IT WAS night. It was always night.
Since the Final War, the skies had been covered in thick clouds that allowed no light to pass through. The Outside air was poisoned. The Old World was covered in a thick layer of soot. A dead world rotting away under a coat of darkness. And we had killed it, history said. Now we were dying too. Or would have been were it not for alkemists and their hovering platforms that housed us and filtered the air that we breathed. The alkemists had saved us, the story went. But in order to be saved, people had to make sacrifices.
In our town, New Bayou, the sacrifices consisted of terminations, soul extractions, becoming golems, paying fines for negative float factors, and allowing the hover platform resident alkemist to be our lord and ruler. Our resident alkemist had declared that civilized towns had to have a mayor, senators, and policemen. But what our authorities did was anything but civilized.
We had traditional times of day and night that followed the cycles we were told existed back when the sun rose and set. Clocks told us what time it was, and we used terms like “day” and “night” for the endless darkness of the skies. We separated time into hours, weeks, months, and years, though nothing much ever changed except for the citizens of each platform. Or at least on ours. We didn’t travel often between platforms. It was too risky to try.
Today was a termination day. It was staged as a grand event, always. People gathered in the town hall, in the terminations room, specifically, to witness the sacrifice citizens were making for the greater good. Or the punishment inflicted on those found guilty of a crime. At least once a week, a dozen citizens at a time were terminated. Sometimes the authorities required more or settled for less—it all depended on how much float fuel the engines needed.
Death lounged against the window frame. It seemed eager to pick up the dozen souls still residing in the bodies lined up. Max Richards—my father—was among them. The sacrifices stood proud and brave, condemned while their runes shone in bright colors nobody besides me and Death itself seemed to see. The rune tattoos were supposed to give them strength, courage, and quiet of the mind while they waited. Nobody wanted to have a restless soul right before termination. It might change the float factor of their soul and make their sacrifice futile. Of course no one wanted those dozen souls to have anything but positive float factors.
I thought those runes were simply signs of condemnation. Death was death, as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t a brave sacrifice or a glorious gesture. It was simply the parting of the soul from the body. And regardless of the runes, that parting was a painful event.
This batch of terminations was a strange mix of criminals and volunteers. Strangest of all was the fourth volunteer from the right—my father. My heart beat violently, and I looked him straight in the eye. There should have been some sort of emotion in those beautiful gray eyes, but they looked blank. He stared back at me, unreachable, as much a stranger now as he’d been for too much of my life. It made sense, after all, that he’d be a stranger in the hour of his death too. I loved my father the way one loves art: as a concept, for its execution, and from afar. My love for him was a cold kind of love that unsettled the heart, neither tender nor comforting. I liked to think he loved me the same way. It was better than the alternative… that he didn’t love at all.
Edgar Verner—our resident alkemist—walked around the flock of victims, thick-lens goggles hiding his eyes. His presence was insulting in a way I wasn’t allowed by law to even contemplate, but I did contemplate it, felt it and fully embraced it in my heart. I hated Verner because I saw so many of his victims’ ghosts still ambling about the hovertown. Sometimes he deemed souls as having negative float factor after having extracted them from the body, so he didn’t consume them. He simply freed them, left them to wander, lost and terrified, without a body. Once extracted by the alkemic device, a soul was stuck among the living. Nobody had told me so, and I had no way of asking, but I was sure the cupola under which we lived also kept souls within. It seemed to me releasing those extracted souls was an act of pure malice. He had to know they suffered once released in such a manner. I knew they suffered. I heard their wails of fear and despair. And I hated him for it. I hated him even more for having consumed some of the souls himself. He was a reaper, a soul eater, a monster. The town could sing his praises all it wanted. It was easy to. The town couldn’t hear the wails of the ghosts still around. And they wailed on and on, seeming to have no notion of time or place, and no consolation.
I glanced at Death as it sat there and I wondered how it felt about the competition. It stared back at me like we were old friends. In fact we were acquaintances, if I had to find a word for it. We’d seen each other over the last ten years on multiple occasions—never chatted, though. Death never had a thing to say. Perhaps it knew no language, and little need did it have to use one. Its actions spoke loud enough. Just like Verner’s, I thought bitterly, though he chose to speak.
In the crowd of witnesses, I stood numb, oddly detached from the moment. Every now and then my gaze slid back to Death as it lazed against the window. Hair tumbled from its head like a tangled river of blood. Its face, hair, and attire flickered in and out of view. When it grinned, a void opened up on the brink of its lips. It regarded me with holes for eyes.
