Authors: Daryl Banner
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #New Adult & College, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban
I pull out the device from my pocket. I know John said to conserve its battery, but I need to know if it holds a key I’ve yet to consider in our journey. Within it are all my notes, all my conclusions … and a legion of unanswered questions. Maybe some mention of a green flame might be lodged somewhere in my forgotten scribblings.
When I tap my fingers on it, the device does not respond.
My device was completely submerged.
Panic makes a home in my nerves as I turn the device over and over in my hand, inspecting it with swelling frustration. I know the thing’s suffered a bit of rain before; it ought to survive a brief plunge into dirty, deathly, thousand-year-old water, shouldn’t it?
Finally—and tiredly—the screen emits a faint light, and then my notes appear before me.
Oh, thank you.
I do realize I may be compromising my device by waking it up and pushing through my notes, but I can’t let this whole journey be a waste. I need to consult my digital brain. As I scroll through glitching, stuttering pages on the cranky device, I wonder if all my life I have unknowingly been preparing for this adventure. I ought to be the expert among us, yet I feel so out of place. I’ve never before appreciated more the vast and incomparable difference between learning a thing and
a thing. Ten years poring over History and Mythology books at the university couldn’t prepare me for this.
Another digital page turns. I read:
Crazy Lady Number Five. Her name is Dana. She smells like cat pee.
I chuckle, but it dies quickly as thoughts of my father grip me tightly by the throat. Did Dana really see my father’s spirit, or was it all a complete coincidence? Do spirits even exist? Funny I ask that, sitting here in the lobby of a so-called haunted building burned down by some mystery green fire.
I swipe the page again, continuing on. I skim words I’ve read a hundred times. I swipe quickly past notes I’ve written months ago, years ago, hurrying before my device decides that it’s drowned. I wade through Histories and Mythologies, combing for all traces of my Beautiful Dead. I know there’s something in here that will help me.
Professor Praun’s voice seeps into my brain like a ghost, condemning me for my foolish actions. I can see him welcoming me back to the school with a cold stare and bearing an official notice of expulsion. Then, I see the authorities waiting for me at the edge of campus, ready to whisk me away to a prison somewhere.
“Don’t you worry,” I tell the imaginary professor and authorities in my daydream. “When we come back, we’ll have with us evidence that will change the world as we know it. I will justify my crimes. I’ll be the last one laughing,” I tell Praun especially.
“It is always good to laugh.”
I twist my torso, catching sight of Dana descending the stairs as quietly as a cat. She whips past me like a breeze, waltzing across the lobby and casting shadows from the moonlight outside.
“It lets the spirits know you are not afraid,” the diviner explains, dancing by the bar and tapping her fingers on each of the barstools, as if each one were a dance partner.
I scowl. “Why did you follow us onto the hovercraft? You never explained.”
She comes to a sudden and dramatic stop, leaning her back against the bar, and says, “You were to
I squint at her. “What?”
.” Now it’s her turn to scowl, and I hear the hint of anger that so fueled her voice when she screamed at me as I left her house. That moment feels like so long ago. “You were going to tell the world that I was a fake. You had tricked me with that
of your father. You made a fool of me, evil girl. I followed you back to the campus and I waited and I
you. I planned to have a word, but …” Her eyes drift somewhere, a dark thought clouding her expression. “I couldn’t speak up. I wouldn’t know what to say. I felt … I thought … I’d …”
“You thought I’d write an article calling you a fraud to the whole university?” I ask acidly.
“I ADMIT THAT IT MIGHT BE FAKE!” she shouts, all that joy she had just a moment ago shattering to the floor like a pretty glass vase. “The spirits! The mists! The summoning! It might all be
,” she goes on, her voice terse and pointed, her eyes flashing, “but
the healing is real!
I look upon people’s mourning, their grief-stricken eyes, and I see a
for my service, a
. I summon the spirits of the deceased and I tell the survived what they
to hear to get the closure they
. Oh, if only someone could have done that for me when I lost my husband and little girl. It’s a miracle from the beyond that I still stand here in the middle of
Death’s home itself
, and I’m still breathing.”
I’ve gotten to my feet, clutching the device to my stomach and watching Dana’s eyes roll as she fights her own emotional outburst. I have a sudden urge to rush up and hug her. I have another urge to bludgeon her over the head with my shoe. I think maybe I was ready to hate her the moment I entered that house, equipped with my lie.
