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Lessons in Blade and Barrier

LESSONS IN BLADE AND BARRIER

by Siobhan Gallagher

The blade surged forward, more lightning than steel. The very air went dense with static. Izo tumbled more than dodged, leaped quickly to his feet, but found his balance off. There on the ground was his right forearm, clawed fingers clenching his katana.

“No,” he gasped, throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be real, just couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything missing. Eyes squeezed shut, he used his left hand to probe where his right forearm should be. His hand came away wet. He put two clawtips to his mouth, tasted iron and salt.

Only then did he cry out.

“That was sloppy of you,” Master Takumi said, wiping his bladed forelimb on his hakama. He resumed his praying posture as if nothing had occurred; no expression on his mantis-face.

Izo clutched his stump. With the realization came a throbbing so intense it made him dizzy, took all his effort to keep standing. In the forest background something snickered.

“You should sit down,” Master Takumi said.

“Why?!” he yelled through clenched teeth.

Master Takumi tilted his head. “Why sit down?”

“No! My arm!”

Master Takumi took a moment to acknowledge the missing limb. “It’ll grow back.”

“Painfully,” Izo muttered.

“Better pain than death.” Master Takumi moved in slow, deliberate steps. The large sleeves of his kimono hid his deadly forelimbs. In less than a blink, he snatched up the fallen forearm, pried the katana from its grip and handed it to Izo, hilt first. “Now you can practice with your left arm.”

Izo wiped his hand on his chest before grudgingly accepting the sword. The snickering grew louder, more irritating, as if humiliation wasn’t enough.

“Your master has been too soft on you,” Master Takumi said. “No student of mine would stumble like that.”

Izo weighed the katana in his left hand, found his balance wanting. More than anything he wanted to cleave that mantis-face in two. His master had insisted he visit Master Takumi, that his swordsman training wouldn’t be complete without a mantis’ teachings. Ha! Now what good was he? It would be weeks before his arm grew back, and all he had was practice with his left arm. He hoped his master choked on his sake tonight.

And that damnable snickering… Why wouldn’t it stop?

“Shut up!” he yelled.

Silence, then– Blinding white. He stood petrified with fear, forgetting his lost arm as heat passed over him. Oh gods, don’t let it be an ill omen! He’d had enough bad luck for today.

The light died. Vision returned slowly through tears and black spots. A ball of white fire hovered over Master Takumi’s shoulder. Izo pointed with his katana, but found no words; his jaw worked around a tongue gone dry.

“It’s just an onibi,” Master Takumi said. “It likes to have its fun.”

Within the onibi’s sphere, shadowy faces flickered–a mournful expression, a look of terror. Izo took a step back, careful not to stare directly at the onibi. Rumor had it an onibi could suck a soul clean from a body that got too close, and in no way was he going to confirm this.

“Little lizardling doesn’t seem to like me,” the onibi said between chuckles.

Little?! The nerve of this ball of noxious spirits! If he had both his arms…

“That’s enough,” Master Takumi said. “If you will, please go to Izo’s village and inform Master Kenta that his pupil will be staying with me for the night.”

“What? I didn’t agree–” He winced at the stabbing pain, had to sheath his sword and clutch at the stump.

“Your wound needs to be cleaned and dressed. I won’t send you back bleeding all over.” This brought another wave of snickering. Master Takumi shooed the onibi. “Go on.”

“Very well, I’ll return shortly. You promised me tea, after all.”

“Only if you heat the water.”

The onibi winked out, leaving behind a burning afterimage.

As they walked to Master Takumi’s hut, avoiding rocks, fallen branches, or anything else that might trip him, Izo said: “You keep strange company.”

“All company is strange,” Master Takumi said, “yours included.”

*****

Izo nearly spilled his tea when he heard the news from the onibi.

“What do you mean it’s gone?” he hissed.

“Vanished. Gone. Nothing.” The onibi hovered over the tea pot, extended flame tendrils to lift the lid. “Oooh, lovely smelling green tea.”

“With jasmine.” Master Takumi sat across from Izo, tea cup held by fingers protruding from the joint above his bladed limb.

Izo slammed his cup down, sloshing hot liquid all over his hand. “Ah! Dammit!” He shook his hand. Bad luck indeed. An akuma must’ve  visited him in his sleep last night.

The onibi rolled around, laughing.

Izo threw his cup at the obnoxious fireball–missed, cup smashed on the back wall. “Shut up! I’m tired of you. You are either lying or the worse prankster ever.”

Master Takumi gently set his cup down, breathed a sigh. “I understand your concern, Izo. We’ll investigate in the morning.”

“In the morning?! That might be too late! We have to go–” A sharp pain erupted from his left shoulder. The world spun, blackened, came back into focus with an awful throb, as if his back was being massaged with hot coals.

Master Takumi stood over him in his prayer position. “You need to calm down. We’ll go in the morning. Right now, rest.”

Rest, ha. How could he rest with all this pain? Or with the thought that his village might be gone?

The onibi seemed to have a solution to this: it blew itself up to half his size, and within its flame was the silhouette of a female–he wasn’t certain what kind, but pleasing to the eye. The silhouette danced, rhythmic steps, curves swaying, arms spread, ready to embrace.

There was a girl with pretty ebony eyes and scales of teal back in his village, and he imagined being wrapped snug in her arms. It made the pain a bit more bearable as he daydreamed into sleep.

*****

As Master Takumi said, they set off in the morning. What Master Takumi didn’t say was that the onibi would be tagging along.

“Why is that coming?” Izo asked, pointing a claw at the soul-sucking fireball.

“Why not?” the onibi said, circling both him and Master Takumi. “I’m just as curious. After all, it’s not every day that a village disappears.”

“I see no harm in this,” Master Takumi said, and resumed their walk along the trail.

Izo gritted his teeth, but said nothing. He already hurt enough, didn’t want to start an argument that would end with him on his back.

The walk took the better part of the morning, but it already felt like afternoon with the sun bearing down. His grass hat didn’t provide enough shade to keep him cool. By late morning they’d made it to the hill that guarded his village. It was far too steep for him to climb with his one-armed balance, so they took the long way around.

“On any other day I would make you climb that hill,” Master Takumi said.

“Why does it have to be another day? Today is as good as any other,” the onibi chimed in, and Izo swore he saw a smirk in its flames.

“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” he growled at the onibi.

“You’re just grouchy.”

Maybe now would be a good time to practice with his left hand–the onibi was certainly within sword’s reach. How unfortunate that out of habit, he was wearing his katana on his left.

“Does it seem quiet?” Master Takumi said.

It did. Even on a day of prayer there were wheels grinding, trickling water, squawking chickens and grunting pigs. But now it was only the breeze and the rustling of grass. Izo charged ahead. It couldn’t be true, the onibi had to be lying.

Beyond the hill the ground was completely blank, as the village had been erased from existence. Izo ran; feet stomping, eyes watering, pain searing his side. As with his arm,  he had to reach out, to feel that his village  really wasn’t there.

He collapsed where once had been a barn, shuddering, gasping. Gone! All of it. Friends, family, even Master Kenta. What was he supposed to do? What–

A strong grip lifted him by his good arm, forced his mouth open to pour water down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered most of it out. When he could stand straight again, Master Takumi was in his prayer posture.

“You were overheated.” Master Takumi indicated the empty water gourd at his feet.

Izo shook his head, gaze downcast. Couldn’t bear the sight of this barren land. Oh gods, why? The weight in his chest was too much, the pain too great. He sank to the ground, trying not to cry before Master Takumi. All he could do was hang his head between his drawn-up legs.

Master Takumi grabbed his left foot and jerked it up.

“Hey!” He struggled, flailing his arm to keep from falling over.

Master Takumi scraped some jelly residue from the sole of his foot, put it to his mandibles. “Slug magic,” he murmured, then released Izo’s foot.

“Slugs? Really?”

Master Takumi nodded. “They always leave a trail.”

“But why my village? We’ve never harmed them!”

“They’re the lowliest of life forms. They have no reason save spite.” Master Takumi straightened up, looked about. “We must go back for my salts.”

“But my village!”

“The slugs likely have it, them and their wicked sorcery. Only thing to overcome such taint is salt. I know.”

Izo sat there, speechless. Things were happening so fast. Just yesterday he had two arms! Now his village might be in the slimy hands of slugs, and Master Kenta hadn’t taught him how to fight mollusks. What good was he?

“Stop moping. Come.” Master Takumi reached out.

As much as he resented the words, they were true: sulking wouldn’t help. Still, he wanted this to be a dream, to wake up and find all his limbs intact and a village to go home to.

As he took the outstretched limb the onibi whizzed past, nearly knocking him over. Everything seemed intent on putting him down today. Grumbling, he stood with Master Takumi’s help.

The onibi bobbed frantically, intent expressions within its flame. “Something’s changed.”

“What do you mean?” Master Takumi asked.

The onibi didn’t answer, and in its silence, Izo became aware how still the air was, how the sun wasn’t as hot, that the day felt more late afternoon than late morning. What was going on?

“Come,” Master Takumi said with more urgency, tugging on Izo’s good arm.

Izo nodded, joined Master Takumi as they rounded the hill and–smack! He staggered back, felt like he’d been punched in the face and chest. Master Takumi recovered first, extended his forelimbs till some invisible barrier stopped him, then drew himself up, bladed forelimbs ready to attack. Slash-slash. Where he’d struck the barrier , shimmering slash marks soon faded.

“We’re trapped!” Izo cried.

“Shush. I’m thinking.” Master Takumi went into his prayer posture.

The onibi rammed full force into the barrier, and splattered into a hundred flaming fragments. The scattered flames crawled back together, squirmed into a ball. “That,” it muttered, “was a terrible idea.”

“So what are we to do?” Izo asked.

“Start digging,” the onibi grumbled.

“I wasn’t asking you.” He glared up at the stupid fireball. “Why don’t you try burning us a hole?”

“Quiet, you two,” Master Takumi said. He tapped along the barrier, seeking a gap. It was as good an idea as any and Izo joined in. His claws brushed against solid nothingness, sent a static shrill up his arm. What odd magic, and for what purpose? Why trap them?

And for that matter, why take his village?

He stopped to watch the onibi bounce along the barrier. This had all started with the onibi’s message–or was it bait? Then it had followed them for the weakest of reasons–or was it making sure they fell into the trap? Maybe it was waiting till he and Master Takumi were too tired and weak to fend off a soul-sucking fireball.

He side-stepped over to Master Takumi and whispered, “I think the onibi has tricked us.”

“Why would you say that?” Master Takumi didn’t turn his way, or even pause in his tapping.

“How can we trust the onibi? It eats souls.”

“And you think the onibi is working with the slugs.”

“Yes.”

“Possible, but…”

“What?”

Master Takumi touched his stump, making him wince. “Bandages are wet.”

“I don’t care.” He pulled away. “Could you at least take me seriously?”

“Your seriousness would divide us when we need to work together. Your master has failed to teach you this point.”

“At least Master Kenta never cut my arm off,” Izo said through gritted teeth, his remaining hand balled into a fist.

“If we ever get out of here and find your village, perhaps I’ll discuss teaching techniques with Master Kenta. Till then, let’s not fight each other.”

“I’m not fighting,” Izo hissed. “I just want to know. Tell me why the onibi can be trusted!”

“The onibi doesn’t require the help of slugs to suck our souls. It can do that whenever it wants.”

“Then why us? Why my village?”

“Not us. Me.”

“What?”

“I suspect this was a trap for me. They knew you had come to me for training, so they kidnapped your village to draw me out.”

“So this is your fault?!”

“Calm–”

Izo rammed his fist into the barrier, instead of into Master Takumi. Searing agony seized his arm. He lost all awareness of his body, just him and his arm floating in a fiery abyss. Senses returned slowly, his screaming became a hoarse croak. The barrier had gelled around his fist and it was crawling quickly up his arm.

Master Takumi was poised to chop his arm off.

“No!” Izo pulled and yanked, but his arm was trapped.

He didn’t see it happen–maybe he blinked–but now Master Takumi’s forelimbs were caught in the gunk. Worse, Master Takumi was pushing into it. Izo struggled back as Master Takumi was drawn in, then through. Master Takumi popped from the barrier in his own isolated bubble, posed in prayer. Master Takumi was brave, Izo would give the mantis that much.

A dark form emerged from the nearby forest, moving with all the slowness of a dead mule. Of course it was a slug, the slimy bastard. Master Takumi’s bubble rolled to face the slug, and the slug’s black maw flapped open and closed as it laughed.

When the slug threw back its cloak, Izo saw that it wore a medallion around its fat no-neck. No, not a medallion. A globe with a miniature village–his village!

He pushed with his right side against the barrier, as if his very rage could break through, but all he did was twist his stuck arm. His bloody bandages smeared the barrier, stump bleeding anew. A dizziness fell over him.

“What are you doing making a mess when Master Takumi is in trouble?” the onibi said from above.

“Shut up!” He leaned his forehead against the barrier, now oddly cool, trying to keep from passing out. The barrier was sizzling where his blood had touched it. He felt the faintest breeze… was his blood weakening the barrier? He pressed his stump against it–a wave of heat, sound of a thousand hornets buzzing in his ear–he pressed and bled and bled some more. The barrier spit and popped like water on hot coals. A breeze! He could feel it on the other side.

The onibi flicked a tendril out to capture a drop of blood, withdrew both tendril and blood into itself. “Salty.”

“How about helping?” Izo grumbled, wiggling his trapped arm.

“Oh, all right.”

The onibi lapped up blood directly from his stump–Izo cringed, expecting it to burn, but it tickled like goose feathers. Then the onibi spat the blood all over the gunk around his arm, and within moments the gunk sizzled off, and he was free!

Izo shook melting gunk from his left arm, and switched his sheathed sword to his right side.

“Better hurry, before the slug notices us,” the onibi said.

Izo looked up to see the slug’s tentacle eyes staring at them from over Master Takumi’s bubble. Crap! He clumsily drew his sword and winced as he touched the blade to his stump. A cry bubbled at the back of his throat; he choked it down, blinked back tears. His red-stained sword slashed the barrier, two, three, four times, hard and harder.

The slashes shimmered, sizzled, fell away. Fresh air blew in. Sword raised, he charged.

The slug muttered something unintelligible and threw up its arms. Izo tripped, sword went flying, his chin smacked the dusty ground . Couldn’t pull his legs apart. The gunk was around his ankles!

Quick!–he needed to hack it off. But his sword was out of reach. The slug oozed closer.

Fireball and sword flashed before him. The slug screeched and split right down the middle.

*****

Exhaustion weighed Izo like a heavy blanket. He had to be jarred awake by Master Takumi, who helped him up.

“Well done,” Master Takumi said, and Izo’s heart lifted. “Sloppy, but resourceful.”

The onibi delivered him his sword and Izo asked, “Why didn’t you suck the slug’s soul?”

“Slug souls? Eck! No thanks.”

Then he remembered. “Did you see the slug wearing a globe around its neck?”

Master Takumi nodded and produced the globe from his sleeve. “Not sure how they shrunk your village. Their sorcery seems to be getting stronger.”

“Let me see that,” the onibi said, tendrils extended.

Izo was about to object–handing an entire village-worth of souls to that thing?!–but the onibi had saved him; and besides, it probably couldn’t get at the souls inside.

The onibi examined the globe and said, “Ah, I know of a yōkai who knows a yōkai who could reverse this. Free of charge if I call in a favor.”

“That would be appreciated,” Master Takumi said, bowing. And after a stern look from the mantis, Izo also bowed.

“Only if you make more tea.”

“There’ll always be a pot reserved for you.” Master Takumi then turned to Izo. “I could also reserve a spot to train you, Izo. You would make an excellent slug slayer.”

Slug Slayer… The title had a catchy ring to it, though he wasn’t sure if he’d even survive Master Takumi’s training.

“I’m honored, Master Takumi. But, uh, let me think on it after my arm grows back.”

“Very well. Let’s head back before anymore damnable slugs appear.”

The onibi raced on ahead while Master Takumi half-carried Izo. Slug Slayer, he thought dreamily. The girl with the teal scales would probably find that attractive, the sort of thing a lizard could carve a legacy out of. Yes, he looked forward to that, along with his right arm.

END

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Teenage Badass

TEENAGE BADASS

by Kostas Paradias

Finn is a Helfwir, a monster hunter born. At the age of 8, Finn was capable of destroying a vampire with a plastic spoon. By the time she was 10, Finn knew a hundred ways of killing pretty much everything that went bump in the night.

