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Opening chapters from Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace • Mythic Delirium Books

Opening chapters from Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace



Cover art by Jacquelin de Leon


Chapter One



She clashed with Lissa, blade to blade, then grabbed the wrist of Lissa’s knife-hand and yanked. As Lissa’s knife slid free of Isabel’s, she stumbled forward and was promptly hauled down and in toward the elbow Isabel was firing at the hollow of her throat. Isabel pulled the strike a quarter inch shy of a crushed windpipe, paused in demonstration, then let go.

“In a real fight you’d follow through.” Isabel aimed her voice back over one shoulder, toward the twenty-odd people gathered there. Regulars of her weekly training sessions, most of them. A few new faces. Several ex-upstarts of the Catchkeep-shrine, whose stares still made her skin crawl. A duel was a duel, after all, wooden knives or no. Three years of not having to watch her back against them was, apparently, not enough to quite erase the three years when she had. “So that’s Lissa done. But maybe she brought friends.”

On cue, Bex took a swing at her. Isabel got the wooden knife in a backhand grip, dropped her weight to pivot down and under the punch, then tensed her good leg and shot upward, twisting at the hips, hissing pain through her teeth. Again she froze a split-second before she would’ve smashed the butt of the knife-handle into Bex’s temple. She could hear the gathered caught breath of the onlookers.

So easy to imagine she was right back where she’d come from. Blood on the sand, the Catchkeep-priest on his high seat, Catchkeep’s up-self twinkling overhead. The smell of the ancient dogleather Archivist-coat, in which countless girls had died. The crowd surrounding, betting on the Archivist-choosing day’s outcome. Which girl would leave the lakeshore walking on her own two feet. Which one would leave in pieces. A skull for the shrine, some blood for the fields, meat for the shrine-dogs’ dinner. Not so much as a name left behind.

They weren’t on the lakeshore now, and the stars weren’t out. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and they were training on the reclaimed grounds of the Catchkeep-shrine after the death of the Catchkeep-priest, and the nightmare of the Archivist-choosing system—four centuries of slaughter—had died along with him.

Yet the memory remained. If anything it intensified.

She was an Archivist again and they were upstarts, they wanted her Archivist-coat and her harvesting-knife and her blood, and the Catchkeep-priest was peering down on her from his high seat, smiling pityingly, because he knew where an Archivist’s road dead-ended and he knew hers didn’t have far to go before it got there. The upstarts all smiled too, but their smile had no pity in it, only patience.

Her hands had gone sweaty. No sure grip on the wooden knife. Her mouth went dry, her throat tightening. Pure flight instinct crackled down her spine, her legs, her knife-hand. To flee this place. To fight her way out if she had to. To—


She had to anchor herself. Get a deathgrip on the here and now. Quickly, calmly, she started listing towns in her head. Her own village and others on its north-south trade route, places where people had managed to carve their footholds into the ashy emptiness of the Waste. Sweetwater. Sunrise. Grayfall. Refuge. Chooser’s Blindside. Last Chance. Lisbet’s Rest. Here.

Sparkles dropped slowly through her field of vision like grains of sand through water, taking the nausea and dizziness with them. Then she realized she was still holding on to Bex and let go.

Intellectually she knew better, but even now, years later, some part of her still occasionally got confused. It would hit her, maybe once or twice a month, for no particular reason she could discern. Heart slamming in her chest, hands shaking, breathing like she’d just outrun a bear. It felt like a waking nightmare, or a memory, but stronger than either. A souvenir of the ghost-place, she guessed, like a scar on her mind. Ghosts were made of memories. It made sense enough to her that she, having been part-ghost herself, could be so easily overpowered by her own.

“Plenty of ways to do damage without drawing blood,” she said firmly, wiping her palms. Clearing her throat. Drawing a steadying breath. “Next.”

This time Glory charged her. Isabel knocked Glory’s knife-hand aside, grabbed her arm, planted her good leg and tried to ignore the jolt of pain that shot up her bad one when she used it to sweep Glory’s feet out from under her. It hurt like hell, but Glory dropped hard, harder than intended. Distantly Isabel observed her own sudden petty spike of satisfaction. I could still hurt you if I want to.

“In a real fight you’d kick out her knee,” she said. “Wouldn’t be much of a fight after that. But still.” She reached to help Glory up, slower than necessary, taking advantage of that moment to quietly catch her breath. “No blood. This is important.” She raked her gaze over the ex-upstarts, their steady eyes like candle-flames, their holy scars that all matched hers. “Tell me why.”

“Ghosts,” several ex-upstarts said at once.

“I know you know.” She scanned them until she located Onya, the brew-mistress’s daughter. Ten years old, and one of the training group’s newest additions. Isabel nodded to her. “You. Tell me why.”

“Blood pulls ghosts,” Onya answered. “Salt too. But blood more.”

“And can you put a ghost down?”


“Do you want to have to try?”

Wide-eyed, Onya shook her head. “Slag that.”

“Any of you?”


“Neither do I.”

Even now, a couple of the youngest glanced up at this, surprised. Isabel couldn’t blame them. All they knew of Archivist-work was stories. Hunting ghosts for clues about the old dead world Before probably looked like a fun game from a distance, and in hindsight, with somebody else’s neck on the line.

“You don’t remember before the ghostgrass barricades,” she told Onya, as gently as she knew how. “When the Catchkeep-priest was alive. When I was Archivist.”

Onya eyed her skeptically. “The barricades were there when I was little,” she said. “I used to get in trouble for going up close to see.”

“You were little yesterday,” Sairy said, poking Onya in the ribs.

“Used to be,” Isabel explained, “only the Archivist got ghostgrass. Just enough to hang a bundle by the door of the Archivist-house, and burn some to draw a protective ring on the ground outside.”

Which made her remember the last ghost she’d caught, and the only one to ever have walked into that house on its own power. Hastily she shoved that thought away.

Keep moving forward, she warned herself. Like a stone skipping across water. You keep moving or you sink.

“Well, if I had ghostgrass,” Onya announced, “I’d share it.”