My lie, which not hours later became true.
“I had no intention of defaming you,” I tell her. “I’m sorry if you felt deceived, but with all due respect, your entire business is in deception. You were bound to get served your own medicine at some point, Dana.”
To that, she huffs, then paces in a circle around the lobby, shaking her head and seeming to sift through a million thoughts a second. I can’t imagine what’s in that lunatic’s head; I can only assume it’s crowded in there.
She stops suddenly. “Your friend.” She lifts her eyes but doesn’t quite meet mine. “I do not sense her.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“I do not sense her spirit in the mists, no matter how hazy they are lately. Do you understand my meaning?” Now, Dana’s eyes find mine. “She is not yet deceased.”
I stare at her, wondering if I’m being served the very medicine I just accused her of serving. Does she mean to simply put my mind at ease with a well-intended lie? Or is there something real about this woman’s power?
I clear my throat. “If only you were skilled in sensing the
,” I remark with a subtle smile, “then perhaps you’d be useful in seeking her out.”
Encouraged, Dana returns my expression with a tiny smile of her own. “I am so very useless.”
“Worst diviner ever,” I agree.
The scraping of shoes make me spin, finding John and East at the top of the stairs, drawn most likely by her prior outburst. John still wears no shirt, his jeans hanging loose on his hips, torn at the knees. East’s uniform, hilariously soiled beyond recognition, is unbuttoned and untucked, showing a sliver of his undershirt beneath in the way that storm clouds part to reveal a blinding sky.
I sigh with relief. “Mari’s alive.”
John comes down the stairs quickly and noisily. “You found her? How?”
“No.” I give a nod at the diviner. “She can’t sense her spirit. That means Mari has not died. That means Mari is out there and her joyous heart is beating, beating, beating. I, for one, am quite comforted by that news.” I hug my device and close my eyes, feeling the peace.
“Really?” says John as dryly as the wood beneath our shoes. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“No joke. We’re going to explore this town and get all the information I need. I want to learn every last thing I can from these people.
people.” I give my device a wiggle, then stash it back in my pocket.
“So the crazy-hair lies to you,” John goes on, “makes up some crap about your friend’s spirit—
friend—and you accept it? A bunch of empty, consoling words?”
“Yes.” I give him a knowing look. “So I better gather as much intel as I can before, y’know,
our rescue crew comes and saves us
,” I say, tossing John’s sugar-coated lie right back at him. Then, with a dainty twist of my heel, I push through the glass doors and into the night.
Though the city of After’s Hold is four times the size of my university, judging from what Truce and a pair of her odd friends describe to us, the entire population only occupies the mere space of four quaint city blocks. Truce says that a friend or two of hers will rarely explore the other areas of After’s Hold, which are otherwise entirely abandoned. The city is so vast and empty and lonesome, its farthest corners and crumbling buildings so wretched from the history and secrets it keeps, that most Dead have grown superstitious and fearful of it.
Already, we’ve made the other Dead nervous with our choice in residence. I guess that’s my fault. “I heard of a girl with white hair,” murmurs an Undead lady with slimy eyes that have no pupils. “Like yours,” she teases, reaching a hand out to touch my hair, “and she was the unluckiest, cruelest, saddest girl who ever unlived.”
“Yes,” I say, having heard about the girl before, “but what does that have to do with Winter’s Retreat?”
“No idea,” she murmurs sadly.
I learn that, contrary to what’s written over and over again in the Histories, the Dead eat and drink nothing. The wild creatures of the woods, including that pale boy who is certainly destroyed by now, are the only ones of them who feed on Living people and animals, but it is not known why.
“They’re just bored,” says a wiry old man with a grey goatee that hangs down to his chest. “Bored and looking for new things to do to entertain themselves. Like drink blood. Eternity is awful boring.”
“Awful boring,” agrees Truce. “Ooh! Let’s show them the Broken Road of Destiny!”
The Broken Road of Destiny turns out to be the remnants of an ancient highway that stretches onward in broken fragments from the south exit of After’s Hold. No one seems able to explain the meaning behind the overly dramatic title, but I’m assured that it’s super deadly and nothing at all worth knowing lies in its direction. For some reason, I have a creeping suspicion that this, too, has to do with “the girl with white hair” and all the bad luck and curses associated with that unfortunate individual.
