The City was a neon bonfire.
The girl’s pink hair glowed. She furrowed her eyebrows when she looked down upon her hands. Strange, scrawling inks climbed up and down her palm, twisting and turning about her fingers in an intricate dance. They resembled snakes, or dragons, or jifarins in her mind. She smiled. She hadn’t seen a jifarin in quite some time.
She looked up, and saw the Star of the Day begin to rise. Her vision beheld the dark, cool sky – the stars invisible and hidden by the strange lights that mortals have created below – seared away by the glory of the Resplendent Daystar. She smiled as she saw the darkness fight back. The dark blue of the night sprinkled the sky with ash gray blood. In the end, the Resplendent Daystar always won.
But she knew that the Night would return, with their glorious Empress General, the Abyssal Nightstar.
The leaden sky was a welcome sight resembling a mirror. The buildings below her were a shade of gray. She remembered when she was but a little girl – back when Throne City hadn’t even been built yet. Back when she lived in one of the Shires in the continent of Choma. Fierthe Shire if she recalled right.
Back then, the stars shone ever bright, not afraid of the strange mechanical lights below. Back then, she worshipped the Tass Hallows as givers of power, not merely sources of infinite energy to be harvested. Back then, wars were fought over territory and power. Now, it’s fought over money and energy.
Chrysanthemum looked down on her leather boots. A sad smile shadowed her face.
Despite the Daystar washing over Throne City, the clouds were thick. The sky kept that gray hue for most of the morning. A cold, fickle wind danced about her, encircling her and inviting her to play. It danced away, ever-changing, always looking for people who would respond faster. Chrysanthemum frowned.
Chrysanthemum dipped her hands into the pocket of her leather coat. Despite having worn a warm, fuzzy gray sweatshirt, the chill of the first few days of Nymph Season was something that only a house with a heater could fight against. She turned, moved her foot to walk… but decided to lean back on the gray slab.
The pink-haired girl inhaled a cold breeze of air. Her breath came out as steam.
She liked the cold. She decided that she would stay here for a while. Besides, Quinen wasn’t going to be back home anytime soon.
Chrys leaned her head back, her strange, glowing pink hair cascading behind her, and she basked in the coldness of the leaden sky.
Quinen hoped that Chrysanthemum was back home.
He closed his fist, grit his teeth, and then raised his hand. He uttered a snarling word, a word that rippled through creation, grasped at the realm that governed the reality of time and space, and he called it down. With a word of pure magick, time and space itself bowed to Quinen, and it shifted before him. The jifarin’s massive hammer of a fist, instead of hitting him, slammed instead into the brick wall beside him.
Quinen’s heart hammered in his chest. Exhilaration pumped through him. He grinned.
The jifarin swung its other hand toward Quinen; he responded in kind. He shook his left arm. The tattoos he had implanted onto it glowed, humming with an esoteric energy. It burned in iridescent hues of white, pink, and blue and gold and silver. Shouting, Quinen pulled his hand back, and slammed his fist against the jifarin’s second punch.
Ribbons of colors exploded out of the point of impact as magick met madness.
Quinen felt his entire body shake in effort. His left shinbone almost cracked under pressure, making him wince. Cursing, Quinen pushed the creature’s fist away, and followed it up with a magickally-empowered jab.
Increasing the kinetic force of the jab, Quinen blew the jifarin. The serpentine creature flew back twenty feet landing at the opening of the grimy, piss-smelling alleyway. The lights faded into shadow, accompanied by a lancing pain up his left arm. Quinen winced, but he shook off the pain.
He turned to the floor where he had dropped his cig, and found that one of the bricks knocked loose by the jifarin’s assault had crushed it. He sighed. “Waste.” He dug into each of his pockets until he found a new one. He set it up to his lips, snapped his fingers. Manipulating the vibrations from the snap and transmuting it a small wick of flame erupted in the tip of his fingertips. He lit the cig and walked up to the squirming jifarin.
Frowning, Quinen examined the jifarin. Its abdomen had caved in, and iridescence bled out of its orifices.
Removing the cig out of his mouth, he huffed out another puff of smoke. Catching the smoke with his other hand, he uttered a prodding word. He used the tattoos snaking up his arms, and commanded the smoke with his fingers. The wispy smoke moved as if an ethereal puppet on invisible strings.