“And that’s what we do now,” Isabel said. “We cultivate it and make sure everyone has a share. Because now we don’t have any Catchkeep-priest making sure that you can’t protect yourselves, that you need an Archivist to do it for you.”

“Screw that,” Onya said, and a number of the others nodded agreement.

“Exactly,” Isabel said. “We’ve put this in place and now it’s our job to make sure it works. The problem is it’s been working so well that some of you are forgetting what happens when it stops. You think: I’m safe here, this is just practice, we’re in the middle of town, what will happen. But what about when you’re on perimeter? What about when the ghostgrass barricades fail? You think: they’re strong, we planted them well, they keep the ghosts out and they’ve never been breached, which stays true for exactly as long as we take steps to maintain them. We only stay safe if we stay smart. Vigilant. Lucky.”

Several of them gestured automatically to the One Who Got Away, whose plaything luck was.

Isabel nodded to Glory. It was a thank-you and a dismissal. Glory nodded back and joined the others. “I’ve seen a number of you come back from training these past few months with cuts, scrapes, bloody noses,” Isabel told them. “That’s a problem. Bruises, sprains, broken fingers, fine. Annoying, and you’ll need to call in favors on your chore rotations for a while, but you’ll survive. No blood. Whatever issues you think you have in a fight, they are going to seem very small very quickly if you bring a pissed-off hungry ghost down on you. Believe me when I say you do not want to learn that the hard way.”

A few of the ex-upstarts, Sairy and Kath and Bex, were nodding grimly. Others like Onya, who’d never had to stare down the barrel of that work, didn’t know well enough to be afraid. With luck—and a lot of effort—they never would.

“Pair up,” Isabel told them. “Practice. Blocks and counters. Get creative. You never know what’s going to happen until you’re up to the eyes in it. So what do you do?”

“Be ready for anything,” they recited.


“At any time.”

“What else?”

“Work together,” Onya said.

“Trust each other,” Glory added. “Until the end.”

“It’s worth risking two to save one,” Bex finished.

“That’s right,” Isabel said. “Hold on to that. There’s a reason why we go over it so much. Keep it in the front of your minds when you practice. And remember: these tactics are what you use on people. Don’t try this on a ghost. You’re in a fight, you’re breaking up a fight, someone starts up with you, you’re standing perimeter and something goes bad. Okay? Now work until I say stop.”

They paired off and went to it. Isabel circulated among them for a while, making suggestions, giving advice. Here and there she reached in to fix someone’s attacking or blocking angle, or told someone to go harder or lighten up a little. Refusing to be envious of the ease and grace of their movement.

Back from the dead, she thought for the millionth time. Of course I walk like a ghost.

When her leg started complaining too loudly she sat on a rock and watched them in silence until Squirrel padded out from the back door of the Catchkeep-shine and sat at her feet. He’d been a tiny puppy when he’d lost the job he would’ve grown into, but somehow the idea of trailing her around was coded into his brain from generations of breeding toward that very purpose. Or maybe he just liked her. It was probably a good thing then that he didn’t know she’d had to kill his parents.

Sairy had named him Squirrel. She’d thought that after four hundred years of upstarts and Archivists being chased down and terrorized by the monstrous shrine-dogs that were his ancestors, it’d be funny.

“Look at them,” Isabel murmured, giving Squirrel a scratch behind the ears before setting to work massaging the knots of scar tissue in her bad leg. The ex-upstarts never ceased to amaze her. In the three years since the Catchkeep-priest’s death, they’d been like plants moved into the gardens after too long spent in too-small pots. They’d stretched and grown and thrived. It was amazing how well and how smoothly they worked together when nobody was strategically, systemically setting them at each other’s throats.

Do the work, the Catchkeep-priest used to tell her. You were entrusted with the tools to do the work, and you will do the work.

This, she thought, is what the work is now. Trading for apple-grafts and altar-candles. Chopping vegetables. Sweeping floors. Teaching people how to protect themselves. It was satisfying, honest, exhausting work, and in some ways it fulfilled a sense of purpose of which her Archivist-work had only ever skimmed the surface. The things she lived in fear of now were bad harvests, drought, running out of basic medicines, trade agreements with neighboring towns falling through. What others feared in her now was no worse than her displeasure if they shirked their chores. Nothing that would end up with somebody’s blood on the lakeshore, somebody’s skull on the shrine-wall, a dozen survivors wondering which one of them was next.

She enjoyed the work. She enjoyed the routine. She enjoyed the soreness in her muscles at the end of the day, not from dueling and murdering the living, or hunting and exploiting the dead, but from gardening, hauling water, making paper, harvesting ghostgrass, chopping firewood, drying herbs, pounding grain. Sometimes it felt like there was a hole in her and she was filling it, chore by chore, project by project, day by day. Sometimes it felt like it was working.

She sat and watched the ex-upstarts spar with townspeople and with each other, repurposing their combat skills for self-defense and the defense of their town, a small green place carved into the vast and ashen Waste under the heel of nobody. That had to count for something.

By now the sun had risen fully, the day’s heat a damp weight on her head. On the edges of the field, younger children had gathered to watch the training. Periodically they were shooed away, only to scatter and regroup like crows. More than a few of them were busily whacking each other with sticks in imitation.

Isabel took off the Archivist-coat and folded it over one arm. Ran a finger idly over the stitched holes in the dogleather of it. Even years later, no trouble at all to remember which holes she’d put there, which holes she’d scrubbed the blood from and sewn shut. But there were countless more. In some places—over the heart, between the shoulderblades—the coat was more thread than leather, more mended than whole. How many Archivists must have died in it? It was less a coat than a graveyard. Despite or because of this, she hadn’t yet been able to bring herself to throw it away.

“That’s enough,” she called, and the sparring pairs broke off, stuck their wooden knives into their belts and wiped their sweaty faces on their sleeves, awaiting further instruction. Under the awkward burden of all those expectant stares, she paused. Going from mortal enemy to mentor was a weirdness that would probably never have the edge completely ground off it. “That all looked good,” she told them. “Any questions?”

“So what happens,” Onya asked after a moment, “if we do pull ghosts?”

