Scavenger of Souls
Aleka looked out over the land and frowned.
She stood at the crest of a low hill, squinting in the sunlight, the lines deepening around her mouth. I tried to read her expression, but as usual I failed.
This was Aleka, after all. Her close-cropped, graying blond hair framed a face she could turn into a mask at a moment’s notice. I’d been studying that face for the better part of a week, and I still had no idea what was going on behind her deep gray eyes.
Aleka. My mother. And as much a mystery to me as my own past.
After a long minute she spoke the name of her second-in-command. “Soon.”
Soon, a big guy with what might have been called a potbelly in a different time, came up beside her.
Aleka surveyed the unforgiving landscape, the lazy glint
of river the only sign of movement in the waste. “How long?”
“A week. Maybe two if we’re extra careful.” He searched her face, but he must have come up empty too. “Why?”
She didn’t answer. The others had edged closer, listening. Any conversation that hinted at our dwindling supply of canned goods got their attention.
But after another long look over the barren land, she turned and strode back down the hill, refusing to meet any of our eyes. Everyone watched her go in silence, until she disappeared behind a clump of rock that stood at the base of the hill.
“Well, that was enlightening,” Wali said.
There were sixteen of us, the last survivors of Survival Colony 9. Five grown-ups counting Aleka, Soon, our camp healer Tyris, our craftswoman Nekane, and the old woman whose name no one knew, a wraith with wild white hair and a threadbare shift the same drab gray-brown as our uniforms. For the past week we’d been carrying her on a homemade stretcher, while she gripped her late husband’s collection container, a scuffed, bottle-green jar overflowing with scraps of his hair and fingernails. She was amazingly heavy for a woman who’d dwindled to skin and bones.
The rest of us were teens and younger. Wali, with his shaggy hair and bronzed muscles, the oldest at seventeen. Nessa, the only teenage girl left in our colony since the death of Wali’s girlfriend, Korah. Then there was Adem, a tall skinny awkward guy who communicated mostly with gulps
and blushes. And the little ones, seven of them total, from ragged five-year-old Keely to knowing Zataias at age ten, with straggly-haired Bea in the middle.
And that left only me. Querry Genn. Fifteen years old last week, and thanks to an accident seven months ago, with no memory of the first fourteen.
Only my mother held the secret to who I was. But she wasn’t talking.
She hadn’t said a word to me the whole week. That entire time, we’d been creeping across a desert landscape of stripped stone and yawning crevices, the scars our ancestors had cut into the face of the land. For six of those seven days we’d been carrying the old woman. Aleka had driven us at a pace unusual even for her, with only short rests at the brutal height of day and long marches deep into the night. What she was hurrying for was another thing she wouldn’t talk to me about.
When we’d left our camp by the river, the old woman had babbled on about mountains somewhere to the north, licking her lips while she talked as if she could taste the fresh air. She’d described green grass as high as our knees, wind rippling across it so it seemed to shimmer like something she called satin. She’d told us about yellow flowers and purple ones, trickling water so clear you could see brightly colored fish darting among the submerged stones. Clouds, she said, blanketed the mountain peaks, cool and white and soft, unlike the oppressive brown clouds that smothered the
sun but almost never rained in the world we knew. At first I refused to believe her, told myself that half of what she said had to be exaggerated or misremembered or just plain crazy. But like everyone else, I’d fallen in love with the picture she painted. None of the rest of us had seen mountains, not even Tyris, who’d been two or three years old when the wars started. After a lifetime in the desert, the prospect of mountains rearing up out of nowhere, white and purple and capped with gold from the sun, was irresistible.
By now, though, it seemed even the old woman had forgotten where we were headed. She’d lapsed into silence, except when she stroked her collection jar, mumbling to it. She slept most of the time, sometimes beating her hands against her chest and mouthing words no one could make out. But even when her eyes opened, her glassy expression showed no awareness of anyone or anything around her.
We set her stretcher down in the best shade we could find and stood there, waiting for Aleka to return. Nessa held the old woman’s gnarled hand and sang softly, something the old woman had sung to her when Nessa was a kid. I tried to organize a game with the little ones, but they just flopped in the dirt, limbs flung everywhere in postures of dramatic protest. I’d learned the hard way that you couldn’t get all seven of them to do anything at once, but occasionally, if you got one of them doing something that looked interesting enough, the others couldn’t stand to be left out.
