I froze as a careless step sent a shower of pebbles clattering across the street. I signed to Alice, fingers wiggling in complicated patterns: Careful. You’ll bring a Hunter down on us.
She rolled her eyes, shot me a hard-to-resist, dimpled grin, and pointed at a clear blue sky. No leathery wings or pointed beaks in sight. How’d she talk me into this?
Rule 1. Make no noise, lest a Blind Hunter find you.
Alice jerked her head for me to follow and darted around a rusted skeleton of some ancient transport device. Its rubber wheels flattened against the cracked pavement and weeds half consumed it. A door, torn from its hinges, lay crumpled beside it.
I imagined I could hear the cries of its passengers when the Hunters had come for them. Screaming was futile. The war had been all but over when our forefathers realized the invaders hunted by sound.
Movement caught my eye. Alice stood in the doorway of a crumbling building, beckoning me to join her, face shining with excitement. I picked my way towards her, signing furiously: We’re not supposed to be here. If the Enforcers find out we’ll be in trouble.
Rule 23: Entering ruins, without clearance from the Council, is forbidden.
She smiled and flashed back: Don’t worry. The lieutenant owes me a favor.
I sighed and followed her over the threshold. She had friends everywhere. What was she doing here with me?
Inside, the building was cool and shadowy. Compensating for the low light, Alice reached out and signed into my palm: Come on!
She didn’t let go of my hand when she finished, but tugged me down the corridor. My breath caught and I chastised myself – it didn’t mean anything. She did that with everyone. I hoped my palm wasn’t too sweaty.
After a series of turns, we stepped into a large open space. One side of the room had a raised wooden dias with a single chair in the center. Long rows of seats connected to one another and covered in dusty red fabric, faced the platform. The ceiling had caved in, burying half the room. Golden sunlight streamed in from above, illuminating chipped paintings on the walls. I gasped. It was magical. Whatever it was.
I turned, gaping at Alice. She skipped a half step and signed: Isn’t it amazing?
What is it?
She shrugged: Your guess is as good as mine.
Who else knows about this? Devin? Xander? Bessy?
Alice shook her head and pointed at herself, and then me. The thrill of a shared secret rushed through me.
She grabbed my hand again and pulled me down the aisle. Together we clambered up onto the raised platform. A black case sat on the warped planking in front of the straight-backed chair. Alice reached down.
Heart pounding, I yanked her back. What are you doing? Are you crazy?
Rule 13: Do not touch Artifacts. You know not what they do.
She shook me off. Don’t be such a ninny.
My stomach dropped and I studied my toes, face flaming. Alice tilted my chin, forcing me to see her words: Please. I want to show you.
I braced myself as she flipped open the case. Nothing happened.
Within, an hourglass of glossy wood nestled in a velvet cocoon. A black shaft extended off one end, crowned with four pegs. Anchored to each knob was a wire, all of different thicknesses.
Eyes wide, I glanced at Alice: What is it?
She trailed her fingers gently across the strings. Each made a unique noise, blending together into something more. My chest tightened and I stared at Alice in wonder.
Her fingers flew: I think it’s just for making sounds!
A shadow fell across the room. Above, a hunting cry shrilled, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. We froze.
Rule 2: If a Blind Hunter hears you, do not run. Be still. Breath not.
Become soundless and it shan’t take you.
Like statues, we stood motionless until the Hunter circled away. We waited even longer, hearts pounding, before daring to move.
Willing my fingers steady, I signed: Leave that thing.
A shadow crossed her face. I thought you’d like it.
I do. But it’s dangerous.
Her eyes twinkled. It will be our secret.
I closed the case and hid it beneath some rubble, then hand-in-hand, we headed home.
*Prompts: 1. What if music didn’t exist? 2. Include a gregarious character.