The smell of fresh-baked bread wrapped around her like a warm, comforting hug. There was nothing better in the world. Behind her, the soft shuffle of feet and the sound of breathing told her that Suri was deciding what to do while the bread baked. A smile touched her lips and she turned a little to face her friend.
“You know, you could sit down with me. There’s nothing wrong with that.” If there was something of laughter in her tone, it was the friendly kind, and she was gratified to hear a soft chuckle in return.
“Fine, I’ll sit. I guess it was time for a break anyway.” The older woman shuffled over to a chair and sat down, the wood creaking quietly as it took her weight. “I’m about as impatient for that new bread as you are. And don’t pretend you’re not. I can see the look on your face.”
Esther wrinkled her nose at her friend, then inhaled again, savoring the smell.
“It smells like home. I wish my house could smell like this every day.”
“You could learn to do it yourself, you know.” Suri’s words were encouraging, but before they could pursue the topic, there was a splintery crunch from the hallway, and a squeak of hinges under strain. Esther turned toward the sound, feeling tension crawl up along her spine.
“What was that? Did something-” Suri’s chair scraped backward on the tile as she stood, but her question ended in a shriek of fear.
Esther started to her feet, felt her chair fall over backward and nearly fell with it as one of the legs caught her hard behind the knee. Gritting her teeth against the urge to cry out, she reached for Suri, grasping a handful of the woman’s shirt.
“What is it?” She pulled herself closer. The cups on the table rattled as she bumped into it, heart pounding in her ears.
Rather than answering, Suri shouted at the top of her voice, which hurt Esther’s sensitive ears. The fear in her tone explained the volume, but that didn’t stop her from wincing. “Get out! Get out! You’re not welcome here!” The wild swinging of Suri’s arms did nothing to assure Esther that she knew how to get rid of the silent invader.
What bothered the girl more than her friend’s fear (though that was quite enough, thank you very much) was the fact that she couldn’t hear any footsteps. As far as she could tell, there was no one there. It might have just been the fact that she was blind, but no human person would have been able to get through the hall to the kitchen without making some sort of noise that she would have been able to hear.
That was when Suri went still. More than still - she went cold. Right under Esther’s hand, just as if someone had pressed the shirt to an ice pack instead of living skin, all the warmth was leeched from Suri’s still body and Esther’s fingers. She released her friend with a yelp, rubbing the feeling into her fingers as backed up, realizing too late that she was moving away from the table.
Esther stopped, shaking a little. “Suri?” No answer. “What happened?” Still no answer. No movement. No breathing. The only thing she could hear was her own heartbeat and the rush of air through her nose.
“Little girl.” The words sounded like… like wind through broken glass. It was wrong. And definitely not human. She recognized the voice, and shuddered.
“I’m not,” she protested, as if it mattered. “Why are you here? What did you do to Suri?” The counter was hard and cold when she bumped into it, but it was comfortingly solid. Gripping the edge of the counter, she used it to steady her nerves as she waited for the answer from the thing she couldn’t sense, except for the cold that filled the room and numbed her fingers.
“Little girl,” it repeated, with a slightly different inflection. Telling her she was weak. Small. Helpless.
“I’m not!” she repeated, and took several deep breaths to calm herself. She couldn’t attack it. Not only did she not know where it was, but she was terrible at fighting anyway. Her Other Self was good at getting out of things like this… but did she trust her Other Self? What if her Other Self let Suri die?
“Little girl,” hissed the voice, with a squeaky note of triumph that sent her stumbling into the cupboards. The air around her smelled of ice instead of baking bread. She couldn’t feel her fingers. The cold was like the darkness, taking away the world around her.
She refused. She would not be cut off from the people and the places and the things she loved. Especially not Suri. With a flash of anger, she opened her center to her Other Self.
“This is not your place.” A rush of warmth flooded her core. “You will leave. Now.” She was taller, stronger, and now terribly, painfully aware of the creature in the kitchen. It was a dark, cold presence that touched nothing but affected everything. It was like an icy black fog, condensed into one person-sized point, right beside the solid, motionless, human form of Suri.
Technically, she was still blind, but this was less of a hindrance to Esther’s Other Self, and more of a freedom to use her other senses. She flexed her hands around the staff that told her what was happening on the floor. The tiles were freezing over, and would crack soon if the temperature kept dropping.
Her Other Self didn’t carry any “real” weapons. No blades or guns, at least. But her staff was enough, and though Esther and her Other Self agreed about violence (avoid it unless absolutely necessary) the point at which violence became necessary was a point of contention between them. So while Esther was furious with this creature for using her friend as a shield, hovering so close to Suri’s body that their senses overlapped in places, her Other Self was calculating whether the kitchen window was large enough to allow her to escape quickly. With enough speed, she could leave the creature behind without giving it too great a chance to attack her from the rear.
“Little girl.” It sounded like it was laughing, the broken wind of its voice rising and falling in staccato amusement, like falling icicles. It drifted closer, its essence reaching toward her hungrily.
The window wasn’t large enough. The creature was between her and the front door. And she couldn’t fight it here without causing significant collateral damage. Collateral damage that her Other Self didn’t really think was worth avoiding at the risk of her life. Overruling Esther’s angry protests, her Other Self reached into the pouch at her hip and withdrew a detonator only slightly larger than a golf ball. The metal was smooth and warm, and would make her immediate surroundings much warmer in a minute.
Don’t hurt Suri.
“Little girl.” It was a warning now, a threatening hiss that tickled her ears and burned her pride. She fumbled with the detonator. It was hard to make her fingers work the way she wanted. But it didn’t take much. Twist the top and bottom halves until it clicked. That activated it. Then push the button and toss it to the ground. And back off.
But what about Suri?
“Little girl.” The creature’s tone was coaxing. Wheedling. As much as to say that she didn’t have to hurt her friend. She could just give in. Then they would all live, and no one had to hurt. No one had to be afraid anymore. Amazing how so much could be communicated in just two words.
The detonator clicked between her hands. It was active now. Her Other Self knew what had to be done. Suri was one life. This creature would ruin many lives, if left to itself.
But it’s not that simple! Esther wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. Was she going to lose her friend and her home in one day? And what would happen if she did? How would she recover from a thing like that?
Her Other Self hesitated. It wasn’t much. Only half a second at most. But it was enough for her to know that there was something in her thoughts that had given the other pause. And just like that, they were on the move. The detonator in one hand, her staff in the other, she surged forward, straight through the creature’s essence.
Her hands, her face, her ears - all exposed skin went immediately numb, and it spread inward quickly, but she sensed confusion and surprise from her opponent. It hadn’t expected her to do that, and was unprepared. By the time it had gathered itself properly, she was through it and at the doorway, skidding into the hallway on the icy hardwood and colliding with the opposite wall.
“Little girl!” The broken wind voice shrieked with anger and it turned, but it didn’t follow her.