Isabel blinked. “You know, you’re right. We don’t really ever go over that.” We don’t really ever need to, she could have said. Because I—

“That’s my mistake,” she said instead. “We’ll go over that next week.”

“What if I see one today?”

“Grab some ghostgrass. Run like hell. Come find me and I’ll deal with it.”

“With that?” Onya pointed at the harvesting-knife in its sheath at Isabel’s hip.

“Not if I can help it,” Isabel said.

“Then how do you know if it still works?”

Isabel paused. Then, in a sudden access of honesty: “I don’t.”

“Then why do you still have—”

“Next week, okay?” Cutting her off fast because it was either that or ignore her. Answering that question—genuinely answering it—wasn’t an option. Isabel struggled to soften her tone. “I promise.”

“Here,” Sairy said. “I got this.” She reached in and tied a long braid of ghostgrass blades around Onya’s ponytail. “See? Nothing touching you like that. I could throw a ghost at you right now and it’d bounce off.”

Onya lit up like a warn-fire. “Can you?”

Sairy swatted her. “No.”

“Can I see the knife then?”

“Fine,” Isabel said, relenting. “Stand back.” The harvesting-knife had a blade the length of Isabel’s forearm, more of a hilt than a handle, and a guard like a sword. Because it used to be a sword, she knew now, and long ago it had been broken, tapering the remaining blade unevenly.

“What’s this?” Onya asked, poking at the shiny blue-black synthetic wrapping of the grip.

“Before-stuff,” Sairy said.

“It’s so smooth.” She ran her finger back and forth, then withdrew.

Isabel glanced over the others. “Nothing else? Okay. Dismissed.”

They broke and wandered off in ones and twos, and when they all were gone Isabel stood and made her way across the grounds toward the shrine, Squirrel padding along beside her.

Halfway there, she slung the Archivist-coat down on the sunbleached grass and stopped to tie up her hair. She hadn’t cut it in a while and it was just long enough to be gathered in a string and kept off her neck. There’d been a few years when she’d almost forgotten what color her own hair was, it was so interbraided with the shorn-off hair of every upstart she’d killed, and the Archivist she’d defeated even before that—and besides, it wasn’t like she’d had a mirror on her wall to see herself in. She’d cut off her braids down in the ghost-place and never missed them once. Her own hair had come in thick and brown. It could’ve been piss-yellow and glowing for all she cared. She hadn’t seen her reflection in ages.

She picked the coat back up and kicked her way through a late patch of suns-and-moons overgrowing the path. Too close to autumn for suns, but the moons went up in an explosion of silver-white fluff, almost the exact color of a weakened ghost. Ignoring the spike of pain in her leg, she kicked them toward the grassy side of the path. More fluff meant more seeds, more seeds landing on viable ground meant more edible leaves next spring. They say people used to wish on these things, she thought, and kicked harder, sudden anger driving off the pain. They should’ve known better.




Chapter Two


Dinner was flatbread, soup, hard-boiled eggs, and their tiny daily ration from the town garden’s plum tree, sliced and passed around and supplemented with the double pocketful of wild blackberries Meg had gathered on her way back from her chore rotation in the town gardens. Usually there were apples, but lightning had struck Sweetwater’s prized orchard last spring, and it was a couple acres of blackened stumps and scorchweed now. Nothing they could eat.

It was Sairy’s and Isabel’s turn to stay in the Catchkeep-shrine common room and set that long table, which they did while the others trickled in from their afternoon chores. All seven ex-upstarts that remained in Sweetwater, along with a few of the townspeople from the training session that afternoon. Onya was there, a couple of kids her age in tow. Isabel recognized Andrew, the songkeeper’s grandson, but not the other.

“Ugh,” said Lissa, sniffing as she walked in. “Onion soup.”

“At least it’s not bug soup,” Jen said, and that shut her up. Lissa knew what happened when a harvest ran low, and with the apples gone, it would be a hungry winter.

“Or dog soup,” Sairy added. “Cover your ears, Squirrel.”

Now they all went quiet, as they still did three years later at any reference to any aspect of their lives under the Catchkeep-priest. They all still remembered drowning those extra puppies, the ones that didn’t make the cut to become shrine-dogs.

“I’ll go check the bread,” Meg said loudly, and normalcy resumed.

Isabel stood sweating by the fire, ladling soup while bits of the ex-upstarts’ conversation skidded over her. Glory complained about the weather. Bex had heard a rumor about some bit of Waste-relic stuff someone had left as an offering at the Catchkeep-shrine. Kath was trying to negotiate a preemptive trade of tomorrow’s chore tokens because she had a freshly sprained ankle and orders from the midwife to keep her weight off it. Lissa was convinced that Catchkeep was trying to warn her of something important, because when she’d been on shrine duties that morning, the candles in Catchkeep’s statue had blown out, one by one, in no wind at all. Jen had a bit of news about the high seats of Sweetwater trying to replant the burned orchard with grafts traded up on a barter run from Grayfall. Sairy hoped the grafts would bear red apples. Jen hoped for green. Friendly debate ensued. Then Meg came back in with an armload of flatbreads and got practically mobbed.

“We should get one of those grafts when they come in,” Bex said through a mouthful of food.

“I nominate you,” Sairy said, leveling her little garlic-peeling knife at Jen.

Jen choked a little on the hot pepper stem she was chewing. “Okay, first thing? Unlike some of us, Sairy, I’m pretty busy with harvest inventory.”

Sairy looked elaborately unimpressed.

“Second thing—”

“She likes you.”

“She doesn’t like any of us,” Lissa said, spidering her fingers at Onya and her friends. “We’re scary.

“Jen got her to send people over to build the new oven that time,” Sairy said. “Didn’t you, Jen.”

Lissa shrugged. “True.”

Jen dropped her face into her hands, began massaging her temples.

“What would she want for it?” Meg asked.

“Paper,” Jen muttered. “That’s my best guess anyway.”

Meg groaned.

“Well,” said Sairy, “how bad do we want that graft?”

“Our own apples?” Bex said, making a face like Sairy was asking her how fond she was of breathing. “Bad enough.”

