Falling had been as fun as landing wasn’t.
The pull of the wind on her hair, the roar in her ears, the strange floatiness in her stomach – she’d always thought skydiving was insane, but for the first time she started to understand the appeal. Even the ground rushing rapidly towards her was thrilling, somehow – even as she screamed her throat raw.
Then, after what felt like an eternity and an instant simultaneously, she hit the hard concrete of the roof, and mercifully blacked out.
Zarah came to slowly, every part of her body screaming in pain, her vision blurry and out of focus. She was propped awkwardly up against something, her neck twisted in a way that didn’t feel natural or safe, one arm draped awkwardly over her head and the other splayed out in front of her, fingers still clenched tightly around the hammer. At first, she thought that it was glowing through her hand, but the patches of red were actually where the bones had torn through the skin and exposed muscle.
“Thank you for your patronage of the Kihri Is Always Right Foundation!” a familiar voice crowed. “We hope you enjoyed your reminder of our core purpose.”
Kihri’s head rose out of the ground, bearing a smug grin. “So how long is it oh Saints holy shit, dude! You got fucked up!”
“<Wow,>” Zarah said hoarsely, “<it’s almost like jumping out a window is a bad idea or something.>”
“Spoken like a true square. Besides, why are you complaining? You’ll heal!” She paused and made a face. “Ooh, actually, there we go! Gotta admit, seeing bones slide back into place is a new one, even for me.”
Zarah resisted the impulse to look, but she could still feel it – a powerful, bone-deep itch as muscles and nerves knitted themselves back together, just in time to let her feel the uniquely awful sensation of bones moving underneath them. She caught the bile rising in her throat just in time and squashed it down, then closed her eyes and let her head flop back down.
“Uh, Z-dog? You okay there? Don’t tell me you fainted from that, that’s not even the worst injury you’ve had today.”
“I am waking,” she grumbled. “No point in moving until it all heals, and I do not want to watch it.”
Kihri let out a long, drawn-out groan. “You’re so fucking boring, oh my god. You’re really gonna let a few horrifically, grisly, unbelievably lethal injuries get you down?”
“…you are one to talk.”
Kihri let out an ugly snort. “Fucking okay then! Fair point!”
“…I am sorry, that was inappopriate.”
“Fuck, come on, man! Don’t roll it back when you get a sick burn in! Relish that shit!”
“You know that not everyone enjoys being a dick hole, yes? Just you.”
Kihri was silent for a second. “…urethra,” she said, sulking.
“…the dick hole. It’s called the urethra.”
A cacophony of sirens and flashing lights greeted them when they emerged back onto the street, having used the building’s fire stairs to circumvent the occupied areas. Emergency service vehicles were clustered around the entrance to the Aruspex building, officers and firefighters and EMTs (although the latter didn’t seem to have anything to do).
Behind a cordon, the building’s employees clustered in a confused, bored mass, most of them on their phones.
Zarah wasn’t sure why the firefighters or EMTs had been called, but surely soon they’d realise there was no actual fire or any danger, and-
There was a flash of bright light, followed instantly by a deafening boom and the crack of shattering glass. Above the entrance, all of the windows of one floor of the building had been blown outwards by an explosion, a thick cloud of smoke and dust billowing outwards.
“▓▓▓▓▓▓▓!” Zarah glanced over, and realised Kihri was yelling something, gesticulating wildly, but she couldn’t make out the words over the muffled ringing in her ears. She got the basic idea of ‘move backwards’, though, and she stepped back into the fire escape, making a ‘what?’ gesture at her sister.
Her question was answered an instant later, as tiny fragments of glass began to plink down onto the concrete, faster and faster until it almost looked like rain. She could see the emergency workers beginning to panic, ducking for cover as blood began to splatter on the ground.
The shower only lasted a few seconds, but it was more than enough to thoroughly disrupt and distract the authorities, the previously-idle EMTs suddenly having to rush to the aids of the other services, and to more than a few of their own.
As it turned out, that was apparently the point. Because, out of view of the entrance but not to Zarah, a small side door opened, and the stranger stepped out, followed by their hound. Instantly, uncannily, their head snapped around, staring straight at Zarah, and slowly raised their arm, pointing two fingers at her.
“A thought occurs,” Kihri said later, as Zarah panted, bent over double on the seat and still recovering. “I mean, I had it ages ago but you weren’t listening then.”
Initially, it had been a close thing. Zarah had immediately taken off, counting on the street full of police to slow them down, but the hound hadn’t been deterred by that in the slightest.
