Zarah was actually quite impressed with Mrs. B’s composure. She didn’t scream or shout, and she kept all of her swearing under her breath and indecipherable.
“I am truly sorry,” Zarah said again, “I know how much of an imposition this is, but I truly-”
“-didn’t know where else to go,” the older woman finished for her, one hand on her forehead. “Yeah, I know. I know.” She let out a long-suffering sigh. “I really thought it’d take longer than this,” she muttered under her breath.
They’d been lucky enough not to run into anyone else in the park, but the last few yards from the edge of the treeline to Market Square on the other side of the road had been terrifying. Even with Kihri to act as a spotter, cars could come by so quickly that she’d just had to chance it, waiting until there were no pedestrians and then making a mad sprint across the four lanes. A car had come rumbling around the corner when she was almost across, and she just had to hope that they hadn’t paid too much attention to her, or the bloodstained package she held in her arms (the hammer, wrapped in her stained and torn overshirt).
Thankfully, the store was still empty, so they had been able to rush right in and hide from view behind one of the shelves.
View from outside, that is – not from inside. Mrs. B had been sitting at the counter, and had shot out of her seat so fast when they entered that it had toppled over backwards.
For a second, Zarah had honestly thought she was going to pick her up and throw her out there door, but instead she merely crouched down behind the shelf with them and asked for- well, demanded, an explanation.
“And you’re sure no-one saw you?” she asked again, standing up slightly to glance over the top of the shelves.
“I… fairly certain, yes. Perhaps it would be better to say that no-one noticed me?”
“Let’s hope so.” She sighed, running a hand through her thick curls. “Okay. My apartment is upstairs, through the stockroom door and then up the stairs on the left. The shower is the first room on the right – please try and avoid smearing blood everywhere. Do you have clean clothes?” Zarah nodded. “Okay. Once you’re washed, I’ll close the store and you give me a proper explanation.” It wasn’t a question, but she nodded again in agreement anyway. “Good.” The older woman stood upright, and walked back towards the counter. “Give me a holler when you’re done.”
The confusion must have been evident on her face, because Kihri hopped in to clarify almost immediately. “She means she wants you to call out to her once you’re finished.”
“…’holler’ means that?”
Kihri shrugged. “It’s a fun language. Now come on, Murdergirl. You smell like a cow got turned inside out.”
Even when they had it, the hot water at the shelters was usually more like warm water, so to Zarah, the scalding temperatures of the apartment’s shower were a blessing. That, and not having to share the space with anyone.
She let the water cascade down, scouring her skin and washing away the blood and grime, and leant forward against the wall, resting her head against her arm, as the other one used the hammer to support herself.
The weapon had been as filthy as she was, covered in blood and dust, and so she’d brought it in with her, leaning the head on the ground and using it like a walking stick. The blood hadn’t truly stained it, though, merely formed a dried coating that washed away easily.
She took a deep breath, then another, slowly calming her racing heart. It felt like the first chance to breathe she’d had in… well, it had only been a few hours, but it seemed like much longer. Now that the adrenaline was fading, she just felt drained, more so every second.
Her breath started to falter and catch, coming in quick, ragged gasps, and if she hadn’t been supporting herself with the hammer, she might’ve fallen entirely, her legs refusing to hold her. All her limbs were shaking now, and even though her heartbeat had slowed, it still felt like a drumbeat against her ribs, pounding so hard that it felt like it would explode outwards.
What am I doing? She’d almost died. She should have died! She’d been thrown into a concrete wall hard enough to leave a crater! No human being could survive that – not even counting the hole punched through her stomach. And that man…
That thought, of all things, helped centre her. He had been the one to kill Hami, to kill the others – she was sure of it. Those tendrils of blue… ‘essence’, Kihri had said, they were the exact same colour as the ones left inside the wounds., the same wound he’d inflicted on her. She had survived, but for… a ‘normal’ person, it would be lethal very quickly. And she didn’t count as normal any more, did she?
She looked down at the hammer again. It was true that it needed to be cleaned, but that wasn’t the only reason she had brought it with her. Since she’d picked it up, it hadn’t left her hand, and even now, she didn’t want it to. She could, she was pretty sure, but she didn’t want to – not a compulsion, just… instinct. It felt comfortable in her hand, somehow; familiar, or… right.
Still, it was best to be sure, so she moved the hammer to rest against the tiled wall, and lifted her fingers from-
Pain seared through her, like every part of her body had been set on fire in an instant. A strangled scream choked out of her as she collapsed, one hand grasping for the hammer.
The instant she made contact, the pain immediately began to retreat. Within moments, it had disappeared, leaving her full of adrenaline and panic again as her body raced to deal with pain that was no longer there. She clutched the hammer close to her chest as she panted, cradling it like a child.
