“You know that I hate you, right? I really, really do.”
Zarah ignores her sister’s voice, letting the drum of the rain against her hood drown it out. Her hand clenches, the shard of red ghostlight in her hand drawing blood, and she lets out a wordless scream of rage and hatred as she charges.
“If you die,” Kihri yells from behind her, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”
The click of the door shutting behind them sounded absurdly loud in the quiet shop, and Zarah suppressed a wince.
“In the back,” a soft voice called out. “One moment, please.”
“Oh good,” Kihri said, relieved. “Told you she’d be here.”
“Mm.” Zarah didn’t want to admit defeat, but also didn’t have a good counterargument.
At first glance, Missa seemed to be a very standard type of shop, the kind of hybrid locksmith/tool/cobbler store that naturally formed like a kind of fungus. Racks of watches, knives and multitools were hidden behind glass and secured with heavy locks, and padlocks and chains hung from displays over a solid metal counter. The windows were covered with plain curtains, leaving the lighting to a set of dim fluorescent bars, and the carpet on the floors had been bleached so often that it was now a slightly off-white and frayed to near-destruction. Honestly, Zarah preferred it to the alternative – at least this way it was obvious that it had been cleaned regularly, as opposed to soaking in the dirt and grime and smoke of daily usage.
The first thing that stood out about Missa as non-standard was the door behind the counter. Solid steel, with no gap between the door and the frame, it looked like the kind of door that would be installed in a bunker or a military complex, not a small back-alley shop.
If one were very observant, or just got up very close, they’d also be able to see the slots over the windows where shutters could slide down, and tapping on the ‘glass’ of any of the cases would reveal it to be in fact industrial-grade plexiglass.
Anyone who was anybody knew, in no uncertain terms, not to fuck with Missa.
“Ah, Zarah, hello.” The steel door swung open, and a woman bustled out from behind it, flipping a welding mask to reveal a bright, crooked grin. She was short and stooped, with the slightly-humped back of someone who had spent a significant portion of their life in a field, and the wrinkles of someone for whom ‘a significant portion of their life’ meant longer than most people live, period. Despite that, she moved with surprisingly alacrity, swooping around the counter to give Zarah a friendly pat on the arm.
“Always a charm to see you alive, dear,” she said in accented Brechtin. “And always a charm to see you dead, Kihri!” She cackled, bright and sharp.
Kihri laughed right back. “I could say the same to you, you old bitch!” she said, grinning, and Zarah dutifully (and uncomfortably) repeated the words.
“You want me dead so bad, do it yourself!” Then, immediately switching back to the more kindly tone, “You are doing well, Zarah?”
“…could be better, Prim.”
Prim tutted, circling back around the counter. “Could be better, could be better. Nothing words, you know.”
Oh, did she ever know. “Not very well,” she clarified. “Bad, even.”
“Hm,” Prim frowned, pulling off the welding mask and setting it down on the counter. The short, straight hair underneath is just as white as Zarah’s, but from age rather than genetics. “Someone need killing?”
Kihri snickered. “Saints, I forgot how much I liked her. Why didn’t I want us coming here again?”
Zarah shook her head quickly. “No, no killing.”
“Uh, yes killing, dude. It sucks, but let’s be real, if you’re going into this with that attitude you’re coming out in a bodybag.”
Zarah rolled her eyes. “We need some things,” she said to Prim instead of replying. “Weapons.”
Prim nodded seriously. “That hockey stick not doing you well enough?” she asked, gesturing to the handle poking up over Zarah’s shoulder. “Or, no, that’s not…” something flashes across her face for a second, and she sighs. “Oh, Zarah,” she says sadly, then something longer in Jiayen. “What did you do?”
“You… know about this?” She didn’t specify further than that, but she got the impression Prim knew exactly what she was talking about.
“Zarah,” Prim said, serious as Zarah had ever heard her, “if it’s at all possible, you need to drop that thing down a sewer drain and get away from all of this.”
Zarah shook her head. “Too late for that, I think.”
Prim sighed. “Yeah, I expected you’d say that. Don’t tell me anymore, don’t ask me any questions, I don’t know and I don’t want to know.
As much as Zarah burned to ask her how she knew about- the ghostlight, about any of it, she could respect that.
