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Authors: Peng Shepherd

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BOOK: The Book of M
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“Gajarajan,” Dr. Avanthikar said, “they come because you've called them. You can't leave them out there when they finally do. Everyone who wishes to remember again deserves the same,” she said.

“I wish that were true, but the risk is too great.” He sighed. He and their eight remaining shadowless patients from the former facility were still learning how to work together. They were not ready for the deathkites yet, if they could help it
.
“We could lose many trying to save one.”

But Dr. Avanthikar never listened to him. She'd stopped listening to him ever since they began trying to fix the shadowless. Gajarajan couldn't remember the last time they'd spoken without arguing. Each failure made them more and more raw. “What about you, then? What about Marie and Downtown and Curly and Buddy? Should I have left you upstairs to die during the hurricane instead, because there were more of them to protect downstairs?”

“Yes,” he said, but she was gone, marching stubbornly down to the front gate, to demand a guard contingent follow her for a rescue operation.

“Let me out,” Dr. Avanthikar ordered the night sentries clustered around Davidia at the entrance. “It's an emergency.”

“Stop her,” the shadow said to the captain, from the wall beside her post, and she flinched in surprise at his instant appearance. His legs lay in two long dark lines across all the roofs of New Orleans.

Dr. Avanthikar ignored him. “This is a rescue!”

“Don't listen,” he said. “It's not safe.”

The guards didn't open the gate, but before they could grab her, Dr. Avanthikar threw herself straight into the great bound wall of storm water just beside it instead.

It enveloped her at once, sucking her in like a riptide—but the wall had been made by their shadowless, for their own protection. It released her gently on the other side into a puddle on the grass. She began to run toward the bridge.

“Open the gate!” Davidia cried. “Get her back here before the deathkites dive!” But Dr. Avanthikar had a head start, and was already over the water. Gajarajan flashed back from the wall beside the gate to the dark chamber of the first great hall at blinding speed, to rouse the shadowless for help. By the time he had woken them and gotten them outside to try to do something—
anything
—to stop the deathkites, Dr. Avanthikar was already dying.

GAJARAJAN AND DAVIDIA CONTINUED TO WATCH THE CARRIAGES
as they raced closer, thundering across the bridge. He could make out a new detail by then, one that caught his attention more firmly than anything had in a long time: the wooden structures rode low on their turning wheels, as if heavily burdened. The shadow leaned back against his wall and looked at his guard captain, to see if she'd also seen. They'd heard the rumors then. That he was seeking something.

“They're bringing a lot with them,” Gajarajan said to her. “More than any other group before.”

“Not weapons to attack us?”

“Likely not weapons.” He watched, transfixed. What could all of it be, and so much of it?

Davidia nodded. “As soon as I find out what it is, I'll send someone to inform you if any of it could be what you're looking for.”

“Thank you,” he said as she disappeared down the hill. He returned to studying them. He had not felt hope since Dr. Avanthikar died. The strangers were coming in a dead sprint now, as if being chased for their lives, even though there was nothing behind them.

So many shadows. Every single one of them, it seemed. Inside his body, Gajarajan felt the heart beat faster. Whatever was in the carriages might prove to be very useful indeed.

Orlando Zhang

BY THE DAY'S END, ZHANG HAD BEEN PLACED INTO A ROOM
on the second floor of an old wooden house named House 33. That was how things were divided in New Orleans—houses had been carved up into private rooms, with everyone sharing the kitchen and bathrooms. Ahmadi was given the room next door. Vienna, Malik, and the two remaining Smiths were assigned spots in House 32, and the rest of the soldiers placed in open rooms across Houses 34 to 45.

Living that way reminded Zhang of Elk Cliffs in a way. All of them together in a little community, sharing chores, laughing instead of jumping at every errant sound. Whenever he went into the kitchen to get a piece of bread—every House got half a loaf per tenant every other day from the city—or fill his glass with water they'd dragged up in buckets and boiled to purify, his heart thrilled to see so many other humans, doing ordinary things. Washing dishes or sweeping the floor.

