January 28, 2021


January 28, 2021

A short fictional piece set in a fantasy world.

I lifted my mask and sniffed the air. Greenwood air. Death air. Air that would terminate me in three minutes straight if I let it.

I inhaled. Just once, but long enough to remember I wanted to be alive.

I would regret dying.

Elora would return soon.

Mask back in place, I made my fire on the Crawler us wardens were authorized to operate in the Greenwood. The vehicle crept slow enough to walk beside. Elora would climb on any minute now. I whistled to the trees in a tone north of the air filter’s whine. Like they would whistle back. Like they were alive in that condemned place.

It was when I snapped a branch in two to burn it that he appeared on the edge of the fire. Don’t even know how he got aboard the Crawler without me hearing. That wasn’t what was strange about it, though. He breathed. No mask hid his moonbright features.

I tossed the branch into the fire, grateful the flames were small. Made it harder to see the tremor in my hands. “Evening,” I said.

He crouched. Fingered the sizzling moss on one of my logs, plucked some and rolled it between stained fingertips. “If you burn the trees, you add to the poison in the air.”

“That’s what the mask is for.”

The boy glanced at me—a boy, yet scarred up his arms like he had wrestled the Tilk. “Come here often?”

I shrugged. “Depends on often.”

“Never seen you before. Or this warden Crawler.”

So he knew as much as the common trapper. Didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. “Haven’t seen you, either.”

“You should use something smaller. You scare the hogs.” The boy pressed the moss to his wrist. When he pulled the moss away, blood soaked it.

“You all right?” I said.

“Just cleaning up.”

“Looks ugly.”

“These things happen.”

“This a commonwealth vehicle, you know.”

“I know.”

“Have to register everyone aboard.”

“I’m only telling you to stop frightening away the food.”

Cold. That was what I felt from his voice. No warmth in his bearing. That cold flickered something inside me.

I fingered a twig like it was my favorite knife. “You see anyone else out here?”

He massaged his wrist. A sliver of a scar glinted in the firelight, right at the spot his wrist would bend.

I pressed forty years of authority into my tone. “Boy?”

“That what you think I’m out here to do?” he said. “‘See people?’”

“You’re breathin’.”

“You’re ancient. You think the trees are still green.”

My chin jutted to the canopy. Greenwood was still green.

“Warm up, if you want.” I laid back on my elbows. I was still stiff as a springboard. Ready to do what I had to. If that need arose.

“Don’t need to,” he said.

“How old are you?”

“Like you care.”

“There isn’t another human in these woods to talk to ‘sides my right hand woman, and she’s nearly nonverbal. You’re the only other human ‘sides her I’ve seen in three days, even if you did come from the woods like a ghost from a trench pipe. Indulge me.”


“Mite young lookin’ for twenty.”

“It’s part of the race.”

“What race is that?” I said. “You a Forester?”

He snorted. “They don’t exist.” He tossed the bloody moss off the Crawler.

I’d been in this world too long to be fooled like that. Where was Elora?

“Then what?” I said. “I gotta call in whatever I see out here to the Major. Need some sort of identification beyond how many years you’ve walked this land. Policy.” I tapped my belt, the transmitter there.

Metal banged near the forest floor. The boy started. Glanced toward me. As if I was a measure more safe than the noise. I pointed at the darkness.

“Comin’ up, Warden General!”

Elora. “Waitin’ for you!” I shouted.

The boy didn’t move.

Elora clambered onto the Crawler, breathing loud through her mask. When she was standing straight again, she dropped a bundle of fur near my boots.

“Have a hog,” she said. She nodded toward the boy, adjusting her mask. Took him in the way she’d registered our assignment to the Greenwood: with silence. Eyes stayed long on his arms.

“He’s tellin’ us our Crawler scares the animals,” I said.

She stares at the dead one by my feet. Then: “Should tell the Major.”

“‘Bout to. Appreciate the reminder.”

The boy flicked his wrist. A blade extended from his arm, skinny as a moonsliver. He pressed it against my chest. Sharp. My elbow slipped. I toppled toward the flames, scattering my pile of sticks. He reached with his normal hand and popped the mask off my face.

“Don’t call it in,” he said.

Poisoned air leaked into my lungs. I forced my breath out, willing my brain to respond the way it did under stress. Shut down. No air. Good thing.

“Answer me,” he said. Blood dripped from his wrist.

“I got to,” I said, lungs burning.


Elora swiped a stick from the fire, swung it beneath the boy’s legs. It passed through his feet like he was made of air.

“Promise me,” the boy gritted. “Do as I say.”

“Can’t convince me to break the law, kid,” I managed.

He glanced at Elora. “You haven’t seen me.”

“I’m looking at you,” she growled, reaching for the transmitter on her belt.

He swung his arm wide. The blade clipped my shoulder, met Elora in the temple. Disappeared into her skull. She crumpled.

The boy wasn’t looking at me.

I launched to my feet, tackled him midside. The clock in my head rang. Poison. Air. It was like tackling a mist. I tumbled onto the other side of the Crawler, head slamming into steel. The boy turned, moonsliver blade extended toward me. My mask in the other hand. Blood sizzled to the ground.

“You’re…breathing...poison,” I gritted. I had seconds.

“You believe in fairy tales.”

“What are you?”

He tossed the mask into the flames. It crackled, spitting sparks. I slumped to my side.

“Just a ghost. Thanks for the conversation,” he said. He slid off the Crawler.

I craned my neck toward Elora. Her mask still covered her face.

I crawled to her. Pressed my fingers against her throat even though the hole in her temple was dark with blood and she stared at the stars.

No pulse.

I was alone.

I unstrapped her mask, shaking. Pressed it over my mouth. Latched it at the back of my skull. Dropped to my back until the whine of the air filter was louder than my heart and the fog cleared from my head.

Just a ghost. 

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