Hunger pushed me from the safety of the tunnels to the forest, but it was curiosity that drew me back to the city I’d fled not half a year before. The streets’ new residents were primarily small forest rodents exploring for the same reasons that led me. Whatever food left behind after the fighting though had been well picked over by the time I arrived, so I made camp in a small house near the edge of the tree line, in what would have been considered an outer zone neighborhood before the city was abandoned. The forest provided berries and roots and the promise of escape should things get too dangerous, but I was mindful that I’d need to find another solution soon, as autumn approached and winters here could be unkind.
I caught sight of other refugees from time to time, skulking around with the wide gaze of someone hunted – or haunted. As a rule, we avoided each other. Mostly, I ran into myir. Ah, myir, the annoying scourge in this complicated world. Attracted to fear, myir could manifest in any form; usually unpleasant. They were like a bloodhound on a scent once interested, and the only way to get one to stop haunting you was to face it until it shrank away to nothing.
A single myir wasn’t a problem. A lot of people used laughter to shrink them from existence, but my preferred technique was intimidation. I’d stare it down until I saw a flicker of self-doubt in its eyes. Once the seed was there the concept did the rest. The myir, unsure suddenly of its potency, would shrink itself. I found it hilarious. When they traveled in packs though, as they were wont to do of late, that was a different matter. Myir frightened each other, thereby growing stronger. One lone girl against several myir was a dangerous prospect and I worked hard to stay well out of their way… and unafraid.
Wolves became another problem as larger predators emerged from the dark wood, following the emboldened smaller scavengers. The same pattern could be expected of men, I knew, and I needed to pluck up the courage to pass through the city sooner rather than later if I wished to be south of it before winter descended. Last night, fires had blazed until dawn down near the water, where the central buildings had stood, and the towering spheres that once declared to all who laid eyes upon them, “here stands Azminan, City of Spheres, the greatest symbol of balance and peace in the world,” no longer marked the sky.
I didn’t have the heart to travel that way. In my memory, lush gardens still framed ornate courtyards that snaked between the buildings in endless beauty. Fountains possessing mysteries of the elements could always be counted on to surprise and inspire as you strolled past and everywhere were spheres. Whole, perfect spheres. I refused to imagine anything else.
I didn’t know much about the cities to the south, but I’d already been to the north, where the forests stretched endlessly. Where I’d come from before this, south was where you’d find warmth. I hoped fervently that the same was true here. With a wistful gaze at the house that had sheltered me these past weeks, I gathered together what few belongings I’d acquired from the homes of my borrowed neighborhood and found pockets for each. They weren’t much; a small knife, a thin length of rope and what coins I could find. I had no idea what currencies were honored in the south, but I’d have a start, anyhow.
I chose streets that led me inland, to the east, every once in a while turning to the south before resuming my eastward progress. I wasn’t certain how far I wanted to delve into the eastern outer zones of Azminan, but I knew without a doubt that I had no desire to stray too far into the heart of the city where undesirable, opportunistic types had already claimed residency. Or so I assumed, based on the sort I saw passing that way through daylight and the fires the night before. Even having effectively lived in the city for a couple of weeks, I found the empty houses unnerving. Small breezes toyed with bits of forgotten paper or fabric, catching across open gates and waving farewell. It left me with a bereft, forlorn feeling, as if hope had abandoned the world. Coming here had been a mistake.
Movement caught my attention. Something had rushed past behind a house to my left, too fast. Far too fast. A chill spread up my spine and I knew instinctively that a myir was nearby. I heard unsavory laughter from behind and worked to keep a steady pace as I scanned my options. I was mid-block, small houses padded from each other by yards dotting my progress with the regularity of the fence posts that rimmed them. Most of the gates gaped open, which could allow me easy access to the yards, but thick hedges rose behind most of the homes that could prove difficult to pass through or scale. I might be able to take refuge within a house, but myir weren’t hindered by doors or walls, and depending on how many had just caught onto me, being trapped in a house with them might be my worst idea. I stopped walking and held my breath, waiting for them to approach. There were at least two; that I knew already. Best to face them now and get this over with before we attracted the attention of more.
Something cackled as it passed over my head, taking a few strands of my hair with it. I groaned internally. The flying ones were the worst. Their attacks were hard to predict and that made them more intimidating, therefore harder to defeat.
“Come on out!” I challenged, slipping my fingers around the hilt of the knife I’d procured.
Footsteps approached behind me and I turned to find a man there. I frowned. Myir took on many forms, and certainly the forms of people, but usually people you knew. Particularly those who frightened you. This man looked unwashed, and rough certainly, but not particularly frightening. He was smiling with amusement, and left the road to lean against a fence.
“Behind you, quickly,” he said.
I turned in time only to recognize movement before something collided with me. It cackled as dark wings lifted it away. I was still coughing for breath when the wolf-shaped myir sped toward me from behind the house to my left. I cried out as its jaws closed around my ankle. It pulled me toward the yard it had just vacated. I caught its shoulder with the small blade of my knife, but the moment the wolf flinched away the shadowy bird descended again, shrieking toward me with open talons.
“Help me!” I called to the man as I lifted an arm in defense.
The bird aimed for my head instead and took away several more strands of hair as it flapped off for another go.
“What’s in it for me?” asked the man, moving closer.
The wolf flinched away, eyeing him carefully. My relief was short-lived, though, as I spotted three more wolves emerging from the yard. The man knelt and pulled my sock away from the wound at my ankle, ignoring the wolves and the circling myir bird.
“Not as deep as it feels,” he appraised. “I can help,” he added, eyeing me speculatively, “but I’m not sure why I should.”
“I have some coins,” I offered, but could tell the moment I’d said it that he wasn’t impressed by money. “What do you want?” I pled.
The bird and wolves kept their distance, which didn’t make sense. Myir were opportunistic creatures. They certainly had the numbers against this man and me. His eyes flashed with a spark of something. Amusement? Excitement? I didn’t like this. I didn’t like him.
“What skills do you have?” he asked speculatively.
One of the wolves neared, sniffing, and he glared at it. Incredibly, the wolf shrank away.
“I’m a storyteller,” I said.
“Everyone’s a storyteller,” he scoffed.
“I can read the carvings of the tunnels that run under the world,” I panted, the pain from my bite only now starting to surface with agonizing clarity. “I know how to decipher them and tell their tales.”
The man leaned back on his heels and smiled. With a nod, the circling myir and pack of wolves drifted away, and another cold chill visited my nerves. No one wielded that kind of power. Some had powers over myir, sure, but I’d had a chance to take a closer look at those wolves. They hadn’t been myir. I’d never heard of anyone who could control wolves. Who was this man? He extended a hand and helped me to my feet, supporting me when I realized with a yelp that I couldn’t put weight on my left ankle.
“Come,” he invited, “let’s see to that.”
“I’m a man without a name,” he said before I could finish my question, “and I think I’ll call you Shevus, storyteller.”
“What should I call you?” I asked, wincing as I tried to take a step.
The man lifted me and turned west with long strides. “That depends on the quality of your stories,” he said after some thought. “For now,” he added with a private smile, “I think you’ll want to call me Alpha.”
“Isn’t that a letter?” I frowned, trying to remember where I’d heard that word before.
He offered his unsettling smile in answer, and as exhaustion and the steady sway of his stride pulled me from consciousness, I noticed that the pack of wolves had fallen into step behind us.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!