The first place the footprints led looked like a swamp of some kind. Not as much greenery as one would think, but shallow water covered the area, creating puddles in patches of concrete and rusting the dilapidated fences. Oddly enough, there was an old water fountain sitting here. No, wait. Make that two water fountains. One bore a large crack in the side and had toppled over while the other stood nearby it, looking strong and new. The flamingo flew close to the water’s surface, opening its beak for a quick drink as it flew by, but Isla tugged on its reins, urging it away.
“Don’t,” she warned the bird. “This doesn’t look safe. We’ll find somewhere else you can get a drink.” The flamingos never did listen too well, and right now was no exception. Instead of flying on, the bird landed in the water. A strange scent, or maybe it was more of a feeling, erupted when its feet broke the surface. Although the water only came up to the bird’s ankles, and nothing threatening emerged from it, Isla could taste a strange and familiar energy in the air. The bird again leaned down to quench its thirst, and Isla pulled on its reins harder than before. Her flamingo bucked at the rough handling and reared back, causing her to slip off and fall into the strange water.
Isla gasped as various images flashed in her head. She couldn’t make any sense of them. She thought she heard a group laughing–two older voices, and one younger. A family of some kind? Then she saw a bright flash of light. A scared voice cried out: “Hello? What’s happening? Hello!” Terror seized Isla’s chest as she scrambled out of the water and back onto her ride. The strange images vanished at once, bringing reality back into sharp focus. She clutched the flamingo’s feathers like a lifeline.
Whoa… Wren breathed in amazement. Did you feel that? It was like…a whole lot of knowledge and memories all squished together in the water!
“I have no clue what it was, but we’re getting out of here,” Isla urged. “This place creeps me out.” She flicked the flamingo’s reins. The large bird seemed to sympathize with her urgency this time, and it took flight once again. As the wind picked up around them, Isla looked down at her clothes to see they were already dry.
In the back of her mind, Wren began to sulk. I liked it there, she argued, I can’t explain why, but I felt stronger..bigger when you stepped in that water. Why did we leave?
“Um, because it was terrifying?” Isla replied. “And because we have another job to do.”
Hmph. You know what I think? I think you’re too afraid of power sometimes.
Isla scoffed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Not much. Just if you stopped to think about it, Scarlemagne is one of the most powerful mutes on the surface. And he trusts you quite a bit. Maybe even more than Gerrard.
“I hope he trusts me more than Gerrard,” said Isla. If their stations were reversed, she couldn’t say she’d trust Gerrard to get a mask on without dropping and breaking it. But it wasn’t just the power in that strange place that had scared her off. Something they couldn’t see was living there. Isla felt like it had formed a connection with her. And she had enough trouble as it was without worrying about mysterious vision-inducing water creatures trying to say hi.
Isla found her true quarry within a few hours–a small encampment set against a high rockface about a mile out of Scarlemagne’s territory. Okay, perhaps “encampment” was a generous term. A sheet of metal (probably dragged from the dump) leaned against the rockface, and a small file sparked and smoldered nearby it. Isla gave a flick of the reins and brought the flamingo in to land. From the sky, she had seen the human milling about his meager fire. As she descended, he quickly tossed dirt on the flames and attempted to gather his few belongings to run.
Silly human, Wren giggled. Should have just ran. You would have ran. You’re a smart human.
Aww…you flatter me, Isla thought back as she dismounted.
The man found this action utterly terrifying, dropped all his belongings with a clang and a clatter, and tried to run away. “Try” being the operative word. He stumbled over his own feet and fell onto his knees.
“It’s okay,” Isla said, lifting the mask so it rested on her head. She raised her hands, keeping the flamingo’s reins loose between her fingers. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The flamingo hissed and clacked its beaks as if to say, I, on the other hand, will bite your head off if given the opportunity. Isla tied its reins to a metal post embedded in the dirt and produced a pouch of feed from the pack around her waist. She poured the contents onto the ground and motioned for the flamingo to help itself. The bird’s dual heads took turns eating but both still eyed the human with disdain.
He was a broad-shouldered man with thin blond hair and frightened blue eyes. He whimpered and stood. Slowly he backed up as Isla approached, though with the rocks behind him, he didn’t have much of anywhere to back up to.
“It’s okay,” Isla repeated. “I’m a friend.”