“Uh, Z?” Kihri’s voice came from above her, muffled by the drum of the water, and a moment later, her head lowered into view. “I heard you scream, are you okay? Did something happen?”
She took a few moments before replying, trying to get her breath back. “<The hammer- I let go of the hammer, and it hurt.>”
Her sister’s eyes narrowed. “<What hurt?>”
“<Everything. My entire body. It went away when I touched it again, though.>” Not a mistake she’d be making again any time soon.
When Kihri spoke again, her voice was full of anger. “<So… that thing is punishing you for letting go of it?!>”
Zarah shook her head, making her hair swish back and forth in front of her eyes. “<It… I don’t think so.>” She held up her free hand, inspecting it. As far as she could tell, it wasn’t actually damaged in any way, so maybe… “<I think… it might be all the pain that I accumulated? It was healing me before – maybe it’s not done yet?>”
Kihri didn’t exactly seemed pleased with that idea, but some of the tension slipped out of her face. “<If you’re right, then that’s a lot of pain, Zarah. You got fucking spitroasted, and not in the fun way.>”
She grimaced, shifting position slightly. “<I am well aware, thank you.>”
“<So, what? You just never let go of it now? Sleep with it under your pillow?>”
“<I’ll try again->” she said as she began to loosen her grip, but doing so brought back the memory of the pain, and her hand instinctively tightened around it.
“<..later. I’ll try again later. So that it has more time to heal me.>”
“<If that’s even what’s actually happening.>”
“<I suppose,>” Zarah grunted as she began to rise, “<that we’ll find out soon enough.>” She paused for a moment, looking down at the hammer, and then at the soaps on the rack. “<…it might make this a little difficult, though.>”
“<You don’t say.>”
Mulunesh Bzuayehu hated this country with all of her heart.
She hadn’t always – in fact, when she was young, she’d been practically obsessed with Ostra, seeing it as the home of the world’s greatest mechanical advancements. Age had dulled that enthusiasm some, but it wasn’t until she happened to make her home here, years later, that it truly soured into hatred. It was appropriate that she’d once thought of it in terms of machinery, because it was a machine, one that chewed up and spat out everything it could get its hands on. She’d once been naive enough to think that its small size and lack of prominence meant it would have no need to adopt the brutal, grinding methods of larger, more desperate nations, but now she knew better. Ostra only wanted for opportunity, not for willingness.
Of course, Ngina Ashad had not been perfect, either. Far from it – she’d left, after all, setting out with nothing to her name just to escape its cloying conformity and docility. But, especially in recent years, she’d found herself missing her homeland more and more – for the beaches, if nothing else. You couldn’t truly appreciate the coast until you’d lived surrounded by mountains, in her mind.
Which led to Zarah Vyas sitting opposite her at her dining room table. Freshly washed and wearing clothes that were worn and faded but clean, she still held that bizarre red hammer across her lap, clutching it tightly. She was hunched slightly, making her look a little bit shorter than she was, and she was thin in that hollow way people in her position usually were – she almost looked like she would be quite solidly built, under different circumstances, but it was hard to tell with how she held herself. Mulunesh had no trouble identifying the tension in her posture as the learned wariness that you saw so often in street kids. The way her eyes kept flicking to a particular spot on the side of the room, though, that was… strange. There was nothing there, as far as Mulunesh could see, but every time the girl thought she wasn’t watching, her eyes would dart back over there, her face flickering slightly with suppressed reactions.
As if she could see something that Mulunesh couldn’t.
“…thank you,” Zarah said, breaking the silence with her quiet, raspy voice. “Again. You did not have to do any of this, and we are-”
Mulunesh cut her off with a shake of the head. “And I’ll say, again, that you don’t owe me anything. I’m just doing what anyone would do.” The words rang false even as she said them, and Zarah seemed to feel the same way, as the corners of her mouth turned downwards slightly. “…but, you’re welcome.”
The girl only nodded in response, glancing down at the empty bowl in front of her. Mulunesh had almost been alarmed at how quickly, and quietly, she’d devoured the stew and rice. It was like watching a silent trash compactor, smoothly and efficiently packing as much food into each chew and swallow as it could. And still…
Mulunesh rose, then waved down Zarah as she began to rise. “Sit,” she instructed, picking up her empty bowl. “I’ll get you some more.”
“Oh, no, that is not-”
“Kid, it’s alright. No-one’s going to judge you for being hungry.”
She watched the hunger and the politeness war for dominance on her face, and hunger very quickly won. “…thank you, Mrs. B.”
