Running faster wouldn’t help her. Attempting to fight it off wouldn’t either. Her best bet was to find a place to hide. Amidst the dirt-stained dumpsters and filthy sewage grates, she’d find shelter. But the demon had returned. It was at the back of her neck, and it wasn’t wasting time on subtleties. It was ready to devour her. But perhaps that was what she deserved. Perhaps that was her fate. For the things she’d done, the demon had found her; and because of her inability to remain rooted to the ground below, she had no choice but to let it.
“I’m sorry, Ryon. I’m sorry that I held too tightly to her. I’m sorry that I wouldn’t let you rest.”
Those words escaped the young-lipped girl as the shadowed creature finally took hold of the soft groove of flesh.
Chapter 1: The Mech Princess
Stifling. Or something.
That was the way the young girl felt. From the very first day, she’d felt that way.
They called her Tide.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The Sunday after the king’s daughter turned eighteen, a heavy fog invaded her kingdom.
It wasn’t the first time a wave of whiteness had come to the city. Actually, it was the complete opposite. The king’s daughter had woken to the frost-like illusions of fog-masked windows many times before. It was something she was used to. It was something she welcomed, for each encounter brought the same sensation: wistfulness at seeing a world buried in haze.
That was the way it was for the young girl. More often than not, the mornings spent in her skyscraping palace were accompanied by the rolling steam-clouds of progress, and that was just fine by her. For the girl named Tide, it was all just as well –
Until the third Sunday of her turning month.
That morning there was something different about the fog. Something unfamiliar. Something dark. A certain foreignness crowded the sky.
The king’s daughter closed her eyes.
It was important that she find a name for it. A word to describe the foreign thing’s nature. If she could just think of something simple and clear to call the change, it would help make the fog seem less ominous.
But it wasn’t that easy. No matter how hard she tried, ‘simple and clear’ wouldn’t come to her. Ambiguities were all she could reach.
An anonymous aura seasoned with despair? Maybe. Maybe that was close.
It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.
What the young girl didn’t know – what she couldn’t have known – was that the ‘aura’ wasn’t an aura at all. It was a presence, a slithering presence that had already slipped into her veins. There it would stay, undetected, until the end.
“Stifling,” muttered the mouth that was Tide’s. “Or something.”
Either way, she finished wringing out her hair with olive eyes transfixed on the window.
When the longest strands were at least partially dry, the girl named Tide threw on a pink stocking cap and trotted to the kitchen. Upon the counter sat a note. Tucking the last of her escaping bangs into the bottom of her cap, she read the note and sighed.
“Of course you have an early morning, Dad. Is it even necessary to leave these notes anymore?”
But Tide had long come to realize that those notes weren’t for her sake. They were for his. Her father’s. Nero Yondo, so-called ‘King’ of the mechanized Midwest.
“Back by dusk?” Tide crumpled the note. “That’s vague enough. Thanks, Dad.”
The king was a good father, but a present father he was not. Morning meetings aside, much of Nero’s time had been occupied since the federal government’s buyout of his latest invention. It was an inevitable takeover that had ensued as soon as the drill-like contraption’s true usefulness had come to light, turning Nero from inventor to businessman in a matter of weeks. Absence was his call sign. Nero knew this, and the notes were his penance.
Tide left her apartment with a piece of toast in her mouth and a yellow envelope under her arm. The city was sleepy. The people were dreary. All of them were weighed upon, at least in part, by the fog.
“Or something?” the young mouth said again.
Tide fanned at the air around her face. It didn’t help. The fog hurried to fill the space left behind.
Through the whiteness it was impossible to tell that the city beyond the girl’s high-towered window was a world of cogs and cranks and turn-gears. A world of rust-coated metal walls and dirty blackrock pavement. A patchwork of old metals no longer otherwise necessary since the dawning of the age of inventors and the discovery of Bororore – the miracle fuelstone – some hundred years earlier.
That ore was responsible for the shimmering effect of the street’s tallest buildings.
