It was late afternoon. Rob would be home soon, and Sharon had spent a pleasant day tending the bonsais and planning an exotic dinner. She paused midway through chopping the vegetables. Something—a mother’s instinct, perhaps, or the faintest whisper of sound through the ceiling—compelled her to rinse her hands and head upstairs to check on the baby. She entered the bedroom and froze, one hand still on the door handle.
A Zollner crouched just inside the bay window, ominously still against the moving backdrop of the curtains. Sunlight glittered off its carapace, played like water across the tick-like head and beady eyes. Sharon watched in shock as it slid towards the bassinet on twelve orange, rough-textured tentacles.
Her first coherent thought was of injustice. Two weeks more, and the baby would be three months old. Two weeks more and he would have been safe, and they would have given him a name, and life would have continued normally.
The Zollner reached the bassinet and rose until its eyes were level with the sleeping baby. Sharon felt numb, and tingly, and hollow, and full of energy all at once.
When a Zollner graces your household, you are supposed to stand politely near the wall. You are supposed to praise the Dreamer and rejoice that your offspring has been chosen. And tremble, lest the beast turn its eyes upon you.
Sharon screamed and lunged forward.
She leapt and struck the carapace with her foot. The creature toppled and rolled on its back. Tentacles flailed. One of them slapped Sharon’s face as she snatched the baby from its cushions. Her skin burned from its touch, and she felt welts begin to rise. She pressed the baby to her chest and ran for the stairs.
Behind her, the Zollner dragged itself upright by wrapping its limbs around the furniture. The bassinet and a bedside lamp clattered to the hardwood floor. Sharon heard the hiss of its breath behind her. She did not have to look to know that its beady eyes watched her—hard and cold and merciless—as she fled down the stairs. Its three-hinged beak snapped open, then closed again, as it slithered in pursuit.
She snatched her car keys from the kitchen counter as she passed, slammed the front door and locked it behind her. The baby woke up and began to wail. Sharon did not have time to soothe him.
When a Zollner chooses a child, that is a compliment. It means his mind is shaped for greatness. It means his birth left footprints in the rippling pathways of time. It means his soul casts a shadow on the future.
The key jammed in the car door, sticking and clicking despite Sharon’s frantic efforts to free it. She cursed and kicked the chassis, wishing they’d fixed that lock last summer when it first started breaking. She twisted harder, and the key broke off in her hand. Behind her, the front door splintered.
Sharon pressed the baby’s head to her shoulder with one hand, wrapped her other arm around its body, and ran.
The baby would not stop wailing, and that frightened her more than the orange-and-black apparition that charged through the splintered remains of the doorframe. Her breath echoed in her ears. She could not hear her heartbeat. Perhaps her heart had vanished. She felt nothing but gaping emptiness in her chest.
No one evades a Zollner. No one defies them. They follow scents more keenly than a bloodhound. Smell fear. Taste thought. They can trace the psychic echoes of a man’s life years after his bones have crumbled to dust.
The street bordered on a little stretch of forest, a patch of greenery in the sprawling suburbs. Sharon ducked down the ridge, waded the brook, dodged around the spindly trunks of saplings. She hadn’t entered these woods in years, although she never could bring herself to move away from them.
She felt the Zollner clambering at the edges of her consciousness, twining around her thoughts like a python. It recoiled, as the Zollners always did, from the shadowed place in her mind. She had done her best to suppress her memories, but the deaths themselves still clung to her: psychic echoes, like the stain of blood on stone. The guilt clung to her, too, and that was still fresh despite the intervening years. She cleared her mind and pelted for the abandoned church in the center of the forest.
She had not thought before she grabbed the baby. If she had, she would have chosen to stand mutely in the doorway. Just one more variation on a choice made long ago. Instead she had acted on instinct; was still acting on it, even though she knew the only sane thing to do was to stop, to lay the wailing bundl -- [End of Preview.]