If you need to read the introduction to this story, go here.
She could hear a woman’s heartbeat on the wind. Far too loud, beating far too fast. Likewise, the melody of her laughter was a pitch too high. From her perch at the top of the buildings, Janiya groaned. There were only a few hours left until daybreak, and someone just had to wreck a nearly perfect shift. She turned her dark brown eyes to gaze down the rows and rows of houses, toward the gates; Pryor stood guard, looking in the opposite direction. He had just returned from walking a round west around the town.
Another flutter of heartbeats sounded on the wind. She frowned. From what it sounded, she could handle this alone, so she would. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need to do much.
She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. The lantern she held in her right hand jangled slightly, and she felt it an the will-o-wisps dissipate back into the wind. She pulled her goggles down over her eyes, then grasped at the heart-shaped pendant hanging from her necklace. She held her breath feeling it grow cold as she started to listen inward. The uncomfortable feeling of nothingness overtook her. The wind blew from the north; she could follow along it to get to where the heartbeats were coming from. She felt her body lighten, and she opened her eyes slowly.
The speed of her initial take off cracked the air like a whip. Her now translucent figure sped across the rooftops as she ran and ran toward the source of the earlier disturbance. Not more than half a minute later, she was several miles away from her starting point, standing outside of the local bar. From inside she could hear music and merriment, and at this distance the heartbeat sound had gotten louder. She could also hear the laughter again, and a man’s soft murmuring.
<<We could execute them.>
<<I’m just saying. It’s an option.>>
Janiya held her hand up to her necklace again, and she sighed in relief as she felt herself once again becoming more substantial. She adjusted her goggles, and fixing her lips into a smooth, straight line, she walked to the door. The doorman glanced at her, and though he did not scowl outwardly, she could see his displeasure. Janiya paused, staring up at him through her goggles. He was a tall man, and used to seeing her about. He did not like her.
“Guardian.” His tone was clipped.
“Don’t feel like you have to greet me.” She chuckled softly. ”I wasn’t gonna say a damn word to you.”
“What ‘cha want here?”
“I’m investigating, lug. You gonna keep standing in front of the door like that? ‘Cause We can move you.” Again she laughed. “And it’s not like I really need you to open the door. My feigning is a courtesy.” Her voice was wry, threatening. Janiya placed her hand to her hip, fingering pointedly at the dagger placed there. She felt a rush of excitement, and there was suddenly a sharp clawing pain inside her chest. She silenced it, managing not to wince. The doorman now snarled openly at her, but did step out of her way, opening the door for her to pass through.
“Thank you for your compliance.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Janiya grinned, then stepped past him, into the bar.
The clatter of silverware and serving platters rang out as the door opened, mixed with the cacophony of boisterous men’s voices and twittering giggles of bar wenches. The thick aroma of gravy and fried bits wafted from the kitchen, mixed with that of various summer ales and regular fare beers. The sights, sounds, and smells assaulted Janiya’s senses all at once, and she grasped at her pendant with her left hand, attempting to center herself. She glanced over to the bar. Mugs were being filled to the top with white foam-topped beer flowing from the taps in near endless streams. Men were arguing, arm wrestling one another.
All round the establishment, waitresses, with their heavily painted faces and fancy and tattered skirts, fawned over the men’s shows of bravado, flirting for tips… She personally found their behavior to be a community hazard, but the waitresses were not the target she was looking for. Each time she walked past a table, she could hear the conversation dial back as people became aware of her presence. She would feel eyes stop on her, just for a moment, and as she passed, there was an audible sigh of relief. She proceeded forward through the bar, keeping her gaze trained to the floor, listening to the sick sticky sound her boots made as they stuck to the ill-washed floor.
Her steps eventually took her back into the kitchen, and this door, too, she walked through. The chef looked as if he was about to bark an order at her, but noticing that she was not one of his waitstaff, he stopped for a moment to regard her with wide eyes. She acknowledged him with a jut of her chin, and she watched as he went back to work, albeit distractedly.
Her body passed straight through the walls and back door, and she looked around, not really so much seeing as she was listening. She could hear giggle and muffled words of sweet nothings coming from around the corner. Silently she passed down the alleyway, until she sighted her targets. There were two of them: a young woman, and a much, much older man. The man had the girl pressed up onto some crates braced against the alley wall. The sounds of their pairing became vulgar — laughter had changed into soft moaning and heavy, passionate panting.
Janiya reached down to her daggers, this time unhooking each from its sheath.
<< Execute them. Kill the rule breakers.>>
The melody in her head became richer, more melodic. As she listened, she felt the clawing become less desperate.
