My Sister’s Soul

Issue #32

I picked the lock on my sister’s soulbox with the end of the finest-gauge henna-painting stick I owned. The stick itself was nearly as thin as a needle, perfect for the most intricate of designs—or for picking a lock.

The first time, I’d lifted the lid with shaking hands, my eyes jumping around the empty kitchen to ensure yet again that I was alone. I’d peeped into the box and gauged the exact color of my sister’s soul before slamming the lid shut and hurriedly placing the box behind the fake brick in the family hearth.

This time my unease fell away beneath the eager ache that ran through me at the thought of seeing Khatereh’s soul again. I had dreamed of the soul night and day since I’d first opened the soulbox two weeks ago, ‘til I could hardly put it out of my mind. It wasn’t right to obsess about it like this, but I could not stop myself.

The lock opened with a snick and I withdrew the henna stick.

The soulbox, made of hand-hewn stone—inlaid on the top of the lid and along the sides with intricate patterns of metals and gemstones in blues and greens with saffron accents—looked like a holy relic box, the kind most families used to store their lineage documents. But my family had another box for its holy relics.

I opened the lid. My sister Khatereh’s soul rested in thick folds of pure white velvet. Ornate patterns embroidered in gold thread looped and twisted together along the edge of the velvet. Beautiful to the eye, the case and its lining faded to obscurity next to the soul. I caught my breath.

I picked the soul up carefully between my thumb and forefinger. It was warm as human flesh and smoother than glass, and it resembled nothing more than a strikingly beautiful azure marble. It was like holding Khatereh in miniature. The demons she hunted might kill her mortal body, but they could not steal her eternal soul because it was not encompassed in her body but in this thumb-sized marble.

I brought it into the circle of light cast by the nearest lamp, where I’d laid a pile of azure blue linen, and held it near. The fabric, beautifully and richly dyed, paled in comparison to the soul. I could not slay demons, like my sister, but I had always possessed an extraordinary eye for choosing the perfect color for any person as soon as I met them. With Khaterah, I had seen her soul with my own eyes and knew a true match was impossible, but the swatch I held was the best I could find.

I let the soul drop into the palm of my hand and curled my fingers around it. It was so pleasant to hold that the thought of putting it down again was almost physically painful. I wrapped the swatch of fabric around my closed hand. Warmth seemed to radiate from the soul into my palm.

I stood for a long time, feeling at peace, before I finally shook myself out of my daydreams. It was not safe to stand, alone, holding a soul—what if some unharnessed demon could smell it on me? Of course demons couldn’t smell, Khatereh had told me so; and the soulbox wasn’t Watched. Khatereh kept it carefully cleansed of any magic lest the out-of-place bit of magic draw the attention of a passing demon.

Still, it was hard to put it down again. I had to look away as I placed it back and closed the lid. The lock clicked shut and I slipped the box back into its hiding place.

I picked up the pile of fabric and turned back to the door just as footsteps thudded down the hallway and my young brother Mohsen burst up from the stairwell.

“Aliyeh! She’s here!” He made a flying leap over the bench by the table and skidded to a stop at the window that faced the street. “Look! The Red Carriage!”

I set the fabric carefully aside. I joined Mohsen, peering through the lattice at the flame-red carriage that was blocking most of the street. I’d ridden in one of the flame-red carriages once, the first midsummer after Khat became a full-fledged magus.

Two men in the red-and-white livery of the magi guild sat on the driver’s bench. She had no guards; who would attack a magi’s carriage?

Mohsen and I were home alone; our father, the only other resident of the townhouse, was out. I hurried to wrap the piled fabric in a length of plain muslin and hide it in a cabinet. “To the door, quickly now,” I told Mohsen, dragging him away from the window and out of the kitchen.

One of the men in livery drew the carriage’s gauze curtains aside as I opened the house door. A slim figure in a red hooded cloak stepped out. I saw a flash of pale hand and stringy arm from beneath it. I saw a flash of pale hand and stringy arm from beneath it. For a moment, my eyes caught on her arm. Concern ran through me and questions flew to my tongue, but I held them back. I couldn’t greet my sister by telling her how sickly she looked.

Then she ascended the five steps to the door. Beneath the cloak she was clothed in black and gray: a black overdress, a gray scarf over her head. She pushed the hood back. Her face was thin, with deep sunken eyes above hollowed cheeks. Her once-black hair was laced with white, a big shock of it on one side and individual hairs shot through the rest. Her neck, like her hands, was too stringy, the muscles too apparent under paper-thin flesh.

