An Orphan at Eventide

 

Elaris' stomach rumbled, demanding nourishment. He was so sick of the gnawing emptiness in his belly, aching to be filled, always wanting more. The older kids used to say that hunger was an orphan's constant companion. Now he knew why. 
        
"I'm starving!" Elaris moaned, and his stomach growled once more as if to prove the point.
           
"Well, go get us some food then," Vargin replied with a grin.
           
"No, it's your turn!" Elaris shouted. "I always have to go out for food!"
           
"I can't. You know that," Vargin said quietly.
           
Elaris kicked a pebble and sighed. It was dangerous going out and scavenging for food. Even at night, which is the only time he dared go, the Lidless were out searching for orphans, thieves, murderers, and other criminals that they could capture for the Fleshshapers. The only good thing about going out to look for food was his headache seemed to disappear when he left the cellar. Ever since he escaped the orphanage a month ago, he'd been plagued by them.
           
"Fine, but I'm keepin' most of the food." Elaris glanced at Vargin and caught him smiling. "You've gotta leave this place sometime," Elaris muttered as he walked over to the ladder that led outside.
           
"I know. Next time, I promise!"
           
Elaris looked back at his friend and nodded. "Alright. You got any requests for food?"
           
"Cake!" Vargin shouted with a grin.
           
Elaris snorted. "Yeah, I'll get right on that." He shook his head in disbelief and stepped on the bottom rung of the ladder. It creaked and groaned in protest but Elaris climbed up confidently. The old ladder liked to complain but it was still sturdy and could handle his weight well enough. He was small for a ten year old.
           
When he got to the top of the ladder he pushed on the wooden door and stepped out of the burned out cellar where he and Vargin lived. The store above them had caught fire a while ago, and been abandoned by whoever owned it. Elaris had been staying in the basement since he'd escaped from the orphanage, and Vargin had been with him most of that time.
           
Elaris closed the door and stalked through the back alleys near his home. He'd been wandering these streets every night for the last month or so, and knew where the shadows gathered thickest and which alleys twisted and turned the most. He'd eluded many angry shopkeepers in these alleyways. He felt safe in them, at home.
           
As he got closer to the Night Market, the pain in his head disappeared and he began to hear a harsh din of voices. The sounds of the Night Market were about as familiar to him as his own voice, and he smiled as the raucous harmony washed over him. As much as he refused to admit it to Vargin, he loved it out here.
           
The Night Market was a couple of streets down and Elaris could smell the roasting meat. His mind conjured tantalizing memories of it, spicy and slick with grease. His mouth began to water and he picked up his pace. He navigated the remaining twists and turns, and eventually made it to the dark periphery of the Night Market.
           
Elaris glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then latched onto the wall beside him and started to climb. His little fingers and toes found grooves and holes seemingly made just for him, and he reached the top of the building in moments. The area above the Night Market was crisscrossed with ropes and wires holding up the thick canopies that protected the merchants and their wares from the hot sun during the day. Elaris found that he could run across the ropes as easily as other kids walked down the street, and quickly sneaked along the nearest rope towards the main market area.
           
If anyone looked up they'd see him for sure, but no one ever did. Everyone was too absorbed in their own business, or looking behind them to watch for thieves or the Lidless who may have become interested in whatever it was that they were doing. No one gave any time to the night sky or the stars, and Elaris was fine with that.
           
When he got to the stalls with the kebabs and meat pies, his stomach rumbled in answer to the delicious aromas. He reached into his pocket and grabbed his prized possession. It was a bit of fishing wire with a hook at the end that he managed to steal his second night on the run. Even with it, he couldn't steal the freshest meat; he had to go to the back of the stall where the food from earlier in the day sat in an old bucket being eaten by flies.
           
He carefully lay down on his belly, wrapped his legs around the rope, then slowly lowered the fishing wire and hook into the bucket of old food. After a few minutes his pockets were stuffed with three meat pies. He wanted more but his arms were burning from the strain, and the rope was digging painfully into his chest. It should be enough for him and Vargin, at least until tomorrow when he had to do it all again.
           
