Chapter Fourteen: Three Might Be Duende


A note from tkayo

in which things don’t go as expected and paths diverge

Orae and Remy stared at her.

“…pardon?” Orae asked after a moment.

“No, thank you,” Zarah repeated calmly. She forced herself to meet both their eyes (or Orae’s glasses, at least), and gave a curt nod. “Thank you for the information. You,” she added to Orae specifically, “stop following me.”

“No ‘or else’?” they asked, still sounding slightly off-balance.

Zarah shrugged one shoulder. “You seem smart.”

She’d been tuning out Kihri’s growing laughter, but now it was transitioning into more of a manic scream, as she floated past with her hands covering her face. “Oh saints,” she laugh-screamed. “Really, I should’ve seen it coming! Fuck me, I guess!”

Zarah ignored her with practised ease.

“Wait, what is that supposed to mean?” Remy asked. “You think I’m not smart?”

Yes. “No.”

“What she means,” Orae cut in, staring her down, “is that she trusts in my ability to extrapolate the consequences.”

Zarah inclined her head, the same way they’d done before. “As I said. You seem smart.” To Remy, she added, “You. Do not get in my way again.”

She went to stand, but Orae’s hand on her arm stopped her. “Zarah,” they said quietly. “This seems unwise.”

“Remove your hand,” she ground out, “before I do.”

They pulled away, but didn’t break eye contact. Glasses contact, whatever. “Zarah,” they repeated, “You also seem smart.”

“Oh, so it’s just me, huh?” Remy grumbled.

“You know what this means.”

“I don’t!” Remy cut in. “I don’t know what it means!”

Calmly, Zarah pulled her sling on, and then her backpack. “I am perfectly aware, thank you.”

Oh yeah, sure!” Kihri cackled into the void. “Master of rational decision-making, that’s you alright!” The noise she made started out as a manic laugh but quickly descended into more of a primal scream. “Objective and unbiased!”

“Quiet,” Zarah snapped at her before she could stop herself.

Remy opened his mouth, but Orae waved him down. “Remy,” they said, not looking away, “think it through. We all appear to have the same goal, no? The same goal, and seemingly no conflict with one another.”

“Well, you did say you attacked her.”

“So then,” Orae continued, ignoring him, “what does it say if Zarah is nevertheless unwilling to co-operate?”

Remy and Kihri both answered at the same time, and their voices muddled together too much for Zarah to distinguish either. Kihri had sworn, and Remy had maybe said the word ‘shy’? It didn’t actually matter.

“It says,” Orae said, unaware of the crosstalk, “that her goals must in some way conflict with ours.”

“Or,” Zarah snapped, “that I just do not want to work with you.”

“We can’t afford to assume that.”

Remy frowned. “Really not a fan of this whole ‘we’ thing, my dude.”

“Not your dude,” Orae said. “But fine. Make your own decisions if you like. My point, to her, is that if you walk out now, I at the very least will have to consider you a threat the next time we meet.”

Zarah rolled her eyes. “You are paranoid.”

“I am right,” Orae snapped. “It’s not paranoia when there are conspiracies, when they are out to get you.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” Remy asked. 

“The Shadow Men,” Kihri answered, unheard, from under the table.

“It seems to me,” Zarah said, staring Orae down, “that you are just looking for excuses to fight me again.”

Orae shifted slightly, as if caught off-guard. “...why would I want that?”

“Hurt pride? Whyever you attack me in the first place?” Zarah shrugged. “Here is the dealing: you leave me alone, and I will do the same.”

“Hey, y’all?”

“That’s not acceptable,” Orae hissed.

“Oh, because it is your choice?”

“Hey? Guys?”

“Not a guy,” they both snapped simultaneously, without looking away.

“Right, sorry. But could we maybe… take this somewhere else?”

Belatedly, Zarah realised that the restaurant had gone quiet, and every single eye was on them. 

“Or, you know,” Remy said, “keep going, if you like!”

The worst part was that he actually sounded sincere. 

It never said good things about a person, Zarah decided, when they looked in their element while skulking on a rooftop.

Orae had led them up a fire escape, not brooking any discussion or debate, and Zarah had decided it wasn’t worth it. She had decided, in fact, to take the opportunity to leave, and yet, for reasons she couldn’t articulate, here she was.  

