By Andrea Kriz- 36 minutes read
From: Issue 1
“He’s back again,” Mom whispers. “That man.”
“Honestly.” Miss Yue lays aside her Peaceday wreath, takes her by the shoulders and leads her away from the window. “Someone should call the lancers.”
“Call the Altassians?” Mom’s other friend says. “On an old man?”
“He knows what’ll happen if they find him here. We have children here.”
Mom turns and sees me standing in the door, one foot in my shoe, stuffing the last of a fried dough stick in my mouth.
“What’re you still doing here?” Mom yells. “Hurry, you’ll be late!”
I bike out of our courtyard, bumping over the cobblestones of our narrow alley, and brake. The man’s coat is battered, its collar mangy. His face unshaven—I can smell him, like oil, all the way from the cabbages and chives of Auntie Ming’s stall. I feel bad for him. He’s kneeling by the shrine she made for her grandson who got lanced running too close to the fence, chasing a lost ping-pong ball, last week. He’s got a white lotus in his hands. He summoned it. I can tell by the way it glows with qi, as he sets it down by the old photo. If the Altassians found out about that, they’d get pretty mad. Opening the Gate for something stupid like that.
“Hello,” he says.
“I can’t talk to you.” I snap forward. “I’ve got to go to school.”
“Ah, so you have school. That’s good.”
A cart heaped high with broken televisions groans past us, its driver swearing, oxen snorting. It swerves onto the path winding up to the smokestacks at the top of the hill.
“School is good?”
“When I lived here, they sent us to work in the reactor. To shovel the scrapfields.”
He smiles at me. I hesitate, then pedal away.
— # —
The essay question’s about the Long Night. Good. I didn’t study. But any kid over the age of five knows how to answer questions like that. The consequences. The aftermath. My eyes wander out the window. Homeroom’s on the top floor. I can see over the barbed wire from here. The towers of Mivven, shining above the hunched roofs of our ’voker district. I wonder if there’s a school there. Mivvenite and Altassian kids sitting in a classroom like this, learning the same stuff as us ’vokers. How our ancestors would’ve dealt with it in contrast—Mom tells me not to be too enthusiastic about answering that part. Fire and ash. Eradicating entire races of people.
“Yes, Jian?” Our history teacher, Mr. Toru, squints at my raised hand through his goggles. “Do you have a question about the exam?”
Someone behind me giggles, knowing what’s coming.
“Last week we learned the Gate sometimes opens on its own, right?” I ask. “Especially after the war, because of all the qi the reactor keeps taking out of it. So how do we know it was really a ’voker who summoned Sixhorns in the middle of Mivven back then? Maybe it was just like that. Like a typhoon. Or an earthquake.”
Mr. Toru nearly falls out of his chair. I grin. Danny and I, we’re always competing to see who can stump him the longest. I think I’ve won. But then I remember—Danny sits at the front of the room, with his new friends now. He’s looking over his shoulder at me like he just smelled something bad. Too late, Mom’s words come back. You don’t joke about history. You don’t joke about the Long Night.
“I’m sorry,” I stutter. “I was just—”
“Jian,” Mr. Toru screeches. “Go to the principal’s office!”
Principal Kerr. I mouth her name as I scuff down the hall. She’s a mindsplicer. But don’t call her that! Don’t call her Fullmetal like the high schoolers do either. Altassians can’t stand being called anything but their. Exact. Titles. Same if they hear you saying two words stuck together, they’ll flip. You have to use the words in the dictionary, Mr. Toru says. It’s not grammatically correct to just make up your own. Nevermind if we’ve heard our parents talk like that a million times before. Don’t point out their catalysts either. Altassians don’t like admitting it takes all that crystal for them to do the same things our bodies do on their own. But don’t say that’s why either. But Principal Kerr peels her gloves off after reading the note Toru gave me.
She says my name wrong as usual. Flat, like all Altassians do.
“You’ve been here an awful lot lately, haven’t you?”
“Why don’t you go over your lesson with me today.”
I see the purple discs glinting in her palms, scoot back in my chair.
“Don’t move,” she says sternly. “Or it’ll be worse for you.”
I let her put her cold hands on my temples.
“Jian. Now, you know why your people live here, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Because of how Mivven got restructured fifty years ago. After the Long Night, the entire city had to be rebuilt. A lot of Mivvenites thought they’d made a mistake, not letting their Altassian allies wipe us out after the war like they did all over the rest of the world. So all us ’vokers agreed to move to a special district at the edge of the city for everyone’s safety.”
“And do you remember what happened during the Long Night?”
“One of us ’vokers opened a Gate in the middle of the city. I was just joking. I know.”
“But do you remember?”
