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Heart of Farellah – Chpt. 1

This is the tragic, beautiful tale of a girl without a soul.

I am that girl and this is my story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Chapter 1: The Rite

When a songstress is born, she isn’t alone. A tiny, glistening thing resides very near to her soul. It is her song, and it accompanies her all her life.

Before I lost my soul, my song was buried deep, deep within me.

Until the day of the Rite.

On that day I lay in the grass. On that day everything changed.

~

I was just staring off across a noon-lit meadow that smelled familiarly of cherry blossoms, when a loud scurrying alerted me to the arrival of a girl that was far too small for her tail.

Or maybe her tail was simply too big.

Either way, the girl, who happened to be part-squirrel, came scampering into the meadow, disrupting the rest I’d long sought after.

“Aura!” she cried, slashing about the blades. “What’re you doing out here? Miss Danice sent me to retrieve you!”

She was too loud for a day so calm. I wasn’t in the mood. Not today. Not with the Rite nearly upon us.

But as the Squirrelean girl tipped her head forward, hands to her hips reprimandingly, I couldn’t help but grin. One of her ears was erect, while the other flopped forward. She looked ridiculous like that.

“You found me, Kantú.” I put my hands up in surrender. “And I thought I was being so sneaky, too.”

Kantú returned the grin. “You, Aura Rosh, are not sneaky.”

She was right. But neither was she.

“Anyway, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” she said, settling down beside me. The grass came up to her shoulders. She batted at it.

Truthfully, I’d just woken from a dream. But it hadn’t been a good one. Something about a cavern full of mirrors and a bright red light . . .

Not worth mentioning.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Just trying to mentally prepare, I guess.”

Though it was hard preparing for something I knew so little about.

Kantú was on the same page. She twisted the end of her bushy tail between her fingers and stared intently at the center of my forehead. “Wonder what even happens during the Rite,” she said. “Do you just wander around in the dark? Or what?”

I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to think about it. My nerves acted up whenever I did.

But Kantú wouldn’t let it rest.

“Well, your Rite can’t be much worse than Laria Lynn’s, at least,” she said. “Remember that? Something flew up her skirt, she tore it off, and when she came running out, the whole village saw her – exposed.” She let out a high-pitched chittering laugh. “I mean, how embarrassing!”

Again, I didn’t want to think about it.

Weren’t you saying something about Miss Danice?” I diverted through my teeth.

“Oh right! Miss Danice wants to go over some last minute songstress-ish stuff with you. She’s waiting at her cottage.”

I groaned. ‘Songstress-ish stuff’ was the last thing I wanted to do.

But Kantú was persistent. “She promised me a whole satchel of spring nuts if I sent you back.” An evil smile crept across her face. “So whether I have to carry you, drag you, or a combination of the two, you’re going!”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Addict.”

I wouldn’t put it past her to follow through with her threats, though. Besides, it was probably for the best that I meet with Miss Danice one last time before the Rite. Maybe she could even provide a little insight into what it entailed.

“Fine.” I stood, but not before letting out a sigh. “You probably won’t see me again until tonight, though, so wish me luck.”

Kantú bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Good luck, Aura! You’re gonna do great, I just know it!”

I started towards town, but turned back to take one last look at my beloved meadow before fully committing. For some reason I felt sad. I’d only be gone until tomorrow, and yet . . .

Don’t forget me.

A large waft of cherry blossom-infused air surrounded me, seeming to answer my plea. Satisfied, I cut through the long grass to the dirt path that led to town.

Farellah.

My home was a simple village of log cottages, street merchants and dusty roads, with a culture ruled by song and legend. The mayor welcomed in a traveling trader only once every year or so, and by most accounts, Kantú was the most exotic thing the town had ever encountered.

In Squirrelean culture, one’s maturity level was not based on age, but rather by the size of one’s tail. As Kantú had an unusually large tail for her age, she’d been sent out into the world while still a child. She’d stumbled upon Farellah, by chance, and Marbeck Berfield, the town librarian, had taken her in as an assistant in exchange for rent.

We’d been friends ever since.

Anyways, Farellah.

The town had given me a headache all week, just at the nape of my neck. The sort of headache that pangs worst when you acknowledge it. People had been bringing up my Rite all week, causing the headache to swell.

My Rite. My coming of age. The ritual. The cave. The releasing of my song.

There was no escaping it.

It is said that oftentimes the nosiest of people live in the smallest of towns, and unfortunately, Farellah was smaller than the smallest of towns.

Ugh.

In the distance, I saw Miss Danice’s peach-colored cottage. She was the only person in town with a colorful one, having concocted a paste-like stain out of mud and morningberry juice. While hers stood out amidst the uniform wood-tones of the other cottages, the peach-color looked sort of sickly. I suspected she’d been shooting for pink.

It was something she’d never admit.

Miss Danice was the songstress under whom I was apprenticed. She was a vibrant woman, with a lavish vocabulary and a passion for the dramatic.

She flung open her door before I even knocked.

“Why, Aura, you kept me waiting for ages!” Her voice rang with over-exaggeration as she let me in. “Look at your hair, peach, it’s all wind-tossed! We can’t have you looking like that for the Rite. But we’ll get to that later. First, we must do one final review!” She exuberantly pointed to a worn wicker chair as if welcoming some foreign royalty to their throne. “Seat yourself, peach!”

I obeyed. I didn’t have much of a choice.

“Now then,” she continued, “are you nervous? Excited? Ready to discover your song? No matter, it’s not like there’s any changing the inevitable! Aha! I just can’t believe you’re already coming of age. My pupil’s all grown up! How about we start with a warm-up scale?” She held up a finger. “Recite the six regions of the Westerlands as you go!”

I hadn’t even gotten in a single word yet! And already she wanted me to sing?