Now, on her 14th birthday, Finn decides she wants to try living a normal life. She leaves home for Orsonville and enrolls in its high school. There, Finn will have to learn to deal with petty bullies, tenuous friendships , the hardships of teenage love and a werewolf cult that’s hell-bent on world domination, all without revealing her true identity.

This is shaping up to be a long, tough school year for Finn.


Episode One: At the End of the Whole Mess

So here I am, aboard a burning zeppelin that’s been ripped right out of time, fighting off a pack of snarling Nazi werewolves. There’s a hole in my sides; the only thing that’s keeping me from bleeding out is the spear-head that’s lodged against my ribs. The altimeter alarm is screaming from the cockpit and there’s a chill wind blowing against my back, tousling up my hair.

The balloon beneath me quakes like two metric tons of jello. Something below screams, as whatever’s left of the passenger hull grazes against the Edgarhorn, shedding glass and bits of its support-frame as it goes. A mass of packed snow and century-old ice becomes dislodged from the top; comes cascading down the mountain range, burying the derelict church on Bloch Hill under a couple metric tons of ice, come winter time. The way things are looking at the moment, I will either be torn apart by werewolves, drop 3 kilometers down to a messy death, burn to a crisp, bleed out or all of the above.

Dad would be so proud of me.

I am told there are worse ways to die: Mom always told me she was afraid she might waste away at that nothing little desk job she had before she met Dad, pushing buttons on keyboards according to on-screen instructions from 9 to 5. Sometimes, when my dad was gone for a long time hunting some creepy-crawly across the Urals, she would have nightmares. She would dream that faceless accountants would drag her kicking and screaming back to her cubicle, to serve until the end of her days.

One of the werewolves pounces on me so I whack him with my silver-plated baseball bat to the side of the head, send him flying down a two-kilometer drop all the way down to splat against the rusted, rotted remains of the ancient railway tracks that snake out of the mountain range. The ground might not be silver, but it’s going to be a while before he’s up and running again. Another one of the werewolves lunges at me, goes for a feint and swipes at my face, so I wheel around and land a blow to his chest with my reinforced elbow-guard, knocking the wind out of him. The force of the blow sends me sliding down across the balloon’s metal-clad envelope.

The fingers on my right hand flop down like wet hot dogs, so I switch the bat to my left arm. Won’t make for much of a swing, but it’s definitely going to sting. Somewhere ahead of me, in the bowels of the zeppelin an engine explodes, adding to the conflagration that is consuming the Hindenburg. Smelted, burning engine parts pitter-patter over house roofs. An axle smashes that ghastly gypsum cat statue on top of Mister Landsdale’s pet shop.  The entire zeppelin takes a sharp forty-five degree downward incline. I click my heels together and Mister Nomura’s patented AdhereAll™ smart-spikes shoot out from the soles of my shoes, grip the surface below me.

One of the werewolf braves moves in, thinking he’s up for an easy kill. This one’s a little bit smarter; he fixes his claws down into the wooden planks, digs in deep to steady himself, tries to bite my neck. The following explosion, which destroys the zeppelin’s auxiliary tanks makes him stumble; turns his killing blow into a mighty miss. So I crack him one in the ribs, another in the jaw and watch the teeth scatter in the high-velocity wind. We’re dropping like a meteor straight out of a disaster movie now, as big as the sky and wreathed in a halo of flame. Orsonville rises up to meet us.

Time seems to slow down, like a dream. I wonder if anyone below is seeing this. Maybe they’ll all just shrug and move on, unless the Hindenburg crashes into the school or totals the library. Even then, one of the residents in the Valente Old Folk’s home will tell you how they got it worse in ’65 and how young people got it easy these days.

I hear something wailing below, over the roar of the flames. The altimeter’s gone quiet, probably reduced to a mass of boiling glass and melted metal by now. I make out the distant, mournful wailing of an air raid siren. Looks like Uriah finally found some use for it. All those weeks, months, years of watching the skies finally paid off. He’s probably cackling like mad down there, screaming I Tol’ You So’s and Who’s Crazy Now’s at Skeptic Jane and Cynic Cleetus down below.

The Hull finally sheds off the Hindenburg, lands on Mister Guttierez’s convenience store, reducing it to rubble. I think of all the rows of stale donuts and the creaking, cranky Slurry™ machines and the comic books and the cheap Zippo knockoff lighters going up in flames and his cash stall, filled to the brim with all the change he short-charged me every day of every week during this entire year that I’ve visited his store. The loss of all that dead weight causes us to gain a little bit of altitude, just enough so we won’t end up crashing into Ellison Street.

Two of the werewolves skitter by and grasp my jeans to hold on. One of them tries to pull himself up, get a cheap shot in. I bring the baseball bat handle down on his face again and again until he lets go. The fur on his face sizzles where the silver has landed. After another couple of hits, he lets go. I don’t even notice my pants leg is ripping until I feel the wind against my calves. When I turn to look, the other werewolf’s gone. They’ve probably landed all over the Orsonville Mall roof by now.

I chance a glance behind me and see that we’re heading toward Henderson Lake. There’s enough industrial waste and runoff petrol from frakking operations there to turn the entire mass into a fireball as soon as the flame hits, but at least it’s a long way away from Orsonville. There shouldn’t be too much damage. Mission accomplished. The world is as good as saved.

I don’t dare say it out loud, but I’m feeling pretty damn invincible right now. Like Major Steele and Jean LeFevre the parkour champ all rolled into one. I feel ten feet tall and my heart is pumping fast; like I could chew steel and breathe fire. But when I see Gunda stomping out of the flames, fur bristling, claws at the ready, a row of teeth so long and sharp they could tear strips off a battleship’s hull, so angry she could tear down the Moon and eat it, I remind myself that it’s time to get the hell out.

“Finn! You bastard!” she howls like the Bad Wolf in the picture books Mom used to read to me, when I was four and scared of the dark. Time to go. Putting pressure on my heels to activate the pressure switch that retracts the spikes, I let myself slide down the incline just a little bit, turn my body to brake my descent. If I do it the way Dad showed me, I should be able to jump over the tip, do a flip and then let the wind carry me behind the zeppelin just in time to control my fall enough to maybe break only a couple of bones on landing.

If I don’t, at least I’ll make a pretty corpse. Glancing back, I see Gunda stomping down across the incline. She moves like something out of a nightmare, deceptively fast. Her every step is calculated, seems to ignore gravity and the steepness of the incline. I tell myself that she’s not as close or as fast as she seems and that I’m going to make it. I guess that’s the same thing all those stumbling, doomed cheerleaders tell themselves in slasher movies, just before they turn around and see the man in the bloody coveralls standing right in front of them.

Skidding across the bobbing polyester surface of the balloon, approaching maximum velocity, I jump up in the air. True to form, Gunda slams into me like a steam-hammer. Her moon-mad face fills my field of vision, her eyes as wide as saucers.

“You ruined everything!” she snarls as we bounce off the railing, across the balloon, down the nose. Her claws dig into my back. I hear her tearing my backpack across the seams, reducing it to canvass ribbons and useless lengths of zipper. It all happens in the span of a couple of instants, almost too fast for the eye to see. My tools rain down, a hail of  vials full of wolfsbane concentrate and mandrake root powder and mercury, strewn across the forest floor. If I make it out of this alive, Mister Pettus is going to be so pissed. He will probably berate my corpse at my own funeral. Grab me by the neck and just beat the living tar out of me, ordering me to get up so he can chew me out some more. Provided there’s enough of me left after the drop.

“Die!” she howls.

“After you,” I say.

Gunda opens her mouth so wide that she could fit my entire head between her jaws. I push the tip of my baseball bat up against her wide open mouth, let her taste silver. She bites into it anyway; grazes the plating, reduces the shaft to splinters. Her gums and tongue sizzle where the silver lingers, but she’s too mad to care. She spits at my face, grazes my cheeks with her front teeth looking for a vein or a patch of flesh that she can peel clean off. She rakes her claws across my back, tearing up the spider-silk layers of armor underneath. I’m too terrified to scream, settling instead for twisting my bat handle and the mess that’s left of the shaft into her mouth. It cracks and I drive the jagged edge against her palate.

Tree-branches whip at the back of my head, my ears and eyes. Shifting my weight slightly, I turn both of us in mid-air so she’s below me, hoping that her body can break my fall. I mutter a quick, garbled mess of a prayer. Gunda finishes off my bat, moves in for my throat. I feel her teeth grazing my jugular, piercing the skin. I’m perhaps three seconds away from dying and all I can think of is how pissed Anton is going to be if he finds out I stood him up on our date because I’m dead.

We crash into the ground at thirty meters a second just as the hijacked Hindenburg falls into Henderson Lake, turning its surface into a pillar of fire a hundred meters tall.

END

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Fly Red Fox

FLY RED FOX

by Desmond Fox

Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.

This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.

Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.

Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.

The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.

She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.

In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.

*****

Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.

A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.

With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.

Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.

The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.

“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.

“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.

“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”

Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.

“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”

“There’s more to her than you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”

“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.

“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”  

“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.

“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”

“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”

“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”

 

*****

“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.

“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”

“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”

“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.

“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.

“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”

“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”

“I want to live.”

“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”

“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.

“And they let you leave?”

“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.

Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”

“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”

“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”

“The Bleeding Ceremony.”

Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”

“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.

A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”

Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.

“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”

“Yes.”

“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”

“It’s a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”

Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”

 

******

Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.

He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.

“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”

“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”

Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.

“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”

“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.

“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.

“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.

Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.

Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.

Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”

“I won’t. You can fly.”

“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”

“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”

“Your stick, you can shoot-”

“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”

“The curse-”

“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”

“You’ll die.”

“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”

The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.

“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.

Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.

Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”

*****

The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.

There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.

Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.

Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.

A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.

Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.

“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.

“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”

“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”

“But my lady, we must give them something.”

“And we will.”

Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.

“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.

“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”

“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”

“But he deceived you!”

“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”

The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”

Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”

*****

Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.

“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.

“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”

“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”

“No one else knew either?”

“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”

“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”

“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”

“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”

“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”

“Mmm.”

“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”

“Peace through deception eh?”

“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”

“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”

“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”

Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”

END

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Blighted Aura, Ep1: Stonewalled

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The sky ruptures. Rays of the setting sun fracture into scintillating shards of color as a stone flashes into existence in the upper atmosphere. It plummets toward the ground, gaining speed. Light warps around it, forming a dark penumbra. A trail of flame follows its tortured path until the stone impacts the ground at the edge of a lake. The shockwave flattens trees in every direction and sends clouds of mist and dust into the air.

In the silent aftermath, muddy water falls like false rain. The fractured pieces of the stone tremble unnaturally as smoky tendrils ebb outward. Plants wither. Animals flee, or else they sicken and die.


The morning sun parted the clouds and stirred the village of Hiber to life. Yuan stepped out of the home in which he’d lived his entire life. His father had built it for his mother, and although Yuan was of age, building a home of his own seemed another hopeless dream. His father called him a late bloomer. They both knew it to be more complicated than that.

The air was clean and crisp, exactly the kind of morning Yuan liked best. Despite his shortcomings, he would find ways to contribute. With a deep breath he called to a nearby stone mason.

“Bergan! I would be pleased to work with you today.” He bowed slightly, careful to keep his clasped hands the right height to designate respect for an elder.

The burly stone worker bowed in return and shook his head. “Thank you, Yuan. May the Ancestral Light attend you, but I have plenty of help today.”

Yuan watched Bergan walk away. Three young men went with him, each of which Yuan knew he could outlift.

Next he caught the eye of Londer, the woodworker, and bowed. “Londer! Do you need assistance this fine morning?”

Londer returned his greeting and then hoisted a satchel over his shoulder. “No thank you Yuan, I have all the help I need.”

With practiced effort, Yuan hid his disappointment. It wouldn’t do for neighbors to see his emotions too vividly so early in the morning, but everyday it was the same. Most of the villagers gently refused his offer to work with them. They thought him flawed, broken because he couldn’t do what they could. But he would find a way to serve the people of his village. One way or another, he would prove his worth. He just wasn’t sure how…yet.

Londer turned suddenly. “Yuan, I could use you later, carrying some of the finished furniture back from the forest. Could you help me after midday?”

Nodding, Yuan smiled. “Of course, Londer. I would be grateful to assist.”

“Yuan! Where are you?” Yuan’s father, an elderly man with gray hair and bright eyes called from the threshold of their home.

“I am here, father.” Yuan answered.

“I almost forgot to tell you, the Widow Helmslee could use your help. She can’t clear the patch behind her cottage by herself.”

Yuan smiled. The Widow Helmslee could probably clear the patch twice over by herself, but this would give him a small means to contribute. He thanked his father and left.

The widow’s home sat among the forest as if it had grown there, like all the homes of Hiber. He knocked at the door, noting how well the stones of the wall fit together. Her husband had been a skilled builder, perhaps as skilled as his father, Aita, before he had stopped working stone. Yuan pushed down the painful memories of how he had caused his father to retire early. He called out, “Widow Helmslee! Are you at home?”

“Out back! Come around.”

Yuan followed the stone walkway that bordered her home. Each stone in the walk fit perfectly with its neighbors. Yuan wished again he could mold stone that well, or at all.

The Widow Helmslee looked up from tending her flowers. She remained spry considering she was the oldest resident of the village, not counting those who had already Ascended. With a small bow she said, “Aita! I didn’t know you were coming to help me!”

“No, Widow Helmslee, it’s Yuan. Aita is my father.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, Widow Helmslee. I’m sure.” Yuan smiled as he bowed deeply, indicating most respect.

“Well don’t stand there all day. Move those stones.” She motioned towards a pile of rocks almost as tall as Yuan.

Yuan walked around the pile, wondering how long it would take him to move it. “Most of the villagers don’t have a pile of stones like this in their flower bed. Why are they here?” he asked her.

“My husband Brael intended to build a wall along the edge of the garden. To discourage rabbits from sneaking in. Could you make it for me? I want the stones out of my way so I can extend my vegetable patch.”

“Yuan hefted a stone the size of his head. “Where do you want it?”

“Here,” she motioned to an open space where a small rose bush with a single red bloom sat alone. The others had all been cleared. “Oops, I missed one.”

The Widow reached down and placed a hand on the stem of the rose. Yuan almost stopped her; fearful she would tear out such a beautiful flower. But her hand rested lightly on the rose as she whispered to it. Slowly the rose bush flowed through the soil until it rested with the other roses at the end of the bed.

“That should do it.” She surveyed her handiwork. “There should be enough stone to make a wall about knee high all along here.”

Yuan nodded dumbly, still holding the first stone in front of him. A yearning seized him as he marveled at the ease of the Widow’s work, but he stifled the jealous desire before she could see. He focused on building the wall the only way he knew how—by hand, one stone at a time. By stacking and interlocking the stones carefully, he soon had the beginning of a wall that would stand for many years.

The widow watched at him quizzically. After many minutes she asked, “Aren’t you going to shape them?”

Yuan gritted his teeth and set down the stone he carried. He hadn’t expected such a question from the Widow Helmslee. Then he realized she must be confusing him with his father. Careful to contain his emotions, he replied, “I’m not Aita, Widow. I’m Yuan.”

Widow Helmslee clasped both hands over her mouth. She stepped to Yuan and hugged him. “I’m so sorry, Yuan. Of course you may stack the stones as they are. I prefer a natural look to a wall anyway. Let me help you move them.”

She spoke to the air beside her. “Yes Brael, I know he’s not Aita.” She lifted a small stone and brought it to the wall Yuan had started.

“Let me do it, Widow Helmslee. Carrying stones is the kind of thing I’m good at.” Yuan tried to keep any bitterness out of his words, but he heard it loud and clear. If the widow noticed she said nothing.

Yuan continued carrying the stones and stacking them for the rest of the morning, until the original pile was gone. He regarded his work with a smile. Not bad for someone who couldn’t mold stone.

Widow Helmslee emerged from her cottage, carrying a large mug. “Here you are Yuan, you look thirsty.”

Yuan accepted the mug of cool water gratefully.

“And don’t worry about the wall, your father can stop by and mold it properly anytime.”

Yuan choked in mid-swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and handed the mug to the widow. He bowed, his hands clasped at eye level to indicate most respect. A cauldron of emotions roiled within him. “I must be going, Widow. I’ve agreed to meet Laraki for lunch.”

