by Ville Meriläinen
The wasteland opened before us, cold and bleak like we’d stepped inside a predator’s eye. Blue Girl sat on Huntress’ back, shoulders drooping, the hem of her dress ripped at the knees. She’d be fine tomorrow. Until then, the wolf would gladly ease her burden.
Blue Girl had a smile to cut glass and enough heartache to kill a man, but we liked each other well enough and were useful to one another, so we journeyed together. Huntress and I cared for little else but staying alive. She had lost her cubs when escaping the fire that took her mountain, and now wandered the earth looking for them. My reason was more selfish: I simply enjoyed living, even when there was nothing to live for. Blue Girl helped by letting us eat her arms before we lay to sleep, knowing the flesh would regrow by the morning. In return, I had promised to bring her to Charnel House, the one place where she might find the end of her own search: Blue Girl wanted to die.
“I see nothing but burnt earth for days to come,” Huntress said. Our paws raised clouds of dust and ash with every step, but to the omnipresent smell of smoke clung an undernote of a coming storm from the clouds at horizon’s edge. “Are you sure this is the way?”
“Positive,” I replied. “I can feel it in my bones.”
Huntress hummed, a growl deep in her throat that never failed to make me uneasy. The great wolf was a kind creature, but murder remained etched deep in the grooves of her face.
“I think I can walk now,” Blue Girl said. Her voice was hollow, legs crusted with dry blood. She’d cut them coming down the mountain and bled so much I’d fretted a rock would give her the surcease we could not.
“You stay where you are,” Huntress said. “Maybe you can walk, but it doesn’t mean you should.”
“Won’t you carry me as well?” I said. “I could sit on her lap. I’m far smaller than she.”
Huntress returned a sideways leer. “Careful, fox. If you’re so lazy, I could carry you with my teeth.”
I bared mine into a grin, though her comment nearly coaxed a whimper out of me. “I thought it a sensible suggestion. Your stride is longer than mine, and swifter without me slowing you down.”
“Were that a problem, I’d sooner leave you behind.”
“Now, now. How would you find Charnel House without me?”
“I’m not convinced we’ll find it with you. You might as well be making us run in circles to keep getting fed.”
“Don’t be wicked, Huntress,” Blue Girl said.
“She’s only teasing, dear. We’ve grown inseparable, she and I.”
Huntress snorted at that. “I’m more attached to her than to you. We’ll part ways at the House as agreed.”
“Don’t be wicked,” Blue Girl said, more firmly. “Promise me you won’t abandon him when I’m gone.”
“I’ve not given up on my cubs, girl. I doubt he wants to join my search once he has no feeding hand to bite.”
Huntress glanced at me, as though expecting a remark, but I saw no reason to antagonize her. She was certain the cubs lived, could feel their closeness in her marrow the same way a murmur in my own pulled me towards the demise the girl yearned for.
It was ironic that, out of the three of us, I was the one drawn to Charnel House. I would have been thrilled to be deathless like Blue Girl, but she wanted nothing more than to escape. Huntress and I had found her after she jumped off a cliff so high she’d been a dot atop it. She came down like a falling star with a tail of silk, but got up from the crater as though she’d only tripped.
She spoke in her sleep sometimes, blaming herself for the way the world was, but that was an absurd notion to entertain. How could someone who’d gained the trust of two wild beasts through the virtue of her kindness have caused a calamity this vast?
I gave the girl a look from the corner of my eye. She met it with a wan smile, cutting through fur for a pluck at my heartstrings. I refused to believe she was guilty for the way the world was, but the child had seen something that had broken the spirit within an unbreakable body. When she smiled, none of the defeat lacing her bearing showed.
Wind drove along the drifts of ash around us, and as we climbed a mound, I noticed the broken ribcage of a small beast poking out of it. For a moment, I felt sorry for Huntress—I was sure her cubs were gone, starved by now even if they’d somehow lived through the end of the world. I caught her glimpsing at the bones as well, and set my gaze ahead when our eyes met and I saw the bared pain in them.
