The Hollowcry - Part One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Join a pair of odd twins as they enter the city of Notion, a place where everything you say comes to life and seeks a mind to resonate with. It seems there's a more dangerous monster about as well...

Submitted: January 08, 2015

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Submitted: January 08, 2015

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“A sleeping traveler is merely cargo.”

The quote roused Tawny from her nap.  She rubbed her eyes, forgetting her hands were coated in soil.  After a solid twenty seconds she’d removed all the sleep and dirt and been able to survey her surroundings.  She was glad to see they were exactly as she had left them.  More than two hundred shakespore plants crowded her with their huge hanging flowers.  The petals were bright orange and yellow and they hung so low because they hadn’t heard anything stimulating since the beginning of the journey almost two weeks ago.

It was still midday, so the sun came through the canvas of the wagon and kept the temperature high.  Tawny realized she was sweating through her thick dress and onto the fluffy scarf she’d used as a pillow.  She brushed a leathery leaf away and heard it rustle; this seemed odd to her because the sounds of the wagon should’ve been much louder than one leaf.  Then it occurred to her that the wagon wasn’t actually moving anymore.

Have we arrived already? She thought.  Tawny was nearly fifty-six years old now, a fact not hidden by the rapidly graying hair that had been her namesake.  Her naps had grown more frequent in recent years, but she hoped she hadn’t actually slept through the last eight hours of the trip.  It was just so tempting to sleep these days; it was the only way to get the quotes to leave you alone.  Now that Tawny was older and had earned her own wisdom, most quotes felt like nothing more than the whine of a mosquito in her ear.

Her fraternal twin brother Ocher was asleep across from her.  There was a rolled up map clutched in his hand and each drop of drool out of his mouth fell perfectly through the middle of it and hit the dirt.  Tawny, still not eager to get up herself, stretched and kicked her brother’s foot.  He snorted and crushed the poor map in his grip before sitting up.  He didn’t bother to flatten his wiry hair, straighten the buttons on his vest, or lace his boots up.  He pulled a small wooden object from his vest pocket.  It had a hole in the top with ten bent metal keys over it.  He plucked at the keys of the hand piano and produced a musical message.

“What’s going on?  Have the fireworks started?” is how Tawny translated the song.  In response she dug her bell-ended flute out of the dirt and played her own melody.  Dust flew from the end of it.

“That was eight months ago,” Tawny’s flute reminded.  “The wagon’s not moving.  Go see if we’ve arrived.”

“I suppose it is my turn,” he replied with the piano.  Ocher pulled himself out of the dirt and walked to the front of the covered wagon carefully to avoid treading on the flowers.  He threw open the flap and saw that the horses had pulled them off the road about two hundred feet from the welcome gates of the city.  “We’re here,” he played back.  “I told you Gopher didn’t need me steering him.  He remembers from the last time he was here.”

“He was just a foal then,” Tawny’s flute sang.

“I remember things from when I was a foal, like that time I fell out of that tree and rained plums on all those poor ladies in the shade.”

“That was only ten years ago,” Tawny corrected again. 

“Well the point is that he got us here,” Ocher thumbed out on the keys.  Tawny pulled herself up as well and exited the wagon with her brother where they dusted off their clothes.  They’d been told by their employer that it was best to not look fresh from the burrow when collecting payment.

Two horses, one chestnut and the other gray with bluish spots, stood patiently in their harnesses.  The brown one was named Gopher, after an exceptionally smart rodent that had once stolen a bag full of peanuts from Ocher’s belt.  The other was named Crow after an oddly intelligent bird Tawny had once taught to count to twenty-five.

“Are we sure they took us to the right city?  I don’t remember there being so many walls,” Tawny played, gazing upon the large oak barriers around the city gate and the crisscrossing iron bars holding it all together.

“This is Notion alright,” Ocher played without consulting the map.  He trusted Gopher’s judgment in this, and all other, situations.

“I did not think my home city of Notion had left a mark on me, until I tried to leave it.”

Tawny swatted the quote away, but several more hit her ears now that she wasn’t protected by the wagon.

“Only the call of the ocean can drive me from Notion!”