I’m eight years old. We’re celebrating my birthday. Mom, clapping, Dad, nearly tripping as he lowers the cake. Chocolate. My favorite. My little sister giggles in her rocker as I blow out the candles. Then the dining room shakes. A crack spreads across the ceiling, sprinkling dust all over the floor. Crashes. Blackness. Cold rain washes me awake. Mom, Dad, they’re buried under the rubble. I hug my sister tightly. Not a block away, the ’voked beast towers. Its eyes shining like six moons, a forest of horns sprouting from its head. Among its hooves, wide as trees, creep the foxspirits. The first tears apart the rafters tented above us. Saliva drips from its jaws, onto my face. It reaches for my sister …
“Stop!” I scream. “Stop!”
I’m screaming, rolling on the carpet, not even realizing I’m disconnected until I slam my head into the desk leg and curl up in pain.
“Stop,” I sob. “Stop …”
“Get up,” Kerr says.
Her face softens at the sight of mine.
“I know it’s difficult for you,” she sighs, pulling on her gloves. “But your people must remember their history to avoid repeating it. You understand, don’t you?”
“Then you can go.”
Have you ever seen those memories you put into us? I want to say. I mean witnessed them, actually experienced them yourself. I know those kids caught in the Long Night, our ancestors’ war before that, didn’t ask for it either. But sometimes, the high schoolers, I see them sitting grey-faced against the wall, they can’t eat for weeks after. We ask them to get a taste of what we’re in for at that age rather than going on completely unprepared and only got a few words.
Firebirds, bombing the beach. Pearleater’s men. Finding me hiding in the subway.
It starts snowing as I bike home. Past the concrete ping-pong tables, the track. I drop my bike in our courtyard, wander through the cold rooms of our house. Dad must be working late again.
— # —
“Mom?” I call out.
She’s sitting at the kitchen table. Tiny bits of red paper, like gouged-out flesh, scattered around her feet. She sketched out a fish or something, I think, padding up behind her. Back when she made the tiger hanging in my room, when she started on this one. But I can barely see a pattern in that sheet she’s slumped over anymore. She’s not supposed to work on it—Miss Yue hid her supplies and told her to focus on civilized art, like her Peaceday wreath instead—but if I try to take the paper away she’ll scream, the neighbors downstairs will hear. I watch for movement. When I see the glint of the blade in her hand, my heart slows in relief. She’ll cut the paper, scratch the wood beneath. But she won’t hurt herself.
“I’m going to Danny’s,” I tell her. “Don’t worry. I won’t stay out too late.”
— # —
I bike out to the scrapfields. I take a ping-pong ball, my paddle, out of my backpack. Run over when the ball hits the slush and hit it back. Repeat. I used to practice with Dad. But now. I smack the ball as hard as I can, watch it arc into the darkening sky. Wait for it to fall.
Instead, someone catches it. It takes me a second to make him out, on top of the qi-scorched skull in front of me. It’s the man from that morning.
“You’re that kid,” his voice echoes. “What’s your name?”
I should run, I think. Instead I stand, frozen to the spot, as he slides down.
“Jian. What’re you doing out here so late?”
“Dad’s working at the reactor,” I mumble. “And Mom won’t care. She’s cutting.”
“That paper cutting for my little sister who was never born.” My voice cracks. “It’s only fair ’cause of those poor Altassians our ancestors used to chop the babies out of. I’m not supposed to know that because it’s a memory they only give grown-ups. But they didn’t know it’d give my mom a mis, misc. Make her lose my little sister. I just wish—Mom and Dad would ask me about what I’m doing in school sometimes. Stuff like that.”
He crouches down. His eyes are friendly up close. Blue.
“Why don’t you tell me about school, Jian? I never got to go, you know.”
“Well.” I sniffle. “There’s math, which I like. There’s grammar, which is okay. Then there’s history. Which I like and I don’t like.”
“I like hearing about the Mivvenites. How they worked with the ’vokers that conquered their island and the Altassians to overcome all the bad stuff that happened during the war. But I don’t like hearing about Pearleater. It’s even worse than the memories. He was—a monster.”
“Is that what they teach you?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Listen to me, Jian. Here’s something your teachers will never tell you.”
He rises, claps his hands together.
“It’s a story about a boy just about your age. He grew up in a farming village with absolutely nothing. Droughts and famine ravaged the land. And, in exchange for ‘protection’, the Altassians took what little his family had. Yet the boy never thought of himself. He worked and worked and, one day, stumbled on a giant pearl in the dirt of a riverbed. The pearl blessed the boy. It opened the sky and poured rain over the parched fields of his people. But the Altassians heard the rumors and came to claim the gem. Surrounded by knights, the boy swallowed his pearl—and drew a great, white, Liondragon from his mouth. From that moment, all of us who shared his blood became one with the Gate too.”
