Kendra had been a ghost for twelve months, but this was the first time someone had walked through her. She dug red nails into her dark brown hands, shaping crescents as she watched the man who had done it. His back faced her as he thanked the owner of the newspaper stall and moved further into the open-air market, whistling all the way. He was light skinned, of middling height with a bald head, and wore a tan suit, shoes, and hat. The man was nothing special, and why would he be? It was Kendra’s fault.
She bit her lip and turned back to the pebble she’d been trying to move. Its gray cracked surface stared back at her. She had been hovering in the same space at the edge of Briarcrest's town square for days, attempting to touch the rock as she’d done during those confusing first months after she’d become a miracle. And yet now her fingers passed through like leaves did air. She scowled at the memory, roughly smoothing her white silk dress and folding her legs underneath herself. She should’ve been able to do it but—
Kendra flinched as she was walked through again. This time it was a woman and child, both as dark complexioned as herself and wearing matching box braids and bright yellow sundresses. She watched the duo a bit longer than she should have, dulled dark eyes tracking them even as they disappeared behind the green gauze curtain that separated the citrus fruit stall from the rest of the New Year's Eve market. Kendra remembered— no, she tore her thoughts away from that direction, that time was 21 years gone.
She sighed and stared at the sky. She could hear the telltale sounds of the shrine’s acolyte’s perfectly in-sync footsteps as they prepared. The year was coming to an end and when the clock hit midnight, Kendra would fade and a new girl would take her place as the miracle who would bring fortune to Briarcrest. It was a tradition that had begun centuries before her parent’s time and she’d been excited to take part in it. She still was, but the memories of her death were tainted by the absence of her parents. Selfishly, she’d wanted to stay around just a bit longer in hopes that they would return. Gathering energy from the earth was the way to do that. But Kendra’s endeavor was useless as when the sun had risen this morning, she’d found that she had no shadow. Now, no one could identify her presence and walked through her, offering no prayers.
"Finally given up, have you?" A cheerful voice with a northern accent drawled and Kendra started, unfolding herself and turning to see a spirit. He looked like any nondescript northerner with brown skin, narrow eyes that matched Kendra’s and exceptional height. Twin white irises surrounded by black sclera watched her with a smile. “Most humans would’ve given up by now. You’re something special, huh?”
Irritation bloomed in Kendra. “Who are you and why are you here?”
He leaned against a store compound’s wall on the southern street across from her, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black suit pants. He had no shadow, Kendra noticed, but he was solid all the same.
“No need to be so hostile,” he said simply, tilting his head. “I’m here to be your friend.”
“Wha— my friend?” Kendra watched the spirit with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. “I don’t need a friend; I want to know how you got into this city. Only one spirit is allowed per year and you’re clearly not an acolyte. Leave.”
The spirit hummed, pushing off the wall and holding his hands up in surrender. “Come now, everyone needs friends. You must be lonely spending all this time with no one to talk to.”
Kendra huffed, ignoring her unease. Every being in Briarcrest came under the dominion of the Patriarch. She had nothing to fear from this foreign spirit. “I am a miracle and my job is a blessing. Identify yourself before I summon a priestess,” she bluffed, crossing her arms trying to project the image of an heiress born superior. Kendra took a step toward him, meaning to seem serious.
The spirit laughed and—
Voices twenty, thirty, a hundred, ringing out like a drum again and again. Rhythmic. The ground shook, sand melted and hardened to glass, then shattered in a crescendo, falling together in a chorus of screaming shards. A fire erupted and was smothered away. Cold embers flitted through a crowd. The smell of sandalwood intensified. Above, a storm rejoiced.
—Kendra tripped. Before she could sink beneath sandstone, she was caught by the back of her neck and lifted by cold hands as if paper. Fear settled in Kendra like a boulder. She was numb and tired. The spirit smiled.
“You may call me Falling Storm, by the way. Though you’ll hardly have use for that name with the way you’re looking.” The spirit released Kendra and she tried to drift back, only to stop dead at the spine-raising feeling of a breeze rushing through her. She beheld herself and a pained noise erupted from her throat. She didn’t need to turn to see that accursed pebble. Her body was a window. The world darkened as if a storm was gathering, even as sweat trailed down the faces of the children who ran between the legs of adults in the crowd.
“What did you do to me,” Kendra’s words were a trembling whisper as she moved away.
He held his hands to his chest in mock offense, a smile still on his lips as he said, “What did I do? Kendra, you know what’s happening to you. Your parents signed you up for this.”
Her fear rose. She hadn’t told him her name. “No, this isn’t that. I’m meant to pass over at midnight. This,” she gestured wildly to herself as her voice rose, “isn’t what the Archpriestess described. You did something. Those visions– You definitely did something.”
“What you saw was my true voice. You’d be able to do it too if you were a bit older.”
