Wed
Jun 19 2013 10:00am

The Bone Season (Excerpt)

Samantha Shannon

The Bone Season cover, Samantha ShannonTake a look at this extended excerpt for The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, out on August 20 from Bloomsbury. And check out the book's Facebook page while you're at it!:

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

 

1

The Curse

 

I like to imagine there were more of us in the beginning. Not many, I suppose. But more than there are now.

We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard.

Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there.

Trust me.

 

I had lived in that part of London that used to be called Islington since I was eight. I attended a private school for girls, leaving at sixteen to work. That was in the year 2056. AS 127, if you use the Scion calendar. It was expected of young men and women to scratch out a living wherever they could, which was usually behind a counter of one sort or another. There were plenty of jobs in the service industry. My father thought I would lead a simple life; that I was bright but unambitious, complacent with whatever work life threw at me.

My father, as usual, was wrong.

From the age of sixteen I had worked in the criminal underworld of Scion London—SciLo, as we called it on the streets. I worked among ruthless gangs of voyants, all willing to floor each other to survive. All part of a citadel-wide syndicate headed by the Underlord. Pushed to the edge of society, we were forced into crime to prosper. And so we became more hated. We made the stories true.

I had my little place in the chaos. I was a mollisher, the protégée of a mime-lord. My boss was a man named Jaxon Hall, the mimelord responsible for the I-4 area. There were six of us in his direct employ. We called ourselves the Seven Seals.

I couldn’t tell my father. He thought I was an assistant at an oxygen bar, a badly paid but legal occupation. It was an easy lie. He wouldn’t have understood if I’d told him why I spent my time with criminals. He didn’t know that I belonged with them. More than I belonged with him.

I was nineteen years old the day my life changed. Mine was a familiar name on the streets by that time. After a tough week at the black market, I’d planned to spend the weekend with my father. Jax didn’t twig why I needed time off—for him, there was nothing and no one outside the syndicate—but he didn’t have a family like I did. Not a living family, anyway. And although my father and I had never been close, I still felt I should keep in touch. A dinner here, a phone call there, a present at Novembertide. The only hitch was his endless list of questions. What job did I have? Who were my friends? Where was I living?

I couldn’t answer. The truth was dangerous. He might have sent me to Tower Hill himself if he’d known what I really did. Maybe I should have told him the truth. Maybe it would have killed him. Either way, I didn’t regret joining the syndicate. My line of work was dishonest, but it paid. And as Jax always said, better an outlaw than a stiff.

 

It was raining that day. My last day at work.

A life-support machine kept my vitals ticking over. I looked dead, and in a way I was: my spirit was detached, in part, from my body. It was a crime for which I could have faced the gallows.

I said I worked in the syndicate. Let me clarify. I was a hacker of sorts. Not a mind reader, exactly; more a mind radar, in tune with the workings of the æther. I could sense the nuances of dreamscapes and rogue spirits. Things outside myself. Things the average voyant wouldn’t feel.

Jax used me as a surveillance tool. My job was to keep track of ethereal activity in his section. He would often have me check out other voyants, see if they were hiding anything. At first it had just been people in the room—people I could see and hear and touch— but soon he realized I could go further than that. I could sense things happening elsewhere: a voyant walking down the street, a gathering of spirits in the Garden. So long as I had life support, I could pick up on the æther within a mile radius of Seven Dials. So if he needed someone to dish the dirt on what was happening in I-4, you could bet your broads Jaxon would call yours truly. He said I had potential to go further, but Nick refused to let me try. We didn’t know what it would do to me.

All clairvoyance was prohibited, of course, but the kind that made money was downright sin. They had a special term for it: mime-crime. Communication with the spirit world, especially for financial gain. It was mime-crime that the syndicate was built on.

Cash-in-hand clairvoyance was rife among those who couldn’t get into a gang. We called it busking. Scion called it treason. The official method of execution for such crimes was nitrogen asphyxiation, marketed under the brand name NiteKind. I still remember the headlines: PAINLESS PUNISHMENT: SCION’S LATEST MIRACLE. They said it was like going to sleep, like taking a pill. There were still public hangings, and the odd bit of torture for high treason.

I committed high treason just by breathing.