Yes, she agreed. End them. End the rule breakers now, both of them, now. Yes…
She fixed her grip on her daggers, and she drew in a slow breath. Again her body became insubstantial, and once she felt centered again, she rushed forward.
A strong wind blew through the alley, and Kassie suddenly felt the absence of Cory’s hands on her thighs. The wind knocked her off the keg, and she tumbled down into the trash that littered the alley. When she opened her eyes, she saw Cory shoved up against a wall, struggling, kicking, gagging as he tried to break free from an invisible force that held him there. She began to scramble across the ground, trying to put distance between herself and whatever it was that was attacking him. She tried to stand, but she just as quickly fell down. She looked down at where her legs had tangled, and found that her panties had twisted about her ankles.
Little swirling wisps of light zoomed past her legs and face, and she turned to watch them drifting to the spot Cory was pinned to. As quickly as the wind had blown, the thin figure of a woman began to appear. A strap circled the back of her head, resting just below a ponytail made of long, dark, kinky hair that was styled into many thick, two-stranded reggae twists. Her ponytail was held back with a matching silver band. She sported worn and faded gray combat boots which laced up the front and had buckles on the back. Her long legs were covered by white, fitted pants. She was taller than Kassie was herself, and shorter than Cory, but from the way the man writhed against the wall under the woman’s daggers, she could tell that she was much stronger than she looked. The wisps finished filling in her form, and finally she could see that the woman wore a white and silver uniform. On the back of it was embroidered a heart, composed of a mirrored and flipped treble clef and, to its right, a base clef, forming a heart.
“A g-guardian?” she stammered. When she spoke, it was as if the guardian suddenly seemed to become aware of her. The silver daggers in the woman’s hands glinted dangerously, and she watched the woman turn. She wore a pair of pewter framed pilot’s goggles, tinted purple, over her eyes, but could see the scowl that formed on the woman’s lips. The guardian kept her arm pressed firmly against Cory’s throat, and her dagger to the side of his neck.
Oh no… If Kassie remembered correctly, the guardian with the goggles was named Janiya. She didn’t have a track record of being lenient; a few months back a so-called Casanova called himself waltzing into Riverdale, trying to schmooze on the local singles; from the rumors, Janiya had sent him back to his village in several neatly packaged boxes.
Gods above. She was going to end them both.
“I would go through the motions and ask you what you two were doing back here, but I can smell your sex all over his mouth.” Janiya’s voice was at the same time pleasant and rough. The guardian sniffed again. “And your friend here has pissed himself, so I can smell the stink of that, too.”
Kassie felt her face flush with embarrassment. She tried to set herself upright, and she sniffled pitifully, staring up at the guardian with pleading eyes. “I – I’m sorry, I just -”
“Unsanctioned courtships are prohibited.” The guardian’s interruption was sharp and clipped. Her expression did not budge.
“I know, I just –”
“Please don’t kill me!” Cory’s struggling voice broke through hers, and she watched the guardian’s gaze snap back to him. He was squirming, trying to get away from the dagger’s edge. Cory’s was hair tousled, and he had tears absolutely spilling out of his dark brown eyes. From what Kassie could make out now, he had at least thirty pounds on the guardian, and was almost a third of a foot taller than her, but here he was, whimpering and crying and begging for his life. “It’s not like we’re actually courting, so technically –”
“Alright, since you want to get technical –”
Janiya grabbed Cory by the chin, jerking his head at an angle and shoving him up against the wall. Apparently, the guardian had had enough of his babble. With a swift movement, the guardian pulled back one of her daggers, and Kassie screamed as she stabbed her dagger through the top of his ear lobe, pinning his head to the wall. “Unauthorized fucking is prohibited.” She glanced back over at Kassie. “Is that more clear?” Fervently, Kassie nodded her head yes. The guardian smiled.
“Good. Glad that’s cleared up.”
Suddenly, the guardian winced. Her grip on Cory’s neck loosened, and he was able to touch his feet to the ground. This, of course, meant that he fell from the height that she had pinned him to, and the dagger sliced clear through the top of his pinna. Blinded by the pain, he tried to stand, then just as promptly (because he’d forgotten he’d pulled down his pants) he fell flat on his face.
Kassie pulled her clothing back together. She made to stand, and suddenly several daggers came flying her way, pinning her skirts to the ground. She yelped, turning to look at Janiya. The guardian seemed to have recovered, and she had one of her feet planted square in the middle of Cory’s back. He was now weeping openly.
