It all began with a misunderstanding, the flare of anger against someone too frightened by the unknown to rationalize, with enough power to strike out in return.
Duo hadn’t meant to lash out. His temper was always getting him into trouble, regardless of how much she worked with him. The boy was always remorseful, regretting his actions the moment he regained control.
Her heart broke for him with each incident.
This time, however, he had lashed out against the wrong person. She had known he was coming; the orphanage was too far behind on its taxes for him not to, but it didn’t stop the cold grip of fear in her heart, stomach lurching when the pounding on the door overtook the room. She had let him in with a kind smile, serving him tea with trembling hands as she instructed Duo to take the children out back. He had given her that look, the one that showed the old soul trapped in a child’s body, before shepherding the others out.
The collector chugged his tea loudly, slamming the mug on the table with a belch. “Gutter shite,” he declared, leering at her openly. “It that what you offer all your important guests?”
She froze, fear choking her before she could answer. “I’m sorry if it’s not to your liking,” she stammered. “It’s the best tea we’ve got.”
“Eh,” the man sneered, leaning back in the chair. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he chuckled darkly. “Now then, on to business.”
“Of course.” She gathered the dishes quickly, setting them by the sink, then grabbed the envelope out of the cupboard from where it was tucked carefully between two flasks. She clutched the precious bundle, feeling the press of the bank notes against the thin paper, her heart sinking.
She knew it wasn’t enough.
She handed over the envelope, clutching the fabric of her habit tightly against the tremors as she watched him dump the contents on the table.
He pushed the money around with a finger, making a show of counting the meager amount. He sighed in disgust, raising his eyes to her slowly, glaring under heavy brows.
“It’s not enough.”
They both had known, even before the display, but hearing his words chilled her to the bone, locking her limbs in place. The silence stretched, her fear stealing her voice, his mockery keeping him quiet, drawing out her agony.
“P- please, it’s everything we have,” she finally stammered, pleading with a man who had no pity. “We’re barely surviving on donations.”
“That’s not my problem,” he interrupted. “Perhaps you should consider other forms of income,” he dragged his eyes over her, almost drooling at the thought.
“I would never,” she gasped, drawing away from the table. “My faith-”
“Doesn’t pay the bills,” he stood up, shoving the chair away with a clatter. “But I’d be willing to let this slide if properly,” he stalked around the table, blocking her escape, “compensated.”
A new type of fear gripped her, washing away her thoughts, leaving her frozen and helpless, unable to think beyond the looming presence closing in on her, trapping her against the counter.
“Hey! Get away from her!”
The tiny voice shattered her fear, shifting her concern for her own safety onto his.
The man peered over his shoulder, unimpressed by the child’s bluster. “Leave us be, boy. Run along.”
He bristled, his anger rising at the flippant dismissal. “I said, leave her alone! Take your money and get out!”
The man growled as he turned to the boy, his shoulders tense as he reached for his knife.
“Duo, go back outside,” she called frantically, moving around the man to shield him from his wrath. “Everything is okay.”
He ducked under her arms, planting him small form between her and the hulking man. “No, he needs to leave,” Duo glared, his small hands balled into even smaller fists. “Leave her alone!”
The man pulled himself to his full height, the knife gleaming dangerously in the feeble light. “I’ll give you one last warning, kid, then you’re done.”
Duo raised his chin, staring up at him with all the muster a child could carry, yet his presence seemed to fill the room. “This is your last warning!”
The man’s face twisted in anger, then he lunged, reaching for Duo as he swung with the knife.
“No!” She screamed, throwing herself between them, when she was suddenly thrown back, leaving her on the ground in a heap. She pulled her head up, blinking slowly as she took in the scene before her, her heart sinking.
The man was cowering on the floor, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the unnatural light, clutching the leg of the table.
Above him stood Duo, his form flickering between a child and his other self, knife clutched in his hand, at once too big and too small for his grip.
“ Get out, ” he whispered, the strange dissonance grating against her ears, echoing in her head.
The smell of urine filled the room, then the man scrambled across the floor, grasping the uneven tiles frantically as he struggled to pull himself away, finally finding his feet as he grabbed the knob. He wrenched the door open and threw himself into the fading twilight, never looking back.
She watched his form disappear, struggling to process what had happened. The sound of metal striking stone startled her out of her trance, pulling her attention to Duo, suddenly a tiny child, standing alone in the middle of the room.
He looked at her with tear-filled eyes, his chin trembling as he wrapped his arms around his body. “I messed up, didn’t I?”
She surged to her feet, stumbling in her haste and wrapped him in her arms, holding his head against her as he grabbed her habit. “No, no, Duo,” she rocked him slowly, her heart breaking with every sniffle. “Don’t ever feel bad for protecting someone. You saved me. You did nothing wrong.”