“Really inconvenient time to have long, white hair,” remarks John in my ear. Color me a shade of not-amused.
I take so many notes on my glitch-ridden device that my fingertips go numb. The Dead were once alive, like me, like John, like anyone, but some odd circumstance of nature and science and—magic?—brings them back for a Second Life. The trouble is, their First Lives were so long ago that none of them seem interested at all in talking about them, regardless of my mounting curiosity. I think Marianne could provide better insight as to the science of their strange reanimation, seeing as the dead definitely do not rise on our side of the world.
At least, not yet.
The Dead never sleep, not even for a second. Their entire existence is one long, eternal day. Their entire existence is freedom. It’s us unfortunate Living who are still caught in the almighty
of hunger, thirst, and weariness … a never-ending cycle.
“But you make entertaining sounds in your chests!” Truce exclaims merrily, but of course she’s made that point before. It almost doesn’t get old.
There are conflicting stories about where the Dead come from, or what exactly keeps them half-alive. Some believe they
alive, but simply in a different way. Then there are some who believe in some eternal energy called Vita, or Planet’s Blood, or Anima.
It’s to that last word, Anima, that John gives a nod of recognition, as he’d heard the term before. I had to look it up a term or two ago when John first mentioned it and, strangely, its history has no connection with the Dead at all. In fact, the only place I found it written was in an old children’s storybook about six wise men and women who had eyes that glowed green and yellow and winter white. The story was a silly tale about why people have happy and sad feelings, and it involved something about the white and yellow lights always battling the green.
It was the green light that was called “Anima”.
When an opportune moment in a conversation lets Dana take the spotlight and ask her own questions about the ever-elusive spirit world and what strange twist of Anima has granted her this “immortal gift of sight”, a large Undead man with a chin as big as his forehead leans in to say, “Might be some truth to your claim. Legend has it, there once lived special people who could give life, take life, and manipulate the will o’ the Dead.”
They had many names, she was told. Necromancers. Spiritkeepers. Warlocks.
“Spiritkeeper,” Dana decides right then. “Yes! I much prefer that term. Oh, if my name could be Spana … Yes, Spana the Spiritkeeper. Oh, but it could still be!” I watch as the dollar signs glow in her irises and she imagines the name printed on every publication in the world.
Not all of the Dead are so friendly to us
. After Truce makes a joke about nail colors in the shaded patio of a restaurant on 43
Avenue and inspiring the whole of us to laugh, I notice a woman seated in the shadows by the wall, her face hidden under the dramatic black brim of a hat twice the size of a dinner plate. Even in the shadow that her headpiece casts, I see the glint of bitterness in her eyes and the resentment that lives and dies on the curling of her white, bloodless lips. Her pasty legs are crossed, her hands curled in the lap of her black dress that cuts off at the knee, hugging her slender form. She sits there and watches, unimpressed and unmoved.
No, I don’t skip over to her table to introduce myself.
It’s roughly five hours into our day—or is it night?—when we finally meet the other Livings. Three of them hide out in a room above one of the restaurants, and the other two stay across the street at the top of a brick tower called the Weston, as is indicated by the dilapidated oaken sign that hangs above its entrance. Yes, that’s
Livings, not the ten or twenty that Truce earlier claimed.
The two at the top of the tower care to see no one but themselves, keeping far away. We’re left to just assume they exist at all. Not so social, apparently.
Neither are the three Livings we
meet. One of them, a dark-skinned woman with jagged locks of hair that look like they were taken to by a two-year-old with scissors, leads the trio. Her sunken eyes regard me like I were the most annoying thing to happen to her day.
“What’re you here for?” she demands before even a proper hello.
I glance at the other two behind her: a sickly boy with orange hair and freckled yellow skin who couldn’t be older than twelve, and a stark, bronzed man with dark hair to his shoulders who matches John for his muscles, but looks like he’s got a vacancy or two in his brain attic.
“For … educational purposes,” I answer, unsure the angle of her question, “though we hadn’t intended to strand ourselves here. At least, not exactly.” I extend a hand to her. “I’m Jennifer.”
“I’m sure you are,” she returns coolly, ignoring my extended hand, her dark eyes narrowing.
I glance at John. These people don’t trust us. I guess that should be expected. “What brought you here?” I ask, dropping my hand. These people aren’t the scientists or researchers I was hoping for them to be.