But such was the way when it came to Miss Danice.

If I did any differently, she was sure to scold me with a tongue-click.

I took a deep, reluctant breath and began to sing a scale: “Carouth, Rendalt, Elenque, Abardo, Farrowel, Nor . . . Carouth, Rendalt . . .”

These were the regions of the Westerlands. Or so we’d heard. Farellah’s record tomes had only bits of legend about each of them, and the hand-drawn maps we’d received from travelers over the years were too inconsistent to be of much use.

One of them even told of an ‘Easterlands’ across the great ocean.

I wondered.

Flawless!” sang Miss Danice. “Next, let’s hear the Song of Juniper’s Cry. You do remember it, don’t you?”

I didn’t. I rarely remembered the songs that had been drilled into my head. I chuckled nervously as I tried to recall the words. Miss Danice clicked her tongue.

Several more clicks would follow, for the drilling would go on well into the late afternoon. My throat felt rough and dry by the time we were finished.

But Miss Danice was still full of energy, not at all affected by the vigorous hours of training, per usual, and intent on getting me ready for the evening.

“When I’m done with you, Aura Rosh, you’ll look positively radiant!

~

An hour later, I stood in Miss Danice’s bedroom, examining my reflection in her floor-length obsidian mirror. She was proud to be one of the few people in Farellah that owned such a rare artifact.

“You look lush, peach.” Miss Danice’s voice cooed behind me. “The color is fabulous! Your hair looks just like stardust!”

The purification gown I’d decided on was lavender. Miss Danice thought wearing it would make my silver hair look simply striking. But drawing attention to my hair – which the village women had always coined ‘peculiarly lustrous’ – would mean drawing more attention to ME.

My stomach protested with a gurgle.

“Thank you, Miss Danice.” I faked a gracious smile.

The songstress herself usually wore some sort of live bird in her hair as an accessory, switching them out each day to match her outfits. She had mastered a song that allowed her to control them using mist, putting them into a dazed stupor for hours on end so that they would behave.

I considered it imprisonment, more so than creative expression.

“No bird today?” I asked, searching her hair.

She patted her head. “Not yet, dear. I’m saving it for the ceremony.”

“R-right.”

“Well then, off you go. Don’t fret – you look enchanting, and that, my dear, is fifty percent of what counts. I’ll see you at the beach at dusk. Don’t be nervous, peach. You’ll do wonderfully!”

I started to leave but paused beside the door.

It was true I wasn’t much of a songstress, but I was far better off than I would have been on my own. Miss Danice was one of the strongest magic-wielders I knew. She’d offered so much of her knowledge, while asking nothing in return.

Some people were all good, it seemed.

“Miss Danice, thank you for . . .” – I didn’t know where to start – “well, for everything, I guess.”

I looked up at her, and she was staring at the top of my head. It took a moment for her to answer, and when she did, her voice was strange. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said, tone subdued. “You don’t know how special you are, Aura.”

Special? Only if she meant lower-than-average.

“You’ll understand someday . . .” A vacancy crossed her stare.

But if I wanted to press her, I wouldn’t get the chance. “Enough of that, peach! Your parents are waiting for you!” She reverted to her old, vibrant self, and flung her hand towards the door, dismissing the topic for good.

I shrugged it off and gave her one final hug as an apprentice before leaving her to decide which bird she would wear to the ceremony.

~

Breathe, Aura. This will all be over soon.

Dusk had come too quickly. I’d always found the beach a calming place. It wasn’t only the vibrant shells that were beautiful there, but also the grotesque snarls of driftwood, each different, each ugly but lovely.

Tonight, though, the beach was anything but calm. It was where the cave was waiting to swallow me.

As was custom, my parents accompanied me. They served only as escorts for the night, but I was treating them more like guards, struggling to hide behind them as we moved along the sand.

My mother was a thin, willowy woman with full lips and silky black hair that flowed loosely around her frail face as she walked. A raven goddess. At least it was her beauty the townspeople would be drawn to first.

At least I could hope.

“Aura, you aren’t nervous, are you?” Her voice was melodic, as always.

I didn’t need to answer. My sweatiness was an answer all on its own.

“But why, Aura? You look so beautiful! And no one in our family was born without a song. You’ve got one, I’m certain of it. Father and I can’t wait to hear its release.”

My father nodded silently in agreement. He was a quiet fisherman, more at peace with the fish he caught than in the presence of people. Ceremonial things like this didn’t interest the shy man, and I didn’t blame him. Fishing sounded more appealing to me at the moment too.

Tonight, the moonlight made his gray hair shine to a silver that almost matched mine, though it was only a trick of the light.

“Release the best song, Aura.” Mother squeezed my arm. “For you and for Illuma too.”

Illuma.

My older sister.

My dead sister.

The girl stolen by the sea.

The girl that loved attention and ceremony.

She’d been uniquely beautiful even as a child, with deep violet hair, and light gray eyes that weren’t milky or dull but that shined like the moon.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Mother read my face. “Aurie Pie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Don’t look so sad. Illuma is watching you from beyond the Mistlands. Always.”

Always.

We arrived at the beachside hut with only moments remaining until the gong would sound. My parents set off to join the rest of the villagers, who were slowly trickling into their respective places on the beach.

Miss Danice had decided on a blue twitfoot to draw out the slate in her blouse. It looked content enough perched within her bun, but . . .

I smiled weakly, ultimately feeling sorry for the bird.

I scanned the crowd for Kantú but couldn’t find her through the mesh of faces. There was Mayor Berfield with his mother, Marbeck Berfield; Laria Lynn, looking uneasy in a tan bonnet; Parnold Rekrap, the blacksmith . . . but still no Kantú.

She was probably sleeping in my stead out in the meadow. That was fine. Better that only one of us had to endure this.

Bong! Bong! Bong!