She looked dead, as well she would be if she were anything else. Only a powerful magus could live without a soul. But even Khatereh needed the touch of her soul once in awhile; on midsummer day, as was her personal tradition, she would let it rest within her and be renewed. With her soul inside her body, she would be as vibrant and beautiful as a twenty-two year-old sister ought to be, and when it was removed she would look healthy again, for a while.

My tongue caught in my mouth and a long, awkward moment passed before I stammered the traditional greeting. “Welcome to our father’s house, eldest sister.” Beside me, Mohsen repeated my words.

Khatereh’s lips moved in a twitch that might’ve been a smile, or a frown, or perhaps just a tic. “It’s been a long journey,” she said. She stepped in, past me and Mohsen, and began to unwind her scarf.

I caught a whiff of lavender-scent, masking a hint of something else—a not-healthy smell that made me want to make a face. I turned away quickly to hang the cloak on the pegs in the hallway.

Turning back, I gestured to the thick cushions in the room beyond the hall. “Sit and rest, Khat. Let me get you something to refresh yourself.”

I hurried out before she could answer. In the kitchen’s chill box lay a tray of chunked fruit that I’d prepared early in the morning, a bowl of yogurt, chilled juice, and flatbread. Last I brought out a dish of hummus, our own family’s traditional recipe. I put the dishes on a tray and took it back.

Khat had seated herself and was lounging on the cushions. She was examining her hands and I had a few seconds to look at her. Every year Khat returned home looking sickly, but never had she looked so aged. Her features were alike to my own, if perhaps I had already lived ninety bitter years rather than fifteen easy ones. Her fine black silk dress hung on her as if it had been tailored for someone larger.

Mohsen sat nearby. This year he was old enough not to clamber on her into her lap, but his attention was fixed on Khatereh. “But Eldest Sister, won’t you tell me how many demons you defeated this year?”

Her face stormy, Khatereh shook her head once, sharply. “Magery and demons—I don’t want to talk about that now.”

“But Eldest Sister—” Used to having his way, Mohsen pouted.

“Mohsen! Don’t badger her,” I said.

I put the tray on a low table near the cushions Khat had selected and seated myself to the side. Khat ate a few pieces of fruit and sipped the juice. Mohsen waited just until her fingers retreated to grab food for himself.

“How was your journey?” I asked. I tore a bit of flatbread and dipped it in the hummus.

“Too long, too dusty,” Khat said.

“Well, you’ll have a few days’ rest before you have to go back. Still six days until midsummer.”

She tore off a piece of flatbread on her own and dipped it in the hummus, but when she put it in her mouth, she made a face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Not enough chili powder,” she said after a minute.

I took another bit of flatbread and dipped it in again, but the hummus tasted just like normal. Some families had spicy hummus, some used lots of lemon, some lots of garlic; our family recipe makes it salty.

Khat set her food down abruptly and rose from the cushions. “I want my soul.”

“But Khat—I thought you couldn’t have a soul but at midsummer.”

“I oughtn’t,” she said, her eyes focusing on nothing. “Midsummer is a powerful time, though not all magi choose it.” She looked straight at me, but her tone wasn’t accusatory, just intent. “I just want to check on it.”

I stuffed a last bite of bread into my mouth and stood. “Mohsen, go on back to your studies,” I said. He started to pout but then looked from me to Khatereh and gave up. I led Khat to the kitchen.

Khat was apprenticed as a magus when she was thirteen years old, but she hadn’t lost her soul right away. She’d been comfortable and healthy through her apprenticeship and first years as a working magus. Once, she’d confided in me that her talents were such that her master had started to train her to deal with demons. Dangerous business, she’d said. But so important, because the skills were rare and hard to master, and the demons very clever. But I wasn’t to worry about her, she told me, because she had learned to store her soul outside her body, and that way the demons couldn’t get at it.

Other magi stored their souls in other places, and visited them at other times. Khat had said she felt safer with hers at home, so it had been placed in the soulbox and stored in our hearth

As I entered the kitchen with Khat at my side, I glanced at her face in profile. Her skin was so thin it was nearly translucent. Her cheekbones, forehead, and chin were too prominent.

I stopped by the table and turned to face her. “Khat, what happened?”

“What?” Surprise flickered across her face before her brows drew together. “What do you mean? Nothing happened. I came home because it’s midsummer.”

