“Get away!” Zarah yelled frantically at the students. “Go, run!” She didn’t know what was happening, but the woman from before and all the bodies she’d found flashed through her mind. She had to get them away before Paose could get to them.
If that even is Paose. There was no… spark in his eyes, no ineffable something that distinguished a person and a moving corpse. Zarah had thought she’d killed him – the superstitious part of her mind was saying that she had, and so invited something worse in. And that scream…
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was putting him down, properly this time.
She stepped forward, hand raising up to unleash another explosion in his face, but her movements felt slowed, like moving through water rather than air, and the difficulty only grew as she pushed against it. As she struggled, red lines opened up on her skin and tears began to form in her clothes, and the source of her difficulty became visible.
Gossamer-thin threads of blue, so fine as to be almost invisible, filled the air, far too many to even begin to count. How they were holding Paose up, she had no idea – they looked so fragile and wispy that it seemed more absurd that they were doing so than that he was just floating on his own. They had wrapped around Zarah’s limbs, her body, the hammer – around her, restricting her movements and cutting into her skin like fishing wire. With a grunt of effort, she flared her corona and tore through them, finally managing to raise her hand and release the gathered energy.
There was no fire, no combustion – it was closer to something like a pressure cooker explosion, force tearing out from the inside. Through the gaps in her still-healing skin and muscles, she thought she saw the glimmer of something, something clear and gold underneath the red and white.
The explosion knocked Paose back slightly, a larger shard of bone ripping through the side of his throat. The wound patched over in seconds, though – barely enough time for it to even begin to bleed – thanks to his suddenly-increased healing. As an unexpected but welcome side effect of the explosion, the strands of ghostlight had been blown outwards and away by the gales of wind that it had unleashed, leaving the space between them clear.
Zarah took two steps forward, hammer already swinging in an overhead strike that caught Paose squarely in the stomach and dragged him down to the ground. It wasn’t as strong as it would have been with two hands, and so he didn’t seem to suffer any real damage when he hit the ground. That was easily remedied by a swift kick to the head, so fast that Zarah felt bone splinter under it, and something in Paose’s neck cracked sharply as it twisted.
Even as she did, though, even as his head was twisted around at an angle no person could possibly survive, one of his arms whipped up and grasped her ankle. Zarah barely had time to blink before she was hurtling across the room and smashing into the stacked chairs on the other side of the hall.
She groaned, chairs clattering down as she clambered to her feet. Paose was doing the same, and as the blue threads began to fill the air around him again, he spoke.
“None of you,” his voice rasped, barely recognisable in how damaged it was, “are leaving here. Not if I’m not.”
Then he turned away from her, and Zarah realised too late that the students had ignored her, were still clustered around the doorway.
“GO!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, the sound tearing out of her throat like the scream of wild animal. “GET OUT!”
She didn’t have time to see if they’d reacted, already forcing herself forward, forcing herself to move, to damnation with the pain. It took her moment to gather enough energy for another propelled leap, and it was weaker than the previous one, not throwing her nearly as fast. Paose had already reached the doorway, and the strangled sounds of screams chilled her to the bone as she arrived moments too late, hammer tearing through the threads as she crashed into him again.
A small part of her mind noted that she should really figure out a better way of attacking people than body-slamming them. Or, failing that, at least start wearing some padding.
The shoulder that had been wounded earlier must not have been fully healed, because it jarred out of place again at the impact, and Zarah bit down on a scream as the two of them tumbled to the ground. For what felt like the first time, she actually lost her grip on the hammer, and it clattered along the wooden floor, coming to a stop a bit further along than they had.
In every one of their encounters, Zarah had always been able to rely upon getting back on her feet quicker than Paose, and it was very uncomfortable to no longer have that advantage. She only just managed to roll out of the way of a blow that cracked the floor where it hit, scrabbling away on half-functioning limbs.
“Zarah, what’s- Shit on a saint!” Kihri’s face had popped out of the ground, but upon sighting Paose, her eyes went wide and she disappeared again. “What the fuck!”
“You said destroy the shade,” Zarah hissed at her. “I destroyed the shade.” She knew that talking to thin air wasn’t going to help her standing with the students, but there were bigger concerns at the moment. “He is not looking dead, Kihri! He is-” she had to throw herself awkwardly out of the way of a lash from Paose’s wires, “-looking better than dead!”
“How the fuck should I know what’s going on?!” Kihri shot back. “Yes, I know you’re trying to spark a memory, it didn’t fucking work, shut up!”
Zarah managed to get to her feet just in front of the students, who-
“WHICH PART OF ‘RUN’,” she screamed furiously over her shoulder, “IS NOT CLEAR?!”
