Watching her father’s termination, twenty-year-old Cristina Mera Richards decides to kill the reaper Edgar Verner. Verner is the resident alkemist of New Bayou, though, and since alkemists are immortal, killing him won’t be easy. But the harvesters are destroying the hovertown one citizen at a time. Edgar Verner must be stopped.
Cristina Mera has a gift for seeing and hearing ghosts. She escorts souls out of bodies ravaged by the withering sickness, taking away their pain. Her gifts are unique. Once it’s clear she’s a changeling, Verner becomes more than interested in having her by his side.
Mysterious Wanderer Alkemist Nikola Skazat is the solution to Cristina Mera’s problems—a delightful and charming one, since Nikola is a woman unlike any Cristina Mera has ever met. Becoming Nikola’s apprentice instead of Verner’s finally gives Cristina Mera the opportunity she needs to save her hovertown. It also puts her heart in high gear, gives her butterflies, and just might get her killed.
“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.”
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