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Zillow Stone and the Unholy One – Chpt. 1 & 2

Chapter 1: Two Flowers

There was a story my grandfather told me once.

On the edge of a desert, one flower bloomed, with petals of pink and a stalk of green. Far, far away, on the opposite side of the desert, another flower bloomed. Its stalk was gray, its petals black as inky night. The two flowers never knew of each other, and the desert liked it that way. It kept them separate for many, many years, until one day, when a great sandstorm arose. The winds tore a petal from the pink flower and flung it across the stretch of sand, reeling and whirling, and when things were settled again, the pink petal drifted from the sky, landing in front of the black flower. The black flower saw the beauty of the pink flower it had never met and it lusted.

“You are like that pink flower, Zillow,” my grandfather told me. “And one day, the black rose will come for you.”

. . .

“What are you thinking about, Zill?” The girl in the pew next to me had sharp eyes and a small mouth that was usually chewing itself. Karán – she didn’t have time for impractical thinking, and her stare often fell disapprovingly on anyone that did. For now, her stare was set on me.

I looked to the hymnal in my hand, pretending to be interested in the chorus the rest of the room was singing. “I turn twenty in less than four hours,” I said.

“That again?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Karán’s mouth begin to chew.

Yes, that.

“It won’t do any good to worry about it, Zill. You don’t know you’re going to be one of them. It could be Cadence or Laurelia or Pon. It could be any one of those girls. They aren’t twenty yet either.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ear and allowed her stare to linger over me.

She was attempting to be nice. That, or she was in denial.

“No one in our class has been marked in over two months,” I countered, eyes deep again in the hymnal. “Everyone thinks it’s going to be me.” Only four more hours until I’d know for sure. After that, I’d be free and clear, just like Karán. Otherwise, I’d be . . .

“Enough, Zill. Even if it is you, you’ll be fine. You’re fast, maybe even the fastest. You’ll never let him catch you.”

That was what everyone said about Othello too, and now she was dead.

Maybe coming to the same conclusion, Karán fell silent. Meanwhile, all through the chapel, the singing of my classmates rose. It wasn’t a pretty sound. It erred on the side of ugly. A hundred bad singers and five good ones made for an awful clamor. I kept my mouth closed tight. I wouldn’t join in, not today. I’d join in tomorrow, if I were still here, in celebration of making it through the day unmarked.

But just in case, my pack was already loaded, my rations readied, and my weapon cleaned. If the black rose came for me, I’d be ready. No, that was a lie. I could never be ready, not really.

Around me, the bad singing of my peers swelled.

Chapter 2: The Marking 

In Eastern City, the metropolis of wind and rain, twentieth birthdays weren’t celebrated or even spoken of. Twenty-first birthdays, on the other hand, were a grand affair because they meant that the marking had skipped someone, or that that person had been one of the lucky few to survive it.

In that way, no one talked about the fact that it was my twentieth birthday, though they all knew. All day, their glances had slipped over, slowly, as if to say, ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me, Zillow Stone.’ True, there were a few like Karán, with whom I’d bonded enough to call friends, that tried to make light of my situation, but really, none of us were friends, not truly. Not until after our twentieth birthdays was it safe to become attached to anyone or anything. We’d all seen too many marked ones disappear. We’d all made the mistake of growing close to someone that never returned, and so eventually, we learned to become cold to one another. The twentieth year was something we all looked to with expectation, wondering always if we’d be one of them; constantly honing our skills, afraid we’d have to use them.

“Are you listening, Miss Stone?”

From the front of the classroom, the nosy priest frowned at me. His skin was as wrinkled as his disposition. No, I wasn’t ‘listening.’ I was watching the clock on the wall, as it ticked closer and closer to my twentieth year.

“Yes, Father. I’m listening,” I lied.

The priest stroked his wrinkled chin. “If that’s true, then which of the collapses was I lecturing on?”

I didn’t know. Of course I wouldn’t. No sane person would be able to concentrate with that ominous ticking coming from the top of the wall; and while I stared blankly ahead, on the verge of reprimand–

The sixth,” a small voice from behind me whispered.

“The sixth,” I repeated. “The collapse of Southwestern City.”

The priest looked at me shrewdly a moment before returning to the screen stretched across the wall. I had Karán to thank for the save. I shot a look of fake camaraderie over my shoulder as the priest busied himself with swiping the dates of the collapse into the air with his glove. The glove’s fingertips glowed blue, and the dates materialized onto the screen.

“Correct. After the fall of Southwestern City, that left only Southern City, Western City, and our own Eastern City. It was then that we formed an alliance with Southern City to . . .”

Tick. Tick.

With that clock going on that way, my thoughts drifted.

