The hands are asleep. I pray silently to myself that they will remain that way, but I try to stifle my worry that they will not. If they sense it, they will awaken.
I breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, schooling my mind to calmness. I have taken a risk, coming into this town for supplies. I can survive outside, in the wilderness, but sometimes the comforts of what humanity can provide me are too tempting to pass up.
It is midmorning. The gates of the town were open to allow traders and farmers to enter. I came in with the crowd, with only a cursory glance from the guards. They’re on the lookout of monsters, not humans, and definitely not young, nondescript girls. I look weak and nonthreatening, by myself, when the hands are asleep.
I get only a few questioning glances, from those wondering at the size of my pack, or at the animal skins I carry, hanging from a pole. I don’t look like the sort of person who’d make a good hunter. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be, if not for the hands. They’ve forced me to adapt. They’ve forced my life in a direction it would never have taken without them.
I try not to think about them as I sell the skins. Sometimes even just thinking about them causes them to arise. I can’t afford to let that happen. Neither can this town. I think instead about what I can afford, with the money I make from the skins. It’s not much. It’s not as much as it should be, I think, but I can’t haggle with the trader. If I do, the hands might think he’s a threat to me.
I can buy soap. That’s mainly what finally drove me to come into town. Two days ago, I ran out of my last sliver of soap. I could live without it, but the way I live already leaves me feeling inhuman. At least I can try to keep myself clean.
I can also, I hope, buy a book. I have only a few, and I’ve read them so many times that I know them by heart. Like soap, the books keep me feeling human. They keep me from forgetting language and turning into the monster it feels like the Wizard intended me to be.
I could buy books that let me learn things, but what is the point? I’ll never be anything other than an outcast, because of the hands. On slip on my part, or one unwitting mistake on the part of someone around me, and the hands will awaken, rise up, and put an end to my time in this town, as they have before in other towns. Learnings skills, other than basic survival, is useless to me, and I already have a book on herbs to use and avoid.
No, I like to buy books that tell a story: Romances, fairy tales, and heroic adventures are the best, because they let me escape what my world has become. They let me connect to people in a way I never will in real life, because the longer I’m near other people, the more likely it becomes that they will die for it.
I see him as I’m browsing the bookshelf in the general store, and I know immediately that he will be the end of my time in town. I was looking at a book about a boy that grows up to slay monsters, but when I see the man, I feel the hands stir. I set the book down immediately. It’s time to get out.
I walk right toward the door. I breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, trying to blank my mind and feel… unbothered. But I know the look in his eye. I’ve seen it in the eyes of many men before. I’ve seen it in the eyes of monsters. It’s hunger.
It’s not hunger for me. Not directly. I’m not particularly appealing. I’m not dressed in the clothes of a young woman seeking affect, but those of someone who wants to survive. I don’t smell particularly good, because my soap ran out, but also because I don’t spritz myself with perfumes or rub scented balms on my skin. I have a plain, average face, and my hair is in a serviceable braid, not a carefully crafted style.
He’s hungry because he sees someone on whom he can exercise his power. Maybe he’s been prevented from doing that at home, or when he was a child, or something else. I’m not an expert on men, or people in general. But he sees me, and I’m different, and to him, difference means weakness
“Hey,” he says, as I skirt around him, putting another customer between us on my way toward the door.
He’s taller than me by nearly two heads. His shoulders are so broad I feel like I could fit two of me between them. He has a thick, unruly black beard and hair that both need a trim, and the way his stark blue eyes are fixed on me would scare any other person in my position. I’m not scared of him. I’m scared for him.
“Hey,” he says again, reaching out to grab my shoulder. The person that had been between us gives him a look and scoots out of the way, clearly not wanting to be involved.
I shift my shoulder so that he misses. I can’t think of it as dodging or of his action as an attack, because that will awaken the hands. I can only keep walking toward the doors, calmly, and attempt to mask all my other thoughts by thinking strongly about the fact that I simply wanted to leave, of my own volition, regardless of the people around me.
It’s not working. I feel something move inside me, like one of my organs has just decided to go own a journey. It’s not one of my organs, though. It’s not even a physical movement. It’s the crystal, and the hands awakening within it.
“I’m talking to you,” the man says.
