25-9

Some thick, viscous liquid dripped from its sagging maw, jagged teeth barely recognisable as such, and with every distorted exhalation, flecks of the liquid sprayed the ground in front of it, foaming oddly where they hit the metal and concrete.

Zarah very carefully and deliberately did absolutely nothing.

The beast’s gaze passed right over her as it turned its head back and forth, panting heavily and occasionally twitching.

“Zaaaaraaaaahhh,” Kihri whispered nervously, exaggeratedly slow. “Whyyyyy aren’t you runniiiiing?”

Zarah didn’t even dare to open her mouth to answer. It didn’t seem to have functioning eyesight – if she just stayed completely still, maybe it would just move away on its own. As long as she didn’t move, didn’t talk, didn’t breath-

She wasn’t breathing. 

She wasn’t breathing. 

A panicked, desperate inhalation ripped through the air as Zarah took a sudden, desperate gasp of air. She immediately froze again, realising her mistake, but it was too late; the chimera’s head swivelled towards the source of the sound. 

“Well,” Kihri said fatalistically, “you tried.”

The chimera leapt towards Zarah with a distorted snarl, and she cursed as she stumbled backwards, one hand still inside her raincoat. Two twisted front limbs caught her in the chest as the beast drove her to the ground, trapping that arm up against her torso. 

She landed half on top of the train tracks, the metal driving into her back in a way that felt like it would’ve been debilitating without blacklight to cushion the impact. It was heavy, too; she didn’t exactly have much experience in the matter, but the weight crushing her chest felt much heavier than she’d have expected based on its size. 

Also, ow.

Something in her chest felt like it was cracking, splintering into her organs. As the chimera’s head descended down towards her, more of its weight was put on those front limbs, and by extension her chest. That time, something definitely cracked, and a silent cry of pain slipped from her lips. 

The gaping maw was just above her face now, strangely scentless as the jagged teeth gnashed together, spraying her face with that strange spittle. She felt it burn and sizzle against her skin where the droplets landed, and gritted her teeth to hold back the noise of pain that tried to escape her throat. Not that it would’ve been audible anyway, what with all the snapping and growling.

Zarah managed to get her free arm up, holding the chimera off of her with her forearm braced across its throat. It spat and snarled at her, scattering more of that acidic saliva over her face and neck, and tried to scratch at her face with one of its forelegs. The movement took some of the weight off her chest, though, and she was finally able to slip that hand free – and with it, a dull red shard of ghostlight.

Slightly shorter than her forearm, and only two inches across at its widest point, it was roughly the shape of an elongated, unbalanced diamond, with edges like the spiderweb fracturing of glass. Tape had been wrapped around the shorter end, to save her from cutting herself on the jagged edges that didn’t ever seem to go dull, turning it into a makeshift handle, with a helpfully placed ridge that stopped her hand from sliding down onto the blade. 

25-8

“Sure,” Kihri replied, rolling her eyes, “and maybe if we walked into a police station, they’d give us a hearty clap on the back and a medal. It’s absolutely gonna be Metzin, dude.”

Zarah silently conceded the point.

The oppressive feeling only grew worse as they approached the platform. Zarah slowly tuned down the intensity of the blacklight, letting her eyes adjust, until it was only the faintest of glows.

“You hear that?” Kihri whispered.

“Hear what?”

“I’ll take that as a no, then. Just- stop for a second? Listen.

They were still about ten meters from the tracks, so Zarah did as instructed, closing her eyes and tilting her head to the side. She could hear the very faint rumbling of traffic above them, a barely-there hum from whatever power lines ran through the concrete around them, the whirring of a ventilation fan in the distance, the sound of her own body breathing and pumping blood…

Just as she was about to call it quits, something tickled at the very edge of her hearing, so faint she’d almost thought she’d imagined it. Once she was aware of it, though, it became clearer, like a blurry image coming into focus, and resolved itself into… into…

“…what is that?” Zarah whispered.

“I know, right? Sounds like… someone vomiting in reverse.”

The worst part was, that was actually fairly accurate.

Slowly, they began advancing down towards the platform. The noise grew louder, and separated itself into multiple iterations of the same sound, which solidified it in Zarah’s mind as being something… biological. Like breathing, if breathing was nausea-inducing. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact number, but her instinctive guess was around a dozen. 