Ahmadi was standing in the kitchen when Zhang walked in at dawn after the army's first night there, bent over the cutlery drawer. “Do you know where the spoons are?” she asked. They both stared at each other for a moment, and then Zhang burst into tears, startling her so badly she jumped and the drawer fell out of the counter, spilling everything. It was so fucking normal, he couldn't stop crying.

AT FIRST ZHANG HADN'T KNOWN IF VIENNA WOULD BE ALLOWED
into the city, after they realized she was shadowless. Or if the rest of them would be let in either, because they had been near her when it happened. But they were allowed in—all of them. New Orleans welcomed Vienna exactly the same way they did the rest of Zhang's army, as if nothing was different at all.

“I need you to come with me for a moment,” Davidia said to Zhang as soon as they'd dragged the carriages in through the gate and unhooked the horses.

“I can't leave the others,” he said.

“The One Who Gathers—he'd like to meet you.”

At that, everyone paused. Zhang, Malik, and Ahmadi all looked at one another. “The One Who Gathers is . . . really real?” Zhang finally asked.

“Yes,” Davidia said.

It seemed impossible. But Davidia was speaking not like one who had also heard the rumors, but like one who had seen the owner of all the names with her own eyes. “The Stillmind?” Zhang stammered. “The One with a Middle but No Beginning? The One Who Does Not Dream?”

Davidia nodded, smiling. “Yes,” she said again.

The stunned silence lingered for what felt like hours. All the stories, all the things he'd seen written on walls. It was really true.

“Go,” Ahmadi finally managed. “We won't move until you're back.”

“Watch the carriages,” he said to her and Malik. He felt her hand in his own for an instant, squeezing firmly. He squeezed it back for courage and then set off after Davidia.

The walk was long, and she was always ahead. “Keep up,” she said to Zhang over her shoulder, but kindly.

Zhang tried not to gawk, but he couldn't help it. New Orleans was unfathomable. Every turn was more surprising than the next. Some things still lay crumbled, but others had been rebuilt, either through magic or through labor. Zhang did a double take when he thought he even saw lights on in one of the buildings, but couldn't be sure. All around them, people talked in the streets, instead of killing or running. Some had shadows, some did not. Most amazing of all, the ones that did not didn't seem to be afraid—even when they forgot what they were doing midaction. Before they could startle, another
shadowless or shadowed person would come to their aid, and they'd be laughing again within seconds.

“The One Who Gathers did all this?” Zhang asked.

She nodded. “And more.”

Seeing it now, he found it hard to believe that two years ago, he was afraid to leave an abandoned hotel because someone might jump out of the hedges and chew off his arm in crazed hunger, or kill him for the contents of his pockets. Here he could walk down a street with no planning at all and feel perfectly safe. Zhang couldn't believe he almost hadn't come—but he knew why. He hadn't wanted to do it without Max.

“Zhang,” Davidia said, halting suddenly at the top of the gently sloping hill they'd been climbing. “This is The One Who Gathers. Here inside New Orleans, we call him simply Gajarajan.”

Zhang didn't know what kind of person he'd been expecting, but it wasn't the one that he saw. He stood beside Davidia, speechless. This was no Red King or even solemn-faced General Imanuel, and there was no fortress or palace or even modest house. It was simply a man—of vague middle age, thin, in plain, well-worn clothes. He was sitting outside on a patch of bricks, in front of a little wall nature had left undamaged purely by accident. And over his eyes he wore a thick strip of fabric tied gently behind his head.

“You're—” Zhang paused. “You're blind?”

“Yes and no,” the man said. Zhang startled—his mouth hadn't moved.

Davidia nodded when he looked at her in confusion, and then she gestured behind Gajarajan, at the wall.