But back to that day. Jaxon had wired me up to life support and sent me out to reconnoiter the section. I’d been closing in on a local mind, a frequent visitor to Section 4. I’d tried my best to see his memories, but something had always stopped me. This dreamscape was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. Even Jax was stumped. From the layering of defense mechanisms I would have said its owner was several thousand years old, but that couldn’t be it. This was something different.

Jax was a suspicious man. By rights a new clairvoyant in his section should have announced himself to him within forty-eight hours. He said another gang must be involved, but none of the I-4 lot had the experience to block my scouting. None of them knew I could do it. It wasn’t Didion Waite, who headed the second-largest gang in the area. It wasn’t the starving buskers that frequented Dials. It wasn’t the territorial mime-lords that specialized in ethereal larceny. This was something else.

Hundreds of minds passed me, flashing silver in the dark. They moved through the streets quickly, like their owners. I didn’t recognize these people. I couldn’t see their faces; just the barest edges of their minds.

I wasn’t in Dials now. My perception was further north, though I couldn’t pin down where. I followed the familiar sense of danger. The stranger’s mind was close. It drew me through the æther like a glym jack with a lantern, darting over and under the other minds. Moving fast, as if the stranger sensed me. As if he was trying to run.

I shouldn’t follow this light. I didn’t know where it would lead me, and I’d already gone too far from Seven Dials.

Jaxon told you to find him. The thought was distant. He’ll be angry. I pressed ahead, moving faster than I ever could in my body. I pulled against the restraints of my physical location. I could make out the rogue mind now. Not silver, like the others: no, this was dark and cold, a mind of ice and stone. I shot toward it. He was so, so close . . . I couldn’t lose him now . . .

Then the æther trembled around me and, in a heartbeat, he was gone. The stranger’s mind was out of reach again.

 

Someone shook my body.

My silver cord—the link between my body and my spirit—was extremely sensitive. It was what allowed me to sense dreamscapes at a distance. It could also snap me back into my skin. When I opened my eyes, Dani was waving a penlight over my face. “Pupil response,” she said to herself. “Good.”

Danica. Our resident genius, second only to Jax in intellect. She was three years older than me and had all the charm and sensitivity of a sucker punch. Nick classified her as a sociopath when she was first employed. Jax said it was just her personality.

“Rise and shine, Dreamer.” She slapped my cheek. “Welcome back to meatspace.”

The slap stung: a good, if unpleasant sign. I reached up to unfasten my oxygen mask.

The dark glint of the den came into focus. Jax’s crib was a secret cave of contraband: forbidden films, music, and books, all crammed together on dust-thickened shelves. There was a collection of penny dreadfuls, the kind you could pick up from the Garden on weekends, and a stack of saddle-stapled pamphlets. This was the only place in the world where I could read and watch and do whatever I liked.

“You shouldn’t wake me like that,” I said. She knew the rules. “How long was I there for?”

“Where?”

“Where do you think?”

Dani snapped her fingers. “Right, of course—the æther. Sorry. Wasn’t keeping track.”

Unlikely. Dani never lost track.

I checked the blue Nixie timer on the machine. Dani had made it herself. She called it the Dead Voyant Sustainment System, or DVS2. It monitored and controlled my life functions when I sensed the æther at long range. My heart dropped when I saw the digits.

“Fifty-seven minutes.” I rubbed my temples. “You let me stay in the æther for an hour?”

“Maybe.”

“An entire hour?”

“Orders are orders. Jax said he wanted you to crack this mystery mind by dusk. Have you done it?”

“I tried.”

“Which means you failed. No bonus for you.” She gulped down her espresso. “Still can’t believe you lost Anne Naylor.”

Trust her to bring that up. A few days before I’d been sent to the auction house to reclaim a spirit that rightfully belonged to Jax: Anne Naylor, the famous ghost of Farringdon. I’d been outbid.

“We were never going to get Naylor,” I said. “Didion wouldn’t let that gavel fall, not after last time.”

“Whatever you say. Don’t know what Jax would have done with a poltergeist, anyway.” Dani looked at me. “He says he’s given you the weekend off. How’d you swing that?”

“Psychological reasons.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you and your contraptions are driving me mad.”