“Eggs?” Kath suggested, drumming her fingers on the table-edge. “Honey? Wine?” Sairy and Lissa both turned to her in horrified unison. “Okay, okay,” she said. “Not wine. Isabel? Thoughts?”

They glanced over at Isabel, who was busily decimating a plum with slow ferocious precision. Perfectly uniform slices slivered from her knife-blade. It was a moment before she felt their eyes on her and glanced up. “Hmm?”

“Where the hell were you?” Sairy demanded in mock outrage, but her eyes were sharp with concern. She wasn’t Isabel’s second-in-command for nothing, but some days she felt to Isabel more like a caretaker. She was the one who’d told Isabel to recite lists in her head when the memories threatened to overtake her, who tried to rig Isabel’s chore rotations with easy work on days when the ghost-place’s toll was too much for her to lightly bear. When Isabel was Archivist, Sairy had been the only upstart who’d ever shown her kindness.

But there was so much that Isabel couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone, second-in-command or no. She couldn’t even begin to explain how she’d traveled into the ghost-place, and to what purpose, and in whose company, and why she’d come back out alive. All Sairy or anyone knew was that Isabel had vanished, out on the edge of the Waste, in the dead of winter. By the time she came back, on foot, across the snow, she’d been within spitting distance of starvation, dehydration, exsanguination, death by exposure. Horribly wounded, though the wounds had been closed by some unrecognizable means, and showed no sign of turning septic. Nearly bled out, nonetheless. And she wouldn’t talk about what had hurt her, or who had healed her, or where she’d been. But she’d come back.

Which in itself was a puzzle. She’d tried to escape several times before, and failed—but this time, she’d finally succeeded. And, for some often-guessed-at reason, she’d chosen to return.

Not only that, but she’d come back knowing the truth behind the upstart-Archivist system. Secrets she had no way of learning out in the Waste. And armed with that truth she’d torn the system down.

She’s heard them talking, from time to time, in voices they thought were beyond her earshot. Among their theories: she’d run off with a scav crew; she’d discovered a town unknown to Sweetwater; she’d died out there that winter and was now actually a ghost, returned among them to atone for her bloodyhanded past.

You’re not a ghost, went a voice in her head. You’re in-between.

“Apples,” she said, ignoring it. “Right?”

“Right,” Sairy echoed, side-eyeing her like the world’s most suspicious hawk.

“I don’t care what you people say,” Bex said. “I want that graft and I’m going to get it.”

Jen produced a pad of brittle paper, its handmade stitching frayed. Finding the page she wanted, she ran one fingertip down it. “Well, we have surplus vinegar, beeswax, nettle-yarn, and a whole jug of that corpseroot ink that didn’t really take. We—”

“We won’t have surplus nettle-yarn when we need it for winter clothes,” Meg pointed out.

Jen’s pointer finger blurred through her notebook. “That,” she said, “is a thing that needs to go on the rotation yesterday.

“On it,” Glory said. She’d already brought over the bowl from the rotation wall and was carefully charcoaling something onto a blank chore token that looked like a thing the baker’s cat might cough up.

“That’s yarn?” Sairy asked.

“Oh look,” Glory said, lobbing the token at her. “Our first volunteer.”

“Like hell.”

“I’ll figure this out later,” Jen said. “What’s in the bowl for tomorrow?”

“Nettle-yarn,” said Sairy, dropping the token in the bowl.

“Give,” Kath said. “I can do that with my foot up.”

“I call perimeter,” Sairy said.

“Full or half?” Jen asked.

Sairy rooted around until she came up with a token. “Half.”


Sairy made a face and blind-grabbed another token from the bowl. Looked at it. “No.”


Sairy heaved a sigh and tossed the token on the table. It had a little drawing of a log of firewood. Except that, now that the orchard was gone, there was no firewood, and flammable alternatives must be sought. Sometimes that meant surplus ghostgrass. Sometimes it meant dried goat shit from the cheesemaker’s yard. Grumbling theatrically, Sairy hung the token from her hook on the chore rotation wall. “Best luck,” Kath sang sweetly after her.

Glory drew water-hauling and paper-making, Meg drew shrine duties and food-preserving, Lissa drew full kitchen, Kath drew gardens and promptly traded it for Meg’s food-preserving token, and Isabel drew bread-baking and ghostgrass. Jen did not draw a token. She was head of barter and inventory, and her chores were unchanging.

Everyone went to hang their tokens on the rotation wall. Isabel was a moment in joining them. As always, her attention snagged on that ghostgrass token, its symbol like five long knives bundled. Odd that such a tiny thing could make her feel such keen—displacement.

Sudden cramping in her chest, where a thread had once connected her to her own half-dead body and been severed. As if Isabel was not so much her true self as she was the husk her true self had ripped free from. As if the Wasp part of her remained down there, in the ghost-place, tearing itself into crumbs, scattering itself into a path that no one would ever follow.

“Trade,” Sairy said, appearing beside her. It didn’t sound like a question.

“For firewood?” Isabel said, snapping out of it. “No chance. Enjoy.”

“No, I’ll…” Sairy eyed the rotation wall. “I’ll get someone to trade with you. I’ll call in a favor. I’ll figure it out. Keep the bread one. Give me the ghostgrass one. Do, I don’t know, do nettle-yarn with Kath.”

“You do know I can still walk, right?”

“It’s not that.” Sairy pulled a long-suffering face. “Look, you want perimeter instead? Plenty of walking.”

“I’m fine.”

“You also haven’t done ghostgrass in a while.”


“So it makes you weird.”


“Watch this.” Keeping her eyes on Isabel, Sairy raised her voice to reach the room. “Does doing ghostgrass make Isabel weird?”

General assent.


“Listen, I’m fine,” Isabel said. “In fact, I’m going to get it out of the way right now so you stop worrying. Deal?”

“In the dark?

“The moon’s out.”

“Not a full one.”

“She can walk, she can see—what can’t she do?”

“I’ll come with you.”


Something in her voice stopped Sairy dead in her tracks. “It’s just,” Sairy said quietly, “we work together now, right? Worth risking two to save one? Aren’t you the one who taught us that?”