Tremendous discipline and years of practice were all that hid his extreme hurt from the widow. If he allowed himself to feel the anger or pain threatening to explode within him, she would read it in his aura. They all would.

Yuan left the widow quickly, bound for his favorite tree.


In minutes Yuan reached the huge oak, close enough to the village to be accessible yet far enough away to feel private. He pounded the trunk once with his fist before swallowing his frustration and sitting on a bench made from the living wood. It had taken many sessions with Londer to convince him to make it.

Individual rays of sunlight filtered through the forest, orchestrated by a cool breeze that carried the scent of flowers and green grass. Yuan breathed it in. He closed his eyes and asked the calm to replace the storm inside him.

An insect buzzed slowly by—a bee, heavy laden with pollen. Opening his eyes, Yuan swatted it out of the air. The bee thunked against the trunk of the tree and fell stunned to the ground. A gasp of astonishment caught Yuan off guard.

“Yuan! How could you?” Laraki darted forward. Gracefully, she knelt and lifted the insect in her hands. She held it close to her mouth and whispered to it. Yuan leaned forward, trying to catch the words, but they were too quiet. After a moment, Laraki opened her hands and the bee flew away.

“Why did you do that?” Yuan asked her. “It was only a bee.”

Laraki stood, hands on her hips, and faced him. Her long hair framed her face. A green tunic of silk fell to her knees. The color perfectly matched her left eye. Yuan thought her mismatched, right eye resembled the color of rich soil. A white wool belt tied at her waist completed her attire. She tilted her head to the side in a way he found entrancing. He prepared himself for another of her lectures.

“Yuan! You are impossible! Bees are among the most reverent of all creatures. They provide a service and make food for themselves and us while doing it.” She shook her head, unable to disguise the faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her smile changed to a frown as she regarded Yuan more closely. “What happened to you? Your aura is… wild.”

He was careful to keep a tight rein on his feelings. “I helped the Widow Helmslee today. She thought I was my father. It was strange.”

“Is there more?”

Yuan shook his head, but had to look away.

Laraki sat next to him. “Yuan, if you could only see yourself the way I do. You have more capacity for grief and self-sacrifice than all the rest of the villagers put together. Your aura…” she studied him for a moment. “It’s captivating and devastating at the same time.”

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

“It’s why the others struggle to relate to you.”

“The others pity me.” He picked up a pebble and tossed it away. “Nothing more.”

“That’s not true. They’re frightened…and maybe even a little jealous.”

Yuan snorted derisively. “How could you think that? I’m the crippled one, remember?” Only in Laraki’s presence did he dare let his emotions run their course. Currently, he uncorked the morning’s frustrations. “The one who can’t see auras!”

Laraki gasped.

Confused by her response to something she’d known for years, Yuan finally looked her in the face. “What is it?”

“I hadn’t realized your desperation had grown so bleak. That you would even consider…” her words faded into tears.

“What? What did I do? If it’s about the bee, I’m sorry.”

“Were you going to tell me before you left the village? Or were you just planning to disappear?” She choked out the words between sobs.

There was no use in disguising the truth with Laraki. She often knew things he hadn’t admitted to himself. He looked away. “Yes, I’ve decided to leave the village.”

“How can you leave your home, especially with your father getting weaker…” She struggled for words. “How could you leave me?”

Yuan refused to look at her. For some dumb reason he felt that if he didn’t see her, she wouldn’t see him. Or at least she wouldn’t see the truth of him—the darkness he battled constantly. “I have to go. I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m some kind of cripple.” How could she understand it was for her sake he must leave?

“When will you go?” she asked softly.

Another bee buzzed past, filling the silence. “Tomorrow morning.” Yuan decided on the spot.

“Where…”

“I don’t know. One of the other villages. Maybe try and see how far away a man can go.”

Laraki stood, took his hands, and raised him up to join her. “Then you must go to my father and ask for my hand.”

The breeze stirred her long red hair. Yuan’s blood raised even as his heart sank. “Your father hates me.”

She lifted his chin until his eyes met hers. “He doesn’t hate you.”

Yuan pulled away. “I don’t know where I’m going or when I’m coming back. I may never come back. It might be too dangerous. You should stay here.”

Laraki shook her head. “I am going with you. If you leave without me, I will follow alone. When my father knows that, he will grant your request for my hand.” She hugged him, painfully reminding him of how strong yet soft she was.

He ran his fingers through her red hair, amazed she allowed one such as him to touch it.

“You should go right now.”

“Yes, I should.” He backed away while considering his next words carefully. She would see it if he lied. Why did her father have to be the Village Elder?

Laraki stood her ground. “Don’t you want me to go with you?”

“More than anything,” he said softly.

“Then ask my father for my hand.”

“I will.” He uttered the words as if a great stone crushed down on his chest. The simple statement was all he could muster.

She kissed him and retreated, moving as lightly as a dancer until she disappeared through the trees.

He collapsed onto the bench. What he had promised her was true. He would ask her father. Someday. At the moment, he wasn’t good enough for her. If her father denied his request, tradition dictated he couldn’t ask again. She would be lost to him forever.

Even worse, her father could say yes, and she would be stuck with an unworthy husband. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. He would have to leave tonight.


Yuan returned to the village, hatching his plan in his heart. It would require great care to allay Laraki’s suspicions. She had just proved how well she could read his mind by observing his aura. Perhaps he could go to the woods to help Londer and simply not come back. Yuan needed only to inform his father. At least the elderly Aita would understand.

As the village cropped into view through the fringe of the forest, Yuan was surprised to find half the villagers clogging the trail. Curious, he felt his way through the crowd until he saw what held their attention. The sight stunned him.

Derrin, Laraki’s younger brother, sat in the dust of the crossroads, his clothes rent. Blood oozed from cuts on his face and dripped from his nose. Mouth agape, he stared at the ground while drool coursed down his chin. His boots were gone, his feet bloodied. Despite his clear need of assistance, the nearest villagers stood twenty feet away. Most were steadily retreating.

Yuan stepped forward, bewildered that no one helped. He bowed quickly, hands held chest high, the correct height for an equal. “Derrin, are you well?”

“Don’t touch him!” Someone shouted.

Yuan stopped, his hands inches from Derrin’s head. “Why?”

Derrin seemed oblivious to the conversation.

Bergan grabbed Yuan’s arm and pulled him away. “There is something wrong with him.”

Yuan struggled to free himself from the mason’s iron grip. “He’s hurt! Why is no one helping him?”

“You can’t see his aura,” Bergan whispered. “It’s…” he shook his head, at a loss for words.

“It’s what?” Yuan demanded.

“It’s…gone.”

“Every living thing has an aura!” Yuan snapped.

“Yes, but, his is… gone.”

Yuan’s eyes widened in surprise. “But,” he couldn’t voice what they must all be thinking. “How is that possible?”

Bergan shrugged and stepped back further.

Yuan wrenched away from Bergan and darted to Laraki’s brother. “Derrin, are you okay?” He touched the boy’s shoulder. The crowd gasped.

Derrin turned his head and focused his eyes. “Yuan?” He staggered to his feet and stared at the villagers surrounding him at a distance. “Am I home? Is it over?” He glanced at his torn clothes and the cuts on his hands. “I’m, I’m hurt.”

“Derrin!” Laraki slipped gracefully through the crowd, her father, Pashun close behind her. “Come with me, I’ll help you.” She took Derrin’s hand, attempting to lead him away.

“Let go of me!” Derrin backhanded his sister, knocking her to the ground.

She stared up at him in shock, tears in her eyes.

Yuan hesitated only a second before pinning Derrin’s arms to his sides. He had never seen anyone strike another person in all his years. “Why did you do that?” Only after asking the question did Yuan realize how much he yearned for the answer. Only then did he realize how close to the surface his own violent nature lurked.

Derrin struggled against Yuan’s grip then appeared to snap out of his trance. He stuttered and blinked. “What, what did I do?”

Yuan’s anger flared. “You hit Laraki!”

“What? I would never…” Derrin continued to blink and twitch.

Laraki slowly picked herself up from the ground—grief and horror etched across her face.

Yuan suppressed his anger while Pashun aided Laraki. “Are you all right, my daughter?”

“Yes, father.” She dabbed at the puffy skin beneath her eye.

“My son is ill. Take him to our home.” Pashun ordered the crowd at large.

Yuan wrapped Derrin’s arm over his shoulder and tried to walk him by himself, but Derrin’s feet were too badly injured. Yuan gazed into the crowd of blank faces, waiting, but no one offered. “Someone has to help.”

After several seconds, Junstan stepped forward—the one person in the village Yuan hoped would’ve stayed back. Pashun favored him as a match for Laraki. With a nod, Junstan hooked Derrin’s other arm over his shoulders.

Together, the two of them carried Derrin through a rapidly widening gap in the crowd until they reached the Elder’s home and placed Derrin in a bed. Cautiously, Laraki bandaged her brother’s cuts and scrapes.

“Can you recall what happened to you?” Pashun asked his youngest.

Derrin lay back against his pillow and closed his eyes. “I wish you would all stop looking at me that way.”

“What way?” Pashun asked.

“Like I’m some kind of monster.”

“We’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable,” Pashun said.

“Well you are!” Derrin sat up, his eyes still closed. His head turned as though he looked at each of them in turn. Everyone shrunk from the outburst, everyone save Yuan.

Yuan stood between Derrin and Laraki, determined to prevent her further harm.

“The only one of you who seems normal right now is Yuan. And I think we all know why.”

Yuan’s face reddened.

“What happened to you?” Pashun repeated the question while raising a hand to silence Yuan’s response.

Derrin breathed deeply. “I saw something fall from the sky this morning; something that burned as it fell. It landed near Juniper Lake. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I went to investigate. But when I got close to the lake, I saw the forest dying; trees, animals, everything.”

Trembling, Derrin continued. “I stopped at the edge of a… a patch of death, hundreds of yards across. There were these things… writhing, dark, like long fingers of smoke. Like snakes of death. Everything they touched wilted or died. Before I could understand what I saw, they were wrapping around my feet, sucking at my boots. Sick to my stomach, I kicked off my boots and ran.”

“Did anything else happen?” Pashun asked.

“I just kept running.” Derrin shook his head and laid back. “The next thing I knew, Yuan was talking to me.”

Yuan noticed how Laraki avoided Derrin’s eerie closed-eye gaze. Her eyes revealed her panic. Yuan didn’t need to see her aura to understand how she felt.

“This thing, this patch of death, was it expanding?” Pashun asked.

Derrin laughed, eyes still closed. “You can’t stop it.” He spoke with a voice not his own. “No one can stop it. It’s coming, and it will eat you all.” The laughter morphed to giggling. Then Derrin wept.

It felt as if the air had gone out of the room. Yuan looked to Pashun, hoping the elder had some wisdom to offer. Surely, he understood what was happening to his own son.

Finally Pashun spoke. “Yuan, Junstan, gather as many of the people together as you can. Send messages to warn anyone outside the village about this… this blight. The elders will discuss what to do. Go,” Pashun ordered.

Yuan turned toward Laraki before leaving. A red hand mark had sprung up across her cheek. “Be careful.”

She nodded. Sadness framed her face as she looked to her still weeping brother. “I will.” She seemed distant, closed off.

Yuan feared she had read his intentions. Worse yet, she had seen into his darkness. He dismissed the thoughts. Her response was no doubt due to concern for her brother, nothing more.


Yuan and Junstan did as Pashun had asked. On the way to the village meeting, Yuan related everything to his father.

“It still surprises me that Derrin would strike Laraki. Such a thing…and from such a pleasant young man,” Aita said.

“I am worried about him, and about her.”

“But more about her. Am I right?” Aita smiled. “She would be a good match for you. I’ve seen how she watches you. I would approve if you decided to seek her hand.”

“This is no time to think of such things. In fact, before this happened I had decided to leave the village.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

Yuan kicked a stone further along the path. “Yes, of course.”

“And are you going to tell her?”

“I already did.”

His father raised one eyebrow like he always did when annoyed. “You told her before me? Hmph, figures. What did she say?”

Yuan rubbed the grit from his forehead. “She wants me to ask her father for her hand so she can go with me.”

Aita winked. “I knew she was a smart girl. So you asked?”

“No! I couldn’t ask for her hand now.”

“Of course, of course.” Aita steadied himself with Yuan’s arm and they resumed an old man’s pace toward the village center. As if sensing Yuan’s impatience, Aita continued. “I am an old man now. I can feel my time drawing close. It would be nice to know my only son had someone to share his life with.”

“Even if I could make myself do it, now is not the time. Our village may be in danger.”

“I know.” Aita gripped Yuan’s arm tighter. “Don’t put it off too long, or she’ll be gone.”

Yuan thought of Junstan and scowled. He knew Pashun favored Junstan more than the only man in the village who couldn’t see auras. “I’ll consider it.”

“My son, you have more to offer than you think. Weren’t you the first one of all the village to help Derrin?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t see what everyone else could.”

“Perhaps,” Aita nodded.

A large crowd gathered outside the Elder’s home. Every able-bodied villager was there. Pashun greeted them individually while Laraki emerged from the family home to stand by her father’s side. Pashun asked his daughter something privately. Yuan overheard her response. “He’s sleeping quietly. A hint of his aura has returned.”

After hearing the good news, Pashun addressed the villagers from a stump. “My fellow residents of Hiber, you surely have heard what has happened to my son and how he acted uncharacteristically. I fear the mysterious blight he encountered may be spreading toward our village. We may need to flee.”

Mumbling ran around the crowd like quiet thunder. Someone asked, “Are you sure we need to leave our homes?”

“No, I am not. It may be like a forest fire to be run from and it may not. Until we learn otherwise, I suggest we prepare to leave, immediately.”

Londer asked, “Do we know how close it is?”

Pashun shook his head. “No. That’s why I need a volunteer to serve as scout.”

Amidst the mutters of the villagers, Yuan stepped forward. “I will go, Elder. Send me.”

“I will go as well,” Junstan chimed in.

Yuan clenched his jaw. It figured Junstan would volunteer.

“Good, the two of you will go together, but go quickly. Don’t touch the blight or let it touch you. May the Ancestral Light attend you.” Pashun bowed, his hands held at the height designating deep respect.

Yuan and Junstan returned the bow before trotting off together in search of a blight that had driven Laraki’s brother mad. On the bright side, if Yuan went crazy, at least he’d take Junstan with him.


Yuan had fished Juniper Lake many times. He knew the path well, so Junstan allowed him to lead the way. The further they jogged, the stranger it felt to anticipate finding something Yuan wasn’t sure he wanted to see.

Within a mile of the lake, they slowed to catch their breath. Their surroundings seemed normal, yet Yuan felt the need to whisper. “Have you seen any hint of the blight?” It suddenly occurred to Yuan that he might not even be able to see the blight.

Junstan laced his fingers behind his head. “Has it occurred to you that there might not be a blight?”

“If Derrin was lying, you would have seen it. Everyone would have seen it.” Everyone except me, Yuan thought.

Junstan shook his head. “You don’t understand. He had no aura to read. He could have been lying, or even delusional.”

“Then I guess we need to go all the way to the lake.” Before Yuan could resume their pace, a rabbit streaked past them and smacked into a tree. It rebounded several feet.

Junstan backed away immediately.

“That was odd.” Yuan moved to take a closer look at the stunned animal.

“Don’t touch it,” Junstan hissed. “Its aura is…”

“Gone?” Yuan asked.

“Not exactly.” Junstan swallowed. “I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s warped.”

As Yuan considered what to do next, two more rabbits pounced on the unconscious one and began to eat it. “Ancestor’s Light! Is their aura normal?”

Junstan staggered backwards. “Let’s go. Theirs are worse than the first.”

Yuan led the way through the trees at a steady run, urgent but not reckless. He felt familiar enough with the area to find his way off the trail.

“Yuan! Stop!”

Yuan froze. “What is it?”

“You can’t see that?”

A single drop of sweat rolled down Yuan’s forehead and into his eye. He blinked in effort to see what Junstan saw. He noticed only trees and brush until one tree seemed to wilt before his very eyes. He pointed at the sick tree.

“Yes,” Junstan hissed. “It’s covered in snakes without eyes—all bound together as one. You don’t see them?”

