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Authors: Peng Shepherd

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BOOK: The Book of M
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And then he stretched out of the tower in a flash and spread himself across the earth just to the left of The Eight, his shape burned starkly against the grass like black fire—a shadow with no body.

A cry of horror went up from the fluttering, alabaster army as the closest ones saw it. “The blasphemer!” the man in white shrieked. “The monstrous one!” The city echoed with their screams. The disciples around Lucius cowered, howling, and even Lucius looked momentarily stunned at the unnatural, impossible sight. In the tower with Zhang, Malik, and Ahmadi, The One Who Gathers's body continued to sit placidly, out of sight.

“Destroy them!” one of the disciples cried. White surged toward the gates, toward the city, a deafening avalanche.

Vienna raised her hand straight above her head. The signal. “
Now!

Zhang slid down the ladder and ran, before he could think better of it. Ahmadi and Malik thudded onto the grass after him. “Now!” Zhang cried again, to help relay her call, but he didn't need to. She had forgotten something—something that made her voice audible everywhere in the city at once. All around them, every New Orleanian not sequestered in the first great hall was pouring onto the deserted streets, running as fast as they could for the open plaza of the city where The Eight waited, moments from being surrounded by Transcendence. Zhang, Ahmadi, and Malik crashed into another waterfall of people exploding out of a joining street, and were sucked into the current. He looked for Ahmadi, but all he could see were arms,
the backs of heads, hair whipping in the wind.
Don't fight,
he tried to remind himself as he felt the panic rise. They all sprinted straight for the swarming white and crashed into their lines.

“Zhang!” Ahmadi screamed. Zhang turned around frantically, but he couldn't see her. Not see—tell apart. Because everyone suddenly had the same face.

“What the . . . ,” the person next to him said then, as a shocked silence suddenly fell across both armies.

Vienna had changed all of them—thousands of New Orleanians—so that they all looked just like Transcendence. Everyone was now wearing the exact same pale, swirling robes, veiled to the tops of their noses. Zhang looked at the man standing next to him, and to both his horror and exhilaration, couldn't tell who he was at all. He had no idea if he was New Orleanian or Transcendence.

He was almost too awestruck to wonder what it had cost Vienna.

“Mix with them!” someone from the New Orleans side cried out then. “Mix with them so we're too intertwined for them to attack!”

“Retreat!” a Transcendence general yelled back. “Retreat!” People began pushing and yelling, trying to move but afraid to injure anyone in case they were facing an ally instead of an enemy. The crowd surged in multiple directions, but it was too late—all of Transcendence's army had thrust itself through the city gate in its rage at having seen Gajarajan's monstrous form. The iron doors clanged shut behind them as they struggled to peel away from the disguised New Orleanians.

He was useful after all,
Zhang realized as he looked up at the tower, where Gajarajan was no doubt back inside—and where his body had just finished spinning the wheel to close the gate. Everyone stood frozen at the realization that both groups were now trapped together inside the city.

“Zhang?” someone called in the momentary pause.

“Ahmadi,” Zhang hissed. “Ahmadi!” He squeezed around confused shapes. Everyone was still coming out of shock. “Ahmadi!” But
the white-robed figure he bumped into next in the jostling crowd wasn't her.

Lucius.

Zhang pulled back in terror—but the shadowless simply stared impassively at him as the disciples clutching his arms floundered, trying and failing to swat away anyone who got too close. It was equally plausible that Zhang was shocked because he was a New Orleanian as because he was one of Transcendence's own who had accidentally just touched the hand of his god—but the fact that the not knowing didn't seem to trouble Lucius was unnerving. Was he really so powerful that even the instinct to flinch against the possibility of a knife in his gut was gone?

But then the disciple on Lucius's left tugged on his elbow until the shadowless turned toward him, the one on the right following, to move deeper into the crowd. Zhang watched, transfixed. He understood suddenly then why everything had seemed so strange before. Lucius's dead expression, the way the disciples had clung to him as they walked up to speak with The Eight. They hadn't so much been holding Lucius
back
as holding him
there
.

Zhang looked at the shadowless again just as Lucius's pale, resigned eyes met his own. He had never been their leader, or at least if he had been, he wasn't anymore—he was their hostage.

“Lucius,” Zhang started to say to him. He reached out as the disciples turned, their knives emerging swiftly from their robes. “Wait—”


Marie!
” Downtown and Curly shouted at that same moment over the din.