Remy had immediately hopped up on a vent, kicking his legs like a child, while Zarah had chosen to stand - she could feel a crash coming on, and staying on her feet would help ward it off. Orae, on the other hand, had actually sat on the ground, back against another vent, suit jacket draped neatly over the top. Their hand stroked rhythmically over empty air, petting their invisible, intangible hound.

“This is stupid,” Remy said, breaking the silence. “Like, this is really stupid, right? It’s not just me?”

“It’s not just you,” Orae muttered, and Zarah worked to suppress her smirk.

“Like,” Remy continued, unaware, “it’s like you two want to fight, or something? No trust at all!”

Zarah looked at him, “...we are strangers, Remy. Both of you have attacked me. Trust is not exactly the normal.”

“ isn’t?”

“Sounded more like you attacked him,” Orae said with a sneer.

She matched it with her own. “Oh? Did I attacked you?

Orae broke eye contact first.

“See, this is what I’m talking about!” Remy yelled. “Snip snip snip snip snip, just constantly!”

“You know,” Kihri commented from where she floated, circling lazily above them, “I like him. He’s stupid and naive, but it’s kinda charming.” She seemed to have calmed down some, but Zarah knew she hadn’t escaped the argument, only delayed it. 

Remy sighed. “Can’t you just… be nice?”

Zarah had no words.

“Hey,” Kihri commented snidely, “it’s a decent question. Can you just be nice, Zarah? Do you even know what it means?”

“<Like you’re one to talk,>” Zarah snapped.

“…did that mean ‘you’re so right and also smart, Remy’? Cause I’m gonna assume that’s what you meant.”

She shot him a withering glare.

Nice,” Orae said in a similar tone, “is perfectly fine, Remy, but not when it comes at the cost of safety and prudence.”

Remy frowned. “You know Prudence?”


“You just said ‘at the cost of safety and Prudence’. Why is she in danger?”

Zarah rubbed at her temples. “Orae, Remy thinks you have said a name. Remy, ‘prudence’ is a word on its own, Orae is not referring to the person you know.”

“Ohhhhh.” Remy looked like she’d told him the secret to eternal life.

Orae looked like she’d told them that the sky was green. “As I was saying, you are painfully naive, Remy. Frankly, I’m amazed you’ve survived this long, acting like you have.”

The boy in question rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue. “It’s not naive to want people to be nice.”

“Then I envy you the life that has let you believe that.”

“Huh,” Kihri said. “That was a pretty metal line, hornet. Respect.”

“Alright, fine!” Remy huffed, hopping down onto the ground. “I really didn’t want to have to do this, but you’ve left me no choice.” He pointed dramatically at Zarah, and then at Orae. “Both of you… get along!”

His words hung in the air for a second.

“…no?” Zarah said.

“No,” Orae confirmed. “Were we… supposed to not be able to say that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Remy said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Or, wait, shit. I forgot a bit, sorry.” He cleared his throat. “Get along, or else.

Zarah flinched, eyes going wide. Remy hadn’t moved, hadn’t changed his posture or bearing in the slightest – he still slouched easily with his hands in his pockets, stance slack and loose. But something had changed, because it suddenly felt like she was being crushed by an overwhelming, unrelenting pressure, like she was suddenly standing at the bottom of the ocean, untold masses of water pressing down on her from above.

She staggered, dropping to one knee, struggling to keep her neck from bowing. Orae had already been sitting, but she could see their arms, ramrod straight, straining to keep their torso upright.

What is this- this power?!

So,” Remy started to say, but a growl from Orae cut him off. No- not from Orae, but from the faint glimmer of red in the air in front of them where red plates of armour were beginning to form. Now, though, Zarah could see something inside, a familiar red-but-not-

Then, like before in the morgue, her vision seemed to snap into focus, and she could see it clearly.

It was… a dog. Zarah wasn’t an expert in dogs, had never really interacted with them much, but there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about it. Well, it was quite large, but as far as she was the standard for ‘proper’ dogs, as opposed to the little ones with all the health issues.

It was one of the slobbery breeds, with the big drooping jowls that were currently drawn back over bared teeth. The growl had come into ‘focus’ as well, and was now loud and vicious enough to send a shiver of something primal down Zarah’s spine. Echoes of something that had echoed through the trees long ago, something that people had learned to fear. Had been taught to fear.

