Journal fragment, floating in the Hudson:
It's surrounding us now. We can't escape it. The floods rise and never fall. A few groups have formed to try and shear up a sort of dam around the city to keep it out. But last week Mac got the sores and is just hanging on. We think we know now. It's the water...it's in the water and we can't get away...
a few hundred years later...
Areana: The Job
Im always cold now. Its the Pink. My bodys forgotten how to balance, find its own tempo. A necessary sacrifice. Without the numbness from the drug I wouldnt be able to do my job.
I clench my jaw against the chill and pull my gloves on. I rub my arms and try to slow my breathing. The cold air only makes the ache in my chest worse. The ache of whats to come. It shouldnt be there. The Pink is supposed to get rid of it, but Ive taken it for too long.
The remnants of rain drip off fire escapes above and run in little rivers down cracks in the alley floor. Someone yells, the angry sound seeping through a far off window and into the night sky. The smell of wet pavement masks the rot around me a little. I hear a rustle on my left and I turn my head as a familiar cat, leaps on the dumpster Im hiding behind: Went. Her silky black fur blends her into the shadows, making her look like bright, floating eyes. She slinks down to my shoulder, resting her damp nose on my cheek, like a little kiss. Then she rubs her head on the side of my face, purring loudly.
I should be angry. What if someone hears? My mark is due through here any second. But I cant work up the emotion through the fog inside me, so I just allow the thrumming of the purr to calm me even more.
The familiar heat behind my eyes begins to pulse, insistent--the Pink is meant to keep that at bay too, but lately...
No visions, not tonight of all nights. Let it pass before I have to act.
The sound of quiet footsteps snaps me back. Went slinks into the shadows; she'll find me again on the way home. A man comes around the corner and my heart begins to hammer, warming me up a little. Hes trying to be stealthy as he passes my hiding place.
I dont know his name. I dont want to. His number is enough. Beginning with sixty-six, for the year he was born, and ending in seven-sixty, for the number of the birth. Ill find it on the side of his neck if this is my mark. He fits the description, light copper hair--a novelty in itself--and a red sash around the neck for his tribe: Fire. A dark cloak covers his body, collar lifted to hide his face, but the hair and scarf are enough to make me follow.
Ive only made a mistake once before, in training seven years ago. At ten I was ruled too often by my emotions and struck before Id made the ID clear. That's one of those memories I relish burying in the Pink. But Ill kill this one either way. I can smell the wine and perfume on him. Hes been to the green of Court. This one is definitely a traitor.
He weaves his way through the alley, sliding over crates and ducking under sagging clothes lines. Abandoned vessel booths line the walls; shattered pottery and glass pepper the ground around them, crunching underfoot. This whole area was once a thriving trade district. Now it's a forsaken piece of history, only the fringes of humanity willing to enter it anymore--like me, I suppose--and this guy.
I hug the edge of the shadows as I follow, making sure to keep in step with him, masking my sounds with his own. I pull the dagger from the sheath at my belt and clutch it to my chest.
He stops at a back door of an apartment building and I rest between two large crates a few yards away. He pulls something from his pocket. It reflects the moonlight, flashing in the night like a signal. Then he slips it back in his pocket just before pushing something else from his other hand under the door.
I wait for a second, gripping my blade, trying to figure out what Ive just seen. Hes passing information? Which way? If hes passing it to the tribes, then I needed to step back, wait for more intel. The file said he was a Waste sympathizer and frequented the Rim. One of the Flesh Traders had seen him consorting with some of the El, a sort of all-seeing hammer for the Court. Two days later hed shown up with two pounds of Pink and one of Raig. A fortune. Not to mention that the tribes have been working like mad to rid the back streets of Raig for a decade. It's an insidious drug; if it doesnt kill you with the first injection youre one of the unlucky ones.
He moves away and then walks back the way he came; his shoulders hunch a little more, as if carrying a weight. Just as he passes my hiding place I make a snap decision and yank him into the shadows by the back of the coat. My dagger cuts through the wool, pricking his ribs. One shove and hell be breathing through his back. "Number," I hiss in his ear.
He tries to jerk around to see me but I press harder with the blade. It slides into muscle, making him release a cry of pain and--Im hoping--horror. He needs to be afraid of me.
"Your number," I whisper again.
"Look for yourself." His voice is tight. I can tell its hard for him to breathe--every time he takes a breath my blade slides a little deeper.
The only trouble is I cant look for myself. Hes at least a foot taller than me. "On your knees."
I kick him in the back of the knee and he sinks down. I check his neck, still keeping a good grip on the blade.
66760. Hes the one.
"Did Feegan send you?" he asks.