“But I l-lost my temper,” he stuttered, his voice thick with tears. “What’s gonna happen now?”
She shushed him, smoothing her hand over his hair, following the line of his braid. “Everything is going to be okay. But I need you to do something for me.”
He pulled away slowly, sniffling slightly as he looked at her, his bright violet eyes shining in the dancing candlelight. “Wh-what is it?”
She smiled kindly at him, wiping the tear tracks from his face. “I need you to get the other children, feed them dinner and put them to bed. Then I want you to hide.”
Confusion crossed his face. “Hide? Why?”
“Because he’s going to be very angry that you frightened him, and he’s going to tell other bad men what happened, and they’re going to want to hurt you.”
He gasped, his eyes going wide. “But I didn’t do anything wrong! You said so!”
She nodded, laying her hands on his shoulders. “You’re right; you didn’t do anything wrong, but people like him are used to getting what they want, so when they don’t, they will do whatever it takes to get it.” She looked at him solemnly, holding his gaze. “That’s why I need you to take care of the children for me. I need to talk to Father Maxwell; he can protect us.”
Duo nodded, his tiny features serious, his old eyes boring into her own. “Okay.” He pulled away, leaving through the backdoor to gather the children.
She allowed a moment to gather herself, the flurry of events stumbling over each other in her mind, jumbling her thoughts. The breeze from the open door brought the stink to her nose, and she pushed herself to her feet, focusing on the immediate task of cleaning up. She finished righting the room just as the door opened, the collection of boisterous and hungry children filling the small kitchen.
Duo trailed behind, closing the door carefully. He caught her eye and nodded, then pulled on his jester mask, declaring loudly that the rodents will only be fed if they line up in order. A chorus of groans met his boisterous declaration, and she slipped out the front door quietly, reassured he would take care of them.
The trek to the church was treacherous in the dark, but she knew the path by heart, having walked it hundreds of times in her tenure. Relief filled her as the spire of the building came into view, rising above the treeline. She hastened her pace, jogging around the side of the building to the small side door, letting herself in. She followed the maze of halls to the back, where the Father’s private chambers resided.
“Father Maxwell!” She pounded on the door, the sudden press of time overriding her usual protocol.
The door opened quickly, revealing the priest, still in full garb, frowning at her. “Sister? What’s the meaning of this?”
She heaved a sigh, peering up at him. “Father, please, we need your help.”
His expression shifted to concern, and he stepped aside, allowing her to enter. She turned to him as he shut the door, frantically explaining what happened. He watched with a solemn expression, hands folded behind his back as he listened. When she finished, he closed his eyes, sighing through his nose.
“Where is the boy?”
“In the orphanage. I told him to hide when he was finished with the children.”
He nodded slowly, then crossed the room to his desk, sitting down heavily in his chair. He leaned forward, steepling his hands, watching her as the candle painted shadows across his face. “I will do what I can.”
Relief left her weak, and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, a grateful smile crossing her features. “Thank you, thank you, Father.”
He nodded, then gestured to the door. She bowed to him deeply, then left, her steps lighter than before, but with no less haste.
She crept back into the house, noting the empty sink and clean table, and felt a surge of affection. Despite their dire situation, he had still taken the time to clean up. She checked that the children were tucked in bed, a mixture of relief and fear warring in her chest at the sight of Duo’s empty bed.
Part of her had worried he would ignore her instructions, but it seems, this one time, he listened.
She made her way to her room, changing into her night clothes. As she laid down, she thought back on the day, wondering how everything had spiraled out of control. She just had to had faith in Father Maxwell. He would protect them.
She closed her eyes, holding the thought close.
She woke slowly, blinking against the strange glow as she searched for the disturbance. It was still far too early in the morning, but the glow was too bright, painting the room in shades of orange.
A sudden snap cut through the air, followed by a familiar crackle as smoke filled her nose.
The building was on fire.
She leapt out of her bed, ripping open her door to race down the hall, her mind on the children. She crashed through the bedroom door, searching frantically for them.
She followed the voice to the back corner, where the children huddled together, their faces reflecting matching expressions of fear, eyes wide and filled with tears.
“Come here, quickly!” she called, pulling the children to their feet, pushing them towards the door. “Head downstairs, go out the front. Don't stop for anything!”
She quickly searched the room for anyone hiding, then followed them out. She went door to door, checking for any child who may have tucked themselves away. Finally, she made her way down the steps, coughing against the smoke that stung her eyes. She could feel the heat billowing around her as flames licked at the walls in every direction. She raced into the kitchen, nearly stumbling over the clutch of children huddled against the wall.
