17-6

The woman seemed to be unconscious, thankfully, and there were no obvious injuries on her.

She was middle-aged, white, with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in bland officewear, and the grenade had been clipped to her simple chain necklace.

“Okay,” Kihri said as she inspected the explosive. “Okay, this is pretty bare-bones work. Pin’s been pulled, but the wire is keeping the lever down for now. If you just make sure you’re holding it down when you cut it away, it should be fine.”

Zarah stepped forward to do just that, then stopped, hand just inches away from the grenade.

“Zarah?” Kihri asked, as she remained frozen there. “What is it?”

Truth be told, she wasn’t entirely certain what had prompted her hesitation. A whisper in the back of her mind, some instinct based on information her conscious brain had yet to process properly – whatever it was, she knew that something was wrong.

“The stairs,” she said slowly, her brain churning over the words as they came. “One obvious trap, to hide another.”

Kihri whistled.“You think there’s one more layer?”

She hadn’t been sure until Kihri said it, but the words slotted neatly into the ideas she’d been forming. “Check underneath, please,” she asked, drawing back from the grenade.

“…shit,” came Kihri’s voice seconds later, half her body submerged inside the woman’s and the floor. “You were right. There’s a mine down here. Can you get some light down here- without moving her?”

Zarah crouched down and held out a hand, flaring the blacklight around it.

“Oh wow that’s still fucking weird. Okay, yeah, it looks like it’s a pressure sensor, so it’ll go off if you move her. But… there’s also wire running up her back. Does it attach to the back of the necklace?”

Now that she knew what to look for, it only took Zarah a few seconds to find the tiny glint of metal running from the necklace down under her jacket. “It is… twisted in, I think. Inner twined?”

“Intertwined. Okay.” Kihri floated back up into view, emerging from the woman’s form. “I… think you should be able to remove the grenade without setting it off, if you’re careful, but it’s going to go off no matter what.”

“How far is safe?”

“How far away? Ten-ish meters, I think – you can probably just chuck it down that corridor there.” She paused. “After I’ve checked that there’s no-one else down there.”

“Good idea.”

Zarah sat back on her haunches as Kihri darted off to do that. They might be able to get rid of the grenade, but it was still going to be loud. That was probably what Paose had planned – no matter what happened, there was going to be an explosion, and he’d know exactly where they were. And they still had to deal with the mine on top of that.

“All clear,” Kihri said, fading back into view through the wall. “You ready?”

Zarah carefully snapped the wire connecting the grenade to the necklace, holding the lever down with her hand as the wire went slack.

“Not particularly,” she said, and hurled it down the corridor.

Paose’s scowl deepens. “You little-”

17-5

The first one is aimed straight at her head, but she brings the shard up just in time, the tendril’s momentum causing it to glance off the flat side just enough to whistle by her ear. Instantly, her other hand comes up, swinging the spike across the path of the tendril. It’s almost a surprise, when it meets no resistance – instead, it passes through effortlessly, leaving a gap behind it as it absorbs the ghostlight into itself. 

There’s no time to process, and she sweeps the spike down to intercept the next tendril. Just before making contact, though, it recoils away, twisting out of the way of the spike. 

“Ooh, look at you,” Paose snarls, the tendrils retreating to coil around him. “So fucking precocious, a new trick every day, watch her go!” His face has mostly reformed now, but the section of his beard where Zarah had grabbed him hasn’t grown back in, making him appear faintly ridiculous. 

Zarah meets his eyes, and finds the anger burning bright, but with nothing beneath. Hollow, and empty – not because it had been carved out, but because it had never been there in the first place. 

“I wanted,” she says hoarsely, not knowing or caring if the words were audible, “to make you suffer. I wanted to see you bleeding, broken. I wanted you to suffer like all you have done to others. But it is not that, really, is it. You have to be a person for that, and you are just…” she flicks her fingers dismissively. “Nothing.”

“Clear,” Kihri said, and Zarah swung the hammer down, tearing a path through the furniture blocking the stairs. A few more sweeps cleared things up, wood and metal crunching and tearing like paper, and then she stepped through, ignoring the cloud of sawdust even as it stung at her eyes, proceeding up the stairs.

There was another message, on the wall opposite the landing.

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY.

Below it, a woman slumped against the wall, and Zarah froze. She’d thought it was a corpse, for the first half-second, but the rise and fall of her chest was evident.

Especially in the way it made the grenade tied to her bob up and down.

“Zarah,” Kihri hissed.

“I see it.”

“Not that, that.” Zarah followed her pointing finger, and found a thin wire strung across the landing at ankle height.

She froze.

She’d been about to rush over, incensed by the sight. She wouldn’t even have noticed the tripwire until it was too late.

“…thank you,” she said eventually, taking a slow step back.

De nada,” Kihri replied. “Gotta admit, this is… pretty canny. Wouldn’t have expected it, from what we’ve seen of him so far.”

