Her footsteps made no sound as she climbed to the top of a hill. The woods around her were noiseless, without bird, without buzz, without the sound of branch rustling against branch. There was little movement, for most of the particles that could be blown away had already found their way free, and the remainder formed only dark clouds that swirled through the trees at knee or waist height. Weather and the slow, steady pressure of time had seen most of it compressed and condensed down, like snow without the crunch of a layer of ice on top.
The sky was brilliant with blue, but it was the only color she could see. The landscape had been painted with the black of a charcoal without any shine to it. That which could not be made black had been powdered or outright caked with the stuff. If any of the large boulders she saw had any color to them at all, her mind convinced her eyes it was a trick of perception. Soil had been thoroughly mixed with the stuff, sterilized in the process, and the color had bled out from it. Gray at best, but most often black.
She raised a gloved hand, and the caked-on powder cracked and fell away as she reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a brush. She swept it over the glass eyes of her mask, then dusted off the filters of the breathing apparatus. She’d alternately been glad at the silence of the apparatus and wished that the apparatus made sound, so there could be something.
The forest here was past the point of creaking. That which would change had changed, and it had died. The wind and movement would break it down, it would crumble, the wind would do away with the fine dust, the rain and snow would compress the larger granules, and all of this would disappear.
The branches that remained were skeletal, condensed in their way, much as the ground underfoot was. They had drawn in the moisture, compressed with the weather, drawing in more moisture, and what hadn’t fallen away had become like needles, too thin, twisted, criss crossing one another.
The sun shone, and the blackened landscape ate that sunlight.
She stretched, shook herself as a dog might, to shake off the weight of the dust that had managed to accumulate on her, and then she sprinted down the hill, faster than any human could move. The dust that was kicked up behind her formed clouds taller than she was.
She avoided the path, moving through the trees. There was always the danger of something falling, but the density of the ground was better, where there were or had been tree roots, and where the ground hadn’t been cleared of stones and rocks for the road. There were other hazards too, rare, but it really took only one unlucky step.
She was strong. She had been made strong, because that was a prerequisite for being made fast, for being acrobatic. She had been made to put up a fight, to lose that fight. She had been made to be fucked, should anyone want it of her. She’d been made to die, if anyone wanted to see it from her, and she’d been made to even like or want that death, if given the appropriate instruction. The reaction she would have to the death or the fucking was up to others, not her, decided by a key phrase. Her wishes had never factored in, not for her, not for any or all of the others, be they boy, girl, or other; nearly normal or strange; big or small.
It was the strength, however, that let her move through the sometimes knee-deep debris. If she found that one step carried her forward into a ditch, her entire body plunging into black powder so deep that she could stand on her toes and reach skyward and her fingertips wouldn’t stick out of the powder, that strength let her gather herself together and then bound up and forward, free.
Spotting a sturdy tree through the film of black on the glass eyes of her mask, she leaped up, onto the thickest, lowest branch. It didn’t break under her, and it didn’t bring the tree down, but smaller branches and finer structures all shattered at the impact. Branch and twig fell to the cover below. Much of what hit her broke and snapped without sound on impact, so light it could barely be felt.
She shook off her glove, then reached for the brush. She dusted off her eyes and filters again. She glanced at the filters, then pressed the back of her hand to her mask, mouth pressed against the breathing hole, and blew with as much force as she could muster. Fine dust geysered out of the filters.
Tilting her head to the right, she reached up, and she brushed off her antlers, the top of her head, and her shoulders. It was idle movement, vanity. But the antlers were vanity. So was the mask she wore. Preening let her avoid kinks, cramps, or getting into too routine a set of movements. It made her aware that a tougher branch had fallen amid the antlers, tangled up in the tines.
She would need to stop soon. She was hungry, she needed to hydrate, to relieve herself. The filters needed changing, and she needed to be somewhere reasonably clean and safe to do that.
Taking stock of the landscape, she searched for the telltale hints in the forest of black on black. She saw a particularly flat expanse.
More twigs and branches fell in a shower around the tree as she jumped down. The landing was an awkward one, but she caught herself. The biology she had been given spared her a twisted ankle in the middle of a barren black wasteland.
The flat expanse took her a minute to reach. There were more dips and rises here, more ditches to swallow her up. She started bounding more than running, moving horizontally, either hand and both feet ready to catch the first solid earth they came in contact with, finding secure footing, then moving into the next bound.