I push my way through the door and out into the street, orienting toward the town gates. Maybe he’ll leave me alone if I make it clear I’m leaving. For now, he keeps following.
“You’re supposed to stop when someone’s talking to you,” he growls.
I can hear the anger rising in his voice. That’s dangerous. A tingling pulse goes through my body. The hands are awake, or almost. There’s still a chance I could recover and calm them enough that they will go back under, but only if this man leaves me alone.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” I say, as pleasantly as I can. “Please leave me alone.”
He jogs a bit, so that he’s in front of me. I turn to avoid him, but he reaches out for my shoulder again. This time I fail to avoid it, and his fingers dig into the flesh of my shoulder hard enough to cause me discomfort.
“You’re not from here,” he says.
Ah. One of those types. “I’m not. Please leave me alone.”
“You stink,” he says. “And you talk funny. I want you out of my town.”
I close my eyes and try to erase the image of his face from my mind. I take a deep breath. “Please let me go. I don’t want you to die.”
This is absolutely the wrong thing to say, and I know it as soon as the words leave me mouth. “What in the Wizard’s name are you going on about?”
I open my eyes. There is a blue glow being case on the man’s face, faint, but growing steadily. “Get away from me. Please. Please, just get away.”
From beneath his arm, hidden by the folds of his vest, the man draws a dagger. He couldn’t have done any one singular thing to make the situation worse. He’s staring at my chest, now, which is alight with a blue glow that pierces even the layers of my clothes. “What the fuck are you?”
The hands are awake, fully and completely. I begin to run, pushing past the man. Now my only hope is to get out of the town before too many people get hurt. I don’t want anyone to die. I just wanted soap and a book. Selfish. I wish I hadn’t been so selfish.
The Wizard put the hands in me. He likes to take people and change them. Some, he turns into monsters. Others he changes less completely, granting them abilities. Why? I don’t know. Nobody does. For his own amusement, perhaps, or just to see whether he can. It’s not like he told me. I awoke in a place I’ve never seen. I remember only a vague, shadowy blur of a man standing over me, and then pain like I’ve never known before or since as he thrust the crystal into my chest.
Blue, with lines of gold giving it definition, one of the hands reaches out of me. I’ve cried before, as the hands did their work, but now my face is only set with grim determination as I run toward the gates. The hand spears outward, connected to me by a thing, ephemeral haze of blue and gold, and grabs the face of the man who harassed me.
He is dead in an instant. I feel the pulse of his life leaving him as the hand rips it free. I don’t turn to see what the hand has done to his body. I don’t want to know. I’ve seen enough of the hands’ work that I can imagine it far more clearly that I could ever desire.
Another of the hands appears even as the first withdraws closer to me. They both hesitate as I run, their fingers twitching as they quest about for another person that presents a threat to me.
The guards at the gate. They will die, if they do the wrong thing, but they have no way of knowing what the wrong thing is. “Don’t try to stop me!” I cry, doing my best to make it sound like I’m pleading with them, and not like I’m threatening them. “I don’t want them to hurt you. Please, just stand aside.”
But two of them draw their swords. Though they don’t move to block my passage, that’s enough. The hands, greedy for more death, lash toward them, the ephemeral arms behind them lengthening and twisting through the air. The hands break their swords, first, each in an iron-tight grip, then grasp the men themselves: one upon the chest, one upon the throat. I can’t watch. I don’t need to, to know the instant that they die.
I’m running full tilt. If the hands want, it won’t matter. They’ll grab something, like the gate or even part of the wall, and stop me. They’ll drag me back so that they can kill until they’re satisfied. I’m just the body that transports their vessel. I can’t control them, not directly.
The hands hunt for me, providing me food. They protect me from monsters while I sleep. They’ve saved my life, from men like the one in the town, but never once have I felt thankful for them. Never once have I been grateful to the Wizard for what he might call a gift. I hate them. I hate the hands, and the life they, and the Wizard, have forced upon me.
I run, as fast as I can, out of the town, aiming now for the woods. The two hands that stirred still quest about me, hoping for more victims, but now people are keeping their distance. I have left the town relatively unharmed. Still, I’ll never be able to return. The people know me as a threat, and the hands now know it as a place that they once killed. I will never be able to return.