His hands. They’re glowing. White.
“Are you opening it?” I shriek, scrabbling backward.
I see the earliest memories they put into us—nothing too bloody, only piles and piles of bodies in a pit, the full weight of it, the kids like us among them, only sinking in years later.
“Are you going to summon a beast?”
He shakes his head. Specks of light are floating around him, I notice as my breaths slow. Whirling with the snowflakes, melting into his grey hair. As the glow fades, something moves in his hands. Squeaks. He dumps it into my arms. It’s furry. With floppy ears like a rabbit. But with a beak, a snaking tail. Bright eyes that blink slowly closed at the sight of me. It yawns. I giggle.
“That’s a qiuyu,” the man says. “He’ll keep you company tonight. Don’t worry. He’ll disappear by dawn.”
“The Altassians can’t trace a qi influx this small. Just keep him under your coat when you bike back, okay? Go home right now.”
“This came from the Gate?”
“Yes. You see, your ancestors summoned creatures like this too.”
I stand up shakily, take two steps and look back. But he’s already disappeared. Through the ribs of the beast skeleton, into the depths of the scrapfields.
“What’s your name?” I call out.
“You can call me Xiong.”
— # —
I come down the stairs the next morning and see Mom, stirring in the dark of the kitchen. Still slumped over her paper, the pine branches, the wire frame of her Peaceday wreath shoved aside. Her friends must be busy today. So I’ll have to make breakfast myself. I tear a chunk out of the loaf of bread on the counter. The note I brought home from school still sits on the counter where I crumpled it.
“Cleaning up?” Mom murmurs. “You’re such a good boy, Jian.”
I sweep the note into the trash, walk over and hug her. She runs her hand through my hair.
“Off to school?”
“You’ve been studying hard, Jian, haven’t you?”
“You’ve got to get good grades, Jian. So you can—”
She sniffs, recoils from me.
“Qi. I smell qi.”
I woke up and thought the qiuyu might’ve been a dream. Not crying myself to sleep for once, no yelling downstairs. Drifting off with my arms around its purring warmth. Mom’s eyes go faraway. She’s seeing a memory again.
“When the ’vokers came, it fell from the sky like ash,” she murmurs. Then snaps out of it. “You’ve been talking to that summoner man, haven’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me. What did he tell you?”
I don’t answer. She grabs me, nearly knocking me off my feet.
“You can’t believe him! If the Altassians find out, they’ll—don’t you understand, Jian? Why can’t you just listen to me for once?”
Believe what? I want to ask. Find out what? They’ll what? Understand what? Her fingernails dig into my arms. I wince. She catches herself, loosens her grip.
“We’re helping him as much as we can by not reporting him,” she whispers. “Jian. Promise me. You’ll avoid him from now on.”
— # —
It’s just another word to me. Promise. I say it because, for some reason, that’s all Mom needs. Tomorrow she won’t even remember what I said I’d do. Still. All through geometry I see her thin face, her shadowed eyes, and I want to try. So instead of going up to the roof at lunch, I wedge myself into Danny’s circle in homeroom. He’s got one of those boxes his dad spends about an hour making him every morning. Pillowy rice, bean sprouts mouth-wateringly crisp. Meanwhile I’m eating curry out of a can from the vending machine.
“Did you see the execution on TV yesterday?” the girl beside me says.
“Yeah,” Danny says. “It was a good one. I added it to my album.”
“What about you, Jian?”
I choke down my tofu, lay my disposable chopsticks aside. My stomach churns. My Mom doesn’t let me watch that, I want to say. But I know that isn’t allowed. Parental blocks don’t work on educational shows.
“He just wandered too close to the fence,” I manage. “Auntie Ming’s grandson.”
“Come on, Jian. What kind of scrapfield worker wanders next to the fence? There’s like a million signs. And they found a tunnel. Qi packs on him. He was definitely smuggling.”
“Just try watching once,” Danny says. “It’s nothing compared to the memories. And it’s epic, seeing them skewered. Like revenge for how many of our ancestors got off free.”
“But—how you’d feel if it was one of us?”
“It won’t be. Our parents raised us right.”
“Careful, Nu. You hear what he said in class yesterday?”
They erupt into giggles.
“So like, what did Kerr do to you?”
“Was it a new memory? Or an old one, strengthened?”
I stand, move away quickly before they can see the tears in my eyes.
“He’s so weird. Danny, you really used to be friends with him?”
Up on the roof, I lean my forehead against the chain link fence. Instead of sky, my eyes rest on the guard tower, the cold mountains of Mivven. We used to collect bugs, Danny and I. Last summer, before he moved, a week before we started seventh grade, we found a praying mantis. I was about to net it—he reached out and squashed it. Smeared it down the trunk. I screamed at him, because we’d spent days hunting it down, but he just stood there, staring at the gunk dripping off his hand.