“Why are you still here?” she glanced at them, her panic rising. “We have to leave, now!”
“They won't let us,” the oldest cried, pulling a smaller girl close.
She followed his gaze to the front door, wrenching it open to the cool night air.
And stood face to face with a blade.
She gasped, taking in the collection of men and women standing away from the building, every other person clutching a burning torch, their expressions grave.
“What are you doing?” she screamed, shoving aside the sword to run toward them. “Please! Help us!”
She ran from person to person, begging for their help, but every word was met with contempt, some ignoring her pleas, others shoving her away to fall in the dirt. “Why are you doing this?”
The high pitched scream pierced her chest. She twisted to the building, watching in horror as the man standing by the door shoved the children back inside, pulled the door shut, then tossed a torch to lay against the threshold, the blaze catching and flaring to life.
She pushed herself to her feet, stumbling to the building, tears streaming down her face. Strong arms grabbed her around the waist, stopping her progress as she struggled against them.
“Let me go!”
“Be calm, sister.”
She froze, turning to stare into the eyes of Father Maxwell, his face a cool mask. “What have you done?” she whispered, her eyes wide, stomach clenching painfully as her heart pounded in her chest.
“The child must be put down,” he said solemnly, the flames casting his face in shadows. “This is the only way.”
“You're killing them all! They have done nothing wrong!” she cried, struggling weakly against him.
“We cannot allow his evil to spread,” he said, his voice calm and condescending. “We don't know that he has not tainted the others as well.”
“You're insane,” she whispered, horror rising like bile in her throat. “They're innocent children!” She wrenched out of his grasp, sprinting across the clearing to the building, now almost entirely consumed by the fire. She could hear the screams of the children, piercing the crackle and roar of the flames. Just as she reached the threshold, pain exploded in her belly, bringing her to her knees.
She gasped, coughing against the surge of copper in her throat. She looked down, her hands hovering over the blade growing out of her middle, coated and dripping with her blood. A hand pressed against her back as the blade was wrenched out, shoving her to the ground.
Her vision filled with the flames, the cries and screams of the children playing in her ears, but all she could think of was Father Maxwell’s face, carved from stone as he watched them all burn.
She inhaled a shuddering gasp, opening her eyes slowly, her vision filling with a pale face and wide, violet eyes. “You're safe,” she whispered, her voice light with wonder.
Duo sobbed and sniffled, scrubbing his sleeve across his face. “What happened? Where is everyone?”
She turned her head, surprised to find herself laying on her back, head cradled in the child’s lap. She stared at the charred remains of the house, posts standing amidst the ashes like blackened bones. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears, the deafening silence so much worse than their final screams.
“Father Maxwell,” she coughed, tasting the now familiar twang of copper on her tongue. “They burned them all.”
She felt him begin to shake, a tremor that started deep within him. She wanted to draw him down, pull him into her arms and hold him close, but she couldn't find the strength to raise her hand.
“He killed them?” he whispered.
“They killed them,” she answered, finding her anger and sorrow warring against her faith. They had been betrayed by those she trusted, by every person who stood aside and watched. In a burst of clarity, she realized the power she wielded, if only for a moment. She knew in her heart Duo loved her, just as she loved him as though he were her own.
He would do anything for her.
A cool tear splashed on her face, and she blinked up at his face, so clearly a child, despite what lurked beneath the surface. She gathered her strength, raising her hand to his face. He hiccuped in surprise, pressing a shaky hand to hers, holding it in place.
“They must pay for their transgressions,” she said, holding his eyes.
“But you said, only God can judge mortals,” Duo said, his voice trembling.
She smiled at him, breath hitching as her life slipped away. She only need another moment, one more to make him understand. “God did not save us,” she whispered. “You did, and I believe in you.”
Duo gasped, gripping her hand tightly. “Don’t leave me.”
“I’m not leaving you,” she replied. “They took me away; they took everyone away. Only you can make this right.”
He bowed his head, tears streaming down his cheeks, and she knew then it was done. She was going to die here, but they wouldn’t be far behind.
The edges of her vision began to fade, her sight narrowing to the child above her, beautiful, broken, and oh so dangerous. But she had never once feared him.
She spent her life following the light, devoting herself fully to the ideals and prayers of a greater good, following the teachings of men of faith. Now she knew the truth, the depth of the evil lurking behind the brightest light, hidden by the hypocritical gleam of their so-called faith. Now, their ugly truth would be laid bare for all to see, stripped by the one person they feared above all.
She placed her faith in the one she called son, and finally felt peace.
With a final sigh, she closed her eyes to the light.
She did not fear the dark.