She slowed as she approached it. Spots like this were especially treacherous, and bad things happened if she had a misstep. The ground was soft, swallowing and sucking instead of absorbing and giving way. Her hands found the equipment, the flask, the filter and crank for the flask, and the hose.
She had to dive into the powder to reach what lay beneath. She fed the hose into the black liquid, then cranked the contents into the flask. The crank was necessary, given the work needed to pull the fluid through the filters.
The flask started ticking with each crank, and she detached the apparatus, coiled up the hose, stowed it in the jacket pocket, buttoned that pocket to secure it, and then closed up the flask, the filter within. She walked with care while continuing to work the crank, finding her way to the point where the powder wasn’t nearly up to her shoulders.
The filter would get the water mostly clear of the dust that choked it to the point it was sludge. It was a problem that water and dust both tended to collect at low ground, that she had to dive into the powder to get at the pond, that she could fall in and find herself in something much like quicksand, her outfit and pack soaking through and becoming many times heavier in an instant.
Still cranking, working the filter through the sealed flask, she searched out high ground, and paused in the cranking to stretch and dusted herself, her eyes, and her filters off.
She was looking for things. There was a long list of possible things, and she found one of those things as she secured the high ground here. Hard geometric shapes, with right angles.
She ignored the flask that still occupied her hand as she leaped from high ground to high ground, avoiding the ditches. If there was a pond, there could be other collections of water.
The shape was small, and near the road. Examination revealed itself to be a carriage, much of the exterior changed into the black wood that would become black chunks, black splinters, and ultimately black dust.
Her feet kicked up the bones of a warbeast. The toes of her boots caught on the wires and fastenings that had given it a facsimile of life as a stitched. She stooped down to seize it, tore it up and away, and coiled it with her hands as she paced around the carriage.
One of the doors had fallen away, and the black wood had gotten inside. Two bodies, a mother and daughter, sat together, each holding the other. The material of their dresses wasn’t organic, so the black wood had left it alone, and the gold of the mother’s dress and the violet of the girl’s dress were startling after there being nothing but the blue of the sky. Black wood had grown up and around them, ensnaring their bodies and the fabric. The flesh had been dessicated, changed, and disintegrated, revealing the white bone beneath.
Fine dresses. She knew what to look for. This woman and girl were ladies of high station.
“My ladies,” she said, her voice muted by the dust. Her eyes roved over the interior of the carriage, over cushions that had disintegrated, over the lacquered walls, and over the finer details of their clothing. Her gloved hands traced their necks, then their fingers, searching for jewelry. A pendant. She dusted it off with her brush, but it wasn’t a locket. There was no engraving or message. She laid the jewelry on the bench. “Perhaps it’s a good thing if I can’t know your family name. I might resent you.”
She’d been told of family crests and colors, of the aristocratic lines and such. She’d known some would be invited to the festivities. In another scenario, could this mother or this daughter have conceivably been in attendance? Ordering her killed? Ordering her fucked? Participating in either? Would they have applauded as they watched her be beaten and battered for show?
“My name is Red,” she told them. “I can’t express my condolences for what happened to you. I can’t bring myself to feel any pity. You played your role in bringing about this world, this is what you wrought for the sake of your pretty dresses and beast-drawn carriages, your balls and manors. Most likely.”
With a gloved hand and her brush, she removed all but the most stubborn fragments of condensed black wood that had used to be the younger girl’s face. Much of it had retained its shape. Other parts had been deformed by the wood’s growth, where they were more exposed to the water and wind.
“Yet, in case you had no choice, born to a gilded cage with no clear opportunity to go… I’ll be your escort.”
There was a clasp on the wall of the carriage the two were facing. Red undid the clasp, then eased the table down, the hinges protesting. A share of the table disintegrated with the effort, but the rest seemed to be holding up. A slab of condensed carbon.
She tried to keep the largest pieces intact. The dress made things harder, so she cut it away, turning the knife to the seams, so the fabric would be left more or less in its panels and carefully arranged ties. She laid the largest sections of dress out on the table, and then placed head and part of the upper body on it. More had to be arranged so it lay in the gaps and cavities. Arms and segments of leg were gathered together into a bundle, placed so half of their length was within the chest cavity, a hand and foot were collected individually and set near the throat.