The crowd hushed as the gong sounded.

Stomach dropping, I made my way out of the hut and into the salty night air. The purification gown billowed around my bare ankles. I was shaking, though the air held no chill.

With the voices of the other songstresses surrounding me, I moved through the cool sand to the water’s edge.

I had attended only two other Rites in the past, but I knew their words by heart.

I wasn’t a great songstress. I could rarely remember the Songs of Old. The songs of the Rite were different, however, for though I had learned hundreds of songs – songs for festivals, for births, for mealtime – there were none I loved more than those of the Rite. Memorizing them had always come easily for even a lower-than-average songstress-in-training like me.

Over my shoulder, the village priestesses looked tribal, performing the steps their ancestors had performed for hundreds of years. Each of them had a wand adorned with bells – a chimbree – which they waved through the air with precision and poise. According to legend, tonight they were not only priestesses; they were something celestial. Angels of the night illuminated by the firelight.

The warm breeze off the coast was seductive as it swept past my cheeks and tangled my hair. I waited at the edge of the beach, feet immersed, swaying to the music.

Until, all at once, it stopped.

The opening act had ended. It was almost time.

That familiar pang at the nape of my neck acted up. So many people were there to see, and so many people would see should I happen to fail.

Mayor Berfield stepped forward. He was a tall, balding man with an oversized mustache that curled over the side of his mouth and dangled well past his chin. “Who speaks for this girl?” he said, voice echoing even in the openness of the beach.

“We do,” said my parents in unison.

“And who can attest to her knowledge of the Songs of Old?”

“I can!” came Miss Danice’s eager reply.

“Are you ready, Aura Telmacha Rosh?”

Was I?

This was all happening so much faster than I’d anticipated, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied, determined that my voice at least remain calm.

“Then let us begin.”

At his command, the other songstresses lined up behind me and started to sing – a myriad of confident larks belting in unison. Was I really qualified to join their numbers?

Maybe I was, after all.

When I opened my mouth, some internal force came through:

The time is passing, moon is waking,

Heart is formed to song be taking.

Sisters of Farellah, a new song is opened,

The moon is waking!

That was it. That was all I had to do. As the crowd fell silent, I stared out across the water, holding my breath. There was one dreadful millisecond when nothing happened . . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

But then a bright blue light shot out of the water and hovered above me a moment before skipping down the coast and zooming into the Cave of Discovery.

It had worked?

I squinted to be sure.

It had actually worked!

The light was a good sign; it meant that I wasn’t a dud or anything and that my song had the intention of being released that night. The heavy anxiety I’d carried all week melted away and was replaced by pure, sweet relief. I wasn’t a failure. My song was alive inside of me, and I would become a real songstress soon. It had all been worth it.

“It’s time.” Mayor Berfield’s voice rang through the silence. “Make your way to the sacred place, songstress-to-be!”

Nodding, I took a deep breath and started down the beach.

With each step, the waves licked my feet, trying to tug me into the ocean with every retreat. I’d never been allowed this close to the cave before, and the nearer I got, the more ominous it looked. I shivered and diverted my eyes, instead glancing over my shoulder at the water – a usually tranquil sight that was now black and treacherous.

No comfort there!

After a few more steps, I paused at the entrance, unsure of what was to come. Was my sense of unease part of the Rite, or was there validity to my unrest?

Either way, I had no choice but to enter the mouth.

I continued into the damp, musty cave, stumbling over wet, moss-covered rocks as I went. Eventually the sounds of the village died out, giving way to utter silence. Still, I proceeded further and further into the darkness.

Droplets of cave water trickled down my forehead.

Gross.

No matter how long I stayed in the darkness, my eyes never seemed to adjust. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell for sure if my eyes were open or closed.

After several minutes, an earthy scent filled the air.

This would be worth it, I told myself.

Soon the song that had been with me since my birth would be released out into the world. An ancient magic of my own to command.

I wandered on aimlessly awhile longer, growing more and more uneasy with each step deeper, until the sound of falling rubble caught my attention, stopping me in my tracks.

A cave creature?

The rubble tumbled a bit more and then was quiet. I strained my darkness-shrouded eyes to find the source of the disturbance, but before I could detect anything, creature or otherwise, a hand covered my mouth.

It was unmistakably a hand.

But there wasn’t supposed to be anyone here!

Panic began to well. If someone from the village had crept in here, this whole thing would be for nothing! The Rite would be voided, and I’d have to go through all of that again!

Who would want to sabotage me?!

“Mboumf?!”

I meant to protest, but my voice was muffled, caught up in the hand pressed to my lips.

And then something strange happened.

The captor’s grip suddenly felt . . . different.

Warm, but not just warm.

Familiar.

This captor was someone I knew.

And the warmth coming from them was . . .

I closed my eyes and let it into my skin, and my heartbeat quickened in response. But not just my heartbeat; my blood liked it, too. It became alive, slithering down my veins and twisting through my body in warm enjoyment.

Without really thinking, I stopped resisting.

“Scream not, or I shall kill you where you stand.” Despite the familiarity of the warmth, I stiffened when a woman’s cold voice cut through the darkness in front of me. She had a strange accent, unlike any I’d heard before.

Foreigners in Farellah?!

“You are too harsh, Cousin,” said a second voice. It was my captor. Male. His tone was mild. “Do not fear, Rosh child,” he said, turning his attention to me. “We need to take you from here. The safety of your village depends on it.” He held me closer. “This is the best place to do it. No one will tread into the cave, for fear of disturbing the ritual. We will have a day’s advantage.”

They were taking me?

But why!?

And also . . .

My body felt warm. Captivated. Intoxicated . . .

Whoever these people were, their touch contained some sort of subduing power.

“Enough of this!” spat the first voice impatiently. A burst of red light shot from its direction and headed straight for me.

