New to The Docks? Click here for Episode 1.
Elric’s eyes were on me when I came through the door. He said nothing. My younger brother generally kept to himself unless it was necessary to speak. In his opinion, our family shared too much, even though he was bonded to no one. His lack of ties to us must have presented it’s own difficulties, but if Elric were to be believed, and I didn’t know any reason why he shouldn’t be, the freedom was a fact he appreciated.
To be honest, though, I often found him unsettling. He preferred silence and darkness to the rest of our shared energy and light. My father wasn’t bonded to Jana and I, but he was knotted to my mother, and that tie was a cousin to the bonding women could share.
My mother said knotting had been developed by women to bind men closer to their families—so they could feel the joys of pregnancy and connect with their offspring at birth. Knotting had grown instantly popular despite the risks associated with it; suicide when a spouse was lost, instability when a spouse was physically or mentally unwell, inability to untie the knot when a couple was ill matched, forced knotting, and so on. But there had been advances in the way the knot was tied, and couples today had a modicum of power over how the knot would be constructed. It was rumored the knot could be severed without death, but the risks of that outweighed the benefits. It was better to reform than loose your strings.
“Is she with you?” Elric asked.
I nodded. “And Alan.”
Elric went from seated to his feet instantly. “What?” The word was a hissed whisper. I frowned.
Mother appeared in the doorway. Her eyes were glossy black marbles. “Bring him in.”
I heard Helene’s voice from the next room. “I just had to get out. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” She paused. Her parents had discovered she was gone. They had called the sheriff and combed the town, not considering either of the two places Helene had been: my house and the Docks. My dad got the call just after we’d arrived back, Alan’s petrified body in tow. The town was being put on alert. One citizen dead, another missing. This meant Helene and Alan’s secret pairing would be confirmed within hours, but there wasn’t time for her to think about that.
“Mom, I know.” Frustration rippled through her. I moved to the doorway, figuring if I was going to listen in, I might as well be up-front about it. She glanced at me briefly. “No, Bria and I have never been particularly close.” She glanced at me again, brow furrowed. “No, I don’t really know why I came here.” There was more silence as Helene turned her eyes over the wood-paneled room and it’s contents. She toyed with the straight black cord of our old-style phone. The room was furnished with antiques—heirlooms passed from one generation of women in my family to the next, as well as a few odds and ends from my father’s desert days. Helene stared at the skin and fur of a woolly beast beneath her bare feet. “Listen. I just needed to get away. This is all so hard. I wanted to be somewhere that didn’t remind me-“ She choked, but pulled herself back together. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. But I need some time. You can understand that, right?”
I caught the scent of a family secret. Had Helene’s mother been knotted before? It was unusual to make a second tie if you’d lost or ended the first one. The process was so painful most couldn’t bear to repeat it.
Helene’s eyes jumped to me as if she followed my thoughts. I frowned and stepped away from the doorway. Soon I would have to tell her about the bond. I’d already taken over her body twice. Even if she didn’t have the aptitude to bond on her own, she must know something unusual was going on between us. What other reason would there be for her to seek the town’s most introverted daughter of its least-loved family out to share her intensely personal grief with?
I went to find my mother, my slippered feet scuffing over our hardwood floors. The inside of our entire house was wood with the exception of the ceilings. This often frustrated me. There was no way I could punch a hole through wood, and now was one of those times when I’d really like to make a hole in something.
What had I gotten myself into? Why hadn’t I already figured out that bonding was largely hereditary? I was certain my sister had figured it out. Elric seemed to have some quiet knowledge, but with him you could never tell. He had this silent, piercing presence. My mother remarked once that he was highly attuned. When I asked her what it meant, she’d frowned and shaken her head. “Nothing to worry about,” she’d said. I wouldn’t have worried if she’d put it any other way, but I felt the echo of the word in her mind and knew she was concerned.
Elric cleared his throat. My head snapped up and I met his eyes.
“So . . .” he said.
I chewed my lower lip.