Had the fog surrendered for but a moment, a person visiting the city might have been welcomed by the sign etched in copper: St. Laran: Mechanical Capital of the Midwest; and although the sign and self-named capital were hidden on that Sunday, the grinding, clanking, steaming sounds that accompanied the city’s many contraptions continued to clamor, unstifled and uncontained.
Tide’s mouth moved again: “Something.”
“Something?” responded a voice that wasn’t hers.
It wasn’t hers, but she knew it well. She’d heard it a thousand times or more.
“Y?” said Tide. “Is that you?”
The king’s daughter was answered by a shrouded snigger.
Wynona, Tide’s neighbor, had – at a young age – discarded the rest of her name, settling instead on a simplified ‘Y’. That was something the boyish girl’s mother had long disapproved of, stating that no respectable person went by a one-lettered name, to which Y often responded that many a respectable gang leader had. Comments like those turned Y’s mother pale, even if becoming a gang leader was far from Y’s nature.
“Well, it could be me,” said the person who was indeed Y. “Or it could be some creep.”
“Hmmm.” Tide’s eyes focused on the squat orange-haired girl through the fog. “That sounds about right. You are the stalker type, after all.”
“Rude!” said Y. “Why? Just because I followed that professor around? That was only for like a week, you know. Very charming of you to bring up the mortifying moments of my past, Tide Yondo. What better way to start the day than to be reminded of my greatest hits? Thanks for that.”
Y smiled, but it was through gritted teeth, for she was an imperfect, prideful being who often felt the sting of offense at even the most playful of comments. Mornings were the worst. They meant that lunch, the force capable of calming Y’s touchy nature, was still a long ways off. Y would be cranky until then.
Tide knew that. She knew it better than most. Still, for no reason at all, she continued to press the cantankerous girl:
“You’ve always been like that,” said Tide. “I wonder why.”
“Excuse me? Like what? What are you getting at?”
“Uh . . .” But Tide didn’t know what to say; the comment had escaped her lips absentmindedly, and in the absence of a better answer, she offered a shrug that was hollow and uncommitted. It concerned Y enough to look past her rudeness.
“Dude,” said Y, poking the spacy girl’s arm. “What’s wrong with you today? You’re acting funny.”
Tide took a moment and then, “It’s the weather . . . or something.”
“Again with the ‘somethings’? You mean the fogginess?”
Tide nodded. “The fogginess, or . . .?”
“Or something, right?”
“Right,” said Tide.
Feeling very much like a weirdo, the king’s daughter shook away the lingering feelings of haze and realized that she and Y had been walking through the market district near her home. They were on course for nothing, as far as Tide knew, but Y’s footsteps were determined. Much more determined, at least, than Tide’s lagging own.
“Where are we going, again?” asked Tide.
“Huh?” said Y. “Seriously?” She eyed her friend with concern. “You really ARE off today, aren’t you? Thus, I’ll have to answer your question with a question of my own! Why, dearest Tide, are you drifting along beside me with that envelope?”
But as soon as Tide’s eyes found the yellow envelope stowed beneath her arm, she remembered just what she and Y had agreed to the night before. The reason Y had been waiting outside of her palace. The reason Tide’s breakfast had consisted of a single piece of hurriedly prepared toast.
Tide smacked herself on the forehead. “Omigod!”
“Idiot.” But Y shrugged it off. She wasn’t the sort of person to question awkward behavior – or anything for that matter – more than necessary. Essentially, she didn’t pry. Maybe she was that good of a companion; maybe she just didn’t care. Either way, she said only,
“Are you prepared?”
Tide was prepared. She was very prepared, but she didn’t feel like it.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Y cut her off. “Before you answer that way, I want you to think about it VERY carefully. Think about the hours and hours of precious could-have-been-lounging time spent climbing at the outskirts. Think about the weeks of allowance spent on strategy books. Think about the sheer awesomeness of the contents of that envelope. Now, I ask you again. Are you prepared, Tide Yondo?”