Elaris grunted as he tried to push himself to his feet. The rope shook and his sweat-slick hands fought to keep hold as he maneuvered his legs into place beneath him. His body moved by instinct, doing this night after night had burned the memory into his muscles and he eventually managed to get into a standing position. He breathed deeply to calm his thumping heart.
           
He crossed the rope as quickly as he dared and let out a sigh as he reached the wall where he 'd started. His fingers and feet found the same holes from before and he scurried down the wall to the ground.
           
"Hey! What are you doing?" A gruff voice demanded, then a hand wrapped around the back of Elaris' neck.
           
Elaris jumped, and one of the meat pies shot out of his pocket onto the ground. He twisted in his assailant's grip and managed to bite into the meaty flesh of the hand grabbing him. Hot blood filled his mouth and the man holding him screamed, then let go of him.
           
"You little gutter rat!" The man yelled and held his hand to his chest.
           
Elaris snarled back at him, spitting out the blood from his mouth, and causing the man to take two steps back as his eyes widened in surprise. Elaris wasted no time and charged off into the alleyways, losing himself in the concealing darkness. As he ran, he strained to listen for any sounds of pursuit, but the slapping of his feet on the cobblestones and the pumping of his heart drowned out everything else.
           
When he finally got to the trapdoor that led to his home, he was panting and his knees shook with either fatigue or fear. He swiveled his head from side to side, searching to see if anyone followed him. Seeing nothing, he pried open the door, hopped on the ladder, then started to descend, closing the door when he was low enough.
           
"You're back!" Vargin shouted as Elaris hopped off the last rung of the ladder.
           
"Yeah," Elaris muttered and sat down beside his friend on a half burned stool. His head pain flared up again, but he ignored it. "I almost got caught. I was sloppy, people are gonna be lookin' for me tomorrow."
           
"Was it the Lidless?"
           
"Nah, just some guy that thought he could catch me," Elaris said and pulled out his two remaining meat pies. "Here, I got this for ya. I had another but it fell outa my pocket when that guy grabbed me."
           
Vargin took the meat pie and rested it on his good leg, the other ended at the knee. "Thanks, but uh, did you get any cake?" 
           
Elaris shook his head and sighed.
 
           
The night air reeked of rancid flesh and fear as Elaris sat on top of a building overlooking the procession. He'd hoped to steal some food from the eateries that dotted the wealthy Gold District of the city. They were always packed full of people in the evening who ate and drank far too much, and grew lazy and inattentive because of their overindulgence. Everyone who lived in the Gold slept through the hot day, then came out at night to enjoy their wealth. Elaris hadn't expected this.
           
The Lords of the city were offering a show of power to the residents of the Gold District, reminding them of what would happen if they forgot their place. Fleshshapers marched their creations down the crowded street, maintaining control over them in some way that Elaris didn't understand.
           
The Constructs shaped from adults were enormous, making a tall man seem a child. They bulged with muscles that pulsed red with the dark magic that spawned them. Their arms were long and simian, nearly reaching to the ground, and their knuckles were covered in jutting bone. Their dead, black eyes gave nothing back to those looking at them.
           
Smaller Constructs ran up and down the line, hissing and spitting at the people watching, and filling the streets with childish giggles. Their hands and feet were clawed, and their flesh was molded into a scaly hide. Their most horrible attribute was their tail, long and segmented, ending in a point that glistened wetly in the moonlight.
           
Elaris whispered a prayer to the Unseen as he watched the Constructs shamble down the street. If he hadn't escaped the orphanage when he did, he would have become one of those mindless creatures. All unclaimed orphans at the age of ten were given to the Fleshshapers.
           
