The Haunted Girl of NuLo
When the fortunate ones fled Earth for the orbital Hives, they left behind warrens seething with gangsters and witches, genetic monstrosities and urchins. In one such warren, an orphan girl named Seven is plagued by visions and the voices in her head. While seeking the help of her only friend, Pug, she learns that he has fallen victim to a terrible virus. Now Seven must confront her demons and cross the dying city of NuLo to find a cure before Pug is transformed into a monster.
Seven: The Haunted Girl of NuLo is M.S. Hund’s debut novel. It skirts the line between dystopian science fiction and paranormal fantasy, featuring the likes of witches with machines in their blood and Harlequin-inspired gangsters with chemically-boosted muscles. In the center of all the madness is Seven, a girl who might be insane or might be psychic. Or a little bit of both.
An excerpt from Seven: The Haunted Girl of NuLo
* * *
In a Church Graveyard by Hive-Light
The statue of the Virgin is luminescent, reflecting the glow of the orbital Hives that arc across the night sky. Seven kneels beneath the statue, hands clasped before her and head bowed.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” she murmurs.
The biting chill of the night air carries the promise of snow as she clutches the flesh-warm beads in her hands. Caressing, shifting, counting. She holds the twentieth bead, dull and black, to her lips and lifts mismatched eyes—one green, one gray, both shimmering with tears—to the statue above her.
“Please,” Seven begs the Virgin, her voice trembling. “Make them stop. Make them go.”
The last word catches and dies in her throat, and she lowers her head. Pale fingers shift a fresh bead into place.
“Our Father,” she croaks, then goes rigid. A breeze drifting off the still black surface of the estuary below stirs the dark veil of hair across her face, but she remains motionless. Motionless save for the achingly slow movement of her left hand toward the gravel on which she kneels. Its sharp edges jab her knees through the worn fabric of her trousers, but she blesses the stones as her fingers sink into them slowly, ever so slowly, so as not to make a sound.
Leave me alone, she thinks. Why won’t they just leave me alone? The gravel is so cold that it stings her fingers and palm. Why do you haunt me? Why won’t you go? The thoughts echo through her mind, chased by a laughter that is not her own. She wants to shout at it. Wants to demand that it—that they—leave her, leave her mind. But the Others do not listen. They only chatter and scream and howl and laugh and—
There. A shadow within shadows. Seven rises and swings her arm in a wide arc, gravel sweeping out and spattering against the ivy climbing the church wall with a sound like rain hissing on the dark water of the estuary.
“But what leviathan lurks therein?”
Seven screams and staggers backward, her hands clutching her ears, though she knows the action is futile. She cannot block voices that are already inside of her.
“Out,” she moans. “Get out get out get out get out.”
She screams again as her booted heel smacks against the raised stone border that lines the gravel path, and she falls back into the thorny embrace of leafless rose brambles. Lines of bright pain cross her cheek and palms. She hears the fabric of her jacket tear, but ignores it. Where are the shadows within shadows? Her eyes dart frantically as she rises, the brambles reluctant to let her escape. She turns toward the garden gate. Black iron bars beneath an arch of stone. Only a few steps away.
A shadow looms, large enough to fill the gate.
Seven’s mouth drops open in silent horror. Never so large, she thinks. They’ve never been so large before. Laughter echoes in the unmapped recesses of her haunted head.
“Seven?” the shadow rasps, and a wash of emotions threatens to drown her. Fear, shame, anger, relief, pity. But mostly anger.
“Father Lescale,” she says and clenches her scratched hands. A thorn, torn free during her tumble in the brambles, drives into her left palm. Seven grinds her teeth to keep from crying out at this fresh burst of pain.
“You screamed,” the shadow accuses as it steps free of the gloom that clings to the gate. The glow of the Hives above paints his collar with a ghostly light. A pale noose. His head twitches back and forth, scanning the garden. “Is someone here?”
His face is long and sad, framed by lank gray curls, so like the sheep in the children’s Bible Seven’s mother read to her every night before the coughing and the blood put an end to such things.
Seven shudders and pushes past the priest, shrugging off the arm he attempts to lay across her thin shoulders.
“Let’s go inside, Seven,” he rasps behind her, his words barely distinct from the crunch and spatter of gravel beneath their feet. “Cold,” he mutters, “so cold,” and coughs, a wet and ragged sound.
The side door to the church is ajar, a flickering glow escaping from the gap to light the landing. Seven is three steps from that landing when she sees a dark shape scuttle from the gloom and disappear into the church.
“No,” she whispers, frozen in mid-step, one foot suspended above the gravel path.
The priest circles around her and leans in close. His hands tremble where they rest on her shoulders. His eyes are lost in bruised shadow, his voice little more than a whisper to keep the coughing at bay.
Seven shakes her head, feels his hands tighten their grip.
