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art by Shot Hot Design

Inside Things

Melissa Mead is a member of Codex and the Carpe Libris writers group: carpelibris.wordpress.com She lives in Upstate NY. Her stories have appeared in DSF, Bull Spec and other places. To find her other Daily Science Fiction stories, go to DailyScienceFiction.com and type "Mead" in the search box on the right sidebar.
Over her years of guarding her unseen Mistress, the she-beast has learned many things:
Strangers with swords are dangerous. Strangers with books are even more so.
Books are inside things, Inside things belong to the Mistress, not to her guard-beast.
Outside creatures should not think too much. It hurts. Perhaps thoughts are inside things too.
The she-beast has tried for years to puzzle out the mystery of books. Intruders who carry them seldom blunder about the way the ones with swords do. It's as though the paper tells strangers the way through the maze, how to avoid all the traps, and even about the she-beast herself.
The she-beast can read the clouds overhead and the tracks that smaller creatures leave in the sandy earth, but paper and ink refuse to speak to her. The she-beast has thought about asking the Mistress to unlock the magic symbols for her, but the Mistress stopped answering her silent questions long ago. The invisible perimeter confining the she-beast has contracted, taking away the slice of grassy meadow and scrap of shady woodland that used to be part of the she-beast's territory. The green land seems farther away each day. The she-beast fears she has angered the Mistress somehow.
But she still wonders.
Every day the she-beast prowls around the edge of her territory, sniffing for intruders. Intruders leave the smell of their wrongness on the dark stones and warm pale sand. Some of them get through the beginning of the maze and past the traps, into the she-beast's territory. They want to kill the Mistress and steal her treasures, but the she-beast kills them first. Even the ones with books.
From behind a pile of rocks, the she-beast watches this latest stranger. One of the ones with books, obviously. He's bypassed the sunny meadow with flowers that absorb nutrients from human flesh. He's ignored the fragrant, toxic fruits that grow all around the edge of the forest. Although he must be thirsty by now, he doesn't drink from the spring, with its icy waters that turn humans to stone--although he does pause before the petrified shapes ringing it as though guessing what they used to be. He stops at the edge of the perimeter, as though he could see it, or feel its burning cold touch, and shouts.
"She-beast! Are you there? See: I'm not on your land. Come out and talk to me."
Her ears shoot erect. An invader, calling to her? Perhaps he's gone insane from resisting the illusions that surround him.
There are no illusions in the she-beast's territory. Sand is sand, stone is stone, bones are bones. The she-beast doesn't believe that this stranger has journeyed from the lands of men and struggled through the maze just to talk to her. But this is something new. Something to make this day different from all the others. The she-beast decides to prolong her treat. When the stranger calls again she slips out from behind the rocks, her venomous tail lying flat across her back, her ruff smooth, her teeth hidden. The stranger doesn't see her at first, and when he does, he smiles. His body says No-Fear. Not-Hostile.
The stranger's body says something else, too. It's female, and young. The she-beast has never had to deal with a female intruder before. She listens for commands from the Mistress, but hears only silence.
The newcomer extends her hands toward the she-beast, stopping just short of the invisible barrier. She is dusty and battered from long travel, but a smile lights her dark eyes.
"Hello! I know the rules: Once I cross over I won't be able to get out alone. May I cross?"
The she-beast growls. The stranger takes a step backward.
"No? All right; I suppose that was a bit abrupt of me. My name is Suha."
The stranger waits. The she-beast once saw two intruders meet at the edge of the maze, and she knows that Suha is waiting for her to speak her name. But names and speech are both inside things, and the she-beast has neither.
"Well, this is awkward. You see, Levasarion--he was my tutor, way back, and he's practically immortal and knows everything but common sense, my nurse used to say--he said to seek out the Guardian. According to everything I've read, that's you, but we don't seem to be hitting it off."
The she-beast watches while the intruder sits crosslegged on the sparse grass and takes out a book. It's a dusty, crackling, ancient thing, and the intruder handles it with care.
"Nope, nothing in here about your name. I didn't think so. I've got most of the book up here." She taps her head with a finger. "It's better not to have to open it too often, but I thought I'd check, just to be certain."
The she-beast ignores the chatter. Her attention is all on the book, lying tantalizingly open on the grass.
"You want to see? Here."
She holds up the book. The she-beast brings her nose as close to the barrier as she dares, and yelps in surprise. One page is covered with the meaningless tracks of words, but the other has a picture of the she-beast herself.