The man paused. “A-a friend?”
“Yes. But there are others looking for you. It’s probably not wise to camp in such an open place.” The mask began to slip, and she carefully readjusted it. The last thing she needed was for it to fall off and let Scarlemagne know exactly where she was. “Do you have other humans you could stay with? You’d be safer in a group than out here on your own.”
The man frowned at this. Then he reached a shaking hand into his pocket and withdrew something, holding it out to Isla. She cupped her hands to receive it.
It was a photograph. The picture showed the man with fuller hair, alongside a brown-haired woman. Other people stood in the background, but the myriad of creases made it difficult to distinguish them. The photo was so worn, it felt like a thin piece of fabric in her fingers. She handed it back carefully. “Your…wife?” Isla guessed.
The man laughed. It sounded rough, like his vocal chords weren’t used to making the sound. “No, no. My sister. We lived in a small burrow. A shelter, really. Not enough people and not enough know-how to build a full life underground. So we’d take turns coming to the surface to scout for food and supplies. It was my turn, and…” He chocked up a bit. “I thought I heard some mutes coming my way, and I didn’t think…I just ran. Got lost. Days, maybe weeks. By the time I found my way back home, everyone had moved on.” He sniffled a bit and slumped down against the rock. The worn photo he tucked carefully back into his shirt pocket.
Isla sat down as well, not too close for fear of scaring him off. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Frank,” he answered. Then cautiously, he extended a hand.
She shook her head. “Probably best not to get your scent on me. But it’s nice to meet you, Frank. My name’s Isla.”
“Isla…” He mulled over the name as he looked her up and down. “You must come from a really fancy burrow, dressed like that.” He crossed his arms over his own strained and tattered shirt.
Now it was her turn to laugh. And it sounded equally awkward. “Trust me, the place I’m from…the nice clothes aren’t worth it.”
Frank rubbed the back of his neck and looked over his encampment. His belongings–a compass, some packaged snacks, and utensils, were scattered in the dirt. The embers of his fire still glowed warm and bright. In his rush, he hadn’t exactly aimed the clumps of dirt well. “Does the place you’re from let you have meals with strangers?”
Did he say meal? Wren asked.
He was not speaking to you! Isla mentally replied. To Frank, she simply said, “It’s permitted as far as I know.” She opened the pack around her waist and pulled out her rations. Then the two of them stoked the fire until the flames burned strong once again.
It had been a while since Isla enjoyed a meal without Scarlemagne barging in and demanding the diners dance upon the table. The food might have tasted like salty clay, but enjoying it in pseudo freedom made it an absolute delight. She and Frank did not talk too much more about each other, preferring instead to sit on opposite ends of the fire watching the dancing flames cast patterns of light on their faces. The sun was low but it was not yet dusk. She’d have to leave soon.
“I’ll show you which paths are watched the least,” she told Frank. “If you follow them, you should find yourself back in the safety of the city dump. Stay there and don’t come back this direction again. You understand?”
Frank grimaced but nodded. Isla looked around them. The soft ground was peppered with footprints. She had assumed them to be Frank’s and her own. But the boots of her uniform made a distinct pattern, leaving pricks in the ground where the thin heels touched. Her prints were quite few. Frank’s were more numerous, but a few tracks had been made by someone with rather small feet (or at least smaller than Isla’s). She looked at Frank’s worn-down sneakers, covering feet that were distinctly larger than hers.
She pointed to the strange prints. “There’s more humans here?” she asked out of curiosity, then immediately regretted bringing up the question.
Frank made a wavering kinda-sorta motion with his hand. “I’ve seen this girl a few times, but I don’t know who she is. She’s crazy quick, wears some kinda furry blue cape–“
Isla help up a hand. “You know what? Never mind. I don’t need to know.” She ate the last of her food, but the moment she swallowed, a sickening sound echoed in the distance. The screech of a flamingo. No…several of them.
Wren shivered, retreating to the back of Isla’s mind. He’s coming! We’re in so much trouble! He’s going to find me and kick me out! He’s coming!
Isla wanted to be afraid along with Wren. But all she could think about was her failure. She hadn’t helped Frank. She’d led Scarlemagne right to him. And if she didn’t stand and play the part of his captor, turning him over immediately, they were both doomed.