This is an Aftermath story. In the previous part of the story, Damian and his friend Nikolai find shelter in a ruined house in the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside Ipswich. They meet a deformed woman who gives them food and shelter.
“Do you live here by yourself?” Damian asked.
“No, there are several of us, but they will not show themselves yet,” she said. “We are the Strangemans.”
“The Strangemen?” Nikolai asked.
“Strangemans,” she corrected, smiling with yellowed fangs. “For changed people like us, even the language must change. We are men no longer, or women. But where are you coming from, and where are you going?”
“We came from Ipswich,” Damian said. “I—I don’t know where we are going though.”
“You are not the first to run away from that place, although most who flee thoughtlessly out here die quickly. It was fortunate you came across our house. I will give you a choice. If you wish, you may become one of us. You will have food and shelter, and more importantly, allies. Or you may leave. We will give you some food to take with you if you choose.
“How many of you are there?” Damian asked.
“Several,” she said again. “The witchers—raiders from Ipswich—hunt us if they find us, so we never tell our number or faces to outsiders. I’m am an ambassador of sorts. You may think about it, if you wish.”
“I will join you,” Damian said immediately.
“Me too,” Nikolai said. He eyed the empty bowl in front of him.
“Are you sure?” she said. “There is a sort of test to join us, but it is quick.”
“I’m sure,” Damian said, looking up into her eyes. He trusted her eyes.
“Very well.” She took his left hand, caressed it and then brought it to her mouth as if to kiss it. The next moment she bit down hard at the first joint of his pinky finger.
Damian screamed and jerked his hand back, but it was done. The woman pulled the tip of his finger out of her mouth, dirty nail and all, and placed it in his trembling right hand.
“Why? Why—” His voice shook from physical and mental shock.
“In a moment,” she said. “We must stop the bleeding.” She bandaged his finger with the care of a mother and then kissed it, as if in benediction.
“There is one more step,” she said. “Now throw it into the fire over there and you will be one of us.” Damian looked down at the tiny bit of bloodied flesh in his hand. Apart from him, it was nothing but a foreign object. He threw it in the fire.
“Now you have given part of yourself to us forever,” the woman said. “And we will protect you with our lives as well.” She held up her left hand and Damian saw the tip of her last finger was missing as well. “Welcome to the Strangemans.”
She turned to Nikolai, but the other boy had backed against the wall, his whole body shaking. “You are next, if you would like,” the woman said.
“No, no! I can’t,” he said. The tears were pouring down his face. “There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way,” she said. “Life out here is no game. If you cannot give of yourself, we cannot give ourselves to you. It is quickly done and the benefits are for a lifetime.”
“Damian! Damian, help me!” Nikolai cried. There was desperation in his voice and Damian understood the crushing dilemma he was in, wanting to belong, but not daring to go through with it. And Damian could not save him, not like he had from the butcher of Ipswich. Only Nikolai could decide. Damian wondered what he would have done if he had known what was coming and how unfair it was for Nikolai to know.
“Be at peace,” the woman said. “You may stay here another day or two at most, unless you decide to join us before then. For right now though, you must stay here.” She turned to Damian. “As for you, newest Strangeman, come meet your brothers and sisters.”