I heard the male whisper, “Sorry,” before everything grew hazy and my body fell limp.

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Seconds: The Shared Soul Chronicles – Chpt. 1

Prologue

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.

“Stifling.”

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.

“Or something.”

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.

“Weirdo.”

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?”

“Envel–?”

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.

“N–”

“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.”

“The chemicals?”

“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.

Tide stiffened.

Y sniggered.

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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The Death and Romancing of Marley Craw – Chpt. 1

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Chapter 1: Not Dead

All of this – this whole entire thing – is my cousin’s fault.

Blame him if you need someone to blame.

If that pompous little pimple hadn’t forgotten to pick me up from work, I wouldn’t have ended up down this torn-up, run-down, smells-like-dirty-foot alley in the first place.

Forgetful little scab.

Little.

Little is relative, really. Milo’s actually two years older than me. The only nineteen-year-old still waiting for a growth spurt. A spurt, I’m guessing, that’ll never come. Scrawny limbs to match a scrawny brain, too many nights cooped up in the basement playing DotA, not enough nutrients – if you ask me, excessive hermitude’s to blame.

Blame.

There’s that word again.

Blame. Blame. Fault.

Maybe this isn’t Milo’s fault, after all . . .

Okay, if it isn’t Milo’s fault, then the fault definitely falls on Howard – Howie ‘The Mix’ O’Neil – who wouldn’t let me leave work until I’d listened to his most recent masterpiece. The whole. Damn. Thing. Now there’s a good chunk of time I’ll never get back.

Speaking of which, masterpiece is relative, too. Layering one pop song on top of another isn’t any great feat when all the songs already sound the same.

Growl and hiss. If Howard hadn’t kept me, there’s no telling how things might’ve ended up differently.

There’s no telling.

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t Howard’s fault, either.

I’m a reasonable girl. Downright down-to-earth if you ask me. The only person I can really blame this on is myself. At any point in my seventeen years of existence I could have taken a self-defense class or two. I could have beefed up my arms a bit. Instead, I’m just wimpy old me, without the pipes to defend myself.

Not that I didn’t try.

I kicked at him, sure. Kicked him right in his downtown, too. It didn’t do much good, though. Before I knew what was happening, that creep was on top of me, and then . . .

And then what?

There was screaming. My screaming. But it was muffled by some nasty-tasting piece of fabric. A sock or a glove or a wad of towel. And then . . .

Well, I don’t really want to think about that.

And now, here I am, lying behind the old movie theater, with my arms tied over my head and a trickle of red leaking from my side.

Gross.

One thing is certain: I’m not dead.

Well, not yet anyway.

But the trickle of red is quickly starting to pool and my head feels light – like that one time I locked my knees in marching band. That time, I went down like a zebra on the Sahara. . . . Wait, do zebras live in the Sahara, even? Meh. Geography isn’t really my strong point.

Or would that be zoology?

Above me, the sun hides behind a foggy sky. I can still see its shape, but it’s smogged over by cloud. People don’t die this way. Not in the daytime anyway. This whole thing would be much more predictable if it were the dead of night. Yeah, I can see it now: Defenseless girl walks along a shady alley with nothing but a flickering streetlight overhead. Briskly, she scurries, stealing glances over her shoulder, when–

BABAM! A rapist strikes.

Rapist.

Let’s change the subject, shall we?

Sigh. I wonder what’s going to happen to me now. I can’t foresee anyone walking by, and when I try to move, the trickle of red turns into a stream. So what, I’m just supposed to lie here and wait for THE END? Well, that’s just great! I’ve got things to do. I can’t be bothered with something like dying. Carmen and I were supposed to go to Robbie’s cabin this weekend, and then I was FINALLY going to let Noah Carmichael – who’s a little weird and has this unhealthy obsession with all things Russian but all-in-all’s pretty cute, I guess – kiss me!

Guess THAT won’t be happening.

Stupid Milo. Stupid Howard. Stupid rapist. 

Rapist.

Can’t say I’m fond of the word. But what else would you call him? Criminal? Jerkwad? Murderer would work too, I guess. And pervert.

Oooh! Got it! Pedophile. I won’t be eighteen till next month, after all.

Groan. None of those words make it any better. This is by far the worst, worst, worst way to go. Whoever finds me is in for a treat. Hello world, take a look at my . . . well, all of me.

Everything’s getting fuzzier. Colder. Distanter. Distanter? More distant, I mean. Eh, who am I kidding? I’m not so great with grammar, either.

Fuzzy. Cold. Distant. Numb. Drifty. Red.

No, I’m definitely not dead.

But I’m almost dead.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

“Marley?”

Through the fuzz, a voice says my name, but I can’t answer it. My mouth stopped working some time ago. So did my lungs.

“Marley Craw, right?” the voice says again.

Shoot! It’s a guy’s voice. Well, that’s humiliating. It means I’ve been seen – all of me’s been seen.

Don’t look. Please don’t look. I’m not normally this . . . exposed.

There’s the click of a pen, followed by the sound of scribbling. “Marley Craw,” says the voice. “Female. Human. Seventeen. Red hair . . .” The scribbling turns vigorous as the unknown person scratches out what he’s just written. “Fake red hair. Naturally a brunette.”

Well, he doesn’t need to say it like that! So sue me, I like dye.

“Green eyes. Wound to the abdomen. Scrapes on the arms and wrists. Discoloring on neck. Bruises at the inner thigh. But what really did her in is that gash on the back of the head.”

Gash.

Oh, excuse me; I didn’t realize I had a gash.

The scribbling carries on. “Morality is at a six. Charity is at a four. Seems like she’s right on the fence. Believes in God, but not particularly devout, so she doesn’t get a free ride.” The scribbling stops. “Marley Craw, can you hear me? Would you say you have love for your fellow man?”