As they drew closer, other noises began to join the soundscape as well – rustling, dull impacts, the occasional small crash. 

“Kihri,” she whispered, “can you scout ahead?”

“Nuh uh,” Kihri replied, shaking her head fervently. “The only reason I haven’t already bolted is ‘cause of that gross shit. Scout yourself, jerk.”

Zarah had a reply all lined up, but their argument was cut short by a dull thud from up ahead, much closer than any of the previous noises. 

Both of them froze.

After a second, that reverse-breathing noise came from the same direction, along with the clear sounds of something walking towards them.

Zarah’s hand slipped into her raincoat, and she began gathering ghostlight, only moments before the source of the noises moved into the light.

Her first thought was of Lucel, Orae’s ghostly hound. The more she looked at it, though, the more the differences became apparent. Both were about the same size and quadrupedal, but Lucel was only differentiated from a normal dog by her ghostly aspect – when she interacted with the world, it was through the ghostlight armour that Orae created for her.

The thing in front of her was fully real, and was about as far from a normal anything as it was possible to be. Red ghostlight and flesh intermingled freely to create its body – in some places, the ghostlight had taken on the bulbous, organic form of tumorous flesh; in others, flesh had become smooth and geometric like ghostlight. 

Two things that might, in some other life, have been tusks stuck out the front of its head – if that was what the part of the creature that was facing them even was. One eye was completely covered with the ‘growths’ of ghostlight, but the other was small, black and beady, darting around frantically with a glassy cast to it.

25-7

“Look at you,” Kihri said, interrupting her musings. “Lil’ Zarah, all grown up and breaking hearts.”

Zarah scoffed. “Breaking hearts? She not is heartbreaking because I tell- told her not to come.”

There was a second of silence. “Oh my god,” Kihri said at last. “You really are that stupid.”

Zarah scowled as they reached the bottom of the steps. “Say what you mean or be quiet.”

“Dude. Bro. Zarah. Sis. Pal. That girl was crushing on you so hard.”

Zarah rolled her eyes. “Oh, so you are being stupid again. Good.” With a bit of focus, she found the ‘component’ of the blacklight that was the actual illumination and turned it up, increasing the glow until she could just make out the far wall. She wasn’t sure how she was doing it, exactly – like so many other things about the whole situation, it was mostly instinct and gut feelings.

“She literally blushed every time you said something, Z. Shit’s gay as hell.”

Zarah hopped down onto the track and began walking away from the platform. Mary’s directions had been nonspecific at best, but Zarah found that she didn’t actually seem to need much more than what she’d been given. With the vague descriptions pointing her in the right direction, she found that she simply knew with an ironclad certainty which of the specific options was the correct one. She hadn’t even had to think before picking out the correct track to walk down, and she knew that the hatch was coming up on her left-hand side.

“Z.” Kihri’s voice was cautious, and a little tense. “You’re doing it again.”

“Hm?” Zarah glanced down, and realised that the glow of the blacklight around her hand had grown more intense than the rest. “Oh, yes. Thank you.”

With a spot of concentration, the half-formed ghostlight she’d been unconsciously gathering dissipated outwards, returning to wherever it came from in the first place. For whatever reason, while her ghostlight was still difficult to manifest under normal circumstances, it formed surprisingly easily inside her body, to the point where she often found herself doing so unconsciously.

(More than a few times, that discovery had come in the form of her hand abruptly exploding into viscera as soon as something startled her).

Before they’d even exited the maintenance hatch onto the second track, Zarah could already tell that Mary had been telling the truth. The air had grown heavy and thick – not oppressively so, but noticeable all the same, and it only grew stronger as they drew closer to the platform. The texture of it was slightly different to what they’d experienced from Remy on that rooftop, as well; if Zarah had to put it into words, she’d have described it as almost being slightly stale. As if it had been soaked into the surrounds some time ago, and then left to grow stagnant.

“Oh,” Kihri murmured quietly, “I am not a fan of this.” She descended into the floor, but almost immediately came shooting back out, gagging. “Okay, nope, nope, it’s way worse in there. God, what was she doing here?”