“Any thoughts on what’s next?” His voice was lowered. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like he wanted to tell me something without anyone else hearing. Unusual. Elric and I had never been that close. He was much closer with Jana, but then everyone was. She was a magnet for affection due to her empathic nature.
I pulled the door shut behind me and sat next to Elric on one of the floor cushions my mother had scattered about the receiving room. “I have no idea,” I told my brother. “We found a body out there. No one ever comes back from the Docks.”
Elric leaned against my shoulder the way he used to when he was a little boy. “Bri-Bri,” he said, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“So what is it, Elric?” I asked, grinning at him. “You’ve got something happening in that too-big head of yours.” I thumped his skull lightly.
“You got me, Big Sis,” he smiled, but the teasing look fell away. “This whole thing is ringing some bells for me. You know how Dad gives me full access to his library?”
I hadn’t known that. Dad kept what we were allowed to read limited when we were younger, and I’d never been interested enough to ask for full access. I was still working on the chronicles Dad kept accessible for us to worry about what was inaccessible. Then again, I was neither as curious or as gifted a reader as Elric was. We’d discovered some years back that Elric’s brain was a sponge for written words and languages. It was like he scanned it all in and filed it. All he had to do was pull up the file he wanted to review and the information was there.
“Well,” Elric continued. “I remembered reading about stone men.”
“And women. Stone people, I guess. Or people who were once alive and were frozen in death.”
“Frozen in death?” I had an idea of where he was headed.
“Not cold. These people were described as smooth, rock-hard, and could only be destroyed by fire.”
Elric had just struck the gut of my fear. “You can burn them?”
“You could.” Elric gave me a measured look that left him looking much older than twelve and much taller than he truly was. “Oh.” He got what I was thinking. “Indestructible otherwise, though. Meaning they don’t chip or wear. They were like stone, all in one piece.” I was still gaping at him. He offered, “You wouldn’t mistake them for driftwood.”
Breath spilled out of me. “Okay. Right.”
“Was this in a History chronicle?” I recomposed myself, slipping an arm around him. I felt cold and he was warm.
“No. It was actually in one of the Stories.”
I mulled that over. It was well known that the Stories stemmed from fact, but they were so convoluted and so old, it was impossible to know which parts were truth versus fiction until the truth hit you in the face. Was that what was happening here? Alan’s stone-like corpse was now propped up like a statue in our basement. It was unreal and disturbing. Could the Stories explain his physical remains?
“That’s not all,” Elric added.
“What else is there?”
“The Elemental Beast.” His voice was pitched just above a whisper. “I’ve read all the Stories, and every mention of the stone people coincides—“
“You’ve read ALL the Stories?” There were said to be one thousand known Stories. Where had he gotten them all? Did Dad have them all tucked away in our house? Had he uncovered any of the hidden Stories lost to the ages? With Elric, it was entirely possible.
Elric let out an exasperated sigh. “Listen, Bria. Dad has most of them. You can access plenty in the public sphere or get them Viral.”
“Viral? Elric, what have you been doing?” I pulled away from him so I could see his face.
“Relax, Big Sis. I haven’t been Viral. But plenty of people have and they’ve recorded the information they found in the Lines. You don’t have to go Viral to get Viral.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. Elric was vicious when he was irritated. “Wait.” The other words he said clicked in my head. “What was that about an Elemental Beast?”
“You know,” he told me. “The Elemental Beast.”
I blinked at him.
“You don’t know.” Elric rolled his eyes and took on the tone of an exasperated adult talking to a very stupid child. “The Elemental Beast is one that has power over the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.”
I blinked at him again, very much feeling like a stupid child.
“Um, okay. So, what I’ve come across implies that the beast can live in earth or water, takes to air and breathes fire.”
Before I could articulate the myriad thoughts crashing around in my head, a door opened and a tearful Helene came into the room. “Can I . . . talk to you?” She sounded as though she didn’t truly want to engage me in conversation.
“On the porch?” I asked. “Back porch?”
“That sounds good.” She cast a weary glance at Elric. “Hello.”
“Hi,” he said, then looked at me. “I can find those chronicles for you.”
“That would be great! You know where they are?”
He tapped his head.