"Well, this is worse than the Night Market," Elaris muttered and turned away from the street below. He leaped from the roof he was on, easily bridging the short gap to the building beside it. The densely populated city had no more than a few feet between its structures, making roof top travel possible for those who wanted to stay hidden.
           
He hopped from building to building, leaving the Gold District behind, and travelling into the Silver, then Copper where he and Vargin lived. He was starving, that meat pie he had the night before had been small and there was a hole in his gut that he needed to fill, but he had no idea where to get more food. The Night Market would be too dangerous, he was sure they'd have Lidless there watching for orphans after he attacked that man last night.
           
A bit of movement in the alley beneath him caught his eye and Elaris squinted, trying to make out what it was. A stray dog or a rat would make a fine meal if he could catch it, he was fast and quiet when he wanted to be. Whatever it was, it was sitting behind a barrel eating something, unaware that it was being watched.
           
Elaris inched his way to the edge of the building and climbed down silently. He saw it wasn't a dog, but a boy around his age eating a sausage and licking the grease from his fingers. Elaris dropped down beside the boy who shrieked, making Elaris' head throb painfully.
           
Elaris grabbed the boy, "Hey! Shhh, calm down! Do you want the Lidless to find us?"
           
"No, I guess not," the boy said.
           
"What's your name?" Elaris asked.
           
The boy was breathing fast and looked ready to bolt at any second. "Falero."
           
Elaris smiled, hoping to calm Falero and maybe get a bite of his sausage. "My name's Elaris. Where'd ya get that sausage?"
           
"The Night Market," Falero said and quickly jammed the rest of the sausage into his mouth. He chewed fast and swallowed. "Someone threw it on the ground when they were leaving and I snatched it up."
           
"Weren't there any Lidless?" Elaris asked.
           
"Nah, I didn't see any."
           
Elaris narrowed his eyes. He wasn't sure if the boy was lying or stupid. When a man gets attacked by an orphan, there's going to be Lidless around. Either way, it looked like him and Vargin wouldn't be eating tonight. "My friend and I live in a cellar not far from here. Where are you staying?"
           
"Uh, I go from place to place. You know how it is," Falero said.
           
"Hey, Falero!" A girl hissed from further down the alley. "Who are you talking to?" The girl scampered up to Falero and Elaris. Her eyes widened and a whimper drifted from her lips when she got close enough to see them. "What are you doing to Falero?"
           
"He's fine," Elaris replied. His headache deepened.
           
She turned around and ran, and Elaris chased after her. Anyone who runs away from a stranger has something to hide and Elaris was betting it was food. His head throbbed in time with each step he took, and he realized that he could easily catch the girl if he really tried. He decided to let her think she was getting away and stayed just out of sight.
           
The girl ran down unfamiliar alleyways and took dozens of twists and turns that would confuse a normal citizen, but Elaris lived amongst dark paths such as these and had no problem following. He heard a door slam, and the girl was gone. It was obvious which building she entered, it was boarded up and looked abandoned but Elaris could sense that it wasn't. It had a lived in feel and despite the illusion of being abandoned he knew there were people in it. People like him, who had reason to fear and hide.
           
Elaris waited. Within a few minutes the door opened and a grey haired man stepped outside. He had a kindly face with honest eyes. Elaris thought he could make out other people standing behind him in the doorway before the old man closed the door.
           
"Sir," Elaris called out. The man jumped, obviously startled, then looked around from side to side, trying to find who spoke.
           
"Eva says there's something wrong with you, son," the old man said. "She's known to tell stories, but if you need help I can give it. You won't be the first youngster I've taken in. Just come on out and we'll see if we can fix you up with some clothes and maybe a bit of food. How's that sound?"
           
Elaris knew he shouldn't come out. Grownups couldn't be trusted, each orphan learned that lesson one way or the other. Elaris was so tired though. Tired of the constant fear and stress, and the loneliness most of all. Vargin was there, but he was more of a burden than a friend most days it seemed.
           