She threw her empty cup at me. “I take care of you, urchin. My contraptions can’t run themselves. I could just walk out of here for my lunch break and let your sad excuse for a brain dry up.”

“It could have dried up.”

“Cry me a river. You know the drill: Jax gives the orders, we comply, we get our flatches. Go and work for Hector if you don’t like it.”

Touché.

With a sniff, Dani handed me my beaten leather boots. I pulled them on. “Where is everyone?”

“Eliza’s asleep. She had an episode.”

We only said episode when one of us had a near-fatal encounter, which in Eliza’s case was an unsolicited possession. I glanced at the door to her painting room. “Is she all right?”

“She’ll sleep it off.”

“I assume Nick checked on her.”

“I called him. He’s still at Chat’s with Jax. He said he’d drive you to your dad’s at five-thirty.”

Chateline’s was one of the only places we could eat out, a classy bar-and-grill in Neal’s Yard. The owner made a deal with us: we tipped him well, he didn’t tell the Vigiles what we were. His tip cost more than the meal, but it was worth it for a night out.

“So he’s late,” I said.

“Must have been held up.”

Dani reached for her phone. “Don’t bother.” I tucked my hair into my hat. “I’d hate to interrupt their huddle.”

“You can’t go by train.”

“I can, actually.”

“Your funeral.”

“I’ll be fine. The line hasn’t been checked for weeks.” I stood. “Breakfast on Monday?”

“Maybe. Might owe the beast some overtime.” She glanced at the clock. “You’d better go. It’s nearly six.”

She was right. I had less than ten minutes to reach the station. I grabbed my jacket and ran for the door, calling a quick “Hi, Pieter” to the spirit in the corner. It glowed in response: a soft, bored glow. I didn’t see that sparkle, but I felt it. Pieter was depressed again. Being dead sometimes got to him.

There was a set way of doing things with spirits, at least in our section. Take Pieter, one of our spirit aides—a muse, if you want to get technical. Eliza would let him possess her, working in slots of about three hours a day, during which time she would paint a masterpiece. When she was done, I’d run down to the Garden and flog it to unwary art collectors. Pieter was temperamental, mind. Sometimes we’d go months without a picture.

A den like ours was no place for ethics. It happens when you force a minority underground. It happens when the world is cruel. There was nothing to do but get on with it. Try and survive, to make a bit of cash. To prosper in the shadow of the Westminster Archon.

My job—my life—was based at Seven Dials. According to Scion’s unique urban division system, it lay in I Cohort, Section 4, or I-4. It was built around a pillar on a junction close to Covent Garden’s black market. On this pillar there were six sundials.

Each section had its own mime-lord or mime-queen. Together they formed the Unnatural Assembly, which claimed to govern the syndicate, but they all did as they pleased in their own sections. Dials was in the central cohort, where the syndicate was strongest. That’s why Jax chose it. That’s why we stayed. Nick was the only one with his own crib, farther north in Marylebone. We used his place for emergencies only. In the three years I’d worked for Jaxon there had only been one emergency, when the NVD had raided Dials for any hint of clairvoyance. A courier tipped us off about two hours before the raid. We were able to clear out in half that time.

It was wet and cold outside. A typical March evening. I sensed spirits. Dials was a slum in pre-Scion days, and a host of miserable souls still drifted around the pillar, waiting for a new purpose. I called a spool of them to my side. Some protection always came in handy.

Scion was the last word in amaurotic security. Any reference to an afterlife was forbidden. Frank Weaver thought we were unnatural, and like the many Grand Inquisitors before him, he’d taught the rest of London to abhor us. Unless it was essential, we went outside only during safe hours. That was when the NVD slept, and the Sunlight Vigilance Division took control. SVD officers weren’t voyant. They weren’t permitted to show the same brutality as their nocturnal counterparts. Not in public, anyway.

The NVD were different. Clairvoyants in uniform. Bound to serve for thirty years before being euthanized. A diabolical pact, some said, but it gave them a thirty-year guarantee of a comfortable life. Most voyants weren’t that lucky.

