Authors: Karina Sumner-Smith
For there, just behind the ghost, hovered an elevator. The device was no bigger than her palm, and held within it tightly coiled spells that could unfurl and wrap around a passenger to bear them aloft. She hadn’t called it—had no way of calling it. She could only assume that it was sweeping the ruins for straggling City adventurers, come to wander and hike through the ruins as some crazy few were wont to do, and had found her instead.
As she watched, its status light flashed yellow, yellow, yellow . . . green, its indecision giving way to a grudging willingness to bear her aloft. Xhea stared in shock. Never before had an elevator so much as registered her existence, never mind offered to take her to the City, no matter how high she was on renai. With no magical signature, she had no way to prove that she was anything other than a living, breathing bit of furniture. But there it was.
She stared, breath caught, as the small device blinked impatiently. She had never been to a Tower, never even come close. Yet she dreamed of them: of walking through one of the great organic structures, or standing on a lacework balcony perched in the sky; of visiting the terraced gardens at the peak of the Central Spire and staring out at all the City stretched below.
Never mind how she’d get home again without bright magic to pay for the passage. No magic to pay for food or shelter or citizenship. They had no use for her above; and whatever gave her the ability to see and speak to ghosts, the darkness that tainted her vision and seemed to pool inside her like a black and silent lake, would be of no more use there than in the Lower City. She would only ever imagine what the world looked like from so high.
“Why now?” she whispered to it. After so many years of hoping and trying to reach the City, why would it only come to her when she knew too much to take the risk?
There were tears on her cheeks, and angrily she brushed them away.
Turning away, Xhea looked down into the darkness, and stretched with her toes until her feet hit the first rung. She pulled the grate closed above her as she descended into the subway service tunnel, leaving temptation to fade with the last glimmers of daylight.
The ghost’s voice followed her into the darkness, soft and hesitant. “Where are we?”
“In the tunnels. It’s not safe to be outside.”
Not safe for me, anyway
, Xhea thought. There was little that could touch a ghost.
Blind, Xhea dropped the last few feet to track level. Her normal sight needed no light, and shapes were easy to discern when cast only in gray. Yet enough of her payment lingered that she saw only black. She fished a small flashlight out of her jacket—kept there for such occasions—and shone the beam around her. The tunnel was cool and damp, smelling of mildew. The only sound was a slow and distant dripping.
“Why didn’t you take the elevator? It could have taken us home.”
“This is my home,” Xhea said, voice hard. She stalked down the tunnel, gravel crunching underfoot, swinging the light back and forth more quickly than was warranted. If she could have run and left the ghost behind then, she would have.
Wen’s words returned to her:
You’re callous with the souls in your care
. It wasn’t the ghost’s fault that she was here; probably wasn’t her fault that she was dead, either. For all that Xhea scorned the dead girl for the soft life she’d lived, wouldn’t she herself leap at the chance for that life? To live in a Tower; to never have to think about where she was going to find the next meal, or how to gather enough food to get her through the winter, or store and protect clean water, or keep herself warm.
Xhea forced herself to slow, then turned to meet the ghost’s confused gaze. “I don’t have any magic,” she said. Voice steady, as if the admission brought no shame.
“But I thought—didn’t my father transfer renai to you?”
Her father. Xhea pushed away that piece of information with a shake of her head—it was safer not to know. How could she explain that she just wanted the payment for the high, the way it lit her vision with color and eased the pressure of the darkness that seemed to coil deep within her? The money was useless to her, burning away to nothing.
“I meant, I don’t have
magic. Not even a magical signature.” She might have said that she didn’t have a head for the shock in the ghost’s reaction.
“But that’s not possible,” the dead girl—Shai—protested. “Everyone has magic. It’s the power of
. No one has none.”
Xhea spread her hands wide. “Yet here I am.”
“No, you must be mistaken. Maybe you don’t have enough magic to spare—maybe you don’t know the spells—but
has a magical signature just by being alive.”
“Everyone,” agreed Xhea, “except me.”
