Hafton was a small town, tucked into a natural ingress in the side of the large valley that contained the entirety of the nation of Ostra. Presumably, it had existed for longer than that name – what was now a simple tiered construction was immediately recognisable to Zarah as having formerly been rice farms. The sight brought a pang to her chest, and a rush of sense memories and impressions that she’d long forgotten, but she quickly pressed them back down – they were in public, after all.
“Aquifer,” Kihri said from beside her. She was floating outside the bus, next to Zarah’s window seat, so to anyone observing she would seem to just be looking at the countryside, the occasional murmurs just lyrics from the song presumably playing through her headphones.
“No. What is that?”
“An aquifer? Dunno, I’m just running out of ‘a’ words. Arsenic.”
“There was an apple tree back there, and there’s arsenic in apple seeds, right? Or, wait, was it cyanide?”
“No, not arsenic. Or cyanide.”
“Pretty sure it’s cyanide, yeah. Ass?”
“<The heavens have turned to dust!> Yes, ‘ass’.”
“…I cannot believe you made me guess for an hour just to come up with some stupid joke.”
“Joke? There was an ass on the side of the road. With the man with the… the…” she searched for the word, gesturing the shape around her head. “Khamauk?”
“Yes! Rice hat! That man, he had an ass.”
“So much for being a lesbian, huh?”
“Wh- no!” She held up her hands on either side of her head, imitating ears. “Ass! With the… ee-hough!”
Kihri stared at her for a second, then burst out laughing. “A fucking donkey?!” she gasped. “That’s what you meant?!”
“Called an ass, no?”
“Sure, if you’re a peasant from the sixth century! No-one calls them that! No wonder I couldn’t guess it!”
“Or maybe you are just not good at this game.”
The bus jolted as it began to slow, brakes squealing. “I’m the best at this game,” Kihri muttered indignantly.
Zarah exited with a small nod to the driver, stepping down to the pavement and looking around. The stop was on the edge of Hafton, presumably because the bus wouldn’t fare well on the narrow streets, and consisted only of a small post and an uncovered bench. Zarah took a seat on it as the remaining few passengers and the driver exited, stretching her legs as she waited for them to move towards the town.
“Which is the way?” she asked Kihri once they were out of earshot.
“Uh,” she glanced around quickly, “good question. I am now realising that satellite footage is maybe not the best way to get directions from a more… grounded perspective, yuk yuk yuk.”
“Go up, then.”
Zarah pointed. “Fly up, see from above. Like the maps.”
“Oh, right. Duh.” She almost seemed… reluctant? No, I’m probably just imagining it.
Kihri quickly floated upwards, and Zarah had to squint to track her against the bright sunlight. Quite quickly, though, she stopped, only about 3 stories up.
“OKAY!” she yelled, no quieter than if she hadn’t moved at all, “I THINK I-” She paused, noticing Zarah’s immediate, frantic waving, and floated back down. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Not yell!” Zarah hissed at her. “I still hear you fine from up there.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, again.” Something was definitely up. “Also, I just realised you can’t really reply without attracting attention so I’ll just give you directions, okay?”
“Can you fly higher? That was closer than I expect.”
“Er, no. Don’t want to leave you alone down here, yeah?”
Before Zarah could retort that she could take care of herself just fine, she’d already floated back up again, and, after a moment of orientation, began directing her towards the coordinates they’d found.
The notch that Hafton sat in was the biggest one along this side of the valley, but not the only one – gaps stretched out past it, getting progressively smaller until they were impossible to distinguish from the natural unevenness of the mountain’s base. Quite quickly, Kihri realised they were headed for one of the latter, but managed to convince Zarah to follow the path around past the town instead of cutting straight across to the other side, primarily by pointing out that it was actually a paddy and she’d get extremely wet.
They saw very few people as they walked by Hafton, and none paid them any mind, but it was still a surprisingly uncomfortable experience for Zarah. Her brain couldn’t seem to reconcile the sight of brick-and-thatch cottages and cobblestone streets with the terraces, and looking at it evoked a powerful swell of emotions she couldn’t identify.
Like most of her problems, of course, she handled it by looking away until it was out of sight.
Once they’d passed properly out of earshot, and out of sight beyond vague shapes, she began to relax again, and pulled out the hammer, idly swinging it around and watching the way the light refracted off and through it.