Kendra blinked rapidly trying to clear her mind but her panic only grew. She could see through her eyelids.
“You know what, no, I don’t care about your cryptic bullshit. Fix me now,” she found the courage to say. Was it her fear that made her speak to this dangerous foreigner as she did?
Falling Storm laughed. “That, I’m more than willing to do even despite your tone.” He clapped and Kendra curled into herself at the wind howling, the smell of a burning home, a flower screaming as it was born once more sound. Or at least she tried as her knees phased into her chest and her hands through her legs.
He clapped again and the world twisted, tugged tight by some unseen force.
* * *
Kendra’s vision cleared. She found herself hovering above the walls of Briarcrest, the slick black stone only inches from her ribbon-bound feet. Before her sprawled the city she’d died for, the bleached stone of its hexagonal towers painted orange by the colors of the setting sun. The City of Spires. The four great streets were congested with folks all going to the same place. The only shrine in Briarcrest was the city’s tallest. It was a spire of marble and with calligraphic prayers painstakingly carved into its surface. But the sight of her sacrifice brought her no joy in this moment. Kendra was not supposed to be here. It was forbidden for anyone, spirit or human, to go near the outer wall. She was breaking the rules. Her anger and fear fed each other as she felt the spirit near her back, like a multitude of eyes solely focused. She turned and there Falling Storm levitated perfectly at ease, reclined as if on a divan. Whatever Kendra was going to say melted in her throat. He was still smiling as she took in the scene behind him.
There was no vegetation, only smoke-pale beings that trudged through the gray sand, their skin bulging as if something were attempting to escape. Some were as small as children, others a lumbering monstrosity. When one came into contact with another, they fought. Unnaturally long arms tearing into one another as their legs scrambled for purchase, viscous white liquid pouring from wounds flayed by sharpened fingers. They made no sounds as they had no mouths, only a vague outline where one should have been. Too, they had no nose, ears, or eyes. Did they scream, breathe? And the odor! Kendra had smelled little beyond incense since her death, so the odor that wafted up from the desert sent her reeling. It was rot, that of wood and of flesh. It was blood left spilled for days on end, forgotten and attracting swarming flies. The beings smelled of death. Revulsion and disquiet battled within Kendra. This shouldn’t have been possible.
The shrine’s textbooks spoke of warring tribes, of greedy warlords whose campaigns knew no end and children who slept on grime-covered sidewalks, stomachs concave. It spoke of pain, human pain. Not whatever these abominations were. The revulsion won out and her stomach churned like the terrain.
Falling Storm leaned forward and held up three fingers. “You have three options,” his lips did not move and yet his voice came from everywhere and nowhere.
“The first,” he pointed below to the sand that writhed as if it were in pain, “is that you sever your connection to your city and try your chances out here.”
“I told you to fix what you did,” Kendra hissed, “not show me whatever hell you’ve brought with you.” She buried the emotions that threatened to overtake her. She needed to think clearly. The priestesses were never wrong. This must have been an illusion.
“You overestimate my power, child, this is not my work, though a masterpiece it may be. You know what ails your soul. However if you find my first solution so abhorrent, shall we move to the second then?” Falling Storm said, faux disappointment in his voice despite the fixed joy he wore.
Frustration joined the cacophony of chaos in Kendra’s heart. “No,” she responded through gritted teeth. “I know what's meant to happen to me, I’ve studied for years. You’ve done something to speed up the process. I can feel it.” She was desperate now, a ragged urgency taking root. What if there wasn’t enough left of her soul to transfer the title properly to the New Year’s spirit? Would Briarcrest survive without the Patriarch’s purifying rains. “Reverse what you’ve done, spirit. I mean it.
Falling Storm shook his head with a sigh, closing his eyes for a moment with a drawn-out hum. He clapped his hands once. “On to the next then.”
The world spiraled once more.
* * *
As reality righted itself, Kendra saw below her the shrine. Its crimson marble stood out starkly from the other buildings in Briarcrest, majestic and awe-inspiring as it had been the first time she’d seen it. A glowing lightning rod arose from it, its very tip disappearing into the clouds above. Peace washed over her, her purpose began and ended here. She wouldn’t allow that foreigner to . . . Falling Star had changed his skin. The dread Kendra felt was like a drill, alarm shrieked in her head. He—it—the entity was much taller now, looming with azure skin and eyes taken over by flickering orbs of pale fire. He still wore his grin, white teeth sharp between full, deep blue lips. Scales trailed under his eyes and onto his cheeks, shining black like polished onyx. This was no spirit, this was a devil. A being who had never been human, a force of nature made flesh.
“The next,” Falling Storm was suddenly so close that if Kendra were opaque, she’d feel his breath against her face, “is to take my hand and join my court.” His words were a drowning pressure against her mind. Urging her, singing low in her ears. She shook her head, a shaking breath escaping transparent lips.