“W-we can’t go back that way,” the teacher stammered, and then Zarah ignored the rest as the wires started to constrict around her limbs and throat. Snarling, she tore through them with a surge of strength, but Paose was already upon her again, and as she got her first proper look at him in good lighting, she realised why Kihri had reacted so viscerally.
He was… distorting, was the only word she could find to describe it. Like light passing through a broken prism, shifting and changing as the source moved, he didn’t quite line up anymore. Watching him move, it almost felt like she was looking at different parts of his body from slightly different angles, moving in slightly different directions, but never actually coming apart. It probably would’ve given her a headache, under other circumstances, but there were more pressing concerns – her impending transformation into a small pile of deli meat, for example.
Zarah growled, pushing back against the wires as her blacklight flared. She wasn’t actually certain where or when she’d figured out how to do that. Evidently, the supernatural weirdness she’d found herself embroiled in worked by sink or swim rules, and she’d been thrown in the deepest of deep ends.
It worked regardless, the wires breaking in a series of quiet snaps that formed an unsettling roll of noise when put together. Unfortunately, her moment of incapacitation had given Paose a free hit, and it was a surprise when he actually hit her with his own hand, instead of his ghostlight.
Or, tried to hit her, anyway. The first blow, a wild but powerful haymaker, came straight for her head, and Zarah couldn’t help but flinch away. Instead of the situation-ruining impact she’d been bracing for, though, what she got was something almost pliable. Like being hit in the head by a bucket of water, and stars know she’d had plenty of experience with that. It still cleaned her clock, but it was clear Paose hadn’t been expecting the result either, because as Kihri recovered, she found him hanging there, staring at the empty space that used to be his right hand.
His expression shifted, and blue ghostlight began to condense out of the air into the shape of a new hand, and then Zarah took advantage of his distraction to shove her hand against his chest and detonate it.
The wind that lashed out this time was almost like a gale force, whipping Zarah’s face back out of her hair and tearing gashes through her clothes in a few places, nicking the skin underneath. Paose was just gone, a cloud of dust at the other end of the corridor signalling where he’d taken out a door and a decent chunk of the wall with it.
For a moment, Zarah thought she could see a faint golden tint to the air before it faded away, the remnants of the golden light she’d spotted earlier.
It was ghostlight, she was almost certain now – whether the volatility was inherent or her own lack of control was a problem for another time. Right now, it was proving to be helpful, even at the cost of the use of one of her hands.
“What is back that way?” Zarah asked, turning to face the students. A few of them had gashes and torn clothes, and Zarah’s heart froze in her chest before she realised that the lacerations were too thin and too fine to have been caused by her ghostlight. Some of the wires must have gotten past her without her realising.
“W-who are you? What is happening?” the teacher stammered out, doing his best to put himself between Zarah and the students. Who, Zarah realised with a start, couldn’t have been more than a year younger than her. It was bizarre, and disconcerting, and more than a little uncomfortable.
“Does not matter,” she snapped. “What is back there.”
“Bombs,” one of the students piped up, sounding weirdly unaffected considering the subject matter. “And lots of that weird blue stuff.”
“And lots of blood,” another one added.
What is wrong with these kids?
“Are you a zombie?”
It took Zarah a second to realise the question was addressed at her. “No. Well, yes, but- no. Now is not the time.”
“Not cool,” Zarah snapped back.
“Eh, I dunno,” Kihri said from below her. “It’s a little cool.”
Zarah couldn’t even spare the energy to be properly irritated. “Where is fire exit?” she asked, turning back to the teacher.
He shook his head nervously. “T-the door was blocked off.”
Zarah hissed through her teeth. He’d obviously spent some time, making sure his prey couldn’t just run. With all his preparations, she’d couldn’t rely on them being able to get out on their own, which meant the best option was…
“This way,” she said, pointing in the direction she’d sent Paose flying. “Follow me, but stay behind.”
“We’re following that creep?!” It was the same student who’d told her about the bombs.
“Yes,” Zarah confirmed tersely, “because any traps, he would have set off on his way through. Stay. Behind. Me.” She started down the corridor, and was pleased to hear a chorus of footsteps starting up after her.
Less pleasing was the louder set, hurrying up behind her. “But there could still be others-” the teacher started to say, before Zarah turned and shoved him back. She hadn’t done it very hard, but he still nearly fell.
“That is why,” she snapped, “I say stay. behind. If there is, I heal.” She held up her hand to demonstrate, as the last layer of skin began repairing.
“Totally a zombie.”
“Whichever one of you thinks they are clever,” Zarah said over her shoulder, “stop it.”