London had so much death in its history, it was hard to find a spot without spirits. They formed a safety net. Still, you had to hope the ones you got were good. If you used a frail ghost, it would only stun an assailant for a few seconds. Spirits that lived violent lives were best. That’s why certain spirits sold so well on the black market. Jack the Ripper would have gone for millions if anyone could find him. Some still swore the Ripper was Edward VII—the fallen prince, the Bloody King. Scion said he was the very first clairvoyant, but I’d never believed it. I preferred to think we’d always been there.

It was getting dark outside. The sky was sunset gold, the moon a smirk of white. Below it stood the citadel. The Two Brewers, the oxygen bar across the street, was packed with amaurotics. Normal people. They were said by voyants to be afflicted with amaurosis, just as they said we were afflicted with clairvoyance. Rotties, they were sometimes called.

I’d never liked that word. It made them sound putrid. A tad hypocritical, as we were the ones that conversed with the dead.

I buttoned my jacket and tugged the peak of my cap over my eyes. Head down, eyes open. That was the law by which I abided. Not the laws of Scion.

“Fortune for a bob. Just a bob, ma’am! Best oracle in London, ma’am, I promise you. A bit for a poor busker?”

The voice belonged to a thin man, huddled in an equally thin jacket. I hadn’t seen a busker for a while. It was rare in the central cohort, where most voyants were part of the syndicate. I read his aura. This one wasn’t an oracle at all, but a soothsayer; a very stupid soothsayer—the mime-lords spat on beggars. I made straight for him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I grabbed him by the collar. “Are you off the cot?”

“Please, miss. I’m starved,” he said, his voice rough with dehydration. He had the facial twitches of an oxygen addict. “I got no push. Don’t tell the Binder, miss. I just wanted—”

“Then get out of here.” I pressed a few notes into his hand. “I don’t care where you go—just get off the street. Get a doss. And if you have to busk tomorrow, do it in VI Cohort. Not here. Got it?”

“Bless you, miss.”

He gathered his meager possessions, one of which was a glass ball. Cheaper than crystal. I watched him run off, heading for Soho.

Poor man. If he wasted that money in an oxygen bar, he’d be back on the streets in no time. Plenty of people did it: wired themselves up to a cannula and sucked up flavored air for hours on end. It was the only legal high in the citadel. Whatever he did, that busker was desperate. Maybe he’d been kicked out of the syndicate, or rejected by his family. I wouldn’t ask.

No one asked.

Station I-4B was usually busy. Amaurotics didn’t mind the trains. They had no auras to give them away. Most voyants avoided public transport, but sometimes it was safer on the trains than on the streets. The NVD were stretched thin across the citadel. Spot checks were uncommon.

There were six sections in each of the six cohorts. If you wanted to leave your section, especially at night, you needed a travel permit and a stroke of good luck. Underguards were deployed after dark. A subdivision of the Night Vigilance Division, they were sighted voyants with the standard life guarantee. They served the state to stay alive.

I’d never considered working for Scion. Voyants could be cruel to each other—I could sympathize a little with those who turned on their own—but I still felt a sense of affinity with them. I could certainly never arrest one. Still, sometimes, when I’d worked hard for two weeks and Jax forgot to pay me, I was tempted.

I scanned my documents with two minutes to spare. Once I was past the barriers, I released my spool. Spirits didn’t like to be taken too far from their haunts, and they wouldn’t help me if I forced them.

My head was pounding. Whatever medicine Dani had been pumping through my veins was wearing off. An hour in the æther . . . Jaxon really was pushing my limits.

On the platform, a luminous green Nixie displayed the train schedule; otherwise there was little light. The prerecorded voice of Scarlett Burnish drifted through the speakers.

This train calls all stations within I Cohort, Section 4, northbound. Please have your cards ready for inspection. Observe the safety screens for this evening’s bulletins. Thank you, and have a pleasant evening.

I wasn’t having a pleasant evening at all. I hadn’t eaten since dawn. Jax only gave me a lunch break if he was in a very good mood, which was about as rare as blue apples.

A new message came to the safety screens. RDT: RADIESTHESIC DETECTION TECHNOLOGY. The other commuters took no notice. This advertisement ran all the time.