She lifts her chin, her jagged sprouts of hair bobbing in reaction. “My innocence got me here,” she answers.
“Your … innocence?”
She takes one step forward. “I’ll make myself perfectly plain,
.” Her hardened gaze runs over me, from my eyes, to my toes, and back. “You and your friends keep to your haunted little waste of a building, and the three of us will keep to ours. The waterworks,” she adds with a cold nod in a certain direction, “is neutral ground. You get the water you need, then you get back to your little burned-down hole.”
Taken aback by her brashness as I may be, I stand my ground and refuse to cower. “Why are you treating us like this? We’re alive, like you,” I say, as if it’s necessary to point it out. “We’re … kin. Shouldn’t we work together?”
“You’re another mouth that needs wetted, another belly that needs filled.” The way she says it, it sounds like half an accusation. “If I see you so much as
on our home, I’ll open your neck with my switchblade, then cut that pretty white hair of yours off and make a bow out of it for my violin.” Still as a statue, the girl’s dark eyes flick to the left, regarding John for a solid moment, then Dana, then a quivering East. “Do you like music? I like music. I bet your hair will make the sweetest song to my friends’ hungry, Human ears. And your blood will make a sweeter one to these vile, hungry Dead, who will lap up every last drop.” She smirks. “Don’t fool yourselves. We’re all just counting days here in the land of the Dead. Better you count yours on your own.”
With that, she gives a snap to her two friends, then slips back into their restaurant—which I guess we ought to regard as their
—and when the door slams, it slams with the dreaded bang of a judge’s gavel.
“A friendly bunch,” I remark. “Maybe I should have invited them over for tea.”
“We don’t have any tea,” says East miserably. “You can take on the big guy, can’t you, John?” John regards his question with a baleful glare. “Sorry. I just thought—”
“In a land with few potential companions among the quavering, sleepless spirits, we oughtn’t offend those we could befriend,” reasons the ever earthbound Dana. Note my drooling sarcasm—practically drowning in it.
“They’re just protecting their own,” I say, staring at the door of the restaurant. “It’s reasonable. They see us as a threat. They think we’ll steal their food, or …” I study the windows of the building, considering whether that deadly trio is watching us right now. “I suppose we might be the same as them, if we had little.”
“We have little,” states East.
Later, we return to our haunted little dwelling with four modest buckets of water with which to wash and drink. From the satchel, we draw a tiny bit of dinner for each of us. I’m suddenly abundantly thankful for East’s burst of bravery before we abandoned our ship. Oh, to imagine how much food is still on that ship.
If only we could sneak back to it … If only we could gather four or five more satchels’ worth …
Even after we’ve eaten, we are all so clearly unsatisfied and still hungry, though none of us voice our whiny, Humanly complaints.
“We learned a lot today,” says John after East and Dana have gone upstairs to sleep.
I lean my back against him, glad to feel his arms tighten around me in response. Yet, for all the answers I’ve gained today, I still have the one painful question that remains unanswered: where the hell is my friend? Here I am, whining about my hunger, and Mari likely hasn’t eaten anything for days. I feel guilty even for the little bit I’ve let myself enjoy.
“We’ll learn more tomorrow,” I reply despondently.
“We need to unite with the others somehow.”
“Really? The one that wants to make a violin bow out of my hair?” I snort derisively. “Nothing good’s going to come from them. What we
need to do is figure out how they’re surviving, where they’re getting their food. Truce said the restaurants have some, and this city is enormous. Maybe there’s more of it elsewhere. Surely the three of them aren’t occupying the
food source here.”
“What kind of food could possibly exist in a thousand-year-old city?”
“They’re alive, aren’t they? Maybe there’s a garden.”
“There’s the two others living in that brick tower, the Weston,” he reminds me. “Maybe they’re friendlier.”
“Maybe they’re deadlier,” I shoot back.
He squeezes me in his arms. “We can explore a bit tomorrow,” John whispers into my ear. “We’ll figure out where we can get—”
“I need to find Mari. I need to find her
He sighs in my ear. “I know.”
“And you know who will help us.”
“No.” John shifts, twisting himself so he can see my face. “No, we’re not seeing that—that creature. Besides, he’s probably …
dead by now. Actual dead.”
“He’s our only hope. I’ll feel so much better if the
of us were all here, John. Then at least we’d be miserable
.” I stare at the window. “She’s out there.”