“Cute,” Kihri said, floating up to join her. “You have a plan.”
“No dying,” Zarah said. “No letting them die.”
“Not much of a plan.”
“You have better?”
“We-ell…” Zarah shot her a look. “No, not really.”
“Have you at least figured out why he is not dead?”
“I told you, Z. If I was gonna get anything, it would’ve happened.”
“Who are you talking to?” one of the students asked.
“No-one. Rude to interrupt. Sh.”
“Oh, yeah,” Kihri said, “that’s really confidence-inspiring.”
“…too late to use my phone?”
“Ohh yeah. Way too late.”
“Of course. What happens when you wound a shade but not destroy it?”
“Experiments haven’t reached that stage yet,” Kihri said automatically. Then, “Oh, you bitch.”
“If we survive, I will apologise. She doesn’t know anything?”
“Not beyond ‘destroy the shade’, no.”
“That did not work, Kihri. It made him stronger, even.”
“Yeah, I fucking noticed! But I don’t know why, everything that I’ve been able to scrounge up says that he should…” Kihri’s eyes went wide. “Oh. Ohhhh. Ohhhh.”
“Good ‘oh’ or bad ‘oh’?”
“Ehhhmm… well, the good news is that I’m pretty sure you did kill him.”
“Not seeming that way.”
“You killed him, but he hasn’t, uh. Realised it, yet?”
“That is not how it works.”
“Look, it’s- I’m figuring this out as I say it, okay! I’m pretty sure that this is just a death rattle. A very loud death rattle.”
“How sure is pretty?”
They reached the end of the corridor, and its brand-new hole, with still no sign of Paose. It made Zarah antsy. With how quickly he healed now, he should’ve been back on them in no time at all. Zarah wasn’t naive enough to think he’d finally keeled over, which meant he was probably trying something.
Zarah was very sick of people trying things.
“You,” she said as they came to a stop, not looking back. “Teacher. Which way out.” She didn’t want to take her eyes off the hole, in case he came tearing out of it.
“That way. Uh, right, then left, then-”
“Not all at once. As we go. Is that to front exit.”
“Is there another?”
“I-in the gates? No, but-”
“Yeah, there is.” It was the same student again. “Gates are bent out a bit at the back, across the oval.”
“Mary,” a few other voices cried in outrage and disappointment.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Apparently-Mary said, “would you prefer we died?!”
“I like her,” Kihri said appreciatively.
No surprises there. “Which way to that?”
“Still right,” Mary answered over the teacher’s protests, “but different from there. Also, can we call you something? Like, a name or whatever?”
Zarah shrugged one shoulder. “‘You’ works.” If something was going to happen, it probably would’ve by now, but she kicked a piece of rubble through the other room, just in case. “Move past me, wait there.” She didn’t want someone getting grabbed from behind, now that they were no longer sure where Paose was.
A student with curly dark hair was one of the last past, and the look she gave Zarah had the least fear out of any of them. Zarah had an instinct as to who she was, and it was only confirmed when she spoke.
“How’s ‘Yellow’?” Mary said, slight grin twitching at the corner of her mouth.
“Something to call you. ‘You’ seems a bit. Well, bad. Ooh, Sunshine, maybe?”
The noise that Kihri made at that could only be generously described as a laugh. It made Zarah think of a hyena more than anything else.
“You are very… chipper,” Zarah noted instead of responding, gesturing the group onwards. She’d intended it to be a conversation-ender, as she moved up to the front again, but the girl followed her up.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she said, hanging at the very front of the group, just far away enough that Zarah didn’t think she could call her on it. “I’m terrified, absolutely shitting my pants.” She gave a strained little laugh, as if to demonstrate. “This is just how I get. Left up here, then second door on the right, by the way.
After a moment’s consideration, she tore it off its hinges (which once again took more effort than she’d expected it would), and tossed it through the opening. It bounced and skidded for a few meters, and then disappeared with a deafening roar as some kind of trap was set off.
Zarah winced, as a chorus of cries of alarm sounded out behind her. If Paose hadn’t already known where they were, he did now.
“How did you do that?” Mary asked, sounding awed but genuinely curious.
“Long story,” Zarah grunted.
“Can I get the short version?”
Zarah glanced over, and found the girl flashing a cheeky grin at her.
Zarah met her gaze. “Magic,” she said, completely flat.
“…okay, I probably should’ve seen that coming. The medium version?”
“Does it have something to do with that?” She pointed at the hammer.
“No,” Zarah replied. “Glowy magic hammer is unrelated.”
“What, really?! How- Oh. You’re making fun of me, aren’t you.”