Zhang turned back to him, but the man didn't say anything more. Zhang thought maybe he was supposed to speak—but words failed him as he watched. On the ground, the man's shadow shifted, gliding farther back on the bricks until it broke across the line where the red stones met the wall, and began trailing up the smooth vertical face. The dark shape rose up, up, up, until it was roughly its owner's height—but the man on the ground hadn't moved at all.

“Oh my God,” Zhang whispered at last.

“I wish,” he said—not the man, Zhang realized now, but the shadow. Both he and Davidia laughed as Zhang stood there, dumbstruck, staring back and forth between the body sitting placidly on the ground and the shadow that moved and spoke freely behind it.

Finally Zhang stumbled, and Davidia caught him before he hit the ground. She helped him to his knees, where he scrambled into a clumsy crouch. The world was swimming in front of him.
Impossible,
Zhang kept thinking. But he looked again, and it was the same as he had seen the first time. All the rumors were real—but they weren't about a person at all. They were about a
shadow
.

And not only that. Zhang peered closer. The shadow certainly did belong to the man, because Zhang could see that the two forms were joined at the feet and hips where the body sat on the ground, but it almost seemed like the shadow on the wall wasn't his at all. They looked nothing like each other. The shadow looked more like . . . the shadow of an elephant.

“I apologize,” Gajarajan finally said. It seemed to be bending down slightly on the surface of the wall, to be even with Zhang. Yes, there were definitely large, fanning ears, and a third arm that came from the center of its face—a trunk. An elephant's trunk. “I didn't realize I was going to surprise you that much. Lately, newcomers who have come trickling in have heard what I look like before they arrive.”

“So you—” Zhang didn't even know where to start. “Is the man, the body, he's alive, right?”

“Of course,” the shadow said. “We're one and the same.”

“Are you controlling him?”

“No more than he's controlling me.”

It seemed true—the shadow was currently moving along the wall and speaking, and the body hadn't been driven to mimic the actions. Perhaps if the man had wanted to move as well, he could have without snapping the shadow into following his form.

“There's time for us to talk more later,” the shadow said. “You
can come here anytime you like. I don't want to keep you from your people—it was probably rude of me to call for you so quickly—but I was informed that you brought with you a great many things. Things for me.”

“We heard that you were . . . gathering something. Something that had to do with memories and shadows,” Zhang said. “We weren't sure what.”

“I'm not sure either,” Gajarajan said. It shrugged its massive ears softly when it saw Zhang's expression. “But it's important that I find it. And perhaps it's what you've brought.”

“What is it for?” Zhang asked.

The shadow smiled—or seemed to, somehow. “To help cure the shadowless.”

Zhang stared at Gajarajan for a long time—both his body and his shadow. They were nearly expressionless, the body because he seemed almost suspended in a trance, and the shadow because he had no face in the way that humans, or even elephants, have faces. But as Zhang stared into the deep black shade spread across the half-crumbled stone, he could feel it. The shadow meant what it had said.

“You can do it?” Zhang asked fiercely.

“I have,” it said. “Once.” The word lingered as if solid in the air between them.

The thrill of the miracle overwhelmed him for a moment—but then Zhang realized what Gajarajan's true meaning was. “But not again,” he added.

The shape of the elephant watched him evenly. “Not again,” it finally agreed. “But I think I can—I just need the right tools. The right thing from which to draw a shadow. Not just any item will work. I used up all that I had.”

Zhang looked back down the hill. Their carriages were no more than blurry specks from that distance. “We brought books,” he said. “Thousands of books. It actually wasn't—I'm not the one who started gathering them, but Imanuel, he died, and I took over. I wanted to
finish it.” Zhang took a shaky breath to stop himself from rambling. “Are they what you're looking for?” he asked.

“I'm not sure,” the shadow said. “But most likely not. I'm sorry.”

Zhang waited for something more, because it seemed impossible that they'd come all this way, that they'd risked so much—and failed. But there was nothing more.
Most likely not.
He let it sink in. Imanuel had been wrong. They were just books after all.

