Think fairy. Peter Pan. You could fly, you could fly. I could fly! Is What I thought for about half a second before plummeting into the alley. I could have sworn I was floating for about half a second, but, too late. I only just managed to grab the edge of the roof. So now I was holding myself and the backpack up. Me, the girl with out-of-shape arms. Legs, oh, sure, I'd given those plenty of exercise. Not the arms. My fingers were going to fail at any second now unless I could think of something besides "Oh God."
Marina's magic, alas, was not my own. I was too old for Peter Pan, way past the age I would have been forced to leave Neverland or face death. It worked for Marina because she was...shall we say, carefree. Which some found endearing, not including her teachers, principal, and, if rumors were true, a number of students she'd paid with vanishing gold.
My magic was...just talking to people. Spirits, monsters, and so on. Organizing them or bargaining with them. Powerful in the long run, maybe -- groups win when they're better organized than other groups. But in the short term, such as pulling yourself up a ledge? Not so much. And yet...I'd convinced the pigeons and the wires to save me, hadn't I? So maybe it would work this time. "Hey, building," I said, "If you could just make a nice ledge for me, I would be much obliged."
Humph, said a voice in my head. I don't want to see you go splat on the walkway, but I'm not willing to rip off pieces of me. I think there's another way that I can help, though -- oh, look out, here comes one of your pursuers.
Something heavy landed on my back. Too much for my arms. I slipped and fell.
Here you go, Shaman.
In the second before I hit the ground, I saw a grey cloud rush towards my face.
I hit the walkway with a CRASHheavy impact]. Much heavier than I'd expected. Pieces of wax went flying everywhere. Gee, that hadn't hurt at all. And the backpack wasn't heavy either, come to think of it. And the walkway...I'd managed to break the chain of moving plates. One end sped away to reveal the bare stone. The other end probably would have continued and swept me away, but it got stuck at the part where I'd dented the rails, so the whole thing was backing up. And making ominous grinding noises. And smoking. And sparking.
One of the sparks hit me right between the eyes, but it didn't feel like anything.
And when did my skin turn grey?
Wax people appeared at the edge of the roof, peering down at me. One of them jumped down and made to grab me, but he (I think it was a he) was struck by a spark and quickly caught flame. The others retreated, perhaps to circle around another way. Currently the wax man was going to melt. Unless...well, it had worked for the stone and the metal, right? I grabbed the wax man and said "Fire! Stop that! Take me!"
The fire flowed from the wax man to me. But my skin would not burn.
The clothing would, unfortunately. That burned off pretty damn quick.
But when the backpack caught flame, it refused to be consumed by the fire. What is this? said the flame. Endless thing. I hunger and it would fill me. I could feed on this forever. I could burn EVERYTHING. I could live FOREVER.
"But you won't," I said, "because you are better than a greedy child, flame. Stick to one edge of the pack and burn it inch by inch."
You mean...limit myself? But I am flame. I consume. That is how I live. I could run all over this thing and never use it up. Why make me stick to one little bit?
"Because I don't know if you're going to make the thing explode, and I want to take stuff out of it at the proper time anyway. If you can hold yourself back, I'll try to find a place where you can burn eternal, all right?"
If you don't deliver, I want the backpack.
I looked up. There was a heavy thud from above, and one of the wax people went flying, to shatter on the edge of a roof. And another one.
Well, I wasn't going to lose the wax people now, if I could help it. I dug my gingers into the field stone of the apartment building and scrambled up the wall.
There was Feryal, free from the grip of the wax people and apparently willing to punch them to smithereens. Pieces of wax littered the roof. Unfortunately for her, plenty more blobs of wax were dropping from the unseen ceiling and rising to attack her. She ducked under grabbing hands and rolled to me at the edge of the roof. But there was no place for her to go, unless she wanted to fall to the moving walkways. Or there wouldn't have been. I grabbed her and jumped to the roof across the alley.
This time, I had enough strength to carry me the distance I needed. Stone's pretty heavy, though. When we landed, I tripped and rolled.
"What are you doing?" said Feryal. "I was going to keep them busy whle you escaped. Whatever plan Marina had, you've muffed it completely."
"The wax people don't deserve this," I said. "They're being used, and I don't want to see any more of them die when I promised the Iron people that they would live. Honestly, they're too brittle to be warriors anyway. Killing them is incredibly unfair." A blob of wax dropped onto the roof and quickly became a wax woman, who made a grab for us. Then another blob fell. Then another.
