Rain lashed down the cobblestone streets like it was trying to scour away a century of pollution all in one night. The grime of Vitre’s Gate was stained through by too much blood and varnished with too many tears for the rain to reach it though. Each night, the skies wept for the city and every day the people within it painted another layer of grit over its surface to hold the accumulated sludge in place.
Quinda huddled against a dumpster, taking advantage of the partial shelter from the downpour and the cutting winds that carried it.
“It wasn’t suppose to be like this,” she said to the head she held in her hands.
Despite the absence of a body, Owen was quite alive. He couldn’t hear her, but Quinda knew he could still feel the cold of the rain and the lashing of the wind. They would permeate into the hazy dreams that floated through his mind while his head waited for a properly Vitalized body to be created for it.
She’d come so far that it seemed insane that she could end up tossed away in an alley. She should have been mingling with the academic elite of the University, not huddled against the cold, outside and alone on a night lit only by the crashes of the unnatural lightning that played in the skies above.
“Why did I think they would listen?” she asked Owen’s deaf ears. Another bolt of green lightning shattered the sky and lit the alleyway for a pair of heart beats. In the macabre illumination, Quinda saw the echoes of the time before the city. The walls washed over by the flashes of green light became the trees and hedges of an earlier time and she felt her bones pulled back to the land she had known in her first life.
She’d been a different girl then. When she first lived, the Vitriatic Sciences hadn’t yet been conceived. Wresting life back from the stygian shores of death had become commonplace but only centuries after her time on Earth had passed. The journey back across the river Lethe had stripped away almost all memories of the time she’d first lived, but she still felt a deep longing for it.
She’d died young, barely into her twenties, but however bad her life had been then, she thought it had to have been better than an existence that left her abandoned to the elements. Not that she would die from the exposure. That mercy was denied her by the same spark that had called her back to her bones after centuries away from them.
Those raised to life by the chemicals and storm harnessed energies of the Vitriatic Sciences were beyond the reach of nature’s touch. She could be chopped into pieces or ground into meal and still the energies of life would pulse in her cells. From what her resurrector had told her, she would even remain conscious through it, her mind held together by the weird interactions of forces from beyond the material world.
The storm couldn’t kill her, but she did suffer under its touch. The cold pierced her as deeply as it would any other girl and the acrid rain filled her lungs with a sick heaviness that weighed her down.
In her hands, the warmth of Owen’s head felt like the last spark of heat in the world, but she knew she had to find a way to extinguish it. Just as she had been pieced back together, muscles attached to bones, tendons rigged just so, skin wrapping it all in a pleasing package, so too was Owen scheduled to be reconstructed. Like her, he had been restored with the full faculties of his mind intact. It was part of the Great Experiment, the resurrection of learned minds from ages past to help with the problems that held back the progress of today.
The had never told Quinda who she had once been, or why she was part of the Great Experiment. They’d only told her of the dream they had for her. A new voice from a forgotten time, she would challenge them and make them rethink their approaches. She would be admitted to the University first as a student and then as a Professor. She would be part of the new world she found herself in and a key to creating the future that was to come.
Then they had asked her what she thought, and she had made the mistake of telling them.
“This is monstrous,” she screamed it then and she screamed it again over the lightning in the alley.
The price for bringing someone back to the realm of the living was to send at least one life there to take their place. In Quinda’s case it had taken seven. The heart had to resonate with the spirit that was called back. The liver had to align with the humors of the mind that would occupy the body. The skin had to hold in the fires of creation that would be poured into the body.
And then there was the brain.
However the Vitriac Sciences progressed, there did not seem to be a path to restoring the long dead that did not involve utilizing the intact brain of someone recently dead. Preferably very recently dead. For one to live, another had to die.
Quinda could barely remember her life from centuries past, but she could feel the echoes of the people who made up the body she wore. Her skin didn’t fit quite right, her humors were out of balance and her heart beat too fast and too loud, but it was her brain that bothered her the most. So long as she was awake, she was alone in it, but when she dreamed? When she dreamed, she saw the shadows of the girl whose life she had usurped.
That was why Owen’s spark needed to be extinguished. The academics hadn’t expected her to steal back into their lab. They hadn’t foreseen that she would destroy the works in process, shatter the bones which hadn’t yet been invested with Vitriatic Life and set fire to the preserved specimens in their pickling jars. They’d expected to be able to move forward with the next model after their attempt with her proved unsuccessful. If they reclaimed Owen’s head they could still salvage the principal focus of their work. Finding new specimens might involve dozens of “donors” but wasn’t that why the city supported the poor?
Quinda couldn’t claim concern for those the researchers would sacrifice to their aims though. She had dealt a blow to their efforts out of rage. They’d cast her out of the University as unstable and thrown her into the asylum as a “Danger to Others”.
They’d had little idea how correct they had been on both counts. With her rampage of revenge passed, the anger within her cooled and the bleak emptiness of the future hung over her, darker and more somber than any storm cloud. Apart from ensuring that Owen’s head would never be used as part of the “Great Experiment”, she could see nothing left to strive towards.
Out of the corner of her eye, Quinda caught the shadows moving in the alley, and for a moment cursed herself for falling asleep. The next crash of lightning assured her that she wasn’t sleeping though.
Something was moving in the alley with her.
The ghasts that crawled through the city’s dark hours couldn’t kill her any more than the storm could, but they could hurt her as badly or worse. Quinda didn’t want to think what would happen if they got their talons on Owen’s head either. Words couldn’t penetrate the abyssal sleep that held Owen silent but pain would register and take on the most horrible of forms in his dreams.
The alley was closed at the far end, so the only exit was past the ghasts, or, more specifically, through them.
Quinda placed Owen’s head under the bags beside the over full garbage bin. It wasn’t a dignified resting place, but it was better than the belly of a ghast if she lost the fight that she knew lay before her.
She didn’t want to die. Not again. She found that strange and hard to believe as she rose from her hiding space. She yearned for her old life. Her new one was nothing but misery and isolation. Somehow though, she wasn’t ready to give it up, even if that had been an option.
The ghasts weren’t ready for what hit them. The Vivified don’t move like humans. Not when they’re committed to an action. The lightning in their veins and the chemicals that suffuse their bodies lend them speed and strength far beyond what a mortal body can withstand.
If there had been fewer ghasts, Quinda might have won the battle without suffering any injuries at all, but ghasts move in packs and know how to use their numbers. They pulled her down before she’d finished ripping the first of them apart. With other prey the feeding would have begun then, but the fight hadn’t left Quinda. If anything, laying in the gutter stoked the flames in her blood and removed all the mercy that would have held her back.
A minute later the fight was done. There hadn’t been anything pretty about it and there wasn’t anything pretty about what was left of the ghasts. Quinda herself looked like something that crawled out of a nightmare and as her rage ebbed away so too did her strength. She couldn’t die but injuries could leave her weakened or crippled. Drowning in a puddle would prolong the agony but without her anger Quinda was past the point of caring as she toppled forward.
As she fell, she thought of the road she walked and what was to come. Darkness and pain where already her companions, and the deep puddle before her was like an endless ocean that promised even worse to come. The last thing she expected therefore was that gentle hands would catch her and lift her up like she was a gossamer wisp.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier,” a blond haired woman said. She was dressed in the slicker of a city watchman but her smile and eyes were kindly.
“Let’s get you somewhere warm and safe,” the woman said as consciousness slipped away from Quinda and a deep and dreamless sleep embraced her.