“You don’t need to save me, Sairy.” You couldn’t if you tried.

* * *

Alone, she made her way around back of the shrine, across the field where they’d trained that afternoon, along the path that skirted the western edge of Sweetwater near the burned orchard, heading out along the ridge toward the Waste.

It wasn’t Catchkeep’s time yet. Unlike the others She was visible year-round, but right now the sixteen stars of Her up-self were halfway hidden behind the Hill across the way and out of sight. In a couple of months She’d swing down slightly, visible from Sweetwater but not from here, lashing Her tail to bring the autumn winds over the lake, and in years past it was then, when She was Her lowest and closest over the water, that Her Archivists were chosen. By that time, the leaves would be drying on the branch and rattling like the Chooser’s cape of bones, and the Chooser Herself wouldn’t be far behind.

The Ragpicker was setting now, hanging upside-down as if suspended by one foot, His head dipping down into the Waste where it belonged. And the One Who Got Away had gotten away, not to return until next winter’s collapse into spring.

Carrion Boy stood ascendant, partway turned toward where Ember Girl was just beginning to climb up out of the Waste and into the sky. He reached out to Her one-handed, either to assist Her in Her climb or strike Her down. On that point the stories were unclear.

Isabel walked on.

There were four places in Sweetwater where ghosts were known to appear. Four of the silvery ghost-passages Isabel had come to think of as waypoints.

Around the well. Beside the snapped bridge where the suns-and-moons grew thickest. Surrounding the heavy round door leading down into the old Before-tunnels beneath town. And up Execution Hill, where Isabel’s journey into the ghost-place had begun. Places where two worlds rubbed thin against each other, rupturing into something like doorways, passable by the dead and—as she’d learned—if conditions were exactly right, the nearly-dead as well.

It had been a job of some weeks to find, uproot, and transplant enough ghostgrass that each one of these waypoints now stood behind its own waving knee-high sea of silvery gray grassblades, a field at least ten long paces by two. The local wildlife—deer and squirrels mostly—seemed pretty uninterested in those tough gray grassblades, so the major problem with maintaining the transplants was erosion and desiccation as day by day the Waste fought to reclaim its own.

The Execution Hill waypoint had proven the hardest to barricade, cut as it was into the sheer face of a cliff almost eighty yards up, accessible only by a busted path and a narrow ledge. But the ex-upstarts had relayed dirt up there dutifully and spread it on the ledge so the ghostgrass could take root.

If she tilted her head back and squinted, Isabel could just make out that waypoint from the fields below. Among all that black rock, a lonely silver glimmering. Blades of ghostgrass waved before it in the breeze, eclipsing and returning that pale cold light.

No way could she get up there to check on that one. The path was much too hazardous. She’d nearly died climbing up there before, and that was years ago, without all the scars the ghost-place had laid on her. The bone-deep stab wound in her right calf. The shoulder that’d been yanked from its socket with huge force and hadn’t been quite right since. The slash that nearly disemboweled her. The pale pink starburst on one brown forearm where the deliquescing sludge of a dying ghost had left a spray of chemical burn straight through the skin and into the meat below, tracing the vague outline of the ghost-teeth that had dissolved there. The place over one temple where something nearly crushed her skull. Not to mention the unseen internal damage from having left her body behind while she wandered the ghost-place—at the top of Execution Hill, for solid weeks, in the dead of winter. Exposure, dehydration, her body digesting its own proteins for lack of food.

She wasn’t climbing the Hill today, but that still left her three barricades she could check. The hatch to the tunnels was closest, then the bridge, and she could hit the well on her way back in toward town.

So she followed the path around toward the town gardens. Around the garden fence, past the gate, and toward the mountain of rubble that marked the southernmost corner of the perimeter.

She hadn’t been out here in months, but it looked much the same as she recalled. Fence, weeds, seventy-foot heap of metal and brick and heat-fused glass, and the raggedy hem of the Waste beyond, the ash of it rendered plush and blue and peaceful in the moonlight.

Wasn’t fooling her. That way was death. The path from town dead-ended at the gardens for a reason.

She reached the ghostgrass barricade around the far edge of the ruins and stood a moment, struck by the tarnished silver color of the ghostgrass by night. Weird that a plant so dead-looking could smell so green. She really hadn’t been out here in a while.

Impossible to get a better look at the actual waypoint from here, but no matter. This was the only one of Sweetwater’s four waypoints that was not within actual sight of its barricade. Instead it lay below. Past the ghostgrass barricade, buried somewhere under corpseroot overgrowth, was the ancient heavy round hatch that led down into the busted tunnels under Sweetwater.

That used to be a ghosthunting spot, though never one much frequented by ghosts, and so mostly avoided by Archivists as well. But if a ghost did wander through the waypoint, down the tunnels, and up the ladder to the surface, the barricade still stood between it and Sweetwater, and the ghostgrass would burn it down to shapeless silver slag before it so much as set foot on the path. Never mind that most ghosts were shapeless silver slag to begin with. She’d only ever seen one ghost strong enough to even think of attempting a stunt like that.

This barricade was nearest the Waste of the four, and the one that needed the most regular shoring up with new transplants, so she made sure to inspect it carefully. First she paced out the length of it and noted the distance—twelve paces—then stood at the near edge of it and took three long steps in among the grassblades, which brought her to the other side. There the ruins opened out into a kind of little cave of fallen brick and ancient trash and thickly growing corpseroot, its thorns the length of her fingers. Not about to venture in there and scratch her legs to bleeding so near a ghost-place waypoint, she retreated. Pulling out her notebook, she charcoaled in ruins barricade twelve by three looks solid. Then she pocketed the notebook and charcoal and began to walk away.

And stopped. There was someone behind her.

Slowly, carefully, knife-hand on the hilt, she turned.

Nothing there. Just that sea of ghostgrass, dead still now that the breeze had gone, and the bunched shadow of the ruin above.

Still, the back of her neck was prickling. Her palms had gone pins-and-needles. No—not palms—only the one holding the harvesting-knife. She had the weirdest most sudden compulsion to walk back through the barricade and toward the hatch beyond, corpseroot or no.