“Yes, I am.” She turned to the rest of them. “You see anything,” she instructed, “you scream, loud as you can. Keep an eye on each other.”
“This isn’t a horror movie, Zarah,” Kihri said.
“I would not,” Zarah muttered under her breath, “be putting it past him.”
The students, lacking Kihri’s innate disrespect of her, obeyed as they moved forward, following Mary’s directions. At first, Zarah rubbernecked back and forth to keep an eye on them, until Kihri promised to stick around and watch them while Zarah searched for traps.
They found three more on their way out – one more explosive, and two made out of blue ghostlight. The first was simple, a series of razor-thin wires stretched across a corridor, only visible when the light caught them and where dried blood seemed to hang in midair. There were bloodstains on the floor and walls as well, but no bodies. Zarah tried not to think about it too much, as she tore through them with the hammer.
The second one was… stranger. Divots had been carved out of the ground, and blue ghostlight sat placidly inside it. There was no glow of blacklight around them, so they weren’t being actively manipulated, but when Zarah tapped it cautiously with the hammer, it instantly shot upwards, forming into spikes and nearly ripping the hammer from her grasp.
Getting everyone through would have been tricky, and destroying it might’ve had unexpected consequences, so instead Zarah busted a hole in the wall to the next room and led everyone around it entirely.
When they reached an exterior exit and Paose still hadn’t reappeared, Zarah was beginning to grow worried. More worried. Going outside into the rain felt like a bad idea, but staying wasn’t an option either. Plus, she’d probably have a pretty hard time selling the others on it.
The rain lashed against their skin as they stepped outside, sending up a hum of miserable noises from the others. Zarah wasn’t particularly comfortable herself, but at the very least, it was serving to wash away the blood and dust that had covered her.
“God,” she heard Mary say. “So there is a person underneath there.”
“Are you ever shutting up?” Zarah asked, but with no real malice to it.
A chorus of resounding ‘no’s from the rest of the group answered that question.
“Aww,” Mary said with a grin in her voice, “you love it.”
She’s as bad as Kihri. Worse, even, because she’s actually distracting me. “Which way?” Zarah cut in, glancing over her shoulder.
“Like I said, across the field.” Mary pointed towards the other end of the large patch of lawn. The rain wasn’t as bad as before and visibility was better, but she still couldn’t see much past the halfway point of the stands. She suspected that the others wouldn’t even be able to see that much.
“Okay,” she said, walking back over to the group. “This is still danger. We- why did you all just do that.”
The vast majority of the group had done a double-take or flinched as she returned.
“Your, uh,” Mary pointed. “Your hair.”
My… Zarah lifted a strand, confused until she saw the last bits of blood and dust washing off of it. Oh. Oh.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “We have a problem?” she asked, as civilly as she could manage in the moment.
That is to say, not very.
“N-no,” the teacher said, “n-no problem. We just hadn’t- you didn’t- it wasn’t-”
Zarah couldn’t help but glance at Mary. She’d half-expected an eyeroll or some kind of gesture putting down the rest of the group – the girl had been trying pretty hard to ingratiate herself.
Instead, she got an awkward glance, and the mouthed words “I’m sorry”. It was… better than the alternative.
Sure she’s just trying, Zarah?
“Keep an eye out,” she instructed the group as they moved away from the building. “Same as before.”
“What am I?” Kihri said. “Chopped liver?”
“If I am telling you to be wary,” Zarah said, flat, “then things are very wrong.”
The rain grew more intense, no longer being partially obstructed, and Zarah had to keep pushing her hair out of her eyes. She was… fairly sure she’d had it up before.
“Here.” Mary half-shouted over the drum of the rain, handing her an elastic. “I keep a couple of spares.”
“…thanks.” Putting her hair up was slightly awkward while holding the hammer, but she eventually tucked it under her arm while she got it done.
The grounds of the field were marshy, squelching under their feet, mud seeping into shoes. For Zarah, it didn’t particularly matter – she’d already gotten as soaked as was basically possible, and the rain kept the mud away fairly well. Didn’t seem like the others were having a particularly fun time, but-
Like before, it wasn’t any kind of concrete sign that warned her; no flash of movement out of the corner of her eye, no noise heard through the rain.
Maybe before all this, she’d have chalked it up to her subconscious processing things she wasn’t consciously aware of, but… it had the same feel as everything else that had been happening.
This was something else, and it was telling her that she needed to move.
“RUN!” Zarah bellowed at the top of her lungs, for what felt like the hundredth time that night. “FENCE, KEEP GOING.” Crude even for her, but it got them moving.