Her words made my heart sink, and more—I was afraid. What could be so bad she would no longer confide in me? “You— you don’t look like you anymore, Khat. You look sick.”

She waved her hand dismissively, a very un-Khat-like gesture. “Of course I’m sick. I have no soul. Something you wouldn’t know about, would you?” She said the last so angrily she was almost spitting. She spun on her heel and left the kitchen, her back stiff and steps heavy, leaving me standing at the table, staring after her.

The glass jar of beads atop the pile of fabric tinkled cheerily as I descended the steps from the upper story. I’d finished sewing the pieces of Khat’s dress into a whole garment and started the beading along the neck and cuffs under the light of the midmorning sun. The swirling whorls I’d designed were simple, yet graceful enough for a woman of Khat’s social standing. I envisioned her wearing it on midsummer night, when she, as fitted her position, would be the first woman in the city to dance when the moon came up. Everyone would envy her beauty.

The bright sun helped me see my work, but the weather had turned chancy, black clouds layering the horizon in a manner that preceded dry summer thunderstorms, necessitating a move indoors.

Aside from a brief visit to the rooftop to take in some of the milder morning sun, which Khat had acquiesced to reluctantly, she had been abed all day.

I entered the kitchen deep in thought, only noticing Mohsen bending over a small case because he slammed it shut when he caught site of me. I stopped to double-check what I’d seen. Yes, the wicker object at his feet was indeed Khat’s trunk. “What are you doing?”

He hesitated, his dark eyes circling me as if seeking inspiration. Finally he drew himself up, his spine straight, shoulders stiff. “Sisters shouldn’t question the work of their brothers,” he said, the sort of line a man would use against a querulous female relative.

I remembered the evasive answer he’d given for disappearing from the roof when Khat appeared, and frowned. “Mohsen, what mischief are you up to, hiding in here with Khat’s things? You take that and put it back where you got it. Male or no, father won’t condone you stealing from Khatereh.”

Mohsen’s adult façade crumbled a bit. “But Aliyeh, I just wanted to help.”

“By sneaking through Khat’s personal things?” I laid the pile of fabric and jar of beads carefully on the table and reached for the wicker case. Mohsen’s features tightened, but he said nothing and left quickly.

I held the box against me. Alone, I felt the temptation to put it back down and open it up. Khat was—unwell. And aside from spending most of the hours since her arrival abed, she hadn’t acknowledged her unwellness. She’d turned aside even Father’s questions with disapproval and a cold gaze.

I ran my fingers over the case, feeling the weave of the rounded, glazed wicker. Perhaps Khat was at the low point of a perfectly regular stomach ailment, something picked up along her journey home. Perhaps she felt too miserable to go out, and too embarrassed to be seen so weak and unhealthy. There were few women who held the public respect of the traditional-minded town elders like Khat did. But why wouldn’t she tell me what ailed her so I could help?

I doubted the answer was to be found in her personal luggage. Only Khat knew, and for whatever reason she no longer shared her secrets with me.

I bit back a surge of bitterness. How had I lost the trust of my sister? Our once-weekly letters had dwindled when she graduated her apprenticeship, but hadn’t her warmth remained? Except that lately her letters were short and curt, but I’d assumed she was just busy. I could not think of anything I’d done to offend her.

Taking the chest, I left the kitchen again and went up the stairs. The rooms in the south half of the house were all women’s rooms. Khat’s was second in the hall, a place of honor usually reserved for ranking wives, if a man had them. Khat had been given the room when our mother died. I stood for a minute, the carpet of the runner rug cushioning my toes through the soft house-shoes as I composed myself.

I knocked gently and heard Khat call out for me to enter. She was pushing herself up to sitting in the bed when I opened the door. Her eyes widened and then narrowed again when she saw the chest.

“Mohsen was concerned about you,” I said, my voice firm and level. “He thought it was his brotherly duty to help, so he took your chest.”

“He stole that from me to help?” Khat’s expression was simultaneously cross and amused. “Give it here.”

I stepped forward and passed the chest into her outstretched hands. The sickly smell I’d noticed around her clung to the air by the bed. I coughed and stepped back again. Khat didn’t notice.

“I don’t know what he was thinking,” I told her as she sorted through the contents in a perfunctory manner. I glanced at the window; a breeze would freshen the room, but Khat had the shutters closed and bolted. I looked back as she snapped the chest’s lid shut and set it aside. “Khat, we’re all concerned about you. I know you’re sick but you won’t tell father what ails you. Is it a womanly ailment?” I wondered, for the briefest second, if Khat could possibly be pregnant.