She glanced down at the harvesting-knife. She knew, though she couldn’t begin to explain how, that it had been trying to turn her around.

It wasn’t moving exactly. It wasn’t really rattling in its dogleather sheath, tapping at her hipbone, prodding her to draw it. It wasn’t actually trying to get her attention. It only seemed like it was, in a way she couldn’t begin to describe. Her fingers itched to pull it clear of her belt and—what? Follow it around like some kind of slag-for-brains until it brought her—where? Around in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. Like ghosts, she thought. Like stars.

Down in the ghost-place, that knife had helped her find the ghost of Catherine Foster. Its methods for doing that were strikingly similar to whatever the hell it was doing now. Mysteriously vanishing from its sheath and appearing yards away, impossibly, where a passage through the ghost-place had been hidden. Falling to the ground where a passage could be made. Catching on things to stop her from walking past a passage she couldn’t see. Getting her to where she had to go.

She knew the knife was Foster’s broken sword, buried for countless centuries before being given to the first Archivist. Maybe now, she reckoned, it was trying to compel Isabel back toward those ghost-passages, back to Foster, wherever she was in the ghost-place. For all the sense that made.

But Isabel wasn’t in the ghost-place now. And she wasn’t mostly a ghost herself. This was just a memory she carried, the way your hand would cramp after gripping something too tightly too long. A thing to make note of, maybe, and move on.

Isabel let go of the knife, scrubbing her palm on her pant-leg until the prickling subsided. Took out the notebook again. Flipped to a different page, on which she’d drawn a crude map. The C shape of the ridge encircling Sweetwater with the lake in the opening. Town, orchard, gardens, ruin. Four Xs marked barricades. The whole page was littered with dozens of dots, a nonsense constellation. Now she added another, just before the X of the barricade nearest the ruins.

Under her notes on the barricade she considered adding harvesting-knife doing its thing again, then thought better of it, pocketed the notebook, and walked back toward town. She’d check the barricade by the well and save the one under the broken bridge for tomorrow. Exhaustion was slamming into her now in huge soft waves and three barricades in one night was more than her body was going to handle without full-on mutiny.

It was the middle of the night by the time she’d finished checking the well barricade, and the streets of Sweetwater were empty. Isabel dragged ass back to the Catchkeep-shrine and let herself in as quietly as she could.

Past the long table she went, past the chore rotation wall, down the double row of curtained sleeping-alcoves and into hers, the next-to-last on the right before the big room at the end of the hall that once housed the Catchkeep-priest’s chambers and now served as a public common room for townspeople who needed someplace to stay. It was full dark inside the Catchkeep-shrine, but she’d walked this hallway so often she could do it blind.

She was practically falling over anyway by the time she collapsed onto her cot. But there was something she had to do before she slept. Something she did every night, no matter how busy or tired or sick. All her life had been steeped in four centuries of ritual, after all. This was one that was hers alone.

So she got up, and lit the lamp, and opened the chest of field notes.

She’d destroyed the original field notes long ago. In an attempt to sabotage the Archivist-upstart system in her absence, she’d smashed all the ghost-catching jars and burned four hundred years’ worth of field notes before venturing into the ghost-place to earn her freedom.

What was in this chest was what had come after. The notes she’d taken on her own terms. After the Catchkeep-priest’s death she didn’t capture or destroy ghosts anymore unless they left her no options, but until she’d fine-tuned the ghostgrass barricades she’d still sketched the ghosts that wandered in through Sweetwater’s waypoints. Like most ghosts, once they’d pushed through they hadn’t done much. Just pace their circuits, or mindlessly repeat their dying words over and over. They’d looked very different and very alike, and she’d sketched them all and recognized none.

And then the barricades had gone up, and there were no new field notes, because no more ghosts ever made it through.

She liked to study those old notes sometimes. Some of them she’d taken herself. Some of them had the names of other ghostgrass-rotation regulars—Kath, Lissa, Bex—signed at the bottom.

When she’d been Archivist, the oldest sheet of paper in those field notes had been a list of questions she was supposed to ask a ghost, if she ever found a specimen that could answer them. Name of specimen. Age of specimen. Description of surrounding environment during specimen’s lifetime. Place and manner of specimen’s death. Manner of the world’s death, if known, in as much detail as possible. And so on.

The oldest sheet of paper in this new box of field notes was dedicated to the only two specimens she’d ever found who could’ve answered almost every question on that list, if it’d occurred to her at the time to ask them.

She didn’t want to pull that page out now. Really she should have burned it when the ghostgrass barricades went up and nothing on that page was allowed to matter anymore.

Looking at it now made her feel gutpunched. So she made herself look.

Around the margin were little sketches, no larger than an inch or two. A creature that looked like a dog, but was not a dog. A broken sword, and a whole sword next to it. A bridge over a black river with a meadow beyond. A crossroads of wide streets like a canyon bottom between the sheer cliffs of buildings taller than ten Sweetwaters stacked up. An open door with nothing through it. A whirlwind or cyclone. A tiny house in a sea of grass, its chimney throwing a scarf of smoke. A round metal door set into the ground in the middle of a snowfield. A maze made of thorns, hung with faces and hands. A wispy thing that looked like a spiderweb. A smooth thing that looked like a pill.

In the center of the page stood two figures, identically dressed: dark pants, dark jackets, dark boots, a belt with a sword and a gun in it. A man and a woman. He was a little taller than she was, and her hair was a little shorter than his. Isabel’s years of sketching field notes still hadn’t prepared her to exactly capture the expressions on their faces, so she’d given up and they just looked out at her blankly, as if waiting for her to do better.

Above the woman’s head she’d written catherine foster. Above the man’s head she’d written nothing.

She sat and looked at that page for a few seconds, rubbing at the old wound in her leg. “Not today,” she said to the drawing, or to herself. Slowly, deliberately, she turned the paper over and slid it under the bottom of the pile.

“Can’t sleep either, huh?” Sairy said from the doorway.

“Not really,” Isabel said, lowering the lid of the chest and smoothing it unconsciously with both hands. There was too much in her head. It wouldn’t all fit. Somewhere, something had to give. She wished she knew where the plug was so she could pull it out and let it all drain away.