It was faster than her, to boot, and its constant attacks had nearly allowed the stranger to catch up, until Zarah managed to land a solid kick and send it flying away. And from there, it was no contest. They might have had magic, but no-one knew how to disappear in a city better than a street rat.
After a few extra minutes of ducking through alleys and shopfronts, to make sure they were clear, they’d finally stopped at train station, and, after checking that a particular security camera was still broken, had slipped inside a stall in the bathrooms to recover.
“<In my defense,>” Zarah said hoarsely, “<I was a little busy.>”
“Excuses, excuses. Seriously, though, I’m wondering something. That pissy little hornet presumably had those explosives on them the entire time, right? And they didn’t use them, or even try to?”
“So either they forgot about it – which, no – or… they knew it wouldn’t be effective.”
It took a second for the words to sink in. “Are you saying…”
“I mean,” Kihri shrugged, “nothing’s killed you yet? Maybe that’s indicative of something.”
“That is not- That cannot-” She found herself tightening her grip, knuckles white. “That is ridiculous. This thing, it would- we would know about it! Everyone would know about it!”
“Okay,” Kihri acknowledged, “maybe, like, ‘immortal’ is a stretch, but one: literally every part of this is a stretch, and two: there’s apparently a whole bunch of shit that we don’t know about, that nobody knows about, nobody here anyway.” She paused, mouth hanging slightly open as she thought. “Actually, maybe that’s something. The tentacle guy, he had an accent, right?”
“I… think yes?”
“Right, and I’d put good money on the pintsize back there being a Suncoaster of some kind. So out of the three people we know are involved in this freaky woo-woo, two of them aren’t from here, and ‘Metzin’ sounds like a Gaithien name to me. So maybe there’s some kind of… blockade? Censorship or suppression or whatever, keeping knowledge of – actually, you know what, fuck it, I’m just gonna say it – magic, hidden from Ostra.”
Zarah dragged a hand down her face. “Can you listen to yourself? You sound like a paranoid.”
“Yeah, and I’d also sound paranoid if I tried to explain literally anything else from the last two days. Who would believe you, if you tried to tell people about your dead sister who talks to you? Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
Zarah hated to admit it, but she wasn’t. “…the Kihri Is Always Right Foundation?” she asked instead.
“Established in 1022, for the express purpose of ensuring that the world would always know not to fucking step to me.”
“<March seventh, 1022, Kihri Vyas is born, and the world became just a little bit sadder.>”
“Oh fuck you,” Kihri replied, and Zarah flinched even though she knew it was joking. It had always been like that, even before Kihri had started insisting they speak this stupid, clumsy language, before…
Just before. Kihri had always been… not charming, exactly, the tendency to insult and belittle wasn’t new. But she’d always known how to make it not sting, to make people laugh when she called them names instead of making them angry. Zarah had the reverse talent, she’d supposed – she’d always had a knack for making people angry without saying anything offensive, and then when the tables had turned, the insults and jabs felt like hot needles under her skin that built and built until she couldn’t bear it anymore, and then Kihri would end up using that same talent to prevent it from ending in blows. Or, more often, to smooth things over after it already had.
“Hey, space cadet.” Zarah started, and realised she’d drifted off in thought. Kihri was perched over her, imitating the way she had both her legs off the ground and feet pressed against the door, except Kihri wasn’t sitting on anything, and her feet pressed against empty air. “You okay?
She nodded, not really feeling up to speech.
“Oh, good, I was worried I was gonna spend the rest of my unlife watching you daydream in a public shitter. Unless you have other plans, hint hint please leave the bathroom.”
Where now? Zarah had been avoiding thinking about, mostly because she was worried if she did she’d hit a dead end.
But, while she was still marshalling her thoughts, Kihri spoke again.
“…okay, that was a bit of a… creative mis-truth,” she said slowly. Almost… embarrassed? “I know what to do next, but I need you to-”
“Where?” Zarah hadn’t even realised she was speaking until the word was out, and then she was already on her feet, wrapping the hammer back up in the stained and torn shirt.
Kihri blinked, and for the brief moment before she settled back into her default calm smugness, a flash of a smile flickered across her face. “Why, my young pupil, we are going… to the library!”
“Okay,” Zarah said, flushing the toilet even though she hadn’t used it. “Why?”
“Oh come on- …wait, what did you say?”
“Okay,” she repeated. “Lead me.”
“You’re not going to… protest, or complain, or something?”
She shot her sister a confused glance. “No. Why would I?”
As it turned out, there was a very good reason.
Zarah had been distracted, keeping an eye out for the stranger, and so even though she would have ordinarily recognised the route, she hadn’t cottoned on until they rounded the corner and the building itself came into view.
She stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, cutting off Kihri’s idle chatter, and immediately turned and began walking in the opposite direction.
“Oh, come on!” her twin protested, swooping down to intercept her. “I thought you were cool!”
“That was before,” Zarah snapped back, “I knew you were meaning this library.”
“Wait, what? What other library would I be talking about?”
“There are many libraries!”
“That we visit? Like, ever?”
“We… we are doing that sometimes,” Zarah protested weakly.
“Oh yeah? Name one time.”
“That’s what I thought.” Kihri sighed, folding her arms. “Look, Z, I’m sorry, but you knew we were gonna have to come back here at some point.”
“Not while it is opening!”
“We were gonna have to try and do some research eventually, so yes while it’s open. Have your gay crisis another time, suck it up, and let’s go already. I need to use the good computer before Horny Greg gets in at 11.”
“That is not a real person.”
Kihri shuddered, a ripple running through her form like a stone dropped in a pond. “Saints, I wish. Trust me, you do not want to be proven wrong on this one. And don’t even get me started on Toenail Ronald.” Some of her exaggerated disgust dropped away. “Seriously, dude, this is important. Maybe. If it’s important it’s very important but I don’t know if it’s important yet but do you want to take the risk?”
It was Zarah’s turn to sigh. “Maybe she is not working today.”
She should have known better than to say it out loud.
Sure enough, the instant they walked in the door, the girl at the checkout desk turned to glance over, then broke out in a broad smile.
“Hey!” Esti exclaimed as she stood up, quickly tucking her chair underneath the desk and coming around to the front. “Haven’t seen you in a while, huh?”
Zarah nodded, suddenly paying a great deal of attention to the tips of her sneakers and the pattern of the machined rubber there.
“Oh, saints and stars,” Kihri groaned. “You useless fucking lesbian.”
The first time Zarah had ended up at the Station Lane Public Library, she’d been sixteen, and had just escaped her final foster home, though at the time she didn’t know that. She’d been there for almost a year, though, and while she hadn’t realised it until it was too late, having a roof over her head had robbed her of some of her edge. She’d nearly died that winter, another body preserved in a snow-drift with seasonally-inappropriate clothing and a bag filled to bursting with all of her life’s possessions. Nearly – except for Kihri, who would managed to navigate her to the nearest piece of public property, Station Lane, and for a volunteer library assistant named Estifania Adeline deSouza.
She’d been scraping off the outside steps when Zarah had staggered up, rhythmically running a metal pick along the concrete. The sound was still burned into Zarah’s head – it had been her lifeline in the last stretch, a tangible goal she could use to force herself to keep moving.
Of course, even when not panicking, she wasn’t exactly prone to wearing her heart on her sleeve, and so the moment had passed without remark or notice from Estifania. Not from Kihri, of course, but when did it ever? Her… saviour, she supposed, had continued to chatter on, and occasionally Zarah found herself contributing without entirely having meant to, skirting out the edges of her life in as close to open honesty as she was able to. And, to her surprise, the other girl didn’t express shock or pity, just sitting and listening, occasionally commenting but never treating her like she was damaged or fragile or skittish.
Zarah hadn’t fully realised how much that meant to her, until it was a few months later and she realised that she’d been visiting Station Lane at least once a week, and usually more, just to talk with Esti, as she told Zarah to call her. Or, to be talked at, mostly – her usual reticence returned quickly, but her new friend was more than happy to make up the deficit, talking at length about books she was reading, her studies and career hopes, or merely just the weather. It reminded Zarah of Kihri, but she found that it was endearing, rather than annoying as her sister so often was.
But in the last few months- no, she realised, longer than that. In more than half a year, she had only visited outside opening hours, to pick up or drop off her bags from the tool shed out back that Esti had given her the code to. She didn’t even have a good reason – well, she did at first, but then that was resolved, and she could’ve visited again, but then she’d have to explain why she hadn’t, and every time she delayed it just got harder and more pointless and became a bigger and bigger deal, and now…
“…sorry,” she said instead of trying to explain, cringing internally at how croaky and weak her voice came out. “There was been… some things.”
Esti bit her lip, but nodded. She was a little shorter than Zarah, about as dark-skinned but considerably ruddier, warm and sunny where she was cool and greyish, and was dressed in a simple skirt and sweater, a namebadge pinned to one side and a lanyard hanging from her neck.
Her glossy black hair was bound into a simple braid and draped over one shoulder, but unlike the last time Zarah had seen her, the sides of her head were shaved, and a bleach-blonde fringe fell down across her forehead. A pair of rectangular glasses, thick and black-rimmed, sat on a small button nose, and the wide hazel eyes behind them had thin clusters of wrinkles at the edges. That, combined with the attire, would have made her appear much older than she was – and had in the past, but the new hairstyle gave her a new spot of youthfulness, without sacrificing her… maturity.