“I’m proud to call myself a visitor of Notion, rather than a citizen.”

The quotes, both good and bad, sought to resonate with the traveling twins, for a quote that could not resonate with a human mind would eventually degenerate into a whisper and then die in a puff of silence.  The quotes were why the twins, like most other people, communicated with instruments.  If they opened their mouths and used their words, it would create a living invisible quote that would constantly fly about looking for a human that needed its information.  To say something flippantly would mean an annoyance to a great many people and the birth of a creature that would quickly wither and perish.  These particular quotes were more oriented to individuals leaving the city rather than entering it, so they did not strike a chord with the twins who had little impression of the place. 

Tawny and Ocher grabbed the horses’ reins and led them to the city gates, where a few guards ushered them and their wagon inside.

Notion was a small city built near a very large lake, so many of the buildings had at one point been watchtowers and lighthouses before their conversion to layered domiciles.  These towers were each painted with spiraling stripes of red or silver.  The roads were made up of extremely polished slabs of stone, with nary a crack for the wagon wheels to bounce in.  Thick ropes hung between third and fourth story windows and were weighed down by all manner of drying clothes and ornate carpets that needed more than a gentle breeze to free them from the dirt of toddler knees they’d suffered for so many generations.

One carpet in particular had a loose strand hanging all the way to the street.  Crow tried to chew on it, but Tawny pulled him away and directed the wagon into an open slot between buildings that had been reserved for them.  There was a large pile of hay and honeysuckle for the horses, along with a rusty old trough of surprisingly clear water.

Ocher rummaged through the back of the wagon and pulled out a leather-bound volume with a red-dyed leather flower holding the clasp shut.  It contained their records, contracts, and the receipt for the large order of shakespore plants they were here to deliver.  He thumbed out a song with his free hand, so it took twice as long.

“I’ll get this signed and start planting.  Why don’t you go to the market and get us some dinner?” he played.  Tawny nodded in response and dug out a basket and some money from her section of the wagon.  Then they tied up the horses and went their separate ways.

“The signature dish of Notion is a fish tongue and onion soup that tastes like a perch freshly caught from the loam of your spice garden.”

The quote came in a warm female voice and seemed sincere enough, so Tawny decided to trust it as she sought directions to the market.

Chapter Two

Ocher followed the street signs to the Notion public library.  It was an old building of gray stone with two towers on each side of the main doors, which were left propped open.  He tilted his head up and noticed the bowl-shaped balcony on one of the towers.  The balcony looked new and wasn’t mirrored on the other tower.  The small distraction caused Ocher to walk right into the door and crush his nose against the edge.  The sound was quite loud, but there was no one at the desk to hear him.  He rubbed his nose and started wandering through the stacks in search of…  What’s the name again?  Ocher flipped through his receipts to find it.  Maria Gantro: Head Librarian.  He’d been told that Notion’s government was a collection of high ranking public officials, each elected to their position.  So when the town council held a vote to use public funds to seed their city with shakespore, apparently the librarian got stuck with the bookkeeping.  Hah, figures, Ocher thought as he looked up just in time to smash his nose into a bookcase.

“SHHHHH!”

“Shh.”

“Shush.”

All of a sudden the quieting quotes were all around him like bees.  They were some of the most annoying quotes because they applied to any noise and resonated with anyone that just wanted peace.  They were a regular plague in the libraries of the world.

“Shut up!”

That quote was too loud and didn’t quite fit in with the rest, so Ocher listened as the flock of shushes corralled the helpless ‘shut up’ out the front door.

The library’s lack of popularity continued to prove frustrating as Ocher wandered around in search of a signature.  Past the stacks he encountered several exhibits on Notion’s history in glass cases.  There were prize-winning taxidermy fish, an antique loom with its last creation a quarter finished, and nicked shields and swords on the wall from something called ‘the battle of what-did-you-just-call-me?’ 

That reminded Ocher of a time in his teenage years when a bully had actually dared to call him a ‘mule jockey’ out loud, and the insult had followed him for four months and inserted itself into interactions in place of an introduction.  Fed by the snickering of passersby, he’d had to seclude himself at home for a few weeks and pass his duties to Tawny until the quote finally withered away.  That put him in the even tougher situation of owing his sister a thousand or so favors.  I think I’ve still got two hundred or so left, he thought.