Sleep had eluded her last night, and so after a few fruitless hours of tossing and turning, she’d tucked herself away in a bathroom stall for some privacy and began sewing. Using the remains of her ruined clothing, cleaned but beyond repair, she’d fashioned a makeshift carry for the hammer, covering it up and letting her sling it over her torso so it sat against her back. It was nice to do something productive for a change – so nice, in fact, that it took her almost an hour to realise she’d let go of the hammer without being crippled by pain.
It was still there, once she realised – dull aches that disappeared when she picked it up again. It was a relief to know that it did fade after all, though; Kihri theorised that it was just all the pain she would have experienced while holding it, condensed and delayed.
Knowing that, and knowing she didn’t have to be in constant contact with the hammer, made it much easier to disguise, too. After some consideration, and some tests of whether it counted as blocking the contact (it didn’t), she’d also wrapped the handle in a layer of tape, then cut grooves into it with her knife. Once she was done, it could easily be mistaken for the handle of a cricket bat, if you weren’t looking closely. Slung over her torso, with the backpack covering most of it, it hadn’t even warranted a second glance so far.
Of course, out of the sling, the disguise fell apart somewhat, but by the time that happened, Zarah reasoned, the point had probably already become moot.
“Geez,” Kihri mocked from above, “somebody’s compensating for something.”
“That is your area, not mine,” Zarah retorted dryly, gaining a sharp laugh.
“Yep, I’ll cop that one. Seriously, though, you just swinging that thing around randomly? Even if there’s no-one around, doesn’t seem smart.”
“…I suppose.” She swung it through another loop, then a figure-eight in front of her, enjoying the pleasant weight. “I just…”
Belatedly, she realised her steps had gotten lighter, her movements more controlled, and as she looked down, the blacklight had begun to surround her form, faint in the sunlight.
“This,” she said slowly, “shouldn’t be possible, yes?”
“This?” She realised Kihri probably couldn’t see the light from above. “The blacklight?”
“Again, I feel like you’re maybe getting too hung up on ‘possible’, but yeah, you’re not wrong. ‘Black’ doesn’t really exist – it’s just an absence of light, which is white by default, and colours are just smaller sections of that light based on the refraction of- you don’t care about any of this, actually. The point is, having black light would be like having… dry water, or cold fire.
It’s a contradiction in terms, basically. An oxymoron.”
“And yet,” she echoed. “Look, man, I don’t fucking know. It is what it is! If I were you, and I almost am, I’d be spending more time trying to figure out the practical realities of it than the mechanical underpinnings, so to speak.”
“I…” Zarah shook her head. “You lose me.”
“Ugh, fine. This is a purely one-time thing, you understand? <Functionally speaking, it doesn’t actually matter how it is happening or if it’s ‘technically possible’ or whatever, because the reality is that it is happening, and considering how the past few days have been going, figuring out the exact, practical limits and boundaries is gonna be a lot more useful than trying to prove it from first principles, you grok?>”
“‘<Who cares how it works, so long as it does?>’”
“<Eh, more like ‘who cares how it works so long as you know when it works’.> We’re gonna have to go off-path up ahead,” she added, switching back to Brecht. “Easy mode is over, linguistically and physically.”
“What do you suggest, then?”
“Well, ideally we’d sit down and do a bunch of boring tests with controls and whatnot, but I’m realistic enough to know that ain’t happening. How about… hm. Okay, stop for a second.”
She did so, her stance slightly awkward due to the incline.
“Alright, now, close your eyes.”
“Just work with me here, okay? Close your eyes.”
Reluctantly, Zarah closed her eyes. “Good news,” she said after a moment. “I still cannot see like this.”
“Har de har, smartass. Can you feel anything? Anything unusual, I mean.”
“I… no. No, I think not. Not sure how to tell.”
“Yeah, I figured. Okay, now put the hammer down, and see if you notice anything.”
She crouched and laid it gently out on the ground, before slowly removing her hand. As soon as her last finger came away, the effect became obvious – her limbs felt heavier, faint aches that hadn’t quite healed all the way beginning to throb once more. Barely noticeable in the normal course of things, but the contrast made them more obvious.
She reported her findings to Kihri, who gave a little contented hum. “That’s our control, then. Do it again, and this time, filter out all the stuff you already noticed, try and feel anything that’s… more.”
“Kihri, this is stupid. Are you just guessing that-”
“Zarah! Will you please just shut up and do the fucking experiment, please?!”