“Neither of you is going anywhere.” Janiya knelt down, grabbing the Cory by his hair and yanking his face up from the dirt. “Pig. You are getting blood all over everything. Go wash yourself in that bucket around the corner and come right back. If you do not, know that I can and will find you, and I will not hesitate to euthanize you.” She took her foot off his back, and with a sob, Cory crawled up to his feet, buttoning his pants and shuffling to follow her directive. When the sound of splashing water came forth, Janiya turned back toward where Kassie was pinned in the dirt.
Slowly the guardian walked over to the wall, yanked her dagger from it, then crossed the distance over to her. As she crossed, she wiped Cory’s blood off her weapon, creating random crimson streaks on her stark white uniform. She reached down to pick up the other daggers. “The same euthanasia warning applies to you. What is your name?”” The guardian sheathed her weapons, and Kassie jumped as she reached down toward her. However, the woman offered her an open hand. The girl hesitated for a moment, then took the guardian’s hand and stood. She dusted herself off, adjusting her skirt and clothes.
“My name’s Kassie.”
Again the guardian frowned. She touched her hand to her breast, and Kassie watched the silver and amethyst heart illuminate.“Legal name, for my records.”
Janiya crossed her arms over her breasts. “Nineteen… Meaning you are several years past the age of knowledge and consent.”
“Yes ma’am.” Another frown. Janiya touched the heart symbol again, and the glow stopped. Instead, she reached her hand out to her side, and immediately a staff with a lantern at its end materialized in her hand. The will o’ wisps inside it gave off an eerie glow.
“Then please, Miss Oceanside, explain to me what you were doing in an alley behind a bar with that man.” Kassie cast her gaze down to the ground and grew silent. She wiped half dried, muddy tears from her face. Although she didn’t respond, the guardian kept speaking.“Do you not understand the laws of this world?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then?” Silence. She heard Janiya sigh. “Kassie, I need you to answer my questions. Just because I turned off my recorder does not mean you can ignore my authority.” Kassie glanced up at the guardian, then back to the ground. She knew why, right? The girl flared her nostrils. “…Do you just not care about yourself or your community?”
“What?” Kassie clenched her skirt tight in her hands.”What kind of question is that supposed to be?” Why was she lecturing her and asking her such basic questions?
“Kassie, I need you to-”
“Of course I understand the laws of the world, but what does that matter with my feelings?!” She felt the words suddenly erupt from her mouth, and she looked up at the guardian. Hope shined in Kassie’s eyes, and desperation tilted her voice a pitch higher. Janiya just had to understand the way she felt. “I am in love with him! Are you happy now? I am in love with him!”
It couldn’t be true, what they said — that they were cold, unfeeling sentinels.
For a moment Janiya seemed stunned, her brows lifting her goggles up high on her head. Instead of her shock transitioning to anger, however, Janiya smiled. The guardian took a step forward.
“You are in love?”
Kassie swallowed hard, feeling the skin on her arms prickle, but she stood her ground and nodded.
“Yes, Guardian. I am. With all my heart.”
The guardian hand raised a hand up to her mouth, and her shoulders shook as she tried to suppress… laughter? From all the stories people told, the guardians never smiled. Not unless… well. Unless something unfortunate was about to happen, and well, that kind of smile wasn’t really a smile at all, now was it? But after some time, Janiya seemed to pull herself together, and she drew closer to the her. After awhile, Kassie could hear the laughter she was trying to hide.
“Let me show you something, Kassie.” She raised her hands to her goggles. Slowly, Janiya lifted them from her eyes.
Or rather, where eyes should be.
In their stead, the guardian’s face boasted empty, hallowed out sockets. Kassie found herself drawn and pulled into the depths of them, where a dark nothingness smouldered, infinitely cold… The chasm pulled at her.
It had to be a trick. Some scare tactic, optical illusion.
Just then, a fushcia will o wisp left the guardian’s lantern, floating toward her. It circled her for a moment, flickering around her skirt, then it went back around to Janiya. Slowly, the guardian lowered her jaw, and the creature entered in through her mouth.
Kassie felt her stomach drop and twist violently. The empty sockets of Janiya’s eyes and mouth, her whole cranium, illumined with the pink light of the creature. More will of wisps entered Janiya’s body through the chasm of her mouth, and it was then that Kassie noticed how paper thin the guardian’s brown skin was, and places along the sides of her neck and arms suddenly illuminated, calling attention to the lacerations that criss-crossed her flesh. Janiya, for her part, closed her mouth, smiling wide as the will o wisps danced wildly inside her vacant hull of a body.
“This is what ‘love’ did for me.”