One She ate the yam too fast. It provoked horrible, convulsive cramps as her disused bowels shuddered into motion, reminiscent of when the man who had killed her had stuck a sword in her belly and twisted upward.
She crouched in the ruins, trembling and ashamed. The boy only smiled and mopped the gathering sweat from her brow, tucking her hair behind her ears with long fingers.
"Alive after all," he said.
Two They walked all day. It was what she had done before she met him – without fixed direction – so she did not ask where they were going. When she stumbled he took her hand and guided her.
Food and water, he told her, were rare because unnecessary: the souls here were like animals set adrift by the loss of their primary instincts, barring aggression. Night was marginally safer than day, if only because Gin seemed to see well in perfect darkness. She grew used to sleeping in snatches and starts, waking to his hand on her shoulder, and walking again.
Three The trail wound downward, over brush-covered chalk hillsides and past the rare copse of trees, finally descending into a rocky valley where the ground was covered with broken shale. The jagged stone edges shredded her slippers and cut the soles of her feet until they bled. Gin helped bandage them with strips of cloth torn from his sash, but she fell further and further behind.
Eventually she woke from a midday nap behind a boulder to find him gone. She waited for hours for him to reappear, watching the shadows lengthen and turn blue as the sun crossed the sky overhead. When they had swallowed the stone outcropping entirely she got up and trudged on.
He caught up to her just after dusk, near the barrier (the powerless could not approach; he had – he said – made one other crossing before he met her). He carried a pair of fur-lined boots in a bundle under his arm, too large for her but wearable. Blood had dried stiff on his sleeve.
Four A long time passed (weeks? Months? It was difficult to keep track) before she asked him, "Why did you save me?"
Gin cited circumstantial evidence for the existence of her powers, but she could not sense anything out of the ordinary within herself. She was a burden-
He tilted his head quizzically, looking up at her, and her throat closed on the remainder of her words.
"Well," he said finally, "When two are together one can sleep, no?" As if to demonstrate he turned his head in her lap and closed his eyes, cheek warm against her thigh through the intervening layer of cloth.
She smoothed his hair over his forehead and watched the moon rise, thinking.
Five A shanty town of sorts.
It was the first place they found where they could sleep with a roof over their heads, surrounded by other people. She did not – sleep – the stench and press of humanity made her heart pound and her belly clench. She lay with her eyes open wide to the darkness, watching Gin's thin shoulders rise and fall as he breathed.
Early in the morning there was a brief commotion: a woman screamed, a man collapsed with a knife through his throat, dark blood coating the blade. Gin took her hand and they ran, not looking back.
Six Food was becoming more plentiful. They had nothing to barter, but they could steal.
Gin disappeared increasingly often, and for longer periods. Sometimes he returned with edibles or other objects of value, sometimes empty-handed. She could not bear to ask him what he did in the interim.
She hated herself at these times, because she waited. One day he would not come back; no doubt there would be a reason, but she would never find out what it was.
In any event they both knew their destination, now. They had heard the stories.
Seven "We have to train if we're going to get anywhere," Gin told her. "Like so—"
Later she would realise how little even he knew. At the time it was like something blossoming within her: a slow unfurling of tendrils, eyes opening, wondrous limbs.
It had been summer. Now it was autumn.
Eight They camped in a little dell, a hollow in the ground carpeted with fallen leaves. The night air smelt of woodsmoke and earth. When the moon rose above the treeline they banked the fire to glowing coals, and for the first time told each other stories of the mortal realm.
"They were soldiers," she said. "I couldn't run fast enough, that's all." Her family had not died at the same time, and it was easier to believe they were not here. Thinking of them was like remembering a shared dream.
Death had woken her.
"I wouldn't know who my parents were if I met them," Gin said, and smiled.
During the night winter slunk around and past on cat feet. She woke to Gin shaking her, wearing a puzzled expression she had never before seen. There was a peculiar whiteness to the morning light.
"It looks like ash," he said, "but it's wet like dew."
"It's snow," she said, and the realisation that she knew something he didn't made her laugh. She kicked off her blanket and leapt to her feet, dancing backward. Snowflakes dusted her hair and tingled as they melted, but the cold didn't matter. She bent down and scraped together a handful, packing it between her palms.
"You do like this," she said, and threw the snowball in Gin's face.
She was away and running the next instant, not waiting to see him react, but it didn't take him very long to catch her.