“<We don’t know that this was Metzin, necessarily.>”

25-6

Zarah flinched back, nearly losing control over her ghostlight. At the last second, she managed to dismiss it, turning the incipient explosion into a small fizzle. Unfortunately, that had the side effect of plunging the stairway back into darkness.

“What happened?” Mary said. “Did you see it?”

Zarah squinted down into the gloom, but whatever it had been, it didn’t reappear. “I saw… something.”

Mary nodded. “Yeah, that’s all I ever saw too. Just, you know.” She waved a hand. “Out of the corner of my eye. It definitely looked like your glowy light stuff, right?”

“Ghostlight,” Zarah corrected absently.

“Ooh, that’s good.”

Thank you,” Kihri said. “Finally, someone who appreciates my genius. We should keep her.”

“We are not-” Zarah began to snap at her, but cut herself off when she remembered they had company. Slightly too late, however; the way Mary was glancing back and forth made it clear she’d noticed what was going on.
“So, like,” the girl asked, “I wasn’t going to ask, but…?”

Zarah sighed. “My sister,” she said, pointing to where Kihri floated. “Ghost.”

Whoa,” Mary breathed, eyes wide. “Hey, ghost sister. That’s so cool.

“I mean,” Kihri said sardonically, “I did die, but no one ever cares about that part, huh.”

“She says hello,” Zarah said

Kihri rolled her eyes. “Fuck off.”

“God, I have so many questions,” Mary said. “First-”

Zarah held up a hand, cutting her off. “Going to go look around. Thank you for the tip. Stay here if you want to stay, or go home if not.” She started descending down the stairs, drawing on the blacklight to provide illumination.

“Okay, but shouldn’t I come with you?” Mary asked, following her. “It’s just that-”

Zarah spun on her, fixing in her place with an icy glare.

Stay here,” she repeated. Mary shrank back, eyes wide. “I can protect myself easier without you.”

“…oh. Right. Yeah. That makes sense,” she said, eyes downcast. “Sorry.”

It was like looking at a scolded puppy. “It is not safe,” she repeated, trying to emphasise the point. “It is not- I am not-” She growled in frustration. “<Kihri, how do I explain that it’s not a rejection or a judgment and that I’m just concerned?>”

Kihri snickered. “It’s not you, it’s me?”

Zarah sighed. “I can heal,” she said to Mary. “You?”

“Well, no…” Saints, why did she make Zarah feel so guilty? “I just thought…”

“No more death.”

It hadn’t been what she’d meant to say, but it had slipped out anyway. Mary froze, eyes wide.

“No more death,” Zarah repeated tonelessly. “Go home, Mary. Please.

When she turned back and continued descending, no footsteps followed behind.

As she ventured further down, the light from the surface faded entirely, and she flared blacklight to compensate. After the last two months of practice, she was starting to get a better sense of the power and where it overlapped with creating ghostlight. Those first few instinctual times, it had been a single act in her mind, but while forming ghostlight always required blacklight, the reverse wasn’t true.

It was something of its own, related but not intrinsic, and although she hadn’t figured out any uses for it besides a handy flashlight, she definitely felt like there was something… more. Something she hadn’t reached yet.

 

25-5

“I’m not- crazy, right?” Mary asked hesitantly. “It didn’t feel like I was imagining it, but I guess I wouldn’t really know if I was, huh.”

“You are… probably not crazy,” Zarah admitted. “Sounds familiar, but I do not- don’t know you.”

Kihri gave her a little thumbs-up.

“Uh- okay?”

“That was where you saw it?” Zarah continued, ignoring her confusion.

“…yeah, up on the platform. There was…” She shuddered slightly. “I can’t prove it, but- I kept hearing things moving. Things as in multiple. And this sort of-” She opened her mouth and made a choked, hoarse sound, making Zarah wince away. “A noise like that, coming from multiple directions.”

“Well, that was horrifying,” Kihri muttered.

“I managed to get the photo,” Mary continued, “but then I booked it cause I do not want to be- eaten, or whatever.” She shuddered. “It was fucking creepy.”

“…sorry,” Zarah said. “That you went through that.”

“S’okay,” Mary said with a shrug. “Nothing actually happened, and hey, it meant I got to see y-” She clapped a hand over her mouth, going bright red.