“No, of course not,” Khat said. Her tone made it clear that the idea was laughable, but that she wasn’t amused. “This soulless body doesn’t have issues of that sort.”

I bit my lip, feeling tears surface at the harshness in her voice. “Well, what’s wrong with you, then? Khat, why won’t you tell me? You used to share all your secrets with me, and I’ve always kept them for you.”

“It’s not your business!” Khat’s brows drew together, angry. “Just leave me be! You’re being shrill, Aliyeh, and you’ve no place questioning me.”

“That’s not fair. Who else cares for you as much as your family? As much as your sister?”

“My family doesn’t understand a thing about magic,” Khat said coolly. “Now go away, dear sister-child, and stop bothering me.”

Eyes burning, I turned to go. In the doorway, I turned back. “Did something happen to you while you were slaying a demon?”

Khat’s harsh voice was as cold and clear and sharp as frozen crystal. “Do not speak to me of demon slaying. And leave this room.”

The next moment I found myself at the foot of the stair, shivering in the heat of the day. The tips of my fingers and toes tingled with the aftereffects of magic. Try as I might, I could not remember if I’d closed Khat’s door, or even how I’d taken the stairs.

The skeleton of Khatereh’s midsummer dress covered the table in the kitchen, the hem draping along the long side. Seated on a chair next to it, I drew my threaded needle in and out, in and out, sewing up the hem with swift, tight stitches. It was a simple dress, short-sleeved, box-necked, lightly shaped at the bodice, and loose but not voluminous at the skirt. With the deep hue and sprinkling of beads whorling along the hem and neckline, it didn’t need any fancy cutting.

As I worked I worried about Khatereh. Three days past her arrival, her face seemed thinner and more pale, her body skinnier, her hair drier. Only her eyes burned brighter.

I didn’t understand our argument or how it had ended. I’d never seen Khat use magic willfully like she had used it on me.

With every stitch I longed for her to recover her health and safety. I prayed for her soul, but also for her mind and her body, and most of all, for the strain between us to disappear. Perhaps her soul would fix it, come mid-summer. Except that I felt certain it would not.

I paused to straighten my cramped fingers. Khat had gotten worse, but at the same time, the dress appeared more luminous every time I picked it up. I would have to take it in once Khat tried it on, but it would fit. I was anxious to finish and present it to Khat, hoping it would ease the tensions that had mounted in the last three days.

Somewhere beyond the kitchen, I heard voices raised in strife. Khatereh, her tone swift and sharp; our father, his voice steady but questioning. The argument continued in fits and starts for several minutes, until at least I heard the door open and close as father left the house. Khat appeared in the kitchen door.

“Well,” she said, looking surprised to see me. “What are you doing in here? Sewing?”

I nodded, the needle still poised in my hand. “Do you like the color?”

She glanced at it sidelong, her mind obviously on something else. “It’s very blue.”

I swallowed a lump of disappointment as she walked past the table and knelt by the hearth. Her back blocked my view. As I looked away, tears in my eyes and hurt in my heart, a thought surfaced: Khat didn’t act like—well, like Khat. My Khat had never been so short-tempered or sharp-tongued, and she’d always shared her life with me. This was not my Khat, not the elder sister I loved and respected.

I looked up when I heard the dull scraping sound of brick moving against brick. Slowly, I untucked my legs from beneath the bench and slipped my feet into my house-shoes.

Before I could move, Khatereh rose from her knees with the soulbox in her hands. Her face showed joy, and she was talking under her breath as she set the box on an empty square of table. She seemed to have forgotten I was in the kitchen with her.

She opened the box and pulled open the white velvet with eager hands, then paused. Her fierce delight became puzzlement as she reached inside. I heard the thump of the soul hitting the velvet-covered wooden base. She fished around inside the box, caught it in a cupped palm, and lifted it up.

“This is not my soul,” Khatereh said, her voice rising in outrage. “Where is my soul?”

Stark shock melded swiftly into anger, her brows drawing together and her hallow face twisting. She let out a wordless cry and swept the box from the table. It smacked into the brick hearth and fell to the ground. She held the soul up again, then threw it to the floor with a harsh grunt of fury. It bounced once on the cobbled floor and rolled, and I could see that it was no longer filled with the bright azure blue of Khatereh’s soul but appeared to be a cloudy gray marble.