From above, everywhere, there was a deafening, groaning whine, like a great beast awakening to the sound of its name.
Who was Marie?
Zhang thought frantically, and remembered that she was one of the original Eight at the same moment that he realized from where the sound had come.

She was the one who had known the most about hurricanes.

The water hit the city in a deafening boom.

Everything happened on instinct—Zhang closed his eyes and squeezed his nose and mouth shut to hold his breath before the wave pummeled him. The freed flooding storm enveloped everything, surging with the starving rage of a tsunami.
They did it!
Zhang reeled.
Downtown and Curly! The hurricane!
The Eight had lured the entire Transcendence army into a trap, and then freed the storm from its imprisoned shape, unleashing it directly inward onto New Orleans.

His lungs began to burn. Everywhere, the sounds of bodies being thrown against the ground, of air being strangled out of lungs and cold liquid glugging in, assaulted him. Zhang fought desperately to keep his last gasp inside his lungs. But he was still . . .

He opened his eyes.

Over and over, the waves crashed, towering, inescapable, as they filled the city. Zhang waited to be consumed by the deafening roar—but every droplet curved sharply around him. He looked down at his false white robes, the grass beneath his feet, amazed. There wasn't a single inch of him that was wet.

Through the spiraling flood, he caught sight of others crouching, bewildered like himself, each encased in a narrow tunnel of air. New Orleanians. All of them safe. He stared in disbelief. The hurricane knew the difference between the ones it had protected as the wall and their enemies.

Above, around, the war was being decided. Zhang watched in stunned, horrified wonder as other white shapes thrashed in slow motion, suspended in a current of bubbles and clear, sparkling death. No matter how hard they kicked for any twisting, curved surface, the hurricane simply pulled them back in, like fish on a line. Even though the New Orleanians were all veiled, Zhang stumbled between the swirling columns to the cowering shape he thought was Ahmadi, and was right. He held her as the other white shapes each wrung themselves a final, agonized time, and then at last all floated still, veils spread like graceful fins.


WIND? MAYBE FOG?” DAVIDIA SAID SOFTLY.

Gajarajan nodded slowly. “Perhaps. The Eight will know the right thing to use for a new wall when it comes.”

Zhang rubbed his face. The hurricane had finally spent the rest of the destruction it had meant to wreak before it had been bound, and what was left of it was draining slowly around the closed gate—around either open side of it, since there were no longer any walls—and into Lake Pontchartrain. Everywhere, New Orleanians wandered, bewildered but alive. Downtown and Curly's magic had managed to spare not just their people, but even the buildings of the city as well. The only lingering sign there had been a storm at all was the faint drizzle that now hung in the air, coating everything in a misty sheen. And all of the drowned bodies. The ground looked covered in snow again. Only this time Transcendence wouldn't ever move—until New Orleans burned or buried them.

It was over.
Zhang could hardly believe it, even as he saw the destruction with his own eyes.
It was finally over. Transcendence was gone.

“Well, I hope the right thing comes quickly,” Ahmadi said. “It's going to be much harder to defend the city until then.”

“I think the worst is over,” Gajarajan replied. He turned back to the quiet battlefield. “We'll be all right until The Eight can devise something new.”

Zhang looked at the elephant. “Do you think . . .” He trailed off.

“I don't know either,” Gajarajan said.

Zhang nodded. And they would probably never know, he guessed—whether Lucius didn't have enough power to stop, or at least dampen, the drowning wall as it choked the life out of his disciples, or if he'd been able, but didn't try. If he had wanted to be free so badly that he let Downtown and Curly plunge Transcendence's army into a watery grave—and himself.

“Vienna!” Malik cried. Zhang turned around to see him take off running, white robes flapping damply in the warm, humid air. Another white shape put its arms out as he swept it up in a crushing hug.

“Dad,” she said softly.

“Oh, thank God,” Malik whispered. Zhang felt his throat tighten as he watched. He had known that feeling all too well once.
Thank God it wasn't me, whatever was taken from you. Thank God you still remember me.
He felt Ahmadi's hand on his arm, a tentative, nervous touch. He leaned into it.