Zarah silently agreed. Something had changed, her blood had cooled enough now to see that much. It was a strange thought to have, while standing where she was, but true nevertheless. Her anger, the blinding, vicious rage, hadn’t abated, but it had shifted. The molten metal had cooled, but now instead of burning it could cut. And she had every intent of doing so.

Zarah stepped carefully over the wire as Kihri darted forward, inspecting the grenade from up close.

17-4

The ghostlight cuts into her hand, but the blood can’t make it any slicker than the rain already is. She rights herself, spinning around, and sees the tendrils coming for her more by the way they distort the rain than the shapes themselves. His ghostlight doesn’t glow, not like hers does. 

Then again, it isn’t really hers, is it?

Instead of dodging, she holds out a hand and catches the fastest tendril with an open palm, letting the point spear through her hand and into the flesh of an arm. The hand with the shard flashes up and slices through the body of the tendril,

separating the part that impaled her, and as it loses form she focuses. Reaches out, in the same way she does when keeping her hold on the blacklight at a distance. The ghostlight is… slippery, evasive and hard to grasp in a way it had never been before, but after a struggle that feels like an eternity, something gives, and her corona of blacklight flares as the tendril reforms into a spike in her hand. 

The doors of the main building had been ripped from their hinges, and water tracked inside, spilling across the wood. It had been a rich school, Zarah knew that much – if the gate and the high walls hadn’t been evidence enough, or the sheer amount of land it occupied in the inner city for that matter, the interior decoration certainly would have sufficed.

Before the blood, that is.

There were no bodies or limbs, thank the stars for small favours, but crimson had been splattered so liberally around the room that it almost outweighed the natural colours. Thick, broad slashes, still wet and dripping, spilling out like ink into the thin puddle of rain that had been tracked inside. At the end of the corridor, in front of the open stairs up to the next level, a large arrow had been sloppily painted, pointing to the right. Furniture, large bookcases and benches, had been dragged over and piled to block off the stairway and the corridor to the left, leaving only the one route.

Kihri said something from behind her, and Zarah almost started. She’d forgotten that Kihri… was. 

With great difficulty, she forced the boiling blood back down, enough that she could process words. “<Say that again,>” she rasped. It was a little easier to think, now that she was indoors and out of the rain. Easier to ground herself, without the noise and the darkness.

“Oh, you’re doing words again? Fucking wonderful. I said, it’s a trap.”

If she had the energy, Zarah would have fixed her with her most withering glare. “Obviously. Check for traps.”

Kihri rolled her eyes. “Yeah, cause-”

Zarah stepped towards her, and she flinched back, eyes going wide. “Check. For. Traps.”

Kihri’s form flickered, and for just a second, Zarah would have sworn her sister looked just like her – hair suddenly long, the long scar over her lips replaced with the thousand tiny pockmarks. Then, Kihri was back to her normal self, and she nodded silently before darting forward to inspect the barricades.

This time, Zarah makes no attempt to dodge the tendrils, standing her ground, red shard in one hand and blue spike in the other.

17-3

It took her two more bodies, both fresher than the previous, to realise that at some point she’d stopped breathing.

By the sixth body, the rain was beginning to wash the message away.

The seventh was unreadable.

He was between her and the shard of ghostlight now, and while she was still managing to maintain a connection, it was a fragile one, liable to break. She dashed forward, the wounds at her side already healed over, mud spraying behind her. Tendrils lashed out again, but she hadn’t come off the ground empty-handed. With a flick of the wrist, the glob of mud and dirt she’d scooped up hit him square in the face as she slipped by, dropping into a slide to grab her makeshift weapon back.

Zarah didn’t even know where she was going anymore, she barely knew where she was. She couldn’t see further than a block, and the drumming of water against her skull would have drowned out Kihri’s yelling even if she’d been listening in the first place. But she was following- something, following the way her rage reached out, leaning forward to try and grasp something, to crush it and set it alight and wipe it clean from the face of the earth.

And, now that she was no longer paying attention, the rain did start to steam away from her skin.

The torrential downpour was starting to mess with Zarah’s sense of reality. The persistent rhythm against her skull drowned out even the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears and the impact of her feet on the ground, making her feel disconnected and adrift. It blocked out her sight, narrowing the world down to a few meters around her and the tiny islands of light underneath the streetlamps. Like walking in a dream, the spaces between the islands reduced to void. It almost felt like she would take a step out of one only to arrive immediately in the next, sidestepping the gap entirely.

A building emerged in front of her, manifesting out of the patches of blackness in the muted city lights in the distance. Lower than most around it, three stories at most, more wide and deep than tall. In another disorienting detail, the wall and gate surrounding appeared after the building, despite being closer, but they also brought with them recognition. Not a name, but it was a school, a private one.

She’d already known instinctively she was going in the right direction, but the hole torn in the metal bars of the gate was useful confirmation. The bottom of the circle of mangled iron was just below eye-level for her, so it was technically possible for her to jump through it.