That depends which fellow man.

I can’t say my answer, but he seems to hear it anyway.

“Heh.” The pen clicks. “All right, I’m going to assign you two different reapers, Marley Craw. We do that sometimes, when a soul isn’t leaning particularly one way or another. Two weeks should be enough to determine where you’re going. If we were under old law, you’d go straight to purgatory. Lucky for you, that place was closed up some two-thousand years ago. Expect your reapers later today. Here’s my card if you have any questions.”

Through the haziness, something flutters down from the sky and lands on my numb stomach.

“Beck Lemmings. That’s me. And beneath that’s my number. . . . Well, I expect you can’t see it right now, but take a look once you’re up, okay? Okay. All done here. Goodbye, Marley Craw.”

He’s . . . leaving? But I need help!

There’s nothing else. Not a single clickety pen click.

Fine then! Leave me here! See if I care!

Ugh.

Smell you later, Beck.

Reapers and purgatory and God. Who knows what the hell that was about? The guy could have at least helped me up. Or called an ambulance.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

Brrr. I’m cold.

So super insanely cold.

No . . . wait.

I’m not cold. I’m hot. I’m so hot that it feels cold! It feels like I just ran into a sauna after a dip in an icy lake! I did that one time, you know. It was at summer camp and . . . oh, what does it matter?

I’m deathly cold. I’m deathly hot.

And then I’m just fine, and I find I’m standing over the naked body of a dead girl with dyed red hair.

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Sil in a Dark World – Chpt. 1

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Chapter 1: A Daem’s Lament

Sil says I have a problem with authority.

I say Sil’s a twit.

Technically, I have a problem with certain authorities. But it isn’t my fault. Being the prince of the underworld comes with a smidgeon of baggage.

Authority, on the other hand, would disagree. He’d say I deserve whatever trouble I’ve encountered. He’d say it’s my comeuppance. My comeuppance? What a farse. I deserve nothing but the utmost respect. The utmost honor. A treatment first class in nature. A plush pillow beneath my royal –

“ARE YOU ALMOST DONE IN THERE, YOU LITTLE DEMON? Because some of us mortals have morning practice, you know! You better get outta there and let me brush my teeth or SO HELP ME!”

That charming voice belongs to Sil. She’s in love with me. She just doesn’t know it yet.

“For the last time,” I tell her, “I’m not a demon. I’m a daem. The two races are unequivocally different.”

“Whatevs,” she says through the squalid bathroom door, “I don’t care if you’re an elf or an imp or a fairy; your time’s up! I swear you’re worse than any woman!”

“Shut up, Sil.”

Yet Sil persists. “No matter how many times you mess up your hair it won’t make a difference! We all know you spend an hour to get it looking like you don’t give a hoot!”

I smile to myself. Not because I enjoy the insult, but because Sil is leaning against the door. I can sense it. And not based on sound or vision or experience, either. It’s simple, really. I can smell her. She smells like mint. A crisp, addictive scent. Delicious.

Very quietly, so as not to arouse her suspicion, I put my hand to the knob. The knob is different than the one on Sil’s bedroom door. They’re all different. Sil’s house is a ramshackle mess of mismatched doorknobs and unmade beds and uncompleted sets of things.

I reach to the sink and cover the sound of the turning knob with running water. Sil won’t see it coming. For her disrespect, she’ll be punished.

I let the knob click tiny-like. And then I pull. But what I want to occur doesn’t. Sil anticipates what I’m up to. She grounds her feet and pushes the door from the other side with all her girlish strength – and for a girl, she’s quite strong. The door barrels into me and I stumble backwards.

It doesn’t stop there. The tile of her bathroom floor is slippery. I fall on my ass.

Wonderful. Really suave on my part.

Sil doesn’t laugh. She simply looks smug. Why can’t she be more charming or civil or submissive? She’s that way with other people. But with me, she’s nothing but crass and imbecilic.

“Sorry,” she says. “Demonic trickery doesn’t work on me. Guess it’s not that hard to outsmart the powers of evil.”

“I am not a DEMON!”

This time the insinuation makes me angry. Angry enough that I want to grab whatever sharp thing I can find in her clutter of a room and stab her through her soft middle. But as mortals may die from something like that, I resist the urge.

Sil walks past blasé and begins to brush her teeth. And what flavor does the delightful girl use? Not mint. Not even bubblegum. Grape. Revolting. Who uses grape toothpaste? “Are you just going to sit there, demon boy?” she says with a mouthful of lathered spit.

“Attractive Sil. Really attractive.”

She spits and wipes her chin on the back of her hand. Vulgar. Of all the plum mortal women, why does it have to be her? Why is she the one to whom I’m shackled? For another month I’ll be forced with her twaddle. Piss.

She takes the dryer from the counter. A large piece of the cord’s plastic is missing, giving way to the wires beneath. I don’t think it’s very safe, but I say nothing. Maybe if I’m lucky she’ll electrocute herself.

When Sil turns on the contraption, however, any ill wishes I have for her are blown away with the heated blast of air as it moves past her neck, for it pushes the scent of mint directly into my face. I greedily take in a breath of the stuff. Intoxicating. The scent of her is better than anything.

I can’t help myself. I move to the space behind where she stands.

“What do you want, lurkey?” she says. She sees me in the mirror, though I don’t know how – The damn thing is smudged and dirty enough to blur any images shown.

“We only have a month left, Sil,” I tell her. “Don’t you think we should . . .?”

“What?” She switches the dryer off. “What do you want now? Can’t a girl get ready in peace, without a creepy demon lingering around?”

No matter how hard it may be, I ignore her insults. Were our situation different, I’d have offed her long ago. “Do you want to try again?” I say through teeth that are even tighter than my fists.