“Then . . . why did my father give you money?” The ghost’s voice faltered, and her face, briefly so animated, fell again. “I don’t understand what’s happening. Who are you? Why am I here?”
“Ah.” Xhea turned away. “The great questions in life.” What could she possibly say? It had been a bad idea to even try. Just talking to the ghost made her feel weary.
Xhea had a small room just off the main tunnel, a maintenance space reached by a short flight of stairs. The door, unlocked, creaked open at her touch, and a quick sweep of the flashlight showed no disturbances. It was a crash space, little more, but dry and familiar for all that, with extra clothes, a collection of books and coins and trinkets too dirty or broken to be worth selling, and a pile of blankets in the corner as a bed.
She fell into the pile without pulling off her overstuffed jacket or rain-damp clothes. She burrowed into the blankets’ softness and held the kaleidoscope against her chest for comfort. Her head felt as if it were caught in a tightening vice, and the headache’s pounding promised worse to come before morning.
“I don’t understand . . .” the ghost began again.
“Not now,” Xhea said. Her payment was almost gone. There would be time enough to talk in the morning, discuss the mysteries of life, or the reality of her death, or whatever else the ghost wanted to ramble on about.
“It’s just that . . . well, I—”
She turned the kaleidoscope over and over as she fell asleep, watching the colors fade and darken, blue and green and yellow.
Hours later, the headache’s promise had been made good. Xhea lay curled in a miserable ball in the midst of her blankets, sweating and trembling as she clutched her stomach. She wished she could blame the meat skewers, but coming down off a payment was like this sometimes, as if her body were trying to purge every last spark of magic.
Realizing she was about to be sick, Xhea rushed for her waste bucket and sat clutching it in the darkness. Her eyes still hadn’t adjusted. The dark pressed in from all sides, making the room seem small and frightening. Beside her, the flashlight had grown strangely dim, as if seen through a bank of fog, and cast only a weak, flickering beam across the floor.
Xhea clutched her stomach as she heaved, gagging and choking on the taste of bile. Tears ran down her cheeks, hot and fast; her nose dripped, and sweat seemed to run from every pore as she was violently ill, again and again. Yet despite the taste, she heard no liquid hitting the bucket. She felt the tears run, and sweat; raised her hand to her face and felt only hot, dry skin.
Shaking, she fell back into her nest of blankets, lost to fevered dreams.
When Xhea woke sometime that felt like morning, the worst of the illness had passed. Her normal eyesight had returned, casting the room around her in shades of gray—good thing, as the flashlight appeared to have died entirely—and when she lifted her hands, she managed to keep them from shaking. Yet the strange feeling in the pit of her stomach remained, not nausea but a feeling so intense that she knew not what to name it if not pain.
She struggled out of the damp mess of her blankets, twisted and knotted from her long night. She fetched a bottle of rainwater from the side of the room, and sat sipping it in the hope it might ease the hurt. It was only as she finished the water, tipping back her head to drain the last drops, that she realized she was alone in the small room.
The ghost was gone.
Xhea’s hands flew to her chest where she’d anchored the tether, even as she looked around—as if the ghost might have simply slipped behind the heap of spare clothes or hidden herself beneath the blankets. But the tether was still there, bonded to her breastbone and vibrating softly in time with her heartbeat. Carefully, she followed the length of slippery air with her fingertips. Close to her body it was as wide around as a clenched fist and as strong; yet it thinned quickly, so that at the extent of her arms’ reach it was no wider around than a thread.
Had the ghost found some way to break the tether? Perhaps she’d fought the bond so hard that it snapped. In her state, it wasn’t as if Xhea would have noticed. Except that the tether didn’t seem to be broken, only thinned almost to non-existence.
Perhaps it was only stretched, the ghost girl wandering in the tunnels just beyond the room’s concrete walls. Yet it hadn’t allowed her such freedom the day before—she’d barely been able to get more than a body length from Xhea, and that only with effort. New ghosts, as this one seemed to be, rarely thought about walking through walls, too bound by the habits of their former lives.