It was only when he approached a door marked ‘staff only’ that a middle-aged woman with a head of much older hair appeared around the corner.  Ocher fumbled with his receipts so he could have two hands to play his instrument.

“Can I assist you?” the woman played on a small lyre.  Ocher could hear her irritation in the staccato notes.

“Yes, I’m looking for M-a-r-i-a G-a-n-t-r-o,” Ocher played back.  That was the way they had to do it, one note per letter to account for the sheer variety in names from city to city.

Instead of wasting time with an answer, the woman held out her hand and raised her eyebrows.  Apparently she was Maria and she couldn’t think of a good reason why the receipt wasn’t already in her hand.  Ocher handed it over and she scanned it, eyes jumping from line to line faster than a jolt of static electricity.  I can’t even think that fast, Ocher thought.

“Where will you be planting these shakespores?” she asked with the lyre.  She didn’t take the charcoal pencil when Ocher held it out.  He guessed it would be questions first and signing later.

“Well we’ve been instructed to place them everywhere ma’am,” he twanged away on his piano.  “When we’re done they should be evenly distributed throughout Notion, wherever there’s a strip of dirt large enough to hold them.”

“There will be no plants around the library,” she ordered.

“And why is that ma’am?” Ocher asked.  She glared at him; clearly she did not like being treated like one of the library’s reference texts.

“Some of our most important wisdom lives near the library.  It is its natural habitat after all.  We don’t want your plants indiscriminately eating any quote in this area.  Who knows what inspiration we might lose,” Maria played.

“Oh but, you needn’t worry,” Ocher assured.  “As requested in the order, these are a specially bred variety.  The flowers eat only melodies in the human voice.  They’ll take care of your noise pollution and leave your local color be.”

“Only melodies?  So what if the wisest thing ever said happens to be in the form of a limerick, hmm?  Will your brainless flowers snap it up, thinking it garbage?” Maria asked.

“Well I suppose that’s possible,” Ocher admitted.

“I’m signing for these because our town has put it to a vote,” she plucked at the strings.  “Personally, I don’t agree with the decision.  I think there are much better ways to rid this town of rabble than to have some ugly plants catch their cacophonies.  Now, do I have your word you will plant your flowers everywhere that isn’t here?”

“Yes ma’am,” Ocher played.  She signed the receipt and handed it back to him.  Then she walked past the glass cases he’d passed a few moments ago and rubbed at the sections as high as Ocher’s head with a lacey kerchief.  She seemed to think his breath had fogged the displays.  Then she rather stiffly exited the corridor, shoes clicking against the wood floor in perfect intervals.

“An easy way to tell if a person likes you is to imagine how many times, in the midst of a dance, they would tread on your toes.”

Ocher considered the quote and then made his way back to the library entrance.  Now that he knew that not everyone there was onboard with his flower delivery, he would have to be a bit more polite.  Sometimes he wished he could pull the cart and that Gopher could handle the politics.

Chapter Three

Notion’s food market was slightly overwhelming.  There were fifty or so stalls and each one was packed to the gills with produce, meats, cheeses, breads, and jars of herbal medicine.  Almost every vendor seemed gripped by paranoia; their eyes darted around like their neighbors might stab in the back to acquire the freshest selection of barley and beets.  When one of them saw Tawny their eyes filled with expectation.  Tawny adjusted the basket on her shoulder and did her best to keep her eyes forward.

She knew from her assignment that Notion was in the midst of economic difficulties.  A large group of African immigrants were now making their home in Notion, and the locals felt crowded by the influx of cheap labor.  The immigrants had brought their culture with them, so Tawny was unfamiliar with many of the food items she was seeing.

Suddenly, another piece of luggage the immigrants had brought with them surrounded Tawny and the nearest vendors.  A cloud of quotes working in harmony trumpeted a tribal song in their ears.  The chanting was fast, low, and loud, like a monsoon hammering away on a hollow dead tree.  While Tawny did not mind the music, something about it, aside from the excessive volume, chilled her in her warm clothes.  What is that? she thought.  It’s like the music is ill.  No… just infected.  There’s something inside it.  Something that’s lifting my hair from my skin. 

