"Elder Farena is planning to have you killed in public tomorrow!"
"For what reason?"
"Something about invading Namirus and inciting anarchy. Honestly, I'm not even sure anymore. But other people are listening, and I think it would be best if you left tonight."
"I still don't know what has happened to Tabitha and Cathy, though. I must be getting close to have her in that kind of a mood, though."
"Maybe you are. I understand if you want to stay, but..."
Gavin, the young man who had rescued Rachel from the river after her tumble out of the high jungles, gently placed one hand upon her knee to make his point as sympathetic as possible. He was a few years younger than Rachel, and considerably more interesting than Rachel could have anticipated, campfire light flickering in his eyes. Only five days here, and that old witch already wants me dead, Rachel pondered.
She had done a bit to earn that, especially if the old woman was the one Rachel believed her to be.
The first night after Rachel had walked out of the river, she had acted like a fool. Dissatisfied with Gavin's initial reactions to her search for a missing sister and that sister's child, Rachel walked right up to various townspeople and asked them about those two lost relatives. What she found, unfortunately, was an awkward silence that increased in power as the day wore on.
"Have you seen a woman named Tabitha? She looks like me," Rachel hesitated, "Except younger and thinner."
"I have not," a farmer curtly replied, taking only half a glance at Rachel's face. He was busily cultivating thin, fibrous stalks of a grain that Rachel had not seen before. The baker in her wondered how the seeds from those stalks would taste if finely ground and mixed into a slowly rising dough.
"What about a young girl, about five years old, with grey eyes and curly hair. Her name is--"
"No." The farmer tugged the front of his hat down, hefted the handles of his wheelbarrow upwards, and walked away at a brisk pace that Rachel believed to be wholly unnatural to a farmer with a whole day of work ahead of him.
It was by the eighth or ninth conversation with a similar conclusion that Rachel began to wonder if the original letter that her mother had received, written by Tabitha, might be a fraud. If it's fake, Rachel wondered, why? What possible gain could someone have in forging a message to send help to this godforsaken cesspit?
Namirus was a cesspit. Along with receiving the runoff of larger towns like Coburntown and Decalante, the soil itself reeked of human waste. Rats were not merely a late night disturbance either--as Tabitha's letter had seemed to indicate--rather, they openly sat outside houses and waited for morsels of leftover food to be tossed aside. When they became hungry, they tended to nip at the ankles of people walking past.
Rachel believed the odds of her finding a rat in her sleeping roll were much lower if she slept outside of town. Dejected from a day of dismissive question responses and rude residents, she trudged to find a secret place where she could rest her head for the night.
In the darkness of her glade, Rachel found herself surprisingly more alert than she appreciated. Every light source seemed to spit radiance into her eyes. Every sound was like the din of a bustling marketplace. All the hopelessness of her search made her tense and nauseated at the cold welcome she had received in Namirus. Rachel could not sleep.
She started to hear a cracking sound, followed by the clomp of shoes on wet grass. Someone was lurking just outside her shaded alcove. Before she realized what had happened, she found the bony ridge of her forearm pressed firm against Gavin's neck, pinning him to the dirt.
"Why are you spying on me?" Rachel barked.
"How did you know? I just wondered if there was anything I could do for you," he stammered.
"Lies. All of you are telling lies. What is your name, liar?"
"It's not liar, it's Gavin."
"Well Gavin, I would very much like to know why everyone in this town, even you, goes quiet about my sister."
"Is it remotely possible that your sister did not live here?" Gavin replied.
Rachel simply leaned forward, putting extra pressure on his neck.
"Your sister did live here. You're right," Gavin rasped through his squeezed throat. Rachel leaned back, giving him a little room to breathe.
"So there's a reason why people are ignoring me, then?"