Okay, Zarah, maybe don’t stand wandering down that path right now, yeah? Sometimes, she worried about how much her internal critic sounded like Kihri. “Have you-” she coughed, clearing her throat. “Have you been okay?”
Esti smiled, and Zarah immediately found a renewed interest in the pattern of the carpet. “Oh, I’ve been fine. Well, okay. Well, I’ve been getting by. You know how it is.”
She didn’t, but nodded anyway. “I- I’m glad.”
“Oh,” Kihri muttered, “now you care about your grammar.”
Zarah shot her an annoyed glance, realising a moment too late that Esti would have no idea what she was reacting too. She whipped her head back around, schooling her features, but to her relief, the other girl was looking back over her shoulder at the checkout desk.
“Listen,” she said, “I’m really sorry, but I have to work right now – we’re doing some inventory stuff. I’ll be getting off in about an hour, though, if you want to wait around?”
Zarah shook her head. “I needing to use a computer, and-” she jerked her head towards the back of the building where the shed was. “Just… wanted to see you.”
She froze, her brain processing the words she’d just said, which she would really appreciate it doing before she spoke. “I- I just wanted to say hello, I mean.”
“Oh. Oh, of course, right, yes.” For a second, it looked like she was blushing, but it was probably just Zarah’s imagination. “It’s good to see you too. I should probably-” she glanced back at the counter.
“Oh- yes. Of course.” She’ll think you’re copying her, idiot. “I mean- yes. Bye.”
“Bye,” she replied, but Zarah had already turned around, stalking towards the computers in the corner of the library.
“<Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid,>” she muttered to herself as she walked. “<Moron. Six months and this is how you act? No wonder she->”
“Hate to cut off the monologue, Hamlet, but you’re getting stares.” Kihri’s words were light as ever, but there was an undercurrent of bitterness that caught Zarah off-guard. Had she really been that pathetic?
“Sorry,” she murmured, sitting down at the computer in the corner, the only one that didn’t have a path behind it. “What are we do?”
“Okay, open up a map site, one with manual coordinate entry, then punch in…” She trailed off, then began rattling off a sequence of numbers, faster than Zarah could keep up. “Okay,” she repeated once she’d hit the end. “Sorry, just needed to check that. Latitude first,” and she rattled off the same string of numbers, but slower, and stopped about halfway through. Zarah wasn’t the most experienced typist, but she managed to keep up. “And then longitude,” and she gave the other half of the numbers.
“Where did you get those?” Zarah asked as she pressed enter, and watched the slow public internet begin to chug through loading the results.
“Inside the filing cabinet back at the office, bottom drawer. There was a book called… ‘R-F2 and You: Advanced Database Management Optimisation’ that had been hollowed out and these were on a notepad inside.”
“…and you just knowing it was coordinates?”
“I guessed based on the number of digits, okay? And, besides, we don’t know that they are-” she broke off, glancing at the screen. “Yeah, I guess they aren’t!”
The map program had loaded the coordinates, and was now showing a completely random spot in the middle of the Vedian Sea.
“Well,” Kihri sighed, “this is why I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
“Maybe they go other way around?”
“Yeah, you know what? Try it, why not. That’d make about as much sense as literally everything else that’s been happening.” Dutifully, Zarah copied one set over to the other field, and let Kihri recite the other again, then pressed enter and waited once more.
“…Zarah?” Kihri asked after a moment. “Do you…” she paused, then let out an angry growl. “Never mind. Never mind. It’s nothing.”
“It… sounds like something.”
“Not important, then. Saints, can’t you just- oh, you’re fucking kidding me.”
Startled, Zarah glanced back at the screen, to find that it was now displaying-
“You,” Kihri repeated flatly, “are fucking kidding me.”
The map was now displaying, in grainy , birds-eye satellite footage, a location in the middle of a field, about half an hour outside of Kaila.
“I cannot believe this. Who the fuck writes longitude first? This woman really is a monster.”
“At least you were right about coordinates?”
She immediately perked back up. “Oh, hey, yeah! I almost forgot that I rule! That was a close one.” Zarah made a face at her, and she blew a raspberry back. “Okay, so if you open up the bus timetables…”
It was almost dark by the time Zarah stepped outside, waiting until Esti had stepped away to slip past. Kihri had hung back, insisting that she had a ‘moral obligation’ to look over the shoulder of the mythological Horny Greg, so Zarah was alone as she trudged around to the toolshed.