“In a citadel as populous as London, it’s common to think you might be traveling alongside an unnatural individual.” A dumbshow of silhouettes appeared on the screen, each representing a denizen. One turned red. “The SciSORS facility is now trialling the RDT Senshield at the Paddington Terminal complex, as well as in the Archon. By 2061, we aim to have Senshield installed in eighty percent of stations in the central cohort, allowing us to reduce the employment of unnatural police in the Underground. Visit Paddington, or ask an SVD officer for more information.”

The adverts moved on, but it played on my mind. RDT was the biggest threat to voyant society in the citadel. According to Scion, it could detect aura at up to twenty feet. If there wasn’t a major delay to their plans, we’d be forced into lockdown by 2061. Typical of the mime-lords, none of them had come up with a solution. They’d just squabbled. And squabbled. And squabbled about their squabbles.

Auras vibrated on the street above me. I was a tuning fork, humming with their energy. For want of a distraction, I thumbed my ID. It bore my picture, name, address, fingerprints, birthplace, and occupation. Miss Paige E. Mahoney, naturalized resident of I-5. Born in Ireland in 2040. Moved to London in 2048 under special circumstances. Employed at an oxygen bar in I-4, hence the travel permit. Blond. Gray eyes. Five foot nine. No distinctive features but dark lips, probably caused by smoking.

I’d never smoked in my life.

A moist hand grabbed my wrist. I started.

“You owe me an apology.”

I glared up at a dark-haired man in a bowler and a dirty white cravat. I should have recognized him just from his stink: Haymarket Hector, one of our less hygienic rivals. He always smelled like a sewer. Sadly, he was also the Underlord, head honcho of the syndicate. They called his turf the Devil’s Acre.

“We won the game. Fair and square.” I pulled my arm free. “Haven’t you got something to do, Hector? Cleaning your teeth would be a good start.”

“Perhaps you should clean up your game, little macer. And learn some respect for your Underlord.”

“I’m no cheat.”

“Oh, I think you are.” He kept his voice low. “Whatever airs and graces that mime-lord of yours puts on, all seven of you are nasty cheats and liars. I hear tell you’re the downiest on the black market, my dear Dreamer. But you’ll disappear.” He touched my cheek with one finger. “They all disappear in the end.”

“So will you.”

“We’ll see. Soon.” He breathed his next words against my ear: “Have a very safe ride home, dollymop.” He vanished into the exit tunnel.

I had to watch my step around Hector. As Underlord he had no real power over the other mime-lords—his only role was to convene meetings—but he had a lot of followers. He’d been sore since my gang had beaten his lackeys at tarocchi, two days before the Naylor auction. Hector’s people didn’t like it when they lost. Jaxon didn’t help, riling them. Most of my gang had avoided being green-lit, largely by staying out of their way, but Jax and I were too defiant. The Pale Dreamer—my name on the streets—was somewhere on their hit list. If they ever cornered me, I was dead.

The train arrived a minute late. I dropped into a vacant seat. There was only one other person in the carriage: a man reading the Daily Descendant. He was voyant, a medium. I tensed. Jax was not without enemies, and plenty of voyants knew me as his mollisher. They also knew I sold art that couldn’t possibly have been painted by the real Pieter Claesz.

I took out my standard-issue data pad and selected my favorite legal novel. Without a spool to protect me, the only real security I had was to look as normal and amaurotic as possible.

As I flicked through the pages, I kept one eye on the man. I could tell I was on his radar, but neither of us spoke. As he hadn’t already grabbed me by the neck and beaten me senseless, I guessed he probably wasn’t a freshly duped art enthusiast.

I risked a glance at his copy of the Descendant, the only broadsheet still mass-produced on paper. Paper was too easy to misuse; data pads meant we could download only what little media had been approved by the censor. The typical news glowered back at me. Two young men hanged for high treason, a suspicious emporium closed down in Section 3. There was a long article rejecting the “unnatural” notion that Britain was politically isolated. The journalist called Scion “an empire in embryo.” They’d been saying that for as long as I could remember. If Scion was still an embryo, I sure as hell didn’t want to be there when it burst out of the womb.

Almost two centuries had passed since Scion arrived. It was established in response to a perceived threat to the empire. The epidemic, they called it—an epidemic of clairvoyance. The official date was 1901, when they pinned five terrible murders on Edward VII. They claimed the Bloody King had opened a door that could never be shut, that he’d brought the plague of clairvoyance upon the world, and that his followers were everywhere, breeding and killing, drawing their power from a source of great evil.