Besides, what little tether remained didn’t point outward, but
“Sweetness,” Xhea said. “I need a cigarette.”
, she thought; if the tether wasn’t broken, she could use it to drag the ghost back. She grasped her end of the line and hauled back; yet no matter how she pulled, Xhea remained alone.
“Blight it,” she muttered, pacing. She rubbed sweaty palms on her thighs. There had to be some way to make the girl return—or say bye-bye to the promise of a few weeks’ steady income.
If she couldn’t pull the ghost back physically, perhaps there was some way to call her. What was her name? Xhea struggled to remember.
, she thought.
“Shai?” she said at last, tentatively, and the name sounded right. Her voice echoed from the bare walls. Gods, if she had actually
the ghost . . . She didn’t know how to finish the thought.
Slowly, she built a mental picture of the ghost—no, she reminded herself, of
. Her youth. Her soft, hesitant way of speaking; her confusion. Pale hair and paler eyes. Her slender build and narrow hands; her plum-colored dress, seeming all the more expensive for its simplicity. Her fear. Her tentative questioning, answered curtly or turned aside. Her insistence that she was still alive.
With each detail, Xhea’s mental image of the ghost intensified—as did the pain in her stomach.
Focus on Shai
, she told herself.
But with a sudden lurch, she realized she was going to be sick. She grabbed the bucket.
Lips pressed tight against her stomach’s renewed rebellion, it was her eyes that first betrayed her, leaking tears that felt cold against her cheek. Before she could wipe them away, they began to lift from her skin, up and away—tears that weren’t water at all but something dark that curled and coiled in midair like smoke.
Xhea whimpered, and as her mouth opened more darkness rushed out, fast as breath. She watched as the darkness slipped from between her lips and up through the air.
, she thought,
not good, not good
—too shocked to manage anything more coherent.
As the darkness rose toward the ceiling, it began to twist together into a single line, almost like a finger pointing. No, she realized; it was following the line of the tether, up and out, in response to her call. Xhea was burning, freezing, as if she’d been dipped in alcohol and lit ablaze—and still the darkness poured from her, rising from her whole body as if from every pore, moving like fog, coiling up through the Lower City in search of the ghost.
Stranger still, Xhea could feel the darkness like a phantom limb. It was as if a part of her consciousness eased up through the reinforced concrete, steel, and tile of the subway tunnels, up through gravel and earth, up through asphalt and weeds, and higher still, questing into the air above. And oh, how she wished it would stop—wished she knew some way to lock the creeping fog back inside of her, in the depths of her belly where it had always slept. Not because it hurt, but because this terrible flowing darkness that rushed from her felt . . . good. Strange and frightening, but
. That was the most terrifying thing of all.
” Xhea cried, and the ghost returned with an air-rending crack. She hung at the end of her tether, arms spread wide and head thrown back, hair flying around her face as if in a storm wind. Xhea staggered as the darkness contracted, condensing around them like a veil of night. As she watched, the strange smoke-like substance dissipated as if it were smoke in truth, vanishing into the air.
Xhea all but collapsed onto her nest of blankets, limp and exhausted, the clatter of the coins and charms in her hair the only sound in the suddenly silent room. She stared at the ghost, watching as Shai slowly curled in upon herself until she was as Xhea had first seen her: calm and serene, eyes closed and legs crossed beneath her, hands resting palm-up on her knees.
Xhea rose and crept, shaking, across the cold floor. She could only stand by holding the concrete wall, and even then her knees quivered, weak as a creature newly born.
“Shai?” Xhea whispered, and the ghost opened her eyes.
“I’m only dreaming.” She sounded too heartbroken to cry.
Oh, would that this were a dream
, Xhea thought; all of it a dream, and she would wake to simple darkness, none of it flowing from her like living smoke. She had always felt something dark inside her, a feeling she suppressed with the bright hit of payment, but she had likened it to absence—only a hole where magic should have been. Not this. Even now she felt it curl and coil within her like slow fog; felt the contentment, the satisfaction, that it left in its wake. Xhea shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.