Zarah ignored Kihri’s cacophonous laughter. Whatever was going on with Mary, it was none of her business. She was here for one reason and one reason only.

“Stand back,” she said to Mary, who hurriedly obliged.

Once she was sure the other girl was clear, Zarah stuck out her hand, and began gathering ghostlight.

Golden strands of light began to coalesce above her palm, tiny flecks that wove together into slightly-larger strands that then themselves wove into bigger strands, and so on, until a handful of lengths of ghostlight about the width of a finger twisted around themselves and came together into a golden sphere slightly smaller than a tennis ball, hovering an inch above her splayed palm.

Zarah let out the breath she’d been holding, aware of the sweat dripping down her brow. The last two months of practice had given her reason to be even more intimidated by Metzin than she already had been – it was a monumental effort to even form anything out of ghostlight in the first place, let alone to make it permanent. All of Zarah’s attempts so far had exploded violently the instant her control had slipped, as well as nearly every time they touched something else physical.

Cool,” Mary whispered from behind her. Unusually, Zarah was inclined to agree. Despite everything… it was cool.

Between her blacklight and the glowing ghostlight, she could see a little bit further down the stairwell, but it clearly continued well beyond where the shadows swallowed the concrete.

Zarah lifted her hand, concentrating, and the sphere began to drift forward and down the stairs. It illuminated the stairway in an uneven sphere, the light’s progress slightly staggered as it dripped down each step, the ghostlight’s instability lending it a flickering, almost candle-like quality. It made it as far as the second landing without incident, but was starting to move far enough away that the initial sections were becoming shadowed once more. As she moved it down the next set of steps, though, Zarah thought she could start to see the beginnings of the platform beyond-

Something flickered across the stairwell.

25-4

realised an early draft of the last update got posted on accident, so this one’s extra-sized to make up for it.


“I gotta ask,” Mary said, “is the raincoat, like. A thing?”

“A… thing?”

“Yeah, like. A fashion statement? Or, ooh, a costume.”

Yeah, Zarah,” Kihri echoed snidely. “Please, explain the deal with the raincoat.”

In the aftermath of the school incident, it had come out that none of the staff or students had seen much more of Zarah than her hair colour, and the bright yellow raincoat she’d been wearing at the time. (Except for Mary, it turned out, but it seemed fairly evident by now that she’d kept that to herself). There were enough people of Pashtari descent in the city that her hair alone wasn’t an identifying feature, and so the raincoat had become something of a defining visual in the news.

Zarah’s decision to lean into it had not been well-received by her sister – their earlier argument being the latest example – but she still believed the logic was solid. Drawing on blacklight while not wearing it, or with her hair up, would just create more of an association with her ‘disguise’ – and if there was one thing Zarah’s life had taught her, it was that people usually only saw what they were looking for.

“Sure,” she said, “fashion statement. I state that I do not care about fashion.”

Mary laughed, a tiny little snort that she hastily tried to cover up. “Sorry, that was- it looks good, though! Good, and practical, and waterproof, and I’ll… stop talking now…”

Was she blushing? “It is fine,” Zarah said. She gestured at the subway entrance, concrete stairs leading down into the darkness. “This is it?”

Mary nodded quickly. “Yep yep yep. Well- I mean, the subway station isn’t the spooky ghost shit, but it’s. Here.”

“How did you find it?” Zarah asked, crouching to try and get a better view down the stairs.

“Oh, you know. I’m into urban exploration, I guess? Do you know what that is?”

“I… know both words on their own?”

Mary laughed. “Oh, well, it’s just like… finding old or weird places, in cities? And, y’know… exploring.”

“Okay… So, what is the point, then?”

“Oh, nice going, idiot,” Kihri said as Mary flinched.

“Sorry, sorry,” Zarah said hastily. “Not like that. Why do you do it, I mean?”

“I dunno, it’s fun? Like, finding all this stuff that people have left behind, or that never got used… it’s kind of like doing post-apocalypse exploration without the actual apocalypse, I guess?” Evidently, Zarah’s confusion must have shown on her face, because Mary chuckled a little guiltily. “Sorry. I just think it’s cool, really.”

“And it is not dangerous?”

“We-ell… it’s not not dangerous? B-but that’s not the point! The point is, when I was down there, I saw… this.”