Southern City, metropolis of field and flower – sure, we’d formed an alliance with them, but it hadn’t done any good. They’d been wiped out like the rest. Now, we were alone in this world, alone with them; two great capitals, one east, one west, separated by only a lonely stretch of wasteland. Across the sands and ruins, they waited – the unholy ones.

And we were in their debt.

They had access to the generator, they shared their power with us, and even though we were vulnerable, they refrained from attacking us all at once. That was why the Director allowed the markings to continue – because we didn’t have much of a choice. Besides, our city was overcrowded as it was. No one minded the disappearance of a few University students every now and then if it meant keeping the peace.

Tick. Tick.

In an effort to block out the ticking, I turned to the window.

Through the yellowed glass, I saw the other tower, identical to ours, where the boys were being lectured in a class similar to our own, no doubt by a nun with a sour face. University policy stated that we were to remain separate from them until our markings had passed. Why? Because love was even more gripping than friendship, or so I’d heard. It was for our own protection, or so they’d said.

We’d played with the boys when we were children, before entering the University, but they were different now, taller and leaner. I’d seen them around the city. I’d exchanged glances with the ones I used to know; not that I could exchange much else. If anyone saw an under-aged girl chatting them up, there’d be hell to pay.

Karán had made it through her twentieth birthday without being marked, so she and some of the others were allowed now to meet with the boys that had also passed their twentieth years unmarked. Would I join them soon? Or would I . . .?

Tick. Tick.

It was getting closer. It was almost here. I knew it. Everyone knew it, and yet, no one acknowledged it. Only the clock on the wall dared to speak of time’s forward movement.

How much longer now? I wondered. Ten minutes? Five? I refused to look, as though looking would be signaling my consent.

Tick. Ti–

“No.”

I heard Karán’s breathless protest before I saw the door handle turn. The priest’s endless babble ended, and a quiet disquiet fell over the room; and I, very slowly, turned my neck to see the door push open. The sound of my throat swallowing drowned out everything else for but a moment before the hushes of the class began. Whispers and utters and mutters flurried around the room, all aroused by a shape in the doorway. A person stood in the shadows of the hall, and at the sight of him, my chest began to thud louder than it ever had before.

From the front of the room, the priest cleared his throat loudly – a warning for the rest to become silent.

I waited in my seat, as I’d been instructed to do, as so many had before me. I supposed I was lucky that my time of birth wasn’t in the middle of the night. There was nothing more terrifying than the thought of being snatched away in the dark.

The person in the shadows strode into the room with a few determined steps. The fidgeting of chair movement followed. Again, the priest cleared his throat. But even if I wanted to disobey and fidget to my heart’s content, I couldn’t. I was stuck, transfixed on the person who had come for me.

He was a boy of average height and strong build, with hair like fire and eyes like ice. Scarlet hair and an icy blue gaze – I’d never seen anything like it. The boy was striking. His eyes were striking. Penetrating, they peered around the room before settling on me. He was dressed in the same uniform all Markers wore, an unassuming black jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up. His skin had a vibrant glow, like one who spends much time outdoors under the sun. His mouth was flat, held in a serious position, and below his eyes, small tattoos jutted outwards – three pointed triangles under each. All of the Western City Markers had those. They were made to look like the sun’s rays, or so I’d heard.

Sights firmly set on me, the boy approached. Still, I didn’t fidget. I couldn’t, and I did my best to make my gaze as strong as his. I’d let him know right away that I wasn’t an easy mark. Karán was right. I was fast, maybe even the fastest, and I’d trained diligently. I wouldn’t give up without a fight. I’d be one of the lucky few who returned.

Expression emotionless, the boy moved through the desks, past Cadence and Laurelia and Pon, all of whom had yet to reach their twentieth year. Their fear dripped off of them, almost detectable, but I was different. Not knowing whether or not I’d be marked was the worst part. Waiting had been the worst part, and now that I knew for sure, I felt a certain settling deep down in my core. This was going to happen, and the sooner I accepted it, the better off I’d be.

Gaze intense, the boy came right up to the edge of my chair. I looked up at him without fear. No, that was a lie. There was still some fear, but it was masked by something else.

I narrowed my eyes. His remained the same, though his mouth turned downward slightly in the corner.

You won’t beat me, I thought. You just won’t.

As if to hear me, the boy’s mouth turned upward at the corner this time, into a grin that looked amused.

I narrowed my eyes further and set my jaw tight. You won’t, I thought. I won’t let you.

Fully grinning now, maybe even sneering, the boy tipped his head to the side. “Zillow Stone?” he said.

My Marker,” I replied, through my teeth. I was required to say it, but no one ever said I had to hide my disdain while doing so.