She broke away everything she could. One of the hands, however, was particularly stubborn, almost entirely intact, barely gnarled.
Red turned it over in her own hands, and found herself holding it, as if giving the young lady a handshake.
She recoiled at that, and hurried to put it down and be rid of it. The bones and densest parts of the young lady were gathered together into a bundle made of a dress she had no doubt been ecstatic to receive, and the bundle was tied together and secured. Barely more than a Crown stone in weight.
After the hand-holding moment with the girl, Red was more brusque with the mother. She used her knife to pry and break chunks away, to separate head and neck from torso, because she couldn’t have it be too bulky, and she couldn’t have it be too heavy. She had to whittle it down as best as she was able, keeping the woman down to just the bones.
She discovered the woman’s dress had a secret fold that could be reached through to find the leg. At that same leg, a pistol barely as large as Red’s closed fist was tucked into a garter holster.
“You have a story, miss?” she asked, dusting the thing off. “Is this to protect yourself, or for the confidence it gives?”
Red tested the gun, and found it jammed. She pocketed it.
Mother was bound into a bundle, one and a half stone in weight. Both mother and daughter were bound together.
The jewelry was collected, then bound into squares of fabric, a bit from each of the two’s dresses. It went into a side pouch of her bag.
“We have a long way to go,” she told them. “It’s been days of travel through this mess, no sound, and barely anything to see.”
That which hadn’t been protected was lost.
She was grateful to have been protected.
Red began bounding through the landscape, seeking out anything that might be suitable for a stop. She zig-zagged through the landscape until she spied a mesa-like bit of rocky outcropping.
“We’ll stop for dinner there,” she told the passengers, who were making her already heavy pack weigh that much more. She was making use of her natural athleticism.
It had been almost a day since she had come across a forest that creaked, in the early-middle stages of its transition to dust. The silence was maddening in its peacefulness, the landscape disorienting in its bleak serenity.
She’d wanted to get away. To understand what was out there. She’d spent so long in the labs, a prisoner, she hadn’t been able to see the outside world. Once she was freed, she had found out she wasn’t truly free, either. There were restrictions and threats of another sort. Ongoing skirmishes and civil wars, prohibiting travel to other places, plague, black wood.
She’d needed to get away. Sylvester had rescued her, but he had threatened to be another thing that bound her, one of the things that had scared her most, once she’d found out about it, experiencing Ferres’ trial runs and tests. To be killed was one thing, but to have the choice of how to face or feel about one’s own murder was another. Her relationship to Sylvester threatened to be a subservient role she wanted, that was not entirely of her own choosing.
She felt much the same about Paul, in a different way. With Paul, it wasn’t about leading and following. It was about giving and taking other things, and not being sure she was choosing that.
Sylvester was gone now. The Lambs were largely gone.
For months now, Red had traveled. She’d stopped in cities and towns, observing, taking notes, sending messages back to the others, and then she’d left again. It had only really been this corner of the Crown States that she’d started to feel the impact of all of this. Here, it was especially bleak.
Being out in the midst of all of this, she could find herself, free of others and their complications, she could decide how she felt about things like love and Paul and Sylvester and she could see through the glass eyes of her mask that the world wasn’t there waiting for her anymore, now that the dust had settled, literally and metaphorically.
There was nothing but the occasional set of bones, without enough about them to let her distinguish or name them. Choked ponds, spidery forests, and silence.
What had they fought for?
She reached the hilly outcropping of rock, high enough up that the dust didn’t really reach it.
She was gentle with the bag as she set it down, accounting for her passengers. She was careful to dust herself off before pulling her mask off. Her hood came down, and she was careful with the antlers that were attached to the hood.
The air was stale. Her hair stuck to her face with sweat. All around her, it was charcoal darkness. Flat, forest, hidden swamps, hills, dusty clouds.
She cranked her flask more, then drank from it, emptying it. She paced as she did, walking over the largest, flattest bit of rock, surveying her surroundings.
Part of it was to look for a place to relieve herself. She spied one place, far off to the side, and approached it, starting the arduous process of peeling away the jacket and other conveniences, then starting on the skintight sleeves that protected her from black wood and plague.
An arrow struck rock an arm’s length away from her head. It shattered, and one fragment spun away, in an arc such that she could have caught it out of the air.
She turned on her heel, and she was running at a full sprint before her own gasp of surprise was even fully expressed. She dashed for the bag.