He uttered a twisting word then, and the gray smoke turned black, angry and demeaning. Soon, the black smoke turned into angry embers that danced about in his fingers, waltzing in an intricate dance. As the dance reached its height, the embers dancing to the climax of the silent beat, Quinen crushed the glowing motes within his fist. “I manipulate Energy.” His voice echoed and ripped through creation, and Magick obeyed.
He tapped his cigar into the end of that fist, and then pulled it away, flame trailing after it. He pulled the cigar around him and lashed it onto the jifarin, like a whip.
The fire blazed, whipping the jifarin. It screeched in agony as the flame burned against its skin. Quinen pulled the cigar back and lashed it again, this time with a larger flame following the tip of the cigar. The flame swallowed the mad creature.
In a matter of seconds, the serpentine monster burned to a crisp. Quinen released his fist, and the embers danced away, red and orange motes dissipating into the mists. He put the cigar back in his mouth. He placed a hand on the jifarin and uttered, “And back to Avalon with you.” A basso voice echoed his words in another, indiscernible language.
The jifarin exploded in a cloud of golden butterflies, so small that they seemed like specks of light. The jifarin’s gossamer rose up and flew up high into the sky, past the leaden sky as the daystar rose.
Quinen breathed deeply. He walked out of the alleyway, bringing his overcoat closer to him as the Nymph chill set in. He Manipulated the heat of the cig, coaxing it all over him to warm himself a bit as he walked down the sidewalk. Autochariots whizzed past on the asphalt road beside him. Other people travelled up and down the sidewalk alone or in sparse groups. The early morning of 5 Ascending wasn’t really the abode of the normal Throne citizen.
He dug his hands into his pockets and breathed through his cig. The Nymph chill was going to make him sick. He was sure of it.
A few blocks down and Quinen arrived at the apartment of his client. He walked up the front porch and pressed the buzzer that rang up Ms. Lahlia’s flat. In a matter of seconds, Quinen heard thumps on the floor as Lahlia Quira opened the door. She was in a cozy sweater, her auburn hair undone and sticking up on all sides, and she didn’t have any cosmetics on. The bags under her eyes and the red tint on the sides of her pupils suggested that she had either just woken up or hadn’t been sleeping entirely. Quinen looked down on her. It wasn’t that Quinen was tall – he was on the average side of the height spectrum – it was just dreorg have always been short.
“Oh,” she said, smiling widely. Her round spectacles helped the bubbly image. Quinen smirked. “You’re back. What did you find?” As she asked, her ears — short and reminiscent of a rabbit’s — twitched. Her prehensile tail wagged behind her, the pink crystal ore glimmering at the end of it.
“Wasn’t a belgar stalking you,” Quinen replied. He pulled out his palmnode — a rectangular piece of what looked like glass — from his pocket and tapped on it lightly. An image visualized and showed the serpentine body of the jifarin, walking around with four legs and two arms. The green scales shimmered gold underneath to them. “It was a jifarin. A Divata changeling, more precisely.”
The dreorg lady crossed her arms. “Why would a jifarin be stalking me?”
Quinen shrugged. “I didn’t study the Divata in the Collegium, Miss Lahlia.” He put back the rectangular glass screen into his pocket and stuck out his hand, palm facing up. “And I’m not getting paid for that, am I?”
Lahlia nodded. “Right, right of course not. Here, one second.” She dug into the pocket of her denim pants and fished out fifteen whole eagles. “Fifteen plus your down-payment of ten makes twenty-five eagles, yes?”
Quinen nodded. “Much obliged, Madam.”
She smiled, scrunching her cute button nose. In the cold weather, her skin had turned pale, punctuating the freckles on her face. “Now you take care.” She stepped back and closed the door.
Quinen smirked, hung his head, and said, “You too.”
He turned around and walked down the apartment’s porch. He pulled out his palmnode again and made a call to Chrys. It took three rings for her to pick up.
“Hey, Quinen,” her singsong voice sang from the other end.
“Chrysanthemum,” Quinen said. “Are you back at home?”
There was a noticeable pause, before Chrys answered, “Nope.”
Quinen would’ve gotten angry. Instead, he sighed. “And why not?”
“The sunset was pretty,” she said. “It’s hard to find pretty things nowadays. It’s all hidden.”
Quinen grinned at that. “I think that makes them even prettier.”
“Hm?” Quinen could see Chrys pouting on the other line. “I don’t think that makes sense.”
Quinen shrugged. “It does to me.” He coughed, and sent another wave of heat over his body. “Hey, you better go back to the flat now. It’s getting bright.”