“Fox,” said Blue Girl, interrupting my musing. “Would you tell me more about Charnel House?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I want to hear you speak. It’s too quiet.”
“Hmm. Have I told you how grand and beautiful it is?”
“What about the lands surrounding it?”
Blue Girl tapped her lip in thought. “You say there’s still grass and that the milk on the leaves makes you forget your worries.”
“Then what of the people who used to live there?”
“They were as grand and beautiful as the house, but turned it into a home to death, and now only an old crow dwells there.”
I smacked my mouth. “Sounds like you know as much as my stories do.”
“Oh.” She fell quiet for a minute, then asked, “Would you like to play a game?”
“Are you after my name again?” I chuckled. It was a difficult sound to produce, but it made her smile a little brighter. “Go on, then.”
“Is it… Redtail?”
“You’ve tried that.”
“Nuisance?” offered Huntress. She earned only a flat stare for it.
Blue Girl went on to fill the silence with her guesses, but I rejected them all. Truth was I didn’t have a name, never knew I was supposed to until I met her. With only the three of us, ‘fox’ was just as good, but I had decided to claim she’d guessed correctly once she landed on one that sounded nice in my ears. I thought she’d done the same; we’d started calling her Blue Girl because she was a girl and her dress was blue, but Huntress had told me it wasn’t a proper name.
I suppose I understood some of her desire to learn mine, as names seemed to have power of which I hadn’t known either. It was only after we named her that we learned to understand her, though we had walked together for some time by then.
“One of these days,” she huffed, after her tone reached the peak of vexation, “I’m going to learn it, you know.”
“I’m sure you will,” I said with a chuckle. Annoyance lingered on her features, turning the ensuing smile impish.
We came to the bank of a dry river. A stream still ran through the bottom, but if we went down, the sides would be too steep to climb back up. Even so, Huntress leapt off the ledge without hesitation, padded to the stream and lapped from it with such vigor she might’ve been trying to drain it altogether. I hopped after her, and once we’d drunk, looked around for a way out.
“Should we spend the night here?” Blue Girl suggested. “I’m tired and you could drink as much as you want.”
Huntress said, “A sound plan. I’m parched.”
“Well then,” I said with a yawn, “make us a fire, dear. I can do with some shuteye.”
She headed off to gather scattered pieces of wood. The wood was charred, violently splintered; the wasteland’s birth had created a storm unlike any before, and fire and lightning had decimated the lush forests once ruling the lowlands. Everywhere we went, we found nothing but grey earth, as though it had been sucked dry to the last drops of life. We had passed no other beasts on our way, only skeletons so fragile they turned to dust when we tried to gnaw on them.
Left to her own devices, a somber air soon overcame Blue Girl. Huntress noted it as well and went to join her, tattling about this and that to pull her out of her thoughts. I sat on my haunches, watching them pick up and pile the wood.
Once she was warm, Blue Girl would let us eat. I wasn’t hungry enough for it not to sicken me, and so I watched them in brooding silence. What did it say about us, helping her towards a fate neither felt she deserved, using her body as sustenance on the way? Yes, the limbs would regrow—but that only meant we fed on her pain.
These thoughts passed as the flame grew and drowsiness settled in, as they did every night. I was a firm believer in one’s own freedom, and so it was not my place to deny her any choice concerning herself. Huntress felt much the same. Besides, we could do nothing but follow her: finding no one else meant we had none to rely on but each other, and the wolf’s kindness wasn’t limitless.
Thus, in order to help each other for another day, we ripped the flesh of Blue Girl’s arms until she passed out, and when they were picked clean, nestled against her in an effort to balance the suffering we inflicted with affection.
I woke up to raindrops pummeling my nose. Blue Girl was still asleep, mended hands folded under her head. I stretched out of the nook of her bent knees, jowls shaking with a yawn. Huntress was gone. Blue Girl was easily upset if we weren’t here when she woke up, so the wolf often used the early hours for scouting and returned at dawn. I suspected she’d left to look for a way up.
I returned to Blue Girl after drinking. The rain had washed her feet; the dress had mended with the skin, dampened from periwinkle to a deeper shade. She shuddered when I lay beside her.