The hound didn’t seem unaffected by the pressure, but it was handling it better than either of the humans – bowed but not bent, and still able to move. Which it did, as Orae managed to give a weak whistle, charging forward directly at Remy. Now that she could see it in truth, and not just the armour hanging off of it, its movements were easier to parse, her brain not being forced to extrapolate its gait. It certainly seemed to move like a real dog, paws pounding against the concrete, legs coiling before launching it through the air at Remy.

“Whoa, hey!” To Zarah’s surprise, the boy in question darted back, looking alarmed. It was subtle, but the pressure on her lessened as he did – just slightly, but noticeable all the same. For a second, she thought Remy was actually worried about the hound – until he shrugged off his grey coat and tossed it over one of the vents. “You almost got my jacket! I like this jacket.”

It was quite nice.

“Hey, Orae?” Remy continued, now back to being unperturbed. “Can you, uh, not? I really don’t want to hurt your dog.” Without the coat, he was left in a thin, grey tank-top that seemed entirely inappropriate for the chill, with some kind of tight, brightly-coloured undershirt poking out at the edges. He was fit, unsurprisingly, but he also had a terrible t-shirt tan, halfway down his biceps, and despite their situation Zarah heard Orae snort in amusement.

“I fell asleep on a truck, okay?!” Remy said, embarrassed.

Whatever he was about to say next got cut off by the hound leaping at him again with a snarl. This time, though, he didn’t dodge; in an instant, his hand shot up and caught the dog by one of the plates on its armour, holding it effortlessly in mid-air. It continued to snarl at him, paws flailing at his bare arm, but the clawed tips of its armour slid over the skin without even leaving a depression, like it was made of marble.

“Seriously, Orae,” Remy said, “I really don’t want to hurt it.”

“Then don’t.

Remy grinned awkwardly. “I mean, yeah, but it’s kind of… attacking me?” He held the dog up a bit further, adjusting his view. “She’s kind of attacking me.”

You are attacking us.”

“No I’m not!” He seemed to realise for the first time that both of them were on the ground, and grimaced. “Oh, uh. Whoops.”

Immediately, the pressure lessened – Zarah still couldn’t stand, but it no longer felt like she was being crushed against the ground. She was able to glance up now, and could tell from the shell-shocked look on her sister’s face that she had been experiencing it too.

“Sorry about that,” Remy said sheepishly. “You guys are like- really weak, though. Like, Really weak. You should train more.” The hound snapped at him, and he leant back out of the way. “Orae, please?”

Orae sighed, then gave another whistle, and the dog immediately calmed.

“There we go!” Surprisingly gently, Remy placed her back on the ground, where she immediately turned and ran back to her master. “So, like I was saying,” Remy went on, “that’s enough of that, right?”

“You’re goddamn fucking right.” The sound of gun cocking turned Zarah’s spine to ice, and the only thing stopping her from bolting like an animal was the physical inability to do so. In the corner of her vision, a figure stepped out from the door to the stairwell, and Zarah’s brain finally made the connection. It was Guster – the so-called detective with the eyepatch – from the morgue. She’d abandoned her suit jacket and tie, and the formerly-crisp shirt was stained with dust and blood. Her hair had come loose from its bun, and hung haphazardly over her face. Her hands on the- her hands were steady, but her eyes were slightly unsteady, her breathing ragged.

More importantly, though, she seemed completely unaffected by whatever Remy was doing.

“Under the authority of the Ostran government,” she said, voice hoarse but firm, “you are all under arrest. Stand down and you will not be harmed.”

Someone began to laugh. Zarah thought it was Remy for a moment, it would certainly be in-character for him, but it was too harsh, too cold.

“You know,” Orae said in between chuckles, “I’m really starting to hate this fucking country.”

…you have no idea.

The detective spun on Orae. “Shut up,” she snapped harshly. “All of you, get down on the ground and put your hands behind your head.”

“Uh…” Remy said. “No? Yeah, no.”

Orae’s laughter redoubled.

“What’s so funny?” Guster snapped at them.

“Do it,” they wheezed. “Shoot. I dare you.”

