Little Girl Lost
o my question is, what does a dead six-year-old want with a single sock, anyway?
That’s what Jeremiah was wondering as he trotted homeward, the pockmarked walls of the Citadel leering down at him as he paced its length. Up on the roof of what was an abandoned warehouse in the lands of the living, Legionnaires stood silent watch by the light of soulfire torches. The ruddy light flickered off of their armor and drawn blades, and cast monstrous shadows down the Citadel’s side. Through the windows, masked and chained wraiths could be seen moving about, always backlit by the same soulfire glow. From somewhere inside came the dim ringing of a hammer and the occasional moan of a Thrall.
Jeremiah ignored it all. It was just business as usual in the Shadowlands, and he’d long since grown used to it. Part of him was appalled that he was able to ignore what was going on behind those warehouse walls, but there was no other way to survive here in the Underworld.
You could always go mad, hissed a voice in the back of his mind. I’m told it’s very therapeutic.
“Get stuffed, Shadow,” Jeremiah mumbled as he passed the last set of watchgates. The pair of guards stationed there stared after him, but made no move to follow. Everyone in the Underworld had a Shadow to deal with, a dark side with a voice that lived in the back of their head, and these two soldiers had obviously been around long enough to recognize Jeremiah’s mutterings for what they were: a way of keeping control. Occasionally a wraith’s Shadow could get loose and take over his Corpus – his ghostly body – with terrifying consequences. Jeremiah had no doubt that had his Shadow come out in front of the guards, he’d have been instantly subdued and chained.
Or worse, his Shadow cackled. Or worse…
“I don’t need this crap, Shadow. I’ve got an appointment with the weirdest ghost I’ve ever met in 10 minutes, and if you’re going to get pissy on me now, I’m heading to a Pardoner right after the meeting ends. He’ll Castigator your skanky butt so hard I won’t hear from you for a month.”
You’re bluffing, the Shadow replied, but there was an edge of fear in its voice. You don’t have the relics to pay for that.
“And I don’t have the time to listen to you. There’s a little dead girl whom I need to go see right now.”
Then you’d better watch where you’re going, Jerry. I think you might have just taken a wrong turn…
There was a sudden, vicious edge to the Shadow’s voice. Jeremiah had heard that edge before, just before his Shadow had taken him over – or just before he’d gotten Harrowed. He stopped, looked up, and cursed.
He had taken a wrong turn, that much was obvious. Ramshackle brick buildings squatted on both sides of the litter-choked street he stood in, and empty windows like hungry mouths gaped from their sides. Cars on blocks, their windshields spiderwebbed with cracks, lined the road, and a dimly flickering neon sign dangled like a hanged man from a crumbling façade. Dimly visible, a living derelict shivered under a blanket of newspaper. Jeremiah could read the man’s death in the desiccated lines of his face. It was coming soon.
There was a scraping sound behind him, and Jeremiah turned.
There were three of them, Renegades by their look. As a law-abiding Hierarchy wraith, Jeremiah had heard about Renegades. Some called themselves freedom fighters, some were self-proclaimed peace activists and some – well, and some were what could politely be called “thugs.”
At a hunch, Jeremiah guessed that this trio fit into the latter category. All were well over six feet tall, dwarfing him. Their faces were covered by gruesome masks, demonic caricatures of human features. Draped in ragged chain mail and leather, they were armed with a variety of blunt and bladed weapons, all prominently displayed. What drew Jeremiah’s attention though was the glistening set of manacles that the Renegade on the left wore at his belt.
Got your name on them, pal. Gonna be a hot time in the old soulforge for us tonight.
Gritting his teeth, Jeremiah did his best to ignore the cackling in his head. Taking a careful step backward, he raised his hands in the universal “no weapons” gesture, “Hey, guys, I’m lost. I was wondering if you knew where that little girl with all the relic socks has her haunt? I’m supposed to meet her in a few minutes, see, and…” He trailed off as muffled laughter echoed out from behind the three masks.
“Oh yes, the little girl,” The Renegade in the middle spoke, phrasing his response in a brutal parody of a high-class English accent. “Well, let’s see. You go up two lights, make a left at the Nihil, and…damn, I know I’m forgetting something Jasper, what am I forgetting here?”
“You forgot,” the second wraith said even as he stepped forward, swinging a length of whistling chain, “the first step.”
“And what might that be?” They were toying with him now, spreading out to cut off his escape routes even as he backpedaled.
“First we nab his ass and sell him, that’s what. Tre’, grab him!”
Jeremiah turned to run but even as he pivoted, his arms were seized in an alligator-jaw grip. A silhouette sprouting from behind him announce the arrival of the mysterious Tre’, and the other two moved forward with manacles dangling.
“Damn, no trouble at all, man. No trouble at – aggh! The bastard’s a Shaper!” He screamed and pulled back punctured hands that leaked plasm. Jeremiah ducked and spun away from his stumbling captor even as the spikes he’s sprouted from his arms flowed back into his Corpus. Jasper and the first Renegade grabbed for him, but he dodged them and threaded his way left, in between a pair of derelict cars and towards the front of a building. Behind him, Jasper was following while the other two fanned out to either side. There was only one-way to go: into the building.
He took a deep breath and plunged through the wall. There was the momentary feeling of dissolution that he hated so much, and then Jeremiah was inside.