I grew cold as horror spread through me. Had I damaged the soul by taking it from the box? Had I caused Khat to become this thing that wasn’t my Khat?

The marble bounced against a particularly uneven floor tile and diverted from its path, rolling toward me. If Khatereh was sick, and she was, her soul itself looked dead.

“Khat—”

Her attention focused on me like an eagle on a mouse, but more: her eyes almost burned with her interest. “Do you know where it is?”

“No,” I whispered. “I—”

“Then don’t speak,” she snapped. She knelt back down to the hearth, running her fingers over the bricks and muttering. “Could it be in another box? The first, a decoy?” Her words grew less distinct as she leaned down even more, twisting her head as if to peer under the shallow shelf.

“But Khatereh—”

Her attention returned so quickly I jumped. The needle poised over my cloth jerked and jammed into my finger. I squawked, looking down to see a drop of bright blood swelling on my fingertip.

“Did you nick yourself?” Khatereh asked, her voice at my ear. I hadn’t noticed her move, but now she stood a mere half-step beside me, the soulbox apparently forgotten as she looked at the blood.

“Just a little prick.”

“But it’s bleeding,” Khatereh said.

I looked up at her, frowning. The angry lines on her face had smoothed. She reached for my hand with knobby fingers, but I flinched away from her touch.

“Let your elder sister help you,” she said, her voice smooth and soothing as velvet. I felt my muscles relax, the tension between us disappear. I let me head dip sideways, and in doing so, my eyes caught hers, and the lull of the moment was broken by what I saw.

In three whole days she hadn’t once met my eyes straight on.

Khatereh’s eyes smoldered. They weren’t empty in the way her eyes usually were without her soul. They were—different. Full of dark. Too interested, suddenly, in me. Eyes that would swallow me, if I looked into them too long.

“It’s just a prick,” I said again, stammering. My skin felt hot and clammy, like a fever. “I can take care of it.”

“No, I insist,” Khatereh said, and her hands fastened on my arm.

Her stringy-looking hands were as strong as iron claws. She met my eyes again, full-on, nothing hidden, and I knew, abruptly and with utter certainty, that the thing before me wasn’t my sister. It was a demon in my sister’s body. It had come to take Khatereh’s soul, but with the soul missing and my blood as a lure, it would settle for mine.

“Khat,” I said. My voice shook. Was she my sister at all, or entirely demon? I didn’t know what to say to drive her away, but I didn’t want her—it—touching me. “Khat.”

“What?”

I jerked my arm away from her and slid sideways just out of her reach. I opened my mouth to scream, but closed it again. What could anyone do against a demon? If the fight brought Mohsen the demon might devour us both. “Khat, don’t,” I pleaded.

Her lips curved upward, a smirking smile that didn’t reach her soul-eating eyes. She came toward me again, and her voice echoed in the dull room as she spoke. “Don’t struggle so, little sister. Relax.” Her tone was smooth as silk. It flowed over me again like an invisible snare. She grabbed my arm, nails digging in so hard they broke the skin. Blood welled and I shuddered, though my fear was a distant, detached shadow, held back by the lulling power of her voice.

The Khatereh-demon leaned over. A swatch of the skirt I’d been hemming pressed between us, useless as a shield. I smelled Khat’s usual lavender scent and an undertone of sickness, like something going rotten Her tongue slid up my arm and lapped at the blood. She made a noise of delight then jerked back and looked at me. A droplet of my own blood hung precariously from her lower lip. “You have her soul. I can feel it here, with you.” The Khatereh-demon laughed. “How sneaky. But now I’ll have the souls of two magi.”

I had her soul? Khatereh’s “I don’t understand.”

Instead of answering, the Khatereh-demon sliced her nails across my arm, raking open a deep cut that bled immediately, then leaned down again to lick up the fresh blood. She paused at the deepest part of the slice and sucked lightly. I whimpered.

I remembered asking Khat, in her second or third year of training, about repelling demons. I had expected tales of flashing magic and invisible chains. She’d laughed uncomfortably and then told me, in gory detail, about learning to make charms from the skin and hair and even the dried blood of the dead. Demons, she’d said, feared and abhorred the permanence and finality of death as much as they desired the taste of life gained from devouring souls of their human victims.

Khatereh’s body, soulless, was nearly a dead thing itself.

I still held the needle in my right hand. The Khatereh-demon held my left arm. But could I move?