Zarah sighed, then sat cross-legged on the ground and closed her eyes, reaching out for the hammer with both hands.
As usual, the contact brought a wave of vitality, energy and alertness, her aches and pains smoothed away and her thoughts clearer and sharper. But… also, maybe something else? No, Kihri has just primed you to expect it. You’re imagining it.
When she set it down again, though, she felt that same sensation – or, no, not even that, but the sensation of a sensation, the knowledge of something’s existence without any actual knowledge of it.
“Do you-” Kihri started to say.
“Hst!” Zarah cut her off, trying to focus. Down, up, down, up, over and over again until she could be sure she wasn’t imagining it, then, to try and get a better feel for it. It wasn’t… it didn’t seem to map to anything she’d ever experienced, incomparable in the literal sense. Whether in a flash of insight or something more mystical, she realised that the blacklight was the same – not actual black, but the human brain’s attempt to comprehend something that it had no point of reference for, by grasping for the closest thing it could find.
With that realisation, or maybe just coincidentally, the sensation seemed to… resolve, almost, come into focus. It was almost like… burning? Or, no, the idea of burning, of setting alight, not the physical sensation. Something else, too, something more physical, and although it didn’t quite fit, the image that came to mind was a finger snapping, and a spark leaping off it.
Still holding the hammer, she opened her eyes, clicked her fingers, and the blacklight disappeared from around her.
Slowly, she looked up at Kihri, who was trying and failing to contain her excitement under a layer of smugness. “Told you.”
Zarah snapped again, and the light (along with the effects) returned. The change was instantaneous, almost like flicking a switch.
“You did,” she acknowledged. “Thank you.”
Kihri gave an over-dramatic groan. “Do you always have to ruin a perfectly good opportunity for banter with sincerity and feelings and shit? It’s very annoying.”
“Someone must,” she grunted as she stood.
“Yeah, but that ‘someone’ doesn’t have to be the only person in the world I can communicate with.”
For the rest of the walk, Zarah practiced their new discovery, snapping every few seconds more out of awe than practicality (especially because it made her nearly trip almost every time). More than the usefulness, though, it was the first time in the entire affair that she actually had some control over anything. The hammer gave her power, true, but it was borrowed – stolen, really – and unknown. It still wasn’t truly hers, but at least now she had a leash on it, a firmer grip.
“…worth a shot, yeah?” Belatedly, she realised Kihri had been talking to her, and was now waiting for a response.
“<Can-> …repeat, please?”
“Sure thing, space cadet. I was saying that the other two… actually, you know, we should probably figure out what to call ‘people who can do this shit’. I mean, unless we want to keep calling them that, which, no. Maybe… luminoir? Like luminous plus noir? Lucents? Uh, light-wielders-”
“Akhnesh,” Zarah muttered. She hadn’t intended to speak at all, but her mouth had gotten away from her.
“…I mean, I guess, but it’s kind of a mouthful, huh?”
Akhnesh were beings from mythology, as they’d learned it when they were children. Personifications of change – life and growth, but also death and decay. There was a certain poeticism to that, she admitted, but it felt… disrespectful, somehow. Instead, unbidden, the image of the hand, the pressure and the spark floated back up.
“…burner,” Kihri repeated slowly, rolling the word around in her mouth. “Damn, I actually like that. Burners, yeah. Nice one, dude. Okay, what was I… right, yeah. The other two burners we’ve seen have actually been able to actually, y’know, make ghostlight, instead of just getting the power-up from it.”
“Yeah, I just thought of it – dope, right? Actually, though, did they get the power-up?”
Zarah thought about it. “The… suit one, I think not. Or, maybe? They were very quick. The other… not sure. His… the…” she waved her arms about vaguely. “<What’s the word for octopus limbs?>”
“Tendrils or tentacles.“
“His tendrils, they were doing most of work.”
“Mm.” Kihri glanced down at the hammer. “Either way, my point is that you should – hypothetically – be able to do the same, right?”
“<In theory.> Seriously, though, worth a shot, right?”
“I… I think you are leaping to conclusions, maybe.”
“Maybe,” she acknowledged with a shrug, “but it can’t hurt to try, right?”
“I… am fairly certain it can, yes.”
“Well,” she grinned, “good thing you can heal then, right?”
“If I messing around with the thing that is making me heal, then maybe not!”
“Oh, that’s actually… a fairly good point.”
“No need for surprise,” Zarah murmured testily.
