Never forget, never surrender.

Pachin family motto.

 

The West Side stood still and silent when they crept in over the rooftops.

Mae found an empty shack and propped the door open just enough. The building, shorter across than Sarea was tall, stunk of nothing more than dried mud and rot. Sarea sat in one dark corner, hugging her knees to her chest, and Mae in the other, legs crossed, counting seconds and minutes with a hand patting her knee. Every now and then, men stomped past, armoured boots heavy on the ground.

Mae said, “One every quarter. Four to a unit.”

Sarea nodded like she understood.

“Come on.” Mae pushed herself onto her knees. “You show me those plants.”

Sarea’s knees and back ached when she crawled out of the shack, and the air smelt like sickly sweetness, but the empty quiet of the West Side soothed her nerves. She led Mae between buildings to the edge of the marsh pit by her old home, and crouched on the edge.

“I’m sorry about Aldhouse,” Mae said, settling beside her.

Sarea shrugged, pointing at a runty plant with pointed, bladed leaves. “That one gives you the runs. But it clears your head, too, if you’ve drunk too much. You need to put it in water, maybe brewed.”

“She’s good at what she does, but she and hers are up to things, and we’re ordered not to talk about it, you know?”

“Don’t touch the roots,” Sarea said quietly. “They kill. And don’t use it against hangovers. It’s addictive.” She shifted across slightly. There’d always been a good amount of marsh plants here, in the dark, swampy water. The reeds could be cut down and woven, and they stiffened over time. “Those, there.”

Mae squinted. “The lily pads?”

Sarea shook her head. “No. They don’t flower. If you cut it out and wait, the leaf oozes a sticky sap. The smell of it makes people sick. We used to wipe it on the door to keep Instigators away. And if you crush it, it produces a haze of spores. They cause a rash.”

“If I’d known she’d get pushy on you, I wouldn’t have taken you there. You know?” Mae nudged her arm.

“I know,” Sarea said, because she trusted Mae too much. “There’s – oh!” She leaned forward. “That, the floating weed. If your hands were covered, you could grab it up and throw it at people you didn’t like. The pods are full of this -” she spread her hands. ” – sticky liquid that burns the skin.”

Mae whistled, low. “Anything in there that’s good for you?”

“If there is, I don’t know about it.” Sarea leaned back with a sigh. “If you meet a kind of long grass with pink, arrow-shaped heads, don’t go near it.”

“And what does that do?”

“The heads latch onto you and fill you with something that numbs your mind and body. They keep you alive and asleep for weeks, feeding off your blood.”

Mae shuddered. “You survived this place?”

Sarea shifted into a sitting position. “It’s not the worst way to die in the West Side.”

Footsteps clanked.

Mae bounced onto her feet, dragging her up and sideways in a dizzying show of strength. “You, hide, and stay out of sight. I’ll do the rest.”

Sarea frowned at her, stepping out of her hold. “I’m not -”

“You matter, I don’t.” Mae flashed her a smile. “You’re going in there.”

In the ruined house that had been her home. Sarea curled her hands and obeyed, but left the door wide open. She hid in the space behind it. Mae stayed outside.

After the footsteps faded, Mae hissed, “Something’s up. They missed a patrol.”

Sarea closed her eyes against the darkness. Silence echoed around her, filling her head with stillness. The sweet stench in the air intensified, thickened like a choking syrup. On a breeze that swept into the room and ruffled her hair, she thought she heard a voice. A male voice –

Da’d said, father knows, just after the sweetness rose around them. Grandfather was dead, but if – if there was something in the marsh –

They had to get out of the West Side.

Someone shouted outside. Male, angry. Mae swore, snapped, “Stay there,” and there was the sound of swords, of someone running. Sarea held her breath for a long, terrified moment as the breeze tugged at her hair and clothes.

Then it left her, flowing out of the room and carrying the sickly-sweet with it. She held her breath as long as she could, spots dancing against her eyelids, before she gave in, gasping for air. She leaned into the wall heavily. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Something in the air, something in the water. Something making the rot that infected the earth and the buildings, and maybe even people. Something alive, and dark, and hungry.

“Here you are!”

Sarea near-leapt out of her skin, eyes wide open, then relaxed. Just Amisine.

Her dead sister grinned at her. “You came home,” she said. “That means you’re just on time. You can come see him now.”

Sarea shook her head. “I have to leave,” she said, moving into the middle of the room. “It’s not safe here.”

“Of course not.” Amisine giggled. “That’s the fun of it.”

“I have to wait for Mae,” Sarea said. “But there’s something here, I have to run -” She turned back to Amisine. “Can you go and help Mae?”

Amisine tilted her head. “Why would I do that?”

Ghosts were strange, and this wasn’t in truth her sister. If she had to bargain, she would. “Because she’s my friend, and she keeps me safe,” Sarea said.

“But I’ll keep you safe,” Amisine said. “That’s why you have to come with me. Grand-da wants to meet you.”

Sarea stopped, still and cold. “Grand-da,” she echoed.

“He wants to meet you and talk to you and then we’ll be together forever.” Amisine drifted closer. “Just like we ought to be.”

“Talk to me,” Sarea said.

“Yes!” Amisine beamed. “Like he talked to me!”

No. No. “I’m going to find Mae,” Sarea said, “And then we’re going to leave the West Side.” Amisine was too close, too inhuman in seeming humanity, too much –

“No!” Amisine clutched at her hands, childlike and strong. “You have to come, you have to! He can make you like me!”

How could a ghost hold so tightly? Sarea yanked her hands free so hard her shoulders ached, backing away. “No, please, don’t -”

“Don’t you want to be with me?” Amisine stopped mid-air, face twisted in childish confusion. “We’re twins. We’re meant to be together, and we can be. Don’t you want that?”

“I miss you,” Sarea said, “But I don’t -”

“So you’ll come with me!” Amisine darted forwards. “And we’ll be together. Forever.”

Sarea shook her head, backing into a wall. “No. You don’t understand.”

“It’s so simple,” Amisine crooned. “So easy. Everyone’s your toy. When the time comes, we’ll rise up and be dark stars. We’ll burn the world, it’ll be harder like this but there’s always a way. Everything makes sense like this.”

“I don’t want to die!”

The words came so loud, Sarea barely recognised her own voice. Palms flat against the wall, she trembled, cold and tired and lost. “I don’t want to die,” she repeated, quieter. “I don’t want to die, Amisine, I don’t want to turn into you. Please.”

Amisine pulled back. “You hate me.”

Sarea shook her head sharply. “Amisine -”

“You do. You hate me!” Lightning crackled around the ghost, her skin sagging on her body like she had no substance at all. Her fingers were claws again, her teeth long and jagged, her eyes too wide. “That’s no way for a true sister to act.”

She raised her hand. Sarea flinched, squeezing her eyes shut. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I’d found you, you wouldn’t be this.

Nothing happened.

“No,” Amisine said, subdued. “You’re afraid.” A soft sigh. “I’ll show you. This is good, Sarea. I’ll show you, I will. He’ll know a way.”

Then silence.

Sarea opened her eyes.

The room stood still and silent, rotted wood and blankets and not much else. Amisine was gone. Still shaking, Sarea inched along the wall to the door and let herself out.

She had to leave the West Side and never come back.

 

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