There was a breeze that night, seeping in from the shattered window, causing waves of goosebumps to crash over Fen. It licked at her bare skin, seducing her body into a fit of trembles. When she refused to budge, it howled like a beast in agony, as if it were a hurt lover begging for her attention. For a brief moment, she wondered if there was in fact a beast waiting just outside the door, its eye peeking through the jagged cracks in the walls and its deathly cold breath lingering on the remnants of wind penetrating her body heat. The howling continued and Fen thought that maybe it was shrieking from the pain of a recent battle wound, one that would never heal, and if it did, the skin and bone would be stitched back together wrong, always remaining mutilated and mangled. Amidst her thoughts, a chilling hand reached out to her, sending her into another fit of shivers. Rubbing her frigid arms, she tried bringing the warmth back to them, subconsciously running her fingertips across the scars that decorated her skin like fleas decorating a dog’s coat.
The ground she laid on felt as comfortable as a concrete bed can feel. Her back was as stiff as the floor beneath her, but she resisted the urge to roll over, cautious of the surrounding, sleeping bodies. Twenty-three bodies, to be exact- or was it twenty-two now? She couldn’t remember if anyone had died that week – all resting on the floor of the dilapidated building. They were all so close that she could hear their soft breaths, but their body heat wasn’t enough to protect her own.
The sensation of eyes watching her intensified, making her colder than any night ever could. Squeezing her eyes shut, she slipped her hand into her pocket and gripped a knife she kept there. She let her arm lay there awkwardly, waiting as she forced her eyes to stay closed.
Fen liked to pretend she could remember the times when she slept in a real bed instead of on the rat-feces-caked floors of gutted and forgotten buildings. But like every other kid in Wargo, her memories of that life were built from ghosts and assumptions. She knew that no matter how often she crafted the lies she told to herself, she was never convinced that the daydream was anything but smoke in mirrors. Darinity wasn’t much better anyway. It was a city for thieves and killers. Instead of sleeping on a floor, their people slept outside, starving and waiting for death to ride her horse through the streets and choose her next victim. Even with this in mind, she liked to wonder what was in the city beyond the wall. She liked to imagine she was on the other side with the parents that abandoned her so many years ago.
“Mother, lend me your strength,” Fen whispered, pressing her hand that wasn’t wrapped around the handle of the knife against the cold floor and praying that the Earth goddess would hear her. Fen prayed, too, that no one else would hear her. Both because Mother was the only one allowed to hear her beg, and because Darinity’s customs were never supposed to leak into the banished lands of Wargo. She would be shamed for practicing the beliefs of the wretched.
Fen nearly drifted off, letting the thought of Her become the featherbed she craved. A rasping made her breath hitch, jolting her awake and away from her fantasies. The noise was so faint she wondered if she might have hallucinated it, but no, she recognized the unmistakable sound of claws scraping against concrete. In the dead of night, it resonated like an alarm, and she swore it echoed off of the walls.
For an instant, she considered allowing herself to bask in the noise. After growing up in the deafening silence of the vast nothingness that imprisoned them, she didn’t know how deprived of the natural world she was until she got the blessing of hearing it again. Some people would go their whole lives never knowing what that was like, to have the bustle of human-infested streets be stripped away. Being able to hear life was a safety blanket on its own, allowing them to think that maybe they aren’t so alone just long enough for them to catch an hour or two of sleep. Fen didn’t have that safety blanket, and she hated everyone who allowed themselves to be tricked into thinking the noises of the city were somehow a substitute for everything their society had destroyed. So was she really about to destroy another one of Mother’s creatures?
She heard the scuttle again, the tapping of the nails closer to her this time. It was so strange and foreign to hear something, anything, pierce the night’s cloak of silence. In the inky darkness, she couldn’t see where it was, but her ears strained to keep track of it. Bringing the knife down hard, she felt the blade resist going through bone and fur, only for it to hit rock as the blade escaped from the other side. A screech. A whimper. A crunch and a sickening squish filled the room. A strangled groan left Fen’s lips and suddenly she was whimpering too. She opened her eyes at last, and even in the dark, she could see the shiny reflection of dozens of beady eyes staring back at her from the mutated rat, like she was looking into a honeycomb full of oil. She couldn’t see the crimson blood, but she felt the warm liquid pooling next to her, curing her perpetual chills. Silently, she thanked Moth- er for her next meal before rolling over, only being able to deny sleep for so long. Finally, the mistress was slipping into her bed again, engulfing her in a welcoming embrace.