Silence reigned like a curse over the room, thick enough to choke. Verner pointed slowly to the first victim in the row. The young girl was probably no older than me—I thought she was too young to be terminated. But then again, there never was a good time to die. Was she a volunteer at such a young age? Perhaps a criminal? My stomach seemed to crawl up into my chest.
Death chuckled and took a step closer. The alkemic device in Verner’s palm looked deceptively delicate and beautiful. The thin iridium spokes, nicely held together by a matching iridium frame, held a crystal in place. It was quite a tiny, lovely thing—lovely and deadly. It shone with a rainbow of colors as it began to suck out the girl’s soul. A mirroring pull in my own heart made my skin crawl. My soul seemed eager to abandon ship.
Death frowned and wagged a finger at me like a mother chastising her child. I swallowed thickly as black-cherry hair overlapped the rivers of blood gurgling from Death’s head. Its eyes seemed green for one terrible moment. The face cut my breath short. Of all the times it could have done so, it chose this particular moment to flash at me an image of my dead mother. Was it a twisted sort of kindness on its part to show me the one I’d loved the most and whom it had taken away?
Verner sucked in the young soul through his mouth like a mist of colors that he breathed in. The device in his palm slowly shut down, the crystal’s eerie glow dying out. He licked his lips and grinned.
Death growled, a billion voices wailing as black claws shot out the tips of its fingers. The hairs on the back of my neck stood. Silence was better than that terrifying sound, I decided. Its body, material only a second ago, had dissolved into a mist of thick black smoke that swirled around the room. I hoped it might go for Verner, steal him away. But it didn’t. As it reached him, it misted away, still growling. Of course the hope was foolish. Everyone knew alkemists were immune to human death. Perhaps they were immune to everything. Verner certainly seemed so.
With a dramatic sigh, he turned to face the witnesses gathered in the terminations hall.
“Shelly’s float factor was negative, sadly. The engines are still hungry, but her golem body will serve them well.”
Said body lay slumped to the floor. Bile bubbled up from my stomach. A negative float factor meant Shelly’s soul hadn’t been collected for float fuel.
After a curt bow, he moved on to the next in line. Death didn’t return as he went through the row, one by one. I closed my eyes for a moment as I realized Death itself had given up.
My father’s soul shone brightly as Verner’s palm device was aimed at him. I felt numb. One moment he was there, the protective rune shining bright in reds and blues, drawn on his forehead—the next all that was left was a body. And not even the body would find peace. It would be taken into the reaper’s lair and come out a golem: functional, obedient, soulless. Max Richards was gone, but his body would keep walking the hovering platform forever if Edgar Verner so chose. No clear end. There was no finality or closure to be found, not yet. But I’d get my closure.
My father was the only one with positive float factor in that batch so far. The horrifying math said Verner’s henchmen, the harvesters, would seek to supply the rest of the float fuel material if the number of positive factors didn’t increase.
I slipped away from the crowd and walked out of the terminations hall. Empty dark corridors welcomed me into their bosoms. My boots clicked against the black marble of the town hall floors. The echo danced around and through my thoughts.
For a moment I felt Death walking right beside me. I saw its face rushing by in a mirror. A second pair of steps emerged from behind me, quieter and heavier in their pace. A rush of adrenaline shot through my body as the steps sounded nearer. The oddest dullness pulled at the corners of my mind and my breath quickened. I froze in place and the second set of steps followed suit.
I cleared my throat, straightened my back. “Who’s there?”
I didn’t sound shaken, surprisingly enough. The question carried down the dark corridor, my voice controlled, steady. I wasn’t steady. How could I be? I’d just watched my father get killed in there. Worst of all it was a murder he had volunteered for.
Faint candlelight flickered as an odd breeze ruffled the black chiffon of my dress. Turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. The pit of my stomach screamed something terrible loomed there in the darkness, waiting to snatch me if I so much as gazed in its direction. Back still straight, I walked slowly. The second set of steps followed. My feet froze in place again. The whole routine was becoming annoying, and annoying was something I couldn’t handle today of all days.
“Children and criminals play hide-and-seek. Which one are you?”
Again my voice carried in the darkness and was followed by no answer. Fine. Whatever was following me could rot in silence, then. I marched on out.
Beatrice Herran, my darling ex-governess now turned chaperone, was waiting in the building’s foyer. She was as faithful and reliable as any parent would be. Since Mother’s death ten years ago, Nana had been a teacher, a friend—my salvation. Now the woman’s face was an odd study in blankness, and she patted my shoulder.