“How about this, then. The little fucker, if they were getting amped up, wasn’t touching any light, so how about you try holding the effect after letting go?”
That sounded a little bit more plausible (and safer) to Zarah, so she tucked the hammer back into its sling, letting her fingers linger on the handle for a moment as she focused in on the snap. Once she was sure she had it, she envisioned holding onto it, the moment of pressure and heat, of ignition, continuing without ever reaching that point of connection or impact, and drew her hand away.
The sensation immediately dimmed, the blacklight growing fainter, but for a few seconds, she kept it from winking out entirely, focusing on her breathing and her focus. Then, she slipped, and it was gone.
“That looked like something,” Kihri commented as she rose to her feet.
“It was. Is. Hard, but possible. I will… practice. Eventually.”
“Good plan, yeah. Maybe avoid trying to use it til you’re more comfortable, too. So you don’t lose focus just cause you got… disemboweled, or something.”
“Honestly? Yeah, ‘just’. Do I need to remind you that you had a fucking hole in your torso yesterday?”
“You did not, actually.”
“Well, too bad, Hole-y Roller, suck it up.”
The conversation, inasmuch as it could be called that, continued in that vein for the rest of their walk, as they descended further down towards the bottom of the notch, passing through thick brush before emerging into a small field.
Kihri held up a hand as they reached the centre. “Okay, this should be it.”
“Here?” Zarah asked, glancing around. It was… a field, and only barely. ‘Clearing’ was probably a better word, uneven grass and scrub, nothing that suggested it was anything other than natural.
“Hey, I don’t pick the tune, I just conduct. Bu-ut, I suspect…” Effortlessly, she flipped around in the air, head down and feet up, then lowered herself down through the ground up to her shoulders. “Yep!” she said a moment later, voice eerily clear despite the obstruction. “There’s something down here, for sure.”
“How?” There was no disturbed dirt, no patch of grass that was fresher than the others, no sign that anything had been dug up or buried.
“The… usual way, one presumes?” Zarah explained what she meant, and Kihri popped back up to investigate. “Oh-kay, yeah, I see what you mean. Interesting, very interesting. Either it has been here for a while, or…”
“Oh shit, that’s so much better than my thing. But no, I was thinking more along the lines of… this!” She stopped directly above a patch of dirt, about two feet away from where the object was buried, and waved Zarah over.
It took her a second to see it, and if she hadn’t gotten right up close, she doubted she would’ve been able to at all. There was an extremely faint line in the dirt, with a slight curve to it, and although the ground on either side clearly had lined up at some point, they were now offset by a few inches in one direction. Following the line revealed that the curve was one section of a complete circle, although it was obscured by fresher growth in places. Ten paces across, with the buried item in the dead centre.
“How?” Zarah repeated. “This is… did she lift out entire disc, put something in hole, then lower it back?”
“Looks that way,” Kihri confirmed, then waggled her eyebrows. “We, however, have no such luxury.”
“We?” Zarah grumbled as she shrugged off her bag. “What are you doing?”
“Offering moral support and entertainment – for myself, that is. I could sing you a song, if you like?”
Zarah hefted the hammer, and got to work. “No, thank you.”
“Perfect! Ahem-hem. Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition, yawn and stretch and try to come to life!”
Kihri could actually be quite a good singer, when she tried.
Which, currently, she was not.
“…hammer ring, Lord, Lord, you can hear John-”
The dull thud of the hammer cut through her voice, and jarred Zarah out of the rhythm she’d fallen into.
“Jackpot!” Kihri crowed. “I knew you could do it. Well, I knew you could either do it or spend like an hour scrabbling fruitlessly in the dirt, so I won either way.”
Scrabbling was the right word. The hammer had broken up the dirt easily, but didn’t actually help with shovelling it out, so Zarah had been forced to alternate back and forth – break up the dirt, scoop it out with her hands, rinse, repeat. Or just repeat – a rinse would’ve made it a lot more pleasant.
As she brushed the dirt away, a heavy metal box revealed itself, with only a slight dent in the top from where she’d hit it. It was about the size of an engine block, sturdily constructed with the welds still showing, but utterly unremarkable otherwise, a thick combination lock holding it closed.
Whether it was the construction or the contents, it turned out to be damnably heavy; enough so that Zarah had to pick the hammer back up before she could haul it out onto the surface. Then, seeing as she already had it on hand, she swung the hammer down at the lock.