“No.” Conflicted, Yuan couldn’t decide if his disability was an advantage in this situation or not. He strained his eyes, but all he saw was a sick tree. He glanced at Junstan and nearly jumped.

Junstan’s eyes bulged. He gasped for air as if something had wrapped around his throat. “You can’t see it? You can’t see it!”

“Calm down and breathe.” Yuan shook him.

Junstan couldn’t unglue his eyes from the tree.

Yuan focused his emotions, the same way he had trained himself to remain unreadable to the others. The discipline allowed him to stay calm. “Tell me what you see.”

“I don’t know, but I think I’m going to throw up.” Junstan put a hand to his mouth. “It’s like a ball of snakes trying to devour the same mouse. How far are we from the lake?”

Yuan looked for a landmark. “I don’t know for sure. Less than a mile.”

“Let’s go back. No wonder Derrin went crazy.”

“We still don’t know for sure how far it’s spread.” Yuan objected.

“We know it’s here and it’s moving toward the village. That’s what we came to find out. Let’s go back.” Junstan staggered and would have fallen if Yuan hadn’t have stabilized him. “I can feel it. It’s as if…”

“What?” Yuan stared at the tree. It looked more wilted than it had a few moments before. “If the blight is moving this way, then we should be able to go around it to the south. The view from the hill above the lake will let us see how far it’s gone in all directions.”

“No! We need to warn the village. They must leave immediately.”

Yuan smiled. “You can go back without me if you want, but I’m going to the hill that overlooks the lake. I think I can manage without you.”

Junstan struggled with the matter for several seconds. “Fine. But you would have turned back already if you could see what I see.”


Yuan led the way, skirting several trees that looked sick. Junstan said nothing, so Yuan couldn’t be sure the trees were infected. More than once he heard Junstan gag, indicating the blight couldn’t be too far off.

The slope of the ground increased and Yuan recognized the hill by a familiar outcropping of rock. He knew a small clearing at the top would grant a view of nearly the entire lake. Panting and out of breath, he and Junstan crested the hill.

Where once a small lake of clear water and silver fish had shimmered in the sun, there existed nothing but smoking mud. For the first time since seeing Derrin, Yuan felt a keen sense of the evil that threatened them. A crater on the eastern edge of the lake revealed where the thing from the sky had struck.

Blackness radiated outward from the crater, leaving an uneven line of dead and decaying plant and animal life. The blight extended for at least a mile in every direction, except for the hill where they stood. Yuan wondered if the blight flowed like water, seeking the easiest paths first. Even without seeing the aura of the blight, the destruction alone filled him with dread.

He heard Junstan fall to the ground behind him.The hairs on the back of Yuan’s neck rose. “Junstan, what is it?”

Tears flowed down Junstan’s cheeks as he cried freely. “It’s too much to see. We’ll die. We’re all dead!”

As much as Yuan wanted to dislike Junstan, he regretted bringing him this far. No one deserved to suffer like this. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Can you walk?”

Junstan nodded weakly. “If it’s away from here.”

Yuan helped him to his feet. Together they retraced their path down the hill.

No sooner than Junstan had regained enough strength to walk on his own, he cried out. “Stop!”

Yuan nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is it?”

Junstan scanned the forest in dismay. “It’s moving up the hill fast. We’re cut off!”

Yuan shook his head. None of the trees seemed wilted or sick yet. “I don’t see anything.”

“That’s the problem! You’ve never been able to see anything!” Junstan ducked as if dodging a blow. “Run!”

Yuan dashed up the hill with the feeling of something nipping at his heels. He had no idea what they would do when they reached the top. If Junstan was right, they were trapped. After minutes that felt like hours they reached the crest of the hill, both of them gasping for breath.

“There’s nowhere else to run! You did this! You’ve killed us both!”

“We’re not dead yet,” Yuan growled. “Be quiet and let me think.”

“Ancestor’s Light,” Junstan gasped. “It comes.” His eyes darted from tree to tree.

Yuan shook Junstan. “Where is it the thinnest?”

Junstan doubled over and retched.

“Where is it the thinnest?” Yuan yelled.

“There’s no chance. We’re dead.” Junstan collapsed to the ground in a heap.

Yuan thought he felt the blight coming like heavy air before a storm. Of its own volition, his gaze returned to the crater on the edge of where Juniper Lake had been. If the blight was spreading outward from there, it stood to reason the greatest concentrations would be at the outward fringe where everything was dying. Right?

He tugged on Junstan, but his unwilling companion had passed out. Growling low in his throat, Yuan heaved Junstan over his shoulder. At a reckless and burdened pace, he barreled down the hill, straight toward the crater where the blight had begun.


Laraki watched the two young men leave to scout the blight. She knew they represented her future. She would spend her life and her devotion on one or the other. She also knew her heart to be wild. A tear trailed down her cheek. Her unfettered desire ached for Yuan and his intensity, even though she knew grief would come of it. Was she crazy to trust him?

She pushed the selfish thoughts aside. She couldn’t let her father shoulder the entire weight of the village on his own. He needed her help. Faithfully, she remained by his side, handling what small burdens she could.

In the midst of the evacuation planning, Widow Helmslee approached and bowed reverently. “Elder Pashun, I haven’t seen my Brael for the last few hours.”

Pashun answered her politely. “I am sorry, Widow Helmslee. There are times when the Ascended leave our plane of existence.”

The widow shook her head. “Not my Brael. He’s stayed close by ever since he Ascended more than five years ago.”

As her father attempted to comfort the widow, Laraki pondered the matter. Brael had been the only villager to Ascend during her lifetime. Many had died. Only Brael had Ascended. While Laraki knew Ascension to be rare, she had no idea how many of her kindred had ascended before her time.

Most of the Ascended came and went at will, often passing down knowledge from hundreds of years before. The Ascended brought the village continuity and memory. She didn’t know any personally, but she had witnessed their interactions with loved ones many times. She caught the widow’s attention before she could leave. Bowing low, Laraki asked when Brael had first gone missing.

“It’s not as much when as how. I would have sworn when he left he was running away.” The widow teared up and Laraki comforted he while seeing her home. On the way back to the village center and to her father’s side, Laraki decided to visit her friend, Talia.

Talia’s young son often visited with an Ascended Great-Grandfather who came to check on his family. Laraki knocked loudly on the door.

“Come in!” Talia called. “Oh Laraki, it’s you! Is your brother any better?” She greeted Laraki without interrupting her preparations to leave the village. A chuffy toddler followed at her hip.

Laraki winced at the unwelcome reminder of her brother’s condition. “I left him sleeping peacefully. His aura seems to be returning.”

“I am glad to hear it. My Leron saw him come in to the village and is still shaken up about it.”

Laraki smiled wanly. “Talia, I wanted to ask you about something else. Have you seen your Ascended Grandfather recently?”

Talia stopped what she was doing. “It’s odd you should ask. He was here this morning, making little Taliron laugh.” She hefted her boy in her arms. “But then he left suddenly. I’ve never seen him leave like that before.”

“Was it… about the time Derrin returned to the village? About midday?”

Talia nodded. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

Laraki said, “There might be.”

“What does it mean?”

Laraki shrugged. “I wish I knew.”

After saying goodbye to Talia, Laraki returned to her father’s side to help as she could. She waited patiently as he attempted to assuage the villagers fears even while instructing them to prepare to leave their homes, possibly forever.

A breeze blew gently, stirring her hair and cooling her as it brought the smell of flowers. In happier times she would have followed the smell of the flowers until she found them and identified them, maybe even picked a few.

“And what is my daughter waiting so patiently to speak to me about?” Pashun asked.

Laraki looked around. Everyone had been sent away to prepare. She and her father were alone, a rarity. She beheld him for a long few seconds. He looked more tired than she had seen him in many years, maybe ever. “I think all the Ascended have fled from the blight.”

Pashun sat on the stump at the center of the village. “I think you are right.”

Few things he might have said would have surprised her, but that did. “How could you know?”

He massaged his forehead. “I didn’t really know until you asked the Widow Helmslee about the matter. I trust you found another to confirm your suspicions?”

“Yes, Talia’s grandfather.”

He sighed. “We can’t evacuate everyone until tomorrow morning. Even that soon will be difficult.”

“What about Yuan and Junstan?” Laraki asked, her voice breaking.

Pashun followed the path to Juniper Lake with his eyes. He shivered as if he could see the blight through the miles of forest. “Whether they return or not, we cannot risk the rest of our village. Not returning will confirm the blight to be even worse than we feared. If they do return, perhaps it will be with good news. Either way, we will prepare for the worst. Hiber must survive.”

She stood straight. “I will wait for them here, even if you must leave with the rest of the village.”

Her father exhaled long and slow. But in the end, he smiled. “You remind me of your mother when you talk like that. She would have waited for me.”

Laraki missed her mother. Mention of her brought a fresh mixture of joy and grief to the surface. Her mother had been from the village of Nash. She asked, “Will you take us to Nash?”

Her father nodded. “It is in the right direction; away from the blight. We have relatives among them. They will help us, and we will warn them at the same time.”

Shocked, Laraki had not considered the blight would press so far. “How big do you expect the blight to grow?”

“I hope it will die out soon of its own accord. I plan for the worst. I try not to expect anything when dealing with the unknown.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long has it been since you checked on your brother?”

Laraki glanced at the sun. “Not long. I’ll go now.”

“I’ll come with you.”

He took her arm and they walked the short distance home together. He opened the door, bowed, and waved her in. She smiled, bowed in return, and stepped through the door he held for her. Then she began to scream. And scream. And scream.


Yuan slid as much as walked down the steep hill. Multiple times, he even sat in effort to keep their combined weight from tipping too far forward. And Junstan weighed a lot.

Halfway down, they crossed the transition zone; one moment in green trees and the next in blackened, rotting stumps. Black dust like ash rose with each footfall. It coated his skin and invaded his lungs. Yuan cringed at every sound, whether a whisper of the wind or cracking of the crusted earth. His paranoia grew with each breath, as if the blight pervaded him from within.

He had to focus his thoughts on something, anything to keep down the panic. He found himself wondering what it would be like to become infected. Would he know? Had he already succumbed? And what of Junstan?

The memory of the rabbits surfaced in his mind. Could a human lose his mind so completely he would try to eat another? Could Junstan? Could he? He didn’t think so. Derrin, on the other hand, had seemed more disturbed.

Yuan dropped Junstan in a puff of black dust. Laraki. His protectiveness of Laraki took over his body, and he began to run toward the village to warn her—forgetting about Junstan, forgetting about himself, forgetting he was still in the midst of the blight.

He only took a few steps before coming to himself and stopping. Leaving Junstan would be the same as killing him. Yuan groaned out loud. He clenched his fists in frustration as he fought the desire to run madly back to the village. Laraki wasn’t alone. Her father would protect her, wouldn’t he? Could he?

“Light of my ancestors!” he swore. Finally, he picked up Junstan and trotted as fast as he could. The base of the hill touched the lake and he found himself slipping in mud. It clung to his legs and sucked at his boots. But he continued to slog forward at a determined pace.

No living things remained within the desolation of the blight. Not even a fly buzzed. He wondered what he would see if he could see auras. Maybe there was nothing—it had all moved on like he hoped. Or perhaps he was the only living thing blind enough, therefore stupid enough, to court death.

At the end of what used to be the lake, he staggered onto firm ground with relief. He set Junstan down and collapsed onto all fours. He drew in great ragged breaths while fighting off the urge to retch. Drenched in cold sweat and trembling, he regained his feet after several seconds of trying.

That was when he saw the crater, only yards away. Curiosity seized him. He had to know what had fallen from the sky. What had brought the blight?

Leaving Junstan where he lay, Yuan slowly approached the crater. Huge gouts of dust and mud had splayed out from the impact. One end of the crater had washed away as water had poured in from the lake. Where had all the water gone?

Noises emanated from the crater, like small clicks and clacks. He crouched low, then crawled the last few feet on hands and knees. He hesitated just shy of the lip of the crater. What was he doing? He battled internally. This is crazy. Just another foot.

A rock hit him in the back. He whipped around to see Junstan waving both arms wildly.

“Run!”

The single word triggered a coil inside Yuan, and he ran.

Junstan staggered on his feet. Yuan caught Junstan under the arm and shouldered his weight, barely slowing down. “Faster!” Junstan squeaked as he glanced over his shoulder.

Yuan didn’t bother to look. He knew he wouldn’t see anything, and he didn’t want to waste the energy trying.


Yuan’s breathing grew more strained. The black dusty residue left in the wake of the blight covered them both from head to toe, inside and out. He couldn’t keep going forever, not with Junstan in tow. Junstan looked worse than Yuan felt. The thought occurred to Yuan, he might still escape, alone.

Junstan staggered and fell, dragging Yuan to the ground with him. Yuan swore while picking himself up. He kicked Junstan in the side. “Get up.” Yuan blinked and shook his head until the world stopped spinning. Finally he realized Junstan had passed out again. What now?

A menace thickened in the air. The hair on the back of Yuan’s neck tingled. Slowly, he rotated his head. He couldn’t see anything other than the ashy landscape. Pressure grew within his eardrums as if a storm were about to break all around. Unseen forces pushed and pulled at him, whispering of death and decay.

“Enough!” Yuan screamed into the emptiness that was the Blight, one fist raised high.

A sound, almost like thunder in the distance hissed in response then disappeared suddenly, leaving him wondering if he had heard anything at all.

Rain fell softly, each drop raising puffs of dust. Yuan looked up into the cloud-filled sky, stumped as to when the clouds had appeared or where they’d come from. All he knew was his breath came easier. The feeling of menace dissipated as the ash settled. He knelt by Junstan and slapped him lightly on the cheek. Nothing. Begrudgingly, Yuan heaved him over his shoulders and continued toward the village.

After what seemed like hours, Yuan reached the edge of the blight. Rain and sweat dripped off his nose and transformed his clothing to mud hanging from his body. Thirst plagued him. By the time he found the trail that led to the village he had resigned himself to carrying Junstan the entire way. At least he had the shelter of the trees, many of them wilted but still living.

“Put me down.”

Yuan stumbled, and Junstan rolled off his shoulders in a heap.

“Are we… still… in the blight?” Junstan sat up and strained to focus his eyes.

“I don’t think so. What do you see?”

Junstan stood up, leaned weakly against a tree and looked around. “Nothing… out of the ordinary. Did the rain stop the blight?”

Yuan shrugged. “I don’t know. It seems to have helped. I haven’t seen or felt anything unusual since it started.” Rain dripped from a branch. Yuan opened his mouth and savored the taste of the water. After a deep breath he started walking.

“Wait! I need to rest a moment more.”

Yuan shook his head. “You’ll have to catch up. I fear for Laraki.”

“Her father is there.”

Yuan began a slow dogtrot that would get him to the village as quickly as his weariness would allow. He spoke over his shoulder. “Her father doesn’t know about the rabbits.”


When Yuan reached the village, he saw Bergan and a few of his apprentices standing in front of Laraki’s house like guards. A small crowd stood nearby, despite the rain. They let Yuan pass without a sound. Their eery silence filled him with dread.

Bergan held up a hand, signaling him to stop. “You don’t need to see what’s in there, Yuan.”

Yuan shoved past him and threw open the door. Less than five feet away, Derrin dangled from a rafter, a rope around his neck, his feet dangling above the floor. Yuan gagged, but remained long enough to scan the room. No one else was in the home.

“Where is she?” Yuan shut the door behind him. “Where’s Laraki?”

“She and Pashun are at your father’s home, waiting for you,” Bergan replied stiffly.

Yuan shot him a quizzical look.

Bergan softened. “Go, they will explain.”

As Yuan turned to leave, Junstan staggered in from the forest. Yuan ignored him while mustering the last of his strength to sprint home. So much had happened this day already. Too much. How much more could there be?

Exhausted in every way, Yuan reached his home. He leaned on the knob as he opened the door. Laraki sat on the floor in the center of the room, weeping. Her hair draped over her face. Pashun waited nearby.

Yuan opened his mouth to speak, but his dry throat cracked and nothing came out.

Laraki sensed his arrival all the same. She leapt to her feet and hugged him, still crying.

He held her in silence before whispering in her ear. “I’m so sorry, Laraki.”

She leaned back far enough to look him in the eyes. “That’s not all, Yuan. Your father is passing.”

Yuan looked past Laraki to where his father lie in bed.

“She couldn’t stay at our home after…” Pashun’s voice faltered. “And she wanted to be here, to be with your father.”