What followed was Scion, a republic built to destroy the sickness. Over the next fifty years it had become a voyant-hunting machine, with every major policy based around unnaturals. Murders were always committed by unnaturals. Random violence, theft, rape, arson—they all happened because of unnaturals. Over the years, the voyant syndicate had developed in the citadel, formed an organized underworld, and offered a haven for clairvoyants. Since then Scion had worked even harder to root us out.

Once they installed RDT, the syndicate would fall apart and Scion would become all-seeing. We had two years to do something about it, but with Hector as Underlord, I couldn’t see that we would. His reign had brought nothing but corruption.

The train went past three stops without incident. I’d just finished the chapter when the lights went out and the train came to a halt. I realized what was happening a split second before the other passenger did. He sat up very straight in his seat.

“They’re going to search the train.”

I tried to speak, to confirm his fear, but my tongue felt like a piece of folded cloth.

I switched off my data pad. A door opened in the wall of the tunnel. The Nixie display in the carriage clicked to SECURITY ALERT. I knew what was coming: two Underguards on their rounds. There was always a boss, usually a medium. I’d never experienced a spot check before, but I knew few voyants got away from them.

My heart dashed against my chest. I looked at the other passenger, trying to measure his reaction. He was a medium, though not a particularly powerful one. I could never quite put a finger on how I could tell, my antennae just perked up in a certain way.

“We have to get out of this train.” He rose to his feet. “What are you, love? An oracle?”

I didn’t speak.

“I know you’re voyant.” He pulled at the handle of the door. “Come on, love, don’t just sit there. There must be a way out of here.” He wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Of all the days for a spot check—the one day—”

I didn’t move. There was no way to get out of this. The windows were toughened, the doors safety-locked—and we were out of time. Two torch beams shone into the carriage.

I held very still. Underguards. They must have detected a certain number of voyants in the carriage, or they wouldn’t have killed the lights. I knew they could see our auras, but they’d want to find out exactly what kind of voyants we were.

They were in the carriage. A summoner and a medium. The train carried on moving, but the lights didn’t come on. They went to the man first.

“Name?”

He straightened. “Linwood.”

“Reason for travel?”

“I was visiting my daughter.”

“Visiting your daughter. Sure you’re not on your way to a séance, medium?”

These two wanted a fight.

“I have the necessary documents from the hospital. She’s very ill,” Linwood said. “I’m allowed to see her every week.”

“You won’t be allowed to see her at all if you open your trap again.” He turned to bark at me: “You. Where’s your card?”

I pulled it from my pocket.

“And your travel permit?”

I handed it over. He paused to read it.

“You work in Section 4?”

“Yes.”

“Who issued this permit?”

“Bill Bunbury, my supervisor.”

“I see. But I need to see something else.” He angled his torch into my eyes. “Hold still.”

I didn’t flinch.

“No spirit sight,” he observed. “You must be an oracle. Now that’s something I haven’t heard of for a while.”

“I haven’t seen an oracle with tits since the forties,” said the other Underguard. “They’re going to love this one.”

His superior smiled. He had one coloboma in each eye, a mark of permanent spirit sight.

“You’re about to make me very rich, young lady,” he said to me. “Just let me double-check those eyes.”

“I’m not an oracle,” I said.

“Of course you’re not. Now shut your mouth and open up those shiners.”

Most voyants thought I was an oracle. Easy mistake. The auras were similar—the same color, in fact.

The guard forced my left eye open with his fingers. As he examined my pupils with a slit light, searching for the missing colobomata, the other passenger made a break for the open door. There was a tremor as he hurled a spirit—his guardian angel—at the Underguards. The backup shrieked as the angel crunched into him, scrambling his senses like a whisk through soft eggs.

Underguard 1 was too fast. Before anyone could move, he’d summoned a spool of poltergeists.

“Don’t move, medium.”

Linwood stared him down. He was a small man in his forties, thin but wiry, with brown hair graying at the temples. I couldn’t see the ’geists—or much else, thanks to the slit light—but they were making me too weak to move. I counted three. I’d never seen anyone control one poltergeist, let alone three. Cold sweat broke out at the back of my neck.