How wonderfully fierce she looks! Her teeth and claws shine bright, even on the yellowed page. Her ruff bristles, and her eyes glow green as the venom dripping from her tail. The Mistress would be so pleased with this picture of her servant, so brave and loyal.
The girl, Suha, laughs. "Look at you! All proud of yourself, are you? You're wiggling like a happy dog."
The she-beast freezes, and the girl turns solemn. "But you're not a dog, and I won't forget that. You're a Guardian. I know. Don't worry. I'm not here to hurt the Lady of Promises. I'm here to help her."
Lady of Promises. The she-beast hasn't heard that name since long ago, before the maze, when the Mistress had a face, and a voice heard with the ears, not in the head, and gentle hands. The she-beast studies the girl more closely. The she-beast remembers the Mistress as tall and golden. Suha is small and dark. Behind her cheerful smile lies the solemnity of someone who has traveled for a long, long time in hard places and seen things that shatter less resilient hearts.
"They're calling her the Lady of Broken Promises now, because of the storms," says Suha. There's been flooding and sickness. People are saying it's because the Lady has abandoned the land, but Levasarion said it's a sign that the Lady herself is in danger."
The she-beast's hackles rise. The Mistress can't be in danger, not with her Guardian always here to protect her.
"She's not in danger from me." Suha's voice is gentle, reassuring, the way the she-beast remembers the Mistress' being. "But maybe she's in danger from something like an illness. Something you can't see or fight. The book says she'll need a… well, 'helper' was the best translation we could come up with."
Inside things again. The she-beast stands trembling. Her duty is to keep the Mistress safe by killing intruders who make it this far, and she has never failed in that duty. This intruder has no black-glass sword. She wears no copper ring to protect her neck from the she-beast's teeth. The she-beast can kill her as soon as she crosses the barrier. But if she does, if the Mistress is truly in danger from some inside thing, the she-beast will have killed the only one who might save her.
Suha packs up the book and studies the she-beast. She takes a deep breath and steps over the boundary. Fighting every Guardian instinct, the she-beast stills her teeth and claws, but her tail lashes out. The tip just grazes Suha's arm.
"Ow!" She looks down at the green-coated scratch, then at the penitent she-beast.
"You didn't mean to do that, did you? If you wanted to kill me I'd be dead now instead of later. Maybe it's not deep enough to kill me at all, then."
The she-beast knows better. There are no illusions in her territory. She licks Suha's wounded arm in apology. The poison burns her tongue. The she-beast doesn't care, as long as it keeps Suha alive long enough to save the Mistress.
Suha seems unchanged at first. Eyes wide, she follows the she-beast along the unseen path among the stones and bones. Her eyes get even wider when she rounds an outcropping and notices the she-beast's secret treasure.
"A pile of books? What's a pile of books doing here?"
The she-beast means to growl, but whimpers instead.
"Are they yours? Can you read?" Suha doesn't touch the pile the she-beast has so carefully collected, but she shakes her head. "Nobody could read those. They're all crumbling and moldy."
The she-beast hangs her head. She's killed the books. Books are inside things, and she doesn't know how to guard them properly.
"Don't look so sad, she… oh, this is ridiculous! I have to call you something more than 'Guardian.' Haven't you got a name at all?"
The she-beast shakes her head.
"Let's think of one. Something you can say. Something growly. Can you say "Ru?"
She tries. "Rooh."
"Close enough! Where I come from, that means Scholar. Someone who learns from books. Do you like it?"
The she-beast squirms. She tried to learn from the books, but now they're dead. She killed them. She doesn't deserve this name.
"If you don't like it, that's all right. I can keep calling you Guardian."
A name. An inside thing, freely given, just for her. No one will ever offer her such a thing again, not even the Mistress.
"Rooh!"
"All right then. Let's go, Ru. No, wait." Suha takes a step. A mischievous smile crosses her face. She picks up a stick and carves lines in the sand.
"Can you copy that?"
The she-beast has clever paws, but the toes are too broad to make thin lines. She brings her tail forward. Suha only flinches a little. The venomous stinger traces shaky lines in the dirt. Two straight, one slanting across them. The she-beast looks at Suha, expectant. The girl breaks into a grin that almost hides her pallor.
"Very good! That's the symbol for Ru. You just wrote your name."
The world spins. She, the Mistress' she-beast, has written her name. She has spoken it. These inside things are hers now.
Ru blinks. She doesn't remember walking the last few yards, but they've reached the center of the maze: a pale, polished stone dome like an egg half-sunk into the earth, with the dark arch of a doorway facing them. Ru has never come this close to Inside before. She doesn't realize she's trembling until Suha lays a hand on her shoulder.
"It's all right, Ru. You don't have to come with me."
Her voice is weary. The stung arm is swollen and mottled. The other hand, on Ru's shoulder, is warm and comforting. The Mistress had gentle hands like that, long, long ago.