"Yes. Your sister's daughter was… different. She could sense death. Among our small village, some twenty people had died at least once--or rather, had experienced something like death and had continued to go on living. As a community, we always tried to overlook it, even though those people were not quite the same as they had been," Gavin paused. "The girl… Cathy was her name… forced us to know who had died, and who had not. It was a little upsetting."
"So you did what with her?"
"Hold on. Not finished yet," Gavin sighed. "My grandmother, a woman who had been the village elder for many years, had been totally silent for two weeks after conducting trade negotiations with Decalante at the jungle's northern edge. Cathy pointed at her and shouted 'five!' which made my grandmother, Elder Farena, start to speak again.
"She could only speak curses, at first. She was intensely hostile to those relatives of yours, swearing and spitting at them in the streets. That fervor didn't last long, but the intent has never changed. Your name is Rachel, yes?"
"My grandmother wanted your family dead. She started to make plans for it too, holding council meetings at late hours, and locking her closest family members out." Gavin shook his head while Rachel climbed off of him. "I came here to warn you about her, but I also came here to spy on you for her. I think you should leave town tonight."
"I can't. Not until I find my sister and her daughter. Do you know where they might have gone?"
"No, but I suspect that they are no longer in town. Whether they are hurt or not as a result of my grandmother, I don't know. I hope not."
Rachel let the silence linger in the shadows before responding.
"Gavin, I mean you no harm beyond what I've just done. I need help here, and you seem like a reliable, honest person. Feel free to report my actions, as well. I am curious to see what Farena will do once she notices me."
"She already has, Rachel."
The next four days, Rachel took a far more sophisticated approach to information gathering.
The first step, she decided, was to ascertain in which hut her sister had lived. Namirus was not a large village, but keeping a mental record of which houses people were travelling in and out of, assuming that Tabitha's house was not already occupied by someone else, was an arduous task.
Gavin did not know which house it was, so Rachel watched to see if anyone exited a particular house, marking an X in the dirt relative to her vantage point, a shady cluster of tall trees. After changing vantage points a few times, Rachel recalled a key detail in Tabitha's note that would have made her whole day easier:
Our neighbors do not like us very much because Cathy screamed the number five at the old woman in the hut next to us.
The old woman must have been Elder Farena. It meant that wherever the village elder lived, Tabitha's house would be close. Gavin lied again, Rachel realized. He lied to keep me away from the elder.
Sure enough, as Rachel wandered through the village, looking for either the house her sister had once lived in, or the house the elder inhabited, she came across a broad circle of roads, with a dirt paved court in the middle. Although all of the huts were of a solid construction from mud and wood, the hut in the middle of a half-circle surrounding that dirt court featured multiple turrets extending from the main hut, and several side chambers. Clearly, it was intended for a large family or a political figure.
"That's it," Rachel smirked. She lost her sense of satisfaction as soon as she saw what was likely her sister's house. Two men with spears stood in front of it, impassive eyes over proudly shining bronze armor. Why would they be keeping watch?
Elder Farena must have sent them, Rachel realized.
The next three days were spent sleeping in that dirt court. Rachel purchased fabrics and fashioned a bed that she could suspend from one tree to another. Rachel wanted to make a deliberately disarmed gesture for Elder Farena, in order to either taunt her into taking action or force her to drop her guard in the spectacle of a harmlessly sleepy adversary. For as much power as the elder seemed to exert to keep her villagers quiet, could she do anything about one idling, restful spy?
During the day, Rachel snoozed in her makeshift bed, all the while keeping one eye open for anyone going in or out of the Elder's house. She was making a mental list of villagers who did not associate with the Elder every day, as these would be more likely to cooperate should she need additional information. It was not a long list, but it might be enough to find a worthy informant.
It had taken some time, but Rachel was starting to notice changes in herself. That intensive awareness of sounds which had interrupted her sleep several nights before, became a constant. Rachel was beginning to hear strands of conversation from across the court, things she would never have been able to hear were she still in the bakery.