She brandished her phone, and and Zarah stood up and leaned in to get a better look. Like the other photo she’d shown them, it was blurry and hard to make out (although in this case, it seemed more to do with a lack of light than distance). What little detail it was possible to make out was thanks to the soft light coming off the image’s subject – a blurry, bright red shape disappearing out of sight behind a pillar.

“Well,” Kihri said, “that sure is… red.”

Despite her sister’s sarcasm, Zarah had to admit that it did look an awful lot like ghostlight. Not to mention that Metzin’s last lair had also been connected to the subway system…

“Start from the beginning,” she said to Mary. “Where, when, more details.”

“Right. This would’ve been about… two weeks ago, now? On a Thursday, if that matters, and about this time of day. It wasn’t my first time down there, cause I try to be careful, but it was the furthest down I’d gone – I found a maintenance hatch maybe thirty or forty feet down the second track, and that let me into the maintenance tunnels which connected to another, lower set of tracks, which I followed up to another set of platforms.” She paused to take a breath. “But, that platform felt… weird. I don’t know how to describe it, but I almost felt like… I was underwater, I guess? Like, I didn’t have any trouble breathing, but there was this pressure on my chest, like when you dive down to the bottom of the pool.”

Zarah and Kihri exchanged a troubled glance. Her description was startlingly similar to what they’d both experienced from Remy on that first rooftop meeting with him and Orae. The possibility of this being a false alarm or unrelated incident was rapidly growing smaller.

25-3

Well, she supposed, it can’t be all that dangerous if she’s dressed like that. 

“Hi,” Mary said once Zarah was close enough to hear, sounding a little breathless for some reason. “Wow, you look… cool.”

Zarah glanced down at her clothes, puzzled. She wasn’t hiding her hair, and she’d thrown a yellow raincoat on top, but apart from that, her clothes weren’t all that different from what she’d been wearing before. Maybe ‘jeans and a sweatshirt’ was the height of fashion these days; it wasn’t like she’d know.

“Thanks,” she said. “You… look cool too?”

“Oh! I-” She hid her eyes behind a hand, grinning. “You think so?”

“…sure.” Between her flippancy when endangered, and now whatever this was, Zarah really didn’t understand her.

25-2

When they emerged into the main living space, Zarah found Mrs. B sitting at the table, hunched over a messy spray of papers and a calculator, reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

“Evening,” she said, glancing up. “You’re going out?”

Zarah nodded, suppressing the instinct to defend herself. It still felt strange not to have to, but she was finally starting to internalise the conversation they’d had the first time around.

Mrs. B nodded calmly. “Okay. What time do you think you’ll be back?”

Zarah stared at her in shock. When she’d declared her intent to go out, she’d been prepared to have to argue her case, and the sudden lack of resistance had left her off-balance. “I… do not understand.”

“I just want to know whether I should leave some food out for you, or put it in the fridge for you to microwave.”

“You… are not stopping me?”

“You’re not stopping her?!” Kihri asked at the same time, significantly more indignantly.

“Do you .. want me to?”

“Yes!” Kihri yelled.

“N-no,” Zarah stammered. “It is- why not?”

“I’m not your parent,” Mrs. B said, “and I don’t have any authority to tell you what to do. I’d prefer you didn’t, because you’re putting yourself at risk, but that’s not up to you. All I can do is give you the best possible chance to come back h- to come back safely.” She smiled gently. “So, should I leave food out?”

Zarah blinked at her. Slowly, she crossed the room to her side, and hesitantly placed a hand on the older woman’s forearm.

Mrs B. patted it gently, Zarah’s unspoken message clear as day. “You’re welcome.”

The initial intent, that first time around, had only been to climb up onto the roof and get some fresh air, but once she was up there, she couldn’t help but… roam a little – not very far, and fully intending to return, to be fair. It was just that her imagination had plagued her with scenes of someone disappearing from an alleyway or a stoop, only to show up as a mutilated corpse weeks later. The ones involving people being slaughtered there and then were admittedly less realistic, considering how definitively Paose had been dealt with, but they were no less vivid or terrifying for it.

“Might be late,” Zarah said, pulling herself back to the present day. “Have to look into something.”

“I won’t wait up, then. Do you have your key?” Zarah patted her pocket in confirmation. “Okay. Be careful, then.”