“No! Don’t-” Kihri began to yell, but the blow had already connected. There was an ugly screech of breaking metal, and the pieces of the lock went flying, bouncing a surprising distance before coming to a stop.
“Do not what?” Zarah asked, raising an eyebrow at Kihri, who was just poking her head up out of the ground.
“You idiot,” her sister snapped. “That could’ve been trapped!”
“It was not.”
“But it could’ve been,” she insisted. “Seriously, Z, you were just pointing out to me that we can’t trust these powers, and now you’re acting like you’re invincible?”
“Do you want to wasting time arguing about this,” Zarah snapped, “or open the box?”
“Oh, great deflection. Real subtle.” Still, she floated closer. “Get on with it, then.”
The first thing Zarah noticed, as soon as she cracked the lid, before she could even see inside, was the smell. It had the same notes of sickly sweetness and dull iron as the power station, but milder, more contained. More natural, almost – as if it wasn’t the product of rot and decay but merely how it was supposed to smell. That, and the subtle but un-mistakeable scent of orange blossom water laced through it.
“Oh saints and stones,” Kihri murmured as she lifted the lid.
It was the closest Zarah had ever come to echoing her.
Inside the box was a smaller lockbox, a miniature filing box with colour codes and labels in neat handwriting, and a small stack of ring-bound notebooks.
There was also a severed human arm.
It looked the right size to belong to an adult, and had been severed just below the shoulder in a clean, smooth cut. The fingers were relaxed, hanging loosely, and a simple silver band adorned the smallest, and the entire thing was remarkably well-preserved – in fact, it didn’t seem to have… decayed…
Oh. Oh, that’s not a human arm, is it?
What she’d mistaken for a dark, earthy skin tone was in fact red ghostlight, but… darker, somehow, and opaque instead of the glassy translucence the material normally had. Was it just the lighting, or…
“Ah ah ah!” Kihri’s voice cut through her thoughts, and she whipped her hand back just before touching it. “How about we don’t make a habit of ‘poke the dismembered limb’, yeah?”
“I… sorry. I just want to test if it is… arm-like? Fleshy. It looks fleshy.”
“…it’s a severed human arm, Zarah! Reevaluate your priorities!”
“Is it?” she asked distractedly, reaching for it again. She held herself back from actually touching it, and instead pointed to the severed end. The ghostlight there was more visible, and closer to the standard ‘red glass’ appearance. “Look, here.”
“…what the fuck,” Kihri breathed after a second. “Why is it all… dark?”
“Dried blood on inside?” Zarah suggested idly, running a finger along the surface. Like she’d thought, it wasn’t the cool, textureless solid of the hammer, but a softer, more malleable surface. Like she’d thought, almost fleshy.
“Hey!” Kihri snapped. “What did I just say?”
Zarah met her gaze, then slowly and deliberately pushed the finger down, dimpling the surface. “Whoops.”
“Someday,” Kihri said flatly, “you’re going to contract a horrific disease, and I’ll be there saying ‘I told you so’.”
“But until then…?”
“…fine, pick up the fucking ghost arm, god.”
“Thank you,” Zarah said primly, and did so.
It was… cold, which made sense, but for some reason she’d been expecting it to be warm, like a living arm. But, no, it was cool – cooler, actually, than ghostlight normally was, cool like the soft earth they’d dug through to get to it. Flexible, too – it bent and sagged as she lifted it, exactly like a real arm.
“Okay, so it’s not just the lighting,” Kihri noted as Zarah moved it into the sun for a better look. “Something is either different about this ghostlight, or it’s a hollow shell around something else.”
“Not a shell, I do not think,” Zarah said, lifting the severed end and moving it to show her that it was the same colour and texture all the way across. “If it was, would it not show here?”
“Yyyyeah, I guess? Unless it healed over, like a stump does?”
“I… what is the knife you talk about sometimes?”
“…okay, first of all, they’re swords, not knives, and-”
“Not that. Those. The… imaginary one, the words one. About evidence?”
“‘The simplest explanation from the given evidence is most likely correct’?”
“Yes! That words. There is less assuming for it being solid than it being able to heal, no?”
“Fair point, okay, yeah. So if this a different type of ghostlight, what’s making it that way? And why did Metzin think it was important enough to hide away like this?”
Zarah frowned, turning the arm over. “You check the notebooks, I investigate this?”
“Mm. Ten minutes check-in unless you find something big?”