Yuan knelt by his father’s bed. “Did something happen?”

Aita smiled weakly. “I am sorry, my son. My time has come.”

“Were you hurt, Father? I should have stayed to protect you.”

Aita shook his head. “No, Yuan. It is simply my time. I’ve known it was coming for many days but… I guess it surprises us all when it… happens.”

“How long?” Yuan asked while trying not to think of a world without his father.

“Hours at most. I had asked Pashun to give me my funeral rites, but… you came back. I want you to do it.”

Tears sprang to Yuan’s eyes. “I can’t see your aura, Father. I can’t do the rites.”

“You’ll do fine.” Aita closed his eyes and smiled.

Pashun bowed to Yuan, displaying the bow of deepest respect and catching Yuan off guard. “Please forgive me for asking at a time like this, but for the sake of the whole village I must know what you’ve learned of the blight. How far away is it?”

Drying his eyes, Yuan flipped a switch inside himself, reengaging the standard discipline he used when communicating with anyone other than Laraki or his father. “A few miles. Its expanse seemed to stop with the rain.”

“Is it possible the rain killed it off?”

Yuan shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, Junstan and I walked right through it unaffected. Well, I walked through it. Junstan road upon my shoulders most of the way.”

“And Junstan? Is he now in his right mind as you are?”

“As far as I know. I saw him walking of his own on my way here. Of course he could see the auras when I could not. The blight had a greater effect on him.”

Pashun nodded. “You give me hope, Yuan. We will take care of the things we need to do before we make any more decisions for the village.”

Laraki joined Yuan beside his father’s bed. Yuan asked, “What of Derrin?”

“Bergan and his apprentices will take him to the burial ground.” Pashun walked to the door. “There are many who will wish to accompany your father there. I will go and bring them.”

“Now? Right now?” Yuan asked.

Pashun nodded and left without another word.

“It is… okay, my son.” Aita placed a weak hand on Yuan’s head. “Death is part of life. I will soon see your mother again.”

Yuan held his father’s hand until the old man seemed to drift into a light sleep. Yuan stood and walked to the door. He opened it to watch the rain. Laraki stood by his side, quietly holding his hand. He turned to her, “What of the rites for your brother?”

Fresh tears appeared in her eyes. “He had no aura, and he died when he… he…”

“I know.” Yuan gathered her in his arms and let the sound of the rain ease their grief.


The funeral procession made its way up the hill to the burial grounds. The rain had ceased. Yuan followed the six bearers as they carried his father. Laraki walked beside him, assuming the role typically reserved for a wife. He couldn’t turn her away, not when she experienced such fresh grief herself. Her presence only intensified his desire to be normal—to provide for her what she deserved, a whole husband.

She tried to smile through her tears, but he knew his father’s passing would always be marred in her memory.

His heart jumped in his throat as he struggled to contain his emotions.

The procession topped the hill and wound among trees until they reached two stones. Larger than a house and originally a single block, the two rocks had been split and weathered by nature long ago. Now they served as gates. The path between them was well worn by the passage of those who cared for the dead. Beyond them lay a cave where the bodies of everyone who passed in the village were interred.

The bearers laid the bier on the ground and motioned for Yuan to come forward. He knelt in the mud by his father. Aita cracked his filmy eyes open and struggled to speak. He smiled weakly and whispered, “It will be okay.”

Tears burst from Yuan’s eyes as he took his father’s hand. He couldn’t refuse his father’s request, and he couldn’t allow him to see his doubt.

All of the people of the village who had accompanied them joined hands and formed a circle around Yuan and his father. Pashun stepped forward and whispered into Yuan’s ear. “His aura is leaving his body. You must perform the ritual now.”

Unable to stop the tears, Yuan took his father’s hands in his own. He breathed deeply and willed his heart to slow. “Just this once,” he whispered fiercely to himself, “allow me to see the aura.”

His father squeezed his hands and closed his eyes as his body went limp. Yuan let his father’s hands slip away from his own. He panicked. He saw nothing. There was no way to direct the essence escaping his father’s body. His father’s memories and knowledge would be lost forever.

He held his hands over his father’s body and tried blindly to direct the escaping aura like he had seen others do. “Aita, my father, I see you.” His voice cracked and faltered as he waved his hands, trying to gather the aura. Surprised looks of those in the circle revealed he was doing it wrong. Anger and frustration filled him to the point of despair. This tragedy would be one final proof of his defectiveness.

“You will be remembered.” His voice broke again as he spoke words he knew to be lies. He made the motions with his hands as if gently spreading his father’s essence towards the people in the circle.

“Those you leave behind…” He couldn’t say it. The worst part of this charade was that his father’s memories and experiences would be lost. Not only would his father pass, he would be dead forever. The shocked whispers of the mourners pierced his back as he dropped his head in shame.

Soft hands grasped his. He looked up. Laraki crouched at his side, directing his hands. How could she do this for him when her own brother was lost?

She spoke the rites. “Those you leave behind will forever be grateful to you for your memories and strength that you share.” Her hands swept the air around him, leading his hands to gather in his father’s essence and then toss it to the mourners in the circle.

Yuan closed his eyes and wept. He joined his voice to hers as she said, “Go now, Aita, in peace. I see you no more but remember you forever.”

Directed by Laraki, he swept the air a final time and held both his hands over his chest. Although he couldn’t see the aura, he felt the warmth of his father’s smile enter his heart. He bowed his head.

Laraki stiffened next to him. “He’s Ascending Yuan, he’s Ascending!”

All the people in the circle stood silent with awe, their eyes locked on a point just above their heads.

Yuan asked Laraki, “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Your father. His aura was strong enough that he endures beyond death. He is waving to us, smiling. He is one of the Ascended now.”

Yuan envied the excitement in her voice. The air still smelt like rain. He watched the people around him as their eyes lifted higher and higher, following his father’s essence upwards. He could see nothing.

Laraki screamed.

The people surrounding him gave a collective gasp before scattering into the forest.

“What is it?” Yuan asked. “Laraki! What’s happening?”

Terror filled her eyes. Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. “Derrin attacked him.”

“What? Derrin’s dead. His aura—”

“He drove your father away! He comes for me!” She screamed and clung to Yuan.

He wrapped his arms around her instinctively. “Enough!”

END of Episode 1

Read more Blighted Aura at http://www.fictionvortex.com

The Green Ones, Ep1

Click HERE for downloadable episode

THE ODDS FAVORED BOTH my brother and me manifesting symptoms of the twitch virus. Odds. Statistical probabilities. Since testing positive at puberty, it’s become my belief one makes one’s own odds, and I say ours are good.

Lying flat on my back in the perimeter garden, I coil my blue-black braid around my head like a snake. From this angle, the concave mesh of the shield dome above me appears as a solid surface. Hanging from it by a single screw, a faded sign commemorates New Teo’s millennium.

If I didn’t know what it said, I’d no longer be able to read it. New Teotihuacan’s twin cities, a thousand years of building a brighter future together. It’s hard to imagine cramming more irony into thirteen words.

A thousand years of the twitch virus and the telekinesis it unleashes, and this is the best we’ve done? Thinking in years, or even weeks, is a luxury I can no longer afford. Five more days as a citizen of New Teo’s Worker City, I recite to myself. Five days until registration for Masa Academy—me and my little brother’s only hope for a future, bright or not.

The earth tremors as the 7:36 security detail passes through the mind pits ten meters beneath me. I’m not privy to the official Masa call-sign for the mid-level assignment, but I recognize its timing. I know the rhythm and flow of masazin through the mind pits better than the coursing of blood through my own extremities.

“If you’re done figuring what the masazin had for breakfast today, could we get some?”

The ozone from the daily identification burn still lingers in the air, and my brother, Olin, has already mentioned breakfast twice. I lie perfectly still, anticipating the deep-level Masa car sliding north toward the heart of Worker City. There. The rumble registers in my gut. “Can’t you sit quietly for five minutes?” I breathe deeply through my nose, inviting the scent of flowering hibiscus to erase the tingling sensation of the ID burn.

“I once sat quietly for two straight weeks, or so I’ve been told.” Olin ensures a cold bite to his speech whenever he references his time spent in a coma. It irritates him that I haven’t spoken the whole truth surrounding the event that killed our parents, and put him under for two weeks.

Our parents had anticipated us being actively infected. Only around 40% of Worker City’s population remains passive carriers of the twitch. Unfortunately, none of their planning accounted for being killed in a telekinetic outburst from their own son.

“What do you have against the quiet?” I sit up. Peeling the cotton fabric of my tzotzomatli from my sticky back, I work it like a bellows in effort to expel the humidity. Midway through the rainy season, there is nowhere for the moisture to go.

Olin shivers in preparation for one of his melodramatic speeches. “I will share the ingesting of my meals. I will share their expelling. I will share everything within this gods-forsaken cage,” he gestures toward the shield dome less than twenty meters distant, his eyes like slits, “but quiet is one thing I will not share, and there simply isn’t enough in New Teo for a scraggly chadzitzin boy to have his own.”

I chew the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. “Enough.” Digging my fingers into the loose soil, I find a pinyon cone completely by accident. In a swift movement, I thunk it off my brother’s head.

Xoxochueyi!” He barks the expletive and eyes me. Instantly, his look lingers somewhere between pouting and apology.

The violent outburst doesn’t solve anything, but it makes me feel better, briefly. Until I too am sorry. Olin is partially right. The copper and nickel mesh of the shield dome does not cut us off from the sounds and smells of the forest, or its gentle breeze. But in exchange for protection from the constant threat of telekinetic attack, the working class of New Teo surrender their autonomy.

Olin’s wrong about the rest—I will not let him die a hopeless chadzitzin, even if I have to force the academy to accept us. The two years since our parents’ death have been hard on him. I’ve been hard on him to make him stronger.

We both know he is the more telekinetically gifted, but if he can’t control it…I dismiss the thought. We’re too close to our goal to dwell on the negative. Wrapping my braid loosely around my neck, I contemplate how to apologize. When I make eye contact, I see by his watery eyes I’ve waited too long.

He starts into it before I can stop him. “Let’s spend the day outside the dome. We could hunt.” His words spill into each other. “Fresh peccary cooked over an open fire, just the two of us.” He’s pleading. “We’ve almost a full twenty-four hours until the next ID burn. We could just—”

I have been shaking my head since he spoke the first word. Finally, I cut him off. “Olin, we can’t. We’d miss the—”

“The busiest day of the market.” He slumps. “I know.” His gaze falls to his purple hands as he holds them in his lap.

I look at my own hands, dyed a rich purple from a late night of working in a logwood dye bath. It’s our trademark—my blue-black hair, our purple fabrics. Over a practical pair of trousers, I’m wearing my favorite tzotzomatli made by alternating streaks of acidic-purple and basic-blue logwood dyes. The garment always draws plenty of attention to our booth.

It would draw more if I had larger breasts to fill it out. I work the best I can with what I have. I’m tall, and if I let the garment list slightly over a shoulder, I get favorable deals from most of the working-class men.

As the 7:41 Masa security detail rumbles beneath me, I remind myself our situation is not Olin’s fault. And we’re not as desperate as some. Despite our active infection with the twitch, our homelessness, our orphan status, and our phony license for dye trading, we technically lack the most important qualifiers for chadzitzin classification. Neither of us is yet sixteen, and we’ve never missed an ID burn. We’re still citizens.

With any luck, we will have the money for our academy uniforms, forged papers, and bribes by the closing of today’s market. In five days my brother and I will take our first step in defeating the odds by forcing our way into the academy.

The odds of surviving five years as masazin in order to become ometeotl, one of the immortal class, have been put at one in ten. That’s something I can work with. As chadzitzin, the odds of a nasty death from the twitch by age twenty-four are absolute.

I stand, cross the path to the bench where Olin is sitting, and plop down beside him. “Xoxo?” I use the shortened colloquialism for the word green, despite finding it base and lazy, in hopes of lifting his spirits.

He nods. “You throw like a girl.”

“You squeal like one.”

He shoves me in effort to conceal the smirk on his face. We sit in silence for nearly a minute, Olin’s way of hugging and making up. Finally, he rubs his stomach. “I know where we can get some roasted tapir.”

I’m about to remind him of our budget when I sense something out of place. The forest canopy of the perimeter park has fallen quiet. It takes a full second for me to realize the 7:43 shift through the mind pits is at least five seconds late. It’s the worst discrepancy I’ve ever noted.

The constantly rotating shifts of telekinetic youth beneath the city provide the only means of stabilizing the mental charge of the shield dome against potential telekinetic attack from outside. I’m torn between the impulse to push my brother away from the perimeter and the need to put my ear to the ground.

Gripping Olin’s hand, I choose the former. “We should g—” before I finish, my words are incinerated along with the air overhead.


I tear at the skin on Olin’s wrists until we are ripped apart by the trunk of an ojé tree. I lose track of him as I crash into the underbrush and tumble to a stop face down. I lift my head in time to watch a second large section of shield dome sheer off and implode—crushed into a nugget of ore too small for me to see.

“Olin!” This can’t be happening, not today—not that any day would be a fitting time to disintegrate. Meters away, the ground explodes. A Masa defense car births from the crater. Cracked open like an egg, its five person crew is dead and gone instantly.

Gods, we’ve gotta get out of here. “Olin!” I scramble to the bench where we were sitting. The forest canopy that sheltered us moments earlier is gone. The remaining shield dome shimmers with telekinetic energy both coming and going. I tumble off the bench and roll clear as the expanding crater swallows it. Finally, I spot Olin half buried in leaves.

There hasn’t been an attack of this magnitude on Worker City during my lifetime. I’ve only heard stories. The most frightening ended with Masa withdrawing the telekinetic defenses from an entire district, leaving everyone inside to be killed. On hands and knees, I reach Olin.

Trembling and ashy white, his skin is clammy to the touch. “Xoxochueyi!” I slap him. “Not now, not again.” His eyes have gone empty, like when our parents died. I try to yank him up by the arm, but my feet slip as the ground beneath us disintegrates. I stop breathing as the air dissipates. My braid unfurls from around my neck and floats in the space between my brother and me, both of us also floating.

My little brother becomes light as air, and for a moment I feel that way too. I clutch him to my chest. Our troubles are over now, little Olintl. Don’t worry, wherever you go, this time I’ll go there with you.

The tear struggling from the corner of my eye evaporates. My heart shudders. My world goes dark, despite my eyes being open. I think about how the other kids and I were wrong when we were little. Telekinetic disintegration is actually a wonderful way to die.

Then my lungs spasm. A hot blast scours my face, whipping my braid out behind me as the void transforms into a ball of fire. I dig my nails into Olin’s back and hold on. I call his name, the sound of my voice consumed. For the first time in my life, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m scared—helpless and scared.

I’m screaming at the top of my voice when the firestorm disappears as suddenly as it began. Olin and I fall. Together, we strike the soft, pulverized soil at the bottom of the crater and slide to a stop.

Only after I register that Olin has placed his hands over his ears do I realize I’m still screaming. Embarrassed, I stop. The faint hum of the restored shield dome is interrupted by a fluttering sound followed by a thud as the sign commemorating the millennium lands beside us.

“Olin.” I brush the dirt from his face.

His closed eyes flicker at my touch. “Calli.” He whispers my name.

I hold back tears of joy.

“Why are you screaming?” he continues.

I start to laugh. Then it strikes me he’s not joking. He’s confused. He doesn’t realize he’s lost control of his telekinesis again. “Oh, no.” I shake him. “Oh, no. Olin, wake up.”

“I’m tired.”

I lift his head and shoulders in an effort to drag him out of the crater, but we’re several meters down. It’s happening again, like last time. Now we’ve nowhere to go, no one to pay the medical expenses if he slips into another coma. And we’ve only five days. “Olin, stay awake, please. Something terrible has happened.” I drag him another meter. “We have to go.”

On the verge of panic, I shake him. “You have to help me!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?”

I flinch at the voice coming from overhead before identifying it. “Neca.” Of all the people to be first on the scene. “It’s my brother, he needs help.”

“I’ll say.”

Xoxochueyi,” I swear. “Please, just—”

“Hold on.”

Olin begins to float. I clasp my hands around his stomach. Quickly, the two of us rise from the crater. Neca is smirking as usual, but at least it’s his concerned smirk. Using an illegal demonstration of telekinesis, he sets us down away from the crater. I gasp at the widespread totality of the destruction. The attack from outside the city couldn’t have possibly caused it all. Reluctantly, I admit Olin must have contributed.