She stiffens. Good. I’ve made her nervous. At least I have a little power left. And her response to the proposition is a stammer. “N-no.”

Not very convincing. I’ll bet she wants to try again. All she needs is a soupçon of persuasion. “Come on, Sil. You know the deal. One month, so –” I take her wrist and hold it against the cracked counter, then lean into her, bringing my mouth close to the back of her neck. She shivers.

“So,” I say again. “Why don’t we try? Right here. Right now.”

But Sil is a stubborn girl. She sidles from my grasp.

“So that’s it then?” I ask her, dismayed and maddening.

“I don’t know what you expect to happen. This whole thing is unbelievable. Nothing’s going to change even if we do try again. Sorry, demon boy, but your horns are gone for good.”

She strikes a nerve.

My horns. I feel my hair where they used to be. Their absence is something I’m not yet entirely used to. Sometimes I forget and end up scratching at nothing. Those small pointed things, they’re what this all about. This situation. If I want to regain them I’ll have to follow the rules of the deal.

Sil walks to her bedroom and leaves a trail of mint. Watching her makes me reconsider. It’s more than just my horns, isn’t it? They’re important, true, but it’s also about authority. It’s about THE authority. The big one.

Authority says that I don’t know about altruism. Authority says that if I want to become a ruler I must first experience something sacrificial. And the greatest sacrifice, I’m told, has something to do with love. For that reason the high authority, my adoring father, King of Dhiant, has seen to it that I’m exiled to this place, to the world of mortals, and pegged me with the least affectionate girl imaginable.

Affectionate or not, I must make her love me by the end of the month. No, that’s not all. WE have to ‘fall’ for each other by the end of the month. Whatever that means. The only thing I know for certain is that if I don’t follow the rules of the deal, I’ll lose everything.

A penchant for deals. I suppose we have something in common with the demons after all.

Sil is putting on a sweatshirt. It’s the same one she wore yesterday. I shake my head and begin to dig through the mire that is her bedroom floor until I find a blue one I haven’t seen her wear before. “Here,” I tell her. “This smells decent enough.”

Sil checks just to be sure. Finding no offense, she shrugs and changes into it. How she can live that way is beyond me. But then again, I live that way too now, don’t I? There’s no helping it.

“Ready, little demon?” She picks up a plaid rucksack formerly strewn over the back of a chair.

Little? Hardly. SHE is the little one. With a small frame and a small mouth. A black ponytail that swings when she walks. Skin that is tan. Arms that are toned. She’s average. Beneath the interior lights anyway. And she remains as such all the way to the front door, whose knob is as different as all the other ones – a brass bobbin.

But when we reach the outside, Miss Average undergoes a transformation. Today is sunny. And because it is sunny, we are about to experience the magic of the mortal world at its best. The sun hits Sil the way it always does and her eyes become a transfixing sunlit blue. Electric, crystalline blue. A quality that redeems. Under the influence of the sun, Sil is . . .

Sexy. Really, really sexy.

“What?” The sexy girl wipes at the corner of her mouth. “Toothpaste?”

I shake my head and try not to stare. I can’t let her know what I’m thinking. It’ll only give her an advantage.

We begin to walk. The air is cool. By afternoon, the earth of the ground will warm, but for now, it’s cool. It isn’t unpleasant, though. It’s just different. It’s always hot in Dhiant. Unless it snows. Only then is it tepid. This world is different. With a sky that’s changing and a horizon that’s clear, this world itself isn’t better or worse than Dhiant. Just different. It’s the mortals that make it unbearable.

We continue to walk, and as we round a corner, the sun shifts to our backs. Sil reverts to normal. The magic is lost, though the mint smell remains.

Were I to kill her, I’d leave her body in the sun where it would glow forever. But in the mortal world, dead things stay dead, and killing her would have adverse effects. What other way is there to preserve her beauty but death?

It’s thoughts like those that remind me of the morbidity of my nature.

We walk along the potholed road. Uneven. Rough. It makes scraping noises beneath Sil’s shoes. She drags her feet. She always does unless pursuing some end she sees significant.

Other than the noise of her laziness, it’s quiet between us.

“What do you think of me, Sil?”

I don’t know why I want to know. Suppose I’m bored. Or maybe the fact that time continues to move has put me on edge. Maybe I’m worried that we won’t make it before the end of the month.

“Hah?” Her tone is skeptical. “What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious? What do I look like to you?”

“Besides a demon?”

“Demons are vile, Sil. I told you, I’m a daem.” But I won’t let her distract me from the question. “What do you see when you look at me?” I ask.

She doesn’t give it any thought. “A pale, sun-deprived transfer student?” she says. “Someone who cares about his appearance way too much?”

“The only reason you say that is because you don’t care at all.” Groan. “I mean specific physical traits, Sil.”

She squints at me. “Hm. You don’t quite match. Your hair’s like a bar of chocolate, but your eyes are black like those gross black jelly beans. I dunno.”

Candy references? Of course she’d use something like that. But that isn’t what I meant. I want to know if she’s starting to feel attracted to me, but it doesn’t seem that way. Frustrating.

I sigh. “My eyes are actually red, Sil.”

“Look black to me.”

Mortals.

We reach the school before most others. Sil’s morning practice makes it so that we have to. The school is an old school, in the way that the town is an old town. Count’s Fieldbo. It was the scene of a great battle during the Samel Reign. Not that any of the Earth dwellers are aware of it. The school is the shape of a box, five stories high on a corner lot. In a town as small as Count’s Fieldbo, all students are housed together. Two classes of each level. We belong on the top floor. They call us ‘juniors’.

The title is insulting. There’s nothing junior about me. Sil on the other hand . . .

“See you inside.” Unusually cordial, Sil waves to me and trots to the fields across the street from the school. Conditioning drills with her volleyball team. The reason for her toned arms and small frame.