Zarah nodded. It was their standard method of research – Kihri handled written materials, Zarah handled physical stuff. It would’ve been easier if Kihri could actually interact with anything, but Zarah had gotten very adept at flipping pages at her grunted signal while still concentrating on other things.
They quickly fell into a rhythm, Kihri murmuring observations and comments to herself, Zarah absentmindedly chewing on her cheek as she thought.
The first thing that drew her attention was the flexibility. She held the arm up to the light and flexed it back and forth, watching the way the ghostlight shifted and reacted to the motion. There was a slight shimmer around the joints as they moved, that reminded her of… something, buried in the back of her mind. Experience had taught her not to force things like that – it’d come to her eventually. Instead, she turned her attention to the fingers, running her own over the surface, admiring the intricate detail. If not for the colour, she could have believed it was real – there were creases and wrinkles and lines and folds, all looking perfectly realistic. It was almost as if someone had made a cast of a real arm and then filled, or-
-as if someone had coated a real arm in ghostlight.
The instant it occurred to her, she knew she was correct. It made too much sense – the smell, the texture, the appearance. But, the end, like Kihri pointed out- Ohh. Not coated, but soaked. Infused, even.
A hunch wasn’t going to convince Kihri, though. She started prodding around at the stump again, observing the way it reacted when she applied pressure. Like how real tissue paled as the blood was forced away, the darker red was pushed back around the point of contact, leaving only the bright red ghostlight behind.
But, when she let go, it slowly faded back over the course of a few seconds. Which, admittedly, was also like real tissue.
It just wasn’t like dead tissue.
Zarah blinked, glancing up at Kihri. “Pardon?”
“What isn’t like dead tissue?”
Oh. She hadn’t realised she’d spoken aloud. “Five more minutes,” she said instead. “Just… thinking. Out loud.”
“Well, don’t make it a habit. That’s my cute quirk, get your own.”
It didn’t actually matter if it was alive or not, she realised quickly. Trying to fit it into categories was just going to complicate things – all she had to do for now was investigate and observe. And what she observed was that, despite being detached from any kind of circulatory system, the arm still had some degree of… life to it, for lack of a better word.
Zarah thought for a second, then leant back, propping one hand on the ground so she could grab her knife from her ankle with the other. Idly, she flipped it around, holding it by the blade as she lifted the arm again, and carefully ran the point along the ‘skin’.
To her surprise, it didn’t cut it at all. The skin depressed slightly, but showed no sign of being cut, or even scratched. It made a noise too, a soft scraping skkrt, almost like stone.
She frowned, then adjusted her grip and tried again, holding the knife by the handle this time and putting her weight behind it. Still, the same result – it didn’t even seem to depress any further. Cutting, sawing, and stabbing were all equally futile; the latter glanced off so smoothly that she barely felt the resistance at all.
She did feel it when the redirected force sent the knife right into her thigh, though.
Biting down on the yelp of shock and pain, and the flood of vitriol that followed it, she yanked the blade back out and dropped it on the ground, then reached over and grabbed the hammer, letting the blacklight wipe away the pain, and, within a few seconds, the injury.
Ohhh, this could become dangerously habit-forming.
She hadn’t exactly worried about it when it had been from getting speared through the chest or jumping out of a skyscraper; they weren’t exactly regular occurrences. Not yet, anyway. But this? The sort of mundane injury she could get any day? That could become a problem really quickly.
When she glanced over to the side, Kihri was smirking back at her, mouth open.
Zarah beat her to it, a finger jabbing into her face serving to cut the comment off. “Say nothing.”
“Nothing.” Zarah fixed her with a glare, and she blew a raspberry in response. “So, it’s catch-up time, or close enough. Did you find anything? Apart from how fleshy and full of blood you are, I mean.”
It didn’t take long to recount her discoveries and theories, but Kihri was still practically vibrating with impatience by the end. Wait, she might literally be vibrating. For a moment, she was tempted to throw in some absurd nonsense to test if Kihri was actually listening, but, well. That’s her cute quirk, after all.
“Okay, okay, great,” Kihri cut in almost as soon as she finished. “Fantastic, whatever. May I please tell you about the actually interesting things I’ve learned now?”
Zarah had actually thought her discoveries had been interesting, and had to stop herself from lashing out at the insult. “…please.”