Mary, inexplicably, gave her a thumbs-up and a shaky grin as she turned back towards the school, which was…
Which was, Zarah decided as she reached into the pocket of her raincoat, something to process later. They’d made it far enough from the buildings for the rain to obscure them beyond abstracted gaps in the lights of the city beyond them, and so when Zarah threw the object she’d retrieved out into the night, it should have been a completely blind guess.
As she watched the grenade sail through the air into the oncoming glow of blacklight, Zarah Vyas came to the conclusion that the last few days had completely robbed ‘should’ of any meaning.
The grenade detonated in Paose’s face, briefly overpowering nature’s wrath as the shockwave created a thick, stinging spray, followed by a brief bubble of calm. Then the rain returned, the smoke washed away almost instantly, leaving behind a grisly sight.
Paose had splattered.
Not like a human, not like meat and bone, but like a liquid. His legs were mostly intact, but they were fully blue now, the distortion present before having progressed to a degree that made them actively hard to look at. The rest of his body was just gone, but not gone far – blobs of glue ghostlight, like water in zero gravity, hung at various distances around him, all with that same head-splitting distortion. And, as Zarah watched, they all began to reverse course, reforming Paose’s body as they splashed and flowed together.
“Well, that’s just fucking gross,” Kihri said, which Zarah didn’t really have a counter to.
Reconstituted, it was even more obvious how much worse Paose’s state had gotten. Zarah could barely even make out his face, and, well. She could see through him. Before, he’d looked bad, but still as if he was a human being. Now, he looked more like some construct of blue ghostlight – without the distortion, there was no way Zarah would have guessed he was a person.
The hovering didn’t help with that, either. She had the horrifying thought that he could fly now, until she managed to spot the wires again. Once she knew they were there, they were actually more visible than they had been inside, the faint glow of blacklight around them serving to illuminate them now that it was no longer overwhelmed by other light sources. It also served to faintly reveal what the thousands of filament-thin wires were carrying, and Zarah’s breath froze in her throat.
Lots of explosives.
While they’d made their way outside, he must have gone around and gathered everything he’d rigged around the school. Which, on one hand, made it much safer in the long term.
On the other, it made things much less safe for Zarah in the short term.
“Well,” Kihri said, trying for glib and failing miserably, “uh. Good luck with that!”
Zarah couldn’t even bring herself to be mad at her sister as she disappeared through the ground. She was envious, if anything.
“I’d like to have something to say here,” and oh saints was his voice disturbing, like a robot made out of meat, all wet and garbled, “but you know what? I’ve got nothing. Just die.”
“You first,” Zarah said, and dropped to one knee. Paose moved as well, the wires and explosives beginning to whip towards her, but her hand was already buried in the dirt, and she didn’t hesitate to detonate it.
She was flung backwards and to the side, in what was at best a controlled tumble if one was being generous. Some of the dirt and grass came with her, but most had sprayed forward, obscuring her for the few moments before the first of the explosives hit, a rolling wave of detonations like an artillery bombardment. She skidded, heels digging into the mud, and bounded forward again as Paose came tearing through the smoke. The threads were already swinging towards her, but she’d moved inside their effective range, and the seconds he had to take in order to adjust for that were enough to get in close.
No fancy tricks this time – she’d only had the one grenade and one mine, anyway. Hammer, one-handed overhead swing, straight to the chest, no frills. It actually hit, too, like his body was still made out of something solid instead of splattering like it did with the explosive.
It sent him crashing down into the mud, wires rippling with the impact but remaining irritatingly extant. Would have been too much to hope that they would have disappeared, apparently. Zarah landed on top of him, and while his chest was still recompositing itself out of threads of ghostlight, smashed his head in like a pumpkin.
The brief respite had finally given her a moment to think, to process his whole… deal. It was the same problem as before, really, just on a larger scale – she could hurt him, but not permanently. Before, she’d been at least able to put him down for a few moments, and she’d had a goal, a win condition. Now, he healed so fast that he was back on his feet in seconds, and her win-condition had been decidedly… not that. All she had now was guesswork and intuition – but then again, intuition had carried her surprisingly far that evening. And what her intuition was telling her currently was that his healing wasn’t infinite, couldn’t be infinite. Every time he used it, it had to be draining some kind of resource, and when he ran out, hopefully he’d finally give up the goddamn ghost and die already.
So in that spirit, Zarah reached down, grabbed one of Paose’s arms and tore it clean off his body. Replacing an entire limb was probably harder than stitching one back on, she reckoned, so she tossed it off to the side and did the same to the other one. His head had pretty much reformed by that point – enough to start making noise, at any rate – so she did that one too, and was about to get started on the legs when everything went white.