“No,” she says, louder than she intended. Her words echo back off the stone wall of the church and resound in sing-song parody within her head. She shakes her head violently. Tears fly from her cheeks. “No,” she says again, even more loudly, trying to drown out the rising babble within her.
In one swift movement she dislodges Father Lescale’s grip. She feels a momentary twinge of guilt when she realizes how weak his grasp is, but the twinge is buried beneath a panic that threatens to overwhelm her.
“No,” she shouts as she turns, though whether to the priest or to the shadows or to the voices of the Others in her head she is not sure. She staggers down the hill, running from the church, running from the past. Ahead, the lights of Dockside beckon.
* * *
“Seven,” Father Lescale croaks, the sound lost beneath the gravel scattering from the girl’s boots. His outstretched fingers hook into claws as the fit seizes him. Lungs boil, throat burns. The first cough doubles him over. The second drives him to his knees as it is ripped from him. Sharp stones sting the heels of his palms. He clutches at his chest, at his throat, unable to stop the coughing. Blood, black in the Hiveglow, speckles the pale path beneath him.
Lescale collapses onto his side, one final cough dragging a ragged moan of surrender from his lips. He cannot move, dares not move lest the coughing return. The hot metal tang of blood fills his mouth. I’m dying, he thinks, and wonders if that would be so bad.
No more suffering, no more pain.
His gaze is fixed upon an empty street. Seven has disappeared, swallowed by the night.
Blood trickles in a line from Lescale’s mouth to the gravel below, cooling upon his cheek. No, he thinks through a red-tinged haze of pain, not yet. The end must wait.
An image of Seven comes to him. Her head is bowed, her hair a dark, wild tangle as she stands beside a rectangular hole and a pile of shoveled dirt. She holds out her hand and her fingers fall open. Dirt slides through the gaps to fall on the rough wooden box in the hole. She blinks her mismatched eyes.
They are alone, he and Seven, beneath a blanket of low clouds spitting intermittent bursts of rain and sleet. A weeping sky. Weeping for Seven’s dead mother.
“I promised,” he hisses in the faintest of whispers.
* * *
Seven staggers down the hill toward Dockside, nervous eyes tracking every shadow. Guilt hangs heavy upon her. She can still hear echoes of Father Lescale, his ragged shout giving way to coughing—that endless and merciless wet coughing as he drowns in his own blood, his body consuming itself from within. A familiar and fitting punishment, she thinks, knowing where this line of thought will inevitably lead.
She does not turn, but she can feel the weight of the dark hill looming behind her, bloated with memory and suspicion, whispers and disguised glances. Disgrace. Disgust. Shame. Hatred. The words hiss in her ears, in her mind, and she cannot tell where her own thoughts end and the voices of the Others begin. Something half-seen skitters at the edge of her vision and she stumbles to a halt, staring after it. Trash, she convinces herself, a plastic bag driven by the wind, though she cannot be certain.
“First the voices,” she whispers to the silent street. She lifts a hand and wiggles her fingers as if tickling the almost tangible gloom. “And now shadows.”
Seven trembles, nerves frayed like the hem of Father Lescale’s cassock. Frayed because Mother is no longer around to repair it, and the priest has neither the ambition nor the strength to do it himself.
As she starts to shuffle forward, she pulls her own battered coat tightly around her in an attempt to keep out the icy breath of the wind blowing off the water. The zipper is broken so she crosses her arms to keep it closed, hands hidden in the over-large sleeves. None of her clothes, unwanted and abused garments scavenged from the church’s donation pile, fit properly.
Taking a deep breath, she squeezes her eyes shut, enjoying the pleasing pressure, then quickly opens them to scan the shadowed mouths of the alleys and doorways lining the vacant street in this limbo neighborhood between hill and Dockside. It is a place that has been steadily abandoned as sickness spread and faith waned. None of those shadows move now, but she knows that something was stalking her back at St. Mary’s, watching her as she swept the chapel and then again in the Hive-lit garden. Something in the shadows. Of the shadows. Lurking in the ivy.
Her scalp prickles, and she wonders if it is watching her now. She focuses directly ahead, refusing to let her eyes drift again to the treacherous shadows for fear that one fatal glance will unlock something dark and skulking to haunt the corners of her eyes and prey upon her traitorous, wicked mind. Ahead lies the warren. Dockside. Ahead lies light and sin and life and sound and—
The corners of Seven’s lips curl up slightly. Yes, Pug will help. Pug is her friend. Her only friend. But Pug has connections. Pug was the one who had found the pills that softened the sharp edges and reduced the cacophony in her mind to a soft, pleasant buzz. Faithful Pug would not fail her. But where to find him at night, his working time?