"Hello,' Elaris said, and stepped out from his shadowed corner. It was still dark in the alley, there were no lights, and the moon was like a sideways smile, instead of the great eye it sometimes was.
           
The old man grinned when he heard Elaris' voice. The smile lasted a few moments, then melted into a frown as Elaris moved closer. "What happened to you?"
           
"I'm hungry," Elaris replied, wondering what the old man meant. He'd lived on the streets for a month, and was obviously dirty and starving. "Will you feed me?"
           
The old man's hands began to shake and he took an involuntary step back. "Easy now, son. Now that I think on it, it occurs to me that maybe my place is full. I just took in two new kids the other night that I forgot about. I've got no free beds."
           
"I don't need a bed," Elaris said, and walked closer to the man. He watched in bewildered amusement as the old man backed himself up against the wall and raised his hands up in front of him. "I'm hungry."
           
"Please, just go," the old man croaked.
           
Elaris was starting to get annoyed with the old man. He obviously had food but was trying to hide it for himself. "I'm hungry," Elaris insisted once more.
           
The old man closed his eyes, and Elaris' head hurt worse than ever.
 
           
It had been a couple days since Elaris visited that old man's shelter for orphans. His memory of that night was hazy. He could recall the old man acting strange at first, but after a while he must have opened up, because Elaris could remember eating very well. Soft, succulent meat that slid down his throat and filled him up better than any meat pie. When he tried too hard to remember what it was he ate, the pain behind his eyes flared up. It was frustrating not being able to remember.
           
Elaris briefly considered returning to the old man's shelter, but that seemed to make his head hurt more. The Night Market beckoned, offering freedom and food, and Elaris obeyed. He stepped out from the roof he was perched on, and onto the wire that led to his usual stall.
           
He made it half way to the stall and froze. Something in the air changed, making it come alive with menace. His head felt like there were maggots crawling around inside it and his legs began to shake. His breath came in quick, ragged gasps. The crowd quieted and a moan began to build deep in his throat.
           
Elaris leaped from the wire, breaking the enchantment that had been settling over him, and landed on a canopy that crashed under his weight. The crowd began to scream. Elaris bolted for the shelter of the alleyways. The sound of claws scrambling across cobblestone resounded behind him. The Lidless had found him, the night had betrayed him. Something grazed his cheek, and Elaris nearly fell down as a flash of pain spread out from his face and throughout his whole body.
           
The alleyways sped by as Elaris ran as fast as he could. No one could catch him when he was in his alleys. Not even the Lidless. His vision blurred and his skin burned as he ran, his feet working even as his mind seemed to slow. It was said that the touch of the Lidless bonded them to you, so they could find you wherever you went.  Elaris hoped that was just orphan talk, the kind of lies kids made up to scare other kids and feel a bit better about themselves. He prayed it was.
           
Elaris nearly tripped on the cellar door when he got there. He'd lost the Lidless, he was sure of it. He'd run faster than ever before and purposely taken detours and out of the way alleys to confuse the Lidless. It wouldn't look for him in a burned out cellar, the creature would assume it was abandoned.
           
Elaris yanked open the door and hopped onto the old ladder. He shut the cellar door behind him, then leaped down the last few rungs to the ground. "Vargin! They almost got me!"
           
"Orphan," a voice whispered. The word seemed like an apology, and a celebration.
           
Elaris tried to run back up the ladder but something wrapped around his ankle and pulled him to the floor. He landed on his back and air fled from his lungs in a wheeze. The Lidless loomed over him, and though there were no lights in the cellar Elaris could see it clearly. A part of his mind wondered at this, wondered at how he'd always been able to see in the pitch black cellar, but that wonder died as the great orb dominating the face of the Lidless fell upon him.
           
The cyclopean eye jutting out of the creature's giant forehead pinned Elaris to the floor. It seemed every colour and none, flashing and shifting, swirling eternally like the palette of a mad artist. Elaris couldn't look into the swirling orb for more than a moment before he felt as if his mind were coming apart at the seams, leaking reality and fantasy until nothing was left inside him but fear.
           
