If I had a heart, it’d be pounding quicker than the sticky fingers of the kids who created me. I slid into a darkening alley, my footfalls softer than the down of a chick, and my presence no more substantial than a shadow. My slight frame, forever the size of an eight year old, fit easily between the grey, stone wall of the bakery, and a couple stacks of wooden crates leaning haphazardly against it. I held a breath I didn’t need to take, and waited.
A snuffling, like a combination of a pig rooting through a trough and a dog scenting a rabbit, came first. Through the spaces between the boards, I watched a nose appeared around the corner. It was slitted, with four of them on each side of a long, slender, fox-like snout, and when it breathed in and out they quivered. Its mouth hung open as it panted, while its tongue lolled over teeth that were jagged as broken glass. It had ears like a bat, and no eyes, but there were saucer-like indents in its skull where eyes would have been. The skull itself was wide, almost like a bear’s. It finished revealing itself, and blocked the exit to the alley all in one go. The body was that of a jackal, while its twin tails twitched like a cat’s. The color of its hairless, taught skin, though, wasn’t black as humans perceived black, but the complete absence of color: a void. Its mere presence sucked in the light around it, and threw nothing back for eyes to see.
I swallowed involuntarily. Devourers ate gods, and though I was nothing more than a wisp of a god, a god I was. Gods were born from humans; their thoughts, wishes, desires, and so on. There were the larger, more powerful gods, who represented the strongest of human emotions: hate, love, greed, generosity, sorrow, joy, debauchery, virtue, and such.
Me? I was the culmination of the orphans, the street kids–the unwanted–of the city. I was a minor god, or probably less than a minor god. I was barely visible even to the children who conjured me, because the wishes of broken children are fragile things. Easily destroyed, easily forgotten, and easily left behind when adulthood comes calling.
Adults were stronger, and it showed in their gods. I endured, but they did, too, and were powerful besides.
Noting that the Devourer hadn’t moved, I admitted I could do with a little less endurance and a little more power. They rarely bothered the powerful gods, who could perform blessings of peace or destruction to be rid of the dangerous creatures. Those without such power had no option but to run. I didn’t even have the option of calling for help. The powerful gods wouldn’t care to save a god they considered worth no more than the scum on a lakebed, the weaker gods would have run themselves, and the average human couldn’t see Devourers, let alone combat them. The oblivious chattering of the residents in the evening’s soft, fading light, was muffled and unconcerned. Lucky them.
It stood, still as a statue, and waited. The only advantage being so puny afforded me, was that my scent was barely discernible to Devourers. Then it did something that, in my three hundred or so years of existence, I’d never seen before. It shuddered, and in the depression where eyes would be something bubbled through the skin, but didn’t break it. It was similar to the ‘lahva’ people spoke of from other lands; liquid rock that could destroy with its mere presence.
What bubbled out pooled in the depression, until it became like a fly’s eye: bulging, circular, and unblinking. Instead of being red, as lahva was often described, it was a sickly green, like some of the potions I’d seen kids snag from apothecaries in the city.
After the whatever-it-was finished coming out, the Devourer zeroed in on where I hid. A growl rumbled in its gut, as though another animal resided there, in combination with a hiss from the back of its throat, like that of an angry snake.
“What is it, Shinkuma?” a soft voice asked, and the Devourer turned its head toward something out of sight of the alley, its tails twitching in what might be called happiness, if they experienced such a thing. The utter lack of emotion in the words, comparable in many ways to the beast’s lack of color, sent a sensation of spiders crawling down my spine.
The Devourer swung its head back toward me, and made another rumbling hiss. Despite being mostly incorporeal, I still interacted with the physical world. I couldn’t walk through the walls to escape, and though I was created to be exceedingly quick, the Devourers were quicker.
I’m sorry, Bash, you were right; I shouldn’t have gone out. He’d never weep for me. His construction held no room for one of my primary traits: curiosity. He protected, and made safe the unwanted children, so he was stern yet gentle, and he regarded me with thinly veiled disdain most of the time. There was also no tolerance for intruders, and they were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.