With that, Tide couldn’t keep from grinning. The fog wanted to turn her eyes downcast, but all of Y’s words had been truth. She understood; she let them in; and when she answered, – “Hell yes!” – she was sincere.
“Aha! See? That’s more like it!” Y said. Under her breath she added, “You’d better be.”
Tide frowned. “What was that?”
But instead of elaborating, Y stopped abruptly next to a bedraggled recyclables merchant who happened to be peddling in an unauthorized patch between two much more legitimate-looking carts.
“Uh, okaaaay?” Tide studied the shoddy salesman warily. “Fun pit stop. Need to buy a cog, or–?”
“Look!” blurted Y. She pointed with her pinky to the space beyond the cart.
Tide followed the gesture. She didn’t see any cause for alarm, though. “What? Why are you so excited all of a sudden?”
“That guy!” sang Y. “That guy right there!”
Tide found him. She found the guy, but still no cause for alarm. “What about him?”
“He’s–! He’s–!” continued Y breathlessly.
“What? He’s what?” Tide was getting anxious. She hurried to look for any infirmities the boy might have. “What’s wrong with him!?”
“He’s, you know!” said Y. “He’s really cute!”
Tide dropped her jaw. And then she groaned. The boy was cute, but that was beside the point. “Seriously, Y? You had me thinking it was some escaped convict or something! You’re so high strung tod–”
“Oh! Wait! Look away!” said Y.
“Eh?!” Tide squinted. “What now?”
“False alarm.” Y lowered her voice. “It’s one of those. It’s a ‘Second’.”
The envelope was still snuggly upon Tide’s person; the fog was thinning; and in the aftermath of Y’s proclamation, there was unsettled silence.
While the disappointed girl’s eyes darted away from the ‘false alarm’, Tide’s stayed, disobediently transfixed on the cute boy who was a Second. Now that she looked closer, she realized that Y was right. He was one of them. There was no mistaking it. His neck, just below his ear, was branded by a scarlet tattoo. A swirled, nonsense design carried by all of them. All of those who weren’t real. All of those who’d never been born. Never been created. Never been named.
“They creep me out,” said Y. She busied herself with the unauthorized merchant’s wares.
But the boy didn’t creep Tide out. He made her curious. Protected in her apartment tower, she hadn’t had as much interaction with those beings as the rest of her peers had. The sight of the boy didn’t make her uneasy. It sucked her in. Pulled her eyes away from the fog. Kept her feet from moving forward. Without that tattoo, he would have seemed normal. He would have been like any other resident of St. Laran. He would have been . . .
“He’s just a boy,” Tide said without really meaning to.
Y was silent for a moment before letting out a grunt that was wholly unflattering. “Just a boy!?” she cried. “Are you crazy!? IT isn’t a boy! IT isn’t anything like a boy!”
“Calm down. What I meant is he LOOKS like a real–”
“NO, Tide. IT isn’t a ‘he’. IT is an unnatural thing spawned from some sorry sucker’s depression. IT shouldn’t be outside on its own. IT shouldn’t even exist. And IT definitely shouldn’t be thought of as a person. So don’t. It’s weird.”
In too little time, Y was worked up – more worked up than she needed to be – but even so, Tide wasn’t listening. She was still looking at the Second, who was sitting alone against a poster-clad wall, chin in his hand and knees to his chest. The corners of his mouth were down, as though he were making no attempt at feigning happiness or covering up his despondent state of being.
Depressing maybe, but not creepy.
Tide was sheltered. She was sheltered to an extreme, but like her father, she’d been born with a hidden conviction. She didn’t mind appearing naïve. Not around Y, at least. Confidence and inquiry were the keys to success, or so Nero often said.
“What I don’t get,” said Tide, ignoring Y’s outburst and continuing to size up the boy, “is where their skin and everything comes from. I mean, Seconds are known as ‘ones who aren’t born’, but obviously they’re born, right? They’ve got to be. At least in some sense. Right, Y?”