“I’m done with this dumb kid stuff,” was all he said. “The kids in that city our ancestors invaded were eating bugs, remember? Just to survive. They were so hungry. And the ’voker soldiers just walked past them, laughing. Or threw them into their ring, watched their beasts tear them apart for fun. One of them. The one that got torn up by the clawboar.” He made a noise like a sob, but his face didn’t move. “Looked just like my baby brother.”
— # —
“You got the memories too,” I ask Xiong the next time I see him. “Didn’t you?”
“They put even worse ones into us when I was a kid.”
I find him in Remembrance Park. Looking up at the jagged chunk of the memorial. Its gold-lettered names, lit by qi lamps.
“That was right after the Long Night,” Xiong continues. “When we were moving to the outskirts of Mivven. There was nothing here but rubble. This part of the island had been completely destroyed by Sixhorns. A lot of people just killed themselves. I got my first job, when I was about your age, cleaning up some of those construction sites where it happened.”
I scan the playground, the gravel paths behind us again. No one. I drop my bike and scoot onto the bench beside him. The elementary schoolers who came here this afternoon on a field trip, shoveling the paths, laying flowers for the victims, are long gone. The wind’s blown their petals, like drops of blood, all over the memorial plaque.
“I hear the grown-ups talk about you, Xiong.”
“And what do they say?”
“They say you’re a deserter. That the Altassians gave you a chance to fight on the right side and you ran away.”
“Not just me. We were a unit. Feared as our ancestors on the battlefield. Then war caught up. Qi bombs. Missiles. Nation after nation developed weapons, like the Altassians’ lances, to fell our beasts. So the Altassians decided to terminate us. But I was selfish. I refused to obey orders. I wanted to see my home again before I died.”
“No. Maybe these are just the ramblings of an old man losing his mind. But I swear—these days, I can hear voices coming from the other side of the Gate.”
I remember Auntie Ming’s shrine. She always says she can hear spirits in the white lotuses Xiong summons. And Mom just nods and smiles, pays for her vegetables—because Ming’s got the cheapest prices in the ’voker district—and pulls me away.
“Like Auntie Ming’s grandson?”
“All of the dead. Pearleater too, maybe.”
“What do they say?”
“All kinds of things. I just wish everyone would listen to those voices. Try to understand why our ancestors did what they did.”
“Why should we listen to them? They were monsters!”
The word tears my throat raw. It startles me. I don’t sound like me. It’s like my body’s moving on its own as it jumps off the bench, points up at the names.
“They slaughtered millions! Even when the Mivvenites forgave them one of them summoned Sixhorns and nearly destroyed the entire city. And.” My voice trembles. “We’re ’vokers too. We’re monsters too.”
Steps crunch in front of me. Xiong kneels in the snow, puts his hands on my shoulders.
“You are not a monster, Jian.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve seen monsters.”
I’m crying again. Tears are running down my face. It hurts. It hurts so much I just want it to stop. I’ve had this feeling a lot since Danny stopped being friends with me.
“You aren’t a ’voker either,” Xiong says. “That’s a name the Altassians gave us. We are the Xia—the daybreak—people. We still have our names. Our courtyards, our houses built in the way of ancestors. And Pearleater’s promise. The promise he made to us before the Altassians killed him. We still have the Gate.”
He cups his hand. In his palm an orb glows, blooms to life. It’s the same feeling I had as when I held the qiuyu. It feels like just beyond the light—there’s a world where I belong.
“Do you want to learn how to open it?”
— # —
“He’s back again,” Mom says. “That man.”
“An,” Miss Yue sighs, closing the curtains, “you worry about him too much. He’s pawing through the trashcans, that’s all. He’ll be gone in a moment.” She sits down, picks up one of the pine branches. “Now watch me again. You’ve only got a few days left to make the perfect Peaceday wreath for your family.”
I slurp down the rest of my soymilk, slam the bowl on the table.
“Jian?” Mom says. “You’re done already?”
“I’ve got to get to school early,” I call from the courtyard. “We’ve got an exam today!”
I step on the left pedal of my bike and push off, scoot down the lane. By Auntie Ming’s vegetable stall I stop, glance around and open my hands.
“Xiong. Xiong, look!”
The bloom in my palms glows and opens, fading into white.
“I summoned it before I went to sleep. Just like you.”
I crouch down and place the lotus in the circle of wilting flowers. The face of Auntie Ming’s grandson stares back at me from his yellowed photo, dead-eyed.
“Do you think he’ll like it?”
