The painting does resemble her a little, but there’s something missing.
Heron Soloman, or Honest Sol as the orphans called him, was no painter. He had failed to capture how the light caught her copper hair, which used to turn it a fiery orange. He continued to tinker with it, the second layer of paint making parts better but others much worse. It was late in the afternoon by the time he was finished and even then he wasn’t satisfied. Still, he felt he’d done a better job than last time he had tried to capture her face.
He had thought that each time he tried, it would bring focus to his vision so he would stop seeing the glowing script that always appeared there.
– PAINTING +1 –
Painting plus one? Damn it, if I’m going insane enough to start seeing things why couldn’t it have been something useful?
Fortunately, Kull sent one of his boys to fetch him for a job before he could dwell on it too much. He turned at a knock on his doorframe.
“Sol, Kull wants you, can you come,” one of the little shits said.
Sol nodded. He always ran shopping errands for Kull whenever he needed to pick something out. Kull always said that he had an eye for a quality product but he only used the quality measurement in his vision to determine what he should choose.
In the beginning, Sol thought it was normal to see the letters in his vision whenever he focused on something, but after asking the other kids about it, they had teased him and told him he should walk into the wasteland like the mutants.
Being one of the older kids at the orphanage, Kull had been the only one to believe him about his visions and made sure he knew what direction to point his eyes in a way that would be most useful for the orphanage. He called them his Augmented Reality and claimed he possessed similar abilities, but for people instead of objects. Sol just considered it his insanity visions.
“Is he in the burrows?” he asked the skinnier of the children.
The younger child nodded. “I’m to bring you.”
Although he and Kull were the only ones left of the generation that came after Garildine the war to have remained, the place was almost unrecognizable after everything Kull had done to the place. There were enough huts to house almost every child and even large halls to hold assemblies, meals and even lessons.
Many had been taken by the army during the draft but Kull had hidden him, hissing that he needed him as he hid him beneath the floorboards. Sol had only assumed that he had done the same for Mika already, but after the recruiters were gone, so was she. None of them had returned to tell their tale after the armors were sent to deal with them.
He walked outside and smiled as the warm light hit his face. He enjoyed following Kull’s orders, it made him feel useful and, as long as he didn’t tell anyone how he found the best product, normal. Unlike the rest of the village that had been built up with logs from the surrounding woods, the entire area after the bridge seemed to be made of huts from the stone, clay, and plaster. He moved across the track toward the narrow stairs leading up to a third floor.
Kull’s own residence was above the main rooms of the orphanage’s hub. Despite a number of kids running around freely, he gave those willing to sit and learn education, those who were cold, clothes, and those who were hungry, food, to the point that the whole place was run like a well-oiled machine. The irony on this idea rubbed him the wrong way considering what was sacrificed after the armors came and took their most valuable human resources, the other young men and women.
Sol climbed the stairs on the heels of the skinny kid who had come for him. They both walked in to find Kull scanning over what looked to be a map and bunch of papers. Sol couldn’t read, but Kull had somehow managed to teach himself and held classes on reading and writing in the foundation huts.
“Ah, Sol, where have you been hiding?” He turned with a smile on his face. “I’ve been forced to run this place by myself.”
Although only in his late twenties, Kull’s long hair had long gone gray, as though hiding the stress of running the orphanage was coming out in other ways. He wore spectacles that almost hid his blues like his smile hit the pressure he was under.
“The fact that you had this kid find me shows me you know where I was.”
Kull looked to the skinny orphan. “Alright Toby, go downstairs and tell the matron that I’ve allowed you a large lunch for running my errand. If she doesn’t believe you, tell her to climb the stairs and ask me for herself.” He gave Sol a sly grin. “The walk will do her some good.”
The boy scampered off, leaving the two of them.
“You know, you’ve probably set that boy up for a spanking.”
Kull shrugged. “I’ll give the matron a spanking myself if she does. I need that child more than I need her.”
“I never thought one child was so important to you.”
“They all are, Sol, this is an orphanage after all.” He laughed. “Still, a single child is replaceable, a single fate woman is replaceable. You, on the other hand, are irreplaceable.”
Sol rubbed his head. “Get on with, Kull, do you want me to go to the market again or what?”