“Born?” Y was already calm again. She turned over a bracelet made from an old skeleton key. “Mmm, not quite. They just use the chemicals in the air to materialize themselves.”
“Particles. Pollutants. What have you. Each of them is a materialization of a real person’s negative emotions. Despair and regret bottled in a suit of flesh. Gross, right? But here’s the thing I find MOST creepy. They look completely different from the people to whom their emotions belong. It’s like they design their physical images themselves. Don’t you think it’s at least a little disturbing?”
Tide thought about it. “No, but it is crazy. Like an extreme case of split personality disorder.”
“More than crazy,” agreed Y. She shuddered. “I’d better not ever spawn one of those things. I’d better not ever become a ‘Main’. If I do, kill us both.”
Tide ignored the morbid comment. She wasn’t in the mood. “So, let me get this straight,” she said dully. “You hate Seconds, yet you know all about them? That seems a little suspicious.”
The gears merchant, who’d been picking at something on his arm, let out a crusty laugh.
“That’s because,” said Y, baring her teeth. “I had to take a class on them last quarter for my social credit. Not like it was my choice.” She glared at the eavesdropping merchant. Then she turned to Tide. “Besides, I don’t really know that much more than your average commoner. It’s just that YOU know much less.” It was payback time. Y turned sly. “You know, being a ‘princess’ and all.”
There it was.
The gears merchant picked.
Tide let out a groan. She’d expected it to come up at some point, but in lieu of that Sunday’s other preoccupations, she’d been hoping it would somehow slip Y’s mind. “Do me a favor and NEVER call me that again, would you?” she said
Tide knew exactly what Y was referring to. Last week’s paper. The Laran’s Post. They’d had the nerve to mention her. And they’d done it with such swag, too. Nero Yondo’s Daughter: Mechanical Princess Tide. Tide cringed. It was mortifying. It was so, so mortifying! And to think her father’s lawyer had actually congratulated her on the atrocity.
“It’s just so dumb!” growled Tide. “Dad makes one stupid invention, and suddenly I’m viewed as an heiress by everyone in St. Laran. Like: Surprise, I got you this company.” She made an ugly frown. “And now there’s no escaping it.”
Y’s slyness was at full force. “Well, you are an heiress. It only makes sense that you’d be viewed that way.”
“Not that I’ve agreed to anything like that! I don’t WANT to take over his company. And why he’d even want me to is beyond me. I don’t know anything about Mekanix or Bororore or business or–”
“Hmph.” Y set the bracelet down with a clank, and sighed. “Want to know what I think? I think that YOU should be grateful for having something like that just handed to you, spoiled princess. The rest of us have to grovel and scratch our ways to the top.”
The fog had dissipated, and the yellow envelope was starting to slip out from under Tide’s arm, but Tide didn’t notice. She’d been fuming. Embarrassed. Frustrated. And in the midst of those emotions, her eyes had returned to the sad boy. The boy marked by red.
She allowed herself to be distracted by the oddity that was his presence.
“Scratch your way to the top of what, Y?” she said half-heartedly. “You’re going into landscape artistry. It’s not exactly a cutthroat field.”
“Landscape sculpture! It’s totally different!”
“Right,” murmured Tide. “I always forget how much you hate painting. How is playing with clay better, again?”
Y’s expression turned dry. “How can you not know this? Working with your hands to mold something is a lot more creative than simply picking up a brush and wibbling it around on a piece of paper. I mean, even my four-year-old cousin can–”
But Tide still wasn’t paying attention. Y noticed, and she let out a groan.
“Tide! Honestly, pull your eyeballs away. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Tide didn’t know the answer to that. There was no fog to muddle her up. It was all her. She was letting herself be muddled.
“He looks content,” mumbled Tide. “Even though he’s sad, somehow it’s like he enjoys being sad. Does that make sense?”