Beside me, Xiong smiles. In that way that crinkles up all his wrinkles, but makes his eyes look years younger too.
“I think it’ll help him move on,” Xiong says.
“Is he here now? Can I hear him too?”
“After school. I’ll teach you. Now hurry, you’ll be late.”
These days, classes pass like a blur for me. Why’d I ever think it was hard to sit here, saying what they want me to say, writing what they want me to write? Now the Gate is used for the benefit of all. For transport. For energy. The reactor in Mivven is. I glance at the words, scribbled on my hand. Instrumental for this process. However, the ’vokers of Mivven, wishing to avoid the mistakes of their past, choose to live as traditionally as possible, only adopting the most basic of this technology. Anything to make time pass faster. When the bell rings, I shoot out of my seat, nearly crashing into someone. When I see who it is, I stumble back.
“What do you want, Danny?”
His eyes slide away.
“I want you to come up to the roof with me, Jian. Please.”
He still remembers the way. The caution tape you have to duck, the crumpling steps you have to skip over or risk falling through, into the eighth grade classroom below. We met in preschool when I walked up to him on the playground, asked, “Why’ve you got an Altassian name if you’re a ’voker?” His mom used to pull him away from me, saying I was a bad influence, and at night he’d sneak over the roof of his house to mine—our courtyards practically touched—and we’d go out swiping persimmons from the trees. I wonder if he can do that at his new place, in his high-rise, now.
“Jian,” Danny says. He walks over to the corner where we used to share lunch, kicks at the ice. “I saw you with that man.”
“Don’t be stupid. The summoner deserter. I just want you to know. I’m going to tell my mom about him. Then he won’t bother you anymore.”
“He’s not bothering me!”
“I have eyes. I can see.”
He turns to move past me. I grab his arms, slam him against the chain link.
“You only believe what the Altassians tell you! You haven’t even seen the Gate!”
You hate yourself too Danny, don’t you? I think as we struggle. That’s why you hang out with those kids who laugh like nothing matters. You want to die. You wish you’d never been born. You want to leave Mivven but if you do you’ll have to wear a patch, everyone will spit on you because you’re a ’voker. I felt the same way.
He goes limp, finally.
“Let me show you,” I pant.
I step away slowly. He slides down in a heap, glaring at me. I turn away. Of course, I’m not as good as Xiong. I’ve never summoned anything bigger than a qifly. But I concentrate. Reach out to the Gate and clasp my hands. Just a few minutes, I beg. Please. Show him like you showed me. Show him what you really are. Then I feel it.
Something on the other side growls.
A talon bursts out of the light. Danny shrieks and scrabbles away.
“What is that?”
“I—I don’t know!”
I go over the steps frantically in my mind. What went wrong? It should’ve been a qiuyu. I imagined it just like Xiong told me. But he said that certain beasts are drawn to certain types of people. Is this my beast? These slimy, carp-like scales? These claws like a huge bird of prey?
“You’re nuts, Jian.” Danny stands and slips, stands again. “Absolutely insane. If the Altassians find out you can do this—they’ll kill you.”
I slam my hand down as he starts to run. The paw reaches out and, like a cat, pins him to the ground. Pure terror floods Danny’s face. Sweat pours down mine. It’s hard. Keeping it here.
“Don’t go,” I pant. “Don’t you dare.”
“You’ll have to kill me. That’s what a real ’voker would do.”
The tip of the beast’s whiskered snout nudges out of the Gate. In a second I’ll see its eyes. But my vision blurs. I can’t. Hold it any longer. I collapse. The light disappears when I hit the ground. In a flash, Danny leaps into the stairwell.
“I’m sorry, Jian.”
I hear his steps, echoing down.
— # —
The one good memory they gave us. Us kids, hanging off the balcony. Orphans, best view of the parade. Down the avenue come the soldiers, carrying what looks like a grey worm from this height. It takes dozens just to hold its head aloft, their elbows dripping with blood. Its tail drags on the cobblestones. From every cross street flood more with lances in hand, to stab, to skewer, to tear scales from the beast’s side. They mingle with the flowers we throw over the rails, the confetti—all mashed together on the ground, trampled underboot.
— # —
“Why’d they come down from the guard tower?”
I push through the crowd huddled in the side lane. Other kids holding their bikes by the handlebars, grown-ups with babies or groceries in their back seats. Even a cart driver, trying to calm his oxen. Everyone’s too scared to go out into the street in front of the school—now that there’s an Altassian carriage sitting there. What if it runs them over? What if those crystals gleaming in its sides explode?
“Those aren’t ordinary soldiers. Those are lancers. What’s going on?”