Four young men and women in red clothing were coming over the side of the rock, not far from her bag. All wore masks. Mercies.
They were like her. They were survivors in this bleak land that didn’t allow for life. They and others like them were the reason she was reluctant to set foot on the road. Traps abounded.
Her explorations were supplied, paid for, and encouraged with the idea that she would keep an eye out for certain things. The state of the black wood in various places was one of those things. Creaking wood. Settlements could be found and checked.
There were rarer things, too. Survivors outside of the major settlements were one of those especially rare things.
Enemies? She was supposed to watch for those. They weren’t necessarily rare, in her experience. There were enough out there. People who roved, Academy people wearing Academy gear, with no idea the war had been won, soldiers with their masks and rebels with those same masks, stolen from the dead. So many were hostile and dangerous. Almost always, she’d ran. Twice, she’d had to use her axe.
It was rare that she’d get caught off guard. Had they been more patient, she might have been caught with her pants down, she mused.
It wasn’t so bad as that, but it was still dire. She jumped behind a bit of rock on the mostly flat hill, and she glanced out only long enough to check on her bag.
Her mask was there. Her jacket, all of the equipment. Her weapons- even the small gun. Without those things, she might as well have been trapped on a small island, surrounded by sea and unable to swim.
They were doing what she was doing, in large part. They weren’t as covered up, but they might have been using similar equipment. They were roaming, and they were seeking refuge in spots like this, too inorganic to be affected by the black wood, too high up to be caught in the storms of dust.
“Hello!” she called out, her back still to the rock. Her voice sounded strange without the mask on.
“Greetings!” came the jovial response.
“I’m not much of a threat!”
“Nor are we!”
She patted her pockets, and she found a kerchief. She often used it to wet and wipe away the dust as she pulled off her outfit and washed up. She tossed it out to the side.
The arrow flew by a moment later.
“It’s awfully hard to convince our visitor we’re not a threat when you’re shooting at her.”
“I thought I could hit her.”
“You could if you weren’t useless with that thing. Give it back.”
“Not a threat?” Red called out.
“Not when Ansel is shooting!” came the jovial response. “But he’s not shooting anymore. It’s my bow, and I can put an arrow through a sneezing donkey’s arse without making it bleed anywhere you could see.”
She hung her head at that.
“You can,” one of the other Mercies said, “But that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.”
“One in three times,” the Jovial Mercy said.
“One in five, at best.”
“I don’t suppose you’d let me go with my things?” Red asked.
“We need our protein, my dear, and you’re it,” Jovial said.
“Jewelry!” one Mercy said. The sole female one. “Watches. There’s a whole bag filled with things! She’s a looter!”
“I am not,” Red said. “The possessions go with the bodies.”
“One, two, three… hm. Twelve parcels. Some with fine things in them. Some with less fine things.”
“Twelve parcels. Two bodies,” another Mercy said.
“Three, could be,” the female Mercy said. “It’s hard to tell.”
“Still, something doesn’t add up.”
“It’s not as though we needed the excuse of you being a grave robber to eat and kill you, mind you,” Jovial said. “But perhaps it’ll feel more right if you feel as though you deserved it.”
She hated this. Being cornered, being contained, knowing that horrible things were coming.
What had all of this been for? How was it worth it? She’d steeled herself to get through Ferres’ training and treatments at Beattle, she’d helped the others, encouraged them, fought, and even played her part on Ferres’ stage, for the Lambs’ ruse. She’d dreaded it and it had been just as bad as she’d feared.
She had played her part in the war. She had played a part in the cleanup. She had played her part in the months that followed, patrolling, searching, mapping out a changed landscape, to make sure no disasters unfolded while they were without a leadership.
She felt so angry, and the anger was so familiar.
“I don’t know what tricks you’ve got up your sleeve, ma’am,” one Mercy said. He was close. “But if you’re kind enough to not put up any kind of fight, we’ll make it quick, so you’re dead for everything that comes after.”
I got this far, she thought, but the statement lacked in heart, and she worried she’d need all the heart she had for what was imminent.
She’d gotten this far, but the journey had been long and tiring. She felt heartsick, after seeing the depth of the darkness and the damage done. There were bodies, there were fallen villages and cities, and whatever the Lambs had said, they were gone now, and the words had lost some meaning, this far into the bleak wastes of the black woods, where civilization was so far away.