Kendra’s very soul rebelled at the offer and her body, though unchanged, felt like stone. “No, I am loyal to only one deity.” She drew herself up, mind flitting back to her lessons on how to deal with the never-humans. She was weak, yes, but maybe she could out-talk him. He was strong and had taken something from her despite her belonging to the Patriarch. All she could weaponize were her words. “Devil, you seek to make enemies where you could have allies. The Patriarch is magnanimous and His heart is open to all. Cease your game and join the festivities instead. Please.” Kendra tried to mimic the language she’d heard her upper caste peers use, formal and carefully chosen.
Falling Storm was suddenly not smiling, it didn’t drop from his face, it just didn’t exist after she’d stopped talking. Fear rose again and she could barely push it down.
“You really love this ‘Patriarch’ of yours. Quick question, have you ever seen him?”
“No, Honored Devil, only the Archpriestess is bestowed with such an honor,” Kendra said.
“Do you want to?” he asked, grin returning razor-edged.
“Enough.” Kendra blustered, stamping her feet midair. “I was born and died for the worship of the Patriarch. I’ve experienced his works, his miracles, and I don’t need to see him to know that he exists.”
“I never denied that he exists, child. However I would be cautious of believing that such a thing as that could return your devotion.”
“How dare you!” Kendra’s unease drained away at Falling Storm’s blasphemy. He was a guest. The Patriarch had allowed this devil to enter—how else would he have gotten in—and this was how the irreverent entity thanked Him, by sowing doubts into the faithful. She wouldn’t stand for it. “My Patriarch is all-loving and knows mercy like no other. He accepts all, human, spirit, devil, they are all of the same worth to Him, precious. Your words, your wretchedness could never—”
“Let's have a look-see then, shall we,” he interrupted and pushed her. Kendra fell through marble, polished wood, and stone. And what she found beneath it all—
A behemoth’s skeleton lay prone on its side, bones creaking as its chest rose and fell. A diseased heart thrashed, trying to escape, veins dark within the mound of white flesh. Around the undying giant pooled blood, a sea of red ichor from which it drank and drank and drank, never full. Then the skull moved, snapping fast to face the weak soul that had fallen to its prison, hungering. It was time.
—nearly devoured her whole.
“The last option is to stay,” Falling Storm’s tone was of reluctant acquiescence. “I think you wanted that one the most, no? You still have a few minutes before it's time to meet your Patriarch officially. Pay a visit to your successor, why don’t you. I heard the shrine has gotten someone younger this year.”
Kendra sobbed, no tears fell but she cried all the same. He sighed in what could have been sympathy. “I know, I know. But your deity loves you, isn’t that what you told me? Surely you aren’t turning your back on the one who brought your miserable city prosperity? After all, rain and fertile soil is hard to find in wastes like this. Be grateful.”
Kendra only cried, her wails echoing through the world though no one heard. No one ever heard her.
Falling Storm's voice became weighty. “Hey, enough of that. Make your choice. Stay and be eaten, leave and be eaten, or join me and eat.”
Shaking, pathetic whimpers unrestrained for the first time since initiation, Kendra took his hand as the twilight sky faded. Solid palm met solid palm and the devil laughed loud and cheerful. But this time Kendra withstood it. Falling Storm released her and suddenly they were back at the edge of the town square right where they’d started. He gestured towards the pebble. She hesitated but bent down at his crooning encouragement and picked it up.
“Now throw it upward,” his voice was heavy with command and Kendra had no choice but to obey. It flew into the darkened sky, parting the wind as it trailed up and up and up. There was silence in the market as the crowd stopped and watched its howling ascent. Then the shrine’s central bell rang, the deep vibrations echoing in Kendra’s bones. It was time. She remembered being bound tightly in silk ribbons, the desire to free herself warring with her fear of shame, of being hated, of exile. She had struggled before she died, despite it all, and she didn’t want to die again.
A deadening cold set in. Falling Storm hummed an upbeat tune as he stared at the spot the pebble had been. There in that indent, ice poured forth, a flood. It covered everything, freezing tan shoes and yellow sundresses and a fanciful dagger held millimeters away from the throat of a girl far smaller than she should’ve been and bound in layers of silk. Screams were cut short, trumpets deafened, and the large bell in the center of the shrine stopped mid-ring.
When the pebble finally returned and hit the earth with a resounding smash of shattering ice, all was still and silent. All except Kendra. She felt the rhythmic thumping of her heart in her chest, her blood flowing in her veins. Her feet touched the ice and goosebumps rose on her flesh. There was darkness in her eyes during every blink. She smiled.
“You are First Refrain and I am your father,” Falling Storm said.
And a new miracle was born.