I ignore his question. Feegan's dead by now. Another was given his number. "Who did you just signal?"
He doesnt answer so I pull my pinch blade out. Its only an inch and a half long, but it does the job well enough. I jab it into his thigh; it makes a pop sound as it breaks through the pants' fabric and into his muscle. He clenches his teeth and grunts out a cry of pain.
Signal? I ask again.
I-iwath, he whispers.
What the hell does that mean?
But before I can ask he lurches back and catches me off balance, driving the blade deep into his back, slicing through his lungs.
Blood pours out over my gloved hand as he crumbles to the ground, gasping out red bubbles.
"Damn." I pull the dagger back out and slit his throat to silence the death. That isnt a good sign. If hed rather die than--
A metallic clang sounds from the other side of the alley. I jerk back into the shadow, hoping I havent been noticed, trying to see whos working their way over the crates and broken pottery, to the door where the dead mans message now rests. That corner of the alley is too dark to tell what color hair is escaping out from under a cap; light brown perhaps. His build is medium, spry. His boots reflect the far off light from a window. Too shiny to be from around here.
Whoever it is, he isnt trying very hard to be quiet. He yanks at the metal door and when it doesnt open right off kicks at it, cursing. The pounding echoes off the surrounding concrete and plaster.
Fool. This one isnt aware of the night crawlers, obviously. Or doesnt care. A strange thought.
I decide to take a chance and pull off the blue bandana that says Im from the Water Tribe, shoving it in my pants pocket; thatll throw him off a bit if nothing else. My hat will cover my black hair, maybe keep him from guessing that I'm a girl, and hopefully the darkness will hide my white-blue eyes--they always give me away as the product of stolen Court flesh.
I gently move a flattened box over the dead guys body to hide it, then pull off my gloves, shove them in my pocket to be washed later, and scrub the rest of the blood off my hands in a puddle. The rain water stings a little at my skin. Too much time soaking in that poison and my skin might burn. It's really concentrated after the storm.
I sneak out of the darkness and let my feet crunch on the shards, announcing my presence.
The guy spins around, raising his arm, pointing something at me. Something Ive only seen once before. A gun. Dont come any closer or Ill put a hole in you.
I tip my head as if I dont know what it is hes talking about. I clench my hands to keep them from shaking. Do you need help? I try to smile--my own version of happiness is lost to me--I can pretend.
He seems caught off guard so I step closer. Im about ten feet away now; I can see light curls, escaping out from under his hat, white skin that's trying hard to hide beneath grease and dirt. But I can see it. A beacon of the Court. Hes young, too. No older than nineteen, maybe twenty winters.
The burning behind my eyes grows just a little, reminding me of the waiting visions insistent presence.
No. Not now.
My heart speeds up and I grit my teeth, then raise a surrendering hand. I can open that door if you need me to. The weight of my sheath reminds me I have to get close to win over a gun.
He relaxes a little and waves the gun at the door. Hurry. He looks behind him and then back at me.
Im right beside him now. I can smell the lost scent of flowers beneath the dirt and grime. Its hypnotizing, surging strange images in my head: life springing from the ground, fresh green earth, a girl in a white dress. Back away, I bite out, not able to keep the anger from my voice; the visions are pressing too close. There goes the charade of kindness. As if anyone would be kind around here for free.
He doesnt move away, instead he comes closer, pressing the gun at my side. Listen, kid, get this door open or Ill use your blood to grease the hinge.
I block out the smells, the images, as best as I can, and pull the key links from my pocket. I try one, then another. The third does the trick. He pulls me closer to him as he bends down to pick up the small folding of paper lying just inside. The markings on the surface elude me. I never did learn how to read letters. But when he opens it, I see a number I recognize. One of the Flesh Traders, Bean, I think.
The young man folds it back up carefully then puts it in his pocket and shuts the door again. You know the quickest way to the west gate? He looks up at the sky, as if studying it. I can hear his accent now; that posh lilt.
I nod, trying to figure out where Ill lead him instead. No way I'm taking him anywhere near the gate. Patch is close. He'll be able to help me figure out what to do with this guy. The Court brat is too old to be sold to the Flesh Dealers, but his boots alone should be worth a good ounce of Pink. Ill split it with my fellow Blade if it means being able to find out what those markings represent, and Patch can read. Plus, the thrill of killing a Court brat is suddenly making me giddy.
I point to the mouth of the alley. We have to go on the streets. The lightsll keep the night crawlers away. Well, in theory.
He starts to walk, gun still pressed into my ribs, pushing me in front of him, toward the street. His heart is thundering so hard against my back I start to feel a little dizzy. Its like I can hear the blood surging in my ears. Thud, thud, and mine begins to echo. The burning behind my eyes gets stronger. I struggle to breathe deep and keep the vision at bay.
