Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna

Two

When the Wraith would come, it would be in broad daylight, when the sun was high and everyone out of doors. They would fly above the streets in their screaming machines, casting out their invisible nets that swept people away as if they'd never been. The attacks would last moments that stretched to infinities, especially when you were hiding in a place where neither light nor Wraith would follow.

The last time the Wraith came, they came at night. And there was nowhere safe to hide.

She didn't know if she was the only survivor or if there had been others of her world who had escaped. Escaped from what and to what was still a mystery, as was whether it had been miracle or damnation to be spared a quick, painful death in exchange for a life that was no life at all.

Her capture and the torture that followed was remembered only in dreams; that she could no longer stomach the smell of hops or abide to stay in dark, closed spaces was something else entirely. At least that's what she told herself.

They set her free on her destroyed world; returned from whence she'd come, but nothing was the same.

She stayed in the still-smoking ruins, scavenging food and clothing and valuables that she would need to build a new life somewhere else where she did not have to talk to ghosts. Picking over the remnants of her neighbors' lives, she remembered old wounds (Aliver's haughty pride at her silver bracelets) and new secrets (Woleyt's love letters to a woman not his wife had survived the fires) and tried to forget them all, to reduce the growing cache to merchandise without sentimental value. A decade spent learning the art of commerce from behind a tap and keg had taught her that much: if an item was worth more to you than to the buyer, then it was worthless.

She'd been sorting her horde of goods for easier transport when he came, a Wraith who'd snarled and hissed as she'd screamed and fled. Through the town, into the woods, hoping distance would save her. It didn't; he came after her, unremitting and inexorable, finally slamming her against a tree with a cold, clammy hand over her throat. She cried out that she was not for him, that she could not give him what he wanted, but it didn't matter.

Except that it did. Knowing that she wasn't about to be killed by the hand cutting more marks into her chest, she fought back with an energy she didn't know she possessed and the knife she'd carried in her belt since she'd been old enough to carry flagons in the taproom. With the Wraith's blood still coating her hands, she stole his weapon and its belt, returned for her hastily-packed plunder, and fled to the Ring of the Ancestors.

Working in the taproom had given her many addresses to choose from, worlds for commerce and agriculture and hunting, worlds with lush climates and worlds with inhospitable ones. She chose a world with no people, too scared to be around others and not sure whether there were more Wraith following her. She stayed until her food ran out and her fear subsided and then she moved on.

Over time, she parceled out what she had carried with her from her world. Aliver's bracelets bought her warm clothes, soap, a satchel, and boots. Dilvet's sword with its exquisite hilt was exchanged for smaller knives with plainer forms that were easier to carry and less unique. Customs changed from world to world, she had seen that in the taproom, but it was near universal that no one was more reviled than someone who tried to profiteer from the terror of the Wraith. She didn't stay long on any planet and didn't trade more than one item at a time.

The rootless lifestyle was wearying in both body and soul, but she saw no other choice. She'd never be able to tell the truth of what had happened -- nobody would trust her if they knew she'd been caught by the Wraith and then given freedom -- and she wasn't sure that she could build up enough lies to start a new life as someone else. The taproom had seen travelers from many worlds; running into one of them by accident would destroy everything.

It was easier to stay away from busy towns unless she needed provisions; hostels were expensive luxuries that couldn't be fully enjoyed when she had to keep close eye on her belongings and the bustle of the streets reminded her too much of what she had lost. Tiny worlds with small villages were easier; they asked more questions but did not know enough to doubt her answers and they were more likely to give her a meal or a place to sleep without asking for anything in return. She thought she might be able to settle down in one of these small villages, become a farmer's wife instead of a merchant's, and raise children who knew of planting instead of patrons. There were always men looking for wives to replace those lost to childbirth or the Wraith and she promised herself that she would accept the first offer that pleased her.

The first offer never came. Her first suitor not from her world, if she could call him such, was a fruit farmer on Gaedras, a warm, humid planet with lush greenery and a quiet way of life. The Gaedra were not used to strangers, but they had sheltered her when she'd stumbled into their village too exhausted to even speak and refused any recompense she tried to make for their kindness. She stayed until their generosity began to weigh her down more than her secrets did, but returned after a while bearing a gift she knew that they could use: new blades for their scythes. And so began a tentative courtship, first between herself and the Gaedra and then between herself and Ramal, a gentle widower with many trees and three sons.

Ramal would take her to wife without a dowry and nobody among the Gaedra was inclined to criticize, but she would not enter into her new life a charity case. And so she left Gaedra one final time to trade her last remaining possessions from her home world for items she and her new people could use. It took longer than she'd have liked to go among the trading centers and find fair value and so she missed the Wraith's arrival on Gaedra completely. The Wraith hadn't taken everyone, but Ramal was gone. The Gaedra asked her to stay, but she couldn't bear to see another world reduced to char and misery. She left them the gifts that would have been her dowry and never returned.