“Forgive me,” she whispered, still asleep. “I have mothered ruin.”
I reared my head for a look at her. Poor dear. She was too young to have mothered anything, much less anything this awful.
She might’ve cried in her sleep, or maybe it was rain. I didn’t dare lick her face for the risk of waking her, and so I only nuzzled against her throat for some more rest. It was always strange to be so close to her; her body looked as soft as a child’s was meant to be, but her meat was sinewy and her stomach taut with muscle. She pulled me closer and cradled me in her arms until I dozed off.
My dream took me to Charnel House. Mist hung over pale grassland, where the house sat amidst a copse of skeletal trees. I had overstated its beauty. Maybe it had been a place of splendor in the past, but now it was like its lone inhabitant, scraggly and diseased, so far as a house could look diseased. Cracks ran over windows like cataracts in the crow’s eyes, pillars were chipped and thin like his legs, murals on the walls had faded as his feathers had lost their luster. It was where dead things went to die, so the story said, so why not Blue Girl?
“Hello. Are you bringing a visitor?” cawed the crow when I approached. He perched atop the open door. It was too dark to see what was inside.
The crow’s familiar tone seemed odd, but, being fully aware I was dreaming, I decided to pay no mind to little lapses in logic. “I don’t think I should.”
“Your task is only to guide her here. She will decide whether to enter or not.”
“She is misguided.”
“That, ultimately, is irrelevant,” said the crow. He swooped down onto the porch and pointed his wing towards the dark house. “This is where she belongs. This is where she’ll be happy. You know this.”
The crow nodded. “You only don’t know you do. You would if you knew her name.”
“I know all names.”
I cocked my head at that. “Do you know mine?”
“Ha. You don’t even know I don’t have one.”
I thought I read a grin in the way the crow’s beak parted. “You think yourself clever, my friend, but every creature has a name. Come to Charnel House and I will tell you. You may then enter as well, should you wish to follow her.”
I awoke then, startled by the crow’s horrid offer. The dream faded as I blinked in light and shuddered away its memory.
“Good morning,” said Blue Girl. She had propped her head against a restored arm and scratched the nape of my neck. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“I dreamt of Charnel House.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Neither, I think.”
She moved to scratching behind my ear when I fell into silent thoughts. “Is something the matter?”
I let her pet me for a moment. “Blue Girl,” I said, pausing when she found the good spot. She hummed to spur me on. “If you go inside Charnel House, you will die.”
She smiled. “I think you’ve mentioned that, yes.”
“I won’t come with you.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“I need you to know that.”
Her brow furled, though she still smiled. “What on earth has come over you, silly?”
“I don’t want you to go inside alone.”
“Everyone goes to death alone, fox.”
“But you’ve done nothing wrong. You shouldn’t have to go at all.”
“Oh, fox,” she said, sighing as she stood. “Not this again. Won’t you come find Huntress instead? With that, at least, you can help me.”
“Is she not back yet?” I said with surprise. It was unusual for the wolf to stay away for this long.
“She left just before you awoke,” Blue Girl said. “She found a way up, but that was awhile ago. We should catch up.”
Blue Girl and I jolted when a howl reached us. She faced me with fright. “That must’ve been her. Come! She may need us.”
We hurried down the ravine, Huntress’ howls growing more panicked as Blue Girl started running out of breath. The bottom turned muddier and muddier until we found the wolf—neck deep in it. The wall had crumbled; rocks formed a path gradually submerging as it reached her.
“Help me,” she whimpered. “I tried to climb up, but the wall couldn’t carry my weight. A stone pushed me in and my foot is stuck beneath it.”
I dashed for her, but stopped when she cried, “Be careful! There’s a pit. My feet reach the bottom, but it’s too deep for you.”
“Can’t you push the rock aside?”
“I’m not strong enough.”
