Authors: Daryl Banner
“Yes, good,” says the doctor. He regards John again, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “All we need to do is fix your arms and face, scan the functionality of your Anima, and you should be out of here within the hour. I’ll take you to the operating room now.” John’s eyes flash at me for a moment, and the doctor adds, “You will be reunited with your Reaper Winter right after. And on your own two perfectly working feet, no less.”
Reaper. The word disquiets me, but that’s exactly what I am: John’s Reaper who pulled him from the earth.
“Oh.” John’s eyes still linger on me, melting me. “Okay. Soon, then,” he says, as if making sure it’s absolutely certain. I find myself smiling, touched.
“Soon,” agrees the doctor.
The rain stops abruptly. I turn my head, shocked by its sudden departure. It cut off just like a shower, as though a man in the sky twisted some magic knob. The sirens have silenced, too.
“Sky’s been so grey ever since I first opened my eyes,” John remarks. “Now the rain’s all gone and the sun can finally come out.”
I stare sadly into his chilly grey eye. “Yes,” I agree, not having the heart to tell him he’ll never see the sun again.
Collin takes the bed—which I realize only now is on wheels—and rolls his newest patient out of the room. I suddenly realize I’m not ready to let John go for a second time, so I follow. I’m studying his face as if there’s a puzzle I’m still attempting to solve. I want to know this new John. I want to figure him out.
“Ooh,” he murmurs as he’s rolled down a hall lined with wide, ceiling-high windows. “The
Impulsively, I grip his hand. “John. I want to tell you something …”
“So beautiful,” he sings, still staring out the windows. I’m sure he’d happily squeeze my hand back if he could. I’ll just keep telling myself that. “How the sunset just … sets the sky on fire.”
“Yes.” Then I flinch. “Wait … what?”
“It’s my favorite time of day,” he tells me, flashing his eyes, the brown one and the grey. “Hey, doctor. Now that all that grey of the storm’s going away, can we just stay here and watch the sunset for a while?”
I speak steadily, gently. “John. There’s no … There isn’t any …”
“Don’t you like sunsets?” He laughs, dazzled by … whatever he thinks he’s seeing, his eyes transfixed to the window and positively hypnotized. Is this a game? Is he pretending? Is he making a big show for us?
Or does he really see …?
“Winter,” he goes on, “you really ought to get home before the sun’s down, don’t you think? This whole body-fixing-thing’s gonna take an hour or so—Right, doctor? I reckon it’ll be dark by then …”
My hand slips from his. I’m staring at him in disbelief.
Doctor Collin, unfazed, continues rolling my John down the hall. He lifts his chin, squirming and struggling to keep me in his line of sight. “W-Winter?” he calls out, his sagging face reflecting the alarm in mine. “What’s wrong? Was it something I said?” I glance out the large windows at the grey … endless … nothing … sunless sky. Then I look back at my John, confounded.
“Winter??” he calls out.
Until he’s around the bend, his eyes never leave mine.
C H A P T E R – T W O
T W E L V E
I return to the waiting room and find twelve empty chairs. No one else is here, so I take one of them. Now there are eleven empty chairs. I don’t know what to do with my hands. The room is so horribly quiet. It’s an assault on the senses, to have been surrounded by the same whispers and gusts of wind ceaselessly for years, and then to plunge into the iron-hard silence of a waiting room. I never knew silence could be so loud.
The silence is softly slain by a voice I haven’t heard in twelve years. “Winter.”
I turn. Standing there is the sleek, bone-thin, dressed-in-black-from-head-to-toe woman named Helena. Her jet hair is still cropped abruptly at the neck where it curls sharply, and a spread of black beads adorn her tight, thin neck. Two black lace gloves run up her arms to the elbow and enormous hoop earrings—presumably made of steel—hang from her death-white ears.
