Cynder awoke from her jade-colored dreams of lotus perfumes to a head full of cobwebs and stale smoke. There was a dry and decayed sensation in her mouth and throat, and her youthful frame ached in ways she imagined more appropriate for someone many, many years older than her. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but, in some ways, that didn’t surprise her; when she had the seeds, her memory would slip away.
The last shards of her dreams faded as she opened her eyes. Outside, it was dark. Night, and it had been for a long time. She struggled to remember when she left the gaming-house with her handful of seeds. Certainly, the sun still shone in the sky. It was all so dubious now. Just like the dream that had been consumed by smoke and cobwebs in her head.
There was no escaping it; she was down. Back in the world now. A dry and foreboding place beyond the city’s walls. There were stories that world was once much different. Greener. The rain and snow would come with more frequency and the wind was not always so ferocious, the heat and cold not so extreme. It was a time before The Horsemen had been so thorough; reducing the world’s population by billions. Even now, it was said Death and Famine lingered behind to play sadistic games with the survivors. There were too few left for War and Pestilence to have any fun.
Was it any wonder why people wanted to escape? It seemed even the well-to-do were miserable. It felt like the world was dying and those left were only hanging on out of habit.
These dark muses played through Cynder’s head as she pulled herself up. Rationalizations and arguments she had tried on the lama over at the temple. She knew he would be disappointed at her use of the seeds. He always was, telling her it was greater suffering to hide within the embrace of intoxicants. There was beauty to be found in the moment, not in the strange hallucinations brought on by the seeds.
A sensation arose in her belly somewhere between sickness and emptiness. She realized she was hungry. There was no food where she was. That meant she had to go out again. Out into the dark.
It was later than she anticipated. Colder, too. At least the wind wasn’t bad. She hugged her jacket close to her frame and pulled the hood down low over her eyes. Her breath followed her in clouds of tiny iced barbs.
On some of the busier streets, there was still activity. She was able to find an open food-stall, and what it was serving was warm and filling. It was spicy and sweet smelling. The way she attacked her food, it was as if she hadn’t eating in days.
Had it really been that long? When did she take the seeds? It was only earlier in the day, wasn’t it?
Cynder’s head jerked up with a start. The voice was so close it may as well been right next her, but there was no one, just a lamppost with a flickering bulb. As long as she could remember, she would catch snippets of voices, of images, in her head. It frightened her, and she used that fear as part of her rationale for indulging in the seeds. Although, she never told anyone, not even the old lama about the voices. That could get her locked away. Or worse, sent off to one of those camps where criminals were experimented on.
She looked around to see if she could find the author of that voice. Nothing. There was something different about this particular voice; it carried a strange hiss, an almost clicking sound to it. Something not quite human, but making an effort to communicate with her none-the-less.
That was an unsettling thought. There were stories when the world was falling apart that things were created in labs and those camps. Monsters and nightmares, which walked with earthly feet. Perhaps they were just stories told to discourage travel in the wastes between cities, but on a cold, dark night with a strange voice in her head, Cynder began to wonder.
Quickly, she finished her meal. The gaming-house would be open. It always was. She wanted more seeds. Needed them. Once she had them, this alien voice and fear of old stories would be gone. Erased from her psyche. She was sure of it.
She began walking. The night seemed suddenly colder, the people around her more distant. There would be warmth within the walls of the gaming-house. The warmth of a body to get her the seeds if she didn’t have enough to purchase them outright, but perhaps she needed that warmth to fill the void of distance. Another rationalization, one she’d used before.
…No more!…The voice came again, and she quickened her pace.
“Hey, chica! Where you going in such a hurry?”
The author of that voice was a pale shaved-headed thing with a leering smile and lime green eyes. He stood surrounded by a pack of hangers-on. Not something she needed to be dealing with now or any time for that matter. Cynder pulled her hood lower and began walking quicker, hoping they wouldn’t follow.
“Hey, chica! We just want to talk to you!” He was calling after her, his voice, uncomfortably hot and close.
She ducked into an alleyway she knew. More than once she’d been this way as a shortcut and escape route. It had hidden her and kept her safe sometimes when she took the seeds. As long as she’d been aware of the alleyway, despite fresh garbage and graffiti, she had never seen anyone else in it.
The figure standing dead-center shattered that delusion. He was far taller than anyone she had ever seen and his skin was far more than pale; in fact, it was white, like fresh-fallen snow. From under a mane of ink black hair that ran the length of his back, she caught a glimpse of his eyes, and as if his presence and white skin was not enough, his eyes unnerved her. They were cold blue that appeared to glow in the low light and the pupils were slitted, like a serpent’s. Any question of humanity was removed when from out of his thin lips flicked a black forked tongue, testing the air. Something, which may have been made to resemble a smile, formed as he looked at her. The expression was strangely warm.
She wanted to back away, but found herself frozen in place. The figure reached out to her, offering a hand that bore more of a resemblance to a talon than any hand she had ever seen. There was something comforting in this gesture. Despite herself, Cynder felt herself being drawn to him.
“Good. Easy.” She shuddered when she realized his voice was the same hissing and clicking voice she’d heard in her head just a little earlier. “Come. Come to me."