“You’re too far for us to reach,” Blue Girl said, face twisted with worry. She picked up a stick, poked the ground until she found a way around the pit and held the stick out for the wolf. “Here. Maybe I can pull you out with—”
The stick crunched and broke when Huntress bit for hold. Blue Girl raised the splintered end and frowned before tossing it away. She hemmed, felt the mud with her foot, then reached out her arm. “Bite down. I have a good foothold here.”
“You’ll break like the twig.”
“I’m stronger than I look.”
Huntress hesitated. I had no wisdom to offer save for, “It’ll grow back.”
The wolf said, “It is one thing to hurt you to live, but I don’t want to do so for nothing.”
“Do you think you’ll never sink?” replied the girl.
Huntress gave a whimper before parting her jaws. Blue Girl cried out when they closed on her forearm, groaned as she gritted her teeth and leaned back. She held herself up with her free arm as her feet sought the hold hidden under mud. Blood spurted onto Huntress’ nose, but the girl persevered. Her wail rose into a scream until Huntress let go and Blue Girl tumbled backwards.
“Why did you—?” she shrieked, cutting herself off when Huntress climbed up and shook mud off her fur. She limped to Blue Girl, rear leg twisted, and licked the row of puncture wounds on the girl’s arm
“Thank you,” said the wolf.
Blue Girl smiled through tears. The smile wilted when she faced me, and I realized horror must’ve shown on my features. “What’s wrong, fox?”
“You’ve said nothing when you let us eat. I thought you were used to the pain.”
She pressed her lips together, averted her eyes, and shook her head.
Huntress looked away from her, at me. “How far to Charnel House?”
“I can go without eating for three days.”
“You don’t have to,” Blue Girl said. “It’s fine, really—”
“I will do you no more harm, girl,” growled Huntress, “and I’ve half a mind to turn around, carry you to the mountains and raise you as my own, away from this awful place.”
“And what would that solve?” I said. I did my best not to cower when she swung towards me. “You’d leave one wasteland for another, and sooner or later you’d hunger again. All you’d do would be to prolong her suffering, making a home above the valley of cinders where you keep the last living creature as your pet and prey.”
Her growl deepened. “Are you saying you accept her resignation now?”
“It’s not our place to decide her fate, Huntress.”
“No,” she admitted, after a long, long spell of consideration. “But it is my choice not to eat her. I will not be used for penance any longer.”
“Nor will I,” I said, and faced Blue Girl. “And I stand by what I said before. You’ve a good heart.”
Blue Girl bowed her head, placed her healthy hand on the side of Huntress’ neck, and whispered, “Thank you.”
We were able to climb up over the pile of rocks Huntress’ fall had made. Her injury did nothing to our pace. She’d already had to slow down for us to keep up—now she merely had to do so a little less.
* * *
The wasteland turned from an even plain into an uphill climb. On the plateaus we found more skeletons, human instead of animal, as though a necropolis had been unearthed. The ground was soft, once fertile, perhaps, and I wondered if they’d been field hands who’d worked the lands around Charnel House.
Every time we passed such boneyards, Blue Girl kept her gaze fixed on the overcast and allowed Huntress to carry her. The wolf never complained for the added weight on her leg wound, just as Blue Girl tried to hide the wounds on her heart from us.
On the third morning, we found the first signs of life since our journey began. Grass grew thick on the slopes, wet with dew.
“Don’t touch it,” I said, when Blue Girl fell behind to inspect the pearls of milk gathering on the leaves. “It’ll take away the pain in your arm, but also everything else. We’re almost there.”
Charnel House waited atop the final climb, where the land leveled and the grass grew taller. The cooling evening raised the milk into mist, making even Huntress complain of feeling lightheaded. It was cold here; the chill of death wafted from the house like exhalations from the netherworld.
“Girl, I don’t want you going nearer,” Huntress growled. Her fur bristled. “You don’t belong here. Turn away.”
“Please,” I tried. The mist numbed my thoughts, making my feet pad on by their own accord. “She’s right. I’ve made a grave mistake. I never should’ve brought you here.”
“But I see it now,” Blue Girl said, voice drowsy. “It’s beautiful.”