“Calli, is that you?”

I turn toward my brother. “I’m right here.”

“You look different.”

His eyes are shut. I can’t see whatever it is he is seeing. I panic, remembering the backpack Olin had on earlier. “Your medicine.” I turn toward Neca. “He needs the medicine from his backpack, quickly.”

Neca shakes his head. “Honey, there’s no backpack. There’s barely a perimeter. And besides that, we’re missing a whole block.”

I scan for the bench where we had been sitting. Of course, he’s right.

“I can’t figure how the two of you weren’t turned to pink mist.”

His words spark an unfocused rage within me. I don’t know how we survived. Or maybe I do, and I can’t swallow the implications. “Well, here we are.” I growl. “Are you going to help us or not?”

He scowls. “I could throw you back in the hole if you’d like.”

“Just shut up. I need to think.” I’m being unfair. The whole situation is unfair. After people comb the rubble for survivors, their eyes will fall on us. I know what it will look like, but none of this is Olin’s fault. He isn’t responsible for the discrepancy in the mind pits that left Worker City vulnerable, and he hadn’t been the enemy who took advantage of the lapse.

“I’m getting dizzy.” Olin tugs my sleeve as he stumbles.

Neca catches him and stares at me. A few seconds later, the self-absorbed, dark-skinned, psychokinetic cage-fighting chadzitzin clears his throat.

I bare my teeth, even while nodding my head. Not knowing where to go is a poor excuse to stay put. Carrying Olin between us, Neca and I weave our way through the jumble of shattered adobe and sheared iron foam until we reach the shelter of a mostly intact building.

After Olin barely survived the last coma, the doctor said the next one would kill him. The medicine I made from my mother’s garden had been the only thing that helped. But the last of it had disintegrated with Olin’s backpack. I’ll need time to make more.

As if reading my mind, Neca interrupts. “Time is a luxury we don’t have, honey.”

In the distance I hear the wind-up siren clearing the way for District Four’s Justice of the Peace. That means New Teo’s lead detective, a retired immortal general called Huatiani, has already arrived. “We’ve nowhere to go.”

A glimmer dances in Neca’s eye, as if he’d been waiting for those exact words. “There’s one place, but you’re not going to like it.”

In Neca-speak, this means I will hate it only slightly less than watching my brother die in holding while Huatiani grills me about the morning’s attack.


Off-balance, we lope downhill. Neca’s legs are longer than mine, despite my above-average height. His endurance is equally impressive. My lungs are on the verge of exploding when he ducks behind a three-story iron foam building I don’t recognize.

“Have we,” I spit the words out between gulps of air, “crossed into—”

“District Six.” Neca nods. “It’s the fastest way on foot.”

I’m pleased to note he seems winded, although not as severely as me.

After a few short breaths, he starts moving again.

“I can’t—”

“How about a lift?” He nods toward a cable platform.

I offer weak objection as we cross the walking thoroughfare between the two districts, “A cable? Do you think that’s safe?”

“We’ve gone far enough. Huatiani is too systematic to jump his search randomly about the city.”

I shiver at the mention of Huatiani’s name out loud. So few within Worker City refer openly to the legendary retired general of the Ometeotl Guard. Neca does so with a flourish, as if he knows every intimate detail about the immortal. I’m sure he intends it as part of his bad boy act, but it paints him in a self-conscious light. I imagine him, tucked under the covers at night, practicing the name quietly.

We reach the stairs without anyone taking special notice of us. Most people working outside the shield dome as farmers or beneath the city as miners leave within minutes of the ID burn, ensuring the longest amount of time until the next one. Just in case. No one talks about it, but missing a burn is the worst nightmare of everyone in Worker City. Except for those who’ve already given up.

Olin mumbles under his breath as we carry him up to the platform.

Gently, I slap his cheek. “Olintl, can you hear me?”

His eyes dart back and forth beneath his closed lids. “I’m not afraid of Huatiani just because he knows the truth.”

“The truth?” Neca looks at me with questioning eyes. “What truth?”

As we reach the top of the exposed platform, Olin is mumbling unintelligibly again. I glance upward before closing my eyes to the dizziness. Too many of the buildings in District Six are squat, adobe structures despite the dome being stories above us.

Neca reaches the activation pad first and straddles it. A mild electrical current transfers between his bare feet, indicating a rider is waiting. Awkwardly, I shift closer to his muscular frame until Olin is sandwiched between us.

On cue, the two halves of the bench sprout from beneath the platform and lock in place using powerful electromagnets. Squished together, I end up with Olin on my lap and Neca’s arm around my back. We ratchet upward until the wench drops us onto the cable itself. With the circuit completed, the chair rushes forward.

Whipping through the subtropical breeze, I realize I’ve soaked my tzotzomatli in sweat. Worse yet, the wind has plastered it against me. Subtly, I situate Olin’s head on my chest to avoid indecency. At least the dark purples and blues of my garment are more modest than white. And with the size of my chest, it’s not like Neca would notice. I grit my teeth, angry I even care what Neca does or doesn’t notice.

Then it hits me, like diving from a cliff into crystal clear water. I know where we’re going. “Oh, no.”

“You forget to turn off the stove?”

I try to wrench my arm to punch Neca, but I can’t. “This is not a joke.”

“No one’s saying it is.”

“Everything’s a joke to you. But this is my brother’s life.”

Neca nods thoughtfully. He looks me in the eyes.

I see something I’m unprepared for—sympathy. Suddenly, I’m unsure of how to refuse his assistance without hurting him. And yet, I’ve never thought of someone like Neca being vulnerable to pain—neither emotional nor physical. I’ve never thought of him as anything more than a chadzitzin psych-fighter. “Look, my brother and I, we’re not like you.”

“Really?” Neca interrupts. “Is it the black skin or the complete lack of moral fortitude?”

I chew the inside of my cheek and shake my head. “I’m not gonna let you turn this into some kind of personal attack. Deal with your insecurities on your own time.”

“Oh, wow. So this is what a thank you sounds like coming from the great Calli Bluehair. Well, hey, don’t sweat it, honey.”

Olin’s head lolls. Reflexively, I clutch at my shirt, pulling it away from my chest.

Neca laughs at this, continuing before I recover. “No one is forcing you to accept my help. I was on my way home anyway. You wanna get off at the next platform, no harm. You won’t owe me a thing.”

“So you admit you’re helping me to get something in return?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m saying I am not even helping you. Matter of fact, why don’t I get off at the next platform?”

I squeeze the bridge of my nose, focusing my anger. “Now what? I’m supposed to feel bad for you? Simply because you had nothing better to do than witness me and my brother nearly killed in a telekinetic attack that continues to threaten my brother’s life?”

“Sounds like you’ve got everyone figured out.” He clucks his tongue. “And you’re absolutely right. Your brother is the real victim here. Who am I to argue that his sister might not know what’s best for him in every aspect of his life?”

Olin moans, and I realize I’m clutching him tightly enough to bruise his pale skin. I’ve chewed my cheek so much, I’m guessing when I open my mouth I’ll spit blood. But I can’t formulate the words.

I’m too angry—and scared. The sudden realization humiliates me, so I bury my face in Olin’s hair.

“Wait, I didn’t mean that.” Neca backpedals, making me feel worse.

I shake my head without looking up. “No, you’re right. I’ve been a total cheche.”

The razor-sharp-witted Neca hesitates. Finally he emits one simple word, “Yeah.” He accompanies it with a slight squeeze of my shoulder, just enough to shoot sparks up my spine.

I’m too confused to respond. In the moment, I want comfort. I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t want to feel any weaker than I already do. So I shut it out. “I’m sorry.” I gaze into the distance where the government complex and Palace Tower, along with the ridge separating the immortal half of New Teo from the worker half, gradually grow closer. “I’ve no right to take my feelings out on you.”

He shoots me his trademark smirk, the one that makes me want to slap his face. “You’re welcome.” He winks, and I’m sure I’m going to lose it all over again. “Now we’ve gotta get your brother the help he needs.”

Before I can scream, the bench locks in place and ratchets downward toward the terminus platform. Tipping, the bench deposits us on our feet, splits in half and swooshes out of sight. With Olin suspended between us, Neca and I descend the steep stairs carefully. At the bottom, I realize how tired I am, because I genuinely wish I could accept the help Neca is offering.

“I’m grateful, really I am, but you’ve helped us enough.”

“Calli,” Neca glances first to one side and then the other, possibly checking to make sure General Huatiani hasn’t caught up to us, “he’s not who you think he is.”

I sigh and try to remain patient, try not to panic at the thought of my little brother falling asleep and never waking up. “Is he, or is he not, the most infamous criminal element of the underground, wanted for insurrection, among a dozen other less-nefarious charges?”

Neca grins. “Well, there’s that, but—”

“But nothing.” I collect my words before popping off. “I need a place to keep my brother safe while I brew up his medicine. I won’t save his life just to condemn him to death a few years down the road. In five days the both of us are registering for Masa Academy. I don’t plan on remaining a chadzitzin.” I reassert my grip on Olin and attempt to tug him away.

Neca refuses to let go. “And what chance does your brother have in five days if he’s dead or still in a coma? There is no future without a present.”

I start to wonder why he won’t leave us alone. Again, he glances over his shoulder, and my impatience shifts to paranoia. “Wait. Why were you there at the perimeter park? How did you get to us so quickly?” Maybe the underground wants my brother—my eyes flare at the thought—as a weapon or a fighter.

“What?” His brief confusion quickly morphs to anger. A spark bursts behind his eyes, startling me.

For the first time since the attack, I feel I’m in mortal danger.

Xoxochueyi.” Swearing under his breath, he sloughs the full weight of my brother onto me. “Fine, have it your way, Calli Bluehair. You’re on your own.” He stomps off, mumbling as he goes. “Last thing I need is some—”

That’s all I can understand before he’s out of earshot. Wobbling under my brother’s dead weight, I scan the loose-knit crowd swimming around us. Their faces are simultaneously empty and menacing.

What if someone recognizes us from the perimeter park? What if they watched us rise out of the crater telekinetically? Why had we waited around so long afterwards? Bearing Olin’s entire weight, I realize I won’t make it fifty meters. Yet, I can’t just leave him. I cry out, unable to stop myself. “Wait!”

Neca stops in his tracks, but he doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t come back for us.

I wonder if he appreciates how completely this one decision jeopardizes everything for my brother and me. He’s right about one thing—if my brother doesn’t survive the night, there’s no point in tomorrow. I kiss the top of Olin’s head. He’s completely unresponsive. I doubt he can hear me, but that’s never stopped me before. “Come on, Olintl. We’re finally going to meet Centavo Huehue.”


Without a word, Neca drapes Olin over his back like a jacket and shoulders his entire weight. I can’t decide if the act is intended as a kindness or a final jab, pointing out the fact I need him. It doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted both physically and emotionally. So for now, Neca leads and I follow.

For several minutes we trudge through chadzitzin alleys I’ve made a point to avoid. We pass yoalzoah—girls exhausted from leasing themselves out in hopes of becoming pregnant, and thus more valuable in the eyes of society. On the surface, they don’t look any different from me.

We pass male occetahtli, both high class and low. Neca nods greeting to several of them, confirming my speculation he makes a living as more than a psych-fighter. But who am I to judge? If my parents hadn’t left us the garden? If I hadn’t found my mother’s notes and figured out how to make dyes? And besides, isn’t there more to me than a flat-chested, chadzitzin dye-trader?

Reputation is important. Priorities are critical. My father taught me that. Set your priorities, and do what it takes to keep them. That’s exactly what I plan on doing. I just hope Neca is right about there being more to Centavo than his reputation. Because every kindness in the underground comes with strings attached, and connections to a man like Centavo won’t make registering for the academy any easier.

We reach a haphazard complex of adobe apartments piled in the downhill corner of District Four as if a mudslide deposited them there. This is how building additions are made in Worker City—with little consideration for past or future.

“This is the place.”

I nod my head, ready to get my brother somewhere safe, whatever the cost.

“What, no quip about the architecture?”

“My bedroom is a public market during the day.”

He nods while appraising me anew.

The gesture starts my blood boiling, as if his approval means grease marks from banana peels. To avoid another confrontation, I scan the exterior of the building. “Where’s the front door?”

“This way.” Grinning, Neca leads the way toward a set of stairs leading down.

The existence of the basement reveals the building to be genuinely old. Underground construction in Worker City has been reserved for official Masa projects and city defense for over a hundred years.

Again, Neca responds as if reading my mind. “Don’t worry, he’s not that old. But he is the oldest person I’ve ever met. And grumpy too, so for the love of your brother, don’t say anything stupid.”

We enter a long hallway, dimly lit by a strand of electric lights running along the ceiling. Neca turns a sharp corner and descends more stairs before ascending others. I want to ask him if he’s intentionally leading us into a maze from which there is no escape. Instead, I carefully craft an alternative. “Are you sure you don’t need help with Olin? He must be getting heavy with all these stairs.”

“Light as a feather. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” Neca faces me. “Oh, and don’t act like you remember the way out, even if you do. He hates that.”

Slowly, I nod. “Is there some secret greeting I should know of?” I’m half joking.

Neca thinks it over. “Just don’t make any quick movements or try to touch him.”

I can tell he is smiling, but the light is too dim to determine if the smile is ironic or genuine. “Okay.”

Moments later, he stops at the twelfth unmarked door we’ve passed.

Before he can open it, I place a hand on his arm. “All I’m looking for is a safe place to hide Olin while I make more of his medicine.”

Neca nods.

I chew the inside of my cheek, reopening the wound from earlier. “And maybe a place for both of us. Just until he’s well enough to leave.” I force myself to relax. “Four days at the very most.” Somewhere deep inside, I’m terrified Olin won’t come back to me; that four days won’t be enough; that I’m about to make a deal with the devil to dictate the rest of my desperate life.


“Neca, I hope you’ve got good reason to invite your new companions into my home, conscious or not.”

The lighting inside Centavo’s apartment is barely brighter than the hallway. The crumbling adobe walls absorb what little there is. I can’t even see the old man until he turns to face us.

Totahtzin—” Neca fumbles with the formal title before starting again. “Centavo, I—” he exhales through his nose, “let me introduce you to Calli Bluehair.”

“Ah.” The old man advances on us slowly, pulling a pipe from his pocket with one hand while secreting tobacco from a pouch with the other.

Upon seeing the herb, I realize the room is thick with the smell of it. I know the plant because it grows in my mother’s garden. The lighting of the pipe must be a good sign. Through the corner of my eye, I notice Neca relaxing under Olin’s weight. I suspect Centavo relies on the fragrance to mask the stink of sweat and stale food.

“You will pardon my cold greeting. In the poor lighting that my lifestyle affords, I was unable to decipher the blue hue of your hair.” Centavo puffs three times, each drag violently threatening to extinguish the match’s flame before allowing it to revive. The dance of shadow and light cast by the small fire reveals a lopsided grin, warmer than I had expected.

Satisfied the bowl is lit, he flicks the match. The gesture seems sloppy until I hear the slight ting of the spent matchstick striking a nearby waste can.

Neca clears his throat.

“Oh, uh, Centavo Huehue, it is my honor. Thank you so much for having me into your home.” I catch myself fumbling with my braid and sheepishly return it to the small of my back.

“Certainly. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says.

I bite my lip, hoping I haven’t already committed the worst possible of insults. He is the one who mentioned my hair. Still, I didn’t have to draw attention to it. Now that it’s been done, I can’t think of anything else.

I’ve never seen anyone without long hair, and Centavo is as bald as a cantaloupe. Of course he would be. Citizen status within the walls of New Teo is based on the continuous record of ID burns maintained within the strands of one’s hair. To shave it is the ultimate in rebellion, a total rejection of the authorities. To have it forcibly cut is the highest form of punishment. Without a braid, a person has no rights in the eyes of the government.

Neca nudges me out of my stunned silence by depositing Olin on a cushioned wicker couch.

“I’m sorry, Centavo Huehue, that it has to be under circumstances such as these. But,” I hesitate. This is it, a few simple words and I’ll be entangled. “I need your help.”

“I see. This must be your brother.” The old man slips quietly to the side of the couch, somehow covering the distance with barely a movement. The closer he gets, the smaller I realize he is.

From behind the couch, Neca stares at me, perhaps trying to encourage me onward.