No problem, I tell myself as I break through. I can outrun the Altassians in their clanking armor. They couldn’t even fit past the stalls of this night market, glowing to life with paper lanterns in the dusk. The vendors hawking grilled fish, dumplings, sweets. I spot Xiong at his usual place. Fu’s, who’ll grill up and skewer anything you give her. He turns from his koi.
“Hm? Jian? What is it?”
“Xiong,” I pant. “The lancers. They’re—”
Shouts start up behind us.
People leap off their stools, leaving a bubble of empty space around him and me. And a horned shadow at the mouth of the alley. He’s saying something as he strides forward, through his helmet, drawing his sword. Xiong stands. He takes a step, falls to his knees. But the second before the Altassian reaches him he shudders, like his body’s moving on his own. He claps.
The sound ripples through the air. Quakes the cobblestones. Erupts into light.
A clawed paw splits the ground, a golden eye as tall as me. Lips snarl back to reveal spikes of teeth. Rising. The walls of the alley blister away from its shaggy sides. Pork buns roll at my feet. Vats of oil overturn, sizzling. A stall bursts into flames, singeing the side of my face. Everyone’s screaming. The beast blocks out the sun as it rears up. A bear, yellow-white. On its head, high as a Mivvenite tower, a tiny figure stands. It roars. Another building crumples. Another bloom of dust.
“Xiong!” I shout. “Xiong, stop!”
Buzzing drowns me out. I look up and, through the smoke, see someone running over the caving rooftops. She leaps away as the beast’s paw comes down, raises her hand. Six glints fly out of her back. Each one carrying the purple glow of a catalyst. They whirl in a circle above her. In their center, shine points of light. The beast turns as the lances swivel toward it.
An armored figure grabs me, drags me into a doorway, just as a dozen of them stab the spot where I just stood. They’re plunging like rain, splintering the tiles, the brick sides of the houses around us. Hailing in fleshy thunks. Another roar shakes the ground. The beast drops to all fours, bristling like a hedgehog under their weight. On its head I see Xiong. He gestures for the beast to move forward, only for another lance to pierce him through.
A sickening crunch.
— # —
“It’s like the Long Night all over again.”
“Thank the Gate they stopped him before he got into Mivven proper.”
We stand in the crowd at the lip of the crater, Mom and I. As soon as we could—for two days, the Altassians didn’t let anyone, except reactor workers, leave their houses. But still the splinters, the torn up paper lanterns pile at our feet. The dark red smears of where people were squashed. And the bodies under the rubble, they’re still there. I can smell them. The beast’s blood cakes the gutter. The Altassians chopped it into pieces, took away its corpse. The lances too. Leaving only the pockmarks, the scars they cut across the street behind. Mom clutches my hand so tightly I can’t feel it anymore. The bones stand out against her face.
“See how savage that man was, Jian?” she whispers. “How cruel. We tried to leave him in peace, to let him live here. But when the Altassians found him, he and his beast destroyed all these buildings—not even caring if they had people in them—just to try to escape.”
He wasn’t savage, I want to say. He fought to show them that not all Xia are like you, Mom. Like Dad, going to lie down and let the memories eat them alive. The cruel one, I want to say, was that lancer. Xiong was still moving when he hit the ground. Coughing up blood, fingers clamped around the blade piercing him. She walked up to him and stepped on his chest to keep him still. Summoned another lance, in a beam of light, to her hand. That look on her face. Through her cracked visor—like she was about to squash a bug.
“Yeah, I told my mom he was holding you hostage,” Danny whispered to me in the school gym. “But the lancers could follow you and find him.”
We sat for hours, wrapped in shock blankets along with the kids who’d lost their parents, while our moms talked to the Altassians.
“I know you’re not like him, Jian. So—knock it off, okay? Come sit with my friends and me when school starts again. I’ll tell them to tone it down.”
At home I sink into the couch, wrap my arms around my knees. Dad’s back from the reactor. Digging in the box of decorations. He always makes a big deal out of how we can’t afford one, but he bought a real Peaceday tree this year. Just like the Mivvenite officers put up on the first Peaceday, at the end of the war, for all the ’voker children whose parents had been killed or executed. The needles are browning already. He drapes tinsel around its branches, shooting glances at me. He’s trying really hard, I can tell. Because usually if he moves that much he complains that his back aches, that it hurts so much from all the work he does to keep us fed. Finally, he comes over.
“Hey, champ. You wanna put the star on top?”
I swat the piece of cardboard out of his hands.
“How can you hang lights on that stupid tree?” I shout. “How can you stand there like nothing happened?”
Confusion flickers across his tired face.
“Jian. I thought you loved Peaceday.”
“I hate it.”
“Jian!” Mom yells from the kitchen. “Language!”
“I hate all of it!”