“I’ll cooperate,” she said, lowering her head.
“Thank you,” the Mercy said.
He stepped around the rocks that were providing her cover. She was quick to move, to act. She lunged at him, keeping him between herself and the Jovial Mercy who was wielding the bow. His guard was down, and he stumbled, while she tried to guide that stumble.
But as fast as she was engineered to be, he was engineered to be strong. She’d hoped to use momentum and timing to drag him toward the edge. She’d hoped to go over that edge with him, and be gone or in a hiding place by the time the Jovial Mercy was in a position to shoot. She didn’t manage to drag him more than the initial one step to the side.
An arrow cracked against the stone below her, shattering. The pain came a moment later. Jovial had placed a shot through the gap between his fellow Mercy’s legs, to graze her calf.
“I’ve been fighting for a long time,” she said. She stumbled back, and her injured calf didn’t want to bear her full weight. The Mercy right in front of her reached out and grabbed her. She spoke to him, defiant, “I got this far. I’m not about to stop struggling now.”
“There’s a point where you break, you know, where you have to stop fighting back, give up, and tend to other things.”
“And how is that doing for you?” she asked. “You get me, and then what? You subsist on the animals that retreated onto these mountains and places like this, you wait for them to run out, and you wait for the black wood to take over everything?”
“We have a chateau to go back to,” the female Mercy said. “Books to read, food to look after, we’ll keep ourselves occupied until the Crown returns.”
“You’re Crown?” Red asked, her eyes widening.
“So am I.”
The Jovial Mercy sniffed a laugh, as if one from the mouth was too much effort for the petty lie.
“In my jacket. There’s an envelope. Inside breast pocket.”
The small Mercy checked. She retrieved an envelope, then unfolded it, reading it.
“What is it?” the Jovial Mercy asked.
“She’s Crown. The letter is signed by others. She’s an envoy.”
“Where are you from?”
“Bathaven,” the Small Mercy said. “Other places before that.”
“We thought we lost Bathaven. Our messengers said the bridge washed out and things looked grim on the other side. I thought you had to be defectors, to be in an area with no settlement to fall back to.”
“Things were only grim because the people panicked. Now they’re quiet. We’ve been using the port when the weather is clear,” the Small Mercy said.
“We’re on the same side,” Red said.
On the other side of the group, the Jovial Mercy toyed with an arrow.
“We are,” Red said.
“I recognize the signatures,” one of the other male Mercies said.
“I expect you’re right,” Jovial said. He smiled wide. “I’m awfully hungry, though.”
Red’s expression faltered. She limped back a bit further, then remembered that the Jovial one had a bow.
“You were made to be loyal,” Red said.
The statement felt hypocritical to the point she thought her whole being was diminished by it.
“I was. I was also made to be hungry, to seek out my protein sources,” Jovial said. “It’s the funny thing about life, isn’t it? It finds a way around things. We adapt. I’ve adapted to my current circumstances. And they’ve adapted to me.”
The three Mercies didn’t look particularly happy. Their instinct was supposed to keep them loyal to the Crown. That didn’t give them the drive to push back when someone was being disloyal, perhaps. Or he’d bullied them enough to get them to cooperate up to this point, and they didn’t have it in them to fight back.
Red had seen so many of the methodologies.
“It’s treason,” Red said. “I’m a representative of the Crown, performing a vital service for the Crown.”
Of all the statements she couldn’t have ever imagined she’d say with such conviction.
“It’s only treason if I get caught.”
“Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves,” Red said. It was like a prayer. “Howl, and we shall howl with you. Hunt, and we shall hunt with you. Bloody those claws, and fill that belly, and we shall draw blood and feast alongside you.”
“You consider yourself one of us?” Jovial asked. “You think you can hunt with me?”
“All but the one with the bow bear the pelts of wolves. He… he bears the pelt of a traitor to the Crown.”
She hoped it could hear, if it was even out there. It was finding its own independence.
The Jovial Mercy nocked his arrow. His expression was more firm now.
He didn’t get his chance to shoot her. The Wolfdog, as Lillian had termed it, was already sweeping out from the darkness below the rocky bit of hill. The Jovial Mercy turned, arrow drawn back, and found himself faced with a wolf as big as any carriage, with no weak points in plain view. The beast’s eyes were covered with lenses, its muzzle a mess of machinery and breathing apparatuses.