“Ish! I told you, IT’S CREEPY. Something made from the unsteady emotions of a person? Something that makes flesh from smog in the air? They’re probably just accumulations of the dead skin cells that fall off our scalps in the middle of the night.”
The yellow envelope fell to the ground, and it broke Tide’s Second-induced spell. She wrinkled her nose. “Eew. Bad image, Y.”
“What? It’s true . . . probably.”
“My, my. With so much knowledge stored inside your skull, it’s a wonder your grades aren’t better. Not that I can really blame your professors for giving you low marks once they realize you you’ve been following them around in your free time.”
It was still before lunchtime. Tide’s playful backlash was a little too sarcastic for Y’s fragile pride.
“Geh! C-come on, already,” said Y, scowling. “Forget about your gawking. We’re going to be late.”
It was at that moment that the young princess realized that they were, indeed, in danger of being late. She dropped to her knees and scrambled to retrieve the envelope that had floated just out of reach. Its contents remained intact.
Y shot the key bracelet another thoughtful look of appraisal, the recyclables merchant shot Y a disapproving frown at her ultimate dismissal of his wares, and Tide shot one last inquisitive glance at the boy who was a Second.
The Second took no notice of any of these things. He closed his eyes and let himself be dead to the world.
Not creepy. Tide was certain of that, even if she wasn’t certain of much else.
The two friends hurried to make up for lost time. They left the Second and merchant the way they’d been. They left them both and continued on their journey. Tide walked with a determination equal to Y’s as together they carried on through the market district.
But there was something wrong with Tide now. Wrong, Y might’ve said, though Tide herself would have viewed it the anomaly as ‘different’ had she even been aware of the sensation. Different. Changed. Awakened. The fog had left its mark on her.
Now as they traversed the dingy, metaled city, Tide’s eyes were locked on one color: RED. Blood red. That color continually found the eyes that were Tide’s – each time upon a neck that had never been born. The stained red of Seconds caught her eye. Whereas she’d found them unnoticeable on all days preceding that Sunday, she now spotted them with vigor. Her eyes snapped from Second to Second, and she realized for the first time that there were many among them.
Seconds were everywhere.
“Yeah, there are lots of them now, aren’t there?” Y read her thoughts.
“Wha–? Er– yeah. There are. When did that happen?”
“Dude, you are so sheltered.”
Y left it at that. Caring not, or perhaps being a good friend, Y said nothing more on the subject.
Without speaking, they carried on. They knew the path well. They’d traveled it repeatedly on their training trips out of the city. Tide held the yellow envelope tightly – fearing another hapless drop – until, in the space somewhere between a secondhand clothing store and an imported organics shop, they reached their destination.
“Well,” said Y. “We’re here.”
They were. Before them stood the Weighted Dome. A colossal architectural beast out of place in St. Laran. A sphere constructed solely from metals of old. The only one of its kind. It was where dirt-nosed scrap climbers turned in their marks, where reckless adolescents found their partners, and where people of any social standing could stand to make a few bucks. In short, it was a place Nero’s lawyer had forbidden the young princess from ever entering.
But it didn’t matter because Tide wasn’t just an heiress. On that Sunday, she was a climber; and as a climber, she’d cast aside her father’s order in order to gain her rights as huntress.
Scrap huntress Tide would soon be born.
Somewhere, in a different part of the city, a boy with blue-ish hair was chewing the end of his glasses. For some reason, he felt strange. Stranger than normal, anyway. The fog surrounding the princess hadn’t reached him, yet he could sense a shift in things. The scales, which had remained quiet for the last two years, were starting to tip.
The boy frowned.
In his lap sat a box made from the remnants of old license plates. With a lifeless hand, he patted it. The tiny lock that held the box shut was securely in place; the key hidden somewhere the box wouldn’t be able to find on its own.
For now, it was safe.
Soon, though, the time would come when the box would need to be opened. The boy’s soul was wearing thin. The boy knew it. And so did a dark, lurking thing that was watching him. The boy felt its breath on his neck.
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
The dark presence laughed.
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