“She’d better,” Kihri muttered sullenly.

Zarah shot her a quick glare, then looked back to find Mrs. B looking at her with curiosity. The topic of Kihri was… an issue they hadn’t quite gotten to yet, but it was fairly obvious Mrs. B knew that something was going on, even if she didn’t know the exact details.

“I will,” Zarah answered instead of explaining.

There’d be time enough for that later.


The address Mary had texted Zarah turned out to be the entrance to an abandoned subway station on the other side of town. The girl waited outside, and she looked up from her phone and waved eagerly as Zarah approached. She’d clearly changed clothes – instead of the casual outfit she’d been wearing earlier in the day, she wore a dark skirt with knee-high socks, shiny heeled boots, a high-collared long-sleeved blouse. In fact… Zarah couldn’t tell for sure, but it almost looked like she’d put on subtle makeup, for some reason?

scheduling update

gonna have to drop back to one update a week for the next little while, unfortunately

was hoping not to do this but my productivity has been destroyed by… well, everything, and my buffer along with it. i don’t want to cease updates entirely but even the current fairly tiny schedule just isnt maintainable right now.

there’ll still be an update shortly, and again on friday, but after that updates will just be on fridays.

my apologies

stay safe

24-7 | 25-1

When one was a figure of public interest, the smart thing to do would be to avoid drawing attention to oneself or going out in public.

Zarah was not always good at doing the smart thing.

On the screen of Mary’s phone, there was a photo. It was blurry and dark, having clearly been taken from a distance at night, but there was enough detail to make out a figure wearing a bright yellow raincoat.

Without looking, Zarah could feel Kihri’s glare burning twin holes in her skull.

She sighed, sliding a piece of paper and a pen under the plastic screen to Mary. “Your number,” she said. “Tell me later.”

“Not now?”

“No,” Zarah said. “I’m working.”



Chapter Twenty-Five: New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down (in which the twins get down and dirty)

(Read the entire chapter at once)

“What did I say?!” Kihri demanded indignantly. “What did I fucking say?!”

Zarah steadfastly ignored her as she laced up her boots.

“I said! I fucking said that as soon as-” Kihri stopped cold. “…you know what?” she said after a few moments. “I give up. It’s not worth it! I give up!”

“<Took you long enough>,” Zarah muttered under her breath.

Having a room to herself was still something of an unfamiliar concept to Zarah. Even when she’d been a child, she and Kihri had always shared with at least two of their siblings – and then, of course, the whole thing became moot. As such, the room in Mrs B’s small apartment that she’d been staying in for the last two months was still almost entirely bare of decorations or a personal touch. She’d finally worked up the courage a few weeks beforehand to move some of her clothes into the chest of drawers (although her backpack under the bed still contained everything she’d need if necessary), but the only outward sign that someone was living there were the rumpled sheets, and the shoes resting at the foot of the bed.

Zarah stood up, keeping an eye on Kihri. Judging by the scowl on her face and the way her arms were folded, ‘giving up’ had clearly been more aspirational than actual.

Three… Zarah thought. Two… One…

“All I’m going to say,” Kihri said suddenly, the words bursting out like she’d only been holding them back through sheer force of will, “is that I said the raincoat made you more recognisable, and here we are! You wouldn’t have been recognised if you weren’t wearing it!”
“<And I said>,” Zarah replied as she picked up her backpack, “<that the raincoat is already associated with the school, and not with a random checkout girl at a corner shop>.”

“<And yet, you still got recognised as the random checkout girl>! And you also said you’d make more of an effort with your Brechtin!”

“I have been. <So now that I am, you can stop enforcing this stupid thing where you make us talk in it all the time. Besides, Mary was the only person to see me up close; no-one else would have made that connection.>”

“Oh,” Kihri said, suddenly sly, “so she’s Mary now, huh?”

The eyebrow waggle made it clear she was implying something, but Zarah chose to remain firmly in the realm of the explicit. “<I didn’t know her name, and now I do>.”

“Uh-huhhhh,” Kihri said. “Suuuuuuure. I toooootaaaaallllyyyyyy believe youuuuu-”

Zarah rolled her eyes, and walked through her to open the door.

Kihri huffed. “Rude.”