There she goes. My ticket to the glories entitled me. More importantly, my ticket home. She jogs across First Main without a second thought.

On impulse, I call after her. “Sil! Stop!”

She stops in the middle of the street but is in no danger. The road is clear.

I meet her where she stands. “Before you go, Sil, we’re going to try again. Just one more time.”

Her mouth begins to stammer once more. “N-no, demon. I told you it won’t change anything.”

But I grab her around the wrist. She will try again. Right now.

I tuck some loose hair behind her ear and bring my lips close to her lobe. “Do it,” I whisper. My mouth is close enough to her ear to feel the warmth, the aura, surrounding her body. The minty smell is strongest when I’m within that field of her energy.

“I have practice,” she says meekly. She’s shaking a little. I can feel it in the palm of my hand. Her eyes have found a place to hide in a bush beyond my shoulder. I won’t let them run. I spin her body to face her towards the sun. Magic happens. Her dim eyes brighten. A dark islanded pupil surrounded by a sea of blue ice.

I’m caught off guard. I swallow it down. It’s just a reflex. That’s all. Not like it’s anything deeper than that.

In the middle of the road we stand, in a town that’s near dead. She and I stand and wait for something to happen. A sign of affection from either of us.

“Try it,” I say. “I won’t let you go until you do.”

She could very well pull away, but she doesn’t. I don’t know why. I never know what she’s thinking. “Fine,” she says. “But not here.”

“Then where?”

She is annoyed. “I dunno! How about . . .” She looks to the fields. “Over there?”

It seems like as fine a place as any, so I agree. Dropping her hand, I let her lead the way. The first field is masked by a line of trees that have yellowed leaves, and a stout brick building. Sil moves through the trees and to the other side of the structure. So that’s it. She wants to make sure none of her teammates see.

Stupid. It would do her reputation some good for them to see her alone with a guy!

Sil stops beside the building and scans the surrounding area before dropping her bag. “Okay,” she mumbles. “But we have to make this quick, demon boy. I can’t be late again.”

Always in a hurry. But that’s to be expected. With so little time on their hands, mortals have no choice but to rush.

“What do I have to do again?” she says, looking to the ground.

Timid girl. She knows what she has to do, yet she asks every time. I smirk to myself. She stalls because she is nervous. That’s acceptable. I can work with nervous.

I take her shoulder and gently push her against the wall of the brick building. Scowling, she resists, but it isn’t because she plans to weasel away again. She’s merely letting me know she won’t willingly become submissive.

We are shaded at the moment, but even if I can’t see her sexy eyes, it’s enough if she does her part. I hold her to the wall and capture her gaze. The rules say we have to maintain eye contact. “Okay, Sil,” I say. “Go ahead.”

Her scowl deepens. “You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.

“Likewise. Now do it.”

With her hand still trembling, she grabs the bottom of my shirt. Her fingers are in a clutch. Her teeth are clenched. Her brow is cross. Then she slowly releases the grip of death and slides her hand beneath my shirt, upwards along my abdomen and to my chest.

“Ah! Hands of ice!” I can’t hold back. Her touch is frigid.

For the first time Sil’s scowl falls. “Heh. Heh. Heh.” She laughs like an old man. Her eyes become satisfied slits. “Mmm. Nice and warm,” she says, and cruelly flattens her full cold palm against the center of my lungs.

“J-just get it over with, would you!? And buy yourself some blasted mittens!”

“Why?” She shrugs. “I already have several pairs.”

Right. Probably buried in that slop of a house. I roll my eyes. “I’ll help you look when we get home.”

“Home?” Sil shows surprise. “You’re calling it that now?”

Oh. It was a slip of the tongue. “Never mind. Just say what needs to be said already. Hell, I thought you were worried about being late.”

“Oh yeah,” she mutters absently.

Oh yeah she says. What a birdbrain.

Her hand is still chilled on my chest, but it’s warming. She’s borrowing some of my heat. When it reaches a degree warm enough, she begins to recite the lines,

“Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . .” She falters.

“Come on, Sil. Finish it.”

“But it’s so cheesy!”

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t make the rules.”

Her mouth turns pouting. “It’s also embarrassing, you know. Why don’t you have to say anything, demon boy?”

“Because my part comes after yours, and only if yours works.” I remove the hand holding her to the wall and use it to tip her chin upwards. “Don’t look away,” I tell her. “It won’t work if you look away.”

“It won’t work period,” she grumbles.

“Positive thoughts, Sil. Positive thoughts.”

“If I say it and it doesn’t work, you’ll let me go, right?”

“For the time being.”

With hand against the skin of my chest, she clears her throat and begins anew, “Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . . I . . .” She cringes. “L . . . love you . . .”

She stops there.

But that isn’t the end. My name. She has to say my name for it to work. I raise a brow expectantly.

“. . . Wayst,” she finishes, voice small.

There it is. Wayst. My name is Wayst.

Pushing against the hand on my chest, I bring my body to hers, my face to hers, and wait for the signal to begin my part. Our energies are mixed. Our scents are mixed. But the signal doesn’t come. Damn it all, it doesn’t come.

“Ugh! Piss!” I force her hand harder against my chest. “Why won’t it work?!”

She shoves me away. “Hm. I dunno. Maybe because it’s a big walloping LIE?”

Or maybe she isn’t doing it correctly. She isn’t trying hard enough. “Stupid human,” I growl. “Why can’t you just be cooperative?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means why can’t you just admit that you love me?”

“Because I don’t! Obviously!”

I reach for my nonexistent horns. “Well, why the hell not?”

“Seriously?!” She looks at me as though I’m dense. “You’re kinda stupid. Have you ever even been in love?”

I don’t get it.

“I’ve loved plenty of women, Sil. I’m good at it. I don’t get why you won’t let me love you.”