“Let’s go home, Miss. A nice cup of tea will do us wonders.”
I smiled tightly and followed my nana out. No amount of tea would “do wonders” anymore. I sank into dark thoughts. My father’s blank expression as his soul left the body replayed in my mind over and over again. But had he actually been there? I couldn’t decide. He hadn’t been with us for a long while, not quite. His body was there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but he hadn’t been properly with us. His eyes were dull for years. Perhaps the termination was a form of relief, a mercy for him. He hadn’t been a full person since mother died. I should’ve felt more pain at his death now, but it wasn’t a brusque parting, after all. He’d been drifting away day by day.
But Verner murdering him was heinous regardless of that fact. And I vowed I’d see him dead. I simply had to. The reaper had caused so much misery and death that his demise would be a mercy to the hovertown. And I was a faithful adept of mercies, if nothing else.
Nana piloted us both out to the carriage. If our guards said anything, I didn’t hear them. I only heard Death’s growls making rounds right behind my eyes. Yes, Death hated the reaper as much I did. Being cheated out of those souls he consumed didn’t make it perky. Perhaps it would be that much easier to make an ally of it.
A tap on my shoulder shook me from my thoughts.
A young boy held out a folded paper. Nana was quick to give him some credits after I picked up the missive. We got into the carriage. As soon as it was in motion, I opened the note. Elegant longhand announced Edgar Verner would call on the Richards residence in the evening. My face twitched and I crumpled the paper, then stuffed it into my handbag.
“Looks like our tea will be doing wonders for a guest too. Edgar Verner wants to visit this evening.”
Nana’s eyes flashed murder for one spectacular moment, but then she composed herself back into a smile.
“What an honor. I’ll make sure Cannari brings out sweets.”
Our butler—Cannari—was probably more likely to throw daggers at me than bring me sweets. My gaze slid to the window and to the thick night of New Bayou. Seeing my reflection hurt. I’d inherited gray eyes heavy with worries from my now-late father. Mine would be the only ones in the Richards residence from now on. My skin looked pasty white and it made my hot-pink hair stand out all the more. So much of my mother and my father was right there in my reflection. That was all that was left of them.
My chest tightened to the point of pain, but I composed myself and smiled my synthetic-like smile. Or synth-like, as I called all synthetic and therefore not natural things.
“Too bad we don’t have poison to sprinkle on those sweets. Now that would really do us all wonders.”
“Another alkemist could pick up where Verner left off, Miss. Nothing would do us real wonders in that regard.”
“Perhaps the lesser evil would be the one we don’t know, in this case.”
She seemed to consider it for a moment. “I don’t think poison works on them.”
Didn’t I know it…. Didn’t we all. I exhaled and tapped my gloved finger against the window of the carriage. In the fleeting night, I saw ghostly faces floating about, their moans and whispers loud enough to reach me. They were always loud enough to reach me. Some had died of the withering, but few of them. I could tell which had been killed by the terrible sickness the withering was. Their souls bore an unmistakably green aura. The wretched withering refused to leave them even in death. I couldn’t decide if the illness was better or worse than Verner. In a way he didn’t give his victims any peace either, not even after snatching away their souls.
I sighed and looked back at Nana. “Poison won’t help, I know. But a lady can dream, hm?”
She chuckled. “By all means, a lady must.”
I nodded and looked away. Silence slithered through my veins. I saw more than felt my hands as they gripped each other, black lace gloves sliding beautifully under the rays of the alkemic streetlights.
I looked back up and my face felt somewhat slack. “It’s just you and me now, Nana.”
The look on her face almost choked me up. Perhaps crying would ease my soul, even if just for a moment. But there were no tears. I couldn’t shed them, and I vowed right then I wouldn’t. Tears never helped a thing. I’d learned as much grieving desperately after my mother. All the rivers of tears in the world wouldn’t change a thing. Taking action would. That would ease some of the toxic pain in my soul. I would take action. Then I might cry.
I looked down again, studied the patterns in my lace gloves.
“I’ll kill him. I swear on the love for my mother that I’ll kill Edgar Verner. I’ll see his soul disintegrate and dissolve, even if it’s the last thing I do.”
My companion sighed but said nothing.
My vow wasn’t a thought in the heat of the moment or a cry of despair. It was a promise to what I held most dear. And I’d deliver on that promise or my name wasn’t Cristina Mera Richards.