Not now. Not now
Relief fills me as we leave the alley and the street lights push back the darkness a little. His heart slows at my back.
I lead him west, along the remainder of the trade district. Patch lives just at the line, right before the city begins to turn to madness. I asked him once why he doesn't move closer to the riot side, near Marec, but Patch says he gets a better view of the gate from where he is. Someone from our end has to keep an eye. Cant trust the damn Watchers to do anything but follow the ruggin' gold.
He's right. As much as the tribes try to keep an order with each Core holding its task in check, they seem to fall prey to the Court's drugs and clean water far too often. Watchers turn a blind eye; Flesh Dealers sell our own children to the Court's pleasures, rather than making sure the blood stays pure of its filth; Pushers sell drugs laced by the Courts plagues; Passers shift intel in the wrong direction--the very reason I had to be here tonight. And Blades, those like me, kill their own leaders if the price is high enough. Honor is rare if not dead all together.
We come up--a block from Patchs hole--where the street lights flicker from low power. I sense someone--something--following; there's a slight dragging sound behind us, another a little ahead. "We better move faster." The sound does something to my brain, making me feel a little out of control.
I hear it, he says, sounding angry.
I remember the first time I encountered a night crawler: the hollow, white eyes, shriveled flesh hanging off its bones, torn in some places by its own hands, and the sound of its breathing, like sharp, clacking stone. If theres one, there will be more close by. I want to run, but that only excites them. The last thing I need is for one of them to howl and bring more near.
Do you get what might be ahead? Waiting? My voice shakes a little. I curse my weakness and try to focus.
Hes silent; he falters a little in his step, but keeps walking. His heart speeds up again. I can feel him grip his gun tighter; he better not be stupid and pull the trigger while the barrel is still buried in my side.
"We need to work together or were both dinner." I step to the side and pull out my dagger, slipping it up to the hollow at his throat before he even realizes Ive moved. Dae's Bones, this one really needs to get faster on the uptake if were going to get to the next block in one piece. "Now pull that gun out of my ribs and lets figure out how to get to that gate without getting our flesh torn off."
He swallows and glares at me; his eyes are a sort of wild violet-blue. The coldness there makes me shiver. "Perhaps we should just save them the work, and dish ourselves up." The side of his mouth slips up, pretending at smiling. Is he crazy?
I glare back. "What are you playing at?"
Then suddenly hes moving, putting the gun in his belt, picking me up by the shoulders and carrying me to the wall, pressing me there, heedless of the blade at his throat. "We need something solid at our back." He lets go and pulls his gun back out, and then another. "Thirty shots ought to do it."
My dagger falls back to my side. He is crazy. "We cant just hang out here and wait!" Panic wells in me now. Shame follows but Im not as worried about that as I am about making it into some sort of solid light.
"How many could there be? Ten at most. You seem good with a blade." He raises an eyebrow at me. "Or do you need to run home to your mum?"
Ass. He cant be more than two or three years older than me and hes telling me to run home. Ruggin Court brat. "Im just fine."
But Im not. Ive never fought a night crawler before. Ive only gotten good at avoiding them. If nothing else in this life scares me those monsters do. Okay, maybe Wasters, but Ive never seen one of those.
The Court brat smiles his crooked, mocking grin at me. "Good." Then he surprises me. "Whats your name?"
I look at him, not able to hide my shock.
His smile grows, sort of insanely too big. Dimples sink into his cheeks, reminding me of his hidden royal beauty. "What? I cant know the guy Im gonna die with?"
Good, he thinks I'm a boy. "Ray," I say. The name everyone calls me.
He bows his head, as if greeting me for the first time. Court manners, I suppose. It almost makes me laugh, my nerves are so tight. "Colm," he says.
I just blink at him.
He frowns at me, then. "Really, well be fine."
I nod, even though Im thinking hes wrong. But he seems so sure. I cant believe Im just standing here, waiting for the crawlers to come at me. He has a point, our backs are secure. Well have a better chance than in the open when they attack. I try to feel that reason inside me, but the Pink is really wearing off now and my head is pounding so hard with the waiting vision I feel like I might hurl at any second.
I consider for a second just releasing the thing. It would feel so good to be free. But horror fills me in the same instant, reminding me what I always see, what always enters me in that moment of release. Dae, help me, I wont ever feel that again if I can avoid it.
His voice rips me from my inner torment. "What tribe are you from?"