“But,” Prim continued, pointing a finger up at her accusingly, “I don’t want to see your corpse on the news, understand?”
“It would not make it to the news,” Zarah said blackly, garnering a bitter laugh.
“Don’t die, then.”
“I will try my best.”
“I suppose that will have to do.” She rested her callused, wrinkled hands flat on the counter. “In that spirit, I suppose you don’t need a new knife?”
Zarah lifted her leg and showed her the old one, still strapped to her ankle. “Not exactly useful now,” she admitted.
“Ay yah,” Prim tutted. “Never know when it’s going to come in handy. You been keeping care of it like I showed you?”
Zarah pulled the knife out and handed it over, and Prim gave an approving little hum as she inspected the edge.
Like most people she knew, Zarah had met Prim essentially by accident. She’d been in her early teens, and taking an alternate route to avoid some cops had led her down this particular alley. She’d been lying if she said that curiousity wasn’t a part of why she’d stepped inside, but mostly it was the desire to be off the street until things cooled down a little more. Or at least until those specific cops had moved on (and what was up with two whole officers following up on a minor theft of some food, anyway? She’d been much angrier about that sort of thing back then – it had taken a little while longer for the reality to sink in).
Of course, she hadn’t exactly been inconspicuous – a teenager with a giant backpack, ragged clothes and white hair that she refused to dye but hadn’t yet learned to conceal – but when the cops had come knocking, Prim had hidden her without hesitation, lying to their faces.
Admittedly, she’d also spent five minutes afterwards pacing around and yelling in the back room of the store, too loud for Zarah to ignore, but the fact that she hadn’t yelled at Zarah, or even around her, already set her ahead of the pack.
“To the back, then?” Prim asked Zarah.
She nodded, already turning back towards the door to slide the deadbolt closed and flip the sign.
“Presumptuous, eh?” She’d panicked the first time Prim had made that joke, but she was more acclimated to her now, so she just rolled her eyes. “Come on, now?”
The lock on the heavy steel door was basic and sturdy, just a flush slot in which to insert a complicated-looking key. Prim didn’t trust technology, would go on about it at length – ‘strangling freedom with a chain made of convenience’ was a common refrain. Zarah assumed it sounded snappier in Jiayen.
Prim ushered Zarah inside, and shut the door behind them, the heavy thunk of the lock clicking back into place familiar where it had once been ominous. The back room was slightly larger than the storefront, and had a much more utilitarian aesthetic. Steel shelving lined the walls and created orderly rows in the centre of the room, stretching up to the ceiling, where they were firmly bolted in place. Some of the individual shelves had been left open, lined with a thin layer of soft foam, but others had been partitioned off into sealed containers not dissimilar to safes, faint labels carved into the metal plating above the keyholes.
The reason for the foam was that the shelves, to a one, held a veritable arsenal of weaponry.
Prim didn’t talk about such things, and Zarah didn’t ask, but over the years she’d slowly assembled a story out of idle gossip and chitchat. How true it was, she didn’t know, but it seemed plausible enough.
It went like this:
There was a man who sold weapons.
Not in the grand sense, not a war profiteer, but nevertheless someone who made tools of death and destruction available to others, in that great capitalist hellscape known as the free market. He had done this for a long time, and planned to continue to do so as long as it was still profitable, and it was very profitable. So profitable, in fact, that the man lived as comfortably as it was possible to live, for a certain definition of ‘comfortable’. Not a standard definition, no – except, perhaps, during certain bloody and black periods of history, and in the higher reaches of the same system that the man thrived in.
Of course, this made him well-disliked in many circles, but also fiercely defended in others – systems of power official and un- covering him so they could continue to make use of the services he provided. A tale as old as time – those who disliked, hated, this man were more numerous, their grievances raw and well-justified, but they did not have power, and did have things to lose, and so things continued on as they were.
Then, very suddenly, the man was gone. This is where the story started to break down somewhat, details become more muddled and contradictory, but it was at least generally agreed upon that the man had not angered or slighted one of his many benefactors, as some had initially thought. No, the single point of consensus that for once, the chickens had come home to roost, harvest being reaped.