I had only a few seconds to act, and willpower would have to be enough. I tightened my grip on the needle, drew back, and slammed it into the Khatereh-demon’s bare upper arm. She jerked, releasing my left arm and twisting, reaching for the wound. I dragged the needle down, making a short but deep gash.

For one long moment, the gash remained dry.

The Khatereh-demon ground her teeth. Too fast to follow, she grabbed my hand and wrenched it away. I heard as much as felt a crack. My arm hung at the wrong angle. The pain hit me all at once and my knees almost dropped from under me.

And then the Khatereh-demon howled. Blood, thick dark-red blood—Khatereh’s own dead blood—oozed from the slice. The Khatereh-demon stepped back, away from me, ramming one hip into the table as she stumbled.

Wind whirled, impossible in the enclosed kitchen—more impossible in that it battered the center of the big room but didn’t extend to the walls or shelving. I clutched the azure dress to me as the fabric flapped up, swept off the table. A foul smell of rotten meat flooded the air. I gagged and swallowed back bile. I closed my eyes against the bite of the wind and pressed the dress to my face to block out the wind as I dropped to the floor.

My breath came in gasps, loud in a sudden silence. I crouched on the floor, supported by my uninjured arm, and raised my head slowly. The air was still and Khatereh sat a few feet away, against the kitchen wall, blinking.

I straightened slowly, still on my knees. “Khat?”

She focused on me with tired but otherwise normal eyes. “It’s me, Ali.”

I nodded, sensing in her a subtle change, the disappearance of the aura of basic unwellness that had clung to her for three long days. “It was a demon, wasn’t it, Khat?” I could still feel the slick sweat of pure terror on my skin, refreshed by fading adrenaline.

“Yes.” She leaned back supported by the wall. “You did well, Ali. Hand me the dress?”

I pulled the heap of fabric around me and scooted awkwardly along the floor until I could give it to Khat. I leaned against the wall beside her.

Khatereh took the brilliant blue fabric and cradled it in her arms. “Such a pretty color. You kept it safe, you know. My soul, safe in the stitches of this dress.” She let out a small sigh, and then laughed, shortly. “I should have guessed. You’re a Soul Stealer.”

“What?” I flinched away as if struck. “I didn’t mean to steal it, Khaterah.”

“No, no, of course you didn’t,” she said. “You could not know what you were doing. And it’s a very rare talent. You’ve probably always seen something of people’s true natures and just didn’t know what to do with your gift.” A moment later her nose wrinkled, and her eyes narrowed as she scanned the room. “Help me up, Aliyeh.”

I crouched and supported her under one arm. She grabbed my elbow with one hand and clutched the dress to her with the other and she struggled to her feet. I could feel her shudder with the effort. “It’s not gone,” she said.

I followed her gaze. At first I saw nothing, but as I stared I saw a shadow under the table ripple, oozing toward us.

Khat swayed against me. I glanced back at her, feeling terror rise anew as I took in her pale face. “Ali. Get my soul back. I’m too weak to keep the demon from stealing it out of my hands, and I don’t have the strength to fight. This body has lost its resiliency just keeping itself alive this long.”

Fear bit into me. “I don’t know how.”

“Of course you do. You just never thought of doing it before. Close you eyes and think of how it happened in the first place.”

She thrust the dress at me, and I took it. I closed my eyes and tried to remember. The soul was blue when I had removed it from the box the second time, but I could not remember what it looked like when I put it back. I recalled standing in the lamplight with the soul clasped in my hands, feeling warmth. I realized the dress felt warm, too, where I had it clutched against my side.

“Ah,” murmured Khat.

My eyes flew open just in time to see her throw a ball of fire. It struck the inky shadow where it lay halfway exposed between the table and the wall. The fire disappeared into the blackness for a moment, then the whole shadow burst into bright blue and green flames. I pressed the soul-less linen over my mouth and nose swallowed hard against the smell of rot and ash.

Khat swayed a bit and caught herself against the wall. “I don’t know what’s going to be harder: explaining the smell to father, or telling him you’ll have to go with me after midsummer.”

I shuddered, remembering Khat as she’d been without her soul. “Better than having him eaten by a demon.”

Khatereh’s face blossomed into a warm smile. She put one thin, stringy arm around my shoulders and squeezed me gently. “Don’t worry. They’ll have a much better use for a girl who can manipulate souls than chasing demons.”

I leaned against her, just like I’d done as a child. Her hair smelled of lavender, simple and clean. I smiled and hugged her back.


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Erin A. Tidwell is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop.  She lives in Bellevue, WA.

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