I saw it too, the shimmery gloss appearing on the house’s surface, how it seemed to radiate in the glow of a waning sun. Even I felt an attraction to the place, so much greater than before. The gentle hold in my bones hummed a gentler invitation, asking me to cross the threshold.
“Please don’t go,” I whimpered. “You are a kind creature, sorely needed in this world. If you went, there might be no one else left but Huntress and I. Neither of us have half the heart you do.”
“But, fox,” said Blue Girl. “I made the world this way. I don’t deserve to dwell in it. Don’t want to—”
“You cannot have!” I snapped, steeling my mind to dash to her and step in her way. “My dear girl, why do you say these things? Why do you not see how sweet you are? We are beasts—had we been alone, I would have abandoned Huntress to drown in the mud. And she? If we had stayed together this long by the two of us, nothing I could’ve said would’ve deterred her from eating me. Is this not true?”
“It is,” Huntress said. “You have tamed us, girl, made us caring by caring for us. If you wish to step inside, it is your right, but I will not bid a fond farewell. I will grieve for a life thrown to waste.”
“You don’t understand,” Blue Girl said, with chilling patience. “This is my share. Remember me as a fool if you must, but move out of my way.”
“A fool is the last thing I’ll remember,” I said.
The girl did not reply, only stepped past.
“Ah, hello,” said the crow sitting atop the open door. “How good to see you, at long last. Come in.”
“Thank you,” said Blue Girl. She turned, folding her hands over her front. Warmth pulsed in my breast, and I feared her smile had cut so deep if I spat the grass would turn red. “Fond or not, I bid goodbye, my friends—”
“Not you, silly chit,” said the crow. He swooped down and hobbled past her to Huntress. “Come, come. It’s time to go.”
Dumbfounded, Huntress stared the crow down. “I’m going nowhere. It’s the girl you want.”
“She?” The crow darted a look at Blue Girl. “She couldn’t come in if she wanted. She’s alive.”
“So am I.”
“How could you be, when the forest burned around you?”
“I…” Horror flashed on her face, then fury settled in. In a snarl, she said, “Step back, crow. I will not be tricked. I must find my cubs.”
“You did, Nastasha. You found them in your den, where their charred bones rest with yours.”
A pang boiled the blood Blue Girl’s smile had freed. My chest was afire, as was Huntress’—afire and worse, by her look. She turned to me with an expression of desperation, and I met it with some of my own. “Her name is Huntress,” I said, words rolling off an unfeeling tongue.
“‘Huntress’ is no name. It is a title.”
The wolf whispered, “Nastasha.”
I whispered, “Nastasha.”
“That is her name,” said the crow, “and now she remembers.”
Nastasha took in a deep breath she released as a long, wailing howl. Her fur seemed to give off mist. To my shock, I realized it was smoke.
“My friends,” she said, voice frail and ethereal. “I do remember. I must go. I don’t belong here.” She came to us, gave Blue Girl’s face a lick. “My cubs were gone—but they hadn’t moved. I found them slain when I brought them food. When the fire came, I could not bring myself to leave them.”
“I’m so sorry,” Blue Girl said, scratching the wolf’s jaw.
Nastasha came to me, prodded my nose with hers. “You guided me here.”
The crow studied us with an amused twinkle in its eye. It hadn’t spoken of Blue Girl in my dream. That blasted fiend had told me I was leading the wolf to her doom, and I’d been too much of a fool to understand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
She looked long at me, until I thought a smile appeared in her lupine features. “I forgive you.”
“It’s time to go,” said the crow. Nastasha nodded and padded towards the open door, stopping at the porch to face us for the last time. Her fur had burned off by then, skin melting, bone showing. She did not make it all the way inside; a gust of wind blew her ashes into the darkness.
When she was gone, the murmur within my marrow calmed. The pull, however, forced my legs into motion, and it took effort to force them rigid and keep myself standing in place. Blue Girl still regarded the empty space Nastasha had left, but the crow noticed my struggle and said, “Your duty is done. You can go as well.”
This drew a gasp from Blue Girl and made her wheel about. “Not you, too?” she sniffled.
“Dear girl, no one loves being alive as much as I,” I said, with a scolding look at the crow.