The hammer was in her hand now, with no conscious effort on her part to take it out. She drew it back effortlessly, and, for maybe the first time since she’d touched it, swung it like a tool instead of a weapon. It smashed into the gate with a hollow gong that was audible even through the rain, impact vibrating back up Zarah’s arms, and the gates collapsed onto the gravel path behind them with a splash.

Zarah strode forward.

17-2

She stood, letting her hands fall back to her sides. The thunder was getting louder, closer, but it seemed strangely muted.

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“<…let them find their place,>” Kihri said from beside her. “<And trouble not those who have found balance.>”

With a trembling hand, Zarah wiped impotently at her eyes, but didn’t look away. It’s not like she wouldn’t be seeing that image every time she closed her eyes.

“Zarah,” Kihri said hesitantly, “there’s… this body is a lot fresher than the blood back there.”

She’d noticed. Of course she’d noticed. That was her thing, wasn’t it? She’d seen so many corpses, so many brutalized and mutilated teenagers, that she was unflappable, right?

Carefully, she took the body by the shoulders and moved it to the side. She rubbed her hands on the raincoat, but they still felt dirty.

On the wall where the corpse had been resting, words had been written in blood, slightly smeared and uneven.

WHO DOESNT LOVE A GOOD TRAESURE HUNT?

“You know,” Paose says, his tone a hollow imitation of his previous cheer, “you really are one of the most annoying people I’ve ever met.”

Zarah doesn’t bother to answer, wiping wet strands of hair away from her face as she pulls herself off the ground. 

“Who even are you?” he snaps. “What, did I kill some cousin of yours or something? What does any of this have to do with you?” For the first time Zarah has heard, he actually sounds mad.

A laugh bubbles out of her throat, raw and hoarse. 

“…is it wrong that I’m almost more offended by-” Zarah looked at Kihri, and she snapped her mouth shut. “Sorry.”

Underneath the words, an arrow had been drawn, pointing to the right, and a street address.

Kihri said something, but Zarah couldn’t make out the words over the roaring in her ears. It felt like her veins were filled with molten steel, burning so hot it almost felt like freezing cold. He seemed to have a talent for inducing that in her, but this time, there was nothing she could hit, no obvious way to lash out or vent. So instead, she burned, using the feeling to drive herself forward even as it threatened to consume her. Not stopping the wave, but riding it out.

It carried her through the streets, nails digging crescents into her palms, as the first drops of rain began to fall. She didn’t bother to put her raincoat’s hood up, and the feeling of the water against her skin felt wrong. It felt like they should be evaporating on contact, before they even touched her, so great was the inferno that raged within her.

But she was a human, not a fire, and so they simply rolled down her skin like the tears she couldn’t find the energy to cry.

She wished she’d been surprised when they found the next body, exactly where the message had said it would be. She wished she’d been anything. 

“<The same?>” she asked quietly, voice hoarse.

“<…slightly fresher,>” Kihri replied. “<Zarah, this->”

Zarah ignored her, ignored the writing behind the body, only looking long enough to absorb the next location before setting off again, breaking into a jog, and then a run.

16-8 | 17-1

this is the last update of 2019. updates will resume on the 3rd of January. have a safe, sexy, and OSHA-compliant holiday season, everyone


“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?”

“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.


Chapter Seventeen: Upside Down & Inside Out (in which things come apart)

(Read the entire chapter at once)

heads up – not that its been sunshine and roses up to this point but things get. brutal. this chapter

Zarah dodges the first tendril, and the second, but the third and fourth come together and she only manages to get one of them, knocking it away with the shard of ghostlight but dropping it in the process. The other spears her through the upper arm, and she bites down on a growl of pain as she stumbles. 

Then, the corona of blacklight around her flares, illuminating the raindrops with impossible radiance, and she grabs hold of the tendril that impaled her and uses it to pull Paose forward. It dissolves into tiny shards of blue after a bare second, but the momentum is enough to bring him into reach. She grabs the collar of his shirt with one hand and claws at his face with the other, rage bleeding out into a hollow, raw scream as bone crunches underneath her fingers and blood and viscera run down her arm.

Another tendril impales her in the torso, but the pain barely registers, and she squeezes tighter, until it whips to the side, tossing her away to crash into the mud. Something gives as she is pulled away, though, and when she gets to her feet, she finds shards of bone buried in her hand, the viscera already washed away by the rain.

Paose pulls himself to his feet, half his head caved in, leaving his face a sunken, malformed visage.

He’s not smiling.

“Kihri,” Zarah said.

“Yeah, yeah, one sec, I think-”

“Kihri.”

Silence. Then, “Oh.”

Young, dark-haired. Hole in the torso.

“Zarah…” Kihri started, voice hoarse.

Zarah ignored her, crouching down. She kissed the back of each of her hands gently, and reached out and closed the body’s eyes – or tried to. Her hands were shaking, so it took three tries.


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16-7

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.

16-6

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. 

“Around 3am?”

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?”

Yes.”

“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.

16-5

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 Viyn 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.