Once Zarah had finished devouring a second, significantly larger portion, Mulunesh figured that they had danced around the point for long enough. “So,” she said, pushing her plate to the side and resting her arms on the table, “the whole story. From the beginning.”
And so she did, in her slightly stilted but perfectly understandable Brechtin. She told Mulunesh about a body torn into pieces and stuffed into a dumpster, about the policemen who claimed it was an accidental death. About people disappearing, about more mutilated corpses in sewers and landfills, and about the tiny strands of blue material in all the wounds.
Zarah paused for a moment to dig through her backpack, before coming up with a collection of ziplock bags, each containing a tiny amount of liquid, blue like the sky and slightly translucent.
“They melted?” Mulunesh asked.
“I… am not sure. They were not cold when we found them, but Ki- I think they…” she trailed off, eyes darting off again. “Some kind of chemical reaction or decay,” she finished slowly, almost like she was reciting the words rather than speaking them.
Mulunesh decided to let it go, for now, and the rest of the story was a little more familiar. . At least, up until the power station, and the bodies.
“You…” she said, once Zarah was done. “Are you sure you’re okay?” The girl certainly didn’t look like she’d been thrown into multiple walls, but she also didn’t seem like she was lying.
“I… hope so.” She gestured with the hand holding the hammer, lifting it off of her lap slightly. “As long as I continue touching it, it seems to be fine.”
“And if you… stop touching it?”
She winced. “That… is a problem for later, I think.”
Mulunesh took another look at the hammer. She’d heard about things like it, of course – not in any sort of specifics, but back in her homeland, there had always been idle mutterings about the other nations and the Trine, and the powers they (apparently) possessed.
Here in Ostra, though, she’d never so much heard a whisper on the same subject. She’d just assumed it was the nation’s isolated nature, but now… maybe there was something more to it.
Zarah noticed her staring. “You do not…” she began to ask, but Mulunesh cut her off with a quick shake of the head.
“Sorry, kid, but I’m in the dark just like you.” Truth be told, she wasn’t exactly comfortable with a teenager carrying around what looked like a full-sized warhammer, but she knew a losing fight when she saw one.
“So,” she continued, changing the subject. “What are you planning to do now?”
Zarah’s face hardened, growing cold, and it was all Mulunesh could do to not let her anguish show on her face. “I have to find him. Before he hurts more people.”
“No,” she wanted so desperately to say, “you can’t. You’re a child. This is not your fault and it is not your responsibility,” and a million other things that were true but wouldn’t make any difference, would just drive her away.
“How?” she asked instead.
Zarah looked away again, but a genuine aversion of eye contact, not like before. “I… have some ideas.”
“…you understand that that sounds like you don’t have any ideas but don’t want to admit it, right?”
“I have a plan,” she insisted forcefully. “I just… cannot explain it to you.”
“Again, I’m sorry, but that just sounds like-”
Zarah cut her off with a frustrated growl, muttering under her breath. “Elak zu’e mimla’re he- will not, not cannot, but one is two words and one is one and the same meaning they both have but they do not but that different also is and then ‘may not’ and-” she trailed off again into frustrated grumbling, then took a deep breath, and regained her composure. “I am sorry,” she stated slowly. “I greatly appreciate the kindness you have shown u- me, but I will not tell you that. It is not my right.”
She wasn’t going to be pushed on this, obviously, so Mulunesh let it go. “That’s alright. I apologise for prying.”
Zarah nodded thankfully, and began to rise, gathering up her plate and utensils.
“Wait!” Mulunesh blurted, then cursed internally. She hadn’t meant to- well, nothing left but to go for it now. “Can I- I would like to-” And that’s why we don’t blurt things out, Mulu. “Stay,” she said instead. “Please.”
Zarah’s reaction was about what she had expected, the instant shift of barriers going up, her face growing guarded, and she rushed to get ahead of it. “I don’t mean- I can’t, won’t, stop you from doing what you feel you have to do, but… I have a couch, I could use an extra pair of hands in the shop, and I could use the company.”
The girl stood there frozen for a moment, bowl still in her hands. “Why?” she said eventually, barely a question.
“I…” Mulunesh couldn’t help but stand as well. “…in the past, I haven’t helped people when I should have, and I haven’t been able to when I wanted to. I can’t… I can’t tell you what to do, but I can’t watch this again-” her voice cracked, and she took a deep breath to recover. “If I can’t stop you, and I can’t and won’t, then all I have left is trying to make sure you survive it.”
Zarah stood there in silence for a few moments, her expression unreadable. “…thank you again,” she said at last, barely audible, “for all your kindness.”
And with that, she picked up her bags and walked out of the room.