“Did you see?” Vienna asked softly as Malik brought her over by the hand. The other seven of The Eight trailed slowly behind, as if dazed. Gajarajan moved gently between each of them, his dark form propped up directly against their bodies instead of against something facing them. Perhaps that was the way he embraced? Zhang wondered. “Did you see—what I did?”

Zhang held out the front of his white robe. “I did see,” he said. It was too incredible to believe. To try to comprehend that Vienna,
Vienna—
who on some days was still so innocent it seemed as if she was more child than young adult—had worked magic across an entire city, and saved thousands of lives in an instant. “I think it's safe to say that you are, without doubt, the
best
soldier the Iowa has ever or will ever have.”

Malik and Ahmadi laughed, Malik almost hysterically. Vienna started at the outburst and put out a hand on instinct, as if to bat away the sound. Malik saw it as he wiped his eyes. His smile was gone—he hugged her again.
Oh, no,
Zhang realized. “It's okay,” he said to her. “The Iowa isn't important. Don't worry. It doesn't matter. You can forget that.”

“It seems like it was important,” she said, brow furrowed. “That place.”

“You're here now,” Zhang said. “That's more important.”

She looked up at him. “And you—I know that I know you, but not from where. Are you from the Iowa, too?”

“Yes. I was Imanuel's friend.”

“That's it.” She nodded, having finally found something to grasp on to. “Ory.”

Zhang chuckled for a moment. He hadn't heard it in such a long time, his first name sounded almost wrong now. But something strange had happened to Gajarajan. He'd snapped from where he was against the grass beside the rest of The Eight to the picket fence in front of Zhang and Vienna in a blinding instant, as if someone had flicked on a light.

“His name is Zhang,” the elephant said. There was something odd in the tone—suspicion, or a question.

“Zhang?” Vienna asked, confused.

“Yes. Zhang,” Gajarajan repeated. “Not Ory.”

“It
is
Ory,” Zhang said to him. “My first name is Orlando. Zhang is my surname. At the Iowa, it was just something we did for morale—like real soldiers. Going by our surnames.” He nodded encouragingly at Vienna. “She forgot the one, but she still remembers the other. You still know who I am.”

Vienna nodded. “I remember.”

Gajarajan was silent against the fence for a long time, lost in thought. Why this had struck the shadow so intensely baffled Zhang—but almost never did he understand why the things that mattered to Gajarajan mattered and why others didn't. He turned to Ahmadi, planning to leave the elephant to his strange, brooding thoughts.

The great dark ears were folded, perfectly still for the first time ever, Zhang noticed then. The sight was even more unsettling than when he warped into impossible shapes and heights.

“I didn't know that,” Gajarajan finally murmured, almost as if in awe.

The One Who Gathers

GAJARAJAN RETURNED TO THE SANCTUARY LATE THAT NIGHT.
There had been the New Orleanians to tend to, and then the dead. Then finally, the shadowless who had won the battle for them all. They were not as bad as Gajarajan feared, but for Survivedthestorm, it was time to let him retire from The Eight, to begin his wait in the first great hall while Gajarajan looked for a suitable shadow. He had done as much as he could, and it was wrong to ask him to forget more. There would be others to take his and Vienna's place.

Tomorrow Gajarajan would go and bring Malik's brave daughter there, to the second great hall, as they had agreed. But there was something else to do first.

The moon was almost full, casting silver light down onto the sanctuary, every corner of it reachable without having to move his body from the altar. Gajarajan draped across the open roof, looking down into the second hall, where a small shape rested on a simple bed. He shifted forward and was inside then, against the floor, silent. The rhythmic, shallow sounds of slumber continued from under the blankets, undisturbed. The shadow rose up against the far wall, where a table sat. He studied the things on top. A change of fresh clothes, instructional objects he'd brought in: a leaf, a dried flower, a spoon—and the patient's personal effects at the time of admission to the great hall. Some had many, in the earlier days. This one had brought hardly any at all. Just one thing, in fact. The thing from which he'd been able to take the first shadow that had ever fit back onto a shadowless.

THE NIGHT DR. AVANTHIKAR HAD DIED, THE SECOND GREAT
hall was empty. It had been that way for weeks—because Gajarajan
had failed so many times and was afraid to try again. To torture another shadowless with the hope of recovery, only to have it fail or drive them insane. Or kill them. It was what they'd been arguing about in the first place that drove her to such a risky move, to go outside the gate, into the dark with the deathkites.