There was movement at the entrance, and my molten gold eyes widened in shock when they locked with the unfeeling, silver eyes of a tall, slender man. His clothing spoke of old wealth, with loose, silk pants that were gathered just below the knee and wrapped down to the ankles, and were dyed the black of a moonless night. His shirt, made of the same flowing material, was the purest of white, and tucked into the top of his pants. He had a fitted, knee-length, long sleeved jacket on, despite the intense heat of the summer, which was made from a stiffer material, black, with silver buttons and embroidery. Ankle boots with low heels were a polished black, and lace-less, as though they simply came into existence on his feet. Maybe they had.
His face and nose were narrow, with skin pale as death itself, and thin lips that had never known a smile. His right hand, with long, agile fingers, rested casually on the hilt of an old, chipped sword, which looked as out of place on him as he did in the back alley of Lady Wept Hill. It did not have a sheath, and was slid through a wide, midnight blue silk belt.
“Come out, or Shinkuma will eat you,” he said, even and undemanding, but the underlying command in his lifeless words reverberated through my very bones.
“To make eating me easier? You did not say he would not eat me if I come out,” I replied, my voice small and wobbly.
I might have hated myself for it, if self-loathing was part of my construct. Fear was there, because in some forms of play fear existed, ready to be conquered, but the fear wasn’t always that precise during construct. It meant I could feel it in any form or fashion, not just in the healthy, fun way.
“If you do not come out, you will surely be eaten. If you do come out, you may yet live, lowly god,” he countered.
I huffed out an indignant scoff. I knew my rank among gods, but drawing attention to such a thing was callous, and tacky. Still, a slight existence was better than the oblivion of the Devourer’s gullet.
When I moved back out the way I’d come, I scowled at him from behind shaggy, poppy red bangs, as he examined my face with its smattering of freckles and smudges of dirt. The rest of my hair was curly and wild, barely brushing my narrow shoulders. The course material of my tunic-length, beachgrass green shirt was bunched in my small fists to keep them from shaking. The fitted shorts that stopped at my knobby knees were the same color and material, and like most kids whose age I reflected, I wore no shoes.
“Ah, I see. You are one of the ‘P’ five of Haven.” He considered me for a moment, and those eyes as cold as distant stars gave nothing away. “Which one are you? Not Protection, or Parent, I would wager,” he said, “since they are not able to leave the confines of Haven.”
“Play,” I said, sullenly, and crossed my arms over my chest.
“What is your True Name?” he asked.
I ground my teeth. “I do not give my True Name to those who threaten my life,” I growled, doing a weak imitation of the Devourer.
“You do not?” He tilted his head in consideration for a long moment, and it shifted his shoulder-length, silky hair, which was the grey of thunderstorm clouds. Just as with my heart, if I was capable of sweating I’d be doing so. The seconds ticked by, each more excruciating than the last as the Devourer’s attention remained unwavering on me. “As you say, then. Your determination has not yet been made, and you will not speak of this, or Shinkuma will destroy Haven. Do you understand, lowly god?”
Your determination has not yet been made. What in Celestial’s name did that mean? However, I nodded, a little too quick to support my bravado from moments before.
“Good.” Then he lifted his right hand from the sword’s hilt to eye level, and without breaking eye contact, snapped his fingers. The Devourer and the strange man vanished, and I very nearly collapsed to the ground.
Instead, I took a deep breath and leaned my back against the bakery’s wall. People, who were conspicuously absent when the man and the Devourer were here, walked by the entrance to the alley. They were running evening errands, or on their way home, and not one of them noticed me. Grownups rarely did, but at this particular moment it made me want to curl up on the cobblestones, still warm from the day’s heat, or maybe throw rocks at them to get them to notice me.
Neither options being particularly helpful, I fairly flew from Lady Wept back to Haven instead. I’d been there looking for new game ideas for the children, as well as potential new inhabitants. However, it would do no one any good if I were killed, so I cut my expedition short in light of the encounter with the man and the Devourer. The streets outside of Lady Wept were eerily quiet, as though they, too, wished to not draw attention to themselves, lest they be cut down or eaten. Or, maybe I was being melodramatic, and it was just the growing dark sending people into their homes. Imagination was not always the boon people made it out to be.