Today, though, it wasn’t going to happen. A fossil hunt usually got them going, but this time even Keely wouldn’t bite when I told him an old, rotting buffalo skull was a T. rex.
“I don’t want to play that game, Querry,” he managed weakly, before putting his head down and closing his eyes. “It’s boring.”
Without warning, Aleka stalked back to the group. To my complete surprise, she took my arm and pulled me away from the others. I stumbled to keep up with her long strides. When we reached the rock where she’d hidden herself before, she stopped, so suddenly she just about spun me around.
“Querry,” she said. “We need to talk.”
“We’ve needed to talk all week,” I said under my breath.
She heard me. She always did. “That will have to wait. This is priority.”
“Something else always is, isn’t it?”
We faced off for a moment.
“I’m asking you to be patient,” she said. “And to believe I’m working on this.”
“Fine.” I wished for once I could meet her on even ground, but she had a good six inches on me, not to mention at least thirty years. “Let me know when you’ve got it all worked out.”
If I thought I’d get a reaction from that, I was wrong. Her face went into lockdown, and I was pretty sure the conversation was over. But then she asked, “What is it you want, Querry?”
“Answers,” I said. “The truth.” “Answers aren’t always true,” she said. “And the truth isn’t always the answer you want.”
“Whatever that means.”
She glared at me, but kept her voice in check.
“It means what it means,” she said. “For one, it means that Soon’s estimate is wildly optimistic. I’ve checked our stores, and we have only a few days of food left. If we’re even stingier than usual. Which is a risk, since there’s nothing out here to supplement our supplies.”
“Why would Soon . . .”
She ignored me. “And it means the old woman is failing. Earlier today she asked me if she could talk to Laman.”
“I wish I were.”
I stared at her, not knowing what to say. Laman Genn had led Survival Colony 9 for twenty-five years. But like so many of his followers, he’d died a little over a week ago, just before we set out on our journey.
Died. Been killed. I tried not to think about it, but I remembered the nest, the bloody wound in his side, the creature that had torn him open.
The ones we’d been fleeing all our lives. Monsters with the ability to consume and mimic human hosts. It was hard to believe anyone could forget them. Even though we’d destroyed their nest, I kept expecting them to reappear, like
a second nightmare that catches you when you think you’re awake and drags you back under.
“Any more good news?” I said, trying to smile.
She didn’t return the offering. “The children are failing too,” she said. “Keely and Beatrice especially. If we run out of solid food . . . We forget how fragile they are. And how many of the little ones simply don’t make it.”
I turned to look at the kids, lying on the ground like so many dusty garlands. “What can we do?”
She didn’t say anything for a long time, and her gaze left mine, drifting to the desert beyond. I thought she wasn’t going to answer when her voice came again, as far away as her eyes.
“I know this area,” she said. “Or at least, I did. None of the others has been here—Laman seems to have avoided it assiduously. But I was here, once upon a time. So long ago the details are fuzzy. Either that or it’s . . . changed.”
I glanced around us, as if I expected to see something I hadn’t noticed before. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
Her shoulders inched up in the slightest of shrugs. “I didn’t want to give anyone false hope. They were excited enough about the mountains. And I wasn’t sure I could find it again. I’m still not sure.”
“What is it?”
She waved vaguely toward the northwest. “A sanctuary, or as much of one as we’re likely to find in this world. Not mountains, but a canyon. Shaded, protected from the
worst damage of the wars. The river gains strength as it flows through, nourishing what grows on its banks. If we could only reach it, there might be a chance for the most vulnerable members of the colony.”
I studied her face, as still and remote as the surface of the moon. This time, though, I thought I caught something there.
“If this place is so great,” I said carefully, “why did Laman stay away from it?”
Her eyes snapped to mine, and for the briefest second I imagined I saw a glimmer of fear. But it vanished so quickly I wasn’t sure I’d seen it to begin with.
“I’ve been seeking the canyon since we left camp,” she said. “But it seems my memory failed me. I thought we’d be there by now. I pushed us too hard in an effort to attain a goal I believed was within reach, and now the little ones might not have the strength for the final leg of the journey.”
“Then we turn back.”
She shook her head. “You’ve seen the terrain we passed through. They won’t make it.”
“So we keep pushing forward,” I said. “We don’t give up. I’ll help. What do you need me to do?”
Doubt and relief warred in her eyes. “You’ve always been good with the little ones. Maybe you can find a way to . . . inspire them.”