I look up at him and try to remember who Im supposed to be tonight. "Water." All tribes. I have no tribe. Im the product of stolen Court flesh. My mother and I were supposedly left in a dumpster to die. One from the Fire tribe found me and took me in at first, nurtured me for many years, but later they couldnt handle my weakness, my visions. Air tribe refused me. Water nearly burned me as a witch when I fell into one of my fits just before a man died of fever. No one could control me. It was Marec, from the Earth tribe, who began to feed me the Pink and teach me the ways of the Blade. I was ten by then, innocence already lost to the filthy hands of a man in the Water tribe. I guess Marec figured I couldnt fall any farther. Im never sure if I appreciate his kindness--if it could be called that--or if I hate him for it. Perhaps it would have been better to die at the stake or at the hands of my curse.
"You were born in the year of the tiger." Colm nods at the mark on my neck.
I dont really know what hes talking about.
He must have seen the confusion on my face. "Seventy-four. A lucky year."
I release a laugh. I cant help it. Lucky?
As if in answer the scraping of crawler feet grows louder. It sounds like there's a lot more than ten.
Ruddy hell, Colm breathes, and closes his eyes. He traces an odd sign on his forehead and across his eyes with a finger. His eyes open, glaring straight ahead.
Crawlers move forward in the flickering light of the street lamp. It's hard to see in the darkness but I can hear them; the sound of their heaving breath and sliding feet chill my bones and send the urge to run to my feet.
My nerves turn raw at the loud click of Colm's gun locking a bullet into place. Adrenalin leaks through me, stirring my insides. It's hard to look away from him. I never thought a Court brat would be so intense. So real. He seemed too frantic when Id come upon him. Now he seems so serene.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
I take a deep breath and pull the pinch blade from my belt and weigh my dagger in my right hand, testing it. Hand to hand isn't my forte. That's Marecs deal. I'm the sneaky one.
Colm aims at the closest of our followers. Its mouth is twisted as if its jaw is broken and a gnawed-on hand covers its white eyes, trying to keep out the small amount of light. It sniffs the air. It doesn't need to see to find us.
My body's stone. How can Colm hit it from here? Its jerky movements and the flickering shadows seem to make the shot impossible.
He fires, blowing the shoulder off. My throat constricts as a screech of anger comes from the crawler. Then another shot and its head's halfway gone.
It collapses. The next bullet goes into the chest of the one behind.
"Stick to the heads," I say, feeling frantic and useless.
The head of the second explodes out the back and then the body crumbles atop the first, twitching. Two down.
Ten shots later Colm takes out another six, but theyre getting faster, angry, urgent at the smell of death. Their white eyes shine, countless of them, coming closer, closer.
The first gun locks back, empty, and Colm throws it aside, aiming the next. Shots fill the night, pop, pop, pop, vibrating the air. Seven bullets and four more crawlers go down. They seem endless, coming out of the shadows, undaunted by their fallen in front of them. Six more bullets and two more crawlers down. There are only two bullets left. Still five more crawlers, so close, their moans, louder and louder. I can see them clearly now, their skin that pasty yellow-green, like death forgot to take them completely.
Colm shoves the near-empty gun in this belt and bends to swipe the first off the ground. Then he charges at the closest crawler, using the locked-back weapon to bludgeon the monster's temple.
A shriveled hand grabs at me. I swipe it away and lunge forward at the crawler, my heart thundering in my throat, tackling it to the ground, shoving my dagger in its ear. Before I can move again another is on top of me, pulling me, its breath sickeningly sweet, like sugar-coated death. I scream and twist my body beneath it, adrenalin surging through me more with each second, filling every inch of me.
The crawler claws at my cheek but I dont feel it. Its nails bite into my skin; I can see my blood on its fingers. When it pauses to smell I reach for my dagger, yanking it from the ear of the dead crawler, and thrust it in the eye of the one above me. Its body jerks and its mouth opens in a silent scream. I kick at it, trying to scramble away.
Something hard hits my head and everything spins around me. My stomach lurches and I lose hold of reality for a second. Just long enough. The burning behind my eyes surges, taking me with it, propelling me into my vision. It waited so long, so very long. Its strength captures me; its power a sickening thing, a frightening thing. I sink into the mind of someone else, maybe another time, another place. I never have known who the girl is. But I am her now and the pain overwhelms me...
The man wrenches my sleeve, trying to pull off my dress. The silk tears, yanking me with it, closer to him. I want to scream, I want to fight back, but I can't. The poison's already filling me, making my mind useless. His whiskers are rough on my neck, across my chest; he rubs my white skin raw. His fingers tangle in my hair, pulling golden strands out by the root.
"My little Iwaith," he murmurs into my still lips, "my golden gem."
The tears soak my face, running into his red beard. God, let this end, let this end. But it cannot. It goes on and on; violent hands groping, burning, taking. Death never comes to save me...he never comes to take me home.