“Yes,” I continue with more determination, “he’s been injured. By no fault of our own, it is unsafe for us to remain in plain sight. Yet, I need time to brew his medicine.” Carefully I continue, not wanting to insult the old man by implying he’s my last resort. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Centavo whisks a hand to Olin’s forehead. “Injured, you say? He appears quite healthy.”

I fumble, not wanting to say too much, but doubting I can hide anything from the likes of Centavo. “It’s his mind.”

Centavo nods and puffs his pipe. “Then it was the two of you at the site of the attack.”

I gasp before quickly confessing, “Yes. We were there, but only as bystanders.”

“Yet you survived. That much was quite fortunate.”

“Not really.” Unsuccessfully, I attempt to suck the words back into my mouth.

Centavo snorts, dislodging a rattle of phlegm in his throat. “Indeed, it was this young man, not fortune, that saved your life.”

At first I wonder if he is referring to Neca. Then I know he means Olin. I swallow blood from the raw spot on the inside of my cheek. “My brother is gifted, yes.”

“But he cannot control it.”

“He has medicine. It was destroyed. I need time to make more.” I can’t keep the words from tumbling across my lips. All my urgency spills out. Unchecked telekinesis is just short of outright rebellion in the government’s eyes. “He’ll be fine. He’ll get better, and the two of us will register for Masa Academy in five days. We’ll be out of your hair—” I catch myself too late, having inflicted a sure insult this time.

And yet Centavo ignores my thoughtless comment. “I’ve no doubt your brother will be fine, and in less time than you think. He is not in need of any medication. As you have already said, his condition is one of the mind, and thus can be remedied accordingly.”

Unexpected on multiple levels, his response disarms me. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, I wouldn’t imagine so. It’s a cure not readily available to the working class.” He gestures to a matching wicker chair. “Please, have a seat.”

I hesitate.

Neca widens his eyes, as if asking me what in the world I’m waiting for.

Waiting is exactly what I’m exhausted of. Since it seems imprudent to change course, I sit.

Two chairs form a crescent together with the couch. Centavo offers me the one closest to my brother before taking the other. Neca assumes a position in front of the door, either to make sure I can’t escape or to ensure we are not interrupted.

Centavo continues after puffing his pipe. “Do dye traders make a habit of brewing medicines these days?”

“Only remedies I know of.”

“And how does a young dye trader learn such things?”

I’m tempted to tell the old man it is none of his business, but I bite my tongue, literally. “I’m observant of the natural world.”

“After harvesting cochineal from the Ferocactus, how much grape precipitate do you use to precipitate carmine?”

“Cochineal only live on the Opuntia genus.” My victory lasts a second, until I realize he has baited me.

Centavo taps his pipe to his chin. “Why, Calli Bluehair, it appears you have made me look lazy indeed. How long have you known the whereabouts of your mother’s garden?”

I shake my head.

“And her notes, she lied to me about destroying them.” He stands. I raise my hands to defend myself, but he is already strolling toward a desk against the far wall. “We were writing a book together, before you came along.” He pulls something from a desk drawer.

My mind spins, churning up Centavo’s every word. I track his movement across the room, desperately seeking explanation for his comments about my mother. I’m able to distinguish a wall lined with books. A corner functioning as a kitchen is littered with dishes and racks of liquor bottles. None of this helps.

“What? No, sorry, I don’t know—”

He tosses a pile of parchment bound with twine into my lap. “I knew your parents. I was there when they were killed.”

These words knock the wind out of me, as if I’ve fallen from a tree and landed flat on my back.

Centavo sits and waits politely for me to recover.

Dizzy, I concentrate on the book in my lap. It’s an unfinished product. In bold purple lettering, I recognize my mother’s script, “The Divine Garden: Herbal Recipes for a Better Life.” I hover on the word “Divine” for long seconds. It cannot mean what I think it means. Wait, what did he say about my parents? He knew them before they were killed? No. He was there. I lean forward, narrowing my eyes. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”


Centavo smiles.

At least I think it’s a grim smile. “I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve met, is it?”

He shakes his head. “I have tried to stay away, out of respect for your parents’ wishes.” He puffs his pipe. “As you realize, my presence hinders the likelihood of reaching your full potential via the path you have chosen.”

“You mean Masa.”

“Yes, Masa. The ever-rising dough of the people.” He blows smoke from his nose.

His speech is so subtle I can’t read whether he is being facetious or genuine. But it is hard to imagine a man like Centavo being a true believer in Masa. “You believe there to be another path?”

“Better than Masa?” He shrugs.

A long silence passes between us. Each lost second makes it more difficult for me to reach my mother’s garden and return inside the shield dome before tomorrow morning’s ID burn. Maybe Centavo plans on holding us here. Could there be something in my mother’s notes more valuable than dye? As much as I hate the thought, I am sure I would give anything to the old man if it meant saving my brother.

Finally, he continues, “I believe the first time you will recall us meeting was at the clinic.”

“You!” I jump to my feet in disbelief.

Neca starts.

Centavo doesn’t flinch.

“That was you! But you had hair.”

The old man wags his finger. “Please, sit.”

Begrudgingly, I do so. But I have already decided if I don’t like what I hear next, I will attempt to kill this man.

“A prosthetic, I assure you.” He runs his hand over his bald head. “Since I can see our time is short, I will cut to the chase.”

I give him no acknowledgement other than a hard stare.

“Your medication, whatever folk remedy you have devised, did not save your brother before. It will not save him now. He is in a state of telekinetic shock—the current has overwhelmed his remaining senses. He is, in a manner of speaking, lost within his own mind. It is rare that someone with such little training has such natural ability. A few simple lessons, and your brother will know how to avoid this state in the future.”

“And I suppose you’re the one to give him those lessons? Is that it? You’ll save my brother’s life if he agrees to become one of your playthings?” Instantly, I regret the implication that Neca is a toy. The mistep doesn’t reduce my protective instinct for my brother. And that instinct says Centavo is a threat.

“Careful, Calli Bluehair, lest your tongue run away with your reason.”

One look into his eyes, and I know the tobacco in his pipe is not the only thing smoldering. No matter his reputation, I will not let this man manipulate my brother.

“I would have given your brother his first lesson then, if you had not interrupted us.”

My eyes widen. “You did something to him!” I spot a shiny object lying on the table between us. Snatching a discarded skewer, still retaining a chunk of shriveled carrot, I lunge for him.

“Calli, no!”

I hear Neca cry out as the air in front of me solidifies and slams me backward. Before I crumple against the wall, my tumbling is arrested. For the second time in as many hours, I feel utterly helpless. Please, gods, give me a searing pain. Anything would be better than this.

Instead, I slowly turn in the air, completely apart from my own will, and return to my chair. Even after I’m seated, my muscles remain paralyzed. I hear Centavo clear his throat. He snaps his fingers and my eyes are able to focus. I do so on him, frightened, but no less angry.

“Fine, you are right to be angry. I violated the privacy and sanctity of your brother’s mind without asking permission. It was, at the very least, disrespectful.” He leans forward. “For this overstep—and I want you to listen very closely because I will say this only once—I apologize. Now, if this conversation is to go any further, I request the same in kind for your impulsive attempt to join last night’s leftover carrot with my right eye.”

My jaw and tongue unstick. With considerable effort, I swallow the pasty saliva pooling in my mouth.

“Calli.” Neca dares the one word exhortation from his station at the door.

I hear Centavo’s teeth grinding. Clearly, the old man could squeeze my brain through my ears and do whatever he wanted to my brother. I hear my father in my head, Choose your fights, Cal. Obviously, this is not one I can win. “I’m sorry. I apologize for trying to kill you.”

Instantly, my muscles are my own. A brief euphoria sweeps over me. I wonder for the first time if Centavo is telling the truth about my brother’s condition. But some things still don’t make sense. “Olin got better that same day, the day I chased you from his room.”

“Your brother’s condition was so easily treatable. Your parents would not have objected to such a subtle level of influence. If my involvement were to become public…” he flips the bowl of his pipe upside down and taps it on his hand.

“We would have been put at risk.” It makes sense. “But wait. You’re saying the logwood tea I started giving him that morning had no effect on his recovery?”

“Logwood tea?” Centavo scoffs. “Is that the boy’s precious medication?”

“Yes,” I stammer, “it coincided with his recovery. And since, I thought—” I huff at the idea of this old man making light of my efforts to nurse my brother back to health. “He’s been taking it every day since, and he’s been just—”

“What?” Centavo interrupts, jumping to his feet. “You’ve been dosing him with logwood tea daily for almost two years?”

Finding my anger again, I stand and confirm my suspicion that I’m several centimeters taller than the old man. “Yes. What of it?”

For the first time since entering Centavo’s home, he touches me physically, gripping my arms. “When was the last dose?”

His proximity stuns me. “I don’t—”

“When, dammit?” He shakes me.

I close my eyes to think. “Yesterday afternoon, 2:00.”

“And manganese?”

“It’s in the soil, so it’s in the tea.”

“Then it’s no good.” He places an ear to Olin’s lips before shaking his head and pacing the room.

“What? What in gods’ names? Say something.” This sudden panic for someone previously so restrained convinces me I’ve killed my little brother. Me. It’s all been my fault.

Centavo turns on me. “Didn’t you know logwood tea is addictive?”

“Of course it’s addictive. He needed it!” I shout much louder than necessary. “Or at least your meddling made me think he did.”

“Fine. Nothing to be done for it now. And you wouldn’t have been completely off, not at first.” Centavo continues to pace the center of the room, talking to no one in particular. “The tea no doubt soothed his rough edges. Logwood absorbs manganese. It would have calmed his residual telekinesis. Not a completely false diagnosis. After that,” he shakes his head, “all it did was bottle up his abilities. I’m surprised he didn’t take half the district with him this morning. He needs control, not suppression.”

I can’t take any more of the old man’s rambling. “So can you help him or not?”

Centavo gathers himself, looks at me, then Neca, then back at me, then at Olin lying unresponsive on the couch. “No, I cannot. Not without risking the lives of everyone in Worker City.”


My heart pounds in my chest. It’s midmorning by the time we reach the dump.

Neca catches up to me the second I stop inside the workers’ gate. “You’re sure this is the only way?”

“You afraid of a little garbage?” I’m not about to admit the smell would have brought up my breakfast if I had eaten any. “Besides, if Centavo’s plan is half as stupid as I think it is, the dump is the least of our worries.”

“All right, the faster the better.”

I stretch my neck for a glimpse of the control tower. I can’t see anyone on the catwalk or behind the glass. Good enough. With a final deep breath through my nose, I dart toward the backside of a mountain of food waste. Even if someone sees us, they might not care. No one is that uptight about garbage security.

The main concern is to avoid piles scheduled for compacting. Masa is in charge of that part, and it’s done with telekinesis. In the blink of an eye, a whole mound of scrap metal can become nothing but a chunk of ore. When Olin and I were little, my parents worked in the yard. My father told me about a coworker who wandered too far during his break. He had misread the compacting schedule, or decided to try to reclaim something of value.

Anyway, it had taken my father and the others eight hours to figure out the general vicinity of his remains. This was the sort of life lesson my father liked to instill in us. The result was to make the dump an instant source of forbidden mystery. Olin and I spent an entire rainy season imagining it as an underwater kingdom forgotten by the annals of time only to be rediscovered by a brother/sister team of renowned explorers.

The garbage piles are an ever-shifting sea, and at one point I loop around the same pile twice. After a few minutes, I locate the fenced-off sinkhole I’ve been looking for.

“This keeps getting better.” Neca has covered his mouth and nose with his collar.

“If you know a better way into the caves—”

“Let’s just do this.”

I’m already hurdling the fence. Three long strides, and I’m sliding down a pulpy pile of paper products in varying states of decay. Nothing is dumped here anymore, but plenty of garbage blows into the pit before it’s compacted. Luckily, none of it is too disgusting. Although once I landed squarely on the carcass of a decaying vulture. Not my best day.

In a matter of seconds, we’re underground, and I’m leading the way through the system of natural caves to a spot outside the shield dome—the most sacred place in my confined world, my mother’s garden.

Behind me, Neca’s feet fall softly on the smooth floor of the cave. He’s as graceful as he is strong. The fact does nothing to lessen my anger at his presence. There is zero chance I’m leading Centavo’s errand boy to my mother’s garden.

Sure, the trip was originally my idea. That involved me alone making more logwood tea. Now Centavo has me fetching buds from a weed I nearly killed off due to it overgrowing half the garden during the time it took Olin and me to rediscover it.

Centavo had known the plant would be there, describing it down to its serrated leaflets and sticky resin. He swore he’d never been to the garden, that he didn’t know where it was and didn’t want to. You don’t have to trust me. Hell, I don’t even trust you. But you’re taking Neca. Those had been his exact words. When I asked him why, the whole plan got ridiculous.

At least locating a plant in my mother’s garden is something I can work with. Adaptations are inevitable—with plants, with people. So I’ll figure out what to do with Neca along the way.

The hazards of running in the dark force me to slow my pace. I’m intimately familiar with my surroundings, and due to the occasional distant opening, the caves aren’t pitch black. Still, I’m not accustomed to navigating them at high speeds.

Neca sighs in relief.

Calming my urge to punch his chiseled face, I remind myself no real harm has been done. I’ve only shown him an entrance into a maze of caves, an entrance the authorities certainly know of.

Thinking of the authorities circles me back to the one thing that’s bugged me about Centavo since the moment he foiled my attempt to shish kebab his brain. I break the silence. “How is it that Centavo has avoided execution or exile all these years? He’s openly telekinetic and yet he doesn’t seem to have any security at all.”

“He knows his place. Rule number one of the underground.”

“Oh, really? And what about you? What’s your place, Nightmare Neca?”

He hesitates. “So you’ve seen me fight?”

“No,” I lie. “I’ve seen the posters.”

“Then you know my place. It’s there in the cage. I’m a psych-fighter.”

“You don’t stay in the cage. You don’t live there.”

“Oh, but I do.” His words drip with swagger.

I feel the claws spring out, and I say the words despite not meaning them. “That sounds pretty pathetic.”

He’s quiet for several seconds.

I hear nothing except our footfalls and breathing. Should I feel guilty? Who else will deflate his super-sized ego?

“What about you, Calli Bluehair? What’s your place?”

I know the answer instantly. “I don’t have one.”

“Well, then, maybe we’re both pathetic.”

I don’t agree with Neca’s assessment for one second. To have a place is to act according to the world’s expectations, to fit inside someone else’s definition of who you should and shouldn’t be. That’ll never be me. “You know what I think?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”

“I think Centavo doesn’t have to hide because he’s in charge.”

“Of course he’s in charge. He’s been virtually synonymous with the underground for—”

“He’s an immortal, for gods’ sake.” I shout the words, rousing some bats in the distance. “He doesn’t have to hide from them, because he’s one of them.”

We’ve stopped moving, and Neca leans close as if he has the guts to pound the revelation out of me. “That’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t talk of things you know nothing about.”

I shove him out of my face even though it’s too dark for me to see anything except the whites of his eyes. “Really? How is it he’s a master of telekinesis, at least sixty years old, and not dead from the twitch? There’s not another soul in town who’s lived with the active infection past twenty-five, and you know it. Never.”

“He’s in exceptional health.”

“He lives off of steak and neuhtli by the looks of it.”

Mexcalli.” Neca sighs. “He drinks mostly mexcalli, not neuhtli. Look, you don’t know him. He’s not some monster preying on helpless chadzitzin.”

For the first time since I’ve known him, Neca seems genuinely rattled. “I’m not saying he is.” I start walking briskly, aware we don’t have the luxury of standing still. “I’m saying he’s an immortal governing the underground from the inside.”

“Fine, maybe he’s an immortal. I don’t know. Even if he is, that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of us.”

“Neca.” I turn and grab him by the shoulders, almost sorry for him. “Think about it. Why would an immortal want to be one of us, unless it was to control us?”

“What do you know about it? You’re the one who’s so desperate to become an ometeotl.” There is real venom in his words. “You’d just as well be one of them.”

I start moving again, this time at a slow jog. “If by ‘one of them’ you mean in charge of my fate, yes. If you mean refusing to give up and die, yes. I choose to be one of them.”

“Now it all makes sense.”

“What?” I do my best to slap Neca with the word.

“The way you look at me. The way you talk about chadzitzin. You think we’re all quitters.”