“But be careful, Querry. Especially with Zataias. He’s sharp. We can’t let him know how dire the situation is.”
“We won’t,” I said. “I won’t.”
“Tyris is aware of my concerns. She checked vitals when everyone was asleep. She assures me there’s no sign of . . .”
She didn’t need to finish. No sign of infection. No evidence Skaldi had taken over people’s bodies. That we might be carrying a monster with us.
“And I’ve spoken to Nessa about the old woman,” she continued. “She’s going to do what she can to help.”
“Nessa?” With her random comments and sleepy green eyes, I’d always thought Nessa was kind of dense.
“She’s been a help to me many times in the past,” Aleka said. “Including the time we rescued Laman, as you may recall. Plus the old woman’s always been fond of her. Don’t be so quick to judge, Querry. There’s more to people than meets the eye.”
I looked down, feeling like a stupid kid who’d just been scolded by his mother. Which I pretty much had.
“But the others don’t need to know the true state of affairs,” Aleka finished. “I don’t want anyone to get their hopes up until I’m sure of our position. So for public consumption, this journey is just business as usual.”
I nodded. Secrets were one thing I’d come to expect from her.
“Good.” Her face softened for a moment, and her long, thin fingers reached out to caress my cheek. “And Querry. If we get
there—when we get there—I promise we can talk. Really talk.”
“That’s all I want,” I said.
“I know,” she said in almost a whisper. “And I’m sorry I haven’t been able to give it to you.”
Before I could say anything else, she turned and strode back to the others.
We found them resting beneath a thumb of volcanic rock. The kids hadn’t budged, and Nessa was busy draping tattered blankets over them. I watched her, trying to see what Aleka saw, but when she glanced in my direction, I looked away in a hurry. The rest of the adults and teens milled around, not doing much of anything. Wali looked up and smiled wryly.
“Anything you’d like to share?”
Aleka gazed at the spot where the old woman lay, a nearly motionless bundle in the shade of a dead tree that somehow clung to its rocky perch. She snored noisily, her mouth more full of darkness than teeth.
“We could all use a break,” Aleka said. “A couple of hours. Querry, can you help Soon set up camp?”
I jumped to my feet faster than I should have and started digging through my pack. Soon ambled over to join me, and when his eyes met mine, I realized he’d known all along what Aleka had managed to hide from me. I glanced at the other adults and teens, saw them going through their routines wordlessly, and I was pretty sure Aleka’s schemes had come to nothing.
They all knew what we were up against. They all knew we were in a race against time, with no sure goal in sight, and with the little ones’ lives at stake.
We rested in the shade of piled rock through the worst part of the afternoon, when the sun felt like a hot knife slicing through my uniform and into my skin. Aleka had said two hours, but when two turned to three and three to four, she made no effort to get us moving. I fed the kids a spoonful of concentrated mush, and they swallowed it dutifully enough, but I couldn’t help noticing the vacant look in their eyes as they chewed mechanically. Trying to start a conversation with them was like tossing a handful of dust in the air. The old woman slept the whole time. Nessa sang to her, in a soft, clear voice I heard only as notes, not words. Maybe it was the same lullaby she’d sung before. Me, I couldn’t remember any lullabies, and I was the only teen who’d joined Survival Colony 9 too recently to have heard the old woman sing. Hard to say if Nessa’s efforts did any good. The old woman’s brow never lost the pinch she’d worn when she fell asleep, but at least she did sleep.
I wondered if she was dreaming. Remembering the time before. I wondered if that was the problem.
Eventually, though, she had to wake up, and that gave Aleka her signal to get us moving again. Gauging the sun, I estimated we had enough daylight to cover three or four miles, what with the rough terrain and the twin burdens
of the old woman and the little kids. Adem helped Soon with the stretcher, while the rest of us took turns giving the little ones piggybacks. There weren’t enough big people to go around, so one of the kids always ended up lurching along beside me, immune to my attempts at chatter or jokes, holding a hand that dragged him more than it held him up. Zataias skipped his turn more than most. I suspected he was in on Aleka’s secret too. That would be just like him, young enough to play the grown-ups’ game even though he was old enough to guess its true purpose was to deceive.
