Children gone missing without a trace.
Their location is known,
But its phrase is forbidden.
For no one can be rescued from the stolen’s place.
Melty, that was the word. The hot summer sun blazed down on the small town of Bromsworth, turning the streets to furnace pipes. Waves of heat rose from the dusty cobblestone streets and transformed the brightly colored houses lining them into a hazy melting pot of colors. Hiding behind a dumpster on 5th street, Naren was melting too. Beside her a small boy also hid, crouching on hands and knees, blue eyes locked on the bakery across the street.
“I say we go for operation ‘friendly’,” Fletcher, the sharp boy waiting next to her said as he inhaled the scent of the freshly baked bread from the bakery.
“I was thinking that, too,” his mischevous accomplice replied. She drooled as she gazed at the golden brown mounds sitting in the window. “We’ll just have to make sure they don’t recognize us.”
“Wear this,” Fletcher said, opening the dumpster and gesturing to a ragged blue cap. “It’s not a very convincing disguise, but it might work.”
Naren grimaced. The vile odor coming from the hat was morbidly grotesque. “I’d rather go to prison again than wear that, that...” she paused for a moment, searching for the right description. “Thing.”
“Oh, come on. It doesn’t smell that bad, you big chicken,” Fletcher mocked as he mimed chicken wings with his scrawny arms.
Naren retaliated by giving Fletcher a hard smack on the shoulder. “Don’t call me a chicken!”
“Prove it then,” Fletcher smirked, holding the wretched thing out to Naren.
The grubby orphan stuck her tongue out in disgust, but reluctantly took the hat and with a look of anguish and put it on her head. “I’ll get you back for this, you know,” she finished, readying herself to sprint.
“I believe you,” Fletcher replied, his eyes like that of a hawk eyeing its prey as he gazed at his lunch. It sat there in the window display, tantalizing dribbles of sugary frosting calling to his stomach. Fletcher, although hardened and homeless, was still very much a child; like many boys his age, he had a not-so-secret weakness for chocolate cake. And so, even though he and Naren often paid little “visits” to the bakery, the call of the rich velvety mounds of pure goodness never lost their sparkle.
Naren and Fletcher’s tough leather shoes slicked over the cobblestone pavement in less than a second as they torpedoed with nearly inhuman speed towards the open bakery door. As soon as they entered, they sustained a perfect calmness and tried to conceal their heavy breaths.
“Hello, how can I help you kids today?” asked a spry elderly man with strands of graying hair and a wispy beard. Under her floppy blue monstrosity, Naren smirked. Judging by his friendly greeting, the old geezer didn’t suspect a thing.
“We’d like to get this slice of bread to feed our starving family,” Fletcher replied in the most pitiful voice he could muster. “Autumn is almost here and my baby sister won’t be able to survive without some sustenance.”
“Funny, there was a boy with a similar problem just yesterday, said his grandmother was dying of the plague and had a burning desire for one last doughnut...but, no matter. How much money do you have?” the man asked as he smiled affably at the two. Fletcher gulped. He would have to think of a different approach for tomorrow’s “visit.”
Fletcher purposely protruded his lower lip and fished around in his filthy pants pocket. After quite a bit of digging around he pulled out a few corn kernels and a dingy pencil stub,
“This was my birthday present. I know it’s not much but it means so much to me. Please accept this...for my sister.”
“Oh...well--I don’t know...” the old man bit his lip and put a hand on his hip, pondering his decision. “You kids are awfully cute.”
Naren tried to conceal a laugh. Everything was going exactly as she’d expected.
“Don’t do it, Dad!” an irritated voice sounded from upstairs.
“Riley, dear, you’re supposed to be doing your chores!”
“Not when you’re about to give the entire business away!”
The baker frowned, looked back at the two children and sighed. He knew that Riley had a point. “Not today, kids. Business hasn’t been too good lately...especially because of those two rascals who keep on stealing my bread! You can go to the bakery that the nice man down the street owns! He’ll probably give you something to eat.”
Fletcher bit his lip, concealing a snicker. The baker down the street was who they had just robbed. His doughnuts tasted quite nice compared to yesterday’s leftover croissants. Naren and Fletcher glanced at each other and grinned.
An ear-splitting cry filled the calm interior of the bakery.
The old man paused on his way to the kitchen, frozen by the pitiful wails behind him, and turned around. Naren had thrown herself down onto the dirty bakery floor, and was sobbing despondently into her grubby hands.