The version that had rung truest, to Zarah, involved ideas she’d rather not think about – and to be fair, that was likely why it rang true, given the life that she’d lived. And, when the dust had settled, something in vaguely the same shape as before was found to be standing there, but under much different auspices, and manned by a small, sharp Jiayeni women by the name of Prim.
Of course, all of that could be true, and none of it could be true, but as Kihri so often urged her, the practical reality was what mattered to Zarah, and that reality was that Prim sold weapons, was viciously anti-authoritarian, and had a soft spot for the two of them. The latter two were in their favour, and helped soften the ‘sold’ part of the former – even those who disliked a society still had to function within it, after all.
Up until now that had mostly meant making sure Zarah always had a sharp knife (or three) and the knowledge of how to keep it sharp, with the notable exception of the year Zarah had convinced Prim to sell her a taser. The stalker that had prompted her fear had eventually disappeared, thank the stars, and Zarah had stopped carrying it around with her, the danger no longer great enough to justify the risk of being caught with an illegal weapon.
She was pretty sure she’d need more than just that, this time around.
A lot more.
Ink bled from the horizon as they walked, Zarah’s bag significantly heavier than before and her wallet significantly lighter. It stung, but as Kihri had pointed out, it was better to put a dent in her savings than in her. The dead didn’t have much use for money – unless you were Audenish, she supposed, but if the Audeni afterlife was real, then she had much bigger things to worry about.
She had much bigger things to worry about, regardless. The air was growing thick with ozone as the distant stormclouds roiled and burgeoned. Lightning flashed inside its depths, bursts of searing light through the pitch black clouds, and the distant crack of their thunder was audible even over the sounds of the city around them. The storm wouldn’t hit them for a few hours yet – Kaila had an unobstructed view of basically the rest of the country and it was building at the very opposite end – but when it arrived, it looked as if it was going to be one for the history books.
All the shelters would be already full to capacity, Zarah knew from previous experience. It was hard enough to stay safe and warm during normal rain, and during big storms, if you slept under the wrong bridge, it was entirely possible to wake up already neck deep and drowning.
According to Kihri, Kaila’s architecture and infrastructure wasn’t designed for the climate – the Brechts who’d colonised Ostra (and renamed it as such) just building the way that they had always done up in the north, which was apparently mostly overcast and grey, ranging from drizzle in the warmer months, to frozen sleet in the cooler ones. To Zarah, who’d only ever known Kaila’s muggy storms and dry winds, there was something about it that had always seemed charming, even as Kihri mocked it at length. It’d be nice, to see the snow someday.
“Zarah!” Kihri’s voice broke through her thoughts, and she turned to see Kihri pointing across the road. “There?”
She followed the line of her finger, and nodded. “Good eye, thank you.”
Traffic was light, so she jogged across to the other side, backpack bouncing rhythmically, and approached the coffee shop Kihri had pointed out – or more specifically, the person sitting outside.
“Good afternoon,” Zarah said, raising her hand in greeting.
“Mm,” the man grunted in return. He was probably pushing 60, with weathered skin and a lined face, his short frizzy hair more grey than black. His clothes were similar to Zarah’s – worn and tattered but clean, with a threadbare tartan blanket over his lap and a black beanie over his head. He had a cap with a few coins sitting on the pavement in front of him, but Zarah knew he’d pegged her as a fellow vagrant, and had no expectations.
“I’m moving soon,” he said, “but if you think you’re gonna get anything with that storm rolling in, good luck.”
Zarah shook her head. “Not looking to take over, no worry. Have you been around here long?”
“What, like, years?”
“No, as in. Today, yesterday.”
“Ah, right. Nah, I was over near Peterson and Bridges – you know the junction there?” Zarah nodded. “Yeah, I was over there last night.”
Zarah glanced over at Kihri, who nodded slightly. “Would you happen to have noticed anything last night?”
“Anything like what?”
“Out of the ordinary. Loud noises, strange people… anything.”
A man falling from the sky.
Zarah blinked, the words taking a second to penetrate. “Y-yes. Yes, around then.” After so many dead-ends, she hadn’t been expecting- anything.
“Loud, smashing noise, then a bunch of sirens, then a bunch more sirens?”
“Nah, I didn’t hear anything like that.”
The man laughed at the look on her face. “Kidding, kidding. Yeah, that all happened around 3 in the morning. I remember cause it woke me up, and I checked the weather.”