I wait for them to start. Just like Mr. Toru. You don’t hate anything, Jian. Hate’s a word reserved for ’vokers, what made them do all those horrible things during the war. An Altassian, a Mivvenite, a good little ’voker could never hate. Try telling that to this tightness, curling like worms in my stomach. I know Mom and Dad are standing in front of me, yelling.
“Were you cutting those stupid papers again? You couldn’t watch him for two seconds? Make sure he didn’t get kidnapped?”
“I watched him as much as I could, Kai. But you know him.”
“You’ve only got one child, An! And you’re not going to have another!”
“I’m sorry! I said I was sorry! What am I supposed to do now?”
I sob. They stop dead at the sound.
“I get it,” Dad says first. “Jian. It’s hard seeing that stuff happen in real life. Right here in our neighborhood.” The couch bounces as he sits down beside me. After a moment, he wraps his arms around my shoulders, presses me close. “But we have enough to remember, Jian,” his voice rumbles against my forehead. “What that man did—it’s nothing compared to our ancestors.”
I smell beer on his shirt. I tear out of his grasp. I’m running.
— # —
I huddle on top of the slide. It’s cold without my coat. Dark too. Except for the memorial, lit up as always. Victims of the Long Night. It was part of the old city wall, Mr. Toru told us. When Sixhorns burst through, chunks of it went flying, crushing entire blocks. But more than a wall was broken that night. Trust was broken. At the end of the war, when Pearleater fell, when the Altassians and their allies gained the upper hand—the Mivvenites alone decided not to exterminate their enemy. Instead, they took the ’vokers by the hand. But that fragile peace was broken in a night. By the distrust and misgivings of a people who, by their own standards, shouldn’t have been granted mercy in the first place …
“I don’t want to think of that right now!” I shout. I don’t care about what my ancestors did right now. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t care if Xiong was a bad person. He was the only grown-up who made sense. He never told me I asked too many questions or I asked stupid questions. He listened to me. I—miss him.
Hot tears run down my face.
“Xiong,” I sob. “What do I do …”
Is this all I can do? Cry? Whenever I close my eyes I see him again, torn apart by those lances. Compared to that. This pain inside is nothing. Instead it starts burning, searing hot. It was the Altassians. The lancers. They locked us up in this cage. I slide down, stumble onto the woodchips and shakily rise. They treated us like monsters. Then I’ll be a monster. I’ll summon my beast and burn this entire city down.
“I hate them!” I shriek. “I’ll kill them all!”
I clap my hands. Light bleeds through my eyelids. I open them and see a white circle blazing around me, stumble in shock.
— # —
Splat, into the mud. The sun beats down on me. Talons squelch by my face. A white creature, slim as a snake, with tufts of feathers sprouting from its scales, coils over me. I reach out—with skeletal arms, shaking—and cradle its head. It, no she, warms me.
“What the hell’s that?”
“The Liondragon we were trying to contact. As suspected. The ‘pearl’—it’s that catalyst the head alchemist threw into the river.”
“So it works?”
“More than that. It’s fused with his body, somehow.”
Three figures stand on the ridge above me. Their accents are thick, their armor misshapen. But I recognize the words. Altassians. This is not my body, not my life. But somebody else’s memories. One of them dismounts his horse, his boots shaking the ground.
“So we have to cut it out of his stinking guts now? Like the corpses weren’t bad enough.”
He grabs my wrist, raises his sword.
“You heard him, boy. Time for you to join the rest.”
In one hot rush, I hear them. All the voices of the dead. Growing like the weight of the pearl in my stomach. The terror of my parents, my friends as they burned, crying out for revenge. I don’t want to do it. But I’m the only one left.
“I’ll kill you all!” I shriek.
When the darkness fades, only scattered bits of flesh remain. The white creature rests her head in my lap. I stroke her broken horns, her feathers—they, along with my fingers, are stained red. She’s shaking. Sobbing.
“That’s it,” I promise. “No more killing. The Altassians will leave us alone now.”
I stand on my Liondragon’s head, arms crossed, her mane whipping around me. Beneath us, an ocean of buildings spreads. I don’t want to. But as long as the Altassian military can retreat here, our settlements will never be safe. I nod and her paw slams through the city wall. Below us, a warhorn sounds. Around us our army swarms, small as ants from this height. The foxspirits even my foot soldiers have learned to summon, the firebirds of the more talented. I close my eyes. I’ll wait until everything has quieted. The flames, the looting, the cries of newly taken slaves. My Liondragon shudders. I crouch, stroking her head.
“That’s it,” I tell her. “The Altassian capital has fallen. We’ll never have to kill again.”