“Still not going to tell me who they are,” Sairy said, raising her eyebrows at the now-closed chest, the field notes within. How long had she been standing there? “Are you.”

“You know who they are,” Isabel said tiredly. “They’re in the field notes. They’re ghosts.”

“You know what I mean. It’s the most detailed drawing in that box. You drew all that…stuff around the edges.” Sairy made an exasperated gesture toward the chest. “You wrote their names, for Chooser’s sake.”

One of their names, Isabel thought. A twinge in her chest where the thread used to be. Not as bad as it’d been earlier, and anyway she was used to it.

“Fine,” Sairy said. “Just…if you want to talk. About anything. I’m here, okay?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Isabel said. “I’m…” She trailed off, realizing she had no idea how to accurately finish that sentence. “Don’t worry about it.”


“I’m just tired.”

“Then go to sleep,” Sairy said, and left.

Isabel cast one last glance at the chest of field-notes—idiot—and blew out the lamp. In the dark she dropped into sleep like a stone into deep water.

At first she didn’t realize she was dreaming, only that she was still walking in the moonlit fields outside of town. Making her looping circuit between waypoints in the exact manner of a ghost pacing out its last moments, walking the length of the same invisible tether.

In the dream she was holding the harvesting-knife out in front of her with both hands, following it across the fields like some Before-story’s water-witch. Like the knife was dragging her out of the safe zone and out into the burnt-out heart of the Waste, and in the dream she never once glanced back.

She’d had this dream before, and all at once she recognized it. Soon there’d come the part when a voice would startle her attention up from the knife and the dust at her feet. It was a voice she’d know anywhere, a voice she’d long since blown her chance to ever hear again.

What is it exactly that you’re doing? that voice would ask her, and then she’d know she was dreaming, so she’d wake up and pull on her boots and stick the knife in her belt and throw herself so hard into her chores that she’d be too tired to dream again tomorrow.

What—the voice began to ask, and then there came a noise like the whole world being crumpled like a sheet of paper in a fist, and she woke up to the sound of screaming.

* * *

Isabel had hurled herself out of the sleeping-alcove and into the hall before she’d given conscious thought to getting her legs under her, let alone spent time preparing her injuries to bear her weight. Her knees felt rubbery. No—there was something wrong with the floor? It was too dark to see. Something in the kitchen was crashing noisily. Like Catchkeep’s Hunt was barrelling through, leaving nothing standing as it swept on by. Somebody—Kath?—was praying loudly to the Chooser, her voice wrung strange with terror. Somebody else was crying.

“Sairy!” Isabel called. Toppling against the wall. Hanging onto it as it shook like it wanted to be rid of her. Stones grated together like the halves of a badly-set bone, then went still. “Jen! Somebody report!”



“What the shit just happened?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to find a lamp.”

“Stay put, I’ll come to you.”

“I’m fine. Is anyone hurt?”

Something else fell over with a splintery crash, this time from the direction of the altar.


“I’m here,” Jen called from down the hall. “Kath, stop it, it’s okay.” Then, louder: “I think it’s over!”

Isabel hitched up breath. Her legs were jelly. In the wake of the adrenaline dump, her everything was spent. “Everyone report!”

“I’ve got Kath and Meg here,” Jen called.

“I’m good,” Lissa shouted. “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Isabel yelled back. Feeling her way along the wall, back into the alcove, she lit her lamp on the fifth try with trembling hands. “Where’s Bex and Glory?”

“I think Bex ran outside,” Sairy called. “Bex!”

“Got the lamp,” Isabel said. “Glory, report?”

Nothing. Just muffled crying, coming from farther down the hall.

“Glory, are you hurt?”

No reply.

“Stay there, Glory, I’m on my way.”

“I’ve got her,” Sairy called from the direction of the Catchkeep-priest’s old chambers. “Her arm’s hurt but she’s in one piece.”

They all converged in the common area by the light of Isabel’s lamp. The long table hadn’t moved, but everything else looked like Ember Girl had taken the room between Her hands and given it a shake. Chore tokens had scattered to the far wall. Probably half of their clay bowls had broken. Drying bunches of whatnot—garlic, come-what-may, ghostgrass, wild mint—had fallen from the ceiling. Something unseen crunched underfoot. There was a general smell of vinegar.

Sairy sat Glory at the table, then lit a second lamp from Isabel’s and proceeded to inspect Glory’s arm, the elbow of which was already swelling. “This is nothing,” she said brightly. “Look, the bone’s not even popping through.”

“You’re a world of help,” Glory gritted through her teeth.

“I try.” Sairy beamed at her. “Seriously, let’s give this a minute, make sure it’s stopped. Then I’ll walk you to the midwife. She’ll get you fixed right up.”

Meantime, Jen was making the rounds of the room, squinting into her notebook and moaning in agitation. “This jug of vinegar is cracked,” she announced. “And some of the wine, and—what is—there are seeds everywhere.” She bent down and raised something miniscule to the light, then dropped to her knees, aghast, and scrabbled at the floor. “My carrots—”

“Not too bad in here,” Bex called from the altar-room.

“I thought you were outside!” Sairy said.

Bex emerged from the altar-room, a chipped skull and a green stone in her hands. “A few of them fell off the wall,” she explained, failing to fit the stone back in behind the skull’s teeth. “Sorry,” she muttered at it.

It came to Isabel that they all were unconsciously touching their scarred cheeks as they watched this operation.

“And the altar?” Lissa asked.

Bex shrugged. “Couple candles broke, and I had to pick up the offerings. The statue’s okay. What the hell was that anyway?”

“Earthquake, I think,” Jen said. “I’ve never…been in one before.” She shivered. “I didn’t like it.”

They fell silent, and Isabel realized she could hear noise from the town now. A general yelling and rushing. Something large and distant let out one long slow creak and fell. The Catchkeep-shrine was one of two sturdy stone buildings in all of Sweetwater, and even here she’d felt the stones of the wall grinding as the earth cracked and buckled under—

Her veins ran ice. The ghostgrass.

