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Squatters' Rites

Chapter Text

Something terrible appeared on the edge of town.

Swaddled in tattered robes, face bruised, bloody and burnt, his origin was clear; He had come from the Capitol. A glint in the horizon, the sky above had been a darker shade of red for some time, the traveller following the twisting paths and canyons that led from there to the town. His arrival heralded a change in the town's atmosphere; elders that had once commanded respect were suddenly deferential to this new visitor, those who had forged their own lives suddenly falling back into the old caste systems. Her own father, leader of their small community, seemingly happy to become a mere lackey. It was natural, or so she had heard, the visitor possessed an intrinsic authority they all understood. A generation had all but passed since they had ceased work in the House, children who had only ever known it by reputation reaching adulthood in that time and yet they all felt an itch, the pull of the stranger's authority sweeping over them the minute they realised what his robes meant, this was someone to be listened to. 

This was someone you obeyed.

She awoke one night to find him stooped over her sister’s bed, a trickle of blood spilling from his lips and across robes the town’s seamstress had fixed to the best of her abilities. He turned to her calmly, pale fingers pressed to his lips and she felt the scream welling up inside her die away. By the dawn of the next day her sister was dead, lost to tragic but ultimately unavoidable natural causes. He oversaw the hasty funeral, calmly reciting death rites he neither knew nor understood while the community cried around him. As the fire licked at the corpse she saw him watching her through the flames, a blank, hungry glaze across his eyes.

She would die if she didn’t leave, another tragic death in a town that was about to experience a flood of them. Supplies across her back, fear in her heart, and nothing but wasteland in most directions she set-off for the one place she knew would be empty, the one place she could reach without maps or foreknowledge, the one place that offered the sliver of a chance that she could survive. Its shadow lingered on her, on all of them.

The House.

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I have made my camp some ways into the House, building a fire in the remains of what I think is a small library. I didn’t want to stay too close to the door, I’d rather any potential pursuer didn't immediately stumble across me, but at the same time, I’m wary of venturing too far into the House.

I can only hope my absence is good enough for the force that controls my town now.

The journey here was arduous, the trail came naturally of course, but the subconscious knowledge that brought me here did little to lessen the time it took. When the trail gave way to a wide canyon I found myself within sight of the House, even at a distance, its scale was imposing, blocking any passage into the channels beyond, upper floors jutting sharply into the sky, casting a deep shadow that fell across most of the valley floor.

It took me until nightfall to reach the House, passing ruined outhouses and overgrown gardens that somehow thrived in the absence of light. Many trees were overburdened with ripe, sweet fruit that may be the solution to future supply issues, but there was an underlying scent of decay that makes me doubt the viability of this plan. For a time I feared I had become trapped in one of the House’s defence mechanisms, it’s dark mass never growing any larger on the Horizon. In my exhaustion, I convinced myself I was in a never-ending loop, trapped on the edges of my sanctuary until I withered away to nothing, but at the point where this fear threatened to completely overwhelm me I suddenly found myself at its entrance.

The door was ajar, a faint sliver in its ornate visage hinting at nothing but a deeper darkness within. I drew my torch and gently pushed the door. My light cutting through the dark, revealing a tiled floor and sending a flurry of pale-blue moths scattering into the depths of the house. They had been nesting on something, a small lump a few inches from where I stood. Turning my light on it I found myself staring at the remains of a small rodent, there were similar piles across the length of the hallway and I neatly pushed them to the side with my foot as I moved deeper into the house.

Despite sitting empty there was little dust, no real damage of any kind, particularly when compared to the other structures I had seen on my way in. From what my grandmother told me of the people who lived here I am hardly surprised.

For my fire, I took father’s axe to a few of the larger chairs I found in the room’s surrounding the library. The wood burnt well, but with a shriek-like hissing that set my already frayed nerves on edge. Instead, I’ve decided to rely on torn-pages from some of the books for the rest of the night. Tomorrow I shall return to one of the gardens. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a less unsettling breed of firewood.  

I know I should sleep, but I have been alert since the night I awoke to find the stranger at my sister's bed. I’m sitting just beyond the edge of the firelight, sharp-ears turned towards the dark in search of any noise. I can hear moths move somewhere nearby, the rustling of their wings enough to set my mind racing, but I have to fight against this paranoia.

I’m being silly, I know I’m the only person here.

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My suspicions were correct, the fruit is inedible.

I cut into one, the sticky sweet skin splitting with an acrid hiss that revealed a rotting interior, the trickle of juices burning the grass where they landed. I repeated the process with a few more to the same result. Clearly, the gardens offer little beyond firewood. Unfortunately, this means I now have to consider my supply situation.

I have around six days worth of supplies back at camp, with rationing I can double this time,  but with the surrounding land offering little, and no wildlife save the rodents and the moths I worry I’m going to have to begin searching the house for supplies but even that doesn’t offer a permanent solution.

I could scale the canyon wall, make my way to the mountain range beyond it, but there’s nothing there as far as I know, and I fear I would simply be abandoning one hopeless situation for another. I can’t help but think about everyone I’ve left behind. Perhaps I should have stayed, tried to make them see the truth...perhaps I’m just a coward. I don’t want to die, but in trying to save my own life how many have I doomed?