It was no wonder the town had voted to ship in some shakespore plants to eat the music.  Its presence was so off putting that it could have soured the cheeses on display as well as the vendors’ faces.

Once the song moved on, Tawny approached a stall with some African fare.  She knew Ocher preferred variety in his diet; once she’d served him a boiled frog bone stew as a joke and he’d asked for seconds.  The vendor was one of the few who seemed relaxed, so relaxed in fact that his head hung back in his chair and he slept quietly.  He had dark skin and a colorful African hat that reminded Tawny of a fancy layered fruit tart.  She filled her basket with a salt encrusted loaf of bread, a bunch of blood sausages, a small cloth bag of rich butter, and a few plump teal fruits that looked wonderfully juicy.

She asked for a price with her flute, but the vendor did not wake.  She played louder.  No response.

“The layabout can’t hear you,” the next vendor played on a very small violin-like instrument.  “He’s wearing earcloaks.”  Tawny leaned over the stall and noticed there were two fuzzy lumps around the African vendor’s ears that were held in place by his hat.  Tawny took a moment to look at the violin vendor.  She was an older white woman and had several rows of cakes and croissants neatly displayed according to size and flavor.  There wasn’t a crumb in sight, indicating that, to her, every distinct thing on this Earth had exactly one place where it was supposed to be.

“Why is he wearing those?” Tawny asked her with her flute.

“Some people in this town think all the wisdom around them is a nuisance rather than a gift.  They think it’s better to ignore their elders and ancestors and repeat all their mistakes because they just can’t bear to be told what to do.  I wouldn’t mind, if they didn’t spread such nonsense to our children.  Those earcloaks are a plague on our city.  They’re killing our history.”

Tawny nodded.  Layabout or not, she wasn’t going to steal from the man just because he made it easy.  She nudged his chest with the tip of her flute and the man awoke.  He smiled at her and pulled out a strange instrument she’d never seen before.  It was a long round piece of wood covered in ribbed layers.  He played it by running a stick along the ribs at different intervals.  Tawny realized she could decode it much the same way she did washboards in the southern regions.

“Will that be all for you?” he asked with his music.

“Yes,” Tawny replied and handed him a pile of coins.  She hesitated for a moment.  “Unless… questions are free,” she played.

“Those fruits are called Jia,” he played, thinking he’d anticipated her question.

“I was curious about that,” Tawny admitted, “but I was actually wondering if you could tell me about the music.”  The vendor’s smile faded some.  Tawny tried to coax it back by putting the question in context.  “My brother and I are planting the shakespore plants that the town ordered and the more I know about the music, the better we can do our job.”

“The music is unfamiliar to me.  It is unfamiliar to my family, my friends, and even our pets.  We don’t know where it comes from.  It must be a product of Notion,” he played stiffly.

“You liar,” the violin vendor played sharply.  “That music didn’t show up until all of you did!  No one around here howls at the moon like that!”

“That noise is no African language,” the vendor played back, “it sounds like nonsense to me.”  Tawny took a step back but stuck around, suspecting she might be able to pull some information out of the air from between the flying arrows.

“You wear those cloaks so you don’t have to hear your own noise once it takes wing,” the violin vendor shrieked with her strings.

“I wear these so I don’t have to hear you,” he replied plainly.

“You squander Echo’s gifts!” the violinist shot back.

Tawny recalled the legend of how the quotes became part of man’s world. 

Chapter Four

Ages ago, when all of the Earth was a fertile valley surrounded by a fresh ocean, the children of gods frolicked in the bounty and tamed giant noble beasts.  It was a time without sharp teeth.  A time of moonlight instead of darkness.  Two of these children were Narcissus and Echo.

Narcissus loved himself above all else, and Echo loved him in much the same way.  Her voice was beautiful, like ripples in the sun, and could pull beasts and men away from their food and their games.  Yet, it could not pull Narcissus.  For a time she could pretend they were together, as Narcissus did not care enough to contradict her, but one day he caught sight of his own reflection in a tepid pool outside a large cave.  He sat at its edge and stared into his own eyes for hours. Days.  Years.  Echo begged him to look to her, to see her love for him.  He would not acknowledge her.  She sang to him.  Birds joined her in harmony.  Crowds gathered and applauded her efforts.  Vines grew and flowered around the ankles of the god children as they carried on.  Narcissus stared.  Echo sang.