She pauses. Already, she can hear and smell the noise and bodies of the warren ahead, but she lingers in the borderland, in the abandoned streets that buffer the hill of St. Mary-of-the-Sea from this den of thieves and sinners, gangsters and witches, unsure of how she should proceed. The distraction of sensation beckons, blessed competition for the voices.
Memory, thus prompted, opens a window in her mind. Mother, bustling about the chapel in the grips of a cleaning fury, the dust-filled air sharp with chemical odors. “No demon,” she says, eyes blazing and righteous, “will have a child of mine. Remember, Seven. Remember why I gave you that name. Fight temptation. For them, for the other six…”
Seven shakes her head, blinking back tears that blur her vision, the voice in her memory fading into the rising babble of the Others. This sort of reverie, this wallowing in guilt and memory so common in the empty silences of St. Mary’s, draws them, amplifies them. Moths to her own frightened and timid flame.
No such silence, no such emptiness, exists in the bustle of the warren. Seven staggers toward the dying amber lights of Dockside pursued by a muttering mass she cannot leave behind.
Nor can she escape her memories. She remembers the lights of the Warren being brighter and more numerous in her childhood. She remembers trailing in her mother’s wake, being dragged from home to home, market to church. She remembers her mother’s long tweed coat, uniformly brown from a distance but composed of myriad shades of thread up close. The scent of it comes to her now. The tang of chemical cleaners as Mother presses Seven’s face into the coat, shielding her innocent eyes from some horror or perversity in the Sodomite alleys of the warren that is Dockside.
Seven stumbles as if she has anticipated a step that does not exist. There are people around her now. More people than she has seen in months. Shoulders and elbows and spitted curses about her awkwardness chase her from the pavement. She crouches beside a bush, spindly and leafless like a grasping claw, and hugs herself beneath unfriendly and uncaring eyes.
The smell. That chemical smell. It has escaped memory to assault her nostrils. She smells her mother’s coat. Seven’s eyes, wide and wild, dart back and forth rapidly. A shadow crawls from a sewer grating on the opposite side of the street and is lost behind a forest of legs. She huddles lower, an uncontrollable vibration spreading from deep in her night-chilled core along her arms and legs, to tingling hands and frozen feet. All memory of time, of place, of prior destination, evaporate.
Panic sets in.
“Mother’s coat,” a voice hisses, thin and nasty, from just behind—no, from inside—her left ear. “A rainbow hidden in the darkness.”
The voice, a rare solitary voice distinct from the babble of the Others, cackles and dissolves into several competing and overlapping voices. Seven moans and grabs at her ears, her pale fingers hooked in the dark tangle of her hair. The surging voices divide again and are absorbed back into the muttering mass. Several Docksiders have paused to stare at her. Some jaded souls shrug and move on. Others laugh and point, entertained by her distress, hungry for something that will make their own miserable lives seem less desperate.
“Shut. Up.” Seven spits the words between clenched teeth, making each distinct, unsure if she intends them to be directed at the voices of the Others or the watching Docksiders.
The babbling in her head becomes a rising flood. Seven groans and yanks at her hair, willing the pain to distract her, to disperse them. They laugh in response. Laughter within, laughter without. The amber lights lining the street strobe and split into multiple hues. Like the threads of Mother’s coat, she thinks, astonished. None of those gathered around her, feeding upon her misery, stand close enough to touch her, but she still feels the brush of rough fabric—could it be tweed?—against her cheek. Mother’s coat. She wants to scream.
Instead, Seven does what she has always done. She runs.
Through a parasitic crowd that falls back as if her madness might be infectious. Past the burned-out skeletons of gas-burners from before the Ascension. Past bodies huddled close to fires blazing in rusting trash cans. Past squalid encampments outside buildings marked with large red crosses.
Ragged coughing there, the stench of blood, both so familiar.
Past smashed windows and weed-split concrete, crumbling brickwork and defaced statuary from a gentler age. Past signs for food, drink, sex, drugs—advertisements for any and every sin available to the denizens of Dockside NuLo. The glowing arc of the orbital Hives stretches across the night sky above the warren in the mockery of a smile. It shines down on the pitiful masses huddled below. On the have-nots left behind after the Ascension of their betters.
Seven staggers against a wall, allows herself to slide down the rough brick, feels it catch and pull at the already-torn fabric of her jacket. Her hands are still buried in her tangled hair. Drugs, she remembers. Pug’s pills.
“Selfish girl. Wicked girl.”
She fights for clarity through the onslaught of the Others, demons all, buzzing within her, their cries echoing inside her skull. Her traitorous eyes, desperate and searching, alight upon the dark face and lit crown of possible salvation.
“The Nockmarket,” she breathes.
There will be Syndicate reps within. Drugs. Pills to make the world soft and quiet.
Thoughts of Pug temporarily forgotten in the wake of this new promise of relief, Seven stands and lurches toward the building.