Kull’s gaze focused on his gaze. “In short, Sol, I want you to trust me.”
He rolled his wrists “And the long?”
“I want you to hike into the forest during the night and not come back until morning.”
Sol raised an eyebrow. “You want me to go camping in the woods, why?”
Kull grinned his wry grin again and Sol nodded.
“Alright, alright, trust you, I get ya. Okay fine, you’ve kind of forced this on me but I guess, for the sake of our partnership, I won’t ask questions and go camping tonight.” Sol turned to leave. “I’ll set off as soon as I’m ready.”
Kull’s gaze became fierce again. “Before twilight.”
“Why shou—” Sol was about to say but then stopped and nodded. “Alright, alright, I’ll be out by then. But you have to promise me that you’ll explain why when I get back. I trust you and all, but an explanation would go a long way.”
Kull nodded. “The next time we meet, I promise.”
Sol nodded and exited the clay hut, feeling slightly suspicious with the way his friend had lowered his voice when saying that. As soon as he made his way back down the stairs to the ground level, more glowing text appeared in his vision.
– AFFABILITY +1 –
– SKEPTICISM -1 –
Minus one skepticism? Son of a bitch! Why do you need to point out the obvious? It doesn’t mean anything! Why don’t you show me how good I am at climbing downstairs while you’re at it.
Returning to his hut to get ready, he checked his few possessions. He had enough chips to buy the food he needed for the night, and if not, he could always snare himself a rabbit, the forest was packed with the pests feeding off the Daridin crops. He had lost track of time while painting and he didn’t know how close twilight was by the time he was packed and ready to leave.
He decided to check out the village before entering the woods. It was getting darker by the time he crossed the massive bridge. The stores were still open, although children from either side of the bridge didn’t mingle, the adults themselves must have liked the jobs the older generation had been doing for the old ladies running the shops were very jovial.
“Why of course, we will give a good price for anything to you need,” she said, her tone rasping like most people in the village.
He ended up getting some skewers of dried meat, the ones that were +2 protein, not +1 and several apples and other drift fruit. The +3 fiber would be extra handy when doing his business in the woods. His food for the night sorted, he had more than he needed in one night, a veritable feast, he slung his rucksack over his shoulder and headed toward the trees. It was really something leaving the light of the village for the darkness of the woods.
As he walked among the tall perches, he pulled out a lantern and lit it with a flint. However, after the lantern bumped into a few branches above him, he decided to put it away and just let his eyes adjust to the darkness over the next few hours. He was just getting the feel of the forest under his boots when he started to make out the clearing he had camped in with his friends when he was younger. Back when the whole team was together.
Sol went about finding a log to drag into the clearing to sit on. In the heat, a dead tree was commonplace among the woods. As he did so, he heard a soft rumbling in the distance. Ignoring it, he decided to get a fire going, finding enough rocks to keep it contained. The stars shone in the night like a scattering of sand from a beach made entirely of silver.
He looked up as the quality +1 kindling he’d gathered began to catch and smoke rose into the sky. He froze in confusion for a moment. A few of the tall silhouettes in the night were moving just like the smoke made from his own fire. It rose, thick as a cloud above the trees in the distance, appearing to cover the entire night sky in the distance. That when he heard screams on the wind.
Wait, that’s in the direction of the orphanage!
He jumped to his feet, not thinking to pick up his supplies as he rushed toward the lines of smoke. With his eyes having just adjusted to the fire, he was running blindly into the woods. Arms outstretched, he couldn’t help but knock into a few trees, however, his mind was awash with both panic and suspicion.
Why did Kull say tell me to camp in the forest tonight? Did he know this was going to happen? If so, why just me?
Sol then remembered what Kull had said to him before he had asked him about staying out of the village.
“You, on the other hand, you are irreplaceable.”
Is that why he sent me out? Because he thinks I’m too valuable to lose? But why wouldn’t he tell anyone else? He loves all the children at the orphanage more than anyone. Surely, he would’ve told some of them to leave if something was going to happen.
He jumped in and waded across the shallow river, climbed the bank, and burst of the trees on the other side of the bank, sweating and panting. The bridge was blown, blood soaked the dirt tracks and fire was everywhere, the entire orphanage was engulfed in carnage and in the center of the burning huts were five cyclopses of silver and red.