The Mourning market was ablaze with candlelit lamps and waning electric bulbs. The city’s electrical network was a shoddy system, pieced together by former electrical engineers with what materials were available in Argaroes and powered by some sort of magnetic centrifugal system at the heart of Aris’s black tower. Most of the materials had been taken from the Fourth Realm, Clockwise, where there always seemed to be an infinite supply of junk to work with.
Nina sat in a shadowy booth of a busy tavern, sans her mask, with a hood pulled low over her face. It did little to stifle the glimmer of her warm Pure flesh, but it did allow her to drink wine without the annoyance of lifting the metal mask each sip. She stared at the hand of cards she held with a tight frown, slender gloved fingers tracing their edges.
“Fold,” she sighed, turning the cards over and shoving them away. “God, I’m bad at this game.”
“I like that,” one of her opponents laughed, eagerly cupping his cards against his chest. He called himself Ben and the man sitting next to him said his name was Aban. Both of them were Gray, skewing just a hair Corrupt, with dull skin and small defects that were neither overly grotesque or disfiguring.
“More winning for us,” agreed Aban.
“Tell me again how you met?” Nina asked, lifting wine to her lips.
Aban chuckled. “In life, or in death?”
“We shot each other.” Ben smiled, taking a chip and throwing it onto the pile. “I was just out of boot camp at the start of the Iraq war. Aban was fresh out of his extremist training. We both fled like cowards and ended up running into each other and, without really meaning to, accidentally shot one another.”
“I accidentally shot you,” Aban corrected. “You purposefully shot me.”
“Let’s call it an equal accident.” Ben kicked Aban under the table. “We died, almost instantly, and woke at the same Gate. You can imagine how it played out after that. Once you’re dead, war, no matter what it was over, seems silly.”
Nina chuckled. “That’s very romantic.”
Aban scowled at her, flicking his own chip onto the pile.
The door to the tavern slammed open and a large hulking figure squeezed through the narrow door. The room filled with a foul smell and Nina immediately recognized the tattered cloak covering a bag of lumps as the Corrupt that had tried to buy his way into the Solace House that morning.
“We don’t serve you here,” shouted the bartender from across the room. “Get out!”
The Corrupt scanned the room, the darkness of his hood barely concealing his putrid face. Nina reached down to the seat and took up her mask, pulling it under her hood and over her face just as the Corrupt’s gaze fell on their table.
“I’ve got money,” he said, shifting into the room. The smell caused those near the door to gag.
Ben and Aban sighed, letting their cards fall from their fingers. They stood. Ben scratched his head furiously as he reached beneath his coat for the Peacekeeper badge. “Guess it isn’t our night off after all, Bud.”
“Is it ever?” Aban asked, downing the last of his drink and returning the glass to the table with a loud thunk.
Nina watched the two Peacekeepers as they slinked between the tables and patrons towards the front of the bar where the Corrupt stood.
“He doesn’t serve Corrupt. Go back to the Uppercity where your money will be accepted,” Aban said, his hand snaking under his black coat for the Reaper at his waist. He brandished the black curved dagger, the only weapon in Argaros other than the infamous scythe, Avalon, that was strong enough to dissipate a Soul in one fell swoop, wiping them from existence or to be reborn on Earth.
The Corrupt laughed. His laughter shook his form and pieces of his mangled body fell away like confetti at his feet and scurried across the floor as small black beetles. “You think I’m scared of that? That would be a blessing, an end to my suffering.”
Nina stood up slowly, trying to move at the pace of a snail as not to draw attention to herself. There weren’t many Pure in the room, and it was only a matter of time before the Corrupt smelled her out. Like daggers twisting her insides, she felt his gaze fall on her. She stopped mid-step for the back door.
“I understand,” Ben said, his curious gaze fell on Nina. “I get it. You’re tortured and unloved here and if we kill you, your suffering will end. Or we could dispatch you back to Earth, born again to live a better life.”
The Corrupt turned his attention from Nina to Ben. “That is true.”
“Let’s step outside,” Aban motioned to the door. “We can talk about it more.”
No one protested the implication. It was common for Peacekeepers to perform mercy kills on Corrupt when they could no longer accept the harsh existence their actions had given them in the afterlife. As the Corrupt turned and left, Nina fled out the back door. The owner of the bar, a frequent guest at Solace, had no cause to worry over an unpaid bill.
The deep red sky over Mourning left the corners in shadow. Steam clouded the market street and the round baseball-sized bulbs hanging like strands of Christmas lights, crisscrossing back and forth from one metal pole to the next, did little to light that shadow. It wasn’t very late, the streets were full of people, and so densely packed it was hard to tell who was Corrupt, Pure, or Gray.
A scream echoed off the metal-boned towers anchoring the edges of the street. The market patrons stopped, tilting their ears back in the direction of the tavern.