Davidia's guards brought both Dr. Avanthikar and her shadowless rescue in without dying themselves, somehow. The deathkites' screeches faded as they slammed the doors shut behind them.

“We tried, we tried,” one of the guards was saying, over and over, terrorized by the sight of the doctor as she was—all the blood, the almost surgical openings in the flesh. Everyone loved her as much as Gajarajan did. “We tried,” he stammered.

“Why?” Gajarajan asked her softly as he slid from the side of the gate onto the grass beside where they had set her, so they were both lying down.

She turned her head to look at him. “That's just always the way, in medicine, I've learned,” she said. “The one who discovers something great always did so only because some complete
gandoo
they worked with refused to let them give up on an idea that seemed useless.” A tremor of pain ran through her. “Look at me. My team and I tried everything,
every
idea, and Hemu just refused to shut up about that stupid elephant. And then you awakened.”

Gajarajan smiled at her. The outline where his form met the torchlight ached, in a great, sinking pain.

Dr. Avanthikar tried to swallow. He could see her eyes going glassy. “This is the first time you've believed less in your power than I have since we began trying to rejoin shadows. Maybe this patient is the one, and I'm the infuriating colleague who refuses to let you quit.”

Gajarajan didn't tell her that the shadowless man had already succumbed to his wounds. The body flayed by the deathkites until it had unfurled layer by layer, like red rose petals blooming out from a center spine. Dr. Avanthikar wheezed, and he reached out and touched the shadow of her hand where it rested on the grass beneath her shredded
palm. Far up on the hill, he felt his body double over and shudder in agony as the lines in her face suddenly softened, released.

“Keep trying,” she said. “Do it for me.”

“I will.”

Gajarajan let the faraway body writhe. It could bear the pain for her. The time it would have to was very short anyway.

THE MAN DR. AVANTHIKAR HAD WANTED TO SAVE HADN'T
survived, but Gajarajan had vowed to listen to what she'd said anyway. After she died, everyone who followed the rumors to New Orleans was brought safely inside—no matter what. The first shadowless to come after they'd buried Dr. Avanthikar was the patient who now lay in the bed behind Gajarajan. This one he would not give up on, he'd promised the old doctor's headstone.

Gajarajan would never know if it was because of Dr. Avanthikar, or if it was just pure dumb luck that this patient turned out to be the first and only one he figured out how to cure, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter, because he'd done it. It was possible.

The second great hall creaked softly as the roof settled overhead. Gajarajan shifted forward until he was draped across the table. It was slightly more difficult at night, with only the moonlight and no sun or torches to help with contrast, but he reached across the surface of the wood until he felt what he was looking for. The thing from which he'd taken the cured patient's shadow.

A tape recorder.

IN THE OLD WORLD, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN PHOTOGRAPHS
and documents to compare. Persons would have had wallets whose driver's licenses could be entered into databases and matched instantly, as they had once done for his own body, after the car accident that led to his birth. There was none of that now. All Gajarajan had was a woman who had arrived on foot, alone, who remembered nothing, and a tape recorder with fragmented thoughts locked inside.

Zhang never spoke about his life before the Forgetting, or even before arriving in New Orleans, really. The shadow thought of him only as Zhang, or the General, or the one who brought all the books. In the tape recordings, he was always called by his first name, and there was no mention of the others in his group, or Washington, D.C., or what he'd been doing there. When the shadowless woman had shown up at the gate, she hadn't been able to speak at all anymore. There was almost nothing left. Gajarajan spent weeks painstakingly analyzing the recordings to draw out what was needed, to make the recorder's own little square shadow much, much more detailed and complete than he had ever been able to do before—the most human-shaped shadow he'd ever been able to craft from something else—before he tried to take it from the thing and place it on her. It was nearly finished by the time Zhang and his army eventually arrived at the gates.

Perhaps he should have asked Zhang more about himself sooner. But Gajarajan had always been bad with names anyway—he hadn't even noticed that almost every one of the Iowan soldiers had given only a surname at all until Vienna forgot Zhang's and called him something else.

“Ory,” he murmured softly. He reflected off the wall back to the roof. The sleeper did not stir. There would be plenty of time to tell them both the good news tomorrow. “I've found your wife, Ory,” Gajarajan said to the moon. “Max is here.”

BOOK: The Book of M
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