Just tuning in? Start here.
“Daphne, it’s me,” a deep baritone whispered from the other side of the door. Neither Isaac nor Ephraim’s voices had changed that much since they slowly began transitioning into adulthood, but it’s familiarity eased the drums beating in her chest. The sound of boots grinding into the pebbles outside her front door temporarily distorted what Sean said after that.
Daphne opened the door a crack and peered out into a yard that was rapidly growing dark. A short, young woman with long, dark brown hair stood at the doorstep nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the next.
Raquel flashed a weak smile, her husband standing behind her with a grim expression on his face.
“Come in,” Daphne said. “Is this about my boys?” If her sons had been injured out there it was unlikely anyone would have found them this soon, but Daphne was having trouble imagining what else might have prompted Sean and his newest wife to make such an impromptu visit.
“No, we haven’t heard from them,” the younger woman said with a frown. “What are they doing out there alone?” Daphne explained the state of her cupboards as she invited Sean and Raquel in for some tea. Now that there was nothing left to hoard it was the least she could do.
“There have been a lot of deaths this summer,” Sean said, “and people want to know why they happened.” It was such an obvious statement Daphne wasn’t quite sure why he brought it up. Now that the pace of their daily lives had slowed down to a crawl thanks to the lack of food and the sudden disappearance of the military it was impossible to ignore everything they had lost.
“You know how the old folks are,” he began again.
“Well, not all of them,” Raquel said before he could continue. “But the Harris’ and the Grabers’ think the gods are angry with us.” A thin, white jolt of fear slid down Daphne’s spine. Both extended families included at least one member who had been marked by the gods in some way. The Harris family had a teenage son who had always found it very difficult to learn new things. Jakob spent most of his time repeating the same set of simple chores. The Grabers had a young granddaughter who, like Felix, had been born with heterochromia. Unlike Daphne the Grabers saw it as a warning sign, and with the sickness earlier in the summer and the influx of strangers they had grown even more suspicious.
“Haven’t you tried to speak to them?” Sean was so young that Daphne wasn’t sure if even his in-laws would listen to him, but the fact that he was an ombudsmen was bound to help.
“We wouldn’t be here if they’d listened.”
It had begun then. While the idea that the gods could be appeased with sacrifices was slowly dying out, interest in it sometimes flared up again when nothing else worked. There were no reliable methods of communicating with the spirits that sometimes guided the affairs of humanity, after all, and one person’s guess was as good as anyone else’s. Doing something felt better than sitting back and hoping things would improve.
“Nevada is with Jakob and the children,” Raquel said, nodding her head toward the hills. It was much easier for two adults to move silently through the foothills than to bring the entire family out into the open with them.”We’re making a run for Peoria, but Sean thought you should know what was happening. They could come for Felix next, especially now that he’s alone.”
Daphne bristled. She’d taken the boy and his family in when no one else would and shared everything she owned with them. He might have been an orphan, but he was hardly alone.
“You know what she means, Daphne,” Sean said. The opinion of a kindly – if also eccentric and rather asocial – neighbour held much less weight in these matters than what his parents would have said if they were still alive.
“You could come with us.” Daphne couldn’t quite tell if he was asking a question or issuing an invitation, but she couldn’t leave without her sons. Even if they returned right away Daphne doubted the mule could carry Paige and herself. Neither of them were able to walk such a long distance alone.
Raquel and Sean nodded understandingly before telling Daphne they were headed as deeply into Peoria as they could travel by sunrise.
“I’ll leave word with Mariposa. Maybe she can send help.”
With that Daphne wished her visitors luck and carefully shut the door behind them. The strange stone was beeping again, although she’d noticed that its screen had slowly begun to dim. She hesitated for a moment, and then decided to bring another bucket of water to the mule before reading the newest letters. The last round had including nothing but a series of depraved jokes that made her roll her eyes before tucking the strange device back into the pantry.
The shed her sons had cleared out for their unexpected visitor was by far the oldest building on Daphne’s land. A hole patched earlier in the year was already beginning to show signs of peeling away, but the creature had so little room to move in the shed that Daphne thought the extra fresh air might be good for her. To be honest Daphne wasn’t entirely sure if mules needed to sleep indoors at all. She had such little experience with them that all she could assume was that they needed the same things people did.
Including a name.
The creature was quiet, peaceful, and dusty brown in colour. She was either still quite shy around her new humans or would always blend into the background so effortlessly.
Eventually Daphne would uncover her name. It just might take a while. She patted the mule’s head and slowly walked back into the house. There was still no sign of her sons, but she had left a little pot of water boiling. If nothing else Daphne would enjoy a strong cup of mint tea as she read a second batch of dirty jokes.
What she wasn’t expecting was that someone else had gotten to them first.