Another difference she’d failed to account for: that disabling Paose’s body might no longer affect his ability to act.
At the bottom of a brand-new crater formed by the grenade that had just detonated on top of both of them, Paose’s body began reforming, the process looking halfway between flesh and blood and the liquid-like splatter of before. He began to lift off the ground before the process was even finished, rising limp into the air as chunks and viscera flowed back into place, melding together seamlessly. A shiver seemed to pass through him, and he lifted his head, glancing around as the various wires and tendrils snaked down from the edge of the crater to reconnect to his form.
“Don’t suppose you’d have the courtesy of being blown into a fine powder,” Paose’s unearthly voice said. It was growing shakier, fading in and out like TV static. “Would really make my day.”
He moved forward, up and over the lip of the crater, preparing a few more of his dwindling supply of explosives. There was a flicker of motion and colour, off to the side, and he pivoted on it instantly, grenades and mines flying forward to create a rolling wave of destruction and flying clumps of earth.
Once again, the rain washed away the smoke almost instantly, revealing the uneven craters left behind, and the distinct lack of corpses. A moment later, small scraps of fabric began floating down out of the air. Paose caught one and held it up to the light, revealing it to be a piece of a bright yellow raincoat.
There was a sound that might have been speech before it had been mangled by his current state. He didn’t let go of the scrap, but his entire form flickered and destabilised for a second, letting it pass through his grip before he recovered.
In an instant, sudden and jarring, he spun around, wires turning after him like a vortex, bombarding the flash of light that had appeared behind him for just an instant. This time, there was no stagger, no delay – just the blinding white, eardrum-destroying roar of half a dozen pieces of high explosive going off simultaneously. The shockwave was strong enough to disturb Paose’s form for a moment, distorting it as the rain and dirt were propelled away from the blast.
In the centre of the crater, the hammer sat, glowing softly with refracted light. It would have been more dramatic if it had remained upright – but that would have been wildly improbable, and it lay on its side instead.
Paose descended down into the crater, flickering and glitching so heavily as he moved that he more resembled a series of still images in rapid succession than an actual moving object. A series of now-unhindered wires wrapped around the handle of the hammer and lifted it up into the air, bringing it closer to him. Then, halfway there, he stopped, and shook the hammer vigorously. Only when he was satisfied there was nothing attached to it did he continue to bring it to him-
-only to find that it wouldn’t move. It was trying – some of the wires were pulling it in the right direction, but some of them were pulling off to the side instead, the ends that extended beyond where they were wrapped around the hammer disappearing over the lip of the crater.
Paose lifted himself back up above the crater, spinning towards the direction the wires were being pulled-
-and found nothing there.
In the low lighting, the glow of blacklight made it difficult to see anything that was in the shadows. Not impossible, there was too much ambient light for that, but difficult.
And while it seemed very unlikely that Paose could stop drawing on blacklight in his current state, Zarah had no such difficulty.
She was bleeding, and limping, her clothing torn half to shreds, and missing most of one arm, but she was on her feet and mobile, and more importantly, had been given a solid chunk of time in which to operate unhindered. She had collected a handful of the wires, wrapped loosely around her fist, and had pinned them to the ground with one foot. And, while Paose was still trying to find her in the darkness, she yanked them backwards, pulling him forward and down into the ground. She felt a quick sting of pain as a few of the wires sliced through the bottom of her shoe and into her foot, but it was a small price to pay.
She did tap into the blacklight then, as she lifted her foot off the wires and grabbed them with both hands, stepping back until they drew taut then turning the motion into the beginnings of a spin. There was an odd, jerky resistance at first as he dragged through the mud and dirt, but after he cleared it, Zarah was able to smoothly turn him into the world’s largest hammerthrow weight. She could have laughed, under different circumstances – there was something almost comical about it, spinning him around like they were children playing a game.
Of course, the thought of children quickly jumped to the bodies, to the students, and any humour was sapped from her in an instant.
Whether motion sickness and dizziness was still a factor could go either way – she could feel the beginnings of it setting in around the edges, albeit not nearly as fast as it might ordinarily, but Paose was another thing entirely. Either way, it made for as good a sign as any, and Zarah started adjusting the angle of her swings, tilting up on one side and down on the other, until-
The sudden lack of weight on the end of the wires as Paose impacts the ground was enough to make Zarah overbalance, and she spun two or three more times before getting her feet under her. The world continued to turn slightly past her as she stopped, but equilibrium returned quickly, and she dashed over to the long ot carved out of the ground, to the glow of blacklight spilling over where it terminated. She leapt into the air, hammer raised in one hand-
-and Paose surged upwards and caught her, one hand around her throat, and the other holding back the hammer.