Well, of course I do. Doesn’t he? How else could anyone possibly see them? Lazy, undisciplined, thrill-seeking quitters who would rather live a short, selfish life and die of the twitch than put in the hard work to ensure a future society and the possibility of a future for themselves. I don’t say any of this. Instead, I resume my defensive posture. “What?”

“Nothing. Just an observation. Besides, aren’t we getting close to this garden yet?”

We’ve still a ways to go, but the question reminds me of my earlier train of thought. “About that,” I reach into my pocket and clutch the smooth, elongated rock I’ve been carrying since the sinkhole—small enough for me to curl my fingers around, yet heavy enough to compensate for my girl-like upper-body strength. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

“What?”

In one swift movement I spin and punch him in the side of the jaw. Never once knocked out in the cage, Nightmare Neca turns out to be human after all. Catching him under the arms, I ease him to the cave floor and prop him up as comfortably as I can. There’s no way I’m taking him to my mother’s garden, but I need him for what comes next.

I shiver just thinking about it. Ridiculous. Impossible. When Centavo looked me in the eyes and told me we’d have to sneak into Immortal City, I knew without a shadow of a doubt he was one of them. What I can’t figure is his interest in me and my brother.


I pick up my pace for the final stretch of cave. At its cavernous mouth I’ll find the spring-fed garden planted by my mother. An overland route uses a slot canyon to access the small valley where the garden is nestled. But it takes three times as long and leaves one exposed to lines of sight from New Teo, as well as wild animals and roving gangs of twitchers. In the caves, the worst threat is vampire bats.

I flex my sore knuckles. After all Neca’s done to help, I feel bad about punching him. As a psych-fighter, he should be used to it. On the other hand, getting sucker punched by a girl isn’t exactly a cage bout. Briefly, I worry he’ll refuse to help, but he’s put up with so much already. If he wasn’t so cocky, he might be a nice guy.

Then there’s Centavo, and how Neca gushes at the mentioning of the old man. Centavo’s connection to my parents bothers me most. I can think of a dozen different scenarios: he was blackmailing them, they were blackmailing him, they were working together (but on what?), he and my mother were having an affair (not likely). Maybe they simply shared a common interest in plants. Or he wanted my brother for his abilities, and my parents refused.

This last one chills me to the bone. What if he’d been trying to take my brother the night of the outburst that killed my parents? And came back for him at the clinic? None of that explains the book. He showed me the pages they had done together—my mother’s words and his art.

As the cave slopes down, opening into the garden, I’m still wondering why the simple collaboration means so much to me. I slide down a slick section of rock. Landing on spongy moss, I stop to inhale the lush fragrances of jasmine and honeysuckle. Finally, the truth hits me.

Beauty was paramount in everything my mother did. I close my eyes, overwhelmed by memory. I’m a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table. My mother is kneeling behind me, working her magic into my braid and teaching me. Ask yourself before you do anything: Will it make the world more beautiful? If the answer is yes, and the thing is within your ability, you’re obligated to try.

I open my eyes. This garden is living proof. I’m living proof. Olin, at least for the time being, is living proof. I scamper past the ferns and into the larger section of the garden. Over the last sixteen months I’ve memorized every plant. Within seconds I’m holding in my quivering hand the leaf Centavo described.

It doesn’t look like much, but my mother planted it here. That is all I need to know. If she shared the knowledge of it with Centavo, there must be something beautiful about him as well. This one fact is not enough for me to trust him. It’s enough for me to trust his plan.

I pluck three ripe buds oozing with resin, wrap them in a large leaf and stuff them in my pants pocket. Behind a hedge of cleyera, the ceiling of the cave converges with a rock shelf to create a narrow cleft. I shimmy into the crack and breathe out. Reaching as far as I can, I tweeze a leather pouch between two fingers.

Sitting on the edge of the shelf, I hold the package on my lap. The leather is beautifully worn and oiled. I rub my fingers across its surface and hold them to my nose. Surprised, I discover the leather is seasoned with the resin from the ugly plant. I wonder how much more my mother has yet to teach me.

Untying the pouch, I flip through the pages until I find the one I’m looking for. My mother never sketched the ugly plant. As Centavo suggested, she had taken notes so rushed and disjointed I failed to correlate them, until now.

Near the top of the page she describes the resin. Midway down, a string of unfamiliar numbers and symbols form some sort of equation. Then I spot something else, an insertion scrawled in my father’s hand. Nowhere else in the notes does his writing appear. On this one ugly plant, they worked together.

My heart leaps. Something is special about the ugly plant after all. Centavo has to be telling the truth. The old man could kill Olin by simpler means than this. And if he’s really entrusting me with his contact within Immortal City, I can trust him with this ugly-looking plant.

I slip the notes into the pouch and return it to its hiding place. When I stand, I’m too dizzy to walk straight. I realize I haven’t eaten in over sixteen hours. Foolishly, I didn’t bring water either.

Raindrops slap the broad leaves of the garden outside the shelter of the cave, and I realize it must be afternoon. Urgency crowds me. Centavo wasn’t sure how long it would take his contact in Immortal City to brew the medication. He also wasn’t sure how long Olin would last before destroying Worker City in a telekinetic storm of unfathomable power. Menacingly, the old man had asserted he wouldn’t let that happen.

In less than a minute I’m hurrying back the way I came, burdened with spring water and fresh papaya. With any luck, the simple offering, along with my humble apologies, will buy Neca’s forgiveness. I make a mental note to stop taking my frustrations out on him. Hopefully, he hasn’t been awake long enough to stew over my hitting him, or to have gotten lost.


I hear Neca long before I see him. While he hasn’t wandered off, he certainly doesn’t sound happy. I slink against the wall and wish I had some chocolates to go along with the papaya. That and maybe a bottle of mexcalli.

After listening to him curse the day he met me using a string of swears that would kill my mother all over again, I figure the situation isn’t going to get any better. Shuffling forward loudly, I call his name. The cursing stops. “Uh, Neca? You okay?” Instantly, I regret the idiotic question.

“If by ‘okay’ you mean hopping mad about being sucker punched by the most ridiculously annoying girl in Worker City who for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m trying to help, then, yes, I’m fine.”

His outline is now visible. “About that, I’m really sorry.”

“So now you’re going to tell me that you slipped? That you accidentally hit me with a brick?”

“That wasn’t a brick, it was my fist.” The words slip out.

“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Obviously, I’ve been hit harder.”

“Oh, obviously.” I slap my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I just—”

“Yes?”

“You’re right. It wasn’t an accident. It’s just—” exasperated, I don’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Why didn’t you try asking me to wait here?”

“Wait. I—” the question catches me completely off guard. “I thought—”

“Look, I get it. You don’t want anyone to know the location of your mother’s garden. It’s a special place.” He steps forward until I can make out the edges of his face. “If we’re going to work together, we need to trust each other. Right now I trust fellow psych-fighters more than you. At least in the cage there are rules.”

Even though I know he is right, I struggle with the impulse to argue. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ve been assuming the worst of you even though you’ve given me the best.” It stings me slightly to be so vulnerable with this boy, but the business of trading has taught me that admitting a few wrongs is the fastest means to repairing a broken relationship. And Neca is right, we need to work together. It’s equally obvious I need him more than he needs me.

“I know it’s not much,” I hold out the gifts, “but I brought you some water and a papaya.”

He whistles through his teeth. “How did you know?”

“What?”

“Papaya’s my favorite.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Papaya’s everyone’s favorite.” I lead us into a section of cave I’ve not frequently traveled, one that will open outside the shield dome protecting the Immortal City half of New Teo.

“Is it yours?”

“Nah, not me. I’m more of a kiwi girl.”

“You’ve got kiwi?”

I nod, my mouth full of papaya and my chin stuck out in front of me in attempt to keep the juice from dribbling onto my tzotzomatli. I swallow enough to talk. “My mother planted everything.”

“No wonder you want to keep it a secret.”

Gradually, I speed up the pace, and for several minutes we continue through the dark confines of the cave without a word.

Eventually, Neca breaks the silence. “That wasn’t really your fist, was it?”

“Well, I was holding a rock.”

He nods. “That explains it.”

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret?”

“That Nightmare Neca’s no longer undefeated.”

“Oh.” He clucks his tongue. “Outside of the cage, I’ve lost plenty of fights.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Family. Friends. Personal ghosts. You know, the ones that count the most.”

“Oh.” I swallow, baffled by how easily Neca switches from annoying to tragic. “Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“You know, share such personal information like that?”

“I’m sorry. It makes you uncomfortable.” He places a hand on my shoulder. “I can stop. It’s just—”

“And that.” I shirk my shoulder away from his touch.

He laughs. “Again, I apologize.”

I regret acting so cold, but the instinct has kept Olin and me safe. “It’s not that I don’t like it. Wait, I mean—”

“No need to explain.”

In my discomfort, I’ve increased our pace just short of jogging. I slow down to ensure I don’t clip my head on a low-hanging rock.

“I forget that we come from different places.”

His words are so close, I’m surprised we aren’t bumping into each other with every step. “What does that mean?”

“No offense, but you and your brother aren’t chadzitzin, not really.”

“None taken.” I’m relieved we agree on at least one thing. “But I still don’t understand.”

“It’s hard to explain.” We duck and weave our way along the passage in silence for several minutes before he picks up where he left off. “There’s little want for secrets in the underground. When people know they haven’t long to live, the thing they want the most is to be known. Everyone wants to be remembered. I think most want to be remembered for the truth rather than some lie.”

“Is that why you fight? To be remembered?”

“In so many words, yes.”

“But psych-fighting? Don’t take this the wrong way, isn’t it all an act?”

“I think of it as more of a story, a true one.”

“I’m sorry, you lost me.” I dodge a jagged overhang. “Watch your head.”

Neca shuffles his feet, adjusting at the last second to avoid cracking his skull. After he breathes deeply, he continues. “The cage is a place to bare it all. Sure, beforehand you try to conceal your strategy, mask your strengths and weaknesses. But each move is another page in the story, a story that must be finished. And the best ones are the ones that don’t hold back.

“The crowd knows it, and so do the fighters. You can feel the epic ones unfolding—the pain and fear and triumph and loss that will teach you something new about yourself. I’m indebted to the cage. It has helped me take all the lessons in life I’ll never get a chance to live and compact them into raw, bloody bursts.”

On that note, we fall silent for several minutes. Having become slightly disoriented during our conversation, I’m not a hundred percent sure we’ve taken all the right turns. On top of that, my heart is hurting. Maybe more so than I want to admit. Listening to Neca bare his soul has made it worse.

Why didn’t he join Masa Academy before he got too old? With his natural talents, his chances of survival would have been better than most. He doesn’t talk like someone who has given up on life. If that’s really the case, why has he chosen certain death?

I have to admit I don’t understand Nightmare Neca at all. The smirk and confidence I saw yesterday as ego now seem more like honest enthusiasm. But I can’t get sucked in, not now. Neca has been right about lots of things, including the fact Olin and I are not chadzitzin. In less than five days, the two of us will be leaving Neca and the underground behind forever.

About the time I’m convinced we’ve taken a wrong turn, I recognize telltale signs of a large bat roost, including the squish of guano between my toes. Bats never roost far from an opening. I crouch, pulling Neca down beside me.

I gesture toward the ceiling. He follows my gaze. As we sit, it becomes evident there is a mote more light. Several meters into an expanding chamber, the surface of the gently sloping rock above us pulses with life. One wrong move, and we could be in real trouble.

The bats themselves aren’t the immediate threat. The furthest back are most likely small fruit bats. The larger vampires occupy the best spots, closest to the exit. But causing a mass exodus will announce our presence to anyone on the outside who might happen to be looking in our general direction.

I hold my finger to my lips and then touch it to his to ensure he understands the situation. He nods. Slowly, I lead the way, using the wall to stabilize our progress across the slippery floor. I’ve found in times like these, it’s best not to see what you’re stepping in, or what you’re walking beneath.

Looking straight ahead, I proceed steadily and breathe as little as possible. We turn a corner and the light improves. This is where the omnivores and bloodsuckers will be, big hairy things. It’s still raining outside. I hear the hush before I see it, and the white noise masks our progress. Glimpsing a fragment of gray sky, I relax. The first sight of the outside world is always breathtaking after spending an hour or more in near pitch black, even if the outside world is dismal and wet.

Turning to smile at Neca, I slip. I bang my knee on the wall. Scrambling to regain my balance, I plant my second foot too quickly. It shoots out from under me along with the other. Just before my head impacts the wall, I feel a barrier of hot wind blow across my brow. Strong hands clutch my sides, and I’m flying.

The empty black turns to dizzying gray. Finally, I’m on hands and knees, sliding down a muddy slope. I roll onto my back, and Neca’s arm shoots across to steady me. Gradually, we slide to a stop, rivulets of water snaking past. Below, nothing except green forest runs downhill into the vast farmland south of New Teo. Several meters above, I spot the opening of the cave—no bats pouring out of it.

I lie back in the mud and breathe deeply. I’m so giddy with relief, and yet overwhelmed at the same time, I start to laugh. Perhaps it’s my version of one of the cage moments Neca described—a moment when experiences collide to teach me something about myself. Only I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn.

Either way, Neca joins in, and the two of us lie there laughing in the mud.


My tzotzomatli, along with the pants beneath it, are no longer purple or blue. They are brown, as brown as my skin. If anything, the mud has lightened Neca’s complexion. Steadying each other, we creep uphill toward the crest above the mouth of the cave.

This is where Centavo’s plan gets foggy. “Won’t we be visible to the immortals? I mean, please tell me we aren’t planning on walking up to the shield dome and knocking until someone lets us in.”

“Not exactly, but I don’t think you need to worry about anyone seeing us.”

Not seeing how that could be possible, I decide to display an effort at trust. Besides, I’m shivering with anticipation. Six years ago my brother and I caught a glimpse of the immortal side of New Teo from the farmland kilometers below. Never have I or anyone I know been this close. Except for Neca. We stop shy of the crest. “All right, lead the way.” I sound nonchalant.

“Let’s do it together.”

Before I can object, he tugs me up and over. I freeze in wonder. Just as quickly, wonder turns to confusion and disbelief. “That’s Immortal City? But it—”

“Looks pretty much the same. Yeah. That was my first thought too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hey, it’s just the other side of the coin. One side’s always gotta be tails.”

I gape, staring back and forth between Neca and the underwhelming Immortal City. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Never mind. Besides, don’t freak out completely. The dome is the dome, right?”

Slowly, I nod my head. Of course Immortal City would look the same from this perspective.

“On the inside it’s…different, sorta.”

“Now you’re confusing me for fun.”

He jogs fluidly toward the shield dome. “Well, yeah. Sorta.” Just like that, Neca returns to his exasperating self.

“Stop it already.” Still, it’s a struggle to look at something other than his backside as he strides up the gentle slope ahead of me. Luckily, the closer we get to the metal mesh of the shield dome, the more detail I have to distract myself. Most of the buildings appear to be metal foam rather than adobe. No surprise there. The structures are taller on average, but not as grand as I had imagined.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamt of Immortal City: the buildings, the streets, the shops. Especially the shops. Yet with each step closer, I can’t escape the fact Immortal City looks like a cleaner, nicer version of the working-class half of New Teo. I know I shouldn’t be disappointed, but I am. After all, why should the immortals be treated so differently from the rest of us?

By the time we reach the shield, I’ve yet to see anything moving on the other side. No cable chairs, no shuttles, no people. “Now what?” I try to disguise that I’m out of breath and my side aches from eating nothing except fruit.

“We knock.”

“Wait, I thought—”

“Shhh.” He holds his finger to my lips and winks.

Somehow I’ve let on that his winking infuriates me. Now he’s doing it to excess. I’m about to see if I can land another punch, this one duly deserved, when he embraces me.

He’s so hot to the touch, his hand on my back must be burning through my clothes. As my spine begins to vibrate, I struggle to draw a complete breath, to resist him. Instead, I melt. Then, to my shock, I realize we’re both melting right through the shield wall. The space of a few meters shimmers with telekinesis like butterflies swarming the branches of an Oyamel.

The surface ripples as we pass through it. And everything is humming. I close my eyes as the light and heat washes up my chest and across my face. Finally, I gulp down air, my lungs expanding into a new-found freedom. Limp, I cling to Neca. With a final shiver, I open my eyes. The impossible has happened: I’m inside Immortal City.

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