The building was burned out and blackened. Away to the left stairs led up to a ragged second floor and he dove for them. Behind him, he could hear curses as his pursuers followed him through the solid surface. Eyes wide, he scrambled up the stairs and cut a hard right into what had obviously once been a nursery. Relic toys lay scattered on the ground, enough to bring him a small fortune at the local bazaar if he got out of here in one piece. The room’s real status was plain enough to see: blackened and empty, with jagged teeth of glass in the maw of its window. But the memories of someone’s childhood lingered here, in the form of ghostly furniture in faded pastels and a dangling, sad mobile. Phantom blocks scattered underfoot as Jeremiah stumbled in looking for escape, even as the pounding of feet on the stairs warned him that his pursuers were gaining on him.
A half-opened door on the far side of the room beckoned, and he dove in. Streaming light indicated the back wall of the closet he found himself in had been burned away, so he ducked under a rotting two by for (probably real, he noted to himself) and into the next room. Behind him he could hear voices in the room he’d just vacated. From the sound of things, the Renegades had paused to confiscate the relic toys.
Silently praying, Jeremiah didn’t dare move. Maybe the relics will be enough, he thought. Maybe they’ll give up. Maybe they’ll be satisfied with what they have. Ordinarily these three clowns wouldn’t have worried him quite so much. He knew enough Moliate to be nasty in a fight, and Jasper and company didn’t look like they knew much about tactics. If all things had been equal, he would have had no hesitation taking the Renegades on. But all things weren’t equal. He’d burned up most of his Pathos getting the single sock his contact wanted, and his Shadow was also getting perilously strong. If he got in a fight, it might get out, and then there’d really be hell to pay. He was tired, hurting and lost, and just wanted to escape. Maybe I’ll get lucky this time, please God, he thought.
He heard cautious footsteps in the closet. And maybe you’re just screwed, his Shadow hissed.
With a silent curse, Jeremiah backed toward the window. He didn’t want to have to jump and risk Discorporating himself into a Harrowing, but now he heard footsteps in the hall as well. He was boxed in.
He’d taken all of perhaps three step when Tre’ phased in through the hallway door. At the same time, Jasper and his friend emerged from the closet, their pockets bulging with stolen relics. “Playtime’s over, little wraith,” said Tre’ softly. “Time for us to take you to school.” A rag doll dangle half out of the pocket of his ragged biker jacket. Its head bobbed and lolled like the doll had been hanged, and its arms flopped with each step the Renegade took closer.
“Those are my toys. What are you doing with them?” It was a new voice, a little girl’s voice.
The little girl. Where the hell did she come from?, Jeremiah’s Shadow demanded, and he had no answer. Apparently the Renegades were just as stunned, as they stopped advancing and stared at the newcomer.
She appeared young, perhaps six or seven, and wore a blue frock. A headband pushed her long hair away from her face, and her features were pretty in a childish way. Mismatched striped socks were pulled up to the knees, and dirt-scarred Keds were on her feet. In her left hand was the ghost of a teddy bear.
Her eyes, though, were what scared Jeremiah. They seemed old, far too old for a little girl. They looked like they’d seen more than any little girl should have, alive or dead.
The Renegades didn’t seem impressed. Laughing, they started forward again.
The little girl took a step back. “This is my house. I didn’t invite you in here, and I want you to leave. Now.” There was steel in her voice, but the intruders missed it. Jeremiah started stepping back, too. Too quickly, though, his shoulder blades hit wall. There was nowhere to go.
“Tell you what, little girl.” Jasper was talking, using the want-some-candy-little-girl voice immortalized by a thousand TV perverts. “Why don’t you and your toys both come with us, and you can come play over at our place.” His left hand was behind his back, clutching a gently jingling pair of cuffs linked by black chain.
She appeared puzzled, even as the other two stifled titters of laughter. “Can my friend come, too?” she said, pointing at Jeremiah.
“Of course, and he’ll play with you, too. We’ll all play together.”
“I don’t know. I like to play here.”
“Yes, but our place has other toys that you’ll like. Doesn’t it, Tre’?”
Tre’ shook alert for a second. “Wh…yes, yes it does. Lots of toys.”
The little girl sighed and let her teddy bear drop to the floor. Jeremiah felt the strength leave him, and started turning to the window. It would be too late, though. He knew it. As if through a howling windstorm, he could hear the little girl speaking. She was saying, “Really, how stupid do you think I am?”
Then everything was happening, all at once. In slow motion Jeremiah saw Jasper leap for the little girl, saw Tre’ and the other Renegade lurching for him, felt his footing slip as he tried to leap for the window.
And he heard the little girl open her mouth and howl.
It was all the shrieks of all the pain of all the abused children in history. It was every sworn vengeance against a hated parent, and every cry of pain ever ripped out of the loser of a schoolyard fight. It was all of these and more, and the little girl turned it loose on three Renegades who thought she was easy prey.
Jasper, too close to flee, simply had his Corpus shredded away by the force of the scream. Before he’d ended his leap, he’d been flayed to shreds; the tattered remains drifting into a Nihil and down to a Harrowing. The other two turned to flee but never made it, as the howl wound its way around them.
Tre’ had been begging for mercy when the Nihil claimed him. The other went silently.
As for Jeremiah, caught in the storm, he felt the plasm bursting out of his eyes and ears, felt the terrible pain inside his mind, and he and his Shadow screamed as one as they fainted.
It must have been hours later when he awake, crammed into a chair made for a much smaller person. The little girls sat across from him at a relic table. A toy tea set had been set out in proper array between the two of them, and in a third chair to the side of the table, the teddy bear sat with an approving grin. Looking at him, the little girl smiled.
“Mommy always said to be polite to invited guests,” she said. “Now, do you have my sock?”