Of course Ru is going with her.
The hallways glow pale blue from something growing on the walls. Ru hopes that's the only reason Suha looks so sickly. The girl's hand is getting heavier on her shoulder.
"The book says the Lady of Promises possesses knowledge greater than any library." Suha's breathing is heavy in the near-dark. "They say so many people came to her for help that her heart broke from pity, and she hid herself away at the ends of the earth."
They take a few more heavy, dragging steps. "I hope her knowledge includes healing," says Suha in a whisper.
The air gets colder, and presses down on them like a weight. Ru doesn't realize she's been walking with her eyes closed until Suha's gasp makes her open them.
They are Inside. They are at the very heart of Inside. The round, domed room glows with warm light, illuminating books and bottles, scrolls and skeletons. Dust dances around their feet. Even in this light, Suha looks wan and shadowed.
"My Guardian," says a voice as warm as the light. "you've brought me a Holder."
The Mistress! Ru's ears perk up, and she looks around the room. Suha is looking around too. Ru can't tell if she's heard or not.
"But it's too late." The voice laughs--a sad, brittle laugh. "Oh, I got what I wanted! I wanted them all to leave me in peace, and they did. So completely. I'm not certain I have the strength to make the transfer now."
Ru knows outside things, like bones, and she finds the Mistress first. No kind smile, no gentle hands, just bones and a voice.
Bones are bones. They should not have a voice. Ru whines. Suha comes to her side, holding on to furniture and shelves for balance.
"Oh my." Suha looks at things other than the bones--scraps of moldered cloth, a gold chain. "This was her, wasn't it? Your Lady of Promises. Oh Ru, I'm so sorry."
"Ru?" says the Mistress' voice. She sounds puzzled and amused, not angry.
Ru wants to tell her everything--about her name, about writing, about Suha. "Rooh!" she says, and wishes that she had more words. She wishes that the Mistress was the way she was supposed to be. She wishes that she hadn't stung Suha, who is now sitting on the floor with her eyes closed.
"My she-beast," says the voice of the Mistress.
Doesn't she understand? But names are inside things. The Mistress has to understand. Ru tries again, louder. "Rooh!"
"Yes, my good Guardian, I know. You brought the Holder to me. But she's dying. I doubt you meant to harm her, but if she can't hold onto her own spirit, how could she hold mine?"
Ru struggles to understand. "Spirit" must be the thing that's making the bones speak to her with the Mistress' voice. The thing that leaves intruders when Ru kills them. The thing that's leaving Suha now.
The Mistress sighs; a faint wisp of sound. "I suppose there's only one alternative. Come here, my she-beast."
Ru leaves off nosing Suha and crouches before the bones. The golden light wraps around her like a memory of caressing hands. It flows inside of Ru and shows her new things.
Words. Thousands of words, like leaves on trees. The Mistress will share all these words with her. She'll know how to read, and how to study the stars, and how to work miracles on the most secret parts of the body. All she has to do is let this remnant of the Mistress inside her. It will have a body again. Ru's body. Ru will have a glimpse of more inside things than she could ever imagine.
The light hollows Ru out, illuminates her, leaves her empty and waiting. Ru feels like a cup waiting to be filled, and the Mistress is waiting to fill her. All it will take is a touch.
But there are no illusions where Ru lives. Bones are bones. Bones are dead. Suha is alive, however little.
One last time, Ru kills. She doesn't touch the bones of her Mistress. Instead, she turns away and goes to Suha. Something inside her stretches and breaks.
"My she-beast!" the Mistress' voice cries in dismay, and fades away. The bones are just bones now. A last trace of the golden light lingers within Ru. Ru lies next to Suha, pressing against her, letting the golden light embrace her.
"Ru?" says Suha's voice inside her. Ru feels a moment's violent shock, and then a busy whirring as Suha takes in her situation. Ru catches glimpses of the girl's thoughts as they pick up scraps of ideas the Mistress has left behind.
Oh, but Suha is clever! Ru tingles with joy as she feels the last golden motes blend with Suha's mind and all Suha has read from the book. She's thinking of a way to revive that cooling body on the floor. It might even work. Ru doesn't understand, but she can feel that Suha does.
Ru doesn't try to move, but one paw lifts, flexes like a human hand. Ru startles.
"Sorry, Ru. I suppose that was a bit abrupt of me," says Suha's voice inside her. "Levasarion was right. I do need the Guardian's help. Will you work with me? Please?"
Please. The old Mistress never said Please to her she-beast. Suha has given her another gift. Together, they walk to a nearby table and begin their work.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 26th, 2011


I picture Ru as looking almost like a cross between Lina from George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie and my parents' German Shepherd. She's special to me because she's so much more than she appears to be on the surface.

- Melissa Mead

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