Haven, a place for children and children only, was tucked beneath one of the outer bridges of the city of Raventide. It wasn’t the largest of bridges in a city that boasted multiple canals, bridges, and a seaside view, since the homeless adults guarded such territories fiercely, but it was comfortable. The stone arch they resided under was all land, and was next to an arch over a small river, with the third arch also over water. It meant they had no territorial disputes over their bridge. It also provided water to drink, play, and wash in. It was warm in the shallows, yet still chilly in the deeper parts even in summer.
As I approached, the perimeter fence made from driftwood, and other foraged materials, glowed with a soft, blue radiance. Only gods, and those who manipulated god magic such as priests and priestesses, could see it. It was strong, and it had to be to withstand the adults, ever looking to kidnap and kill the children, or take Haven from us. It also enabled Protector–Bash–to teleport instantly to any point of the fence. It is directly connected to his essence, the way a child is connected to a mother by umbilical. It was his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness.
When I neared, there was a small pop of displaced air, and a short flash like the poppers given to children during festivals with fireworks.
“What happened?” Bash prompted. He was the size of a thirteen year-old kid, lanky in build, and wore no shoes. His ragged shorts were a ruddy brown, and held up by a length of jute rope just wider than his thumb. A tan, sleeveless shirt covering his lean chest was just as ragged as his shorts. Arrogance, reflected in his constructed age, tilted his chin upward, and he looked down on me in disapproval with golden eyes just like mine. There was a disdainful curl to his lips, and nostrils flared from annoyance, while his thick, black eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl. His chestnut hair was shorn close to his scalp, and I could see his deeply tanned skin through it.
“Jolly, did you hear me?” he asked, growing more impatient. “What happened? And don’t try to feed me dung and say nothing. We’re connected, Jolly; I know something happened,” he growled, and swung the staff, thick as a blacksmith’s bicep, with a single hand from where it rested over his shoulders, and slammed the metal-capped butt of it on the hard-packed, dusty earth. It would be impossible for a human to wield such a weapon, being far too wide for even two adult hands. However, since it was part of his construction and thus a part of him, it would never leave his hand unless he wished it, or he was dead.
“I ran into a Devourer–”
“Ravens of the Night take you, Jolly. Are you trying to get us, and yourself, killed? I told you–”
“Not to go out. Yes, I know, Bash,” I interrupted right back. “But the Devourer isn’t the problem–well, not the whole problem, at rate–the man controlling the Devourer, is.” I shuddered. The man told me not to speak of it, but there was something wrong, and it wasn’t as if Bash could leave and tell anyone, anyway.
“No one controls Devourers. They are controlled by nothing more than their hunger for gods.” He scoffed at me.
“I’m not lying! The man even had a name for it.” At the last moment, I didn’t divulge the name. Names were powerful, and if it was the Devourer’s True Name, it might summon the creature to us. “Anyway, the man had the strangest eyes, and there was no way he was human.”
“Of course he wasn’t human. Humans can’t see, hear, or feel Devourers as they can with gods.”
I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Bash, and the others might not believe me, either. I needed to get everyone together to show them what happened. We were connected, since our construction happened at the same time, from a group wish made by the first unwanted children of Raventide, not long after its founding. That was three hundred-odd years ago, and Bash’s unwillingness to budge was unchanged in all those long years.
“Have the perimeters been quiet?” I asked, and scanned the area. Summer wasn’t as bad as winter for interlopers, but we had to be ever vigilant. There were always too many who would take advantage of any wavering in our protection.
“They have,” he admitted, grudgingly, not wanting to do what I wanted, but unable to tell a lie to me because of the connection.
“Good. Lets go get the others so I can show you all what happened. There’s no way this will bring anything positive to our doors.”
“We don’t have any doors in Haven,” Bash pointed out.
I rolled my eyes, and moved past him. Never did have a sense of humor. I jumped lightly over the glowing fence, and the familiar wave of hopes, fears, and dreams of the youngest of the unwanted of Raventide, washed over me. It was cleansing, and comforting, as though I’d reconnected with a piece of my soul.