When her voice finally began to fail her, she considered giving up.  She had a vision of herself alone.  This was a delusion only obsession could create, since any other man would’ve been overjoyed to have her.  This vision compelled her to spend herself entirely.  Her essence went into her song.  Her hope wove its way into the melody.  Her will to live became the chorus.  Still Narcissus did not look away.  She spent herself through song.  The vines that had grown about her fell lightly to the ground, for her body had become her voice.

For one blissful moment, her love’s eyes shifted.  Only a ripple.  Despair took her spirit and even her voice failed.  In that moment of defeat she retreated into the cave, certain to die in silence.

A day came when the pool before Narcissus dried up and he had to search for a new one.  The first place he checked was the cave.  Is anyone there? He asked.  Is anyone there? Echo replied.  Her own voice was gone, but she borrowed his.  I am Narcissus, he said.  I am Narcissus, she answered.

And so it was that Narcissus came to love Echo, because she was nothing more than the sound of his own voice.  Echo spread her gift to the mortal world so that all may be heard.  That way, even when their bodies failed, something could live on to seek their goals.

“Echo was a foolish girl,” the African vendor’s instrument rattled.  “These invisible words are no gift.  They are gnats that bite at your mind!  They try to enforce their will over you.  Anansi the spider was a true god!  He caught these quotes in his web and made them into the first stories.  Then he gave us the instruments to tell them.”

“If my father had been here to hear this heathen junk…” the violin vendor went on.  Tawny decided it was a good time to take her leave, lest someone start hurling jia fruit.  She backed away and started walking.

“Argument comes not from disagreement, but the fear of oppression.”

Tawny validated the quote with a nod so it could go about its business.  She considered exploring the city a little more and scouting some locations for the plants, but another quote came within earshot that roused her curiosity.  While she normally couldn’t be bothered to chase quotes up and down a foreign town, something about this one was familiar.

“Five.”

It was in a child’s voice.  Perhaps a little one was learning speech for the first time?  She knew that was unlikely because quotes from the mouth of babes barely made it ten feet from their source before dying.  Also, the voice was much older.  Nin years perhaps, Tawny guessed. 

“Seven.”  “Two.”

The rules of the game returned to Tawny’s mind.  She hadn’t thought about it in decades and wasn’t aware the tradition still existed.  When she and Ocher were young enough to justify their squabbles, the children in their neighborhood used the exact same number map to find their way to their friends.  The code was very simple.  ‘One’ meant that you should turn right, and two was ‘left’.  Three through nine indicated distance, with three meaning you were very close.  The short-lived quotes were just smart enough to know that they resonated when they were understood, so they only voiced themselves when they applied to someone’s position. 

Tawny could, once again, not resist tugging one of Notion’s threads, so she followed the young quotes.  They turned her away from the marketplace and into narrower streets.  She slithered through rows of hanging carpets and coughed on their dust.  The numbers got lower and sounded more excited.  When the first ‘four’ got to her it was practically a squeal.The sky darkened as she got closer to the city center and the sun was hidden behind looming buildings and awnings.  The air became cool and moist and she started to notice large plush shelves of moss growing on any uneven bricks.  Shortly after that the walls around her became so uneven that flowers could grow in the pockets between the stone.

A wave of that strange music hit her and she had to wait for the chanting to stop before she could hear the next number.  It stayed about her so long that she tried swatting it away with her hands.  She shivered at the sound of it and felt like globs of rotten meat were being poured into her ears.  Dreadful, she thought.  I don’t know how anyone could sing this.  She plucked two lumps of moss from the wall and pressed them into her ears.  Then she leaned up against the wall of the alley and waited for the noise to pass.  She knew it was gone when the bumps left her skin.  When she removed the moss the numbers told her she was very close.  It was only another minute before she arrived.  The narrowest alley yet opened up into a square courtyard surrounded by the backdoors of four large housing structures.  The courtyard was a single slab of dark gray slate with just one hole in it, from which a neatly trimmed tree grew.  Its branches were heavy with both fruit and children who hung upside down from its stronger limbs.  More children, who had perhaps fallen from the tree and rolled away, were playing some sort of game.