“WE’RE GOING TO STARVE NOW. ALL BECAUSE OF YOU!! YOU STINGY BAKER, YOU!! WHAT ARE WE GOING TO TELL MOTHER WHEN BUTTERCUP DIES??” Naren wailed.
The old baker’s face filled with anguish and discomfort as he rushed to soothe the crying girl. “Oh, now now. Don’t cry!”
“PLEASE. I BEG YOU,” Naren coughed and sobbed, clinging to the old baker’s arm. “DON’T LET MY FAMILY STARVE!!”
“There there! Don’t cry!” The baker said, somewhat alarmed. He looked out of the bakery window at the intrigued villagers eyeing the sobbing girl and giving him dirty looks. “Shhhhh! You’ll attract too much attention.”
“IT WILL BE THE MOST ATTENTION ANYONE HAS EVER PAID TO ME!!” Naren continued to cry.
“Here, if you stop crying, I’ll give you some bread!”
Naren immediately put an end to her sobs and ran her sleeve across her wet cheeks, stained with pseudo-tears of desperation.
“Yes...you kind sir. Thank you. Thank you so much, you beautiful human being!” Fletcher cried with enthusiasm. Then grinning broadly, he flung his arms wide, accidentally knocking off Naren’s cap in the process. The old baker leaned forward incredulously, putting on his glasses and squinting his eyes. Naren raised her hands, attempting to cover her face from view, but it was too late.
The baker’s eyes widened and he pointed an accusing finger at the two unmasked bread thieves and exclaimed, “It’s you! I thought that you sounded familiar, but I swear, you won’t be getting anything from me this ti--”
Fletcher quickly sprang forward and shoved the baker into the overflowing shelves of bread behind him, causing an avalanche of baked goods to fall from their baskets. Flour rained down on the poor gasping baker, who lay on his back, successfully winded and out of breath. Fletcher and Naren quickly snatched up freshly baked loaves and delicate cakes, shoving them none too gently into a pair of empty baskets. Buried under heaps of golden loaves, the baker was beginning to catch his breath, and shouted,
“R-Riley, come quick! You have to stop them, they’re taking the--!”
Naren quickly stuffed a roll into his mouth, but the damage was already done. Footsteps pounded on the rickety stairs and Riley’s angry voice shouted something incomprehensible. The two thieves quickly picked up their bread baskets and ran for dear life. Fletcher paused at the door to grin back at the puffing baker and yell, “Thanks for the bread, you filthy old man!” before tearing down the street after Naren.
The pair of little criminals only ran a little ways before ducking behind a stack of barrels to rest. Their bellies were still a bit bloated from the morning’s first “visit,” and the bread baskets were very heavy. Naren, from her lofty position atop Fletcher’s shoulders peeked carefully out over the top of the nearest barrel. The streets of Bromsworth were crowded as always. Even on a hot day like this, the farmers still pulled their carts of fresh meat and produce to the market, and groups of cynical housewives perused each tent, carefully inspecting every leaf and stalk. Down in the square, nurses shepherded flocks of eager children who ran all over the place, feeding pigeons, eating ice cream, playing catch with brightly colored leather balls, and throwing copper coins into the large fountain in the square’s crowded center. Naren eyed the coins greedily. Perhaps that night when it got dark, she and Fletcher would pay the fountain a “visit” as well.
“Is she chasing us?” Fletcher asked, sounding slightly worried. Although the pair had become very fast after months of stealing and fleeing from angry shopkeepers. Riley, if provoked, could be even faster.
“Nope! No sign of her,” Naren replied, climbing off of his shoulders and reaching for her basket. “We should go home, I’m hungry.”
“We could always snack now...we have time,” Fletcher suggested, eyeing a large chocolate cupcake peaking out of his own basket.
Naren hesitated for a moment, considering the tempting idea, then shook her head, “No. It’s a good idea, but someone might be using these barrels, and if they find us back here they’ll know that we were stealing. We should eat when we get home just in case.”
Fletcher nodded and picked up his basket, but as soon as Naren turned her back, he stuffed the cupcake into his mouth and wiped away the remaining icing at the corners of his lips with a smirk.
Riley slicked the sweat off of her brow as she defeatedly walked into the entrance of her father’s bake shop.
“Couldn’t catch ’em,” she breathed.
Warren, the old baker, chuckled slightly, seeming almost too optimistic. “It’s not so big of a deal, we’ll just have to bake a few extra loaves tonight.”
“But Dad!” Riley protested. “Those kids are stealing the only thing we have to make a living--the only thing we have to survive! We can’t just let them waltz away with it!” She took a moment to catch her breath. “And they made a huge mess, wasting days worth of flour!”