As I fended off their hands, the little flame said, I could set them all on fire. I would burn a long time if I could consume them. Holding myself back like this is painful. Please let me?
"No! No! I'm going to find you exactly what I promised."
'Who are you talking to?"
"Never mind. Get ready to jump this time."
"But I can't -- "
"If stone can soar while carrying iron, you can jump on your own. Come on."
We dashed to the next alley and leapt over it. Feryal kept going. When she reached the next roof, she turned around and saw that I had stayed put. "What are you doing?" she said. "I thought we were supposed to be getting away from those things!"
"Wait for it," I said.
A blob of wax fell from high above.
I leapt to the next roof, and waited for another blob to fall. Splat. There it was.
"Will you get a move on?" said Feryal. "I don't even know where we're supposed to be going, but if you keep up like this, I'm not going to follow you."
"If you don't like it, don't follow me." I grabbed the wax figure's hands as it made for my throat. "I'm just trying to drain the wax reserves of this place. If the ceiling has eyes looking for me, every time I stay on a roof I can open up another drip feed for the wax people. Machine eyes are easy to fool. Go on, why don't you? Here, take the backpack." I threw the wax figure to the ground, whipped the backpack off, and handed it to Feryal. "Get a safe distance from me and open it. Find something for the little flame to jump onto, and tell him to keep restraining himself until you find a nice bunsen burner. Okay? I'm going to head for the tree, bit by bit, and try to figure out what's going on. Go on now."
She ran and leapt to the next roof, and the next, far away from me. Meanwhile there was more wax pouring down, and on the roof I had escaped. The one from before had stopped dispensing wax, though. Apparently the process stopped when I wasn't there. But it was on just enough of a delay that I could have some fun. I turned in the direction of the tree and leapt to the next roof, and waited. A blob of wax fell. Without waiting for it to form hands and grab at me, I leapt to the next roof, and repeated the process. And so on, towards the tree.
This stopped working when the wax people eventually found the courage to make the jumps I did. Being lighter, they were able to move farther. And quicker. I had to stop waiting and just keep jumping. but a massive tide of Wax people was flowing towards me across the roofs, catching up on either side, trying to surround me. Well, goddamit. I didn't know what I was going to do without getting people on my side.
I halted, and made the sign for "wait."
I signed, "Why fight? Need help. From you. Trying to find mother and friend. Trying to not die. Help me?"
One of the Wax people stepped forward and signed "Possible. We discuss price -- "
At that moment, a jet of fire fell from the ceiling and consumed the man.
I darted forward and grabbed him. But there was nothing left on me that would burn. There was only the roof itself...littered with wood scraps. "Fire!" I said. "Here! Take this wood chip instead!"
The fire leapt to the wood and said, wait a second, this is too little for me.
"Just keep yourself there for now and I'll try to find you something that lasts longer."
No, it said, I think there's plenty for me in this building itself. The flame jumped to the roof and set it alight.
Wax figures scattered to the other roofs, leaving me amidst a rapidly spreadingfire. There was a column of smoke and flame from near the place where I'd started, as well. Probably those electrical sparks were responsible. No wonder the iron people hadn't tried to rip up the walkways. And here was one of them on the roof now. He was staring at the flames. 'Stop flame," I signed. He signed back, "why?"
His answer came when a section of roof crashed inward. Now he was running around in panic. Probably none of these people had any experience with water or fire. If I didn't do something quick, the whole block was going to burn. The whole city, in fact, and that was going to melt more than the wax people. How was I going to stop it, though? If I tried to stop it out myself, I was leaving the other one to burn...
"Stop flame," I signed to the iron man. "Tear house down. Before next house catches. If next house catches, tear next house down."
"But to lose belongings in rubble?"
"Lose belongings to rubble or walkway. Go! I take care of other house. Get family involved. Move!"
He rushed down the stairs. I dashed to the edge of the roof and jumped.
And got knocked into the alley by the wax people, who were moving the opposite direction, away from the other fire. I landed and, with a mighty crunching noise, broke the moving walkway. Damn. More electrical sparks. These buildings were all wood, and if I didn't get them torn down soon, everything was going to burn from here to who knows where. And Mom was somewhere in the city.
And here I was, the one unburnable figure in the whole city.
Unless you counted Marina, who was standing on a roof high above, watching me tear off any piece of wood that caught flame.
"Hey, Sis," she said. "You're looking...a little grey about the gills. Need a hand?"