“Excuse me,” a little girl said from behind Tawny.  Tawny moved out of the alley mouth so the girl could get into the playground.  A few more children arrived from various alleys and doors, all following the numbers so they could join in the festivities.  Tawny did her best to stay out of their way and tried to figure out their game.

The children had drawn a series of intersecting square pathways on the slate with chalk.  The edges of these squares were decorated to indicate what that square was: trees for forest, water for an island, lava for a volcano, and so on.  Each square had to be jumped to and landing outside a square removed you from the game.  The main goal seemed to be avoiding the designated monster.  One of the children wore a beaked mask with blue eyes.  They had a black blanket draped around their shoulders and held two sticks tipped with rubber claws.  The monster’s bloodthirsty nature gave it the power to move two squares at a time in its hunt for children.

As they were too young for instruments, the air was full of laughter and words that hopped about like rabbits.

“How beautiful laughter is, before it matures into derision.”

Tawny noticed that the monster seemed to be closing in on its prey.  A little girl with curly red hair, wide eyes, and knobby knees looked over her shoulder with genuine fear.  The beast was just five squares away.  A referee child shouted ‘jump’ and all the players moved.  Now the monster was just four squares away!  It growled and waved its claws.  The frightened girl frantically analyzed her surroundings and looked for a way to outmaneuver the creature.  The next jump came and she turned on the corner of the forest.  With any luck she could pass another child and the monster’s gaze would avert.  Another jump.  Only two squares now.  The claws were practically brushing her hair.  She looked like she was about to break down into tears.  She had one chance.  There was an island nearby that was separate from the rest of the squares.  The jump was quite far though, and her knobby knees were already quaking.  The monster snickered.  She stared at the vast expanse of ocean separating her from the island and doubted her ability to reach it.

“The size of an obstacle is not determined by mass, but by force of will.”

Though she wasn’t quite old enough to understand the quote, she took comfort in its authoritative voice.  She took a deep breath and prepared for the jump.  When it came she sprang with all her heart, arms stretched out in front of her trying to pull the air.  She landed and tottered on the edge of a square, mere inches from oblivion.  She managed to steady herself, but in the end it did no good.  Though the monster was bound by the rules to take an extra turn when jumping to disconnected squares, it eventually caught up with her when she simply did not have the energy to leap across the ocean a second time.  The claws raked her shoulder.

The girl burst into real tears and fled from the game’s mortal coil.  She ascended some steps to a backdoor and hugged the legs of an adult man who stood there.  She sobbed wet patches into his knees.  His knobby knees.

Tawny hadn’t noticed the one other adult until now, but guessed he was the girl’s father.  He had similar red hair, a thin build, and a short beard.

The monster pulled off its own head and revealed yet another crop of red hair.  This time it was attached to a boy who was a few years older than the girl.

“She said she wouldn’t cry this time if we let her play,” the boy complained to his father.  The father pulled out a pan flute.

“She’s just complimenting your performance as the hollowcry,” he played.  “And perhaps she wouldn’t be upset if her brother wasn’t so set on eating the same child over and over again.”  The boy rolled his eyes and put the mask back on.  All of the other children reset the game and started playing again.

The father looked over and noticed Tawny for the first time.  He looked unsettled at the sight of her.  Tawny approached with her flute to explain herself.

“Does one of them belong to you?” the man played.  He patted his daughter’s head and sent her back out into the courtyard.

“Oh no,” Tawny played back, “I’m in town to deliver the shakespore plants.  I just heard their number code and thought I’d see if I could still follow it.  A bit silly I know.”

“Is that all?” he played, relief on his face.  He relaxed his shoulders and leaned up against the building.

“Did you think I was someone else?” Tawny asked.

“No one in particular.  Some of the parents don’t approve of the children playing together.  That’s why they use their little number quotes to find each other,” he explained.  Tawny looked and noticed that many of the children were African.