“You remember why you had to guide her, yes?” said the crow.
“That does not mean I belong here.”
“No,” the crow admitted with a nod, “but—”
He cocked his head.
“Are you about to tell me my name?”
The crow nodded again, and I went to the weeping Blue Girl. She knelt to rub my ear, brushed her nose with the side of her palm.
“Would you like to guess first?” I said.
“Is it…” Her voice came out creaky. She cleared her throat and furled her brow. “Huntress’ name was Nastasha.”
“Then yours might be something closer to mine than one from a fairytale, too.”
“Is it… Phillip?”
“It is not.”
“Is it Henry?”
“One more try.”
She sucked on her lip, brows knitted, inspecting me as though trying to see it hidden somewhere on my face. “Is it Ichabod?”
The tiniest grunt fled a chest gone perfectly rigid. I was flushed with memories, how I had tried to plead the wolf to spare me—because, with a full stomach, I was unable to escape her.
I forced on a smile, straining muscles that weren’t meant to move in such a way. “See? I knew you’d guess it eventually.”
“Ichabod,” she whispered, wiping her eye. “Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod.”
I licked her fingers before facing the crow. “Do I have to go? She would be all alone.”
“You’ve atoned,” he said. “It’s your choice, but you know you don’t belong here.”
“Atoned?” said Blue Girl.
“We are beasts,” I answered, “and beasts are cruel to one another.”
“I don’t think that’s true. You’ve been nothing but kind to me.”
“Why are you so quick to believe the best of us, when you don’t see the good in yourself?”
She licked her lower lip, straightened herself. “Crow,” she said. “When I named him in my thoughts, I could hear him speak. When I learned his true name, I saw the bite marks on his throat. If he knew mine, could he see me as I do?”
The crow nodded. Unease tickled my neck, as though a wraith petted me where Blue Girl had a minute ago.
“Dear Ichabod,” she said, sitting on her knees. “My name is not Blue Girl. It is Evelyn.”
Between blinks, Blue Girl grew from a sweet little creature into a woman so beautiful I thought her radiance might blind me. I gasped for breath, unable to move my gaze from this sun with a hand resting on my ear. Her voice had deepened, each phrase flowing like a song.
“Charnel House was my home,” Evelyn said, “before we befouled it, my family and I, with our desire to become everlasting. We ate the shine of the sun and turned into a pale remembrance of itself. We drained the earth of verve to enhance our own. We stole the lives of creatures to stretch mortality into eternity. And I, I am the worst of us all.”
“Why?” I said, though I didn’t want to hear the answer. I wanted to hear her voice again, heart aching from being deprived of it for only a pause.
“I am a kinslayer,” she said, calmly, as though stating any mundane fact. “My family became the death of a planet, but I became the Death of Deaths and took from them their shine and verve and long lives to reach true immortality. When I left to enjoy my newfound godhood, I learned its price. In my desperation to find something still alive, I wandered so far I could no longer find my way home.” She closed her eyes, shuddered a sigh. “I lost my way for countless lifetimes, but wherever I went, I found nothing but ruin. Sometimes, I came across animals who had survived—though I now suspect they all were like you and Nastasha, tied too closely to this world for me to devour. After I had let them eat, I woke up alone. None of them were as devoted to living for the sake of living as you, I reckon.”
She trailed off into a hum, scratching the good spot. Her touch sent shivers through my body. “I thought I’d have to live alone until I met you,” she went on, quieter. “I’m glad we did meet, though neither of us got what we wanted. It seems that, in the end, I stole what was dearest even from you.”
“I don’t believe you. You are my friend. If you had the powers you claim, you would have used them for good.”
“If you were a cruel beast,” she said, and her smile eviscerated me in a way it hadn’t come close to before, “why do you cling onto the good in me?”
“I couldn’t go to my demise knowing you, too, were a wicked creature.”
Her hum turned inquisitive. “Ichabod, I’ve confessed to you because I want you to go to your demise without burdens.”
I pricked my ears at that.