She was halfway out the door before she realized she’d gotten up. She turned and Sairy was holding her sleeve.

“Isabel,” Sairy was saying. “Isabel, wait.”

Isabel shook her off. “I have to check the barricades.”

“You sit,” Sairy told her. “I got them. Kath, you’re in charge of Glory.”

“But you can’t—”

“I’m just going to check them.” Already tying braids of ghostgrass around her wrists and ankles, already stuffing more bundled grassblades into her pockets, already checking her hands and arms for scratches. “If there’s trouble, I’ll get you.”

It should be me, Isabel wanted to say. If ghosts came through, I need to see them, I need to know if—

She clamped down on that thought like it was a wound and she was trying to stop it bleeding. “Report anything unusual,” she said instead.

Something in her voice betrayed her. “Anything in particular?” Sairy asked.

“Anything unusual.” Watching Sairy go through a brief series of stretches, preparing for the run to come. “And be careful.”

“Always am,” Sairy replied, and was gone.

Isabel stood a moment staring into the dark outside the shrine. Like she could see the waypoints from here. The damage to the ghostgrass barricades. Whatever might be pushing its way out of those silver slashes from the ghost-world into this.

If you want to come with us, went a voice in her head, it’ll be—

“Well,” she said briskly, louder than necessary, “let’s get Glory to the midwife and see who else needs our help.” Keep moving or sink, she commanded herself, and lifted the lamp. “Looks like we start early today.”

* * *

They left the shrine in a group. Isabel leading, Meg and Kath walking Glory, Lissa and Jen pushing Jen’s market-cart. Bex stayed behind to tidy the altar and ready the shrine for the townspeople who would doubtless arrive later to pray before the Catchkeep-statue, as they always did in time of calamity.

They stuck together, traveling in a weird small straggly pack, not knowing what they’d find. At least the nearly full moon meant that they could leave the lamp, and the sun would rise soon.

On Jen’s cart were some bandages, a jug of water and a cup, and as many bundles of ghostgrass as they could gather. Also a recent experiment of Glory’s: a little pot of ghostgrass crushed with oil into a paste. The barricades had made it pretty much impossible to test the efficacy of that ghostgrass salve, but they’d all smeared a little on their skin for protection before heading out into the dark.

They got Glory to the midwife. Hung fresh ghostgrass bundles from damaged houses. Helped the cheesemaker rescue a goat trapped beneath a fallen shed. Bandaged a cut on the songkeeper’s arm and tied a five-strand ghostgrass braid around it in accordance with open wound protocol. Assisted injured townspeople back to the midwife’s, clearing space on the cart and pushing them one by one. Gave the water-boilers fresh ghostgrass bundles to ensure safe passage to the lake. Let Onya walk with them so that her mother could help her neighbors repair a wall. Jen tasked Onya with filling the water-cup for anyone who looked thirsty, which she did until the jug ran dry. There wasn’t much to fix, for which they all gave thanks to the One Who Got Away.

Isabel buried herself in the work, and by midday Sairy was back. “Everything looks good,” she told Isabel. “Nothing to report.”

“No ghosts?”

Sairy shook her head. “No anything. The barricades are sound.” She gestured at the hills that cupped Sweetwater in their center. “I think the ridge protected us from worse.”

But the sun was high by then, and Sairy was drenched with sweat and breathing hard, so Isabel sent her back to the shrine for food and water and rest.

“I’ll take her,” Jen said. “I have to check on something anyway.”

“Everything okay?” Isabel asked her.

“I think so?” Jen replied. “Trade run from Stormbreak was supposed to show at dawn. Maybe the quake hit them too.” She looked momentarily confused, which was a very un-Jen-like expression. She glanced at Isabel questioningly. “As far as that? And still reach here?”

Isabel had no idea, and shook her head.

“I have to talk to Ruby. One of the other high seats if I have to. Someone might’ve heard something.”

Obviously fretting, which was also unlike Jen. Though it made sense. Sweetwater and Stormbreak traded heavily in all seasons. Jen and the other trade supervisors would have to scramble fast to open new lanes of barter with other towns if Stormbreak failed.

After Jen left, Isabel thought no more of it, and for the next couple of days Jen didn’t bring it up again. There was a sense of watchful waiting about her, though, and the next day when Isabel asked after the Stormbreak trade run, Jen looked so distraught that Isabel didn’t ask again.

Then, a few days after the earthquake, Jen arrived late for dinner. Stealthily, quietly, looking like she was being tracked by something she’d have to sneak her way past to live.

Even more alarming, Ruby was with her.

The high seats never set foot in the Catchkeep-shrine’s common room. The relationship between Sweetwater and the ex-upstarts and -Archivist just didn’t work that way. The town and shrine coexisted peacefully, trading and helping each other in small ways. This—Ruby herself walking behind an ex-upstart into the shrine common room in full view of everyone—was new.

“Jen?” Sairy asked. “Where were you? What’s going on?”

“We don’t know yet,” Ruby answered for her. “Jen, show them.”

And Jen led them all back through the common room, back down the hallway of sleeping-alcoves, into the large room that used to be the Catchkeep-priest’s chambers. That room had a window that opened off the back of the shrine and commanded a clear view across the shrine-yards: past Meg’s berry-garden, Kath’s chicken-coop, the little lean-to shed where they made paper, the clay oven for their flatbreads, all the way to Lake Sweetwater, which was now sparkling orange in the setting sun.

Jen pointed at something. Isabel squinted.

Off in the distance above the low buildings she could just make them out, across who knew how many miles of rock and ash and nothing, almost invisible against the sunset. If she hadn’t been looking for them, she’d never have noticed them there.

Plumes of smoke, or dust, thin as threads at this distance. Easily a dozen, probably more, breaking up to nothing before they vanished against the last of the early-evening stars.

“Raiders,” Jen said.



Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of Desideria, The Winter Triptych, and the Andre Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp. She lives in New Paltz, New York, where she is currently at work on her first middle grade novel. There is a newly-adopted cat trying to sit on her keyboard as she types these words, and chances are excellent the same cat is trying to sit on the same keyboard as you read them. Find out more about her at nicolekornherstace.com.



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