She sighed. “I know.” There was a pause. Quinen waited. He knew what happens when she got like this. “Do I… why do I have to keep hiding?”
Quinen sighed again. Steam blew out, dissipating into the gray. “Just a little longer.”
There was another silence. “Okay. But…” there was a desperate hopefulness in her voice. “Why can’t you just keep putting these tattoos on me?”
Quinen walked down the sidewalk, heading to the closest City-Rail Transit station. The closest one to him was Juvakin Station. “Because they hurt you and I don’t want that. And because they’re temporary.”
“Hm.” Quinen held his breath. “Okay. I’ll… I’ll do my best.”
“Attagirl.” Quinen smiled. “I’ll see you in the flat. Don’t-”
“Don’t fall in love,” Chrysanthemum cut him off. “I know, I know.”
“Good,” Quinen said on the other line. Chrys smiled.
“I’ll see you,” she said, ending the call. She shoved her palmnode into her pocket once again and walked across the cement roof she had climbed up to. She lowered herself down a rusty set of metal stairs that scaled the side of the building. When she reached the last few rungs of the last ladder, she hopped down. The back-alleyway was windy. Her boots didn’t make a sound when she hit the cement.
She turned and walked up and out of the piss-smelling back alleyway.
A neon sign shone above the shops, showcasing different signs and words for different utilities and vices. Other people wearing coats over coats huddled against trash fires, while others slept within dumpsters of green and grime.
Chrys moved through the little colonies of homeless that lay against the alleyway. Her glowing, pink hair seemed to shimmer at the morning. The homeless looked at the hair, blinked, and then went back to whatever they were doing — sleeping, twiddling with little wooden pieces, cutting their hair…
She reached the end of the alleyway when her palmnode buzzed in her pocket. She slowed her walk, pulled the palmnode out, and read the message.
— From Kiether:
hey. i really miss you, chris. i still have that spot for your bed. i still have that perfume you love. come back
If you don’t… at least tell me why you left in the first place?
Chrys scowled, slipped her palmnode back into her pocket. She saw the city bus, about to leave the station. She ran faster than any girl her size could manage, and she jumped right into the closing doors.
“By Adon’s Teeth, girl!” The driver beat his chest once with a fist, as if to shake him off from a reverie. “I could’ve killed ya. Don’t do that.” His beard was long and puffy. Chrys liked it. She liked guys with beards.
She smiled at the floor. “Sorry,” she said, her voice small. Her lungs heaved and her heart hammered against her chest.
The driver sighed. He pointed behind him. His arms were short and stubby, but muscular. “Well get a seat before the bus starts tossing you to and fro.”
Chrys nodded and walked down the aisle. There was an unusually small crowd today, but then again, it was Fifth Ascending. Not a lot of people commute at this time. She saw a young belgar sitting near the back. A white-haired human sat in a chair next to a young female alfr.
She sighed. She noticed that she could only see the other Races in the wee hours of morning.
The story about the Human Impergium bounced within the confines of Chrysanthemum’s mind. She shuddered and waved the thoughts away.
Chrys soon found a seat near the window, where she wanted. She sat and leaned her head against the window, her hot pink hair pressed against the glass. The bus moved through the asphalt streets of Throne City. They passed by low buildings of brick, tall buildings of brass and steel which were ornately decorated, and the occasional café or ice cream parlor that she so loved to go to. Slums and cardboard houses hugged the foot of glinting glass spires that pierced the sky. The City-Rail Transit slithered through the city like a river of ink, adorned with flowery textures and sharp spires of black ore. Other autochariots passed by them. The leaden sky was slowly turning into a warm orange, despite the crisp cold of the Nymph ascending.
At the next stop, another passenger climbed aboard. He had the intelligent searching eyes of someone from the Collegium. His hair was dark, almost blue, and his eyes were the color of the sea. His skin was light – not too pale, not too dark. But with the cold of Throne City, it might as well have been white.
Chrys couldn’t help but give him a sideways glance as he picked his way through the aisle. The boy kept one hand on the strap of his backpack and the other hand on the earbud in one of his ears. He looked as if he was going to pass the seat right next to Chrys, much to her relief.
Wait, she thought, why am I relieved that he’s going to pass me?
But the bus jolted forward, and the boy with the eyes of the sea more or less stumbled into the seat right next to Chrys. She breathed, and then looked out the window. Chrysanthemum watched as the concrete buildings, neon lights, and holographic screens blended with the rain.