“Hm.” The boy made an amused sound through his lips. “Give me your hand.”

I realized my palm was sweating only after it met his, which was dry by comparison. Was sweat a sign of weakness? If it was, the boy didn’t react. He held my palm in his hand and fished around in his pocket with his opposite fingers, taking out a thick silver pen. It wasn’t an ordinary pen. I’d seen similar ones come through the door many times. I watched as he slid his thumb into an indent in the pen’s side. The indent reacted by glowing yellow. With my hand resting limply in his, the Marker raised the lit pen into the air and plunged it straight down into the back of my hand. Though I held back as much as I could, my mouth let out a small whimper, one I immediately regretted.

The boy did nothing but watch and wait for the pen’s indent to turn green, at which point he slid the tip from my skin, covering the puncture with his thumb. I wanted to rip my hand away, to grab my backpack and pelt him on the side of the head with it, but I couldn’t. The rules were very clear.

Beneath the boy’s thumb, my blood bubbled in reaction to the implant. Hot stinging moved through my flesh for a helping of seconds before subsiding. The boy felt it too, for when it was done, he removed his thumb and inspected my hand. Beneath my skin was a green glow, roughly the size of a coin.

It was done.

Their people were born with extreme lust for ours, and just as my grandfather had warned all those years ago, one of them had come for me.

I, Zillow Stone, had been marked by an unholy one.

While I digested the truth of it, the boy leaned over, placing his lips nearly to my ear, and whispered, “Run.”

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The World Remains – Chpt. 1

WorldReamins

Chapter 1: Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge

Dear G–

‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.

Do I belong?

I used to think so.

Until I found out what I really was.

That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’

On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.

Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.

The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.

If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.

Damn.

There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.

‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.

But all of that would change.

It was already beginning to change . . .’

There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.

But it was worth it!

So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.

Cherished? Blegh.

Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.

“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”

Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.

Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.

“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.

Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,

“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”

I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.

Everyone was equal.

I was equal to the three other students in my class.

I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.

“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”

Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.

“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.

Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”

I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.

Now things were . . .

“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”

Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.

The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.

The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.

But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”

Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.

“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.

Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.

The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.

“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”

I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.

But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.

Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.

The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.

“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”

“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.

The way he was chewing his lip . . .

What the heck!?

“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”

Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”

“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.

Kinamo’s nose flared.

Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”

‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’

I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.

With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.

The video! It was–!

I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.

“W-who?” stuttered Lale.

“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.

Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.

The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.

What was wrong with them?!

I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.

“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”

“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”

Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?

Hah!

But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.

Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.

“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”

Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”

It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.

“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.

“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”

Shocking.

“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.

That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.

There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”

Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.

My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!

But only until–

“This footage was taken last year.”

–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.

“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.

Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.

“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”

He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?

It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.

“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”

I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?

“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”

“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”

Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”

The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.

Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”

Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”

Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.

Whatever that meant.

Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”

“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.

“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”

“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.

“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”

“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”

“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”

But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:

More than anything, we were caged.

‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.

At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’

“Olté!”

The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.

Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.

There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.

“Olté!”

I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.

“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”

“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!

“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”

“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”

“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.

“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”

“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”

“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”

“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”

I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.

“Olté.”

I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.

He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.

Nothing. “It’s nothing.”

But it was something.

I was thinking about IT again – the tally.

There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.

At least, according to that stupid tally.

But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.

There were ninety-ONE.

But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.

“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.

“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”

“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.

“Never mind.”

“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”

I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”

“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.

I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”

“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.

I gaped at him. “Finally?”

“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”

The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .

It set me off.

“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.

Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”

I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”

He nodded.

“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”

He nodded again.

“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–

“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”

“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .

“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”

True story.

Not that I’d admit it.

“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.

“What? No!”

He folded his arms. “Why not?”

Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.

He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”

I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.

“Just look.”

“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.

“I know. I know.”

I was mad. I was very, very mad.

Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.

I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:

“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”

Olté nodded.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.

Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.

“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”

He glowered.

“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.

“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”

I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”

He grinned.

Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”

“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”

“Irrational?”

“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”

I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.

I chewed my lip. He was studying me.

“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.

“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.

“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”

It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.

“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”

“It?”

“You know.” I pointed.

“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.

But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.

“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.

“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”

I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”

I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”

He frowned.

“YES?” I said again.

“Fine.”

I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.

“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.

Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”

“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”

But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.

“Easy, spazoid!”

“I can’t help it.”

“You get worked up about the strangest things.”

He was stalling. I urged him along.

“WELL?”

“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.

“Open it,” I ordered.

He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.

“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.

“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”

It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”

“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.

I gasped.

It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–

“Olté! It’s–!”

“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.

“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”

The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.

“Ash?” He gulped.

“Hm?”

“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.

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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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