held his hand until his breathing finally stilled. Sniffling and rubbing her face on the dirty sleeve of her sleeping shirt, she stood and walked to the lifeless attacker she had hit with the iron poker. The house was too far gone to risk trying to get anything from inside. She rolled the body over and removed the machete’s sheath, then searched his pockets for anything else of value. After searching the others, she lifted Temaar’s body up onto her shoulder and carefully placed him among the still burning wood and insulation. She left the other bodies where they lay; let the animals carry them off to the afterlife they’ve earned.

Before setting off, she opened the chicken house and set them free to fend for themselves. At least then they would have a chance. Fortunately, there were clothes still hanging to dry from the fence around the chicken yard-- she really didn’t want to strip the bodies for dirty clothes that were too small for her anyway. She grabbed a few garments as she walked by, never breaking her stride. She could change out of her sleeping clothes later when she had some distance between her and the house.

* * *

The wandering spark priest known locally only as Eleven stood in his workshop, sawing through the tough hip joint of the corpse on his worktable. The dancer wasn’t impressive on his own, but like a huge chessboard, removing a single lesser piece could have a massive effect. The right words spoken at an opportune moment, a piece of knowledge conveyed to the right person-- it was all that was needed to set his long awaited plan in motion.

Eleven had tried to comfort the man with the knowledge that his sacrifice meant that his child would grow up to be a great leader one day as he ripped out one fingernail at a time, but some people simply weren’t capable of perceiving anything beyond their own petty circumstances. The spark priest could see it all clearly though, like the patterns made by wind blowing across the sand. Someone needed to guide their collective fate, so he took action when necessary.

Rising to his full height, Eleven stretched from his hunched position when the final threads of connective tissue split apart. Sweat dripped down his face, but he hadn’t bothered to remove the brown leather mask adorned with colorful dye-print designs and a single panel dark lens through which he viewed the world; it was hot work dismembering bodies in the sacred garments of his order. The leather gloves he usually wore sat on another table nearby. No reason to soil them unnecessarily.

There was some blood dripping on the floor, but not as much as there might have been if he’d handled the body differently. He quickly wrapped the pieces in a large, thin cloth before placing them in a small cart with a potted evergreen sapling, a container of powder, and a shovel before pulling the cart out the door. A short distance from the workshop, Eleven came to a waist deep hole he’d dug earlier and unwrapped the body parts before dropping them in one at a time.

He wiped his hands on a relatively clean corner of the fabric then took the unlabeled powder container from the cart and sprinkled some in the hole before partially filling it in with dirt. He stepped down in the hole to compress the loose soil and discourage wildlife from digging the body up, then lovingly freed the little sapling from its pot and carefully placed it in the unmarked grave, gently pressing the dirt down around its roots.

As the sun sank lower on the horizon, Eleven took a moment to admire the shifting colors of the sky before heading back inside to clean up the remaining blood. That little tree might one day make the difference between the survival of this world and total extinction. He ran his hand over the back of his neck to remove some of the sweat tickling his skin as it soaked into his shirt and took in the sight of the small forest lazily spreading around his workshop.

* * *

Amarice studied the busy marketplace full of people making trades. She was still far from her destination, even after several days of travel. Finding someone with O’stari blood willing to go all the way to Shade’s Respite would be the hardest part of the job by her estimation. She could ask here, but it was probably better if she waited until she was closer still when it would be easier to convince someone to travel with her a shorter distance. Too bad it had to be fresh blood; getting a small sample and taking it with her would have been so much easier. She just hoped the locks at the compound at Shade’s Respite would be fine with blood from someone who was also half-human as all the O’stari had left Earth, leaving behind only the rare half breed.

Turning away from the last merchant she needed to visit to resupply, she caught sight of a young woman at another stall further down the dusty road. The girl easily stood a full head taller than anyone else in the market, maybe more. The lower half of her face was covered with a dust veil, which wasn’t unusual, but her dark wavy hair was uncovered in the harsh sun and she kept her eyes downcast like someone trying to hide. Amarice crept closer, intrigued. Though she’d never met one herself, Amarice had heard a few accounts of the half-O’stari-- many of them no doubt exaggerated their physical abilities, but one thing they all agreed on was that the O’stari and their half-human children were remarkably tall.

Amarice pretended to browse another merchant’s wares to remain inconspicuous. The girl paid for a thick cloth satchel (too much, Amarice noted) and left the stall, oblivious to her shadow. As she did, Amarice caught sight of her prominent cheekbones and bright eyes with distinctive pupils shaped like eight point stars. She looked strange, but it was an alien loveliness that made her exotically pretty rather than grotesque.

Following unobtrusively, Amarice waited for the right opportunity to introduce herself. It was always difficult to begin a conversation with a complete stranger when she needed something in the best circumstances and she was perfectly aware of how it would sound if she simply asked the girl to go with her away from a civilized town for the purpose of spilling her blood.

The half-O’stari girl stopped at a stall festooned with dust veils of all different colors and the elderly trader’s expression twisted in concern as she explained her situation and asked for directions to Shade’s Respite. Amarice couldn’t believe her good luck; she listened intently to the rest of their conversation, making note of their names, while her eyes casually wandered the square. Finally, the girl thanked the old lady and turned to the south, winding her way down twisting alleyways between low-set buildings. Amarice followed a short way, then made her move.

“Excuse me, did I overhear that you were looking for Shade’s Respite?” she asked, close enough for the girl to hear her.

The tall figure stopped and slowly turned around to face her. Good, she had her attention. Time to embellish a little.

“Actually, I was heading back there myself,” Amarice continued, flashing her warmest smile. “I’m Amarice. Maybe we could travel together. What’s your name?”

The girl’s tone was wary; the poor thing must have had bad experiences with people pretending to be friendly. Fortunately, Amarice looked innocuous to most people.

“Zanna,” she said.

deviantID

RTrashPanda
United States

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