We descended the slight rise where we’d set up our temporary camp and entered a flat, broad valley of stone. I’d have said the terrain looked no different from the land I remembered the past seven months, but that wouldn’t have been fair to the past seven months. In fact, this area looked a lot worse. I’d grown accustomed to dust, a choking brown dust that coated every surface and rose in swirling storms when the wind blew. Out here the dust had been swept away along with everything else, exposing reddish rock that rippled like an endless series of motionless waves. If there’d ever been a human civilization in the vicinity, roads and houses and farms, it had all been leveled as completely as if a giant hand had wiped the place clean. I kept alert for possible food sources—flowering trees, river stones that could be flipped for squirming multi-legged creatures—but there truly was nothing, just
an endless table of rock like an enormous tombstone.
The river struggled along by our side, cutting a slim channel through the unvarying stone. It had shrunk to a muddy trickle, and I found it hard to believe it could ever pick up steam the way Aleka had promised. Still, we hugged its eastern shore, determined not to lose this frail lifeline. We’d never been able to stay so close to water for so long—the Skaldi had always found us by the rivers, so we’d shied from the water’s edge, making furtive trips to fill our canteens then veering off into the desert again. Being near water made me feel as if I was doing something wrong, something risky and disobedient. It wasn’t only that I was afraid something might have survived the destruction of the Skaldi nest. It was that I didn’t trust the river to last. The more we relied on it, the more we’d be lost if it ever ran dry.
It didn’t, though. By late evening it had shriveled to the point where you could barely dunk your hands to the wrist, but it kept going.
We swallowed another spoonful of slop from our nearly empty cans and slept by the river’s side, and when I woke, I realized what none of us had been able to tell during the dusk: the color of the stone around us had changed from rusty red to pitch black, smooth and glossy and bright in the gleam of the new day. It might have been the remains of a road if not for the fact that it was simply immense, extending as far as I could see to the east and northwest. And there was something else: stone shapes were visible all around us, not
just the usual ripples or rises in the ground but distinct forms dotting the land like black sculptures. Some of them were roughly the size of the stunted trees that grew in the desert, others no taller than a human being. They were blunt, misshapen, glazed blobs of rock without distinguishing features. But all of them gave me the eerie feeling that they’d once been alive, as if a thick, glassy layer of stone had flowed over and trapped whatever lay inside.
Nessa tried another of her songs, but she fell silent when the stone bounced back her voice in a hollow, mocking echo. “Maybe this is the mountains?” she suggested.
“Does this look like mountains?” Wali said.
“I was just asking.”
“Try using your brain instead,” he muttered.
Nessa turned on him, eyes hot, but Aleka stepped between them.
“This isn’t the mountains,” she said. “But it’s a good sign.”
I looked around at the endless desert of black stone. How it could be a good sign of anything I couldn’t figure.
Aleka turned to the rest of us and gestured toward the northwest, where the expanse of black rock vanished into a gleaming haze of distance. “We’re close to our destination,” she said. “We came out of the desert farther east than I wanted us to be, but not so far that we can’t cut across this region in a day or less. We’ll need to take precautions, though. The stone gets very hot, especially at high noon.”
“What’s on the other side?” Wali said.
“Shelter,” she replied. “Clean water. Possibly—”
“Food?” Soon interrupted.
She didn’t answer. I glanced at the little ones, the pitiful thinness of their shoulders and cheeks, the eagerness glowing through the dusty veil that had descended over their eyes. I realized it wasn’t only Zataias who suspected that this journey was anything but business as usual.
I think Aleka realized it too. “We’ll have to wait and see,” she said softly. “But we’re in a much better position now. Let’s break camp quickly and prepare to cover as much ground as possible before midday.”
Everyone moved with new purpose. In minutes we were packed and ready to go. I rounded up the kids and made sure the littlest ones had the lightest burdens. Aleka insisted on wrapping extra cloth bandages around people’s boots, tying extra head scarves to cover faces and necks. We spent precious minutes erecting a canopy over the old woman, who snoozed on. We filled our canteens with muddy water, and I saw people lick their lips at the thought of what we might find ahead.
Then we were on the move.
I turned to say a word to Aleka, but found her already at my side. She dropped her voice and spoke low enough that Keely and Zataias wouldn’t overhear, but still her words gained a weird, tinny reverberation from the polished stone.
“Stay alert,” she said. “We’re not in the clear yet.”
“What are you afraid of?” I whispered back.
She sized me up, as if gauging how much to say.
“You wanted answers, Querry,” she said at last. “I hope you’re prepared to get them.”