Authors: Karina Sumner-Smith
Xhea blinked. “Could I use it to what?”
“Um . . . find the Tower by calculating the angles at known points along a line.” Shai’s hesitance made it almost sound like a question.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Xhea said. Except . . .
She frowned, considering, and waved the ghost to silence. If she traveled across the Lower City, and saw how the angle of the tether changed, perhaps she could hone in on the right Tower—or at least reduce the possible Towers to a more reasonable number.
“Hey Shai,” she said. “Can I interest you in a tour of the Lower City?”
Xhea hadn’t truly meant to give a tour—but something about the ghost’s attention, her shock and growing fascination with the Lower City’s decaying buildings and the people who sheltered within them, made Xhea’s familiar haunts feel new. What did Shai see, she wondered. Did she only notice the ruin and decay, the ever-present scents of rust and mildew and damp, cold earth? Did she see how little sunlight reached the Lower City, the Towers like umbrellas that offered not shelter but shadow, the few plants stunted and withering in that shade?
Or could she see the beauty in the stadium arena’s stained patchwork awnings as they underwent their spring repair? Did she feel the freedom of the wide, winding streets of skyscraper Farrow’s territory? All those massive houses, their wide lawns dotted with little more than the stumps of trees burned for firewood. Then there was the warehouse district, where the gangs ran—the highway overpasses, like broken stumps of concrete rainbows—the abandoned gas stations and movie theatres and apartments, all crumbling in ways that made them seem like sculpture.
As they went, Xhea paused to check Shai’s second tether, following the cobweb-thin line as it rose toward the City. Up, it pointed, and somewhere to the south; and as the afternoon passed, they began to narrow in on the location. Their target was not close to the Central Spire, the great golden needle around which the City slowly spun, but farther out toward the edges where Towers gave way to floating factories and growing platforms.
Perhaps Shai and her father weren’t as well-off as she had first supposed.
As for potential transportation, Xhea could only think of one solution: the Edren skyscraper—and the eldest living son of the family that bore the Edren name—owed her a favor. Though Edren was not the most powerful of the Lower City skyscrapers, neither was it insignificant—nor, in truth, was the favor she was owed. It seemed a waste to spend it on a mere taxi ride. But what choice did she have?
She’d turned to check the ghost’s tether again when Shai spasmed. They froze, each staring at the other. Shai tried to speak and jerked again, harder, as if she’d been struck by an invisible fist. They both cried out, Xhea in surprise and Shai in pain, as the ghost was thrown to the far end of her tether. The sudden pull made Xhea stumble forward and fall to her knees. The few people around them suddenly found other things to look at, other places to be. When Xhea managed to push herself up, they were all but alone in the street.
“Shai?” The ghost hung in midair, curled in upon herself and shaking as if from terrible cold. She didn’t respond to Xhea’s voice, only jerked at the end of her line. Xhea tried to grab the tether, but the line of energized air was drawn so tightly between them that its vibration felt akin to pain.
Shai suddenly stopped shivering and uncurled. Though her eyes stayed closed, her head lifted as if in response to a voice that Xhea couldn’t hear. Slowly, she tilted her head back, and the magic within her shone bright enough to rival sunlight.
“Time to wake up,” Shai whispered. She opened her eyes and was gone.
The tether’s tension snapped like an elastic band, and Xhea tumbled back to the asphalt, still trying to grip the length of energized air. As before, the line thinned almost to nothing within reach of her hand—yet that length quivered as it swung through the air, questing like a compass needle toward the vanished ghost. Slowly it settled, pointing upward and out.
Xhea struggled to her feet, trying to gauge its direction. Toward the City, yes, but its angle was not as steep as she had imagined. She moved, trying to get a line of sight on the near-invisible tether joined to the centre of her chest. After one look at Xhea’s flailing, a mother just leaving her building grabbed her child’s hand and hurried back inside.