"No," I said, "I think you really ought to stay away here. I think you really ought to go somewhere else, like home. Everything is going nuts here, half the city will burn, I haven't even tried to find Mom, and why are you smirking at me like that?"
"I'm just wondering how you're talking if you're made of stone."
"Well, I -- "
How was I talking? I hadn't even considered it. How was I hearing? Why, I was in about the same position as the iron people and the wax --
All noise ceased. Not that anything stopped moving, mind you. I just couldn't hear it. And I couldn't speak, either.
I looked up at Marina and flipped her the bird.
She laughed, or that's what it looked like, at least. She jumped down to me and dug a card out of her pocket. On it was written, Peter Pan, remember? You've got to believe. When you were younger, I remember you saying you would become a Shaman. I remember Mom saying she was half-joking, that she hadn't seen any actual Shamans in the city in a long time, that the whole business was kaput. But you didn't doubt yourself for a second. Tap into that old belief now, and speak once more. Don't tell yourself you can do it -- only that you will.
Back when everything seemed possible.
It still did, didn't it? Hell, I hadn't even doubted that Jo could take me to Up New York, or any of those places. I'd seen Grenovia and watched Analosa sing to a quarter to turn it into a Grenovian Dollar. Why was I doubting myself now? The world was running on processes Jo had only begun to help me understand, and one of them had allowed me to hear without eardrums. So, obviously I could hear without eardrums.
And I could, and the sounds of fire roaring out of control returned to my stone ears.
And if that worked...then so could my voice. And if that worked, and my voice didn't actually have a maximum volume...
"Cover your ears, marina." She put her fingers in her ears.
"Right! FIRES BURNING NEAR AND FAR!
I WILL NOT HAVE ANY MORE DESTRUCTION ON MY WATCH.
STOP YOUR NONSENSE AND GET OVER HERE, WHERE I CAN GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO BURN."
High overhead flowed two streams of fire, arcing down towards me.
"Quick, Marina," I said, "What have you got in your pockets? Oh, that's a silly question. You've got everything in there, I bet. Dig deep and find me an iron ring, will you?"
She produced a ring. I grabbed it, and held it up to the streams of fire.
What is this? said the fires. This is not something that can burn, not at all. Give us something good. Give us something sweet and dry and combustible. Or we'll take what we want.
"This is combustible!" I said. "It's iron! It rusts! See? That's oxidation! The slowest burn of all!"
Slow. But not forever.
"It's good enough until I can find you a bunsen burner," I said. "It will fill your hunger for a while. Will you take the ring?"
The flames flowed down towards me, and into the ring. It rusted immediately.
"Clever," said Marina, "Very clever."
"Thanks. But that only takes care of the mess I've made. Mom is still missing, Jo is still missing, and...I don't know how we're going to find either of them."
"Well, where is everything around here headed?"
"Towards the tree."
"Well then." She nodded her head in the direction of the pale green glow. "We might as well let these walkways take us to the center and look for answers there. Come on."
"Wait," I said, "you never even told me what the backpack was about."
"Well, when you want to get a population to listen to you and you can only engage them from above, you drop leaflets. Right? Remember, you opened that pack once before and all the cards came blowing out and half of Harlem showed up to the dance that night, which I never got around to thanking you for. Where's the backpack now?"
"Currently with Feryal. I told her to open it when she was a safe distance from me...that should have been a while ago." I looked up. A stream of of cards was shooting high above our heads. Marina jumped up to a roof, and I scrambled up after her. It was difficult to see any figure at this distance, but there was a stream of cards in the distance, shooting out of an unseen object like water out of a firehose.
"She must have been reluctant to throw cards out there while the fires were spreading. Well, there she goes now. What did you write on those cards anyway?"
"Well, I -- "
There was a tremendous machine-whirring noise from high above, and the stream of cards was jerked upwards.
And then the entire stream of cards was alight, effectively turning it into a flamethrower. I guess the little flame could hold himself any longer. Racing upward upon the stream of cards, he shot right into whatever vacuum the Machine was using.
I covered my ears as a massive metallic scream shook the city. Wax figures began to fall onto every rooftop at once.
"Alright," said Marina, "You go to the tree. I'll try to reach Feryal."
"Just -- try not to break any more of the wax people."
She gave me a quizzical look. "You care about them?"
"I need them."
"Well, I care more about Feryal, so excuse me if I decide restraint is no longer an option. Get going!"
She leapt over the alley, and was soon out of sight. I jumped down the walkway, found one that wasn't broken, and raced long it, adding its speed to my own, as I headed towards the tree.