She felt empowered too; knowing that she could monitor her adversary without so much as lifting an eyelid was an exhilarating, almost as good as being able to sleep in the middle of the day. And the Hunt! Rachel had begun to feel the thrill of a purpose, lingering barely out of her sight, so close she could smell the distance on the air. Marking people was becoming easier as well. Each person who visited the Elder had their own unique scent, gait, and sound of breathing.
Merely watching was almost enough to make Rachel forget what she sought. Nevertheless, when it came time for sleep at night, Rachel found herself pacing underneath the trees, making plans. On some of these plan-making trots, she paced right into town, climbing onto the roofs of huts within which she knew people were sleeping, listening to their fitful breaths.
It was becoming harder for Rachel to see the oddness in herself.
On the fourth day in Namirus, Rachel decided it would be a wise decision to build a fire. Something that reminded her of home or the ovens at work could help ward off her new predilection towards the quest and napping, rather than the objective itself.
Although, because the jungle had a constant moisture in the air that soaked through most unattended lumber, Rachel needed to ask villagers for assistance in acquiring wood.
The budding huntress in her naturally yoked together the quest and the idea, asking for wood only from those who were not seen to go into the Elder's house. In this way, if the Elder ever decided to make a move against her using a large force of townspeople, Rachel could know that some would protest.
Rachel knew that she had only one chance to make the impression she desired. For the first time in her entire life, she believed that she possessed a charming allure--although, a part of her yet wondered about the source of that confidence.
It worked, though!
Farmers turned their heads to watch her walk away after she had been offered to go direct to their storehouses and take what she needed. The butcher's son whistled in a way Rachel had heard before, never received. The butcher herself told Rachel stories that Rachel would not have told her closest friends.
"Leslie couldn't believe what he had done. After all, it was only hearsay!" the red-faced butcher laughed. "But then he went ahead and admitted it himself."
"What did she do then?" Rachel inquired.
"She waited until he was asleep, then she cut it off!"
"She cut it off?"
"Right off. Now, things grow back in this world--we know that, right?" Rachel nodded. "Well it didn't. The Elder would not permit one to speak of this, but it's kind of common knowledge in town. You wouldn't tell anyone I told you, right?"
"The Elder," Rachel interjected, "Do you think she's changed since that girl called her a number?"
The color vanished from the butcher-woman's cheeks. "This is no gossip, Rachel. This is very serious. Do you really need to talk about this?"
Rachel flashed her a look of desperation that could have earned her several days worth of free meat. "I need to know, Helen. That girl is my niece."
Helen slowly shook her head. "She was a strange girl. Her mother disappeared a day and a half before she did. I suspected that this new elder--and yes, I think she has changed--might have done something."
Rachel did not need to ask what that "something" was anymore than she needed to pursue the son, who had been sitting and listening just outside the room before running as fast as he could run to inform the Elder of the conversation. Interesting things were about to happen, she decided.
As she stoked the fires with the logs she had gathered (indeed, too many to carry), Rachel heard Gavin approach. This time, calmness masked her spring-like reflexes like a thick blanket.
Gavin, on the other hand, was not so calm.
"Elder Farena is planning to have you killed in public tomorrow!"
Although she reacted and let him sense her fear, she was not afraid. She was anxious to meet the woman, in fact.
Not one hour later, Rachel did meet Elder Farena. The woman had taken a small escort of personal guardsmen out to Rachel's hiding spot. Likely Gavin had led them to her on accident. He didn't smell like a liar anymore, after all.
When the first guard prodded her bedroll with a bronze spear and found it stuffed full of leaves, he turned just quickly enough to embrace a flaming log with his face. He dropped to the ground in spite of his visor-covered head. Rachel took a moment to admire the throbbing kick she felt in her arm muscles before hefting the same log high over her shoulder while approaching the second guard.