Had they started the resurrection? All too easily, Xhea could imagine Shai’s screams as spells attempted to force her back into her body, the young ghost’s form slipping into the nightmarish template Xhea’s memory provided. Yet no matter how Xhea moved—running the length of the street and down another, crouching, climbing on garbage to change her angle—she could tell little more than she already knew: the Tower she sought was not overhead, but somewhere to the south. She started to run, trying to find a better way to read the direction the stronger tether provided, cursing with every step.
Cursing—until a sudden thickness in her throat stopped her voice and forward progress in an instant. “No,” Xhea whispered, choking on the word, blinking back a sudden stinging in her eyes like too-cold tears.
Within her, the dark energy began once more to rise, flooding through her body, drawn after the ghost. She clutched her stomach, as if hands alone could hold back the force. Her lips burned with it, and her ears buzzed, as if the magic were trying to be heard, saying:
Set me free
Oh, how she wanted to. She remembered the high she’d felt upon releasing the darkness that morning; she’d never felt that right, that strong, that
. It was a part of her, she knew, the part that she had always been missing—and she knew, just as clearly, that once freed it would work far beyond her control. Hurricanes and earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes: great forces pressed against the boundaries of her flesh and will, begging for release. Wanting to follow Shai.
That morning she had reached for the ghost—had seen Shai in her mind’s eye and willed her to return—and that was all she’d needed to send the black energy pouring from her, vomit and sweat and tears. Now she tried to think of nothing but the asphalt before her strewn with bits of plastic and shards of broken glass, the narrow shoots of new weeds and the dried stems of last year’s plants dried to nothing.
, she told herself. She felt nothing. For the strength the dark magic gave her, the beautiful peace, was a lie; only the pain was real, the hurt in her hands and knees and chest.
And still it rose.
,” she said, not pleading—commanding. Slowly she dragged herself back, scraped palms and bruised knees against the rubble-strewn ground as she moved away from where Shai had been, away from the tether’s pull and Tower that waited on the other end of the line. As if mere body lengths could make a difference. But the boundaries of her skin were far too small to contain such power. Tears ran, cold against her cheeks before rising in dark, languid spirals. She felt the magic in her throat pressing into her mouth, and could not restrain it.
, she thought again, and made a choice. Not vomit, but breath: she exhaled, and a thick coil of dark rose from between her opened lips. Years of smoking made the gesture seem not frightening, but familiar. Known. Or almost so. Oh, Xhea thought, the lies one tells out of desperation. She released a shuddering breath stained dark, and didn’t know if the sound she choked back was hysterical laughter or a sob.
She watched the darkness curl and coil as it made its way upward, moving to the dictates of a wind she could not feel. Moving, she realized, to coil around the thinned tether, rising as the tether rose—but not invisible and near-impossible to trace, but like an arrow formed of smoke, pointing to Shai’s Tower.
Xhea pushed herself to her feet. She exhaled again and thought of Shai; felt the magic turn and almost pull her forward, as if the smoke of her magic rising were another arm, another hand, reaching. Up the darkness pointed, upward and onward toward the City’s far fringes. Over the far ruins, toward the badlands. To know more, she’d have to get closer.
Harnessing the fear that set her heart to pounding, Xhea ran.
Beyond the Lower City core, the city that had come before showed its true age, the houses and shops and gas stations reduced to mounds of rubble. Though streets remained like arrow-straight corridors through the overgrowth, many were blocked with fallen buildings, had become sluggish rivers, or had suffered the collapse of the sewers beneath. Even the best made for difficult travel.
Xhea knew she should tread carefully, but there was no time. Running, she could do little more than avoid the biggest obstacles—a fallen bridge, the gaping hole of a basement—and pray that any accident was no worse than a turned ankle.
, the magic seemed to say, rushing through her, drawing her on. She pushed herself too far, too fast, but felt no pain; only the joy of power let free. She paused just long enough to watch dark streamers of her breath rise, and shifted her direction. And if her drenching sweat didn’t drip but lifted from her skin to stream behind her like fraying black ribbons, she could only pretend not to notice.