“Peterson and Bridges, you said?”
“This’d have been… closer to Marist, actually. Alleyway behind the pharmacy. Dunno where it actually happened, though, that’s just where I was.”
Zarah shook her head. “That is perfect. Thank you very much.”
She turned to go, but a cough stopped her. “You got somewhere to wait out the storm, kid?” he asked. “I got a spot, if you need it.”
“Thank you, no.”
“No you don’t need a spot?”
“No,” she said, walking away, “I am not waiting it out.”
It didn’t take them long to find the impact site.
They’d found the spot the man had mentioned, then spiralled out through the streets and alleys from there. The streets noticeably cleared as they did, the roars of the storm growing louder and driving the people indoors and undercover.
After careful and paiend consideration, Zarah had elected to stop at a convenience store and buy a raincoat – ‘pained’ because she’d already spent more money than she was comfortable with that day. Kihri had argued for an umbrella on the basis that it was a backup weapon in a pinch, but Zarah had countered that argument with her own, which was to ignore her sister and do what she’d originally been planning to do regardless. It was the stereotypical garish yellow, and even with the hood down and unbuttoned, it still made her stick out like a sore thumb, but experience had taught her rain could arrive much much faster than you expected, and while she didn’t know if her new healing abilities could cure hypothermia, she wasn’t particularly interested in testing it.
No matter how much Kihri wheedled.
“-seventy percent chance! Okay, maybe sixty-five, but you’ve beat worse odds than that, right? I mean, what’s the survival rate for homeless gay teens, forty-five percent?” There was a pause. “Okay, you know what, I realised it was bad as soon as I said it.”
“<Well, thank the firmament for that,>” Zarah muttered to herself.
Thankfully, whatever acerbic reply Kihri had been about to pull out was cut off, as they rounded the corner and stopped in their tracks.
For whatever reason, Zarah had been expecting a large crater, with the staggered rings of cracks and the indentation in the centre, which in hindsight was unrealistic. Her expectation that it would be on the ground was significantly more realistic, but that too had been proven false.
The brick wall on one side of the alleyway had been half-collapsed inward, a crumbling pile of masonry sitting on top of a dented dumpster. Blood was splattered liberally around the impact site, dried in odd clumps and splotches where it had been soaked up by the dust, and a few scraps of fabric had been torn off on jagged edges and corners.
Zarah looked at Kihri, who wordlessly pointed up at the lip of the building on the other side of the alley. A large chunk had been taken out of the edge, and Zarah could track a path where a falling object had clipped off of it to send it careening into the wall.
‘Object’ seemed so impersonal, but it was easier than thinking about it as a person.
“Well,” Kihri said, “at least now we have a new upper limit for the kind of punishment you can take.”
Zarah pointedly did not think about what that would look like from a first-person perspective. Didn’t think about what it had been like the last time, at all. At least this time, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. She just wished it had finished him off.
So she didn’t have to.
“How old is the blood?” Zarah asked, as Kihri swooped forward to get a closer look.
“Definitely over twelve hours, which tracks with what that guy told us, but…”
She trailed off and began flitting around. Zarah didn’t interrupt – it was obvious she thought she had something.
“I… think,” Kihri said slowly, after a few minutes of study, “and don’t quote me on this, but I think he was stuck here for a while. Or unconscious. Definitely not moving.”
“How did he get stuck, or how did I know? Drip patterns, for the latter.” She pointed at a couple of dried-up pools on the ground. “Can’t find a source for these and a few others. For the former, I mean, you needed time to heal from broken bones, and I’m pretty sure he would’ve been essentially pulverised. Hells, I’m kinda surprised he didn’t jellify.”
Zarah imagined scattered viscera slowly reforming into the shape of a person, and shuddered.
Kihri continued to float around, muttering to herself, so Zarah moved past her to look around the rest of the alleyway. Slightly further up, she found the debris from the ledge where it had fallen – nothing interesting there, she determined. Maybe Kihri could find some bizarre piece of information from the way that they’d broken or how they’d landed, but that wasn’t here.
She continued further up the alley, keeping her eyes peeled. Nothing, nothing, nothing… A small wheelie bin caught her attention, and she moved to the side to see behind it.
There was a body.