Authors: Jodi Meadows
To my dad, for encouraging my love of the fantastic
I miss you
MY LIFE WAS a mistake.
As long as I’d been alive, I’d wanted to know why I’d been born. Why, after five thousand years of the same souls being reincarnated, my soul had slipped through the cracks of existence and burdened the people of Heart with such
No one could tell me how I happened, not until the night I’d found my way into the temple with no door, trapping myself with the entity called Janan.
“Mistake,” he’d said. “You are a mistake of no consequence.”
I knew, as I’d always known, that I was a soul asunder.
Outside the temple, the night had spiraled into chaos. Sylph burned, and dragons rained acid from the thunder-torn sky.
The numinous light of the temple had vanished. The father I’d never known appeared and told me the same as Janan: I was an experiment gone wrong.
My life might have begun as a mistake, but I wouldn’t let it end as one.
Spring slipped across Range, a verdant blanket stitched with new life. Trees blossomed and young animals peeked from the forest, and the people of Heart cleared a stretch of land north of the city, just beyond the geysers and mud pits that steamed and bubbled as winter eased its grip on the world.
Instead of crops, they planted dozens of black obelisks, each carved with loving words, achievements, and the name of a darksoul: a soul who wouldn’t be reincarnated; a soul lost during the battle of Templedark.
Every citizen of Heart took on a task. They gathered physical reminders to place by the obelisks, combed through records to find videos of darksoul friends, or assisted in the construction of the Templedark Memorial.
Sam and Councilor Sine combined their efforts, composing music and writing laments. They created different melodies and lyrics for every darksoul. I wanted to help, though I didn’t know most of the darksouls well enough to contribute.
When spring bowed to summer and the memorial was finished, everyone in Heart met on North Avenue and formed two lines.
Two by two, we passed beneath the Northern Arch.
Two by two, we filed out of the white city.
Two by two, we entered the Templedark Memorial.
Our lines split there, and we followed the iron bars of the fence. Wind gusted through, making the whole place smell of roses and tinges of sulfur from a nearby geyser. Steam drifted through the cerulean sky.
The procession took ages. By the time we all arrived, people stood three deep around the field of high monuments. Everything was silent, save rustling leaves and the gasp-heave of weeping. Next to me, my best friend, Sarit, squeezed my hand tight and blinked tears off her dark lashes. Our dresses tugged in the wind while we waited.
A bell tolled in the center of the memorial, one peal for each soul lost.
What happened after death? Where did you go? What did you do? The scariest possibility was that we might. just. stop.
After another moment of aching hush, Sine pulled away from the perimeter and took a microphone. “Today, we gather to remember those who fell during Templedark. We come to honor their lives and deaths, and begin the long process of healing not only our bodies and city, but also our souls….”
Most people kept their heads down, the weight of grief so evident in their slumped postures I feared they might collapse. Others stood stoic, blank, as though their minds were somewhere very far away.
But here and there I caught eyes seeking mine; I exchanged sad smiles with almost-friends. Most were people I’d warned about dying during Templedark. There wasn’t much to say about it, but they were nice to me, and our encounters were always cautiously hopeful.
Sine finished her speech.
One at a time, someone stood for each darksoul to recount lifetimes and memories. Sam and Sine performed the music they’d written. Small screens went into the base of each obelisk, set to play a video of the darksoul, or play a recorded copy of the music written for them.
Then we turned our attention to the next darksoul.
At the end of the day, we filed out of the memorial, same as we’d come in. Friends stayed at Sam’s house with us, but everyone was so raw with sadness there was no joy in the companionship, and the next morning, we walked back to Templedark Memorial.
It took four days to remember the lives of almost eighty souls, and as we left the field of black obelisks for the final time, people kept glancing at the empty places in the back: room for more darksouls, because we couldn’t be sure about when a few people had died. Some might still come back.
Over the next weeks, some people went on like it never happened, but there were rumors of people sleeping in the market field or destroying everything in their homes. Others supposedly didn’t leave their houses for weeks at a time.