“I sought to die here because I was weak and lonely, and afraid you’d leave me like all the rest,” she went on. “Now that I know I cannot do that, I have something else in mind. I will walk the earth and return everything I took. I will give away my shine so that stars may glow at night. I will let rivers run wild and unrestrained. And,” she tapped my nose, “I will make sure every forest I raise has a fox as its little prince.”
“You can do that?” I said with surprise. “Do you promise?”
She hugged me tight. “It will be difficult, but I swear it on this good heart of mine.”
“Then,” I said once she let go, “I think it is time I left.”
“Goodbye, Ichabod. I won’t forget you.”
“Goodbye, Evelyn. I’ll try not to forget you.”
I padded towards the house, no longer frightened. At the porch, a ghost of uncertainty crossed my thoughts, and I paused for one last look at her. “Please turn away. I don’t want you to see me change.”
“Won’t you feel lonely, with no one to see you go?”
“Everyone goes to death alone, Evelyn.”
Evelyn bowed her head with a mirthless laugh. “Of course.” She spun, and when the crow glanced at her, I dashed into the shadow a pillar cast. After a minute, she asked, “Ichabod?”
They couldn’t see me hiding, and the crow said, “He’s gone.”
Evelyn turned, gazing up at the house. “Good. I don’t want him to see me, either.” She lowered her gaze, looked towards the entrance for so long I thought she had spotted me, but then asked, “What did he atone for?”
“I don’t know,” said the crow. “He did something that caused the wolf to resist you, something that bound her soul here, and theirs together. It left them half-eaten; you took their lives, but left their bodies walking. Every creature yearns to find where they belong, but she was too distracted by the grief of her last moments to find her way here, and he could not be free until she was.”
Evelyn wrapped her arms around herself and looked at her feet. When she raised her head back towards me, even from a distance, I saw her tears.
“Did you truly not notice your companions were spectres?” the crow went on.
She brushed her face and hardened her expression before turning. “Don’t be snide. Your eye was always sharper than mine. It was the one thing I couldn’t take from you.”
“Mm. I will go as well, now everyone is accounted for.”
My heart sunk when she replied, “I think that’s for the best. No creature should have to walk this earth anymore.”
“But you will. If you went through that door, nothing would happen. Death herself can’t die.”
She sighed. “I feared as much, but my feet are tired. I think I’ve earned some rest.”
“I see,” the crow said, sweeping a look at the house and the plains. “For what it’s worth, I forgive you.”
“Goodbye, Tristan. Bring my love to mother and father.”
The crow hobbled away from her. When his claw touched the threshold, I witnessed him shed his feathers and turn into an old, withered man. As he stepped inside, he grew younger, handsomer, until he faded into the darkness.
Evelyn had sat down to inspect a blade of grass she’d plucked. “Please, don’t,” I whimpered to myself when her lips parted. She did not hear me; the bead of milk rolled off the leaf to touch the tip of her tongue. She began to hum softly, plucked another and drank its milk. A dull iron cloud took away the luster of her eyes.
Head hanging, I approached the door. Evelyn’s only lie was one of kindness, and it made her prior honesty regarding her vileness hurt all the more. She had taken what was most precious from me, but it was not my life. I had lost both my friends.
As the shadows sheltered me, I began to feel lighter, at peace with all the deeds I had come to feel shame for when I learned kindness from Huntress and Blue Girl. I wondered if Huntress’ forgiveness was for unwittingly tricking her into coming here, or if she knew I had killed her cubs. It wasn’t an act of evil, only self-preservation. I was hungry, and thought to kill them young so they wouldn’t grow to hunt me.
At the precipice between this world and the next, I stopped to listen to Evelyn’s humming. I heard no beauty in her voice anymore. It had turned into breathy, discordant notes, and ceased altogether when I walked into Charnel House, where dead things went to die.
* * *
Originally published in The Death of All Things
About the Author
Ville Meriläinen is a Finnish university student and award-winning author of speculative fiction. His short fiction has appeared in various venues online and in print, including Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pseudopod, and Abyss & Apex. His musical fantasy novel, Ghost Notes, is available on Amazon.com.