Nina turned and peered through the smalls slits of her mask. A form moved in the crowd, slowly at first, and then quicker, barreling through the Grays like paper dolls. The street exploded with movement. Grays, Pures, even Corrupts ran in every which way possible to avoid the angry mass of fabric and bugs.
Nina was slower and more calculated in her escape. Instead of keeping with the crowd like the Running of the Bulls, she climbed atop a street cart and hopped up to the roof of a short building. From there she scaled the exposed I-beam of a skyscraper until she reached the third floor.
The crowd screamed and the metal beneath her feet shuttered. The corrupt flung up, wrapping insect covered hands about the metal beams to hoist his mangled body. Nina stepped back into the shadows as it lurched onto the third-floor deck and rose to its full height, far taller than it had been in the tavern or outside the Solace House.
“Pure,” he sneered, pointing at her.
From crevices, corners, and holes in the floor, other Corrupt peeked out.
“Mine,” he snarled at them and they disappeared just as quickly as they surfaced.
Nina laughed. It bubbled up without warning. “If you wish me for a meal, then try to eat.”
“Do you mock me?” he roared, stomping a step forward. Insects shook loose from his skin, splattering across the tin floor. “Do you? You have no idea who I am!”
“I know what you are.”
He stomped. “I was feared, revered, respected! Husbands locked away their wives and prostitutes shivered when night fell. They called me a monster, murder, Ripper!”
“And now you have no name.” Nina looked up with dull, unfeeling eyes. Even as the Corrupt loomed up over her, she felt no fear. Nina stepped forward and poked Ripper’s chest. He hissed at her. “You are nothing.” She poked him harder. “You are air.” And harder. “You are shadow, mist, and mulch, and you do not frighten me.” Her gaze lifted. “So devour me if you wish, Jack the Ripper. It will not garner you any more pleasure than you had a moment before. You have become the darkness of your soul. But, pitiful creature, do not assume that being what I am is any better.”
Ripper paused his ragged snarling as she removed her glove and showed him the blinding brightness of her glowing tanned flesh. He shielded his eyes from the light.
“We are not so different. We are both changed. The difference is in the extremes to which we experience our life here. The lucky ones are the Grays, aren’t they? You’re kind are shunned and feared, while mine are hunted and devoured. The Grays just exist… they get their own little happy world without fear of consequences. How lucky to have been only slightly tainted by desire.”
Ripper grunted, tilting his head at her. “I suppose this is true.” He appraised her a moment longer, and then pressed his hooded face closed to hers. “Most run in fear of me by now, young Pure. Why do you stand so tall?”
Nina pulled her glove back over her hand. “Why did you chase me here to scrape what little pleasure you can from this existence?”
“Because I can.” He rose a head taller than a moment before, pride bulging out his warped chest.
“And I stand here without fear of you because I can. Because I fear nothing.” She swayed passed him, pausing at his side to give him a once over. “You didn’t look like that when you came here did you? The change happened slowly. For you, it must have been horrifying to watch your human form dissolve into that. And the horror of that physical evolution shaped your internal one. You learned the meaning of remorse by having it carved into your flesh.”
“I feel no remorse,” croaked Ripper. His shoulders slumped and his height drooped a foot.
Nina smiled behind her mask. “When I was alive, I was numb to touch. Paralyzed from the neck down. In Argaros… the smallest degree of physical sensation can be euphoric or excruciating.” She admired her gloved hand, the long sleeves of her coat, the tights and high boots. All of it created and worn specifically to protect her skin from direct contact with anything, even other Souls. It also hid her from the world, to be a shadow among shadows. “But, what changed the most was here...” Nina touched her heart. “I feel nearly nothing. And that is why I stand so tall, Mr. Ripper.”
“I could have hurt you,” Ripper said, whirling as she walked away from him. “I could have killed you.”
“And what would that have cost me?” Nina asked him, turning to look over her shoulder. “The pain would have been agonizing, yes… but the death wouldn’t have cost me anything at all. Death and rebirth are a never-ending cycle now. Second chances are infinite, aren’t they? Why don’t you seek out the Peacekeepers, Mr. Ripper, and get your second, third, or fourth chance at it?”
Ripper shifted on his mangled feet. “How many chances have you had, Pure?”
Nina smiled faintly. How many chances indeed? Orthen had called her by five names on occasion when he was frustrated or drunk. Mireth, Lillian, Janine, Elyse, and Reya… But, how many more were there that he had not met? Keiden had known her in the past as well. It had taken him several hours to realize it, or perhaps he just needed her form to be altered just enough by Purgatory to recognize her. He’d called her Reya and angrily left her at Orthern’s door without another word. She wondered how many times she’d come to Purgatory, and how many people knew the face Orthen insisted she keep hidden.
Ripper reached out for her. “Wait, don’t go! Please! No one ever talks to me like I’m real. Like I’m human.”
Nina paused. “Seek out the Peacekeepers and be Reborn. Live a better life.” She grabbed hold of the I-beam, letting her gloved touch slide her down to the short roof below. She hopped to the street and started off for the Solace House.