“Riley,” the old man soothed. “They were hungry and probably didn’t know what else to do--”
“They need to go to prison!”’
“Hush!” Warren interrupted. “They’re only children.”
“I know, but--”
“You were a child too once and you did wrong things without a second thought. Have a little sympathy, will you? I didn’t raise my girl to be cold and heartless.”
“You raised me to stick up for what I think is right and that’s exactly what I’m doing!” Riley pointed her arm out of the window for emphasis. “Those kids are thieves! And they’re hurting our business!”
“I was going to give them something before you told me not to. They’re terribly skinny, Riley. Haven’t you seen them?”
“Maybe that’s because they’ve been burning off the vast amount of calories they’ve consumed by running away from me!” Riley pointed at her chest, eyes wide with seriousness. She had no idea of the humor of what she had just said.
“Go wash up and knead some bread. It soothes you.”
“I’ll get those kids next time…” Riley grumbled as she moped to the bath.
I’ll get those rascals if it’s the last thing I do! Riley thought as she briskly suited herself up for the day ahead. She knew they would be there that day; they always were. She tightened her belt, determination flickering in her amber eyes. Weapons and technology of her own design were fastened snugly into her layered outfit.
Riley scampered down the stairs and readied herself at the counter. This time, she thought, they can’t escape.
The morning dragged by like molasses dripping from a narrow necked vase. Riley waited and waited for Naren and Fletcher to make some form of appearance, yet they were nowhere to be seen. She tapped on the counter and waited on customers, every few moments she would peer out of the shop to see if they were walking by or lurking in an alleyway. Riley huffed and sighed as the day came to an end. The only day that the little rats didn’t show up was the day that she had set the mouse trap to snap on their necks if they came anywhere close to her father’s shop.
Warren would never let Riley harm the children, but he thought it entertaining to watch her try so hard.
“Any luck?” he asked in the most convincing tone he could muster.
“Nope,” Riley sighed, resting her head on her elbows as she stared out of the dark bakery window.
“I’ll let you close up tonight,” Warren said as he hung up his apron by the door and walked up the stairs to his bed. “Maybe they’ll come around last minute and you’ll have your chance to catch them.”
“Ok,” Riley replied hopelessly, beginning to wrap up some unsold pastries and fragile sugary desserts that wouldn’t last the night of they were left out. “I’ll be sure to...”
Riley was cut short by something outside that caught her eye. It looked as if someone had run by. Maybe Dad was right...Riley thought. She looked again, only to see nothing was there. She irately stomped to the threshold and flung the door open.
“Hey!” The feisty girl called outside, ready to fight for and protect her precious baked goods. “If you two tramps even think about getting near this place then you’ll have to answer to me!”
There was no reply, only a gentle breeze that swept through the vacant streets.
Carefully and quietly, Riley grabbed her coat, struck a match on the side of the match box and stepped outside. The heat radiating from it was comforting in the cold darkness of the night.
“Where are you going, Riley?” Warren asked from upstairs.
“Just…” she paused, thinking of a lie. “Putting out the trash,” she replied in a softer tone as she shut the bakery door. The cheery jingling of the bell rang throughout the quiet, barren streets of Bromsworth.
A swift and cold wind blew past Riley, blowing out her match and ruffling up her coat collar.
Fearfully she fumbled for another match and struck it against the box. “Do you think this is funny?” Riley yelled out into the street, still determined that this was because of the two young thieves, but quickly losing faith in her theory. She saw something, a dark and tall figure lurking in the alleyway across the street, but as she walked closer to investigate, another strong wind blew by and snuffed out the luminescent flare emanating from her match.
Riley looked around frantically, but saw nothing. She only heard faint, hoarse whispers. They sent an ethereal chill down her spin and suddenly she knew exactly what was happening.
Rigid with fear, Riley didn’t even bother to light another match. The blackened stub of the previous one slipped through the fingers of her trembling hand and lightly tapped the ground, falling into the crack between two cobblestones.
“Not me,” Riley pleaded through a whisper. “Please not me.” She clenched her eyes shut and didn’t dare to move.
The dark figure swirled around her in a smoke-like fashion, drifting and floating around her figure. It examined her and explored the secrets of her mind, invading her inmost thoughts and dissecting the most indecipherable points of her personality. Riley held her breath unintentionally, so afraid that she couldn’t move or scream. She balled up her hands into fists and stood still. Riley had heard of these creatures before, not human, but not completely monster either, the collectors were mindless servants to whoever controlled The Academy. She had suspicions to if they even existed until that night, now she had no doubts at all, in fact, she never wanted to see one again. The creatures oozed of greed, their teeth glinting gold and eyes shining dark like crimson rubies, but the rest of their forms had no color at all. Their snake-like bodies were nothing but inky voids of smoke-like blackness.