As the angel pivoted for a second attack, the poltergeists began to circle the Underguard. “Come with us quietly, medium,” he said, “and we’ll ask our bosses not to torture you.”

“Do your worst, gentlemen.” Linwood raised a hand. “I fear no man with angels at my side.”

“That’s what they all say, Mr. Linwood. They tend to forget that when they see the Tower.”

Linwood flung his angel down the carriage. I couldn’t see the collision, but it scalded all my senses to the quick. I forced myself to stand. The presence of three poltergeists was sapping my energy. Linwood was a tough talker, but I knew he could feel them; he was struggling to fortify his angel. While the summoner controlled the poltergeists, Underguard 2 was reciting the threnody: a series of words that compelled spirits to die completely, sending them to a realm beyond the reach of voyants. The angel trembled. They’d need to know its full name to banish it, but so long as one of them kept chanting, the angel would be too weak to protect its host.

Blood pounded in my ears. My throat was tight, my fingers numb. If I stood aside, we’d both be detained. I saw myself in the Tower, being tortured, at the gallows . . .

I would not die today.

As the poltergeists converged on Linwood, something happened to my vision. I homed in on the Underguards. Their minds throbbed close to mine, two pulsing rings of energy. I heard my body hit the ground.

I only intended to disorient them, give myself time to get away. I had the element of surprise. They’d overlooked me. Oracles needed a spool to be dangerous.

I didn’t.

A black tide of fear overwhelmed me. My spirit flew right out of my body, straight into Underguard 1. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d crashed into his dreamscape. Not just against it—into it, through it. I hurled his spirit out into the æther, leaving his body empty. Before his crony could draw breath, he met the same fate.

My spirit snapped back into my skin. Pain exploded behind my eyes. I’d never felt pain like it in my life; it was knives through my skull, fire in the very tissue of my brain, so hot I couldn’t see or move or think. I was dimly aware of the sticky carriage floor against my cheek. Whatever I’d just done, I wasn’t going to do it again in a hurry.

The train rocked. It must be close to the next station. I pushed my weight onto my elbows, my muscles trembling with the effort.

“Mr. Linwood?”

No response. I crawled to where he was lying. As the train passed a service light, I caught sight of his face.

Dead. The ’geists had flushed his spirit out. His ID was on the floor. William Linwood. Forty-three years old. Two kids, one with cystic fibrosis. Married. Banker. Medium.

Did his wife and children know about his secret life? Or were they amaurotic, oblivious to it?

I had to speak the threnody, or he would haunt this carriage forever. “William Linwood,” I said, “be gone into the æther. All is settled. All debts are paid. You need not dwell among the living now.”

Linwood’s spirit was drifting nearby. The æther whispered as he and his angel vanished.

The lights came back on. My throat closed.

Two more bodies lay on the floor.

I used a handrail to get back on my feet. My clammy palm could hardly grip it. A few feet away, Underguard 1 was dead, the look of surprise still on his face.

I’d killed him. I’d killed an Underguard.

His companion hadn’t been so lucky. He was on his back, his eyes staring at the ceiling, a slithering ribbon of saliva down his chin. He twitched when I came closer. Chills crept down my back and the taste of bile burned my throat. I hadn’t pushed his spirit far enough. It was still drifting in the dark parts of his mind: the secret, silent parts in which no spirit should dwell. He’d gone mad. No. I’d driven him mad.

I set my jaw. I couldn’t just leave him like this—even an Underguard didn’t deserve such a fate. I placed my cold hands on his shoulders and steeled myself for a mercy kill. He let out a groan and whispered, “Kill me.”

I had to do it. I owed it to him.

But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t kill him.

When the train arrived at Station I-5C, I waited by the door. By the time the next passengers found the bodies, they were too late to catch me. I was already above them on the street, my cap pulled down to hide my face.

2 comments
Draken
1. Draken
Awesome. Started a little slow but really drew me in. Great worldbuilding and interesting concept. Can't wait to get my hands on the full version :)
Draken
3. Danica
It's not very original. I do commend that she was able to carry it through an entire book and put work into the storyline, but the writing isn't anything special.

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