“Oh, thank you for your benevolence, great one.” Then, dropping back out of the affected ‘fancy’ accent she’d adopted. “Okay, so they’re Metzin’s… I want to say journals? But that doesn’t really communicate the sheer batfuckery of what’s going on here. It’s like, half diary, half research log, half avant-garde performance art, half technically diary, half sketchbook.”
“Too many halves, no?”
“You’re too many halves. Also, she’s really bad at drawing. I don’t know why I had expectations of her being good at it, but I did, and she’s not. Not even at technical drawing which is barely real drawing anyway, all you need is a ruler and a decent sense of three dimensional space.”
“Maybe not as common as you think. The point?”
“Okay, well, first of all, she’s scary, but I guess we already knew that from the whole mutilated corpse thing. Second, that is a human arm.”
“Already said that.”
“Yeah, but I learned it before you did, and also yours was only a theory and mine is fact, and also shut up. They only go back about a year, but I’m pretty sure there’s more of them before that somewhere, so they don’t say where she found it, but they do have the results of some tests she did. Listen to this.” She cleared her throat and held up a finger. “In ze case of Test 17B,” she said in an awful Gaithien accent, “increasing sevarences vere applied to ze specimen by ze application of a hydwaulic press.”
“The application,” she continued in a normal voice, rolling her eyes, “failed to have any effect on the specimen, and in fact began to dent the surface it rested on, leaving a thick impression that bears the minute detail of the specimen’s surface. Shortly thereafter, the press broke entirely, while the specimen remains undamaged.”
“Trust me when I say it’s powerful and leave it at that. Anyway, that was number seventeen, out of three hundred and counting. She’s just started with industrial mining equipment, and I for one am thrilled to find out whether it works or not.”
Silently, Zarah held up the clearly-undamaged arm.
“Uh, spoilers, asshole! But yeah, I know. What’s interesting, though, is that there’s not an proper description of it, cause like I said there are probably more before the first one, but there are occasional references to how the experiments affect the ‘skin’ on the arm. Seems like a bit of an odd word choice, don’tcha think? Especially considering they grow less frequent over time.”
Zarah connected the dots. “You believe it used to appear as a normal arm.”
“Mm-hm. I’m pretty sure, actually, that this was just straight-up-and-down somebody’s real arm. The skin just decayed over time, but presumably whatever the fuck they did to themself with the ghostlight preserved the rest. To a degree, anyway.”
“So this, which is unharmed by big amounts of force-”
“-and gunfire, and explosions, and acid, and lasers-”
“-someone out there was walking around as this?”
“No reason to assume it wasn’t their whole body, either, but yeah. Guess we know why she’s got it stashed in the middle of a field, huh?”
“…why write down coordinates, though?”
“I’unno, maybe she’s scatterbrained. Bet you these are the originals, and she’s got copies of everything closer to hand.”
“For what purposes?”
Kihri blinked, seeming genuinely surprised. “I mean… do I really have to say it?”
“Fine, geez. She’s obviously trying to recreate it for herself, or for someone else, or… whatever.”
Zarah was confident she would’ve gotten to the same conclusion, given a few more minutes to think, but having it spelled out like that galvanised another realisation. “The power station,” she blurted. “Mehrvitz. This is- he was the lab mouse! She must not have it solved yet, so she experiments.” The sight of the body, methodically brutalised, flashed back into her head. “One limb at a time, even. Test on limb, hit with hammer or with,” she waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the notebooks, “power tools, explosives, whatever, then repeat on next limb.”
Kihri looked a little queasy. “Fucked up how that’s better than her just torturing the guy for the sake of it, huh?” Zarah disagreed, but didn’t think anything productive would come of saying so. “Wait, but where does Othranta fit into this, then? He was just,” she made a punching gesture, “one-and-done.”
“That was the other one, the man. He is connected, but…” she paused for a moment, letting her brain catch up to her mouth. “They are at… cross-purposes, maybe? Not same goal, but allies. Or maybe same goal but not allies?”
“So, what, he was just a random kill from the Blue Man Group?”
“He did… seem like the type, yes.”
“Won’t argue with that,” Kihri murmured. “Okay, that all sounds plausible, but we could be completely off-the-mark. We need actual evidence, to make sure we’re not on a wild goose hunt if nothing else.” She glanced over at Zarah, and found her sister staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought. “Oh, I fucking hate that look. You have an idea, don’t you.”
Zarah nodded. “Promise me you will not yell?”
“I promise,” Kihri lied.