Its jutting jaw parted, opening far beyond what should have been possible. The creature's lips quivered as they peeled back, revealing row upon row of gleaming white teeth filed into points. Laughter chimed out, terrifying and soothing at the same time. "The masters wept when they lost you, your unfulfilled potential was a stain on all of us," the Lidless said. Its voice was a caress, full of love and care.
           
A leathery arm, long and serpentine, and ending in three twitching fingers wrapped around Elaris' torso and pulled him close. The creature's grin broadened and the other arm wrapped around Elaris' forehead. It held his head still and forced him to meet its gaze. Elaris tried to close his eyes but couldn't shy away from the unblinking stare. Terrible recollections flooded his mind.
 
           
His life played back for him. The people were phantasms of memory dancing like puppets, the strings controlling them tendrils of blood. They were always screaming, always bleeding as he took his fill from them. The hunger made him do it, it was the hunger's fault, not his. No matter how many times he thought that, the memories surfacing up from his fragmented mind made the excuse seem hollow and weak.
           
A weeping, shivering old man, screaming orphans, fonts of blood exploding from ruptured arteries. Night, after endless night of it. Luring children into shadowed alleyways with the promise of a bit of food. The headache smashing away his awareness and altering his perception of reality as the creature took over. Elaris could hear himself moaning in hunger or despair as memory after memory washed over him.
           
It all began with poor Vargin that first night away from the orphanage. He'd wanted to be Vargin's friend, he hadn't meant to hurt him, just stop him from running. The cracking of bone when he tore off Vargin's leg and the taste of it had been enough to plant the hunger inside him.
           
He opened his eyes, shuddering away the onslaught of memories and risked a glance towards where Vargin always sat. A decomposed corpse rested there, covered in uneaten meat pies and kebabs. Flies, maggots, and other crawling things feasted at the leftover food and decayed flesh.
            
"The hunger, and the pain are because you left unfinished. We're here now to complete you." The Lidless cradled him, and stood. It pointed towards the corner and a red glow blossomed, chasing away the feasting carrion and the darkness alike.
            
"Fleshshaper?" Elaris asked.
            
"Yes, my broken one. My unfinished child," the Fleshshaper whispered and came closer. "The hunger must be terrible for you, but even worse must be your mind warring with itself. Craving the sweet meat, yet recoiling against it, suppressing the truth."
            
"I don't want to hurt anyone," Elaris whispered, sounding very much like the small boy he should be. "The hunger takes over. It's always there."
            
"Father is here now." The Fleshshaper stood in front of Elaris and pulled out a long needle, black and barely visible even with Elaris' enhanced vision. The Fleshshaper pricked his own finger with it, and blood glistened on its tip, the fragrance causing Elaris to groan with hunger. "Do you desire peace, my son? No more guilt, no more headaches?"
            
"Yes. Yes, please."
            
The Fleshshaper smiled, and Elaris could feel the Lidless tighten its grip around him. The needled slammed down into Elaris' head. Gleaming stars burst in his vision and flames roared in his mind. Pain was his everything for a moment, then it was gone, leaving only contentment.
            
"Now you are complete, my son," the Fleshshaper said, though not with his lips.
            
There was no more fear, or doubt, only a yearning to fulfill his father's desires. He could feel his father directing him, loving him. He was starving, but he knew his father would feed him. Fathers took care of their sons. Elaris was whole now, finished, and he was an orphan no more.

<END>

Tyler Bourassa

An Orphan at Eventide, fiction, Issue 32, September 1, 2015

Tyler Bourassa, I have a BA in Psychology, which I put to great use while working in the IT department for an insurance company. I currently reside in Saskatchewan with my wife and somewhat irritable guard cat, where I enjoy reading, writing, and slaying monsters in video games. My fiction has appeared in Liquid Imagination, Bards and Sages Publishing, and Youth Imagination.

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