Jovial fired the arrow as he tried to leap aside. The arrow did nothing of consequence, and the Wolfdog did something of final consequence. It pounced on the Mercy and by size and momentum, it destroyed him.
The others remained stock still.
“Lay your head down to rest, black harbinger,” she said. “Stay clear of me. Begone.”
She watched it lope away. Where her breathing apparatus was silent, it hissed and wheezed. The saddlebags, tent, and the packages that were the ten other dead bodies she’d collected hung off of its sides.
Her guardian, her nemesis. Her Wolf, with another project’s best qualities. Her feelings toward it were complicated. It was supposed to be her partner, as she worked well with it, but the memories she associated with it were so grim. Lillian had urged her to give it a try.
She felt guilty, in a way. It wasn’t dumb, and it had some of the instincts that domesticated dogs did. It wanted to please, and it was keenly aware of her and her mood.
It knew she hated it, so it lurked in a place where it was out of her sight, out of her thoughts, its wheezy breaths out of her earshot, yet where she was still in its earshot.
She was coming to terms with that. Like so many other things, it seemed like a loss.
She stepped forward, walking without nearly so much fear, now. She had to pick her way past the bloody smear that had once been a Mercy, and she had to walk between two of the Mercies to get there. They didn’t approach or comment.
The Small Mercy was sitting by her bag, gathering the components and pieces back into the bag. No longer sorted, sadly. She’d have to rely on memory.
“As an emissary of the Crown, I’ll ask you to lead me and my partner to Bathaven.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the Small Mercy said, extending a hand, the mask held out.
It was an image of various animals all blended together, softened, made warm. A deer, a rabbit, and other prey animals, combined into a single pretty face.
It was hard to articulate why she’d asked for a mask with that face.
Whatever face she had or mask she wore, it wouldn’t be hers. Not anymore. She wanted to make peace, to conquer that demon. She didn’t want to wear anything else, because then she might not have been able to take it off and reveal this face again.
“I’m sorry about him,” one of the other Mercies said, possibly reading her expression as something else.
“Good,” Red said.
She pulled the hood up, and clicked the small antlers into the waiting places at the top of the mask, as part of the arrangement to get everything sealed.
“You’ll keep me company,” she said. The Wolfdog had been doing much the same. “Take me to your home. I’ll take record of how things are doing, check on the people you’re supposed to be watching over, and I’ll be gone, leaving you with only my urgings that nobody is to hunt.”
“We’re trying something experimental, and we can’t trust there won’t be other mistakes like this one.”
She saw their expressions change.
“For now, at the very least” she said.
That got her some nods.
“If I may?” the Small Mercy asked.
“There’s something you might find of more importance than the report. Can I show you?”
“What is it?”
“A plant. It’s not too far out of our way.”
She frowned at that, behind her mask, but she nodded.
They were faster than she might have thought. Once they all had their gear on and masks in place, they set out as a group. Where she was strong in a way necessary to let her be agile, they were nimble as a side effect of their strength.
She was faster, but she didn’t have to slow herself to a crawl to let them catch up. She could get ahead, peer back over her shoulder, and see the direction.
She liked having people, she was realizing. She liked company, and it helped with the dark thoughts, the feeling of pressure on all sides, in this bleak place.
Not so much that she felt like she could or would keep her Wolfdog company on the long way back, but she would work on that, as she worked on so many things.
If she was to take Sylvester’s offer, she would need the Wolfdog’s assistance to be properly useful. She’d memorized the commands. It was hers. Bonded to her. She was it’s.
She simply wished this wouldn’t be so hard, bleak, and uncertain.
“There,” the Small Mercy said.
She blinked, convinced her eyes had fooled her.
It wasn’t massive. It wasn’t even pretty, or useful, or anything of the sort.
But, amid black trees and black ground, black branches and black clouds of dust that drifted close to the ground, there was a slice of green, like clover. It encircled the trunk on the side closest to the sun, and it peeked through where the dust wasn’t piled too high on the ground.
This. This was why. Why she fought, why she’d tried. It was hope. Acknowledgment on some greater level.
“What was it your friend said? Life adapts. We adapt.”
“He wasn’t a friend,” the Small Mercy said. “Not really.”
Red was quiet. She reached out to touch the green leaves, that were somehow surviving despite so much.