Riley knew close to nothing about The Academy, but she did know that it wasn’t what it was made out to be: a school. Children were taken there to learn, yes, but not in the subjects that one would expect. Only those suited to be rich and powerful were taken to The Academy. Only those who were able to be manipulated easily were even considered. Those who were stolen rarely came back, but when they did they had transformed into something so vile and greedy for power that they were unrecognizable.
The petrified girl’s conscience begged not to be taken and within seconds of her examination, she was let go and the figure flew back into the night. Riley breathed a sigh of relief knowing that she was not a suitable candidate to be stolen and clumsily turned around to go back to her shop, vowing never to go outside at night again. But what she saw was even more frightening than what had just occurred.
“What do you think is happening to her?” Naren whispered to Fletcher as she anxiously stuffed loaves of bread and pastries into her jacket.
“Who knows?” Fletcher replied, rummaging through the drawers behind the stall in search for money. “But whatever it is, I’m glad it’s not me.”
“Fletcher,” Naren scolded as she noticed what he was doing. “I thought we promised never to steal money from good people!”
“How else do you expect us to survive? We can’t live only on picnic pies and muffins! Naren, how else are we going to build lives for ourselves? I want to be someone...I can’t do that by living on the streets and just scraping by.”
Naren thought for a moment and then succumbed to the temptation of joining Fletcher behind the counter and rummaging through the drawers in search of some coins. “I guess you’re right. I bet they have so much money that they won’t even notice this is gone!” Naren lied to make herself feel better. She happily dug through the shelves for something worth keeping. Her smile soon faded and her strong sense of morality set alarms going off inside of her head
“But Fletch, we can work for money.”
“Not if we can steal it!” Fletcher said, grinning at his discovery of a small box filled with silver and copper pennies along with a few wads of paper money.
“These people have to survive too.”
“Since when did you care about people?” Fletcher asked, astonished.
Naren growled and was about to speak, but was interrupted by the bakery door being yanked open. The bell jingled frantically and the once almost quiet shop was filled with Riley’s angry yells.
“I thought I told you never to come back!”
“Run!” Naren yelled, grabbing Fletcher’s hand and sprinting out the door. Clutched in his other hand were enough coins to feed them for months, but also Warren and Riley’s only means of living.
“Come back here!” Riley demanded, sprinting out the shop after them. The bakery door slammed before Warren could come running down the stairs to investigate what was going on.
“Faster!” Fletcher urged as he got ahead of Naren.
“Wait up!” Naren pleaded, reaching out for the bottom of his patched potato sack shirt.
Despite Naren’s pleas for him to wait for her, Fletcher charged ahead, enjoying the thrill of the chase. Sprinting through the alleys and reveling the feeling of the cool night air blowing through his sweat-drenched, grimy hair. The money box clutched tightly in his hand jingled and clanged as Fletcher soared through the streets. Once he got to the barrels that he and Naren usually hid behind, he turned around to see her, a wide grin crossing his face.
“Naren, I think we made--”
Fletcher froze as he realized that he was alone. He stood in a state of astonishment, realizing that he had left her behind. His hoarse and now frantic breaths were all that could be heard in the silent alleyway.
“Naren!!” He shouted fearfully, but to no avail. There wasn’t even the slightest response.
“Na-a-a-aren!!” Fletcher yelled, his voice breaking sweat droplets forming on his brow.
He looked around the alleyways, searching for some sign of his raven-haired friend. He clutched his head in anxiety, frustrated that he ever left her behind.
Seconds later a strangled cry echoed through the streets.
“Fletcher!!” it cried.
Fletcher’s eyes went wide with hope and he charged off into the direction that Naren’s voice came from.
“I’m coming for you, Naren!! Just stay calm!”
Fletcher’s once peaceful sprint was replaced with a frantic scramble throughout the alleyways. He looked around in every tiny crevice and corner, searching for some sign of her. Maybe if she just called out to him again, or maybe if Riley yelled something then he could find them. Sharply and abruptly, something darted in the shadows and struck Fletcher.Now there was only darkness, not even the piercing moonlight could shine through the cloud that surrounded Fletcher. Smoke swirled around him and suddenly he felt chills crawl up his spine, circulating around his neck and seeping into his mind.