Instead, she again took up her wandering life, more tired of it than before after having tasted peace and rest. Her wealth was diminishing to the point where she feared that she'd have to trade her body for a meal and so she stayed more and more on worlds where there were no people, learning to live on berries and plants and getting better at killing the animals she shot with the Wraith weapon. She was no hunter, however, and her greatest foraging experience had come from haggling at the market twice a week for her father. Desperate, she returned to her destroyed home world in hopes of finding more in the wreckage, but enough time had passed that others had heard of the destruction of Calpain and the ruins had been picked clean.

There was no honor in thievery; her father had taught her early that it was better to beg than to steal. But he had not lived as she now did, surviving on the pity of strangers and regretting every day the comfortable life she had once led. She doubted that her father would recognize her now. The softness of her skin had been worn away, the suppleness of her form had melted into leanness, and the smile that he'd once claimed could light up a room had not been seen since Gaedras had fallen. There was no air of distressed prosperity about her, just hunger and fear. It got her more safety from those looking for easy marks, but it also got her less sympathy from those who would prefer to give to the temporarily fallen rather than the permanently indigent. Unable to hide what she'd now become, she stole what she was no longer given. She was not dexterous enough to be a great thief, but she had watched the drunk for long enough that she could be a competent one when preying on the diminished. Enough so that it wasn't a man who finally caught her.

The alehouse on Charow was much like the one on Calpain had been -- a central meeting place for the second- and third-tier merchants and traders to relax. Charow wasn't a great trading planet, not a central commerce world where the most prosperous did their business, but it made out all right. Even better now that Calpain was gone to the Wraith, although you'd be hard-pressed to find someone sober who'd be willing to admit such. The alehouse was full after a market day and she'd set herself up well, spending the day at the market and learning the faces of the sharpest businessmen, knowing full well that they were often the most careless drunks.

She'd already pocketed what she'd set her goal to be -- enough local coin to barter for provisions next market day -- and was preparing to leave when she heard the screams. The alehouse was noisy, but one of the natural lulls in the sea of sound had made sure that everyone heard the whine of the Wraith flying machines and the cry of the terrified. Strangely, she didn't feel scared at all. There'd been a rush to the door, but she didn't join it and instead sat down to finish one of the abandoned flagons of ale. What was the point of running? She knew how far she was from the Ring of the Ancestors and understood that it was too late. Either the Wraith would be satisfied with the people running in the street or they'd take everyone and she knew better than to think she could outrun them. If they took her, they'd only have to throw her back again.

It was like something out of a dream to sit with the slaughter outside, like it was happening to another world and not there. Every drop of her energy she possessed, every thought she dreamed, and every move she made had gone toward survival and yet it was all in vain. She feared man more than Wraith -- the one could starve her, but the other was already a permanent fixture in her nightmares. What was death anyway except for eternal rest? She was so very tired.

The Wraith came for her, pointy chin and moist green skin and she watched him, feeling the fear return. She remembered the pain, remembered the ache of them trying to feed on her, remembered the terror of a hand against her throat long ago on Calpain. But it had been a long time ago, in another place, and that woman was long gone. Or so she'd like to pretend.

"You are learning, little one," the Wraith rasped out.

"What are you talking about?" She didn't sound at all brave or fearless and she saw him smile at her tremulous words.

"You were no use to us soft and weak," he replied, head tilted in appraisal. "But you are stronger now and we have waited long enough."

"Waited for what?!"

"For you to be a worthwhile quarry," he answered. He had a sickening smile that displayed vicious teeth.

She felt bile rising. "Quarry?"

"Where you go, we can follow. Where you hide, we will come."

He hissed again in apparent satisfaction and she felt something break inside. She'd known, she'd always known. But she'd forgotten, shoved the memory of what they'd done to her into a tiny box in her mind, tucked it away with the pain and the grief, and never looked at it since. There was 'before' and there was 'after' and she'd stopped thinking of what had gone on in between. She couldn't let herself think of that time because even as she didn't understand the how or the why, the what would have killed her.

"This gift you give us," he went on, gesturing expansively with his feeding hand to indicate the town, "we will accept."

With that, he swept from the room, leaving her alone. The screams had died out in the interim and there was no sound except the distant sound of night birds.

She threw up then, her stomach spasming until there was nothing but dry heaving. She had done this. She had brought death not only to strangers, but also to those she had cared about. Ramal, the Gaedra, and the other worlds she'd been to and returned months later to find culled. It had been no coincidence, no proof of the Wraith becoming more voracious. It had been her all along. She was koreos, a living ghost. Damned by the Wraith, forsaken by the Ancestors, and destined to kill all who came in contact with her.

When she was done sobbing, she found a basin and the well and washed up. Still feeling numb, she stumbled through the ruined town of Charow and collected what she'd need. This time, her salvage was more efficient than it had been on Calpain. Weapons, clothing, tools, food. The odd small bauble that could be traded quickly without haggling. Charow had been prosperous and she took as much as she could carry, intent on bringing it to one of the uninhabited worlds where she could hide until the Wraith came for her.

The detritus by the Ring of the Ancestors was heavy on the ground; many people had tried to flee. She stepped over bodies and belongings and entered the symbols to activate the Ring.

And then she began to run.


Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6/Epilogue
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21 August, 2006