“Learn a new trick,” he snarled.
“You first,” Zarah gasped, and shoved her other hand forward, detonated it-
-and a thick ball of blue ghostlight surrounded it just as she did.
Her hand still detonated, but the sound and fury were muffled as the ghostlight took the brunt of the force, shooting outwards in a stinging spray that tore strips off of Zarah’s face. That was the extent of the damage, though, and wires wrapped around that arm, rendering it immobile.
“Good advice,” Paose’s inhuman voice ground out, only inches from her face. “In fact, you’ve given me some inspiration.”
His hand closed around her shade, one of the spikes of rebar that stuck upwards from her shoulder, and wrenched it to the side.
Zarah screamed, and in the back of her mind, she could hear her sister’s anguished cry alongside it. It felt… utterly indescribable. Like her soul, her very self, was being slowly torn in half.
“Not fun, is it?” He jerked the piece of rebar again, back in the other direction, and Zarah let out another strangled howl of anguish. “That’s just a fucking fraction of what you did to me, you little rat. And I intend to-”
Zarah spat in his face.
His head tilted to the side, and he watched her silently for a moment.
“Your funeral,” his garbled voice ground out.
Zarah murmured something.
“Sorry?” he said, leaning in closer and grinding her shade to the side again. “I didn’t quite hear that.”
“I said,” Zarah panted, “yours. First.”
He froze, then slowly looked downwards.
With Zarah’s last scream covering the sound, a tendril had torn straight through the middle of Paose’s chest, formed around the ruined wasteland of Zarah’s left hand. The golden threads of light that twined around each other to form it, everything Zarah had been able to gather, were shaking and bristling
And, impaled on the very tip of the spike, was the last remaining scrap of his shade, the tiny scrap hidden inside his torso that Zarah had been forced to get up close to find.
“Oh, you little guttersh-”
The spike detonated.
Zarah’s world went blurry as she was flung backwards and away, searing pain lashing across the entire front of her body like fire. Compared to the soul-wrenching pain of having her shade damaged, though, it was barely noticeable – more than anything, she felt woozy, disconnected from her own body in a way that felt more tangible than it ever had before.
She barely even noticed hitting the ground, rolling and tumbling limply through the mud before coming to a stop. All she could see was mud, and she could distantly taste some of it too. Sensations, the patter of the rain on her back and the searing pain across her front, registered with her, but didn’t seem very relevant or important. Neither did the burning pain in her chest, until it started growing worse and the edges of her vision began to grey out.
Oh, yes. Breathing. That’s a thing that I need to do.
She directed her lungs to take a deep breath, but found them confounded as the taste of mud in her mouth grew more prominent.
Arms. Okay. After a few seconds, she directed her arms to push her up off the ground. Only one of them actually worked, the other just slipping through the mud with a distant spike of pain, but she nevertheless managed to flip herself over onto her back, taking a deep, shuddering breath.
The rain pelted down from above, stinging at her face and eyes.
Zarah blinked slowly, registering the voice calling out to her. How long had she been lying there?
“I know you’re alive, you asshole! Stop ignoring me!”
That voice was… her sister. Right.
“Kihri,” she said.
“Yes, that’s me, well done. Are you like, here? Cause you kinda seem like you’re… not. That.”
“Mm,” Zarah said slowly, lifting a hand and waving it back and forth. “<Maybe. I don’t know.> I feel all… not <together>. Bad.”
“Yeah, no kidding. This is probably what you look like drunk, huh?”
A thought flashed through Zarah’s mind, and she jerked upright. Or, upwards. She didn’t quite make it all the way, and sort of flopped bonelessly back down. “Him. Kihri, the… <is he dead? The man, the… the> tendril <man>.”
“Well, he’s gone, so I’m gonna say… yes.”
“Gone? Gone where.”
“Gone nowhere. Or, onto the next life if you’re into that sort of thing. He kind of… pssht,” she made a gesture with both hands, “came apart.”
“Pssht,” Zarah imitated. “Good. He was… ugh. <Sewer water person>.”
“Okay, this is starting to go from funny to worrying. You need to get it together, Z. This is not the best place for a nap.”
A nap did sound pretty good. But as her sister spoke, more and more details of their situation floated up to the surface, and her thoughts started to become a bit less muddy.
“Ha,” she said out loud. “Muddy.”
“Uh, yeah, dude, it sure is. Come on, can you… oh, wait. Reach out your left hand, Zarah. Can you do that for me?”
Zarah hummed in agreement, flopping her left arm outwards. Her wrist hit something solid, and she flinched, but there was something familiar about it, and within seconds, she was able to identify it as the hammer. Her hammer.