“Hel,” I cry out, overcome, and before I know it, I’ve crashed into her for the world’s biggest hug. I might break every inch of her spine with this hug, but I don’t care. When I feel her arms wrap around me and squeeze back, I realize she doesn’t either.
Helena was the first person I ever met in this cruel, broken world. She was my Reaper, the person who pulled
out of the earth on
first day as an Undead. I still remember the floating, otherworldly experience of not knowing whatsoever who I was, where I came from, and yet feeling like I ought to. I knew I had a life, yet knew nothing of it. My only reaction was to scream. I felt in miserable pain somehow. I felt agony. I felt bitter cold and afire all over.
Now it’s John’s first day and he acts like he’s just been brought to an amusement park. I have no explanation.
“Helena,” I finally say, breaking apart from her, though my hands stay desperately clutched to her arms. “There’s so much I need to know. Why are we in this miserable place? What’s wrong with Trenton? What’s happened in the last decade? Who’s still alive? Who’s …” The questions just pour out in a messy barrage of words.
“Quiet, quiet, you’re giving me a headache.” She runs a bony hand through my hair. “Sit down,” she finally says. I do as I’m told, dropping into my chair. Helena takes the one next to mine, her eyelids heavy. “A lot’s happened, of course, so much that we could sit here in this room and discuss it until our asses turn into cement. But I don’t think that serves you or your emotions best. I think it more helpful, for now, to just let things be and … take in this new world one horrible bit at a time.”
I take a deep, unnecessary breath. “Okay.”
“Good. There are many developments that have occurred. I’m not going to sugar my words, dear. I hope you’re adequately steeled for whatever you might learn.”
as I can be,” I remark with dark humor.
She misses the humor and the steel-pun she lent me. “You should also realize, the city is going to be a bit distracted by the fact that John was Risen from the earth. You realize, we haven’t had a Raise in a very, very long time. It was our understanding that the Whispers had given all they were going to, and that you … well …”
I find myself picking up what she just put down. “You thought I was waiting out there in vain? Is that what you mean? You and … and all the others thought that I …” Helena’s eyes regard me tiredly. I’m almost hurt by the implication. “Well, your worries are clearly misplaced, as John, the one and only, has clearly Risen and he’s being given some serious Upkeep by Collin, and I’m—”
“I told you, the transition to this world will not be pleasant. I did warn you to steel yourself.”
I sigh, rolling my eyes. “Right.”
“A lot has happened since Garden.” She puts a hand on my shoulder, which suddenly and horribly reminds me of my first day as an Undead in Trenton. I even fight the same exact urge to shrug it off. “After Grim left, the world changed.”
Memories of the devastation at the Garden surge forth like a great flood, filling my eyes and my head and my throat, threatening to drown me in terror. I know I have no pulse, but I swear I feel anxiety welling up in me so tight I could burst. Or maybe it’s the fact that suddenly I find myself thinking about yet
man I used to love, a man who saved me when I first came into this world, a man named Grimsky.
“I’m not sure I like this changed world,” I say to myself. “I’m not sure I like any of it.”
“Let’s see the Mayor.” Helena rises, extends her hand. “We’ll get you a house. That should ease your whining.”
“Yes.” She wiggles her fingers impatiently. “Come.” I hesitate, glancing back at the hall where John was swept off. “He’s not going anywhere, Winter. Collin’s making him less ugly. He’ll join us when he’s whole again.”
“Whole,” I echo. There are so many feelings tearing me up inside, which is hilarious to say because I have neither pulse nor breath as evidence of my inner turmoil, but it’s my thought anyway and I’m entitled to it.
And I wonder if any of us will ever be “whole” again.
“Come,” she repeats.
We depart the hospital from the actual entrance, spilling into an alley of garages with ribbed metal doors. The wind snaking through the alleys howls, reminding me all too much of the days when this place hosted countless Humans and Undead, held prisoner for the purposes of torture or of being eaten. The world would never been the same after the grossly deformed Undead—called the Deathless—discovered that a bite of Human would grant them a temporary experience of living, including revived senses of taste and smell and the ability to see the sun.