It wasn’t much, just a wooden door built into the side of the library, but the hinges were solid and clean, and the padlock was reassuringly thick and complicated. It had taken Zarah a few weeks initially to remember the code, but now it was second nature, back and forth until it clicked open.
Inside was equally boring – a rake, a broom, a few smaller tools and cans of paint and whatnot, except for the large black duffel bag in the corner. Esti said she’d told her co-workers (she’d transitioned from volunteer to actual employee about a year ago) that it was her gym bag, and had put a pair of sneakers next to it to sell the story. In reality, though, it was… maybe the oldest thing Zarah still owned, she realised. She’d stolen it from the Brocktons, her second foster family, when she was 10, and it had been with her ever since.
She’d patched up holes and resecured the straps whenever she had access to a sewing kit, and so eight years later it was still rugged and reliable.
She didn’t mind not having to lug it around anymore, though. Hypothetically, a few of the shelters had lockers, but she’d had too many things stolen to trust those, and it was reassuring, knowing that she didn’t only have the clothes on her back. Of course, that didn’t mean she was stupid – there were photocopies of her documents stored at multiple different locations around the city, and the originals somewhere else entirely. Not that she had to interact with the system much anymore, but cautious was better than dead.
Thus, the shed. She’d ducked in after close to change her clothes and secure a few things before heading out to the Milton Steelworks, where they’d found Hami, and everything since then had been so frantic…
With a start, she realised it had only been a little over a day, and that thought filled her with a bone-deep weariness. Not physically – she still felt like she could run a marathon thanks to the hammer – but mentally and spiritually. Had she even said prayers that morning? She definitely hadn’t at lunch.
She’d… she’d deal with this later. She picked up her bag and began rifling through it, more forcefully than it needed to be, as if the impacts could shake out the thoughts in her brain. Or the pangs out of her stomach, actually. She hadn’t eaten since Market Square, and even though the thought of food made her nauseous, her insides refused to play along. There were still a few of the granola bars she’d stolen out of dumpster a while back, so she took one out and start gnawing, the taste bland and mealy in her mouth. She didn’t know what idiot had thrown them out – bars, and this brand in particular, never went off, no matter what the label said. Or maybe the quality meant she just couldn’t tell the difference.
Still chewing, her makeshift meal held between her teeth, she sat down on the cold concrete and began moving things between the two bags.
A laundered, but weather-inappropriate, set went back in the duffel, while a shirt, bra and underwear basically identical to the ones she was already wearing went into the backpack, to change into after she could shower. Reluctantly, she also moved across her pair of good cargo pants – the ones she was wearing currently had too many holes in them from the day’s events to be salvageable, and that wasn’t even considering all the blood.
She almost laughed as she processed the words she’d just thought. What a ridiculous sentence. What a ridiculous… everything. Did she have to make clothing decisions based on how well they’d handle bloodstains now? Were her fashion choices to be based on resistance to knives, her choice of shoe on how well they would break bone?
A violent shake of the head managed to drag her away from that spiral, and she resumed moving her clothes. She was thinking too far ahead again. One day at at time, one day to survive and move forward, and at the end of that day the one after, and so on until…
Well, just until. Trying to plan that out would be falling into the same trap she’d just avoided, after all.
Kihri reappeared just as she was finishing up, her face twisted into an almost cartoonish expression of disgust. “Don’t ask,” she said, in response to the unasked question. “Seriously. Just… don’t.”
“<Sow the nightshade,>” Zarah started dryly.
Kihri flipped her off instead of finishing the saying. “You can reap my ass for all I care. This shit’s gonna haunt me.”
Zarah raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, no! No ghost jokes! Only I get to do ghost jokes!”
With the closest approximation of a chuckle she could manage, Zarah stood, slinging her bag back over her shoulders. “I understand. It is of gravely importance.”
“I’m gonna kill you, you know that? Then you’ll see how it feels.”
The figure sitting on the library’s roof watched Zarah as she locked up the shed and began walking away down the street. They sat near the top of the steepled tiles, their suit jacket laid out next to them, red tie hanging loose below an open top button.
In one hand, they held a lit cigarette that they took idle puffs from, and the other was at their side, rhythmically stroking a seemingly-empty patch of air.
If one were particularly attentive, or had the foreknowledge of what to listen for, they might have heard a thin keening noise, plaintive and desperate.
“Yeah,” the stranger said, “I see it too, girl.” Then, quieter, to themself: “Because more complications is exactly what this whole mess needed.”
They sighed, leant back, and watched the smoke curl up into the night sky.