I went back to my lessons—what lessons were still being offered—and tried to find happiness with my friends and music, but the strangeness of the community’s behavior smothered me. No one seemed to heal.
As summer hurtled toward autumn, the mood sagged from melancholy to disconsolate, and the pulse in the walls grew unbearable. The city wall. The Councilhouse walls. Even the exterior walls of everyone’s homes. The slow throb of life inside stone made my skin try to crawl off.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I have to get out,” I told Sam. “I need to get away. Will you go with me?”
“Anywhere,” he said, and kissed me.
We left Heart just before summer faded into memory.
“You’ve been quiet,” Sam said as we left behind the geysers and mud pits, the fumaroles and rime-whitened trees.
“Nothing’s wrong.” Oops. We hadn’t gotten to that part of his questioning yet.
He snorted. “Okay. What’s on your mind?”
I lengthened my strides to keep up with Sam and Not as Shaggy as His Father, the pony that bore most of our bags. We called him Shaggy for short. My backpack straps dug into my shoulders, but I carried only a few essentials—in case we somehow got separated—plus the temple door device, and my notebook. Sam had taken to calling it my diary, but I
didn’t keep track of my days in there.
“Nothing in particular, I guess.” I glanced back at Heart, from here just a seemingly endless expanse of white ripples and curves over the plateau. The immense central tower stood partially obscured by late-summer foliage. The city looked peaceful from far away. “I feel better getting out of there.”
“The walls?” He said it like he understood, but the walls didn’t feel bad to anyone but me.
“Yeah.” I slipped my thumbs beneath my backpack straps, relieving some of the pressure on my shoulders. “Did you see Corin when we went through the guard station?”
“Corin?” Sam raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t do anything.”
“No, he didn’t.” I kicked a fallen branch off the road. Pine needles scraped the cobblestone. “He just sat there at his desk. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t acknowledge us. He barely moved.”
“He’s grieving,” Sam said gently. “He lost souls very close to him.”
“Then why does he go to the guard station every day?”
“What else should he be doing?”
“I don’t know. Staying home? Staying with a friend?”
Sam’s eyes were dark as dusk, and his voice deep with a hundred lifetimes. “It doesn’t always make sense, the way others grieve. I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I’d lost you, but it would probably seem very strange to others.”
Because I was the newsoul, and why would anyone grieve that much over me?
Then again, I knew how I’d behaved during Templedark. Fearing for Sam’s life, I’d hurtled through fields of dragon acid, dodging sylph and laser fire. I’d felt like someone other than myself, like I might do something crazy if I didn’t find Sam, because how could my world be right without him?
“I don’t like the way grief feels,” I said at last. “And I don’t like the way it feels when other people grieve.” Which sounded like I thought they should avoid the emotion because it made me uncomfortable. No, what did I really mean? “After the dragons attacked the market, I wanted you to feel better. I wanted to do anything I could to help, to make you stop hurting, but I didn’t know how. I tried and…”
Sam nodded. “It makes you feel helpless.”
“I don’t like that.”
“Me neither.” He pushed a strand of black hair from his eyes. “I’ve felt like that about you, helpless to make you feel better.”
He flashed a strained smile. “When we first met. You trapped the sylph in an egg, letting your hands get burned so you could rescue me.”
Sylph. Just the word made me shudder and check the woods for unnatural shadows. Too easily, I could remember the inferno racing through my hands, up my forearms, and
the red-and-black skin all bubbling with blisters.
“You tried to be so strong after that,” Sam said. “And you
strong, but I knew how much it must have hurt. I wanted to take the pain from you, but I couldn’t. I felt helpless.”
“Even though we’d just met?”
Sam only smiled and touched my hand, and we shifted to the safer topics of music he wanted me to learn, and debating whether or not Sarit would actually make good on her threat to come after us if we didn’t return to Heart before winter.
Late summer bathed Range in shades of green. Clouds drifted across the sky, catching and tangling on mountains like gauze. A hawk careened in from above, calling his territory, and a family of weasels startled at the sound. They tumbled to hide in the brush, even though the hawk was far away.