“Fine,” Guster said, and shot them.








“..rah? Hey, are you… like, there?”

Zarah slowly returned to herself, and found Remy crouched down in front of her, red-brown eyes wide with worry.

She blinked slowly, and his face immediately sagged with relief. “Oh good, I thought you- uh, broke, or something.”

“…are they okay?” she rasped.

Remy winced. “Shit, maybe you did break.”

What… Oh, she’d spoken in Pashtari. With an effort, she forced her brain back into motion and asked again in Brechtin.

The tension left Remy in an instant. “Oh good. Who do you mean, Orae? They’re fine, don’t worry.” He gestured vaguely off to the side, but Zarah couldn’t be bothered to move her head and look. “I put them over there, but they’re taking ages to heal. I mean, it was only a couple of bullets, jeez. Handgun bullets!”

Something in that sentence snagged in her brain. “…’couple of’?” she asked once she’d finally placed it.

“Ugh, yeah. That detective lady is quick. For a civilian, I mean.”

“Did you kill her?” Zarah asked, emotionless.

Remy laughed. “Oh boy, I hope not! That would be embarrassing. No, she’s, uh. Also over there.” ‘There’ being the same direction he’d gestured before. “She had some cuffs, don’t worry, plus I knocked her out but that only lasts like a minute unless something’s gone seriously wrong and she has brain damage so she’ll be up in a bit probably and I can do it again but like normal people are so squishy and I think that’ll hurt her too-” He sucked in a huge breath. “Anyway,” he continued at a more normal pace, “don’t worry, she’s fine. Uh, unless you wanted her dead? I mean, I can go do that real quick if you want, no biggie.”

Zarah didn’t care one way or the other. Which, she belatedly realised, was probably not a good sign. She lifted her thumb to her mouth and bit down on it as hard as she could, focusing on the pain, forcing herself to remember she was in a physical body. It… didn’t fix it, exactly, she still felt hollowed out and distant, but it kept her tethered. Even if Kihri would scream at her for it later.

“Alive is good,” she said at last. Remy seemed a little uncomfortable, but nodded. “Help me up?”

As Remy pulled her effortlessly to her feet, Zarah noticed that his skin was ice cold.

Sure enough, Orae and Guster together, slumped back against the side of the stairwell door. Guster looked if not unharmed, then no more so than she’d been before. Orae’s white shirt was stained through with multiple patches of dark, wet crimson, from four or five separate points if Zarah had to guess. Their dog lay nervously with its head on their lap, but they were breathing, heavy and ragged and growing less so with every passing second.

“Hey.” Zarah glanced over to see her sister, face unusually serious. “You back?”

Zarah half-shrugged. Sort of.

“Fuckin… better than nothing, I guess. We need to have a chat, Z.”

“Later,” she snapped.

“No, not later, you’re just fucking-”

“Hey-ey,” Remy cut in. “No judgement or anything, but who are you talking to? You, uh. You know no one else can see them, right?”

Zarah went to blow him off, and found she just couldn’t be bothered. “My sister,” she said. “Ghost.”

Remy nodded. “Cool. Sup, Zarah’s dead sister.”

Kihri stared at him. “…sure. Why not. Sup, weirdo.”

“Kihri says ‘hello’,” Zarah relayed tiredly.

“No, I said sup.”

The only thing keeping Zarah from rolling her eyes is that it was too much effort. “…she also says that it is ‘sup’, not hello.”

Remy looked at her for a second. “You’ve… got a lot going on, huh.”

She shrugged non-committally. “Will you stop me leaving if I am trying?”

He waved a hand. “Nah, s’cool. That was more Orae, you’re good. Just, like- don’t actually turn out to be a secret asshole, yeah? Because boy, will I look stupid!” He laughed, then immediately sobered. “You’re… not actually a secret asshole, right?”

His gaze was uncomfortably intense. “…no.”

“Nothing secret about it,” Kihri added.

“Oh, good.” He beamed, and gave her a little wave as if to send her off. “Don’t be a stranger, then!”

Zarah had already turned and begun to walk towards the fire escape. “Tell Orae,” she said over her shoulder, “that I will not start anythings, but I will end them.”

She heard Remy sigh. “Dangit, you were doing so well.”


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