A battlefield burns. The shrieks of beasts, severed from their masters, deafen me. I don’t want to. But. I have to fight. I try to rise—another lance pierces my arm, pinning me to the ground. Thousands more gleam to life in the red-tinted sky. And I see my Liondragon, sprawled over miles beside me. I stretch forward and collapse, my hand brushing her tattered mane.
“This is it,” I whisper. “I’m sorry.”
The lances hurtle downward. My last vision is of two of my soldiers. Bickering, tearing each other apart over a fallen Altassian’s armor.
“I promise you, I will return. And I will lead you into the light.”
I promised. But these voices are screaming.
I see a Xia man strapped to a table, cut open from stomach to neck. Summon, the white-coated Altassian standing over him says. Summon. He still lives. Splutters, glows. Wires trail from his innards to a screen. A team welds over a purple crystal, looking up at it, copying.
I see a wooden hut, drenched with gasoline. The stench of those trapped inside. The laughter of the Altassian soldiers holding a torch to its thatched roof.
“Pearleater, why have you forsaken us?”
I see Auntie Ming’s grandson with the tip of a lance at his throat, begging for life.
“Why do you let them slaughter your people so?”
“Stop it! I’m not Pearleater.”
“Kill them all, or they’ll kill us.”
“I can’t do that!”
“You have the same hate.”
I feel what he felt when he did it. Every time. The bile rising in my throat.
“You know we can’t forgive them and they can’t forgive us.”
“As long as both of us exist, this cycle will continue.”
“But you can end it.”
“I don’t want to. I—”
A voice breaks through.
“I’m sorry, Jian.”
A weight incinerates, for a moment, the voices. I look up and see him, his hand on my head. We’re on a train platform. He looks younger. In uniform, a rucksack slung over his shoulder. The train whistle sounds. He turns and heads back into the light.
“I really was selfish. At the end—all I wanted was to live.”
His voice fades into the rest.
“We wanted to live. We all wanted to live.”
It’s not just Xia among them. But. It hits me like a lightning bolt. All these millions and millions of souls. They’re all crying out. Flooding me with their memories. I’m a Mivvenite girl, running my hand over bumps to read because there’s no light underground. An Altassian boy, chasing a rabbit with a spear. A Xia child, filling a paper lantern with qiflies. A Mivvenite driller, standing at the mouth of a pipe, lifting up my goggles and seeing the sky for the first time. An Altassian warrior, notching my first beast kill into my blade. A Xia battered by waves, clinging onto the spines of her beast. I’m an Altassian soldier, watching rivers of ’voker refugees flow beneath. I’m Mivvenite and Xia lovers, twining fingers through barbed wire. I’m an Altassian officer, holding out peppermints to two children with eyes like starving wolves. I’m. I can’t. Take it. Anymore.
— # —
“Over here! I saw a light!’
I pant, spread-eagled on my back. It’s snowing.
They stop in a circle around me, waving their flashlights, shouting. Why so much shouting? It’s just a beast snaking above me. White as the snow, her mane brushing my face. No, not pure white, I see as I look into her eyes. But with glints of color, like a rainbow, in her scales. I reach up and she nuzzles her snout into my hand.
“Jian! Don’t move. I’m coming to get you!”
There’s a pain in my heart.
In the midst of all these voices, these screaming memories, loneliness.
“I made a promise,” I say to the cold air.
The Liondragon roars. A roar that shatters time and space. I’m shooting through the air. I’m frozen on the ground. I’m floating beside her. I see it in everything. I see it sitting, among the stars. It dwarfs me like a grain of sand. I’m big as a moon above it. I reach out and take it in my hands. I reach out and drown. In red whorls, curling in an infinity of patterns into itself. I reach out and run my hand over its gaps. Just like one of Mom’s paper cuttings. I reach out—and I tear. I tear and tear, flinging its bright pieces to the heavens.
“Jian! What have you done?”
I wake up in Mom’s arms. The Liondragon’s gone. The towers of Mivven, the qi lamps, are dark. Instead their lights streak across the sky. Like—fireworks. It’s so bright that I can see everybody’s faces, tilted upward in awe.
“I broke the Gate.”
Can you see them, Mom? I wonder. Can you hear them? A chunk of light falls by us, melting through the snow. Grass shoots up like fingers where it hits the ground. Those are the spirits of the dead. The Xia. The Altassians. The Mivvenites. Their souls, their emotions, coming together into one. That’s what qi is. Don’t you see? They were never meant to be on the other side. They’re returning to the planet, where they belong. In the rivers, the snow, the breeze, the leaves. Where everybody can listen to them. Understand them. They’re finally free.
“I know I can’t fix it,” I whisper. “But at least—things will change.”
© 2020 Andrea Kriz
From: Issue 1
About the Author
Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Find her other stories in Ahoy Comics, Nature, and Tales to Terrify and her @theworldshesaw.