He was quick, aiming a series of jabs to Rachel's abdomen, thus exposed with her log held above her head. She twisted subtly to the side of each jab, nestling her ribcage comfortably against the sleek steel of the spear's shaft. When she was within an arm's length, she brought the blazing log firmly down upon his cranium, watching him crumple under the weight.
Unabated, the fire continued to burn at the end of the heavy stick. Rachel admired the heat as a baker and as… something else that was new and exciting in her. Something she had not troubled to name as of yet, to spare it from the domesticity of words.
The Elder Farena did not care for fire very much. As old as she was, with white wisps of hair scrambling around a shriveled body that looked as if it could have died five times, it was most peculiar to hear her screaming shrilly in a voice that no human could produce while scratching viciously at the ground, stumbling to get away.
Rachel stepped on her dress and barked. "Where is my sister, you old tyrant? Where is my sister's daughter?"
After a half of minute of watching an old woman try to escape from her own dress just to avoid a little fire, Rachel hit her with the torch across the back of her head. Screams turned to gurgling gagging utterances, and Farena's head rocked backwards, her jaw opening to an unnatural width.
What Rachel witnessed turned her stomach. Out of Farena's mouth stepped a pitch-black entity with red eyes. When it finished standing upright, it was about seven feet tall, making a sharp sound that Rachel could only guess what was breathing. Farena was breathing as well, choking out ragged sighs. The thing did not glisten with saliva, though it reeked of intestines--it simply absorbed light as if it had snatched the darkness out from under a bed to wear it as a coat. It stood like a man, except that its arms were slightly longer than its legs.
The red eyed darkness howled and spun around to face Rachel. Instinctively, she knew that she had to fight back against the creature, or risk losing what Farena had lost as the head of the village.
Rachel waited. In a blink, the creature towered over Rachel with its long hand clamped around the edges of her face. So fast, Rachel realized, unable to wrench herself away from the spindly fingers ensnaring her, feeling, inside the palm, a rough but wet surface that slid into an opening over her nose, and then eyes, and then forehead. Subtly, Rachel could smell seawater. Huh, she thought.
And then she brought the lit torch up to meet the creature's stomach. The extended arm unclamped and gave way as piercing cries emanated from the palm, now a mouth filled with black teeth and a lolling tongue. The creature stumbled, rolling on the ground as the fire engulfed it. Rachel calmly stomped out fires spreading from the body until she smelled something new--burning wool.
Where the creature had once existed, there was now a man. He was wearing an old-fashioned, double breasted suit that had discolored with heavy use. The fire seemed to be eating the clothes, but it abruptly stopped. The man had little hair, and what he possessed curled intimidatingly around his lips and jaw. Bloodshot eyes opened, and he picked himself up from the ground, brushing himself off and slowly straightening his stance.
"Where is my son?" he rasped.
"Did you do anything to Tabitha or Cathy while they lived here?" Rachel asked the Elder, later that night after she had recovered.
"No," the old woman said, in a kinder tone than Rachel had expected to hear. "But that doesn't mean we didn't plan on it. I will speak with the other members of town to insure that a… lapse of will… does not cause the same irrational hostility again."
"I suppose you would like to know what we know about your relatives, yes?" the Elder asked.
"I'm afraid that we know very little about what happened with your sister. I'm sorry," Elder Farena apologized, head deeply bowed in sincerity.
"I understand. I'm not giving up on her, I just know that I need to search somewhere else," Rachel replied. "Oh, does that mean that you know where Cathy is?"
"Vaguely. She's been seen playing in a dense patch of jungle just west of the river outside of town."
"The one uphill from the village?" Oh no, Rachel thought.
"Yes, that one. If you want to follow her there, beware: fearsome monsters lurk in that jungle."
I know. But I'm going back there anyway, even if I must face them. I'll need a plan, Rachel considered.
"One last question?" Rachel asked.
"What is it?"
"What happened to the man inside of that creature? What did he do?"
"He went west to look for his son."
"What was his son's name?"