“Does that dreadful music divide you that much?” she asked.

“It’s not just the music,” he played.  He took a moment to sigh.  “It’s really the murders that have everyone on edge.”

Tawny nearly dropped her grocery basket.  She steadied the rolling food with one hand and looked around for a place to set everything.  The man pulled up a stool for her to set the basket on.

“My name’s Bennock by the way,” he played.  Tawny introduced herself, but couldn’t think of where to start after that.  She had thought the name ‘jia fruit’ would be the strangest thing she learned that day.  Before she could say anything she noticed Bennock had a pair of earcloaks about his neck.  He noticed her stares.

“Do you not approve?” he played.

“I don’t judge,” Tawny replied.

“I do walk a bit of a tight cultural line.  I know how to appreciate the quotes… but… sometimes you need to shut it all out.  Sometimes the truth needs to come from inside.”

“A fence sitter is rewarded with splinters.”

“Yes, thank you,” Bennock played sarcastically, then shooed the quote away.

“So about these murders…” Tawny played, trying to change the subject.  She wanted to know if Ocher and the horses would be safe protected by nothing but a wagon cover.

“They started about three months ago,” Bennock played sadly.  He looked ashamed to have to explain his home this way, as if he’d put up a guest in a bedroom full of fleas.  “Every few weeks a person goes missing at nightfall.  There’s no sign of them… until the next one goes missing.  Then the last person reappears… but lifeless.  Their bodies show marks that indicate prolonged torture.”

“How many?” Tawny asked, shocked.

“Six,” Bennock played, “It has hit my family especially hard.  The people who were taken are all, as that quote so incisively put it, ‘fence-sitters’.  Many of us voted for you to bring the flowers, but we don’t harbor the same resentment for our town’s new residents as some of the older… institutions here.”

“And your town authorities have no idea as to the culprit?” Tawny asked.

“Oh there is an idea.  That.”  Bennock pointed to his son, still in full monster garb.

“You don’t mean…”

“I do.  Some witnesses claim to have seen a hollowcry at the scenes of the crimes.  I know it sounds absurd, but that’s what they say.”

“A hollowcry,” Tawny repeated with her flute.  The hollowcry was a far more recent legend than the tale of Narcissus and Echo and far more disturbing.  Its main purpose was to frighten children into using their music instead of their words when they came of age.  The tales described it as a great black bird-like creature that flies invisibly in the night sky.  Its incredible ears pick up unwise words so it can hone in on its prey.  Then it swoops down silently and begins to tear its victim apart.  The killing is merely incidental, because the hollowcry’s real sustenance is screams of terror.  Your horrified wails cannot flee to seek help, because the bird drinks them up just like a shakespore and gorges until there is no more air in the lungs, no more beat in the heart.

“Do you believe it?” she asked.

“I believe there are people in this town angry enough to kill, and that a monster makes a convenient excuse.”

“My brother and I are staying in our wagon while we work… do you think we’ll be alright?” Tawny asked.

“Yes, I think so.  Our hollowcry only seems interested in certain, very political, targets.”

“Then is it safe to be wearing those?” Tawny asked and pointed to his earcloaks.

“Perhaps not, but some things you have to stand up for,” he played.

“A man with family should never make himself a target, because aim is rarely perfect.”

Bennock took a few steps from the wall to check that both of his children were still there.  He breathed a tired sigh of relief.  He seemed to have a bit of a sore neck from looking over his shoulder.

“Fear quotes don’t contain wisdom,” Tawny played, trying to comfort him.

“You’re quite right,” he played, “but all the same, it is beginning to get dark.”  Bennock pulled out a series of five small funnel shapes and attached them to his pan flute.  They greatly increased his volume as he ordered all the children in the courtyard to disband and head home.  As the crowd scattered, his own children climbed the stairs.  He handed the older boy a key and reminded him to never let anyone other than him inside.  The boy nodded and the two children retreated into the building.

“While I’m sure you’ve nothing to worry about,” he played to Tawny, “I will walk you back to your wagon all the same.”

“Thank you,” Tawny played.


© Copyright 2018 Blaine Arcade. All rights reserved.

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