“I feel compelled to ask something,” Helena says to me as we walk, “but it feels a bit unfair.”
“How does it feel to … have him back?”
I worry about my answer. Then suddenly I realize: “I never lost him. Not really.” Twelve years didn’t touch me. For all my mind or consciousness cares, I brought him to the Whispers, buried him, blinked, then witnessed his hand burst forth.
“You can be straight with me, as I’m always straight with you,” she assures me. “I’ve never been a person you had to lie to.”
Truth is, it isn’t that I want to lie to her or withhold my fears; it’s that I’m afraid if I say them aloud, they’ll come true.
“Perhaps you need some more time,” Helena decides, sighing. “Twelve years wasn’t enough, apparently.”
The alley of garages opens into a vast courtyard filled with rows upon rows upon rows of vegetable sprouts and greenery. As we pass, I see tomatoes. I see peppers. I see carrots and parsley and green onions and radishes. I see turnips and lettuce and cabbage. And yes, Ann, I see the parsnip. I feel inspired to make some grocery store joke, but the humor doesn’t come. Instead, I say, “Seems twelve years was plenty enough for everything else to come back to life.”
“It was all prettier dead.” Helena brushes a hand over the leafy palms of a tomato bush and I observe as they totally do
bend away in recoil.
Maybe this new world welcomes us.
A very tall building shaped like a cylinder with a box stabbed through it looms ahead, flanked by giant trees and webbed with ivy crawling up either wall like pointy green sideburns. An enormous window at the top gives the structure the look of a giant metal Cyclops and seems to overlook the whole of the Necropolis. It lends me an eerie memory of a certain Deathless King-Queen who would similarly watch over her Deathless domain.
“I figured the Chief would be Mayor,” I remark as we enter the creepy Cyclops building. A chilly wind follows us in to disturb two tapestries that hang from the walls. Pictures of oddly-shaped beasts and trees with eyes decorate the tapestries. Two uniformed men sit at a desk and they lift their bearded chins to us as we approach.
“No,” Helena answers me unhelpfully, then addresses the men at the desk: “Helena of the Sixth with Winter of the …” She regards me hesitantly. “Of the now Third. Call the Mayor. She will want to know that Winter and John have arrived, Risen, and are in need of a residence.”
The men look at each other, then ogle me with slackened jaws. “Winter?” one says. “
“Call the Mayor,” Helena repeats patiently.
While one man continues to ogle, the other fumbles for a walkie-talkie thing on the desk. He finally brings it to his mouth, then nervously says, “M-M-Mayor. Winter has come … She’s standing in front of me, and … and … Helena is escorting, and requests an audience with you.” He licks his lips, trembling. The device beeps twice. He sets it down and nods to Helena. “The Mayor awaits.”
“Thank you,” says Helena dryly, then begins to draw me toward the stairwell, which spirals up along the wall of the cylindrical building.
“Is it true?” calls out the other man from the desk, startling me. “Is it true that … that you single-handedly slayed the Deathless King? Is it true that a whole army of Deathless knelt to you? Did you really destroy Prince Grimsky and his Green Army?”
Ushered up the steps by Helena, I’m only left to gawp stupidly at the man before losing sight of him as we ascend to the next level.
I turn to Helena. “Uh … Prince Grimsky?”
“Never mind it,” says Helena. “It’s what they called him after Garden. Prince Grimsky of the Damned. The Green Prince. Blah, blah, I’m so sick of sensationalism.”
We’re ascending another set of spiral steps, already leaving the second level before I can even take note of what it looks like. “Why do I feel like everyone’s talking about me?”
“Because you’re so full of yourself,” Helena answers.
I ignore the jape. “Even the men at the gate thought I was kidding when I said my name,” I point out.
“Well … you’re a bit of a legend, Winter.” She smirks at me. “Don’t get all big-headed about it.”