“Look, demon boy. I don’t know how things are in Hell or wherever, but loving someone and ur, having . . . making love with someone are two completely different things.”

So she keeps saying.

“That makes NO sense,” I tell her. “And I’m not from Hell. I’m from Dhiant.”

But Sil isn’t listening. With a stern forehead she takes up her rucksack. “I don’t have time for this, demon. I’m already way late. WHY I let you talk me into this remains a mystery.”

While I stand and fume, she turns on heel and trots away to the fields. Damned spry thing. Like a brawny little rabbit. It pisses me off. I bang my head against the brick of the stout building and slide into a slumping position. Two weeks I’ve been in this place, and no progress has been made. Nothing has changed.

Well, one thing has changed.

The trees are dying for the year. I can see them from where I slump, yellowing, separating the fields from the street. I’ve even seen some around Sil’s house that are painted cranberry and amber. And the mortals find them beautiful. Even they see the appeal of watching something wither. I can appreciate that outlook. After all, I’ve contemplated killing Sil many times before.

I wonder if I’ll kill her before the month is through.

><

“There you are, demon boy. I was beginning to think you’d returned to Hell.” I find Sil waiting for me at the door to the classroom. “Suppose it was foolish to think I’d be so lucky, though,” she adds.

Ugh. Her hair is all sweaty. What was the point of fixing it? There’s nothing to be done but to wrinkle my nose at her. Taking the hint, she lifts her arm and blatantly sniffs her pit. “What? Do I stink?”

“No, you still smell like . . .” Mint. But that’s my little secret, so I correct with, “You smell decent. You just look sort of rank, that’s all.”

“Meh. No biggie.”

The bell rings and we take our seats. I’m in the back corner, near the window. Sil’s on the opposite side of the room. She sits with two of the girls from her team. Both are tall. One is fat. Porked up on cow’s milk, no doubt. Mortals drink so much damned milk. Sucking the juice out of creature with horns seems a bit barbaric to me. Then again, I’ve always been a sympathizer for things with horns.

I watch the two girls interact with Sil. Sil is bright and cheerful and strange. The side of her personality she never shares with me. Watching her is entertaining, but it’s also dangerous. Sil’s ‘appropriate behavior’ receptors are broken. I’ve only been here for two weeks and I already know they are. In the midst of interacting with others, she usually begins to dance or coo or sing or squawk, and I have to look away.

What a humiliating person.

Today, though, Sil isn’t too bad. She’s reacting something from her earlier practice with a conduct that’s milder than usual. Ah. I speak too soon. At the peak of the story she puffs out her cheeks, places her hands above her head, and begins wiggling her fingers, resembling some sort of bloated moose. Her friends burst out laughing. The fat girl can’t contain what I can only assume is brimming jolliness, so she doubles forward and slaps her knee.

Sil has a way with people. People that aren’t me.

“Staring at Sil again, are you?”

The copper-haired tick behind me has taken an unusual interest in my relationship with Sil. I don’t know his name. I’ve made it a point not to become acquainted with any of them. I say nothing. The teacher’s started going over the week’s mod schedule. Those of us taking Chemistry are to report to senior classroom two.

“Come on, Tran,” the tick coaxes. “Share your findings, man.”

Tran. Because I’ve made it a point not to socialize, the natives have coined me with the name ‘Tran’. Short for transfer student. Oh, the cleverness of humans.

I put an elbow over the back of my chair and convey my displeasure at being bothered. “What findings?” I say.

“We all know you’re staying with her. What’s she like at home? The same way she is here?”

“For the most part.” I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but my small patience is shriveling into something nonexistent. “What’s your point?”

“You’re part of an exchange program, right?” the tick persists. “And ever since you got here, you’re always staring at her. Have you two . . .?”

“What?” My dryness is at full force.

“Are you gonna try to crack her?”

“Her skull?” I say the first thing that comes to mind.

“What? Dude! No.”

Oops. I’ve said something inhumane. Luckily, the tick takes it as a jest.

“Eh-heh.” He laughs uneasily. “Anyway, Sil’s the most oblivious girl in Count’s. Poor Keek’s been her best friend for years, and even he says it’s hopeless. I was thinking you with your suave, out-of-towner charm you might be able to woo her or something. Is that your endgame?”

Hm. Surprisingly accurate for a tick.

I’m finished speaking with him, though, so I stop there and turn to face front. The teacher’s written some undistinguishable scrawl on the whiteboard. I pretend to copy it into a notebook.

“Psst.” But before I know it, the tick is at it again.

“What?” I hiss, not amused.

“Best of luck to you, man. Never once has Sil Tenor shown any interest in guys or chicks. If you figure out her fancy, be sure to share the wealth. I’ll make sure it doesn’t go unrewarded.”

But there is no reward he can offer that I’d have even the slightest interest in, so I don’t give him an answer one way or the other.

The teacher’s tosh continues to fill the whiteboard. Everything remains the way it was. Out of boredom I let my eyes travel to Sil. She looks to be paying attention, but I know better. I’ve seen her notebooks. Nothing but doodles and the like. She’s probably busy scribbling a deformed version of the instructor complete with bulbous neck growth or billowing shoulder pads or both.

Disobedient girl.

But while I’m right about my mark’s disobedience, it turns out I’ve misjudged her intent. When she looks up from her notebook, pencil in hand, she doesn’t look to Señior Tosh for artistic stimulus. Instead, the person her dimmed eyes drift to is . . .

Wait, is she drawing me?

What the –?

To make matters worse, the twit flashes an evil smile before returning to her work.

I don’t know why, but it’s imperative that I see that doodle.

I might end up killing her before the month is through.

But not before I see that doodle.

And not before we try again.

We’ll try again and again, and only then might I kill her.

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