, the magic said, and pulled her forward. Time had no meaning: there was only the thump of her feet against the uneven ground, her rough breathing, and the sun’s slide toward evening. Did an hour pass? Two? She didn’t know, or care, until the last of her strength burned from her. Gasping, legs trembling, she stumbled to a stop. She swayed on unsteady feet, and neither the magic nor the fear of what might be happening to Shai was enough to push her forward again.
Xhea lowered herself to the curb, only now feeling the ache of her thirst, the empty pit of her stomach. Slowly, she looked around. She’d never come so far into the ruins. The crumbling buildings were no more than pieces: slumped structures shadowed with moss and mildew; a standing brick pillar that might have been a chimney; a car’s rusted frame. The cool air was heavy with the smell of decay.
Though she had stopped, her magic continued to flow. She exhaled it with every panting breath and watched as it curled upward. She’d come far, but not far enough: the line of dark reached toward a cluster of Towers on the City’s farthest fringes, though she couldn’t tell which. But it was something; maybe it would be enough to help Shai.
, she thought to the dark smoke of her breath.
Enough now. Stop.
As easy as stopping the rain’s fall.
Xhea remembered her earlier thought: hurricanes and earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes. Forces beyond her will or control. Worse, she felt as if the magic had started to take pieces of her with it as it left her body, her strength and power and ability for rational thought, burning them surely as any fire. The sense of rightness and unnatural calm that the magic bestowed warred with a sudden helpless panic.
She clenched her fists, ragged nails digging into her palms. Would that she had any normal magic, but a single renai in all her useless chits and chips, a bright spark to help her regain control. All she had was time, and pain, and fierce will. It took all three.
At last she sank back against the shattered curb and looked at her hands. The scabs had broken open and her palms were smeared black with blood. She dabbed the cuts with her pants’ tattered hem until they stopped seeping, then rested her head on trembling arms. Pain brought clarity, but no comfort.
“What am I doing?” she whispered. “Oh, gods, what am I doing?”
Xhea didn’t need to look up from the cradle of her arms to know that the Tower she sought was still impossibly far away, even its low altitude an unthinkable barrier. She had no renai, no allies, no plan. She was as she had always been: stranded on the ground, yearning for things out of reach. Even if she could reach the Tower, could find Shai and her body—what then? She had killed the last such ghost she’d tried to help, body and spirit both. In truth, there was nothing she could do to help Shai, no matter what memories the ghost’s presence had stirred.
She had to cut the tether. Her fingers trembled as she touched the knife through the fabric of her jacket pocket, placing her hand over the folded blade as if pressing it to her heart. Felt the solid thud of her heartbeat and the tether’s vibration. Closed her eyes and tried to breathe.
No, it wasn’t just the desire to exorcise that ghost from her memory, the murder of his flesh and spirit, that drove her. There was something else—something deeper and more selfish. Xhea thought of Shai’s hand on her shoulder. Was she so desperate, so lonely, that she would grab at any thread of kindness, however thin or tentatively offered?
, the thought came, and she had not the strength to voice it.
When Shai returned with that same cracking sound, Xhea did not turn, did not rise, only pressed her hand harder to her chest as if she could ease the ache that had settled there. Before her the ground was black and gray, the cracked roadway darkened by the shadow of her bowed head and slumped shoulders. She stared at the image she cast—no face, no will, only a puppet to the sun’s slow fall. Just the shape of a girl where no light fell.
She looked up to meet Shai’s gaze, level with her own. In silence the ghost had descended, her luminous dress pooling around her as she attempted to sit on the curb. Shai waited, all the things that she didn’t voice written in the lines of her face.
Xhea breathed deeply, and when she exhaled it was only air. “Are you okay?” she asked. Shai nodded slowly; the same nod that Xhea would have given. She was okay. Nothing more.
“Where are we?”
“The ruins.” Whatever names these streets and neighborhoods had once borne were long since lost, and with them had vanished the need to know such places as anything other than ruin. “And your body,” Xhea continued, “is somewhere up there.”
Shai looked past Xhea’s pointing hand toward the cluster of Towers hung low in the sky. They were small, their shapes static and poorly defensible. Shai frowned. “I don’t know them. I don’t remember being . . .” She turned away, frustration and sorrow warring across her features.