“I'm sorry,” Gajarajan repeated gently.

“No,” Zhang said. He was twisting the hem of his coat, he realized. “Don't be sorry. It was us, we didn't understand.”

The silhouette of the elephant watched Zhang calmly from the wall. After a moment, it slid closer to the outer edge so that it was nearer to him. “Don't think of it as a failure. All of you made it here. You've joined us. We'll find a use for the books, even if it isn't what you'd originally thought it might be.”

“Yes,” Zhang said. “Yes, we made it.”

Gajarajan retreated slowly until he was centered on the wall again.

“What is it exactly that makes them not what you're looking for?” Zhang asked. “I'm sure the rumor we heard was incomplete. But as far as we knew, we were looking for things with memories and with shadows. A book seems to have those—if you take it both physically and metaphorically.”

The elephant spread its humanlike hands in a slow shrug. “Shadows, yes.” It nodded. “But many things have shadows. Everything, in fact, except for the humans.”

“And the memories?”

“They're not real,” the shadow said. “Stories about made-up characters. I don't think . . .” It trailed off. “If the point is for the shadowless to remember their past again, if I succeeded in attaching a shadow with unreal memories within it, they wouldn't recover anything from this world then. They would remember a life that no one had lived.”

Zhang nodded. It seemed to make sense, if he was understanding the elephant at all.

“But don't worry about that any longer. Your journey is over. You have been gathered. We are glad to welcome you home.” Gajarajan bowed.

Something pinched deep in Zhang's throat. It was suddenly very hard to speak. Home. It was a word he wasn't sure he'd ever hear again.

“Come with me,” Davidia said kindly. “I'll take you back to your friends before they start to worry.”

Zhang began to follow her, then stopped. “Davidia said that you already know that Transcendence is coming,” he called to the shadow.

Gajarajan's form sharpened on the wall as his attention turned back to Zhang. “Yes, we do. A shadowless arrived a few months ago bearing the information. We've been preparing since then.”

Zhang smiled at that. This shadow was certainly powerful in the same kind of incomprehensible way as the shadows that had disappeared and the magic they granted in their places were, but this one thing hadn't been divined mystically, at least. Gajarajan had learned of Transcendence the same way the Iowan army had learned of his existence—nothing more than a message, passed on. “Well, I know there aren't many of us compared to the people you have here, but we did fight a portion of their forces once, and lived. We'd be honored to add ourselves to your numbers, to help you defend New Orleans once they arrive.”

“Thank you,” Gajarajan said kindly. It rose up and unfurled its ears and trunk fully, until it had obliterated almost all of the sunlight on the wall. “That is a generous thing you offer us, and I'm deeply grateful for it. But there won't be any need.”

“What do you mean?”

“The shadowless will do it,” he said. “Eight of them.”

AFTER HOUSES AND FOOD CAME JOBS. AHMADI WAS ASSIGNED
to join the wall guard with Davidia, which was fine with her. She began to teach them all archery. New Orleans had done an excellent
job of hoarding bullets, but they were still a long way off from knowing how to manufacture more of them, and Gajarajan couldn't justify the cost for them to be remembered. Arrows were a far easier option—and they didn't erupt into thunder or lightning when loosed. Most of the soldiers were assigned to construction, to repair more abandoned buildings into houses for anyone who came after Zhang's army, since they had all but filled up New Orleans's remaining rooms. It was good—it gave them something to do. Not that Zhang had been expecting a riot, but he didn't know how willing they would be to stop being soldiers. They'd been fighting for a long time and weren't used to not having to. Imanuel's ultimate goal had always been to reach a place or a time where they'd be safe, but Zhang didn't think any of them had expected it to happen so abruptly. One day, they were killing the Reds and racing south, and the next, they were all in houses, learning directions to the communal garden.

BOOK: The Book of M
13.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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