When night fell, we set up a tent and sleeping bags and discussed music over dinner, then went outside to take turns on the flute he’d packed. I liked waking up across the tent from him; seeing his messy hair and sleepy smile first thing chased away my lingering fears and sadness.
We made good progress across Range, and finally we reached our destination: Purple Rose Cottage.
The last time I’d seen Purple Rose Cottage, the roof bore daggers of ice, and the path uphill had been slippery with snow. Li had stood in the doorway, tall and beautiful and fierce, and she’d given me a broken compass so I’d lose my way and fall prey to sylph.
Now Sam and I stepped out of the forest shade and trudged up the hill. Sunlight warmed my face and arms and made the cottage glow brown and almost unfamiliar with how welcoming it looked. Rosebushes huddled around the wall, indigo blooms just fading as summer came to a close. Vegetables lay half-eaten and rotted in the garden; no one had been here to harvest and put them away for winter.
We spent a couple of days getting the cottage cleaned up, arranging our things in the bedrooms and kitchen, and not discussing anything more difficult than who was in charge of coffee each morning. It was nice living with Sam without the heartbeat-filled walls boxing us in.
Our third evening in Purple Rose Cottage, Sam asked me to wait for him outside.
The cool air gave me goose bumps, but I waited on the grass by a bush of indigo roses. Low sunlight shot around the cottage, casting the forest in shadow and gold-green and hints of russet. The door shut, and Sam walked over carrying a large basket.
“Help me with this?” he asked. Together, we spread a blanket on the grass to sit, and his eyes shone in the dimness. “I want to give you something.” From the basket, he removed a long wooden box. Faint light from the window made the polish glisten. When had he packed that? “This is for you.”
“You didn’t have to get anything for me. I have everything I need.”
He smiled and regarded the box, his hands covering the gilt latches. “It’s a gift, like friends gave Tera and Ash for their rededication ceremony.”
That had been a special occasion, celebrating their eternal love. Today was nothing, as far as I could remember. Still, the idea of a gift delighted me, and I tried to squeeze my fingers between his to look. There were patterns carved into the wood, but I couldn’t see them. “What is it?”
His hands trembled as he pulled up the latches, and the box was soundless as he turned up the lid.
Light glimmered across two lengths of silver, catching on a row of keys and delicate swirls engraved into the metal.
It was a flute, one I’d never seen before.
A rush of wind stirred the trees and stole my quiet “Oh” as Sam pulled the flute from its case and pieced it together. His eyes were dark, wide with anticipation and something else as he offered the instrument with both hands. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“I hoped you would like it.” The flute nearly vanished in his hands, though it seemed normal-sized when I rested my fingertips on the cool metal. “Take it,” he urged. “It’s yours.”
“Why?” My question didn’t stop my fingers from wrapping around the flute, from pulling it to my lips. My breath hissed over the mouthpiece as my fingers found their places on the keys.
The heat of his body warmed me as he leaned closer.
“Here.” He nudged my right thumb farther down the tube. “And your chin.” He tilted my face up slightly, his fingers lingering over my skin.
Our eyes met, both of us suddenly aware of his other hand flat on my ribs, unconsciously adjusting my posture. “Better?” I breathed.
He watched my mouth and nodded. “Play for me.”
Play what? He hadn’t brought out music. But as sunlight began to fade, making the indigo roses turn ink-dark and early snow glow on the mountaintops, I played a long, low note that filled the cottage clearing with a haunting reverberation.
The note created a bubble of warmth around us. It tangled around vines, caught in rosebushes, and pushed out toward the mountains that rose like distant walls. I found a breath, and my fingers climbed a half step up.
The flute stretched its sound. It fit me as precisely as though it had once been part of my body and now we were reunited. My hands and mouth and lungs knew this flute, and I knew this flute would do anything I could ask of it, and more.
I climbed notes until a pattern emerged, as sweet and haunting as the flute’s sound. The melody took shape and flew on sure, steady wings. Music filled me until it seemed I might burst.
When I lowered the flute, Sam leaned toward me, a
satisfied smile on his lips. “It suits you.”