Nine The first good Samaritans: a middle-aged couple who lived in a log cabin and scratched out a garden plot, near the treeline. They fed goat milk and turnip soup to the children who came out of the forest, and plied them with questions. How long had they been in the spirit world? Were they searching for their parents? Where were they going? Gin dug into his bowl and refused to answer, so she said, "To the centre."
"To the centre?" echoed the woman, and shot her husband a bewildered look. The man's face darkened, but he only crossed his arms and turned away.
"There're a couple of old mats in the lean-to," he said.
She woke sometime during the night; the mat beside her was empty. She lifted her head sleepily and saw that Gin was squatting by the fire pit, doing something with his hands she couldn't see. He turned almost immediately, pressing a finger against his lips and smiling, although she hadn't made a sound.
She laid her head back down, curled up with her knees brought tight to her chest, and fell asleep again.
The next she knew the door was kicked open with a bang. Instinct rolled her to her feet before conscious thought intervened. The room was grey with first light; a pair of men she had never seen loomed just within the doorway, cutting off her escape. Swords hung at their sides, and they stunk of sweat.
"So this is the other one," said the closest, and behind him she saw the second grin. "Pretty girl."
She scrambled off the mat and backed away, crouching. Behind her the woman cried out.
"No, please, we don't—"
Gin was not in sight. The first man reached for her arm. Desperately she struck with demon magic and he stumbled back, swatting at the searing sparks and cursing. She ducked around his legs and made for the door.
Never fast enough: he caught her by the ankle. She landed badly, hit the ground hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs. Looked up in time to see the man raise his hand, his lips curled back to reveal his teeth. Something metallic gleamed dully in his fist. Then blinding pain; then darkness.
Ten She could not use her powers. How strange it was: she had possessed them only briefly, but already it was like losing a limb or a sense. She lay on her side in the darkness, running her fingertips over the cuffs that held her wrists together. Over and over, like picking at a scab. The metal was warm and greasy from being touched.
She counted meals. Eighteen, nineteen... They wanted her alive, something in itself. She thought Gin must have escaped. But then she remembered the man saying, So this is the other one.
It was after an interminable time that the darkness suddenly withdrew, the edges at first, then entirely. Light stung her eyes and made them water. She sat up, bewildered, choked with hope.
It came out a disused whisper. He knelt before her, smiling. His eyes were wide and clear. There was something—
"Give me your hands," he said.
She held them out, dumbly. As he fiddled with the cuffs she glanced around her. She had thought she was imprisoned in an underground room – the walls muffled all external sound and extended for dozens of paces in every direction – but now she saw she had been lying in a shallow box that came up only to her waist as she sat. It seemed to be made of some sort of black, lacquered wood.
That was not the only wrong thing. The ceiling and walls were collapsing inward without moving. She followed their lines several times with uncomprehending eyes before what she saw clicked into place. They were in a tent. There was a rectangular shape in the corner that could have been a camp bed; there was – something on the—
The cuffs fell open with a click. Gin dropped them inside the box and took her by the wrists.
"Can you stand?" he said. And, "Look at me. Yes, that's it."
She followed him outside. When he lifted the flap to the tent fresh, cold air hit her like a slap to the face; she gasped, involuntarily filling her lungs. Then the contrast struck her: there had been a smell of—
She took two steps forward and stopped. The tent flap fell closed behind her.
"We have to get you out of here," he said.
He was still holding her by the wrist, gently but firmly. His fingers were warm.
It was night, but even so it was too quiet. There was another tent. No light showed beneath the canvas. It was snowing. The campfire had gone out, black circle on white ground. Something lay there in the corner of her eye, not yet covered by the snow, but she did not turn her head. She kept her gaze fixed on Gin's back as they walked, trying to commit his form to memory: the straight stance of his shoulders, the swing of his arms, moonlight silvering his hair.
Eleven Gin left her a week later, in the care of a woman in Sector 38 West who had already taken in two boys and a girl. She did not see him again until her first year in the Academy.
By then he was already a fully-fledged member of the Fifth Division.
All the way, they heard the sound of the snow falling
They left the house and started running
I'm gonna let you know when it's time to be leaving
Don't run, the same goes for company this evening
You come here, and I disappear
Somehow I see something I fear
Maybe we'll make someone's souvenir
All the way, they heard the sound of the snow falling
—Ladytron, "All The Way..."