“Oh-kay, that… looks like it did something? You’re glowing a lot brighter, at least.”
“Mrgh,” Zarah agreed, pushing herself up slowly. Her head was clearing more rapidly now, but that brought with it the return of the searing pain in her… well, in her soul. Her physical injuries were rapidly closing over, but that indescribable ache remained. No supernatural shortcuts there, she supposed.
After a few moments, she was able to shift the hammer over into her lap, and found herself almost cradling it. How it had become such a source of comfort in such a short time, she wasn’t sure.
“He is dead?” she asked after a few moments.
Kihri, floating a few feet away, perked up – something in her voice must have shown that she was back to her senses.
“Like I said, babes,” Kihri said, swooping over, “pssht. Harder to get deader than that. You, uh. You handling that okay?”
Zarah leaned back slightly, looking up at the cloud-covered sky above. Paose was dead, and she felt nothing.
No. No, she wouldn’t allow herself that out. She had killed Paose. It didn’t simply happen, it was something she’d done. And she felt… fine.
“Mm,” she said after a moment. “Tired.”
“…really? That’s it? I’m not defending him, that dude had to fucking die, but you just killed a man, and all you feel is… tired?!”
Zarah pursed her lips, considering.
“…very tired,” she amended.
Kihri stared at her for a moment, before the corner of her mouth twitched up, and she broke down laughing.
Zarah laughed too, leaning back and letting the water run down her face as she tilted it backwards. She laughed and laughed and laughed, long after the humour had run out, long after Kihri had stopped.
“<I’m not okay,>” she said through the laughter, tears dripping down her cheeks. “<I’m really not okay, Kihri. Not at all.>”
“Yeah,” her sister said, wrapping her arms around herself and looking away. “Yeah, I know.”
The laughter faded into chuckles, and Zarah just stared up at the sky. There were no stars visible, but she imagined she could see them anyway, tiny pinpricks through the clouds.
“<I’m sorry,>” she said after a while.
“…I appreciate that,” Kihri replied cautiously. “Wanna be more specific.”
“<…yeah, that’s fair. I’m sorry for… all of it. How I’ve handled this whole… situation. You were absolutely right, before, and I said I listened to you and then I went ahead and did exactly what you were worried about. So… I’m sorry.>”
“…apology accepted. But, like… you know it’s not the sort of thing you can just decide to fix, right? You say that now, when you’re still a bit whacked-out on adrenaline and dopamine, but what about later? When something else happens, and you know something else is going to happen. You’ve still got all these bad habits you’re going to fall back on->”
“<Bad habits that kept me alive,>” Zarah said, irritation breaking through her exhaustion.
“Fine, unhealthy habits, that are going to get you killed. You need to do some work, Zarah, while in you’re in better headspaces, so that you’re prepared-”
“<If you’re about to suggest I see a therapist,>” Zarah cut in, “<this conversation is over.>”
“Oh, I fucking wish that was actually a realistic possibility, but no. I just want you to agree to-”
She went silent, and Zarah glanced down to find her utterly still, face frozen, eyes wide with fear. Then her form flickered, and disappeared entirely.
“Kihri?” Zarah asked, scrambling to her feet, hammer in her hands. “Where-”
“So you did survive,” an unfamiliar voice said from behind her. “I had my hopes, but it didn’t seem likely towards the end.”
She was white, on the short end of average height, with the sort of stocky build of someone who’d probably be a fair hand at manual labour if they ever tried it. Her fine blonde hair was pinned back in a no-nonsense ponytail, a few wispy strands escaping near her temples to frame a blocky, unremarkable face. A wide mouth sat below a thin, arched nose, and her brown eyes were worn and cold. The heavy lines around her eyes and brow made her age hard to guess – she could have been a healthy mid-forties, a rough late-twenties, or anywhere in-between. Her shirtwaist was a dark grey, with a shiny silver scarf hanging like a tie around the neck, and her billowy pants ended just above low-cut boots.
Zarah felt the woman’s eyes sweep over her, and a chill ran down her spine. There was nothing behind those eyes, just cold calculation, an abacus making tallies out of the world.
“You’d be the girl, then,” she said, walking forward. “He never did give me a name, which is about typical.” As she stepped out from cover, blacklight began to glow around her, and a red umbrella crystallised into existence in her hand, quickly adjusting its shape to keep the rain off her. “Presumably, there’s no need for me to introduce myself?”
Zarah froze, glancing back between her and the ghostlight umbrella. She’d never met this woman before, she was fairly certain, but she did seem somewhat familiar…
The picture. The one on-
“Mm,” Yanis Metzin said. “I thought as much.”